Stories about Microsoft, Windows, Office and so on

REVIEW – “The Florentine Deception”, Carey Nachenberg

BKFLODEC.RVW   20150609

“The Florentine Deception”, Carey Nachenberg, 2015, 978-1-5040-0924-9,
%A   Carey Nachenberg
%C   345 Hudson Street, New York, NY   10014
%D   2015
%G   978-1-5040-0924-9 150400924X
%I   Open Road Distribution
%O   U$13.49/C$18.91
%O   Audience n+ Tech 3 Writing 2 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   321 p.
%T   “The Florentine Deception”

It gets depressing, after a while.  When you review a bunch of books on the basis of the quality of the technical information, books of fiction are disappointing.  No author seems interested in making sure that the technology is in any way realistic.  For every John Camp, who pays attention to the facts, there are a dozen Dan Browns who just make it up as they go along.  For every Toni Dwiggins, who knows what she is talking about, there are a hundred who don’t.

So, when someone like Carey Nachenberg, who actually works in malware research, decides to write a story using malicious software as a major plot device, you have to be interested.  (And besides, both Mikko Hypponen and Eugene Spafford, who know what they are talking about, say it is technically accurate.)

I will definitely grant that the overall “attack” is technically sound.  The forensics and anti-forensics makes sense.  I can even see young geeks with more dollars than sense continuing to play “Nancy Drew” in the face of mounting odds and attackers.  That a vulnerability can continue to go undetected for more than a decade would ordinarily raise a red flag, but Nachenberg’s premise is realistic (especially since I know of a vulnerability at that very company that went unfixed for seven years after they had been warned about it).  That a geek goes rock-climbing with a supermodel we can put down to poetic licence (although it may increase the licence rates).  I can’t find any flaws in the denouement.

But.  I *cannot* believe that, in this day and age, *anyone* with a background in malware research would knowingly stick a thumb/jump/flash/USB drive labelled “Florentine Controller” into his, her, or its computer.  (This really isn’t an objection: it would only take a couple of pages to have someone run up a test to make sure the thing was safe, but …)

Other than that, it’s a joy to read.  It’s a decent thriller, with some breaks to make it relaxing rather than exhausting (too much “one damn thing after another” gets tiring), good dialogue, and sympathetic characters.  The fact that you can trust the technology aids in the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

While it doesn’t make any difference to the quality of the book, I should mention that Carey is donating all author profits from sales of the book to charity:

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2015   BKFLODEC.RVW   20150609

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New computers – Windows 8 Phone

I was given a Win8Phone recently.  I suppose it may seem like looking a gift horse in the mouth to review it, but:

I must say, first off, that the Nokia Lumia has a lot of power compared to my other phone (and Android tablets), so I like the responsiveness using Twitter.  The antenna is decent, so I can connect to hotspots, even at a bit of a distance.  Also, this camera is a lot better than those on the three Android machines.

I’m finding the lack of functionality annoying.  There isn’t any file access on the phone itself, although the ability to access it via Windows Explorer (when you plug the USB cable into a Windows 7 or 8 computer) is handy.

I find the huge buttons annoying, and the interface for most apps takes up a lot of space.  This doesn’t seem to be adjustable: I can change the size of the font, but only for the content of an app, not for the frame or surround. is useful: that’s how I found out how to switch between apps (hold down the back key and it gives you a set of
icons of running/active apps).

The range of apps is pathetic.  Security aside (yes, I know a closed system is supposed to be more secure), you are stuck with a) Microsoft, or b) completely unknown software shops.  You are stuck with Bing for search and maps: no Google, no Gmail.  You are stuck with IE: no Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.  Oh, sorry, yes you *can* get Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, but not from Mozilla, Google, or Apple: from developers you’ve never heard of.  (Progpack, maker(s) of the Windows Phone store version of Safari, admits it is not the real Safari, it just “looks like it.”)  You can’t get YouTube at all.  No Pinterest, although there is a LinkedIn app from LinkedIn, and a Facebook app–from Microsoft.

It’s a bit hard to compare the interface.  I’m comparing a Nokia Lumia 920 which has lots of power against a) the cheapest Android cell phone Bell had when I had to upgrade my account (ver 2.2), b) an Android 4.3 tablet which is really good but not quite “jacket” portable, and c) a Digital2 Android 4.1 mini-tablet which is probably meant for children and is *seriously* underpowered.

Don’t know whether this is the fault of Windows or the Nokia, but the battery indicators/indications are a major shortcoming.  I have yet to see any indication that the phone has been fully charged.  To get any accurate reading you have to go to the battery page under settings, and even that doesn’t tell you a heck of a lot.  (Last night when I turned it off it said the battery was at 46% which should be good for 18 hours.  After using it four times this morning for a total of about an hour screen time and two hours standby it is at 29%.)

(When I installed the Windows Phone app on my desktop, and did some file transfers while charging the phone through USB I found that the app has a battery level indicator on most pages, so that’s helpful.)

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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  He probably thought he was hurting our sales, but we figured he was doing us a favour  :-)

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REVIEW: “Security and Privacy for Microsoft Office 2010 Users”, Mitch Tulloch

BKSCPRO2.RVW   20121122

“Security and Privacy for Microsoft Office 2010 Users”, Mitch Tulloch,
2012, 0735668833, U$9.99
%A   Mitch Tulloch
%C   1 Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA   98052-6399
%D   2012
%G   0735668833
%I   Microsoft Press
%O   U$9.99 800-MSPRESS fax: 206-936-7329
%O   Audience n- Tech 1 Writing 1 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   100 p.
%T   “Security and Privacy for Microsoft Office 2010 Users”

Reducing the complex jargon in the introduction to its simplest terms, this book is intended to allow anyone who uses the Microsoft Office 2010 suite, or the online Office 365, to effectively employ the security functions built into the software.  Chapter one purports to present the “why” of security, but does a very poor job of it.  Company policy is presented as a kind of threat to the employee, and this does nothing to ameliorate the all-too-common perception that security is there simply to make life easier for the IT department, while it makes work harder for everyone else.

Chapter two examines the first security function, called “Protected View.”  The text addresses issues of whether or not you can trust a document created by someone else, and mentions trusted locations.  (Trusted locations seem simply to be defined as a specified directory on your hard drive, and the text does not discuss whether merely moving an unknown document into this directory will magically render it trustworthy.  Also, the reader is told how to set a trusted location, but not an area for designating untrusted files.)  Supposedly “Protected View” will automatically restrict access to, and danger from, documents you receive from unknown sources.  Unfortunately, having used Microsoft Office 2010 for a couple of years, and having received, in that time, hundreds of documents via email and from Web sources, I’ve never yet seen “Protected View,” so I’m not sure how far I can trust what the author is telling me.  (In addition, Tulloch’s discussion of viruses had numerous errors: Concept came along five years before Melissa, and some of the functions he attributes to Melissa are, in fact, from the CHRISTMA exec over a decade earlier.)

Preparation of policy is promised in chapter three, but this isn’t what most managers or security professionals would think of as policy: it is just the provision of a function for change detection or digital signatures.  It also becomes obvious, at this point, that Microsoft Office 2010 and Office 365 can have significantly different operations.  The material is quite confusing with references to a great many programs which are not part of the two (2010 and 365) MS Office suites.

Chapter four notes the possibility of encryption with a password, but the discussion of rights is unclear, and a number of steps are missing.

An appendix lists pointers to a number of references at Microsoft’s Website.

The utility of this work is compromised by the fact that it provides instructions for functions, but doesn’t really explain how, and in what situations, the functions can assist and protect the user.  Any employee using Microsoft Office will be able to access the operations, but without understanding the concepts they won’t be able to take advantage of what protection they offer.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2012     BKSCPRO2.RVW   20121122

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Flaming certs

Today is Tuesday for me, but it’s not “second Tuesday,” so it shouldn’t be patch Tuesday.  But today my little netbook, which is set just to inform me when updates are available, informed me that it had updated, but I needed to reboot to complete the task, and, if I didn’t do anything in the next little while it was going to reboot anyway.

Yesterday, of course, wasn’t patch Tuesday, but all my machines set to “go ahead and update” all wanted to update on shutdown last night.

This is, of course, because of Flame (aka Flamer, aka sKyWIper) has an “infection” module that messes with Windows/Microsoft Update.  As I understand it, there is some weakness in the update process itself, but the major problem is that Flame “contains” and uses a fake Microsoft digital certificate.

You can get some, but not very much, information about this from Microsoft’s Security Response Center blog.  (Early mentionLater.)

You can get more detailed information from F-Secure.

It’s easy to see that Microsoft is extremely concerned about this situation.  Not necessarily because of Flame: Flame uses pretty old technology, only targets a select subset of systems, and doesn’t even run on Win7 64-bit.  But the fake cert could be a major issue.  Once that cert is out in the open it can be used not only for Windows Update, but for “validating” all kinds of malware.  And, even though Flame only targets certain systems, and seems to be limited in geographic extent, I have pretty much no confidence at all that the blackhat community hasn’t already got copies of it.  (The cert doesn’t necessarily have to be contained in the Flame codebase, but the structure of the attack seems to imply that it is.)  So, the only safe bet is that the cert is “in the wild,” and can be used at any time.

(Just before I go on with this, I might say that the authors of Flame, whoever they may be, did no particularly bad thing in packaging up a bunch of old trojans into one massive kit.  But putting that fake cert out there was simply asking for trouble, and it’s kind of amazing that it hasn’t been used in an attack beofre now.)

The first thing Microsoft is doing is patching MS software so that it doesn’t trust that particular cert.  They aren’t giving away a lot of detail, but I imagine that much midnight oil is being burned in Redmond redoing the validation process so that a fake cert is harder to use.  Stay tuned to your Windows Update channel for further developments.

However, in all of this, one has to wonder where the fake cert came from.  It is, of course, always possible to simply brute force a digital signature, particularly if you have a ton of validated MS software, and a supercomputer (or a huge botnet), and mount a birthday (collision) attack.  (And everyone is assuming that the authors of Flame have access to the resources of a nation-state.  Or two …)  Now the easier way is simply to walk into the cert authority and ask for a couple of Microsoft certs.  (Which someone did one time.  And got away with it.)

But then, I was thinking.  In the not too distant past, we had a whole bunch of APT attacks (APT being an acronym standing for “we were lazy about our security, but it really isn’t our fault because these attackers didn’t play fair!”) on cert authorities.  And the attacks got away with a bunch of valid certs.

OK, we think Flame is possibly as much a five years in the wild, and almost certainly two years.  But it is also likely that there were updates during the period in the wild, so it’s hard to say, right off the top, which parts of it were out there for how long.

And I just kind of wonder …

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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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New computers – Windows 7 – printers and USB

C’mon, fess up.  Who did the discovery protocol for Windows Universal Plug and Play?

Was it supposed to work for USB?

Windows has always been annoying in regard to USB.  I’ve had it “forget” mice and jump drives (sometimes never to accept them again on that port).  I’ve had a port “locked” by an Adobe picture manager (which I hadn’t realized Adobe was installing while I was trying to upgrade Reader to get rid of the latest round of vulnerabilities) so that it never recognized my camera again on *any* USB port, and insisted that every jump drive I attached was a camera.  Windows has never been willing to specifically identify any USB port even if it reports a problem.

Recently our printer (yes, a Winprinter with a USB connection: these days, can you find any other type?) has been flaky.  Not the printer itself: it’s fine.  And, yes, I did install the correct Win 7 driver, thank you very much.  Not that either Microsoft nor HP were very helpful about that.  The computer started out just fine, for a few months.  Then it started not recognizing that it had a printer.  Then it started seeing that it had something connected, but couldn’t tell what it was.  And sometimes it would cycle between these states constantly, while I was working.  (I’d hear a rising double beep as it realized it had a printer, or a falling double beep as it lost it, or couldn’t recognize it.  It got so bad that I’ve had to turn the speaker volume down given the near constant clamour of beeps.)  We tried different things: rebooting, changing to another user, power cycling the printer, power cycling the printer and waiting a while before we turned it on, turning the printer on first, not turning the printer off when once it had successfully accepted a print job.  Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.  Recently it’s gotten a lot worse.

(And, yes, I did Google it.  And AltaVistaed it  Never found anything helpful.  Even when I added profanity, as I suspected would be the case with someone who had gotten as frustrated with it as I was.)

So, at Gloria’s suggestion, today I hauled the computer out of its nook and swapped the printer to another USB port.

She was right: after I changed it the queue printed.

I lost the keyboard, monitor (twice), mouse (twice).  Eventually got them back. And then the computer crashed.  I lost some bookmarks I had collected this morning, and some outbound email: don’t know what or how much.  As far as I can tell I still have access to other devices, but I got a report that the Passport drive has a problem and I’m currently running a check on it.

But the printer is still printing.  So far.

I could really get to hate Microsoft.  Very easily …

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Help Desk Scams and Microsoft

Apparently when the coldcalling species of scamming maggot claims to be Microsoft or partnered with Microsoft, there really is sometimes a relationship of sorts lurking behind the scenes there, though that doesn’t mean that Microsoft are at all a party to the scam, of course.

I’ve been gnawing at that particular bone for quite a while now – see, for instance, and and – and the name Comantra has turned up time and time again in the context of site registrations, though I haven’t had the resources to confirm links with the company in terms of individual scam calls.

But somehow I’d never realized the company really was a Microsoft Gold Partner. Apparently Microsoft took some time to make the connection too. But they have, and Comantra is no longer a Gold Partner. According to PC Pro, a Microsoft spokesman said:

“We were made aware of a matter involving one of the members of the Microsoft Partner Network acting in a manner that caused us to raise concerns about this member’s business practices.Following an investigation, the allegations were confirmed and we took action to terminate our relationship with the partner in question and revoke their Gold status.”

Somehow, though, I doubt if this means the end of coldcall scams. There were lots of sites and lots of names registered for sites that were associated with individual scammers, and there seems to be no real pressure from law-enforcement in the regions where the calls are actually originating. And Comantra is claiming that it’s all to do with negative marketing from their competitors. Gosh, never heard that one before…

On the other hand, since I moved house a few weeks ago, I haven’t had a single support scam call, though there’ve been a few “we can help you sue your mortgage lender” calls with a reassuringly Indian accent. Still, I miss being told I’m leaking viruses all over Surrey. How long do you suppose it will take them to catch up with me?

David Harley CITP FBCS CISSP. And stuff.
Small Blue-Green World

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