Security Corner

April 29, 2009  12:33 AM

10 Immutable Laws of Security Administration

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

My last post on this subject discussed the 10 Immutable Laws of Security. This one takes the next step–also a Microsoft “archived” essay, but still relevant today. These are so self-evident that I’m not even going to burden you with my thoughts. Print this out and hang it where you can see it as a constant reminder these are the 10 Immutable Laws of Security Administration:

Law #1: Nobody believes anything bad can happen to them, until it does
Law #2: Security only works if the secure way also happens to be the easy way
Law #3: If you don’t keep up with security fixes, your network won’t be yours for long
Law #4: It doesn’t do much good to install security fixes on a computer that was never secured to begin with
Law #5: Eternal vigilance is the price of security
Law #6: There really is someone out there trying to guess your passwords
Law #7: The most secure network is a well-administered one
Law #8: The difficulty of defending a network is directly proportional to its complexity
Law #9: Security isn’t about risk avoidance; it’s about risk management
Law #10: Technology is not a panacea

April 22, 2009  7:52 PM

Lighten Up! We All Need a Good Laugh

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get a little queasy when I’m thoroughly overloaded dealing with security and other user issues. So, while this post is completely off-topic, it’s certainly therapeutic; laughter, after all, is the best medicine. (Yes, I know. This has been floating around for a long time.)

What if Dr. Seuss wrote technical manuals? Here’s what you’d get:

Here’s an easy game to play.
Here’s an easy thing to say:
If a packet hits a pocket on a socket on a port,
And the bus is interrupted as a very last resort,
And the address of the memory makes your floppy disk abort,
Then the socket packet pocket has an error to report!
If your cursor finds a menu item followed by a dash,
And the double-clicking icon puts your window in the trash,
And your data is corrupted ’cause the index doesn’t hash,
Then your situation’s hopeless, and your system’s gonna crash!
You can’t say this? What a shame sir!
We’ll find you Another game sir.
If the label on the cable on the table at your house,
Says the network is connected to the button on your mouse,
But your packets want to tunnel on another protocol,
That’s repeatedly rejected by the printer down the hall,
And your screen is all distorted by the side effects of gauss
So your icons in the window are as wavy as a souse,
Then you may as well reboot and go out with a bang,
‘Cause as sure as I’m a poet, the sucker’s gonna hang!
When the copy of your floppy’s getting sloppy on the disk,
And the microcode instructions cause unnecessary RISC,
Then you have to flash your memory and you’ll want to RAM your ROM.
Quickly turn off the computer and be sure to tell your mom!


April 22, 2009  2:09 AM

It’s Not Your Fault

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

I’m going to take a lot of heat for this post. Maybe. Unless I’m right (which I usually am). So, let me just get it out of the way: The state of security on the Internet today is NOT YOUR FAULT. Neither is it the fault of the clueless surfers who click on any and every link in their email and say “yes” to every popup on their screen. It’s not the fault of those who love to install the “little bitty kitty” screensavers that are loaded with adware and the ones who use the “fun web products” emoticons and stationery with similar bent. No, it’s not your fault.

It’s M….no, it’s U….no, it’s…hell,  it’s the software developers who don’t have a clue on how to write a secure application. The end user—be she a geek or a regular consumer user—has no way of knowing that there are security holes on the software she uses. And she shouldn’t have to be concerned about it, now, should she? NO.

The more I have to deal with the malicious–and sometimes just crappy–stuff that people manage to get on their systems, the more I want to grab the programmers, web app developers, and insecure software purveyors by the throat. Conspiracy theorists speculate that since the anti-malware software industry is a multi-billion dollar cash cow, we don’t have a chance of ever seeing truly secure software. I don’t think that’s true. There’s enough crap out there to keep the anti-malware industry busy for a long time.

But it does make one wonder, doesn’t it?

April 15, 2009  8:13 PM

10 Immutable Laws of Security

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

I search the web constantly for security-related news and content. One day last month, I came across a series of articles on TechNet buried in the archive. Microsoft prefaces the articles with this statement: “Archived content. No warranty is made as to technical accuracy. Content may contain URLs that were valid when originally published, but now link to sites or pages that no longer exist.” Well, I find the content interesting and relevant, certainly worthy of bringing to your attention. Here are the 10 Immutable Laws of Security according to Microsoft with my comments included:

Law #1: If a bad guy can persuade you to run his program on your computer, it’s not your computer anymore

We tend to take the programs and utilities we run for granted. We trust them to work as advertised and not harm our systems or corrupt our data. What we often don’t consider is that our computer is being controlled by the programs it’s running and those in control of it are the programmers who wrote the software. This isn’t a problem with normal software since we tell it when to run, what data to manipulate, and when to quit; we are able to exercise a measure of control. We still “own” our computer. With malware, “To run or not to run, that is the question” and those are our only two options.

Law #2: If a bad guy can alter the operating system on your computer, it’s not your computer anymore

As in #1, there’s a degree of trust that the operating system is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. If the OS is altered by a bad guy, then it’s doing his bidding, not yours.

Law #3: If a bad guy has unrestricted physical access to your computer, it’s not your computer anymore

Physical security isn’t complicated. My Security Maxim #8 covers it admirably.

Law #4: If you allow a bad guy to upload programs to your website, it’s not your website any more

That’s an understatement. Not only is it not your website anymore, but you’ve just become an unwitting accomplice in whatever havoc the bad guy wreaks. There is no reason in the world to allow anyone to upload programs to your website before you have the chance to vet them.

Law #5: Weak passwords trump strong security

I am reminded of a friend who was baffled when he discovered that his PC was part of a P2P network being used to transfer pirated music. He couldn’t understand why his firewall “quit working” suddenly (he had P2P blocked on his router). Long story short, his teenage son had guessed the router password and changed the configuration. Heed my advice and make your passwords unguessable.

Law #6: A computer is only as secure as the administrator is trustworthy

If you can’t trust the admin, you can’t trust the PC. The administrator can install anything he wants.

Law #7: Encrypted data is only as secure as the decryption key

Make sure that your decryption key is kept in a secure place, not on your computer. It’s best to memorize it, but if you can’t, store it on a memory card and put it in your wallet. Make two copies and keep one in some other physically secure place. The first place the bad guy is going to look is on the hard drive.

Law #8: An out of date virus scanner is only marginally better than no virus scanner at all

Out-of-date malware scanners of any kind won’t protect you against the inevitable new variants that come along.

Law #9: Absolute anonymity isn’t practical, in real life or on the Web

As it says in the article: “All human interaction involves exchanging data of some kind. If someone weaves enough of that data together, they can identify you.”

Law #10: Technology is not a panacea

No matter how sophisticated the hardware and software become, they’ll never replace common sense and sound security policies and practices.

April 15, 2009  12:31 AM

Beware U.S. Tax Phishing Scams

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

It’s tax time in the U.S. and with that generally comes an increase in the number of phishing scams directed at taxpayers. The IRS, whether we like them or not, has an excellent anti-scam/anti-phishing web site. One key thing to remember is that the IRS does not initiate taxpayer communications through e-mail. Here’s an excerpt from their site:

The IRS does not initiate taxpayer communications through e-mail.

* The IRS does not request detailed personal information through e-mail.
* The IRS does not send e-mail requesting your PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.

If you receive an e-mail from someone claiming to be the IRS or directing you to an IRS site,

* Do not reply.
* Do not open any attachments. Attachments may contain malicious code that will infect your computer.
* Do not click on any links…

Additional information is provided by the IRS in a recent press release:

Beware of IRS’ 2009 “Dirty Dozen” Tax Scams

IR-2009-41, April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service today issued its 2009 “dirty dozen” list of tax scams, including schemes involving phishing, hiding income offshore and false claims for refunds….

The IRS urges taxpayers to avoid these common schemes:


Phishing is a tactic used by Internet-based scam artists to trick unsuspecting victims into revealing personal or financial information. The criminals use the information to steal the victim’s identity, access bank accounts, run up credit card charges or apply for loans in the victim’s name.

Phishing scams often take the form of an e-mail that appears to come from a legitimate source, including the IRS. The IRS never initiates unsolicited e-mail contact with taxpayers about their tax issues. Taxpayers who receive unsolicited e-mails that claim to be from the IRS can forward the message to Further instructions are available at To date, taxpayers have forwarded scam e-mails reflecting thousands of confirmed IRS phishing sites. If you believe you have been the target of an identity thief, information is available at

I highly recommend you visit the IRS site and heed their excellent advice: How to Report and Identify Phishing, E-mail Scams and Bogus IRS Web Sites

April 10, 2009  11:46 PM

Conficker’s raison d’etre? Profit, of Course

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

More than a week after Conficker’s much-hyped April 1st activation date, the botnet has come to life and is using a P2P communication system to update itself on what is believed to be millions of infected PCs. Along with the update, the worm is downloading scareware known as SpywareProtect2009, according to Alex Gostev of Kaspersky Lab:

One of the files is a rogue anti-virus app, which we detect as FraudTool.Win32.SpywareProtect2009.s. The first version of Kido (Conficker), detected back in November 2008, also downloaded fake antivirus to the infected machine. And once again, six months later, we’ve got unknown cybercriminals using the same trick.

As is typical with scareware, once SpywareProtect2009 is downloaded, the victim will start seeing the usual popup warning messages asking if they want to “clean and protect” their PC (see screen shot below). Of course, this will cost them $49.95. The criminals will no doubt make millions on these fees alone while amassing a huge database of valid credit card numbers that will likely be sold for additional profit. has posted an excellent FAQ and also provides a disinfection tool called KKiller for download.

March 31, 2009  12:48 AM

What Will Conficker do on April First?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

No one knows for sure, but we do know that *something* is going to happen on April Fools’ Day. Conficker is a new breed of malware; the people behind it are of exceptional intelligence. They aren’t a crew of script kiddies out to make a quick buck. Whatever Conficker is specifically designed to do, you can bet its actions will be directed toward: 1. Maximizing proliferation of its binaries (survival); 2. Avoiding detection; and, 3. Maximizing profit (or damage).

The worm has been pretty effective at #1, by some estimates having already infected several million PCs. It has done this through exploitation of a Windows vulnerability, MS08-067 that was patched back in October and about which I wrote Will They Ever Learn to Patch? in January. However, it’s possible that those computers in the most concentrated areas of infection–China, Russia, India, Brazil, and Argentina–are impossible to patch because they are running pirated copies of Microsoft Windows software, and Microsoft does not allow updates of any kind to its pirated software. Seems to me this is a self-defeating policy, but I’m just a sensible Geek, not a Microsoft executive.

As for #2, the latest variant has added new anti-detection features. According to Larry Seltzer writing in, “Avoiding detection is a major theme with Conficker.C. It’s not the first malware to try to defend itself in-memory against security software and diagnostic tools, but “C” does a lot of this. For instance, it disables Windows Automatic Updates and the Windows Security Center.”

We’ll find out Wednesday, April 1st, what–if anything–happens with #3. My bet is that it’ll be another Y2K-type event. Then again, who knows?

March 27, 2009  5:32 PM

NoScript Blocks Latest Firefox Bug

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Got NoScript? If not, get it–the latest Firefox bug, an XML tag remote memory corruption vulnerability released on Wednesday, is mitigated by having the NoScript addon installed.

The bug can be exploited by a malicious website and can cause the browser to execute malware with no user intervention. All 3.0.x versions of Firefox running on Windows, Mac, and Linux operatintg systems are vulnerable. According to the Mozilla Wiki, the patched version, Firefox 3.0.8, “…is a high-priority firedrill security update to Firefox 3.0.x” and will be rolled out April 1.

The 3.0.8 release also fixes the Pwn2Own bug discovered at CanSecWest 2009, an issue that NoScript also mitigates.

I’ve said it before (see “Software for Secure Computing: Firefox & NoScript“); now’s a good time to say it again: install NoScript, and enjoy secure computing.

SecurityFocus bulletin:
The Register article:
Mozilla Security Blog post:

March 25, 2009  1:49 PM

Worm Targets Home Networking Equipment

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

As reported yesterday in The Register, the “psyb0t” worm targets home routers and modems and may be the first piece of malware to do so. Researchers from DroneBL, a real-time tracker of abusable IPs, say that as of March 22 100,000 hosts had been infected.

Whether or not your equipment is vulnerable depends on three things:

  • Your device is a mipsel (MIPS running in little-endian mode, this is what the worm is compiled for) device.
  • Your device also has telnet, SSH or web-based interfaces available to the WAN, and
  • Your username and password combinations are weak, OR the daemons that your firmware uses are exploitable.

“This technique is one to be extremely concerned about,” the researchers say, “because most end users will not know their network has been hacked, or that their router is exploited. This means that in the future, this could be an attack vector for the theft of personally identifying information.”

If you believe your equipment is vulnerable or has been compromised, you should immediately take the following actions:

  1. Power cycle your router.
  2. Disable WAN-facing telnet, SSH or web-based configuration interfaces.
  3. Change the passwords to something unguessable (see this article).
  4. Upgrade to the latest firmware.

March 24, 2009  6:47 PM

Pagefile.sys is a Security Risk

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

Since the early days of Windows (3.x and forward), the operating system has relied upon vritual memory in the form of files stored on the hard drive to compensate for the lack of a machine’s physical memory. When the machine’s physical memory begins filling up, pages of data are moved from physical memory to the virtual memory file. Until Windows NT, this file was called win386.swp; when NT came along, it was renamed to pagefile.sys. While the pagefile generally enhances performance, it’s a security risk.

For one thing, Windows’ default behavior leaves the pagefile intact when a user logs out, so there’s a good chance of viewing information in any files the user opened while logged in.

Encryption doesn’t necessarily mean the data is safe, either. Sure, the file itself is encrypted, but in order to work with encrypted files, the system must first decrypt them and this unencrypted copy may be stored in the pagefile.

There’s a simple registry setting that will clear your pagefile when you shutdown your computer. Why this setting isn’t enabled by default only makes sense from a performance standpoint. It may take Windows slightly longer to shut down, but you’ll rest easier knowing your confidential data isn’t at risk.

Start regedit and navigate to:


Set the key ClearPageFileAtShutdown to 1

Close regedit and reboot your computer to apply the change.

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