Welcome to a special edition of the Ars Technicast! Ars has partnered with Northrop Grumman to produce a two-part series looking at the evolution of connectivity on the modern battlefield—how the growing ubiquity of sensors and instrumentation at all levels of the military is changing the way we think about fighting. You can listen to part one right here. (A transcript of the podcast will be available a few hours after this story goes live.)
We all know what the Internet of Things is, even though that’s always been kind of a nonsensical name—it’s the idea that adding smarts and sensors to formerly “dumb” devices like refrigerators and washing machines and coffee makers creates an overlapping interconnected network of physical devices. The central concept is linking together physical objects by some kind of data stream, and as it turns out, the military has been going down a similar road of increased connectivity for many years.
But mo’ connectivity, as they say, means mo’ problems, and there have been many past efforts to try to get to about where we are today (some highly publicized). All have encountered issues that run the gamut from the physical to the logistical.
However, there’s reason to believe that this time around, things will be different. For one thing, we’re in the middle of a genuine revolution in machine learning and the ability to algorithmically sort massive amounts of data at scale—the kind of scale that you might encounter when dealing with a military theater containing thousands of troops and potentially hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of individual sensors.
To talk about the military IoT and the connected battlespace, we sat down for a chat with Scott Stapp, the newly minted Chief Technology Officer of Northrop Grumman. (No, not that Scott Stapp.) As a former brigadier general and Department of Defense staffer, Scott has been in a position to watch the development of the military IoT concept, and is uniquely positioned to discuss the future of connected warfighting.
If this topic interests you, then make sure to check back next week for part two of the series, where we focus in on the role of open systems in connecting together all the different moving pieces required to make the connected battlespace function. You can also get more episodes of the Ars Technicast here:
US officials on Thursday formally blamed Russia for backing one of the worst espionage hacks in recent US history and imposed sanctions designed to mete out punishments for that and other recent actions.
In a joint advisory, the National Security Agency, FBI, and Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency said that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, abbreviated as the SVR, carried out the supply-chain attack on customers of the network management software from Austin, Texas-based SolarWinds.
The operation infected SolarWinds’ software build and distribution system and used it to push backdoored updates to about 18,000 customers. The hackers then sent follow-up payloads to about 10 US federal agencies and about 100 private organizations. Besides the SolarWinds supply-chain attack, the hackers also used password guessing and other techniques to breach networks.
After the massive operation came to light, Microsoft President Brad Smith called it an “act of recklessness.” In a call with reporters on Thursday, NSA Director of Cybersecurity Rob Joyce echoed the assessment that the operation went beyond established norms for government spying.
“We observed absolutely espionage,” Joyce said. “But what is concerning is from that platform, from the broad scale of availability of the access they achieved, there’s the opportunity to do other things, and that’s something we can’t tolerate and that’s why the US government is imposing costs and pushing back on these activities.”
Thursday’s joint advisory said that the SVR-backed hackers are behind other recent campaigns targeting COVID-19 research facilities, both by infecting them with malware known as both WellMess and WellMail and by exploiting a critical vulnerability in VMware software.
The advisory went on to say that the Russian intelligence service is continuing its campaign, in part by targeting networks that have yet to patch one of the five following critical vulnerabilities. Including the VMware flaw, they are:
CVE-2019-19781 Citrix Application Delivery Controller and Gateway
CVE-2020-4006 VMware Workspace ONE Access
“Mitigation against these vulnerabilities is critically important as US and allied networks are constantly scanned, targeted, and exploited by Russian state-sponsored cyber actors,” the advisory stated. It went on to say that the “NSA, CISA, and FBI strongly encourage all cybersecurity stakeholders to check their networks for indicators of compromise related to all five vulnerabilities and the techniques detailed in the advisory and to urgently implement associated mitigations.”
The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions to retaliate for what it said were “aggressive and harmful activities by the Government of the Russian Federation.” The measures include new prohibitions on Russian sovereign debt and sanctions on six Russia-based firms that the Treasury Department said “supported the Russian Intelligence Services’ efforts to carry out malicious cyber activities against the United States.”
The firms are:
ERA Technopolis, a research center operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense for transferring the personnel and expertise of the Russian technology sector to the development of technologies used by the country’s military. ERA Technopolis supports Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a body responsible for offensive cyber and information operations.
Pasit, a Russia-based information technology company that has conducted research and development supporting malicious cyber operations by the SVR.
SVA, a Russian state-owned research institute specializing in advanced systems for information security located in that country. SVA has done research and development in support of the SVR’s malicious cyber operations.
Neobit, a Saint Petersburg, Russia-based IT security firm whose clients include the Russian Ministry of Defense, SVR, and Russia’s Federal Security Service. Neobit conducted research and development in support of the cyber operations conducted by the FSB, GRU, and SVR.
AST, a Russian IT security firm whose clients include the Russian Ministry of Defense, SVR, and FSB. AST provided technical support to cyber operations conducted by the FSB, GRU, and SVR.
Positive Technologies, a Russian IT security firm that supports Russian Government clients, including the FSB. Positive Technologies provides computer network security solutions to Russian businesses, foreign governments, and international companies and hosts recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.
“The reason they were called out is because they’re an integral part and participant in the operation that the SVR executes,” Joyce said of the six companies. “Our hope is that by denying the SVR the support of those companies, we’re impacting their ability to project some of this malicious activity around the world and especially into the US.”
Russian government officials have steadfastly denied any involvement in the SolarWinds campaign.
Besides attributing the SolarWinds campaign to the Russian government, Thursday’s release from the Treasury Department also said that the SVR was behind the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny with a chemical weapon, the targeting of Russian journalists and others who openly criticize the Kremlin, and the theft of “red team tools,” which use exploits and other attack tools to mimic cyber attacks.
The “red team tools” reference was likely related to the offensive tools taken from FireEye, the security firm that first identified the Solar Winds campaign after discovering its network had been breached.
The Treasury department went on to say that the Russian government “cultivates and co-opts criminal hackers” to target US organizations. One group, known as Evil Corp. was sanctioned in 2019. That same year, federal prosecutors indicted the Evil Corp kingpin Maksim V. Yakubets and posted a $5 million bounty for information that leads to his arrest or conviction.
Although overshadowed by the sanctions and the formal attribution to Russia, the most important takeaway from Thursday’s announcements is that the SVR campaign remains ongoing and is currently leveraging the exploits mentioned above. Researchers said on Thursday that they’re seeing Internet scanning that is intended to identify servers that have yet to patch the Fortinet vulnerability, which the company fixed in 2019. Scanning for the other vulnerabilities is also likely ongoing.
Mass scanning activity detected from 22.214.171.124 (🇸🇬) targeting Fortinet VPN servers vulnerable to unauthenticated arbitrary file read (CVE-2018-13379) leading to disclosure of usernames and passwords in plaintext. #threatintelpic.twitter.com/heH9jxhmyS
People managing networks, particularly any that have yet to patch one of the five vulnerabilities, should read the latest CISA alert, which provides extensive technical details about the ongoing hacking campaign and ways to detect and mitigate compromises.
Over the last few years, researchers have found a shocking number of vulnerabilities in seemingly basic code that underpins how devices communicate with the Internet. Now, a new set of nine such vulnerabilities are exposing an estimated 100 million devices worldwide, including an array of Internet-of-things products and IT management servers. The larger question researchers are scrambling to answer, though, is how to spur substantive changes—and implement effective defenses—as more and more of these types of vulnerabilities pile up.
Dubbed Name:Wreck, the newly disclosed flaws are in four ubiquitous TCP/IP stacks, code that integrates network communication protocols to establish connections between devices and the Internet. The vulnerabilities, present in operating systems like the open source project FreeBSD, as well as Nucleus NET from the industrial control firm Siemens, all relate to how these stacks implement the “Domain Name System” Internet phone book. They all would allow an attacker to either crash a device and take it offline or gain control of it remotely. Both of these attacks could potentially wreak havoc in a network, especially in critical infrastructure, health care, or manufacturing settings where infiltrating a connected device or IT server can disrupt a whole system or serve as a valuable jumping-off point for burrowing deeper into a victim’s network.
All of the vulnerabilities, discovered by researchers at the security firms Forescout and JSOF, now have patches available, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to fixes in actual devices, which often run older software versions. Sometimes manufacturers haven’t created mechanisms to update this code, but in other situations they don’t manufacture the component it’s running on and simply don’t have control of the mechanism.
“With all these findings, I know it can seem like we’re just bringing problems to the table, but we’re really trying to raise awareness, work with the community, and figure out ways to address it,” says Elisa Costante, vice president of research at Forescout, which has done other, similar research through an effort it calls Project Memoria. “We’ve analyzed more than 15 TCP/IP stacks both proprietary and open source and we’ve found that there’s no real difference in quality. But these commonalities are also helpful, because we’ve found they have similar weak spots. When we analyze a new stack, we can go and look at these same places and share those common problems with other researchers as well as developers.”
The researchers haven’t seen evidence yet that attackers are actively exploiting these types of vulnerabilities in the wild. But with hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of devices potentially impacted across numerous different findings, the exposure is significant.
Siemens USA chief cybersecurity officer Kurt John told Wired in a statement that the company “works closely with governments and industry partners to mitigate vulnerabilities … In this case we’re happy to have collaborated with one such partner, Forescout, to quickly identify and mitigate the vulnerability.”
The researchers coordinated disclosure of the flaws with developers releasing patches, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and other vulnerability-tracking groups. Similar flaws found by Forescout and JSOF in other proprietary and open source TCP/IP stacks have already been found to expose hundreds of millions or even possibly billions of devices worldwide.
Issues show up so often in these ubiquitous network protocols because they’ve largely been passed down untouched through decades as the technology around them evolves. Essentially, since it ain’t broke, no one fixes it.
“For better or worse, these devices have code in them that people wrote 20 years ago—with the security mentality of 20 years ago,” says Ang Cui, CEO of the IoT security firm Red Balloon Security. “And it works; it never failed. But once you connect that to the Internet, it’s insecure. And that’s not that surprising, given that we’ve had to really rethink how we do security for general-purpose computers over those 20 years.”
The problem is notorious at this point, and it’s one that the security industry hasn’t been able to quash, because vulnerability-ridden zombie code always seems to reemerge.
“There are lots of examples of unintentionally recreating these low-level network bugs from the ’90s,” says Kenn White, co-director of the Open Crypto Audit Project. “A lot of it is about lack of economic incentives to really focus on the quality of this code.”
There’s some good news about the new slate of vulnerabilities the researchers found. Though the patches may not proliferate completely anytime soon, they are available. And other stopgap mitigations can reduce the exposure, namely keeping as many devices as possible from connecting directly to the Internet and using an internal DNS server to route data. Forescout’s Costante also notes that exploitation activity would be fairly predictable, making it easier to detect attempts to take advantage of these flaws.
When it comes to long-term solutions, there’s no quick fix given all the vendors, manufacturers, and developers who have a hand in these supply chains and products. But Forescout has released an open source script that network managers can use to identify potentially vulnerable IoT devices and servers in their environments. The company also maintains an open source library of database queries that researchers and developers can use to find similar DNS-related vulnerabilities more easily.
“It’s a widespread problem; it’s not just a problem for a specific kind of device,” Costante says. “And it’s not only cheap IoT devices. There’s more and more evidence of how widespread this is. That’s why we keep working to raise awareness.”
Earlier today, Microsoft announced its plans to purchase Nuance for $56 per share—23 percent above Nuance’s closing price last Friday. The deal adds up to a $16 billion cash outlay and a total valuation for Nuance of about $19.7 billion, including that company’s assumed debt.
Who is Nuance?
Nuance is a well-known player in the field of natural language recognition. The company’s technology is the core of Apple’s Siri personal assistant. Nuance also sells well-known personal speech-recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is invaluable to many people with a wide range of physical disabilities.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking, originally released in 1997, was one of the first commercially continuous dictation products—meaning software that did not require the user to pause briefly between words. In 2000, Dragon Systems was acquired by ScanSoft, which acquired Nuance Communications in 2005 and rebranded itself as Nuance.
Earlier versions of Dragon software used hidden Markov models to puzzle out the meaning of human speech, but this method had serious limitations compared to modern AI algorithms. In 2009, Stanford researcher Fei-Fei Li created ImageNet—a massive training data set that spawned a boom in deep-learning algorithms used for modern, core AI tech.
After Microsoft researchers Dong Yu and Frank Seide successfully applied deep-learning techniques to real-time automatic speech recognition in 2010, Dragon—now Nuance—applied the same techniques to its own speech-recognition software.
Fast forward to today, and—according to both Microsoft and Nuance—medically targeted versions of Dragon are in use by 77 percent of hospitals, 75 percent of radiologists, and 55 percent of physicians in the United States.
Microsoft’s acquisition play
Microsoft and Nuance began a partnership in 2019 to deliver ambient clinical intelligence (ACI) technologies to health care providers. ACI technology is intended to reduce physician burnout and increase efficiency by offloading administrative tasks onto computers. (A 2017 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine documented physicians typically spending two hours of record-keeping for every single hour of actual patient care.)
Acquiring Nuance gives Microsoft direct access to its entire health care customer list. It also gives Microsoft the opportunity to push Nuance technology—currently, mostly used in the US—to Microsoft’s own large international market. Nuance chief executive Mark Benjamin—who will continue to run Nuance as a Microsoft division after the acquisition—describes it as an opportunity to “superscale how we change an industry.”
The move doubles Microsoft’s total addressable market (TAM) in the health care vertical to nearly $500 billion. It also marries what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes as “the AI layer at the healthcare point of delivery” with Microsoft’s own massive cloud infrastructure, including Azure, Teams, and Dynamics 365.
The acquisition has been unanimously approved by the Boards of Directors of both Nuance and Microsoft, and it is expected to close by the end of 2021.