Crypto-Gram

January 15, 2022

by Bruce Schneier
Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School
schneier@schneier.com
https://www.schneier.com

A free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise.

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These same essays and news items appear in the Schneier on Security blog, along with a lively and intelligent comment section. An RSS feed is available.


In this issue:

  1. More Log4j News
  2. More on NSO Group and Cytrox: Two Cyberweapons Arms Manufacturers
  3. Stolen Bitcoins Returned
  4. Apple AirTags Are Being Used to Track People and Cars
  5. More Russian Cyber Operations against Ukraine
  6. People Are Increasingly Choosing Private Web Search
  7. Norton’s Antivirus Product Now Includes an Ethereum Miner
  8. Fake QR Codes on Parking Meters
  9. Apple’s Private Relay Is Being Blocked
  10. Faking an iPhone Reboot
  11. Using Foreign Nationals to Bypass US Surveillance Restrictions
  12. Using EM Waves to Detect Malware
  13. Upcoming Speaking Engagements

More Log4j News

[2021.12.16] Log4j is being exploited by all sorts of attackers, all over the Internet:

At that point it was reported that there were over 100 attempts to exploit the vulnerability every minute. “Since we started to implement our protection we prevented over 1,272,000 attempts to allocate the vulnerability, over 46% of those attempts were made by known malicious groups,” said cybersecurity company Check Point.

And according to Check Point, attackers have now attempted to exploit the flaw on over 40% of global networks.

And a second vulnerability was found, in the patch for the first vulnerability. This is likely not to be the last.


More on NSO Group and Cytrox: Two Cyberweapons Arms Manufacturers

[2021.12.20] Citizen Lab published another report on the spyware used against two Egyptian nationals. One was hacked by NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The other was hacked both by Pegasus and by the spyware from another cyberweapons arms manufacturer: Cytrox.

We haven’t heard a lot about Cytrox and its Predator spyware. According to Citzen Lab:

We conducted Internet scanning for Predator spyware servers and found likely Predator customers in Armenia, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Madagascar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Serbia.

Cytrox was reported to be part of Intellexa, the so-called “Star Alliance of spyware,” which was formed to compete with NSO Group, and which describes itself as “EU-based and regulated, with six sites and R&D labs throughout Europe.”

In related news, Google’s Project Zero has published a detailed analysis of NSO Group’s zero-click iMessage exploit: FORCED ENTRY.

Based on our research and findings, we assess this to be one of the most technically sophisticated exploits we’ve ever seen, further demonstrating that the capabilities NSO provides rival those previously thought to be accessible to only a handful of nation states.

By the way, this vulnerability was patched on 13 Sep 2021 in iOS 14.8.


Stolen Bitcoins Returned

[2021.12.22] The US has returned $154 million in bitcoins stolen by a Sony employee.

However, on December 1, following an investigation in collaboration with Japanese law enforcement authorities, the FBI seized the 3879.16242937 BTC in Ishii’s wallet after obtaining the private key, which made it possible to transfer all the bitcoins to the FBI’s bitcoin wallet.


Apple AirTags Are Being Used to Track People and Cars

[2021.12.31] This development suprises no one who has been paying attention:

Researchers now believe AirTags, which are equipped with Bluetooth technology, could be revealing a more widespread problem of tech-enabled tracking. They emit a digital signal that can be detected by devices running Apple’s mobile operating system. Those devices then report where an AirTag has last been seen. Unlike similar tracking products from competitors such as Tile, Apple added features to prevent abuse, including notifications like the one Ms. Estrada received and automatic beeping. (Tile plans to release a feature to prevent the tracking of people next year, a spokeswoman for that company said.)

[…]

A person who doesn’t own an iPhone might have a harder time detecting an unwanted AirTag. AirTags aren’t compatible with Android smartphones. Earlier this month, Apple released an Android app that can scan for AirTags — but you have to be vigilant enough to download it and proactively use it.

Apple declined to say if it was working with Google on technology that would allow Android phones to automatically detect its trackers.

People who said they have been tracked have called Apple’s safeguards insufficient. Ms. Estrada said she was notified four hours after her phone first noticed the rogue gadget. Others said it took days before they were made aware of an unknown AirTag. According to Apple, the timing of the alerts can vary depending on the iPhone’s operating system and location settings.


More Russian Cyber Operations against Ukraine

[2022.01.05] Both Russia and Ukraine are preparing for military operations in cyberspace.


People Are Increasingly Choosing Private Web Search

[2022.01.06] DuckDuckGo has had a banner year:

And yet, DuckDuckGo. The privacy-oriented search engine netted more than 35 billion search queries in 2021, a 46.4% jump over 2020 (23.6 billion). That’s big. Even so, the company, which bills itself as the “Internet privacy company,” offering a search engine and other products designed to “empower you to seamlessly take control of your personal information online without any tradeoffs,” remains a rounding error compared to Google in search.

I use it. It’s not as a good a search engine as Google. Or, at least, Google often gets me what I want faster than DuckDuckGo does. To solve that, I use use the feature that allows me to use Google’s search engine through DuckDuckGo: prepend “!Google” to searches. Basically, DuckDuckGo launders my search.

EDITED TO ADD (1/12): I was wrong. DuckDuckGo does not provide privacy protections when searching using Google.


Norton’s Antivirus Product Now Includes an Ethereum Miner

[2022.01.07] Norton 360 can now mine Ethereum. It’s opt-in, and the company keeps 15%.

It’s hard to uninstall this option.


Fake QR Codes on Parking Meters

[2022.01.10] The City of Austin is warning about QR codes stuck to parking meters that take people to fraudulent payment sites.


Apple’s Private Relay Is Being Blocked

[2022.01.11] Some European cell phone carriers, and now T-Mobile, are blocking Apple’s Private Relay anonymous browsing feature.

This could be an interesting battle to watch.

Slashdot thread.


Faking an iPhone Reboot

[2022.01.12] Researchers have figured how how to intercept and fake an iPhone reboot:

We’ll dissect the iOS system and show how it’s possible to alter a shutdown event, tricking a user that got infected into thinking that the phone has been powered off, but in fact, it’s still running. The “NoReboot” approach simulates a real shutdown. The user cannot feel a difference between a real shutdown and a “fake shutdown.” There is no user-interface or any button feedback until the user turns the phone back “on.”

It’s a complicated hack, but it works.

Uses are obvious:

Historically, when malware infects an iOS device, it can be removed simply by restarting the device, which clears the malware from memory.

However, this technique hooks the shutdown and reboot routines to prevent them from ever happening, allowing malware to achieve persistence as the device is never actually turned off.

I see this as another manifestation of the security problems that stem from all controls becoming software controls. Back when the physical buttons actually did things — like turn the power, the Wi-Fi, or the camera on and off — you could actually know that something was on or off. Now that software controls those functions, you can never be sure.


Using Foreign Nationals to Bypass US Surveillance Restrictions

[2022.01.13] Remember when the US and Australian police surreptitiously owned and operated the encrypted cell phone app ANOM? They arrested 800 people in 2021 based on that operation.

New documents received by Motherboard show that over 100 of those phones were shipped to users in the US, far more than previously believed.

What’s most interesting to me about this new information is how the US used the Australians to get around domestic spying laws:

For legal reasons, the FBI did not monitor outgoing messages from Anom devices determined to be inside the U.S. Instead, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) monitored them on behalf of the FBI, according to previously published court records. In those court records unsealed shortly before the announcement of the Anom operation, FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron wrote that the FBI received Anom user data three times a week, which contained the messages of all of the users of Anom with some exceptions, including “the messages of approximately 15 Anom users in the U.S. sent to any other Anom device.”

[…]

Stewart Baker, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, and Bryce Klehm, associate editor of Lawfare, previously wrote that “The ‘threat to life; standard echoes the provision of U.S. law that allows communications providers to share user data with law enforcement without legal process under 18 U.S.C. § 2702. Whether the AFP was relying on this provision of U.S. law or a more general moral imperative to take action to prevent imminent threats is not clear.” That section of law discusses the voluntary disclosure of customer communications or records.

When asked about the practice of Australian law enforcement monitoring devices inside the U.S. on behalf of the FBI, Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard in a statement “Multiple intelligence community officials have confirmed to me, in writing, that intelligence agencies cannot ask foreign partners to conduct surveillance that the U.S. would be legally prohibited from doing itself. The FBI should follow this same standard. Allegations that the FBI outsourced warrantless surveillance of Americans to a foreign government raise troubling questions about the Justice Department’s oversight of these practices.”

I and others have long suspected that the NSA uses foreign nationals to get around restrictions that prevent it from spying on Americans. It is interesting to see the FBI using the same trick.


Using EM Waves to Detect Malware

[2022.01.14] I don’t even know what I think about this. Researchers have developed a malware detection system that uses EM waves: “Obfuscation Revealed: Leveraging Electromagnetic Signals for Obfuscated Malware Classification.”

Abstract: The Internet of Things (IoT) is constituted of devices that are exponentially growing in number and in complexity. They use numerous customized firmware and hardware, without taking into consideration security issues, which make them a target for cybercriminals, especially malware authors.

We will present a novel approach of using side channel information to identify the kinds of threats that are targeting the device. Using our approach, a malware analyst is able to obtain precise knowledge about malware type and identity, even in the presence of obfuscation techniques which may prevent static or symbolic binary analysis. We recorded 100,000 measurement traces from an IoT device infected by various in-the-wild malware samples and realistic benign activity. Our method does not require any modification on the target device. Thus, it can be deployed independently from the resources available without any overhead. Moreover, our approach has the advantage that it can hardly be detected and evaded by the malware authors. In our experiments, we were able to predict three generic malware types (and one benign class) with an accuracy of 99.82%. Even more, our results show that we are able to classify altered malware samples with unseen obfuscation techniques during the training phase, and to determine what kind of obfuscations were applied to the binary, which makes our approach particularly useful for malware analysts.

This seems impossible. It’s research, not a commercial product. But it’s fascinating if true.


Upcoming Speaking Engagements

[2022.01.14] This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:

  • I’m giving an online-only talk on “Securing a World of Physically Capable Computers” as part of Teleport’s Security Visionaries 2022 series, on January 18, 2022.
  • I’m speaking at IT-S Now 2022 in Vienna on June 2, 2022.
  • I’m speaking at the 14th International Conference on Cyber Conflict, CyCon 2022, in Tallinn, Estonia on June 3, 2022.
  • I’m speaking at the RSA Conference 2022 in San Francisco, June 6-9, 2022.

The list is maintained on this page.


Since 1998, CRYPTO-GRAM has been a free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security technology. To subscribe, or to read back issues, see Crypto-Gram’s web page.

You can also read these articles on my blog, Schneier on Security.

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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 © 2022 by Bruce Schneier.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.