Black ops: how HBGary wrote backdoors for the government (part 3)


Virus Guy

Black ops: how HBGary wrote backdoors for the government

Part 3 of 3


Feeling twitchy

While Barr fell increasingly in love with his social media sleuthing,
Hoglund still liked researching his rootkits. In September, the two
teamed up for a proposal to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency that had been instrumental in creating the Internet back
in the 1960s.

DARPA didn't want incrementalism. It wanted breakthroughs (one of its
most recent projects is the "100-Year Starship Study"), and Barr and
Hoglund teamed up for a proposal to help the agency on its Cyber Insider
Threat (CINDER) program. CINDER was an expensive effort to find new ways
to watch employees with access to sensitive information and root out
double agents or disgruntled workers who might leak classified

So Barr and Hoglund drafted a plan to create something like a lie
detector, except that it would look for signs of "paranoia" instead.

"Like a lie detector detects physical changes in the body based on
sensitivities to specific questions, we believe there are physical
changes in the body that are represented in observable behavioral
changes when committing actions someone knows is wrong," said the
proposal. "Our solution is to develop a paranoia-meter to measure these

The idea was to take an HBGary rootkit like 12 Monkeys and install it on
user machines in such a way that users could not remove it and might not
even be aware of its presence. The rootkit would log user keystrokes, of
course, but it would also take "as many behavioral measurements as
possible" in order to look for suspicious activity that might indicate

What sort of measurements? The rootkit would monitor "keystrokes, mouse
movements, and visual cues through the system camera. We believe that
during particularly risky activities we will see more erratic mouse
movements and keystrokes as well as physical observations such as
surveying surroundings, shifting more frequently, etc."

The rootkit would also keep an eye on what files were being accessed,
what e-mails were being written, and what instant messages were being
sent. If necessary, the software could record a video of the user's
computer screen activity and send all this information to a central
monitoring office. There, software would try to pick out employees
exhibiting signs of paranoia, who could then be scrutinized more

Huge and obvious challenges presented themselves. As the proposal noted:

Detecting insider threat actions is highly challenging and will require
a sophisticated monitoring, baselining, analysis, and alerting
capability. Human actions and organizational operations are complex. You
might think you can just look for people that are trying to gain access
to information outside of their program area of expertise. Yet there are
legitimate reasons for accessing this information. In many cases the
activity you might call suspicious can also be legitimate. Some people
are more or less inquisitive and will have different levels of activity
in accessing information outside their specific organization. Some of
the behaviors on systems vary widely depending on function. Software
developer behavior will be very different than an HR person or senior
manager. All of these factors need to be taken into account when
developing detection capabilities for suspicious activity. We cannot
focus on just [whether] a particular action is potentially suspicious.
Instead we must quantify the legitimate reasons for the activity and
whether this person has a baseline, position, attributes, and history to
support the activity.

DARPA did not apparently choose to fund the plan.

Grey areas

The ideas got ever more grandiose. Analyzing malware, HBGary's main
focus, wasn't enough to keep up with the hackers; Hoglund had a plan to
get a leg up on the competition by getting even closer to malware
authors. He floated an idea to sniff Russian GSM cell phone signals in
order to eavesdrop on hackers' voice calls and text messages.

"GSM is easily sniffed," he wrote to Barr. "There is a SHIELD system for
this that not only intercepts GSM 5.1 but can also track the exact
physical location of a phone. Just to see what's on the market, check
[redacted] - these have to be purchased overseas obviously."

The note concluded: "Home alone on Sunday, so I just sit here and
sharpen the knife."

Barr, always enthusiastic for these kinds of ideas, loved this one. He
wanted to map out everything that would be required for such an
operation, including "personas, sink holes, honey nets, soft and hard
assets - We would want at least one burn persona. We would want to
sketch out a script to meet specific objectives.

And, he noted, "We will likely ride in some grey areas."

Back to basics

In January 2011, Barr had moved on to his research into Anonymous -
research that would eventually do his company in. Over at HBGary,
Hoglund continued his pursuit of next-gen rootkits. He had hit on a new
approach that he called "Magenta."

This would be a "new breed of Windows-based rootkit," said a Magenta
planning document, one that HBGary called a "multi-context rootkit."

Slava Markeyev

The Magenta software would be written in low-level assembly language,
one step up from the ones and zeroes of the binary code with which
computers do their calculating. It would inject itself into the Windows
kernel, and then inject itself further into an active process; only from
there would the main body of the rootkit execute.

Magenta would also inject itself routinely into different processes,
jumping around inside the computer's memory to avoid detection. Its
command-and-control instructions, telling the rootkit exactly what to do
and where to send the information, wouldn't come from some remote
Internet server but from the host computer's own memory - where the
control instructions had been separately injected.

"This is ideal because it’s trivial to remotely seed C&C messages into
any networked Windows host," noted Hoglund, "even if the host in
question has full Windows firewalling enabled."

Nothing like Magenta existed (not publicly, at least), and Hoglund was
sure that he could squeeze the rootkit code into less than 4KB of memory
and make it "almost impossible to remove from a live running system."
Once running, all of the Magenta files on disk could be deleted. Even
the best anti-rootkit tools, those that monitored physical memory for
signs of such activity, "would only be of limited use since by the time
the responder tried to verify his results Magenta will have already
moved to a new location & context."

Hoglund wanted to build Magenta in two parts: first, a prototype for
Windows XP with Service Pack 3 - an old operating system but still
widely installed. Second, if the prototype generated interest, HBGary
could port the rootkit "to all current flavors of Microsoft Windows."

Shortly thereafter, Anonymous broke into HBGary Federal's website,
cracked Barr's hashed password using rainbow tables, and found
themselves in a curious position; Barr was also the administrator for
the entire e-mail system, so they were able to grab e-mail from multiple
accounts, including Hoglund's.
A world awash in rootkits

The leaked e-mails provide a tantalizing glimpse of life behind the
security curtain. HBGary and HBGary Federal were small players in this
space; indeed, HBGary appears to have made much of its cash with more
traditional projects, like selling anti-malware defense tools to
corporations and scanning their networks for signs of infection.

If rootkits, paranoia monitors, cartoons, and fake Facebook personas
were being proposed and developed here, one can only imagine the sorts
of classified projects underway throughout the entire defense and
security industry.

Whether these programs are good or bad depends upon how they are used.
Just as Hoglund's rootkit expertise meant that he could both detect them
and author them, 0-day exploits and rootkits in government hands can be
turned to many uses. The FBI has had malware like CIPAV (the Computer
and Internet Protocol Address Verifier) for several years, and it's
clear from the HBGary e-mail leak that the military is in wide
possession of rootkits and other malware of its own. The Stuxnet virus
widely believed to have at least damaged Iranian nuclear centrifuge
operations is thought to have originated in the US or Israeli
governments, for instance.

But the e-mails also remind us how much of this work is carried out
privately and beyond the control of government agencies. We found no
evidence that HBGary sold malware to nongovernment entities intent on
hacking, though the company did have plans to repurpose its DARPA
rootkit idea for corporate surveillance work. ("HBGary plans to
transition technology into commercial products," it told DARPA.)

And another document, listing HBGary's work over the last few years,
included this entry: "HBGary had multiple contracts with a consumer
software company to add stealth capability to their host agent."

The actions of HBGary Federal's Aaron Barr also serve as a good reminder
that, when they're searching for work, private security companies are
more than happy to switch from military to corporate clients - and they
bring some of the same tools to bear.

When asked to investigate pro-union websites and WikiLeaks, Barr turned
immediately to his social media toolkit and was ready to deploy
personas, Facebook scraping, link analysis, and fake websites; he also
suggested computer attacks on WikiLeaks infrastructure and pressure be
brought upon journalists like Glenn Greenwald.

His compatriots at Palantir and Berico showed, in their many e-mails,
few if any qualms about turning their national security techniques upon
private dissenting voices. Barr's ideas showed up in Palantir-branded
PowerPoints and Berico-branded "scope of work" documents.
"Reconnaissance cells" were proposed, network attacks were acceptable,
"target dossiers" on "adversaries" would be compiled, and "complex
information campaigns" involving fake personas were on the table.

Critics like Glenn Greenwald contend that this nexus of private and
public security power is a dangerous mix. "The real issue highlighted by
this episode is just how lawless and unrestrained is the unified axis of
government and corporate power," he wrote last week.

Especially (though by no means only) in the worlds of the Surveillance
and National Security State, the powers of the state have become largely
privatized. There is very little separation between government power and
corporate power. Those who wield the latter intrinsically wield the

The revolving door between the highest levels of government and
corporate offices rotates so fast and continuously that it has basically
flown off its track and no longer provides even the minimal barrier it
once did. It's not merely that corporate power is unrestrained; it's
worse than that: corporations actively exploit the power of the state to
further entrench and enhance their power.

Even if you don't share this view, the e-mails provide a fascinating
glimpse into the origins of government-controlled malware. Given the
number of rootkits apparently being developed for government use, one
wonders just how many machines around the globe could respond to orders
from the US military. Or the Chinese military. Or the Russian military.

While hackers get most of the attention for their rootkits and botnets
and malware, state actors use the same tools to play a different game -
the Great Game - and it could be coming soon to a computer near you.

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