When I decided to post an exploit a day from the TAO implant catalog, my goal was to highlight the myriad of capabilities of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations group, basically, its black bag teams. The catalog was published by Der Spiegel along with a pair of articles on the NSA’s CNE — that’s Computer Network Exploitation — operations, and it was just too much to digest. While the various nations’ counterespionage groups certainly pored over the details, they largely washed over us in the academic and commercial communities. By republishing a single exploit a day, I hoped we would all read and digest each individual TAO capability.
It’s important that we know the details of these attack tools. Not because we want to evade the NSA — although some of us do — but because the NSA doesn’t have a monopoly on either technology or cleverness. The NSA might have a larger budget than every other intelligence agency in the world combined, but these tools are the sorts of things that any well-funded nation-state adversary would use. And as technology advances, they are the sorts of tools we’re going to see cybercriminals use. So think of this less as what the NSA does, and more of a head start as to what everyone will be using.
Which means we need to figure out how to defend against them.
The NSA has put a lot of effort into designing software implants that evade antivirus and other detection tools, transmit data when they know they can’t be detected, and survive reinstallation of the operating system. It has software implants designed to jump air gaps without being detected. It has an impressive array of hardware implants, also designed to evade detection. And it spends a lot of effort on hacking routers and switches. These sorts of observations should become a road map for anti-malware companies.
Anyone else have observations or comments, now that we’ve seen the entire catalog?
The TAO catalog isn’t current; it’s from 2008. So the NSA has had six years to improve all of the tools in this catalog, and to add a bunch more. Figuring out how to extrapolate to current capabilities is also important.