Entries Tagged "Microsoft"

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Monopolies and DRM

Two years ago I (and others) wrote about the security dangers of Microsoft’s monopoly. In the paper, we wrote:

Security has become a strategic concern at Microsoft but security must not be permitted to become a tool of further monopolization.

A year before that, I wrote about Microsoft’s trusted computer system (called Palladium — Pd for short — at the time):

Pay attention to the antitrust angle. I guarantee you that Microsoft believes Pd is a way to extend its market share, not to increase competition.

Intel and Microsoft are using DRM technology to cut Linux out of the content market.

This whole East Fork scheme is a failure from the start. It brings nothing positive to the table, costs you money, and rights. If you want to use Linux to view your legitimately purchased media, you will be a criminal. In fact, if you want to take your legitimately bought media with you on a road trip and don’t feel the need to pay again for it — fair use, remember — you are also a criminal. Wonderful.

Intel has handed the keys to the digital media kingdom to several convicted monopolists who have no care at all for their customers. The excuse Intel gives you if you ask is that they are producing tools, and only tools, their use is not up to Intel. The problem here is that Intel has given the said tools to some of the most rapacious people on earth. If you give the record companies a DRM scheme that goes from 1 (open) to 10 (unusably locked down), they will start at 14 and lobby Congress to mandate that it can be turned up higher by default.

Posted on July 28, 2005 at 7:25 AMView Comments

Microsoft Builds In Security Bypasses

I am very suspicious of tools that allow you to bypass network security systems. Yes, they make life easier. But if security is important, than all security decisions should be made by a central process; tools that bypass that centrality are very risky.

I didn’t like SOAP for that reason, and I don’t like the sound of this new Microsoft thingy:

We’re always looking for new things that can allow you to do things uniquely different today. For example, this new feature tool we have would allow me to tunnel directly using HTTP into my corporate Exchange server without having to go through the whole VPN (virtual private network) process, bypassing the need to use a smart card. It’s such a huge time-saver, for me at least, compared to how long it takes me now. We will be extending that functionality to the next version of Windows.

That’s Martin Taylor, Microsoft’s general manager of platform strategy, talking.

Posted on July 26, 2005 at 1:20 PMView Comments

Redefining Spyware

The problem with spyware is that it can be in the eye of the beholder. There are companies that decry the general problem, but have their own software report back to a central server.

This kind of thing can result in a conflict of interest: “Spyware is spyware only if I don’t have a corporate interest in it.” Here’s the most recent example:

Microsoft’s Windows AntiSpyware application is no longer flagging adware products from Claria Corp. as a threat to PC users.

Less than a week after published reports of acquisition talks between Microsoft Corp. and the Redwood City, Calif.-based distributor of the controversial Gator ad-serving software, security researchers have discovered that Microsoft has quietly downgraded its Claria detections.

If you’re a user of AntiSpyware, you can fix this. Claria’s spyware is now flagged as “Ignore” by default, but you can still change the action to “Quarantine” or “Remove.” I recommend “Remove.”

Edited to add: Actually, I recommend using a different anti-spyware program.

Posted on July 14, 2005 at 5:05 PMView Comments

Attack Trends: 2004 and 2005

Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., monitors more than 450 networks in 35 countries, in every time zone. In 2004 we saw 523 billion network events, and our analysts investigated 648,000 security “tickets.” What follows is an overview of what’s happening on the Internet right now, and what we expect to happen in the coming months.

In 2004, 41 percent of the attacks we saw were unauthorized activity of some kind, 21 percent were scanning, 26 percent were unauthorized access, 9 percent were DoS (denial of service), and 3 percent were misuse of applications.

Over the past few months, the two attack vectors that we saw in volume were against the Windows DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model) interface of the RPC (remote procedure call) service and against the Windows LSASS (Local Security Authority Subsystem Service). These seem to be the current favorites for virus and worm writers, and we expect this trend to continue.

The virus trend doesn’t look good. In the last six months of 2004, we saw a plethora of attacks based on browser vulnerabilities (such as GDI-JPEG image vulnerability and IFRAME) and an increase in sophisticated worm and virus attacks. More than 1,000 new worms and viruses were discovered in the last six months alone.

In 2005, we expect to see ever-more-complex worms and viruses in the wild, incorporating complex behavior: polymorphic worms, metamorphic worms, and worms that make use of entry-point obscuration. For example, SpyBot.KEG is a sophisticated vulnerability assessment worm that reports discovered vulnerabilities back to the author via IRC channels.

We expect to see more blended threats: exploit code that combines malicious code with vulnerabilities in order to launch an attack. We expect Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Services) Web server to continue to be an attractive target. As more and more companies migrate to Windows 2003 and IIS 6, however, we expect attacks against IIS to decrease.

We also expect to see peer-to-peer networking as a vector to launch viruses.

Targeted worms are another trend we’re starting to see. Recently there have been worms that use third-party information-gathering techniques, such as Google, for advanced reconnaissance. This leads to a more intelligent propagation methodology; instead of propagating scattershot, these worms are focusing on specific targets. By identifying targets through third-party information gathering, the worms reduce the noise they would normally make when randomly selecting targets, thus increasing the window of opportunity between release and first detection.

Another 2004 trend that we expect to continue in 2005 is crime. Hacking has moved from a hobbyist pursuit with a goal of notoriety to a criminal pursuit with a goal of money. Hackers can sell unknown vulnerabilities — “zero-day exploits” — on the black market to criminals who use them to break into computers. Hackers with networks of hacked machines can make money by selling them to spammers or phishers. They can use them to attack networks. We have started seeing criminal extortion over the Internet: hackers with networks of hacked machines threatening to launch DoS attacks against companies. Most of these attacks are against fringe industries — online gambling, online computer gaming, online pornography — and against offshore networks. The more these extortions are successful, the more emboldened the criminals will become.

We expect to see more attacks against financial institutions, as criminals look for new ways to commit fraud. We also expect to see more insider attacks with a criminal profit motive. Already most of the targeted attacks — as opposed to attacks of opportunity — originate from inside the attacked organization’s network.

We also expect to see more politically motivated hacking, whether against countries, companies in “political” industries (petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), or political organizations. Although we don’t expect to see terrorism occur over the Internet, we do expect to see more nuisance attacks by hackers who have political motivations.

The Internet is still a dangerous place, but we don’t foresee people or companies abandoning it. The economic and social reasons for using the Internet are still far too compelling.

This essay originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Queue.

Posted on June 6, 2005 at 1:02 PMView Comments

Speech-Activated Password Resets

This is a clever idea from Microsoft.

We know that people forget their passwords all the time, and I’ve already written about how secret questions as a backup password are a bad idea. Here’s a system where a voiceprint acts as a backup password. It’s a biometric password, which makes it good. Presumably the system prompts the user as to what to say, so the user can’t forget his voice password. And it’s hard to hack. (Yes, it’s possible to hack. But so is the password.)

But the real beauty of this system is that it doesn’t require a customer support person to deal with the user. I’ve seen statistics showing that 25% of all help desk calls are by people who forget their password, they cost something like $20 a call, and they take an average of 10 minutes. A system like this provides good security and saves money.

Posted on March 11, 2005 at 1:22 PMView Comments

Pirated Windows to Remain Unpatched

From the Associated Press:

Microsoft Corp. plans to severely curtail the ways in which people running pirated copies of its dominant Windows operating system can receive software updates, including security fixes.

The new authentication system, announced Tuesday and due to arrive by midyear, will still allow people with pirated copies of Windows to obtain security fixes, but their options will be limited. The move allows Microsoft to use one of its sharpest weapons — access to security patches that can prevent viruses, worms and other crippling attacks — to thwart a costly and meddlesome piracy problem.

I’ve written about this before. Unpatched Windows systems on the Internet are a security risk to everyone. I understand Microsoft wanting to fight piracy, but reducing the security of its paying customers is not a good way to go about it.

Posted on February 17, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

GhostBuster

This is a really interesting technical report from Microsoft. It describes a clever prototype — called GhostBuster — they developed for detecting arbitrary persistent and stealthy software, such as rootkits, Trojans, and software keyloggers. It’s a really elegant idea, based on a simple observation: the rootkit must exist on disk to be persistent, but must lie to programs running within the infected OS in order to hide.

Here’s how it works: The user has the GhostBuster program on a CD. He sticks the CD in the drive, and from within the (possibly corrupted) OS, the checker program runs: stopping all other user programs, flushing the caches, and then doing a complete checksum of all files on the disk and a scan of any registry keys that could autostart the system, writing out the results to a file on the hard drive.

Then the user is instructed to press the reset button, the CD boots its own OS, and the scan is repeated. Any differences indicate a rootkit or other stealth software, without the need for knowing what particular rootkits are or the proper checksums for the programs installed on disk.

Simple. Clever. Elegant.

In order to fool GhostBuster, the rootkit must 1) detect that such a checking program is running and either not lie to it or change the output as it’s written to disk (in the limit this becomes the halting problem for the rootkit designer), 2) integrate into the BIOS rather than the OS (tricky, platform specific, and not always possible), or 3) give up on either being persistent or stealthy. Thus this doesn’t eliminate rootkits entirely, but is a pretty mortal blow to persistent rootkits.

Of course, the concept could be adopted for any other operating system as well.

This is a great idea, but there’s a huge problem. GhostBuster is only a research prototype, so you can’t get a copy. And, even worse, Microsoft has no plans to turn it into a commercial tool.

This is too good an idea to abandon. Microsoft, if you’re listening, you should release this tool to the world. Make it public domain. Make it open source, even. It’s a great idea, and you deserve credit for coming up with it.

Any other security companies listening? Make and sell one of these. Anyone out there looking for an open source project? Here’s a really good one.

Note: I have no idea if Microsoft patented this idea. If they did and they don’t release it, shame on them. If they didn’t, good for them.

Posted on February 15, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

Bank Mandates Insecure Browser

The Australian bank Suncorp has just updated its terms and conditions for Internet banking. They have a maximum withdrawal limit, hint about a physical access token, and require customers to use the most vulnerability-laden browser:

“suitable software” means Internet Explorer 5.5 Service Pack 2 or above or Netscape Navigator 6.1 or above running on Windows 98/ME/NT/2000/XP with anti-virus software or other software approved by us.

Posted on February 7, 2005 at 8:00 AMView Comments

Microsoft RC4 Flaw

One of the most important rules of stream ciphers is to never use the same keystream to encrypt two different documents. If someone does, you can break the encryption by XORing the two ciphertext streams together. The keystream drops out, and you end up with plaintext XORed with plaintext — and you can easily recover the two plaintexts using letter frequency analysis and other basic techniques.

It’s an amateur crypto mistake. The easy way to prevent this attack is to use a unique initialization vector (IV) in addition to the key whenever you encrypt a document.

Microsoft uses the RC4 stream cipher in both Word and Excel. And they make this mistake. Hongjun Wu has details (link is a PDF).

In this report, we point out a serious security flaw in Microsoft Word and Excel. The stream cipher RC4 [9] with key length up to 128 bits is used in Microsoft Word and Excel to protect the documents. But when an encrypted document gets modified and saved, the initialization vector remains the same and thus the same keystream generated from RC4 is applied to encrypt the different versions of that document. The consequence is disastrous since a lot of information of the document could be recovered easily.

This isn’t new. Microsoft made the same mistake in 1999 with RC4 in WinNT Syskey. Five years later, Microsoft has the same flaw in other products.

Posted on January 18, 2005 at 9:00 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.