Blog: June 2017 Archives

Friday Squid Blogging: Food Supplier Passes Squid Off as Octopus

According to a lawsuit (main article behind paywall), "a Miami-based food vendor and its supplier have been misrepresenting their squid as octopus in an effort to boost profits."

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 June 30, 2017 at 4:22 PM125 Comments

Details from the 2017 Workshop on Economics and Information Security

The 16th Workshop on Economics and Information Security was this week. Ross Anderson liveblogged the talks.

Posted on June 30, 2017 at 2:13 PM2 Comments

Good Article About Google's Project Zero

Fortune magazine just published a good article about Google's Project Zero, which finds and publishes exploits in other companies' software products.

I have mixed feeling about it. The project does great work, and the Internet has benefited enormously from these efforts. But as long as it is embedded inside Google, it has to deal with accusations that it targets Google competitors.

Posted on June 30, 2017 at 6:05 AM22 Comments

The Women of Bletchley Park

Really good article about the women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II, breaking German Enigma-encrypted messages.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): There's also a book: The Debs of Blechley Park and Other Stories, by Michael Smith.

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 12:40 PM16 Comments

Websites Grabbing User-Form Data Before It's Submitted

Websites are sending information prematurely:

...we discovered NaviStone's code on sites run by Acurian, Quicken Loans, a continuing education center, a clothing store for plus-sized women, and a host of other retailers. Using Javascript, those sites were transmitting information from people as soon as they typed or auto-filled it into an online form. That way, the company would have it even if those people immediately changed their minds and closed the page.

This is important because it goes against what people expect:

In yesterday's report on Acurian Health, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo told Gizmodo that giving users a "send" or "submit" button, but then sending the entered information regardless of whether the button is pressed or not, clearly violates a user's expectation of what will happen. Calo said it could violate a federal law against unfair and deceptive practices, as well as laws against deceptive trade practices in California and Massachusetts. A complaint on those grounds, Calo said, "would not be laughed out of court."

This kind of thing is going to happen more and more, in all sorts of areas of our lives. The Internet of Things is the Internet of sensors, and the Internet of surveillance. We've long passed the point where ordinary people have any technical understanding of the different ways networked computers violate their privacy. Government needs to step in and regulate businesses down to reasonable practices. Which means government needs to prioritize security over their own surveillance needs.

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 6:51 AM51 Comments

CIA Exploits Against Wireless Routers

WikiLeaks has published CherryBlossom, the CIA's program to hack into wireless routers. The program is about a decade old.

Four good news articles. Five. And a list of vulnerable routers.

Posted on June 28, 2017 at 5:35 AM30 Comments

Fighting Leakers at Apple

Apple is fighting its own battle against leakers, using people and tactics from the NSA.

According to the hour-long presentation, Apple's Global Security team employs an undisclosed number of investigators around the world to prevent information from reaching competitors, counterfeiters, and the press, as well as hunt down the source when leaks do occur. Some of these investigators have previously worked at U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, and in the U.S. military.

The information is from an internal briefing, which was leaked.

Posted on June 27, 2017 at 6:25 AM13 Comments

Separating the Paranoid from the Hacked

Sad story of someone whose computer became owned by a griefer:

The trouble began last year when he noticed strange things happening: files went missing from his computer; his Facebook picture was changed; and texts from his daughter didn't reach him or arrived changed.

"Nobody believed me," says Gary. "My wife and my brother thought I had lost my mind. They scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist for me."

But he built up a body of evidence and called in a professional cybersecurity firm. It found that his email addresses had been compromised, his phone records hacked and altered, and an entire virtual internet interface created.

"All my communications were going through a man-in-the-middle unauthorised server," he explains.

It's the "psychiatrist" quote that got me. I regularly get e-mails from people explaining in graphic detail how their whole lives have been hacked. Most of them are just paranoid. But a few of them are probably legitimate. And I have no way of telling them apart.

This problem isn't going away. As computers permeate even more aspects of our lives, it's going to get even more debilitating. And we don't have any way, other than hiring a "professional cybersecurity firm," of telling the paranoids from the victims.

Posted on June 26, 2017 at 12:30 PM46 Comments

The FAA Is Arguing for Security by Obscurity

In a proposed rule by the FAA, it argues that software in an Embraer S.A. Model ERJ 190-300 airplane is secure because it's proprietary:

In addition, the operating systems for current airplane systems are usually and historically proprietary. Therefore, they are not as susceptible to corruption from worms, viruses, and other malicious actions as are more-widely used commercial operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, because access to the design details of these proprietary operating systems is limited to the system developer and airplane integrator. Some systems installed on the Embraer Model ERJ 190-300 airplane will use operating systems that are widely used and commercially available from third-party software suppliers. The security vulnerabilities of these operating systems may be more widely known than are the vulnerabilities of proprietary operating systems that the avionics manufacturers currently use.

Longtime readers will immediately recognize the "security by obscurity" argument. Its main problem is that it's fragile. The information is likely less obscure than you think, and even if it is truly obscure, once it's published you've just lost all your security.

This is me from 2014, 2004, and 2002.

The comment period for this proposed rule is ongoing. If you comment, please be polite -- they're more likely to listen to you.

Posted on June 26, 2017 at 6:59 AM41 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Injured Giant Squid Video

A paddleboarder had a run-in with an injured giant squid. Video. Here's the real story.

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 June 23, 2017 at 4:23 PM135 Comments

The Secret Code of Beatrix Potter


As codes go, Potter's wasn't inordinately complicated. As Wiltshire explains, it was a "mono-alphabetic substitution cipher code," in which each letter of the alphabet was replaced by a symbol­ -- the kind of thing they teach you in Cub Scouts. The real trouble was Potter's own fluency with it. She quickly learned to write the code so fast that each sheet looked, even to Linder's trained eye, like a maze of scribbles.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Here's an example of what it looked like.

Posted on June 23, 2017 at 1:57 PM8 Comments

Amazon Patents Measures to Prevent In-Store Comparison Shopping

Amazon has been issued a patent on security measures that prevents people from comparison shopping while in the store. It's not a particularly sophisticated patent -- it basically detects when you're using the in-store Wi-Fi to visit a competitor's site and then blocks access -- but it is an indication of how retail has changed in recent years.

What's interesting is that Amazon is on the other side of this arms race. As an on-line retailer, it wants people to walk into stores and then comparison shop on its site. Yes, I know it's buying Whole Foods, but it's still predominantly an online retailer. Maybe it patented this to prevent stores from implementing the technology.

It's probably not nearly that strategic. It's hard to build a business strategy around a security measure that can be defeated with cellular access.

Posted on June 23, 2017 at 6:26 AM41 Comments

NSA Insider Security Post-Snowden

According to a recently declassified report obtained under FOIA, the NSA's attempts to protect itself against insider attacks aren't going very well:

The N.S.A. failed to consistently lock racks of servers storing highly classified data and to secure data center machine rooms, according to the report, an investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general completed in 2016.


The agency also failed to meaningfully reduce the number of officials and contractors who were empowered to download and transfer data classified as top secret, as well as the number of "privileged" users, who have greater power to access the N.S.A.'s most sensitive computer systems. And it did not fully implement software to monitor what those users were doing.

In all, the report concluded, while the post-Snowden initiative -- called "Secure the Net" by the N.S.A. -- had some successes, it "did not fully meet the intent of decreasing the risk of insider threats to N.S.A. operations and the ability of insiders to exfiltrate data."

Marcy Wheeler comments:

The IG report examined seven of the most important out of 40 "Secure the Net" initiatives rolled out since Snowden began leaking classified information. Two of the initiatives aspired to reduce the number of people who had the kind of access Snowden did: those who have privileged access to maintain, configure, and operate the NSA's computer systems (what the report calls PRIVACs), and those who are authorized to use removable media to transfer data to or from an NSA system (what the report calls DTAs).

But when DOD's inspectors went to assess whether NSA had succeeded in doing this, they found something disturbing. In both cases, the NSA did not have solid documentation about how many such users existed at the time of the Snowden leak. With respect to PRIVACs, in June 2013 (the start of the Snowden leak), "NSA officials stated that they used a manually kept spreadsheet, which they no longer had, to identify the initial number of privileged users." The report offered no explanation for how NSA came to no longer have that spreadsheet just as an investigation into the biggest breach thus far at NSA started. With respect to DTAs, "NSA did not know how many DTAs it had because the manually kept list was corrupted during the months leading up to the security breach."

There seem to be two possible explanations for the fact that the NSA couldn't track who had the same kind of access that Snowden exploited to steal so many documents. Either the dog ate their homework: Someone at NSA made the documents unavailable (or they never really existed). Or someone fed the dog their homework: Some adversary made these lists unusable. The former would suggest the NSA had something to hide as it prepared to explain why Snowden had been able to walk away with NSA's crown jewels. The latter would suggest that someone deliberately obscured who else in the building might walk away with the crown jewels. Obscuring that list would be of particular value if you were a foreign adversary planning on walking away with a bunch of files, such as the set of hacking tools the Shadow Brokers have since released, which are believed to have originated at NSA.

Read the whole thing. Securing against insiders, especially those with technical access, is difficult, but I had assumed the NSA did more post-Snowden.

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 5:52 AM44 Comments

Is Continuing to Patch Windows XP a Mistake?

Last week, Microsoft issued a security patch for Windows XP, a 16-year-old operating system that Microsoft officially no longer supports. Last month, Microsoft issued a Windows XP patch for the vulnerability used in WannaCry.

Is this a good idea? This 2014 essay argues that it's not:

The zero-day flaw and its exploitation is unfortunate, and Microsoft is likely smarting from government calls for people to stop using Internet Explorer. The company had three ways it could respond. It could have done nothing­ -- stuck to its guns, maintained that the end of support means the end of support, and encouraged people to move to a different platform. It could also have relented entirely, extended Windows XP's support life cycle for another few years and waited for attrition to shrink Windows XP's userbase to irrelevant levels. Or it could have claimed that this case is somehow "special," releasing a patch while still claiming that Windows XP isn't supported.

None of these options is perfect. A hard-line approach to the end-of-life means that there are people being exploited that Microsoft refuses to help. A complete about-turn means that Windows XP will take even longer to flush out of the market, making it a continued headache for developers and administrators alike.

But the option Microsoft took is the worst of all worlds. It undermines efforts by IT staff to ditch the ancient operating system and undermines Microsoft's assertion that Windows XP isn't supported, while doing nothing to meaningfully improve the security of Windows XP users. The upside? It buys those users at best a few extra days of improved security. It's hard to say how that was possibly worth it.

This is a hard trade-off, and it's going to get much worse with the Internet of Things. Here's me:

The security of our computers and phones also comes from the fact that we replace them regularly. We buy new laptops every few years. We get new phones even more frequently. This isn't true for all of the embedded IoT systems. They last for years, even decades. We might buy a new DVR every five or ten years. We replace our refrigerator every 25 years. We replace our thermostat approximately never. Already the banking industry is dealing with the security problems of Windows 95 embedded in ATMs. This same problem is going to occur all over the Internet of Things.

At least Microsoft has security engineers on staff that can write a patch for Windows XP. There will be no one able to write patches for your 16-year-old thermostat and refrigerator, even assuming those devices can accept security patches.

Posted on June 21, 2017 at 1:58 PM48 Comments

The Dangers of Secret Law

Last week, the Department of Justice released 18 new FISC opinions related to Section 702 as part of an EFF FOIA lawsuit. (Of course, they don't mention EFF or the lawsuit. They make it sound as if it was their idea.)

There's probably a lot in these opinions. In one Kafkaesque ruling, a defendant was denied access to the previous court rulings that were used by the court to decide against it: 2014, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) rejected a service provider's request to obtain other FISC opinions that government attorneys had cited and relied on in court filings seeking to compel the provider's cooperation.


The provider's request came up amid legal briefing by both it and the DOJ concerning its challenge to a 702 order. After the DOJ cited two earlier FISC opinions that were not public at the time -- one from 2014 and another from 2008­ -- the provider asked the court for access to those rulings.

The provider argued that without being able to review the previous FISC rulings, it could not fully understand the court's earlier decisions, much less effectively respond to DOJ's argument. The provider also argued that because attorneys with Top Secret security clearances represented it, they could review the rulings without posing a risk to national security.

The court disagreed in several respects. It found that the court's rules and Section 702 prohibited the documents release. It also rejected the provider's claim that the Constitution's Due Process Clause entitled it to the documents.

This kind of government secrecy is toxic to democracy. National security is important, but we will not survive if we become a country of secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law.

Posted on June 21, 2017 at 6:12 AM31 Comments

Ceramic Knife Used in Israel Stabbing

I have no comment on the politics of this stabbing attack, and only note that the attacker used a ceramic knife -- that will go through metal detectors.

I have used a ceramic knife in the kitchen. It's sharp.

EDITED TO ADD (6/22): It looks like the knife had nothing to do with the attack discussed in the article.

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 6:21 AM52 Comments

New Technique to Hijack Social Media Accounts

Access Now has documented it being used against a Twitter user, but it also works against other social media accounts:

With the Doubleswitch attack, a hijacker takes control of a victim's account through one of several attack vectors. People who have not enabled an app-based form of multifactor authentication for their accounts are especially vulnerable. For instance, an attacker could trick you into revealing your password through phishing. If you don't have multifactor authentication, you lack a secondary line of defense. Once in control, the hijacker can then send messages and also subtly change your account information, including your username. The original username for your account is now available, allowing the hijacker to register for an account using that original username, while providing different login credentials.

Three news stories.

Posted on June 19, 2017 at 6:44 AM23 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squids from Space Video Game

An early preview.

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 June 16, 2017 at 4:14 PM89 Comments

NSA Links WannaCry to North Korea

There's evidence:

Though the assessment is not conclusive, the preponderance of the evidence points to Pyongyang. It includes the range of computer Internet protocol addresses in China historically used by the RGB, and the assessment is consistent with intelligence gathered recently by other Western spy agencies. It states that the hackers behind WannaCry are also called "the Lazarus Group," a name used by private-sector researchers.

One of the agencies reported that a prototype of WannaCry ransomware was found this spring in a non-Western bank. That data point was a "building block" for the North Korea assessment, the individual said.

Honestly, I don't know what to think. I am skeptical, but I am willing to be convinced. (Here's the grugq, also trying to figure it out.) What I would like to see is the NSA evidence in more detail than they're probably comfortable releasing.

More commentary. Slashdot thread.

Posted on June 16, 2017 at 2:11 PM14 Comments

Gaming Google News

Turns out that it's surprisingly easy to game:

It appears that news sites deemed legitimate by Google News are being modified by third parties. These sites are then exploited to redirect to the spam content. It appears that the compromised sites are examining the referrer and redirecting visitors coming from Google News.

Posted on June 16, 2017 at 6:42 AM7 Comments

Millennials and Secret Leaking

I hesitate to blog this, because it's an example of everything that's wrong with pop psychology. Malcolm Harris writes about millennials, and has a theory of why millennials leak secrets. My guess is that you could write a similar essay about every named generation, every age group, and so on.

Posted on June 15, 2017 at 6:52 AM44 Comments

Security Flaws in 4G VoLTE

Research paper: "Subscribers remote geolocation and tracking using 4G VoLTE enabled Android phone," by Patrick Ventuzelo, Olivier Le Moal, and Thomas Coudray.

Abstract: VoLTE (Voice over LTE) is a technology implemented by many operators over the world. Unlike previous 2G/3G technologies, VoLTE offers the possibility to use the end-to-end IP networks to handle voice communications. This technology uses VoIP (Voice over IP) standards over IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) networks. In this paper, we will first introduce the basics of VoLTE technology. We will then demonstrate how to use an Android phone to communicate with VoLTE networks and what normal VoLTE communications look like. Finally, we will describe different issues and implementations' problems. We will present vulnerabilities, both passive and active, and attacks that can be done using VoLTE Android smartphones to attack subscribers and operators' infrastructures. Some of these vulnerabilities are new and not previously disclosed: they may allow an attacker to silently retrieve private pieces of information on targeted subscribers, such as their geolocation.

News article. Slashdot thread.

Posted on June 13, 2017 at 6:21 AM7 Comments

Healthcare Industry Cybersecurity Report

New US government report: "Report on Improving Cybersecurity in the Health Care Industry." It's pretty scathing, but nothing in it will surprise regular readers of this blog.

It's worth reading the executive summary, and then skimming the recommendations. Recommendations are in six areas.

The Task Force identified six high-level imperatives by which to organize its recommendations and action items. The imperatives are:

  1. Define and streamline leadership, governance, and expectations for health care industry cybersecurity.

  2. Increase the security and resilience of medical devices and health IT.

  3. Develop the health care workforce capacity necessary to prioritize and ensure cybersecurity awareness and technical capabilities.

  4. Increase health care industry readiness through improved cybersecurity awareness and education.

  5. Identify mechanisms to protect research and development efforts and intellectual property from attacks or exposure.

  6. Improve information sharing of industry threats, weaknesses, and mitigations.

News article.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on June 12, 2017 at 9:06 AM25 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Sex Is Traumatic for the Female Dumpling Squid

The more they mate, the sooner they die. Academic paper (paywall). News article.

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 June 9, 2017 at 4:25 PM120 Comments

NSA Document Outlining Russian Attempts to Hack Voter Rolls

This week brought new public evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Monday, the Intercept published a top-secret National Security Agency document describing Russian hacking attempts against the US election system. While the attacks seem more exploratory than operational ­-- and there's no evidence that they had any actual effect ­-- they further illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.

The document describes how the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, attacked a company called VR Systems that, according to its website, provides software to manage voter rolls in eight states. The August 2016 attack was successful, and the attackers used the information they stole from the company's network to launch targeted attacks against 122 local election officials on October 27, 12 days before the election.

That is where the NSA's analysis ends. We don't know whether those 122 targeted attacks were successful, or what their effects were if so. We don't know whether other election software companies besides VR Systems were targeted, or what the GRU's overall plan was -- if it had one. Certainly, there are ways to disrupt voting by interfering with the voter registration process or voter rolls. But there was no indication on Election Day that people found their names removed from the system, or their address changed, or anything else that would have had an effect -- anywhere in the country, let alone in the eight states where VR Systems is deployed. (There were Election Day problems with the voting rolls in Durham, NC ­-- one of the states that VR Systems supports ­-- but they seem like conventional errors and not malicious action.)

And 12 days before the election (with early voting already well underway in many jurisdictions) seems far too late to start an operation like that. That is why these attacks feel exploratory to me, rather than part of an operational attack. The Russians were seeing how far they could get, and keeping those accesses in their pocket for potential future use.

Presumably, this document was intended for the Justice Department, including the FBI, which would be the proper agency to continue looking into these hacks. We don't know what happened next, if anything. VR Systems isn't commenting, and the names of the local election officials targeted did not appear in the NSA document.

So while this document isn't much of a smoking gun, it's yet more evidence of widespread Russian attempts to interfere last year.

The document was, allegedly, sent to the Intercept anonymously. An NSA contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, was arrested Saturday and charged with mishandling classified information. The speed with which the government identified her serves as a caution to anyone wanting to leak official US secrets.

The Intercept sent a scan of the document to another source during its reporting. That scan showed a crease in the original document, which implied that someone had printed the document and then carried it out of some secure location. The second source, according to the FBI's affidavit against Winner, passed it on to the NSA. From there, NSA investigators were able to look at their records and determine that only six people had printed out the document. (The government may also have been able to track the printout through secret dots that identified the printer.) Winner was the only one of those six who had been in e-mail contact with the Intercept. It is unclear whether the e-mail evidence was from Winner's NSA account or her personal account, but in either case, it's incredibly sloppy tradecraft.

With President Trump's election, the issue of Russian interference in last year's campaign has become highly politicized. Reports like the one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January have been criticized by partisan supporters of the White House. It's interesting that this document was reported by the Intercept, which has been historically skeptical about claims of Russian interference. (I was quoted in their story, and they showed me a copy of the NSA document before it was published.) The leaker was even praised by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who up until now has been traditionally critical of allegations of Russian election interference.

This demonstrates the power of source documents. It's easy to discount a Justice Department official or a summary report. A detailed NSA document is much more convincing. Right now, there's a federal suit to force the ODNI to release the entire January report, not just the unclassified summary. These efforts are vital.

This hack will certainly come up at the Senate hearing where former FBI director James B. Comey is scheduled to testify Thursday. Last year, there were several stories about voter databases being targeted by Russia. Last August, the FBI confirmed that the Russians successfully hacked voter databases in Illinois and Arizona. And a month later, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official said that the Russians targeted voter databases in 20 states. Again, we don't know of anything that came of these hacks, but expect Comey to be asked about them. Unfortunately, any details he does know are almost certainly classified, and won't be revealed in open testimony.

But more important than any of this, we need to better secure our election systems going forward. We have significant vulnerabilities in our voting machines, our voter rolls and registration process, and the vote tabulation systems after the polls close. In January, DHS designated our voting systems as critical national infrastructure, but so far that has been entirely for show. In the United States, we don't have a single integrated election. We have 50-plus individual elections, each with its own rules and its own regulatory authorities. Federal standards that mandate voter-verified paper ballots and post-election auditing would go a long way to secure our voting system. These attacks demonstrate that we need to secure the voter rolls, as well.

Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­-- by extension ­-- our democracy. Yes, fixing this will be expensive. Yes, it will require federal action in what's historically been state-run systems. But as a country, we have no other option.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 10:24 AM63 Comments

Safety and Security and the Internet of Things

Ross Anderson blogged about his new paper on security and safety concerns about the Internet of Things. (See also this short video.)

It's very much along the lines of what I've been writing.

Posted on June 8, 2017 at 7:15 AM16 Comments

Surveillance Intermediaries

Interesting law-journal article: "Surveillance Intermediaries," by Alan Z. Rozenshtein.

Abstract:Apple's 2016 fight against a court order commanding it to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists exemplifies how central the question of regulating government surveillance has become in American politics and law. But scholarly attempts to answer this question have suffered from a serious omission: scholars have ignored how government surveillance is checked by "surveillance intermediaries," the companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that dominate digital communications and data storage, and on whose cooperation government surveillance relies. This Article fills this gap in the scholarly literature, providing the first comprehensive analysis of how surveillance intermediaries constrain the surveillance executive. In so doing, it enhances our conceptual understanding of, and thus our ability to improve, the institutional design of government surveillance.

Surveillance intermediaries have the financial and ideological incentives to resist government requests for user data. Their techniques of resistance are: proceduralism and litigiousness that reject voluntary cooperation in favor of minimal compliance and aggressive litigation; technological unilateralism that designs products and services to make surveillance harder; and policy mobilization that rallies legislative and public opinion to limit surveillance. Surveillance intermediaries also enhance the "surveillance separation of powers"; they make the surveillance executive more subject to inter-branch constraints from Congress and the courts, and to intra-branch constraints from foreign-relations and economics agencies as well as the surveillance executive's own surveillance-limiting components.

The normative implications of this descriptive account are important and cross-cutting. Surveillance intermediaries can both improve and worsen the "surveillance frontier": the set of tradeoffs ­ between public safety, privacy, and economic growth ­ from which we choose surveillance policy. And while intermediaries enhance surveillance self-government when they mobilize public opinion and strengthen the surveillance separation of powers, they undermine it when their unilateral technological changes prevent the government from exercising its lawful surveillance authorities.

Posted on June 7, 2017 at 6:19 AM39 Comments

Spear Phishing Attacks

Really interesting research: "Unpacking Spear Phishing Susceptibility," by Zinaida Benenson, Freya Gassmann, and Robert Landwirth.

Abstract: We report the results of a field experiment where we sent to over 1200 university students an email or a Facebook message with a link to (non-existing) party pictures from a non-existing person, and later asked them about the reasons for their link clicking behavior. We registered a significant difference in clicking rates: 20% of email versus 42.5% of Facebook recipients clicked. The most frequently reported reason for clicking was curiosity (34%), followed by the explanations that the message fit recipient's expectations (27%). Moreover, 16% thought that they might know the sender. These results show that people's decisional heuristics are relatively easy to misuse in a targeted attack, making defense especially challenging.

Black Hat presentation on the research.

Posted on June 6, 2017 at 6:11 AM15 Comments

CIA's Pandemic Toolkit

WikiLeaks is still dumping CIA cyberweapons on the Internet. Its latest dump is something called "Pandemic":

The Pandemic leak does not explain what the CIA's initial infection vector is, but does describe it as a persistent implant.

"As the name suggests, a single computer on a local network with shared drives that is infected with the 'Pandemic' implant will act like a 'Patient Zero' in the spread of a disease," WikiLeaks said in its summary description. "'Pandemic' targets remote users by replacing application code on-the-fly with a Trojaned version if the program is retrieved from the infected machine."

The key to evading detection is its ability to modify or replace requested files in transit, hiding its activity by never touching the original file. The new attack then executes only on the machine requesting the file.

Version 1.1 of Pandemic, according to the CIA's documentation, can target and replace up to 20 different files with a maximum size of 800MB for a single replacement file.

"It will infect remote computers if the user executes programs stored on the pandemic file server," WikiLeaks said. "Although not explicitly stated in the documents, it seems technically feasible that remote computers that provide file shares themselves become new pandemic file servers on the local network to reach new targets."

The CIA describes Pandemic as a tool that runs as kernel shellcode that installs a file system filter driver. The driver is used to replace a file with a payload when a user on the local network accesses the file over SMB.

WikiLeaks page. News article.

EDITED TO ADD: In this case, Wikileaks has withheld the tool itself and just released the documentation.

Posted on June 5, 2017 at 6:16 AM34 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid as Prey

There's lots of video of squid as undersea predators. This is one of the few instances of squid as prey (from a deep submersible in the Pacific):

"We saw brittle stars capturing a squid from the water column while it was swimming. I didn't know that was possible. And then there was a tussle among the brittle stars to see who got to have the squid," says France.

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 June 2, 2017 at 4:05 PM118 Comments

WannaCry and Vulnerabilities

There is plenty of blame to go around for the WannaCry ransomware that spread throughout the Internet earlier this month, disrupting work at hospitals, factories, businesses, and universities. First, there are the writers of the malicious software, which blocks victims' access to their computers until they pay a fee. Then there are the users who didn't install the Windows security patch that would have prevented an attack. A small portion of the blame falls on Microsoft, which wrote the insecure code in the first place. One could certainly condemn the Shadow Brokers, a group of hackers with links to Russia who stole and published the National Security Agency attack tools that included the exploit code used in the ransomware. But before all of this, there was the NSA, which found the vulnerability years ago and decided to exploit it rather than disclose it.

All software contains bugs or errors in the code. Some of these bugs have security implications, granting an attacker unauthorized access to or control of a computer. These vulnerabilities are rampant in the software we all use. A piece of software as large and complex as Microsoft Windows will contain hundreds of them, maybe more. These vulnerabilities have obvious criminal uses that can be neutralized if patched. Modern software is patched all the time -- either on a fixed schedule, such as once a month with Microsoft, or whenever required, as with the Chrome browser.

When the US government discovers a vulnerability in a piece of software, however, it decides between two competing equities. It can keep it secret and use it offensively, to gather foreign intelligence, help execute search warrants, or deliver malware. Or it can alert the software vendor and see that the vulnerability is patched, protecting the country -- and, for that matter, the world -- from similar attacks by foreign governments and cybercriminals. It's an either-or choice. As former US Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith has said, "Every offensive weapon is a (potential) chink in our defense -- and vice versa."

This is all well-trod ground, and in 2010 the US government put in place an interagency Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) to help balance the trade-off. The details are largely secret, but a 2014 blog post by then President Barack Obama's cybersecurity coordinator, Michael Daniel, laid out the criteria that the government uses to decide when to keep a software flaw undisclosed. The post's contents were unsurprising, listing questions such as "How much is the vulnerable system used in the core Internet infrastructure, in other critical infrastructure systems, in the US economy, and/or in national security systems?" and "Does the vulnerability, if left unpatched, impose significant risk?" They were balanced by questions like "How badly do we need the intelligence we think we can get from exploiting the vulnerability?" Elsewhere, Daniel has noted that the US government discloses to vendors the "overwhelming majority" of the vulnerabilities that it discovers -- 91 percent, according to NSA Director Michael S. Rogers.

The particular vulnerability in WannaCry is code-named EternalBlue, and it was discovered by the US government -- most likely the NSA -- sometime before 2014. The Washington Post reported both how useful the bug was for attack and how much the NSA worried about it being used by others. It was a reasonable concern: many of our national security and critical infrastructure systems contain the vulnerable software, which imposed significant risk if left unpatched. And yet it was left unpatched.

There's a lot we don't know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue "for more than five years," which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It's not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue -- or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August to remain unpatched for years isn't serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was "unreal." But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

Perhaps the NSA thought that no one else would discover EternalBlue. That's another one of Daniel's criteria: "How likely is it that someone else will discover the vulnerability?" This is often referred to as NOBUS, short for "nobody but us." Can the NSA discover vulnerabilities that no one else will? Or are vulnerabilities discovered by one intelligence agency likely to be discovered by another, or by cybercriminals?

In the past few months, the tech community has acquired some data about this question. In one study, two colleagues from Harvard and I examined over 4,300 disclosed vulnerabilities in common software and concluded that 15 to 20 percent of them are rediscovered within a year. Separately, researchers at the Rand Corporation looked at a different and much smaller data set and concluded that fewer than six percent of vulnerabilities are rediscovered within a year. The questions the two papers ask are slightly different and the results are not directly comparable (we'll both be discussing these results in more detail at the Black Hat Conference in July), but clearly, more research is needed.

People inside the NSA are quick to discount these studies, saying that the data don't reflect their reality. They claim that there are entire classes of vulnerabilities the NSA uses that are not known in the research world, making rediscovery less likely. This may be true, but the evidence we have from the Shadow Brokers is that the vulnerabilities that the NSA keeps secret aren't consistently different from those that researchers discover. And given the alarming ease with which both the NSA and CIA are having their attack tools stolen, rediscovery isn't limited to independent security research.

But even if it is difficult to make definitive statements about vulnerability rediscovery, it is clear that vulnerabilities are plentiful. Any vulnerabilities that are discovered and used for offense should only remain secret for as short a time as possible. I have proposed six months, with the right to appeal for another six months in exceptional circumstances. The United States should satisfy its offensive requirements through a steady stream of newly discovered vulnerabilities that, when fixed, also improve the country's defense.

The VEP needs to be reformed and strengthened as well. A report from last year by Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake, who both previously worked on cybersecurity policy at the White House National Security Council, makes some good suggestions on how to further formalize the process, increase its transparency and oversight, and ensure periodic review of the vulnerabilities that are kept secret and used for offense. This is the least we can do. A bill recently introduced in both the Senate and the House calls for this and more.

In the case of EternalBlue, the VEP did have some positive effects. When the NSA realized that the Shadow Brokers had stolen the tool, it alerted Microsoft, which released a patch in March. This prevented a true disaster when the Shadow Brokers exposed the vulnerability on the Internet. It was only unpatched systems that were susceptible to WannaCry a month later, including versions of Windows so old that Microsoft normally didn't support them. Although the NSA must take its share of the responsibility, no matter how good the VEP is, or how many vulnerabilities the NSA reports and the vendors fix, security won't improve unless users download and install patches, and organizations take responsibility for keeping their software and systems up to date. That is one of the important lessons to be learned from WannaCry.

This essay originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

Posted on June 2, 2017 at 6:06 AM73 Comments

Passwords at the Border

The password-manager 1Password has just implemented a travel mode that tries to protect users while crossing borders. It doesn't make much sense. To enable it, you have to create a list of passwords you feel safe traveling with, and then you can turn on the mode that only gives you access to those passwords. But since you can turn it off at will, a border official can just demand you do so. Better would be some sort of time lock where you are unable to turn it off at the border.

There are a bunch of tricks you can use to ensure that you are unable to decrypt your devices, even if someone demands that you do. Back in 2009, I described such a scheme, and mentioned some other tricks the year before. Here's more. They work with any password manager, including my own Password Safe.

There's a problem, though. Everything you do along these lines is problematic, because 1) you don't want to ever lie to a customs official, and 2) any steps you take to make your data inaccessible are in themselves suspicious. Your best defense is not to have anything incriminating on your computer or in the various social media accounts you use. (This advice was given to Australian citizens by their Department of Immigration and Border Protection specifically to Muslims pilgrims returning from hajj. Bizarrely, an Australian MP complained when Muslims repeated that advice.)

The EFF has a comprehensive guide to both the tech and policy of securing your electronics for border crossings.

Posted on June 1, 2017 at 10:59 AM59 Comments

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