Entries Tagged "Syria"

Page 1 of 2

ISIS Cyberattacks

Citizen Lab has a new report on a probable ISIS-launched cyberattack:

This report describes a malware attack with circumstantial links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the interest of highlighting a developing threat, this post analyzes the attack and provides a list of Indicators of Compromise.

A Syrian citizen media group critical of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was recently targeted in a customized digital attack designed to unmask their location. The Syrian group, Raqqah is being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), focuses its advocacy on documenting human rights abuses by ISIS elements occupying the city of Ar-Raqah. In response, ISIS forces in the city have reportedly targeted the group with house raids, kidnappings, and an alleged assassination. The group also faces online threats from ISIS and its supporters, including taunts that ISIS is spying on the group.

Though we are unable to conclusively attribute the attack to ISIS or its supporters, a link to ISIS is plausible. The malware used in the attack differs substantially from campaigns linked to the Syrian regime, and the attack is focused against a group that is an active target of ISIS forces.

News article.

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 10:07 AMView Comments

New Snowden Interview in Wired

There’s a new article on Edward Snowden in Wired. It’s written by longtime NSA watcher James Bamford, who interviewed Snowden in Moscow.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in the article, but I want to highlight two new revelations. One is that the NSA was responsible for a 2012 Internet blackout in Syria:

One day an intelligence officer told him that TAO­ — a division of NSA hackers­ — had attempted in 2012 to remotely install an exploit in one of the core routers at a major Internet service provider in Syria, which was in the midst of a prolonged civil war. This would have given the NSA access to email and other Internet traffic from much of the country. But something went wrong, and the router was bricked instead — rendered totally inoperable. The failure of this router caused Syria to suddenly lose all connection to the Internet — although the public didn’t know that the US government was responsible….

Inside the TAO operations center, the panicked government hackers had what Snowden calls an “oh shit” moment. They raced to remotely repair the router, desperate to cover their tracks and prevent the Syrians from discovering the sophisticated infiltration software used to access the network. But because the router was bricked, they were powerless to fix the problem.

Fortunately for the NSA, the Syrians were apparently more focused on restoring the nation’s Internet than on tracking down the cause of the outage. Back at TAO’s operations center, the tension was broken with a joke that contained more than a little truth: “If we get caught, we can always point the finger at Israel.”

Other articles on Syria.

The other is something called MONSTERMIND, which is an automatic strike-back system for cyberattacks.

The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country — a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement.

A bunch more articles and stories on MONSTERMIND.

And there’s this 2011 photo of Snowden and former NSA Director Michael Hayden.

Posted on August 14, 2014 at 1:02 AMView Comments

Use of Social Media by ISIS

Here are two articles about how effectively the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — the militant group that has just taken over half of Iraq — is using social media. Its dedicated Android app, that automatically tweets in its users’ names, is especially interesting. Also note how it coordinates the Twitter bombs for maximum effectiveness and to get around Twitter’s spam detectors.

Posted on June 17, 2014 at 10:17 AMView Comments

The Limitations of Intelligence

We recently learned that US intelligence agencies had at least three days’ warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn’t able to stop it. At least that’s what an intelligence briefing from the White House reveals. With the combined abilities of our national intelligence apparatus — the CIA, NSA, National Reconnaissance Office and all the rest — it’s not surprising that we had advance notice. It’s not known whether the US shared what it knew.

More interestingly, the US government did not choose to act on that knowledge (for example, launch a preemptive strike), which left some wondering why.

There are several possible explanations, all of which point to a fundamental problem with intelligence information and our national intelligence apparatuses.

The first possibility is that we may have had the data, but didn’t fully understand what it meant. This is the proverbial connect-the-dots problem. As we’ve learned again and again, connecting the dots is hard. Our intelligence services collect billions of individual pieces of data every day. After the fact, it’s easy to walk backward through the data and notice all the individual pieces that point to what actually happened. Before the fact, though, it’s much more difficult. The overwhelming majority of those bits of data point in random directions, or nowhere at all. Almost all the dots don’t connect to anything.

Rather than thinking of intelligence as a connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Which picture is the relevant one? We have no idea. Turning that data into actual information is an extraordinarily difficult problem, and one that the vast scope of our data-gathering programs makes even more difficult.

The second possible explanation is that while we had some information about al-Assad’s plans, we didn’t have enough confirmation to act on that information. This is probably the most likely explanation. We can’t act on inklings, hunches, or possibilities. We probably can’t even act on probabilities; we have to be sure. But when it comes to intelligence, it’s hard to be sure. There could always be something else going on — something we’re not able to eavesdrop on, spy on, or see from our satellites. Again, our knowledge is most obvious after the fact.

The third is that while we were sure of our information, we couldn’t act because that would reveal “sources and methods.” This is probably the most frustrating explanation. Imagine we are able to eavesdrop on al-Assad’s most private conversations with his generals and aides, and are absolutely sure of his plans. If we act on them, we reveal that we are eavesdropping. As a result, he’s likely to change how he communicates, costing us our ability to eavesdrop. It might sound perverse, but often the fact that we are able to successfully spy on someone is a bigger secret than the information we learn from that spying.

This dynamic was vitally important during World War II. During the war, the British were able to break the German Enigma encryption machine and eavesdrop on German military communications. But while the Allies knew a lot, they would only act on information they learned when there was another plausible way they could have learned it. They even occasionally manufactured plausible explanations. It was just too risky to tip the Germans off that their encryption machines’ code had been broken.

The fourth possibility is that there was nothing useful we could have done. And it is hard to imagine how we could have prevented the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We couldn’t have launched a preemptive strike, and it’s probable that it wouldn’t have been effective. The only feasible action would be to alert the opposition — and that, too, might not have accomplished anything. Or perhaps there wasn’t sufficient agreement for any one course of action — so, by default, nothing was done.

All of these explanations point out the limitations of intelligence. The NSA serves as an example. The agency measures its success by amount of data collected, not by information synthesized or knowledge gained. But it’s knowledge that matters.

The NSA’s belief that more data is always good, and that it’s worth doing anything in order to collect it, is wrong. There are diminishing returns, and the NSA almost certainly passed that point long ago. But the idea of trade-offs does not seem to be part of its thinking.

The NSA missed the Boston Marathon bombers, even though the suspects left a really sloppy Internet trail and the older brother was on the terrorist watch list. With all the NSA is doing eavesdropping on the world, you would think the least it could manage would be keeping track of people on the terrorist watch list. Apparently not.

I don’t know how the CIA measures its success, but it failed to predict the end of the Cold War.

More data does not necessarily mean better information. It’s much easier to look backward than to predict. Information does not necessarily enable the government to act. Even when we know something, protecting the methods of collection can be more valuable than the possibility of taking action based on gathered information. But there’s not a lot of value to intelligence that can’t be used for action. These are the paradoxes of intelligence, and it’s time we started remembering them.

Of course, we need organizations like the CIA, the NSA, the NRO and all the rest. Intelligence is a vital component of national security, and can be invaluable in both wartime and peacetime. But it is just one security tool among many, and there are significant costs and limitations.

We’ve just learned from the recently leaked “black budget” that we’re spending $52 billion annually on national intelligence. We need to take a serious look at what kind of value we’re getting for our money, and whether it’s worth it.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on September 17, 2013 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Syrian Electronic Army Cyberattacks

The Syrian Electronic Army attacked again this week, compromising the websites of the New York Times, Twitter, the Huffington Post, and others.

Political hacking isn’t new. Hackers were breaking into systems for political reasons long before commerce and criminals discovered the Internet. Over the years, we’ve seen U.K. vs. Ireland, Israel vs. Arab states, Russia vs. its former Soviet republics, India vs. Pakistan, and US vs. China.

There was a big one in 2007, when the government of Estonia was attacked in cyberspace following a diplomatic incident with Russia. It was hyped as the first cyberwar, but the Kremlin denied any Russian government involvement. The only individuals positively identified were young ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

Poke at any of these international incidents, and what you find are kids playing politics. The Syrian Electronic Army doesn’t seem to be an actual army. We don’t even know if they’re Syrian. And — to be fair — I don’t know their ages. Looking at the details of their attacks, it’s pretty clear they didn’t target the New York Times and others directly. They reportedly hacked into an Australian domain name registrar called Melbourne IT, and used that access to disrupt service at a bunch of big-name sites.

We saw this same tactic last year from Anonymous: hack around at random, then retcon a political reason why the sites they successfully broke into deserved it. It makes them look a lot more skilled than they actually are.

This isn’t to say that cyberattacks by governments aren’t an issue, or that cyberwar is something to be ignored. Attacks from China reportedly are a mix of government-executed military attacks, government-sponsored independent attackers, and random hacking groups that work with tacit government approval. The US also engages in active cyberattacks around the world. Together with Israel, the US employed a sophisticated computer virus (Stuxnet) to attack Iran in 2010.

For the typical company, defending against these attacks doesn’t require anything different than what you’ve been traditionally been doing to secure yourself in cyberspace. If your network is secure, you’re secure against amateur geopoliticians who just want to help their side.

This essay originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s website.

Posted on September 3, 2013 at 1:45 PMView Comments

The Onion on Browser Security

Wise advice:

At Chase Bank, we recognize the value of online banking­ — it’s quick, convenient, and available any time you need it. Unfortunately, though, the threats posed by malware and identity theft are very real and all too common nowadays. That’s why, when you’re finished with your online banking session, we recommend three simple steps to protect your personal information: log out of your account, close your web browser, and then charter a seafaring vessel to take you 30 miles out into the open ocean and throw your computer overboard.

And while we’re talking about the Onion, they were recently hacked by Syria (either the government or someone on their side). They responded in their own way.

EDITED TO ADD (5/11): How The Onion got hacked.

Posted on May 10, 2013 at 1:49 PMView Comments

Blue Coat Products Enable Web Censorship in Syria

It’s illegal for Blue Coat to sell its technology for this purpose, but there are lots of third-parties who are willing to act as middlemen:

“Blue Coat does not sell to Syria. We comply with US export laws and we do not allow our partners to sell to embargoed countries,” [Blue Coat spokesman Steve] Schick told the Bureau. “In addition, we do not allow any of our resellers, regardless of their location in the world, to sell to an embargoed country, such as Syria.”

However, Schick did not rule out the possibility that the equipment could have been bought via a third party re-seller, noting that Blue Coat equipment can be found on websites like eBay.

Bet you anything that the Syrian Blue Coat products are registered, and that they receive all the normal code and filter updates.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): The Wall Street Journal confirms it:

The appliances do have Blue Coat service and support contracts. The company says it has now cut off contracts for the devices.

Posted on October 24, 2011 at 1:39 PMView Comments

Mossad Hacked Syrian Official's Computer

It was unattended in a hotel room at the time:

Israel’s Mossad espionage agency used Trojan Horse programs to gather intelligence about a nuclear facility in Syria the Israel Defense Forces destroyed in 2007, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported Monday.

According to the magazine, Mossad agents in London planted the malware on the computer of a Syrian official who was staying in the British capital; he was at a hotel in the upscale neighborhood of Kensington at the time.

The program copied the details of Syria’s illicit nuclear program and sent them directly to the Mossad agents’ computers, the report said.

Remember the evil maid attack: if an attacker gets hold of your computer temporarily, he can bypass your encryption software.

Posted on November 5, 2009 at 12:48 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.