Western society is WEIRD [1]

(We have the OT indicator to say that something is off topic.  This isn’t, because ethics and sociology is part of our profession, but it is a fairly narrow area of interest for most.  We don’t have a subject-line indicator for that  :-)

This article, and the associated paper, are extremely interesting in many respects.  The challenge to whole fields of social factors (which are vital to proper management of security) has to be addressed.  We are undoubtedly designing systems based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the one constant factor in our systems: people.

(I suppose that, as long as the only people we interact with are WEIRD [1] westerners, we are OK.  Maybe this is why we are flipping out at the thought of China?)

(I was particularly interested in the effects of culture on actual physical perception, which we have been taught is hard wired.)

[1] – WEIRD, in the context of the paper, stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies


Online forum rule haikus

On the CISSPforum we were discussing precepts for getting along and keeping the discussions meaningful.  Somebody started listing rules, so I started casting them as haikus.  That prompted a few more.

I wondered if these were only for that group, but then realized most of them were applicable to online discussions of whatever type.  So, herewith:


Create your own space
Meaningful content only
Comes to those who post.

Silence calls silence
Lurkers don’t disturb quiet
Sleep beckons as well.

The posts are boring?
Raise topic of interest
Thread starter lauded.

Forum like sewer:
What you get out of forum
Depends on input.

Being creative
Is much better than being
Tagged as complainer.

These are your colleagues.
Why are you so much  better
That they must start first?

The forum that is
Is not what must always be.
Build a better world.

Friday is not for
Building new realities.
Your colleagues would sleep.


Then some other chimed in:

I remember trust
It disappeared so quickly
I guess we were fools

Pointing to resource
Always appreciated
Who can search the whole?

Putting platitudes
into pleasing haiku
removes sting of truth

Now you’re getting it.
Format is everything.  (Well,
And maybe context  :-)

friday gratitude
is here at last for resting
ignoring infosec

Friday at last! Time for
Bottles of overpriced wine.
Why’m I still at work???

Request not correct.
Reformat for this thread.
Please resubmit now.

Jangles cosmic harmonies
Til balance achieved.


Secure Awareness mottoes and one-liners

From various forums, mailing lists, discussions and other sources (many of which exist only in my febrile imagination), herewith a bit of a compilation of mottoes that can be used as part of a security awareness campaign:

No-one in Africa wants to GIVE anyone their money or gold.

Microsoft/Google/a Russian oil magnate/VW/BMW/etc certainly does not want to GIVE anyone money/a car/etc.

A stunning Russian blonde DOES NOT want to marry you.

If it sounds too good to be true, IT IS.

A web site, Email message, IM or tweet that tells you you need to install security software IS LYING.

Just because it’s in a Google search result or an “ad by Google” does NOT mean it is safe.

If the options seem to be “Click OK/Run/Install” or “turn off the computer”, TURN OFF THE COMPUTER.

Did your friend really send you that message?

Is your friend really as smart about computer security as you think?
A. No    B. Not at all    C. Well and truly not    D. All the above

You didn’t win the Irish lottery.

Your bank doesn’t want you to change your password.

Don’t be Phish Phood.

Pwnly Phools Phall for Phishing.

Think, THINK every click.

Need extra money?  Want to work from home?  Getting a job from a spammer is NOT A GOOD IDEA!!!

When did you last make a backup?  Do you want to do [period of time] worth of work all over again?

Report the suspicious, not the strange.

If the bank thinks your online account has been hacked, they won’t warn you by email.

Being sociable doesn’t mean being totally open. Be careful what you disclose via social media.

If someone wants/offers to make something really easy for you, there is a way that can be used against you.

Hide your ‘cheese’ (get a router).

A patch a day keeps hackers away (keep your OS and apps up to date).

Always wear a helmet (install a firewall/antivirus package).

The great unknown ain’t so great (only use software you can trust).

Use sunscreen to prevent burns (lock down your OS and apps).

Make 007 jealous (learn to use additional security tools).

“Password” is not a password (use strong passwords).

Keep your skeletons in the closet (protect your personal data).

Don’t be a dork (be smart when you’re on-line).

Keep your dukes up (stay informed and vigilant).

Infosec is like a sewer: what you get out of it, depends on what you put into it.


Some are recently from the #InfosecMotherlyAdvice tag on Twitter:

Don’t click … it’ll get infected.

Don’t take cookies from strangers.

Idle systems are a botnet’s playground.

A backup in hand is worth two in the cloud.

While you’re connected to my network you’ll live by my firewall rule.

A backup a day keeps data loss away.

We’d better get you a bigger firewall – you’ll grow into it.

Close the security holes, you’re letting all our sensitive data out.

If your system gets compromised and crashes, don’t come emailing to me.

Always encrypt your data. you never know when you’ll have an accident.

If everybody else clicked on links in emails, would you do that too?

Either you’re inside the firewall, or outside the firewall! Don’t leave it open!

Install your patches if you want your security to grow up big and strong.

Don’t put that in your browser, you don’t know where it’s been.

Someday your bluescreen will freeze like that!

It’s all fun and games until someone loses sensitive data.

Only you can prevent Internet meltdowns.


“Feudal” and the young employee

In respect of Schneier’s article on “feudalism” in security (pledging “fealty” to a company/platform, and relying on the manufacturer/vendor to keep you safe), I’m sitting in a seminar for an ERP product from one of the “giants.”  The speaker has stressed that you need an “easy to use” system, since your young employees won’t attend or pay attention to training (on either systems or your business): they expect things to “just work.”

We’ve also just had a promo video from a company that uses the product.  Close to the ideal of a “virtual” company: head office is in one country, manufacturing in two more, and most of the user base shops online.  It is easy for the security professional to see that this is a situation fraught with peril: online access to vital business, manufacturing, and customer information, privacy issues with a diverse customer base, legal and privacy issues with multiple jurisdictions, and the list goes on.  This is not a situation where “plug and play” and turnkey systems are going to be able to address all the problems.

But, of course, the vendor position is just “Trust us.”


Anti-Virus, now with added Michelangelo

Apparently it’s all our fault. Again. Not only is anti-virus useless, but we’re responsible for the evolution and dramatic increased volume of malware. According to something I read today “If it wasn’t for the security industry the malware that was written back in the 90’s might still be working today.”

I guess that’s not as dumb as it sounds: we have forced the malware industry to evolve (and vice versa). But you could just as easily say:

“The medical profession is responsible for the evolution and propagation of disease. If it wasn’t for the pharmaceutical industry illnesses that killed people X years ago might still be killing people today.”

And to an extent, it would be true. Some conditions have all but disappeared, at any rate in regions where advanced medical technology is commonplace, but other harder-to-treat conditions have appeared, or at least have achieved recognition.

I can think of plenty of reasons for being less than enthusiastic about the static-signature/malcode-blacklisting approach to malware deterrence, though I get tired of pointing out that commercial AV has moved a long way on from that in the last couple of decades. Even so, if pharmaceutical companies had to generate vaccines at the rate that AV labs have to generate detections (even highly generic detections) we’d all have arms like pincushions.

However, there are clear differences between ‘people’ healthcare and PC therapeutics. Most of us can’t trust ourselves as computer users (or the companies that sell and maintain operating systems and applications) to maintain a sufficiently hygienic environment to eliminate the need to ‘vaccinate’. It’s not that we’re all equally vulnerable to every one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of malicious samples that are seen by AV labs every day. Rather, it’s the fact that a tailored assessment of which malware is a likely problem for each individual system, regardless of provenance, region, and the age of the malware, is just too difficult. It’s kind of like living at the North Pole and taking prophylactic measures in case of Dengue fever, trypanosomiasis and malaria.

Fortunately, new or variant diseases tend not to proliferate at the same rate that malware variants do, and vaccines are not the only way of improving health. In fact, lots of conditions are mitigated by better hygiene, a better standard of living, health-conscious lifestyles and all sorts of more-or-less generic factors. There’s probably a moral there: commonsense computing practices and vitamin supplements – I mean, patches and updates – do reduce exposure to malicious code. It’s worth remembering, though, that even if AV had never caught on, evolving OS and application technologies would probably have reduced our susceptibility to antique boot sector viruses, macro viruses, and DOS .EXE infectors. Is it really likely that they wouldn’t have been replaced by a whole load of alternative malicious technologies?

ESET Senior Research Fellow


Why can’t my laptop figure out what time zone I’m in, like my cell phone does?

We got new cell phones (mobiles, for you non-North Americans) recently.  In the time since we last bought phones they have added lots of new features, like texting, cameras, email and Google Maps.

This, plus the fact that I am away on a trip right now, and Gloria has to calculate what time it is for me when we communicate (exacerbated by the fact that I never change the time zone on the laptops to local time), prompted her to ask the question above.  (She knows that I have an NTP client that updates the time on a regular basis.  She’s even got the associated clocks, on her desktop, in pink.)

Cell phones, of course, have to know where they are (or, at least, the cellular system has to know where they are) very precisely, so they can be told, by the nearest cell tower, what time it is (or, at least, what time it is for that tower).

Computers, however, have no way of knowing where they are, I explained.  And then realized that I had made an untrue statement.

Computers can find out (or somebody can find out) where a specific computer is when they are on the net.  (And you have to be on the net to get time updates.)  Some Websites use this (sometimes startlingly accurate) information in a variety of amusing (and sometimes annoying or frightening) ways.  So it is quite possible for a laptop to find out what time zone it is in, when it updates the time.

Well, if it is possible, then, in these days of open source, surely someone has done it.  Except that a quick couple of checks (with AltaVista and Google) didn’t find anything like that.  There does seem to be some interest:


and there seems to be an app for an Android phone:


(which seems silly since you can already get that from the phone side), but I couldn’t find an actual client or system for a computer or laptop.

So, any suggestions?

Or, anybody interested in a project?


What happens when your user changes his password?

You just forced the user to change his password; periodic password changing is good policy, right?

Now lets see what happens next:

  • The user sends the password to himself by email, in plaintext, so he won’t forget. Now it’s in his inbox, viewable on the email ‘preview’ section to anyone shoulder surfing
  • He then writes it on a post-it note. The cleaning person threw out the previous password (but that’s ok, he finally remembered it). Now there’s a post it with the password in the top right drawer
  • He then sends it to his wife/friend/colleague who also uses the account sometimes. Now it’s in another person’s inbox, again in a preview pane. He might have typed their email wrong and sent it to someone else by mistake, or maybe they put it on a post-it note too
  • The next time he tries to login he will use the old password (that he remembers) and fail. Your system will lock him out, and he will call to have it released. Another false positive that makes the person auditing the log for lock outs not pay attention to the warnings
  • He will then sign up to the new and cool social web site and use this last password as his password there. It’s already on the post-it note: Why write another? This new social web site will soon be cracked and your user’s password will be available online

Remind me again why changing passwords periodically is good for security? Oh, I get it. You were just living up to the bad reputation and preventing ease of use.



Budget and the chain of evidence

Go Public, a consumer advocacy show on CBC, has produced a show on Budget Rent-A-Car overcharging customers for minor repairs.

This rang a bell with me.

In May of 2009, I rented a car from Budget, in order to travel to give a seminar.  Having had troubles with various car rental companies before, I did my own “walk around” and made sure I got a copy of the damage report before I left.  There were two marks on the driver’s door (a small dent, and a scratch), but the Budget employee refused to make two marks in that spot of the form: he said that the one tick covered both.

When I turned in the car, I was told that the tick was only good for the one scratch, and that I would be charged $400 for the dent.  I was also told that, since I had rented the car using my American Express card, I was automatically covered, by American Express, for minor damage, so I should get them to pay for it.

Since I was neither interested in paying myself, nor in assisting in defrauding Amex, I referred to the earlier statement by the employee who had checked the car.  (I had a witness to his statement, as well.)

Thus started a months-long series of phone calls from Budget.  They kept trying to get me to agree to pay the extra $400, and get Amex to reimburse me.  I wasn’t interested.

The phone calls finally stopped when, on one call, I informed the caller (by now identifying himself as someone in the provincial head office for Budget) that I had kept the copy of the original damage report form.  The caller told me that it clearly stated that there was a scratch on the door.  When I asked him how he interpreted the tick mark as a scratch, rather than a dent, he said that the word “scratch” was written on the form.

Well, of course, it hadn’t been written on the form originally.  I guess the caller must have been reasonable high up in the corporate food chain, because he knew what that meant.  I had the original, and it proved that they had messed with their copy.  That breaks the chain of evidence: they had no case at all.

(I still have a scan of that form.  Just in case …)


This is [phishing] news?!?

We seem to be missing the boat on security awareness of phishing attacks: it’s not just for bank and credit card accounts anymore.  This article notes the “DHL,” “tax refund,” and similar queries.  I would have thought these were obvious, but they seem to be the most successful ways to get spear phishing and APT information.


Art, hacking, privacy, and the US Secret Service

“Media artist” creates a form of spyware using Macbook webcams.  Runs it on computers in Apple Stores.  Apple calls Secret Service about the artist.  Lots more.  Some interesting and provocative concepts in the article, covering privacy, legality, search and seizure, and the fact that people show little affect when working with/on computers:



More bad news for risk management

Overconfidence makes you successful in business.

Not just confidence, mind you, overconfidence.

Add in the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the Peter Principle, and you start to realize why all those huge banks keep failing …


REVIEW: “Learning from the Octopus”, Rafe Sagarin

BKLNFOCT.RVW   20120714

“Learning from the Octopus”, Rafe Sagarin, 2012, 978-0-465-02183-3, U$26.99/C$30.00
%A   Rafe Sagarin
%C   387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY   10016-8810
%D   2012
%G   978-0-465-02183-3 0-465-02183-2
%I   Basic Books/Perseus Books Group
%O   U$26.99/C$30.00 800-810-4145 www.basicbooks.com
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465021832/robsladesinterne
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465021832/robsladesin03-20
%O   Audience n+ Tech 1 Writing 2 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   284 p.
%T   “Learning from the Octopus”

The subtitle promises that we will learn “how secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and disease.”  The book does fulfill that aim.  However, what it doesn’t say (up front) is that it isn’t an easy task.

The overall tone of the book is almost angry, as Sagarin takes the entire security community to task for not paying sufficient attention to the lessons of biology.  The text and examples in the work, however, do not present the reader with particularly useful insights.  The prologue drives home the fact that 350 years of fighting nation-state wars did not prepare either society or the military for the guerilla-type terrorist situations current today.  No particular surprise: it has long been known that the military is always prepared to fight the previous war, not this one.

Chapter one looks to the origins of “natural” security.  In this regard, the reader is inescapably reminded of Bruce Schneier’s “Liars and Outliers” (cf. BKLRSOTL.RVW), and Schneier’s review of evolution, sociobiology, and related factors.  But whereas Schneier built a structure and framework for examining security systems, Sagarin simply retails examples and stories, with almost no structure at all.   (Sagarin does mention a potentially interesting biology/security working group, but then is strangely reticent about it.)  In chapter two, “Tide Pool Security,” we are told that the octopus is very fit and functional, and that the US military and government did not listen to biologists in World War II.

Learning is a force of nature, we are told in chapter three, but only in regard to one type of learning (and there is no mention at all of education).  The learning force that the author lauds is that of evolution, which does tend to modify behaviours for the population over time, but tends to be rather hard on individuals.  Sagarin is also opposed to “super efficiency” (and I can agree that it leaves little margin for error), but mostly tells us to be smart and adaptable, without being too specific about how to achieve that.  Chapter four tells us that decentralization is better than centralization, but it is interesting to note that one of the examples given in the text demonstrates that over-decentralization is pretty bad, too.  Chapter five again denigrates security people for not understanding biology, but that gets a bit hard to take when so much of the material betrays a lack of understanding of security.  For example, passwords do not protect against computer viruses.  As the topics flip and change it is hard to see whether there is any central thread.  It is not clear what we are supposed to learn about Mutual Assured Destruction or fiddler crabs in chapter six.

Chapter seven is about bluffing, use  and misuse of information, and alarm systems.  Yes, we already know about false positives and false negatives, but this material does not help to find a balance.  The shared values of salmon and suicide bombers, religion, bacterial addicts, and group identity are discussed in chapter eight.  Chapter nine says that cooperation can be helpful.  We are told, in chapter ten, that “natural is better,” therefore it is ironic to note that the examples seem to pit different natural systems against each other.  Also, while Sagarin says that a natural and complex system is flexible and resilient, he fails to mention that it is difficult to verify and tune.

This book is interesting, readable, erudite, and contains many interesting and thought-provoking points.  For those in security, it may be good bedtime reading material, but it won’t be helpful on the job.  In the conclusion, the author states that his goal was to develop a framework for dealing with security problems, of whatever type.  He didn’t.  (Schneier did.)

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2012     BKLNFOCT.RVW   20120714


Security Transcends Slogans … or not …

I have just got off the phone with a marketroid.  In the course of our conversation (no, I usually don’t talk to them, but this turned our to be a special case), I was explaining to her about ISC2 and the CISSP.  She was puzzled by an annotation on my file with her company, and it wasn’t making sense in terms of what I did, and what their ERM/CRM system was saying about me.

When she looked at the ISC2 Website, during our conversation, she immediately noted the “Security Transcends Technology” slogan.  I dimly recall the great fanfare when this was introduced about 9 or ten years back: our (marketing department’s) proud statement that we were not mere technologists, but covered the whole realm of security.

Well, apparently that’s not what it says to some people.  The simple existence of the “technology” word in our slogan seems to trigger an immediate pegging of us as mere techies.  All of us CISSPs are just basic firewall admins.  We are not

Back to the marketing board … ?


Child abandonment

There are always two sides (and maybe more) to every story, but:

Police called to a scene where children were reportedly abandoned.  Police arrive to find children on a suburban street, and the mother watching from the porch.

So the police take the mother to jail.


Not the bad news you thought you were reporting …

“The 2012 Norton Cybercrime Report, released Wednesday, says more than 46 per cent of Canadians have reported attempts by hackers to try to obtain personal data over the past 12 months,” according to the Vancouver Sun.

Well, since I see phishing every single day, and malware a few times times per week, what this survey is *really* saying is that 54% of Canadians don’t know what phishing and malware looks like.

(And you others don’t need to gloat: apparently the same figure holds globally …)

Kinda depressing …


Hiring droids – “Would like like coffee breaks with that?”

What is true of teachers is also true for recruiters.

I am old enough to have gone through group interviews, hostile interviews, video interviews, multi-part phone interviews, questionnaire interviews, weird question interviews, “waht do you want to be when you grow up” interviews, and all the other “latest and greatest” ideas that swept through HR-land at one time or another.  I understand the intents of the various processes, and what they will and won’t tell you.  (When I do recruiting myself, I use the “prepared” interview model–know what it is you want, and how to find out if the candidate has it.)

So, apparently the next big thing in recruiting is to use technology.  Use robots.  (Well, actually just avatars and virtual game worlds.)  Use computerized questionnaires.  (They work just as well, and as badly, as paper ones.)  Use video.  (Wait.  We did that already.  Oh, I see, use videotape.)

It doesn’t take too long to see what the intent is here.  To save time and money.

And, doing it cheaper will work out just as well as doing it cheaper always has.

“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.        – John Ruskin