Blog: February 2021 Archives

The Problem with Treating Data as a Commodity

Excellent Brookings paper: “Why data ownership is the wrong approach to protecting privacy.”

From the introduction:

Treating data like it is property fails to recognize either the value that varieties of personal information serve or the abiding interest that individuals have in their personal information even if they choose to “sell” it. Data is not a commodity. It is information. Any system of information rights­ — whether patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property, or privacy rights — ­presents some tension with strong interest in the free flow of information that is reflected by the First Amendment. Our personal information is in demand precisely because it has value to others and to society across a myriad of uses.

From the conclusion:

Privacy legislation should empower individuals through more layered and meaningful transparency and individual rights to know, correct, and delete personal information in databases held by others. But relying entirely on individual control will not do enough to change a system that is failing individuals, and trying to reinforce control with a property interest is likely to fail society as well. Rather than trying to resolve whether personal information belongs to individuals or to the companies that collect it, a baseline federal privacy law should directly protect the abiding interest that individuals have in that information and also enable the social benefits that flow from sharing information.

Posted on February 26, 2021 at 6:28 AM35 Comments

On Chinese-Owned Technology Platforms

I am a co-author on a report published by the Hoover Institution: “Chinese Technology Platforms Operating in the United States.” From a blog post:

The report suggests a comprehensive framework for understanding and assessing the risks posed by Chinese technology platforms in the United States and developing tailored responses. It starts from the common view of the signatories — one reflected in numerous publicly available threat assessments — that China’s power is growing, that a large part of that power is in the digital sphere, and that China can and will wield that power in ways that adversely affect our national security. However, the specific threats and risks posed by different Chinese technologies vary, and effective policies must start with a targeted understanding of the nature of risks and an assessment of the impact US measures will have on national security and competitiveness. The goal of the paper is not to specifically quantify the risk of any particular technology, but rather to analyze the various threats, put them into context, and offer a framework for assessing proposed responses in ways that the signatories hope can aid those doing the risk analysis in individual cases.

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 6:19 AM22 Comments

Twelve-Year-Old Vulnerability Found in Windows Defender

Researchers found, and Microsoft has patched, a vulnerability in Windows Defender that has been around for twelve years. There is no evidence that anyone has used the vulnerability during that time.

The flaw, discovered by researchers at the security firm SentinelOne, showed up in a driver that Windows Defender — renamed Microsoft Defender last year — uses to delete the invasive files and infrastructure that malware can create. When the driver removes a malicious file, it replaces it with a new, benign one as a sort of placeholder during remediation. But the researchers discovered that the system doesn’t specifically verify that new file. As a result, an attacker could insert strategic system links that direct the driver to overwrite the wrong file or even run malicious code.

It isn’t unusual that vulnerabilities lie around for this long. They can’t be fixed until someone finds them, and people aren’t always looking.

Posted on February 24, 2021 at 6:19 AM33 Comments

Dependency Confusion: Another Supply-Chain Vulnerability

Alex Birsan writes about being able to install malware into proprietary corporate software by naming public code files the same as internal code files. From a ZDNet article:

Today, developers at small or large companies use package managers to download and import libraries that are then assembled together using build tools to create a final app.

This app can be offered to the company’s customers or can be used internally at the company as an employee tool.

But some of these apps can also contain proprietary or highly-sensitive code, depending on their nature. For these apps, companies will often use private libraries that they store inside a private (internal) package repository, hosted inside the company’s own network.

When apps are built, the company’s developers will mix these private libraries with public libraries downloaded from public package portals like npm, PyPI, NuGet, or others.

[…]

Researchers showed that if an attacker learns the names of private libraries used inside a company’s app-building process, they could register these names on public package repositories and upload public libraries that contain malicious code.

The “dependency confusion” attack takes place when developers build their apps inside enterprise environments, and their package manager prioritizes the (malicious) library hosted on the public repository instead of the internal library with the same name.

The research team said they put this discovery to the test by searching for situations where big tech firms accidentally leaked the names of various internal libraries and then registered those same libraries on package repositories like npm, RubyGems, and PyPI.

Using this method, researchers said they successfully loaded their (non-malicious) code inside apps used by 35 major tech firms, including the likes of Apple, Microsoft, PayPal, Shopify, Netflix, Yelp, Uber, and others.

Clever attack, and one that has netted him $130K in bug bounties.

More news articles.

Posted on February 23, 2021 at 6:18 AM23 Comments

GPS Vulnerabilities

Really good op-ed in the New York Times about how vulnerable the GPS system is to interference, spoofing, and jamming — and potential alternatives.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included funding for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation to jointly conduct demonstrations of various alternatives to GPS, which were concluded last March. Eleven potential systems were tested, including eLoran, a low-frequency, high-power timing and navigation system transmitted from terrestrial towers at Coast Guard facilities throughout the United States.

“China, Russia, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia all have eLoran systems because they don’t want to be as vulnerable as we are to disruptions of signals from space,” said Dana Goward, the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the implementation of an eLoran backup for GPS.

Also under consideration by federal authorities are timing systems delivered via fiber optic network and satellite systems in a lower orbit than GPS, which therefore have a stronger signal, making them harder to hack. A report on the technologies was submitted to Congress last week.

GPS is a piece of our critical infrastructure that is essential to a lot of the rest of our critical infrastructure. It needs to be more secure.

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 6:17 AM14 Comments

Router Security

This report is six months old, and I don’t know anything about the organization that produced it, but it has some alarming data about router security.

Conclusion: Our analysis showed that Linux is the most used OS running on more than 90% of the devices. However, many routers are powered by very old versions of Linux. Most devices are still powered with a 2.6 Linux kernel, which is no longer maintained for many years. This leads to a high number of critical and high severity CVEs affecting these devices.

Since Linux is the most used OS, exploit mitigation techniques could be enabled very easily. Anyhow, they are used quite rarely by most vendors except the NX feature.

A published private key provides no security at all. Nonetheless, all but one vendor spread several private keys in almost all firmware images.

Mirai used hard-coded login credentials to infect thousands of embedded devices in the last years. However, hard-coded credentials can be found in many of the devices and some of them are well known or at least easy crackable.

However, we can tell for sure that the vendors prioritize security differently. AVM does better job than the other vendors regarding most aspects. ASUS and Netgear do a better job in some aspects than D-Link, Linksys, TP-Link and Zyxel.

Additionally, our evaluation showed that large scale automated security analysis of embedded devices is possible today utilizing just open source software. To sum it up, our analysis shows that there is no router without flaws and there is no vendor who does a perfect job regarding all security aspects. Much more effort is needed to make home routers as secure as current desktop of server systems.

One comment on the report:

One-third ship with Linux kernel version 2.6.36 was released in October 2010. You can walk into a store today and buy a brand new router powered by software that’s almost 10 years out of date! This outdated version of the Linux kernel has 233 known security vulnerabilities registered in the Common Vulnerability and Exposures (CVE) database. The average router contains 26 critically-rated security vulnerabilities, according to the study.

We know the reasons for this. Most routers are designed offshore, by third parties, and then private labeled and sold by the vendors you’ve heard of. Engineering teams come together, design and build the router, and then disperse. There’s often no one around to write patches, and most of the time router firmware isn’t even patchable. The way to update your home router is to throw it away and buy a new one.

And this paper demonstrates that even the new ones aren’t likely to be secure.

Posted on February 19, 2021 at 6:00 AM25 Comments

Browser Tracking Using Favicons

Interesting research on persistent web tracking using favicons. (For those who don’t know, favicons are those tiny icons that appear in browser tabs next to the page name.)

Abstract: The privacy threats of online tracking have garnered considerable attention in recent years from researchers and practitioners alike. This has resulted in users becoming more privacy-cautious and browser vendors gradually adopting countermeasures to mitigate certain forms of cookie-based and cookie-less tracking. Nonetheless, the complexity and feature-rich nature of modern browsers often lead to the deployment of seemingly innocuous functionality that can be readily abused by adversaries. In this paper we introduce a novel tracking mechanism that misuses a simple yet ubiquitous browser feature: favicons. In more detail, a website can track users across browsing sessions by storing a tracking identifier as a set of entries in the browser’s dedicated favicon cache, where each entry corresponds to a specific subdomain. In subsequent user visits the website can reconstruct the identifier by observing which favicons are requested by the browser while the user is automatically and rapidly redirected through a series of subdomains. More importantly, the caching of favicons in modern browsers exhibits several unique characteristics that render this tracking vector particularly powerful, as it is persistent (not affected by users clearing their browser data), non-destructive (reconstructing the identifier in subsequent visits does not alter the existing combination of cached entries), and even crosses the isolation of the incognito mode. We experimentally evaluate several aspects of our attack, and present a series of optimization techniques that render our attack practical. We find that combining our favicon-based tracking technique with immutable browser-fingerprinting attributes that do not change over time allows a website to reconstruct a 32-bit tracking identifier in 2 seconds. Furthermore,our attack works in all major browsers that use a favicon cache, including Chrome and Safari. Due to the severity of our attack we propose changes to browsers’ favicon caching behavior that can prevent this form of tracking, and have disclosed our findings to browser vendors who are currently exploring appropriate mitigation strategies.

Another researcher has implemented this proof of concept:

Strehle has set up a website that demonstrates how easy it is to track a user online using a favicon. He said it’s for research purposes, has released his source code online, and detailed a lengthy explanation of how supercookies work on his website.

The scariest part of the favicon vulnerability is how easily it bypasses traditional methods people use to keep themselves private online. According to Strehle, the supercookie bypasses the “private” mode of Chrome, Safari, Edge, and Firefox. Clearing your cache, surfing behind a VPN, or using an ad-blocker won’t stop a malicious favicon from tracking you.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): There was an issue about whether this paper was inappropriately disclosed, and it was briefly deleted from the NDSS website. It was later put back with a prefatory note from the NDSS.

Posted on February 17, 2021 at 6:05 AM27 Comments

Malicious Barcode Scanner App

Interesting story about a barcode scanner app that has been pushing malware on to Android phones. The app is called Barcode Scanner. It’s been around since 2017 and is owned by the Ukrainian company Lavabird Ldt. But a December 2020 update included some new features:

However, a rash of malicious activity was recently traced back to the app. Users began noticing something weird going on with their phones: their default browsers kept getting hijacked and redirected to random advertisements, seemingly out of nowhere.

Generally, when this sort of thing happens it’s because the app was recently sold. That’s not the case here.

It is frightening that with one update an app can turn malicious while going under the radar of Google Play Protect. It is baffling to me that an app developer with a popular app would turn it into malware. Was this the scheme all along, to have an app lie dormant, waiting to strike after it reaches popularity? I guess we will never know.

Posted on February 16, 2021 at 6:13 AM28 Comments

Deliberately Playing Copyrighted Music to Avoid Being Live-Streamed

Vice is reporting on a new police hack: playing copyrighted music when being filmed by citizens, trying to provoke social media sites into taking the videos down and maybe even banning the filmers:

In a separate part of the video, which Devermont says was filmed later that same afternoon, Devermont approaches [BHPD Sgt. Billy] Fair outside. The interaction plays out almost exactly like it did in the department — when Devermont starts asking questions, Fair turns on the music.

Devermont backs away, and asks him to stop playing music. Fair says “I can’t hear you” — again, despite holding a phone that is blasting tunes.

Later, Fair starts berating Devermont’s livestreaming account, saying “I read the comments [on your account], they talk about how fake you are.” He then holds out his phone, which is still on full blast, and walks toward Devermont, saying “Listen to the music”.

In a statement emailed to VICE News, Beverly Hills PD said that “the playing of music while accepting a complaint or answering questions is not a procedure that has been recommended by Beverly Hills Police command staff,” and that the videos of Fair were “currently under review.”

However, this is not the first time that a Beverly Hills police officer has done this, nor is Fair the only one.

In an archived clip from a livestream shared privately to VICE Media that Devermont has not publicly reposted but he says was taken weeks ago, another officer can be seen quickly swiping through his phone as Devermont approaches. By the time Devermont is close enough to speak to him, the officer’s phone is already blasting “In My Life” by the Beatles — a group whose rightsholders have notoriously sued Apple numerous times. If you want to get someone in trouble for copyright infringement, the Beatles are quite possibly your best bet.

As Devermont asks about the music, the officer points the phone at him, asking, “Do you like it?”

Clever, really, and an illustration of the problem with context-free copyright enforcement.

Posted on February 15, 2021 at 1:11 PM16 Comments

On Vulnerability-Adjacent Vulnerabilities

At the virtual Enigma Conference, Google’s Project Zero’s Maggie Stone gave a talk about zero-day exploits in the wild. In it, she talked about how often vendors fix vulnerabilities only to have the attackers tweak their exploits to work again. From a MIT Technology Review article:

Soon after they were spotted, the researchers saw one exploit being used in the wild. Microsoft issued a patch and fixed the flaw, sort of. In September 2019, another similar vulnerability was found being exploited by the same hacking group.

More discoveries in November 2019, January 2020, and April 2020 added up to at least five zero-day vulnerabilities being exploited from the same bug class in short order. Microsoft issued multiple security updates: some failed to actually fix the vulnerability being targeted, while others required only slight changes that required just a line or two to change in the hacker’s code to make the exploit work again.

[…]

“What we saw cuts across the industry: Incomplete patches are making it easier for attackers to exploit users with zero-days,” Stone said on Tuesday at the security conference Enigma. “We’re not requiring attackers to come up with all new bug classes, develop brand new exploitation, look at code that has never been researched before. We’re allowing the reuse of lots of different vulnerabilities that we previously knew about.”

[…]

Why aren’t they being fixed? Most of the security teams working at software companies have limited time and resources, she suggests — and if their priorities and incentives are flawed, they only check that they’ve fixed the very specific vulnerability in front of them instead of addressing the bigger problems at the root of many vulnerabilities.

Another article on the talk.

This is an important insight. It’s not enough to patch existing vulnerabilities. We need to make it harder for attackers to find new vulnerabilities to exploit. Closing entire families of vulnerabilities, rather than individual vulnerabilities one at a time, is a good way to do that.

Posted on February 15, 2021 at 6:14 AM20 Comments

Chinese Supply-Chain Attack on Computer Systems

Bloomberg News has a major story about the Chinese hacking computer motherboards made by Supermicro, Levono, and others. It’s been going on since at least 2008. The US government has known about it for almost as long, and has tried to keep the attack secret:

China’s exploitation of products made by Supermicro, as the U.S. company is known, has been under federal scrutiny for much of the past decade, according to 14 former law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the matter. That included an FBI counterintelligence investigation that began around 2012, when agents started monitoring the communications of a small group of Supermicro workers, using warrants obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to five of the officials.

There’s lots of detail in the article, and I recommend that you read it through.

This is a follow on, with a lot more detail, to a story Bloomberg reported on in fall 2018. I didn’t believe the story back then, writing:

I don’t think it’s real. Yes, it’s plausible. But first of all, if someone actually surreptitiously put malicious chips onto motherboards en masse, we would have seen a photo of the alleged chip already. And second, there are easier, more effective, and less obvious ways of adding backdoors to networking equipment.

I seem to have been wrong. From the current Bloomberg story:

Mike Quinn, a cybersecurity executive who served in senior roles at Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., said he was briefed about added chips on Supermicro motherboards by officials from the U.S. Air Force. Quinn was working for a company that was a potential bidder for Air Force contracts, and the officials wanted to ensure that any work would not include Supermicro equipment, he said. Bloomberg agreed not to specify when Quinn received the briefing or identify the company he was working for at the time.

“This wasn’t a case of a guy stealing a board and soldering a chip on in his hotel room; it was architected onto the final device,” Quinn said, recalling details provided by Air Force officials. The chip “was blended into the trace on a multilayered board,” he said.

“The attackers knew how that board was designed so it would pass” quality assurance tests, Quinn said.

Supply-chain attacks are the flavor of the moment, it seems. But they’re serious, and very hard to defend against in our deeply international IT industry. (I have repeatedly called this an “insurmountable problem.”) Here’s me in 2018:

Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn’t an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can’t trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government.

We need some fundamental security research here. I wrote this in 2019:

The other solution is to build a secure system, even though any of its parts can be subverted. This is what the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon meant in April when she said about 5G, “You have to presume a dirty network.” Or more precisely, can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the Internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

It seems that supply-chain attacks are constantly in the news right now. That’s good. They’ve been a serious problem for a long time, and we need to take the threat seriously. For further reading, I strongly recommend this Atlantic Council report from last summer: “Breaking trust: Shades of crisis across an insecure software supply chain.

Posted on February 13, 2021 at 9:41 AM45 Comments

Medieval Security Techniques

Sonja Drummer describes (with photographs) two medieval security techniques. The first is a for authentication: a document has been cut in half with an irregular pattern, so that the two halves can be brought together to prove authenticity. The second is for integrity: hashed lines written above and below a block of text ensure that no one can add additional text at a later date.

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 2:05 PM22 Comments

Attack against Florida Water Treatment Facility

A water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida, was attacked last Friday. The attacker took control of one of the systems, and increased the amount of sodium hydroxide — that’s lye — by a factor of 100. This could have been fatal to people living downstream, if an alert operator hadn’t noticed the change and reversed it.

We don’t know who is behind this attack. Despite its similarities to a Russian attack of a Ukrainian power plant in 2015, my bet is that it’s a disgruntled insider: either a current or former employee. It just doesn’t make sense for Russia to be behind this.

ArsTechnica is reporting on the poor cybersecurity at the plant:

The Florida water treatment facility whose computer system experienced a potentially hazardous computer breach last week used an unsupported version of Windows with no firewall and shared the same TeamViewer password among its employees, government officials have reported.

Brian Krebs points out that the fact that we know about this attack is what’s rare:

Spend a few minutes searching Twitter, Reddit or any number of other social media sites and you’ll find countless examples of researchers posting proof of being able to access so-called “human-machine interfaces” — basically web pages designed to interact remotely with various complex systems, such as those that monitor and/or control things like power, water, sewage and manufacturing plants.

And yet, there have been precious few known incidents of malicious hackers abusing this access to disrupt these complex systems. That is, until this past Monday, when Florida county sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a remarkably clear-headed and fact-filled news conference about an attempt to poison the water supply of Oldsmar, a town of around 15,000 not far from Tampa.

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 6:08 AM23 Comments

Ransomware Profitability

Analyzing cryptocurrency data, a research group has estimated a lower-bound on 2020 ransomware revenue: $350 million, four times more than in 2019.

Based on the company’s data, among last year’s top earners, there were groups like Ryuk, Maze (now-defunct), Doppelpaymer, Netwalker (disrupted by authorities), Conti, and REvil (aka Sodinokibi).

Ransomware is now an established worldwide business.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on February 10, 2021 at 7:39 AM11 Comments

Web Credit Card Skimmer Steals Data from Another Credit Card Skimmer

MalwareBytes is reporting a weird software credit card skimmer. It harvests credit card data stolen by another, different skimmer:

Even though spotting multiple card skimmer scripts on the same online shop is not unheard of, this one stood out due to its highly specialized nature.

“The threat actors devised a version of their script that is aware of sites already injected with a Magento 1 skimmer,” Malwarebytes’ Head of Threat Intelligence Jérôme Segura explains in a report shared in advance with Bleeping Computer.

“That second skimmer will simply harvest credit card details from the already existing fake form injected by the previous attackers.”

Posted on February 9, 2021 at 6:01 AM11 Comments

SonicWall Zero-Day

Hackers are exploiting a zero-day in SonicWall:

In an email, an NCC Group spokeswoman wrote: “Our team has observed signs of an attempted exploitation of a vulnerabilitythat affects the SonicWall SMA 100 series devices. We are working closely with SonicWall to investigate this in more depth.”

In Monday’s update, SonicWall representatives said the company’s engineering team confirmed that the submission by NCC Group included a “critical zero-day” in the SMA 100 series 10.x code. SonicWall is tracking it as SNWLID-2021-0001. The SMA 100 series is a line of secure remote access appliances.

The disclosure makes SonicWall at least the fifth large company to report in recent weeks that it was targeted by sophisticated hackers. Other companies include network management tool provider SolarWinds, Microsoft, FireEye, and Malwarebytes. CrowdStrike also reported being targeted but said the attack wasn’t successful.

Neither SonicWall nor NCC Group said that the hack involving the SonicWall zero-day was linked to the larger hack campaign involving SolarWinds. Based on the timing of the disclosure and some of the details in it, however, there is widespread speculation that the two are connected.

The speculation is just that — speculation. I have no opinion in the matter. This could easily be part of the SolarWinds campaign, which targeted other security companies. But there are a lot of “highly sophisticated threat actors” — that’s how NCC Group described them — out there, and this could easily be a coincidence.

Were I working for a national intelligence organization, I would try to disguise my operations as being part of the SolarWinds attack.

EDITED TO ADD (2/9): SonicWall has patched the vulnerability.

Posted on February 8, 2021 at 12:11 PM8 Comments

NoxPlayer Android Emulator Supply-Chain Attack

It seems to be the season of sophisticated supply-chain attacks.

This one is in the NoxPlayer Android emulator:

ESET says that based on evidence its researchers gathered, a threat actor compromised one of the company’s official API (api.bignox.com) and file-hosting servers (res06.bignox.com).

Using this access, hackers tampered with the download URL of NoxPlayer updates in the API server to deliver malware to NoxPlayer users.

[…]

Despite evidence implying that attackers had access to BigNox servers since at least September 2020, ESET said the threat actor didn’t target all of the company’s users but instead focused on specific machines, suggesting this was a highly-targeted attack looking to infect only a certain class of users.

Until today, and based on its own telemetry, ESET said it spotted malware-laced NoxPlayer updates being delivered to only five victims, located in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka.

I don’t know if there are actually more supply-chain attacks occurring right now. More likely is that they’ve been happening for a while, and we have recently become more diligent about looking for them.

Posted on February 8, 2021 at 6:34 AM5 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Live Giant Squid Found in Japan

A giant squid was found alive in the port of Izumo, Japan. Not a lot of news, just this Twitter thread (with a couple of videos).

If confirmed, I believe this will be the THIRD time EVER a giant squid was filmed alive!

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 February 5, 2021 at 4:13 PM116 Comments

Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons

President Biden wants his Peloton in the White House. For those who have missed the hype, it’s an Internet-connected stationary bicycle. It has a screen, a camera, and a microphone. You can take live classes online, work out with your friends, or join the exercise social network. And all of that is a security risk, especially if you are the president of the United States.

Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the NSA to help him handle them.

Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.

US presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features. In 2010, President Barack Obama complained that his presidential BlackBerry device was “no fun” because only ten people were allowed to contact him on it. In 2013, security prevented him from getting an iPhone. When he finally got an upgrade to his BlackBerry in 2016, he complained that his new “secure” phone couldn’t take pictures, send texts, or play music. His “hardened” iPad to read daily intelligence briefings was presumably similarly handicapped. We don’t know what the NSA did to these devices, but they certainly modified the software and physically removed the cameras and microphones — and possibly the wireless Internet connection.

President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.

The risks are serious. We know that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on Trump’s phones. Hackers can remotely turn on microphones and cameras, listening in on conversations. They can grab copies of any documents on the device. They can also use those devices to further infiltrate government networks, maybe even jumping onto classified networks that the devices connect to. If the devices have physical capabilities, those can be hacked as well. In 2007, the wireless features of Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s pacemaker were disabled out of fears that it could be hacked to assassinate him. In 1999, the NSA banned Furbies from its offices, mistakenly believing that they could listen and learn.

Physically removing features and components works, but the results are increasingly unacceptable. The NSA could take Biden’s Peloton and rip out the camera, microphone, and Internet connection, and that would make it secure — but then it would just be a normal (albeit expensive) stationary bike. Maybe Biden wouldn’t accept that, and he’d demand that the NSA do even more work to customize and secure the Peloton part of the bicycle. Maybe Biden’s security agents could isolate his Peloton in a specially shielded room where it couldn’t infect other computers, and warn him not to discuss national security in its presence.

This might work, but it certainly doesn’t scale. As president, Biden can direct substantial resources to solving his cybersecurity problems. The real issue is what everyone else should do. The president of the United States is a singular espionage target, but so are members of his staff and other administration officials.

Members of Congress are targets, as are governors and mayors, police officers and judges, CEOs and directors of human rights organizations, nuclear power plant operators, and election officials. All of these people have smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Many have Internet-connected cars and appliances, vacuums, bikes, and doorbells. Every one of those devices is a potential security risk, and all of those people are potential national security targets. But none of those people will get their Internet-connected devices customized by the NSA.

That is the real cybersecurity issue. Internet connectivity brings with it features we like. In our cars, it means real-time navigation, entertainment options, automatic diagnostics, and more. In a Peloton, it means everything that makes it more than a stationary bike. In a pacemaker, it means continuous monitoring by your doctor — and possibly your life saved as a result. In an iPhone or iPad, it means…well, everything. We can search for older, non-networked versions of some of these devices, or the NSA can disable connectivity for the privileged few of us. But the result is the same: in Obama’s words, “no fun.”

And unconnected options are increasingly hard to find. In 2016, I tried to find a new car that didn’t come with Internet connectivity, but I had to give up: there were no options to omit that in the class of car I wanted. Similarly, it’s getting harder to find major appliances without a wireless connection. As the price of connectivity continues to drop, more and more things will only be available Internet-enabled.

Internet security is national security — not because the president is personally vulnerable but because we are all part of a single network. Depending on who we are and what we do, we will make different trade-offs between security and fun. But we all deserve better options.

Regulations that force manufacturers to provide better security for all of us are the only way to do that. We need minimum security standards for computers of all kinds. We need transparency laws that give all of us, from the president on down, sufficient information to make our own security trade-offs. And we need liability laws that hold companies liable when they misrepresent the security of their products and services.

I’m not worried about Biden. He and his staff will figure out how to balance his exercise needs with the national security needs of the country. Sometimes the solutions are weirdly customized, such as the anti-eavesdropping tent that Obama used while traveling. I am much more worried about the political activists, journalists, human rights workers, and oppressed minorities around the world who don’t have the money or expertise to secure their technology, or the information that would give them the ability to make informed decisions on which technologies to choose.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on February 5, 2021 at 5:58 AM35 Comments

Another SolarWinds Orion Hack

At the same time the Russians were using a backdoored SolarWinds update to attack networks worldwide, another threat actor — believed to be Chinese in origin — was using an already existing vulnerability in Orion to penetrate networks:

Two people briefed on the case said FBI investigators recently found that the National Finance Center, a federal payroll agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was among the affected organizations, raising fears that data on thousands of government employees may have been compromised.

[…]

Reuters was not able to establish how many organizations were compromised by the suspected Chinese operation. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations, said the attackers used computer infrastructure and hacking tools previously deployed by state-backed Chinese cyberspies.

[…]

While the alleged Russian hackers penetrated deep into SolarWinds network and hid a “back door” in Orion software updates which were then sent to customers, the suspected Chinese group exploited a separate bug in Orion’s code to help spread across networks they had already compromised, the sources said.

Two takeaways: One, we are learning about a lot of supply-chain attacks right now. Two, SolarWinds’ terrible security is the result of a conscious business decision to reduce costs in the name of short-term profits. Economist Matt Stoller writes about this:

These private equity-owned software firms torture professionals with bad user experiences and shitty customer support in everything from yoga studio software to car dealer IT to the nightmarish ‘core’ software that runs small banks and credit unions, as close as one gets to automating Office Space. But they also degrade product quality by firing or disrespecting good workers, under-investing in good security practices, or sending work abroad and paying badly, meaning their products are more prone to espionage. In other words, the same sloppy and corrupt practices that allowed this massive cybersecurity hack made Bravo a billionaire. In a sense, this hack, and many more like it, will continue to happen, as long as men like Bravo get rich creating security vulnerabilities for bad actors to exploit.

SolarWinds increased its profits by increasing its cybersecurity risk, and then transferred that risk to its customers without their knowledge or consent.

Posted on February 4, 2021 at 6:11 AM36 Comments

More SolarWinds News

Microsoft analyzed details of the SolarWinds attack:

Microsoft and FireEye only detected the Sunburst or Solorigate malware in December, but Crowdstrike reported this month that another related piece of malware, Sunspot, was deployed in September 2019, at the time hackers breached SolarWinds’ internal network. Other related malware includes Teardrop aka Raindrop.

Details are in the Microsoft blog:

We have published our in-depth analysis of the Solorigate backdoor malware (also referred to as SUNBURST by FireEye), the compromised DLL that was deployed on networks as part of SolarWinds products, that allowed attackers to gain backdoor access to affected devices. We have also detailed the hands-on-keyboard techniques that attackers employed on compromised endpoints using a powerful second-stage payload, one of several custom Cobalt Strike loaders, including the loader dubbed TEARDROP by FireEye and a variant named Raindrop by Symantec.

One missing link in the complex Solorigate attack chain is the handover from the Solorigate DLL backdoor to the Cobalt Strike loader. Our investigations show that the attackers went out of their way to ensure that these two components are separated as much as possible to evade detection. This blog provides details about this handover based on a limited number of cases where this process occurred. To uncover these cases, we used the powerful, cross-domain optics of Microsoft 365 Defender to gain visibility across the entire attack chain in one complete and consolidated view.

This is all important, because MalwareBytes was penetrated through Office 365, and not SolarWinds. New estimates are that 30% of the SolarWinds victims didn’t use SolarWinds:

Many of the attacks gained initial footholds by password spraying to compromise individual email accounts at targeted organizations. Once the attackers had that initial foothold, they used a variety of complex privilege escalation and authentication attacks to exploit flaws in Microsoft’s cloud services. Another of the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)’s targets, security firm CrowdStrike, said the attacker tried unsuccessfully to read its email by leveraging a compromised account of a Microsoft reseller the firm had worked with.

On attribution: Earlier this month, the US government has stated the attack is “likely Russian in origin.” This echos what then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in December, and the Washington Post‘s reporting (both from December). (The New York Times has repeated this attribution — a good article that also discusses the magnitude of the attack.) More evidence comes from code forensics, which links it to Turla, another Russian threat actor.

And lastly, a long ProPublica story on an unused piece of government-developed tech that might have caught the supply-chain attack much earlier:

The in-toto system requires software vendors to map out their process for assembling computer code that will be sent to customers, and it records what’s done at each step along the way. It then verifies electronically that no hacker has inserted something in between steps. Immediately before installation, a pre-installed tool automatically runs a final check to make sure that what the customer received matches the final product the software vendor generated for delivery, confirming that it wasn’t tampered with in transit.

I don’t want to hype this defense too much without knowing a lot more, but I like the approach of verifying the software build process.

Posted on February 3, 2021 at 6:10 AM9 Comments

Georgia’s Ballot-Marking Devices

Andrew Appel discusses Georgia’s voting machines, how the paper ballots facilitated a recount, and the problem with automatic ballot-marking devices:

Suppose the polling-place optical scanners had been hacked (enough to change the outcome). Then this would have been detected in the audit, and (in principle) Georgia would have been able to recover by doing a full recount. That’s what we mean when we say optical-scan voting machines have “strong software independence”­you can obtain a trustworthy result even if you’re not sure about the software in the machine on election day.

If Georgia had still been using the paperless touchscreen DRE voting machines that they used from 2003 to 2019, then there would have been no paper ballots to recount, and no way to disprove the allegations that the election was hacked. That would have been a nightmare scenario. I’ll bet that Secretary of State Raffensperger now appreciates why the Federal Court forced him to stop using those DRE machines (Curling v. Raffensperger, Case 1:17-cv-02989-AT Document 579).

I have long advocated voter-verifiable paper ballots, and this is an example of why.

Posted on February 1, 2021 at 10:09 AM19 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.