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WikiLeaks Exposes CIA's Device Surveillance Tricks

By Peter Suciu TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Mar 23, 2017 12:59 PM PT
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WikiLeaks on Thursday announced that it had released more Vault 7 documentation online, including details about several CIA projects to infect Apple's Mac computer firmware and operating system.

The site unloaded its first batch of stolen Vault 7 data earlier this month.

The CIA's Embedded Development Branch developed malware that could persist even if the targeted computer were reformatted and its OS were reinstalled, according to data WikiLeaks exposed.

The newly released files shone a spotlight on the CIA's efforts to gain "persistence" in Apple devices, including Mac computers and iPhones, via malware designed to attack their firmware.

One of the documents highlighted in Thursday's data dump exposes the "Sonic Screwdriver" project, which likely was named for the handheld tool wielded by the science fiction character "Doctor Who," as the device seemingly can bypass any digital or mechanical lock.

The CIA described it as a "mechanism for executing code on peripheral devices while a Mac laptop or desktop is booting," accordingly to WikiLeaks, to allow the attacker to gain access even if a firmware password were enabled.

Who Is Listening

The CIA has been infecting the iPhone supply chain of specific targets since at least 2008, a year after the release of the first iPhone, WikiLeaks claimed.

It also released the CIA's manual for "NightSkies 1.2," described as a "beacon/loader/implant tool" designed for use in infecting iPhones.

"Today's release appears to confirm that the CIA had developed tools to hack the iPhone well before most people ever owned one," warned Ed McAndrew, cybersecurity partner at Ballard Spahr and former cybercrimes prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Offices for the Eastern District of Virginia and for the District of Delaware.

"Infection within the supply chain illustrates how committed the agency was to widespread and persistent exploitation of these devices over the long term," McAndrew told TechNewsWorld.

"With malware development moving at light speed, it is frightening to think of how the CIA's hacking capabilities have likely advanced from back then to today," he added. "Unfortunately, this release may provide little that will be useful to Apple or its development partners in eliminating vulnerabilities in today's devices."

Controlling the Firmware

Also among the data released on Thursday is information on "DarkSeaSkies," a project that could implant UEFI (User Extensible Firmware Interface) -- a specification that defines a software interface between an operating system and platform firmware -- on an Apple MacBook Air computer.

EFI/UEFI, which is expected to replace BIOS as the connection between firmware and a system's OS, typically is installed at the time of manufacturing and is the first program that runs when a computer is turned on.

Controlling the UEFI would make it virtually impossible for anyone to remove the installed malware.

"If you want persistent access -- which is an exploit that will remain available to you even after a user updates her software -- then there is almost nothing better than control of the firmware," said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland.

"This gives you control of the device even before the user's software starts to run on it, and your defensive measures will guard digital premises that have already been violated," he told TechNewsWorld.

Bridge Between Hardware and Software

The boot process reflects the increased complexity of modern devices -- that is, how many bridges between hardware and software must be erected when a device is powered up.

"It starts when a modest amount of hardware is used to load and execute commands which are stored in a special type of memory reserved just for this process, and these in turn will cause yet more commands to be loaded from the device's storage -- perhaps a flash drive," explained Purtilo.

"This is where it gets really complex, because there is so much variety in hardware anymore that one boot program can't do all the work itself. It must interrogate each subsystem to ask what special bridges or connections must be initialized for that component to work correctly too," he added. "Otherwise you risk that a display might come up with the wrong settings, or the phone would not be ready to connect to the local service."

Taking Command of a Computer

Through the use of a special UEFI, a computer in essence can be monitored, modified or otherwise controlled by a third-party, often without the actual owner becoming aware of any loss of control. This could give the CIA untold power to monitor almost anyone.

"This boot process is an ideal place for an intruder to introduce his own commands," said Purtilo.

"The hardware must necessarily trust the commands it is given at this point, and that's why designers do whatever we can to protect them from being corrupted by others," he pointed out.

The complexity of the device means there are many paths in -- and to ensure integrity, it's necessary to guard all of them.

"What Wikileaks tells us is that the CIA found a path that the designers missed," said Purtilo. "The suggestion that you can exploit this defect with only quick access to 'factory fresh' phones -- which is what they asserted -- means the vulnerability is pretty fundamental, and that in turn tells us that the number of devices exposed by it could be huge."

Infected Supply Chain

WikiLeaks' Thursday release also includes documents suggesting that the CIA has developed the means to infect an organization's supply chain by interdicting mail orders and other shipments. Tactics could include opening boxes and infecting the machines, and then resending them to their destinations.

That suggests even brand new machines could be infected before they come out of the box.

"The significance of these disclosures is not so much the specifics of the tools used, but that the CIA was able to access new-in-the-box devices through a known vector of vulnerability," said Robert Cattanach, partner at Dorsey & Whitney.

"Similar exploits in the future cannot be ruled out, and the effectiveness of ongoing protections is limited by the imagination of those attempting to anticipate potential vulnerabilities," he told TechNewsWorld.

The bottom line is that "the more sensitive the information, the less willing one should be to trust the security of any device," Cattanach added.

The Intelligence Game

It's questionable whether the information leaked should be considered very revealing, given the way intelligence operates today.

The mission of U.S. intelligence services is to "gather intelligence against those with the intention and capability to harm our national security," explained Cattanach.

"Those agencies presumably will attempt to access information in any way technically possible, using methods that are as difficult to protect as possible," he added. "Legal nuances are will likely be skirted, and potentially ignored outright."

It's unlikely that Apple is the only company that should consider its products vulnerable to malware and spying by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

"Until we know more specifics, I would not presume that this is limited to only Apple products," said Purtilo. "The hardware instructions would be tailored to a given platform, of course, but depending on what flaw is being exploited, the approach might be similarly applied to other systems in the same chipset family."


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com. Email Peter.


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