January 6, 2014

Digging Into the NSA Revelations

Filed under: Crypto,Hacking,iOS,NSA,Rootkit,Security — Nate Lawson @ 5:00 am

Last year was a momentous one in revelations about the NSA, technical espionage, and exploitation. I’ve been meaning for a while to write about the information that has been revealed by Snowden and what it means for the public crypto and security world.

Part of the problem has been the slow release of documents and their high-level nature. We’ve now seen about 6 months of releases, each covering a small facet of the NSA. Each article attempts to draw broad conclusions about the purpose, intent, and implementation of complex systems, based on leaked, codeword-laden Powerpoint. I commend the journalists who have combed through this material as it is both vague and obfuscated, but I often cringe at the resulting articles.

My rule of thumb whenever a new “earth shattering” release appears is to skip the article and go straight for the backing materials. (Journalists, please post your slide deck sources to a publicly accessible location in addition to burying them in your own site’s labyrinth of links.) By doing so, I’ve found that some of the articles are accurate, but there are always a number of unwarranted conclusions as well. Because of the piecemeal release process, there often aren’t enough additional sources to interpret each slide deck properly.

I’m going to try to address the revelations we’ve seen by category: cryptanalysis, computer exploitation, software backdoors, network monitoring, etc. There have been multiple revelations in each category over the past 6 months, but examining them in isolation has resulted in reversals and loose ends.

For example, the first conclusion upon the revelation of PRISM was that the NSA could directly control equipment on a participating service’s network in order to retrieve emails or other communications. Later, the possibility of this being an electronic “drop box” system emerged. As of today, I’m unaware of any conclusive proof as to which of these vastly differing implementations (or others) were referred to by PRISM.

However, this implementation difference has huge ramifications for what the participating services were doing. Did they provide wholesale access to their networks? Or were they providing court-ordered information via a convenient transfer method after reviewing the requests? We still don’t know for sure, but additional releases seem to confirm that at least many Internet providers did not intentionally provide wholesale access to the NSA.

Unwarranted jumping to conclusions has created a new sport, the vendor witch hunt. For example, the revelation of DROPOUTJEEP, an iPhone rootkit, was accompanied by allegations that Apple cooperated with the NSA to create it. It’s great that Jacob Applebaum worked with the Spiegel press, applying his technical background, but he is overreaching here.

Jacob said, “either they [NSA] have a huge collection of exploits that work against Apple products … or Apple sabotaged it themselves.” This ignores a third option, which is that reliable exploitation against a limited number of product versions can be achieved with only a small collection of exploits.

The two critical pieces of information that were underplayed here are that the DROPOUTJEEP description was dated October 1, 2008 and says “the initial release will focus on installing the implant via close access methods” (i.e., physical access) and “status: in development”.

What was October 2008 like? Well, there were two iPhones, the original and just-released 3G model. There were iOS versions 1.0 – 1.1.4 and 2.0 – 2.1 available as well. Were there public exploits for this hardware and software? Yes! The jailbreak community had reliable exploitation (Pwnage and Pwnage 2.0) on all of these combinations via physical access. In fact, these exploits were in the boot ROM and thus unpatchable and reliable. Meanwhile, ex-NSA TAO researcher Charlie Miller publicly exploited iOS 1.x from remote in summer 2007.

So the NSA in October 2008 was in the process of porting a rootkit to iOS, with the advantage of a publicly-developed exploit in the lowest levels of all models of the hardware, and targeting physical installation. Is there any wonder that such an approach would be 100% reliable? This is a much simpler explanation and is not particularly flattering to the NSA.

One thing we should do immediately is stop the witch hunts based on incomplete information. Some vendors and service providers have assisted the NSA and some haven’t. Some had full knowledge of what they were doing, some should have known, and others were justifiably unaware. Each of their stories is unique and should be considered separately before assuming the worst.

Next time, I’ll continue with some background on the NSA that is essential to interpreting the Snowden materials.

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