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

Perlroth, Terminology, and Hyperbole

I finished reading “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth a few weeks ago but haven’t had time to write this blog, and likely another, based on specific aspects of the book. I have written two blogs on topics covered in the book after reading it already, but both written before completing the book.


Overall the book was an enjoyable read. It is clear that Perlroth covers the topic of zero-day exploits and the exploit market very well, based on a lot of research and interviews with key players. The book exposed some things that were new to me so I enjoyed some chapters very much. The book also gave me a sizable list of items to do further research on including several ideas for FOIA requests. Finally, I think the epilogue was especially well done and would serve as a great ~ 20 page primer on the topic and where the world is going in the realm of exploits and hacking campaigns. If you are interested in the topic I do recommend this book.


That said, this blog is about one issue I have with the content. Starting in the prologue and continuing throughout several chapters of the book, Perlroth uses language that is arguably one step past hyperbole, seemingly crossing the definition of “intensifier” and falling squarely into “extreme exaggeration“. This has been a problem for over twenty-five years in Information Security with one of our worst being “Cyber Pearl Harbor“, which is also used in this book. While such terms are dramatic and hook a reader they are counter-productive as they unfairly explain or refer to concepts that are not as serious or damaging as the terms used.

Equating two unrelated terms to explain one concept to an audience not familiar with it is common enough, and we all do it. But consider the definition on an analogy which is “a comparison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance of a particular aspect“. The key, I believe, is “resemblance of a particular aspect” which can really be interpreted differently. If I compare a rocket to an automobile to make a comparison about travel because they both can move and transport people, does that count? Sure, but it sucks as an analogy and doesn’t make the point very well. When that gets taken to an extreme, you have a logical fallacy known as a false analogy.

To me, that is where analogies or descriptions like “a Cyber Pearl Harbor” fall. Until a computer intrusion can routinely sink ships, destroy aircraft, kill over 2,300, and wound over 1,100 people in just over an hour, I don’t think that is an appropriate term to use. If such an event happens once, perhaps calling it “the Cyber Pearl Harbor” would be acceptable. Further, what part of the attack on Pearl Harbor resembles a computer attack? Until that can be answered, journalists and security professionals should endeavor to use more grounded analogies that can explain a concept without embellishing or incorrectly comparing something in the virtual computer domain to a kinetic real-world item or event. While Perlroth’s first use of this term was quoting “security experts”, she had the opportunity to temper that with a caveat or explanation, but did not.

Even calling exploits a “weapon” begins to push that boundary as most people think of a kinetic weapon like a knife or gun that has wounded or killed millions in the last 100 years. With that, here is a sampling of some of the analogies and terminology Perlroth used throughout her book to illustrate the problem. What is perhaps most unfortunate about this is that the book is well-written and did not need to do this to make it interesting. To me, it was actually a detraction and did not add to the topic.

  • xvi: Russian hackers made a blood sport of hacking anyone…
  • xvi: For five long years, they shelled Ukrainians with thousands of cyberattacks a day…
  • xviii: The very same Russian hackers that had been laying trapdoors and virtual explosives
  • xxi: .. is what happened when the NSA’s most powerful cyberweapons got into our adversary’s hands. So in March 2019 I went to Ukraine to survey the ruins for myself.
  • xxvi: If Snowden leaked the PowerPoint bullet points, the Shadow Brokers handed our enemies the actual bullets: the code
  • p8: In the process, “zero-day exploits” became the blood diamonds of the security trade.
  • P257: They were here to recruit, perhaps, or broker the latest and greatest in Argentine spy code.
  • p294: Russian hackers had been shelling Ukraine’s computer networks with cyberattacks, and the timing was ominous.
  • p295: And like those attacks, the KillDisk had a ticking time bomb.
  • p324: But nation-states could just as easily bolt digital bombs and data wipers onto the tools, detonate data, and take America’s government agencies, corporations, and critical infrastructure offline.
  • p334: Across the world, people started ripping their computers out of the wall.
  • p348: Nobody had even bothered to tell the mayor that the virus hitting his city had been traveling on a digital missile built by the nation’s premier intelligence agency.
  • p349: One assailant locked up its systems with ransomware; another detonated EternalBlue to steal data.
  • p381: It was Nakasone who played a critical role in leading Nitro Zeus, the U.S. operation to plant land mines in Iran’s grid.
  • p383: They – the hackers, the officials, the Ukrainians, the voices in the wilderness – had always warned me that a cyber-enabled cataclysmic boom would take us down.

One thing to note is that on rare occasion, Perlroth did temper such wording. One example can be found on page 49 where she says “Again, these weren’t weapons. They were gaping security holes that could be exploited to break into hardware and software, and the American taxpayer was being asked to bankroll the entire supply chain.” Unfortunately, this comes after several lines in the bullet points above and many more like it.

Similarly to using exaggerated terms for exploits and digital attacks, Perlroth does the same when describing hackers. While describing a complex world of zero-day exploits, brokering them, and the impact they can cause, she falls back on tired clichés to describe the people using these exploits. Here are a few examples:

  • xix: .. simply beyond that of any four-hundred-pound hacker working from his bed.
  • p22: .. he did not resemble the emaciated hackers and former intelligence types glued to their computer screens
  • p23: .. a little colorful for men who wore black T-shirts and preferred to work in windowless dungeons.
  • p23: .. their diet subsisted of sandwiches and Red Bull.
  • p28: Vendors didn’t want to deal with basement dwellers
  • p28: … pimply thirteen-year-olds in their parents’ basements
  • p28: … ponytailed coders from the web’s underbelly
  • p30: Hackers who barely made it out of their basements would get hammered…

If I used hyperbolic clichés to describe Nicole Perlroth, a New York Times reporter, I wonder how many journalists I would offend?

Perlroth & The First (Zero-Day) Broker

I am currently reading “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth, only on page 60 in Chapter 5, so a long ways to go before completing the 471 page tome. I hit chapter 4, titled “The First Broker” and it was of specific interest to me for sure, prompting this (second) blog on the book. A broker is defined as “a person who buys and sells goods or assets for others” so I was never a vulnerability broker by that definition. I am not trying to claim to be the actual first broker of zero-days in that context at all. Instead, I would like to share a couple of my own stories that are adjacent to the topic. This is all to the best of my recollection, but my memory isn’t the best due to being a diabetic and not having it under control for several years. If anyone involved in any of these stories has a different memory please feel free to comment or reach out directly and I will update this blog accordingly.


First, I was someone who ‘brokered’ deals in the sense of trading zero-day vulnerabilities for a few years in the mid-90s. As a member of multiple hacking groups, some an actual member and some an honorary member, one of my roles in several of those groups was not writing the zero-days because I simply wasn’t a coder and did not have that skill. Instead, it was to barter and try to gain access to specific zero-days one group or member wanted and my currency was other zero-days we had. While I couldn’t code, my social network of hackers was sizable.

Some of what I was authorized to trade for was toward the goal of obtaining e.g. “any remote zero-day in $target operating system” while in other cases it was “trade anything and everything we have for $specific-zero-day“. I acted as a go-between for the groups I was in and a liaison to the general hacker scene. Many knew me to have a well-rounded vulnerability collection and we already traded more pedestrian exploits, some of which weren’t public, but definitely more circulated in such groups.

Back then it was just hackers and groups, not companies, so we didn’t have “duffel bags stuffed full of half a million dollars in cash to buy zero-day bugs” (p.49). Instead we had other zero-day bugs which were just as valuable between groups and acted as the ideal currency. Just like Perlroth describes in her book relating the story of “Jimmy Sabien” (p.43), not his real name, the vulnerabilities had serious value back then too. Some were very closely guarded, to the point of not being shared with their group. For example, Sally may have shared 99% of her exploits and zero-days with her group but held one back because it was so valuable. That one she would use sparingly herself so as not to burn it or authorize it to be traded for a vulnerability of equal value. In those rare cases I would know just enough about the vulnerability to try to arrange a trade on her behalf, sometimes never seeing the vulnerability myself.

There were rumors at the time that some hackers had sold vulnerabilities to specific agencies in European governments. There were also rumors that some were trading zero-day exploits to a European law enforcement agency as a proffer or part of a plea to avoid being charged for hacking activity. But those were just rumors at that point. To me, that was the precursor to the more financial based zero-day market.


Later in the 90s, I was one of the two founders of a startup called Repent Security Inc. (RSI or RepSec). We were three people and started by trying to be a penetration testing shop. This was still early in the world of commercial penetration testing and we were going up against companies that either had an established business reputation like a couple of the ‘Big 5’ at the time, or companies that were pioneers in the game like The Wheel Group. We also created software for securely streaming logs over an encrypted tunnel so if a system was popped, you had the logs on a remote host with timestamps including your shell histories (which didn’t have timestamps natively). That software was partially outsourced to a renowned “InfoSec luminary” who had it developed by one of his interns on a compromised .edu machine and later essentially stole the software after RSI imploded. But that story is for another day because it isn’t part of the zero-day world, it’s part of the Charlatan and Errata world.

One thing RSI had of real value was the vulnerability database that I had been maintaining since 1993. It was first maintained for the hacker group I was part of (TNo) where it was originated by other members. When I took over maintaining it I worked on further organizing it, adding several points of metadata, and expanding it. After that group drifted apart I kept maintaining it while a member of w00w00 and honorary member of ADM, where I brokered some trades. I did not maintain the databases for either of those groups which were separate from mine, but I was privy to some of their exploits and shared some of what I had. Members from both groups would frequently ask me to check my database for exploits specific to an operating system or service they were targeting, as this was before Google and Yahoo! didn’t aggregate much in the big picture. Even though a majority of vulnerabilities were posted to Bugtraq, you couldn’t just skim it quickly to determine what was there that you could use for your purpose. Someone that had them all sorted in a database with metadata was fairly valuable. To this day, many friends and colleagues still ask me to do vulnerability lookups, now with VulnDB.

Throughout my hacker days I maintained that database, and then continued to as I transitioned into a career doing penetration testing. Like Perlroth documents in her book about the early days of iDefense and the outfit that “Sabien” worked for, we all scoured Bugtraq for our information primarily. I had the benefit of several circles of hackers and hackers-turned-legit that still traded vulnerability intelligence (vuln intel). Essentially the grey market back when the currency was still vuln intel not those duffels of cash. By that point, the database that RSI had was unparalleled in the commercial world. This was initially created before and maintained during Fyodor’s Exploit World and Ken Williams’ Packetstorm. The RSI database came before the ISS XForce database, before BID, before NIST’s ICAT Metabase, and before MITRE’s CVE. More importantly, it was heavy on exploit code but light on proper descriptions or solutions, so it was geared toward penetration testing and compromising machines rather than mature vulnerability intelligence.

As RSI struggled to get penetration testing gigs and opted to work on the “Secure Remote Streaming” (SRS) product, we had taken a trip to Atlanta to talk to ISS about selling a copy of our database to their relatively new X-Force penetration testing team (I forgot who we met there other than Klaus, but I would love to remember!). That deal did not happen and we soon found ourselves in talks with George Kurtz at Ernst & Young, one of the ‘Big 5’. While most or all of the ‘Big 5’ had penetration testing teams, their reputation wasn’t the best at the time. That was primarily due to their testers frequently being traditional auditors turned penetration testers, rather than being a ‘real’ tester; someone that came up through the hacking ranks.

It is also important to remind everyone that back then these companies “did not hire hackers“. Some literally printed it in advertisements as a selling point that they did not hire and would not consort with so-called black hats. This was almost always an outright lie. Either the company knew the background of their team and lied, or they did not know the background and conveniently overlooked that their employees had zero experience on their resume around that skillset, yet magically were badass testers. Years of companies claiming this also led to what we see now, where many security professionals from that time still refuse to admit they used to hack illegally even 25 years later.

Anyway, back to George and E&Y. It made sense that a shop like that would want to get their hands on RSI’s database. If their testers were primarily from the auditor / bean-counter side of things they would not have had their own solid database. Even if they had hackers it didn’t mean they came with the same vuln intel we had. As best I recall, the negotiations went back and forth for a couple weeks and we settled on a one-time sale of the RSI database for $75,000 with the option to revisit selling ‘updates’ to it as we continued to maintain it. This would have become the first commercial vulnerability intelligence feed at the time I believe, in early 1999. Then, disaster.

The FBI raided the offices of RSI, which was my apartment. At the time that was a death sentence to a penetration tester’s career. Regardless of guilt, the optics were one of black hat / criminal hacking, and finding someone to trust you to break into their systems was not happening. RSI dissolved and I found myself struggling to find work of any kind. So I reached back out to George about the deal we had on the table that we were close to signing and said I was fine with the price, let’s do it. Suddenly, Kurtz had a change of heart.

He didn’t have a change of heart as far as doing the deal, his change was in the price. Instead of $75,000 he came back and said we could do the deal for $25,000 instead, just a third of what we had agreed to. He knew I was in a tight spot and needed the money and he took full advantage of that. This is someone who had a reputation of being a friend to hackers, someone that had bridged the gap between the business world and hackers to put together a reputable team at E&Y. He even had his name on a book about penetration testing, co-authored with names other hackers recognized. He was also very explicit that he knew I had no real power at that point and refused to budge on his one-third offer.

So when he had a chance to honor the deal we originally worked on, a chance to be a friend to a hacker, at no expense of his own? He opted to screw me. Since I was out of options and my limited savings were dwindling I had to accept the offer. That takes me full circle, via a meandering path I know, to likely making one of the largest vulnerability sales at the time. While it wasn’t a single exploit, a $25k deal that was originally set to be $75k is pretty impressive for the time. If RSI had made it, odds are we would have become a software (SRS) and vulnerability intelligence shop rather than a penetration testing shop.

Many aspects of how Perlroth describes the early days of iDefense and “Sabien’s” shop, we were already doing. With a lot fewer people than they claimed, but we were aggregating information from Bugtraq and other sources, writing exploits for some of the vulnerabilities, and then we began to try to sell that information. I guess it isn’t a big surprise I ended up in the vulnerability intelligence business eventually.

Zero-days: Two Questions from Perlroth

I am currently reading “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth, only on page 17 in Chapter 2, so a long ways to go before completing the 471 page tome. While only 17 pages in, there are already some annoyances to be sure, but the tone, scope, and feel of the book is enjoyable so far. I am not sure if I will do a full review at the end or perhaps write some blogs specific to topics like this one. It obviously didn’t take long at all to get to the point where I thought a quick blog with my perspective might be interesting to some.


At the end of Chapter 1, Perlroth summarizes what she sees as the long road ahead for her to tackle the subject of zero-day exploits. This follows her describing one dinner with a variety of security folks from all sides of the topic but seems to center around two zero-day exploit writers not answering some ‘basic’ questions like “who do you sell to?” She uses this to enumerate a list of questions around the topic of zero-day exploits that she would have to face to cover the topic thoroughly. Of the 28 questions she posed to herself, two stood out to me but requires two more to better set the stage:

Who did they sell their zero-days to?
To whom would they not?
How did they rationalize the sale of a zero-day to a foreign enemy? Or to governments with gross human rights violations?

Depending on who you ask, or when you ask them, you may be told these are simple questions and answers, very complex, or like an onion.


When you ask if an exploit broker will sell to governments with “gross human rights violations“, that gets complicated in today’s world of geopolitics while remaining much more simple as far as morals and ethics go. If gross human rights violations are the line in the sand, meaning regular human rights violations are acceptable (?), then it cuts out all of the biggest players in the game; United States, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Before any of my European friends head straight to the comment section, I am not forgetting or neglecting you. Some of the European countries maintain teams that are extremely accomplished and arguably better than the countries I listed. Why? You don’t see their names being splashed in every other headline and attribution claim. Further, some of the most elite zero-day writers from the late 80’s and early 90’s were European. I used to be privy to a handful of some of those exploits and on occasion, brokered (traded, not sold) them between groups. Further, I don’t associate most European countries with the other five as far as gross human rights violations, at least not in recent history.

Since zero-day exploit writers do sell to some of those countries at least (US, CN, RU), and presumably some sell to the other two (IR, KP), now we’re talking shades of grey or onions, depending on your favorite analogy. You’re left trying to draw a line in the sand as to which human rights violations you can accept and at that point, does the question even have relevance? I don’t want to get into a pissing war over who is holier or more evil than the other because each of the five countries above has their long list of sordid atrocities.


Let’s jump back to the third question there, the notion of “foreign enemy”. This is peculiar since the book had already thrown around the term “mercenary” several times in the prologue, and that scenario answers the question simply. A mercenary sells their services to the highest bidder typically, ethics takes a seat in the trunk if it even comes along for the ride. So a simple summary is that some will sell to the highest bidder, end of story.

But does any of the above really matter? Long ago I heard a great quote that is both funny and sardonic, that I think has relevance to the other question:

“We refuse to join any organization that would have us as a member.”

If we’re discussing the notion of being involved with another group (country in this case), isn’t the ethics of selling a zero-day that you know will potentially be used against your own country a lesson in abject self examination? If you are willing to sell to such an organization, one that might cause a power outage, risk human life, or undermine security and privacy as only a nation-state can, is that the kind of organization you want to be a part of? If such an organization or country is willing to buy zero-day exploits from you to use for those purposes, is that the type of organization you want to be affiliated with?

If the answer is no, then Perlroth has the beginning of her answer. If the answer is yes, then we’re back to square mercenary. Pretty simple maybe?

The curiously creeping value of the iOS vulnerability…

[This was originally published on the OSVDB blog.]

The market for vulnerabilities has grown rapidly the last five years. While the market is certainly not new, going back well over ten years, more organizations are interested in acquiring 0-day / private vulnerabilities for a variety of needs. These vulnerabilities cover the gambit in applications and impacts, and range from the tens of dollars to $100,000 or more. While such transactions are sometimes public, high-end vulnerabilities that sell for large sums generally are not a matter of public record. That makes it difficult to track actual sale prices to gauge the value of such vulnerabilities.

In the vulnerability market place, the seller has the power. If they hold a 0-day vulnerability that is in demand, they can set their own price. For the few vulnerability brokers out there, the perception of vulnerability value is critical for their business. In March, 2013, a Forbes piece by Andy Greenberg covered this topic and told of the sale of an iOS vulnerability that allegedly sold for $250,000.

Even with the $250,000 payout [the Grugq] elicited for that deal, he wonders if he could have gotten more. “I think I lowballed it,” he wrote to me at one point in the dealmaking process. “The client was too happy.”

As expected, there is no validation of the claim of the sale. The price tag comes from the vulnerability broker who has an interest in making such prices public, even if they are exaggerated. Jump to July, 2013, and a New York Times article by Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger makes a vague reference to an iOS vulnerability that sold for $500,000.

Apple still has no such program, but its vulnerabilities are some of the most coveted. In one case, a zero-day exploit in Apple’s iOS operating system sold for $500,000, according to two people briefed on the sale.

Given the vague details, it is fairly safe to assume that it references the iOS vulnerability sale from a year earlier. The NY Times article sources many people regarding vulnerability value, including thegrugq on the first page. This means the vague reference to the “two people briefed on the sale” were likely people briefed by thegrugq as well. Ultimately, this means that both articles and both figures, all source to the same person who has a decided interest in publishing high numbers. Without any detail, the journalists could have contacted one or both sources via email, meaning they could have just as well been thegrugq himself.

I find it interesting that in the span of 1 year and 4 months, the price of that iOS vulnerability jumped from $250,000 to $500,000. More to the point, the original $250,000 price is way out of the league of the prices of vulnerabilities at that time, on any market. Some of us were speculating that a (truly) remote vulnerability in a default Windows installation would go for around $100,000, maybe more. Even if you double our suspected price, it wouldn’t surprise me that a nation-state with a budget would purchase for that amount. But an iOS vulnerability, even remote without user interaction, a year ago? That doesn’t make sense given the user-base and distribution.

Even more interesting, consider that 4 days after the NYTimes article, another outlet was reporting the original $250,000 price.

As I mentioned before, none of this is close to being verified. The only source on record, is someone who directly benefits from the perception that the price of that vulnerability is exceedingly high. Creating the market place value of vulnerabilities through main-stream media is brilliant on his part, if what I suspect is true. Of course, it also speaks to the state of journalism that seemingly no one tried to verify this beyond word-of-mouth.