As most of the nation watched the Senate battle over a contentious Supreme Court appointment, the FBI and DHS jointly released a “Public Service Announcement,” in which they warn us all, per the announcement title, that “Cyber actors increasingly exploit the Remote Desktop Protocol to conduct malicious activity.”
An interesting aspect of this warning is that we, all of us – “businesses and private citizens” – must “review and understand what remote accesses their networks allow and take steps to reduce the likelihood of compromise, which may include disabling RDP if it is not needed.”
Got it? The government now expects all of us – every single one of us – to understand this threat and take steps to mitigate it. The person who runs the diner down the street, your parents and grandparents, college kids and retirees and disabled people and single parents; we’re all now on the hook for fixing this particular cyber problem.
It is no secret that the Remote Desktop Protocol has long been a source of exploitable vulnerabilities, and it is well known in the cyber community that RDP should be disabled in almost all cases. Jon Hart, senior security researcher at Rapid7, wrote last year in a blog post that there have been 20 Microsoft security updates on threats related to RDP, with at least two dozen individual CVEs dating back to 1999; he also noted that exploits targeting RDP were part of a 2017 ShadowBrokers leak.
However, what the FBI and DHS warning omits is that the Remote Desktop Protocol is really the Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol, a proprietary protocol owned by Microsoft. In fact, the Public Service Announcement does not mention the words “Microsoft” or “Windows” once.
If the U.S. government truly wanted to protect its citizens from the depredations of ransomware operators who, like the SamSam threat actor, are abusing RDP to gain access to victim systems, couldn’t the government work directly with Microsoft to mitigate the vulnerability rather than putting the onus for cyberdefense on the victims?
This warning makes me wonder: What does the U.S. government really care about when it comes to “fixing the cyber”?
Cooperating with vendors on encryption, but not on RDP
When it comes to end-to-end encryption, the FBI sings a different tune.
The FBI has been targeting unbreakable end-to-end encryption because, we’ve been told, it interferes with the government’s ability to get lawful access to relevant evidence in some criminal cases. From the moment the government demanded that Apple decrypt an iPhone used by a shooter who was involved in the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting, it was clear the FBI would continue to take the steps it deemed most effective to battle what it calls “going dark.”
That included pressuring tech giants like Apple, as well as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others; that also includes leaders speaking out in favor of encryption backdoors and lobbying in favor of legislation that would require tech firms to “solve the problem,” or else.
It seems to me that an all-hands, all-fronts effort like the one mustered for “going dark” would be more effective in limiting cyberthreats like RDP than commanding citizens to “be on the lookout.”