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Schneier on Security: Blog Entries Tagged GCHQ

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Other GCHQ News from Snowden

There are two other Snowden stories this week about GCHQ: one about its hacking practices, and the other about its propaganda and psychology research. The second is particularly disturbing:

While some of the unit's activities are focused on the claimed areas, JTRIG also appears to be intimately involved in traditional law enforcement areas and U.K.-specific activity, as previously unpublished documents demonstrate. An August 2009 JTRIG memo entitled "Operational Highlights" boasts of "GCHQ's first serious crime effects operation" against a website that was identifying police informants and members of a witness protection program. Another operation investigated an Internet forum allegedly "used to facilitate and execute online fraud." The document also describes GCHQ advice provided :to assist the UK negotiating team on climate change."

Particularly revealing is a fascinating 42-page document from 2011 detailing JTRIG's activities. It provides the most comprehensive and sweeping insight to date into the scope of this unit's extreme methods. Entitled "Behavioral Science Support for JTRIG's Effects and Online HUMINT [Human Intelligence] Operations," it describes the types of targets on which the unit focuses, the psychological and behavioral research it commissions and exploits, and its future organizational aspirations. It is authored by a psychologist, Mandeep K. Dhami.

Among other things, the document lays out the tactics the agency uses to manipulate public opinion, its scientific and psychological research into how human thinking and behavior can be influenced, and the broad range of targets that are traditionally the province of law enforcement rather than intelligence agencies.

Posted on June 26, 2015 at 12:12 PMView Comments

NSA and GCHQ Attacked Antivirus Companies

On Monday, the Intercept published a new story from the Snowden documents:

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.

Wired has a good article on the documents:

The documents...don't describe actual computer breaches against the security firms, but instead depict a systematic campaign to reverse-engineer their software in order to uncover vulnerabilities that could help the spy agencies subvert it.

[...]

An NSA slide describing "Project CAMBERDADA" lists at least 23 antivirus and security firms that were in that spy agency's sights. They include the Finnish antivirus firm F-Secure, the Slovakian firm Eset, Avast software from the Czech Republic. and Bit-Defender from Romania. Notably missing from the list are the American anti-virus firms Symantec and McAfee as well as the UK-based firm Sophos.

But antivirus wasn't the only target of the two spy agencies. They also targeted their reverse-engineering skills against CheckPoint, an Israeli maker of firewall software, as well as commercial encryption programs and software underpinning the online bulletin boards of numerous companies. GCHQ, for example, reverse-engineered both the CrypticDisk program made by Exlade and the eDataSecurity system from Acer. The spy agency also targeted web forum systems like vBulletin and Invision Power Board­used by Sony Pictures, Electronic Arts, NBC Universal and others­as well as CPanel, a software used by GoDaddy for configuring its servers, and PostfixAdmin, for managing the Postfix email server software But that's not all. GCHQ reverse-engineered Cisco routers, too, which allowed the agency's spies to access "almost any user of the internet" inside Pakistan and "to re-route selective traffic" straight into the mouth of GCHQ's collection systems.

There's also this article from Ars Technica. Slashdot thread.

Kaspersky recently announced that it was the victim of Duqu 2.0, probably from Israel.

Posted on June 26, 2015 at 6:59 AMView Comments

The Logjam (and Another) Vulnerability against Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange

Logjam is a new attack against the Diffie-Hellman key-exchange protocol used in TLS. Basically:

The Logjam attack allows a man-in-the-middle attacker to downgrade vulnerable TLS connections to 512-bit export-grade cryptography. This allows the attacker to read and modify any data passed over the connection. The attack is reminiscent of the FREAK attack, but is due to a flaw in the TLS protocol rather than an implementation vulnerability, and attacks a Diffie-Hellman key exchange rather than an RSA key exchange. The attack affects any server that supports DHE_EXPORT ciphers, and affects all modern web browsers. 8.4% of the Top 1 Million domains were initially vulnerable.

Here's the academic paper.

One of the problems with patching the vulnerability is that it breaks things:

On the plus side, the vulnerability has largely been patched thanks to consultation with tech companies like Google, and updates are available now or coming soon for Chrome, Firefox and other browsers. The bad news is that the fix rendered many sites unreachable, including the main website at the University of Michigan, which is home to many of the researchers that found the security hole.

This is a common problem with version downgrade attacks; patching them makes you incompatible with anyone who hasn't patched. And it's the vulnerability the media is focusing on.

Much more interesting is the other vulnerability that the researchers found:

Millions of HTTPS, SSH, and VPN servers all use the same prime numbers for Diffie-Hellman key exchange. Practitioners believed this was safe as long as new key exchange messages were generated for every connection. However, the first step in the number field sieve -- the most efficient algorithm for breaking a Diffie-Hellman connection -- is dependent only on this prime. After this first step, an attacker can quickly break individual connections.

The researchers believe the NSA has been using this attack:

We carried out this computation against the most common 512-bit prime used for TLS and demonstrate that the Logjam attack can be used to downgrade connections to 80% of TLS servers supporting DHE_EXPORT. We further estimate that an academic team can break a 768-bit prime and that a nation-state can break a 1024-bit prime. Breaking the single, most common 1024-bit prime used by web servers would allow passive eavesdropping on connections to 18% of the Top 1 Million HTTPS domains. A second prime would allow passive decryption of connections to 66% of VPN servers and 26% of SSH servers. A close reading of published NSA leaks shows that the agency's attacks on VPNs are consistent with having achieved such a break.

Remember James Bamford's 2012 comment about the NSA's cryptanalytic capabilities:

According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: "Everybody's a target; everybody with communication is a target."

[...]

The breakthrough was enormous, says the former official, and soon afterward the agency pulled the shade down tight on the project, even within the intelligence community and Congress. "Only the chairman and vice chairman and the two staff directors of each intelligence committee were told about it," he says. The reason? "They were thinking that this computing breakthrough was going to give them the ability to crack current public encryption."

And remember Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's introduction to the 2013 "Black Budget":

Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit internet traffic.

It's a reasonable guess that this is what both Bamford's source and Clapper are talking about. It's an attack that requires a lot of precomputation -- just the sort of thing a national intelligence agency would go for.

But that requirement also speaks to its limitations. The NSA isn't going to put this capability at collection points like Room 641A at AT&T's San Francisco office: the precomputation table is too big, and the sensitivity of the capability is too high. More likely, an analyst identifies a target through some other means, and then looks for data by that target in databases like XKEYSCORE. Then he sends whatever ciphertext he finds to the Cryptanalysis and Exploitation Services (CES) group, which decrypts it if it can using this and other techniques.

Ross Anderson wrote about this earlier this month, almost certainly quoting Snowden:

As for crypto capabilities, a lot of stuff is decrypted automatically on ingest (e.g. using a "stolen cert", presumably a private key obtained through hacking). Else the analyst sends the ciphertext to CES and they either decrypt it or say they can't.

The analysts are instructed not to think about how this all works. This quote also applied to NSA employees:

Strict guidelines were laid down at the GCHQ complex in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on how to discuss projects relating to decryption. Analysts were instructed: "Do not ask about or speculate on sources or methods underpinning Bullrun."

I remember the same instructions in documents I saw about the NSA's CES.

Again, the NSA has put surveillance ahead of security. It never bothered to tell us that many of the "secure" encryption systems we were using were not secure. And we don't know what other national intelligence agencies independently discovered and used this attack.

The good news is now that we know reusing prime numbers is a bad idea, we can stop doing it.

EDITED TO ADD: The DH precomputation easily lends itself to custom ASIC design, and is something that pipelines easily. Using BitCoin mining hardware as a rough comparison, this means a couple orders of magnitude speedup.

EDITED TO ADD (5/23): Good analysis of the cryptography.

EDITED TO ADD (5/24): Good explanation by Matthew Green.

Posted on May 21, 2015 at 6:30 AMView Comments

More on the NSA's Capabilities

Ross Anderson summarizes a meeting in Princeton where Edward Snowden was "present."

Third, the leaks give us a clear view of an intelligence analyst's workflow. She will mainly look in Xkeyscore which is the Google of 5eyes comint; it's a federated system hoovering up masses of stuff not just from 5eyes own assets but from other countries where the NSA cooperates or pays for access. Data are "ingested" into a vast rolling buffer; an analyst can run a federated search, using a selector (such as an IP address) or fingerprint (something that can be matched against the traffic). There are other such systems: "Dancing oasis" is the middle eastern version. Some xkeyscore assets are actually compromised third-party systems; there are multiple cases of rooted SMS servers that are queried in place and the results exfiltrated. Others involve vast infrastructure, like Tempora. If data in Xkeyscore are marked as of interest, they're moved to Pinwale to be memorialised for 5+ years. This is one function of the MDRs (massive data repositories, now more tactfully renamed mission data repositories) like Utah. At present storage is behind ingestion. Xkeyscore buffer times just depend on volumes and what storage they managed to install, plus what they manage to filter out.

As for crypto capabilities, a lot of stuff is decrypted automatically on ingest (e.g. using a "stolen cert," presumably a private key obtained through hacking). Else the analyst sends the ciphertext to CES and they either decrypt it or say they can't. There's no evidence of a "wow" cryptanalysis; it was key theft, or an implant, or a predicted RNG or supply-chain interference. Cryptanalysis has been seen of RC4, but not of elliptic curve crypto, and there's no sign of exploits against other commonly used algorithms. Of course, the vendors of some products have been coopted, notably skype. Homegrown crypto is routinely problematic, but properly implemented crypto keeps the agency out; gpg ciphertexts with RSA 1024 were returned as fails.

[...]

What else might we learn from the disclosures when designing and implementing crypto? Well, read the disclosures and use your brain. Why did GCHQ bother stealing all the SIM card keys for Iceland from Gemalto, unless they have access to the local GSM radio links? Just look at the roof panels on US or UK embassies, that look like concrete but are actually transparent to RF. So when designing a protocol ask yourself whether a local listener is a serious consideration.

[...]

On the policy front, one of the eye-openers was the scale of intelligence sharing -- it's not just 5 eyes, but 15 or 35 or even 65 once you count all the countries sharing stuff with the NSA. So how does governance work? Quite simply, the NSA doesn't care about policy. Their OGC has 100 lawyers whose job is to "enable the mission"; to figure out loopholes or new interpretations of the law that let stuff get done. How do you restrain this? Could you use courts in other countries, that have stronger human-rights law? The precedents are not encouraging. New Zealand's GCSB was sharing intel with Bangladesh agencies while the NZ government was investigating them for human-rights abuses. Ramstein in Germany is involved in all the drone killings, as fibre is needed to keep latency down low enough for remote vehicle pilots. The problem is that the intelligence agencies figure out ways to shield the authorities from culpability, and this should not happen.

[...]

The spooks' lawyers play games saying for example that they dumped content, but if you know IP address and file size you often have it; and IP address is a good enough pseudonym for most intel / LE use. They deny that they outsource to do legal arbitrage (e.g. NSA spies on Brits and GCHQ returns the favour by spying on Americans). Are they telling the truth? In theory there will be an MOU between NSA and the partner agency stipulating respect for each others' laws, but there can be caveats, such as a classified version which says "this is not a binding legal document." The sad fact is that law and legislators are losing the capability to hold people in the intelligence world to account, and also losing the appetite for it.

Worth reading in full.

Posted on May 11, 2015 at 6:26 AMView Comments

New Paper on Digital Intelligence

David Omand -- GCHQ director from 1996-1997, and the UK's security and intelligence coordinator from 2000-2005 -- has just published a new paper: "Understanding Digital Intelligence and the Norms That Might Govern It."

Executive Summary: This paper describes the nature of digital intelligence and provides context for the material published as a result of the actions of National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Digital intelligence is presented as enabled by the opportunities of global communications and private sector innovation and as growing in response to changing demands from government and law enforcement, in part mediated through legal, parliamentary and executive regulation. A common set of organizational and ethical norms based on human rights considerations are suggested to govern such modern intelligence activity (both domestic and external) using a three-layer model of security activity on the Internet: securing the use of the Internet for everyday economic and social life; the activity of law enforcement -- both nationally and through international agreements -- attempting to manage criminal threats exploiting the Internet; and the work of secret intelligence and security agencies using the Internet to gain information on their targets, including in support of law enforcement.

I don't agree with a lot of it, but it's worth reading.

My favorite Omand quote is this, defending the close partnership between the NSA and GCHQ in 2013: "We have the brains. They have the money. It's a collaboration that's worked very well."

Posted on March 20, 2015 at 1:51 PMView Comments

NSA/GCHQ Hacks SIM Card Database and Steals Billions of Keys

The Intercept has an extraordinary story: the NSA and/or GCHQ hacked into the Dutch SIM card manufacturer Gemalto, stealing the encryption keys for billions of cell phones. People are still trying to figure out exactly what this means, but it seems to mean that the intelligence agencies have access to both voice and data from all phones using those cards.

Me in The Register: "We always knew that they would occasionally steal SIM keys. But all of them? The odds that they just attacked this one firm are extraordinarily low and we know the NSA does like to steal keys where it can."

I think this is one of the most important Snowden stories we've read.

More news stories. Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

Posted on February 20, 2015 at 7:51 AMView Comments

NSA Using Hacker Research and Results

In the latest article based on the Snowden documents, the Intercept is reporting that the NSA and GCHQ are piggy-backing on the work of hackers:

In some cases, the surveillance agencies are obtaining the content of emails by monitoring hackers as they breach email accounts, often without notifying the hacking victims of these breaches. "Hackers are stealing the emails of some of our targets...by collecting the hackers' 'take,' we...get access to the emails themselves," reads one top secret 2010 National Security Agency document.

Not surprising.

Posted on February 6, 2015 at 9:39 AMView Comments

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