Call her the Mata Hari of cyberspace.
Robin Sage, according to her profiles on Facebook and other social-networking websites, was an attractive, flirtatious 25-year-old woman working as a “cyber threat analyst” at the U.S. Navy’s Network Warfare Command. Within less than a month, she amassed nearly 300 social-network connections among security specialists, military personnel and staff at intelligence agencies and defense contractors.
A handful of pictures on her Facebook page included one of her at a party posing in thigh-high knee socks and a skull-and-crossbones bikini captioned, “doing what I do best.”
“Sorry to say, I’m not a Green Beret! Just a cute girl stopping by to say hey!” she rhymingly proclaimed on her Twitter page, concluding, “My life is about info sec [information security] all the way!”
And so it apparently was. She was an avid user of LinkedIn - a social-networking site for professionals sometimes described as “Facebook for grown-ups.” Her connections on it included men working for the nation’s most senior military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and for one of the most secret government agencies of all, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds, launches and runs U.S. spy satellites. Others included a senior intelligence official in the U.S. Marine Corps, the chief of staff for a U.S. congressman, and several senior executives at defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. Almost all were seasoned security professionals.
But Robin Sage did not exist.
Her profile was a ruse set up by security consultant Thomas Ryan as part of an effort to expose weaknesses in the nation’s defense and intelligence communities - what Mr. Ryan calls “an independent ‘red team’ exercise.”
It is not the first time “white-hat” hackers have carried out such a social-engineering experiment, but military and intelligence security specialists told The Washington Times that the exercise reveals important vulnerabilities in the use of social networking by people in the national security field.
Ms. Sage’s connections invited her to speak at a private-sector security conference in Miami, and to review an important technical paper by a NASA researcher. Several invited her to dinner. And there were many invitations to apply for jobs.
“If I can ever be of assistance with job opportunities here at Lockheed Martin, don’t hesitate to contact me, as I’m at your service,” one executive at the company told her.
One soldier uploaded a picture of himself taken on patrol in Afghanistan containing embedded data revealing his exact location. A contractor with the NRO who connected with her had misconfigured his profile so that it revealed the answers to the security questions on his personal e-mail account.
“This person had a critical role in the intelligence community,” Mr. Ryan said. “He was connected to key people in other agencies.” He said that he reached out to the individual, and the misconfiguration was repaired.
But many other connections also inadvertently exposed personal data, including their home addresses and photos of their families.
“These are all important violations of [operations security] and [personal security],” Mr. Ryan said.
He added that he was surprised about the success of the effort, especially given that Ms. Sage’s profile was bristling with what should have been red flags.
“Everything in her profile screamed fake,” he told The Times. She claimed to have 10 years’ experience in the cybersecurity field - which would mean that she entered it at age 15 - and there is no such job as “cyber threat analyst” at the Naval Network Warfare Command. Even her name is taken from the code name of an annual U.S. special-forces military exercise, as a two-second Google search establishes.
Mr. Ryan chose the photos, which he found on an amateur pornography site, “because she looked foreign” - which he said was another potential counterintelligence red flag - as well as for her attractiveness.
Several people with whom she attempted to connect spotted the fakery, Mr. Ryan said, “I was pretty much busted on Day Two.” He said some people with whom Ms. Sage tried to connect took simple precautions such as trying to call the phone number she provided, or by asking her to e-mail them from her military account. Others checked public records on her purported National Security Agency information security qualification or reviewed the college alumni network for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she claimed to have been educated.
Some even noticed that her profile on every site had been established less than a month earlier.
But Mr. Ryan added that no central place was established for people to warn others about the scam, and tweets or other commentary questioning her authenticity didn’t stop others from connecting with her.
“The only agencies where I didn’t get any connections were the FBI and the CIA,” he said.
David Wennergren, the deputy chief information officer for the Department of Defense, said in an e-mail that the answer was to continue the Pentagon’s effort to “ensure our folks are well trained on responsible use of the Internet - at work and home.”
After the department discovered that it was the victim of “long-distance phone abuse … we didn’t abandon the use of telephones,” he said.
“We should address the behavior, not abandon the tool.”
“All access to the Internet - not just social-networking sites - involves risk; even accessing websites and the use of e-mail involves risk,” Mr. Wennergren added.
But Paul Strassmann, a professor at George Mason University who was the Pentagon’s director of defense information in the early 1990s, said the unrestricted use of social networking by Defense Department personnel poses unacceptable risks.
“You are opening the floodgates to a torrent of data, which your adversary can … sift and turn into intelligence,” he said.
Mr. Strassmann, who said he was recently engaged by a U.S. agency he declined to name to help develop a policy on social networking, added that it didn’t matter that the security breaches in the case were unintentional. “In intelligence, many of the most important leaks are inadvertent.”
Another person involved at a senior level in the U.S. military’s cybersecurity efforts, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the case, called it “an object lesson in the dangers of social networking.”
“People feel they are safe” on the Internet, he said, but in reality, “it is a perfect environment for preying on people’s weaknesses.”
Mr. Strassmann was dismissive of a Pentagon policy document on the use of social networking and other Web 2.0 capabilities by defense personnel. The document, issued in February after many delays and a lengthy process of internal consultation and review, notes that pre-existing policy “permits limited personal use of federal government resources,” such as phones and Internet connections.
“When accessing Internet-based capabilities using federal government resources in an authorized personal or unofficial capacity, individuals shall employ sound operations security (OPSEC) measures … and shall not represent the policies or official position of the Department of Defense,” the policy states.
“They just haven’t thought about it,” said Mr. Strassmann. “They are saying, ‘Be careful.’ My grandmother used to say that. … It’s not really useful.”
Mr. Strassmann said that after conversations with personnel in Iraq and elsewhere, he thinks that many, many military personnel are avid users of social-networking sites. Troops often had to contend with huge levels of boredom, and such sites were “highly habit-forming.”
He said he was told by “someone in a position to know” that up to 20 percent of all traffic on Defense Department computer networks involves social networking on public sites, “which are unprotected, as well as potentially toxic.”
In Israel, where soldiers who had served at a top-secret military base set up a Facebook page, and allowed a reporter to sign up to it, members of Sayeret 13, the elite naval commando unit that carried out the botched assault last month on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla, have been ordered to close their Facebook accounts, according to the Jerusalem Post.
China’s military also has issued regulations limiting cell phone and Internet use to prevent disclosures of military data.
Absent a straightforward ban, Mr. Strassmann said, the only solution would be to try to monitor social Internet traffic on defense computer systems, using forensic software tools and highly trained intelligence officers.
“You can trust people, yes; but you must verify also,” he said.
Network control centers - essentially hubs where computer traffic can be tracked and analyzed - already existed on Defense Department networks, he said, “but do not have the mission” to mine data from social-networking traffic looking for security breaches.
• Shaun Waterman can be reached at email@example.com.
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