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The FBI Is Now Securing Networks Without Their Owners’ Permission

In January, we learned about a Chinese espionage campaign that exploited four zero-days in Microsoft Exchange. One of the characteristics of the campaign, in the later days when the Chinese probably realized that the vulnerabilities would soon be fixed, was to install a web shell in compromised networks that would give them subsequent remote access. Even if the vulnerabilities were patched, the shell would remain until the network operators removed it.

Now, months later, many of those shells are still in place. And they’re being used by criminal hackers as well.

On Tuesday, the FBI announced that it successfully received a court order to remove “hundreds” of these web shells from networks in the US.

This is nothing short of extraordinary, and I can think of no real-world parallel. It’s kind of like if a criminal organization infiltrated a door-lock company and surreptitiously added a master passkey feature, and then customers bought and installed those locks. And then if the FBI got a court order to fix all the locks to remove the master passkey capability. And it’s kind of not like that. In any case, it’s not what we normally think of when we think of a warrant. The links above have details, but I would like a legal scholar to weigh in on the implications of this.

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Google’s Project Zero Finds a Nation-State Zero-Day Operation

Google’s Project Zero discovered, and caused to be patched, eleven zero-day exploits against Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Windows, and iOS. This seems to have been exploited by “Western government operatives actively conducting a counterterrorism operation”:

The exploits, which went back to early 2020 and used never-before-seen techniques, were “watering hole” attacks that used infected websites to deliver malware to visitors. They caught the attention of cybersecurity experts thanks to their scale, sophistication, and speed.

[…]

It’s true that Project Zero does not formally attribute hacking to specific groups. But the Threat Analysis Group, which also worked on the project, does perform attribution. Google omitted many more details than just the name of the government behind the hacks, and through that information, the teams knew internally who the hacker and targets were. It is not clear whether Google gave advance notice to government officials that they would be publicizing and shutting down the method of attack.

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More on the Chinese Zero-Day Microsoft Exchange Hack

Nick Weaver has an excellent post on the Microsoft Exchange hack:

The investigative journalist Brian Krebs has produced a handy timeline of events and a few things stand out from the chronology. The attacker was first detected by one group on Jan. 5 and another on Jan. 6, and Microsoft acknowledged the problem immediately. During this time the attacker appeared to be relatively subtle, exploiting particular targets (although we generally lack insight into who was targeted). Microsoft determined on Feb. 18 that it would patch these vulnerabilities on the March 9th “Patch Tuesday” release of fixes.

Somehow, the threat actor either knew that the exploits would soon become worthless or simply guessed that they would. So, in late February, the attacker changed strategy. Instead of simply exploiting targeted Exchange servers, the attackers stepped up their pace considerably by targeting tens of thousands of servers to install the web shell, an exploit that allows attackers to have remote access to a system. Microsoft then released the patch with very little warning on Mar. 2, at which point the attacker simply sought to compromise almost every vulnerable Exchange server on the Internet. The result? Virtually every vulnerable mail server received the web shell as a backdoor for further exploitation, making the patch effectively useless against the Chinese attackers; almost all of the vulnerable systems were exploited before they were patched.

This is a rational strategy for any actor who doesn’t care about consequences. When a zero-day is confidential and undiscovered, the attacker tries to be careful, only using it on attackers of sufficient value. But if the attacker knows or has reason to believe their vulnerabilities may be patched, they will increase the pace of exploits and, once a patch is released, there is no reason to not try to exploit everything possible.

We know that Microsoft shares advance information about updates with some organizations. I have long believed that they give the NSA a few weeks’ notice to do basically what the Chinese did: use the exploit widely, because you don’t have to worry about losing the capability.

Estimates on the number of affected networks continues to rise. At least 30,000 in the US, and 100,000 worldwide. More?

And the vulnerabilities:

The Chinese actors were not using a single vulnerability but actually a sequence of four “zero-day” exploits. The first allowed an unauthorized user to basically tell the server “let me in, I’m the server” by tricking the server into contacting itself. After the unauthorized user gained entry, the hacker could use the second vulnerability, which used a malformed voicemail that, when interpreted by the server, allowed them to execute arbitrary commands. Two further vulnerabilities allow the attacker to write new files, which is a common primitive that attackers use to increase their access: An attacker uses a vulnerability to write a file and then uses the arbitrary command execution vulnerability to execute that file.

Using this access, the attackers could read anybody’s email or indeed take over the mail server completely. Critically, they would almost always do more, introducing a “web shell,” a program that would enable further remote exploitation even if the vulnerabilities are patched.

The details of that web shell matter. If it was sophisticated, it implies that the Chinese hackers were planning on installing it from the beginning of the operation. If it’s kind of slapdash, it implies a last-minute addition when they realized their exploit window was closing.

Now comes the criminal attacks. Any unpatched network is still vulnerable, and we know from history that lots of networks will remain vulnerable for a long time. Expect the ransomware gangs to weaponize this attack within days.

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Four Microsoft Exchange Zero-Days Exploited by China

Microsoft has issued an emergency Microsoft Exchange patch to fix four zero-day vulnerabilities currently being exploited by China.

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On Vulnerability-Adjacent Vulnerabilities

At the virtual Engima Conference, Google’s Project Zero’s Maggie Stone gave a talk about zero-day exploits in the wild. In it, she talked about how often vendors fix vulnerabilities only to have the attackers tweak their exploits to work again. From a MIT Technology Review article:

Soon after they were spotted, the researchers saw one exploit being used in the wild. Microsoft issued a patch and fixed the flaw, sort of. In September 2019, another similar vulnerability was found being exploited by the same hacking group.

More discoveries in November 2019, January 2020, and April 2020 added up to at least five zero-day vulnerabilities being exploited from the same bug class in short order. Microsoft issued multiple security updates: some failed to actually fix the vulnerability being targeted, while others required only slight changes that required just a line or two to change in the hacker’s code to make the exploit work again.

[…]

“What we saw cuts across the industry: Incomplete patches are making it easier for attackers to exploit users with zero-days,” Stone said on Tuesday at the security conference Enigma. “We’re not requiring attackers to come up with all new bug classes, develop brand new exploitation, look at code that has never been researched before. We’re allowing the reuse of lots of different vulnerabilities that we previously knew about.”

[…]

Why aren’t they being fixed? Most of the security teams working at software companies have limited time and resources, she suggests — and if their priorities and incentives are flawed, they only check that they’ve fixed the very specific vulnerability in front of them instead of addressing the bigger problems at the root of many vulnerabilities.

Another article on the talk.

This is an important insight. It’s not enough to patch existing vulnerabilities. We need to make it harder for attackers to find new vulnerabilities to exploit. Closing entire families of vulnerabilities, rather than individual vulnerabilities one at a time, is a good way to do that.

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SonicWall Zero-Day

Hackers are exploiting zero-day in SonicWall:

In an email, an NCC Group spokeswoman wrote: “Our team has observed signs of an attempted exploitation of a vulnerabilitythat affects the SonicWall SMA 100 series devices. We are working closely with SonicWall to investigate this in more depth.”

In Monday’s update, SonicWall representatives said the company’s engineering team confirmed that the submission by NCC Group included a “critical zero-day” in the SMA 100 series 10.x code. SonicWall is tracking it as SNWLID-2021-0001. The SMA 100 series is a line of secure remote access appliances.

The disclosure makes SonicWall at least the fifth large company to report in recent weeks that it was targeted by sophisticated hackers. Other companies include network management tool provider SolarWinds, Microsoft, FireEye, and Malwarebytes. CrowdStrike also reported being targeted but said the attack wasn’t successful.

Neither SonicWall nor NCC Group said that the hack involving the SonicWall zero-day was linked to the larger hack campaign involving SolarWinds. Based on the timing of the disclosure and some of the details in it, however, there is widespread speculation that the two are connected.

The speculation is just that — speculation. I have no opinion in the matter. This could easily be part of the SolarWinds campaign, which targeted other security companies. But there are a lot of “highly sophisticated threat actors” — that’s how NCC Group described them — out there, and this could easily be a coincidence.

Were I working for a national intelligence organization, I would try to disguise my operations as being part of the SolarWinds attack.

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Sophisticated Watering Hole Attack

Google’s Project Zero has exposed a sophisticated watering-hole attack targeting both Windows and Android:

Some of the exploits were zero-days, meaning they targeted vulnerabilities that at the time were unknown to Google, Microsoft, and most outside researchers (both companies have since patched the security flaws). The hackers delivered the exploits through watering-hole attacks, which compromise sites frequented by the targets of interest and lace the sites with code that installs malware on visitors’ devices. The boobytrapped sites made use of two exploit servers, one for Windows users and the other for users of Android

The use of zero-days and complex infrastructure isn’t in itself a sign of sophistication, but it does show above-average skill by a professional team of hackers. Combined with the robustness of the attack code — ­which chained together multiple exploits in an efficient manner — the campaign demonstrates it was carried out by a “highly sophisticated actor.”

[…]

The modularity of the payloads, the interchangeable exploit chains, and the logging, targeting, and maturity of the operation also set the campaign apart, the researcher said.

No attribution was made, but the list of countries likely to be behind this isn’t very large. If you were to ask me to guess based on available information, I would guess it was the US — specifically, the NSA. It shows a care and precision that it’s known for. But I have no actual evidence for that guess.

All the vulnerabilities were fixed by last April.

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Impressive iPhone Exploit

This is a scarily impressive vulnerability:

Earlier this year, Apple patched one of the most breathtaking iPhone vulnerabilities ever: a memory corruption bug in the iOS kernel that gave attackers remote access to the entire device­ — over Wi-Fi, with no user interaction required at all. Oh, and exploits were wormable­ — meaning radio-proximity exploits could spread from one nearby device to another, once again, with no user interaction needed.

[…]

Beer’s attack worked by exploiting a buffer overflow bug in a driver for AWDL, an Apple-proprietary mesh networking protocol that makes things like Airdrop work. Because drivers reside in the kernel — ­one of the most privileged parts of any operating system­ — the AWDL flaw had the potential for serious hacks. And because AWDL parses Wi-Fi packets, exploits can be transmitted over the air, with no indication that anything is amiss.

[…]

Beer developed several different exploits. The most advanced one installs an implant that has full access to the user’s personal data, including emails, photos, messages, and passwords and crypto keys stored in the keychain. The attack uses a laptop, a Raspberry Pi, and some off-the-shelf Wi-Fi adapters. It takes about two minutes to install the prototype implant, but Beer said that with more work a better written exploit could deliver it in a “handful of seconds.” Exploits work only on devices that are within Wi-Fi range of the attacker.

There is no evidence that this vulnerability was ever used in the wild.

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New Windows Zero-Day

Google’s Project Zero has discovered and published a buffer overflow vulnerability in the Windows Kernel Cryptography Driver. The exploit doesn’t affect the cryptography, but allows attackers to escalate system privileges:

Attackers were combining an exploit for it with a separate one targeting a recently fixed flaw in Chrome. The former allowed the latter to escape a security sandbox so the latter could execute code on vulnerable machines.

The vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, although Microsoft says it’s not being exploited widely. Everyone expects a fix in the next Patch Tuesday cycle.

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New Windows Zero-Day

Google’s Project Zero has discovered and published a buffer overflow vulnerability in the Windows Kernel Cryptography Driver. The exploit doesn’t affect the cryptography, but allows attackers to escalate system privileges:

Attackers were combining an exploit for it with a separate one targeting a recently fixed flaw in Chrome. The former allowed the latter to escape a security sandbox so the latter could execute code on vulnerable machines.

The vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, although Microsoft says it’s not being exploited widely. Everyone expects a fix in the next Patch Tuesday cycle.

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