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A Very Sophisticated Hack…


If you search for the phrase “very sophisticated hack” and do a little digging, you’ll soon discover that what are initially claimed to be diabolical plots by fiendish cybercriminals often turn out to be nothing more than incompetence or naivety on the part of the victims. They only appear sophisticated to the average Joe.

Banks, casinos, hospitals, health insurers, dating sites, even telecoms providers have all fallen in the past year. Digging reveals SQL injections (I’m looking at you, TalkTalk) to second hand switches with no firewalls protecting the SWIFT network in Bangladesh.

While these issues are bread and butter to security testing and code review companies, there is one piece of the IT security puzzle that can never be truly secured, no matter how hard you try. It weighs about 1.3Kg (about 3lbs in old money) and it sits in front of every endpoint, every BYOD, every spam email, everything, wondering whether to click that link, install that program, insert the flash drive it found, or type in its credentials.

Sophisticated attacks

talktalk-2579443It’s been said that your brain starts working the moment you wake, and doesn’t stop until you get to work. Many incidents reported as “sophisticated” confirm this truism, along with the one about not being able to make anything idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious. Fooling someone into doing or telling you something they shouldn’t is the oldest hack in the book, but it’s no less potent for its age. For that reason, the unwitting symbiosis of naive user and cybercriminal is virtually unbeatable.

Part of my work involves maintaining the company spam honeypot network. By the time you’ve seen your 100th identical, badly-spelt phishing email whizz by in the logs, you can’t believe anyone would fall for them. But they do, especially spear phishing attacks. There’s a ransomware epidemic, and it’s making millions a day.

I’m left concluding that people don’t approach their inboxes with a high enough degree of

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cynicism. Would HR really summon you to a disciplinary meeting by sending you an email demanding you click a link to an external web site and enter your corporate username and password to prove it’s you?

Catching threats

Like suspiciously quiet toddlers, the human element will always be the unpredictable elephant in the cybersecurity room. At SE Labs, we test the endpoint protection that keeps users safe from themselves. To do so, we use fresh threats caught painstakingly in the wild on a daily basis. We can always help build better protection, but cybercriminals will always strive to make better toddlers out of users.

But users are not toddlers; they’re responsible, busy adults. To them, cybersecurity is just a very dull art practised by dull people in IT, and their equally friends who come in with laptops every so often to check everything.

This point leads me to one final truism: get them laughing, get them learning. All the user security training in the world will fail to change behaviours if it’s dull. People best remember what they enjoy. Make cyber security fun for users, and you may just get them to apply a healthy dose of cynicism to their inboxes.

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Went The Day Well?

Could localised pattern recognition solve the password crisis?

Getting answers nearly right could be a way to detect unauthorised access. Security shibboleths can detect the right, and wrong people.

In The Great Escape, a Gestapo officer wishes Gordon Jackson’s character “good luck” in English as he attempts to board a bus. In A Book About a Thousand Things, George Stimpson says that during WWII, US guards used the word “lollapalooza” to spot Japanese spies amongst Filipino allies.

Continue reading “Went The Day Well?”
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The Great Anti-Virus Conspiracy

20110517023616-6824093One problem with the internet is that anyone can set themselves up as an expert. There’s money to be made from convenient messages. Examples abound in nutrition and health, as well as many other areas.
There are certainly internet opinions on security tests!
 
Despite widespread public ridicule, such sites thrive and make their owners rich because they play into what people already believe. The tendency being exploited is called confirmation bias, and it can even exert enough power over us to compromise the online safety of entire nations.

Anti-Virus Conspiracy

Take this post from the Above Top Secret forum from 2008. The author began with the hunch that the biggest beneficiaries of malware are the anti-virus (AV) companies themselves. However, Google only returned stories explaining why this view on an anti-virus conspiracy was incorrect.
This raised the author’s suspicions. Did anyone else have any information?
 
The ensuing nine pages of comments were a tour de force of ideas, theories and claims, but a recurring theme was distrust. Many commenters simply don’t trust what they don’t understand, and they don’t understand computers or AV. 

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It took a few seconds to find similar examples from other forums, some dating back to 2005 and even 2002. There are many more and they usually cover the same ideas, but a common theme is still distrust. Compounding this, some commenters vaguely remember something about John McAfee once claiming to have written viruses to create demand for his first AV product, which of course proves everything.

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That was a decade or more ago, but with phishing and ransomware now firmly in the public eye, the benefit of online protection will be obvious, right? Not necessarily.

Detection issues

In August 2016, the Daily Mail reported that some AV products can fail to adequately secure your computer. The research being reported actually identified the potential for man-in-the-middle certificate attacks. It’s something our own Simon Edwards wrote about in a more general context in his own blog over 18 months earlier
 
As usual, the comment section of the Daily Mail’s report was far more revealing than the article:
 
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And so on. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that despite living in a world now publicly trying to cope with a grand cybercrime epidemic, such uninformed views are so mainstream. There’s even a certain pride to some of them.
 
The McAfee virus-writing story is also still doing the rounds. Mr McAfee hasn’t helped matters by claiming to have planted keyloggers in laptops he then gave away to government officials in Belize. But did he really write malware to create demand for his own AV software?

John McAfee, virus author?

In March 2014, McAfee went on the Alex Jones show to talk conspiracies (what else?). A caller asked if he was indeed responsible for writing early malware. Despite Jones talking over portions of his answer, this was the nub of his reply:

There were at the time thousands of computer viruses, he said. We could barely keep up with the viruses that were out there, so we certainly had no time to build new ones. It would just be a senseless thing to do. So I can categorically say, and you can talk to any of the McAfee employees that were there are the time, that thought never crossed anyone’s mind.

Indeed, in his book Computer Viruses and Malware, John Aycock of the University of Calgary in Canada also points out that if AV companies really are writing malware and yet simultaneously failing to detect some of it, then what’s the point in all that effort being expended for zero gain? The anti-virus conspiracy is starting to look less likely…
 
So, how do you protect the distrustful, the misinformed, and even the downright cynical online? One solution is to do it automatically, but this demands that governments, their intelligence agencies, and the ISPs become involved in actively blocking malicious content. Public reaction to any such suggestion is predictably very bad.
 
When GCHQ recently proposed their DNS filtering technology to block malicious domains, there was instant outrage. The Guardian, which broke the Edward Snowden story, has little love for the Cheltenham Doughnut, and was predictably upset. As usual, it’s the public’s comments that are really interesting. 

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Trust no-one

So, we’re at an impasse. Despite their poor reputations, governments and the intelligence agencies they run are the only entities with the authority and capabilities to attempt to protect entire nations online. However, the tools they use are by their very nature shadowy, double-edged and closed to scrutiny. The public at large worries that policing cyberspace means the erosion of freedom and privacy. Nothing will convince us that this isn’t the start of a dictatorship or a new world order. Too much evidence of past lies and misdeeds confirms this deep-seated bias. 

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If the public won’t listen to the government, who will it listen to? Who is it listening to?

Something about the caller who asked John McAfee if he wrote early viruses keeps coming back to me. He seemed to remember being told something by some old OSS guy. This idea of an unnamed source vaguely remembered is a common feature of discussions where facts are scarce and conjecture runs free. It’s a feature of the threads I referenced above about the anti-virus conspiracy.
 
That being the case, maybe it’s down to us, as infosec professionals, to be those sources in future. Maybe it’s down to us to engage friends and family, to explain how cybercrime works, how it relies on them not protecting themselves, and what to do about it.
 
But then again, I would say that wouldn’t I. 😉
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All Your File…

Block malicious scripts from running on your computer

 
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Back in the salad days of early summer, JavaScript was usually employed to download ransomware payloads. Now, however, JavaScript is the ransomware.

The reason is the direct nature of the attack. There’s no connection to a suspicious subdomain, no payload to download and no relying on the user to run a suspicious upgrade to a Windows component.

Simply open the email attachment promising unexpected riches and, to misquote the 1980s game Zero Wing, All your file are belong to us.

Block malicious scripts

By hiding the true nature of the file with a second, benign extension, JavaScript attachment attacks become even more likely to detonate. Spew millions of such emails from a rented botnet for a few days at a time, and then simply wait for the Bitcoins to come rolling in.

It’s little wonder that ransomware gangs are setting up customer helplines for bemused punters queuing up to get their files back.
 
But surely your browser’s sandbox should contain any malicious JavaScript? Sadly, this is not so for JavaScript email attachments. JavaScript downloaded as part of a browsed web page is run in the browser. Email attachments are nothing to do with a web page. Double click them and they’re passed to the Windows Based Script Host, which is obviously outside the browser’s authority and control.

Open with a safe app

It is, however, very simple for you as an end user to stop JavaScript email attachments from automatically being accidentally run. Simply open notepad and create a new file. Save it as dummy.js. Notepad will complain about the extension, but continue anyway. Next, right click the .js file and select Open With…. As you can see from the image below, by default Windows will open all such files with Windows Based Script Host, which is what we need to prevent.
 
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To do so, first click More Apps and select Notepad from the list. Tick the check box for Always use this app to open .js files and click OK. Now, whenever you absent-mindedly click on a JavaScript email attachment it will safely open in Notepad and display its bad self.
 
You can also selectively prevent the JavaScript downloaded as part of a web page from running in your browser. This gives you more control over your browsing experience and can speed up web page loading.
 
For Firefox, the go-to solution here is the NoScript plugin (which is the one I’m most familiar with). By default, NoScript blocks everything on a domain-by-domain basis. It’s easy and quick to unblock trusted domains as you go, while leaving all others (including those called by the primary domain) securely blocked. This not only serves as an extra line of defence, but also prevents some adverts from being displayed without sites accusing you of using an ad blocker. It’s also very interesting, and sometimes worrying, to see just how many secondary domains some of your favourite web sites rely on to deliver content.

 

 

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Ransomware: Don’t Die of Ignorance

spread of ransomware

How can we spread the word to users and stop the spread of ransomware?

According to a recent Herjavec Group report, profits from ransomware will spiral this year to over $1bn, and next year will see further explosive growth. The main vector for ransomware is always email. The reason is simple: Ignorance of the risks equals fat profits. It’s that obvious. The solution is to stop users clicking dodgy attachments, but how?

For the seeds of a possible answer, cast your mind back in the mid-1980s. As the AIDS epidemic hit the UK, the government’s response was a huge public awareness campaign. Everyone who was around at the time remembers “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance“. There were TV and radio adverts, cinema and press adverts, and every home received a frank leaflet explaining everything. Cool new condom brands popped up almost overnight (pun intended). OK, since then, infection rates have risen, but the point is it seemed to help at the time, as the sharp dip in infection rates around that time implies.

Ransomware impact

Back to 2016, and according to Get Safe Online in the year to March cybercrime cost UK businesses over £1bn. The total figure will be much higher in the coming year due to ransomware. A recent Malwarebytes report claims that over half of all UK businesses have already been hit by ransomware. 9% were completely unable to function after the attack. Only 40% of those affected didn’t pay the ransom, so a whopping 60% decided to cough up.

If this is blindingly obvious to the cybersecurity industry, and to the pundits surrounding it, it should be equally apparent to the UK government and its advisors. But where are the hard-hitting TV and adverts and the leaflet campaigns aimed at the end user? After all, it’s the end user putting themselves and the companies they work for at risk.

Stopping the spread of ransomware

Ransomware awareness campaigns are happening, but they can be limited in scope. They tend to be targeted at individual sectors, and at C-level executives, rather than end users. Until public awareness changes fundamentally, ransomware will charge ahead at full speed, and so will the otherwise avoidable financial losses.

If this is a war, then the sky is black with metaphorical bombers. Can you imagine the outcry if, during WWII in Britain, people were unaware that they should not open their blackout curtains to look at the planes going over? Equate this to opening dodgy attachments to see what they are, and you begin to see the scale and seriousness of the problem.

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