Following the recent revelations about the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s cyber espionage arsenal, software vendors reiterated their commitments to fix vulnerabilities in a timely manner and told users that many of the flaws described in the agency’s leaked documents have been fixed.
While these assurances are understandable from a public relations perspective, they don’t really change anything, especially for companies and users that are the target of state-sponsored hackers. The software they use is not less safe, nor better protected, than it was before WikiLeaks last Tuesday.
The leaked files describe malware tools and exploits used by the CIA’s cyber divisions to hack into all major desktop and mobile operating systems, as well as into networking gear and embedded devices like smart TVs. The documents don’t contain the actual code of those tools and some of the supposedly more telling descriptions have been redacted.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said that his organization so that the vulnerabilities can be patched. But even if WikiLeaks does that, it’s important to realize that the information only represents a snapshot in time.
contains a table that has them arranged by iOS version. That table stops at iOS 9.2, which was released in December 2015. The next significant update, iOS 9.3, was released in late March 2016.
One kernel exploit, codenamed Nandao, which was obtained from the U.K.’s GCHQ, is listed as working for iOS versions 8.0 to 9.2. Does that mean that it doesn’t work on iOS 9.3 or even more recent versions of the operating system? Not necessarily. It’s more likely that the table stops at 9.2 because that was the latest version of iOS when the CIA files were copied.
Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Apple can tell if this and other exploits have been patched or not without additional details. The only description for “Nandao” is that it’s a heap overflow memory corruption vulnerability, and there’s no indication for which kernel component it’s actually located in.
and then resell them to their customers, which includes law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
“This leak is mostly just confirming suspicions about the capabilities of such agencies more than surprising us,” Eiram said.
According to Eiram, the software industry can better prevent developers from introducing vulnerabilities in their code and can build features to make exploitation harder and reduce risks. But there’s no magic wand for getting rid of all vulnerabilities in the foreseeable future. If anything, annual statistics show that the number of software vulnerabilities is actually on the rise.
“For that reason, it is always good for users to keep in mind—without developing full-blown paranoia—that when navigating the digital world there is always someone out there who can compromise your system if they really wanted to,” Eiram said. “A bit of logic, skepticism, and security awareness goes a long way, both in the physical and the digital world.”
Users and companies who are likely to be the target of cyberespionage attacks should take a multilayered approach to defense that goes well beyond applying vendor patches and takes the existence of zero-day exploits into consideration.