Posts Tagged: national security agency

Dec 15

DHS Giving Firms Free Penetration Tests

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been quietly launching stealthy cyber attacks against a range of private U.S. companies — mostly banks and energy firms. These digital intrusion attempts, commissioned in advance by the private sector targets themselves, are part of a little-known program at DHS designed to help “critical infrastructure” companies shore up their computer and network defenses against real-world adversaries. And it’s all free of charge (well, on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime).

Organizations participating in DHS's "Cyber Hygiene" vulnerability scans. Source: DHS

Organizations participating in DHS’s “Cyber Hygiene” vulnerability scans. Source: DHS

KrebsOnSecurity first learned about DHS’s National Cybersecurity Assessment and Technical Services (NCATS) program after hearing from a risk manager at a small financial institution in the eastern United States. The manager was comparing the free services offered by NCATS with private sector offerings and was seeking my opinion. I asked around to a number of otherwise clueful sources who had no idea this DHS program even existed.

DHS declined requests for an interview about NCATS, but the agency has published some information about the program. According to DHS, the NCATS program offers full-scope penetration testing capabilities in the form of two separate programs: a “Risk and Vulnerability Assessment,” (RVA) and a “Cyber Hygiene” evaluation. Both are designed to help the partner organization better understand how external systems and infrastructure appear to potential attackers.

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) works closely with public and private sector partners to strengthen the security and resilience of their systems against evolving threats in cyberspace,” DHS spokesperson Sy Lee wrote in an email response to an interview request. “The National Cybersecurity Assessments and Technical Services (NCATS) team focuses on proactively engaging with federal, state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector stakeholders to assist them in improving their cybersecurity posture, limit exposure to risks and threats, and reduce rates of exploitation. As part of this effort, the NCATS team offers cybersecurity services such as red team and penetration testing and vulnerability scanning at no cost.”

The RVA program reportedly scans the target’s operating systems, databases, and Web applications for known vulnerabilities, and then tests to see if any of the weaknesses found can be used to successfully compromise the target’s systems. In addition, RVA program participants receive scans for rogue wireless devices, and their employees are tested with “social engineering” attempts to see how employees respond to targeted phishing attacks.

The Cyber Hygiene program — which is currently mandatory for agencies in the federal civilian executive branch but optional for private sector and state, local and tribal stakeholders — includes both internal and external vulnerability and Web application scanning.

The reports show detailed information about the organization’s vulnerabilities, including suggested steps to mitigate the flaws.  DHS uses the aggregate information from each client and creates a yearly non-attributable report. The FY14 End of Year report created with data from the Cyber Hygiene and RVA program is here (PDF).

Among the findings in that report, which drew information from more than 100 engagements last year:

-Manual testing was required to identify 67 percent of the RVA vulnerability findings (as opposed to off-the-shelf, automated vulnerability scans);

-More than 50 percent of the total 344 vulnerabilities found during the scans last year earned a severity rating of “high” (4o percent) or “critical” (13 percent).

-RVA phishing emails resulted in a click rate of 25 percent.

Data from NCATS FY 2014 Report.

Data from NCATS FY 2014 Report.


I was curious to know how many private sector companies had taken DHS up on its rather generous offers, since these services can be quite expensive if conducted by private companies. In response to questions from this author, DHS said that in Fiscal Year 2015 NCATS provided support to 53 private sector partners.  According to data provided by DHS, the majority of the program’s private sector participation come from the energy and financial services industries — with the latter typically at regional or smaller institutions such as credit unions.

DHS has taken its lumps over the years for not doing enough to gets its own cybersecurity house in order, let alone helping industry fix its problems. In light of the agency’s past cybersecurity foibles, the NCATS program on the surface would seem like a concrete step toward blunting those criticisms.

I wondered how someone in the penetration testing industry would feel about the government throwing its free services into the ring. Dave Aitel is chief technology officer at Immunity Inc., a Miami Beach, Fla. based security firm that offers many of the same services NCATS bundles in its product. Continue reading →

Nov 15

Paris Terror Attacks Stoke Encryption Debate

U.S. state and federal law enforcement officials appear poised to tap into public concern over the terror attacks in France last week to garner support for proposals that would fundamentally weaken the security of encryption technology used by U.S. corporations and citizens. Here’s a closer look at what’s going on, and why readers should be tuned in and asking questions.

encryptedeyeDespite early and widely repeated media reports that the terrorists who killed at least 128 people in Paris used strong encryption to disguise their communications, the evidence of this has failed to materialize. An initial report on Nov. 14 from Forbes titled “Why the Paris ISIS Terrorists Used PlayStation4 to Plan Attacks” was later backpedalled to “How Paris ISIS Terrorists May Have Used PlayStation 4 to Discuss and Plan.” Turns out there was actually nothing to indicate the attackers used gaming consoles to hide their communications; only that they could do that if they wanted to.

Politico ran a piece on Sunday that quoted a Belgian government official saying French authorities had confiscated at least one PlayStation 4 gaming console from one of the attacker’s belongings (hat tip to

“It’s unclear if the suspects in the attacks used PlayStation as a means of communication,” the Politico story explained. “But the sophistication of the attacks raises questions about the ability of law enforcement to detect plots as extremists use new and different forms of technology to elude investigators.”

Also on Sunday, The New York Times published a story that included this bit:

“The attackers are believed to have communicated using encryption technology, according to European officials who had been briefed on the investigation but were not authorized to speak publicly. It was not clear whether the encryption was part of widely used communications tools, like WhatsApp, which the authorities have a hard time monitoring, or something more elaborate. Intelligence officials have been pressing for more leeway to counter the growing use of encryption.”

After heavy criticism of the story on Twitter, The Times later removed the story from the site (it is archived here). That paragraph was softened into the following text, which was included in a different Times story later in the day: “European officials said they believed the Paris attackers had used some kind of encrypted communication, but offered no evidence.” To its credit, the Times today published a more detailed look at the encryption debate.

The media may be unwittingly playing into the hands of folks that former NBC reporter Bob Sullivan lovingly calls the “anti-encryption opportunists,” i.e., those who support weakening data encryption standards to make it easier for law enforcement officials to lawfully monitor people suspected of terrorist activity.

The directors of the FBI , Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency have repeated warned Congress and the technology community that they’re facing a yawning intelligence gap from smart phone and internet communication technologies that use encryption which investigators cannot crack — even after being granted the authority to do so by the U.S. courts.

For its part, the Obama administration has reportedly backed down in its bitter dispute with Silicon Valley over the encryption of data on iPhones and other digital devices.

“While the administration said it would continue to try to persuade companies like Apple and Google to assist in criminal and national security investigations, it determined that the government should not force them to breach the security of their products,” wrote Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger for The New York Times in October. “In essence, investigators will have to hope they find other ways to get what they need, from data stored in the cloud in unencrypted form or transmitted over phone lines, which are covered by a law that affects telecommunications providers but not the technology giants.”

But this hasn’t stopped proponents of weakening encryption from identifying opportunities to advance their cause. In a memo obtained in August by The Washington PostRobert Litt, a lawyer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote that the public support for weakening encryption “could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

To that apparent end, law enforcement officials from Manhattan and the City of London are expected on Wednesday to release a “white paper on smartphone encryption,” during an annual financial crimes and cybersecurity symposium at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York. A media notice (PDF) about the event was sent out by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., one of the speakers at the event and a vocal proponent of building special access for law enforcement into encrypted communications. Here’s Vance in a recent New York Times op-ed on the need for the expanded surveillance powers.

Continue reading →

Jun 15

Catching Up on the OPM Breach

I heard from many readers last week who were curious why I had not weighed in on the massive (and apparently still unfolding) data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Turns out, the easiest way for a reporter to make sure everything hits the fan from a cybersecurity perspective is to take a two week vacation to the other end of the world. What follows is a timeline that helped me get my head on straight about the events that preceded this breach, followed by some analysis and links to other perspectives on the matter.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

July 2014: OPM investigates a breach of its computer networks dating back to March 2014. Authorities trace the intrusion to China. OPM offers employees free credit monitoring and assures employees that no personal data appears to have been stolen.

Aug. 2014: It emerges that USIS, a background check provider for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was hacked. USIS offers 27,000 DHS employees credit monitoring through AllClearID (full disclosure: AllClear is an advertiser on this blog). Investigators say Chinese are hackers responsible, and that the attackers broke in by exploiting a vulnerability in an enterprise management software product from SAP. OPM soon suspends work with USIS.

November 2014: A report (PDF) by OPM’s Office of the Inspector General on the agency’s compliance with Federal Information Security Management Act finds “significant” deficiencies in the department’s IT security. The report found OPM did not maintain a comprehensive inventory of servers, databases and network devices, nor were auditors able to tell if OPM even had a vulnerability scanning program. The audit also found that multi-factor authentication (the use of a token such as a smart card, along with an access code) was not required to access OPM systems. “We believe that the volume and sensitivity of OPM systems that are operating without an active Authorization represents a material weakness in the internal control structure of the agency’s IT security program,” the report concluded.

Dec. 2014: KeyPoint, a company that took over background checks for USIS, suffers breach. OPM states that there is “no conclusive evidence to confirm sensitive information was removed from the system.” OPM vows to notify 48,439 federal workers that their information may have been exposed in the attack.

Feb. 2015: Health insurance giant Anthem discloses breach impacting nearly 80 million customers. Experts later trace domains, IP addresses implicated in attack to Chinese hackers. Anthem offers two years of free credit monitoring services through AllClearID.

May 2015: Premera Blue Cross, one of the insurance carriers that participates in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, discloses a breach affecting 11 million customers. Federal auditors at OPM warned Premera three weeks prior to the breach that its network security procedures were inadequate. Unlike the Anthem breach, the incident at Premera exposes clinical medical information in addition to personally identifiable information. Premera offers two years of free credit monitoring through Experian.

May 2015: Carefirst Blue Cross discloses breach impacting 1.1 million customers. Clues unearthed by researchers point to the same attack infrastructure and methods used in the Anthem and Premera breach. Carefirst offers two years free credit monitoring through Experian.

June 2015: OPM discloses breach affecting up to 4 million federal employees, offers 18 months of free credit monitoring through CSID. Follow-up reports indicate that the breach may extend well beyond federal employees to individuals who applied for security clearances with the federal government.


As the OPM’s Inspector General report put it, “attacks like the ones on Anthem and Premera [and OPM] are likely to increase. In these cases, the risk to Federal employees and their families will probably linger long after the free credit monitoring offered by these companies expires.”

That would appear to be the understatement of the year. The OPM runs a little program called e-QIP, which processes applications for security clearances for federal agencies, including top secret and above. This bit, from a July 10, 2014 story in The Washington Post, puts the depth and breadth of this breach in better perspective:

“In those files are huge treasure troves of personal data, including “applicants’ financial histories and investment records, children’s and relatives’ names, foreign trips taken and contacts with foreign nationals, past residences, and names of neighbors and close friends such as college roommates and co-workers. Employees log in using their Social Security numbers.”

That quote aptly explains why a nation like China might wish to hoover up data from the OPM and a network of healthcare providers that serve federal employees: If you were a state and wished to recruit foreign spies or uncover traitors within your own ranks, what sort of goldmine might this data be? Imagine having access to files that include interviews with a target’s friends and acquaintances over the years, some of whom could well have shared useful information about that person’s character flaws, weaknesses and proclivities.

For its part, China has steadfastly denied involvement. Politico cites a news story from the Chinese news service Xinhua which dismissed the U.S. allegations as “obviously another case of Washington’s habitual slander against Beijing on cybersecurity.” Continue reading →

Jul 13

DEF CON To Feds: We Need Some Time Apart

One of the more time-honored traditions at DEF CON — the massive hacker convention held each year in Las Vegas — is “Spot-the-Fed,” a playful and mostly harmless contest to out undercover government agents who attend the show.

defconBut that game might be a bit tougher when the conference rolls around again next month: In an apparent reaction to recent revelations about far-reaching U.S. government surveillance programs, DEF CON organizers are asking feds to just stay away.

In a brief blog post published this evening at the DEF CON Web site titled, “Feds, We Need Some Time Apart,” DEF CON owner and hacker-in-chief Jeff Moss (a.k.a. “The Dark Tangent”) suggested it was probably in the best interests of the feds to make themselves scarce at this year’s con.

“For over two decades DEF CON has been an open nexus of hacker culture, a place where seasoned pros, hackers, academics, and feds can meet, share ideas and party on neutral territory. Our community operates in the spirit of openness, verified trust, and mutual respect.

When it comes to sharing and socializing with feds, recent revelations have made many in the community uncomfortable about this relationship. Therefore, I think it would be best for everyone involved if the feds call a ‘time-out’ and not attend DEF CON this year.

This will give everybody time to think about how we got here, and what comes next.”

It’s been a while since DEF CON was a place where feds really had to watch their backs. I didn’t have the privilege to attend the first DEF CON 21 years ago, but it’s safe to say that relations between the hacker community and the feds were for many years colored by a sense of mutual antagonism and mistrust.

Much of that attitude seemed to have changed in the wake of 9/11, and for the past decade the relationship between the two camps has thawed and even warmed quite a bit. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have come to find the conference a reliably fertile and lucrative grounds for recruiting talent. Heck, things had improved so much by this time last year that the conference’s keynote was given by none other than Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency.

Now with the NSA in the hot seat over allegations of broad and intrusive electronic eavesdropping programs directed at U.S. citizens and our allies abroad, it remains to be seen whether officials from the NSA, CIA or other three-letter agencies will make any strong or sustained showing at this year’s gathering. But in any case, this announcement from DEF CON should serve as a fair warning to feds who do decide to stick around past Black Hat, a more corporate and fed-heavy conference that directly precedes DefCon: Spot-the-Fed could well turn into a hack-the-fed competition.

Feb 13

Source: Washington Post Also Broadly Infiltrated By Chinese Hackers in 2012

The Washington Post was among several major U.S. newspapers that spent much of 2012 trying to untangle its newsroom computer networks from a Web of malicious software thought to have been planted by Chinese cyberspies, according to a former information technology employee at the paper.

twpOn Jan. 30, The New York Times disclosed that Chinese hackers had persistently attacked the Gray Lady, infiltrating its computer systems and getting passwords for its reporters and other employees. The Times said that the timing of the attacks coincided with the reporting for a Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings.

The following day, The Wall Street Journal ran a story documenting similar incursions on their network. Now, a former Post employee is coming forward with information suggesting that Chinese hacker groups had broadly compromised computer systems within the Post’s newsroom and other operations throughout 2012.

According to a former Washington Post information technology employee who helped respond to the break-in, attackers compromised at least three servers and a multitude of desktops, installing malicious software that allowed the perpetrators to maintain access to the machines and the network.

“They transmitted all domain information (usernames and passwords),” the former Post employee said on condition of anonymity. ” We spent the better half of 2012 chasing down compromised PCs and servers.  [It] all pointed to being hacked by the Chinese. They had the ability to get around to different servers and hide their tracks. They seemed to have the ability to do anything they wanted on the network.

The Post has declined to comment on the source’s claims, saying through a spokesman that “we have nothing to share at this time.” But according to my source, the paper brought in several computer forensics firms – led by Alexandria, Va. based Mandiant – to help diagnose the extent of the compromises and to evict the intruders from the network. Mandiant declined to comment for this story.

Update, Feb. 2, 7:42 a.m. ET: The Post has published its own story confirming my source’s claims.

Continue reading →

Aug 12

How to Break Into Security, Miller Edition

For this fifth edition in a series of advice columns for folks interested in learning more about security as a craft or profession, I interviewed Charlie Miller, a software bug-finder extraordinaire and principal research consultant with Accuvant LABS.

Probably best known for his skills at hacking Apple‘s products, Miller spent five years at the National Security Agency as a “global network exploitation analyst.” After leaving the NSA, Miller carved out a niche for himself as an independent security consultant before joining Accuvant in May 2011.

BK: How did your work for the NSA prepare you for a job in the private sector? Did it offer any special skill sets or perspectives that you might otherwise not have gotten in the private sector?

Miller: Basically, it provided on the job training.  I got paid a decent salary to learn information security and practice it at a reasonable pace.  It’s hard to imagine other jobs that would do that, but if you have a lot of free time, you could simulate such an experience.

BK: The U.S. Government, among others, is starting to dedicate some serious coin to cybersecurity. Should would-be cyber warriors be looking to the government as a way to get their foot in the door of this industry? Or does that option tend to make mainly sense for young people?

Miller: For me, it made sense at the beginning, but there are some drawbacks.  The most obvious drawback is government pay isn’t as competitive as the private industry.  This isn’t such a big deal when you’re starting out, but I don’t think I could work for the government anymore for this reason.  Because of this, many people use government jobs as a launching point to higher paying jobs (like government contracting).  For me, I found it very difficult to leave government and enter a (non govt contracting) industry.  I had 5 years of experience that showed up as a couple of bullet points on my resume.  I couldn’t talk about what I knew, how I knew it, experience I had, etc. I had a lot of trouble getting a good job after leaving NSA.

BK: You’ve been a fairly vocal advocate of the idea that companies should not expect security researchers to report bugs for free. But it seems like there are now a number of companies paying (admittedly sometimes nominal sums) for bugs, and there are several organizations that pay quite well for decent vulnerabilities. And certainly you’ve made a nice chunk of change winning various hacking competitions. Is this a viable way for would-be researchers to make a living? If so, is it a realistic rung to strive for, or is bug-hunting for money a sort of Olympic sport in which only the elite can excel?

Miller: In some parts of the world, it is possible to live off bug hunting with ZDI-level payments.  However, given the cost of living in the US, I don’t think it makes sense.  Even if you mix in occasional government sales, it would be a tough life living off of bug sales.  If I thought it was lucrative, I’d being doing it!  For me, it is hard to imagine making more than I do now as a consultant by selling bugs, and the level of risk I’d have to assume would be much higher.

Continue reading →

Sep 11

Arrested LulzSec Suspect Pined for Job at DoD

A 23-year-old Arizona man arrested on Thursday in connection with the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment last May was a model student who saw himself one day defending networks at the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency.’s Threat Level, the Associated Press, and other news outlets are reporting that Tempe, Ariz. based Cody Andrew Kretsinger is believed to be a member of the LulzSec group, an offshoot of the griefer collective Anonymous. According to the indictment against Kretsinger, he was involved in executing and later promoting the high-profile and costly attack on Sony’s networks. Sony estimates that the breaches would cost it more than $170 million this year.

UAT interview with Kretsinger

Kretsinger is a network security student at Tempe, Ariz. based University of Advancing Technology, according to Robert Wright, director of finance for UAT.  A cached page from UAT’s Web site shows that Kretsinger was named student of the month earlier this year. That page, which indicates Kretsinger was to graduate from the institution in the Fall semester of 2011, includes an interview with the suspected LulzSec member. In it, Kretsinger says he would like to work at the DoD after graduating.

Where do you want to work after graduation?

“I hope that I’ll be able to work for the Department of Defense. From what I hear, they’re pretty good at what I want to do.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

“Traveling, doing Network Security as a profession with the Department of Defense. While I wouldn’t mind being a penetration tester, I think it’s a lot more fun to try to build and secure a network and its devices from the ground up. I suppose I wouldn’t mind being in management, either.”

Continue reading →

Jan 10

Firm to Release Database & Web Server 0days

January promises to be a busy month for Web server and database administrators alike: A security research firm in Russia says it plans to release information about a slew of previously undocumented vulnerabilities in several widely-used commercial software products.

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