Entries Tagged "implants"

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More on the NSA's Capabilities

Ross Anderson summarizes a meeting in Princeton where Edward Snowden was “present.”

Third, the leaks give us a clear view of an intelligence analyst’s workflow. She will mainly look in Xkeyscore which is the Google of 5eyes comint; it’s a federated system hoovering up masses of stuff not just from 5eyes own assets but from other countries where the NSA cooperates or pays for access. Data are “ingested” into a vast rolling buffer; an analyst can run a federated search, using a selector (such as an IP address) or fingerprint (something that can be matched against the traffic). There are other such systems: “Dancing oasis” is the middle eastern version. Some xkeyscore assets are actually compromised third-party systems; there are multiple cases of rooted SMS servers that are queried in place and the results exfiltrated. Others involve vast infrastructure, like Tempora. If data in Xkeyscore are marked as of interest, they’re moved to Pinwale to be memorialised for 5+ years. This is one function of the MDRs (massive data repositories, now more tactfully renamed mission data repositories) like Utah. At present storage is behind ingestion. Xkeyscore buffer times just depend on volumes and what storage they managed to install, plus what they manage to filter out.

As for crypto capabilities, a lot of stuff is decrypted automatically on ingest (e.g. using a “stolen cert,” presumably a private key obtained through hacking). Else the analyst sends the ciphertext to CES and they either decrypt it or say they can’t. There’s no evidence of a “wow” cryptanalysis; it was key theft, or an implant, or a predicted RNG or supply-chain interference. Cryptanalysis has been seen of RC4, but not of elliptic curve crypto, and there’s no sign of exploits against other commonly used algorithms. Of course, the vendors of some products have been coopted, notably skype. Homegrown crypto is routinely problematic, but properly implemented crypto keeps the agency out; gpg ciphertexts with RSA 1024 were returned as fails.


What else might we learn from the disclosures when designing and implementing crypto? Well, read the disclosures and use your brain. Why did GCHQ bother stealing all the SIM card keys for Iceland from Gemalto, unless they have access to the local GSM radio links? Just look at the roof panels on US or UK embassies, that look like concrete but are actually transparent to RF. So when designing a protocol ask yourself whether a local listener is a serious consideration.


On the policy front, one of the eye-openers was the scale of intelligence sharing — it’s not just 5 eyes, but 15 or 35 or even 65 once you count all the countries sharing stuff with the NSA. So how does governance work? Quite simply, the NSA doesn’t care about policy. Their OGC has 100 lawyers whose job is to “enable the mission”; to figure out loopholes or new interpretations of the law that let stuff get done. How do you restrain this? Could you use courts in other countries, that have stronger human-rights law? The precedents are not encouraging. New Zealand’s GCSB was sharing intel with Bangladesh agencies while the NZ government was investigating them for human-rights abuses. Ramstein in Germany is involved in all the drone killings, as fibre is needed to keep latency down low enough for remote vehicle pilots. The problem is that the intelligence agencies figure out ways to shield the authorities from culpability, and this should not happen.


The spooks’ lawyers play games saying for example that they dumped content, but if you know IP address and file size you often have it; and IP address is a good enough pseudonym for most intel / LE use. They deny that they outsource to do legal arbitrage (e.g. NSA spies on Brits and GCHQ returns the favour by spying on Americans). Are they telling the truth? In theory there will be an MOU between NSA and the partner agency stipulating respect for each others’ laws, but there can be caveats, such as a classified version which says “this is not a binding legal document.” The sad fact is that law and legislators are losing the capability to hold people in the intelligence world to account, and also losing the appetite for it.

Worth reading in full.

Posted on May 11, 2015 at 6:26 AM

Cisco Shipping Equipment to Fake Addresses to Foil NSA Interception

Last May, we learned that the NSA intercepts equipment being shipped around the world and installs eavesdropping implants. There were photos of NSA employees opening up a Cisco box. Cisco’s CEO John Chambers personally complained to President Obama about this practice, which is not exactly a selling point for Cisco equipment abroad. Der Spiegel published the more complete document, along with a broader story, in January of this year:

In one recent case, after several months a beacon implanted through supply-chain interdiction called back to the NSA covert infrastructure. The call back provided us access to further exploit the device and survey the network. Upon initiating the survey, SIGINT analysis from TAO/Requirements & Targeting determined that the implanted device was providing even greater access than we had hoped: We knew the devices were bound for the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) to be used as part of their internet backbone, but what we did not know was that STE’s GSM (cellular) network was also using this backbone. Since the STE GSM network had never before been exploited, this new access represented a real coup.

Now Cisco is taking matters into its own hands, offering to ship equipment to fake addresses in an effort to avoid NSA interception.

I don’t think we have even begun to understand the long-term damage the NSA has done to the US tech industry.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on March 20, 2015 at 6:56 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

FOXACID Operations Manual

A few days ago, I saw this tweet: “Just a reminder that it is now *a full year* since Schneier cited it, and the FOXACID ops manual remains unpublished.” It’s true.

The citation is this:

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.

Back when I broke the QUANTUM and FOXACID programs, I talked with the Guardian editors about publishing the manual. In the end, we decided not to, because the information in it wasn’t useful to understanding the story. It’s been a year since I’ve seen it, but I remember it being just what I called it: an operation procedures manual. It talked about what to type into which screens, and how to deal with error conditions. It didn’t talk about capabilities, either technical or operational. I found it interesting, but it was hard to argue that it was necessary in order to understand the story.

It will probably never be published. I lost access to the Snowden documents soon after writing that essay — Greenwald broke with the Guardian, and I have never been invited back by the Intercept — and there’s no one looking at the documents with an eye to writing about the NSA’s technical capabilities and how to securely design systems to protect against government surveillance. Even though we now know that the same capabilities are being used by other governments and cyber criminals, there’s much more interest in stories with political ramifications.

Posted on October 15, 2014 at 6:29 AMView 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

Nicholas Weaver Explains how QUANTUM Works

An excellent essay. For the non-technical, his conclusion is the most important:

Everything we’ve seen about QUANTUM and other internet activity can be replicated with a surprisingly moderate budget, using existing tools with just a little modification.

The biggest limitation on QUANTUM is location: The attacker must be able to see a request which identifies the target. Since the same techniques can work on a Wi-Fi network, a $50 Raspberry Pi, located in a Foggy Bottom Starbucks, can provide any country, big and small, with a little window of QUANTUM exploitation. A foreign government can perform the QUANTUM attack NSA-style wherever your traffic passes through their country.

And that’s the bottom line with the NSA’s QUANTUM program. The NSA does not have a monopoly on the technology, and their widespread use acts as implicit permission to others, both nation-state and criminal.

Moreover, until we fix the underlying Internet architecture that makes QUANTUM attacks possible, we are vulnerable to all of those attackers.

Posted on March 14, 2014 at 2:01 PMView Comments

New Information on the NSA's QUANTUM Program

There’s a new (overly breathless) article on the NSA’s QUANTUM program, including a bunch of new source documents. Of particular note is this page listing a variety of QUANTUM programs. Note that QUANTUMCOOKIE, “which forces users to divulge stored cookies,” is not on this list.

I’m busy today, so please tell me anything interesting you see in the comments.

I have written previously about QUANTUM.

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 12:55 PMView Comments

Postmortem: NSA Exploits of the Day

When I decided to post an exploit a day from the TAO implant catalog, my goal was to highlight the myriad of capabilities of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations group, basically, its black bag teams. The catalog was published by Der Spiegel along with a pair of articles on the NSA’s CNE — that’s Computer Network Exploitation — operations, and it was just too much to digest. While the various nations’ counterespionage groups certainly pored over the details, they largely washed over us in the academic and commercial communities. By republishing a single exploit a day, I hoped we would all read and digest each individual TAO capability.

It’s important that we know the details of these attack tools. Not because we want to evade the NSA — although some of us do — but because the NSA doesn’t have a monopoly on either technology or cleverness. The NSA might have a larger budget than every other intelligence agency in the world combined, but these tools are the sorts of things that any well-funded nation-state adversary would use. And as technology advances, they are the sorts of tools we’re going to see cybercriminals use. So think of this less as what the NSA does, and more of a head start as to what everyone will be using.

Which means we need to figure out how to defend against them.

The NSA has put a lot of effort into designing software implants that evade antivirus and other detection tools, transmit data when they know they can’t be detected, and survive reinstallation of the operating system. It has software implants designed to jump air gaps without being detected. It has an impressive array of hardware implants, also designed to evade detection. And it spends a lot of effort on hacking routers and switches. These sorts of observations should become a road map for anti-malware companies.

Anyone else have observations or comments, now that we’ve seen the entire catalog?

The TAO catalog isn’t current; it’s from 2008. So the NSA has had six years to improve all of the tools in this catalog, and to add a bunch more. Figuring out how to extrapolate to current capabilities is also important.

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 6:31 AMView Comments

RAGEMASTER: NSA Exploit of the Day

Today’s item — and this is the final item — from the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group implant catalog:


(TS//SI//REL TO USA,FVEY) RF retro-reflector that provides an enhanced radar cross-section for VAGRANT collection. It’s concealed in a standard computer video graphics array (VGA) cable between the video card and the video monitor. It’s typically installed in the ferrite on the video cable.

(U) Capabilities
(TS//SI//REL TO USA,FVEY) RAGEMASTER provides a target for RF flooding and allows for easier collection of the VAGRANT video signal. The current RAGEMASTER unit taps the red video line on the VGA cable. It was found that, empirically, this provides the best video return and cleanest readout of the monitor contents.

(U) Concept of Operation
(TS//SI//REL TO USA,FVEY) The RAGEMASTER taps the red video line between the video card within the desktop unit and the computer monitor, typically an LCD. When the RAGEMASTER is illuminated by a radar unit, the illuminating signal is modulated with the red video information. This information is re-radiated, where it is picked up at the radar, demodulated, and passed onto the processing unit, such as a LFS-2 and an external monitor, NIGHTWATCH, GOTHAM, or (in the future) VIEWPLATE. The processor recreates the horizontal and vertical sync of the targeted monitor, thus allowing TAO personnel to see what is displayed on the targeted monitor.

Unit Cost: $30

Status: Operational. Manufactured on an as-needed basis. Contact POC for availability information.

Page, with graphics, is here. General information about TAO and the catalog is here.

In the comments, feel free to discuss how the exploit works, how we might detect it, how it has probably been improved since the catalog entry in 2008, and so on.

Posted on March 11, 2014 at 2:05 PMView Comments

FIREWALK: NSA Exploit of the Day

Today’s item from the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group implant catalog:


(TS//SI//REL) FIREWALK is a bidirectional network implant, capable of passively collecting Gigabit Ethernet network traffic, and actively injecting Ethernet packets onto the same target network.

(TS//SI//REL) FIREWALK is a bi-directional 10/100/1000bT (Gigabit) Ethernet network implant residing within a dual stacked RJ45 / USB connector FIREWALK is capable of filtering and egressing network traffic over a custom RF link and injecting traffic as commanded; this allows a ethernet tunnel (VPN) to be created between target network and the ROC (or an intermediate redirector node such as DNT’s DANDERSPRITZ tool.) FIREWALK allows active exploitation of a target network with a firewall or air gap protection.

(TS//SI//REL) FIREWALK uses the HOWLERMONKEY transceiver for back-end communications. It can communicate with an LP or other compatible HOWLERMONKEY based ANT products to increase RF range through multiple hops.

Status: Prototype Available — August 2008

Unit Cost: 50 Units $537K

Page, with graphics, is here. General information about TAO and the catalog is here.

In the comments, feel free to discuss how the exploit works, how we might detect it, how it has probably been improved since the catalog entry in 2008, and so on.

Posted on March 10, 2014 at 2:33 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.