UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC)’s letter warns against software made in hostile states, specifically Russia

Pierluigi Paganini December 03, 2017

The UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warns of supply chain risk in cloud-based products, including antivirus (AV) software developed by Russia.

We have a long debated the ban of the Russian security software from US Government offices, now part of the UK intelligence is adopting the same strategy.

Last week the CEO of the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Ciaran Martin, wrote to permanent secretaries regarding the issue of supply chain risk in cloud-based products, including anti-virus (AV) software.

The NCSC is a branch of the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK intelligence and security agency.

The letter warns against software made in hostile states, specifically Russia, as the Prime Minister’s Guildhall speech set out, the Government of Moscow is acting against the UK’s national interest in cyberspace.

The Letter provides an advice to the Government agencies and offices, but isn’t a ban for specific solutions.

The letter highlights the intrusive nature of antivirus software that is necessary to detect malicious code, it is important to remain vigilant to the risk that AV products developed by a hostile actor could person a wide range of malicious activities.

“The job of AV is to detect malware in a network and get rid of it.  So to do its job properly, an AV product must (a) be highly intrusive within a network so it can find malware, and (b) be able to communicate back to the vendor so it knows what it is looking for and what needs to be done to defeat the infiltration.  It is therefore obvious why this matters in terms of national security.  We need to be vigilant to the risk that an AV product under the control of a hostile actor could extract sensitive data from that network, or indeed cause damage to the network itself.” reads the letter.

“That’s why the country of origin matters.  It isn’t everything, and nor is it a simple matter of flags – there are Western companies who have non-Western contributors to their supply chain, including from hostile states.  But in the national security space there are some obvious risks around foreign ownership.”

“The specific country we are highlighting in this package of guidance is Russia.” 

The official warns of the risk of exposure of classified information to the Russian state that would be a risk to national security, for this reason a Russia-based AV company should not be chosen. It is an obvious reference to the Kaspersky case.

NCSC letter

The Letter suggests banning the software developed by Russia-based companies from any system processing information classified SECRET and above.

“To that end, we advise that where it is assessed that access to the information by the Russian state would be a risk to national security, a Russia-based AV company should not be chosen.  In practical terms, this means that for systems processing information classified SECRET and above, a Russia-based provider should never be used.” continues the Letter.

“This will also apply to some Official tier systems as well, for a small number of departments which deal extensively with national security and related matters of foreign policy, international negotiations, defence and other sensitive information.”

Martin confirmed that the NCSC is currently discussing with Kaspersky Lab about whether the UK Government can develop a framework that can be independently verified giving the Government assurance about the security of the involvement of the Russian firm in the wider UK market.

“In particular we are seeking verifiable measures to prevent the transfer of UK data to the Russian state.  We will be transparent about the outcome of those discussions with Kaspersky Lab and we will adjust our guidance if necessary in the light of any conclusions.” continues the Letter.

In response to the current situation, Kaspersky launched the Transparency Initiative in late October that allows government agencies to review the its security software for backdoors.

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Pierluigi Paganini 

(Security Affairs – NCSC, Cyber espionage)

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