December 15, 2021
by Bruce Schneier
Fellow and Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School
A free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise.
For back issues, or to subscribe, visit Crypto-Gram’s web page.
These same essays and news items appear in the Schneier on Security blog, along with a lively and intelligent comment section. An RSS feed is available.
In this issue:
- Securing Your Smartphone
- Why I Hate Password Rules
- Wire Fraud Scam Upgraded with Bitcoin
- Is Microsoft Stealing People’s Bookmarks?
- New Rowhammer Technique
- “Crypto” Means “Cryptography,” Not “Cryptocurrency”
- Apple Sues NSO Group
- Proposed UK Law Bans Default Passwords
- Intel Is Maintaining Legacy Technology for Security Research
- Smart Contract Bug Results in $31 Million Loss
- Testing Faraday Cages
- Thieves Using AirTags to “Follow” Cars
- Someone Is Running Lots of Tor Relays
- New German Government is Pro-Encryption and Anti-Backdoors
- Google Shuts Down Glupteba Botnet, Sues Operators
- Law Enforcement Access to Chat Data and Metadata
- NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware Used Against US State Department Officials
- On the Log4j Vulnerability
- Upcoming Speaking Engagements
Securing Your Smartphone
[2021.11.15] This is part 3 of Sean Gallagher’s advice for “securing your digital life.”
Why I Hate Password Rules
[2021.11.16] The other day, I was creating a new account on the web. It was financial in nature, which means it gets one of my most secure passwords. I used Password Safe to generate this 16-character alphanumeric password:
Which was rejected by the site, because it didn’t meet its password security rules.
It took me a minute to figure out what was wrong with it. The site wanted at least two numbers.
Okay, that’s not really why I don’t like password rules. I don’t like them because they’re all different. Even if someone has a strong password generation system, it is likely that whatever they come up with won’t pass somebody’s ruleset.
Wire Fraud Scam Upgraded with Bitcoin
[2021.11.16] The FBI has issued a bulletin describing a bitcoin variant of a wire fraud scam:
As the agency describes it, the scammer will contact their victim and somehow convince them that they need to send money, either with promises of love, further riches, or by impersonating an actual institution like a bank or utility company. After the mark is convinced, the scammer will have them get cash (sometimes out of investment or retirement accounts), and head to an ATM that sells cryptocurrencies and supports reading QR codes. Once the victim’s there, they’ll scan a QR code that the scammer sent them, which will tell the machine to send any crypto purchased to the scammer’s address. Just like that, the victim loses their money, and the scammer has successfully exploited them.
The “upgrade” (as it were) for scammers with the crypto ATM method is two-fold: it can be less friction than sending a wire transfer, and at the end the scammer has cryptocurrency instead of fiat. With wire transfers, you have to fill out a form, and you may give that form to an actual person (who could potentially vibe check you). Using the ATM method, there’s less time to reflect on the fact that you’re about to send money to a stranger. And, if you’re a criminal trying to get your hands on Bitcoin, you won’t have to teach your targets how to buy coins on the internet and transfer them to another wallet—they probably already know how to use an ATM and scan a QR code.
Is Microsoft Stealing People’s Bookmarks?
[2021.11.17] I received email from two people who told me that Microsoft Edge enabled synching without warning or consent, which means that Microsoft sucked up all of their bookmarks. Of course they can turn synching off, but it’s too late.
Has this happened to anyone else, or was this user error of some sort? If this is real, can some reporter write about it?
(Not that “user error” is a good justification. Any system where making a simple mistake means that you’ve forever lost your privacy isn’t a good one. We see this same situation with sharing contact lists with apps on smartphones. Apps will repeatedly ask, and only need you to accidentally click “okay” once.)
EDITED TO ADD: It’s actually worse than I thought. Edge urges users to store passwords, ID numbers, and even passport numbers, all of which get uploaded to Microsoft by default when synch is enabled.
New Rowhammer Technique
[2021.11.19] Rowhammer is an attack technique involving accessing—that’s “hammering”—rows of bits in memory, millions of times per second, with the intent of causing bits in neighboring rows to flip. This is a side-channel attack, and the result can be all sorts of mayhem.
Well, there is a new enhancement:
All previous Rowhammer attacks have hammered rows with uniform patterns, such as single-sided, double-sided, or n-sided. In all three cases, these “aggressor” rows—meaning those that cause bitflips in nearby “victim” rows—are accessed the same number of times.
Research published on Monday presented a new Rowhammer technique. It uses non-uniform patterns that access two or more aggressor rows with different frequencies. The result: all 40 of the randomly selected DIMMs in a test pool experienced bitflips, up from 13 out of 42 chips tested in previous work from the same researchers.
The non-uniform patterns work against Target Row Refresh. Abbreviated as TRR, the mitigation works differently from vendor to vendor but generally tracks the number of times a row is accessed and recharges neighboring victim rows when there are signs of abuse. The neutering of this defense puts further pressure on chipmakers to mitigate a class of attacks that many people thought more recent types of memory chips were resistant to.
“Crypto” Means “Cryptography,” Not “Cryptocurrency”
[2021.11.22] I have long been annoyed that the word “crypto” has been co-opted by the blockchain people, and no longer refers to “cryptography.” I’m not the only one.
Apple Sues NSO Group
[2021.11.24] Piling more on NSO Group’s legal troubles, Apple is suing it:
The complaint provides new information on how NSO Group infected victims’ devices with its Pegasus spyware. To prevent further abuse and harm to its users, Apple is also seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple software, services, or devices.
NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware is favored by totalitarian governments around the world, who use it to hack Apple phones and computers.
Apple’s legal complaint provides new information on NSO Group’s FORCEDENTRY, an exploit for a now-patched vulnerability previously used to break into a victim’s Apple device and install the latest version of NSO Group’s spyware product, Pegasus. The exploit was originally identified by the Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto.
The spyware was used to attack a small number of Apple users worldwide with dangerous malware and spyware. Apple’s lawsuit seeks to ban NSO Group from further harming individuals by using Apple’s products and services. The lawsuit also seeks redress for NSO Group’s flagrant violations of US federal and state law, arising out of its efforts to target and attack Apple and its users.
NSO Group and its clients devote the immense resources and capabilities of nation-states to conduct highly targeted cyberattacks, allowing them to access the microphone, camera, and other sensitive data on Apple and Android devices. To deliver FORCEDENTRY to Apple devices, attackers created Apple IDs to send malicious data to a victim’s device—allowing NSO Group or its clients to deliver and install Pegasus spyware without a victim’s knowledge. Though misused to deliver FORCEDENTRY, Apple servers were not hacked or compromised in the attacks.
This follows in the footsteps of Facebook, which is also suing NSO Group and demanding a similar prohibition. And while the idea of the intermediary suing the attacker, and not the victim, is somewhat novel, I think it makes a lot of sense. I have a law journal article about to be published with Jon Penney on the Facebook case.
EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Supplemental brief.
Proposed UK Law Bans Default Passwords
[2021.11.26] Following California’s lead, a new UK law would ban default passwords in IoT devices.
EDITED TO ADD (12/12): Commentary.
EDITED TO ADD (12/14): A draft of the bill.
Intel Is Maintaining Legacy Technology for Security Research
Intel’s issue reflects a wider concern: Legacy technology can introduce cybersecurity weaknesses. Tech makers constantly improve their products to take advantage of speed and power increases, but customers don’t always upgrade at the same pace. This creates a long tail of old products that remain in widespread use, vulnerable to attacks.
Intel’s answer to this conundrum was to create a warehouse and laboratory in Costa Rica, where the company already had a research-and-development lab, to store the breadth of its technology and make the devices available for remote testing. After planning began in mid-2018, the Long-Term Retention Lab was up and running in the second half of 2019.
The warehouse stores around 3,000 pieces of hardware and software, going back about a decade. Intel plans to expand next year, nearly doubling the space to 27,000 square feet from 14,000, allowing the facility to house 6,000 pieces of computer equipment.
Intel engineers can request a specific machine in a configuration of their choice. It is then assembled by a technician and accessible through cloud services. The lab runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, typically with about 25 engineers working any given shift.
Smart Contract Bug Results in $31 Million Loss
[2021.12.02] A hacker stole $31 million from the blockchain company MonoX Finance , by exploiting a bug in software the service uses to draft smart contracts.
Specifically, the hack used the same token as both the tokenIn and tokenOut, which are methods for exchanging the value of one token for another. MonoX updates prices after each swap by calculating new prices for both tokens. When the swap is completed, the price of tokenInthat is, the token sent by the userdecreases and the price of tokenOutor the token received by the userincreases.
By using the same token for both tokenIn and tokenOut, the hacker greatly inflated the price of the MONO token because the updating of the tokenOut overwrote the price update of the tokenIn. The hacker then exchanged the token for $31 million worth of tokens on the Ethereum and Polygon blockchains.
The article goes on to talk about how common these sorts of attacks are. The basic problem is that the code is the ultimate authority—there is no adjudication protocol—so if there’s a vulnerability in the code, there is no recourse. And, of course, there are lots of vulnerabilities in code.
To me, this is reason enough never to use smart contracts for anything important. Human-based adjudication systems are not useless pre-Internet human baggage, they’re vital.
Testing Faraday Cages
[2021.12.03] Matt Blaze tested a variety of Faraday cages for phones, both commercial and homemade.
The bottom line:
A quick and likely reliable “go/no go test” can be done with an Apple AirTag and an iPhone: drop the AirTag in the bag under test, and see if the phone can locate it and activate its alarm (beware of caching in the FindMy app when doing this).
This test won’t tell you the exact attenuation level, of course, but it will tell you if the attenuation is sufficient for most practical purposes. It can also detect whether an otherwise good bag has been damaged and compromised.
At least in the frequency ranges I tested, two commercial Faraday pouches (the EDEC OffGrid and Mission Darkness Window pouches) yielded excellent performance sufficient to provide assurance of signal isolation under most real-world circumstances. None of the makeshift solutions consistently did nearly as well, although aluminum foil can, under ideal circumstances (that are difficult to replicate) sometimes provide comparable levels of attenuation.
Thieves Using AirTags to “Follow” Cars
[2021.12.06] From Ontario and not surprising:
Since September 2021, officers have investigated five incidents where suspects have placed small tracking devices on high-end vehicles so they can later locate and steal them. Brand name “air tags” are placed in out-of-sight areas of the target vehicles when they are parked in public places like malls or parking lots. Thieves then track the targeted vehicles to the victim’s residence, where they are stolen from the driveway.
Thieves typically use tools like screwdrivers to enter the vehicles through the driver or passenger door, while ensuring not to set off alarms. Once inside, an electronic device, typically used by mechanics to reprogram the factory setting, is connected to the onboard diagnostics port below the dashboard and programs the vehicle to accept a key the thieves have brought with them. Once the new key is programmed, the vehicle will start and the thieves drive it away.
I’m not sure if there’s anything that can be done:
When Apple first released AirTags earlier this year, concerns immediately sprung up about nefarious use cases for the covert trackers. Apple responded with a slew of anti-stalking measures, but those are more intended for keeping people safe than cars. An AirTag away from its owner will sound an alarm, letting anyone nearby know that it’s been left behind, but it can take up to 24 hours for that alarm to go off—more than enough time to nab a car in the dead of night.
Someone Is Running Lots of Tor Relays
[2021.12.07] Since 2017, someone is running about a thousand—10% of the total—Tor servers in an attempt to deanonymize the network:
Grouping these servers under the KAX17 umbrella, Nusenu says this threat actor has constantly added servers with no contact details to the Tor network in industrial quantities, operating servers in the realm of hundreds at any given point.
The actor’s servers are typically located in data centers spread all over the world and are typically configured as entry and middle points primarily, although KAX17 also operates a small number of exit points.
Nusenu said this is strange as most threat actors operating malicious Tor relays tend to focus on running exit points, which allows them to modify the user’s traffic. For example, a threat actor that Nusenu has been tracking as BTCMITM20 ran thousands of malicious Tor exit nodes in order to replace Bitcoin wallet addresses inside web traffic and hijack user payments.
KAX17’s focus on Tor entry and middle relays led Nusenu to believe that the group, which he described as “non-amateur level and persistent,” is trying to collect information on users connecting to the Tor network and attempting to map their routes inside it.
In research published this week and shared with The Record, Nusenu said that at one point, there was a 16% chance that a Tor user would connect to the Tor network through one of KAX17’s servers, a 35% chance they would pass through one of its middle relays, and up to 5% chance to exit through one.
New German Government is Pro-Encryption and Anti-Backdoors
[2021.12.08] I hope this is true:
According to Jens Zimmermann, the German coalition negotiations had made it “quite clear” that the incoming government of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-friendly liberal FDP would reject “the weakening of encryption, which is being attempted under the guise of the fight against child abuse” by the coalition partners.
Such regulations, which are already enshrined in the interim solution of the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, “diametrically contradict the character of the coalition agreement” because secure end-to-end encryption is guaranteed there, Zimmermann said.
Introducing backdoors would undermine this goal of the coalition agreement, he added.
I have written about this.
Google Shuts Down Glupteba Botnet, Sues Operators
[2021.12.09] Google took steps to shut down the Glupteba botnet, at least for now. (The botnet uses the bitcoin blockchain as a backup command-and-control mechanism, making it hard to get rid of it permanently.) So Google is also suing the botnet’s operators.
It’s an interesting strategy. Let’s see if it’s successful.
Law Enforcement Access to Chat Data and Metadata
[2021.12.10] A January 2021 FBI document outlines what types of data and metadata can be lawfully obtained by the FBI from messaging apps. Rolling Stone broke the story and it’s been written about elsewhere.
I don’t see a lot of surprises in the document. Lots of apps leak all sorts of metadata: iMessage and WhatsApp seem to be the worst. Signal protects the most metadata. End-to-end encrypted message content can be available if the user uploads it to an unencrypted backup server.
EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Here’s a more legible copy of the text.
NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware Used Against US State Department Officials
[2021.12.13] NSO Group’s descent into Internet pariah status continues. Its Pegasus spyware was used against nine US State Department employees. We don’t know which NSO Group customer trained the spyware on the US. But the company does:
NSO Group said in a statement on Thursday that it did not have any indication their tools were used but canceled access for the relevant customers and would investigate based on the Reuters inquiry.
“If our investigation shall show these actions indeed happened with NSO’s tools, such customer will be terminated permanently and legal actions will take place,” said an NSO spokesperson, who added that NSO will also “cooperate with any relevant government authority and present the full information we will have.”
On the Log4j Vulnerability
[2021.12.14] It’s serious:
The range of impacts is so broad because of the nature of the vulnerability itself. Developers use logging frameworks to keep track of what happens in a given application. To exploit Log4Shell, an attacker only needs to get the system to log a strategically crafted string of code. From there they can load arbitrary code on the targeted server and install malware or launch other attacks. Notably, hackers can introduce the snippet in seemingly benign ways, like by sending the string in an email or setting it as an account username.
Threat advisory from Cisco. Cloudflare found it in the wild before it was disclosed. CISA is very concerned, saying that hundreds of millions of devices are likely affected.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements
[2021.12.14] This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
- I’m speaking at the RSA Conference 2022 in San Francisco on February 8, 2022.
- I’m speaking at IT-S Now 2022 in Vienna on June 2, 2022.
- I’m speaking at the 14th International Conference on Cyber Conflict, CyCon 2022, in on June 3, 2022.
The list is maintained on this page.
Since 1998, CRYPTO-GRAM has been a free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security technology. To subscribe, or to read back issues, see Crypto-Gram’s web page.
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Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist, called a security guru by the Economist. He is the author of over one dozen books—including his latest, We Have Root—as well as hundreds of articles, essays, and academic papers. His newsletter and blog are read by over 250,000 people. Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AccessNow, and the Tor Project; and an Advisory Board Member of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and VerifiedVoting.org. He is the Chief of Security Architecture at Inrupt, Inc.
Copyright © 2021 by Bruce Schneier.