Entries Tagged "rootkits"

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Advances in Ad Blocking

Ad blockers represent the largest consumer boycott in human history. They’re also an arms race between the blockers and the blocker blockers. This article discusses a new ad-blocking technology that represents another advance in this arms race. I don’t think it will “put an end to the ad-blocking arms race,” as the title proclaims, but it will definitely give the blockers the upper hand.

The software, devised by Arvind Narayanan, Dillon Reisman, Jonathan Mayer, and Grant Storey, is novel in two major ways: First, it looks at the struggle between advertising and ad blockers as fundamentally a security problem that can be fought in much the same way antivirus programs attempt to block malware, using techniques borrowed from rootkits and built-in web browser customizability to stealthily block ads without being detected. Second, the team notes that there are regulations and laws on the books that give a fundamental advantage to consumers that cannot be easily changed, opening the door to a long-term ad-blocking solution.

Now if we could only block the data collection as well.

Posted on April 25, 2017 at 12:07 PMView Comments

BIOS Hacking

We’ve learned a lot about the NSA’s abilities to hack a computer’s BIOS so that the hack survives reinstalling the OS. Now we have a research presentation about it.

From Wired:

The BIOS boots a computer and helps load the operating system. By infecting this core software, which operates below antivirus and other security products and therefore is not usually scanned by them, spies can plant malware that remains live and undetected even if the computer’s operating system were wiped and re-installed.

[…]

Although most BIOS have protections to prevent unauthorized modifications, the researchers were able to bypass these to reflash the BIOS and implant their malicious code.

[…]

Because many BIOS share some of the same code, they were able to uncover vulnerabilities in 80 percent of the PCs they examined, including ones from Dell, Lenovo and HP. The vulnerabilities, which they’re calling incursion vulnerabilities, were so easy to find that they wrote a script to automate the process and eventually stopped counting the vulns it uncovered because there were too many.

From ThreatPost:

Kallenberg said an attacker would need to already have remote access to a compromised computer in order to execute the implant and elevate privileges on the machine through the hardware. Their exploit turns down existing protections in place to prevent re-flashing of the firmware, enabling the implant to be inserted and executed.

The devious part of their exploit is that they’ve found a way to insert their agent into System Management Mode, which is used by firmware and runs separately from the operating system, managing various hardware controls. System Management Mode also has access to memory, which puts supposedly secure operating systems such as Tails in the line of fire of the implant.

From the Register:

“Because almost no one patches their BIOSes, almost every BIOS in the wild is affected by at least one vulnerability, and can be infected,” Kopvah says.

“The high amount of code reuse across UEFI BIOSes means that BIOS infection can be automatic and reliable.

“The point is less about how vendors don’t fix the problems, and more how the vendors’ fixes are going un-applied by users, corporations, and governments.”

From Forbes:

Though such “voodoo” hacking will likely remain a tool in the arsenal of intelligence and military agencies, it’s getting easier, Kallenberg and Kovah believe. This is in part due to the widespread adoption of UEFI, a framework that makes it easier for the vendors along the manufacturing chain to add modules and tinker with the code. That’s proven useful for the good guys, but also made it simpler for researchers to inspect the BIOS, find holes and create tools that find problems, allowing Kallenberg and Kovah to show off exploits across different PCs. In the demo to FORBES, an HP PC was used to carry out an attack on an ASUS machine. Kovah claimed that in tests across different PCs, he was able to find and exploit BIOS vulnerabilities across 80 per cent of machines he had access to and he could find flaws in the remaining 10 per cent.

“There are protections in place that are supposed to prevent you from flashing the BIOS and we’ve essentially automated a way to find vulnerabilities in this process to allow us to bypass them. It turns out bypassing the protections is pretty easy as well,” added Kallenberg.

The NSA has a term for vulnerabilities it think are exclusive to it: NOBUS, for “nobody but us.” Turns out that NOBUS is a flawed concept. As I keep saying: “Today’s top-secret programs become tomorrow’s PhD theses and the next day’s hacker tools.” By continuing to exploit these vulnerabilities rather than fixing them, the NSA is keeping us all vulnerable.

Two Slashdot threads. Hacker News thread. Reddit thread.

EDITED TO ADD (3/31): Slides from the CanSecWest presentation. The bottom line is that there are some pretty huge BIOS insecurities out there. We as a community and industry need to figure out how to regularly patch our BIOSes.

Posted on March 23, 2015 at 7:07 AMView Comments

Did North Korea Really Attack Sony?

I am deeply skeptical of the FBI’s announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month’s Sony hack. The agency’s evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it. But I also have trouble believing that the US government would make the accusation this formally if officials didn’t believe it.

Clues in the hackers’ attack code seem to point in all directions at once. The FBI points to reused code from previous attacks associated with North Korea, as well as similarities in the networks used to launch the attacks. Korean language in the code also suggests a Korean origin, though not necessarily a North Korean one, since North Koreans use a unique dialect. However you read it, this sort of evidence is circumstantial at best. It’s easy to fake, and it’s even easier to interpret it incorrectly. In general, it’s a situation that rapidly devolves into storytelling, where analysts pick bits and pieces of the “evidence” to suit the narrative they already have worked out in their heads.

In reality, there are several possibilities to consider:

  • This is an official North Korean military operation. We know that North Korea has extensive cyberattack capabilities.
  • This is the work of independent North Korean nationals. Many politically motivated hacking incidents in the past have not been government-controlled. There’s nothing special or sophisticated about this hack that would indicate a government operation. In fact, reusing old attack code is a sign of a more conventional hacker being behind this.
  • This is the work of hackers who had no idea that there was a North Korean connection to Sony until they read about it in the media. Sony, after all, is a company that hackers have loved to hate for a decade. The most compelling evidence for this scenario is that the explicit North Korean connection — threats about the movie The Interview — were only made by the hackers after the media picked up on the possible links between the film release and the cyberattack. There is still the very real possibility that the hackers are in it just for the lulz, and that this international geopolitical angle simply makes the whole thing funnier.
  • It could have been an insider — Sony’s Snowden — who orchestrated the breach. I doubt this theory, because an insider wouldn’t need all the hacker tools that were used. I’ve also seen speculation that the culprit was a disgruntled ex-employee. It’s possible, but that employee or ex-employee would have also had to possess the requisite hacking skills, which seems unlikely.
  • The initial attack was not a North Korean government operation, but was co-opted by the government. There’s no reason to believe that the hackers who initially stole the information from Sony are the same ones who threatened the company over the movie. Maybe there are several attackers working independently. Maybe the independent North Korean hackers turned their work over to the government when the job got too big to handle. Maybe the North Koreans hacked the hackers.

I’m sure there are other possibilities that I haven’t thought of, and it wouldn’t surprise me if what’s really going on isn’t even on my list. North Korea’s offer to help with the investigation doesn’t clear matters up at all.

Tellingly, the FBI’s press release says that the bureau’s conclusion is only based “in part” on these clues. This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack. The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea’s government communications since the Korean War, and it’s reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep. The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack. It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un’s sign-off on the plan.

On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.

Allan Friedman, a research scientist at George Washington University’s Cyber Security Policy Research Institute, told me that, from a diplomatic perspective, it’s a smart strategy for the US to be overconfident in assigning blame for the cyberattacks. Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term US interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement, no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the US decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Sony also has a vested interest in the hack being the work of North Korea. The company is going to be on the receiving end of a dozen or more lawsuits — from employees, ex-employees, investors, partners, and so on. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain opined that having this attack characterized as an act of terrorism or war, or the work of a foreign power, might earn the company some degree of immunity from these lawsuits.

I worry that this case echoes the “we have evidence — trust us” story that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Identifying the origin of a cyberattack is very difficult, and when it is possible, the process of attributing responsibility can take months. While I am confident that there will be no US military retribution because of this, I think the best response is to calm down and be skeptical of tidy explanations until more is known.

This essay originally appeared on The Atlantic.

Lots more doubters. And Ed Felten has also written about the Sony breach.

EDITED TO ADD (12/24): Nicholas Weaver analyzes how the NSA could determine if North Korea was behind the Sony hack. And Jack Goldsmith discusses the US government’s legal and policy confusion surrounding the attack.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/14): Interesting article by DEFCON’s director of security operations.

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 6:27 AMView Comments

SWAP: NSA Exploit of the Day

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

SWAP

(TS//SI//REL) SWAP provides software application persistence by exploiting the motherboard BIOS and the hard drive’s Host Protected Area to gain periodic execution before the Operating System loads.

(TS//SI//REL) This technique supports single or multi-processor systems running Windows, Linux, FreeBSD, or Solaris with the following file systems: FAT32, NTFS, EXT2, EXT3, or UFS1.0.

(TS//SI//REL) Through remote access or interdiction, ARKSTREAM is used to reflash the BIOS and TWISTEDKILT to write the Host Protected Area on the hard drive on a target machine in order to implant SWAP and its payload (the implant installer). Once implanted, SWAP’s frequency of execution (dropping the playload) is configurable and will occur when the target machine powers on.

Status: Released / Deployed. Ready for Immediate Delivery

Unit Cost: $0

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 February 6, 2014 at 2:07 PMView Comments

SOMBERKNAVE: NSA Exploit of the Day

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

SOMBERKNAVE

(TS//SI//REL) SOMBERKNAVE is Windows XP wireless software implant that provides covert internet connectivity for isolated targets.

(TS//SI//REL) SOMBEKNAVE is a software implant that surreptitiously routes TCP traffic from a designated process to a secondary network via an unused embedded 802.11 network device. If an Internet-connected wireless Access Point is present, SOMBERKNAVE can be used to allow OLYMPUS or VALIDATOR to “call home” via 802.11 from an air-gapped target computer. If the 802.11 interface is in use by the target, SOMBERKNAVE will not attempt to transmit.

(TS//SI//REL) Operationally, VALIDATOR initiates a call home. SOMBERKNAVE triggers from the named event and tries to associate with an access point. If connection is successful, data is sent over 802.11 to the ROC. VALIDATOR receives instructions, downloads OLYMPUS, then disassociates and gives up control of the 802.11 hardware. OLYMPUS will then be able to communicate with the ROC via SOMBERKNAVE, as long as there is an available access point.

Status: Available — Fall 2008

Unit Cost: $50K

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.

EDITED TO ADD (2/6): It’s implants like this that illustrate why I believe the world’s major intelligence services have copies of the entire Snowden archive. While I don’t believe they can decrypt Snowden’s archive, they can certainly jump the air gaps that the reporters have set up.

Posted on February 5, 2014 at 2:04 PMView Comments

IRATEMONK: NSA Exploit of the Day

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

IRATEMONK

(TS//SI//REL) IRATEMONK provides software application persistence on desktop and laptop computers by implanting in the hard drive firmware to gain execution through Master Boot Record (MBR) substitution.

(TS//SI//REL) This technique supports systems without RAID hardware that boot from a variety of Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, and Samsung hard drives. The supported file systems are: FAT, NTFS, EXT3 and UFS.

(TS//SI//REL) Through remote access or interdiction, UNITEDRAKE, or STRAITBAZZARE are used with SLICKERVICAR to upload the hard drive firmware onto the target machine to implant IRATEMONK and its payload (the implant installer).l Once implanted, IRATEMONK’s frequency of execution (dropping the payload) is configurable and will occur when the target machine powers on.

Status: Released / Deployed. Ready for Immediate Delivery

Unit Cost: $0

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 January 31, 2014 at 2:17 PMView Comments

GINSU: NSA Exploit of the Day

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

GINSU

(TS//SI//REL) GINSU provides software application persistence for the CNE implant, KONGUR, on target systems with the PCI bus hardware implant, BULLDOZER.

(TS//SI//REL) This technique supports any desktop PC system that contains at least one PCI connector (for BULLDOZER installation) and Microsoft Windows 9x, 2000, 20003, XP, or Vista.

(TS//SI//REL) Through interdiction, BULLDOZER is installed in the target system as a PCI bus hardware implant. After fielding, if KONGUR is removed from the system as a result of an operation system upgrade or reinstall, GINSU can be set to trigger on the next reboot of the system to restore the software implant.

Unit Cost: $0

Status: Released / Deployed. Ready for Immediate Delivery

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 January 29, 2014 at 2:28 PMView Comments

How Antivirus Companies Handle State-Sponsored Malware

Since we learned that the NSA has surreptitiously weakened Internet security so it could more easily eavesdrop, we’ve been wondering if it’s done anything to antivirus products. Given that it engages in offensive cyberattacks — and launches cyberweapons like Stuxnet and Flame — it’s reasonable to assume that it’s asked antivirus companies to ignore its malware. (We know that antivirus companies have previously done this for corporate malware.)

My guess is that the NSA has not done this, nor has any other government intelligence or law enforcement agency. My reasoning is that antivirus is a very international industry, and while a government might get its own companies to play along, it would not be able to influence international companies. So while the NSA could certainly pressure McAfee or Symantec — both Silicon Valley companies — to ignore NSA malware, it could not similarly pressure Kaspersky Labs (Russian), F-Secure (Finnish), or AVAST (Czech). And the governments of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic will have comparable problems.

Even so, I joined a group of security experts to ask antivirus companies explicitly if they were ignoring malware at the behest of a government. Understanding that the companies could certainly lie, this is the response so far: no one has admitted to doing so.

Up until this moment, only a handful of the vendors have replied ESET, F-Secure, Norman Shark, Kaspersky, Panda and Trend Micro. All of the responding companies have confirmed the detection of state sponsored malware, e.g. R2D2 and FinFisher. Furthermore, they claim they have never received a request to not detect malware. And if they were asked by any government to do so in the future, they said they would not comply. All the aforementioned companies believe there is no such thing as harmless malware.

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 6:05 AMView Comments

badBIOS

Good story of badBIOS, a really nasty piece of malware. The weirdest part is how it uses ultrasonic sound to jump air gaps.

Ruiu said he arrived at the theory about badBIOS’s high-frequency networking capability after observing encrypted data packets being sent to and from an infected machine that had no obvious network connection with — but was in close proximity to — another badBIOS-infected computer. The packets were transmitted even when one of the machines had its Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cards removed. Ruiu also disconnected the machine’s power cord to rule out the possibility it was receiving signals over the electrical connection. Even then, forensic tools showed the packets continued to flow over the airgapped machine. Then, when Ruiu removed internal speaker and microphone connected to the airgapped machine, the packets suddenly stopped.

With the speakers and mic intact, Ruiu said, the isolated computer seemed to be using the high-frequency connection to maintain the integrity of the badBIOS infection as he worked to dismantle software components the malware relied on.

“The airgapped machine is acting like it’s connected to the Internet,” he said. “Most of the problems we were having is we were slightly disabling bits of the components of the system. It would not let us disable some things. Things kept getting fixed automatically as soon as we tried to break them. It was weird.”

I’m not sure what to make of this. When I first read it, I thought it was a hoax. But enough others are taking it seriously that I think it’s a real story. I don’t know whether the facts are real, and I haven’t seen anything about what this malware actually does.

Other discussions.

EDITED TO ADD: More discussions.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): A claimed debunking

Posted on November 4, 2013 at 6:15 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.