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NSA FOXACID servers used to drive the hack into target systems

by Pierluigi Paganini on October 12th, 2013
Laptop in dark room

NSA leaked documents reveals the existence of FOXACID servers that provides an automated hacking platform used to drive operators into hacking targets.

Security expert Bruce Schneier revealed in a recent post that the NSA has a wide-ranging arsenal of zero-day exploits to use for cyber operations, mainly used for cyber espionage campaigns. The effort spent by government for the development of new cyber capabilities is in continuous growth, as revealed in the report recently published by the FireEye security firm “World War C” there is an intensification of state-sponsored attacks for both cyber espionage and sabotage purpose, campaigns such as Moonlight Maze and Titan Rain or the destructive cyber strikes on Iran and Georgia have signed the evolution of the military doctrine.

“Cyberspace has become a full-blown war zone as governments across the globe clash for digital supremacy in a new, mostly invisible theater of operations. Once limited to opportunistic criminals, cyber attacks are becoming a key weapon for governments seeking to defend national sovereignty and project national power.”

In the arsenal of government militias are entering strongly DDoS tools, spyware and malware, but the principal element for nation-state driven cyber attacks is considered the knowledge of zero-day vulnerabilities to exploit.

The last collection of NSA documents leaked by Snowden reported that the Intelligence Agency used its servers codenamed FoxAcid that exploit software vulnerabilities on targets’ machines.

“Here are the FOXACID basics: By the time the NSA tricks a target into visiting one of those servers, it already knows exactly who that target is, who wants him eavesdropped on, and the expected value of the data it hopes to receive. Based on that information, the server can automatically decide what exploit to serve the target, taking into account the risks associated with attacking the target, as well as the benefits of a successful attack.” reported Schneier.

The document reported numerous exploits, Validator as the default option for the attacks,  but FOXACID servers are able also to serve other malicious exploits like United Rake, Peddle Cheap, Packet Wrench, and Beach Head.

“To trick targets into visiting a FoxAcid server, the NSA relies on its secret partnerships with US telecoms companies. As part of the Turmoil system, the NSA places secret servers, codenamed Quantum, at key places on the internet backbone. This placement ensures that they can react faster than other websites can. By exploiting that speed difference, these servers can impersonate a visited website to the target before the legitimate website can respond, thereby tricking the target’s browser to visit a Foxacid server.” reported the post on The Guardian.

FoxAcid servers

The method of attack is impressive, state-sponsored hackers could count an incredible amount of information gathered on their targets, the NSA severs are able to provide a multiple choice menu for attack options from which attackers could choose the proper offensive mode.

“If the target is a high-value one, FoxAcid might run a rare zero-day exploit that it developed or purchased,” “If the target is technically sophisticated, FoxAcid might decide that there’s too much chance for discovery, and keeping the zero-day exploit a secret is more important. If the target is a low-value one, FoxAcid might run an exploit that’s less valuable. If the target is low-value and technically sophisticated, FoxAcid might even run an already-known vulnerability.” Schneier wrote. 

The document explicitly introduces a cost-benefit analysis provided to evaluate exploitation. Tailored Access Operations (TAO) operators running the FOXACID system could implement detailed and complex flowchart which covers all probable stages of an attack and the results thereof. For example in the presence of a personal security product they could stop the offensive to avoid detection or to proceed with different strategy bases in partial response of targeted systems.

The puzzling aspect is that systems such as FOXACID can turn not particularly skilled operators into dangerous hackers.

The FoxAcid system was used to track individuals into the Tor network, the NSA uses its servers to hijack that user to the set of secret internet servers composing FoxAcid.  FoxAcid servers were used to launch prepared attacks against their system ensuring that they remain compromised long-term, and continues to provide eavesdropping information back to the NSA.

The well-known security expert, author of the post, is very critical of the agency’s ability to control the secrecy of mass surveillance program.

“While the NSA excels at performing this cost-benefit analysis at the tactical level, it’s far less competent at doing the same thing at the policy level,” “The organization seems to be good enough at assessing the risk of discovery—for example, if the target of an intelligence-gathering effort discovers that effort—but to have completely ignored the risks of those efforts becoming front-page news.” wrote Schneier

FOXACID exploits attacks against users.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  NSA, FOXACID )

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