FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How a Bank Heist Illustrates That Poor Cyber Security is Official Policy

by

“Software flaws account for a majority of the compromises organizations around the world experience”

—Shon Harris[1]

A gang of cyber thieves known as the Carbanak Ring recently made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in an online bank robbery that spanned the globe. They launched their caper with a salvo of malicious e-mails. The very fact that such a simple approach was effective demonstrates how cyber intrusions are enabled by a hi-tech sector which offloads the cost of its sloppy engineering onto the public. Never mind the industry-wide campaign of subversion conducted by government spies. Poor cyber security doesn’t just appear out of thin air. No sir, it’s baked in.

News of the theft broke a few days back in the New York Times which reported that over 100 banks in 30 countries had been hit by intruders. According to the Times they gained access to corporate networks by sending bank employees e-mails laced with malicious attachments. This is a technique known as phishing (or spear-phishing if the e-mail recipients are specifically targeted). On an aside, sending a malicious e-mail to a high-ranking executive in hopes of a big payday is known among cyber crooks as whaling.

Anyway, additional facts provided by the computer forensic specialists at Moscow-based firm Kaspersky indicate that the attacker’s spear-phishing operation leveraged specially crafted Microsoft Word documents which capitalized on security holes in the Windows operating system. For technical wonks in the audience here are the gory details:

“All observed cases used spear phishing emails with Microsoft Word 97 – 2003 (.doc) files attached or CPL files. The doc files exploit both Microsoft Office (CVE-2012-0158 and CVE-2013-3906) and Microsoft Word (CVE- 2014-1761).”

Kaspersky’s findings highlight an issue which the mainstream press is loath to address. While it’s true that people often click on things that they shouldn’t, like infected e-mail attachments, having users shoulder all of the responsibility is a pointless exercise in blaming the victim. Users should be able to open documents. That’s what documents were made for: to be opened. The same holds with regard to passwords and web browser hyperlinks. Software can be implemented to enforce password complexity requirements so that users choose strong passwords. Likewise users should be able to click on web links without ending up on the receiving end of a drive-by download.

The sad truth is that cyberattacks like the one chronicled by Kaspersky flourish due to sloppy engineering. For instance, intruders commonly rely on unpatched flaws, known as zero-day bugs, to steal data and wreak havoc. It’s part of the public record that the Stuxnet worm developed by the NSA utilized multiple zero-day flaws, as did the Equation Group’s malware. So go ahead, hector users until they’re paranoid and erect all the digital safeguards you want. Malicious software payloads wielding zero-day bugs will sail through your defenses as if they weren’t even there.

One reason that sub-standard engineering is so commonplace is that security isn’t a genuine priority for most hi-tech vendors. It’s more of sales pitch, a branding scheme, used to entice more susceptible members of the audience. Why spend money auditing code when it’s more lucrative to simply push new products out into circulation as quickly as possible?

Pssst, hey kid, use our latest chat program. It’s encrypted!

Existing market incentives encourage this stance as hi-tech vendors are allowed, by law, to treat security incidents as a negative externality. Ever wonder what’s buried in the fine print of most End User License Agreements (EULAs)? Now you know. When a bank is hacked as a result of poorly designed software it’s the bank that pays to clean up the mess, not the software company which sold them the faulty apps. Until this changes and hi-tech companies are held financially liable for their engineering screw ups we can expect the ongoing parade of massive data breaches to continue unabated.

But there’s also another more sinister reason why cyber security sucks: private sector monoliths like RSA collaborate with spies to construct hidden backdoors. In an effort steal secrets the spies at Fort Meade have worked with major American hi-tech companies and gotten them to imbed subtle yet intentional flaws in their products.

Some of these backdoors go all the way down to the hardware, where they’re accessed using obscure firmware hacks. As someone who has built rootkits I can attest that the hardware-level stuff is nasty: it can bridge air-gaps, successfully resist eradication, and persist across multiple platforms. The underlying attack vector is so powerful that strong encryption is of little protection. If U.S. spies can manipulate a machine’s firmware, as described in leaked NSA documents, swiping an encryption passcode is a cakewalk.

It’s ironic that U.S. officials complained loudly about Chinese companies embedding backdoors in their products when classified documents reveal the United States as a truly prolific actor in this domain.

During the uproar following the first round of Snowden leaks President Obama made symbolic gestures about changing the NSA’s predilection for zero day bugs only to leave a gaping loophole for cases which demonstrated “a clear national security or law enforcement need.” So if you’re wondering what’s behind the never-ending stream of high-profile cyber-attacks? Bad security isn’t an unfortunate accident. It’s a matter of official policy. A top-down scheme that benefits a small circle of spies at the expense of society’s collective well-being. Computer security for the 1%.

Bill Blunden is an independent investigator whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal , and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.

 Notes.

[1] Shon Harris, “CISSP Exam Guide,” Sixth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2013, page 297.

This article was originally published by AlterNet.

More articles by:

Bill Blunden is a journalist whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including “The Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs and a member of the California State University Employees Union, Chapter 305.

Weekend Edition
February 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
Capitalism as Obstacle to Equality and Democracy: the US Story
Paul Street
Where’s the Beef Stroganoff? Eight Sacrilegious Reflections on Russiagate
Jeffrey St. Clair
They Came, They Saw, They Tweeted
Andrew Levine
Their Meddlers and Ours
Charles Pierson
Nuclear Nonproliferation, American Style
Joseph Essertier
Why Japan’s Ultranationalists Hate the Olympic Truce
W. T. Whitney
US and Allies Look to Military Intervention in Venezuela
John Laforge
Maybe All Threats of Mass Destruction are “Mentally Deranged”
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning
David Rosen
For Some Reason, Being White Still Matters
Robert Fantina
Nikki Haley: the U.S. Embarrassment at the United Nations
Joyce Nelson
Why Mueller’s Indictments Are Hugely Important
Joshua Frank
Pearl Jam, Will You Help Stop Sen. Tester From Destroying Montana’s Public Lands?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Attack on Historical Perspective
Conn Hallinan
Immigration and the Italian Elections
George Ochenski
The Great Danger of Anthropocentricity
Pete Dolack
China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction
Joseph Natoli
Broken Lives
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Did Russia Vote For Trump?
Geoff Dutton
One Regime to Rule Them All
Torkil Lauesen – Gabriel Kuhn
Radical Theory and Academia: a Thorny Relationship
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Work of Persuasion
Thomas Klikauer
Umberto Eco and Germany’s New Fascism
George Burchett
La Folie Des Grandeurs
Howard Lisnoff
Minister of War
Eileen Appelbaum
Why Trump’s Plan Won’t Solve the Problems of America’s Crumbling Infrastructure
Ramzy Baroud
More Than a Fight over Couscous: Why the Palestinian Narrative Must Be Embraced
Jill Richardson
Mass Shootings Shouldn’t Be the Only Time We Talk About Mental Illness
Jessicah Pierre
Racism is Killing African American Mothers
Steve Horn
Wyoming Now Third State to Propose ALEC Bill Cracking Down on Pipeline Protests
David Griscom
When ‘Fake News’ is Good For Business
Barton Kunstler
Brainwashed Nation
Griffin Bird
I’m an Eagle Scout and I Don’t Want Pipelines in My Wilderness
Edward Curtin
The Coming Wars to End All Wars
Missy Comley Beattie
Message To New Activists
Jonah Raskin
Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful
Binoy Kampmark
Frontiersman of the Internet: John Perry Barlow
Chelli Stanley
The Mirrors of Palestine
James McEnteer
How Brexit Won World War Two
Ralph Nader
Absorbing the Irresistible Consumer Reports Magazine
Cesar Chelala
A Word I Shouldn’t Use
Louis Proyect
Marx at the Movies
Osha Neumann
A White Guy Watches “The Black Panther”
Stephen Cooper
Rebel Talk with Nattali Rize: the Interview
David Yearsley
Market Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail