Friday Squid Blogging: Flying Squid

Flying squid are real.

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 May 18, 2018 at 4:20 PM36 Comments

Maliciously Changing Someone's Address

Someone changed the address of UPS corporate headquarters to his own apartment in Chicago. The company discovered it three months later.

The problem, of course, is that in the US there isn't any authentication of change-of-address submissions:

According to the Postal Service, nearly 37 million change-of-address requests ­ known as PS Form 3575 ­ were submitted in 2017. The form, which can be filled out in person or online, includes a warning below the signature line that "anyone submitting false or inaccurate information" could be subject to fines and imprisonment.

To cut down on possible fraud, post offices send a validation letter to both an old and new address when a change is filed. The letter includes a toll-free number to call to report anything suspicious.

Each year, only a tiny fraction of the requests are ever referred to postal inspectors for investigation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service could not provide a specific number to the Tribune, but officials have previously said that the number of change-of-address investigations in a given year totals 1,000 or fewer typically.

While fraud involving change-of-address forms has long been linked to identity thieves, the targets are usually unsuspecting individuals, not massive corporations.

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 6:20 AM26 Comments

Accessing Cell Phone Location Information

The New York Times is reporting about a company called Securus Technologies that gives police the ability to track cell phone locations without a warrant:

The service can find the whereabouts of almost any cellphone in the country within seconds. It does this by going through a system typically used by marketers and other companies to get location data from major cellphone carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, documents show.

Another article.

Boing Boing post.

Posted on May 16, 2018 at 6:16 AM49 Comments

Sending Inaudible Commands to Voice Assistants

Researchers have demonstrated the ability to send inaudible commands to voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant.

Over the last two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online ­-- simply with music playing over the radio.

A group of students from University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on airplane mode or open a website.

This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text. So while a human listener hears someone talking or an orchestra playing, Amazon's Echo speaker might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.

Posted on May 15, 2018 at 6:13 AM36 Comments

Details on a New PGP Vulnerability

A new PGP vulnerability was announced today. Basically, the vulnerability makes use of the fact that modern e-mail programs allow for embedded HTML objects. Essentially, if an attacker can intercept and modify a message in transit, he can insert code that sends the plaintext in a URL to a remote website. Very clever.

The EFAIL attacks exploit vulnerabilities in the OpenPGP and S/MIME standards to reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails. In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.

The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim. The victim's email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.

A few initial comments:

1. Being able to intercept and modify e-mails in transit is the sort of thing the NSA can do, but is hard for the average hacker. That being said, there are circumstances where someone can modify e-mails. I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of this attack, but that is a consideration.

2. The vulnerability isn't with PGP or S/MIME itself, but in the way they interact with modern e-mail programs. You can see this in the two suggested short-term mitigations: "No decryption in the e-mail client," and "disable HTML rendering."

3. I've been getting some weird press calls from reporters wanting to know if this demonstrates that e-mail encryption is impossible. No, this just demonstrates that programmers are human and vulnerabilities are inevitable. PGP almost certainly has fewer bugs than your average piece of software, but it's not bug free.

3. Why is anyone using encrypted e-mail anymore, anyway? Reliably and easily encrypting e-mail is an insurmountably hard problem for reasons having nothing to do with today's announcement. If you need to communicate securely, use Signal. If having Signal on your phone will arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.

I'll post other commentaries and analyses as I find them.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): News articles.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on May 14, 2018 at 1:36 PM80 Comments

Critical PGP Vulnerability

EFF is reporting that a critical vulnerability has been discovered in PGP and S/MIME. No details have been published yet, but one of the researchers wrote:

We'll publish critical vulnerabilities in PGP/GPG and S/MIME email encryption on 2018-05-15 07:00 UTC. They might reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails, including encrypted emails sent in the past. There are currently no reliable fixes for the vulnerability. If you use PGP/GPG or S/MIME for very sensitive communication, you should disable it in your email client for now.

This sounds like a protocol vulnerability, but we'll learn more tomorrow.

News articles.

Posted on May 14, 2018 at 9:33 AM26 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: How the Squid Lost Its Shell

Squids used to have shells.

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 May 11, 2018 at 4:17 PM54 Comments

Airline Ticket Fraud

New research: "Leaving on a jet plane: the trade in fraudulently obtained airline tickets:"

Abstract: Every day, hundreds of people fly on airline tickets that have been obtained fraudulently. This crime script analysis provides an overview of the trade in these tickets, drawing on interviews with industry and law enforcement, and an analysis of an online blackmarket. Tickets are purchased by complicit travellers or resellers from the online blackmarket. Victim travellers obtain tickets from fake travel agencies or malicious insiders. Compromised credit cards used to be the main method to purchase tickets illegitimately. However, as fraud detection systems improved, offenders displaced to other methods, including compromised loyalty point accounts, phishing, and compromised business accounts. In addition to complicit and victim travellers, fraudulently obtained tickets are used for transporting mules, and for trafficking and smuggling. This research details current prevention approaches, and identifies additional interventions, aimed at the act, the actor, and the marketplace.

Blog post.

Posted on May 11, 2018 at 6:24 AM10 Comments

Supply-Chain Security

Earlier this month, the Pentagon stopped selling phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei on military bases because they might be used to spy on their users.

It's a legitimate fear, and perhaps a prudent action. But it's just one instance of the much larger issue of securing our supply chains.

All of our computerized systems are deeply international, and we have no choice but to trust the companies and governments that touch those systems. And while we can ban a few specific products, services or companies, no country can isolate itself from potential foreign interference.

In this specific case, the Pentagon is concerned that the Chinese government demanded that ZTE and Huawei add "backdoors" to their phones that could be surreptitiously turned on by government spies or cause them to fail during some future political conflict. This tampering is possible because the software in these phones is incredibly complex. It's relatively easy for programmers to hide these capabilities, and correspondingly difficult to detect them.

This isn't the first time the United States has taken action against foreign software suspected to contain hidden features that can be used against us. Last December, President Trump signed into law a bill banning software from the Russian company Kaspersky from being used within the US government. In 2012, the focus was on Chinese-made Internet routers. Then, the House Intelligence Committee concluded: "Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems."

Nor is the United States the only country worried about these threats. In 2014, China reportedly banned antivirus products from both Kaspersky and the US company Symantec, based on similar fears. In 2017, the Indian government identified 42 smartphone apps that China subverted. Back in 1997, the Israeli company Check Point was dogged by rumors that its government added backdoors into its products; other of that country's tech companies have been suspected of the same thing. Even al-Qaeda was concerned; ten years ago, a sympathizer released the encryption software Mujahedeen Secrets, claimed to be free of Western influence and backdoors. If a country doesn't trust another country, then it can't trust that country's computer products.

But this trust isn't limited to the country where the company is based. We have to trust the country where the software is written -- and the countries where all the components are manufactured. In 2016, researchers discovered that many different models of cheap Android phones were sending information back to China. The phones might be American-made, but the software was from China. In 2016, researchers demonstrated an even more devious technique, where a backdoor could be added at the computer chip level in the factory that made the chips ­ without the knowledge of, and undetectable by, the engineers who designed the chips in the first place. Pretty much every US technology company manufactures its hardware in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Taiwan.

We also have to trust the programmers. Today's large software programs are written by teams of hundreds of programmers scattered around the globe. Backdoors, put there by we-have-no-idea-who, have been discovered in Juniper firewalls and D-Link routers, both of which are US companies. In 2003, someone almost slipped a very clever backdoor into Linux. Think of how many countries' citizens are writing software for Apple or Microsoft or Google.

We can go even farther down the rabbit hole. We have to trust the distribution systems for our hardware and software. Documents disclosed by Edward Snowden showed the National Security Agency installing backdoors into Cisco routers being shipped to the Syrian telephone company. There are fake apps in the Google Play store that eavesdrop on you. Russian hackers subverted the update mechanism of a popular brand of Ukrainian accounting software to spread the NotPetya malware.

In 2017, researchers demonstrated that a smartphone can be subverted by installing a malicious replacement screen.

I could go on. Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn't an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can't trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government. And just as Russia is penetrating the US power grid so they have that capability in the event of hostilities, many countries are almost certainly doing the same thing at the consumer level.

We don't know whether the risk of Huawei and ZTE equipment is great enough to warrant the ban. We don't know what classified intelligence the United States has, and what it implies. But we do know that this is just a minor fix for a much larger problem. It's doubtful that this ban will have any real effect. Members of the military, and everyone else, can still buy the phones. They just can't buy them on US military bases. And while the US might block the occasional merger or acquisition, or ban the occasional hardware or software product, we're largely ignoring that larger issue. Solving it borders on somewhere between incredibly expensive and realistically impossible.

Perhaps someday, global norms and international treaties will render this sort of device-level tampering off-limits. But until then, all we can do is hope that this particular arms race doesn't get too far out of control.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on May 10, 2018 at 9:11 AM36 Comments

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Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.