Security companies and governments conspire to discover and hide software vulnerabilities that can be used as spyware vectors

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Marcia Hoffman writes about security research companies that work to discover "zero day" vulnerabilities in software and operating systems, then sell them to governments and corporations that want to use them as a vector for installing spyware. France's VUPEN is one such firm, and it claims that it only sells to NATO countries and their "partners," a list that includes Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Russia. As Hoffman points out, even this low standard is likely not met, since many of the governments with which VUPEN deals would happily trade with other countries with even worse human rights records -- if Russia will sell guns to Syria, why not software exploits? VUPEN refuses to disclose their discoveries to the software vendors themselves, even for money, because they want to see to it that the vulnerabilities remain unpatched and exploitable for as long as possible.

“We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” said VUPEN founder Chaouki Bekrar. “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.” VUPEN, which also “pwned” Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, bragged it had an exploit for “every major browser,” as well as Microsoft Word, Adobe Reader, and the Google Android and Apple iOS operating systems.

While VUPEN might be the most vocal, it is certainly not the only company selling high-tech weaponry on the zero-day exploit market. Established U.S. companies Netragard, Endgame, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are also in the business, according to Greenberg. He has also detailed a price list for various zero-day exploits, with attacks for popular browsers selling for well over $100,000 each and an exploit for Apple’s iOS going for a quarter million. But who exactly are these companies selling to? No one seems to really know, at least among people not directly involved in these clandestine exploit dealings. VUPEN claims it only sells to NATO governments and “NATO partners.” The NATO partners list includes such Internet Freedom-loving countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Russia. But it’s a safe bet, as even VUPEN’s founder noted, that the firm’s exploits “could still fall into the wrong hands” of any regime through re-selling or slip-ups, even if VUPEN is careful. Another hacker who goes by the handle “the Grugq” says he acts as a middleman for freelance security researchers and sells their exploits to many agencies in the U.S. government. He implies the only reason he doesn’t sell to Middle Eastern countries is they don’t pay enough.

EFF calls out governments for trafficking in these vulnerabilities, rather than demanding their disclosure and repair. Any unpatched vulnerability puts every user of the affected software at risk. For a government to appropriate a vulnerability to itself and keep it secret in the name of "national security," rather than fixing it for the nation's citizens, is "security for the 1%."

“Zero-day” exploit sales should be key point in cybersecurity debate