Entries Tagged "Edward Snowden"

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NSA Using Cyberattack for Defense

These days, it’s rare that we learn something new from the Snowden documents. But Ben Buchanan found something interesting. The NSA penetrates enemy networks in order to enhance our defensive capabilities.

The data the NSA collected by penetrating BYZANTINE CANDOR’s networks had concrete forward-looking defensive value. It included information on the adversary’s “future targets,” including “bios of senior White House officials, [cleared defense contractor] employees, [United States government] employees” and more. It also included access to the “source code and [the] new tools” the Chinese used to conduct operations. The computers penetrated by the NSA also revealed information about the exploits in use. In effect, the intelligence gained from the operation, once given to network defenders and fed into automated systems, was enough to guide and enhance the United States’ defensive efforts.

This case alludes to important themes in network defense. It shows the persistence of talented adversaries, the creativity of clever defenders, the challenge of getting actionable intelligence on the threat, and the need for network architecture and defenders capable of acting on that information. But it also highlights an important point that is too often overlooked: not every intrusion is in service of offensive aims. There are genuinely defensive reasons for a nation to launch intrusions against another nation’s networks.


Other Snowden files show what the NSA can do when it gathers this data, describing an interrelated and complex set of United States programs to collect intelligence and use it to better protect its networks. The NSA’s internal documents call this “foreign intelligence in support of dynamic defense.” The gathered information can “tip” malicious code the NSA has placed on servers and computers around the world. Based on this tip, one of the NSA’s nodes can act on the information, “inject[ing a] response onto the Internet towards [the] target.” There are a variety of responses that the NSA can inject, including resetting connections, delivering malicious code, and redirecting internet traffic.

Similarly, if the NSA can learn about the adversary’s “tools and tradecraft” early enough, it can develop and deploy “tailored countermeasures” to blunt the intended effect. The NSA can then try to discern the intent of the adversary and use its countermeasure to mitigate the attempted intrusion. The signals intelligence agency feeds information about the incoming threat to an automated system deployed on networks that the NSA protects. This system has a number of capabilities, including blocking the incoming traffic outright, sending unexpected responses back to the adversary, slowing the traffic down, and “permitting the activity to appear [to the adversary] to complete without disclosing that it did not reach [or] affect the intended target.”

These defensive capabilities appear to be actively in use by the United States against a wide range of threats. NSA documents indicate that the agency uses the system to block twenty-eight major categories of threats as of 2011. This includes action against significant adversaries, such as China, as well as against non-state actors. Documents provide a number of success stories. These include the thwarting of a BYZANTINE HADES intrusion attempt that targeted four high-ranking American military leaders, including the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the NSA’s network defenders saw the attempt coming and successfully prevented any negative effects. The files also include examples of successful defense against Anonymous and against several other code-named entities.

I recommend Buchanan’s book: The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust and Fear Between Nations.

Posted on February 22, 2017 at 6:21 AMView Comments

The NSA Is Hoarding Vulnerabilities

The National Security Agency is lying to us. We know that because data stolen from an NSA server was dumped on the Internet. The agency is hoarding information about security vulnerabilities in the products you use, because it wants to use it to hack others’ computers. Those vulnerabilities aren’t being reported, and aren’t getting fixed, making your computers and networks unsafe.

On August 13, a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers released 300 megabytes of NSA cyberweapon code on the Internet. Near as we experts can tell, the NSA network itself wasn’t hacked; what probably happened was that a “staging server” for NSA cyberweapons—that is, a server the NSA was making use of to mask its surveillance activities—was hacked in 2013.

The NSA inadvertently resecured itself in what was coincidentally the early weeks of the Snowden document release. The people behind the link used casual hacker lingo, and made a weird, implausible proposal involving holding a bitcoin auction for the rest of the data: “!!! Attention government sponsors of cyber warfare and those who profit from it !!!! How much you pay for enemies cyber weapons?”

Still, most people believe the hack was the work of the Russian government and the data release some sort of political message. Perhaps it was a warning that if the US government exposes the Russians as being behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee—or other high-profile data breaches—the Russians will expose NSA exploits in turn.

But what I want to talk about is the data. The sophisticated cyberweapons in the data dump include vulnerabilities and “exploit code” that can be deployed against common Internet security systems. Products targeted include those made by Cisco, Fortinet, TOPSEC, Watchguard, and Juniper—systems that are used by both private and government organizations around the world. Some of these vulnerabilities have been independently discovered and fixed since 2013, and some had remained unknown until now.

All of them are examples of the NSA—despite what it and other representatives of the US government say—prioritizing its ability to conduct surveillance over our security. Here’s one example. Security researcher Mustafa al-Bassam found an attack tool codenamed BENIGHCERTAIN that tricks certain Cisco firewalls into exposing some of their memory, including their authentication passwords. Those passwords can then be used to decrypt virtual private network, or VPN, traffic, completely bypassing the firewalls’ security. Cisco hasn’t sold these firewalls since 2009, but they’re still in use today.

Vulnerabilities like that one could have, and should have, been fixed years ago. And they would have been, if the NSA had made good on its word to alert American companies and organizations when it had identified security holes.

Over the past few years, different parts of the US government have repeatedly assured us that the NSA does not hoard “zero days” ­ the term used by security experts for vulnerabilities unknown to software vendors. After we learned from the Snowden documents that the NSA purchases zero-day vulnerabilities from cyberweapons arms manufacturers, the Obama administration announced, in early 2014, that the NSA must disclose flaws in common software so they can be patched (unless there is “a clear national security or law enforcement” use).

Later that year, National Security Council cybersecurity coordinator and special adviser to the president on cybersecurity issues Michael Daniel insisted that US doesn’t stockpile zero-days (except for the same narrow exemption). An official statement from the White House in 2014 said the same thing.

The Shadow Brokers data shows this is not true. The NSA hoards vulnerabilities.

Hoarding zero-day vulnerabilities is a bad idea. It means that we’re all less secure. When Edward Snowden exposed many of the NSA’s surveillance programs, there was considerable discussion about what the agency does with vulnerabilities in common software products that it finds. Inside the US government, the system of figuring out what to do with individual vulnerabilities is called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP). It’s an inter-agency process, and it’s complicated.

There is a fundamental tension between attack and defense. The NSA can keep the vulnerability secret and use it to attack other networks. In such a case, we are all at risk of someone else finding and using the same vulnerability. Alternatively, the NSA can disclose the vulnerability to the product vendor and see it gets fixed. In this case, we are all secure against whoever might be using the vulnerability, but the NSA can’t use it to attack other systems.

There are probably some overly pedantic word games going on. Last year, the NSA said that it discloses 91 percent of the vulnerabilities it finds. Leaving aside the question of whether that remaining 9 percent represents 1, 10, or 1,000 vulnerabilities, there’s the bigger question of what qualifies in the NSA’s eyes as a “vulnerability.”

Not all vulnerabilities can be turned into exploit code. The NSA loses no attack capabilities by disclosing the vulnerabilities it can’t use, and doing so gets its numbers up; it’s good PR. The vulnerabilities we care about are the ones in the Shadow Brokers data dump. We care about them because those are the ones whose existence leaves us all vulnerable.

Because everyone uses the same software, hardware, and networking protocols, there is no way to simultaneously secure our systems while attacking their systems ­ whoever “they” are. Either everyone is more secure, or everyone is more vulnerable.

Pretty much uniformly, security experts believe we ought to disclose and fix vulnerabilities. And the NSA continues to say things that appear to reflect that view, too. Recently, the NSA told everyone that it doesn’t rely on zero days—very much, anyway.

Earlier this year at a security conference, Rob Joyce, the head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) organization—basically the country’s chief hacker—gave a rare public talk, in which he said that credential stealing is a more fruitful method of attack than are zero days: “A lot of people think that nation states are running their operations on zero days, but it’s not that common. For big corporate networks, persistence and focus will get you in without a zero day; there are so many more vectors that are easier, less risky, and more productive.”

The distinction he’s referring to is the one between exploiting a technical hole in software and waiting for a human being to, say, get sloppy with a password.

A phrase you often hear in any discussion of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is NOBUS, which stands for “nobody but us.” Basically, when the NSA finds a vulnerability, it tries to figure out if it is unique in its ability to find it, or whether someone else could find it, too. If it believes no one else will find the problem, it may decline to make it public. It’s an evaluation prone to both hubris and optimism, and many security experts have cast doubt on the very notion that there is some unique American ability to conduct vulnerability research.

The vulnerabilities in the Shadow Brokers data dump are definitely not NOBUS-level. They are run-of-the-mill vulnerabilities that anyone—another government, cybercriminals, amateur hackers—could discover, as evidenced by the fact that many of them were discovered between 2013, when the data was stolen, and this summer, when it was published. They are vulnerabilities in common systems used by people and companies all over the world.

So what are all these vulnerabilities doing in a secret stash of NSA code that was stolen in 2013? Assuming the Russians were the ones who did the stealing, how many US companies did they hack with these vulnerabilities? This is what the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is designed to prevent, and it has clearly failed.

If there are any vulnerabilities that—according to the standards established by the White House and the NSA—should have been disclosed and fixed, it’s these. That they have not been during the three-plus years that the NSA knew about and exploited them—despite Joyce’s insistence that they’re not very important—demonstrates that the Vulnerable Equities Process is badly broken.

We need to fix this. This is exactly the sort of thing a congressional investigation is for. This whole process needs a lot more transparency, oversight, and accountability. It needs guiding principles that prioritize security over surveillance. A good place to start are the recommendations by Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake in their report: these include a clearly defined and more public process, more oversight by Congress and other independent bodies, and a strong bias toward fixing vulnerabilities instead of exploiting them.

And as long as I’m dreaming, we really need to separate our nation’s intelligence-gathering mission from our computer security mission: we should break up the NSA. The agency’s mission should be limited to nation state espionage. Individual investigation should be part of the FBI, cyberwar capabilities should be within US Cyber Command, and critical infrastructure defense should be part of DHS’s mission.

I doubt we’re going to see any congressional investigations this year, but we’re going to have to figure this out eventually. In my 2014 book Data and Goliath, I write that “no matter what cybercriminals do, no matter what other countries do, we in the US need to err on the side of security by fixing almost all the vulnerabilities we find…” Our nation’s cybersecurity is just too important to let the NSA sacrifice it in order to gain a fleeting advantage over a foreign adversary.

This essay previously appeared on Vox.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/27): The vulnerabilities were seen in the wild within 24 hours, demonstrating how important they were to disclose and patch.

James Bamford thinks this is the work of an insider. I disagree, but he’s right that the TAO catalog was not a Snowden document.

People are looking at the quality of the code. It’s not that good.

Posted on August 26, 2016 at 5:56 AMView Comments

More NSA Documents from the Snowden Archive

The Intercept is starting to publish a lot more documents. Yesterday they published the first year of an internal newsletter called SIDtoday, along with several articles based on the documents.

The Intercept‘s first SIDtoday release comprises 166 articles, including all articles published between March 31, 2003, when SIDtoday began, and June 30, 2003, plus installments of all article series begun during this period through the end of the year. Major topics include the National Security Agency’s role in interrogations, the Iraq War, the war on terror, new leadership in the Signals Intelligence Directorate, and new, popular uses of the internet and of mobile computing devices.

They’re also making the archive available to more researchers.

Posted on May 17, 2016 at 6:18 AMView Comments

Documenting the Chilling Effects of NSA Surveillance

In Data and Goliath, I talk about the self-censorship that comes along with broad surveillance. This interesting research documents this phenomenon in Wikipedia: “Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use,” by Jon Penney, Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2016.

Abstract: This article discusses the results of the first empirical study providing evidence of regulatory “chilling effects” of Wikipedia users associated with online government surveillance. The study explores how traffic to Wikipedia articles on topics that raise privacy concerns for Wikipedia users decreased after the widespread publicity about NSA/PRISM surveillance revelations in June 2013. Using an interdisciplinary research design, the study tests the hypothesis, based on chilling effects theory, that traffic to privacy-sensitive Wikipedia articles reduced after the mass surveillance revelations. The Article finds not only a statistically significant immediate decline in traffic for these Wikipedia articles after June 2013, but also a change in the overall secular trend in the view count traffic, suggesting not only immediate but also long-term chilling effects resulting from the NSA/PRISM online surveillance revelations. These, and other results from the case study, not only offer compelling evidence for chilling effects associated with online surveillance, but also offer important insights about how we should understand such chilling effects and their scope, including how they interact with other dramatic or significant events (like war and conflict) and their broader implications for privacy, U.S. constitutional litigation, and the health of democratic society. This study is among the first to demonstrate—using either Wikipedia data or web traffic data more generally­ how government surveillance and similar actions impact online activities, including access to information and knowledge online.

Two news stories.

Posted on April 29, 2016 at 6:28 AM

Policy Repercussions of the Paris Terrorist Attacks

In 2013, in the early days of the Snowden leaks, Harvard Law School professor and former Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith reflected on the increase in NSA surveillance post 9/11. He wrote:

Two important lessons of the last dozen years are (1) the government will increase its powers to meet the national security threat fully (because the People demand it), and (2) the enhanced powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency that seem to those in the Executive branch to be intrusive and antagonistic to the traditional national security mission, but that in the end are key legitimating factors for the expanded authorities.

Goldsmith is right, and I think about this quote as I read news articles about surveillance policies with headlines like “Political winds shifting on surveillance after Paris attacks?

The politics of surveillance are the politics of fear. As long as the people are afraid of terrorism—regardless of how realistic their fears are—they will demand that the government keep them safe. And if the government can convince them that it needs this or that power in order to keep the people safe, the people will willingly grant them those powers. That’s Goldsmith’s first point.

Today, in the wake of the horrific and devastating Paris terror attacks, we’re at a pivotal moment. People are scared, and already Western governments are lining up to authorize more invasive surveillance powers. The US want to back-door encryption products in some vain hope that the bad guys are 1) naive enough to use those products for their own communications instead of more secure ones, and 2) too stupid to use the back doors against the rest of us. The UK is trying to rush the passage of legislation that legalizes a whole bunch of surveillance activities that GCHQ has already been doing to its own citizens. France just gave its police a bunch of new powers. It doesn’t matter that mass surveillance isn’t an effective anti-terrorist tool: a scared populace wants to be reassured.

And politicians want to reassure. It’s smart politics to exaggerate the threat. It’s smart politics to do something, even if that something isn’t effective at mitigating the threat. The surveillance apparatus has the ear of the politicians, and the primary tool in its box is more surveillance. There’s minimal political will to push back on those ideas, especially when people are scared.

Writing about our country’s reaction to the Paris attacks, Tom Engelhardt wrote:

…the officials of that security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist ‘threat,’ which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.

Goldsmith’s second point is more subtle: when these power increases are made in public, they’re legitimized through bureaucracy. Together, the scared populace and their scared elected officials serve to make the expanded national security and law enforcement powers normal.

Terrorism is singularly designed to push our fear buttons in ways completely out of proportion to the actual threat. And as long as people are scared of terrorism, they’ll give their governments all sorts of new powers of surveillance, arrest, detention, and so on, regardless of whether those powers actually combat the threat. This means that those who want those powers need a steady stream of terrorist attacks to enact their agenda. It’s not that these people are actively rooting for the terrorists, but they know a good opportunity when they see it.

We know that the PATRIOT Act was largely written before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that the political climate was right for its introduction and passage. More recently:

Although “the legislative environment is very hostile today,” the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, said to colleagues in an August e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

The Paris attacks could very well be that event.

I am very worried that the Obama administration has already secretly told the NSA to increase its surveillance inside the US. And I am worried that there will be new legislation legitimizing that surveillance and granting other invasive powers to law enforcement. As Goldsmith says, these powers will be accompanied by novel systems of review and transparency. But I have no faith that those systems will be effective in limiting abuse any more than they have been over the last couple of decades.

EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Trevor Timm is all over this issue. Dan Gillmor wrote something good, too.

Posted on November 24, 2015 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Paris Attacks Blamed on Strong Cryptography and Edward Snowden

Well, that didn’t take long:

As Paris reels from terrorist attacks that have claimed at least 128 lives, fierce blame for the carnage is being directed toward American whistleblower Edward Snowden and the spread of strong encryption catalyzed by his actions.

Now the Paris attacks are being used an excuse to demand back doors.

CIA Director John Brennan chimed in, too.

Of course, this was planned all along. From September:

Privately, law enforcement officials have acknowledged that prospects for congressional action this year are remote. Although “the legislative environment is very hostile today,” the intelligence community’s top lawyer, Robert S. Litt, said to colleagues in an August e-mail, which was obtained by The Post, “it could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

There is value, he said, in “keeping our options open for such a situation.”

I was going to write a definitive refutation to the meme that it’s all Snowden’s fault, but Glenn Greenwald beat me to it.

EDITED TO ADD: It wasn’t fair for me to characterize Ben Wittes’s Lawfare post as agitating for back doors. I apologize.

Better links are these two New York Times stories.

EDITED TO ADD (11/17): These two essays are also good.

EDITED TO ADD (11/18): The New York Times published a powerful editorial against mass surveillance.

EDITED TO ADD (11/19): The New York Times deleted a story claiming the attackers used encryption. Because it turns out they didn’t use encryption.

Posted on November 16, 2015 at 2:39 PMView Comments

How GCHQ Tracks Internet Users

The Intercept has a new story from the Snowden documents about the UK’s surveillance of the Internet by the GCHQ:

The mass surveillance operation ­ code-named KARMA POLICE­ was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.


One system builds profiles showing people’s web browsing histories. Another analyzes instant messenger communications, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cell phone locations, and social media interactions. Separate programs were built to keep tabs on “suspicious” Google searches and usage of Google Maps.


As of March 2009, the largest slice of data Black Hole held—41 percent—was about people’s Internet browsing histories. The rest included a combination of email and instant messenger records, details about search engine queries, information about social media activity, logs related to hacking operations, and data on people’s use of tools to browse the Internet anonymously.

Lots more in the article. The Intercept also published 28 new top secret NSA and GCHQ documents.

Posted on September 29, 2015 at 6:16 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.