NSA Hacker Chief Explains How to Keep Him Out of Your System

NSA Hacker Chief Explains How to Keep Him Out of Your System

NSA Hacker Chief Explains How to Keep Him Out of Your System

IT WAS THE talk most anticipated at this year’s inaugural Usenix Enigma security conference in San Francisco and one that even the other speakers were eager to hear.

Rob Joyce, the nation’s hacker-in-chief, took up the ironic task of telling a roomful of computer security professionals and academics how to keep people like him and his elite corps out of their systems.

Joyce is head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations—the government’s top hacking team who are responsible for breaking into the systems of its foreign adversaries, and occasionally its allies. He’s been with the NSA for more than 25 years but only became head of the TAO division in April 2013, just weeks before the first leaks from Edward Snowden were published by the Guardian and Washington Post.

Joyce acknowledged that it was “very strange” for someone in his position to stand onstage before an audience. The TAO has largely existed in the shadowy recesses of the NSA—known and unknown at the same time—until only recently when documents leaked by Snowden and others exposed the workings of this cabal as well as many of its sophisticated hacking tools.

Joyce himself did little to shine a light on the TAO’s classified operations. His talk was mostly a compendium of best security practices. But he did drop a few of the not-so-secret secrets of the NSA’s success, with many people responding to his comments on Twitter.

How the NSA Gets You

In the world of advanced persistent threat actors (APT) like the NSA, credentials are king for gaining access to systems. Not the login credentials of your organization’s VIPs, but the credentials of network administrators and others with high levels of network access and privileges that can open the kingdom to intruders. Per the words of a recently leaked NSA document, the NSA hunts sysadmins.

The NSA is also keen to find any hardcoded passwords in software or passwords that are transmitted in the clear—especially by old, legacy protocols—that can help them move laterally through a network once inside.

Properly said: The NSA looks for ANY cleartext authentication and uses it.

— Nicholas Weaver (@ncweaver) January 28, 2016

And no vulnerability is too insignificant for the NSA to exploit.

“Don’t assume a crack is too small to be noticed, or too small to be exploited,” he said. If you do a penetration test of your network and 97 things pass the test but three esoteric things fail, don’t think they don’t matter. Those are the ones the NSA, and other nation-state attackers will seize on, he explained. “We need that first crack, that first seam. And we’re going to look and look and look for that esoteric kind of edge case to break open and crack in.”

Even temporary cracks—vulnerabilities that exist on a system for mere hours or days—are sweet spots for the NSA.

If you’ve got trouble with an appliance on your network, for example, and the vendor tells you to briefly open the network for them over the weekend so they can pop in remotely and fix it, don’t do it. Nation-state attackers are just looking for an opportunity like this, however brief, and will poke and poke your network patiently waiting for one to appear, he said.

Other vulnerabilities that are favorite attack vectors? The personal devices employees bring into the office on which they’ve allowed their kids to load Steam games, and which the workers then connect to the network.

Rob Joyce (TAO, NSA) just said Steam games are a security threat #enigma2016

— Micah Lee (@micahflee) January 28, 2016

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