Entries Tagged "China"

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AIs as Computer Hackers

Hacker “Capture the Flag” has been a mainstay at hacker gatherings since the mid-1990s. It’s like the outdoor game, but played on computer networks. Teams of hackers defend their own computers while attacking other teams’. It’s a controlled setting for what computer hackers do in real life: finding and fixing vulnerabilities in their own systems and exploiting them in others’. It’s the software vulnerability lifecycle.

These days, dozens of teams from around the world compete in weekend-long marathon events held all over the world. People train for months. Winning is a big deal. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’s pretty much the most fun you can possibly have on the Internet without committing multiple felonies.

In 2016, DARPA ran a similarly styled event for artificial intelligence (AI). One hundred teams entered their systems into the Cyber Grand Challenge. After completing qualifying rounds, seven finalists competed at the DEFCON hacker convention in Las Vegas. The competition occurred in a specially designed test environment filled with custom software that had never been analyzed or tested. The AIs were given 10 hours to find vulnerabilities to exploit against the other AIs in the competition and to patch themselves against exploitation. A system called Mayhem, created by a team of Carnegie-Mellon computer security researchers, won. The researchers have since commercialized the technology, which is now busily defending networks for customers like the U.S. Department of Defense.

There was a traditional human–team capture-the-flag event at DEFCON that same year. Mayhem was invited to participate. It came in last overall, but it didn’t come in last in every category all of the time.

I figured it was only a matter of time. It would be the same story we’ve seen in so many other areas of AI: the games of chess and go, X-ray and disease diagnostics, writing fake news. AIs would improve every year because all of the core technologies are continually improving. Humans would largely stay the same because we remain humans even as our tools improve. Eventually, the AIs would routinely beat the humans. I guessed that it would take about a decade.

But now, five years later, I have no idea if that prediction is still on track. Inexplicably, DARPA never repeated the event. Research on the individual components of the software vulnerability lifecycle does continue. There’s an enormous amount of work being done on automatic vulnerability finding. Going through software code line by line is exactly the sort of tedious problem at which machine learning systems excel, if they can only be taught how to recognize a vulnerability. There is also work on automatic vulnerability exploitation and lots on automatic update and patching. Still, there is something uniquely powerful about a competition that puts all of the components together and tests them against others.

To see that in action, you have to go to China. Since 2017, China has held at least seven of these competitions—called Robot Hacking Games—many with multiple qualifying rounds. The first included one team each from the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. The rest have been Chinese only: teams from Chinese universities, teams from companies like Baidu and Tencent, teams from the military. Rules seem to vary. Sometimes human–AI hybrid teams compete.

Details of these events are few. They’re Chinese language only, which naturally limits what the West knows about them. I didn’t even know they existed until Dakota Cary, a research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology and a Chinese speaker, wrote a report about them a few months ago. And they’re increasingly hosted by the People’s Liberation Army, which presumably controls how much detail becomes public.

Some things we can infer. In 2016, none of the Cyber Grand Challenge teams used modern machine learning techniques. Certainly most of the Robot Hacking Games entrants are using them today. And the competitions encourage collaboration as well as competition between the teams. Presumably that accelerates advances in the field.

None of this is to say that real robot hackers are poised to attack us today, but I wish I could predict with some certainty when that day will come. In 2018, I wrote about how AI could change the attack/defense balance in cybersecurity. I said that it is impossible to know which side would benefit more but predicted that the technologies would benefit the defense more, at least in the short term. I wrote: “Defense is currently in a worse position than offense precisely because of the human components. Present-day attacks pit the relative advantages of computers and humans against the relative weaknesses of computers and humans. Computers moving into what are traditionally human areas will rebalance that equation.”

Unfortunately, it’s the People’s Liberation Army and not DARPA that will be the first to learn if I am right or wrong and how soon it matters.

This essay originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

Posted on February 2, 2023 at 6:59 AMView Comments

Breaking RSA with a Quantum Computer

A group of Chinese researchers have just published a paper claiming that they can—although they have not yet done so—break 2048-bit RSA. This is something to take seriously. It might not be correct, but it’s not obviously wrong.

We have long known from Shor’s algorithm that factoring with a quantum computer is easy. But it takes a big quantum computer, on the orders of millions of qbits, to factor anything resembling the key sizes we use today. What the researchers have done is combine classical lattice reduction factoring techniques with a quantum approximate optimization algorithm. This means that they only need a quantum computer with 372 qbits, which is well within what’s possible today. (The IBM Osprey is a 433-qbit quantum computer, for example. Others are on their way as well.)

The Chinese group didn’t have that large a quantum computer to work with. They were able to factor 48-bit numbers using a 10-qbit quantum computer. And while there are always potential problems when scaling something like this up by a factor of 50, there are no obvious barriers.

Honestly, most of the paper is over my head—both the lattice-reduction math and the quantum physics. And there’s the nagging question of why the Chinese government didn’t classify this research. But…wow…maybe…and yikes! Or not.

Factoring integers with sublinear resources on a superconducting quantum processor

Abstract: Shor’s algorithm has seriously challenged information security based on public key cryptosystems. However, to break the widely used RSA-2048 scheme, one needs millions of physical qubits, which is far beyond current technical capabilities. Here, we report a universal quantum algorithm for integer factorization by combining the classical lattice reduction with a quantum approximate optimization algorithm (QAOA). The number of qubits required is O(logN/loglogN ), which is sublinear in the bit length of the integer N , making it the most qubit-saving factorization algorithm to date. We demonstrate the algorithm experimentally by factoring integers up to 48 bits with 10 superconducting qubits, the largest integer factored on a quantum device. We estimate that a quantum circuit with 372 physical qubits and a depth of thousands is necessary to challenge RSA-2048 using our algorithm. Our study shows great promise in expediting the application of current noisy quantum computers, and paves the way to factor large integers of realistic cryptographic significance.

In email, Roger Grimes told me: “Apparently what happened is another guy who had previously announced he was able to break traditional asymmetric encryption using classical computers…but reviewers found a flaw in his algorithm and that guy had to retract his paper. But this Chinese team realized that the step that killed the whole thing could be solved by small quantum computers. So they tested and it worked.”

EDITED TO ADD: One of the issues with the algorithm is that it relies on a recent factoring paper by Claus Schnorr. It’s a controversial paper; and despite the “this destroys the RSA cryptosystem” claim in the abstract, it does nothing of the sort. Schnorr’s algorithm works well with smaller moduli—around the same order as ones the Chinese group has tested—but falls apart at larger sizes. At this point, nobody understands why. The Chinese paper claims that their quantum techniques get around this limitation (I think that’s what’s behind Grimes’s comment) but don’t give any details—and they haven’t tested it with larger moduli. So if it’s true that the Chinese paper depends on this Schnorr technique that doesn’t scale, the techniques in this Chinese paper won’t scale, either. (On the other hand, if it does scale then I think it also breaks a bunch of lattice-based public-key cryptosystems.)

I am much less worried that this technique will work now. But this is something the IBM quantum computing people can test right now.

EDITED TO ADD (1/4): A reporter just asked me my gut feel about this. I replied that I don’t think this will break RSA. Several times a year the cryptography community received “breakthroughs” from people outside the community. That’s why we created the RSA Factoring Challenge: to force people to provide proofs of their claims. In general, the smart bet is on the new techniques not working. But someday, that bet will be wrong. Is it today? Probably not. But it could be. We’re in the worst possible position right now: we don’t have the facts to know. Someone needs to implement the quantum algorithm and see.

EDITED TO ADD (1/5): Scott Aaronson’s take is a “no”:

In the new paper, the authors spend page after page saying-without-saying that it might soon become possible to break RSA-2048, using a NISQ (i.e., non-fault-tolerant) quantum computer. They do so via two time-tested strategems:

  1. the detailed exploration of irrelevancies (mostly, optimization of the number of qubits, while ignoring the number of gates), and
  2. complete silence about the one crucial point.

Then, finally, they come clean about the one crucial point in a single sentence of the Conclusion section:

It should be pointed out that the quantum speedup of the algorithm is unclear due to the ambiguous convergence of QAOA.

“Unclear” is an understatement here. It seems to me that a miracle would be required for the approach here to yield any benefit at all, compared to just running the classical Schnorr’s algorithm on your laptop. And if the latter were able to break RSA, it would’ve already done so.

All told, this is one of the most actively misleading quantum computing papers I’ve seen in 25 years, and I’ve seen … many.

EDITED TO ADD (1/7): More commentary. Again: no need to panic.

EDITED TO ADD (1/12): Peter Shor has suspicions.

Posted on January 3, 2023 at 12:38 PMView Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Chinese Squid Fishing

China claims that it is “engaging in responsible squid fishing”:

Chen Xinjun, dean of the College of Marine Sciences at Shanghai Ocean University, made the remarks in response to recent accusations by foreign reporters and actor Leonardo DiCaprio that China is depleting its own fish stock and that Chinese boats have sailed to other waters to continue deep-sea fishing, particularly near Ecuador, affecting local fish stocks in the South American nation.

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 October 28, 2022 at 3:57 PMView Comments

Critical Vulnerabilities in GPS Trackers

This is a dangerous vulnerability:

An assessment from security firm BitSight found six vulnerabilities in the Micodus MV720, a GPS tracker that sells for about $20 and is widely available. The researchers who performed the assessment believe the same critical vulnerabilities are present in other Micodus tracker models. The China-based manufacturer says 1.5 million of its tracking devices are deployed across 420,000 customers. BitSight found the device in use in 169 countries, with customers including governments, militaries, law enforcement agencies, and aerospace, shipping, and manufacturing companies.

BitSight discovered what it said were six “severe” vulnerabilities in the device that allow for a host of possible attacks. One flaw is the use of unencrypted HTTP communications that makes it possible for remote hackers to conduct adversary-in-the-middle attacks that intercept or change requests sent between the mobile application and supporting servers. Other vulnerabilities include a flawed authentication mechanism in the mobile app that can allow attackers to access the hardcoded key for locking down the trackers and the ability to use a custom IP address that makes it possible for hackers to monitor and control all communications to and from the device.

The security firm said it first contacted Micodus in September to notify company officials of the vulnerabilities. BitSight and CISA finally went public with the findings on Tuesday after trying for months to privately engage with the manufacturer. As of the time of writing, all of the vulnerabilities remain unpatched and unmitigated.

These are computers and computer vulnerabilities, but because the computers are attached to cars, the vulnerabilities become potentially life-threatening. CISA writes:

These vulnerabilities could impact access to a vehicle fuel supply, vehicle control, or allow locational surveillance of vehicles in which the device is installed.

I wouldn’t have buried “vehicle control” in the middle of that sentence.

Posted on July 21, 2022 at 8:36 AMView Comments

Possible Government Surveillance of the Otter.ai Transcription App

A reporter interviews a Uyghur human-rights advocate, and uses the Otter.ai transcription app.

The next day, I received an odd note from Otter.ai, the automated transcription app that I had used to record the interview. It read: “Hey Phelim, to help us improve your Otter’s experience, what was the purpose of this particular recording with titled ‘Mustafa Aksu’ created at ‘2021-11-08 11:02:41’?”

Customer service or Chinese surveillance? Turns out it’s hard to tell.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Another article.

Posted on February 17, 2022 at 10:40 AMView Comments

China’s Olympics App Is Horribly Insecure

China is mandating that athletes download and use a health and travel app when they attend the Winter Olympics next month. Citizen Lab examined the app and found it riddled with security holes.

Key Findings:

  • MY2022, an app mandated for use by all attendees of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, has a simple but devastating flaw where encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers can be trivially sidestepped. Health customs forms which transmit passport details, demographic information, and medical and travel history are also vulnerable. Server responses can also be spoofed, allowing an attacker to display fake instructions to users.
  • MY2022 is fairly straightforward about the types of data it collects from users in its public-facing documents. However, as the app collects a range of highly sensitive medical information, it is unclear with whom or which organization(s) it shares this information.
  • MY2022 includes features that allow users to report “politically sensitive” content. The app also includes a censorship keyword list, which, while presently inactive, targets a variety of political topics including domestic issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet as well as references to Chinese government agencies.
  • While the vendor did not respond to our security disclosure, we find that the app’s security deficits may not only violate Google’s Unwanted Software Policy and Apple’s App Store guidelines but also China’s own laws and national standards pertaining to privacy protection, providing potential avenues for future redress.

News article:

It’s not clear whether the security flaws were intentional or not, but the report speculated that proper encryption might interfere with some of China’s ubiquitous online surveillance tools, especially systems that allow local authorities to snoop on phones using public wireless networks or internet cafes. Still, the researchers added that the flaws were probably unintentional, because the government will already be receiving data from the app, so there wouldn’t be a need to intercept the data as it was being transferred.


The app also included a list of 2,422 political keywords, described within the code as “illegalwords.txt,” that worked as a keyword censorship list, according to Citizen Lab. The researchers said the list appeared to be a latent function that the app’s chat and file transfer function was not actively using.

The US government has already advised athletes to leave their personal phones and laptops home and bring burners.

Posted on January 21, 2022 at 6:06 AMView Comments

MacOS Zero-Day Used against Hong Kong Activists

Google researchers discovered a MacOS zero-day exploit being used against Hong Kong activists. It was a “watering hole” attack, which means the malware was hidden in a legitimate website. Users visiting that website would get infected.

From an article:

Google’s researchers were able to trigger the exploits and study them by visiting the websites compromised by the hackers. The sites served both iOS and MacOS exploit chains, but the researchers were only able to retrieve the MacOS one. The zero-day exploit was similar to another in-the-wild vulnerability analyzed by another Google researcher in the past, according to the report.

In addition, the zero-day exploit used in this hacking campaign is “identical” to an exploit previously found by cybersecurity research group Pangu Lab, Huntley said. Pangu Lab’s researchers presented the exploit at a security conference in China in April of this year, a few months before hackers used it against Hong Kong users.

The exploit was discovered in August. Apple patched the vulnerability in September. China is, of course, the obvious suspect, given the victims.

EDITED TO ADD (11/15): Another story.

Posted on November 12, 2021 at 9:07 AMView Comments

Nation-State Attacker of Telecommunications Networks

Someone has been hacking telecommunications networks around the world:

  • LightBasin (aka UNC1945) is an activity cluster that has been consistently targeting the telecommunications sector at a global scale since at least 2016, leveraging custom tools and an in-depth knowledge of telecommunications network architectures.
  • Recent findings highlight this cluster’s extensive knowledge of telecommunications protocols, including the emulation of these protocols to facilitate command and control (C2) and utilizing scanning/packet-capture tools to retrieve highly specific information from mobile communication infrastructure, such as subscriber information and call metadata.
  • The nature of the data targeted by the actor aligns with information likely to be of significant interest to signals intelligence organizations.
  • CrowdStrike Intelligence assesses that LightBasin is a targeted intrusion actor that will continue to target the telecommunications sector. This assessment is made with high confidence and is based on tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), target scope, and objectives exhibited by this activity cluster. There is currently not enough available evidence to link the cluster’s activity to a specific country-nexus.

Some relation to China is reported, but this is not a definitive attribution.

Posted on October 22, 2021 at 6:13 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.