Tag Archive for cyberhacking

A hack is forever, but so are its fingerprints

A while ago I published a post, “A hack is forever,” explaining that a competent hack is extremely difficult to eradicate from a cyber system – there is no certainty that the system is really clean. However, there is flip-side aspect of this in cyberspace that is not commonly understood: by way of dubious consolation, the hacker cannot be certain that he really got away with the crime.
Cyberspace is an information and communications space. In essence, we don’t really care what media our information is stored on, we care about the utility aspects, such as the efficiency of the storage, how quickly and conveniently information can be retrieved, and so on. Similarly, we don’t really care what communications channels we use, we care about our communications’ speed, reliability, security, etc.
Cyberspace has one very significant property: information cannot be destroyed. Just think about it. We can destroy only a copy of the information, i.e. we can destroy a physical carrier of the information, such as a floppy, a thumb drive, a letter, or a hard drive (often that’s not an easy task either). However, we cannot destroy the information itself. It can exist in an unknown number of copies, and we never really know how many copies of a particular piece of information exist. This is particularly true given the increasing complexity of our cyber systems — we never really know how many copies of that information were made during its processing, storage, and communication, not to mention a very possible intercept of the information by whoever, given our insecure Internet. Such an intercept can open an entirely separate and potentially huge area in cyberspace for numerous further copies of the information.
Back to the consolation point: cyber criminals of all sorts can never be sure that there is not a copy somewhere of whatever they have done. That copy can surface, someday, usually at the most inopportune time for the perpetrator.
One practical aspect of this is that Congress perhaps should consider increasing the statutes of limitations for cyber crimes, or crimes committed via cyberspace.

Cyber Guns for Hire

Dawn of a New Era of Hacking

Last week I was trying to log on to the control panel of my blog and an annoying message came back. It announced that the host company was under a massive cyber attack by a botnet of some 90,000 infected slave computers trying to break into its customers’ blogging accounts by a brute force attack that was guessing its customers’ user IDs and passwords. Success would enable the attacker to take control over some blogs. So a login was not available.

My first reaction was mild annoyance at this déjà vu event of Internet daily life. Then something occurred to me: this was not business as usual, it was a sign of a new hacking era.

There are two important points to be made here. One is the type of the attack. Botnet attacks have been around for decades, but usually they are crude flooding-type DDoS attacks, with tons of cyber junk thrown at some entity’s servers, clogging up their communications channels and thus denying normal cyber services. This was dramatically different: the botnet was performing a crypto attack by a vastly distributed but coordinated force. And there was a fundamental qualitative difference here: instead of a dumb flooding the botnet performed an intelligent task by utilizing the vast computing power of the combined slave machines.

This is just the beginning of a trend, with the performance of more sophisticated tasks to come. It represents a frightening increase of the cyber powers of hackers not backed by a state, who by themselves possess limited computing power.

The second point here is that the attack was directed at the blogs’ controls server, which does not itself contain any of its clients’ financial information. Typically, hackers go after financial data or target a specific entity they don’t like. In this case the site attacked contains multiple blogs, so it was not itself the target. This, in turn, means that somebody – a hacker’s customer who does not possess the level of expertise necessary for such a major operation — was after a specific blog or two they didn’t like for some reason. So the entity behind the attack was not a typical hacker.

What does this tell us? That it likely was a hacking job for hire performed by a competent hacker for some customer motivated by unknown considerations. This means that a paying customer can hire the services of skilled but unscrupulous hackers with their powers vastly amplified by potentially millions of computers around the world.

This aspect of the event seems to signal the dawn of an alarming new era in cyberspace, when someone can actually use cyber guns for hire to mount sophisticated attacks far more devastating than just silencing a blog they dislike.

I addressed the theoretical potential of this dimension of hacking in my book (Cyberspace and Security), and it now looks like an upcoming reality.

A Hack Is Forever

Announcements by major companies and Government organizations that they’ve been hacked and have lost millions of private records that we entrusted to them are now as routine as the morning weather forecast on TV news. These announcements are usually followed by an assurance that from now on everything will be just fine, along with an urgent request that everyone change their passwords. Requirements for the passwords are getting more sophisticated – instead of a plain four-letter word they are supposed to be a little longer and include some characters requiring the shift key.

This is totally useless advice for two reasons: one is that these “sophisticated” passwords are in practice just as easy prey for a modern computer as the proverbial four-letter word, and the second is that no real hacker is going after your individual account unless he happens to be your curious next-door teenager or your nosy grandmother. In the real world hackers aren’t dumb. Why would they go after a few million accounts one-by-one if they can simply hack the organization’s server at the root or Administrator level and get all the data in every account with just a single hack? Any hacker worth his salt knows this, and this is exactly what hackers do – they hack the server, and  that makes our individual passwords irrelevant.

These “change-your-password-for-a better-one” announcements likely have some other subliminal agenda. It looks like the real reason for asking you to change your password is to make you feel responsible for your data security. In other words, to blame the victim.

Furthermore, victims are majorly misled in a couple of other ways too. First of all, after a hack all your private personal data are gone, and they’re available to any criminal is cyberspace for a nominal fee. You cannot take them back. You can change your password, but you cannot change your name, date of birth, social security number, address, phone number; even changing your mother’s maiden name is difficult. All these are available to identity thieves.

And there’s another aspect that your favorite bank won’t tell you about: every competent hacker will leave a dormant cyber mole deep inside the hacked system. These are practically impossible to detect despite all political and marketing claims to the contrary. So even if the entire security program of a system is changed the cyber mole will report all the changes to its master. Including your new sophisticated password.

So a hack is forever.

Don’t Blame the Hacking Victim; Blame the Cyber Security Product

“People are the weakest link in security” is an adage that has proven valid over the centuries. It’s also a common rationale for explaining cyber security breaches. It sounds like a pretty convincing explanation, but is this proposition really true?

There’s one important factor in these historical failures: otherwise good security systems—i.e. if a human being had not made a mistake, the system would have remained undefeated. That’s a fundamentally different situation from what we have now with our legacy cyber security systems. These systems are built on current technologies that have for some time been well proven to be thoroughly flawed. Virtually every firewall and router delivered to the first customer has already been hacked, and thus proven unfit for their intended purpose even before they are installed. The human factor in cyber security is only a very convenient excuse for the failure.

But clearly, the human factor is not the real reason for the failure.

Router vulnerability is especially critical because it can be exploited to perform “man-in-the-middle” cyber attacks that can very quickly cripple entire networks. Router manufacturers regularly blame their customers for failing to reset the default password on the router. Never mind that the new password would delay a competent hacker by just a few minutes at best. But officially it’s the customer’s fault and “human failure” is the cause.

Blaming the customer for equipment failure is not generally a successful business strategy, but, cyber security companies somehow manage to get away with it – perhaps because of the still somewhat mysterious nature of cyberspace.

There’s a very simple conclusion to be drawn here: currently available cyber security technology is not anywhere at the level where the “human factor” is the weakest link. The weakest link is the fundamentally flawed cyber security technologies that fail well before the “human factor” can even come into play.

So, stop blaming the customers. The real cause of the failure is the human factor of those who are supposed to protect our cyberspace assets with real security technologies but consistently fail to do so –while charging their customers heftily for products that are known to be unfit for the purpose.

Symantec Dead Wrong, Again

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Symantec declares the current antivirus products dead and announces their “new” approach to cyber hacking: instead of protecting computers against hacking they will offer analysis of the hacks that have already succeeded.

http://online.wsj.com/news/article_email/SB10001424052702303417104579542140235850578-lMyQjAxMTA0MDAwNTEwNDUyWj

This is the equivalent of a pharmaceutical company failing to develop an effective vaccine, and offering instead  an advanced autopsy that hopefully will determine why the patient has died.

At its core this approach is based on two assumptions: 1) that developing effective antivirus products is impossible, and 2) that detecting damage that has already been done is easier than defending the computer.

Let’s take a quick look at both these assumptions.

It’s true, of course, that Symantec, along with a few other cyber security vendors, has failed to develop anti-hacking protection systems, because all these systems were based on the same fatally flawed firewall technology. However, that doesn’t mean such products cannot be developed if they are based on valid new cyber security principles. Cloning for one.

The second Symantec assumption, that they can detect the damage already done, doesn’t look convincing either. It’s hard to understand how one can “minimize damage” when the damage has already been done. Moreover, detecting damage, especially stolen data, is significantly more difficult than the task they have already conspicuously failed at. Modern malware is very good at morphing itself, possibly multiple times, into a variety of forms, splitting itself in several components and hiding in the depths of increasingly complex operating systems.

The bottom line is that it’s true that the currently deployed antimalware technology is dead– but this “new” approach is even more dead. The only likely benefit is that the participants will get a few billion dollars from the Government for their “advanced” research.

Conclusion:  instead of offering a cyber coroner’s facilities we’d be much better off developing fundamentally new technologies.  Essentially, new cyber vaccines.