Entries Tagged "backdoors"

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Is There Strategic Software?

If you define “critical infrastructure” as “things essential for the functioning of a society and economy,” then software is critical infrastructure. For many companies and individuals, if their computers stop working, they stop working.

It’s a situation that snuck up on us. Everyone knew that the software that flies 747s or targets cruise missiles was critical, but who thought of the airlines’ weight and balance computers, or the operating system running the databases and spreadsheets that determine which cruise missiles get shipped where?

And over the years, common, off-the-shelf, personal- and business-grade software has been used for more and more critical applications. Today we find ourselves in a situation where a well-positioned flaw in Windows, Cisco routers or Apache could seriously affect the economy.

It’s perfectly rational to assume that some programmers — a tiny minority I’m sure — are deliberately adding vulnerabilities and back doors into the code they write. I’m actually kind of amazed that back doors secretly added by the CIA/NSA, MI5, the Chinese, Mossad and others don’t conflict with each other. Even if these groups aren’t infiltrating software companies with back doors, you can be sure they’re scouring products for vulnerabilities they can exploit, if necessary. On the other hand, we’re already living in a world where dozens of new flaws are discovered in common software products weekly, and the economy is humming along. But we’re not talking about this month’s worm from Asia or new phishing software from the Russian mafia — we’re talking national intelligence organizations. “Infowar” is an overhyped term, but the next war will have a cyberspace component, and these organizations wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they weren’t preparing for it.

Marcus is 100 percent correct when he says it’s simply too late to do anything about it. The software industry is international, and no country can start demanding domestic-only software and expect to get anywhere. Nor would that actually solve the problem, which is more about the allegiance of millions of individual programmers than which country they happen to inhabit.

So, what to do? The key here is to remember the real problem: current commercial software practices are not secure enough to reliably detect and delete deliberately inserted malicious code. Once you understand this, you’ll drop the red herring arguments that led to CheckPoint not being able to buy Sourcefire and concentrate on the real solution: defense in depth.

In theory, security software are after-the-fact kludges because the underlying OS and apps are riddled with vulnerabilities. If your software were written properly, you wouldn’t need a firewall — right?

If we were to get serious about critical infrastructure, we’d recognize it’s all critical and start building security software to protect it. We’d build our security based on the principles of safe failure; we’d assume security would fail and make sure it’s OK when it does. We’d use defense in depth and compartmentalization to minimize the effects of failure. Basically, we’d do everything we’re supposed to do now to secure our networks.

It’d be expensive, probably prohibitively so. Maybe it would be easier to continue to ignore the problem, or at least manage geopolitics so that no national military wants to take us down.

This is the second half of a point/counterpoint I did with Marcus Ranum (here’s his half) for the September 2006 issue of Information Security Magazine.

Posted on September 12, 2006 at 10:38 AMView Comments

Man Sues Compaq for False Advertising

Convicted felon Michael Crooker is suing Compaq (now HP) for false advertising. He bought a computer promised to be secure, but the FBI got his data anyway:

He bought it in September 2002, expressly because it had a feature called DriveLock, which freezes up the hard drive if you don’t have the proper password.

The computer’s manual claims that “if one were to lose his Master Password and his User Password, then the hard drive is useless and the data cannot be resurrected even by Compaq’s headquarters staff,” Crooker wrote in the suit.

Crooker has a copy of an ATF search warrant for files on the computer, which includes a handwritten notation: “Computer lock not able to be broken/disabled. Computer forwarded to FBI lab.” Crooker says he refused to give investigators the password, and was told the computer would be broken into “through a backdoor provided by Compaq,” which is now part of HP.

It’s unclear what was done with the laptop, but Crooker says a subsequent search warrant for his e-mail account, issued in January 2005, showed investigators had somehow gained access to his 40 gigabyte hard drive. The FBI had broken through DriveLock and accessed his e-mails (both deleted and not) as well as lists of websites he’d visited and other information. The only files they couldn’t read were ones he’d encrypted using Wexcrypt, a software program freely available on the Internet.

I think this is great. It’s about time that computer companies were held liable for their advertising claims.

But his lawsuit against HP may be a long shot. Crooker appears to face strong counterarguments to his claim that HP is guilty of breach of contract, especially if the FBI made the company provide a backdoor.

“If they had a warrant, then I don’t see how his case has any merit at all,” said Steven Certilman, a Stamford attorney who heads the Technology Law section of the Connecticut Bar Association. “Whatever means they used, if it’s covered by the warrant, it’s legitimate.”

If HP claimed DriveLock was unbreakable when the company knew it was not, that might be a kind of false advertising.

But while documents on HP’s web site do claim that without the correct passwords, a DriveLock’ed hard drive is “permanently unusable,” such warnings may not constitute actual legal guarantees.

According to Certilman and other computer security experts, hardware and software makers are careful not to make themselves liable for the performance of their products.

“I haven’t heard of manufacturers, at least for the consumer market, making a promise of computer security. Usually you buy naked hardware and you’re on your own,” Certilman said. In general, computer warrantees are “limited only to replacement and repair of the component, and not to incidental consequential damages such as the exposure of the underlying data to snooping third parties,” he said. “So I would be quite surprised if there were a gaping hole in their warranty that would allow that kind of claim.”

That point meets with agreement from the noted computer security skeptic Bruce Schneier, the chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security in Mountain View, Calif.

“I mean, the computer industry promises nothing,” he said last week. “Did you ever read a shrink-wrapped license agreement? You should read one. It basically says, if this product deliberately kills your children, and we knew it would, and we decided not to tell you because it might harm sales, we’re not liable. I mean, it says stuff like that. They’re absurd documents. You have no rights.”

My final quote in the article:

“Unfortunately, this probably isn’t a great case,” Schneier said. “Here’s a man who’s not going to get much sympathy. You want a defendant who bought the Compaq computer, and then, you know, his competitor, or a rogue employee, or someone who broke into his office, got the data. That’s a much more sympathetic defendant.”

Posted on May 3, 2006 at 9:26 AMView Comments

Microsoft's BitLocker

BitLocker Drive Encryption is a new security feature in Windows Vista, designed to work with the Trusted Platform Module (TPM). Basically, it encrypts the C drive with a computer-generated key. In its basic mode, an attacker can still access the data on the drive by guessing the user’s password, but would not be able to get at the drive by booting the disk up using another operating system, or removing the drive and attaching it to another computer.

There are several modes for BitLocker. In the simplest mode, the TPM stores the key and the whole thing happens completely invisibly. The user does nothing differently, and notices nothing different.

The BitLocker key can also be stored on a USB drive. Here, the user has to insert the USB drive into the computer during boot. Then there’s a mode that uses a key stored in the TPM and a key stored on a USB drive. And finally, there’s a mode that uses a key stored in the TPM and a four-digit PIN that the user types into the computer. This happens early in the boot process, when there’s still ASCII text on the screen.

Note that if you configure BitLocker with a USB key or a PIN, password guessing doesn’t work. BitLocker doesn’t even let you get to a password screen to try.

For most people, basic mode is the best. People will keep their USB key in their computer bag with their laptop, so it won’t add much security. But if you can force users to attach it to their keychains — remember that you only need the key to boot the computer, not to operate the computer — and convince them to go through the trouble of sticking it in their computer every time they boot, then you’ll get a higher level of security.

There is a recovery key: optional but strongly encouraged. It is automatically generated by BitLocker, and it can be sent to some administrator or printed out and stored in some secure location. There are ways for an administrator to set group policy settings mandating this key.

There aren’t any back doors for the police, though.

You can get BitLocker to work in systems without a TPM, but it’s kludgy. You can only configure it for a USB key. And it only will work on some hardware: because BItLocker starts running before any device drivers are loaded, the BIOS must recognize USB drives in order for BitLocker to work.

Encryption particulars: The default data encryption algorithm is AES-128-CBC with an additional diffuser. The diffuser is designed to protect against ciphertext-manipulation attacks, and is independently keyed from AES-CBC so that it cannot damage the security you get from AES-CBC. Administrators can select the disk encryption algorithm through group policy. Choices are 128-bit AES-CBC plus the diffuser, 256-bit AES-CBC plus the diffuser, 128-bit AES-CBC, and 256-bit AES-CBC. (My advice: stick with the default.) The key management system uses 256-bit keys wherever possible. The only place where a 128-bit key limit is hard-coded is the recovery key, which is 48 digits (including checksums). It’s shorter because it has to be typed in manually; typing in 96 digits will piss off a lot of people — even if it is only for data recovery.

So, does this destroy dual-boot systems? Not really. If you have Vista running, then set up a dual boot system, Bitlocker will consider this sort of change to be an attack and refuse to run. But then you can use the recovery key to boot into Windows, then tell BitLocker to take the current configuration — with the dual boot code — as correct. After that, your dual boot system will work just fine, or so I’ve been told. You still won’t be able to share any files on your C drive between operating systems, but you will be able to share files on any other drive.

The problem is that it’s impossible to distinguish between a legitimate dual boot system and an attacker trying to use another OS — whether Linux or another instance of Vista — to get at the volume.

BitLocker is not a panacea. But it does mitigate a specific but significant risk: the risk of attackers getting at data on drives directly. It allows people to throw away or sell old drives without worry. It allows people to stop worrying about their drives getting lost or stolen. It stops a particular attack against data.

Right now BitLocker is only in the Ultimate and Enterprise editions of Vista. It’s a feature that is turned off by default. It is also Microsoft’s first TPM application. Presumably it will be enhanced in the future: allowing the encryption of other drives would be a good next step, for example.

EDITED TO ADD (5/3): BitLocker is not a DRM system. However, it is straightforward to turn it into a DRM system. Simply give programs the ability to require that files be stored only on BitLocker-enabled drives, and then only be transferrable to other BitLocker-enabled drives. How easy this would be to implement, and how hard it would be to subvert, depends on the details of the system.

Posted on May 2, 2006 at 6:54 AMView Comments

VOIP Encryption

There are basically four ways to eavesdrop on a telephone call.

One, you can listen in on another phone extension. This is the method preferred by siblings everywhere. If you have the right access, it’s the easiest. While it doesn’t work for cell phones, cordless phones are vulnerable to a variant of this attack: A radio receiver set to the right frequency can act as another extension.

Two, you can attach some eavesdropping equipment to the wire with a pair of alligator clips. It takes some expertise, but you can do it anywhere along the phone line’s path — even outside the home. This used to be the way the police eavesdropped on your phone line. These days it’s probably most often used by criminals. This method doesn’t work for cell phones, either.

Three, you can eavesdrop at the telephone switch. Modern phone equipment includes the ability for someone to listen in this way. Currently, this is the preferred police method. It works for both land lines and cell phones. You need the right access, but if you can get it, this is probably the most comfortable way to eavesdrop on a particular person.

Four, you can tap the main trunk lines, eavesdrop on the microwave or satellite phone links, etc. It’s hard to eavesdrop on one particular person this way, but it’s easy to listen in on a large chunk of telephone calls. This is the sort of big-budget surveillance that organizations like the National Security Agency do best. They’ve even been known to use submarines to tap undersea phone cables.

That’s basically the entire threat model for traditional phone calls. And when most people think about IP telephony — voice over internet protocol, or VOIP — that’s the threat model they probably have in their heads.

Unfortunately, phone calls from your computer are fundamentally different from phone calls from your telephone. Internet telephony’s threat model is much closer to the threat model for IP-networked computers than the threat model for telephony.

And we already know the threat model for IP. Data packets can be eavesdropped on anywhere along the transmission path. Data packets can be intercepted in the corporate network, by the internet service provider and along the backbone. They can be eavesdropped on by the people or organizations that own those computers, and they can be eavesdropped on by anyone who has successfully hacked into those computers. They can be vacuumed up by nosy hackers, criminals, competitors and governments.

It’s comparable to threat No. 3 above, but with the scope vastly expanded.

My greatest worry is the criminal attacks. We already have seen how clever criminals have become over the past several years at stealing account information and personal data. I can imagine them eavesdropping on attorneys, looking for information with which to blackmail people. I can imagine them eavesdropping on bankers, looking for inside information with which to make stock purchases. I can imagine them stealing account information, hijacking telephone calls, committing identity theft. On the business side, I can see them engaging in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets. In short, I can imagine them doing all the things they could never have done with the traditional telephone network.

This is why encryption for VOIP is so important. VOIP calls are vulnerable to a variety of threats that traditional telephone calls are not. Encryption is one of the essential security technologies for computer data, and it will go a long way toward securing VOIP.

The last time this sort of thing came up, the U.S. government tried to sell us something called “key escrow.” Basically, the government likes the idea of everyone using encryption, as long as it has a copy of the key. This is an amazingly insecure idea for a number of reasons, mostly boiling down to the fact that when you provide a means of access into a security system, you greatly weaken its security.

A recent case in Greece demonstrated that perfectly: Criminals used a cell-phone eavesdropping mechanism already in place, designed for the police to listen in on phone calls. Had the call system been designed to be secure in the first place, there never would have been a backdoor for the criminals to exploit.

Fortunately, there are many VOIP-encryption products available. Skype has built-in encryption. Phil Zimmermann is releasing Zfone, an easy-to-use open-source product. There’s even a VOIP Security Alliance.

Encryption for IP telephony is important, but it’s not a panacea. Basically, it takes care of threats No. 2 through No. 4, but not threat No. 1. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest threat: eavesdropping at the end points. No amount of IP telephony encryption can prevent a Trojan or worm on your computer — or just a hacker who managed to get access to your machine — from eavesdropping on your phone calls, just as no amount of SSL or e-mail encryption can prevent a Trojan on your computer from eavesdropping — or even modifying — your data.

So, as always, it boils down to this: We need secure computers and secure operating systems even more than we need secure transmission.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on April 6, 2006 at 5:09 AMView Comments

More on Greek Wiretapping

Earlier this month I blogged about a wiretapping scandal in Greece.

Unknowns tapped the mobile phones of about 100 Greek politicians and offices, including the U.S. embassy in Athens and the Greek prime minister.

Details are sketchy, but it seems that a piece of malicious code was discovered by Ericsson technicians in Vodafone’s mobile phone software. The code tapped into the conference call system. It “conference called” phone calls to 14 prepaid mobile phones where the calls were recorded.

More details are emerging. It turns out that the “malicious code” was actually code designed into the system. It’s eavesdropping code put into the system for the police.

The attackers managed to bypass the authorization mechanisms of the eavesdropping system, and activate the “lawful interception” module in the mobile network. They then redirected about 100 numbers to 14 shadow numbers they controlled. (Here are translations of some of the press conferences with technical details. And here are details of the system used.)

There is an important security lesson here. I have long argued that when you build surveillance mechanisms into communication systems, you invite the bad guys to use those mechanisms for their own purposes. That’s exactly what happened here.

UPDATED TO ADD (3/2): From a reader: “I have an update. There is some news from the ‘Hellenic Authority for the Information and Communication Security and Privacy’ with a few facts and I got a rumor that there is a root backdoor in the telnetd of Ericssons AXE backdoor. (No, I can’t confirm the rumor.)”

Posted on March 1, 2006 at 8:04 AMView Comments

FBI to Approve All Software?

Sounds implausible, I know. But how else do you explain this FCC ruling (from September — I missed it until now):

The Federal Communications Commission thinks you have the right to use software on your computer only if the FBI approves.

No, really. In an obscure “policy” document released around 9 p.m. ET last Friday, the FCC announced this remarkable decision.

According to the three-page document, to preserve the openness that characterizes today’s Internet, “consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.” Read the last seven words again.

The FCC didn’t offer much in the way of clarification. But the clearest reading of the pronouncement is that some unelected bureaucrats at the commission have decreeed that Americans don’t have the right to use software such as Skype or PGPfone if it doesn’t support mandatory backdoors for wiretapping. (That interpretation was confirmed by an FCC spokesman on Monday, who asked not to be identified by name. Also, the announcement came at the same time as the FCC posted its wiretapping rules for Internet telephony.)

Posted on December 2, 2005 at 11:24 AMView Comments

Private Webcams and the Police

Our surveillance society marches on:

Commercial burglaries have risen in Corona in the past few years. At the same time, security-camera technology has improved, allowing business owners to use Web sites to view their shops or offices from home or while on a trip.

Now the Corona Chamber of Commerce and the Police Department are encouraging businesses with such systems to provide police dispatchers a password so they can see what’s going on during an emergency.

How soon before there’s a law requiring these webcams to be built with a police backdoor?

Posted on October 20, 2005 at 3:25 PMView Comments

Identity Theft out of Golf Lockers

When someone goes golfing in Japan, he’s given a locker in which to store his valuables. Generally, and at the golf course in question, these are electronic combination locks. The user selects a code himself and locks his valuables. Of course, there’s a back door — a literal one — to the lockers, in case someone forgets his unlock code. Furthermore, the back door allows the administrator of these lockers to read all the codes to all the lockers.

Here’s the scam: A group of thieves worked in conjunction with the locker administrator to open the lockers, copy the golfers’ debit cards, and replace them in their wallets and in their lockers before they were done golfing. In many cases, the golfers used the same code to lock their locker as their bank card PIN, so the thieves got those as well. Then the thieves stole a lot of money from multiple ATMs.

Several factors make this scam even worse. One, unlike the U.S., ATM cards in Japan have no limit. You can literally withdraw everything out of the account. Two, the victims don’t know anything until they find out they have no money when they use their card somewhere. Three, the victims, since they play golf at these expensive courses, are
usually very rich. And four, unlike the United States, Japanese banks do not guarantee loss due to theft.

Posted on March 1, 2005 at 9:20 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.