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NSA Spying Goes Deeper, to Hard Drive Firmware

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Reuters is reporting on a chilling, recent discovery by Russian cyber-security firm Kaspersky Labs that spy agencies have reached a milestone in the ability to spy on PCs. In examining computers from Iran, Russia, China, and others, the company discovered that the Stuxnet-like malware was embedded deeper than ever before, in the firmware of the hard drives. Firmware is the base software hard coded in order to facilitate input/output operations.

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Re-Install The Operating System All You Want

fingerprintAn infection this deep means that the malware can re-install itself anytime it is thwarted, even if the very operating system were wiped and replaced. It is likely the last place a security researcher would look for an infection unless tipped off. The firmware is separate from everything else on the hard drive, so no matter how many times the hard drive is zeroed out, the infection can keep happening again and again until the hard drive is replaced.

Kaspersky Labs declined to say which country or spy agency they thought was responsible for the infections it found in its clients’ computers, but it hinted that the software was related to the Stuxnet attacks leveraged against Iran by British and American cyberspies a few years ago.

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Interestingly, Kaspersky says that in order to write this malware effectively, whoever is responsible must have had access to the source code of the firmware. The company said it had found the malware to be functional on at least a dozen brands of hard drive, including all the major ones. None of the companies named in Reuter’s report was willing to provide comment, which could be taken by some as an admission of complicity. Only Western Digital took the opportunity to deny that it had ever provided source code to the government.

Tainted Hardware

Last spring, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had installed backdoors in CISCO networking hardware destined for foreign markets. While there are a number of ways the NSA could have obtained the firmware source code to the hard drives – including by posing as software developers or demanding it when the companies wanted to contract with the government – it is not a stretch to believe that these companies actively co-operated in the tainting of their hardware bound for certain destinations.

The Equation Group

Kaspersky Labs is calling the group of NSA spies responsible for this software, Stuxnet, and other major accomplishments (in their eyes) the Equation Group, in reference to their use of encryption technologies. Composing the group are the highest talents in the cyber-security industry, legally achieving the same ends as their outlaw counterparts with greater success rates.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Canadian1969

    February 18, 2015 at 8:44 am

    How to detect if your HDD firmware is compromised would have been a helpful aspect of this article.

    • P. H. Madore

      February 18, 2015 at 9:54 am

      I agree.

      The problem is, this isn’t commonly available knowledge at present.

      Thanks to your comment, though, I’ll be obsessively researching this beginning now.

      • Canadian1969

        February 19, 2015 at 12:29 pm

        Seagate and WD drives can be firmware updated by the end user (to my knowledge), the solution may be a simple as re-flashing your drive after delivery (just to be safe). Doing this incorrectly will brick your drive so caution should be taken.

        • P. H. Madore

          February 20, 2015 at 10:17 am

          Well, this presumes that the companies were not complicit, of course.

          However, I did discover this in my research: http://spritesmods.com/?art=hddhack

          Perhaps, over time, a vendor will exploit this opportunity to write replacement firmware for hard drives.

          • Canadian1969

            February 21, 2015 at 11:33 am

            Great find. Reminds me of TSOPing old Satellite receivers. HDD vendors need to release some tools to verify their BIOS code, or give the consumer a way to visually confirm the BIOS is in its factory state. Whether that means publishing CRC values for their BIOS’s or free utils (Like Intel and CPUID) I do not know. Having seen that you can load Linux on a HDD (and I do not mean in the traditional manner) and just how easily it was done I think the ball is in the manufacturers court now. If they are not complicit they should take the lead. I really liked the idea of hacking your HDD to make it unclonable. Cool.

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Breaches

Uber Is Paying Hackers to Keep Quiet

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Uber Technologies Inc. has reportedly paid hackers to delete scores of private data stolen from the company in a security breach that was concealed for over a year. The revelation provides further confirmation that, when it comes to cyber security, crime does pay.

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Massive Data Breach

According to Bloomberg Technology, hackers retrieved the personal data of 57 million Uber customers and drivers at some point last year. Nobody heard about it because the rideshare company paid the hackers $100,000 to keep quiet. A purge at the front office of Uber also ensured that the massive cyber breach was kept under wraps.

The compromised data was from October 2016 and included the names, phone numbers and addressed of 50 million Uber riders globally. About seven million drivers had their personal information accessed as well.

At the time of the cyber attack, Uber was inundated with a slew of legal issues stemming from alleged privacy violations. Rather than shine even more negative spotlight on the company, Uber executives decided to pay hackers to stay quiet.

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“None of this should have happened, and I will not make excuses for it,” Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over as CEO in September, said in a statement that was published by Bloomberg. “We are changing the way we do business.”

Hackers have done a masterful job infiltrating companies and governments in recent years. As a reminder, recent cyber attacks levied against Yahoo!, Target Corp and Equifax Inc. dwarf Uber’s 57 million compromised accounts.

Various reports indicate that cyber attacks are bleeding the global economy dry. One report, issued by the World Economic Forum, suggests that cyber crime cost the world economy $445 billion in 2016. If cyber crime were its own market cap, it would exceed Microsoft Inc., Facebook Inc. and ExxonMobil Corp

The Fall of Uber?

Uber revolutionized the ride-hailing business over the span of seven years by giving more power to the consumer. Several missteps later, the company finds itself in legal hot water, with its future appearing less certain than it did just one year ago.

The rideshare company faces at least five U.S. probes ranging from bribes to illicit software and right up to unethical pricing schemes. According to another Bloomberg report, Uber is under investigation for violating price transparency regulations, not to mention the alleged theft of documents for Google’s autonomous cars.

Some governments are sensing weakness in the ride-hailing service, and are moving toward banning the Uber app entirely. London is the most prominent example of a city that has taken definitive steps to outlaw the service over a “lack of corporate responsibility.”

Even with its legal troubles, Uber is a revolutionary technology that has influenced a bevy of other innovations aimed at improving the human experience.

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Ethereum Notches Two-Month High as Bitcoin Offspring Triggers Volatility

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Digital currency Ethereum climbed to a two-month high on Monday, taking some of the heat off Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash, which have slumped since the weekend.

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Ethereum Forges Higher Path

Concerns over Bitcoin created a favourable tailwind for Ethereum (ETH/USD), which is the world’s No. 2 digital currency by total assets. Ether’s price topped $340.00 on Monday and later settled at $323.54. That was the highest since June 20.

At its peak, ether was up 10% on the day and 70% for the month of August.

The ETH/USD was last down 2.2% at $315.02, according to Bitfinex. Prices are due for a brisk recovery, based on the daily momentum indicators.

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Fractured Bitcoin Community

Bitcoin and its offshoot, Bitcoin Cash, retreated on Monday following a volatile weekend. The BTC/USD slumped at the start of the week and was down more than 3% on Tuesday, with prices falling below $3,900.00. Just last week, Bitcoin was trading at new records near $4,500.00.

Bitcoin Cash, which emerged after the Aug. 1 hard fork, climbed to new records on Saturday, but has been in free-fall ever since. The BTH was down another 20% on Tuesday to $594.49, according to CoinMarketCap. Its total market value has dropped by several billion over the past two days.

Analysts say that a “fractured” Bitcoin community has made Ethereum a more attractive bet this week. The ether token has shown remarkable poise over the past seven days, despite trading well shy of a new record.

Other drivers behind Ethereum’s advance are steady demand from South Korean investors and growing confidence in a smooth upgrade for the the ETH network. The upgrade, which has been dubbed “Metropolis,” is expected in the next several weeks. Its key benefits include tighter transaction privacy and greater efficiency.

Ethereum Prices Unaffected by ICO Heist

Fin-tech developer Enigma was on the receiving end of a cyber-heist on Monday after hackers took over the company’s website, mailing list and instant messaging platforms. The hack occurred three weeks before Enigma’s planned Initial Coin Offering (ICO) for September 11.

In addition to defacing the company’s website, the hackers pushed a special “pre-sale” ahead of the ICO. While many users realized it was a scam, 1,492 ether tokens – valued at $495,000 – were directed into the hackers’ cryptocurrency wallet by unsuspecting backers.

The irony in all this is that Engima is a cryptography company that prides itself on top-notch security protocols. The company issued a statement that its servers had not been compromised.

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Ethereum Prices on Track for 35% Monthly Drop

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It has been a difficult month for ethereum. The world’s No. 2 digital currency has lost a third of its value over the past 30 days following a series of cyber breaches targeting vulnerable wallets and ICOs.

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Ethereum Struggles to Regain Momentum

Ethereum (ETH/USD) was trading near $197.00 Sunday at 6:30 BST, according to Bitfinex. That represents a decline of around 5%. At current values, ethereum’s market cap was $18.4 billion.

The ETH/USD exchange rate has struggled throughout July, with prices briefly falling below $160.00. The decline, which amounted to a 60-day low, lured bargain-hunters back into the market. After surging back toward $250.00, the ETH/USD has consolidated below the $220-mark, which continues to offer strong resistance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, major support is located at $180.00.

A price recovery may prove elusive in the short-term, with the Relative Strength Index (RSI) and Stochastic indicator signalling weak underlying momentum.

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Despite its recent decline, ethereum’s value has surged more than 2,200% this year.

Cyber Attacks, SEC Weigh on Market

The ethereum network suffered a large-scale cyber breach earlier this month resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars. A community of ethical hackers quickly banded together to “rescue” hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tokens.

Blockchain-based trading platform Coindash was also hijacked during an initial coin offering (ICO). The breach exposed Coindash’s ether wallet address, resulting in the loss of $7 million worth of ether.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also taken an interest in the ethereum-based ICO market. Last week, the regulator concluded that a certain multi-million dollar token sale last year violated securities law. Although ICOs have been compared to crowd-sourcing, the SEC maintained that some tokens were in fact securities.

Analysts say the SEC ruling could impact the future of ICOs, although it remains unclear how the regulator is pursuing this market. The SEC’s July 25 press release cautions investors about ICOs in general.

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