US reviews possible ‘back door’ in Juniper Networks code
“Backdoor” computer hack may have put government data at risk.
The U.S. government is investigating unauthorized code inserted in software from Juniper Networks Inc, which experts warned could be a “back door” used to spy on the networking equipment maker’s customers, an official told Reuters on Friday. Encryption backdoors have been a hot topic in the last few years—and the controversial issue got even hotter after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, when it dominated media headlines.Juniper, a major manufacturer of networking equipment, said on Thursday it found spying code planted in certain models of its firewalls, an alarming discovery that echoes of state-sponsored tampering. A senior U.S. official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said the Department of Homeland Security is working with Juniper as it investigates the issue.
In a security bulletin posted on Juniper’s website, it warned that the flaw “allows unauthorized remote administrative access to the device over SSH or telnet. The affected products are those running ScreenOS, one of Juniper’s operating systems that runs on a range of appliances that act as firewalls and enable VPNs. The official said the White House National Security Council had taken an interest in Juniper’s rare disclosure that somebody had inserted rogue code into its software. Once we identified these vulnerabilities, we launched an investigation into the matter, and worked to develop and issue patched releases for the latest versions of ScreenOS.” According to the tech site Engadget, the “backdoor” which could have given unauthorized users access to Juniper’s software had been present since 2012.
CBS News Justice and Homeland Security Correspondent Jeff Pegues reports government investigators have been in contact with Juniper to see if government computers were potentially affected. He did not indicate where Juniper thinks the code originated. “At this time, we have not received any reports of these vulnerabilities being exploited; however, we strongly recommend that customers update their systems and apply the patched releases with the highest priority,” Worrell wrote.
Although log files would reflect a login attempt, “a skilled attacker would likely remove these entries from the log file, thus effectively eliminating any reliable signature that the device had been compromised,” Juniper wrote. Release notes for 6.2.0r15 show that version being released in September 2012, while release notes for 6.3.0r12 show that the latter version was issued in August 2012. “The weakness in the VPN itself that enables passive decryption is only of benefit to a national surveillance agency like the British, the US, the Chinese, or the Israelis,” says Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and UC Berkeley. “You need to have wiretaps on the internet for that to be a valuable change to make [in the software].” But the backdoors are also a concern because one of them—a hardcoded master password left behind in Juniper’s software by the attackers—will now allow anyone else to take command of Juniper firewalls that administrators have not yet patched, once the attackers have figured out the password by examining Juniper’s code.
Ronald Prins, founder and CTO of FOX-IT, a Dutch security firm, said the patch released by Juniper provides hints about where the master password backdoor is located in the software. VPNs are encrypted connections between a user and another computer and are often used by companies to allow secure remote access to their systems for employees who are traveling. Cybersecurity expert Michael DeCesare, CEO of ForeScout Technologies, said Juniper will need to determine whether it was an inside or outside job. “It will take time for their IT department to really understand how the attack occurred,” DeCesare told CBS News in an email. “What’s so troubling about this breach is that the very software that you trust to keep you safe becomes the vehicle into your organization for the attackers. By reverse-engineering the firmware on a Juniper firewall, analysts at his company found the password in just six hours. “Once you know there is a backdoor there, … the patch [Juniper released] gives away where to look for [the backdoor] … which you can use to log into every [Juniper] device using the Screen OS software,” he told WIRED. “We are now capable of logging into all vulnerable firewalls in the same way as the actors [who installed the backdoor].” But there is another concern raised by Juniper’s announcement and patches—any other nation-state attackers, in addition to the culprits who installed the backdoors, who have intercepted and stored encrypted VPN traffic running through Juniper’s firewalls in the past, may now be able to decrypt it, Prins says, by analyzing Juniper’s patches and figuring out how the initial attackers were using the backdoor to decrypt it. “If other state actors are intercepting VPN traffic from those VPN devices, … they will be able to go back in history and be able to decrypt this kind of traffic,” he says. Weaver says this depends on the exact nature of the VPN backdoor. “If it was something like the Dual EC, the backdoor doesn’t actually get you in, … you also need to know the secret.
The compromise of such a prominent vendor with code specifically designed for spying echoes operations by the NSA described in documents leaked in 2013 by former contractor Edward Snowden. Computer Emergency Response Team issued a short notice on its website, advising Juniper customers to install the update. (Reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston, Mark Hosenball in New York, Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Stephen R. If Juniper did use Dual EC, an algorithm long-known to be vulnerable, and this is part of the backdoor in question, it underscores that threat of repurposing by other actors even more.
The second backdoor would effectively allow an attacker who has already intercepted VPN traffic passing through the Juniper firewalls to decrypt the traffic without knowing the decryption keys. The company said it discovered the backdoors during an internal code review, but it didn’t say if this was a routine review or if it had examined the code specifically after receiving a tip that something suspicious was in it. Speculation in the security community about who might have installed the unauthorized code centers on the NSA, though it could have been another nation-state actor with similar capabilities, such as the UK, China, Russia, or even Israel. An NSA spy tool catalogue leaked to Der Spiegel in 2013 described a sophisticated NSA implant known as FEEDTROUGH that was designed to maintain a persistent backdoor in Juniper firewalls. FEEDTROUGH, Der Spiegel wrote, “burrows into Juniper firewalls and makes it possible to smuggle other NSA programs into mainframe computers…..” It’s also designed to remain on systems even after they’re rebooted or the operating system on them is upgraded.
FEEDTROUGH is a firmware implant—a kind of “aftermarket” spy tool installed on specific targeted devices in the field or before they’re delivered to customers. Naturally, some in the community have questioned whether these were backdoors that Juniper had voluntarily installed for a specific government and decided to disclose only after it became apparent that the backdoor had been discovered by others.
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