Russia’s SolarWinds Attack and Software Security

The information that is emerging about Russia’s extensive cyberintelligence operation against the United States and other countries should be increasingly alarming to the public. The magnitude of the hacking, now believed to have affected more than 250 federal agencies and businesses — ­primarily through a malicious update of the SolarWinds network management software — ­may have slipped under most people’s radar during the holiday season, but its implications are stunning.

According to a Washington Post report, this is a massive intelligence coup by Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR). And a massive security failure on the part of the United States is also to blame. Our insecure Internet infrastructure has become a critical national security risk­ — one that we need to take seriously and spend money to reduce.

President-elect Joe Biden’s initial response spoke of retaliation, but there really isn’t much the United States can do beyond what it already does. Cyberespionage is business as usual among countries and governments, and the United States is aggressively offensive in this regard. We benefit from the lack of norms in this area and are unlikely to push back too hard because we don’t want to limit our own offensive actions.

Biden took a more realistic tone last week when he spoke of the need to improve US defenses. The initial focus will likely be on how to clean the hackers out of our networks, why the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command failed to detect this intrusion and whether the 2-year-old Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has the resources necessary to defend the United States against attacks of this caliber. These are important discussions to have, but we also need to address the economic incentives that led to SolarWinds being breached and how that insecure software ended up in so many critical US government networks.

Software has become incredibly complicated. Most of us almost don’t know all of the software running on our laptops and what it’s doing. We don’t know where it’s connecting to on the Internet­ — not even which countries it’s connecting to­ — and what data it’s sending. We typically don’t know what third party libraries are in the software we install. We don’t know what software any of our cloud services are running. And we’re rarely alone in our ignorance. Finding all of this out is incredibly difficult.

This is even more true for software that runs our large government networks, or even the Internet backbone. Government software comes from large companies, small suppliers, open source projects and everything in between. Obscure software packages can have hidden vulnerabilities that affect the security of these networks, and sometimes the entire Internet. Russia’s SVR leveraged one of those vulnerabilities when it gained access to SolarWinds’ update server, tricking thousands of customers into downloading a malicious software update that gave the Russians access to those networks.

The fundamental problem is one of economic incentives. The market rewards quick development of products. It rewards new features. It rewards spying on customers and users: collecting and selling individual data. The market does not reward security, safety or transparency. It doesn’t reward reliability past a bare minimum, and it doesn’t reward resilience at all.

This is what happened at SolarWinds. A New York Times report noted the company ignored basic security practices. It moved software development to Eastern Europe, where Russia has more influence and could potentially subvert programmers, because it’s cheaper.

Short-term profit was seemingly prioritized over product security.

Companies have the right to make decisions like this. The real question is why the US government bought such shoddy software for its critical networks. This is a problem that Biden can fix, and he needs to do so immediately.

The United States needs to improve government software procurement. Software is now critical to national security. Any system for acquiring software needs to evaluate the security of the software and the security practices of the company, in detail, to ensure they are sufficient to meet the security needs of the network they’re being installed in. Procurement contracts need to include security controls of the software development process. They need security attestations on the part of the vendors, with substantial penalties for misrepresentation or failure to comply. The government needs detailed best practices for government and other companies.

Some of the groundwork for an approach like this has already been laid by the federal government, which has sponsored the development of a “Software Bill of Materials” that would set out a process for software makers to identify the components used to assemble their software.

This scrutiny can’t end with purchase. These security requirements need to be monitored throughout the software’s life cycle, along with what software is being used in government networks.

None of this is cheap, and we should be prepared to pay substantially more for secure software. But there’s a benefit to these practices. If the government evaluations are public, along with the list of companies that meet them, all network buyers can benefit from them. The US government acting purely in the realm of procurement can improve the security of nongovernmental networks worldwide.

This is important, but it isn’t enough. We need to set minimum safety and security standards for all software: from the code in that Internet of Things appliance you just bought to the code running our critical national infrastructure. It’s all one network, and a vulnerability in your refrigerator’s software can be used to attack the national power grid.

The IOT Cybersecurity Improvement Act, signed into law last month, is a start in this direction.

The Biden administration should prioritize minimum security standards for all software sold in the United States, not just to the government but to everyone. Long gone are the days when we can let the software industry decide how much emphasis to place on security. Software security is now a matter of personal safety: whether it’s ensuring your car isn’t hacked over the Internet or that the national power grid isn’t hacked by the Russians.

This regulation is the only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers — just as legislation was necessary to mandate food safety measures and require auto manufacturers to install life-saving features such as seat belts and air bags. Smart regulations that incentivize innovation create a market for security features. And they improve security for everyone.

It’s true that creating software in this sort of regulatory environment is more expensive. But if we truly value our personal and national security, we need to be prepared to pay for it.

The truth is that we’re already paying for it. Today, software companies increase their profits by secretly pushing risk onto their customers. We pay the cost of insecure personal computers, just as the government is now paying the cost to clean up after the SolarWinds hack. Fixing this requires both transparency and regulation. And while the industry will resist both, they are essential for national security in our increasingly computer-dependent worlds.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

More on the SolarWinds Breach

The New York Times has more details.

About 18,000 private and government users downloaded a Russian tainted software update –­ a Trojan horse of sorts ­– that gave its hackers a foothold into victims’ systems, according to SolarWinds, the company whose software was compromised.

Among those who use SolarWinds software are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department, the Justice Department, parts of the Pentagon and a number of utility companies. While the presence of the software is not by itself evidence that each network was compromised and information was stolen, investigators spent Monday trying to understand the extent of the damage in what could be a significant loss of American data to a foreign attacker.

It’s unlikely that the SVR (a successor to the KGB) penetrated all of those networks. But it is likely that they penetrated many of the important ones. And that they have buried themselves into those networks, giving them persistent access even if this vulnerability is patched. This is a massive intelligence coup for the Russians and failure for the Americans, even if no classified networks were touched.

Meanwhile, CISA has directed everyone to remove SolarWinds from their networks. This is (1) too late to matter, and (2) likely to take many months to complete. Probably the right answer, though.

This is almost too stupid to believe:

In one previously unreported issue, multiple criminals have offered to sell access to SolarWinds’ computers through underground forums, according to two researchers who separately had access to those forums.

One of those offering claimed access over the Exploit forum in 2017 was known as “fxmsp” and is wanted by the FBI “for involvement in several high-profile incidents,” said Mark Arena, chief executive of cybercrime intelligence firm Intel471. Arena informed his company’s clients, which include U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Security researcher Vinoth Kumar told Reuters that, last year, he alerted the company that anyone could access SolarWinds’ update server by using the password “solarwinds123”

“This could have been done by any attacker, easily,” Kumar said.

Neither the password nor the stolen access is considered the most likely source of the current intrusion, researchers said.

That last sentence is important, yes. But the sloppy security practice is likely not an isolated incident, and speaks to the overall lack of security culture at the company.

And I noticed that SolarWinds has removed its customer page, presumably as part of its damage control efforts. I quoted from it. Did anyone save a copy?

EDITED TO ADD: Both the Wayback Machine and Brian Krebs have saved the SolarWinds customer page.

Should There Be Limits on Persuasive Technologies?

Persuasion is as old as our species. Both democracy and the market economy depend on it. Politicians persuade citizens to vote for them, or to support different policy positions. Businesses persuade consumers to buy their products or services. We all persuade our friends to accept our choice of restaurant, movie, and so on. It’s essential to society; we couldn’t get large groups of people to work together without it. But as with many things, technology is fundamentally changing the nature of persuasion. And society needs to adapt its rules of persuasion or suffer the consequences.

Democratic societies, in particular, are in dire need of a frank conversation about the role persuasion plays in them and how technologies are enabling powerful interests to target audiences. In a society where public opinion is a ruling force, there is always a risk of it being mobilized for ill purposes — ­such as provoking fear to encourage one group to hate another in a bid to win office, or targeting personal vulnerabilities to push products that might not benefit the consumer.

In this regard, the United States, already extremely polarized, sits on a precipice.

There have long been rules around persuasion. The US Federal Trade Commission enforces laws that claims about products “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” Political advertisers must identify themselves in television ads. If someone abuses a position of power to force another person into a contract, undue influence can be argued to nullify that agreement. Yet there is more to persuasion than the truth, transparency, or simply applying pressure.

Persuasion also involves psychology, and that has been far harder to regulate. Using psychology to persuade people is not new. Edward Bernays, a pioneer of public relations and nephew to Sigmund Freud, made a marketing practice of appealing to the ego. His approach was to tie consumption to a person’s sense of self. In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays advocated engineering events to persuade target audiences as desired. In one famous stunt, he hired women to smoke cigarettes while taking part in the 1929 New York City Easter Sunday parade, causing a scandal while linking smoking with the emancipation of women. The tobacco industry would continue to market lifestyle in selling cigarettes into the 1960s.

Emotional appeals have likewise long been a facet of political campaigns. In the 1860 US presidential election, Southern politicians and newspaper editors spread fears of what a “Black Republican” win would mean, painting horrific pictures of what the emancipation of slaves would do to the country. In the 2020 US presidential election, modern-day Republicans used Cuban Americans’ fears of socialism in ads on Spanish-language radio and messaging on social media. Because of the emotions involved, many voters believed the campaigns enough to let them influence their decisions.

The Internet has enabled new technologies of persuasion to go even further. Those seeking to influence others can collect and use data about targeted audiences to create personalized messaging. Tracking the websites a person visits, the searches they make online, and what they engage with on social media, persuasion technologies enable those who have access to such tools to better understand audiences and deliver more tailored messaging where audiences are likely to see it most. This information can be combined with data about other activities, such as offline shopping habits, the places a person visits, and the insurance they buy, to create a profile of them that can be used to develop persuasive messaging that is aimed at provoking a specific response.

Our senses of self, meanwhile, are increasingly shaped by our interaction with technology. The same digital environment where we read, search, and converse with our intimates enables marketers to take that data and turn it back on us. A modern day Bernays no longer needs to ferret out the social causes that might inspire you or entice you­ — you’ve likely already shared that by your online behavior.

Some marketers posit that women feel less attractive on Mondays, particularly first thing in the morning — ­and therefore that’s the best time to advertise cosmetics to them. The New York Times once experimented by predicting the moods of readers based on article content to better target ads, enabling marketers to find audiences when they were sad or fearful. Some music streaming platforms encourage users to disclose their current moods, which helps advertisers target subscribers based on their emotional states.

The phones in our pockets provide marketers with our location in real time, helping deliver geographically relevant ads, such as propaganda to those attending a political rally. This always-on digital experience enables marketers to know what we are doing­ — and when, where, and how we might be feeling at that moment.

All of this is not intended to be alarmist. It is important not to overstate the effectiveness of persuasive technologies. But while many of them are more smoke and mirrors than reality, it is likely that they will only improve over time. The technology already exists to help predict moods of some target audiences, pinpoint their location at any given time, and deliver fairly tailored and timely messaging. How far does that ability need to go before it erodes the autonomy of those targeted to make decisions of their own free will?

Right now, there are few legal or even moral limits on persuasion­ — and few answers regarding the effectiveness of such technologies. Before it is too late, the world needs to consider what is acceptable and what is over the line.

For example, it’s been long known that people are more receptive to advertisements made with people who look like them: in race, ethnicity, age, gender. Ads have long been modified to suit the general demographic of the television show or magazine they appear in. But we can take this further. The technology exists to take your likeness and morph it with a face that is demographically similar to you. The result is a face that looks like you, but that you don’t recognize. If that turns out to be more persuasive than coarse demographic targeting, is that okay?

Another example: Instead of just advertising to you when they detect that you are vulnerable, what if advertisers craft advertisements that deliberately manipulate your mood? In some ways, being able to place ads alongside content that is likely to provoke a certain emotional response enables advertisers to do this already. The only difference is that the media outlet claims it isn’t crafting the content to deliberately achieve this. But is it acceptable to actively prime a target audience and then to deliver persuasive messaging that fits the mood?

Further, emotion-based decision-making is not the rational type of slow thinking that ought to inform important civic choices such as voting. In fact, emotional thinking threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the system, as voters are essentially provoked to move in whatever direction someone with power and money wants. Given the pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the often instant, reactive responses people have to them, how much emotion ought to be allowed in persuasive technologies? Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Finally, for most people today, exposure to information and technology is pervasive. The average US adult spends more than eleven hours a day interacting with media. Such levels of engagement lead to huge amounts of personal data generated and aggregated about you­ — your preferences, interests, and state of mind. The more those who control persuasive technologies know about us, what we are doing, how we are feeling, when we feel it, and where we are, the better they can tailor messaging that provokes us into action. The unsuspecting target is grossly disadvantaged. Is it acceptable for the same services to both mediate our digital experience and to target us? Is there ever such thing as too much targeting?

The power dynamics of persuasive technologies are changing. Access to tools and technologies of persuasion is not egalitarian. Many require large amounts of both personal data and computation power, turning modern persuasion into an arms race where the better resourced will be better placed to influence audiences.

At the same time, the average person has very little information about how these persuasion technologies work, and is thus unlikely to understand how their beliefs and opinions might be manipulated by them. What’s more, there are few rules in place to protect people from abuse of persuasion technologies, much less even a clear articulation of what constitutes a level of manipulation so great it effectively takes agency away from those targeted. This creates a positive feedback loop that is dangerous for society.

In the 1970s, there was widespread fear about so-called subliminal messaging, which claimed that images of sex and death were hidden in the details of print advertisements, as in the curls of smoke in cigarette ads and the ice cubes of liquor ads. It was pretty much all a hoax, but that didn’t stop the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission from declaring it an illegal persuasive technology. That’s how worried people were about being manipulated without their knowledge and consent.

It is time to have a serious conversation about limiting the technologies of persuasion. This must begin by articulating what is permitted and what is not. If we don’t, the powerful persuaders will become even more powerful.

This essay was written with Alicia Wanless, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

A Cybersecurity Policy Agenda

The Aspen Institute’s Aspen Cybersecurity Group — I’m a member — has released its cybersecurity policy agenda for the next four years.

The next administration and Congress cannot simultaneously address the wide array of cybersecurity risks confronting modern society. Policymakers in the White House, federal agencies, and Congress should zero in on the most important and solvable problems. To that end, this report covers five priority areas where we believe cybersecurity policymakers should focus their attention and resources as they contend with a presidential transition, a new Congress, and massive staff turnover across our nation’s capital.

  • Education and Workforce Development
  • Public Core Resilience
  • Supply Chain Security
  • Measuring Cybersecurity
  • Promoting Operational Collaboration

Lots of detail in the 70-page report.

Undermining Democracy

Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

More on the Security of the 2020 US Election

Last week I signed on to two joint letters about the security of the 2020 election. The first was as one of 59 election security experts, basically saying that while the election seems to have been both secure and accurate (voter suppression notwithstanding), we still need to work to secure our election systems:

We are aware of alarming assertions being made that the 2020 election was “rigged” by exploiting technical vulnerabilities. However, in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent. To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.

That said, it is imperative that the US continue working to bolster the security of elections against sophisticated adversaries. At a minimum, all states should employ election security practices and mechanisms recommended by experts to increase assurance in election outcomes, such as post-election risk-limiting audits.

The New York Times wrote about the letter.

The second was a more general call for election security measures in the US:

Obviously elections themselves are partisan. But the machinery of them should not be. And the transparent assessment of potential problems or the assessment of allegations of security failure — even when they could affect the outcome of an election — must be free of partisan pressures. Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election.

These pile on to the November 12 statement from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the other agencies of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) Executive Committee. While I’m not sure how they have enough comparative data to claim that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they are certainly credible in saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

We have a long way to go to secure our election systems from hacking. Details of what to do are known. Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines is important, but baseless claims of fraud don’t help.

Michael Ellis as NSA General Counsel

Over at Lawfare, Susan Hennessey has an excellent primer on how Trump loyalist Michael Ellis got to be the NSA General Counsel, over the objections of NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and what Biden can and should do about it.

While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.

The moment also poses a test for President-elect Biden’s transition, which must address the delicate balance between remedying improper politicization of the intelligence community, defending career roles against impermissible burrowing, and restoring civil service rules that prohibit both partisan favoritism and retribution. The Biden team needs to set a marker now, to clarify the situation to the public and to enable a new Pentagon general counsel to proceed with credibility and independence in investigating and potentially taking remedial action upon assuming office.

The NSA general counsel is not a Senate-confirmed role. Unlike the general counsels of the CIA, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all of which require confirmation, the NSA’s general counsel is a senior career position whose occupant is formally selected by and reports to the general counsel of the Department of Defense. It’s an odd setup — ­and one that obscures certain realities, like the fact that the NSA general counsel in practice reports to the NSA director. This structure is the source of a perennial legislative fight. Every few years, Congress proposes laws to impose a confirmation requirement as more appropriately befits an essential administration role, and every few years, the executive branch opposes those efforts as dangerously politicizing what should be a nonpolitical job.

While a lack of Senate confirmation reduces some accountability and legislative screening, this career selection process has the benefit of being designed to eliminate political interference and to ensure the most qualified candidate is hired. The system includes a complex set of rules governing a selection board that interviews candidates, certifies qualifications and makes recommendations guided by a set of independent merit-based principles. The Pentagon general counsel has the final call in making a selection. For example, if the panel has ranked a first-choice candidate, the general counsel is empowered to choose one of the others.

Ryan Goodman has a similar article at Just Security.

On Blockchain Voting

On Blockchain Voting

Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:

Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.

For starters:

  • It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
  • It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
  • It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.

I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.

But now I have this excellent paper from MIT researchers:

“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”
Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest

Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.

You may have heard of Voatz, which uses blockchain for voting. It’s an insecure mess. And this is my general essay on blockchain. Short summary: it’s completely useless.

The NSA is Refusing to Disclose its Policy on Backdooring Commercial Products

Senator Ron Wyden asked, and the NSA didn’t answer:

The NSA has long sought agreements with technology companies under which they would build special access for the spy agency into their products, according to disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reporting by Reuters and others.

These so-called back doors enable the NSA and other agencies to scan large amounts of traffic without a warrant. Agency advocates say the practice has eased collection of vital intelligence in other countries, including interception of terrorist communications.

The agency developed new rules for such practices after the Snowden leaks in order to reduce the chances of exposure and compromise, three former intelligence officials told Reuters. But aides to Senator Ron Wyden, a leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, say the NSA has stonewalled on providing even the gist of the new guidelines.

[…]

The agency declined to say how it had updated its policies on obtaining special access to commercial products. NSA officials said the agency has been rebuilding trust with the private sector through such measures as offering warnings about software flaws.

“At NSA, it’s common practice to constantly assess processes to identify and determine best practices,” said Anne Neuberger, who heads NSA’s year-old Cybersecurity Directorate. “We don’t share specific processes and procedures.”

Three former senior intelligence agency figures told Reuters that the NSA now requires that before a back door is sought, the agency must weigh the potential fallout and arrange for some kind of warning if the back door gets discovered and manipulated by adversaries.

The article goes on to talk about Juniper Networks equipment, which had the NSA-created DUAL_EC PRNG backdoor in its products. That backdoor was taken advantage of by an unnamed foreign adversary.

Juniper Networks got into hot water over Dual EC two years later. At the end of 2015, the maker of internet switches disclosed that it had detected malicious code in some firewall products. Researchers later determined that hackers had turned the firewalls into their own spy tool here by altering Juniper’s version of Dual EC.

Juniper said little about the incident. But the company acknowledged to security researcher Andy Isaacson in 2016 that it had installed Dual EC as part of a “customer requirement,” according to a previously undisclosed contemporaneous message seen by Reuters. Isaacson and other researchers believe that customer was a U.S. government agency, since only the U.S. is known to have insisted on Dual EC elsewhere.

Juniper has never identified the customer, and declined to comment for this story.

Likewise, the company never identified the hackers. But two people familiar with the case told Reuters that investigators concluded the Chinese government was behind it. They declined to detail the evidence they used.

Okay, lots of unsubstantiated claims and innuendo here. And Neuberger is right; the NSA shouldn’t share specific processes and procedures. But as long as this is a democratic country, the NSA has an obligation to disclose its general processes and procedures so we all know what they’re doing in our name. And if it’s still putting surveillance ahead of security.

US Cyber Command and Microsoft Are Both Disrupting TrickBot

Earlier this month, we learned that someone is disrupting the TrickBot botnet network.

Over the past 10 days, someone has been launching a series of coordinated attacks designed to disrupt Trickbot, an enormous collection of more than two million malware-infected Windows PCs that are constantly being harvested for financial data and are often used as the entry point for deploying ransomware within compromised organizations.

On Sept. 22, someone pushed out a new configuration file to Windows computers currently infected with Trickbot. The crooks running the Trickbot botnet typically use these config files to pass new instructions to their fleet of infected PCs, such as the Internet address where hacked systems should download new updates to the malware.

But the new configuration file pushed on Sept. 22 told all systems infected with Trickbot that their new malware control server had the address 127.0.0.1, which is a “localhost” address that is not reachable over the public Internet, according to an analysis by cyber intelligence firm Intel 471.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported that it’s the work of US Cyber Command:

U.S. Cyber Command’s campaign against the Trickbot botnet, an army of at least 1 million hijacked computers run by Russian-speaking criminals, is not expected to permanently dismantle the network, said four U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. But it is one way to distract them at least for a while as they seek to restore operations.

The network is controlled by “Russian speaking criminals,” and the fear is that it will be used to disrupt the US election next month.

The effort is part of what Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of Cyber Command, calls “persistent engagement,” or the imposition of cumulative costs on an adversary by keeping them constantly engaged. And that is a key feature of CyberCom’s activities to help protect the election against foreign threats, officials said.

Here’s General Nakasone talking about persistent engagement.

Microsoft is also disrupting Trickbot:

We disrupted Trickbot through a court order we obtained as well as technical action we executed in partnership with telecommunications providers around the world. We have now cut off key infrastructure so those operating Trickbot will no longer be able to initiate new infections or activate ransomware already dropped into computer systems.

[…]

We took today’s action after the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted our request for a court order to halt Trickbot’s operations.

During the investigation that underpinned our case, we were able to identify operational details including the infrastructure Trickbot used to communicate with and control victim computers, the way infected computers talk with each other, and Trickbot’s mechanisms to evade detection and attempts to disrupt its operation. As we observed the infected computers connect to and receive instructions from command and control servers, we were able to identify the precise IP addresses of those servers. With this evidence, the court granted approval for Microsoft and our partners to disable the IP addresses, render the content stored on the command and control servers inaccessible, suspend all services to the botnet operators, and block any effort by the Trickbot operators to purchase or lease additional servers.

To execute this action, Microsoft formed an international group of industry and telecommunications providers. Our Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) led investigation efforts including detection, analysis, telemetry, and reverse engineering, with additional data and insights to strengthen our legal case from a global network of partners including FS-ISAC, ESET, Lumen’s Black Lotus Labs, NTT and Symantec, a division of Broadcom, in addition to our Microsoft Defender team. Further action to remediate victims will be supported by internet service providers (ISPs) and computer emergency readiness teams (CERTs) around the world.

This action also represents a new legal approach that our DCU is using for the first time. Our case includes copyright claims against Trickbot’s malicious use of our software code. This approach is an important development in our efforts to stop the spread of malware, allowing us to take civil action to protect customers in the large number of countries around the world that have these laws in place.

Brian Krebs comments:

In legal filings, Microsoft argued that Trickbot irreparably harms the company “by damaging its reputation, brands, and customer goodwill. Defendants physically alter and corrupt Microsoft products such as the Microsoft Windows products. Once infected, altered and controlled by Trickbot, the Windows operating system ceases to operate normally and becomes tools for Defendants to conduct their theft.”

This is a novel use of trademark law.

Google Responds to Warrants for “About” Searches

One of the things we learned from the Snowden documents is that the NSA conducts “about” searches. That is, searches based on activities and not identifiers. A normal search would be on a name, or IP address, or phone number. An about search would something like “show me anyone that has used this particular name in a communications,” or “show me anyone who was at this particular location within this time frame.” These searches are legal when conducted for the purpose of foreign surveillance, but the worry about using them domestically is that they are unconstitutionally broad. After all, the only way to know who said a particular name is to know what everyone said, and the only way to know who was at a particular location is to know where everyone was. The very nature of these searches requires mass surveillance.

The FBI does not conduct mass surveillance. But many US corporations do, as a normal part of their business model. And the FBI uses that surveillance infrastructure to conduct its own about searches. Here’s an arson case where the FBI asked Google who searched for a particular street address:

Homeland Security special agent Sylvette Reynoso testified that her team began by asking Google to produce a list of public IP addresses used to google the home of the victim in the run-up to the arson. The Chocolate Factory [Google] complied with the warrant, and gave the investigators the list. As Reynoso put it:

On June 15, 2020, the Honorable Ramon E. Reyes, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York, authorized a search warrant to Google for users who had searched the address of the Residence close in time to the arson.

The records indicated two IPv6 addresses had been used to search for the address three times: one the day before the SUV was set on fire, and the other two about an hour before the attack. The IPv6 addresses were traced to Verizon Wireless, which told the investigators that the addresses were in use by an account belonging to Williams.

Google’s response is that this is rare:

While word of these sort of requests for the identities of people making specific searches will raise the eyebrows of privacy-conscious users, Google told The Register the warrants are a very rare occurrence, and its team fights overly broad or vague requests.

“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado told us. “We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate.

“These data demands represent less than one per cent of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”

Here’s another example of what seems to be about data leading to a false arrest.

According to the lawsuit, police investigating the murder knew months before they arrested Molina that the location data obtained from Google often showed him in two places at once, and that he was not the only person who drove the Honda registered under his name.

Avondale police knew almost two months before they arrested Molina that another man ­ his stepfather ­ sometimes drove Molina’s white Honda. On October 25, 2018, police obtained records showing that Molina’s Honda had been impounded earlier that year after Molina’s stepfather was caught driving the car without a license.

Data obtained by Avondale police from Google did show that a device logged into Molina’s Google account was in the area at the time of Knight’s murder. Yet on a different date, the location data from Google also showed that Molina was at a retirement community in Scottsdale (where his mother worked) while debit card records showed that Molina had made a purchase at a Walmart across town at the exact same time.

Molina’s attorneys argue that this and other instances like it should have made it clear to Avondale police that Google’s account-location data is not always reliable in determining the actual location of a person.

“About” searches might be rare, but that doesn’t make them a good idea. We have knowingly and willingly built the architecture of a police state, just so companies can show us ads. (And it is increasingly apparent that the advertising-supported Internet is heading for a crash.)

On Executive Order 12333

On Executive Order 12333

Mark Jaycox has written a long article on the US Executive Order 12333: “No Oversight, No Limits, No Worries: A Primer on Presidential Spying and Executive Order 12,333“:

Abstract: Executive Order 12,333 (“EO 12333”) is a 1980s Executive Order signed by President Ronald Reagan that, among other things, establishes an overarching policy framework for the Executive Branch’s spying powers. Although electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333 generally target foreign intelligence from foreign targets, its permissive targeting standards allow for the substantial collection of Americans’ communications containing little to no foreign intelligence value. This fact alone necessitates closer inspection.

This working draft conducts such an inspection by collecting and coalescing the various declassifications, disclosures, legislative investigations, and news reports concerning EO 12333 electronic surveillance programs in order to provide a better understanding of how the Executive Branch implements the order and the surveillance programs it authorizes. The Article pays particular attention to EO 12333’s designation of the National Security Agency as primarily responsible for conducting signals intelligence, which includes the installation of malware, the analysis of internet traffic traversing the telecommunications backbone, the hacking of U.S.-based companies like Yahoo and Google, and the analysis of Americans’ communications, contact lists, text messages, geolocation data, and other information.

After exploring the electronic surveillance programs authorized by EO 12333, this Article proposes reforms to the existing policy framework, including narrowing the aperture of authorized surveillance, increasing privacy standards for the retention of data, and requiring greater transparency and accountability.

US Space Cybersecurity Directive

US Space Cybersecurity Directive

The Trump Administration just published “Space Policy Directive – 5“: “Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems.” It’s pretty general:

Principles. (a) Space systems and their supporting infrastructure, including software, should be developed and operated using risk-based, cybersecurity-informed engineering. Space systems should be developed to continuously monitor, anticipate,and adapt to mitigate evolving malicious cyber activities that could manipulate, deny, degrade, disrupt,destroy, surveil, or eavesdrop on space system operations. Space system configurations should be resourced and actively managed to achieve and maintain an effective and resilient cyber survivability posture throughout the space system lifecycle.

(b) Space system owners and operators should develop and implement cybersecurity plans for their space systems that incorporate capabilities to ensure operators or automated control center systems can retain or recover positive control of space vehicles. These plans should also ensure the ability to verify the integrity, confidentiality,and availability of critical functions and the missions, services,and data they enable and provide.

These unclassified directives are typically so general that it’s hard to tell whether they actually matter.

News article.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.

Why Isn’t GDPR Being Enforced?

Politico has a long article making the case that the lead GDPR regulator, Ireland, has too cozy a relationship with Silicon Valley tech companies to effectively regulate their privacy practices.

Despite its vows to beef up its threadbare regulatory apparatus, Ireland has a long history of catering to the very companies it is supposed to oversee, having wooed top Silicon Valley firms to the Emerald Isle with promises of low taxes, open access to top officials, and help securing funds to build glittering new headquarters.

Now, data-privacy experts and regulators in other countries alike are questioning Ireland’s commitment to policing imminent privacy concerns like Facebook’s reintroduction of facial recognition software and data sharing with its recently purchased subsidiary WhatsApp, and Google’s sharing of information across its burgeoning number of platforms.