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And yet, based on reviews carried out by various security firms, they were running software that was not only out of date, but which had well publicised (and exploited) vulnerabilities.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.




Stand and deliver – your money or your (computer) life

28 03 2016

Ransomware. It’s been around for a few years now but in the last 6 months or so it’s really hit the mainstream press, and therefore entered the consciousness of the ‘ordinary person’. Recent high profile cases include a couple of hospitals in the US, a police station and a local authority in the UK.

Before I go into the details and explore what you can, or more likely can’t, do to protect yourself, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the so called ‘underground economy’ of cyber crime.

Back in the day, the bad guys in the computer world were generally loners who did what they did for kicks and credibility amongst their peers. Very irritating, occasionally brilliant and generally disorganised.

That changed once it became clear that there was money to be made from what has come to be known as cybercrime. The professionals moved in as organised crime saw it as another lucrative string to their bow, promising low risk and high returns. Along with the increased organisation and the massive amounts of money, came demands for structure, specialists, quality control and co-ordination as well as the incessant demand for more and better products.

Nowadays a complete ecosystem is in place that is at least as organised as the mainstream legitimate economy. There are market places for the sale and exchange of everything from software to stolen credit cards. Code comes with money back guarantees, free trials, help manuals and even help desks. Every aspect of the economy has specialists who only focus on what they do best and hand on to the next person in the chain when their part is complete.

Into this mix comes ransomware.

Ransomware is, to put it in simple terms, a piece of computer code that you inadvertantly download to your PC. It might infect your PC via an email attachment, a website or even from an advert you click on. However it gets in, it has one purpose, to encrypt your files, and once those files are encrypted they will stay encrypted unless you can obtain the decryption key. And here’s the clever bit, in exchange for a fee usually in bit coins the bad guys will send you the decryption key.

The first you will probably know about it is a screen that will pop up on your computer looking something like this which is from Cryptolocker,


but they are all pretty much the same. At that point you have three choices:

  1. Restore your files from the backup (you do have backups don’t you?)
  2. Pay the fee
  3. Accept you have lost the files for ever and just move on.

Option 1 is fine as long as the backups are not accessible from the PC and the ransomware has not already found them and encrypted them as well. Assuming they are OK you simply need to disinfect your PC by running up to date antivirus software (the av software usually runs a day or so behind new ransomware so it might not work immediately – check online), delete the encrypted files and restore from your backups.

Option 2 is not ideal for a couple of reasons. Firstly the current fee is around 4 Bit Coins, which at time of press is about $700. For a company, that might be a small price to pay, for the audience of this blog it’s a not inconsiderable amount. Secondly, whilst it’s in the interest of the bad guys to make the process work, there are a number of reasons why it could fail. There might be an error in their code, there might be a problem with their use of encryption or law enforcement may have found them and taken the website down that’s hosting the decryption key. But as I said previously, this is a business and they are keen to maintain their reputation, and anecdotal evidence suggests that paying the fee will result in you receiving the decryption key.

Option 3 depends on you knowing what’s on your PC and whether you care about it. You still need to disinfect your PC but that’s about it.

So what can you do to protect yourself from ransomware? To be honest, beyond the normal good practice of regularly applying security updates and running up to date antivirus software not a lot. The age old advice of avoiding ‘dodgy’ websites, whilst still valid is not sufficient as many mainstream websites are infected these days (often via their advertisers’ sites). Not clicking on unexpected email attachments or following unknown links in emails is also fundamental good practice but is no guarantee that you’ll be safe.

One thing you might want to consider is to remove the admin rights from your normal account and create a separate account that you only use for admin type things (such as installing software). Some of the ransomware relies on being the Administrator on the box, so if you are logged in as a ‘normal’ user then it won’t work, or at least will only work on those files you control. Not perfect, but something.

The bottom line is that you are in the same position as the rest of us in the Commercial world. You have to expect the attack and then plan your response and try and mitigate the impact.

What stuff on your PC do you care about? Unless you are running a business, it probably boils down to photos and music, with a few personal letters thrown in.

You should make sure that you have backup copies of these important things. My previous blog about the Cloud gives some suggestions, but you could also consider offline backups on USB drives, SD cards or whatever. The main thing is to have them somewhere that is not immediately accessible from your PC, so that if bad stuff happens you’ve still got those photos of great aunt Daisy’s 100th birthday.

So that’s it I’m afraid. Ransomware is here to stay and will get more effective and more prevalent as time passes. Using the Internet gets more like Russian roulette every day, bad stuff is out there and it’s likely to get you at some point. All you can do is do the basics right (many of which I’ve covered in previous blog entries), and know what you are going to do when it’s your turn to get hit.

Depressing? Probably, but like everything else, until the general public really cares about something, governments and business won’t pay attention and get the problems fixed. Internet security is bubbling to the surface but at the moment there is more lip service than customer service being paid to solving the problem. Whilst software companies can get away with writing poor code, ISPs can get away with not caring about what they are hosting and Joe Public continues to do stupid things Internet crime will continue on an upwards tick that shows no sign of flattening out anytime soon.


Safe surfing







Facebook and Security – part 3

13 08 2012

In the first two posts I told you how to use the Facebook security settings to protect your information and how to manage your ‘friends’ to ensure you are only sharing your innermost secrets with the people you think you are.
In this final post I’m going to return to areas I touched on briefly in the first post which are the Facebook Applications and advertising. Facebook is a commercial organisation, even more so since their flotation on the NYSE earlier this year, and as such they have to find ways of generating income from a service which “is free to join and always will be”.
Let’s start with the Applications. Many of you will be familiar with ‘Farmville’, ‘Fishville’, ‘Mafia Wars’, but you can also create virtual worlds in other areas, play poker, play slot machines and so on. Other Applications offer to tell your future, share birthdays with your friends, or let you see what’s happening in the news, all incredibly vital stuff I’m sure but as I’ve said before, nothing is free in this life.
Most of these applications are free to download, and the ‘only’ price is your agreement to let them post on your behalf, share your details with pretty much anyone they wish and pester you with requests. In return some of them let you give them your credit card details so that you can buy all of those wonderful upgrades that you never knew you needed. The problem is that by participating, you have agreed to the application becoming one of your friends, and we’ve already looked at what that can mean. Before signing up, have a quick read through what it is you are signing up to. Do you have any idea what this organisation is about, are they even who they say they are? Is your mailbox (the one you’ve registered with Facebook) going to be filled with spam, as they share your details with other organisations who will pay good money for ‘live’ e-mail addresses?
So two tips for managing Applications. Firstly, think before you click ‘accept’, or ‘agree’, you are about to make a complete stranger your Friend. Do you really want to do that? Secondly, have a regular review of what Applications you have signed up to. You do this by clicking that little downward pointing arrow in the top rightof the Facebook page and then selecting Apps on the left hand pane. A regular cull never did anyone any harm.
So now for the biggest earner of all, Advertising. Facebook knows everything about you; your name, age, sex, marital status, hometown, where you go, what you do and who you do it with. Who your friends are, possibly their birthdays, their friends, interests etc. etc. etc. This is marketing dreamland. Want to advertise a wedding service to someone living in Norwich? Facebook can identify everyone with a status of Engaged, select those living within say 20 miles of Norwich and post a link on their home page. Rather than me telling you how easy it is to do, why don’t I let Facebook? Follow this link to read all about it So why should you care from an Information Security perspective? Two main reasons, firstly the ease with which adverts can be created, means that you should not simply trust what appears on your Facebook page, as I said in an earlier blog, “on the Internet, no-one knows you’re a dog”, just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, on the Internet it could still be a Rotweiller. Secondly this should make you appreciate the implications of being too free and easy with your personal information. Information is power and money, I’m going to cover Social Engineering in a later post, but for now let’s just say that if someone comes across as credible then we tend to believe them. If something looks personalised we will tend to trust it. By using the information you have put on Facebook, the advertisers will be both credible and personalised, but are they trustworthy? Do you really want to follow that link to an advert written just for you and then give them your credit card details?

Anyway, that’s enough for today.
As always, if you have any thoughts or comments please share them, if you’ve enjoyed reading this then please click on the ‘share’ button below, and as always Safe Surfing


Facebook and Security

21 07 2012

Did you know that if Facebook was a country it would have the third highest population in the world? Why should you care? Well, if you get your privacy settings wrong you could be exposing your personal details, innermost thoughts and candid photographs to a community with more than twice the population of the USA.
Before we get into how you can manage your privacy on Facebook, it’s probably worth spending a little while looking at the ethos behind the company and the ideas of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. Whilst not wanting to put words into his mouth, Zuckerberg’s underlying philosophy is that people should share information about themselves, their interests and their communities. His dream is to create an ‘open information flow’. Whilst that may be commendable, in the early days he drew a lot of flak by making the default settings on Facebook ‘Public’ to help realise that dream. Whilst that has changed in recent months they do occasionally revert to type and bring in new functionality that shares everything with the world again. Not a good place to be if you care about your privacy.
So how do you go about checking what Facebook is revealing about you to the world? Your first port of call is to click on the little downward pointing arrow on the top right of the Facebook screen and to select ‘Privacy Settings’. That brings up a screen with a number of options, so lets work through them one by one.
First things first, set the ‘control your default privacy’ to ‘Custom’.
How you connect – this is the most basic level of connectivity with the Facebook world. Who can see your e-mail address and phone number, who can ask to be your friend and who can send you messages. Each of the options offers you three settings ‘Everyone’, ‘Friends of Friends’ and ‘Friends’. For what its worth I have all three of these set to ‘Everyone’.
Timeline and Tagging – now we’re starting to get a bit more intimite with the community. This is where you start sharing information you post, but also control who can post on your pages (which will also be shared don’t forget). I’m more cautious in this area so I have them set to ‘Friends’, except for the two ‘review’ options which I have turned off.
Adds, Apps and Websites – these are the areas where Facebook moves away from you and your world into a much more commercial arena (with you as the focal point). You are now entering the Marketing space and these people want to get your details. Some want to sell you things, some want your endorsement so that your friends will buy things and some are just plain criminal. Click on the first entry and you will see all of the things that you are allowing to access your Facebook details. Thought you had this tied up in the ‘Timeline and Tagging’ settings? Think again! When you clicked on that fun app which let you do something on Facebook and selected the ‘allow to share’ option (and of course you could not use it if you didn’t), did you realise that you have just exposed a whole heap of your details to an unknown company for them to do with as they wish? Have a wander down that list and delete those which you no longer want to be part of. Also, check the last two entries on this screen ‘Public Search’ and ‘Adverts’. The first reveals how much you are exposing to ‘strangers’ when they search for you via a search engine such as Google. the second is a classic Facebook activity’ “We aren’t doing this yet, but if we were this is what would happen”. I’ve set both of these to ‘no-one’. Back to the main list and the next option allows you to retrospectively limit past sharing activity.
Limit the audience for past posts – this is a ‘nuclear option’ but in essence it means that in one stroke you can remove all of the ‘friends of friends’ or ‘public’ access to historical posts. This can’t be undone in a single stroke though.
Blocked people and apps – this is where you can block the stalkers, or those persistant apps which keep trying to make you join them.
So there you have it. Privacy on Facebook is much more granular than it used to be, but you do need to keep an eye on it, just to make sure nothing has ‘reverted’ since you last checked.
In my next post I’ll dig deeper into the world of Facebook from an information security perspective, looking at steps you can take to protect yourself in your posts and sharing some of the Facebook disasters that continue to appear.
As always, if you have any thoughts or comments then please get in touch.

Until next time, surf safely.


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