Blog: February 2022 Archives

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Videos

Here are six beautiful squid videos. I know nothing more about them.

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.

EDITED TO ADD (2/25): This post accidentally went live on Wednesday, two days early, and people started adding their comments then. I have changed the posting date to the correct one, which means that the comments existing before that time will appear to have been made before the post. I apologize for the confusion.

Posted on February 25, 2022 at 4:00 PM265 Comments

Privacy Violating COVID Tests

A good lesson in reading the fine print:

Cignpost Diagnostics, which trades as ExpressTest and offers £35 tests for holidaymakers, said it holds the right to analyse samples from seals to “learn more about human health”—and sell information on to third parties.

Individuals are required to give informed consent for their sensitive medical data to be used ­ but customers’ consent for their DNA to be sold now as buried in Cignpost’s online documents.

Of course, no one ever reads the fine print.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): The original story.

Posted on February 25, 2022 at 6:15 AM18 Comments

An Elaborate Employment Con in the Internet Age

The story is an old one, but the tech gives it a bunch of new twists:

Gemma Brett, a 27-year-old designer from west London, had only been working at Madbird for two weeks when she spotted something strange. Curious about what her commute would be like when the pandemic was over, she searched for the company’s office address. The result looked nothing like the videos on Madbird’s website of a sleek workspace buzzing with creative-types. Instead, Google Street View showed an upmarket block of flats in London’s Kensington.

[…]

Using online reverse image searches they dug deeper. They found that almost all the work Madbird claimed as its own had been stolen from elsewhere on the internet—and that some of the colleagues they’d been messaging online didn’t exist.

[…]

At least six of the most senior employees profiled by Madbird were fake. Their identities stitched together using photos stolen from random corners of the internet and made-up names. They included Madbird’s co-founder, Dave Stanfield—despite him having a LinkedIn profile and Ali referring to him constantly. Some of the duped staff had even received emails from him.

Read the whole sad story. What’s amazing is how shallow all the fakery was, and how quickly it all unraveled once people started digging. But until there’s suspicion enough to dig, we take all of these things at face value. And in COVID times, there’s no face-to-face anything.

Posted on February 24, 2022 at 6:13 AM18 Comments

Bypassing Apple’s AirTag Security

A Berlin-based company has developed an AirTag clone that bypasses Apple’s anti-stalker security systems. Source code for these AirTag clones is available online.

So now we have several problems with the system. Apple’s anti-stalker security only works with iPhones. (Apple wrote an Android app that can detect AirTags, but how many people are going to download it?) And now non-AirTags can piggyback on Apple’s system without triggering the alarms.

Apple didn’t think this through nearly as well as it claims to have. I think the general problem is one that I have written about before: designers just don’t have intimate threats in mind when building these systems.

Posted on February 23, 2022 at 6:28 AM15 Comments

A New Cybersecurity “Social Contract”

The US National Cyber Director Chris Inglis wrote an essay outlining a new social contract for the cyber age:

The United States needs a new social contract for the digital age—one that meaningfully alters the relationship between public and private sectors and proposes a new set of obligations for each. Such a shift is momentous but not without precedent. From the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the public-private revolution in airline safety in the 1990s, the United States has made important adjustments following profound changes in the economy and technology.

A similarly innovative shift in the cyber-realm will likely require an intense process of development and iteration. Still, its contours are already clear: the private sector must prioritize long-term investments in a digital ecosystem that equitably distributes the burden of cyberdefense. Government, in turn, must provide more timely and comprehensive threat information while simultaneously treating industry as a vital partner. Finally, both the public and private sectors must commit to moving toward true collaboration—contributing resources, attention, expertise, and people toward institutions designed to prevent, counter, and recover from cyber-incidents.

The devil is in the details, of course, but he’s 100% right when he writes that the market cannot solve this: that the incentives are all wrong. While he never actually uses the word “regulation,” the future he postulates won’t be possible without it. Regulation is how society aligns market incentives with its own values. He also leaves out the NSA—whose effectiveness rests on all of these global insecurities—and the FBI, whose incessant push for encryption backdoors goes against his vision of increased cybersecurity. I’m not sure how he’s going to get them on board. Or the surveillance capitalists, for that matter. A lot of what he wants will require reining in that particular business model.

Good essay—worth reading in full.

Posted on February 22, 2022 at 9:28 AM21 Comments

Stealing Bicycles by Swapping QR Codes

This is a clever hack against those bike-rental kiosks:

They’re stealing Citi Bikes by switching the QR scan codes on two bicycles near each other at a docking station, then waiting for an unsuspecting cyclist to try to unlock a bike with his or her smartphone app.

The app doesn’t work for the rider but does free up the nearby Citi Bike with the switched code, where a thief is waiting, jumps on the bicycle and rides off.

Presumably they’re using camera, printers, and stickers to swap the codes on the bikes. And presumably the victim is charged for not returning the stolen bicycle.

This story is from last year, but I hadn’t seen it before. There’s a video of one theft at the link.

Posted on February 21, 2022 at 6:31 AM25 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: South American Squid Stocks Threatened by Chinese Fishing

There’s a lot of fishing going on:

The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in the south Pacific has surged 13-fold from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 707 in 2020, according to the SPRFMO. Meanwhile, the size of China’s squid catch has grown from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000.

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 February 18, 2022 at 4:12 PM186 Comments

Possible Government Surveillance of the Otter.ai Transcription App

A reporter interviews a Uyghur human-rights advocate, and uses the Otter.ai transcription app.

The next day, I received an odd note from Otter.ai, the automated transcription app that I had used to record the interview. It read: “Hey Phelim, to help us improve your Otter’s experience, what was the purpose of this particular recording with titled ‘Mustafa Aksu’ created at ‘2021-11-08 11:02:41’?”

Customer service or Chinese surveillance? Turns out it’s hard to tell.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Another article.

Posted on February 17, 2022 at 10:40 AM25 Comments

Vendors are Fixing Security Flaws Faster

Google’s Project Zero is reporting that software vendors are patching their code faster.

tl;dr

  • In 2021, vendors took an average of 52 days to fix security vulnerabilities reported from Project Zero. This is a significant acceleration from an average of about 80 days 3 years ago.
  • In addition to the average now being well below the 90-day deadline, we have also seen a dropoff in vendors missing the deadline (or the additional 14-day grace period). In 2021, only one bug exceeded its fix deadline, though 14% of bugs required the grace period.
  • Differences in the amount of time it takes a vendor/product to ship a fix to users reflects their product design, development practices, update cadence, and general processes towards security reports. We hope that this comparison can showcase best practices, and encourage vendors to experiment with new policies.
  • This data aggregation and analysis is relatively new for Project Zero, but we hope to do it more in the future. We encourage all vendors to consider publishing aggregate data on their time-to-fix and time-to-patch for externally reported vulnerabilities, as well as more data sharing and transparency in general.

Posted on February 16, 2022 at 7:00 AM14 Comments

On the Irish Health Services Executive Hack

A detailed report of the 2021 ransomware attack against Ireland’s Health Services Executive lists some really bad security practices:

The report notes that:

  • The HSE did not have a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) or a “single responsible owner for cybersecurity at either senior executive or management level to provide leadership and direction.
  • It had no documented cyber incident response runbooks or IT recovery plans (apart from documented AD recovery plans) for recovering from a wide-scale ransomware event.
  • Under-resourced Information Security Managers were not performing their business as usual role (including a NIST-based cybersecurity review of systems) but were working on evaluating security controls for the COVID-19 vaccination system. Antivirus software triggered numerous alerts after detecting Cobalt Strike activity but these were not escalated. (The antivirus server was later encrypted in the attack).
  • There was no security monitoring capability that was able to effectively detect, investigate and respond to security alerts across HSE’s IT environment or the wider National Healthcare Network (NHN).
  • There was a lack of effective patching (updates, bug fixes etc.) across the IT estate and reliance was placed on a single antivirus product that was not monitored or effectively maintained with updates across the estate. (The initial workstation attacked had not had antivirus signatures updated for over a year.)
  • Over 30,000 machines were running Windows 7 (out of support since January 2020).
  • The initial breach came after a HSE staff member interacted with a malicious Microsoft Office Excel file attached to a phishing email; numerous subsequent alerts were not effectively investigated.

PwC’s crisp list of recommendations in the wake of the incident ­ as well as detail on the business impact of the HSE ransomware attack ­ may prove highly useful guidance on best practice for IT professionals looking to set up a security programme and get it funded.

Posted on February 11, 2022 at 6:17 AM25 Comments

Breaking 256-bit Elliptic Curve Encryption with a Quantum Computer

Researchers have calculated the quantum computer size necessary to break 256-bit elliptic curve public-key cryptography:

Finally, we calculate the number of physical qubits required to break the 256-bit elliptic curve encryption of keys in the Bitcoin network within the small available time frame in which it would actually pose a threat to do so. It would require 317 × 106 physical qubits to break the encryption within one hour using the surface code, a code cycle time of 1 μs, a reaction time of 10 μs, and a physical gate error of 10-3. To instead break the encryption within one day, it would require 13 × 106 physical qubits.

In other words: no time soon. Not even remotely soon. IBM’s largest ever superconducting quantum computer is 127 physical qubits.

Posted on February 9, 2022 at 6:25 AM47 Comments

Amy Zegart on Spycraft in the Internet Age

Amy Zegart has a new book: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. Wired has an excerpt:

In short, data volume and accessibility are revolutionizing sensemaking. The intelligence playing field is leveling­—and not in a good way. Intelligence collectors are everywhere, and government spy agencies are drowning in data. This is a radical new world and intelligence agencies are struggling to adapt to it. While secrets once conferred a huge advantage, today open source information increasingly does. Intelligence used to be a race for insight where great powers were the only ones with the capabilities to access secrets. Now everyone is racing for insight and the internet gives them tools to do it. Secrets still matter, but whoever can harness all this data better and faster will win.

The third challenge posed by emerging technologies strikes at the heart of espionage: secrecy. Until now, American spy agencies didn’t have to interact much with outsiders, and they didn’t want to. The intelligence mission meant gathering secrets so we knew more about adversaries than they knew about us, and keeping how we gathered secrets a secret too.

[…]

In the digital age, however, secrecy is bringing greater risk because emerging technologies are blurring nearly all the old boundaries of geopolitics. Increasingly, national security requires intelligence agencies to engage the outside world, not stand apart from it.

I have not yet read the book.

Posted on February 8, 2022 at 10:52 AM32 Comments

The EARN IT Act Is Back

Senators have reintroduced the EARN IT Act, requiring social media companies (among others) to administer a massive surveillance operation on their users:

A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have re-introduced the EARN IT Act, an incredibly unpopular bill from 2020 that was dropped in the face of overwhelming opposition. Let’s be clear: the new EARN IT Act would pave the way for a massive new surveillance system, run by private companies, that would roll back some of the most important privacy and security features in technology used by people around the globe. It’s a framework for private actors to scan every message sent online and report violations to law enforcement. And it might not stop there. The EARN IT Act could ensure that anything hosted online—backups, websites, cloud photos, and more—is scanned.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on February 4, 2022 at 9:44 AM53 Comments

Interview with the Head of the NSA’s Research Directorate

MIT Technology Review published an interview with Gil Herrera, the new head of the NSA’s Research Directorate. There’s a lot of talk about quantum computing, monitoring 5G networks, and the problems of big data:

The math department, often in conjunction with the computer science department, helps tackle one of NSA’s most interesting problems: big data. Despite public reckoning over mass surveillance, NSA famously faces the challenge of collecting such extreme quantities of data that, on top of legal and ethical problems, it can be nearly impossible to sift through all of it to find everything of value. NSA views the kind of “vast access and collection” that it talks about internally as both an achievement and its own set of problems. The field of data science aims to solve them.

“Everyone thinks their data is the messiest in the world, and mine maybe is because it’s taken from people who don’t want us to have it, frankly,” said Herrera’s immediate predecessor at the NSA, the computer scientist Deborah Frincke, during a 2017 talk at Stanford. “The adversary does not speak clearly in English with nice statements into a mic and, if we can’t understand it, send us a clearer statement.”

Making sense of vast stores of unclear, often stolen data in hundreds of languages and even more technical formats remains one of the directorate’s enduring tasks.

Posted on February 3, 2022 at 6:01 AM13 Comments

Finding Vulnerabilities in Open Source Projects

The Open Source Security Foundation announced $10 million in funding from a pool of tech and financial companies, including $5 million from Microsoft and Google, to find vulnerabilities in open source projects:

The “Alpha” side will emphasize vulnerability testing by hand in the most popular open-source projects, developing close working relationships with a handful of the top 200 projects for testing each year. “Omega” will look more at the broader landscape of open source, running automated testing on the top 10,000.

This is an excellent idea. This code ends up in all sorts of critical applications.

Log4j would be a prototypical vulnerability that the Alpha team might look for ­—an unknown problem in a high-impact project that automated tools would not be able to pick up before a human discovered it. The goal is not to use the personnel engaged with Alpha to replicate dependency analysis, for example.

Posted on February 2, 2022 at 9:58 AM9 Comments

Me on App Store Monopolies and Security

There are two bills working their way through Congress that would force companies like Apple to allow competitive app stores. Apple hates this, since it would break its monopoly, and it’s making a variety of security arguments to bolster its argument. I have written a rebuttal:

I would like to address some of the unfounded security concerns raised about these bills. It’s simply not true that this legislation puts user privacy and security at risk. In fact, it’s fairer to say that this legislation puts those companies’ extractive business-models at risk. Their claims about risks to privacy and security are both false and disingenuous, and motivated by their own self-interest and not the public interest. App store monopolies cannot protect users from every risk, and they frequently prevent the distribution of important tools that actually enhance security. Furthermore, the alleged risks of third-party app stores and “side-loading” apps pale in comparison to their benefits. These bills will encourage competition, prevent monopolist extortion, and guarantee users a new right to digital self-determination.

Matt Stoller has also written about this.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): Here are the two bills.

Posted on February 1, 2022 at 2:26 PM49 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.