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Paul Merrell

Popular Security Software Came Under Relentless NSA and GCHQ Attacks - The Intercept - 0 views

  • The National Security Agency and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, have worked to subvert anti-virus and other security software in order to track users and infiltrate networks, according to documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The spy agencies have reverse engineered software products, sometimes under questionable legal authority, and monitored web and email traffic in order to discreetly thwart anti-virus software and obtain intelligence from companies about security software and users of such software. One security software maker repeatedly singled out in the documents is Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, which has a holding registered in the U.K., claims more than 270,000 corporate clients, and says it protects more than 400 million people with its products. British spies aimed to thwart Kaspersky software in part through a technique known as software reverse engineering, or SRE, according to a top-secret warrant renewal request. The NSA has also studied Kaspersky Lab’s software for weaknesses, obtaining sensitive customer information by monitoring communications between the software and Kaspersky servers, according to a draft top-secret report. The U.S. spy agency also appears to have examined emails inbound to security software companies flagging new viruses and vulnerabilities.
  • The efforts to compromise security software were of particular importance because such software is relied upon to defend against an array of digital threats and is typically more trusted by the operating system than other applications, running with elevated privileges that allow more vectors for surveillance and attack. Spy agencies seem to be engaged in a digital game of cat and mouse with anti-virus software companies; the U.S. and U.K. have aggressively probed for weaknesses in software deployed by the companies, which have themselves exposed sophisticated state-sponsored malware.
  • The requested warrant, provided under Section 5 of the U.K.’s 1994 Intelligence Services Act, must be renewed by a government minister every six months. The document published today is a renewal request for a warrant valid from July 7, 2008 until January 7, 2009. The request seeks authorization for GCHQ activities that “involve modifying commercially available software to enable interception, decryption and other related tasks, or ‘reverse engineering’ software.”
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  • The NSA, like GCHQ, has studied Kaspersky Lab’s software for weaknesses. In 2008, an NSA research team discovered that Kaspersky software was transmitting sensitive user information back to the company’s servers, which could easily be intercepted and employed to track users, according to a draft of a top-secret report. The information was embedded in “User-Agent” strings included in the headers of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, requests. Such headers are typically sent at the beginning of a web request to identify the type of software and computer issuing the request.
  • According to the draft report, NSA researchers found that the strings could be used to uniquely identify the computing devices belonging to Kaspersky customers. They determined that “Kaspersky User-Agent strings contain encoded versions of the Kaspersky serial numbers and that part of the User-Agent string can be used as a machine identifier.” They also noted that the “User-Agent” strings may contain “information about services contracted for or configurations.” Such data could be used to passively track a computer to determine if a target is running Kaspersky software and thus potentially susceptible to a particular attack without risking detection.
  • Another way the NSA targets foreign anti-virus companies appears to be to monitor their email traffic for reports of new vulnerabilities and malware. A 2010 presentation on “Project CAMBERDADA” shows the content of an email flagging a malware file, which was sent to various anti-virus companies by François Picard of the Montréal-based consulting and web hosting company NewRoma. The presentation of the email suggests that the NSA is reading such messages to discover new flaws in anti-virus software. Picard, contacted by The Intercept, was unaware his email had fallen into the hands of the NSA. He said that he regularly sends out notification of new viruses and malware to anti-virus companies, and that he likely sent the email in question to at least two dozen such outfits. He also said he never sends such notifications to government agencies. “It is strange the NSA would show an email like mine in a presentation,” he added.
  • The NSA presentation goes on to state that its signals intelligence yields about 10 new “potentially malicious files per day for malware triage.” This is a tiny fraction of the hostile software that is processed. Kaspersky says it detects 325,000 new malicious files every day, and an internal GCHQ document indicates that its own system “collect[s] around 100,000,000 malware events per day.” After obtaining the files, the NSA analysts “[c]heck Kaspersky AV to see if they continue to let any of these virus files through their Anti-Virus product.” The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit “can repurpose the malware,” presumably before the anti-virus software has been updated to defend against the threat.
  • The Project CAMBERDADA presentation lists 23 additional AV companies from all over the world under “More Targets!” Those companies include Check Point software, a pioneering maker of corporate firewalls based Israel, whose government is a U.S. ally. Notably omitted are the American anti-virus brands McAfee and Symantec and the British company Sophos.
  • As government spies have sought to evade anti-virus software, the anti-virus firms themselves have exposed malware created by government spies. Among them, Kaspersky appears to be the sharpest thorn in the side of government hackers. In the past few years, the company has proven to be a prolific hunter of state-sponsored malware, playing a role in the discovery and/or analysis of various pieces of malware reportedly linked to government hackers, including the superviruses Flame, which Kaspersky flagged in 2012; Gauss, also detected in 2012; Stuxnet, discovered by another company in 2010; and Regin, revealed by Symantec. In February, the Russian firm announced its biggest find yet: the “Equation Group,” an organization that has deployed espionage tools widely believed to have been created by the NSA and hidden on hard drives from leading brands, according to Kaspersky. In a report, the company called it “the most advanced threat actor we have seen” and “probably one of the most sophisticated cyber attack groups in the world.”
  • Hacks deployed by the Equation Group operated undetected for as long as 14 to 19 years, burrowing into the hard drive firmware of sensitive computer systems around the world, according to Kaspersky. Governments, militaries, technology companies, nuclear research centers, media outlets and financial institutions in 30 countries were among those reportedly infected. Kaspersky estimates that the Equation Group could have implants in tens of thousands of computers, but documents published last year by The Intercept suggest the NSA was scaling up their implant capabilities to potentially infect millions of computers with malware. Kaspersky’s adversarial relationship with Western intelligence services is sometimes framed in more sinister terms; the firm has been accused of working too closely with the Russian intelligence service FSB. That accusation is partly due to the company’s apparent success in uncovering NSA malware, and partly due to the fact that its founder, Eugene Kaspersky, was educated by a KGB-backed school in the 1980s before working for the Russian military.
  • Kaspersky has repeatedly denied the insinuations and accusations. In a recent blog post, responding to a Bloomberg article, he complained that his company was being subjected to “sensationalist … conspiracy theories,” sarcastically noting that “for some reason they forgot our reports” on an array of malware that trace back to Russian developers. He continued, “It’s very hard for a company with Russian roots to become successful in the U.S., European and other markets. Nobody trusts us — by default.”
  • Documents published with this article: Kaspersky User-Agent Strings — NSA Project CAMBERDADA — NSA NDIST — GCHQ’s Developing Cyber Defence Mission GCHQ Application for Renewal of Warrant GPW/1160 Software Reverse Engineering — GCHQ Reverse Engineering — GCHQ Wiki Malware Analysis & Reverse Engineering — ACNO Skill Levels — GCHQ
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