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Disrupting Ransomware by Disrupting Bitcoin

Ransomware isn’t new; the idea dates back to 1986 with the “Brain” computer virus. Now, it’s become the criminal business model of the internet for two reasons. The first is the realization that no one values data more than its original owner, and it makes more sense to ransom it back to them — sometimes with the added extortion of threatening to make it public — than it does to sell it to anyone else. The second is a safe way of collecting ransoms: bitcoin.

This is where the suggestion to ban cryptocurrencies as a way to “solve” ransomware comes from. Lee Reiners, executive director of the Global Financial Markets Center at Duke Law, proposed this in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Journalist Jacob Silverman made the same proposal in a New Republic essay. Without this payment channel, they write, the major ransomware epidemic is likely to vanish, since the only payment alternatives are suitcases full of cash or the banking system, both of which have severe limitations for criminal enterprises.

It’s the same problem kidnappers have had for centuries. The riskiest part of the operation is collecting the ransom. That’s when the criminal exposes themselves, by telling the payer where to leave the money. Or gives out their banking details. This is how law enforcement tracks kidnappers down and arrests them. The rise of an anonymous, global, distributed money-transfer system outside of any national control is what makes computer ransomware possible.

This problem is made worse by the nature of the criminals. They operate out of countries that don’t have the resources to prosecute cybercriminals, like Nigeria; or protect cybercriminals that only attack outside their borders, like Russia; or use the proceeds as a revenue stream, like North Korea. So even when a particular group is identified, it is often impossible to prosecute. Which leaves the only tools left a combination of successfully blocking attacks (another hard problem) and eliminating the payment channels that the criminals need to turn their attacks into profit.

In this light, banning cryptocurrencies like bitcoin is an obvious solution. But while the solution is conceptually simple, it’s also impossible because — despite its overwhelming problems — there are so many legitimate interests using cryptocurrencies, albeit largely for speculation and not for legal payments.

We suggest an easier alternative: merely disrupt the cryptocurrency markets. Making them harder to use will have the effect of making them less useful as a ransomware payment vehicle, and not just because victims will have more difficulty figuring out how to pay. The reason requires understanding how criminals collect their profits.

Paying a ransom starts with a victim turning a large sum of money into bitcoin and then transferring it to a criminal controlled “account.” Bitcoin is, in itself, useless to the criminal. You can’t actually buy much with bitcoin. It’s more like casino chips, only usable in a single establishment for a single purpose. (Yes, there are companies that “accept” bitcoin, but that is mostly a PR stunt.) A criminal needs to convert the bitcoin into some national currency that he can actually save, spend, invest, or whatever.

This is where it gets interesting. Conceptually, bitcoin combines numbered Swiss bank accounts with public transactions and balances. Anyone can create as many anonymous accounts as they want, but every transaction is posted publicly for the entire world to see. This creates some important challenges for these criminals.

First, the criminal needs to take efforts to conceal the bitcoin. In the old days, criminals used “https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/individual-arrested-and-charged-operating-notorious-darknet-cryptocurrency-mixer”>mixing services“: third parties that would accept bitcoin into one account and then return it (minus a fee) from an unconnected set of accounts. Modern bitcoin tracing tools make this money laundering trick ineffective. Instead, the modern criminal does something called “chain swaps.”

In a chain swap, the criminal transfers the bitcoin to a shady offshore cryptocurrency exchange. These exchanges are notoriously weak about enforcing money laundering laws and — for the most part — don’t have access to the banking system. Once on this alternate exchange, the criminal sells his bitcoin and buys some other cryptocurrency like Ethereum, Dogecoin, Tether, Monero, or one of dozens of others. They then transfer it to another shady offshore exchange and transfer it back into bitcoin. Voila­ — they now have “clean” bitcoin.

Second, the criminal needs to convert that bitcoin into spendable money. They take their newly cleaned bitcoin and transfer it to yet another exchange, one connected to the banking system. Or perhaps they hire someone else to do this step. These exchanges conduct greater oversight of their customers, but the criminal can use a network of bogus accounts, recruit a bunch of users to act as mules, or simply bribe an employee at the exchange to evade whatever laws there. The end result of this activity is to turn the bitcoin into dollars, euros, or some other easily usable currency.

Both of these steps — the chain swapping and currency conversion — require a large amount of normal activity to keep from standing out. That is, they will be easy for law enforcement to identify unless they are hiding among lots of regular, noncriminal transactions. If speculators stopped buying and selling cryptocurrencies and the market shrunk drastically, these criminal activities would no longer be easy to conceal: there’s simply too much money involved.

This is why disruption will work. It doesn’t require an outright ban to stop these criminals from using bitcoin — just enough sand in the gears in the cryptocurrency space to reduce its size and scope.

How do we do this?

The first mechanism observes that the criminal’s flows have a unique pattern. The overall cryptocurrency space is “zero sum”: Every dollar made was provided by someone else. And the primary legal use of cryptocurrencies involves speculation: people effectively betting on a currency’s future value. So the background speculators are mostly balanced: One bitcoin in results in one bitcoin out. There are exceptions involving offshore exchanges and speculation among different cryptocurrencies, but they’re marginal, and only involve turning one bitcoin into a little more (if a speculator is lucky) or a little less (if unlucky).

Criminals and their victims act differently. Victims are net buyers, turning millions of dollars into bitcoin and never going the other way. Criminals are net sellers, only turning bitcoin into currency. The only other net sellers are the cryptocurrency miners, and they are easy to identify.

Any banked exchange that cares about enforcing money laundering laws must consider all significant net sellers of cryptocurrencies as potential criminals and report them to both in-country and US financial authorities. Any exchange that doesn’t should have its banking forcefully cut.

The US Treasury can ensure these exchanges are cut out of the banking system. By designating a rogue but banked exchange, the Treasury says that it is illegal not only to do business with the exchange but for US banks to do business with the exchange’s bank. As a consequence, the rogue exchange would quickly find its banking options eliminated.

A second mechanism involves the IRS. In 2019, it started demanding information from cryptocurrency exchanges and added a check box to the 1040 form that requires disclosure from those who both buy and sell cryptocurrencies. And while this is intended to target tax evasion, it has the side consequence of disrupting those offshore exchanges criminals rely to launder their bitcoin. Speculation on cryptocurrency is far less attractive since the speculators have to pay taxes but most exchanges don’t help out by filing 1099-Bs that make it easy to calculate the taxes owed.

A third mechanism involves targeting the cryptocurrency Tether. While most cryptocurrencies have values that fluctuate with demand, Tether is a “stablecoin” that is supposedly backed one-to-one with dollars. Of course, it probably isn’t, as its claim to be the seventh largest holder of commercial paper (short-term loans to major businesses) is blatantly untrue. Instead, they appear part of a cycle where new Tether is issued, used to buy cryptocurrencies, and the resulting cryptocurrencies now “back” Tether and drive up the price.

This behavior is clearly that of a “wildcat bank,” an 1800s fraudulent banking style that has long been illegal. Tether also bears a striking similarity to Liberty Reserve, an online currency that the Department of Justice successfully prosecuted for money laundering in 2013. Shutting down Tether would have the side effect of eliminating the value proposition for the exchanges that support chain swapping, since these exchanges need a “stable” value for the speculators to trade against.

There are further possibilities. One involves treating the cryptocurrency miners, those who validate all transactions and add them to the public record, as money transmitters — and subject to the regulations around that business. Another option involves requiring cryptocurrency exchanges to actually deliver the cryptocurrencies into customer-controlled wallets.

Effectively, all cryptocurrency exchanges avoid transferring cryptocurrencies between customers. Instead, they simply record entries in a central database. This makes sense because actual “on chain” transactions can be particularly expensive for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum. If all speculators needed to actually receive their bitcoins, it would make clear that its value proposition as a currency simply doesn’t exist, as the already strained system would grind to a halt.

And, of course, law enforcement can already target criminals’ bitcoin directly. An example of this just occurred, when US law enforcement was able to seize 85% of the $4 million ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to the criminal organization DarkSide. That by the time the seizure occurred the bitcoin lost more than 30% of its value is just one more reminder of how unworkable bitcoin is as a “store of value.”

There is no single silver bullet to disrupt either cryptocurrencies or ransomware. But enough little disruptions, a “death of a thousand cuts” through new and existing regulation, should make bitcoin no longer usable for ransomware. And if there’s no safe way for a criminal to collect the ransom, their business model becomes no longer viable.

This essay was written with Nicholas Weaver, and previously appeared on Slate.com.

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Identifying the Person Behind Bitcoin Fog

The person behind the Bitcoin Fog was identified and arrested. Bitcoin Fog was an anonymization service: for a fee, it mixed a bunch of people’s bitcoins up so that it was hard to figure out where any individual coins came from. It ran for ten years.

Identifying the person behind Bitcoin Fog serves as an illustrative example of how hard it is to be anonymous online in the face of a competent police investigation:

Most remarkable, however, is the IRS’s account of tracking down Sterlingov using the very same sort of blockchain analysis that his own service was meant to defeat. The complaint outlines how Sterlingov allegedly paid for the server hosting of Bitcoin Fog at one point in 2011 using the now-defunct digital currency Liberty Reserve. It goes on to show the blockchain evidence that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that Liberty Reserve currency with bitcoins: He first exchanged euros for the bitcoins on the early cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, then moved those bitcoins through several subsequent addresses, and finally traded them on another currency exchange for the Liberty Reserve funds he’d use to set up Bitcoin Fog’s domain.

Based on tracing those financial transactions, the IRS says, it then identified Mt. Gox accounts that used Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, and even a Google account that included a Russian-language document on its Google Drive offering instructions for how to obscure Bitcoin payments. That document described exactly the steps Sterlingov allegedly took to buy the Liberty Reserve funds he’d used.

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Signal Adds Cryptocurrency Support

According to Wired, Signal is adding support for the cryptocurrency MobileCoin, “a form of digital cash designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy and even their anonymity.”

Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, describes the new payments feature as an attempt to extend Signal’s privacy protections to payments with the same seamless experience that Signal has offered for encrypted conversations. “There’s a palpable difference in the feeling of what it’s like to communicate over Signal, knowing you’re not being watched or listened to, versus other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview. “I would like to get to a world where not only can you feel that when you talk to your therapist over Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the session over Signal.”

I think this is an incredibly bad idea. It’s not just the bloating of what was a clean secure communications app. It’s not just that blockchain is just plain stupid. It’s not even that Signal is choosing to tie itself to a specific blockchain currency. It’s that adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.

And I see no good reason to do this. Secure communications and secure transactions can be separate apps, even separate apps from the same organization. End-to-end encryption is already at risk. Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies.

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary from Stephen Deihl:

I think I speak for many technologists when I say that any bolted-on cryptocurrency monetization scheme smells like a giant pile of rubbish and feels enormously user-exploitative. We’ve seen this before, after all Telegram tried the same thing in an ICO that imploded when SEC shut them down, and Facebook famously tried and failed to monetize WhatsApp through their decentralized-but-not-really digital money market fund project.

[…]

Signal is a still a great piece of software. Just do one thing and do it well, be the trusted de facto platform for private messaging that empowers dissidents, journalists and grandma all to communicate freely with the same guarantees of privacy. Don’t become a dodgy money transmitter business. This is not the way.

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Illegal Content and the Blockchain

Security researchers have recently discovered a botnet with a novel defense against takedowns. Normally, authorities can disable a botnet by taking over its command-and-control server. With nowhere to go for instructions, the botnet is rendered useless. But over the years, botnet designers have come up with ways to make this counterattack harder. Now the content-delivery network Akamai has reported on a new method: a botnet that uses the Bitcoin blockchain ledger. Since the blockchain is globally accessible and hard to take down, the botnet’s operators appear to be safe.

It’s best to avoid explaining the mathematics of Bitcoin’s blockchain, but to understand the colossal implications here, you need to understand one concept. Blockchains are a type of “distributed ledger”: a record of all transactions since the beginning, and everyone using the blockchain needs to have access to — and reference — a copy of it. What if someone puts illegal material in the blockchain? Either everyone has a copy of it, or the blockchain’s security fails.

To be fair, not absolutely everyone who uses a blockchain holds a copy of the entire ledger. Many who buy cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum don’t bother using the ledger to verify their purchase. Many don’t actually hold the currency outright, and instead trust an exchange to do the transactions and hold the coins. But people need to continually verify the blockchain’s history on the ledger for the system to be secure. If they stopped, then it would be trivial to forge coins. That’s how the system works.

Some years ago, people started noticing all sorts of things embedded in the Bitcoin blockchain. There are digital images, including one of Nelson Mandela. There’s the Bitcoin logo, and the original paper describing Bitcoin by its alleged founder, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. There are advertisements, and several prayers. There’s even illegal pornography and leaked classified documents. All of these were put in by anonymous Bitcoin users. But none of this, so far, appears to seriously threaten those in power in governments and corporations. Once someone adds something to the Bitcoin ledger, it becomes sacrosanct. Removing something requires a fork of the blockchain, in which Bitcoin fragments into multiple parallel cryptocurrencies (and associated blockchains). Forks happen, rarely, but never yet because of legal coercion. And repeated forking would destroy Bitcoin’s stature as a stable(ish) currency.

The botnet’s designers are using this idea to create an unblockable means of coordination, but the implications are much greater. Imagine someone using this idea to evade government censorship. Most Bitcoin mining happens in China. What if someone added a bunch of Chinese-censored Falun Gong texts to the blockchain?<

What if someone added a type of political speech that Singapore routinely censors? Or cartoons that Disney holds the copyright to?

In Bitcoin’s and most other public blockchains there are no central, trusted authorities. Anyone in the world can perform transactions or become a miner. Everyone is equal to the extent that they have the hardware and electricity to perform cryptographic computations.

This openness is also a vulnerability, one that opens the door to asymmetric threats and small-time malicious actors. Anyone can put information in the one and only Bitcoin blockchain. Again, that’s how the system works.

Over the last three decades, the world has witnessed the power of open networks: blockchains, social media, the very web itself. What makes them so powerful is that their value is related not just to the number of users, but the number of potential links between users. This is Metcalfe’s law — value in a network is quadratic, not linear, in the number of users — and every open network since has followed its prophecy.

As Bitcoin has grown, its monetary value has skyrocketed, even if its uses remain unclear. With no barrier to entry, the blockchain space has been a Wild West of innovation and lawlessness. But today, many prominent advocates suggest Bitcoin should become a global, universal currency. In this context, asymmetric threats like embedded illegal data become a major challenge.

The philosophy behind Bitcoin traces to the earliest days of the open internet. Articulated in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, it was and is the ethos of tech startups: Code is more trustworthy than institutions. Information is meant to be free, and nobody has the right — and should not have the ability — to control it.

But information must reside somewhere. Code is written by and for people, stored on computers located within countries, and embedded within the institutions and societies we have created. To trust information is to trust its chain of custody and the social context it comes from. Neither code nor information is value-neutral, nor ever free of human context.

Today, Barlow’s vision is a mere shadow; every society controls the information its people can access. Some of this control is through overt censorship, as China controls information about Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Uyghurs. Some of this is through civil laws designed by the powerful for their benefit, as with Disney and US copyright law, or UK libel law.

Bitcoin and blockchains like it are on a collision course with these laws. What happens when the interests of the powerful, with the law on their side, are pitted against an open blockchain? Let’s imagine how our various scenarios might play out.

China first: In response to Falun Gong texts in the blockchain, the People’s Republic decrees that any miners processing blocks with banned content will be taken offline — their IPs will be blacklisted. This causes a hard fork of the blockchain at the point just before the banned content. China might do this under the guise of a “patriotic” messaging campaign, publicly stating that it’s merely maintaining financial sovereignty from Western banks. Then it uses paid influencers and moderators on social media to pump the China Bitcoin fork, through both partisan comments and transactions. Two distinct forks would soon emerge, one behind China’s Great Firewall and one outside. Other countries with similar governmental and media ecosystems — Russia, Singapore, Myanmar — might consider following suit, creating multiple national Bitcoin forks. These would operate independently, under mandates to censor unacceptable transactions from then on.

Disney’s approach would play out differently. Imagine the company announces it will sue any ISP that hosts copyrighted content, starting with networks hosting the biggest miners. (Disney has sued to enforce its intellectual property rights in China before.) After some legal pressure, the networks cut the miners off. The miners reestablish themselves on another network, but Disney keeps the pressure on. Eventually miners get pushed further and further off of mainstream network providers, and resort to tunneling their traffic through an anonymity service like Tor. That causes a major slowdown in the already slow (because of the mathematics) Bitcoin network. Disney might issue takedown requests for Tor exit nodes, causing the network to slow to a crawl. It could persist like this for a long time without a fork. Or the slowdown could cause people to jump ship, either by forking Bitcoin or switching to another cryptocurrency without the copyrighted content.

And then there’s illegal pornographic content and leaked classified data. These have been on the Bitcoin blockchain for over five years, and nothing has been done about it. Just like the botnet example, it may be that these do not threaten existing power structures enough to warrant takedowns. This could easily change if Bitcoin becomes a popular way to share child sexual abuse material. Simply having these illegal images on your hard drive is a felony, which could have significant repercussions for anyone involved in Bitcoin.

Whichever scenario plays out, this may be the Achilles heel of Bitcoin as a global currency.

If an open network such as a blockchain were threatened by a powerful organization — China’s censors, Disney’s lawyers, or the FBI trying to take down a more dangerous botnet — it could fragment into multiple networks. That’s not just a nuisance, but an existential risk to Bitcoin.

Suppose Bitcoin were fragmented into 10 smaller blockchains, perhaps by geography: one in China, another in the US, and so on. These fragments might retain their original users, and by ordinary logic, nothing would have changed. But Metcalfe’s law implies that the overall value of these blockchain fragments combined would be a mere tenth of the original. That is because the value of an open network relates to how many others you can communicate with — and, in a blockchain, transact with. Since the security of bitcoin currency is achieved through expensive computations, fragmented blockchains are also easier to attack in a conventional manner — through a 51 percent attack — by an organized attacker. This is especially the case if the smaller blockchains all use the same hash function, as they would here.

Traditional currencies are generally not vulnerable to these sorts of asymmetric threats. There are no viable small-scale attacks against the US dollar, or almost any other fiat currency. The institutions and beliefs that give money its value are deep-seated, despite instances of currency hyperinflation.

The only notable attacks against fiat currencies are in the form of counterfeiting. Even in the past, when counterfeit bills were common, attacks could be thwarted. Counterfeiters require specialized equipment and are vulnerable to law enforcement discovery and arrest. Furthermore, most money today — even if it’s nominally in a fiat currency — doesn’t exist in paper form.

Bitcoin attracted a following for its openness and immunity from government control. Its goal is to create a world that replaces cultural power with cryptographic power: verification in code, not trust in people. But there is no such world. And today, that feature is a vulnerability. We really don’t know what will happen when the human systems of trust come into conflict with the trustless verification that make blockchain currencies unique. Just last week we saw this exact attack on smaller blockchains — not Bitcoin yet. We are watching a public socio-technical experiment in the making, and we will witness its success or failure in the not-too-distant future.

This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared on Wired.com.

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Cryptocurrency Pump and Dump Scams

Really interesting research: “An examination of the cryptocurrency pump and dump ecosystem“:

Abstract: The surge of interest in cryptocurrencies has been accompanied by a proliferation of fraud. This paper examines pump and dump schemes. The recent explosion of nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies in an unregulated environment has expanded the scope for abuse. We quantify the scope of cryptocurrency pump and dump schemes on Discord and Telegram, two popular group-messaging platforms. We joined all relevant Telegram and Discord groups/channels and identified thousands of different pumps. Our findings provide the first measure of the scope of such pumps and empirically document important properties of this ecosystem.

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Chrome Extension Stealing Cryptocurrency Keys and Passwords

A malicious Chrome extension surreptitiously steals Ethereum keys and passwords:

According to Denley, the extension is dangerous to users in two ways. First, any funds (ETH coins and ERC0-based tokens) managed directly inside the extension are at risk.

Denley says that the extension sends the private keys of all wallets created or managed through its interface to a third-party website located at erc20wallet[.]tk.

Second, the extension also actively injects malicious JavaScript code when users navigate to five well-known and popular cryptocurrency management platforms. This code steals login credentials and private keys, data that it’s sent to the same erc20wallet[.]tk third-party website.

Another example of how blockchain requires many single points of trust in order to be secure.

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Dark Web Site Taken Down without Breaking Encryption

The US Department of Justice unraveled a dark web child-porn website, leading to the arrest of 337 people in at least 18 countries. This was all accomplished not through any backdoors in communications systems, but by analyzing the bitcoin transactions and following the money:

Welcome to Video made money by charging fees in bitcoin, and gave each user a unique bitcoin wallet address when they created an account. Son operated the site as a Tor hidden service, a dark web site with a special address that helps mask the identity of the site’s host and its location. But Son and others made mistakes that allowed law enforcement to track them. For example, according to the indictment, very basic assessments of the Welcome to Video website revealed two unconcealed IP addresses managed by a South Korean internet service provider and assigned to an account that provided service to Son’s home address. When agents searched Son’s residence, they found the server running Welcome to Video.

To “follow the money,” as officials put it in Wednesday’s press conference, law enforcement agents sent fairly small amounts of bitcoin­ — roughly equivalent at the time to $125 to $290­ — to the bitcoin wallets Welcome to Video listed for payments. Since the bitcoin blockchain leaves all transactions visible and verifiable, they could observe the currency in these wallets being transferred to another wallet. Law enforcement learned from a bitcoin exchange that the second wallet was registered to Son with his personal phone number and one of his personal email addresses.

Remember this the next time some law enforcement official tells us that they’re powerless to investigate crime without breaking cryptography for everyone.

More news articles. The indictment is here. Some of it is pretty horrifying to read.

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