Archive for December, 2013

Why the NSA is happy when Windows crashes

December 30, 2013 Leave a comment

The latest Snowden leaks via Der Spiegel contain an interesting snippet: the NSA intercepts Windows crash reports en route from the user to Microsoft. “An internal presentation suggests it is NSA’s powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.” The NSA presentation even makes a joke of it, adapting the Microsoft error message to say, “This information may be intercepted by a foreign SIGINT system…”


Frankly, I find the NSA sense of humour troubling rather than amusing.

Frankly, I find the NSA sense of humour troubling rather than amusing


These error messages, says Spiegel, provide “valuable insights into problems with a targeted person’s computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim’s computer.”

Really? Yes really. Websense coincidentally (?) published a report on this very problem yesterday, and will be presenting further findings at RSA 2014 in San Francisco (assuming anybody is still going). It says,

One troubling thing we observed is Windows Error Reporting (a.k.a. Dr. Watson) predominantly sends out its crash logs in the clear. These error logs could ultimately allow eavesdroppers to map out vulnerable endpoints and gain a foothold within the network for more advanced penetration. Here’s more on why that’s a concern:

  • 80 percent of all network connected PCs use it – that’s more than one billion endpoints worldwide
  • Dr. Watson reports information that hackers commonly use to find and exploit weak systems such as OS, service pack and update versions
  • Crashes are especially useful for attackers as they may pinpoint a new exploitable code flaw for a zero-day attack
  • Information is also sent for common system events like plugging in a USB device

Let’s see how long it takes for Microsoft to respond and start encrypting its error messages. Then the only problem will be in persuading us that it hasn’t simultaneously given NSA the key…

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

Targeted advertising? Bollocks

December 24, 2013 Leave a comment

I have come to the conclusion that all of this targeted advertising is a load of bollocks, and Google’s ability to grab, store and analyse my personal habits is worthless.

Android has just recommended a Coldplay album, which it says is ‘popular with similar listeners’.

  1. I had to use Wikipedia to find out what Coldplay is
  2. I have never knowingly listened to Coldplay; and don’t intend to
  3. I have never listened to any music via Android (apart from a few accidental YouTubes where I have never succeeded in listening to completion).

OK, so they got that wrong.

But maybe it’s other people who are similar to me who like Coldplay… No, that’s no good either, because that means that I’m like people who like Coldplay — and that, frankly (no disrespect) is insulting.

So this ‘targeting’ is way off beam. Which means it’s simple old-fashioned promotional advertising. I just hope for Coldplay’s sake they aren’t paying over the odds for targeting that doesn’t exist.

Categories: All

Happy Christmas from GCHQ and the Orcs

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment

What do you make of GCHQ’s internal Christmas card, obtained by the excellent Hawktalk privacy blog? Note that although not ‘protectively marked’, it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act – meaning that if you asked for a copy, you wouldn’t get one.


Happy Christmas from the Orcs

Happy Christmas from the Orcs


The cartoon reflects the growing public perception of GCHQ and NSA. But is it used in defiance or irony? What sort of mindset considers it to be an acceptable Christmas message?

And what should we read into the poem? It goes:

The Terror Bytes of Power
Two terabytes per day to retain all Google searches
Five keeps the content from surveillance perches
Seven for Skype when one speaks to mates
Twelve stores the traffic which flows to the States
And in the darkness where the watchers are
Few laws to obey; nor rules that bar
And for privacy let the protection die
In a secret state where the shadows lie.

Or is it all just an elaborate hoax – either originating from a small cell within GCHQ or somebody on the outside?

Is it just coincidence that the creator of the cartoon is the same cartoonist who does all of Hawktalk’s cartoons: Chris Slane  – and it seems consistent with his views? Here’s another lifted from Hawktalk:


Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

British MP caught telling lies about Glenn Greenwald

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Two things of note happened yesterday. In the US the White House released the independent report into the NSA global surveillance programs (I’ve done a quick summary on Infosecurity Magazine here: White House Releases the NSA Surveillance Review). Meanwhile, journalist Glenn Greenwald spoke to the European Union via video link.

The NSA review includes this little gem: “A particular concern involves preservation of the rights, and the security, of journalists and the press; their rights and their security are indispensible to self-government.”

I only hope that the UK government reads this report and ponders on that statement. No free press, no democracy.

But the reality is that if Greenwald had flown to Brussels to speak to the EU he would probably have been arrested. The UK could, probably would, have issued a European arrest warrant under the Terrorism Act; and the Belgian police would have been forced to arrest him – just as the UK was ‘forced’ to arrest Assange on an arrest warrant issued by Sweden. Such behaviour would have been par for the course from a government that is determined to curtail rather than protect the freedom of the press.

But unable to arrest him, they could only watch and fume impotently; and an impotent politician is a wondrous sight. British MP Julian Smith – the very MP who has been leading the charge against the Guardian and is trying to get it and its editor charged under the Terrorism Act – tweeted: “So @ggreenwald confirms to @TimKirkhopeMEP that @guardian gave him files he didn’t originally have #EPinquiry #EUdataP #NSA.” There was just one problem: Greenwald said nothing of the sort.


Julian Smith's response to being caught out in a lie is to accuse people of being 'touchy'

Julian Smith’s response to being caught out in a lie is to accuse people of being ‘touchy’


If it wasn’t so funny, it would be worrying. Here we have a member of the British Parliament so determined to kill the messenger that he quite openly and quite blatantly lies to get his way.

Compare and contrast the two nations: the US and the UK. The US houses the Big Brother of spy agencies (the NSA) which is the major culprit in global surveillance, spying and hacking. In response to public outcry it holds an independent enquiry and publishes the result. The UK houses the little subservient brother, GCHQ, which on a slightly smaller scale is just as bad. In response to public outcry it denies any wrongdoing, disrupts any attempts at public debate, and seeks to prosecute the Guardian. And its politicians – or this one at least – tells a stupid, indefensible lie that not merely holds himself up to ridicule, but makes you wonder about the cumulative IQ and morality of our leaders.

Categories: All, Politics

Spookerism (noun): a manipulated meaning that allows you to fib without lying

December 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Spookerisms were made popular by the Spook Brothers Clapper and Alexander, a famous 21st century Music Hall Double Act. Spookerisms are a major tool in the disinformation and misinformation armoury of the modern intelligence agent: a method of providing misleading information without telling an untruth.

The thing is, the NSA doesn’t tell lies — at least not within the spookerist frame of reference. So when it says that it was aware of a BIOS-attacking virus, and allows us to believe it comes from China, and that it worked with manufacturers to nullify the threat; and that without intervention this virus had the potential to take out the US economy, it isn’t lying: it is indulging in a spookerism.

This is a transcript from the latest CBS 60 Minutes programme. John Miller is the CBS interviewer (an ex-NSA man). Debora Plunkett is the NSA Information Assurance Director

[voice over]: One they did see coming was called the BIOS Plot. It could have been catastrophic for the United States. While the NSA would not name the country behind it, cyber security experts briefed on the operation told us it was China. Debora Plunkett directs cyber defense for the NSA and for the first time, discusses the agency’s role in discovering the plot.

Debora Plunkett: One of our analysts actually saw that the nation state had the intention to develop and to deliver, to actually use this capability — to destroy computers.

John Miller: To destroy computers.

Debora Plunkett: To destroy computers… The attack would have been disguised as a request for a software update. If the user agreed, the virus would’ve infected the computer.

John Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.

Debora Plunkett: That’s right.

John Miller: — and basically turned it into a cinderblock.

Debora Plunkett: A brick.

John Miller: And after that, there wouldn’t be much you could do with that computer.

Debora Plunkett: That’s right. Think about the impact of that across the entire globe. It could literally take down the U.S. economy…

[voice over]: The NSA working with computer manufacturers was able to close this vulnerability, but they say there are other attacks occurring daily.

Given this information, the natural takeaway for most people is that China is or was intent on taking down the US economy with cyberweapons, and but for the astuteness of the NSA probably would have succeeded.


The NSA says nothing like that, but manipulates us into believing it. In fact, it says very little, and relies on us filling in the gaps for ourselves.

There have been many BIOS-attacking viruses. Consider Chernobyl (CIH). It was around in 1998. It was developed in Taiwan — which is a nation-state that likes to call itself China. After it was discovered, computer manufacturers worked on their systems to reduce the threat (and I’m willing to accept, or even bet, that the NSA had at least some tiny involvement in that). Unchecked; that is given free rein, it certainly did have the capability and potential to take down the world’s economy. Thing is, viruses do tend to get checked — there’s an entire security industry dedicated to it.

But when you stop and think about it, this new BIOS Plot described by the NSA to CBS — ably assisted by an ex-NSA journalist — could easily be a rather shaky but not false description of the Chernobyl virus.

And that’s what we call a spookerism.

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

ResearchGruppen, the Disqus ruckus and the moral issues involved

December 15, 2013 3 comments

Martin Fredriksson of ResearchGruppen, the Swedish investigative journalists behind the Disqus ruckus, made an interesting statement late last night: “We’re not very concerned about a criminal case in the US. It would give this issue the attention it deserves.” He was commenting on my post about the security/legal issues around ResearchGruppen’s Disqus expose, which was I believe more politically/morally motivated.

That latter is by far the more important issue, for security can be relatively easily cured while morality cannot. And the implication from Martin’s statement is that it is one he is willing to face prison over. Just ask Julian Assange to what ends the Swedish/US political/intelligence alliance will go to get their man. Add to that Martin’s further comment, “I just heard that Disqus had changed stance. From ‘there has been no breach’ to ‘we have contacted law enforcement’.”

The moral issue raised by ResearchGruppen is this: how do you balance freedom of speech (and the right to anonymity that supports it) with the protection of minorities (and the limitations to freedom of speech it requires) and a right to know what our political and judicial and police masters actually believe?

The rule of law
The easy, and erroneous, answer is to use the rule of law. This is a concept that is pushed by governing authorities to emasculate their people. It states simply that you must always and absolutely obey the law of the land. The opposite is true. People have a duty to obey their conscience above their national laws. And if that means defying or breaking the law, so be it.

A right to freedom of expression.
This should be a statement of fact, but it rarely exists in reality. It is often considered to be a primary distinction between democracy and authoritarianism. Western governments, ostensibly democratic, use ‘national security’ to severely curtail that right – to such an extent that we need to ask ourselves whether they are genuinely democratic countries. It is also, and in my opinion quite rightly, curbed in order to protect minorities. But the difference between jokes, satire, political licence and hate speech becomes very confused.

If I was to say that 90% of the UK Cabinet are dangerous, lying bastards who should be burned at the stake, I would probably get away with just a wry smile. But if I was to say that 90% of blacks/Jews/immigrants/Moslems/unmarried mothers (take your pick) are dangerous, lying bastards who should be burned at the stake, then I would get a very different reaction.

A right to anonymity on the Internet
This should be a given. Without it, freedom of expression could be bullied out of existence by political, criminal and just plain thuggish elements. The problem is that those same political, criminal and just plain thuggish elements use that same anonymity to peddle their own particular brand of hate speech. So while freedom fighters and libertarians demand and need it, governments, law enforcement and intelligence agencies seek to remove it.

The conflict comes when anonymity is used to hide the identity, and therefore give free rein, to hate speech aimed at minorities who can little defend themselves. Minorities deserve protection in a free country, and anonymity weakens that protection.

The right to know what society’s shapers really believe
There is a second category wherein the right to anonymity should perhaps be curtailed: one we could define as ‘society’s shapers’. This would include politicians (who make our laws), the judiciary (who interpret those laws), the police (who enforce the laws), and the influencers (who manipulate the making of our laws, such as leading economists, top bankers, captains of industry and lobbyists). When we the people accept or reject the laws imposed upon us, we have a right to know the real motivations of those involved in the making of those laws. This can be and sometimes is hidden behind the cloak of anonymity.

I believe it is this last aspect of anonymity that concerns ResearchGruppen; and it is one with which I can sympathise. But it still carries enormous moral problems. In order to expose the secret thoughts of a few of Sweden’s shapers, the group has compromised the anonymity of millions who deserve that anonymity. I think the group is aware of this. “We focused on swedish hate sites,” commented Martin Fredriksson. As for the rest of the 19 million-strong database, “I still don’t know what to do with it. Delete it or see what politicians, economists and lobbyists are really concerned about, when they think they’re anonymous.”

But there are two further issues that we need to consider. Firstly, if Disqus was a European country, it would almost certainly be prosecuted, as the data controller, for breach of the Data Protection Directive. In the UK, Sony was fined £250,000 because it was breached by LulzSec. Disqus, I suspect, would receive similar treatment for being breached by ResearchGruppen.

Secondly, if journalists can find such a gaping hole in Disqus’ logic, then you can guarantee that the NSA, GCHQ and FRA were already aware of it. And who else? Hate sites and user comments would be a perfect recruitment centre for both spies and jihadists. When all is said and done, and irrespective of either legal or moral issues, ResearchGruppen has done the world a favour by forcing Disqus to close this hole.

You might also be interested in a new article: Disqus breach + IRS theft = fraudulently obtained credit reports and political coercion in Sweden

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues

What lessons should we learn from the Disqus security breach?

December 13, 2013 13 comments

I did a news story this morning on Infosecurity Magazine: Disqus May Not Have Been Hacked; But It Was Certainly Exploited. As often happens, however, the implications and side issues are often as interesting as the raw news.

How Disqus describes itself

How Disqus describes itself


A bunch of Swedish journalists belonging to ResearchGruppen (a group of politically motivated investigative journalists) working with the Swedish tabloid Expressen has downloaded something like 29 million comments from the Disqus service. In doing so, it also obtained the email addresses of otherwise anonymous commenters.

“You don’t need to trade in your identity for the ability to speak up. The freedom to express how you want is what lets you be truly authentic,” says the Disqus website. Anonymity is a key selling point – but here it was letting ResearchGruppen (and who knows who else) download the email addresses of its users. Those addresses were hashed with MD5; but with no mention of salting this is barely a delaying tactic.

Whatever way you look at it, this was a serious breach of security. It allowed politically motivated researchers to discover the real identity behind some rather inflammatory ‘anonymous’ posts.

The issue
But it wasn’t a hack – at least not in the traditional sense. ResearchGruppen did not have to break in and steal the email addresses. The group simply queried the Disqus API and obtained the details. To save time, they used a script to automate their enquiries, running ten enquiries simultaneously. (You have to wonder why the Disqus sys admins didn’t pick up on these queries – to obtain 29 million at 100 per throw would have required 290,000 API calls.)

The real issue in this episode is whether ResearchGruppen’s actions were illegal, and whether they should or should not have been illegal. Probing computers is, after all, the standard method used by security researchers to find flaws and improve internet security for everyone.

US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
There can be little doubt that ResearchGruppen has broken the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Just ask ‘weev’. In 2010 he queried the AT&T system in a similar manner and obtained the email addresses of early iPad adopters. He was prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and sent to prison for his pains.

Andrew Auernheimer: in prison, but still tweeting...

Andrew Auernheimer: in prison, but still tweeting…

Disqus is a US company with offices in San Francisco and New York. The US is not backward in demanding the extradition of foreigners who have broken their laws even if they have never set foot in America. Frankly, if I was a member of ResearchGruppen – especially given the close relationship between Sweden and the US – I’d be lawyering up or disappearing as fast as possible.

But, and it’s potentially a big but, US lawmakers and public are concerned that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act allows law enforcement overreach. Ever since its use was implicated in the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz, it has been under scrutiny; and there are attempts to rein in its excesses.

Jan Philipp Albrecht – Green MEP and one of Europe's good guys

Jan Philipp Albrecht – Green MEP and one of Europe’s good guys

In Europe
However, while the US is thinking about softening the CFAA, European lawmakers have been busy creating Europe’s own somewhat draconian CFAA look-alike. Early July this year the European Parliament approved the draft ‘attacks against information systems’ Directive, with 541 votes in favour, 91 against, and 9 abstentions. This is what Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said about it:

Significantly, the legislation fails to recognise the important role played by ‘white hat hackers’ in identifying weaknesses in the internet’s immune system, with a view to strengthening security. This will result in cases against these individuals, who pose no real security threat and play an important role in strengthening the internet, whilst failing to properly deal with real cyber criminals. The result will leave hardware and software manufacturers wholly responsible for product defects and security threats, with no incentive to invest in safer systems.

“MEPs had initially supported a number of Green proposals aimed at ensuring this legislation can contribute to internet security, and is not simply an ineffective law to punish unauthorised log-ons to open servers. However, most positive elements were frittered away in the legislative negotiations, due to the resistance of EU governments. The result is a heavy-handed and misdirected law that will do little to improve internet security.

So, while the European Parliament initially wanted to recognise and defend the role of security researchers, national European governments do not. They now have until July 2015 to transpose the Directive into national laws – after which time, security ‘research’ of the sort undertaken by ResearchGruppen will be clearly illegal throughout the European Union, just as it is in the US.

Implications for the future of independent security research
I personally would not call the members of ResearchGruppen either white hat hackers or security researchers. I believe they were politically motivated and intent on embarrassing the far-right. However, it would be ridiculous to have rules saying you can only do this if your motives are acceptable – and it looks like Europe is coming down on the same side as America: you can’t do it, period.

This will have a sad effect on security research. Consider the current rash of cross-site scripting vulnerabilities. Many are found and reported by researchers, and quickly fixed by websites. Many others are found and exploited by hackers before they can be fixed by the websites. In the future, the researchers may become reluctant to put themselves at risk of imprisonment – leaving the only people looking for, and finding, these flaws will be the criminals wishing to exploit them.

ResearchGruppen may not have done what it did for the purest of motives, but nevertheless it has found a flaw that will be rectified by Disqus. The result is a more secure internet. In the future we may find that the ResearchGruppens and more genuinely white hat hackers will fade away. The internet will become a darker and more dangerous place because of it.

see alsoResearchGruppen, the Disqus ruckus and the moral issues involved; which discusses Martin Fredriksson’s response to this post.

You might also be interested in a new article: Disqus breach + IRS theft = fraudulently obtained credit reports and political coercion in Sweden

Categories: All, Politics, Security Issues