Entries Tagged "anonymity"

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NSA Targets the Privacy-Conscious for Surveillance

Jake Appelbaum et al., are reporting on XKEYSCORE selection rules that target users — and people who just visit the websites of — Tor, Tails, and other sites. This isn’t just metadata; this is “full take” content that’s stored forever.

This code demonstrates the ease with which an XKeyscore rule can analyze the full content of intercepted connections. The fingerprint first checks every message using the “email_address” function to see if the message is to or from “bridges@torproject.org”. Next, if the address matched, it uses the “email_body” function to search the full content of the email for a particular piece of text – in this case, “https://bridges.torproject.org/”. If the “email_body” function finds what it is looking for, it passes the full email text to a C++ program which extracts the bridge addresses and stores them in a database.


It is interesting to note that this rule specifically avoids fingerprinting users believed to be located in Five Eyes countries, while other rules make no such distinction. For instance, the following fingerprint targets users visiting the Tails and Linux Journal websites, or performing certain web searches related to Tails, and makes no distinction about the country of the user.


There are also rules that target users of numerous other privacy-focused internet services, including HotSpotShield, FreeNet, Centurian, FreeProxies.org, MegaProxy, privacy.li and an anonymous email service called MixMinion as well as its predecessor MixMaster. The appid rule for MixMinion is extremely broad as it matches all traffic to or from the IP address, a server located on the MIT campus.

It’s hard to tell how extensive this is. It’s possible that anyone who clicked on this link — with the embedded torproject.org URL above — is currently being monitored by the NSA. It’s possible that this only will happen to people who receive the link in e-mail, which will mean every Crypto-Gram subscriber in a couple of weeks. And I don’t know what else the NSA harvests about people who it selects in this manner.

Whatever the case, this is very disturbing.

EDITED TO ADD (7/3): The BoingBoing story says that this was first published on Tagesschau. Can someone who can read German please figure out where this originated.

And, since Cory said it, I do not believe that this came from the Snowden documents. I also don’t believe the TAO catalog came from the Snowden documents. I think there’s a second leaker out there.

EDITED TO ADD (7/3): More news stories. Thread on Reddit. I don’t expect this to get much coverage in the US mainstream media.

EDITED TO ADD (7/3): Here is the code. In part:

These variables define terms and websites relating to the TAILs (The Amnesic
Incognito Live System) software program, a comsec mechanism advocated by
extremists on extremist forums.

$TAILS_terms=word(‘tails’ or ‘Amnesiac Incognito Live System’) and
or ‘ USB ‘ or ‘ CD ‘ or ‘secure desktop’ or ‘ IRC ‘ or ‘truecrypt’ or ‘
tor ‘);
$TAILS_websites=(‘tails.boum.org/’) or (‘linuxjournal.com/content/linux*’);

This fingerprint identifies users searching for the TAILs (The Amnesic
Incognito Live System) software program, viewing documents relating to
or viewing websites that detail TAILs.
fingerprint(‘documents/comsec/tails_doc’) or web_search($TAILS_terms) or
url($TAILS_websites) or html_title($TAILS_websites);

Hacker News and Slashdot threads. ArsTechnica and Wired articles.

EDITED TO ADD (7/4): EFF points out that it is illegal to target someone for surveillance solely based on their reading:

The idea that it is suspicious to install, or even simply want to learn more about, tools that might help to protect your privacy and security underlies these definitions — and it’s a problem. Everyone needs privacy and security, online and off. It isn’t suspicious to buy curtains for your home or lock your front door. So merely reading about curtains certainly shouldn’t qualify you for extra scrutiny.

Even the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court recognizes this, as the FISA prohibits targeting people or conducting investigations based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment. Regardless of whether the NSA is relying on FISA to authorize this activity or conducting the spying overseas, it is deeply problematic.

Posted on July 3, 2014 at 11:01 AMView Comments

Risks of Not Understanding a One-Way Function

New York City officials anonymized license plate data by hashing the individual plate numbers with MD5. (I know, they shouldn’t have used MD5, but ignore that for a moment.) Because they didn’t attach long random strings to the plate numbers — i.e., salt — it was trivially easy to hash all valid license plate numbers and deanonymize all the data.

Of course, this technique is not news.

ArsTechnica article. Hacker News thread.

Posted on June 25, 2014 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Putin Requires Russian Bloggers to Register with the Government

This is not good news.

Widely known as the “bloggers law,” the new Russian measure specifies that any site with more than 3,000 visitors daily will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and be responsible for the accuracy of the information published.

Besides registering, bloggers can no longer remain anonymous online, and organizations that provide platforms for their work such as search engines, social networks and other forums must maintain computer records on Russian soil of everything posted over the previous six months.

Posted on May 9, 2014 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Tor User Identified by FBI

Eldo Kim sent an e-mail bomb threat to Harvard so he could skip a final exam. (It’s just a coincidence that I was on the Harvard campus that day.) Even though he used an anonymous account and Tor, the FBI identified him. Reading the criminal complaint, it seems that the FBI got itself a list of Harvard users that accessed the Tor network, and went through them one by one to find the one who sent the threat.

This is one of the problems of using a rare security tool. The very thing that gives you plausible deniability also makes you the most likely suspect. The FBI didn’t have to break Tor; they just used conventional police mechanisms to get Kim to confess.

Tor didn’t break; Kim did.

Posted on December 18, 2013 at 9:59 AMView Comments

Tor Appliance

Safeplug is an easy-to-use Tor appliance. I like that it can also act as a Tor exit node.

EDITED TO ADD: I know nothing about this appliance, nor do I endorse it. In fact, I would like it to be independently audited before we start trusting it. But it’s a fascinating proof-of-concept of encapsulating security so that normal Internet users can use it.

Posted on November 27, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Surveillance as a Business Model

Google recently announced that it would start including individual users’ names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached—without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.

These changes come on the heels of Google’s move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.

More generally, lots of companies are evading the “Do Not Track” rules, meant to give users a say in whether companies track them. Turns out the whole “Do Not Track” legislation has been a sham.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.

If these features don’t sound particularly beneficial to you, it’s because you’re not the customer of any of these companies. You’re the product, and you’re being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.

This is nothing new. For years, these sites and others have systematically improved their “product” by reducing user privacy. This excellent infographic, for example, illustrates how Facebook has done so over the years.

The “Do Not Track” law serves as a sterling example of how bad things are. When it was proposed, it was supposed to give users the right to demand that Internet companies not track them. Internet companies fought hard against the law, and when it was passed, they fought to ensure that it didn’t have any benefit to users. Right now, complying is entirely voluntary, meaning that no Internet company has to follow the law. If a company does, because it wants the PR benefit of seeming to take user privacy seriously, it can still track its users.

Really: if you tell a “Do Not Track”-enabled company that you don’t want to be tracked, it will stop showing you personalized ads. But your activity will be tracked — and your personal information collected, sold and used — just like everyone else’s. It’s best to think of it as a “track me in secret” law.

Of course, people don’t think of it that way. Most people aren’t fully aware of how much of their data is collected by these sites. And, as the “Do Not Track” story illustrates, Internet companies are doing their best to keep it that way.

The result is a world where our most intimate personal details are collected and stored. I used to say that Google has a more intimate picture of what I’m thinking of than my wife does. But that’s not far enough: Google has a more intimate picture than I do. The company knows exactly what I am thinking about, how much I am thinking about it, and when I stop thinking about it: all from my Google searches. And it remembers all of that forever.

As the Edward Snowden revelations continue to expose the full extent of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on the Internet, it has become increasingly obvious how much of that has been enabled by the corporate world’s existing eavesdropping on the Internet.

The public/private surveillance partnership is fraying, but it’s largely alive and well. The NSA didn’t build its eavesdropping system from scratch; it got itself a copy of what the corporate world was already collecting.

There are a lot of reasons why Internet surveillance is so prevalent and pervasive.

One, users like free things, and don’t realize how much value they’re giving away to get it. We know that “free” is a special price that confuses peoples’ thinking.

Google’s 2013 third quarter profits were nearly $3 billion; that profit is the difference between how much our privacy is worth and the cost of the services we receive in exchange for it.

Two, Internet companies deliberately make privacy not salient. When you log onto Facebook, you don’t think about how much personal information you’re revealing to the company; you’re chatting with your friends. When you wake up in the morning, you don’t think about how you’re going to allow a bunch of companies to track you throughout the day; you just put your cell phone in your pocket.

And three, the Internet’s winner-takes-all market means that privacy-preserving alternatives have trouble getting off the ground. How many of you know that there is a Google alternative called DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track you? Or that you can use cut-out sites to anonymize your Google queries? I have opted out of Facebook, and I know it affects my social life.

There are two types of changes that need to happen in order to fix this. First, there’s the market change. We need to become actual customers of these sites so we can use purchasing power to force them to take our privacy seriously. But that’s not enough. Because of the market failures surrounding privacy, a second change is needed. We need government regulations that protect our privacy by limiting what these sites can do with our data.

Surveillance is the business model of the Internet — Al Gore recently called it a “stalker economy.” All major websites run on advertising, and the more personal and targeted that advertising is, the more revenue the site gets for it. As long as we users remain the product, there is minimal incentive for these companies to provide any real privacy.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on November 25, 2013 at 6:53 AMView Comments

How the NSA Attacks Tor/Firefox Users With QUANTUM and FOXACID

The online anonymity network Tor is a high-priority target for the National Security Agency. The work of attacking Tor is done by the NSA‘s application vulnerabilities branch, which is part of the systems intelligence directorate, or SID. The majority of NSA employees work in SID, which is tasked with collecting data from communications systems around the world.

According to a top-secret NSA presentation provided by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, one successful technique the NSA has developed involves exploiting the Tor browser bundle, a collection of programs designed to make it easy for people to install and use the software. The trick identifies Tor users on the Internet and then executes an attack against their Firefox web browser.

The NSA refers to these capabilities as CNE, or computer network exploitation.

The first step of this process is finding Tor users. To accomplish this, the NSA relies on its vast capability to monitor large parts of the Internet. This is done via the agency’s partnership with US telecoms firms under programs codenamed Stormbrew, Fairview, Oakstar and Blarney.

The NSA creates “fingerprints” that detect HTTP requests from the Tor network to particular servers. These fingerprints are loaded into NSA database systems like XKeyscore, a bespoke collection and analysis tool that NSA boasts allows its analysts to see “almost everything” a target does on the Internet.

Using powerful data analysis tools with codenames such as Turbulence, Turmoil and Tumult, the NSA automatically sifts through the enormous amount of Internet traffic that it sees, looking for Tor connections.

Last month, Brazilian TV news show Fantastico showed screenshots of an NSA tool that had the ability to identify Tor users by monitoring Internet traffic.

The very feature that makes Tor a powerful anonymity service, and the fact that all Tor users look alike on the Internet, makes it easy to differentiate Tor users from other web users. On the other hand, the anonymity provided by Tor makes it impossible for the NSA to know who the user is, or whether or not the user is in the US.

After identifying an individual Tor user on the Internet, the NSA uses its network of secret Internet servers to redirect those users to another set of secret Internet servers, with the codename FoxAcid, to infect the user’s computer. FoxAcid is an NSA system designed to act as a matchmaker between potential targets and attacks developed by the NSA, giving the agency opportunity to launch prepared attacks against their systems.

Once the computer is successfully attacked, it secretly calls back to a FoxAcid server, which then performs additional attacks on the target computer to ensure that it remains compromised long-term, and continues to provide eavesdropping information back to the NSA.

Exploiting the Tor browser bundle

Tor is a well-designed and robust anonymity tool, and successfully attacking it is difficult. The NSA attacks we found individually target Tor users by exploiting vulnerabilities in their Firefox browsers, and not the Tor application directly.

This, too, is difficult. Tor users often turn off vulnerable services like scripts and Flash when using Tor, making it difficult to target those services. Even so, the NSA uses a series of native Firefox vulnerabilities to attack users of the Tor browser bundle.

According to the training presentation provided by Snowden, EgotisticalGiraffe exploits a type confusion vulnerability in E4X, which is an XML extension for JavaScript. This vulnerability exists in Firefox 11.0 — 16.0.2, as well as Firefox 10.0 ESR — the Firefox version used until recently in the Tor browser bundle. According to another document, the vulnerability exploited by EgotisticalGiraffe was inadvertently fixed when Mozilla removed the E4X library with the vulnerability, and when Tor added that Firefox version into the Tor browser bundle, but NSA were confident that they would be able to find a replacement Firefox exploit that worked against version 17.0 ESR.

The Quantum system

To trick targets into visiting a FoxAcid server, the NSA relies on its secret partnerships with US telecoms companies. As part of the Turmoil system, the NSA places secret servers, codenamed Quantum, at key places on the Internet backbone. This placement ensures that they can react faster than other websites can. By exploiting that speed difference, these servers can impersonate a visited website to the target before the legitimate website can respond, thereby tricking the target’s browser to visit a Foxacid server.

In the academic literature, these are called “man-in-the-middle” attacks, and have been known to the commercial and academic security communities. More specifically, they are examples of “man-on-the-side” attacks.

They are hard for any organization other than the NSA to reliably execute, because they require the attacker to have a privileged position on the Internet backbone, and exploit a “race condition” between the NSA server and the legitimate website. This top-secret NSA diagram, made public last month, shows a Quantum server impersonating Google in this type of attack.

The NSA uses these fast Quantum servers to execute a packet injection attack, which surreptitiously redirects the target to the FoxAcid server. An article in the German magazine Spiegel, based on additional top secret Snowden documents, mentions an NSA developed attack technology with the name of QuantumInsert that performs redirection attacks. Another top-secret Tor presentation provided by Snowden mentions QuantumCookie to force cookies onto target browsers, and another Quantum program to “degrade/deny/disrupt Tor access”.

This same technique is used by the Chinese government to block its citizens from reading censored Internet content, and has been hypothesized as a probable NSA attack technique.

The FoxAcid system

According to various top-secret documents provided by Snowden, FoxAcid is the NSA codename for what the NSA calls an “exploit orchestrator,” an Internet-enabled system capable of attacking target computers in a variety of different ways. It is a Windows 2003 computer configured with custom software and a series of Perl scripts. These servers are run by the NSA’s tailored access operations, or TAO, group. TAO is another subgroup of the systems intelligence directorate.

The servers are on the public Internet. They have normal-looking domain names, and can be visited by any browser from anywhere; ownership of those domains cannot be traced back to the NSA.

However, if a browser tries to visit a FoxAcid server with a special URL, called a FoxAcid tag, the server attempts to infect that browser, and then the computer, in an effort to take control of it. The NSA can trick browsers into using that URL using a variety of methods, including the race-condition attack mentioned above and frame injection attacks.

FoxAcid tags are designed to look innocuous, so that anyone who sees them would not be suspicious. http://baseball2.2ndhalfplays.com/nested/attribs/bins/1/define/forms9952_z1zzz.html is an example of one such tag, given in another top-secret training presentation provided by Snowden.

There is no currently registered domain name by that name; it is just an example for internal NSA training purposes.

The training material states that merely trying to visit the homepage of a real FoxAcid server will not result in any attack, and that a specialized URL is required. This URL would be created by TAO for a specific NSA operation, and unique to that operation and target. This allows the FoxAcid server to know exactly who the target is when his computer contacts it.

According to Snowden, FoxAcid is a general CNE system, used for many types of attacks other than the Tor attacks described here. It is designed to be modular, with flexibility that allows TAO to swap and replace exploits if they are discovered, and only run certain exploits against certain types of targets.

The most valuable exploits are saved for the most important targets. Low-value exploits are run against technically sophisticated targets where the chance of detection is high. TAO maintains a library of exploits, each based on a different vulnerability in a system. Different exploits are authorized against different targets, depending on the value of the target, the target’s technical sophistication, the value of the exploit, and other considerations.

In the case of Tor users, FoxAcid might use EgotisticalGiraffe against their Firefox browsers.

According to a top-secret operational management procedures manual provided by Snowden, once a target is successfully exploited it is infected with one of several payloads. Two basic payloads mentioned in the manual are designed to collect configuration and location information from the target computer so an analyst can determine how to further infect the computer.

These decisions are made in part by the technical sophistication of the target and the security software installed on the target computer, called Personal Security Products or PSP, in the manual.

FoxAcid payloads are updated regularly by TAO. For example, the manual refers to version of one of them.

FoxAcid servers also have sophisticated capabilities to avoid detection and to ensure successful infection of its targets. The operations manual states that a FoxAcid payload with the codename DireScallop can circumvent commercial products that prevent malicious software from making changes to a system that survive a reboot process.

The NSA also uses phishing attacks to induce users to click on FoxAcid tags.

TAO additionally uses FoxAcid to exploit callbacks — which is the general term for a computer infected by some automatic means — calling back to the NSA for more instructions and possibly to upload data from the target computer.

According to a top-secret operational management procedures manual, FoxAcid servers configured to receive callbacks are codenamed FrugalShot. After a callback, the FoxAcid server may run more exploits to ensure that the target computer remains compromised long term, as well as install “implants” designed to exfiltrate data.

By 2008, the NSA was getting so much FoxAcid callback data that they needed to build a special system to manage it all.

This essay previously appeared in the Guardian. It is the technical article associated with this more general-interest article. I also wrote two commentaries on the material.

EDITED TO ADD: Here is the source material we published. The Washington Post published its own story independently, based on some of the same source material and some new source material.

Here’s the official US government response to the story.

The Guardian decided to change the capitalization of the NSA codenames. They should properly be in all caps: FOXACID, QUANTUMCOOKIE, EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE, TURMOIL, and so on.

This is the relevant quote from the Spiegel article:

According to the slides in the GCHQ presentation, the attack was directed at several Belgacom employees and involved the planting of a highly developed attack technology referred to as a “Quantum Insert” (“QI”). It appears to be a method with which the person being targeted, without their knowledge, is redirected to websites that then plant malware on their computers that can then manipulate them. Some of the employees whose computers were infiltrated had “good access” to important parts of Belgacom’s infrastructure, and this seemed to please the British spies, according to the slides.

That should be “QUANTUMINSERT.” This is getting frustrating. The NSA really should release a style guide for press organizations publishing their secrets.

And the URL in the essay (now redacted at the Guardian site) was registered within minutes of the story posting, and is being used to serve malware. Don’t click on it.

Posted on October 7, 2013 at 6:24 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.