This is bad in several dimensions.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been accused of deliberately keeping widespread gaps in its cybersecurity a secret from regulators in a large-scale coverup involving the city’s mayor.
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This is bad in several dimensions.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been accused of deliberately keeping widespread gaps in its cybersecurity a secret from regulators in a large-scale coverup involving the city’s mayor.
The world is racing to contain the new COVID-19 virus that is spreading around the globe with alarming speed. Right now, pandemic disease experts at the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public-health agencies are gathering information to learn how and where the virus is spreading. To do so, they are using a variety of digital communications and surveillance systems. Like much of the medical infrastructure, these systems are highly vulnerable to hacking and interference.
That vulnerability should be deeply concerning. Governments and intelligence agencies have long had an interest in manipulating health information, both in their own countries and abroad. They might do so to prevent mass panic, avert damage to their economies, or avoid public discontent (if officials made grave mistakes in containing an outbreak, for example). Outside their borders, states might use disinformation to undermine their adversaries or disrupt an alliance between other nations. A sudden epidemic — when countries struggle to manage not just the outbreak but its social, economic, and political fallout — is especially tempting for interference.
In the case of COVID-19, such interference is already well underway. That fact should not come as a surprise. States hostile to the West have a long track record of manipulating information about health issues to sow distrust. In the 1980s, for example, the Soviet Union spread the false story that the US Department of Defense bioengineered HIV in order to kill African Americans. This propaganda was effective: some 20 years after the original Soviet disinformation campaign, a 2005 survey found that 48 percent of African Americans believed HIV was concocted in a laboratory, and 15 percent thought it was a tool of genocide aimed at their communities.
More recently, in 2018, Russia undertook an extensive disinformation campaign to amplify the anti-vaccination movement using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Researchers have confirmed that Russian trolls and bots tweeted anti-vaccination messages at up to 22 times the rate of average users. Exposure to these messages, other researchers found, significantly decreased vaccine uptake, endangering individual lives and public health.
Last week, US officials accused Russia of spreading disinformation about COVID-19 in yet another coordinated campaign. Beginning around the middle of January, thousands of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts — many of which had previously been tied to Russia — had been seen posting nearly identical messages in English, German, French, and other languages, blaming the United States for the outbreak. Some of the messages claimed that the virus is part of a US effort to wage economic war on China, others that it is a biological weapon engineered by the CIA.
As much as this disinformation can sow discord and undermine public trust, the far greater vulnerability lies in the United States’ poorly protected emergency-response infrastructure, including the health surveillance systems used to monitor and track the epidemic. By hacking these systems and corrupting medical data, states with formidable cybercapabilities can change and manipulate data right at the source.
Here is how it would work, and why we should be so concerned. Numerous health surveillance systems are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 cases, including the CDC’s influenza surveillance network. Almost all testing is done at a local or regional level, with public-health agencies like the CDC only compiling and analyzing the data. Only rarely is an actual biological sample sent to a high-level government lab. Many of the clinics and labs providing results to the CDC no longer file reports as in the past, but have several layers of software to store and transmit the data.
Potential vulnerabilities in these systems are legion: hackers exploiting bugs in the software, unauthorized access to a lab’s servers by some other route, or interference with the digital communications between the labs and the CDC. That the software involved in disease tracking sometimes has access to electronic medical records is particularly concerning, because those records are often integrated into a clinic or hospital’s network of digital devices. One such device connected to a single hospital’s network could, in theory, be used to hack into the CDC’s entire COVID-19 database.
In practice, hacking deep into a hospital’s systems can be shockingly easy. As part of a cybersecurity study, Israeli researchers at Ben-Gurion University were able to hack into a hospital’s network via the public Wi-Fi system. Once inside, they could move through most of the hospital’s databases and diagnostic systems. Gaining control of the hospital’s unencrypted image database, the researchers inserted malware that altered healthy patients’ CT scans to show nonexistent tumors. Radiologists reading these images could only distinguish real from altered CTs 60 percent of the time — and only after being alerted that some of the CTs had been manipulated.
Another study directly relevant to public-health emergencies showed that a critical US biosecurity initiative, the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, had been left vulnerable to cyberattackers for over a decade. This program monitors more than 30 US jurisdictions and allows health officials to rapidly detect a bioweapons attack. Hacking this program could cover up an attack, or fool authorities into believing one has occurred.
Fortunately, no case of healthcare sabotage by intelligence agencies or hackers has come to light (the closest has been a series of ransomware attacks extorting money from hospitals, causing significant data breaches and interruptions in medical services). But other critical infrastructure has often been a target. The Russians have repeatedly hacked Ukraine’s national power grid, and have been probing US power plants and grid infrastructure as well. The United States and Israel hacked the Iranian nuclear program, while Iran has targeted Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. There is no reason to believe that public-health infrastructure is in any way off limits.
Despite these precedents and proven risks, a detailed assessment of the vulnerability of US health surveillance systems to infiltration and manipulation has yet to be made. With COVID-19 on the verge of becoming a pandemic, the United States is at risk of not having trustworthy data, which in turn could cripple our country’s ability to respond.
Under normal conditions, there is plenty of time for health officials to notice unusual patterns in the data and track down wrong information — if necessary, using the old-fashioned method of giving the lab a call. But during an epidemic, when there are tens of thousands of cases to track and analyze, it would be easy for exhausted disease experts and public-health officials to be misled by corrupted data. The resulting confusion could lead to misdirected resources, give false reassurance that case numbers are falling, or waste precious time as decision makers try to validate inconsistent data.
In the face of a possible global pandemic, US and international public-health leaders must lose no time assessing and strengthening the security of the country’s digital health systems. They also have an important role to play in the broader debate over cybersecurity. Making America’s health infrastructure safe requires a fundamental reorientation of cybersecurity away from offense and toward defense. The position of many governments, including the United States’, that Internet infrastructure must be kept vulnerable so they can better spy on others, is no longer tenable. A digital arms race, in which more countries acquire ever more sophisticated cyberattack capabilities, only increases US vulnerability in critical areas such as pandemic control. By highlighting the importance of protecting digital health infrastructure, public-health leaders can and should call for a well-defended and peaceful Internet as a foundation for a healthy and secure world.
This essay was co-authored with Margaret Bourdeaux; a slightly different version appeared in Foreign Policy.
EDITED TO ADD: On last week’s squid post, there was a big conversation regarding the COVID-19. Many of the comments straddled the line between what are and aren’t the the core topics. Yesterday I deleted a bunch for being off-topic. Then I reconsidered and republished some of what I deleted.
Going forward, comments about the COVID-19 will be restricted to the security and risk implications of the virus. This includes cybersecurity, security, risk management, surveillance, and containment measures. Comments that stray off those topics will be removed. By clarifying this, I hope to keep the conversation on-topic while also allowing discussion of the security implications of current events.
Thank you for your patience and forbearance on this.
The BBC is reporting a vulnerability in the Let’s Encrypt certificate service:
In a notification email to its clients, the organisation said: “We recently discovered a bug in the Let’s Encrypt certificate authority code.
“Unfortunately, this means we need to revoke the certificates that were affected by this bug, which includes one or more of your certificates. To avoid disruption, you’ll need to renew and replace your affected certificate(s) by Wednesday, March 4, 2020. We sincerely apologise for the issue.”
I am seeing nothing on the Let’s Encrypt website. And no other details anywhere. I’ll post more when I know more.
EDITED TO ADD: More from Ars Technica:
Let’s Encrypt uses Certificate Authority software called Boulder. Typically, a Web server that services many separate domain names and uses Let’s Encrypt to secure them receives a single LE certificate that covers all domain names used by the server rather than a separate cert for each individual domain.
The bug LE discovered is that, rather than checking each domain name separately for valid CAA records authorizing that domain to be renewed by that server, Boulder would check a single one of the domains on that server n times (where n is the number of LE-serviced domains on that server). Let’s Encrypt typically considers domain validation results good for 30 days from the time of validation–but CAA records specifically must be checked no more than eight hours prior to certificate issuance.
The upshot is that a 30-day window is presented in which certificates might be issued to a particular Web server by Let’s Encrypt despite the presence of CAA records in DNS that would prohibit that issuance.
Since Let’s Encrypt finds itself in the unenviable position of possibly having issued certificates that it should not have, it is revoking all current certificates that might not have had proper CAA record checking on Wednesday, March 4. Users whose certificates are scheduled to be revoked will need to manually force-renewal before then.
And Let’s Encrypt has a blog post about it.
EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread.
There’s a vulnerability in Wi-Fi hardware that breaks the encryption:
The vulnerability exists in Wi-Fi chips made by Cypress Semiconductor and Broadcom, the latter a chipmaker Cypress acquired in 2016. The affected devices include iPhones, iPads, Macs, Amazon Echos and Kindles, Android devices, and Wi-Fi routers from Asus and Huawei, as well as the Raspberry Pi 3. Eset, the security company that discovered the vulnerability, said the flaw primarily affects Cypress’ and Broadcom’s FullMAC WLAN chips, which are used in billions of devices. Eset has named the vulnerability Kr00k, and it is tracked as CVE-2019-15126.
Manufacturers have made patches available for most or all of the affected devices, but it’s not clear how many devices have installed the patches. Of greatest concern are vulnerable wireless routers, which often go unpatched indefinitely.
That’s the real problem. Many of these devices won’t get patched — ever.
This hack was possible because the McDonald’s app didn’t authenticate the server, and just did whatever the server told it to do:
McDonald’s receipts in Germany end with a link to a survey page. Once you take the survey, you receive a coupon code for a free small beverage, redeemable within a month. One day, David happened to be checking out how the website’s coding was structured when he noticed that the information triggering the server to issue a new voucher was always the same. That meant he could build a programme replicating the code, as if someone was taking the survey again and again.
At the McDonald’s in East Berlin, David began the demonstration by setting up an internet hotspot with his smartphone. Lenny connected with a second phone and a laptop, then turned the laptop into a proxy server connected to both phones. He opened the McDonald’s app and entered a voucher code generated by David’s programme. The next step was ordering the food for a total of €17. The bill on the app was transmitted to the laptop, which set all prices to zero through a programme created by Lenny, and sent the information back to the app. After tapping “Complete and pay 0.00 euros”, we simply received our pick-up number. It had worked.
The flaw was fixed late last year.
This paper describes the flaws in the Voatz Internet voting app: “The Ballot is Busted Before the Blockchain: A Security Analysis of Voatz, the First Internet Voting Application Used in U.S. Federal Elections.”
Abstract: In the 2018 midterm elections, West Virginia became the first state in the U.S. to allow select voters to cast their ballot on a mobile phone via a proprietary app called “Voatz.” Although there is no public formal description of Voatz’s security model, the company claims that election security and integrity are maintained through the use of a permissioned blockchain, biometrics, a mixnet, and hardware-backed key storage modules on the user’s device. In this work, we present the first public security analysis of Voatz, based on a reverse engineering of their Android application and the minimal available documentation of the system. We performed a clean-room reimplementation of Voatz’s server and present an analysis of the election process as visible from the app itself.
We find that Voatz has vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote,including a sidechannel attack in which a completely passive network adversary can potentially recover a user’s secret ballot. We additionally find that Voatz has a number of privacy issues stemming from their use of third party services for crucial app functionality. Our findings serve as a concrete illustration of the common wisdom against Internet voting,and of the importance of transparency to the legitimacy of elections.
EDITED TO ADD (3/11): The researchers respond to Voatz’s response.
Last month, engineers at Google published a very curious privacy bug in Apple’s Safari web browser. Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention, a feature designed to reduce user tracking, has vulnerabilities that themselves allow user tracking. Some details:
ITP detects and blocks tracking on the web. When you visit a few websites that happen to load the same third-party resource, ITP detects the domain hosting the resource as a potential tracker and from then on sanitizes web requests to that domain to limit tracking. Tracker domains are added to Safari’s internal, on-device ITP list. When future third-party requests are made to a domain on the ITP list, Safari will modify them to remove some information it believes may allow tracking the user (such as cookies).
The details should come as a surprise to everyone because it turns out that ITP could effectively be used for:
- information leaks: detecting websites visited by the user (web browsing history hijacking, stealing a list of visited sites)
- tracking the user with ITP, making the mechanism function like a cookie
- fingerprinting the user: in ways similar to the HSTS fingerprint, but perhaps a bit better
I am sure we all agree that we would not expect a privacy feature meant to protect from tracking to effectively enable tracking, and also accidentally allowing any website out there to steal its visitors’ web browsing history. But web architecture is complex, and the consequence is that this is exactly the case.
Apple fixed this vulnerability in December, a month before Google published.
If there’s any lesson here, it’s that privacy is hard — and that privacy engineering is even harder. It’s not that we shouldn’t try, but we should recognize that it’s easy to get it wrong.
Yesterday’s Microsoft Windows patches included a fix for a critical vulnerability in the system’s crypto library.
A spoofing vulnerability exists in the way Windows CryptoAPI (Crypt32.dll) validates Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) certificates.
An attacker could exploit the vulnerability by using a spoofed code-signing certificate to sign a malicious executable, making it appear the file was from a trusted, legitimate source. The user would have no way of knowing the file was malicious, because the digital signature would appear to be from a trusted provider.
A successful exploit could also allow the attacker to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks and decrypt confidential information on user connections to the affected software.
That’s really bad, and you should all patch your system right now, before you finish reading this blog post.
This is a zero-day vulnerability, meaning that it was not detected in the wild before the patch was released. It was discovered by security researchers. Interestingly, it was discovered by NSA security researchers, and the NSA security advisory gives a lot more information about it than the Microsoft advisory does.
Exploitation of the vulnerability allows attackers to defeat trusted network connections and deliver executable code while appearing as legitimately trusted entities. Examples where validation of trust may be impacted include:
- HTTPS connections
- Signed files and emails
- Signed executable code launched as user-mode processes
The vulnerability places Windows endpoints at risk to a broad range of exploitation vectors. NSA assesses the vulnerability to be severe and that sophisticated cyber actors will understand the underlying flaw very quickly and, if exploited, would render the previously mentioned platforms as fundamentally vulnerable.The consequences of not patching the vulnerability are severe and widespread. Remote exploitation tools will likely be made quickly and widely available.Rapid adoption of the patch is the only known mitigation at this time and should be the primary focus for all network owners.
Early yesterday morning, NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate head Anne Neuberger hosted a media call where she talked about the vulnerability and — to my shock — took questions from the attendees. According to her, the NSA discovered this vulnerability as part of its security research. (If it found it in some other nation’s cyberweapons stash — my personal favorite theory — she declined to say.) She did not answer when asked how long ago the NSA discovered the vulnerability. She said that this is not the first time the NSA sent Microsoft a vulnerability to fix, but it was the first time it has publicly taken credit for the discovery. The reason is that the NSA is trying to rebuild trust with the security community, and this disclosure is a result of its new initiative to share findings more quickly and more often.
Barring any other information, I would take the NSA at its word here. So, good for it.
And — seriously — patch your systems now: Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016/2019. Assume that this vulnerability has already been weaponized, probably by criminals and certainly by major governments. Even assume that the NSA is using this vulnerability — why wouldn’t it?
EDITED TO ADD: Washington Post article.
EDITED TO ADD (1/16): The attack was demonstrated in less than 24 hours.
Brian Krebs blog post.
DTEN makes smart screens and whiteboards for videoconferencing systems. Forescout found that their security is terrible:
In total, our researchers discovered five vulnerabilities of four different kinds:
- Data exposure: PDF files of shared whiteboards (e.g. meeting notes) and other sensitive files (e.g., OTA — over-the-air updates) were stored in a publicly accessible AWS S3 bucket that also lacked TLS encryption (CVE-2019-16270, CVE-2019-16274).
- Unauthenticated web server: a web server running Android OS on port 8080 discloses all whiteboards stored locally on the device (CVE-2019-16271).
- Arbitrary code execution: unauthenticated root shell access through Android Debug Bridge (ADB) leads to arbitrary code execution and system administration (CVE-2019-16273).
- Access to Factory Settings: provides full administrative access and thus a covert ability to capture Windows host data from Android, including the Zoom meeting content (audio, video, screenshare) (CVE-2019-16272).
These aren’t subtle vulnerabilities. These are stupid design decisions made by engineers who had no idea how to create a secure system. And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Internet of Things.
From a Wired article:
One issue that jumped out at the researchers: The DTEN system stored notes and annotations written through the whiteboard feature in an Amazon Web Services bucket that was exposed on the open internet. This means that customers could have accessed PDFs of each others’ slides, screenshots, and notes just by changing the numbers in the URL they used to view their own. Or anyone could have remotely nabbed the entire trove of customers’ data. Additionally, DTEN hadn’t set up HTTPS web encryption on the customer web server to protect connections from prying eyes. DTEN fixed both of these issues on October 7. A few weeks later, the company also fixed a similar whiteboard PDF access issue that would have allowed anyone on a company’s network to access all of its stored whiteboard data.
The researchers also discovered two ways that an attacker on the same network as DTEN devices could manipulate the video conferencing units to monitor all video and audio feeds and, in one case, to take full control. DTEN hardware runs Android primarily, but uses Microsoft Windows for Zoom. The researchers found that they can access a development tool known as “Android Debug Bridge,” either wirelessly or through USB ports or ethernet, to take over a unit. The other bug also relates to exposed Android factory settings. The researchers note that attempting to implement both operating systems creates more opportunities for misconfigurations and exposure. DTEN says that it will push patches for both bugs by the end of the year.
Boing Boing article.
SRLabs founder Karsten Nohl, a researcher with a track record of exposing security flaws in telephony systems, argues that RCS is in many ways no better than SS7, the decades-old phone system carriers still used for calling and texting, which has long been known to be vulnerable to interception and spoofing attacks. While using end-to-end encrypted internet-based tools like iMessage and WhatsApp obviates many of those of SS7 issues, Nohl says that flawed implementations of RCS make it not much safer than the SMS system it hopes to replace.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.