New Variants of Cold-Boot Attack

If someone has physical access to your locked -- but still running -- computer, they can probably break the hard drive's encryption. This is a "cold boot" attack, and one we thought solved. We have not:

To carry out the attack, the F-Secure researchers first sought a way to defeat the the industry-standard cold boot mitigation. The protection works by creating a simple check between an operating system and a computer's firmware, the fundamental code that coordinates hardware and software for things like initiating booting. The operating system sets a sort of flag or marker indicating that it has secret data stored in its memory, and when the computer boots up, its firmware checks for the flag. If the computer shuts down normally, the operating system wipes the data and the flag with it. But if the firmware detects the flag during the boot process, it takes over the responsibility of wiping the memory before anything else can happen.

Looking at this arrangement, the researchers realized a problem. If they physically opened a computer and directly connected to the chip that runs the firmware and the flag, they could interact with it and clear the flag. This would make the computer think it shut down correctly and that the operating system wiped the memory, because the flag was gone, when actually potentially sensitive data was still there.

So the researchers designed a relatively simple microcontroller and program that can connect to the chip the firmware is on and manipulate the flag. From there, an attacker could move ahead with a standard cold boot attack. Though any number of things could be stored in memory when a computer is idle, Segerdahl notes that an attacker can be sure the device's decryption keys will be among them if she is staring down a computer's login screen, which is waiting to check any inputs against the correct ones.

Posted on September 24, 2018 at 6:52 AM16 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: British Columbia "Squid Run" Is a Tourist Attraction

On James Island.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 4:14 PM49 Comments

New Findings About Prime Number Distribution Almost Certainly Irrelevant to Cryptography

Lots of people are e-mailing me about this new result on the distribution of prime numbers. While interesting, it has nothing to do with cryptography. Cryptographers aren't interested in how to find prime numbers, or even in the distribution of prime numbers. Public-key cryptography algorithms like RSA get their security from the difficulty of factoring large composite numbers that are the product of two prime numbers. That's completely different.

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 2:14 PM30 Comments

AES Resulted in a $250-Billion Economic Benefit

NIST has released a new study concluding that the AES encryption standard has resulted in a $250-billion worldwide economic benefit over the past 20 years. I have no idea how to even begin to assess the quality of the study and its conclusions -- it's all in the 150-page report, though -- but I do like the pretty block diagram of AES on the report's cover.

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 6:37 AM12 Comments

Security Vulnerability in ESS ExpressVote Touchscreen Voting Computer

Of course the ESS ExpressVote voting computer will have lots of security vulnerabilities. It's a computer, and computers have lots of vulnerabilities. This particular vulnerability is particularly interesting because it's the result of a security mistake in the design process. Someone didn't think the security through, and the result is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail that doesn't provide the security it promises.

Here are the details:

Now there's an even worse option than "DRE with paper trail"; I call it "press this button if it's OK for the machine to cheat" option. The country's biggest vendor of voting machines, ES&S, has a line of voting machines called ExpressVote. Some of these are optical scanners (which are fine), and others are "combination" machines, basically a ballot-marking device and an optical scanner all rolled into one.

This video shows a demonstration of ExpressVote all-in-one touchscreens purchased by Johnson County, Kansas. The voter brings a blank ballot to the machine, inserts it into a slot, chooses candidates. Then the machine prints those choices onto the blank ballot and spits it out for the voter to inspect. If the voter is satisfied, she inserts it back into the slot, where it is counted (and dropped into a sealed ballot box for possible recount or audit).

So far this seems OK, except that the process is a bit cumbersome and not completely intuitive (watch the video for yourself). It still suffers from the problems I describe above: voter may not carefully review all the choices, especially in down-ballot races; counties need to buy a lot more voting machines, because voters occupy the machine for a long time (in contrast to op-scan ballots, where they occupy a cheap cardboard privacy screen).

But here's the amazingly bad feature: "The version that we have has an option for both ways," [Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie] Metsker said. "We instruct the voters to print their ballots so that they can review their paper ballots, but they're not required to do so. If they want to press the button 'cast ballot,' it will cast the ballot, but if they do so they are doing so with full knowledge that they will not see their ballot card, it will instead be cast, scanned, tabulated and dropped in the secure ballot container at the backside of the machine." [TYT Investigates, article by Jennifer Cohn, September 6, 2018]

Now it's easy for a hacked machine to cheat undetectably! All the fraudulent vote-counting program has to do is wait until the voter chooses between "cast ballot without inspecting" and "inspect ballot before casting." If the latter, then don't cheat on this ballot. If the former, then change votes how it likes, and print those fraudulent votes on the paper ballot, knowing that the voter has already given up the right to look at it.

A voter-verifiable paper audit trail does not require every voter to verify the paper ballot. But it does require that every voter be able to verify the paper ballot. I am continuously amazed by how bad electronic voting machines are. Yes, they're computers. But they also seem to be designed by people who don't understand computer (or any) security.

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 6:45 AM25 Comments

Pegasus Spyware Used in 45 Countries

Citizen Lab has published a new report about the Pegasus spyware. From a ZDNet article:

The malware, known as Pegasus (or Trident), was created by Israeli cyber-security firm NSO Group and has been around for at least three years -- when it was first detailed in a report over the summer of 2016.

The malware can operate on both Android and iOS devices, albeit it's been mostly spotted in campaigns targeting iPhone users primarily. On infected devices, Pegasus is a powerful spyware that can do many things, such as record conversations, steal private messages, exfiltrate photos, and much much more.

From the report:

We found suspected NSO Pegasus infections associated with 33 of the 36 Pegasus operators we identified in 45 countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zambia. As our findings are based on country-level geolocation of DNS servers, factors such as VPNs and satellite Internet teleport locations can introduce inaccuracies.

Six of those countries are known to deploy spyware against political opposition: Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Also note:

On 17 September 2018, we then received a public statement from NSO Group. The statement mentions that "the list of countries in which NSO is alleged to operate is simply inaccurate. NSO does not operate in many of the countries listed." This statement is a misunderstanding of our investigation: the list in our report is of suspected locations of NSO infections, it is not a list of suspected NSO customers. As we describe in Section 3, we observed DNS cache hits from what appear to be 33 distinct operators, some of whom appeared to be conducting operations in multiple countries. Thus, our list of 45 countries necessarily includes countries that are not NSO Group customers. We describe additional limitations of our method in Section 4, including factors such as VPNs and satellite connections, which can cause targets to appear in other countries.

Motherboard article. Slashdot and Boing Boing posts.

Posted on September 19, 2018 at 5:19 AM11 Comments

NSA Attacks Against Virtual Private Networks

A 2006 document from the Snowden archives outlines successful NSA operations against "a number of "high potential" virtual private networks, including those of media organization Al Jazeera, the Iraqi military and internet service organizations, and a number of airline reservation systems."

It's hard to believe that many of the Snowden documents are now more than a decade old.

Posted on September 17, 2018 at 6:12 AM34 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Dissecting a Giant Squid

Lessons learned.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on September 14, 2018 at 4:13 PM129 Comments

Click Here to Kill Everybody Reviews and Press Mentions

It's impossible to know all the details, but my latest book seems to be selling well. Initial reviews have been really positive: Boing Boing, Financial Times, Harris Online, Kirkus Reviews, Nature, Politico, and Virus Bulletin.

I've also done a bunch of interviews -- either written or radio/podcast -- including the Washington Post, a Reddit AMA, "The 1A " on NPR, Security Ledger, MIT Technology Review, CBC Radio, and WNYC Radio.

There have been others -- like the Lawfare, Cyberlaw, and Hidden Forces podcasts -- but they haven't been published yet. I also did a book talk at Google that should appear on YouTube soon.

If you've bought and read the book, thank you. Please consider leaving a review on Amazon.

Posted on September 14, 2018 at 2:14 PM24 Comments

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