Aside

2018.1.17

Blew away over 10K emails that were collecting dust in one of my main accounts. My goal over the next few months is to remove the mass majority of old email that serves no purpose. Doing so will both free up some space (not that I really need it) while also cutting down on the possible deleterious effects of having the account in question getting hacked and contents selectively modified and/or leaked.

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Anti-Virus and Windows Vista

From Ben Farthi:

In my role as the head of Microsoft security, I personally spent many years explaining to antivirus vendors why we would no longer allow them to “patch” kernel instructions and data structures in memory, why this was a security risk, and why they needed to use approved APIs going forward, that we would no longer support their legacy apps with deep hooks in the Windows kernel — the same ones that hackers were using to attack consumer systems. Our “friends”, the antivirus vendors, turned around and sued us, claiming we were blocking their livelihood and abusing our monopoly power! With friends like that, who needs enemies? They just wanted their old solutions to keep working even if that meant reducing the security of our mutual customer — the very thing they were supposed to be improving.

Anti-virus programs remain a problem in terms of the attack surface they can open up. This surface, combined with the failure of many products to effectively identify and act on malware signatures, means that consumers tend to put far too much trust in products that often function poorly at best.

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WordPress Supply Chain Attacks

Per Wordfence there are four reasons for supply-chain (i.e. plugin-based) attacks on WordPress installations:

The first reason is simply scale. According to w3techs, WordPress powers 29.2% of all websites – a massive user base to go after. In addition, at the time of this writing there were 53,566 plugins available for download in the official WordPress.org plugin repository. That is a lot to work with on both fronts.

Secondly, the WordPress.org plugin directory is an open, community-driven resource. According to the plugin guidelines page, “It is the sole responsibility of plugin developers to ensure all files within their plugins comply with the guidelines.” This means that while there is a small team tasked with managing the plugin repository and another small team focused on security, ultimately users rely on plugin developers to keep them safe.

Thirdly, most WordPress sites are managed pretty casually. Making a change to a website at a larger company might include code review, testing and a formal change control process. But that’s probably not happening consistently, if at all, on most smaller websites. In addition, many site owners don’t monitor their WordPress sites closely, which means malware can often remain in place for many months without being discovered.

Lastly, the WordPress plugin repository has a huge number of abandoned plugins. When we looked back in May, almost half of the available plugins hadn’t been updated in over two years. This represents a great opportunity for ne’er do wells looking to con unsuspecting plugin authors into selling something they created years ago and have moved on from.

The aforementioned points outline why acquiring and infecting WordPress plugins is a reasonable way of penetrating WordPress installs. However, I think that Wordfence is missing the most important reason that such attacks succeed: few actual users of WordPress are technically component to monitor what, exactly, their plugins are doing. Nor are the shared hosting services particularly good at identifying and alerting technically-illiterate users that their sites are compromised and what the site owners need to do to remediate the intrusion.

Trying to get individual users to more carefully monitor how their plugins work is a fool’s errand. What’s needed is for hosts to provide a community service and actively not just identify hijacked plugins (and sites) but, also, provide meaningful remediation processes. User education and alerts aren’t enough (or even moderately sufficient): companies must guide site owners through the process of cleaning their sites. Otherwise malware campaigns aimed at WordPress will persist and grow over time.

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Security Planner by the Citizen Lab

From the Citizen Lab:1

Security Planner is an easy-to-use platform with tested, peer reviewed recommendations for staying safe online. With just a few clicks, Security Planner tailors straightforward recommendations based on someone’s digital habits and the technology they use. Recommendations are presented with clear language, making it easier to decide if they are right for someone. Our goal is to put people in a position to move from learning to action.

Our recommendations are developed by a peer review committee of experts from universities, nonprofits, and the private sector. The committee has decades of combined experience in digital security and produces recommendations that balance objectivity, accountability, and accessibility. This approach ensures that no private company can exercise influence over the products or services that we recommend. Security Planner is also overseen by an advisory board whose members include some of the world’s leading thinkers and practitioners in the digital security space.

Security Planner is a free tool that is designed to help everyone answer, and solve, their questions about online security. Check it out!

  1. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m an employee of the Citizen Lab though was only minimally involved in this particular project.
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Demand for secret messaging apps is rising as Trump takes office

From The Verge:

Marlinspike’s goal isn’t unicorn riches, but unicorn ubiquity. For that, he wants to make encrypted messaging as easy — as beautiful, as fun, as expressive, as emoji-laden — as your default messaging app. His reason: if encryption is difficult, it self-selects for people willing to jump through those hoops. And bad guys are always willing to jump through the hoops. “ISIS or high-risk criminal activity will be willing to click two extra times,” he told me. “You and I are not.”

Marlinspike’s protocol for secure communication is incredibly effective at protecting message content from third party observation. Few protocols are nearly as effective, however, and most chat companies now claim that they offer ‘secure’ communciations. Almost no consumers are situated to evaluate those claims: there are known deficient applications that are widely used, despite the security community having identified and discussed their problems. Encryption isn’t actually going to provide the security that most users think it does so unless the best-of-class protocols are widely adopted.1

The problem of imperfect consumer knowledge is a hard one to solve for, in part because the security community cannot evaluate all claims of encryption. In work that I’ve been involved in we’ve seen simplistic ciphers, hard coded passwords, and similar deficiencies. In some cases companies have asserted they secure data but then fail to encrypt data between smartphone apps and company servers. It’s laborious work to find these deficiencies and it’s cheap for companies to claim that they offer a ‘secure’ product. And it ultimately means that consumers (who aren’t experts in cryptography, nor should they be expected to be such experts) are left scratching their head and, sometimes, just throwing their hands up in frustration as a result of the limited information that is available.


  1. Admittedly, Marlinspike’s goal is to spread his protocol widely and the result has been that the largest chat service in the world, WhatsApp, not provides a robust level of communications security. To activate the protocol in other chat services, such as Google’s Allo or Facebook’s Messenger you need to first set up a private conversation. 

 

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Google warns journalists and professors: Your account is under attack

From Ars Technica:

A Google spokesman, citing this overview of the warnings, said it’s possible that the recent flurry may refer to hacking attempts that happened over the past month, as opposed to events that occurred more recently. He said Google officials deliberately delay warnings to prevent those behind the attacks from learning researchers’ sources and methods for detecting the attacks. The delays apply only to attack attempts, rather than cases where attacks result in a successful account takeover.

Phishing and account takeover is a very real threat. Yes, particular persons are sometimes targeted because they are personally identified as ‘high value targets’. However, persons antecendent to them are also targeted because high value targets can be more mindful of possible efforts to phish their credentials, while less mindful about clicking links from friends and family. As a result, the persons who the high value target communicates with may be used as the proxy to attacking the high value target.

Do you know someone who might be a target? Such as a prominent lawyer, business person, or politician? Or just someone who, themselves, would have access to such prominent persons or to sensitive information? If so, then you could be targeted by a sophisticated attacker not because you, yourself, are interesting but because you’re a gateway to those who are.