Risk management and security theatre

Bruce Schneier is often outrageous, these days, but generally worth reading.  In a piece for Forbes in late August, he made the point that, due to fear and the extra trouble casued by TSA regulations, more people were driving rather than flying, and, thus, more people were dying.

“The inconvenience of extra passenger screening and added costs at airports after 9/11 cause many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination instead, and, since airline travel is far safer than car travel, this has led to an increase of 500 U.S. traffic fatalities per year.”

So, by six years after the event, the TSA had killed more US citizens than had the terrorists.  And continues to kill them.

Given the recent NSA revelations, I suppose this will sound like more US-bashing, but I don’t see it that way.  It’s another example of the importance of *real* risk management, taking all factors into account.

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Bank of Montreal online banking insecurity

I’ve had an account with the Bank of Montreal for almost 50 years.

I’m thinking that I may have to give it up.

BMO’s online banking is horrendously insecure.  The password is restricted to six characters.  It is tied to telephone banking, which means that the password is actually the telephone pad numeric equivalent of your password.  You can use that numeric equivalent or any password you like that fits the same numeric equivalent.  (Case is, of course, completely irrelevant.)

My online access to the accounts has suddenly stopped working.  At various times, over the years, I have had problems with the access and had to go to the bank to find out why.  The reasons have always been weird, and the process of getting access again convoluted.  At present I am using, for access, the number of a bank debit card that I never use as a debit card.  (Or even an ATM card.)  The card remains in the file with the printed account statements.

Today when I called about the latest problem, I had to run through the usual series of inane questions.  Yes, I knew how long my password had to be.  Yes, I knew my password.  Yes, it was working until recently.  No, it didn’t work on online banking.  No, it didn’t work on telephone banking.

The agent (no, sorry, “service manager,” these days) was careful to point out that he was *not* going to ask me for my password.  Then he set up a conference call with the online banking system, and had me key in my password over the phone.

(OK, it’s unlikely that even a trained musician could catch all six digits from the DTMF tones on one try.  But a machine could do it easily.)

After all that, the apparent reason for the online banking not working is that the government has mandated that all bank cards now be chipped.  So, without informing me, and without sending me a new card, the bank has cancelled my access.  ( I suppose that is secure.  If you are not counting on availability, or access to audit information.)

(I also wonder, if that was the reason, why the “service manager” couldn’t just look up the card number and determine that the access had been cancelled, rather than having me try to sign in.)

I’ll probably go and close my account this afternoon.

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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]

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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Click on everything?

You clicked on that link, didn’t you?  I’m writing a posting about malicious links in postings and email, and you click on a link in my posting.  How silly is that?

(No, it wouldn’t have been dangerous, in this case.  I disabled the URL by “x”ing out the “tt” in http;” (which is pretty standard practice in malware circles), and further “x”ed out a couple of the letters in the URL.)

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(Photo) Copyist’s error?

Students of the classics and ancient documents are used to checking for copyist errors, but a photocopier?

And, of course, you can’t trust the machine to check the copy against the original, since it will probably make the same mistake every time.

Actually, with absolutely everything in the world going digital, this type of problem is becoming inevitable, and endemic.  Analogue systems have problems, but digital systems are subject to catastrophic collapse.

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A virus too big to fail?

Once upon a time, many years ago, a school refused to take my advice (mediated through my brother) as to what to do about a very simple computer virus infection.  The infection in question was Stoned, which was a boot sector infector.   BSIs generally do not affect data, and (and this is the important point) are not eliminated by deleting files on the computer, and often not even by reformatting the hard disk.  (At the time there were at least a dozen simple utilities for removing Stoned, most of them free.)

The school decided to cleanse it’s entire computer network by boxing it up, shipping it back to the store, and having the store reformat everything.  Which the store did.  The school lost it’s entire database of student records, and all databases for the library.  Everything had to be re-entered.  By hand.

I’ve always thought this was the height of computer virus stupidity, and that the days when anyone would be so foolish were long gone.

I was wrong.  On both counts.

“In December 2011 the Economic Development Administration (an agency under the US Department of Commerce) was notified by the Department of Homeland Security that it had a malware infection spreading around its network.

“They isolated their department’s hardware from other government networks, cut off employee email, hired an outside security contractor, and started systematically destroying $170,000 worth of computers, cameras, mice, etc.”

The only reason they *stopped* destroying computer equipment and devices was because they ran out of money.  For the destruction process.

Malware is my field, and so I often sound like a bit of a nut, pointing out issues that most people consider minor.  However, malware, while now recognized as a threat, is a field that extremely few people, even in the information security field, study in any depth.  Most general security texts (and, believe me, I know almost all of them) touch on it only tangentially, and often provide advice that is long out of date.

With that sort of background, I can, unfortunately, see this sort of thing happening again.


Lest you think I exaggerate any of this, you can read the actual report.

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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 info@mtit.com www.mtit.com
%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 mspinput@microsoft.com
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0735668833/robsladesinterne
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0735668833/robsladesin03-20
%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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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 …)

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