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Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Brains

Researchers have new evidence of how squid brains develop:

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

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

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

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

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

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

First Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Kirkus reviews A Hacker’s Mind:

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

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

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

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

Book’s webpage.

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

Successful Hack of Time-Triggered Ethernet

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

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

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

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

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

Failures in Twitter’s Two-Factor Authentication System

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a good sign.

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

Russian Software Company Pretending to Be American

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

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

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

What does the code do? Spy on people:

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

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

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

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

Another Event-Related Spyware App

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

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

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

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

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

A Digital Red Cross

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

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

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

EDITED TO ADD: Original reference.

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

New Book: A Hacker’s Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.