On the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, two Italian hackers have been searching for bugs. Not the island’s many beetle varieties, but secret flaws in computer code that governments pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn about and exploit.
The hackers, Luigi Auriemma, 32, and Donato Ferrante, 28, sell technical details of such vulnerabilities to countries that want to break into the computer systems of foreign adversaries. The two will not reveal the clients of their company, ReVuln, but big buyers of services like theirs include the National Security Agency (NSA) — which seeks the flaws for the growing arsenal of US cyberweapons — and US adversaries like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
All over the world, from South Africa to South Korea, business is booming in what hackers call “zero days,” when the coding flaws in software like Microsoft’s Windows that can give a buyer unfettered access to a computer and any business, agency or individual dependent on one.
The flaws get their name from the fact that once discovered, “zero days” exist for the user of the computer system to fix them before hackers can take advantage of the vulnerability. A “zero-day exploit” occurs when hackers or governments strike by using the flaw before anyone else knows it exists, like a burglar who finds, after months of probing, that there is a previously undiscovered way to break into a house without sounding an alarm.
Just a few years ago, hackers like Auriemma and Ferrante would have sold the knowledge of coding flaws to companies like Microsoft and Apple, which would fix them. Last month, Microsoft sharply increased the amount it was willing to pay for such flaws, raising its top offer to US$150,000.
Increasingly, however, the businesses are being outbid by countries with the goal of exploiting the flaws in pursuit of the kind of success, albeit temporary, that the US and Israel achieved three summers ago when they attacked Iran’s nuclear enrichment program with a computer worm that became known as “Stuxnet.”
“Governments are starting to say, ‘In order to best protect my country, I need to find vulnerabilities in other countries,’” former White House cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt said. “The problem is that we all fundamentally become less secure.”
A zero-day bug could be as simple as a hacker’s discovering an online account that asks for a password, but does not actually require typing one to get in. Bypassing the system by hitting the “Enter” key becomes a zero-day exploit. The average attack persists for almost a year — 312 days — before it is detected, according to Symantec, the maker of antivirus software. Until then it can be exploited or “weaponized” by both criminals and governments to spy on, steal from or attack their target.
Ten years ago, hackers would hand knowledge of such flaws to Microsoft and Google in exchange for a T-shirt or perhaps for an honorable mention on a company’s Web site. Even today, so-called patriotic hackers in China regularly hand over the information to the government.
Now, the market for information about computer vulnerabilities has turned into a gold rush. Disclosures by Edward Snowden, the former National NSA consultant who leaked classified documents, made it clear that the US is among the buyers of programming flaws. The US is hardly alone.