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!)

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

Phantom Mobile Threats

How secure is your mobile phone?

This is an old bugaboo that folks who sell antivirus software have tried to get us scared about. But the truth is that for the past decade there’s really not much to lose sleep over.

That hasn’t stopped people getting freaked out about it.

A security conference heard that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China. Some outlets reported that it also transmitted the user’s passwords to their voicemail.

About 700 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. It’s not clear who misreported all this—the journalists and others covering the event, or the company releasing the fruits of their research, but it gradually emerged that the applications—downloadable wallpapers—only transmitted a portion of this data. (See a corrected version of a story here.)

Indeed, the whole thing got less suspicious the more you dig.

This is what the developer told me in a text interview earlier today: “The app [recorded’] the phone number [because] Some people complained that when they change the[ir] phone, they will lose the[ir] favorite [settings]. So I [store] the phone number and subscriber ID to try to make sure that when [they] changed the phone, they have the same favorites.”

Needless to say the developer, based in Shenzhen, is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had any of the 700 or so outlets that wrote about his applications tried to contact him before writing their stories.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer shared with me some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters!

Not much longer. One website quoted Lookout as saying “We’ve been working with Google to investigate these apps and they’re on top of it.” They have: Google has now removed the apps from their site. So I guess Jackeey, as he asked me to call him, is going to have to look for other ways to spend his time. (He told me that Lookout had contacted him by email but not, apparently, before going public.) 

Seems a shame. Obviously, there is a mobile threat out there, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about addressing it. And I don’t think a guy in Shenzhen doing wallpaper apps is, frankly, worth so much hysterical column ink.

Let’s keep some perspective guys, and not embark on a witch-hunt without some forethought.

Lookout has since been backtracking a bit from its original dramatic findings. “While this sort of data collection from a wallpaper application is certainly suspicious,” it says on its blog, “there’s no evidence of malicious behavior.”

Suspicious? We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

Conflict of interest, anyone?

Evoting? First Bad Omen

I’m in the Philippines to look at their preparations for an automated evoting election in May. This morning’s visit to the hotel’s business center wasn’t a good omen: no antivirus software on their computers.

This might not tell us very much about the potential for disaster in an election which is supposed to be entirely electronic, but the staff’s attitude might. When I told her that her computers weren’t running antivirus, she nodded and said she knew that, as if to say that was a luxury this $120 a night hotel couldn’t afford.

When I told her politely she should fix it because her computers would infect her guests’ drives and they wouldn’t be happy, she gave me one of those dismissive smiles that made it clear that wasn’t about about to happen and the input wasn’t welcome.

Unsurprisingly my thumb drive was infected with the Slogod.F worm which is described as “dangerous and self-propagates over a network connection”:

image

If the business center of a fancy Manila hotel is so cavalier about computer security, what, I wonder does it tell us about preparedness for this automated election? Hopefully this is a blip. Hopefully.

The Trojan That Never Was

image

How not to handle a PR debacle, Part 767:

Avast, the free antivirus I’ve been using, and recommending, for while, has lost my confidence by a double whammy: mis-identifying pretty much every executable on my computer as a Trojan, and then not telling me about it.

Apparently an update to the software will misidentify a lot of files as containing the Trojan Win32:Delf-MZG, suggesting you do a boot scan to clear out infections. Do so, and you’ll likely find that Avast will be deleting a lot of major program files, including those in the Windows directory.

This is bad, because these are what are called false positives—i.e. not infected. An update to the Avast virus database created the error—and has, apparently, since been corrected with a further update. But not before hundreds, maybe thousands, of users, did what I did: boot scan and religiously delete
“infected” files.

You won’t, at the moment, know any of this from Avast.

Their blog hasn’t been updated since November 30. There’s nothing on their home page to suggest there’s a problem: the website lists the latest update and doesn’t indicate there’s been a problem.

But do a Google or twitter search and you get a sense of the frustration:

Twitter is throwing up a tweet every couple of minutes:

image

Yahoo! Answers is exhibiting similar frustrations. Even Avast’s own forums are lively with confusion.

The point here is that everyone makes mistakes. But Avast don’t seem to have helped their users to avoid panic by not only correcting the problem but in trying to ensure that their users find out about it easily and quickly.

This is not excusable in this era of the real time web. Twitter is the obvious choice, but there’s no sign of Avast on its official twitter feed since November 30. (see screenshot above.) Avast should be using all channels to reach its users.

Antirvirus is just an extreme example—it’s an industry that is used to updating its product on the fly. But security is also about informing its users—and Avast, sadly, is not much different from most companies that think they can brush over glitches and pretend they never happened.

A mea culpa is in order, and a promise that this isn’t going to happen. Crying wolf on viral infections is not a good security procedure.

Virus Hits British Defences

image

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how KL’s airport information system had been infected by a virus. I shouldn’t have gotten so het up. Turns out that the UK’s air force and navy have bigger problems.

ITV News reported on Friday that the Ministry of Defence’s computer network has been shut down “because of a mysterious virus that is causing wholesale disruption of MoD sites.” Among those affected were Royal Navy ships including the Ark Royal and RAF [Royal Air Force] bases including Brize Norton.

The Register quotes a statement from the “MoD that [s]ince 6 Jan 09 the performance of the MOD IT systems in a number of areas was affected by a virus.” The Register says “no command or operational systems had been affected, though many of these are based on similar hardware. Spokespersons also stated that “no classified or personal data has been or will be at risk of compromise” due to “pre-existing security measures”.”

This is less than a month after the Royal Navy announced it had switched its nuclear submarines to a “customized Microsoft Windows system” dubbed, snappily, Submarine Command System Next Generation (SMCS NG).

In 1998 the USS Yorktown was “dead in the water” for about two and a half hours after a glitch in its new Smart Ship system, which used off-the-shelf PCs to automate tasks sailors traditionally did manually. The mishap sunk the Smart Ship initiative, which was quietly dropped a couple of years later.

A report in Portsmouth Today said the virus had affected 75% of the navy’s ships, preventing sailors from sending email and performing tasks (like finding out how many sailors are joining the ship at its next port of call). A blog on the Ministry of Defence’s website denied a report in The Sunday Times that ‘all email traffic from a number of RAF stations has been sent to a Russian internet server’ as a result of a ‘worm virus that entered MOD systems 12 days ago’. (The report makes it appear like it was a Russian attack, which is unlikely. But I’m not sure how the MoD can be so sure that emails were not diverted in that way.)

Neither do I know how they can be sure that it wasn’t a targeted attack. As Graham Cluley of Sophos points out, it’s more likely it was human error. But aside from the issues that raises—just how many MoD computers are hooked up to the Internet, and how smart is this? What kind of antivirus software do they have installed on the computers that are?—I would prefer the MoD not to jump to the conclusion that it’s not a targeted attack.

The reason? We need to stop thinking about cyberwar and malware as two different things. Governments rarely launch cyberattacks. But individuals and gangs do—and they usually do it for a mix of nationalistic and commercial motives. This case probably is just a screw-up. But it’s foolish to discount the notion that the information that may have been gleaned—accidentally, perhaps—would prove of value to a government or an agency.

(Image above is the result of my trying to search the Royal Navy website for the word “virus”. )

Articles | MoD computers attacked by virus – ITV News

KL’s Airport Gets Infected

image

If there’s one place you hope you won’t get infected by a computer virus, it’s an airport.

It’s not just that the virus may fiddle with your departure times; it’s the wider possibility that the virus may have infected more sensitive parts of the airport: ticketing, say, or—heaven forbid—flight control.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport—Malaysia’s main international airport—was on Friday infected by the W32.Downadup worm, which exploits a vulnerability in Windows Microsoft patched back in October. The worm, according to Symantec, does a number of things, creating an http server on the compromised computer, deletes restore points, downloads other file and then starts spreading itself to other computers.

image

Enlargement of the photo above. The notification says Symantec Antivirus has found the worm, but has not been able to clean or quarantine the file.

KL airport clearly isn’t keeping a tight rein on its security. The virus alert pictured above is at least 12 hours old and the vulnerability it exploits had been patched up a month before. Says Graham Cluley of UK-based security software company Sophos: “What’s disturbing to me is that over a month later, the airport hasn’t applied what was declared to be an extremely critical patch, and one which is being exploited by malware in the wild.”

What’s more worrying is that this isn’t the first time. It’s the first time I’ve noticed an infection on their departures/arrivals board, but one traveller spotted something similar a year and a half ago, with a Symantec Antivirus message popping up on one of the monitors. I saw a Symantec Antivirus message on one monitor that said it had “encountered a problem and needs to close”, suggesting that the worm had succeeded in disabling the airport’s own antivirus defences:

image

So how serious is all this? Cluely says: “Well, it’s obviously a nuisance to many people, and maybe could cause some disruption.. but I think this is just the most “visible” sign of what may be a more widespread infection inside the airport.  I would be more concerned if ticketing and other computer systems were affected by the same attack.”

He points to computer viruses affecting other airports in recent years: In 2003, Continental Airlines checkin desks were knocked out by the Slammer worm. A year later, Sasser was blamed for leaving 300,000 Australian commuters stranded, and BA flights were also delayed.

For me, the bottom line about airports and air travel is confidence. As a traveler I need to feel confident that the people deciding which planes I fly and when are on top of basic security issues. And that doesn’t mean just frisking me at the gate. It also means keeping the computer systems that run the airport safe. This is probably just sloppy computer habits but what if it wasn’t? What if it was a worm preparing for a much more targeted threat, aimed specifically at air traffic?

(I’ve asked KL International Airport and Symantec for comment.)

Anti-virus Vendor, Er, Hacked. Serves Up, Er, Viruses

The Japanese arm of antivirus vendor Trend Micro has announced its website had been hacked and its pages modified to service up viruses. In other words, if someone had visited their website chances are they’d have picked up a virus.

Not the sort of thing you expect from an antivirus manufacturer, and they’re not being very forthcoming about it, either. While the company has announced that some of their website pages are found to be modified from March 9th to 12th, this is so far only in Japanese, according to asiajin. And that was yesterday. Nothing on their U.S. website yet.

Gen Kanai suggests it was because the company is using Windows 2000, and rips into TrendMicro both for the length of the breach and the lack of transparency: “If a security services/software firm can’t keep their own web servers secured, and left their own hacked website up for 3 days, there’s no logical reason to expect that their own security services are any better.”

Not very reassuring. I’ve often recommended HouseCall but until this is sorted out and Trend Micro comes clean about this, I’m steering clear.

More on Veronica and Fake Flirting

Courtesy of ABC Australia IT guru Paul Wallbank, the source of my chat with Veronica Sexy may have been discovered: an automated sex talk service called CyberLover.ru. Paul points to this story from Conor Sweeney of Moscow’s Reuters bureau:

A Russian website called CyberLover.ru is advertising a software tool that, it says, can simulate flirtatious chatroom exchanges. It boasts that it can chat up as many as 10 women at the same time and persuade them to hand over phone numbers.

The service, on the surface, appears aimed at guys who aren’t able to win over girls online any other way: “It’s happened – a program to tempt girls over the internet!” Reuters quotes the site as claiming. “Within half an hour the CyberLover program will introduce you to … girls, exchange photos and perhaps even a contact phone number,” it states. Woohoo. 

But is that all it does? Antivirus and software developer PC Tools says it’s much more dangerous than that. “As a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering,” a company press release quotes Sergei Shevchenko, Senior Malware Analyst, as saying. “It employs highly intelligent and customized dialogue to target users of social networking systems.” The goal, Sergei says: to gather personal information about users and also to lure them to websites, possibly to infect them with malware (a generic terms for software that infects their computer which can then be used as what is called a bot to grab data, infect other computers or send spam.) That doesn’t sound like the Veronica I know. 

The website itself denies this, according to the Reuters report. “The program can find no more information than the user is prepared to provide,” one of the site’s employees, who gave his name only as Alexander, said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions. “It maintains a dialogue with a person, but is not engaged in hacking or any other such schemes, I think this should be obvious,” he said.

Well, there’s hacking, and there’s other stuff that comes close to it. The company or individual behind this product appears to be the same as that which runs Botmaster.Net, both of which are registered to one Alexander Ryabchenko. Botmaster sells a $450 piece of software called Xrumer, which spams websites, forums and blogs to build up a website’s profile on search engines (it claims to get past CAPTCHA screens, where users are asked to identify letters in images.) Given the name of the website is botmaster you can’t help wondering what else it does. 

So was Veronica Sexy an early prototype of of CyberLover? Well, they’re both run by Russians, but beyond that it’s not clear. I hope to find out more. What is clear, though is that SkyperSex, the website Veronica was trying to lure me to, is an affiliate of Streamray, a sex website that is one of several just bought by Penthouse Media as part of its purchase of Various Inc (for $500 million). It should make for an interesting bit of research. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for automated online chat that’s a bit more real, check out My CyberTwin.

Russian computer program fakes chatroom flirting – Yahoo! News

Is That a Virus on Your Phone or a New Business Model?

This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only) is about mobile viruses — or the lack of them. First off I talked about CommWarrior, the virus any of you with a Symbian phone and Bluetooth switched no will have been pinged with anywhere in the world.

CommWarrior isn’t new: It has been around since March 2005. But this isn’t much comfort if you find yourself — as a lunch companion and I did — bombarded by a dozen attempts to infect our phones before the first course had arrived. So is CommWarrior just the thin end of a long wedge? Yes, if you listen to the Internet-security industry. “I can personally assure you that mobile threats are reality, and we have to start taking our mobile security seriously,” says Eric Everson, who admittedly has a stake in talking up the threat, given that he is founder of Atlanta-based MyMobiSafe, which offers cellphone antivirus protection at $4 a month.

But the security industry has been saying this for years about viruses — usually lumped together under the catchall “malware” — and, despite lots of scare stories, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence that they are actually causing us problems beyond those I experienced in the Italian restaurant.

For reasons of space quite a bit of material had to be dropped, so I’m adding it here for anyone who’s interested. Apologies to those sources who didn’t get their voices heard.

Symantec, F-Secure Security Labs and other antivirus companies call FlexiSPY a virus (though, strictly speaking, it’s a Trojan, meaning it must be installed by the user, who thinks the program does something harmless). “In terms of damaging the user, the most serious issue at the moment is commercial spyware applications such as FlexiSPY,” says Peter Harrison, of a new U.K.-based mobile-security company, UMU Ltd.

Not surprisingly, however, Mr. Raihan isn’t happy to have his product identified and removed by cellphone antivirus software, though he says his protests have fallen on deaf ears. “We are a godsend to them,” he says of the mobile antivirus companies. “They are fear-mongering as there is not a significant problem with viruses in the mobile space.”

Technorati Tags: , , , ,