Tuesday, March 24. 2015
Let’s talk about your house for a moment. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that you live in a nice house with doors, windows, the works. All of the various entries have the requisite locking devices. As with most homes, these help prevent unwanted entry, though a determined attacker can surely bypass them. For the moment, let’s ignore the determined attacker and just talk about casual attempts.
Throughout your time living in your home, casual attempts at illegal entry have been rebuffed. You may or may not even know about these attempts. They happen pretty randomly, but there’s typically not much in the way of evidence after the attacker gives up and leaves. So you’re pretty happy with how secure things are.
Recently, you’ve heard about this great new garage from a friend who has one. It’s really nice, low cost, and you have room for it on your property, so you decide to purchase one. You place the order and, after a few days, your new garage arrives. It’s everything you could have imagined. Plenty of room to store all the junk you have in the house, plus you can fit the car in there too!
You use the garage every day, moving boxes in and out of the garage as needed until one day you return home and, for some inexplicable reason, your car won’t fit all the way in. Well, that’s pretty weird, you think. You decide that maybe you stored too much in the garage, so you spend the rest of the day cleaning out the garage. You make some tough decisions and eventually you make enough room to put the car back in the garage.
Time passes and this happens a few more times. After a while you start to get a bit frustrated and decide that maybe you need to buy a bigger garage. You pull out your trusty measuring tape to verify the dimensions of the garage and, to your amazement, the garage is smaller than what you remember. You do some more checking and, to your amazement, the garage is bigger on the outside. So you call an expert to figure out what’s going on.
When the expert arrives, she takes one look at the situation and tells you she knows exactly what has happened. You watch with awe as she walks up to the closed garage, places her hand on the door, and the door opens by itself! Curious, you ask how she performed that little magic trick. She explains that this particular model of garage has a little known problem that allows the door to be opened by putting pressure on just the right place. Next, she head into the garage and starts poking around at the walls. After a few moments, one of the walls slides open revealing another room full of stuff you don’t recognize.
Your expert explains that obviously someone else knows about this weakness and has set up a false wall in your garage to hide their own stuff in. This is the source of the shrinking space and your frustration. She helps you clean up the mess and tear down the false wall. After everything is back to normal, she recommends you contact the manufacturer and see if they have a fix for the faulty door.
While this story may sound pretty far fetched when we’re talking about houses and garages, it’s an all too common story for consumer grade appliances. And as we move further into this new age of connected devices, commonly called the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s going to become and even bigger issue.
Network access itself is the first challenge. Many of the major home router vendors have already experienced problems with security. So right out of the gate, home networks are potentially vulnerable. This is a major problem, especially given the potentially sensitive nature of data being transmitted by a variety of new IoT devices.
Today’s devices are incredibly data-centric. From fitness trackers to environmental sensors, our devices are tracking everything. This data is collected and then transmitted to an internet-connected service where it is made available to the user in a variety of ways. Some users may find this data to be sensitive, hoping to keep it relatively private, available only to the user and, anonymously, to the service they subscribe to. Others may make this data public. But in the world of IoT, a security problem with a device compromises that choice.
Or maybe the attacker isn’t after your data at all. Perhaps, like our garage example, they’re looking for resources they can use. Maybe they want to store files, or maybe they’re looking to use your device to process their own data. Years ago, attackers would gain access to a remote system so they could take advantage of the space available on the system, typically storing data and setting up a warez site. That is, illegal copies of software available to those who know where to look. These days, however, storage is everywhere and there are many superior ways to transmit files between users. As a result, the old-school practice of setting up a warez site has mostly fallen by the wayside.
In today’s world, attackers want access to your devices for a variety of reasons. Some attackers use these devices as zombie systems for sending massive amounts of spam. Typically this just results in a slow Internet connection and possibly gets your IP banned from sending mail. Not a big deal for you, but it can be a real headache for those of us dealing with the influx of spam.
More and more, however, attackers are taking over machines to use them for their processing power, or for their connection to the Internet. For instance, some attackers compromise machines just so they can use them to mine bitcoins. It seems harmless enough, but it can be an inconvenience to the owner of the device when it doesn’t respond the way it should because it’s too busy working on something else.
Attackers are also using the Internet connections for nefarious purposes such as setting up denial of service hosts. They use your connection, and the connections of other systems they have compromised, to send massive amounts of data to a remote system. The entire purpose of this activity it to prevent the remote system from being accessible. It was widely reported that this sort of activity is what caused connectivity problems to both Microsoft’s Xbox Live service as well as the Playstation Network during Christmas of 2014.
So what can we do about this? Users clearly want this technology, so we need to do something to make it more secure. And to be clear, this problem goes beyond the vendors, it includes the users as well. Software has and will always have bugs. Some of these bugs can be exploited and result in a security problem. So the first step is ensuring that vendors are patching those bugs when they’re found. And, perhaps, vendors can be convinced to bolster their internal security teams such that secure coding practices are followed.
But vendors patching bugs isn’t the only problem, and in most cases, it’s the easy part of the problem. Once a patch exists, users have to apply that patch to their system. As we’ve seen over the years, patching isn’t something that users are very good at. Thus, automatic update systems such as those used by Microsoft and Apple, are commonplace. But this practice hasn’t carried over to devices yet. Vendors need to work on this and build these features into their hardware. Until they do, these security issues will remain a widespread problem.
So yes, your iToaster needs security. And we need vendors to take the next step and bake in automatic updating so security becomes the default. End users want devices that work without having to worry about how and when to update them. Not all manufacturers have the marketing savvy that Apple uses to make updating sexy. Maybe they can take a page out of the book Microsoft used with the Xbox One. Silent updates, automatically, overnight.
Saturday, March 21. 2015
Have you ever had to fix a broken item and you didn’t have the right parts? Instead of just giving up, you looked around and found something that would work for the time being. Occasionally, you come back later and fix it “the right way,” but more often than not, that fix stays in place indefinitely. Or, perhaps you’ve found a novel new use for a device. It wasn’t built for that purpose, but you figured out that it fit the exact use you had in mind.
Those are the actions of a hacker. No, really. If you look up the definition of a hacker, you get all sort of responses. Wikipedia has three separate entries for the word hacker in relation to technology :
Google defines it as follows :
And there are more. What’s interesting here is that depending on where you look, the word hacker means different things. It has become a pretty contentious word, mostly because the media has, over time, used it to describe the actions of a particular type of person. Specifically, hacker is often used to describe the criminal actions of a person who gains unauthorized access to computer systems. But make no mistake, the media is completely wrong on this and they’re using the word improperly.
Sure, the person who broke into that computer system and stole all of that data is most likely a hacker. But, first and foremost, that person is a criminal. Being a hacker is a lifestyle and, in many cases, a career choice. Much like being a lawyer or a doctor is a career choice. Why then is hacker used as a negative term to identify criminal activity and not doctor or lawyer? There are plenty of instances where doctors, lawyers, and people from a wide variety of professions have indulged in criminal activity.
Keren Elazari spoke in 2014 at TED about hackers, and their importance in our society. During her talk she discusses the role of hackers in our society, noting that there are hackers who use their skills for criminal activity, but many more who use their skills to better the world. From hacktivist groups like Anonymous to hackers like Barnaby Jack, these people have changed the world in positive ways, helping to identify weaknesses in systems to weaknesses in governments and laws. In her own words :
It’s time to stop letting the media use this word improperly. It’s time to take back what is ours. Hacker has long been a term used to describe those we look up to, those we seek to emulate. It is a term we hold dear, a term we seek to defend. When Loyd Blankenship was arrested in 1986, he wrote what has become known as the Hacker’s Manifesto. This document, often misunderstood, describes the struggle many of us went through, and the joy of discovering something we could call our own. Yes, we’re often misunderstood. Yes, we’ve been marginalized for a long time. But times have changed since then and our culture is strong and growing.
Tuesday, March 17. 2015
I’ve recently been reading Wired for War by P.W. Singer and one of the concepts he mentions in the book is Network Enhanced Telepathy. This struck me as not only something that sounds incredibly interesting, but something that we’ll probably see hit mainstream in the next 5-10 years.
According to Wikipedia, telepathy is "the purported transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.” In other words, you can think *at* someone and communicate. The concept that Singer talks about in the book isn’t quite as “mystical” since it uses technology to perform the heavy lifting. In this case, technology brings fantasy into reality.
Scientists have already developed methods to “read” thoughts from the human mind. These methods are by no means perfect, but they are a start. As we’ve seen with technology across the board from computers to robotics, electric cars to rockets, technological jumps may ramp up slowly, but then they rocket forward at a deafening pace. What seems like a trivial breakthrough at the moment may well lead to the next step in human evolution.
What Singer describes in the book is one step further. If we can read the human mind, and presumably write back to it, then adding a network in-between, allowing communication between minds, is obvious. Thus we have Network Enhanced Telepathy. And, of course, with that comes all of the baggage we associate with networks today. Everything from connectivity issues and lag to security problems.
The security issues associated with something like this range from inconvenient to downright horrifying. If you thought social engineering was bad, wait until we have a direct line straight into someone’s brain. Today, security issues can result in stolen data, denial of service issues, and, in some rare instances, destruction of property. These same issues may exist with this new technology as well.
Stolen data is pretty straightforward. Could an exploit allow an attacker to arbitrarily read data from someone’s mind? How would this work? Could they pinpoint the exact data they want, or would they only have access to the current “thoughts” being transmitted? While access to current thoughts might not be as bad as exact data, it’s still possible this could be used to steal important data such as passwords, secret information, etc. Pinpointing exact data could be absolutely devastating. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if an attacker was able to pluck your innermost secrets straight out of your mind. Everyone has something to hide, whether that’s a deep dark secret, or maybe just the image of themselves in the bathroom mirror.
I’ve seen social engineering talks wherein the presenter talks about a technique to interrupt a person, mid-thought, and effectively create a buffer overflow of sorts, allowing the social engineer to insert their own directions. Taken to the next level, could an attacker perform a similar attack via a direct link to a person’s mind? If so, what access would the attacker then attain? Could we be looking at the next big thing in brainwashing? Merely insert the new programming, directly into the user.
How about Denial of Service attacks or physical destruction? Could an attacker cause physical damage in their target? Is a connection to the mind enough access to directly modify the cognitive functions of the target? Could an attacker induce something like Locked-In syndrome in a user? What about blocking specific functions, preventing the user from being able to move limbs, or speak? Since the brain performs regulatory control over the body, could an attacker modify the temperature, heart rate, or even induce sensations in their target? These are truly scary scenarios and warrant serious thought and discussion.
Technology is racing ahead at breakneck speeds and the future is an exciting one. These technologies could allow humans to take that next evolutionary step. But as with all technology, we should be looking at it with a critical eye. As technology and biology become more and more intertwined, it is essential that we tread carefully and be sure to address potential problems long before they become a reality.
Friday, March 13. 2015
The Cloud, hailed as a panacea for all your IT related problems. Need storage? Put it in the Cloud. Email? Cloud. Voice? Wireless? Logging? Security? The Cloud is your answer. The Cloud can do it all.
But what does that mean? How is it that all of these problems can be solved by merely signing up for various cloud services? What is the cloud, anyway?
Unfortunately, defining what the cloud actually is remains problematic. It means many things to many people. The cloud can be something "simple" like extra storage space or email. Google, Dropbox, and others offer a service that allows you to store files on their servers, making them available to you from "anywhere" in the world. Anywhere, of course, if the local government and laws allow you to access the services there. These services are often free for a small amount of space.
Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and many, many others offer email services, many of them "free" for personal use. In this instance, though, free can be tricky. Google, for instance, has algorithms that "read" your email and display advertisements based on the results. So while you may not exchange money for this service, you do exchange a level of privacy.
Cloud can also be pure computing power. Virtual machines running a variety of operating systems, available for the end-user to access and run whatever software they need. Companies like Amazon have turned this into big business, offering a full range of back-end services for cloud-based servers. Databases, storage, raw computing power, it's all there. In fact, they have developed APIs allowing additional services to be spun up on-demand, augmenting existing services.
As time goes on, more and more services are being added to the cloud model. The temptation to drop self-hosted services and move to the cloud is constantly increasing. The incentives are definitely there. Cloud services are affordable, and there's no need for additional staff for support. All the benefits with very little of the expense. End-users have access to services they may not have had access to previously, and companies can save money and time by moving services they use to the cloud.
But as with any service, self-hosted or not, there are questions you should be asking. The answers, however, are sometimes a bit hard to get. But even without direct answers, there are some inferences you can make based on what the service is and what data is being transferred.
Data being accessible virtually anywhere, at any time, is one of major draws of cloud services. But there are downsides. What happens when the service is inaccessible? For a self-hosted service, you have control and can spend the necessary time to bring the service back up. In some cases, you may have the ability to access some or all of the data, even without the service being fully restored. When you surrender your data to the cloud, you are at the mercy of the service provider. Not all providers are created equal and you cannot expect uniform performance and availability across all providers. This means that in the event of an outage, you are essentially helpless. Keeping local backups is definitely an option, but oftentimes you’re using the cloud so that you don’t need those local backups.
Speaking of backups, is the cloud service you’re using responsible for backups? Will they guarantee that your data will remain safe? What happens if you accidentally delete a needed file or email? These are important issues that come up quite often for a typical office. What about the other side of the question? If the service is keeping backups, are those backups secure? Is there a way to delete data, permanently, from the service? Accidents happen, so if you’ve uploaded a file containing sensitive information, or sent/received an email with sensitive information, what recourse do you have? Dropbox keeps snapshots of all uploaded data for 30 days, but there doesn’t seem to be an official way to permanently delete a file. There are a number of articles out there claiming that this is possible, just follow the steps they provide, but can you be completely certain that the data is gone?
What about data security? Well, let's think about the data you're sending. For an email service, this is a fairly simple answer. Every email goes through that service. In fact, your email is stored on the remote server, and even deleted messages may hang around for a while. So if you're using email for anything sensitive, the security of that information is mostly out of your control. There's always the option of using some sort of encryption, but web-based services rarely support that. So data security is definitely an issue, and not necessarily an issue you have any control over. And remember, even the “big guys” make mistakes. Fishnet Security has an excellent list of questions you can ask cloud providers about their security stance.
Liability is an issue as well, though you may not initially realize it. Where, exactly, is your data stored? Do you know? Can you find out? This can be an important issue depending on what your industry is, or what you’re storing. If your data is being stored outside of your home country, it may be subject to the laws and regulations of the country it’s stored in.
There are a lot of aspects to deal with when thinking about cloud services. Before jumping into the fray, do your homework and make sure you’re comfortable with giving up control to a third party. Once you give up control, it may not be that easy to reign it back in.
Friday, February 27. 2015
I have been and always shall be your friend.
It's a sad day. We've lost a dear friend today, someone we grew up with, someone so iconic that he inspired generations. At the age of 83, Leonard Nimoy passed away. He will be missed.
It's amazing to realize how much someone you've never met can mean to you. People larger than life, people who will live on in memory forever. I've been continually moved for hours at the outpouring of grief and love online for Leonard. He has meant so much for so many, and his memory will live on forever.
Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human.
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"I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them."