Leaked NSA weapons catalog: Spies will hack your PC, router and hard disk ‘at the speed of light’


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Analysis A leaked NSA cyberarms catalog shows that the US and UK intelligence services can break into common hardware and software from some of the biggest names in IT automatically, and manage man-in-the-middle attacks that conventional security software has no chance of stopping.

The 50-page top-secret document, written by the NSA division called ANT, is part of an information dump sent to German magazine Der Spiegel and expounded upon by journalist Jacob Appelbaum in his keynote to the 30th Chaos Communication Congress in Germany on Monday. You can watch a clearly furious Appelbaum in the video below.

Youtube video of Jacob Applebaum at 30c3

The dossier gives the clearest view yet of what the NSA and associated intelligence agencies can do with your data, and how they manage it. Here’s an easy-to-digest roundup of what was discussed.

Satellite and optic-fiber communications stored

According to Appelbaum, the NSA is running a two-stage data dragnet operation. The first stage is TURMOIL, which collects data traffic passively via satellite and communications taps and stores it – in some cases for up to 15 years – for future reference. The NSA does not consider this surveillance because no human operator is involved, just automatic systems.

Appelbaum gave the example of the SEA-ME-WE-4 underwater cable system, which runs from Europe to North Africa, then on to the Gulf states to Pakistan and India before terminating in the Far East. The documents show that on February 13 this year a tap was installed on the line by the NSA that gave layer-two access to internet traffic flowing through that route – essentially, all of it.

However, this passive capability is backed up by TURBINE, the active intervention side of the NSA, run by its Tailored Access Operations (TAO) hacking squad. By using a selection of hardware and software tools, not to mention physical measures as we’ll see later on, the NSA promises that data can be hacked “at the speed of light,” and the staffers in Maryland even took time to build a LOLcats picture highlighting the capability:


Sure they own you, but look at the little kitty. Credit: NSA

“Tailored Access Operations is a unique national asset that is on the front lines of enabling NSA to defend the nation and its allies,” the NSA said in a statement on the report, adding that TAO’s “work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection.”

Windows crash reports boon for spies

As for operating systems, Appelbaum said the documents claimed to have found subversion techniques against Windows, Linux, and Solaris systems. In the case of Microsoft, the NSA is monitoring software crash reports to gain insight into vulnerabilities on a target system and exploit them for its own ends.

“Customers who choose to use error reports send limited information about, for example, the process, application, or device driver, that may have encountered a problem,” a Microsoft spokesperson told El Reg in a statement responding to Der Spiegel’s report.

“Reports are then reviewed and used to improve customer experiences. Microsoft does not provide any government with direct or unfettered access to our customer’s data. We would have significant concerns if the allegations about government actions are true.”

NSA buys up security exploits to attack vulnerabilities

When it comes to active penetration, the TAO team has a system dubbed QUANTUM THEORY, an arsenal of zero-day exploits that it has either found itself or bought on the open market, that can be used to get into systems. Once inside, software dubbed SEASONEDMOTH is automatically inserted and used to harvest all activity by the end user for a 30-day period.

For computers and networks that have firewalls and other security systems in place, the NSA uses QUANTUMNATION, a tool that will scan the target system for security defenses using software dubbed VALIDATOR, find any exploitable hole, and then use it to seize control using code dubbed COMMENDEER.

A system dubbed QUANTUMCOPPER also gives the NSA the ability to interfere with TCP/IP connections and disrupt downloads from any site to inject malicious code or merely damage fetched files. Appelbaum said such a system could be used to crash anonymizing systems like Tor by forcing an endless series of resets and makes the designers of the Great Firewall of China look like amateurs.

The website you are visiting is really not the website you want

But it’s a scheme dubbed QUANTUM INSERT that Appelbaum said was particularly concerning. The documents show that if a target tries to log onto Yahoo! servers, a subverted local router can intercept the request before it hits Meyer Co’s servers and redirect it to a NSA-hosted mirror site where all activity can be tracked and recorded.

QUANTUM INSERT can also be set up to automatically attack a computer trying to access certain websites. The code is predominantly used for religious or terrorism websites, but has also been spotted monitoring sites such as LinkedIn and and will work with most major manufacturer’s routers.

In the catalog, Cisco hardware firewalls, such as the PIX and ASA series, and Juniper Netscreen and ISG 1000 products, can have backdoors installed in their firmware to monitor traffic flowing in and out of small businesses and corporate data centers. A boot ROM nasty exists for the Huawei Eudemon firewalls, we’re told; Huawei being the gigantic Chinese telcoms electronics maker. Other BIOS-level malware is available for Juniper and and Hauawei routers, according to the dossier.

“At this time, we do not know of any new product vulnerabilities, and will continue to pursue all avenues to determine if we need to address any new issues. If we learn of a security weakness in any of our products, we will immediately address it,” said Cisco in a blog post.

“As we have stated prior, and communicated to Der Spiegel, we do not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitation, nor to implement any so-called security ‘back doors’ in our products.”

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