Government-Sponsored Hacking of Embedded Systems

Everywhere you look these days, it is readily apparent that embedded systems of all types are under attack by hackers.

In just one example from the last few weeks, researchers at Kaspersky Lab (a Moscow-headquartered maker of anti-virus and other software security products) published a report documenting a specific pernicious and malicious attack against “virtually all hard drive firmware”. The Kaspersky researchers deemed this particular data security attack the “most advanced hacking operation ever uncovered” and confirmed that at least hundreds of computers, in dozens of countries, have already been infected.

CYBERSECURITY-USA

Here are the technical facts:

  • Disk drives contain a storage medium (historically one or more magnetic spinning platters; but increasingly solid state memory chips) upon which the user stores data that is at least partly private information;
  • Disk drives are themselves embedded systems powered by firmware (mostly written in C and assembly, sans formal operating system);
  • Disk drive firmware (stored in non-volatile memory distinct from the primary storage medium) can be reflashed to upgrade it;
  • The malware at issue comprises replacement firmware images for all of the major disk drive brands (e.g., SeagateWestern Digital) that can perform malicious functions such as keeping copies of the user’s private data in a secret partition for later retrieval;
  • Because the malicious code resides in the firmware, existing anti-virus software cannot detect it (even when they scan the so-called Master Boot Record); and
  • Even a user who erases and reformats his drive will not remove the malware.

The Kaspersky researchers have linked this hack to a number of other sophisticated hacks over the past 14 years, including the Stuxnet worm attack on embedded systems within the Iranian nuclear fuel processing infrastructure. Credited to the so-called “Equation Group,” these attacks are believed be the the work of a single group: NSA. One reason: a similar disk drive firmware hack code-named IRATEMONK is described in an internal NSA document made public by Edward Snowden.

I bring this hack to your attention because it is indicative of a broader class of attacks that embedded systems designers have not previously had to worry about. In a nutshell:

Hackers gonna hack. Government-sponsored hackers with unlimited black budgets gonna hack the shit out of everything.

This is a sea change. Threat modeling for embedded systems most often identifies a range of potential attacker groups, such as: hobbyist hackers (who only hack for fun, and don’t have many resources), academic researchers (who hack for the headlines, but don’t care if the hacks are practical), and company competitors (who may have lots of resources, but also need to operate under various legal systems).

For example, through my work history I happen to be an expert on satellite TV hacking technology. In that field, a hierarchy of hackers emerged in which organized crime syndicates had the best resources for reverse engineering and achieved practical hacks based on academic research; the crime syndicates initially tightly-controlled new hacks in for-profit schemes; and most hacks eventually trickled down to the hobbyist level.

For those embedded systems designers making disk drives and other consumer devices, security has not historically been a consideration at all. Of course, well-resourced competitors sometimes reverse engineered even consumer products (to copy the intellectual property inside), but patent and copyright laws offered other avenues for reducing and addressing that threat.

But we no longer live in a world where we can ignore the security threat posed by the state-sponsored hackers, who have effectively unlimited resources and a new set of motivations. Consider what any interested agent of the government could learn about your private business via a hack of any microphone-(and/or camera-)equipped device in your office (or bedroom).

Some embedded systems with microphones are just begging to be easily hacked. For example, the designers of new smart TVs with voice control capability are already sending all of the sounds in the room (unencrypted) over the Internet. Or consider the phone on your office desk. Hacks of at least some VOIP phones are known to exist and allow for remotely listening to everything you say.

Of course, the state-sponsored hacking threat is not only about microphones and cameras. Consider a printer firmware hack that remotely prints or archives a copy of everything you ever printed. Or a motion/sleep tracker or smart utility meter that lets burglars detect when you are home or away. Broadband routers are a particularly vulnerable point of most small office/home office intranets, and one that is strategically well located for sniffing on and interfering with devices deeper in the network.

How could your product be used to creatively spy on or attack its users?

Do we have an ethical duty or even obligation, as professionals, to protect the users of our products from state-sponsored hacking? Or should we simply ignore such threats, figuring this is just a fight between our government and “bad guys”? “I’m not a bad guy myself,” you might think. Should the current level of repressiveness of the country the user is in while using our product matter?

I personally think there’s a lot more at stake if we collectively ignore this threat, and refer you to the following to understand why:

  • The NSA and You: Spying on Innocents (Fox News)
  • NSA Has Broken Privacy Rules ‘Thousands Of Times Each Year’ (NPR)
  • N.S.A. Spied on Allies, Aid Groups and Businesses (New York Times)
  • The NSA is Giving Your Phone Records to the DEA; And the DEA is Covering it Up (Washington Post)
  • The Surveillance State Puts U.S. Elections at Risk of Manipulation (The Atlantic)

Imagine what Edward Snowden could have accomplished if he had a different agenda. Always remember, too, that the hacks the NSA has already developed are now–even if they weren’t before–known to repressive governments. Furthermore, they are potentially in the hands of jilted lovers and blackmailers everywhere. What if someone hacks into an embedded system used by a powerful U.S. Senator or Governor; or by the candidate for President (that you support or that wants to reign in the electronic security state); or a member of your family?

P.S. THIS JUST IN: The CIA recently hired a major defense contractor to develop a variant of an open-source compiler that would secretly insert backdoors into all of the programs it compiled. Is it the compiler you use?

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