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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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WhatsApp Vulnerability

A new vulnerability in WhatsApp has been discovered:

…the researchers unearthed far more significant gaps in WhatsApp’s security: They say that anyone who controls WhatsApp’s servers could effortlessly insert new people into an otherwise private group, even without the permission of the administrator who ostensibly controls access to that conversation.

Matthew Green has a good description:

If all you want is the TL;DR, here’s the headline finding: due to flaws in both Signal and WhatsApp (which I single out because I use them), it’s theoretically possible for strangers to add themselves to an encrypted group chat. However, the caveat is that these attacks are extremely difficult to pull off in practice, so nobody needs to panic. But both issues are very avoidable, and tend to undermine the logic of having an end-to-end encryption protocol in the first place.

Here’s the research paper.

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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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Security Vulnerabilities in Certificate Pinning

New research found that many banks offer certificate pinning as a security feature, but fail to authenticate the hostname. This leaves the systems open to man-in-the-middle attacks.

From the paper:

Abstract: Certificate verification is a crucial stage in the establishment of a TLS connection. A common security flaw in TLS implementations is the lack of certificate hostname verification but, in general, this is easy to detect. In security-sensitive applications, the usage of certificate pinning is on the rise. This paper shows that certificate pinning can (and often does) hide the lack of proper hostname verification, enabling MITM attacks. Dynamic (black-box) detection of this vulnerability would typically require the tester to own a high security certificate from the same issuer (and often same intermediate CA) as the one used by the app. We present Spinner, a new tool for black-box testing for this vulnerability at scale that does not require purchasing any certificates. By redirecting traffic to websites which use the relevant certificates and then analysing the (encrypted) network traffic we are able to determine whether the hostname check is correctly done, even in the presence of certificate pinning. We use Spinner to analyse 400 security-sensitive Android and iPhone apps. We found that 9 apps had this flaw, including two of the largest banks in the world: Bank of America and HSBC. We also found that TunnelBear, one of the most popular VPN apps was also vulnerable. These apps have a joint user base of tens of millions of users.

News article.

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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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New White House Announcement on the Vulnerability Equities Process

The White House has released a new version of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP). This is the inter-agency process by which the US government decides whether to inform the software vendor of a vulnerability it finds, or keep it secret and use it to eavesdrop on or attack other systems. You can read the new policy or the fact sheet, but the best place to start is Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce’s blog post.

In considering a way forward, there are some key tenets on which we can build a better process.

Improved transparency is critical. The American people should have confidence in the integrity of the process that underpins decision making about discovered vulnerabilities. Since I took my post as Cybersecurity Coordinator, improving the VEP and ensuring its transparency have been key priorities, and we have spent the last few months reviewing our existing policy in order to improve the process and make key details about the VEP available to the public. Through these efforts, we have validated much of the existing process and ensured a rigorous standard that considers many potential equities.

The interests of all stakeholders must be fairly represented. At a high level we consider four major groups of equities: defensive equities; intelligence / law enforcement / operational equities; commercial equities; and international partnership equities. Additionally, ordinary people want to know the systems they use are resilient, safe, and sound. These core considerations, which have been incorporated into the VEP Charter, help to standardize the process by which decision makers weigh the benefit to national security and the national interest when deciding whether to disclose or restrict knowledge of a vulnerability.

Accountability of the process and those who operate it is important to establish confidence in those served by it. Our public release of the unclassified portions Charter will shed light on aspects of the VEP that were previously shielded from public review, including who participates in the VEP’s governing body, known as the Equities Review Board. We make it clear that departments and agencies with protective missions participate in VEP discussions, as well as other departments and agencies that have broader equities, like the Department of State and the Department of Commerce. We also clarify what categories of vulnerabilities are submitted to the process and ensure that any decision not to disclose a vulnerability will be reevaluated regularly. There are still important reasons to keep many of the specific vulnerabilities evaluated in the process classified, but we will release an annual report that provides metrics about the process to further inform the public about the VEP and its outcomes.

Our system of government depends on informed and vigorous dialogue to discover and make available the best ideas that our diverse society can generate. This publication of the VEP Charter will likely spark discussion and debate. This discourse is important. I also predict that articles will make breathless claims of “massive stockpiles” of exploits while describing the issue. That simply isn’t true. The annual reports and transparency of this effort will reinforce that fact.

Mozilla is pleased with the new charter. I am less so; it looks to me like the same old policy with some new transparency measures — which I’m not sure I trust. The devil is in the details, and we don’t know the details — and it has giant loopholes that pretty much anything can fall through:

The United States Government’s decision to disclose or restrict vulnerability information could be subject to restrictions by partner agreements and sensitive operations. Vulnerabilities that fall within these categories will be cataloged by the originating Department/Agency internally and reported directly to the Chair of the ERB. The details of these categories are outlined in Annex C, which is classified. Quantities of excepted vulnerabilities from each department and agency will be provided in ERB meetings to all members.

This is me from last June:

There’s a lot we don’t know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue “for more than five years,” which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It’s not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue — or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August to remain unpatched for years isn’t serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was “unreal.” But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

I stand by that, and am not sure the new policy changes anything.

More commentary.

Here’s more about the Windows vulnerabilities hoarded by the NSA and released by the Shadow Brokers.

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