Apple is bowing to pressure from the Chinese government and storing encryption keys in China. While I would prefer it if it would take a stand against China, I really can’t blame it for putting its business model ahead of its desires for customer privacy.
Entries Tagged "cloud computing"
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On January 3, the world learned about a series of major security vulnerabilities in modern microprocessors. Called Spectre and Meltdown, these vulnerabilities were discovered by several different researchers last summer, disclosed to the microprocessors’ manufacturers, and patched — at least to the extent possible.
This news isn’t really any different from the usual endless stream of security vulnerabilities and patches, but it’s also a harbinger of the sorts of security problems we’re going to be seeing in the coming years. These are vulnerabilities in computer hardware, not software. They affect virtually all high-end microprocessors produced in the last 20 years. Patching them requires large-scale coordination across the industry, and in some cases drastically affects the performance of the computers. And sometimes patching isn’t possible; the vulnerability will remain until the computer is discarded.
Spectre and Meltdown aren’t anomalies. They represent a new area to look for vulnerabilities and a new avenue of attack. They’re the future of security — and it doesn’t look good for the defenders.
Modern computers do lots of things at the same time. Your computer and your phone simultaneously run several applications — or apps. Your browser has several windows open. A cloud computer runs applications for many different computers. All of those applications need to be isolated from each other. For security, one application isn’t supposed to be able to peek at what another one is doing, except in very controlled circumstances. Otherwise, a malicious advertisement on a website you’re visiting could eavesdrop on your banking details, or the cloud service purchased by some foreign intelligence organization could eavesdrop on every other cloud customer, and so on. The companies that write browsers, operating systems, and cloud infrastructure spend a lot of time making sure this isolation works.
Both Spectre and Meltdown break that isolation, deep down at the microprocessor level, by exploiting performance optimizations that have been implemented for the past decade or so. Basically, microprocessors have become so fast that they spend a lot of time waiting for data to move in and out of memory. To increase performance, these processors guess what data they’re going to receive and execute instructions based on that. If the guess turns out to be correct, it’s a performance win. If it’s wrong, the microprocessors throw away what they’ve done without losing any time. This feature is called speculative execution.
Spectre and Meltdown attack speculative execution in different ways. Meltdown is more of a conventional vulnerability; the designers of the speculative-execution process made a mistake, so they just needed to fix it. Spectre is worse; it’s a flaw in the very concept of speculative execution. There’s no way to patch that vulnerability; the chips need to be redesigned in such a way as to eliminate it.
Since the announcement, manufacturers have been rolling out patches to these vulnerabilities to the extent possible. Operating systems have been patched so that attackers can’t make use of the vulnerabilities. Web browsers have been patched. Chips have been patched. From the user’s perspective, these are routine fixes. But several aspects of these vulnerabilities illustrate the sorts of security problems we’re only going to be seeing more of.
First, attacks against hardware, as opposed to software, will become more common. Last fall, vulnerabilities were discovered in Intel’s Management Engine, a remote-administration feature on its microprocessors. Like Spectre and Meltdown, they affected how the chips operate. Looking for vulnerabilities on computer chips is new. Now that researchers know this is a fruitful area to explore, security researchers, foreign intelligence agencies, and criminals will be on the hunt.
Second, because microprocessors are fundamental parts of computers, patching requires coordination between many companies. Even when manufacturers like Intel and AMD can write a patch for a vulnerability, computer makers and application vendors still have to customize and push the patch out to the users. This makes it much harder to keep vulnerabilities secret while patches are being written. Spectre and Meltdown were announced prematurely because details were leaking and rumors were swirling. Situations like this give malicious actors more opportunity to attack systems before they’re guarded.
Third, these vulnerabilities will affect computers’ functionality. In some cases, the patches for Spectre and Meltdown result in significant reductions in speed. The press initially reported 30%, but that only seems true for certain servers running in the cloud. For your personal computer or phone, the performance hit from the patch is minimal. But as more vulnerabilities are discovered in hardware, patches will affect performance in noticeable ways.
And then there are the unpatchable vulnerabilities. For decades, the computer industry has kept things secure by finding vulnerabilities in fielded products and quickly patching them. Now there are cases where that doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s because computers are in cheap products that don’t have a patch mechanism, like many of the DVRs and webcams that are vulnerable to the Mirai (and other) botnets — groups of Internet-connected devices sabotaged for coordinated digital attacks. Sometimes it’s because a computer chip’s functionality is so core to a computer’s design that patching it effectively means turning the computer off. This, too, is becoming more common.
Increasingly, everything is a computer: not just your laptop and phone, but your car, your appliances, your medical devices, and global infrastructure. These computers are and always will be vulnerable, but Spectre and Meltdown represent a new class of vulnerability. Unpatchable vulnerabilities in the deepest recesses of the world’s computer hardware is the new normal. It’s going to leave us all much more vulnerable in the future.
This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.
Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has given talks where he proposes that tech companies decrease their communications and device security for the benefit of the FBI. In a recent talk, his idea is that tech companies just save a copy of the plaintext:
Law enforcement can also partner with private industry to address a problem we call “Going Dark.” Technology increasingly frustrates traditional law enforcement efforts to collect evidence needed to protect public safety and solve crime. For example, many instant-messaging services now encrypt messages by default. The prevent the police from reading those messages, even if an impartial judge approves their interception.
The problem is especially critical because electronic evidence is necessary for both the investigation of a cyber incident and the prosecution of the perpetrator. If we cannot access data even with lawful process, we are unable to do our job. Our ability to secure systems and prosecute criminals depends on our ability to gather evidence.
I encourage you to carefully consider your company’s interests and how you can work cooperatively with us. Although encryption can help secure your data, it may also prevent law enforcement agencies from protecting your data.
Encryption serves a valuable purpose. It is a foundational element of data security and essential to safeguarding data against cyber-attacks. It is critical to the growth and flourishing of the digital economy, and we support it. I support strong and responsible encryption.
I simply maintain that companies should retain the capability to provide the government unencrypted copies of communications and data stored on devices, when a court orders them to do so.
Responsible encryption is effective secure encryption, coupled with access capabilities. We know encryption can include safeguards. For example, there are systems that include central management of security keys and operating system updates; scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes; simulcast of messages to multiple destinations at once; and key recovery when a user forgets the password to decrypt a laptop. No one calls any of those functions a “backdoor.” In fact, those very capabilities are marketed and sought out.
I do not believe that the government should mandate a specific means of ensuring access. The government does not need to micromanage the engineering.
The question is whether to require a particular goal: When a court issues a search warrant or wiretap order to collect evidence of crime, the company should be able to help. The government does not need to hold the key.
Rosenstein is right that many services like Gmail naturally keep plaintext in the cloud. This is something we pointed out in our 2016 paper: “Don’t Panic.” But forcing companies to build an alternate means to access the plaintext that the user can’t control is an enormous vulnerability.
The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution — which of course is not a solution — is to throw them all away and buy new ones.
On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world’s computers for the past 15-20 years. They’ve been named Spectre and Meltdown, and they have to do with manipulating different ways processors optimize performance by rearranging the order of instructions or performing different instructions in parallel. An attacker who controls one process on a system can use the vulnerabilities to steal secrets elsewhere on the computer. (The research papers are here and here.)
This means that a malicious app on your phone could steal data from your other apps. Or a malicious program on your computer — maybe one running in a browser window from that sketchy site you’re visiting, or as a result of a phishing attack — can steal data elsewhere on your machine. Cloud services, which often share machines amongst several customers, are especially vulnerable. This affects corporate applications running on cloud infrastructure, and end-user cloud applications like Google Drive. Someone can run a process in the cloud and steal data from every other user on the same hardware.
Information about these flaws has been secretly circulating amongst the major IT companies for months as they researched the ramifications and coordinated updates. The details were supposed to be released next week, but the story broke early and everyone is scrambling. By now all the major cloud vendors have patched their systems against the vulnerabilities that can be patched against.
“Throw it away and buy a new one” is ridiculous security advice, but it’s what US-CERT recommends. It is also unworkable. The problem is that there isn’t anything to buy that isn’t vulnerable. Pretty much every major processor made in the past 20 years is vulnerable to some flavor of these vulnerabilities. Patching against Meltdown can degrade performance by almost a third. And there’s no patch for Spectre; the microprocessors have to be redesigned to prevent the attack, and that will take years. (Here’s a running list of who’s patched what.)
This is bad, but expect it more and more. Several trends are converging in a way that makes our current system of patching security vulnerabilities harder to implement.
The first is that these vulnerabilities affect embedded computers in consumer devices. Unlike our computers and phones, these systems are designed and produced at a lower profit margin with less engineering expertise. There aren’t security teams on call to write patches, and there often aren’t mechanisms to push patches onto the devices. We’re already seeing this with home routers, digital video recorders, and webcams. The vulnerability that allowed them to be taken over by the Mirai botnet last August simply can’t be fixed.
The second is that some of the patches require updating the computer’s firmware. This is much harder to walk consumers through, and is more likely to permanently brick the device if something goes wrong. It also requires more coordination. In November, Intel released a firmware update to fix a vulnerability in its Management Engine (ME): another flaw in its microprocessors. But it couldn’t get that update directly to users; it had to work with the individual hardware companies, and some of them just weren’t capable of getting the update to their customers.
We’re already seeing this. Some patches require users to disable the computer’s password, which means organizations can’t automate the patch. Some antivirus software blocks the patch, or — worse — crashes the computer. This results in a three-step process: patch your antivirus software, patch your operating system, and then patch the computer’s firmware.
The final reason is the nature of these vulnerabilities themselves. These aren’t normal software vulnerabilities, where a patch fixes the problem and everyone can move on. These vulnerabilities are in the fundamentals of how the microprocessor operates.
It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it. In their rush to make computers faster, they weren’t thinking about security. They didn’t have the expertise to find these vulnerabilities. And those who did were too busy finding normal software vulnerabilities to examine microprocessors. Security researchers are starting to look more closely at these systems, so expect to hear about more vulnerabilities along these lines.
Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they — and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability — have shown researchers where to look, more is coming — and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown. There will be vulnerabilities that will allow attackers to manipulate or delete data across processes, potentially fatal in the computers controlling our cars or implanted medical devices. These will be similarly impossible to fix, and the only strategy will be to throw our devices away and buy new ones.
This isn’t to say you should immediately turn your computers and phones off and not use them for a few years. For the average user, this is just another attack method amongst many. All the major vendors are working on patches and workarounds for the attacks they can mitigate. All the normal security advice still applies: watch for phishing attacks, don’t click on strange e-mail attachments, don’t visit sketchy websites that might run malware on your browser, patch your systems regularly, and generally be careful on the Internet.
You probably won’t notice that performance hit once Meltdown is patched, except maybe in backup programs and networking applications. Embedded systems that do only one task, like your programmable thermostat or the computer in your refrigerator, are unaffected. Small microprocessors that don’t do all of the vulnerable fancy performance tricks are unaffected. Browsers will figure out how to mitigate this in software. Overall, the security of the average Internet-of-Things device is so bad that this attack is in the noise compared to the previously known risks.
It’s a much bigger problem for cloud vendors; the performance hit will be expensive, but I expect that they’ll figure out some clever way of detecting and blocking the attacks. All in all, as bad as Spectre and Meltdown are, I think we got lucky.
But more are coming, and they’ll be worse. 2018 will be the year of microprocessor vulnerabilities, and it’s going to be a wild ride.
These are side-channel attacks where one process can spy on other processes. They affect computers where an untrusted browser window can execute code, phones that have multiple apps running at the same time, and cloud computing networks that run lots of different processes at once. Fixing them either requires a patch that results in a major performance hit, or is impossible and requires a re-architecture of conditional execution in future CPU chips.
I’ll be writing something for publication over the next few days. This post is basically just a link repository.
EDITED TO ADD (1/7): xkcd.
EDITED TO ADD (1/10): Another good technical description.
Amazon has a cloud for US classified data.
The physical and computer requirements for handling classified information are considerable, both in terms of technology and procedure. I am surprised that a company with no experience dealing with classified data was able to do it.
The large accountancy firm Deloitte was hacked, losing client e-mails and files. The hackers had access inside the company’s networks for months. Deloitte is doing its best to downplay the severity of this hack, but Brian Krebs reports that the hack “involves the compromise of all administrator accounts at the company as well as Deloitte’s entire internal email system.”
So far, the hackers haven’t published all the data they stole.
This is a weird story, and I’m skeptical of some of the details. Presumably Apple has decided that it’s smarter to spend the money on secure backups and other security measures than to pay the ransom. But we’ll see how this unfolds.
Ever since Ian Krstić, Apple’s Head of Security Engineering and Architecture, presented the company’s key backup technology at Black Hat 2016, people have been pointing to it as evidence that the company can create a secure backdoor for law enforcement.
It’s not. Matthew Green and Steve Bellovin have both explained why not. And the same group of us that wrote the “Keys Under Doormats” paper on why backdoors are a bad idea have also explained why Apple’s technology does not enable it to build secure backdoors for law enforcement. Michael Specter did the bulk of the writing.
The problem with Tait’s argument becomes clearer when you actually try to turn Apple’s Cloud Key Vault into an exceptional access mechanism. In that case, Apple would have to replace the HSM with one that accepts an additional message from Apple or the FBI — or an agency from any of the 100+ countries where Apple sells iPhones — saying “OK, decrypt,” as well as the user’s password. In order to do this securely, these messages would have to be cryptographically signed with a second set of keys, which would then have to be used as often as law enforcement access is required. Any exceptional access scheme made from this system would have to have an additional set of keys to ensure authorized use of the law enforcement access credentials.
Managing access by a hundred-plus countries is impractical due to mutual mistrust, so Apple would be stuck with keeping a second signing key (or database of second signing keys) for signing these messages that must be accessed for each and every law enforcement agency. This puts us back at the situation where Apple needs to protect another repeatedly-used, high-value public key infrastructure: an equivalent situation to what has already resulted in the theft of Bitcoin wallets, RealTek’s code signing keys, and Certificate Authority failures, among many other disasters.
Repeated access of private keys drastically increases their probability of theft, loss, or inappropriate use. Apple’s Cloud Key Vault does not have any Apple-owned private key, and therefore does not indicate that a secure solution to this problem actually exists.
It is worth noting that the exceptional access schemes one can create from Apple’s CKV (like the one outlined above) inherently entails the precise issues we warned about in our previous essay on the danger signs for recognizing flawed exceptional access systems. Additionally, the Risks of Key Escrow and Keys Under Doormats papers describe further technical and nontechnical issues with exceptional access schemes that must be addressed. Among the nontechnical hurdles would be the requirement, for example, that Apple run a large legal office to confirm that requests for access from the government of Uzbekistan actually involved a device that was located in that country, and that the request was consistent with both US law and Uzbek law.
My colleagues and I do not argue that the technical community doesn’t know how to store high-value encryption keys — to the contrary that’s the whole point of an HSM. Rather, we assert that holding on to keys in a safe way such that any other party (i.e. law enforcement or Apple itself) can also access them repeatedly without high potential for catastrophic loss is impossible with today’s technology, and that any scheme running into fundamental sociotechnical challenges such as jurisdiction must be evaluated honestly before any technical implementation is considered.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.