Posted by Kevin on April 29, 2014.
September 2013 is the month in which the extent of direct government hacking – as opposed to traffic surveillance – became known.
4 September – WikiLeaks releases Spy Files 3, demonstrating increasing use of third-party hacking tools, such as FinFisher.
6 September – Bruce Schneier writes in the Guardian
The NSA also devotes considerable resources to attacking endpoint computers. This kind of thing is done by its TAO – Tailored Access Operations – group. TAO has a menu of exploits it can serve up against your computer – whether you’re running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, or something else – and a variety of tricks to get them on to your computer. Your anti-virus software won’t detect them, and you’d have trouble finding them even if you knew where to look. These are hacker tools designed by hackers with an essentially unlimited budget. What I took away from reading the Snowden documents was that if the NSA wants in to your computer, it’s in. Period.
7 September – details of an NSA MITM operation against Google users in Brazil revealed.
12 September – FBI admits that it hacked Freedom Hosting. The implications are that it inserted the malware that monitored visitors, and the almost certainty that the malware was CIPAV.
FinFisher and CIPAV stand out as government operated spyware; but there are others: RCS (DaVinci), Bundestrojaner etcetera – and, of course, Stuxnet and Flame. We’ve known about them for a long time: see
This leaves a major question begging: if we’ve known about this malware for such a long time, how come it can still be used? Why doesn’t anti-malware software stop it?
There are two possible reasons that we’ll explore:
In bed with the NSA
This has been vehemently denied by every AV company I have spoken to (see the articles on CIPAV and RCS for examples). Bruce Schneier doesn’t believe it is:
I actually believe that AV is less likely to be compromised, because there are different companies in mutually antagonistic countries competing with each other in the marketplace. While the U.S. might be able to convince Symantec to ignore its secret malware, they wouldn’t be able to convince the Russian company Kaspersky to do the same. And likewise, Kaspersky might be convinced to ignore Russian malware but Symantec would not. These differences are likely to show up in product comparisons, which gives both companies an incentive to be honest. But I don’t know.
Explaining the latest NSA revelations – Q&A with internet privacy experts
And yet the possibility lingers. When Flame was ‘discovered’, Mikko Hypponen issued a mea culpa for the industry. Admitting that F-Secure had Flame samples on record for two years, he said,
Researchers at other antivirus firms have found evidence that they received samples of the malware even earlier than this, indicating that the malware was older than 2010.
What this means is that all of us had missed detecting this malware for two years, or more. That’s a spectacular failure for our company, and for the antivirus industry in general.
It wasn’t the first time this has happened, either. Stuxnet went undetected for more than a year after it was unleashed in the wild…
Why Antivirus Companies Like Mine Failed to Catch Flame and Stuxnet
Forget the ‘hand on heart’ for a moment, and consider… That’s the two major government-sponsored malware samples known about and ignored by multiple AV companies for several years. Coincidence? Maybe. But to echo Schneier’s last sentence, I don’t know.
Malware writers are one step ahead of the AV industry
If you listen to the AV marketers, this cannot be true. Every month we hear claims that AV products stop 99.9% to 100% of all known viruses (remember that they ‘knew’ about Stuxnet and Flame, but did nothing). I’ve written on my dismay at this sort of advertising elsewhere (for example, Anti Malware Testing Standards Organization: a dissenting view).
However, if you listen to the foot soldier researchers – and sometimes even higher –within the individual companies, you realise that it is absolutely, inherently, and unavoidably true. Luis Corrons, the technical director at PandaLabs, puts it like this:
The effectiveness of any malware sample is directly proportional at the resources spent. When we talk about targeted attacks (and [CIPAV and FinFisher] are developed to perform targeted attacks) the most important part is the ability to be undetected. Bypassing signature detection is trivial, although it is almost useless too, as most anti-malware programs have several different layers of protection which do not rely on signatures.
The attackers probably know which security solution(s) the potential victim is using. Then it is as ‘simple’ as replicating the same scenario (operating system, security solution, etc.) and verifying that the malware is not being detected. As soon as it is flagged they will change it to avoid detection, until they have the final version.
Once they are done, they will infect the victim and will be spying / stealing information out of him until they are detected. This could be a matter of days, months or even years.
Claudio Guarnieri of Rapid7 said very similar:
Since FinFisher, just as any other commercial spyware, is a very targeted and sophisticated (besides expensive) malware, it’s part of Gamma’s development lifecycle to make sure that they tweaked all the different components to avoid antiviruses before shipping the new FinFisher out to the customers.
The developers likely have their own internal systems to do these testings: think of something as a private VirusTotal. Every time they develop a new feature or a new release, they’ll test it against as many antiviruses as possible and if something gets detected, they debug and try to understand why and find a way around it.
The ‘problem’ with this approach is that they rely on the AV industry not knowing and not having access to their malware: whenever that happens AV vendors react pretty effectively and in fact if you look at FinFisher samples discovered 1 year ago they are now largely detected by most antivirus products.
Is the AV industry in bed with the NSA? The simple fact is that we just do not know. The industry itself denies it – but, well, it would, wouldn’t it? Statistically, since almost every other aspect of the security industry collaborates with or has been subverted by the NSA, my suspicion is that it is. At the very least, I suspect it engages in ‘tacit connivance’.
Are malware developers one step ahead of the AV industry? That depends. As Corrons says, it depends on the resources available to the bad guys, whether that’s NSA, FBI, GCHQ or the Russian Business Network. Well-resourced bad guys will always get in. As Schneier puts it, “if the NSA wants in to your computer, it’s in. Period.” But that probably applies to all governments and all seriously organized criminal gangs engaged in targeted hacking.
But one final comment: nothing said here should be taken to suggest that we don’t need the AV industry. It may not be able to stop the NSA, but it can and does stop a million script kiddie wannabe hackers every day.