The Roundup for December 23-29, 2017 Edition

Bright Fathers by Christopher Parsons

It’s the time of year when people reflect on past annual resolutions while beginning to think about what resolutions they’ll ‘commit’ to in the coming year. I enjoy the idea of establishing annual targets and goals. Not just because it’s fun to imagine how great life would be if you hit them all, but because it provides an ongoing sense of direction in what is often a rote world. More than that, resolutions, goal setting, or whatever else you call it are helpful for providing a lens through which to reflect on a year gone by.

I had one standard resolution, which I absolutely failed to make possible, and a host of them that were far more successful. I fully exited consumer debt hell, increased monthly student loan payments, photographically documented many of the major events in my life, dealt with the last administrative aspects of my last relationship, and mostly righted my financial ship. All of those were major life accomplishments and have done things like change how I visually see the world every day, how I experience my relationships with money, and how I approach my relationships today. It’s not just that I finished something but that in the course of undertaking a series of activities I’ve opened up entirely new (and, arguably, healthier) ways of seeing the world.

But there were other things that I accomplished that I think are as important as those goals that were set last year. I think I’m most proud of the fact that I can see ways in which I’ve grown emotionally. In specific, in my desire to avoid some of the mistakes of my last relationship I’ve had honest and oftentimes painful conversations that were based on what I believe to be right for me; rather than subsuming myself to make life easier I’ve just been me, even when doing so might cause challenges in my relationships. Such challenges, however, are healthy insofar as strong areas of disagreement aren’t indications of a lack of love but, instead, of a healthy set of egos that simply must come to a consensual agreement on how to proceed. Learning how to love in a healthy way has been scary while also amplifying my ability to be present and with others in ways I never understood as possible.

I’ve also managed to overcome some long held fears that were the result of bullying I experienced while growing up. The result is that I can make healthy choices for my body without having a voice in the back of my head that sabotages my efforts to be fitter, eat better, and be happier in my own body. Getting over those particular demons is especially important, in my situation, given that I’m creeping up on the age when coronary diseases start to take the lives of the men in my family.

In the coming days I’ll be thinking through the kinds of resolutions and thematics that I want to carry forward into the coming year. Centrally, I think I’m going to have ‘testable’ objectives, insofar as I’ll be able to actually measure whether or not I’ve advanced in some of the hobbies that I’m involved in, while also trying to find ways of deprioritizing activities that are pleasurable but don’t really do much to advance my physical, intellectual, artistic, professional, or emotional wellbeing.

I spent a significant amount of time thinking about the implications of path dependency in socio-technical systems over the course of my doctoral degree. For my work, I hypothesized that similar kinds of technologies in a path-dependent system would unfold in similar ways cross-jurisdictionally. This common unfolding would take place because once technological development began down a particular path, other paths would be foreclosed and a common end would be reached regardless of regulation, policy, or law.

In the work I did, this dependency wasn’t actually evidenced with much regularity. But some of that was because the technologies I was looking at were heavily socialized: they were used for a range of different tasks and, as such, their development impetuses were often decidedly non-technical. In contrast, the development of Transport Level Security (TLS) has a kind of path dependency that is notably challenging to deviate from, not just because clients and servers must implement new versions of the protocol but because developers of middle boxes simply assume technology will unfold in a given way and have developed their own technologies based on those assumptions. In reaction, the Internet community has spent a considerable amount of time trying to ameliorate the difficulties that arise when implementing new versions of the protocol, difficulties linked to assumptions as to how the protocol would, and will, develop.

Cryptographers are increasingly talking about the problems associated with adopting new versions of TLS as ‘joints’ ‘rusting shut.’ As discussed by Cloudflare, in the context of middleboxes:

Some features of TLS that were changed in TLS 1.3 were merely cosmetic. Things like the ChangeCipherSpec, session_id, and compression fields that were part of the protocol since SSLv3 were removed. These fields turned out to be considered essential features of TLS to some of these middleboxes, and removing them caused connection failures to skyrocket.

If a protocol is in use for a long enough time with a similar enough format, people building tools around that protocol will make assumptions around that format being constant. This is often not an intentional choice by developers, but an unintended consequence of how a protocol is used in practice. Developers of network devices may not understand every protocol used on the internet, so they often test against what they see on the network. If a part of a protocol that is supposed to be flexible never changes in practice, someone will assume it is a constant. This is more likely the more implementations are created.

It would be disingenuous to put all of the blame for this on the specific implementers of these middleboxes. Yes, they created faulty implementations of TLS, but another way to think about it is that the original design of TLS lent itself to this type of failure. Implementers implement to the reality of the protocol, not the intention of the protocol’s designer or the text of the specification. In complex ecosystems with multiple implementers, unused joints rust shut.

To some extent, the lesson to be taken from the efforts to update to TLS 1.3 is to have protocols which are simpler in nature and with fewer moving parts.1 Another lesson is that it takes years to actually shift the global population of Internet devices en masse to more secure ways of communicating. But perhaps the most fundamental lesson — to my mind — is that the security of the Internet is still trying to mediate and resolve problems which were initially seeded many, many years ago and which may mean it takes up to a decade to fix the specific problems to TLS 1.2.

Built infrastructure such as middleboxes isn’t updated on a regular basis because the infrastructure represents a capital cost. And so even as new protocols struggle to come to terms with the past, they do so by comforming to the paths sets down by previously deployed protocols. Even as TLS 1.3 is deployed and made usable, it will be done so based on how earlier versions of the protocol were designed and then implemented. So the questions that linger include: how will implementers of TLS 1.3 make decisions, and how will their decisions direct the development and implementation of future versions of TLS? In effect: how much will the paths of the past continue to affect how future versions of TLS can be practically — as opposed to hypothetically — developed??

Inspirational Quotation

“Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.”

– Dalai Lama

Great Photography Shots

I’ve really fallen in love with some of the shots which were submitted to this year’s Sony Wold Photography Awards.

The Horns at sunrise. © Vincent Chen, China, Entry, Open, Landscape & Nature (2018 Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.
The Horns at sunrise. © Vincent Chen, China, Entry, Open, Landscape & Nature (2018 Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.
Little Indian. © Virgilio Liberato, Philippines, Entry, Open, Portraiture (Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards
Little Indian. © Virgilio Liberato, Philippines, Entry, Open, Portraiture (Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.
Lunch Break. © Omer Faidi, Turkey, Entry, Open, Street Photography (Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.
Lunch Break. © Omer Faidi, Turkey, Entry, Open, Street Photography (Open competition), 2018 Sony World Photography Awards.

Intriguing Video Art

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Product Advice

  1. Per Cloudflare: David Benjamin proposed a way to keep the most important joints in TLS oiled. His GREASE proposal for TLS is designed to throw in random values where a protocol should be tolerant of new values. If popular implementations intersperse unknown ciphers, extensions and versions in real-world deployments, then implementers will be forced to handle them correctly. GREASE is like WD-40 for the Internet.

Data breaches, phishing, or malware? Understanding the risks of stolen credentials

New research from Google:

In this paper, we present the first longitudinal measurement study of the underground ecosystem fueling credential theft and assess the risk it poses to millions of users. Over the course of March, 2016–March, 2017, we identify 788,000 potential victims of off-the-shelf keyloggers; 12.4 million potential victims of phishing kits; and 1.9 billion usernames and passwords exposed via data breaches and traded on blackmarket forums. Using this dataset, we explore to what degree the stolen passwords—which originate from thousands of online services—enable an attacker to obtain a victim’s valid email credentials—and thus complete control of their online identity due to transitive trust. Drawing upon Google as a case study, we find 7–25% of exposed passwords match a victim’s Google account. For these accounts, we show how hardening authentication mechanisms to include additional risk signals such as a user’s historical geolocations and device profiles helps to mitigate the risk of hijacking. Beyond these risk metrics, we delve into the global reach of the miscreants involved in credential theft and the blackhat tools they rely on. We observe a remarkable lack of external pressure on bad actors, with phishing kit playbooks and keylogger capabilities remaining largely unchanged since the mid-2000s.


Intro to Mitigating Contemporary DDOS Attacks

From Cloudflare:

As the capacity of networks like Cloudflare continue to grow, attackers move from attempting DDoS attacks at the network layer to performing DDoS attacks targeted at applications themselves.

For applications to be resilient to DDoS attacks, it is no longer enough to use a large network. A large network must be complemented with tooling that is able to filter malicious Application Layer attack traffic, even when attackers are able to make such attacks look near-legitimate.

The pace of change in how DDOS attacks are being conducted, and efforts to use best and worst security practices alike to threaten Internet-connected resources, is a serious and generally under appreciated problem.


Threat Modelling and Apple Security

Troy Hunt has a good and accessible account of what kinds of threats PINs, Touch ID, and Face ID secure users from and, ultimately, how Apple is being pragmatic instead of idealistic in the degrees of security it provides. He’s provided one of the clearest accounts of the different security properties associated with iPhones that I’ve read recently.

On biometrics, he notes that:

The broader issue here is trusting those you surround yourself with in the home. In the same way that I trust my kids and my wife not to hold my finger to my phone while I’m sleeping, I trust them not to abuse my PC if I walk away from it whilst unlocked and yes, one would reasonably expect to be able to do that in their own home. The PC sits there next to my wallet with cash in it and the keys to the cars parked out the front. When you can no longer trust those in your immediate vicinity within the sanctity of your own home, you have a much bigger set of problems

This is the kind of threat posed by government agencies who have taken hold of you, your personal effect, and can compel you against your will. In such cases, you’ve got 99 problems, and your phone is just one.


How to protect yourself (and your phone) from surveillance

I understand what the person interviewed for this article is suggesting: smartphones are incredibly good at conducting surveillance of where a person is, whom they speak with, etc. But proposing that people do the following (in order) can be problematic:

  1. Leave their phones at home when meeting certain people (such as when journalists are going somewhere to speak with sensitive sources);
  2. Turn off geolocation, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi;
  3. Disable the ability to receive phone calls by setting the phone to Airplane mode;
  4. Use strong and unique passwords;
  5. And carefully evaluate whether or not to use fingerprint unlocks;

Number 1. is something that investigative journalists already do today when they believe that a high level of source confidentiality is required. I know this from working with, and speaking to, journalists over the past many years. The problem is when those journalists are doing ‘routine’ things that they do not regard as particularly sensitive: how, exactly, is a journalist (or any other member of society) to know what a government agency has come to regard as sensitive or suspicious? And how can a reporter – who is often running several stories simultaneously, and perhaps needs to be near their phone for other kinds of stories they’re working on – just choose to abandon their phone elsewhere on a regular basis?

Number 2 makes some sense, especially if you: a) aren’t going to be using any services (e.g. maps to get to where you’re going); b) attached devices (e.g. Bluetooth headphones, fitness trackers); c) don’t need quick geolocation services. But for a lot of the population they do need those different kinds of services and thus leaving those connectivity modes ‘on’ makes a lot of sense.

Number 3 makes sense as long as you don’t want to receive any phone calls. So, if you’re a journalist, so long as you never, ever, expect someone to just contact you with a tip (or you’re comfortable with that going to another journalist if your phone isn’t available) then that’s great. While a lot of calls are scheduled calls that certainly isn’t always the case.

Number 4 is a generally good idea. I can’t think of any issues with it, though I think that a password manager is a great idea if you’re going to have a lot of strong and unique passwords. And preferably a manager that isn’t tied to any particular operating system so you can move between different phone and computer manufacturers.

Number 5 is…complicated. Fingerprint readers facilitate the use of strong passwords but can also be used to unlock a device if your finger is pressed to a device. And if you add multiple people to the phone’s list of who can decrypt the device then you’re dealing with additional (in)security vectors. But for most people the concern is that their phone is stolen, or accessed by someone with physical access to the device. And against those threat models a fingerprint reader with a longer password is a good idea.

Contemporary Email is a Threat to Us All

Per researchers:

Companies and other organizations are even more vulnerable than individuals. One person needs only to worry about his or her own clicking, but each worker in an organization is a separate point of weakness. It’s a matter of simple math: If every worker has that same 1 percent chance of falling for a phishing scam, the combined risk to the company as a whole is much higher. In fact, companies with 70 or more employees have a greater than 50 percent chance that someone will be hoodwinked. Companies should look very critically at webmail providers who offer them worse security odds than they’d get from a coin toss.

As technologists, we have long since come to terms with the fact that some technology is just a bad idea, even if it looks exciting. Society needs to do the same. Security-conscious users must demand that their email providers offer a plain-text option. Unfortunately, such options are few and far between, but they are a key to stemming the webmail insecurity epidemic.

Mail providers that refuse to do so should be avoided, just like back alleys that are bad places to conduct business. Those online back alleys may look eye-pleasing, with ads, images and animations, but they are not safe.

The problem is that few people appreciate the dangers of email; their understanding of phishing tends to be centred around the garbage that gets caught by most SPAM filters, when they have any clue what phishing is in the first place. Further, it’s not enough to personally avoid the ‘back alleys’ of the Internet email crowd: you need to excise all email that is received by such providers. And that means the problem is one of herd protection and immunity, which is challenging at best to overcome. Who’s going to unilaterally ban email from all the major email providers in the world today?


What Is Identity Theft?

Ross Anderson:

…when I worked in banking, if someone went to Barclays, pretended to be me, borrowed £10,000 and legged it, that was “impersonation”, and it was the bank’s money that had been stolen, not my identity. How did things change?

The members of this association are banks and credit card issuers. In their narrative, those impersonated are treated as targets, when the targets are actually those banks on whom the impersonation is practised. This is a precursor to refusing bank customers a “remedy” for “their loss” because “they failed to protect themselves.”

Its always helpful to remember who is responsible for defining threats and risks to society.