Security Corner

January 22, 2010  2:48 AM

Information Security? Heaven Help Us!

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Time for one of my infrequent, but necessary, rants. People, tell me what’s wrong with this picture:

*A fax was received by a former employer related to COBRA medical insurance coverage that I need to reapply for.
*An email was sent to me with the fax attached as a PDF file.
*Among the pages of the fax contained in that PDF was an “example” of how an attest form should be filled out.
*That form contained the full name and SSN of the “example” insured person, the employer group number, employer name, and certain other key pieces of information.

I was appalled! So, in the interest of security research, I did a quick and dirty check. With nothing more than a couple of simple Google searches, I was able to gain other information that would have allowed me social-engineer my way into a complete impersonation of the “example” insured person.

Naturally, I won’t go into details about what I found and how I found it, but this should serve as a wonderful example of how most people are completely oblivious of the security consequences of mishandling sensitive information.

The first failure occurred at management level of the insurance company where proper controls and procedures were not in place to catch an employee’s security breach. Sending a copy of an actual form instead of an invented one as an “example” of how to complete the documentation should not have been an option. Someone dropped the ball big time here.

The second failure occurred in the lack of security consciousness training of employees who deal with sensitive information. How could the person responsible for sending the fax have let such a thing get past them? The form didn’t say “Jane Doe,” it was a real person’s name; the SSN wasn’t “123-45-6789,” it was an actual SSN; the company name didn’t read “ACME Widgets,” it was a real business name; and, the employee who filled out and attested to the form was an actual employee.

The last weak link in the chain was the administrative person who forwarded the PDF–via email in clear text, not encrypted–to me. That person probably didn’t even look at it–it was just one more thing to do in an already too-busy day.

If you’re in Information Security at any level, things like this should make it obvious that there’s real truth in the statement, “Be afraid, be very afraid…”

I’m joking, of course, but we’re not going to escape that the weakest link in the security chain is the people responsible for it.

January 21, 2010  1:54 AM

Web 2.0 Security: Identity Theft

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

What’s on your social network profile? You have to be careful what you put up there because even seemingly basic information about you can give away some valuable tidbits –- your name and date of birth, for instance –- that identity thieves can use to guess passwords or impersonate you, and even eventually steal your identity.

Some people are very free with their personal information, even going so far as to provide their phone number, email address, full street address, etc. Not really a good idea, but what can you do about it?

For starters, don’t answer all of the questions in a social networking profile and for sure, don’t give your real birthday. Who will know? If you have family and close friends who know your real numbers, you can explain that it’s a security precaution–they certainly won’t care. And what difference does it make if your profile says your birthday is 07/24/73 when it’s really 08/16/75?

We’re social creatures and tend to be trusting, but there’s no need to be at risk. A little misdirection when posting your personal information is something you’ll probably never have reason to regret.

January 19, 2010  2:18 AM

Web 2.0 Security: XSS, CSRF Attacks

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Cross-site scripting (XSS) and cross-site request forgery (CSRF) vulnerabilities have been with us for some time and while many social networks have tightened their defenses against XSS attacks–as have many other conventional websites–there are some social networking worms have used XSS flaws to spread. Some security experts say that CSRF attacks are not common on the social networks, but best be on the lookout for them unless the site admins are proactive.

The openness of Web 2.0 sites in general makes these complicated attacks virtually unnecessary, but it is possible using CSRF to utilize a hacked MySpace account to jump across to Facebook and wreak havoc. One security specialist noted that as long as users are allowed to use code in one form or another in profiles and comments–especially with links to external content–there are going to be security problems.

That seems to be the real issue here. XSS and CSRF, while possible, probably aren’t even necessary for hackers to compromise accounts; they’re already open enough to be vulnerable.

January 18, 2010  3:06 AM

“14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” Released

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

It’s finally done! “14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” is now complete and for a limited time, I’m making it available to all of my readers here and on Ask the Geek for free download.

If you’ve been following my posts, you’ve already see the individual article series posted here.

All you have to do is visit this page, sign up and download your copy. Tell all your friends and associates to go get their copies, too.

Leave me feedback after you get a chance to read it.

Here’s that link again:

January 14, 2010  9:17 PM

Beware Haiti Spam & Phishing Emails

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

With the recent earthquake disaster in Haiti, everyone should beware of any emails or solicitations on social networking sites asking for donations to help the citizens of Haiti. The cyber-slime out there typically begin exploiting the gullible shortly after such an event. This comes via

Security software company Symantec says it typically starts seeing spam and phishing e-mails seeking money, “donations” or access to bank accounts about 24 to 48 hours after after news of a major tragedy such as Haiti’s.

And it’s not just e-mails that need to be closely monitored. It’s social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as fake Web that sites can pop up as fast as the news itself. There’s also the problem of “search engine poisoning,” which “we’re seeing limited examples of already” in the quake’s aftermath, said Joris Evers of McAfee security software.

The FBI gives tips to avoid getting scammed:

Before making a donation of any kind, consumers should adhere to certain guidelines, to include the following:

  • Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming e-mails, including clicking links contained within those messages.
  • Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.
  • Verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status rather than following a purported link to the site.
  • Be cautious of e-mails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.
  • Make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf to ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes.
  • Do not give your personal or financial information to anyone who solicits contributions: Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.

Anyone who has received an e-mail referencing the above information or anyone who may have been a victim of this or a similar incident should notify the IC3 via

Here’s more good advice from the Better Business Bureau: BBB Advises Donors on How to Vet Haiti Earthquake Charity Appeals.

By all means, help; just make sure your help is funneled in the right direction.

January 11, 2010  12:45 AM

Survey: IT Security Challenges 2010

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

2010 is here and the IT security landscape is more active than ever. Web 2.0 is now a hotbed for crackers and identity thieves, not to mention hate mongers, jilted girlfriends, jealous boyfriends, and what-have-you. We IT Geeks are facing new challenges every day and it will be more of the same in 2010.

What challenges will you face and how will you meet them? What tools and information will help you mitigate the threats?

Please take my IT Security Challenges 2010 survey to help me help you meet the security challenges you’ll face this year. I’ll do my best to focus on what you tell me you need.

Click here to take survey

January 6, 2010  1:37 AM

ABA Recommends Using Dedicated PC for Online Banking

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

This is an idea that has been floating around for awhile. I recommended Convert a USB Thumb Drive into a ROBAM. (ROBAM means read-only bootable alternative media.) Now, the ABA is recommending that businesses use a dedicated PC for online banking. This from SANS News Bites Vol. 12 No. 1:

The American Bankers’ Association (ABA) issued guidance to small and mid-sized businesses regarding how to protect themselves from the growing problem of unauthorized Automated Clearing House (ACH) transactions.  Of special note is the recommendation that businesses use
a dedicated PC that is never used for email or web browsing to conduct online banking transactions.

My take on this would be to set up a PC with Microsoft’s Steady State, disable any Internet access except to the bank’s online application and uninstall Outlook Express. I would make a completely locked down and hardened installation of Windows with all services disabled except for essentials. Assign a static IP address to the machine. I would use a software firewall and disable all ports except 80 and 443. Of course, anti-malware software would be essential.

Make the machine so difficult to p0wn that the bad guys give up. It can be done.

December 31, 2009  11:30 PM

Thanks, Readers and Happy New Year

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Once again, another year is behind us and not an uneventful one. As you may have noticed, in July I began doubling my posts here and I’m sure that contributed to the increase in readership of Security Corner over the past few months.

For that, I say thank you for being a valued reader. Knowing that you’re paying attention and that my thoughts and advice are useful is what keeps me going. The 14 Golden Rules of Computer Security seems to have been a popular series of posts based on comments I have received. I also have quite a bit of fun, especially with article series like the Hacking Skills Challenge. There will be more of those in 2010.

Unless you tell me otherwise, I will continue along in this manner in the new year. But don’t be shy; I welcome all comments, suggestions and feedback. If there is some particular aspect of security you’d like to see me put a spin on, let me know.

One more thing: I’m going to release “14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” in January. I will post a special link here to a free download. Keep an eye out for that.

Have a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Ken “The Geek” Harthun

December 31, 2009  9:27 PM

New Years Eve Security

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

I know I don’t have to tell you, but if you drink, don’t drive, especially tonight. There are going to be plenty of revelers out there who don’t heed such advice. If you don’t have to go out, don’t. If you want to party hearty, do like my wife and I do every year and stay home, maybe with a few friends or family members who can spend the night.

That said, if you do plan to go out and party, leave your wallet or purse at home. Carry only your ID (driver’s license) and sufficient cash to get you through the night. Keep everything in your front pockets and rather than a large wad of bills, break it up into a couple of smaller batches. Drinking sensibly will keep you from doing something completely stupid. Better option is to carry cash for a cab ride home (or at least a tip–many cab companies will offer free cab rides tonight) and pay your bar tab with a credit card. You could lose all your cash; a credit card is replaceable.

Have fun. Celebrate. But be safe, okay?

December 31, 2009  8:38 PM

Web 2.0 Security: Crossover of Personal to Professional Online Presence

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

In addition to Facebook, MySpace, or other social networks we use for personal interaction, many of us also maintain a professional presence on networks like LinkedIn. Makes sense; business is business, personal is personal, right? Wrong. There’s no way you can prevent those partying pictures from ending up in front of your colleagues on LinkedIn if one of your “friends” wants to post them. Heaven forbid your boss ever sees them.

Nothing is private on the socials; you have to consider everything public. What you write in posts on your own wall, others’ walls, comments, your tweets if you have them linked to your Facebook, is out there just like a 20-foot high billboard on a busy expressway. And the consequences of revealing things that are better kept private can range from mildly embarrassing to loss of professional reputation and employment. Employers often access the socials to conduct a pre-check on a prospective employee to find out how they function away from the work environment.

What to do? Here’s some advice:

  1. If you’d be embarrassed if someone found out about it, don’t post a photo or talk about it.
  2. If you hate your job, find a better one; don’t whine online. See “How To Lose a Job Via Facebook In 140 Characters or Less.”
  3. On Facebook, use the new privacy settings to be very choosy about who can see what.
  4. Be aware of the connections you have in common on both personal and professional networks.

Forgot Password

No problem! Submit your e-mail address below. We'll send you an e-mail containing your password.

Your password has been sent to: