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The Story of Tiversa

The New Yorker has published the long and interesting story of the cybersecurity firm Tiversa.

Watching “60 Minutes,” Boback saw a remarkable new business angle. Here was a multibillion-dollar industry with a near-existential problem and no clear solution. He did not know it then, but, as he turned the opportunity over in his mind, he was setting in motion a sequence of events that would earn him millions of dollars, friendships with business élites, prime-time media attention, and respect in Congress. It would also place him at the center of one of the strangest stories in the brief history of cybersecurity; he would be mired in lawsuits, countersuits, and counter-countersuits, which would gather into a vortex of litigation so ominous that one friend compared it to the Bermuda Triangle. He would be accused of fraud, of extortion, and of manipulating the federal government into harming companies that did not do business with him. Congress would investigate him. So would the F.B.I.

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Former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker Chooses Encryption Over Backdoors

In an extraordinary essay, the former FBI general counsel Jim Baker makes the case for strong encryption over government-mandated backdoors:

In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities­ — including law enforcement­ — to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.

[…]

I am unaware of a technical solution that will effectively and simultaneously reconcile all of the societal interests at stake in the encryption debate, such as public safety, cybersecurity and privacy as well as simultaneously fostering innovation and the economic competitiveness of American companies in a global marketplace.

[…]

All public safety officials should think of protecting the cybersecurity of the United States as an essential part of their core mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And they should be doing so even if there will be real and painful costs associated with such a cybersecurity-forward orientation. The stakes are too high and our current cybersecurity situation too grave to adopt a different approach.

Basically, he argues that the security value of strong encryption greatly outweighs the security value of encryption that can be bypassed. He endorses a “defense dominant” strategy for Internet security.

Keep in mind that Baker led the FBI’s legal case against Apple regarding the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. In writing this piece, Baker joins the growing list of former law enforcement and national security senior officials who have come out in favor of strong encryption over backdoors: Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, Richard Clarke, Ash Carter, William Lynn, and Mike McConnell.

Edward Snowden also agrees.

EDITED TO ADD: Good commentary from Cory Doctorow.

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Russians Hack FBI Comms System

Yahoo News reported that the Russians have successfully targeted an FBI communications system:

American officials discovered that the Russians had dramatically improved their ability to decrypt certain types of secure communications and had successfully tracked devices used by elite FBI surveillance teams. Officials also feared that the Russians may have devised other ways to monitor U.S. intelligence communications, including hacking into computers not connected to the internet. Senior FBI and CIA officials briefed congressional leaders on these issues as part of a wide-ranging examination on Capitol Hill of U.S. counterintelligence vulnerabilities.

These compromises, the full gravity of which became clear to U.S. officials in 2012, gave Russian spies in American cities including Washington, New York and San Francisco key insights into the location of undercover FBI surveillance teams, and likely the actual substance of FBI communications, according to former officials. They provided the Russians opportunities to potentially shake off FBI surveillance and communicate with sensitive human sources, check on remote recording devices and even gather intelligence on their FBI pursuers, the former officials said.

It’s unclear whether the Russians were able to recover encrypted data or just perform traffic analysis. The Yahoo story implies the former; the NBC News story says otherwise. It’s hard to tell if the reporters truly understand the difference. We do know, from research Matt Blaze and others did almost ten years ago, that at least one FBI radio system was horribly insecure in practice — but not in a way that breaks the encryption. Its poor design just encourages users to turn off the encryption.

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El Chapo’s Encryption Defeated by Turning His IT Consultant

Impressive police work:

In a daring move that placed his life in danger, the I.T. consultant eventually gave the F.B.I. his system’s secret encryption keys in 2011 after he had moved the network’s servers from Canada to the Netherlands during what he told the cartel’s leaders was a routine upgrade.

A Dutch article says that it’s a BlackBerry system.

El Chapo had his IT person install “…spyware called FlexiSPY on the ‘special phones’ he had given to his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, as well as to two of his lovers, including one who was a former Mexican lawmaker.” That same software was used by the FBI when his IT person turned over the keys. Yet again we learn the lesson that a backdoor can be used against you.

And it doesn’t have to be with the IT person’s permission. A good intelligence agency can use the IT person’s authorizations without his knowledge or consent. This is why the NSA hunts sysadmins.

Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. Boing Boing post.

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FBI Takes Down a Massive Advertising Fraud Ring

The FBI announced that it dismantled a large Internet advertising fraud network, and arrested eight people:

A 13-count indictment was unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Aleksandr Zhukov, Boris Timokhin, Mikhail Andreev, Denis Avdeev, Dmitry Novikov, Sergey Ovsyannikov, Aleksandr Isaev and Yevgeniy Timchenko with criminal violations for their involvement in perpetrating widespread digital advertising fraud. The charges include wire fraud, computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Ovsyannikov was arrested last month in Malaysia; Zhukov was arrested earlier this month in Bulgaria; and Timchenko was arrested earlier this month in Estonia, all pursuant to provisional arrest warrants issued at the request of the United States. They await extradition. The remaining defendants are at large.

It looks like an impressive piece of police work.

Details of the forensics that led to the arrests.

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New Report on Police Digital Forensics Techniques

According to a new CSIS report, “going dark” is not the most pressing problem facing law enforcement in the age of digital data:

Over the past year, we conducted a series of interviews with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, attorneys, service providers, and civil society groups. We also commissioned a survey of law enforcement officers from across the country to better understand the full range of difficulties they are facing in accessing and using digital evidence in their cases. Survey results indicate that accessing data from service providers — much of which is not encrypted — is the biggest problem that law enforcement currently faces in leveraging digital evidence.

This is a problem that has not received adequate attention or resources to date. An array of federal and state training centers, crime labs, and other efforts have arisen to help fill the gaps, but they are able to fill only a fraction of the need. And there is no central entity responsible for monitoring these efforts, taking stock of the demand, and providing the assistance needed. The key federal entity with an explicit mission to assist state and local law enforcement with their digital evidence needs­ — the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center (NDCAC)­has a budget of $11.4 million, spread among several different programs designed to distribute knowledge about service providers’ poli­cies and products, develop and share technical tools, and train law enforcement on new services and tech­nologies, among other initiatives.

From a news article:

In addition to bemoaning the lack of guidance and help from tech companies — a quarter of survey respondents said their top issue was convincing companies to hand over suspects’ data — law enforcement officials also reported receiving barely any digital evidence training. Local police said they’d received only 10 hours of training in the past 12 months; state police received 13 and federal officials received 16. A plurality of respondents said they only received annual training. Only 16 percent said their organizations scheduled training sessions at least twice per year.

This is a point that Susan Landau has repeatedly made, and also one I make in my new book. The FBI needs technical expertise, not backdoors.

Here’s the report.

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Router Vulnerability and the VPNFilter Botnet

On May 25, the FBI asked us all to reboot our routers. The story behind this request is one of sophisticated malware and unsophisticated home-network security, and it’s a harbinger of the sorts of pervasive threats ­ from nation-states, criminals and hackers ­ that we should expect in coming years.

VPNFilter is a sophisticated piece of malware that infects mostly older home and small-office routers made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, QNAP and TP-Link. (For a list of specific models, click here.) It’s an impressive piece of work. It can eavesdrop on traffic passing through the router ­ specifically, log-in credentials and SCADA traffic, which is a networking protocol that controls power plants, chemical plants and industrial systems ­ attack other targets on the Internet and destructively “kill” its infected device. It is one of a very few pieces of malware that can survive a reboot, even though that’s what the FBI has requested. It has a number of other capabilities, and it can be remotely updated to provide still others. More than 500,000 routers in at least 54 countries have been infected since 2016.

Because of the malware’s sophistication, VPNFilter is believed to be the work of a government. The FBI suggested the Russian government was involved for two circumstantial reasons. One, a piece of the code is identical to one found in another piece of malware, called BlackEnergy, that was used in the December 2015 attack against Ukraine’s power grid. Russia is believed to be behind that attack. And two, the majority of those 500,000 infections are in Ukraine and controlled by a separate command-and-control server. There might also be classified evidence, as an FBI affidavit in this matter identifies the group behind VPNFilter as Sofacy, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. That’s the group behind a long list of attacks, including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Two companies, Cisco and Symantec, seem to have been working with the FBI during the past two years to track this malware as it infected ever more routers. The infection mechanism isn’t known, but we believe it targets known vulnerabilities in these older routers. Pretty much no one patches their routers, so the vulnerabilities have remained, even if they were fixed in new models from the same manufacturers.

On May 30, the FBI seized control of toknowall.com, a critical VPNFilter command-and-control server. This is called “sinkholing,” and serves to disrupt a critical part of this system. When infected routers contact toknowall.com, they will no longer be contacting a server owned by the malware’s creators; instead, they’ll be contacting a server owned by the FBI. This doesn’t entirely neutralize the malware, though. It will stay on the infected routers through reboot, and the underlying vulnerabilities remain, making the routers susceptible to reinfection with a variant controlled by a different server.

If you want to make sure your router is no longer infected and cannot be reinfected, you need to do more than reboot your router, the FBI’s warning notwithstanding. You need to reset the router to its factory settings. That means you need to reconfigure it for your network, which can be a pain if you’re not sophisticated in these matters. If you want to make sure your router cannot be reinfected, you need to update the firmware with any security patches from the manufacturer. This is harder to do and may strain your technical capabilities, though it’s ridiculous that routers don’t automatically download and install firmware updates on their own. Some of these models probably do not even have security patches available. Honestly, the best thing to do if you have one of the vulnerable models is to throw it away and get a new one. (Your ISP will probably send you a new one free if you claim that it’s not working properly. And you should have a new one, because if your current one is on the list, it’s at least 10 years old.)

So if it won’t clear out the malware, why is the FBI asking us to reboot our routers? It’s mostly just to get a sense of how bad the problem is. The FBI now controls toknowall.com. When an infected router gets rebooted, it connects to that server to get fully reinfected, and when it does, the FBI will know. Rebooting will give it a better idea of how many devices out there are infected.

Should you do it? It can’t hurt.

Internet of Things malware isn’t new. The 2016 Mirai botnet, for example, created by a lone hacker and not a government, targeted vulnerabilities in Internet-connected digital video recorders and webcams. Other malware has targeted Internet-connected thermostats. Lots of malware targets home routers. These devices are particularly vulnerable because they are often designed by ad hoc teams without a lot of security expertise, stay around in networks far longer than our computers and phones, and have no easy way to patch them.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Russians targeted routers to build a network of infected computers for follow-on cyber operations. I’m sure many governments are doing the same. As long as we allow these insecure devices on the Internet ­ and short of security regulations, there’s no way to stop them ­ we’re going to be vulnerable to this kind of malware.

And next time, the command-and-control server won’t be so easy to disrupt.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post

EDITED TO ADD: The malware is more capable than we previously thought.

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Cellebrite Unlocks iPhones for the US Government

Forbes reports that the Israeli company Cellebrite can probably unlock all iPhone models:

Cellebrite, a Petah Tikva, Israel-based vendor that’s become the U.S. government’s company of choice when it comes to unlocking mobile devices, is this month telling customers its engineers currently have the ability to get around the security of devices running iOS 11. That includes the iPhone X, a model that Forbes has learned was successfully raided for data by the Department for Homeland Security back in November 2017, most likely with Cellebrite technology.

[…]

It also appears the feds have already tried out Cellebrite tech on the most recent Apple handset, the iPhone X. That’s according to a warrant unearthed by Forbes in Michigan, marking the first known government inspection of the bleeding edge smartphone in a criminal investigation. The warrant detailed a probe into Abdulmajid Saidi, a suspect in an arms trafficking case, whose iPhone X was taken from him as he was about to leave America for Beirut, Lebanon, on November 20. The device was sent to a Cellebrite specialist at the DHS Homeland Security Investigations Grand Rapids labs and the data extracted on December 5.

This story is based on some excellent reporting, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We don’t know exactly what was extracted from any of the phones. Was it metadata or data, and what kind of metadata or data was it.

The story I hear is that Cellebrite hires ex-Apple engineers and moves them to countries where Apple can’t prosecute them under the DMCA or its equivalents. There’s also a credible rumor that Cellebrite’s mechanisms only defeat the mechanism that limits the number of password attempts. It does not allow engineers to move the encrypted data off the phone and run an offline password cracker. If this is true, then strong passwords are still secure.

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E-Mail Leaves an Evidence Trail

If you’re going to commit an illegal act, it’s best not to discuss it in e-mail. It’s also best to Google tech instructions rather than asking someone else to do it:

One new detail from the indictment, however, points to just how unsophisticated Manafort seems to have been. Here’s the relevant passage from the indictment. I’ve bolded the most important bits:

Manafort and Gates made numerous false and fraudulent representations to secure the loans. For example, Manafort provided the bank with doctored [profit and loss statements] for [Davis Manafort Inc.] for both 2015 and 2016, overstating its income by millions of dollars. The doctored 2015 DMI P&L submitted to Lender D was the same false statement previously submitted to Lender C, which overstated DMI’s income by more than $4 million. The doctored 2016 DMI P&L was inflated by Manafort by more than $3.5 million. To create the false 2016 P&L, on or about October 21, 2016, Manafort emailed Gates a .pdf version of the real 2016 DMI P&L, which showed a loss of more than $600,000. Gates converted that .pdf into a “Word” document so that it could be edited, which Gates sent back to Manafort. Manafort altered that “Word” document by adding more than $3.5 million in income. He then sent this falsified P&L to Gates and asked that the “Word” document be converted back to a .pdf, which Gates did and returned to Manafort. Manafort then sent the falsified 2016 DMI P&L .pdf to Lender D.

So here’s the essence of what went wrong for Manafort and Gates, according to Mueller’s investigation: Manafort allegedly wanted to falsify his company’s income, but he couldn’t figure out how to edit the PDF. He therefore had Gates turn it into a Microsoft Word document for him, which led the two to bounce the documents back-and-forth over email. As attorney and blogger Susan Simpson notes on Twitter, Manafort’s inability to complete a basic task on his own seems to have effectively “created an incriminating paper trail.”

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the Internet constantly generates data about what people are doing on it, and that data is all potential evidence. The FBI is 100% wrong that they’re going dark; it’s really the golden age of surveillance, and the FBI’s panic is really just its own lack of technical sophistication.

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Yet Another FBI Proposal for Insecure Communications

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has given talks where he proposes that tech companies decrease their communications and device security for the benefit of the FBI. In a recent talk, his idea is that tech companies just save a copy of the plaintext:

Law enforcement can also partner with private industry to address a problem we call “Going Dark.” Technology increasingly frustrates traditional law enforcement efforts to collect evidence needed to protect public safety and solve crime. For example, many instant-messaging services now encrypt messages by default. The prevent the police from reading those messages, even if an impartial judge approves their interception.

The problem is especially critical because electronic evidence is necessary for both the investigation of a cyber incident and the prosecution of the perpetrator. If we cannot access data even with lawful process, we are unable to do our job. Our ability to secure systems and prosecute criminals depends on our ability to gather evidence.

I encourage you to carefully consider your company’s interests and how you can work cooperatively with us. Although encryption can help secure your data, it may also prevent law enforcement agencies from protecting your data.

Encryption serves a valuable purpose. It is a foundational element of data security and essential to safeguarding data against cyber-attacks. It is critical to the growth and flourishing of the digital economy, and we support it. I support strong and responsible encryption.

I simply maintain that companies should retain the capability to provide the government unencrypted copies of communications and data stored on devices, when a court orders them to do so.

Responsible encryption is effective secure encryption, coupled with access capabilities. We know encryption can include safeguards. For example, there are systems that include central management of security keys and operating system updates; scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes; simulcast of messages to multiple destinations at once; and key recovery when a user forgets the password to decrypt a laptop. No one calls any of those functions a “backdoor.” In fact, those very capabilities are marketed and sought out.

I do not believe that the government should mandate a specific means of ensuring access. The government does not need to micromanage the engineering.

The question is whether to require a particular goal: When a court issues a search warrant or wiretap order to collect evidence of crime, the company should be able to help. The government does not need to hold the key.

Rosenstein is right that many services like Gmail naturally keep plaintext in the cloud. This is something we pointed out in our 2016 paper: “Don’t Panic.” But forcing companies to build an alternate means to access the plaintext that the user can’t control is an enormous vulnerability.

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