The DetailsThis is a bit of an old story, but I've found to my unpleasant surprise that the issues surrounding the story are not widely understood or known. Here's the gist: leaks from the US intelligence service have explicilty confirmed that the NSA targets systems administrators that have no ties to terrorism or extremist politics. If you are responsible for building and maintaining networks, the NSA will place you under surveillance both personally or professionally; they will hack your email, social network accounts and cell phone. The thinking behind this alarming strategy is that compromising a sysadmin provides root-level access to systems that enable further surveillance; hack an extremist's computer, and you track just that extremist. Hack a sysadmin's computer, and you can track thousands of users who may include extremists among them (its a strategy that is remarkably similar to the targeting of doctors in war zones).
Five years ago such a lead paragraph would be among the most wild-eyed of conspiracy theories. Now, after the Snowden leaks and the work of other sources within the US Intelligence community, the sysadmin targeting scheme has been proven conclusively through supporting documents circulated through a "wiki" style system within the NSA and explained and reported by Ryan Gallagher and Peter Maas of The Intercept. The name of the scheme is I hunt sys admins. The entire document outlining the goals and methods of the I hunt sys admins scheme is available on The Intercept (While I typically publish source documents directly on this website for ease of use, publishing these documents present unique legal concerns that The Intercept is better equipped to handle - I apologize to users for the inconvenience of having to visit a second site to confirm sources but I assure you it is well worth the effort).
There are a few excerpts worth noting explicitly. First and foremost, the document describes that the surveillance typically begins by acquiring the administrator's webmail or Facebook account username. The NSA agent then uses an Agency tool called QUANTUM to inject malware into the admin's account pages. The Intercept has put together a video outlining the QUANTUM tool's capabilities that is worth watching. The existence and capabilities of the tool are themselves also confirmed through extensive NSA documentation. QUANTUM uses a Man-On-The-Side attack to hijack user sessions and redirect traffic to one of the NSA's Tailored Access Operations (TAO) Servers. In this case, the application server used is called FOXACID. The same application is used to compromise Firefox and Tor users (a related program in place at Britain's GCHQ called FLYING PIG offers similar functionality even while using SSL).
QUANTUM has a variety of different uses besides the one outlined above. QUANTUM has a series of plugins that allows NSA agents to take control or IRC networks, compromise DNS queries, run denial of service attacks, corrupt file downloads and replace legitimate file downloads with malware payloads.
The methodology is important as it demonstrates the importance of maintaining operational security even during personal time. These are not attacks that target political or military organizations; they do not even target corporations. They explicitly target individual system administrators.
And there's more.
NSA Agents use the tool Discoroute to retrieve router configurations from passive telnet sessions. NSA documents outline how, rather than use sysadmins to target the corporations they work for, NSA is interested in doing the reverse - using corporate router configurations to target individual sysadmins. For example, using Discoroute, a surveillance agent retrieves the access-list ruleset associated with the router. Using that access-list can reveal home IP addresses that admins use to login to systems remotely. While this may seem to be an egregious security oversight, the access-lists in question are not necessarily for core routers. The access-list could just as easily be retrieved from a PIX; an IP used to allow access to an intranet website.
The I hunt sys admins documents continue by outlining some methods to identify and surveil malicious users. The author of I hunt sys admins references the NSA's access to massive untargeted recordings of SSH sessions. Perhaps we can take some security in that the author apparently does not take it for granted that the NSA can easily decrypt SSH session data. However, quite a bit can be accomplished by analyzing encrypted data. In this instance, I hunt sys admins recommends reviewing the size of SSH login attempts to determine which are successful and which are failed. IP addresses which are recorded failing multiple attempts to large numbers of IPs can safely be identified as belonging to brute force attempters.
Why You Should Care About NSA Surveillance Even if You Do Not Care About NSA SurveillanceThis is a website about technology; not politics. Whatever your opinions are about the legitimacy or warrantless surveillance, the actions of the NSA and the other Five Eyes surveillance agencies are having a significant and deleterious impact on the internet and those who build and support it. Additional leaks have demonstrated that NSA provided security firm RSA with $10 million to use the flawed Dual_EC_DRBG random number generator in its unfortunately-named BSAFE cryptographic library, providing a back door to all applications relying on BSAFE. Even more disturbing are confirmations that the NSA has obtained copies of root CA certificates and used them to compromise SSL implemented by major internet services.
But why should we care? I'm not guilty and so I have nothing to hide, as the oft-used rationalization goes. Warrantless surveillance by governments is only one consequence of the actions outlined above. Chief among concerns for the admins targeted by these policies that are unconcerned with government surveillance is that actors other than the Five Eyes nations can easily engage in the same practices as explained in the I hunt sys admins documents; frankly, few if any of the I hunt sys admins guidelines were actually invented by NSA. These are techniques designed by criminals, and criminals have massive incentives to continue innovating those techniques. To protect our privacy from criminals we must follow security best practices, and by following best practices we necessarily protect ourselves against government surveillance as well.
The fact remains that sysadmins will remain a desirable target for those seeking to break into protected systems. Protecting those systems and the users who depend on them is part of our mandate as administrators. Now that we know the extent to which the security environment has changed, the question becomes whether we continue to adapt to the new environment to best protect our applications and users, or whether we disregard our mandate.