NSA Was Concerned About Power Of Windows Exploit Long Before It Was Leaked

from the and-still-nothing-until-the-last-minute dept

The NSA's exploit toolkit has been weaponized to target critical systems all over the world. So much for the debate over the theoretical downside of undisclosed vulnerabilities. (It also inadvertently provided the perfect argument against encryption backdoors.) The real world has provided all the case study that's needed.

It appears the NSA finally engaged in the Vulnerabilities Equity Process -- not when it discovered the vulnerability, but rather when it became apparent the agency wouldn't be able to prevent it from being released to the public. What's happened recently has been devastating and Microsoft -- whose software was targeted -- has expressed its displeasure at the agency's inaction.

Maybe the agency will be a bit more forthcoming in the future. Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg of the Washington Post report former NSA employees and officials had concerns about the undisclosed exploit long before the Shadow Brokers gave it to the world.

When the National Security Agency began using a new hacking tool called EternalBlue, those entrusted with deploying it marveled at both its uncommon power and the widespread havoc it could wreak if it ever got loose.

Some officials even discussed whether the flaw was so dangerous they should reveal it to Microsoft, the company whose software the government was exploiting, according to former NSA employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

Officials called it "fishing with dynamite." The exploit gave the NSA access to so much on compromised computers, the agency obviously couldn't bear the thought of voluntarily giving up such a useful hacking tool. But when it was first deployed, some inside the agency felt the vulnerability might be too powerful to be left undisclosed.

But there were plenty of others who viewed disclosure as "disarmament." Somehow, despite three straight years of leaked documents, the NSA still felt it had everything under control. The Shadow Brokers NSA exploit auction made it clear the NSA was no better at securing its software stash than it was at keeping thousands of internal documents from wandering out the door.

The only upshot is the NSA has now witnessed what kind of damage its exploits can do in the wrong hands. Since the agency cannot possibly ensure this sort of thing won't happen again, the question now is how much of other people's security is the agency willing to sacrifice in the name of national security?

The NSA appears to believe it handled this as well as it could given the circumstances, but the outcome could have so much worse. The chain of events leading to the NSA's eventual disclosure helped minimize the collateral damage. It has very little to do with the steps the NSA took (or, more accurately, didn't take).

What if the Shadow Brokers had dumped the exploits in 2014, before the [US] government had begun to upgrade software on its computers? What if they had released them and Microsoft had no ready patch?

There's your intelligence community nightmare fuel. Had the vulnerability managed to take down US government hardware and software, the NSA would be facing even more criticism and scrutiny that it already is.

The NSA appears to only disclose vulnerabilities when forced to. It may possibly hand over those it finds to be of limited use. Former NSA head Keith Alexander says the agency turns over "90%" of the vulnerabilities it discovers, but that percentage seems inflated. The NSA spent years as "No Such Agency." It's only been the last four years that it's been forced to engage in more transparency and accountability, so it's tough to believe it's spent years proactively informing affected companies about the flaws in their products.

In any event, the NSA's second-guesswork will have do for now. Some legislators are hoping to shore up the vulnerabilities reporting process, but it's likely by the time it heads for the Oval Office desk, it will be riddled with with enough national security exceptions to make it useless. With the Shadow Brokers hinting they still have more dangerous exploits to release (including one affecting Windows 10), the decision to disclose these vulnerabilities will once again be informed by the NSA's inability to keep its hacking tools secure, rather than any internal examination of its hoarder mentality.

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Filed Under: exploits, leaks, nsa, vep, vulnerabilities, vulnerabilities equities program, wannacry


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 May 2017 @ 12:46pm

    Once it was out there

    Why was the NSA not leading the charge to mitigate it's damage? It was other independent security researchers who stopped it from getting worse and developed tools to decrypt hosed machines. Where was the NSA? Why weren't they trying to clean up their mess?

    (I think they ought to be held liable for the ransoms that people paid.)

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