Nicole Perlroth: Cybersecurity and the Weapons of Cyberwar | Lex Fridman Podcast #266 | Summary and Q&A

February 20, 2022
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Nicole Perlroth: Cybersecurity and the Weapons of Cyberwar | Lex Fridman Podcast #266


Cybersecurity journalist Nicole Pearl Roth discusses the dangerous world of zero-day exploits and the implications of cyber warfare.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What are zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits?

Zero-day vulnerabilities are bugs in software that are unknown to developers. Zero-day exploits are programs that can take advantage of these vulnerabilities without users' knowledge.

Q: What is the value of zero-day exploits?

Zero-day exploits can be worth millions of dollars and are highly sought after by government agencies and spy organizations. They can be used for surveillance, monitoring, and even sabotage.

Q: Why are Android exploits gaining value in the market?

There are more Android devices globally, making them a more attractive target. Additionally, deep-pocketed governments in the Gulf region are paying top dollar for zero-day exploits to monitor their citizens and critics.

Q: Do most attacks target specific individuals or larger populations?

It varies. Some zero-day exploits are highly targeted, focusing on specific individuals or group targets. Others, like watering hole attacks, aim to infect a larger population interested in a specific topic or demographic.

Q: What motivates hackers and cybercriminals to sell zero-day exploits?

Motivations vary, but financial gain is often a driving factor. Some hackers may also be motivated by curiosity or a desire to challenge tech companies that have ignored or threatened them in the past.

Q: How does the cybersecurity industry respond to the market for zero-day exploits?

Bug bounty programs, where companies pay hackers for finding and reporting vulnerabilities, are on the rise. This helps incentivize hackers to responsibly disclose vulnerabilities instead of selling them on the black market.

Q: Is it possible for companies to outbid zero-day brokers and government agencies for exploits?

While companies could potentially pay more, it's not advisable. Offering excessive amounts would create a perverse incentive, and it's important not to incentivize offense to the point of self-detriment.

Q: How does the ethics of hackers and cybercriminals come into play?

The ethics of hackers and cybercriminals are a complex matter. Some individuals refuse to sell exploits due to concern over their ethical implications, while others believe it is the responsibility of tech companies to fix vulnerabilities.

Q: What are zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits?

Zero-day vulnerabilities are bugs in software that are unknown to developers. Zero-day exploits are programs that can take advantage of these vulnerabilities without users' knowledge.

More Insights

  • Zero-day exploits can have significant financial value, fetching millions of dollars on the underground market.

  • The market for zero-day exploits has shifted, with Android exploits now being more valuable than iOS exploits.

  • The impact of zero-day exploits can range from targeted surveillance of individuals to large-scale attacks on critical infrastructure.

  • Cybersecurity is an ever-evolving field, with bug bounty programs and ethical hacking becoming more prevalent.

  • The international cyber warfare landscape is growing, and the use of zero-day exploits is a key element in this new form of conflict.

  • Attribution in cyber attacks is challenging, and there are often blurred lines between state-sponsored attacks, cybercriminal activities, and independent hackers.

  • Mutual cyber destruction is a growing concern, as nation-states become more advanced in their cyber capabilities.

  • Two-factor authentication is a crucial security measure that can help protect against many cyber attacks.

  • The rise of the metaverse and increased reliance on online platforms raise concerns about the vulnerability of personal data and the potential for manipulation and fraud.


In this video, cyber security journalist Nicole Pearl Roth discusses the world of cyber security and cyber warfare. She explains the concepts of zero-day vulnerabilities and zero-day exploits, the underground market for zero-day exploits, and the motivations of hackers. She also delves into the ethical concerns surrounding cyber attacks and the impact they can have on individuals and organizations.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is a zero-day vulnerability and a zero-day exploit?

A zero-day vulnerability refers to a bug in a software or system that no one else knows about except the hacker who discovers it. It is called "zero-day" because engineers have had zero days to fix it once it is discovered. A zero-day exploit, on the other hand, is a program created to take advantage of such vulnerabilities. For example, a hacker could create a zero-day exploit for an iPhone that allows them to remotely access someone's device without their knowledge.

Q: Why are zero-day exploits valuable?

Zero-day exploits are highly valuable because they offer hackers the ability to gain unauthorized access to devices or systems without detection. For example, a zero-day exploit could allow a hacker to capture someone's location, contacts, phone calls, or even control their camera without their knowledge. This type of capability is especially valuable for spy agencies or governments who want to monitor their critics or dissidents.

Q: Is iOS more targeted than Android in terms of zero-day exploits?

While iOS devices, such as iPhones, have been a high priority for government agencies in recent years, the value of zero-day exploits for Android devices has actually surpassed that of iOS. This is likely due to the larger user base of Android devices globally. However, it's important to note that the value of zero-day exploits can fluctuate based on market demand.

Q: Why do some people believe elite individuals prefer iPhones over Android devices?

The preference for iPhones among elite individuals is not necessarily due to their superiority, but rather a reflection of market dynamics. A few years ago, crafting a remote zero-click exploit for iOS was extremely valuable and could be sold for millions of dollars to a zero-day broker. However, the value of Android exploits has increased, and more governments, especially those in the Gulf region, are willing to pay top dollar for zero-day exploits.

Q: Are cyber attacks typically targeted towards specific individuals or large populations?

Cyber attacks can be targeted towards both specific individuals and large populations. Highly valuable zero-day exploits could be used for targeted attacks, such as accessing a specific individual's phone or device. On the other hand, some attacks, like watering hole attacks, can target a large population of people who visit a particular website or have a specific interest. For example, a watering hole attack aimed at Uyghurs infected anyone who visited a website related to this population.

Q: What motivates attackers in the cyber security domain?

The motivations of cyber attackers vary and encompass a range of factors. While some hackers may be primarily driven by financial gain, others may be motivated by the challenge of hacking into secure systems, the desire for power, or even political and ideological beliefs. There are philosophical and ethical questions surrounding the motivations of hackers, especially when it comes to the sale of zero-day exploits and the potential harm they can cause.

Q: Are hackers purely after financial gain, or are there other factors at play?

While financial gain is one motivator for hackers, it is not the sole driving factor. Many hackers grapple with ethical concerns and moral dilemmas when it comes to selling zero-day exploits. Some hackers find it difficult to sleep at night, knowing that their exploit may be used to harm others. However, others may see it as an opportunity to profit from their skills and labor, especially when technology companies continue to write buggy software that can be exploited.

Q: How has the relationship between hackers and technology companies evolved over time?

In the early days, hackers who discovered bugs and vulnerabilities in software were often met with resistance and even threats from tech companies. However, as the market for zero-day exploits grew, government agencies and their intermediaries started reaching out to hackers to purchase their bugs. This led to the emergence of boutique contractors and brokers who facilitated the sale of zero-day exploits. More recently, bug bounty programs have been introduced by technology companies, offering rewards for the discovery and disclosure of vulnerabilities, shifting the perspective from viewing hackers as enemies to providing a channel for responsible disclosure.

Q: How do bug bounty programs work?

Bug bounty programs are initiatives by technology companies that reward individuals for finding and reporting vulnerabilities in their software or systems. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple have implemented bug bounty programs, where hackers can be paid significant sums, sometimes in the six figures, for responsibly disclosing vulnerabilities. Bug bounty platforms, such as HackerOne and Bugcrowd, have also emerged to facilitate the process of connecting hackers with companies interested in improving their security.

Q: Can companies effectively compete with zero-day brokers or governments in the market for exploits?

Companies typically cannot financially compete with the prices offered by zero-day brokers or governments for zero-day exploits. If companies started offering extremely high prices, it would create a perverse incentive, leading employees to question why they should continue working for less money. Additionally, high prices would incentivize greater offensive capabilities and potentially compromise security. However, companies can offer rewards through bug bounty programs, incentivizing hackers to disclose vulnerabilities and improve security.

Q: How likely are hackers to sell zero-day exploits to governments or zero-day brokers?

Some hackers refuse to sell zero-day exploits due to concerns about how they will be used once in the hands of governments or brokers. The uncertainty of how the exploit will be employed and the potential harm it may cause can weigh heavily on their conscience. However, there are hackers who view the responsibility as the technology companies' problem, arguing that if the companies did not introduce vulnerabilities into their software, there would be no market for exploits. The decision to sell or not sell zero-day exploits is highly individual and influenced by personal ethics and motivations.

Q: What is the impact of ransomware attacks on individuals and organizations?

Ransomware attacks can have devastating consequences for individuals and organizations. In one case, a hospital in Vermont was hit by ransomware, resulting in the inability to administer chemotherapy treatments to cancer patients. This led to an outcry from nurses and doctors who likened the situation to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The consequences of ransomware attacks can also extend to critical infrastructure, as seen with the Colonial Pipeline attack, where the shutdown caused panic buying and jet fuel shortages. The impact of ransomware attacks can be wide-ranging and have significant economic and societal implications.

Q: Is it advisable to pay ransomware attackers?

The decision of whether to pay ransomware attackers is complex and depends on the specific circumstances. While governments and companies tend to discourage payments, citing concerns about funding further attacks, the reality is that for some businesses or even nations, the cost of not paying can be higher. In cases where critical infrastructure or essential services are compromised, the economic and societal consequences may outweigh the risk of funding attackers. The choice to pay ransomware attackers is not clear-cut and requires careful consideration of the potential outcomes.

Q: How vulnerable is the United States' critical infrastructure to cyber attacks?

The United States' critical infrastructure is highly vulnerable to cyber attacks. The majority of critical infrastructure, including pipelines, power grids, and water systems, is owned and operated by the private sector. There are no regulations mandating that companies report breaches or meet minimum cybersecurity standards. This lack of oversight leaves critical infrastructure exposed to cyber threats, as demonstrated by recent attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and cities like Baltimore. The widespread interconnectivity and reliance on software also contribute to the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

Q: Will cyber attacks be a part of future geopolitical conflicts?

Cyber attacks are already an integral part of geopolitical conflicts, and it is expected that they will continue to play a significant role in future conflicts. Nation-states, including China, Russia, and others, have invested heavily in offensive cyber capabilities and seek to exploit vulnerabilities for strategic advantage. The presence of vulnerabilities and the potential chaos caused by cyber attacks make them attractive options for disrupting adversaries' critical infrastructure, gathering intelligence, or sowing doubt and division. The inherent low barrier to entry in cyber warfare makes it a viable avenue for conflict escalation.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Zero-day vulnerabilities are bugs in software that no one, including the developers, knows about. They can be used to craft zero-day exploits, which are programs that can exploit these vulnerabilities without users' knowledge.

  • The market for zero-day exploits is lucrative, with government agencies and spy organizations willing to pay millions for them. The exploits can be used for surveillance, monitoring critics or dissidents, and even sabotage.

  • While iOS devices like iPhones used to be a top priority for hackers, the market is shifting towards Android devices due to their higher market share. The value of Android exploits has surpassed that of iOS exploits on the underground market.

  • Hackers and cybercriminals have different motivations, ranging from financial gain to curiosity and challenging tech companies. Government agencies and contractors tap into this market, purchasing zero-day exploits for intelligence gathering and, increasingly, offensive cyber warfare purposes.

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