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NSA Document Outlining Russian Attempts to Hack Voter Rolls

This week brought new public evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Monday, the Intercept published a top-secret National Security Agency document describing Russian hacking attempts against the US election system. While the attacks seem more exploratory than operational ­– and there’s no evidence that they had any actual effect ­– they further illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.

The document describes how the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, attacked a company called VR Systems that, according to its website, provides software to manage voter rolls in eight states. The August 2016 attack was successful, and the attackers used the information they stole from the company’s network to launch targeted attacks against 122 local election officials on October 27, 12 days before the election.

That is where the NSA’s analysis ends. We don’t know whether those 122 targeted attacks were successful, or what their effects were if so. We don’t know whether other election software companies besides VR Systems were targeted, or what the GRU’s overall plan was — if it had one. Certainly, there are ways to disrupt voting by interfering with the voter registration process or voter rolls. But there was no indication on Election Day that people found their names removed from the system, or their address changed, or anything else that would have had an effect — anywhere in the country, let alone in the eight states where VR Systems is deployed. (There were Election Day problems with the voting rolls in Durham, NC ­– one of the states that VR Systems supports ­– but they seem like conventional errors and not malicious action.)

And 12 days before the election (with early voting already well underway in many jurisdictions) seems far too late to start an operation like that. That is why these attacks feel exploratory to me, rather than part of an operational attack. The Russians were seeing how far they could get, and keeping those accesses in their pocket for potential future use.

Presumably, this document was intended for the Justice Department, including the FBI, which would be the proper agency to continue looking into these hacks. We don’t know what happened next, if anything. VR Systems isn’t commenting, and the names of the local election officials targeted did not appear in the NSA document.

So while this document isn’t much of a smoking gun, it’s yet more evidence of widespread Russian attempts to interfere last year.

The document was, allegedly, sent to the Intercept anonymously. An NSA contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, was arrested Saturday and charged with mishandling classified information. The speed with which the government identified her serves as a caution to anyone wanting to leak official US secrets.

The Intercept sent a scan of the document to another source during its reporting. That scan showed a crease in the original document, which implied that someone had printed the document and then carried it out of some secure location. The second source, according to the FBI’s affidavit against Winner, passed it on to the NSA. From there, NSA investigators were able to look at their records and determine that only six people had printed out the document. (The government may also have been able to track the printout through secret dots that identified the printer.) Winner was the only one of those six who had been in e-mail contact with the Intercept. It is unclear whether the e-mail evidence was from Winner’s NSA account or her personal account, but in either case, it’s incredibly sloppy tradecraft.

With President Trump’s election, the issue of Russian interference in last year’s campaign has become highly politicized. Reports like the one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January have been criticized by partisan supporters of the White House. It’s interesting that this document was reported by the Intercept, which has been historically skeptical about claims of Russian interference. (I was quoted in their story, and they showed me a copy of the NSA document before it was published.) The leaker was even praised by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who up until now has been traditionally critical of allegations of Russian election interference.

This demonstrates the power of source documents. It’s easy to discount a Justice Department official or a summary report. A detailed NSA document is much more convincing. Right now, there’s a federal suit to force the ODNI to release the entire January report, not just the unclassified summary. These efforts are vital.

This hack will certainly come up at the Senate hearing where former FBI director James B. Comey is scheduled to testify Thursday. Last year, there were several stories about voter databases being targeted by Russia. Last August, the FBI confirmed that the Russians successfully hacked voter databases in Illinois and Arizona. And a month later, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official said that the Russians targeted voter databases in 20 states. Again, we don’t know of anything that came of these hacks, but expect Comey to be asked about them. Unfortunately, any details he does know are almost certainly classified, and won’t be revealed in open testimony.

But more important than any of this, we need to better secure our election systems going forward. We have significant vulnerabilities in our voting machines, our voter rolls and registration process, and the vote tabulation systems after the polls close. In January, DHS designated our voting systems as critical national infrastructure, but so far that has been entirely for show. In the United States, we don’t have a single integrated election. We have 50-plus individual elections, each with its own rules and its own regulatory authorities. Federal standards that mandate voter-verified paper ballots and post-election auditing would go a long way to secure our voting system. These attacks demonstrate that we need to secure the voter rolls, as well.

Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­– by extension ­– our democracy. Yes, fixing this will be expensive. Yes, it will require federal action in what’s historically been state-run systems. But as a country, we have no other option.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

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The TSA's Selective Laptop Ban

Last Monday, the TSA announced a peculiar new security measure to take effect within 96 hours. Passengers flying into the US on foreign airlines from eight Muslim countries would be prohibited from carrying aboard any electronics larger than a smartphone. They would have to be checked and put into the cargo hold. And now the UK is following suit.

It’s difficult to make sense of this as a security measure, particularly at a time when many people question the veracity of government orders, but other explanations are either unsatisfying or damning.

So let’s look at the security aspects of this first. Laptop computers aren’t inherently dangerous, but they’re convenient carrying boxes. This is why, in the past, TSA officials have demanded passengers turn their laptops on: to confirm that they’re actually laptops and not laptop cases emptied of their electronics and then filled with explosives.

Forcing a would-be bomber to put larger laptops in the plane’s hold is a reasonable defense against this threat, because it increases the complexity of the plot. Both the shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried crude bombs aboard their planes with the plan to set them off manually once aloft. Setting off a bomb in checked baggage is more work, which is why we don’t see more midair explosions like Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Security measures that restrict what passengers can carry onto planes are not unprecedented either. Airport security regularly responds to both actual attacks and intelligence regarding future attacks. After the liquid bombers were captured in 2006, the British banned all carry-on luggage except passports and wallets. I remember talking with a friend who traveled home from London with his daughters in those early weeks of the ban. They reported that airport security officials confiscated every tube of lip balm they tried to hide.

Similarly, the US started checking shoes after Reid, installed full-body scanners after Abdulmutallab and restricted liquids in 2006. But all of those measure were global, and most lessened in severity as the threat diminished.

This current restriction implies some specific intelligence of a laptop-based plot and a temporary ban to address it. However, if that’s the case, why only certain non-US carriers? And why only certain airports? Terrorists are smart enough to put a laptop bomb in checked baggage from the Middle East to Europe and then carry it on from Europe to the US.

Why not require passengers to turn their laptops on as they go through security? That would be a more effective security measure than forcing them to check them in their luggage. And lastly, why is there a delay between the ban being announced and it taking effect?

Even more confusing, the New York Times reported that “officials called the directive an attempt to address gaps in foreign airport security, and said it was not based on any specific or credible threat of an imminent attack.” The Department of Homeland Security FAQ page makes this general statement, “Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision,” but doesn’t provide a specific security threat. And yet a report from the UK states the ban “follows the receipt of specific intelligence reports.”

Of course, the details are all classified, which leaves all of us security experts scratching our heads. On the face of it, the ban makes little sense.

One analysis painted this as a protectionist measure targeted at the heavily subsidized Middle Eastern airlines by hitting them where it hurts the most: high-paying business class travelers who need their laptops with them on planes to get work done. That reasoning makes more sense than any security-related explanation, but doesn’t explain why the British extended the ban to UK carriers as well. Or why this measure won’t backfire when those Middle Eastern countries turn around and ban laptops on American carriers in retaliation. And one aviation official told CNN that an intelligence official informed him it was not a “political move.”

In the end, national security measures based on secret information require us to trust the government. That trust is at historic low levels right now, so people both in the US and other countries are rightly skeptical of the official unsatisfying explanations. The new laptop ban highlights this mistrust.

This essay previously appeared on

EDITED TO ADD: Here are two essays that look at the possible political motivations, and fallout, of this ban. And the EFF rightly points out that letting a laptop out of your hands and sight is itself a security risk — for the passenger.

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The NSA Is Hoarding Vulnerabilities

The National Security Agency is lying to us. We know that because of data stolen from an NSA server was dumped on the Internet. The agency is hoarding information about security vulnerabilities in the products you use, because it wants to use it to hack others’ computers. Those vulnerabilities aren’t being reported, and aren’t getting fixed, making your computers and networks unsafe.

On August 13, a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers released 300 megabytes of NSA cyberweapon code on the Internet. Near as we experts can tell, the NSA network itself wasn’t hacked; what probably happened was that a “staging server” for NSA cyberweapons — that is, a server the NSA was making use of to mask its surveillance activities — was hacked in 2013.

The NSA inadvertently resecured itself in what was coincidentally the early weeks of the Snowden document release. The people behind the link used casual hacker lingo, and made a weird, implausible proposal involving holding a bitcoin auction for the rest of the data: “!!! Attention government sponsors of cyber warfare and those who profit from it !!!! How much you pay for enemies cyber weapons?”

Still, most people believe the hack was the work of the Russian government and the data release some sort of political message. Perhaps it was a warning that if the US government exposes the Russians as being behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee — or other high-profile data breaches — the Russians will expose NSA exploits in turn.

But what I want to talk about is the data. The sophisticated cyberweapons in the data dump include vulnerabilities and “exploit code” that can be deployed against common Internet security systems. Products targeted include those made by Cisco, Fortinet, TOPSEC, Watchguard, and Juniper — systems that are used by both private and government organizations around the world. Some of these vulnerabilities have been independently discovered and fixed since 2013, and some had remained unknown until now.

All of them are examples of the NSA — despite what it and other representatives of the US government say — prioritizing its ability to conduct surveillance over our security. Here’s one example. Security researcher Mustafa al-Bassam found an attack tool codenamed BENIGHCERTAIN that tricks certain Cisco firewalls into exposing some of their memory, including their authentication passwords. Those passwords can then be used to decrypt virtual private network, or VPN, traffic, completely bypassing the firewalls’ security. Cisco hasn’t sold these firewalls since 2009, but they’re still in use today.

Vulnerabilities like that one could have, and should have, been fixed years ago. And they would have been, if the NSA had made good on its word to alert American companies and organizations when it had identified security holes.

Over the past few years, different parts of the US government have repeatedly assured us that the NSA does not hoard “zero days” ­ the term used by security experts for vulnerabilities unknown to software vendors. After we learned from the Snowden documents that the NSA purchases zero-day vulnerabilities from cyberweapons arms manufacturers, the Obama administration announced, in early 2014, that the NSA must disclose flaws in common software so they can be patched (unless there is “a clear national security or law enforcement” use).

Later that year, National Security Council cybersecurity coordinator and special adviser to the president on cybersecurity issues Michael Daniel insisted that US doesn’t stockpile zero-days (except for the same narrow exemption). An official statement from the White House in 2014 said the same thing.

The Shadow Brokers data shows this is not true. The NSA hoards vulnerabilities.

Hoarding zero-day vulnerabilities is a bad idea. It means that we’re all less secure. When Edward Snowden exposed many of the NSA’s surveillance programs, there was considerable discussion about what the agency does with vulnerabilities in common software products that it finds. Inside the US government, the system of figuring out what to do with individual vulnerabilities is called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP). It’s an inter-agency process, and it’s complicated.

There is a fundamental tension between attack and defense. The NSA can keep the vulnerability secret and use it to attack other networks. In such a case, we are all at risk of someone else finding and using the same vulnerability. Alternatively, the NSA can disclose the vulnerability to the product vendor and see it gets fixed. In this case, we are all secure against whoever might be using the vulnerability, but the NSA can’t use it to attack other systems.

There are probably some overly pedantic word games going on. Last year, the NSA said that it discloses 91 percent of the vulnerabilities it finds. Leaving aside the question of whether that remaining 9 percent represents 1, 10, or 1,000 vulnerabilities, there’s the bigger question of what qualifies in the NSA’s eyes as a “vulnerability.”

Not all vulnerabilities can be turned into exploit code. The NSA loses no attack capabilities by disclosing the vulnerabilities it can’t use, and doing so gets its numbers up; it’s good PR. The vulnerabilities we care about are the ones in the Shadow Brokers data dump. We care about them because those are the ones whose existence leaves us all vulnerable.

Because everyone uses the same software, hardware, and networking protocols, there is no way to simultaneously secure our systems while attacking their systems ­ whoever “they” are. Either everyone is more secure, or everyone is more vulnerable.

Pretty much uniformly, security experts believe we ought to disclose and fix vulnerabilities. And the NSA continues to say things that appear to reflect that view, too. Recently, the NSA told everyone that it doesn’t rely on zero days — very much, anyway.

Earlier this year at a security conference, Rob Joyce, the head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) organization — basically the country’s chief hacker — gave a rare public talk, in which he said that credential stealing is a more fruitful method of attack than are zero days: “A lot of people think that nation states are running their operations on zero days, but it’s not that common. For big corporate networks, persistence and focus will get you in without a zero day; there are so many more vectors that are easier, less risky, and more productive.”

The distinction he’s referring to is the one between exploiting a technical hole in software and waiting for a human being to, say, get sloppy with a password.

A phrase you often hear in any discussion of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is NOBUS, which stands for “nobody but us.” Basically, when the NSA finds a vulnerability, it tries to figure out if it is unique in its ability to find it, or whether someone else could find it, too. If it believes no one else will find the problem, it may decline to make it public. It’s an evaluation prone to both hubris and optimism, and many security experts have cast doubt on the very notion that there is some unique American ability to conduct vulnerability research.

The vulnerabilities in the Shadow Brokers data dump are definitely not NOBUS-level. They are run-of-the-mill vulnerabilities that anyone — another government, cybercriminals, amateur hackers — could discover, as evidenced by the fact that many of them were discovered between 2013, when the data was stolen, and this summer, when it was published. They are vulnerabilities in common systems used by people and companies all over the world.

So what are all these vulnerabilities doing in a secret stash of NSA code that was stolen in 2013? Assuming the Russians were the ones who did the stealing, how many US companies did they hack with these vulnerabilities? This is what the Vulnerabilities Equities Process is designed to prevent, and it has clearly failed.

If there are any vulnerabilities that — according to the standards established by the White House and the NSA — should have been disclosed and fixed, it’s these. That they have not been during the three-plus years that the NSA knew about and exploited them — despite Joyce’s insistence that they’re not very important — demonstrates that the Vulnerable Equities Process is badly broken.

We need to fix this. This is exactly the sort of thing a congressional investigation is for. This whole process needs a lot more transparency, oversight, and accountability. It needs guiding principles that prioritize security over surveillance. A good place to start are the recommendations by Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake in their report: these include a clearly defined and more public process, more oversight by Congress and other independent bodies, and a strong bias toward fixing vulnerabilities instead of exploiting them.

And as long as I’m dreaming, we really need to separate our nation’s intelligence-gathering mission from our computer security mission: we should break up the NSA. The agency’s mission should be limited to nation state espionage. Individual investigation should be part of the FBI, cyberwar capabilities should be within US Cyber Command, and critical infrastructure defense should be part of DHS’s mission.

I doubt we’re going to see any congressional investigations this year, but we’re going to have to figure this out eventually. In my 2014 book Data and Goliath, I write that “no matter what cybercriminals do, no matter what other countries do, we in the US need to err on the side of security by fixing almost all the vulnerabilities we find…” Our nation’s cybersecurity is just too important to let the NSA sacrifice it in order to gain a fleeting advantage over a foreign adversary.

This essay previously appeared on

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