NSA Using Cyberattack for Defense

These days, it's rare that we learn something new from the Snowden documents. But Ben Buchanan found something interesting. The NSA penetrates enemy networks in order to enhance our defensive capabilities.

The data the NSA collected by penetrating BYZANTINE CANDOR's networks had concrete forward-looking defensive value. It included information on the adversary's "future targets," including "bios of senior White House officials, [cleared defense contractor] employees, [United States government] employees" and more. It also included access to the "source code and [the] new tools" the Chinese used to conduct operations. The computers penetrated by the NSA also revealed information about the exploits in use. In effect, the intelligence gained from the operation, once given to network defenders and fed into automated systems, was enough to guide and enhance the United States' defensive efforts.

This case alludes to important themes in network defense. It shows the persistence of talented adversaries, the creativity of clever defenders, the challenge of getting actionable intelligence on the threat, and the need for network architecture and defenders capable of acting on that information. But it also highlights an important point that is too often overlooked: not every intrusion is in service of offensive aims. There are genuinely defensive reasons for a nation to launch intrusions against another nation's networks.


Other Snowden files show what the NSA can do when it gathers this data, describing an interrelated and complex set of United States programs to collect intelligence and use it to better protect its networks. The NSA's internal documents call this "foreign intelligence in support of dynamic defense." The gathered information can "tip" malicious code the NSA has placed on servers and computers around the world. Based on this tip, one of the NSA's nodes can act on the information, "inject[ing a] response onto the Internet towards [the] target." There are a variety of responses that the NSA can inject, including resetting connections, delivering malicious code, and redirecting internet traffic.

Similarly, if the NSA can learn about the adversary's "tools and tradecraft" early enough, it can develop and deploy "tailored countermeasures" to blunt the intended effect. The NSA can then try to discern the intent of the adversary and use its countermeasure to mitigate the attempted intrusion. The signals intelligence agency feeds information about the incoming threat to an automated system deployed on networks that the NSA protects. This system has a number of capabilities, including blocking the incoming traffic outright, sending unexpected responses back to the adversary, slowing the traffic down, and "permitting the activity to appear [to the adversary] to complete without disclosing that it did not reach [or] affect the intended target."

These defensive capabilities appear to be actively in use by the United States against a wide range of threats. NSA documents indicate that the agency uses the system to block twenty-eight major categories of threats as of 2011. This includes action against significant adversaries, such as China, as well as against non-state actors. Documents provide a number of success stories. These include the thwarting of a BYZANTINE HADES intrusion attempt that targeted four high-ranking American military leaders, including the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the NSA's network defenders saw the attempt coming and successfully prevented any negative effects. The files also include examples of successful defense against Anonymous and against several other code-named entities.

I recommend Buchanan's book: The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust and Fear Between Nations.

Posted on February 22, 2017 at 6:21 AM26 Comments

German Government Classifies Doll as Illegal Spyware

This is interesting:

The My Friend Cayla doll, which is manufactured by the US company Genesis Toys and distributed in Europe by Guildford-based Vivid Toy Group, allows children to access the internet via speech recognition software, and to control the toy via an app.

But Germany's Federal Network Agency announced this week that it classified Cayla as an "illegal espionage apparatus". As a result, retailers and owners could face fines if they continue to stock it or fail to permanently disable the doll's wireless connection.

Under German law it is illegal to manufacture, sell or possess surveillance devices disguised as another object.

Another article.

Posted on February 20, 2017 at 6:55 AM63 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: The Strawberry Squid's Lopsided Eyes

The evolutionary reasons why the strawberry squid has two different eyes. Additional articles.

Original paper.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Posted on February 17, 2017 at 4:03 PM144 Comments

IoT Attack Against a University Network

Verizon's Data Brief Digest 2017 describes an attack against an unnamed university by attackers who hacked a variety of IoT devices and had them spam network targets and slow them down:

Analysis of the university firewall identified over 5,000 devices making hundreds of Domain Name Service (DNS) look-ups every 15 minutes, slowing the institution's entire network and restricting access to the majority of internet services.

In this instance, all of the DNS requests were attempting to look up seafood restaurants -- and it wasn't because thousands of students all had an overwhelming urge to eat fish -- but because devices on the network had been instructed to repeatedly carry out this request.

"We identified that this was coming from their IoT network, their vending machines and their light sensors were actually looking for seafood domains; 5,000 discreet systems and they were nearly all in the IoT infrastructure," says Laurance Dine, managing principal of investigative response at Verizon.

The actual Verizon document doesn't appear to be available online yet, but there is an advance version that only discusses the incident above, available here.

Posted on February 17, 2017 at 8:30 AM16 Comments

Duqu Malware Techniques Used by Cybercriminals

Duqu 2.0 is a really impressive piece of malware, related to Stuxnet and probably written by the NSA. One of its security features is that it stays resident in its host's memory without ever writing persistent files to the system's drives. Now, this same technique is being used by criminals:

Now, fileless malware is going mainstream, as financially motivated criminal hackers mimic their nation-sponsored counterparts. According to research Kaspersky Lab plans to publish Wednesday, networks belonging to at least 140 banks and other enterprises have been infected by malware that relies on the same in-memory design to remain nearly invisible. Because infections are so hard to spot, the actual number is likely much higher. Another trait that makes the infections hard to detect is the use of legitimate and widely used system administrative and security tools­ -- including PowerShell, Metasploit, and Mimikatz -- ­to inject the malware into computer memory.


The researchers first discovered the malware late last year, when a bank's security team found a copy of Meterpreter -- ­an in-memory component of Metasploit -- ­residing inside the physical memory of a Microsoft domain controller. After conducting a forensic analysis, the researchers found that the Meterpreter code was downloaded and injected into memory using PowerShell commands. The infected machine also used Microsoft's NETSH networking tool to transport data to attacker-controlled servers. To obtain the administrative privileges necessary to do these things, the attackers also relied on Mimikatz. To reduce the evidence left in logs or hard drives, the attackers stashed the PowerShell commands into the Windows registry.

BoingBoing post.

Posted on February 16, 2017 at 10:28 AM28 Comments

Research into the Root Causes of Terrorism

Interesting article in Science discussing field research on how people are radicalized to become terrorists.

The potential for research that can overcome existing constraints can be seen in recent advances in understanding violent extremism and, partly, in interdiction and prevention. Most notable is waning interest in simplistic root-cause explanations of why individuals become violent extremists (e.g., poverty, lack of education, marginalization, foreign occupation, and religious fervor), which cannot accommodate the richness and diversity of situations that breed terrorism or support meaningful interventions. A more tractable line of inquiry is how people actually become involved in terror networks (e.g., how they radicalize and are recruited, move to action, or come to abandon cause and comrades).

Reports from the The Soufan Group, International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (King's College London), and the Combating Terrorism Center (U.S. Military Academy) indicate that approximately three-fourths of those who join the Islamic State or al-Qaeda do so in groups. These groups often involve preexisting social networks and typically cluster in particular towns and neighborhoods.. This suggests that much recruitment does not need direct personal appeals by organization agents or individual exposure to social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Fieldwork is needed to identify the specific conditions under which these processes play out. Natural growth models of terrorist networks then might be based on an epidemiology of radical ideas in host social networks rather than built in the abstract then fitted to data and would allow for a public health, rather than strictly criminal, approach to violent extremism.

Such considerations have implications for countering terrorist recruitment. The present USG focus is on "counternarratives," intended as alternative to the "ideologies" held to motivate terrorists. This strategy treats ideas as disembodied from the human conditions in which they are embedded and given life as animators of social groups. In their stead, research and policy might better focus on personalized "counterengagement," addressing and harnessing the fellowship, passion, and purpose of people within specific social contexts, as ISIS and al-Qaeda often do. This focus stands in sharp contrast to reliance on negative mass messaging and sting operations to dissuade young people in doubt through entrapment and punishment (the most common practice used in U.S. law enforcement) rather than through positive persuasion and channeling into productive life paths. At the very least, we need field research in communities that is capable of capturing evidence to reveal which strategies are working, failing, or backfiring.

Posted on February 15, 2017 at 6:31 AM125 Comments

Survey Data on Americans and Cybersecurity

Pew Research just published their latest research data on Americans and their views on cybersecurity:

This survey finds that a majority of Americans have directly experienced some form of data theft or fraud, that a sizeable share of the public thinks that their personal data have become less secure in recent years, and that many lack confidence in various institutions to keep their personal data safe from misuse. In addition, many Americans are failing to follow digital security best practices in their own personal lives, and a substantial majority expects that major cyberattacks will be a fact of life in the future.

Here's the full report.

Posted on February 14, 2017 at 6:48 AM22 Comments

Hacking Back

There's a really interesting paper from George Washington University on hacking back: "Into the Gray Zone: The Private Sector and Active Defense against Cyber Threats."

I've never been a fan of hacking back. There's a reason we no longer issue letters of marque or allow private entities to commit crimes, and hacking back is a form a vigilante justice. But the paper makes a lot of good points.

Here are three older papers on the topic.

Posted on February 13, 2017 at 6:40 AM32 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Communication through Skin Patterns

Interesting research. (Popular article here.)

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Posted on February 10, 2017 at 4:25 PM135 Comments

CSIS's Cybersecurity Agenda

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published "From Awareness to Action: A Cybersecurity Agenda for the 45th President" (press release here). There's a lot I agree with -- and some things I don't -- but these paragraphs struck me as particularly insightful:

The Obama administration made significant progress but suffered from two conceptual problems in its cybersecurity efforts. The first was a belief that the private sector would spontaneously generate the solutions needed for cybersecurity and minimize the need for government action. The obvious counter to this is that our problems haven't been solved. There is no technological solution to the problem of cybersecurity, at least any time soon, so turning to technologists was unproductive. The larger national debate over the role of government made it difficult to balance public and private-sector responsibility and created a sense of hesitancy, even timidity, in executive branch actions.

The second was a misunderstanding of how the federal government works. All White Houses tend to float above the bureaucracy, but this one compounded the problem with its desire to bring high-profile business executives into government. These efforts ran counter to what is needed to manage a complex bureaucracy where greatly differing rules, relationships, and procedures determine the success of any initiative. Unlike the private sector, government decisionmaking is more collective, shaped by external pressures both bureaucratic and political, and rife with assorted strictures on resources and personnel.

Posted on February 10, 2017 at 12:01 PM10 Comments

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