Washington: An informant working for the FBI co-ordinated a 2012 campaign of hundreds of cyberattacks on foreign websites, including some operated by the governments of Iran, Syria, Brazil and Pakistan, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the attacks.
Exploiting a vulnerability in a popular web-hosting software, the informant directed at least one hacker to extract vast amounts of data - from bank records to login information - from the government servers of a number of countries and upload it to a server monitored by the FBI, court statements show.
The details have, until now, been kept largely secret in closed sessions of a federal court in New York and heavily redacted documents.
While the documents do not indicate whether the FBI directly ordered the attacks, they suggest the US government may have used hackers to gather intelligence overseas even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups such as Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.
The attacks were co-ordinated by Hector Xavier Monsegur, who used the internet alias Sabu and became a prominent hacker within Anonymous following a string of attacks on high-profile targets including PayPal and MasterCard.
By early 2012, Monsegur, of New York, had been arrested by the FBI and already spent months working to help the bureau identify other members of Anonymous, according to previously disclosed court papers.
One of them was Jeremy Hammond, then 27, who, like Monsegur, had joined a splinter hacking group from Anonymous called Antisec. The two men had worked together in December 2011 to sabotage the computer servers of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
Shortly after the Stratfor incident, Monsegur, 30, began supplying Hammond with lists of foreign websites that might be vulnerable for sabotage, according to Hammond in an interview and chat logs between the two men.
The New York Times petitioned the court last year to have those documents unredacted, and they were submitted to the court last week with some of the redactions removed.
"After Stratfor, it was pretty much out of control in terms of targets we had access to," Hammond said during an interview earlier this month at a federal prison in Kentucky, where he is serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to the Stratfor operation and other computer attacks inside the United States. He has not, however, been charged with any crimes in connection with the hacks against foreign countries.
Hammond would not disclose the specific foreign government websites he said Monsegur asked him to attack, one of the terms of a protective order imposed by the judge.
The names of the targeted countries are also redacted from court documents. But according to an uncensored version of a court statement by Hammond, leaked online the day of his sentencing in November, the target list was extensive and included more than 2000 internet domains.
The document said Monsegur directed Hammond to hack government websites in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil and other government sites such as the Polish embassy in Britain and the Ministry of Electricity in Iraq.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, as did lawyers for Monsegur and Hammond.
The hacking campaign appears to offer further evidence that the US government has exploited major flaws in internet security - so called "zero-day" vulnerabilities such as the recent Heartbleed bug - for intelligence purposes.
Recently, the Obama government decided it would be more forthcoming in revealing the flaws to industry, rather than stockpiling them until the day they are useful for surveillance or cyberattacks. But it carved a broad exception for national security and law enforcement operations.
One expert said the court documents in the Hammond case were striking because they offered the most evidence to date that the FBI might have been using hackers to feed information to other US intelligence agencies.
"It's not only hypocritical but troubling if indeed the FBI is loaning its sting operations out to other three-letter agencies," said Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University and author of a forthcoming book about Anonymous.
New York Times