Was the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) the main target of the twin hackers?

Posted: 1:27 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

In May 2015, a federal grand jury indicted twin brothers Muneeb and Sohaib Akhter, 23, of Springfield, Virginia, on charges of aggravated identity theft, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to access a protected computer without authorization, access of a protected computer without authorization, conspiracy to access a government computer without authorization, false statements, and obstruction of justice.  According to USDOJ, the brothers and coconspirators also devised a scheme to hack into computer systems at the U.S.  Department of State to access network traffic and to obtain passport information.  (See Twin Brothers and Co-Conspirators on Alleged Scheme to Hack State Dept to Obtain Passport Information).

The bothers pleaded guilty on June 26, 2015.   On October 2, the USDOJ announced that Muneeb Akhter was sentenced for accessing a protected computer without authorization, making a false statement and obstructing justice.  Muneeb Akhter was sentenced to 39 months in prison and Sohaib Akhter was sentenced to 24 months in prison.  Each man was also sentenced to three years of supervised release. Case title: USA v. Akhter et al.  Below is an excerpt from the announcement:

[T]he Akhter brothers and co-conspirators engaged in a series of computer intrusions and attempted computer intrusions against the U.S. Department of State to obtain sensitive passport and visa information and other related and valuable information about State Department computer systems.  In or around February 2015, Sohaib Akhter used his contract position at the State Department to access sensitive computer systems containing personally identifiable information belonging to dozens of co-workers, acquaintances, a former employer and a federal law enforcement agent investigating his crimes.

Sohaib Akhter later devised a scheme to ensure that he could maintain perpetual access to desired State Department systems.  Sohaib Akhter, with the help of Muneeb Akhter and co-conspirators, attempted to secretly install an electronic collection device inside a State Department building.  Once installed, the device could have enabled Sohaib Akhter and co-conspirators to remotely access and collect data from State Department computer systems.  Sohaib Akhter was forced to abandon the plan during its execution when he broke the device while attempting to install it behind a wall at a State Department facility in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, beginning in or about November 2013, Muneeb Akhter was performing contract work for a private data aggregation company located in Rockville, Maryland.  He hacked into the company’s database of federal contract information so that he and his brother could use the information to tailor successful bids to win contracts and clients for their own technology company.  Muneeb Akhter also inserted codes onto the victim company’s servers that caused them to vote for Akhter in an online contest and send more than 10,000 mass emails to students at George Mason University, also for the purpose of garnering contest votes.

In or about October 2014, Muneeb Akhter lied about his hacking activities and employment history on a government background investigation form while successfully obtaining a position with a defense contractor.  Furthermore, in or about March 2015, after his arrest and release pending trial, Muneeb Akhter obstructed justice by endeavoring to isolate a key co-conspirator from law enforcement officers investigating the conspirators’ crimes.  Among other acts, Muneeb Akhter drove the co-conspirator to the airport and purchased a boarding pass, which the co-conspirator used to travel out of the country to the Republic of Malta.  When the co-conspirator returned to the United States, Muneeb Akhter continued to encourage the co-conspirator to avoid law enforcement agents.

One of the brothers was profiled by WaPo in 2014. Both brothers started college at 16 and they were George Mason’s youngest graduates in 2011. In 2012, the brothers received a $200,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA.

The details of this case are even more disturbing.  Under Count Eight  (Conspiracy to Access a Government Computer without Authorization).

60. The Bureau of Consular Affairs (hereinafter “Bureau”) is a division of the State Department, which administers laws, formulates regulations, and implements policies relating to consular services and immigration. It has physical offices in Washington, DC.

61. Passport Lockbox (hereinafter “Lockbox”) is a Bureau program that performs payment processing, scarming of applications, and initial data entry for US. passport applications. Lockbox has a computer database containing imaged passport applications associated with real individuals. The imaged passport applications in Lockbox’s database contain, among other things, a photograph of the passport applicant, as well as certain personal information including the applicant’s full name, date and place of birth, current address, telephone numbers, parent information, spouse’s name, and emergency contact information.

62. ActioNet, Inc. (hereinafter “ActioNet”) is a contractor that provided information technology support to the State Department. It has physical offices in Falls Church, Virginia, located in the Eastern District of Virginia.

63. From in or about October 2014 to in or about February 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER was a contract employee at ActioNet assigned to a position at the State Department as a Tier II Application Support Resource in the Data Engineering and Data Management Program within the Bureau.

64. Prior to accessing the Lockbox database, and throughout his tenure as a contractor with the State Department, SOHAIB AKHTER was made aware of and indicated he understood: (a) the confidential nature of the Lockbox database and the confidential personal data contained therein; (b) the information contained in the passport records maintained by the State Department pursuant to Lockbox is protected from unauthorized disclosure by the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a; and (c) passport applications maintained by the State Department in the Lockbox database should be accessed only in connection with an employee’s official government duties and not the employee’s interest or curiosity.

69. MUNEEB AKHTER and SOHAIB AKHTER, UCC-l, and other coconspirators known and unknown to the Grand Jury, engaged in a series of computer intrusions and attempted computer intrusions against the State Department to obtain sensitive passport and visa information and other related and valuable information about State Department computer systems.

70. SOHAIB AKHTER used his contract position at the State Department to search for and access sensitive passport information belonging to coworkers, acquaintances, a former employer, and federal agents investigating him for crimes alleged in this Indictment. After accessing sensitive passport information from State Department computers, SOHAIB AKHTER copied, saved, and shared this information with coconspirators.

71. SOHAIB AKHTER also attempted to use his access to State Department computer systems to create an unauthorized account that would enable him to access State Department computer systems undetected. SOHAIB AKHTER surreptitiously installed malicious programs onto State Department computer systems in order to execute his plan to create the backdoor login account.

72. SOHAIB AKHTER orchestrated a scheme to secretly install a physical device at a State Department building known as SA-17. Once installed, the device would enable SOHAIB AKHTER and coconspirators to collect data from and remotely access State Department computer systems.

73. SOHAIB AKHTER led the conspiracy, organized the intrusion to install the physical device, recruited coconspirators to assist in execution of the intrusion, and managed the execution of the intrusion.

74. MUNEEB AKHTER provided technical assistance to SOHAIB AKHTER for the unauthorized access. MUNEEB AKHTER programmed the physical device, known as a “gumstix,” so that it would collect data from State Department computers and transmit it wirelessly to computers controlled by MUNEEB AKHTER and SOHAIB AKHTER and coconspirators.

75. On the day the scheme was executed, UCC-1 transported materials, including the gumstix, from MUNEEB AKHTER, located at the AKHTER residence, to SOHAIB AKHTER, located at SA-17.
[…]
78. In or about October 2014, SOHAIB AKHTER was hired by ActioNet to perform contract work for the State Department at both ActioNet offices in Falls Church, Virginia, and Bureau offices in Washington, DC.

79. Beginning on or about February 12, 2015, and continuing thereafter until on or about February 19, 2015, in Falls Church, Virginia, in the Eastern District of Virginia, and elsewhere, SOHAIB AKHTER, while employed at ActioNet, accessed the Lockbox database without authorization. .

80. Between on or about February 12, 2015, and on or about February 19, 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER conducted approximately 119 searches for U.S. passport records using the Passport Lockbox Lookup report. He accessed personal passport information for approximately 62 different individuals, including: G.R., a DHS special agent investigating the crimes alleged in this Indictment; UCC-1; A.I.; A.M., the CEO of Victim Company 2; and himself. In addition, SOHAIB AKHTER attempted to access passport information for S.T., a DHS special agent investigating the crimes alleged in this Indictment.

82. In or about February 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER viewed and copied from State Department computer systems the personal passport information associated with several individuals, including DHS Special Agent G.R.

83. In or about March 2015, MUNEEB AKHTER told UCC-1 that he and SOHAIB AKHTER stored the personal passport information that SOHIAB AKHTER removed from State Department systems on an external hard drive. MUNEEB AKHTER told UCC-1 that Special Agent G.R.’s information would be valuable to criminals on the “dark net” and that he was considering selling the information.

84. In or about February 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER downloaded several programs to a State Department computer. These programs included malicious software, or malware, which SOHAIB AKHTER hoped would enable him to access State Department computers remotely.

85. In or about February 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER told UCC-1 that if he was able to gain remote access to State Department computer systems, he could: access information on individuals’ passport applications; access and unilaterally approve visa applications without State Department authorization in exchange for payment; and create passports and visas and sell them on the “dark net.”

86. On or about February 15, 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER called UCC-1 and asked him to buy a drill. UCC-1 purchased the drill and then, pursuant to SOHAIB AKHTER’s request, drove to the AKHTER residence to pick up additional items from MUNEEB AKHTER. At the AKHTER residence, in Springfield, Virginia, in the Eastern District of Virginia, MUNEEB AKHTER told UCC-1 that he was programming a SD card, which was later to be inserted into the gumstix. MUNEEB AKHTER gave UCC-1 a bag containing a screwdriver, tape, glue, and the gumstix. Pursuant to SOHAIB AKHTER’s request, UCC—l drove to SA-17, in Washington, DC, and delivered the bag and items to SOHAIB AKHTER outside SA-17. Later that day, MUNEEB AKHTER drove separately to Washington, DC, and delivered the SD card to SOHAIB AKHTER.

87. On or about the evening of February 15, 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER called MUNEEB AKHTER and told him that he attempted to install the gumstix behind a wall inside SA-17 but was ultimately unsuccessful.

88. On or about February 19, 2015, SOHAIB AKHTER sent an email from his State Department email account to the email address akhters3@vcu.edu containing lines of code and headers for State Department servers.

#

We’re not sure reading this if the intrusion was done on the State Department’s Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS) which includes information from U.S. citizens and nationals applying for passports, other Department of State computer systems, passport acceptance agents, the Social Security Administration, the lockbox provider (CITIBANK), passport specialists, and fraud prevention managers, or, if the intrusion occurred on the Passport Information Electronic Records Systems (PIERS), or wait … the motherload, the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) The Passport Lockbox program cited in the indictment is vague; it’s not a system of record according to the State Department’s System of Records Notices.  But the indictment identifies it as a State Department database. Could this be in reference to the Citibank® Lockbox Services? That is a high-speed processing environment and image-based platform for receivables management, advanced reporting and image inquiry used by the State Department to enable the scanning of applications, extraction of applicant photos received at lockbox locations and storing and batching of images.

Note that #69 of the indictment also alleges “a series of computer intrusions and attempted computer intrusions against the State Department to obtain sensitive passport and visa information;” does that mean the targeted system was the CCD?  The CCD provides access to passport data in Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS), Passport Lookout Tracking System (PLOTS), and Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS).  As of December 2009, the CCD also contains over 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs, utilizing billions of rows of data, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35 thousand visa cases every day.

By the way, one of the brothers was a contract employee assigned to a position at the State Department as a Tier II Application Support Resource in the Data Engineering and Data Management Program within the CA Bureau from October 2014 to in or about February 2015 (#63).  In November 2014, the State Department suffered some “technical difficulties.” See State Dept Re-attached to the Internet, and About Those “Unrelated” Embassy Outages; State Department’s “Technical Difficulties” Continue Worldwide, So What About the CCD?

Was it just a coincidence that a master of the universe hacker was working at the State Department at the time when the agency’s systems were having technical difficulties?

Or were the Akhter twins the “technical difficulties”?

#

 

 

   

Advertisements

2 responses

  1. My question is why these two hackers got off with such light sentences? If one of the reasons they were hacking was to sell passport and visa information on the Dark Net, and more important to be able to grant visas without the knowledge of the State Dept. or DHS, why isn’t that treason, especially since those purchasing the visas could be terrorists? Here’s another question: What’s to keep these hackers from doing this sort of thing again once they are released and unsupervised? These two sound like computer geniuses. Very scary.

    Lizzy

    Date: Mon, 5 Oct 2015 05:30:46 +0000 To: travelwithlizzy@hotmail.com

    • Very good questions with no known answers at this time. The report I linked to on WaPo talks about DHS offering one of the brothers a job in 2014. Not sure if that was a pretend offer or a real one.

      Given their skills, I would be surprised if this guys would not spend their sentence working for the USG like Bow Wow Moss’s fictional character.