The NSA is undergoing a major reorganization, combining its attack and defense sides into a single organization:
In place of the Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance directorates the organizations that historically have spied on foreign targets and defended classified networks against spying, respectively the NSA is creating a Directorate of Operations that combines the operational elements of each.
It’s going to be difficult, since their missions and culture are so different.
The Information Assurance Directorate (IAD) seeks to build relationships with private-sector companies and help find vulnerabilities in software most of which officials say wind up being disclosed. It issues software guidance and tests the security of systems to help strengthen their defenses.
But the other side of the NSA house, which looks for vulnerabilities that can be exploited to hack a foreign network, is much more secretive.
“You have this kind of clash between the closed environment of the sigint mission and the need of the information-assurance team to be out there in the public and be seen as part of the solution,” said a second former official. “I think that’s going to be a hard trick to pull off.”
I think this will make it even harder to trust the NSA. In my book Data and Goliath, I recommended separating the attack and defense missions of the NSA even further, breaking up the agency. (I also wrote about that idea here.)
And missing in their reorg is how US CyberCommmand’s offensive and defensive capabilities relate to the NSA’s. That seems pretty important, too.
EDITED TO ADD (2/11): Some more commentary.
EDITED TO ADD (2/13): Another.
Posted on February 5, 2016 at 3:15 PM •
Rob Joyce, the head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group — basically the country’s chief hacker — spoke in public earlier this week. He talked both about how the NSA hacks into networks, and what network defenders can do to protect themselves. Here’s a video of the talk, and here are two good summaries.
- Initial Exploitation
- Establish Persistence
- Install Tools
- Move Laterally
- Collect Exfil and Exploit
The event was the USENIX Enigma Conference.
The talk is full of good information about how APT attacks work and how networks can defend themselves. Nothing really surprising, but all interesting. Which brings up the most important question: why did the NSA decide to put Joyce on stage in public? It surely doesn’t want all of its target networks to improve their security so much that the NSA can no longer get in. On the other hand, the NSA does want the general security of US — and presumably allied — networks to improve. My guess is that this is simply a NOBUS issue. The NSA is, or at least believes it is, so sophisticated in its attack techniques that these defensive recommendations won’t slow it down significantly. And the Chinese/Russian/etc state-sponsored attackers will have a harder time. Or, at least, that’s what the NSA wants us to believe.
Wheels within wheels….
More information about the NSA’s TAO group is here and here. Here’s an article about TAO’s catalog of implants and attack tools. Note that the catalog is from 2007. Presumably TAO has been very busy developing new attack tools over the past ten years.
EDITED TO ADD (2/2): I was talking with Nicholas Weaver, and he said that he found these three points interesting:
- A one-way monitoring system really gives them headaches, because it allows the defender to go back after the fact and see what happened, remove malware, etc.
- The critical component of APT is the P: persistence. They will just keep trying, trying, and trying. If you have a temporary vulnerability — the window between a vulnerability and a patch, temporarily turning off a defense — they’ll exploit it.
- Trust them when they attribute an attack (e,g: Sony) on the record. Attribution is hard, but when they can attribute they know for sure — and they don’t attribute lightly.
Posted on February 1, 2016 at 6:42 AM •
Last July, a still-anonymous hacker broke into the network belonging to the cyberweapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team, and dumped an enormous amount of its proprietary documents online. Kaspersky Labs was able to reverse-engineer one of its zero-day exploits from that data.
Posted on January 19, 2016 at 2:34 PM •
The Intercept just published a 2011 GCHQ document outlining its exploit capabilities against Juniper networking equipment, including routers and NetScreen firewalls as part of this article.
GCHQ currently has capabilities against:
- Juniper NetScreen Firewalls models Ns5gt, N25, NS50, NS500, NS204, NS208, NS5200, NS5000, SSG5, SSG20, SSG140, ISG 1000, ISG 2000. Some reverse engineering maybe required depending on firmware revisions.
- Juniper Routers: M320 is currently being worked on and we would expect to have full support by the end of 2010.
- No other models are currently supported.
- Juniper technology sharing with NSA improved dramatically during CY2010 to exploit several target networks where GCHQ had access primacy.
Yes, the document said “end of 2010” even though the document is dated February 3, 2011.
This doesn’t have much to do with the Juniper backdoor currently in the news, but the document does provide even more evidence that (despite what the government says) the NSA hoards vulnerabilities in commonly used software for attack purposes instead of improving security for everyone by disclosing it.
Note: In case anyone is researching this issue, here is my complete list of useful links on various different aspects of the ongoing debate.
EDITED TO ADD: In thinking about the equities process, it’s worth differentiating among three different things: bugs, vulnerabilities, and exploits. Bugs are plentiful in code, but not all bugs can be turned into vulnerabilities. And not all vulnerabilities can be turned into exploits. Exploits are what matter; they’re what everyone uses to compromise our security. Fixing bugs and vulnerabilities is important because they could potentially be turned into exploits.
I think the US government deliberately clouds the issue when they say that they disclose almost all bugs they discover, ignoring the much more important question of how often they disclose exploits they discover. What this document shows is that — despite their insistence that they prioritize security over surveillance — they like to hoard exploits against commonly used network equipment.
Posted on December 28, 2015 at 6:54 AM •
I don’t know whether to believe this story. Supposedly the startup Zerodium paid someone $1M for an iOS 9.1 and 9.2b hack.
Bekrar and Zerodium, as well as its predecessor VUPEN, have a different business model. They offer higher rewards than what tech companies usually pay out, and keep the vulnerabilities secret, revealing them only to certain government customers, such as the NSA.
I know startups like publicity, but certainly an exploit like this is more valuable if it’s not talked about.
So this might be real, or it might be a PR stunt. But companies selling exploits to governments is certainly real.
Another news article.
Posted on November 3, 2015 at 2:31 PM •
FireEye is reporting the discovery of persistent malware that compromises Cisco routers:
While this attack could be possible on any router technology, in this case, the targeted victims were Cisco routers. The Mandiant team found 14 instances of this router implant, dubbed SYNful Knock, across four countries: Ukraine, Philippines, Mexico, and India.
The implant uses techniques that make it very difficult to detect. A clandestine modification of the router’s firmware image can be utilized to maintain perpetual presence to an environment. However, it mainly surpasses detection because very few, if any, are monitoring these devices for compromise.
I don’t know if the attack is related to this attack against Cisco routers discovered in August.
As I wrote then, this is very much the sort of attack you’d expect from a government eavesdropping agency. We know, for example, that the NSA likes to attack routers. If I had to guess, I would guess that this is an NSA exploit. (Note the lack of Five Eyes countries in the target list.)
Posted on September 21, 2015 at 11:45 AM •
Oracle’s CSO Mary Ann Davidson wrote a blog post ranting against security experts finding vulnerabilities in her company’s products. The blog post has been taken down by the company, but was saved for posterity by others. There’s been lots of commentary.
It’s easy to just mock Davidson’s stance, but it’s dangerous to our community. Yes, if researchers don’t find vulnerabilities in Oracle products, then the company won’t look bad and won’t have to patch things. But the real attackers — whether they be governments, criminals, or cyberweapons arms manufacturers who sell to government and criminals — will continue to find vulnerabilities in her products. And while they won’t make a press splash and embarrass her, they will exploit them.
Posted on August 17, 2015 at 6:45 AM •
New research: “All Your Biases Belong To Us: Breaking RC4 in WPA-TKIP and TLS,” by Mathy Vanhoef and Frank Piessens:
Abstract: We present new biases in RC4, break the Wi-Fi Protected Access Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (WPA-TKIP), and design a practical plaintext recovery attack against the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol. To empirically find new biases in the RC4 keystream we use statistical hypothesis tests. This reveals many new biases in the initial keystream bytes, as well as several new long-term biases. Our fixed-plaintext recovery algorithms are capable of using multiple types of biases, and return a list of plaintext candidates in decreasing likelihood.
To break WPA-TKIP we introduce a method to generate a large number of identical packets. This packet is decrypted by generating its plaintext candidate list, and using redundant packet structure to prune bad candidates. From the decrypted packet we derive the TKIP MIC key, which can be used to inject and decrypt packets. In practice the attack can be executed within an hour. We also attack TLS as used by HTTPS, where we show how to decrypt a secure cookie with a success rate of 94% using 9*227 ciphertexts. This is done by injecting known data around the cookie, abusing this using Mantin’s ABSAB bias, and brute-forcing the cookie by traversing the plaintext candidates. Using our traffic generation technique, we are able to execute the attack in merely 75 hours.
We need to deprecate the algorithm already.
Posted on July 28, 2015 at 12:09 PM •
This is an interesting article that looks at Hacking Team’s purchasing of zero-day (0day) vulnerabilities from a variety of sources:
Hacking Team’s relationships with 0day vendors date back to 2009 when they were still transitioning from their information security consultancy roots to becoming a surveillance business. They excitedly purchased exploit packs from D2Sec and VUPEN, but they didn’t find the high-quality client-side oriented exploits they were looking for. Their relationship with VUPEN continued to frustrate them for years. Towards the end of 2012, CitizenLab released their first report on Hacking Team’s software being used to repress activists in the United Arab Emirates. However, a continuing stream of negative reports about the use of Hacking Team’s software did not materially impact their relationships. In fact, by raising their profile these reports served to actually bring Hacking Team direct business. In 2013 Hacking Team’s CEO stated that they had a problem finding sources of new exploits and urgently needed to find new vendors and develop in-house talent. That same year they made multiple new contacts, including Netragard, Vitaliy Toropov, Vulnerabilities Brokerage International, and Rosario Valotta. Though Hacking Team’s internal capabilities did not significantly improve, they continued to develop fruitful new relationships. In 2014 they began a close partnership with Qavar Security.
Lots of details in the article. This was made possible by the organizational doxing of Hacking Team by some unknown individuals or group.
Posted on July 27, 2015 at 6:17 AM •
A researcher was able to steal money from Starbucks by exploiting a race condition in its gift card value-transfer protocol. Basically, by initiating two identical web transfers at once, he was able to trick the system into recording them both. Normally, you could take a $5 gift card and move that money to another $5 gift card, leaving you with an empty gift card and a $10 gift card. He was able to duplicate the transfer, giving him an empty gift card and a $15 gift card.
Race-condition attacks are unreliable and it took him a bunch of tries to get it right, but there’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t have kept doing this forever.
Unfortunately, there was really no one at Starbucks he could tell this to:
The hardest part — responsible disclosure. Support guy honestly answered there’s absolutely no way to get in touch with technical department and he’s sorry I feel this way. Emailing InformationSecurityServices@starbucks.com on March 23 was futile (and it only was answered on Apr 29). After trying really hard to find anyone who cares, I managed to get this bug fixed in like 10 days.
The unpleasant part is a guy from Starbucks calling me with nothing like “thanks” but mentioning “fraud” and “malicious actions” instead. Sweet!
A little more from BBC News:
A spokeswoman for Starbucks told BBC News: “After this individual reported he was able to commit fraudulent activity against Starbucks, we put safeguards in place to prevent replication.”
The company did not answer questions about its response to Mr Homakov.
Posted on May 26, 2015 at 4:51 PM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.