Entries Tagged "computer security"

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Ethical Problems in Computer Security

Tadayoshi Kohno, Yasemin Acar, and Wulf Loh wrote excellent paper on ethical thinking within the computer security community: “Ethical Frameworks and Computer Security Trolley Problems: Foundations for Conversation“:

Abstract: The computer security research community regularly tackles ethical questions. The field of ethics / moral philosophy has for centuries considered what it means to be “morally good” or at least “morally allowed / acceptable.” Among philosophy’s contributions are (1) frameworks for evaluating the morality of actions—including the well-established consequentialist and deontological frameworks—and (2) scenarios (like trolley problems) featuring moral dilemmas that can facilitate discussion about and intellectual inquiry into different perspectives on moral reasoning and decision-making. In a classic trolley problem, consequentialist and deontological analyses may render different opinions. In this research, we explicitly make and explore connections between moral questions in computer security research and ethics / moral philosophy through the creation and analysis of trolley problem-like computer security-themed moral dilemmas and, in doing so, we seek to contribute to conversations among security researchers about the morality of security research-related decisions. We explicitly do not seek to define what is morally right or wrong, nor do we argue for one framework over another. Indeed, the consequentialist and deontological frameworks that we center, in addition to coming to different conclusions for our scenarios, have significant limitations. Instead, by offering our scenarios and by comparing two different approaches to ethics, we strive to contribute to how the computer security research field considers and converses about ethical questions, especially when there are different perspectives on what is morally right or acceptable. Our vision is for this work to be broadly useful to the computer security community, including to researchers as they embark on (or choose not to embark on), conduct, and write about their research, to program committees as they evaluate submissions, and to educators as they teach about computer security and ethics.

The paper will be presented at USENIX Security.

Posted on June 21, 2023 at 1:54 PMView Comments

Computer Repair Technicians Are Stealing Your Data

Laptop technicians routinely violate the privacy of the people whose computers they repair:

Researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recovered logs from laptops after receiving overnight repairs from 12 commercial shops. The logs showed that technicians from six of the locations had accessed personal data and that two of those shops also copied data onto a personal device. Devices belonging to females were more likely to be snooped on, and that snooping tended to seek more sensitive data, including both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, documents, and financial information.


In three cases, Windows Quick Access or Recently Accessed Files had been deleted in what the researchers suspect was an attempt by the snooping technician to cover their tracks. As noted earlier, two of the visits resulted in the logs the researchers relied on being unrecoverable. In one, the researcher explained they had installed antivirus software and performed a disk cleanup to “remove multiple viruses on the device.” The researchers received no explanation in the other case.


The laptops were freshly imaged Windows 10 laptops. All were free of malware and other defects and in perfect working condition with one exception: the audio driver was disabled. The researchers chose that glitch because it required only a simple and inexpensive repair, was easy to create, and didn’t require access to users’ personal files.

Half of the laptops were configured to appear as if they belonged to a male and the other half to a female. All of the laptops were set up with email and gaming accounts and populated with browser history across several weeks. The researchers added documents, both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, and a cryptocurrency wallet with credentials.

A few notes. One: this is a very small study—only twelve laptop repairs. Two, some of the results were inconclusive, which indicated—but did not prove—log tampering by the technicians. Three, this study was done in Canada. There would probably be more snooping by American repair technicians.

The moral isn’t a good one: if you bring your laptop in to be repaired, you should expect the technician to snoop through your hard drive, taking what they want.

Research paper.

Posted on November 28, 2022 at 10:44 AMView Comments

Recovering Passwords by Measuring Residual Heat

Researchers have used thermal cameras and ML guessing techniques to recover passwords from measuring the residual heat left by fingers on keyboards. From the abstract:

We detail the implementation of ThermoSecure and make a dataset of 1,500 thermal images of keyboards with heat traces resulting from input publicly available. Our first study shows that ThermoSecure successfully attacks 6-symbol, 8-symbol, 12-symbol, and 16-symbol passwords with an average accuracy of 92%, 80%, 71%, and 55% respectively, and even higher accuracy when thermal images are taken within 30 seconds. We found that typing behavior significantly impacts vulnerability to thermal attacks, where hunt-and-peck typists are more vulnerable than fast typists (92% vs 83% thermal attack success if performed within 30 seconds). The second study showed that the keycaps material has a statistically significant effect on the effectiveness of thermal attacks: ABS keycaps retain the thermal trace of users presses for a longer period of time, making them more vulnerable to thermal attacks, with a 52% average attack accuracy compared to 14% for keyboards with PBT keycaps.

“ABS” is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, which some keys are made of. Others are made of Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT). PBT keys are less vulnerable.

But, honestly, if someone can train a camera at your keyboard, you have bigger problems.

News article.

Posted on October 12, 2022 at 6:30 AMView Comments

Bypassing Two-Factor Authentication

These techniques are not new, but they’re increasingly popular:

…some forms of MFA are stronger than others, and recent events show that these weaker forms aren’t much of a hurdle for some hackers to clear. In the past few months, suspected script kiddies like the Lapsus$ data extortion gang and elite Russian-state threat actors (like Cozy Bear, the group behind the SolarWinds hack) have both successfully defeated the protection.


Methods include:

  • Sending a bunch of MFA requests and hoping the target finally accepts one to make the noise stop.
  • Sending one or two prompts per day. This method often attracts less attention, but “there is still a good chance the target will accept the MFA request.”
  • Calling the target, pretending to be part of the company, and telling the target they need to send an MFA request as part of a company process.

FIDO2 multi-factor authentication systems are not susceptible to these attacks, because they are tied to a physical computer.

And even though there are attacks against these two-factor systems, they’re much more secure than not having them at all. If nothing else, they block pretty much all automated attacks.

Posted on April 1, 2022 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Mysterious Macintosh Malware

This is weird:

Once an hour, infected Macs check a control server to see if there are any new commands the malware should run or binaries to execute. So far, however, researchers have yet to observe delivery of any payload on any of the infected 30,000 machines, leaving the malware’s ultimate goal unknown. The lack of a final payload suggests that the malware may spring into action once an unknown condition is met.

Also curious, the malware comes with a mechanism to completely remove itself, a capability that’s typically reserved for high-stealth operations. So far, though, there are no signs the self-destruct feature has been used, raising the question of why the mechanism exists.

Besides those questions, the malware is notable for a version that runs natively on the M1 chip that Apple introduced in November, making it only the second known piece of macOS malware to do so. The malicious binary is more mysterious still because it uses the macOS Installer JavaScript API to execute commands. That makes it hard to analyze installation package contents or the way that package uses the JavaScript commands.

The malware has been found in 153 countries with detections concentrated in the US, UK, Canada, France, and Germany. Its use of Amazon Web Services and the Akamai content delivery network ensures the command infrastructure works reliably and also makes blocking the servers harder. Researchers from Red Canary, the security firm that discovered the malware, are calling the malware Silver Sparrow.

Feels government-designed, rather than criminal or hacker.

Another article. And the Red Canary analysis.

Posted on March 2, 2021 at 6:05 AMView Comments

Mapping Security and Privacy Research across the Decades

This is really interesting: “A Data-Driven Reflection on 36 Years of Security and Privacy Research,” by Aniqua Baset and Tamara Denning:

Abstract: Meta-research—research about research—allows us, as a community, to examine trends in our research and make informed decisions regarding the course of our future research activities. Additionally, overviews of past research are particularly useful for researchers or conferences new to the field. In this work we use topic modeling to identify topics within the field of security and privacy research using the publications of the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy (1980-2015), the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (1993-2015), the USENIX Security Symposium (1993-2015), and the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (1997-2015). We analyze and present data via the perspective of topics trends and authorship. We believe our work serves to contextualize the academic field of computer security and privacy research via one of the first data-driven analyses. An interactive visualization of the topics and corresponding publications is available at https://secprivmeta.net.

I like seeing how our field has morphed over the years.

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Measuring the Security of IoT Devices

In August, CyberITL completed a large-scale survey of software security practices in the IoT environment, by looking at the compiled software.

Data Collected:

  • 22 Vendors
  • 1,294 Products
  • 4,956 Firmware versions
  • 3,333,411 Binaries analyzed
  • Date range of data: 2003-03-24 to 2019-01-24 (varies by vendor, most up to 2018 releases)


This dataset contains products such as home routers, enterprise equipment, smart cameras, security devices, and more. It represents a wide range of either found in the home, enterprise or government deployments.

Vendors are Asus, Belkin, DLink, Linksys, Moxa, Tenda, Trendnet, and Ubiquiti.

CyberITL’s methodology is not source code analysis. They look at the actual firmware. And they don’t look for vulnerabilities; they look for secure coding practices that indicate that the company is taking security seriously, and whose lack pretty much guarantees that there will be vulnerabilities. These include address space layout randomization and stack guards.

A summary of their results.

CITL identified a number of important takeaways from this study:

  • On average, updates were more likely to remove hardening features than add them.
  • Within our 15 year data set, there have been no positive trends from any one vendor.
  • MIPS is both the most common CPU architecture and least hardened on average.
  • There are a large number of duplicate binaries across multiple vendors, indicating a common build system or toolchain.

Their website contains the raw data.

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Attacking the Intel Secure Enclave

Interesting paper by Michael Schwarz, Samuel Weiser, Daniel Gruss. The upshot is that both Intel and AMD have assumed that trusted enclaves will run only trustworthy code. Of course, that’s not true. And there are no security mechanisms that can deal with malicious enclaves, because the designers couldn’t imagine that they would be necessary. The results are predictable.

The paper: “Practical Enclave Malware with Intel SGX.”

Abstract: Modern CPU architectures offer strong isolation guarantees towards user applications in the form of enclaves. For instance, Intel’s threat model for SGX assumes fully trusted enclaves, yet there is an ongoing debate on whether this threat model is realistic. In particular, it is unclear to what extent enclave malware could harm a system. In this work, we practically demonstrate the first enclave malware which fully and stealthily impersonates its host application. Together with poorly-deployed application isolation on personal computers, such malware can not only steal or encrypt documents for extortion, but also act on the user’s behalf, e.g., sending phishing emails or mounting denial-of-service attacks. Our SGX-ROP attack uses new TSX-based memory-disclosure primitive and a write-anything-anywhere primitive to construct a code-reuse attack from within an enclave which is then inadvertently executed by the host application. With SGX-ROP, we bypass ASLR, stack canaries, and address sanitizer. We demonstrate that instead of protecting users from harm, SGX currently poses a security threat, facilitating so-called super-malware with ready-to-hit exploits. With our results, we seek to demystify the enclave malware threat and lay solid ground for future research on and defense against enclave malware.

Posted on August 30, 2019 at 6:18 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.