Posts tagged fraud

Page Content

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.

Unsecured Economies, and Overly-secured Reports

The Report

Over the last few months, CERIAS faculty members Jackie Rees and Karthik Kannan have been busy analyzing data collected from IT executives around the world, and have been interviewing a variety of experts in cybercrime and corporate strategy. The results of their labors were published yesterday by the McAfee Corporation (a CERIAS Tier II partner) as the report Unsecured Economies: Protecting Vital Information.

The conclusions of the report are somewhat pessimistic about prospects for cyber security in the coming few years. The combination of economic pressures, weak efforts at law enforcement, international differences in perceptions of privacy and security, and the continuing challenges of providing secured computing are combining to place vast amounts of valuable intellectual property (IP) at risk. The report presents estimates that IP worth billions of dollars (US) was stolen or damaged last year, and we can only expect the losses to increase.

Additionally, the report details five general conclusions derived from the data:

  • The recession will put intellectual property at risk
  • There is considerable international variation in the commitment (management and resources) to protect cyber
  • Intellectual property is now an "international currency" that is as much a target as actual currency
  • Employees steal intellectual property for financial gain and competitive advantage
  • Geopolitical aspects present differing risk profiles for information stored "offshore" from "home" countries.

None of these should be a big surprise to anyone who has been watching the field or listening to those of us who are working in it. What is interesting about the report is the presented magnitude and distribution of the issues. This is the first truely global study of these issues, and thus provides an important step forward in understanding the scope of these issues.

I will repeat here some of what I wrote for the conclusion of the report; I have been saying these same things for many years, and the report simply underscores the importance of this advice:

“Information security has transformed from simply ’preventing bad things from happening ’into a fundamental business component.' C-level executives must recognize this change. This includes viewing cybersecurity as a critical business enabler rather than as a simple cost center that can be trimmed without obvious impact on the corporate bottom line; not all of the impact will be immediately and directly noticeable. In some cases, the only impact of degraded cybersecurity will be going from ‘Doing okay’ to ‘Completely ruined’ with no warning before the change.

Cybersecurity fills multiple roles in a company, and all are important for organizational health.

  • First, cybersecurity provides positive control over resources that provide the company a competitive advantage: intellectual property, customer information, trends and projections,financial and personnel records and so on. Poor security puts these resources at risk.
  • Second, good security provides executives with confidence that the data they are seeing is accurate and true, thus leading to sound decisions and appropriate compliance with regulation and policy
  • Third, strong cybersecurity supports businesses taking new risks and entering new markets with confidence in their ability to respond appropriately to change
  • And fourth, good cybersecurity is necessary to build and maintain a reputation for reliability and sound behavior, which in turn are necessary to attract and retain customers and partners.
  • This study clearly shows that some customers are unwilling to do business with entities they consider poorly secured. Given massive market failures, significant fraud and increasing threats of government oversight and regulation, companies with strong controls, transparent recordkeeping, agile infrastructures and sterling reputations are clearly at an advantage -- and strong cybersecurity is a fundamental component of all four. Executives who understand this will be able to employ cybersecurity as an organic element of company (and government) survival -- and growth.“

We are grateful to McAfee, Inc. for their support and assistance in putting this report together.

Getting the Report

Update: You can now download the report sans-registration from CERIAS.

Report cover The report is available at no charge and the PDF can be downloaded (click on the image of the report cover to the left, or here). Note that to download the report requires registration.

Some of you may be opposed to providing your contact information to obtain the report, especially as that information may be used in marketing. Personally, I believe that the registration should be optional. However, the McAfee corporation paid for the report, and they control the distribution.

As such, those of us at CERIAS will honor their decision.

However, I will observe that many other people object to these kinds of registration requirements (the NY Times is another notable example of a registration-required site). As a result, they have developed WWW applications, such as BugMeNot, which are freely available for others to use to bypass these requirements. Others respond to these requests by identifying company personnel from information on corporate sites and then using that information to register -- both to avoid giving out their own information and to add some noise to the data being collected.

None of us here at CERIAS are suggesting that you use one of the above-described methods. We do, however, encourage you to get the report, and to do so in an appropriate manner. We hope you will find it informative.

Failures in the Supply Chain

[This is dervied from a posting of mine to Dave Farber’s Interesting People list.]

There is an article in the October Businessweek that describes the problem of counterfeit electronic components being purchased and used in critical Defense-related products.

This is not a new threat. But first let’s reflect on the past.

Historically, the military set a number of standards (MIL-SPEC) to ensure that materials they obtained were of an appropriate level of quality, as well as interoperable with other items. The standards helped ensure a consistency for everything from food to boots to tanks to software, as well as ensuring performance standards (quality).

The standards process was not without problems, however. Among issues often mentioned were:

  • Standards were sometimes not revised often enough to reflect changes in technology. The result was that the military often had to acquire and use items that were generations behind the commercial marketplace (esp. in software/computers);
  • Knowing and complying with so many standards often caused companies considerable extra time and effort in supplying items, thus raising their cost well above comparable commercial equivalents;
  • Incompatible standards across military agencies and services, especially when compared with commercial items used by civilian agencies, led to waste and increased cost, and lack of flexibility in implementation;
  • Imposition of rigid standards cut down on innovation and rapid development/acquisition/deployment cycles;
  • The rigidity and complexity of the standards effectively shut out new vendors, especially small vendors because they could not match the standards-compliance efforts of large, entrenched defense vendors.

Thus, in June of 1994, William Perry, the then Secretary of Defense, issued a set of orders that effectively provide a pathway to move away from the standards and adopt commercial standards and performance goals in their place. (cf. the Wikipedia article on MIL-SPEC). One of the rationales expressed then, especially as regarded computing software and hardware, was that the competition of the marketplace would lead to better quality products. (Ironically, the lack of vendor-neutral standards then led to a situation where we have large monocultures of software/hardware platforms throughout government, and the resultant lack of meaningful competition has almost certainly not served the goals of better quality and security.)

In some cases, the elimination of standards has indeed helped keep down costs and improve innovation. I have been told, anecdotally, that stealth technology might not have been fielded had those aircraft been forced within the old MIL-SPEC regime.

As a matter of cost and speed many MIL-SPEC standards seem to have been abandoned to choose COTS whenever possible without proper risk analysis. Only recently have policy-makers begun to realize some of the far-reaching problems that have resulted from the rush to abandon those standards.

As the Businessweek article details, counterfeit items and items with falsified (or poorly conducted) quality control have been finding their way into critical systems, including avionics and weapons control. The current nature of development means that many of those systems are assembled from components and subsystems supplied by other contractors, so a fully-reputable supplier may end up supplying a faulty system because of a component supplied by a vendor with which they have no direct relationship. One notable example of this was the “Cisco Raider” effort from a couple of years ago where counterfeit Cisco router boards were being sold in the US.

As noted in several press articles (such as the ones linked in, above) there is considerable price motive to supply less capable, “grey market” goods in large bids. The middlemen either do not know or care where the parts come from or where they are being used—the simply know they are making money. The problem is certainly not limited to Defense-related parts, of course. Fake “Rolex” watches that don’t keep time, fake designer shoes that fall apart in the rain, and fake drugs that either do nothing or actually cause harm are also part of the “gray market.” Adulteration of items or use of prohibited materials is yet another aspect of the problem: think “lead paint” and “melamine” for examples. Of course, this isn’t a US-only problem; people around the world are victimized by gray-market, adulterated and counterfeit goods.

These incidents actually illustrate some of the unanticipated future effects of abandoning strong standards. One of the principal values of MIL-SPEC standards was that it established a strict chain of accountability for products. I suspect that little thought has been given by policy-makers to the fact that there is considerable flow of items across borders from countries where manufacturing expertise and enforcement of both IP laws and consumer-protection statutes may not be very stringent. Buying goods from countries where IP violations are rampant (If there is little fear over copying DVDs, then there is little fear over stamping locally-produced items as “Cisco”), and where bribes are commonplace, is not a good strategy for uniform quality.

Of course, there are even more problems than simply quality. Not every country and group has the same political and social goals as we do in the US (or any other country—this is a general argument). As such, if they are in a position to produce and provide items that may be integrated into our defense systems or critical infrastructure, it may be in their interests to produce faulty goods—or carefully doctored goods. Software with hidden ‘features” or control components with hidden states could result in catastrophe. That isn’t fear-mongering—we know of cases where this was done, such as to the Soviets in the 1980s. Even if the host country isn’t subtly altering the components, it may not have the resources to protect the items being produced from alteration by third parties. After all, if the labor is cheaper in country X, then it will also be cheaper to bribe the technicians and workers to make changes to what they are producing.

The solution is to go back to setting high standards, require authentication of supply chain, and better evaluation of random samples. Unfortunately, this is expensive, and we’re not in a state nationally where extra expense (except to line the pockets of Big Oil and Banking) is well tolerated by government. Furthermore, this alters the model where many small vendors acting as middlemen are able to get a “piece of the action.” Their complaints to elected representatives who may not understand the technical complexities adds even further pressure against change.

In some cases, the risk posed in acquisition of items may warrant subsidizing the re-establishment of some manufacturing domestically (e.g., chip fabs). This doesn’t need to be across the board, but it does required judicious risk-analysis to determine where critical points are—or will be in the future. We must realize that the rapid changes in technology may introduce new patterns of production and acquisition that we should plan for now. For instance, once elements of nanotechnology become security-critical, we need to ensure that we have sufficient sources of controlled, quality production and testing.

I’m not going to hold my breath over change, however. Some of us have been complaining about issues such as this for decades. The usual response is that we are making a big deal out of “rare events” or are displaying xenophobia. The sheer expense frightens off many from even giving it more than a cursory thought. I know I have been dismissed as an “over-imaginative academic” more times than I can count when I point out the weaknesses.

One of the factors that allegedly led to the decline of the Roman empire was the use of lead in pipes, and lead salts to make cheap wine more palatable for the masses. The Romans knew there was a health problem associated with lead, but the vendors saw more profit from using it.

Once we have sufficiently poisoned our own infrastructure to save money and make the masses happier, how long do we last?

[If you are interested in being notified of new entries by spaf on cyber and national security policy issues, you can either subscribe to the RSS feed for this site, or subscribe to the notification list.]


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.)