The NSA Playset: 5 Better Tools To Defend Systems

Using the NSA ANT Catalog as a model, security researchers learn about new attack techniques and technology.

Rutrell Yasin, Freelance Writer

August 7, 2015

5 Min Read

BLACK HAT USA -- LAS VEGAS -- Inspired by the National Security Agency’s Ant Catalog, a community of security researchers have been working over the past year to make cutting edge security tools more accessible and easier to use and understand, tapping into the open source software community and commercially-available products.

The NSA Playset project “grew out of an interest by security researchers to build the same types of tools nation states use,” applying open source and commercially-available hardware and software, said Michael Ossmann, a wireless security researcher and founder of Great Scott Gadgets, a company that is working to put cybersecurity tools into the hands of innovative people.

The goal of the NSA Playset project is to develop technology and techniques that serve as a demonstration of the types of threats people might not have considered before, Ossmann said during a session on Thursday at Black Hat, entitled NSA Playset: A Year of Toys and Tools.

The NSA ANT Catalog is a 50-page classified document listing technology available to the NSA Tailored Access Operations by the ANT division to aid in cyber surveillance. Most documents are described as already operational and available to U.S. nationals and members of the Five Eyes Alliance – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. The document was first revealed in an article by security researchers in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, which released the catalog to the public on December 30, 2013.

A lot of the hacking techniques and tools revealed in the NSA ANT Catalog were known to the public security research community. However, some were new, which lead researchers like Ossmann wondering why they had not seen some of these exploits before.

“We as a security community as a whole have the benefit of learning from these leaks,” from a technical and threat prevention perspective, Ossmann said. The information helps security researchers learn about the technology and threat techniques they should consider when developing defenses for systems.

So the NSA ANT Catalog gave birth to the idea of the NSA Playset, whose members have been developing a host of “toys and tools” over the past year. Ossmann described more than a dozen during his talk. The tools have been grouped into five categories based on their functions. The categories are: Physical Domination, Hardware Implants, Passive Radio Interception, Active Radio Injection, and Radio Frequency Retroreflectors.

Here are five examples from Ossmann’s presentation. A full list can be found on the NSA Playset website.

Physical Domination
Slotscreamer is an inexpensive PCI Express attack tool that can be used in a number of ways. Ossmann said it can be implanted into a computer and the device allows a person to implement a PCI Express device that can access the memory bus of a computer. Joe Fritz and Miles Crabill built a prototype based on a commercial microchip that serves as a USB device and also as a PCI Express device. An open hardware and software framework that will be released by NSA Playset will give researchers the ability to tinker with Direct Memory Access attacks to read memory, bypass software and hardware security measures.

Hardware Implant
ChuckWagon takes advantage of I2C, a serial bus that many people do not realize they have on their computers. But people doing electronic design use it all the time, Ossmann said. It is typically used to attach lower-speed peripheral ICs to processors and microcontrollers. There are I2C buses on PC motherboards that are exposed to the operating system. However, some are exposed on the outside of computers via VGA cables or HDMI ports. If an interface can be surreptitiously placed on a computer a communications channel could be created to run malware on that computer. At DEFCON last year, Josh Datko and Teddy Reed demonstrated a ChuckWagon prototype using a VGA board attached externally to a computer that gave malware a covert channel into the system.

Passive Radio Interception
There are several tools for sniffing Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) in the NSA Playset. For example, Leviticus is a handheld spectrum analyzer, which existed before the NSA Playset. But it fits nicely into the project so the folks decided to give it a silly name and move it into the NSA Playset, Ossmann said. It is an older mobile phone using the Calypso chipset. Hackers who learned to write code for that chipset over the years have introduced interesting tools. One tool measures the received signal strength indicator from baseband. A lot of RSSI data can be pulled into a large spectrum analyzer application with limited bandwidth embedded into the mobile phone. “I think it is cool that you can take an off-the-shelf mobile phone and do such a thing,” without making any hardware changes, Ossmann said.

Active Radio Injection
Tiny Alamo is a suite of tools for Bluetooth keystroke surveillance and injection. It was presented by Mike Ryan last year at the DEFCON Wireless village. It is more of a software attack, which targets Bluetooth keyboards and mice, which are basically unsecure. Ryan was able to spoof a wireless Bluetooth mouse and inject keystrokes. People might think that they don’t have to worry much about wireless mice, but Ryan demonstrated that an attacker “can take a vulnerable mouse and do something far more powerful with it,” Ossmann said.

RF Retroreflector
CongaFlock is an RF retroreflector built by Ossmann. RF retroreflectors are becoming increasingly important for security reasons, he noted. CongaFlock is designed to be implanted in hardware such as a cable, monitor, keyboard or PC --any kind of electronic device that has a signal that goes over a wire. It gives an attacker the ability to ease-drop on the signal on that wire using radar. Implanted in a keyboard it could let an attacker study keystrokes or sniff video screens, Ossmann said.

The NSA Playset has other projects in development, but Ossmann thought it was a good time to describe the work its members have done over the past year.


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About the Author(s)

Rutrell Yasin

Freelance Writer

Rutrell Yasin has more than 30 years of experience writing about the application of information technology in business and government. He has witnessed all of the major transformations in computing over the last three decades, covering the rise, death, and resurrection of the mainframe; the growing popularity of midrange and Unix-based computers; the advent of the personal computer; client/server computing; the merger of network and systems management; and the growing importance of information security. His stories have appeared in leading trade publications, including MIS Week, The Report on IBM, CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek, Federal Computer Week, and Government Computer News. His focus in recent years has been on documenting the rise and adoption of cloud computing and big-data analytics. He has a keen interest in writing stories that show how technology can help spur innovation, make city streets and buildings safer, or even save lives.

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