On That Dusseldorf Hospital Ransomware Attack and the Resultant Death

Wired has a detailed story about the ransomware attack on a Dusseldorf hospital, the one that resulted in an ambulance being redirected to a more distant hospital and the patient dying. The police wanted to prosecute the ransomware attackers for negligent homicide, but the details were more complicated:

After a detailed investigation involving consultations with medical professionals, an autopsy, and a minute-by-minute breakdown of events, Hartmann believes that the severity of the victim’s medical diagnosis at the time she was picked up was such that she would have died regardless of which hospital she had been admitted to. “The delay was of no relevance to the final outcome,” Hartmann says. “The medical condition was the sole cause of the death, and this is entirely independent from the cyberattack.” He likens it to hitting a dead body while driving: while you might be breaking the speed limit, you’re not responsible for the death.

So while this might not be an example of death by cyberattack, the article correctly notes that it’s only a matter of time:

But it’s only a matter of time, Hartmann believes, before ransomware does directly cause a death. “Where the patient is suffering from a slightly less severe condition, the attack could certainly be a decisive factor,” he says. “This is because the inability to receive treatment can have severe implications for those who require emergency services.” Success at bringing a charge might set an important precedent for future cases, thereby deepening the toolkit of prosecutors beyond the typical cybercrime statutes.

“The main hurdle will be one of proof,” Urban says. “Legal causation will be there as soon as the prosecution can prove that the person died earlier, even if it’s only a few hours, because of the hack, but this is never easy to prove.” With the Düsseldorf attack, it was not possible to establish that the victim could have survived much longer, but in general it’s “absolutely possible” that hackers could be found guilty of manslaughter, Urban argues.

And where causation is established, Hartmann points out that exposure for criminal prosecution stretches beyond the hackers. Instead, anyone who can be shown to have contributed to the hack may also be prosecuted, he says. In the Düsseldorf case, for example, his team was preparing to consider the culpability of the hospital’s IT staff. Could they have better defended the hospital by monitoring the network more closely, for instance?

Posted on November 24, 2020 at 6:01 AM13 Comments

More on the Security of the 2020 US Election

Last week I signed on to two joint letters about the security of the 2020 election. The first was as one of 59 election security experts, basically saying that while the election seems to have been both secure and accurate (voter suppression notwithstanding), we still need to work to secure our election systems:

We are aware of alarming assertions being made that the 2020 election was “rigged” by exploiting technical vulnerabilities. However, in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent. To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.

That said, it is imperative that the US continue working to bolster the security of elections against sophisticated adversaries. At a minimum, all states should employ election security practices and mechanisms recommended by experts to increase assurance in election outcomes, such as post-election risk-limiting audits.

The New York Times wrote about the letter.

The second was a more general call for election security measures in the US:

Obviously elections themselves are partisan. But the machinery of them should not be. And the transparent assessment of potential problems or the assessment of allegations of security failure — even when they could affect the outcome of an election — must be free of partisan pressures. Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election.

These pile on to the November 12 statement from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the other agencies of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) Executive Committee. While I’m not sure how they have enough comparative data to claim that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they are certainly credible in saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

We have a long way to go to secure our election systems from hacking. Details of what to do are known. Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines is important, but baseless claims of fraud don’t help.

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 6:44 AM60 Comments

Indistinguishability Obfuscation

Quanta magazine recently published a breathless article on indistinguishability obfuscation — calling it the “‘crown jewel’ of cryptography” — and saying that it had finally been achieved, based on a recently published paper. I want to add some caveats to the discussion.

Basically, obfuscation makes a computer program “unintelligible” by performing its functionality. Indistinguishability obfuscation is more relaxed. It just means that two different programs that perform the same functionality can’t be distinguished from each other. A good definition is in this paper.

This is a pretty amazing theoretical result, and one to be excited about. We can now do obfuscation, and we can do it using assumptions that make real-world sense. The proofs are kind of ugly, but that’s okay — it’s a start. What it means in theory is that we have a fundamental theoretical result that we can use to derive a whole bunch of other cryptographic primitives.

But — and this is a big one — this result is not even remotely close to being practical. We’re talking multiple days to perform pretty simple calculations, using massively large blocks of computer code. And this is likely to remain true for a very long time. Unless researchers increase performance by many orders of magnitude, nothing in the real world will make use of this work anytime soon.

But but, consider fully homomorphic encryption. It, too, was initially theoretically interesting and completely impractical. And now, after decades of work, it seems to be almost just-barely maybe approaching practically useful. This could very well be on the same trajectory, and perhaps in twenty to thirty years we will be celebrating this early theoretical result as the beginning of a new theory of cryptography.

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 6:04 AM9 Comments

Symantec Reports on Cicada APT Attacks against Japan

Symantec is reporting on an APT group linked to China, named Cicada. They have been attacking organizations in Japan and elsewhere.

Cicada has historically been known to target Japan-linked organizations, and has also targeted MSPs in the past. The group is using living-off-the-land tools as well as custom malware in this attack campaign, including a custom malware — Backdoor.Hartip — that Symantec has not seen being used by the group before. Among the machines compromised during this attack campaign were domain controllers and file servers, and there was evidence of files being exfiltrated from some of the compromised machines.

The attackers extensively use DLL side-loading in this campaign, and were also seen leveraging the ZeroLogon vulnerability that was patched in August 2020.

Interesting details about the group’s tactics.

News article.

Posted on November 20, 2020 at 6:05 AM3 Comments

The US Military Buys Commercial Location Data

Vice has a long article about how the US military buys commercial location data worldwide.

The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.

This isn’t new, this isn’t just data of non-US citizens, and this isn’t the US military. We have lots of instances where the government buys data that it cannot legally collect itself.

Some app developers Motherboard spoke to were not aware who their users’ location data ends up with, and even if a user examines an app’s privacy policy, they may not ultimately realize how many different industries, companies, or government agencies are buying some of their most sensitive data. U.S. law enforcement purchase of such information has raised questions about authorities buying their way to location data that may ordinarily require a warrant to access. But the USSOCOM contract and additional reporting is the first evidence that U.S. location data purchases have extended from law enforcement to military agencies.

Posted on November 19, 2020 at 9:37 AM17 Comments

Michael Ellis as NSA General Counsel

Over at Lawfare, Susan Hennessey has an excellent primer on how Trump loyalist Michael Ellis got to be the NSA General Counsel, over the objections of NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and what Biden can and should do about it.

While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.

The moment also poses a test for President-elect Biden’s transition, which must address the delicate balance between remedying improper politicization of the intelligence community, defending career roles against impermissible burrowing, and restoring civil service rules that prohibit both partisan favoritism and retribution. The Biden team needs to set a marker now, to clarify the situation to the public and to enable a new Pentagon general counsel to proceed with credibility and independence in investigating and potentially taking remedial action upon assuming office.

The NSA general counsel is not a Senate-confirmed role. Unlike the general counsels of the CIA, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all of which require confirmation, the NSA’s general counsel is a senior career position whose occupant is formally selected by and reports to the general counsel of the Department of Defense. It’s an odd setup — ­and one that obscures certain realities, like the fact that the NSA general counsel in practice reports to the NSA director. This structure is the source of a perennial legislative fight. Every few years, Congress proposes laws to impose a confirmation requirement as more appropriately befits an essential administration role, and every few years, the executive branch opposes those efforts as dangerously politicizing what should be a nonpolitical job.

While a lack of Senate confirmation reduces some accountability and legislative screening, this career selection process has the benefit of being designed to eliminate political interference and to ensure the most qualified candidate is hired. The system includes a complex set of rules governing a selection board that interviews candidates, certifies qualifications and makes recommendations guided by a set of independent merit-based principles. The Pentagon general counsel has the final call in making a selection. For example, if the panel has ranked a first-choice candidate, the general counsel is empowered to choose one of the others.

Ryan Goodman has a similar article at Just Security.

Posted on November 18, 2020 at 6:21 AM11 Comments

On Blockchain Voting

Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:

Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.

For starters:

  • It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
  • It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
  • It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.

I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.

But now I have this excellent paper from MIT researchers:

“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”
Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest

Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.

You may have heard of Voatz, which uses blockchain for voting. It’s an insecure mess. And this is my general essay on blockchain. Short summary: it’s completely useless.

Posted on November 16, 2020 at 9:55 AM60 Comments

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:

The list is maintained on this page.

Posted on November 14, 2020 at 12:35 PM2 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Underwater Robot Uses Squid-Like Propulsion

This is neat:

By generating powerful streams of water, UCSD’s squid-like robot can swim untethered. The “squidbot” carries its own power source, and has the room to hold more, including a sensor or camera for underwater exploration.

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 November 13, 2020 at 4:09 PM123 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.