As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Read my blog posting guidelines here.
German divers searching the Baltic Sea for discarded fishing nets have stumbled upon a rare Enigma cipher machine used by the Nazi military during World War Two which they believe was thrown overboard from a scuttled submarine.
Thinking they had discovered a typewriter entangled in a net on the seabed of Gelting Bay, underwater archaeologist Florian Huber quickly realised the historical significance of the find.
Way back in 1999, I wrote about open-source software:
First, simply publishing the code does not automatically mean that people will examine it for security flaws. Security researchers are fickle and busy people. They do not have the time to examine every piece of source code that is published. So while opening up source code is a good thing, it is not a guarantee of security. I could name a dozen open source security libraries that no one has ever heard of, and no one has ever evaluated. On the other hand, the security code in Linux has been looked at by a lot of very good security engineers.
GitHub launched a deep-dive into the state of open source security, comparing information gathered from the organization’s dependency security features and the six package ecosystems supported on the platform across October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020, and October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019.
Only active repositories have been included, not including forks or ‘spam’ projects. The package ecosystems analyzed are Composer, Maven, npm, NuGet, PyPi, and RubyGems.
On average, vulnerabilities can go undetected for over four years in open source projects before disclosure. A fix is then usually available in just over a month, which GitHub says “indicates clear opportunities to improve vulnerability detection.”
Open source means that the code is available for security evaluation, not that it necessarily has been evaluated by anyone. This is an important distinction.
This is a scarily impressive vulnerability:
Earlier this year, Apple patched one of the most breathtaking iPhone vulnerabilities ever: a memory corruption bug in the iOS kernel that gave attackers remote access to the entire device — over Wi-Fi, with no user interaction required at all. Oh, and exploits were wormable — meaning radio-proximity exploits could spread from one nearby device to another, once again, with no user interaction needed.
Beer’s attack worked by exploiting a buffer overflow bug in a driver for AWDL, an Apple-proprietary mesh networking protocol that makes things like Airdrop work. Because drivers reside in the kernel — one of the most privileged parts of any operating system — the AWDL flaw had the potential for serious hacks. And because AWDL parses Wi-Fi packets, exploits can be transmitted over the air, with no indication that anything is amiss.
Beer developed several different exploits. The most advanced one installs an implant that has full access to the user’s personal data, including emails, photos, messages, and passwords and crypto keys stored in the keychain. The attack uses a laptop, a Raspberry Pi, and some off-the-shelf Wi-Fi adapters. It takes about two minutes to install the prototype implant, but Beer said that with more work a better written exploit could deliver it in a “handful of seconds.” Exploits work only on devices that are within Wi-Fi range of the attacker.
There is no evidence that this vulnerability was ever used in the wild.
Many systems are vulnerable:
Researchers at the time said that they were able to launch inaudible commands by shining lasers — from as far as 360 feet — at the microphones on various popular voice assistants, including Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Facebook Portal, and Google Assistant.
They broadened their research to show how light can be used to manipulate a wider range of digital assistants — including Amazon Echo 3 — but also sensing systems found in medical devices, autonomous vehicles, industrial systems and even space systems.
The researchers also delved into how the ecosystem of devices connected to voice-activated assistants — such as smart-locks, home switches and even cars — also fail under common security vulnerabilities that can make these attacks even more dangerous. The paper shows how using a digital assistant as the gateway can allow attackers to take control of other devices in the home: Once an attacker takes control of a digital assistant, he or she can have the run of any device connected to it that also responds to voice commands. Indeed, these attacks can get even more interesting if these devices are connected to other aspects of the smart home, such as smart door locks, garage doors, computers and even people’s cars, they said.
I can’t believe that check washing is still a thing:
“Check washing” is a practice where thieves break into mailboxes (or otherwise steal mail), find envelopes with checks, then use special solvents to remove the information on that check (except for the signature) and then change the payee and the amount to a bank account under their control so that it could be deposited at out-state-banks and oftentimes by a mobile phone.
The article suggests a solution: stop using paper checks.
Diplomoceras maximum is an ancient squid-like creature. It lived about 68 million years ago, looked kind of like a giant paperclip, and may have had a lifespan of 200 years.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Read my blog posting guidelines here.
Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.
It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.
American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.
This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.
When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.
Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.
It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.
It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters - and especially Black Democratic voters - from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?
The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud - will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats - seeing what Republicans are doing will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.
We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?
Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.
Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.
The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.
They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.
This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.
In a lecture, Adam Shostack makes the case for a discipline of cyber public health. It would relate to cybersecurity in a similar way that public health relates to medicine.
Wired has a detailed story about the ransomware attack on a Dusseldorf hospital, the one that resulted in an ambulance being redirected to a more distant hospital and the patient dying. The police wanted to prosecute the ransomware attackers for negligent homicide, but the details were more complicated:
After a detailed investigation involving consultations with medical professionals, an autopsy, and a minute-by-minute breakdown of events, Hartmann believes that the severity of the victim’s medical diagnosis at the time she was picked up was such that she would have died regardless of which hospital she had been admitted to. “The delay was of no relevance to the final outcome,” Hartmann says. “The medical condition was the sole cause of the death, and this is entirely independent from the cyberattack.” He likens it to hitting a dead body while driving: while you might be breaking the speed limit, you’re not responsible for the death.
So while this might not be an example of death by cyberattack, the article correctly notes that it’s only a matter of time:
But it’s only a matter of time, Hartmann believes, before ransomware does directly cause a death. “Where the patient is suffering from a slightly less severe condition, the attack could certainly be a decisive factor,” he says. “This is because the inability to receive treatment can have severe implications for those who require emergency services.” Success at bringing a charge might set an important precedent for future cases, thereby deepening the toolkit of prosecutors beyond the typical cybercrime statutes.
“The main hurdle will be one of proof,” Urban says. “Legal causation will be there as soon as the prosecution can prove that the person died earlier, even if it’s only a few hours, because of the hack, but this is never easy to prove.” With the Düsseldorf attack, it was not possible to establish that the victim could have survived much longer, but in general it’s “absolutely possible” that hackers could be found guilty of manslaughter, Urban argues.
And where causation is established, Hartmann points out that exposure for criminal prosecution stretches beyond the hackers. Instead, anyone who can be shown to have contributed to the hack may also be prosecuted, he says. In the Düsseldorf case, for example, his team was preparing to consider the culpability of the hospital’s IT staff. Could they have better defended the hospital by monitoring the network more closely, for instance?
Last week I signed on to two joint letters about the security of the 2020 election. The first was as one of 59 election security experts, basically saying that while the election seems to have been both secure and accurate (voter suppression notwithstanding), we still need to work to secure our election systems:
We are aware of alarming assertions being made that the 2020 election was “rigged” by exploiting technical vulnerabilities. However, in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent. To our collective knowledge, no credible evidence has been put forth that supports a conclusion that the 2020 election outcome in any state has been altered through technical compromise.
That said, it is imperative that the US continue working to bolster the security of elections against sophisticated adversaries. At a minimum, all states should employ election security practices and mechanisms recommended by experts to increase assurance in election outcomes, such as post-election risk-limiting audits.
The New York Times wrote about the letter.
The second was a more general call for election security measures in the US:
Obviously elections themselves are partisan. But the machinery of them should not be. And the transparent assessment of potential problems or the assessment of allegations of security failure — even when they could affect the outcome of an election — must be free of partisan pressures. Bottom line: election security officials and computer security experts must be able to do their jobs without fear of retribution for finding and publicly stating the truth about the security and integrity of the election.
These pile on to the November 12 statement from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the other agencies of the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) Executive Committee. While I’m not sure how they have enough comparative data to claim that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” they are certainly credible in saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
We have a long way to go to secure our election systems from hacking. Details of what to do are known. Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines is important, but baseless claims of fraud don’t help.
Quanta magazine recently published a breathless article on indistinguishability obfuscation — calling it the “‘crown jewel’ of cryptography” — and saying that it had finally been achieved, based on a recently published paper. I want to add some caveats to the discussion.
Basically, obfuscation makes a computer program “unintelligible” by performing its functionality. Indistinguishability obfuscation is more relaxed. It just means that two different programs that perform the same functionality can’t be distinguished from each other. A good definition is in this paper.
This is a pretty amazing theoretical result, and one to be excited about. We can now do obfuscation, and we can do it using assumptions that make real-world sense. The proofs are kind of ugly, but that’s okay — it’s a start. What it means in theory is that we have a fundamental theoretical result that we can use to derive a whole bunch of other cryptographic primitives.
But — and this is a big one — this result is not even remotely close to being practical. We’re talking multiple days to perform pretty simple calculations, using massively large blocks of computer code. And this is likely to remain true for a very long time. Unless researchers increase performance by many orders of magnitude, nothing in the real world will make use of this work anytime soon.
But but, consider fully homomorphic encryption. It, too, was initially theoretically interesting and completely impractical. And now, after decades of work, it seems to be almost just-barely maybe approaching practically useful. This could very well be on the same trajectory, and perhaps in twenty to thirty years we will be celebrating this early theoretical result as the beginning of a new theory of cryptography.
Symantec is reporting on an APT group linked to China, named Cicada. They have been attacking organizations in Japan and elsewhere.
Cicada has historically been known to target Japan-linked organizations, and has also targeted MSPs in the past. The group is using living-off-the-land tools as well as custom malware in this attack campaign, including a custom malware — Backdoor.Hartip — that Symantec has not seen being used by the group before. Among the machines compromised during this attack campaign were domain controllers and file servers, and there was evidence of files being exfiltrated from some of the compromised machines.
The attackers extensively use DLL side-loading in this campaign, and were also seen leveraging the ZeroLogon vulnerability that was patched in August 2020.
Interesting details about the group’s tactics.
Vice has a long article about how the US military buys commercial location data worldwide.
The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.
This isn’t new, this isn’t just data of non-US citizens, and this isn’t the US military. We have lots of instances where the government buys data that it cannot legally collect itself.
Over at Lawfare, Susan Hennessey has an excellent primer on how Trump loyalist Michael Ellis got to be the NSA General Counsel, over the objections of NSA Director Paul Nakasone, and what Biden can and should do about it.
While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.
The moment also poses a test for President-elect Biden’s transition, which must address the delicate balance between remedying improper politicization of the intelligence community, defending career roles against impermissible burrowing, and restoring civil service rules that prohibit both partisan favoritism and retribution. The Biden team needs to set a marker now, to clarify the situation to the public and to enable a new Pentagon general counsel to proceed with credibility and independence in investigating and potentially taking remedial action upon assuming office.
The NSA general counsel is not a Senate-confirmed role. Unlike the general counsels of the CIA, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), all of which require confirmation, the NSA’s general counsel is a senior career position whose occupant is formally selected by and reports to the general counsel of the Department of Defense. It’s an odd setup — and one that obscures certain realities, like the fact that the NSA general counsel in practice reports to the NSA director. This structure is the source of a perennial legislative fight. Every few years, Congress proposes laws to impose a confirmation requirement as more appropriately befits an essential administration role, and every few years, the executive branch opposes those efforts as dangerously politicizing what should be a nonpolitical job.
While a lack of Senate confirmation reduces some accountability and legislative screening, this career selection process has the benefit of being designed to eliminate political interference and to ensure the most qualified candidate is hired. The system includes a complex set of rules governing a selection board that interviews candidates, certifies qualifications and makes recommendations guided by a set of independent merit-based principles. The Pentagon general counsel has the final call in making a selection. For example, if the panel has ranked a first-choice candidate, the general counsel is empowered to choose one of the others.
Ryan Goodman has a similar article at Just Security.
Blockchain voting is a spectacularly dumb idea for a whole bunch of reasons. I have generally quoted Matt Blaze:
Why is blockchain voting a dumb idea? Glad you asked.
- It doesn’t solve any problems civil elections actually have.
- It’s basically incompatible with “software independence”, considered an essential property.
- It can make ballot secrecy difficult or impossible.
I’ve also quoted this XKCD cartoon.
But now I have this excellent paper from MIT:
“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting,” by Sunoo Park, Harvard Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald L. Rivest
Abstract: Voters are understandably concerned about election security. News reports of possible election interference by foreign powers, of unauthorized voting, of voter disenfranchisement, and of technological failures call into question the integrity of elections worldwide.
This article examines the suggestions that “voting over the Internet” or “voting on the blockchain” would increase election security, and finds such claims to be wanting and misleading. While current election systems are far from perfect, Internet- and blockchain-based voting would greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.
Online voting may seem appealing: voting from a computer or smart phone may seem convenient and accessible. However, studies have been inconclusive, showing that online voting may have little to no effect on turnout in practice, and it may even increase disenfranchisement. More importantly: given the current state of computer security, any turnout increase derived from with Internet- or blockchain-based voting would come at the cost of losing meaningful assurance that votes have been counted as they were cast, and not undetectably altered or discarded. This state of affairs will continue as long as standard tactics such as malware, zero days, and denial-of-service attacks continue to be effective.
This article analyzes and systematizes prior research on the security risks of online and electronic voting, and show that not only do these risks persist in blockchain-based voting systems, but blockchains may introduce additional problems for voting systems. Finally, we suggest questions for critically assessing security risks of new voting system proposals.
This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
The list is maintained on this page.
This is neat:
By generating powerful streams of water, UCSD’s squid-like robot can swim untethered. The “squidbot” carries its own power source, and has the room to hold more, including a sensor or camera for underwater exploration.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Read my blog posting guidelines here.
The idea behind Solid is both simple and extraordinarily powerful. Your data lives in a pod that is controlled by you. Data generated by your things — your computer, your phone, your IoT whatever — is written to your pod. You authorize granular access to that pod to whoever you want for whatever reason you want. Your data is no longer in a bazillion places on the Internet, controlled by you-have-no-idea-who. It’s yours. If you want your insurance company to have access to your fitness data, you grant it through your pod. If you want your friends to have access to your vacation photos, you grant it through your pod. If you want your thermostat to share data with your air conditioner, you give both of them access through your pod.
This week, Inrupt announced the availability of the commercial-grade Enterprise Solid Server, along with a small but impressive list of initial customers of the product and the specification (like the UK National Health Service). This is a significant step forward to realizing Tim’s vision:
The technologies we’re releasing today are a component of a much-needed course correction for the web. It’s exciting to see organizations using Solid to improve the lives of everyday people – through better healthcare, more efficient government services and much more.
These first major deployments of the technology will kick off the network effect necessary to ensure the benefits of Solid will be appreciated on a massive scale. Once users have a Solid Pod, the data there can be extended, linked, and repurposed in valuable new ways. And Solid’s growing community of developers can be rest assured that their apps will benefit from the widespread adoption of reliable Solid Pods, already populated with valuable data that users are empowered to share.
It seems that this election season has not gone without fraud. In New Zealand, a vote for “Bird of the Year” has been marred by fraudulent votes:
More than 1,500 fraudulent votes were cast in the early hours of Monday in the country’s annual bird election, briefly pushing the Little-Spotted Kiwi to the top of the leaderboard, organizers and environmental organization Forest & Bird announced Tuesday.
Those votes — which were discovered by the election’s official scrutineers — have since been removed. According to election spokesperson Laura Keown, the votes were cast using fake email addresses that were all traced back to the same IP address in Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city.
It feels like writing this story was a welcome distraction from writing about the US election:
“No one has to worry about the integrity of our bird election,” she told Radio New Zealand, adding that every vote would be counted.
Asked whether Russia had been involved, she denied any “overseas interference” in the vote.
I’m sure that’s a relief to everyone involved.
Apple will start requiring standardized privacy labels for apps in its app store, starting in December:
Apple allows data disclosure to be optional if all of the following conditions apply: if it’s not used for tracking, advertising or marketing; if it’s not shared with a data broker; if collection is infrequent, unrelated to the app’s primary function, and optional; and if the user chooses to provide the data in conjunction with clear disclosure, the user’s name or account name is prominently displayed with the submission.
Otherwise, the privacy labeling is mandatory and requires a fair amount of detail. Developers must disclose the use of contact information, health and financial data, location data, user content, browsing history, search history, identifiers, usage data, diagnostics, and more. If a software maker is collecting the user’s data to display first or third-party adverts, this has to be disclosed.
These disclosures then get translated to a card-style interface displayed with app product pages in the platform-appropriate App Store.
The concept of a privacy nutrition label isn’t new, and has been well-explored at CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University.
Proctoring an online exam is hard. It’s hard to be sure that the student isn’t cheating, maybe by having reference materials at hand, or maybe by substituting someone else to take the exam for them. There are a variety of companies that provide online proctoring services, but they’re uniformly mediocre:
The remote proctoring industry offers a range of services, from basic video links that allow another human to observe students as they take exams to algorithmic tools that use artificial intelligence (AI) to detect cheating.
But asking students to install software to monitor them during a test raises a host of fairness issues, experts say.
“There’s a big gulf between what this technology promises, and what it actually does on the ground,” said Audrey Watters, a researcher on the edtech industry who runs the website Hack Education.
“(They) assume everyone looks the same, takes tests the same way, and responds to stressful situations in the same way.”
The article discusses the usual failure modes: facial recognition systems that are more likely to fail on students with darker faces, suspicious-movement-detection systems that fail on students with disabilities, and overly intrusive systems that collect all sorts of data from student computers.
I teach cybersecurity policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. My solution, which seems like the obvious one, is not to give timed closed-book exams in the first place. This doesn’t work for things like the legal bar exam, which can’t modify itself so quickly. But this feels like an arms race where the cheater has a large advantage, and any remote proctoring system will be plagued with false positives.