I thought I'd write up some comments on today's news of the NSO malware using 0days to infect human rights activist phones. For full reference, you want to read the Citizen's Lab report and the Lookout report.
Press: it's news to you, it's not news to us
I'm seeing breathless news articles appear. I dread the next time that I talk to my mom that she's going to ask about it (including "were you involved"). I suppose it is new to those outside the cybersec community, but for those of us insiders, it's not particularly newsworthy. It's just more government malware going after activists. It's just one more set of 0days.
I point this out in case press wants to contact for some awesome sounding quote about how exciting/important this is. I'll have the opposite quote.
Don't panic: all patches fix 0days
We should pay attention to context: all patches (for iPhone, Windows, etc.) fix 0days that hackers can use to break into devices. Normally these 0days are discovered by the company itself or by outside researchers intending to fix (and not exploit) the problem. What's different here is that where most 0days are just a theoretical danger, these 0days are an actual danger -- currently being exploited by the NSO Group's products. Thus, there's maybe a bit more urgency in this patch compared to other patches.
Don't panic: NSA/Chinese/Russians using secret 0days anyway
It's almost certain the NSA, the Chinese, and the Russian have similar 0days. That means applying this patch makes you safe from the NSO Group (for a while, until they find new 0days), but it's unlikely this patch makes you safe from the others.
Of course it's multiple 0days
Some people are marveling how the attack includes three 0days. That's been the norm for browser exploits for a decade now. There's sandboxes and ASLR protections to get through. There's privilege escalation to get into the kernel. And then there's persistence. How far you get in solving one or more of these problems with a single 0day depends upon luck.
It's actually four 0days
That about wraps it up for VEP
VEP is Vulnerability Equities Process that's supposed to, but doesn't, manage how the government uses 0days it acquires.
Agitators like the EFF have been fighting against the NSA's acquisition and use of 0days, as if this makes us all less secure. What today's incident shows is that acquisition/use of 0days will be widespread around the world, regardless what the NSA does. It's be nice to get more transparency about what they NSA is doing through the VEP process, but the reality is the EFF is never going to get anything close to what it's agitating for.
That about wraps is up for Wassenaar
Wassenaar is an internal arms control "treaty". Left-wing agitators convinced the Wassenaar folks to add 0days and malware to the treaty -- with horrific results. There is essentially no difference between bad code and good code, only how it's used, so the the Wassenaar extensions have essentially outlawed all good code and security research.
Some agitators are convinced Wassenaar can be still be fixed (it can't). Israel, where NSO Group is based, is not a member of Wassenaar, and thus whatever limitations Wassenaar could come up with would not stop the NSO.
Some have pointed out that Israel frequently adopts Wassenaar rules anyway, but they would then simply transfer the company somewhere else, such as Singapore.
The point is that 0day development is intensely international. There are great 0day researchers throughout the non-Wassenaar countries. It's not like precision tooling for aluminum cylinders (for nuclear enrichment) that can only be made in an industrialized country. Some of the best 0day researchers come from backwards countries, growing up with only an Internet connection.
BUY THAT MAN AN IPHONE!!!
The victim in this case, Ahmed Mansoor, has apparently been hacked many time, including with HackingTeam's malware and Finfisher malware -- notorious commercial products used by evil government's to hack into dissident's computers.
Obviously, he'll be hacked again. He's a gold mine for researchers in this area. The NSA, anti-virus companies, Apple jailbreak companies, and the like should be jumping over themselves offering this guy a phone. One way this would work is giving him a new phone every 6 months in exchange for the previous phone to analyze.
Apple, of course, should head the list of companies doing this, proving "activist phones" to activists with their own secret monitoring tools installed so that they can regularly check if some new malware/implant has been installed.
iPhones are still better, suck it Android
Despite the fact that everybody and their mother is buying iPhone 0days to hack phones, it's still the most secure phone. Androids are open to any old hacker -- iPhone are open only to nation state hackers.
Use signal, use Tor
I didn't see Signal on the list of apps the malware tapped into. There's no particular reason for this, other than NSO haven't gotten around to it yet. But I thought I'd point how yet again, Signal wins.
SMS vs. MitM
Some have pointed to SMS as the exploit vector, which gave Citizen's Lab the evidence that the phone had been hacked.
It's a Safari exploit, so getting the user to visit a web page is required. This can be done over SMS, over email, over Twitter, or over any other messaging service the user uses. Presumably, SMS was chosen because users are more paranoid of links in phishing emails than they are SMS messages.
However, the way it should be doing is with man-in-the-middle (MitM) tools in the infrastructure. Such a tool would wait until the victim visited any webpage via Safari, then magically append the exploit to the page. As Snowden showed, this is apparently how the NSA does it, which is probably why they haven't gotten caught yet after exploiting iPhones for years.
The UAE (the government who is almost certainly trying to hack Mansoor's phone) has the control over their infrastructure in theory to conduct a hack. We've already caught other governments doing similar things (like Tunisia). My guess is they were just lazy, and wanted to do it the easiest way for them.