Tag Archives: cyberweapons

The Nightmare of Keeping the Lights On

Some 330 million Americans rely on the nation’s critical infrastructure to keep the country humming. Disruptions to electrical grids, communications systems, and supply chains can be catastrophic, yet all of these are vulnerable to cyberattack. According to the government’s 2019 World Wide Threats Hearing, certain adversaries are capable of launching cyberattacks that can disrupt the nation’s critical infrastructure – including electrical distribution networks.

In recognition of the disruptions cyberattacks can cause, DARPA in 2016 established the Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) program. The goal of RADICS has been to enable black-start recovery during a cyberattack. Black start is the process of restoring power to an electric substation or part of the grid that has experienced a total or partial shutdown without relying on an external power transmission network to get things back online…

“Cyberattacks on the grid can essentially do two things – make the grid not tell you the truth, and make the grid operate in an unexpected way,” said Walter Weiss, the program manager responsible for RADICS. “For example, the grid could show you that a substation has power when in reality it does not. This could unintentionally prevent power restoration to an entire area since no one thinks there is a need to bring power back online. The technologies developed under RADICS help provide ground truth around grid status, giving responders the ability to quickly detect anomalies and then chart a path towards recovery.”…

 The RADICS testbed is comprised of miniaturized substations that were designed to operate as they do in the real world, but with safeguards to protect the system and those operating the substations. The substations are connected via power lines, forming a multi-utility crank path. With a crank path, power is generated to black start one utility that then powers the next utility and the next until the grid is fully restored.

DARPA substation, Plum island NY

Technologies to Rapidly Restore the Electrical Grid after Cyberattack Come Online, DARPA Website, Feb. 23, 2021

Who is the Boss? Cyber-War

A new National Cyber Power Index by the Belfer Centre at Harvard University ranks 30 countries on their level of ambition and capability…That America stands at the top of the list is not surprising. Its cyber-security budget for fiscal year 2020 stood at over $17bn and the National Security Agency (NSA) probably gets well over $10bn. The awesome scale of America’s digital espionage was laid bare in leaks by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in 2013, which showed the agency hoovering up vast amounts of the world’s internet traffic and trying to weaken encryption standards.

China, in second place, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for commercial cyber-espionage abroad and an iron grip on the internet at home. Britain, whose National Cyber Security Centre has parried over 1,800 cyber-attacks since its creation in 2016, is third. Russia, whose spies interfered with America’s last election, is in fourth place. The big surprise is the Netherlands in fifth place, ahead of France, Germany and Canada. Dutch expertise in analyzing malware is particularly sharp…

Many countries outsource the dirtiest work to deniable proxies, like “hacktivists” and criminals….But while stealing things and disrupting networks is important, what matters most over the longer term is control of digital infrastructure, such as the hardware that runs mobile telecommunications and key apps. Dominance there will be crucial to economic strength and national security.

Excerpt from Digital dominance: A new global ranking of cyber-power throws up some surprises, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

The Repressive Digital Technologies of the West

A growing, multi-billion-dollar industry exports “intrusion software” designed to snoop on smartphones, desktop computers and servers. There is compelling evidence that such software is being used by oppressive regimes to spy on and harass their critics. The same tools could also proliferate and be turned back against the West. Governments need to ensure that this new kind of arms export does not slip through the net.

A recent lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, for instance, alleges that more than 1,400 users of its messaging app were targeted using software made by NSO Group, an Israeli firm. Many of the alleged victims were lawyers, journalists and campaigners. (NSO denies the allegations and says its technology is not designed or licensed for use against human-rights activists and journalists.) Other firms’ hacking tools were used by the blood-soaked regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. These technologies can be used across borders. Some victims of oppressive governments have been dissidents or lawyers living as exiles in rich countries.

Western governments should tighten the rules for moral, economic and strategic reasons. The moral case is obvious. It makes no sense for rich democracies to complain about China’s export of repressive digital technologies if Western tools can be used to the same ends. The economic case is clear, too: unlike conventional arms sales, a reduction in spyware exports would not lead to big manufacturing-job losses at home.

The strategic case revolves around the risk of proliferation. Software can be reverse-engineered, copied indefinitely and—potentially—used to attack anyone in the world…. There is a risk that oppressive regimes acquire capabilities that can then be used against not just their own citizens, but Western citizens, firms and allies, too. It would be in the West’s collective self-interest to limit the spread of such technology.

A starting-point would be to enforce existing export-licensing more tightly… Rich countries should make it harder for ex-spooks to pursue second careers as digital mercenaries in the service of autocrats. The arms trade used to be about rifles, explosives and jets. Now it is about software and information, too. Time for the regime governing the export of weapons to catch up

The spying business: Western firms should not sell spyware to tyrants, Economist, Dec. 14, 2019

Who is Afraid of Shamoon? How to Wipe a Country Off the Face of the Earth

Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in July-August  2019, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions…Hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency—the country’s main criminal investigative authority—as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

On July 25, 2019 Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country, the person said. “They had command and control of some of the systems,” the person said.  The breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon.  Bahrain is the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, but it is strategically important because it’s the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Navy Central Command. It is closely allied with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.

The Bahrain authorities haven’t definitively attributed the attack to Iran, but they have been provided intelligence by the U.S. and others suggesting Iran is behind it, the people familiar with the matter said….“In the first half of 2019, the Information & eGovernment Authority successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or disruption of government services,” 

Excerpt from High-Level Cyber Intrusions Hit Bahrain Amid Tensions With Iran, WSJ, Aug. 7, 2019

Firing Back with Vengeance: the NSA Weapons

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

CyberWeapons: Regin Malware

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