Entries Tagged "PGP"

Page 3 of 3

Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (3)

The second session was about fraud. (These session subjects are only general. We tried to stick related people together, but there was the occasional oddball — and scheduling constraint — to deal with.)

Julie Downs, Carnegie Mellon University (suggested reading: Behavioral Response to Phishing Risk; Parents’ vaccination comprehension and decisions; The Psychology of Food Consumption), is a psychologist who studies how people make decisions, and talked about phishing. To determine how people respond to phishing attempts — what e-mails they open and when they click on links — she watched as people interacted with their e-mail. She found that most people’s strategies to deal with phishing attacks might have been effective 5-10 years ago, but are no longer sufficient now that phishers have adapted. She also found that educating people about phishing didn’t make them more effective at spotting phishing attempts, but made them more likely to be afraid of doing anything on line. She found this same overreaction among people who were recently the victims of phishing attacks, but again people were no better separating real e-mail from phishing attempts. What does make a difference is contextual understanding: how to parse a URL, how and why the scams happen, what SSL does and doesn’t do.

Jean Camp, Indiana University (suggested reading: Experimental Evaluation of Expert and Non-expert Computer Users’ Mental Models of Security Risks), studies people taking risks online. Four points: 1) “people create mental models from internal narratives about risk,” 2) “risk mitigating action is taken only if the risk is perceived as relevant,” 3) “contextualizing risk can show risks as relevant,” and 4) “narrative can increase desire and capacity to use security tools.” Stories matter: “people are willing to wash out their cat food cans and sweep up their sweet gum balls to be a good neighbor, but allow their computers to join zombie networks” because there’s a good story in the former and none in the latter. She presented two experiments to demonstrate this. One was a video experiment watching business majors try to install PGP. No one was successful: there was no narrative, and the mixed metaphor of physical and cryptographic “key” confused people.

Matt Blaze, University of Pennsylvania (his blog), talked about electronic voting machines and fraud. He related this anecdote about actual electronic voting machine vote fraud in Kentucky. In the question session, he speculated about the difficulty of having a security model that would have captured the problem, and how to know whether that model was complete enough.

Jeffrey Friedberg, Microsoft (suggested reading: Internet Fraud Battlefield; End to End Trust and the Trust User Experience; Testimony on “spyware”), discussed research at Microsoft around the Trust User Experience (TUX). He talked about the difficulty of verifying SSL certificates. Then he talked about how Microsoft added a “green bar” to signify trusted sites, and how people who learned to trust the green bar were fooled by “picture in picture attacks”: where a hostile site embedded a green-bar browser window in its page. Most people don’t understand that the information inside the browser window is arbitrary, but that the stuff around it is not. The user interface, user experience, mental models all matter. Designing and evaluating TUX is hard. From the questions: training doesn’t help much, because given a plausible story, people will do things counter to their training.

Stuart Schechter, Microsoft, presented this research on secret questions. Basically, secret questions don’t work. They’re easily guessable based on the most common answers; friends and relatives of people can easily predict unique answers; and people forget their answers. Even worse, the more memorable the question/answers are, the easier they are to guess. Having people write their own questions is no better: “What’s my blood type?” “How tall am I?”

Tyler Moore, Harvard University (suggested reading: The Consequences of Non-Cooperation in the Fight against Phishing; Information Security Economics — and Beyond), discussed his empirical studies on online crime and defense. Fraudsters are good at duping users, but they’re also effective at exploiting failures among IT professionals to perpetuate the infrastructure necessary to carry out these exploits on a large scale (hosting fake web pages, sending spam, laundering the profits via money mules, and so on). There is widespread refusal among the defenders to cooperate with each other, and attackers exploit these limitations. We are better at removing phishing websites than we are at defending against the money mules. Defenders tend to fix immediate problems, but not underlying problems.

In the discussion phase, there was a lot of talk about the relationships between websites, like banks, and users — and how that affects security for both good and bad. Jean Camp doesn’t want a relationship with her bank, because that unduly invests her in the bank. (Someone from the audience pointed out that, as a U.S. taxpayer, she is already invested in her bank.) Angela Sasse said that the correct metaphor is “rules of engagement,” rather than relationships.

Adam Shostack’s liveblogging. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments.

Matt Blaze is taping the sessions — except for the couple of presenters who would rather not be taped — I’ll post his links as soon as the files are online.

EDITED TO ADD (6/11): Audio of the session is here.

Posted on June 11, 2009 at 11:42 AMView Comments

How to Secure Your Computer, Disks, and Portable Drives

Computer security is hard. Software, computer and network security are all ongoing battles between attacker and defender. And in many cases the attacker has an inherent advantage: He only has to find one network flaw, while the defender has to find and fix every flaw.

Cryptography is an exception. As long as you don’t write your own algorithm, secure encryption is easy. And the defender has an inherent mathematical advantage: Longer keys increase the amount of work the defender has to do linearly, while geometrically increasing the amount of work the attacker has to do.

Unfortunately, cryptography can’t solve most computer-security problems. The one problem cryptography can solve is the security of data when it’s not in use. Encrypting files, archives — even entire disks — is easy.

All of this makes it even more amazing that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs in the United Kingdom lost two disks with personal data on 25 million British citizens, including dates of birth, addresses, bank-account information and national insurance numbers. On the one hand, this is no bigger a deal than any of the thousands of other exposures of personal data we’ve read about in recent years — the U.S. Veteran’s Administration loss of personal data of 26 million American veterans is an obvious similar event. But this has turned into Britain’s privacy Chernobyl.

Perhaps encryption isn’t so easy after all, and some people could use a little primer. This is how I protect my laptop.

There are several whole-disk encryption products on the market. I use PGP Disk’s Whole Disk Encryption tool for two reasons. It’s easy, and I trust both the company and the developers to write it securely. (Disclosure: I’m also on PGP Corp.’s Technical Advisory Board.)

Setup only takes a few minutes. After that, the program runs in the background. Everything works like before, and the performance degradation is negligible. Just make sure you choose a secure password — PGP’s encouragement of passphrases makes this much easier — and you’re secure against leaving your laptop in the airport or having it stolen out of your hotel room.

The reason you encrypt your entire disk, and not just key files, is so you don’t have to worry about swap files, temp files, hibernation files, erased files, browser cookies or whatever. You don’t need to enforce a complex policy about which files are important enough to be encrypted. And you have an easy answer to your boss or to the press if the computer is stolen: no problem; the laptop is encrypted.

PGP Disk can also encrypt external disks, which means you can also secure that USB memory device you’ve been using to transfer data from computer to computer. When I travel, I use a portable USB drive for backup. Those devices are getting physically smaller — but larger in capacity — every year, and by encrypting I don’t have to worry about losing them.

I recommend one more complication. Whole-disk encryption means that anyone at your computer has access to everything: someone at your unattended computer, a Trojan that infected your computer and so on. To deal with these and similar threats I recommend a two-tier encryption strategy. Encrypt anything you don’t need access to regularly — archived documents, old e-mail, whatever — separately, with a different password. I like to use PGP Disk’s encrypted zip files, because it also makes secure backup easier (and lets you secure those files before you burn them on a DVD and mail them across the country), but you can also use the program’s virtual-encrypted-disk feature to create a separately encrypted volume. Both options are easy to set up and use.

There are still two scenarios you aren’t secure against, though. You’re not secure against someone snatching your laptop out of your hands as you’re typing away at the local coffee shop. And you’re not secure against the authorities telling you to decrypt your data for them.

The latter threat is becoming more real. I have long been worried that someday, at a border crossing, a customs official will open my laptop and ask me to type in my password. Of course I could refuse, but the consequences might be severe — and permanent. And some countries — the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia — have passed laws giving police the authority to demand that you divulge your passwords and encryption keys.

To defend against both of these threats, minimize the amount of data on your laptop. Do you really need 10 years of old e-mails? Does everyone in the company really need to carry around the entire customer database? One of the most incredible things about the Revenue & Customs story is that a low-level government employee mailed a copy of the entire national child database to the National Audit Office in London. Did he have to? Doubtful. The best defense against data loss is to not have the data in the first place.

Failing that, you can try to convince the authorities that you don’t have the encryption key. This works better if it’s a zipped archive than the whole disk. You can argue that you’re transporting the files for your boss, or that you forgot the key long ago. Make sure the time stamp on the files matches your claim, though.

There are other encryption programs out there. If you’re a Windows Vista user, you might consider BitLocker. This program, embedded in the operating system, also encrypts the computer’s entire drive. But it only works on the C: drive, so it won’t help with external disks or USB tokens. And it can’t be used to make encrypted zip files. But it’s easy to use, and it’s free.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (12/14): Lots of people have pointed out that the free and open-source program TrueCrypt is a good alternative to PGP Disk. I haven’t used or reviewed the program at all.

Posted on December 4, 2007 at 6:40 AMView Comments

A Security Market for Lemons

More than a year ago, I wrote about the increasing risks of data loss because more and more data fits in smaller and smaller packages. Today I use a 4-GB USB memory stick for backup while I am traveling. I like the convenience, but if I lose the tiny thing I risk all my data.

Encryption is the obvious solution for this problem — I use PGPdisk — but Secustick sounds even better: It automatically erases itself after a set number of bad password attempts. The company makes a bunch of other impressive claims: The product was commissioned, and eventually approved, by the French intelligence service; it is used by many militaries and banks; its technology is revolutionary.

Unfortunately, the only impressive aspect of Secustick is its hubris, which was revealed when Tweakers.net completely broke its security. There’s no data self-destruct feature. The password protection can easily be bypassed. The data isn’t even encrypted. As a secure storage device, Secustick is pretty useless.

On the surface, this is just another snake-oil security story. But there’s a deeper question: Why are there so many bad security products out there? It’s not just that designing good security is hard — although it is — and it’s not just that anyone can design a security product that he himself cannot break. Why do mediocre security products beat the good ones in the marketplace?

In 1970, American economist George Akerlof wrote a paper called “The Market for ‘Lemons‘” (abstract and article for pay here), which established asymmetrical information theory. He eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work, which looks at markets where the seller knows a lot more about the product than the buyer.

Akerlof illustrated his ideas with a used car market. A used car market includes both good cars and lousy ones (lemons). The seller knows which is which, but the buyer can’t tell the difference — at least until he’s made his purchase. I’ll spare you the math, but what ends up happening is that the buyer bases his purchase price on the value of a used car of average quality.

This means that the best cars don’t get sold; their prices are too high. Which means that the owners of these best cars don’t put their cars on the market. And then this starts spiraling. The removal of the good cars from the market reduces the average price buyers are willing to pay, and then the very good cars no longer sell, and disappear from the market. And then the good cars, and so on until only the lemons are left.

In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market.

The computer security market has a lot of the same characteristics of Akerlof’s lemons market. Take the market for encrypted USB memory sticks. Several companies make encrypted USB drives — Kingston Technology sent me one in the mail a few days ago — but even I couldn’t tell you if Kingston’s offering is better than Secustick. Or if it’s better than any other encrypted USB drives. They use the same encryption algorithms. They make the same security claims. And if I can’t tell the difference, most consumers won’t be able to either.

Of course, it’s more expensive to make an actually secure USB drive. Good security design takes time, and necessarily means limiting functionality. Good security testing takes even more time, especially if the product is any good. This means the less-secure product will be cheaper, sooner to market and have more features. In this market, the more-secure USB drive is going to lose out.

I see this kind of thing happening over and over in computer security. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were more than a hundred competing firewall products. The few that “won” weren’t the most secure firewalls; they were the ones that were easy to set up, easy to use and didn’t annoy users too much. Because buyers couldn’t base their buying decision on the relative security merits, they based them on these other criteria. The intrusion detection system, or IDS, market evolved the same way, and before that the antivirus market. The few products that succeeded weren’t the most secure, because buyers couldn’t tell the difference.

How do you solve this? You need what economists call a “signal,” a way for buyers to tell the difference. Warranties are a common signal. Alternatively, an independent auto mechanic can tell good cars from lemons, and a buyer can hire his expertise. The Secustick story demonstrates this. If there is a consumer advocate group that has the expertise to evaluate different products, then the lemons can be exposed.

Secustick, for one, seems to have been withdrawn from sale.

But security testing is both expensive and slow, and it just isn’t possible for an independent lab to test everything. Unfortunately, the exposure of Secustick is an exception. It was a simple product, and easily exposed once someone bothered to look. A complex software product — a firewall, an IDS — is very hard to test well. And, of course, by the time you have tested it, the vendor has a new version on the market.

In reality, we have to rely on a variety of mediocre signals to differentiate the good security products from the bad. Standardization is one signal. The widely used AES encryption standard has reduced, although not eliminated, the number of lousy encryption algorithms on the market. Reputation is a more common signal; we choose security products based on the reputation of the company selling them, the reputation of some security wizard associated with them, magazine reviews, recommendations from colleagues or general buzz in the media.

All these signals have their problems. Even product reviews, which should be as comprehensive as the Tweakers’ Secustick review, rarely are. Many firewall comparison reviews focus on things the reviewers can easily measure, like packets per second, rather than how secure the products are. In IDS comparisons, you can find the same bogus “number of signatures” comparison. Buyers lap that stuff up; in the absence of deep understanding, they happily accept shallow data.

With so many mediocre security products on the market, and the difficulty of coming up with a strong quality signal, vendors don’t have strong incentives to invest in developing good products. And the vendors that do tend to die a quiet and lonely death.

This essay originally appeared in Wired.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): Slashdot thread.

Posted on April 19, 2007 at 7:59 AMView Comments

Huge Vulnerability in GPG

GPG is an open-source version of the PGP e-mail encryption protocol. Recently, a very serious vulnerability was discovered in the software: given a signed e-mail message, you can modify the message — specifically, you can prepend or append arbitrary data — without disturbing the signature verification.

It appears this bug has existed for years without anybody finding it.

Moral: Open source does not necessarily mean “fewer bugs.” I wrote about this back in 1999.

UPDATED TO ADD (3/13): This bug is fixed in Version 1.4.2.2. Users should upgrade immediately.

Posted on March 13, 2006 at 6:33 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.