BBC: Beyond the Breach

The script of my Reuters story on cybersecurity. Podcast available here (

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If you’re getting tired of internet security companies using images of padlocks, moats, drawbridges and barbed wire in their ads, then chances are you won’t have to put up with them much longer.

Turns out that keeping the bad guys out of your office network has largely failed. All those metaphors suggesting castles, unassailable battlements, locked doors are being quietly replaced by another shtick: the bad guys are in your network, but we’ll find them, watch what they do, and try to ensure they don’t break anything or steal anything valuable.

Which is slightly worrying, if you thought firewalls, antivirus and the like were going to save you.

You’re probably tired of the headlines about cybersecurity breaches: U.S. insurer Anthem Inc saying hackers may have made off with some 80 million personal health records, while others raided Sony Pictures’ computers and released torrents of damaging emails and employee data.

Such breaches, say people in the industry, show the old ways have failed, and now is the chance for younger, nimbler companies selling services to protect data and outwit attackers. These range from disguising valuable data, diverting attackers up blind alleys, and figuring out how to mitigate breaches once the data has already gone. It’s a sort of cat and mouse game, only going on inside your computers.

Cybersecurity, of course, is big business. $70 billion was spent on it last year.

Of course, we’re partly to blame. We insist on using our tablets and smartphones for work; we access Facebook and LinkedIn from the office. All this offers attackers extra opportunities to gain access to their networks.

But it’s also because the attackers and their methods have changed. Cyber criminals and spies are being overshadowed by politically or religiously motivated activists, and these guys don’t want to just steal stuff, they want to hurt their victim. And they have hundreds of ways of doing it.

And they’re usually successful. All these new services operate on the assumption that the bad guy is already inside your house, as it were. And may have been there months. Research by IT security company FireEye found that “attackers are bypassing conventional security deployments almost at will.” Across industries from legal to healthcare it found nearly all systems had been breached.

Where there’s muck there’s brass, as my mother would say. Funding these start-ups are U.S- and Europe-based venture capital firms which sense another industry ripe for disruption.

Google Ventures and others invested $22 million in ThreatStream in December, while Bessemer Venture Partners last month invested $30 million in iSIGHT Partners.

Companies using these services aren’t your traditional banks and  whatnot. UK-based Darktrace, which uses maths and machine learning to spot abnormalities in a network that might be an attack, has a customers like a British train franchise and a Norwegian shipping insurer.

But it’s early days. Most companies still blithely think they’re immune, either because they think they don’t have anything worth stealing or deleting, or because they think a firewall and an antivirus program are enough.

And of course, there’s another problem. As cyber breaches get  worse, and cybersecurity becomes a more valuable business, expect the hype, marketing and dramatic imagery to grow, making it ever more confusing for the lay person to navigate.

I’ve not seen them yet, but I’m guessing for these new companies the shield and helmet images will be replaced by those of SAS commandos, stealthily patrolling silicon corridors. Or maybe it’ll be Tom, laying mousetraps for his nemesis. Might be apt: Jerry the cheese thief always seemed to win.

Reuters: Beyond the Breach

My piece on disruption in the cybersecurity space. Too many companies and ideas to mention in Reuter-space, but it’s a start.  Thanks to Ian Geohegan, as ever, for his editing touch.  

Beyond the breach: cyberattacks force a defense strategy re-think | Reuters

(Reuters) – A barrage of damaging cyberattacks is shaking up the security industry, with some businesses and organizations no longer assuming they can keep hackers at bay, and instead turning to waging a guerrilla war from within their networks.

U.S. insurer Anthem Inc last week said hackers may have made off with some 80 million personal health records. Also, Amy Pascal said she would step down as co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, two months after hackers raided the company’s computers and released torrents of damaging emails and employee data.

Such breaches, say people in the industry, offer a chance for younger, nimbler companies trying to sell customers new techniques to protect data and outwit attackers. These range from disguising valuable data, diverting attackers up blind alleys, and figuring out how to mitigate breaches once the data has already gone.

“Suddenly, the music has completely changed,” said Udi Mokady, founder of U.S.-based CyberArk. “It’s not just Sony, it’s a culmination of things that has turned our industry around.”

Worldwide spending on IT security was about $70 billion last year, estimates Gartner. ABI Research reckons cybersecurity spending on critical infrastructure alone, such as banks, energy and defense, will reach $109 billion by 2020.

Several things are transforming the landscape. Corporations have been forced to allow employees to use their own mobile phones and tablets for work, and let them access web-based services like Facebook and Gmail from office computers. All this offers attackers extra opportunities to gain access to their networks.

And the attackers and their methods have changed.

Cyber criminals and spies are being overshadowed by politically or religiously motivated activists, says Bryan Sartin, who leads a team of researchers and investigators at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, part of Verizon Communications. “They want to hurt the victim, and they have hundreds of ways of doing it,” he said in a phone interview.

CLOSING THE DOOR

The result: companies can no longer count on defending themselves with decades-old tools like firewalls to block traffic and antivirus software to catch malware, and then assume all traffic that does make it within the network is legitimate.

Research by IT security company FireEye last month, for example, found that “attackers are bypassing conventional security deployments almost at will.” Across industries from legal to healthcare it found nearly all systems had been breached.

“Once an attacker has made it past those defenses they’re in the gooey center, and getting around is relatively simple,” said Ryan Wager, director of product management at vArmour.

Attackers can lurk inside a network for half a year before being detected. “That’s like having a bad guy inside your house for six months before you know about it,” says Aamir Lakhani, security strategist at Fortinet Inc, a network security company.

Security start-ups have developed different approaches based on the assumption that hackers are already, or soon will be, inside the network.

Canada-based Camouflage, for example, replaces confidential data in files that don’t need it, like training databases, with fictitious but usable data. This makes attackers think they have stolen something worthwhile. U.S.-based TrapX Security creates traps of ‘fake computers’ loaded with fake data to redirect and neutralize attacks.

California-based vArmour tries to secure data centers by monitoring and protecting individual parts of the network. In the Target Corp breach during the 2013 holiday shopping season, for example, attackers were able to penetrate 97 different parts of the company’s network by moving sideways through the organization, according to vArmour’s Wager.

“You need to make sure that when you close the door, the criminal is actually on the other side of the door,” he said.

‘THREAT INTELLIGENCE’

Funding these start-ups are U.S- and Europe-based venture capital firms which sense another industry ripe for disruption.

Google Ventures and others invested $22 million in ThreatStream in December, while Bessemer Venture Partners last month invested $30 million in iSIGHT Partners. Both companies focus on so-called ‘threat intelligence’ – trying to understand what attackers are doing, or plan to do.

Clients are starting to listen.

Veradocs‘ CEO and co-founder Ajay Arora says that while his product is not officially live, his firm is already working with companies ranging from hedge funds to media entertainment groups to encrypt key documents and data.

UK-based Darktrace, which uses math and machine learning to spot abnormalities in a network that might be an attack, has a customer base that includes Virgin Trains, Norwegian shipping insurer DNK and several telecoms companies.

But it’s slow going. Despite being open for business since 2013, it’s only been in the past six months that interest has really picked up, says Darktrace’s director of technology Dave Palmer. 

“The idea that indiscriminate hacking would target all organizations is only starting to get into the consciousness.”

Scammers Scam Gmail Scam Filters

This amused me. A scam message got through Gmail’s eagle-eyed scam filters telling me to update my account details. That’s not unusual. But was it because the scammers added their own assurance that they had already done the filtering?

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It says:

**************************************************************************
This footnote confirms that this email message has been scanned by New Google Mail-SeCure for the presence of malicious code, vandals & computer viruses.
**************************************************************************

Well that’s alright then.

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

Stuck on Stuxnet

By Jeremy Wagstaff (this is my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspaper syndication)

We’ve reached one of those moments that I like: When we’ll look back at the time before and wonder how we were so naive about everything. In this case, we’ll think about when we thought computer viruses were just things that messed up, well, computers.

Henceforward, with every mechanical screw-up, every piston that fails, every pump that gives out, any sign of smoke, we’ll be asking ourselves: was that a virus?

I’m talking, of course, about the Stuxnet worm. It’s a piece of computer code–about the size of half an average MP3 file–which many believe is designed to take out Iran’s nuclear program. Some think it may already have done so.

What’s got everyone in a tizzy is that this sort of thing was considered a bit too James Bond to actually be possible. Sure, there are stories. Like the one about how the U.S. infected some software which a Siberian pipeline so it exploded in 1982 and brought down the whole Soviet Union. No-one’s actually sure that this happened–after all, who’s going to hear a pipeline blow up in the middle of Siberia in the early 1980s?–but that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of those stories you know are too good not to be true.

And then there’s the story about how the Saddam Hussein’s phone network was disabled by US commandos in January 1991 armed with a software virus, some night vision goggles and a French dot matrix printer. It’s not necessarily that these things didn’t happen–it’s just that we heard about them so long after the fact that we’re perhaps a little suspicious about why we’re being told them now.

But Stuxnet is happening now. And it seems, if all the security boffins are to be believed, to open up a scary vista of a future when one piece of software can become a laser-guided missile pointed right at the heart of a very, very specific target. Which needn’t be a computer at all, but a piece of heavy machinery. Like, say, a uranium enrichment plant.

Stuxnet is at its heart just like any other computer virus. It runs on Windows. You can infect a computer by one of those USB flash drive thingies, or through a network if it finds a weak password.

But it does a lot more than that. It’s on the look out for machinery to infect—specifically, a Siemens Simatic Step 7 factory system. This system runs a version of Microsoft Windows, and is where the code that runs the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are put together. Once they’re compiled, these PLCs are uploaded to the computer that controls the machinery. Stuxnet, from what people can figure out, fiddles around with this code within the Siemens computer, tweaking it as it goes to and comes back from the PLC itself.

This is the thing: No one has seen this kind of thing before. Of course, we’ve heard stories. Only last month it was reported that the 2008 crash of a Spanish passenger jet, killing 154 people, may have been caused by a virus.

But this Stuxnet thing seems to be on a whole new level. It seems to be very deliberately targeted at one factory, and would make complex modifications to the system. It uses at least four different weaknesses in Windows to burrow its way inside, and installs its own software drivers—something that shouldn’t happen because drivers are supposed to be certified.

And it’s happening in real time. Computers are infected in Indonesia, India, Iran and now China. Boffins are studying it and may well be studying it for years to come. And it may have already done what it’s supposed to have done; we may never know. One of the key vulnerabilities the Trojan used was first publicized in April 2009 in an obscure Polish hacker’s magazine. The number of operating centrifuges in Iran’s main nuclear enrichment program at Natanz was reduced significantly a few months later; the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization resigned in late June 2009.

All this is guesswork and very smoke and mirrors: Israel, perhaps inevitably, has been blamed by some. After all, it has its own cyber warfare division called Unit 8200, and is known to have been interested, like the U.S., in stopping Iran from developing any nuclear capability. And researchers have found supposed connections inside the code: the word myrtle, for example, which may or may not refer to the Book of Esther, which tells of a Persian plot against the Jews, and the string 19790509, which may or may not be a nod to Habib Elghanian, a Jewish-Iranian businessman who was accused of spying for Israel and was executed in Iran on May 9, 1979.

Frankly, who knows?

The point with all this is that we’re entering unchartered territory. It may all be a storm in a teacup, but it probably isn’t. Behind all this is a team of hackers who not only really know what they’re doing, but know what they want to do. And that is to move computer viruses out of our computers and into machinery. As Sam Curry from security company RSA puts it:

This is, in effect, an IT exploit targeted at a vital system that is not an IT system.

That, if nothing else, is reason enough to look nostalgically back on the days when we didn’t wonder whether the machinery we entrusted ourselves to was infected.

The Trojan That Never Was

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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:

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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 Grounds French Fighters

Here’s more evidence of how vulnerable armed forces are to software attacks, intended or not. The French navy’s fighter jets “were unable to download their flight plans after databases were infected by a Microsoft virus they had already been warned about several months beforehand,” according to the Telegraph:

However, the French navy admitted that during the time it took to eradicate the virus, it had to return to more traditional forms of communication: telephone, fax and post.

Naval officials said the “infection”‘ was probably due more to negligence than a deliberate attempt to compromise French national security. It said it suspected someone at the navy had used an infected USB key.

Last month, you may recall, a virus closed down the British Ministry of Defence.

French fighter planes grounded by computer virus – Telegraph

KL’s Airport Gets Infected

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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.

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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:

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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.)

Facebook Scams: Not Out of the Woods

Facebook may have just won a theoretical warchest from a spammer, but it’s not put its house in order when it comes to scams. Indeed, I suspect they’re getting worse. Now you can get infected without even having to visit your Facebook account.

What happens is that, if you have set your profile to receive email updates when someone sends you a message on Facebook, these trojan scams actually make their way direct into your inbox. Facebook is just the vector:

Here’s a message, as it looks in Gmail:

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Click on that link and it takes you, not to the Facebook message page, but straight to the dodgy website. In this case the website is still active. It will have a name like YuoTube:

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and a YouTube-like interface:

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The message in the ‘player’ says “Your version of Flash Player is out of date.” Without you doing anything the download window will appear:

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Of course, if you install that you’re in trouble. But are you in trouble if you’ve already visited the page? I’m still working on that.

Radio Australia topics, Nov 7

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

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Follow football on your cellphone through vibrations: a team in Scandavia has come up with a way to convey movement of a ball via vibrations. This would allow folks wanting to follow a soccer game with the phone in their pocket, in theory.

This is how it would happen, as far as I can understand it: someone would watch a game and input data whenever the ball was kicked. This data would translate into vibrations—short if the ball is in midfield, longer and more insistent as it got nearer the goal. The researchers claim that users quickly figure out what is happening and can follow a game pretty well.

Reminds me of when I was a kid trying to follow a soccer match on a bad radio: You kind of guessed when things were getting exciting by the rise in crowd noise and the voice of the commentator.

Obama’s victory has quickly translated into an opportunity for bad guys. Sophos reports that 60% of malicious is Obama related, including what looks like a link to his acceptance speech, but which is in fact a trojan which, among other things, captures keystrokes and sends information back to the Ukraine. Obama-related malware has even been seen in the sponsored ads appearing on Google News.

EA has made another boo-boo: some copies of its Red Alert 3 CDs are missing a character on the serial number. “Try guessing the last character,” explained the support site until someone pointed out that this was dumb and encouraging amateur cracking.

Lost in translation: The continuing saga of Welsh being a language that non-speakers are never going to be able to guess at took another twist with a sign that, in English, reads  “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only,” but which in Welsh reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

I don’t think I need to explain more, except to say that the sign has been removed—apparently by the council that installed it. What Welsh truck drivers made of it has not been recorded.

Photo credit: BBC