February 15, 2021
by Bruce Schneier
Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School
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- Cell Phone Location Privacy
- Injecting a Backdoor into SolarWinds Orion
- Sophisticated Watering Hole Attack
- SVR Attacks on Microsoft 365
- Insider Attack on Home Surveillance Systems
- Massive Brazilian Data Breach
- Dutch Insider Attack on COVID-19 Data
- Police Have Disrupted the Emotet Botnet
- New iMessage Security Features
- Including Hackers in NATO Wargames
- Georgia’s Ballot-Marking Devices
- More SolarWinds News
- Another SolarWinds Orion Hack
- Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons
- NoxPlayer Android Emulator Supply-Chain Attack
- SonicWall Zero-Day
- Web Credit Card Skimmer Steals Data from Another Credit Card Skimmer
- Ransomware Profitability
- Attack against Florida Water Treatment Facility
- Medieval Security Techniques
- Chinese Supply-Chain Attack on Computer Systems
[2021.01.15] We all know that our cell phones constantly give our location away to our mobile network operators; that’s how they work. A group of researchers has figured out a way to fix that. “Pretty Good Phone Privacy” (PGPP) protects both user identity and user location using the existing cellular networks. It protects users from fake cell phone towers (IMSI-catchers) and surveillance by cell providers.
It’s a clever system. The players are the user, a traditional mobile network operator (MNO) like AT&T or Verizon, and a new mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). MVNOs aren’t new. They’re intermediaries like Cricket and Boost.
Here’s how it works:
- One-time setup: The user’s phone gets a new SIM from the MVNO. All MVNO SIMs are identical.
- Monthly: The user pays their bill to the MVNO (credit card or otherwise) and the phone gets anonymous authentication (using Chaum blind signatures) tokens for each time slice (e.g., hour) in the coming month.
- Ongoing: When the phone talks to a tower (run by the MNO), it sends a token for the current time slice. This is relayed to a MVNO backend server, which checks the Chaum blind signature of the token. If it’s valid, the MVNO tells the MNO that the user is authenticated, and the user receives a temporary random ID and an IP address. (Again, this is now MVNOs like Boost already work.)
- On demand: The user uses the phone normally.
The MNO doesn’t have to modify its system in any way. The PGPP MVNO implementation is in software. The user’s traffic is sent to the MVNO gateway and then out onto the Internet, potentially even using a VPN.
All connectivity is data connectivity in cell networks today. The user can choose to be data-only (e.g., use Signal for voice), or use the MVNO or a third party for VoIP service that will look just like normal telephony.
The group prototyped and tested everything with real phones in the lab. Their approach adds essentially zero latency, and doesn’t introduce any new bottlenecks, so it doesn’t have performance/scalability problems like most anonymity networks. The service could handle tens of millions of users on a single server, because it only has to do infrequent authentication, though for resilience you’d probably run more.
The paper is here.
- SUNSPOT is StellarParticle’s malware used to insert the SUNBURST backdoor into software builds of the SolarWinds Orion IT management product.
- SUNSPOT monitors running processes for those involved in compilation of the Orion product and replaces one of the source files to include the SUNBURST backdoor code.
- Several safeguards were added to SUNSPOT to avoid the Orion builds from failing, potentially alerting developers to the adversary’s presence.
Analysis of a SolarWinds software build server provided insights into how the process was hijacked by StellarParticle in order to insert SUNBURST into the update packages. The design of SUNSPOT suggests StellarParticle developers invested a lot of effort to ensure the code was properly inserted and remained undetected, and prioritized operational security to avoid revealing their presence in the build environment to SolarWinds developers.
This, of course, reminds many of us of Ken Thompson’s thought experiment from his 1984 Turing Award lecture, “Reflections on Trusting Trust.” In that talk, he suggested that a malicious C compiler might add a backdoor into programs it compiles.
The moral is obvious. You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code. In demonstrating the possibility of this kind of attack, I picked on the C compiler. I could have picked on any program-handling program such as an assembler, a loader, or even hardware microcode. As the level of program gets lower, these bugs will be harder and harder to detect. A well-installed microcode bug will be almost impossible to detect.
That’s all still true today.
Some of the exploits were zero-days, meaning they targeted vulnerabilities that at the time were unknown to Google, Microsoft, and most outside researchers (both companies have since patched the security flaws). The hackers delivered the exploits through watering-hole attacks, which compromise sites frequented by the targets of interest and lace the sites with code that installs malware on visitors’ devices. The boobytrapped sites made use of two exploit servers, one for Windows users and the other for users of Android
The use of zero-days and complex infrastructure isn’t in itself a sign of sophistication, but it does show above-average skill by a professional team of hackers. Combined with the robustness of the attack code—which chained together multiple exploits in an efficient manner—the campaign demonstrates it was carried out by a “highly sophisticated actor.”
The modularity of the payloads, the interchangeable exploit chains, and the logging, targeting, and maturity of the operation also set the campaign apart, the researcher said.
No attribution was made, but the list of countries likely to be behind this isn’t very large. If you were to ask me to guess based on available information, I would guess it was the US—specifically, the NSA. It shows a care and precision that it’s known for. But I have no actual evidence for that guess.
All the vulnerabilities were fixed by last April.
Mandiant has observed UNC2452 and other threat actors moving laterally to the Microsoft 365 cloud using a combination of four primary techniques:
- Steal the Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) token-signing certificate and use it to forge tokens for arbitrary users (sometimes described as Golden SAML). This would allow the attacker to authenticate into a federated resource provider (such as Microsoft 365) as any user, without the need for that user’s password or their corresponding multi-factor authentication (MFA) mechanism.
- Modify or add trusted domains in Azure AD to add a new federated Identity Provider (IdP) that the attacker controls. This would allow the attacker to forge tokens for arbitrary users and has been described as an Azure AD backdoor.
- Compromise the credentials of on-premises user accounts that are synchronized to Microsoft 365 that have high privileged directory roles, such as Global Administrator or Application Administrator.
- Backdoor an existing Microsoft 365 application by adding a new application or service principal credential in order to use the legitimate permissions assigned to the application, such as the ability to read email, send email as an arbitrary user, access user calendars, etc.
Lots of details here, including information on remediation and hardening.
The more we learn about the this operation, the more sophisticated it becomes.
In related news, MalwareBytes was also targeted.
A former employee of prominent home security company ADT has admitted that he hacked into the surveillance feeds of dozens of customer homes, doing so primarily to spy on naked women or to leer at unsuspecting couples while they had sex.
Authorities say that the IT technician “took note of which homes had attractive women, then repeatedly logged into these customers’ accounts in order to view their footage for sexual gratification.” He did this by adding his personal email address to customer accounts, which ultimately hooked him into “real-time access to the video feeds from their homes.”
EDITED TO ADD (2/11): I seem to be conflating two stories, one current and one from last year. The current massive leak from last week is the Brazilian equivalent of the Equifax leak, and someone is selling the private information.
Dutch police have arrested two individuals on Friday for allegedly selling data from the Dutch health ministry’s COVID-19 systems on the criminal underground.
According to Verlaan, the two suspects worked in DDG call centers, where they had access to official Dutch government COVID-19 systems and databases.
They were working from home:
“Because people are working from home, they can easily take photos of their screens. This is one of the issues when your administrative staff is working from home,” Victor Gevers, Chair of the Dutch Institute for Vulnerability Disclosure, told ZDNet in an interview today.
All of this remote call-center work brings with it additional risks.
EDITED TO ADD (2/11) More information (translated from Dutch).
Emotet establishes a backdoor onto Windows computer systems via automated phishing emails that distribute Word documents compromised with malware. Subjects of emails and documents in Emotet campaigns are regularly altered to provide the best chance of luring victims into opening emails and installing malware—regular themes include invoices, shipping notices and information about COVID-19.
A week of action by law enforcement agencies around the world gained control of Emotet’s infrastructure of hundreds of servers around the world and disrupted it from the inside.
Machines infected by Emotet are now directed to infrastructure controlled by law enforcement, meaning cyber criminals can no longer exploit machines compromised and the malware can no longer spread to new targets, something which will cause significant disruption to cyber-criminal operations.
The Emotet takedown is the result of over two years of coordinated work by law enforcement operations around the world, including the Dutch National Police, Germany’s Federal Crime Police, France’s National Police, the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the UK’s National Crime Agency, and the National Police of Ukraine.
EDITED TO ADD (2/11): Follow-on article.
Apple did not document the changes but Groß said he fiddled around with the newest iOS 14 and found that Apple shipped a “significant refactoring of iMessage processing” that severely cripples the usual ways exploits are chained together for zero-click attacks.
Groß notes that memory corruption based zero-click exploits typically require exploitation of multiple vulnerabilities to create exploit chains. In most observed attacks, these could include a memory corruption vulnerability, reachable without user interaction and ideally without triggering any user notifications; a way to break ASLR remotely; a way to turn the vulnerability into remote code execution;; and a way to break out of any sandbox, typically by exploiting a separate vulnerability in another operating system component (e.g. a userspace service or the kernel).
The international information security community is filled with smart people who are not in a military structure, many of whom would be excited to pose as independent actors in any upcoming wargames. Including them would increase the reality of the game and the skills of the soldiers building and training on these networks. Hackers and cyberwar experts would demonstrate how industrial control systems such as power supply for refrigeration and temperature monitoring in vaccine production facilities are critical infrastructure; they’re easy targets and should be among NATO’s priorities at the moment.
Diversity of thought leads to better solutions. We in the information security community strongly support the involvement of acknowledged nonmilitary experts in the development and testing of future cyberwar scenarios. We are confident that independent experts, many of whom see sharing their skills as public service, would view participation in these cybergames as a challenge and an honor.
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.
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.
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.
[2021.02.04] 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.
[2021.02.05] 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.
[2021.02.08] 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.
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.
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.”
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.
[2021.02.12] 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.
[2021.02.12] 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.
[2021.02.13] 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.
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.“
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Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist, called a security guru by the Economist. He is the author of over one dozen books—including his latest, We Have Root—as well as hundreds of articles, essays, and academic papers. His newsletter and blog are read by over 250,000 people. Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AccessNow, and the Tor Project; and an Advisory Board Member of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and VerifiedVoting.org. He is the Chief of Security Architecture at Inrupt, Inc.
Copyright © 2021 by Bruce Schneier.