Blog: April 2021 Archives

Biden Administration Imposes Sanctions on Russia for SolarWinds

On April 15, the Biden administration both formally attributed the SolarWinds espionage campaign to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and imposed a series of sanctions designed to punish the country for the attack and deter future attacks.

I will leave it to those with experience in foreign relations to convince me that the response is sufficient to deter future operations. To me, it feels like too little. The New York Times reports that “the sanctions will be among what President Biden’s aides say are ‘seen and unseen steps in response to the hacking,” which implies that there’s more we don’t know about. Also, that “the new measures are intended to have a noticeable effect on the Russian economy.” Honestly, I don’t know what the US should do. Anything that feels more proportional is also more escalatory. I’m sure that dilemma is part of the Russian calculus in all this.

Posted on April 20, 2021 at 6:19 AM4 Comments

Details on the Unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone

The Washington Post has published a long story on the unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone 5C in 2016. We all thought it was an Israeli company called Cellebrite. It was actually an Australian company called Azimuth Security.

Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.

[…]

Using the flaw Dowd found, Wang, based in Portland, Ore., created an exploit that enabled initial access to the phone ­ a foot in the door. Then he hitched it to another exploit that permitted greater maneuverability, according to the people. And then he linked that to a final exploit that another Azimuth researcher had already created for iPhones, giving him full control over the phone’s core processor ­ the brains of the device. From there, he wrote software that rapidly tried all combinations of the passcode, bypassing other features, such as the one that erased data after 10 incorrect tries.

Apple is suing various companies over this sort of thing. The article goes into the details.

Posted on April 19, 2021 at 6:08 AM24 Comments

DNI’s Annual Threat Assessment

The office of the Director of National Intelligence released its “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.” Cybersecurity is covered on pages 20-21. Nothing surprising:

  • Cyber threats from nation states and their surrogates will remain acute.
  • States’ increasing use of cyber operations as a tool of national power, including increasing use by militaries around the world, raises the prospect of more destructive and disruptive cyber activity.
  • Authoritarian and illiberal regimes around the world will increasingly exploit digital tools to surveil their citizens, control free expression, and censor and manipulate information to maintain control over their populations.
  • During the last decade, state sponsored hackers have compromised software and IT service supply chains, helping them conduct operations — espionage, sabotage, and potentially prepositioning for warfighting.

The supply chain line is new; I hope the government is paying attention.

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 6:13 AM10 Comments

The FBI Is Now Securing Networks Without Their Owners’ Permission

In January, we learned about a Chinese espionage campaign that exploited four zero-days in Microsoft Exchange. One of the characteristics of the campaign, in the later days when the Chinese probably realized that the vulnerabilities would soon be fixed, was to install a web shell in compromised networks that would give them subsequent remote access. Even if the vulnerabilities were patched, the shell would remain until the network operators removed it.

Now, months later, many of those shells are still in place. And they’re being used by criminal hackers as well.

On Tuesday, the FBI announced that it successfully received a court order to remove “hundreds” of these web shells from networks in the US.

This is nothing short of extraordinary, and I can think of no real-world parallel. It’s kind of like if a criminal organization infiltrated a door-lock company and surreptitiously added a master passkey feature, and then customers bought and installed those locks. And then if the FBI got a court order to fix all the locks to remove the master passkey capability. And it’s kind of not like that. In any case, it’s not what we normally think of when we think of a warrant. The links above have details, but I would like a legal scholar to weigh in on the implications of this.

Posted on April 14, 2021 at 9:56 AM64 Comments

Backdoor Added — But Found — in PHP

Unknown hackers attempted to add a backdoor to the PHP source code. It was two malicious commits, with the subject “fix typo” and the names of known PHP developers and maintainers. They were discovered and removed before being pushed out to any users. But since 79% of the Internet’s websites use PHP, it’s scary.

Developers have moved PHP to GitHub, which has better authentication. Hopefully it will be enough — PHP is a juicy target.

Posted on April 9, 2021 at 8:54 AM17 Comments

Google’s Project Zero Finds a Nation-State Zero-Day Operation

Google’s Project Zero discovered, and caused to be patched, eleven zero-day exploits against Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Windows, and iOS. This seems to have been exploited by “Western government operatives actively conducting a counterterrorism operation”:

The exploits, which went back to early 2020 and used never-before-seen techniques, were “watering hole” attacks that used infected websites to deliver malware to visitors. They caught the attention of cybersecurity experts thanks to their scale, sophistication, and speed.

[…]

It’s true that Project Zero does not formally attribute hacking to specific groups. But the Threat Analysis Group, which also worked on the project, does perform attribution. Google omitted many more details than just the name of the government behind the hacks, and through that information, the teams knew internally who the hacker and targets were. It is not clear whether Google gave advance notice to government officials that they would be publicizing and shutting down the method of attack.

Posted on April 8, 2021 at 6:06 AM15 Comments

Signal Adds Cryptocurrency Support

According to Wired, Signal is adding support for the cryptocurrency MobileCoin, “a form of digital cash designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy and even their anonymity.”

Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, describes the new payments feature as an attempt to extend Signal’s privacy protections to payments with the same seamless experience that Signal has offered for encrypted conversations. “There’s a palpable difference in the feeling of what it’s like to communicate over Signal, knowing you’re not being watched or listened to, versus other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview. “I would like to get to a world where not only can you feel that when you talk to your therapist over Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the session over Signal.”

I think this is an incredibly bad idea. It’s not just the bloating of what was a clean secure communications app. It’s not just that blockchain is just plain stupid. It’s not even that Signal is choosing to tie itself to a specific blockchain currency. It’s that adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.

And I see no good reason to do this. Secure communications and secure transactions can be separate apps, even separate apps from the same organization. End-to-end encryption is already at risk. Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies.

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary from Stephen Deihl:

I think I speak for many technologists when I say that any bolted-on cryptocurrency monetization scheme smells like a giant pile of rubbish and feels enormously user-exploitative. We’ve seen this before, after all Telegram tried the same thing in an ICO that imploded when SEC shut them down, and Facebook famously tried and failed to monetize WhatsApp through their decentralized-but-not-really digital money market fund project.

[…]

Signal is a still a great piece of software. Just do one thing and do it well, be the trusted de facto platform for private messaging that empowers dissidents, journalists and grandma all to communicate freely with the same guarantees of privacy. Don’t become a dodgy money transmitter business. This is not the way.

EDITED TO ADD (4/14): Moxie Marlinspike is on the advisory board for MobileCoin, which was designed for the purpose of providing a payment function in Signal.

Posted on April 7, 2021 at 6:24 AM116 Comments

Wi-Fi Devices as Physical Object Sensors

The new 802.11bf standard will turn Wi-Fi devices into object sensors:

In three years or so, the Wi-Fi specification is scheduled to get an upgrade that will turn wireless devices into sensors capable of gathering data about the people and objects bathed in their signals.

“When 802.11bf will be finalized and introduced as an IEEE standard in September 2024, Wi-Fi will cease to be a communication-only standard and will legitimately become a full-fledged sensing paradigm,” explains Francesco Restuccia, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, in a paper summarizing the state of the Wi-Fi Sensing project (SENS) currently being developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

SENS is envisioned as a way for devices capable of sending and receiving wireless data to use Wi-Fi signal interference differences to measure the range, velocity, direction, motion, presence, and proximity of people and objects.

More detail in the article. Security and privacy controls are still to be worked out, which means that there probably won’t be any.

Posted on April 5, 2021 at 6:15 AM35 Comments

Malware Hidden in Call of Duty Cheating Software

News article:

Most troublingly, Activision says that the “cheat” tool has been advertised multiple times on a popular cheating forum under the title “new COD hack.” (Gamers looking to flout the rules will typically go to such forums to find new ways to do so.) While the report doesn’t mention which forum they were posted on (that certainly would’ve been helpful), it does say that these offerings have popped up a number of times. They have also been seen advertised in YouTube videos, where instructions were provided on how gamers can run the “cheats” on their devices, and the report says that “comments [on the videos] seemingly indicate people had downloaded and attempted to use the tool.”

Part of the reason this attack could work so well is that game cheats typically require a user to disable key security features that would otherwise keep a malicious program out of their system. The hacker is basically getting the victim to do their own work for them.

“It is common practice when configuring a cheat program to run it the with the highest system privileges,” the report notes. “Guides for cheats will typically ask users to disable or uninstall antivirus software and host firewalls, disable kernel code signing, etc.”

Detailed report.

Posted on April 2, 2021 at 6:00 AM16 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.