December 15, 2005

by Bruce Schneier
Founder and CTO
Counterpane Internet Security, Inc.

A free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise.

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You can read this issue on the web at <>. These same essays appear in the “Schneier on Security” blog: <>. An RSS feed is available.

In this issue:

Airplane Security

Since 9/11, our nation has been obsessed with air-travel security. Terrorist attacks from the air have been the threat that looms largest in Americans’ minds. As a result, we’ve wasted millions on misguided programs to separate the regular travelers from the suspected terrorists—money that could have been spent to actually make us safer.

Consider CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight. These are programs to check travelers against the 30,000 to 40,000 names on the government’s No-Fly list, and another 30,000 to 40,000 on its Selectee list.

They’re bizarre lists: people—names and aliases—who are too dangerous to be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent that they cannot be arrested, even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act. The Selectee list contains an equal number of travelers who must be searched extensively before they’re allowed to fly. Who are these people, anyway?

The truth is, nobody knows. The lists come from the Terrorist Screening Database, a hodgepodge compiled in haste from a variety of sources, with no clear rules about who should be on it or how to get off it. The government is trying to clean up the lists, but—garbage in, garbage out—it’s not having much success.

The program has been a complete failure, resulting in exactly zero terrorists caught. And even worse, thousands (or more) have been denied the ability to fly, even though they’ve done nothing wrong. These denials fall into two categories: the “Ted Kennedy” problem (people who aren’t on the list but share a name with someone who is) and the “Cat Stevens” problem (people on the list who shouldn’t be). Even now, four years after 9/11, both these problems remain.

I know quite a lot about this. I was a member of the government’s Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security. We looked at the TSA’s program for matching airplane passengers with the terrorist watch list, and found a complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear system architecture, inadequate testing. (Our report was on the TSA website, but has recently been removed—”refreshed” is the word the organization used—and replaced with an “executive summary” that contains none of the report’s findings. The TSA did retain two rebuttals, which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by saying that we didn’t have access to the requisite information.) Our conclusions match those in two reports by the Government Accountability Office and one by the DHS inspector general.

Alongside Secure Flight, the TSA is testing Registered Traveler programs. There are two: one administered by the TSA, and the other a commercial program from Verified Identity Pass called Clear. The basic idea is that you submit your information in advance, and if you’re OK—whatever that means—you get a card that lets you go through security faster.

Superficially, it all seems to make sense. Why waste precious time making Grandma Miriam from Brooklyn empty her purse when you can search Sharaf, a 26-year-old who arrived last month from Egypt and is traveling without luggage?

The reason is security. These programs are based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That’s simply not true.

What these programs do is create two different access paths into the airport: high-security and low-security. The intent is to let only good guys take the low-security path and to force bad guys to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. Why couldn’t a terrorist just slip an altimeter-triggered explosive into the baggage of a registered traveler?

It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if enhanced screening is truly random, and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory background check.

The truth is, Registered Traveler programs are not about security; they’re about convenience. The Clear program is a business: Those who can afford $80 per year can avoid long lines. It’s also a program with a questionable revenue model. I fly 200,000 miles a year, which makes me a perfect candidate for this program. But my frequent-flier status already lets me use the airport’s fast line and means that I never get selected for secondary screening, so I have no incentive to pay for a card. Maybe that’s why the Clear pilot program in Orlando, Florida, only signed up 10,000 of that airport’s 31 million annual passengers.

I think Verified Identity Pass understands this, and is encouraging use of its card everywhere: at sports arenas, power plants, even office buildings. This is just the sort of mission creep that moves us ever closer to a “show me your papers” society.

Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else—Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included—is security theater. We would all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented enhanced baggage security—both ensuring that a passenger’s bags don’t fly unless he does, and explosives screening for all baggage—as well as background checks and increased screening for airport employees.

Then we could take all the money we save and apply it to intelligence, investigation and emergency response. These are security measures that pay dividends regardless of what the terrorists are planning next, whether it’s the movie plot threat of the moment, or something entirely different.

This essay originally appeared in Wired:
There are a lot of links in this essay. You can see them on Wired’s page. Or here:

Australian Minister’s Sensible Comments on Airline Security Spark Outcry

Three weeks ago, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone caused a stir by ridiculing airplane security in a public speech. She derided much of post-9/11 airline security, especially the use of plastic knives instead of metal ones, and said “a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome.”

As a foreigner, I know very little about Australian politics. I don’t know anything about Senator Vanstone, her politics, her policies, or her party. I have no idea what she stands for. But as a security technologist, I agree 100% with her comments. Most airplane security is what I call “security theater”: ineffective measures designed to make people feel better about flying.

I get irritated every time I get a plastic knife with my airplane meal. I know it doesn’t make me any safer to get plastic. El Al, a company I know takes security seriously, serves in-flight meals with metal cutlery…even in economy class.

Senator Vanstone pointed to wine glasses and HB pencils as potential weapons. She could have gone further. Spend a few minutes on the problem, and you quickly realize that airplanes are awash in potential weapons: belts, dental floss, keys, neckties, hatpins, canes, or the bare hands of someone with the proper training. Snap the extension handle of a wheeled suitcase off in just the right way, and you’ve got a pretty effective spear. Garrotes can be made of fishing line or dental floss. Shatter a CD or DVD and you’ll have a bunch of razor-sharp fragments. Break a bottle and you’ve got a nasty weapon. Even the most unimaginative terrorist could figure out how to smuggle an 8-inch resin combat knife onto a plane. In my book Beyond Fear, I even explained how to make a knife onboard with a tube of steel epoxy glue.

Maybe people who have watched MacGyver should never be allowed to fly.

The point is not that we can’t make air travel safe; the point is that we’re missing the point. Yes, the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters and small knives to hijack four airplanes, their attack wasn’t about the weapons. The terrorists succeeded because they exploited a flaw in the US response policy. Prior to 9/11, standard procedure was to cooperate fully with the terrorists while the plane was in the air. The goal was to get the plane onto the ground, where you can more easily negotiate. That policy, of course, fails completely when faced with a suicide terrorists.

And more importantly, the attack was a one-time event. We haven’t seen the end of airplane hijacking—there was a conventional midair hijacking in Colombia in September—but the aircraft-as-missile tactic required surprise to be successful.

This is not to say that we should give up on airplane security, either. A single cursory screening is worth it, but more extensive screening rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns. Most criminals are stupid, and are caught by a basic screening system. And just as important, the very act of screening is both a reminder and a deterrent. Terrorists can’t guarantee that they will be able to slip a weapon through screening, so they probably won’t try.

But screening will never be perfect. We can’t keep weapons out of prisons, a much more restrictive and controlled environment. How can we have a hope of keeping them off airplanes? The way to prevent airplane terrorism is not to spend additional resources keeping objects that could fall into the wrong hands off airplanes. The way to improve airplane security is to spend those resources keeping the wrong hands from boarding airplanes in the first place, and to make those hands ineffective if they do.

Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else—all that extra screening, those massive passenger profiling systems—is security theater.

If, as Opposition leader Kim Beazley said, Senator Vanstone should be sacked for speaking the truth, then we’re all much less secure. And if, as Federal Labor’s homeland security spokesman Arch Bevis said, her comments made a mockery of the Howard government’s credibility in the area of counter-terrorism, then maybe Howard’s government doesn’t have any credibility.

We would all be a lot safer if we took all the money we’re spending on enhanced passenger screening and applied it to intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. This is how to keep the wrong hands off airplanes and, more importantly, how to make us secure regardless of what the terrorists are planning next—even if it has nothing to do with airplanes.

This essay originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:

My original blog entry on the topic:

Sky Marshal Shooting in Miami

I don’t have a lot to say about the Miami false-alarm terrorist incident. For those of you who have spent the last few days in an isolation chamber, sky marshals shot and killed a mentally ill man they believed to be a terrorist. The shooting happened on the ground, in the Jetway. The man claimed he had a bomb and wouldn’t stop when ordered to by sky marshals. At least, that’s the story.

I’ve read the reports, the claims of the sky marshals and the counterclaims of some witnesses. Whatever happened—and it’s possible that we’ll never know—it does seem that this incident isn’t the same as the British shooting of a Brazilian man on July 22.

I do want to make two points, though.

One, any time you have an officer making split-second life and death decisions, you’re going to have mistakes. I hesitate to second-guess the sky marshals on the ground; they were in a very difficult position. But the way to minimize mistakes is through training. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this sort of thing read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Two, I’m not convinced the sky marshals’ threat model matches reality. Mentally ill people are far more common than terrorists. People who claim to have a bomb and don’t are far more common than people who actually do. The real question we should be asking here is: what should the appropriate response be to this low-probability threat?


Good Salon article on the topic.

New Airplane Security Regulations

The TSA is relaxing the rules for bringing pointy things on aircraft.

I like some of the randomness they’re introducing. I don’t know if they will still make people take laptops out of their cases, make people take off their shoes, or confiscate pocket knives. (Different articles have said different things about the last one.)

This is a good change, and it’s long overdue. Airplane terrorism hasn’t been the movie-plot threat everyone worries about for a while.

The most amazing reaction to this is from Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants: “When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safety but the aisles will be running with blood.”

How’s that for hyperbole?

In my book Beyond Fear and elsewhere, I’ve written about the notion of “agenda” and how it informs security trade-offs. From the perspective of the flight attendants, subjecting passengers to onerous screening requirements is a perfectly reasonable trade-off. They’re safer—albeit only slightly—because of it, and it doesn’t cost them anything. The cost is an externality to them: the passengers pay it. Passengers have a broader agenda: safety, but also cost, convenience, time, etc. So it makes perfect sense that the flight attendants object to a security change that the passengers are in favor of.


Movie plot threats:

Caldwell quote:

Crypto-Gram Reprints

Crypto-Gram is currently in its eighth year of publication. Back issues cover a variety of security-related topics, and can all be found on <>. These are a selection of articles that appeared in this calendar month in other years.

Behavioral Assessment Profiling:

Kafka and the Digital Person:

Safe Personal Computing:

Blaster and the August 14th Blackout:

Quantum Cryptography:

Computerized and Electronic Voting:


Comments on the Department of Homeland Security:

Crime: The Internet’s Next Big Thing:

National ID Cards:

Judges Punish Bad Security:

Computer Security and Liabilities:

Fun with Vulnerability Scanners:

Voting and Technology:

“Security Is Not a Product; It’s a Process”

Echelon Technology:

European Digital Cellular Algorithms:

The Fallacy of Cracking Contests:

How to Recognize Plaintext:

Sony’s DRM Rootkit: The Real Story

It’s a David and Goliath story of the tech blogs defeating a mega-corporation.

On Oct. 31, Mark Russinovich broke the story in his blog: Sony BMG Music Entertainment distributed a copy-protection scheme with music CDs that secretly installed a rootkit on computers. This software tool is run without your knowledge or consent—if it’s loaded on your computer with a CD, a hacker can gain and maintain access to your system and you wouldn’t know it.

The Sony code modifies Windows so you can’t tell it’s there, a process called “cloaking” in the hacker world. It acts as spyware, surreptitiously sending information about you to Sony. And it can’t be removed; trying to get rid of it damages Windows.

This story was picked up by other blogs (including mine), followed by the computer press. Finally, the mainstream media took it up.

The outcry was so great that on Nov. 11, Sony announced it was temporarily halting production of that copy-protection scheme. That still wasn’t enough—on Nov. 14 the company announced it was pulling copy-protected CDs from store shelves and offered to replace customers’ infected CDs for free.

But that’s not the real story here.

It’s a tale of extreme hubris. Sony rolled out this incredibly invasive copy-protection scheme without ever publicly discussing its details, confident that its profits were worth modifying its customers’ computers. When its actions were first discovered, Sony offered a “fix” that didn’t remove the rootkit, just the cloaking.

Sony claimed the rootkit didn’t phone home when it did. On Nov. 4, Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG’s president of global digital business, demonstrated the company’s disdain for its customers when he said, “Most people don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?” in an NPR interview. Even Sony’s apology only admits that its rootkit “includes a feature that may make a user’s computer susceptible to a virus written specifically to target the software.”

However, imperious corporate behavior is not the real story either.

This drama is also about incompetence. Sony’s latest rootkit-removal tool actually leaves a gaping vulnerability. And Sony’s rootkit—designed to stop copyright infringement—itself may have infringed on copyright. As amazing as it might seem, the code seems to include an open-source MP3 encoder in violation of that library’s license agreement. But even that is not the real story.

It’s an epic of class-action lawsuits in California and elsewhere, and the focus of criminal investigations. The rootkit has even been found on computers run by the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security’s displeasure. While Sony could be prosecuted under U.S. cybercrime law, no one thinks it will be. And lawsuits are never the whole story.

This saga is full of weird twists. Some pointed out how this sort of software would degrade the reliability of Windows. Someone created malicious code that used the rootkit to hide itself. A hacker used the rootkit to avoid the spyware of a popular game. And there were even calls for a worldwide Sony boycott. After all, if you can’t trust Sony not to infect your computer when you buy its music CDs, can you trust it to sell you an uninfected computer in the first place? That’s a good question, but—again—not the real story.

It’s yet another situation where Macintosh users can watch, amused (well, mostly) from the sidelines, wondering why anyone still uses Microsoft Windows. But certainly, even that is not the real story.

The story to pay attention to here is the collusion between big media companies who try to control what we do on our computers and computer-security companies who are supposed to be protecting us.

Initial estimates are that more than half a million computers worldwide are infected with this Sony rootkit. Those are amazing infection numbers, making this one of the most serious internet epidemics of all time—on a par with worms like Blaster, Slammer, Code Red and Nimda.

What do you think of your antivirus company, the one that didn’t notice Sony’s rootkit as it infected half a million computers? And this isn’t one of those lightning-fast internet worms; this one has been spreading since mid-2004. Because it spread through infected CDs, not through internet connections, they didn’t notice? This is exactly the kind of thing we’re paying those companies to detect—especially because the rootkit was phoning home.

But much worse than not detecting it before Russinovich’s discovery was the deafening silence that followed. When a new piece of malware is found, security companies fall over themselves to clean our computers and inoculate our networks. Not in this case.

McAfee didn’t add detection code until Nov. 9, and as of Nov. 15 it doesn’t remove the rootkit, only the cloaking device. The company admits on its web page that this is a lousy compromise. “McAfee detects, removes and prevents reinstallation of XCP.” That’s the cloaking code. “Please note that removal will not impair the copyright-protection mechanisms installed from the CD. There have been reports of system crashes possibly resulting from uninstalling XCP.” Thanks for the warning.

Symantec’s response to the rootkit has, to put it kindly, evolved. At first the company didn’t consider XCP malware at all. It wasn’t until Nov. 11 that Symantec posted a tool to remove the cloaking. As of Nov. 15, it is still wishy-washy about it, explaining that “this rootkit was designed to hide a legitimate application, but it can be used to hide other objects, including malicious software.”

The only thing that makes this rootkit legitimate is that a multinational corporation put it on your computer, not a criminal organization.

You might expect Microsoft to be the first company to condemn this rootkit. After all, XCP corrupts Windows’ internals in a pretty nasty way. It’s the sort of behavior that could easily lead to system crashes—crashes that customers would blame on Microsoft. But it wasn’t until Nov. 13, when public pressure was just too great to ignore, that Microsoft announced it would update its security tools to detect and remove the cloaking portion of the rootkit.

Perhaps the only security company that deserves praise is F-Secure, the first and the loudest critic of Sony’s actions. And Sysinternals, of course, which hosts Russinovich’s blog and brought this to light.

Bad security happens. It always has and it always will. And companies do stupid things; always have and always will. But the reason we buy security products from Symantec, McAfee and others is to protect us from bad security.

I truly believed that even in the biggest and most-corporate security company there are people with hackerish instincts, people who will do the right thing and blow the whistle. That all the big security companies, with over a year’s lead time, would fail to notice or do anything about this Sony rootkit demonstrates incompetence at best, and lousy ethics at worst.

Microsoft I can understand. The company is a fan of invasive copy protection—it’s being built into the next version of Windows. Microsoft is trying to work with media companies like Sony, hoping Windows becomes the media-distribution channel of choice. And Microsoft is known for watching out for its business interests at the expense of those of its customers.

What happens when the creators of malware collude with the very companies we hire to protect us from that malware?

We users lose, that’s what happens. A dangerous and damaging rootkit gets introduced into the wild, and half a million computers get infected before anyone does anything.

Who are the security companies really working for? It’s unlikely that this Sony rootkit is the only example of a media company using this technology. Which security company has engineers looking for the others who might be doing it? And what will they do if they find one? What will they do the next time some multinational company decides that owning your computers is a good idea?

These questions are the real story, and we all deserve answers.

This essay originally appeared in Wired:
There are a lot of links in this essay. You can see them on Wired’s page. Or here:

These are my other blog posts on this:
There are lots of other links in these posts.

CME in Practice

CME is “Common Malware Enumeration,” and it’s an initiative by US-CERT to give all worms, viruses, and such uniform names. The problem is that different security vendors use different names for the same thing, and it can be extremely confusing for customers. A uniform naming system is a great idea.

Here’s someone talking about how it’s not working very well in practice. Basically, while you can go from a vendor’s site to the CME information, you can’t go from the CME information to a vendor’s site. This essentially makes it worthless: just another name and number without references.



My original post on the topic;

OpenDocument Format and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

OpenDocument format (ODF) is an alternative to the Microsoft document, spreadsheet, and etc. file formats.

No big deal. Except that Microsoft, with its proprietary Office document format, is spreading rumors that ODF is somehow less secure.

This, from the company that allows Office documents to embed arbitrary Visual Basic programs?

Yes, there is a way to embed scripts in ODF; this seems to be what Microsoft is pointing to. But at least ODF has a clean and open XML format, which allows layered security and the ability to remove scripts as needed. This is much more difficult in the binary Microsoft formats that effectively hide embedded programs.

Microsoft’s claim that the open ODF is inherently less secure than the proprietary Office format is essentially an argument for security through obscurity. ODF is no less secure than current .doc and other proprietary formats, and may be—marginally, at least—more secure.

The ODF people say it nicely: “There is no greater security risk, no greater ability to ‘manipulate code’ or gain access to content using ODF than alternative document formats. Security should be addressed through policy decisions on information sharing, regardless of document format. Security exposures caused by programmatic extensions such as the visual basic macros that can be imbedded in Microsoft Office documents are well known and notorious, but there is nothing distinct about ODF that makes it any more or less vulnerable to security risks than any other format specification. The many engineers working to enhance the ODF specification are working to develop techniques to mitigate any exposure that may exist through these extensions.”

This whole thing has heated up because Massachusetts recently required public records be held in OpenDocument format, which has put Microsoft into a bit of a tizzy. I don’t know if it’s why Microsoft is submitting its Office Document Formats to ECMA for “open standardization,” but I’m sure it’s part of the reason.


ODF on security:

Massachusetts decision:

Microsoft’s actions:


Here’s a cell phone that can detect if it is stolen by measuring the gait of the person carrying it. Clever, as long as you realize that there are going to be a lot of false alarms. This seems okay: “If the phone suspects it has fallen into the wrong hands, it will prompt the user for a password if they attempt to make calls or access its memory.”

For a long time now, I’ve been saying that the rate of identity theft has been grossly overestimated: too many things are counted as identity theft that are just traditional fraud. Here’s some interesting data to back that claim up:
Identity theft is a serious crime, and it’s a major growth industry in the criminal world. But we do everyone a disservice when we count things as identity theft that really aren’t.

More evidence that hackers are migrating into crime:

A Canadian reporter was able to get phone records for the personal and professional accounts held by Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart through an American data broker, The security concerns are obvious.
Canada has an exception in the privacy laws that allows newspapers to do this type of investigative reporting. My guess is that’s the only reason we haven’t seen an American reporter pull phone records on one of our government officials.

Western Union has been the conduit of a lot of fraud. But since they’re not the victim, they don’t care much about security. It’s an externality to them. It took a lawsuit to convince them to take security seriously.

Ex-MI5 chief calls ID cards “useless.” Refreshing candor.

An Iowa prison break illustrates an important security principle: Guards = dynamic security. Tripwires = static security. Dynamic security is better than static security.

Coming soon to an airport near you—automatic lie detectors:
In general, I prefer security systems that are invasive yet anonymous to ones that are based on massive databases. And automatic systems that divide people into a “probably fine” and “investigate a bit more” categories seem like a good use of technology. I have no idea whether this system works (there is a lot of evidence that it does not), what the false positive and false negative rates are (one article states a completely useless 12% false positive rate), or how easy it would be to learn how to fool the system, though. And in all of these trade-off discussions, the devil is in the details.

I regularly get anonymous e-mail from people exposing software vulnerabilities. This one, about a possible Net Objects Fusion 9 vulnerability looks interesting:

This is an amazing story: Doris Payne, a 75-year-old jewel thief.

Another movie plot threat: electronic pulses from space:
I love this quote: “This is the single most serious national-security challenge and certainly the least known.” The “single most serious national-security challenge.” Absolutely nothing more serious. Sheesh.

Do you own shares of a Janus mutual fund? Can you vote your shares through a website called If so, you can vote the shares of others. If you have a valid proxy number, you can add 1300 to the number to get another valid proxy number. Once entered, you get another person’s name, address, and account number at Janus! You could then vote their shares too. It’s easy. Probably illegal. Definitely a great resource for identity thieves. Certainly pathetic.

Chris Hoofnagle is the West Coast Director for EPIC. This is his consumer privacy top 10:

The European music industry is lobbying the European Parliament, demanding things that the RIAA can only dream about. They want anti-terror laws to apply to music downloaders, too.
Our society definitely needs a serious conversation about the fundamental freedoms we are sacrificing in a misguided attempt to keep us safe from terrorism. It feels both surreal and sickening to have to defend our fundamental freedoms against those who want to stop people from sharing music. How is it possible that we can contemplate so much damage to our society simply to protect the business model of a handful of companies?

Safecracking with thermal imaging:

Are we giving the U.S. Military the power to conduct domestic surveillance:
The police and the military have fundamentally different missions. The police protect citizens. The military attacks the enemy. When you start giving police powers to the military, citizens start looking like the enemy. We gain a lot of security because we separate the functions of the police and the military, and we will all be much less safer if we allow those functions to blur. This kind of thing worries me far more than terrorist threats.

Want to make the country safer from terrorism? Take the money now being wasted on national ID cards, massive data mining projects, fingerprinting foreigners, airline passenger profiling, etc., and use it to fund worldwide efforts to interdict terrorist funding:

This has got to be the most bizarre movie-plot threat to date: alien viruses downloaded via the SETI project:
Here’s his website:

What is it with this month? I can’t turn around without seeing another dumb movie-plot threat. Here, a Thai minister is warning people not to return unknown calls on their cell phone, because they might be used to detonate terrorist bombs.

Miami police to stage “random shows of force”:
More info:

Counterfeiting is big business in Colombia: “Colombia is thought to produce more than 40 percent of fake money circulating around the world.”

This sentence jumped out at me in an otherwise pedestrian article on criminal fraud: “Fraud is fundamentally fuelling the growth of organised crime in the UK, earning more from fraud than they do from drugs.”
I’ll bet that most of that involves the Internet to some degree.
And then there’s this: “Global cybercrime turned over more money than drug trafficking last year, according to a US Treasury advisor. Valerie McNiven, an advisor to the US government on cybercrime, claimed that corporate espionage, child pornography, stock manipulation, phishing fraud and copyright offences cause more financial harm than the trade in illegal narcotics such as heroin and cocaine.”
This doesn’t bode well for computer security in general.

Open-source intelligence: a good idea.

This is absolutely fascinating research by Matt Blaze on evading telephone wiretapping systems.

Daniel Solove on Google and privacy:
Here’s a Boston Globe op-ed on the same topic:

New phishing trick:
I like the advice: “To distinguish an imposter from the genuine article, you should carefully scan the security certificate prompt for a reference to either ‘a self-issued certificate’ or ‘an unknown certificate authority.'” Yeah, like anyone is going to do that.

A funny—and all too true—addition to the SANS Top 20: Humans.

Why are limitations on police power a partisan political issue?

Does the FBI get to approve all software? It sounds implausible, but how else do you explain this FCC ruling:

Interesting GAO report on electronic voting.
Read the “Results in Brief” section, at least.

The Onion on Security
“CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years”:
“Terrorist Has No Idea What To Do With All This Plutonium”:
“RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs”:

Pity this story about armed killer dolphins is fake:

This is a bit technical, but it’s a good window into the hacker mentality. This guy walks step by step through the process of figuring out how to exploit a Cisco vulnerability.

Yet another story about benevolent worms and how they can secure our networks.
This idea shows up every few years. (I wrote about it in 2000, and again in 2003.)
My comments this time:

I’ve already written about merchants using classical music to discourage loitering. Young people don’t like the music, so they don’t stick around. Here’s a new twist: high-frequency noise that children and teenagers can hear but adults can’t:
Classical music as a deterrent:

This is a really interesting article from Wired on emergency information services. I like the talk about the inherent strength of agile communications systems and its usefulness in disseminating emergency information. Also the bottom-up approach to information.

30,000 people mistakenly put on terrorist watch list:
When are we finally going to admit that the DHS is incompetent at this? At least they weren’t kidnapped and imprisoned for five months, and “shackled, beaten, photographed nude and injected with drugs by interrogators.”

In September, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security published a report on the security of the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) databases. It’s called: “Security Weaknesses Increase Risks to Critical United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Database,” and a redacted version is on the DHS website.
A piece of the Executive Summary:

The article is a bit inane, but it talks about an interesting security problem. “E-hijacking” is the term used to describe the theft of goods in transit by altering the electronic paperwork.
More and more, the physical movement of goods is secondary to the electronic movement of information. Oil being shipped across the Atlantic, for example, can change hands several times while it is in transit. I see a whole lot of new risks along these lines in the future.

Dan Geer on monocultures and operating systems.

I remember reading this fictional terrorism story by G. Gordon Liddy when it first appeared in Omni in 1989. I wouldn’t say he “predicted attack on America,” but he did produce an entertaining piece of fiction.

For a while I’ve been saying that most stolen identities are never used. It’s nice to see some independent confirmation:

FBI says that cyberterrorism is unlikely. A surprising outbreak of reason.
Here’s a debate on the topic:
And here are my comments from 2003:

Good paper by Brian Snow of the NSA on security and assurance.

There seems to be a well-organized Chinese military hacking effort against the U.S. military. The U.S. code name for the effort is “Titan Rain.” The news reports are spotty, and more than a little sensationalist, but I know people involved in this investigation—the attackers are very well-organized.

Korea solves the identity theft problem: they make banks liable.
Of course, by itself this action doesn’t solve identity theft. But in a vibrant capitalist economic market, this action is going to pave the way for technical security improvements that will effectively deal with identity theft. The good news for the rest of us is that we can watch what happens now.

Funny airline security story:
Remember, security is only as strong as the weakest link.

Leon County, FL dumps Diebold voting machines after they learn how easy it is hack the vote:

Interesting research about whether port scans are precursors to attacks:

Surveillance and Oversight

Christmas 2003, Las Vegas. Intelligence hinted at a terrorist attack on New Year’s Eve. In the absence of any real evidence, the FBI tried to compile a real-time database of everyone who was visiting the city. It collected customer data from airlines, hotels, casinos, rental car companies, even storage locker rental companies. All this information went into a massive database—probably close to a million people overall—that the FBI’s computers analyzed, looking for links to known terrorists. Of course, no terrorist attack occurred and no plot was discovered: The intelligence was wrong.

A typical American citizen spending the holidays in Vegas might be surprised to learn that the FBI collected his personal data, but this kind of thing is increasingly common. Since 9/11, the FBI has been collecting all sorts of personal information on ordinary Americans, and it shows no signs of letting up.

The FBI has two basic tools for gathering information on large groups of Americans. Both were created in the 1970s to gather information solely on foreign terrorists and spies. Both were greatly expanded by the USA Patriot Act and other laws, and are now routinely used against ordinary, law-abiding Americans who have no connection to terrorism. Together, they represent an enormous increase in police power in the United States.

The first are FISA warrants (sometimes called Section 215 warrants, after the section of the Patriot Act that expanded their scope). These are issued in secret, by a secret court. The second are national security letters, less well known but much more powerful, and which FBI field supervisors can issue all by themselves. The exact numbers are secret, but a recent Washington Post article estimated that 30,000 letters each year demand telephone records, banking data, customer data, library records, and so on.

In both cases, the recipients of these orders are prohibited by law from disclosing the fact that they received them. And two years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline that this information be destroyed if it is not relevant to whatever investigation it was collected for. Now, it can be saved indefinitely, and disseminated freely.

September 2005, Rotterdam. The police had already identified some of the 250 suspects in a soccer riot from the previous April, but most were unidentified but captured on video. In an effort to help, they sent text messages to 17,000 phones known to be in the vicinity of the riots, asking that anyone with information contact the police. The result was more evidence, and more arrests.

The differences between the Rotterdam and Las Vegas incidents are instructive. The Rotterdam police needed specific data for a specific purpose. Its members worked with federal justice officials to ensure that they complied with the country’s strict privacy laws. They obtained the phone numbers without any names attached, and deleted them immediately after sending the single text message. And their actions were public, widely reported in the press.

On the other hand, the FBI has no judicial oversight. With only a vague hinting that a Las Vegas attack might occur, the bureau vacuumed up an enormous amount of information. First its members tried asking for the data; then they turned to national security letters and, in some cases, subpoenas. There was no requirement to delete the data, and there is every reason to believe that the FBI still has it all. And the bureau worked in secret; the only reason we know this happened is that the operation leaked.

These differences illustrate four principles that should guide our use of personal information by the police. The first is oversight: In order to obtain personal information, the police should be required to show probable cause, and convince a judge to issue a warrant for the specific information needed. Second, minimization: The police should only get the specific information they need, and not any more. Nor should they be allowed to collect large blocks of information in order to go on “fishing expeditions,” looking for suspicious behavior. The third is transparency: The public should know, if not immediately then eventually, what information the police are getting and how it is being used. And fourth, destruction. Any data the police obtains should be destroyed immediately after its court-authorized purpose is achieved. The police should not be able to hold on to it, just in case it might become useful at some future date.

This isn’t about our ability to combat terrorism; it’s about police power. Traditional law already gives police enormous power to peer into the personal lives of people, to use new crime-fighting technologies, and to correlate that information. But unfettered police power quickly resembles a police state, and checks on that power make us all safer.

As more of our lives become digital, we leave an ever-widening audit trail in our wake. This information has enormous social value—not just for national security and law enforcement, but for purposes as mundane as using cell-phone data to track road congestion, and as important as using medical data to track the spread of diseases. Our challenge is to make this information available when and where it needs to be, but also to protect the principles of privacy and liberty our country is built on.

This essay originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Truckers Watching the Highways

Highway Watch is yet another civilian distributed counterterrorism program. Basically, truckers are trained to look out for suspicious activities on the highways. Despite its similarities to such ill-conceived still-born programs like TIPS, I think this one has some merit.

Why? Two things: training, and a broader focus than terrorism. This is from their overview: “Highway Watch(R) training provides Highway Watch(R) participants with the observational tools and the opportunity to exercise their expert understand of the transportation environment to report safety and security concerns rapidly and accurately to the authorities. In addition to matters of homeland security – stranded vehicles or accidents, unsafe road conditions, and other safety related situations are reported eliciting the appropriate emergence responders. Highway Watch(R) reports are combined with other information sources and shared both with federal agencies and the roadway transportation sector by the Highway ISAC.”

Sure, the “matters of homeland security” is the sexy application that gets the press and the funding, but “stranded vehicles or accidents, unsafe road conditions, and other safety related situations” are likely to be the bread and butter of this kind of program. And interstate truckers are likely to be in a good position to report these things, assuming there’s a good mechanism for it.

About the training: “Highway Watch(R) participants attend a comprehensive training session before they become certified Highway Watch(R) members. This training incorporates both safety and security issues. Participants are instructed on what to look for when witnessing traffic accidents and other safety-related situations and how to make a proper emergency report. Highway Watch(R) curriculum also provides anti-terrorism information, such as: a brief account of modern terrorist attacks from around the world, an outline explaining how terrorist acts are usually carried out, and tips on preventing terrorism. From this solid baseline curriculum, different segments of the highway sector have or are developing unique modules attuned to their specific security related situation.”

Okay, okay, it does sound a bit hokey. “…tips on preventing terrorism” indeed. (Tip #7: When transporting nuclear wastes, always be sure to padlock your truck. Tip #12: If someone asks you to deliver a trailer to the parking lot underneath a large office building and run away very fast, always check with your supervisor first.) But again, I like the inclusion of the mundane “what to look for when witnessing traffic accidents and other safety-related situations and how to make a proper emergency report.”

This program has a lot of features I like in security systems: it’s dynamic, it’s distributed, it relies on trained people paying attention, and it’s not focused on a specific threat.

Usually we see terrorism as the justification for something that is ineffective and wasteful. Done right, this could be an example of terrorism being used as the justification for something that is smart and effective.


Snake-Oil Research in the Magazine “Nature”

Snake-oil isn’t only in commercial products. Here’s a piece of research “Nature” that’s just full of it.

The article suggests using chaos in an electro-optical system to generate a pseudo-random light sequence, which is then added to the message to protect it from interception. Now, the idea of using chaos to build encryption systems has been tried many times in the cryptographic community, and has always failed. But the authors of the “Nature” article show no signs of familiarity with prior cryptographic work.

The published system has the obvious problem that it does not include any form of message authentication, so it will be trivial to send spoofed messages or tamper with messages while they are in transit.

But a closer examination of the paper’s figures suggests a far more fundamental problem. There’s no key. Anyone with a valid receiver can decode the ciphertext. No key equals no security, and what you have left is a totally broken system.

I e-mailed Claudio R. Mirasso, the corresponding author, about the lack of any key, and got this reply: “To extract the message from the chaotic carrier you need to replicate the carrier itself. This can only be done by a laser that matches the emitter characteristics within, let’s say, within 2-5%. Semiconductor lasers with such similarity have to be carefully selected from the same wafer. Even though you have to test them because they can still be too different and do not synchronize. We talk abut a hardware key. Also the operating conditions (current, feedback length and coupling strength) are part of the key.”

Let me translate that. He’s saying that there is a hardware key baked into the system at fabrication. (It comes from manufacturing deviations in the lasers.) There’s no way to change the key in the field. There’s no way to recover security if any of the transmitters/receivers are lost or stolen. And they don’t know how hard it would be for an attacker to build a compatible receiver, or even a tunable receiver that could listen to a variety of encodings.

This paper would never get past peer review in any competent cryptography journal or conference. I’m surprised it was accepted in “Nature,” a fiercely competitive journal. I don’t know why “Nature” is taking articles on topics that are outside its usual competence, but it looks to me like “Nature” got burnt here by a lack of expertise in the area.

To be fair, the paper very carefully skirts the issue of security, and claims hardly anything: “Additionally, chaotic carriers offer a certain degree of intrinsic privacy, which could complement (via robust hardware encryption) both classical (software based) and quantum cryptography systems.” Now that “certain degree of intrinsic privacy” is approximately zero. But other than that, they’re very careful how they word their claims.

For instance, the abstract says: “Chaotic signals have been proposed as broadband information carriers with the potential of providing a high level of robustness and privacy in data transmission.” But there’s no disclosure that this proposal is bogus, from a privacy perspective. And the next-to-last paragraph says “Building on this, it should be possible to develop reliable cost-effective secure communication systems that exploit deeper properties of chaotic dynamics.” No disclosure that “chaotic dynamics” is actually irrelevant to the “secure” part. The last paragraph talks about “smart encryption techniques” (referencing a paper that talks about chaos encryption), “developing active eavesdropper-evasion strategies” (whatever that means), and so on. It’s just enough that if you don’t parse their words carefully and don’t already know the area well, you might come away with the impression that this is a major advance in secure communications. It seems as if it would hav
e helped to have a more careful disclaimer.

Communications security was listed as one of the motivations for studying this communications technique. To list this as a motivation, without explaining that their experimental setup is actually useless for communications security, is questionable at best.

Meanwhile, the press has written articles that convey the wrong impression. Science News “article that lauds this as a big achievement for communications privacy.

It talks about it as a “new encryption strategy,” “chaos-encrypted communication,” “1 gigabyte of chaos-encrypted information per second.” It’s obvious that the communications security aspect is what “Science News” is writing about. If the authors knew that their scheme is useless for communications security, they didn’t explain that very well.

There is also a “New Scientist” article titled “Let chaos keep your secrets safe” that characterizes this as a “new cryptographic technique, ” but I can’t get a copy of the full article.

Here are two more articles that discuss its security benefits. In the latter, Mirasso says “the main task we have for the future” is to “define, test, and calibrate the security that our system can offer.”

And their project website says that “the continuous increase of computer speed threatens the safety” of traditional cryptography (which is bogus) and suggests using physical-layer chaos as a way to solve this. That’s listed as the goal of the project.

There’s a lesson here. This is research undertaken by researchers with no prior track record in cryptography, submitted to a journal with no background in cryptography, and reviewed by reviewers with who knows what kind of experience in cryptography. Cryptography is a subtle subject, and trying to design new cryptosystems without the necessary experience and training in the field is a quick route to insecurity.

And what’s up with “Nature”? Cryptographers with no training in physics know better than to think they are competent to evaluate physics research. If a physics paper were submitted to a cryptography journal, the authors would likely be gently redirected to a physics journal—we wouldn’t want our cryptography conferences to accept a paper on a subject they aren’t competent to evaluate. Why would “Nature” expect the situation to be any different when physicists try to do cryptography research?
Nature article (pay only; sorry):

Other articles:

Project website:

Counterpane News

Schneier has no speaking engagements between now and January 15. Happy holidays, everyone.

Counterpane and LogLogic announce a partnership:

Twofish Cryptanalysis Rumors

Recently I have been hearing some odd “Twofish has been broken” rumors. I thought I’d quell them once and for all.

Rumors of the death of Twofish have been greatly exaggerated.

The analysis in question is by Shiho Moriai and Yiqun Lisa Yin, who published their results in Japan in 2000. Recently, someone either got a copy of the paper or heard about the results, and rumors started spreading.

The actual paper presents no cryptanalytic attacks, only some hypothesized differential characteristics. Moriai and Yin discovered byte-sized truncated differentials for 12- and 16-round Twofish (the full cipher has 16 rounds), but were unable to use them in any sort of attack. They also discovered a larger, 5-round truncated differential. No one has been able to convert these differentials into an attack, and Twofish is nowhere near broken. On the other hand, they are excellent and interesting results—and it’s a really good paper.

In more detail, here are the paper’s three results:

1. The authors show a 12-round truncated differential characteristic that predicts that the 2nd byte of the ciphertext difference will be 0 when the plaintext difference is all-zeros except for its last byte. They say the characteristic holds with probability 2^-40.9. Note that for an ideal cipher, we expect the 2nd byte of ciphertext to be 0 with probability 2^-8, just by chance. Of course, 2^-8 is much, much larger than 2^-40.9. Therefore, this is not particularly useful in a distinguishing attack.

One possible interpretation of their result would be to conjecture that the 2nd byte of ciphertext difference will be 0 with probability 2^-8 + 2^-40.9 for Twofish, but only 2^-8 for an ideal cipher. Their characteristic is just one path. If one is lucky, perhaps all other paths behave randomly and contribute an additional 2^-8 factor to the total probability of getting a 0 in the 2nd byte of ciphertext difference. Perhaps. One might conjecture that, anyway.

It is not at all clear whether this conjecture is true, and the authors are careful not to claim it. If it were true, it might lead to a theoretical distinguishing attack using 2^75 chosen plaintexts or so (very rough estimate). But I’m not at all sure that the conjecture is true.

2. They show a 16-round truncated differential that predicts that the 2nd byte of the ciphertext difference will be 0 (under the same input difference). Their characteristic holds with probability 2^-57.3 (they say). Again, this is not very useful.

Analogously to the first result, one might conjecture that the 2nd byte of the ciphertext difference will be 0 with probability 2^-8 + 2^-57.3 for Twofish, but probability 2^-8 for an ideal cipher. If this were true, one might be able to mount a distinguishing attack with 2^100 chosen plaintexts or so (another very rough estimate). But I have no idea whether the conjecture is true.

3. They also show a 5-round truncated differential characteristic that predicts that the input difference that is non-zero everywhere except in its 9th byte will lead to an output difference of the same form. This characteristic has probability 2^-119.988896, they say (but they also say that they have made some approximations, and the actual probabilities can be a little smaller or a little larger). Compared to an ideal cipher, where one would expect this to happen by chance with probability 2^-120, this isn’t very interesting. It’s hard to imagine how this could be useful in a distinguishing attack.

The paper theorizes that all of these characteristics might be useful in an attack, but I would be very careful about drawing any conclusions. It can be very tricky to go from single-path characteristics whose probability is much smaller than the chances of it happening by chance in an ideal cipher, to a real attack. The problem is in the part where you say “let’s just assume all other paths behave randomly.” Often the other paths do not behave randomly, and attacks that look promising fall flat on their faces.

We simply don’t know whether these truncated differentials would be useful in a distinguishing attack. But what we do know is that even if everything works out perfectly to the cryptanalyst’s benefit, and if an attack is possible, then such an attack is likely to require a totally unrealistic number of chosen plaintexts. 2^100 plaintexts is something like a billion billion DVDs’ worth of data, or a T1 line running for a million times the age of the universe. (Note that these numbers might be off by a factor of 1,000 or so. But honestly, who cares? The numbers are so huge as to be irrelevant.) And even with all that data, a distinguishing attack is not the same as a key recovery attack.

Again, I am not trying to belittle the results. Moriai and Yin did some great work here, and they deserve all kinds of credit for it. But even from a theoretical perspective, Twofish isn’t even remotely broken. There have been no extensions to these results since they were published five years ago. The best Twofish cryptanalysis is still the work we did during the design process.

Moriai-Lin paper:

Twofish home page:

Totally Secure Classical Communications?

How would you feel if you invested millions of dollars in quantum cryptography, and then learned that you could do the same thing with a few 25-cent Radio Shack components?

I’m exaggerating a little here, but if a new idea out of Texas A&M University turns out to be secure, we’ve come close.

Earlier this month, Laszlo Kish proposed securing a communications link, like a phone or computer line, with a pair of resistors. By adding electronic noise, or using the natural thermal noise of the resistors—called “Johnson noise”—Kish can prevent eavesdroppers from listening in.

In the blue-sky field of quantum cryptography, the strange physics of the subatomic world are harnessed to create a secure, unbreakable communications channel between two points. Kish’s research is intriguing, in part, because it uses the simpler properties of classic physics—the stuff you learned in high school—to achieve the same results.

At least, that’s the theory. Here’s how the scheme works:

Alice and Bob have a two-wire cable between them, and two resistors each—we’ll say they each have a 10-ohm and a 1,000-ohm resistor. Alice connects a stochastic voltage generator and a resistor in series to each of the two wires. That’s the setup.

Here’s how they communicate. At each clock tick, both Alice and Bob randomly choose one of their two resistors and put it in the circuit. Then, Alice and Bob both measure the current flowing through the circuit. Basically, it’s inversely proportional to the sum of their two chosen resistors: 20 ohms, 1,010 ohms or 2,000 ohms. Of course, the eavesdropper can measure the same thing.

If Alice and Bob choose the same size resistor, then the eavesdropper knows what they have chosen, so that clock tick is useless for security. But if they choose a different size resistor, the eavesdropper cannot tell whether it is Alice choosing 10 ohms and Bob 1,000 ohms, or the reverse. Of course, Alice and Bob know, because they know which resistor they’re choosing. This happens 50 percent of the time.

Alice and Bob keep only the data from the clock ticks where they choose a different size resistor. From each such clock tick, they can derive one secret key bit, according to who chooses the 10-ohm resistor and who the 1,000-ohm. That’s because they know who’s choosing which and the eavesdropper doesn’t. Do it enough times and you’ve got key material for a one-time pad (or anything else) to encrypt the communications link.

I’ve simplified it a bit, but that’s the gist of it.

Interestingly enough, this key-generation mechanism is actually very similar to one described by Bennett and Brassard in the early 1980s using quantum properties (see Applied Cryptography, second edition, pages 554 to 557), but this one is all classical. That’s what makes it neat.

It’s also reminiscent of a 1940s scheme from Bell Labs. Details of that system are either classified or lost, but James Ellis described it in 1987 as inspiring his invention of public-key cryptography back in the early 1970s: “The event which changed this view was the discovery of a wartime, Bell-Telephone report by an unknown author describing an ingenious idea for secure telephone speech (reference 2). It proposed that the recipient should mask the sender’s speech by adding noise to the line. He could subtract the noise afterwards since he had added it and therefore knew what it was.”

That “reference 2” is something published by Bell Labs called Final Report on Project C43. No one I know has seen a copy. Bell Labs cryptographers have searched the archives for it, and they came up empty-handed.

Did Kish rediscover a secure communications system from the 1940s? Or is this a retro-discovery: an idea that by all rights should have emerged in the 1940s, but somehow evaded human epiphany until now?

And most importantly, is it secure?

Short answer: There hasn’t been enough analysis. I certainly don’t know enough electrical engineering to know whether there is any clever way to eavesdrop on Kish’s scheme. And I’m sure Kish doesn’t know enough security to know that, either. The physics and stochastic mathematics look good, but all sorts of security problems crop up when you try to actually build and operate something like this.

It’s definitely an idea worth exploring, and it’ll take people with expertise in both security and electrical engineering to fully vet the system.

There are practical problems with the system, though. The bandwidth the system can handle appears very limited. The paper gives the bandwidth-distance product as 2 x 10^6 meter-Hz. This means that over a 1-kilometer link, you can only send at 2,000 bps. A dialup modem from 1985 is faster. Even with a fat 500-pair cable you’re still limited to 1 million bps over 1 kilometer.

And multi-wire cables have their own problems; there are all sorts of cable-capacitance and cross-talk issues with that sort of link. Phone companies really hate those high-density cables, because of how long it takes to terminate or splice them.

Even more basic: It’s vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks. Someone who can intercept and modify messages in transit can break the security. This means you need an authenticated channel to make it work—a link that guarantees you’re talking to the person you think you’re talking to. How often in the real world do we have a wire that is authenticated but not confidential? Not very often.

Generally, if you can eavesdrop you can also mount active attacks. But this scheme only defends against passive eavesdropping.

For those keeping score, that’s four practical problems: It’s only link encryption and not end-to-end, it’s bandwidth-limited (but may be enough for key exchange), it works best for short ranges and it requires authentication to make it work. I can envision some specialized circumstances where this might be useful, but they’re few and far between.

But quantum key distributions have the same problems. Basically, if Kish’s scheme is secure, it’s superior to quantum communications in every respect: price, maintenance, speed, vibration, thermal resistance and so on.

Both this and the quantum solution share another problem, however; they’re solutions looking for a problem. In the realm of security, encryption is the one thing we already do pretty well. Focusing on encryption is like sticking a tall stake in the ground and hoping the enemy runs right into it, instead of building a wide wall.

Arguing about whether this kind of thing is more secure than AES—the United States’ national encryption standard—is like arguing about whether the stake should be a mile tall or a mile and a half tall. However tall it is, the enemy is going to go around the stake.

Software security, network security, operating system security, user interface—these are the hard security problems. Replacing AES with this kind of thing won’t make anything more secure, because all the other parts of the security system are so much worse.

This is not to belittle the research. I think information-theoretic security is important, regardless of practicality. And I’m thrilled that an easy-to-build classical system can work as well as a sexy, media-hyped quantum cryptosystem. But don’t throw away your crypto software yet.



SlashDot discussion:

This essay originally appeared on

Comments from Readers

From: “WJK” <wjk>
Subject: RE: CRYPTO-GRAM, November 15, 2005

While I agree with you in concept, the idea that all software should be secure is almost impossible for the small- or medium-sized manufacturer. In my situation, I use many purchased controls (such as a grid) within my program. I use a compiler purchased from Microsoft. If I write perfectly secure code, I still have the possibility of intrusion through errors created by either of those multiple entities. If that happens, then where does the user go when I point the finger at my supplier? Same frustration you encounter when it is either a hardware failure or software failure. Throw up your hands, buy a new one.

Further, my volume of software in use is not large enough to support hundreds of thousands of dollars of testing by cyber criminal types. What you are saying is that there is no room in the marketplace for the small business or programmer consultant. As Microsoft moves into more of a consulting role, they will face the same problems and issues; the single client is not able to afford development costs that insure absolute security, nor should they.

I believe that the operating system has to step up to the plate and protect the applications from alteration by criminal elements. Developers needs to be able to lock down their code as it leaves their business. The operating system developers have both the volume and financial capability to play the role of software cop. By ensuring multiple choices, we further reduce the chance of total collapse caused by a single piece of clever miscreant coding. Multiple software choices actually provides security in and of

From: Ben Giddings <ben.giddings>
Subject: Re: CRYPTO-GRAM, November 15, 2005: RFID Passports

I’m a software engineer working at a RFID reader company that designs UHF frequency RFID devices. I’m not an RF engineer, nor do I have much experience with HF tags (like ISO 14443 devices) but it sounds like you’re really spreading some misinformation.

Passive RFID tags are powered by the reader, and HF tags are powered by induction; this severely limits their range. I don’t know what was seen at 69 feet, but I sincerely doubt that it was a reader powering a tag at that distance.

The ISO 14443 standard uses a 13.56 MHz signal, with a wavelength of about 22m. ISO tags are powered by inductive coupling in the reactive near field, where power drops off with 1/d^3. This means that since the standard read range is 0.1m (10cm), to increase that distance to 1m, you would need to supply 1000x more power. Since the power supplied to an antenna is normally limited by FCC rules to 1 Watt, this would mean you’d require 1 KW to power them at 1m, or 1MW at 10m. You may be able to eavesdrop on the signal at a long distance, but unless I completely misunderstand this stuff, you won’t be powering it at that distance. Technology gets better, but physics just doesn’t change.

As for the “secrecy” of the protocol, I simply went to the ISO site and searched for 14443, voila, documents. Sure, you have to pay for them, which I find to be a real pain for standards, but right there in the search results, “Part 3: Initialization and anticollision.”

I think you’re right that RFID tags in passports are a bad idea. You’re also right that they need to do more to make it difficult for people to read the tags, and decrypt the data they contain. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be completely paranoid. People routinely give out their passport numbers in insecure online forms to book hotels, etc. Really, on its own, the number isn’t too helpful. It’s not *good* to just give it out, but it isn’t the end of the world either. If it’s easier to pick someone’s pocket to get their passport than it is to read it from a distance then the security of RFID-based tags is probably good enough.

From: Carlo Graziani <carlo>
Subject: Re: CRYPTO-GRAM, November 15, 2005

I read with interest your economic analysis of the perverse incentive system that gives home PC users such appalling security. I agree, by and large, although I must say that I believe the analysis does not actually get to its final destination.

It strikes me as crazy to pretend that users and ISPs have no responsibility whatsoever for the bad behavior of home computers. Windows security is undoubtedly awful, but even an OpenBSD box can be compromised if its administrator’s security policy is poor.

At the moment, if some small business gets their website DDOS-ed by some hacker’s botnet, they have no recourse whatsoever. They bear the entire cost of a situation they did nothing to create, even if their site is secure.

If they were allowed to hold liable the ISPs hosting computers that participated in the attack, if those ISPs did nothing to detect and thwart it, then those ISPs would start serious malware activity-detection programs, and would automatically disconnect from the net any computer that suddenly started sending thousands of e-mail messages per hour, or started indiscriminately portscanning entire Class-B networks, or triggered any one of a dozen other “misbehavior” criteria.

Then, when your mom (or mine, for that matter) complained to her ISP that her “Internet doesn’t work any more” and was told of the reason, and informed that there’s a clean reinstall of the OS in her future, and a bond to be posted that will be forfeit on the next offense, she’d get mad at whoever sold her her software. Possibly legally mad. Multiply that by millions of moms (OK, dads too), and suddenly you have a serious and urgent reason for software vendors to get serious about security.

You might also wind up creating an industry of low-cost, bonded home PC security consultants, who could be hired to install firewalls, scan for active ports, check for rootkits, create customized “known-good” disk images for quick restores of compromised systems, etc. Home malware insurance might also suddenly spring up. These might arguably be good outcomes.

The point is, you can’t secure the Internet against incompetent operators by shifting all liability to manufacturers, any more than you can secure the highway system against incompetent drivers by shifting all liability to automobile manufacturers.

All you can—and should—demand of the industry is diligence. But even if the industry hired Bruce Schneier and Theo De Raadt to form a committee to vet and sign off on every version of every OS, users would still get rooted and exploited because of their own ineptitude.

Networked computers are not toasters. If ineptly managed, they damage the entire commons, not just the operator. I don’t really know what the best way is to ensure that good system management practices are widespread, but I’m pretty sure that protecting all users from the costs incurred due to their bad computing practices perpetuates this new variant of the Tragedy of the Commons.

From: Andrewwhitby <me>
Subject: Re: CRYPTO-GRAM, November 15, 2005

Poor software quality is not the only externality at work and possibly not the most important. Unfortunately, even as a user the costs of my security decisions are borne by others. If I fail to apply a patch and, as a result, my computer infected by a worm, I may suffer a personal cost. But so will the company whose web server is taken down in a DDOS attack using my machine, or the individuals who receive spam sent via my machine. Because the social cost of poor security exceeds the private cost, a rational person will choose a level of security that is socially inefficient (too low).

So even if we had a perfectly competitive software market, users may still choose software that, from a social perspective, is inefficiently insecure.

This seems particularly likely for home and small business users, where the cost of good security may be high compared to the expected loss resulting from poor security. Because the private cost of insecurity for large companies is high, relative to the cost of being secure, they are likely to demand more secure software. For home and small business users, the private cost of insecurity is lower, so they are less likely to demand secure software. In the best case, we might expect a trickle down effect from corporate software (witness the better security features of Windows XP, a corporate platform adapted for home use, compared to 95/98). But even then, because the security features are developed with large customers in mind, they are hard to configure correctly for the average home user.

Incidentally, the same logic provides a rationale for government funding of vaccination programs. There’s no benefit to me in preventing you from dying of polio, but there is in preventing you from catching it and spreading it to me. However, just as personal liability for spreading infection unintentionally hasn’t caught on, it seems unlikely to in this case.

From: Phil Karn <karn>
Subject: comments on passports and software liability

You’ve written a lot about liability for security holes, but I have yet to see you address such liability for open source authors.

It’s bad enough that open source volunteers continually risk being sued for infringing patents they might not know anything about. Now you also want to hold them liable for unintentional security holes? As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Writing useful code and giving it away is a social good that ought to be encouraged, not punished.

Would the individual author of a piece of open source code be personally liable for an unintentional security vulnerability? Probably not, given what you said about how the liability should devolve on corporations, not individual programmers. But what about companies like Red Hat who bundle and market open source projects?

What about nonprofits like the Free Software Foundation, or Software in the Public Interest, who runs the Debian Linux project? Would it really be fair to hold them all legally liable for previously undetected security bugs in the software they distribute? How long would they stay around if they were?

I really think the better approach is *disclosure*, not liability. We may have no choice but to make companies like Microsoft responsible for the security holes in their products, because only they are in a position to fix them. And while Microsoft doesn’t have a monopoly on *finding* holes, having the source code certainly gives them an advantage. They need an incentive to actually do it.

But open source is fundamentally different. There are alternatives to liability. Everyone is on the same playing field. Anyone can look at the source, find *and fix* security holes.

Way back when I used to assemble Heathkits, I remember some excellent advice they used to give over and over again for when you have trouble: have someone else check your work. Someone who isn’t as close to it as you are will often quickly spot a mistake that you’ve repeatedly missed. This is just as true for software as for hardware. For this reason, I think that publishing your source code, with permission to others to find and fix it, should get you off the hook with regard to any unintentional security holes. You’ve done all you can to help others find them for you, something we all know the authors cannot always do for themselves.

On another topic, passports, I don’t think that merely randomizing the serial numbers for the CSMA algorithm is enough, as that would still let you detect the presence of an anonymous passport at a distance. I loved your scenario of a terrorist bomb automatically detonating when it detects four or more American passports. But most locals don’t carry passports at all. Only foreigners do. So designing the bomb to detonate when it detects some number of *any* kind of passport may be almost as effective, especially if it’s known that the tourists in a given area are primarily American or British, say.

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CRYPTO-GRAM is written by Bruce Schneier. Schneier is the author of the best sellers “Beyond Fear,” “Secrets and Lies,” and “Applied Cryptography,” and an inventor of the Blowfish and Twofish algorithms. He is founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). He is a frequent writer and lecturer on security topics. See <>.

Counterpane is the world’s leading protector of networked information – the inventor of outsourced security monitoring and the foremost authority on effective mitigation of emerging IT threats. Counterpane protects networks for Fortune 1000 companies and governments world-wide. See <>.

Crypto-Gram is a personal newsletter. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Bruce Schneier.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.