Attack vs. Defense in Nation-State Cyber Operations

I regularly say that, on the Internet, attack is easier than defense. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but primarily it’s 1) the complexity of modern networked computer systems and 2) the attacker’s ability to choose the time and method of the attack versus the defender’s necessity to secure against every type of attack. This is true, but…

I regularly say that, on the Internet, attack is easier than defense. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but primarily it's 1) the complexity of modern networked computer systems and 2) the attacker's ability to choose the time and method of the attack versus the defender's necessity to secure against every type of attack. This is true, but how this translates to military cyber-operations is less straightforward. Contrary to popular belief, government cyberattacks are not bolts out of the blue, and the attack/defense balance is more...well...balanced.

Rebecca Slayton has a good article in International Security that tries to make sense of this: "What is the Cyber Offense-Defense Balance? Conceptions, Causes, and Assessment." In it, she points out that launching a cyberattack is more than finding and exploiting a vulnerability, and it is those other things that help balance the offensive advantage.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Research on Tech-Support Scams

Interesting paper: "Dial One for Scam: A Large-Scale Analysis of Technical Support Scams": Abstract: In technical support scams, cybercriminals attempt to convince users that their machines are infected with malware and are in need of their technical support. In this process, the victims are asked to provide scammers with remote access to their machines, who will then "diagnose the problem",…

Interesting paper: "Dial One for Scam: A Large-Scale Analysis of Technical Support Scams":

Abstract: In technical support scams, cybercriminals attempt to convince users that their machines are infected with malware and are in need of their technical support. In this process, the victims are asked to provide scammers with remote access to their machines, who will then "diagnose the problem", before offering their support services which typically cost hundreds of dollars. Despite their conceptual simplicity, technical support scams are responsible for yearly losses of tens of millions of dollars from everyday users of the web.

In this paper, we report on the first systematic study of technical support scams and the call centers hidden behind them. We identify malvertising as a major culprit for exposing users to technical support scams and use it to build an automated system capable of discovering, on a weekly basis, hundreds of phone numbers and domains operated by scammers. By allowing our system to run for more than 8 months we collect a large corpus of technical support scams and use it to provide insights on their prevalence, the abused infrastructure, the illicit profits, and the current evasion attempts of scammers. Finally, by setting up a controlled, IRB-approved, experiment where we interact with 60 different scammers, we experience first-hand their social engineering tactics, while collecting detailed statistics of the entire process. We explain how our findings can be used by law-enforcing agencies and propose technical and educational countermeasures for helping users avoid being victimized by
technical support scams.

BoingBoing post.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Can Edit Their Own RNA

This is just plain weird: Rosenthal, a neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, was a grad student studying a specific protein in squid when he got an an inkling that some cephalopods might be different. Every time he analyzed that protein’s RNA sequence, it came out slightly different. He realized the RNA was occasionally substituting A’ for I’s, and wondered…

This is just plain weird:

Rosenthal, a neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, was a grad student studying a specific protein in squid when he got an an inkling that some cephalopods might be different. Every time he analyzed that protein's RNA sequence, it came out slightly different. He realized the RNA was occasionally substituting A' for I's, and wondered if squid might apply RNA editing to other proteins. Rosenthal, a grad student at the time, joined Tel Aviv University bioinformaticists Noa Liscovitch-Braur and Eli Eisenberg to find out.

In results published today, they report that the family of intelligent mollusks, which includes squid, octopuses and cuttlefish, feature thousands of RNA editing sites in their genes. Where the genetic material of humans, insects, and other multi-celled organisms read like a book, the squid genome reads more like a Mad Lib.

So why do these creatures engage in RNA editing when most others largely abandoned it? The answer seems to lie in some crazy double-stranded cloverleaves that form alongside editing sites in the RNA. That information is like a tag for RNA editing. When the scientists studied octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish, they found that these species had retained those vast swaths of genetic information at the expense of making the small changes that facilitate evolution. "Editing is important enough that they're forgoing standard evolution," Rosenthal says.

He hypothesizes that the development of a complex brain was worth that price. The researchers found many of the edited proteins in brain tissue, creating the elaborate dendrites and axons of the neurons and tuning the shape of the electrical signals that neurons pass. Perhaps RNA editing, adopted as a means of creating a more sophisticated brain, allowed these species to use tools, camouflage themselves, and communicate.

Yet more evidence that these bizarre creatures are actually aliens.

Three more articles. Academic paper.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Encryption Policy and Freedom of the Press

Interesting law journal article: "Encryption and the Press Clause," by D. Victoria Barantetsky. Abstract: Almost twenty years ago, a hostile debate over whether government could regulate encryption — later named the Crypto Wars — seized the country. At the center of this debate stirred one simple question: is encryption protected speech? This issue touched all branches of government percolating from…

Interesting law journal article: "Encryption and the Press Clause," by D. Victoria Barantetsky.

Abstract: Almost twenty years ago, a hostile debate over whether government could regulate encryption -- later named the Crypto Wars -- seized the country. At the center of this debate stirred one simple question: is encryption protected speech? This issue touched all branches of government percolating from Congress, to the President, and eventually to the federal courts. In a waterfall of cases, several United States Court of Appeals appeared to reach a consensus that encryption was protected speech under the First Amendment, and with that the Crypto Wars appeared to be over, until now.

Nearly twenty years later, the Crypto Wars have returned. Following recent mass shootings, law enforcement has once again questioned the legal protection for encryption and tried to implement "backdoor" techniques to access messages sent over encrypted channels. In the case, Apple v. FBI, the agency tried to compel Apple to grant access to the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter. The case was never decided, but the legal arguments briefed before the court were essentially the same as they were two decades prior. Apple and amici supporting the company argued that encryption was protected speech.

While these arguments remain convincing, circumstances have changed in ways that should be reflected in the legal doctrines that lawyers use. Unlike twenty years ago, today surveillance is ubiquitous, and the need for encryption is no longer felt by a seldom few. Encryption has become necessary for even the most basic exchange of information given that most Americans share "nearly every aspect of their lives ­-- from the mundane to the intimate" over the Internet, as stated in a recent Supreme Court opinion.

Given these developments, lawyers might consider a new justification under the Press Clause. In addition to the many doctrinal concerns that exist with protection under the Speech Clause, the
Press Clause is normatively and descriptively more accurate at protecting encryption as a tool for secure communication without fear of government surveillance. This Article outlines that framework by examining the historical and theoretical transformation of the Press Clause since its inception.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Acoustic Attack Against Accelerometers

Interesting acoustic attack against the MEMS accelerometers in devices like FitBits. Millions of accelerometers reside inside smartphones, automobiles, medical devices, anti-theft devices, drones, IoT devices, and many other industrial and consumer applications. Our work investigates how analog acoustic injection attacks can damage the digital integrity of the capacitive MEMS accelerometer. Spoofing such sensors with intentional acoustic interference enables an out-of-spec…

Interesting acoustic attack against the MEMS accelerometers in devices like FitBits.

Millions of accelerometers reside inside smartphones, automobiles, medical devices, anti-theft devices, drones, IoT devices, and many other industrial and consumer applications. Our work investigates how analog acoustic injection attacks can damage the digital integrity of the capacitive MEMS accelerometer. Spoofing such sensors with intentional acoustic interference enables an out-of-spec pathway for attackers to deliver chosen digital values to microprocessors and embedded systems that blindly trust the unvalidated integrity of sensor outputs. Our contributions include (1) modeling the physics of malicious acoustic interference on MEMS accelerometers, (2) discovering the circuit-level security flaws that cause the vulnerabilities by measuring acoustic injection attacks on MEMS accelerometers as well as systems that employ on these sensors, and (3) two software-only defenses that mitigate many of the risks to the integrity of MEMS accelerometer outputs.

This is not that a big deal with things like FitBits, but as IoT devices get more autonomous -- and start making decisions and then putting them into effect automatically -- these vulnerabilities will become critical.

Academic paper.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Kalyna Block Cipher

Kalyna is a block cipher that became a Ukrainian national standard in 2015. It supports block and key sizes of 128, 256, and 512 bits. Its structure looks like AES but optimized for 64-bit CPUs, and it has a complicated key schedule. Rounds range from 10-18, depending on block and key sizes. There is some mention of cryptanalysis on reduced-round…

Kalyna is a block cipher that became a Ukrainian national standard in 2015. It supports block and key sizes of 128, 256, and 512 bits. Its structure looks like AES but optimized for 64-bit CPUs, and it has a complicated key schedule. Rounds range from 10-18, depending on block and key sizes.

There is some mention of cryptanalysis on reduced-round versions in the Wikipedia entry. And here are the other submissions to the standard.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

NSA Best Scientific Cybersecurity Paper Competition

Every year, the NSA has a competition for the best cybersecurity paper. Winners get to go to the NSA to pick up the award. (Warning: you will almost certainly be fingerprinted while you’re there.) Submission guidelines and nomination page….

Every year, the NSA has a competition for the best cybersecurity paper. Winners get to go to the NSA to pick up the award. (Warning: you will almost certainly be fingerprinted while you're there.)

Submission guidelines and nomination page.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

New Paper on Encryption Workarounds

I have written a paper with Orin Kerr on encryption workarounds. Our goal wasn’t to make any policy recommendations. (That was a good thing, since we probably don’t agree on any.) Our goal was to present a taxonomy of different workarounds, and discuss their technical and legal characteristics and complications. Abstract: The widespread use of encryption has triggered a new…

I have written a paper with Orin Kerr on encryption workarounds. Our goal wasn't to make any policy recommendations. (That was a good thing, since we probably don't agree on any.) Our goal was to present a taxonomy of different workarounds, and discuss their technical and legal characteristics and complications.

Abstract: The widespread use of encryption has triggered a new step in many criminal investigations: the encryption workaround. We define an encryption workaround as any lawful government effort to reveal an unencrypted version of a target's data that has been concealed by encryption. This essay provides an overview of encryption workarounds. It begins with a taxonomy of the different ways investigators might try to bypass encryption schemes. We classify six kinds of workarounds: find the key, guess the key, compel the key, exploit a flaw in the encryption software, access plaintext while the device is in use, and locate another plaintext copy. For each approach, we consider the practical, technological, and legal hurdles raised by its use.

The remainder of the essay develops lessons about encryption workarounds and the broader public debate about encryption in criminal investigations. First, encryption workarounds are inherently probabilistic. None work every time, and none can be categorically ruled out every time. Second, the different resources required for different workarounds will have significant distributional effects on law enforcement. Some techniques are inexpensive and can be used often by many law enforcement agencies; some are sophisticated or expensive and likely to be used rarely and only by a few. Third, the scope of legal authority to compel third-party assistance will be a continuing challenge. And fourth, the law governing encryption workarounds remains uncertain and underdeveloped. Whether encryption will be a game-changer or a speed bump depends on both technological change and the resolution of important legal questions that currently remain unanswered.

The paper is finished, but we'll be revising it once more before final publication. Comments are appreciated.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Security Vulnerabilities in Mobile MAC Randomization

Interesting research: "A Study of MAC Address Randomization in Mobile Devices When it Fails": Abstract: Media Access Control (MAC) address randomization is a privacy technique whereby mobile devices rotate through random hardware addresses in order to prevent observers from singling out their traffic or physical location from other nearby devices. Adoption of this technology, however, has been sporadic and varied…

Interesting research: "A Study of MAC Address Randomization in Mobile Devices When it Fails":

Abstract: Media Access Control (MAC) address randomization is a privacy technique whereby mobile devices rotate through random hardware addresses in order to prevent observers from singling out their traffic or physical location from other nearby devices. Adoption of this technology, however, has been sporadic and varied across device manufacturers. In this paper, we present the first wide-scale study of MAC address randomization in the wild, including a detailed breakdown of different randomization techniques by operating system, manufacturer, and model of device. We then identify multiple flaws in these implementations which can be exploited to defeat randomization as performed by existing devices. First, we show that devices commonly make improper use of randomization by sending wireless frames with the true, global address when they should be using a randomized address. We move on to extend the passive identification techniques of Vanhoef et al. to effectively defeat randomization in 96% of Android phones. Finally, we show a method that can be used to track 100% of devices using randomization, regardless of manufacturer, by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in the way existing wireless chipsets handle low-level control frames.

Basically, iOS and Android phones are not very good at randomizing their MAC addresses. And tricks with level-2 control frames can exploit weaknesses in their chipsets.

Slashdot post.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Using Intel’s SGX to Attack Itself

Researchers have demonstrated using Intel’s Software Guard Extensions to hide malware and steal cryptographic keys from inside SGX’s protected enclave: Malware Guard Extension: Using SGX to Conceal Cache Attacks Abstract:In modern computer systems, user processes are isolated from each other by the operating system and the hardware. Additionally, in a cloud scenario it is crucial that the hypervisor isolates tenants…

Researchers have demonstrated using Intel's Software Guard Extensions to hide malware and steal cryptographic keys from inside SGX's protected enclave:

Malware Guard Extension: Using SGX to Conceal Cache Attacks

Abstract:In modern computer systems, user processes are isolated from each other by the operating system and the hardware. Additionally, in a cloud scenario it is crucial that the hypervisor isolates tenants from other tenants that are co-located on the same physical machine. However, the hypervisor does not protect tenants against the cloud provider and thus the supplied operating system and hardware. Intel SGX provides a mechanism that addresses this scenario. It aims at protecting user-level software from attacks from other processes, the operating system, and even physical attackers.

In this paper, we demonstrate fine-grained software-based side-channel attacks from a malicious SGX enclave targeting co-located enclaves. Our attack is the first malware running on real SGX hardware, abusing SGX protection features to conceal itself. Furthermore, we demonstrate our attack both in a native environment and across multiple Docker containers. We perform a Prime+Probe cache side-channel attack on a co-located SGX enclave running an up-to-date RSA implementation that uses a constant-time multiplication primitive. The attack works although in SGX enclaves there are no timers, no large pages, no physical addresses, and no shared memory. In a semi-synchronous attack, we extract 96% of an RSA private key from a single trace. We extract the full RSA private key in an automated attack from 11 traces within 5 minutes.

News article.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/