30 December 2016

US ‘Fancy Bear’ notification does not unmask anti-doping hackers

A US federal law enforcement report into hacks on emails ahead of this year’s US Presidential election names Russian intelligence agencies as being behind hacking group Fancy Bear. However this, in itself, does not unmask Russia as being behind cyber attacks on anti-doping organisations (ADOs). The group behind attacks on emails and databases held by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other ADOs is known by a slightly different name – Fancy Bears Hack Team, abbreviated to Fancy Bears HT. It is understood that ‘HT’ could be an acronym for ‘Hat Tip’, a term widely used on the internet to indicate homage and respect – in other words a nod to a Russian hacking group Fancy Bear, which has been targeting organisations since 2008.

As such, the fact that the US report names Russia as being behind Fancy Bear does not bring us any closer to knowing who is behind Fancy Bears HT, the group responsible for attacks on ADOs. To suggest that Russian intelligence services would so clumsily use a name that has been linked to Russian cyber attacks since 2008 perhaps does them a disservice – unless it is a bold double bluff.

WADA initially claimed that Fancy Bear was behind the hacks into its Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS), alleging that the group used other aliases named in the report, such as Tsar Team and APT28. However, it later dropped assertions that Russia was behind the attacks. Russia initially denied any responsibility for attacks on ADOs, and has consistently stated that it is not responsible for them.

The ADOs and athletes targeted by Fancy Bears HT provide a stronger indication that Fancy Bears HT may represent Russian interests. The attacks have consistently targeted ‘western’ ADOs – the latest hacks were sent to The Sports Integrity Initiative shortly after the publication of Part 2 of the WADA Independent Person (IP) Report, compiled by Richard McLaren, on 9 December. High profile western athletes such as Michael Phelps, the Williams sisters and Bradley Wiggins have been specifically indicated as warranting further investigation. The hacks have consistently focussed on western ADO use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs).

Vitaly Smirnov, Chairman of the Russian Independent Public Anti-Doping Commission (HOAK) investigating the allegations made in the WADA Independent Person (IP) Reports compiled by Richard McLaren perhaps gave away more about the real intentions of Fancy Bears HT in a recent interview with the New York Times. “Have you seen the Fancy Bear records?” he asked the newspaper. “Russia never had the opportunities that were given to other countries”.

Smirnov’s statement reveals his view on the true intentions of Fancy Bears HT – to show that Russia has not benefitted from the alleged abuse of the TUE system carried out by other ADOs. Smirnov’s comments do more to suggest that Russia is behind Fancy Bears HT’s attacks on ADOs than the US report does. However neither Smirnov nor the US report provide conclusive proof that the Russian state is involved in cyber attacks on ADOs.

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