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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

NSA Over-surveillance

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

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

News story.

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

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

An Untrustworthy TLS Certificate in Browsers

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

More details by Reardon.

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

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

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

Using Wi-FI to See through Walls

This technique measures device response time to determine distance:

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

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

Research paper.

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

The Conviction of Uber’s Chief Security Officer

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

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

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

Friday Squid Blogging: Newfoundland Giant Squid Sculpture

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

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

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

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

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.