Entries Tagged "Windows"

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Encrypting Windows Hard Drives

Encrypting your Windows hard drives is trivially easy; choosing which program to use is annoyingly difficult. I still use Windows—yes, I know, don’t even start—and have intimate experience with this issue.

Historically, I used PGP Disk. I used it because I knew and trusted the designers. I even used it after Symantec bought the company. But big companies are always suspect, because there are a lot of ways for governments to manipulate them.

Then, I used TrueCrypt. I used it because it was open source. But the anonymous developers weirdly abdicated in 2014 when Microsoft released Windows 8. I stuck with the program for a while, saying:

For Windows, the options are basically BitLocker, Symantec’s PGP Disk, and TrueCrypt. I choose TrueCrypt as the least bad of all the options.

But soon after that, despite the public audit of TrueCrypt, I bailed for BitLocker.

BitLocker is Microsoft’s native file encryption program. Yes, it’s from a big company. But it was designed by my colleague and friend Niels Ferguson, whom I trust. (Here’s Niels’s statement from 2006 on back doors.) It was a snap decision; much had changed since 2006. (Here I am in March speculating about an NSA back door in BitLocker.) Specifically, Microsoft made a bunch of changes in BitLocker for Windows 8, including removing something Niels designed called the “Elephant Diffuser.”

The Intercept’s Micah Lee recently recommended BitLocker and got a lot of pushback from the security community. Last week, he published more research and explanation about the trade-offs. It’s worth reading. Microsoft told him they removed the Elephant Diffuser for performance reasons. And I agree with his ultimate conclusion:

Based on what I know about BitLocker, I think it’s perfectly fine for average Windows users to rely on, which is especially convenient considering it comes with many PCs. If it ever turns out that Microsoft is willing to include a backdoor in a major feature of Windows, then we have much bigger problems than the choice of disk encryption software anyway.

Whatever you choose, if trusting a proprietary operating system not to be malicious doesn’t fit your threat model, maybe it’s time to switch to Linux.

Micah also nicely explains how TrueCrypt is becoming antiquated, and not keeping up with Microsoft’s file system changes.

Lately, I am liking an obscure program called BestCrypt, by a Finnish company called Jetico. Micah quotes me:

Considering Schneier has been outspoken for decades about the importance of open source cryptography, I asked if he recommends that other people use BestCrypt, even though it’s proprietary. “I do recommend BestCrypt,” Schneier told me, “because I have met people at the company and I have a good feeling about them. Of course I don’t know for sure; this business is all about trust. But right now, given what I know, I trust them.”

I know it’s not a great argument. But, again, I’m trying to find the least bad option. And in the end, you either have to write your own software or trust someone else to write it for you.

But, yes, this should be an easier decision.

Posted on June 15, 2015 at 6:31 AMView Comments

Can the NSA Break Microsoft's BitLocker?

The Intercept has a new story on the CIA’s—yes, the CIA, not the NSA—efforts to break encryption. These are from the Snowden documents, and talk about a conference called the Trusted Computing Base Jamboree. There are some interesting documents associated with the article, but not a lot of hard information.

There’s a paragraph about Microsoft’s BitLocker, the encryption system used to protect MS Windows computers:

Also presented at the Jamboree were successes in the targeting of Microsoft’s disk encryption technology, and the TPM chips that are used to store its encryption keys. Researchers at the CIA conference in 2010 boasted about the ability to extract the encryption keys used by BitLocker and thus decrypt private data stored on the computer. Because the TPM chip is used to protect the system from untrusted software, attacking it could allow the covert installation of malware onto the computer, which could be used to access otherwise encrypted communications and files of consumers. Microsoft declined to comment for this story.

This implies that the US intelligence community—I’m guessing the NSA here—can break BitLocker. The source document, though, is much less definitive about it.

Power analysis, a side-channel attack, can be used against secure devices to non-invasively extract protected cryptographic information such as implementation details or secret keys. We have employed a number of publically known attacks against the RSA cryptography found in TPMs from five different manufacturers. We will discuss the details of these attacks and provide insight into how private TPM key information can be obtained with power analysis. In addition to conventional wired power analysis, we will present results for extracting the key by measuring electromagnetic signals emanating from the TPM while it remains on the motherboard. We will also describe and present results for an entirely new unpublished attack against a Chinese Remainder Theorem (CRT) implementation of RSA that will yield private key information in a single trace.

The ability to obtain a private TPM key not only provides access to TPM-encrypted data, but also enables us to circumvent the root-of-trust system by modifying expected digest values in sealed data. We will describe a case study in which modifications to Microsoft’s Bitlocker encrypted metadata prevents software-level detection of changes to the BIOS.

Differential power analysis is a powerful cryptanalytic attack. Basically, it examines a chip’s power consumption while it performs encryption and decryption operations and uses that information to recover the key. What’s important here is that this is an attack to extract key information from a chip while it is running. If the chip is powered down, or if it doesn’t have the key inside, there’s no attack.

I don’t take this to mean that the NSA can take a BitLocker-encrypted hard drive and recover the key. I do take it to mean that the NSA can perform a bunch of clever hacks on a BitLocker-encrypted hard drive while it is running. So I don’t think this means that BitLocker is broken.

But who knows? We do know that the FBI pressured Microsoft to add a backdoor to BitLocker in 2005. I believe that was unsuccessful.

More than that, we don’t know.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft removed the Elephant Diffuser from BitLocker. I see no reason to remove it other than to make the encryption weaker.

Posted on March 10, 2015 at 2:34 PMView Comments

FREAK: Security Rollback Attack Against SSL

This week, we learned about an attack called “FREAK”—”Factoring Attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys”—that can break the encryption of many websites. Basically, some sites’ implementations of secure sockets layer technology, or SSL, contain both strong encryption algorithms and weak encryption algorithms. Connections are supposed to use the strong algorithms, but in many cases an attacker can force the website to use the weaker encryption algorithms and then decrypt the traffic. From Ars Technica:

In recent days, a scan of more than 14 million websites that support the secure sockets layer or transport layer security protocols found that more than 36 percent of them were vulnerable to the decryption attacks. The exploit takes about seven hours to carry out and costs as little as $100 per site.

This is a general class of attack I call “security rollback” attacks. Basically, the attacker forces the system users to revert to a less secure version of their protocol. Think about the last time you used your credit card. The verification procedure involved the retailer’s computer connecting with the credit card company. What if you snuck around to the back of the building and severed the retailer’s phone lines? Most likely, the retailer would have still accepted your card, but defaulted to making a manual impression of it and maybe looking at your signature. The result: you’ll have a much easier time using a stolen card.

In this case, the security flaw was designed in deliberately. Matthew Green writes:

Back in the early 1990s when SSL was first invented at Netscape Corporation, the United States maintained a rigorous regime of export controls for encryption systems. In order to distribute crypto outside of the U.S., companies were required to deliberately “weaken” the strength of encryption keys. For RSA encryption, this implied a maximum allowed key length of 512 bits.

The 512-bit export grade encryption was a compromise between dumb and dumber. In theory it was designed to ensure that the NSA would have the ability to “access” communications, while allegedly providing crypto that was still “good enough” for commercial use. Or if you prefer modern terms, think of it as the original “golden master key.”

The need to support export-grade ciphers led to some technical challenges. Since U.S. servers needed to support both strong and weak crypto, the SSL designers used a “cipher suite” negotiation mechanism to identify the best cipher both parties could support. In theory this would allow “strong” clients to negotiate “strong” ciphersuites with servers that supported them, while still providing compatibility to the broken foreign clients.

And that’s the problem. The weak algorithms are still there, and can be exploited by attackers.

Fixes are coming. Companies like Apple are quickly rolling out patches. But the vulnerability has been around for over a decade, and almost has certainly used by national intelligence agencies and criminals alike.

This is the generic problem with government-mandated backdoors, key escrow, “golden keys,” or whatever you want to call them. We don’t know how to design a third-party access system that checks for morality; once we build in such access, we then have to ensure that only the good guys can do it. And we can’t. Or, to quote the Economist: “…mathematics applies to just and unjust alike; a flaw that can be exploited by Western governments is vulnerable to anyone who finds it.”

This essay previously appeared on the Lawfare blog.

EDITED TO ADD: Microsoft Windows is vulnerable.

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 10:46 AMView Comments

More on Hacking Team's Government Spying Software

Hacking Team is an Italian malware company that sells exploit tools to governments. Both Kaspersky Lab and Citizen Lab have published detailed reports on its capabilities against Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry smart phones.

They allow, for example, for covert collection of emails, text messages, call history and address books, and they can be used to log keystrokes and obtain search history data. They can take screenshots, record audio from the phones to monitor calls or ambient conversations, hijack the phone’s camera to snap pictures or piggyback on the phone’s GPS system to monitor the user’s location. The Android version can also enable the phone’s Wi-Fi function to siphon data from the phone wirelessly instead of using the cell network to transmit it. The latter would incur data charges and raise the phone owner’s suspicion.


Once on a system, the iPhone module uses advance techniques to avoid draining the phone’s battery, turning on the phone’s microphone, for example, only under certain conditions.

“They can just turn on the mic and record everything going on around the victim, but the battery life is limited, and the victim can notice something is wrong with the iPhone, so they use special triggers,” says Costin Raiu, head of Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis team.

One of those triggers might be when the victim’s phone connects to a specific WiFi network, such as a work network, signaling the owner is in an important environment. “I can’t remember having seen such advanced techniques in other mobile malware,” he says.

Hacking Team’s mobile tools also have a “crisis” module that kicks in when they sense the presence of certain detection activities occurring on a device, such as packet sniffing, and then pause the spyware’s activity to avoid detection. There is also a “wipe” function to erase the tool from infected systems.

Hacking Team claims to sell its tools only to ethical governments, but Citizen Lab has found evidence of their use in Saudi Arabia. It can’t be certain the Saudi government is a customer, but there’s good circumstantial evidence. In general, circumstantial evidence is all we have. Citizen Lab has found Hacking Team servers in many countries, but it’s a perfectly reasonable strategy for Country A to locate its servers in Country B.

And remember, this is just one example of government spyware. Assume that the NSA—as well as the governments of China, Russia, and a handful of other countries—have their own systems that are at least as powerful.

Posted on June 26, 2014 at 6:37 AMView Comments

CANDYGRAM: NSA Exploit of the Day

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


(S//SI//REL) Mimics GSM cell tower of a target network. Capable of operations at 900, 1800, or 1900 MHz. Whenever a target handset enters the CANDYGRAM base station’s area of influence, the system sends out an SMS through the external network to registered watch phones.

(S//SI//REL) Typical use scenarios are asset validation, target tracking and identification as well as identifying hostile surveillance units with GSM handsets. Functionality is predicated on apriori target information.

(S//SI//REL) System HW

  • GPS processing unit
  • Tri-band BTS radio
  • Windows XP laptop and cell phone*
  • 9″ wide x 12″ long x 2″ deep
  • External power (9-30 VDC).

*Remote control software can be used with any connected to the laptop (used for communicating with the CANDYGRAM unit through text messages (SMS).

(S//SI//REL) SW Features

  • Configurable 200 phone number target deck.
  • Network auto-configuration
  • Area Survey Capability
  • Remote Operation Capability
  • Configurable Network emulation
  • Configurable RF power level
  • Multi-Units under single C&C
  • Remote restart
  • Remote erasure (not field recoverable)

Status: Available 8 mos ARO

Unit Cost: approx $40K

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 20, 2014 at 2:11 PMView Comments

TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0: NSA Exploit of the Day

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


(TS//SI//REL) TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0 is STRAITBIZARRE based implant for the Windows Mobile embedded operating system and uses the CHIMNEYPOOL framework. TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0 is compliant with the FREEFLOW project, therefore it is supported in the TURBULENCE architecture.

(TS//SI//REL) TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0 is a software implant for the Windows Mobile operating system that utilizes modular mission applications to provide specific SIGINT functionality. This functionality includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device, SMS retrieval, contact list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell tower location, etc. Command, control, and data exfiltration can occur over SMS messaging or a GPRS data connection. A FRIEZERAMP interface using HTTPSlink2 transport module handles encrypted communications.

(TS//SI//REL) The initial release of TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0 will focus on installing the implant via close access methods. A remote installation capability will be pursued for a future release.

(TS//SI//REL) TOTEGHOSTLY 2.0 will be controlled using an interface tasked through the NCC (Network Control Center) utilizing the XML based tasking and data forward scheme under the TURBULENCE architecture following the TAO GENIE Initiative.

Unit Cost: $0

Status: (U) In development

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 19, 2014 at 2:18 PMView Comments

TOTECHASER: NSA Exploit of the Day

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


(TS//SI//REL) TOTECHASER is a Windows CE implant targeting the Thuraya 2520 handset. The Thuraya is a dual mode phone that can operate either in SAT or GSM modes. The phone also supports a GPRS data connection for Web browsing, e-mail, and MMS messages. The initial software implant capabilities include providing GPS and GSM geo-location information. Call log, contact list, and other user information can also be retrieved from the phone. Additional capabilities are being investigated.

(TS//SI//REL) TOTECHASER will use SMS messaging for the command, control, and data exfiltration path. The initial capability will use covert SMS messages to communicate with the handset. These covert messages can be transmitted in either Thuraya Satellite mode or GMS mode and will not alert the user of this activity. An alternate command and control channel using the GPRS data connection based on the TOTEGHOSTLY impant is intended for a future version.

(TS//SI//REL) Prior to deployment, the TOTECHASER handsets must be modified. Details of how the phone is modified are being developed. A remotely deployable TOTECHASER implant is being investigated. The TOTECHASER system consists of the modified target handsets and a collection system.

(TS//SI//REL) TOTECHASER will accept configuration parameters to determine how the implant operates. Configuration parameters will determine what information is recorded, when to collect that information, and when the information is exfiltrated. The configuration parameters can be set upon initial deployment and updated remotely.

Unit Cost: $


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 18, 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:


(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

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.