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FBI Had the REvil Decryption Key

The Washington Post reports that the FBI had a decryption key for the REvil ransomware, but didn’t pass it along to victims because it would have disrupted an ongoing operation.

The key was obtained through access to the servers of the Russia-based criminal gang behind the July attack. Deploying it immediately could have helped the victims, including schools and hospitals, avoid what analysts estimate was millions of dollars in recovery costs.

But the FBI held on to the key, with the agreement of other agencies, in part because it was planning to carry out an operation to disrupt the hackers, a group known as REvil, and the bureau did not want to tip them off. Also, a government assessment found the harm was not as severe as initially feared.

Fighting ransomware is filled with security trade-offs. This is one I had not previously considered.

Another news story.

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FBI/AFP-Run Encrypted Phone

For three years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Australian Federal Police owned and operated a commercial encrypted phone app, called AN0M, that was used by organized crime around the world. Of course, the police were able to read everything — I don’t even know if this qualifies as a backdoor. This week, the world’s police organizations announced 800 arrests based on text messages sent over the app. We’ve seen law enforcement take over encrypted apps before: for example, EncroChat. This operation, code-named Trojan Shield, is the first time law enforcement managed an app from the beginning.

If there is any moral to this, it’s one that all of my blog readers should already know: trust is essential to security. And the number of people you need to trust is larger than you might originally think. For an app to be secure, you need to trust the hardware, the operating system, the software, the update mechanism, the login mechanism, and on and on and on. If one of those is untrustworthy, the whole system is insecure.

It’s the same reason blockchain-based currencies are so insecure, even if the cryptography is sound.

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Identifying the Person Behind Bitcoin Fog

The person behind the Bitcoin Fog was identified and arrested. Bitcoin Fog was an anonymization service: for a fee, it mixed a bunch of people’s bitcoins up so that it was hard to figure out where any individual coins came from. It ran for ten years.

Identifying the person behind Bitcoin Fog serves as an illustrative example of how hard it is to be anonymous online in the face of a competent police investigation:

Most remarkable, however, is the IRS’s account of tracking down Sterlingov using the very same sort of blockchain analysis that his own service was meant to defeat. The complaint outlines how Sterlingov allegedly paid for the server hosting of Bitcoin Fog at one point in 2011 using the now-defunct digital currency Liberty Reserve. It goes on to show the blockchain evidence that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that Liberty Reserve currency with bitcoins: He first exchanged euros for the bitcoins on the early cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, then moved those bitcoins through several subsequent addresses, and finally traded them on another currency exchange for the Liberty Reserve funds he’d use to set up Bitcoin Fog’s domain.

Based on tracing those financial transactions, the IRS says, it then identified Mt. Gox accounts that used Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, and even a Google account that included a Russian-language document on its Google Drive offering instructions for how to obscure Bitcoin payments. That document described exactly the steps Sterlingov allegedly took to buy the Liberty Reserve funds he’d used.

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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.

[…]

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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Chinese Supply-Chain Attack on Computer Systems

Bloomberg News has a major story about the Chinese hacking computer motherboards made by Supermicro, Levono, and others. It’s been going on since at least 2008. The US government has known about it for almost as long, and has tried to keep the attack secret:

China’s exploitation of products made by Supermicro, as the U.S. company is known, has been under federal scrutiny for much of the past decade, according to 14 former law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the matter. That included an FBI counterintelligence investigation that began around 2012, when agents started monitoring the communications of a small group of Supermicro workers, using warrants obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, according to five of the officials.

There’s lots of detail in the article, and I recommend that you read it through.

This is a follow on, with a lot more detail, to a story Bloomberg reported on in fall 2018. I didn’t believe the story back then, writing:

I don’t think it’s real. Yes, it’s plausible. But first of all, if someone actually surreptitiously put malicious chips onto motherboards en masse, we would have seen a photo of the alleged chip already. And second, there are easier, more effective, and less obvious ways of adding backdoors to networking equipment.

I seem to have been wrong. From the current Bloomberg story:

Mike Quinn, a cybersecurity executive who served in senior roles at Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., said he was briefed about added chips on Supermicro motherboards by officials from the U.S. Air Force. Quinn was working for a company that was a potential bidder for Air Force contracts, and the officials wanted to ensure that any work would not include Supermicro equipment, he said. Bloomberg agreed not to specify when Quinn received the briefing or identify the company he was working for at the time.

“This wasn’t a case of a guy stealing a board and soldering a chip on in his hotel room; it was architected onto the final device,” Quinn said, recalling details provided by Air Force officials. The chip “was blended into the trace on a multilayered board,” he said.

“The attackers knew how that board was designed so it would pass” quality assurance tests, Quinn said.

Supply-chain attacks are the flavor of the moment, it seems. But they’re serious, and very hard to defend against in our deeply international IT industry. (I have repeatedly called this an “insurmountable problem.”) Here’s me in 2018:

Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn’t an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can’t trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government.

We need some fundamental security research here. I wrote this in 2019:

The other solution is to build a secure system, even though any of its parts can be subverted. This is what the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon meant in April when she said about 5G, “You have to presume a dirty network.” Or more precisely, can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the Internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

It seems that supply-chain attacks are constantly in the news right now. That’s good. They’ve been a serious problem for a long time, and we need to take the threat seriously. For further reading, I strongly recommend this Atlantic Council report from last summer: “Breaking trust: Shades of crisis across an insecure software supply chain.

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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).

[…]

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.

[…]

“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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Apple Abandoned Plans for Encrypted iCloud Backup after FBI Complained

This is new from Reuters:

More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud, according to one current and three former FBI officials and one current and one former Apple employee.

Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.

In private talks with Apple soon after, representatives of the FBI’s cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected to the plan, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, the government sources said.

When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, according to the six sources. Reuters could not determine why exactly Apple dropped the plan.

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The Story of Tiversa

The New Yorker has published the long and interesting story of the cybersecurity firm Tiversa.

Watching “60 Minutes,” Boback saw a remarkable new business angle. Here was a multibillion-dollar industry with a near-existential problem and no clear solution. He did not know it then, but, as he turned the opportunity over in his mind, he was setting in motion a sequence of events that would earn him millions of dollars, friendships with business élites, prime-time media attention, and respect in Congress. It would also place him at the center of one of the strangest stories in the brief history of cybersecurity; he would be mired in lawsuits, countersuits, and counter-countersuits, which would gather into a vortex of litigation so ominous that one friend compared it to the Bermuda Triangle. He would be accused of fraud, of extortion, and of manipulating the federal government into harming companies that did not do business with him. Congress would investigate him. So would the F.B.I.

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Former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker Chooses Encryption Over Backdoors

In an extraordinary essay, the former FBI general counsel Jim Baker makes the case for strong encryption over government-mandated backdoors:

In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities­ — including law enforcement­ — to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.

[…]

I am unaware of a technical solution that will effectively and simultaneously reconcile all of the societal interests at stake in the encryption debate, such as public safety, cybersecurity and privacy as well as simultaneously fostering innovation and the economic competitiveness of American companies in a global marketplace.

[…]

All public safety officials should think of protecting the cybersecurity of the United States as an essential part of their core mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And they should be doing so even if there will be real and painful costs associated with such a cybersecurity-forward orientation. The stakes are too high and our current cybersecurity situation too grave to adopt a different approach.

Basically, he argues that the security value of strong encryption greatly outweighs the security value of encryption that can be bypassed. He endorses a “defense dominant” strategy for Internet security.

Keep in mind that Baker led the FBI’s legal case against Apple regarding the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. In writing this piece, Baker joins the growing list of former law enforcement and national security senior officials who have come out in favor of strong encryption over backdoors: Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, Richard Clarke, Ash Carter, William Lynn, and Mike McConnell.

Edward Snowden also agrees.

EDITED TO ADD: Good commentary from Cory Doctorow.

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