MI5 agent caught selling Huawei exploits on Russian hacker forums

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

An MI5 agent has been caught selling exploits in Huawei products, on an underground Russian hacker forum (a paper analyzing the operation of these forums; perhaps the researchers were hired as advisors). How did this news become public? A reporter heard Mr Wang Kit, a senior Huawei manager, complaining about not receiving a percentage of the exploit sale, to add to his quarterly sales report. A fair point, given that Huawei are funding a UK centre to search for vulnerabilities.

The ostensive purpose of the Huawei cyber security evaluation centre (funded by Huawei, but run by GCHQ; the UK’s signals intelligence agency), is to allay UK fears that Huawei have added back-doors to their products, that enable the Chinese government to listen in on customer communications.

If this cyber centre finds a vulnerability in a Huawei product, they may or may not tell Huawei about it. Obviously, if it’s an exploitable vulnerability, and they think that Huawei don’t know about it, they could pass the exploit along to the relevant UK government department.

If the centre decides to tell Huawei about the vulnerability, there are two good reasons to first try selling it, to shady characters of interest to the security services:

  • having an exploit to sell gives the person selling it credibility (of the shady technical kind), in ecosystems the security services are trying to penetrate,
  • it increases Huawei’s perception of the quality of the centre’s work; by increasing the number of exploits found by the centre, before they appear in the wild (the centre has to be careful not to sell too many exploits; assuming they manage to find more than a few). Being seen in the wild adds credibility to claims the centre makes about the importance of an exploit it discovered.

How might the centre go about calculating whether to hang onto an exploit, for UK government use, or to reveal it?

The centre’s staff could organized as two independent groups; if the same exploit is found by both groups, it is more likely to be found by other hackers, than an exploit found by just one group.

Perhaps GCHQ knows of other groups looking for Huawei exploits (e.g., the NSA in the US). Sharing information about exploits found, provides the information needed to more accurately estimate the likelihood of others discovering known exploits.

How might Huawei estimate the number of exploits MI5 are ‘selling’, before officially reporting them? Huawei probably have enough information to make a good estimate of the total number of exploits likely to exist in their products, but they also need to know the likelihood of discovering an exploit, per man-hour of effort. If Huawei have an internal team searching for exploits, they might have the data needed to estimate exploit discovery rate.

Another approach would be for Huawei to add a few exploits to the code, and then wait to see if they are used by GCHQ. In fact, if GCHQ accuse Huawei of adding a back-door to enable the Chinese government to spy on people, Huawei could claim that the code was added to check whether GCHQ was faithfully reporting all the exploits it found, and not keeping some for its own use.