Entries Tagged "exploits"

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More about the NSA's Tailored Access Operations Unit

Der Spiegel has a good article on the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit: basically, its hackers.

“Getting the ungettable” is the NSA’s own description of its duties. “It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important,” one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.” The unit, it goes on, has “access to our very hardest targets.”

Defining the future of her unit at the time, she wrote that TAO “needs to continue to grow and must lay the foundation for integrated Computer Network Operations,” and that it must “support Computer Network Attacks as an integrated part of military operations.” To succeed in this, she wrote, TAO would have to acquire “pervasive, persistent access on the global network.” An internal description of TAO’s responsibilities makes clear that aggressive attacks are an explicit part of the unit’s tasks. In other words, the NSA’s hackers have been given a government mandate for their work. During the middle part of the last decade, the special unit succeeded in gaining access to 258 targets in 89 countries — nearly everywhere in the world. In 2010, it conducted 279 operations worldwide.


Certainly, few if any other divisions within the agency are growing as quickly as TAO. There are now TAO units in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; at the NSA’s outpost at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver, Colorado; at its headquarters in Fort Meade; and, of course, in San Antonio.

The article also has more details on how QUANTUM — particularly, QUANTUMINSERT — works.

Until just a few years ago, NSA agents relied on the same methods employed by cyber criminals to conduct these implants on computers. They sent targeted attack emails disguised as spam containing links directing users to virus-infected websites. With sufficient knowledge of an Internet browser’s security holes — Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, for example, is especially popular with the NSA hackers — all that is needed to plant NSA malware on a person’s computer is for that individual to open a website that has been specially crafted to compromise the user’s computer. Spamming has one key drawback though: It doesn’t work very often.

Nevertheless, TAO has dramatically improved the tools at its disposal. It maintains a sophisticated toolbox known internally by the name “QUANTUMTHEORY.” “Certain QUANTUM missions have a success rate of as high as 80%, where spam is less than 1%,” one internal NSA presentation states.

A comprehensive internal presentation titled “QUANTUM CAPABILITIES,” which SPIEGEL has viewed, lists virtually every popular Internet service provider as a target, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube. “NSA QUANTUM has the greatest success against Yahoo, Facebook and static IP addresses,” it states. The presentation also notes that the NSA has been unable to employ this method to target users of Google services. Apparently, that can only be done by Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service, which has acquired QUANTUM tools from the NSA.

A favored tool of intelligence service hackers is “QUANTUMINSERT.”


Once TAO teams have gathered sufficient data on their targets’ habits, they can shift into attack mode, programming the QUANTUM systems to perform this work in a largely automated way. If a data packet featuring the email address or cookie of a target passes through a cable or router monitored by the NSA, the system sounds the alarm. It determines what website the target person is trying to access and then activates one of the intelligence service’s covert servers, known by the codename FOXACID.

This NSA server coerces the user into connecting to NSA covert systems rather than the intended sites. In the case of Belgacom engineers, instead of reaching the LinkedIn page they were actually trying to visit, they were also directed to FOXACID servers housed on NSA networks. Undetected by the user, the manipulated page transferred malware already custom tailored to match security holes on the target person’s computer.

The technique can literally be a race between servers, one that is described in internal intelligence agency jargon with phrases like: “Wait for client to initiate new connection,” “Shoot!” and “Hope to beat server-to-client response.” Like any competition, at times the covert network’s surveillance tools are “too slow to win the race.” Often enough, though, they are effective. Implants with QUANTUMINSERT, especially when used in conjunction with LinkedIn, now have a success rate of over 50 percent, according to one internal document.

Another article discusses the various tools TAO has at its disposal.

A document viewed by SPIEGEL resembling a product catalog reveals that an NSA division called ANT has burrowed its way into nearly all the security architecture made by the major players in the industry — including American global market leader Cisco and its Chinese competitor Huawei, but also producers of mass-market goods, such as US computer-maker Dell.


In the case of Juniper, the name of this particular digital lock pick is “FEEDTROUGH.” This malware burrows into Juniper firewalls and makes it possible to smuggle other NSA programs into mainframe computers. Thanks to FEEDTROUGH, these implants can, by design, even survive “across reboots and software upgrades.” In this way, US government spies can secure themselves a permanent presence in computer networks. The catalog states that FEEDTROUGH “has been deployed on many target platforms.”


Another program attacks the firmware in hard drives manufactured by Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor and Samsung, all of which, with the exception of the latter, are American companies. Here, too, it appears the US intelligence agency is compromising the technology and products of American companies.


There is no information in the documents seen by SPIEGEL to suggest that the companies whose products are mentioned in the catalog provided any support to the NSA or even had any knowledge of the intelligence solutions.

The German version of the article had a couple of pages from the 50-page catalog of tools; they’re now on Cryptome. Leaksource has the whole TOP SECRET catalog; there’s a lot of really specific information here about individual NSA TAO ANT devices. (We don’t know what “ANT” stands for. Der Spiegel speculates that it “stands for Advanced or Access Network Technology.”) For example:

(TS//SI//REL) SOUFFLETROUGH is a BIOS persistence implant for Juniper SSG 500 and SSG 300 series firewalls. It persists DNT’s BANANAGLEE software implant. SOUFFLETROUGH also has an advanced persistent back-door capability.


(TS//SI//REL) An active 802.11 wireless exploitation and injection tool for payload/exploit delivery into otherwise denied target space. NIGHTSTAND is typically used in operations where wired access to the target is not possible.

NIGHTSTAND can work from as far away as eight miles, and “the attack is undetectable by the user.”

One more:

(TS//SI//REL) DROPOUTJEEP is a software implant for Apple iPhone that utilizes modular mission applications to provide specific SIGNIT functionality. This functionality includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device, SMS retrieval, contact list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell tower location, etc. Command, control, and data exfiltration can occur over SMS messaging or a GPRS data connection. All communications with the implant will be covert and encrypted.

(TS//SI//REL) The initial release of DROPOUTJEEP will focus on installing the implant via close access methods. A remote installation capabilitiy will be pursued for a future release.

There’s lots more in the source document. And note that this catalog is from 2008; presumably, TAO’s capabilities have improved significantly in the past five years.

And — back to the first article — TAO can install many of the hardware implants when a target orders new equipment through the mail:

If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called “load stations,” agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the “most productive operations” conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks “around the world.”

They can install the software implants using techniques like QUANTUM and FOXACID.

Related is this list of NSA attack tools. And here is another article on TAO from October.

Remember, this is not just about the NSA. The NSA shares these tools with the FBI’s black bag teams for domestic surveillance, and presumably with the CIA and DEA as well. Other countries are going to have similar bags of tricks, depending on their sophistication and budgets. And today’s secret NSA programs are tomorrow’s PhD theses, and the next day’s criminal hacking tools. Even if you trust the NSA to only spy on “enemies,” consider this an advance warning of what we have to secure ourselves against in the future.

I’m really happy to see Jacob Appelbaum’s byline on the Der Spiegel stories; it’s good to have someone of his technical ability reading and understanding the documents.

Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. MetaFilter thread. Ars Technica article. Wired article. Article on Appelbaum’s talk at 30c3.

EDITED TO ADD: Here’s Appelbaum’s talk. And three BoingBoing posts.

Posted on December 31, 2013 at 7:31 AMView Comments

Another QUANTUMINSERT Attack Example

Der Spiegel is reporting that the GCHQ used QUANTUMINSERT to direct users to fake LinkedIn and Slashdot pages run by — this code name is not in the article — FOXACID servers. There’s not a lot technically new in the article, but we do get some information about popularity and jargon.

According to other secret documents, Quantum is an extremely sophisticated exploitation tool developed by the NSA and comes in various versions. The Quantum Insert method used with Belgacom is especially popular among British and US spies. It was also used by GCHQ to infiltrate the computer network of OPEC’s Vienna headquarters.

The injection attempts are known internally as “shots,” and they have apparently been relatively successful, especially the LinkedIn version. “For LinkedIn the success rate per shot is looking to be greater than 50 percent,” states a 2012 document.

Slashdot has reacted to the story.

I wrote about QUANTUMINSERT, and the whole infection process, here. We have a list of “implants” that the NSA uses to “exfiltrate” information here.

Posted on November 13, 2013 at 6:46 AMView Comments

Code Names for NSA Exploit Tools

This is from a Snowden document released by Le Monde:

General Term Descriptions:

HIGHLANDS: Collection from Implants
VAGRANT: Collection of Computer Screens
MAGNETIC: Sensor Collection of Magnetic Emanations
MINERALIZE: Collection from LAN Implant
OCEAN: Optical Collection System for Raster-Based Computer Screens
LIFESAFER: Imaging of the Hard Drive
GENIE: Multi-stage operation: jumping the airgap etc.
BLACKHEART: Collection from an FBI Implant
DROPMIRE: Passive collection of emanations using antenna
CUSTOMS: Customs opportunities (not LIFESAVER)
DROPMIRE: Laser printer collection, purely proximal access (***NOT*** implanted)
DEWSWEEPER: USB (Universal Serial Bus) hardware host tap that provides COVERT link over US link into a target network. Operates w/RF relay subsystem to provide wireless Bridge into target network.
RADON: Bi-directional host tap that can inject Ethernet packets onto the same targets. Allows bi-directional exploitation of denied networks using standard on-net tools.

There’s a lot to think about in this list. RADON and DEWSWEEPER seem particularly interesting.

Posted on October 23, 2013 at 10:03 AMView Comments

The NSA's New Risk Analysis

As I recently reported in the Guardian, the NSA has secret servers on the Internet that hack into other computers, codename FOXACID. These servers provide an excellent demonstration of how the NSA approaches risk management, and exposes flaws in how the agency thinks about the secrecy of its own programs.

Here are the FOXACID basics: By the time the NSA tricks a target into visiting one of those servers, it already knows exactly who that target is, who wants him eavesdropped on, and the expected value of the data it hopes to receive. Based on that information, the server can automatically decide what exploit to serve the target, taking into account the risks associated with attacking the target, as well as the benefits of a successful attack. According to a top-secret operational procedures manual provided by Edward Snowden, an exploit named Validator might be the default, but the NSA has a variety of options. The documentation mentions United Rake, Peddle Cheap, Packet Wrench, and Beach Head — all delivered from a FOXACID subsystem called Ferret Cannon. Oh how I love some of these code names. (On the other hand, EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE has to be the dumbest code name ever.)

Snowden explained this to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong. If the target is a high-value one, FOXACID might run a rare zero-day exploit that it developed or purchased. If the target is technically sophisticated, FOXACID might decide that there’s too much chance for discovery, and keeping the zero-day exploit a secret is more important. If the target is a low-value one, FOXACID might run an exploit that’s less valuable. If the target is low-value and technically sophisticated, FOXACID might even run an already-known vulnerability.

We know that the NSA receives advance warning from Microsoft of vulnerabilities that will soon be patched; there’s not much of a loss if an exploit based on that vulnerability is discovered. FOXACID has tiers of exploits it can run, and uses a complicated trade-off system to determine which one to run against any particular target.

This cost-benefit analysis doesn’t end at successful exploitation. According to Snowden, the TAO — that’s Tailored Access Operations — operators running the FOXACID system have a detailed flowchart, with tons of rules about when to stop. If something doesn’t work, stop. If they detect a PSP, a personal security product, stop. If anything goes weird, stop. This is how the NSA avoids detection, and also how it takes mid-level computer operators and turn them into what they call “cyberwarriors.” It’s not that they’re skilled hackers, it’s that the procedures do the work for them.

And they’re super cautious about what they do.

While the NSA excels at performing this cost-benefit analysis at the tactical level, it’s far less competent at doing the same thing at the policy level. The organization seems to be good enough at assessing the risk of discovery — for example, if the target of an intelligence-gathering effort discovers that effort — but to have completely ignored the risks of those efforts becoming front-page news.

It’s not just in the U.S., where newspapers are heavy with reports of the NSA spying on every Verizon customer, spying on domestic e-mail users, and secretly working to cripple commercial cryptography systems, but also around the world, most notably in Brazil, Belgium, and the European Union. All of these operations have caused significant blowback — for the NSA, for the U.S., and for the Internet as a whole.

The NSA spent decades operating in almost complete secrecy, but those days are over. As the corporate world learned years ago, secrets are hard to keep in the information age, and openness is a safer strategy. The tendency to classify everything means that the NSA won’t be able to sort what really needs to remain secret from everything else. The younger generation is more used to radical transparency than secrecy, and is less invested in the national security state. And whistleblowing is the civil disobedience of our time.

At this point, the NSA has to assume that all of its operations will become public, probably sooner than it would like. It has to start taking that into account when weighing the costs and benefits of those operations. And it now has to be just as cautious about new eavesdropping operations as it is about using FOXACID exploits attacks against users.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.

Posted on October 9, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

The US Uses Vulnerability Data for Offensive Purposes

Companies allow US intelligence to exploit vulnerabilities before it patches them:

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the world’s largest software company, provides intelligence agencies with information about bugs in its popular software before it publicly releases a fix, according to two people familiar with the process. That information can be used to protect government computers and to access the computers of terrorists or military foes.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft (MSFT) and other software or Internet security companies have been aware that this type of early alert allowed the U.S. to exploit vulnerabilities in software sold to foreign governments, according to two U.S. officials. Microsoft doesn’t ask and can’t be told how the government uses such tip-offs, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the matter is confidential.

No word on whether these companies would delay a patch if asked nicely — or if there’s any way the government can require them to. Anyone feel safer because of this?

Posted on June 20, 2013 at 6:04 AMView Comments

Remotely Hijacking an Aircraft

There is a lot of buzz on the Internet about a talk at the Hack-in-the Box conference by Hugo Teso, who claims he can hack in to remotely control an airplane’s avionics. He even wrote an Android app to do it.

I honestly can’t tell how real this is, and how much of it is the unique configuration of simulators he tested this on. On the one hand, it can’t possibly be true that an aircraft avionics computer accepts outside commands. On the other hand, we’ve seen lots of security vulnerabilities that seem impossible to be true. Right now, I’m skeptical.

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): Three good refutations.

Posted on April 12, 2013 at 10:50 AMView Comments

Studying Zero-Day Attacks

Interesting paper: “Before We Knew It: An Empirical Study of Zero-Day Attacks In The Real World,” by Leyla Bilge and Tudor Dumitras:

Abstract: Little is known about the duration and prevalence of zeroday attacks, which exploit vulnerabilities that have not been disclosed publicly. Knowledge of new vulnerabilities gives cyber criminals a free pass to attack any target of their choosing, while remaining undetected. Unfortunately, these serious threats are difficult to analyze, because, in general, data is not available until after an attack is discovered. Moreover, zero-day attacks are rare events that are unlikely to be observed in honeypots or in lab experiments.

In this paper, we describe a method for automatically identifying zero-day attacks from field-gathered data that records when benign and malicious binaries are downloaded on 11 million real hosts around the world. Searching this data set for malicious files that exploit known vulnerabilities indicates which files appeared on the Internet before the corresponding vulnerabilities were disclosed. We identify 18 vulnerabilities exploited before disclosure, of which 11 were not previously known to have been employed in zero-day attacks. We also find that a typical zero-day attack lasts 312 days on average and that, after vulnerabilities are disclosed publicly, the volume of attacks exploiting them increases by up to 5 orders of magnitude.

Posted on October 16, 2012 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Blackhole Exploit Kit

It’s now available as a free download:

A free version of the Blackhole exploit kit has appeared online in a development that radically reduces the entry-level costs of getting into cybercrime.

The Blackhole exploit kit, which up until now would cost around $1,500 for an annual licence, creates a handy way to plant malicious scripts on compromised websites. Surfers visiting legitimate sites can be redirected using these scripts to scareware portals on sites designed to exploit browser vulnerabilities in order to distribute banking Trojans, such as those created from the ZeuS toolkit.

Posted on May 25, 2011 at 11:55 AMView Comments

Software Monoculture

In 2003, a group of security experts — myself included — published a paper saying that 1) software monocultures are dangerous and 2) Microsoft, being the largest creator of monocultures out there, is the most dangerous. Marcus Ranum responded with an essay that basically said we were full of it. Now, eight years later, Marcus and I thought it would be interesting to revisit the debate.

The basic problem with a monoculture is that it’s all vulnerable to the same attack. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845–9 is perhaps the most famous monoculture-related disaster. The Irish planted only one variety of potato, and the genetically identical potatoes succumbed to a rot caused by Phytophthora infestans. Compare that with the diversity of potatoes traditionally grown in South America, each one adapted to the particular soil and climate of its home, and you can see the security value in heterogeneity.

Similar risks exist in networked computer systems. If everyone is using the same operating system or the same applications software or the same networking protocol, and a security vulnerability is discovered in that OS or software or protocol, a single exploit can affect everyone. This is the problem of large-scale Internet worms: many have affected millions of computers on the Internet.

If our networking environment weren’t homogeneous, a single worm couldn’t do so much damage. We’d be more like South America’s potato crop than Ireland’s. Conclusion: monoculture is bad; embrace diversity or die along with everyone else.

This analysis makes sense as far as it goes, but suffers from three basic flaws. The first is the assumption that our IT monoculture is as simple as the potato’s. When the particularly virulent Storm worm hit, it only affected from 1–10 million of its billion-plus possible victims. Why? Because some computers were running updated antivirus software, or were within locked-down networks, or whatever. Two computers might be running the same OS or applications software, but they’ll be inside different networks with different firewalls and IDSs and router policies, they’ll have different antivirus programs and different patch levels and different configurations, and they’ll be in different parts of the Internet connected to different servers running different services. As Marcus pointed out back in 2003, they’ll be a little bit different themselves. That’s one of the reasons large-scale Internet worms don’t infect everyone — as well as the network’s ability to quickly develop and deploy patches, new antivirus signatures, new IPS signatures, and so on.

The second flaw in the monoculture analysis is that it downplays the cost of diversity. Sure, it would be great if a corporate IT department ran half Windows and half Linux, or half Apache and half Microsoft IIS, but doing so would require more expertise and cost more money. It wouldn’t cost twice the expertise and money — there is some overlap — but there are significant economies of scale that result from everyone using the same software and configuration. A single operating system locked down by experts is far more secure than two operating systems configured by sysadmins who aren’t so expert. Sometimes, as Mark Twain said: “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then guard that basket!”

The third flaw is that you can only get a limited amount of diversity by using two operating systems, or routers from three vendors. South American potato diversity comes from hundreds of different varieties. Genetic diversity comes from millions of different genomes. In monoculture terms, two is little better than one. Even worse, since a network’s security is primarily the minimum of the security of its components, a diverse network is less secure because it is vulnerable to attacks against any of its heterogeneous components.

Some monoculture is necessary in computer networks. As long as we have to talk to each other, we’re all going to have to use TCP/IP, HTML, PDF, and all sorts of other standards and protocols that guarantee interoperability. Yes, there will be different implementations of the same protocol — and this is a good thing — but that won’t protect you completely. You can’t be too different from everyone else on the Internet, because if you were, you couldn’t be on the Internet.

Species basically have two options for propagating their genes: the lobster strategy and the avian strategy. Lobsters lay 5,000 to 40,000 eggs at a time, and essentially ignore them. Only a minuscule percentage of the hatchlings live to be four weeks old, but that’s sufficient to ensure gene propagation; from every 50,000 eggs, an average of two lobsters is expected to survive to legal size. Conversely, birds produce only a few eggs at a time, then spend a lot of effort ensuring that most of the hatchlings survive. In ecology, this is known as r/K selection theory. In either case, each of those offspring varies slightly genetically, so if a new threat arises, some of them will be more likely to survive. But even so, extinctions happen regularly on our planet; neither strategy is foolproof.

Our IT infrastructure is a lot more like a bird than a lobster. Yes, monoculture is dangerous and diversity is important. But investing time and effort in ensuring our current infrastructure’s survival is even more important.

This essay was originally published in Information Security, and is the first half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. You can read his response there as well.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Commentary.

Posted on December 1, 2010 at 5:55 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.