Entries Tagged "exploits"

Page 5 of 9

Hardware Bit-Flipping Attack

The Project Zero team at Google has posted details of a new attack that targets a computer’s’ DRAM. It’s called Rowhammer. Here’s a good description:

Here’s how Rowhammer gets its name: In the Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) used in some laptops, a hacker can run a program designed to repeatedly access a certain row of transistors in the computer’s memory, “hammering” it until the charge from that row leaks into the next row of memory. That electromagnetic leakage can cause what’s known as “bit flipping,” in which transistors in the neighboring row of memory have their state reversed, turning ones into zeros or vice versa. And for the first time, the Google researchers have shown that they can use that bit flipping to actually gain unintended levels of control over a victim computer. Their Rowhammer hack can allow a “privilege escalation,” expanding the attacker’s influence beyond a certain fenced-in portion of memory to more sensitive areas.


When run on a machine vulnerable to the rowhammer problem, the process was able to induce bit flips in page table entries (PTEs). It was able to use this to gain write access to its own page table, and hence gain read-write access to all of physical memory.

The cause is simply the super dense packing of chips:

This works because DRAM cells have been getting smaller and closer together. As DRAM manufacturing scales down chip features to smaller physical dimensions, to fit more memory capacity onto a chip, it has become harder to prevent DRAM cells from interacting electrically with each other. As a result, accessing one location in memory can disturb neighbouring locations, causing charge to leak into or out of neighbouring cells. With enough accesses, this can change a cell’s value from 1 to 0 or vice versa.

Very clever, and yet another example of the security interplay between hardware and software.

This kind of thing is hard to fix, although the Google team gives some mitigation techniques at the end of their analysis.

Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Good explanation of the vulnerability.

Posted on March 11, 2015 at 6:16 AMView Comments

FREAK: Security Rollback Attack Against SSL

This week, we learned about an attack called “FREAK” — “Factoring Attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys” — that can break the encryption of many websites. Basically, some sites’ implementations of secure sockets layer technology, or SSL, contain both strong encryption algorithms and weak encryption algorithms. Connections are supposed to use the strong algorithms, but in many cases an attacker can force the website to use the weaker encryption algorithms and then decrypt the traffic. From Ars Technica:

In recent days, a scan of more than 14 million websites that support the secure sockets layer or transport layer security protocols found that more than 36 percent of them were vulnerable to the decryption attacks. The exploit takes about seven hours to carry out and costs as little as $100 per site.

This is a general class of attack I call “security rollback” attacks. Basically, the attacker forces the system users to revert to a less secure version of their protocol. Think about the last time you used your credit card. The verification procedure involved the retailer’s computer connecting with the credit card company. What if you snuck around to the back of the building and severed the retailer’s phone lines? Most likely, the retailer would have still accepted your card, but defaulted to making a manual impression of it and maybe looking at your signature. The result: you’ll have a much easier time using a stolen card.

In this case, the security flaw was designed in deliberately. Matthew Green writes:

Back in the early 1990s when SSL was first invented at Netscape Corporation, the United States maintained a rigorous regime of export controls for encryption systems. In order to distribute crypto outside of the U.S., companies were required to deliberately “weaken” the strength of encryption keys. For RSA encryption, this implied a maximum allowed key length of 512 bits.

The 512-bit export grade encryption was a compromise between dumb and dumber. In theory it was designed to ensure that the NSA would have the ability to “access” communications, while allegedly providing crypto that was still “good enough” for commercial use. Or if you prefer modern terms, think of it as the original “golden master key.”

The need to support export-grade ciphers led to some technical challenges. Since U.S. servers needed to support both strong and weak crypto, the SSL designers used a “cipher suite” negotiation mechanism to identify the best cipher both parties could support. In theory this would allow “strong” clients to negotiate “strong” ciphersuites with servers that supported them, while still providing compatibility to the broken foreign clients.

And that’s the problem. The weak algorithms are still there, and can be exploited by attackers.

Fixes are coming. Companies like Apple are quickly rolling out patches. But the vulnerability has been around for over a decade, and almost has certainly used by national intelligence agencies and criminals alike.

This is the generic problem with government-mandated backdoors, key escrow, “golden keys,” or whatever you want to call them. We don’t know how to design a third-party access system that checks for morality; once we build in such access, we then have to ensure that only the good guys can do it. And we can’t. Or, to quote the Economist: “…mathematics applies to just and unjust alike; a flaw that can be exploited by Western governments is vulnerable to anyone who finds it.”

This essay previously appeared on the Lawfare blog.

EDITED TO ADD: Microsoft Windows is vulnerable.

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 10:46 AMView Comments

The Equation Group's Sophisticated Hacking and Exploitation Tools

This week, Kaspersky Labs published detailed information on what it calls the Equation Group — almost certainly the NSA — and its abilities to embed spyware deep inside computers, gaining pretty much total control of those computers while maintaining persistence in the face of reboots, operating system reinstalls, and commercial anti-virus products. The details are impressive, and I urge anyone interested to read the Kaspersky documents, or this very detailed article from Ars Technica.

Kaspersky doesn’t explicitly name the NSA, but talks about similarities between these techniques and Stuxnet, and points to NSA-like codenames. A related Reuters story provides more confirmation: “A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.”

In some ways, this isn’t news. We saw examples of these techniques in 2013, when Der Spiegel published details of the NSA’s 2008 catalog of implants. (Aside: I don’t believe the person who leaked that catalog is Edward Snowden.) In those pages, we saw examples of malware that embedded itself in computers’ BIOS and disk drive firmware. We already know about the NSA’s infection methods using packet injection and hardware interception.

This is targeted surveillance. There’s nothing here that implies the NSA is doing this sort of thing to every computer, router, or hard drive. It’s doing it only to networks it wants to monitor. Reuters again: “Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said.” A map of the infections Kaspersky found bears this out.

On one hand, it’s the sort of thing we want the NSA to do. It’s targeted. It’s exploiting existing vulnerabilities. In the overall scheme of things, this is much less disruptive to Internet security than deliberately inserting vulnerabilities that leave everyone insecure.

On the other hand, the NSA’s definition of “targeted” can be pretty broad. We know that it’s hacked the Belgian telephone company and the Brazilian oil company. We know it’s collected every phone call in the Bahamas and Afghanistan. It hacks system administrators worldwide.

On the other other hand — can I even have three hands? — I remember a line from my latest book: “Today’s top-secret programs become tomorrow’s PhD theses and the next day’s hacker tools.” Today, the Equation Group is “probably the most sophisticated computer attack group in the world,” but these techniques aren’t magically exclusive to the NSA. We know China uses similar techniques. Companies like Gamma Group sell less sophisticated versions of the same things to Third World governments worldwide. We need to figure out how to maintain security in the face of these sorts of attacks, because we’re all going to be subjected to the criminal versions of them in three to five years.

That’s the real problem. Steve Bellovin wrote about this:

For more than 50 years, all computer security has been based on the separation between the trusted portion and the untrusted portion of the system. Once it was “kernel” (or “supervisor”) versus “user” mode, on a single computer. The Orange Book recognized that the concept had to be broader, since there were all sorts of files executed or relied on by privileged portions of the system. Their newer, larger category was dubbed the “Trusted Computing Base” (TCB). When networking came along, we adopted firewalls; the TCB still existed on single computers, but we trusted “inside” computers and networks more than external ones.

There was a danger sign there, though few people recognized it: our networked systems depended on other systems for critical files….

The National Academies report Trust in Cyberspace recognized that the old TCB concept no longer made sense. (Disclaimer: I was on the committee.) Too many threats, such as Word macro viruses, lived purely at user level. Obviously, one could have arbitrarily classified word processors, spreadsheets, etc., as part of the TCB, but that would have been worse than useless; these things were too large and had no need for privileges.

In the 15+ years since then, no satisfactory replacement for the TCB model has been proposed.

We have a serious computer security problem. Everything depends on everything else, and security vulnerabilities in anything affects the security of everything. We simply don’t have the ability to maintain security in a world where we can’t trust the hardware and software we use.

This article was originally published at the Lawfare blog.

EDITED TO ADD (2/17): Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. Reddit thread. BoingBoing discussion.

EDITED TO ADD (2/18): Here are are two academic/hacker presentations on exploiting hard drives. And another article.

EDITED TO ADD (2/23): Another excellent article.

Posted on February 17, 2015 at 12:19 PMView 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

New Snowden Interview in Wired

There’s a new article on Edward Snowden in Wired. It’s written by longtime NSA watcher James Bamford, who interviewed Snowden in Moscow.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the article, but I want to highlight two new revelations. One is that the NSA was responsible for a 2012 Internet blackout in Syria:

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO­ — a division of NSA hackers­ — had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead — rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet — although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible….

Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an “oh shit” moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.

Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation’s Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage. Back at TAO’s operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”

Other articles on Syria.

The other is something called MONSTERMIND, which is an automatic strike-back system for cyberattacks.

The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country — a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement.

A bunch more articles and stories on MONSTERMIND.

And there’s this 2011 photo of Snowden and former NSA Director Michael Hayden.

Posted on August 14, 2014 at 1:02 AMView Comments

GCHQ Catalog of Exploit Tools

The latest Snowden story is a catalog of exploit tools from JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), a unit of the British GCHQ, for both surveillance and propaganda. It’s a list of code names and short descriptions, such as these:

GLASSBACK: Technique of getting a targets IP address by pretending to be a spammer and ringing them. Target does not need to answer.

MINIATURE HERO: Active skype capability. Provision of real time call records (SkypeOut and SkypetoSkype) and bidirectional instant messaging. Also contact lists.

MOUTH: Tool for collection for downloading a user’s files from Archive.org.

PHOTON TORPEDO: A technique to actively grab the IP address of MSN messenger user.

SILVER SPECTOR: Allows batch Nmap scanning over Tor.

SPRING BISHOP: Find private photographs of targets on Facebook.

ANGRY PIRATE: is a tool that will permanently disable a target’s account on their computer.

BUMPERCAR+: is an automated system developed by JTRIG CITD to support JTRIG BUMPERCAR operations. BUMPERCAR operations are used to disrupt and deny Internet-based terror videos or other materials. The techniques employs the services provided by upload providers to report offensive materials.

BOMB BAY: is the capacity to increase website hits/rankings.

BURLESQUE: is the capacity to send spoofed SMS messages.

CLEAN SWEEP: Masquerade Facebook Wall Posts for individuals or entire countries.

CONCRETE DONKEY: is the capacity to scatter an audio message to a large number of telephones, or repeatedely bomb a target number with the same message.

GATEWAY: Ability to artificially increase traffic to a website.

GESTATOR: amplification of a given message, normally video, on popular multimedia websites (Youtube).

SCRAPHEAP CHALLENGE: Perfect spoofing of emails from Blackberry targets.

SUNBLOCK: Ability to deny functionality to send/receive email or view material online.

SWAMP DONKEY: is a tool that will silently locate all predefined types of file and encrypt them on a targets machine

UNDERPASS: Change outcome of online polls (previously known as NUBILO).

WARPATH: Mass delivery of SMS messages to support an Information Operations campaign.

HAVLOCK: Real-time website cloning techniques allowing on-the-fly alterations.

HUSK: Secure one-on-one web based dead-drop messaging platform.

There’s lots more. Go read the rest. This is a big deal, as big as the TAO catalog from December.

I would like to post the entire list. If someone has a clever way of extracting the text, or wants to retype it all, please send it to me.

EDITED TO ADD (7/16): HTML of the entire catalog is here.

Posted on July 14, 2014 at 12:35 PMView Comments

The NSA is Not Made of Magic

I am regularly asked what is the most surprising thing about the Snowden NSA documents. It’s this: the NSA is not made of magic. Its tools are no different from what we have in our world, it’s just better-funded. X-KEYSCORE is Bro plus memory. FOXACID is Metasploit with a budget. QUANTUM is AirPwn with a seriously privileged position on the backbone. The NSA breaks crypto not with super-secret cryptanalysis, but by using standard hacking tricks such as exploiting weak implementations and default keys. Its TAO implants are straightforward enhancements of attack tools developed by researchers, academics, and hackers; here’s a computer the size of a grain of rice, if you want to make your own such tools. The NSA’s collection and analysis tools are basically what you’d expect if you thought about it for a while.

That, fundamentally, is surprising. If you gave a super-secret Internet exploitation organization $10 billion annually, you’d expect some magic. And my guess is that there is some, around the edges, that has not become public yet. But that we haven’t seen any yet is cause for optimism.

Posted on May 21, 2014 at 3:29 PMView Comments

1 3 4 5 6 7 9

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.