Security Corner


July 17, 2014  4:15 PM

Stop electronic surveillance with typewriters?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Security, Surveillance

In the wake of recent news about Germany’s considering using typewriters instead of computers to thwart electronic surveillance, one has to ask the obvious question: Huh?

Oh, they have to be manual typewriters. Electric ones just won’t do (you can plug in a keylogger to an electric one, apparently). Makes sense, especially in light of how IBM Selectric typewriters were hacked in the 1980s. Here’s how an installed spy sensor (bug) worked, according to CBS News:

“The devices picked up the contents of documents typed by embassy secretaries and transmitted them by antennas hidden in the embassy walls. The typewriters used a round ball with numbers and letters around the surface, which revolved before hitting the ribbon against the paper. The bugs could work out each letter typed by detecting how the ball moved.”

I don’t think that manual typewriters would solve this problem. Someone will develop a way to tell which key was pressed by the audio spectrum analysis of the “clack” sound the letter hammer makes as it hits the ribbon and paper. It doesn’t even have to be so complicated. You can just go back to the old low-tech spy methods like posing as a janitor and stealing the ribbons or relying on security lapses and stealing documents that should have been shredded.

Spying isn’t going to go away no matter the technology being used. Only on the day when we can fully trust each other will spying become unnecessary.

July 11, 2014  6:14 PM

Highly effective security: Secure your mobile devices from loss

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Laptop Security, Mobile device security, Security, Tablet PCs

Mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops are certainly convenient; however, due to their portability they are security risks. It’s just too easy to lose or misplace these devices and when this happens, all of your personal data stored on them is at risk of being compromised. You don’t want that to happen, so be sure to:

  • Keep smartphones and tablets with you at all times when in public. NEVER leave a device sitting and walk away from it, even for a second.
  • Never leave a laptop in open view in your car. Lock it securely in your trunk and lock all the doors. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • When in the office, use a cable lock on your laptop or store it in a locked drawer.
  • Never put any of these devices in your checked baggage when traveling.
  • Make a list of phone numbers and/or email addresses to report stolen or lost devices.

A future post will cover protecting the data itself.


June 30, 2014  6:47 PM

Humor: Lighten up – it’s Monday (Warning: Language)

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Security

mega-icon-smiley-thumbs-upA bit of security humor to brighten up your Monday. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy a short week and long holiday weekend.

Password Reset Dialog

WINDOWS:  Please enter your new password.

USER:  cabbage

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password must be more than 8 characters.

USER:  boiled cabbage

WINDOWS:  Sorry, the password must contain 1 numerical character.

USER:  1 boiled cabbage

WINDOWS: Sorry, the password cannot have blank spaces.

USER:  50bloodyboiledcabbages

WINDOWS:  Sorry, the password must contain at least one upper case
character.

USER:  50BLOODYboiledcabbages

WINDOWS:  Sorry, the password cannot use more than one upper case
character consecutively.

USER: 50BloodyBoiledCabbagesShovedUpYourAssIfYouDon’tGiveMeAccessNow!

WINDOWS:  Sorry, the password cannot contain punctuation.

USER:
ReallyPissedOff50BloodyBoiledCabbagesShovedUpYourAssIfYouDontGiveMeAccessNow

WINDOWS:  Sorry, that password is already in use.

USER:
IgiveUp!

WINDOWS:  Thank You, your password has been changed

Have fun and be safe!


June 30, 2014  3:22 PM

The best free security list in the world?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Security

I’m a fan of Gizmo’s Freeware and have been for many years. They have maintained a list of free security-related programs or web applications for some time. It’s called “Probably the Best Free Security List in the World.” They say,

This article contains a comprehensive list of free security-related programs or web applications for Windows XP and later Windows PC-based operating systems. The few non-free programs on this list are included because they are of high merit (in our opinion) and lack a comparable free alternative. This list also includes links to webpages that contain security-related information.

The list runs the gamut from malware protection of all kinds to firewalls, HIPS, virtualization, encryption, data rescue, and so much more, 24 categories in all. I was pleased to find several of my favorite go-to programs under the “System Cleaning” category, including Darik’s Boot & Nuke and Active@ KillDisk. Also, under “Data Rescue” are two programs I use frequently, Testdisk and Photorec. There’s also a comprehensive list of malware removal guides and help sites.

One very nice feature of this page is the keys that inform you of the presence of adware, nagware and OpenCandy.

This list makes my old Geek Toolkit obsolete!


June 30, 2014  2:37 AM

Highly effective security: Lock your screen

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Screen savers

Do you know who’s playing around on your computer when you’re not there? Think it won’t (or doesn’t) happen? Think again: It can and does happen all the time.

I’m sure you trust the people you work with, and rightfully so, but what about the maintenance crew and the janitorial service personnel? Several times this year, I have had to clean up computers in the reception area because someone got adware and toolbars all over them. The only possible explanation is that the cleaning crew people were surfing the web on them.

Had the night receptionist remembered to either shut down or lock the computers before she left, nothing would have happened.

The same goes for your workstation. If you leave it on, like many at my company do, you are at risk for someone using it when you aren’t around or, worse yet, getting confidential private information off of it.

If you lock the screen so it requires your password to get back in, you have just made it nearly impossible for an unauthorized person to get your information or wreck your system.

It’s a simple, but highly effective security practice.


June 26, 2014  4:14 PM

Highly effective security: Create strong passwords

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Security

managing-passwords-2012_06Passwords are usually the frontline protection against unauthorized access. In fact, sometimes a password is the only protection. If you have weak passwords, you’re vulnerable to attack and compromise of your valuable data. If you have weak passwords and use those same weak passwords at multiple sites, you’re a disaster-waiting-to-happen.

There are two rules you should always follow.

1. Always create strong passwords. This means

  • Don’t use your name, dictionary words (even foreign words), acronyms, or even common phrases or slogans.
  • Don’t use prefixes or suffixes that use common keyboard patterns such as “Asdf1.” See Steve Gibson’s Password Haystacks page.
  • Use a random mixture of upper case, lower case and special symbols. Even ASCII symbols such as ▐ (Alt-222) can be used.

2. Never use any password for more than one site. One site = one password.

If you have passwords on sites you don’t care about — as long as they don’t contain any personally identifiable information — you could use a throwaway password for those. Some sites just insist that you have a login when it really doesn’t matter. What comes to mind are pure news sites that you only read and that don’t force you to create a profile. Those would be the only exceptions, but I don’t even recommend that.

Bottom line: Create strong passwords and never use the same password for more than one site.


June 10, 2014  6:27 PM

Holy Patch Tuesday, Batman! 66 holes in Windows products

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Adobe, Microsoft

Today is Patch Tuesday and Microsoft’s seven updates address 66 security holes in Windows and related apps. Most of those vulnerabilities — 59 of them –  are in Internet Explorer (MS14-035). No surprise there. It’s the most insecure mainstream browser ever developed. Most of the vulnerabilities were labeled “critical,” meaning the bad guys can exploit them without any conscious help from users. Again, no surprise. You can read all about it here.

Lest I be unduly unfair to Microsoft, Adobe’s update for the Flash Player plugin fixes six bugs. I have the plugin set to ask me if I want to play a video. It’s inconvenient, but a lot safer than trusting a proven insecure plugin.

Bottom line: Apply the patches and hope the bad guys don’t find something MS and Adobe missed in the meantime.


June 5, 2014  8:32 PM

Yes, Virginia, TrueCrypt is still safe to use

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
GPL, Security, TrueCrypt

TrueCrypt_LogoDespite the ominous warning on the redirected TrueCrypt page at SourceForge, the venerable encryption software is still safe to use. Noted security expert Steve Gibson of SpinRite and Security Now! fame recently posted an in-depth article on the GRC.com website here. To those pundits (including me, unfortunately) who have advised us to look elsewhere for encryption software, he says: “Those who believe that there is something suddenly ‘wrong’ with TrueCrypt because its creators have decided they no longer have so much to give are misguided.”

I do believe the way the TrueCrypt developers bowed out definitely tended to lower confidence in their creation, but when a developer of Gibson’s caliber says “And have YOU looked at their code? OMG, it’s truly a work of art. Whomever and wherever these guys are, SOMEONE is paying them some serious coin to create code of that caliber,” I tend to listen. I further will heed this level-headed advice:

Time to panic?

No. The TrueCrypt development team’s deliberately alarming and unexpected “goodbye and you’d better stop using TrueCrypt” posting stating that TrueCrypt is suddenly insecure (for no stated reason) appears only to mean that if any problems were to be subsequently found, they would no longer be fixed by the original TrueCrypt developer team . . . much like Windows XP after May of 2014. In other words, we’re on our own.

But that’s okay, since we now know that TrueCrypt is regarded as important enough (see tweets above from the Open Crypto Audit and Linux Foundation projects) to be kept alive by the Internet community as a whole.

So, thanks guys . . . we’ll take it from here.

I plan to continue to use TrueCrypt and be relaxed about it. We’ll see what develops, but already there is interest in picking up where the original developers left off:

TrueCrypt.ch: A just launched, Swiss-based, possible new home for TrueCrypt. Follow these folks on Twitter: @TrueCryptNext. Given the deliberate continuing licensing encumbrance of the registered TrueCrypt trademark, it seems more likely that the current TrueCrypt code will be forked and subsequently renamed. In other words . . . for legal reasons it appears that what TrueCrypt becomes will not be called “TrueCrypt.”

Bottom line: Continue using TrueCrypt without concerns and watch for what happens as it forks off.


June 5, 2014  6:37 PM

Microsoft calls government snooping “advanced persistent threat”

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
Data integrity, Data privacy, Encryption, Information security, Transparency

Yes, just like malware. Well, isn’t it a malevolent government act to spy–without cause–on its citizens?

In a December 2013 blog post, Microsoft says they share our concerns:

Like many others, we are especially alarmed by recent allegations in the press of a broader and concerted effort by some governments to circumvent online security measures – and in our view, legal processes and protections – in order to surreptitiously collect private customer data. In particular, recent press stories have reported allegations of governmental interception and collection – without search warrants or legal subpoenas – of customer data as it travels between customers and servers or between company data centers in our industry.

Then they position such activities right there alongside malware and cyber attacks:

If true, these efforts threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications. Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an “advanced persistent threat,” [emphasis added] alongside sophisticated malware and cyber attacks.

Because of this, Microsoft is ramping up its encryption on Outlook.com, Office 365, SkyDrive and Windows Azure, to name a few. They are also working to reinforce legal protections by notifying customers if they receive any government order to release data and they are challenging any gag orders:

Where a gag order attempts to prohibit us from doing this, we will challenge it in court. We’ve done this successfully in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future to preserve our ability to alert customers when governments seek to obtain their data. And we’ll assert available jurisdictional objections to legal demands when governments seek this type of customer content that is stored in another country.

Another step they are taking is to increase transparency by making their source code available for review where appropriate:

We’re therefore taking additional steps to increase transparency by building on our long-standing program that provides government customers with an appropriate ability to review our source code, reassure themselves of its integrity, and confirm there are no back doors.

I’m very happy with these efforts on Microsoft’s part. How about you?


June 3, 2014  2:44 PM

You can help in the Gameover Zeus & Cryptolocker takedown

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun
CryptoLocker, Cybercrime, cybercriminals, DOJ, FBI, Security, Sophos

Your help is needed in a massive law enforcement effort to take down the Gameover Zeus (GOZ) and Cryptolocker botnets. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has announced a massive international legal and technical assault against these two infrastructures. To give you an idea of the scope of this action, here is an official list of the other cooperating agencies:

The Australian Federal Police; the National Police of the Netherlands National High Tech Crime Unit; European Cybercrime Centre (EC3); Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt; France’s Police Judiciare; Italy’s Polizia Postale e delle Comunicazioni; Japan’s National Police Agency; Luxembourg’s Police Grand Ducale; New Zealand Police; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs – Division for Combating Cyber Crime; and the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency participated in the operation. The Defense Criminal Investigative Service of the U.S. Department of Defense also participated in the investigation.

You can read all about what they have done here. Here’s an excerpt:

Here is what we did: first, on May 7, in coordination with the FBI, Ukrainian authorities seized and copied key Gameover Zeus command servers in Kiev and Donetsk.

. . .

At the same time, our foreign law enforcement partners seized critical computer servers used to operate Cryptolocker, which resulted in Cryptolocker being unable to encrypt victim files.

. . .

Beginning in the early morning hours on Friday and continuing through the weekend, the FBI and foreign law enforcement then began the coordinated seizure of computer servers around the world that had been the backbone of Gameover Zeus and Cryptolocker.   These seizures took place in Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

. . .

I am pleased to report that our actions have caused a major disruption of the Gameover Zeus botnet.   Over the weekend, more than 300,000 victim computers have been freed from the botnet – and we expect that number to increase as computers are powered on and connected to the internet this week.

A huge blow, to be sure, but that’s not the whole story. Hundreds of thousands of computers are still infected and it’s possible that the bad guys could re-establish communications by setting up new servers. Keep in mind, these guys are geniuses, albeit acting evilly at the moment, so don’t assume they are down for the count.

“But I’m just a single person,” you say. “How can I possibly contribute to such a massive effort?”

Simple, follow the advice of Sophos:

The next stage – the part of the operation that is the duty of all of us – is to dismantle the rest of the botnet, by progressively disinfecting all the zombie-infected computers that made the Gameover and Cryptolocker “business empires” possible in the first place.

US-CERT has come up with a whole list of free tools so you can do just that, and (if you are the go-to person for IT problems amongst your friends and family) so that you can help others, too.

I’m delighted to say that the Sophos Virus Removal Tool is amongst the recommended cleanup utilties.

Scan every computer you touch that you suspect might have malware of some kind. Let’s break this thing completely.


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