Entries Tagged "cyberespionage"

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Are Free Societies at a Disadvantage in National Cybersecurity

Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell just published an interesting paper, making the case that free and democratic nations are at a structural disadvantage in nation-on-nation cyberattack and defense. From a blog post:

It seeks to explain why the United States is struggling to deal with the “soft” cyber operations that have been so prevalent in recent years: cyberespionage and cybertheft, often followed by strategic publication; information operations and propaganda; and relatively low-level cyber disruptions such as denial-of-service and ransomware attacks. The main explanation is that constituent elements of U.S. society — a commitment to free speech, privacy and the rule of law; innovative technology firms; relatively unregulated markets; and deep digital sophistication — create asymmetric vulnerabilities that foreign adversaries, especially authoritarian ones, can exploit. These asymmetrical vulnerabilities might explain why the United States so often appears to be on the losing end of recent cyber operations and why U.S. attempts to develop and implement policies to enhance defense, resiliency, response or deterrence in the cyber realm have been ineffective.

I have long thought this to be true. There are defensive cybersecurity measures that a totalitarian country can take that a free, open, democratic country cannot. And there are attacks against a free, open, democratic country that just don’t matter to a totalitarian country. That makes us more vulnerable. (I don’t mean to imply — and neither do Russell and Goldsmith — that this disadvantage implies that free societies are overall worse, but it is an asymmetry that we should be aware of.)

I do worry that these disadvantages will someday become intolerable. Dan Geer often said that “the price of freedom is the probability of crime.” We are willing to pay this price because it isn’t that high. As technology makes individual and small-group actors more powerful, this price will get higher. Will there be a point in the future where free and open societies will no longer be able to survive? I honestly don’t know.

EDITED TO ADD (6/21): Jack Goldsmith also wrote this.

Posted on June 19, 2018 at 6:54 AMView Comments

Yet Another Russian Hack of the NSA — This Time with Kaspersky's Help

The Wall Street Journal has a bombshell of a story. Yet another NSA contractor took classified documents home with him. Yet another Russian intelligence operation stole copies of those documents. The twist this time is that the Russians identified the documents because the contractor had Kaspersky Labs anti-virus installed on his home computer.

This is a huge deal, both for the NSA and Kaspersky. The Wall Street Journal article contains no evidence, only unnamed sources. But I am having trouble seeing how the already embattled Kaspersky Labs survives this.

WSJ follow up. Four more news articles.

EDITED TO ADD: This is either an example of the Russians subverting a perfectly reasonable security feature in Kaspersky’s products, or Kaspersky adding a plausible feature at the request of Russian intelligence. In the latter case, it’s a nicely deniable Russian information operation. In either case, it’s an impressive Russian information operation.

What’s getting a lot less press is yet another NSA contractor stealing top-secret cyberattack software. What is it with the NSA’s inability to keep anything secret anymore?

EDITED TO ADD (10/8): Another article.

Posted on October 6, 2017 at 8:06 AMView Comments

Russian Hacking Tools Codenamed WhiteBear Exposed

Kaspersky Labs exposed a highly sophisticated set of hacking tools from Russia called WhiteBear.

From February to September 2016, WhiteBear activity was narrowly focused on embassies and consular operations around the world. All of these early WhiteBear targets were related to embassies and diplomatic/foreign affair organizations. Continued WhiteBear activity later shifted to include defense-related organizations into June 2017. When compared to WhiteAtlas infections, WhiteBear deployments are relatively rare and represent a departure from the broader Skipper Turla target set. Additionally, a comparison of the WhiteAtlas framework to WhiteBear components indicates that the malware is the product of separate development efforts. WhiteBear infections appear to be preceded by a condensed spearphishing dropper, lack Firefox extension installer payloads, and contain several new components signed with a new code signing digital certificate, unlike WhiteAtlas incidents and modules.

The exact delivery vector for WhiteBear components is unknown to us, although we have very strong suspicion the group spearphished targets with malicious pdf files. The decoy pdf document above was likely stolen from a target or partner. And, although WhiteBear components have been consistently identified on a subset of systems previously targeted with the WhiteAtlas framework, and maintain components within the same filepaths and can maintain identical filenames, we were unable to firmly tie delivery to any specific WhiteAtlas component. WhiteBear focused on various embassies and diplomatic entities around the world in early 2016 — tellingly, attempts were made to drop and display decoy pdf’s with full diplomatic headers and content alongside executable droppers on target systems.

One of the clever things the tool does is use hijacked satellite connections for command and control, helping it evade detection by broad surveillance capabilities like what the NSA uses. We’ve seen Russian attack tools that do this before. More details are in the Kaspersky blog post.

Given all the trouble Kaspersky is having because of its association with Russia, it’s interesting to speculate on this disclosure. Either they are independent, and have burned a valuable Russian hacking toolset. Or the Russians decided that the toolset was already burned — maybe the NSA knows all about it and has neutered it somehow — and allowed Kaspersky to publish. Or maybe it’s something in between. That’s the problem with this kind of speculation: without any facts, your theories just amplify whatever opinion you had previously.

Oddly, there hasn’t been much press about this. I have only found one story.

EDITED TO ADD: A colleague pointed out to me that Kaspersky announcements like this often get ignored by the press. There was very little written about ProjectSauron, for example.

EDITED TO ADD: The text I originally wrote said that Kaspersky released the attacks tools, like what Shadow Brokers is doing. They did not. They just exposed the existence of them. Apologies for that error — it was sloppy wording.

Posted on September 1, 2017 at 6:39 AMView Comments

APT10 and Cloud Hopper

There’s a new report of a nation-state attack, presumed to be from China, on a series of managed ISPs. From the executive summary:

Since late 2016, PwC UK and BAE Systems have been assisting victims of a new cyber espionage campaign conducted by a China-based threat actor. We assess this threat actor to almost certainly be the same as the threat actor widely known within the security community as ‘APT10’. The campaign, which we refer to as Operation Cloud Hopper, has targeted managed IT service providers (MSPs), allowing APT10 unprecedented potential access to the intellectual property and sensitive data of those MSPs and their clients globally. A number of Japanese organisations have also been directly targeted in a separate, simultaneous campaign by the same actor.

We have identified a number of key findings that are detailed below.

APT10 has recently unleashed a sustained campaign against MSPs. The compromise of MSP networks has provided broad and unprecedented access to MSP customer networks.

  • Multiple MSPs were almost certainly being targeted from 2016 onwards, and it is likely that APT10 had already begun to do so from as early as 2014.
  • MSP infrastructure has been used as part of a complex web of exfiltration routes spanning multiple victim networks.

[…]

APT10 focuses on espionage activity, targeting intellectual property and other sensitive data.

  • APT10 is known to have exfiltrated a high volume of data from multiple victims, exploiting compromised MSP networks, and those of their customers, to stealthily move this data around the world.
  • The targeted nature of the exfiltration we have observed, along with the volume of the data, is reminiscent of the previous era of APT campaigns pre-2013.

PwC UK and BAE Systems assess APT10 as highly likely to be a China-based threat actor.

  • It is a widely held view within the cyber security community that APT10 is a China-based threat actor.
  • Our analysis of the compile times of malware binaries, the registration times of domains attributed to APT10, and the majority of its intrusion activity indicates a pattern of work in line with China Standard Time (UTC+8).
  • The threat actor’s targeting of diplomatic and political organisations in response to geopolitical tensions, as well as the targeting of specific commercial enterprises, is closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests.

I know nothing more than what’s in this report, but it looks like a big one.

Press release.

Posted on April 5, 2017 at 10:42 AMView Comments

Yet Another Government-Sponsored Malware

Both Kaspersky and Symantec have uncovered another piece of malware that seems to be a government design:

The malware — known alternatively as “ProjectSauron” by researchers from Kaspersky Lab and “Remsec” by their counterparts from Symantec — has been active since at least 2011 and has been discovered on 30 or so targets. Its ability to operate undetected for five years is a testament to its creators, who clearly studied other state-sponsored hacking groups in an attempt to replicate their advances and avoid their mistakes.

[…]

Part of what makes ProjectSauron so impressive is its ability to collect data from computers considered so sensitive by their operators that they have no Internet connection. To do this, the malware uses specially prepared USB storage drives that have a virtual file system that isn’t viewable by the Windows operating system. To infected computers, the removable drives appear to be approved devices, but behind the scenes are several hundred megabytes reserved for storing data that is kept on the “air-gapped” machines. The arrangement works even against computers in which data-loss prevention software blocks the use of unknown USB drives.

Kaspersky researchers still aren’t sure precisely how the USB-enabled exfiltration works. The presence of the invisible storage area doesn’t in itself allow attackers to seize control of air-gapped computers. The researchers suspect the capability is used only in rare cases and requires use of a zero-day exploit that has yet to be discovered. In all, Project Sauron is made up of at least 50 modules that can be mixed and matched to suit the objectives of each individual infection.

“Once installed, the main Project Sauron modules start working as ‘sleeper cells,’ displaying no activity of their own and waiting for ‘wake-up’ commands in the incoming network traffic,” Kaspersky researchers wrote in a separate blog post. “This method of operation ensures Project Sauron’s extended persistence on the servers of targeted organizations.”

We don’t know who designed this, but it certainly seems likely to be a country with a serious cyberespionage budget.

EDITED TO ADD (8/15): Nicholas Weaver comment on the malware and what it means.

Posted on August 15, 2016 at 1:43 PMView Comments

How the Iranian Government Hacks Dissidents

Citizen Lab has a new report on an Iranian government hacking program that targets dissidents. From a Washington Post op-ed by Ron Deibert:

Al-Ameer is a net savvy activist, and so when she received a legitimate looking email containing a PowerPoint attachment addressed to her and purporting to detail “Assad Crimes,” she could easily have opened it. Instead, she shared it with us at the Citizen Lab.

As we detail in a new report, the attachment led our researchers to uncover an elaborate cyberespionage campaign operating out of Iran. Among the malware was a malicious spyware, including a remote access tool called “Droidjack,” that allows attackers to silently control a mobile device. When Droidjack is installed, a remote user can turn on the microphone and camera, remove files, read encrypted messages, and send spoofed instant messages and emails. Had she opened it, she could have put herself, her friends, her family and her associates back in Syria in mortal danger.

Here’s the report. And a news article.

Posted on August 9, 2016 at 5:26 AMView Comments

Mapping FinFisher Users

Citizen Lab continues to do excellent work exposing the world’s cyber-weapons arms manufacturers. Its latest report attempts to track users of Gamma International’s FinFisher:

This post describes the results of Internet scanning we recently conducted to identify the users of FinFisher, a sophisticated and user-friendly spyware suite sold exclusively to governments. We devise a method for querying FinFisher’s “anonymizing proxies” to unmask the true location of the spyware’s master servers. Since the master servers are installed on the premises of FinFisher customers, tracing the servers allows us to identify which governments are likely using FinFisher. In some cases, we can trace the servers to specific entities inside a government by correlating our scan results with publicly available sources. Our results indicate 32 countries where at least one government entity is likely using the spyware suite, and we are further able to identify 10 entities by name. Despite the 2014 FinFisher breach, and subsequent disclosure of sensitive customer data, our scanning has detected more servers in more countries than ever before.

Here’s the map of suspected FinFisher users, including some pretty reprehensible governments.

Two news articles.

Posted on October 16, 2015 at 2:33 PMView Comments

The Secrecy of the Snowden Documents

Last weekend, the Sunday Times published a front-page story (full text here), citing anonymous British sources claiming that both China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents. It’s a terrible article, filled with factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims about both Snowden’s actions and the damage caused by his disclosure, and others have thoroughly refuted the story. I want to focus on the actual question: Do countries like China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents?

I believe the answer is certainly yes, but that it’s almost certainly not Snowden’s fault.

Snowden has claimed that he gave nothing to China while he was in Hong Kong, and brought nothing to Russia. He has said that he encrypted the documents in such a way that even he no longer has access to them, and that he did this before the US government stranded him in Russia. I have no doubt he did as he said, because A) it’s the smart thing to do, and B) it’s easy. All he would have had to do was encrypt the file with a long random key, break the encrypted text up into a few parts and mail them to trusted friends around the world, then forget the key. He probably added some security embellishments, but — regardless — the first sentence of the Times story simply makes no sense: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files…”

But while cryptography is strong, computer security is weak. The vulnerability is not Snowden; it’s everyone who has access to the files.

First, the journalists working with the documents. I’ve handled some of the Snowden documents myself, and even though I’m a paranoid cryptographer, I know how difficult it is to maintain perfect security. It’s been open season on the computers of the journalists Snowden shared documents with since this story broke in July 2013. And while they have been taking extraordinary pains to secure those computers, it’s almost certainly not enough to keep out the world’s intelligence services.

There is a lot of evidence for this belief. We know from other top-secret NSA documents that as far back as 2008, the agency’s Tailored Access Operations group has extraordinary capabilities to hack into and “exfiltrate” data from specific computers, even if those computers are highly secured and not connected to the Internet.

These NSA capabilities are not unique, and it’s reasonable to assume both that other countries had similar capabilities in 2008 and that everyone has improved their attack techniques in the seven years since then. Last week, we learned that Israel had successfully hacked a wide variety of networks, including that of a major computer antivirus company. We also learned that China successfully hacked US government personnel databases. And earlier this year, Russia successfully hacked the White House’s network. These sorts of stories are now routine.

Which brings me to the second potential source of these documents to foreign intelligence agencies: the US and UK governments themselves. I believe that both China and Russia had access to all the files that Snowden took well before Snowden took them because they’ve penetrated the NSA networks where those files reside. After all, the NSA has been a prime target for decades.

Those government hacking examples above were against unclassified networks, but the nation-state techniques we’re seeing work against classified and unconnected networks as well. In general, it’s far easier to attack a network than it is to defend the same network. This isn’t a statement about willpower or budget; it’s how computer and network security work today. A former NSA deputy director recently said that if we were to score cyber the way we score soccer, the tally would be 462­456 twenty minutes into the game. In other words, it’s all offense and no defense.

In this kind of environment, we simply have to assume that even our classified networks have been penetrated. Remember that Snowden was able to wander through the NSA’s networks with impunity, and that the agency had so few controls in place that the only way they can guess what has been taken is to extrapolate based on what has been published. Does anyone believe that Snowden was the first to take advantage of that lax security? I don’t.

This is why I find allegations that Snowden was working for the Russians or the Chinese simply laughable. What makes you think those countries waited for Snowden? And why do you think someone working for the Russians or the Chinese would go public with their haul?

I am reminded of a comment made to me in confidence by a US intelligence official. I asked him what he was most worried about, and he replied: “I know how deep we are in our enemies’ networks without them having any idea that we’re there. I’m worried that our networks are penetrated just as deeply.”

Seems like a reasonable worry to me.

The open question is which countries have sophisticated enough cyberespionage operations to mount a successful attack against one of the journalists or against the intelligence agencies themselves. And while I have my own mental list, the truth is that I don’t know. But certainly Russia and China are on the list, and it’s just as certain they didn’t have to wait for Snowden to get access to the files. While it might be politically convenient to blame Snowden because, as the Sunday Times reported an anonymous source saying, “we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted,” the NSA and GCHQ should first take a look into their mirrors.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I wrote about this essay on Lawfare:

A Twitter user commented: “Surely if agencies accessed computers of people Snowden shared with then is still his fault?”

Yes, that’s right. Snowden took the documents out of the well-protected NSA network and shared with people who don’t have those levels of computer security. Given what we’ve seen of the NSA’s hacking capabilities, I think the odds are zero that other nations were unable to hack at least one of those journalists’ computers. And yes, Snowden has to own that.

The point I make in the article is that those nations didn’t have to wait for Snowden. More specifically, GCHQ claims that “we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted.” One, agents and assets are not discussed in the Snowden documents. Two, it’s two years after Snowden handed those documents to reporters. Whatever is happening, it’s unlikely to be related to Snowden.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Two threads on Reddit.

EDITED TO ADD (7/14): Another refutation.

Posted on June 22, 2015 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Threats to Information Integrity

Every year, the Director of National Intelligence publishes an unclassified “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” This year’s report was published two weeks ago. “Cyber” is the first threat listed, and includes most of what you’d expect from a report like this.

More interesting is this comment about information integrity:

Most of the public discussion regarding cyber threats has focused on the confidentiality and availability of information; cyber espionage undermines confidentiality, whereas denial-of-service operations and data-deletion attacks undermine availability. In the future, however, we might also see more cyber operations that will change or manipulate electronic information in order to compromise its integrity (i.e. accuracy and reliability) instead of deleting it or disrupting access to it. Decisionmaking by senior government officials (civilian and military), corporate executives, investors, or others will be impaired if they cannot trust the information they are receiving.

This speaks directly to the need for strong cryptography to protect the integrity of information.

Posted on March 13, 2015 at 6:05 AMView Comments

New NSA Documents on Offensive Cyberoperations

Appelbaum, Poitras, and others have another NSA article with an enormous Snowden document dump on Der Spiegel, giving details on a variety of offensive NSA cyberoperations to infiltrate and exploit networks around the world. There’s a lot here: 199 pages. (Here they are in one compressed archive.)

Paired with the 666 pages released in conjunction with the December 28 Spiegel article (compressed archive here) on NSA cryptanalytic capabilities, we’ve seen a huge amount of Snowden documents in the past few weeks. According to one tally, it runs 3,560 pages in all.

Hacker News thread. Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/19): In related news, the New York Times is reporting that the NSA has infiltrated North Korea’s networks, and provided evidence to blame the country for the Sony hacks.

EDITED TO ADD (1/19): Also related, the Guardian has an article based on the Snowden documents that GCHQ has been spying on journalists. Another article.

Posted on January 18, 2015 at 7:34 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.