SSL and internet security news

Monthly Archive: January 2018

Israeli Scientists Accidentally Reveal Classified Information

According to this story (non-paywall English version here), Israeli scientists released some information to the public they shouldn’t have.

Defense establishment officials are now trying to erase any trace of the secret information from the web, but they have run into difficulties because the information was copied and is found on a number of platforms.

Those officials have managed to ensure that the Haaretz article doesn’t have any actual information about the information. I have reason to believe the information is related to Internet security. Does anyone know more?

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After Section 702 Reauthorization

For over a decade, civil libertarians have been fighting government mass surveillance of innocent Americans over the Internet. We’ve just lost an important battle. On January 18, President Trump signed the renewal of Section 702, domestic mass surveillance became effectively a permanent part of US law.

Section 702 was initially passed in 2008, as an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. As the title of that law says, it was billed as a way for the NSA to spy on non-Americans located outside the United States. It was supposed to be an efficiency and cost-saving measure: the NSA was already permitted to tap communications cables located outside the country, and it was already permitted to tap communications cables from one foreign country to another that passed through the United States. Section 702 allowed it to tap those cables from inside the United States, where it was easier. It also allowed the NSA to request surveillance data directly from Internet companies under a program called PRISM.

The problem is that this authority also gave the NSA the ability to collect foreign communications and data in a way that inherently and intentionally also swept up Americans’ communications as well, without a warrant. Other law enforcement agencies are allowed to ask the NSA to search those communications, give their contents to the FBI and other agencies and then lie about their origins in court.

In 1978, after Watergate had revealed the Nixon administration’s abuses of power, we erected a wall between intelligence and law enforcement that prevented precisely this kind of sharing of surveillance data under any authority less restrictive than the Fourth Amendment. Weakening that wall is incredibly dangerous, and the NSA should never have been given this authority in the first place.

Arguably, it never was. The NSA had been doing this type of surveillance illegally for years, something that was first made public in 2006. Section 702 was secretly used as a way to paper over that illegal collection, but nothing in the text of the later amendment gives the NSA this authority. We didn’t know that the NSA was using this law as the statutory basis for this surveillance until Edward Snowden showed us in 2013.

Civil libertarians have been battling this law in both Congress and the courts ever since it was proposed, and the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities even longer. What this most recent vote tells me is that we’ve lost that fight.

Section 702 was passed under George W. Bush in 2008, reauthorized under Barack Obama in 2012, and now reauthorized again under Trump. In all three cases, congressional support was bipartisan. It has survived multiple lawsuits by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and others. It has survived the revelations by Snowden that it was being used far more extensively than Congress or the public believed, and numerous public reports of violations of the law. It has even survived Trump’s belief that he was being personally spied on by the intelligence community, as well as any congressional fears that Trump could abuse the authority in the coming years. And though this extension lasts only six years, it’s inconceivable to me that it will ever be repealed at this point.

So what do we do? If we can’t fight this particular statutory authority, where’s the new front on surveillance? There are, it turns out, reasonable modifications that target surveillance more generally, and not in terms of any particular statutory authority. We need to look at US surveillance law more generally.

First, we need to strengthen the minimization procedures to limit incidental collection. Since the Internet was developed, all the world’s communications travel around in a single global network. It’s impossible to collect only foreign communications, because they’re invariably mixed in with domestic communications. This is called “incidental” collection, but that’s a misleading name. It’s collected knowingly, and searched regularly. The intelligence community needs much stronger restrictions on which American communications channels it can access without a court order, and rules that require they delete the data if they inadvertently collect it. More importantly, “collection” is defined as the point the NSA takes a copy of the communications, and not later when they search their databases.

Second, we need to limit how other law enforcement agencies can use incidentally collected information. Today, those agencies can query a database of incidental collection on Americans. The NSA can legally pass information to those other agencies. This has to stop. Data collected by the NSA under its foreign surveillance authority should not be used as a vehicle for domestic surveillance.

The most recent reauthorization modified this lightly, forcing the FBI to obtain a court order when querying the 702 data for a criminal investigation. There are still exceptions and loopholes, though.

Third, we need to end what’s called “parallel construction.” Today, when a law enforcement agency uses evidence found in this NSA database to arrest someone, it doesn’t have to disclose that fact in court. It can reconstruct the evidence in some other manner once it knows about it, and then pretend it learned of it that way. This right to lie to the judge and the defense is corrosive to liberty, and it must end.

Pressure to reform the NSA will probably first come from Europe. Already, European Union courts have pointed to warrantless NSA surveillance as a reason to keep Europeans’ data out of US hands. Right now, there is a fragile agreement between the EU and the United States ­– called “Privacy Shield” — ­that requires Americans to maintain certain safeguards for international data flows. NSA surveillance goes against that, and it’s only a matter of time before EU courts start ruling this way. That’ll have significant effects on both government and corporate surveillance of Europeans and, by extension, the entire world.

Further pressure will come from the increased surveillance coming from the Internet of Things. When your home, car, and body are awash in sensors, privacy from both governments and corporations will become increasingly important. Sooner or later, society will reach a tipping point where it’s all too much. When that happens, we’re going to see significant pushback against surveillance of all kinds. That’s when we’ll get new laws that revise all government authorities in this area: a clean sweep for a new world, one with new norms and new fears.

It’s possible that a federal court will rule on Section 702. Although there have been many lawsuits challenging the legality of what the NSA is doing and the constitutionality of the 702 program, no court has ever ruled on those questions. The Bush and Obama administrations successfully argued that defendants don’t have legal standing to sue. That is, they have no right to sue because they don’t know they’re being targeted. If any of the lawsuits can get past that, things might change dramatically.

Meanwhile, much of this is the responsibility of the tech sector. This problem exists primarily because Internet companies collect and retain so much personal data and allow it to be sent across the network with minimal security. Since the government has abdicated its responsibility to protect our privacy and security, these companies need to step up: Minimize data collection. Don’t save data longer than absolutely necessary. Encrypt what has to be saved. Well-designed Internet services will safeguard users, regardless of government surveillance authority.

For the rest of us concerned about this, it’s important not to give up hope. Everything we do to keep the issue in the public eye ­– and not just when the authority comes up for reauthorization again in 2024 — hastens the day when we will reaffirm our rights to privacy in the digital age.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

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Subway Elevators and Movie-Plot Threats

Local residents are opposing adding an elevator to a subway station because terrorists might use it to detonate a bomb. No, really. There’s no actual threat analysis, only fear:

“The idea that people can then ride in on the subway with a bomb or whatever and come straight up in an elevator is awful to me,” said Claudia Ward, who lives in 15 Broad Street and was among a group of neighbors who denounced the plan at a recent meeting of the local community board. “It’s too easy for someone to slip through. And I just don’t want my family and my neighbors to be the collateral on that.”

[…]

Local residents plan to continue to fight, said Ms. Gerstman, noting that her building’s board decided against putting decorative planters at the building’s entrance over fears that shards could injure people in the event of a blast.

“Knowing that, and then seeing the proposal for giant glass structures in front of my building ­- ding ding ding! — what does a giant glass structure become in the event of an explosion?” she said.

In 2005, I coined the term “movie-plot threat” to denote a threat scenario that caused undue fear solely because of its specificity. Longtime readers of this blog will remember my annual Movie-Plot Threat Contests. I ended the contest in 2015 because I thought the meme had played itself out. Clearly there’s more work to be done.

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Estimating the Cost of Internet Insecurity

It’s really hard to estimate the cost of an insecure Internet. Studies are all over the map. A methodical study by RAND is the best work I’ve seen at trying to put a number on this. The results are, well, all over the map:

Estimating the Global Cost of Cyber Risk: Methodology and Examples“:

Abstract: There is marked variability from study to study in the estimated direct and systemic costs of cyber incidents, which is further complicated by the considerable variation in cyber risk in different countries and industry sectors. This report shares a transparent and adaptable methodology for estimating present and future global costs of cyber risk that acknowledges the considerable uncertainty in the frequencies and costs of cyber incidents. Specifically, this methodology (1) identifies the value at risk by country and industry sector; (2) computes direct costs by considering multiple financial exposures for each industry sector and the fraction of each exposure that is potentially at risk to cyber incidents; and (3) computes the systemic costs of cyber risk between industry sectors using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development input, output, and value-added data across sectors in more than 60 countries. The report has a companion Excel-based modeling and simulation platform that allows users to alter assumptions and investigate a wide variety of research questions. The authors used a literature review and data to create multiple sample sets of parameters. They then ran a set of case studies to show the model’s functionality and to compare the results against those in the existing literature. The resulting values are highly sensitive to input parameters; for instance, the global cost of cyber crime has direct gross domestic product (GDP) costs of $275 billion to $6.6 trillion and total GDP costs (direct plus systemic) of $799 billion to $22.5 trillion (1.1 to 32.4 percent of GDP).

Here’s Rand’s risk calculator, if you want to play with the parameters yourself.

Note: I was an advisor to the project.

Separately, Symantec has published a new cybercrime report with their own statistics.

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The Effects of the Spectre and Meltdown Vulnerabilities

On January 3, the world learned about a series of major security vulnerabilities in modern microprocessors. Called Spectre and Meltdown, these vulnerabilities were discovered by several different researchers last summer, disclosed to the microprocessors’ manufacturers, and patched­ — at least to the extent possible.

This news isn’t really any different from the usual endless stream of security vulnerabilities and patches, but it’s also a harbinger of the sorts of security problems we’re going to be seeing in the coming years. These are vulnerabilities in computer hardware, not software. They affect virtually all high-end microprocessors produced in the last 20 years. Patching them requires large-scale coordination across the industry, and in some cases drastically affects the performance of the computers. And sometimes patching isn’t possible; the vulnerability will remain until the computer is discarded.

Spectre and Meltdown aren’t anomalies. They represent a new area to look for vulnerabilities and a new avenue of attack. They’re the future of security­ — and it doesn’t look good for the defenders.

Modern computers do lots of things at the same time. Your computer and your phone simultaneously run several applications — ­or apps. Your browser has several windows open. A cloud computer runs applications for many different computers. All of those applications need to be isolated from each other. For security, one application isn’t supposed to be able to peek at what another one is doing, except in very controlled circumstances. Otherwise, a malicious advertisement on a website you’re visiting could eavesdrop on your banking details, or the cloud service purchased by some foreign intelligence organization could eavesdrop on every other cloud customer, and so on. The companies that write browsers, operating systems, and cloud infrastructure spend a lot of time making sure this isolation works.

Both Spectre and Meltdown break that isolation, deep down at the microprocessor level, by exploiting performance optimizations that have been implemented for the past decade or so. Basically, microprocessors have become so fast that they spend a lot of time waiting for data to move in and out of memory. To increase performance, these processors guess what data they’re going to receive and execute instructions based on that. If the guess turns out to be correct, it’s a performance win. If it’s wrong, the microprocessors throw away what they’ve done without losing any time. This feature is called speculative execution.

Spectre and Meltdown attack speculative execution in different ways. Meltdown is more of a conventional vulnerability; the designers of the speculative-execution process made a mistake, so they just needed to fix it. Spectre is worse; it’s a flaw in the very concept of speculative execution. There’s no way to patch that vulnerability; the chips need to be redesigned in such a way as to eliminate it.

Since the announcement, manufacturers have been rolling out patches to these vulnerabilities to the extent possible. Operating systems have been patched so that attackers can’t make use of the vulnerabilities. Web browsers have been patched. Chips have been patched. From the user’s perspective, these are routine fixes. But several aspects of these vulnerabilities illustrate the sorts of security problems we’re only going to be seeing more of.

First, attacks against hardware, as opposed to software, will become more common. Last fall, vulnerabilities were discovered in Intel’s Management Engine, a remote-administration feature on its microprocessors. Like Spectre and Meltdown, they affected how the chips operate. Looking for vulnerabilities on computer chips is new. Now that researchers know this is a fruitful area to explore, security researchers, foreign intelligence agencies, and criminals will be on the hunt.

Second, because microprocessors are fundamental parts of computers, patching requires coordination between many companies. Even when manufacturers like Intel and AMD can write a patch for a vulnerability, computer makers and application vendors still have to customize and push the patch out to the users. This makes it much harder to keep vulnerabilities secret while patches are being written. Spectre and Meltdown were announced prematurely because details were leaking and rumors were swirling. Situations like this give malicious actors more opportunity to attack systems before they’re guarded.

Third, these vulnerabilities will affect computers’ functionality. In some cases, the patches for Spectre and Meltdown result in significant reductions in speed. The press initially reported 30%, but that only seems true for certain servers running in the cloud. For your personal computer or phone, the performance hit from the patch is minimal. But as more vulnerabilities are discovered in hardware, patches will affect performance in noticeable ways.

And then there are the unpatchable vulnerabilities. For decades, the computer industry has kept things secure by finding vulnerabilities in fielded products and quickly patching them. Now there are cases where that doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s because computers are in cheap products that don’t have a patch mechanism, like many of the DVRs and webcams that are vulnerable to the Mirai (and other) botnets — ­groups of Internet-connected devices sabotaged for coordinated digital attacks. Sometimes it’s because a computer chip’s functionality is so core to a computer’s design that patching it effectively means turning the computer off. This, too, is becoming more common.

Increasingly, everything is a computer: not just your laptop and phone, but your car, your appliances, your medical devices, and global infrastructure. These computers are and always will be vulnerable, but Spectre and Meltdown represent a new class of vulnerability. Unpatchable vulnerabilities in the deepest recesses of the world’s computer hardware is the new normal. It’s going to leave us all much more vulnerable in the future.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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WhatsApp Vulnerability

A new vulnerability in WhatsApp has been discovered:

…the researchers unearthed far more significant gaps in WhatsApp’s security: They say that anyone who controls WhatsApp’s servers could effortlessly insert new people into an otherwise private group, even without the permission of the administrator who ostensibly controls access to that conversation.

Matthew Green has a good description:

If all you want is the TL;DR, here’s the headline finding: due to flaws in both Signal and WhatsApp (which I single out because I use them), it’s theoretically possible for strangers to add themselves to an encrypted group chat. However, the caveat is that these attacks are extremely difficult to pull off in practice, so nobody needs to panic. But both issues are very avoidable, and tend to undermine the logic of having an end-to-end encryption protocol in the first place.

Here’s the research paper.

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Detecting Drone Surveillance with Traffic Analysis

This is clever:

Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel have built a proof-of-concept system for counter-surveillance against spy drones that demonstrates a clever, if not exactly simple, way to determine whether a certain person or object is under aerial surveillance. They first generate a recognizable pattern on whatever subject­ — a window, say — someone might want to guard from potential surveillance. Then they remotely intercept a drone’s radio signals to look for that pattern in the streaming video the drone sends back to its operator. If they spot it, they can determine that the drone is looking at their subject.

In other words, they can see what the drone sees, pulling out their recognizable pattern from the radio signal, even without breaking the drone’s encrypted video.

The details have to do with the way drone video is compressed:

The researchers’ technique takes advantage of an efficiency feature streaming video has used for years, known as “delta frames.” Instead of encoding video as a series of raw images, it’s compressed into a series of changes from the previous image in the video. That means when a streaming video shows a still object, it transmits fewer bytes of data than when it shows one that moves or changes color.

That compression feature can reveal key information about the content of the video to someone who’s intercepting the streaming data, security researchers have shown in recent research, even when the data is encrypted.

Research paper and video.

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New Malware Hijacks Cryptocurrency Mining

This is a clever attack.

After gaining control of the coin-mining software, the malware replaces the wallet address the computer owner uses to collect newly minted currency with an address controlled by the attacker. From then on, the attacker receives all coins generated, and owners are none the wiser unless they take time to manually inspect their software configuration.

So far it hasn’t been very profitable, but it — or some later version — eventually will be.

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