Turning the Home Router from a Threat to a Helping Hand

lybid_1002The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on a proposed rule that would require cable companies to offer consumers more choices about whether they use a rented cable box or home router or their own.  More choice is good, and one could make a strong argument that lack of consumer choice has retarded development of home routers.  However, this decision may come with a few pitfalls from a security perspective.

Home routers were recently a component of the attack against krebsonsecurity.com.  There are many reasons that this would be the case.  Some routers have as a blank password with user name “admin” that allows anyone to access them.  Others have well-known vulnerabilities in their software that has gone unpatched for years.  If the service provider is providing the router, then we can say that it is responsible for the device’s maintenance.  On the other hand, the consumer has a particularly bad track record of doing a good job protecting the device.

Second, because most consumers do not employ security professionals to protect devices in their homes, the service provider is in a good position to offer that protection.  It does require that the service provider have access to the home router to identify threats within the home itself.  By having some control over that device and having access to logging information, the home router is in a position to identify potential attacks within the home itself.  But the router itself needs some guidance to perform that task, and the router itself typically cannot retain all of the necessary knowledge.  Cloud services are useful for this purpose, whether managed by the SP or by some other entity.

Regardless of what the FCC orders, SPs are in the position of setting the standards necessary to connect a router to the Internet.  CableLabs has set several standards, one known as DOCSYS.  While the current specification has a limited security section, one could easily envision additional capabilities that would protect device within the home.  As new entrants such as Google and Ubiquiti develop additional capabilities, they may have more to say about security in the home.  If home users are to have a choice, one choice they should have is to allow service providers to protect them.


Picture courtesy Sergiy dk on Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

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Krebs attacked: IoT devices blamed, and MUD could help

CybercrimeIt’s rare that hackers give you a gift, but last week that’s exactly what happened.  Brian Krebs is one of the foremost security experts in the industry, and his well known web site krebsonsecurity.com was brought down due to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.  Attackers made use of what is said to be the largest botnet ever to attack Akamai, Kreb’s content service provider.

Why would one consider this a gift?  First of all, nobody was hurt.  This attack took down a web site that is not critical to anyone’s survival, not even Krebs’, and the web site was rehomed and back online in a very short period of time.

Second, the attackers revealed at least some of their capabilities by lighting up the network of hacked devices for researchers to examine and eventually take town.  One aspect of this attack is the use of “IoT” devices, or non-general purpose computers that are used to control some other function.  According to Krebs, the attacks made use of thermostats, web cameras, digital video recorders (DVRs) and, yes, Internet routers.  The attacks themselves created an HTTP connection to the web site, retrieved a page, and closed.  That’s a resource intensive attack from the defense standpoint.

Let’s ask this question: why would any of Mudpitthose systems normally talk to anything other than a small number of cloud services that are intended to support them?  This is what Manufacturer Usage Descriptions (MUD) is meant to defend against.  MUD works by providing a formal language and mechanism for manufacturers to specify which systems a device is designed to connect with.  The converse, therefore, is that the network can prevent the device from both being attacked and attacking others.  The key to all of this are manufacturer and their willingness to describe these devices.  The evolving technical details of MUD can be found in an Internet Draft, and you can create a test MUD file against that draft by using MUD File Maker.  I’ll go into more detail about MUD File Maker in a later post.

Would MUD eliminate all attacks?  No, but MUD adds an additional helpful layer of protection to those manufacturers and networks should use.

This time it was a blog that was taken down.  We are in a position to reduce attacks the next time, when they may be more serious.  That’s the gift hackers gave us this time.  Now we just need to act.

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What’s a “State-Sponsored Actor”?

Yahoo![Updated thanks to an old friend.]

In Yahoo!’s announcement of the theft of 500 million accounts, the Chief Information Security Officer Bob Lord wrote that the company believes a “state-sponsored actor” was behind the attack.  What does that mean and how would Yahoo! come to this conclusion?

The term “state-sponsored” is vague.  It could means someone who works for a government, or it could mean someone who has in effect been contracted out by a government.  Both Russia and China have been accused of this sort of behavior in the past.  In the case of Russia, there are two well known hacking organizations, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear that the Washington Post previously reported were involved in the cyberattack against the Democratic National Committee’s systems.  In the case of China, the Elderwood Group was accused of taking part in a successful phishing attack against His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

But why does Yahoo! believe that the culprit is one of these groups and not any other hacker?  There are several possibilities:

  • Perhaps the botnet systems used used to gain access to the Yahoo! passwords were the same as those used in an earlier attack in which a state-sponsored actor was known to be involved; or
  • The code used to break into Yahoo!’s internal network was the same or similar to code used in an earlier attack that is known to be from one of these groups; or
  • The investigation has been able to determine where the control systems of an attack are and who is accessing them.
  • As my friend points out, governments aren’t in this for the money but for some other purpose.  That means that stolen information isn’t likely to hit the black market anytime soon.  In this case, by the time Yahoo! discovered the problem, the breach was two years old.

Finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt will be difficult.  Consider this: it is possible for the Chinese to make use of a botnet run in Russia or America, or for America to operate a botnet in China to attack systems in Russia, just to lend the appearance as to who the source is, without revealing who the actual source is.

The only fundamental solution to this sort of attack is better end system security.  Only when botnets have dried up can we establish the true source of attacks.  Maybe in my lifetime this will happen.  Maybe.  But that means a lot of people have to do a lot of work.

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Yahoo! This will happen again

Yahoo!The breach of over 500 million accounts at Yahoo! has caused a number of my friends to deride the company for not applying sufficient protections of private consumer data.  While it’s hard to argue with that claim, one thing is certain: this will happen again.  Maybe not to Yahoo! but to some other giant web site, like Amazon or Facebook or Google or Twitter.

We have concentrated so much trust into so small a percentage of sites that if any one of them has a breach, it can impact hundreds of millions of people.  Americans have previously spoken of banks that are too big to fail.  Social networking sites are similarly so big that when they have an incident, it perturbs our lives in all sorts of ways that we only begin to understand after the fact.

These sites have an interest in maintaining their customer interest, and the network effect helps them: the more people who visit Facebook, the more people Facebook will attract.  This is how the Internet and telephone networks came to be in the first place.

This vast concentration of consumers into a small number of sites also has its upsides: because they are regularly attacked, they have developed very strong expertise to fend off bad guys.  That’s something the average consumer – and even most enterprises – will never have.

This form of market concentration is not an easy problem to solve.  Imagine a world in which we all had software that sat on in our homes instead of in Facebook’s cloud (for instance).  If the software were all the same, then one bug would impact everyone in much the same way as if the software were centrally located.  The only question is how long it would take for an exploit of a vulnerability to propagate, and how long it would take someone to notice.

We know that such distributed software is a problem because one of the key vectors for infection these days is unused and out of date virtual machines or WordPress instances.  This puts aside all the issues of cost of maintaining a WordPress site.  How much does it cost you to maintain your Facebook account today?

One approach would a healthy exchange of social information across a reasonable number (perhaps in the thousands) of well managed sites.  That requires a rethink about how we consider privacy and who is responsible.  It also requires that incentives be aligned for that sharing to occur.  We would in essence be suggesting that Facebook advertisers go elsewhere.  That doesn’t seem like something Facebook would want to see.

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The Yahoo! Breach: What it means to you

Steps you should take after the Yahoo! breach.

yahooYesterday, Yahoo! announced that at least 500 million accounts have been breached.  This means that information you gave Yahoo! may be in the hands of hackers, but it could also mean a lot more. The New York Times has an excellent interactive tool today that demonstrates how much of your information may have leaked, not just from Yahoo! but from other breaches.

Not only should people change their Yahoo! passwords, but it is also important for people to review all passwords and information shared with Yahoo!  In particular:

  1. Many people use the same password across multiple accounts.  If you did this, you should change passwords on all systems where that password was used.  When you do, you should see to it that no passwords are shared between two systems.
  2. Hackers are smart.  If you only tweak the same password just a little bit for use on multiple systems, a determined hacker or more likely a determined script may well break into other accounts.  For example, if your Yahoo! password was DogCatY! and your E-Bay Password were DogCatEBay, you should assume the E-Bay account is broken as well.
  3. This means you should keep a secure record of what passwords are used where, for just this sort of eventuality.  By “secure” I mean encrypted and local.  Having two pristine USB keys (one for backup) is ideal, where the contents are encrypted at the application layer.  I also make use of Firefox’s password manager.  That in itself is a risk, because if Firefox is hacked your passwords may be gone as well.
  4. Unfortunately passwords may not be the only information hackers have. Yahoo! has previously made use of so-called “backup security questions”.  Not only is it important to disable those questions, but it is important to first review them to see where else you may have used them.  Security questions are a horrible idea for many reasons: they may reveal private aspects of your life, much of which might be discovered anyway.  Sites like United Airlines recently implemented security questions.  My recommendation: choose random answers and record them in a secure place that is separate from your passwords.
  5. It is possible that hackers may have read any email you received on Yahoo!  In particular, one should review any financial accounts where information is transmitted to Yahoo!
  6. Use of cloud-based storage as a backup for your passwords should be viewed with great suspicion.  There have been a number of such tools that themselves have been found to be vulnerable.
  7. Hackers may have your cell phone number, for those who use SMS as secondary authentication.  While SMS is not secure communication, the chances of it being hacked are relatively low.  The safest practice is not to rely solely on SMS for authentication.  My bank uses both a secret and an SMS message, relying on the tried and true two-factor authentication approach of something you have and something you know.  A better solution is a secret and an app with a secure push notification.  This is what MasterCard has done in Europe.

These suggestions are good for the sort of mass breach that we are seeing with Yahoo!  In addition, one has to be careful with the amount of trust placed in a cell phone.  If the phone is lost, you should assume that hackers will be able to get into it.  Keeping a record of the applications you use, particularly those that have financial or security implications, will help you recover from the loss.

These suggestions are written with the notion that Yahoo! is not going to be the only site that will have had this problem.  Although not to this scale, we’ve seen this sort of thing before, and we will see it again.  I’ll have more to say about this from an industry perspective in a while.


Yahoo picture by Sebastian Bergmann – originally posted to Flickr as Yahoo!, CC BY-SA 2.0