Anton Prado PHOTO via Shutterstock

Cyber Arms Dealers Peddle 85 Worms a Day

New research says that boutique security firms are finding flaws in software and selling them to the highest bidders--not necessarily the good guys. By Aliya Sternstein

Cyberweapons sold to the government that are powered by glitches in popular software have opened a can of worms for citizens who increasingly are being attacked by nongovernment actors buying from the same arsenal of 85 exploits per day, according to new research. 

Boutique firms are selling details about flaws in products made by Microsoft, Adobe and others -- that even the Microsofts and Adobes don't know about -- to the highest bidder, whether it’s the product maker, the Pentagon, Iran or the mafia.  

They also are selling hacking tools, called “zero-day exploits,” that breach the security holes before the product makers have time to discover the defects.

On any given day during the past three years, high-paying customers have had access to at least 60 vulnerabilities targeting Microsoft, Apple, Oracle and Adobe, according to an NSS Labs study expected to be released on Thursday. The weaknesses remain unknown to the public and, therefore, unfixed for an average of 151 days.

Each year, cyberweapon developers invent a combined 100 exploits -- spyware or code to overtake a computer, for instance – resulting in 85 privately known exploits at the ready on any particular day.

These likely are lowball figures because many groups possessing such information have no incentive to ever tell the product maker or the public, NSS researchers noted.

In the underweb, where hackers hawk illegal goods, an exploit for a system running Windows sells for up to $250,000, BusinessWeek reported. Stuxnet, an alleged U.S.-Israeli worm that sabotaged Iran's nuclear centrifuges, used four zero days. 

It's conceivable that an exploit auctioneer could cheat and sell identical hack tools to multiple customers. But since clients often pay in installments based on the effectiveness of an attack, a merchant that sells the same exploit to the United States, the mafia, and Iran likely would not get fully paid. 

Cyberweapon purveyor and U.S. contractor Endgame Systems reportedly offers customers 25 exploits a year for $2.5 million.

Endgame and similar firms Netragard, Exodus Intelligence, ReVuln in Malta, and Vupen in France advertise that they sell access to vulnerabilities for cyberspying at prices ranging from $35,000 to $160,000, according to The New York Times. While some firms limit their clientele to entities from certain countries or governments, it seems entirely possible a determined cybercriminal could circumvent the screening process, NSS researchers said. 

"Nation states no longer have a monopoly on the latest in cyberweapons technology," stated a draft report reviewed by Nextgov.

Information can be bought from the black market or through "bug bounty" programs, in which citizens who discover glitches earn cash for disclosing them to the product maker. 

"You can give this to the affected vendor to protect 300 million Americans or you can go to the NSA to [target] 1 billion Chinese and then go to the president and brag.  What would be better for your career?" NSS Labs Research Director Stefan Frei, who authored the study, said in an interview. "It, at the end, is humans" who make the call.