Category Archives: Security

We’re Not in the Business of Understanding our User

Za-tray2

A few years ago I wrote about sometimes your product is useful to people in ways you didn’t know—and that you’d be smart to recognise that and capitalize on itn (What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About, 2007).

One of the examples I cited was ZoneAlarm, a very popular firewall that was bought by Check Point. The point I made with their product was how useful the Windows system tray icon was in that it doubled as a network activity monitor. The logo, in short, would switch to a twin gauge when there was traffic. Really useful: it wasn’t directly related to the actual function of the firewall, but for most people that’s academic. If the firewall’s up and running and traffic is showing through it, everything must be good.

The dual-purpose icon was a confidence-boosting measure, a symbol that the purpose of the product—to keep the network safe—was actually being fulfilled.

Not any more. A message on the ZoneAlarm User Community forum indicates that as of March this year the icon will not double as a network monitor. In response to questions from users a moderator wrote:

Its not going to be fixed in fact its going to be removed from up comming [sic] ZA version 10
So this will be a non issue going forward.
ZoneAlarm is not in the buiness [sic] of showing internet activity.
Forum Moderator

So there you have it. A spellchecker-challenged moderator tells it as it is. Zone Alarm is now just another firewall, with nothing to differentiate it and nothing to offer the user who’s not sure whether everything is good in Internet-land. Somebody who didn’t understand the product and the user saved a few bucks by cutting the one feature that made a difference to the user.

Check Point hasn’t covered itself in glory, it has to be said. I reckon one can directly connect the fall in interest in their product with the purchase by Check Point of Zone Labs in December 2003 (for $200 million). Here’s what a graph of search volume looks like for zonealarm since the time of the purchase. Impressive, eh?

image

Of course, this also has something to do with the introduction of Windows’ own firewall, which came out with XP SP2 in, er, 2004. So good timing for Zone Labs but not so great for Check Point.

Which is why they should have figured out that the one thing that separated Zone Alarm from other firewalls was the dual purpose icon. So yes, you are in the business of showing Internet activity. Or were.

(PS Another gripe: I tried the Pro version on trial and found that as soon as the trial was over, the firewall closed down. It didn’t revert to the free version; it just left my computer unprotected. “Your computer is unprotected,” it said. Thanks a bunch!)

Phishy Facebook Emails

Facebook phishes are getting better. Compare this one:

facebook real

and this:

facebook scam

Notice how the key bit, supposedly defining that it’s a legit email, is successfully and convincingly faked: image

The only difference that stands out is the domain: facebookembody.com. Although Google classified it as spam they didn’t warn that it would go to a website that contains malware. So be warned. Notification emails aren’t such a good idea anymore, if they ever were.

DigiNotar Breach Notes

Some folk have asked me for more details about the DigiNotar breach after my brief appearance on Al Jazeera this morning. So here are the notes I prepared for the segment. Links at the bottom.

Background

web security certificates are digital IDs issued by companies entrusted with making sure they are given to the right company or organisation. It allows a user to set up a secure connection between their computer and the organisation’s website. Browsers will show a little lock or some other icon to signify the certificate has been found and is trusted.

Hackers broke into a Dutch company called DigiNotar, itself owned by US firm Vasco Data Security, in mid June. DigiNotar is one of hundreds of companies around the globe called certificate authorities that issue these authentication certificates. Browsers contain a list of which CAs they can trust.

These hackers would have been able to steal existing certificates or generate their own, meaning they could now, with the help of an Internet Service Provider, launch what are called Man in the Middle Attacks–meaning they could intercept traffic, a bit like tapping a telephone.

DigiNotar noticed that something was amiss in July, but didn’t realise the extent of the breach until late August, by which time more than 500 (531) fake certificates were issued. While some cover domains like the CIA and MI6, these are probably just distractions. The key ones are a dozen issued for domains like Google, Facebook and Skype.

Why do we think this was about Iran?

Studies of the validation requests–browsers pinging DigiNotar to confirm the certificate’s authenticity–showed that during August the bulk–maybe 99%–of the traffic was coming from Iran. When the certificates were eventually revoked, Iranian activity dropped.

Moreover the attackers left some quite obvious clues. They left calling cards: transcribed Farsi which translates into slogans such as  ”I will sacrifice my life for my leader.” “unknown soldier”

Why might Iran be interested?

Well, we now know that a lot of countries like Syria intercept ordinary Internet traffic through something called Deep Packet Inspection. This means that the government is basically snooping on web traffic. But when that traffic passes through these secure connections, it’s much harder. So the holy grail of any internet surveillance is to get a hold  of those certificates, or work around them. This is a brazen attempt to do this.

All Internet traffic in Iran has to go through a government proxy, making this kind of attack much simpler. The government ISP just uses the certificate to pretend to be Google, or whatever, and then passes the traffic on.

Is it the government?

This is harder to confirm. The Dutch government is investigating this. A similar attack took place against an Italian CA in March, and it shows similar fingerprints.

But the fact that the certificates were stolen and then used seems to suggest some official connection.

What could they have discovered?

Quite a lot. All the traffic that was intercepted could be deciphered.. meaning all browsing and emails. But it also may have captured cookies, meaning passwords, which would have made it easy to hack into target accounts and sniff around old emails, dig out other passwords, or hack into associated accounts, such as Google Docs.

Moreover, some of the certificates compromise something called The Onion Router, a service which anonymizes web traffic. Though TOR itself wasn’t compromised the certificates could convince your browser you were talking to TOR, whereas in fact you’d be talking to the attacker.

Should other people be worried?

Yes, Some browser developers have been more forthcoming than others; Google Chrome and Firefox have been quick to respond. Others less so. If you’re in Iran or think you may be targetted, it’s a good idea to change your password, and to check that no one has altered your forwarding details in your email account. You should also upgrade your browser to the latest version, whatever browser you use.

DigiNotar made some horrible mistakes: one Windows domain for all certificate servers, no antivirus, a simple administrator password. There were defaced pages on the website dating back to 2009. One has to wonder what other certificate authorities are similarly compromised. We rely on these companies to know what they’re doing. They’re the top of the food chain, in the words of one analyst.

We should now be looking closely at the previous breaches and looking for others. This is a ratcheting up of the stakes in a cyberwar; this kind of thing has real world impact on those people who thought they were communicating safely and will now fear the knock on their door.

In the future this is likely to lead to a change in the way certificates are issued and checked. I don’t think DigiNotar is going to survive this, but I think a bigger issue is bound to be how this security issue is handled. I think governments which look to the Internet as a tool for democratic change need also to be aware of just how dangerous it is to encourage dissidents to communicate online, whether or not they’re being careful.

News:

BBC News – Fake DigiNotar web certificate risk to Iranians

DigiNotar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Fake DigiNotar certificates targeting Iranians?

Expert reports/analysis:

DigiNotar Hacked by Black.Spook and Iranian Hackers – F-Secure Weblog : News from the Lab

Operation Black Tulip: Fox-IT’s report on the DigiNotar breach | Naked Security (Sophos)

Fox-IT report, operation Black Tulip (PDF)

VASCO:

Acquisition DigiNotar

VASCO DigiNotar Statement

Comodogate:

Comodo Group – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaackground

web security certificates are digital IDs issued by companies entrusted with making sure they are given to the right company or organisation. It allows a user to set up a secure connection between their computer and the organisation’s website. Browsers will show a little lock or some other icon to signify the certificate has been found and is trusted.

 

Hackers broke into a Dutch company called DigiNotar, itself owned by US firm Vasco Data Security, in mid June. DigiNotar is one of hundreds of companies around the globe called certificate authorities that issue these authentication certificates. Browsers contain a list of which CAs they can trust.

 

These hackers would have been able to steal existing certificates or generate their own, meaning they could now, with the help of an Internet Service Provider, launch what are called Man in the Middle Attacks–meaning they could intercept traffic, a bit like tapping a telephone.

 

DigiNotar noticed that something was amiss in July, but didn’t realise the extent of the breach until late August, by which time more than 500 (531) fake certificates were issued. While some cover domains like the CIA and MI6, these are probably just distractions. The key ones are a dozen issued for domains like Google, Facebook and Skype.

 

Why do we think this was about Iran?

 

Studies of the validation requests–browsers pinging DigiNotar to confirm the certificate’s authenticity–showed that during August the bulk–maybe 99%–of the traffic was coming from Iran. When the certificates were eventually revoked, Iranian activity dropped.

 

Moreover the attackers left some quite obvious clues. They left calling cards: transcribed Farsi which translates into slogans such as  “I will sacrifice my life for my leader.” “unknown soldier”

 

Why might Iran be interested?

Well, we now know that a lot of countries like Syria intercept ordinary Internet traffic through something called Deep Packet Inspection. This means that the government is basically snooping on web traffic. But when that traffic passes through these secure connections, it’s much harder. So the holy grail of any internet surveillance is to get a hold  of those certificates, or work around them. This is a brazen attempt to do this.

 

All Internet traffic in Iran has to go through a government proxy, making this kind of attack much simpler. The government ISP just uses the certificate to pretend to be Google, or whatever, and then passes the traffic on.

 

Is it the government?

This is harder to confirm. The Dutch government is investigating this. A similar attack took place against an Italian CA in March, and it shows similar fingerprints.

 

What could they have discovered?

Quite a lot. All the traffic that was intercepted could be deciphered.. meaning all browsing and emails. But it also may have captured cookies, meaning passwords, which would have made it easy to hack into target accounts and sniff around old emails, dig out other passwords, or hack into associated accounts, such as Google Docs.

 

Moreover, some of the certificates compromise something called The Onion Router, a service which anonymizes web traffic. Though TOR itself wasn’t compromised the certificates could convince your browser you were talking to TOR, whereas in fact you’d be talking to the attacker.

 

Should other people be worried?

Yes, Some browser developers have been more forthcoming than others; Google Chrome and Firefox have been quick to respond. Others less so. If you’re in Iran or think you may be targetted, it’s a good idea to change your password, and to check that no one has altered your forwarding details in your email account. You should also upgrade your browser to the latest version, whatever browser you use.

 

DigiNotar made some horrible mistakes: one Windows domain for all certificate servers, no antivirus, a simple administrator password. There were defaced pages on the website dating back to 2009. One has to wonder what other certificate authorities are similarly compromised. We rely on these companies to know what they’re doing. They’re the top of the food chain, in the words of one analyst.

 

We should now be looking closely at the previous breaches and looking for others. This is a ratcheting up of the stakes in a cyberwar; this kind of thing has real world impact on those people who thought they were communicating safely and will now fear the knock on their door.

 

In the future this is likely to lead to a change in the way certificates are issued and checked. I don’t think DigiNotar is going to survive this, but I think a bigger issue is bound to be how this security issue is handled. I think governments which look to the Internet as a tool for democratic change need also to be aware of just how dangerous it is to encourage dissidents to communicate online, whether or not they’re being careful.

Real Phone Hacking

Interesting glimpse into the real world of phone hacking–not the amateurish stuff we’ve been absored by in the UK–by Sharmine Narwani: In Lebanon, The Plot Thickens « Mideast Shuffle.

First off, there’s the indictment just released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which, in the words of Narwani,

appears to be built on a simple premise: the “co-location” of cellular phones — traceable to the accused four — that coincide heavily with Hariri’s whereabouts and crucial parts of the murder plot in the six weeks prior to his death.

Indeed, the case relies heavily on Call Data Record (CDR) analysis. Which sounds kind of sophisticated. Or is it? Narwani contends that this could have been manufactured. Indeed, she says,

there isn’t a literate soul in Lebanon who does not know that the country’s telecommunications networks are highly infiltrated — whether by competing domestic political operatives or by foreign entities.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. The ITU recently issued two resolutions [PDF] basically calling on Israel to stop conducting “piracy, interference and disruption, and sedition”.

And Lebanon has arrested at least two men accused of helping Israel infiltrate the country’s cellular networks. What’s interesting about this from a data war point of view is that one of those arrested has confessed, according to Narwani, to lobbying for the cellular operator he worked for not to install more secure hardware, made by Huawei, which would have presumably made eavesdropping harder. (A Chinese company the good guy? Go figure.)

If this were the case–if Lebanon’s cellular networks were so deeply penetrated–then it’s evidence of the kind of cyberwar we’re not really equipped to understand, let alone deal with: namely data manipulation.

Narwani asks whether it could be possible that the tribunal has actually been hoodwinked by a clever setup: that all the cellular data was faked, when

a conspiring “entity” had to obtain the deepest access into Lebanese telecommunications networks at one or — more likely — several points along the data logging trail of a mobile phone call. They would have to be able to intercept data and alter or forge it, and then, importantly, remove all traces of the intervention.

After all, she says,

the fact is that Hezbollah is an early adherent to the concept of cyberwarfare. The resistance group have built their own nationwide fiber optics network to block enemy eavesdropping, and have demonstrated their own ability to intercept covert Israeli data communications. To imagine that they then used traceable mobile phones to execute the murder of the century is a real stretch.

Who knows? But Darwani asserts that

Nobody doubts Israel’s capacity to carry out this telecom sleight of hand — technology warfare is an entrenched part of the nation’s military strategies. This task would lie somewhere between the relatively facile telephone hacking of the News of the World reporters and the infinitely more complex Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in which Israel is a prime suspect.

In other words, there’s something going on here that is probably a lot more sophisticated than a tribunal can get behind. I’m no Mideast expert, but if only half of this is true it’s clear that cellphones are the weakest link in a communications chain. And that if this kind of thing is going on Lebanon, one has to assume that it’s going on in a lot of places.

Southeast Asia’s Viral Infection

Southeast Asia is fast developing a reputation as the most dangerous place on the Internet. It’s not a reputation the region can afford to have.

By one count Thailand has risen to be the country with the most number of malware infections, by one account, and by another to be the second, all in the past few months.

PandaLabs’ report on the second quarter of 2011 [PDF] lists Thailand as having the second highest rate of malware infection (after China) with nearly 57% of computers scanned by their antivirus software as being infected. The global average is about 40%. Thailand was second in the previous quarter too, but with an even higher infection rate, of 65%. Most of these infections seem to come from worms.

Indeed, this trend seems to have started last year. The AntiPhishing Working Group’s report for the second half of 2010 lists as top in terms of infected countries–nearly 67%, higher than China’s 63%. (I should point out that the chief analyst for the APWG is Luis Corrons, who is technical director of PandaLabs, so the source of this data may actually be one place.)

Indonesia, meanwhile, now equals the United States as the highest single source of Distributed Denial of Service attacks, according to data from Kaspersky (Expect More DDoS Attacks Tomorrow, published on Monday):

The US and Indonesia topped the rating with each country accounting for 5% of all DDoS traffic. The US’s leading position is down to the large number of computers in the country – a highly attractive feature for botmasters. Meanwhile, the large number of infected computers in Indonesia means it also ranks highly in the DDoS traffic rating. According to data from Kaspersky Security Network, Kaspersky Lab’s globally-distributed threat monitoring network, in Q2 2011 almost every second machine (48%) in Indonesia was subjected to a local malware infection attempt.

A couple of points here:

  • Indonesia has a lot fewer computers connected to the Internet compared to the U.S.: about 40 million vs 245 million. This means that Indonesia is generating 5 times as much DDOS traffic per computer as the U.S.
  • The discrepancies in the infection rates between Kaspersky and Panda are artifacts of the way these companies measure these things. Basically, as far as I understand, they gather data from users, so a lot depends on just how popular that particular piece of antivirus software is in the country, and on factors such as the likelihood of people actually using antivirus software.

The Kaspersky report shows that Southeast Asia features heavily in the proportion of DDOS traffic:

  • Indonesia 5%
  • Philippines 4%
  • Vietnam 4%
  • Thailand 4%
  • Singapore 4%
  • Malaysia 3%

Internet traffic optimizer Akamai, meanwhile, reported that [PDF, may have to answer a short survey before reading] Burma (Myanmar) accounted for 13% of the world’s attack traffic (i.e. DDOS traffic). This was the first time that Burma appeared on the list. I’ve spoken to Akamai and they’re not clear why this is the case, but they did point to the fact that their data covers the first quarter of 2011, a few months after a massive DDOS attack on Burma which happened to coincide with the country’s elections.

The suspicion at the time that this was self-inflicted: basically pro-government hackers preventing Burmese from using the Internet to get alternative sources of election information. Makes sense. Akamai’s theory is that this traffic that they saw in the first quarter of this year was residual traffic from those massive attacks. But the truth is that no one knows.

More generally, it’s not good that Southeast Asia is now becoming this malware and DDOS capital. There are lots of reasons for it, which I’ll be exploring as part of a project in the months to come.

Full version of the Kaspersky report: DDoS attacks in Q2 2011 – Securelist

The Battery DDOS: Tip of An Iceberg

An interesting story brewing about the FBI investigating a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on websites selling batteries. But the reporting does not go far enough: In fact, a little research reveals this is part of a much bigger assault on a range of industries.

As a starting point, look at Elinor Mills of the excellent Insecurity Complex at CNET:

U.S. battery firms reportedly targeted in online attack | InSecurity Complex – CNET News: “The FBI is investigating denial-of-service attacks targeting several U.S. battery retail Web sites last year that were traced to computers at Russian domains in what looks like a corporate-sabotage campaign, according to documents published yesterday by The Smoking Gun.”

But a closer look at the source documents suggests this is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. The Smoking Gun incorrectly reports the email address used by the alleged hacker, a St Petersburg man called Korjov Sergey Mihalivich, as lvf56fre@yahoo.com. In fact, the FBI lists it as lvf56kre@yahoo.com, which yields much more interesting results. Such as this one, from ShadowServer.

ShadowServer shows that the domains under that person’s control, globdomain.ru (not globdomian.ru as reported by the Smoking Gun) and greenter.ru, have been prolific since 2010 in launching DDOS attacks against 14 countries and more than 30 industries and government websites. An update from ShadowServer in January 2011 counted 170 “different victims. Again, these attacks are across many different industries and target some rather high profile sites.” (It doesn’t identify them.)

The DDOS attacks use the BlackEnergy botnet, described by Arbor Networks’ Jose Nazario in a 2007 paper [PDF]. Back then Nazario reported the botnet’s C&C systems were hosted in Malaysia and Russia.

The same email address used for those two domains has registered other domains: trashdomain.ru, which has been recorded as the host for a Trojan dropper called Microjoin.

In other words, this is a lot more than about batteries. This appears to be a DDOS for rent to businesses wanting to take out business rivals in a host of fields. Indeed, the FBI investigation makes this clear, and cites the $600,000 damage caused as included attacks on “a wide range of businesses located in the United States.” (This does not include the dozen other countries affected, hence, presumably, the quite low sum involved.)

The batteries attack took place in October 2010, but the FBI document makes clear that as of May 2011 the attacks were still going on.

At present it’s not clear who is behind these attacks–in other words, who is paying for them. This could be a ransom attack–pay up or we will keep DDOSing–but this doesn’t seem to be the case, as Batteries4less.com Chief Executive Coryon Redd doesn’t mention any such approach in an interview with Mills. He seems to believe that “[t]he competitor is going to be U.S.-based and contracting out with a bad guy in Russia.”

Could be right. In which case the investigation has stumbled on a dark world of business tactics stretching from banking to astrology consultants. More research needed, please.

Did Prolexic Fend Off Anonymous’s Sony Attacks?

Prolexic, a company that defends clients against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, says it has successfully combatted the “Largest Packet-Per-Second DDoS Attack Ever Documented in Asia”:

“Prolexic Technologies, the global leader in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) mitigation services, today announced it successfully mitigated another major DDoS attack of unprecedented size in terms of packet-per-second volume. Prolexic cautions that global organizations should consider the attack an early warning of the escalating magnitude of similar DDoS threats that are likely to become more prevalent in the next 6 to 8 months.”

Although it describes the customer only as “an Asian company in a high-risk e-commerce industry” it could well be connected to the recent attacks on Sony by Anonymous. A piece by Sebastian Moss – The Worst Is Yet To Come: Anonymous Talks To PlayStation LifeStyle — in April quoted an alleged member of Anonymous called Takai as reacting to unconfirmed reports that Sony had hired Prolexic to defend itself (Sony Enlists DDoS Defense Firm to Combat Hackers):

“It was expected. We knew sooner or later Sony would enlist outside help”. Pressed on whether Anonymous would take out Prolexic, Takai showed confidence in the ‘hacktavist’s’ upcoming retaliation, stating “well, if I had to put money on it … I’d say, Prolexic is going down like a two dollar wh*** in a Nevada chicken ranch  ”. He did admit that the company “is quite formidable” and congratulated “them for doing so well”, but again he warned “We do however have ways for dealing with the ‘Prolexic’ factor”.

The website also quoted Anonymous members expressing frustration at the new defences, but that they appeared to be confident they would eventually prevail. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

Prolexic’s press release says the attacks had been going on for months before the client approached the company. The size of the attack, the company said, was staggering:

According to Paul Sop, chief technology officer at Prolexic, the volume reached levels of approximately 25 million packets per second, a rate that can overwhelm the routers and DDoS mitigation appliances of an ISP or major carrier. In contrast, most high-end border routers can forward 70,000 packets per second in typical deployments. In addition, Prolexic’s security experts found 176,000 remotely controlled PCs, or bots, in the attacker’s botnet (robot network). This represents a significant threat as typically only 5,000-10,000 bots have been employed in the five previous attacks mitigated by Prolexic.

It does not say why it considers the attack over, now gives any timeline for the attack. But if it is Sony, it presumably means that Anonymous has withdrawn for now or is preoccupied with other things. Prolexic, however, is probably right when it warns this is a harbinger of things to come:

“Prolexic sees this massive attack in Asia with millions of packets per second as an early warning beacon of the increasing magnitude of DDoS attacks that may be on the horizon for Europe and North America in the next 6 to 8 months,” Sop said. “High risk clients, such as those extremely large companies in the gaming and gambling industries in Asia, are usually the first targets of these huge botnets just to see how successful they can be.”

Libya’s Stuxnet?

A group of security professionals who have good credentials and strong links to the U.S. government have outlined a Stuxnet-type attack on Libyan infrastructure, according to a document released this week. But is the group outlining risks to regional stability, or is it advocating a cyber attack on Muammar Gadhafi?

The document, Project Cyber Dawn (PDF), was released on May 28 2011 by CSFI – the Cyber Security Forum Initiative, which describes itself as

non-profit organization headquartered in Omaha, NE and in Washington DC with a mission “to provide Cyber Warfare awareness, guidance, and security solutions through collaboration, education, volunteer work, and training to assist the US Government, US Military, Commercial Interests, and International Partners.”

CSFI now numbers about 7,500 members and an active LinkedIn forum.

To be clear, the document does not advocate anything. It merely highlights vulnerabilities, and details scenarios. It concludes, for example:

CSFI recommends the United States of America, its allies and international partners take the necessary steps toward helping normalizing Libya‘s cyber domain as a way to minimize possible future social and economic disruptions taking place through the Internet.

But before that it does say:

A cyber-attack would be among the easiest and most direct means to initially inject into the systems if unable to gain physical engineering attacks against the facility. Numerous client-side attack vectors exist that support payloads capable of compromising SCADA application platforms.

Elsewhere it says:

The area most vulnerable to a cyber-attack, which could impact not only the Libyan‘s prime source of income, but also the primary source of energy to the country, would be a focused attack on their petroleum refining facilities. Without refined products, it is difficult to fuel the trucks, tanks and planes needed to wage any effective war campaign.

The document itself is definitely worth a read; it doesn’t just focus on the cyberweapon side of things. And complicating matters is that one of the contributors to the report, a company called Unveillance, was hacked by a group called LulzSec around the time that the report was being finished. It’s not clear whether this affected release of the report.

Emails stolen from Unveillance and posted online by LulzSec indicate that two versions of the report were planned: one public one, linked to above, and one that would “go to staffers in the White House.” In another email a correspondent mentions an imminent briefing for Department of Defense officials on the report.

The only difference between the two reports that I can find are that the names of some SCADA equipment in Libya have been blacked out in the public version. The reports were being finalized when the hack took place–apparently in the second half of May.

Other commentators have suggested that we seem to have a group of security researchers and companies linked to the U.S. government apparently advocating what the U.S. government has, in its own report International Strategy for Cyberspace released May 17, would define as an act of cyberwar.

I guess I’m surprised by something else: That we have come, within a few short months, from thinking as Stuxnet as an outlier, as a sobering and somewhat shocking wake-up call to the power of the Internet as a vector for taking out supposedly resilient and well-defended machinery to having a public document airily discussing the exact same thing, only this time against non-nuclear infrastructure.

(The irony probably won’t escape some people that, according to a report in the New York Times in January, it was surrendered Libyan equipment that was used to test the effectiveness of Stuxnet before it was launched. I’m yet to be convinced that that was true, but it seems to be conventional wisdom these days.)

Frankly, I think we have to be really careful how we go about discussing these kinds of things. Yes, everything is at arm’s length in the sense that just because bodies such as CSFI may have photos of generals on their web-page, and their members talk about their reports going to the White House, doesn’t mean that their advice is snapped up.

But we’re at an odd point in the evolution of cyberwar presently, and I don’t think we have really come to terms with what we can do, what others can do, and the ramifications of that. Advocating taking out Libyan infrastructure with Stuxnet 2.0 may sound good, but it’s a road we need to think carefully about.

The Gmail Phish: Why Publicize, and Why Now?

This Google Gmail phishing case has gotten quite a bit of attention, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents’ worth. (These are notes I collated for a segment I did for Al Jazeera earlier today. I didn’t do a particularly good job of getting these points across, and some of the stuff came in after it was done. )

Google says the attack appears to originate from Jinan, but doesn’t offer evidence to support that. I think it would be good if they did. Jinan is the capital of Shandong Province, but it’s also a military region and one of at least six where the PLA has one of its technical reconnaissance bureaus. These are responsible for, among other things, exploitation of foreign networks, which might include this kind of thing. The city is also where the Lanxiang Vocational School is based, which was linked to the December 2009 attacks on Google’s back end systems. That also targeted human rights activists. Lanxiang has denied any involvement the 2009 attacks.

I’d be very surprised if this kind of thing wasn’t going on all the time. And I’m very surprised that senior government officials from the U.S., Korea and elsewhere are supposedly using something like Gmail. There are more secure ways to communicate out there. I think it’s worth pointing out that this particular attack was first identified by Mila Parkour, a researcher, back in February. Screenshots on her blog suggest that at least three U.S. government entities were targeted.

I asked her what she thought of the release of the news now, four months later. Does this mean, I asked, that it took Google a while to figure it out?

As for any other vendor, investigations take time especially if they do not wish to alert the actors and make sure they shut down all the suspicious accounts.

And why, I asked, are they making it public now?

I think it is great they took time to unravel and find more victims and try to trace it. Looks like they exhausted all the leads and found out as much as they could to address it before going public . It has been three months and considering that hundreds of victims [are] involved, it is not too long.

This is not the first time that Google and other email accounts have been hacked in this way, and it’s probably not the last. It’s part of a much bigger battle going on. Well, two: one pits China–who are almost certainly behind it, or at least the ultimate beneficiaries of any data stolen, against regional and other rivals–and the other is Google making these things public. For Google it’s a chance to point out the kind of pressures it and other companies are under in China. Google in January 2010 said it and other companies had been under attack using tricks that exploited vulnerabilities in Google’s network to gain unauthorized access.

Google says it went public because it wants to keep its users safe. This from Myriam Boublil, Head of Communications & Public Affairs at Google Southeast Asia:

“We think users should be aware of the disturbing campaign we’ve uncovered to collect user passwords and monitor user email.  Our focus now is on protecting our users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe online”

This  attack is not particularly sophisticated, but it involves what is called spear phishing, which does involve quite extensive social engineering techniques and reveals the object of the attacker’s interest is not random, but very, very specific. If you judge a perpetrator of a crime by their victim, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who is the ultimate recipient of any intelligence gathered.