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The DMCA and its Chilling Effects on Research

The Center for Democracy and Technology has a good summary of the current state of the DMCA’s chilling effects on security research.

To underline the nature of chilling effects on hacking and security research, CDT has worked to describe how tinkerers, hackers, and security researchers of all types both contribute to a baseline level of security in our digital environment and, in turn, are shaped themselves by this environment, most notably when things they do upset others and result in threats, potential lawsuits, and prosecution. We’ve published two reports (sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation and MacArthur Foundation) about needed reforms to the law and the myriad of ways that security research directly improves people’s lives. To get a more complete picture, we wanted to talk to security researchers themselves and gauge the forces that shape their work; essentially, we wanted to “take the pulse” of the security research community.

Today, we are releasing a third report in service of this effort: “Taking the Pulse of Hacking: A Risk Basis for Security Research.” We report findings after having interviewed a set of 20 security researchers and hackers — half academic and half non-academic — about what considerations they take into account when starting new projects or engaging in new work, as well as to what extent they or their colleagues have faced threats in the past that chilled their work. The results in our report show that a wide variety of constraints shape the work they do, from technical constraints to ethical boundaries to legal concerns, including the DMCA and especially the CFAA.

Note: I am a signatory on the letter supporting unrestricted security research.

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GreyKey iPhone Unlocker

Some details about the iPhone unlocker from the US company Greyshift, with photos.

Little is known about Grayshift or its sales model at this point. We don’t know whether sales are limited to US law enforcement, or if it is also selling in other parts of the world. Regardless of that, it’s highly likely that these devices will ultimately end up in the hands of agents of an oppressive regime, whether directly from Grayshift or indirectly through the black market.

It’s also entirely possible, based on the history of the IP-Box, that Grayshift devices will end up being available to anyone who wants them and can find a way to purchase them, perhaps by being reverse-engineered and reproduced by an enterprising hacker, then sold for a couple hundred bucks on eBay.

Forbes originally wrote about this, and I blogged that article.

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Hacking Slot Machines by Reverse-Engineering the Random Number Generators

Interesting story:

The venture is built on Alex’s talent for reverse engineering the algorithms — known as pseudorandom number generators, or PRNGs — that govern how slot machine games behave. Armed with this knowledge, he can predict when certain games are likeliest to spit out money¬≠insight that he shares with a legion of field agents who do the organization’s grunt work.

These agents roam casinos from Poland to Macau to Peru in search of slots whose PRNGs have been deciphered by Alex. They use phones to record video of a vulnerable machine in action, then transmit the footage to an office in St. Petersburg. There, Alex and his assistants analyze the video to determine when the games’ odds will briefly tilt against the house. They then send timing data to a custom app on an agent’s phone; this data causes the phones to vibrate a split second before the agent should press the “Spin” button. By using these cues to beat slots in multiple casinos, a four-person team can earn more than $250,000 a week.

It’s an interesting article; I have no idea how much of it is true.

The sad part is that the slot-machine vulnerability is so easy to fix. Although the article says that “writing such algorithms requires tremendous mathematical skill,” it’s really only true that designing the algorithms requires that skill. Using any of secure encryption algorithm or hash function as a PRNG is trivially easy. And there’s no reason why the system can’t be designed with a real RNG. There is some randomness in the system somewhere, and it can be added into the mix as well. The programmers can use a well-designed algorithm, like my own Fortuna, but even something less well-thought-out is likely to foil this attack.

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