Posts by spaf

Google learning from the Nigerians?

[tags]Google, spam[/tags]
Today I received email from a google.com address.  The sender said he had found me by doing a search on the WWW.  He indicated he hoped I wasn’t offended by his sending unsolicited email.  However, he had a great offer for me, one that I was uniquely qualified for, and then offered a couple of URLs.

Does that sound familiar?

My first thought was that it was a 419 scam (the usual “I am the son of the crown prince of Nigeria…” letters).  However, after checking out the mail headers and the enclosed URLs, it appears to be a (semi) legit letter from a Google recruiter.  He was asking if I was open to considering a new, exciting position with Google.

And what exciting new position does the Google recruiter think I’m ideally suited for?  Starting system administrator…..

And by the way, sending email to “abuse@google.com” gets an automated response that states, in no uncertain terms, that Google never sends spam and that I should take my complaints elsewhere.

Gee, think this is a new career possibility for me?

[posted with ecto]

The gutting of cybersecurity

[tags]cyber security reseach, PITAC[/tags]

I strongly urge you to read Jim Horning’s blog entry about a recent Congressional hearing on cyber security research—his blog is Nothing is as simple as we hope it will be.  (Jim posts lots of interesting items—you should add his blog to your list.)

I have been visiting Federal offices and speaking before Congress for almost 20 years trying to raise some awareness of the importance of addressing information security research.  More recently, I was a member of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC).  We studied the current funding of cybersecurity research and the magnitude of the problem.  Not only was our report largely ignored by both Congress and the President, the PITAC was disbanded.  For whatever reason, the current Administration is markedly unsupportive of cyber security research, and might even be classed as hostile to those who draw attention to this lack of support.

Of course, there are many other such reports from other august groups that state basically the same as the PITAC report.  No matter who has issued the reports, Congress and the Executive Branch have largely failed to address the issues.

Thus, it is heartening to read of Chairman Langevin’s comments.  However, I’m not going to get my hopes up.

Be sure to also read Dan Geer’s written testimony.  It touches on many of the same themes he has spoken about in recent years, including his closing keynote at our annual CERIAS Security Symposium (save the dates—March 19 & 20, 2008—for the next symposium).

Copyright © 2007 by E. H. Spafford
[posted with ecto]

More on passwords

[tags]Passwords[/tags]
I’ve previously written about passwords in this blog (here, here and here).

I saw this post today—I think it is great!  I’m sure they will adopt this here at Purdue sometime soon.

Quicktime flaw on Macs brings out the crazies

[tags]Windows,MacOS, security flaws, patches, press coverage[/tags]
There’s been a lot of froth in the press about a vulnerability discovered in a “Hack the Mac” contest conducted recently.  (Example stories here and here.)  I’m not really sure where this mini-hysteria is coming from—there isn’t really anything shocking here.

First of all, people shouldn’t be surprised that there are security flaws in Apple products.  After all, those are complex software artifacts, and the more code and functionality present, the more likely it is the case that there will be flaws present—including serious flaws leading to security problems.  Unless special care is taken in design and construction (not evident in any widely-used system) vulnerabilities are likely to be present.

Given that, the discovery of one serious flaw doesn’t necessarily mean there are hundreds more lurking beneath the surface and that MacOS X is as bad (or worse) than some other systems.  Those bloggers and journalists who have some vulture genomes seem particularly prone to making sweeping announcements after each Apple-based flaw (and each Linux bug) is disclosed or a story about vulnerabilities is published.  Yes, there are some problems, and there are undoubtedly more yet to be found.  That doesn’t mean that those systems are inherently dangerous or even as buggy and difficult to protect as, for example, Windows XP.  Drawing such conclusions based on one or two data points is not appropriate; these same people should likewise conclude that eating at restaurants anywhere in the US is dangerous because someone got food poisoning at a roadside stand in Mexico last year!

To date, there appear to be fewer flaws in Apple products than we have seen in some other software.  Apple MacOS X is built on a sturdy base (BSD Unix) and doesn’t have a huge number of backwards compatibility features, which is often a source of flaws in other vendors’ products.  Apple engineers, too, seem to be a little more careful and savvy about software quality issues than other vendors, as least as evidenced by the relative number of crashes and “blue screen” events in their products.  The result is that MacOS X is pretty good right out of the box.

Of course, this particular flaw is not with MacOS X, but with Java code that is part of the Quicktime package for WWW browsers.  The good news is that it is not really a MacOS problem; the bad news is that it is a serious bug that got widely distributed; and the worse news is that it potentially affects other browsers and operating systems.

I have been troubled by the fact that we (CERIAS, and before that COAST) have been rebuffed on every attempt over the last dozen years to make any contact with security personnel inside Apple.  I haven’t seen evidence that they are really focused on information security in the way that other major companies such as Sun, HP and Microsoft are, although the steady patching of flaws that have not yet been widely reported outside the company does seem to indicate some expertise and activity somewhere inside Apple.  Problems such as this Quicktime flaw don’t give warm fuzzy feelings about that, however.

Apple users should not be complacent.  There are flaws yet to be discovered, and users are often the weakest link.  Malware, including viruses, can get into MacOS X and cause problems, although they are unlikely to ever be of the number and magnitude as bedevil Windows boxes (one recent article noted that vendors are getting around 125 new malware signatures a day—the majority are undoubtedly for Windows platforms).  And, of course, Mac machines (and Linux and….) also host browsers and other software that execute scripts and enable attacks.  Those who use MS Word have yet more concerns

The bottom line. No system is immune to attacks.  All users should be cautious and informed.  Apple systems still appear to be safer than their counterparts running Windows XP (the jury is out on Vista so far), and are definitely easier to maintain and use than similarly secured systems running Linux.  You should continue to use the system that is most appropriate for your needs and abilities, and that includes your abilities to understand and configure security features to meet your security needs.  For now, my personal systems continue to be a MacBook Pro (with XP and Vista running under Parallels) and a Sun Solaris machine.  Your own milage should—and probably will—vary.

I told you so

[tags]Windows, Office, malware, vulnerabilities[/tags]

This appeared in USA Today yesterday: Cyberspies exploit Microsoft Office.  This is yet more support for my earlier post.

So, are you ready to join the movement—stop sending Word documents in email?

Update 4/28: And here is yet another story of how Word files are being used against victims.

[posted with ecto]

What security push?

[tags]Vista, Windows, security,flaws,Microsoft[/tags]

Update: additions added 4/19 and 4/24, at the end.

Back in 2002, Microsoft performed a “security standdown” that Bill Gates publicly stated cost the company over $100 million.  That extreme measure was taken because of numerous security flaws popping up in Microsoft products, steadily chipping away at MS’s reputation, customer safety, and internal resources.  (I was told by one MS staffer that response to major security flaws often cost close to $1 million each for staff time, product changes, customer response, etc.  I don’t know if that is true, but the reality certainly was/is a substantial number.)

Without a doubt, people inside Microsoft took the issue seriously.  They put all their personnel through a security course, invested heavily in new testing technologies, and even went so far as to convene an advisory board of outside experts (the TCAAB)—including some who have not always been favorably disposed towards MS security efforts.  Security of the Microsoft code base suddenly became a Very Big Deal.

Fast forward 5 years: When Vista was released a few months ago, we saw lots of announcements that it was the most secure version of Windows ever, but that metric was not otherwise qualified; a cynic might comment that such an achievement would not be difficult.  The user population has become habituated to the monthly release of security patches for existing products, with the occasional emergency patch.  Bundling all the patches together undoubtedly helps reduce the overhead in producing them, but also serves to obscure how many different flaws are contained inside each patch set.  The number of flaws maybe hasn’t really decreased all that much from years ago.

Meanwhile, reports from inside MS indicate that there was no comprehensive testing of personnel to see how the security training worked and no follow-on training.  The code base for new products has continued to grow, thus opening new possibilities for flaws and misconfiguration.  The academic advisory board may still exist, but I can’t find a recent mention of it on the Microsoft web pages, and some of the people I know who were on it (myself included) were dismissed over a year ago.  The external research program at MSR that connected with academic institutions doing information security research seems to have largely evaporated—the WWW page for the effort lists John Spencer as contact, and he retired from Microsoft last year.  The upcoming Microsoft Research Faculty Summit has 9 research tracks, and none of them are in security.

Microsoft seems to project the attitude that they have solved the security problem.

If that’s so, why are we still seeing significant security flaws appear that not only affect their old software, but their new software written under the new, extra special security regime, such as Vista and Longhorn?  Examples such as the ANI flaw and the recent DNS flaw are both glaring examples of major problems that shouldn’t have been in the current code: the ANI flaw is very similar to a years-old flaw that was already known inside Microsoft, and the DNS flaw is another buffer overflow!!  There are even reports that there may be dozens (or hundreds) of patches awaiting distribution for Vista.

Undoubtedly, the $100 million spent back in 2002 was worth something—the code quality has definitely improved.  There is greater awareness inside Microsoft about security and privacy issues.  I also know for a fact that there are a lot of bright, talented and very motivated people inside Microsoft who care about these issues.  But questions remain: did Microsoft get its money’s worth?  Did it invest wisely and if so, why are we still seeing so many (and so many silly) security flaws?  Why does it seem that security is no longer a priority?  What does that portend for Vista, Longhorn, and Office 2007?  (And if you read the “standdown” article, one wonders also about Mr. Nash’s posterior. grin )

I have great respect for many of the things Microsoft has done, and admiration for many of the people who work there.  I simply wish they had some upper management who would realize that security (and privacy) are ongoing process needs, not one-time problems to overcome with a “campaign.”

What do you think?

[posted with ecto]

Update 4/19: The TCAAB does still continue to exist, apparently, but with a greater focus on privacy issues than security.  I do not know who the current members might be.

Update 4/24: I have heard (informally) from someone inside Microsoft in informal response to this post.  He pointed out several issues that I think are valid and deserve airing here;

  1. Security training of personnel is on-going.  It still is unclear to me whether they are employing good educational methods, including follow-up testing, to optimize their instruction.
  2. The TCABB does indeed continue (and was meeting when I made the original post!).  It has undergone some changes since it was announced, but is largely the same as when it was formed.  What they are doing, and what effect they are having (if any), is unclear.
  3. Microsoft’s patch process is much smoother now, and bundled patches are easier to apply than lots of individual ones.  (However, there are still a lot of patches for things that shouldn’t be in the code.)
  4. The loss of outreach to academia by MSR does not imply they aren’t still doing research in security issues.

Many of my questions still remain unanswered, including Mr. Nash’s condition….

On standard configurations

[tags]monocultures, compliance, standard configurations, desktops, OMB[/tags]

Another set of news items, and another set of “nyah nyah” emails to me.  This time, the press has been covering a memo out of the OMB directing all Federal agencies to adopt a mandatory baseline configuration for Windows machines.  My correspondents have misinterpreted the import of this announcement to mean that the government is mandating a standard implementation of Windows on all Federal machines.  To the contrary, it is mandating a baseline security configuration for only those machines that are running Windows.  Other systems can still be used (and should be).

What’s the difference? Quite a bit. The OMB memo is about ensuring that a standard, secure baseline is the norm on any machine running Windows.  This is because there are so many possible configuration options that can be set (and set poorly for secure operation), and because there are so many security add-ons, it has not been uncommon for attacks to occur because of weak configurations.  As noted in the memo, the Air Force pioneered some work in decreeing security baseline configurations.  By requiring that certain minimum security configuration settings were in place on every Windows machines, there was a reduction in incidents.

From this, and other studies, including some great work at NIST to articulate useful policies, we get the OMB memo.

This is actually an excellent idea.  Unfortunately, the minimum is perhaps a bit too “minimum.”  For instance, replacing IE 6 under XP with Firefox would probably be a step up in security.  However, to support common applications and uses, the mandated configuration can only go so far without requiring lots of extra (costly) work or simply breaking things.  And if too many things get broken, people will find ways around the secure configuration—after all, they need to get their work done!  (This is often overlooked by novice managers focused on “fixing” security.)

Considering the historical problems with Linux and some other systems, and the complexity of their configuration, minimum configurations for those platforms might not be a bad idea, either.  However, they are not yet used in large enough numbers to prompt such a policy.  Any mechanism or configuration where the complexity is beyond the ken of the average user should have a set, minimum, safe configuration. 

Note my use of the term “minimum” repeatedly.  If the people in charge of enforcing this new policy prevent clueful people from setting stronger configurations, then that is a huge problem.  Furthermore, if there are no provisions for understanding when the minimum configuration might lead to weakness or problems and needs to be changed, that would also be awful.  As with any policy, implementation can be good or be terrible.

Of course, mandating the use of Windows (2000, XP, Vista or otherwise) on all desktops would not be a good idea for anyone other than Microsoft and those who know no other system.  In fact, mandating the use of ANY OS would be a bad idea.  Promoting diversity and heterogeneity is valuable for many reasons, not least of which are:

  1. limit the damage possible from attacks targeting a new or unpatched vulnerability
  2. limit the damage possible from a planted vulnerability
  3. limit the spread of automated attacks (malware)
  4. increase likelihood of detection of attacks of all kinds
  5. provide incentive in the marketplace for competition and innovation among vendors & solutions
  6. enhance capability to quickly switch to another platform in the event a vendor takes a turn harmful to local interests
  7. encourages innovation and competition in design and structure of 3rd-party solutions
  8. support agility—allow testing and use of new tools and technologies that may be developed for other platforms

These advantages are not offset by savings in training or bulk purchasing, as some people would claim.  They are 2nd order effects and difficult to measure directly, but their absence is noted….usually too late.

But what about interoperability?  That is where standards and market pressure come to bear.  If we have a heterogeneous environment, then the market should help ensure that standards are developed and adhered to so as to support different solutions.  That supports competition, which is good for the consumer and the marketplace.

And security with innovation and choice should really be the minimum configuration we all seek.

[posted with ecto]

Surprise, Microsoft Listed as Most Secure OS

It is well-known that I am a long-time user of Apple Macintosh computers, and I am very leery of Microsoft Windows and Linux because of the many security problems that continue to plague them.  (However, I use Windows, and Linux, and Solaris, and a number of other systems for some things—I believe in using the right tool for each task.)  Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that a few people have written to me with a “Nyah, nyah” message after reading a recent article claiming that Windows is the most secure OS over the last six months. However, any such attitude evidences a certain lack of knowledge of statistics, history, and the underlying Symantec report itself.  It is possible to lie with statistics—or, at the least, be significantly misled, if one is not careful.

First of all, the news article reported that —in the reporting period—Microsoft software had 12 serious vulnerabilities plus another 27 less serious vulnerabilities.  This was compared with 1 serious vulnerability in Apple software out of a total of 43 vulnerabilities.  To say that this confirms the point because there were fewer vulnerabilities reported in MS software (39 vs. 43) without noting the difference in severity is clearly misleading.  After all, there were 12 times as many severe vulnerabilities in MS software as in Apple software (and more than in some or all of the others systems, too—see the full report).

Imagine reading a report in the newspaper on crime statistics.  The report says that Portland saw one killing and 42 instances of littering, while Detroit had 27 instances of jaywalking and 12 instances of rape and homicide.  If the reporter concluded that Detroit was the safer place to live and work, would you agree?  Where do you think you would feel safer?  Where would you be safer (assuming the population sizes were similar; in reality, Portland is about 2/3 the population of Detroit)?

More from a stochastic point of view, if we assume that the identification of flaws is more or less a random process with some independence, then it is not surprising if there are intervals where the relative performance in that period does not match the overall behavior.  So, we should not jump to overall conclusions when there are one or two observational periods where one system dominates another in contrast to previous behavior.  Any critical decisions we might wish to make about quality and safety should be based on a longer baseline; in this case, the Microsoft products continue to be poor compared to some other systems, including Apple.  We might also want to factor in the size of the exposed population, the actual amount of damages and other such issues.

By analogy, imagine you are betting on horses.  One horse you have been tracking, named Redmond, has not been performing well.  In nearly every race that horse has come in at or below the middle of the pack, and often comes in last, despite being a crowd favorite.  The horse looks good, and lots of people bet on it, but it never wins.  Then, one day, in a close heat, Redmond wins!  In a solid but unexciting race, Redmond comes in ahead of multiple-race winner #2 (Cupertino) by a stride.  Some long-time bettors crow about the victory, and say they knew that Remond was the champ.  So, you have money to gamble with.  Are you going to bet on Redmond to win or place in each of the next 5 races?

Last of all, I could not find a spot in the actual Symantec report where it was stated that any one system is more secure than another—that is something stated by the reporter (Andy Patrizio) who wrote the article.  Any claim that ANY system with critical flaws is “secure” or “more secure” is an abuse of the term.  That is akin to saying that a cocktail with only one poison is more “healthful” than a cocktail with six poisons.  Both are lethal, and neither is healthful under any sane interpretation of the words.

So, in conclusion, let me note that any serious flaws reported are not a good thing, and none of the vendors listed (and there are more than simply Microsoft and Apple) should take pride in the stated results.  I also want to note that although I would not necessarily pick a MS platform for an application environment where I have a strong need for security, neither would I automatically veto it.  Properly configure and protect any system and it may be a good candidate in a medium or low threat environment. As well, the people at Microsoft are certainly devoting lots of resources to try to make their products better (although I think they are trapped by some very poor choices made in the past).

Dr. Dan Geer made a riveting and thought-provoking presentation on cyber security trends and statistics as the closing keynote address of this year’s annual CERIAS Security Symposium.  His presentation materials will shortly be linked into the symposium WWW site, and a video of his talk is here.  I recommend that you check that out as additional material, if you are interested in the topic.

Stuck in a Rut—Still

[tags]security marketplace, firewalls, IDS, security practices, RSA conference[/tags]
As I’ve written here before, I believe that most of what is being marketed for system security is misguided and less than sufficient.  This has been the theme of several of my invited lectures over the last couple of years, too.  Unless we come to realize that current “defenses” are really attempts to patch fundamentally faulty designs, we will continue to fail and suffer losses.  Unfortunately, the business community is too fixated on the idea that there are quick fixes to really investigate (or support) the kinds of long-term, systemic R&D that is needed to really address the problems.

Thus, I found the RSA conference and exhibition earlier this month to be (again) discouraging this year.  The speakers basically kept to a theme that (their) current solutions would work if they were consistently applied.  The exhibition had hundreds of companies displaying wares that were often indistinguishable except for the color of their T-shirts—anti-virus, firewalls (wireless or wired), authentication and access control, IDS/IPS, and vulnerability scanning.  There were a couple of companies that had software testing tools, but only 3 of those, and none marketing suites of software engineering tools.  A few companies had more novel solutions—I was particular impressed by a few that I saw, such as the policy and measurement-based offerings by CoreTrace, ProofSpace, and SignaCert. (In the interest of full disclosure, SignaCert is based around one of my research ideas and I am an advisor to the company.)  There were also a few companies with some slick packaging of older ideas (Yoggie being one such example) that still don’t fix underlying problems, but that make it simpler to apply some of the older, known technologies.

I wasn’t the only one who felt that RSA didn’t have much new to offer this year, either.

When there is a vendor-oriented conference that has several companies marketing secure software development suites that other companies are using (not merely programs to find flaws in C and Java code), when there are booths dedicated to secured mini-OS systems for dedicated tasks, and when there are talks scheduled about how to think about limiting functionality of future offerings so as to minimize new threats, then I will have a sense that the market is beginning to move in the direction of maturity.  Until then, there are too many companies selling snake oil and talismans—and too many consumers who will continue to buy those solutions because they don’t want to give up their comfortable but dangerous behaviors.  And any “security” conference that has Bill Gates as keynote speaker—renowned security expert that he is—should be a clue about what is more important for the conference attendees: real security, or marketing.

Think I am too cynical?  Watch the rush into VoIP technologies continue, and a few years from now look at the amount of phishing, fraud, extortion and voice-spam we will have over VoIP, and how the market will support VoIP-enabled versions of some of the same solutions that were in Moscone Center this year.  Or count the number of people who will continue to mail around Word documents, despite the growing number of zero-day and unpatched exploits in Word.  Or any of several dozen current and predictable dangers that aren’t “glitches”—they are the norm.  if you really pay attention to what happens, then maybe you’ll become cynical, too. 

If not, there’s always next year’s RSA Conference.

Interesting reading

[tags]Microsoft Vista, DRM[/tags]

Peter Gutmann, a scientist at the University of Auckland, has recently written an essay about DRM (Digital Rights Management) in the new Windows Vista OS.  The essay is quite interesting, and is certainly thought-provoking.  His “Executive Executive Summary” is very quotable:

The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.

Well worth reading and thinking about—I suggest you take a look.