NSA saves zero-day exploits for high-value targets

The National Security Agency has a wide-ranging menu of software exploits at its disposal to tailor the right attack to the targets it wants to monitor, according to a blog post published Wednesday by security expert Bruce Schneier. While the program allows analysts to operate in almost absolute secrecy, the NSA's pursuit of an expansive surveillance program has largely defeated those efforts, his essay concludes.

As last week's publication of secret NSA documents showed, the agency operates servers codenamed FoxAcid that exploit software vulnerabilities on targets' computers. By the time those attacks are unleashed, analysts already know a huge amount about the person on the receiving end. Based on that information, the spies will use a complicated trade-off system to automatically choose an attack from a multitiered menu of options.

"If the target is a high-value one, FoxAcid might run a rare zero-day exploit that it developed or purchased," Schneier wrote. "If the target is technically sophisticated, FoxAcid might decide that there's too much chance for discovery, and keeping the zero-day exploit a secret is more important. If the target is a low-value one, FoxAcid might run an exploit that's less valuable. If the target is low-value and technically sophisticated, FoxAcid might even run an already-known vulnerability."

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