The Invisible World of Software Backdoors and Bounty Hunters
Imagine that you could wander unseen through a city, sneaking into houses and offices of your choosing at any time, day or night. Imagine that, once inside, you could observe everything happening, unnoticed by others—from the combinations used to secure bank safes to the clandestine rendezvous of lovers. Imagine also that you have the ability to silently record everybody’s actions, whether they are at work or play, without leaving a trace. Such omniscience could, of course, make you rich, but perhaps more important, it could make you very powerful.
That scenario out of some futuristic sci-fi novel is, in fact, almost reality right now. After all, globalization and the Internet have connected all our lives in a single, seamless virtual city where everything is accessible at the tap of a finger. We store our money in online vaults; we conduct most of our conversations and often get from place to place with the help of our mobile devices. Almost everything that we do in the digital realm is recorded and lives on forever in a computer memory that, with the right software and the correct passwords, can be accessed by others, whether you want them to or not.
Now—one more moment of imagining—what if every one of your transactions in that world was infiltrated? What if the government had paid developers to put trapdoors and secret passages into the structures that are being built in this new digital world to connect all of us all the time? What if they had locksmiths on call to help create master keys for all the rooms? And what if they could pay bounty hunters to stalk us and build profiles of our lives and secrets to use against us?
Well, check your imagination at the door, because this is indeed the brave new dystopian world that the US government is building, according to the latest revelations from the treasure trove of documents released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Over the last eight months, journalists have dug deep into these documents to reveal that the world of NSA mass surveillance involves close partnerships with a series of companies most of us have never heard of that design or probe the software we all take for granted to help keep our digital lives humming along.
There are three broad ways that these software companies collaborate with the state: a National Security Agency program called “Bullrun” through which that agency is alleged to pay off developers like RSA, a software security firm, to build “backdoors” into our computers; the use of “bounty hunters” like Endgame and Vupen that find exploitable flaws in existing software like Microsoft Office and our smartphones; and finally the use of data brokers like Millennial Media to harvest personal data on everybody on the Internet, especially when they go shopping or play games like Angry Birds, Farmville or Call of Duty.
Of course, that’s just a start when it comes to enumerating the ways the government is trying to watch us all, as I explained in a previous TomDispatch piece, “Big Bro is Watching You.” For example, the FBI uses hackers to break into individual computers and turn on computer cameras and microphones, while the NSA collects bulk cell phone records and tries to harvest all the data traveling over fiber-optic cables. In December 2013, computer researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum revealed that the NSA has also built hardware with names like Bulldozer, Cottonmouth, Firewalk, Howlermonkey and Godsurge that can be inserted into computers to transmit data to US spooks even when they are not connected to the Internet.
“Today, [the NSA is] conducting instant, total invasion of privacy with limited effort,” Paul Kocher, the chief scientist of Cryptography Research, Inc. which designs security systems, told the New York Times. “This is the golden age of spying.”
Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration promoted a special piece of NSA-designed hardware that it wanted installed in computers and telecommunication devices. Called the Clipper Chip, it was intended to help scramble data to protect it from unauthorized access—but with a twist. It also transmitted a "Law Enforcement Access Field" signal with a key that the government could use if it wanted to access the same data.
Activists and even software companies fought against the Clipper Chip in a series of political skirmishes that are often referred to as the Crypto Wars. One of the most active companies was RSA from California. It even printed posters with a call to “Sink Clipper.” By 1995, the proposal was dead in the water, defeated with the help of such unlikely allies as broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and Senators John Ashcroft and John Kerry.
But the NSA proved more tenacious than its opponents imagined. It never gave up on the idea of embedding secret decryption keys inside computer hardware—a point Snowden has emphasized (with the documents to prove it).
A decade after the Crypto Wars, RSA, now a subsidiary of EMC, a Massachusetts company, had changed sides. According to an investigative report by Joseph Menn of Reuters, it allegedly took $10 million from the National Security Agency in exchange for embedding an NSA-designed mathematical formula called the Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator inside its Bsafe software products as the default encryption method.
The Dual Elliptic Curve has a “flaw” that allows it to be hacked, as even RSA now admits. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Bsafe is built into a number of popular personal computer products and most people would have no way of figuring out how to turn it off.
According to the Snowden documents, the RSA deal was just one of several struck under the NSA’s Bullrun program that has cost taxpayers over $800 million to date and opened every computer and mobile user around the world to the prying eyes of the surveillance state.
“The deeply pernicious nature of this campaign—undermining national standards and sabotaging hardware and software—as well as the amount of overt private sector cooperation are both shocking,” wrote Dan Auerbach and Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based activist group that has led the fight against government surveillance. “Back doors fundamentally undermine everybody's security, not just that of bad guys.”
For the bargain basement price of $5,000, hackers offered for sale a software flaw in Adobe Acrobat that allows you to take over the computer of any unsuspecting victim who downloads a document from you. At the opposite end of the price range, Endgame Systems of Atlanta, Georgia, offered for sale a package named Maui for $2.5 million that can attack targets all over the world based on flaws discovered in the computer software that they use. For example, some years ago, Endgame offered for sale targets in Russia including an oil refinery in Achinsk, the National Reserve Bank, and the Novovoronezh nuclear power plant. (The list was revealed by Anonymous, the online network of activist hackers.)
While such “products,” known in hacker circles as “zero day exploits,” may sound like sales pitches from the sorts of crooks any government would want to put behind bars, the hackers and companies who make it their job to discover flaws in popular software are, in fact, courted assiduously by spy agencies like the NSA who want to use them in cyberwarfare against potential enemies.
Take Vupen, a French company that offers a regularly updated catalogue of global computer vulnerabilities for an annual subscription of $100,000. If you see something that you like, you pay extra to get the details that would allow you to hack into it. A Vupen brochure released by Wikileaks in 2011 assured potential clients that the company aims “to deliver exclusive exploit codes for undisclosed vulnerabilities” for “covertly attacking and gaining access to remote computer systems.”
At a Google-sponsored event in Vancouver in 2012, Vupen hackers demonstrated that they could hijack a computer via Google’s Chrome web browser. But they refused to hand over details to the company, mocking Google publicly. “We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” Chaouki Bekrar of Vupen boasted to Forbes magazine. “We don’t want to give them any knowledge that can help them in fixing this exploit or other similar exploits. We want to keep this for our customers.”
In addition to Endgame and Vupen, other players in this field include Exodus Intelligence in Texas, Netragard in Massachussetts and ReVuln in Malta.
Their best customer? The NSA, which spent at least $25 million in 2013 buying up dozens of such “exploits.” In December, Appelbaum and his colleagues reported in Der Spiegel that agency staff crowed about their ability to penetrate any computer running Windows at the moment that machine sends messages to Microsoft. So, for example, when your computer crashes and helpfully offers to report the problem to the company, clicking yes could open you up for attack.
“This is the militarization of the Internet,” Appelbaum told the Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg. “This strategy is undermining the Internet in a direct attempt to keep it insecure. We are under a kind of martial law.”
Harvesting your Data
Among the Snowden documents was a 20-page 2012 report from the Government Communications Headquarters—the British equivalent of the NSA—that listed a Baltimore-based ad company, Millennial Media. According to the spy agency, it can provide “intrusive” profiles of users of smartphone applications and games. The New York Times has noted that the company offers data like whether individuals are single, married, divorced, engaged, or “swinger,” as well as their sexual orientation (“straight, gay, bisexual, and ‘not sure’”).
How does Millennial Media get this data? Simple. It happens to gather data from some of the most popular video game manufacturers in the world. That includes Activision in California which makes Call of Duty, a military war game that has sold over 100 million copies; Rovio of Finland, which has given away 1.7 billion copies of a game called Angry Birds that allows users to fire birds from a catapult at laughing pigs; and Zynga—also from California—which makes Farmville, a farming game with 240 million active monthly users.
In other words, we’re talking about what is undoubtedly a significant percentage of the connected world unknowingly handing over personal data, including their location and search interests, when they download “free” apps after clicking on a licensing agreement that legally allows the manufacturer to capture and resell their personal information. Few bother to read the fine print or think twice about the actual purpose of the agreement.
The apps pay for themselves via a new business model called “real-time bidding” in which advertisers like Target and Walmart send you coupons and special offers for whatever branch of their store is closest to you. They do this by analyzing the personal data sent to them by the “free” apps to discover both where you are and what you might be in the market for.
When, for instance, you walk into a mall, your phone broadcasts your location and within a millisecond a data broker sets up a virtual auction to sell your data to the highest bidder. This rich and detailed data stream allows advertisers to tailor their ads to each individual customer. As a result, based on their personal histories, two people walking hand in hand down a street might get very different advertisements, even if they live in the same house.
This also has immense value to any organization that can match up the data from a device with an actual name and identity—such as the federal government. Indeed, the Guardian has highlighted an NSA document from 2010 in which the agency boasts that it can “collect almost every key detail of a user's life: including home country, current location (through geolocation), age, gender, zip code, marital status… income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education level, and number of children.”
It’s increasingly clear that the online world is, for both government surveillance types and corporate sellers, a new Wild West where anything goes. This is especially true when it comes to spying on you and gathering every imaginable version of your “data.”
Software companies, for their part, have denied helping the NSA and reacted with anger to the Snowden disclosures. “Our fans’ trust is the most important thing for us and we take privacy extremely seriously,” commented Mikael Hed, CEO of Rovio Entertainment, in a public statement. “We do not collaborate, collude, or share data with spy agencies anywhere in the world.”
RSA has tried to deny that there are any flaws in its products. "We have never entered into any contract or engaged in any project with the intention of weakening RSA’s products, or introducing potential ‘backdoors’ into our products for anyone’s use,” the company said in a statement on its website. “We categorically deny this allegation." (Nonetheless RSA has recently started advising clients to stop using the Dual Elliptical Curve.)
Other vendors like Endgame and Millennial Media have maintained a stoic silence. Vupen is one of the few that boasts about its ability to uncover software vulnerabilities.
And the NSA has issued a Pravda-like statement that neither confirms nor denies the revelations. "The communications of people who are not valid foreign intelligence targets are not of interest to the National Security Agency," an NSA spokeswoman told the Guardian. "Any implication that NSA's foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true.”
The NSA has not, however, denied the existence of its Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), which Der Spiegel describes as “a squad of [high-tech] plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.”
The Snowden documents indicate that TAO has a sophisticated set of tools at its disposal—that the NSA calls “Quantum Theory”—made up of backdoors and bugs that allow its software engineers to plant spy software on a target computer. One powerful and hard to detect example of this is TAO’s ability to be notified when a target’s computer visits certain websites like LinkedIn and to redirect it to an NSA server named “Foxacid” where the agency can upload spy software in a fraction of a second.
Which Way Out of the Walled Garden
The simple truth of the matter is that most individuals are easy targets for both the government and corporations. They either pay for software products like Pages and Office from well known manufacturers like Apple and Microsoft or download them for free from game companies like Activision, Rovio, and Zynga for use inside “reputable” mobile devices like Blackberries and iPhones.
These manufacturers jealously guard access to the software that they make available, saying that they need to have quality control. Some go even further with what is known as the “walled garden” approach, only allowing pre-approved programs on their devices. Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Kindle, and Nintendo’s Wii are examples of this.
But as the Snowden revelations have helped make clear, such devices and software are vulnerable both to manufacturer’s mistakes, which open exploitable backdoors into their products, and to secret deals with the NSA.
So in a world where, increasingly, nothing is private, nothing is simply yours, what is an Internet user to do? As a start, there is an alternative to most major software programs for word processing, spreadsheets, and layout and design—the use of free and open source software like Linux and Open Office, where the underlying code is freely available to be examined for hacks and flaws. (Think of it this way: if the NSA cut a deal with Apple to copy everything on your iPhone, you would never know. If you bought an open-source phone—not an easy thing to do—that sort of thing would be quickly spotted.) You can also use encrypted browsers like Tor and search engines like Duck Duck Go that don’t store your data.
Next, if you own and use a mobile device on a regular basis, you owe it yourself to turn off as many of the location settings and data-sharing options as you can. And last but hardly least, don’t play Farmville, go out and do the real thing. As for Angry Birds and Call of Duty, honestly, instead of shooting pigs and people, it might be time to think about finding better ways to entertain yourself. Pick up a paintbrush, perhaps? Or join an activist group like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and fight back against Big Brother.
Read Next: Nicolas Niarchos investigates how NSA wiretapping violates attorney-client privilege.