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Impersonating iOS Password Prompts

This is an interesting security vulnerability: because it is so easy to impersonate iOS password prompts, a malicious app can steal your password just by asking.

Why does this work?

iOS asks the user for their iTunes password for many reasons, the most common ones are recently installed iOS operating system updates, or iOS apps that are stuck during installation.

As a result, users are trained to just enter their Apple ID password whenever iOS prompts you to do so. However, those popups are not only shown on the lock screen, and the home screen, but also inside random apps, e.g. when they want to access iCloud, GameCenter or In-App-Purchases.

This could easily be abused by any app, just by showing an UIAlertController, that looks exactly like the system dialog.

Even users who know a lot about technology have a hard time detecting that those alerts are phishing attacks.

The essay proposes some solutions, but I’m not sure they’ll work. We’re all trained to trust our computers and the applications running on them.

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Changes in Password Best Practices

NIST recently published their four-volume SP800-63-3 Digital Identity Guidelines. Among other things, they make three important suggestions when it comes to passwords:

  1. Stop it with the annoying password complexity rules. They make passwords harder to remember. They increase errors because artificially complex passwords are harder to type in. And they don’t help that much. It’s better to allow people to use pass phrases.

  2. Stop it with password expiration. That was an old idea for an old way we used computers. Today, don’t make people change their passwords unless there’s indication of compromise.

  3. Let people use password managers. This is how we deal with all the passwords we need.

These password rules were failed attempts to fix the user. Better we fix the security systems.

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Deloitte Hacked

The large accountancy firm Deloitte was hacked, losing client e-mails and files. The hackers had access inside the company’s networks for months. Deloitte is doing its best to downplay the severity of this hack, but Bran Krebs reports that the hack “involves the compromise of all administrator accounts at the company as well as Deloitte’s entire internal email system.”

So far, the hackers haven’t published all the data they stole.

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Department of Homeland Security to Collect Social Media of Immigrants and Citizens

New rules give the DHS permission to collect “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” as part of people’s immigration file. The Federal Register has the details, which seems to also include US citizens that communicate with immigrants.

This is part of the general trend to scrutinize people coming into the US more, but it’s hard to get too worked up about the DHS accessing publicly available information. More disturbing is the trend of occasionally asking for social media passwords at the border.

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Another iPhone Change to Frustrate the Police

I recently wrote about the new ability to disable the Touch ID login on iPhones. This is important because of a weirdness in current US law that protects people’s passcodes from forced disclosure in ways it does not protect actions: being forced to place a thumb on a fingerprint reader.

There’s another, more significant, change: iOS now requires a passcode before the phone will establish trust with another device.

In the current system, when you connect your phone to a computer, you’re prompted with the question “Trust this computer?” and you can click yes or no. Now you have to enter in your passcode again. That means if the police have an unlocked phone, they can scroll through the phone looking for things but they can’t download all of the contents onto a another computer without also knowing the passcode.

More details:

This might be particularly consequential during border searches. The “border search” exception, which allows Customs and Border Protection to search anything going into the country, is a contentious issue when applied electronics. It is somewhat (but not completely) settled law, but that the U.S. government can, without any cause at all (not even “reasonable articulable suspicion”, let alone “probable cause”), copy all the contents of my devices when I reenter the country sows deep discomfort in myself and many others. The only legal limitation appears to be a promise not to use this information to connect to remote services. The new iOS feature means that a Customs office can browse through a device — a time limited exercise — but not download the full contents.

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Password Masking

Slashdot asks if password masking — replacing password characters with asterisks as you type them — is on the way out. I don’t know if that’s true, but I would be happy to see it go. Shoulder surfing, the threat is defends against, is largely nonexistent. And it is becoming harder to type in passwords on small screens and annoying interfaces. The IoT will only exacerbate this problem, and when passwords are harder to type in, users choose weaker ones.

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A Man-in-the-Middle Attack against a Password Reset System

This is nice work: “The Password Reset MitM Attack,” by Nethanel Gelerntor, Senia Kalma, Bar Magnezi, and Hen Porcilan:

Abstract: We present the password reset MitM (PRMitM) attack and show how it can be used to take over user accounts. The PRMitM attack exploits the similarity of the registration and password reset processes to launch a man in the middle (MitM) attack at the application level. The attacker initiates a password reset process with a website and forwards every challenge to the victim who either wishes to register in the attacking site or to access a particular resource on it.

The attack has several variants, including exploitation of a password reset process that relies on the victim’s mobile phone, using either SMS or phone call. We evaluated the PRMitM attacks on Google and Facebook users in several experiments, and found that their password reset process is vulnerable to the PRMitM attack. Other websites and some popular mobile applications are vulnerable as well.

Although solutions seem trivial in some cases, our experiments show that the straightforward solutions are not as effective as expected. We designed and evaluated two secure password reset processes and evaluated them on users of Google and Facebook. Our results indicate a significant improvement in the security. Since millions of accounts are currently vulnerable to the PRMitM attack, we also present a list of recommendations for implementing and auditing the password reset process.

Password resets have long been a weak security link.

BoingBoing Post.

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Separating the Paranoid from the Hacked

Sad story of someone whose computer became owned by a griefer:

The trouble began last year when he noticed strange things happening: files went missing from his computer; his Facebook picture was changed; and texts from his daughter didn’t reach him or arrived changed.

“Nobody believed me,” says Gary. “My wife and my brother thought I had lost my mind. They scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist for me.”

But he built up a body of evidence and called in a professional cybersecurity firm. It found that his email addresses had been compromised, his phone records hacked and altered, and an entire virtual internet interface created.

“All my communications were going through a man-in-the-middle unauthorised server,” he explains.

It’s the “psychiatrist” quote that got me. I regularly get e-mails from people explaining in graphic detail how their whole lives have been hacked. Most of them are just paranoid. But a few of them are probably legitimate. And I have no way of telling them apart.

This problem isn’t going away. As computers permeate even more aspects of our lives, it’s going to get even more debilitating. And we don’t have any way, other than hiring a “professional cybersecurity firm,” of telling the paranoids from the victims.

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Passwords at the Border

The password-manager 1Password has just implemented a travel mode that tries to protect users while crossing borders. It doesn’t make much sense. To enable it, you have to create a list of passwords you feel safe traveling with, and then you can turn on the mode that only gives you access to those passwords. But since you can turn it off at will, a border official can just demand you do so. Better would be some sort of time lock where you are unable to turn it off at the border.

There are a bunch of tricks you can use to ensure that you are unable to decrypt your devices, even if someone demands that you do. Back in 2009, I described such a scheme, and mentioned some other tricks the year before. Here’s more. They work with any password manager, including my own Password Safe.

There’s a problem, though. Everything you do along these lines is problematic, because 1) you don’t want to ever lie to a customs official, and 2) any steps you take to make your data inaccessible is in itself suspicious. Your best defense is not to have anything incriminating on your computer or in the various social media accounts you use. (This advice was given to Australian citizens by their Department of Immigration and Border Protection specifically to Muslims pilgrims returning from hajj. Bizarrely, an Australian MP complained when Muslims repeated that advice.)

The EFF has a comprehensive guide to both the tech and policy of securing your electronics for border crossings.

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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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