Posts byp1

Researcher, author, communications guy, teacher, security maven, management consultant, and general loudmouth Rob Slade. Also http://twitter.com/rslade

REVIEW: “Rainbows End”, Vernor Vinge

BKRNBSND.RVW   20130525

“Rainbows End”, Vernor Vinge, 2006, 0-312-85684-9, U$25.95/C$34.95
%A   Vernor Vinge
%C   175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10010
%D   2006
%G   0-312-85684-9
%I   Tor Books/Tom Doherty Assoc.
%O   U$25.95/C$34.95 pnh@tor.com www.tor.com
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312856849/robsladesinterne
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312856849/robsladesinte-21
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312856849/robsladesin03-20
%O   Audience i+ Tech 2 Writing 3 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   364 p.
%T   “Rainbows End”

It is always a pleasure to read something from Vinge.  His characters are interesting, his plots sufficiently convoluted, and his writing clear and flowing.  In addition, for the geek, his understanding of the technology is realistic and fundamental, which makes a change from so many who merely parrot jargon they do not comprehend.

Of course, this is future technology we are talking about, so none of it is (currently) real.  But it could be, without the wild flights of illogic that so abound in fiction.

In this book, we have a future with interconnectedness around the globe.  Of course, this means that there are dangers, in regard to identity and authentication.  The new technology protects against these dangers with a Secure Hardware Environment.  (Or SHE, and, since the DHS mandates that everyone must use it, does that make it SHE-who-must-be-obeyed?)

Encryption is, of course, vital to the operations, and so is used a lot, often in multiple layers.  It is probably a measure of the enjoyability of Vinge’s work that I really didn’t take note of the fact that two of the characters were named Alice and Bob.  Not, that is, until late in the volume, when the author also briefly introduces a character named Eve Mallory.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2013   BKRNBSND.RVW   20130525

CyberSec Tips – “Computer Maintenance Department”

I got a call today from “James,” of the “computer maintenance department.”

I suppose this may work better against those who actually have a computer maintenance department.  Since I’m self-employed, it’s pretty obvious that this is phony.  Sometimes, though, “James” or his friends call from Microsoft or other such possibilities.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, these are false, attempts to get you to damage your own computer, or install something nasty.  They can then charge you for spurious repairs, add you to a botnet, or mine your computer for account information.

Oh, and also, as chance would have it, today I got my first completely automated spam/fraud/telemarketing call: a computer generated voice and voice response system, asking how I was, and then, when I didn’t respond, was I there.  Probably would have been fun to try and push the limits of it’s capability, but I didn’t have time …

Cyberbullying, anonymity, and censorship

Michael Den Tandt’s recent column in the Vancouver Sun is rather a melange, and deserves to have a number of points addressed separately.

First, it is true that the behaviours the “cyberbullying” bill address, those of spreading malicious and false information widely, generally using anonymous or misleading identities, do sound suspiciously close to those behaviours in which politicians engage themselves.  It might be ironic if the politicians got charged under the act.

Secondly, whether bill C-13 is just a thinly veiled re-introduction of the reviled C-30 is an open question.  (As one who works with forensic linguistics, I’d tend to side with those who say that the changes in the bill are primarily cosmetic: minimal changes intended to address the most vociferous objections, without seriously modifying the underlying intent.)

However, Den Tandt closes with an insistence that we need to address the issue of online anonymity.  Removing anonymity from the net has both good points and bad, and it may be that the evil consequences would outweigh the benefits.  (I would have thought that a journalist would have been aware of the importance of anonymous sources of reporting.)

More importantly, this appeal for the banning of anonymity betrays an ignorance of the inherent nature of networked communitcation.  The Internet, and related technologies, have so great an influence on our lives that it is important to know what can, and can’t, be done with it.

The Internet is not a telephone company, where the central office installs all the wires and knows at least where (and therefore likely who) a call came from.  The net is based on technology whish is designed, from the ground up, in such a way that anyone, with any device, can connect to the nearest available source, and have the network, automatically, pass information to or from the relevant person or site.

The fundamental technology that connects the Internet, the Web, social media, and pretty much everything else that is seen as “digital” these days, is not a simple lookup table at a central office.  It is a complex interrelationship of prototcols, servers, and programs that are built to allow anyone to communicate with anyone, without needing to prove your identity or authorization.  Therefore, nobody has the ability to prevent any communication.

There are, currently, a number of proposals to “require” all communications to be identified, or all users to have an identity, or prevent anyone without an authenticated identity from using the Internet.  Any such proposals will ultimately fail, since they ignore the inherent foundational nature of the net.  People can voluntarily participate in such programs–but those people probably wouldn’t have engaged in cyberbullying in any case.

John Gilmore, one of the people who built the basics of the Internet, famously stated that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  This fact allows those under oppressive regimes to communicate with the rest of the world–but it also means that pornography and hate speech can’t be prevented.  The price of reasonable commuincations is constant vigilance and taking the time to build awareness.  A wish for a technical or legal shortcut that will be a magic pill and “fix” everything is doomed to fail.

CyberSec Tips: E-Commerce – tip details 2 – fake sites

Following on with some more of the tips from an earlier post, originally published here:

The next three tips are pretty straightforward, and should be followed:
Don’t click on offers in email.
If it sounds too good to be true, don’t fall for it.
Don’t fall for fake eBay or PayPal sites.

Good advice all around.  In terms of fake eBay or PayPal sites, check the URLs, if you can see them, or the places you end up.  Often fraudsters will try and register sites with odd variations on the name, such as replacing the lower case letter l in PayPal with a digit 1, which can look similar: paypal.com vs paypa1.com.  Or they will send you to a subdirectory on either a legitimate site (for example, googledocs.com/paypal) or on a straight scam site (frauds.ru/paypal).  Or sometimes the URL is simply a mess of characters.  If the site isn’t pretty clearly the one you want, get out of there.

CyberSec Tips: Malware – advice for the sysadmin

This is possibly a little out of line with what I’m trying to do with the series.  This advice is aimed a little higher than the home user, or small business operator with little computer experience.  Today I got these questions from someone with an advanced computer background, and solid security background, but no malware or antivirus experience.  I figured that this might apply to a number of people out there, so here was my advice:

 

> Question 1: What is the best way to obtain some good virus samples to
> experiment with in a clean-room environment?

Just look for anything large in your spam filters  :-)

> What I see doing is setting up a VM that is connected to an isolated
> network (with no connection to any other computer or the internet except
> for a computer running wireshark to monitor any traffic generated by the
> virus/malware).

VMs are handy when you are running a wholesale sample gathering and analysis operation, but for a small operation I tend not to trust them.  You might try running Windows under a Mac or Linux box, etc.  Even then, some of the stuff is getting pretty sneaky, and some specifically target VMs.  (I wonder how hard it would be to run Windows in a VM under iOS on ARM?)

> Also, any other particular recommendations as to how to set up the
> clean-room environment?

I’m particularly paranoid, especially if you haven’t had a lot of background in malware, so I’d tend to recommend a complete airgap, with floppies.  (You can still get USB 3 1/2″ floppy drives.)  CDs might be OK, but USB drives are just getting too complex to be sure.

> Question 2: What products are recommended for removing viruses and malware
> (i.e. is there a generic disinfector program that you recommend)?

I wouldn’t recommend a generic for disinfection.  For Windows, after the disaster of MSAV, MSE is surprisingly good, and careful–unlikely to create more problems than it solves.  I like Avast these days: even the free version gives you a lot of control, although it seems to be drifting into the “we know what’s best for you” camp.  And Sophos, of course, is solid stuff, and has been close to the top of the AV heap for over two decades.  F-Secure is good, although they may be distracted by the expansion they are doing of late.  Kaspersky is fine, though opinionated.  Eset has long had an advantage in scanning speed, but it does chew up machine cycles when operating.

Symantec/Norton, McAfee, and Trend have always had a far larger share of the market than was justified by their actual products.

As always, I recommend using multiple products for detection.

> I assume the preferred approach is to boot the suspect computer from USB
> and to run the analysis/disinfection software from the USB key (i.e. not to boot
> the infected computer until it has been disinfected).

A good plan.  Again, I might recommend CD/DVD over USB keys, but, as long as you are careful that the USB drive is clean …

> Question 3: How/when does one make the decision to wipe the hard drive and
> restore from backup rather than attempt to remove the malware?

If you have an up-to-date backup, that is always preferred when absolute security is the issue.  However, the most common malware is going to be cleanable fairly easily.  (Unless you run into some of the more nasty ransomware.)

Pushing backup, and multiple forms of backup, on all users and systems, is a great idea for all kinds of problems.  I’ve got a “set and forget” backup running to a USB drive that automatically updates any changes about every fifteen minutes.  And every couple of days I make a separate backup (and I have different USB drives I do it to) of all data files–which I then copy on to one of the laptops.  I just use an old batch file I created, which replaces any files with newer versions.  (Since it doesn’t delete anything I don’t change, it also means I have recovery possibilities if I make a mistake with deleting anything, and, by using multiple drives, I can rotate them for offsite storage, and even have possibilities of recovering old versions.)

> Question 4: Any recommended books or other guides to this subject matter?

Haven’t seen anything terrifically useful recently, unfortunately.  David Harley and I released “Viruses Revealed” as public domain a few years back, but it’s over ten years old.  (We released it about the time a vxer decided to upload it to http://vxheavens.com/lib/ars08.html  He probably thought he was hurting our sales, but we figured he was doing us a favour  :-)

CyberSec Tips: Email – Spam – Phishing – example 3 – credit checks

A lot of online security and anti-fraud checklists will tell you to check your credit rating with the credit rating reporting companies.  This is a good idea, and, under certain conditions, you can often get such reports free of charge from the ratings companies.

However, you should never get involved with the promises of credit reports that come via spam.

Oddly, these credit report spam messages have very little content, other than a URL, or possibly a URL and some extra text (which usually doesn’t display) meant only to confuse the matter and get by spam filters.  There are lots of these messages: today I got five in only one of my accounts.

I checked one out, very carefully.  The reason to be careful is that you have no idea what is at the end of that URL.  It could be a sales pitch.  It could be an attempt to defraud you.  It could be “drive-by” malware.  In the case I tested, it redirected through four different sites before finally displaying something.  Those four different sites could simply be there to make it harder to trace the spammers and fraudsters, but more likely they were each trying something: registering the fact that my email address was valid (and that there was a live “sucker” attached to it, worth attempting to defraud), installing malware, checking the software and services installed on my computer, and so forth.

It ended up at a site listing a number of financial services.  The domain was “simply-finances.com.”  One indication that this is fraudulent is that the ownership of this domain name is deeply buried.  It appears to be registered through GoDaddy, which makes it hard to check out with a normal “whois” request: you have to go to GoDaddy themselves to get any information.  Once there you find that it is registered through another company called Domains By Proxy, who exist solely to hide the ownership of domains.  Highly suspicious, and no reputable financial company would operate in such a fashion.

The credit rating link sent me to a domain called “transunion.ca.”  The .ca would indicate that this was for credit reporting in Canada, which makes sense, as that is where I live.  (One of the redirection sites probably figured that out, and passed the information along.)  However, that domain is registered to someone in Chicago.  Therefore, it’s probably fraud: why would someone in Chicago have any insight on contacts for credit reporting for Canadians?

It’s probably fraudulent in any case.  What I landed on was an offer to set me up for a service which, for $17 per month, would generate credit ratings reports.  And, of course, it’s asking for lots of information about me, definitely enough to start identity theft.  There is no way I am signing up for this service.

Again, checking out your own credit rating is probably a good idea, although it has to be done regularly, and it only really detects fraud after the fact.  But going through offers via spam is an incredibly bad idea.

CyberSec Tips: Email – Spam – check your filters

Spam filters are getting pretty good these days.  If they weren’t, we’d be inundated.

But they aren’t perfect.

It’s a good idea to check what is being filtered out, every once in a while, to make sure that you are not missing messages you should be getting.  Lots of things can falsely trigger spam filters these days.

Where and how you check will depend on what you use to read your email.  And how you report that something is or isn’t spam will depend on that, too.

If you use the Web based email systems, like Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook/Hotmail, or others, and you use their Web interface, the spam folder usually is listed with other folders, generally to the left side of the browser window.  And, when you are looking at that list, when you select one of the messages, somewhere on the screen, probably near the top, is a button to report that it isn’t spam.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I did this myself, so I checked two of my Webmail accounts this morning.  Both of them had at least one message caught in the spam trap that should have been sent through.  Spam filtering is good, but it isn’t perfect.  You have to take responsibility for your own safety.  And that means checking the things you use to keep you safe.

Review of “cloud drives” – Younited – pt 3

Yesterday I received an update for the Younited client–on the Win7 machine.  The XP machine didn’t update, nor was there any option to do so.

This morning Younited won’t accept the password on the Win7 machine: it won’t log on.  Actually, it seems to be randomly forgetting parts of the password.  As with most programs, it doesn’t show the password (nor is there any option to show it), the password is represented by dots for the characters.  But I’ll have seven characters entered (with seven dots showing), and, all of a sudden, only three dots will be showing.  Or I’ll have entered ten, and suddenly there are only two.