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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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Zero-Click iPhone Exploits

Citizen Lab is reporting on two zero-click iMessage exploits, in spyware sold by the cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group to the Bahraini government.

These are particularly scary exploits, since they don’t require to victim to do anything, like click on a link or open a file. The victim receives a text message, and then they are hacked.

More on this here.

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Details on the Unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone

The Washington Post has published a long story on the unlocking of the San Bernardino Terrorist’s iPhone 5C in 2016. We all thought it was an Israeli company called Cellebrite. It was actually an Australian company called Azimuth Security.

Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.

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Using the flaw Dowd found, Wang, based in Portland, Ore., created an exploit that enabled initial access to the phone ­ a foot in the door. Then he hitched it to another exploit that permitted greater maneuverability, according to the people. And then he linked that to a final exploit that another Azimuth researcher had already created for iPhones, giving him full control over the phone’s core processor ­ the brains of the device. From there, he wrote software that rapidly tried all combinations of the passcode, bypassing other features, such as the one that erased data after 10 incorrect tries.

Apple is suing various companies over this sort of thing. The article goes into the details.

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Exploiting Spectre Over the Internet

Google has demonstrated exploiting the Spectre CPU attack remotely over the web:

Today, we’re sharing proof-of-concept (PoC) code that confirms the practicality of Spectre exploits against JavaScript engines. We use Google Chrome to demonstrate our attack, but these issues are not specific to Chrome, and we expect that other modern browsers are similarly vulnerable to this exploitation vector. We have developed an interactive demonstration of the attack available at https://leaky.page/ ; the code and a more detailed writeup are published on Github here.

The demonstration website can leak data at a speed of 1kB/s when running on Chrome 88 on an Intel Skylake CPU. Note that the code will likely require minor modifications to apply to other CPUs or browser versions; however, in our tests the attack was successful on several other processors, including the Apple M1 ARM CPU, without any major changes.

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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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On Vulnerability-Adjacent Vulnerabilities

At the virtual Enigma Conference, Google’s Project Zero’s Maggie Stone gave a talk about zero-day exploits in the wild. In it, she talked about how often vendors fix vulnerabilities only to have the attackers tweak their exploits to work again. From a MIT Technology Review article:

Soon after they were spotted, the researchers saw one exploit being used in the wild. Microsoft issued a patch and fixed the flaw, sort of. In September 2019, another similar vulnerability was found being exploited by the same hacking group.

More discoveries in November 2019, January 2020, and April 2020 added up to at least five zero-day vulnerabilities being exploited from the same bug class in short order. Microsoft issued multiple security updates: some failed to actually fix the vulnerability being targeted, while others required only slight changes that required just a line or two to change in the hacker’s code to make the exploit work again.

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“What we saw cuts across the industry: Incomplete patches are making it easier for attackers to exploit users with zero-days,” Stone said on Tuesday at the security conference Enigma. “We’re not requiring attackers to come up with all new bug classes, develop brand new exploitation, look at code that has never been researched before. We’re allowing the reuse of lots of different vulnerabilities that we previously knew about.”

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Why aren’t they being fixed? Most of the security teams working at software companies have limited time and resources, she suggests — and if their priorities and incentives are flawed, they only check that they’ve fixed the very specific vulnerability in front of them instead of addressing the bigger problems at the root of many vulnerabilities.

Another article on the talk.

This is an important insight. It’s not enough to patch existing vulnerabilities. We need to make it harder for attackers to find new vulnerabilities to exploit. Closing entire families of vulnerabilities, rather than individual vulnerabilities one at a time, is a good way to do that.

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Facebook Helped Develop a Tails Exploit

This is a weird story:

Hernandez was able to evade capture for so long because he used Tails, a version of Linux designed for users at high risk of surveillance and which routes all inbound and outbound connections through the open-source Tor network to anonymize it. According to Vice, the FBI had tried to hack into Hernandez’s computer but failed, as the approach they used “was not tailored for Tails.” Hernandez then proceeded to mock the FBI in subsequent messages, two Facebook employees told Vice.

Facebook had tasked a dedicated employee to unmasking Hernandez, developed an automated system to flag recently created accounts that messaged minors, and made catching Hernandez a priority for its security teams, according to Vice. They also paid a third party contractor “six figures” to help develop a zero-day exploit in Tails: a bug in its video player that enabled them to retrieve the real I.P. address of a person viewing a clip. Three sources told Vice that an intermediary passed the tool onto the FBI, who then obtained a search warrant to have one of the victims send a modified video file to Hernandez (a tactic the agency has used before).

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Facebook also never notified the Tails team of the flaw — breaking with a long industry tradition of disclosure in which the relevant developers are notified of vulnerabilities in advance of them becoming public so they have a chance at implementing a fix. Sources told Vice that since an upcoming Tails update was slated to strip the vulnerable code, Facebook didn’t bother to do so, though the social media company had no reason to believe Tails developers had ever discovered the bug.

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“The only acceptable outcome to us was Buster Hernandez facing accountability for his abuse of young girls,” a Facebook spokesperson told Vice.. “This was a unique case, because he was using such sophisticated methods to hide his identity, that we took the extraordinary steps of working with security experts to help the FBI bring him to justice.”

I agree with that last paragraph. I’m fine with the FBI using vulnerabilities: lawful hacking, it’s called. I’m less okay with Facebook paying for a Tails exploit, giving it to the FBI, and then keeping its existence secret.

Another article.

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Another Intel Speculative Execution Vulnerability

Remember Spectre and Meltdown? Back in early 2018, I wrote:

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they — and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability — have shown researchers where to look, more is coming — and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown. There will be vulnerabilities that will allow attackers to manipulate or delete data across processes, potentially fatal in the computers controlling our cars or implanted medical devices. These will be similarly impossible to fix, and the only strategy will be to throw our devices away and buy new ones.

That has turned out to be true. Here’s a new vulnerability:

On Tuesday, two separate academic teams disclosed two new and distinctive exploits that pierce Intel’s Software Guard eXtension, by far the most sensitive region of the company’s processors.

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The new SGX attacks are known as SGAxe and CrossTalk. Both break into the fortified CPU region using separate side-channel attacks, a class of hack that infers sensitive data by measuring timing differences, power consumption, electromagnetic radiation, sound, or other information from the systems that store it. The assumptions for both attacks are roughly the same. An attacker has already broken the security of the target machine through a software exploit or a malicious virtual machine that compromises the integrity of the system. While that’s a tall bar, it’s precisely the scenario that SGX is supposed to defend against.

Another news article.

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New iPhone Zero-Day Discovered

Last year, ZecOps discovered two iPhone zero-day exploits. They will be patched in the next iOS release:

Avraham declined to disclose many details about who the targets were, and did not say whether they lost any data as a result of the attacks, but said “we were a bit surprised about who was targeted.” He said some of the targets were an executive from a telephone carrier in Japan, a “VIP” from Germany, managed security service providers from Saudi Arabia and Israel, people who work for a Fortune 500 company in North America, and an executive from a Swiss company.

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On the other hand, this is not as polished a hack as others, as it relies on sending an oversized email, which may get blocked by certain email providers. Moreover, Avraham said it only works on the default Apple Mail app, and not on Gmail or Outlook, for example.

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