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Hacking a Gene Sequencer by Encoding Malware in a DNA Strand

One of the common ways to hack a computer is to mess with its input data. That is, if you can feed the computer data that it interprets — or misinterprets — in a particular way, you can trick the computer into doing things that it wasn’t intended to do. This is basically what a buffer overflow attack is: the data input overflows a buffer and ends up being executed by the computer process.

Well, some researchers did this with a computer that processes DNA, and they encoded their malware in the DNA strands themselves:

To make the malware, the team translated a simple computer command into a short stretch of 176 DNA letters, denoted as A, G, C, and T. After ordering copies of the DNA from a vendor for $89, they fed the strands to a sequencing machine, which read off the gene letters, storing them as binary digits, 0s and 1s.

Erlich says the attack took advantage of a spill-over effect, when data that exceeds a storage buffer can be interpreted as a computer command. In this case, the command contacted a server controlled by Kohno’s team, from which they took control of a computer in their lab they were using to analyze the DNA file.

News articles. Research paper.

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Keylogger Found in HP Laptop Audio Drivers

This is a weird story: researchers have discovered that an audio driver installed in some HP laptops includes a keylogger, which records all keystrokes to a local file. There seems to be nothing malicious about this, but it’s a vivid illustration of how hard it is to secure a modern computer. The operating system, drivers, processes, application software, and everything else is so complicated that it’s pretty much impossible to lock down every aspect of it. So many things are eavesdropping on different aspects of the computer’s operation, collecting personal data as they do so. If an attacker can get to the computer when the drive is unencrypted, he gets access to all sorts of information streams — and there’s often nothing the computer’s owner can do.

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Class Breaks

There’s a concept from computer security known as a class break. It’s a particular security vulnerability that breaks not just one system, but an entire class of systems. Examples might be a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in Internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allow an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet.

It’s a particular way computer systems can fail, exacerbated by the characteristics of computers and software. It only takes one smart person to figure out how to attack the system. Once he does that, he can write software that automates his attack. He can do it over the Internet, so he doesn’t have to be near his victim. He can automate his attack so it works while he sleeps. And then he can pass the ability to someone­ — or to lots of people — ­without the skill. This changes the nature of security failures, and completely upends how we need to defend against them.

An example: Picking a mechanical door lock requires both skill and time. Each lock is a new job, and success at one lock doesn’t guarantee success with another of the same design. Electronic door locks, like the ones you now find in hotel rooms, have different vulnerabilities. An attacker can find a flaw in the design that allows him to create a key card that opens every door. If he publishes his attack software, not just the attacker, but anyone can now open every lock. And if those locks are connected to the Internet, attackers could potentially open door locks remotely — ­they could open every door lock remotely at the same time. That’s a class break.

It’s how computer systems fail, but it’s not how we think about failures. We still think about automobile security in terms of individual car thieves manually stealing cars. We don’t think of hackers remotely taking control of cars over the Internet. Or, remotely disabling every car over the Internet. We think about voting fraud as unauthorized individuals trying to vote. We don’t think about a single person or organization remotely manipulating thousands of Internet-connected voting machines.

In a sense, class breaks are not a new concept in risk management. It’s the difference between home burglaries and fires, which happen occasionally to different houses in a neighborhood over the course of the year, and floods and earthquakes, which either happen to everyone in the neighborhood or no one. Insurance companies can handle both types of risk, but they are inherently different. The increasing computerization of everything is moving us from a burglary/fire risk model to a flood/earthquake model, which a given threat either affects everyone in town or doesn’t happen at all.

But there’s a key difference between floods/earthquakes and class breaks in computer systems: the former are random natural phenomena, while the latter is human-directed. Floods don’t change their behavior to maximize their damage based on the types of defenses we build. Attackers do that to computer systems. Attackers examine our systems, looking for class breaks. And once one of them finds one, they’ll exploit it again and again until the vulnerability is fixed.

As we move into the world of the Internet of Things, where computers permeate our lives at every level, class breaks will become increasingly important. The combination of automation and action at a distance will give attackers more power and leverage than they have ever had before. Security notions like the precautionary principle­ — where the potential of harm is so great that we err on the side of not deploying a new technology without proofs of security — will become more important in a world where an attacker can open all of the door locks or hack all of the power plants. It’s not an inherently less secure world, but it’s a differently secure world. It’s a world where driverless cars are much safer than people-driven cars, until suddenly they’re not. We need to build systems that assume the possibility of class breaks — and maintain security despite them.

This essay originally appeared on Edge.org as part of their annual question. This year it was: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

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Securing Communications in a Trump Administration

Susan Landau has an excellent essay on why it’s more important than ever to have backdoor-free encryption on our computer and communications systems.

Protecting the privacy of speech is crucial for preserving our democracy. We live at a time when tracking an individual — ­a journalist, a member of the political opposition, a citizen engaged in peaceful protest­ — or listening to their communications is far easier than at any time in human history. Political leaders on both sides now have a responsibility to work for securing communications and devices. This means supporting not only the laws protecting free speech and the accompanying communications, but also the technologies to do so: end-to-end encryption and secured devices; it also means soundly rejecting all proposals for front-door exceptional access. Prior to the election there were strong, sound security arguments for rejecting such proposals. The privacy arguments have now, suddenly, become critically important as well. Threatened authoritarianism means that we need technological protections for our private communications every bit as much as we need the legal ones we presently have.

Unfortunately, the trend is moving in the other direction. The UK just passed the Investigatory Powers Act, giving police and intelligence agencies incredibly broad surveillance powers with very little oversight. And Bits of Freedom just reported that “Croatia, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Hungary all want an EU law to be created to help their law enforcement authorities access encrypted information and share data with investigators in other countries.”

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Everyone Wants You To Have Security, But Not from Them

In December, Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was interviewed at the CATO Institute Surveillance Conference. One of the things he said, after talking about some of the security measures his company has put in place post-Snowden, was: “If you have important information, the safest place to keep it is in Google. And I can assure you that the safest place to not keep it is anywhere else.”

The surprised me, because Google collects all of your information to show you more targeted advertising. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and Google is one of the most successful companies at that. To claim that Google protects your privacy better than anyone else is to profoundly misunderstand why Google stores your data for free in the first place.

I was reminded of this last week when I appeared on Glenn Beck’s show along with cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie. Diffie said:

You can’t have privacy without security, and I think we have glaring failures in computer security in problems that we’ve been working on for 40 years. You really should not live in fear of opening an attachment to a message. It ought to be confined; your computer ought to be able to handle it. And the fact that we have persisted for decades without solving these problems is partly because they’re very difficult, but partly because there are lots of people who want you to be secure against everyone but them. And that includes all of the major computer manufacturers who, roughly speaking, want to manage your computer for you. The trouble is, I’m not sure of any practical alternative.

That neatly explains Google. Eric Schmidt does want your data to be secure. He wants Google to be the safest place for your data ­ as long as you don’t mind the fact that Google has access to your data. Facebook wants the same thing: to protect your data from everyone except Facebook. Hardware companies are no different. Last week, we learned that Lenovo computers shipped with a piece of adware called Superfish that broke users’ security to spy on them for advertising purposes.

Governments are no different. The FBI wants people to have strong encryption, but it wants backdoor access so it can get at your data. UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants you to have good security, just as long as it’s not so strong as to keep the UK government out. And, of course, the NSA spends a lot of money ensuring that there’s no security it can’t break.

Corporations want access to your data for profit; governments want it for security purposes, be they benevolent or malevolent. But Diffie makes an even stronger point: we give lots of companies access to our data because it makes our lives easier.

I wrote about this in my latest book, Data and Goliath:

Convenience is the other reason we willingly give highly personal data to corporate interests, and put up with becoming objects of their surveillance. As I keep saying, surveillance-based services are useful and valuable. We like it when we can access our address book, calendar, photographs, documents, and everything else on any device we happen to be near. We like services like Siri and Google Now, which work best when they know tons about you. Social networking apps make it easier to hang out with our friends. Cell phone apps like Google Maps, Yelp, Weather, and Uber work better and faster when they know our location. Letting apps like Pocket or Instapaper know what we’re reading feels like a small price to pay for getting everything we want to read in one convenient place. We even like it when ads are targeted to exactly what we’re interested in. The benefits of surveillance in these and other applications are real, and significant.

Like Diffie, I’m not sure there is any practical alternative. The reason the Internet is a worldwide mass-market phenomenon is that all the technological details are hidden from view. Someone else is taking care of it. We want strong security, but we also want companies to have access to our computers, smart devices, and data. We want someone else to manage our computers and smart phones, organize our e-mail and photos, and help us move data between our various devices.

Those “someones” will necessarily be able to violate our privacy, either by deliberately peeking at our data or by having such lax security that they’re vulnerable to national intelligence agencies, cybercriminals, or both. Last week, we learned that the NSA broke into the Dutch company Gemalto and stole the encryption keys for billions ­ yes, billions ­ of cell phones worldwide. That was possible because we consumers don’t want to do the work of securely generating those keys and setting up our own security when we get our phones; we want it done automatically by the phone manufacturers. We want our data to be secure, but we want someone to be able to recover it all when we forget our password.

We’ll never solve these security problems as long as we’re our own worst enemy. That’s why I believe that any long-term security solution will not only be technological, but political as well. We need laws that will protect our privacy from those who obey the laws, and to punish those who break the laws. We need laws that require those entrusted with our data to protect our data. Yes, we need better security technologies, but we also need laws mandating the use of those technologies.

This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com.

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Man-in-the-Middle Attacks on Lenovo Computers

It’s not just national intelligence agencies that break your https security through man-in-the-middle attacks. Corporations do it, too. For the past few months, Lenovo PCs have shipped with an adware app called Superfish that man-in-the-middles TLS connections.

Here’s how it works, and here’s how to get rid of it.

And you should get rid of it, not merely because it’s nasty adware. It’s a security risk. Someone with the password — here it is, cracked — can perform a man-in-the-middle attack on your security as well.

Since the story broke, Lenovo completely misunderstood the problem, turned off the app, and is now removing it from its computers.

Superfish, as well, exhibited extreme cluelessness by claiming its sofware poses no security risk. That was before someone cracked its password, though.

Three Slashdot threads.

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Ford Proud that "Mustang" Is a Common Password

This is what happens when a PR person gets hold of information he really doesn’t understand.

“Mustang” is the 16th most common password on the Internet according to a recent study by SplashData, besting both “superman” in 21st place and “batman” in 24th

Mustang is the only car to appear in the top 25 most common Internet passwords

That’s not bad. If you’re a PR person, that’s good.

Here are a few suggestions for strengthening your “mustang” password:

  • Add numbers to your password (favorite Mustang model year, year you bought your Mustang or year you sold the car)

  • Incorporate Mustang option codes, paint codes, engine codes or digits from your VIN

  • Create acronyms for modifications made to your Mustang (FRSC, for Ford Racing SuperCharger, for example)

  • Include your favorite driving road or road trip destination

Keep in mind that using the same password on all websites is not recommended; a password manager can help keep multiple Mustang-related passwords organized and easy-to-access.

At least they didn’t sue users for copyright infringement.

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Lessons from the Sony Hack

Earlier this month, a mysterious group that calls itself Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems and began revealing many of the Hollywood studio’s best-kept secrets, from details about unreleased movies to embarrassing emails (notably some racist notes from Sony bigwigs about President Barack Obama’s presumed movie-watching preferences) to the personnel data of employees, including salaries and performance reviews. The Federal Bureau of Investigation now says it has evidence that North Korea was behind the attack, and Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of “The Interview,” a satire targeting that country’s dictator, after the hackers made some ridiculous threats about terrorist violence.

Your reaction to the massive hacking of such a prominent company will depend on whether you’re fluent in information-technology security. If you’re not, you’re probably wondering how in the world this could happen. If you are, you’re aware that this could happen to any company (though it is still amazing that Sony made it so easy).

To understand any given episode of hacking, you need to understand who your adversary is. I’ve spent decades dealing with Internet hackers (as I do now at my current firm), and I’ve learned to separate opportunistic attacks from targeted ones.

You can characterize attackers along two axes: skill and focus. Most attacks are low-skill and low-focus — people using common hacking tools against thousands of networks world-wide. These low-end attacks include sending spam out to millions of email addresses, hoping that someone will fall for it and click on a poisoned link. I think of them as the background radiation of the Internet.

High-skill, low-focus attacks are more serious. These include the more sophisticated attacks using newly discovered “zero-day” vulnerabilities in software, systems and networks. This is the sort of attack that affected Target, J.P. Morgan Chase and most of the other commercial networks that you’ve heard about in the past year or so.

But even scarier are the high-skill, high-focus attacks­ — the type that hit Sony. This includes sophisticated attacks seemingly run by national intelligence agencies, using such spying tools as Regin and Flame, which many in the IT world suspect were created by the U.S.; Turla, a piece of malware that many blame on the Russian government; and a huge snooping effort called GhostNet, which spied on the Dalai Lama and Asian governments, leading many of my colleagues to blame China. (We’re mostly guessing about the origins of these attacks; governments refuse to comment on such issues.) China has also been accused of trying to hack into the New York Times in 2010, and in May, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the indictment of five Chinese military officials for cyberattacks against U.S. corporations.

This category also includes private actors, including the hacker group known as Anonymous, which mounted a Sony-style attack against the Internet-security firm HBGary Federal, and the unknown hackers who stole racy celebrity photos from Apple’s iCloud and posted them. If you’ve heard the IT-security buzz phrase “advanced persistent threat,” this is it.

There is a key difference among these kinds of hacking. In the first two categories, the attacker is an opportunist. The hackers who penetrated Home Depot’s networks didn’t seem to care much about Home Depot; they just wanted a large database of credit-card numbers. Any large retailer would do.

But a skilled, determined attacker wants to attack a specific victim. The reasons may be political: to hurt a government or leader enmeshed in a geopolitical battle. Or ethical: to punish an industry that the hacker abhors, like big oil or big pharma. Or maybe the victim is just a company that hackers love to hate. (Sony falls into this category: It has been infuriating hackers since 2005, when the company put malicious software on its CDs in a failed attempt to prevent copying.)

Low-focus attacks are easier to defend against: If Home Depot’s systems had been better protected, the hackers would have just moved on to an easier target. With attackers who are highly skilled and highly focused, however, what matters is whether a targeted company’s security is superior to the attacker’s skills, not just to the security measures of other companies. Often, it isn’t. We’re much better at such relative security than we are at absolute security.

That is why security experts aren’t surprised by the Sony story. We know people who do penetration testing for a living — real, no-holds-barred attacks that mimic a full-on assault by a dogged, expert attacker — and we know that the expert always gets in. Against a sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated attacker, all networks are vulnerable. But good security makes many kinds of attack harder, costlier and riskier. Against attackers who aren’t sufficiently skilled, good security may protect you completely.

It is hard to put a dollar value on security that is strong enough to assure you that your embarrassing emails and personnel information won’t end up posted online somewhere, but Sony clearly failed here. Its security turned out to be subpar. They didn’t have to leave so much information exposed. And they didn’t have to be so slow detecting the breach, giving the attackers free rein to wander about and take so much stuff.

For those worried that what happened to Sony could happen to you, I have two pieces of advice. The first is for organizations: take this stuff seriously. Security is a combination of protection, detection and response. You need prevention to defend against low-focus attacks and to make targeted attacks harder. You need detection to spot the attackers who inevitably get through. And you need response to minimize the damage, restore security and manage the fallout.

The time to start is before the attack hits: Sony would have fared much better if its executives simply hadn’t made racist jokes about Mr. Obama or insulted its stars — or if their response systems had been agile enough to kick the hackers out before they grabbed everything.

My second piece of advice is for individuals. The worst invasion of privacy from the Sony hack didn’t happen to the executives or the stars; it happened to the blameless random employees who were just using their company’s email system. Because of that, they’ve had their most personal conversations — gossip, medical conditions, love lives — exposed. The press may not have divulged this information, but their friends and relatives peeked at it. Hundreds of personal tragedies must be unfolding right now.

This could be any of us. We have no choice but to entrust companies with our intimate conversations: on email, on Facebook, by text and so on. We have no choice but to entrust the retailers that we use with our financial details. And we have little choice but to use cloud services such as iCloud and Google Docs.

So be smart: Understand the risks. Know that your data are vulnerable. Opt out when you can. And agitate for government intervention to ensure that organizations protect your data as well as you would. Like many areas of our hyper-technical world, this isn’t something markets can fix.

This essay previously appeared on the Wall Street Journal CIO Journal.

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