Entries Tagged "exploits"

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Details on the Unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone

The Washington Post has published a long story on the unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone 5C in 2016. We all thought it was an Israeli company called Cellebrite. It was actually an Australian company called Azimuth Security.

Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.


Using the flaw Dowd found, Wang, based in Portland, Ore., created an exploit that enabled initial access to the phone ­ a foot in the door. Then he hitched it to another exploit that permitted greater maneuverability, according to the people. And then he linked that to a final exploit that another Azimuth researcher had already created for iPhones, giving him full control over the phone’s core processor ­ the brains of the device. From there, he wrote software that rapidly tried all combinations of the passcode, bypassing other features, such as the one that erased data after 10 incorrect tries.

Apple is suing various companies over this sort of thing. The article goes into the details.

Posted on April 19, 2021 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Exploiting Spectre Over the Internet

Google has demonstrated exploiting the Spectre CPU attack remotely over the web:

Today, we’re sharing proof-of-concept (PoC) code that confirms the practicality of Spectre exploits against JavaScript engines. We use Google Chrome to demonstrate our attack, but these issues are not specific to Chrome, and we expect that other modern browsers are similarly vulnerable to this exploitation vector. We have developed an interactive demonstration of the attack available at https://leaky.page/ ; the code and a more detailed writeup are published on Github here.

The demonstration website can leak data at a speed of 1kB/s when running on Chrome 88 on an Intel Skylake CPU. Note that the code will likely require minor modifications to apply to other CPUs or browser versions; however, in our tests the attack was successful on several other processors, including the Apple M1 ARM CPU, without any major changes.

Posted on March 18, 2021 at 6:17 AMView Comments

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

On Vulnerability-Adjacent Vulnerabilities

At the virtual Enigma Conference, Google’s Project Zero’s Maggie Stone gave a talk about zero-day exploits in the wild. In it, she talked about how often vendors fix vulnerabilities only to have the attackers tweak their exploits to work again. From a MIT Technology Review article:

Soon after they were spotted, the researchers saw one exploit being used in the wild. Microsoft issued a patch and fixed the flaw, sort of. In September 2019, another similar vulnerability was found being exploited by the same hacking group.

More discoveries in November 2019, January 2020, and April 2020 added up to at least five zero-day vulnerabilities being exploited from the same bug class in short order. Microsoft issued multiple security updates: some failed to actually fix the vulnerability being targeted, while others required only slight changes that required just a line or two to change in the hacker’s code to make the exploit work again.


“What we saw cuts across the industry: Incomplete patches are making it easier for attackers to exploit users with zero-days,” Stone said on Tuesday at the security conference Enigma. “We’re not requiring attackers to come up with all new bug classes, develop brand new exploitation, look at code that has never been researched before. We’re allowing the reuse of lots of different vulnerabilities that we previously knew about.”


Why aren’t they being fixed? Most of the security teams working at software companies have limited time and resources, she suggests — and if their priorities and incentives are flawed, they only check that they’ve fixed the very specific vulnerability in front of them instead of addressing the bigger problems at the root of many vulnerabilities.

Another article on the talk.

This is an important insight. It’s not enough to patch existing vulnerabilities. We need to make it harder for attackers to find new vulnerabilities to exploit. Closing entire families of vulnerabilities, rather than individual vulnerabilities one at a time, is a good way to do that.

Posted on February 15, 2021 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Sophisticated Watering Hole Attack

Google’s Project Zero has exposed a sophisticated watering-hole attack targeting both Windows and Android:

Some of the exploits were zero-days, meaning they targeted vulnerabilities that at the time were unknown to Google, Microsoft, and most outside researchers (both companies have since patched the security flaws). The hackers delivered the exploits through watering-hole attacks, which compromise sites frequented by the targets of interest and lace the sites with code that installs malware on visitors’ devices. The boobytrapped sites made use of two exploit servers, one for Windows users and the other for users of Android

The use of zero-days and complex infrastructure isn’t in itself a sign of sophistication, but it does show above-average skill by a professional team of hackers. Combined with the robustness of the attack code — ­which chained together multiple exploits in an efficient manner — the campaign demonstrates it was carried out by a “highly sophisticated actor.”


The modularity of the payloads, the interchangeable exploit chains, and the logging, targeting, and maturity of the operation also set the campaign apart, the researcher said.

No attribution was made, but the list of countries likely to be behind this isn’t very large. If you were to ask me to guess based on available information, I would guess it was the US — specifically, the NSA. It shows a care and precision that it’s known for. But I have no actual evidence for that guess.

All the vulnerabilities were fixed by last April.

Posted on January 20, 2021 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Impressive iPhone Exploit

This is a scarily impressive vulnerability:

Earlier this year, Apple patched one of the most breathtaking iPhone vulnerabilities ever: a memory corruption bug in the iOS kernel that gave attackers remote access to the entire device­ — over Wi-Fi, with no user interaction required at all. Oh, and exploits were wormable­ — meaning radio-proximity exploits could spread from one nearby device to another, once again, with no user interaction needed.


Beer’s attack worked by exploiting a buffer overflow bug in a driver for AWDL, an Apple-proprietary mesh networking protocol that makes things like Airdrop work. Because drivers reside in the kernel — ­one of the most privileged parts of any operating system­ — the AWDL flaw had the potential for serious hacks. And because AWDL parses Wi-Fi packets, exploits can be transmitted over the air, with no indication that anything is amiss.


Beer developed several different exploits. The most advanced one installs an implant that has full access to the user’s personal data, including emails, photos, messages, and passwords and crypto keys stored in the keychain. The attack uses a laptop, a Raspberry Pi, and some off-the-shelf Wi-Fi adapters. It takes about two minutes to install the prototype implant, but Beer said that with more work a better written exploit could deliver it in a “handful of seconds.” Exploits work only on devices that are within Wi-Fi range of the attacker.

There is no evidence that this vulnerability was ever used in the wild.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread.

Posted on December 2, 2020 at 1:55 PMView Comments

New Windows Zero-Day

Google’s Project Zero has discovered and published a buffer overflow vulnerability in the Windows Kernel Cryptography Driver. The exploit doesn’t affect the cryptography, but allows attackers to escalate system privileges:

Attackers were combining an exploit for it with a separate one targeting a recently fixed flaw in Chrome. The former allowed the latter to escape a security sandbox so the latter could execute code on vulnerable machines.

The vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, although Microsoft says it’s not being exploited widely. Everyone expects a fix in the next Patch Tuesday cycle.

Posted on November 2, 2020 at 2:01 PMView Comments

Facebook Helped Develop a Tails Exploit

This is a weird story:

Hernandez was able to evade capture for so long because he used Tails, a version of Linux designed for users at high risk of surveillance and which routes all inbound and outbound connections through the open-source Tor network to anonymize it. According to Vice, the FBI had tried to hack into Hernandez’s computer but failed, as the approach they used “was not tailored for Tails.” Hernandez then proceeded to mock the FBI in subsequent messages, two Facebook employees told Vice.

Facebook had tasked a dedicated employee to unmasking Hernandez, developed an automated system to flag recently created accounts that messaged minors, and made catching Hernandez a priority for its security teams, according to Vice. They also paid a third party contractor “six figures” to help develop a zero-day exploit in Tails: a bug in its video player that enabled them to retrieve the real I.P. address of a person viewing a clip. Three sources told Vice that an intermediary passed the tool onto the FBI, who then obtained a search warrant to have one of the victims send a modified video file to Hernandez (a tactic the agency has used before).


Facebook also never notified the Tails team of the flaw — breaking with a long industry tradition of disclosure in which the relevant developers are notified of vulnerabilities in advance of them becoming public so they have a chance at implementing a fix. Sources told Vice that since an upcoming Tails update was slated to strip the vulnerable code, Facebook didn’t bother to do so, though the social media company had no reason to believe Tails developers had ever discovered the bug.


“The only acceptable outcome to us was Buster Hernandez facing accountability for his abuse of young girls,” a Facebook spokesperson told Vice. “This was a unique case, because he was using such sophisticated methods to hide his identity, that we took the extraordinary steps of working with security experts to help the FBI bring him to justice.”

I agree with that last paragraph. I’m fine with the FBI using vulnerabilities: lawful hacking, it’s called. I’m less okay with Facebook paying for a Tails exploit, giving it to the FBI, and then keeping its existence secret.

Another article.

EDITED TO ADD: This post has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on June 12, 2020 at 6:23 AMView Comments

Another Intel Speculative Execution Vulnerability

Remember Spectre and Meltdown? Back in early 2018, I wrote:

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they — and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability — have shown researchers where to look, more is coming — and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown. There will be vulnerabilities that will allow attackers to manipulate or delete data across processes, potentially fatal in the computers controlling our cars or implanted medical devices. These will be similarly impossible to fix, and the only strategy will be to throw our devices away and buy new ones.

That has turned out to be true. Here’s a new vulnerability:

On Tuesday, two separate academic teams disclosed two new and distinctive exploits that pierce Intel’s Software Guard eXtension, by far the most sensitive region of the company’s processors.


The new SGX attacks are known as SGAxe and CrossTalk. Both break into the fortified CPU region using separate side-channel attacks, a class of hack that infers sensitive data by measuring timing differences, power consumption, electromagnetic radiation, sound, or other information from the systems that store it. The assumptions for both attacks are roughly the same. An attacker has already broken the security of the target machine through a software exploit or a malicious virtual machine that compromises the integrity of the system. While that’s a tall bar, it’s precisely the scenario that SGX is supposed to defend against.

Another news article.

Posted on June 11, 2020 at 6:40 AMView Comments

New iPhone Zero-Day Discovered

Last year, ZecOps discovered two iPhone zero-day exploits. They will be patched in the next iOS release:

Avraham declined to disclose many details about who the targets were, and did not say whether they lost any data as a result of the attacks, but said “we were a bit surprised about who was targeted.” He said some of the targets were an executive from a telephone carrier in Japan, a “VIP” from Germany, managed security service providers from Saudi Arabia and Israel, people who work for a Fortune 500 company in North America, and an executive from a Swiss company.


On the other hand, this is not as polished a hack as others, as it relies on sending an oversized email, which may get blocked by certain email providers. Moreover, Avraham said it only works on the default Apple Mail app, and not on Gmail or Outlook, for example.

Posted on April 22, 2020 at 9:12 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.