The third week of September 2016 was a dark and stormy one for KrebsOnSecurity. Wave after wave of huge denial-of-service attacks flooded this site, forcing me to pull the plug on it until I could secure protection from further assault. The site resurfaced three days later under the aegis of Google’s Project Shield, an initiative which seeks to protect journalists and news sites from being censored by these crippling digital sieges.
Damian Menscher, a Google security engineer with whom I worked very closely on the migration to Project Shield, spoke this week about the unique challenges involved in protecting a small site like this one from very large, sustained and constantly morphing attacks.
Google Security Reliability Engineer Damian Menscher speaking at the Enigma conference this week. Photo: @mrisher
“What happens if this botnet actually takes down google.com and we lose all of our revenue?” Menscher recalled. “But we considered [that] if the botnet can take us down, we’re probably already at risk anyway. There’s nothing stopping them from attacking us at any time. So we really had nothing to lose here.” Continue reading →
Internet infrastructure giant Akamai last week released a special State of the Internet report. Normally, the quarterly accounting of noteworthy changes in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks doesn’t delve into attacks on specific customers. But this latest Akamai report makes an exception in describing in great detail the record-sized attack against KrebsOnSecurity.com in September, the largest such assault it has ever mitigated.
“The attacks made international headlines and were also covered in depth by Brian Krebs himself,” Akamai said in its report, explaining one reason for the exception. “The same data we’ve shared here was made available to Krebs for his own reporting and we received permission to name him and his site in this report. Brian Krebs is a security blogger and reporter who does in-depth research and analysis of cybercrime throughout the world, with a recent emphasis on DDoS. His reporting exposed a stressor site called vDOS and the security firm BackConnect Inc., which made him the target of a series of large DDoS attacks starting September 15, 2016.”
A visual depiction of the increasing size and frequency of DDoS attacks against KrebsOnSecurity.com, between 2012 and 2016. Source: Akamai.
Akamai said the attack on Sept. 20 was launched by just 24,000 systems infected with Mirai, mostly hacked Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as digital video recorders and security cameras.
“The first quarter of 2016 marked a high point in the number of attacks peaking at more than 100 Gbps,” Akamai stated in its report. “This trend was matched in Q3 2016, with another 19 mega attacks. It’s interesting that while the overall number of attacks fell by 8% quarter over quarter, the number of large attacks, as well as the size of the biggest attacks, grew significantly.”
As detailed here in several previous posts, KrebsOnSecurity.com was a pro-bono customer of Akamai, beginning in August 2012 with Prolexic before Akamai acquired them. Akamai mentions this as well in explaining its decision to terminate our pro-bono arrangement. KrebsOnSecurity is now behindGoogle‘s Project Shield, a free program run by Google to help protect journalists and dissidents from online censorship.
John Gilmore, an American entrepreneur and civil libertarian, once famously quipped that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This notion undoubtedly rings true for those who see national governments as the principal threats to free speech.
However, events of the past week have convinced me that one of the fastest-growing censorship threats on the Internet today comes not from nation-states, but from super-empowered individuals who have been quietly building extremely potent cyber weapons with transnational reach.
More than 20 years after Gilmore first coined that turn of phrase, his most notable quotable has effectively been inverted — “Censorship can in fact route around the Internet.” The Internet can’t route around censorship when the censorship is all-pervasive and armed with, for all practical purposes, near-infinite reach and capacity. I call this rather unwelcome and hostile development the “The Democratization of Censorship.”
Allow me to explain how I arrived at this unsettling conclusion. As many of you know, my site was taken offline for the better part of this week. The outage came in the wake of a historically large distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack which hurled so much junk traffic at Krebsonsecurity.com that my DDoS protection provider Akamai chose to unmoor my site from its protective harbor.
Let me be clear: I do not fault Akamai for their decision. I was a pro bono customer from the start, and Akamai and its sister company Prolexic have stood by me through countless attacks over the past four years. It just so happened that this last siege was nearly twice the size of the next-largest attack they had ever seen before. Once it became evident that the assault was beginning to cause problems for the company’s paying customers, they explained that the choice to let my site go was a business decision, pure and simple.
Nevertheless, Akamai rather abruptly informed me I had until 6 p.m. that very same day — roughly two hours later — to make arrangements for migrating off their network. My main concern at the time was making sure my hosting provider wasn’t going to bear the brunt of the attack when the shields fell. To ensure that absolutely would not happen, I asked Akamai to redirect my site to 127.0.0.1 — effectively relegating all traffic destined for KrebsOnSecurity.com into a giant black hole.
Today, I am happy to report that the site is back up — this time under Project Shield, a free program run by Google to help protect journalists from online censorship. And make no mistake, DDoS attacks — particularly those the size of the assault that hit my site this week — are uniquely effective weapons for stomping on free speech, for reasons I’ll explore in this post.
Google’s Project Shield is now protecting KrebsOnSecurity.com
Why do I speak of DDoS attacks as a form of censorship? Quite simply because the economics of mitigating large-scale DDoS attacks do not bode well for protecting the individual user, to say nothing of independent journalists.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Akamai executives said the attack — if sustained — likely would have cost the company millions of dollars. In the hours and days following my site going offline, I spoke with multiple DDoS mitigation firms. One offered to host KrebsOnSecurity for two weeks at no charge, but after that they said the same kind of protection I had under Akamai would cost between $150,000 and $200,000 per year.
Ask yourself how many independent journalists could possibly afford that kind of protection money? A number of other providers offered to help, but it was clear that they did not have the muscle to be able to withstand such massive attacks.
I’ve been toying with the idea of forming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization — ‘The Center for the Defense of Internet Journalism’, if you will — to assist Internet journalists with obtaining the kind of protection they may need when they become the targets of attacks like the one that hit my site. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign, along with donations from well-known charitable organizations, could get the ball rolling. It’s food for thought. Continue reading →
A recent ping from a reader reminded me that I’ve been meaning to blog about the security limitations of using cell phone text messages for two-factor authentication online. The reader’s daughter had received a text message claiming to be from Google, warning that her Gmail account had been locked because someone in India had tried to access her account. The young woman was advised to expect a 6-digit verification code to be sent to her and to reply to the scammer’s message with that code.
Mark Cobb, a computer technician in Reno, Nev., said had his daughter fallen for the ruse, her Gmail account would indeed have been completely compromised, and she really would have been locked out of her account because the crooks would have changed her password straight away.
Cobb’s daughter received the scam text message because she’d enabled 2-factor authentication on her Gmail account, selecting the option to have Google request that she enter a 6-digit code texted to her cell phone each time it detects a login from an unknown computer or location (in practice, the code is to be entered on the Gmail site, not sent in any kind of texted or emailed reply).
In this case, the thieves already had her password — most likely because she re-used it on some other site that got hacked. Cobb says he and his daughter believe her mobile number and password may have been exposed as part of the 2012 breach at LinkedIn.
In any case, the crooks were priming her to expect a code and to repeat it back to them because that code was the only thing standing in the way of their seizing control over her account. And they could control when Google would send the code to her phone because Google would do this as soon as they tried to log in using her username and password. Indeed, the timing aspect of this attack helps make it more believable to the target.
This is a fairly clever — if not novel — attack, and it’s one I’d wager would likely fool a decent percentage of users who have enabled text messages as a form of two-factor authentication. Certainly, text messaging is far from the strongest form of 2-factor authentication, but it is better than allowing a login with nothing more than a username and password, as this scam illustrates.
But don’t take my word for it. That’s according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which recently issued new proposed digital authentication guidelines urging organizations to favor other forms of two-factor — such as time-base one-time passwords generated by mobile apps — over text messaging. By the way, NIST is seeking feedback on these recommendations.
If anyone’s interested, Sophos’s Naked Security blog has a very readable breakdown of what’s new in the NIST guidelines. Among my favorite highlights is this broad directive: Favor the user.
“To begin with, make your password policies user friendly and put the burden on the verifier when possible,” Sophos’s Chester Wisniewski writes. “In other words, we need to stop asking users to do things that aren’t actually improving security.” Like expiring passwords and making users change them frequently, for example.
Okay, so the geeks-in-chief are saying it’s time to move away from texting as a form of 2-factor authentication. And, of course, they’re right, because text messages are a lot like email, in that it’s difficult to tell who really sent the message, and the message itself is sent in plain text — i.e. is readable by anyone who happens to be lurking in the middle.
But security experts and many technology enthusiasts have a tendency to think that everyone should see the world through the lens of security, whereas most mere mortal users just want to get on with their lives and are perfectly content to use the same password across multiple sites — regardless of how many times they’re told not to do so. Continue reading →
United Airlines has rolled out a series of updates to its Web site that the company claims will help beef up the security of customer accounts. But at first glance, the core changes — moving from a 4-digit PINs to password and requiring customers to pick five different security questions and answers — may seem like a security playbook copied from Yahoo.com, circa 2009. Here’s a closer look at what’s changed in how United authenticates customers, and hopefully a bit of insight into what the nation’s fourth-largest airline is trying to accomplish with its new system.
United, like many other carriers, has long relied on a frequent flyer account number and a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN) for authenticating customers at its Web site. This has left customer accounts ripe for takeover by crooks who specialize in hacking and draining loyalty accounts for cash.
Earlier this year, however, United began debuting new authentication systems wherein customers are asked to pick a strong password and to choose from five sets of security questions and pre-selected answers. Customers may be asked to provide the answers to two of these questions if they are logging in from a device United has never seen associated with that account, trying to reset a password, or interacting with United via phone.
Some of the questions and answers United come up with.
Yes, you read that right: The answers are pre-selected as well as the questions. For example, to the question “During what month did you first meet your spouse or significant other,” users may select only from one of…you guessed it — 12 answers (January through December).
The list of answers to another security question, “What’s your favorite pizza topping,” had me momentarily thinking I using a pull down menu at Dominos.com — waffling between “pepperoni” and “mashed potato.” (Fun fact: If you were previously unaware that mashed potatoes qualify as an actual pizza topping, United has you covered with an answer to this bit of trivia in its Frequently Asked Questions page on the security changes.)
I recorded a short video of some of these rather unique questions and answers.
United said it opted for pre-defined questions and answers because the company has found “the majority of security issues our customers face can be traced to computer viruses that record typing, and using predefined answers protects against this type of intrusion.”
This struck me as a dramatic oversimplification of the threat. I asked United why they stated this, given that any halfway decent piece of malware that is capable of keylogging is likely also doing what’s known as “form grabbing” — essentially snatching data submitted in forms — regardless of whether the victim types in this information or selects it from a pull-down menu.
Benjamin Vaughn, director of IT security intelligence at United, said the company was randomizing the questions to confound bot programs that seek to automate the submission of answers, and that security questions answered wrongly would be “locked” and not asked again. He added that multiple unsuccessful attempts at answering these questions could result in an account being locked, necessitating a call to customer service.
United said it plans to use these same questions and answers — no longer passwords or PINs — to authenticate those who call in to the company’s customer service hotline. When I went to step through United’s new security system, I discovered my account was locked for some reason. A call to United customer service unlocked it in less than two minutes. All the agent asked me for was my frequent flyer number and my name.
(Incidentally, United still somewhat relies on “security through obscurity” to protect the secrecy of customer usernames by very seldom communicating the full frequent flyer number in written and digital communications with customers. I first pointed this out in my story about the data that can be gleaned from a United boarding pass barcode, because while the full frequent flyer number is masked with “x’s” on the boarding pass, the full number is stored on the pass’s barcode).
Conventional wisdom dictates that what little additional value security questions add to the equation is nullified when the user is required to choose from a set of pre-selected answers. After all, the only sane and secure way to use secret questions if one must is to pick answers that are not only incorrect and/or irrelevant to the question, but that also can’t be guessed or gleaned by collecting facts about you from background checking sites or from your various social media presences online.
Google published some fascinating research last year that spoke to the efficacy and challenges of secret questions and answers, concluding that they are “neither secure nor reliable enough to be used as a standalone account recovery mechanism.” Continue reading →
Expect phishers and other password thieves to up their game in 2016: Both Google and Yahoo! are taking steps to kill off the password as we know it.
New authentication methods now offered by Yahoo! and to a beta group of Google users let customers log in just by supplying their email address, and then responding to a notification sent to their mobile device.
According to TechCrunch, Google is giving select Gmail users a password-free means of signing in. It uses a “push” notification sent to your phone that then opens an app where you approve the log-in.
The article says the service Google is experimenting with will let users sign in without entering a password, but that people can continue to use their typed password if they choose. It also says Google may still ask for your password as an additional security measure if it notices anything unusual about a login attempt.
The new authentication feature being tested by some Gmail users comes on the heels of a similar service Yahoo! debuted in October 2015. That offering, called “on-demand passwords,” will text users a random four-character code (the ones I saw were all uppercase letters) that needs to be entered into a browser or mobile device.
This is not Yahoo!’s first stab at two-factor authentication. Another security feature it has offered for years — called “two-step verification” — sends a security code to your phone when you log in from new devices, but only after you supply your password. Yahoo! users who wish to take advantage of the passwords-free, on-demand password feature will need to disable two-step verification for on-demand passwords to work.
Normally, I don’t cover vulnerabilities about which the user can do little or nothing to prevent, but two newly detailed flaws affecting hundreds of millions of Android, iOS and Apple products probably deserve special exceptions.
The first is a zero-day bug in iOS and OS X that allows the theft of both Keychain (Apple’s password management system) and app passwords. The flaw, first revealed in an academic paper (PDF) released by researchers from Indiana University, Peking University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, involves a vulnerability in Apple’s latest operating system versions that enable an app approved for download by the Apple Store to gain unauthorized access to other apps’ sensitive data.
“More specifically, we found that the inter-app interaction services, including the keychain…can be exploited…to steal such confidential information as the passwords for iCloud, email and bank, and the secret token of Evernote,” the researchers wrote.
The team said they tested their findings by circumventing the restrictive security checks of the Apple Store, and that their attack apps were approved by the App Store in January 2015. According to the researchers, more than 88 percent of apps were “completely exposed” to the attack.
News of the research was first reported by The Register, which said that Apple was initially notified in October 2014 and that in February 2015 the company asked researchers to hold off disclosure for six months.
“The team was able to raid banking credentials from Google Chrome on the latest Mac OS X 10.10.3, using a sandboxed app to steal the system’s keychain and secret iCloud tokens, and passwords from password vaults,” The Register wrote. “Google’s Chromium security team was more responsive and removed Keychain integration for Chrome noting that it could likely not be solved at the application level. AgileBits, owner of popular software 1Password, said it could not find a way to ward off the attacks or make the malware ‘work harder’ some four months after disclosure.”
A story at 9to5mac.com suggests the malware the researchers created to run their experiments can’t directly access existing keychain entries, but instead does so indirectly by forcing users to log in manually and then capturing those credentials in a newly-created entry.
“For now, the best advice would appear to be cautious in downloading apps from unknown developers – even from the iOS and Mac App Stores – and to be alert to any occasion where you are asked to login manually when that login is usually done by Keychain,” 9to5’s Ben Lovejoywrites.
SAMSUNG KEYBOARD FLAW
Separately, researchers at mobile security firm NowSecure disclosed they’d found a serious vulnerability in a third-party keyboard app that is pre-installed on more than 600 million Samsung mobile devices — including the recently released Galaxy S6 — that allows attackers to remotely access resources like GPS, camera and microphone, secretly install malicious apps, eavesdrop on incoming/outgoing messages or voice calls, and access pictures and text messages on vulnerable devices. Continue reading →
Microsoft on Tuesday posted eight security updates to fix serious security vulnerabilities in computers powered by its Windows operating system. Separately, Adobe pushed out a patch to plug at least nine holes in its Flash Player software.
Leading the batch of Microsoft patches for 2015 is a drama-laden update to fix a vulnerability in Windows 8.1 that Google researchers disclosed just two days ago. Google has a relatively new policy of publicly disclosing flaws 90 days after they are reported to the responsible software vendor — whether or not that vendor has fixed the bug yet. That 90-day period elapsed over the weekend, causing Google to spill the beans and potentially help attackers develop an exploit in advance of Patch Tuesday.
For its part, Microsoft issued a strongly-worded blog post chiding Google for what it called a “gotcha” policy that leaves Microsoft users in the lurch. Somehow I doubt this is the last time we’ll see this tension between these two software giants. But then again, who said patching had to be boring? For a full rundown of updates fixed in today’s release, see this link. Continue reading →
The online attack service launched late last year by the same criminals who knocked Sony and Microsoft’s gaming networks offline over the holidays is powered mostly by thousands of hacked home Internet routers, KrebsOnSecurity.com has discovered.
Just days after the attacks on Sony and Microsoft, a group of young hoodlums calling themselves the Lizard Squad took responsibility for the attack and announced the whole thing was merely an elaborate commercial for their new “booter” or “stresser” site — a service designed to help paying customers knock virtually any site or person offline for hours or days at a time. As it turns out, that service draws on Internet bandwidth from hacked home Internet routers around the globe that are protected by little more than factory-default usernames and passwords.
The Lizard Stresser’s add-on plans. Despite this site’s claims, it is *not* sponsored by this author.
In the first few days of 2015, KrebsOnSecurity was taken offline by a series of large and sustained denial-of-service attacks apparently orchestrated by the Lizard Squad. As I noted in a previous story, the booter service — lizardstresser[dot]su — is hosted at an Internet provider in Bosnia that is home to a large number of malicious and hostile sites.
That provider happens to be on the same “bulletproof” hosting network advertised by “sp3c1alist,” the administrator of the cybercrime forum Darkode. Until a few days ago, Darkode and LizardStresser shared the same Internet address. Interestingly, one of the core members of the Lizard Squad is an individual who goes by the nickname “Sp3c.”
On Jan. 4, KrebsOnSecurity discovered the location of the malware that powers the botnet. Hard-coded inside of that malware was the location of the LizardStresser botnet controller, which happens to be situated in the same small swath Internet address space occupied by the LizardStresser Web site (217.71.50.x)
The malicious code that converts vulnerable systems into stresser bots is a variation on a piece of rather crude malware first documented in November by Russian security firm Dr. Web, but the malware itself appears to date back to early 2014 (Google’s Chrome browser should auto-translate that page; for others, a Google-translated copy of the Dr. Web writeup is here).
As we can see in that writeup, in addition to turning the infected host into attack zombies, the malicious code uses the infected system to scan the Internet for additional devices that also allow access via factory default credentials, such as “admin/admin,” or “root/12345”. In this way, each infected host is constantly trying to spread the infection to new home routers and other devices accepting incoming connections (via telnet) with default credentials.
The botnet is not made entirely of home routers; some of the infected hosts appear to be commercial routers at universities and companies, and there are undoubtedly other devices involved. The preponderance of routers represented in the botnet probably has to do with the way that the botnet spreads and scans for new potential hosts. But there is no reason the malware couldn’t spread to a wide range of devices powered by the Linux operating system, including desktop servers and Internet-connected cameras. Continue reading →
People who use Gmail and other Google services now have an extra layer of security available when logging into Google accounts. The company today incorporated into these services the open Universal 2nd Factor (U2F) standard, a physical USB-based second factor sign-in component that only works after verifying the login site is truly a Google site.
A $17 U2F device made by Yubico.
The U2F standard (PDF) is a product of the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance, an industry consortium that’s been working to come up with specifications that support a range of more robust authentication technologies, including biometric identifiers and USB security tokens.
The approach announced by Google today essentially offers a more secure way of using the company’s 2-step authentication process. For several years, Google has offered an approach that it calls “2-step verification,” which sends a one-time pass code to the user’s mobile or land line phone.
2-step verification makes it so that even if thieves manage to steal your password, they still need access to your mobile or land line phone if they’re trying to log in with your credentials from a device that Google has not previously seen associated with your account. As Google notes in a support document, security key “offers better protection against this kind of attack, because it uses cryptography instead of verification codes and automatically works only with the website it’s supposed to work with.”
Unlike a one-time token approach, the security key does not rely on mobile phones (so no batteries needed), but the downside is that it doesn’t work for mobile-only users because it requires a USB port. Also, the security key doesn’t work for Google properties on anything other than Chrome. Continue reading →