Standing Rock and Internet Security

At the peak of the Standing Rock protest, a small city existed where none had before. That city relied on wireless communications to let the world know what was going on, and to coordinate the more mundane day-to-day tasks of providing for thousands of people. There is strong circumstantial evidence that our own government performed shenanigans on the communications infrastructure to not only prevent information from reaching the rest of the world, but also to hack people’s email accounts and the like., an unlikely source of “real” journalism, produced a well-written article with links to huge piles of documented facts. (This was not the only compelling article they produced.) They spent time with a team of security experts on the scene, who showed the results of one attack: When all the secure wifi hotspots in the camp were attacked, rendering them unresponsive, a new, insecure hotspot suddenly appeared. When one of the security guys connected to it, his gmail account was attacked.

Notably, a plane was flying low overhead – a very common model of Cessna, but the type known to be used by our government to be fitted with just the sort of equipment to do this sort of dirty work. The Cessna was owned by law enforcement but its flight history is secret.

What does that actually mean? It means that in a vulnerable situation, where communication depends on wireless networks, federal and state law enforcement agencies have the tools to seriously mess with you.

“But I only use secure Internet connections,” you say. “HTTPS means that people between you and the site you’re talking to can’t steal your information.” Alas, that’s not quite true. What https means is that connections to your bank or Gmail can only be monitored by someone endorsed by entities your browser has been told to trust completely. On that list: The US Government, the Chinese government, other governments, and more than a hundred privately-owned corporations. Any of those, or anyone any of those authorities chooses to endorse, or anyone who manages to hack one of those hundred-plus authorities (this has happened) can convince your browser that there is no hanky-panky going on. It shouldn’t surprise you that the NSA has a huge operation to do just that.

The NSA system wasn’t used at Standing Rock (or if it was, that effort was separate from the documented attacks above), because they don’t need airplanes loaded with exotic equipment. But those airplanes do exist, and now we have evidence that state and local law enforcement, and quite possibly private corporations as well, are willing to use them.

The moral of the story is, I guess, “don’t use unsecured WiFi”. There’s pretty much nothing you can do about the NSA. It would be nice if browsers popped up an alert like “Normally this site is vouched for by Verisign, but this time the US Government is vouching for it. Do you want to continue?” But they don’t, and I haven’t found a browser plugin that adds that capability. Which is too bad.

Edit to add: While looking for someone who perhaps had made a browser plug-in to detect these attacks, I came across this paper which described a plugin that apparently no longer exists (if it was ever released). It includes a good overview of the situation, with some thoughts that hadn’t occurred to me. It also shows pages from a brochure for a simple device that was marketed in 2009 to make it very easy for people with CA authority to eavesdrop on any SSL-protected communication. Devices so cheap they were described as “disposable”.

The Chinese are Attacking!

Every once in a while I check the logs of the server that hosts this blog, to see if there are any shenanigans going on. And every time I check, there ARE shenanigans. The Chinese have been slowly, patiently poking at this machine for a long, long time. The attacks will not succeed; they are trying to log in as “root”, the most powerful account on any *NIX-flavored computer, but on my server root is not allowed to log in from the outside, precisely because it is so powerful.

But the attack itself is an interesting look at the world of institutionalized hacking. It is slow, and patient, only making an attempt every thirty seconds or so. Many attack-blockers use three tries in a minute to detect monkey business; this will fly under that radar. Trying fewer than 200,000 password guesses per day limits the effectiveness of a brute-force attack, but over time (and starting with the million most common passwords), many servers will be compromised.

And in the Chinese view, they have all the time in the world. Some servers will fall to their attacks, others won’t. The ones that are compromised will likely be loaded with software that will, Manchurian-Candidate style, lie dormant until the Chinese government decides to break the Internet. And although servers like mine would provide excellent leverage, located as it is in a data center with high-speed access to the backbone, the bad guys have now discovered that home invasion provides a burgeoning opportunity as well. Consider the participation of refrigerators and thermostats in the recent attack on the Internet infrastructure on the East Coast of the United States and you begin to see the possibilities opened by a constant, patient probing of everything connected to the Internet.

I’ve been boning up on how to block the attack on my server; although in its current form the attack cannot succeed, I know I’ve been warned. The catch is I have to be very careful as I configure my safeguards — some mistakes would result in ME not being able to log in. That would be inconvenient, because if I’m unable to log in I won’t be able to fix my mistake. But like the Chinese, I can take things slowly and make sure I do it right.

Email Security 101: A Lesson Yet Unlearned

So it looks like the Russians are doing their best to help proudly racist Trump, by stealing (and perhaps altering) emails passed between members of the Democratic National Committee. It seems like the Democratic party preferred the candidate who was actually part of the party over a guy hitching his wagon to the Democrats to use that political machine as long as it was convenient to him.

But that’s not the point of this episode.

The point is this: Had the Democrats taken the time to adopt email encryption, this would not have happened. When the state department emails were hacked, the same criticism applies.

It is possible to:

  1. Render email unreadable by anyone but the intended recipient
  2. Make alteration of emails provably false

But nobody does it! Not even people protecting state secrets. I used to wonder what email breach was going to be the one that made people take email security seriously. I’m starting to think, now, that there is no breach bad enough. Even the people who try to secure email focus on the servers, when it’s the messages that can be easily hardened.

There is no privacy in email. There is no security in email. But there could be. Google could be the white hat in this scenario, but they don’t want widespread email encryption because they make money reading your email.

Currently only the bad guys encrypt their emails, because the good guys seem to be too fucking stupid.

Security Questions and Ankle-Pants

I’m that guy on Facebook, the party-pooper who, when faced with a fun quiz about personal trivia, rather than answer in kind reminds everyone that personal trivia has become a horrifyingly terrible cornerstone of personal security.

The whole concept is pure madness. Access to your most personal information (and bank account) is gated by questions about your life that may seem private, but are now entirely discoverable on the Internet — and by filling in those fun quizzes you’re helping the discovery process. Wanna guess how many of those Facebook quizzes are started by criminals? I’m going to err on the side to paranoia and say “lots”. Some are even tailored to specific bank sites and the like. Elementary school, pet’s name, first job. All that stuff is out there. Even if you don’t blab it to the world yourself, someone else will, and some innocuous question you answer about who your best friend is will lead the bad guy to that nugget.

There is nothing about you the Internet doesn’t already know. NOTHING. Security questions are simply an official invitation to steal all your stuff by people willing to do the legwork. Set up a security question with an honest answer, and you’re done for, buddy.

On the other hand, security questions become your friend if you treat them like the passwords they are. Whatever you type in as an answer should have nothing to do with the question. Otherwise, as my title suggests, you may as well drop ’em, bend over, and start whistlin’ dixie.

My computer offers me a random password generator and secure place to keep my passwords, FBI-annoying secure as long as I’m careful, but no such facility for security questions. I think there’s an opportunity there.

In the meantime, don’t ever answer a security question honestly. Where were you born? My!Father789Likes2GoFishin. Yeah? I’m from there, too! Never forget that some of those seemingly innocent questions out there on the Internet were carefully crafted to crack your personal egg. But if you never use personal facts to protect your identity, you can play along with those fun Facebook games, and not worry about first-tier evil.


An Internet Security Vulnerability that had Never Occurred to Me

Luckily for my productivity this afternoon, the Facebook page-loading feature was not working for me. I’d get two or three articles and that was it. But when it comes to wasting time, I am relentless. I decided to do a little digging and figure out why the content loader was failing. Since I spend a few hours every day debugging Web applications, I figured I could get to the bottom of things pretty quickly.

First thing to do: check the console in the debugger tools to see what sort of messages are popping up. I opened up the console, but rather than lines of informative output, I saw this:


This is a browser feature intended for developers. If someone told you to copy-paste something here to enable a Facebook feature or “hack” someone’s account, it is a scam and will give them access to your Facebook account.

See for more information.

It is quite possible that most major social media sites have a warning like this, and all of them should. A huge percentage of successful “hacks” into people’s systems are more about social engineering than about actual code, and this is no exception. The console is, as the message above states, for people who know what they are doing. It allows developers to fiddle with the site they are working on, and even allows them to directly load code that the browser’s security rules would normally never allow.

These tools are built right into the browsers, and with a small effort anyone can access them. It would seem that unscrupulous individuals (aka assholes) are convincing less-sophisticated users to paste in code that compromises their Facebook accounts, perhaps just as they were hoping to hack someone else’s account.

I use the developer tools every day. I even use them on other people’s sites to track down errors or to see how they did something. Yet it never occurred to me that I could send out an important-sounding email and get people to drop their pants by using features built right into their browsers.

It’s just that sort of blindness that leads to new exploits showing up all the time, and the only cure for the blindness is to have lots of people look at features from lots of different perspectives. Once upon a time Microsoft built all sorts of automation features into Office that turned out to be a security disaster. From a business standpoint, they were great features. But no one thought, “you know, the ability to embed code that talks to your operating system directly into a Word doc is pretty much the definition of a Trojan Horse.”

So, FIRST, if anyone asks you to paste code into the developer’s console of your browser, don’t. SECOND, if you are in charge of a site that stores people’s personal data, consider a warning similar to Facebook’s. Heck, I doubt they’d complain if you straight-up copied it, link and all. THIRD, just… be skeptical. If someone wants you to do something you don’t really understand, don’t do it, no matter how important and urgent the request sounds. In fact, the more urgent the problem sounds, the more certain you can be that you are dealing with a criminal.


Back to 28: A Heck of a Security Hole in Linux

In December of 2008, some guy made a change to a program used by almost every flavor of Linux, and he (probably he, anyway), made a simple mistake. The program is called Grub2, and it’s the part that manages the user password business. For seven years it was broken.

It turns out that due to careless programming, hitting the backspace key could cause Grub2 to clear a very important chunk of memory. Normally this would cause the machine to reboot, but if you hit the backspace key exactly 28 times, it will reboot in the rescue shell, a special feature to allow admins access to the computer when things are fairly badly broken.

In the rescue shell, one can perform all sorts of mischief on a machine, including installing spyware or just deleting everything. Yep, walk up to (almost) any Linux box, hit the backspace key 28 times, press return, and blammo. Its undies are around its ankles.

Worse, a long sequence of backspaces and characters can write all kinds of stuff into this critical memory area. Pretty much anything an attacker wants to write. Like, a little program.

Since, (as far as I know) the attacker has to have physical access to the machine to press the keys or attach a device that can send a more complex key sequence automatically, most of the world’s Linux-based infrastructure is not directly at risk — as long as the Linux machines people use to control the vast network are well-protected.

The emergency patches have been out for a couple of weeks now, so if you use Linux please make sure you apply it. The change comes down to this: If there’s nothing typed, ignore the backspace key. Magical!

You can read more about it from the guys who found it: Back to 28: Grub2 Authentication 0-Day. It’s pretty interesting reading. The article gets steadily more technical, but you can see how a seemingly-trivial oversight can escalate to dire consequences.

The lesson isn’t that Linux sucks and we should all use OpenBSD (which is all about security), but it’s important to understand that we rely on millions and millions of lines of code to keep us safe and secure. Millions and millions of lines of code, often contributed for the greater good without compensation by coders we hope are competent, and not always reviewed with the skeptical eye they deserve. Nobody ever asked “what if cur_len is less than zero?”

The infamous Heartbleed was similar. Nobody asked the critical questions.

Millions and millions of lines of code. There are more problems out there, you can bank on that.

Will the World Break in 2016?

Well, probably not. The world isn’t likely to break until 2017 at the earliest. Here’s the thing: Our economy relies on secure electronic transactions and hack-proof banks. But if you think of our current cyber security as a mighty castle made of stone, you will be rightly concerned to hear that gunpowder has arrived.

A little background: there’s a specific type of math problem that is the focus of much speculation in computer science these days. It’s a class of problem in which finding the answer is very difficult, but confirming the answer is relatively simple.

Why is this important? Because pretty much all electronic security, from credit card transactions to keeping the FBI from reading your text messages (if you use the right service) depends on it being very difficult to guess the right decoder key, but very easy to read the message if you already have the key. What keeps snoops from reading your stuff is simply that it will take hundreds of years using modern computers to figure out your decoder key.

That may come to a sudden and jarring end in the near future. You see, there’s a new kind of computer in town, and for solving very specific sorts of problems, it’s mind-bogglingly fast. It won’t be cheap, but quantum computers can probably be built in the near future specifically tuned to blow all we know about data encryption out of the water.

Google and NASA got together and made the D-Wave two, which, if you believe their hype, is the first computer that has been proven to use quantum mechanical wackiness to break through the limits imposed by those big, clunky atoms in traditional computing.

Pictures abound of the D-Wave (I stole this one from, but the same pic is everywhere), which is a massive refrigerator with a chip in the middle. The chip has to be right down there at damn near absolute zero.


The chip inside D-Wave two was built and tuned to solve a specific problem very, very quickly. And it did. Future generations promise to be far more versatile. But it doesn’t even have to be that versatile if it is focussed on breaking 1024-bit RSA keys.

It is entirely possible that the D-Wave six will be able to bust any crypto we have working today. And let’s not pretend that this is the only quantum computer in development. It’s just the one that enjoys the light of publicity. For a moment imagine that you were building a computer that could decode any encrypted message, including passwords and authentication certificates. You’d be able to crack any computer in the world that was connected to the Internet. You probably wouldn’t mention to anyone that you were able to do that.

At Microsoft, their head security guy is all about quantum-resistant algorithms. Quantum computers are mind-boggling fast at solving certain types of math problems; security experts are scrambling to come up with encryption based on some other type of hard-to-guess, easy-to-confirm algorithm, that is intrinsically outside the realm of quantum mojo. But here’s the rub: it’s not clear that other class of math exists.

(That same Microsoft publicity piece is interesting for many other reasons, and I plan to dig into it more in the future. But to summarize: Google wins.)

So what do we do? There’s not really much we can do, except root for the banks. They have resources, they have motivation. Or, at least, let’s all hope that the banks even know there’s a problem yet, and are trying to do something about it. Because quantum computing could destroy them.

Eventually we’ll all have quantum chips in our phones to generate the encryption, and the balance of power will be restored. In the meantime, we may be beholden to the owners of these major-mojo-machines to handle our security for us. Let’s hope the people with the power to break every code on the planet use that power ethically.

Yeah, sorry. It hurts, but that may be all we have.