False clues make it tough to find WADA hackers

AP
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LONDON (AP) — Medical data from some of the world’s leading athletes has been posted to the web and the World Anti-Doping Agency says Russians are to blame. Even the hackers seem to agree, adopting the name “Fancy Bears” — a moniker long associated with the Kremlin’s electronic espionage operations.

But as cybersecurity experts pore over the hackers’ digital trail, they’re up against a familiar problem. The evidence has been packed with possible red herrings — including registry data pointing to France, Korean characters in the hackers’ code and a server based in California.

“Anybody can say they are anyone and it’s hard to disprove,” said Jeffrey Carr, the chief executive of consulting firm Taia Global and something of a professional skeptic when it comes to claims of state-backed hacking.

Many others in the cybersecurity industry see the WADA hack as a straightforward act of Russian revenge, but solid evidence is hard to find.

What’s known is that it was only days after scores of Russian athletes were banned from the Olympic Games that suspicious looking emails began circulating . Purporting to come from WADA itself, the booby trapped messages were aimed at harvesting passwords to a sensitive database of drug information about athletes worldwide. Among other things, the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System carries information about which top athletes use otherwise-banned substances for medical reasons — prize information for a spurned Olympic competitor seeking to embarrass its rivals.

On Sept. 1 someone registered a website titled “Fancy Bears’ Hack Team.” A few days later, a Twitter account materialized carrying a similar name. Just after midnight Moscow time on Sept. 13, the Fancy Bears Twitter account came alive, broadcasting the drugs being taken by gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams and other U.S. Olympians. It followed up Thursday with similar information about the medication used by British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, among many others.

There is no suggestion any of the athletes broke any rules, but Russians seized on the leak as evidence that U.S. and British players were using forbidden drugs with the blessing of anti-doping officials.

“Hypocrisy” Russia’s embassy to London tweeted in reaction to the news. Kremlin channel RT broadcast a cartoon showing a WADA official picking up a bulky American player’s steroid bottle with a smile. “All good! You’re cleared to compete!” he says.

Citing law enforcement sources, WADA said the attacks “are originating out of Russia.” Russian officials dismissed the allegation; in an email, WADA said it wouldn’t be commenting further.

With little to go on, independent investigators have still made some intriguing connections.

Virginia-based intelligence firm ThreatConnect said that whoever compromised WADA did so using websites registered through an obscure domain name company that also set up the fake sites used in a variety of other hacks blamed on the Kremlin, including the one that hit the Democratic National Committee. In a telephone interview, the company’s chief intelligence officer, Rich Barger said he had been cautious at first about tying the WADA breach to Russian hackers but that “confidence is certainly growing as more and more people weigh in and lend their voice.”

Even the meaning of the name “Fancy Bears” is unclear. California-based threat intelligence firm CrowdStrike has long applied that nickname to an allegedly Russian state-backed group, but the hackers’ adoption isn’t necessarily a brazen acknowledgement of CrowdStrike’s research. It might be an attempt to hold it up to ridicule. Which interpretation the group favors hasn’t been made clear. Repeated messages to email addresses associated with Fancy Bears have gone unreturned.

Fancy Bears’ website doesn’t necessarily provide any more insight. Some its artistry appears to have been lifted from a Russian clip art page. But tech podcaster Vince Tocce also found Korean script in the site’s code — characters which vanished shortly after he made his discovery public. In a telephone interview, he said that showed how difficult it was to take anything for granted.

Some pieces of Fancy Bears’ infrastructure were almost certainly structured to sow confusion.

The site, for example, appears to be hosted in California but was registered at an address in the town of Pomponne, east of Paris, under the name “Jean Guillalime.”

A man residing at that address, Jean-Francois Guillaume, told The Associated Press the registry information was bogus and that he was mystified as to why the hackers had picked on him.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with this,” he said, adding that he ran a consulting shop and a flower business and wasn’t particularly interested in sports. “I don’t know any Russians.”

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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