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Corporate Involvement in International Cybersecurity Treaties

The Paris Call for Trust and Stability in Cyberspace is an initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron during the 2018 UNESCO’s Internet Governance Forum. It’s an attempt by the world’s governments to come together and create a set of international norms and standards for a reliable, trustworthy, safe, and secure Internet. It’s not an international treaty, but it does impose obligations on the signatories. It’s a major milestone for global Internet security and safety.

Corporate interests are all over this initiative, sponsoring and managing different parts of the process. As part of the Call, the French company Cigref and the Russian company Kaspersky chaired a working group on cybersecurity processes, along with French research center GEODE. Another working group on international norms was chaired by US company Microsoft and Finnish company F-Secure, along with a University of Florence research center. A third working group’s participant list includes more corporations than any other group.

As a result, this process has become very different than previous international negotiations. Instead of governments coming together to create standards, it is being drive by the very corporations that the new international regulatory climate is supposed to govern. This is wrong.

The companies making the tools and equipment being regulated shouldn’t be the ones negotiating the international regulatory climate, and their executives shouldn’t be named to key negotiation roles without appointment and confirmation. It’s an abdication of responsibility by the US government for something that is too important to be treated this cavalierly.

On the one hand, this is no surprise. The notions of trust and stability in cyberspace are about much more than international safety and security. They’re about market share and corporate profits. And corporations have long led policymakers in the fast-moving and highly technological battleground that is cyberspace.

The international Internet has always relied on what is known as a multistakeholder model, where those who show up and do the work can be more influential than those in charge of governments. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that agrees on the technical protocols that make the Internet work, is largely run by volunteer individuals. This worked best during the Internet’s era of benign neglect, where no one but the technologists cared. Today, it’s different. Corporate and government interests dominate, even if the individuals involved use the polite fiction of their own names and personal identities.

However, we are a far cry from decades past, where the Internet was something that governments didn’t understand and largely ignored. Today, the Internet is an essential infrastructure that underpins much of society, and its governance structure is something that nations care about deeply. Having for-profit tech companies run the Paris Call process on regulating tech is analogous to putting the defense contractors Northrop Grumman or Boeing in charge of the 1970s SALT nuclear agreements between the US and the Soviet Union.

This also isn’t the first time that US corporations have led what should be an international relations process regarding the Internet. Since he first gave a speech on the topic in 2017, Microsoft President Brad Smith has become almost synonymous with the term “Digital Geneva Convention.” It’s not just that corporations in the US and elsewhere are taking a lead on international diplomacy, they’re framing the debate down to the words and the concepts.

Why is this happening? Different countries have their own problems, but we can point to three that currently plague the US.

First and foremost, “cyber” still isn’t taken seriously by much of the government, specifically the State Department. It’s not real to the older military veterans, or to the even older politicians who confuse Facebook with TikTok and use the same password for everything. It’s not even a topic area for negotiations for the US Trade Representative. Nuclear disarmament is “real geopolitics,” while the Internet is still, even now, seen as vaguely magical, and something that can be “fixed” by having the nerds yank plugs out of a wall.

Second, the State Department was gutted during the Trump years. It lost many of the up-and-coming public servants who understood the way the world was changing. The work of previous diplomats to increase the visibility of the State Department’s cyber efforts was abandoned. There are few left on staff to do this work, and even fewer to decide if they’re any good. It’s hard to hire senior information security professionals in the best of circumstances; it’s why charlatans so easily flourish in the cybersecurity field. The built-up skill set of the people who poured their effort and time into this work during the Obama years is gone.

Third, there’s a power struggle at the heart of the US government involving cyber issues, between the White House, the Department of Homeland Security (represented by CISA), and the military (represented by US Cyber Command). Trying to create another cyber center of power within the State Department threatens those existing powers. It’s easier to leave it in the hands of private industry, which does not affect those government organizations’ budgets or turf.

We don’t want to go back to the era when only governments set technological standards. The governance model from the days of the telephone is another lesson in how not to do things. The International Telecommunications Union is an agency run out of the United Nations. It is moribund and ponderous precisely because it is run by national governments, with civil society and corporations largely alienated from the decision-making processes.

Today, the Internet is fundamental to global society. It’s part of everything. It affects national security and will be a theater in any future war. How individuals, corporations, and governments act in cyberspace is critical to our future. The Internet is critical infrastructure. It provides and controls access to healthcare, space, the military, water, energy, education, and nuclear weaponry. How it is regulated isn’t just something that will affect the future. It is the future.

Since the Paris Call was finalized in 2018, it has been signed by 81 countries — including the US in 2021 — 36 local governments and public authorities, 706 companies and private organizations, and 390 civil society groups. The Paris Call isn’t the first international agreement that puts companies on an equal signatory footing as governments. The Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism and the Christchurch Call to eliminate extremist content online do the same thing. But the Paris Call is different. It’s bigger. It’s more important. It’s something that should be the purview of governments and not a vehicle for corporate power and profit.

When something as important as the Paris Call comes along again, perhaps in UN negotiations for a cybercrime treaty, we call for actual State Department officials with technical expertise to be sitting at the table with the interests of the entire US in their pocket…not people with equity shares to protect.

This essay was written with Tarah Wheeler, and previously published on The Cipher Brief.

Posted on May 6, 2022 at 6:01 AMView Comments

15.3 Million Request-Per-Second DDoS Attack

Cloudflare is reporting a large DDoS attack against an unnamed company “operating a crypto launchpad.”

While this isn’t the largest application-layer attack we’ve seen, it is the largest we’ve seen over HTTPS. HTTPS DDoS attacks are more expensive in terms of required computational resources because of the higher cost of establishing a secure TLS encrypted connection. Therefore it costs the attacker more to launch the attack, and for the victim to mitigate it. We’ve seen very large attacks in the past over (unencrypted) HTTP, but this attack stands out because of the resources it required at its scale.

The attack only lasted 15 seconds. No word on motive. Was this a test? Or was that 15-second delay critical for some other fraud?

News article.

Posted on May 5, 2022 at 6:02 AMView Comments

New Sophisticated Malware

Mandiant is reporting on a new botnet.

The group, which security firm Mandiant is calling UNC3524, has spent the past 18 months burrowing into victims’ networks with unusual stealth. In cases where the group is ejected, it wastes no time reinfecting the victim environment and picking up where things left off. There are many keys to its stealth, including:

  • The use of a unique backdoor Mandiant calls Quietexit, which runs on load balancers, wireless access point controllers, and other types of IoT devices that don’t support antivirus or endpoint detection. This makes detection through traditional means difficult.
  • Customized versions of the backdoor that use file names and creation dates that are similar to legitimate files used on a specific infected device.
  • A live-off-the-land approach that favors common Windows programming interfaces and tools over custom code with the goal of leaving as light a footprint as possible.
  • An unusual way a second-stage backdoor connects to attacker-controlled infrastructure by, in essence, acting as a TLS-encrypted server that proxies data through the SOCKS protocol.

[…]

Unpacking this threat group is difficult. From outward appearances, their focus on corporate transactions suggests a financial interest. But UNC3524’s high-caliber tradecraft, proficiency with sophisticated IoT botnets, and ability to remain undetected for so long suggests something more.

From Mandiant:

Throughout their operations, the threat actor demonstrated sophisticated operational security that we see only a small number of threat actors demonstrate. The threat actor evaded detection by operating from devices in the victim environment’s blind spots, including servers running uncommon versions of Linux and network appliances running opaque OSes. These devices and appliances were running versions of operating systems that were unsupported by agent-based security tools, and often had an expected level of network traffic that allowed the attackers to blend in. The threat actor’s use of the QUIETEXIT tunneler allowed them to largely live off the land, without the need to bring in additional tools, further reducing the opportunity for detection. This allowed UNC3524 to remain undetected in victim environments for, in some cases, upwards of 18 months.

Posted on May 4, 2022 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Using Pupil Reflection in Smartphone Camera Selfies

Researchers are using the reflection of the smartphone in the pupils of faces taken as selfies to infer information about how the phone is being used:

For now, the research is focusing on six different ways a user can hold a device like a smartphone: with both hands, just the left, or just the right in portrait mode, and the same options in horizontal mode.

It’s not a lot of information, but it’s a start. (It’ll be a while before we can reproduce these results from Blade Runner.)

Research paper.

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:17 AMView Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Ten-Foot Long Squid Washed onto Japanese Shore — ALIVE

This is rare:

An about 3-meter-long giant squid was found stranded on a beach here on April 20, in what local authorities said was a rare occurrence.

At around 10 a.m., a nearby resident spotted the squid at Ugu beach in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast. According to the Obama Municipal Government, the squid was still alive when it was found. It is unusual for a giant squid to be washed ashore alive, officials said.

The deep-sea creature will be transported to Echizen Matsushima Aquarium in the prefectural city of Sakai.

Sadly, I do not expect the giant squid to survive, certainly not long enough for me to fly there and see it. But if any Japanese readers can supply more information, I would very much appreciate it.

BoingBoing post. Video.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on April 29, 2022 at 4:08 PMView Comments

Video Conferencing Apps Sometimes Ignore the Mute Button

New research: “Are You Really Muted?: A Privacy Analysis of Mute Buttons in Video Conferencing Apps“:

Abstract: In the post-pandemic era, video conferencing apps (VCAs) have converted previously private spaces — bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens — into semi-public extensions of the office. And for the most part, users have accepted these apps in their personal space, without much thought about the permission models that govern the use of their personal data during meetings. While access to a device’s video camera is carefully controlled, little has been done to ensure the same level of privacy for accessing the microphone. In this work, we ask the question: what happens to the microphone data when a user clicks the mute button in a VCA? We first conduct a user study to analyze users’ understanding of the permission model of the mute button. Then, using runtime binary analysis tools, we trace raw audio in many popular VCAs as it traverses the app from the audio driver to the network. We find fragmented policies for dealing with microphone data among VCAs — some continuously monitor the microphone input during mute, and others do so periodically. One app transmits statistics of the audio to its telemetry servers while the app is muted. Using network traffic that we intercept en route to the telemetry server, we implement a proof-of-concept background activity classifier and demonstrate the feasibility of inferring the ongoing background activity during a meeting — cooking, cleaning, typing, etc. We achieved 81.9% macro accuracy on identifying six common background activities using intercepted outgoing telemetry packets when a user is muted.

The paper will be presented at PETS this year.

News article.

Posted on April 29, 2022 at 9:18 AMView Comments

Microsoft Issues Report of Russian Cyberattacks against Ukraine

Microsoft has a comprehensive report on the dozens of cyberattacks — and even more espionage operations — Russia has conducted against Ukraine as part of this war:

At least six Russian Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors and other unattributed threats, have conducted destructive attacks, espionage operations, or both, while Russian military forces attack the country by land, air, and sea. It is unclear whether computer network operators and physical forces are just independently pursuing a common set of priorities or actively coordinating. However, collectively, the cyber and kinetic actions work to disrupt or degrade Ukrainian government and military functions and undermine the public’s trust in those same institutions.

[…]

Threat groups with known or suspected ties to the GRU have continuously developed and used destructive wiper malware or similarly destructive tools on targeted Ukrainian networks at a pace of two to three incidents a week since the eve of invasion. From February 23 to April 8, we saw evidence of nearly 40 discrete destructive attacks that permanently destroyed files in hundreds of systems across dozens of organizations in Ukraine.

Posted on April 28, 2022 at 9:15 AMView Comments

Zero-Day Vulnerabilities Are on the Rise

Both Google and Mandiant are reporting a significant increase in the number of zero-day vulnerabilities reported in 2021.

Google:

2021 included the detection and disclosure of 58 in-the-wild 0-days, the most ever recorded since Project Zero began tracking in mid-2014. That’s more than double the previous maximum of 28 detected in 2015 and especially stark when you consider that there were only 25 detected in 2020. We’ve tracked publicly known in-the-wild 0-day exploits in this spreadsheet since mid-2014.

While we often talk about the number of 0-day exploits used in-the-wild, what we’re actually discussing is the number of 0-day exploits detected and disclosed as in-the-wild. And that leads into our first conclusion: we believe the large uptick in in-the-wild 0-days in 2021 is due to increased detection and disclosure of these 0-days, rather than simply increased usage of 0-day exploits.

Mandiant:

In 2021, Mandiant Threat Intelligence identified 80 zero-days exploited in the wild, which is more than double the previous record volume in 2019. State-sponsored groups continue to be the primary actors exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities, led by Chinese groups. The proportion of financially motivated actors­ — particularly ransomware groups — ­deploying zero-day exploits also grew significantly, and nearly 1 in 3 identified actors exploiting zero-days in 2021 was financially motivated. Threat actors exploited zero-days in Microsoft, Apple, and Google products most frequently, likely reflecting the popularity of these vendors. The vast increase in zero-day exploitation in 2021, as well as the diversification of actors using them, expands the risk portfolio for organizations in nearly every industry sector and geography, particularly those that rely on these popular systems.

News article.

Posted on April 27, 2022 at 1:40 PMView Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Skin–Inspired Insulating Material

Interesting:

Drawing inspiration from cephalopod skin, engineers at the University of California, Irvine invented an adaptive composite material that can insulate beverage cups, restaurant to-go bags, parcel boxes and even shipping containers.

[…]

“The metal islands in our composite material are next to one another when the material is relaxed and become separated when the material is stretched, allowing for control of the reflection and transmission of infrared light or heat dissipation,” said Gorodetsky. “The mechanism is analogous to chromatophore expansion and contraction in a squid’s skin, which alters the reflection and transmission of visible light.”

Chromatophore size changes help squids communicate and camouflage their bodies to evade predators and hide from prey. Gorodetsky said by mimicking this approach, his team has enabled “tunable thermoregulation” in their material, which can lead to improved energy efficiency and protect sensitive fingers from hot surfaces.

Research paper.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on April 22, 2022 at 4:04 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.