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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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The NSA Warns of TLS Inspection

The NSA has released a security advisory warning of the dangers of TLS inspection:

Transport Layer Security Inspection (TLSI), also known as TLS break and inspect, is a security process that allows enterprises to decrypt traffic, inspect the decrypted content for threats, and then re-encrypt the traffic before it enters or leaves the network. Introducing this capability into an enterprise enhances visibility within boundary security products, but introduces new risks. These risks, while not inconsequential, do have mitigations.

[…]

The primary risk involved with TLSI’s embedded CA is the potential abuse of the CA to issue unauthorized certificates trusted by the TLS clients. Abuse of a trusted CA can allow an adversary to sign malicious code to bypass host IDS/IPSs or to deploy malicious services that impersonate legitimate enterprise services to the hosts.

[…]

A further risk of introducing TLSI is that an adversary can focus their exploitation efforts on a single device where potential traffic of interest is decrypted, rather than try to exploit each location where the data is stored.Setting a policy to enforce that traffic is decrypted and inspected only as authorized, and ensuring that decrypted traffic is contained in an out-of-band, isolated segment of the network prevents unauthorized access to the decrypted traffic.

[…]

To minimize the risks described above, breaking and inspecting TLS traffic should only be conducted once within the enterprise network. Redundant TLSI, wherein a client-server traffic flow is decrypted, inspected, and re-encrypted by one forward proxy and is then forwarded to a second forward proxy for more of the same,should not be performed.Inspecting multiple times can greatly complicate diagnosing network issues with TLS traffic. Also, multi-inspection further obscures certificates when trying to ascertain whether a server should be trusted. In this case, the “outermost” proxy makes the decisions on what server certificates or CAs should be trusted and is the only location where certificate pinning can be performed.Finally, a single TLSI implementation is sufficient for detecting encrypted traffic threats; additional TLSI will have access to the same traffic. If the first TLSI implementation detected a threat, killed the session, and dropped the traffic, then additional TLSI implementations would be rendered useless since they would not even receive the dropped traffic for further inspection. Redundant TLSI increases the risk surface, provides additional opportunities for adversaries to gain unauthorized access to decrypted traffic, and offers no additional benefits.

Nothing surprising or novel. No operational information about who might be implementing these attacks. No classified information revealed.

News article.

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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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NSA on the Future of National Cybersecurity

Glenn Gerstell, the General Counsel of the NSA, wrote a long and interesting op-ed for the New York Times where he outlined a long list of cyber risks facing the US.

There are four key implications of this revolution that policymakers in the national security sector will need to address:

The first is that the unprecedented scale and pace of technological change will outstrip our ability to effectively adapt to it. Second, we will be in a world of ceaseless and pervasive cyberinsecurity and cyberconflict against nation-states, businesses and individuals. Third, the flood of data about human and machine activity will put such extraordinary economic and political power in the hands of the private sector that it will transform the fundamental relationship, at least in the Western world, between government and the private sector. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the digital revolution has the potential for a pernicious effect on the very legitimacy and thus stability of our governmental and societal structures.

He then goes on to explain these four implications. It’s all interesting, and it’s the sort of stuff you don’t generally hear from the NSA. He talks about technological changes causing social changes, and the need for people who understand that. (Hooray for public-interest technologists.) He talks about national security infrastructure in private hands, at least in the US. He talks about a massive geopolitical restructuring — a fundamental change in the relationship between private tech corporations and government. He talks about recalibrating the Fourth Amendment (of course).

The essay is more about the problems than the solutions, but there is a bit at the end:

The first imperative is that our national security agencies must quickly accept this forthcoming reality and embrace the need for significant changes to address these challenges. This will have to be done in short order, since the digital revolution’s pace will soon outstrip our ability to deal with it, and it will have to be done at a time when our national security agencies are confronted with complex new geopolitical threats.

Much of what needs to be done is easy to see — developing the requisite new technologies and attracting and retaining the expertise needed for that forthcoming reality. What is difficult is executing the solution to those challenges, most notably including whether our nation has the resources and political will to effect that solution. The roughly $60 billion our nation spends annually on the intelligence community might have to be significantly increased during a time of intense competition over the federal budget. Even if the amount is indeed so increased, spending additional vast sums to meet the challenges in an effective way will be a daunting undertaking. Fortunately, the same digital revolution that presents these novel challenges also sometimes provides the new tools (A.I., for example) to deal with them.

The second imperative is we must adapt to the unavoidable conclusion that the fundamental relationship between government and the private sector will be greatly altered. The national security agencies must have a vital role in reshaping that balance if they are to succeed in their mission to protect our democracy and keep our citizens safe. While there will be good reasons to increase the resources devoted to the intelligence community, other factors will suggest that an increasing portion of the mission should be handled by the private sector. In short, addressing the challenges will not necessarily mean that the national security sector will become massively large, with the associated risks of inefficiency, insufficient coordination and excessively intrusive surveillance and data retention.

A smarter approach would be to recognize that as the capabilities of the private sector increase, the scope of activities of the national security agencies could become significantly more focused, undertaking only those activities in which government either has a recognized advantage or must be the only actor. A greater burden would then be borne by the private sector.

It’s an extraordinary essay, less for its contents and more for the speaker. This is not the sort of thing the NSA publishes. The NSA doesn’t opine on broad technological trends and their social implications. It doesn’t publicly try to predict the future. It doesn’t philosophize for 6000 unclassified words. And, given how hard it would be to get something like this approved for public release, I am left to wonder what the purpose of the essay is. Is the NSA trying to lay the groundwork for some policy initiative ? Some legislation? A budget request? What?

Charlie Warzel has a snarky response. His conclusion about the purpose:

He argues that the piece “is not in the spirit of forecasting doom, but rather to sound an alarm.” Translated: Congress, wake up. Pay attention. We’ve seen the future and it is a sweaty, pulsing cyber night terror. So please give us money (the word “money” doesn’t appear in the text, but the word “resources” appears eight times and “investment” shows up 11 times).

Susan Landau has a more considered response, which is well worth reading. She calls the essay a proposal for a moonshot (which is another way of saying “they want money”). And she has some important pushbacks on the specifics.

I don’t expect the general counsel and I will agree on what the answers to these questions should be. But I strongly concur on the importance of the questions and that the United States does not have time to waste in responding to them. And I thank him for raising these issues in so public a way.

I agree with Landau.

Slashdot thread.

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The Myth of Consumer-Grade Security

The Department of Justice wants access to encrypted consumer devices but promises not to infiltrate business products or affect critical infrastructure. Yet that’s not possible, because there is no longer any difference between those categories of devices. Consumer devices are critical infrastructure. They affect national security. And it would be foolish to weaken them, even at the request of law enforcement.

In his keynote address at the International Conference on Cybersecurity, Attorney General William Barr argued that companies should weaken encryption systems to gain access to consumer devices for criminal investigations. Barr repeated a common fallacy about a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer encryption: “After all, we are not talking about protecting the nation’s nuclear launch codes. Nor are we necessarily talking about the customized encryption used by large business enterprises to protect their operations. We are talking about consumer products and services such as messaging, smart phones, e-mail, and voice and data applications.”

The thing is, that distinction between military and consumer products largely doesn’t exist. All of those “consumer products” Barr wants access to are used by government officials — heads of state, legislators, judges, military commanders and everyone else — worldwide. They’re used by election officials, police at all levels, nuclear power plant operators, CEOs and human rights activists. They’re critical to national security as well as personal security.

This wasn’t true during much of the Cold War. Before the Internet revolution, military-grade electronics were different from consumer-grade. Military contracts drove innovation in many areas, and those sectors got the cool new stuff first. That started to change in the 1980s, when consumer electronics started to become the place where innovation happened. The military responded by creating a category of military hardware called COTS: commercial off-the-shelf technology. More consumer products became approved for military applications. Today, pretty much everything that doesn’t have to be hardened for battle is COTS and is the exact same product purchased by consumers. And a lot of battle-hardened technologies are the same computer hardware and software products as the commercial items, but in sturdier packaging.

Through the mid-1990s, there was a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer-grade encryption. Laws regulated encryption as a munition and limited what could legally be exported only to key lengths that were easily breakable. That changed with the rise of Internet commerce, because the needs of commercial applications more closely mirrored the needs of the military. Today, the predominant encryption algorithm for commercial applications — Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) — is approved by the National Security Agency (NSA) to secure information up to the level of Top Secret. The Department of Defense’s classified analogs of the Internet­ — Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and probably others whose names aren’t yet public — use the same Internet protocols, software, and hardware that the rest of the world does, albeit with additional physical controls. And the NSA routinely assists in securing business and consumer systems, including helping Google defend itself from Chinese hackers in 2010.

Yes, there are some military applications that are different. The US nuclear system Barr mentions is one such example — and it uses ancient computers and 8-inch floppy drives. But for pretty much everything that doesn’t see active combat, it’s modern laptops, iPhones, the same Internet everyone else uses, and the same cloud services.

This is also true for corporate applications. Corporations rarely use customized encryption to protect their operations. They also use the same types of computers, networks, and cloud services that the government and consumers use. Customized security is both more expensive because it is unique, and less secure because it’s nonstandard and untested.

During the Cold War, the NSA had the dual mission of attacking Soviet computers and communications systems and defending domestic counterparts. It was possible to do both simultaneously only because the two systems were different at every level. Today, the entire world uses Internet protocols; iPhones and Android phones; and iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal to secure their chats. Consumer-grade encryption is the same as military-grade encryption, and consumer security is the same as national security.

Barr can’t weaken consumer systems without also weakening commercial, government, and military systems. There’s one world, one network, and one answer. As a matter of policy, the nation has to decide which takes precedence: offense or defense. If security is deliberately weakened, it will be weakened for everybody. And if security is strengthened, it is strengthened for everybody. It’s time to accept the fact that these systems are too critical to society to weaken. Everyone will be more secure with stronger encryption, even if it means the bad guys get to use that encryption as well.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Palantir’s Surveillance Service for Law Enforcement

Motherboard got its hands on Palantir’s Gotham user’s manual, which is used by the police to get information on people:

The Palantir user guide shows that police can start with almost no information about a person of interest and instantly know extremely intimate details about their lives. The capabilities are staggering, according to the guide:

  • If police have a name that’s associated with a license plate, they can use automatic license plate reader data to find out where they’ve been, and when they’ve been there. This can give a complete account of where someone has driven over any time period.

  • With a name, police can also find a person’s email address, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, bank accounts, social security number(s), business relationships, family relationships, and license information like height, weight, and eye color, as long as it’s in the agency’s database.

  • The software can map out a person’s family members and business associates of a suspect, and theoretically, find the above information about them, too.

All of this information is aggregated and synthesized in a way that gives law enforcement nearly omniscient knowledge over any suspect they decide to surveil.

Read the whole article — it has a lot of details. This seems like a commercial version of the NSA’s XKEYSCORE.

Boing Boing post.

Meanwhile:

The FBI wants to gather more information from social media. Today, it issued a call for contracts for a new social media monitoring tool. According to a request-for-proposals (RFP), it’s looking for an “early alerting tool” that would help it monitor terrorist groups, domestic threats, criminal activity and the like.

The tool would provide the FBI with access to the full social media profiles of persons-of-interest. That could include information like user IDs, emails, IP addresses and telephone numbers. The tool would also allow the FBI to track people based on location, enable persistent keyword monitoring and provide access to personal social media history. According to the RFP, “The mission-critical exploitation of social media will enable the Bureau to detect, disrupt, and investigate an ever growing diverse range of threats to U.S. National interests.”

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NSA Hawaii

Recently I’ve heard Edward Snowden talk about his working at the NSA in Hawaii as being “under a pineapple field.” CBS News recently ran a segment on that NSA listening post on Oahu.

Not a whole lot of actual information. “We’re in office building, in a pineapple field, on Oahu….” And part of it is underground — we see a tunnel. We didn’t get to see any pineapples, though.

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Visiting the NSA

Yesterday, I visited the NSA. It was Cyber Command’s birthday, but that’s not why I was there. I visited as part of the Berklett Cybersecurity Project, run out of the Berkman Klein Center and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. (BERKman hewLETT — get it? We have a web page, but it’s badly out of date.)

It was a full day of meetings, all unclassified but under the Chatham House Rule. Gen. Nakasone welcomed us and took questions at the start. Various senior officials spoke with us on a variety of topics, but mostly focused on three areas:

  • Russian influence operations, both what the NSA and US Cyber Command did during the 2018 election and what they can do in the future;

  • China and the threats to critical infrastructure from untrusted computer hardware, both the 5G network and more broadly;

  • Machine learning, both how to ensure a ML system is compliant with all laws, and how ML can help with other compliance tasks.

It was all interesting. Those first two topics are ones that I am thinking and writing about, and it was good to hear their perspective. I find that I am much more closely aligned with the NSA about cybersecurity than I am about privacy, which made the meeting much less fraught than it would have been if we were discussing Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, Section 215 the USA Freedom Act (up for renewal next year), or any 4th Amendment violations. I don’t think we’re past those issues by any means, but they make up less of what I am working on.

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Another NSA Leaker Identified and Charged

In 2015, the Intercept started publishing “The Drone Papers,” based on classified documents leaked by an unknown whistleblower. Today, someone who worked at the NSA, and then at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was charged with the crime. It is unclear how he was initially identified. It might have been this: “At the agency, prosecutors said, Mr. Hale printed 36 documents from his Top Secret computer.”

The article talks about evidence collected after he was identified and searched:

According to the indictment, in August 2014, Mr. Hale’s cellphone contact list included information for the reporter, and he possessed two thumb drives. One thumb drive contained a page marked “secret” from a classified document that Mr. Hale had printed in February 2014. Prosecutors said Mr. Hale had tried to delete the document from the thumb drive.

The other thumb drive contained Tor software and the Tails operating system, which were recommended by the reporter’s online news outlet in an article published on its website regarding how to anonymously leak documents.

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