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Defense Against Doxing

A decade ago, I wrote about the death of ephemeral conversation. As computers were becoming ubiquitous, some unintended changes happened, too. Before computers, what we said disappeared once we’d said it. Neither face-to-face conversations nor telephone conversations were routinely recorded. A permanent communication was something different and special; we called it correspondence.

The Internet changed this. We now chat by text message and e-mail, on Facebook and on Instagram. These conversations — with friends, lovers, colleagues, fellow employees — all leave electronic trails. And while we know this intellectually, we haven’t truly internalized it. We still think of conversation as ephemeral, forgetting that we’re being recorded and what we say has the permanence of correspondence.

That our data is used by large companies for psychological manipulation ­– we call this advertising –­ is well-known. So is its use by governments for law enforcement and, depending on the country, social control. What made the news over the past year were demonstrations of how vulnerable all of this data is to hackers and the effects of having it hacked, copied and then published online. We call this doxing.

Doxing isn’t new, but it has become more common. It’s been perpetrated against corporations, law firms, individuals, the NSA and — just this week — the CIA. It’s largely harassment and not whistleblowing, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The data in your computer and in the cloud are, and will continue to be, vulnerable to hacking and publishing online. Depending on your prominence and the details of this data, you may need some new strategies to secure your private life.

There are two basic ways hackers can get at your e-mail and private documents. One way is to guess your password. That’s how hackers got their hands on personal photos of celebrities from iCloud in 2014.

How to protect yourself from this attack is pretty obvious. First, don’t choose a guessable password. This is more than not using “password1” or “qwerty”; most easily memorizable passwords are guessable. My advice is to generate passwords you have to remember by using either the XKCD scheme or the Schneier scheme, and to use large random passwords stored in a password manager for everything else.

Second, turn on two-factor authentication where you can, like Google’s 2-Step Verification. This adds another step besides just entering a password, such as having to type in a one-time code that’s sent to your mobile phone. And third, don’t reuse the same password on any sites you actually care about.

You’re not done, though. Hackers have accessed accounts by exploiting the “secret question” feature and resetting the password. That was how Sarah Palin’s e-mail account was hacked in 2008. The problem with secret questions is that they’re not very secret and not very random. My advice is to refuse to use those features. Type randomness into your keyboard, or choose a really random answer and store it in your password manager.

Finally, you also have to stay alert to phishing attacks, where a hacker sends you an enticing e-mail with a link that sends you to a web page that looks almost like the expected page, but which actually isn’t. This sort of thing can bypass two-factor authentication, and is almost certainly what tricked John Podesta and Colin Powell.

The other way hackers can get at your personal stuff is by breaking in to the computers the information is stored on. This is how the Russians got into the Democratic National Committee’s network and how a lone hacker got into the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Sometimes individuals are targeted, as when China hacked Google in 2010 to access the e-mail accounts of human rights activists. Sometimes the whole network is the target, and individuals are inadvertent victims, as when thousands of Sony employees had their e-mails published by North Korea in 2014.

Protecting yourself is difficult, because it often doesn’t matter what you do. If your e-mail is stored with a service provider in the cloud, what matters is the security of that network and that provider. Most users have no control over that part of the system. The only way to truly protect yourself is to not keep your data in the cloud where someone could get to it. This is hard. We like the fact that all of our e-mail is stored on a server somewhere and that we can instantly search it. But that convenience comes with risk. Consider deleting old e-mail, or at least downloading it and storing it offline on a portable hard drive. In fact, storing data offline is one of the best things you can do to protect it from being hacked and exposed. If it’s on your computer, what matters is the security of your operating system and network, not the security of your service provider.

Consider this for files on your own computer. The more things you can move offline, the safer you’ll be.

E-mail, no matter how you store it, is vulnerable. If you’re worried about your conversations becoming public, think about an encrypted chat program instead, such as Signal, WhatsApp or Off-the-Record Messaging. Consider using communications systems that don’t save everything by default.

None of this is perfect, of course. Portable hard drives are vulnerable when you connect them to your computer. There are ways to jump air gaps and access data on computers not connected to the Internet. Communications and data files you delete might still exist in backup systems somewhere — either yours or those of the various cloud providers you’re using. And always remember that there’s always another copy of any of your conversations stored with the person you’re conversing with. Even with these caveats, though, these measures will make a big difference.

When secrecy is truly paramount, go back to communications systems that are still ephemeral. Pick up the telephone and talk. Meet face to face. We don’t yet live in a world where everything is recorded and everything is saved, although that era is coming. Enjoy the last vestiges of ephemeral conversation while you still can.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Organizational Doxing and Disinformation

In the past few years, the devastating effects of hackers breaking into an organization’s network, stealing confidential data, and publishing everything have been made clear. It happened to the Democratic National Committee, to Sony, to the National Security Agency, to the cyber-arms weapons manufacturer Hacking Team, to the online adultery site Ashley Madison, and to the Panamanian tax-evasion law firm Mossack Fonseca.

This style of attack is known as organizational doxing. The hackers, in some cases individuals and in others nation-states, are out to make political points by revealing proprietary, secret, and sometimes incriminating information. And the documents they leak do that, airing the organizations’ embarrassments for everyone to see.

In all of these instances, the documents were real: the email conversations, still-secret product details, strategy documents, salary information, and everything else. But what if hackers were to alter documents before releasing them? This is the next step in organizational doxing­ — and the effects can be much worse.

It’s one thing to have all of your dirty laundry aired in public for everyone to see. It’s another thing entirely for someone to throw in a few choice items that aren’t real.

Recently, Russia has started using forged documents as part of broader disinformation campaigns, particularly in relation to Sweden’s entering of a military partnership with NATO, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Forging thousands — or more — documents is difficult to pull off, but slipping a single forgery in an actual cache is much easier. The attack could be something subtle. Maybe a country that anonymously publishes another country’s diplomatic cables wants to influence yet a third country, so adds some particularly egregious conversations about that third country. Or the next hacker who steals and publishes email from climate change researchers invents a bunch of over-the-top messages to make his political point even stronger. Or it could be personal: someone dumping email from thousands of users making changes in those by a friend, relative, or lover.

Imagine trying to explain to the press, eager to publish the worst of the details in the documents, that everything is accurate except this particular email. Or that particular memo. That the salary document is correct except that one entry. Or that the secret customer list posted up on WikiLeaks is correct except that there’s one inaccurate addition. It would be impossible. Who would believe you? No one. And you couldn’t prove it.

It has long been easy to forge documents on the Internet. It’s easy to create new ones, and modify old ones. It’s easy to change things like a document’s creation date, or a photograph’s location information. With a little more work, pdf files and images can be altered. These changes will be undetectable. In many ways, it’s surprising that this kind of manipulation hasn’t been seen before. My guess is that hackers who leak documents don’t have the secondary motives to make the data dumps worse than they already are, and nation-states have just gotten into the document leaking business.

Major newspapers do their best to verify the authenticity of leaked documents they receive from sources. They only publish the ones they know are authentic. The newspapers consult experts, and pay attention to forensics. They have tense conversations with governments, trying to get them to verify secret documents they’re not actually allowed to admit even exist. This is only possible because the news outlets have ongoing relationships with the governments, and they care that they get it right. There are lots of instances where neither of these two things are true, and lots of ways to leak documents without any independent verification at all.

No one is talking about this, but everyone needs to be alert to the possibility. Sooner or later, the hackers who steal an organization’s data are going to make changes in them before they release them. If these forgeries aren’t questioned, the situations of those being hacked could be made worse, or erroneous conclusions could be drawn from the documents. When someone says that a document they have been accused of writing is forged, their arguments at least should be heard.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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Hacking the Vote

Russia has attacked the US in cyberspace in an attempt to influence our national election, many experts have concluded. We need to take this national security threat seriously and both respond and defend, despite the partisan nature of this particular attack.

There is virtually no debate about that, either from the technical experts who analyzed the attack last month or the FBI which is analyzing it now. The hackers have already released DNC e-mails and voicemails, and promise more data dumps.

While their motivation remains unclear, they could continue to attack our election from now to November — and beyond.

Like everything else in society, elections have gone digital. And just as we’ve seen cyberattacks affecting all aspects of society, we’re going to see them affecting elections as well.

What happened to the DNC is an example of organizational doxing — the publishing of private information — an increasingly popular tactic against both government and private organizations. There are other ways to influence elections: denial-of-service attacks against candidate and party networks and websites, attacks against campaign workers and donors, attacks against voter rolls or election agencies, hacks of the candidate websites and social media accounts, and — the one that scares me the most — manipulation of our highly insecure but increasingly popular electronic voting machines.

On the one hand, this attack is a standard intelligence gathering operation, something the NSA does against political targets all over the world and other countries regularly do to us. The only thing different between this attack and the more common Chinese and Russian attacks against our government networks is that the Russians apparently decided to publish selected pieces of what they stole in an attempt to influence our election, and to use WikiLeaks as a way to both hide their origin and give them a veneer of respectability.

All of the attacks listed above can be perpetrated by other countries and by individuals as well. They’ve been done in elections in other countries. They’ve been done in other contexts. The Internet broadly distributes power, and what was once the sole purview of nation states is now in the hands of the masses. We’re living in a world where disgruntled people with the right hacking skills can influence our elections, wherever they are in the world.

The Snowden documents have shown the world how aggressive our own intelligence agency is in cyberspace. But despite all of the policy analysis that has gone into our own national cybersecurity, we seem perpetually taken by surprise when we are attacked. While foreign interference in national elections isn’t new, and something the US has repeatedly done, electronic interference is a different animal.

The Obama administration is considering how to respond, but politics will get in the way. Were this an attack against a popular Internet company, or a piece of our physical infrastructure, we would all be together in response. But because these attacks affect one political party, the other party benefits. Even worse, the benefited candidate is actively inviting more foreign attacks against his opponent, though he now says he was just being sarcastic. Any response from the Obama administration or the FBI will be viewed through this partisan lens, especially because the president is a Democrat.

We need to rise above that. These threats are real and they affect us all, regardless of political affiliation. That this particular attack targeted the DNC is no indication of who the next attack might target. We need to make it clear to the world that we will not accept interference in our political process, whether by foreign countries or lone hackers.

However we respond to this act of aggression, we also need to increase the security of our election systems against all threats — and quickly.

We tend to underestimate threats that haven’t happened — we discount them as “theoretical” — and overestimate threats that have happened at least once. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are a showcase example of that: administration officials ignored all the warning signs, and then drastically overreacted after the fact. These Russian attacks against our voting system have happened. And they will happen again, unless we take action.

If a foreign country attacked US critical infrastructure, we would respond as a nation against the threat. But if that attack falls along political lines, the response is more complicated. It shouldn’t be. This is a national security threat against our democracy, and needs to be treated as such.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

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