The NSA’s New Risk Analysis
A blog covering security and security technology.
October 9, 2013
The NSA’s New Risk Analysis
As I recently reported in the Guardian, the NSA has secret servers on the Internet that hack into other computers, codename FOXACID. These servers provide an excellent demonstration of how the NSA approaches risk management, and exposes flaws in how the agency thinks about the secrecy of its own programs.
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. According to a top-secret operational procedures manual provided by Edward Snowden, an exploit named Validator might be the default, but the NSA has a variety of options. The documentation mentions United Rake, Peddle Cheap, Packet Wrench, and Beach Head — all delivered from a FOXACID subsystem called Ferret Cannon. Oh how I love some of these code names. (On the other hand, EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE has to be the dumbest code name ever.)
Snowden explained this to Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong. 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.
According to Snowden, the TAO — that’s Tailored Access Operations — operators running the FOXACID system have a detailed flowchart, with tons of rules about when to stop. If something doesn’t work, stop. If they detect a PSP, a personal security product, stop. If anything goes weird, stop. This is how the NSA avoids detection, and also how it takes mid-level computer operators and turn them into what they call "cyberwarriors." It’s not that they’re skilled hackers, it’s that the procedures do the work for them.
And they’re super cautious about what they do.
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.