Entries Tagged "NSA"

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What the NSA Collects via 702

New York Times reporter Charlie Savage writes about some bad statistics we’re all using:

Among surveillance legal policy specialists, it is common to cite a set of statistics from an October 2011 opinion by Judge John Bates, then of the FISA Court, about the volume of internet communications the National Security Agency was collecting under the FISA Amendments Act (“Section 702”) warrantless surveillance program. In his opinion, declassified in August 2013, Judge Bates wrote that the NSA was collecting more than 250 million internet communications a year, of which 91 percent came from its Prism system (which collects stored e-mails from providers like Gmail) and 9 percent came from its upstream system (which collects transmitted messages from network operators like AT&T).

These numbers are wrong. This blog post will address, first, the widespread nature of this misunderstanding; second, how I came to FOIA certain documents trying to figure out whether the numbers really added up; third, what those documents show; and fourth, what I further learned in talking to an intelligence official. This is far too dense and weedy for a New York Times article, but should hopefully be of some interest to specialists.

Worth reading for the details.

Posted on September 20, 2017 at 6:12 AMView Comments

ShadowBrokers Releases NSA UNITEDRAKE Manual

The ShadowBrokers released the manual for UNITEDRAKE, a sophisticated NSA Trojan that targets Windows machines:

Able to compromise Windows PCs running on XP, Windows Server 2003 and 2008, Vista, Windows 7 SP 1 and below, as well as Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, the attack tool acts as a service to capture information.

UNITEDRAKE, described as a “fully extensible remote collection system designed for Windows targets,” also gives operators the opportunity to take complete control of a device.

The malware’s modules — including FOGGYBOTTOM and GROK — can perform tasks including listening in and monitoring communication, capturing keystrokes and both webcam and microphone usage, the impersonation users, stealing diagnostics information and self-destructing once tasks are completed.

More news.

UNITEDRAKE was mentioned in several Snowden documents and also in the TAO catalog of implants.

And Kaspersky Labs has found evidence of these tools in the wild, associated with the Equation Group — generally assumed to be the NSA:

The capabilities of several tools in the catalog identified by the codenames UNITEDRAKE, STRAITBAZZARE, VALIDATOR and SLICKERVICAR appear to match the tools Kaspersky found. These codenames don’t appear in the components from the Equation Group, but Kaspersky did find “UR” in EquationDrug, suggesting a possible connection to UNITEDRAKE (United Rake). Kaspersky also found other codenames in the components that aren’t in the NSA catalog but share the same naming conventions­they include SKYHOOKCHOW, STEALTHFIGHTER, DRINKPARSLEY, STRAITACID, LUTEUSOBSTOS, STRAITSHOOTER, and DESERTWINTER.

ShadowBrokers has only released the UNITEDRAKE manual, not the tool itself. Presumably they’re trying to sell that.

Posted on September 8, 2017 at 6:54 AMView Comments

NSA Collects MS Windows Error Information

Back in 2013, Der Spiegel reported that the NSA intercepts and collects Windows bug reports:

One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft’s Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA’s powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.

The automated crash reports are a “neat way” to gain “passive access” to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person’s computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim’s computer.

Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA’s agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant. In one internal graphic, they replaced the text of Microsoft’s original error message with one of their own reading, “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.” (“Sigint” stands for “signals intelligence.”)

The article talks about the (limited) value of this information with regard to specific target computers, but I have another question: how valuable would this database be for finding new zero-day Windows vulnerabilities to exploit? Microsoft won’t have the incentive to examine and fix problems until they happen broadly among its user base. The NSA has a completely different incentive structure.

I don’t remember this being discussed back in 2013.

EDITED TO ADD (8/6): Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (8/14): Adam S, a former Microsoft employee, writes in a comment that this information is very helpful in finding zero-days, and cites this as an example. He also says that this information is now TLS encrypted, and has been since Windows 8 or 10.

Posted on August 1, 2017 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Zero-Day Vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA Tools Released by the Shadow Brokers

In April, the Shadow Brokers — presumably Russia — released a batch of Windows exploits from what is presumably the NSA. Included in that release were eight different Windows vulnerabilities. Given a presumed theft date of the data as sometime between 2012 and 2013 — based on timestamps of the documents and the limited Windows 8 support of the tools:

  • Three were already patched by Microsoft. That is, they were not zero days, and could only be used against unpatched targets. They are EMERALDTHREAD, EDUCATEDSCHOLAR, and ECLIPSEDWING.
  • One was discovered to have been used in the wild and patched in 2014: ESKIMOROLL.
  • Four were only patched when the NSA informed Microsoft about them in early 2017: ETERNALBLUE, ETERNALSYNERGY, ETERNALROMANCE, and ETERNALCHAMPION.

So of the five serious zero-day vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA’s pocket, four were never independently discovered. This isn’t new news, but I haven’t seen this summary before.

Posted on July 28, 2017 at 6:16 AMView Comments

More on the NSA's Use of Traffic Shaping

“Traffic shaping” — the practice of tricking data to flow through a particular route on the Internet so it can be more easily surveiled — is an NSA technique that has gotten much less attention than it deserves. It’s a powerful technique that allows an eavesdropper to get access to communications channels it would otherwise not be able to monitor.

There’s a new paper on this technique:

This report describes a novel and more disturbing set of risks. As a technical matter, the NSA does not have to wait for domestic communications to naturally turn up abroad. In fact, the agency has technical methods that can be used to deliberately reroute Internet communications. The NSA uses the term “traffic shaping” to describe any technical means the deliberately reroutes Internet traffic to a location that is better suited, operationally, to surveillance. Since it is hard to intercept Yemen’s international communications from inside Yemen itself, the agency might try to “shape” the traffic so that it passes through communications cables located on friendlier territory. Think of it as diverting part of a river to a location from which it is easier (or more legal) to catch fish.

The NSA has clandestine means of diverting portions of the river of Internet traffic that travels on global communications cables.

Could the NSA use traffic shaping to redirect domestic Internet traffic — ­emails and chat messages sent between Americans, say­ — to foreign soil, where its surveillance can be conducted beyond the purview of Congress and the courts? It is impossible to categorically answer this question, due to the classified nature of many national-security surveillance programs, regulations and even of the legal decisions made by the surveillance courts. Nevertheless, this report explores a legal, technical, and operational landscape that suggests that traffic shaping could be exploited to sidestep legal restrictions imposed by Congress and the surveillance courts.

News article. NSA document detailing the technique with Yemen.

This work builds on previous research that I blogged about here.

The fundamental vulnerability is that routing information isn’t authenticated.

Posted on July 12, 2017 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Fighting Leakers at Apple

Apple is fighting its own battle against leakers, using people and tactics from the NSA.

According to the hour-long presentation, Apple’s Global Security team employs an undisclosed number of investigators around the world to prevent information from reaching competitors, counterfeiters, and the press, as well as hunt down the source when leaks do occur. Some of these investigators have previously worked at U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, and in the U.S. military.

The information is from an internal briefing, which was leaked.

Posted on June 27, 2017 at 6:25 AMView Comments

NSA Insider Security Post-Snowden

According to a recently declassified report obtained under FOIA, the NSA’s attempts to protect itself against insider attacks aren’t going very well:

The N.S.A. failed to consistently lock racks of servers storing highly classified data and to secure data center machine rooms, according to the report, an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general completed in 2016.


The agency also failed to meaningfully reduce the number of officials and contractors who were empowered to download and transfer data classified as top secret, as well as the number of “privileged” users, who have greater power to access the N.S.A.’s most sensitive computer systems. And it did not fully implement software to monitor what those users were doing.

In all, the report concluded, while the post-Snowden initiative — called “Secure the Net” by the N.S.A. — had some successes, it “did not fully meet the intent of decreasing the risk of insider threats to N.S.A. operations and the ability of insiders to exfiltrate data.”

Marcy Wheeler comments:

The IG report examined seven of the most important out of 40 “Secure the Net” initiatives rolled out since Snowden began leaking classified information. Two of the initiatives aspired to reduce the number of people who had the kind of access Snowden did: those who have privileged access to maintain, configure, and operate the NSA’s computer systems (what the report calls PRIVACs), and those who are authorized to use removable media to transfer data to or from an NSA system (what the report calls DTAs).

But when DOD’s inspectors went to assess whether NSA had succeeded in doing this, they found something disturbing. In both cases, the NSA did not have solid documentation about how many such users existed at the time of the Snowden leak. With respect to PRIVACs, in June 2013 (the start of the Snowden leak), “NSA officials stated that they used a manually kept spreadsheet, which they no longer had, to identify the initial number of privileged users.” The report offered no explanation for how NSA came to no longer have that spreadsheet just as an investigation into the biggest breach thus far at NSA started. With respect to DTAs, “NSA did not know how many DTAs it had because the manually kept list was corrupted during the months leading up to the security breach.”

There seem to be two possible explanations for the fact that the NSA couldn’t track who had the same kind of access that Snowden exploited to steal so many documents. Either the dog ate their homework: Someone at NSA made the documents unavailable (or they never really existed). Or someone fed the dog their homework: Some adversary made these lists unusable. The former would suggest the NSA had something to hide as it prepared to explain why Snowden had been able to walk away with NSA’s crown jewels. The latter would suggest that someone deliberately obscured who else in the building might walk away with the crown jewels. Obscuring that list would be of particular value if you were a foreign adversary planning on walking away with a bunch of files, such as the set of hacking tools the Shadow Brokers have since released, which are believed to have originated at NSA.

Read the whole thing. Securing against insiders, especially those with technical access, is difficult, but I had assumed the NSA did more post-Snowden.

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:52 AMView Comments

NSA Links WannaCry to North Korea

There’s evidence:

Though the assessment is not conclusive, the preponderance of the evidence points to Pyongyang. It includes the range of computer Internet protocol addresses in China historically used by the RGB, and the assessment is consistent with intelligence gathered recently by other Western spy agencies. It states that the hackers behind WannaCry are also called “the Lazarus Group,” a name used by private-sector researchers.

One of the agencies reported that a prototype of WannaCry ransomware was found this spring in a non-Western bank. That data point was a “building block” for the North Korea assessment, the individual said.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I am skeptical, but I am willing to be convinced. (Here’s the grugq, also trying to figure it out.) What I would like to see is the NSA evidence in more detail than they’re probably comfortable releasing.

More commentary. Slashdot thread.

Posted on June 16, 2017 at 2:11 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.