Blog: 2013 Archives

More about the NSA's Tailored Access Operations Unit

Der Spiegel has a good article on the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit: basically, its hackers.

“Getting the ungettable” is the NSA’s own description of its duties. “It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important,” one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.” The unit, it goes on, has “access to our very hardest targets.”

Defining the future of her unit at the time, she wrote that TAO “needs to continue to grow and must lay the foundation for integrated Computer Network Operations,” and that it must “support Computer Network Attacks as an integrated part of military operations.” To succeed in this, she wrote, TAO would have to acquire “pervasive, persistent access on the global network.” An internal description of TAO’s responsibilities makes clear that aggressive attacks are an explicit part of the unit’s tasks. In other words, the NSA’s hackers have been given a government mandate for their work. During the middle part of the last decade, the special unit succeeded in gaining access to 258 targets in 89 countries — nearly everywhere in the world. In 2010, it conducted 279 operations worldwide.

[…]

Certainly, few if any other divisions within the agency are growing as quickly as TAO. There are now TAO units in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; at the NSA’s outpost at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver, Colorado; at its headquarters in Fort Meade; and, of course, in San Antonio.

The article also has more details on how QUANTUM — particularly, QUANTUMINSERT — works.

Until just a few years ago, NSA agents relied on the same methods employed by cyber criminals to conduct these implants on computers. They sent targeted attack emails disguised as spam containing links directing users to virus-infected websites. With sufficient knowledge of an Internet browser’s security holes — Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, for example, is especially popular with the NSA hackers — all that is needed to plant NSA malware on a person’s computer is for that individual to open a website that has been specially crafted to compromise the user’s computer. Spamming has one key drawback though: It doesn’t work very often.

Nevertheless, TAO has dramatically improved the tools at its disposal. It maintains a sophisticated toolbox known internally by the name “QUANTUMTHEORY.” “Certain QUANTUM missions have a success rate of as high as 80%, where spam is less than 1%,” one internal NSA presentation states.

A comprehensive internal presentation titled “QUANTUM CAPABILITIES,” which SPIEGEL has viewed, lists virtually every popular Internet service provider as a target, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube. “NSA QUANTUM has the greatest success against Yahoo, Facebook and static IP addresses,” it states. The presentation also notes that the NSA has been unable to employ this method to target users of Google services. Apparently, that can only be done by Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service, which has acquired QUANTUM tools from the NSA.

A favored tool of intelligence service hackers is “QUANTUMINSERT.”

[…]

Once TAO teams have gathered sufficient data on their targets’ habits, they can shift into attack mode, programming the QUANTUM systems to perform this work in a largely automated way. If a data packet featuring the email address or cookie of a target passes through a cable or router monitored by the NSA, the system sounds the alarm. It determines what website the target person is trying to access and then activates one of the intelligence service’s covert servers, known by the codename FOXACID.

This NSA server coerces the user into connecting to NSA covert systems rather than the intended sites. In the case of Belgacom engineers, instead of reaching the LinkedIn page they were actually trying to visit, they were also directed to FOXACID servers housed on NSA networks. Undetected by the user, the manipulated page transferred malware already custom tailored to match security holes on the target person’s computer.

The technique can literally be a race between servers, one that is described in internal intelligence agency jargon with phrases like: “Wait for client to initiate new connection,” “Shoot!” and “Hope to beat server-to-client response.” Like any competition, at times the covert network’s surveillance tools are “too slow to win the race.” Often enough, though, they are effective. Implants with QUANTUMINSERT, especially when used in conjunction with LinkedIn, now have a success rate of over 50 percent, according to one internal document.

Another article discusses the various tools TAO has at its disposal.

A document viewed by SPIEGEL resembling a product catalog reveals that an NSA division called ANT has burrowed its way into nearly all the security architecture made by the major players in the industry — including American global market leader Cisco and its Chinese competitor Huawei, but also producers of mass-market goods, such as US computer-maker Dell.

[…]

In the case of Juniper, the name of this particular digital lock pick is “FEEDTROUGH.” This malware burrows into Juniper firewalls and makes it possible to smuggle other NSA programs into mainframe computers. Thanks to FEEDTROUGH, these implants can, by design, even survive “across reboots and software upgrades.” In this way, US government spies can secure themselves a permanent presence in computer networks. The catalog states that FEEDTROUGH “has been deployed on many target platforms.”

[…]

Another program attacks the firmware in hard drives manufactured by Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor and Samsung, all of which, with the exception of the latter, are American companies. Here, too, it appears the US intelligence agency is compromising the technology and products of American companies.

[…]

There is no information in the documents seen by SPIEGEL to suggest that the companies whose products are mentioned in the catalog provided any support to the NSA or even had any knowledge of the intelligence solutions.

The German version of the article had a couple of pages from the 50-page catalog of tools; they’re now on Cryptome. Leaksource has the whole TOP SECRET catalog; there’s a lot of really specific information here about individual NSA TAO ANT devices. (We don’t know what “ANT” stands for. Der Spiegel speculates that it “stands for Advanced or Access Network Technology.”) For example:

(TS//SI//REL) SOUFFLETROUGH is a BIOS persistence implant for Juniper SSG 500 and SSG 300 series firewalls. It persists DNT’s BANANAGLEE software implant. SOUFFLETROUGH also has an advanced persistent back-door capability.

And NIGHTSTAND:

(TS//SI//REL) An active 802.11 wireless exploitation and injection tool for payload/exploit delivery into otherwise denied target space. NIGHTSTAND is typically used in operations where wired access to the target is not possible.

NIGHTSTAND can work from as far away as eight miles, and “the attack is undetectable by the user.”

One more:

(TS//SI//REL) DROPOUTJEEP is a software implant for Apple iPhone that utilizes modular mission applications to provide specific SIGNIT functionality. This functionality includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device, SMS retrieval, contact list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell tower location, etc. Command, control, and data exfiltration can occur over SMS messaging or a GPRS data connection. All communications with the implant will be covert and encrypted.

(TS//SI//REL) The initial release of DROPOUTJEEP will focus on installing the implant via close access methods. A remote installation capabilitiy will be pursued for a future release.

There’s lots more in the source document. And note that this catalog is from 2008; presumably, TAO’s capabilities have improved significantly in the past five years.

And — back to the first article — TAO can install many of the hardware implants when a target orders new equipment through the mail:

If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called “load stations,” agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the “most productive operations” conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks “around the world.”

They can install the software implants using techniques like QUANTUM and FOXACID.

Related is this list of NSA attack tools. And here is another article on TAO from October.

Remember, this is not just about the NSA. The NSA shares these tools with the FBI’s black bag teams for domestic surveillance, and presumably with the CIA and DEA as well. Other countries are going to have similar bags of tricks, depending on their sophistication and budgets. And today’s secret NSA programs are tomorrow’s PhD theses, and the next day’s criminal hacking tools. Even if you trust the NSA to only spy on “enemies,” consider this an advance warning of what we have to secure ourselves against in the future.

I’m really happy to see Jacob Appelbaum’s byline on the Der Spiegel stories; it’s good to have someone of his technical ability reading and understanding the documents.

Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. MetaFilter thread. Ars Technica article. Wired article. Article on Appelbaum’s talk at 30c3.

EDITED TO ADD: Here’s Appelbaum’s talk. And three BoingBoing posts.

Posted on December 31, 2013 at 7:31 AM148 Comments

Joseph Stiglitz on Trust

Joseph Stiglitz has an excellent essay on the value of trust, and the lack of it in today’s society.

Trust is what makes contracts, plans and everyday transactions possible; it facilitates the democratic process, from voting to law creation, and is necessary for social stability. It is essential for our lives. It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.

At the end, he discusses a bit about the security mechanisms necessary to restore it:

I suspect there is only one way to really get trust back. We need to pass strong regulations, embodying norms of good behavior, and appoint bold regulators to enforce them. We did just that after the roaring ’20s crashed; our efforts since 2007 have been sputtering and incomplete. Firms also need to do better than skirt the edges of regulations. We need higher norms for what constitutes acceptable behavior, like those embodied in the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. But we also need regulations to enforce these norms ­ a new version of trust but verify. No rules will be strong enough to prevent every abuse, yet good, strong regulations can stop the worst of it.

This, of course, is what my book Liars and Outliers is about.

Posted on December 30, 2013 at 9:55 AM53 Comments

Operation Vula

Talking to Vula” is the story of a 1980s secret communications channel between black South African leaders and others living in exile in the UK. The system used encrypted text encoded into DTMF “touch tones” and transmitted from pay phones.

Our next project was one that led to the breakthrough we had been waiting for. We had received a request, as members of the Technical Committee, to find a way for activists to contact each other safely in an urban environment. Ronnie had seen a paging device that could be used between users of walkie-talkies. A numeric keypad was attached to the front of each radio set and when a particular number was pressed a light would flash on the remote set that corresponded to the number. The recipient of the paging signal could then respond to the caller using a pre-determined frequency so that the other users would not know about it.

Since the numbers on the keypad actually generated the same tones as those of a touch-tone telephone it occurred to us that instead of merely having a flashing light at the recipient`s end you could have a number appear corresponding to the number pressed on the keypad. If you could have one number appear you could have all numbers appear and in this way send a coded message. If the enemy was monitoring the airwaves all they would hear was a series of tones that would mean nothing.

Taking this a step further we realised that if you could send the tones by radio then they could also be sent by telephone, especially as the tones were intended for use on telephone systems. Ronnie put together a little microphone device that – when held on the earpiece of the receiving telephone – could display whatever number was pressed at the sending end. Using touch-tone telephones or separate tone pads as used for telephone banking services two people could send each other coded messages over the telephone. This could be done from public telephones, thus ensuring the safety of the users.

To avoid having to key in the numbers while in a telephone booth the tones could be recorded on a tape recorder at home and then played into the telephone. Similarly, at the receiving end, the tones could be recorded on a tape recorder and then decoded later. Messages could even be sent to an answering machine and picked up from an answering machine if left as the outgoing message.

We gave a few of these devices, disguised as electronic calculators, to activists to take back to South Africa. They were not immensely successful as the coding still had to be done by hand and that remained the chief factor discouraging people from communicating.

The next step was an attempt to marry the tone communication system with computer encryption. Ronnie got one of the boffins at the polytechnic to construct a device that produced the telephone tones at very high speed. This was attached to a computer that did the encryption. The computer, through the device, output the encrypted message as a series of tones and these could be saved on a cassette tape recorder that could be taken to a public telephone. This seemed to solve the problem of underground communications as everything could be done from public telephones and the encryption was done by computer.

Lots more operational details in the article.

Posted on December 26, 2013 at 6:44 AM43 Comments

NSA Spying: Whom Do You Believe?

On Friday, Reuters reported that RSA entered into a secret contract to make DUAL_EC_PRNG the default random number generator in the BSAFE toolkit. DUA_EC_PRNG is now known to have been backdoored by the NSA.

Yesterday, RSA denied it:

Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a “secret contract” with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation.

[…]

We made the decision to use Dual EC DRBG as the default in BSAFE toolkits in 2004, in the context of an industry-wide effort to develop newer, stronger methods of encryption. At that time, the NSA had a trusted role in the community-wide effort to strengthen, not weaken, encryption.

We know from both Mark Klein and Edward Snowden — and pretty much everything else about the NSA — that the NSA directly taps the trunk lines of AT&T (and pretty much every other telcom carrier). On Friday, AT&T denied that:

In its statement, AT&T sought to push back against the notion that it provides the government with such access. “We do not allow any government agency to connect directly to our network to gather, review or retrieve our customers’ information,” said Watts.

I’ve written before about how the NSA has corroded our trust in the Internet and communications technologies. The debates over these companies’ statements, and about exactly how they are using and abusing individual words to lie while claiming they are not lying, is a manifestation of that.

Me again:

This sort of thing can destroy our country. Trust is essential in our society. And if we can’t trust either our government or the corporations that have intimate access into so much of our lives, society suffers. Study after study demonstrates the value of living in a high-trust society and the costs of living in a low-trust one.

Rebuilding trust is not easy, as anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed by a friend or lover knows, but the path involves transparency, oversight and accountability. Transparency first involves coming clean. Not a little bit at a time, not only when you have to, but complete disclosure about everything. Then it involves continuing disclosure. No more secret rulings by secret courts about secret laws. No more secret programs whose costs and benefits remain hidden.

Oversight involves meaningful constraints on the NSA, the FBI and others. This will be a combination of things: a court system that acts as a third-party advocate for the rule of law rather than a rubber-stamp organization, a legislature that understands what these organizations are doing and regularly debates requests for increased power, and vibrant public-sector watchdog groups that analyze and debate the government’s actions.

Accountability means that those who break the law, lie to Congress or deceive the American people are held accountable. The NSA has gone rogue, and while it’s probably not possible to prosecute people for what they did under the enormous veil of secrecy it currently enjoys, we need to make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Accountability also means voting, which means voters need to know what our leaders are doing in our name.

This is the only way we can restore trust. A market economy doesn’t work unless consumers can make intelligent buying decisions based on accurate product information. That’s why we have agencies like the FDA, truth-in-packaging laws and prohibitions against false advertising.

We no longer know whom to trust. This is the greatest damage the NSA has done to the Internet, and will be the hardest to fix.

EDITED TO ADD (12/23): The requested removal of an NSA employee from an IETF group co-chairmanship is another manifestation of this mistrust.

Posted on December 23, 2013 at 6:26 AM77 Comments

Yes, I'm Leaving BT

The Register reported that I am leaving BT at the end of the year. It quoted BT as saying:

We hired Bruce because of his thought leadership in security and as part of our acquisition of Counterpane. We have agreed to part ways as we felt our relationship had run its course and come to a natural end. It has nothing to do with his recent blogs. We hired Bruce because of his thought leadership in security, not because we agree with everything he says. In fact, it’s his ability to challenge our assumptions that made him especially valuable to BT.

Yes, it’s true. And contrary to rumors, this has nothing to do with the NSA or GCHQ. No, BT wasn’t always happy with my writings on the topic, but it knew that I am an independent thinker and didn’t try to muzzle me in any way. I’m just ready to leave. I spent seven years at BT, and seven years at Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., before BT bought us. It’s past time for something new.

As to what comes next: answer cloudy; ask again later.

More news here. And a Slashdot and Hacker News thread.

Posted on December 20, 2013 at 2:31 PM36 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.