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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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Is Continuing to Patch Windows XP a Mistake?

Last week, Microsoft issued a security patch for Windows XP, a 16-year-old operating system that Microsoft officially no longer supports. Last month, Microsoft issued a Windows XP patch for the vulnerability used in WannaCry.

Is this a good idea? This 2014 essay argues that it’s not:

The zero-day flaw and its exploitation is unfortunate, and Microsoft is likely smarting from government calls for people to stop using Internet Explorer. The company had three ways it could respond. It could have done nothingĀ­ — stuck to its guns, maintained that the end of support means the end of support, and encouraged people to move to a different platform. It could also have relented entirely, extended Windows XP’s support life cycle for another few years and waited for attrition to shrink Windows XP’s userbase to irrelevant levels. Or it could have claimed that this case is somehow “special,” releasing a patch while still claiming that Windows XP isn’t supported.

None of these options is perfect. A hard-line approach to the end-of-life means that there are people being exploited that Microsoft refuses to help. A complete about-turn means that Windows XP will take even longer to flush out of the market, making it a continued headache for developers and administrators alike.

But the option Microsoft took is the worst of all worlds. It undermines efforts by IT staff to ditch the ancient operating system and undermines Microsoft’s assertion that Windows XP isn’t supported, while doing nothing to meaningfully improve the security of Windows XP users. The upside? It buys those users at best a few extra days of improved security. It’s hard to say how that was possibly worth it.

This is a hard trade-off, and it’s going to get much worse with the Internet of Things. Here’s me:

The security of our computers and phones also comes from the fact that we replace them regularly. We buy new laptops every few years. We get new phones even more frequently. This isn’t true for all of the embedded IoT systems. They last for years, even decades. We might buy a new DVR every five or ten years. We replace our refrigerator every 25 years. We replace our thermostat approximately never. Already the banking industry is dealing with the security problems of Windows 95 embedded in ATMs. This same problem is going to occur all over the Internet of Things.

At least Microsoft has security engineers on staff that can write a patch for Windows XP. There will be no one able to write patches for your 16-year-old thermostat and refrigerator, even assuming those devices can accept security patches.

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WannaCry and Vulnerabilities

There is plenty of blame to go around for the WannaCry ransomware that spread throughout the Internet earlier this month, disrupting work at hospitals, factories, businesses, and universities. First, there are the writers of the malicious software, which blocks victims’ access to their computers until they pay a fee. Then there are the users who didn’t install the Windows security patch that would have prevented an attack. A small portion of the blame falls on Microsoft, which wrote the insecure code in the first place. One could certainly condemn the Shadow Brokers, a group of hackers with links to Russia who stole and published the National Security Agency attack tools that included the exploit code used in the ransomware. But before all of this, there was the NSA, which found the vulnerability years ago and decided to exploit it rather than disclose it.

All software contains bugs or errors in the code. Some of these bugs have security implications, granting an attacker unauthorized access to or control of a computer. These vulnerabilities are rampant in the software we all use. A piece of software as large and complex as Microsoft Windows will contain hundreds of them, maybe more. These vulnerabilities have obvious criminal uses that can be neutralized if patched. Modern software is patched all the time — either on a fixed schedule, such as once a month with Microsoft, or whenever required, as with the Chrome browser.

When the US government discovers a vulnerability in a piece of software, however, it decides between two competing equities. It can keep it secret and use it offensively, to gather foreign intelligence, help execute search warrants, or deliver malware. Or it can alert the software vendor and see that the vulnerability is patched, protecting the country — and, for that matter, the world — from similar attacks by foreign governments and cybercriminals. It’s an either-or choice. As former US Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith has said, “Every offensive weapon is a (potential) chink in our defense — and vice versa.”

This is all well-trod ground, and in 2010 the US government put in place an interagency Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) to help balance the trade-off. The details are largely secret, but a 2014 blog post by then President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator, Michael Daniel, laid out the criteria that the government uses to decide when to keep a software flaw undisclosed. The post’s contents were unsurprising, listing questions such as “How much is the vulnerable system used in the core Internet infrastructure, in other critical infrastructure systems, in the US economy, and/or in national security systems?” and “Does the vulnerability, if left unpatched, impose significant risk?” They were balanced by questions like “How badly do we need the intelligence we think we can get from exploiting the vulnerability?” Elsewhere, Daniel has noted that the US government discloses to vendors the “overwhelming majority” of the vulnerabilities that it discovers — 91 percent, according to NSA Director Michael S. Rogers.

The particular vulnerability in WannaCry is code-named EternalBlue, and it was discovered by the US government — most likely the NSA — sometime before 2014. The Washington Post reported both how useful the bug was for attack and how much the NSA worried about it being used by others. It was a reasonable concern: many of our national security and critical infrastructure systems contain the vulnerable software, which imposed significant risk if left unpatched. And yet it was left unpatched.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue “for more than five years,” which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It’s not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue — or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August to remain unpatched for years isn’t serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was “unreal.” But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

Perhaps the NSA thought that no one else would discover EternalBlue. That’s another one of Daniel’s criteria: “How likely is it that someone else will discover the vulnerability?” This is often referred to as NOBUS, short for “nobody but us.” Can the NSA discover vulnerabilities that no one else will? Or are vulnerabilities discovered by one intelligence agency likely to be discovered by another, or by cybercriminals?

In the past few months, the tech community has acquired some data about this question. In one study, two colleagues from Harvard and I examined over 4,300 disclosed vulnerabilities in common software and concluded that 15 to 20 percent of them are rediscovered within a year. Separately, researchers at the Rand Corporation looked at a different and much smaller data set and concluded that fewer than six percent of vulnerabilities are rediscovered within a year. The questions the two papers ask are slightly different and the results are not directly comparable (we’ll both be discussing these results in more detail at the Black Hat Conference in July), but clearly, more research is needed.

People inside the NSA are quick to discount these studies, saying that the data don’t reflect their reality. They claim that there are entire classes of vulnerabilities the NSA uses that are not known in the research world, making rediscovery less likely. This may be true, but the evidence we have from the Shadow Brokers is that the vulnerabilities that the NSA keeps secret aren’t consistently different from those that researchers discover. And given the alarming ease with which both the NSA and CIA are having their attack tools stolen, rediscovery isn’t limited to independent security research.

But even if it is difficult to make definitive statements about vulnerability rediscovery, it is clear that vulnerabilities are plentiful. Any vulnerabilities that are discovered and used for offense should only remain secret for as short a time as possible. I have proposed six months, with the right to appeal for another six months in exceptional circumstances. The United States should satisfy its offensive requirements through a steady stream of newly discovered vulnerabilities that, when fixed, also improve the country’s defense.

The VEP needs to be reformed and strengthened as well. A report from last year by Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake, who both previously worked on cybersecurity policy at the White House National Security Council, makes some good suggestions on how to further formalize the process, increase its transparency and oversight, and ensure periodic review of the vulnerabilities that are kept secret and used for offense. This is the least we can do. A bill recently introduced in both the Senate and the House calls for this and more.

In the case of EternalBlue, the VEP did have some positive effects. When the NSA realized that the Shadow Brokers had stolen the tool, it alerted Microsoft, which released a patch in March. This prevented a true disaster when the Shadow Brokers exposed the vulnerability on the Internet. It was only unpatched systems that were susceptible to WannaCry a month later, including versions of Windows so old that Microsoft normally didn’t support them. Although the NSA must take its share of the responsibility, no matter how good the VEP is, or how many vulnerabilities the NSA reports and the vendors fix, security won’t improve unless users download and install patches, and organizations take responsibility for keeping their software and systems up to date. That is one of the important lessons to be learned from WannaCry.

This essay originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

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Google Discloses Details of an Unpatched Microsoft Vulnerability

Google’s Project Zero is serious about releasing the details of security vulnerabilities 90 days after they alert the vendors, even if they’re unpatched. It just exposed a nasty vulnerability in Microsoft’s browsers.

This is the second unpatched Microsoft vulnerability it exposed last week.

I’m a big fan of responsible disclosure. The threat to publish vulnerabilities is what puts pressure on vendors to patch their systems. But I wonder what competitive pressure is on the Google team to find embarrassing vulnerabilities in competitors’ products.

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