Monday, August 15, 2016

National interest is exploitation, not disclosure

Most of us agree that more accountability/transparency is needed in how the government/NSA/FBI exploits 0days. However, the EFF's positions on the topic are often absurd, which prevent our voices from being heard.

One of the EFF's long time planks is that the government should be disclosing/fixing 0days rather than exploiting them (through the NSA or FBI). As they phrase it in a recent blog post:
as described by White House Cybersecurity Coordinator, Michael Daniel: “[I]n the majority of cases, responsibly disclosing a newly discovered vulnerability is clearly in the national interest.” Other knowledgeable insiders—from former National Security Council Cybersecurity Directors Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake to President Obama’s hand-picked Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies—have also endorsed clear, public rules favoring disclosure.
The EFF isn't even paying attention to what the government said. The majority of vulnerabilities are useless to the NSA/FBI. Even powerful bugs like Heartbleed or Shellshock are useless, because they can't easily be weaponized. They can't easily be put into a point-and-shoot tool and given to cyberwarriors.

Thus, it's a tautology saying "majority of cases vulns should be disclosed". It has no bearing on the minority of bugs the NSA is interested in -- the cases where we want more transparency and accountability.

These minority of bugs are not discovered accidentally. Accidental bugs have value to the NSA, so the NSA spends considerable amount of money hunting down different bugs that would be of use, and in many cases, buying useful vulns from 0day sellers. The EFF pretends the political issue is about 0days the NSA happens to come across accidentally -- the real political issue is about the ones the NSA spent a lot of money on.

For these bugs, the minority of bugs the NSA sees, we need to ask whether it's in the national interest to exploit them, or to disclose/fix them. And the answer to this question is clearly in favor of exploitation, not fixing. It's basic math.

An end-to-end Apple iOS 0day (with sandbox escape and persistance) is worth around $1 million, according to recent bounties from Zerodium and Exodus Intel.

There are two competing national interests with such a bug. The first is whether such a bug should be purchased and used against terrorist iPhones in order to disrupt ISIS. The second is whether such a bug should be purchased and disclosed/fixed, to protect American citizens using iPhones.

Well, for one thing, the threat is asymmetric. As Snowden showed, the NSA has widespread control over network infrastructure, and can therefore insert exploits as part of a man-in-the-middle attack. That makes any browser-bugs, such as the iOS bug above, much more valuable to the NSA. No other intelligence organization, no hacker group, has that level of control over networks, especially within the United States. Non-NSA actors have to instead rely upon the much less reliable "watering hole" and "phishing" methods to hack targets. Thus, this makes the bug of extreme value for exploitation by the NSA, but of little value in fixing to protect Americans.

The NSA buys one bug per version of iOS. It only needs one to hack into terrorist phones. But there are many more bugs. If it were in the national interest to buy iOS 0days, buying just one will have little impact, since many more bugs still lurk waiting to be found. The government would have to buy many bugs to make a significant dent in the risk.

And why is the government helping Apple at the expense of competitors anyway? Why is it securing iOS with its bug-bounty program and not Android? And not Windows? And not Adobe PDF? And not the million other products people use?

The point is that no sane person can argue that it's worth it for the government to spend $1 million per iOS 0day in order to disclose/fix. If it were in the national interest, we'd already have federal bug bounties of that order, for all sorts of products. Long before the EFF argues that it's in the national interest that purchased bugs should be disclosed rather than exploited, the EFF needs to first show that it's in the national interest to have a federal bug bounty program at all.

Conversely, it's insane to argue it's not worth $1 million to hack into terrorist iPhones. Assuming the rumors are true, the NSA has been incredibly effective at disrupting terrorist networks, reducing the collateral damage of drone strikes and such. Seriously, I know lots of people in government, and they have stories. Even if you discount the value of taking out terrorists, 0days have been hugely effective at preventing "collateral damage" -- i.e. the deaths of innocents.

The NSA/DoD/FBI buying and using 0days is here to stay. Nothing the EFF does or says will ever change that. Given this constant, the only question is how We The People get more visibility into what's going on, that our representative get more oversight, that the courts have clearer and more consistent rules. I'm the first to stand up and express my worry that the NSA might unleash a worm that takes down the Internet, or the FBI secretly hacks into my home devices. Policy makers need to address these issues, not the nonsense issues promoted by the EFF.

1 comment:

Walid Damouny said...

The fact that more people are using tech increases the attack surface. Having buy-able 0day vulnerabilities out there in the wild is a ticking time bomb. At some point it will be worth it for some business entity buy a 0day to gain access to some Senator's or competitor's devices and use this access for profit. Industrial espionage and market influence are only going to be more luxurious as time goes by.