UK to probe Chinese telecoms firm over security concerns

Huawei TechnologiesBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
The British government has confirmed that it will review the involvement of a Chinese telecommunications hardware manufacturer in a cybersecurity testing center in Oxfordshire, England. The facility, called Cyber Security Evaluations Centre, has been operating since 2010 in the town of Banbury, 64 miles northeast of London. Its establishment was part of a 2005 agreement between firm British Telecom and Chinese telecommunications hardware manufacturer Huawei. According to the stipulations of the agreement, British Telecom would purchase switches and other hardware equipment from the Chinese company, if the latter agreed to set up “the Cell”, as it is known, in Banbury, to test the equipment’s security features. However, last month, a report (.pdf)  by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) raised strong concerns about Huawei’s involvement at the Centre. The ISC report called the government’s attention to “the risks of Huawei effectively policing themselves” and stressed that Britain’s national security could potentially be compromised by Huawei’s alleged links to the Chinese military. The report based its concerns on the fact that virtually every member of staff at the Banbury testing facility is an employee of Huawei, barring its Director, who is a former deputy director of Britain’s General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The parliamentary report urged the government to overcome its “fear of jeopardizing trade links with Beijing” and pressure British Telecom to amend its agreement with Huawei. Instead of Huawei technicians, the ISC report suggested that the Banbury Centre should be staffed exclusively with personnel from GCHQ —Britain’s communications intelligence agency. Late last week, the UK Cabinet Office announced it was in agreement with the principal recommendations of the ISC report and said that a review of the Banbury testing facility will take place. Read more of this post

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Chinese hackers ‘stole blueprints’ of Australian spy agency’s new HQ

ASIO's new headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Chinese government hackers allegedly stole the master blueprints and other highly classified technical information relating to the new headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The state-of-the-art building, which is located at the shore of Lake Burley Griffin in Australian capital Canberra, has so far cost taxpayers in excess of AUD $631 million (US $608 million). Although it remains under construction, the new headquarters is said to feature the most sophisticated security features of any government building in Canberra. But a report aired on May 28 by Australian television’s Four Corners investigative program, alleged that a Chinese government agency managed to steal the building’s blueprints. The program claimed that the highly classified blueprints were stolen when hackers mounted a sophisticated cyberattack on a private-sector contractor involved in constructing the ASIO’s new headquarters. Four Corners suggested that the cyberattack, which was “traced to a server in China”, also compromised the building’s communications diagram, server locations and physical security systems. The revelation will undoubtedly add to the stream of public criticism about the project, which has been severely plagued by budget increases and construction delays. As recently as 2010, the government was insisting that the project was “progressing on time and on budget, with completion scheduled for mid-2012”. Today, however, the building’s budget has gone over by AUD $171 million and the building is expected to open its doors no earlier than the fall of 2013, with some commentators suggesting that it could be 2014 before ASIO’s personnel are able to start moving in. Read more of this post

Sophisticated cyberespionage operation focused on high-profile targets

Rocra malware programming codeBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
After Stuxnet and Flame, two computer programs believed to have made cyberespionage history, another super-sophisticated malware has been uncovered, this time targeting classified computer systems of diplomatic missions, energy and nuclear groups. The existence of the malware was publicly announced by Russian-based multi-national computer security firm Kaspersky Lab, which said its researchers had identified it as part of a cyberespionage operation called Rocra, short for Red October in Russian. The company’s report, published on Monday on Securelist, a computer security portal run by Kaspersky Lab, said that the malware has been active for at least six years. During that time, it spread slowly but steadily through infected emails sent to carefully targeted and vetted computer users. The purpose of the virus, which Kaspersky Lab said rivals Flame in complexity, is to extract “geopolitical data which can be used by nation states”. Most of the nearly 300 computers that have so far been found to have been infected belong to government installations, diplomatic missions, research organizations, trade groups, as well as nuclear, energy and aerospace agencies and companies. Interestingly, the majority of these targets appear to be located in Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. On infected computers located in North America and Western Europe, the Rocra virus specifically targeted Acid Cryptofiler, an encryption program originally developed by the French military, which enjoys widespread use by European Union institutions, as well by executive organs belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #818 (USA edition)

Osama bin LadenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►The real-life female CIA officer who helped track bin Laden. The Washington Post has a good article on the real-life career of a female CIA officer who helped the Agency track al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. It is disappointing, however that the article, authored by Greg Miller and Toby Warrick, is headlined “In Zero Dark Thirty she’s the hero; in real life, CIA agent’s career is more complicated”. The CIA employee in question is not an “agent”; she is an officer. In the CIA, agents are assets, people recruited and handled by CIA officers. Amazing that The Post, with its experienced journalists and editors would confuse such a basic operational distinction.
►►US spy agencies to detail cyber-attacks from abroad. The US intelligence community is nearing completion of its first detailed review of cyber-spying against American targets from abroad, including an attempt to calculate US financial losses from hacker attacks based in China. The National Intelligence Estimate, the first involving cyber-espionage, will also seek to determine how large a role the Chinese government plays in directing or coordinating digital attacks aimed at stealing US intellectual property, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a classified undertaking.
►►CIA begins LGBT recruiting. As part of the CIA’s efforts to diversify its workforce, the spy agency is reaching out to a group that once was unable to get security clearance: lesbians and gay men. CIA officials have held a networking event for the Miami gay community sponsored by the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and the CIA. “This is the first time we’ve done a networking event of this type with any of the gay and lesbian chamber of commerces in the United States,” says Michael Barber, a self-identified “straight ally” and the spy agency’s LGBT Community Outreach and Liaison program manager.

Did US spies hack French government computers using Facebook?

The Palais de l'ÉlyséeBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A sophisticated computer virus discovered at the center of the French government’s secure computer network was planted there by the United States, according to unnamed sources inside France’s intelligence community. Paris-based magazine L’Express, France’s version of Time magazine, says in its current issue that the alleged American cyberattack took place shortly before last April’s Presidential elections in France. It resulted in the infection of the entire computer system in the Palais de l’Élysée, which is the official residence of the President of France. The French magazine cites unnamed sources inside the French Network and Information Security Agency (ANSSI), which is responsible for cybersecurity throughout France. The sources claim that the snooping virus allowed its handlers to gain access to the computers of most senior French Presidential aides and advisers during the final weeks of the administration of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, including his Chief of Staff, Xavier Musca. The article claims that the virus used a source code nearly identical to that of Flame, a super-sophisticated version of Stuxnet, the virus unleashed a few years ago against the computer infrastructure of the Iranian nuclear energy program. Many cybersecurity analysts believe that the US and Israel were instrumental in designing both Stuxnet and Flame. IntelNews understands that the alleged virus was initially directed at employees of the Palais de l’Élysée through Facebook. The targets were allegedly befriended by fake Facebook profile accounts handled by the team that operated the virus. The targets were then sent phishing emails that contained links to phony copies of the login page for the Palais de l’Élysée intranet website. Read more of this post

Ex-intelligence official: cyber espionage more dangerous than terrorism

Raymond BoisvertBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
A former senior member of Canada’s intelligence community has said that the threat of cyber espionage requires more resources that are currently being diverted to counterterrorism. Ray Boisvert, who retired last year from the post of Assistant Director of Intelligence for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said in an assertive speech last week that cyber espionage is “fundamentally undermining [Canada's] future prosperity as a nation”. Speaking on Friday in Ottawa, Boisvert compared cyber espionage to the climate-change debate, which has been marked by a series of ignored warnings, due to “some willful blindness on behalf of individuals”. As a result, he said, the need to establish essential security measures to protect worldwide electronic infrastructure is being neglected, while desperately needed resources are being diverted to counterterrorism. He explained the lack of action on three levels: first, the resistance emanating from technologically challenged decision-makers in the government and private sector, who simply do not understand the technical complexities of digital telecommunications security. Second, it is rooted in the government’s reluctance to invest the funds required to shield the nation’s communications infrastructure from espionage attacks. Finally, he placed the blame on the fragmentation and shortsightedness of the private sector, which owns and operates nearly 90 percent of Canada’s critical communications infrastructure and yet is too consumed by competition to sit around the same table on matters of security. In giving examples of the seriousness of the threat of cyber espionage, Boisvert cited the attacks last year on the computer systems of Canada’s Treasury Board and Finance Department, which compromised trade secrets of several national industries. He also mentioned the attacks on Nortel Networks Inc., which he said lasted for over a decade and may have contributed to the company’s 2009 demise. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #791

Liang GuanglieBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►India sees espionage behind Chinese cash payments to Indian pilots. According to Indian government sources, Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie gave two envelopes to the two Indian pilots, both wing commanders, who had flown him in a special Indian Air Force aircraft to New Delhi from Mumbai. After seeing off Liang, the pilots opened the sealed envelopes and found cash gifts inside. They immediately reported this to their superiors, who, in turn, informed the Indian Defense Ministry. India is now planning to lodge a protest with China over the incident.
►►NSA says foreign cyberattacks increasingly reckless. Debora Plunkett, of the secretive National Security Agency, whose responsibilities include protecting US government computer networks, has said that other nations are increasingly employing cyberattacks without “any sense of restraint”, citing “reckless” behaviors that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would have dared at the height of Cold War tensions. She also predicted that Congress would pass long-stalled cybersecurity legislation within the next year. One wonders whether the Stuxnet incident is included in such “reckless” cyberattacks?
►►Taliban ‘using Facebook to lure Australian soldiers’. According to a review of social media by the Australian federal government, Australian soldiers are being warned by their commanders that enemies are creating fake Facebook profiles to spy on them. The report says that Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are posing as “attractive women” on Facebook to befriend coalition soldiers and gather intelligence about operations. It adds that family and friends of soldiers are inadvertently jeopardizing missions by sharing confidential information online. This is not the first such warning in recent years.

News you may have missed #789

Mikhail FradkovBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Putin adds spy chief to energy commission. Russian President Vladimir Putin has reinforced a presidential commission seen as Kremlin’s vehicle for vying for control over the country’s crucial oil and gas sector, by adding the country’s top police officer and senior spy to its ranks. They are Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and Mikhail Fradkov, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, formerly a department of the KGB. The commission is driven by Igor Sechin, a former KGB officer and close ally of President Putin.
►►US spy sat agency plans major expansion. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), America’s secretive spy satellite agency, operates a vast constellation of spy satellites in orbit. But these surveillance spacecraft have traditionally only been able to gaze down on a few small areas of the planet at a time, like flashlights probing the dark. And this, only with careful advance planning by human operators on the ground. Now the NRO wants to expand the current flashlight-like satellite deployment to a horizon-spanning, overhead spotlight that can illuminate vast swaths of the planet all at once. The agency also wants new spacecraft that can crunch the resulting data using sophisticated computer algorithms, freeing the satellites somewhat from their current reliance on human analysts.
►►GCHQ warns of ‘unprecedented’ cyberattack threat. The British government’s electronic eavesdropping and security agency, GCHQ, has warned the chief executives of Britain’s biggest companies about an allegedly “unprecedented threat” from cyber-attacks. “GCHQ now sees real and credible threats to cybersecurity of an unprecedented scale, diversity, and complexity”, said Ian Lobban, the agency’s director. The magnitude and tempo of the attacks pose a real threat to Britain’s economic security’, Lobban adds, but notes that about 80% of known attacks would be defeated by embedding basic information security practices.

News you may have missed #783

Uri SaguyBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Israeli ex-intel chief says warns of ‘hysteria’ over Iran. Major General Uri Saguy (a.k.a. Uri Sagi), who was head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate during the 1982 Lebanon war, and Military Intelligence chief from 1991 to 1995, has warned of an “orchestrated and purposely timed hysteria that puts the country into a state of anxiety, artificial or not”, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. Saguy, who resigned from the IDF in 1995 due to a conflict between him and the Chief of General Staff, added that “it would be a mistake if Israel uses force, certainly now, in order to thwart the Iranian nuclear potential”. The essence of Saguy’s message, notes Ha’aretz‘s Amir Oren, is that Israel’s citizens cannot trust Defense Minister Ehud Barak or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
►►Australian spy chief warns of economic espionage. The director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, David Irvine, has warned that the online revolution has left Australian companies increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks and commercial espionage. Speaking to a business audience in Canberra, Irvine said that most online attacks in the business world go undetected, despite growing awareness of the threat. Asked how much commercial cyber crime went undetected, he said: “I would be very surprised if we who are active in this area are picking up the greater proportion of it, in fact, quite the reverse”.
►►Top US military official objects to attack on Iran. As Israeli officials are telling local reporters that they’re really, really ready to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and they mean it this time, the top US military officer is saying what a terrible idea that would be. “I may not know about all of [Israel's] capabilities”, said General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities”. Left unsaid: in a few years, the US and Israel would be back to the same standoff with Iran —except this time it might do so amidst a proxy terrorist war to avenge the Iranians.

News you may have missed #771

Shawn HenryBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Analysis: Ex FBI official says foreign spies biggest online threat. Former FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry has warned that the biggest threat online comes not from terrorists or hackers, but from foreign intelligence organizations looking to steal intellectual property. “The threat from computer attack is the most significant threat we face as a society, other than a weapon of mass destruction”, he said in his opening keynote at the Black Hat 2012 conference in Las Vegas. “Everything we do —R&D, intellectual property, and corporate strategies— is stored or transmitted electronically. The DNA of companies is available to bad guys”.
►►Taiwanese officials jailed for espionage. Two Taiwanese former officials have been sent to prison by the Taiwan High Court for leaking state secrets to China. Presidential Office official Wang Ren-bing was jailed for two years after being found guilty of passing confidential information about President Ma Ying-jeou’s May 2008 inauguration to Chinese intelligence operatives. Chen Pin-jen, a former aide of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Liao Kuo-tung, was sentenced to eight months in prison for delivering the confidential information Wang gave him to China. The two were arrested in 2009.
►►Germany charges suspected Syrian spy. A spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Germany said Sunday that they have filed charges against suspected Syrian spy Akram O., one of two men arrested on suspicion of having spied on Syrian opposition activists in Germany for several years. The two were arrested in February during a sting operation involving over 70 German counterintelligence operatives, who searched the suspects’ apartments. The spokeswoman said she could not give further details before an official confirmation is issued that the suspect and the defense team have received the indictment.

News you may have missed #754

Jonathan EvansBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►New German spy HQ to open a year late. The BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, was due to move from its base in Pullach, near Munich, to an enormous newly built center in Berlin, at the end of 2014. But that has now been officially put back by a year. The Berliner Morgenpost newspaper quoted BND president Gerhard Schindler saying he was “regularly losing young new staff”, due to the delay. The uncertainty has meant “they leave our authority and find themselves another employer”, he said.
►►UK spy chief warns of ‘astonishing’ levels of cyberespionage. In a rare public speech, Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic spy service, has said that the West now faces an “astonishing” cyberespionage threat on an “industrial scale” from specific nation states. He said that cyberespionage is now conducted “with industrial-scale processes involving many thousands of people lying behind both state-sponsored cyber espionage and organized cyber crime”. Surely, however, Evans does not mean to imply that the West’s role in cyberespionage is purely defensive?
►►Aussie spy agency lacks resources to vet asylum seekers. An official audit into the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s ability to vet asylum seekers for potential security threats, has found that it is struggling with the “sharp increase” in boat arrivals, rudimentary computer systems and 30 per cent fewer staff than needed. The audit report examined 411 cases as a sample of the almost 180,000 security assessments ASIO completes each year.

US and Israel behind computer virus that hit Iran, say sources

Flame virus code segmentBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Flame, a sophisticated computer malware that was detected last month in computers belonging to the Iranian National Oil Company and Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, was created by Israel and the United States, according to a leading American newspaper. Quoting “officials familiar with US cyber-operations”, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the malware, which is said to be “massive in size”, is part of a wider covert program codenamed OLYMPIC GAMES. The paper said that the US portion of the program is spearheaded by the National Security Agency, which specializes in cyberespionage, and the CIA’s Information Operations Center. The Post further claims that OLYMPIC GAMES has a three-fold mission: to delay the development of the Iranian nuclear program; to discourage Israeli and American officials from resorting to a conventional military attack on Iran; and to buy time for those officials who favor addressing the Iranian nuclear stalemate with diplomatic pressures coupled with sanctions. According to one “former intelligence official” quoted in The Post, the scale of OLYMPIC GAMES “is proportionate to the problem that’s trying to be resolved”. Russian antivirus company Kaspersky Lab, which first spotted the Flame virus in May, said that it is “one of the most complex threats ever discovered”. It is over 20 megabytes in size, consisting of 650,000 lines of code. In comparison, Stuxnet, a computer super-virus that was detected by experts in 2010, and caused unprecedented waves of panic among Iranian cybersecurity experts, was 500 kilobytes in size. Read more of this post

Comment: Who authored computer virus that ‘dwarfs Stuxnet’?

Flame virus code segmentBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
When the Stuxnet computer virus was detected, in 2010, it was recognized as the most sophisticated malware ever created. It had been specifically designed to sabotage Siemens industrial software systems, which were used in Iran’s nuclear energy program. Not surprisingly, most Stuxnet-infected computers were in Iran. Now a new, massive and extremely sophisticated piece of malware has been detected in computers belonging to the Iranian National Oil Company and Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum. It is called Flame and, according to antivirus company Kaspersky Lab, which first spotted the virus last week, it is “one of the most complex threats ever discovered”. Simply consider that Stuxnet, which caused unprecedented waves of panic among Iranian cybersecurity experts, was 500 kilobytes in size. Flame is over 20 megabytes in size, consisting of 650,000 lines of code; it is so complex that it is expected to take programming analysts around a decade to fully comprehend. The two are different, of course. Stuxnet was an infrastructure-sabotaging malware, which destroyed hundreds —maybe even thousands—of Iranian nuclear centrifuges. Flame, on the other hand, appears to be an espionage tool: it aims to surreptitiously collect information from infected systems. What connects them is their intended target: Iran. We now have Stuxnet, the most complex sabotaging malware ever discovered, which must have taken dozens of programmers several months to create, and Flame, the world’s most powerful cyberespionage tool ever detected by computer security experts. And both have been primarily directed at Iranian government computers. Read more of this post

Comment: US cybersecurity posture is not purely defensive

NSA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
In recent years, news coverage of cyberespionage and cybersecurity has increased several times over; both subjects have escaped the narrow confines of technical literature and have entered the broad expanses of popular news media. This blog is no exception; since 2008, we have covered both cybersecurity and cyberespionage at length. In looking back at our coverage, it takes but a cursory glance to conclude that most of our reports feature the names of two countries: China and –to a far lesser extent– Russia. Moreover, the vast majority of our cybersecurity and cyberespionage coverage portrays the United States as a defensive actor, trying desperately to protect the integrity of its networks from foreign hackers. But is this accurate? How realistic is it to assume that the US, the world’s leading military power, abstains from offensive cyberespionage as a matter of strategy? The most likely answer is: not very. The problem is that much of the reporting on cybersecurity is based on national allegiances. Many American media pundits thus tend to forget that Washington, too, conducts cyberespionage. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #689: NSA edition

Michael HaydenBy IAN ALLEN| intelNews.org |
►►Ex-NSA Director calls Stuxnet a ‘good idea’. General Michael Hayden, once head of the NSA and CIA, who was no longer in office when the Stuxnet attack on Iran occurred, but who would have been around when the computer virus was created, denies knowing who was behind it. He calls Stuxnet “a good idea”. But he also admits “this was a big idea, too. The rest of the world is looking at this and saying, ‘clearly, someone has legitimated this kind of activity as acceptable’”.
►►NSA develops secure Android phones. The US National Security Agency has developed and published details of an encrypted VoIP communications system using commercial off-the-shelf components and an Android operating system. A hundred US government employees participated in a pilot of Motorola hardware running hardened VoIP called ‘Project FISHBOWL’, NSA Information Assurance Directorate technical director Margaret Salter told the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “The beauty of our strategy is that we looked at all of the components, and took stuff out of the operating system we didn’t need”, said Salter. “This makes the attack surface very small”.
►►Senior US Defense official says DHS should lead cybersecurity. In the midst of an ongoing turf battle over how big a role the National Security Agency should play in securing America’s critical infrastructure, Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy in the Department of Defense, said on Wednesday that the NSA should take a backseat to the Department of Homeland Security in this regard. “Obviously, there are amazing resources at NSA, a lot of magic that goes on there”, he said. “But it’s almost certainly not the right approach for the United States of America to have a foreign intelligence focus on domestic networks, doing something that throughout history has been a domestic function”.

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