Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Tales From The Surveillance State: The NSA Can Spy On Anyone, Anywhere, Any Time


I guess it would be terribly naive to assume the U.S. hasn't embedded the technology to spy on everyone everywhere when the opportunity is available. Buying American computing systems-- not to mention weapons systems-- has always had that obvious downside. Monday evening, Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger, writing for the NYTimes reported on the claims a Russian cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky Lab, that the NSA has found a way to permanently embed surveillance and sabotage tools in computers and networks it has targeted in Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and other countries.
It linked the techniques to those used in Stuxnet, the computer worm that disabled about 1,000 centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. It was later revealed that Stuxnet was part of a program code-named Olympic Games and run jointly by Israel and the United States.

Kaspersky’s report said that Olympic Games had similarities to a much broader effort to infect computers well beyond those in Iran. It detected particularly high infection rates in computers in Iran, Pakistan and Russia, three countries whose nuclear programs the United States routinely monitors.

Some of the implants burrow so deep into the computer systems, Kaspersky said, that they infect the “firmware,” the embedded software that preps the computer’s hardware before the operating system starts. It is beyond the reach of existing antivirus products and most security controls, Kaspersky reported, making it virtually impossible to wipe out.

In many cases, it also allows the American intelligence agencies to grab the encryption keys off a machine, unnoticed, and unlock scrambled contents. Moreover, many of the tools are designed to run on computers that are disconnected from the Internet, which was the case in the computers controlling Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants.

Kaspersky noted that of the more than 60 attack groups it was tracking in cyberspace, the so-called Equation Group “surpasses anything known in terms of complexity and sophistication of techniques, and that has been active for almost two decades.”

...In the past, security experts have warned about “the race to the bare metal” of a machine. As security around software has increased, criminals have looked for ways to infect the actual hardware of the machine. Firmware is about the closest to the bare metal you can get-- a coveted position that allows the attacker not only to hide from antivirus products but also to reinfect a machine even if its hard drive is wiped.

“If the malware gets into the firmware, it is able to resurrect itself forever,” Costin Raiu, a Kaspersky threat researcher, said in the report. “It means that we are practically blind and cannot detect hard drives that have been infected with this malware.”

The possibility of such an attack is one that math researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a branch of the Commerce Department, have long cautioned about but have very rarely seen. In an interview last year, Andrew Regenscheid, a math researcher at the institute, warned that such attacks were extremely powerful. If the firmware becomes corrupted, Mr. Regenscheid said, “your computer won’t boot up and you can’t use it. You have to replace the computer to recover from that attack.”

...Documents revealed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden detailed the agency’s plans to leap the “air gaps” that separate computers from the outside world, including efforts to install specialized hardware on computers being shipped to a target country. That hardware can then receive low-frequency radio waves broadcast from a suitcase-size device that the N.S.A. has deployed around the world. At other times the air gaps have been leapt by having a spy physically install a USB stick to infect the adversary’s computer.

Basing its estimate on the time stamps in code, the Kaspersky presentation said the Equation Group had been infecting computers since 2001, but aggressively began ramping up their capabilities in 2008, the year that President Obama was elected, and began doubling down on digital tools to spy on adversaries of America.

While the United States has never acknowledged conducting any offensive cyberoperations, President Obama discussed the issue in general in an interview on Friday with Re/code, an online computer industry publication, describing offensive cyberweapons as being unlike traditional weapons.

“This is more like basketball than football, in the sense that there’s no clear line between offense and defense,” said Mr. Obama, himself a basketball player. “Things are going back and forth all the time.”
How pissed off is Obama at Russia over Ed Snowden's asylum? Pissed off enough to have put together a coup in Ukraine? Pissed off enough to drastically cut the price of energy to wreck the Russian economy? That would be very, very pissed off.


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At 3:33 AM, Blogger KurtVB said...

This is really not news, except that Americans have such a short memory. In the early 1980s, James Bamford wrote a book called the Puzzle Palace about the NSA. Many of the facts he stated, with NSA's OK, were later re-classified by the Reagan administration.

The cutting technology of the day had the NSA being able to listen in on any electronic communication. They have kept up with technology, and can do things that even the developers and deployers of the technology did not know was possible.

This kind of ability is a double edged sword. It can be used for good or evil, can make heroes or tyrants. Individually one need only look as far as FBI director Hoover. It is the responsibility of the citizens of this country to keep this ability in check.

That is a frightening thought when SCOTUS has made it possible for election to be bought by the highest bidder. I am glad the we have this ability and am freightened by it at the same time. Everyone, once the get into a position of power becomes an empire builder and become reluctant to give that power up.

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama is a corporatist tool, incapable of leading such a subversive attack on the computer systems of the world, or an economic assault via energy price manipulation, or organizing a coup in the Ukraine. Such initiatives are organized and operated by entities attached to the Federal government (in the former and latter case) or entities that the Federal government can't begin to influence much less control (Saudi Arabia in the interim instance).

Praising Obama for leading such assaults upon the world gives him far more ability than he's ever displayed in the arenas we expect. He lets the Republicans in Congress run over his game like his Reeboks are glued to the floor. And remember when his own staff elbowed him into the ER for stitches in a pickup game? What kind of a basketball master lets that happen to him?

Obama's job as president is to sell the American people a story to keep us from examining what the global corporatists are doing to our nation and our planet for their own personal aggrandizement. In this, he's done his job most of the time. I guess Dubya showing him the Grassy Knoll film as a part of the White House tour worked as intended.


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