TV5 Monde, Russia and the CyberCaliphate

Image credit Steven Depolo used under Creative Commons

Image credit Steven Depolo used under Creative Commons

Yesterday evening French magazine L’Express published a report linking an attack against TV5 Monde very firmly to the Russian state. The attack, which knocked 11 of its global channels off air for a period of time and resulted in a compromised website and Facebook page, took place back in April.

At the time when the attack took place, a group calling itself CyberCaliphate immediately took responsibility for the hack and went on to publish details purportedly of serving French military personnel involved in the struggle against Islamic State or ISIS. The attribution at the time seems simple and immediate; Islamic Extremist motivated hacktivism.

L’Express approached Trend Micro with certain indicators of compromise which had been shared with 43 media organisations by the Agence nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information (ANSSI) in France, with a view to uncovering more about the attacker or the motivations behind the attack. These indicators very definitely evidence an infestation of Sednit (also known as Sofacy) malware, associated with the ongoing targeted attack campaigns by the Pawn Storm operators (also referred to as APT28). What they did not do was to definitively link the stolen information or compromised accounts from the April attack to this Pawn Storm compromise. Neither is it possible to state with certainty that the two are *not* related.

Attribution in online crime is complex, more so when there may be nation-state involvement. Trend Micro’s assessment of the current possibilities, with reference to the facts as they stand today leaves us with three possibilities.

1 – We could be looking at two entirely unrelated incidents, a Pawn Storm infestation and a separate hactivist compromise
2 – Perhaps the Pawn Storm group gave attack relevant data to a third party, directly or indirectly to islamic hactivists. While possible, this would seem highly unlikely as we have seen Pawn Storm actively targeting Chechen separatists and Islamic extremists in former Yugoslavia
3 – Finally, the Pawn Storm group carried out a highly visible website, Facebook and TV network compromise (which would be extremely out of character) and used it as a false flag operation to lay the blame at the door of islamic extremists.

While the false flag option is not entirely out of the question, it is at least somewhat out of character of previous operations of the Pawn Storm campaign. My spider senses right now are tingling on option one. TV5 Monde, as a media operation is a target entirely within the remit of the regular Pawn Storm operations and an infestation of Sednit malware there should perhaps not be a surprise at all. The fact that during the time of this Sednit compromise, they were also targeted by Islamic extremist hacktivists, given the contemporary news and political environment in France is perhaps also not surprising.

Attribution online is always complex, sometimes though things can be entirely as they seem.

Where’s Wally? Tracking the president with GPS

Is the security of wearable technology really a big deal? Is the security of IoT devices really such a big deal? I mean, my fridge, my light bulb, my other cliché, what use are they to an attacker? Who really cares where I am, how fast my heart is beating or what my typical pace is over any given distance?

Maybe this photo of the President of the United States sporting his shiny new fitbit Surge gives you all the answer you need. The POTUS, wearing a fitbit, with GPS, being tracked 24/7, by a third party… See where I’m going?

The Internet of Things (IoT) and even more broadly, the Internet of Everything (IoE) are still nascent areas of technology where individual physical devices with embedded electronics, software and sensors are internet connected in order to provide greater value by exchanging data without the need for direct human intervention. This rapidly expanding arc of the information technology rainbow has attracted much attention recently from security researchers; with presentations at the high profile security events, breaking the security of home security systems, cars and many others.

Whilst this research is important in practical terms, hopefully driving some manufacturers to resolve the issues identified, it is also somewhat misdirected.

IoT devices themselves are almost invariably sold as a “black box” solution,; little to no user interface and no options for aftermarket security or tweaking. They are most often low memory, low storage, low processor-power devices designed primarily to harvest data and forward it on for the actual processing. And there’s the rub. The data is sent off-device, to the cloud, where it can be processed, mined, correlated and cross-referenced. Where it can be BIG data.

It is a simple matter for a security researcher to acquire a piece of interesting technology and begin to dissect it for vulnerabilities. Of course it takes skill to do so, but there are no significant barriers aside from that. You buy the kit and you break it.

It is a far more complex minefield to navigate if you set out to test the security of the back-end to those devices. In fact, more often than not it is illegal. To probe the security of someone else’s data centre without their permission, to break in and see what treasure is there for the taking, that ventures outside the realms of research and into the criminal, so the good guys don’t do it.

The bad guys, of course, don’t have to play by those rules, targeted attacks are their stock in trade, and data centres are fast becoming targets of choice. If the President of the USA is wearing technology x, then technology x’s back-end suddenly presents a juicy looking target for criminal or state-sponsored attack and they won’t be discerning about who else’s data they make available either.

Data in general is gold dust to attackers, the more of it one can accumulate, the more tailored, credible and successful one’s attacks can become. All too often devices destined to be connected and used online are designed and produced either by traditional organisations who have typically not had to pay attention to digital security during the manufacture and design process or by entrepreneurs who are too interested in getting their first product to market to be slowed down by some nagging security concern.

It is becoming a significant challenge to regulatory bodies and to governments to ensure that safety standards, which have previously focused on the physical risks of a product and its components, accurately and clearly identify digital risks and outline the minimum safety criteria.  Perhaps in the near future we can hope for a kind of digital kite-mark, offering at least some assurance that physical goods and their supporting infrastructure have been designed and built to a defined standard of digital security, that security was baked -in, not glossed over and that none of the small parts may cause choking. The need for this becomes ever more urgent as pretty much every £100+ good becomes connected in some way, in fact Gartner estimated in 2013 that by the year 2020 (have you watched our award-winning web series yet?) there will be more than 30 billion “connected devices”.

What you really accept when you use


ToU for

Microsoft had an apparently unexpected hit on their hands with the unveiling of the “How Old Do I Look?” service at the Microsoft Build conference last week. By the weekend my Facebook feed was filling up with friends from all over the globe sharing the results of their own submissions to the service. For the three of you that haven’t come across this viral hit recently, “How Old Do I Look” allows a user to upload a photo and will attempt to correctly guess the age of the subject of the picture, with the results ranging from the spectacularly awful to the incredibly accurate.

My vanity drove me to the website to upload a picture of my ageing mug. Before uploading though, unlike most users it would seem, I paused to read the Terms of Use linked from the landing page of the service. After being initially reassured by the clear and unambiguous “P.S. We don’t keep the photo”  right below the upload button, the ToU told a very different story…

From the “Materials Posted on this Website” section of the ToU (my own bolding):

“[…] by posting, uploading, inputting, providing, or submitting your Submission, you are granting Microsoft, its affiliated companies, and necessary sublicensees permission to use your Submission in connection with the operation of their Internet businesses (including, without limitation, all Microsoft services), including, without limitation, the license rights to: copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, translate, and reformat your Submission; to publish your name in connection with your Submission; and to sublicense such rights to any supplier of the Website Services

These are actually the standard ToU for Microsoft’s Azure cloud services, they are broadly similar to the ToU of many, many other online services. While I am not trying to insinuate that Microsoft have some sneaky photo-stealing agenda, these ToU do really serve to illustrate a couple of perennial problems in information security.

– The scale of customers’ unwillingness to inform themselves of what exactly they are agreeing to when making use of information technology.

These terms were not hidden away, they were clearly linked from the front page of the service, yet not one of the people I spoke to had bothered to click through. Perhaps we have been educated into apathy. Many companies are certainly guilty of producing reams and reams of agreements and terms that a customer could never reasonably be expected to digest (*cough*iTunes*cough*) but this was not an example of that. These Terms were relatively clear and concise and not overly long.

The cult of overasking.

It seems that the developers of the How Old service had no intention at any time of storing your images, or of “publishing your name in connection with your submission”, but instead of crafting a Terms of Use document specifically for their own service, potentially one that could have been far more brief, human-readable and accessible, they fell back on the default Microsoft Azure ToU.

These kinds of clauses help no one.  In most cases the motivation behind such a broad legal definition of rights is a technical one. The service provider needs to cover the processing, caching,  and publishing of user submitted data. They need to legally define the normal operation of their service. However, the legal eagles, in attempting to define that service, grant themselves such a broad swathe of rights, going on to qualify them with phrases such as “without limitation” that the end result is Orwellian in scope.

When the rights reserved by the operators of “How Old” are pointed out to the users of the service they are clearly concerned, often to the extent that they wish they had never used the service. This isn’t fear-mongering, this is a natural and understandable reaction to the feeling that a faceless corporation is “taking liberties” with their data or duping them with a “bait and switch” scam. “We don’t keep the photo (but we can if we want to)”.

These things must end. It is our own responsibility to keep ourselves informed of the content of agreements that we make. Whether that’s a pen and ink signature on an agreement of a digital click of acquiescence. We need to reject terms with which we are uncomfortable and push back on overly greedy legal documents.

At the same time, the legal officers, particularly of the global mega-vendors have a duty to become more tech-savvy. To be able to better define the technical rights necessary for the operation of a service accurately, without the need for land-grabbing phrases such as “without limitation”