Sunday, May 26, 2024

search engine optimization Professional Employed and Fired By Ashley Madison Turned on Firm, Promising Revenge – Krebs on Safety


[This is Part II of a story published here last week on reporting that went into a new Hulu documentary series on the 2015 Ashley Madison hack.]

It was round 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, once I acquired a message by way of the contact kind on KrebsOnSecurity.com that the marital infidelity web site AshleyMadison.com had been hacked. The message contained hyperlinks to confidential Ashley Madison paperwork, and included a manifesto that mentioned a hacker group calling itself the Influence Group was ready to leak information on all 37 million customers except Ashley Madison and a sister property voluntarily closed down inside 30 days.

A snippet of the message left behind by the Influence Group.

The message included hyperlinks to recordsdata containing extremely delicate data, together with snippets of leaked person account information, maps of inside AshleyMadison firm servers, worker community account data, firm checking account information and wage data.

A grasp worker contact checklist was among the many paperwork leaked that night. Helpfully, it included the mobile phone quantity for Noel Biderman, then the CEO of Ashley Madison father or mother agency Avid Life Media (ALM). To my eternal shock, Biderman answered on the primary ring and acknowledged they’d been hacked with out even ready to be requested.

“We’re on the doorstep of [confirming] who we consider is the perpetrator, and sadly which will have triggered this mass publication,” Biderman instructed me on July 19, simply minutes earlier than I revealed the primary identified public report in regards to the breach. “I’ve obtained their profile proper in entrance of me, all their work credentials. It was undoubtedly an individual right here that was not an worker however definitely had touched our technical companies.”

On Aug 18, 2015, the Influence Group posted a “Time’s up!” message on-line, together with hyperlinks to 60 gigabytes of Ashley Madison person information. The information leak led to the general public shaming and extortion of many Ashley Madison customers, and to a minimum of two suicides. Many different customers misplaced their jobs or their marriages. To this present day, no person has been charged within the hack, and extremely Ashley Madison stays a thriving firm.

THE CHAOS MAKER

The previous worker that Biderman undoubtedly had in thoughts on July 19, 2015 was William Brewster Harrison, a self-described knowledgeable in SEO (search engine optimization) tips which can be designed to assist web sites improve their rankings for varied key phrases in Google and different serps.

It’s evident that Harrison was Biderman’s high suspect instantly after the breach turned public as a result of — along with releasing information on 37 million customers a month later in August 2015 — the hackers additionally dumped three years value of e-mail they stole from Biderman. And Biderman’s inbox is stuffed with messages about hate-filled private assaults from Harrison.

A Native of Northern Virginia, Harrison finally settled in North Carolina, had a son together with his then-wife, and began a fence-building enterprise. ALM employed Harrison in March 2010 to advertise its varied grownup manufacturers on-line, and it’s clear that one in every of his roles was creating and sustaining feminine profiles on Ashley Madison, and creating blogs that had been made to appear to be they had been written by girls who’d simply joined Ashley Madison.

A selfie that William B. Harrison posted to his Fb web page in 2013 reveals him holding a handgun and carrying a bulletproof vest.

It seems Harrison was working as an affiliate of Ashley Madison previous to his official employment with the corporate, which means that Harrison had already demonstrated he might drive signups to the service and assist enhance its standing within the search engine rankings.

What’s much less clear is whether or not anybody at ALM ever carried out a fundamental background test on Harrison earlier than hiring him. As a result of if they’d, the outcomes virtually definitely would have given them pause. Virginia prosecutors charged the younger 20-something Harrison with a sequence of misdemeanors, together with trespassing, illegal entry, drunk in public, and making obscene cellphone calls.

In 2008, North Carolina authorities charged Harrison with prison extortion, a case that was transferred to South Carolina earlier than in the end being dismissed. In December 2009, Harrison confronted fees of false imprisonment, fees that had been additionally dropped by the native district lawyer.

By the point Ashley Madison formally employed him, Harrison’s life was falling aside. His fence enterprise had failed, and he’d simply filed for chapter. Additionally, his marriage had soured, and after a brand new arrest for driving underneath the affect, he was in peril of getting divorced, shedding entry to his son, and/or going to jail.

It additionally appears probably that no person at ALM bothered to take a look at the handfuls of domains registered to Harrison’s varied Vistomail.com e-mail addresses, as a result of had they performed in order that they probably would have observed two issues.

One is that Harrison had a historical past of making web sites to lambaste corporations he didn’t like, or that he believed had slighted him or his household in a roundabout way. A few of these web sites included content material that defamed and doxed executives, akin to bash-a-business[.]com, google-your-business[.]com, contact-a-ceo[.]com, lowes-is-a-cancer[.]com (in line with Harrison, the house enchancment chain as soon as employed his spouse).

A background test on Harrison’s on-line footprint additionally would have revealed he was a self-styled rapper who claimed to be an lively menace to company America. Harrison’s web site lyrical-gangsta[.]com included plenty of works, akin to “Slim Thug — I Run — Remix Spoof,” that are replete with menacing phrases for unnamed company executives:

[HOOK]
I visit cyberspace all night time n day (the net love thug)
cuz I nonetheless visit cyberspace all night time n day
yuhh I kind for my thoughts, obtained sensible for my ego
nonetheless working circles spherical them, what’s good?
cuz I nonetheless surf, the online all night time n day,
I cant keep away.

They don’t make to [sic] many hackers like me
bonafide hustler licensed G
nonetheless pumpin’ the TOP 10 outcomes
in the event you obtained the correct dough!
suppose the outcomes are pretend? sucka Google ME
smarter than executives, greater then Wal-Mart
Nelly strugglin’ with the truth that I’m #1 NOW
road boys know me, ain’t nuttin’ new
about to make my mill, with an all new crew
I-95 execs don’t know what to do, or the place to go
watchin them shares evaporate all their dough
I already left the hood, obtained up off the streets
its in my blood im a gangsta until Im deceased

transferring lumber for cash or typin’ in a zone
all night time hackin’ until 6 within the mornin
that shit im focusin’ on, stronger then cologne
you possibly can prolly scent the jealousy
by way of your LCD display screen
in the event you nonetheless broke– higher work for some inexperienced
referred to as them Fortune execs on that authorized bluff
cuz the Feds busy raidin different stuff
Imma run the Internet til im six ft underneath
I’m a go away my mark — no cause to surprise
(Yea Yea)

Among the anti-corporate rhymes busted by Harrison’s hacker/rapper alter ego “Chaos Canine.” Picture: Archive.org.

The identical theme seems in one other rap (“The Hacker Backstage”) penned by Harrison’s rapper alter ego — “Chaos Canine:”

…this hacker was born to jot down
bust off the rhymes and watch em take flight
you realize all about them company jets
and handing out pinkslips with out regrets
outsized corporations are the issue

effectively, I’ve obtained an answer
It’s referred to as good ol’ usual retribution
file chapter, boycott you want Boston colonists
Company America cant cease this Eminem fashion columnist
2pac would have honored my fashion
Im the following era of hacker inspiration
Individuals don’t desire a company nation
All that DOW Jones shit is a dying sensation

Along with pimping Ashley Madison with pretend profiles and phony person blogs, it seems Harrison additionally went after the corporate’s enemies through the transient time he was an worker. As famous in Half I of this story, Harrison used a number of pseudonymous Vistomail.com e-mail addresses to harass the house owners of AshleyMadisonSucks[.]com into promoting or shutting down the positioning.

When the proprietor of AshleyMadisonSucks[.]com refused to promote the area, he and his then-girlfriend had been topic to an unrelenting marketing campaign of on-line harassment and blackmail. It now seems these assaults had been perpetrated by Harrison, who despatched emails from completely different accounts on the free e-mail service Vistomail pretending to be the area proprietor, his then-girlfriend and their mates. Harrison even went after the area proprietor’s lawyer and spouse, itemizing them each on his Contact-A-CEO[.]com web site.

TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY

Issues began going sideways for Ashley Madison when Harrison’s employment contract was terminated in November 2011. The leaked emails don’t clarify why Harrison was fired, however his mercurial temperament probably performed a serious function. In line with Harrison, it was as a result of he had expressed some ethical reservations with sure elements of his duties, though he was not particular on that time and none of this may very well be confirmed.

Shortly after Harrison was fired, the corporate’s executives started noticing that Google was auto-completing the phrases “Jew” and “Jewish” each time somebody looked for Biderman’s identify. The outcomes returned when one accepted Google’s advisable search on the time crammed the primary web page with hyperlinks to Stormfront, a far-right, neo-Nazi hate group. The corporate strongly suspected somebody was utilizing underhanded search engine optimization strategies to slander and assault its CEO.

In July 2022, KrebsOnSecurity revealed a retrospective on the 2015 Ashley Madison breach which discovered that Biderman had change into the topic of accelerating ire from members of Stormfront and different extremists teams within the years main as much as the hack. In line with the neo-Nazi teams, Biderman was a worthy goal of their harassment not simply because he was a profitable Jewish CEO, but additionally as a result of his firm was hellbent on destroying Christian morals and households.

Biderman’s leaked emails present that in February 2012 he employed Brian Cuban — the lawyer brother of Mark Cuban, the proprietor of the Dallas Mavericks and one the principle “sharks” on the ABC actuality tv sequence Shark Tank. Via Cuban, Ashley Madison appealed their case to each Google and to the Anti-Defamation League, however neither was apparently ready or prepared to assist.

Additionally in early January 2012, Biderman and different Ashley Madison executives discovered themselves inundated with nameless Vistomail.com emails that had been replete with profanity and slurs towards Jews. Though he used pretend names and e-mail addresses, Harrison made little effort to cover his identification in a number of of those nastygrams.

One significantly ugly message from Harrison even included a hyperlink to a Youtube video he’d put on-line of his younger son taking part in basketball for a faculty crew. That Youtube video was included in an e-mail whereby Harrison – then separated from his spouse — lamented all of the hours he spent working for Ashley Madison up in Canada as an alternative of spending time together with his son.

Harrison then turned to creating threatening cellphone calls to Ashley Madison executives. In a single incident in March 2012, Harrison referred to as the corporate’s former director of Human Assets utilizing a caller ID spoofing service to make it appear to be he was calling from contained in the constructing.

ALM’s legal professionals contacted the Toronto police in response to Harrison’s harassment.

“For Will to have disguised his cellphone quantity as Mark’s strongly recommend he has hacked my e-mail, authorized counsel for the opposing facet in a perceived authorized dispute,” ALM VP and common counsel Mike Dacks wrote in a letter to a detective on the Toronto Police. “Over the months of his many tons of of emails he alluded plenty of instances to enterprise cyberattacks towards us and this was famous in my unique report back to police.”

Based mostly on the exchanges in Bidernman’s inbox it seems these appeals to the Toronto authorities had been profitable in having Harrison barred from having the ability to enter Canada.

ALM additionally contacted a detective in Harrison’s house county in North Carolina. However when the native police paid a go to to Harrison’s house to observe up on the harassment complaints, Harrison fled out his again porch, injuring himself after leaping off the second-story deck.

It’s unclear if the police ever succeeded in interviewing Harrison in response to the harassment complaints from ALM. The Raleigh police officer contacted by ALM didn’t reply to requests for data. However the go to from the native cops solely appeared to embolden and anger Harrison much more, and Biderman’s emails point out the harassment continued after this incident.

HUMAN DECOYS

Then in August 2012, the previous intercourse employee turned blogger and activist Maggie McNeill revealed screenshots from an inside system that Ashley Madison used referred to as the “Human Decoy Interface,” which was a elaborate method of describing a system constructed to handle phony feminine accounts on the service.

The screenshots appeared to point out that an amazing many feminine accounts had been actually bots designed to herald paying clients. Ashley Madison was at all times free to hitch, however customers needed to pay in the event that they wished to talk instantly with different customers.

Though Harrison had been fired almost a 12 months earlier, Biderman’s leaked emails present that Harrison’s entry to Ashley Madison’s inside instruments wasn’t revoked till after the screenshots had been posted on-line and the corporate started reviewing which worker accounts had entry to the Human Decoy Interface.

“Who or what’s asdfdfsda@asdf.com?,” Biderman requested, after being despatched an inventory of 9 e-mail addresses.

“It seems to be the e-mail tackle Will used for his profiles,” the IT director replied.

“And his entry was by no means shut off till immediately?,” requested the corporate’s common counsel Mike Dacks.

TRUTH BOMBS

Biderman’s leaked emails recommend that Harrison stopped his harassment marketing campaign someday after 2012. A decade later, KrebsOnSecurity sought to trace down and interview Harrison. Discovering no person at his former addresses and cellphone numbers in North Carolina, KrebsOnSecurity wound up talking with Will’s stepmother, who lives with Will’s dad in Northern Virginia and requested that her identify not be used on this story.

Will’s stepmom shortly dropped two massive reality bombs after patiently listening to my spiel about why I used to be calling and on the lookout for Mr. Harrison. The primary was that Will was introduced up Jewish, though he didn’t follow the religion: A neighborhood rabbi and good friend of the household gave the service at Will’s funeral in 2014.

She additionally shared that her stepson had killed himself in 2014, taking pictures himself within the head with a handgun. Will’s mom found his physique.

“Will dedicated suicide in March 2014,” Will’s stepmother shared. “I’ve heard all these tales you simply talked about. Will was severely mentally in poor health. He was in all probability as near a sociopath as I can think about anybody being. He was additionally a paranoid schizophrenic who wouldn’t take his medicine.”

William B. Harrison died on March 5, 2014, almost 16 months earlier than The Influence Group introduced they’d hacked Ashley Madison.

Will’s stepmom mentioned she consistently felt bodily threatened when Will was round. However she had hassle believing that her stepson was a raging anti-Semite. She additionally mentioned she thought the timing of Will’s suicide successfully dominated him out as a suspect within the 2015 Ashley Madison hack.

“Contemplating the date of loss of life, I’m unsure if he’s your man,” she provided towards the tip of our dialog.

[There is one silver lining to Will Harrison’s otherwise sad tale: His widow has since remarried, and her new husband agreed to adopt their son as his own.]

ANALYSIS

Does Harrison’s premature loss of life rule him out as a suspect, as his stepmom steered? This stays an open query. In a parting e-mail to Biderman in late 2012, Harrison signed his actual identify and mentioned he was leaving, however not going away.

“So good luck, I’m positive we’ll discuss once more quickly, however for now, I’ve obtained higher issues within the oven,” Harrison wrote. “Simply bear in mind I outsmarted you final time and I’ll outsmart you and out maneuver you this time too, by conserving myself far far-off from the motion and simply having fun with the sideline view, cheering for the opposition.”

Nothing within the leaked Biderman emails means that Ashley Madison did a lot to revamp the safety of its pc methods within the wake of Harrison’s departure and subsequent marketing campaign of harassment — aside from eradicating an administrator account of his a 12 months after he’d already left the corporate.

KrebsOnSecurity discovered nothing in Harrison’s intensive area historical past suggesting he had any actual malicious hacking abilities. However given the clientele that usually employed his abilities — the grownup leisure business — it appears probably Harrison was a minimum of conversant at midnight arts of “Black search engine optimization,” which entails utilizing underhanded or else downright unlawful strategies to sport search engine outcomes.

Armed with such expertise, it will not have been troublesome for Harrison to have labored out a method to preserve entry to working administrator accounts at Ashley Madison. If that actually did occur, it will have been trivial for him to promote or give these credentials to another person.

Or to one thing else. Like Nazi teams. As KrebsOnSecurity reported final 12 months, within the six months main as much as the July 2015 hack, Ashley Madison and Biderman turned a frequent topic of derision throughout a number of neo-Nazi web sites.

On Jan. 14, 2015, a member of the neo-Nazi discussion board Stormfront posted a energetic thread about Ashley Madison within the common dialogue space titled, “Jewish owned relationship web site selling adultery.”

On July 3, 2015, Andrew Anglin, the editor of the alt-right publication Every day Stormer, posted excerpts about Biderman from a narrative titled, “Jewish Hyper-Sexualization of Western Tradition,” which referred to Biderman because the “Jewish King of Infidelity.”

On July 10, a mocking montage of Biderman images with racist captions was posted to the extremist web site Vanguard Information Community, as a part of a thread referred to as “Jews normalize sexual perversion.”

Some readers have steered that the information leaked by the Influence Group might have initially been stolen by Harrison. However that timeline doesn’t add up given what we all know in regards to the hack. For one factor, the monetary transaction data leaked from Ashley Madison present fees up till mid-2015. Additionally, the ultimate message within the archive of Biderman’s stolen emails was dated July 7, 2015 — virtually two weeks earlier than the Influence Group would announce their hack.

Whoever hacked Ashley Madison clearly needed to disrupt the corporate as a enterprise, and shame its CEO because the endgame. The Influence Group’s intrusion struck simply as Ashley Madison’s father or mother was making ready go public with an preliminary public providing (IPO) for buyers. Additionally, the hackers acknowledged that whereas they stole all worker emails, they had been solely curious about leaking Biderman’s.

Additionally, the Influence Group needed to know that ALM would by no means adjust to their calls for to dismantle Ashley Madison and Established Males. In 2014, ALM reported revenues of $115 million. There was little likelihood the corporate was going to close down a few of its greatest cash machines.

Therefore, it seems the Influence Group’s objective all alongside was to create prodigious quantities of drama and rigidity by asserting the hack of a serious dishonest web site, after which let that drama play out over the following few months as thousands and thousands of uncovered Ashley Madison customers freaked out and turned the targets of extortion assaults and public shaming.

After the Influence Group launched Biderman’s e-mail archives, a number of media retailers pounced on salacious exchanges in these messages as supposed proof he had carried on a number of affairs. Biderman resigned as CEO of Ashley Madison on Aug. 28, 2015.

Complicating issues additional, it seems multiple malicious celebration might have gained entry to Ashley’s Madison’s community in 2015 or presumably earlier. Cyber intelligence agency Intel 471 recorded a sequence of posts by a person with the deal with “Brutium” on the Russian-language cybercrime discussion board Antichat between 2014 and 2016.

Brutium routinely marketed the sale of huge, hacked databases, and on Jan. 24, 2015, this person posted a thread providing to promote information on 32 million Ashley Madison customers. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a indication whether or not anybody bought the data. Brutium’s profile has since been faraway from the Antichat discussion board.

I notice this ending could also be unsatisfying for a lot of readers, as it’s for me. The story I wrote in 2015 in regards to the Ashley Madison hack continues to be the largest scoop I’ve revealed right here (by way of visitors), but it stays maybe the only most irritating investigation I’ve ever pursued. However my hunch is that there’s nonetheless extra to this story that has but to unfold.

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