Archive for December, 2012

China lets slip the true purpose of the European Union

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment

From Radio 4 satire many years ago:

John Major: Who won the bloody war anyway?
Helmut Kohl: Who said it’s over?


Well it is now!


carry case

The packaging from a carry case for the PS Vita


This is from a Chinese-made PS Vita carry case. Hint: check the flags and languages…


Hat tip to Daniel Gyenesse.

Categories: All, Politics

Europol warns about a new wave of illegal immigrants infiltrating Europe

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Listen to the pundits and they will tell you that the world faces a terrifying cybergeddon in 2013: open nation-sponsored cyberwarfare; critical infrastructure meltdown caused by cyberterrorists; worldwide banking system brought to its knees by criminals and Anonymous; hacked drones attacking Capitol Hill courtesy of Iran; terrorists and paedophiles rampaging up and down the information highway; and murder, extortion and rape by the internet of things.

That’s why it was so reassuring to learn that the world I grew up in hasn’t quite gone forever. Australian and North American biker gangs are taking over the real world in Europe. “The arrival of Comancheros and Rebels from Australia, Rock Machine from Canada, plus Mongols and Vagos from the USA creates tension with established outlaw motorcycle clubs in Europe,” warns Europol.

Hells Angels

Source: Europol

It’s good to know that the old traditions, the “propensity to use extreme forms of violence” with “the use of automatic rifles like Kalashnikovs, and explosive devices such as grenades” hasn’t disappeared completely. Who needs cyberwar when we’ve got Hells Angels patrolling the streets?

It does sort of put your feet back on the ground, doesn’t it?

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

Re-Tweet this post – it’s part of my plan to beat the recession

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

In order to beat the recession I need to expand. In order to expand I need a business loan. In order to get a business loan I need to improve my Klout.

No, really.

I went to the bank. No.

I went home, juggled some figures on the business plan to improve the bottom line projected profits and went back. No.

Apparently it has nothing to do with business potential, it has only to do with collateral. That is, I can have it if I can prove I don’t need it.

There must be another way. So I checked American Banker and found this in Thursday’s issue:

CAN is joining a growing list of companies chasing small business loans by using alternative data sourcing. These companies include Kabbage, which uses social media data as part of lending decisions… Lighter Capital also uses social networking data…
Big Data Comes to Small Business Online Lending

So I checked back into the earlier issues, and found this:

The company [Kabbage] is incorporating social media activity into its analysis now, Frohwein [founder and CEO] says. “We allow our customers to associate their Twitter and Facebook accounts. As our theory goes, the more active you are at keeping in touch, gaining followers, and responding to them, the more likely you’re running a solid, growing business and you’re worth an additional risk. Or there’s less risk associated with you so we can provide more cash or at a lower rate.”
The 10-Minute Small Business Loan

So that’s the plan; and that’s where you come in. Tweaking the bottom line of my business plan no longer works – but with your help I will be able to tweak the bottom line of my Klout score and get the low-interest business loan I so richly deserve. So please use the ‘share’ buttons below: tweet, like, repost, Reddit, whatever – or all – for this post. Do it for Christmas and the lulz, and I’ll still beat the system. You know I’m worth it.

Categories: All

Wonderful graphic from AlienVault: The Eternal Life of Malware

December 13, 2012 Leave a comment

But it does make you wonder why the West is so concerned about cyberwar when it is clearly the world’s greatest protagonist. Do as you would be done by, I say.

The inclusion of Shamoon is interesting. Does it imply that AlienVault considers it is state-sponsored by Iran? If so, the current cyberwar score seems to be US/Israel 5, China 1, Iran 1.


spacerThe Eternal Life of Malware

Categories: All, Security Issues

Barrett Brown indicted, freedom of the press attacked

December 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Oh the irony!

Barrett Brown was indicted last week on 12 new counts. The first was “Traffic in Stolen Authentication Features.” These authentication features (belonging to credit card numbers) were lifted from Stratfor by LulzSec/AntiSec around Christmas last year.

  • Brown is not accused of being a member of LulzSec or AntiSec.
  • Brown is not accused of being involved in the Stratfor hack.
  • Brown is not accused of making fraudulent use of the credit card details.

He is accused that

On or about December 25, 2011, in the Dallas Division of the Northern District of Texas and elsewhere, defendant Barrett Lancaster Brown, aided and abetted by persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury, in affecting interstate commerce, did knowingly traffic in more than five authentication features knowing that such features were stolen and produced without lawful authority, in that Brown transferred the hyperlink “” from the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel called “#Anonops” to an IRC channel under Brown’s control called “#ProjectPM,” said hyperlink provided access to data stolen from the company Stratfor Global Intelligence, to include 5,000 credit account numbers, the card holders’ identification, and the authentication features for the credit cards known as the Card Verification Values (CVV), and by transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor Global Intelligence and the card holders.

In other words, Barrett Brown has been indicted for posting a link on the internet. He did nothing more than that. That’s more than a bit worrying. Is the FBI going to come after anyone posting a link to a file containing information it doesn’t wish to be public? What does that do to the freedom of the press?

But that link for which Brown has been indicted has been made public by the indictment. Now I believe I am outside of the FBI’s jurisdiction (McKinnon and O’Dwyer and indeed Assange may think differently), but the signatories to the indictment are not. Candina S Heath (Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District of Texas) has her name printed. The others I cannot decipher:


Brown indictment

Signatories to Barrett Brown’s second indictment


In the interest of justice, then, I confidently await at least three new indictments with almost exactly the same wording as Brown’s, naming three new defendants who, by making public the same hyperlink, “caused the data to be made available to other persons online without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor Global Intelligence and the card holders.” Unless, of course, every single one of the 5000 cardholders (and for that matter every single Stratfor client mentioned in the leaked file) has given explicit consent for the disclosure…

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

Storing passwords: why you should flavour your hash with salt

December 8, 2012 6 comments

Rider: I am not a cryptographer, so this is an attempt at my understanding of any consensus between genuine cryptographers. If I’ve got anything wrong or you disagree, let me know – or comment.

A cryptographic hash function is widely used to ‘encrypt’ stored passwords. Strictly speaking, it is not encryption: encryption is something you can scramble and then unscramble mathematically – it is two-way. A hash is one-way: it generates a meaningless output (often called a digest) that bears no relation to the input, and cannot mathematically be used to recreate that input. Other characteristics are that it always produces a constant length output regardless of the size of the input, and that no two different inputs will produce the same output.

These characteristics make the cryptographic hash ideal for the secure storage of passwords:

  • the plaintext user password is neither stored nor can be recovered mathematically from the hash
  • no two different passwords will create the same hash
  • the fixed size makes storage simple.

So, when a user account is created, a user password is either created or selected by the user. It is run through the hash function, and a hash is generated and stored with the user name as part of the user account. The plaintext password is not stored and cannot be recovered from the hash.

The next time the user logs on to the account, he or she has to re-present the password. That password is run through the hash function again, and the hash output is compared to the one stored in the user’s account. If they match, access is granted. If they don’t match, access is refused.

If the server is breached and the password database is stolen, no matter, the passwords are securely and irreversibly scrambled. Right? Wrong.

The problem is that attackers have become adept at cracking hashes. It can’t be done mathematically, but it can be done by brute force. In fact any password can be cracked by brute force – brute force simply means that every possible combination of characters and symbols is tried until the correct one is found.

Generally speaking, this is a theoretical possibility rather than a practical reality: even with modern computing power, brute forcing all the possible combinations would take too long to be of any use.

There are many riders to this. The computational power of parallel GPUs or FGAs is improving the time of brute-forcing hashes; so brute forcing just a few hashed passwords is realistic. If the attacker recognises the username of a few high value targets and has the computational power, he could concentrate on brute forcing just those hashes – using, for example, HashCat. Note that Jens Steube, the author of HashCat, has just published a methodology that can reduce the effort needed to brute force SHA1 by 21.1%.

But the attackers have adapted brute force into the so-called ‘dictionary attack’. Here, hashes for millions of the most likely passwords such as names, dates, places, combinations of them, l33t speak variants (h3110_w0R1d), and everyday words in multiple languages are pre-computed and stored in a table or dictionary. Now, instead of having to try every possible output against every possible input, the attacker merely has to take the output and compare it to the dictionary in order to locate the plaintext password. With a good dictionary attack, most passwords can be recovered from the hash in just a few seconds or minutes.

saltAnd this, finally, is why you should flavour your hash with salt.

Salt is a unique random string prepended to each plaintext password before the hash is generated and stored. “What the salt does,” Robin Wood, aka security researcher and pentester DigiNinja, told me, “is prevent an attacker generating a pre-computed list of the hashes.” Robin developed the widely used Pipal password analyser – and knows a thing or two about passwords.

The characteristics of the salt should be a reasonable length, and genuine randomness. Any old pseudo-random number generator isn’t good enough – it should be a cryptographically secure random number generator. (If you want to consider the effort that goes into a good random number generator, have a look at the independent report produced for Intel by Cryptography Research Inc on the Intel Ivy Bridge RNG.)

(Not everyone believes the salt needs to be truly random, just truly unique to each password. However, if it isn’t generated randomly, there is a danger that it becomes predictable.)

This salt is then added to the plaintext password and the hash generated by the combination. Ultimately it does nothing to prevent a brute force attack, so in this way doesn’t make the security stronger. But what it does do is defeat the dictionary attack. The dictionaries cannot contain all of the hashed standard passwords plus all of the possible hashes of each of those passwords with a large random number (or salt) included. Provided that the salt for each password is unique, it needs no security in itself – on its own it can tell you nothing about the plaintext password that is included in the stored, combined hash.

Dictionary attacks are one of the reasons for users to choose a long, strong password. If the password database isn’t salted, a long complicated password may avoid precomputation and still defeat the dictionary.

Unique salts also have the added advantage of creating unique hashes for every user, regardless of their plaintext password. In a Pipal analysis of “the list of passwords from the phpBB leak which I grabbed from the SkullSecurity site,” DigiNinja shows that the top two passwords are ‘123456’ and ‘password’ – and these are likely to figure highly in any list of passwords. Without a unique salt, it would be statistically likely that the most frequently occurring hashes have been generated from one or other of these passwords, even without the use of a dictionary. With unique salts, however, every single stored hash will also be unique, and no statistical analysis will be possible. A long and unique salt is thus important to prevent a standard salt being guessed or discovered by statistical analysis. If the attacker knows a standard salt, he could just precompute an additional dictionary with that added salt.

What this tells us is that the user must do two things: choose long, strong passwords to defeat dictionary attacks where the website doesn’t use salting; and never to reuse the same password on multiple accounts. Using the same password means that it is only as safe as the weakest account we use; and the simple fact is we do not know which websites are storing our passwords safely. It is also sobering to realise that the strength of the password we choose is meaningless if the website stores it in plaintext, and then gets breached.

For the website, it tells us that hashing passwords is essential; but on its own, hashing will not protect the majority of passwords from a dictionary attack.

The addition of a unique, long and genuinely random string appended to the password before hashing will provide a far greater defence against password cracking, without requiring any additional effort to secure or hide the salt itself.


see also: The Data Protection Regulation should be amended to force companies to disclose how passwords are stored

Jeremi Gosney has demonstrated dramatically improved brute forcing with a cluster of GPUs running Hashcat: see GPU cluster can crack any NTLM 8-character hashed password in 5.5 hours

Categories: All, Security Issues

Spear-phishing is the single biggest threat to cyber security today

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Arguably, there is no security incident without end-user involvement; either by the user actively doing something he shouldn’t, or passively not doing something he should. The criminals’ usual route is to socially engineer the target into doing something he shouldn’t (see The art of social engineering); like click a dubious link or open a malicious attachment. This is basic phishing. The original mass phishing campaigns, sending the same email to hundreds of thousands of targets, have an increasingly lower return for the criminals: users have become adept at spotting them. So today criminals are choosing higher value targets and sending personalized emails to an individual or small group of individuals. This is spear-phishing.

malicious attachments

Spear-phishing malicious attachments: source Trend Micro

Criminals – whether individuals, organized criminal gangs or state-sponsored groups – are all selecting spear-phishing as the attack method of choice. A recent study by Trend Micro has shown that 91% of all successful APT attacks start via a spear-phishing attack; and 94% of those are emails carrying a malicious attachment. To put this into perspective, many (not all) security experts believe that any organization targeted by an APT will fall to the APT. The corollary, and one that I accept, is that anybody targeted by a well-crafted and researched spear attack will succumb to that attack, or the next one, or the one after that.

This is because there is no guaranteed defence against spear-phishing. It is man versus man – technology won’t work. You can filter incoming emails, but you might miss one. You can filter the target URLs, provided you know about all of them, but that misses the disguised malicious attachments.

This all begs the question of why spear-phishing is so successful; and it’s because the criminals do their homework. They treat the internet as their own big data playground, and harvest little snippets of information from different places to combine into a remarkably detailed profile of potential targets. There are huge criminal databases of stolen data. Just this week it emerged that the Nationwide insurance group in the US had personal details of 1.1 million Americans stolen, including “Social Security number, driver’s license number and/or date of birth and possibly marital status, gender, and occupation, and the name and address of their employer.” A couple of months ago, 3.6 million South Carolina tax payers had details stolen (itself via a spear-phishing attack) from the Department of Revenue.

What they don’t already have they get from the social networks and indeed the target’s company website. Email, personal interests, friends, position in company, age and location can all be found. From this profile it becomes relatively easy to compile a compelling email that looks 100% genuine and irresistible.

Indeed, the very way in which we do computing makes phishing very effective. A fascinating PhD study thesis by Michele Daryanani (Desensitizing the User: A Study of the Efficacy of Warning Messages) made available this summer draws a connection between hyperactive operating system warnings and desensitizing the user – including to phishing attacks.

So what can we do? The main defence is user education. There are specialist training companies; and PhishMe in particular specialises in teaching how to avoid being phished.


now with social engineering

Yesterday, Metasploit  announced it is joining the battle with a new release of Metasploit Pro 4.5, introducing ‘advanced capabilities to simulate social engineering attacks’. HD Moore, the originator of Metasploit and chief security officer at Rapid7, describes it thus: “Many organizations already conduct end-user trainings and implement technical security controls to protect their data, but it’s hard to know how effective these measures are, or even if you’re focusing on the right things. Metasploit assesses the effectiveness of these measures, and provides metrics and management for each step in the chain of compromise to help you reduce your risk.” In other words, it allows you to test your users and see which of them fall to phishing under what circumstances – spear-training against spear-phishing as it were.

But I’d like to add my own recommendation: that governments should understand that more often than not, education is better than legislation. If government would spend a fraction of its security budget, and a fraction of their energy, on educating users rather than legislating against choice, then we would all be a lot safer. And happier.

Categories: All, Security Issues