Free Cybersecurity MOOC from F-Secure and the University of Helsinki
Looks interesting. Finnish residents can take it for credit.
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Looks interesting. Finnish residents can take it for credit.
Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.
This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.
I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.
For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.
This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.
So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?
To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.
Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”
My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules—Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware”—making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.
That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.
Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.
This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.
Since we learned that the NSA has surreptitiously weakened Internet security so it could more easily eavesdrop, we’ve been wondering if it’s done anything to antivirus products. Given that it engages in offensive cyberattacks—and launches cyberweapons like Stuxnet and Flame—it’s reasonable to assume that it’s asked antivirus companies to ignore its malware. (We know that antivirus companies have previously done this for corporate malware.)
My guess is that the NSA has not done this, nor has any other government intelligence or law enforcement agency. My reasoning is that antivirus is a very international industry, and while a government might get its own companies to play along, it would not be able to influence international companies. So while the NSA could certainly pressure McAfee or Symantec—both Silicon Valley companies—to ignore NSA malware, it could not similarly pressure Kaspersky Labs (Russian), F-Secure (Finnish), or AVAST (Czech). And the governments of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic will have comparable problems.
Even so, I joined a group of security experts to ask antivirus companies explicitly if they were ignoring malware at the behest of a government. Understanding that the companies could certainly lie, this is the response so far: no one has admitted to doing so.
Up until this moment, only a handful of the vendors have replied ESET, F-Secure, Norman Shark, Kaspersky, Panda and Trend Micro. All of the responding companies have confirmed the detection of state sponsored malware, e.g. R2D2 and FinFisher. Furthermore, they claim they have never received a request to not detect malware. And if they were asked by any government to do so in the future, they said they would not comply. All the aforementioned companies believe there is no such thing as harmless malware.
The folks at F-Secure have plotted ZeroAccess infections across the U.S. and across Europe. It’s interesting to see, but I’m curious to see the data normalized to the number of computers on the Internet.
Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure attempts to explain why anti-virus companies didn’t catch Stuxnet, DuQu, and Flame:
When we went digging through our archive for related samples of malware, we were surprised to find that we already had samples of Flame, dating back to 2010 and 2011, that we were unaware we possessed. They had come through automated reporting mechanisms, but had never been flagged by the system as something we should examine closely. Researchers at other antivirus firms have found evidence that they received samples of the malware even earlier than this, indicating that the malware was older than 2010.
What this means is that all of us had missed detecting this malware for two years, or more. That’s a spectacular failure for our company, and for the antivirus industry in general.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened, either. Stuxnet went undetected for more than a year after it was unleashed in the wild, and was only discovered after an antivirus firm in Belarus was called in to look at machines in Iran that were having problems. When researchers dug back through their archives for anything similar to Stuxnet, they found that a zero-day exploit that was used in Stuxnet had been used before with another piece of malware, but had never been noticed at the time. A related malware called DuQu also went undetected by antivirus firms for over a year.
Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame are not normal, everyday malware, of course. All three of them were most likely developed by a Western intelligence agency as part of covert operations that weren’t meant to be discovered.
His conclusion is simply that the attackers—in this case, military intelligence agencies—are simply better than commercial-grade anti-virus programs.
The truth is, consumer-grade antivirus products can’t protect against targeted malware created by well-resourced nation-states with bulging budgets. They can protect you against run-of-the-mill malware: banking trojans, keystroke loggers and e-mail worms. But targeted attacks like these go to great lengths to avoid antivirus products on purpose. And the zero-day exploits used in these attacks are unknown to antivirus companies by definition. As far as we can tell, before releasing their malicious codes to attack victims, the attackers tested them against all of the relevant antivirus products on the market to make sure that the malware wouldn’t be detected. They have unlimited time to perfect their attacks. It’s not a fair war between the attackers and the defenders when the attackers have access to our weapons.
We really should have been able to do better. But we didn’t. We were out of our league, in our own game.
I don’t buy this. It isn’t just the military that tests its malware against commercial defense products; criminals do it, too. Virus and worm writers do it. Spam writers do it. This is the never-ending arms race between attacker and defender, and it’s been going on for decades. Probably the people who wrote Flame had a larger budget than a large-scale criminal organization, but their evasive techniques weren’t magically better. Note that F-Secure and others had samples of Flame; they just didn’t do anything about them.
I think the difference has more to do with the ways in which these military malware programs spread. That is, slowly and stealthily. It was never a priority to understand—and then write signatures to detect—the Flame samples because they were never considered a problem. Maybe they were classified as a one-off. Or as an anomaly. I don’t know, but it seems clear that conventional non-military malware writers who want to evade detection should adopt the propagation techniques of Flame, Stuxnet, and DuQu.
EDITED TO ADD (6/23): F-Secure responded. Unfortunately, it’s not a very substantive response. It’s a pity; I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why the anti-virus companies all missed Flame for so long.
From Mikko Hypponen: “We found a malware sample. Which was signed. With a valid certificate. Belonging to the Government of Malaysia.”
EDITED TO ADD (11/14): Blog post.
The Chaos Computer Club has disassembled and analyzed the Trojan used by the German police for legal intercept. In its default mode, it takes regular screenshots of the active window and sends it to the police. It encrypts data in AES Electronic Codebook mode with—are you ready?—a fixed key across all versions. There’s no authentication built in, so it’s easy to spoof. It sends data to a command-and-control server in the U.S., which is almost certainly against German law. There’s code to allow the controller to install additional software onto the target machine, but that’s not authenticated either, so it would be easy to fool the Trojan into installing anything.
Detailed analysis in German. F-Secure has announced it will treat the Trojan as malware. I hope all the other anti-virus companies will do the same.
EDITED TO ADD (10/12): Another story. And some good information on the malware. Germany’s Justice Minister is calling for an investigation.
We finally have some, even though the company isn’t talking:
So just how well crafted was the e-mail that got RSA hacked? Not very, judging by what F-Secure found.
The attackers spoofed the e-mail to make it appear to come from a “web master” at Beyond.com, a job-seeking and recruiting site. Inside the e-mail, there was just one line of text: “I forward this file to you for review. Please open and view it.” This was apparently enough to get the intruders the keys to RSAs kingdom.
F-Secure produced a brief video showing what happened if the recipient clicked on the attachment. An Excel spreadsheet opened, which was completely blank except for an “X” that appeared in the first box of the spreadsheet. The “X” was the only visible sign that there was an embedded Flash exploit in the spreadsheet. When the spreadsheet opened, Excel triggered the Flash exploit to activate, which then dropped the backdoor—in this case a backdoor known as Poison Ivy—onto the system.
Poison Ivy would then reach out to a command-and-control server that the attackers controlled at good.mincesur.com, a domain that F-Secure says has been used in other espionage attacks, giving the attackers remote access to the infected computer at EMC. From there, they were able to reach the systems and data they were ultimately after.
F-Secure notes that neither the phishing e-mail nor the backdoor it dropped onto systems were advanced, although the zero-day Flash exploit it used to drop the backdoor was advanced.
Today is the 20th Anniversary of the oldest computer virus known: the Brain virus.
It was a boot sector virus, and spread via infected floppy disks.
EDITED TO ADD (1/19): F-Secure has some amusing comments.
EDITED TO ADD (1/30): As many people pointed out, Brain is not the first computer virus. It’s the first PC virus.
This is my sixth column for Wired.com:
It’s a David and Goliath story of the tech blogs defeating a mega-corporation.
On Oct. 31, Mark Russinovich broke the story in his blog: Sony BMG Music Entertainment distributed a copy-protection scheme with music CDs that secretly installed a rootkit on computers. This software tool is run without your knowledge or consent—if it’s loaded on your computer with a CD, a hacker can gain and maintain access to your system and you wouldn’t know it.
The Sony code modifies Windows so you can’t tell it’s there, a process called “cloaking” in the hacker world. It acts as spyware, surreptitiously sending information about you to Sony. And it can’t be removed; trying to get rid of it damages Windows.
This story was picked up by other blogs (including mine), followed by the computer press. Finally, the mainstream media took it up.
The outcry was so great that on Nov. 11, Sony announced it was temporarily
halting productionof that copy-protection scheme. That still wasn’t enough—on Nov. 14 the company announced it was pulling copy-protected CDs from store shelves and offered to replace customers’ infected CDs for free.
But that’s not the real story here.
It’s a tale of extreme hubris. Sony rolled out this incredibly invasive copy-protection scheme without ever publicly discussing its details, confident that its profits were worth modifying its customers’ computers. When its actions were first discovered, Sony offered a “fix” that didn’t remove the rootkit, just the cloaking.
Sony claimed the rootkit didn’t phone home when it did. On Nov. 4, Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG’s president of global digital business, demonstrated the company’s disdain for its customers when he said, “Most people don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?” in an NPR interview. Even Sony’s apology only admits that its rootkit “includes a feature that may make a user’s computer susceptible to a virus written specifically to target the software.”
However, imperious corporate behavior is not the real story either.
This drama is also about incompetence. Sony’s latest rootkit-removal tool actually leaves a gaping vulnerability. And Sony’s rootkit—designed to stop copyright infringement—itself may have infringed on copyright. As amazing as it might seem, the code seems to include an open-source MP3 encoder in violation of that library’s license agreement. But even that is not the real story.
It’s an epic of class-action lawsuits in California and elsewhere, and the focus of criminal investigations. The rootkit has even been found on computers run by the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security’s displeasure. While Sony could be prosecuted under U.S. cybercrime law,
no one thinksit will be. And lawsuits are never the whole story.
This saga is full of weird twists. Some pointed out how this sort of software would degrade the reliability of Windows. Someone created malicious code that used the rootkit to hide itself. A hacker used the rootkit to avoid the spyware of a popular game. And there were even calls for a worldwide Sony
boycott. After all, if you can’t trust Sony not to infect your computer when you buy its music CDs, can you trust it to sell you an uninfected computer in the first place? That’s a good question, but—again—not the real story.
It’s yet another situation where Macintosh users can watch, amused (well, mostly) from the sidelines, wondering why anyone still uses Microsoft Windows. But certainly, even that is not the real story.
The story to pay attention to here is the collusion between big media companies who try to control what we do on our computers and computer-security companies who are supposed to be protecting us.
Initial estimates are that more than
half a millioncomputers worldwide are infected with this Sony rootkit. Those are amazing infection numbers, making this one of the most serious internet epidemics of all time—on a par with worms like Blaster, Slammer, Code Red and Nimda.
What do you think of your antivirus company, the one that didn’t notice Sony’s rootkit as it infected half a million computers? And this isn’t one of those lightning-fast internet worms; this one has been spreading since mid-2004. Because it spread through infected CDs, not through internet connections, they didn’t notice? This is exactly the kind of thing we’re paying those companies to detect—especially because the rootkit was phoning home.
But much worse than not detecting it before Russinovich’s discovery was the deafening silence that followed. When a new piece of malware is found, security companies fall over themselves to clean our computers and inoculate our networks. Not in this case.
McAfee didn’t add detection code until Nov. 9, and as of Nov. 15 it doesn’t remove the rootkit, only the cloaking device. The company admits on its web page that this is a lousy compromise. “McAfee detects, removes and prevents reinstallation of XCP.” That’s the cloaking code. “Please note that removal will not impair the copyright-protection mechanisms installed from the CD. There have been reports of system crashes possibly resulting from uninstalling XCP.” Thanks for the warning.
Symantec’s response to the rootkit has, to put it kindly, evolved. At first the company didn’t consider XCP malware at all. It wasn’t until Nov. 11 that Symantec posted a tool to remove the cloaking. As of Nov. 15, it is still wishy-washy about it, explaining that “this rootkit was designed to hide a legitimate application, but it can be used to hide other objects, including malicious software.”
The only thing that makes this rootkit legitimate is that a multinational corporation put it on your computer, not a criminal organization.
You might expect Microsoft to be the first company to condemn this rootkit. After all, XCP corrupts Windows’ internals in a pretty nasty way. It’s the sort of behavior that could easily lead to system crashes—crashes that customers would blame on Microsoft. But it wasn’t until Nov. 13, when public pressure was just too great to ignore, that Microsoft announced it would update its security tools to detect and remove the cloaking portion of the rootkit.
Perhaps the only security company that deserves praise is F-Secure, the first and the loudest critic of Sony’s actions. And Sysinternals, of course, which hosts Russinovich’s blog and brought this to light.
Bad security happens. It always has and it always will. And companies do stupid things; always have and always will. But the reason we buy security products from Symantec, McAfee and others is to protect us from bad security.
I truly believed that even in the biggest and most-corporate security company there are people with hackerish instincts, people who will do the right thing and blow the whistle. That all the big security companies, with over a year’s lead time, would fail to notice or do anything about this Sony rootkit demonstrates incompetence at best, and lousy ethics at worst.
Microsoft I can understand. The company is a fan of invasive copy protection—it’s being built into the next version of Windows. Microsoft is trying to work with media companies like Sony, hoping Windows becomes the media-distribution channel of choice. And Microsoft is known for watching out for its business interests at the expense of those of its customers.
What happens when the creators of malware collude with the very companies we hire to protect us from that malware?
We users lose, that’s what happens. A dangerous and damaging rootkit gets introduced into the wild, and half a million computers get infected before anyone does anything.
Who are the security companies really working for? It’s unlikely that this Sony rootkit is the only example of a media company using this technology. Which security company has engineers looking for the others who might be doing it? And what will they do if they find one? What will they do the next time some multinational company decides that owning your computers is a good idea?
These questions are the real story, and we all deserve answers.
EDITED TO ADD (11/17): Slashdotted.
EDITED TO ADD (11/19): Details of Sony’s buyback program. And more GPL code was stolen and used in the rootkit.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.