Thursday, January 2, 2014

Who's Defending U.S. Military Networks if the NSA and FIS are Breaking Them?

According to Der Spiegel, the NSA has been developing tools to compromise software, hardware, and firmware made by multinational corporations in the U.S. and overseas. U.S. companies affected include Juniper Networks, Cisco, Dell, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor plus many others. Unless the company has offered to work with the NSA to create backdoors in their own products, you have a situation where the agency with the primary responsibility of defending U.S. Department of Defense networks from digital attack is also engaged in weakening the very technology used by the DOD on those networks such as Jupiter Network firewalls, Cisco routers, Seagate hard drives, etc.

Perhaps this wouldn't be a problem if foreign intelligence services (FIS) didn't also have the technical capability of finding those same vulnerabilities or others. For example, Xidian University in Xi'an, Shaanxi, China is one of China's top engineering universities. It's State Key Laboratory of Integrated Services Networks conducts research for military-specific and dual use systems including cryptography, offensive network attacks, and systems to be used in confrontational environments.

Here's another example taken from our data base on adversary R&D research. The Chinese Academy of Sciences' State Key Lab of Information Security reports directly to the Ministry of Public Security, among other government agencies. In addition to their primary research area of information security, they develop network attack systems.

Russia has similar educational institutions which focus on information security and electronic warfare for the Ministry of Defense, the FSB, and other relevant agencies. One example is the Voronezh Military Radio-electronics Insititute which is part of the Voronezh Aviation Engineering School. Part of their information warfare research includes breaking the security of automated systems.

Since Dell, Cisco, Juniper, etc. build hardware, firmware, and software that's broadly used around the world and especially on U.S. government networks, it's only logical to conclude that those companies' products are being examined for exploitable vulnerabilities by Russian and Chinese scientists who are at least equal if not superior to those employed by the NSA. Let's remember that unlike the NSA, scientists at Russian and Chinese foreign research laboratories don't have to compete with their respective versions of a Silicon Valley for high paying tech jobs. They can attract and keep their nation's brightest scientists focused on these high priority government military and civilian projects.

Bottom line - if the NSA has found or developed backdoors in critical U.S. technology, so have our adversaries, and by "adversaries", I don't mean Mandiant's version of the bored PLA hacker with sloppy OPSEC. We need as an industry to have more respect for our opponents. And there needs to be a serious discussion about whether the NSA can really defend U.S. military networks while also engaged in exploiting weaknesses in the very technology that those networks rely upon.

UPDATE (JAN 02 2014): Bruce Schneier has begun posting one NSA exploit per day at his blog. The first one called DEITYBOUNCE exploits the motherboard on Dell PowerEdge servers.


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