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Nation-State Attacker of Telecommunications Networks

Someone has been hacking telecommunications networks around the world:

  • LightBasin (aka UNC1945) is an activity cluster that has been consistently targeting the telecommunications sector at a global scale since at least 2016, leveraging custom tools and an in-depth knowledge of telecommunications network architectures.
  • Recent findings highlight this cluster’s extensive knowledge of telecommunications protocols, including the emulation of these protocols to facilitate command and control (C2) and utilizing scanning/packet-capture tools to retrieve highly specific information from mobile communication infrastructure, such as subscriber information and call metadata.
  • The nature of the data targeted by the actor aligns with information likely to be of significant interest to signals intelligence organizations.
  • CrowdStrike Intelligence assesses that LightBasin is a targeted intrusion actor that will continue to target the telecommunications sector. This assessment is made with high confidence and is based on tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), target scope, and objectives exhibited by this activity cluster. There is currently not enough available evidence to link the cluster’s activity to a specific country-nexus.

Some relation to China is reported, but this is not a definitive attribution.

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The Proliferation of Zero-days

The MIT Technology Review is reporting that 2021 is a blockbuster year for zero-day exploits:

One contributing factor in the higher rate of reported zero-days is the rapid global proliferation of hacking tools.

Powerful groups are all pouring heaps of cash into zero-days to use for themselves — and they’re reaping the rewards.

At the top of the food chain are the government-sponsored hackers. China alone is suspected to be responsible for nine zero-days this year, says Jared Semrau, a director of vulnerability and exploitation at the American cybersecurity firm FireEye Mandiant. The US and its allies clearly possess some of the most sophisticated hacking capabilities, and there is rising talk of using those tools more aggressively.

[…]

Few who want zero-days have the capabilities of Beijing and Washington. Most countries seeking powerful exploits don’t have the talent or infrastructure to develop them domestically, and so they purchase them instead.

[…]

It’s easier than ever to buy zero-days from the growing exploit industry. What was once prohibitively expensive and high-end is now more widely accessible.

[…]

And cybercriminals, too, have used zero-day attacks to make money in recent years, finding flaws in software that allow them to run valuable ransomware schemes.

“Financially motivated actors are more sophisticated than ever,” Semrau says. “One-third of the zero-days we’ve tracked recently can be traced directly back to financially motivated actors. So they’re playing a significant role in this increase which I don’t think many people are giving credit for.”

[…]

No one we spoke to believes that the total number of zero-day attacks more than doubled in such a short period of time — just the number that have been caught. That suggests defenders are becoming better at catching hackers in the act.

You can look at the data, such as Google’s zero-day spreadsheet, which tracks nearly a decade of significant hacks that were caught in the wild.

One change the trend may reflect is that there’s more money available for defense, not least from larger bug bounties and rewards put forward by tech companies for the discovery of new zero-day vulnerabilities. But there are also better tools.

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AI-Piloted Fighter Jets

News from Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology:

China Claims Its AI Can Beat Human Pilots in Battle: Chinese state media reported that an AI system had successfully defeated human pilots during simulated dogfights. According to the Global Times report, the system had shot down several PLA pilots during a handful of virtual exercises in recent years. Observers outside China noted that while reports coming out of state-controlled media outlets should be taken with a grain of salt, the capabilities described in the report are not outside the realm of possibility. Last year, for example, an AI agent defeated a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot five times out of five as part of DARPA’s AlphaDogfight Trial (which we covered at the time). While the Global Times report indicated plans to incorporate AI into future fighter planes, it is not clear how far away the system is from real-world testing. At the moment, the system appears to be used only for training human pilots. DARPA, for its part, is aiming to test dogfights with AI-piloted subscale jets later this year and with full-scale jets in 2023 and 2024.

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More on the Chinese Zero-Day Microsoft Exchange Hack

Nick Weaver has an excellent post on the Microsoft Exchange hack:

The investigative journalist Brian Krebs has produced a handy timeline of events and a few things stand out from the chronology. The attacker was first detected by one group on Jan. 5 and another on Jan. 6, and Microsoft acknowledged the problem immediately. During this time the attacker appeared to be relatively subtle, exploiting particular targets (although we generally lack insight into who was targeted). Microsoft determined on Feb. 18 that it would patch these vulnerabilities on the March 9th “Patch Tuesday” release of fixes.

Somehow, the threat actor either knew that the exploits would soon become worthless or simply guessed that they would. So, in late February, the attacker changed strategy. Instead of simply exploiting targeted Exchange servers, the attackers stepped up their pace considerably by targeting tens of thousands of servers to install the web shell, an exploit that allows attackers to have remote access to a system. Microsoft then released the patch with very little warning on Mar. 2, at which point the attacker simply sought to compromise almost every vulnerable Exchange server on the Internet. The result? Virtually every vulnerable mail server received the web shell as a backdoor for further exploitation, making the patch effectively useless against the Chinese attackers; almost all of the vulnerable systems were exploited before they were patched.

This is a rational strategy for any actor who doesn’t care about consequences. When a zero-day is confidential and undiscovered, the attacker tries to be careful, only using it on attackers of sufficient value. But if the attacker knows or has reason to believe their vulnerabilities may be patched, they will increase the pace of exploits and, once a patch is released, there is no reason to not try to exploit everything possible.

We know that Microsoft shares advance information about updates with some organizations. I have long believed that they give the NSA a few weeks’ notice to do basically what the Chinese did: use the exploit widely, because you don’t have to worry about losing the capability.

Estimates on the number of affected networks continues to rise. At least 30,000 in the US, and 100,000 worldwide. More?

And the vulnerabilities:

The Chinese actors were not using a single vulnerability but actually a sequence of four “zero-day” exploits. The first allowed an unauthorized user to basically tell the server “let me in, I’m the server” by tricking the server into contacting itself. After the unauthorized user gained entry, the hacker could use the second vulnerability, which used a malformed voicemail that, when interpreted by the server, allowed them to execute arbitrary commands. Two further vulnerabilities allow the attacker to write new files, which is a common primitive that attackers use to increase their access: An attacker uses a vulnerability to write a file and then uses the arbitrary command execution vulnerability to execute that file.

Using this access, the attackers could read anybody’s email or indeed take over the mail server completely. Critically, they would almost always do more, introducing a “web shell,” a program that would enable further remote exploitation even if the vulnerabilities are patched.

The details of that web shell matter. If it was sophisticated, it implies that the Chinese hackers were planning on installing it from the beginning of the operation. If it’s kind of slapdash, it implies a last-minute addition when they realized their exploit window was closing.

Now comes the criminal attacks. Any unpatched network is still vulnerable, and we know from history that lots of networks will remain vulnerable for a long time. Expect the ransomware gangs to weaponize this attack within days.

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Chinese Hackers Stole an NSA Windows Exploit in 2014

Check Point has evidence that (probably government affiliated) Chinese hackers stole and cloned an NSA Windows hacking tool years before (probably government affiliated) Russian hackers stole and then published the same tool. Here’s the timeline:

The timeline basically seems to be, according to Check Point:

  • 2013: NSA’s Equation Group developed a set of exploits including one called EpMe that elevates one’s privileges on a vulnerable Windows system to system-administrator level, granting full control. This allows someone with a foothold on a machine to commandeer the whole box.
  • 2014-2015: China’s hacking team code-named APT31, aka Zirconium, developed Jian by, one way or another, cloning EpMe.
  • Early 2017: The Equation Group’s tools were teased and then leaked online by a team calling itself the Shadow Brokers. Around that time, Microsoft cancelled its February Patch Tuesday, identified the vulnerability exploited by EpMe (CVE-2017-0005), and fixed it in a bumper March update. Interestingly enough, Lockheed Martin was credited as alerting Microsoft to the flaw, suggesting it was perhaps used against an American target.
  • Mid 2017: Microsoft quietly fixed the vulnerability exploited by the leaked EpMo exploit.

Lots of news articles about this.

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