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.
Monday, October 13. 2014
In the past year we have seen several high-profile breaches of brick and mortar retailers. Estimates range in the tens of millions of credit cards stolen in each case. For the most part, these retailers have weathered the storm with virtually no ill effects. In fact, it seems the same increase in stock price that TJ Maxx saw after their breach still rings true today. A sad fact indeed.
Regardless, the recent slew of breaches has finally prompted the credit card industry to act. They have declared that 2015 will be the year that chip and pin becomes the standard for all card-present transactions. And while chip and pin isn't a silver bullet, and attackers will eventually find new and innovative ways to circumvent it, it has proven to be quite effective in Europe where it has been the standard for years.
Chip and pin changes how the credit card information is transmitted to the processor. Instead of the credit card number being read, in plain text, off of the magnetic strip, the card reader initiates an encrypted communication between the chip on the card and the card reader. The card details are encrypted and sent, along with the user's PIN, to the card processor for verification. It is this encrypted communication between the card and, ultimately, the card processor that results in increased security. In short, the attack vectors used in recent breaches is difficult, if not impossible to pull off with these new readers. Since the information is not decrypted until it hits the card processor, attackers can't simply skim the information at the card reader. There are, of course, other attacks, though these have not yet proven widespread.
At it's heart, though, chip and pin only "fixes" one type of credit card transaction, card-present transactions. That is, transactions in which the card holder physically scans their card via a card reader. The other type of transaction, card-not-present transactions, are unaffected by chip and pin. In fact, the move to chip and pin may result in putting online transactions at greater risk. With brick and mortar attacks gone, attackers will move to online retailers. Despite the standard SSL encryption used between shoppers and online retailers, there are plenty of ways to steal credit card data. In fact, one might argue that a single attack could net more card numbers in a shorter time since online retailers often store credit card data as a convenience for the user.
It seems that online fraud, though expected, is being largely ignored for the moment. After all, how are we going to protect that data without supplying card readers to every online shopper? Online solutions such as PayPal, Amazon Payments, and others mitigate this problem slightly, but we still have to rely on the security they've put in place to protect cardholder data. Other solutions such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet seemingly combine on and offline protections, but the central data warehouse remains. The problem seems to be the security of the card number itself. And losing this data can be a huge burden for many users as they have to systematically update payment information as the result of a possible breach. This can often lead to late payments, penalties, and more.
One possible alternative is to reduce the impact a single breach can cause. What if the data that retailers stored was of little or no value to an attacker while still allowing the retailer a way to simplify payments for the shopper? What if a breach at a retailer only affected that retailer and resulted in virtually no impact on the user? A solution like this may be just what we need.
Instead of providing a retailer your credit card number and CVV, the retailer is provided a simple token. That token, coupled with a private retailer-specific token should be all that is needed to verify a transaction. Tokens can and should be different for each retailer. If a retailer is compromised, new tokens can be generated, reducing the impact on the user significantly. Attackers who successfully breach a retailer can only submit transactions if they can obtain both the private retailer token as well as the user token. And if processors put simple access-control lists in place, it increases the difficulty an attacker encounters when trying to push through a fraudulent transaction.
Obtaining tokens can be handled by redirecting a user to a payment gateway for their initial transaction. The payment gateway verifies the user and their credit card data, and then passes the generated token back to the retailer. This is similar to how retailers using existing online payment processors such as Paypal and Amazon Payments already handle payments. The credit card data never passes through the retailer network. The number of locations credit card data is stored reduces significantly as well. This, in turn, means that attackers have fewer targets and while this increases the risk a payment processor network incurs, one can argue that these networks should already have significant defenses in place.
This is only one possible solution for online payments. There are many other solutions out there being presented by both security and non-security folks. But there seems to be no significant movement on an online solution. Will it take several high-profile online breaches to convince credit card companies that a solution is needed? Or will credit card companies move to protect retailers and card holders ahead of attackers redirecting their efforts? If history is any indication, get used to having your card re-issued several times a year for the foreseeable future.
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"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."