Entries Tagged "China"

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Chinese Hackers Stole an NSA Windows Exploit in 2014

Check Point has evidence that (probably government affiliated) Chinese hackers stole and cloned an NSA Windows hacking tool years before (probably government affiliated) Russian hackers stole and then published the same tool. Here’s the timeline:

The timeline basically seems to be, according to Check Point:

  • 2013: NSA’s Equation Group developed a set of exploits including one called EpMe that elevates one’s privileges on a vulnerable Windows system to system-administrator level, granting full control. This allows someone with a foothold on a machine to commandeer the whole box.
  • 2014-2015: China’s hacking team code-named APT31, aka Zirconium, developed Jian by, one way or another, cloning EpMe.
  • Early 2017: The Equation Group’s tools were teased and then leaked online by a team calling itself the Shadow Brokers. Around that time, Microsoft cancelled its February Patch Tuesday, identified the vulnerability exploited by EpMe (CVE-2017-0005), and fixed it in a bumper March update. Interestingly enough, Lockheed Martin was credited as alerting Microsoft to the flaw, suggesting it was perhaps used against an American target.
  • Mid 2017: Microsoft quietly fixed the vulnerability exploited by the leaked EpMo exploit.

Lots of news articles about this.

Posted on March 4, 2021 at 6:25 AMView Comments

National Security Risks of Late-Stage Capitalism

Early in 2020, cyberspace attackers apparently working for the Russian government compromised a piece of widely used network management software made by a company called SolarWinds. The hack gave the attackers access to the computer networks of some 18,000 of SolarWinds’s customers, including US government agencies such as the Homeland Security Department and State Department, American nuclear research labs, government contractors, IT companies and nongovernmental agencies around the world.

It was a huge attack, with major implications for US national security. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the breach on Tuesday. Who is at fault?

The US government deserves considerable blame, of course, for its inadequate cyberdefense. But to see the problem only as a technical shortcoming is to miss the bigger picture. The modern market economy, which aggressively rewards corporations for short-term profits and aggressive cost-cutting, is also part of the problem: Its incentive structure all but ensures that successful tech companies will end up selling insecure products and services.

Like all for-profit corporations, SolarWinds aims to increase shareholder value by minimizing costs and maximizing profit. The company is owned in large part by Silver Lake and Thoma Bravo, private-equity firms known for extreme cost-cutting.

SolarWinds certainly seems to have underspent on security. The company outsourced much of its software engineering to cheaper programmers overseas, even though that typically increases the risk of security vulnerabilities. For a while, in 2019, the update server’s password for SolarWinds’s network management software was reported to be “solarwinds123.” Russian hackers were able to breach SolarWinds’s own email system and lurk there for months. Chinese hackers appear to have exploited a separate vulnerability in the company’s products to break into US government computers. A cybersecurity adviser for the company said that he quit after his recommendations to strengthen security were ignored.

There is no good reason to underspend on security other than to save money — especially when your clients include government agencies around the world and when the technology experts that you pay to advise you are telling you to do more.

As the economics writer Matt Stoller has suggested, cybersecurity is a natural area for a technology company to cut costs because its customers won’t notice unless they are hacked ­– and if they are, they will have already paid for the product. In other words, the risk of a cyberattack can be transferred to the customers. Doesn’t this strategy jeopardize the possibility of long-term, repeat customers? Sure, there’s a danger there –­ but investors are so focused on short-term gains that they’re too often willing to take that risk.

The market loves to reward corporations for risk-taking when those risks are largely borne by other parties, like taxpayers. This is known as “privatizing profits and socializing losses.” Standard examples include companies that are deemed “too big to fail,” which means that society as a whole pays for their bad luck or poor business decisions. When national security is compromised by high-flying technology companies that fob off cybersecurity risks onto their customers, something similar is at work.

Similar misaligned incentives affect your everyday cybersecurity, too. Your smartphone is vulnerable to something called SIM-swap fraud because phone companies want to make it easy for you to frequently get a new phone — and they know that the cost of fraud is largely borne by customers. Data brokers and credit bureaus that collect, use, and sell your personal data don’t spend a lot of money securing it because it’s your problem if someone hacks them and steals it. Social media companies too easily let hate speech and misinformation flourish on their platforms because it’s expensive and complicated to remove it, and they don’t suffer the immediate costs ­– indeed, they tend to profit from user engagement regardless of its nature.

There are two problems to solve. The first is information asymmetry: buyers can’t adequately judge the security of software products or company practices. The second is a perverse incentive structure: the market encourages companies to make decisions in their private interest, even if that imperils the broader interests of society. Together these two problems result in companies that save money by taking on greater risk and then pass off that risk to the rest of us, as individuals and as a nation.

The only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers and users is with government intervention. Companies need to pay the true costs of their insecurities, through a combination of laws, regulations, and legal liability. Governments routinely legislate safety — pollution standards, automobile seat belts, lead-free gasoline, food service regulations. We need to do the same with cybersecurity: the federal government should set minimum security standards for software and software development.

In today’s underregulated markets, it’s just too easy for software companies like SolarWinds to save money by skimping on security and to hope for the best. That’s a rational decision in today’s free-market world, and the only way to change that is to change the economic incentives.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on March 1, 2021 at 6:12 AMView Comments

On Chinese-Owned Technology Platforms

I am a co-author on a report published by the Hoover Institution: “Chinese Technology Platforms Operating in the United States.” From a blog post:

The report suggests a comprehensive framework for understanding and assessing the risks posed by Chinese technology platforms in the United States and developing tailored responses. It starts from the common view of the signatories — one reflected in numerous publicly available threat assessments — that China’s power is growing, that a large part of that power is in the digital sphere, and that China can and will wield that power in ways that adversely affect our national security. However, the specific threats and risks posed by different Chinese technologies vary, and effective policies must start with a targeted understanding of the nature of risks and an assessment of the impact US measures will have on national security and competitiveness. The goal of the paper is not to specifically quantify the risk of any particular technology, but rather to analyze the various threats, put them into context, and offer a framework for assessing proposed responses in ways that the signatories hope can aid those doing the risk analysis in individual cases.

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Chinese Supply-Chain Attack on Computer Systems

Bloomberg News has a major story about the Chinese hacking computer motherboards made by Supermicro, Levono, and others. It’s been going on since at least 2008. The US government has known about it for almost as long, and has tried to keep the attack secret:

China’s exploitation of products made by Supermicro, as the U.S. company is known, has been under federal scrutiny for much of the past decade, according to 14 former law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the matter. That included an FBI counterintelligence investigation that began around 2012, when agents started monitoring the communications of a small group of Supermicro workers, using warrants obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to five of the officials.

There’s lots of detail in the article, and I recommend that you read it through.

This is a follow on, with a lot more detail, to a story Bloomberg reported on in fall 2018. I didn’t believe the story back then, writing:

I don’t think it’s real. Yes, it’s plausible. But first of all, if someone actually surreptitiously put malicious chips onto motherboards en masse, we would have seen a photo of the alleged chip already. And second, there are easier, more effective, and less obvious ways of adding backdoors to networking equipment.

I seem to have been wrong. From the current Bloomberg story:

Mike Quinn, a cybersecurity executive who served in senior roles at Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., said he was briefed about added chips on Supermicro motherboards by officials from the U.S. Air Force. Quinn was working for a company that was a potential bidder for Air Force contracts, and the officials wanted to ensure that any work would not include Supermicro equipment, he said. Bloomberg agreed not to specify when Quinn received the briefing or identify the company he was working for at the time.

“This wasn’t a case of a guy stealing a board and soldering a chip on in his hotel room; it was architected onto the final device,” Quinn said, recalling details provided by Air Force officials. The chip “was blended into the trace on a multilayered board,” he said.

“The attackers knew how that board was designed so it would pass” quality assurance tests, Quinn said.

Supply-chain attacks are the flavor of the moment, it seems. But they’re serious, and very hard to defend against in our deeply international IT industry. (I have repeatedly called this an “insurmountable problem.”) Here’s me in 2018:

Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn’t an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can’t trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government.

We need some fundamental security research here. I wrote this in 2019:

The other solution is to build a secure system, even though any of its parts can be subverted. This is what the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon meant in April when she said about 5G, “You have to presume a dirty network.” Or more precisely, can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the Internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

It seems that supply-chain attacks are constantly in the news right now. That’s good. They’ve been a serious problem for a long time, and we need to take the threat seriously. For further reading, I strongly recommend this Atlantic Council report from last summer: “Breaking trust: Shades of crisis across an insecure software supply chain.

Posted on February 13, 2021 at 9:41 AMView Comments

Another SolarWinds Orion Hack

At the same time the Russians were using a backdoored SolarWinds update to attack networks worldwide, another threat actor — believed to be Chinese in origin — was using an already existing vulnerability in Orion to penetrate networks:

Two people briefed on the case said FBI investigators recently found that the National Finance Center, a federal payroll agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was among the affected organizations, raising fears that data on thousands of government employees may have been compromised.

[…]

Reuters was not able to establish how many organizations were compromised by the suspected Chinese operation. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations, said the attackers used computer infrastructure and hacking tools previously deployed by state-backed Chinese cyberspies.

[…]

While the alleged Russian hackers penetrated deep into SolarWinds network and hid a “back door” in Orion software updates which were then sent to customers, the suspected Chinese group exploited a separate bug in Orion’s code to help spread across networks they had already compromised, the sources said.

Two takeaways: One, we are learning about a lot of supply-chain attacks right now. Two, SolarWinds’ terrible security is the result of a conscious business decision to reduce costs in the name of short-term profits. Economist Matt Stoller writes about this:

These private equity-owned software firms torture professionals with bad user experiences and shitty customer support in everything from yoga studio software to car dealer IT to the nightmarish ‘core’ software that runs small banks and credit unions, as close as one gets to automating Office Space. But they also degrade product quality by firing or disrespecting good workers, under-investing in good security practices, or sending work abroad and paying badly, meaning their products are more prone to espionage. In other words, the same sloppy and corrupt practices that allowed this massive cybersecurity hack made Bravo a billionaire. In a sense, this hack, and many more like it, will continue to happen, as long as men like Bravo get rich creating security vulnerabilities for bad actors to exploit.

SolarWinds increased its profits by increasing its cybersecurity risk, and then transferred that risk to its customers without their knowledge or consent.

Posted on February 4, 2021 at 6:11 AMView Comments

How China Uses Stolen US Personnel Data

Interesting analysis of China’s efforts to identify US spies:

By about 2010, two former CIA officials recalled, the Chinese security services had instituted a sophisticated travel intelligence program, developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes. “We looked at it very carefully,” said the former senior CIA official. China’s spies “were actively using that for counterintelligence and offensive intelligence. The capability was there and was being utilized.” China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs…

To be sure, China had stolen plenty of data before discovering how deeply infiltrated it was by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, the shake-up between 2010 and 2012 gave Beijing an impetus not only to go after bigger, riskier targets, but also to put together the infrastructure needed to process the purloined information. It was around this time, said a former senior NSA official, that Chinese intelligence agencies transitioned from merely being able to steal large datasets en masse to actually rapidly sifting through information from within them for use….

For U.S. intelligence personnel, these new capabilities made China’s successful hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that much more chilling. During the OPM breach, Chinese hackers stole detailed, often highly sensitive personnel data from 21.5 million current and former U.S. officials, their spouses, and job applicants, including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data. In some cases, details from background investigations tied to the granting of security clearances — investigations that can delve deeply into individuals’ mental health records, their sexual histories and proclivities, and whether a person’s relatives abroad may be subject to government blackmail — were stolen as well….

When paired with travel details and other purloined data, information from the OPM breach likely provided Chinese intelligence potent clues about unusual behavior patterns, biographical information, or career milestones that marked individuals as likely U.S. spies, officials say. Now, these officials feared, China could search for when suspected U.S. spies were in certain locations — and potentially also meeting secretly with their Chinese sources. China “collects bulk personal data to help it track dissidents or other perceived enemies of China around the world,” Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, said.

[..]

But after the OPM breach, anomalies began to multiply. In 2012, senior U.S. spy hunters began to puzzle over some “head-scratchers”: In a few cases, spouses of U.S. officials whose sensitive work should have been difficult to discern were being approached by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad, according to the former counterintelligence executive. In one case, Chinese operatives tried to harass and entrap a U.S. official’s wife while she accompanied her children on a school field trip to China. “The MO is that, usually at the end of the trip, the lightbulb goes on [and the foreign intelligence service identifies potential persons of interest]. But these were from day one, from the airport onward,” the former official said.

Worries about what the Chinese now knew precipitated an intelligence community-wide damage assessment surrounding the OPM and other hacks, recalled Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA official who served deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. Some worried that China might have purposefully secretly altered data in individuals’ OPM files to later use as leverage in recruitment attempts. Officials also believed that the Chinese might sift through the OPM data to try and craft the most ideal profiles for Chinese intelligence assets seeking to infiltrate the U.S. government­ — since they now had granular knowledge of what the U.S. government looked for, and what it didn’t, while considering applicants for sensitive positions. U.S. intelligence agencies altered their screening procedures to anticipate new, more finely tuned Chinese attempts at human spying, Wise said.

Posted on December 24, 2020 at 6:44 AMView Comments

Symantec Reports on Cicada APT Attacks against Japan

Symantec is reporting on an APT group linked to China, named Cicada. They have been attacking organizations in Japan and elsewhere.

Cicada has historically been known to target Japan-linked organizations, and has also targeted MSPs in the past. The group is using living-off-the-land tools as well as custom malware in this attack campaign, including a custom malware — Backdoor.Hartip — that Symantec has not seen being used by the group before. Among the machines compromised during this attack campaign were domain controllers and file servers, and there was evidence of files being exfiltrated from some of the compromised machines.

The attackers extensively use DLL side-loading in this campaign, and were also seen leveraging the ZeroLogon vulnerability that was patched in August 2020.

Interesting details about the group’s tactics.

News article.

Posted on November 20, 2020 at 6:05 AMView Comments

NSA Advisory on Chinese Government Hacking

The NSA released an advisory listing the top twenty-five known vulnerabilities currently being exploited by Chinese nation-state attackers.

This advisory provides Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) known to be recently leveraged, or scanned-for, by Chinese state-sponsored cyber actors to enable successful hacking operations against a multitude of victim networks. Most of the vulnerabilities listed below can be exploited to gain initial access to victim networks using products that are directly accessible from the Internet and act as gateways to internal networks. The majority of the products are either for remote access (T1133) or for external web services (T1190), and should be prioritized for immediate patching.

Posted on October 21, 2020 at 9:21 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.