Entries Tagged "impersonation"

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Actors Playing New York City Policemen

Did you know you could be arrested for carrying a police uniform in New York City?

With security tighter in the Big Apple since Sept. 11, 2001, the union that represents TV and film actors has begun advising its New York-area members to stop buying police costumes or carrying them to gigs, even if their performances require them.

The Screen Actors Guild said in a statement posted on its Web site on Friday that “an apparent shift in city policy” may put actors at risk of arrest if they are stopped while carrying anything that looks too much like a real police uniform.

The odds that an actor might be stopped and questioned on his or her way to work went up this month when police began conducting random searches of passengers’ bags in New York’s subway system. The guild said two of its members had been detained by security personnel at an airport and a courthouse in recent months for possessing police costumes.

This seems like overkill to me. I understand that a police uniform is an authentication device—not a very good one, but one nonetheless—and we want to make it harder for the bad guys to get one. But there’s no reason to prohibit screen or stage actors from having police uniforms if it’s part of their job. This seems similar to the laws surrounding lockpicks: you can be arrested for carrying them without a good reason, but locksmiths are allowed to own the tools of their trade.

Here’s another bit from the article:

Under police department rules, real officers must be on hand any time an actor dons a police costume during a TV or film production.

I guess that’s to prevent the actor from actually impersonating a policeman. But how often does that actually happen? Is this a good use of police manpower?

Does anyone know how other cities and countries handle this?

Posted on August 25, 2005 at 12:52 PMView Comments

Mitigating Identity Theft

Identity theft is the new crime of the information age. A criminal collects enough personal data on someone to impersonate a victim to banks, credit card companies, and other financial institutions. Then he racks up debt in the person’s name, collects the cash, and disappears. The victim is left holding the bag. While some of the losses are absorbed by financial institutions—credit card companies in particular—the credit-rating damage is borne by the victim. It can take years for the victim to clear his name.

Unfortunately, the solutions being proposed in Congress won’t help. To see why, we need to start with the basics. The very term “identity theft” is an oxymoron. Identity is not a possession that can be acquired or lost; it’s not a thing at all. Someone’s identity is the one thing about a person that cannot be stolen.

The real crime here is fraud; more specifically, impersonation leading to fraud. Impersonation is an ancient crime, but the rise of information-based credentials gives it a modern spin. A criminal impersonates a victim online and steals money from his account. He impersonates a victim in order to deceive financial institutions into granting credit to the criminal in the victim’s name. He impersonates a victim to the Post Office and gets the victim’s address changed. He impersonates a victim in order to fool the police into arresting the wrong man. No one’s identity is stolen; identity information is being misused to commit fraud.

The crime involves two very separate issues. The first is the privacy of personal data. Personal privacy is important for many reasons, one of which is impersonation and fraud. As more information about us is collected, correlated, and sold, it becomes easier for criminals to get their hands on the data they need to commit fraud. This is what’s been in the news recently: ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Bank of America, and so on. But data privacy is more than just fraud. Whether it is the books we take out of the library, the websites we visit, or the contents of our text messages, most of us have personal data on third-party computers that we don’t want made public. The posting of Paris Hilton’s phone book on the Internet is a celebrity example of this.

The second issue is the ease with which a criminal can use personal data to commit fraud. It doesn’t take much personal information to apply for a credit card in someone else’s name. It doesn’t take much to submit fraudulent bank transactions in someone else’s name. It’s surprisingly easy to get an identification card in someone else’s name. Our current culture, where identity is verified simply and sloppily, makes it easier for a criminal to impersonate his victim.

Proposed fixes tend to concentrate on the first issue—making personal data harder to steal—whereas the real problem is the second. If we’re ever going to manage the risks and effects of electronic impersonation, we must concentrate on preventing and detecting fraudulent transactions.

Fraudulent transactions have nothing to do with the legitimate account holders. Criminals impersonate legitimate users to financial intuitions. That means that any solution can’t involve the account holders. That leaves only one reasonable answer: financial intuitions need to be liable for fraudulent transactions. They need to be liable for sending erroneous information to credit bureaus based on fraudulent transactions.

They can’t claim that the user must keep his password secure or his machine virus free. They can’t require the user to monitor his accounts for fraudulent activity, or his credit reports for fraudulently obtained credit cards. Those aren’t reasonable requirements for most users. The bank must be made responsible, regardless of what the user does.

If you think this won’t work, look at credit cards. Credit card companies are liable for all but the first $50 of fraudulent transactions. They’re not hurting for business; and they’re not drowning in fraud, either. They’ve developed and fielded an array of security technologies designed to detect and prevent fraudulent transactions. They’ve pushed most of the actual costs onto the merchants. And almost no security centers around trying to authenticate the cardholder.

That’s an important lesson. Identity theft solutions focus much too much on authenticating the person. Whether it’s two-factor authentication, ID cards, biometrics, or whatever, there’s a widespread myth that authenticating the person is the way to prevent these crimes. But once you understand that the problem is fraudulent transactions, you quickly realize that authenticating the person isn’t the way to proceed.

Again, think about credit cards. Store clerks barely verify signatures when people use cards. People can use credit cards to buy things by mail, phone, or Internet, where no one verifies the signature or even that you have possession of the card. Even worse, no credit card company mandates secure storage requirements for credit cards. They don’t demand that cardholders secure their wallets in any particular way. Credit card companies simply don’t worry about verifying the cardholder or putting requirements on what he does. They concentrate on verifying the transaction.

This same sort of thinking needs to be applied to other areas where criminals use impersonation to commit fraud. I don’t know what the final solutions will look like, but I do know that once financial institutions are liable for losses due to these types of fraud, they will find solutions. Maybe there’ll be a daily withdrawal limit, like there is on ATMs. Maybe large transactions will be delayed for a period of time, or will require a call-back from the bank or brokerage company. Maybe people will no longer be able to open a credit card account by simply filling out a bunch of information on a form. Likely the solution will be a combination of solutions that reduces fraudulent transactions to a manageable level, but we’ll never know until the financial institutions have the financial incentive to put them in place.

Right now, the economic incentives result in financial institutions that are so eager to allow transactions—new credit cards, cash transfers, whatever—that they’re not paying enough attention to fraudulent transactions. They’ve pushed the costs for fraud onto the merchants. But if they’re liable for losses and damages to legitimate users, they’ll pay more attention. And they’ll mitigate the risks. Security can do all sorts of things, once the economic incentives to apply them are there.

By focusing on the fraudulent use of personal data, I do not mean to minimize the harm caused by third-party data and violations of privacy. I believe that the U.S. would be well-served by a comprehensive Data Protection Act like the European Union. However, I do not believe that a law of this type would significantly reduce the risk of fraudulent impersonation. To mitigate that risk, we need to concentrate on detecting and preventing fraudulent transactions. We need to make the entity that is in the best position to mitigate the risk to be responsible for that risk. And that means making the financial institutions liable for fraudulent transactions.

Doing anything less simply won’t work.

Posted on April 15, 2005 at 9:17 AMView Comments

ChoicePoint Feeling the Heat

AP says:

An executive of embattled data broker ChoicePoint Inc. says the company is developing a system that would allow people
to review their personal information that is sold to law enforcement agencies, employers, landlords and businesses. ChoicePoint’s announcement comes a month after it disclosed
that thieves used previously stolen identities to create what appeared to be legitimate businesses seeking personal

Posted on April 2, 2005 at 9:09 AMView Comments

Student Hacks System to Alter Grades

This is an interesting story:

A UCSB student is being charged with four felonies after she allegedly stole the identity of two professors and used the information to change her own and several other students’ grades, police said.

The Universty of California Santa Barbara has a custom program, eGrades, where faculty can submit and alter grades. It’s password protected, of course. But there’s a backup system, so that faculty who forget their password can reset it using their Social Security number and date of birth.

A student worked for an insurance company, and she was able to obtain SSN and DOB for two faculty members. She used that information to reset their passwords and change grades.

Police, university officials and campus computer specialists said Ramirez’s alleged illegal access to the computer grading system was not the result of a deficiency or flaw in the program.

Sounds like a flaw in the program to me. It’s even one I’ve written about: a primary security mechanism that fails to a less-secure secondary mechanism.

Posted on April 1, 2005 at 2:36 PMView Comments

Personal Information and Identity Theft

From BBC:

The chance to win theatre tickets is enough to make people give away their identity, reveals a survey.

Of those taking part 92% revealed details such as mother’s maiden name, first school and birth date.

Fraud due to impersonation—commonly called “identity theft”—works for two reasons. One, identity information is easy to obtain. And two, identity information is easy to use to commit fraud.

Studies like this show why attacking the first reason is futile; there are just too many ways to get the information. If we want to reduce the risks associated with identity theft, we have to make identity information less valuable. Too much of our security is based on identity, and it’s not working.

Posted on March 25, 2005 at 8:09 AMView Comments

Social Engineering and the IRS

Social engineering is still very effective:

More than one-third of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees and managers
who were contacted by Treasury Department inspectors posing as computer technicians provided their computer login and changed their password, a government report said Wednesday.

This is a problem that two-factor authentication would significantly mitigate.

Posted on March 22, 2005 at 9:54 AMView Comments

The Failure of Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication isn’t our savior. It won’t defend against phishing. It’s not going to prevent identity theft. It’s not going to secure online accounts from fraudulent transactions. It solves the security problems we had ten years ago, not the security problems we have today.

The problem with passwords is that they’re too easy to lose control of. People give them to other people. People write them down, and other people read them. People send them in e-mail, and that e-mail is intercepted. People use them to log into remote servers, and their communications are eavesdropped on. They’re also easy to guess. And once any of that happens, the password no longer works as an authentication token because you can’t be sure who is typing that password in.

Two-factor authentication mitigates this problem. If your password includes a number that changes every minute, or a unique reply to a random challenge, then it’s harder for someone else to intercept. You can’t write down the ever-changing part. An intercepted password won’t be good the next time it’s needed. And a two-factor password is harder to guess. Sure, someone can always give his password and token to his secretary, but no solution is foolproof.

These tokens have been around for at least two decades, but it’s only recently that they have gotten mass-market attention. AOL is rolling them out. Some banks are issuing them to customers, and even more are talking about doing it. It seems that corporations are finally waking up to the fact that passwords don’t provide adequate security, and are hoping that two-factor authentication will fix their problems.

Unfortunately, the nature of attacks has changed over those two decades. Back then, the threats were all passive: eavesdropping and offline password guessing. Today, the threats are more active: phishing and Trojan horses.

Here are two new active attacks we’re starting to see:

  • Man-in-the-Middle attack. An attacker puts up a fake bank website and entices user to that website. User types in his password, and the attacker in turn uses it to access the bank’s real website. Done right, the user will never realize that he isn’t at the bank’s website. Then the attacker either disconnects the user and makes any fraudulent transactions he wants, or passes along the user’s banking transactions while making his own transactions at the same time.

  • Trojan attack. Attacker gets Trojan installed on user’s computer. When user logs into his bank’s website, the attacker piggybacks on that session via the Trojan to make any fraudulent transaction he wants.

See how two-factor authentication doesn’t solve anything? In the first case, the attacker can pass the ever-changing part of the password to the bank along with the never-changing part. And in the second case, the attacker is relying on the user to log in.

The real threat is fraud due to impersonation, and the tactics of impersonation will change in response to the defenses. Two-factor authentication will force criminals to modify their tactics, that’s all.

Recently I’ve seen examples of two-factor authentication using two different communications paths: call it “two-channel authentication.” One bank sends a challenge to the user’s cell phone via SMS and expects a reply via SMS. If you assume that all your customers have cell phones, then this results in a two-factor authentication process without extra hardware. And even better, the second authentication piece goes over a different communications channel than the first; eavesdropping is much, much harder.

But in this new world of active attacks, no one cares. An attacker using a man-in-the-middle attack is happy to have the user deal with the SMS portion of the log-in, since he can’t do it himself. And a Trojan attacker doesn’t care, because he’s relying on the user to log in anyway.

Two-factor authentication is not useless. It works for local login, and it works within some corporate networks. But it won’t work for remote authentication over the Internet. I predict that banks and other financial institutions will spend millions outfitting their users with two-factor authentication tokens. Early adopters of this technology may very well experience a significant drop in fraud for a while as attackers move to easier targets, but in the end there will be a negligible drop in the amount of fraud and identity theft.

This essay will appear in the April issue of Communications of the ACM.

Posted on March 15, 2005 at 7:54 AMView Comments

Fixing Unicode

The Unicode community is working on fixing the security vulnerabilities I talked about here and here. They have a draft technical report that they’re looking for comments on. A solution to these security problems will take some concerted efforts, since there are many different kinds of issues involved. (In some ways, the “paypal.com” hack is one of the simpler cases.)

Posted on March 13, 2005 at 9:31 AMView Comments

Unicode URL Hack

A long time ago I wrote about the security risks of Unicode. This is an example of the problem.

Here’s a demo: it’s a Web page that appears to be www.paypal.com but is not PayPal. Everything from the address bar to the hover-over status on the link says www.paypal.com.

It works by substituting a Unicode character for the second “a” in PayPal. That Unicode character happens to look like an English “a,” but it’s not an “a.” The attack works even under SSL.

Here’s the source code of the link: http://www.p&amp#1072;ypal.com/

Secuna has some information on how to fix this vulnerability. So does BoingBoing.

Posted on February 16, 2005 at 9:17 AMView Comments

Flying on Someone Else's Airline Ticket

Slate has published a method for anyone to fly on anyone else’s ticket.

I wrote about this exact vulnerability a year and a half ago.

The vulnerability is obvious, but the general concepts are subtle. There are three things to authenticate: the identity of the traveler, the boarding pass, and the computer record. Think of them as three points on the triangle. Under the current system, the boarding pass is compared to the traveler’s identity document, and then the boarding pass is compared with the computer record. But because the identity document is never compared with the computer record—the third leg of the triangle—it’s possible to create two different boarding passes and have no one notice. That’s why the attack works.

Posted on February 8, 2005 at 9:11 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.