NSA Laughs at PCs, Prefers Hacking Routers and Switches
eugen at leitl.org
Wed Sep 4 20:12:40 UTC 2013
NSA Laughs at PCs, Prefers Hacking Routers and Switches
BY KIM ZETTER09.04.136:30 AM
Photo: Santiago Cabezas/Flickr
The NSA runs a massive, full-time hacking operation targeting foreign
systems, the latest leaks from Edward Snowden show. But unlike conventional
cybercriminals, the agency is less interested in hacking PCs and Macs.
Instead, America’s spooks have their eyes on the internet routers and
switches that form the basic infrastructure of the net, and are largely
overlooked as security vulnerabilities.
Under a $652-million program codenamed “Genie,” U.S. intel agencies have
hacked into foreign computers and networks to monitor communications crossing
them and to establish control over them, according to a secret black budget
document leaked to the Washington Post. U.S. intelligence agencies conducted
231 offensive cyber operations in 2011 to penetrate the computer networks of
This included not only installing covert “implants” in foreign desktop
computers but also on routers and firewalls — tens of thousands of machines
every year in all. According to the Post, the government planned to expand
the program to cover millions of additional foreign machines in the future
and preferred hacking routers to individual PCs because it gave agencies
access to data from entire networks of computers instead of just individual
Most of the hacks targeted the systems and communications of top adversaries
like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea and included activities around
The NSA’s focus on routers highlights an often-overlooked attack vector with
huge advantages for the intruder, says Marc Maiffret, chief technology
officer at security firm Beyond Trust. Hacking routers is an ideal way for an
intelligence or military agency to maintain a persistent hold on network
traffic because the systems aren’t updated with new software very often or
patched in the way that Windows and Linux systems are.
“No one updates their routers,” he says. “If you think people are bad about
patching Windows and Linux (which they are) then they are … horrible about
updating their networking gear because it is too critical, and usually they
don’t have redundancy to be able to do it properly.”
He also notes that routers don’t have security software that can help detect
“The challenge [with desktop systems] is that while antivirus don’t work well
on your desktop, they at least do something [to detect attacks],” he says.
“But you don’t even have an integrity check for the most part on routers and
other such devices like IP cameras.”
Hijacking routers and switches could allow the NSA to do more than just
eavesdrop on all the communications crossing that equipment. It would also
let them bring down networks or prevent certain communication, such as
military orders, from getting through, though the Post story doesn’t report
any such activities. With control of routers, the NSA could re-route traffic
to a different location, or intelligence agencies could alter it for
disinformation campaigns, such as planting information that would have a
detrimental political effect or altering orders to re-route troops or
supplies in a military operation.
According to the budget document, the CIA’s Tailored Access Programs and
NSA’s software engineers possess “templates” for breaking into common brands
and models of routers, switches and firewalls.
The article doesn’t say it, but this would likely involve pre-written scripts
or backdoor tools and root kits for attacking known but unpatched
vulnerabilities in these systems, as well as for attacking zero-day
vulnerabilities that are yet unknown to the vendor and customers.
“[Router software is] just an operating system and can be hacked just as
Windows or Linux would be hacked,” Maiffret says. “They’ve tried to harden
them a little bit more [than these other systems], but for folks at a place
like the NSA or any other major government intelligence agency, it’s pretty
standard fare of having a ready-to-go backdoor for your [off-the-shelf] Cisco
or Juniper models.”
Not all of the activity mentioned in the budget document involved remote
hacking. In some cases, according to the document, the operations involved
clandestine activity by the CIA or military intelligence units to “physically
place hardware implants or software modifications” to aid the spying.
“Much more often, an implant is coded entirely in software by an NSA group
called Tailored Access Operations (TAO),” the Post writes in its story about
the document. “As its name suggests, TAO builds attack tools that are
custom-fitted to their targets.”
A handful of security researchers have uncovered vulnerabilities in routers
in recent years that could be used to do the kind of hacking described in the
In 2005, security researcher Mike Lynn found a serious vulnerability in Cisco
IOS, the operating system running on millions of Cisco routers around the
Lynn discovered the vulnerability after his employer, Internet Security
Systems, asked him to reverse-engineer the Cisco operating system to see if
he could find security problems with it. Cisco makes the majority of the
routers that operate the backbone of the internet as well as many company
networks and critical infrastructure systems. The Cisco IOS is as ubiquitous
in the backbone as the Windows operating system is on desktops.
The vulnerability Lynn found, in a new version of the operation system that
Cisco planned to release at the time, would have allowed someone to create a
router worm that would shut down every Cisco router through which it passed,
bringing down a nation’s critical infrastructure. It also would have allowed
an attacker to gain complete control of the router to sniff all traffic
passing through a network in order to read, record or alter it, or simply
prevent traffic from reaching its recipient.
Once Lynn found the vulnerability, it took him six months to develop a
working exploit to attack it.
Lynn had planned to discuss the vulnerability at the Black Hat security
conference in Las Vegas, until Cisco intervened and forced him to pull the
talk under threat of a lawsuit.
But if Lynn knew about the vulnerability, there were likely others who did as
well — including intelligence agencies and criminal hackers.
Source code for Cisco’s IOS has been stolen at least twice, either by
entities who were interested in studying the software to gain a competitive
advantage or to uncover vulnerabilities that would allow someone to hack or
Other researchers have uncovered different vulnerabilities in other Cisco
routers that are commonly used in small businesses and home offices.
Every year at computer security conferences — including the Black Hat
conference where NSA Director Keith Alexander presented a keynote this year —
U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors from around the world attend to
discover information about new vulnerabilities that might be exploited and to
hire talented researchers and hackers capable of finding more vulnerabilities
In 2008, a researcher at Core Security Technologies developed a root kit for
the Cisco IOS that was designed to give an attacker a persistent foothold on
a Cisco router while remaining undetected.
According to the Post story, the NSA designs most of the offensive tools it
uses in its Genie operation, but it spent $25.1 million in one year for
“additional covert purchases of software vulnerabilities” from private
malware vendors who operate on the grey market — closed markets that peddle
vulnerabilities and exploits to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as
opposed to the black market that sells them to cyber criminals.
The price of vulnerabilities and exploits varies, depending on a number of
factors. Vulnerabilities and exploits can sell for anywhere from $50,000 to
more than a million, depending on the exclusivity of the purchase — some
vulnerabilities are sold to multiple parties with the understanding that
others are using it as well — and their ubiquity. A vulnerability that exists
in multiple versions of an operating system is more valuable than a
vulnerability that exists in just one version. A class of vulnerability that
crosses multiple browser brands is also more valuable than a single
vulnerability that just affects the Safari browser or Chrome.
The Stuxnet cyber weapon that was reportedly created by the U.S. and Israel
to sabotage centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program, used five
zero-day exploits to spread itself among systems in Iran, including a rare
exploit that attacked the .LNK function in multiple versions of the Windows
operating system in order to spread the worm silently via infected USB
Ubiquitous router vulnerabilities are difficult to find since there are so
many different configurations for routers, and an attack that works against
one router configuration might not work for another. But a vulnerability that
affects the core operating system is much more valuable since it is less
likely to be dependent on the configuration. Maiffret says there hasn’t been
a lot of public research on router vulnerabilities, but whenever someone has
taken a look at them, they have found security holes in them.
“They’re always successful in finding something,” he says.
Once a vulnerability becomes known to the software maker and is patched, it
loses a lot of its value. But because many users and administrators do not
patch their systems, some vulnerabilities can be used effectively for years,
even after a patch is available. The Conficker worm, for example, continued
to infect millions of computers long after Microsoft released a patch that
should have stopped the worm from spreading.
Routers in particular often remain unpatched because system administrators
don’t think they will be targeted and because administrators are concerned
about network outages that could occur while the patch is applied or if the
patch is faulty.
Kim Zetter is a senior reporter at Wired covering cybercrime, privacy,
security and civil liberties.
Read more by Kim Zetter
Follow @KimZetter and @ThreatLevel on Twitter.
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