Cybersecurity

The Equation Group's Sophisticated Hacking and Exploitation Tools

By Bruce Schneier
Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 12:31 PM

This week, Kaspersky Labs published detailed information on what it calls the Equation Group -- almost certainly the NSA -- and its abilities to embed spyware deep inside computers, gaining pretty much total control of those computers while maintaining persistence in the face of reboots, operating system reinstalls, and commercial anti-virus products. The details are impressive, and I urge anyone interested to read the Kaspersky documents, or this very detailed article from Ars Technica.

Kaspersky doesn't explicitly name the NSA, but talks about similarities between these techniques and Stuxnet, and points to NSA-like codenames. A related Reuters story provides more confirmation: "A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky's analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it."

In some ways, this isn't news. We saw examples of these techniques in 2013, when Der Spiegel published details of the NSA's 2008 catalog of implants. (Aside: I don't believe the person who leaked that catalog is Edward Snowden.) In those pages, we saw examples of malware that embedded itself in computers' BIOS and disk drive firmware. We already know about the NSA's infection methods using packet injection and hardware interception.

This is targeted surveillance. There's nothing here that implies the NSA is doing this sort of thing to every computer, router, or hard drive. It's doing it only to networks it wants to monitor. Reuters again: "Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said." A map of the infections Kaspersky found bears this out.

On one hand, it's the sort of thing we want the NSA to do. It's targeted. It's exploiting existing vulnerabilities. In the overall scheme of things, this is much less disruptive to Internet security than deliberately inserting vulnerabilities that leave everyone insecure.

On the other hand, the NSA's definition of "targeted" can be pretty broad. We know that it's hacked the Belgian telephone company and the Brazilian oil company. We know it's collected every phone call in the Bahamas and Afghanistan. It hacks system administrators worldwide.

On the other other hand -- can I even have three hands? -- I remember a line from my latest book: "Today's top-secret programs become tomorrow's PhD theses and the next day's hacker tools." Today, the Equation Group is "probably the most sophisticated computer attack group in the world," but these techniques aren't magically exclusive to the NSA. We know China uses similar techniques. Companies like Gamma Group sell less sophisticated versions of the same things to Third World governments worldwide. We need to figure out how to maintain security in the face of these sorts of attacks, because we're all going to be subjected to the criminal versions of them in three to five years.

That's the real problem. Steve Bellovin wrote about this:

For more than 50 years, all computer security has been based on the separation between the trusted portion and the untrusted portion of the system. Once it was "kernel" (or "supervisor") versus "user" mode, on a single computer. The Orange Book recognized that the concept had to be broader, since there were all sorts of files executed or relied on by privileged portions of the system. Their newer, larger category was dubbed the "Trusted Computing Base" (TCB). When networking came along, we adopted firewalls; the TCB still existed on single computers, but we trusted "inside" computers and networks more than external ones.

There was a danger sign there, though few people recognized it: our networked systems depended on other systems for critical files....

The National Academies report Trust in Cyberspace recognized that the old TCB concept no longer made sense. (Disclaimer: I was on the committee.) Too many threats, such as Word macro viruses, lived purely at user level. Obviously, one could have arbitrarily classified word processors, spreadsheets, etc., as part of the TCB, but that would have been worse than useless; these things were too large and had no need for privileges.

In the 15+ years since then, no satisfactory replacement for the TCB model has been proposed.

We have a serious computer security problem. Everything depends on everything else, and security vulnerabilities in anything affects the security of everything. We simply don't have the ability to maintain security in a world where we can't trust the hardware and software we use.