Password reset questions

Recently therewas some discussion about “self-service” password resets.  The standard option, of course, is to have some sort of “secret question” that the true account holder should be able to answer.  You know: super-secret stuff like your pet’s name.  (Yes, Paris Hilton, I’m talking about you.)

The discussion was more detailed, turning to policy and options, and asked whether you should turn off “custom” questions, and stick to a list of prepared questions.

I would definitely allow custom questions.  The standard lists never seem to give me options that I can both a) remember, and b) that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to anyone who was able to find out some minimal information about me.

If I can make up my own question, I can ask myself what my favourite burial option would be.  The answer, “encryption,” is something I will remember to my dying day, and nobody else is ever going to guess.  (Well, those who have read the “Dictionary of Information Security” might guess that one, so I guess I won’t actually use it.)

Go ahead: try and guess what is the only pain reliever that works for me.

What sits under my desk and keeps the computers running in the case of a power failure?

What is Gloria’s favourite ice cream flavour?

Finish the following sentence: Don’t treat Rob as your _______ ___.  (This is a two-factor authentication: you also have to fill in the standard response to that statement.)

The thing is, all of these oddball questions have special meaning for Gloria and I, but for very few other people in the world.  They rely on mistakes or quirks that have become “family phrases.”  For example, what do you need before bed to get to sleep?  Answer: “warum melek,” coming from an elderly lady of our acquaintance from a northern European background.

Yeah, I like “custom questions” a lot.

(OK, yes, you do have to do a bit of security awareness training to indicate that “who is my sweetie poo” may not be as secret as some people seem to think …)

“New” ideas about distributed computing?

The CEO of BitTorrent thinks we should think about using distributed computing to deal with upgrade issues over the Internet.

It sounds like a good idea.  So good, that you wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before.  Well, surprise, surprise (unless you know Slade’s Law of Computer History), someone has.  How about Shoch and Hupp, who worked on the idea at Xerox PARC in the late 70s, and reported on it in 1980 and 1982?  Or Fred Cohen, who was quite vocal about using “good” viruses in the late 80s, and mentioned it in one of his earlier popular books?  Or Vesselin Bontchev, who, in the 90s, gave a detailed outline of what you have to do to make it work

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?