NSA Contracted With Zero-Day Vendor VupenNSA likely used French exploit service to keep tabs on the competition and run "deniable cyber ops," says cyber-weapon critic.
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The National Security Agency (NSA) has been a customer of France-based Vupen Security, which sells zero-day exploits.
That fact was revealed by public records service MuckRock, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the NSA earlier this month seeking "copies of contracts with Vupen Security and any final reports generated and delivered by Vupen to the agency over the past 10 years."
In response, the NSA shared a copy of an 18-page contract for a 12-month subscription to Vupen's "binary analysis and exploits service," dated Sept. 14, 2012. The contract was signed by both the NSA and Vupen CEO Chaouki Bekrar. Under the FOIA Act, some types of commercial and financial information can be withheld, and the cost of the NSA's Vupen subscription was blanked out.
Bekrar -- who's also Vupen's head researcher -- said via email that it was common sense that intelligence agencies would work with vulnerability sellers. "People seem surprised to discover that major government agencies are acquiring Vupen's vulnerability intelligence," he said. "There is no news here, governments need to leverage the most detailed and advanced vulnerability research to protect their infrastructures and citizens against adversaries."
[ Want to know about NSA's decryption capabilities and what they mean for you? See NSA Crypto Revelations: 7 Issues To Watch. ]
Indeed, the NSA's subscription with Vupen -- which bills itself as "the leading provider of defensive and offensive cyber security intelligence" -- is hardly surprising, given what's known about the practice of selling exploits to the U.S. government, especially in the wake of Stuxnet. That malware, which was allegedly built by a combined U.S.-Israeli cyber-weapons program to target centrifuges at a uranium refinery in Iran, included exploits for four different zero-day -- aka previously unknown -- vulnerabilities.
Beyond crafting some future Stuxnet, why else might the NSA contract with a vulnerability seller? "[The] likely reasons for NSA subscription to Vupen's 0day exploits: know what capabilities other [governments] can buy, and false flag, deniable cyber ops," Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said via Twitter. "There are times when U.S. special forces use AK-47s, even though they have superior guns available," he said. "Same for NSA's Vupen purchase. Deniability."
Vupen's website, meanwhile, makes no secret of the fact that it works with "government agencies and the intelligence community," and Bekrar emphasized that customers must meet "strict eligibility criteria," with customers being restricted to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in countries that are members or partners of NATO, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Customers must also meet the requirements of the U.S. government's "Know Your Customer" guidance, and not be in any country that's on a restricted or embargo list maintained by the European Union, United States or United Nations.
Bekrar also said that although the company is based in France, it has no difficulty selling exploit information to eligible foreign governments. "France is one of the largest arms exporters, so why not cyber arms?" he said.
Vupen has previously drawn criticism from security experts, as well as privacy advocates such as Soghoian, who Monday characterized the firm as being a "zero-day cyber weapon merchant."
Why sell exploits? In fact, the vulnerability marketplace can be worth big bucks for bugs that can be turned into weaponized exploits. Last year, for example, the Bangkok-based vulnerability buyer and seller known as the GrugQ -- who takes a 15% commission on deals -- said that six-figure deals are common, and that he won't touch a vulnerability worth less than $50,000.
Vupen, however, differs from vulnerability brokers such as the GrugQ, or HP's Zero Day Initiative, which buy and sell other people's bugs. Bekrar said via Twitter Tuesday that "all of our research is done in-house," and that his firm doesn't buy or sell third-party exploits.
As the NSA contract suggests, business appears to be good for Vupen, which has made a name for itself by taking top prizes in multiple Pwn2Own competitions. Last month, Vupen also announced plans to expand to the United States by opening an office in Maryland and hiring vulnerability researchers who have clearance to handle top secret or sensitive compartmentalized information.
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