Tag Archives: cyber attack

Firing Back with Vengeance: the NSA Weapons

from you tube.

The strike on IDT, a conglomerate,… was similar to WannaCry in one way: Hackers locked up IDT data and demanded a ransom to unlock it.  But the ransom demand was just a smoke screen for a far more invasive attack that stole employee credentials. With those credentials in hand, hackers could have run free through the company’s computer network, taking confidential information or destroying machines….Were it not for a digital black box that recorded everything on IDT’s network, …the attack might have gone unnoticed.

Scans for the two hacking tools used against IDT indicate that the company is not alone. In fact, tens of thousands of computer systems all over the world have been “backdoored” by the same N.S.A. weapons. Mr. Ben-Oni and other security researchers worry that many of those other infected computers are connected to transportation networks, hospitals, water treatment plants and other utilities…

Both WannaCry and the IDT attack used a hacking tool the agency had code-named EternalBlue. The tool took advantage of unpatched Microsoft servers to automatically spread malware from one server to another, so that within 24 hours… hackers had spread their ransomware to more than 200,000 servers around the globe. The attack on IDT went a step further with another stolen N.S.A. cyberweapon, called DoublePulsar. The N.S.A. used DoublePulsar to penetrate computer systems without tripping security alarms. It allowed N.S.A. spies to inject their tools into the nerve center of a target’s computer system, called the kernel, which manages communications between a computer’s hardware and its software.

In the pecking order of a computer system, the kernel is at the very top, allowing anyone with secret access to it to take full control of a machine. It is also a dangerous blind spot for most security software, allowing attackers to do what they want and go unnoticed. In IDT’s case, attackers used DoublePulsar to steal an IDT contractor’s credentials. Then they deployed ransomware in what appears to be a cover for their real motive: broader access to IDT’s businesses…

But the attack struck Mr. Ben-Oni as unique. For one thing, it was timed perfectly to the Sabbath. Attackers entered IDT’s network at 6 p.m. on Saturday on the dot, two and a half hours before the Sabbath would end and when most of IDT’s employees — 40 percent of whom identify as Orthodox Jews — would be off the clock. For another, the attackers compromised the contractor’s computer through her home modem — strange.

The black box of sorts, a network recording device made by the Israeli security company Secdo, shows that the ransomware was installed after the attackers had made off with the contractor’s credentials. And they managed to bypass every major security detection mechanism along the way. Finally, before they left, they encrypted her computer with ransomware, demanding $130 to unlock it, to cover up the more invasive attack on her computer.

A month earlier, Microsoft had issued a software patch to defend against the N.S.A. hacking tools — suggesting that the agency tipped the company off to what was coming. Microsoft regularly credits those who point out vulnerabilities in its products, but in this case the company made no mention of the tipster. Later, when the WannaCry attack hit hundreds of thousands of Microsoft customers, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, slammed the government in a blog post for hoarding and stockpiling security vulnerabilities.  For his part, Mr. Ben-Oni said he had rolled out Microsoft’s patches as soon as they became available, but attackers still managed to get in through the IDT contractor’s home modem.

There are now YouTube videos showing criminals how to attack systems using the very same N.S.A. tools used against IDT, and Metasploit, an automated hacking tool, now allows anyone to carry out these attacks with the click of a button….

“Once DoublePulsar is on the machine, there’s nothing stopping anyone else from coming along and using the back door,” Mr. Dillon said.More distressing, Mr. Dillon tested all the major antivirus products against the DoublePulsar infection and a demoralizing 99 percent failed to detect it.  “We’ve seen the same computers infected with DoublePulsar for two months and there is no telling how much malware is on those systems,” Mr. Dillon said. “Right now we have no idea what’s gotten into these organizations.”..

Could that attack be coming? The Shadow Brokers resurfaced last month, promising a fresh load of N.S.A. attack tools, even offering to supply them for monthly paying subscribers — like a wine-of-the-month club for cyberweapon enthusiasts.

Excerpts from NICOLE PERLROTHJUNE, A Cyberattack ‘the World Isn’t Ready For’,  New York Times, June 20, 2017

Ooops, a Gentlemen’s Agreement Breaks

The mysterious hacking group that supplied a critical component of the WannaCry “ransomware” software attack that spread across the globe in mid-May 2017 has been releasing alleged National Security Agency secrets for the past eight months.  Former intelligence officials now fear that the hackers, who go by the name Shadow Brokers, are taking a new tack: exposing the identities of the NSA’s computer-hacking team. That potentially could subject these government experts to charges when traveling abroad.

The Shadow Brokers on April 14, 2017 posted on a Russian computer file-sharing site what they said were NSA files containing previously unknown attack tools and details of an alleged NSA hack affecting Middle Eastern and Panamanian financial institutions.

But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.  Additionally, the hacking group in April, 2017 sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia… Security experts who have examined the documents believe they contain legitimate information, including code that can be used in hacks, as well as the names of the files’ creators and editors.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say….

Some former intelligence officials suggested the U.S. prompted the outing of state-sponsored hackers when it indicted five Chinese military hackers by name in 2014, and more recently brought charges against two officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service over a 2014 Yahoo Inc. breach.  By exposing cyberagents, the Shadow Brokers appear to be taking a page from the U.S. playbook, said Mr. Williams, who worked for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking group until 2013. An NSA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment about “most individuals’ possible current, past or future employment with the agency.”  “We’ve fired first,” Mr. Williams said, referring to the U.S. charging the alleged Chinese hackers by name. “This is us taking flak.”…

The documents revealed jealously guarded tactics and techniques the NSA uses to access computer systems…For example, the files include source code for software designed to give its creators remote access to hacked machines, and to evade detection from antivirus software. If the code was created by the NSA, it now gives security professionals a digital fingerprint they can use to track the NSA’s activities prior to the leak.

That could prove disruptive to NSA activities, forcing the agency to consider pulling its software from others’ networks and taking other steps to erase its tracks. And while the information could help companies determine whether they have been hacked by the NSA, it could also be used to create more malicious software. The Shadow Brokers tools, for example, are now being used to install malicious software such as WannaCry on corporate networks.

Mr. Williams initially thought the Shadow Brokers had access only to a limited set of NSA tools. His assessment changed after three tweets directed at him April 9, 2017 included terms suggesting the group had “a lot of operational data or at least operational insight” into his work at the NSA, he said.  The tweets, which are public, are cryptic. They express displeasure over an article Mr. Williams wrote attempting to link the Shadow Brokers to Russia. They also mention apparent software code names, including “OddJob” and “Windows BITS persistence.”…..OddJob is a reference to software released by the Shadow Brokers five days after the tweets. “Windows BITS persistence” is a term whose meaning isn’t publicly known.

Excerpts from In Modern Cyber War, the Spies Can Become Targets, Too, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017

 

Smart and Sensitive: the Power Grid

Raytheon Company  and Utilidata have formed a strategic alliance to help power utilities proactively detect, defend against and respond to cyber threats.  The effort will combine Utilidata’s experience in the use of real-time data from the electrical grid to detect and respond to cyber attacks and Raytheon’s expertise in proactive cyber threat hunting, automation and managed security services to provide world-class cybersecurity, analytics and other innovative technologies….

[According to] Scott DePasquale, chairman and CEO of Utilidata. “With more and more devices and systems connected to the internet, and all of them needing electrical power, these challenges are increasing exponentially. This new alliance will help define the future of cybersecurity in the power utilities sector.”  In December 2015, a cyber attack shut down a large section of the Ukrainian power grid – an incident that the Department of Energy identified in the 2017 installment of the Quadrennial Energy Review as an ‘indicator of what is possible.’

Excerpts from  Raytheon, Utilidata to deliver defense-grade cybersecurity for utilities, PRNewswire, Feb. 8, 2017

How to Tear Down a Power Grid

pylons. image from wikipedia

In Ukraine on Dec. 23, 2015 the power suddenly went out for thousands of people in the capital, Kiev, and western parts of the country. While technicians struggled for several hours to turn the lights back on, frustrated customers got nothing but busy signals at their utilities’ call centers….Hackers had taken down almost a quarter of the country’s power grid, claimed Ukrainian officials.  Specifically, the officials blamed Russians for tampering with the utilities’ software, then jamming the power companies’ phone lines to keep customers from alerting anyone….Several of the firms researching the attack say signs point to Russians as the culprits. The malware found in the Ukrainian grid’s computers, BlackEnergy3, is a known weapon of only one hacking group—dubbed Sandworm by researcher ISight Partners—whose attacks closely align with the interests of the Russian government. The group carried out attacks against the Ukrainian government and NATO in 2014…

The more automated U.S. and European power grids are much tougher targets. To cloak Manhattan in darkness, hackers would likely need to discover flaws in the systems the utilities themselves don’t know exist before they could exploit them. In the Ukrainian attack, leading security experts believe the hackers simply located the grid controls and delivered a command that shut the power off. Older systems may be more vulnerable to such attacks, as modern industrial control software is better at recognizing and rejecting unauthorized commands, says IOActive’s Larsen.

That said, a successful hack of more advanced U.S. or European systems would be a lot harder to fix. Ukrainian utility workers restored power by rushing to each disabled substation and resetting circuit breakers manually. Hackers capable of scrambling New York’s power plant software would probably have to bypass safety mechanisms to run a generator or transformer hotter than normal, physically damaging the equipment. That could keep a substation offline for days or weeks, says Michael Assante, former chief security officer for the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability.

Hackers may have targeted Ukraine’s grid for the same reason NATO jets bombed Serbian power plants in 1999: to show the citizenry that its government was too weak to keep the lights on. The hackers may even have seen the attack as in-kind retaliation after sabotage left 1.2 million people in Kremlin-controlled Crimea without lights in November 2015. In that case, saboteurs blew up pylons with explosives, then attacked the repair crews that came to fix them, creating a blackout that lasted for days. Researchers will continue to study the cyber attack in Ukraine, but the lesson may be that when it comes to war, a bomb still beats a keyboard.

Excerpts How Hackers Took Down a Power Grid, Bloomberg Business Week, Jan. 14, 2016

Cyber Crime and the Brain Drain

Trojan-Horse-Virus

Cyber attacks and cyber espionage are on the rise in Latin America, and the source of much of it is Brazilian hackers and Peruvian recent university graduates linking up with Russian-speaking experts, according to internet security analysts.  The region has seen a massive rise in ‘trojans’ – disguised malicious software – especially in the financial sector, and other online threats, said Dmitry Bestuzhev, Latin American head of research for security firm Kaspersky Lab.  The main producers of the malware are Brazil and Peru, he said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday following a regional cyber crime conference.

“Criminals from those two countries produce the majority of malicious code and attack not only their countries but also neighboring ones,” he said, adding that their attacks spread as far as Spain and Portugal. In the last couple of years there has been a rise in Latin American hackers linking up with more experienced criminals in Russia and Eastern Europe, he said, as a kind of shadowy brain drain takes place across the Atlantic.  A significant number of Peruvian students, in particular, attended university in Russia and returned home knowing how to operate malware as well as communicate in Russian.

“They return and often they are demotivated, they have studied six or eight years, and when they return to their country the work offered is low profile and mediocre paid,” said Bestuzhev.  With Peruvian laws also inadequate to deal with the threat, that was encouraging the formation of a hacker hub in the Andean country, he said.  In return, Russian criminals are increasingly using Latin American networks to ‘test’ new malware before unleashing it elsewhere, he added.

Excerpts  ROSALBA O’BRIENLatam cyber attacks rise as Peru, Brazil hackers link up with Russians, Reuters, Aug. 28, 2015

How to Forecast a Cyber Atttack: IARPA cyber intelligence

DDoS Stachledraht attack. Image from wikipedia

From the website of IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) — a US research agency under the Director of National Intelligence.

“Approaches to cyber defense typically focus on post-mortem analysis of the various attack vectors utilized by adversaries. As attacks have evolved and increased over the years, established approaches (e.g., signature-based detection, anomaly detection) have not adequately enabled cybersecurity practitioners to get ahead of these threats. This has led to an industry that has invested heavily in analyzing the effects of cyber-attacks instead of analyzing and mitigating the “cause” of cyber-attacks,

The CAUSE   (Cyber-attack Automated Unconventional Sensor Environment)Program seeks to develop cyber-attack forecasting methods and detect emerging cyber phenomena to assist cyber defenders with the earliest detection of a cyber-attack (e.g., Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), successful spearphishing, successful drive-by, remote exploitation, unauthorized access, reconnaissance). The CAUSE Program aims to develop and validate unconventional multi-disciplined sensor technology (e.g., actor behavior models, black market sales) that will forecast cyber-attacks and complement existing advanced intrusion detection capabilities. Anticipated innovations include: methods to manage and extract huge amounts of streaming and batch data, the application and introduction of new and existing features from other disciplines to the cyber domain, and the development of models to generate probabilistic warnings for future cyber events. Successful proposers will combine cutting-edge research with the ability to develop robust forecasting capabilities from multiple sensors not typically used in the cyber domain…”

Excerpt from IARPA website

See also http://www.iarpa.gov/images/files/programs/cause/CAUSE_Abstracts.pdf

CyberWeapons: the Regin Malware

Malware Statistics

An advanced piece of malware, newly uncovered, has been in use since as early as 2008 to spy on governments, companies and individuals, Symantec said in a report .  The Regin cyberespionage tool uses several stealth features to avoid detection, a characteristic that required a significant investment of time and resources and that suggests it’s the product of a nation-state, Symantec warned, without hazarding a guess about which country might be behind it. The malware’s design makes it highly suited for long-term mass surveillance, according to the maker of antivirus software…

The highly customizable nature of Regin, which Symantec labeled a “top-tier espionage tool,” allows for a wide range of remote access Trojan capabilities, including password and data theft, hijacking the mouse’s point-and-click functions, and capturing screenshots from infected computers. Other infections were identified monitoring network traffic and analyzing email from Exchange databases….

The malware’s targets are geographically diverse, Symantec said, observing more than half of the infections in Russia and Saudi Arabia. Among the other countries targeted are Ireland, Mexico and India. [ Regin have been identified also in Afghanistan, Algeria, Belgium, Brazil, Fiji, Germany,Indonesia, Iran, Kiribati, Malaysia, Pakistan, Syria]

Regin is composed of five attack stages that are hidden and encrypted, with the exception of the first stage, which begins a domino chain of decrypting and executing the next stage. Each individual stage contains little information about malware’s structure. All five stages had to be acquired to analyze the threat posed by the malware.  The multistage architecture of Regin, Symantec said, is reminiscent of Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer virus discovered attacking a nuclear enrichment facility in Iran in 2010, and Duqu, which has identical code to Stuxnet but which appeared designed for cyber espionage instead of sabotage.  Symantec said it believes that many components of Regin remain undiscovered and that additional functionality and versions may exist.  “Regin uses a modular approach,” Symantec said, “giving flexibility to the threat operators as they can load custom features tailored to individual targets when required.”

Excerpt from Steven Musil Stealthy Regin malware is a ‘top-tier espionage tool’, CNET, Nov. 23, 2014

See also White paper Karspersky Lab 

Cyberwarriors: US and China

cyberhacking

On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.

That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.

Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.

American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.

Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…

Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.

Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals,  Economist, May 24, at 28

Automated Cyber-Security Systems: DARPA

data

From the DARPA website:

DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge takes aim at an increasingly serious problem: the inadequacy of current network security systems, which require expert programmers to identify and repair system weaknesses—typically after attackers have taken advantage of those weaknesses to steal data or disrupt processes. Such disruptions pose greater risks than ever as more and more devices, including vehicles and homes, get networked in what has become known as “the Internet of things.

“Today’s security methods involve experts working with computerized systems to identify attacks, craft corrective patches and signatures and distribute those correctives to users everywhere—a process that can take months from the time an attack is first launched,” said Mike Walker, DARPA program manager. “The only effective approach to defending against today’s ever-increasing volume and diversity of attacks is to shift to fully automated systems capable of discovering and neutralizing attacks instantly.”

To help accelerate this transition, DARPA launched the Cyber Grand Challenge, the first computer security tournament designed to test the wits of machines, not experts. The Challenge plans to follow a “capture the flag” competition format that experts have used for more than 20 years to test their cyber defense skills. That approach requires that competitors reverse engineer software created by challenge organizers and locate and heal its hidden weaknesses in a live network competition. The longest-running annual capture-the-flag challenge for experts is held at an annual conference known as DEF CON, and under the terms of a new agreement the Cyber Grand Challenge final competition is scheduled to co-locate with the DEF CON Conference in Las Vegas in 2016…

At the event, computers that have made it through a series of qualifying events over the next two years would compete head-to-head in a final tournament. Custom data visualization technology is under development to make it easy for spectators—both a live audience at the conference and anyone watching the event’s video stream worldwide—to follow the action.   Details about the Cyber Grand Challenge and some of the other registered teams can be found at www.cybergrandchallenge.com.

Showing off American Military Hackers: DARPA Plan X

oculus

At the Pentagon Wednesday (May 21, 2014) the armed forces’ far-out research branch known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed off its latest demos for Plan X, a long-gestating software platform designed to unify digital attack and defense tools into a single, easy-to-use interface for American military hackers. And for the last few months, that program has had a new toy: The agency is experimenting with using the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset to give cyberwarriors a new way to visualize three-dimensional network simulations–in some cases with the goal of better targeting them for attack.

“You’re not in a two-dimensional view, so you can look around the data. You look to your left, look to your right, and see different subnets of information,” Darpa’s Plan X program manager Frank Pound told WIRED in an interview. “With the Oculus you have that immersive environment. It’s like you’re swimming in the internet…..If Plan X’s Oculus software ever reaches the eyeballs of actual soldiers–a development that Darpa says is still years away–Pound doesn’t deny that the interface would be used for actual offensive hacking as well as defense and reconnaissance. Like the rest of Plan X, he says it’s meant to be a simpler and more intuitive way for the U.S. Cyber Command and other American military hackers to visualize everything they do in their cyberwar operations. “Think of Plan X like an aircraft carrier,” says Pound. “It can carry any weapon system or capability.”

That sort of admission will no doubt set off alarm bells for critics of the American military’s increasingly aggressive posture on the Internet. The revelation in 2012 that the United States created the Iran-targeted Stuxnet malware and a year of Edward Snowden’s leaks have already demonstrated that the NSA engages in more advanced cyberattack operations than practically any country on the planet. Enabling American hackers to launch those attacks with a tool that’s literally designed for video games could be seen as encouraging a brazen attitude towards cyberwar, disconnecting it from the reality of its consequences.

But Darpa’s Pound counters that safeguards against reckless hacking will be built into Plan X, and that it may actually reduce collateral damage from military cyberattacks by allowing soldiers to better understand the networks they’re attacking.

Excerpt from ANDY GREENBERG, Darpa Turns Oculus Into a Weapon for Cyberwar, Wired, May 23, 2014

The Digital Bombs of DARPA: Plan X