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8 Security Action Items to Beat “Learned Helplessness”

So, you watch for advisories, deploy countermeasures (e.g., change firewall and IDS rules) or shut down vulnerable services, patch applications, restore services.  You detect compromises, limit damages, assess the damage, repair, recover, and attempt to prevent them again.  Tomorrow you start again, and again, and again.  Is it worth it?  What difference does it make?  Who cares anymore? 

If you’re sick of it, you may just be getting fatigued.

If you don’t bother defending anymore because you think there’s no point to this endless threadmill, you may be suffering from learned helplessness.  Some people even consider that if you only passively wait for patches to be delivered and applied by software update mechanisms, you’re already in the “learned helplessness category”.  On the other hand, tracking every vulnerability in the software you use by reading BugTraq, Full Disclosure, etc…, the moment that they are announced, and running proof of concept code on your systems to test them isn’t for everyone;  there are diminishing returns, and one has to balance risk vs energy expenditure, especially when that energy could produce better returns.  Of course I believe that using Cassandra is an OK middle ground for many, but I’m biased.

The picture may certainly look bleak, with talk of “perpetual zero-days”.  However, there are things you can do (of course, as in all lists not every item applies to everyone):

  • Don’t be a victim;  don’t surrender to helplessness.  If you have limited energy to spend on security (and who doesn’t have limits?), budget a little bit of time on a systematic and regular basis to stay informed and make progress on tasks you identify as important;  consider the ones listed below.
  • Don’t be a target.  Like or hate Windows, running it on a desktop and connecting to the internet is like having big red circles on your forehead and back.  Alternatives I feel comfortable with for a laptop or desktop system are Ubuntu Linux and MacOS X (for now;  MacOS X may become a greater target in time).  If you’re stuck with Windows, consider upgrading to Vista if you haven’t already;  the security effort poured into Vista should pay off in the long run.  For servers, there is much more choice, and Windows isn’t such a dominant target. 
  • Reduce your exposure (attack surface) by:
    • Browsing the web behind a NAT appliance when at home, in a small business, or whenever there’s no other firewall device to protect you.  Don’t rely only on a software firewall;  it can become disabled or get misconfigured by malware or bad software, or be too permissive by default (if you can’t or don’t know how to configure it).
    • Using the NoScript extension for Firefox (if you’re not using Firefox, consider switching, if only for that reason).  JavaScript is a vector of choice for desktop computer attacks (which is why I find the HoneyClient project so interesting, but I digress).  JavaScript can be used to violate your privacy* or take control of your browser away from you, and give it to website authors, advertisers on those sites, or to the people who compromised those sites, and you can bet it’s not always done for your benefit (even though JavaScript enables better things as well).  NoScript gives you a little control over browser plugins, and which sources are allowed to run scripts in your browser, and attempts to prevent XSS exploits.
    • Turning off unneeded features and services (OK, this is old advice, but it’s still good).
  • Use the CIS benchmarks, and if evaluation tools are available for your platform, run them.  These tools give you a score, and even as silly as some people may think this score is (reducing the number of holes in a ship from 100 to 10 may still sink the ship!), it gives you positive feedback as you improve the security stance of your computers.  It’s encouraging, and may lift the feeling that you are sinking into helplessness.  If you are a Purdue employee, you have access to CIS Scoring Tools with specialized features (see this news release).  Ask if your organization also has access and if not consider asking for it (note that this is not necessary to use the benchmarks).

  • Use the NIST security checklists (hardening guides and templates).  The NIST’s information technology laboratory site has many other interesting security papers to read as well.

  • Consider using Thunderbird and the Enigmail plugin for GPG, which make handling signed or encrypted email almost painless.  Do turn on SSL or TLS-only options to connect to your server (both SMTP and either IMAP or POP) if it supports it.  If not, request these features from your provider.  Remember, learned helplessness is not making any requests or any attempts because you believe it’s not ever going to change anything.  If you can login to the server, you also have the option of SSH tunneling, but it’s more hassle.

  • Watch CERIAS security seminars on subjects that interest you.

  • If you’re a software developer or someone who needs to test software, consider using the ReAssure system as a test facility with configurable network environments and collections of VMware images (disclosure: ReAssure is my baby, with lots of help from other CERIAS people like Ed Cates).

Good luck!  Feel free to add more ideas as comments.

*A small rant about privacy, which tends to be another area of learned helplessness: Why do they need to know?  I tend to consider all information that people gather about me, that they don’t need to know for tasks I want them to do for me, a (perhaps very minor) violation of my privacy, even if it has no measurable effect on my life that I know about (that’s part of the problem—how do I know what effect it has on me?).  I like the “on a need to know basis” principle, because you don’t know which selected (and possibly out of context) or outdated information is going to be used against you later.  It’s one of the lessons of life that knowledge about you isn’t always used in legal ways, and even if it’s legal, not everything that’s legal is “Good” or ethical, and not all agents of good or legal causes are ethical and impartial or have integrity.  I find the “you’ve got nothing to hide, do you?” argument extremely stupid and irritating—and it’s not something that can be explained in a sentence or two to someone saying that to you.  I’m not against volunteering information for a good cause, though, and I have done so in the past, but it’s rude to just take it from me without asking and without any explanation, or to subvert my software and computer to do so. 

Useful Firefox Security Extensions

Mozilla’s Firefox browser claims to provide a safer browsing experience out of the box, but some of the best security features of Firefox are only available as extensions.  Here’s a roundup of some of the more useful ones I’ve found.

  • Add n’ Edit Cookies This might be more of a web developer tool, but being able to view in detail the cookies that various sites set on your visits can be an eye-opening experience.  This extension not only shows you all the details, but lets you modify them too.  You’ll be surprised at how many web apps do foolish things like saving your password in the cookie.
  • Dr. Web Anti-Virus Link Checker This is an interesting idea—scanning files for viruses before you download them. Basically, this extension adds an option to the link context menu that allows you to pass the link to the Dr. Web AV service.  I haven’t rigorously tested this or anything, but it’s an interesting concept that could be part of an effective multilayer personal security model.
  • FormFox This extension doesn’t do a whole lot, but what it does is important—showing a tooltip when you roll over a form submission button of the form action URL. Extending this further to visually differentiate submission buttons that submit to SSL URLs would be really nice (as suggested by Chris Shiflett).
  • FlashBlock Flash hasn’t been quite as popular an attack vector as Javascript, but it still potentially could be a threat, and it’s often an annoyance.  This extension disables all embedded Flash elements by default (score one for securing things by default), allowing you to click to activate a particular one if you like.  It lacks the flexibility I’d like (things like whitelists would be very handy), and doesn’t give you much (any?) info about the Flash element before you run it, but it’s still a handy tool.
  • LiveHTTPHeaders & Header Monitor LiveHTTPHeaders is an incredibly useful too for web developers, displaying all of the header traffic between the client and server.  Header Monitor is basically an add-on for LiveHTTPHeaders that displays a chosen header in Firefox’s status bar.  They’re not really specifically security tools, but they do offer a lot of info on what’s really going on when you’re browsing, and an educated user is a safer user.
  • JavaScript Option This restores some of the granularity Firefox users used to have over what Javascript can and cannot do. I’d like to see this idea taken farther (see below), but it’s handy regardless.
  • NoScript This extension is pretty smooth.  Of all the addons for Firefox covered here, this is the one to get.  NoScript is a powerful javascript execution whitelisting tool, allowing full user control over what domains allow scripts to run. Notifications of blocked execution and the allowed domain interface are nearly identical to the built-in Firefox popup blocker, so users should find it comfortable to work with.  NoScript can also block Flash, Java, and “other plugins;” forbid bookmarklets; block or allow the “ping” attribute of the tag; and attempt to rewrite links that execute javascript to go to their intended donation without triggering the script code. The one thing I’d really like to see from this extension would be more ganularity over what the Javascript engine can access.  Now it’s only “on” or “off,” but being able to disable things like cookie access would eliminate a lot of potential security issues while still letting JS power rich web app interfaces.  Also read Pascal Meunier’s take on NoScript.
  • QuickJava Places handy little buttons in the status bar that let you quickly enable or disable Java or Javascript support. Note that this will not work with the latest stable Firefox (  Hopefully a new version will be available soon.
  • ShowIP This is another tool that isn’t aimed at security per se, but offers a lot of useful information. ShowIP drops the IP address of the current site in your status bar.  Clicking on it brings up a menu of lookup options for the IP, like whois and DNS info.  You can add additional web lookups if you like, as well as passing the IP to a local program.  Handy stuff.
  • SpoofStick The idea with this extension is to make it easier to catch spoofing attempts by displaying a very large, brightly colored “You’re on ” in the toolbar. For folks who know what they’re doing this isn’t wildly useful, but it could be just the ticket for less savvy users.  It requires a bit too much setup for them, though, and in the end I think this is something the browser itself should be handling.
  • Tamper Data Much like LiveHTTPHeaders, Tamper Data is a very useful extension for web devs that lets the user view HTTP headers and POST data passed between the client and server. In addition, Tamper Data makes it easy for the user to alter the data being sent to the server, which is enormously useful for doing security testing against web apps. I also like how the data is presented in TD a bit better than LiveHTTPHeaders: it’s easier to see at a glance all of the traffic and get an overall feel of what’s going on, but you can still drill down and get as much detail as you like.

Got more Firefox security extensions?  Leave a comment and I’ll collect them in an upcoming post.

    [tags]firefox, extensions, security, privacy, safe_browsing, browser, web, flash[/tags]