Entries Tagged "NSA"

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Random Number Bug in Debian Linux

This is a big deal:

On May 13th, 2008 the Debian project announced that Luciano Bello found an interesting vulnerability in the OpenSSL package they were distributing. The bug in question was caused by the removal of the following line of code from md_rand.c

	[ .. ]
	MD_Update(&m,buf,j); /* purify complains */

These lines were removed because they caused the Valgrind and Purify tools to produce warnings about the use of uninitialized data in any code that was linked to OpenSSL. You can see one such report to the OpenSSL team here. Removing this code has the side effect of crippling the seeding process for the OpenSSL PRNG. Instead of mixing in random data for the initial seed, the only “random” value that was used was the current process ID. On the Linux platform, the default maximum process ID is 32,768, resulting in a very small number of seed values being used for all PRNG operations.

More info, from Debian, here. And from the hacker community here. Seems that the bug was introduced in September 2006.

More analysis here. And a cartoon.

Random numbers are used everywhere in cryptography, for both short- and long-term security. And, as we’ve seen here, security flaws in random number generators are really easy to accidently create and really hard to discover after the fact. Back when the NSA was routinely weakening commercial cryptography, their favorite technique was reducing the entropy of the random number generator.

Posted on May 19, 2008 at 6:07 AMView Comments

Dual-Use Technologies and the Equities Issue

On April 27, 2007, Estonia was attacked in cyberspace. Following a diplomatic incident with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial, the networks of many Estonian organizations, including the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, were attacked and — in many cases — shut down. Estonia was quick to blame Russia, which was equally quick to deny any involvement.

It was hyped as the first cyberwar: Russia attacking Estonia in cyberspace. But nearly a year later, evidence that the Russian government was involved in the denial-of-service attacks still hasn’t emerged. Though Russian hackers were indisputably the major instigators of the attack, the only individuals positively identified have been young ethnic Russians living inside Estonia, who were pissed off over the statue incident.

You know you’ve got a problem when you can’t tell a hostile attack by another nation from bored kids with an axe to grind.

Separating cyberwar, cyberterrorism and cybercrime isn’t easy; these days you need a scorecard to tell the difference. It’s not just that it’s hard to trace people in cyberspace, it’s that military and civilian attacks — and defenses — look the same.

The traditional term for technology the military shares with civilians is “dual use.” Unlike hand grenades and tanks and missile targeting systems, dual-use technologies have both military and civilian applications. Dual-use technologies used to be exceptions; even things you’d expect to be dual use, like radar systems and toilets, were designed differently for the military. But today, almost all information technology is dual use. We both use the same operating systems, the same networking protocols, the same applications, and even the same security software.

And attack technologies are the same. The recent spurt of targeted hacks against U.S. military networks, commonly attributed to China, exploit the same vulnerabilities and use the same techniques as criminal attacks against corporate networks. Internet worms make the jump to classified military networks in less than 24 hours, even if those networks are physically separate. The Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command uses the same tools against the same threats as any large corporation.

Because attackers and defenders use the same IT technology, there is a fundamental tension between cyberattack and cyberdefense. The National Security Agency has referred to this as the “equities issue,” and it can be summarized as follows: When a military discovers a vulnerability in a dual-use technology, they can do one of two things. They can alert the manufacturer and fix the vulnerability, thereby protecting both the good guys and the bad guys. Or they can keep quiet about the vulnerability and not tell anyone, thereby leaving the good guys insecure but also leaving the bad guys insecure.

The equities issue has long been hotly debated inside the NSA. Basically, the NSA has two roles: eavesdrop on their stuff, and protect our stuff. When both sides use the same stuff, the agency has to decide whether to exploit vulnerabilities to eavesdrop on their stuff or close the same vulnerabilities to protect our stuff.

In the 1980s and before, the tendency of the NSA was to keep vulnerabilities to themselves. In the 1990s, the tide shifted, and the NSA was starting to open up and help us all improve our security defense. But after the attacks of 9/11, the NSA shifted back to the attack: vulnerabilities were to be hoarded in secret. Slowly, things in the U.S. are shifting back again.

So now we’re seeing the NSA help secure Windows Vista and releasing their own version of Linux. The DHS, meanwhile, is funding a project to secure popular open source software packages, and across the Atlantic the UK’s GCHQ is finding bugs in PGPDisk and reporting them back to the company. (NSA is rumored to be doing the same thing with BitLocker.)

I’m in favor of this trend, because my security improves for free. Whenever the NSA finds a security problem and gets the vendor to fix it, our security gets better. It’s a side-benefit of dual-use technologies.

But I want governments to do more. I want them to use their buying power to improve my security. I want them to offer countrywide contracts for software, both security and non-security, that have explicit security requirements. If these contracts are big enough, companies will work to modify their products to meet those requirements. And again, we all benefit from the security improvements.

The only example of this model I know about is a U.S. government-wide procurement competition for full-disk encryption, but this can certainly be done with firewalls, intrusion detection systems, databases, networking hardware, even operating systems.

When it comes to IT technologies, the equities issue should be a no-brainer. The good uses of our common hardware, software, operating systems, network protocols, and everything else vastly outweigh the bad uses. It’s time that the government used its immense knowledge and experience, as well as its buying power, to improve cybersecurity for all of us.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on May 6, 2008 at 5:17 AMView Comments

NSA's Domestic Spying

This article from The Wall Street Journal outlines how the NSA is increasingly engaging in domestic surveillance, data collection, and data mining. The result is essentially the same as Total Information Awareness.

According to current and former intelligence officials, the spy agency now monitors huge volumes of records of domestic emails and Internet searches as well as bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel and telephone records. The NSA receives this so-called “transactional” data from other agencies or private companies, and its sophisticated software programs analyze the various transactions for suspicious patterns. Then they spit out leads to be explored by counterterrorism programs across the U.S. government, such as the NSA’s own Terrorist Surveillance Program, formed to intercept phone calls and emails between the U.S. and overseas without a judge’s approval when a link to al Qaeda is suspected.


Two former officials familiar with the data-sifting efforts said they work by starting with some sort of lead, like a phone number or Internet address. In partnership with the FBI, the systems then can track all domestic and foreign transactions of people associated with that item — and then the people who associated with them, and so on, casting a gradually wider net. An intelligence official described more of a rapid-response effect: If a person suspected of terrorist connections is believed to be in a U.S. city — for instance, Detroit, a community with a high concentration of Muslim Americans — the government’s spy systems may be directed to collect and analyze all electronic communications into and out of the city.

The haul can include records of phone calls, email headers and destinations, data on financial transactions and records of Internet browsing. The system also would collect information about other people, including those in the U.S., who communicated with people in Detroit.

The information doesn’t generally include the contents of conversations or emails. But it can give such transactional information as a cellphone’s location, whom a person is calling, and what Web sites he or she is visiting. For an email, the data haul can include the identities of the sender and recipient and the subject line, but not the content of the message.

Intelligence agencies have used administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI — which don’t need a judge’s signature — to collect and analyze such data, current and former intelligence officials said. If that data provided “reasonable suspicion” that a person, whether foreign or from the U.S., was linked to al Qaeda, intelligence officers could eavesdrop under the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program.


The NSA uses its own high-powered version of social-network analysis to search for possible new patterns and links to terrorism. The Pentagon’s experimental Total Information Awareness program, later renamed Terrorism Information Awareness, was an early research effort on the same concept, designed to bring together and analyze as much and as many varied kinds of data as possible. Congress eliminated funding for the program in 2003 before it began operating. But it permitted some of the research to continue and TIA technology to be used for foreign surveillance.

Some of it was shifted to the NSA — which also is funded by the Pentagon — and put in the so-called black budget, where it would receive less scrutiny and bolster other data-sifting efforts, current and former intelligence officials said. “When it got taken apart, it didn’t get thrown away,” says a former top government official familiar with the TIA program.

Two current officials also said the NSA’s current combination of programs now largely mirrors the former TIA project. But the NSA offers less privacy protection. TIA developers researched ways to limit the use of the system for broad searches of individuals’ data, such as requiring intelligence officers to get leads from other sources first. The NSA effort lacks those controls, as well as controls that it developed in the 1990s for an earlier data-sweeping attempt.

Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU comments:

I mean, when we warn about a “surveillance society,” this is what we’re talking about. This is it, this is the ballgame. Mass data from a wide variety of sources — including the private sector — is being collected and scanned by a secretive military spy agency. This represents nothing less than a major change in American life — and unless stopped the consequences of this system for everybody will grow in magnitude along with the rivers of data that are collected about each of us — and that’s more and more every day.

More commentary.

Posted on March 26, 2008 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Mujahideen Secrets 2

Mujahideen Secrets 2 is a new version of an encryption tool, ostensibly written to help Al Qaeda members encrypt secrets as they communicate on the Internet.

A bunch of sites have covered this story, and a couple of security researchers are quoted in the various articles. But quotes like this make you wonder if they have any idea what they’re talking about:

Mujahideen Secrets 2 is a very compelling piece of software, from an encryption perspective, according to Henry. He said the new tool is easy to use and provides 2,048-bit encryption, an improvement over the 256-bit AES encryption supported in the original version.

No one has explained why a terrorist would use this instead of PGP — perhaps they simply don’t trust anything coming from a U.S. company. But honestly, this isn’t a big deal at all: strong encryption software has been around for over fifteen years now, either cheap or free. And the NSA probably breaks most of the stuff by guessing the password, anyway. Unless the whole program is an NSA plant, that is.

My question: the articles claim that the program uses several encryption algorithms, including RSA and AES. Does it use Blowfish or Twofish?

Posted on February 8, 2008 at 5:39 AMView Comments

NSA Monitoring U.S. Government Internet Traffic

I have mixed feeling about this, but in general think it is a good idea:

President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the intelligence community’s role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies’ computer systems.

The directive, whose content is classified, authorizes the intelligence agencies, in particular the National Security Agency, to monitor the computer networks of all federal agencies — including ones they have not previously monitored.


The classified joint directive, signed Jan. 8 and called the National Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23, has not been previously disclosed. Plans to expand the NSA’s role in cyber-security were reported in the Baltimore Sun in September.

According to congressional aides and former White House officials with knowledge of the program, the directive outlines measures collectively referred to as the “cyber initiative,” aimed at securing the government’s computer systems against attacks by foreign adversaries and other intruders. It will cost billions of dollars, which the White House is expected to request in its fiscal 2009 budget.


Under the initiative, the NSA, CIA and the FBI’s Cyber Division will investigate intrusions by monitoring Internet activity and, in some cases, capturing data for analysis, sources said.

The Pentagon can plan attacks on adversaries’ networks if, for example, the NSA determines that a particular server in a foreign country needs to be taken down to disrupt an attack on an information system critical to the U.S. government. That could include responding to an attack against a private-sector network, such as the telecom industry’s, sources said.

Also, as part of its attempt to defend government computer systems, the Department of Homeland Security will collect and monitor data on intrusions, deploy technologies for preventing attacks and encrypt data. It will also oversee the effort to reduce Internet portals across government to 50 from 2,000, to make it easier to detect attacks.

My concern is that the NSA is doing the monitoring. I simply don’t like them monitoring domestic traffic, even domestic government traffic.

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary.

Posted on February 4, 2008 at 6:30 AMView Comments

NSA Backdoors in Crypto AG Ciphering Machines

This story made the rounds in European newspapers about ten years ago — mostly stories in German, if I remember — but it wasn’t covered much here in the U.S.

For half a century, Crypto AG, a Swiss company located in Zug, has sold to more than 100 countries the encryption machines their officials rely upon to exchange their most sensitive economic, diplomatic and military messages. Crypto AG was founded in 1952 by the legendary (Russian born) Swedish cryptographer Boris Hagelin. During World War II, Hagelin sold 140,000 of his machine to the US Army.

“In the meantime, the Crypto AG has built up long standing cooperative relations with customers in 130 countries,” states a prospectus of the company. The home page of the company Web site says, “Crypto AG is the preferred top-security partner for civilian and military authorities worldwide. Security is our business and will always remain our business.”

And for all those years, US eavesdroppers could read these messages without the least difficulty. A decade after the end of WWII, the NSA, also known as No Such Agency, had rigged the Crypto AG machines in various ways according to the targeted countries. It is probably no exaggeration to state that this 20th century version of the “Trojan horse” is quite likely the greatest sting in modern history.

We don’t know the truth here, but the article lays out the evidence pretty well.

See this essay of mine on how the NSA might have been able to read Iranian encrypted traffic.

Posted on January 11, 2008 at 6:51 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.