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FBI admits to using zero-day exploits, not disclosing them

The FBI has admitted to using zero-day exploits rather than disclosing them, and experts say this should not be a surprise considering the history of federal agency actions.

In a surprise bout of openness, Amy Hess, executive assistant director for science and technology with the FBI, admitted that the FBI uses zero-day exploits, but said the agency does struggle with the decision.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Hess called it a "constant challenge" to decide whether it is better to use a zero-day exploit "to be able to identify a person who is threatening public safety" or to disclose the vulnerability in order to allow developers to secure products being used by the public. Hess also noted the FBI prefers not to rely on zero-day exploits because the fact that they can be patched at any moment makes them unreliable.

Jeff Schilling, CSO for Armor, said the surprise might come from the fact that many people don't know that the FBI has a foreign intelligence collection mission.

"Any agency that has a foreign intelligence collection mission in cyberspace has to make decisions every day on the value gained in leveraging a zero day to collect intelligence data, especially with the impact of not letting people who are at risk know of the potential vulnerability which could be compromised," Schilling said, adding that the need for the government to find a balance between security and intelligence is not a new phenomenon. "This country experienced the same intelligence gained versus operational impact during World War II (WWII) when the intelligence community did not disclose that we had broken both the Japanese and German codes. Lots of sailors, soldiers and airmen lost their lives to keep those secrets. I think the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community have the same dilemmas as the intelligence community in WWII, however, at this point, data, not lives are at risk."

Robert Hansen, vice president for WhiteHat Security Labs, said it boils down to whether the public trusts the government to not abuse its power in this area, and whether the government should assume that only it knows about these exploits.

"In general, I think that although the net truth is that most people in government have good intentions, they can't all be relied upon to hold such belief systems," Hansen said. "And, given that in most cases exploits are found much later, it stands to reason that it's more dangerous to keep vulnerabilities in place. That's not to diminish their value, however, it's very dangerous to presume that an agency is the only one [that] can and will find and leverage that vulnerability."

Adam Kujawa, head of malware intelligence at Malwarebytes Labs, said the draw of zero-day exploits may be too strong for government agencies to resist.

"The 'benefit' of this method [is] simply having access to a weapon that theoretically can't be protected against," Kujawa said. "This is like being able to shoot someone with a nuke when they are only wearing a bullet proof vest -- completely unstoppable, theoretically. Law enforcement, when they have a target in mind, be it a cybercriminal, terrorist, et cetera, are able to breach the security of the suspect and gather intelligence or collect information on them to identify any criminal activity that might happen or will happen."

Daren Glenister, field CTO at Intralinks Inc., noted that while leaving vulnerabilities unpatched leads to risk, there is also some benefit to not publishing vulnerabilities too soon.

"Patching a threat may take a vendor days or weeks. Every hour lost in providing a patch introduces additional risk to data and access to systems," Glenister said. "[However], by not publishing zero-day threats, it minimizes the widespread underground threat from hackers that occurs every time a new threat is disclosed."

The NSA recently detailed its vulnerability disclosure policy, but while doing so never mentioned whether or not the agency used zero-day exploits. Multiple experts said this admission by the FBI makes it safe to assume the NSA is also leveraging zero days in its efforts.

Adam Meyer, chief security strategist at SurfWatch Labs Inc., said it is not only reasonable to expect the NSA is actively exploiting zero days, but many others are as well.

"I believe it is safe to assume that any U.S. agency with a Defense or Homeland Security mission area are using exploits to achieve a presence against their targets," Meyer said. "Unfortunately, I also think it is safe to assume that every developed country in the world is doing the exact same thing. The reality is a zero day can be used against us just as much as for us."

Schilling said using zero days may not be the only option, but noted that human intelligence gathering carries much greater risks.

"At the end of the day, if we are leveraging zero days to stay ahead of our national threats, I am ok with us accepting the risk of data loss and compromises," Schilling said. "History has shown that we have accepted higher costs to protect our intelligence collection, and I think we are still OK today in the risk we are accepting as it is to save lives."

Kujawa said that while there are viable alternatives to using zero days to gather intelligence, it is hard to ignore the ease and relative safety of this method.

"There are plenty of viable methods of extracting information from a suspect; however the zero-day method is incredibly effective, very quiet and very fast. Law enforcement could attack systems using known exploits, social engineering tactics or gaining physical access to the system and installing malware manually, however none of these methods are guaranteed and they all can be protected against if the suspect is practicing common security procedures. The zero-day method will fall into the same bucket as the other attacks soon enough, however, so we will have to wait and see what the future holds for law enforcement in trying to gather evidence and intelligence on criminal suspects."

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