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How Technology and Politics Are Changing Spycraft

Interesting article about how traditional nation-based spycraft is changing. Basically, the Internet makes it increasingly possible to generate a good cover story; cell phone and other electronic surveillance techniques make tracking people easier; and machine learning will make all of this automatic. Meanwhile, Western countries have new laws and norms that put them at a disadvantage over other countries. And finally, much of this has gone corporate.

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Another NSA Leaker Identified and Charged

In 2015, the Intercept started publishing “The Drone Papers,” based on classified documents leaked by an unknown whistleblower. Today, someone who worked at the NSA, and then at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was charged with the crime. It is unclear how he was initially identified. It might have been this: “At the agency, prosecutors said, Mr. Hale printed 36 documents from his Top Secret computer.”

The article talks about evidence collected after he was identified and searched:

According to the indictment, in August 2014, Mr. Hale’s cellphone contact list included information for the reporter, and he possessed two thumb drives. One thumb drive contained a page marked “secret” from a classified document that Mr. Hale had printed in February 2014. Prosecutors said Mr. Hale had tried to delete the document from the thumb drive.

The other thumb drive contained Tor software and the Tails operating system, which were recommended by the reporter’s online news outlet in an article published on its website regarding how to anonymously leak documents.

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New DNS Hijacking Attacks

DNS hijacking isn’t new, but this seems to be an attack of unprecedented scale:

Researchers at Cisco’s Talos security division on Wednesday revealed that a hacker group it’s calling Sea Turtle carried out a broad campaign of espionage via DNS hijacking, hitting 40 different organizations. In the process, they went so far as to compromise multiple country-code top-level domains — the suffixes like .co.uk or .ru that end a foreign web address — putting all the traffic of every domain in multiple countries at risk.

The hackers’ victims include telecoms, internet service providers, and domain registrars responsible for implementing the domain name system. But the majority of the victims and the ultimate targets, Cisco believes, were a collection of mostly governmental organizations, including ministries of foreign affairs, intelligence agencies, military targets, and energy-related groups, all based in the Middle East and North Africa. By corrupting the internet’s directory system, hackers were able to silently use “man in the middle” attacks to intercept all internet data from email to web traffic sent to those victim organizations.

[…]

Cisco Talos said it couldn’t determine the nationality of the Sea Turtle hackers, and declined to name the specific targets of their spying operations. But it did provide a list of the countries where victims were located: Albania, Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Cisco’s Craig Williams confirmed that Armenia’s .am top-level domain was one of the “handful” that were compromised, but wouldn’t say which of the other countries’ top-level domains were similarly hijacked.

Another news article.

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China Spying on Undersea Internet Cables

Supply chain security is an insurmountably hard problem. The recent focus is on Chinese 5G equipment, but the problem is much broader. This opinion piece looks at undersea communications cables:

But now the Chinese conglomerate Huawei Technologies, the leading firm working to deliver 5G telephony networks globally, has gone to sea. Under its Huawei Marine Networks component, it is constructing or improving nearly 100 submarine cables around the world. Last year it completed a cable stretching nearly 4,000 miles from Brazil to Cameroon. (The cable is partly owned by China Unicom, a state-controlled telecom operator.) Rivals claim that Chinese firms are able to lowball the bidding because they receive subsidies from Beijing.

Just as the experts are justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage “back doors” in Huawei’s 5G technology, Western intelligence professionals oppose the company’s engagement in the undersea version, which provides a much bigger bang for the buck because so much data rides on so few cables.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. For years, the US and the Five Eyes have had a monopoly on spying on the Internet around the globe. Other countries want in.

As I have repeatedly said, we need to decide if we are going to build our future Internet systems for security or surveillance. Either everyone gets to spy, or no one gets to spy. And I believe we must choose security over surveillance, and implement a defense-dominant strategy.

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New Version of Flame Malware Discovered

Flame was discovered in 2012, linked to Stuxnet, and believed to be American in origin. It has recently been linked to more modern malware through new analysis tools that find linkages between different software.

Seems that Flame did not disappear after it was discovered, as was previously thought. (Its controllers used a kill switch to disable and erase it.) It was rewritten and reintroduced.

Note that the article claims that Flame was believed to be Israeli in origin. That’s wrong; most people who have an opinion believe it is from the NSA.

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Military Carrier Pigeons in the Era of Electronic Warfare

They have advantages:

Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information. Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon’s organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine mean to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar. These decidedly low-technology options prove difficult to detect and track. Pigeons cannot talk under interrogation, although they are not entirely immune to being held under suspicion of espionage. Within an urban environment, a pigeon has even greater potential to blend into the local avian population, further compounding detection.

The author points out that both France and China still maintain a small number of pigeons in case electronic communications are disrupted.

And there’s an existing RFC.

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Pegasus Spyware Used in 45 Countries

Citizen Lab has published a new report about the Pegasus spyware. From a ZDNet article:

The malware, known as Pegasus (or Trident), was created by Israeli cyber-security firm NSO Group and has been around for at least three years — when it was first detailed in a report over the summer of 2016.

The malware can operate on both Android and iOS devices, albeit it’s been mostly spotted in campaigns targeting iPhone users primarily. On infected devices, Pegasus is a powerful spyware that can do many things, such as record conversations, steal private messages, exfiltrate photos, and much much more.

From the report:

We found suspected NSO Pegasus infections associated with 33 of the 36 Pegasus operators we identified in 45 countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zambia. As our findings are based on country-level geolocation of DNS servers, factors such as VPNs and satellite Internet teleport locations can introduce inaccuracies.

Six of those countries are known to deploy spyware against political opposition: Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Also note:

On 17 September 2018, we then received a public statement from NSO Group. The statement mentions that “the list of countries in which NSO is alleged to operate is simply inaccurate. NSO does not operate in many of the countries listed.” This statement is a misunderstanding of our investigation: the list in our report is of suspected locations of NSO infections, it is not a list of suspected NSO customers. As we describe in Section 3, we observed DNS cache hits from what appear to be 33 distinct operators, some of whom appeared to be conducting operations in multiple countries. Thus, our list of 45 countries necessarily includes countries that are not NSO Group customers. We describe additional limitations of our method in Section 4, including factors such as VPNs and satellite connections, which can cause targets to appear in other countries.

Motherboard article. Slashdot and Boing Boing posts.

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