Entries Tagged "hacking"

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National Security Risks of Late-Stage Capitalism

Early in 2020, cyberspace attackers apparently working for the Russian government compromised a piece of widely used network management software made by a company called SolarWinds. The hack gave the attackers access to the computer networks of some 18,000 of SolarWinds’s customers, including US government agencies such as the Homeland Security Department and State Department, American nuclear research labs, government contractors, IT companies and nongovernmental agencies around the world.

It was a huge attack, with major implications for US national security. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the breach on Tuesday. Who is at fault?

The US government deserves considerable blame, of course, for its inadequate cyberdefense. But to see the problem only as a technical shortcoming is to miss the bigger picture. The modern market economy, which aggressively rewards corporations for short-term profits and aggressive cost-cutting, is also part of the problem: Its incentive structure all but ensures that successful tech companies will end up selling insecure products and services.

Like all for-profit corporations, SolarWinds aims to increase shareholder value by minimizing costs and maximizing profit. The company is owned in large part by Silver Lake and Thoma Bravo, private-equity firms known for extreme cost-cutting.

SolarWinds certainly seems to have underspent on security. The company outsourced much of its software engineering to cheaper programmers overseas, even though that typically increases the risk of security vulnerabilities. For a while, in 2019, the update server’s password for SolarWinds’s network management software was reported to be “solarwinds123.” Russian hackers were able to breach SolarWinds’s own email system and lurk there for months. Chinese hackers appear to have exploited a separate vulnerability in the company’s products to break into US government computers. A cybersecurity adviser for the company said that he quit after his recommendations to strengthen security were ignored.

There is no good reason to underspend on security other than to save money — especially when your clients include government agencies around the world and when the technology experts that you pay to advise you are telling you to do more.

As the economics writer Matt Stoller has suggested, cybersecurity is a natural area for a technology company to cut costs because its customers won’t notice unless they are hacked ­– and if they are, they will have already paid for the product. In other words, the risk of a cyberattack can be transferred to the customers. Doesn’t this strategy jeopardize the possibility of long-term, repeat customers? Sure, there’s a danger there –­ but investors are so focused on short-term gains that they’re too often willing to take that risk.

The market loves to reward corporations for risk-taking when those risks are largely borne by other parties, like taxpayers. This is known as “privatizing profits and socializing losses.” Standard examples include companies that are deemed “too big to fail,” which means that society as a whole pays for their bad luck or poor business decisions. When national security is compromised by high-flying technology companies that fob off cybersecurity risks onto their customers, something similar is at work.

Similar misaligned incentives affect your everyday cybersecurity, too. Your smartphone is vulnerable to something called SIM-swap fraud because phone companies want to make it easy for you to frequently get a new phone — and they know that the cost of fraud is largely borne by customers. Data brokers and credit bureaus that collect, use, and sell your personal data don’t spend a lot of money securing it because it’s your problem if someone hacks them and steals it. Social media companies too easily let hate speech and misinformation flourish on their platforms because it’s expensive and complicated to remove it, and they don’t suffer the immediate costs ­– indeed, they tend to profit from user engagement regardless of its nature.

There are two problems to solve. The first is information asymmetry: buyers can’t adequately judge the security of software products or company practices. The second is a perverse incentive structure: the market encourages companies to make decisions in their private interest, even if that imperils the broader interests of society. Together these two problems result in companies that save money by taking on greater risk and then pass off that risk to the rest of us, as individuals and as a nation.

The only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers and users is with government intervention. Companies need to pay the true costs of their insecurities, through a combination of laws, regulations, and legal liability. Governments routinely legislate safety — pollution standards, automobile seat belts, lead-free gasoline, food service regulations. We need to do the same with cybersecurity: the federal government should set minimum security standards for software and software development.

In today’s underregulated markets, it’s just too easy for software companies like SolarWinds to save money by skimping on security and to hope for the best. That’s a rational decision in today’s free-market world, and the only way to change that is to change the economic incentives.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on March 1, 2021 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Deliberately Playing Copyrighted Music to Avoid Being Live-Streamed

Vice is reporting on a new police hack: playing copyrighted music when being filmed by citizens, trying to provoke social media sites into taking the videos down and maybe even banning the filmers:

In a separate part of the video, which Devermont says was filmed later that same afternoon, Devermont approaches [BHPD Sgt. Billy] Fair outside. The interaction plays out almost exactly like it did in the department — when Devermont starts asking questions, Fair turns on the music.

Devermont backs away, and asks him to stop playing music. Fair says “I can’t hear you” — again, despite holding a phone that is blasting tunes.

Later, Fair starts berating Devermont’s livestreaming account, saying “I read the comments [on your account], they talk about how fake you are.” He then holds out his phone, which is still on full blast, and walks toward Devermont, saying “Listen to the music”.

In a statement emailed to VICE News, Beverly Hills PD said that “the playing of music while accepting a complaint or answering questions is not a procedure that has been recommended by Beverly Hills Police command staff,” and that the videos of Fair were “currently under review.”

However, this is not the first time that a Beverly Hills police officer has done this, nor is Fair the only one.

In an archived clip from a livestream shared privately to VICE Media that Devermont has not publicly reposted but he says was taken weeks ago, another officer can be seen quickly swiping through his phone as Devermont approaches. By the time Devermont is close enough to speak to him, the officer’s phone is already blasting “In My Life” by the Beatles — a group whose rightsholders have notoriously sued Apple numerous times. If you want to get someone in trouble for copyright infringement, the Beatles are quite possibly your best bet.

As Devermont asks about the music, the officer points the phone at him, asking, “Do you like it?”

Clever, really, and an illustration of the problem with context-free copyright enforcement.

Posted on February 15, 2021 at 1:11 PMView Comments

SonicWall Zero-Day

Hackers are exploiting a zero-day in SonicWall:

In an email, an NCC Group spokeswoman wrote: “Our team has observed signs of an attempted exploitation of a vulnerabilitythat affects the SonicWall SMA 100 series devices. We are working closely with SonicWall to investigate this in more depth.”

In Monday’s update, SonicWall representatives said the company’s engineering team confirmed that the submission by NCC Group included a “critical zero-day” in the SMA 100 series 10.x code. SonicWall is tracking it as SNWLID-2021-0001. The SMA 100 series is a line of secure remote access appliances.

The disclosure makes SonicWall at least the fifth large company to report in recent weeks that it was targeted by sophisticated hackers. Other companies include network management tool provider SolarWinds, Microsoft, FireEye, and Malwarebytes. CrowdStrike also reported being targeted but said the attack wasn’t successful.

Neither SonicWall nor NCC Group said that the hack involving the SonicWall zero-day was linked to the larger hack campaign involving SolarWinds. Based on the timing of the disclosure and some of the details in it, however, there is widespread speculation that the two are connected.

The speculation is just that — speculation. I have no opinion in the matter. This could easily be part of the SolarWinds campaign, which targeted other security companies. But there are a lot of “highly sophisticated threat actors” — that’s how NCC Group described them — out there, and this could easily be a coincidence.

Were I working for a national intelligence organization, I would try to disguise my operations as being part of the SolarWinds attack.

EDITED TO ADD (2/9): SonicWall has patched the vulnerability.

Posted on February 8, 2021 at 12:11 PMView Comments

Another SolarWinds Orion Hack

At the same time the Russians were using a backdoored SolarWinds update to attack networks worldwide, another threat actor — believed to be Chinese in origin — was using an already existing vulnerability in Orion to penetrate networks:

Two people briefed on the case said FBI investigators recently found that the National Finance Center, a federal payroll agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was among the affected organizations, raising fears that data on thousands of government employees may have been compromised.

[…]

Reuters was not able to establish how many organizations were compromised by the suspected Chinese operation. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations, said the attackers used computer infrastructure and hacking tools previously deployed by state-backed Chinese cyberspies.

[…]

While the alleged Russian hackers penetrated deep into SolarWinds network and hid a “back door” in Orion software updates which were then sent to customers, the suspected Chinese group exploited a separate bug in Orion’s code to help spread across networks they had already compromised, the sources said.

Two takeaways: One, we are learning about a lot of supply-chain attacks right now. Two, SolarWinds’ terrible security is the result of a conscious business decision to reduce costs in the name of short-term profits. Economist Matt Stoller writes about this:

These private equity-owned software firms torture professionals with bad user experiences and shitty customer support in everything from yoga studio software to car dealer IT to the nightmarish ‘core’ software that runs small banks and credit unions, as close as one gets to automating Office Space. But they also degrade product quality by firing or disrespecting good workers, under-investing in good security practices, or sending work abroad and paying badly, meaning their products are more prone to espionage. In other words, the same sloppy and corrupt practices that allowed this massive cybersecurity hack made Bravo a billionaire. In a sense, this hack, and many more like it, will continue to happen, as long as men like Bravo get rich creating security vulnerabilities for bad actors to exploit.

SolarWinds increased its profits by increasing its cybersecurity risk, and then transferred that risk to its customers without their knowledge or consent.

Posted on February 4, 2021 at 6:11 AMView Comments

More SolarWinds News

Microsoft analyzed details of the SolarWinds attack:

Microsoft and FireEye only detected the Sunburst or Solorigate malware in December, but Crowdstrike reported this month that another related piece of malware, Sunspot, was deployed in September 2019, at the time hackers breached SolarWinds’ internal network. Other related malware includes Teardrop aka Raindrop.

Details are in the Microsoft blog:

We have published our in-depth analysis of the Solorigate backdoor malware (also referred to as SUNBURST by FireEye), the compromised DLL that was deployed on networks as part of SolarWinds products, that allowed attackers to gain backdoor access to affected devices. We have also detailed the hands-on-keyboard techniques that attackers employed on compromised endpoints using a powerful second-stage payload, one of several custom Cobalt Strike loaders, including the loader dubbed TEARDROP by FireEye and a variant named Raindrop by Symantec.

One missing link in the complex Solorigate attack chain is the handover from the Solorigate DLL backdoor to the Cobalt Strike loader. Our investigations show that the attackers went out of their way to ensure that these two components are separated as much as possible to evade detection. This blog provides details about this handover based on a limited number of cases where this process occurred. To uncover these cases, we used the powerful, cross-domain optics of Microsoft 365 Defender to gain visibility across the entire attack chain in one complete and consolidated view.

This is all important, because MalwareBytes was penetrated through Office 365, and not SolarWinds. New estimates are that 30% of the SolarWinds victims didn’t use SolarWinds:

Many of the attacks gained initial footholds by password spraying to compromise individual email accounts at targeted organizations. Once the attackers had that initial foothold, they used a variety of complex privilege escalation and authentication attacks to exploit flaws in Microsoft’s cloud services. Another of the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)’s targets, security firm CrowdStrike, said the attacker tried unsuccessfully to read its email by leveraging a compromised account of a Microsoft reseller the firm had worked with.

On attribution: Earlier this month, the US government has stated the attack is “likely Russian in origin.” This echos what then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in December, and the Washington Post‘s reporting (both from December). (The New York Times has repeated this attribution — a good article that also discusses the magnitude of the attack.) More evidence comes from code forensics, which links it to Turla, another Russian threat actor.

And lastly, a long ProPublica story on an unused piece of government-developed tech that might have caught the supply-chain attack much earlier:

The in-toto system requires software vendors to map out their process for assembling computer code that will be sent to customers, and it records what’s done at each step along the way. It then verifies electronically that no hacker has inserted something in between steps. Immediately before installation, a pre-installed tool automatically runs a final check to make sure that what the customer received matches the final product the software vendor generated for delivery, confirming that it wasn’t tampered with in transit.

I don’t want to hype this defense too much without knowing a lot more, but I like the approach of verifying the software build process.

Posted on February 3, 2021 at 6:10 AMView Comments

Including Hackers in NATO Wargames

This essay makes the point that actual computer hackers would be a useful addition to NATO wargames:

The international information security community is filled with smart people who are not in a military structure, many of whom would be excited to pose as independent actors in any upcoming wargames. Including them would increase the reality of the game and the skills of the soldiers building and training on these networks. Hackers and cyberwar experts would demonstrate how industrial control systems such as power supply for refrigeration and temperature monitoring in vaccine production facilities are critical infrastructure; they’re easy targets and should be among NATO’s priorities at the moment.

Diversity of thought leads to better solutions. We in the information security community strongly support the involvement of acknowledged nonmilitary experts in the development and testing of future cyberwar scenarios. We are confident that independent experts, many of whom see sharing their skills as public service, would view participation in these cybergames as a challenge and an honor.

Posted on January 29, 2021 at 12:03 PMView Comments

New iMessage Security Features

Apple has added added security features to mitigate the risk of zero-click iMessage attacks.

Apple did not document the changes but Groß said he fiddled around with the newest iOS 14 and found that Apple shipped a “significant refactoring of iMessage processing” that severely cripples the usual ways exploits are chained together for zero-click attacks.

Groß notes that memory corruption based zero-click exploits typically require exploitation of multiple vulnerabilities to create exploit chains. In most observed attacks, these could include a memory corruption vulnerability, reachable without user interaction and ideally without triggering any user notifications; a way to break ASLR remotely; a way to turn the vulnerability into remote code execution;; and a way to break out of any sandbox, typically by exploiting a separate vulnerability in another operating system component (e.g. a userspace service or the kernel).

Posted on January 29, 2021 at 9:20 AMView Comments

Insider Attack on Home Surveillance Systems

No one who reads this blog regularly will be surprised:

A former employee of prominent home security company ADT has admitted that he hacked into the surveillance feeds of dozens of customer homes, doing so primarily to spy on naked women or to leer at unsuspecting couples while they had sex.

[…]

Authorities say that the IT technician “took note of which homes had attractive women, then repeatedly logged into these customers’ accounts in order to view their footage for sexual gratification.” He did this by adding his personal email address to customer accounts, which ultimately hooked him into “real-time access to the video feeds from their homes.”

Slashdot thread.

Posted on January 25, 2021 at 9:33 AMView Comments

SVR Attacks on Microsoft 365

FireEye is reporting the current known tactics that the SVR used to compromise Microsoft 365 cloud data as part of its SolarWinds operation:

Mandiant has observed UNC2452 and other threat actors moving laterally to the Microsoft 365 cloud using a combination of four primary techniques:

  • Steal the Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) token-signing certificate and use it to forge tokens for arbitrary users (sometimes described as Golden SAML). This would allow the attacker to authenticate into a federated resource provider (such as Microsoft 365) as any user, without the need for that user’s password or their corresponding multi-factor authentication (MFA) mechanism.
  • Modify or add trusted domains in Azure AD to add a new federated Identity Provider (IdP) that the attacker controls. This would allow the attacker to forge tokens for arbitrary users and has been described as an Azure AD backdoor.
  • Compromise the credentials of on-premises user accounts that are synchronized to Microsoft 365 that have high privileged directory roles, such as Global Administrator or Application Administrator.
  • Backdoor an existing Microsoft 365 application by adding a new application or service principal credential in order to use the legitimate permissions assigned to the application, such as the ability to read email, send email as an arbitrary user, access user calendars, etc.

Lots of details here, including information on remediation and hardening.

The more we learn about the this operation, the more sophisticated it becomes.

In related news, MalwareBytes was also targeted.

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 6:31 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

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.