Blog: August 2020 Archives

US Postal Service Files Blockchain Voting Patent

The US Postal Service has filed a patent on a blockchain voting method:

Abstract: A voting system can use the security of blockchain and the mail to provide a reliable voting system. A registered voter receives a computer readable code in the mail and confirms identity and confirms correct ballot information in an election. The system separates voter identification and votes to ensure vote anonymity, and stores votes on a distributed ledger in a blockchain

I wasn’t going to bother blogging this, but I’ve received enough emails about it that I should comment.

As is pretty much always the case, blockchain adds nothing. The security of this system has nothing to do with blockchain, and would be better off without it. For voting in particular, blockchain adds to the insecurity. Matt Blaze is most succinct on that point:

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.

Both Ben Adida and Matthew Green have written longer pieces on blockchain and voting.

News articles.

Posted on August 28, 2020 at 6:40 AM33 Comments

Cory Doctorow on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Cory Doctorow has writtten an extended rebuttal of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. He summarized the argument on Twitter.

Shorter summary: it’s not the surveillance part, it’s the fact that these companies are monopolies.

I think it’s both. Surveillance capitalism has some unique properties that make it particularly unethical and incompatible with a free society, and Zuboff makes them clear in her book. But the current acceptance of monopolies in our society is also extremely damaging — which Doctorow makes clear.

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 6:33 AM37 Comments

Amazon Supplier Fraud

Interesting story of an Amazon supplier fraud:

According to the indictment, the brothers swapped ASINs for items Amazon ordered to send large quantities of different goods instead. In one instance, Amazon ordered 12 canisters of disinfectant spray costing $94.03. The defendants allegedly shipped 7,000 toothbrushes costing $94.03 each, using the code for the disinfectant spray, and later billed Amazon for over $650,000.

In another instance, Amazon ordered a single bottle of designer perfume for $289.78. In response, according to the indictment, the defendants sent 927 plastic beard trimmers costing $289.79 each, using the ASIN for the perfume. Prosecutors say the brothers frequently shipped and charged Amazon for more than 10,000 units of an item when it had requested fewer than 100. Once Amazon detected the fraud and shut down their accounts, the brothers allegedly tried to open new ones using fake names, different email addresses, and VPNs to obscure their identity.

It all worked because Amazon is so huge that everything is automated.

Posted on August 26, 2020 at 6:31 AM29 Comments

Identifying People by Their Browsing Histories

Interesting paper: “Replication: Why We Still Can’t Browse in Peace: On the Uniqueness and Reidentifiability of Web Browsing Histories”:

We examine the threat to individuals’ privacy based on the feasibility of reidentifying users through distinctive profiles of their browsing history visible to websites and third parties. This work replicates and extends the 2012 paper Why Johnny Can’t Browse in Peace: On the Uniqueness of Web Browsing History Patterns[48]. The original work demonstrated that browsing profiles are highly distinctive and stable. We reproduce those results and extend the original work to detail the privacy risk posed by the aggregation of browsing histories. Our dataset consists of two weeks of browsing data from ~52,000 Firefox users. Our work replicates the original paper’s core findings by identifying 48,919 distinct browsing profiles, of which 99% are unique. High uniqueness hold seven when histories are truncated to just 100 top sites. We then find that for users who visited 50 or more distinct domains in the two-week data collection period, ~50% can be reidentified using the top 10k sites. Reidentifiability rose to over 80% for users that browsed 150 or more distinct domains. Finally, we observe numerous third parties pervasive enough to gather web histories sufficient to leverage browsing history as an identifier.

One of the authors of the original study comments on the replication.

Posted on August 25, 2020 at 6:28 AM20 Comments


DiceKeys is a physical mechanism for creating and storing a 192-bit key. The idea is that you roll a special set of twenty-five dice, put them into a plastic jig, and then use an app to convert those dice into a key. You can then use that key for a variety of purposes, and regenerate it from the dice if you need to.

This week Stuart Schechter, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is launching DiceKeys, a simple kit for physically generating a single super-secure key that can serve as the basis for creating all the most important passwords in your life for years or even decades to come. With little more than a plastic contraption that looks a bit like a Boggle set and an accompanying web app to scan the resulting dice roll, DiceKeys creates a highly random, mathematically unguessable key. You can then use that key to derive master passwords for password managers, as the seed to create a U2F key for two-factor authentication, or even as the secret key for cryptocurrency wallets. Perhaps most importantly, the box of dice is designed to serve as a permanent, offline key to regenerate that master password, crypto key, or U2F token if it gets lost, forgotten, or broken.


Schechter is also building a separate app that will integrate with DiceKeys to allow users to write a DiceKeys-generated key to their U2F two-factor authentication token. Currently the app works only with the open-source SoloKey U2F token, but Schechter hopes to expand it to be compatible with more commonly used U2F tokens before DiceKeys ship out. The same API that allows that integration with his U2F token app will also allow cryptocurrency wallet developers to integrate their wallets with DiceKeys, so that with a compatible wallet app, DiceKeys can generate the cryptographic key that protects your crypto coins too.

Here’s the DiceKeys website and app. Here’s a short video demo. Here’s a longer SOUPS talk.

Preorder a set here.

Note: I am an adviser on the project.

Another news article. Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. Reddit thread.

Posted on August 24, 2020 at 6:23 AM72 Comments

Yet Another Biometric: Bioacoustic Signatures

Sound waves through the body are unique enough to be a biometric:

“Modeling allowed us to infer what structures or material features of the human body actually differentiated people,” explains Joo Yong Sim, one of the ETRI researchers who conducted the study. “For example, we could see how the structure, size, and weight of the bones, as well as the stiffness of the joints, affect the bioacoustics spectrum.”


Notably, the researchers were concerned that the accuracy of this approach could diminish with time, since the human body constantly changes its cells, matrices, and fluid content. To account for this, they acquired the acoustic data of participants at three separate intervals, each 30 days apart.

“We were very surprised that people’s bioacoustics spectral pattern maintained well over time, despite the concern that the pattern would change greatly,” says Sim. “These results suggest that the bioacoustics signature reflects more anatomical features than changes in water, body temperature, or biomolecule concentration in blood that change from day to day.”

It’s not great. A 97% accuracy is worse than fingerprints and iris scans, and while they were able to reproduce the biometric in a month it almost certainly changes as we age, gain and lose weight, and so on. Still, interesting.

Posted on August 21, 2020 at 6:03 AM12 Comments

Copying a Key by Listening to It in Action

Researchers are using recordings of keys being used in locks to create copies.

Once they have a key-insertion audio file, SpiKey’s inference software gets to work filtering the signal to reveal the strong, metallic clicks as key ridges hit the lock’s pins [and you can hear those filtered clicks online here]. These clicks are vital to the inference analysis: the time between them allows the SpiKey software to compute the key’s inter-ridge distances and what locksmiths call the “bitting depth” of those ridges: basically, how deeply they cut into the key shaft, or where they plateau out. If a key is inserted at a nonconstant speed, the analysis can be ruined, but the software can compensate for small speed variations.

The result of all this is that SpiKey software outputs the three most likely key designs that will fit the lock used in the audio file, reducing the potential search space from 330,000 keys to just three. “Given that the profile of the key is publicly available for commonly used [pin-tumbler lock] keys, we can 3D-print the keys for the inferred bitting codes, one of which will unlock the door,” says Ramesh.

Posted on August 20, 2020 at 6:22 AM35 Comments

Using Disinformation to Cause a Blackout

Interesting paper: “How weaponizing disinformation can bring down a city’s power grid“:

Abstract: Social media has made it possible to manipulate the masses via disinformation and fake news at an unprecedented scale. This is particularly alarming from a security perspective, as humans have proven to be one of the weakest links when protecting critical infrastructure in general, and the power grid in particular. Here, we consider an attack in which an adversary attempts to manipulate the behavior of energy consumers by sending fake discount notifications encouraging them to shift their consumption into the peak-demand period. Using Greater London as a case study, we show that such disinformation can indeed lead to unwitting consumers synchronizing their energy-usage patterns, and result in blackouts on a city-scale if the grid is heavily loaded. We then conduct surveys to assess the propensity of people to follow-through on such notifications and forward them to their friends. This allows us to model how the disinformation may propagate through social networks, potentially amplifying the attack impact. These findings demonstrate that in an era when disinformation can be weaponized, system vulnerabilities arise not only from the hardware and software of critical infrastructure, but also from the behavior of the consumers.

I’m not sure the attack is practical, but it’s an interesting idea.

Posted on August 18, 2020 at 10:03 AM23 Comments

Vaccine for Emotet Malware

Interesting story of a vaccine for the Emotet malware:

Through trial and error and thanks to subsequent Emotet updates that refined how the new persistence mechanism worked, Quinn was able to put together a tiny PowerShell script that exploited the registry key mechanism to crash Emotet itself.

The script, cleverly named EmoCrash, effectively scanned a user’s computer and generated a correct — but malformed — Emotet registry key.

When Quinn tried to purposely infect a clean computer with Emotet, the malformed registry key triggered a buffer overflow in Emotet’s code and crashed the malware, effectively preventing users from getting infected.

When Quinn ran EmoCrash on computers already infected with Emotet, the script would replace the good registry key with the malformed one, and when Emotet would re-check the registry key, the malware would crash as well, preventing infected hosts from communicating with the Emotet command-and-control server.


The Binary Defense team quickly realized that news about this discovery needed to be kept under complete secrecy, to prevent the Emotet gang from fixing its code, but they understood EmoCrash also needed to make its way into the hands of companies across the world.

Compared to many of today’s major cybersecurity firms, all of which have decades of history behind them, Binary Defense was founded in 2014, and despite being one of the industry’s up-and-comers, it doesn’t yet have the influence and connections to get this done without news of its discovery leaking, either by accident or because of a jealous rival.

To get this done, Binary Defense worked with Team CYMRU, a company that has a decades-long history of organizing and participating in botnet takedowns.

Working behind the scenes, Team CYMRU made sure that EmoCrash made its way into the hands of national Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), which then spread it to the companies in their respective jurisdictions.

According to James Shank, Chief Architect for Team CYMRU, the company has contacts with more than 125 national and regional CERT teams, and also manages a mailing list through which it distributes sensitive information to more than 6,000 members. Furthermore, Team CYMRU also runs a biweekly group dedicated to dealing with Emotet’s latest shenanigans.

This broad and well-orchestrated effort has helped EmoCrash make its way around the globe over the course of the past six months.


Either by accident or by figuring out there was something wrong in its persistence mechanism, the Emotet gang did, eventually, changed its entire persistence mechanism on Aug. 6 — exactly six months after Quinn made his initial discovery.

EmoCrash may not be useful to anyone anymore, but for six months, this tiny PowerShell script helped organizations stay ahead of malware operations — a truly rare sight in today’s cyber-security field.

Posted on August 18, 2020 at 6:03 AM17 Comments

UAE Hack and Leak Operations

Interesting paper on recent hack-and-leak operations attributed to the UAE:

Abstract: Four hack-and-leak operations in U.S. politics between 2016 and 2019, publicly attributed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, should be seen as the “simulation of scandal” ­– deliberate attempts to direct moral judgement against their target. Although “hacking” tools enable easy access to secret information, they are a double-edged sword, as their discovery means the scandal becomes about the hack itself, not about the hacked information. There are wider consequences for cyber competition in situations of constraint where both sides are strategic partners, as in the case of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

Posted on August 13, 2020 at 9:28 AM13 Comments

Collecting and Selling Mobile Phone Location Data

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Anomaly Six LLC that has an SDK that’s used by “more than 500 mobile applications.” Through that SDK, the company collects location data from users, which it then sells.

Anomaly Six is a federal contractor that provides global-location-data products to branches of the U.S. government and private-sector clients. The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.


Anomaly Six was founded by defense-contracting veterans who worked closely with government agencies for most of their careers and built a company to cater in part to national-security agencies, according to court records and interviews.

Just one of the many Internet companies spying on our every move for profit. And I’m sure they sell to the US government; it’s legal and why would they forgo those sales?

Posted on August 11, 2020 at 6:00 AM19 Comments

Smart Lock Vulnerability

Yet another Internet-connected door lock is insecure:

Sold by retailers including Amazon, Walmart, and Home Depot, U-Tec’s $139.99 UltraLoq is marketed as a “secure and versatile smart deadbolt that offers keyless entry via your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone and code.”

Users can share temporary codes and ‘Ekeys’ to friends and guests for scheduled access, but according to Tripwire researcher Craig Young, a hacker able to sniff out the device’s MAC address can help themselves to an access key, too.

UltraLoq eventually fixed the vulnerabilities, but not in a way that should give you any confidence that they know what they’re doing.

EDITED TO ADD (8/12): More.

Posted on August 10, 2020 at 6:23 AM34 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: New SQUID

There’s a new SQUID:

A new device that relies on flowing clouds of ultracold atoms promises potential tests of the intersection between the weirdness of the quantum world and the familiarity of the macroscopic world we experience every day. The atomtronic Superconducting QUantum Interference Device (SQUID) is also potentially useful for ultrasensitive rotation measurements and as a component in quantum computers.

“In a conventional SQUID, the quantum interference in electron currents can be used to make one of the most sensitive magnetic field detectors,” said Changhyun Ryu, a physicist with the Material Physics and Applications Quantum group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We use neutral atoms rather than charged electrons. Instead of responding to magnetic fields, the atomtronic version of a SQUID is sensitive to mechanical rotation.”

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 August 7, 2020 at 4:08 PM209 Comments

The NSA on the Risks of Exposing Location Data

The NSA has issued an advisory on the risks of location data.

Mitigations reduce, but do not eliminate, location tracking risks in mobile devices. Most users rely on features disabled by such mitigations, making such safeguards impractical. Users should be aware of these risks and take action based on their specific situation and risk tolerance. When location exposure could be detrimental to a mission, users should prioritize mission risk and apply location tracking mitigations to the greatest extent possible. While the guidance in this document may be useful to a wide range of users, it is intended primarily for NSS/DoD system users.

The document provides a list of mitigation strategies, including turning things off:

If it is critical that location is not revealed for a particular mission, consider the following recommendations:

  • Determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location.
  • Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.
  • For mission transportation, use vehicles without built-in wireless communication capabilities, or turn off the capabilities, if possible.

Of course, turning off your wireless devices is itself a signal that something is going on. It’s hard to be clandestine in our always connected world.

News articles.

Posted on August 6, 2020 at 12:15 PM60 Comments

BlackBerry Phone Cracked

Australia is reporting that a BlackBerry device has been cracked after five years:

An encrypted BlackBerry device that was cracked five years after it was first seized by police is poised to be the key piece of evidence in one of the state’s longest-running drug importation investigations.

In April, new technology “capabilities” allowed authorities to probe the encrypted device….

No details about those capabilities.

Posted on August 3, 2020 at 11:54 AM18 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.