Perlroth, How the World Ends, and Errata

This will be my fourth and very likely final blog on Nicole Perlroth’s book, “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends”, as far as the subject matter goes. I may write a couple more that are centered around vulnerability history, based on something included in the book, but more along the lines of “setting the record straight” with a broader misconception in the industry that certainly isn’t exclusive to this book. I say ‘may’ because it will depend on my research into a couple of topics.


As I have mentioned in prior blogs, I enjoyed this book. I feel it was very well researched and it offered information about the world of vulnerabilities that was new to me, which I appreciated. I recommend this book if you are interested in the topic of zero-day vulnerabilities and the markets around them as it is comprehensive. Finally, I really appreciate that Perlroth included extensive notes at the end that offer a variety of formal and informal citations for further reading and justification for many comments made.

I offer this opinion once again because this blog will be a bit more negative, focusing on parts of the book that I took exception with. If I am correct about any of the following criticisms, it is just as much a reflection on her editors as it is on Perlroth, so this is not leveled at her specifically. I understand errors are made, we all make them; that said, the process of writing a book should have such content go through at least three sets of eyes (if not more) so I think it is fair to level this criticism to everyone involved. While I may use Perlroth’s name below, consider it to mean “Perlroth et al” in the context above.


Errata

p6: “After three years of covering nonstop Chinese espionage, a big part of me was reassured to see that our own hacking capabilities far exceeded the misspelled phishing emails Chinese hackers were using to break into American networks.” This line so early in the book made me groan and double-take as it seems to unfairly equate an incredible variety of Chinese threat actors into a single category. While I have no doubt this characterization is true for some, I think it is not true in the bigger picture. Further, it implies that the U.S. doesn’t misspell anything in phishing mails our hackers send out to foreign targets.

p7: “The [NSA] appeared to have acquired a vast library of invisible backdoors into almost every major app, social media platform, server, router, firewall, antivirus software, iPhone, Android phone, BlackBerry phone, laptop, desktop, and operating system.” Just a page after the prior quote, this started out with my skepticism. Perlroth seems to conflate zero-day exploit with backdoor, despite them being very different things. This may be a bit nitpicky, especially since the Wikipedia definition blurs the lines, but given the topic of the book is all about vulnerabilities and exploits I think it is important to point out. Coming up in InfoSec, a vulnerability could get you access to a resource and a backdoor could as well. The difference was that one was accidental and the other intentional, but both came from the vendor. Even if the NSA pressured a vendor to include a backdoor, which they have, it is still a vendor-shipped flaw in the code with intent to subvert the security of the system. Perhaps this is terminology that is all but lost like the classic hacker vs cracker vs … debate.

p7: “Zero-days are the most critical tool in a hacker’s arsenal. Discovering one is like discovering the secret password to the world’s data.” There’s a lot to unpack here. First, zero-days are not the most critical tool in a vast majority of hacker’s arsenals. As Perlroth covers, the use of phishing attacks that do not necessarily rely on a vulnerability, or uses known but unpatched ones, are quite effective. Second, the “secret password to the world’s data” is hyperbole since any one zero-day will get you access to a fraction of a single percent of the world’s data. This description makes it sound like just one, any one, has a level of access and power they simply do not.

8 “A series of seven zero-day exploits in Microsoft Windows and Siemens’ industrial software allowed American and Israeli spies to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.” For a book on zero-day exploits to start out incorrectly stating how many zero-day exploits were used in Stuxnet is discouraging. More so that Perlroth later cites Kim Zetter’s definitive book on the topic with glowing praise, yet still gets this bit wrong. As previously reported and referenced on Wikipedia, Stuxnet used four zero-day exploits. [1] [2] [3]

p8: “Depending where the vulnerability is discovered, a zero-day exploit can grant the ability to invisibly spy on iPhone users the world over, dismantle the safety controls at a chemical plant, or send a spacecraft hurtling to earth [sic]. In one of the more glaring examples, a programming mistake, a single missing hyphen, sent the Mariner 1 – the first American spacecraft to attempt an exploration of Venus – off-course, forcing NASA to destroy its $150 million spacecraft 294 seconds after launch, or risk it crashing into a North Atlantic shipping lane or worse, a heavily populated city.” While there has been rumors and urban legends around hacking satellites, a vast majority of which have been debunked, using the Mariner 1 as an example of what can go wrong due to a vulnerability without caveat is unfair. That spacecraft had a bug in it that has not been said to be exploitable. This is essentially the same as the countless “vulnerability reports” of applications that do nothing more than demonstrating a stability issue leading to a crash, not something that can realistically be exploited by a bad actor. This example is frustrating because later in the book, Perlroth provides many examples that are just as compelling and actually happened as a result of vulnerabilities.

p63: “In the hacking community, Charlie’s paper was alternately celebrated and condemned. Some cast him as an unethical researcher who, by selling his zero-day to the government and waiting so long to come forward with it, had put millions of Linux users at risk. Some pushed to have his cybersecurity license stripped.” I can’t imagine what this is supposed to mean since there is no such thing as a “cybersecurity license.” Even if this was to mean some certification, that is very different than a license.

p123: “Once the worm was on that first Natanz computer, a second Microsoft Windows zero-exploit kicked in – though technically, this second exploit wasn’t a zero-day at all.” This isn’t ideal for explaining this topic to non-technical readers. Introducing a new term, presumably by mistake, then immediately contradicting it in the same sentence is confusing.

p222: “Jobert would send discs flying out of Michiel’s hard drive from two hundred yards away.” I debated if this belonged in the hyperbole blog or this one and settled for here. There is simply no analogy to be had and even as an exaggeration this makes no sense.

p257: “Ekoparty was still dwarfed by Def Con, Black Hat, and RSA, but what it lacked in numbers and glitz, it made up for in raw creative talent. Absent were the booth babes and snake-oil salesmen that had overrun the big hacking conferences in the States.” Perhaps a bit nitpicky here, but of the three conferences listed, only one is a “hacking conference”. That conference does not have booth babes and essentially only merchandise vendors, so no more snake-oil salesmen than any other conference, including Ekoparty I would wager. Further, note that Black Hat has been held on three continents for many years now.

p263: “When I got to my room, the door was ajar .. Everything was just how I had left it, except the safe that had held my laptop. It was wide open. My computer was still inside, but in a different position .. I wondered if this was some kind of warning shot. I took a sober look at the laptop. It was a loaner. I’d left my real computer at home and stuck to pen and paper at the conference. There’d been nothing on the laptop when I’d left; I wondered what was on it now. I wrapped it in an empty garbage bag, took the elevator back down to the lobby, and threw it in the trash.” Personally, I find this brief part of Perlroth’s visit attend Ekoparty in Buenos Aires mind-boggling. She describes the conference as having the “best exploits on the market”, representatives from large companies looking to recruit, and countless attendees looking to sell exploits, all in a chapter titled “Cyber Gauchos“. With all of that, and the topic of the book she was researching, why would you ever throw away that laptop? Keep it, take it to someone capable of determining if it was backdoored and how. If lucky, figure out where it was accessed from in the subsequent weeks to perhaps get an idea who was behind it. That would have been a fascinating story by itself and a great addition to this chapter. Instead? A laptop with what might have been high-end unique malware was just thrown in the trash.

p332: “The only trace that it had been used was a second, complementary NSA exploit, code-named DoublePulsar, that was often used to implant EternalBlue into machines.” I think this is backwards as DoublePulsar is the implant (backdoor) and EternalBlue the remote vulnerability (CVE-2017-0144) that can be exploited to implant it.


It’s Complicated

There is one more piece of Errata that is complicated to unpack. This is due to just two lines containing quite a few bits of information, but the associated citations in the Notes section being missing or problematic. From page 6 -7 in Chapter 1, pardon the image as WordPress.com doesn’t apparently let you highlight sentences, only blocks:

The notes for chapter 1 provide citations for some of the content including in this order: a Mariner 1 incident, Menn’s article on “the NSA’s interception of Yahoo data”, Fehri’s article on the Times delaying a NSA wire-tapping story, Snowden / Vargas-Cooper bit about the same delay, and a Perlroth story leak covered by Smith. Compare the cited references to the book paragraph quoted above and it breaks down as:

  • First line is not cited but covered by many easy-to-find articles including this one by Reuters in 2013.
  • Second line is problematic as Perlroth writes that the CIA infiltrated factory floors at “leading encryption chip makers” to backdoor them, but does not offer a citation. Given that it follows a voluntary backdoor in RSA, it is a separate series of events. The wording also does not match the well-known Crytpo AG saga. Given the severity of such incidents, it seems like this would come with a reference.
  • Third line is cited as coming from Joe Menn’s article “Exclusive: Yahoo Secretly Scanned Customer Emails for U.S. Intelligence“. The first issue is that the cited article about Yahoo & Google only mentions Google twice, both to say the company denied doing any searches. The second, and more serious issue, is that the article title itself specifically counters the narrative that Perlroth offers. Yahoo scanning customer emails on behalf of the U.S. Intelligence agencies is very different than them “hacking their way into the internal servers before the data was encrypted”.
  • Fourth line is cited in the notes.

If four lines in a book are that problematic, especially in chapter one, it can be difficult to digest the rest of the material. It may cause the reader to constantly question if what they are reading is accurate and well-founded.


Parting Gift

The following quote is in the book, but one where Perlroth quoted someone she spoke with. I offer this up as a parting gift because of just how absurd it is. I wish I could say it is out of context, and it might be, but any lost context seems not to have made it in the book if so.

That’s why the Europeans are so good at writing exploits, after babies, European parents get like a year to hack.” — Charlie Miller

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