Category Archives: Security

Security related issues.

Get Your Free WiFi From Elvis

man dressed like Elvis in front of Welcome to Las Vegas sign
Want some free WiFi?
Ah, the lure of free open WiFi! Who can resist? Avoid flakey signal from your smartphone, get faster access and avoid data usage caps. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. When Elvis offers you free WiFi it’s best to think twice, because when someone offers free WiFi it comes with a cost, usually your privacy and security.

It might be a coffee shop who expects you to buy coffee, or a hotel who wants you to stay there instead of down the street. Or maybe the hotel has decided they can additionally sell advertising to you while you’re using the “free” WiFi to make a little extra money. Like the Elvis impersonator you should know what you’re really getting into. If think you’re getting your picture taken with the real Elvis, then perhaps you deserve what you get, especially in cases where the provider is taking the role of the huckster and offering something for “free” (as in puppy) when the hidden cost is your privacy.

With open or free WiFi the risks are always there in the form of unknown others on the network. I have found as I travel that hotel WiFi for example is a constant source of machine probes and attacks. Luckily my computer is well configured and I see the attempts. In spite of that I take the paranoid view and have avoided and free WiFi for over a year, until last week that is.

I was at the IQPC sponsored ISO 26262 Functional Safety conference in Berlin speaking on automotive cybersecurity. The WiFi performance in Berlin was no worse than others both at the hotel I was staying at and the conference hotel. By which I mean that it’s aggressively mediocre at about 1.5 Mbps. This would be reasonable performance for a 2G cellular network, but seems slow for WiFi. Now the reason I’m using it is that the cellular speed I get when roaming around the world is even slower – about 128kbps. So here I am making poor security decisions based on slow network performance. There’s a lesson to be learned there and perhaps a whole article about how we make poor security decisions.

And this is where this hotel stands out different than others, at least hotels in the USA. The attacks didn’t immediately start as I’ve seen at others, for example the Hilton in Long Beach, CA. (Yes, I’m purposely shaming their insecure public WiFi) But after working for a few minutes several of my web connections started failing when they refreshed. There were complaints about needing to re-login to Outlook, Google and other apps that require authentication.

Hotel MITM 1 of 3 So I started poking by clicking the little lock icon in the URL and as it turns out they were failing because the certificate for https was suspicious.

Hotel MITM 2 of 3As you do in these situations, I took a look at the certificate by pressing the “show certificate” button. In this case the certificate was supposed to be for Office 365,MITM safe but instead it was signed by… wait for it… the hotel!!! Essentially they were doing a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack. This means they were pretending to be Microsoft by self-signing a root certificate and saying “Microsoft is who we say it is”.

Hotel MITM 3 of 3

Probably this was for some silly injection of advertising or some other annoying but not necessarily evil purpose. Remember Lenovo doing this on their computers recently? In that case it was widely published and got a cute media name “Superfish“.

For Superfish the purpose was to put ads into your browser. Lenovo pre-installed it on a bunch of their computers, presumably for some additional revenue. The problem is that once you break down the certificate trust chain with this kind of attack, you leave the user at great risk. Someone can steal their credentials and really spy on any supposedly secure communication they have. This is to say nothing of having extra ads put onto your computer.

For the record, self-signing root certificates is only acceptable in a development or testing situation. Putting untrusted certificates in the wild is dangerous since no one can rely on them. Worse yet is pretending to be a certificate authority and jumping in the middle of a transaction or communication that the users think is secure. Not only is this unethical, but it really should be illegal.

Lesson learned again… Don’t use free WiFi and always pay attention to your URL lock icon.

Cybersecurity SQL Injection Irony

letters on cork board spelling ironyIt’s been a funny week for the SQL Injection Hall-of-Shame. As those who follow the Hall-of-shame know, there’s a pretty steady trickle of new incidents published regarding SQLi. It’s usually a few every month, not as many as are currently going into my new IoT Hall-of-Shame but still very regular.

So I was surprised that this week we have two new entries and they’re both cybersecurity companies. It’s partially funny, partially sad and partially scary.

First up is Staminus. They’re a DDoS protection company and seem to have a very good product. I spend more time on the SwSec and AppSec side of things but the kind of work they do is also important. However when you’re a security company, it’s just funny to people when you get hacked.

In this case Staminus was not only vulnerable to sql injection, but they were also doing other bad cybersecurity practices. In particular they seem to be storing customer credit card data unencrypted. One tenet of security is that you can never stop all attacks. You have to prepare for the inevitable day when someone breaches your system. That’s why it’s important that we have strong encryption, complaints from the FBI notwithstanding.

Following the attack the hackers actually left a funny message. The published a document called Tips when running a security company and detailed all the weaknesses they discovered due to bad security practices. In their defense, security expert Brian Krebs noted that anti-DDoS companies are regular targets for attackers.

Also in the news this week was well-known computer security company Symantec. They have a large share of the enterprise computer security market with their Symantec Endpoint Protection (SEP) product. SEP allows companies to manage the security software for all of their computers from a central management console (SEPM) and this was the tool that has the vulnerabilities.

As it turns out there are two vulnerabilities in SEPM, one is cross-site request forgery and one is SQL injection. While Symantec has called this a routine advisory, it was serious enough for US-CERT to issue an update advisory telling people to patch their SEPM software. US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) is the government body in the US that keeps track of cybersecurity issues.

Yes, cybersecurity issues can and do happen to everyone. But we can all get at least a bit of a laugh when companies who’s only job is security are the targets. This is especially true when the issues involved are simple and preventable like SQL injection.

Internet Scam Scam

piggy bank cyber crimeI got a very funny email at work today. I try to keep up on my junk e-mail folder in Outlook so that I won’t accidentally miss something important. Today there was one with the subject “Urgent Information” that was listed as “From: Internet Scam Investigation” so of course I was intrigued.

For those who aren’t really familiar with internet security best practices, NEVER EVER EVER open an email from an unknown sender, especially with a name like Internet Scam Investigation because there is no legitimate organization that does such things.

Another good indicator of malmail (malware-email) is the generic “Urgent Information” subject. Again, people I know that actually have urgent information for me don’t do that. The combination of bad subject and bad sender should put your finger on the delete button so fast that your mouse gets hot. The only warning flag that was missing was an unexpected attachment – delete those too. Don’t worry about what’s in them, it’s nothing good. When in doubt, throw it out – or in other words delete it. For more on those look at my earlier post on personal computer security.

So of course I opened the email and read it. Now take note, this is a very foolish thing to do if you don’t know what you’re doing. Do what I say, not what I do in this case. I opened it as as cybersecurity professional in a controlled environment where it couldn’t hurt me. Don’t try this at home!

In short, the email warns that there are a lot of scams out there that are promising you money and you should be aware of them. If you really want to know if any are legit, these are the Nigerians that will tell you the truth.

For your amusement only, the full email is below. And after that some links to computer security software, for those who haven’t caught up with the 21st century yet.

Security Alert

Be on the alert for personal security. NO ONE SENDS YOU MONEY IN EMAIL. And at the very least make sure you’re running some kind of security software on your computer, like those below. If you have questions are suggestions please let me know.


Security vs Security

There is currently a national debate going on in the United States about the challenges of security vs. security. Some are calling it privacy vs. security but that’s not the real issue as I’ll get to shortly. In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, the FBI has gone to court and demanded via the All Writs Act that Apple create a special insecure version of the operating system for the iPhone (iOS).

Backdoor weakens security As in the naming of the core problem (privacy or security) we need to understand exactly what the FBI is asking for here. Many media outlets continue to report this as the FBI asking Apple to decrypt or unlock the phone. That is not what they’re asking, they are asking Apple to create a special version of the software, load it onto the phone, and then they will brute-force it. In the past Apple has cooperated with the government to retrieve customer data pursuant to a warrant, but they’ve never fundamentally weakened iPhone security at the request of the US or any other government.

I usually try to avoid blogging about political issues as well as national security ones, because they’re complicated and the state does indeed have a legitimate interest in security activities as long as they’re constitutionally supported. In this particular case the press has been all over the place and frequently misreporting the basic facts, so I feel it’s important to keep people informed to allow them ton make better decisions. On the other hand a lot of people who are also making wild claims about what the government is actually asking for. There are some very interesting issues at play in this particular drama – let’s take a look.

Articles such as the editorial today in NYT are written by those who are either ignorant of the technical details or are willfully misleading the public. They refer to “unlocking” the iPhone and “using the front door”. In both cases the phrases are designed to mislead the public by suggesting that there is no downside. A more accurate description would be that they’re asking Apple to make sure the front door is easy to break into. This of course wouldn’t sell well with the public.

As to the ramifications of the issue, The Verge noted:

The FBI has a locked phone and they want it to be unlocked. Getting there will mean building some dangerous tools and setting some troubling precedents, but that’s basically what the bureau wants.

Privacy vs Security

Privacy and securityThis issue has been framed in the media as privacy vs. security which is misleading.

The security vs privacy debate is an interesting and worthwhile topic and I’ll certainly dive in at a future date, but this issue with the FBI and Apple isn’t that issue at all. Make no mistake, this isn’t about the privacy of the data on a particular iPhone, it’s about the security of all iPhones. The government is specifically not asking for the data, they’re asking for Apple to make the phone less secure.

John Adams, a former head of security at Twitter noted today in the LA Times:

“They try to use the horrors of the world to erode civil liberties and privacy, but the greater good — having encryption, more privacy for more people — is always going to trump small isolated incidents.”


Data encryptionSome have noted that FBI doesn’t want Apple’s encryption keys, which is true. What they want is for Apple to make it easier to brute-force the login.

“In practice, encryption isn’t usually defeated by cryptographic attacks anyway. Instead, it’s defeated by attacking something around the encryption: taking advantage of humans’ preference for picking bad passwords, tricking people into entering their passwords and then stealing them, that kind of thing. Accordingly, the FBI is asking for Apple’s assistance with the scheme’s weak spot—not the encryption itself but Apple-coded limits to the PIN input system.”

In other words, let’s take the weakest link in phone security and rather than make it stronger, let’s make it weaker. Again, this is my point that this IS about security, not privacy. When someone gets in your phone, they get everything – passwords, bank credentials, personal private info that can be leveraged, etc. Are we seriously arguing that that’s ok? Consider how many smartphones and identities are stolen every day.

Chances of dying in a road accident 1 in 25,000,000.

Chance of dying in a terrorist attack world-wide 1 in 9,300,000. If you live in the US the chances are even lower.

Chances of having your phone stolen are about 1 in 42

Chances of being a victim of some form of identity theft are about 1 in 14.

So if you’re worried about something that will actually happen, you should hope that Apple comes out on top in this case. Identity theft affects about 15 million Americans each year and smartphone theft affects about 3 million Americans each year.


Some have suggested they’ve asked for a backdoor. That is an interesting topic that we could spend hours on, just trying to define what a backdoor is. But for the moment, let’s just say that whether or not it’s a backdoor, it certainly weakens the security of the device, specifically to make it vulnerable to brute-force attacks.

There’s another way

OptionsLet’s begin with understanding that this is NOT about this particular phone or incident. The government has chewed the data to death on this one and doesn’t really expect to find anything on this phone. If it were just about this phone there are other ways.

First of all, this phone happened not to be a personal phone, but one owned by Farook’s employer. Ironically, the employer is a government agency. This agency had mobile device management (MDM) software but it was either not installed or not configured correctly. Had it been in use this whole issue would be moot. The MDM software would have allowed the county to access the phone and mandate a specific configuration that would meet their security needs.

Next another misstep – sometime in the first 24 hours after the incident the county decided to change the iCloud password associated with the phone. Had this not been done they could have taken the phone to a previously configured network for it, such as their home or office, and tried to do an iCloud auto-backup.

Using law enforcement mistakes as a reason to weaken phone security is a poor argument. The better one would be to make sure that law enforcement knows how to deal with phones, when to get manufacturers involved, etc. This request to re-write the firmware is so extreme that Apple said:

The Apple executive also made a point of saying that no other government—not even China or Russia—has ever asked what American prosecutors have asked the company to do this week.

Offers and advice on accessing the phone have come from many directions. For example noted cybersecurity John Macafee has offered to break in for free. He believes he can accomplish it within a couple weeks without fundamentally weakening the smartphone infrastructure.

Snowden came up with a novel suggestion called de-capping, which uses acid and lasers to read the chip directly.

These offers have not been accepted because the FBI isn’t all that interested in what’s on this phone. They believe the under-informed will be on their side in this case so they can set a precedent. The government claims this won’t set a precedent but of course it will. Already people are saying “Apple has cooperated before, why not now?”. The whole reason the government is going after this phone IS to create a precedent – they don’t really expect to find anything useful on the phone.

Others have noted that the ramifications of specifically building weaknesses into a device at the governments request will of course be requested in the future, both by the US as well as other governments, including those we may find objectionable. In fact as I wrote this it came out that the Justice Department is already requesting Apple for 12 other phones. At this point we can pretty much put the “no precedent” argument to bed.

There are those arguing this would help prevent an attack – note that this isn’t the position of the FBI, but some in the senate who are trying to kill encryption. This is specifically about having access to the phone after you have a warrant – this would not have prevented this attack.

It’s not about finding out who committed the attack, we know that as well. It’s not about finding out who they communicated with – that comes from email logs and phone logs and doesn’t require the phone. Really it’s just a red herring to allow the anti-encryption crowd to further their agenda. Under the guise of making us safer they’d make us all less safe, since real statistics show us that the chances of having identity theft or a stolen phone are MUCH MUCH higher than preventing any terror attack, as I’ve noted above.

Legal and International Impact

What's the Impact If we choose to go down the path that the FBI is demanding, we need to think about the ramifications of this approach. I’ll break down the personal security and privacy vs police interests in the near future. For the moment we can set them aside and focus on what the impact could be.

I have to ask why the government prescribing the “how” rather than the “what“? By this I mean that if they want the phone data, then the request should ask for it. Of course, they could go to others like Macaffee and at least try to get the phone opened. But it isn’t about the phone, it’s about the precedent. That’s why they’ve prescribed how they want Apple to respond. The bigger legal question will be whether the government actually has the right to force a software vendor to write a specific piece of software.

If the government succeeds in their request, what will it mean overall? Can the government go after other security features, eventually asking Apple to backdoor their encryption methods as well? Why just Apple, why not all other smartphone vendors as well? And your desktop computer too.

And if the US government can force this, what about foreign governments? Will our security policies end up being defined by oppressive regimes? Some say that it’s about human rights because of how oppressive regimes handle their spying.

I know we all hate hearing the slippery slope argument, but in this case there is actually very little upside in the FBI demand and a whole lot of downside.

An Unreported Security Vulnerability

There’s one more issue here that scares me as a security professional. Namely the exploit of loading a new version of an OS onto a locked phone. This is certainly a problematic issue from a device security perspective. I wonder if Apple will be plugging this hole in the near future?

There is some security around this method because the new software needs to be digitally signed by Apple, but this is certainly an attack surface that bad actors will be taking a more in-depth look at. What if this build of iOS gets out in the wild somehow? Why wouldn’t people try to steal it? Can people try to figure out how to push their own OTA onto a device? How hard is it to bypass the Apple signature?

I’m certain future versions of iOS will probably take into account everything learned during this case. As always we can expect jailbreaks to continue to get more difficult as Apple tightens their security.

What’s the answer

Again, I need to reiterate that I recognize the legitimate need of law enforcement to investigate crimes. But there is also a legitimate interest for the public in protecting their information, finances and property. We have to ask ourselves if making everyone’s phone less secure is the best way to achieve greater security?

[Update 2016-02-24 16:45 – More info available since this morning. There is an article today in the New York Times that discusses how Apple is apparently planning to fix the update security loophole as I mentioned above. Not surprising, since it’s definitely something a bad actor could also use.

There is also an article at TechDirt that explains how demanding that Apple circumvent security technology may actually be against the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. So stay tuned on that front as well. ]

[Update 2016-02-26 13:15 – San Bernardino Sheriff Jarron Burguan had an interview with NPR where he admitted there is probably nothing useful on the phone. He said:

I’ll be honest with you, I think that there is a reasonably good chance that there is nothing of any value on the phone

which pretty much shows you what I was saying – it’s not about the phone.]

[Update 2015-02-26 15:30 – Bloomberg news just reported a secret government memo that details how the government is trying to find ways around device encryption – despite wide reports that they’re just interested in those one phone and not in setting a precedent.]