Digital threats, detection, protection and (counter) moves

From Gender and Tech Resources

Social engineering

These tables were started off from and then added to. I started off from a to gendersec external source to increase chances of finding that which we may be overlooking.

Internal threats

More information (Counter) moves
Power of scarcity Scarcity is when people are told something they need or want has limited availability and to get it they must comply with a certain attitude or action. Many times the desired behavior is not even spoken, but the way it is conveyed is by showing people who are acting "properly" getting rewards.

Mental shortcuts are often beneficial because they enable us to more efficiently navigate the complexity of life. But the power of scarcity can also mislead us. If some people get something not everyone else has (energy, food, water), it makes them feel "special", "unique", "high status", and gives a "position" to defend. And fear of loss of that is an attachment.

An example is a government, in this case South Africa, taking something necessary to life, and making it "scarce" and available only to supporters — a malicious, but very effective, manipulation tactic: See timeline merchants of death for more examples.

Scarcity complicates Gut/Head decision processes because, often, there is only a brief window of opportunity in which we can select something that is in scarce supply. When we can see the supply diminishing before our eyes, we feel particularly compelled to take action.

Each context and scarcity is different, but mind not to rule out the head too quickly in "Gut versus Head" decisions.

Fear of authority Many people are apprehensive in the presence of someone they perceive to be an authority figure, it is not that person they are apprehensive about but most likely the position and power of the person that intimidates them.

The attackers take on roles of authority figures such as law enforcement officers or high-ranking company officials to extract sensitive information from the victims.

Protect yourself with learning about elicitation (in roleplay settings) and then, time for some controlled folly!
Desire to be helpful People in their desire to be helpful and to solve other peoples queries, give out a lot of information that otherwise should not be. Do not disclose information to an outsider as it could give an attacker a chance to get unauthorised access.
Laziness All of us have come across some job that requires us to do only a specified set of activities and nothing more. This causes boredom to the person who performs the same task repeatedly on a daily basis and over time the "bored" learn "shortcuts" to do the tasks using minimal effort while meeting targets. This leads to a laid back attitude and becoming susceptible to attackers who target such individuals knowing they can get the required information with much ease. Find ways of keeping yourself alert. Go do something else. You are becoming a sitting duck.
Ego Many a times, the attacker makes a person more emotionally sure of himself/herself, thus removing the logical awareness of the security breach that is occurring. The result is that the person being hacked senses no harm in providing whatever it is that the attacker is requesting. The reason that such an attack succeeds is that the attacker is a receptive audience for victims to display how much knowledge they have. The ego isn’t going to go away and whether it makes you vulnerable depends on the context. A bit of swagger based on achievements can be quite okay now and then! In some other contexts allowing your ego to call the shots can be a problem.

The simplest detector is asking yourself: Do you feel superior (or inferior) to others? If yes, then your ego is in control. Depending on context choose "not now, not here, not with this" or "do some counter-intelligence" or "Arrrrr, and a bottle of rum!"

Excitement of victory & fear of loss Yes! An opportunity! Easy money!!! Out of excitement security is switched off, links are clicked and documents downloaded that turn out to be corrupted (and contained malware that allows the email sender to gain remote access to the machine, or someone's funds, or data, or ...).

Or, "You have won 1 Million Dollars and to claim the winning amount, deposit $75,000 in Account number: XXXXXX in 10 days from receiving this e-mail, failing to which the winning amount would be declared unclaimed and there would be a nee lucky-draw to decide the next winner"

An example is the 419 scams many people fell for

It is another ego thing isn't it?
Insufficient knowledge People with insufficient knowledge can easily be exploited by creating a sense of urgency and not allowing much time to think and understanding the fact that they are under attack. Gather (and spread) knowledge in a relaxed way. Stay with your own timing. Do the best you can.

External threats

More information (Counter) moves
Shoulder surfing Shoulder surfing is a security attack where-in, the attacker uses observational techniques, such as looking over someone's shoulder, to get information while they are performing some action that involves explicit usage of sensitive, visible information. This can be performed at a close range as well as at a long range using binoculars or other vision-enhancing devices. Don't work on anything important in public.
Dumpster diving Going through the trash can yield one of the most lucrative payoffs for information gathering. People often throw away invoices, notices, letters, CDs, computers, USB keys, and a plethora of other devices and reports that can truly give amazing amounts of information. The attacker can use these items to get a huge amount of information about people, organisations they participate in, and network structure.

Some people shred documents but some types of shredding can be thwarted with a little time and patience and some tape.

Mind what you throw away where and how.

Using a shredder that shreds both directions into a fine minced mess makes taping documents back together nearly impossible. Or incinerate. Or both.

Role playing Role playing is one of the key weapons for a social engineer. It involves persuading or gathering information through the use of online chat sessions, emails, phones or any other method that you use to interact online with others, and in which the social engineer plays the role of a helpdesk or technician, helplessness, or whatever may work in that context to get targets to divulge confidential information. Don't "burn" the social engineer. Apply controlled folly instead, and then let's see who is the cat here and who the mouse: Feed them incorrect information. Remember what the intent is. Intent is the key element in intelligence and counter-intelligence operations.
Trojan horses It is one of the most predominant methods currently used by online criminals and intelligence agencies that involve tricking victims into downloading a malicious file to their machine, which on execution creates a backdoor in the machine that can be used by the attacker any time in the future and thus having complete access of the victim's machine. Compromising a browser is relatively easy and it is cross-platform, hence an often chosen attack vector. [1].

Among all of the NSA hacking operations exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden over the last two years, one in particular has stood out for its sophistication and stealthiness. Known as Quantum Insert, the man-on-the-side hacking technique has been used to great effect since 2005 by the NSA and its partner spy agency, Britain’s GCHQ, to hack into high-value, hard-to-reach systems and implant malware.

Detection focuses on identifying anomalies in the data packets that get sent to a victim’s browser client when the browser attempts to access web pages

For more such tools run by intelligence agency for targeted surveillance see infected firmware below.

Phishing Phishing is the act of creating and using websites and e-mails designed to look like those of well-known legitimate businesses, financial institutions and government agencies to deceive receivers into disclosing their personal information. These are semantic attacks.
  • Be suspicious of any email with urgent requests for personal (financial) information.
  • Set your email client to receive email in plaintext, never html format.
  • Check any url in the email carefully. It can be just one letter different or missing.
  • If phishy, report it.
Information on websites, online forums and social media Huge amounts of information regarding organisational structures (formal and informal), email adresses, phone numbers, are all available publicly on websites, forums and social media. This information can be used by the attacker to refine his approach and create a plan on whom to target and methods most likely to succeed. Several moves are possible (not necessarily exclusive):
  • Delete your social media presence
  • Use different identities for your various social contexts
Reverse social engineering A reverse social engineering attack is an attack in which an attacker convinces a target that he or she has a problem or might have a certain problem in the future and that the attacker, is ready to help solve the problem.

Reverse social engineering involves three parts:

  • Sabotage: After the attacker gains a simple access to the system, he corrupts the system or gives it an appearance of being corrupted. When the user sees the system in the corrupted state, he starts looking for help so as to solve the problem.
  • Marketing: In order to make sure that the user approaches the attacker with the problem, the attacker advertises himself as the only person who can solve the problem.
  • Support: In this step, the attacker gains the trust of the target and obtains access to sensitive information.
If your alarm didn't go off in the sabotage step, when your system appearing corrupt coincided with this remarkable good fortune of someone being right there at the right time ready to help, then let your alarm go off at the false dilemma you are presented with in the marketing step.

Targeted surveillance

Hardware implants

Unless you are targeted by a government intelligence agency, there seems to be no need to worry about installing commodity hardware from reputable vendors.

Detection: Looking for physical devices will always be the easiest solution to detect them. The links to NSA exploits of the day were added for the comments. :)

More information Possible types of attacks Detection
Godsurge Godsurge is a physical device plugged-in to the Joint Test Action Group or JTAG headers on a system's motherboard. JTAG headers can be found on many systems and are notoriously common in embedded devices. These headers are used during the development process for debugging purposes: they give you a direct interface with the CPU and are extremely helpful. They are commonly left on the production boards, so finding them on a device is normal and not a security concern. However, if there is a chip or board wired in to a device's JTAG headers that you did not wire in yourself, then something fishy may be going on. The JTAG debugging interface can be used to reflash the BIOS from scratch, for example loading a compromised version of the software. Look for the JTAG connecter on the motherboard. The location of the JTAG headers may differ, but they tend to be near the CPU and may have exposed pins (or not). See the Wikipedia page on JTAG for more information and to see what they look like [2]
Ginsu and Bulldozer Ginsu provides software application persistence on target systems with the PCI bus hardware implant, Bulldozer

Exploit persistence from a PCI card ROM Open up the computer's case and look for a PCI card that does not belong. For example, if you find a PCI card that appears to serve no purpose (e.g.. not your network card or it has no external ports), then perhaps try removing it and see how things work. If a few black SUVs roll up to your house after unplugging the PCI card, it's probably not because your domicile is the set for a rap superstar's new music video. Or maybe it is.
Cottonmouth I, Cottonmouth II and Cottonmouth III These bugs are embedded somewhere along the USB bus and function as an air gap bridge to assist in exfiltration of data as well as allow persistent compromise. It can be embedded directly in the USB headers in an existing USB peripheral (USB hub or keyboard). These devices allow for exfiltration of data over unknown radio frequencies to listening devices in the area, even on a system that is not connected to the internet.

USB host attack Open up the keyboard or USB hub and identify a board that serves no purpose to the device. The malicious USB device would also likely show up on your computer's list of USB devices, so just checking there would be a good place to start.

Radio frequency exfiltration

The devices used can vary, but they all employ a similar method of communication via an unknown radio/radar protocol. The frequencies are not known and based on the information leaked the devices are passive (only power on when data is being extracted) making identification of (type of) signal (and intelligence) hard.

Detection: First check for evidence of a device which has been wired in to an existing device such as a keyboard or other peripheral. The SpiderBlog describes the following possibility: You can check if there are RF transmitters in a device by monitoring the spectrum (using an amateur RF listening bug detector) while the device is off (to get a baseline for ambient RF background noise) and then monitoring it again after the suspect device is turned on and transmitting data via radio frequency. The detection device would pick up the signal and alert the user. [3] Further analysis of the signal and its intelligence is still hard, as the exact protocols are (still) unknown.

More information Possible types of attack
Howlermonkey Short to medium range Radio Transceiver

HOWLERMONKEY is a COTS-based transceiver deigned to be compatible with CONJECTURE/SPECULATION networks and STRIKEZONE devices running a HOWLERMONKEY personality. PCB layouts are tailored to individual implant space requirements and can vary greatly in form factor.
Ragemaster Hardware implant in a VGA cable that sends video data over RF

The RAGEMASTER taps the red video line between the video card within the desktop unit and the computer monitor, typically an LCD. When the RAGEMASTER is illuminated by a radar unit, the illuminating signal is modulated with the red video information. This information is re-radiated, where it is picked up at the radar, demodulated, and passed onto the processing unit, such as a LFS-2 and an external monitor, NIGHTWATCH, GOTHAM, or (in the future) VIEWPLATE. The processor recreates the horizontal and vertical sync of the targeted monitor, thus allowing TAO personnel to see what is displayed on the targeted monitor.
Loudauto Hardware device that sends amplified audio over RF

Room audio is picked up by the microphone and converted into an analog electrical signal. This signal is used to pulse position modulate (PPM) a square wave signal running at a pre-set frequency. This square wave is used to turn a FET (field effect transistor) on and off. When the unit is illuminated with a CW signal from a nearby radar unit, the illuminating signal is amplitude-modulated with the PPM square wave. This signal is re-radiated, where it is picked up by the radar, then processed to recover the room audio. Processing is currently performed by COTS equipment with FM demodulation capability (Rohde & Schwarz FSH-series portable spectrum analyzers, etc.) LOUDAUTO is part of the ANGRYNEIGHBOR family of radar retro-reflectors.
Surleyspawn Hardware implant in a keyboard that emits keystrokes over RF

The board taps into the data line from the keyboard to the processor. The board generates a square wave oscillating at a preset frequency. The data-line signal is used to shift the square wave frequency higher or lower, depending on the level of the data-line signal. The square wave, in essence, becomes frequency shift keyed (FSK). When the unit is illuminated by a CW signal from a nearby radar, the illuminating signal is amplitude-modulated (AM) with this square wave. The signal is re-radiated, where it is received by the radar, demodulated, and the demodulated signal is processed to recover the keystrokes. SURLYSPAWN is part of the ANGRYNEIGHBOR family of radar retro-reflectors.

Infected firmware

Detection: Dump the BIOS to a bin file and compare the hash with a clean BIOS hash. See flashrom for identifying, reading, writing, erasing, and verifying BIOS/ROM/flash chips [4].

Removal: For each of these infections, where applicable, pulling the chip and replacing it with a new freshly burned BIOS chip or compact flash card would be sufficient. When dealing with built-in firmware it's a bit more difficult than pulling and replacing. You will need to re-flash the device using an operating system that is not at risk of being attacked by the infected firmware. You could boot the device into a low level OS in hopes that the firmware infection isn't able to protect itself. Or, you could wire in a debugging header to the device (such as JTAG , if available) to read or write the firmware on the device to clean things up for good.

More information Possible types of attack Protection
Dietybounce Motherboard BIOS Infector

Through remote access or interdiction, ARKSTREAM is used to reflash the BIOS on a target machine to implant DEITYBOUNCE and its payload (the implant installer). Implantation via interdiction may be accomplished by nontechnical operator through use of a USB thumb drive. Once implanted, DEITYBOUNCE's frequency of execution (dropping the payload) is configurable and will occur when the target machine powers on. Most motherboards can be flashed with coreboot tutorials:
Swap Hard Drive Firmware Infector

Through remote access or interdiction, ARKSTREAM is used to reflash the BIOS and TWISTEDKILT to write the Host Protected Area on the hard drive on a target machine in order to implant SWAP and its payload (the implant installer). Once implanted, SWAP's frequency of execution (dropping the playload) is configurable and will occur when the target machine powers on. Most motherboards can be flashed with coreboot tutorials:
Headwater, sierramontana, and jetplow Firmware backdoors that target popular networking hardware

HEADWATER PBD implant will be transferred remotely over the Internet to the selected target router by Remote Operations Center (ROC) personnel. After the transfer, the PBD will be installed in the router's boot ROM via an upgrade command. The PBD will then be activated after a system reboot. Once activated, the ROC operators will be able to use DNT's HAMMERMILL Insertion Tool (HIT) to control the PBD as it captures and examines all IP packets passing through the host router.

Currently, the intended DNT Implant to persist is VALIDATOR, which must be run as a user process on the target operating system. The vector of attack is the modification of the target's BIOS. The modification will add the necessary software to the BIOS and modify its software to execute the SIERRAMONTANA implant at the end of its native System Management Mode (SMM) handler.

JETPLOW persists DNT's BANANAGLEE software implant and modifies the Cisco firewall's operating system (OS) at boot time. If BANANAGLEE support is not available for the booting operating system, it can install a Persistent Backdoor (PDB) designed to work with BANANAGLEE'S communications structure, so that full access can be reacquired at a later time.

Most routers can be flashed with openWRT

Dragnet surveillance

This table lists theoretical defenses and detection methods for selected groups of leaked surveillance programs and services. This is just a thought experiment covering (theoretical) defenses against these attacks and not intended to spread fear, uncertainty or doubt about surveillance states.

Due to the age and limited scope of the leaked documents and what we are up against [5], the defenses mentioned in these tables should not be relied upon for protection and I make no guarantees to their accuracy. Do your own research and make informed decisions, knowing it is impossible to be completely safe. Things move incredibly fast in this arena and I will update these tables when more is found and/or theorised.

Ideally we discuss these exploits and counter moves without the NSA being privy to those discussion, but that would make spreading possible counter moves too slow for the surveillance development cycle (security arms race) and effectively exclude non-techie activists from being able to defend themselves to some extent, so the next best solution is to discuss everything in the open, rather than not discussing them at all. May we not have to rely on a new class of technocracy.

Best protection: Smash your PC to bits, distribute the pieces randomly among a dozen scrap heaps, and move into the woods, deep in the woods ...

More information Protection
PRISM PRISM is part of the overall NSA surveillance effort - a program authorised in the united states under the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), now located in Section 702 of the FISA, that allows the NSA to collect communications of specifically identified foreign targets.

When people in the rest of the world use the net, they are effectively using US-based services, making them a legal target for US intelligence. NSA has no "direct access" to the servers of companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google - other agencies collect the data. More here

Gathers emails, chat--video, voice, photos, stored data, VoIP, file transfers, video conferencing, notifications of target activity--logins, etc, online social networking details, and special requests collected by other programs from nine major Silicon Valley technology companies: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and AOL.
  • Put political pressure on the united states - economical and political dependencies are making that unlikely, see the power of scarcity above.
  • Avoid using popular web services.
  • FOIA's, court cases on legitimacy
Upstream collection It appears that through Upstream collection, the NSA gains access to data by forming partnerships with both foreign intelligence agencies and foreign telecommunication companies, by partnering with united states telecommunications companies that then make agreements with international companies for their internet data. More here BLARNEY seems to focus specifically on metadata information about communications traffic and network devices (where and when they were sent).

FAIRVIEW collects just about everything on packet and session levels.


Table initially filled with data from How to effectively argue against Internet Censorship ideas

Proxy servers, especially anonymous ones, located outside the area where a censorship solution is deployed can be used quite easily to circumvent any blocking method; users can modify their operating system or browser settings, or install browser additions that make using this circumvention method trivial. It is possible to block the proxy servers themselves (via IP-blocking, keyword blocking, etc.), however it is infeasible to block them all, as they are easy to set-up.

Virtual Private Networks (including “poor man’s VPNs” like SSH tunnels) require more technical prowess and usually a (usually commercial) VPN service (or SSH server) outside the area with blocking deployed. Blocking all VPN/SSH traffic is possible, but requires deep packet inspection and is a serious problem for many legitimate businesses using VPNs (and SSH) as their daily tools of trade, to allow their employees access to corporate networks from outside physical premises, via a secured link on the Internet.

TOR, or The Onion Router, is a very effective (if a bit slow) circumvention method. It is quite easy to set-up — users can simply download the TOR Browser Bundle and use it to access the Internet. Due to the way it works it is nigh-impossible to block TOR traffic (as it looks just like vanilla HTTPS traffic), to the point that it is known to allow access to the uncensored Internet to those living in areas with most aggressive Internet censorship policies — namely China, North Korea and Iran. See Tor threats.

None of the censorship solutions is able to block content on darknets — virtual networks accessible anonymously only via specialised software (for instance TOR, I2P, FreeNet), and guaranteeing high resilience to censorship through technical composition of the networks themselves. Because darknets are both practically impossible to block entirely and not allowing for any content blocking within them, they are effectively the ultimate circumvention methods. The downside to using darknets is their lower bandwidth. Deploying Internet censorship pushes the to-be-blocked content into darknets, making it ever-harder for law enforcement gather evidence and researchers gather data on the popularity of a given type of censored content.

Blocking type How it works Circumvention DPI
DNS-based blocking DNS-based blocking requires ISPs (who usually run their own DNS servers, being default for their clients) to de-list certain domains (so that they are not resolvable when using these DNS servers). This means that the costs of implementing it are small. Custom DNS server settings can be used to easily circumvent DNS-based blocking. It does not require almost any technical prowess and can be used by anybody. There is a number of publicly available DNS servers that can be used for this purpose. There is no way to easily block the use of this method without deploying censorship methods other than pure DNS-blocking. no
IP address-based blocking IP-based blocking requires the ISPs to either block certain IP addresses

internally or route all the outgoing connections via a central, government-mandated censoring entity. It is only superficially harder to circumvent, while retaining most if not all problems of DNS-based blocking.

URL-based blocking Because this method blocks only certain, URL-identified content, not whole websites or servers (as do DNS-based and IP-based methods), it has much lower potential for accidental over-blocking. This also entails it has a higher potential for under-blocking, as the content can be available on the same server under many different URLs, and changing just a small part of the name defeats the filter. yes
Dynamic blocking This method uses deep packet inspection to read the contents of data being transmitted, and compares it with a list of keywords, or with image samples or video (depending on the content type). yes
Hash-based blocking Hash-based blocking uses deep packet inspection to inspect the contents of data-streams, hashes them with cryptographic hash functions and compares to a known database of hashes to be blocked. yes
Hybrid solutions In order to compromise between high-resource, low-over-blocking hash-based blocking and low-resource, high-over-blocking IP- or DNS-based solutions, a hybrid solution might be proposed. Usually it means that there is a list of IP addresses or domain names for which the hash-based blocking is enabled, hence only operating for a small part of content. This method does employ deep packet inspection. yes

Server attacks

Significance Prevention/Protection
XXS Cross-site scripting is a vulnerability in php web applications. Attackers can exploit it to steal user information. Configure web server and write better secured PHP scripts (validating all user input)
SQL injection SQL injection is a vulnerability in the database layer of a php application. Any SQL statements can be executed by the application. Configure the web server and write secure code (validating and escaping all user input)
File uploads Allowing users to place files on the server. Can be used to delete files, databases, get user details and much more Validate user input and only allow image file type such as png or gif.
Including local and remote files An attacker can open files from remote server and execute any PHP code. Can be used to upload files, delete files and install backdoors. Configure php to disable remote file execution.
eval() Evaluate a string as PHP code. Can be used by an attacker to hide their code and tools on the server itself. Configure php to disable eval().
CSRF A Cross-Site Request Forgery forces an authenticated end user to execute unwanted actions on a web application. Can compromise end user data and operation in case of normal user. If the targeted end user is the administrator account, this can compromise the entire web application. See the Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) Prevention Cheat Sheet



  1. Meet The Hackers Who Sell Spies The Tools To Crack Your PC (And Get Paid Six-Figure Fees)
  2. Wikipedia JTAG
  3. Detecting A Surveillance State - Part 2 Radio Frequency Exfiltration
  4. Debian packages: flashrom
  5. Cryptome: Communications privacy folly