How the Arab Spring blew the lid off the commercial spyware

And how the US government is screwing the pooch with Wassenaar


Black Hat 2015 When Middle Eastern governments fell in the Arab Spring uprisings, one of the side effects was that hard evidence of dodgy practices by commercial spyware vendors was made public. Unfortunately, the result is putting us all at risk.

Documents uncovered when the Mubarak regime fell showed that the Egyptians had bought commercial spyware from the UK-based firm Gamma International, while in Syria, Blue Coat Systems was found to have been selling deep packet inspection equipment to the government.

The same was true in Libya, where after the fall of the Gaddafi dictatorship, documents were found showing that Amesys – a subsidiary of French conglomerate Groupe Bull – had sold the mad colonel’s government spyware that was tracking Libyan citizens both at home and abroad.

"All of this became evidence of what people knew all along – that there were sales of sophisticated malware that enabled governments that weren't tech savvy to spy on their own citizens and on diasporas abroad," explained security researcher Collin Anderson.

"As a result governments acted. The British government put restrictions on Gamma until they fled the country, the French acted against Amesys, and the US government has now amended the Wassenaar Arrangement to deal with the issue."

The Wassenaar Arrangement is an export control treaty involving 41 countries governing the export of military technology and civilian tech that could be used for offensive purposes. In June, the US government proposed changing the text of the arrangement in light of the Arab Spring findings, Anderson explained.

The problem is that the new language has serious problems. It includes a ban on intrusion software, code that can spot zero-day exploits and use them, and IP surveillance programs, and security researchers are seriously concerned that the overly broad language will chill research.

"Plenty of the tools we use can easily be classified as surveillance tools," said Adriel Desautels, CEO of PEN testers Netragard. "We have customers that ask us to reproduce a hack to see how many computers it can reach and how far we can dig in. The new language is very worrying."

The industry has fought back against the proposals, and the US Department of Commerce has said it will take another look at the language. But the proposed rules have already chilled research efforts.

Katie Moussouris, chief policy officer for vulnerability disclosure specialists HackerOne, said the proposed rules would also harm bug bounty programs, since technically, researchers would be trafficking in zero-day flaws.

"The end result is that we are all going to be made more unsafe by Wassenaar as it stands," she concluded. ®

Updated to add

A Blue Coat spokeswoman has said that an investigation by the company showed that its equipment had been illegally diverted to Syria by a channel partner.


Other stories you might like

  • Ubuntu 21.10: Plan to do yourself an Indri? Here's what's inside... including a bit of GNOME schooling

    Plus: Rounded corners make GNOME 40 look like Windows 11

    Review Canonical has released Ubuntu 21.10, or "Impish Indri" as this one is known. This is the last major version before next year's long-term support release of Ubuntu 22.04, and serves as a good preview of some of the changes coming for those who stick with LTS releases.

    If you prefer to run the latest and greatest, 21.10 is a solid release with a new kernel, a major GNOME update, and some theming changes. As a short-term support release, Ubuntu 21.10 will be supported for nine months, which covers you until July 2022, by which point 22.04 will already be out.

    Continue reading
  • Heart FM's borkfast show – a fine way to start your day

    Jamie and Amanda have a new co-presenter to contend with

    There can be few things worse than Microsoft Windows elbowing itself into a presenting partnership, as seen in this digital signage for the Heart breakfast show.

    For those unfamiliar with the station, Heart is a UK national broadcaster with Global as its parent. It currently consists of a dozen or so regional stations with a number of shows broadcast nationally. Including a perky breakfast show featuring former Live and Kicking presenter Jamie Theakston and Britain's Got Talent judge, Amanda Holden.

    Continue reading
  • Think your phone is snooping on you? Hold my beer, says basic physics

    Information wants to be free, and it's making its escape

    Opinion Forget the Singularity. That modern myth where AI learns to improve itself in an exponential feedback loop towards evil godhood ain't gonna happen. Spacetime itself sets hard limits on how fast information can be gathered and processed, no matter how clever you are.

    What we should expect in its place is the robot panopticon, a relatively dumb system with near-divine powers of perception. That's something the same laws of physics that prevent the Godbot practically guarantee. The latest foreshadowing of mankind's fate? The Ethernet cable.

    By itself, last week's story of a researcher picking up and decoding the unintended wireless emissions of an Ethernet cable is mildly interesting. It was the most labby of lab-based demos, with every possible tweak applied to maximise the chances of it working. It's not even as if it's a new discovery. The effect and its security implications have been known since the Second World War, when Bell Labs demonstrated to the US Army that a wired teleprinter encoder called SIGTOT was vulnerable. It could be monitored at a distance and the unencrypted messages extracted by the radio pulses it gave off in operation.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021