Entries Tagged "cybercrime"

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New Directions in Malware

Kaspersky Labs reports on extortion scams using malware:

We’ve reported more than once on cases where remote malicious users have moved away from the stealth use of infected computers (stealing data from them, using them as part of zombie networks etc) to direct blackmail, demanding payment from victims. At the moment, this method is used in two main ways: encrypting user data and corrupting system information.

Users quickly understand that something has happened to their data. They are then told that they should send a specific sum to an e-payment account maintained by the remote malicious user, whether it be EGold, Webmoney or whatever. The ransom demanded varies significantly depending on the amount of money available to the victim. We know of cases where the malicious users have demanded $50, and of cases where they have demanded more than $2,000. The first such blackmail case was in 1989, and now this method is again gaining in popularity.

In 2005, the most striking examples of this type of cybercrime were carried out using the Trojans GpCode and Krotten. The first of these encrypts user data; the second restricts itself to making a number of modifications to the victim machine’s system registry, causing it to cease functioning.

Among other worms, the article discusses the GpCode.ac worm, which encrypts data using 56-bit RSA (no, that’s not a typo). The whole article is interesting reading.

Posted on April 26, 2006 at 1:07 PMView Comments

Identity-Theft Disclosure Laws

California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.

Except that it won’t do the same thing: The federal bill has become so watered down that it won’t be very effective. I would still be in favor of it—a poor federal law is better than none—if it didn’t also pre-empt more-effective state laws, which makes it a net loss.

Identity theft is the fastest-growing area of crime. It’s badly named—your identity is the one thing that cannot be stolen—and is better thought of as fraud by impersonation. A criminal collects enough personal information about you to be able to impersonate you to banks, credit card companies, brokerage houses, etc. Posing as you, he steals your money, or takes a destructive joyride on your good credit.

Many companies keep large databases of personal data that is useful to these fraudsters. But because the companies don’t shoulder the cost of the fraud, they’re not economically motivated to secure those databases very well. In fact, if your personal data is stolen from their databases, they would much rather not even tell you: Why deal with the bad publicity?

Disclosure laws force companies to make these security breaches public. This is a good idea for three reasons. One, it is good security practice to notify potential identity theft victims that their personal information has been lost or stolen. Two, statistics on actual data thefts are valuable for research purposes. And three, the potential cost of the notification and the associated bad publicity naturally leads companies to spend more money on protecting personal information—or to refrain from collecting it in the first place.

Think of it as public shaming. Companies will spend money to avoid the PR costs of this shaming, and security will improve. In economic terms, the law reduces the externalities and forces companies to deal with the true costs of these data breaches.

This public shaming needs the cooperation of the press and, unfortunately, there’s an attenuation effect going on. The first major breach after California passed its disclosure law—SB1386—was in February 2005, when ChoicePoint sold personal data on 145,000 people to criminals. The event was all over the news, and ChoicePoint was shamed into improving its security.

Then LexisNexis exposed personal data on 300,000 individuals. And Citigroup lost data on 3.9 million individuals. SB1386 worked; the only reason we knew about these security breaches was because of the law. But the breaches came in increasing numbers, and in larger quantities. After a while, it was no longer news. And when the press stopped reporting, the “cost” of these breaches to the companies declined.

Today, the only real cost that remains is the cost of notifying customers and issuing replacement cards. It costs banks about $10 to issue a new card, and that’s money they would much rather not have to spend. This is the agenda they brought to the federal bill, cleverly titled the Data Accountability and Trust Act, or DATA.

Lobbyists attacked the legislation in two ways. First, they went after the definition of personal information. Only the exposure of very specific information requires disclosure. For example, the theft of a database that contained people’s first initial, middle name, last name, Social Security number, bank account number, address, phone number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name and password would not have to be disclosed, because “personal information” is defined as “an individual’s first and last name in combination with …” certain other personal data.

Second, lobbyists went after the definition of “breach of security.” The latest version of the bill reads: “The term ‘breach of security’ means the unauthorized acquisition of data in electronic form containing personal information that establishes a reasonable basis to conclude that there is a significant risk of identity theft to the individuals to whom the personal information relates.”

Get that? If a company loses a backup tape containing millions of individuals’ personal information, it doesn’t have to disclose if it believes there is no “significant risk of identity theft.” If it leaves a database exposed, and has absolutely no audit logs of who accessed that database, it could claim it has no “reasonable basis” to conclude there is a significant risk. Actually, the company could point to a study that showed the probability of fraud to someone who has been the victim of this kind of data loss to be less than 1 in 1,000—which is not a “significant risk”—and then not disclose the data breach at all.

Even worse, this federal law pre-empts the 23 existing state laws—and others being considered—many of which contain stronger individual protections. So while DATA might look like a law protecting consumers nationwide, it is actually a law protecting companies with large databases from state laws protecting consumers.

So in its current form, this legislation would make things worse, not better.

Of course, things are in flux. They’re always in flux. The language of the bill has changed regularly over the past year, as various committees got their hands on it. There’s also another bill, HR3997, which is even worse. And even if something passes, it has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate passes, and then voted on again. So no one really knows what the final language will look like.

But the devil is in the details, and the only way to protect us from lobbyists tinkering with the details is to ensure that the federal bill does not pre-empt any state bills: that the federal law is a minimum, but that states can require more.

That said, disclosure is important, but it’s not going to solve identity theft. As I’ve written previously, the reason theft of personal information is so common is that the data is so valuable. The way to mitigate the risk of fraud due to impersonation is not to make personal information harder to steal, it’s to make it harder to use.

Disclosure laws only deal with the economic externality of data brokers protecting your personal information. What we really need are laws prohibiting credit card companies and other financial institutions from granting credit to someone using your name with only a minimum of authentication.

But until that happens, we can at least hope that Congress will refrain from passing bad bills that override good state laws—and helping criminals in the process.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/20): Here’s a comparison of state disclosure laws.

Posted on April 20, 2006 at 8:11 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

For-Profit Botnet

Interesting article about someone convicted for running a for-profit botnet:

November’s 52-page indictment, along with papers filed last week, offer an unusually detailed glimpse into a shadowy world where hackers, often not old enough to vote, brag in online chat groups about their prowess in taking over vast numbers of computers and herding them into large armies of junk mail robots and arsenals for so-called denial of service attacks on Web sites.

Ancheta one-upped his hacking peers by advertising his network of “bots,” short for robots, on Internet chat channels.

A Web site Ancheta maintained included a schedule of prices he charged people who wanted to rent out the machines, along with guidelines on how many bots were required to bring down a particular type of Web site.

In July 2004, he told one chat partner he had more than 40,000 machines available, “more than I can handle,” according to the indictment. A month later, Ancheta told another person he controlled at least 100,000 bots, and that his network had added another 10,000 machines in a week and a half.

In a three-month span starting in June 2004, Ancheta rented out or sold bots to at least 10 “different nefarious computer users,” according to the plea agreement. He pocketed $3,000 in the process by accepting payments through the online PayPal service, prosecutors said.

Starting in August 2004, Ancheta turned to a new, more lucrative method to profit from his botnets, prosecutors said. Working with a juvenile in Boca Raton, Fla., whom prosecutors identified by his Internet nickname “SoBe,” Ancheta infected more than 400,000 computers.

Ancheta and SoBe signed up as affiliates in programs maintained by online advertising companies that pay people each time they get a computer user to install software that displays ads and collects information about the sites a user visits.

Posted on February 2, 2006 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Computer Crime Hype

I guess this is the season for sensationalist hype of computer crime: first CNN, and then USA Today (drug users and Internet crime, for a double-scary story).

Beware the Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse: terrorists, drug dealers, kidnappers, and child pornographers. Seems like you can scare any public into allowing the government to do anything with those four.

Posted on December 16, 2005 at 3:15 PMView Comments

Cybercrime Pays

This sentence jumped out at me in an otherwise pedestrian article on criminal fraud:

“Fraud is fundamentally fuelling the growth of organised crime in the UK, earning more from fraud than they do from drugs,” Chris Hill, head of fraud at the Norwich Union, told BBC News.

I’ll bet that most of that involves the Internet to some degree.

And then there’s this:

Global cybercrime turned over more money than drug trafficking last year, according to a US Treasury advisor. Valerie McNiven, an advisor to the US government on cybercrime, claimed that corporate espionage, child pornography, stock manipulation, phishing fraud and copyright offences cause more financial harm than the trade in illegal narcotics such as heroin and cocaine.

This doesn’t bode well for computer security in general.

Posted on November 30, 2005 at 6:05 AMView Comments

Hackers and Criminals

More evidence that hackers are migrating into crime:

Since then, organised crime units have continued to provide a fruitful income for a group of hackers that are effectively on their payroll. Their willingness to pay for hacking expertise has also given rise to a new subset of hackers. These are not hardcore criminals in pursuit of defrauding a bank or duping thousands of consumers. In one sense, they are the next generation of hackers that carry out their activities in pursuit of credibility from their peers and the ‘buzz’ of hacking systems considered to be unbreakable.

Where they come into contact with serious criminals is through underworld forums and chatrooms, where their findings are published and they are paid effectively for their intellectual property. This form of hacking – essentially ‘hacking for hire’ – is becoming more common with hackers trading zero-day exploit information, malcode, bandwidth, identities and toolkits underground for cash. So a hacker might package together a Trojan that defeats the latest version of an anti-virus client and sell that to a hacking community sponsored by criminals.

Posted on November 17, 2005 at 12:25 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.