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🔑 Key Takeaways

  1. The history of software engineering began in the 1960s after a devastating spacecraft crash, emphasizing the importance of reliability testing. Furthermore, computer science education has evolved, providing numerous opportunities for aspiring software engineers.
  2. Understanding Assembly language provides a deeper understanding of how computers process information and memory. Maddie's expertise allowed her to decipher any program and work as a reverse engineer at Google's Android security team.
  3. By reverse-engineering APK files, experts like Maddie can flag malware-containing apps and alert users through Google Play protect system, ultimately helping to protect millions of Android devices from attacks.
  4. Maddie's work highlights the need for constant vigilance in finding and fixing bugs to protect users and maintain cybersecurity.
  5. Google Project Zero's approach of combining different forces, including the expertise of a reverse engineer like Maddie, can help identify patterns and prevent zero-day exploits from harming vulnerable groups such as human rights defenders, journalists, minorities, and politicians.
  6. It is important to detect and fix zero-day vulnerabilities to prevent exploitation of innocent people. Deep understanding and teamwork are necessary to solve complex bug issues. A neutral approach to bug fixing is essential regardless of national interests.
  7. Updating operating systems and apps is crucial to secure devices and prevent nation-state actors or hackers from exploiting vulnerabilities. Always act fast in response to suspicious activity and work with vendors to patch any bugs.
  8. Even with good security hygiene, individuals and entities can still be targeted by state actors using zero-day exploits. Understanding the philosophy behind cybersecurity can help make the world a safer place for information and education.
  9. Maddie and her team are working to build up defenses to help everyone defend against attackers. Their efforts will make it harder for attackers to find vulnerabilities and develop new bug classes that have never been seen before.
  10. Focusing on in-the-wild zero-day exploits and improving transparency around them can help allocate resources strategically and increase user awareness. Collaboration between researchers and targeted populations is crucial for detecting and mitigating sophisticated actors.

📝 Podcast Summary

The Evolution of Software Engineering and the Importance of Reliability Testing

Software engineering became a discipline in the 1960s after the Mariner 1 spacecraft crashed due to a tiny bug in the computer code, launch a whole new field of study and new principles for designing, developing, and testing computer software. This incident highlights the need for reliability testing in software and how a small mistake can lead to catastrophic consequences. Additionally, computer science education has come a long way since the 1950s when the term 'software engineer' did not exist and engineers were managing without the tools of modern development. Today's computer science students can take advantage of many scholarships, work-study programs, and alternative funding schemes providing ample opportunities for those interested in pursuing this lucrative field.

Maddie's Expertise in Assembly Language and Computer Hardware.

Maddie's fascination with Assembly language and her deep understanding of computer hardware allowed her to decipher any program and work as a reverse engineer at Google's Android security team. Assembly language is low-level and comprises rudimentary commands like move, push, pop, add, subtract, etc. However, it can interact with memory and CPU in ways that high-level languages cannot, making it efficient. Moreover, one can open up the computer case, probe the circuit board, and see what signals are moving through the circuitry, giving ultimate power over the computer. Maddie spent four years researching hardware and firmware at Applied Physics Lab and simultaneously earned a Masters's degree in Computer Science. Her proficiency in Assembly language gave her a deeper understanding of how computers handle memory and processes.

Using Reverse-Engineering to Protect Android Devices from Malware

Reverse-engineering is an important process to analyze Android malware. Maddie and her team focus on finding malware in Android devices, including pre-installed and off-Google Play Store apps. GinMaster is one of the most common types of malware infecting millions of devices, stealing user data and giving hackers control over the device. Users unknowingly download and install the virus when they are tricked into installing a lookalike app. Maddie reviews APK files to flag apps containing malware and puts flags into Google Play protect system to alert users. The next step is to write automated solutions since there are too many apps to analyze. Overall, reverse-engineering helps identify malware and protect users from harm.

Maddie's mission to detect and prevent malware

Maddie, a Google security engineer, investigates and analyzes sophisticated malware. She presented on a native library used by a botnet at Black Hat, and the malware authors quickly updated their techniques to evade detection. Maddie's goal is to make it harder for people to make malware and easier to find it. She was contacted by Google Project Zero, a team that focuses on finding zero-day vulnerabilities, which could protect not just Google products but any software that Google users may run. If a bug is found, the team alerts the vendor and starts a timer to fix it. Maddie's work demonstrates the importance of constant vigilance in detecting and preventing malware to protect users and maintain cybersecurity.

Combining Forces to Tackle Zero-Day Exploits: Maddie's Role in Google Project Zero

Google Project Zero aims to make it harder for zero-day exploits to be out there by combining different forces. Maddie's role as a reverse engineer boosts the potential research that can be done. Her main role is to find patterns to look for more malware out there by feeding known malware to her, making it a different way of looking for malware. Maddie's discovery of how Pegasus software is used in Android has made NSO angry as now they have to find a new way to exploit phones. Generally, nation state actors use zero-day exploits against human rights defenders, journalists, minoritized populations, and politicians, which does impact us all.

The Crucial Need to Address Zero-day Vulnerabilities for Digital Safety

Zero-day vulnerabilities should be found and fixed to ensure digital safety and security of individuals. Nation state actors may use their abilities for both good and bad purposes, and it's crucial to address the vulnerability issue to prevent exploitation of innocent people. Maddie's work in disarming nation state actors by finding and fixing weapons and exploits has faced strange interactions, including being targeted by North Korean hackers. Maddie's philosophy remains unchanged as she focuses on fixing bugs despite potential cross-conflict with national interests. A recent discovery where WebKit's 2013 bug was reintroduced in 2016 and exploited in 2022 highlights the importance of deep understanding and teamwork to solve complex bug issues.

Nation-state linked exploit servers delivering zero-day vulnerabilities

A security research team identified exploit servers delivering vulnerabilities on different devices and browsers, caused by a watering hole attack. The discovery of active traffic and users being hacked led to quick action to capture and analyze as many exploits as possible before squashing them and working with vendors to patch bugs in order to stop further infections. The sophisticated nature of the eleven zero-day vulnerabilities used by the exploit server has led the researchers to believe that it was likely a nation state actor behind the attack. Users should always update their operating system and apps to make it harder for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities in their devices.

The Importance of Understanding Zero-day Exploits and Nation State Actors in Cybersecurity

Zero-day exploits are often used by nation state actors to target entities or individuals with good security hygiene, such as human rights defenders and journalists. Governments engage in a range of cyber activities, including intelligence-gathering, cybercrime, hacktivism, and election meddling. While Maddie strives to ensure safe and secure access to the internet through her work on zero-day exploits, there are also individuals who exploit vulnerabilities for malicious purposes. Despite spending millions of dollars on developing vulnerabilities, NSA does not report many to vendors, which makes navigating the cybersecurity landscape difficult. Maddie's guiding principle is to make the world a better place with safe and secure access to information and education, and it is important to consider the philosophy behind cybersecurity.

Maddie's Mission to Neutralize Zero-Day Vulnerabilities.

While nation states around the world want to exploit zero-day vulnerabilities, Maddie focuses on neutralizing them and building up defenses to help everyone better defend against attackers. Though the effort has resulted in progress since 2014, zero-day still poses a great threat because many in-the-wild zero-days are variants of previously-patched bugs. Maddie and her team focus on pushing forward and taking advantage of opportunities rather than being discouraged by the news. Offensive security researchers publish to show the new attack surface and exploit techniques that need to be addressed, which is called public state-of-the-art. Maddie and her team's efforts will make it harder for attackers to find vulnerabilities and develop new bug classes that have never been seen before.

Closing the Gap in Zero-Day Exploit Awareness and Detection

The focus on zero-days that are actually exploited in the wild can help close the gap between public and private state-of-the-art, and enables us to put our resources in areas that are super-useful. The rise in detection and disclosure of in-the-wild zero-day exploits is promising, though transparency around these vulnerabilities and exploits can still be improved. Vendors need to be more transparent in disclosing actively exploited vulnerabilities and provide more detailed descriptions. Researchers are working on figuring out how to detect sophisticated actors who are good at cleaning up traces and leaving little evidence of exploitation. Citizen Lab and Amnesty International are doing awesome work in this space, working closely with targeted populations. The goal is to make users aware of active exploitation and provide forensic information.