Entries Tagged "social engineering"

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ISIS Cyberattacks

Citizen Lab has a new report on a probable ISIS-launched cyberattack:

This report describes a malware attack with circumstantial links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the interest of highlighting a developing threat, this post analyzes the attack and provides a list of Indicators of Compromise.

A Syrian citizen media group critical of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was recently targeted in a customized digital attack designed to unmask their location. The Syrian group, Raqqah is being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), focuses its advocacy on documenting human rights abuses by ISIS elements occupying the city of Ar-Raqah. In response, ISIS forces in the city have reportedly targeted the group with house raids, kidnappings, and an alleged assassination. The group also faces online threats from ISIS and its supporters, including taunts that ISIS is spying on the group.

Though we are unable to conclusively attribute the attack to ISIS or its supporters, a link to ISIS is plausible. The malware used in the attack differs substantially from campaigns linked to the Syrian regime, and the attack is focused against a group that is an active target of ISIS forces.

News article.

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 10:07 AMView Comments

The Limits of Police Subterfuge

“The next time you call for assistance because the Internet service in your home is not working, the ‘technician’ who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and — ­when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician­ — let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have ‘consented’ to an intrusive search of your home.”

This chilling scenario is the first paragraph of a motion to suppress evidence gathered by the police in exactly this manner, from a hotel room. Unbelievably, this isn’t a story from some totalitarian government on the other side of an ocean. This happened in the United States, and by the FBI. Eventually — I’m sure there will be appeals — higher U.S. courts will decide whether this sort of practice is legal. If it is, the country will slide even further into a society where the police have even more unchecked power than they already possess.

The facts are these. In June, Two wealthy Macau residents stayed at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The hotel suspected that they were running an illegal gambling operation out of their room. They enlisted the police and the FBI, but could not provide enough evidence for them to get a warrant. So instead they repeatedly cut the guests’ Internet connection. When the guests complained to the hotel, FBI agents wearing hidden cameras and recorders pretended to be Internet repair technicians and convinced the guests to let them in. They filmed and recorded everything under the pretense of fixing the Internet, and then used the information collected from that to get an actual search warrant. To make matters even worse, they lied to the judge about how they got their evidence.

The FBI claims that their actions are no different from any conventional sting operation. For example, an undercover policeman can legitimately look around and report on what he sees when he invited into a suspect’s home under the pretext of trying to buy drugs. But there are two very important differences: one of consent, and the other of trust. The former is easier to see in this specific instance, but the latter is much more important for society.

You can’t give consent to something you don’t know and understand. The FBI agents did not enter the hotel room under the pretext of making an illegal bet. They entered under a false pretext, and relied on that for consent of their true mission. That makes things different. The occupants of the hotel room didn’t realize who they were giving access to, and they didn’t know their intentions. The FBI knew this would be a problem. According to the New York Times, “a federal prosecutor had initially warned the agents not to use trickery because of the ‘consent issue.’ In fact, a previous ruse by agents had failed when a person in one of the rooms refused to let them in.” Claiming that a person granting an Internet technician access is consenting to a police search makes no sense, and is no different than one of those “click through” Internet license agreements that you didn’t read saying one thing and while meaning another. It’s not consent in any meaningful sense of the term.

Far more important is the matter of trust. Trust is central to how a society functions. No one, not even the most hardened survivalists who live in backwoods log cabins, can do everything by themselves. Humans need help from each other, and most of us need a lot of help from each other. And that requires trust. Many Americans’ homes, for example, are filled with systems that require outside technical expertise when they break: phone, cable, Internet, power, heat, water. Citizens need to trust each other enough to give them access to their hotel rooms, their homes, their cars, their person. Americans simply can’t live any other way.

It cannot be that every time someone allows one of those technicians into our homes they are consenting to a police search. Again from the motion to suppress: “Our lives cannot be private — ­and our personal relationships intimate­ — if each physical connection that links our homes to the outside world doubles as a ready-made excuse for the government to conduct a secret, suspicionless, warrantless search.” The resultant breakdown in trust would be catastrophic. People would not be able to get the assistance they need. Legitimate servicemen would find it much harder to do their job. Everyone would suffer.

It all comes back to the warrant. Through warrants, Americans legitimately grant the police an incredible level of access into our personal lives. This is a reasonable choice because the police need this access in order to solve crimes. But to protect ordinary citizens, the law requires the police to go before a neutral third party and convince them that they have a legitimate reason to demand that access. That neutral third party, a judge, then issues the warrant when he or she is convinced. This check on the police’s power is for Americans’ security, and is an important part of the Constitution.

In recent years, the FBI has been pushing the boundaries of its warrantless investigative powers in disturbing and dangerous ways. It collects phone-call records of millions of innocent people. It uses hacking tools against unknown individuals without warrants. It impersonates legitimate news sites. If the lower court sanctions this particular FBI subterfuge, the matter needs to be taken up — ­and reversed­ — by the Supreme Court.

This essay previously appeared in The Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD (4/24/2015): A federal court has ruled that the FBI cannot do this.

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 6:57 AMView Comments

FBI Agents Pose as Repairmen to Bypass Warrant Process

This is a creepy story. The FBI wanted access to a hotel guest’s room without a warrant. So agents broke his Internet connection, and then posed as Internet technicians to gain access to his hotel room without a warrant.

From the motion to suppress:

The next time you call for assistance because the internet service in your home is not working, the “technician” who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and — when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician — let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have “consented” to an intrusive search of your home.

Basically, the agents snooped around the hotel room, and gathered evidence that they submitted to a magistrate to get a warrant. Of course, they never told the judge that they had engineered the whole outage and planted the fake technicians.

More coverage of the case here.

This feels like an important case to me. We constantly allow repair technicians into our homes to fix this or that technological thingy. If we can’t be sure they are not government agents in disguise, then we’ve lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty.

Posted on November 26, 2014 at 6:50 AMView Comments

These Pickpocket Secrets Will Make You Cry

Pickpocket tricks explained by neuroscience.

So while sleight of hand helps, it’s as much about capturing all of somebody’s attention with other movements. Street pickpockets also use this effect to their advantage by manufacturing a situation that can’t help but overload your attention system. A classic trick is the ‘stall’, used by pickpocketing gangs all over the world. First, a ‘blocker’, walks in front of the victim (or ‘mark’) and suddenly stops so that the mark bumps into them. Another gang member will be close behind and will bump into both of them and then start a staged argument with the blocker. Amid the confusion one or both of them steal what they can and pass it to a third member of the gang, who quickly makes off with the loot.

I’ve seen Apollo Robbins in action. He’s very good.

Posted on July 8, 2014 at 6:22 AMView Comments

Building an Online Lie Detector

There’s an interesting project to detect false rumors on the Internet.

The EU-funded project aims to classify online rumours into four types: speculation — such as whether interest rates might rise; controversy — as over the MMR vaccine; misinformation, where something untrue is spread unwittingly; and disinformation, where it’s done with malicious intent.

The system will also automatically categorise sources to assess their authority, such as news outlets, individual journalists, experts, potential eye witnesses, members of the public or automated ‘bots’. It will also look for a history and background, to help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information.

It will search for sources that corroborate or deny the information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all of this information to assess whether it is true or false. The results will be displayed to the user in a visual dashboard, to enable them to easily see whether a rumour is taking hold.

I have no idea how well it will work, or even whether it will work, but I like research in this direction. Of the three primary Internet mechanisms for social control, surveillance and censorship have received a lot more attention than propaganda. Anything that can potentially detect propaganda is a good thing.

Three news articles.

Posted on February 21, 2014 at 8:34 AMView Comments

1971 Social Engineering Attack

From Betty Medsger’s book on the 1971 FBI burglary (page 22):

As burglars, they used some unusual techniques, ones Davidon enjoyed recalling years later, such as what some of them did in 1970 at a draft board office in Delaware. During their casing, they had noticed that the interior door that opened to the draft board office was always locked. There was no padlock to replace, as they had done at a draft board raid in Philadelphia a few months earlier, and no one in the group was able to pick the lock. The break-in technique they settled on at that office must be unique in the annals of burglary. Several hours before the burglary was to take place, one of them wrote a note and tacked it to the door they wanted to enter: “Please don’t lock this door tonight.” Sure enough, when the burglars arrived that night, someone had obediently left the door unlocked. The burglars entered the office with ease, stole the Selective Service records, and left. They were so pleased with themselves that one of them proposed leaving a thank-you note on the door. More cautious minds prevailed. Miss Manners be damned, they did not leave a note.

Posted on February 5, 2014 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.