Microsoft: US government is an 'advanced persistent threat'

Microsoft's EVP of Legal and Corporate Affairs outlined the company's new data protection strategy on the basis that the US government is an "advanced persistent threat" — a label used for cyber criminals.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

While Microsoft's recent move to encrypt user data made the most headlines, the reasoning underlying its new data protection strategies classify the US government in the same category as a cyber-criminal group.

Microsoft advanced persistent threat

Brad Smith, Microsoft's EVP of Legal and Corporate Affairs, labeled the American government as an "advanced persistent threat" in a December 4 post on The Official Microsoft Blog.

The term advanced persistent threat (APT) refers to an attacker, usually an organized group of malicious attackers, that should be considered harmful and dangerous — and an overall method of attack that plays a "long game."

Microsoft's explosive post begins by stating, "Many of our customers have serious concerns about government surveillance of the Internet."

Smith wrote in Protecting customer data from government snooping:

(...) Like many others, we are especially alarmed by recent allegations in the press of a broader and concerted effort by some governments to circumvent online security measures – and in our view, legal processes and protections – in order to surreptitiously collect private customer data.

In particular, recent press stories have reported allegations of governmental interception and collection – without search warrants or legal subpoenas – of customer data as it travels between customers and servers or between company data centers in our industry.

If true, these efforts threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications. Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an “advanced persistent threat,” alongside sophisticated malware and cyber attacks.

While the writing is cautiously couched in terms of "some governments" it's crystal clear that Microsoft's "advanced persistent threat" is referring to the ongoing revelations of US government surveillance activities (in leaks by Edward Snowden), and the concerns of Microsoft's American customers.

Cybersecurity firm Mandiant has tracked security breaches by advanced persistent threats since 2004; in February 2013 Mandiant reported that the most prolific APT in the world was "One of China's Cyber Espionage Units."

To see one of America's biggest companies say it must protect itself from its own government as it would from a group of malfeasant Chinese cyber-spies is a moment for the history books.

But security professionals worldwide may not be quite so surprised.

Not because hackers issued tinfoil bonnets at birth — most security pros and researchers understand that the same APT techniques used by cybercriminals to steal data from businesses and individuals for financial gain are the same used by nation-states.

advanced persistent threat

Microsoft and its Skype product have been named, alleged (and ridiculed) as having some kind of role in this year's unending, terrifying NSA scandal; namely, that products have been massaged with backdoors to which US government entities have access.

Only Americans need to worry about search warrants and subpoenas — in that exact terminology, as written in Mr. Smith's text. 

The Microsoft legal exec explained,

In light of these allegations, we’ve decided to take immediate and coordinated action in three areas:

-  We are expanding encryption across our services. 

-  We are reinforcing legal protections for our customers’ data. 

-  We are enhancing the transparency of our software code, making it easier for customers to reassure themselves that our products do not contain back doors.

Springboarding from its "persistent threat" categorization, Microsoft then explains its new encryption efforts — putting America's government and malicious hackers in the same category.

For many years, we’ve used encryption in our products and services to protect our customers from online criminals and hackers. While we have no direct evidence that customer data has been breached by unauthorized government access, we don't want to take any chances and are addressing this issue head on.

In Microsoft legal's official post, it continues to describe legal concerns relevant only for its American users and customers, and what it will now do to reinforce legal protections for its customers' data.

Microsoft said that as part of fighting this advanced threat, it will now fight gag orders "head on."

In its new Reinforcing Legal Protections initiatives,

(...) we are committed to notifying business and government customers if we receive legal orders related to their data.

Where a gag order attempts to prohibit us from doing this, we will challenge it in court.

We’ve done this successfully in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future to preserve our ability to alert customers when governments seek to obtain their data.

And we’ll assert available jurisdictional objections to legal demands when governments seek this type of customer content that is stored in another country.

And if anyone was still skeptical about whether Microsoft meant the US government when it said the words "advanced persistent threat," the post concludes:

Ultimately, we’re sensitive to the balances that must be struck when it comes to technology, security and the law. We all want to live in a world that is safe and secure, but we also want to live in a country that is protected by the Constitution.

We want to ensure that important questions about government access are decided by courts rather than dictated by technological might.

Leaving us all to wonder just what kind of mess we're in when one of the largest, richest and most visible American companies in the world openly categorizes the US government as an "advanced persistent threat" to both itself, and its customers.

Editorial standards