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Vulnerability Finding Using Machine Learning

Microsoft is training a machine-learning system to find software bugs:

At Microsoft, 47,000 developers generate nearly 30 thousand bugs a month. These items get stored across over 100 AzureDevOps and GitHub repositories. To better label and prioritize bugs at that scale, we couldn’t just apply more people to the problem. However, large volumes of semi-curated data are perfect for machine learning. Since 2001 Microsoft has collected 13 million work items and bugs. We used that data to develop a process and machine learning model that correctly distinguishes between security and non-security bugs 99 percent of the time and accurately identifies the critical, high priority security bugs, 97 percent of the time.

News article.

I wrote about this in 2018:

The problem of finding software vulnerabilities seems well-suited for ML systems. Going through code line by line is just the sort of tedious problem that computers excel at, if we can only teach them what a vulnerability looks like. There are challenges with that, of course, but there is already a healthy amount of academic literature on the topic — and research is continuing. There’s every reason to expect ML systems to get better at this as time goes on, and some reason to expect them to eventually become very good at it.

Finding vulnerabilities can benefit both attackers and defenders, but it’s not a fair fight. When an attacker’s ML system finds a vulnerability in software, the attacker can use it to compromise systems. When a defender’s ML system finds the same vulnerability, he or she can try to patch the system or program network defenses to watch for and block code that tries to exploit it.

But when the same system is in the hands of a software developer who uses it to find the vulnerability before the software is ever released, the developer fixes it so it can never be used in the first place. The ML system will probably be part of his or her software design tools and will automatically find and fix vulnerabilities while the code is still in development.

Fast-forward a decade or so into the future. We might say to each other, “Remember those years when software vulnerabilities were a thing, before ML vulnerability finders were built into every compiler and fixed them before the software was ever released? Wow, those were crazy years.” Not only is this future possible, but I would bet on it.

Getting from here to there will be a dangerous ride, though. Those vulnerability finders will first be unleashed on existing software, giving attackers hundreds if not thousands of vulnerabilities to exploit in real-world attacks. Sure, defenders can use the same systems, but many of today’s Internet of Things (IoT) systems have no engineering teams to write patches and no ability to download and install patches. The result will be hundreds of vulnerabilities that attackers can find and use.

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Microsoft Buys

A few months ago, Brian Krebs told the story of the domain, and how it is basically a security nightmare:

At issue is a problem known as “namespace collision,” a situation where domain names intended to be used exclusively on an internal company network end up overlapping with domains that can resolve normally on the open Internet.

Windows computers on an internal corporate network validate other things on that network using a Microsoft innovation called Active Directory, which is the umbrella term for a broad range of identity-related services in Windows environments. A core part of the way these things find each other involves a Windows feature called “DNS name devolution,” which is a kind of network shorthand that makes it easier to find other computers or servers without having to specify a full, legitimate domain name for those resources.

For instance, if a company runs an internal network with the name, and an employee on that network wishes to access a shared drive called “drive1,” there’s no need to type “” into Windows Explorer; typing “\drive1” alone will suffice, and Windows takes care of the rest.

But things can get far trickier with an internal Windows domain that does not map back to a second-level domain the organization actually owns and controls. And unfortunately, in early versions of Windows that supported Active Directory — Windows 2000 Server, for example — the default or example Active Directory path was given as “corp,” and many companies apparently adopted this setting without modifying it to include a domain they controlled.

Compounding things further, some companies then went on to build (and/or assimilate) vast networks of networks on top of this erroneous setting.

Now, none of this was much of a security concern back in the day when it was impractical for employees to lug their bulky desktop computers and monitors outside of the corporate network. But what happens when an employee working at a company with an Active Directory network path called “corp” takes a company laptop to the local Starbucks?

Chances are good that at least some resources on the employee’s laptop will still try to access that internal “corp” domain. And because of the way DNS name devolution works on Windows, that company laptop online via the Starbucks wireless connection is likely to then seek those same resources at “”

In practical terms, this means that whoever controls can passively intercept private communications from hundreds of thousands of computers that end up being taken outside of a corporate environment which uses this “corp” designation for its Active Directory domain.

Microsoft just bought it, so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of any bad actors:

In a written statement, Microsoft said it acquired the domain to protect its customers.

“To help in keeping systems protected we encourage customers to practice safe security habits when planning for internal domain and network names,” the statement reads. “We released a security advisory in June of 2009 and a security update that helps keep customers safe. In our ongoing commitment to customer security, we also acquired the domain.”

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Emotat Malware Causes Physical Damage

Microsoft is reporting that an Emotat malware infection shut down a network by causing computers to overheat and then crash.

The Emotet payload was delivered and executed on the systems of Fabrikam — a fake name Microsoft gave the victim in their case study — five days after the employee’s user credentials were exfiltrated to the attacker’s command and control (C&C) server.

Before this, the threat actors used the stolen credentials to deliver phishing emails to other Fabrikam employees, as well as to their external contacts, with more and more systems getting infected and downloading additional malware payloads.

The malware further spread through the network without raising any red flags by stealing admin account credentials authenticating itself on new systems, later used as stepping stones to compromise other devices.

Within 8 days since that first booby-trapped attachment was opened, Fabrikam’s entire network was brought to its knees despite the IT department’s efforts, with PCs overheating, freezing, and rebooting because of blue screens, and Internet connections slowing down to a crawl because of Emotet devouring all the bandwidth.

The infection mechanism was one employee opening a malicious attachment to a phishing email. I can’t find any information on what kind of attachment.

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Critical Windows Vulnerability Discovered by NSA

Yesterday’s Microsoft Windows patches included a fix for a critical vulnerability in the system’s crypto library.

A spoofing vulnerability exists in the way Windows CryptoAPI (Crypt32.dll) validates Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) certificates.

An attacker could exploit the vulnerability by using a spoofed code-signing certificate to sign a malicious executable, making it appear the file was from a trusted, legitimate source. The user would have no way of knowing the file was malicious, because the digital signature would appear to be from a trusted provider.

A successful exploit could also allow the attacker to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks and decrypt confidential information on user connections to the affected software.

That’s really bad, and you should all patch your system right now, before you finish reading this blog post.

This is a zero-day vulnerability, meaning that it was not detected in the wild before the patch was released. It was discovered by security researchers. Interestingly, it was discovered by NSA security researchers, and the NSA security advisory gives a lot more information about it than the Microsoft advisory does.

Exploitation of the vulnerability allows attackers to defeat trusted network connections and deliver executable code while appearing as legitimately trusted entities. Examples where validation of trust may be impacted include:

  • HTTPS connections
  • Signed files and emails
  • Signed executable code launched as user-mode processes

The vulnerability places Windows endpoints at risk to a broad range of exploitation vectors. NSA assesses the vulnerability to be severe and that sophisticated cyber actors will understand the underlying flaw very quickly and, if exploited, would render the previously mentioned platforms as fundamentally vulnerable.The consequences of not patching the vulnerability are severe and widespread. Remote exploitation tools will likely be made quickly and widely available.Rapid adoption of the patch is the only known mitigation at this time and should be the primary focus for all network owners.

Early yesterday morning, NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate head Anne Neuberger hosted a media call where she talked about the vulnerability and — to my shock — took questions from the attendees. According to her, the NSA discovered this vulnerability as part of its security research. (If it found it in some other nation’s cyberweapons stash — my personal favorite theory — she declined to say.) She did not answer when asked how long ago the NSA discovered the vulnerability. She said that this is not the first time the NSA sent Microsoft a vulnerability to fix, but it was the first time it has publicly taken credit for the discovery. The reason is that the NSA is trying to rebuild trust with the security community, and this disclosure is a result of its new initiative to share findings more quickly and more often.

Barring any other information, I would take the NSA at its word here. So, good for it.

And — seriously — patch your systems now: Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016/2019. Assume that this vulnerability has already been weaponized, probably by criminals and certainly by major governments. Even assume that the NSA is using this vulnerability — why wouldn’t it?

Ars Technica article. Wired article. CERT advisory.

EDITED TO ADD: Washington Post article.

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Malicious MS Office Macro Creator

Evil Clippy is a tool for creating malicious Microsoft Office macros:

At BlackHat Asia we released Evil Clippy, a tool which assists red teamers and security testers in creating malicious MS Office documents. Amongst others, Evil Clippy can hide VBA macros, stomp VBA code (via p-code) and confuse popular macro analysis tools. It runs on Linux, OSX and Windows.

The VBA stomping is the most powerful feature, because it gets around antivirus programs:

VBA stomping abuses a feature which is not officially documented: the undocumented PerformanceCache part of each module stream contains compiled pseudo-code (p-code) for the VBA engine. If the MS Office version specified in the _VBA_PROJECT stream matches the MS Office version of the host program (Word or Excel) then the VBA source code in the module stream is ignored and the p-code is executed instead.

In summary: if we know the version of MS Office of a target system (e.g. Office 2016, 32 bit), we can replace our malicious VBA source code with fake code, while the malicious code will still get executed via p-code. In the meantime, any tool analyzing the VBA source code (such as antivirus) is completely fooled.

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Another Spectre-Like CPU Vulnerability

Google and Microsoft researchers have disclosed another Spectre-like CPU side-channel vulnerability, called “Speculative Store Bypass.” Like the others, the fix will slow the CPU down.

The German tech site Heise reports that more are coming.

I’m not surprised. Writing about Spectre and Meltdown in January, I predicted that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these sorts of vulnerabilities.

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.

I still predict that we’ll be seeing lots more of these in the coming months and years, as we learn more about this class of vulnerabilities.

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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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Zero-Day Vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA Tools Released by the Shadow Brokers

In April, the Shadow Brokers — presumably Russia — released a batch of Windows exploits from what is presumably the NSA. Included in that release were eight different Windows vulnerabilities. Given a presumed theft date of the data as sometime between 2012 and 2013 — based on timestamps of the documents and the limited Windows 8 support of the tools:

  • Three were already patched by Microsoft. That is, they were not zero days, and could only be used against unpatched targets. They are EMERALDTHREAD, EDUCATEDSCHOLAR, and ECLIPSEDWING.

  • One was discovered to have been used in the wild and patched in 2014: ESKIMOROLL.

  • Four were only patched when the NSA informed Microsoft about them in early 2017: ETERNALBLUE, ETERNALSYNERGY, ETERNALROMANCE, and ETERNALCHAMPION.

So of the five serious zero-day vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA’s pocket, four were never independently discovered. This isn’t new news, but I haven’t seen this summary before.

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