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Microsoft Warns Governments Against Exploit Stockpiling

Microsoft Says WannaCry Ransomware Outbreak Should be a Wake Up Call for Governments

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith has renewed his call for an international 'Digital Geneva Convention' following the global WannaCrypt ransomware attack that started on Friday.

In 'The need for urgent collective action to keep people safe online: Lessons from last week’s cyberattack', Smith wrote Sunday, "The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call. They need to take a different approach and adhere in cyberspace to the same rules applied to weapons in the physical world."

Some estimates now suggest that WannaCrypt has affected more than 200,000 users in 200 different countries. But if Smith's proposals were already standard practice, it need never have happened. Earlier this year he called for a digital Geneva Convention that "should mandate that governments report vulnerabilities to vendors rather than stockpile, sell or exploit them."

"This attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem," he wrote yesterday. "This is an emerging pattern in 2017. We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage."

The current worldwide 'incident', which could be described as 'a perfect storm', happened (and is continuing) through the convergence of three primary threats: the continued use of unsupported operating systems (more specifically, Windows XP); the continuing success of phishing; and the availability of 0-day exploits. 

The exploits were available because the NSA stockpiled cyber weapons, and Shadow Brokers stole and released them. Smith's digital Geneva convention would have mandated that the NSA report them to Microsoft, and Microsoft could have worked with its users to protect against them. "This is one reason," Smith wrote yesterday, "we called in February for a new 'Digital Geneva Convention' to govern these issues, including a new requirement for governments to report vulnerabilities to vendors, rather than stockpile, sell, or exploit them."

In reality, while a digital Cyber Convention may have prevented this particular outbreak, it would not prevent a similar outbreak combining unsupported operating systems, phishing and 0-day exploits. The one part that would help prevent or minimize similar future incidents would be for customers to upgrade their computers to newer and supported versions -- and this simply is not happening fast enough.

In the UK, the National Health Service was badly affected by WannaCrypt because of its reliance on older systems. This has led to a political row (obviously stoked by the run-up to a general election) over NHS funding. The government claims it has provided funds; the opposition parties claim that funding has been insufficient. A hospital will always be tempted to spend its money on saving lives rather than improving its IT infrastructure. Upgrades need to be mandated rather than recommended.

In the US, President Trump has recognized this. The newly signed CyberSecurity Executive Order states "The President will hold heads of executive departments and agencies (agency heads) accountable for managing cybersecurity risk to their enterprises." It then specifically calls out old systems as a risk to be managed: "The executive branch has for too long accepted antiquated and difficult–to-defend IT." The implication is clear -- executive heads will need to upgrade all unsupported old operating systems to new and supported versions; or be held responsible.

Smith's digital Geneva Convention would have prevented these exploits getting into the public domain; but it cannot mandate operating system upgrades. That doesn't mean it's not a good idea nor that it is not necessary, only that it is not a silver bullet. The convention is part of Microsoft's wider call for an international agreement on Norms -- acceptable international norms of cyber behavior.

It is an uphill struggle. Last week's report from America's Intelligence Community -- delivered just two days before the start of the WannaCrypt incident -- states, "Although efforts are ongoing to gain adherence to certain voluntary, non-binding norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace, they have not gained universal acceptance, and efforts to promote them are increasingly polarized... Moreover, although some countries might be willing to explore limits on cyber operations against certain targets, few would likely support a ban on offensive capabilities."

The implication is that the NSA is unlikely to heed Smith's call for a Digital Geneva Convention. It will seek to maintain its ability to maintain offensive capabilities, and that will require continued exploit stockpiling.

Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of High-Tech Bridge, says it would be unreasonable and inappropriate to blame the NSA for any significant contribution to the WannaCry attacks.

"Similar 0days are bought and sold almost every day, and many other organizations participate in these auctions - virtually anyone can (un)intentionally leak an exploit and cause similar damage," Kolochenko told SecurityWeek. "The real problem is that in 2017, the largest companies and governments still fail to patch publicly disclosed flaws for months. Practically speaking, the NSA doesn't really need a 0day to get their data - their negligence 'invite' attackers to get in."

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.