Posts Tagged 'cybersecurity'

China-Huawei-Canada fail

Huawei has been trying to convince the world that they are a private company with no covert relationships to the Chinese government that might compromise the security of their products and installations.

This attempt has been torpedoed by the Chinese ambassador to Canada who today threatened ‘retaliation’ if Canada joins three of the Five Eyes countries (and a number of others) in banning Huawei from provisioning 5G networks. (The U.K. hasn’t banned Huawei equipment, but BT is uninstalling it, and the unit set up jointly by Huawei and GCHQ to try to alleviate concerns about Huawei’s hardware and software has recently reported that it’s less certain about the security of these systems now than it was when the process started.)

It’s one thing for a government to act as a booster for national industries — it’s another to deploy government force directly.

China seems to have a tin ear for the way that the rest of the world does business; it can’t help but hurt them eventually.

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The cybercrime landscape in Canada

Statscan recently released the results of their survey of cybercrime and cybersecurity in 2017 (https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/71-607-x/71-607-x2018007-eng.htm).

Here are some the highlights:

  • About 20% of Canadian businesses had a cybersecurity incident (that they noticed). Of these around 40% had no detectable motive, another 40% were aimed at financial gain, and around 23% were aimed at getting information.
  • More than half had enough of an impact to prevent the business operating for at least a day.
  • Rates of incidents were much higher in the banking sector and pipeline transportation sector (worrying), and in universities (not unexpected, given their need to operate openly).
  • About a quarter of businesses don’t use an anti-malware tool, about a quarter do not have email security (not clear what this means, but presumably antivirus scanning of incoming email, and maybe exfiltration protection), and almost a third do not have network security. These are terrifying numbers.

Relatively few businesses have a policy re managing and reporting cybersecurity incidents; vanishingly few have senior executive involvement in cybersecurity.

It could be worse, but this must be disappointing to those in the Canadian government who’ve been developing and pushing out cyber awareness.

People in glass houses

There’s a throwaway line in Woodward’s book about the Trump White House (“Fear”, Simon and Schuster, 2018) where he says that the senior military were unwilling to carry out offensive cyber-offensive operations because they didn’t think the US would fare well under retaliation.

Then this week the GAO came out with a report on cybersecurity in DOD weapons systems (as opposed to DOD networks). It does not make happy reading. (Full report).

Here’s what seems to me to be the key quotation:

“We found that from 2012 to 2017, DOD testers routinely found mission critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapon systems that were under development. Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of these systems and largely operate undetected”

Almost every word could be italicized and many added exclamation marks would hardly suffice.

To be fair, some of these systems are still under development. But the report makes clear that, for many of them, cybersecurity was not really considered in their design. The typical assumption was that weapons systems are standalone. But in a world where software runs everything, there has to be a mechanism for software updates at least, and so a connection to the outside world. As the Iranians discovered, even update from a USB is not attack-proof. And security is a difficult property to retrofit, so these systems will never be as cyberattack resistant as we might all have wished.

Lessons from Wannacrypt and its cousins

Now that the dust has settled a bit, we can look at the Wannacrypt ransomware, and the other malware  that are exploiting the same vulnerability, more objectively.

First, the reason that this attack vector existed is because Microsoft, a long time ago, made a mistake in a file sharing protocol. It was (apparently) exploited by the NSA, and then by others with less good intentions, but the vulnerability is all down to Microsoft.

There are three pools of vulnerable computers that played a role in spreading the Wannacrypt worm, as well as falling victim to it.

  1. Enterprise computers which were not being updated in a timely way because it was too complicated to maintain all of their other software systems at the same time. When Microsoft issues a patch, bad actors immediately try to reverse engineer it to work out what vulnerability it addresses. The last time I heard someone from Microsoft Security talk about this, they estimated it took about 3 days for this to happen. If you hadn’t updated in that time, you were vulnerable to an attack that the patch would have prevented. Many businesses evaluated the risk of updating in a timely way as greater than the risk of disruption because of an interaction of the patch with their running systems — but they may now have to re-evaluate that calculus!
  2. Computers running XP for perfectly rational reasons. Microsoft stopped supporting XP because they wanted people to buy new versions of their operating system (and often new hardware to be able to run it), but there are many, many people in the world for whom a computer running XP was a perfectly serviceable product, and who will continue to run it as long as their hardware keeps working. The software industry continues to get away with failing to warrant their products as fit for purpose, but it wouldn’t work in other industries. Imagine the discovery that the locks on a car stopped working after 5 years — could a manufacturer get away with claiming that the car was no longer supported? (Microsoft did, in this instance, release a patch for XP, but well after the fact.)
  3. Computers running unregistered versions of Microsoft operating systems (which therefore do not get updates). Here Microsoft is culpable for an opposite reason. People can run an unregistered version for years and years, provided they’re willing to re-install it periodically. It’s technically possible to prevent (or make much more difficult) this kind of serial illegality.

The analogy is with public health. When there’s a large pool of unvaccinated people, the risk to everyone increases. Microsoft’s business decisions make the pool of ‘unvaccinated’ computers much larger than it needs to be. And while this pool is out there, there will always be bad actors who can find a use for the computers it contains.

Secrets and authentication: lessons from the Yahoo hack

Authentication (I’m allowed to access something or do something) is based on some kind of secret. The standard framing of this is that there are three kinds of secrets:

  1. Something I have (like a device that generates 1-time keys)
  2. Something I am (like a voiceprint or a fingerprint), or
  3. Something I know (like a password).

There are problems with the first two mechanisms. Having something (a front door key) is the way we authenticate getting into our houses and offices, but it doesn’t transfer well to the digital space. Being something looks like it works better but suffers from the problem that, if the secret becomes widely known, there’s often no way to change the something (“we’ll be operating on your vocal cords to change your voice, Mr. Smith”). Which is why passwords tend to be the default authentication mechanism.

At first glance, passwords look pretty good. I have a secret, the password, and the system I’m authenticating with has another secret, the encrypted version of the password. Unfortunately, the system’s secret isn’t very secret because the encrypted version of my password is almost always transmitted in clear because of the prevalence of wifi. Getting from the system’s secret to mine is hard, which is supposed to prevent reverse engineering my secret from the system’s.

The problem is that the space of possible passwords is small enough that the easy mapping, from my secret to the system’s, can be tried for all strings of reasonable length. So brute force enables the reverse engineering that was supposed to be hard. Making passwords longer and more random helps, but only at the margin.

We could instead make the secret a function instead of a string. As the very simplest example, the system could present me with a few small integers, and my authentication would be based on knowing that I’m supposed to add the first two and subtract the third. My response to the system is the resulting value. Your secret might be to add the first and the third and ignore the second.

But limitations on what humans can compute on the fly means that the space of functions can’t actually be very large, so this doesn’t lead to a practical solution.

Some progress can be made by insisting that both I and the system must have different secrets. Then a hack of either the system or of me by phishing isn’t enough to gain access to the system. There are a huge number of secret sharing schemes of varying complexity. But for the simplest example, my secret is a binary string of length n, and the system’s secret is another binary string of length n. We exchange encrypted versions of our strings, and the system authenticates me if the exclusive-or of its string and mine has a particular pattern. Usefully, I can also find out if the system is genuine by carrying out my own check. This particular pattern is (sort of) a third secret, but one that neither of us have to communicate and so is easier to protect.

This system can be broken, but it requires a brute force attack on the encrypted version of my secret, the encrypted version of the system’s secret, and then working out what function is applied to merge the two secrets (xor here, but it could be something much more complex). And that still doesn’t get access to the third secret.

Passwords are the dinosaurs of the internet age; secret sharing is a reasonable approach for the short to medium term, but (as I’ve argued here before) computing in compromised environments is still the best hope for the longer term.

The growing role of data curation

My view of Data Science, or Big Data if you prefer, is that it divides naturally into three different subfields:

  1. Data curation, which involves focusing on the issues of managing large amounts of heterogeneous data, but is primarily concerned about provenance, that is tracking the metadata about the data.
  2. Computational science, which builds models of the real-world inside computer systems to study their properties.
  3. Analytics, which infers the properties of systems based on data about them.

I’ve posted about these ideas previously (https://skillicorn.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/why-data-science/),

Data curation might have seemed like the poor cousin among these three, and certainly gets the least funding and attention.

But issues of provenance have suddenly become mainstream as everyone on the web struggles to figure out what to do about fake news stories. So far, the Internet has not really addressed the issues of metadata. Most of the big content providers know who generated the content that they create and distribute, but they don’t necessarily make this information known or available for those who read the content to leverage. It’s time for the data curation experts, who tend to come from information systems and library science, to step up.

Data curation is also about to become the front line in cyberattack. As I’ve suggested (Skillicorn, DB, Leuprecht, C, and Tait, V. 2016. Beyond the Castle Model of Cybersecurity.  Government Information Quarterly.), a natural cyberdefence strategy is replication. Data exfiltration is made much more difficult if there many, superficially similar, versions of any document or data that might be a target. However, progress in assigning provenance becomes the cyberattack that matches this cyber defence.

So here’s the research question for data curation: how can I tell, from the internal evidence, and partial external evidence, whether this particular document is legitimate (or is the legitimate version of a set of almost-replicates)?

It’s not classified emails that are the problem

There’s been reporting that the email trove, belonging to Huma Abedin but found on the laptop of her ex-husband, got there as the result of automatic backups from her phone. This seems plausible; if it is true then it raises issues that go beyond whether any of the emails contain classified information or not.

First, it shows how difficult it is for ordinary people to understand, and realise, the consequences of their choices about configuring their life-containing devices. Backing up emails is good, but every user needs to understand what that means, and how potentially invasive it is.

Second, to work as a backup site, this laptop must have been Internet-facing and (apparently) unencrypted. That means that more than half a million email messages were readily accessible to any reasonably adept cybercriminal or nation-state. If there are indeed classified emails among them, then that’s a big problem.

But even if there are not, access to someone’s emails, given the existence of textual analytics tools, means that a rich picture can be built up of that individual: what they are thinking about, who they are communicating with (their ego network in the jargon), what the rhythm of their day is, where they are located physically, what their emotional state is like, and even how healthy they are.

For any of us, that kind of analysis would be quite invasive. But when the individual is a close confidante of the U.S. Secretary of State, and when many of the emails are from that same Secretary, the benefit of a picture of them at this level of detail is valuable, and could be exploited by an adversary.

Lawyers and the media gravitate to the classified information issue. This is a 20th Century view of the problems that revealing large amounts of personal text cause. The real issue is an order of magnitude more subtle, but also an order of magnitude more dangerous.


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