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NSA contracted French cyber-firm for hacking help

Published time: September 17, 2013 21:53
AFP Photo / Jim Watson

AFP Photo / Jim Watson

The latest revelation regarding the National Security Agency doesn't come courtesy of Edward Snowden. A Freedom of Information Act request has confirmed the NSA contracted a French company that makes its money by hacking into computers.

It's no secret that the United States government relies on an arsenal of tactics to gather intelligence and wage operations against its adversaries, but a FOIA request filed by Muckrock's Heather Akers-Healy has confirmed that the list of Uncle Sam's business partners include Vupen, a French-based security company that specializes in selling secret codes used to crack into computers.

Muckrock published on Monday a copy of a contract between the NSA and Vupen in which the US government is shown to have ordered a one-year subscription to the firm's “binary analysis and exploits service” last September.

That service, according to the Vupen website, is sold only to government entities, law enforcement agencies and computer response teams in select countries, and provides clients with access to so-called zero-day exploits: newly-discovered security vulnerabilities that the products' manufacturers have yet to discover and, therefore, have had zero days to patch-up.

Major software vendors such as Microsoft and Adobe usually take 6 to 9 months to release a security patch for a critical vulnerability affecting their products, and this long delay between the discovery of a vulnerability and the release of a patch creates a window of exposure during which criminals can rediscover a previously reported but unpatched vulnerability, and target any organization running the vulnerable software,” Vupen says elsewhere on their website.

Last year, Vupen researchers successfully cracked Google's Chrome browser, but declined to show developers how they did so — even for an impressive cash bounty.

“We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” Vupen CEO Chaouki Bekrar told Forbes' Andy Greenberg of the Chrome hack in 2012. “We don’t want to give them any knowledge that can help them in fixing this exploit or other similar exploits. We want to keep this for our customers.”

And why the NSA and other clients may benefit from being privy to these vulnerabilities, knowing how to exploit security holes in adversarial systems is a crucial component to any government's offensive cyber-operations.

Last month, the Washington Post published excerpts from the previously secretive “black budget,” a closely guarded ledger listing the funding requests made by America's intelligence community provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. According to that document, a substantial goal of the US in fiscal year 2013 was to use a portion of $52.6 billion in secretive funding towards improving offensive cyber-operations.

The portion of the contract obtained by Muckrock where the cost of the subscription is listed has been redacted, but a Vupen hacker who spoke to Greenberg last year said deals in the five-figures wasn't uncommon.

"People seem surprised to discover that major government agencies are acquiring Vupen's vulnerability intelligence," Bekrar wrote in an email to Information Week's Matthew Schwartz after the NSA contract with his signature was published. "There is no news here, governments need to leverage the most detailed and advanced vulnerability research to protect their infrastructures and citizens against adversaries."

Critics of Vupen and its competitors see government-waged cyber-operations in a different light, however. Christopher Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project has spoken outright against companies that sell exploits and have equated the computer codes being sold for big money as a new sort of underground arms trade fueling an international, online battle. To Greenberg last year, Soghoian described Vupen as  a “modern-day merchant of death” selling “the bullets for cyberwar," and upon publishing of the NSA contract called the company a “cyber weapon merchant.”