Blog: January 2018 Archives

Fighting Ransomware

No More Ransom is a central repository of keys and applications for ransomware, so people can recover their data without paying. It's not complete, of course, but is pretty good against older strains of ransomware. The site is a joint effort by Europol, the Dutch police, Kaspersky, and McAfee.

Posted on January 15, 2018 at 6:43 AM13 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Japanese "Dude Food" Includes Squid

This seems to be a trend.

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 January 12, 2018 at 4:12 PM86 Comments

Fingerprinting Digital Documents

In this era of electronic leakers, remember that zero-width spaces and homoglyph substitution can fingerprint individual instances of files.

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 12:50 PM21 Comments

Yet Another FBI Proposal for Insecure Communications

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has given talks where he proposes that tech companies decrease their communications and device security for the benefit of the FBI. In a recent talk, his idea is that tech companies just save a copy of the plaintext:

Law enforcement can also partner with private industry to address a problem we call "Going Dark." Technology increasingly frustrates traditional law enforcement efforts to collect evidence needed to protect public safety and solve crime. For example, many instant-messaging services now encrypt messages by default. The prevent the police from reading those messages, even if an impartial judge approves their interception.

The problem is especially critical because electronic evidence is necessary for both the investigation of a cyber incident and the prosecution of the perpetrator. If we cannot access data even with lawful process, we are unable to do our job. Our ability to secure systems and prosecute criminals depends on our ability to gather evidence.

I encourage you to carefully consider your company's interests and how you can work cooperatively with us. Although encryption can help secure your data, it may also prevent law enforcement agencies from protecting your data.

Encryption serves a valuable purpose. It is a foundational element of data security and essential to safeguarding data against cyber-attacks. It is critical to the growth and flourishing of the digital economy, and we support it. I support strong and responsible encryption.

I simply maintain that companies should retain the capability to provide the government unencrypted copies of communications and data stored on devices, when a court orders them to do so.

Responsible encryption is effective secure encryption, coupled with access capabilities. We know encryption can include safeguards. For example, there are systems that include central management of security keys and operating system updates; scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes; simulcast of messages to multiple destinations at once; and key recovery when a user forgets the password to decrypt a laptop. No one calls any of those functions a "backdoor." In fact, those very capabilities are marketed and sought out.

I do not believe that the government should mandate a specific means of ensuring access. The government does not need to micromanage the engineering.

The question is whether to require a particular goal: When a court issues a search warrant or wiretap order to collect evidence of crime, the company should be able to help. The government does not need to hold the key.

Rosenstein is right that many services like Gmail naturally keep plaintext in the cloud. This is something we pointed out in our 2016 paper: "Don't Panic." But forcing companies to build an alternate means to access the plaintext that the user can't control is an enormous vulnerability.

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 7:05 AM61 Comments

Susan Landau's New Book: Listening In

Susan Landau has written a terrific book on cybersecurity threats and why we need strong crypto. Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age. It's based in part on her 2016 Congressional testimony in the Apple/FBI case; it examines how the Digital Revolution has transformed society, and how law enforcement needs to -- and can -- adjust to the new realities. The book is accessible to techies and non-techies alike, and is strongly recommended.

And if you've already read it, give it a review on Amazon. Reviews sell books, and this one needs more of them.

Posted on January 10, 2018 at 1:42 PM17 Comments

Daniel Miessler on My Writings about IoT Security

Daniel Miessler criticizes my writings about IoT security:

I know it's super cool to scream about how IoT is insecure, how it's dumb to hook up everyday objects like houses and cars and locks to the internet, how bad things can get, and I know it's fun to be invited to talk about how everything is doom and gloom.

I absolutely respect Bruce Schneier a lot for what he's contributed to InfoSec, which makes me that much more disappointed with this kind of position from him.

InfoSec is full of those people, and it's beneath people like Bruce to add their voices to theirs. Everyone paying attention already knows it's going to be a soup sandwich -- a carnival of horrors -- a tragedy of mistakes and abuses of trust.

It's obvious. Not interesting. Not novel. Obvious. But obvious or not, all these things are still going to happen.

I actually agree with everything in his essay. "We should obviously try to minimize the risks, but we don't do that by trying to shout down the entire enterprise." Yes, definitely.

I don't think the IoT must be stopped. I do think that the risks are considerable, and will increase as these systems become more pervasive and susceptible to class breaks. And I'm trying to write a book that will help navigate this. I don't think I'm the prophet of doom, and don't want to come across that way. I'll give the manuscript another read with that in mind.

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 3:26 PM66 Comments

NSA Morale

The Washington Post is reporting that poor morale at the NSA is causing a significant talent shortage. A November New York Times article said much the same thing.

The articles point to many factors: the recent reorganization, low pay, and the various leaks. I have been saying for a while that the Shadow Brokers leaks have been much more damaging to the NSA -- both to morale and operating capabilities -- than Edward Snowden. I think it'll take most of a decade for them to recover.

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 5:58 AM109 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: How the Optic Lobe Controls Squid Camouflage

Experiments on the oval squid.

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 January 5, 2018 at 4:42 PM94 Comments

Spectre and Meltdown Attacks Against Microprocessors

The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution -- which of course is not a solution -- is to throw them all away and buy new ones.

On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world's computers for the past 15-20 years. They've been named Spectre and Meltdown, and they have to do with manipulating different ways processors optimize performance by rearranging the order of instructions or performing different instructions in parallel. An attacker who controls one process on a system can use the vulnerabilities to steal secrets elsewhere on the computer. (The research papers are here and here.)

This means that a malicious app on your phone could steal data from your other apps. Or a malicious program on your computer -- maybe one running in a browser window from that sketchy site you're visiting, or as a result of a phishing attack -- can steal data elsewhere on your machine. Cloud services, which often share machines amongst several customers, are especially vulnerable. This affects corporate applications running on cloud infrastructure, and end-user cloud applications like Google Drive. Someone can run a process in the cloud and steal data from every other user on the same hardware.

Information about these flaws has been secretly circulating amongst the major IT companies for months as they researched the ramifications and coordinated updates. The details were supposed to be released next week, but the story broke early and everyone is scrambling. By now all the major cloud vendors have patched their systems against the vulnerabilities that can be patched against.

"Throw it away and buy a new one" is ridiculous security advice, but it's what US-CERT recommends. It is also unworkable. The problem is that there isn't anything to buy that isn't vulnerable. Pretty much every major processor made in the past 20 years is vulnerable to some flavor of these vulnerabilities. Patching against Meltdown can degrade performance by almost a third. And there's no patch for Spectre; the microprocessors have to be redesigned to prevent the attack, and that will take years. (Here's a running list of who's patched what.)

This is bad, but expect it more and more. Several trends are converging in a way that makes our current system of patching security vulnerabilities harder to implement.

The first is that these vulnerabilities affect embedded computers in consumer devices. Unlike our computers and phones, these systems are designed and produced at a lower profit margin with less engineering expertise. There aren't security teams on call to write patches, and there often aren't mechanisms to push patches onto the devices. We're already seeing this with home routers, digital video recorders, and webcams. The vulnerability that allowed them to be taken over by the Mirai botnet last August simply can't be fixed.

The second is that some of the patches require updating the computer's firmware. This is much harder to walk consumers through, and is more likely to permanently brick the device if something goes wrong. It also requires more coordination. In November, Intel released a firmware update to fix a vulnerability in its Management Engine (ME): another flaw in its microprocessors. But it couldn't get that update directly to users; it had to work with the individual hardware companies, and some of them just weren't capable of getting the update to their customers.

We're already seeing this. Some patches require users to disable the computer's password, which means organizations can't automate the patch. Some antivirus software blocks the patch, or -- worse -- crashes the computer. This results in a three-step process: patch your antivirus software, patch your operating system, and then patch the computer's firmware.

The final reason is the nature of these vulnerabilities themselves. These aren't normal software vulnerabilities, where a patch fixes the problem and everyone can move on. These vulnerabilities are in the fundamentals of how the microprocessor operates.

It shouldn't be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What's surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it. In their rush to make computers faster, they weren't thinking about security. They didn't have the expertise to find these vulnerabilities. And those who did were too busy finding normal software vulnerabilities to examine microprocessors. Security researchers are starting to look more closely at these systems, so expect to hear about more vulnerabilities along these lines.

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they -- and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability -- have shown researchers where to look, more is coming -- and what they'll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown. There will be vulnerabilities that will allow attackers to manipulate or delete data across processes, potentially fatal in the computers controlling our cars or implanted medical devices. These will be similarly impossible to fix, and the only strategy will be to throw our devices away and buy new ones.

This isn't to say you should immediately turn your computers and phones off and not use them for a few years. For the average user, this is just another attack method amongst many. All the major vendors are working on patches and workarounds for the attacks they can mitigate. All the normal security advice still applies: watch for phishing attacks, don't click on strange e-mail attachments, don't visit sketchy websites that might run malware on your browser, patch your systems regularly, and generally be careful on the Internet.

You probably won't notice that performance hit once Meltdown is patched, except maybe in backup programs and networking applications. Embedded systems that do only one task, like your programmable thermostat or the computer in your refrigerator, are unaffected. Small microprocessors that don't do all of the vulnerable fancy performance tricks are unaffected. Browsers will figure out how to mitigate this in software. Overall, the security of the average Internet-of-Things device is so bad that this attack is in the noise compared to the previously known risks.

It's a much bigger problem for cloud vendors; the performance hit will be expensive, but I expect that they'll figure out some clever way of detecting and blocking the attacks. All in all, as bad as Spectre and Meltdown are, I think we got lucky.

But more are coming, and they'll be worse. 2018 will be the year of microprocessor vulnerabilities, and it's going to be a wild ride.

Note: A shorter version of this essay previously appeared on My previous blog post on this topic contains additional links.

Posted on January 5, 2018 at 2:22 PM131 Comments

New Book Coming in September: "Click Here to Kill Everybody"

My next book is still on track for a September 2018 publication. Norton is still the publisher. The title is now Click Here to Kill Everybody: Peril and Promise on a Hyperconnected Planet, which I generally refer to as CH2KE.

The table of contents has changed since I last blogged about this, and it now looks like this:

  • Introduction: Everything is Becoming a Computer
  • Part 1: The Trends
    • 1. Computers are Still Hard to Secure
    • 2. Everyone Favors Insecurity
    • 3. Autonomy and Physical Agency Bring New Dangers
    • 4. Patching is Failing as a Security Paradigm
    • 5. Authentication and Identification are Getting Harder
    • 6. Risks are Becoming Catastrophic
  • Part 2: The Solutions
    • 7. What a Secure Internet+ Looks Like
    • 8. How We Can Secure the Internet+
    • 9. Government is Who Enables Security
    • 10. How Government Can Prioritize Defense Over Offense
    • 11. What's Likely to Happen, and What We Can Do in Response
    • 12. Where Policy Can Go Wrong
    • 13. How to Engender Trust on the Internet+
  • Conclusion: Technology and Policy, Together

Two questions for everyone.

1. I'm not really happy with the subtitle. It needs to be descriptive, to counterbalance the admittedly clickbait title. It also needs to telegraph: "everyone needs to read this book." I'm taking suggestions.

2. In the book I need a word for the Internet plus the things connected to it plus all the data and processing in the cloud. I'm using the word "Internet+," and I'm not really happy with it. I don't want to invent a new word, but I need to strongly signal that what's coming is much more than just the Internet -- and I can't find any existing word. Again, I'm taking suggestions.

Posted on January 5, 2018 at 12:45 PM248 Comments

Detecting Adblocker Blockers

Interesting research on the prevalence of adblock blockers: "Measuring and Disrupting Anti-Adblockers Using Differential Execution Analysis":

Abstract: Millions of people use adblockers to remove intrusive and malicious ads as well as protect themselves against tracking and pervasive surveillance. Online publishers consider adblockers a major threat to the ad-powered "free" Web. They have started to retaliate against adblockers by employing anti-adblockers which can detect and stop adblock users. To counter this retaliation, adblockers in turn try to detect and filter anti-adblocking scripts. This back and forth has prompted an escalating arms race between adblockers and anti-adblockers.

We want to develop a comprehensive understanding of anti-adblockers, with the ultimate aim of enabling adblockers to bypass state-of-the-art anti-adblockers. In this paper, we present a differential execution analysis to automatically detect and analyze anti-adblockers. At a high level, we collect execution traces by visiting a website with and without adblockers. Through differential execution analysis, we are able to pinpoint the conditions that lead to the differences caused by anti-adblocking code. Using our system, we detect anti-adblockers on 30.5% of the Alexa top-10K websites which is 5-52 times more than reported in prior literature. Unlike prior work which is limited to detecting visible reactions (e.g., warning messages) by anti-adblockers, our system can discover attempts to detect adblockers even when there is no visible reaction. From manually checking one third of the detected websites, we find that the websites that have no visible reactions constitute over 90% of the cases, completely dominating the ones that have visible warning messages. Finally, based on our findings, we further develop JavaScript rewriting and API hooking based solutions (the latter implemented as a Chrome extension) to help adblockers bypass state-of-the-art anti-adblockers.

News article.

Posted on January 5, 2018 at 9:00 AM33 Comments

Spectre and Meltdown Attacks

After a week or so of rumors, everyone is now reporting about the Spectre and Meltdown attacks against pretty much every modern processor out there.

These are side-channel attacks where one process can spy on other processes. They affect computers where an untrusted browser window can execute code, phones that have multiple apps running at the same time, and cloud computing networks that run lots of different processes at once. Fixing them either requires a patch that results in a major performance hit, or is impossible and requires a re-architecture of conditional execution in future CPU chips.

I'll be writing something for publication over the next few days. This post is basically just a link repository.

EDITED TO ADD: Good technical explanation. And a Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/5): Another good technical description. And how the exploits work through browsers. A rundown of what vendors are doing. Nicholas Weaver on its effects on individual computers.

EDITED TO ADD (1/7): xkcd.

EDITED TO ADD (1/10): Another good technical description.

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 6:28 AM81 Comments

Tamper-Detection App for Android

Edward Snowden and Nathan Freitas have created an Android app that detects when it's being tampered with. The basic idea is to put the app on a second phone and put the app on or near something important, like your laptop. The app can then text you -- and also record audio and video -- when something happens around it: when it's moved, when the lighting changes, and so on. This gives you some protection against the "evil maid attack" against laptops.

Micah Lee has a good article about the app, including some caveats about its use and security.

Posted on January 3, 2018 at 6:17 AM41 Comments

Fake Santa Surveillance Camera

Reka makes a "decorative Santa cam," meaning that it's not a real camera. Instead, it just gets children used to being under constant surveillance.

Our Santa Cam has a cute Father Christmas and mistletoe design, and a red, flashing LED light which will make the most logical kids suspend their disbelief and start to believe!

Posted on January 2, 2018 at 6:51 AM23 Comments

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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