Bundestrojaner sparks war of words

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Did hackers uncover a German Government spy operation?

On October 8, Berlin’s hacking collective the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) announced it had analysed a piece of software it believed had been written by the German Government.

Once installed on a computer, the software could quietly listen to conversations on Skype, log keystrokes and switch on the computer’s web-cam. It would then report this data back to servers, two of which were identified – one in the US and the other in Germany.

The program could also be remotely updated and potentially used to install and run other programs. The security company F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen reported its own findings on the malware (malicious software) and confirmed the CCC’s analysis.

It dubbed the trojan “R2D2”, from the text “CRPO-r2d2-POE” used by the software to initiate data transfer.

Regarding the German government’s involvement in the R2D2 trojan, Mikko wrote:

“We have no reason to suspect CCC’s findings, but we can’t confirm that this trojan was written by the German government. As far as we see, the only party that could confirm that would be the German government itself.”

But the CCC believed it had found an example of a “Bundestrojaner” (Government trojan) which, from 2007, was being used to conduct online searches of suspects by law enforcement agencies without much restriction. In 2008, a ruling by a German Constitutional Court restricted use to cases in which human lives or state property were in danger, and only after permission had been granted by a judge.

The CCC maintains the German government used a different term for the spy software to get around the restrictions on online searches: “Quellen-TKÜ”. That means “source wiretapping”, listening to conversations on sources such as Skype, for example, in order to prevent a person from encrypting the conversation.

But the capabilities of the R2D2 trojan allowed for much more than this.

The trojan itself was poorly written and potentially allowed for others to take control of the software once installed. The concern here is that someone could take over the malware and capture information themselves or plant false evidence.

Government use of malware

The use of backdoor trojan software by law enforcement agencies came to the fore in 2001 when the NSA or FBI were rumoured to have produced software known as Magic Lantern.

This software emerged as part of a Freedom of Information request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that revealed documents concerning a project called “Carnivore”.

That project allowed for full online surveillance of a particular internet address. It was used in conjunction with a Magic Lantern backdoor trojan specifically targeted at capturing encryption passwords. This, in turn, would allow the FBI to unencrypt captured communication.

At the time, anti-virus software companies were faced with the dilemma of whether to remove known government backdoor trojans. In 2001, various anti-virus software vendors made declarations about whether their software would remove a suspected FBI backdoor trojan.

Companies such as F-Secure stated categorically they would never knowingly leave detected malware on a computer. Representatives of security software company Sophos agreed but Eric Chien, chief researcher at Symantec at the time stated the company would not detect Government malware.

The assumption was that the software would have enough protective mechanisms in place to prevent the wrong people gaining control of it. As has been demonstrated by the case of the R2D2 trojan, this is quite clearly not the case.

The software has very few protective mechanisms and was open to hijacking, as the CCC demonstrated.

As more human activity migrates to the internet, including criminal and terrorist activities, governments (and law enforcement agencies in particular) will be turning to every available technique to intercept and collect information.

Germany’s BND (foreign intelligence service), it was alleged by Der Spiegel, used spyware to monitor the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Afghanistan and obtain confidential documents, passwords and email.

Surveillance trojans have also been used by the Swiss, and the Austrian Police.

An open barrel

The CCC has made a number of allegations about the origins and potential ramifications of the R2D2 trojan. The group firstly assumed this was a “Bundestrojaner light” because it was sent the software from someone who presumably had cause to believe they were being subjected to a source wiretapping.

Also, according to senior technology consultant Graham Cluley of Sophos, there were comments in the code that were suggestive of a link with German authorities, including the phrase “Ozapftis” – a Bavarian phrase meaning the “Barrel is open”, invoked when the first barrel is opened at Oktoberfest.

Why this is indicative of a German Government hacker rather than an independent German hacker who likes beer is open to debate.

Even if the trojan is one the Government has deployed, it is again an assumption to believe they would utilise the extra capabilities without first seeking a judge’s permission, which, since the 2008 ruling, they are entitled to do in certain limited circumstances.

Although, as has been seen in the US, laws that cover protection against terrorism, such as the Patriot Act are more commonly being used for a range of other purposes, including drug trafficking which made up 73.7 per cent of Patriot Act “sneak-and-peak” searches in 2009.

There are a number of observations that can be made from the CCC’s announcement:

First, anti-spyware software from any company that would even contemplate not detecting malware, irrespective of its origins, would have to be treated with caution. Companies that have declared their approach to detecting all malware should be favoured.

Second, it brings into question the use of government sponsored anti-virus initiatives unless they give free choice of vendors to the public. Why would you trust a government sponsored anti-virus software package if they are also producing malware for general use?

Finally, it’s interesting to note the R2D2 trojan would only work if the person being targeted was using a PC with Windows. So perhaps the easiest solution for anxious German citizens at present is to use Linux, an Apple Mac OSX computer or a smart phone?

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Copyright © SC Magazine, Australia


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