Yes, it is true. Ashley Madison was not hacked - the data was stolen by a woman operating on her own who worked for Avid Life Media. The reason that I am so late to the second act of the Ashley Madison affair is that, without a supercomputer, it has taken over a week to finish the analysis of the massive data dumps that the perpetrator has so generously provided us with.
A hacker is someone who uses a combination of high-tech cybertools and social engineering to gain illicit access to someone else's data. But this job was done by someone who already had the keys to the Kingdom. It was an inside job.
In my first IBTimes UK article about Act One of the Ashley Madison Affair, I alleged that the group of hackers claiming responsibility for the "hack" simply did not exist. I gleaned this information from reliable sources within the Dark Web – which have yet to fail me. I also claimed that it was the act of a single person.
Any adept social engineer would have easily seen this from the wording in the first manifesto published by the alleged hacking group. I was one of the first practitioners of social engineering as a hacking technique and today it is my only tool of use, aside from a smartphone – in a purely white hat sort of way. But if you don't trust me, then ask any reasonably competent social engineer.
Lone female operative
Today, I can confidently claim that the single person is a woman, and has recently worked within Avid Life Media. I have provided IBTimes UK background information and pertinent elements of the woman's data dump to prove both my access to the data and also to confirm elements of my research, under the strict conditions that it is to be referenced and then destroyed. The data I provided included such delicate material as the decoded password hash tables of every Avid Life and Ashley Madison employee, which I have also now destroyed.
How did I come to this conclusion? Very simply. I have spent my entire career in the analysis of cybersecurity breaches, and can recognise an inside job 100% of the time if given sufficient data - and 40GB is more than sufficient. I have also practiced social engineering since the word was first invented and I can very quickly identify gender if given enough emotionally charged words from an individual. The perpetrator's two manifestos provided that. In short, here is how I went about it.
How did I discover that it was an inside job? From the data that was released, it was clear that the perpetrator had intimate knowledge of the technology stack of the company (all the programs being used). For example, the data contains actual MySQL database dumps. This is not just someone copying a table and making into a .csv file. Hackers rarely have full knowledge of the technology stack of a target.
More important, large companies are heavily departmentalised, in spite of having centralised databases. When a hacker gains access to any corporate data, the value of that data depends on which server, or sometimes a single person's computer, that the hacker gains access to. For example: the personnel work scheduling for equipment maintenance will normally exist only on the workstation of the maintenance manager.
Likewise, the data for options for stock shares in a company, an extremely private set of data, will exist only in a private file on the workstation of the VP of Finance, or the CEO, or possibly both. It would require an equal amount of work to gain access to the personnel schedule for maintenance as it would to acquire a list of potential corporate owners. Hackers don't have all the time in the world, so they pick and choose wisely. Among the data that the perpetrator released is the following:
- An office layout for the entire Ashley Madison offices. This would normally exist only in the office of personnel management, the maintenance department, and possibly a few other places. It would certainly not be in the centralised database. Neither would it be of much value to the average hacker.
- Up to the minute organisation charts for every Avid Life division. This might be of value to certain hackers, but considering the hacker had already made off with everyone's credit card info, billions of dollars worth of blackmail information, every private email of the CEO (fascinating, by the way), and everything else of value, it would seem odd to dig up the organisation charts as well.
- A stock option agreement list, with signed contracts included. The hacker would have had to gain access to the private files of the CEO or the VP of Finance to obtain this material – a job requiring as much time to implement as a hack of the centralised database. Again, of what value would this be considering the hacker had already made off with potentially billions.
- IP addresses and current status of every server owned by Avid Life – of which there were many hundreds scattered around the world. Why any hacker would trouble themselves with such a task, considering what was already taken, is mind boggling.
- The raw source code for every program Ashley Madison ever wrote. This acquisition would be a monumental task for any hacker and, unless the hacker planned on competing with Ashley Madison, has no value whatsoever.
These are just a few of the many strangely included files that would take even a top notch hacker years to gather, and seem to have little or no value. Any reasonable cybersecurity expert would come to the conclusion that only someone on the inside, who could easily gain all of the files through deception and guile, could have done the job.
If we include the fact that the perpetrator's two manifestos clearly state a strong personal dislike of the VP of Information Technology (whom the perpetrator referenced as having made specific comments in the past) and the CEO, and specifically names employees that are liked and are doing a good job, then it seems, without a shadow of doubt, to be an open and shut case.
As to gender of the perpetrator, there were a number of telling signs in the manifestos. The most telling was a statement calling men "scumbags" (for those readers that don't speak American/Canadian English, this is a word that only a woman would ever use to describe men). In a separate section, the perpetrator describes men as cheating dirtbags. I think in any language this would suggest that a woman is speaking.
If that fails to convince you, then this must: In the first manifesto two names of male members were released. In describing one of them the perpetrator states the he "spitefully" joined Ashley Madison the day after Valentine's Day. Anyone who ever had a significant other knows that women rate Valentine's Day higher than Christmas, and men think so little of it that they have to remind each other the day is nearing. To call an act the day after Valentines Day "spiteful", is a thought that would enter few men's minds. If this does not convince you then you need to get out of the house more often.
I must, at this point, thank my lead data analyst, Jacque Donahue, for working 24-hours-a-day for the past few days helping analyse more than 40GB of data.
Who is John McAfee?
John McAfee is one of the most influential commentators on cybersecurity anywhere in the world. His new venture – Future Tense Central – focuses on security and personal privacy-related products.
McAfee provides regular insight on global hacking scandals and internet surveillance, and has become a hugely controversial figure following his time in Belize, where he claims to have exposed corruption at the highest level before fleeing the country amid accusations of murder (the Belize government is currently not pursuing any accusations against him).