Entries Tagged "anonymity"

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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 8.2.1.1 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

Circumventing Communications Blackouts

Rangzen looks like a really interesting ad hoc mesh networking system to circumvent government-imposed communications blackouts. I am particularly interested in how it uses reputation to determine who can be trusted, while maintaining some level of anonymity.

Academic paper:

Abstract: A challenging problem in dissent networking is that of circumventing large-scale communication blackouts imposed by oppressive governments. Although prior work has not focused on the need for user anonymity, we contend that it is essential. Without anonymity, governments can use communication networks to track and persecute users. A key challenge for decentralized networks is that of resource allocation and control. Network resources must be shared in a manner that deprioritizes unwanted traffic and abusive users. This task is typically addressed through reputation systems that conflict with anonymity. Our work addresses this paradox: We prioritize resources in a privacy-preserving manner to create an attack-resilient, anonymity-preserving, mobile ad-hoc network. Our prioritization mechanism exploits the properties of a social trust graph to promote messages relayed via trusted nodes. We present Rangzen, a microblogging solution that uses smartphones to opportunistically relay messages among citizens in a delay-tolerant network (DTN) that is independent of government or corporate-controlled infrastructure.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about in this essay.

Posted on August 14, 2013 at 7:43 AMView Comments

Reidentifying Anonymous Data

Latanya Sweeney has demonstrated how easy it can be to identify people from their birth date, gender, and zip code. The anonymous data she reidentified happened to be DNA data, but that’s not relevant to her methods or results.

Of the 1,130 volunteers Sweeney and her team reviewed, about 579 provided zip code, date of birth and gender, the three key pieces of information she needs to identify anonymous people combined with information from voter rolls or other public records. Of these, Sweeney succeeded in naming 241, or 42% of the total. The Personal Genome Project confirmed that 97% of the names matched those in its database if nicknames and first name variations were included.

Her results are described here.

Posted on May 8, 2013 at 1:54 PMView Comments

Pseudonymity

Long essay on the value of pseudonymity. From the conclusions:

Here lies the huge irony in this discussion. Persistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self. Much of the support for “real names” comes from people who don’t want to hear about controversy, but controversy is only a small part of the need for pseudonyms. For most of us, it’s simply the desire to be able to talk openly about the things that matter to every one of us who uses the Internet. The desire to be judged — not by our birth, not by our sex, and not by who we work for — but by what we say.

[…]

I leave you with this question. What if I had posted this under my pseudonym? Why should that have made a difference? I would have written the same words, but ironically, I could have added some more personal and perhaps persuasive arguments which I dare not make under this account. Because I was forced to post this under my real name, I had to weaken my arguments; I had to share less of myself. Have you ever met “Kee Hinckley”? Have you met me under my other name? Does it matter? There is nothing real on the Internet; all you know about me is my words. You can look me up on Google, and still all you will know is my words. One real person wrote this post. It could have been submitted under either name. But one of them is not allowed to. Does that really make sense?

Behind every pseudonym is a real person. Deny the pseudonym and you deny the person.

This is, of a course, a response to the Google+ names policy.

Posted on August 22, 2011 at 6:01 AMView Comments

Realistic Masks

They’re causing problems:

A white bank robber in Ohio recently used a “hyper-realistic” mask manufactured by a small Van Nuys company to disguise himself as a black man, prompting police there to mistakenly arrest an African American man for the crimes.

In October, a 20-year-old Chinese man who wanted asylum in Canada used one of the same company’s masks to transform himself into an elderly white man and slip past airport security in Hong Kong.

Authorities are even starting to think that the so-called Geezer Bandit, a Southern California bank robber believed for months to be an old man, might actually be a younger guy wearing one of the disguises made by SPFXMasks.

News coverage of the incidents has pumped up demand for the masks, which run from $600 to $1,200, according to company owner Rusty Slusser. But he says he’s not happy about it.

[…]

Slusser opened SPFXMasks in 2003. His six-person crew uses silicone that looks and feels like flesh, down to the pores. Each strand of hair ­ and it’s human hair ­ is sewn on individually. Artists methodically paint the masks to create realistic skin tones.

“I wanted to make something that looks so real that when you go out for Halloween no one can tell,” Slusser said. “It’s like ‘Mission: Impossible’ ­ you pull it over your head one time and that’s it. It’s like a 10-hour makeup job in 10 seconds.”

He experimented until he found the right recipe for silicone that would seem like skin. A key discovery was that if the inside of the mask is smooth ­ even if the outside is bumpy with pores, a nose and other features ­ it will stretch over most faces and move with facial muscles.

Posted on December 14, 2010 at 1:12 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.