Entries Tagged "cyberweapons"

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Regin Malware

Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.

This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.

I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.

For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.

This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.

So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?

To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.

Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”

My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules — Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware” — making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.

That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.

Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.

This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.

Posted on December 8, 2014 at 7:19 AMView Comments

US Air Force is Focusing on Cyber Deception

The US Air Force is focusing on cyber deception next year:

Background: Deception is a deliberate act to conceal activity on our networks, create uncertainty and confusion against the adversary’s efforts to establish situational awareness and to influence and misdirect adversary perceptions and decision processes. Military deception is defined as “those actions executed to deliberately mislead adversary decision makers as to friendly military capabilities, intentions, and operations, thereby causing the adversary to take specific actions (or inactions) that will contribute to the accomplishment of the friendly mission.” Military forces have historically used techniques such as camouflage, feints, chaff, jammers, fake equipment, false messages or traffic to alter an enemy’s perception of reality. Modern day military planners need a capability that goes beyond the current state-of-the-art in cyber deception to provide a system or systems that can be employed by a commander when needed to enable deception to be inserted into defensive cyber operations.

Relevance and realism are the grand technical challenges to cyber deception. The application of the proposed technology must be relevant to operational and support systems within the DoD. The DoD operates within a highly standardized environment. Any technology that significantly disrupts or increases the cost to the standard of practice will not be adopted. If the technology is adopted, the defense system must appear legitimate to the adversary trying to exploit it.

Objective: To provide cyber-deception capabilities that could be employed by commanders to provide false information, confuse, delay, or otherwise impede cyber attackers to the benefit of friendly forces. Deception mechanisms must be incorporated in such a way that they are transparent to authorized users, and must introduce minimal functional and performance impacts, in order to disrupt our adversaries and not ourselves. As such, proposed techniques must consider how challenges relating to transparency and impact will be addressed. The security of such mechanisms is also paramount, so that their power is not co-opted by attackers against us for their own purposes. These techniques are intended to be employed for defensive purposes only on networks and systems controlled by the DoD.

Advanced techniques are needed with a focus on introducing varying deception dynamics in network protocols and services which can severely impede, confound, and degrade an attacker’s methods of exploitation and attack, thereby increasing the costs and limiting the benefits gained from the attack. The emphasis is on techniques that delay the attacker in the reconnaissance through weaponization stages of an attack and also aid defenses by forcing an attacker to move and act in a more observable manner. Techniques across the host and network layers or a hybrid thereof are of interest in order to provide AF cyber operations with effective, flexible, and rapid deployment options.

More discussion here.

Posted on August 20, 2014 at 5:08 AMView Comments

QUANTUM Technology Sold by Cyberweapons Arms Manufacturers

Last October, I broke the story about the NSA’s top secret program to inject packets into the Internet backbone: QUANTUM. Specifically, I wrote about how QUANTUMINSERT injects packets into existing Internet connections to redirect a user to an NSA web server codenamed FOXACID to infect the user’s computer. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about how QUANTUM works, and general details of many other QUANTUM programs.

These techniques make use of the NSA’s privileged position on the Internet backbone. It has TURMOIL computers directly monitoring the Internet infrastructure at providers in the US and around the world, and a system called TURBINE that allows it to perform real-time packet injection into the backbone. Still, there’s nothing about QUANTUM that anyone else with similar access can’t do. There’s a hacker tool called AirPwn that basically performs a QUANTUMINSERT attack on computers on a wireless network.

A new report from Citizen Lab shows that cyberweapons arms manufacturers are selling this type of technology to governments around the world: the US DoD contractor CloudShield Technologies, Italy’s Hacking Team, and Germany’s and the UK’s Gamma International. These programs intercept web connections to sites like Microsoft and Google — YouTube is specially mentioned — and inject malware into users’ computers.

Turkmenistan paid a Swiss company, Dreamlab Technologies — somehow related to the cyberweapons arms manufacturer Gamma International — just under $1M for this capability. Dreamlab also installed the software in Oman. We don’t know what other countries have this capability, but the companies here routinely sell hacking software to totalitarian countries around the world.

There’s some more information in this Washington Post article, and this essay on the Intercept.

In talking about the NSA’s capabilities, I have repeatedly said that today’s secret NSA programs are tomorrow’s PhD dissertations and the next day’s hacker tools. This is exactly what we’re seeing here. By developing these technologies instead of helping defend against them, the NSA — and GCHQ and CSEC — are contributing to the ongoing insecurity of the Internet.

Related: here is an open letter from Citizen Lab’s Ron Deibert to Hacking Team about the nature of Citizen Lab’s research and the misleading defense of Hacking Team’s products.

Posted on August 18, 2014 at 11:14 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.