Inside Uncle Sam's malware war chest
The Snowden documents show that the TAO team now has access to a very sophisticated toolkit for implanting trackers on systems, and how the methods of spreading the code have evolved to match consumer behavior.
A 2012 presentation complains that the traditional method of infection, spamming out infected attachments, was only achieving a one per cent success rate because people are getting smarter about avoiding potentially malicious downloads. To get around this, the agency switched to browser attacks, which it said upped success rates to 80 per cent in some cases.
Targets visiting certain websites were redirected to an NSA WILLOWVIXEN server, allowing software called FOXACID to find a browser vulnerability and exploit this to compromise the PC or handheld. The documents claim that a fake Facebook server was set up for this purpose and used to distribute malware dubbed QUANTUMHAND, which went live in October 2010.
"If we can get the target to visit us in some sort of web browser, we can probably own them," a TAO team member reports in one document. "The only limitation is the 'how.'"
Other code, called SECONDDATE uses a man-in-the-middle attack to allow "mass exploitation potential for clients passing through network choke points, but is configurable to allow surgical target selection as well."
A 2010 presentation also gives details about the QUANTUM family of malware developed by the government for attacking systems. This includes code for the redirection of web traffic, controlling crooks' IRC botnets, hijacking DNS, and corrupting downloads.
Another malware system, called UNITEDRAKE, comes with a selection of plugins for different purposes, each with its own classification. The CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE plugin will take over a system's microphone to record conversations, FOGGYBOTTOM will record internet history and login details, and SALVAGERABBIT copies the contents of any flash drives plugged into the machine.
The agency is well aware that antivirus companies are on the lookout for new and interesting malware samples, particularly after the Flame debacle. A NSA trojan dubbed VALIDATOR can be set with an automatic self-destruct sequence and delete itself from a target's system after a set period.
The madness is spreading
Despite efforts to limit the exposure of its systems to outside interest, the documents show that the NSA is aware that other governments are copying their techniques.
"Hacking routers has been good business for us and our 5-eyes partners for some time," notes one NSA analyst in a top-secret document dated December 2012. "But it is becoming more apparent that other nation states are honing their skillz [sic] and joining the scene."
This is already worrying security analysts, and was top of the agenda at last month's TrustyCon conference. F-Secure's malware research chief Mikko Hyppönen told the summit that so far government-developed malware was coming from Germany, Russia, China, and even Sweden, and there was a thriving trade by ethically challenged companies willing to develop malware for repressive regimes.
Similar concerns were echoed at the RSA 2014 conference, with the company's chairman Art Coviello calling for an international moratorium on attack code before the situation gets out of control. If government cyberattacks are normalized then the effects on the general public could be catastrophic, he noted, but there's no sign of a change of policy from the NSA.
"As the [US] President made clear on 17 January," the agency said in a statement, "signals intelligence shall be collected exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose to support national and departmental missions, and not for any other purposes." ®
Updated to add
You may be interested to know that the NSA has responded to the claims first published by The Intercept.