The Incercept Just Failed OPSEC 101

The latest NSA leaker, the rather incongruously named Reality Winner, may have inadvertently been outed by a screw up by the online publication The Intercept:

Across the computer security world yesterday, heads were shaking.

The FBI filed a criminal complaint against Reality Winner, an NSA contractor, who the agency alleges stole classified documents and shared them with an “online news outlet” believed to be The Intercept. Because the documents in question appear to have been printed, some security experts have been wondering if a mysterious code used by some printers is to blame for Winner’s capture. That code is an almost-invisible grid of dots that some color printers ink into every document they print.

The complaint also details how agents say they tracked the leak back to Winner. The news org contacted the National Security Agency and said they were “in possession of what they believed to be a classified document.” The news organization then sent that document to the NSA, presumably for verification. “The U.S. Government Agency examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space,” the complaint continues.

From there, the agents say that they simply looked to see who had printed the document—six people had—and then discovered that one of them, Winner, had been in contact with the media company in question from her work computer (although on an unrelated topic).

When FBI agents showed up at her house, they say she confessed to “removing the classified intelligence reporting from her office space, retaining it, and mailing it from Augusta, Georgia, to the News Outlet.” She faces up to 10 years in prison.

It’s clear that in releasing high resolution scans, The Intercept made it much easier for the authorities to identify the leaker.

This is a major f%$#-up.

FYI, a good primer on the printer tracking dots here. Basically, various law enforcement agencies, most notably the US Secret Service, have required these dots on color printers as an anti-counterfeiting measure.

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