Blog: November 2022 Archives

Computer Repair Technicians Are Stealing Your Data

Laptop technicians routinely violate the privacy of the people whose computers they repair:

Researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recovered logs from laptops after receiving overnight repairs from 12 commercial shops. The logs showed that technicians from six of the locations had accessed personal data and that two of those shops also copied data onto a personal device. Devices belonging to females were more likely to be snooped on, and that snooping tended to seek more sensitive data, including both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, documents, and financial information.

[…]

In three cases, Windows Quick Access or Recently Accessed Files had been deleted in what the researchers suspect was an attempt by the snooping technician to cover their tracks. As noted earlier, two of the visits resulted in the logs the researchers relied on being unrecoverable. In one, the researcher explained they had installed antivirus software and performed a disk cleanup to “remove multiple viruses on the device.” The researchers received no explanation in the other case.

[…]

The laptops were freshly imaged Windows 10 laptops. All were free of malware and other defects and in perfect working condition with one exception: the audio driver was disabled. The researchers chose that glitch because it required only a simple and inexpensive repair, was easy to create, and didn’t require access to users’ personal files.

Half of the laptops were configured to appear as if they belonged to a male and the other half to a female. All of the laptops were set up with email and gaming accounts and populated with browser history across several weeks. The researchers added documents, both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, and a cryptocurrency wallet with credentials.

A few notes. One: this is a very small study—only twelve laptop repairs. Two, some of the results were inconclusive, which indicated—but did not prove—log tampering by the technicians. Three, this study was done in Canada. There would probably be more snooping by American repair technicians.

The moral isn’t a good one: if you bring your laptop in to be repaired, you should expect the technician to snoop through your hard drive, taking what they want.

Posted on November 28, 2022 at 10:44 AM0 Comments

The US Has a Shortage of Bomb-Sniffing Dogs

Nothing beats a dog’s nose for detecting explosives. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough dogs:

Last month, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a nearly 100-page report about working dogs and the need for federal agencies to better safeguard their health and wellness. The GOA says that as of February the US federal government had approximately 5,100 working dogs, including detection dogs, across three federal agencies. Another 420 dogs “served the federal government in 24 contractor-managed programs within eight departments and two independent agencies,” the GAO report says.

The report also underscores the demands placed on detection dogs and the potential for overwork if there aren’t enough dogs available. “Working dogs might need the strength to suddenly run fast, or to leap over a tall barrier, as well as the physical stamina to stand or walk all day,” the report says. “They might need to search over rubble or in difficult environmental conditions, such as extreme heat or cold, often wearing heavy body armor. They also might spend the day detecting specific scents among thousands of others, requiring intense mental concentration. Each function requires dogs to undergo specialized training.”

A decade and a half ago I was optimistic about bomb-sniffing bees and wasps, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Posted on November 23, 2022 at 11:23 AM25 Comments

Apple’s Device Analytics Can Identify iCloud Users

Researchers claim that supposedly anonymous device analytics information can identify users:

On Twitter, security researchers Tommy Mysk and Talal Haj Bakry have found that Apple’s device analytics data includes an iCloud account and can be linked directly to a specific user, including their name, date of birth, email, and associated information stored on iCloud.

Apple has long claimed otherwise:

On Apple’s device analytics and privacy legal page, the company says no information collected from a device for analytics purposes is traceable back to a specific user. “iPhone Analytics may include details about hardware and operating system specifications, performance statistics, and data about how you use your devices and applications. None of the collected information identifies you personally,” the company claims.

Apple was just sued for tracking iOS users without their consent, even when they explicitly opt out of tracking.

Posted on November 22, 2022 at 10:28 AM3 Comments

Breaking the Zeppelin Ransomware Encryption Scheme

Brian Krebs writes about how the Zeppelin ransomware encryption scheme was broken:

The researchers said their break came when they understood that while Zeppelin used three different types of encryption keys to encrypt files, they could undo the whole scheme by factoring or computing just one of them: An ephemeral RSA-512 public key that is randomly generated on each machine it infects.

“If we can recover the RSA-512 Public Key from the registry, we can crack it and get the 256-bit AES Key that encrypts the files!” they wrote. “The challenge was that they delete the [public key] once the files are fully encrypted. Memory analysis gave us about a 5-minute window after files were encrypted to retrieve this public key.”

Unit 221B ultimately built a “Live CD” version of Linux that victims could run on infected systems to extract that RSA-512 key. From there, they would load the keys into a cluster of 800 CPUs donated by hosting giant Digital Ocean that would then start cracking them. The company also used that same donated infrastructure to help victims decrypt their data using the recovered keys.

A company offered recovery services based on this break, but was reluctant to advertise because it didn’t want Zeppelin’s creators to fix their encryption flaw.

Technical details.

Posted on November 21, 2022 at 7:08 AM10 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Brains

Researchers have new evidence of how squid brains develop:

Researchers from the FAS Center for Systems Biology describe how they used a new live-imaging technique to watch neurons being created in the embryo in almost real-time. They were then able to track those cells through the development of the nervous system in the retina. What they saw surprised them.

The neural stem cells they tracked behaved eerily similar to the way these cells behave in vertebrates during the development of their nervous system.

It suggests that vertebrates and cephalopods, despite diverging from each other 500 million years ago, not only are using similar mechanisms to make their big brains but that this process and the way the cells act, divide, and are shaped may essentially layout the blueprint required develop this kind of nervous system.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on November 18, 2022 at 5:12 PM178 Comments

First Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Kirkus reviews A Hacker’s Mind:

A cybersecurity expert examines how the powerful game whatever system is put before them, leaving it to others to cover the cost.

Schneier, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and author of such books as Data and Goliath and Click Here To Kill Everybody, regularly challenges his students to write down the first 100 digits of pi, a nearly impossible task­—but not if they cheat, concerning which he admonishes, “Don’t get caught.” Not getting caught is the aim of the hackers who exploit the vulnerabilities of systems of all kinds. Consider right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who located a hack in the tax code: “Because he was one of the founders of PayPal, he was able to use a $2,000 investment to buy 1.7 million shares of the company at $0.001 per share, turning it into $5 billion—all forever tax free.” It was perfectly legal—and even if it weren’t, the wealthy usually go unpunished. The author, a fluid writer and tech communicator, reveals how the tax code lends itself to hacking, as when tech companies like Apple and Google avoid paying billions of dollars by transferring profits out of the U.S. to corporate-friendly nations such as Ireland, then offshoring the “disappeared” dollars to Bermuda, the Caymans, and other havens. Every system contains trap doors that can be breached to advantage. For example, Schneier cites “the Pudding Guy,” who hacked an airline miles program by buying low-cost pudding cups in a promotion that, for $3,150, netted him 1.2 million miles and “lifetime Gold frequent flier status.” Since it was all within the letter if not the spirit of the offer, “the company paid up.” The companies often do, because they’re gaming systems themselves. “Any rule can be hacked,” notes the author, be it a religious dietary restriction or a legislative procedure. With technology, “we can hack more, faster, better,” requiring diligent monitoring and a demand that everyone play by rules that have been hardened against tampering.

An eye-opening, maddening book that offers hope for leveling a badly tilted playing field.

I got a starred review. Libraries make decisions on what to buy based on starred reviews. Publications make decisions about what to review based on starred reviews. This is a big deal.

Book’s webpage.

Posted on November 18, 2022 at 1:08 PM28 Comments

Successful Hack of Time-Triggered Ethernet

Time-triggered Ethernet (TTE) is used in spacecraft, basically to use the same hardware to process traffic with different timing and criticality. Researchers have defeated it:

On Tuesday, researchers published findings that, for the first time, break TTE’s isolation guarantees. The result is PCspooF, an attack that allows a single non-critical device connected to a single plane to disrupt synchronization and communication between TTE devices on all planes. The attack works by exploiting a vulnerability in the TTE protocol. The work was completed by researchers at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“Our evaluation shows that successful attacks are possible in seconds and that each successful attack can cause TTE devices to lose synchronization for up to a second and drop tens of TT messages—both of which can result in the failure of critical systems like aircraft or automobiles,” the researchers wrote. “We also show that, in a simulated spaceflight mission, PCspooF causes uncontrolled maneuvers that threaten safety and mission success.”

Much more detail in the article—and the research paper.

Posted on November 18, 2022 at 10:04 AM7 Comments

Failures in Twitter’s Two-Factor Authentication System

Twitter is having intermittent problems with its two-factor authentication system:

Not all users are having problems receiving SMS authentication codes, and those who rely on an authenticator app or physical authentication token to secure their Twitter account may not have reason to test the mechanism. But users have been self-reporting issues on Twitter since the weekend, and WIRED confirmed that on at least some accounts, authentication texts are hours delayed or not coming at all. The meltdown comes less than two weeks after Twitter laid off about half of its workers, roughly 3,700 people. Since then, engineers, operations specialists, IT staff, and security teams have been stretched thin attempting to adapt Twitter’s offerings and build new features per new owner Elon Musk’s agenda.

On top of that, it seems that the system has a new vulnerability:

A researcher contacted Information Security Media Group on condition of anonymity to reveal that texting “STOP” to the Twitter verification service results in the service turning off SMS two-factor authentication.

“Your phone has been removed and SMS 2FA has been disabled from all accounts,” is the automated response.

The vulnerability, which ISMG verified, allows a hacker to spoof the registered phone number to disable two-factor authentication. That potentially exposes accounts to a password reset attack or account takeover through password stuffing.

This is not a good sign.

Posted on November 17, 2022 at 5:53 AM29 Comments

Russian Software Company Pretending to Be American

Computer code developed by a company called Pushwoosh is in about 8,000 Apple and Google smartphone apps. The company pretends to be American when it is actually Russian.

According to company documents publicly filed in Russia and reviewed by Reuters, Pushwoosh is headquartered in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk, where it is registered as a software company that also carries out data processing. It employs around 40 people and reported revenue of 143,270,000 rubles ($2.4 mln) last year. Pushwoosh is registered with the Russian government to pay taxes in Russia.

On social media and in US regulatory filings, however, it presents itself as a US company, based at various times in California, Maryland, and Washington, DC, Reuters found.

What does the code do? Spy on people:

Pushwoosh provides code and data processing support for software developers, enabling them to profile the online activity of smartphone app users and send tailor-made push notifications from Pushwoosh servers.

On its website, Pushwoosh says it does not collect sensitive information, and Reuters found no evidence Pushwoosh mishandled user data. Russian authorities, however, have compelled local companies to hand over user data to domestic security agencies.

I have called supply chain security “an insurmountably hard problem,” and this is just another example of that.

Posted on November 16, 2022 at 6:03 AM28 Comments

Another Event-Related Spyware App

Last month, we were warned not to install Qatar’s World Cup app because it was spyware. This month, it’s Egypt’s COP27 Summit app:

The app is being promoted as a tool to help attendees navigate the event. But it risks giving the Egyptian government permission to read users’ emails and messages. Even messages shared via encrypted services like WhatsApp are vulnerable, according to POLITICO’s technical review of the application, and two of the outside experts.

The app also provides Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which created it, with other so-called backdoor privileges, or the ability to scan people’s devices.

On smartphones running Google’s Android software, it has permission to potentially listen into users’ conversations via the app, even when the device is in sleep mode, according to the three experts and POLITICO’s separate analysis. It can also track people’s locations via smartphone’s built-in GPS and Wi-Fi technologies, according to two of the analysts.

Posted on November 15, 2022 at 7:16 AM12 Comments

A Digital Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross wants some digital equivalent to the iconic red cross, to alert would-be hackers that they are accessing a medical network.

The emblem wouldn’t provide technical cybersecurity protection to hospitals, Red Cross infrastructure or other medical providers, but it would signal to hackers that a cyberattack on those protected networks during an armed conflict would violate international humanitarian law, experts say, Tilman Rodenhäuser, a legal adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross, said at a panel discussion hosted by the organization on Thursday.

I can think of all sorts of problems with this idea and many reasons why it won’t work, but those also apply to the physical red cross on buildings, vehicles, and people’s clothing. So let’s try it.

EDITED TO ADD: Original reference.

Posted on November 14, 2022 at 6:38 AM23 Comments

New Book: A Hacker’s Mind

I have a new book coming out in February. It’s about hacking.

A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend them Back isn’t about hacking computer systems; it’s about hacking more general economic, political, and social systems. It generalizes the term hack as a means of subverting a system’s rules in unintended ways.

What sorts of system? Any system of rules, really. Take the tax code, for example. It’s not computer code, but it’s a series of algorithms—supposedly deterministic—that take a bunch of inputs about your income and produce an output that’s the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities; we call them loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. And there is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: we call them accountants and tax attorneys.

In my conception, a “hack” is something a system permits, but is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat—but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the Internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is “allowed” by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.

Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in professional sports, in customer reward programs, in financial systems, in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; against our cognitive functions. A curved hockey stick is a hack, and we know the name of the hacker who invented it. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, invented by Cato the Younger, A Roman senator in 60 BCE. Hedge funds are full of hacks.

A system is just a set of rules. Or norms, since the “rules” aren’t always formal. And even the best-thought-out sets of rules will be incomplete or inconsistent. It’ll have ambiguities, and things the designers haven’t thought of. As long as there are people who want to subvert the goals of a system, there will be hacks.

I use this framework in A Hacker’s Mind to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly, and apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks. And I end by looking at artificial intelligence, and what will happen when AIs start hacking. Not the problems of hacking AI, which are both ubiquitous and super weird, but what happens when an AI is able to discover new hacks against these more general systems. What happens when AIs find tax loopholes, or loopholes in financial regulations. We have systems in place to deal with these sorts of hacks, but they were invented when hackers were human and reflect the human pace of hack discovery. They won’t be able to withstand an AI finding dozens, or hundreds, of loopholes in financial regulations. We’re simply not ready for the speed, scale, scope, and sophistication of AI hackers.

A Hacker’s Mind is my pandemic book, written in 2020 and 2021. It represents another step in my continuing journey of increasing generalizations. And I really like the cover. It will be published on February 7. It makes an excellent belated holiday gift. Order yours today and avoid the rush.

Posted on November 11, 2022 at 2:11 PM45 Comments

NSA Over-surveillance

Here in 2022, we have a newly declassified 2016 Inspector General report—”Misuse of Sigint Systems”—about a 2013 NSA program that resulted in the unauthorized (that is, illegal) targeting of Americans.

Given all we learned from Edward Snowden, this feels like a minor coda. There’s nothing really interesting in the IG document, which is heavily redacted.

News story.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): Non-paywalled copy of the Bloomberg link.

Posted on November 11, 2022 at 6:25 AM7 Comments

An Untrustworthy TLS Certificate in Browsers

The major browsers natively trust a whole bunch of certificate authorities, and some of them are really sketchy:

Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, nonprofit Firefox and others allow the company, TrustCor Systems, to act as what’s known as a root certificate authority, a powerful spot in the internet’s infrastructure that guarantees websites are not fake, guiding users to them seamlessly.

The company’s Panamanian registration records show that it has the identical slate of officers, agents and partners as a spyware maker identified this year as an affiliate of Arizona-based Packet Forensics, which public contracting records and company documents show has sold communication interception services to U.S. government agencies for more than a decade.

[…]

In the earlier spyware matter, researchers Joel Reardon of the University of Calgary and Serge Egelman of the University of California at Berkeley found that a Panamanian company, Measurement Systems, had been paying developers to include code in a variety of innocuous apps to record and transmit users’ phone numbers, email addresses and exact locations. They estimated that those apps were downloaded more than 60 million times, including 10 million downloads of Muslim prayer apps.

Measurement Systems’ website was registered by Vostrom Holdings, according to historic domain name records. Vostrom filed papers in 2007 to do business as Packet Forensics, according to Virginia state records. Measurement Systems was registered in Virginia by Saulino, according to another state filing.

More details by Reardon.

Cory Doctorow does a great job explaining the context and the general security issues.

EDITED TO ADD (11/10): Slashdot thread.

Posted on November 10, 2022 at 9:18 AM29 Comments

Using Wi-FI to See through Walls

This technique measures device response time to determine distance:

The scientists tested the exploit by modifying an off-the-shelf drone to create a flying scanning device, the Wi-Peep. The robotic aircraft sends several messages to each device as it flies around, establishing the positions of devices in each room. A thief using the drone could find vulnerable areas in a home or office by checking for the absence of security cameras and other signs that a room is monitored or occupied. It could also be used to follow a security guard, or even to help rival hotels spy on each other by gauging the number of rooms in use.

There have been attempts to exploit similar WiFi problems before, but the team says these typically require bulky and costly devices that would give away attempts. Wi-Peep only requires a small drone and about $15 US in equipment that includes two WiFi modules and a voltage regulator. An intruder could quickly scan a building without revealing their presence.

Research paper.

Posted on November 8, 2022 at 6:15 AM24 Comments

The Conviction of Uber’s Chief Security Officer

I have been meaning to write about Joe Sullivan, Uber’s former Chief Security Officer. He was convicted of crimes related to covering up a cyberattack against Uber. It’s a complicated case, and I’m not convinced that he deserved a guilty ruling or that it’s a good thing for the industry.

I may still write something, but until then, this essay on the topic is worth reading.

Posted on November 7, 2022 at 6:17 AM13 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Newfoundland Giant Squid Sculpture

In 1878, a 55-foot-long giant squid washed up on the shores of Glover’s Harbour, Newfoundland. It’s the largest giant squid ever recorded—although scientists now think that the size was an exaggeration or the result of postmortem stretching—and there’s a full-sized statue of it near the beach where it was found.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on November 4, 2022 at 4:01 PM115 Comments

NSA on Supply Chain Security

The NSA (together with CISA) has published a long report on supply-chain security: “Securing the Software Supply Chain: Recommended Practices Guide for Suppliers.“:

Prevention is often seen as the responsibility of the software developer, as they are required to securely develop and deliver code, verify third party components, and harden the build environment. But the supplier also holds a critical responsibility in ensuring the security and integrity of our software. After all, the software vendor is responsible for liaising between the customer and software developer. It is through this relationship that additional security features can be applied via contractual agreements, software releases and updates, notifications and mitigations of vulnerabilities.

Software suppliers will find guidance from NSA and our partners on preparing organizations by defining software security checks, protecting software, producing well-secured software, and responding to vulnerabilities on a continuous basis. Until all stakeholders seek to mitigate concerns specific to their area of responsibility, the software supply chain cycle will be vulnerable and at risk for potential compromise.

They previously published “Securing the Software Supply Chain: Recommended Practices Guide for Developers.” And they plan on publishing one focused on customers.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): The proposed EU Cyber Resilience Act places obligations on software providers to deliver secure code, and fix bugs in a timely manner.

Posted on November 4, 2022 at 9:16 AM33 Comments

Iran’s Digital Surveillance Tools Leaked

It’s Iran’s turn to have its digital surveillance tools leaked:

According to these internal documents, SIAM is a computer system that works behind the scenes of Iranian cellular networks, providing its operators a broad menu of remote commands to alter, disrupt, and monitor how customers use their phones. The tools can slow their data connections to a crawl, break the encryption of phone calls, track the movements of individuals or large groups, and produce detailed metadata summaries of who spoke to whom, when, and where. Such a system could help the government invisibly quash the ongoing protests ­—or those of tomorrow ­—an expert who reviewed the SIAM documents told The Intercept.

[…]

SIAM gives the government’s Communications Regulatory Authority ­—Iran’s telecommunications regulator ­—turnkey access to the activities and capabilities of the country’s mobile users. “Based on CRA rules and regulations all telecom operators must provide CRA direct access to their system for query customers information and change their services via web service,” reads an English-language document obtained by The Intercept. (Neither the CRA nor Iran’s mission to the United Nations responded to a requests for comment.)

Lots of details, and links to the leaked documents, at the Intercept webpage.

Posted on November 1, 2022 at 6:24 AM9 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.