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Cell Phone Security and Heads of State

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump’s personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump’s cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at — but acquiesced to — the security rules prohibiting him from using a “regular” cell phone throughout his presidency.

Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump’s cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And — most personal of all — what about my cell phone calls?

There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet’s major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing “target selectors”: phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany — among them Chancellor Angela Merkel — France, Japan, and other countries.

Other countries don’t have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don’t know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman’s phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country’s phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.

Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don’t think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.

The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians — presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa — 45 countries in all.

These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200K for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.

Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone — Pixel — that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)

Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China’s recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.

Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it’s safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I’d say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.

It’s safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials — especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).

As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It’s easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO’s phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We’ve seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You’re at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn’t want to bother with security, you’re vulnerable.

This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers — including the FBI — can’t access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone’s phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD: Steven Bellovin and Susan Landau have a good essay on the same topic, as does Wired. Slashdot post.

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Russian Censorship of Telegram

Internet censors have a new strategy in their bid to block applications and websites: pressuring the large cloud providers that host them. These providers have concerns that are much broader than the targets of censorship efforts, so they have the choice of either standing up to the censors or capitulating in order to maximize their business. Today’s Internet largely reflects the dominance of a handful of companies behind the cloud services, search engines and mobile platforms that underpin the technology landscape. This new centralization radically tips the balance between those who want to censor parts of the Internet and those trying to evade censorship. When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors’ demands, how long can Internet freedom last?

The recent battle between the Russian government and the Telegram messaging app illustrates one way this might play out. Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender’s phone and decrypted on the receiver’s phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.

Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn’t a fixed website, it doesn’t need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.

A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking 19 million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.

More recently, Russia has been pressuring Apple not to offer the Telegram app in its iPhone App Store. As of this writing, Apple has not complied, and the company has allowed Telegram to download a critical software update to iPhone users (after what the app’s founder called a delay last month). Roskomnadzor could further pressure Apple, though, including by threatening to turn off its entire iPhone app business in Russia.

Telegram might seem a weird app for Russia to focus on. Those of us who work in security don’t recommend the program, primarily because of the nature of its cryptographic protocols. In general, proprietary cryptography has numerous fatal security flaws. We generally recommend Signal for secure SMS messaging, or, if having that program on your computer is somehow incriminating, WhatsApp. (More than 1.5 billion people worldwide use WhatsApp.) What Telegram has going for it is that it works really well on lousy networks. That’s why it is so popular in places like Iran and Afghanistan. (Iran is also trying to ban the app.)

What the Russian government doesn’t like about Telegram is its anonymous broadcast feature­ — channel capability and chats — ­which makes it an effective platform for political debate and citizen journalism. The Russians might not like that Telegram is encrypted, but odds are good that they can simply break the encryption. Telegram’s role in facilitating uncontrolled journalism is the real issue.

Iran attempts to block Telegram have been more successful than Russia’s, less because Iran’s censorship technology is more sophisticated but because Telegram is not willing to go as far to defend Iranian users. The reasons are not rooted in business decisions. Simply put, Telegram is a Russian product and the designers are more motivated to poke Russia in the eye. Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, has pledged millions of dollars to help fight Russian censorship.

For the moment, Russia has lost. But this battle is far from over. Russia could easily come back with more targeted pressure on Google, Amazon and Apple. A year earlier, Zello used the same trick Telegram is using to evade Russian censors. Then, Roskomnadzor threatened to block all of Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud; and in that instance, both companies forced Zello to stop its IP-hopping censorship-evasion tactic.

Russia could also further develop its censorship infrastructure. If its capabilities were as finely honed as China’s, it would be able to more effectively block Telegram from operating. Right now, Russia can block only specific IP addresses, which is too coarse a tool for this issue. Telegram’s voice capabilities in Russia are significantly degraded, however, probably because high-capacity IP addresses are easier to block.

Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned­ — and technically blocked­ — the practice of “domain fronting,” a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website­ — in this case Google.com­ — to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.

Tech giants have gotten embroiled in censorship battles for years. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fold, but until now there have always been options. What this particular fight highlights is that Internet freedom is increasingly in the hands of the world’s largest Internet companies. And while freedom may have its advocates — ­the American Civil Liberties Union has tweeted its support for those companies, and some 12,000 people in Moscow protested against the Telegram ban­ — actions such as disallowing domain fronting illustrate that getting the big tech companies to sacrifice their near-term commercial interests will be an uphill battle. Apple has already removed anti-censorship apps from its Chinese app store.

In 1993, John Gilmore famously said that “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” That was technically true when he said it but only because the routing structure of the Internet was so distributed. As centralization increases, the Internet loses that robustness, and censorship by governments and companies becomes easier.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Router Vulnerability and the VPNFilter Botnet

On May 25, the FBI asked us all to reboot our routers. The story behind this request is one of sophisticated malware and unsophisticated home-network security, and it’s a harbinger of the sorts of pervasive threats ­ from nation-states, criminals and hackers ­ that we should expect in coming years.

VPNFilter is a sophisticated piece of malware that infects mostly older home and small-office routers made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, QNAP and TP-Link. (For a list of specific models, click here.) It’s an impressive piece of work. It can eavesdrop on traffic passing through the router ­ specifically, log-in credentials and SCADA traffic, which is a networking protocol that controls power plants, chemical plants and industrial systems ­ attack other targets on the Internet and destructively “kill” its infected device. It is one of a very few pieces of malware that can survive a reboot, even though that’s what the FBI has requested. It has a number of other capabilities, and it can be remotely updated to provide still others. More than 500,000 routers in at least 54 countries have been infected since 2016.

Because of the malware’s sophistication, VPNFilter is believed to be the work of a government. The FBI suggested the Russian government was involved for two circumstantial reasons. One, a piece of the code is identical to one found in another piece of malware, called BlackEnergy, that was used in the December 2015 attack against Ukraine’s power grid. Russia is believed to be behind that attack. And two, the majority of those 500,000 infections are in Ukraine and controlled by a separate command-and-control server. There might also be classified evidence, as an FBI affidavit in this matter identifies the group behind VPNFilter as Sofacy, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. That’s the group behind a long list of attacks, including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Two companies, Cisco and Symantec, seem to have been working with the FBI during the past two years to track this malware as it infected ever more routers. The infection mechanism isn’t known, but we believe it targets known vulnerabilities in these older routers. Pretty much no one patches their routers, so the vulnerabilities have remained, even if they were fixed in new models from the same manufacturers.

On May 30, the FBI seized control of toknowall.com, a critical VPNFilter command-and-control server. This is called “sinkholing,” and serves to disrupt a critical part of this system. When infected routers contact toknowall.com, they will no longer be contacting a server owned by the malware’s creators; instead, they’ll be contacting a server owned by the FBI. This doesn’t entirely neutralize the malware, though. It will stay on the infected routers through reboot, and the underlying vulnerabilities remain, making the routers susceptible to reinfection with a variant controlled by a different server.

If you want to make sure your router is no longer infected and cannot be reinfected, you need to do more than reboot your router, the FBI’s warning notwithstanding. You need to reset the router to its factory settings. That means you need to reconfigure it for your network, which can be a pain if you’re not sophisticated in these matters. If you want to make sure your router cannot be reinfected, you need to update the firmware with any security patches from the manufacturer. This is harder to do and may strain your technical capabilities, though it’s ridiculous that routers don’t automatically download and install firmware updates on their own. Some of these models probably do not even have security patches available. Honestly, the best thing to do if you have one of the vulnerable models is to throw it away and get a new one. (Your ISP will probably send you a new one free if you claim that it’s not working properly. And you should have a new one, because if your current one is on the list, it’s at least 10 years old.)

So if it won’t clear out the malware, why is the FBI asking us to reboot our routers? It’s mostly just to get a sense of how bad the problem is. The FBI now controls toknowall.com. When an infected router gets rebooted, it connects to that server to get fully reinfected, and when it does, the FBI will know. Rebooting will give it a better idea of how many devices out there are infected.

Should you do it? It can’t hurt.

Internet of Things malware isn’t new. The 2016 Mirai botnet, for example, created by a lone hacker and not a government, targeted vulnerabilities in Internet-connected digital video recorders and webcams. Other malware has targeted Internet-connected thermostats. Lots of malware targets home routers. These devices are particularly vulnerable because they are often designed by ad hoc teams without a lot of security expertise, stay around in networks far longer than our computers and phones, and have no easy way to patch them.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Russians targeted routers to build a network of infected computers for follow-on cyber operations. I’m sure many governments are doing the same. As long as we allow these insecure devices on the Internet ­ and short of security regulations, there’s no way to stop them ­ we’re going to be vulnerable to this kind of malware.

And next time, the command-and-control server won’t be so easy to disrupt.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post

EDITED TO ADD: The malware is more capable than we previously thought.

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An Example of Deterrence in Cyberspace

In 2016, the US was successfully deterred from attacking Russia in cyberspace because of fears of Russian capabilities against the US.

I have two citations for this. The first is from the book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Here’s the quote:

The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.

“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure­ — and possibly shut down the electrical grid.

The second is from the book The World as It Is, by President Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Here’s the New York Times writing about the book.

Mr. Rhodes writes he did not learn about the F.B.I. investigation until after leaving office, and then from the news media. Mr. Obama did not impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the meddling before the election because he believed it might prompt Moscow into hacking into Election Day vote tabulations. Mr. Obama did impose sanctions after the election but Mr. Rhodes’s suggestion that the targets include President Vladimir V. Putin was rebuffed on the theory that such a move would go too far.

When people try to claim that there’s no such thing as deterrence in cyberspace, this serves as a counterexample.

EDITED TO ADD: Remember the blog rules. Comments that are not about the narrow topic of deterrence in cyberspace will be deleted. Please take broader discussions of the 2016 US election elsewhere.

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Russia is Banning Telegram

Russia has banned the secure messaging app Telegram. It’s making an absolute mess of the ban — blocking 16 million IP addresses, many belonging to the Amazon and Google clouds — and it’s not even clear that it’s working. But, more importantly, I’m not convinced Telegram is secure in the first place.

Such a weird story. If you want secure messaging, use Signal. If you’re concerned that having Signal on your phone will itself arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.

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Russians Hacked the Olympics

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the myriad of hacking threats against the Olympics. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Russia hacked the Olympics network and tried to cast the blame on North Korea.

Of course, the evidence is classified, so there’s no way to verify this claim. And while the article speculates that the hacks were a retaliation for Russia being banned due to doping, that doesn’t ring true to me. If they tried to blame North Korea, it’s more likely that they’re trying to disrupt something between North Korea, South Korea, and the US. But I don’t know.

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Internet Security Threats at the Olympics

There are a lot:

The cybersecurity company McAfee recently uncovered a cyber operation, dubbed Operation GoldDragon, attacking South Korean organizations related to the Winter Olympics. McAfee believes the attack came from a nation state that speaks Korean, although it has no definitive proof that this is a North Korean operation. The victim organizations include ice hockey teams, ski suppliers, ski resorts, tourist organizations in Pyeongchang, and departments organizing the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Meanwhile, a Russia-linked cyber attack has already stolen and leaked documents from other Olympic organizations. The so-called Fancy Bear group, or APT28, began its operations in late 2017 –­ according to Trend Micro and Threat Connect, two private cybersecurity firms­ — eventually publishing documents in 2018 outlining the political tensions between IOC officials and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) officials who are policing Olympic athletes. It also released documents specifying exceptions to anti-doping regulations granted to specific athletes (for instance, one athlete was given an exception because of his asthma medication). The most recent Fancy Bear leak exposed details about a Canadian pole vaulter’s positive results for cocaine. This group has targeted WADA in the past, specifically during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Assuming the attribution is right, the action appears to be Russian retaliation for the punitive steps against Russia.

A senior analyst at McAfee warned that the Olympics may experience more cyber attacks before closing ceremonies. A researcher at ThreatConnect asserted that organizations like Fancy Bear have no reason to stop operations just because they’ve already stolen and released documents. Even the United States Department of Homeland Security has issued a notice to those traveling to South Korea to remind them to protect themselves against cyber risks.

One presumes the Olympics network is sufficiently protected against the more pedestrian DDoS attacks and the like, but who knows?

EDITED TO ADD: There was already one attack.

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More on Kaspersky and the Stolen NSA Attack Tools

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post are reporting that Israel has penetrated Kaspersky’s network and detected the Russian operation.

From the New York Times:

Israeli intelligence officers informed the NSA that, in the course of their Kaspersky hack, they uncovered evidence that Russian government hackers were using Kaspersky’s access to aggressively scan for American government classified programs and pulling any findings back to Russian intelligence systems. [Israeli intelligence] provided their NSA counterparts with solid evidence of the Kremlin campaign in the form of screenshots and other documentation, according to the people briefed on the events.

Kaspersky first noticed the Israeli intelligence operation in 2015.

The Washington Post writes about the NSA tools being on the home computer in the first place:

The employee, whose name has not been made public and is under investigation by federal prosecutors, did not intend to pass the material to a foreign adversary. “There wasn’t any malice,” said one person familiar with the case, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. “It’s just that he was trying to complete the mission, and he needed the tools to do it.

I don’t buy this. People with clearances are told over and over not to take classified material home with them. It’s not just mentioned occasionally; it’s a core part of the job.

More news articles.

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