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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s Cell Phone was Tapped

Politico reports that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s cell phone was compromised back in December.

I know this is news because of who he is, but I hope every major government official of any country assumes that their commercial off-the-shelf cell phone is compromised. Even allies spy on allies; remember the reports that the NSA tapped the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

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Russian Hacking Tools Codenamed WhiteBear Exposed

Kaspersky Labs exposed a highly sophisticated set of hacking tools from Russia called WhiteBear.

From February to September 2016, WhiteBear activity was narrowly focused on embassies and consular operations around the world. All of these early WhiteBear targets were related to embassies and diplomatic/foreign affair organizations. Continued WhiteBear activity later shifted to include defense-related organizations into June 2017. When compared to WhiteAtlas infections, WhiteBear deployments are relatively rare and represent a departure from the broader Skipper Turla target set. Additionally, a comparison of the WhiteAtlas framework to WhiteBear components indicates that the malware is the product of separate development efforts. WhiteBear infections appear to be preceded by a condensed spearphishing dropper, lack Firefox extension installer payloads, and contain several new components signed with a new code signing digital certificate, unlike WhiteAtlas incidents and modules.

The exact delivery vector for WhiteBear components is unknown to us, although we have very strong suspicion the group spearphished targets with malicious pdf files. The decoy pdf document above was likely stolen from a target or partner. And, although WhiteBear components have been consistently identified on a subset of systems previously targeted with the WhiteAtlas framework, and maintain components within the same filepaths and can maintain identical filenames, we were unable to firmly tie delivery to any specific WhiteAtlas component. WhiteBear focused on various embassies and diplomatic entities around the world in early 2016 — tellingly, attempts were made to drop and display decoy pdf’s with full diplomatic headers and content alongside executable droppers on target systems.

One of the clever things the tool does is use hijacked satellite connections for command and control, helping it evade detection by broad surveillance capabilities like what what NSA uses. We’ve seen Russian attack tools that do this before. More details are in the Kaspersky blog post.

Given all the trouble Kaspersky is having because of its association with Russia, it’s interesting to speculate on this disclosure. Either they are independent, and have burned a valuable Russian hacking toolset. Or the Russians decided that the toolset was already burned — maybe the NSA knows all about it and has neutered it somehow — and allowed Kaspersky to publish. Or maybe it’s something in between. That’s the problem with this kind of speculation: without any facts, your theories just amplify whatever opinion you had previously.

Oddly, there hasn’t been much press about this. I have only found one story.

EDITED TO ADD: A colleague pointed out to me that Kaspersky announcements like this often get ignored by the press. There was very little written about ProjectSauron, for example.

EDITED TO ADD: The text I originally wrote said that Kaspersky released the attacks tools, like what Shadow Brokers is doing. They did not. They just exposed the existence of them. Apologies for that error — it was sloppy wording.

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NSA Collects MS Windows Error Information

Back in 2013, Der Spiegel reported that the NSA intercepts and collects Windows bug reports:

One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft’s Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA’s powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.

The automated crash reports are a “neat way” to gain “passive access” to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person’s computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim’s computer.

Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA’s agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant. In one internal graphic, they replaced the text of Microsoft’s original error message with one of their own reading, “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.” (“Sigint” stands for “signals intelligence.”)

The article talks about the (limited) value of this information with regard to specific target computers, but I have another question: how valuable would this database be for finding new zero-day Windows vulnerabilities to exploit? Microsoft won’t have the incentive to examine and fix problems until they happen broadly among its user base. The NSA has a completely different incentive structure.

I don’t remember this being discussed back in 2013.

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Tainted Leaks

Last year, I wrote about the potential for doxers to alter documents before they leaked them. It was a theoretical threat when I wrote it, but now Citizen Lab has documented this technique in the wild:

This report describes an extensive Russia-linked phishing and disinformation campaign. It provides evidence of how documents stolen from a prominent journalist and critic of Russia was tampered with and then “leaked” to achieve specific propaganda aims. We name this technique “tainted leaks.” The report illustrates how the twin strategies of phishing and tainted leaks are sometimes used in combination to infiltrate civil society targets, and to seed mistrust and disinformation. It also illustrates how domestic considerations, specifically concerns about regime security, can motivate espionage operations, particularly those targeting civil society.

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APT10 and Cloud Hopper

There’s a new report of a nation-state attack, presumed to be from China, on a series of managed ISPs. From the executive summary:

Since late 2016, PwC UK and BAE Systems have been assisting victims of a new cyber espionage campaign conducted by a China-based threat actor. We assess this threat actor to almost certainly be the same as the threat actor widely known within the security community as ‘APT10’. The campaign, which we refer to as Operation Cloud Hopper, has targeted managed IT service providers (MSPs), allowing APT10 unprecedented potential access to the intellectual property and sensitive data of those MSPs and their clients globally. A number of Japanese organisations have also been directly targeted in a separate, simultaneous campaign by the same actor.

We have identified a number of key findings that are detailed below.

APT10 has recently unleashed a sustained campaign against MSPs. The compromise of MSP networks has provided broad and unprecedented access to MSP customer networks.

  • Multiple MSPs were almost certainly being targeted from 2016 onwards, and it is likely that APT10 had already begun to do so from as early as 2014.

  • MSP infrastructure has been used as part of a complex web of exfiltration routes spanning multiple victim networks.

[…]

APT10 focuses on espionage activity, targeting intellectual property and other sensitive data.

  • APT10 is known to have exfiltrated a high volume of data from multiple victims, exploiting compromised MSP networks, and those of their customers, to stealthily move this data around the world.

  • The targeted nature of the exfiltration we have observed, along with the volume of the data, is reminiscent of the previous era of APT campaigns pre-2013.

PwC UK and BAE Systems assess APT10 as highly likely to be a China-based threat actor.

  • It is a widely held view within the cyber security community that APT10 is a China-based threat actor.

  • Our analysis of the compile times of malware binaries, the registration times of domains attributed to APT10, and the majority of its intrusion activity indicates a pattern of work in line with China Standard Time (UTC+8).

  • The threat actor’s targeting of diplomatic and political organisations in response to geopolitical tensions, as well as the targeting of specific commercial enterprises, is closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests.

I know nothing more than what’s in this report, but it looks like a big one.

Press release.

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German Government Classifies Doll as Illegal Spyware

This is interesting:

The My Friend Cayla doll, which is manufactured by the US company Genesis Toys and distributed in Europe by Guildford-based Vivid Toy Group, allows children to access the internet via speech recognition software, and to control the toy via an app.

But Germany’s Federal Network Agency announced this week that it classified Cayla as an “illegal espionage apparatus”. As a result, retailers and owners could face fines if they continue to stock it or fail to permanently disable the doll’s wireless connection.

Under German law it is illegal to manufacture, sell or possess surveillance devices disguised as another object.

Another article.

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Canada Spies on Internet Downloads

Another story from the Snowden documents:

According to the documents, the LEVITATION program can monitor downloads in several countries across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and North America. It is led by the Communications Security Establishment, or CSE, Canada’s equivalent of the NSA. (The Canadian agency was formerly known as “CSEC” until a recent name change.)

[…]

CSE finds some 350 “interesting” downloads each month, the presentation notes, a number that amounts to less than 0.0001 per cent of the total collected data.

The agency stores details about downloads and uploads to and from 102 different popular file-sharing websites, according to the 2012 document, which describes the collected records as “free file upload,” or FFU, “events.”

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