There’s so much data available on the internet that even government cyberspies need a little help now and then to sift through it all. So to assist them, the National Security Agency produced a book to help its spies uncover intelligence hiding on the web.
The 643-page tome, called Untangling the Web: A Guide to Internet Research (.pdf), was just released by the NSA following a FOIA request filed in April by MuckRock, a site that charges fees to process public records for activists and others.
The book was published by the Center for Digital Content of the National Security Agency, and is filled with advice for using search engines, the Internet Archive and other online tools. But the most interesting is the chapter titled “Google Hacking.”
Say you’re a cyberspy for the NSA and you want sensitive inside information on companies in South Africa. What do you do?
Search for confidential Excel spreadsheets the company inadvertently posted online by typing “filetype:xls site:za confidential” into Google, the book notes.
Want to find spreadsheets full of passwords in Russia? Type “filetype:xls site:ru login.” Even on websites written in non-English languages the terms “login,” “userid,” and “password” are generally written in English, the authors helpfully point out.
Misconfigured web servers “that list the contents of directories not intended to be on the web often offer a rich load of information to Google hackers,” the authors write, then offer a command to exploit these vulnerabilities — intitle: “index of” site:kr password.
“Nothing I am going to describe to you is illegal, nor does it in any way involve accessing unauthorized data,” the authors assert in their book. Instead it “involves using publicly available search engines to access publicly available information that almost certainly was not intended for public distribution.” You know, sort of like the “hacking” for which Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer was recently sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for obtaining publicly accessible information from AT&T’s website.
Stealing intelligence on the internet that others don’t want you to have might not be illegal, but it does come with other risks, the authors note: “It is critical that you handle all Microsoft file types on the internet with extreme care. Never open a Microsoft file type on the internet. Instead, use one of the techniques described here,” they write in a footnote. The word “here” is hyperlinked, but since the document is a PDF the link is inaccessible. No word about the dangers that Adobe PDFs pose. But the version of the manual the NSA released was last updated in 2007, so let’s hope later versions cover it.
Although the author’s name is redacted in the version released by the NSA, Muckrock’s FOIA indicates it was written by Robyn Winder and Charlie Speight. A note the NSA added to the book before releasing it under FOIA says that the opinions expressed in it are the authors’, and not the agency’s.
Lest you think that none of this is new, that Johnny Long has been talking about this for years at hacker conferences and in his book Google Hacking, you’d be right. In fact, the authors of the NSA book give a shoutout to Johnny, but with the caveat that Johnny’s tips are designed for cracking — breaking into websites and servers. “That is not something I encourage or advocate,” the author writes.