Entries Tagged "incentives"

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Hacking Apple for Profit

Five researchers hacked Apple Computer’s networks — not their products — and found fifty-five vulnerabilities. So far, they have received $289K.

One of the worst of all the bugs they found would have allowed criminals to create a worm that would automatically steal all the photos, videos, and documents from someone’s iCloud account and then do the same to the victim’s contacts.

Lots of details in this blog post by one of the hackers.

Posted on October 12, 2020 at 5:58 AMView Comments

Programmers Who Don't Understand Security Are Poor at Security

A university study confirmed the obvious: if you pay a random bunch of freelance programmers a small amount of money to write security software, they’re not going to do a very good job at it.

In an experiment that involved 43 programmers hired via the Freelancer.com platform, University of Bonn academics have discovered that developers tend to take the easy way out and write code that stores user passwords in an unsafe manner.

For their study, the German academics asked a group of 260 Java programmers to write a user registration system for a fake social network.

Of the 260 developers, only 43 took up the job, which involved using technologies such as Java, JSF, Hibernate, and PostgreSQL to create the user registration component.

Of the 43, academics paid half of the group with €100, and the other half with €200, to determine if higher pay made a difference in the implementation of password security features.

Further, they divided the developer group a second time, prompting half of the developers to store passwords in a secure manner, and leaving the other half to store passwords in their preferred method — hence forming four quarters of developers paid €100 and prompted to use a secure password storage method (P100), developers paid €200 and prompted to use a secure password storage method (P200), devs paid €100 but not prompted for password security (N100), and those paid €200 but not prompted for password security (N200).

I don’t know why anyone would expect this group of people to implement a good secure password system. Look at how they were hired. Look at the scope of the project. Look at what they were paid. I’m sure they grabbed the first thing they found on GitHub that did the job.

I’m not very impressed with the study or its conclusions.

Posted on March 27, 2019 at 6:37 AMView Comments

NSA Collects MS Windows Error Information

Back in 2013, Der Spiegel reported that the NSA intercepts and collects Windows bug reports:

One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft’s Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA’s powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.

The automated crash reports are a “neat way” to gain “passive access” to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person’s computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim’s computer.

Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA’s agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant. In one internal graphic, they replaced the text of Microsoft’s original error message with one of their own reading, “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.” (“Sigint” stands for “signals intelligence.”)

The article talks about the (limited) value of this information with regard to specific target computers, but I have another question: how valuable would this database be for finding new zero-day Windows vulnerabilities to exploit? Microsoft won’t have the incentive to examine and fix problems until they happen broadly among its user base. The NSA has a completely different incentive structure.

I don’t remember this being discussed back in 2013.

EDITED TO ADD (8/6): Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (8/14): Adam S, a former Microsoft employee, writes in a comment that this information is very helpful in finding zero-days, and cites this as an example. He also says that this information is now TLS encrypted, and has been since Windows 8 or 10.

Posted on August 1, 2017 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Surveillance Intermediaries

Interesting law-journal article: “Surveillance Intermediaries,” by Alan Z. Rozenshtein.

Abstract:Apple’s 2016 fight against a court order commanding it to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists exemplifies how central the question of regulating government surveillance has become in American politics and law. But scholarly attempts to answer this question have suffered from a serious omission: scholars have ignored how government surveillance is checked by “surveillance intermediaries,” the companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that dominate digital communications and data storage, and on whose cooperation government surveillance relies. This Article fills this gap in the scholarly literature, providing the first comprehensive analysis of how surveillance intermediaries constrain the surveillance executive. In so doing, it enhances our conceptual understanding of, and thus our ability to improve, the institutional design of government surveillance.

Surveillance intermediaries have the financial and ideological incentives to resist government requests for user data. Their techniques of resistance are: proceduralism and litigiousness that reject voluntary cooperation in favor of minimal compliance and aggressive litigation; technological unilateralism that designs products and services to make surveillance harder; and policy mobilization that rallies legislative and public opinion to limit surveillance. Surveillance intermediaries also enhance the “surveillance separation of powers”; they make the surveillance executive more subject to inter-branch constraints from Congress and the courts, and to intra-branch constraints from foreign-relations and economics agencies as well as the surveillance executive’s own surveillance-limiting components.

The normative implications of this descriptive account are important and cross-cutting. Surveillance intermediaries can both improve and worsen the “surveillance frontier”: the set of tradeoffs ­ between public safety, privacy, and economic growth ­ from which we choose surveillance policy. And while intermediaries enhance surveillance self-government when they mobilize public opinion and strengthen the surveillance separation of powers, they undermine it when their unilateral technological changes prevent the government from exercising its lawful surveillance authorities.

Posted on June 7, 2017 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Security Economics of the Internet of Things

Brian Krebs is a popular reporter on the cybersecurity beat. He regularly exposes cybercriminals and their tactics, and consequently is regularly a target of their ire. Last month, he wrote about an online attack-for-hire service that resulted in the arrest of the two proprietors. In the aftermath, his site was taken down by a massive DDoS attack.

In many ways, this is nothing new. Distributed denial-of-service attacks are a family of attacks that cause websites and other Internet-connected systems to crash by overloading them with traffic. The “distributed” part means that other insecure computers on the Internet — sometimes in the millions­ — are recruited to a botnet to unwittingly participate in the attack. The tactics are decades old; DDoS attacks are perpetrated by lone hackers trying to be annoying, criminals trying to extort money, and governments testing their tactics. There are defenses, and there are companies that offer DDoS mitigation services for hire.

Basically, it’s a size vs. size game. If the attackers can cobble together a fire hose of data bigger than the defender’s capability to cope with, they win. If the defenders can increase their capability in the face of attack, they win.

What was new about the Krebs attack was both the massive scale and the particular devices the attackers recruited. Instead of using traditional computers for their botnet, they used CCTV cameras, digital video recorders, home routers, and other embedded computers attached to the Internet as part of the Internet of Things.

Much has been written about how the IoT is wildly insecure. In fact, the software used to attack Krebs was simple and amateurish. What this attack demonstrates is that the economics of the IoT mean that it will remain insecure unless government steps in to fix the problem. This is a market failure that can’t get fixed on its own.

Our computers and smartphones are as secure as they are because there are teams of security engineers working on the problem. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google spend a lot of time testing their code before it’s released, and quickly patch vulnerabilities when they’re discovered. Those companies can support such teams because those companies make a huge amount of money, either directly or indirectly, from their software­ — and, in part, compete on its security. This isn’t true of embedded systems like digital video recorders or home routers. Those systems are sold at a much lower margin, and are often built by offshore third parties. The companies involved simply don’t have the expertise to make them secure.

Even worse, most of these devices don’t have any way to be patched. Even though the source code to the botnet that attacked Krebs has been made public, we can’t update the affected devices. Microsoft delivers security patches to your computer once a month. Apple does it just as regularly, but not on a fixed schedule. But the only way for you to update the firmware in your home router is to throw it away and buy a new one.

The security of our computers and phones also comes from the fact that we replace them regularly. We buy new laptops every few years. We get new phones even more frequently. This isn’t true for all of the embedded IoT systems. They last for years, even decades. We might buy a new DVR every five or ten years. We replace our refrigerator every 25 years. We replace our thermostat approximately never. Already the banking industry is dealing with the security problems of Windows 95 embedded in ATMs. This same problem is going to occur all over the Internet of Things.

The market can’t fix this because neither the buyer nor the seller cares. Think of all the CCTV cameras and DVRs used in the attack against Brian Krebs. The owners of those devices don’t care. Their devices were cheap to buy, they still work, and they don’t even know Brian. The sellers of those devices don’t care: they’re now selling newer and better models, and the original buyers only cared about price and features. There is no market solution because the insecurity is what economists call an externality: it’s an effect of the purchasing decision that affects other people. Think of it kind of like invisible pollution.

What this all means is that the IoT will remain insecure unless government steps in and fixes the problem. When we have market failures, government is the only solution. The government could impose security regulations on IoT manufacturers, forcing them to make their devices secure even though their customers don’t care. They could impose liabilities on manufacturers, allowing people like Brian Krebs to sue them. Any of these would raise the cost of insecurity and give companies incentives to spend money making their devices secure.

Of course, this would only be a domestic solution to an international problem. The Internet is global, and attackers can just as easily build a botnet out of IoT devices from Asia as from the United States. Long term, we need to build an Internet that is resilient against attacks like this. But that’s a long time coming. In the meantime, you can expect more attacks that leverage insecure IoT devices.

This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.

Slashdot thread.

Here are some of the things that are vulnerable.

EDITED TO ADD (10/17: DARPA is looking for IoT-security ideas from the private sector.

Posted on October 10, 2016 at 10:26 AMView Comments

Paying People to Infect their Computers

Research paper: “It’s All About The Benjamins: An empirical study on incentivizing users to ignore security advice,” by Nicolas Christin, Serge Egelman, Timothy Vidas, and Jens Grossklags.

Abstract: We examine the cost for an attacker to pay users to execute arbitrary code — potentially malware. We asked users at home to download and run an executable we wrote without being told what it did and without any way of knowing it was harmless. Each week, we increased the payment amount. Our goal was to examine whether users would ignore common security advice — not to run untrusted executables­ — if there was a direct incentive, and how much this incentive would need to be. We observed that for payments as low as $0.01, 22% of the people who viewed the task ultimately ran our executable. Once increased to $1.00, this proportion increased to 43%. We show that as the price increased, more and more users who understood the risks ultimately ran the code. We conclude that users are generally unopposed to running programs of unknown provenance, so long as their incentives exceed their inconvenience.

The experiment was run on Mechanical Turk, which means we don’t know who these people were or even if they were sitting at computers they owned (as opposed to, say, computers at an Internet cafe somewhere). But if you want to build a fair-trade botnet, this is a reasonable way to go about it.

Two articles.

Posted on June 19, 2014 at 6:28 AMView Comments

EU Might Raise Fines for Data Breaches

This makes a lot of sense.

Viviane Reding dismissed recent fines for Google as “pocket money” and said the firm would have had to pay $1bn under her plans for privacy failings.

Ms Reding said such punishments were necessary to ensure firms took the use of personal data seriously.

And she questioned how Google was able to take so long to getting round to changing its policy.

“Is it surprising to anyone that two whole years after the case emerged, it is still unclear whether Google will amend its privacy policy or not?” she said in a speech.

Ms Reding, who is also vice-president of the European Commission, wants far tougher laws that would introduce fines of up to 5% of the global annual turnover of a company for data breaches.

If fines are intended to change corporate behavior, they need to be large enough so that avoiding them is a smarter business strategy than simply paying them.

Posted on January 28, 2014 at 6:47 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.