Knocked into a cocked (Panama) hat

11 04 2016

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week you can’t have failed to be aware of the ‘Panama Papers’. 2.6Tb of data, 11.5m documents, 30,000 lorries worth if you printed then out and so on and so forth.

Information relating to offshore companies, tax avoidance and (possibly) tax evasion, dodgy art deals, alleged money laundering activities, corrupt country leaders and multi millionaires.

So what has this to do with my reader base? Well unless you’ve been keeping something from me and you’re actually an international bad guy, up there with Scaramanga and Blofeld, not a lot on the face of it.

But, let’s just take a step back and look at this from a slightly different angle.

Here we have a law firm, Mossack Fonseca, who prided themselves on guaranteeing confidentiality, indeed on their web site under data security they say “Your information has never been safer than with Mossack Fonseca’s secure Client Portal”. The people they dealt with chose them because they didn’t want their activities to be under public scrutiny, they designed company structures to be obscure and obtuse, everything was geared towards secrecy.

And yet, based on reviews carried out by various security firms, they were running software that was not only out of date, but which had well publicised (and exploited) vulnerabilities. Their servers were not protected by firewalls, the secret data was unencrypted, and it appears their monitoring was so poor (or maybe non-existent) that they failed to notice the exfiltration of vast amounts of data over many months.

So, just to repeat, this company existed in a world where secrecy and confidentiality was everything. Where their customers made fundamental assumptions that their activities would remain hidden from public gaze, and that they could trust their lawyers to protect their interests at all times.

Despite all of that, this organisation appears to have disregarded pretty much every rule of information security.

So if a firm operating in that environment could be so bad at looking after their customer’s data, what about the thousands of other companies with an internet presence who are holding YOUR data. The small (and not so small) organisations you share your details with on a daily basis, the ones you order from online, send emails to with personal details included, upload files of photos, documents or whatever. How confident can you be that they are any better prepared than Mossack Fonseca?

And that’s why this story is relevant to my readers. Poor information security practices are endemic across all industries and all sizes of organisation. We put up with it because we are not big enough to make the difference on our own, and not rich enough to organise the campaigns necessary to force changes through.

Mossack Fonseca is the 4th biggest player in this field, you can bet the clients of numbers 1,2 and 3 have been asking some very pointed questions over the past few days.

Maybe, just maybe, the exposure of the personal details of the richest, most powerful (and let’s be honest, most scary) people on the planet might be the trigger that pushes achieving real information security to the forefront of the thinking of governments and other influential bodies. Could this incident be the tipping point that’s always eluded us, because as sure as eggs are eggs the hundreds of millions of personal records of ‘ordinary’ people that have been leaked over the past year were not seen as important enough.

Fingers crossed.




Encryption and back doors

21 02 2016

A lot has been written over the past few months about demands that the providers of encryption software provide ‘backdoors’ so that law enforcement can decrypt information that the ‘bad guys’ want to hide. So I thought I’d add my h’app’enth worth into the debate.

As is so often the case in technical matters, much of what has been written is biased or just plain wrong, with vested interests (on both sides of the debate) trying to promote their angle though misinformation and the spread of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

The current FBI vs Apple law suit is just another thread in this saga, and whilst it is not explicitly about the encryption on the device, the ‘backdoor’ argument is the same.

So lets strip this debate back to it’s bare bones, by posing a few very simple questions.

  1. Is encryption a fundamental necessity for the way we use computing in the 21st Century?
  2. Do we believe that, in the age of ubiquitous social media and the proliferation of computing devices and technologies across the globe, a secret (such as the backdoor key) can be kept out of the hands of those not meant to know it?
  3. Do we trust those in posession of the secret to only use it for the intended purpose, and that all of the checks and balances introduced to manage the use of the secret will be adhered to by all parties?

Starting with the first question, I believe the answer is “absolutely”. Trillions of £’s worth of transactions occur every day across the globe, ranging from international finance down to buying a book off Amazon. Personal details (medical, political, sexual orientation etc) of individuals are stored and shared by and between companies and the wider population to make our services function. Trade secrets are stored to provide long term security to companies and their employees, and so the list goes on. All of these require the information to be secure and trusted and encryption is the only way we can go anyways towards achieving this in the computer age.

The second one is even easier to answer. Edward Snowdon, Chelsea Manning and a host of other less well known whistleblowers have shown that Governments cannot keep their secrets safe, however hard they try. Companies lose hundreds of millions of customer records every year from within their boundaries, and people (who are what everything comes down to in the end) continue to do stupid things, sharing their passwords, downloading viruses and falling for social engineering scams. To my mind this proves that secrets cannot be kept. People will always make mistakes or leak information that they believe should be in the public domain. And that does not even begin to cover the likelihood of threats of violence or extortion to make people reveal information against their will.

The final one is slightly harder to answer. Conspiracy theorists and libertarians will answer with a resounding “No!”. Government spokespeople will offer all sorts of assurances, and the truth lies somewhere in between. To my mind the important point is that ‘governments’, ‘law enforcement’ and ‘secret services’ are not things. They are made up from the people who work there, the same people who do stupid or bad things, often for what they consider to be the right reasons. So in my view there will always be those who can find a justification for bypassing the rules which makes this control unreliable.

So, in summary.

In my opinion, the encryption that we rely on must be secure and effective; we can’t expect the secrets to remain secret; and we can’t reasonably expect all of those in possession of the secret to only use it when legally permitted. That means the argument for mandatory backdoors is fundamentally flawed, even before you consider the technical challenges of trying to create one.

Everything else just becomes noise around the edges. Yes, of course bad guys will use encryption, but as the totally failed attempt of the USA to ban the export of encryption tools a few years back demonstrated, they will always find a tool where the government does not have the backdoor key.

At the end of the day an old secruity truism comes to the fore. “The wall is not there to keep you out, it’s there to see how badly you want to come in”. We know that when law enforcement REALLY want to get something they will, and the absence of a backdoor won’t stop them, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Happy surfing, and remember, just because you’re paranoid it does not mean the bad guys are not out to get you.

If you agree with me or think I’m totally missing the point please feel free to share your thoughts in the commnets section.



The Internet of Things and security

7 06 2015

Like so much in the world of computing if you ask 5 people for a definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) you’ll get 10 slightly different answers. So for the sake of balance here’s an eleventh.

In my simplistic view, the IoT refers to those items that can be accessed over the internet but which you would not normally consider as being obvious candidates for internet access, nor indeed as being especially computerised. The examples often quoted are kettles, fridges, heating systems and lighting systems, but the list is literally endless.  Want to check on the charge left in your electric car, then look it up on your smart phone, want to record that television programme, then access your recorder from your office PC, want to turn on your oven, set it from the train on your way home. It was estimated that in 2014 there were 16 BILLION wirelessly connected devices and that by 2020 that number would exceed 40 billion.

So why am I writing about being able to turn your kettle on from your car in a security blog?

Let me take you back to those innocent days when the internet first entered the consciousness of the mainstream, when AOL sent you an endless stream of CDs, when you could either make a phone call OR use the internet and 56k was considered to be fast. Back then no-one really thought about security, no-one considered that bad guys might be able to do bad things over the internet and no-one cared.

Fast forward to 2015 and we are bombarded with stories about hackers, e-crime, government snooping and our personal details being on sale on Russian websites. We are encouraged to use strong passwords and to keep safe online (see my previous blogs) and many of us do take more care about using the internet.

Our world is much more connected, and we are more connected, whether over social media, in our dealings with our employers or our banks, or in our day to day lives, and into this maelstrom comes the Internet of Things.

The problem is that the vast majority of devices that make up the IoT have security settings that hark back to those early days. The chips they use are not designed from a security perspective, the security settings (if they even have them) are weak and easily guessed or broken. They are commodities, produced in the millions and designed to be thrown away, not upgraded or patched, if an issue is found, and these devices are connected to your home networks, to your business networks, to our hospitals and the critical national infrastructure.

In the vast majority of cases we have no idea what can be done with these things above and beyond their advertised use. The same chipsets appear across a range of devices with the settings needed for your kettle enabled, but other possible uses still sitting there in the background. Smart meters for your electricity and gas use come with all of the capabilities on the chips, not just the few that you have decided to pay for, and all of this capability is connected to the internet available to anyone who can find their IP address.

So why should you care? Well in order for you to access your kettle from your train, it has to be connected to the internet. How does it do that? Well it’s sitting in your house, plugged in and raring to go, wirelessly connected to your home network and waiting for you to call. To be on your home network it must be authorised and enabled, which means it has to know about your network and vice versa, which would be fine if it looked after those very sensitive details, but generally speaking it doesn’t. So you have a kettle that is holding the keys to your home network, exposed to the internet with pretty much zero security, and if you can see it, so can the other billions of people with internet access.

That means that with relative ease and a bit of readily available kit, those billions of people can access your home network and the devices sitting on it, such as your PC on whch you do your internet banking, and have a wander around to see what they can find.

That is why your remote access kettle finds its way into  a security blog.

So what can you do about it?

Well, to be butally honest very little. If you want to use these devices you have to accept that you have as much chance of improving the security as you have of changing how a vacuum cleaner works. You buy it as a commodity, you take what the manufacturer offers and you live with it. You can’t go in and change the default password on a kettle any more than you can change the spin cycle on your washing machine.

Obviously not all of these devices have the appalling levels of security that I’ve highighted in this posting and I’m sure that much like the progression from the early days of the internet to today things will improve. Security will start to be considered at the design stage and many of the more obvious errors we see know will be resolved, but as we know it’s a jungle out there and at the moment the consumer is at the bottom of the food chain.

There is nothing that can be done to slow the pace at which these devices are being introduced, and to be honest I for one don’t think anything should be. The IoT presents fantastic opportuniites many of which we are only beginning to realise, and can take us down paths we’d never considered possible, but like any technological revolution it comes with risks and we need to go on the journey with our eyes open.

If you choose to embrace the IoT then you are at the vanguard of a brave new world. We have no idea what it will look like and we have no idea where it will lead us but what we do know is that if there is an opportunity to make an illegal buck out of security weaknesses the bad guys will be queueing up to take full advantage.

And on that happy note I’m going to walk through to the kitchen to put my kettle on for a cup of tea.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written so please share your comments below.

Keeps safe and happy surfing


Have we lost the war? Or are we just fighting the wrong battles?

24 10 2014

It’s October, and so far this year the ‘bad guys’ have obtained well over 100 million customer records and a similar number of credit card details from a variety of organisations ranging from banks to hardware stores. Every day it seems another bad news story appears in The Register or even on the BBC informing us of yet another breach of security, software vulnerability, internet scam or infected cat video on You Tube.

Each news story prompts the rolling out of the same faces, making the same statements and wringing the same hands AND NOTHING CHANGES.

Whilst those who have been paying attention understand that we are no longer up against spotty faced kids in their bedrooms who switch between Doom (showing my age here) and hacking a web site for their entertainment, the wider community does not seem to have caught on.

Our adversaries are running multi million dollar, global enterprises with levels of organisational sophistication and technical expertise that many of their target companies could only dream of. They don’t have to worry about setting up committees and focus groups before deciding whether to raise a project to scope out the work necessary to request a budget to carry out a feasibility study into the value of implementing a new product. They just get on and do it, and in many cases do it extremely well.

That means that we’re always going to be behind the curve playing catchup, and with the pace of technology change we’re dropping behind.

So what do I think we should be doing? Well to use Tony Blair’s famous phrase from 2001 “Education, education education”, but not just in schools and universities.

People write poor code that can be exploited, people click on links in emails and download viruses, people give away their security information to anyone who offers them a free app, people decide on what budgets should be spent on security improvements and only people can make the changes necessary to give us half a chance.

Until most people ‘get it’ then the few of us in the security world who already ‘get it’ are just lone voices in the wilderness, seen as a bunch of geeks wheeled out for soundbites that are forgotten as soon as the next celeb leaves Big Brother.

Sure there are glimpses of change, initiatives such as the UK Governments Cyber Streetwise and Get Safe online (incidentally did you know that 20-26 October 2014 is Get safe online week? No, me neither), are baby steps in the right direction, as are moves by e-Skills UK to promote cyber security training, but none of them are really joined up, and very few make it into the public consciousness.

So how could we achieve effective education of those who really matter?

There is no magic bullet, no one panacea for all our ills, but one thing we do know about the western world is that if something has a celebrity angle, involves reality TV or appears in a soap opera, boy does it get discussed around the coffee machine. If people feel they are directly affected by something (even if they aren’t) then there is a clamour to ‘get something done’ about it. So if we can pique their interest about something that they are affected by then who knows what might happen.

Maybe, just maybe, if we were able to get the conversation going at the soap opera level, that would get the message to the masses. If the scripts were written in an interesting and accurate manner with real human interest about the victims, maybe that would provoke a reaction. If real solutions and suggestions were offered in a joined up way, maybe that would encourage people to find out more and create a demand for change, and change themselves.

We know that simple things like running an up to date operating system and browser, thinking before clicking, not sharing your personal information with the world at large will all help make you less of a target. The other 99% of the population don’t, and most of them don’t even know they don’t know. Until that changes no amount of firewalls, IDS, IPS, anti-malware or any other technical security will win the war for us. No burglar will waste their time picking the locks of the back door when the front door is wide open and the burglar alarm is turned off.

As a start we need to remind people why they have a lock on their front door, and that leaving the key on the doormat or not locking it at all is plain stupid. Once we get that message understood then we can start with the more sophisticated stuff.

That’s my two-penneth worth. Maybe you agree or maybe you think I’m being too simplistic, not clever enough or just dumb? Either way, I’d love to hear what you think so please leave me some comments and if you are a script writer on Coronation Street or Hollyoaks let me know and we can have a chat.

Keep safe


Of Passwords and PINS (3)

8 02 2013

In the final part of this series I’ll look at PINs and what you can do to make them easier to remember.

PIN numbers, generally 4 digits, and used to validate debit and credit cards, lock your i-phone, access buildings, secure safes and all manner of  other things have become one of those things we all have to remember. The 4 digit card PIN only offers 10,000 possible combinations, so it’s not really that secure, which is why so many systems operate the ‘3-strikes and you’re out’ control. But why only 4 digits? For the answer you have to ask John Shepherd-Barron the inventor of the ATM. It seems that Mr Shepherd-Barron favoured using 6 digits, but his wife preferred 4!

In the same way as there are commonly used passwords (see the previous post for more details), there are some PINs which appear on an all too frequent basis. A recent analysis by Data Genetics revealed how unimaginative people are.  Over 10% of the PIN codes analysed were 1234, and 6% were 1111. The least common PIN was 8068, but probably best not to use that now as the bad guys can also read the reports.

Maybe you need a different approach. In the same way as you can have a memorable password, why not have memorable PINs? No! Not your birthday, or your partners birthday, or your house number, too many people already know them. But why not use the letters A through J to reflect the numbers 1 to 0, and create a combination that is meaningful to you? First four words of a favourite tune, initials of four family members, first four letters of you home town.

Most organisations which require you to have a PIN allow you to change them, usually on-line or at the ATM, so that’s not much of a chore, BUT, don’t change them all to the same value. Like passwords, it makes sense to have a variety of PINs, and to he honest you’re unlikely to have as many PINs as you have passwords (unless you collect credit cards as a hobby).

The standard instruction (as with passwords) is not to write them down, but again, as with passwords, there are variations on a theme. Clearly no-one would write in their diary: Barclaycard 1234; Amex 3456; M&S 4567 would they (pause whilst some readers tear page out of diary), but it is possible to be more discreet and still record those which you use less often in the same way as you can record passwords.

The frequently used ones you will remember because you use them everyday, especially if you have made the memorable in the first place.

Anyway, that’s enough on Passwords and PINs, next time I’m going to start on Social Engineering and how the bad guys WILL obtain those carefully protected pieces of information you have created.

Until then, keep safe and keep aware


Of Passwords and PINS (2)

6 10 2012

In the last posting I briefly referred to ‘strong’ passwords and said I’d come back to them a bit later on. So, what is a ‘strong’ password? As I said last time, the holy grail of password creation is to have something which is easy to remember AND hard to guess. Individually these are simple to achieve, putting them together is a much harder task.
Before getting into the mechanics of password creation, let’s take a couple of seconds thinking about how the ‘bad guys’, (and gals), will try and misuse them. At the most basic, they sit at a computer, enter your account name and then just try and guess your password by hitting characters on the keyboard. If the system allows infinite attempts then they can continue until they get bored or strike lucky. The more sophisticated attacks will use technology, i.e. software, which will perform the same activity but automatically. So called ‘dictionary’ attacks, do just that. The software has millions of words in their database and they just trawl through them until they get a match or run out of words. The more sophisticated also include character replacement checks as well (more on that in a moment) which provides millions of additional permutations. The final way is to obtain the password file from the system itself which is hopefully encrypted. If it’s not then it doesn’t matter how good your password is, they’ve got it! If it is, then the complexity you use will make it that much harder for ‘them’ to decode it.

So lets look at our two objectives separately to see how we can solve the problem.
Picking something really obvious would be daft of course and no-one would do that would they? Think again, surveys of the most common passwords are produced every other week such as this report in the Daily Mail, with ‘Password’ and ‘123456’ always being in the top 10, (quick pause here whilst you go off and change yours?).
It is generally easier to remember something which is personal to you rather than a completely abstract item, but make it too personal (pet’s name, your birthday, mother’s maiden name(!)) and far too many other people will already know it. Quick aside here, just because you are are asked to provide your mother’s maiden name at registration does not mean you actually have to provide the exact name. It’s a security control, not a test. Just make sure you remember what you tell them!
But there are things which are personal to you that you can use as long you mix it up a bit. Favourite places, favourite songs, recent events are all good sources for passwords, you can have those little triggers in the back of your mind to help you remember them BUT, as I’ve already said you need to mix it up a bit, which is where we apply the ‘hard to guess’ angle.
Let’s start with the basics. Say you wanted to use the name of a city where you had a great weekend, such as Norwich. It’s quite hard to guess, unless people knew you liked it, seven characters long so it’s not bad from that perspective, but it’s in every dictionary so would be a soft target from that angle. Simple character replacement and changing the case of the letters will immediately make it even harder to guess (e.g. N0rw1cH), and placing the first and last characters in the middle will defeat any dictionary attack however sophisticated (e.g. 0rwNH1c), simples (as the Meerkat says). But the root (Norwich) is still a valid word and potentially guessable, so another approach is to use a phrase as the root. Pick the first 8 words from a song and use the first letter from each word (e.g. gsogqllo – “God save our gracious queen…”), mix up the cases and do a bit of character replacement (G50gQll0), and bob is your mother’s brother as they say. You can try the same thing with first words from a favourite book, or just a favourite saying. Easy to remember and had to guess, just don’t hum the tune as you type it in!
Now for the really clever bit. Best practice says, have a different password for each account, common sense says you’re never going to remember all of those passwords. So how can you get the best of both worlds? If you take your common password, say G50gQ110, and then add two letters to signify the application you are using it for, e.g. FB for Facebook, HM for Hotmail, NW for your Nat West bank account etc., you have something you will always remember and something that will be extremely hard to guess.
So there you have it, strong passwords with minimal effort.

Till next time


Of Passwords and PINS (1)

25 08 2012

In the world of Information Security, few things generate more debate and argument than how to authenticate a user.
Authentication is one of the two pillars of access, the other being authorisation. One to prove who you are, the other to control what you are allowed to do. You can have authorisation without authentication (for example anyone can use Google to search for something on the web) and you can have authentication without authorisation (“you may well be David, but you aren’t getting in here my son!”).
The most common authentication mechanism around is the good old userid/password combination. The biggest problem with this is that the userid is often easy to guess (or may even be made public intentionally), so it really falls back to the password on its own and for a password to be acceptable the party who owns what is to be accessed has to trust that the person who presents the password is actually the person who is meant to know it. We’ve all seen the films where the bad guys find out the secret password for entry to the castle and then massacre everyone inside. If you rely on a password as the authentication method then you have to rely on the person who knows it keeping it secret, and that it is pretty hard to guess!
Therein lies the problem. If you only have to remember one userid/password combination then it’s not beyond the wit of man to make it complex and keep it safe in your head, however a very quick count will show that you have lots of accounts which require you to authenticate yourself before you are granted access. Actually, let’s just take a few minutes to do just that. Count up all of the different computer accounts you have; at work, at home, with your bank(s?), e-mail accounts, Facebook, Twitter, don’t forget your phone, laptop, car(?) etc. etc. Passed 20 yet? Thirty, Forty, One Hundred? OK, now think how many DIFFERENT passwords you use across those accounts, is it one for all of them or a different one for each?
This is where the real world and ‘best practice’ collide, and where I will disagree with many of my colleagues. ‘Best practice’ for account management will offer you the following rules: 1. Have a different password for each account; 2. Never write your password down; 3. Change your password frequently; 4. Make your password hard to guess but easy to remember; 5. Never share your password with anyone.
4 and 5 I’ll go along with, and there are lots of places you can go to help you with the first part of 4, however the challenge can be achieving the second part at the same time. R&h(0kl.!B may well be a very strong password, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember it. I’ll come back to how to achieve both parts of (4) in the next post. To my mind 5 is a no brainer, but (and there is always a but), I’m sure you can think of situations where you want to share because it’s easier, and that is where Corporate rules and Personal choice can collide. Your employer may make it a disciplinary offence to share the password to your company account with a colleague, but you may choose to share your personal e-mail password with your partner (only you can decide if that is a good idea!!).
So let’s have a look at 1,2 and 3.
1. Have a different password for each account. Are you serious?? It’s hard enough to remember the separate accounts without having to remember all those passwords.
2. Never write your password down. You’ve just told me to have 50 different passwords, and now you expect me to remember them all? Dream on!
3. Change your password frequently. So, not only do I have to remember 50 separate, complex passwords, without writing them down, I’ve now got to change them every month or so.
And we wonder why users get upset with us.
So what can you do? This may not work for you, but it’s my solution and it seems to have kept me safe for a few years.
First step is to separate your accounts into their relative importance (perform a risk assessment if you will). Ask yourself how much pain you will suffer if someone else can use the account that you are protecting. If it’s your online bank account, then you want it pretty secure, other things you may care less about. For the ones I really care about, as there are not many of them and it’s not a massive overhead, I apply rules 1-5 in full. I then temper the rules as the risk decreases, to the point where I have a couple of passwords that I use for all of the unimportant accounts (insurance quotes, or brochure sites which feel obliged to force you to log in for some reason). Rules 4 and 5 still apply to these though.
So lets look at Rule 1. You may also decide to have one password to cover a particular group of accounts (e.g. your e-mail accounts, or your social media accounts), this has the advantage that you only have to remember one password and when it comes to changing it you only have to think up one new value. It does of course have the disadvantage that if it is compromised then all of those accounts could be at risk, so as soon as you think someone knows your password CHANGE IT! Hence the risk assessment.
On to Rule 2. If you are going to write your passwords down, then don’t write the password next to the account name it belongs to. As I said in an earlier posting, Information Security is basically common sense, and that would be plain stupid. Think of a clever way of making the relationship obvious to you, but impossible to guess for someone else. If you don’t need to carry them with you (and let’s be honest you probably don’t), then store them in a file on your computer (and don’t name it ‘my passwords’), which you could always protect with another password!
Finally Rule 3. When it comes to changing passwords, other than your Corporate accounts, I’m pretty sure that none will ever remind you, and most will never expire. Two tips here; one – if you hear about a company you have an account with being ‘hacked’ (such as the recent stories about Sony, LinkedIn and World of Warcraft), then change your passwords immediately, and 2 – never change your password in a hurry or when your mind is on something else. You WILL have forgotten it the next time you log in!

So, that’s a first toe-dip into the world of authentication. Lots more to cover in later postings, but in the meantime, as always, keep safe online, and remember –
Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!


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