Archive for September, 2010

Stolen SIM codes and phone banking – should you be worried?

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Why go to the trouble of hacking if you can find an easier method? Why not just pay mobile phone company employees to simply give you the codes that can unlock users’ unique SIM cards? That is what, apparently, has been happening for the last five years in France. The outside crooks paid the inside crooks €3 for each code, and then sold them on to hackers for €30.

The first thing you have to ask is how can this possibly happen in 2010? Security professionals have been shouting for years that the insider is as big a threat as the outside hacker. And we have solutions.

A database activity monitoring system that looks at the rate at which data is taken out of the database would have detected this problem but it is not enough to have a simple monitoring solution because the access to the database is usually through an application so you need to be able to maintain end to end visibility through all the different tiers. The system should alert on any abnormal amount of data retrieved from the database and also apply geo-location analysis and alert on an illogical access to database by a user who should not be accessing the data so many times or retrieving a large number of details in a single session.
Amichai Shulman, CTO, Imperva

OK – it shouldn’t have happened. But it did; so there are other questions we need to consider. Mobile phones are increasingly used as authentication devices for mobile banking. Just how serious can this get? I spoke to Jonas Thulin, VP of Sales Engineering at FireID, for his views.

Jonas Thulin

Jonas Thulin, VP of Sales Engineering at FireID

FireID uses mobile phones to provide two factor authentication to banks, and I asked if the code theft was a worry. “Not for us,” he told me. “It doesn’t affect our customers at all, because we don’t link our application to the SIM card on the phone. To generate the one-time password, we have a shared secret, a seed number, that we store on the phone. This gets encrypted by a PIN number that the user configures when he installs the application. Basically, there simply isn’t enough information on the phone to successfully decrypt the PIN code in order to steal OTPs.

“However, where these thefts can cause problems,” he added, “is where the 2FA isn’t really 2FA at all – but more properly it uses the second factor as an alternative rather than an addition to the first factor. A good example is Google’s new 2FA for Google Apps where the authenticating code is sent to the handset as an SMS message. More worryingly, a lot of banks also still do this. Where this happens, hackers with access to the stolen SIM codes can also get access to bank access codes.”

In short, where the mobile phone authentication mechanism is genuinely two factors, such as that supplied by FireID, you’ll be OK just so long as the bad guys don’t get hold of both the SIM details and your PIN code. But if your bank simply sends you a text password – then you should be concerned. The moral is that genuine two factor authentication works; pseudo two factor authentication falls short.



Is Elcomsoft a force for Good or Evil? You decide

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Elcomsoft, a Russian cryptanalysis company, has a history of upsetting the West. Way back in 2001, Dmitry Sklyarov, an Elcomsoft programmer, was arrested in the USA after presenting at DEF CON. He had developed a product, The Advanced eBook Processor, that would decrypt encrypted Adobe e-books. He had not broken any US laws while in the USA, nor was his product illegal in Russia. But it certainly upset Adobe and other western publishers at the time.

Today we have a new Elcomsoft product: the Elcomsoft Wireless Security Auditor, complete with WPA2 brute force password cracking. And they’re still upsetting people. Idappcom’s CTO, Roger Haywood, has commented:

…the reality is that the software can brute force crack as many as 103,000 WiFi passwords per second – which equates to more than six million passwords a minute – on an HD5390 graphics card-equipped PC. Furthermore, if you extrapolate these figures to a multi-processor, multiple graphics card system, it can be seen that this significantly reduces the time take to crack a company WiFi network to the point where a dedicated hacker could compromise a corporate wireless network.

Our observations at Idappcom is that this is another irresponsible and unethical release from a Russian-based company that has clearly produced a `thinly disguised’ wireless network hacking tool with the deliberate intention of brute force hacking wireless networks.

The solution is clearly and intentionally priced within the grasp of any hacker or individual intent on malicious wireless attacks. Assuming you have no password and access control recovery system, if you do forget the password to a wireless network that you own, how difficult do you think it is to walk over to the device and press the reset button? In most situations resetting a wireless device, restoring a configuration and setting a new password is a process that can be achieved in minutes.

This is an absolutely valid viewpoint. But I’d like to suggest an alternative view. Was Adobe’s encryption weak in 2001 because of Dmitry Sklyarov; or did/could Dmitry Sklyarov produce his software because Adobe’s encryption was weak? Adobe’s security is far stronger today. Is that partly because of Elcomsoft?

And now, does the Elcomsoft EWSA product create insecure networks, or merely demonstrate that those networks are already insecure? One thing we can be sure of; the security of those WiFi networks will now have to improve. Is that a bad thing?

There is a similarity here with the full disclosure debate. And I suspect that people will take similar sides. You may have guessed that, on balance, I believe that security is improved by full disclosure; and by companies like Elcomsoft. Those who believe that full disclosure is irresponsible disclosure will probably believe that Elcomsoft is irresponsible.

And never the twain shall meet.


Categories: All, Security Issues

Consumerisation + iPlayer = corporate bandwidth problem?

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

This year’s computing buzzword is probably ‘consumerisation’. It is used to describe the growing influence of staff in the choice and use of corporate computing devices – and one effect of this consumerisation is that the demarcation lines between corporate and personal use are at best blurred and more likely non-existent.

Nigel Hawthorn, VP EMEA marketing at Blue Coat

Nigel Hawthorn, VP EMEA marketing at Blue Coat, believes this growing consumerisation may have another effect – a strain on corporate network bandwidths. Hawthorn has a history of predicting the unexpected. Back at the beginning of the summer, he suggested that some company networks would be overwhelmed by their own staff watching the World Cup live on company bandwidth (FIFA World Cup: the world’s biggest ever DoS?). He was confident enough to declare that if wrong, he’d eat his shirt; and he did not have to eat his shirt.

Now he points out that the latest version of the BBC’s iPlayer, coupled with consumerisation, has the potential to place a growing and sustained strain on UK bandwidths. “The iPlayer’s new version has some great new features on it,” he told me. “and there are two that are particularly important from a network manager’s point of view. Firstly, iPlayer can now support HD. What’s that – 3.2 Mb per second; where it’s just 1.6 for non-HD? And secondly, and probably more insidiously because users might not realise what they are doing, you can now set a particular programme or set of programmes as one of your favourites, and say that you want your PC to automatically download each new episode as soon as it is broadcast. So the PC sits there, boots up in the morning, and because the user has at some time in the past said ‘I love Eastenders’, it downloads last night’s Eastenders to the PC, even if that user never goes back and watches it.”

Network managers would do well to think about this. Consider the temptation on staff. Fewer people are seeing much difference between company computing and home computing. They check and respond to their company email at home on their own bandwidth; why shouldn’t they be just as relaxed at work with the company bandwidth? So what is wrong with downloading last night’s television to watch while having a sandwich lunch at your desk? Or to have something to watch on your laptop during the hour-long train commute home?

click for full size

10 'favourites' could equal a 30Gb download...

Then do the math. If just ten members of staff have got the iPlayer app on their PCs and have set it to download one or more favourites, that could be something like 15Gb of non work-related downloads, probably in one go when people boot up their PCs in the morning. And if those people haven’t downloaded, but all decide to watch streaming programmes during the same lunch-break, we’re talking about something like 32Mb/sec. Could your network cope?

The consumerisation of computing is just beginning. The use of the internet as the source of all video entertainment is growing. So the demand on company bandwidth from non work-related staff downloads is likely to grow exponentially over the next couple of years. This means that it will be essential to develop ‘acceptable use policies’ that are in themselves acceptable and yet enforceable. This will require a clear view into the use of your networks, and strong control over that use. And that requires the products of companies like Blue Coat.

Blue Coat

Categories: All, Security Issues

Google’s 2FA for Apps is great – but it’s only the beginning

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The new two-factor authentication (2FA) for Google Apps has to be a good thing. But why now, I asked Eran Feigenbaum, director of security at Google Apps?

Eran Feigenbaum

Eran Feigenbaum, director of security at Google Apps

And without a hint of irony he answered, “At Google we are always looking for ways to improve users’ security and [wait for it] privacy. Since the weakest link in both is the password, 2FA is the logical next step.” Actually, I believe him.

This is how it works (if you want it). When you login to Google Apps, a small app on your Android, iPhone or BlackBerry generates an out-of-band separate one-time six digit code. You need this to complete the login. It makes it far more likely that you are who you say you are because you also have access to your smartphone (the token, or second factor – which you have protected separately, right?). And if you don’t have a smartphone, Google will generate the code itself and SMS or voice it to your antiquated mobile phone. This is a massive security improvement, and raises Google Apps to a level of security similar to that used by many banks.

But it’s not enough. It only authenticates Google Apps. What about all of the other web applications? What about all of the social networks that do or will exist? What about the rest of the cloud. What we really need is free 2FA that can be integrated anywhere on the web.

And here’s my prediction. It’s coming; because, as Feigenbaum says, it’s the logical next step. I don’t know how or by whom it will be done. It might be Google or it might be one of the big internet security companies. It will probably involve Firefox. But it will definitely happen. Soon.

Apple versus Google in the Second Great Computer Wars: closed versus open

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

“I have been saying for years,” said Philippe Courtot, chairman and CEO of Qualys, “that we are simply not meant to be dependent on a huge complex operating system like Windows on the desktop; and that in the future, most of our computing will be done in the cloud.”

Philippe Courtot, chairman and CEO, Qualys

That prediction is now coming true with shrinking clients and expanding clouds. “Look at the audience of technology professionals in any conference,” he continued. “They’ve all got their iPads and or their smartphones; and nothing else. You can get your email on your smartphone; and if you need to write a longer report you can use your iPad and Google Apps.” We no longer need, and probably never wanted, bloated operating systems on huge desktop computers that served primarily to shackle us to our desks.

We were actually talking about security and the cloud. Courtot’s point here is that because of the cloud, we now only need thin clients. This has two ramifications. Firstly, use of the cloud will, counterintuitively, make us more secure since thin clients can more easily be hardened; and secondly, tied-down clients have a head-start on open clients.

Think of this last point. As we enter the Second Computer Wars (the First Computer Wars was 25 years ago between Apple and Microsoft, and the theatre was The Desktop; this one is between Apple and Google, and the theatre is The Internet), we must remember that weapons have changed. In the first war, Apple lost because it was closed. But in this war we must ask ourselves whether that very closed nature is now an advantage. Philippe Courtot certainly seems to think so.

Today it is closed Apple versus open Android/Chrome. “Microsoft and Nokia will be left in the dust,” adds Courtot; they each took wrong turnings. Microsoft thought it could carry on with its old philosophy while Nokia never really committed itself one way or the other.

Android versus iOS. Open versus closed. Logic leans towards closed; my heart hopes for open.

Categories: All, Security Issues

Surely I’m worth more than this?

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Psychology is strange. A threat from a master is far more acceptable than a threat from a novice – even though the danger is greater. Being phished by a novice is insulting: is that all they think of me?

Here’s one. Look at the grammar. Look at the spelling. Look at the punctuation. Surely I’m worth a bit more effort than that!

Typical (but genuine) phishing email...

The site hidden under the link is ‘admemex dot com’. I thought I’d have a look – but Firefox tried to stop me. That was reassuring.

A reassuring warning from Firefox

But I persisted – I wanted to see how good (or bad, considering the text grammar) a site forgery might be. This is where I landed; and as far as I went.

The forged website

But compare the site forgery to the genuine page:

The genuine site

Not bad, eh? If the email author had spent as much effort in his (or her) text as was spent on the website forgery, then we might not be as safe as we are.

But remember this: curiosity compromised the cat. Don’t click on dubious links at home – go play in the road where it’s safer.

Categories: All, Security Issues

NoScript and hijacked trustworthy websites (such as TechCrunch and SongLyrics)

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Last week, Qualys’ CTO Wolfgang Kandek told me that the “modern attacker has decided that the easiest thing to do is to attack the website that the user is going to visit rather than setting up special malicious sites and trying to drive users to them.” (The Top Cyber Security Risks Report) I found this quite disturbing because it makes me wonder if I am actually as safe on the internet as I had always thought I am.

You see, I use Firefox and NoScript. And NoScript will stop any script at all, whether benign or malicious, running in Firefox – unless I temporarily or permanently whitelist the page in question. This has to be a good thing. It means that when I visit a site and nothing much happens, I am forced to ask myself: do I trust this site? If I do, I can whitelist it and get the full experience. If I don’t, I can just move on confident that nothing untoward has happened.

But that was before Kandek’s comment. This sounds like a game-changer. If the bad guys compromise a good site, when I ask myself ‘do I trust this site’ I will probably say yes. And if the site in question was either TechCrunch or SongLyrics (two good sites recently hacked), I might have whitelisted a site that had been compromised.

Giorgio Maone

Giorgio Maone - developer of NoScript

Does this mean, I had to ask myself, that NoScript is no longer as useful as I thought? Well, who better to really ask than NoScript’s developer, Giorgio Maone. “Had I visited TechCrunch a couple of weeks ago, even with NoScript, would I now be infected?” I asked him.

“No, you would not,” he replied. “The TechCrunch network was compromised by exploiting its SQL injection vulnerabilities, just like 99% of all of today’s website attacks. Exploitations of this kind are subject to constraints like the size of the injected payload and the impossibility of storing files on the “infected” web sites. Therefore, the malicious JavaScript code that actually gets embedded in the TechCrunch site (or in any other compromised site that’s on your whitelist) is just a very small bootstrap meant to load the “true” payload from an external website (usually a disposable Chinese or Russian domain) that is in the full control of the attacker. This domain, quite obviously, is very unlikely to be in your whitelist.”

In other words, even when TechCrunch was compromised, it was not TC that was dangerous, it was the site that was linked – let’s call it – that was dangerous. And so long as you don’t whitelist, then NoScript will continue to keep you pretty safe.

But Maone didn’t stop there. Did you know, he asked, “that middle-clicking on site names shown in the NoScript menu opens a tab where a few tools are linked, giving information on that site?” I didn’t, so I tried it on TechCrunch. It gave me four options: the WOT Scorecard, the McAfee SiteAdvisor Rating, the Webmaster Tips Site Information, and Google’s Safe Browsing Diagnostic.


NoScript: security & privacy menu when you middle-click...

I clicked the last.

Google diagnostics

Google Diagnostics for TechCrunch

In the last 90 days, 58 pages on have been compromised – although nothing since 6 September. But note that, confirming Maone’s comments, the actual malware was hosted on, not on TechCrunch. So NoScript users would have remained protected even if they had whitelisted the compromised TechCrunch because NoScript would have disallowed any scripts from the still blacklisted virtuellvorun site.

I’m not quite as smug as I used to be – but I’m just as well protected by NoScript as I ever was. And I can and do wholeheartedly still recommend Firefox and NoScript to anyone who wants to stay safe on the Internet.

NoScript download (for Firefox users)

Categories: All, Security Issues