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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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Measuring Vulnerability Rediscovery

New paper: “Taking Stock: Estimating Vulnerability Rediscovery,” by Trey Herr, Bruce Schneier, and Christopher Morris:

Abstract: How often do multiple, independent, parties discover the same vulnerability? There are ample models of vulnerability discovery, but little academic work on this issue of rediscovery. The immature state of this research and subsequent debate is a problem for the policy community, where the government’s decision to disclose a given vulnerability hinges in part on that vulnerability’s likelihood of being discovered and used maliciously by another party. Research into the behavior of malicious software markets and the efficacy of bug bounty programs would similarly benefit from an accurate baseline estimate for how often vulnerabilities are discovered by multiple independent parties.

This paper presents a new dataset of more than 4,300 vulnerabilities, and estimates vulnerability rediscovery across different vendors and software types. It concludes that rediscovery happens more than twice as often as the 1-9% range previously reported. For our dataset, 15% to 20% of vulnerabilities are discovered independently at least twice within a year. For just Android, 13.9% of vulnerabilities are rediscovered within 60 days, rising to 20% within 90 days, and above 21% within 120 days. For the Chrome browser we found 12.57% rediscovery within 60 days; and the aggregate rate for our entire dataset generally rises over the eight-year span, topping out at 19.6% in 2016. We believe that the actual rate is even higher for certain types of software.

When combined with an estimate of the total count of vulnerabilities in use by the NSA, these rates suggest that rediscovery of vulnerabilities kept secret by the U.S. government may be the source of up to one-third of all zero-day vulnerabilities detected in use each year. These results indicate that the information security community needs to map the impact of rediscovery on the efficacy of bug bounty programs and policymakers should more rigorously evaluate the costs of non-disclosure of software vulnerabilities.

We wrote a blog post on the paper, and another when we issued a revised version.

Comments on the original paper by Dave Aitel. News articles.

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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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Good Article About Google’s Project Zero

Fortune magazine just published a good article about Google’s Project Zero, which finds and publishes exploits in other companies’ software products.

I have mixed feeling about it. The project does great work, and the Internet has benefited enormously from these efforts. But as long as it is embedded inside Google, it has to deal with accusations that it targets Google competitors.

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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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WikiLeaks Not Disclosing CIA-Hoarded Vulnerabilities to Companies

WikiLeaks has started publishing a large collection of classified CIA documents, including information on several — possibly many — unpublished (i.e., zero-day) vulnerabilities in computing equipment used by Americans. Despite assurances that the US government prioritizes defense over offense, it seems that the CIA was hoarding vulnerabilities. (It’s not just the CIA; last year we learned that the NSA is, too.)

Publishing those vulnerabilities into the public means that they’ll get fixed, but it also means that they’ll be used by criminals and other governments in the time period between when they’re published and when they’re patched. WikiLeaks has said that it’s going to do the right thing and privately disclose those vulnerabilities to the companies first.

This process seems to be hitting some snags:

This week, Assange sent an email to Apple, Google, Microsoft and all the companies mentioned in the documents. But instead of reporting the bugs or exploits found in the leaked CIA documents it has in its possession, WikiLeaks made demands, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

WikiLeaks included a document in the email, requesting the companies to sign off on a series of conditions before being able to receive the actual technical details to deploy patches, according to sources. It’s unclear what the conditions are, but a source mentioned a 90-day disclosure deadline, which would compel companies to commit to issuing a patch within three months.

I’m okay with a 90-day window; that seems reasonable. But I have no idea what the other conditions are, and how onerous they are.

Honestly, at this point the CIA should do the right thing and disclose all the vulnerabilities to the companies. They’re burned as CIA attack tools. I have every confidence that Russia, China, and several other countries can hack WikiLeaks and get their hands on a copy. By now, their primary value is for defense. The CIA should bypass WikiLeaks and get the vulnerabilities fixed as soon as possible.

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WikiLeaks Releases CIA Hacking Tools

WikiLeaks just released a cache of 8,761 classified CIA documents from 2012 to 2016, including details of its offensive Internet operations.

I have not read through any of them yet. If you see something interesting, tell us in the comments.

EDITED TO ADD: There’s a lot in here. Many of the hacking tools are redacted, with the tar files and sip archives replaced with messages like:



Hopefully we’ll get them eventually. The documents say that the CIA — and other intelligence services — can bypass Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. It seems to be by hacking the end-user devices and grabbing the traffic before and after encryption, not by breaking the encryption.

New York Times article.

EDITED TO ADD: Some details from The Guardian:

According to the documents:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence is based at the CIA headquarters in Virginia but it has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

I just noticed this from the WikiLeaks page:

Recently, the CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation. This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA. The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.

So it sounds like this cache of documents wasn’t taken from the CIA and given to WikiLeaks for publication, but has been passed around the community for a while — and incidentally some part of the cache was passed to WikiLeaks. So there are more documents out there, and others may release them in unredacted form.

Wired article. Slashdot thread. Two articles from the Washington Post.

EDITED TO ADD: This document talks about Comodo version 5.X and version 6.X. Version 6 was released in Feb 2013. Version 7 was released in Apr 2014. This gives us a time window of that page, and the cache in general. (WikiLeaks says that the documents cover 2013 to 2016.)

If these tools are a few years out of date, it’s similar to the NSA tools released by the “Shadow Brokers.” Most of us thought the Shadow Brokers were the Russians, specifically releasing older NSA tools that had diminished value as secrets. Could this be the Russians as well?

EDITED TO ADD: Nicholas Weaver comments.

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Duqu Malware Techniques Used by Cybercriminals

Duqu 2.0 is a really impressive piece of malware, related to Stuxnet and probably written by the NSA. One of its security features is that it stays resident in its host’s memory without ever writing persistent files to the system’s drives. Now, this same technique is being used by criminals:

Now, fileless malware is going mainstream, as financially motivated criminal hackers mimic their nation-sponsored counterparts. According to research Kaspersky Lab plans to publish Wednesday, networks belonging to at least 140 banks and other enterprises have been infected by malware that relies on the same in-memory design to remain nearly invisible. Because infections are so hard to spot, the actual number is likely much higher. Another trait that makes the infections hard to detect is the use of legitimate and widely used system administrative and security tools­ — including PowerShell, Metasploit, and Mimikatz­to inject the malware into computer memory.


The researchers first discovered the malware late last year, when a bank’s security team found a copy of Meterpreter­an in-memory component of Metasploit — ­residing inside the physical memory of a Microsoft domain controller. After conducting a forensic analysis, the researchers found that the Meterpreter code was downloaded and injected into memory using PowerShell commands. The infected machine also used Microsoft’s NETSH networking tool to transport data to attacker-controlled servers. To obtain the administrative privileges necessary to do these things, the attackers also relied on Mimikatz. To reduce the evidence left in logs or hard drives, the attackers stashed the PowerShell commands into the Windows registry.

BoingBoing post.

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iPhone Zero-Day Used by UAE Government

Last week, Apple issued a critical security patch for the iPhone: iOS 9.3.5. The incredible story is that this patch is the result of investigative work by Citizen Lab, which uncovered a zero-day exploit being used by the UAE government against a human rights defender. The UAE spyware was provided by the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group.

This is a big deal. iOS vulnerabilities are expensive, and can sell for over $1M. That we can find one used in the wild and patch it, rendering it valueless, is a major win and puts a huge dent in the vulnerabilities market. The more we can do this, the less valuable these zero-days will be to both criminals and governments — and to criminal governments.

Citizen Lab blog post and report. New York Times article. More news articles.

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