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Security Risks of Relying on a Single Smartphone

Isracard used a single cell phone to communicate with credit card clients, and receive documents via WhatsApp. An employee stole the phone. He reformatted the SIM, which was oddly the best possible outcome, given the circumstances. Using the data to steal money would have been much worse.

Here’s a link to an archived version.

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Paragon: Yet Another Cyberweapons Arms Manufacturer

Forbes has the story:

Paragon’s product will also likely get spyware critics and surveillance experts alike rubbernecking: It claims to give police the power to remotely break into encrypted instant messaging communications, whether that’s WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger or Gmail, the industry sources said. One other spyware industry executive said it also promises to get longer-lasting access to a device, even when it’s rebooted.

[…]

Two industry sources said they believed Paragon was trying to set itself apart further by promising to get access to the instant messaging applications on a device, rather than taking complete control of everything on a phone. One of the sources said they understood that Paragon’s spyware exploits the protocols of end-to-end encrypted apps, meaning it would hack into messages via vulnerabilities in the core ways in which the software operates.

Read that last sentence again: Paragon uses unpatched zero-day exploits in the software to hack messaging apps.

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Security Vulnerabilities in Cellebrite

Moxie Marlinspike has an intriguing blog post about Cellebrite, a tool used by police and others to break into smartphones. Moxie got his hands on one of the devices, which seems to be a pair of Windows software packages and a whole lot of connecting cables.

According to Moxie, the software is riddled with vulnerabilities. (The one example he gives is that it uses FFmpeg DLLs from 2012, and have not been patched with the 100+ security updates since then.)

…we found that it’s possible to execute arbitrary code on a Cellebrite machine simply by including a specially formatted but otherwise innocuous file in any app on a device that is subsequently plugged into Cellebrite and scanned. There are virtually no limits on the code that can be executed.

This means that Cellebrite has one — or many — remote code execution bugs, and that a specially designed file on the target phone can infect Cellebrite.

For example, by including a specially formatted but otherwise innocuous file in an app on a device that is then scanned by Cellebrite, it’s possible to execute code that modifies not just the Cellebrite report being created in that scan, but also all previous and future generated Cellebrite reports from all previously scanned devices and all future scanned devices in any arbitrary way (inserting or removing text, email, photos, contacts, files, or any other data), with no detectable timestamp changes or checksum failures. This could even be done at random, and would seriously call the data integrity of Cellebrite’s reports into question.

That malicious file could, for example, insert fabricated evidence or subtly alter the evidence it copies from a phone. It could even write that fabricated/altered evidence back to the phone so that from then on, even an uncorrupted version of Cellebrite will find the altered evidence on that phone.

Finally, Moxie suggests that future versions of Signal will include such a file, sometimes:

Files will only be returned for accounts that have been active installs for some time already, and only probabilistically in low percentages based on phone number sharding.

The idea, of course, is that a defendant facing Cellebrite evidence in court can claim that the evidence is tainted.

I have no idea how effective this would be in court. Or whether this runs foul of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the US. (Is it okay to booby-trap your phone?) A colleague from the UK says that this would not be legal to do under the Computer Misuse Act, although it’s hard to blame the phone owner if he doesn’t even know it’s happening.

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Determining Key Shape from Sound

It’s not yet very accurate or practical, but under ideal conditions it is possible to figure out the shape of a house key by listening to it being used.

Listen to Your Key: Towards Acoustics-based Physical Key Inference

Abstract: Physical locks are one of the most prevalent mechanisms for securing objects such as doors. While many of these locks are vulnerable to lock-picking, they are still widely used as lock-picking requires specific training with tailored instruments, and easily raises suspicion. In this paper, we propose SpiKey, a novel attack that significantly lowers the bar for an attacker as opposed to the lock-picking attack, by requiring only the use of a smartphone microphone to infer the shape of victim’s key, namely bittings(or cut depths) which form the secret of a key. When a victim inserts his/her key into the lock, the emitted sound is captured by the attacker’s microphone.SpiKey leverages the time difference between audible clicks to ultimately infer the bitting information, i.e., shape of the physical key. As a proof-of-concept, we provide a simulation, based on real-world recordings, and demonstrate a significant reduction in search spacefrom a pool of more than 330 thousand keys to three candidate keys for the most frequent case.

Scientific American podcast:

The strategy is a long way from being viable in the real world. For one thing, the method relies on the key being inserted at a constant speed. And the audio element also poses challenges like background noise.

Boing Boing post.

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The NSA on the Risks of Exposing Location Data

The NSA has issued an advisory on the risks of location data.

Mitigations reduce, but do not eliminate, location tracking risks in mobile devices. Most users rely on features disabled by such mitigations, making such safeguards impractical. Users should be aware of these risks and take action based on their specific situation and risk tolerance. When location exposure could be detrimental to a mission, users should prioritize mission risk and apply location tracking mitigations to the greatest extent possible. While the guidance in this document may be useful to a wide range of users, it is intended primarily for NSS/DoD system users.

The document provides a list of mitigation strategies, including turning things off:

If it is critical that location is not revealed for a particular mission, consider the following recommendations:

  • Determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location.
  • Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.
  • For mission transportation, use vehicles without built-in wireless communication capabilities, or turn off the capabilities, if possible.

    Of course, turning off your wireless devices is itself a signal that something is going on. It’s hard to be clandestine in our always connected world.

    News articles.

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    Hacking Voice Assistants with Ultrasonic Waves

    I previously wrote about hacking voice assistants with lasers. Turns you can do much the same thing with ultrasonic waves:

    Voice assistants — the demo targeted Siri, Google Assistant, and Bixby — are designed to respond when they detect the owner’s voice after noticing a trigger phrase such as ‘Ok, Google’.

    Ultimately, commands are just sound waves, which other researchers have already shown can be emulated using ultrasonic waves which humans can’t hear, providing an attacker has a line of sight on the device and the distance is short.

    What SurfingAttack adds to this is the ability to send the ultrasonic commands through a solid glass or wood table on which the smartphone was sitting using a circular piezoelectric disc connected to its underside.

    Although the distance was only 43cm (17 inches), hiding the disc under a surface represents a more plausible, easier-to-conceal attack method than previous techniques.

    Research paper. Demonstration video.

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    Modern Mass Surveillance: Identify, Correlate, Discriminate

    Communities across the United States are starting to ban facial recognition technologies. In May of last year, San Francisco banned facial recognition; the neighboring city of Oakland soon followed, as did Somerville and Brookline in Massachusetts (a statewide ban may follow). In December, San Diego suspended a facial recognition program in advance of a new statewide law, which declared it illegal, coming into effect. Forty major music festivals pledged not to use the technology, and activists are calling for a nationwide ban. Many Democratic presidential candidates support at least a partial ban on the technology.

    These efforts are well-intentioned, but facial recognition bans are the wrong way to fight against modern surveillance. Focusing on one particular identification method misconstrues the nature of the surveillance society we’re in the process of building. Ubiquitous mass surveillance is increasingly the norm. In countries like China, a surveillance infrastructure is being built by the government for social control. In countries like the United States, it’s being built by corporations in order to influence our buying behavior, and is incidentally used by the government.

    In all cases, modern mass surveillance has three broad components: identification, correlation and discrimination. Let’s take them in turn.

    Facial recognition is a technology that can be used to identify people without their knowledge or consent. It relies on the prevalence of cameras, which are becoming both more powerful and smaller, and machine learning technologies that can match the output of these cameras with images from a database of existing photos.

    But that’s just one identification technology among many. People can be identified at a distance by their heartbeat or by their gait, using a laser-based system. Cameras are so good that they can read fingerprints and iris patterns from meters away. And even without any of these technologies, we can always be identified because our smartphones broadcast unique numbers called MAC addresses. Other things identify us as well: our phone numbers, our credit card numbers, the license plates on our cars. China, for example, uses multiple identification technologies to support its surveillance state.

    Once we are identified, the data about who we are and what we are doing can be correlated with other data collected at other times. This might be movement data, which can be used to “follow” us as we move throughout our day. It can be purchasing data, Internet browsing data, or data about who we talk to via email or text. It might be data about our income, ethnicity, lifestyle, profession and interests. There is an entire industry of data brokers who make a living analyzing and augmenting data about who we are ­– using surveillance data collected by all sorts of companies and then sold without our knowledge or consent.

    There is a huge ­– and almost entirely unregulated ­– data broker industry in the United States that trades on our information. This is how large Internet companies like Google and Facebook make their money. It’s not just that they know who we are, it’s that they correlate what they know about us to create profiles about who we are and what our interests are. This is why many companies buy license plate data from states. It’s also why companies like Google are buying health records, and part of the reason Google bought the company Fitbit, along with all of its data.

    The whole purpose of this process is for companies –­ and governments ­– to treat individuals differently. We are shown different ads on the Internet and receive different offers for credit cards. Smart billboards display different advertisements based on who we are. In the future, we might be treated differently when we walk into a store, just as we currently are when we visit websites.

    The point is that it doesn’t matter which technology is used to identify people. That there currently is no comprehensive database of heartbeats or gaits doesn’t make the technologies that gather them any less effective. And most of the time, it doesn’t matter if identification isn’t tied to a real name. What’s important is that we can be consistently identified over time. We might be completely anonymous in a system that uses unique cookies to track us as we browse the Internet, but the same process of correlation and discrimination still occurs. It’s the same with faces; we can be tracked as we move around a store or shopping mall, even if that tracking isn’t tied to a specific name. And that anonymity is fragile: If we ever order something online with a credit card, or purchase something with a credit card in a store, then suddenly our real names are attached to what was anonymous tracking information.

    Regulating this system means addressing all three steps of the process. A ban on facial recognition won’t make any difference if, in response, surveillance systems switch to identifying people by smartphone MAC addresses. The problem is that we are being identified without our knowledge or consent, and society needs rules about when that is permissible.

    Similarly, we need rules about how our data can be combined with other data, and then bought and sold without our knowledge or consent. The data broker industry is almost entirely unregulated; there’s only one law ­– passed in Vermont in 2018 ­– that requires data brokers to register and explain in broad terms what kind of data they collect. The large Internet surveillance companies like Facebook and Google collect dossiers on us are more detailed than those of any police state of the previous century. Reasonable laws would prevent the worst of their abuses.

    Finally, we need better rules about when and how it is permissible for companies to discriminate. Discrimination based on protected characteristics like race and gender is already illegal, but those rules are ineffectual against the current technologies of surveillance and control. When people can be identified and their data correlated at a speed and scale previously unseen, we need new rules.

    Today, facial recognition technologies are receiving the brunt of the tech backlash, but focusing on them misses the point. We need to have a serious conversation about all the technologies of identification, correlation and discrimination, and decide how much we as a society want to be spied on by governments and corporations — and what sorts of influence we want them to have over our lives.

    This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

    EDITED TO ADD: Rereading this post-publication, I see that it comes off as overly critical of those who are doing activism in this space. Writing the piece, I wasn’t thinking about political tactics. I was thinking about the technologies that support surveillance capitalism, and law enforcement’s usage of that corporate platform. Of course it makes sense to focus on face recognition in the short term. It’s something that’s easy to explain, viscerally creepy, and obviously actionable. It also makes sense to focus specifically on law enforcement’s use of the technology; there are clear civil and constitutional rights issues. The fact that law enforcement is so deeply involved in the technology’s marketing feels wrong. And the technology is currently being deployed in Hong Kong against political protesters. It’s why the issue has momentum, and why we’ve gotten the small wins we’ve had. (The EU is considering a five-year ban on face recognition technologies.) Those wins build momentum, which lead to more wins. I should have been kinder to those in the trenches.

    If you want to help, sign the petition from Public Voice calling on a moratorium on facial recognition technology for mass surveillance. Or write to your US congressperson and demand similar action. There’s more information from EFF and EPIC.

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    Smartphone Election in Washington State

    This year:

    King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology.

    Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device.

    Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else.

    The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes.

    While advocates say this creates an auditable paper trail, many security experts say that because the ballots cross the Internet before they are printed, any subsequent audits on them would be moot. If a cyberattack occurred, an audit could essentially require double-checking ballots that may already have been altered, says Buell.

    Of course it’s not an auditable paper trail. There’s a reason why security experts use the phrase “voter-verifiable paper ballots.” A centralized printout of a received Internet message is not voter verifiable.

    Another news article.

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    Technical Report of the Bezos Phone Hack

    Motherboard obtained and published the technical report on the hack of Jeff Bezos’s phone, which is being attributed to Saudi Arabia, specifically to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    …investigators set up a secure lab to examine the phone and its artifacts and spent two days poring over the device but were unable to find any malware on it. Instead, they only found a suspicious video file sent to Bezos on May 1, 2018 that “appears to be an Arabic language promotional film about telecommunications.”

    That file shows an image of the Saudi Arabian flag and Swedish flags and arrived with an encrypted downloader. Because the downloader was encrypted this delayed or further prevented “study of the code delivered along with the video.”

    Investigators determined the video or downloader were suspicious only because Bezos’ phone subsequently began transmitting large amounts of data. “[W]ithin hours of the encrypted downloader being received, a massive and unauthorized exfiltration of data from Bezos’ phone began, continuing and escalating for months thereafter,” the report states.

    “The amount of data being transmitted out of Bezos’ phone changed dramatically after receiving the WhatsApp video file and never returned to baseline. Following execution of the encrypted downloader sent from MBS’ account, egress on the device immediately jumped by approximately 29,000 percent,” it notes. “Forensic artifacts show that in the six (6) months prior to receiving the WhatsApp video, Bezos’ phone had an average of 430KB of egress per day, fairly typical of an iPhone. Within hours of the WhatsApp video, egress jumped to 126MB. The phone maintained an unusually high average of 101MB of egress data per day for months thereafter, including many massive and highly atypical spikes of egress data.”

    The Motherboard article also quotes forensic experts on the report:

    A mobile forensic expert told Motherboard that the investigation as depicted in the report is significantly incomplete and would only have provided the investigators with about 50 percent of what they needed, especially if this is a nation-state attack. She says the iTunes backup and other extractions they did would get them only messages, photo files, contacts and other files that the user is interested in saving from their applications, but not the core files.

    “They would need to use a tool like Graykey or Cellebrite Premium or do a jailbreak to get a look at the full file system. That’s where that state-sponsored malware is going to be found. Good state-sponsored malware should never show up in a backup,” said Sarah Edwards, an author and teacher of mobile forensics for the SANS Institute.

    “The full file system is getting into the device and getting every single file on there­ — the whole operating system, the application data, the databases that will not be backed up. So really the in-depth analysis should be done on that full file system, for this level of investigation anyway. I would have insisted on that right from the start.”

    The investigators do note on the last page of their report that they need to jailbreak Bezos’s phone to examine the root file system. Edwards said this would indeed get them everything they would need to search for persistent spyware like the kind created and sold by the NSO Group. But the report doesn’t indicate if that did get done.

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