CyberSec Tips: Email – Spam – Fraud – example 1

A lot of the advance fee fraud (also called 419 or Nigerian scams) these days say you’ve been named in a will:

> Subject: WILL EXECUTION!!!
> To: Recipients <clifordchance08@cliffordchance854.onmicrosoft.com>
> From: Clifford Chance <clifordchance08@cliffordchance854.onmicrosoft.com>

Note in this case that the message is sent “to” the person who sent it.  This is often an indication that many people have been sent the same message by being “blind” copied on it.  In any case, it wasn’t sent specifically to you.

> Late Mr.Robert Adler bequeathed US$20,500,000.00 USD, to you in his will.More
> info,contact your attorney(Clifford Chance Esq) via email
> address:clf.chance@hotmail.com  Tell+44-871-974-9198

This message doesn’t tell you very much: sometimes they have a reference to a recent tragic event.

Note also that the email address you are supposed to contact is not the same address that sent the message.  This is always suspicious.  (So is giving a phone number.)

If you look into the headers, there are more oddities:

> From: Clifford Chance <clifordchance08@cliffordchance854.onmicrosoft.com>
> Reply-To: <clf.chance@hotmail.com>
> Message-ID: <XXXX@SINPR02MB153.apcprd02.prod.outlook.com>

There are not only three different email addresses, but three different domains.  Microsoft owns Hotmail, and Hotmail became Outlook, so it’s possible, but it’s still a bit odd.

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BadBIOS

In recent days there has been much interest in the “BadBIOS” infection being reported by Dragos Ruiu.  (The best overview I’ve seen has been from Naked Security.)  But to someone who has lived through several viral myths and legends, parts of it sound strange.

  • It is said to infect the low-level system firmware of your computer, so it can’t be removed or disabled simply by rebooting.

These things, of course, have been around for a while, so that isn’t necessarily wrong.  However, BIOS infectors never became a major vector.

  • It is said to include components that work at the operating system level, so it affects the high-level operation of your computer, too.
  • It is said to be multi-platform, affecting at least Windows, OS X, and OpenBSD systems.

This sounds bit odd, but we’ve had cross-platform stuff before.  But they never became major problems either.

  • It is said to prevent infected systems being booted from CD drives.

Possible: we’ve seen similar effects over the years, both intentionally and un.

  • It is said to spread itself to new victim computers using Software Defined Radio (SDR) program code, even with all wireless hardware removed.

OK, it’s dangerous to go out on a limb when you haven’t seen details and say something can’t happen, but I’m calling bullshit on this one.  Not that I don’t think someone couldn’t create a communications channel without the hardware: anything the hardware guys can do the software guys can emulate, and vice versa.  However, I can’t see getting an infection channel this way, at least without some kind of minimal infection first.  (It is, of course, possible that the person doing the analysis may have made a mistake in what they observed, or in the reporting of it.)

  • It is said to spread itself to new victim computers using the speakers on an infected device to talk to the microphone on an uninfected one.

As above.

  • It is said to infect simply by plugging in a USB key, with no other action required.

We’ve seen that before.

  • It is said to infect the firmware on USB sticks.

Well, a friend has built a device to blow off dangerous firmware on USB sticks, so I don’t see that this would present any problem.

  • It is said to render USB sticks unusable if they aren’t ejected cleanly; these sticks work properly again if inserted into an infected computer.

Reminds me somewhat of the old “fast infectors” of the early 90s.  They had unintended effects that actually made the infections easy to remove.

  • It is said to use TTF (font) files, apparently in large numbers, as a vector when spreading.

Don’t know details of the internals of TTF files, but they should certainly have enough space.

  • It is said to block access to Russian websites that deal with reflashing software.

Possible, and irrelevant unless we find out what is actually true.

  • It is said to render any hardware used in researching the threat useless for further testing.

Well, anything that gets reflashed is likely to become unreliable and untrustworthy …

  • It is said to have first been seen more than three years ago on a Macbook.

And it’s taken three years to get these details?  Or get a sample to competent researchers?  Or ask for help?  This I find most unbelievable.

In sum, then, I think this might be possible, but I strongly suspect that it is either a promotion for PacSec, or a promo for some presentation on social engineering.

 

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Has your email been “hacked?”

I got two suspicious messages today.  They were identical, and supposedly “From” two members of my extended family, and to my most often used account, rather than the one I use as a spam trap.  I’ve had some others recently, and thought it a good opportunity to write up something on the general topic of email account phishing.

The headers are no particular help: the messages supposedly related to a Google Docs document, and do seem to come from or through Google.  (Somewhat ironically, at the time the two people listed in these messages might have been sharing information with the rest of us in the family in this manner.  Be suspicious of anything you receive over the Internet, even if you think it might relate to something you are expecting.)

The URLs/links in the message are from TinyURL (which Google wouldn’t use) and, when resolved, do not actually go to Google.  They seem to end up on a phishing site intended to steal email addresses.  It had a Google logo at the top, and asked the user to “sign in” with email addresses (and passwords) from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and a few other similar sites.  (The number of possible Webmail sites should be a giveaway in itself: Google would only be interested in your Google account.)

Beware of any messages you receive that look like this:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
Subject:            Important Documents
Date sent:          Mon, 5 Aug 2013 08:54:26 -0700
From:               [a friend or relative]

*Hello,*
*
How are you doing today? Kindly view the documents i uploaded for you using
Google Docs CLICK HERE <hxxp://tinyurl.com/o2vlrxx>.
——- End of forwarded message ——-

That particular site was only up briefly: 48 hours later it was gone.  This tends to be the case: these sites change very quickly.  Incidentally, when I initially tested it with a few Web reputation systems, it was pronounced clean by all.

This is certainly not the only type of email phishing message: a few years ago there were rafts of messages warning you about virus, spam, or security problems with your email account.  Those are still around: I just got one today:

——- Forwarded message follows ——-
From:               ”Microsoft HelpDesk” <microsoft@helpdesk.com>
Subject:            Helpdesk Mail Box Warning!!!
Date sent:          Wed, 7 Aug 2013 15:56:35 -0200

Helpdesk Mail Support require you to re-validate your Microsoft outlook mail immediately by clicking: hxxp://dktxxxkgek.webs.com/

This Message is From Helpdesk. Due to our latest IP Security upgrades we have reason to believe that your Microsoft outlook mail account was accessed by a third party. Protecting the security of your Microsoft outlook mail account is our primary concern, we have limited access to sensitive Microsoft outlook mail account features.

Failure to re-validate, your e-mail will be blocked in 24 hours.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Help Desk
Microsoft outlook Team
——- End of forwarded message ——-

Do you really think that Microsoft wouldn’t capitalize its own Outlook product?

(Another giveaway on that particular one is that it didn’t come to my Outlook account, mostly because I don’t have an Outlook account.)

(That site was down less than three hours after I received the email.

OK, so far I have only been talking about things that should make you suspicious when you receive them.  But what happens if and when you actually follow through, and get hit by these tricks?  Well, to explain that, we have to ask why the bad guys would want to phish for your email account.  After all, we usually think of phishing in terms of bank accounts, and money.

The blackhats phishing for email accounts might be looking for a number of things.  First, they can use your account to send out spam, and possibly malicious spam, at that.  Second, they can harvest email addresses from your account (and, in particular, people who would not be suspicious of a message when it comes “From:” you).  Third, they might be looking for a way to infect or otherwise get into your computer, using your computer in a botnet or for some other purpose, or stealing additional information (like banking information) you might have saved.  A fourth possibility, depending upon the type of Webmail you have, is to use your account to modify or create malicious Web pages, to serve malware, or do various types of phishing.

What you have to do depends on what it was the bad guys were after in getting into your account.

If they were after email addresses, it’s probably too late.  They have already harvested the addresses.  But you should still change your password on that account, so they won’t be able to get back in.  And be less trusting in future.

The most probable thing is that they were after your account in order to use it to send spam.  Change your password so that they won’t be able to send any more.  (In a recent event, with another relative, the phishers had actually changed the password themselves.  This is unusual, but it happens.  In that case, you have to contact the Webmail provider, and get them to reset your password for you.)  The phishers have probably also sent email to all of your friends (and everyone in your contacts or address list), so you’d better send a message around, ‘fess up to the fact that you’ve been had, and tell your friends what they should do.  (You can point them at this posting.)  Possibly in an attempt to prevent you from finding out that your account has been hacked, the attackers often forward your email somewhere else.  As well as changing your password, check to see if there is any forwarding on your account, and also check to see if associated email addresses have been changed.

It’s becoming less likely that the blackhats want to infect your computer, but it’s still possible.  In that case, you need to get cleaned up.  If you are running Windows, Microsoft’s (free!) program Microsoft Security Essentials (or MSE) does a very good job.  If you aren’t, or want something different, then Avast, Avira, Eset, and Sophos have products available for free download, and for Windows, Mac, iPhone, and Android.  (If you already have some kind of antivirus program running on your machine, you might want to get these anyway, because yours isn’t working, now is it?)

(By the way, in the recent incident, both family members told me that they had clicked on the link “and by then it was too late.”  They were obviously thinking of infection, but, in fact, that particular site wasn’t set up to try and infect the computer.  When they saw the page asked for their email addresses and password, it wasn’t too late.  if they had stopped at that point, and not entered their email addresses and passwords, nothing would have happened!  Be aware, and a bit suspicious.  It’ll keep you safer.)

When changing your password, or checking to see if your Web page has been modified, be very careful, and maybe use a computer that is protected a bit better than your is.  (Avast is very good at telling you if a Web page is trying to send you something malicious, and most of the others do as well.  MSE doesn’t work as well in this regard.)  Possibly use a computer that uses a different operating system: if your computer uses Windows, then use a Mac: if your computer is a Mac, use an Android tablet or something like that.  Usually (though not always) those who set up malware pages are only after one type of computer.

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The Biggest Gap in Information Security is…?

As a person who’s committed to helping raise awareness in the security community as a whole, I’ve often found myself asking this question. While there are several issues that I think contribute to the state of information security today, I’m going to outline a few of the major ones.

One major problem that spans every industry group from government to finance, all the way over to retail, is the massive amounts of data stored, the large number of devices to manage and frankly, not enough people to do it all. Or not enough people with the appropriate level of security skills to do it. I recently had a student in an Ethical Hacking class who asked me if I would be open to discussing some things in private with him concerning some issues he had at work. During dinner he confided in me that he sees his job as becoming more and more impossible with all the security requirements. He let me know that he had recently completed a penetration test within his company and felt he didn’t really get anything out of it. My first question was how many nodes were in the scope of the test. His response was 20,000. So naturally my next question was how big was his pen test team. To that he looked at me blankly and said “It was just me”. My next question was how long did he have to complete the test. And to that his reply was 3 days. This shocked me greatly and I candidly let this individual know that with a scope that big it will usually take one person more than three days to do proper discovery and recon and wouldn’t even give you time to even start vulnerability discovery, mapping, and exploitation testing/development.  I also informed him that for a job like that I usually deploy 3 people and usually contract a time of 2 to 4 weeks. Keep in mind this young man was a very intelligent and skilled person, but he lacked the skills to pull this off. After more conversation I realized that he himself was responsible for scoping the 3 day time to complete the test.

This brings me to the first main point; I see a trend of corporations and entities placing more security responsibility on individuals without giving them enough resources or training. This person admitted he really didn’t even have the skills to know how long it would take him and he based his time estimate off something he found on the web using google, which was why he was in the class. After the class he emailed me and thanked me for finally giving him the understanding to realize what it would take to successfully complete his internal testing. He drafted a plan for a 4 week test and put in a request to have temporary help for the 4 week duration. 2 months later he sent me another email and a redacted copy of the penetration test (after I signed a NDA of course). I was impressed with his work and let him know that. This demonstrated that even the most intelligent people can become overwhelmed if put into an impossible situation with no tools.

Second is the increasingly swift changing threat models. What would be considered a very secure computer 10 years ago (basic firewall, and up to date anti-virus) would be considered a joke today. I can remember when OS patches were mostly just non-security related bug fixes. If the bug didn’t affect you, you didn’t worry about the patch since it often broke other things. This way of thinking became the norm, and still exists in some places today. Add to that the web based attack vectors and client side attacks, it gets even more detrimental. I watched as Dan Kaminsky wrote himself into the infosec history books with his DNS attack. At the same time I saw one pen test customer after the other totally ignore it. Once we were able to exploit this in their environment we usually got responses like “i thought this mostly affected public/root dns servers”. The bottom line is DNS is DNS, internal or external. While Dans’ demonstration was impressive, thorough and concise, it left the average IT admin lost in the weeds. As humans when we don’t truly understand things we typically either do nothing, or do the wrong things. A lot of the media coverage of this vulnerability mostly focused on the public side threat. So from a surface look, it appeared to be something for “others” to worry about. Within weeks of that presentation there were new mobile device threats identified, new adobe reader threats, and many other common application vulnerabilities were identified. With all these “critical” things identified and disclosed within weeks of each other, it is apparent why some security professionals feel overwhelmed and behind the curve! Throw in the fact that I’m learning from clients and students alike that they’re now expected to be able to perform forensics investigations, and the weeds get deeper.

The last thing I want to point out is a trend I’ve noticed in recent years. The gap between what I like to call the “elite” of the information security world and the average IT admin or average whitehat/security professional is bigger than it’s ever been. Comments I’ve heard is “I went to blackhat and I was impressed with all of what I witnessed, but I don’t truly understand how it works and what to really do about it”. I think part of this is due to the fact that some in the information security community assume their audience should have a certain level of knowledge and refuse to back off that stance.

Overall I think the true gap is in knowledge. Often times individuals are not even sure what knowledge is required to perform their job.  Check back soon as I’ll be sharing some ideas as to how to address this problem.

Keatron Evans, one of the two lead authors of “Chained Exploits: Advanced Hacking Attacks From Start to Finish”, is a Senior Instructor and Training Services Director at the InfoSec Institute.

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Read this book. If you have anything to do with security, read this book.

I have been reviewing security books for over twenty years now.  When I think of how few are really worthwhile that gets depressing.

However, Ross Anderson is always worth reading.  And when Ross Anderson first published “Security Engineering” I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that it was a worthwhile read.  If you are, in any way, interested in, or working in, the field of security, there is something there for you.  Probably an awful lot.

When Ross Anderson made the first edition available online, for free, and then published the second edition, I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that they should buy the second edition, but, if they didn’t trust me, they should read the first edition free, and then buy the second edition because it was even better.

Now Ross has made the second edition available, online, for free.

Everyone should read it, if they haven’t already done so.

(I am eagerly awaiting the third edition  :-)

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Teacherless classrooms?

Someone has made yet another prediction that teachers will shortly be replaced by technology.  Teacherless classrooms are, apparently, the way of the future.

I recall this prediction being made, to great fanfare, thirty years ago.  I was, at the time, a public school teacher, and at a conference on science education.  The first speaker of the day took a bit of time out from his presentation to discuss the issue, and stated that any teacher who *could* be replaced by a computer, *should* be replaced by a computer.  His point was that teaching is a profession, not the push button assembly line job that many people seem to mistake it for.  Any teacher who is so repetitive, so lacking in imagination, so single dimensional, so robotic that they can be replaced by a machine or a process, should be replaced.  A teacher should be able to handle more than “do you want a diploma with that?”

(Go ahead.  Make my day.  Ask me if this is going to be on the final.)

One way or another I have been teaching for more than forty years.  I have taught (in the public school system) every grade level from kindergarten to grade twelve.  I have taught in two-year colleges, and at the post graduate level in academia.  I have taught for business and in commercial training.

I also have a rather broad experience in “distance education.”  I have participated as both director and teacher in video and audio production of teaching materials.  I have created online tutorials for computer-based courses.  I have designed and programmed interactive computer-based training.  Over twenty-five years ago I ran the telecommujnications component of the World Logo Conference, which was the first (and possibly still only) event to fully integrate onsite with online participation.  (And which also, since Logo is a “teaching” language, involved many teachers and computer educators.)

I have mentioned that I don’t like Webinars.  That isn’t because I inherently object to the very idea.  I think a good Webinar might be an interesting experience.  But, so far, nobody has figured out that that good distance education requires more work, not less.  (In the same way, publishers of textbooks haven’t yet understood that a good textbook requires better writing, not worse.)  We figured this out at the WLC more than two decades ago.  The developers of debuggy figured it out about programmed learning more than three decades ago.

There are some, few, isolated examples of individual lessons that have been done well using video, or the Web, or programmed learning, or various other forms of technology.  But they are, still, few and isolated, and drowned out in the vast sea of mediocre and wretched attempts.  Technology has uses, and good teachers know that.  It’s great for drill and practice in some areas.  The Web is a great place for discovery and research.  Letting a kid loose on the Internet without guidance is a recipe for disaster.  We are a long way, a very, VERY long way, from the use of technology to create entirely teacherless classrooms.

Yes, we can certainly use extra training for a number, possibly a very large number, of teachers who are afraid of the technology and don’t use it well.  But don’t tell me that you can replace them with droids until you can show me that you understand what teaching is all about.

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Using Skype Manager? no? Expect incoming fraud

I have been using Skype ever since it came out, so I know my stuff.

I know how to write strong passwords, how to use smart security questions and how to – most importantly – avoid Phishing attempts on my Skype account.

But all that didn’t help me avoid a Skype mishap (or more bluntly as a friend said – Skype f*ckup).

It all started Saturday late at night (about 2am GMT), when I started receiving emails in Mandarin from Skype, my immediate thought was fraud, a phishing attempt, so I ignored it. But then I noticed I got also emails from Paypal with charges from Skype for 100$ 200$ 300$, and I was worried, was my account hacked?

I immediately went to PayPal and disconnected my authorization to Skype, called in Transaction Dispute on PayPal and then went on to look at my Skype account.

I looked into the recent logons to my account – nothing.

I looked into email changes, or passwords – nothing.

I couldn’t figure out how the thing got to where it was, and then I noticed, I have become a Skype Manager – wow I was promoted and I didn’t even send in my CV.

Yeah, joke aside, Skype Manager, is a service Skype gives to businesses to allow one person to buy Skype Credit and other people to use that Credit to make calls. A great idea, but the execution is poor.

The service appears to have been launched in 2012, and a few weeks after that, fraud started popping up. The how is very simple and so stupid it shameful for Skype to not have fixed this, since it was first reported (which I found) on the 21st of Jan 2012 on the Skype forum.

Apparently having this very common combinations of:
1) Auto-charge PayPal
2) Never used Skype Manager
3) Never setup a Work email for Skype

Makes it possible for someone to:
1) Setup you as a Skype Manager
2) Setup a new work email on some obscure service (mailinator was used in my case), and have all Skype emails for confirmations sent there

Yes, they don’t need to know anything BESIDE the Skype Call name of your account – which is easy to get using Skype Search.

Once you have become a Skype Manager, “you” can add users to the group you are managing – they don’t need to logon as all they need to do is use the (email) link you get to the newly assigned Work Email, yes, it doesn’t confirm the password – smart ha?

The users added to your Skype Manager can now take the Credit (its not money, it just call credits) and call anywhere they want.

Why this bug / feature not been fixed/addressed since the first time it was made public on the Skype Forum (probably was exploited before then), is anyone’s guess, talking to the Fraud department of Skype – he mainly stated that I should:
1) Change my password for Skype – yes, that would have helped nothing in this case
2) Make sure I authorize Skype only on trustworthy devices

The bottom line, Skype users, make sure:
1) You have configured your Skype Manager – if you are using Auto-Charge feature – I have disabled my Auto-Charge and PayPal authorization since then, and don’t plan on enabling it anytime (ever)
2) You have configured your Skype Work email – yes, if its unset, anyone can change it – without needing to know your current password – is this company a PCI authorized company? :D

If you have more insight on the matter, let me know

- Noam

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Flame on!

I have been reading about the new Flame (aka Flamer, aka sKyWIper) “supervirus.”

[AAaaaarrrrrrggggghhhh!!!!!!!!  Sorry.  I will try and keep the screaming, in my "outside voice," to a minimum.]

From the Telegraph:

This “virus” [1] is “20 times more powerful” than any other!  [Why?  Because it has 20 times more code?  Because it is running on 20 times more computers?  (It isn't.  If you aren't a sysadmin in the Middle East you basically don't have to worry.)  Because the computers it is running on are 20 times more powerful?  This claim is pointless and ridiculous.]

[I had it right the first time.  The file that is being examined is 20 megabytes.  Sorry, I'm from the old days.  Anybody who needs 20 megs to build a piece of malware isn't a genius.  Tight code is *much* more impressive.  This is just sloppy.]

It “could only have been created by a state.”  [What have you got against those of us who live in provinces?]

“Flame can gather data files, remotely change settings on computers, turn on computer microphones to record conversations, take screen shots and copy instant messaging chats.”  [So?  We had RATs that could do that at least a decade ago.]

“… a Russian security firm that specialises in targeting malicious computer code … made the 20 megabyte virus available to other researchers yesterday claiming it did not fully understand its scope and said its code was 100 times the size of the most malicious software.”  [I rather doubt they made the claim that they didn't understand it.  It would take time to plow through 20 megs of code, so it makes sense to send it around the AV community.  But I still say these "size of code" and "most malicious" statements are useless, to say the least.]

It was “released five years ago and had infected machines in Iran, Israel, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”  [Five years?  Good grief!  This thing is a pretty wimpy virus!  (Or self-limiting in some way.)  Even in the days of BSIs and sneakernet you could spread something around the world in half a year at most.]

“If Flame went on undiscovered for five years, the only logical conclusion is that there are other operations ongoing that we don’t know about.”  [Yeah.  Like "not reproducing."]

“The file, which infects Microsoft Windows computers, has five encryption algorithms,”  [Gosh!  The best we could do before was a couple of dozen!]  “exotic data storage formats”  [Like "not plain text."]  “and the ability to steal documents, spy on computer users and more.”  [Yawn.]

“Components enable those behind it, who use a network of rapidly-shifting “command and control” servers to direct the virus …”  [Gee!  You mean like a botnet or something?]

 

Sorry.  Yes, I do know that this is supposed to be (and probably is) state-sponsored, and purposefully written to attack specific targets and evade detection.  I get it.  It will be (marginally) interesting to see what they pull out of the code over the next few years.  It’s even kind of impressive that someone built a RAT that went undetected for that long, even though it was specifically built to hide and move slowly.

But all this “supervirus” nonsense is giving me pains.

 

[1] First off, everybody is calling it a “virus.”  But many reports say they don’t know how it got where it was found.  Duh!  If it’s a virus, that’s kind of the first issue, isn’t it?

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Smartphone vulnerabilities

Scott Kelly, platform architect at Netflix, gets to look at a lot of devices.  In depth.  He’s got some interesting things to say about smartphones.  (At CanSecWest.)

First of all, with a computer, you are the “tenant.”  You own the machine, and you can modify it any way you want.

On a smartphone, you are not the only tenant, and, in fact, you are the second tenant.  The provider is the first.  And where you may want to modify and customize it, the provider may not want you to.  They’d like to lock you in.  At the very least, they want to maintain some control because you are constantly on their network.

Now, you can root or jailbreak your phone.  Basically, that means hacking your phone.  Whether you do that or not, it does mean that your device is hackable.

(Incidentally, the system architectures for smartphones can be hugely complex.)

Sometimes you can simply replace the firmware.  Providers try to avoid doing that, sometimes looking at a secure boot system.  This is usually the same as the “trusted computing” (digital signatures that verify back to a key that is embedded in the hardware) or “trusted execution” (operation restriction) systems.  (Both types were used way back in AV days of old.)  Sometimes the providers ask manufacturers to lock the bootloader.  Attackers can get around this, sometimes letting a check succeed and then doing a swap, or attacking write protection, or messing with the verification process as it is occurring.  However, you can usually find easier implementation errors.  Sometimes providers/vendors use symmetric enryption: once a key is known, every device of that model is accessible.  You can also look at the attack surface, and with the complex architectures in smartphones the surface is enormous.

Vendors and providers are working towards trusted modules and trustzones in mobile devices.  Sometimes this is virtual, sometimes it actually involves hardware.  (Personally, I saw attempts at this in the history of malware.  Hardware tended to have inherent advantages, but every system I saw had some vulnerability somewhere.)

Patching has been a problem with mobile devices.  Again, the providers are going to be seen as responsible for ongoing operation.  Any problems are going to be seen as their fault.  Therefore, they really have to be sure that any patch they create is absolutely bulletproof.  It can’t create any problems.  So there is always going to be a long window for any exploit that is found.  And there are going to be vulnerabilities to exploit in a system this complex.  Providers and vendors are going to keep trying to lock systems.

(Again, personally, I suspect that hacks will keep on occurring, and that the locking systems will turn out to be less secure than the designers think.)

Scott is definitely a good speaker, and his slides and flow are decent.  However, most of the material he has presented is fairly generic.  CanSecWest audiences have come to expect revelations of real attacks.

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Michelangelo date

OK, having now had this conversation twice, I’ve gone back to the true source of all wisdom on all things viral, “Viruses Revealed.”  I got it off my shelf, of course, but some helpful vxer (who probably thought he was going to harm our sales) posted it on the net, and saved David and I the bother.  (Remember, this guy is a vxer, so that page may not be entirely safe.)

Michelangelo is covered between pages 357 and 361, which is slightly over halfway through the book.  However, since I guess he’s missed out the index and stuff, it turns out to be at about the 3/4 mark on the page he’s created.

Anyway, Michelangelo checks the date via Interrupt 1Ah.  many people did not understand the difference between the MS-DOS clock and the system clock read by Interrupt 1Ah. The MS-DOS DATE command did not always alter the system clock. Network-connected machines often have “time server” functions so that the date is reset to conform to the network. The year 1992 was a leap year, and many clocks did not deal with it properly. Thus, for many computers, 6th March came on Thursday, not Friday.

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Michelangelo

Graham Cluley, of Sophos and Naked Security, posted some reminiscences of the Michelangelo virus.  It brought back some memories and he’s told the story well.

I hate to argue with Graham, but, first off, I have to note that the twentieth anniversary of Micelangelo is not tomorrow (March 6, 2012), but today, March 5.  That’s because 1992 was, as this year is, a leap year.  Yes, Michelangelo was timed to go off on March 6th every year, but, due to a shortcut in the code (and bugs in normal comptuer software), it neglected to factor in leap years.  Therefore, in 1992 many copies went off a day early, on March 5th.

March 5th, 1992, was a rather busy day for me.  I was attending a seminar, but kept getting called out to answer media enquiries.

And then there was the fact that, after all that work and information submitted to the media in advance, and creating copies of Michelangelo on a 3 1/2″ disk (it would normally only infect 5 1/4″s) so I could test it on a safe machine (and then having to recreate the disk when I accidentally triggered the virus), it wasn’t me who got my picture in the paper.  No, it was my baby brother, who a) didn’t believe in the virus, but b) finally, at literally the eleventh hour (11 pm on March 4th) decided to scan his own computer (with a scanner I had given to him), and, when he found he was infected, raised the alarm with his church, and scanned their computers as well.  (Must have been pretty close to midnight, and zero hour, by that time.)  That’s a nice human interest story so he got his picture in the paper.  (Not that I’m bitter, mind you.)

I don’t quite agree with Graham as to the infection rates.  I do know that, since this was the first time we (as the nascent antivirus community) managed to get the attention of the media in advance, there were a great many significant infections that were cleaned off in time, before the trigger date.  I recall notices of thousands of machines cleaned off in various institutions.  But, in a sense, we were victims of our own success.  Having got the word out in advance, by the trigger date most of the infections had been cleaned up.  So, yes, the media saw it as hype on our part.  And then there was the fact that a lot of people had no idea when they got hit.  I was told, by several people, “no, we didn’t get Michelangelo.  But, you know, it’s strange: our computer had a disk failure on that date …”  That was how Michelangelo appeared, when it triggered.

I note that one of the comments wished that we could find out who created the virus.  There is strong evidence that it was created in Taiwan.  And, in response to a posting that I did at the time, I received a message from someone, from Taiwan, who complained that it shouldn’t be called “Michelangelo,” since the real name was “Stoned 3.”  I’ve always felt that only the person who wrote that variant would have been that upset about the naming …

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New computers – Kindle

The Girls, who have been having a grand time in recent years finding interesting high tech goodies that I never even knew existed, got me a Kindle for Christmas.  So, of course, I’m going to review the Kindle.

I had been putting off the idea of getting one for myself.  I do a lot of reading, but that’s primarily because I do a lot of reviewing, and for that you need the ability to make notes, and transfer said notes back to the computer for writing up.  So far, I haven’t seen an awful lot that convinces me the e-readers are there yet.

But, I do have to say that, right off the top, the idea of having 60 books (so far) in something that is lighter than a paperback definitely has its attractions.  So far I’ve been able to load the Bible, some tech articles, my own security dictionary, a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories, Don Quixote (both of which I have read), The Divine Comedy, War and Piece (both of which I intend to read–sometime), a fair amount of poetry, and an egalley for Bruce Schneier’s latest (sent along by his publicist).

Unfortunately, all this fun exploring has me somewhat behind in news and email, so I’ll have to start putting together my observations of the Kindle, itself, a bit later.

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Nightmare on Malware Street

The Scientific American, no less, has published an article on malware.  Not that they don’t have every right, it’s just that the article is short on fact or help, and long on rather wild conjecture.

The author does have some points to make, even if he makes them very, very badly.

We, both as security professionals and as a society, don’t take malware seriously enough.  The security literature on the subject is appalling.  It is hard to find books on malware, even harder to find good ones, and well nigh impossible to find decent information in general security books.  The problem has been steadily growing since it was a vague academic topic, and has been ignored for so long that, now that it is a real problem, even most security experts have only a tenuous grasp of it.

Almost all reports do sound like paranoid thrillers.  Promoting the idea of shadowy genius figures in dark corners manipulating us at will, this engenders a kind of overall depression: we can’t possibly fight it, so we might was well not even try.  This attitude is further exacerbated but the dearth of information: we can’t even know what’s going on, so how can we even try to fight it?

It is getting more and more difficult to find malware, mostly because we are constantly creating new places for it to hide.  In the name of “user friendliness,” we are building ever more complex systems, with ever more crevices for the pumas to hide in.

Yes, then he goes off into wild speculation and gets all “Reflections on Trusting Trust” on us.  Which kind of loses the valid points.

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Security awareness

A recent Twitter post by Team Cymru pointed at a (very brief) debate about the value of security awareness training.  It’s an issue that has concerned me for a long time.

I got interested in security starting with research into viruses and malware.  Early on, I did a lot of work reviewing the various available products.  In the responses I got to my efforts, one point was abundantly clear: everyone, almost without exception, was looking for the “perfect” antivirus.  Even though Fred Cohen had proven that such an animal could not possibly exist, everybody wanted something they could “set and forget.”

Notice two things.  The first is that perfect security doesn’t exist.  As (ISC)2‘s marketing phrase has it, security transcends technology.  The second point is that people aren’t particularly keen on learning about security.  They fight against it.  They have to be motivated into it.  And that motivation tends to be individual and personal.

Which means security awareness training is hard, and individual, and therefore expensive.  Expensive means that companies are loath to try it, in any significant way.  Hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars can be spent on a raft of security technologies, but security awareness programs can only get a budget of a few thousand a year.  Which means they can’t be individual, which means they won’t work very well, which means companies aren’t willing to try them.

The default position people take is to resist security awareness.  They don’t want to know extraneous stuff.  They just want to get on with their jobs.  So, even if you were to produce a really good security awareness program, there would undoubtedly still be some who would resist to the end, and not learn.  They wouldn’t benefit from the program, and they would still make mistakes.  So security awareness training won’t be perfect, either.  Sorry about that.

However, I’ve noticed something over the years.  I get asked, by all my friends and acquaintances, for advice about virus protection, and home computer protection.  Some learn the ins and outs, the dangerous activities, the marks of a phishing email message.  They never ask me to clean their machines.  Some just ask about the “best” antiviral software.  Usually after they’ve asked me to clean off a computer.  I identify what they’ve got, and tell them how they got it.  You shouldn’t [do music sharing|do instant messaging|go to all those weird Websites|open attachments you receive] I tell them.  They always have reasons why they must do those things.  (Not very good reasons, mind you, just reasons.)

You know that old medical joke about “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” “Well, do do that”?  It’s not funny.

People ask me what antivirus program I use at home.  Very often I don’t use one, unless I’m testing something.  (At the moment I’m testing two, and I’m about ready to take both of them off, since both of them can be real nuisances at times.)  There are long periods where I run without any “protection.”  I know what not to do.  My wife knows what not to do.  (After all, she read my first book seven times over, while she was editing it.)  We don’t get infected.  Not even by “zero days” or “advanced persistent threats.”

Security technology isn’t perfect.  Security awareness training isn’t perfect.  However, at present, and for as long as I can remember, the emphasis has been on security technology.  We need to give awareness more of a try.

Is security awareness “worth it”?  Is security awareness “cost effective”?  Well, we’ve been spending quite a lot on security technologies (sometimes just piecemeal, unmanaged security technologies), and we haven’t got good security.  Three arguments in favour of at least trying security awareness spending:

1)  When you’ve got two areas of benefit, and you are reaching the limits of “diminishing returns” in one area, the place to put your further money is on the one you haven’t stressed.

2)  Security awareness is mostly about risk management.  Business management is mostly about risk management.  Security awareness can give you advantages in more than just security.

3)  Remember that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

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Complexity is killing us

The other night Gloria asked me what to do about securing the computer if I die first.  (Yes, we talk about those type of things.)  I really didn’t know what to tell her.  And told her that.

A decade ago, I would have had a list of things to do.  Actually, she knows that list: although she always considers herself ignorant about computers, she’s actually more savvy than most (and a lot more savvy than she gives herself credit for).  But these days I hardly know where to start.  You have to qualify every piece of advice you give, and you have to constantly keep up on the latest attacks and threats.  General classes don’t cut it any more.

This isn’t because the attackers are getting any more imaginative.  In general, they aren’t.  Recently a lot of companies (some, like RSA and Sony, very high profile) have been screaming about getting hit by APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks.  What is APT?  Simply social engineering and malware.  Well, since malware has almost always had a social engineering component, I suppose it’s really only malware.  We’ve had malware for thirty years.  So what’s new?  Nothing.  The companies were sloppy.

What is happening is that all of information and communications technology is getting more and more complex.  Programs are tied into the operating system.  Nothing is clear cut.  The actual workings of the system are hidden from the user.  Hardware is virtual.  Networks are cloudy.  Gene Spafford mentioned this in a recent interview.  Since it was an interview, he really didn’t get a chance to expand on this point: the interviewer was more interested in trying to nail down who to blame for the situation.  Who is to blame?  Well, the vendors are creating sloppy systems: forfeiting security in the name of bells and whistles.  But that, of course, is because only a vanishingly small segment of the population is actually interested in security: everyone wants dancing pigs.

I’ve written before about complexity and security.  (And network complexity.)  But every day brings new examples.  Today, for example, Adobe has finally brought out an easier way to delete or manage Flash cookies.  Flash cookies are a particularly pernicious and tenacious form of cookie.  Those of you who think you are “up” on security may have set your browser to delete cookies.  Good.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do a thing for Flash cookies.  So, Adobe has finally given us control over Flash cookies.  In version 10.3.  What version of Flash do you have?  Do you even know?  How would you find out?  It took me quite a while, and I know what I’m doing.  And, in spite of the fact that I’ve had numerous (annoying) Adobe updates recently, I don’t have 10.3.

I’m supposed to be a specialist not only in security, but in security awareness.  And the job is just getting overwhelming.

It’s really depressing.

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Microsoft Security Essentials review

What with twenty years experience in reviewing AV software, I figured I’d better try it out.

It’s not altogether terrible.  The fact that it’s free, and from Microsoft (and therefore promoted), might reduce the total level of infections, and that would be a good thing.

But even for free software, and from Microsoft, it’s pretty weird.

When I installed it, I did a “quick” scan.

That ran for over an hour on a machine with a drive that’s got about 70 Gb of material on it, mostly not programs.  At that point I hadn’t found out that you can exclude directories (more on that later), so it found my zoo.  It deleted nine copies of Sircam.

Lemme tell ya ’bout my zoo.  It’s got over 1500 files in it.  There are a lot of duplicate files (hence the nine copies of Sircam), and there are files in there that are not malware.  There are files which have had the executable file extensions changed.  But there are a great number of common, executable, dangerous pieces of malware in there, and the only thing MSE found was nine copies of Sircam.

(Which it deleted.  Without asking.  Personally, for me, that’s annoying.  It means I have to repopulate my zoo from backups.  But for most users, that’s probably a good thing.)

Now, when I went to repopulate my zoo, I, of course, opened the zoo directory with Windows Explorer.  And all kinds of bells and whistles went off.  As soon as I “looked” at the directory, the real-time component of MSE found more than the quick scan did.  That probably means the real-time scanner is fairly decent.  (In my situation it’s annoying, so I turned it off.  MSE is now annoyed at me, and continues to be annoyed, with big red flags on my task bar.)
MSE has four alert levels to categorize what it finds, and you have some options for setting the default actions.  The alert levels are severe (options: “Recommended action,” “Remove,” and “Quarantine”), high (options: “Recommended action,” “Remove,” and “Quarantine”), medium (options: “Recommended action,” “Remove,” “Quarantine,” and “Allow”), and low (options: “Recommended action,” “Remove,” “Quarantine,” and “Allow”).  Initially, everything is set at “Recommended action.”  I turned everything down to the lowest possible settings: I want information, not strip mining.  However, for most people it would seem to be reasonable to keep it at the default action, which seems to be removal for everything.
I don’t know where it puts the quarantined stuff.  It does have a directory at C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Microsoft Security Essentials, but no quarantined material appears to be there.

(I did try to find out more.  It does have help functions.  If you click on the “Help” button, it sends you to this site.  However, if you click on the link to explain the actions and alert levels, it sends you to this site.  If you examine those two URLs, they are different.  If you click on them, you go to the same place.  At that location, you can get some pages that offer you marketing bumpf, or watch a few videos.  There isn’t much help.)
You can exclude specific files and locations.  Personally, I find that extremely useful, and the only reason that I’d continue using MSE.  It does seem to work: I excluded my zoo before I did a full scan, and none of my zoo disappeared when I did the full scan.  However, for most users, the simple existence of that option could signal a loophole.  If I was a blackhat, first thing I’d do is find out how to exclude myself from the scanner.  (There is also an option to exclude certain file types.)

So I did a full scan.  That took over eight hours.  I don’t know exactly how long it took, I finally had to give up and leave it running.  MSE doesn’t report how long it took to do a scan, it only reports what it found.  (I suspect the total run was around ten or eleven hours.  MSE reports that a full scan can take up to an hour.)

While MSE is running it really bogs down the machine.  According to task manager it doesn’t take up much in the way of machine cycles, but the computer sure isn’t responsive while it’s on.
When I came back and found it had finished, the first thing it wanted me to do was send a bunch of suspect files to Microsoft.  The files were all from my email.  On the plus side, the files were all messages that reported suspect malware or Websites, so it’s possible that we could say MSE is doing a good job in scanning files and examining archives.  (On the other hand, every single message was from Sunbelt Software.  This could be coincidence, but it is also a fact that Sunbelt makes competing AV software, and was formerly associated with a company that Microsoft bought in its race to produce AV and anti-spyware components.)

Then I started to go through what Microsoft said it found, in order to determine what I had lost.

The first item on the list was rated severe.  Apparently I had failed to notice six copies of the EICAR test file on my machine.

Excuse me?  The EICAR test file?  A severe threat?  Microsoft, you have got to be kidding.  And the joke is not funny.

The EICAR test file is a test file.  If anyone doesn’t know what it is, read about it at EICAR, or at Wikipedia if you don’t trust EICAR.  It’s harmless.  Yes, a compatible scanner will report it, but only to show that your scanner is, in fact, working.

It shouldn’t delete or quarantine all copies it finds on the machine.

MSE also said it quarantined fifteen messages from my email for having JavaScript shell code.  Unfortunately, it didn’t say what they were, and I wasn’t sure I could get them back.  I don’t know why they were deleted, or what the trigger was.  MSE isn’t too big on reporting details.  I don’t know whether these messages were simply ones that contained some piece of generic JavaScript, and got boosted up to “severe” level.  Given the EICAR test file experience, I’m not inclined to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt.

After some considerable work, I did find them.  They seemed to be the “suspect” messages that Microsoft wanted.  And when I tried to recover them, I found that MSE had not quarantined them: they were left in place.  So, at the very least, at times MSE lies to you.

(I guess I’d better add my email directory to places for MSE not to scan.)
MSE quarantined some old DOS utilities.  It quarantined a bunch of old virus simulators (the ones that show you screen displays, not actual infectors).  (Called them weird names, too.)

MSE quarantined Gibson Research‘s DCOMbob.exe.  This is a tool for making sure that DCOM is disabled on your machine.  Since DCOM was the vector for the Blaster worm (among others), and is really hard to turn off under XP, I find this rather dangerous.

OK, final word is that I can use it.  I’ll want to protect certain areas before I do, but that shouldn’t be too much of a concern for most users.

You might want to make sure Microsoft isn’t reading your email …

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