Entries Tagged "espionage"

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Microsoft Issues Report of Russian Cyberattacks against Ukraine

Microsoft has a comprehensive report on the dozens of cyberattacks—and even more espionage operations—Russia has conducted against Ukraine as part of this war:

At least six Russian Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors and other unattributed threats, have conducted destructive attacks, espionage operations, or both, while Russian military forces attack the country by land, air, and sea. It is unclear whether computer network operators and physical forces are just independently pursuing a common set of priorities or actively coordinating. However, collectively, the cyber and kinetic actions work to disrupt or degrade Ukrainian government and military functions and undermine the public’s trust in those same institutions.

[…]

Threat groups with known or suspected ties to the GRU have continuously developed and used destructive wiper malware or similarly destructive tools on targeted Ukrainian networks at a pace of two to three incidents a week since the eve of invasion. From February 23 to April 8, we saw evidence of nearly 40 discrete destructive attacks that permanently destroyed files in hundreds of systems across dozens of organizations in Ukraine.

Posted on April 28, 2022 at 9:15 AMView Comments

US Critical Infrastructure Companies Will Have to Report When They Are Hacked

This will be law soon:

Companies critical to U.S. national interests will now have to report when they’re hacked or they pay ransomware, according to new rules approved by Congress.

[…]

The reporting requirement legislation was approved by the House and the Senate on Thursday and is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden soon. It requires any entity that’s considered part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, which includes the finance, transportation and energy sectors, to report any “substantial cyber incident” to the government within three days and any ransomware payment made within 24 hours.

Even better would be if they had to report it to the public.

Posted on March 15, 2022 at 6:01 AMView Comments

Amy Zegart on Spycraft in the Internet Age

Amy Zegart has a new book: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. Wired has an excerpt:

In short, data volume and accessibility are revolutionizing sensemaking. The intelligence playing field is leveling­—and not in a good way. Intelligence collectors are everywhere, and government spy agencies are drowning in data. This is a radical new world and intelligence agencies are struggling to adapt to it. While secrets once conferred a huge advantage, today open source information increasingly does. Intelligence used to be a race for insight where great powers were the only ones with the capabilities to access secrets. Now everyone is racing for insight and the internet gives them tools to do it. Secrets still matter, but whoever can harness all this data better and faster will win.

The third challenge posed by emerging technologies strikes at the heart of espionage: secrecy. Until now, American spy agencies didn’t have to interact much with outsiders, and they didn’t want to. The intelligence mission meant gathering secrets so we knew more about adversaries than they knew about us, and keeping how we gathered secrets a secret too.

[…]

In the digital age, however, secrecy is bringing greater risk because emerging technologies are blurring nearly all the old boundaries of geopolitics. Increasingly, national security requires intelligence agencies to engage the outside world, not stand apart from it.

I have not yet read the book.

Posted on February 8, 2022 at 10:52 AMView Comments

Using Foreign Nationals to Bypass US Surveillance Restrictions

Remember when the US and Australian police surreptitiously owned and operated the encrypted cell phone app ANOM? They arrested 800 people in 2021 based on that operation.

New documents received by Motherboard show that over 100 of those phones were shipped to users in the US, far more than previously believed.

What’s most interesting to me about this new information is how the US used the Australians to get around domestic spying laws:

For legal reasons, the FBI did not monitor outgoing messages from Anom devices determined to be inside the U.S. Instead, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) monitored them on behalf of the FBI, according to previously published court records. In those court records unsealed shortly before the announcement of the Anom operation, FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron wrote that the FBI received Anom user data three times a week, which contained the messages of all of the users of Anom with some exceptions, including “the messages of approximately 15 Anom users in the U.S. sent to any other Anom device.”

[…]

Stewart Baker, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, and Bryce Klehm, associate editor of Lawfare, previously wrote that “The ‘threat to life; standard echoes the provision of U.S. law that allows communications providers to share user data with law enforcement without legal process under 18 U.S.C. § 2702. Whether the AFP was relying on this provision of U.S. law or a more general moral imperative to take action to prevent imminent threats is not clear.” That section of law discusses the voluntary disclosure of customer communications or records.

When asked about the practice of Australian law enforcement monitoring devices inside the U.S. on behalf of the FBI, Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard in a statement “Multiple intelligence community officials have confirmed to me, in writing, that intelligence agencies cannot ask foreign partners to conduct surveillance that the U.S. would be legally prohibited from doing itself. The FBI should follow this same standard. Allegations that the FBI outsourced warrantless surveillance of Americans to a foreign government raise troubling questions about the Justice Department’s oversight of these practices.”

I and others have long suspected that the NSA uses foreign nationals to get around restrictions that prevent it from spying on Americans. It is interesting to see the FBI using the same trick.

Posted on January 13, 2022 at 9:35 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

Biden Administration Imposes Sanctions on Russia for SolarWinds

On April 15, the Biden administration both formally attributed the SolarWinds espionage campaign to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and imposed a series of sanctions designed to punish the country for the attack and deter future attacks.

I will leave it to those with experience in foreign relations to convince me that the response is sufficient to deter future operations. To me, it feels like too little. The New York Times reports that “the sanctions will be among what President Biden’s aides say are ‘seen and unseen steps in response to the hacking,” which implies that there’s more we don’t know about. Also, that “the new measures are intended to have a noticeable effect on the Russian economy.” Honestly, I don’t know what the US should do. Anything that feels more proportional is also more escalatory. I’m sure that dilemma is part of the Russian calculus in all this.

Posted on April 20, 2021 at 6:19 AMView Comments

The FBI Is Now Securing Networks Without Their Owners’ Permission

In January, we learned about a Chinese espionage campaign that exploited four zero-days in Microsoft Exchange. One of the characteristics of the campaign, in the later days when the Chinese probably realized that the vulnerabilities would soon be fixed, was to install a web shell in compromised networks that would give them subsequent remote access. Even if the vulnerabilities were patched, the shell would remain until the network operators removed it.

Now, months later, many of those shells are still in place. And they’re being used by criminal hackers as well.

On Tuesday, the FBI announced that it successfully received a court order to remove “hundreds” of these web shells from networks in the US.

This is nothing short of extraordinary, and I can think of no real-world parallel. It’s kind of like if a criminal organization infiltrated a door-lock company and surreptitiously added a master passkey feature, and then customers bought and installed those locks. And then if the FBI got a court order to fix all the locks to remove the master passkey capability. And it’s kind of not like that. In any case, it’s not what we normally think of when we think of a warrant. The links above have details, but I would like a legal scholar to weigh in on the implications of this.

Posted on April 14, 2021 at 9:56 AMView Comments

Russia’s SolarWinds Attack

Recent news articles have all been talking about the massive Russian cyberattack against the United States, but that’s wrong on two accounts. It wasn’t a cyberattack in international relations terms, it was espionage. And the victim wasn’t just the US, it was the entire world. But it was massive, and it is dangerous.

Espionage is internationally allowed in peacetime. The problem is that both espionage and cyberattacks require the same computer and network intrusions, and the difference is only a few keystrokes. And since this Russian operation isn’t at all targeted, the entire world is at risk—and not just from Russia. Many countries carry out these sorts of operations, none more extensively than the US. The solution is to prioritize security and defense over espionage and attack.

Here’s what we know: Orion is a network management product from a company named SolarWinds, with over 300,000 customers worldwide. Sometime before March, hackers working for the Russian SVR—previously known as the KGB—hacked into SolarWinds and slipped a backdoor into an Orion software update. (We don’t know how, but last year the company’s update server was protected by the password “solarwinds123″—something that speaks to a lack of security culture.) Users who downloaded and installed that corrupted update between March and June unwittingly gave SVR hackers access to their networks.

This is called a supply-chain attack, because it targets a supplier to an organization rather than an organization itself—and can affect all of a supplier’s customers. It’s an increasingly common way to attack networks. Other examples of this sort of attack include fake apps in the Google Play store, and hacked replacement screens for your smartphone.

SolarWinds has removed its customer list from its website, but the Internet Archive saved it: all five branches of the US military, the state department, the White House, the NSA, 425 of the Fortune 500 companies, all five of the top five accounting firms, and hundreds of universities and colleges. In an SEC filing, SolarWinds said that it believes “fewer than 18,000” of those customers installed this malicious update, another way of saying that more than 17,000 did.

That’s a lot of vulnerable networks, and it’s inconceivable that the SVR penetrated them all. Instead, it chose carefully from its cornucopia of targets. Microsoft’s analysis identified 40 customers who were infiltrated using this vulnerability. The great majority of those were in the US, but networks in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Israel and the UAE were also targeted. This list includes governments, government contractors, IT companies, thinktanks, and NGOs—and it will certainly grow.

Once inside a network, SVR hackers followed a standard playbook: establish persistent access that will remain even if the initial vulnerability is fixed; move laterally around the network by compromising additional systems and accounts; and then exfiltrate data. Not being a SolarWinds customer is no guarantee of security; this SVR operation used other initial infection vectors and techniques as well. These are sophisticated and patient hackers, and we’re only just learning some of the techniques involved here.

Recovering from this attack isn’t easy. Because any SVR hackers would establish persistent access, the only way to ensure that your network isn’t compromised is to burn it to the ground and rebuild it, similar to reinstalling your computer’s operating system to recover from a bad hack. This is how a lot of sysadmins are going to spend their Christmas holiday, and even then they can&;t be sure. There are many ways to establish persistent access that survive rebuilding individual computers and networks. We know, for example, of an NSA exploit that remains on a hard drive even after it is reformatted. Code for that exploit was part of the Equation Group tools that the Shadow Brokers—again believed to be Russia—stole from the NSA and published in 2016. The SVR probably has the same kinds of tools.

Even without that caveat, many network administrators won’t go through the long, painful, and potentially expensive rebuilding process. They’ll just hope for the best.

It’s hard to overstate how bad this is. We are still learning about US government organizations breached: the state department, the treasury department, homeland security, the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories (where nuclear weapons are developed), the National Nuclear Security Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and many more. At this point, there’s no indication that any classified networks were penetrated, although that could change easily. It will take years to learn which networks the SVR has penetrated, and where it still has access. Much of that will probably be classified, which means that we, the public, will never know.

And now that the Orion vulnerability is public, other governments and cybercriminals will use it to penetrate vulnerable networks. I can guarantee you that the NSA is using the SVR’s hack to infiltrate other networks; why would they not? (Do any Russian organizations use Orion? Probably.)

While this is a security failure of enormous proportions, it is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, “virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States.” While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware.” The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations—such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks—because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.”

We don’t, and I’m sure NSA employees are grudgingly impressed with the SVR. The US has by far the most extensive and aggressive intelligence operation in the world. The NSA’s budget is the largest of any intelligence agency. It aggressively leverages the US’s position controlling most of the internet backbone and most of the major internet companies. Edward Snowden disclosed many targets of its efforts around 2014, which then included 193 countries, the World Bank, the IMF and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are undoubtedly running an offensive operation on the scale of this SVR operation right now, and it’ll probably never be made public. In 2016, President Obama boasted that we have “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

He may have been too optimistic about our defensive capability. The US prioritizes and spends many times more on offense than on defensive cybersecurity. In recent years, the NSA has adopted a strategy of “persistent engagement,” sometimes called “defending forward.” The idea is that instead of passively waiting for the enemy to attack our networks and infrastructure, we go on the offensive and disrupt attacks before they get to us. This strategy was credited with foiling a plot by the Russian Internet Research Agency to disrupt the 2018 elections.

But if persistent engagement is so effective, how could it have missed this massive SVR operation? It seems that pretty much the entire US government was unknowingly sending information back to Moscow. If we had been watching everything the Russians were doing, we would have seen some evidence of this. The Russians’ success under the watchful eye of the NSA and US Cyber Command shows that this is a failed approach.

And how did US defensive capability miss this? The only reason we know about this breach is because, earlier this month, the security company FireEye discovered that it had been hacked. During its own audit of its network, it uncovered the Orion vulnerability and alerted the US government. Why don’t organizations like the Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Wecurity regularly conduct that level of audit on their own systems? The government’s intrusion detection system, Einstein 3, failed here because it doesn’t detect new sophisticated attacks—a deficiency pointed out in 2018 but never fixed. We shouldn’t have to rely on a private cybersecurity company to alert us of a major nation-state attack.

If anything, the US’s prioritization of offense over defense makes us less safe. In the interests of surveillance, the NSA has pushed for an insecure cell phone encryption standard and a backdoor in random number generators (important for secure encryption). The DoJ has never relented in its insistence that the world’s popular encryption systems be made insecure through back doors—another hot point where attack and defense are in conflict. In other words, we allow for insecure standards and systems, because we can use them to spy on others.

We need to adopt a defense-dominant strategy. As computers and the internet become increasingly essential to society, cyberattacks are likely to be the precursor to actual war. We are simply too vulnerable when we prioritize offense, even if we have to give up the advantage of using those insecurities to spy on others.

Our vulnerability is magnified as eavesdropping may bleed into a direct attack. The SVR’s access allows them not only to eavesdrop, but also to modify data, degrade network performance, or erase entire networks. The first might be normal spying, but the second certainly could be considered an act of war. Russia is almost certainly laying the groundwork for future attack.

This preparation would not be unprecedented. There’s a lot of attack going on in the world. In 2010, the US and Israel attacked the Iranian nuclear program. In 2012, Iran attacked the Saudi national oil company. North Korea attacked Sony in 2014. Russia attacked the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016. Russia is hacking the US power grid, and the US is hacking Russia’s power grid—just in case the capability is needed someday. All of these attacks began as a spying operation. Security vulnerabilities have real-world consequences.

We’re not going to be able to secure our networks and systems in this no-rules, free-for-all every-network-for-itself world. The US needs to willingly give up part of its offensive advantage in cyberspace in exchange for a vastly more secure global cyberspace. We need to invest in securing the world’s supply chains from this type of attack, and to press for international norms and agreements prioritizing cybersecurity, like the 2018 Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace or the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace. Hardening widely used software like Orion (or the core internet protocols) helps everyone. We need to dampen this offensive arms race rather than exacerbate it, and work towards cyber peace. Otherwise, hypocritically criticizing the Russians for doing the same thing we do every day won’t help create the safer world in which we all want to live.

This essay previously appeared in the Guardian.

Posted on December 28, 2020 at 6:21 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.