Mobile devices and smart TVs make for scary, splashy headlines. They have consumed the largest real estate, so to speak, when it comes to media coverage on the recent WikiLeaks CIA data dump. However, lost in the leaks for most people is something far scarier – the possibility that routers can be owned.

See this recent blog from Cisco. Note some of sections bolded below.

  • Malware exists that seems to target different types and families of Cisco devices, including multiple router and switches families.
  • The malware, once installed on a Cisco device, seem to provide a range of capabilities: data collection, data exfiltration, command execution with administrative privileges (and without any logging of such commands ever been executed), HTML traffic redirection, manipulation and modification (insertion of HTML code on web pages), DNS poisoning, covert tunneling and others.
  • The authors have spent a significant amount of time making sure the tools, once installed, attempt to remain hidden from detection and forensic analysis on the device itself.
  • It would also seem the malware author spends a significant amount of resources on quality assurance testing – in order, it seems, to make sure that once installed the malware will not cause the device to crash or misbehave.

The key takeaway in this post (and from the Vault 7 leak overall) is that our communications systems are not secure. It doesn’t matter if your smart TV is vulnerable when an attacker can control your network. If an attacker has the capability to control your routing tables and DNS, they can gain access to way more than your TV and mobile phone. Those devices are just the beginning.

Let’s break these capabilities down a bit more and throw a scenario on each one:

Data Collection

If I were an intelligence agency, this is something I would want to do all the time. If I can control a router or a switch, I can span ports and forward traffic. I can sniff without being found to do raw packet dumps. I can learn unencrypted passwords, browsing behaviors, interests, and conduct passive vulnerability assessment for exploitation, among many other things.

Data Exfiltration

Covert channels for data exfiltration are one of the goals of any good attacker. This capability makes incident response and forensics almost impossible.This capability would give someone the ability to redirect TCP and UDP packets to subvert security controls in place. Want to bypass a firewall? Or all the firewalls? This capability provides this at scale.

Command execution with administrative privileges (and without any logging of such commands ever been executed)

Attackers want the highest level of access to any system they can. In a normally secure Cisco environment all commands are logged centrally. This not only provides an audit trail for change and configuration management but also speeds basic troubleshooting, in addition to being a great idea for security. Knowing when someone logs on and off is a key question to answer when managing the security for network infrastructure.

From an IT perspective you want to know who’s made changes on your system. This is crucial for basic troubleshooting. From an infosec perspective, being able to log all changes made to a system and reviewing the log on a regular basis is Security 101. If you are a U.S. based public company ,change management and configuration management are auditable.

This capability bypasses not only good system management but also renders these controls non auditable. We all know rootkits are bad but how do you detect and defend against a router rootkit?

HTML traffic redirection, manipulation and modification

From a Web perspective what couldn’t I do with this ability? Proxy bypass. Filtering bypass. Build a complete copy of a website, which looks and feels just like the website you think you are logging into. All of a user’s transactions, web searchers, social media profiles, etc. can all be manipulated literally as they cross the wire.

Think about the implications of that for a second.

A user opens their web browser, which connects to Google. Google then asks for authentication information. It’s Google. I know it’s Google because the browser says and Google asks me to update my certificate. I know this is OK because I trust Google. I install the certificate and now my SSL connections are subverted.

Generally speaking, most people don’t use two-factor authentication or multiple passwords for every site. We would bet if we compromised most people’s Google account we would own most of their other accounts as well.

If you’ve read our recent blog post about the Ask Partner Network compromise, it’s interesting to note that only certain customers were specifically targeted. There is no indication to date as to why they received the malicious payload while others didn’t. It’s possible that HTML redirection was used in these attacks.

Insertion of HTML code on webpages

Now, I can pretty much install whatever malware I want on your endpoint. Maybe you got paranoid and replaced all of your endpoints. New devices get shipped out? Awesome, I control them, too.

Final Thoughts

These are just the capabilities that are currently known. Based on the level of sophistication, I highly doubt these are all of them.

This is not the first time a leak has revealed backdoors on routers. In 2014, Edward Snowden revealed the NSA would intercept and bug a Cisco router before it was sent to a customer being surveilled. Think about the level of effort and cost it would take to divert a device in transit or intercept a shipping truck. You need people, planning, time, resources and technology to achieve your goals on one target. In that particular scenario one device, or a portion of one shipment, is under control.

But this recent scenario is way different.

Based on the latest leak the capability to target a significant number of Cisco routers exists. This model is much more scalable and lends itself to better results. Exploiting a router in place costs ways less than intercepting a shipping truck in the middle of the night and is much more scalable. Attackers can now own the entire Internet.

Want to own one device? Intercept it in transit.

Want to own the Internet? Own the routers.

All of these tools are now public. We expect that Wikileaks will make more vulnerabilities public in the near future, too.

As a community we must elevate this discussion. These capabilities exist to better protect our nation and infrastructure. When offensive capabilities we have built start falling into the hands of malicious actors looking to do harm and materially damaging cyber defensive operations it’s time to ask the question What can we do better?