Tech researcher: Trump's special counsel is just trying to get access to secret grand jury panels
Official portrait.

The Washington Post gave an update on the case that Donald Trump's special counsel has been investigating for a year and a half.

Just a few months ago special counsel John Durham indicted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer alleged to have "lied to the FBI in 2016" when it was discovered a server in Trump Tower was found to be communicating with Alfa Bank in Russia.

Sussmann, who has pleaded not guilty, had hired a slate of technology researchers to probe the data acquired. Lawyers for Alfa Bank and for Durham have honed in on Domain Name System (DNS) information, which is nothing more than who purchased a website and how to contact them.

The computer in question was located in Trump Tower but wasn't being used by the Trump campaign in 2016. It was a marketing company that did ads for Trump's hotels and other clients.

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Durham's suit also involves several "John Doe's" that Alfa Bank claims are hackers. The bank alleged that the data was created to make the "false appearance of a covert communication channel between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization." So, Alfa Bank is demanding subpoenas to the researchers who uncovered the information about the respective DNS addresses.

An Alfa Bank lawyer, Michael McIntosh, said that the indictment of Sussmann "supports key elements of Alfa Bank's complaint." There's nothing wrong with subpoenaing people, he said.

However, the researchers who documented the information about the connection allege that Alfa Bank is just trying to use information from Durham's probe to help their own interests in Russia and to get intelligence on hackers.

The lawsuit "is a Trojan horse to monitor what is transpiring before a federal grand jury exploring the same matters, and serves as an information-gathering tool about U.S. cybersecurity methods and means to benefit the Russian political regime," attorneys for the researchers said.

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The suit identifies "Tech Executive-1" who is internet entrepreneur Rodney Joffe, the Post explained. His lawyer asked to quash the subpoena by Alfa Bank, something the judge agreed was far-reaching. Judge Sarah Taft-Carter wrote that the Alfa Bank efforts "equate to a fishing expedition, fail to satisfy the relevancy requirement, and constitute an abuse" of the legal process. She also noted that there's no reason to believe Alfa Bank's subpoenas would lead to the identity of the John Doe's.

Fairfax County Judge Thomas Mann ruled against Joffe, who built companies that collect DNS data about the owners of domains and locations. While such companies collect that kind of data, the government doesn't hold huge swaths of digital information about it and typically works with such companies to gather the info. Joffe has worked with the government over many years, including work in responding to the 2020 SolarWinds cyberattack from Russians.

"As part of their lawyer-client relationship," Sussmann, Joffe, another lawyer at Sussmann's firm and "individuals acting on behalf" of the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton worked together "to share information about the Russian Bank Data with the media and others, claiming that it demonstrated the existence of a secret communications channel," the indictment paperwork said according to the Post. A DNS search doesn't require a warrant, it can be done online for free so the government doesn't consider it a breach of privacy. The search would show that the computers were talking to each other, but who individuals behind the keys are, much less what information was passed back and forth.

One witness subpoenaed by Alfa Bank out of Berkeley's International Computer Science Institute handed over a few emails responding to their subpoena. Nicholas Weaver told the Post that the information passed between the two systems suggests a human connection, but that it doesn't matter given so much is known about the Trump Organization and Russia.

"It gets tricky when you try to validate a single connection," said cybersecurity expert at Team Cymru David Monnier. "It is easily spoofed. I could make a request for a domain claiming to be you asking for the resolution of the IP address, even though you're not doing the look-up."

The Post report said that Monnier "scoffed" at the idea that the government uses DNS information to track down computer criminals or that it would reveal any secret information. Again, the DNS information is public.

"This isn't secret sauce anymore," he said. "We're talking about a 20-year-old method."

Read the full report.

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