March 15, 2023
by Bruce Schneier
Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School
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:
- Camera the Size of a Grain of Salt
- ChatGPT Is Ingesting Corporate Secrets
- Defending against AI Lobbyists
- Fines as a Security System
- The Insecurity of Photo Cropping
- A Device to Turn Traffic Lights Green
- Cyberwar Lessons from the War in Ukraine
- Putting Undetectable Backdoors in Machine Learning Models
- Banning TikTok
- Side-Channel Attack against CRYSTALS-Kyber
- Fooling a Voice Authentication System with an AI-Generated Voice
- Dumb Password Rules
- Nick Weaver on Regulating Cryptocurrency
- New National Cybersecurity Strategy
- Prompt Injection Attacks on Large Language Models
- BlackLotus Malware Hijacks Windows Secure Boot Process
- Another Malware with Persistence
- Elephant Hackers
- NetWire Remote Access Trojan Maker Arrested
- How AI Could Write Our Laws
- Upcoming Speaking Engagements
Camera the Size of a Grain of Salt
[2023.02.15] Cameras are getting smaller and smaller, changing the scale and scope of surveillance.
ChatGPT Is Ingesting Corporate Secrets
According to internal Slack messages that were leaked to Insider, an Amazon lawyer told workers that they had “already seen instances” of text generated by ChatGPT that “closely” resembled internal company data.
This issue seems to have come to a head recently because Amazon staffers and other tech workers throughout the industry have begun using ChatGPT as a “coding assistant” of sorts to help them write or improve strings of code, the report notes.
“This is important because your inputs may be used as training data for a further iteration of ChatGPT,” the lawyer wrote in the Slack messages viewed by Insider, “and we wouldn’t want its output to include or resemble our confidential information.”
Defending against AI Lobbyists
[2023.02.17] When is it time to start worrying about artificial intelligence interfering in our democracy? Maybe when an AI writes a letter to The New York Times opposing the regulation of its own technology.
That happened last month. And because the letter was responding to an essay we wrote, we’re starting to get worried. And while the technology can be regulated, the real solution lies in recognizing that the problem is human actors—and those we can do something about.
Our essay argued that the much heralded launch of the AI chatbot ChatGPT, a system that can generate text realistic enough to appear to be written by a human, poses significant threats to democratic processes. The ability to produce high quality political messaging quickly and at scale, if combined with AI-assisted capabilities to strategically target those messages to policymakers and the public, could become a powerful accelerant of an already sprawling and poorly constrained force in modern democratic life: lobbying.
We speculated that AI-assisted lobbyists could use generative models to write op-eds and regulatory comments supporting a position, identify members of Congress who wield the most influence over pending legislation, use network pattern identification to discover undisclosed or illegal political coordination, or use supervised machine learning to calibrate the optimal contribution needed to sway the vote of a legislative committee member.
These are all examples of what we call AI hacking. Hacks are strategies that follow the rules of a system, but subvert its intent. Currently a human creative process, future AIs could discover, develop, and execute these same strategies.
While some of these activities are the longtime domain of human lobbyists, AI tools applied against the same task would have unfair advantages. They can scale their activity effortlessly across every state in the country—human lobbyists tend to focus on a single state—they may uncover patterns and approaches unintuitive and unrecognizable by human experts, and do so nearly instantaneously with little chance for human decision makers to keep up.
These factors could make AI hacking of the democratic process fundamentally ungovernable. Any policy response to limit the impact of AI hacking on political systems would be critically vulnerable to subversion or control by an AI hacker. If AI hackers achieve unchecked influence over legislative processes, they could dictate the rules of our society: including the rules that govern AI.
We admit that this seemed far fetched when we first wrote about it in 2021. But now that the emanations and policy prescriptions of ChatGPT have been given an audience in the New York Times and innumerable other outlets in recent weeks, it’s getting harder to dismiss.
At least one group of researchers is already testing AI techniques to automatically find and advocate for bills that benefit a particular interest. And one Massachusetts representative used ChatGPT to draft legislation regulating AI.
The AI technology of two years ago seems quaint by the standards of ChatGPT. What will the technology of 2025 seem like if we could glimpse it today? To us there is no question that now is the time to act.
First, let’s dispense with the concepts that won’t work. We cannot solely rely on explicit regulation of AI technology development, distribution, or use. Regulation is essential, but it would be vastly insufficient. The rate of AI technology development, and the speed at which AI hackers might discover damaging strategies, already outpaces policy development, enactment, and enforcement.
Moreover, we cannot rely on detection of AI actors. The latest research suggests that AI models trying to classify text samples as human- or AI-generated have limited precision, and are ill equipped to handle real world scenarios. These reactive, defensive techniques will fail because the rate of advancement of the “offensive” generative AI is so astounding.
Additionally, we risk a dragnet that will exclude masses of human constituents that will use AI to help them express their thoughts, or machine translation tools to help them communicate. If a written opinion or strategy conforms to the intent of a real person, it should not matter if they enlisted the help of an AI (or a human assistant) to write it.
Most importantly, we should avoid the classic trap of societies wrenched by the rapid pace of change: privileging the status quo. Slowing down may seem like the natural response to a threat whose primary attribute is speed. Ideas like increasing requirements for human identity verification, aggressive detection regimes for AI-generated messages, and elongation of the legislative or regulatory process would all play into this fallacy. While each of these solutions may have some value independently, they do nothing to make the already powerful actors less powerful.
Finally, it won’t work to try to starve the beast. Large language models like ChatGPT have a voracious appetite for data. They are trained on past examples of the kinds of content that they will be asked to generate in the future. Similarly, an AI system built to hack political systems will rely on data that documents the workings of those systems, such as messages between constituents and legislators, floor speeches, chamber and committee voting results, contribution records, lobbying relationship disclosures, and drafts of and amendments to legislative text. The steady advancement towards the digitization and publication of this information that many jurisdictions have made is positive. The threat of AI hacking should not dampen or slow progress on transparency in public policymaking.
Okay, so what will help?
First, recognize that the true threats here are malicious human actors. Systems like ChatGPT and our still-hypothetical political-strategy AI are still far from artificial general intelligences. They do not think. They do not have free will. They are just tools directed by people, much like lobbyist for hire. And, like lobbyists, they will be available primarily to the richest individuals, groups, and their interests.
However, we can use the same tools that would be effective in controlling human political influence to curb AI hackers. These tools will be familiar to any follower of the last few decades of U.S. political history.
Campaign finance reforms such as contribution limits, particularly when applied to political action committees of all types as well as to candidate operated campaigns, can reduce the dependence of politicians on contributions from private interests. The unfair advantage of a malicious actor using AI lobbying tools is at least somewhat mitigated if a political target’s entire career is not already focused on cultivating a concentrated set of major donors.
Transparency also helps. We can expand mandatory disclosure of contributions and lobbying relationships, with provisions to prevent the obfuscation of the funding source. Self-interested advocacy should be transparently reported whether or not it was AI-assisted. Meanwhile, we should increase penalties for organizations that benefit from AI-assisted impersonation of constituents in political processes, and set a greater expectation of responsibility to avoid “unknowing” use of these tools on their behalf.
Our most important recommendation is less legal and more cultural. Rather than trying to make it harder for AI to participate in the political process, make it easier for humans to do so.
The best way to fight an AI that can lobby for moneyed interests is to help the little guy lobby for theirs. Promote inclusion and engagement in the political process so that organic constituent communications grow alongside the potential growth of AI-directed communications. Encourage direct contact that generates more-than-digital relationships between constituents and their representatives, which will be an enduring way to privilege human stakeholders. Provide paid leave to allow people to vote as well as to testify before their legislature and participate in local town meetings and other civic functions. Provide childcare and accessible facilities at civic functions so that more community members can participate.
The threat of AI hacking our democracy is legitimate and concerning, but its solutions are consistent with our democratic values. Many of the ideas above are good governance reforms already being pushed and fought over at the federal and state level.
We don’t need to reinvent our democracy to save it from AI. We just need to continue the work of building a just and equitable political system. Hopefully ChatGPT will give us all some impetus to do that work faster.
This essay was written with Nathan Sanders, and appeared on the Belfer Center blog.
Fines as a Security System
[2023.02.20] Tile has an interesting security solution to make its tracking tags harder to use for stalking:
The Anti-Theft Mode feature will make the devices invisible to Scan and Secure, the company’s in-app feature that lets you know if any nearby Tiles are following you. But to activate the new Anti-Theft Mode, the Tile owner will have to verify their real identity with a government-issued ID, submit a biometric scan that helps root out fake IDs, agree to let Tile share their information with law enforcement and agree to be subject to a $1 million penalty if convicted in a court of law of using Tile for criminal activity. So although it technically makes the device easier for stalkers to use Tiles silently, it makes the penalty of doing so high enough to (at least in theory) deter them from trying.
Interesting theory. But it won’t work against attackers who don’t have any money.
Hulls believes the approach is superior to Apple’s solution with AirTag, which emits a sound and notifies iPhone users that one of the trackers is following them.
My complaint about the technical solutions is that they only work for users of the system. Tile security requires an “in-app feature.” Apple’s AirTag “notifies iPhone users.” What we need is a common standard that is implemented on all smartphones, so that people who don’t use the trackers can be alerted if they are being surveilled by one of them.
The Insecurity of Photo Cropping
[2023.02.21] The Intercept has a long article on the insecurity of photo cropping:
One of the hazards lies in the fact that, for some of the programs, downstream crop reversals are possible for viewers or readers of the document, not just the file’s creators or editors. Official instruction manuals, help pages, and promotional materials may mention that cropping is reversible, but this documentation at times fails to note that these operations are reversible by any viewers of a given image or document.
Uncropped versions of images can be preserved not just in Office apps, but also in a file’s own metadata. A photograph taken with a modern digital camera contains all types of metadata. Many image files record text-based metadata such as the camera make and model or the GPS coordinates at which the image was captured. Some photos also include binary data such as a thumbnail version of the original photo that may persist in the file’s metadata even after the photo has been edited in an image editor.
A Device to Turn Traffic Lights Green
[2023.02.22] Here’s a story about a hacker who reprogrammed a device called “Flipper Zero” to mimic Opticom transmitters—to turn traffic lights in his path green.
As mentioned earlier, the Flipper Zero has a built-in sub-GHz radio that lets the device receive data (or transmit it, with the right firmware in approved regions) on the same wireless frequencies as keyfobs and other devices. Most traffic preemption devices intended for emergency traffic redirection don’t actually transmit signals over RF. Instead, they use optical technology to beam infrared light from vehicles to static receivers mounted on traffic light poles.
Perhaps the most well-known branding for these types of devices is called Opticom. Essentially, the tech works by detecting a specific pattern of infrared light emitted by the Mobile Infrared Transmitter (MIRT) installed in a police car, fire truck, or ambulance when the MIRT is switched on. When the receiver detects the light, the traffic system then initiates a signal change as the emergency vehicle approaches an intersection, safely redirecting the traffic flow so that the emergency vehicle can pass through the intersection as if it were regular traffic and potentially avoid a collision.
This seems easy to do, but it’s also very illegal. It’s called “impersonating an emergency vehicle,” and it comes with hefty penalties if you’re caught.
Cyberwar Lessons from the War in Ukraine
[2023.02.23] The Aspen Institute has published a good analysis of the successes, failures, and absences of cyberattacks as part of the current war in Ukraine: “The Cyber Defense Assistance Imperative Lessons from Ukraine.”
Cyber defense assistance in Ukraine is working. The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian critical infrastructure organizations have better defended themselves and achieved higher levels of resiliency due to the efforts of CDAC and many others. But this is not the end of the road—the ability to provide cyber defense assistance will be important in the future. As a result, it is timely to assess how to provide organized, effective cyber defense assistance to safeguard the post-war order from potential aggressors.
The conflict in Ukraine is resetting the table across the globe for geopolitics and international security. The US and its allies have an imperative to strengthen the capabilities necessary to deter and respond to aggression that is ever more present in cyberspace. Lessons learned from the ad hoc conduct of cyber defense assistance in Ukraine can be institutionalized and scaled to provide new approaches and tools for preventing and managing cyber conflicts going forward.
I am often asked why where weren’t more successful cyberattacks by Russia against Ukraine. I generally give four reasons: (1) Cyberattacks are more effective in the “grey zone” between peace and war, and there are better alternatives once the shooting and bombing starts. (2) Setting these attacks up takes time, and Putin was secretive about his plans. (3) Putin was concerned about attacks spilling outside the war zone, and affecting other countries. (4) Ukrainian defenses were good, aided by other countries and companies. This paper gives a fifth reason: they were technically successful, but keeping them out of the news made them operationally unsuccessful.
Putting Undetectable Backdoors in Machine Learning Models
[2023.02.24] This is really interesting research from a few months ago:
Abstract: Given the computational cost and technical expertise required to train machine learning models, users may delegate the task of learning to a service provider. Delegation of learning has clear benefits, and at the same time raises serious concerns of trust. This work studies possible abuses of power by untrusted learners.We show how a malicious learner can plant an undetectable backdoor into a classifier. On the surface, such a backdoored classifier behaves normally, but in reality, the learner maintains a mechanism for changing the classification of any input, with only a slight perturbation. Importantly, without the appropriate “backdoor key,” the mechanism is hidden and cannot be detected by any computationally-bounded observer. We demonstrate two frameworks for planting undetectable backdoors, with incomparable guarantees.
First, we show how to plant a backdoor in any model, using digital signature schemes. The construction guarantees that given query access to the original model and the backdoored version, it is computationally infeasible to find even a single input where they differ. This property implies that the backdoored model has generalization error comparable with the original model. Moreover, even if the distinguisher can request backdoored inputs of its choice, they cannot backdoor a new inputa property we call non-replicability.
Second, we demonstrate how to insert undetectable backdoors in models trained using the Random Fourier Features (RFF) learning paradigm (Rahimi, Recht; NeurIPS 2007). In this construction, undetectability holds against powerful white-box distinguishers: given a complete description of the network and the training data, no efficient distinguisher can guess whether the model is “clean” or contains a backdoor. The backdooring algorithm executes the RFF algorithm faithfully on the given training data, tampering only with its random coins. We prove this strong guarantee under the hardness of the Continuous Learning With Errors problem (Bruna, Regev, Song, Tang; STOC 2021). We show a similar white-box undetectable backdoor for random ReLU networks based on the hardness of Sparse PCA (Berthet, Rigollet; COLT 2013).
Our construction of undetectable backdoors also sheds light on the related issue of robustness to adversarial examples. In particular, by constructing undetectable backdoor for an “adversarially-robust” learning algorithm, we can produce a classifier that is indistinguishable from a robust classifier, but where every input has an adversarial example! In this way, the existence of undetectable backdoors represent a significant theoretical roadblock to certifying adversarial robustness.
Turns out that securing ML systems is really hard.
[2023.02.27] Congress is currently debating bills that would ban TikTok in the United States. We are here as technologists to tell you that this is a terrible idea and the side effects would be intolerable. Details matter. There are several ways Congress might ban TikTok, each with different efficacies and side effects. In the end, all the effective ones would destroy the free Internet as we know it.
There’s no doubt that TikTok and ByteDance, the company that owns it, are shady. They, like most large corporations in China, operate at the pleasure of the Chinese government. They collect extreme levels of information about users. But they’re not alone: Many apps you use do the same, including Facebook and Instagram, along with seemingly innocuous apps that have no need for the data. Your data is bought and sold by data brokers you’ve never heard of who have few scruples about where the data ends up. They have digital dossiers on most people in the United States.
If we want to address the real problem, we need to enact serious privacy laws, not security theater, to stop our data from being collected, analyzed, and sold—by anyone. Such laws would protect us in the long term, and not just from the app of the week. They would also prevent data breaches and ransomware attacks from spilling our data out into the digital underworld, including hacker message boards and chat servers, hostile state actors, and outside hacker groups. And, most importantly, they would be compatible with our bedrock values of free speech and commerce, which Congress’s current strategies are not.
At best, the TikTok ban considered by Congress would be ineffective; at worst, a ban would force us to either adopt China’s censorship technology or create our own equivalent. The simplest approach, advocated by some in Congress, would be to ban the TikTok app from the Apple and Google app stores. This would immediately stop new updates for current users and prevent new users from signing up. To be clear, this would not reach into phones and remove the app. Nor would it prevent Americans from installing TikTok on their phones; they would still be able to get it from sites outside of the United States. Android users have long been able to use alternative app repositories. Apple maintains a tighter control over what apps are allowed on its phones, so users would have to “jailbreak”—or manually remove restrictions from—their devices to install TikTok.
Even if app access were no longer an option, TikTok would still be available more broadly. It is currently, and would still be, accessible from browsers, whether on a phone or a laptop. As long as the TikTok website is hosted on servers outside of the United States, the ban would not affect browser access.
Alternatively, Congress might take a financial approach and ban US companies from doing business with ByteDance. Then-President Donald Trump tried this in 2020, but it was blocked by the courts and rescinded by President Joe Biden a year later. This would shut off access to TikTok in app stores and also cut ByteDance off from the resources it needs to run TikTok. US cloud-computing and content-distribution networks would no longer distribute TikTok videos, collect user data, or run analytics. US advertisers—and this is critical—could no longer fork over dollars to ByteDance in the hopes of getting a few seconds of a user’s attention. TikTok, for all practical purposes, would cease to be a business in the United States.
But Americans would still be able to access TikTok through the loopholes discussed above. And they will: TikTok is one of the most popular apps ever made; about 70% of young people use it. There would be enormous demand for workarounds. ByteDance could choose to move its US-centric services right over the border to Canada, still within reach of American users. Videos would load slightly slower, but for today’s TikTok users, it would probably be acceptable. Without US advertisers ByteDance wouldn’t make much money, but it has operated at a loss for many years, so this wouldn’t be its death knell.
Finally, an even more restrictive approach Congress might take is actually the most dangerous: dangerous to Americans, not to TikTok. Congress might ban the use of TikTok by anyone in the United States. The Trump executive order would likely have had this effect, were it allowed to take effect. It required that US companies not engage in any sort of transaction with TikTok and prohibited circumventing the ban. . If the same restrictions were enacted by Congress instead, such a policy would leave business or technical implementation details to US companies, enforced through a variety of law enforcement agencies.
This would be an enormous change in how the Internet works in the United States. Unlike authoritarian states such as China, the US has a free, uncensored Internet. We have no technical ability to ban sites the government doesn’t like. Ironically, a blanket ban on the use of TikTok would necessitate a national firewall, like the one China currently has, to spy on and censor Americans’ access to the Internet. Or, at the least, authoritarian government powers like India’s, which could force Internet service providers to censor Internet traffic. Worse still, the main vendors of this censorship technology are in those authoritarian states. China, for example, sells its firewall technology to other censorship-loving autocracies such as Iran and Cuba.
All of these proposed solutions raise constitutional issues as well. The First Amendment protects speech and assembly. For example, the recently introduced Buck-Hawley bill, which instructs the president to use emergency powers to ban TikTok, might threaten separation of powers and may be relying on the same mechanisms used by Trump and stopped by the court. (Those specific emergency powers, provided by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, have a specific exemption for communications services.) And individual states trying to beat Congress to the punch in regulating TikTok or social media generally might violate the Constitution’s Commerce Clause—which restricts individual states from regulating interstate commerce—in doing so.
Right now, there’s nothing to stop Americans’ data from ending up overseas. We’ve seen plenty of instances—from Zoom to Clubhouse to others—where data about Americans collected by US companies ends up in China, not by accident but because of how those companies managed their data. And the Chinese government regularly steals data from US organizations for its own use: Equifax, Marriott Hotels, and the Office of Personnel Management are examples.
If we want to get serious about protecting national security, we have to get serious about data privacy. Today, data surveillance is the business model of the Internet. Our personal lives have turned into data; it’s not possible to block it at our national borders. Our data has no nationality, no cost to copy, and, currently, little legal protection. Like water, it finds every crack and flows to every low place. TikTok won’t be the last app or service from abroad that becomes popular, and it is distressingly ordinary in terms of how much it spies on us. Personal privacy is now a matter of national security. That needs to be part of any debate about banning TikTok.
This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.
EDITED TO ADD (3/13): Glenn Gerstell, former general counsel of the NSA, has similar things to say.
Side-Channel Attack against CRYSTALS-Kyber
[2023.02.28] CRYSTALS-Kyber is one of the public-key algorithms currently recommended by NIST as part of its post-quantum cryptography standardization process.
Researchers have just published a side-channel attack—using power consumption—against an implementation of the algorithm that was supposed to be resistant against that sort of attack.
The algorithm is not “broken” or “cracked”—despite headlines to the contrary—this is just a side-channel attack. What makes this work really interesting is that the researchers used a machine-learning model to train the system to exploit the side channel.
Fooling a Voice Authentication System with an AI-Generated Voice
[2023.03.01] A reporter used an AI synthesis of his own voice to fool the voice authentication system for Lloyd’s Bank.
Dumb Password Rules
[2023.03.02] Examples of dumb password rules.
There are some pretty bad disasters out there.
My worst experiences are with sites that have artificial complexity requirements that cause my personal password-generation systems to fail. Some of the systems on the list are even worse: when they fail they don’t tell you why, so you just have to guess until you get it right.
Nick Weaver on Regulating Cryptocurrency
[2023.03.03] Nicholas Weaver wrote an excellent paper on the problems of cryptocurrencies and the need to regulate the space—with all existing regulations. His conclusion:
Regulators, especially regulators in the United States, often fear accusations of stifling innovation. As such, the cryptocurrency space has grown over the past decade with very little regulatory oversight.
But fortunately for regulators, there is no actual innovation to stifle. Cryptocurrencies cannot revolutionize payments or finance, as the basic nature of all cryptocurrencies render them fundamentally unsuitable to revolutionize our financial system—which, by the way, already has decades of successful experience with digital payments and electronic money. The supposedly “decentralized” and “trustless” cryptocurrency systems, both technically and socially, fail to provide meaningful benefits to society—and indeed, necessarily also fail in their foundational claims of decentralization and trustlessness.
When regulating cryptocurrencies, the best starting point is history. Regulating various tokens is best done through the existing securities law framework, an area where the US has a near century of well-established law. It starts with regulating the issuance of new cryptocurrency tokens and related securities. This should substantially reduce the number of fraudulent offerings.
Similarly, active regulation of the cryptocurrency exchanges should offer substantial benefits, including eliminating significant consumer risk, blocking key money-laundering channels, and overall producing a far more regulated and far less manipulated market.
Finally, the stablecoins need basic regulation as money transmitters. Unless action is taken they risk becoming substantial conduits for money laundering, but requiring them to treat all users as customers should prevent this risk from developing further.
Read the whole thing.
New National Cybersecurity Strategy
[2023.03.06] Last week, the Biden administration released a new National Cybersecurity Strategy (summary here). There is lots of good commentary out there. It’s basically a smart strategy, but the hard parts are always the implementation details. It’s one thing to say that we need to secure our cloud infrastructure, and another to detail what the means technically, who pays for it, and who verifies that it’s been done.
One of the provisions getting the most attention is a move to shift liability to software vendors, something I’ve been advocating for since at least 2003.
Prompt Injection Attacks on Large Language Models
[2023.03.07] This is a good survey on prompt injection attacks on large language models (like ChatGPT).
Abstract: We are currently witnessing dramatic advances in the capabilities of Large Language Models (LLMs). They are already being adopted in practice and integrated into many systems, including integrated development environments (IDEs) and search engines. The functionalities of current LLMs can be modulated via natural language prompts, while their exact internal functionality remains implicit and unassessable. This property, which makes them adaptable to even unseen tasks, might also make them susceptible to targeted adversarial prompting. Recently, several ways to misalign LLMs using Prompt Injection (PI) attacks have been introduced. In such attacks, an adversary can prompt the LLM to produce malicious content or override the original instructions and the employed filtering schemes. Recent work showed that these attacks are hard to mitigate, as state-of-the-art LLMs are instruction-following. So far, these attacks assumed that the adversary is directly prompting the LLM.
In this work, we show that augmenting LLMs with retrieval and API calling capabilities (so-called Application-Integrated LLMs) induces a whole new set of attack vectors. These LLMs might process poisoned content retrieved from the Web that contains malicious prompts pre-injected and selected by adversaries. We demonstrate that an attacker can indirectly perform such PI attacks. Based on this key insight, we systematically analyze the resulting threat landscape of Application-Integrated LLMs and discuss a variety of new attack vectors. To demonstrate the practical viability of our attacks, we implemented specific demonstrations of the proposed attacks within synthetic applications. In summary, our work calls for an urgent evaluation of current mitigation techniques and an investigation of whether new techniques are needed to defend LLMs against these threats.
BlackLotus Malware Hijacks Windows Secure Boot Process
[2023.03.08] Researchers have discovered malware that “can hijack a computer’s boot process even when Secure Boot and other advanced protections are enabled and running on fully updated versions of Windows.”
Dubbed BlackLotus, the malware is what’s known as a UEFI bootkit. These sophisticated pieces of malware target the UEFI—short for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface—the low-level and complex chain of firmware responsible for booting up virtually every modern computer. As the mechanism that bridges a PC’s device firmware with its operating system, the UEFI is an OS in its own right. It’s located in an SPI-connected flash storage chip soldered onto the computer motherboard, making it difficult to inspect or patch. Previously discovered bootkits such as CosmicStrand, MosaicRegressor, and MoonBounce work by targeting the UEFI firmware stored in the flash storage chip. Others, including BlackLotus, target the software stored in the EFI system partition.
Because the UEFI is the first thing to run when a computer is turned on, it influences the OS, security apps, and all other software that follows. These traits make the UEFI the perfect place to launch malware. When successful, UEFI bootkits disable OS security mechanisms and ensure that a computer remains infected with stealthy malware that runs at the kernel mode or user mode, even after the operating system is reinstalled or a hard drive is replaced.
ESET has an analysis:
The number of UEFI vulnerabilities discovered in recent years and the failures in patching them or revoking vulnerable binaries within a reasonable time window hasn’t gone unnoticed by threat actors. As a result, the first publicly known UEFI bootkit bypassing the essential platform security feature—UEFI Secure Boot—is now a reality. In this blogpost we present the first public analysis of this UEFI bootkit, which is capable of running on even fully-up-to-date Windows 11 systems with UEFI Secure Boot enabled. Functionality of the bootkit and its individual features leads us to believe that we are dealing with a bootkit known as BlackLotus, the UEFI bootkit being sold on hacking forums for $5,000 since at least October 2022.
- It’s capable of running on the latest, fully patched Windows 11 systems with UEFI Secure Boot enabled.
- It exploits a more than one year old vulnerability (CVE-2022-21894) to bypass UEFI Secure Boot and set up persistence for the bootkit. This is the first publicly known, in-the-wild abuse of this vulnerability.
- Although the vulnerability was fixed in Microsoft’s January 2022 update, its exploitation is still possible as the affected, validly signed binaries have still not been added to the UEFI revocation list. BlackLotus takes advantage of this, bringing its own copies of legitimate—but vulnerable—binaries to the system in order to exploit the vulnerability.
- It’s capable of disabling OS security mechanisms such as BitLocker, HVCI, and Windows Defender.
- Once installed, the bootkit’s main goal is to deploy a kernel driver (which, among other things, protects the bootkit from removal), and an HTTP downloader responsible for communication with the C&C and capable of loading additional user-mode or kernel-mode payloads.
This is impressive stuff.
Another Malware with Persistence
[2023.03.09] Here’s a piece of Chinese malware that infects SonicWall security appliances and survives firmware updates.
On Thursday, security firm Mandiant published a report that said threat actors with a suspected nexus to China were engaged in a campaign to maintain long-term persistence by running malware on unpatched SonicWall SMA appliances. The campaign was notable for the ability of the malware to remain on the devices even after its firmware received new firmware.
“The attackers put significant effort into the stability and persistence of their tooling,” Mandiant researchers Daniel Lee, Stephen Eckels, and Ben Read wrote. “This allows their access to the network to persist through firmware updates and maintain a foothold on the network through the SonicWall Device.”
To achieve this persistence, the malware checks for available firmware upgrades every 10 seconds. When an update becomes available, the malware copies the archived file for backup, unzips it, mounts it, and then copies the entire package of malicious files to it. The malware also adds a backdoor root user to the mounted file. Then, the malware rezips the file so it’s ready for installation.
“The technique is not especially sophisticated, but it does show considerable effort on the part of the attacker to understand the appliance update cycle, then develop and test a method for persistence,” the researchers wrote.
[2023.03.10] An elephant uses its right-of-way privileges to stop sugar-cane trucks and grab food.
NetWire Remote Access Trojan Maker Arrested
[2023.03.14] From Brian Krebs:
A Croatian national has been arrested for allegedly operating NetWire, a Remote Access Trojan (RAT) marketed on cybercrime forums since 2012 as a stealthy way to spy on infected systems and siphon passwords. The arrest coincided with a seizure of the NetWire sales website by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). While the defendant in this case hasn’t yet been named publicly, the NetWire website has been leaking information about the likely true identity and location of its owner for the past 11 years.
The article details the mistakes that led to the person’s address.
How AI Could Write Our Laws
[2023.03.14] Nearly 90% of the multibillion-dollar federal lobbying apparatus in the United States serves corporate interests. In some cases, the objective of that money is obvious. Google pours millions into lobbying on bills related to antitrust regulation. Big energy companies expect action whenever there is a move to end drilling leases for federal lands, in exchange for the tens of millions they contribute to congressional reelection campaigns.
But lobbying strategies are not always so blunt, and the interests involved are not always so obvious. Consider, for example, a 2013 Massachusetts bill that tried to restrict the commercial use of data collected from K-12 students using services accessed via the internet. The bill appealed to many privacy-conscious education advocates, and appropriately so. But behind the justification of protecting students lay a market-altering policy: the bill was introduced at the behest of Microsoft lobbyists, in an effort to exclude Google Docs from classrooms.
What would happen if such legal-but-sneaky strategies for tilting the rules in favor of one group over another become more widespread and effective? We can see hints of an answer in the remarkable pace at which artificial-intelligence tools for everything from writing to graphic design are being developed and improved. And the unavoidable conclusion is that AI will make lobbying more guileful, and perhaps more successful.
It turns out there is a natural opening for this technology: microlegislation.
“Microlegislation” is a term for small pieces of proposed law that cater—sometimes unexpectedly—to narrow interests. Political scientist Amy McKay coined the term. She studied the 564 amendments to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) considered by the Senate Finance Committee in 2009, as well as the positions of 866 lobbying groups and their campaign contributions. She documented instances where lobbyist comments—on health-care research, vaccine services, and other provisions—were translated directly into microlegislation in the form of amendments. And she found that those groups’ financial contributions to specific senators on the committee increased the amendments’ chances of passing.
Her finding that lobbying works was no surprise. More important, McKay’s work demonstrated that computer models can predict the likely fate of proposed legislative amendments, as well as the paths by which lobbyists can most effectively secure their desired outcomes. And that turns out to be a critical piece of creating an AI lobbyist.
Lobbying has long been part of the give-and-take among human policymakers and advocates working to balance their competing interests. The danger of microlegislation—a danger greatly exacerbated by AI—is that it can be used in a way that makes it difficult to figure out who the legislation truly benefits.
Another word for a strategy like this is a “hack.” Hacks follow the rules of a system but subvert their intent. Hacking is often associated with computer systems, but the concept is also applicable to social systems like financial markets, tax codes, and legislative processes.
While the idea of monied interests incorporating AI assistive technologies into their lobbying remains hypothetical, specific machine-learning technologies exist today that would enable them to do so. We should expect these techniques to get better and their utilization to grow, just as we’ve seen in so many other domains.
Here’s how it might work.
Crafting an AI microlegislator
To make microlegislation, machine-learning systems must be able to uncover the smallest modification that could be made to a bill or existing law that would make the biggest impact on a narrow interest.
There are three basic challenges involved. First, you must create a policy proposal—small suggested changes to legal text—and anticipate whether or not a human reader would recognize the alteration as substantive. This is important; a change that isn’t detectable is more likely to pass without controversy. Second, you need to do an impact assessment to project the implications of that change for the short- or long-range financial interests of companies. Third, you need a lobbying strategizer to identify what levers of power to pull to get the best proposal into law.
Existing AI tools can tackle all three of these.
The first step, the policy proposal, leverages the core function of generative AI. Large language models, the sort that have been used for general-purpose chatbots such as ChatGPT, can easily be adapted to write like a native in different specialized domains after seeing a relatively small number of examples. This process is called fine-tuning. For example, a model “pre-trained” on a large library of generic text samples from books and the internet can be “fine-tuned” to work effectively on medical literature, computer science papers, and product reviews.
Given this flexibility and capacity for adaptation, a large language model could be fine-tuned to produce draft legislative texts, given a data set of previously offered amendments and the bills they were associated with. Training data is available. At the federal level, it’s provided by the US Government Publishing Office, and there are already tools for downloading and interacting with it. Most other jurisdictions provide similar data feeds, and there are even convenient assemblages of that data.
Meanwhile, large language models like the one underlying ChatGPT are routinely used for summarizing long, complex documents (even laws and computer code) to capture the essential points, and they are optimized to match human expectations. This capability could allow an AI assistant to automatically predict how detectable the true effect of a policy insertion may be to a human reader.
Today, it can take a highly paid team of human lobbyists days or weeks to generate and analyze alternative pieces of microlegislation on behalf of a client. With AI assistance, that could be done instantaneously and cheaply. This opens the door to dramatic increases in the scope of this kind of microlegislating, with a potential to scale across any number of bills in any jurisdiction.
Teaching machines to assess impact
Impact assessment is more complicated. There is a rich series of methods for quantifying the predicted outcome of a decision or policy, and then also optimizing the return under that model. This kind of approach goes by different names in different circles—mathematical programming in management science, utility maximization in economics, and rational design in the life sciences.
To train an AI to do this, we would need to specify some way to calculate the benefit to different parties as a result of a policy choice. That could mean estimating the financial return to different companies under a few different scenarios of taxation or regulation. Economists are skilled at building risk models like this, and companies are already required to formulate and disclose regulatory compliance risk factors to investors. Such a mathematical model could translate directly into a reward function, a grading system that could provide feedback for the model used to create policy proposals and direct the process of training it.
The real challenge in impact assessment for generative AI models would be to parse the textual output of a model like ChatGPT in terms that an economic model could readily use. Automating this would require extracting structured financial information from the draft amendment or any legalese surrounding it. This kind of information extraction, too, is an area where AI has a long history; for example, AI systems have been trained to recognize clinical details in doctors’ notes. Early indications are that large language models are fairly good at recognizing financial information in texts such as investor call transcripts. While it remains an open challenge in the field, they may even be capable of writing out multi-step plans based on descriptions in free text.
Machines as strategists
The last piece of the puzzle is a lobbying strategizer to figure out what actions to take to convince lawmakers to adopt the amendment.
Passing legislation requires a keen understanding of the complex interrelated networks of legislative offices, outside groups, executive agencies, and other stakeholders vying to serve their own interests. Each actor in this network has a baseline perspective and different factors that influence that point of view. For example, a legislator may be moved by seeing an allied stakeholder take a firm position, or by a negative news story, or by a campaign contribution.
It turns out that AI developers are very experienced at modeling these kinds of networks. Machine-learning models for network graphs have been built, refined, improved, and iterated by hundreds of researchers working on incredibly diverse problems: lidar scans used to guide self-driving cars, the chemical functions of molecular structures, the capture of motion in actors’ joints for computer graphics, behaviors in social networks, and more.
In the context of AI-assisted lobbying, political actors like legislators and lobbyists are nodes on a graph, just like users in a social network. Relations between them are graph edges, like social connections. Information can be passed along those edges, like messages sent to a friend or campaign contributions made to a member. AI models can use past examples to learn to estimate how that information changes the network. Calculating the likelihood that a campaign contribution of a given size will flip a legislator’s vote on an amendment is one application.
McKay’s work has already shown us that there are significant, predictable relationships between these actions and the outcomes of legislation, and that the work of discovering those can be automated. Others have shown that graphs of neural network models like those described above can be applied to political systems. The full-scale use of these technologies to guide lobbying strategy is theoretical, but plausible.
Put together, these three components could create an automatic system for generating profitable microlegislation. The policy proposal system would create millions, even billions, of possible amendments. The impact assessor would identify the few that promise to be most profitable to the client. And the lobbying strategy tool would produce a blueprint for getting them passed.
What remains is for human lobbyists to walk the floors of the Capitol or state house, and perhaps supply some cash to grease the wheels. These final two aspects of lobbying—access and financing—cannot be supplied by the AI tools we envision. This suggests that lobbying will continue to primarily benefit those who are already influential and wealthy, and AI assistance will amplify their existing advantages.
The transformative benefit that AI offers to lobbyists and their clients is scale. While individual lobbyists tend to focus on the federal level or a single state, with AI assistance they could more easily infiltrate a large number of state-level (or even local-level) law-making bodies and elections. At that level, where the average cost of a seat is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars instead of millions, a single donor can wield a lot of influence—if automation makes it possible to coordinate lobbying across districts.
How to stop them
When it comes to combating the potentially adverse effects of assistive AI, the first response always seems to be to try to detect whether or not content was AI-generated. We could imagine a defensive AI that detects anomalous lobbyist spending associated with amendments that benefit the contributing group. But by then, the damage might already be done.
In general, methods for detecting the work of AI tend not to keep pace with its ability to generate convincing content. And these strategies won’t be implemented by AIs alone. The lobbyists will still be humans who take the results of an AI microlegislator and further refine the computer’s strategies. These hybrid human-AI systems will not be detectable from their output.
But the good news is: the same strategies that have long been used to combat misbehavior by human lobbyists can still be effective when those lobbyists get an AI assist. We don’t need to reinvent our democracy to stave off the worst risks of AI; we just need to more fully implement long-standing ideals.
First, we should reduce the dependence of legislatures on monolithic, multi-thousand-page omnibus bills voted on under deadline. This style of legislating exploded in the 1980s and 1990s and continues through to the most recent federal budget bill. Notwithstanding their legitimate benefits to the political system, omnibus bills present an obvious and proven vehicle for inserting unnoticed provisions that may later surprise the same legislators who approved them.
The issue is not that individual legislators need more time to read and understand each bill (that isn’t realistic or even necessary). It’s that omnibus bills must pass. There is an imperative to pass a federal budget bill, and so the capacity to push back on individual provisions that may seem deleterious (or just impertinent) to any particular group is small. Bills that are too big to fail are ripe for hacking by microlegislation.
Moreover, the incentive for legislators to introduce microlegislation catering to a narrow interest is greater if the threat of exposure is lower. To strengthen the threat of exposure for misbehaving legislative sponsors, bills should focus more tightly on individual substantive areas and, after the introduction of amendments, allow more time before the committee and floor votes. During this time, we should encourage public review and testimony to provide greater oversight.
Second, we should strengthen disclosure requirements on lobbyists, whether they’re entirely human or AI-assisted. State laws regarding lobbying disclosure are a hodgepodge. North Dakota, for example, only requires lobbying reports to be filed annually, so that by the time a disclosure is made, the policy is likely already decided. A lobbying disclosure scorecard created by Open Secrets, a group researching the influence of money in US politics, tracks nine states that do not even require lobbyists to report their compensation.
Ideally, it would be great for the public to see all communication between lobbyists and legislators, whether it takes the form of a proposed amendment or not. Absent that, let’s give the public the benefit of reviewing what lobbyists are lobbying for—and why. Lobbying is traditionally an activity that happens behind closed doors. Right now, many states reinforce that: they actually exempt testimony delivered publicly to a legislature from being reported as lobbying.
In those jurisdictions, if you reveal your position to the public, you’re no longer lobbying. Let’s do the inverse: require lobbyists to reveal their positions on issues. Some jurisdictions already require a statement of position (a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’) from registered lobbyists. And in most (but not all) states, you could make a public records request regarding meetings held with a state legislator and hope to get something substantive back. But we can expect more—lobbyists could be required to proactively publish, within a few days, a brief summary of what they demanded of policymakers during meetings and why they believe it’s in the general interest.
We can’t rely on corporations to be forthcoming and wholly honest about the reasons behind their lobbying positions. But having them on the record about their intentions would at least provide a baseline for accountability.
Finally, consider the role AI assistive technologies may have on lobbying firms themselves and the labor market for lobbyists. Many observers are rightfully concerned about the possibility of AI replacing or devaluing the human labor it automates. If the automating potential of AI ends up commodifying the work of political strategizing and message development, it may indeed put some professionals on K Street out of work.
But don’t expect that to disrupt the careers of the most astronomically compensated lobbyists: former members Congress and other insiders who have passed through the revolving door. There is no shortage of reform ideas for limiting the ability of government officials turned lobbyists to sell access to their colleagues still in government, and they should be adopted and—equally important—maintained and enforced in successive Congresses and administrations.
None of these solutions are really original, specific to the threats posed by AI, or even predominantly focused on microlegislation—and that’s the point. Good governance should and can be robust to threats from a variety of techniques and actors.
But what makes the risks posed by AI especially pressing now is how fast the field is developing. We expect the scale, strategies, and effectiveness of humans engaged in lobbying to evolve over years and decades. Advancements in AI, meanwhile, seem to be making impressive breakthroughs at a much faster pace—and it’s still accelerating.
The legislative process is a constant struggle between parties trying to control the rules of our society as they are updated, rewritten, and expanded at the federal, state, and local levels. Lobbying is an important tool for balancing various interests through our system. If it’s well-regulated, perhaps lobbying can support policymakers in making equitable decisions on behalf of us all.
This article was co-written with Nathan E. Sanders and originally appeared in MIT Technology Review.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements
[2023.03.14] This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
- I’m speaking on “How to Reclaim Power in the Digital World” at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday, March 16, 2023, at 5:30 PM CET.
- I’ll be discussing my new book A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules at Harvard Science Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, on Friday, March 31, 2023, at 6:00 PM EDT.
- I’ll be discussing my book A Hacker’s Mind with Julia Angwin at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice in New York City, on Thursday, April 6, 2023, at 6:30 PM EDT.
- I’m speaking at IT-S Now 2023 in Vienna, Austria, on June 2, 2023, at 8:30 AM CEST.
The list is maintained on this page.
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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, A Hacker’s Mind—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 © 2023 by Bruce Schneier.