Entries Tagged "Symantec"

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Who Owns Your Computer?

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive. There’s a battle raging on your computer right now — one that pits you against worms and viruses, Trojans, spyware, automatic update features and digital rights management technologies. It’s the battle to determine who owns your computer.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it’s doing behind the scenes.

Using the hacker sense of the term, your computer is “owned” by other people.

It used to be that only malicious hackers were trying to own your computers. Whether through worms, viruses, Trojans or other means, they would try to install some kind of remote-control program onto your system. Then they’d use your computers to sniff passwords, make fraudulent bank transactions, send spam, initiate phishing attacks and so on. Estimates are that somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of computers are members of remotely controlled “bot” networks. Owned.

Now, things are not so simple. There are all sorts of interests vying for control of your computer. There are media companies that want to control what you can do with the music and videos they sell you. There are companies that use software as a conduit to collect marketing information, deliver advertising or do whatever it is their real owners require. And there are software companies that are trying to make money by pleasing not only their customers, but other companies they ally themselves with. All these companies want to own your computer.

Some examples:

  • Entertainment software: In October 2005, it emerged that Sony had distributed a rootkit with several music CDs — the same kind of software that crackers use to own people’s computers. This rootkit secretly installed itself when the music CD was played on a computer. Its purpose was to prevent people from doing things with the music that Sony didn’t approve of: It was a DRM system. If the exact same piece of software had been installed secretly by a hacker, this would have been an illegal act. But Sony believed that it had legitimate reasons for wanting to own its customers’ machines.
  • Antivirus: You might have expected your antivirus software to detect Sony’s rootkit. After all, that’s why you bought it. But initially, the security programs sold by Symantec and others did not detect it, because Sony had asked them not to. You might have thought that the software you bought was working for you, but you would have been wrong.
  • Internet services: Hotmail allows you to blacklist certain e-mail addresses, so that mail from them automatically goes into your spam trap. Have you ever tried blocking all that incessant marketing e-mail from Microsoft? You can’t.
  • Application software: Internet Explorer users might have expected the program to incorporate easy-to-use cookie handling and pop-up blockers. After all, other browsers do, and users have found them useful in defending against Internet annoyances. But Microsoft isn’t just selling software to you; it sells Internet advertising as well. It isn’t in the company’s best interest to offer users features that would adversely affect its business partners.
  • Spyware: Spyware is nothing but someone else trying to own your computer. These programs eavesdrop on your behavior and report back to their real owners — sometimes without your knowledge or consent — about your behavior.
  • Internet security: It recently came out that the firewall in Microsoft Vista will ship with half its protections turned off. Microsoft claims that large enterprise users demanded this default configuration, but that makes no sense. It’s far more likely that Microsoft just doesn’t want adware — and DRM spyware — blocked by default.
  • Update: Automatic update features are another way software companies try to own your computer. While they can be useful for improving security, they also require you to trust your software vendor not to disable your computer for nonpayment, breach of contract or other presumed infractions.

Adware, software-as-a-service and Google Desktop search are all examples of some other company trying to own your computer. And Trusted Computing will only make the problem worse.

There is an inherent insecurity to technologies that try to own people’s computers: They allow individuals other than the computers’ legitimate owners to enforce policy on those machines. These systems invite attackers to assume the role of the third party and turn a user’s device against him.

Remember the Sony story: The most insecure feature in that DRM system was a cloaking mechanism that gave the rootkit control over whether you could see it executing or spot its files on your hard disk. By taking ownership away from you, it reduced your security.

If left to grow, these external control systems will fundamentally change your relationship with your computer. They will make your computer much less useful by letting corporations limit what you can do with it. They will make your computer much less reliable because you will no longer have control of what is running on your machine, what it does, and how the various software components interact. At the extreme, they will transform your computer into a glorified boob tube.

You can fight back against this trend by only using software that respects your boundaries. Boycott companies that don’t honestly serve their customers, that don’t disclose their alliances, that treat users like marketing assets. Use open-source software — software created and owned by users, with no hidden agendas, no secret alliances and no back-room marketing deals.

Just because computers were a liberating force in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future. There is enormous political and economic power behind the idea that you shouldn’t truly own your computer or your software, despite having paid for it.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (5/5): Commentary. It seems that some of my examples were not very good. I’ll come up with other ones for the Crypto-Gram version.

Posted on May 4, 2006 at 7:13 AMView Comments

DHS Funding Open Source Security

From eWeek:

The U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security plans to spend $1.24 million over three years to fund an ambitious software auditing project aimed at beefing up the security and reliability of several widely deployed open-source products.

The grant, called the “Vulnerability Discovery and Remediation Open Source Hardening Project,” is part of a broad federal initiative to perform daily security audits of approximately 40 open-source software packages, including Linux, Apache, MySQL and Sendmail.

The plan is to use source code analysis technology from San Francisco-based Coverity Inc. to pinpoint and correct security vulnerabilities and other potentially dangerous defects in key open-source packages.

Software engineers at Stanford University will manage the project and maintain a publicly available database of bugs and defects.

Anti-virus vendor Symantec Corp. is providing guidance as to where security gaps might be in certain open-source projects.

I think this is a great use of public funds. One of the limitations of open-source development is that it’s hard to fund tools like Coverity. And this kind of thing improves security for a lot of different organizations against a wide variety of threats. And it increases competition with Microsoft, which will force them to improve their OS as well. Everybody wins.

What’s affected?

In addition to Linux, Apache, MySQL and Sendmail, the project will also pore over the code bases for FreeBSD, Mozilla, PostgreSQL and the GTK (GIMP Tool Kit) library.

And from ZDNet:

The list of open-source projects that Stanford and Coverity plan to check for security bugs includes Apache, BIND, Ethereal, KDE, Linux, Firefox, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, OpenSSL and MySQL, Coverity said.

Posted on January 17, 2006 at 1:04 PMView Comments

Are Computer-Security Export Controls Back?

I thought U.S. export regulations were finally over and done with, at least for software. Maybe not:

Unfortunately, due to strict US Government export regulations Symantec is only able to fulfill new LC5 orders or offer technical support directly with end-users located in the United States and commercial entities in Canada, provided all screening is successful.

Commodities, technology or software is subject to U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security control if exported or electronically transferred outside of the USA. Commodities, technology or software are controlled under ECCN 5A002.c.1, cryptanalytic.

You can also access further information on our web site at the following address: http://www.symantec.com/region/reg_eu/techsupp/enterprise/index.html

The software in question is the password breaking and auditing tool called LC5, better known as L0phtCrack.

Anyone have any ideas what’s going on, because I sure don’t.

Posted on December 28, 2005 at 7:08 AMView Comments

Sony's DRM Rootkit: The Real Story

This is my sixth column for Wired.com:

It’s a David and Goliath story of the tech blogs defeating a mega-corporation.

On Oct. 31, Mark Russinovich broke the story in his blog: Sony BMG Music Entertainment distributed a copy-protection scheme with music CDs that secretly installed a rootkit on computers. This software tool is run without your knowledge or consent — if it’s loaded on your computer with a CD, a hacker can gain and maintain access to your system and you wouldn’t know it.

The Sony code modifies Windows so you can’t tell it’s there, a process called “cloaking” in the hacker world. It acts as spyware, surreptitiously sending information about you to Sony. And it can’t be removed; trying to get rid of it damages Windows.

This story was picked up by other blogs (including mine), followed by the computer press. Finally, the mainstream media took it up.

The outcry was so great that on Nov. 11, Sony announced it was temporarily halting production of that copy-protection scheme. That still wasn’t enough — on Nov. 14 the company announced it was pulling copy-protected CDs from store shelves and offered to replace customers’ infected CDs for free.

But that’s not the real story here.

It’s a tale of extreme hubris. Sony rolled out this incredibly invasive copy-protection scheme without ever publicly discussing its details, confident that its profits were worth modifying its customers’ computers. When its actions were first discovered, Sony offered a “fix” that didn’t remove the rootkit, just the cloaking.

Sony claimed the rootkit didn’t phone home when it did. On Nov. 4, Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG’s president of global digital business, demonstrated the company’s disdain for its customers when he said, “Most people don’t even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?” in an NPR interview. Even Sony’s apology only admits that its rootkit “includes a feature that may make a user’s computer susceptible to a virus written specifically to target the software.”

However, imperious corporate behavior is not the real story either.

This drama is also about incompetence. Sony’s latest rootkit-removal tool actually leaves a gaping vulnerability. And Sony’s rootkit — designed to stop copyright infringement — itself may have infringed on copyright. As amazing as it might seem, the code seems to include an open-source MP3 encoder in violation of that library’s license agreement. But even that is not the real story.

It’s an epic of class-action lawsuits in California and elsewhere, and the focus of criminal investigations. The rootkit has even been found on computers run by the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security’s displeasure. While Sony could be prosecuted under U.S. cybercrime law, no one thinks it will be. And lawsuits are never the whole story.

This saga is full of weird twists. Some pointed out how this sort of software would degrade the reliability of Windows. Someone created malicious code that used the rootkit to hide itself. A hacker used the rootkit to avoid the spyware of a popular game. And there were even calls for a worldwide Sony boycott. After all, if you can’t trust Sony not to infect your computer when you buy its music CDs, can you trust it to sell you an uninfected computer in the first place? That’s a good question, but — again — not the real story.

It’s yet another situation where Macintosh users can watch, amused (well, mostly) from the sidelines, wondering why anyone still uses Microsoft Windows. But certainly, even that is not the real story.

The story to pay attention to here is the collusion between big media companies who try to control what we do on our computers and computer-security companies who are supposed to be protecting us.

Initial estimates are that more than half a million computers worldwide are infected with this Sony rootkit. Those are amazing infection numbers, making this one of the most serious internet epidemics of all time — on a par with worms like Blaster, Slammer, Code Red and Nimda.

What do you think of your antivirus company, the one that didn’t notice Sony’s rootkit as it infected half a million computers? And this isn’t one of those lightning-fast internet worms; this one has been spreading since mid-2004. Because it spread through infected CDs, not through internet connections, they didn’t notice? This is exactly the kind of thing we’re paying those companies to detect — especially because the rootkit was phoning home.

But much worse than not detecting it before Russinovich’s discovery was the deafening silence that followed. When a new piece of malware is found, security companies fall over themselves to clean our computers and inoculate our networks. Not in this case.

McAfee didn’t add detection code until Nov. 9, and as of Nov. 15 it doesn’t remove the rootkit, only the cloaking device. The company admits on its web page that this is a lousy compromise. “McAfee detects, removes and prevents reinstallation of XCP.” That’s the cloaking code. “Please note that removal will not impair the copyright-protection mechanisms installed from the CD. There have been reports of system crashes possibly resulting from uninstalling XCP.” Thanks for the warning.

Symantec’s response to the rootkit has, to put it kindly, evolved. At first the company didn’t consider XCP malware at all. It wasn’t until Nov. 11 that Symantec posted a tool to remove the cloaking. As of Nov. 15, it is still wishy-washy about it, explaining that “this rootkit was designed to hide a legitimate application, but it can be used to hide other objects, including malicious software.”

The only thing that makes this rootkit legitimate is that a multinational corporation put it on your computer, not a criminal organization.

You might expect Microsoft to be the first company to condemn this rootkit. After all, XCP corrupts Windows’ internals in a pretty nasty way. It’s the sort of behavior that could easily lead to system crashes — crashes that customers would blame on Microsoft. But it wasn’t until Nov. 13, when public pressure was just too great to ignore, that Microsoft announced it would update its security tools to detect and remove the cloaking portion of the rootkit.

Perhaps the only security company that deserves praise is F-Secure, the first and the loudest critic of Sony’s actions. And Sysinternals, of course, which hosts Russinovich’s blog and brought this to light.

Bad security happens. It always has and it always will. And companies do stupid things; always have and always will. But the reason we buy security products from Symantec, McAfee and others is to protect us from bad security.

I truly believed that even in the biggest and most-corporate security company there are people with hackerish instincts, people who will do the right thing and blow the whistle. That all the big security companies, with over a year’s lead time, would fail to notice or do anything about this Sony rootkit demonstrates incompetence at best, and lousy ethics at worst.

Microsoft I can understand. The company is a fan of invasive copy protection — it’s being built into the next version of Windows. Microsoft is trying to work with media companies like Sony, hoping Windows becomes the media-distribution channel of choice. And Microsoft is known for watching out for its business interests at the expense of those of its customers.

What happens when the creators of malware collude with the very companies we hire to protect us from that malware?

We users lose, that’s what happens. A dangerous and damaging rootkit gets introduced into the wild, and half a million computers get infected before anyone does anything.

Who are the security companies really working for? It’s unlikely that this Sony rootkit is the only example of a media company using this technology. Which security company has engineers looking for the others who might be doing it? And what will they do if they find one? What will they do the next time some multinational company decides that owning your computers is a good idea?

These questions are the real story, and we all deserve answers.

EDITED TO ADD (11/17): Slashdotted.

EDITED TO ADD (11/19): Details of Sony’s buyback program. And more GPL code was stolen and used in the rootkit.

Posted on November 17, 2005 at 9:08 AM

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.