Malware Alert: Files on WikiLeaks Can Infect Your Computer
An independent data researcher had originally discovered a massive data dump released by WikiLeaks to contain malware in torrent files made available by the whistleblowing website. Since then, the researcher has also confirmed that some of the files taken from the dump and now hosted on WikiLeaks.org are also malware infected.
Josh Wieder, a system administrator by trade, garnered attention from multiple newspapers and outlets around the world in April 2015. With a keen eye and the chops for data research, he revealed the presence of malware in WikiLeaks’ “Global Intelligence Files”. These files are a significant collection of emails and attachments taken from Strategic Forecasting (aka Stratfor), a private intelligence firm. He made the revelation in a blog post at the time.
Stratfor was originally plundered by Jeremy Hammond in 2011, and Hammond is currently serving prison time for the hack of millions of emails from the company. Soon enough, the emails in their droves were in WikiLeaks’ firm grasp in 2012, and the whistleblowing website began sharing the email archives using P2P sharing network, BitTorrent. The complete email dump was revealed and published on July 18, 2014, with a single, massive file comprising of over 5 million emails.
As it turned out, attachments included among 5.5 million Stratfor emails were and still are, to this day, infected with malware.
“My discovery of the malware was completely unintentional. I have followed Wikileaks for many years; I first came across the website when they released the Guantanamo policy documents which would have been seven to eight years ago,” Wieder told Hacked, talking about his curiosity and admiration for the whistle-blowing website, adding, “Wikileaks has been time and again been responsible for groundbreaking, historical journalism and they continue to be responsible for important work.”
After downloading the torrent containing the “Global Intelligence Files”, Weider noticed an attachment trying to execute a macro.
Sure enough the macro was virus written in Visual Basic called Magistr. That is when I decided to review all of the files within the file dump.
Wieder speculates in his blog the reasons as to why the malicious malware came to exist in the first place.
- One theory that he considers the most likely is that malicious files were being sent to employees of Stratfor via email.
- Another theory resulting from Edward Snowden’s revelations could point fingers at organizations actively trying to sabotage and cause the downfall of WikiLeaks.
More importantly, Weider believes that WikiLeaks ‘can’ be used as a “deliberate distribution mechanism” rather than finding out ‘if’ that was indeed the case in this particular instance..
“Someone who wants to identify not just members of WikiLeaks, but their readers, this would absolutely be the way to do it,” confirmed Wieder. Furthermore, there stands a good chance that malware exists among the more well-known data dumps, like those of Sony Pictures and the recent Hacking Team breach, both of which are indexed and easily searchable.
Weider decided to make his findings public for two reasons:
- Getting the word out to security researchers who can review the files.
- Warning users, particularly journalists and activists, the two groups regularly targeted by state surveillance.
Expanding on both, Weider notes that the discovery of malware present in the WikiLeaks dump is despite his lack of resources and time as an independent researcher. More security researchers combing through droves of data available in massively publicized dumps could mean a good thing if additional chunks of malware are discovered and reported. Even more-so for the security and privacy of investigative journalists, activists and users accessing the data. Edward Snowden’s revelations highlighted frustrations of network surveillance with the increased used of encryption, the Tor network, VPNs and more such services among journalists as a precautionary measure. Malware, however, is a different threat and the education to protect oneself against malware rarely coincides with learning to use encryption. It is for these reasons and more that Weider went public with his discovery.
Wieder initially noticed WikiLeaks distributing the leaked emails through a list of torrent files. Upon further research, he discovered most of the malware to be embedded within PDF and DOC files. What began as the sharing of torrent files soon transpired into publishing the same malicious content on the WikiLeaks website itself, this time as uncompressed individual files. To help steer clear of the files, Wider compiled a list of the malware-laden files, their locations on WikiLeaks along with basic file information in a Pastebin dump.
While 5.5 million emails seem painstakingly significant in number and time-consuming to go through, Weider discovered that such numbers were deceptive because a lot of it included flat text email scripts, with no attachments. Such text files aren’t dangerous to those rummaging through the files in the dump, as opposed to original email recipients receiving it via email. The threat of malware comes from the attachments, totaling 178,960 files in 179 folders, by Wieder’s count. Upon running some of the files through an antivirus scanner, he discovered the presence of MyDoom, a classic worm that is predominantly obsolete while barely posing a threat in today’s world of modern computers. Such findings raise concerns about the security measures taken by WikiLeaks before publishing any of the data being hosted on its website, or indeed – if the data is being scanned at all.
He confirms his repeated attempts to contact the popular whistle-blowing website to bring their attention to the presence of malware in files, have gone unanswered. Wieder believes, however, that WikiLeaks is indeed aware of the malware inherent in the files it hosts. “I was informed that one of the reporters who interviewed me did, in fact, discuss the presence of malware with a Wikileaks representative. So I have every reason to believe they are aware of the issue,” he says.
Hacked has verified the documents present in the dump and specified by Wieder to be malicious.
Significantly, most of the malware’s vulnerable targets have already been patched by their respective developers. Users can breathe easy while treading cautiously if their software is up-to-date with regular security updates. Still, it’s always recommended that one rummaging through the many leaks and file dumps on WikiLeaks does so by opening any hosted files on a disposable virtual machine. The inherent vulnerability here is the belief that reputable, mainstream organizations are expected to host safe content.
“Ultimately, while users are responsible for their own safe browsing, Wikileaks is also responsible for the content they provide to their users,” stressed Weider.
Wikileaks is also responsible for the content they provide to their users. No one can offer their users a complete guarantee of safety, but that does not mean websites ought to take basic precautions to safeguard their files.
A website that circulates malicious software – and that furthermore does so knowingly and without warning their users – does not deserve the trust of its users.
At the time of writing this article, the malware still exists.
Images from Shutterstock.