When the mysterious entity known as the “Shadow Brokers” released a tranche of stolen NSA hacking tools to the internet a year ago, most experts who studied the material homed in on the most potent tools, so-called zero-day exploits that could be used to install malware and take over machines. But a group of Hungarian security researchers spotted something else in the data, a collection of scripts and scanning tools that the National Security Agency uses to detect other nation-state hackers on the machines it infects.
It turns out those scripts and tools are just as interesting as the exploits. They show that in 2013 — the year the NSA tools were believed to have been stolen by the Shadow Brokers — the agency was tracking at least 45 different nation-state operations, known in the security community as advanced persistent threats, or APTs. Some of these appear to be operations known by the broader security community — but some may be threat actors and operations currently unknown to researchers.
The scripts and scanning tools dumped by Shadow Brokers and studied by the Hungarians were created by an NSA team known as Territorial Dispute, or TeDi. Intelligence sources told The Intercept that the NSA established the team after hackers, believed to be from China, stole designs for the military’s Joint Strike Fighter plane, along with other sensitive data, from U.S. defense contractors in 2007; the team was supposed to detect and counter sophisticated nation-state attackers more quickly, when they first began to emerge online.
“As opposed to the U.S. only finding out in five years that everything was stolen, their goal was to try to figure out when it was being stolen in real time,” one intelligence source told The Intercept.
But their mission evolved to also provide situational awareness for NSA hackers to help them know when other nation-state actors are in machines that they’re trying to hack.