Tag Archive for malware

Don’t blame the victim; fix the cyber technology

The perennial excuse for our dismal performance in cyber security keeps showing up again and again. Some “experts” state that 95% of cyber security breaches occur due to human error, i.e. not following the recommended procedures. There’s a sleight of hand in these statements in that many breaches include human error, but do not occur due to that error. While the 95% number might be suspect, the real point is different: even following all the “recommended security procedures” will not protect our systems from cyber attacks.
It’s true that attackers often use users’ mistakes. But the reason is simple and obvious – human errors do make it easier to penetrate a system. In effect they represent a shortcut for an attack, but by no means do they eliminate many other ways to do it. Why would an attacker take a more complicated route if he can use a shortcut?
Of course, users’ awareness of security is not common or comprehensive. This was vividly demonstrated by one very important Government agency not that long ago. Its board, after a thorough (and expensive) “expert” study mandated that employees use a six-letter password instead of the old and “insecure” four-letter one.
This is a pretty pathetic solution, but the much bigger question is: do the users really need to follow or even know complicated procedures? The answer is: no, not at all.
Indeed, cyberspace presents us with a wonderful opportunity to build very user-friendly effective security systems. It’s quite possible to build cyber security systems that would be extremely strong, even mathematically unhackable, that would require the user only to select the party he is going to communicate with, and then to indicate “secure.” No other security-related actions would be needed. This is very different from our current security technology based on concepts of physical space, where the weakest link in the security chain is the human factor. But up until now we have failed to take advantage of this great property of cyberspace.
If, as it is claimed, our cyber security misery is a “people” problem, this is true only in very narrow sense. It’s not the users who are the problem; the problem belongs to the people who design and build our worthless cyber security systems.

Power grid: when cyber lines cross

We have very little time to cure our stone age cyber defensive technology.
The CNN story citing testimony by Admiral Michael Rogers, head of U.S. Cyber Command, to a House Select Intelligence Committee November 20 sounded like shocking news. He stated that China can take down our power grid. http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/20/politics/nsa-china-power-grid/index.html

Shocking as it may be, if this is still “news,” surprise, surprise — it’s been known to everyone who was anyone in cyber security for over 25 years. First it was just the Russians, then the Chinese, then some vague criminals acting on behalf of “nation-states” were gradually added to the list.
Never mind the Russians and the Chinese – they also both have enough nuclear weapons to kill every squirrel in America. What is really troubling is the cyber security trend. Our cyber defensive capabilities have hardly improved for over a quarter-century. However, hackers’ attacking capabilities are improving constantly and dramatically. This is not a good equation — sooner or later these lines will cross. This means that a large number of unknown hackers will be able to take down our power grid and also decimate our power-intensive facilities, such as oil refineries, gas distribution stations, and chemical factories.
Now, think terrorists. They would be delighted to do exactly that, whether you kill them afterwards or not. This isn’t news, but it’s an increasingly troubling reality. We have very little time to cure our stone age cyber defensive technology. But that requires changing the current equation and making cyber defense inherently more powerful that the offense. That won’t happen until the doomed legacy password and firewall paradigms are abandoned and replaced by fundamentally different technologies.

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.

Kaspersky and Symantec Kicked Out of China – For a Reason

The great cyber triangle of US-Russia-China seems to be shaping up in a definitive way. For a while China was technologically and skill-wise behind the US and Russia, the two early leaders in cyberspace, but it’s catching up, and fast.

It was announced last week that Kaspersky Lab and Symantec have been taken off the list of approved vendors in China’s government cybersecurity software market.  Reuters recently reported one example: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/03/us-china-software-ban-idUSKBN0G30QH20140803

Traditionally very polite, the Chinese did not cyberwhine, did not make any fuss, did not lay any blame, but simply took the pair off the list. Some Western and Russian analysts were very quick to assume and announce  that this was a trade protectionist move to favor China’s national cybersecurity companies. That’s definitely wrong. If that were true, China would bar foreign companies from the country altogether – their private market is huge and very profitable. But they didn’t; they specifically only addressed their government cyberspace security. Apparently Chinese cyber experts found some extracurricular activities in products from both companies, which is not terribly surprising. Furthermore, they probably realized that detecting all the malware in modern software is practically impossible, and correctly decided to keep the foreign security well-wishers away, at least from their government.

The Chinese perception of individual privacy is different from the Western, and they don’t seem to be very concerned about the privacy of the regular common users, at least currently. However, they will probably watch Kaspersky’s and Symantec’s products sold to the Chinese private sector very carefully from now on. If they detect any sizeable collection of data from customers’ computers they will probably bar Kaspersky, Symantec, or both from doing business in China altogether.

The great cyber triangle is definitely becoming more and more equilateral. Interestingly, for the first time that I can recall, China is taking the lead in a trend that is logical and most likely to continue.

Kaspersky’s Intelligent Move

The latest move by Kaspersky Lab is definitely intelligent, perhaps a little too intelligent.

Computer security vendors are beginning to offer integrated cross-platform security for Windows, Mac and Android devices, with Kaspersky Lab leading the pack with its Internet Security—Multi Device 2015. At first glance it looks like déjà vu, as good or as bad malware protection as any other on the market. However, Kaspersky’s has a new feature — it protects all the devices you own, up to five of them. Convenient.

Initial reviews are good: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2459156/kaspersky-internet-security-2015-multi-device-review-new-interface-same-excellent-protection.html

From a business standpoint this makes perfect sense – uncluttering  the security arrangements of your devices and bringing security to one simple point. This should upend the competition that is selling long lines of unrelated programs.

However, there‘s another angle here. The simple truth is that a security system for your computer takes over your computer, whether you like it or not. So when you have a bunch of different security products, each one of them controls only the device for which it is intended.

One of the most reliable means of accessing all data in a computer is via its security system. But, with some technical exceptions, the ultimate targets of most security or intelligence organizations are people, not their computers per se. This means that if someone wants all your data on all your devices, and chooses to do so via your security system, he has to have control of all your security systems. Not too difficult, but certainly cumbersome in a large-scale outfit. Inconvenient.

Here comes a great innovation: one-stop shopping for  all your data – an integrated security system for all your devices. All your data can be obtained via a single security system. Convenient.

It’s not a big secret that Kaspersky Lab has cozy relations with the Russian Government and thus is a valuable resource for the latter. There was a lot of debate related to Kaspersky Lab and their relations to the Russian Government, someone even suggested once that they have a lot of customers and just one client.

I’d prefer to leave that to the reader’s judgment, but simply caution that in any case integrating all your devices via one security system makes you an easier cyber prey, and may be unwise, Kaspersky or not.

 

“Russian Hackers” brand

The media constantly speculate about what “Russian hackers” are doing against Western targets. Publications such as The New York Times are increasingly concerned about “Russian hackers” in the energy and financial sectors in particular:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/technology/energy-sector-faces-attacks-from-hackers-in-russia.html?nlid=58721173&src=recpb

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/07/russian-arrested-in-guam-on-array-of-u-s-hacking-charges/

The term “Russian hackers” needs some clarification. Cyber operations in Russia are conducted by numerous entities with vastly different objectives, resources,  and constraints.

At least one distinct Russian military entity is tasked with infiltrating the critical infrastructure of potential adversaries, planting electronic/cyber bombs that can be activated when ordered, with a devastating result that would only be surpassed by a massive nuclear strike. This activity has been successfully carried out against the US for decades, and several generations of this malware are now sitting all over our critical infrastructure. Top American experts have deemed it practically impossible to detect and eliminate this malware. Welcome to the real world.

Totally different tasks are assigned to other Russian government entities. Acquiring technical/technological intelligence has been a traditional Russian favorite, and has become significantly more aggressive with the opportunities presented by cyberspace. This kind of  intelligence can save a lot of research money, effort and time while providing solutions with minimal delays. In the energy sector this is particularly significant for gaining competitive advantage  in world energy markets. The results are easy to coordinate since most of the Russian energy companies are government-controlled, which gives a great advantage to companies like Gasprom.

The financial sector offers a different kind of target. It attracts the concentrated attention of a wide variety of Russian hacking entities. This sector is simultaneously a part of our critical infrastructure, a vital resource for successful financial investment strategies for the vast amounts of various types of Russian money in the West (and East), and also a practically unlimited source of money to steal with little chance of being caught. Consequently, this industry is under attack from  all sorts of hackers: government, corporate, and private entrepreneurial.

This brief breakdown shows why so-called “Russian hackers” should be differentiated, and as a phenomenon it is certainly not unique to Russia. The players involved differ vastly in size, resources, sophistication and risk tolerance. Taking these differences into account enable us to better understand the nature, origin, and objective of Russian cyber attacks.

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.

Real Target of eBay Hack

Inasmuch as the recently announced hacking of eBay sounded like déjà vu, some aspects of it do warrant further inquiry. The company’s standard “we are dedicated to the security of our customers and are transparent” approach is plausible, but its customers may in fact be in less danger than is automatically assumed.

A common retail hacking usually ends up with a large number of customers’ accounts charged small amounts that go unnoticed for some time, allowing the hacker to accumulate significant amounts and, hopefully, cover their tracks. The relative stealthiness of this approach usually works well with credit card charges that don’t attract the attention of the customers. With this approach the major distinction between hacking of a bank, VISA, or MasterCard and eBay is that eBay customers are usually very involved in every transaction, and are likely to detect any discrepancy faster than during a  casual use of a credit card. This makes eBay a less attractive target for a hacker – the probability of quick detection is a lot higher and the yield per transaction is still small.

Hackers clearly understand that, which raises the question of why they chose to hack eBay. Something other than the retail accounts must have attracted them to eBay, and eBay’s announcement that they had no indication of a significant spike in fraudulent activity on their site corroborates that. The answer probably lies with the huge overall amounts of money passing through eBay every day. I suspect that the hackers went after large corporate transactions with banks and vendors. There are very effective methods of hiding electronic theft from companies that are well beyond the scope of this post. Such methods can deal with large amounts and are assured a very low probability of detection for a significant time, enabling the thieves to cover their tracks. The key here is that with the high level of automation and the large number of transactions via eBay’s corporate network, hackers can reasonably hope for significant time before the transactions are scrutinized manually. The fact that “cyberattackers compromised a small number of employee log-in credentials, allowing unauthorized access to eBay’s corporate network,” and that the hack occurred “between late February and early March” and was detected only in early May supports this scenario. Furthermore, the accuracy of the attack detection and the time range cited suggest that eBay has only a vague idea of what actually happened and when.

All this tells us that eBay customers’ accounts are in less danger than may appear. Moreover, if someone gets your address, birthday, and telephone number, you cannot – you can’t take back and secure that information by changing your password — which does not offer much protection in the first place. However, eBay should take a very close look at its corporate finances from February through May of this year – they may be missing a few million.

Utilities Hacking Paradigm Shift

 

With the pleasant long weekend over, now is a good time to check up on recent cyber history. It’s a common Government practice to release potential “hot potatoes” just before a holiday in the hope that they will pass generally unnoticed. So it’s useful to review the pre-holiday week’s releases right after the holiday. There is something there that caught my eye that I would like to address.

Interesting questions were raised by the following article, oddly published by an Australian publication on May 22: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/05/hackers-broke-into-a-public-utility-control-room-by-guessing-a-password   (“Hackers Broke Into A Public Utility Control Room By Guessing A Password.”) In short, the story is commenting on the DHS announcement of the discovery and fixing of a hackers’ break-in into an unspecified public utility’s controls. This raises at least two questions.The first question is why the announcement was made at all. Everybody who is anybody in cybersecurity knows that within the US-Russia-China triangle practically all internet-connected utilities have been penetrated for decades. Malware representing electronic bombs have been mutually installed by these countries and have gone through several generations of upgrades; they are ready to use, and extremely difficult to detect. Obviously, the most vulnerable side of the triangle is the US, since it has the most advanced and most connected network of utilities. The existing status quo in the triangle is somewhat similar to the famous MAD – Mutually Assure Destruction– of the Cold War, and the situation is pretty stable. So, if it’s not news, why announce it? This question can probably be answered by the second question.

The second question is: what has been left unsaid in the announcement? This is probably the key to the whole thing. The announcement mentioned “hackers,” with no hints as to their identity. But the interesting detail is that the attack was performed by a very unsophisticated “brute force” approach, which any hacker with a  modern computer can do that easily. So, the only plausible explanation for the whole announcement is to tacitly acknowledge that some rogue hackers were able to penetrate a public utility, and to suggest that more such attacks may be coming. Obviously, rogue hackers of many denominations do not have the mutual restraints of the US-Russia-China triangle, and without such restraints they can do real damage.

Overall, it looks like the DHS is laying down the proposition that when some real damage is done, they can say that now anybody can take control of our utilities, as we warned you.

Cyber Bombs

Victor Sheymov’s Blog on Cyber Security and Intelligence

An important and often overlooked aspect is that many computers are infected by malware well before this malware is triggered. It means that many of our critical infrastructure computers already contain “cyber bombs” that are waiting to be triggered at the time chosen by the attacker to maximize the damage. This malware is extremely difficult to detect, and on a large scale such detection is a practical impossibility. Furthermore, disconnecting computers from the Internet in most cases would be ineffective, since malware can easily reconnect the computer to the Internet if a proper hardware and a wireless access are present, and they usually are. So we are sitting on multiple bombs embedded in our critical infrastructure at the mercy of multiple unknown attackers.

Thus we are facing a grim reality that we do not fully comprehend, and not much has been done about it so far. Our vulnerability has not improved over the years; indeed, it has deteriorated. The technology of cyber attacks has advanced more than technology of computer security. Let us review how we got into this situation and, more importantly, how to get out of it.