Pew should evolve its cybersecurity survey

Pew should evolve the questions they are asking and the advice they are giving based on how the threat environment is changing. But they should keep asking.

Last year, Pew Research surveyed just over 1,000 people to try to get a feel for how informed they are about cybersecurity.  That’s a great idea because it informs us as a society as to how well consumers are able to defend themselves against common attacks.   Let’s consider some ways that this survey could be evolved, and how consumers can mitigate certain common risks.  Keep in mind that Pew conducted the survey in June of last year in a fast changing world.

Several of the questions related to phishing, Wifi access points and VPNs.  VPNs have been in the news recently because of the Trump administration’s and Congress’  backtracking on privacy protections.  While privacy invasion by service providers is a serious problem, accessing one’s bank at an open access point is probably considerably less so.  There are two reasons for this.  First, banks almost all make use of TLS to protect communications.  Attempts to fake bank sites by intercepting communications will, at the very least produce a warning that browser manufacturers have made increasingly difficult to bypass.  Second, many financial institutions make use of apps in mobile devices that take some care to validate that the user is actually talking to their service.  In this way, these apps actually mark a significant reduction in phishing risk.  Yes, the implication is that using a laptop with a web browser is a slightly riskier means to access your bank than the app it likely provides, and yes, there’s a question hiding there for Pew in its survey.

Another question on the survey refers to password quality.  While this is something of a problem, there are two bigger problems hiding that consumers should understand:

  • Reuse of passwords.  Consumers will often reuse passwords simply because it’s hard to remember many of them.  Worse, many password managers themselves have had vulnerabilities.  Why not?  It’s like the apocryphal Willie Sutton quote about robbing banks because that’s where the money is.  Still, with numerous break-ins, such as those that occurred with Yahoo! last year*, and the others that have surely gone unreported or unnoticed, re-use of passwords is a very dangerous practice.
  • Aggregation of trust in smart phones.  As recent articles about American Customs and Border Patrol demanding access to smart phones demonstrate, access to many services such as Facebook, Twitter, and email can be gained just by gaining access to the phone.  Worse, because SMS and email are often used to reset user passwords, access to the phone itself typically means easy access to most consumer services.

One final area that requires coverage: as the two followers of my blog are keenly aware, IoT presents a whole new class of risk that Pew has yet to address in its survey.

The risks I mention were not well understood as early as five years ago.  But now they are, and they have been for at least the last several years.  Pew should keep surveying, and keep informing everyone, but they should also evolve the questions they are asking and the advice they are giving.


* Those who show disdain toward Yahoo! may find they themselves live in an enormous glass house.

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.

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.

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

It doesn’t matter that much that Apple and Google encrypts your phone

Apple’s and Google’s announcements that they will encrypt information on your phone are nice, but won’t help much. Most data is in the cloud, these days; and your protections in the cloud are governed by laws of numerous countries, almost all of which have quite large exceptions.

CybercrimeAt the Internet Engineering Task Force we have taken a very strong stand that pervasive surveillance is a form of attack.  This is not a matter of lack of trust of any one organization, but rather a statement that if one organization can snoop on your information, others will be able to do so as well, and they may not be so nice as the NSA.  The worst you can say about the NSA is that a few analysts got carried away and spied on their partners.  With real criminals it’s another matter.  As we have seen with Target, other large department stores, and now JP Morgan, theirs is a business, and you are their commodity, in the form of private information and credit card numbers.

So now here comes Apple, saying that they will protect you from the government.   According to Apple, you do, as they has chosen to make it difficult for the government to break into your phone.  Like all technology, this “advance” has its pluses and minuses.  To paraphrase a leader in the law enforcement community, everyone wants their privacy until it’s their child at risk.  However, in the United States, at least, we have a standard that the director of the FBI seems to have forgotten- it’s called probable cause.  It’s based on a dingy pesky old amendment to the Constitution which states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So what happens if one does have probable cause?  This is where things get interesting.  If one has probable cause to believe that there is an imminent threat to life or property and they can’t break into a phone, then something bad may happen.  Someone could get hurt, for instance.  Is that Apple’s fault?  And who has the right to interpret and enforce the fourth amendment?  If Apple has a right to do so, then do I have the right to interpret what laws I will?  On the other hand, Apple might respond that it has no responsibility to provide law enforcement anything, and all it is doing is exercising the right of free speech to deliver a product that others use to communicate with.  Cryptographer and Professor Daniel Bernstein successfully argued this case in the 9th Circuit in the 1990s.  And he was right to do so, because going back to the beginning of this polemic, even if you believe your government to be benevolent, if it can access your information, so can a bad guy, and there are far more bad guys out there.

Apple hasn’t simply made this change because it doesn’t like the government.  Rather, the company has recognized that for consumers to put private information into their phone, they must trust the device to not be mishandled by others.  At the same time, Apple has said through their public statements that information that goes into their cloud is still subject to lawful seizure.  And this brings us back to the point that President Obama made at the beginning of the year: government risk isn’t the only form of risk.  The risk remains that private aggregators of information – like Apple and Google or worse, Facebook– will continue to use your information for whatever purposes they see fit.  If you don’t think this is the case, ask how much you pay for their services?

And since most of the data about your or that you own is either in the cloud or heading to the cloud, you might want to worry less about the phone or tablet, and more about where your data actually resides.  If you’re really concerned about governments, then you might also want to ask this question:  which governments can seize your data?  The answer to that question is not straight forward, but there are three major factors:

  1. Where the data resides;
  2. Where you reside;
  3. Where the company that controls the data resides.

For instance, If you reside in the European Union, then nominally you should receive some protection from the Data Privacy Directive.  Any company that serves European residents has to respect the rights specified in that.  On the other hand, there are of course exceptions for law enforcement.  If a server resides in some random country, however, like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, perhaps there is a secret law that states that operators must provide the government all sorts of data and must not tell anyone they are doing so.  That’s really not so far from what the U.S. government did with National Security Letters.There’s a new service that Cisco has rolled out, called the Intercloud that neatly addresses this matter for large enterprises, providing a framework to keep some data local, and some data in the cloud, and the enterprise has some control over which.  Whether that benefit will extend to consumers is unclear.In the end I conclude that people who are truly worried about their data need to consider what online services they use, including Facebook, this blog you are reading right now, Google, Amazon, or anyone else.  They also have to consider how if at all they are using the cloud.  I personally think they have to worry less about physical devices, and that largely speaking Apple’s announcement is but a modest improvement in overall security.  The same could be said for IETF efforts.