A security startup with close links to the CIA is touting a system to the UK government that monitors every IP address on the internet for malware, as part of its declared aim of improving cyber war capabilities.
Endgame Systems helps US intelligence identify and hack into vulnerable networks, and is targeting a similar role in Britain's nascent national cyber security operations.
The firm, founded in June 2008 in Atlanta, has built a massive and constantly updated database of security breaches across the globe. It is currently monitoring about 250 million compromised machines.
As well as producing terabytes of geotagged malware tracking data, Endgame Systems also stores details of operating system configurations using Hadoop, the open source file system for very large datasets. Using the approach made famous by Google, this vast mine of "internet situational awareness", as Endgame Systems calls it, is maintained on a infrastructure of cheap, easily replaceable servers.
Internet situational awareness is essentially the brief given to the Cyber Security Operations Centre, the new unit located at GCHQ in Cheltenham, scheduled to begin work next month.
Intelligence and military customers are able to access Endgame Systems' database via a simple web page. They can type in terms such as a location or an organisation and moments later a map or a list of compromised systems appears, showing how long ago they were breached and how.
A search for "Nuclear Power Corporation of India", for example, brings up a list of computers still infected with Conficker, the Windows worm that spread around the world initially via a Microsoft vulnerability. The firm hand-curates its company records.
Such indications of poor basic network hygiene, so readily available, could be very valuable to digital espionage, or even cyber warfare efforts.
Endgame Systems makes no effort to contact those non-customers it observes are afflicted by malware, arguing the global scale of the problem would make it unfeasible and approaches would often be unwelcome.
The firm's team of 25 staff, cleared for classified work, track botnets, inserting themselves to monitor activity and disabling large parts of them. It hobbles them by uncovering the web addresses of control nodes - that infected machines are programmed to contact at some later date - and buying up the domains.
Similar work is part of the Conficker Working Group's remit.
Working in collaboration with law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, Endgame Systems typically does not completely shut down zombie networks, preferring to gather more intelligence to allow investigators to unpick criminal hierarchies. A low-ranking botmaster contacting his domain supplier to find out what is wrong with his control node might offer a lead to Mr Big.
The limited publicly information currently available on the firm hints at its further role assisting clandestine government cyber operations by identifying targets and developing exploits.
"Our focus also includes software vulnerability discovery and analysis, reliable exploitation on modern systems, and defeating exploit mitigation technologies," says a brief corporate biography on a defence industry association website.
An expired job ad maintained in an obscure web cache adds: "Endgame Systems leverages its world-class capabilities in the fields of leading edge computer vulnerability research and global IP analytics to enhance the overall cyber intelligence and cyber war fighting capability of the United States Government."
Company representatives told The Register recently it would only sell such services to the US and UK governments, whose intelligence agencies have a close working relationship. Endgame Systems' advisory board includes former CIA technology officials Alan Wade and Bob Flores.
Contacted via email, Endgame Systems CEO Chris Rouland declined to comment on his young firm's activities in the burgeoning national cyber security market, preferring to discuss forthcoming commercial ventures.
"Very soon, Endgame Systems will launch a beta of its new IP Confidence Service," he said.
"Reputation systems available today are one-dimensional, focusing primarily on measuring spam email to determine if an IP address is 'good' or 'bad'.
"The Endgame Systems Confidence System leverages internet-wide monitoring and sophisticated multivariate analysis to compute a rational metric for the overall trustworthiness of any given IP address. We believe our system represents the next-generation in IP reputation and will allow for a much deeper integration of IP reputation into all manner of internet transactions. This service will be made available to all, from the smallest blog to the largest online retail site."
Rouland, along with the most of Endgame Systems' senior management, is an alumnus of Internet Security Systems, acquired by IBM for $1.3bn in 2007. Its chief scientist is Dino Dai Zovi, previously known as a serial Steve Jobs irritant.
In the UK meanwhile, the firm hired Bruce Wynn OBE in November, to smooth its dealings with British agencies. He is a former senior military intelligence and communications official who now works as a secure government IT consultant.
"I like to call it 'very polite listening'," he said in a brief answer to questions about Endgame Systems' efforts on behalf of government agencies. ®