January 29, 2015

Mocking “old fashioned” security systems

Filed under: Business, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Christopher Taylor points out that the folks who advised Comcast on their recent home security advertising campaign rather missed the mark:

Comcast is trying to act like using any other security system is old fashioned; its actually a tag line in some of their ads “don’t be old fashioned.” They’re using the old knight in armor to stand in for any other security system which, not being “in the cloud” and accessible “anywhere” from your smart phone is thus dated and old.

But consider; which would be preferable?

  • An internet based system which, by its own advertising notes that you can turn it off “from anywhere” using only a phone, and look at cameras anywhere in your home, just by using the phone.
  • An armored knight with a broadsword.

Now, perhaps you’re new to the internet and aren’t aware of this, but it gets hacked pretty much every minute of the day. Passwords are stolen and sold on Chinese and Russian websites. Your smart phone is not secure.
I once found a website (now gone) that had live feeds of people’s homes from around the world by clicking on various names. All they did was use commonly used passwords and logged into the security systems. It was like this weird voyeuristic show, but really boring because it was all empty rooms and darkness — people turn on their security when they leave, not when they do fun stuff to watch.

What I’m saying is what should be abundantly obvious to everyone who has a television to watch Comcast ads: this is a really stupid, bad idea. You’re making it easier for burglars to turn off your security system and watch for when you aren’t home. You’re making it easier for evil sexual predators and monsters to know your patterns and when you’re home or alone. Get it?

This is like publishing your daily activities and living in a glass building all day long. It seems cool and high tech and new and fancy, but its just really stupid.

But an armored knight? Unless he goes to sleep, he’s a physical, combat-ready soldier that acts as a physical deterrent to intruders.

And its not even old fashioned. It’s so old an image, it doesn’t even feel old fashioned, it feels beyond vintage to a fantasy era. Which is cooler to you, being guarded by a knight in shining armor with a sword, or your smart phone?

These ads have a viral feel to them, like some hip college dude with a fancy business card came up with it for Comcast, but they don’t make sense. I doubt they even get people to want to buy the product.

January 10, 2015

Sub-orbital airliners? Not if you know much about economics and physics

Filed under: Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charles Stross in full “beat up the optimists” mode over a common SF notion about sub-orbital travel for the masses:

Let’s start with a simple normative assumption; that sub-orbital spaceplanes are going to obey the laws of physics. One consequence of this is that the amount of energy it takes to get from A to B via hypersonic airliner is going to exceed the energy input it takes to cover the same distance using a subsonic jet, by quite a margin. Yes, we can save some fuel by travelling above the atmosphere and cutting air resistance, but it’s not a free lunch: you expend energy getting up to altitude and speed, and the fuel burn for going faster rises nonlinearly with speed. Concorde, flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 2.0, burned about the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 of similar vintage flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 0.85 … while carrying less than a quarter as many passengers.

Rockets aren’t a magic technology. Neither are hybrid hypersonic air-breathing gadgets like Reaction Engines‘ Sabre engine. It’s going to be a wee bit expensive. But let’s suppose we can get the price down far enough that a seat in a Mach 5 to Mach 10 hypersonic or sub-orbital passenger aircraft is cost-competitive with a high-end first class seat on a subsonic jet. Surely the super-rich will all switch to hypersonic services in a shot, just as they used Concorde to commute between New York and London back before Airbus killed it off by cancelling support after the 30-year operational milestone?

Well, no.

Firstly, this is the post-9/11 age. Obviously security is a consideration for all civil aviation, right? Well, no: business jets are largely exempt, thanks to lobbying by their operators, backed up by their billionaire owners. But those of us who travel by civil airliners open to the general ticket-buying public are all suspects. If something goes wrong with a scheduled service, fighters are scrambled to intercept it, lest some fruitcake tries to fly it into a skyscraper.

So not only are we not going to get our promised flying cars, we’re not going to get fast, cheap, intercontinental travel options. But what about those hyper-rich folks who spend money like water?

First class air travel by civil aviation is a dying niche today. If you are wealthy enough to afford the £15,000-30,000 ticket cost of a first-class-plus intercontinental seat (or, rather, bedroom with en-suite toilet and shower if we’re talking about the very top end), you can also afford to pay for a seat on a business jet instead. A number of companies operate profitably on the basis that they lease seats on bizjets by the hour: you may end up sharing a jet with someone else who’s paying to fly the same route, but the operating principle is that when you call for it a jet will turn up and take you where you want to go, whenever you want. There’s no security theatre, no fuss, and it takes off when you want it to, not when the daily schedule says it has to. It will probably have internet connectivity via satellite—by the time hypersonic competition turns up, this is not a losing bet—and for extra money, the sky is the limit on comfort.

I don’t get to fly first class, but I’ve watched this happen over the past two decades. Business class is holding its own, and premium economy is growing on intercontinental flights (a cut-down version of Business with more leg-room than regular economy), but the number of first class seats you’ll find on an Air France or British Airways 747 is dwindling. The VIPs are leaving the carriers, driven away by the security annoyances and drawn by the convenience of much smaller jets that come when they call.

For rich people, time is the only thing money can’t buy. A HST flying between fixed hubs along pre-timed flight paths under conditions of high security is not convenient. A bizjet that flies at their beck and call is actually speedier across most intercontinental routes, unless the hypersonic route is serviced by multiple daily flights—which isn’t going to happen unless the operating costs are comparable to a subsonic craft.

January 7, 2015

Cory Doctorow on the dangers of legally restricting technologies

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Wired, Cory Doctorow explains why bad legal precedents from more than a decade ago are making us more vulnerable rather than safer:

We live in a world made of computers. Your car is a computer that drives down the freeway at 60 mph with you strapped inside. If you live or work in a modern building, computers regulate its temperature and respiration. And we’re not just putting our bodies inside computers — we’re also putting computers inside our bodies. I recently exchanged words in an airport lounge with a late arrival who wanted to use the sole electrical plug, which I had beat him to, fair and square. “I need to charge my laptop,” I said. “I need to charge my leg,” he said, rolling up his pants to show me his robotic prosthesis. I surrendered the plug.

You and I and everyone who grew up with earbuds? There’s a day in our future when we’ll have hearing aids, and chances are they won’t be retro-hipster beige transistorized analog devices: They’ll be computers in our heads.

And that’s why the current regulatory paradigm for computers, inherited from the 16-year-old stupidity that is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, needs to change. As things stand, the law requires that computing devices be designed to sometimes disobey their owners, so that their owners won’t do something undesirable. To make this work, we also have to criminalize anything that might help owners change their computers to let the machines do that supposedly undesirable thing.

This approach to controlling digital devices was annoying back in, say, 1995, when we got the DVD player that prevented us from skipping ads or playing an out-of-region disc. But it will be intolerable and deadly dangerous when our 3-D printers, self-driving cars, smart houses, and even parts of our bodies are designed with the same restrictions. Because those restrictions would change the fundamental nature of computers. Speaking in my capacity as a dystopian science fiction writer: This scares the hell out of me.

December 17, 2014

The Internet is on Fire | Mikko Hypponen | TEDxBrussels

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Published on 6 Dec 2014

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. The Internet is on Fire

Mikko is a world class cyber criminality expert who has led his team through some of the largest computer virus outbreaks in history. He spoke twice at TEDxBrussels in 2011 and in 2013. Every time his talks move the world and surpass the 1 million viewers. We’ve had a huge amount of requests for Mikko to come back this year. And guess what? He will!

Prepare for what is becoming his ‘yearly’ talk about PRISM and other modern surveillance issues.

December 2, 2014

The brief flicker of interest in the problems of police militarization

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

At Techdirt, Tim Cushing relives that brief, shining moment when the nation seemed to suddenly notice — and care about — the ongoing militarization of the police:

It’s an idea that almost makes sense, provided you don’t examine it too closely. America’s neverending series of intervention actions and pseudo-wars has created a wealth of military surplus — some outdated, some merely more than what was needed. Rather than simply scrap the merchandise or offload it at cut-rate prices to other countries’ militaries (and face the not-unheard-of possibility that those same weapons/vehicles might be used against us), the US government decided to distribute it to those fighting the war (on drugs, mostly) at home: law enforcement agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it quickly became a way to turn police departments into low-rent military operations. Law enforcement officials sold fear and bought assault rifles, tear gas, grenade launchers and armored vehicles. They painted vivid pictures of well-armed drug cabals and terrorists, both domestic and otherwise, steadily encroaching on the everyday lives of the public, outmanning and outgunning the servers and protectors.

It worked. The Department of Homeland Security was so flattered by the parroting of its terrorist/domestic extremist talking points that it handed out generous grants and ignored incongruities, like a town of 23,000 requesting an armored BearCat because its annual Pumpkinfest might be a terrorist target.

Then the Ferguson protests began after Michael Brown’s shooting in August, and the media was suddenly awash in images of camouflage-clad cops riding armored vehicles while pointing weapons at protesters, looking for all the world like martial law had been declared and the military had arrived to quell dissent and maintain control.

This prompted a discussion that actually reached the halls of Congress. For a brief moment, it looked like there might be a unified movement to overhaul the mostly-uncontrolled military equipment re-gifting program. But now that the indictment has been denied and the city of Ferguson is looted and burning, those concerns appear to have been forgotten.

September 30, 2014

“These bugs were found – and were findable – because of open-source scrutiny”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:13

ESR talks about the visibility problem in software bugs:

The first thing to notice here is that these bugs were found – and were findable – because of open-source scrutiny.

There’s a “things seen versus things unseen” fallacy here that gives bugs like Heartbleed and Shellshock false prominence. We don’t know – and can’t know – how many far worse exploits lurk in proprietary code known only to crackers or the NSA.

What we can project based on other measures of differential defect rates suggests that, however imperfect “many eyeballs” scrutiny is, “few eyeballs” or “no eyeballs” is far worse.

July 10, 2014

Throwing a bit of light on security in the “internet of things”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:36

The “internet of things” is coming: more and more of your surroundings are going to be connected in a vastly expanded internet. A lot of attention needs to be paid to security in this new world, as Dan Goodin explains:

In the latest cautionary tale involving the so-called Internet of things, white-hat hackers have devised an attack against network-connected lightbulbs that exposes Wi-Fi passwords to anyone in proximity to one of the LED devices.

The attack works against LIFX smart lightbulbs, which can be turned on and off and adjusted using iOS- and Android-based devices. Ars Senior Reviews Editor Lee Hutchinson gave a good overview here of the Philips Hue lights, which are programmable, controllable LED-powered bulbs that compete with LIFX. The bulbs are part of a growing trend in which manufacturers add computing and networking capabilities to appliances so people can manipulate them remotely using smartphones, computers, and other network-connected devices. A 2012 Kickstarter campaign raised more than $1.3 million for LIFX, more than 13 times the original goal of $100,000.

According to a blog post published over the weekend, LIFX has updated the firmware used to control the bulbs after researchers discovered a weakness that allowed hackers within about 30 meters to obtain the passwords used to secure the connected Wi-Fi network. The credentials are passed from one networked bulb to another over a mesh network powered by 6LoWPAN, a wireless specification built on top of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. While the bulbs used the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt the passwords, the underlying pre-shared key never changed, making it easy for the attacker to decipher the payload.

July 2, 2014

Security threats and security myths

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:48

In Wired, Peter W. Singer And Allan Friedman analyze five common myths about online security:

“A domain for the nerds.” That is how the Internet used to be viewed back in the early 1990s, until all the rest of us began to use and depend on it. But this quote is from a White House official earlier this year describing how cybersecurity is too often viewed today. And therein lies the problem, and the needed solution.

Each of us, in whatever role we play in life, makes decisions about cybersecurity that will shape the future well beyond the world of computers. But by looking at this issue as only for the IT Crowd, we too often do so without the proper tools. Basic terms and essential concepts that define what is possible and proper are being missed, or even worse, distorted. Some threats are overblown and overreacted to, while others are ignored.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that while the Internet has given us the ability to run down the answer to almost any question, cybersecurity is a realm where past myth and future hype often weave together, obscuring what actually has happened and where we really are now. If we ever want to get anything effective done in securing the online world, we have to demystify it first.


Myth #2: Every Day We Face “Millions of Cyber Attacks”

This is what General Keith Alexander, the recently retired chief of US military and intelligence cyber operations, testified to Congress in 2010. Interestingly enough, leaders from China have made similar claims after their own hackers were indicted, pointing the finger back at the US. These numbers are both true and utterly useless.

Counting individual attack probes or unique forms of malware is like counting bacteria — you get big numbers very quickly, but all you really care about is the impact and the source. Even more so, these numbers conflate and confuse the range of threats we face, from scans and probes caught by elementary defenses before they could do any harm, to attempts at everything from pranks to political protests to economic and security related espionage (but notably no “Cyber Pearl Harbors,” which have been mentioned in government speeches and mass media a half million times). It’s a lot like combining everything from kids with firecrackers to protesters with smoke bombs to criminals with shotguns, spies with pistols, terrorists with grenades, and militaries with missiles in the same counting, all because they involve the same technology of gunpowder.

June 23, 2014

Justice Department staff fall for phishing scam simulation

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 06:36

This doesn’t speak well of the federal government’s staff security training:

Many of the Justice Department’s finest legal minds are falling prey to a garden-variety Internet scam.

An internal survey shows almost 2,000 staff were conned into clicking on a phoney “phishing” link in their email, raising questions about the security of sensitive information.

The department launched the mock scam in December as a security exercise, sending emails to 5,000 employees to test their ability to recognize cyber fraud.

The emails looked like genuine communications from government or financial institutions, and contained a link to a fake website that was also made to look like the real thing.

What’s even more interesting is that the government bureaucrats fell for this scam at a far higher rate than average Canadian internet users:

The Justice Department’s mock exercise caught 1,850 people clicking on the phoney embedded links, or 37 per cent of everyone who received the emails.

That’s a much higher rate than for the general population, which a federal website says is only about five per cent.

The exercise did not put any confidential information at risk, but the poor results raise red flags about public servants being caught by actual phishing emails.

A spokeswoman says “no privacy breaches have been reported” from any real phishing scams at Justice Canada.

Carole Saindon also said that two more waves of mock emails in February and April show improved results, with clicking rates falling by half.

So in an earlier test, our public servants were clicking on phishing links well over 50% of the time? Yikes.

June 18, 2014

This is why computer security folks look so frustrated

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:41

It’s not that the “security” part of the job is so wearing … it’s that people are morons:

Security white hats, despair: users will run dodgy executables if they are paid as little as one cent.

Even more would allow their computers to become infected by botnet software nasties if the price was increased to five or 10 cents. Offer a whole dollar and you’ll secure a herd of willing internet slaves.

The demoralising findings come from a study lead by Nicolas Christin, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab which baited users with a benign Windows executable sold to users under the guise of contributing to a (fictitious) study.

It was downloaded 1,714 times and 965 users actually ran the code. The application ran a timer simulating an hour’s computational tasks after which a token for payment would be generated.

The researchers collected information on user machines discovering that many of the predominantly US and Indian user machines were already infected with malware despite having security systems installed, and were happy to click past Windows’ User Access Control warning prompts.

The presence of malware actually increased on machines running the latest patches and infosec tools in what was described as an indication of users’ false sense of security.

June 12, 2014

Winnipeg Grade 9 students successfully hack Bank of Montreal ATM

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:00

“Hack” is the wrong word here, as it implies they did something highly technical and unusual. What they did was to use the formal documentation for the ATM and demonstrate that the installer had failed to change the default administrator password:

Matthew Hewlett and Caleb Turon, both Grade 9 students, found an old ATM operators manual online that showed how to get into the machine’s operator mode. On Wednesday over their lunch hour, they went to the BMO’s ATM at the Safeway on Grant Avenue to see if they could get into the system.

“We thought it would be fun to try it, but we were not expecting it to work,” Hewlett said. “When it did, it asked for a password.”

Hewlett and Turon were even more shocked when their first random guess at the six-digit password worked. They used a common default password. The boys then immediately went to the BMO Charleswood Centre branch on Grant Avenue to notify them.

When they told staff about a security problem with an ATM, they assumed one of their PIN numbers had been stolen, Hewlett said.

“I said: ‘No, no, no. We hacked your ATM. We got into the operator mode,'” Hewlett said.

“He said that wasn’t really possible and we don’t have any proof that we did it.

“I asked them: ‘Is it all right for us to get proof?’

“He said: ‘Yeah, sure, but you’ll never be able to get anything out of it.’

“So we both went back to the ATM and I got into the operator mode again. Then I started printing off documentation like how much money is currently in the machine, how many withdrawals have happened that day, how much it’s made off surcharges.

“Then I found a way to change the surcharge amount, so I changed the surcharge amount to one cent.”

As further proof, Hewlett playfully changed the ATM’s greeting from “Welcome to the BMO ATM” to “Go away. This ATM has been hacked.”

They returned to BMO with six printed documents. This time, staff took them seriously.

A lot of hardware is shipped with certain default security arrangements (known admin accounts with pre-set passwords, for example), and it’s part of the normal installation/configuration process to change them. A lazy installer may skip this, leaving the system open to inquisitive teens or more technically adept criminals. These two students were probably lucky not to be scapegoated by the bank’s security officers.

June 4, 2014

Bruce Schneier on the human side of the Heartbleed vulnerability

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:24

Reposting at his own site an article he did for The Mark News:

The announcement on April 7 was alarming. A new Internet vulnerability called Heartbleed could allow hackers to steal your logins and passwords. It affected a piece of security software that is used on half a million websites worldwide. Fixing it would be hard: It would strain our security infrastructure and the patience of users everywhere.

It was a software insecurity, but the problem was entirely human.

Software has vulnerabilities because it’s written by people, and people make mistakes — thousands of mistakes. This particular mistake was made in 2011 by a German graduate student who was one of the unpaid volunteers working on a piece of software called OpenSSL. The update was approved by a British consultant.

In retrospect, the mistake should have been obvious, and it’s amazing that no one caught it. But even though thousands of large companies around the world used this critical piece of software for free, no one took the time to review the code after its release.

The mistake was discovered around March 21, 2014, and was reported on April 1 by Neel Mehta of Google’s security team, who quickly realized how potentially devastating it was. Two days later, in an odd coincidence, researchers at a security company called Codenomicon independently discovered it.

When a researcher discovers a major vulnerability in a widely used piece of software, he generally discloses it responsibly. Why? As soon as a vulnerability becomes public, criminals will start using it to hack systems, steal identities, and generally create mayhem, so we have to work together to fix the vulnerability quickly after it’s announced.

May 15, 2014

The NSA’s self-described mission – “Collect it all. Know it all. Exploit it all.”

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:31

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf reviews Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide:

NSA - New Collection Posture

Collect it all. Know it all. Exploit it all.

That totalitarian approach came straight from the top. Outgoing NSA chief Keith Alexander began using “collect it all” in Iraq at the height of the counterinsurgency. Eventually, he aimed similar tools at hundreds of millions of innocent people living in liberal democracies at peace, not war zones under occupation.

The strongest passages in No Place to Hide convey the awesome spying powers amassed by the U.S. government and its surveillance partners; the clear and present danger they pose to privacy; and the ideology of the national-security state. The NSA really is intent on subverting every method a human could use to communicate without the state being able to monitor the conversation.

U.S. officials regard the unprecedented concentration of power that would entail to be less dangerous than the alternative. They can’t conceive of serious abuses perpetrated by the federal government, though recent U.S. history offers many examples.


But it is a mistake (albeit a common one) to survey the NSA-surveillance controversy and to conclude that Greenwald represents the radical position. His writing can be acerbic, mordant, biting, trenchant, scathing, scornful, and caustic. He is stubbornly uncompromising in his principles, as dramatized by how close he came to quitting The Guardian when it wasn’t moving as fast as he wanted to publish the first story sourced to Edward Snowden. Unlike many famous journalists, he is not deferential to U.S. leaders.

Yet tone and zeal should never be mistaken for radicalism on the core question before us: What should America’s approach to state surveillance be? “Defenders of suspicionless mass surveillance often insist … that some spying is always necessary. But this is a straw man … nobody disagrees with that,” Greenwald explains. “The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance. It is, instead, targeted surveillance, aimed only at those for whom there is substantial evidence to believe they are engaged in real wrongdoing.”

That’s as traditionally American as the Fourth Amendment.

Targeted surveillance “is consistent with American constitutional values and basic precepts of Western justice,” Greenwald continues. Notice that the authority he most often cites to justify his position is the Constitution. That’s not the mark of a radical. In fact, so many aspects of Greenwald’s book and the positions that he takes on surveillance are deeply, unmistakably conservative.

May 11, 2014

The NSA worked very hard to set themselves up for the Snowden leaks

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

A few days back, Charles Stross pointed out one of the most ironic points of interest in the NSA scandal … they did it to themselves, over the course of several years effort:

I don’t need to tell you about the global surveillance disclosures of 2013 to the present — it’s no exaggeration to call them the biggest secret intelligence leak in history, a monumental gaffe (from the perspective of the espionage-industrial complex) and a security officer’s worst nightmare.

But it occurs to me that it’s worth pointing out that the NSA set themselves up for it by preventing the early internet specifications from including transport layer encryption.

At every step in the development of the public internet the NSA systematically lobbied for weaker security, to enhance their own information-gathering capabilities. The trouble is, the success of the internet protocols created a networking monoculture that the NSA themselves came to rely on for their internal infrastructure. The same security holes that the NSA relied on to gain access to your (or Osama bin Laden’s) email allowed gangsters to steal passwords and login credentials and credit card numbers. And ultimately these same baked-in security holes allowed Edward Snowden — who, let us remember, is merely one guy: a talented system administrator and programmer, but no Clark Kent — to rampage through their internal information systems.

The moral of the story is clear: be very cautious about poisoning the banquet you serve your guests, lest you end up accidentally ingesting it yourself.

April 23, 2014

LibreSSL website – “This page scientifically designed to annoy web hipsters”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:24

Julian Sanchez linked to this Ars Technica piece on a new fork of OpenSSL:

OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt has created a fork of OpenSSL, the widely used open source cryptographic software library that contained the notorious Heartbleed security vulnerability.

OpenSSL has suffered from a lack of funding and code contributions despite being used in websites and products by many of the world’s biggest and richest corporations.

The decision to fork OpenSSL is bound to be controversial given that OpenSSL powers hundreds of thousands of Web servers. When asked why he wanted to start over instead of helping to make OpenSSL better, de Raadt said the existing code is too much of a mess.

“Our group removed half of the OpenSSL source tree in a week. It was discarded leftovers,” de Raadt told Ars in an e-mail. “The Open Source model depends [on] people being able to read the code. It depends on clarity. That is not a clear code base, because their community does not appear to care about clarity. Obviously, when such cruft builds up, there is a cultural gap. I did not make this decision… in our larger development group, it made itself.”

The LibreSSL code base is on OpenBSD.org, and the project is supported financially by the OpenBSD Foundation and OpenBSD Project. LibreSSL has a bare bones website that is intentionally unappealing.

“This page scientifically designed to annoy web hipsters,” the site says. “Donate now to stop the Comic Sans and Blink Tags.” In explaining the decision to fork, the site links to a YouTube video of a cover of the Twisted Sister song “We’re not gonna take it.”

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