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Security Vulnerability in Smart Electric Outlets

A security vulnerability in Belkin’s Wemo Insight “smartplugs” allows hackers to not only take over the plug, but use it as a jumping-off point to attack everything else on the network.

From the Register:

The bug underscores the primary risk posed by IoT devices and connected appliances. Because they are commonly built by bolting on network connectivity to existing appliances, many IoT devices have little in the way of built-in network security.

Even when security measures are added to the devices, the third-party hardware used to make the appliances “smart” can itself contain security flaws or bad configurations that leave the device vulnerable.

“IoT devices are frequently overlooked from a security perspective; this may be because many are used for seemingly innocuous purposes such as simple home automation,” the McAfee researchers wrote.

“However, these devices run operating systems and require just as much protection as desktop computers.”

I’ll bet you anything that the plug cannot be patched, and that the vulnerability will remain until people throw them away.

Boing Boing post. McAfee’s original security bulletin.

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E-Mail Vulnerabilities and Disclosure

Last week, researchers disclosed vulnerabilities in a large number of encrypted e-mail clients: specifically, those that use OpenPGP and S/MIME, including Thunderbird and AppleMail. These are serious vulnerabilities: An attacker who can alter mail sent to a vulnerable client can trick that client into sending a copy of the plaintext to a web server controlled by that attacker. The story of these vulnerabilities and the tale of how they were disclosed illustrate some important lessons about security vulnerabilities in general and e-mail security in particular.

But first, if you use PGP or S/MIME to encrypt e-mail, you need to check the list on this page and see if you are vulnerable. If you are, check with the vendor to see if they’ve fixed the vulnerability. (Note that some early patches turned out not to fix the vulnerability.) If not, stop using the encrypted e-mail program entirely until it’s fixed. Or, if you know how to do it, turn off your e-mail client’s ability to process HTML e-mail or — even better — stop decrypting e-mails from within the client. There’s even more complex advice for more sophisticated users, but if you’re one of those, you don’t need me to explain this to you.

Consider your encrypted e-mail insecure until this is fixed.

All software contains security vulnerabilities, and one of the primary ways we all improve our security is by researchers discovering those vulnerabilities and vendors patching them. It’s a weird system: Corporate researchers are motivated by publicity, academic researchers by publication credentials, and just about everyone by individual fame and the small bug-bounties paid by some vendors.

Software vendors, on the other hand, are motivated to fix vulnerabilities by the threat of public disclosure. Without the threat of eventual publication, vendors are likely to ignore researchers and delay patching. This happened a lot in the 1990s, and even today, vendors often use legal tactics to try to block publication. It makes sense; they look bad when their products are pronounced insecure.

Over the past few years, researchers have started to choreograph vulnerability announcements to make a big press splash. Clever names — the e-mail vulnerability is called “Efail” — websites, and cute logos are now common. Key reporters are given advance information about the vulnerabilities. Sometimes advance teasers are released. Vendors are now part of this process, trying to announce their patches at the same time the vulnerabilities are announced.

This simultaneous announcement is best for security. While it’s always possible that some organization — either government or criminal — has independently discovered and is using the vulnerability before the researchers go public, use of the vulnerability is essentially guaranteed after the announcement. The time period between announcement and patching is the most dangerous, and everyone except would-be attackers wants to minimize it.

Things get much more complicated when multiple vendors are involved. In this case, Efail isn’t a vulnerability in a particular product; it’s a vulnerability in a standard that is used in dozens of different products. As such, the researchers had to ensure both that everyone knew about the vulnerability in time to fix it and that no one leaked the vulnerability to the public during that time. As you can imagine, that’s close to impossible.

Efail was discovered sometime last year, and the researchers alerted dozens of different companies between last October and March. Some companies took the news more seriously than others. Most patched. Amazingly, news about the vulnerability didn’t leak until the day before the scheduled announcement date. Two days before the scheduled release, the researchers unveiled a teaser — honestly, a really bad idea — which resulted in details leaking.

After the leak, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a notice about the vulnerability without details. The organization has been criticized for its announcement, but I am hard-pressed to find fault with its advice. (Note: I am a board member at EFF.) Then, the researchers published — and lots of press followed.

All of this speaks to the difficulty of coordinating vulnerability disclosure when it involves a large number of companies or — even more problematic — communities without clear ownership. And that’s what we have with OpenPGP. It’s even worse when the bug involves the interaction between different parts of a system. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with PGP or S/MIME in and of themselves. Rather, the vulnerability occurs because of the way many e-mail programs handle encrypted e-mail. GnuPG, an implementation of OpenPGP, decided that the bug wasn’t its fault and did nothing about it. This is arguably true, but irrelevant. They should fix it.

Expect more of these kinds of problems in the future. The Internet is shifting from a set of systems we deliberately use — our phones and computers — to a fully immersive Internet-of-things world that we live in 24/7. And like this e-mail vulnerability, vulnerabilities will emerge through the interactions of different systems. Sometimes it will be obvious who should fix the problem. Sometimes it won’t be. Sometimes it’ll be two secure systems that, when interact in a particular way, cause an insecurity. In April, I wrote about a vulnerability that arose because Google and Netflix make different assumptions about e-mail addresses. I don’t even know who to blame for that one.

It gets even worse. Our system of disclosure and patching assumes that vendors have the expertise and ability to patch their systems, but that simply isn’t true for many of the embedded and low-cost Internet of things software packages. They’re designed at a much lower cost, often by offshore teams that come together, create the software, and then disband; as a result, there simply isn’t anyone left around to receive vulnerability alerts from researchers and write patches. Even worse, many of these devices aren’t patchable at all. Right now, if you own a digital video recorder that’s vulnerable to being recruited for a botnet — remember Mirai from 2016? — the only way to patch it is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Patching is starting to fail, which means that we’re losing the best mechanism we have for improving software security at exactly the same time that software is gaining autonomy and physical agency. Many researchers and organizations, including myself, have proposed government regulations enforcing minimal security-standards for Internet-of-things devices, including standards around vulnerability disclosure and patching. This would be expensive, but it’s hard to see any other viable alternative.

Getting back to e-mail, the truth is that it’s incredibly difficult to secure well. Not because the cryptography is hard, but because we expect e-mail to do so many things. We use it for correspondence, for conversations, for scheduling, and for record-keeping. I regularly search my 20-year e-mail archive. The PGP and S/MIME security protocols are outdated, needlessly complicated and have been difficult to properly use the whole time. If we could start again, we would design something better and more user friendly­but the huge number of legacy applications that use the existing standards mean that we can’t. I tell people that if they want to communicate securely with someone, to use one of the secure messaging systems: Signal, Off-the-Record, or — if having one of those two on your system is itself suspicious — WhatsApp. Of course they’re not perfect, as last week’s announcement of a vulnerability (patched within hours) in Signal illustrates. And they’re not as flexible as e-mail, but that makes them easier to secure.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Security Vulnerabilities in VingCard Electronic Locks

Researchers have disclosed a massive vulnerability in the VingCard eletronic lock system, used in hotel rooms around the world:

With a $300 Proxmark RFID card reading and writing tool, any expired keycard pulled from the trash of a target hotel, and a set of cryptographic tricks developed over close to 15 years of on-and-off analysis of the codes Vingcard electronically writes to its keycards, they found a method to vastly narrow down a hotel’s possible master key code. They can use that handheld Proxmark device to cycle through all the remaining possible codes on any lock at the hotel, identify the correct one in about 20 tries, and then write that master code to a card that gives the hacker free reign to roam any room in the building. The whole process takes about a minute.

[…]

The two researchers say that their attack works only on Vingcard’s previous-generation Vision locks, not the company’s newer Visionline product. But they estimate that it nonetheless affects 140,000 hotels in more than 160 countries around the world; the researchers say that Vingcard’s Swedish parent company, Assa Abloy, admitted to them that the problem affects millions of locks in total. When WIRED reached out to Assa Abloy, however, the company put the total number of vulnerable locks somewhat lower, between 500,000 and a million.

Patching is a nightmare. It requires updating the firmware on every lock individually.

And the researchers speculate whether or not others knew of this hack:

The F-Secure researchers admit they don’t know if their Vinguard attack has occurred in the real world. But the American firm LSI, which trains law enforcement agencies in bypassing locks, advertises Vingcard’s products among those it promises to teach students to unlock. And the F-Secure researchers point to a 2010 assassination of a Palestinian Hamas official in a Dubai hotel, widely believed to have been carried out by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. The assassins in that case seemingly used a vulnerability in Vingcard locks to enter their target’s room, albeit one that required re-programming the lock. “Most probably Mossad has a capability to do something like this,” Tuominen says.

Slashdot post.

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The Effects of the Spectre and Meltdown Vulnerabilities

On January 3, the world learned about a series of major security vulnerabilities in modern microprocessors. Called Spectre and Meltdown, these vulnerabilities were discovered by several different researchers last summer, disclosed to the microprocessors’ manufacturers, and patched­ — at least to the extent possible.

This news isn’t really any different from the usual endless stream of security vulnerabilities and patches, but it’s also a harbinger of the sorts of security problems we’re going to be seeing in the coming years. These are vulnerabilities in computer hardware, not software. They affect virtually all high-end microprocessors produced in the last 20 years. Patching them requires large-scale coordination across the industry, and in some cases drastically affects the performance of the computers. And sometimes patching isn’t possible; the vulnerability will remain until the computer is discarded.

Spectre and Meltdown aren’t anomalies. They represent a new area to look for vulnerabilities and a new avenue of attack. They’re the future of security­ — and it doesn’t look good for the defenders.

Modern computers do lots of things at the same time. Your computer and your phone simultaneously run several applications — ­or apps. Your browser has several windows open. A cloud computer runs applications for many different computers. All of those applications need to be isolated from each other. For security, one application isn’t supposed to be able to peek at what another one is doing, except in very controlled circumstances. Otherwise, a malicious advertisement on a website you’re visiting could eavesdrop on your banking details, or the cloud service purchased by some foreign intelligence organization could eavesdrop on every other cloud customer, and so on. The companies that write browsers, operating systems, and cloud infrastructure spend a lot of time making sure this isolation works.

Both Spectre and Meltdown break that isolation, deep down at the microprocessor level, by exploiting performance optimizations that have been implemented for the past decade or so. Basically, microprocessors have become so fast that they spend a lot of time waiting for data to move in and out of memory. To increase performance, these processors guess what data they’re going to receive and execute instructions based on that. If the guess turns out to be correct, it’s a performance win. If it’s wrong, the microprocessors throw away what they’ve done without losing any time. This feature is called speculative execution.

Spectre and Meltdown attack speculative execution in different ways. Meltdown is more of a conventional vulnerability; the designers of the speculative-execution process made a mistake, so they just needed to fix it. Spectre is worse; it’s a flaw in the very concept of speculative execution. There’s no way to patch that vulnerability; the chips need to be redesigned in such a way as to eliminate it.

Since the announcement, manufacturers have been rolling out patches to these vulnerabilities to the extent possible. Operating systems have been patched so that attackers can’t make use of the vulnerabilities. Web browsers have been patched. Chips have been patched. From the user’s perspective, these are routine fixes. But several aspects of these vulnerabilities illustrate the sorts of security problems we’re only going to be seeing more of.

First, attacks against hardware, as opposed to software, will become more common. Last fall, vulnerabilities were discovered in Intel’s Management Engine, a remote-administration feature on its microprocessors. Like Spectre and Meltdown, they affected how the chips operate. Looking for vulnerabilities on computer chips is new. Now that researchers know this is a fruitful area to explore, security researchers, foreign intelligence agencies, and criminals will be on the hunt.

Second, because microprocessors are fundamental parts of computers, patching requires coordination between many companies. Even when manufacturers like Intel and AMD can write a patch for a vulnerability, computer makers and application vendors still have to customize and push the patch out to the users. This makes it much harder to keep vulnerabilities secret while patches are being written. Spectre and Meltdown were announced prematurely because details were leaking and rumors were swirling. Situations like this give malicious actors more opportunity to attack systems before they’re guarded.

Third, these vulnerabilities will affect computers’ functionality. In some cases, the patches for Spectre and Meltdown result in significant reductions in speed. The press initially reported 30%, but that only seems true for certain servers running in the cloud. For your personal computer or phone, the performance hit from the patch is minimal. But as more vulnerabilities are discovered in hardware, patches will affect performance in noticeable ways.

And then there are the unpatchable vulnerabilities. For decades, the computer industry has kept things secure by finding vulnerabilities in fielded products and quickly patching them. Now there are cases where that doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s because computers are in cheap products that don’t have a patch mechanism, like many of the DVRs and webcams that are vulnerable to the Mirai (and other) botnets — ­groups of Internet-connected devices sabotaged for coordinated digital attacks. Sometimes it’s because a computer chip’s functionality is so core to a computer’s design that patching it effectively means turning the computer off. This, too, is becoming more common.

Increasingly, everything is a computer: not just your laptop and phone, but your car, your appliances, your medical devices, and global infrastructure. These computers are and always will be vulnerable, but Spectre and Meltdown represent a new class of vulnerability. Unpatchable vulnerabilities in the deepest recesses of the world’s computer hardware is the new normal. It’s going to leave us all much more vulnerable in the future.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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Spectre and Meltdown Attacks

After a week or so of rumors, everyone is now reporting about the Spectre and Meltdown attacks against pretty much every modern processor out there.

These are side-channel attacks where one process can spy on other processes. They affect computers where an untrusted browser window can execute code, phones that have multiple apps running at the same time, and cloud computing networks that run lots of different processes at once. Fixing them either requires a patch that results in a major performance hit, or is impossible and requires a re-architecture of conditional execution in future CPU chips.

I’ll be writing something for publication over the next few days. This post is basically just a link repository.

EDITED TO ADD: Good technical explanation. And a Slashdot thread.

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Vulnerability in Amazon Key

Amazon Key is an IoT door lock that can enable one-time access codes for delivery people. To further secure that system, Amazon sells Cloud Cam, a camera that watches the door to ensure that delivery people don’t abuse their one-time access privilege.

Cloud Cam has been hacked:

But now security researchers have demonstrated that with a simple program run from any computer in Wi-Fi range, that camera can be not only disabled but frozen. A viewer watching its live or recorded stream sees only a closed door, even as their actual door is opened and someone slips inside. That attack would potentially enable rogue delivery people to stealthily steal from Amazon customers, or otherwise invade their inner sanctum.

And while the threat of a camera-hacking courier seems an unlikely way for your house to be burgled, the researchers argue it potentially strips away a key safeguard in Amazon’s security system.

Amazon is patching the system.

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Bluetooth Vulnerabilities

A bunch of Bluetooth vulnerabilities are being reported, some pretty nasty.

BlueBorne concerns us because of the medium by which it operates. Unlike the majority of attacks today, which rely on the internet, a BlueBorne attack spreads through the air. This works similarly to the two less extensive vulnerabilities discovered recently in a Broadcom Wi-Fi chip by Project Zero and Exodus. The vulnerabilities found in Wi-Fi chips affect only the peripherals of the device, and require another step to take control of the device. With BlueBorne, attackers can gain full control right from the start. Moreover, Bluetooth offers a wider attacker surface than WiFi, almost entirely unexplored by the research community and hence contains far more vulnerabilities.

Airborne attacks, unfortunately, provide a number of opportunities for the attacker. First, spreading through the air renders the attack much more contagious, and allows it to spread with minimum effort. Second, it allows the attack to bypass current security measures and remain undetected, as traditional methods do not protect from airborne threats. Airborne attacks can also allow hackers to penetrate secure internal networks which are “air gapped,” meaning they are disconnected from any other network for protection. This can endanger industrial systems, government agencies, and critical infrastructure.

Finally, unlike traditional malware or attacks, the user does not have to click on a link or download a questionable file. No action by the user is necessary to enable the attack.

Fully patched Windows and iOS systems are protected; Linux coming soon.

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Measuring Vulnerability Rediscovery

New paper: “Taking Stock: Estimating Vulnerability Rediscovery,” by Trey Herr, Bruce Schneier, and Christopher Morris:

Abstract: How often do multiple, independent, parties discover the same vulnerability? There are ample models of vulnerability discovery, but little academic work on this issue of rediscovery. The immature state of this research and subsequent debate is a problem for the policy community, where the government’s decision to disclose a given vulnerability hinges in part on that vulnerability’s likelihood of being discovered and used maliciously by another party. Research into the behavior of malicious software markets and the efficacy of bug bounty programs would similarly benefit from an accurate baseline estimate for how often vulnerabilities are discovered by multiple independent parties.

This paper presents a new dataset of more than 4,300 vulnerabilities, and estimates vulnerability rediscovery across different vendors and software types. It concludes that rediscovery happens more than twice as often as the 1-9% range previously reported. For our dataset, 15% to 20% of vulnerabilities are discovered independently at least twice within a year. For just Android, 13.9% of vulnerabilities are rediscovered within 60 days, rising to 20% within 90 days, and above 21% within 120 days. For the Chrome browser we found 12.57% rediscovery within 60 days; and the aggregate rate for our entire dataset generally rises over the eight-year span, topping out at 19.6% in 2016. We believe that the actual rate is even higher for certain types of software.

When combined with an estimate of the total count of vulnerabilities in use by the NSA, these rates suggest that rediscovery of vulnerabilities kept secret by the U.S. government may be the source of up to one-third of all zero-day vulnerabilities detected in use each year. These results indicate that the information security community needs to map the impact of rediscovery on the efficacy of bug bounty programs and policymakers should more rigorously evaluate the costs of non-disclosure of software vulnerabilities.

We wrote a blog post on the paper, and another when we issued a revised version.

Comments on the original paper by Dave Aitel. News articles.

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Zero-Day Vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA Tools Released by the Shadow Brokers

In April, the Shadow Brokers — presumably Russia — released a batch of Windows exploits from what is presumably the NSA. Included in that release were eight different Windows vulnerabilities. Given a presumed theft date of the data as sometime between 2012 and 2013 — based on timestamps of the documents and the limited Windows 8 support of the tools:

  • Three were already patched by Microsoft. That is, they were not zero days, and could only be used against unpatched targets. They are EMERALDTHREAD, EDUCATEDSCHOLAR, and ECLIPSEDWING.

  • One was discovered to have been used in the wild and patched in 2014: ESKIMOROLL.

  • Four were only patched when the NSA informed Microsoft about them in early 2017: ETERNALBLUE, ETERNALSYNERGY, ETERNALROMANCE, and ETERNALCHAMPION.

So of the five serious zero-day vulnerabilities against Windows in the NSA’s pocket, four were never independently discovered. This isn’t new news, but I haven’t seen this summary before.

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