June 10, 2012 By Dan Lohrmann
Computer experts from around the world are warning users to change passwords immediately following the announcements that millions of passwords from LinkedIn, eHarmony and Lastfm were posted on hacker websites.
The Internet is full of stories about various topics surrounding the breaches as well as articles on how to effectively protect passwords. Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post article on the password breaches:
“If there’s one thing that the LinkedIn, eHarmony and now Last.fm hacks have taught us in the past week, it’s that people are really bad at picking secure passwords….
What’s important to remember, even if you can’t keep track of a different password for every account, is that you shouldn’t ever use the same password for accounts that you use every day. That means, Facebook and Gmail should have different passwords, which in turn should be different from your LinkedIn, Spotify, Pandora, Twitter or, goodness forbid, your bank. Hackers are unlikely to target you, specifically, but if one of your passwords gets into a major data dump, you’re just opening the door for them if you’re sharing passwords.”
No doubt, this string of reported hacks has lit a fire under many people regarding their online habit of providing simple passwords or reusing passwords for multiple sites. I made a LinkedIn password change myself this week. My guess is that the disclosures actually underestimate the overall problem. How many others websites have been hacked that we don’t know about yet for a variety of reasons? Is this the tip of an iceberg? I totally agree that this is a wakeup call for users’ password habits.
However, I disagree with the advice, which is growing more popular and mentioned in several referenced articles, that we should even lie about such things as the answers to security or profile questions in order to fool the hackers. I believe that the practice of online lying can (and will) create other unintended consequences. Even though some people view these as harmless “little white lies,” this practice leads down a very slippery slope regarding cyber ethics. We are trying to build trustworthy interactions in cyberspace, and lying usually leads to more lying.
For example, the Washington Post interviewed Chet Wisniewski, senior security advisor for Sophos, who said, “… People should think about being a little less truthful on their security questions, as well, just as a precaution. Name, for example, your second car and not your first, or your child’s high school mascot.”
Huh? Will we remember which “a little less than truthful” answer we gave to which online question? (I already have trouble remembering whether I included words like "street" or "drive" on truthful answers.) Soon, we’ll need a database for all of the fabricated answers we gave to the dozens of different social networking sites that questioned us as we changed passwords.
Also, if we lie about answers to security questions, why not lie about a whole host of other things online. What messages are we sending to our kids about online conduct regarding downloading files, lying in chat rooms, profile settings about age, home addresses or a long list of other items? We already have a large part of society which (wrongly) believes that what we do or say online doesn’t count the same in real life. No, lying on security questions is definitely an unwanted rabbit trail.
What do I recommend instead? How about if the security questions were different or better? Stop asking us our mother’s maiden name. Why not just let us choose or even write our own questions? Or, I could pick my favorite car. My daughter likes the Facebook security challenge where she needs to name the pictures of several of her friends – rather than answering pre-populated questions or typing in a CAPTCHA. I agree with her, and I’ve had trouble with CAPTCHA’s before myself.
Moving on, there is no doubt that breaches harm the reputation of an online service. One article from Reuters even claims that this latest breach places LinkedIn’s reputation on the line. Here’s an excerpt:
“LinkedIn is a natural target for data thieves because the site stores valuable information about millions of professionals, including well-known business leaders.
‘This is the serious social networking site. This isn't the one I got to see pictures of my friend's new dog,’ said Mary Hildebrand, chair of the privacy practice area at the law firm Lowenstein Sandler.
The way that the company responds to the theft will play a critical role in determining the extent to which the incident damages LinkedIn's reputation, experts said”
Forbes went further and addressed the relationship between these breaches and the hacking of online banking sites. There is starting to be a cumulative effect of the massive number of new hacks that seem to be announced weekly. At what point does this start to slow down e-commerce? Will we get to the situation where people don’t want to go online with their sensitive data at all for fear of being hacked? This “stay offline” message is what the US Postal Service (USPS) tries to infers with their recent commercials on TV.
Only time will tell us about the long-term impact of this new password hacking trend. But meanwhile, I’ll repeat the manner that the IEEE Spectrum article on this same topic closes, “Let's hope that ‘inconvenience’—like getting lots of phishing email asking you to reset your eHarmony or LinkedIn passwords—is the extent of the suffering.”
June 4, 2012 By Dan Lohrmann
A new era began this weekend in cyberspace. Starting with the New York Times article dated June 1, 2012, which proclaimed: Obama Order Sped Up Wave of CyberAttacks Against Iran, the global discourse regarding cyber attacks has now shifted.
This NY Times article openly discusses cyberweapons and the efforts that the US Government took to derail the computers that run Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“…This account of the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program is based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day….”
Regardless of your views as to whether this program was a good or bad thing, or your opinion as to whether this story should be available in the NY Times, there can be little doubt that these revelations dramatically alter the global landscape. Discussions regarding a “new 21st century cold war” have now become more heated. More than that, the relevance and priority of dealing with malware, viruses, hackers, identity theft, fuzzing, zero day exploits and potentially even cyber war have entered a new stage. This phase is likely to be even more precarious, if that is possible, for businesses, governments and even citizens who use the Internet.
Why do I know this is a new phase?
I opened up the Washington Post on Sunday morning, June 3, expecting to see a front page headline about Europe’s economic crisis or Egypt’s troubled leadership or Syria’s civil war or Britain’s Diamond Jubilee or perhaps some new aspect of the 2012 presidential election. But the bold print read, “Vulnerabilities pervade the digital universe.” I thought to myself: Is this really the top story?
As I read on, what was even more surprising to me were the dozen or so links to videos such as Zero Day: Exploring cyberspace as a new domain of war, graphics on fuzzing, quizzes on personal online habits, timelines on the history of the cyber threat and much more, as the Washington Post launched their “Zero Day” series.
I rechecked the URL at the top of the screen to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently brought up an old issue of Computerworld. Nope - and that was only Part 1 of their investigative series on cybersecurity in 2012.
But the Washington Post was not alone in reporting on this topic. USA Today ran a major story: Risk of boomerangs a reality in cyber war. Here’s an interesting excerpt:
“The government's dual roles of alerting U.S. companies about these threats and producing powerful software weapons and eavesdropping tools underscore the risks of an unintended, online boomerang.
Unlike a bullet or missile fired at an enemy, a cyberweapon that spreads across the Internet may circle back accidentally to infect computers it was never supposed to target. It's one of the unusual challenges facing the programmers who build such weapons, and presidents who must decide when to launch them.”
If you want to know more about Flame, you can find numerous articles on this “highly sophisticated virus” as well.
There is also an excellent new series in the NY Times on Cyberwar, which covers many aspects of our new “digital combat.”
Other coverage on this topic includes CNET Cyber War .
Voice of America – Obama Knew of Attacks Against Iran.
Chicago Tribune – Cyber-attacks bought us time.
But perhaps the most intriguing (and yet scary) part of this “new normal” takes us back to the first article I mentioned in the NY Times. There were over 360 comments to that article as of Sunday evening, and many of them are worth reading. After I examined hundreds of responses to this article, I instinctively thought back over the past two decades and how fast the Internet has changed. There has been so much good and yet so many problems in cyberspace.
Overall, there is a sense in which a major attack against our critical infrastructure in the USA is inevitable. Will it be the power grid or natural gas or water or banks or food or other forms of transportation that is impacted? We have so many cyber vulnerabilities; can we possible stop all enemy attacks? The vectors are so much more numerous and complex as compared to stopping physical explosives from getting on a plane.
One thing is for sure: we now have a much more sobering view on the meaning of a “cyber attack.” Our government leaders have (reportedly) opened the gates by initiating a cyber attack – if other governments had not already opened that gate first. Either way, there is no going back.
I hope my prediction on a critical infrastructure attack does not come true. Still, all is fair in love and cyber.
May 28, 2012 By Dan Lohrmann
How do social networking sites get attacked by hackers? What methods are used? Why are attacks successful? What can be done to improve security on social networks?
These are just some of the questions that are addressed in a recently-published Hacker Intelligence Report by Imperva. The report’s executive summary offers an intriguing glimpse into the hacktivist world that threatens almost every online service. Here’s an excerpt:
“At the end of March 2012, the Lulzsec hackers had attacked http://www.militarysingles.com/ and disclosed sensitive information on more than 170,000 members.
This report analyzes the anatomy of the attack methods deployed by the “new” Lulzsec. Overall, the attack, using Remote File Inclusion, is nothing new. But it underscores how today’s hackers adhere to Sun-Tzu’s maxim: “Strike where your enemy is most vulnerable.” RFI vulnerabilities are prevalent in PHP applications which comprise 77% of total applications on the web.
This attack also underscores the need for proper password encryption. In this case, archaic methods of password encryption meant hackers could decrypt the full list of passwords in just 9 hours.”
The report points out that the main strength of Web 2.0, user-generated content, has become the “Achilles Heel” of the Internet. The reason is the trusted sites can quickly be offering unknown (and untrustworthy) content to other users. Possible examples mentioned include: file execution, local file inclusion, malware hosting, cross-site scripting or phishing. (See the report for a complete description of each example.)
A Government Computer News (GCN) article highlighted the risk that military personnel faced in this particular situation, and also focused on the question: Should government personnel be held to a higher standard when they use social networking websites?
Here’s an excerpt of that article:
“When combining the risks of these types of applications hackers’ increasing use of social engineering tricks to get inside networks and frequent targeting of government users, the report suggests that public employees might need to do more than other people to protect themselves.
… A start on those higher standards would be password encryption on top of strong password policies. The report recommends using SHA-2 hashes, such as SHA-256, as recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and adding “salt,” or random bits that make cracking the algorithm even more difficult.”
Finally, the Imperva report closes with some additional steps that can help improve security on social networking sites. A few of their recommendations include assigning minimal permissions to uploaded content, hosting user-generated content on different domains or on different machines and implementing more (or all) security controls on the server side and not trusting the client side computer.
I think Imperva did a nice job on this report, and it is worth reading. I came across this piece as a result of the GCN article, but I'd like to hear from other vendors who want to offer their viewpoints on social network hacking as well. (I’d prefer case studies or white paper links from companies be posted to this blog's comment section.)
What steps does your organization take to improve security on social networks? Or, are there other good (free) reports available on this topic that you can share?
May 20, 2012 By Dan Lohrmann
Ever since I read Megatrends in 1988, I’ve been fascinated by predictions about how technology will alter our daily lives in the near-future. One area that is evolving quickly is our shopping experiences both online and offline.
What’s next? Get ready for the reinvention of the cash register – with competing visions for how that will happen. What’s fairly certain is that our smartphones, iPads and/or other mobile devices will become an integral part of the new check-out process.
Almost everyone knows about Amazon.com and online retailers offering free shipping of Christmas presents, but there is another transformation occurring at grocery stores and malls around the world. As each innovation occurs, there are corresponding security challenges that must be addressed at the same time. For example, the self-serve check out process is reducing the need for staff, offering more customer convenience but creating new theft concerns.
How can these obstacles be overcome? It appears that the self-serve checkout process is only an intermediate step towards the real goal of no lines at all. If this seems impossible, read on.
There’s an excellent article by Mike Elgan over at Computerworld which offers a glimpse into our likely future (offline) shopping experiences. The article, Inside Apple’s secret plan to kill the cash register, raises some very intriguing points about the use of new technologies such digital wallets, near field communications (NFC) chips and more. Here’s an excerpt:
When people talk about the future of digital wallets -- electronic smartphone-based replacements for credit cards, debit cards and cash -- you're likely to hear the initials NFC in the same breath. NFC, for "near-field communication," is a set of technologies that makes it possible to pay for purchases using smartphones, among other things.
The idea is that all smartphones will contain special NFC chips that enable you to use your phone as a credit card. To make a transaction, you pass your phone over or near a special gadget that's hooked up to a cash register as an equivalent to swiping a credit card…
Apple’s potential vision is described further by Research Farm’s Pablo Saez Gil in this article at cultofmac.com:
“Apple will eschew adopting NFC because it’s embraced Bluetooth 4.0 and it’s excellent Bluetooth Low-Energy capabilities. Apple has already sold millions of iPhone 4Ses that come with Bluetooth 4.0, and Gil argues that it’s a much better fit for mobile payments for Apple than NFC.
[Bluetooth Low Energy] allows low-consumption chips to act passively in the form of stickers in a similar fashion to NFC tags and devices can automatically and passively connect and transfer information seamlessly. The technology also enables long distance connections between devices of up to 50m. This feature will eventually enable payments on the go, without the need of fixed POS and traditional checkouts.
Why’s Bluetooth Low Energy a better fit for Apple than NFC? Look at how payment works at your local Apple Store. You walk in, flag down a Genius, you tell him what you want, he swipes your card on his iPhone and you walk right out the door. You don’t wait in line at a register. There’s no till. It’s all done wherever. That’s how Apple believes retail shopping should be done.”
So those commercials that show people grabbing items off of grocery shelves and walking out of stores with the security guards helping them with their receipts may be accurate a few years from now. What’s clear is that we will have a new paradigm in mobile payments. This new world will also impact governments and small businesses which accept credit cards, debit cards and other forms of payment.
Why should we take notice now? From current and future BYOD programs to redesigning how customers pay for campground reservations or driver’s licenses, the implications of these changes are enormous. True, governments tend to lag the private sector in retail innovation, and we can probably wait to see what standards emerge. Nevertheless, I urge security pros to read up on new payment approaches to age-old problems.
“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” As the song goes, “it will soon be here.”
Another thing is clear: security will need to be reinvented – again.
May 12, 2012 By Dan Lohrmann
Most of us are trying to do multiple activities at the same time. But is it really working?
For example, I like to keep “to do” lists. I get special satisfaction when I complete one action item and the result is that multiple items come off of my list. More often than not, I’m tempted to multitask, especially at work. On top of that, I’m instinctively looking for new tips and shortcuts that can help me gain a further edge in accomplishing my personal and professional goals.
These are just some of the reasons that reading the recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog entitled: The Magic of Doing One Things at a Time by Tony Schwartz was eye-opening and relevant for me. Here’s an excerpt with some questions worth considering:
“Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend you're taking notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you're driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn't?”
I’m certainly guilty at times. More than that, I tend to think of multitasking as a virtue. If I can do 3-4 things at the once, I’m getting more done. I’m closer to the finish line.
Not so, says recent research. This perspective has been shown to be a fallacy, and multitasking usually leads to less productivity and not more. If you have a hard time believing this, check out this piece and corresponding study which says that multitasking makes us feel good but delivers fewer meaningful results. Or, read one of the thousands of articles about the dangers of multitasking.
But back to the first blog - Schwartz has some great tips for workplace norms around meetings, constant urgency of tasks and the importance of taking regular breaks.
Here are some personal takeaways:
1) Do the most important thing at the beginning of the day with dedicated (uninterrupted) time.
2) Establish dedicated time to think creatively, strategically and long-term.
3) Take real and regular vacations.
These items make sense to me. Still, they are hard to build consistently into my life as habits. On the last point about vacation, I was astounded recently when a well-respected vendor colleague told me that he has not taken a vacation of two days or more in over seven years. He regularly just gives up his vacation days and cannot carry them over to the next year. Nor is he even paid for his sacrifice. He’s just too busy to take time off and relax.
Side note: I told him that I saw this as was one advantage of being a government employee on a salary and not on a commission. I am just as driven to work hard and accomplish things as my friend, and I would be tempted to never stop working as well. Bottom line, I need my vacations way more than I’ve realized, but I often need to be pushed by my wife and children to take them and truly disconnect or focus on other important things offline.
Perhaps you’re wondering: what does any of this have to do with technology or cybersecurity? Quite a bit, I think. Rising stress and feelings of being overwhelmed are serious concerns for security professionals, and I wrote about this topic as problem 6 for security professionals in my list of the top seven reasons security pros fail.
More than that, the explosion of mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads has only increased temptation to multitask more in 2012. In addition, many large governments organizations still manage cybersecurity as an "other duty as assigned" for technology professionals rather than dedicating a team to focus on tasks related to cybersecurity. This multitasking approach can make it difficult to perform tasks with the required level of vigilence and expertise. Even government groups that have good centralized cyber teams that focus on Internet threats and mitigating enterprise risks can be pulled in multiple directions at the same time and need to take note of this research.
In an interesting twist, Tony Schwartz actually starts his blog off with the ever-so-common theme of being burned out at work. We can all relate to this topic at some point in our careers. Last year, almost half of the employers surveyed said that their employees felt burned out.
Bottom line, no matter what career track or professional role we are in, the “How can we truly be more productive?” question is worth contemplating. Whether I’m working with my kids, my staff, my customers or my smartphone, LESS (activity) and a singular focus on the task at hand is actually MORE (productive and effective).
What are your thoughts on multitasking? Are employees in your office feeling burned out? What strategies have worked for you? I’d love to hear your stories.
Building effective virtual government requires new ideas and hard work. Security professionals need to be enablers of innovation. From helpful Internet training to defending cloud computing architectures to securing mobile devices, Dan Lohrmann will cover what's hot and what's not in protecting your corner of cyberspace.