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N.S.A. Takes Step Toward Protecting World’s Computers, Not Just Hacking Them

WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has taken a significant step toward protecting the world’s computer systems, announcing Tuesday that it alerted Microsoft to a vulnerability in its Windows operating system rather than following the agency’s typical approach of keeping quiet and exploiting the flaw to develop cyberweapons.

The warning allowed Microsoft to develop a patch for the problem and gave the government an early start on fixing the vulnerability. In years past, the National Security Agency has collected all manner of computer vulnerabilities to gain access to digital networks to gather intelligence and generate hacking tools to use against American adversaries.

But that policy was heavily criticized in recent years when the agency lost control of some of those tools, which fell into the hands of cybercriminals and other malicious actors, including North Korean and Russian hackers.

By taking credit for spotting a critical vulnerability and leading the call to update computer systems, the National Security Agency appeared to adopt a shift in strategy and took on an unusually public role for one of the most secretive arms of the American government. The move shows the degree to which the agency was bruised by accusations that it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in preventable damage by allowing vulnerabilities to circulate.

“We wanted to take a new approach to sharing and also really work to build trust with the cybersecurity community,” Anne Neuberger, the agency’s cybersecurity director, told reporters.

The vulnerability exists in Windows 10, Microsoft’s flagship operating system, as well as some versions of its server software. It allows hackers to insert malicious code into a target computer and make it appear to be from a safe and trusted source. The vulnerability could also allow hackers to decrypt secret communications.

The vulnerability was serious, officials said. The National Security Agency warned government officials who oversee classified systems about the flaw and the coming Microsoft patch before discussing it publicly, Ms. Neuberger said.

The agency has in the past privately shared vulnerabilities it found with Microsoft and other technology companies. During the Obama administration, officials said, they shared about 90 percent of the flaws they discovered.

But the agency never allowed those firms to publicly identify the agency as the source of those discoveries, Ms. Neuberger said. The agency wanted the public acknowledgment of its role in finding the new defect to demonstrate the importance of patching the flaw, she said.

“Ensuring vulnerabilities can be mitigated is an absolute priority,” Ms. Neuberger said.

The National Security Agency’s action suggests the vulnerability for American government systems likely outweighed its usefulness as a tool for the agency to gather intelligence.

Experts and technology companies praised the agency. But some noted that even as one arm of the government was moving to protect the public’s ability to encrypt its communications, another was taking the opposite tack. A day earlier, the Justice Department called on Apple to break the encryption on its phones, and it has pushed for so-called back doors on Facebook’s encrypted message services.

The Washington Post earlier reported on the agency’s warning to Microsoft, which released a patch for the vulnerability on Tuesday.

Customers who automatically update their operating systems or applied Tuesday’s patch “are already protected,” said Jeff Jones, a senior director at Microsoft.

Microsoft said no evidence had emerged that malicious actors had exploited the vulnerability and said its security software could detect malware trying to do so.

The National Security Agency’s decision to reveal the flaw to Microsoft — and then to publicly announce its move — is in sharp contrast to how it handled another flaw that it discovered but told Microsoft about too late to prevent global damage.

In early 2017, agency officials told Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, that it had found a flaw in its operating systems but lost it to a group called the Shadow Brokers, which somehow obtained hacking tools that the United States had used to spy on other countries. The agency had known about the flaw for some time but held on to it, believing that one day it might be useful for surveillance or the development of a cyberweapon.

But when the agency’s arsenal of flaws leaked out — presumably through insiders, though the National Security Agency has never said — among it was code nicknamed “Eternal Blue.” While Microsoft had raced to get people to patch the erroneous code, many systems remained unprotected.

Soon North Korean hackers used the code to develop “WannaCry,” software that crippled the British health care system, which used an outdated version of Microsoft Windows. And Russian hackers used it in the NotPetya attacks, among the most damaging cyberattacks in history, costing hundreds of million of dollars to companies including FedEx and Maersk, the shipping giant.

The agency dismissed the idea that it was responsible for the malicious use of the code — arguing that the responsibility lay with North Korea and Russia, which mounted the attacks. But privately, many agency officials acknowledged that the tendency to hoard such flaws in hopes of developing weapons had come at a huge price and that the United States bore some responsibility for the damage caused by Eternal Blue and other tools.

Some experts believe Eternal Blue is continuing to cause problems, allowing hackers to disrupt computer systems.

The White House often decides whether to hold on to a flaw for future use or reveal it to the manufacturer. Obama administration officials set up a system to make the decision. Trump administration officials say a similar process still exists, but they have stopped publishing information about the percentage of vulnerabilities they make public.

The National Security Council reviewed the latest decision to share information about the new flaw with Microsoft, Ms. Neuberger said.

The vulnerability involves Windows’ digital signature system, according to one of the people familiar with the issue. Microsoft, and other companies, use digital signatures to identify software and updates as authentic.

The vulnerability unearthed by the National Security Agency could potentially allow a hacker to add a fake signature that could allow malware to be inserted onto a vulnerable computer. Because the vulnerability was not yet public, no known malware has taken advantage of it.

Criminal hackers or nation states typically take weeks to exploit a new vulnerability, so businesses, governments and individuals may have a little time to install the security patch developed by Microsoft. Experts urged them to move quickly nonetheless.

It was not clear how much of a strategic shift the agency’s announcement amounted to. The agency presumably is still hunting for vulnerabilities and flaws that could allow them to infiltrate Iranian computer systems, as well as those used by Russia, China and other adversarial countries.

But if the agency continues to follow the example set Tuesday, future vulnerabilities that affect not just one critical computer system but instead millions of users or more across the world, its experts could help fix the problem rather than exploit it.

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Apple Takes a (Cautious) Stand Against Opening a Killer’s iPhones

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is privately preparing for a legal fight with the Justice Department to defend encryption on its iPhones while publicly trying to defuse the dispute, as the technology giant navigates an increasingly tricky line between its customers and the Trump administration.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has marshaled a handful of top advisers, while Attorney General William P. Barr has taken aim at the company and asked it to help penetrate two phones used by a gunman in a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla.

Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

The situation has become a sudden crisis at Apple that pits Mr. Cook’s longstanding commitment to protecting people’s privacy against accusations from the United States government that it is putting the public at risk. The case resembles Apple’s clash with the F.B.I. in 2016 over another dead gunman’s phone, which dragged on for months.

This time, Apple is facing off against the Trump administration, which has been unpredictable. The stakes are high for Mr. Cook, who has built an unusual alliance with President Trump that has helped Apple largely avoid damaging tariffs in the trade war with China. That relationship will now be tested as Mr. Cook confronts Mr. Barr, one of the president’s closest allies.

“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday in a post on Twitter. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country.”

Apple declined to comment on the issue on Tuesday. Late Monday, after Mr. Barr had complained that the company had provided no “substantive assistance” in gaining access to the phones used in the Pensacola shooting, Apple said it rejected that characterization. It added that “encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

But Apple also offered conciliatory language, in a sign that it did not want the showdown to intensify. The company said it was working with the F.B.I. on the Pensacola case, with its engineers recently holding a call to provide technical assistance.

“We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation,” Apple said.

At the heart of the tussle is a debate between Apple and the government over whether security or privacy trumps the other. Apple has said it chooses not to build a “backdoor” way for governments to get into iPhones and to bypass encryption because that would create a slippery slope that could damage people’s privacy.

The government has argued it is not up to Apple to choose whether to provide help, as the Fourth Amendment allows the government to violate individual privacy in the interest of public safety. Privacy has never been an absolute right under the Constitution, Mr. Barr said in a speech in October.

Mr. Cook publicly took a stand on privacy in 2016 when Apple fought a court order from the F.B.I. to open the iPhone of a gunman involved in a San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting. The company said it could open the phone in a month, using a team of six to 10 engineers. But in a blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers at the time, Mr. Cook warned that creating a way for the authorities to gain access to someone’s iPhone “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel who helped lead the company’s response in the San Bernardino case, said in an interview last year that Mr. Cook had staked his reputation on the stance. Had Apple’s board not agreed with the position, Mr. Cook was prepared to resign, Mr. Sewell said.

The San Bernardino case was bitterly contested by the government and Apple until a private company came forward with a way to break into the phone. Since then, Mr. Cook has made privacy one of Apple’s core values. That has set Apple apart from tech giants like Facebook and Google, which have faced scrutiny for vacuuming up people’s data to sell ads.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor who has written a book on the tech giants, said of Apple. “They’re so concerned with your privacy that they’re willing to wave the finger at the F.B.I.”

Mr. Cook’s small team at Apple is now aiming to steer the current situation toward an outside resolution that doesn’t involve the company breaking its own security, even as it prepares for a potential legal battle over the issue, said the people with knowledge of the thinking.

Some of the frustration within Apple over the Justice Department is rooted in how police have previously exploited software flaws to break into iPhones. The Pensacola gunman’s phones were an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, according to a person familiar with the investigation who declined to be named because the detail was confidential.

Those phones, released in 2012 and 2016, lack Apple’s most sophisticated encryption. The iPhone 5 is even older than the device in the San Bernardino case, which was an iPhone 5C.

Security researchers and a former senior Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said tools from at least two companies, Cellebrite and Grayshift, have long been able to bypass the encryption on those iPhone models.

Cellebrite said in an email that it helps “thousands of organizations globally to lawfully access and analyze” digital information; it declined to comment on an active investigation. Grayshift declined to comment.

Cellebrite’s and Grayshift’s tools exploit flaws in iPhone software that let them remove limits on how many passwords can be tried before the device erases its data, the researchers said. Typically, iPhones allow 10 password attempts. The tools then use a so-called brute-force attack, or repeated automated attempts of thousands of passcodes, until one works.

“The iPhone 5 is so old, you are guaranteed that Grayshift and Cellebrite can break into those every bit as easily as Apple could,” said Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has taught iPhone security.

Chuck Cohen, who recently retired as head of the Indiana State Police’s efforts to break into encrypted devices, said his team used a $15,000 device from Grayshift that enabled it to regularly get into iPhones, particularly older ones, though the tool didn’t always work.

In the San Bernardino case, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later found the F.B.I. had not tried all possible solutions before trying to force Apple to unlock the phone. In the current case, Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials have said they have exhausted all options, though they declined to detail exactly why third-party tools have failed on these phones as the authorities seek to learn if the gunman acted alone or coordinated with others.

“The F.B.I.’s technical experts — as well as those consulted outside of the organization — have played an integral role in this investigation,” an F.B.I. spokeswoman said. “The consensus was reached, after all efforts to access the shooter’s phones had been unsuccessful, that the next step was to reach out to start a conversation with Apple.”

Security researchers speculated that in the Pensacola case, the F.B.I. might still be trying a brute-force attack to get into the phones. They said major physical damage may have impeded any third-party tools from opening the devices. The Pensacola gunman had shot the iPhone 7 Plus once and tried destroying the iPhone 5, according to F.B.I. photos.

The F.B.I. said it fixed the iPhones in a lab so that they would turn on, but the authorities still couldn’t bypass their encryption. Security researchers and the former Apple executive said any damage that prevented third-party tools from working would also preclude a solution from Apple.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It’s a simple, ‘front-door’ request: Will Apple help us get into the shooter’s phones or not?”

While Apple has closed loopholes that police have used to break into its devices and resisted some law enforcement requests for access, it has also routinely helped police get information from phones in cases that don’t require it to break its encryption. Apple has held seminars for police departments on how to quickly get into a suspect’s phone, and it has a hotline and dedicated team to aid police in time-sensitive cases.

In the past seven years, Apple has also complied with roughly 127,000 requests from American law enforcement agencies for data stored on its computer servers. Such data is unencrypted and access is possible without a customer’s passcode.

In 2016, when the standoff between Apple and the government was at its most acrimonious, Mr. Cook said Congress should pass a law to decide the boundaries between public safety and technological security. In court filings, Apple even identified an applicable law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

On Monday, Mr. Barr said the Trump administration had revived talks with Congress to come up with such a law.

Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.

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Cisco acquires ultra-low latency networking specialist Exablaze

Cisco today announced that it has acquired Exablaze, an Australia-based company that designs and builds advanced networking gear based on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The company focuses on solutions for businesses that need ultra-low latency networking, with a special emphasis on high-frequency trading. Cisco plans to integrate Exablaze’s technology into its own product portfolio.

“By adding Exablaze’s segment leading ultra-low latency devices and FPGA-based applications to our portfolio, financial and HFT customers will be better positioned to achieve their business objectives and deliver on their customer value proposition,” writes Cisco’s head of corporate development Rob Salvagno.

Founded in 2013, Exablaze has offices in Sydney, New York, London and Shanghai. While financial trading is an obvious application for its solutions, the company also notes that it has users in the big data analytics, high-performance computing and telecom space.

Cisco plans to add Exablaze to its Nexus portfolio of data center switches. The company also argues that in addition to integrating Exablaze’s current portfolio, the two companies will work on next-generation switches, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for expanding its solutions into AI and ML segments.

“The acquisition will bring together Cisco’s global reach, extensive sales and support teams, and broad technology and manufacturing base, with Exablaze’s cutting-edge low-latency networking, layer 1 switching, timing and time synchronization technologies, and low-latency FPGA expertise,” explains Exablaze co-founder and chairman Greg Robinson.

Cisco, which has always been quite acquisitive, has now made six acquisitions this year. Most of these were software companies, but with Acacia Communications, it also recently announced its intention to acquire another fabless semiconductor company that builds optical interconnects.