Security Corner


September 5, 2009  3:03 PM

Good PC Security Begins With a Baseline

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

I received some good feedback on my “14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” list, in particular, this comment from Michael: “…you encourage people to go through all the effort of running Virtual Machines to protect themselves from malware, but you don’t actually encourage them to run Anti-Virus software. Which basically, unfortunately, means you’re violating rule #1 and much more likely to run into rule #12.” This lead to a review of past articles I’ve posted on the subject and my finding that though I’ve covered all of the bases, my writing is a bit fragmented. So, you can go back to “Nine Steps to System Security – 2008", “The Lazy Man’s Way to System Security”, and “14 Golden Rules of Computer Security” and put them all together for a complete PC security package, but that’s a lot for the average user to digest.

As of today, I’m embarking on a major pre-release revision of the eBook, 14 Golden Rules of Computer Security to make sure all of the bases are covered in a logical combination and sequence. In essence, the book will begin with the concept of a security baseline—the bare security essentials—for a normal home PC setup and will branch from there.

What’s a good PC security baseline? In “The Lazy Man’s Way to System Security,” I proposed these four bare security essentials: “…a NAT router; a good antivirus program; a good anti-malware program; and, a good software firewall.” That was good enough at the time, but these days antivirus, antimalware and a software firewall are usually combined into a single suite. I choose to align with Windows Secrets’  Security Baseline page: “…a hardware firewall that’s built into your [NAT] router, security software that guards against all types of malware threats, a software-update service to ensure that your applications are patched against the latest exploits, and a secure browser.”

There are many possibilities for implementing those four basic items and that will be well covered in the book.

September 5, 2009  3:31 AM

How Are Your Hacking Skills?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

In playing the contract consultant game over the years, I’ve become accustomed to verbal and written skills assessment tests, but until recently, I’d never had anyone present a question like this: “Optional – Extra Credit – Create an account on http://www.hackthissite.org and complete levels 1 through 4 of the Basic Web Hacking Challenge and explain how you figured out each level.” Sounds like fun, I thought, and it makes sense: If you want to know how well a guy can protect your network, see if he knows how a hacker would attack it.  So I headed on over to the site. Having never been there, I didn’t know what to expect; I was greeted with this:

Hack This Site is a free, safe and legal training ground for hackers to test and expand their hacking skills. More than just another hacker war games site, we are a living, breathing community with many active projects in development, with a vast selection of hacking articles and a huge forum where users can discuss hacking, network security, and just about everything. Tune in to the hacker underground and get involved with the project.

I created an account, logged in and proceeded to the “Basic Missions” section; their are 11 of them, and I was to complete the first four. At level one, the challenge reads, “This level is what we call ‘The Idiot Test.’ If you can’t complete it, don’t give up on learning all you can, but don’t go begging to someone else for the answer, that’s one way to get you hated/made fun of. Enter the password and you can continue.”

Though they call it “The Idiot Test,” it’s not as simple as you might think. You’ll find the solution interesting. Try it for yourself, post your comments and check back in a day or so; I’ll be posting my analysis and solutions to each level, eventually covering all 11 basic missions.

In the meantime, have a safe and enjoyable Labor Day weekend.


August 31, 2009  10:40 PM

Have You Noticed? Phishing Attacks Are Down

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

It’s just not in fashion anymore; phishing attacks are ‘way down, falling out of favor with cybercriminals who now prefer malicious websites and password-stealing Trojan horse programs.

IBM’s security research and development division, X-Force, recently issued a report that found throughout 2008 , phishing volume was around 0.5 percent of overall spam volume. But in the first half of 2009, the volume of phishing attacks fell to around 0.1 percent of spam volume. Not only did the volume of phishing attacks drop, but the targets also changed: in 2008, 90 percent of all phishing attacks targeted the financial industry; in the first half of 2009, that percentage had dropped to 66 percent.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, according to the report, the number of malicious Web links is up 508 percent in the first half of 2009 and many of these links appear on otherwise trusted sites such as search engines. X-Force Director Kris Lamb says, “There is no such thing as safe browsing today and it is no longer the case that only the red light district sites are responsible for malware. We’ve reached a tipping point where every Web site should be viewed as suspicious and every user is at risk."

A copy of the IBM report can be downloaded here (PDF).

As always, let the surfer beware.


August 31, 2009  2:05 AM

14 Golden Rules of Computer Security

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

In celebration of (almost) being close to releasing my first eBook to the general public, I’m releasing the list of the 14 Golden Rules of Computer Security in hopes that any last minute errors will be spotted by my peers here at IT Knowledge Exchange. Here’s the list:

#1: The best security measures are completely useless if you invite attackers into your PCs or networks.
#2: A first, important step in securing your PC is to install  and configure a NAT router.
#3: Always change the default username and password of any configurable device you put on your home network.
#4: Use an un-guessable, or difficult-to-guess password always.
#5: A vital part of PC security is keeping up with software patches for ALL of the software on your system, not just the operating system. Where it is available, use the software’s automatic updates feature.
#6: Always disable any message preview or auto-open features in your e-mail client. View messages as text-only until you know they are safe.
#7: If you store sensitive information on a PC or laptop, even if it’s only personal information, encrypt the
folders or drives where the information is stored and use an un-guessable passphrase as  the encryption key.
#8: Physical security is  almost as important as data security. Make it as difficult as possible through any
physical means for a thief to steal your hardware. Rules of thumb: Lock it up and lock it down; out of sight, out of mind.
#9: When surfing the web, testing unknown programs, or engaging in other activities with the potential to harm your computer, use a sandbox or virtual machine to protect your base system from harm.
#10: When using external removable media for backups, either encrypt the backup files or make sure the media is taken offline after the backup has been completed.
#11 Never enter sensitive information into any web page unless you have verified that the information is being sent over a secure connection signified by https:// in the address bar and a lock icon in the browser’s status bar.
#12: Once a PC is infected with malware, you can’t trust it. The only way to restore trust is to wipe the hard drive clean and reload the operating system.
#13: When it comes to securing a WiFi network, the only way is WPA.
#14: If your email address will be visible to the public, obfuscate it.

In the book, each one of these rules is explained in detail with links to tools and other information.

I value your comments, so if I’ve left anything out, or you have issues with what I’ve posted here, let me know. I want this to be the best first edition it can be.


August 28, 2009  2:39 AM

Twitter Security: TwitBlock Blocks the Spammers

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Besides being a security Geek, I’m also an Internet marketer (no, not the bad kind—the good kind—I actually try to help people with what I sell). Twitter, at first blush, appears to be a great way to get your message out; it probably is, if done right, but it’s also easily abused. Yes, Twitter gets spam, too. The spammers are relatively easy to spot; you see them sending out multiple marketing messages in rapid succession, often using different profiles for the same message.

Here’s the rub: Because Twitter only allows 140 characters per tweet, the URLs are always shortened, therefore it’s difficult to identify their target. My policy is to never click on a link in a tweet from someone I don’t know, especially when I see them sending multiple tweets trying to get me to take action of some sort. That’s a dead giveaway that the person or persons controlling the profile are spammers or scammers.

Enter TwitBlock, a junk filter and bulk blocking tool for Twitter users. Here’s what they say:

You may think you have a loyal following of people who find you interesting, or amusing, but they’re probably not all real people. Among your followers will be a wide spectrum of fully automated, or computer aided Twitter accounts. They will range from reputable companies looking to profile and market to you, to fake profiles directing you to adult websites. At the very worst you will find the spammers and phishing gangs – the same junk you get in your email inbox, designed to sell you fake pharmaceuticals, or trick you into parting with your passwords or credit card numbers.

An easy way to spot the spammers on your own is to look for duplicate profile images. I have my own handsome mug posted on my Twitter profile and I’m sure no one else is using it. Spammers tend to use pics of attractive women, often “R” rated, or generic photos. TwitBlock maintains a list of the top 20 duplicate profile pics (Warning: some are inappropriate for young viewers!)

The application is still in alpha, but consider testing it. Just give it some thought before you block “Annette552” who may just be your next door neighbor in disguise, but who is more likely to be a spammer out to get your credit card info. You be the judge.


August 26, 2009  8:54 PM

Convert Any Live CD to a Bootable Thumb Drive in Minutes

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

A visitor to my Ask the Geek site told me about a great little utility, UNetbootin for Windows and Linux that allows you to create bootable Live USB drives for a variety of Linux distributions without requiring you to burn a CD. Not only that, but UNetbootin can be used to load system utilities, including:

The tool works like a charm. I’ve made bootable USB drives with ClamAV Live CD, the Kaspersky Rescue Disk, Dr. Web Antivirus, and a couple of others, just to see how it works. These are invaluable tools for we security wonks and I thought I’d pass it on.

Be sure to check out the UNetbootin site for complete information and tutorials on how to make it work.


August 24, 2009  2:18 AM

I Use LastPass

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

OMG! I just opened that box that Pandora gave me. I have often said that I don’t like password managers because I don’t consider them secure. That goes double for the password managers built into the browsers. I don’t like anything to reside directly on my system, so that leaves a remote location. These days, “remote location” equates to “The Cloud.”

That’s why I use LastPass and have been using it for more than a year now. All of my passwords are stored online, encrypted, and I only have to remember one master password to unlock the vault. I don’t have to carry anything with me on a thumb drive or install any programs on someone else’s computer in order to access my stuff when I’m not using my own PC.

Don’t take my word for it, check out this list of features. And then decide for yourself.

Oh, by the way, you can generate very secure passwords with LastPass and you don’t have to worry about remembering them, because LastPass will do it for you. Firefox and IE add-ons make things even easier. When you come to a new site you need to set up an account with, LastPass offers to generate a password for you. Then, when you log in, LastPass offers to save all information for the site. If you do that and then come back to the site later, LastPass will give you the option to either auto-fill the information or perform an auto login.

Highly recommended if you don’t want to do your own password management. You can still use all of the methods I’ve proposed for generating secure passwords, but you’ll never have to worry about remembering them.  Use my methods to generate the most secure password you can for your LastPass master password and encode it so you can write it down securely, but use LastPass for all your password management needs.


August 24, 2009  1:40 AM

Un-guessable Passwords—How to Make Them

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

The sheer number of passwords most of us have is a big problem. Even if we have hints written down, how do we know which one created the password for which login? It would appear as though we’re back to writing them down or using a password manager. Don’t worry, though. Here’s how to create secure passwords that you can safely write down; yes, write them down, give them to all your friends–even your enemies–and still be safe. Post them on your monitor at work. Leave them lying around on the bus or train. A simple trick based on cryptographic techniques will conceal your actual password in a form that almost anyone will mistake for the password itself.

Let’s say you found a piece of paper that had this written on it:

Work BDAbe%x#
Home 1941phx!n
email fon!%m

What would you think it was? Bet you’d think you’d found someone’s password list, eh? That’s exactly the deception we want: What those strings of characters really mean is known only to you. So, what DO they mean? Let’s take the first example; in my Ask the Geek blog, my article How to Write Down Your Password and Not Worry About Someone Stealing Them, I explain:

[It's] a substitution cipher based on a date. This one uses two levels of secret "keys": 1. a clue or mnemonic for the date; 2. an abstraction of the encoding algorithm. We’ll use Abe Lincoln’s birthday in numeric form–02/12/1809–for our plaintext, leaving out the slashes, i.e., 02121809, which will result in a strong, eight character password. Now, for the first key, we can use "BDAbe." This immediately reveals the plaintext, but means little or nothing to anyone else. (NEVER use your own birthday, for obvious reasons.) [Note: even if someone guesses that it's Abe's birthday, they still have a long way to go to figure out how it was used - Ken]

Next, we decide to use alternating shifted characters, beginning with the first character. So, for key two, we make an abstraction of that: %x#, for example. It doesn’t matter what characters you use, only that they clearly represent shifted and lower-case characters; you could just as easily use AyT or !2@. The pattern of shift-lowercase-shift on the keyboard is what matters to you; the characters mean nothing else. Put the two keys together and you have this: BDAbe%x#. That’s your cipher pattern, the "something only you know," with an added level of complexity: it’s something only you know (the plaintext) and only you know what it means (the encoding pattern).

Pretty slick, eh? This should give you a clue as to what the second one is: 1941ph means (to me) 12/07/1941, the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led us into WWII. Based on the pattern, the actual password is 1@0&1(4!. Can you figure out what the last one might mean? (You won’t guess the actual password unless you know what I know about the first part, but you can figure out what the code hint is.) Post your comments and we’ll see how you do.

I don’t recommend you use these examples, for obvious reasons; you’ll want to come up with your own ways of doing things and your own hints using things that mean something only to you.


August 20, 2009  12:41 AM

Peter Piper Picked a Perfect Password Pattern

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

A little Alliteration is good for writing effect every now and then; why not apply this to passwords? I don’t mean to write out an alliterative phrase and turn it into a password or passphrase (though you could, I guess); what I mean is to use a pattern that makes it easy for you to remember the password, but still results in a very strong, un-guessable one. Here’s an example of a very strong password: 19[-[Phrase]-]60.

This one is very weak: %6*Some*Phrase*6%. Can you see why? Too many repetitions of characters. Change it slightly, %6!Some*Phrase!6%, and it becomes very strong.

The trick is to come up with a pattern that means something to you. By no means should you use the patterns I suggest—use something that will be easy for you to remember.

I’ll leave it to you to analyze the two examples and let you come up with your own. Remember, the bad guys read these blogs, too.

You can mosey over to the Password Meter page at Ask the Geek to check the patterns/passwords you come up with. That’s the best password meter I’ve ever seen, bar none.


August 19, 2009  2:04 AM

Passwords, Again

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

The Sydney Morning Herald reports, “Hackers break into police computer as sting backfires:”

An Australian Federal Police boast, on the ABC’s Four Corners program, about officers breaking up an underground hacker forum, has backfired after hackers broke into a federal police computer system.

Well, if you read the article, you’ll see that they use the term “broke into” rather loosely. It wasn’t much of a break-in as one of the hackers wrote on a forum post:

The hacker wrote ‘I couldn’t stop laughing’ on seeing that the federal police’s server was running Windows, which is known among hacker communities for being insecure. Police had also ‘left the MYSQL password blank’.

No password! Absolutely ridiculous. These are the police, people responsible for security on many levels, and they don’t even put a password on their database? Unbelievable.

People, come on; there’s only one thing worse than having a weak, easily guessable password and that’s having no password at all. I can see why the hacker was in stitches; stupidity is often funny, especially when exhibited by people who should know better.

Let me repeat Golden Rule of Computer Security #1: The best security measures are completely useless if you invite attackers into your PCs or networks.

No better invitation than an open door, is there?


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