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This time, the Senate

On March 19, I had an opportunity to testify before the Senate Committee on on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing was entitled Cybersecurity -- Assessing Our Vulnerabilities and Developing An Effective Defense.

I was asked to include information on research problems, educational initiatives, and issues regarding the current state of cyber security in the nation.   As is usual for such things, the time between the invitation and the due date for written testimony was short. Thus, I didn't have the time to delve deeply into the topic areas, but could only address the things that I already had on hand -- including some posts from this blog that I had written before. The result was a little longer than the other statements, but I think I covered more ground.

One hint for people testifying before Congress on such things: you can't depend on how long you will have for spoken remarks, so be sure any points you want to make are in your written testimony. In this case, the hearing was limited to about 75 minutes because there were several votes scheduled on the Senate floor, and the committee needed to adjourn to allow the Senators to attend the votes. And, as is common for too many hearings, there weren't many of the committee members present; I believe the hearing began with only two of the 25 members present, and some movement of members in and out to reach a maximum of four seated at any one time. In this case, the chair (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia) apologized to us several times for the low turnout. However, many (all?) of the staff and aides were present, so I'm certain the gist of the testimony presented will be considered.Spaf testifying

The Senator made a nice introductory statement.

My written testimony is available on my website as well as the committee site. My oral statement was from rough notes that I modified on the fly as I listened to the other testimony (by Jim Lewis, Eric Weiss and Ed Amoroso). That statement, and the whole hearing, are available via the archived hearing webcast (my remarks start at about 46:30 into the webcast). If I get a transcribed version of those remarks, I will post them along with my written testimony on my website in the "US government" section.

Comments by the other speakers were good overall and I think we collectively covered a lot of ground. The questions from the Senators present indicated that they were listening and knew some of the problems in the area. The comments from Senator Nelson about the intrusions into his systems were surprising: several Senate security staff were present at the hearing and indicated to me that his remarks were the first they had heard of the incidents! So, the hearing apparently set off an incident-response exercise -- separate from responding to my presence in the building, that is. grin

Will this hearing make a difference? I don't know. I've been testifying and saying the same things for over a dozen years (this was my 8th Congressional hearing testimony) and things haven't gotten that much better...and may even be worse. Senator Rockefeller has indicated he intends to introduce legislation supporting more funding for students studying cyber security issues. There was some good news coverage of all this (e.g., FCW and CNet).

I am told that there will be more hearings by this committee. Some House committees have been holding hearings too, and the President's 60 day review continues apace. The added attention is great, but with the sudden interest by so many, the result may be more confusion rather than resolution.

Stay tuned.

As a reminder, if you want to know about my occasional postings such as this but don't want to subscribe to the RSS feed,  you can subscribe to the mailing list.

Also as a reminder, there is my tumble blog on security issues, with links to items on the news and WWW of possible interest to those who find my ramblings and rants of interest.

Who ya gonna call?

This morning I received an email, sent to a list of people (I assume). The subject of the email was “Computer Hacker’s service needed” and the contents indicated that the sender was seeking someone to trace back to the sender of some enclosed email. The email in question? The pernicious spam email purporting to be from someone who has been given a contract to murder the recipient, but on reflection will not do the deed if offered a sum of money.

This form of spam is well-known in most of the security and law enforcement communities, and there have been repeated advisories and warnings issued to the public. For instance, Snopes has an article on it because it is so widespread as to have urban legend status. The scam dates back at least to 2006, and is sometimes made to seem more authentic by including some personalized information (usually taken from online sources). A search using the terms “hitman scam spammer” returns over 200,000 links, most of the top ones being stories in news media and user alert sites. The FBI has published several alerts about this family of frauds, too. This is not a rare event.

However, it is not that the author of the email missed those stories that prompts this post. After all, it is not the case that each of us can be aware of everything being done online.

Rather, I am troubled that someone would ostensibly take the threat seriously, and as a follow-up, seek a “hacker” to trace the email back to its sender rather than report it to law enforcement authorities.

One wonders if the same person were to receive the same note on paper, in surface email, whether he would seek the services of someone adept at breaking into mail boxes to seek out the author? Even if he did that, what would it accomplish? Purportedly, the author of the note is a criminal with some experience and compatriots (these emails, and this one in particular, always refer to a gang that is watching the recipient). What the heck is the recipient going to do with someone—and his gang—who probably doesn’t live anywhere nearby?

Perhaps the “victim” might know (or suspect) it is a scam, but is trying to aid the authorities by tracing the email? But why spend your own money to do something that law enforcement is perhaps better equipped to do? Plus, a “hacker” is not necessarily going to use legal methods that will allow the authorities to use the results. Perhaps even more to the point, the “hacker” may not want to be exposed to the authorities—especially if they regularly break the law to find people!

Perhaps the victim already consulted law enforcement and was told it was a scam, but doesn’t believe it? Well, some additional research should be convincing. Plus, the whole story simply isn’t credible. However, if the victim really does have a streak of paranoia and a guilty conscience, then perhaps this is plausible. However, in this case, whoever is hired would likewise be viewed with suspicion, and any report made is going to be doubted by the victim. So, there is no real closure here.

Even worse, if a “hacker” is found who is willing to break the rules and the laws to trace back email, what is to say that he (or she) isn’t going to claim to have found the purported assassin, he’s real, and the price has gone up but the “hacker” is willing to serve as an intermediary? Once the money is paid, the problem is pronounced “fixed,” This is a form of classic scam too—usually played on the gullible by “mystics” who claim that the victim is cursed and can only be cured by a complicated ritual involving a lot of money offered to “the spirits.”

Most important—if someone is hired, and that person breaks the law, then the person hiring that “hacker” can also be charged under the law. Hiring someone to break the law is illegal. And having announced his intentions to this mailing list, the victim has very limited claims of ignorance at this point.

At the heart of this, I am simply bewildered how someone would attempt to find a “hacker”—whose skill set would be unknown, whose honesty is probably already in question, and whose allegiances are uncertain—to track down the source of a threat rather than go to legitimate law enforcement. I can’t imagine a reasonable person (outside of the movies) receiving a threatening letter or phone call then seeking to hire a stranger to trace it back rather than calling in the authorities.

Of course, that is why these online scams—and other scams such as the “419 scams” continue to work: people don’t think to contact appropriate authorities. And when some fall for it, it encourages the spammers to keep on—increasing the pool of victims.

(And yes, I am ignoring the difficulty of actually tracing email back to a source: that isn’t the point of this particular post.)


This Week at CERIAS

Lots of new papers added this week—more that we can list here. Check the Reports and Papers Archive for more.

CERIAS Reports & Papers

CERIAS Weblogs

Items In the news

[tags]news, cell phones, reports, security vulnerabilities, hacking, computer crime, research priorities, forensics, wiretaps[/tags]
The Greek Cell Phone Incident
A great story involving computers and software, even though the main hack was against cell phones:
IEEE Spectrum: The Athens Affair.  From this we can learn all sorts of lessons about how to conduct a forensic investigation, retention of logs, wiretapping of phones, and more.

Now, imagine VoIP and 802.11 networking and vulnerabilities in routers and…. —the possibilities get even more interesting.  I suspect that there’s a lot more eavesdropping going on than most of us imagine, and certainly more than we discover.

NRC Report Released
Last week, the National Research Council announced the release of a new report: Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace.  The report is notable in a number of ways, and should be read carefully by anyone interested in cyber security.  I think the authors did a great job with the material, and they listened to input from many sources.

There are 2 items I specifically wish to note:

  1. I really dislike the “Cyber Security Bill of Rights” listed in the report.  It isn’t that I dislike the goals they represent—those are great.  The problem is that I dislike the “bill of rights” notion attached to them.  After all, who says they are “rights”?  By what provenance are they granted?  And to what extremes do we do to enforce them?  I believe the goals are sound, and we should definitely work towards them, but let’s not call them “rights.”
  2. Check out Appendix B.  Note all the other studies that have been done in recent years pointing out that we are in for greater and greater problems unless we start making some changes.  I’ve been involved with several of those efforts as an author—including the PITAC report, the Infosec Research Council Hard Problems list, and the CRA Grand Challenges. Maybe the fact that I had no hand in authoring this report means it will be taken seriously, unlike all the rest. grin  More to the point, people who put off the pain and expense of trying to fix things because “Nothing really terrible has happened yet” do not understand history, human nature, or the increasing drag on the economy and privacy from current problems.  The trends are fairly clear in this report: things are not getting better.

Evolution of Computer Crime
Speaking of my alleged expertise at augury, I noted something in the news recently that confirmed a prediction I made nearly 8 years ago at a couple of invited talks: that online criminals would begin to compete for “turf.”  The evolution of online crime is such that the “neighborhood” where criminals operate overlaps with others.  If you want the exclusive racket on phishing, DDOS extortion, and other such criminal behavior, you need to eliminate (or absorb) the competition in your neighborhood.  But what does that imply when your “turf” is the world-wide Internet?

The next step is seeing some of this spill over into the physical world.  Some of the criminal element online is backed up by more traditional organized crime in “meat space.”  They will have no compunction about threatening—or disabling—the competition if they locate them in the real world.  And they may well do that because they also have developed sources inside law enforcement agencies and they have financial resources at their disposal.  I haven’t seen this reported in the news (yet), but I imagine it happening within the next 2-3 years.

Of course, 8 years ago, most of my audiences didn’t believe that we’d see significant crime on the net—they didn’t see the possibility.  They were more worried about casual hacking and virus writing.  As I said above, however, one only needs to study human nature and history, and the inevitability of some things becomes clear, even if the mechanisms aren’t yet apparent.

The Irony Department
GAO reported a little over a week ago that DHS had over 800 attacks on their computers in two years.  I note that the report is of detected attacks.  I had one top person in DC (who will remain nameless) refer to DHS as “A train wreck crossed with a nightmare, run by inexperienced political hacks” when referring to things like TSA, the DHS cyber operations, and other notable problems.  For years I (and many others) have been telling people in government that they need to set an example for the rest of the country when it comes to cyber security.  It seems they’ve been listening, and we’ve been negligent.  From now on, we need to stress that they need to set a good example.

[posted with ecto]