Blog: October 2019 Archives

WhatsApp Sues NSO Group

WhatsApp is suing the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group in California court:

WhatsApp’s lawsuit, filed in a California court on Tuesday, has demanded a permanent injunction blocking NSO from attempting to access WhatsApp computer systems and those of its parent company, Facebook.

It has also asked the court to rule that NSO violated US federal law and California state law against computer fraud, breached their contracts with WhatsApp and “wrongfully trespassed” on Facebook’s property.

This could be interesting.

EDITED TO ADD: Citizen Lab has a research paper in the technology involved in this case. WhatsApp has an op ed on their actions. And this is a good news article on how the attack worked.

EDITED TO ADD: Facebook is deleting the accounts of NSO Group employees.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Details on the vulnerability.

Posted on October 30, 2019 at 9:36 AM46 Comments

Former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker Chooses Encryption Over Backdoors

In an extraordinary essay, the former FBI general counsel Jim Baker makes the case for strong encryption over government-mandated backdoors:

In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities­ — including law enforcement­ — to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.


I am unaware of a technical solution that will effectively and simultaneously reconcile all of the societal interests at stake in the encryption debate, such as public safety, cybersecurity and privacy as well as simultaneously fostering innovation and the economic competitiveness of American companies in a global marketplace.


All public safety officials should think of protecting the cybersecurity of the United States as an essential part of their core mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And they should be doing so even if there will be real and painful costs associated with such a cybersecurity-forward orientation. The stakes are too high and our current cybersecurity situation too grave to adopt a different approach.

Basically, he argues that the security value of strong encryption greatly outweighs the security value of encryption that can be bypassed. He endorses a “defense dominant” strategy for Internet security.

Keep in mind that Baker led the FBI’s legal case against Apple regarding the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. In writing this piece, Baker joins the growing list of former law enforcement and national security senior officials who have come out in favor of strong encryption over backdoors: Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, Richard Clarke, Ash Carter, William Lynn, and Mike McConnell.

Edward Snowden also agrees.

EDITED TO ADD: Good commentary from Cory Doctorow.

Posted on October 28, 2019 at 6:22 AM42 Comments

Dark Web Site Taken Down without Breaking Encryption

The US Department of Justice unraveled a dark web child-porn website, leading to the arrest of 337 people in at least 18 countries. This was all accomplished not through any backdoors in communications systems, but by analyzing the bitcoin transactions and following the money:

Welcome to Video made money by charging fees in bitcoin, and gave each user a unique bitcoin wallet address when they created an account. Son operated the site as a Tor hidden service, a dark web site with a special address that helps mask the identity of the site’s host and its location. But Son and others made mistakes that allowed law enforcement to track them. For example, according to the indictment, very basic assessments of the Welcome to Video website revealed two unconcealed IP addresses managed by a South Korean internet service provider and assigned to an account that provided service to Son’s home address. When agents searched Son’s residence, they found the server running Welcome to Video.

To “follow the money,” as officials put it in Wednesday’s press conference, law enforcement agents sent fairly small amounts of bitcoin­ — roughly equivalent at the time to $125 to $290­ — to the bitcoin wallets Welcome to Video listed for payments. Since the bitcoin blockchain leaves all transactions visible and verifiable, they could observe the currency in these wallets being transferred to another wallet. Law enforcement learned from a bitcoin exchange that the second wallet was registered to Son with his personal phone number and one of his personal email addresses.

Remember this the next time some law enforcement official tells us that they’re powerless to investigate crime without breaking cryptography for everyone.

More news articles. The indictment is here. Some of it is pretty horrifying to read.

Posted on October 25, 2019 at 6:14 AM41 Comments

Mapping Security and Privacy Research across the Decades

This is really interesting: “A Data-Driven Reflection on 36 Years of Security and Privacy Research,” by Aniqua Baset and Tamara Denning:

Abstract: Meta-research—research about research—allows us, as a community, to examine trends in our research and make informed decisions regarding the course of our future research activities. Additionally, overviews of past research are particularly useful for researchers or conferences new to the field. In this work we use topic modeling to identify topics within the field of security and privacy research using the publications of the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy (1980-2015), the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (1993-2015), the USENIX Security Symposium (1993-2015), and the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (1997-2015). We analyze and present data via the perspective of topics trends and authorship. We believe our work serves to contextualize the academic field of computer security and privacy research via one of the first data-driven analyses. An interactive visualization of the topics and corresponding publications is available at

I like seeing how our field has morphed over the years.

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 6:21 AM11 Comments

NordVPN Breached

There was a successful attack against NordVPN:

Based on the command log, another of the leaked secret keys appeared to secure a private certificate authority that NordVPN used to issue digital certificates. Those certificates might be issued for other servers in NordVPN’s network or for a variety of other sensitive purposes. The name of the third certificate suggested it could also have been used for many different sensitive purposes, including securing the server that was compromised in the breach.

The revelations came as evidence surfaced suggesting that two rival VPN services, TorGuard and VikingVPN, also experienced breaches that leaked encryption keys. In a statement, TorGuard said a secret key for a transport layer security certificate for * was stolen. The theft happened in a 2017 server breach. The stolen data related to a squid proxy certificate.

TorGuard officials said on Twitter that the private key was not on the affected server and that attackers “could do nothing with those keys.” Monday’s statement went on to say TorGuard didn’t remove the compromised server until early 2018. TorGuard also said it learned of VPN breaches last May, “and in a related development we filed a legal complaint against NordVPN.”

The breach happened nineteen months ago, but the company is only just disclosing it to the public. We don’t know exactly what was stolen and how it affects VPN security. More details are needed.

VPNs are a shadowy world. We use them to protect our Internet traffic when we’re on a network we don’t trust, but we’re forced to trust the VPN instead. Recommendations are hard. NordVPN’s website says that the company is based in Panama. Do we have any reason to trust it at all?

I’m curious what VPNs others use, and why they should be believed to be trustworthy.

Posted on October 23, 2019 at 6:15 AM69 Comments

Public Voice Launches Petition for an International Moratorium on Using Facial Recognition for Mass Surveillance

Coming out of the Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in Albania, Public Voice is launching a petition for an international moratorium on using facial recognition software for mass surveillance.

You can sign on as an individual or an organization. I did. You should as well. No, I don’t think that countries will magically adopt this moratorium. But it’s important for us all to register our dissent.

Posted on October 22, 2019 at 10:12 AM23 Comments

Calculating the Benefits of the Advanced Encryption Standard

NIST has completed a study — it was published last year, but I just saw it recently — calculating the costs and benefits of the Advanced Encryption Standard.

From the conclusion:

The result of performing that operation on the series of cumulated benefits extrapolated for the 169 survey respondents finds that present value of benefits from today’s perspective is approximately $8.9 billion. On the other hand, the present value of NIST’s costs from today’s perspective is $127 million. Thus, the NPV from today’s perspective is $8,772,000,000; the B/C ratio is therefore 70.2/1; and a measure (explained in detail in Section 6.1) of the IRR for the alternative investment perspective is 31%; all are indicators of a substantial economic impact.

Extending the approach of looking back from 2017 to the larger national economy required the selection of economic sectors best represented by the 169 survey respondents. The economic sectors represented by ten or more survey respondents include the following: agriculture; construction; manufacturing; retail trade; transportation and warehousing; information; real estate rental and leasing; professional, scientific, and technical services; management services; waste management; educational services; and arts and entertainment. Looking at the present value of benefits and costs from 2017’s perspective for these economic sectors finds that the present value of benefits rises to approximately $251 billion while the present value of NIST’s costs from today’s perspective remains the same at $127 million. Therefore, the NPV of the benefits of the AES program to the national economy from today’s perspective is $250,473,200,000; the B/C ratio is roughly 1976/1; and the appropriate, alternative (explained in Section 6.1) IRR and investing proceeds at the social rate of return is 53.6%.

The report contains lots of facts and figures relevant to crypto policy debates, including the chaotic nature of crypto markets in the mid-1990s, the number of approved devices and libraries of various kinds since then, other standards that invoke AES, and so on.

There’s a lot to argue with about the methodology and the assumptions. I don’t know if I buy that the benefits of AES to the economy are in the billions of dollars, mostly because we in the cryptographic community would have come up with alternative algorithms to triple-DES that would have been accepted and used. Still, I like seeing this kind of analysis about security infrastructure. Security is an enabling technology; it doesn’t do anything by itself, but instead allows all sorts of things to be done. And I certainly agree that the benefits of a standardized encryption algorithm that we all trust and use outweigh the cost by orders of magnitude.

And this isn’t the first time NIST has conducted economic impact studies. It released a study of the economic impact of DES in 2001.

Posted on October 22, 2019 at 5:56 AM7 Comments

Why Technologists Need to Get Involved in Public Policy

Last month, I gave a 15-minute talk in London titled: “Why technologists need to get involved in public policy.”

In it, I try to make the case for public-interest technologists. (I also maintain a public-interest tech resources page, which has pretty much everything I can find in this space. If I’m missing something, please let me know.)

Boing Boing post.

EDITED TO ADD (10/29): Twitter summary.

Posted on October 18, 2019 at 2:38 PM13 Comments

Adding a Hardware Backdoor to a Networked Computer

Interesting proof of concept:

At the CS3sthlm security conference later this month, security researcher Monta Elkins will show how he created a proof-of-concept version of that hardware hack in his basement. He intends to demonstrate just how easily spies, criminals, or saboteurs with even minimal skills, working on a shoestring budget, can plant a chip in enterprise IT equipment to offer themselves stealthy backdoor access…. With only a $150 hot-air soldering tool, a $40 microscope, and some $2 chips ordered online, Elkins was able to alter a Cisco firewall in a way that he says most IT admins likely wouldn’t notice, yet would give a remote attacker deep control.

Posted on October 18, 2019 at 5:54 AM14 Comments

Using Machine Learning to Detect IP Hijacking

This is interesting research:

In a BGP hijack, a malicious actor convinces nearby networks that the best path to reach a specific IP address is through their network. That’s unfortunately not very hard to do, since BGP itself doesn’t have any security procedures for validating that a message is actually coming from the place it says it’s coming from.


To better pinpoint serial attacks, the group first pulled data from several years’ worth of network operator mailing lists, as well as historical BGP data taken every five minutes from the global routing table. From that, they observed particular qualities of malicious actors and then trained a machine-learning model to automatically identify such behaviors.

The system flagged networks that had several key characteristics, particularly with respect to the nature of the specific blocks of IP addresses they use:

  • Volatile changes in activity: Hijackers’ address blocks seem to disappear much faster than those of legitimate networks. The average duration of a flagged network’s prefix was under 50 days, compared to almost two years for legitimate networks.
  • Multiple address blocks: Serial hijackers tend to advertise many more blocks of IP addresses, also known as “network prefixes.”
  • IP addresses in multiple countries: Most networks don’t have foreign IP addresses. In contrast, for the networks that serial hijackers advertised that they had, they were much more likely to be registered in different countries and continents.

Note that this is much more likely to detect criminal attacks than nation-state activities. But it’s still good work.

Academic paper.

Posted on October 17, 2019 at 6:08 AM16 Comments

Cracking the Passwords of Early Internet Pioneers

Lots of them weren’t very good:

BSD co-inventor Dennis Ritchie, for instance, used “dmac” (his middle name was MacAlistair); Stephen R. Bourne, creator of the Bourne shell command line interpreter, chose “bourne”; Eric Schmidt, an early developer of Unix software and now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, relied on “wendy!!!” (the name of his wife); and Stuart Feldman, author of Unix automation tool make and the first Fortran compiler, used “axolotl” (the name of a Mexican salamander).

Weakest of all was the password for Unix contributor Brian W. Kernighan: “/.,/.,” representing a three-character string repeated twice using adjacent keys on a QWERTY keyboard. (None of the passwords included the quotation marks.)

I don’t remember any of my early passwords, but they probably weren’t much better.

Posted on October 15, 2019 at 10:38 AM82 Comments

Factoring 2048-bit Numbers Using 20 Million Qubits

This theoretical paper shows how to factor 2048-bit RSA moduli with a 20-million qubit quantum computer in eight hours. It’s interesting work, but I don’t want overstate the risk.

We know from Shor’s Algorithm that both factoring and discrete logs are easy to solve on a large, working quantum computer. Both of those are currently beyond our technological abilities. We barely have quantum computers with 50 to 100 qubits. Extending this requires advances not only in the number of qubits we can work with, but in making the system stable enough to read any answers. You’ll hear this called “error rate” or “coherence” — this paper talks about “noise.”

Advances are hard. At this point, we don’t know if they’re “send a man to the moon” hard or “faster-than-light travel” hard. If I were guessing, I would say they’re the former, but still harder than we can accomplish with our current understanding of physics and technology.

I write about all this generally, and in detail, here. (Short summary: Our work on quantum-resistant algorithms is outpacing our work on quantum computers, so we’ll be fine in the short run. But future theoretical work on quantum computing could easily change what “quantum resistant” means, so it’s possible that public-key cryptography will simply not be possible in the long run. That’s not terrible, though; we have a lot of good scalable secret-key systems that do much the same things.)

Posted on October 14, 2019 at 6:58 AM46 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Apple Fixes Squid Emoji

Apple fixed the squid emoji in iOS 13.1:

A squid’s siphon helps it move, breathe, and discharge waste, so having the siphon in back makes more sense than having it in front. Now, the poor squid emoji will look like it should, without a siphon on its front.

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

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on October 11, 2019 at 4:29 PM76 Comments

I Have a New Book: We Have Root

I just published my third collection of essays: We Have Root. This book covers essays from 2013 to 2017. (The first two are Schneier on Security and Carry On.)

There is nothing in this book is that is not available for free on my website; but if you’d like these essays in an easy-to-carry paperback book format, you can order a signed copy here. External vendor links, including for ebook versions, here.

Posted on October 11, 2019 at 2:34 PM4 Comments

Details on Uzbekistan Government Malware: SandCat

Kaspersky has uncovered an Uzbeki hacking operation, mostly due to incompetence on the part of the government hackers.

The group’s lax operational security includes using the name of a military group with ties to the SSS to register a domain used in its attack infrastructure; installing Kaspersky’s antivirus software on machines it uses to write new malware, allowing Kaspersky to detect and grab malicious code still in development before it’s deployed; and embedding a screenshot of one of its developer’s machines in a test file, exposing a major attack platform as it was in development. The group’s mistakes led Kaspersky to discover four zero-day exploits SandCat had purchased from third-party brokers to target victim machines, effectively rendering those exploits ineffective. And the mistakes not only allowed Kaspersky to track the Uzbek spy agency’s activity but also the activity of other nation-state groups in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who were using some of the same exploits SandCat was using.

Posted on October 11, 2019 at 6:14 AM24 Comments

New Reductor Nation-State Malware Compromises TLS

Kaspersky has a detailed blog post about a new piece of sophisticated malware that it’s calling Reductor. The malware is able to compromise TLS traffic by infecting the computer with hacked TLS engine substituted on the fly, “marking” infected TLS handshakes by compromising the underlining random-number generator, and adding new digital certificates. The result is that the attacker can identify, intercept, and decrypt TLS traffic from the infected computer.

The Kaspersky Attribution Engine shows strong code similarities between this family and the COMPfun Trojan. Moreover, further research showed that the original COMpfun Trojan most probably is used as a downloader in one of the distribution schemes. Based on these similarities, we’re quite sure the new malware was developed by the COMPfun authors.

The COMpfun malware was initially documented by G-DATA in 2014. Although G-DATA didn’t identify which actor was using this malware, Kaspersky tentatively linked it to the Turla APT, based on the victimology. Our telemetry indicates that the current campaign using Reductor started at the end of April 2019 and remained active at the time of writing (August 2019). We identified targets in Russia and Belarus.


Turla has in the past shown many innovative ways to accomplish its goals, such as using hijacked satellite infrastructure. This time, if we’re right that Turla is the actor behind this new wave of attacks, then with Reductor it has implemented a very interesting way to mark a host’s encrypted TLS traffic by patching the browser without parsing network packets. The victimology for this new campaign aligns with previous Turla interests.

We didn’t observe any MitM functionality in the analyzed malware samples. However, Reductor is able to install digital certificates and mark the targets’ TLS traffic. It uses infected installers for initial infection through HTTP downloads from warez websites. The fact the original files on these sites are not infected also points to evidence of subsequent traffic manipulation.

The attribution chain from Reductor to COMPfun to Turla is thin. Speculation is that the attacker behind all of this is Russia.

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 1:49 PM21 Comments

Wi-Fi Hotspot Tracking

Free Wi-Fi hotspots can track your location, even if you don’t connect to them. This is because your phone or computer broadcasts a unique MAC address.

What distinguishes location-based marketing hotspot providers like Zenreach and Euclid is that the personal information you enter in the captive portal­ — like your email address, phone number, or social media profile­ — can be linked to your laptop or smartphone’s Media Access Control (MAC) address. That’s the unique alphanumeric ID that devices broadcast when Wi-Fi is switched on.

As Euclid explains in its privacy policy, “…if you bring your mobile device to your favorite clothing store today that is a Location — ­and then a popular local restaurant a few days later that is also a Location­ — we may know that a mobile device was in both locations based on seeing the same MAC Address.”

MAC addresses alone don’t contain identifying information besides the make of a device, such as whether a smartphone is an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy. But as long as a device’s MAC address is linked to someone’s profile, and the device’s Wi-Fi is turned on, the movements of its owner can be followed by any hotspot from the same provider.

“After a user signs up, we associate their email address and other personal information with their device’s MAC address and with any location history we may previously have gathered (or later gather) for that device’s MAC address,” according to Zenreach’s privacy policy.

The defense is to turn Wi-Fi off on your phone when you’re not using it.

EDITED TO ADD: Note that the article is from 2018. Not that I think anything is different today….

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:49 AM35 Comments

Cheating at Professional Poker

Interesting story about someone who is almost certainly cheating at professional poker.

But then I start to see things that seem so obvious, but I wonder whether they aren’t just paranoia after hours and hours of digging into the mystery. Like the fact that he starts wearing a hat that has a strange bulge around the brim — one that vanishes after the game when he’s doing an interview in the booth. Is it a bone-conducting headset, as some online have suggested, sending him messages directly to his inner ear by vibrating on his skull? Of course it is! How could it be anything else? It’s so obvious! Or the fact that he keeps his keys in the same place on the table all the time. Could they contain a secret camera that reads electronic sensors on the cards? I can’t see any other possibility! It is all starting to make sense.

In the end, though, none of this additional evidence is even necessary. The gaggle of online Jim Garrisons have simply picked up more momentum than is required and they can’t stop themselves. The fact is, the mystery was solved a long time ago. It’s just like De Niro’s Ace Rothstein says in Casino when the yokel slot attendant gets hit for three jackpots in a row and tells his boss there was no way for him to know he was being scammed. “Yes there is,” Ace replies. “An infallible way. They won.” According to one poster on TwoPlusTwo, in 69 sessions on Stones Live, Postle has won in 62 of them, for a profit of over $250,000 in 277 hours of play. Given that he plays such a large number of hands, and plays such an erratic and, by his own admission, high-variance style, one would expect to see more, well, variance. His results just aren’t possible even for the best players in the world, which, if he isn’t cheating, he definitely is among. Add to this the fact that it has been alleged that Postle doesn’t play in other nonstreamed live games at Stones, or anywhere else in the Sacramento area, and hasn’t been known to play in any sizable no-limit games anywhere in a long time, and that he always picks up his chips and leaves as soon as the livestream ends. I don’t really need any more evidence than that. If you know poker players, you know that this is the most damning evidence against him. Poker players like to play poker. If any of the poker players I know had the win rate that Mike Postle has, you’d have to pry them up from the table with a crowbar. The guy is making nearly a thousand dollars an hour! He should be wearing adult diapers so he doesn’t have to take a bathroom break and cost himself $250.

This isn’t the first time someone has been accused of cheating because they are simply playing significantly better than computer simulations predict that even the best player would play.

News article. Boing Boing post

Posted on October 9, 2019 at 12:26 PM26 Comments

Illegal Data Center Hidden in Former NATO Bunker


German investigators said Friday they have shut down a data processing center installed in a former NATO bunker that hosted sites dealing in drugs and other illegal activities. Seven people were arrested.


Thirteen people aged 20 to 59 are under investigation in all, including three German and seven Dutch citizens, Brauer said.

Authorities arrested seven of them, citing the danger of flight and collusion. They are suspected of membership in a criminal organization because of a tax offense, as well as being accessories to hundreds of thousands of offenses involving drugs, counterfeit money and forged documents, and accessories to the distribution of child pornography. Authorities didn’t name any of the suspects.

The data center was set up as what investigators described as a “bulletproof hoster,” meant to conceal illicit activities from authorities’ eyes.

Investigators say the platforms it hosted included “Cannabis Road,” a drug-dealing portal; the “Wall Street Market,” which was one of the world’s largest online criminal marketplaces for drugs, hacking tools and financial-theft wares until it was taken down earlier this year; and sites such as “Orange Chemicals” that dealt in synthetic drugs. A botnet attack on German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom in late 2016 that knocked out about 1 million customers’ routers also appears to have come from the data center in Traben-Trarbach, Brauer said.

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): This is a better article.

Posted on October 9, 2019 at 6:34 AM10 Comments

Speakers Censored at AISA Conference in Melbourne

Two speakers were censored at the Australian Information Security Association’s annual conference this week in Melbourne. Thomas Drake, former NSA employee and whistleblower, was scheduled to give a talk on the golden age of surveillance, both government and corporate. Suelette Dreyfus, lecturer at the University of Melbourne, was scheduled to give a talk on her work — funded by the EU government — on anonymous whistleblowing technologies like SecureDrop and how they reduce corruption in countries where that is a problem.

Both were put on the program months ago. But just before the event, the Australian government’s ACSC (the Australian Cyber Security Centre) demanded they both be removed from the program.

It’s really kind of stupid. Australia has been benefiting a lot from whistleblowers in recent years — exposing corruption and bad behavior on the part of the government — and the government doesn’t like it. It’s cracking down on the whistleblowers and reporters who write their stories. My guess is that someone high up in ACSC saw the word “whistleblower” in the descriptions of those two speakers and talks and panicked.

You can read details of their talks, including abstracts and slides, here. Of course, now everyone is writing about the story. The two censored speakers spent a lot of the day yesterday on the phone with reporters, and they have a bunch of TV and radio interviews today.

I am at this conference, speaking on Wednesday morning (today in Australia, as I write this). ACSC used to have its own government cybersecurity conference. This is the first year it combined with AISA. I hope it’s the last. And that AISA invites the two speakers back next year to give their censored talks.

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): More on the censored talks, and my comments from the stage at the conference.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on October 8, 2019 at 5:15 PM26 Comments

New Unpatchable iPhone Exploit Allows Jailbreaking

A new iOS exploit allows jailbreaking of pretty much all version of the iPhone. This is a huge deal for Apple, but at least it doesn’t allow someone to remotely hack people’s phones.

Some details:

I wanted to learn how Checkm8 will shape the iPhone experience­ — particularly as it relates to security­ — so I spoke at length with axi0mX on Friday. Thomas Reed, director of Mac offerings at security firm Malwarebytes, joined me. The takeaways from the long-ranging interview are:

  • Checkm8 requires physical access to the phone. It can’t be remotely executed, even if combined with other exploits.
  • The exploit allows only tethered jailbreaks, meaning it lacks persistence. The exploit must be run each time an iDevice boots.
  • Checkm8 doesn’t bypass the protections offered by the Secure Enclave and Touch ID.
  • All of the above means people will be able to use Checkm8 to install malware only under very limited circumstances. The above also means that Checkm8 is unlikely to make it easier for people who find, steal or confiscate a vulnerable iPhone, but don’t have the unlock PIN, to access the data stored on it.
  • Checkm8 is going to benefit researchers, hobbyists, and hackers by providing a way not seen in almost a decade to access the lowest levels of iDevices.


“The main people who are likely to benefit from this are security researchers, who are using their own phone in controlled conditions. This process allows them to gain more control over the phone and so improves visibility into research on iOS or other apps on the phone,” Wood says. “For normal users, this is unlikely to have any effect, there are too many extra hurdles currently in place that they would have to get over to do anything significant.”

If a regular person with no prior knowledge of jailbreaking wanted to use this exploit to jailbreak their iPhone, they would find it extremely difficult, simply because Checkm8 just gives you access to the exploit, but not a jailbreak in itself. It’s also a ‘tethered exploit’, meaning that the jailbreak can only be triggered when connected to a computer via USB and will become untethered once the device restarts.

Posted on October 8, 2019 at 5:24 AM16 Comments

Edward Snowden's Memoirs

Ed Snowden has published a book of his memoirs: Permanent Record. I have not read it yet, but I want to point you all towards two pieces of writing about the book. The first is an excellent review of the book and Snowden in general by SF writer and essayist Jonathan Lethem, who helped make a short film about Snowden in 2014. The second is an essay looking back at the Snowden revelations and what they mean. Both are worth reading.

As to the book, there are lots of other reviews.

The US government has sued to seize Snowden’s royalties from book sales.

EDITED TO ADD (11/7): Interesting quote from the Guardian piece:

Snowden dishes on the shortcomings of our spy networks. According to him, the National Security Agency (NSA) is home to cutting-edge technology that is poorly safeguarded. In contrast, the CIA is weak on gadgetry and tech but zealous in protecting its secrets.

Posted on October 7, 2019 at 6:53 AM78 Comments

More Cryptanalysis of Solitaire

In 1999, I invented the Solitaire encryption algorithm, designed to manually encrypt data using a deck of cards. It was written into the plot of Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, and I even wrote an afterward to the book describing the cipher.

I don’t talk about it much, mostly because I made a dumb mistake that resulted in the algorithm not being reversible. Still, for the short message lengths you’re likely to use a manual cipher for, it’s still secure and will likely remain secure.

Here’s some new cryptanalysis:

Abstract: The Solitaire cipher was designed by Bruce Schneier as a plot point in the novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The cipher is intended to fit the archetype of a modern stream cipher whilst being implementable by hand using a standard deck of cards with two jokers. We find a model for repetitions in the keystream in the stream cipher Solitaire that accounts for the large majority of the repetition bias. Other phenomena merit further investigation. We have proposed modifications to the cipher that would reduce the repetition bias, but at the cost of increasing the complexity of the cipher (probably beyond the goal of allowing manual implementation). We have argued that the state update function is unlikely to lead to cycles significantly shorter than those of a random bijection.

Posted on October 4, 2019 at 12:04 PM15 Comments

Measuring the Security of IoT Devices

In August, CyberITL completed a large-scale survey of software security practices in the IoT environment, by looking at the compiled software.

Data Collected:

  • 22 Vendors
  • 1,294 Products
  • 4,956 Firmware versions
  • 3,333,411 Binaries analyzed
  • Date range of data: 2003-03-24 to 2019-01-24 (varies by vendor, most up to 2018 releases)


This dataset contains products such as home routers, enterprise equipment, smart cameras, security devices, and more. It represents a wide range of either found in the home, enterprise or government deployments.

Vendors are Asus, Belkin, DLink, Linksys, Moxa, Tenda, Trendnet, and Ubiquiti.

CyberITL’s methodology is not source code analysis. They look at the actual firmware. And they don’t look for vulnerabilities; they look for secure coding practices that indicate that the company is taking security seriously, and whose lack pretty much guarantees that there will be vulnerabilities. These include address space layout randomization and stack guards.

A summary of their results.

CITL identified a number of important takeaways from this study:

  • On average, updates were more likely to remove hardening features than add them.
  • Within our 15 year data set, there have been no positive trends from any one vendor.
  • MIPS is both the most common CPU architecture and least hardened on average.
  • There are a large number of duplicate binaries across multiple vendors, indicating a common build system or toolchain.

Their website contains the raw data.

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 6:28 AM34 Comments

New Research into Russian Malware

There’s some interesting new research about Russian APT malware:

The Russian government has fostered competition among the three agencies, which operate independently from one another, and compete for funds. This, in turn, has resulted in each group developing and hoarding its tools, rather than sharing toolkits with their counterparts, a common sight among Chinese and North Korean state-sponsored hackers.

“Every actor or organization under the Russain APT umbrella has its own dedicated malware development teams, working for years in parallel on similar malware toolkits and frameworks,” researchers said.

“While each actor does reuse its code in different operations and between different malware families, there is no single tool, library or framework that is shared between different actors.”

Researchers say these findings suggest that Russia’s cyber-espionage apparatus is investing a lot of effort into its operational security.

“By avoiding different organizations re-using the same tools on a wide range of targets, they overcome the risk that one compromised operation will expose other active operations,” researchers said.

This is no different from the US. The NSA malware released by the Shadow Brokers looked nothing like the CIA “Vault 7” malware released by WikiLeaks.

The work was done by Check Point and Intezer Labs. They have a website with an interactive map.

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 8:00 AM8 Comments

NSA on the Future of National Cybersecurity

Glenn Gerstell, the General Counsel of the NSA, wrote a long and interesting op-ed for the New York Times where he outlined a long list of cyber risks facing the US.

There are four key implications of this revolution that policymakers in the national security sector will need to address:

The first is that the unprecedented scale and pace of technological change will outstrip our ability to effectively adapt to it. Second, we will be in a world of ceaseless and pervasive cyberinsecurity and cyberconflict against nation-states, businesses and individuals. Third, the flood of data about human and machine activity will put such extraordinary economic and political power in the hands of the private sector that it will transform the fundamental relationship, at least in the Western world, between government and the private sector. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the digital revolution has the potential for a pernicious effect on the very legitimacy and thus stability of our governmental and societal structures.

He then goes on to explain these four implications. It’s all interesting, and it’s the sort of stuff you don’t generally hear from the NSA. He talks about technological changes causing social changes, and the need for people who understand that. (Hooray for public-interest technologists.) He talks about national security infrastructure in private hands, at least in the US. He talks about a massive geopolitical restructuring — a fundamental change in the relationship between private tech corporations and government. He talks about recalibrating the Fourth Amendment (of course).

The essay is more about the problems than the solutions, but there is a bit at the end:

The first imperative is that our national security agencies must quickly accept this forthcoming reality and embrace the need for significant changes to address these challenges. This will have to be done in short order, since the digital revolution’s pace will soon outstrip our ability to deal with it, and it will have to be done at a time when our national security agencies are confronted with complex new geopolitical threats.

Much of what needs to be done is easy to see — developing the requisite new technologies and attracting and retaining the expertise needed for that forthcoming reality. What is difficult is executing the solution to those challenges, most notably including whether our nation has the resources and political will to effect that solution. The roughly $60 billion our nation spends annually on the intelligence community might have to be significantly increased during a time of intense competition over the federal budget. Even if the amount is indeed so increased, spending additional vast sums to meet the challenges in an effective way will be a daunting undertaking. Fortunately, the same digital revolution that presents these novel challenges also sometimes provides the new tools (A.I., for example) to deal with them.

The second imperative is we must adapt to the unavoidable conclusion that the fundamental relationship between government and the private sector will be greatly altered. The national security agencies must have a vital role in reshaping that balance if they are to succeed in their mission to protect our democracy and keep our citizens safe. While there will be good reasons to increase the resources devoted to the intelligence community, other factors will suggest that an increasing portion of the mission should be handled by the private sector. In short, addressing the challenges will not necessarily mean that the national security sector will become massively large, with the associated risks of inefficiency, insufficient coordination and excessively intrusive surveillance and data retention.

A smarter approach would be to recognize that as the capabilities of the private sector increase, the scope of activities of the national security agencies could become significantly more focused, undertaking only those activities in which government either has a recognized advantage or must be the only actor. A greater burden would then be borne by the private sector.

It’s an extraordinary essay, less for its contents and more for the speaker. This is not the sort of thing the NSA publishes. The NSA doesn’t opine on broad technological trends and their social implications. It doesn’t publicly try to predict the future. It doesn’t philosophize for 6000 unclassified words. And, given how hard it would be to get something like this approved for public release, I am left to wonder what the purpose of the essay is. Is the NSA trying to lay the groundwork for some policy initiative ? Some legislation? A budget request? What?

Charlie Warzel has a snarky response. His conclusion about the purpose:

He argues that the piece “is not in the spirit of forecasting doom, but rather to sound an alarm.” Translated: Congress, wake up. Pay attention. We’ve seen the future and it is a sweaty, pulsing cyber night terror. So please give us money (the word “money” doesn’t appear in the text, but the word “resources” appears eight times and “investment” shows up 11 times).

Susan Landau has a more considered response, which is well worth reading. She calls the essay a proposal for a moonshot (which is another way of saying “they want money”). And she has some important pushbacks on the specifics.

I don’t expect the general counsel and I will agree on what the answers to these questions should be. But I strongly concur on the importance of the questions and that the United States does not have time to waste in responding to them. And I thank him for raising these issues in so public a way.

I agree with Landau.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on October 1, 2019 at 6:54 AM37 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.