Day: March 10, 2015

Testing for the Strawhorse Backdoor in Xcode

In the previous blog post, I highlighted the latest Snowden documents, which reveal a CIA project out of Sandia National Laboratories to author a malicious version of Xcode. This Xcode malware targeted App Store developers by installing a backdoor on their computers to steal their private codesign keys.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 2.09.50 PM

So how do you test for a backdoor you’ve never seen before? By verifying that the security mechanisms it disables are working correctly. Based on the document, the malware apparently infects Apple’s securityd daemon to prevent it from warning the user prior to exporting developer keys:

“… which rewrites securityd so that no prompt appears when exporting a developer’s private key”

A good litmus test to see if securityd has been compromised in this way is to attempt to export your own developer keys and see if you are prompted for permission.

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The Implications of CIA’s Jamboree

Early this morning, The Intercept posted several documents pertaining to CIA’s research into compromising iOS devices (along with other things) through Sandia National Laboratories, a major research and development contractor to the government. The documents outlined a number of project talks taking place at a closed government conference referred to as the Jamboree in 2012. The projects listed in the documents included the following pieces.


Rocoto, a chip-like implant that would likely be soldered to the 30-pin connector on the main board, and act like a flasher box that performs the task of jailbreaking a device using existing public techniques. Once jailbroken, a chip like Rocoto could easily install and execute code on the device for persistent monitoring or other forms of surveilance. Upon firmware restore, a chip like Rocoto could simply re-jailbreak the device. Such an implant could have likely worked persistently on older devices (like the 3G mentioned), however the wording of the document (“we will discuss efforts”) suggests the implant was not complete at the time of the talk. This may, however, have later been adopted into the DROPOUTJEEP implant, which was portrayed as an operational product in the NSA’s catalog published several months ago. The DROPOUTJEEP project, however, claimed to be software-based, where Rocoto seems to have involved a physical chip implant.


Strawhorse, a malicious implementation of Xcode, where App Store developers (likely not suspected of any crimes) would be targeted, and their dev machines backdoored to give CIA injection capabilities into compiled applications. The malicious Xcode variant was capable of stealing the developer’s private codesign keys, which would be smuggled out with compiled binaries. It would also disable securityd so that it would not warn the developer that this was happening. The stolen keys could later be used to inject and sign payloads into the developer’s own products without their permission or knowledge, which could then be widely disseminated through the App Store channels. This could include trojans or watermarks, as the document suggests. With the developer keys extracted, binary modifications could also be made at a later time, if such an injection framework existed.

In spite of what The Intercept wrote, there is no evidence that Strawhorse was slated for use en masse, or that it even reached an operational phase.

NOTE: At the time these documents were reportedly created, a vast majority of App Store developers were American citizens. Based on the wording of the document, this was still in the middle stages of development, and an injection mechanism (the complicated part) does not appear to have been developed yet, as there was no mention of it.

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