This is a newly unclassified NSA history of its reaction to academic cryptography in the 1970s: “NSA Comes Out of the Closet: The Debate over Public Cryptography in the Inman Era,” Cryptographic Quarterly, Spring 1996, author still classified.
Entries Tagged "NSA"
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President Biden announced key cybersecurity leadership nominations Monday, proposing Jen Easterly as the next head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and John “Chris” Inglis as the first ever national cyber director (NCD).
I know them both, and think they’re both good choices.
Check Point has evidence that (probably government affiliated) Chinese hackers stole and cloned an NSA Windows hacking tool years before (probably government affiliated) Russian hackers stole and then published the same tool. Here’s the timeline:
The timeline basically seems to be, according to Check Point:
- 2013: NSA’s Equation Group developed a set of exploits including one called EpMe that elevates one’s privileges on a vulnerable Windows system to system-administrator level, granting full control. This allows someone with a foothold on a machine to commandeer the whole box.
- 2014-2015: China’s hacking team code-named APT31, aka Zirconium, developed Jian by, one way or another, cloning EpMe.
- Early 2017: The Equation Group’s tools were teased and then leaked online by a team calling itself the Shadow Brokers. Around that time, Microsoft cancelled its February Patch Tuesday, identified the vulnerability exploited by EpMe (CVE-2017-0005), and fixed it in a bumper March update. Interestingly enough, Lockheed Martin was credited as alerting Microsoft to the flaw, suggesting it was perhaps used against an American target.
- Mid 2017: Microsoft quietly fixed the vulnerability exploited by the leaked EpMo exploit.
The NSA has just declassified and released a redacted version of Military Cryptanalytics, Part III, by Lambros D. Callimahos, October 1977.
Parts I and II, by Lambros D. Callimahos and William F. Friedman, were released decades ago — I believe repeatedly, in increasingly unredacted form — and published by the late Wayne Griswold Barker’s Agean Park Press. I own them in hardcover.
Like Parts I and II, Part III is primarily concerned with pre-computer ciphers. At this point, the document only has historical interest. If there is any lesson for today, it’s that modern cryptanalysis is possible primarily because people make mistakes
The monograph took a while to become public. The cover page says that the initial FOIA request was made in July 2012: eight and a half years ago.
And there’s more books to come. Page 1 starts off:
This text constitutes the third of six basic texts on the science of cryptanalytics. The first two texts together have covered most of the necessary fundamentals of cryptanalytics; this and the remaining three texts will be devoted to more specialized and more advanced aspects of the science.
Presumably, volumes IV, V, and VI are still hidden inside the classified libraries of the NSA.
And from page ii:
Chapters IV-XI are revisions of seven of my monographs in the NSA Technical Literature Series, viz: Monograph No. 19, “The Cryptanalysis of Ciphertext and Plaintext Autokey Systems”; Monograph No. 20, “The Analysis of Systems Employing Long or Continuous Keys”; Monograph No. 21, “The Analysis of Cylindrical Cipher Devices and Strip Cipher Systems”; Monograph No. 22, “The Analysis of Systems Employing Geared Disk Cryptomechanisms”; Monograph No.23, “Fundamentals of Key Analysis”; Monograph No. 15, “An Introduction to Teleprinter Key Analysis”; and Monograph No. 18, “Ars Conjectandi: The Fundamentals of Cryptodiagnosis.”
This points to a whole series of still-classified monographs whose titles we do not even know.
EDITED TO ADD: I have been informed by a reliable source that Parts 4 through 6 were never completed. There may be fragments and notes, but no finished works.
The NSA has published an advisory outlining how “malicious cyber actors” are “are manipulating trust in federated authentication environments to access protected data in the cloud.” This is related to the SolarWinds hack I have previously written about, and represents one of the techniques the SVR is using once it has gained access to target networks.
From the summary:
Malicious cyberactors are abusing trust in federated authentication environments to access protected data. The exploitation occurs after the actors have gained initial access to a victim’s on-premises network. The actors leverage privileged access in the on-premises environment to subvert the mechanisms that the organization uses to grant access to cloud and on-premises resources and/or to compromise administrator credentials with the ability to manage cloud resources. The actors demonstrate two sets of tactics, techniques,and procedures (TTP) for gaining access to the victim network’s cloud resources, often with a particular focus on organizational email.
In the first TTP, the actors compromise on-premises components of a federated SSO infrastructure and steal the credential or private key that is used to sign Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) tokens(TA0006, T1552, T1552.004). Using the private keys, the actors then forge trusted authentication tokens to access cloud resources. A recent NSA Cybersecurity Advisory warned of actors exploiting a vulnerability in VMware Access and VMware Identity Manager that allowed them to perform this TTP and abuse federated SSO infrastructure.While that example of this TTP may have previously been attributed to nation-state actors, a wealth of actors could be leveraging this TTP for their objectives. This SAML forgery technique has been known and used by cyber actors since at least 2017.
In a variation of the first TTP, if the malicious cyber actors are unable to obtain anon-premises signing key, they would attempt to gain sufficient administrative privileges within the cloud tenant to add a malicious certificate trust relationship for forging SAML tokens.
In the second TTP, the actors leverage a compromised global administrator account to assign credentials to cloud application service principals (identities for cloud applications that allow the applications to be invoked to access other cloud resources). The actors then invoke the application’s credentials for automated access to cloud resources (often email in particular) that would otherwise be difficult for the actors to access or would more easily be noticed as suspicious (T1114, T1114.002).
This is an ongoing story, and I expect to see a lot more about TTP — nice acronym there — in coming weeks.
Over at Lawfare, Susan Hennessey has an excellent primer on how Trump loyalist Michael Ellis got to be the NSA General Counsel, over the objections of NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and what Biden can and should do about it.
While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.
The moment also poses a test for President-elect Biden’s transition, which must address the delicate balance between remedying improper politicization of the intelligence community, defending career roles against impermissible burrowing, and restoring civil service rules that prohibit both partisan favoritism and retribution. The Biden team needs to set a marker now, to clarify the situation to the public and to enable a new Pentagon general counsel to proceed with credibility and independence in investigating and potentially taking remedial action upon assuming office.
The NSA general counsel is not a Senate-confirmed role. Unlike the general counsels of the CIA, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all of which require confirmation, the NSA’s general counsel is a senior career position whose occupant is formally selected by and reports to the general counsel of the Department of Defense. It’s an odd setup — and one that obscures certain realities, like the fact that the NSA general counsel in practice reports to the NSA director. This structure is the source of a perennial legislative fight. Every few years, Congress proposes laws to impose a confirmation requirement as more appropriately befits an essential administration role, and every few years, the executive branch opposes those efforts as dangerously politicizing what should be a nonpolitical job.
While a lack of Senate confirmation reduces some accountability and legislative screening, this career selection process has the benefit of being designed to eliminate political interference and to ensure the most qualified candidate is hired. The system includes a complex set of rules governing a selection board that interviews candidates, certifies qualifications and makes recommendations guided by a set of independent merit-based principles. The Pentagon general counsel has the final call in making a selection. For example, if the panel has ranked a first-choice candidate, the general counsel is empowered to choose one of the others.
Ryan Goodman has a similar article at Just Security.
Senator Ron Wyden asked, and the NSA didn’t answer:
The NSA has long sought agreements with technology companies under which they would build special access for the spy agency into their products, according to disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reporting by Reuters and others.
These so-called back doors enable the NSA and other agencies to scan large amounts of traffic without a warrant. Agency advocates say the practice has eased collection of vital intelligence in other countries, including interception of terrorist communications.
The agency developed new rules for such practices after the Snowden leaks in order to reduce the chances of exposure and compromise, three former intelligence officials told Reuters. But aides to Senator Ron Wyden, a leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, say the NSA has stonewalled on providing even the gist of the new guidelines.
The agency declined to say how it had updated its policies on obtaining special access to commercial products. NSA officials said the agency has been rebuilding trust with the private sector through such measures as offering warnings about software flaws.
“At NSA, it’s common practice to constantly assess processes to identify and determine best practices,” said Anne Neuberger, who heads NSA’s year-old Cybersecurity Directorate. “We don’t share specific processes and procedures.”
Three former senior intelligence agency figures told Reuters that the NSA now requires that before a back door is sought, the agency must weigh the potential fallout and arrange for some kind of warning if the back door gets discovered and manipulated by adversaries.
The article goes on to talk about Juniper Networks equipment, which had the NSA-created DUAL_EC PRNG backdoor in its products. That backdoor was taken advantage of by an unnamed foreign adversary.
Juniper Networks got into hot water over Dual EC two years later. At the end of 2015, the maker of internet switches disclosed that it had detected malicious code in some firewall products. Researchers later determined that hackers had turned the firewalls into their own spy tool here by altering Juniper’s version of Dual EC.
Juniper said little about the incident. But the company acknowledged to security researcher Andy Isaacson in 2016 that it had installed Dual EC as part of a “customer requirement,” according to a previously undisclosed contemporaneous message seen by Reuters. Isaacson and other researchers believe that customer was a U.S. government agency, since only the U.S. is known to have insisted on Dual EC elsewhere.
Juniper has never identified the customer, and declined to comment for this story.
Likewise, the company never identified the hackers. But two people familiar with the case told Reuters that investigators concluded the Chinese government was behind it. They declined to detail the evidence they used.
Okay, lots of unsubstantiated claims and innuendo here. And Neuberger is right; the NSA shouldn’t share specific processes and procedures. But as long as this is a democratic country, the NSA has an obligation to disclose its general processes and procedures so we all know what they’re doing in our name. And if it’s still putting surveillance ahead of security.
The NSA released an advisory listing the top twenty-five known vulnerabilities currently being exploited by Chinese nation-state attackers.
This advisory provides Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) known to be recently leveraged, or scanned-for, by Chinese state-sponsored cyber actors to enable successful hacking operations against a multitude of victim networks. Most of the vulnerabilities listed below can be exploited to gain initial access to victim networks using products that are directly accessible from the Internet and act as gateways to internal networks. The majority of the products are either for remote access (T1133) or for external web services (T1190), and should be prioritized for immediate patching.
One of the things we learned from the Snowden documents is that the NSA conducts “about” searches. That is, searches based on activities and not identifiers. A normal search would be on a name, or IP address, or phone number. An about search would something like “show me anyone that has used this particular name in a communications,” or “show me anyone who was at this particular location within this time frame.” These searches are legal when conducted for the purpose of foreign surveillance, but the worry about using them domestically is that they are unconstitutionally broad. After all, the only way to know who said a particular name is to know what everyone said, and the only way to know who was at a particular location is to know where everyone was. The very nature of these searches requires mass surveillance.
The FBI does not conduct mass surveillance. But many US corporations do, as a normal part of their business model. And the FBI uses that surveillance infrastructure to conduct its own about searches. Here’s an arson case where the FBI asked Google who searched for a particular street address:
Homeland Security special agent Sylvette Reynoso testified that her team began by asking Google to produce a list of public IP addresses used to google the home of the victim in the run-up to the arson. The Chocolate Factory [Google] complied with the warrant, and gave the investigators the list. As Reynoso put it:
On June 15, 2020, the Honorable Ramon E. Reyes, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York, authorized a search warrant to Google for users who had searched the address of the Residence close in time to the arson.
The records indicated two IPv6 addresses had been used to search for the address three times: one the day before the SUV was set on fire, and the other two about an hour before the attack. The IPv6 addresses were traced to Verizon Wireless, which told the investigators that the addresses were in use by an account belonging to Williams.
Google’s response is that this is rare:
While word of these sort of requests for the identities of people making specific searches will raise the eyebrows of privacy-conscious users, Google told The Register the warrants are a very rare occurrence, and its team fights overly broad or vague requests.
“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado told us. “We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate.
“These data demands represent less than one per cent of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”
Here’s another example of what seems to be about data leading to a false arrest.
According to the lawsuit, police investigating the murder knew months before they arrested Molina that the location data obtained from Google often showed him in two places at once, and that he was not the only person who drove the Honda registered under his name.
Avondale police knew almost two months before they arrested Molina that another man his stepfather sometimes drove Molina’s white Honda. On October 25, 2018, police obtained records showing that Molina’s Honda had been impounded earlier that year after Molina’s stepfather was caught driving the car without a license.
Data obtained by Avondale police from Google did show that a device logged into Molina’s Google account was in the area at the time of Knight’s murder. Yet on a different date, the location data from Google also showed that Molina was at a retirement community in Scottsdale (where his mother worked) while debit card records showed that Molina had made a purchase at a Walmart across town at the exact same time.
Molina’s attorneys argue that this and other instances like it should have made it clear to Avondale police that Google’s account-location data is not always reliable in determining the actual location of a person.
“About” searches might be rare, but that doesn’t make them a good idea. We have knowingly and willingly built the architecture of a police state, just so companies can show us ads. (And it is increasingly apparent that the advertising-supported Internet is heading for a crash.)
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.