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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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Another Spectre-Like CPU Vulnerability

Google and Microsoft researchers have disclosed another Spectre-like CPU side-channel vulnerability, called “Speculative Store Bypass.” Like the others, the fix will slow the CPU down.

The German tech site Heise reports that more are coming.

I’m not surprised. Writing about Spectre and Meltdown in January, I predicted that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these sorts of vulnerabilities.

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they — and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability — have shown researchers where to look, more is coming — and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown.

I still predict that we’ll be seeing lots more of these in the coming months and years, as we learn more about this class of vulnerabilities.

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Details on a New PGP Vulnerability

A new PGP vulnerability was announced today. Basically, the vulnerability makes use of the fact that modern e-mail programs allow for embedded HTML objects. Essentially, if an attacker can intercept and modify a message in transit, he can insert code that sends the plaintext in a URL to a remote website. Very clever.

The EFAIL attacks exploit vulnerabilities in the OpenPGP and S/MIME standards to reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails. In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.

The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim. The victim’s email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.

A few initial comments:

1. Being able to intercept and modify e-mails in transit is the sort of thing the NSA can do, but is hard for the average hacker. That being said, there are circumstances where someone can modify e-mails. I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of this attack, but that is a consideration.

2. The vulnerability isn’t with PGP or S/MIME itself, but in the way they interact with modern e-mail programs. You can see this in the two suggested short-term mitigations: “No decryption in the e-mail client,” and “disable HTML rendering.”

3. I’ve been getting some weird press calls from reporters wanting to know if this demonstrates that e-mail encryption is impossible. No, this just demonstrates that programmers are human and vulnerabilities are inevitable. PGP almost certainly has fewer bugs than your average piece of software, but it’s not bug free.

3. Why is anyone using encrypted e-mail anymore, anyway? Reliably and easily encrypting e-mail is an insurmountably hard problem for reasons having nothing to do with today’s announcement. If you need to communicate securely, use Signal. If having Signal on your phone will arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.

I’ll post other commentaries and analyses as I find them.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): News articles.

Slashdot thread.

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Critical PGP Vulnerability

EFF is reporting that a critical vulnerability has been discovered in PGP and S/MIME. No details have been published yet, but one of the researchers wrote:

We’ll publish critical vulnerabilities in PGP/GPG and S/MIME email encryption on 2018-05-15 07:00 UTC. They might reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails, including encrypted emails sent in the past. There are currently no reliable fixes for the vulnerability. If you use PGP/GPG or S/MIME for very sensitive communication, you should disable it in your email client for now.

This sounds like a protocol vulnerability, but we’ll learn more tomorrow.

News articles.

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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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Obscure E-Mail Vulnerability

This vulnerability is a result of an interaction between two different ways of handling e-mail addresses. Gmail ignores dots in addresses, so bruce.schneier@gmail.com is the same as bruceschneier@gmail.com is the same as b.r.u.c.e.schneier@gmail.com. (Note: I do not own any of those email addresses — if they’re even valid.) Netflix doesn’t ignore dots, so those are all unique e-mail addresses and can each be used to register an account. This difference can be exploited.

I was almost fooled into perpetually paying for Eve’s Netflix access, and only paused because I didn’t recognize the declined card. More generally, the phishing scam here is:

  • Hammer the Netflix signup form until you find a gmail.com address which is “already registered”. Let’s say you find the victim jameshfisher.
  • Create a Netflix account with address james.hfisher.
  • Sign up for free trial with a throwaway card number.
  • After Netflix applies the “active card check”, cancel the card.
  • Wait for Netflix to bill the cancelled card. Then Netflix emails james.hfisher asking for a valid card.
  • Hope Jim reads the email to james.hfisher, assumes it’s for his Netflix account backed by jameshfisher, then enters his card **** 1234.
  • Change the email for the Netflix account to eve@gmail.com, kicking Jim’s access to this account.
  • Use Netflix free forever with Jim’s card **** 1234!

Obscure, yes? A problem, yes?

James Fisher, who wrote the post, argues that it’s Google’s fault. Ignoring dots might give people an enormous number of different email addresses, but it’s not a feature that people actually want. And as long as other sites don’t follow Google’s lead, these sorts of problems are possible.

I think the problem is more subtle. It’s an example of two systems without a security vulnerability coming together to create a security vulnerability. As we connect more systems directly to each other, we’re going to see a lot more of these. And like this Google/Netflix interaction, it’s going to be hard to figure out who to blame and who — if anyone — has the responsibility of fixing it.

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Another Branch Prediction Attack

When Spectre and Meltdown were first announced earlier this year, pretty much everyone predicted that there would be many more attacks targeting branch prediction in microprocessors. Here’s another one:

In the new attack, an attacker primes the PHT and running branch instructions so that the PHT will always assume a particular branch is taken or not taken. The victim code then runs and makes a branch, which is potentially disturbing the PHT. The attacker then runs more branch instructions of its own to detect that disturbance to the PHT; the attacker knows that some branches should be predicted in a particular direction and tests to see if the victim’s code has changed that prediction.

The researchers looked only at Intel processors, using the attacks to leak information protected using Intel’s SGX (Software Guard Extensions), a feature found on certain chips to carve out small sections of encrypted code and data such that even the operating system (or virtualization software) cannot access it. They also described ways the attack could be used against address space layout randomization and to infer data in encryption and image libraries.

Research paper.

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Israeli Security Attacks AMD by Publishing Zero-Day Exploits

Last week, the Israeli security company CTS Labs published a series of exploits against AMD chips. The publication came with the flashy website, detailed whitepaper, cool vulnerability names — RYZENFALL, MASTERKEY, FALLOUT, and CHIMERA — and logos we’ve come to expect from these sorts of things. What’s new is that the company only gave AMD a day’s notice, which breaks with every norm about responsible disclosure. CTS Labs didn’t release details of the exploits, only high-level descriptions of the vulnerabilities, but it is probably still enough for others to reproduce their results. This is incredibly irresponsible of the company.

Moreover, the vulnerabilities are kind of meh. Nicholas Weaver explains:

In order to use any of the four vulnerabilities, an attacker must already have almost complete control over the machine. For most purposes, if the attacker already has this access, we would generally say they’ve already won. But these days, modern computers at least attempt to protect against a rogue operating system by having separate secure subprocessors. CTS Labs discovered the vulnerabilities when they looked at AMD’s implementation of the secure subprocessor to see if an attacker, having already taken control of the host operating system, could bypass these last lines of defense.

In a “Clarification,” CTS Labs kind of agrees:

The vulnerabilities described in amdflaws.com could give an attacker that has already gained initial foothold into one or more computers in the enterprise a significant advantage against IT and security teams.

The only thing the attacker would need after the initial local compromise is local admin privileges and an affected machine. To clarify misunderstandings — there is no need for physical access, no digital signatures, no additional vulnerability to reflash an unsigned BIOS. Buy a computer from the store, run the exploits as admin — and they will work (on the affected models as described on the site).

The weirdest thing about this story is that CTS Labs describes one of the vulnerabilities, Chimera, as a backdoor. Although it doesn’t t come out and say that this was deliberately planted by someone, it does make the point that the chips were designed in Taiwan. This is an incredible accusation, and honestly needs more evidence before we can evaluate it.

The upshot of all of this is that CTS Labs played this for maximum publicity: over-hyping its results and minimizing AMD’s ability to respond. And it may have an ulterior motive:

But CTS’s website touting AMD’s flaws also contained a disclaimer that threw some shadows on the company’s motives: “Although we have a good faith belief in our analysis and believe it to be objective and unbiased, you are advised that we may have, either directly or indirectly, an economic interest in the performance of the securities of the companies whose products are the subject of our reports,” reads one line. WIRED asked in a follow-up email to CTS whether the company holds any financial positions designed to profit from the release of its AMD research specifically. CTS didn’t respond.

We all need to demand better behavior from security researchers. I know that any publicity is good publicity, but I am pleased to see the stories critical of CTS Labs outnumbering the stories praising it.

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Artificial Intelligence and the Attack/Defense Balance

Artificial intelligence technologies have the potential to upend the longstanding advantage that attack has over defense on the Internet. This has to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of people and computers, how those all interplay in Internet security, and where AI technologies might change things.

You can divide Internet security tasks into two sets: what humans do well and what computers do well. Traditionally, computers excel at speed, scale, and scope. They can launch attacks in milliseconds and infect millions of computers. They can scan computer code to look for particular kinds of vulnerabilities, and data packets to identify particular kinds of attacks.

Humans, conversely, excel at thinking and reasoning. They can look at the data and distinguish a real attack from a false alarm, understand the attack as it’s happening, and respond to it. They can find new sorts of vulnerabilities in systems. Humans are creative and adaptive, and can understand context.

Computers — so far, at least — are bad at what humans do well. They’re not creative or adaptive. They don’t understand context. They can behave irrationally because of those things.

Humans are slow, and get bored at repetitive tasks. They’re terrible at big data analysis. They use cognitive shortcuts, and can only keep a few data points in their head at a time. They can also behave irrationally because of those things.

AI will allow computers to take over Internet security tasks from humans, and then do them faster and at scale. Here are possible AI capabilities:

  • Discovering new vulnerabilities­ — and, more importantly, new types of vulnerabilities­ in systems, both by the offense to exploit and by the defense to patch, and then automatically exploiting or patching them.
  • Reacting and adapting to an adversary’s actions, again both on the offense and defense sides. This includes reasoning about those actions and what they mean in the context of the attack and the environment.
  • Abstracting lessons from individual incidents, generalizing them across systems and networks, and applying those lessons to increase attack and defense effectiveness elsewhere.
  • Identifying strategic and tactical trends from large datasets and using those trends to adapt attack and defense tactics.

That’s an incomplete list. I don’t think anyone can predict what AI technologies will be capable of. But it’s not unreasonable to look at what humans do today and imagine a future where AIs are doing the same things, only at computer speeds, scale, and scope.

Both attack and defense will benefit from AI technologies, but I believe that AI has the capability to tip the scales more toward defense. There will be better offensive and defensive AI techniques. But here’s the thing: defense is currently in a worse position than offense precisely because of the human components. Present-day attacks pit the relative advantages of computers and humans against the relative weaknesses of computers and humans. Computers moving into what are traditionally human areas will rebalance that equation.

Roy Amara famously said that we overestimate the short-term effects of new technologies, but underestimate their long-term effects. AI is notoriously hard to predict, so many of the details I speculate about are likely to be wrong­ — and AI is likely to introduce new asymmetries that we can’t foresee. But AI is the most promising technology I’ve seen for bringing defense up to par with offense. For Internet security, that will change everything.

This essay previously appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

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Security Vulnerabilities in Smart Contracts

Interesting research: “Finding The Greedy, Prodigal, and Suicidal Contracts at Scale“:

Abstract: Smart contracts — stateful executable objects hosted on blockchains like Ethereum — carry billions of dollars worth of coins and cannot be updated once deployed. We present a new systematic characterization of a class of trace vulnerabilities, which result from analyzing multiple invocations of a contract over its lifetime. We focus attention on three example properties of such trace vulnerabilities: finding contracts that either lock funds indefinitely, leak them carelessly to arbitrary users, or can be killed by anyone. We implemented MAIAN, the first tool for precisely specifying and reasoning about trace properties, which employs inter-procedural symbolic analysis and concrete validator for exhibiting real exploits. Our analysis of nearly one million contracts flags 34,200 (2,365 distinct) contracts vulnerable, in 10 seconds per contract. On a subset of 3,759 contracts which we sampled for concrete validation and manual analysis, we reproduce real exploits at a true positive rate of 89%, yielding exploits for 3,686 contracts. Our tool finds exploits for the infamous Parity bug that indirectly locked 200 million dollars worth in Ether, which previous analyses failed to capture.

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