08
Mar 17

WikiLeaks Dumps Docs on CIA’s Hacking Tools

WikiLeaks on Tuesday dropped one of its most explosive word bombs ever: A secret trove of documents apparently stolen from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detailing methods of hacking everything from smart phones and TVs to compromising Internet routers and computers. KrebsOnSecurity is still digesting much of this fascinating data cache, but here are some first impressions based on what I’ve seen so far.

First, to quickly recap what happened: In a post on its site, WikiLeaks said the release — dubbed “Vault 7” — was the largest-ever publication of confidential documents on the agency. WikiLeaks is promising a series of these document caches; this first one includes more than 8,700 files allegedly taken from a high-security network inside CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Va.

The home page for the CIA's "Weeping Angel" project, which sought to exploit flaws that could turn certain 2013-model Samsung "smart" TVs into remote listening posts.

The home page for the CIA’s “Weeping Angel” project, which sought to exploit flaws that could turn certain 2013-model Samsung “smart” TVs into remote listening posts.

“Recently, the CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized ‘zero day’ exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation,” WikiLeaks wrote. “This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA. The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.”

Wikileaks said it was calling attention to the CIA’s global covert hacking program, its malware arsenal and dozens of weaponized exploits against “a wide range of U.S. and European company products, includ[ing] Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows and even Samsung TVs, which are turned into covert microphones.”

The documents for the most part don’t appear to include the computer code needed to exploit previously unknown flaws in these products, although WikiLeaks says those exploits may show up in a future dump. This collection is probably best thought of as an internal corporate wiki used by multiple CIA researchers who methodically found and documented weaknesses in a variety of popular commercial and consumer electronics.

For example, the data dump lists a number of exploit “modules” available to compromise various models of consumer routers made by companies like Linksys, Microtik and Zyxel, to name a few. CIA researchers also collated several pages worth of probing and testing weaknesses in business-class devices from Ciscowhose powerful routers carry a decent portion of the Internet’s traffic on any given day. Craig Dods, a researcher with Cisco’s rival Juniper, delves into greater detail on the Cisco bugs for anyone interested (Dods says he found no exploits for Juniper products in the cache, yet). Meanwhile, Cisco has published its own blog post on the matter.

WHILE MY SMART TV GENTLY WEEPS

Some of the exploits discussed in these leaked CIA documents appear to reference full-on, remote access vulnerabilities. However, a great many of the documents I’ve looked at seem to refer to attack concepts or half-finished exploits that may be limited by very specific requirements — such as physical access to the targeted device.

The “Weeping Angelproject’s page from 2014 is a prime example: It discusses ways to turn certain 2013-model Samsung “smart TVs” into remote listening devices; methods for disabling the LED lights that indicate the TV is on; and suggestions for fixing a problem with the exploit in which the WiFi interface on the TV is disabled when the exploit is run.

ToDo / Future Work:
Build a console cable

Turn on or leave WiFi turned on in Fake-Off mode

Parse unencrypted audio collection
Clean-up the file format of saved audio. Add encryption??

According to the documentation, Weeping Angel worked as long as the target hadn’t upgraded the firmware on the Samsung TVs. It also said the firmware upgrade eliminated the “current installation method,” which apparently required the insertion of a booby-trapped USB device into the TV.

Don’t get me wrong: This is a serious leak of fairly sensitive information. And I sincerely hope Wikileaks decides to work with researchers and vendors to coordinate the patching of flaws leveraged by the as-yet unreleased exploit code archive that apparently accompanies this documentation from the CIA.

But in reading the media coverage of this leak, one might be led to believe that even if you are among the small minority of Americans who have chosen to migrate more of their communications to privacy-enhancing technologies like Signal or WhatsApp, it’s all futility because the CIA can break it anyway.

Perhaps a future cache of documents from this CIA division will change things on this front, but an admittedly cursory examination of these documents indicates that the CIA’s methods for weakening the privacy of these tools all seem to require attackers to first succeed in deeply subverting the security of the mobile device — either through a remote-access vulnerability in the underlying operating system or via physical access to the target’s phone.

As Bloomberg’s tech op-ed writer Leonid Bershidsky notes, the documentation released here shows that these attacks are “not about mass surveillance — something that should bother the vast majority of internet users — but about monitoring specific targets.”

By way of example, Bershidsky points to a tweet yesterday from Open Whisper Systems (the makers of the Signal private messaging app) which observes that, “The CIA/Wikileaks story today is about getting malware onto phones, none of the exploits are in Signal or break Signal Protocol encryption.”

The company went on to say that because more online services are now using end-to-end encryption to prevent prying eyes from reading communications that are intercepted in-transit, intelligence agencies are being pushed “from undetectable mass surveillance to expensive, high-risk, targeted attacks.”

A tweet from Open Whisper Systems, the makers of the popular mobile privacy app Signal.

A tweet from Open Whisper Systems, the makers of the popular mobile privacy app Signal.

As limited as some of these exploits appear to be, the methodical approach of the countless CIA researchers who apparently collaborated to unearth these flaws is impressive and speaks to a key problem with most commercial hardware and software today: The vast majority of vendors would rather spend the time and money marketing their products than embark on the costly, frustrating, time-consuming and continuous process of stress-testing their own products and working with a range of researchers to find these types of vulnerabilities before the CIA or other nation-state-level hackers can.

Of course, not every company has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars just to do basic security research. According to this NBC News report from October 2016, the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence (the alleged source of the documents discussed in this story) has a staff of hundreds and a budget in the hundreds of millions: Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate the CIA requested $685.4 million for computer network operations in 2013, compared to $1 billion by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY?

NBC also reported that the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence was tasked by the Obama administration last year to devise cyber attack strategies in response to Russia’s alleged involvement in the siphoning of emails from Democratic National Committee servers as well as from Hillary Clinton‘s campaign chief John Podesta. Those emails were ultimately published online by Wikileaks last summer.

NBC reported that the “wide-ranging ‘clandestine’ cyber operation designed to harass and ’embarrass’ the Kremlin leadership was being lead by the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence.” Could this attack have been the Kremlin’s response to an action or actions by the CIA’s cyber center? Perhaps time (or future leaks) will tell.

Speaking of the NSA, the Wikileaks dump comes hot on the heels of a similar disclosure by The Shadow Brokers, a hacking group that said it stole malicious software from the Equation Group, a highly-skilled and advanced threat actor that has been closely tied to the NSA.

What’s interesting is this Wikileaks cache includes a longish discussion thread among CIA employees who openly discuss where the NSA erred in allowing experts to tie the NSA’s coders to malware produced by the Equation Group. As someone who spends a great deal of time unmasking cybercriminals who invariably leak their identity and/or location through poor operational security, I was utterly fascinated by this exchange.

BUG BOUNTIES VS BUG STOCKPILES

Many are using this latest deluge from WikiLeaks to reopen the debate over whether there is enough oversight of the CIA’s hacking activities. The New York Times called yesterday’s WikiLeaks disclosure “the latest coup for the antisecrecy organization and a serious blow to the CIA, which uses its hacking abilities to carry out espionage against foreign targets.”

The WikiLeaks scandal also revisits the question of whether the U.S. government should instead of hoarding and stockpiling vulnerabilities be more open and transparent about its findings — or at least work privately with software vendors to get the bugs fixed for the greater good. After all, these advocates argue, the United States is perhaps the most technologically-dependent country on Earth: Surely we have the most to lose when (not if) these exploits get leaked? Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper if everyone who produced software sought to crowdsource the hardening of their products?

On that front, my email inbox was positively peppered Tuesday with emails from organizations that run “bug bounty” programs on behalf of corporations. These programs seek to discourage the “full disclosure” approach — e.g., a researcher releasing exploit code for a previously unknown bug and giving the affected vendor exactly zero days to fix the problem before the public finds out how to exploit it (hence the term “zero-day” exploit).

Rather, the bug bounties encourage security researchers to work closely and discreetly with software vendors to fix security vulnerabilities — sometimes in exchange for monetary reward and sometimes just for public recognition.

Casey Ellis, chief executive officer and founder of bug bounty program Bugcrowd, suggested the CIA WikiLeaks disclosure will help criminal groups and other adversaries, while leaving security teams scrambling.

“In this mix there are the targeted vendors who, before today, were likely unaware of the specific vulnerabilities these exploits were targeting,” Ellis said. “Right now, the security teams are pulling apart the Wikileaks dump, performing technical analysis, assessing and prioritizing the risk to their products and the people who use them, and instructing the engineering teams towards creating patches. The net outcome over the long-term is actually a good thing for Internet security — the vulnerabilities that were exploited by these tools will be patched, and the risk to consumers reduced as a result — but for now we are entering yet another Shadow Brokers, Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu, etc., a period of actively exploitable 0-day bouncing around in the wild.”

Ellis said that — in an ironic way, one could say that Wikileaks, the CIA, and the original exploit authors “have combined to provide the same knowledge as the ‘good old days’ of full disclosure — but with far less control and a great many more side-effects than if the vendors were to take the initiative themselves.”

“This, in part, is why the full disclosure approach evolved into the coordinated disclosure and bug bounty models becoming commonplace today,” Ellis said in a written statement. “Stories like that of Wikileaks today are less and less surprising and to some extent are starting to be normalized. It’s only when the pain of doing nothing exceeds the pain of change that the majority of organizations will shift to an proactive vulnerability discovery strategy and the vulnerabilities exploited by these toolkits — and the risk those vulnerabilities create for the Internet — will become less and less common.”

Many observers — including a number of cybersecurity professional friends of mine — have become somewhat inured to these disclosures, and argue that this is exactly the sort of thing you might expect an agency like the CIA to be doing day in and day out. Omer Schneider, CEO at a startup called CyberX, seems to fall into this camp.

“The main issue here is not that the CIA has its own hacking tools or has a cache of zero-day exploits,” Schneider said. “Most nation-states have similar hacking tools, and they’re being used all the time. What’s surprising is that the general public is still shocked by stories like these. Regardless of the motives for publishing this, our concern is that Vault7 makes it even easier for a crop of new cyber-actors get in the game.”

This almost certainly won’t be the last time KrebsOnSecurity cites this week’s big CIA WikiLeaks trove. But for now I’m interested to hear what you, Dear Readers, found most intriguing about it? Sound off in the comments below.

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128 comments

  1. If CIA was not doing what the Wikileaks dump implies, they would be derelict.

  2. Of course this isn’t about mass surveillance. They have Facebook for that.

  3. Brian – any chance you could get the comments on your blog moderated? Skimming through the bipartisan name-calling and moronic posts to find nuggets of information is draining my will to live… Bruce Schneier’s blog is much the same these days – it’s a sad state of affairs.

    • I used to have a plugin that would let readers do that for me, but alas it was not well maintained and I had to ditch it because it introduced security flaws.

      I simply don’t have time to moderate all but the worst and spammiest comments. Unfortunately, too many people now shoot their mouths off without actually taking the time to be informed. That’s gotten worse with the most recent presidential election, but it’s always been that way kind of whenever I write about anything even vaguely political.

  4. Nicky Christopher

    How can the CIA be so careless? It’s mind boggling. They need to shore up their defenses and better vet people who work for them.

  5. This paragraph is missing from the Linkedin repost:
    The CIA went to great lengths to ensure that no indicators would be presented to an administrator that would indicate a compromised device, such as increased memory utilisation (2MB), console or syslog output during normal operation, reboots, and reloads, as well as during stack-trace analysis which would generally be performed by Cisco TAC.

  6. let me ask again??
    Why cia should hack or spy on
    avetage citizens?????
    It does not make sense
    but they let criminals operate feeel free.
    like escobar…did drug business together
    with usa goverment..after they stle his money
    and killled him.
    Nothing to talk about people know it all

  7. I’m just here for the comments.

  8. Neville Longbottom

    Nothing to see here, move along 🙂

    root@ubuntu:~# nslookup wikileaks.org
    Server: 66.228.62.5
    Address: 66.228.62.5#53

    Non-authoritative answer:
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 195.35.109.53
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 141.105.69.239
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 95.211.113.131
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 95.211.113.154
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 141.105.65.113
    Name: wikileaks.org
    Address: 195.35.109.44

    % Information related to ‘141.105.64.0 – 141.105.71.255’

    % Abuse contact for ‘141.105.64.0 – 141.105.71.255’ is ‘abuse@hostkey.ru’

    inetnum: 141.105.64.0 – 141.105.71.255
    netname: RU-HOSTKEY-20110627
    country: RU
    org: ORG-MTL21-RIPE
    admin-c: PC7356-RIPE
    tech-c: PC7356-RIPE
    tech-c: PC7356-RIPE
    status: ALLOCATED PA
    mnt-by: RIPE-NCC-HM-MNT
    mnt-by: MTLM-MNT
    mnt-routes: MTLM-MNT
    remarks: abuse-mailbox: abuse@hostkey.com
    created: 2011-06-27T08:53:56Z
    last-modified: 2016-09-30T12:14:02Z
    source: RIPE # Filtered

    organisation: ORG-MTL21-RIPE
    org-name: Mir Telematiki Ltd
    org-type: LIR
    address: Barabannii pereulok 4/4
    address: 107023
    address: Moscow
    address: RUSSIAN FEDERATION
    phone: +7 495 369 9796
    fax-no: +7 495 369 9796
    mnt-ref: MTLM-MNT
    mnt-ref: RIPE-NCC-HM-MNT
    mnt-by: RIPE-NCC-HM-MNT
    mnt-by: MTLM-MNT
    abuse-mailbox: abuse@hostkey.ru
    abuse-c: HA2800-RIPE
    created: 2010-10-06T10:46:46Z
    last-modified: 2016-09-30T12:14:19Z
    source: RIPE # Filtered

    person: Peter Chayanov
    address: Moscow, Russia
    phone: +7 495 369 97 96
    nic-hdl: PC7356-RIPE
    mnt-by: MTLM-MNT
    abuse-mailbox: abuse@hostkey.ru
    created: 2008-10-19T20:57:02Z
    last-modified: 2015-12-25T05:44:46Z
    source: RIPE

    • Yeah, I had two thoughts:
      1. When were these documents first obtained by Wikileaks?

      2. Is the timing of their release a complete coincidence and was not designed to distract (or even assist) Trump’s troubles with his intelligence community?

      3. No leak of FSB documents…?

  9. Spyers gonna spy.

  10. Those of you who think the Russians are responsible for providing this to Wikileaks needs to rethink your logic. If you are the Russians, why would you ever telegraph to the CIA or US Intelligence Community that you understand their capabilities? Or that you know about a heretofore covert facility.

    This is a direct result of the misguided hero worship of traitors like Private Manning and Edward Snowden. These people are the Kardashian’s of the intelligence community, except their psychologically warped need for self promotion has life and death consequences. Doesn’t the intelligence community use an MMPI or something anymore?

    • You’re mis-using the word “traitor”. Traitors are people who work against the interests of their country (…all very subjective).

      The word you’re looking for is “whistle-blower” which refers to people who make public evidence that their organisation is breaking the law / working beyond its remit.

  11. It might be nice to see what the Russians and the Chinese are doing in this area. Any “Whistle Blowers”??

    It seems to center around what the U.S. is doing.

    It’s probably too paranoid to think the Russian or Chinese would have anything to do with hacking.

  12. What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious knowledge about
    unpredicted feelings.

  13. From the article “Could this attack have been the Kremlin’s response…”
    That would indicate that the information was obtained through a hack, which it was not. It was obtained the old-fashioned way, via sneakernet.
    Trusted insiders strike again.
    Breach? Absolutely. Leak? Undoubtably. Attack? Absolutely not.

    • Your analysis fails to consider
      – who was in possession of the documents
      – why they were leaked now, rather than last month, or next month

      This is without a doubt a Kremlin-inspired/directed response.

  14. Nice try Bob – Whistle Blowers go to their chain of command, the IG, their Congressman, or to the Intel Committees. Traitors go to journalists who believe they have a “privilege” to traffic in classified information, Wikileaks, or a foreign intelligence service.

    • Seriously? Thomas Drake preceded Edward Snowden, went to the inspector general for the DOD (which covers NSA), and was hit with a series of baseless and politically motivated criminal prosecutions. Drake was a senior IT manager and had much more protection than Snowden, a contractor. Snowden has cited the Drake case as a reason for choosing the route he took.

      • Drake is not the only person that has the fortune to run afoul of the agencies’ war against whistleblowers over the years. Snowden was the first to blow the cover of the usual denials put out by the agency and executive branch like former President Obama.
        Until there is a law that gives whistleblower protection for outing illegal activities at the agencies, this will go on.

      • I also forgot to add the Bush administration in the equation because they got exposed in 2005 NYT article.