Posts Tagged: google


23
Oct 17

Reaper: Calm Before the IoT Security Storm?

It’s been just over a year since the world witnessed some of the world’s top online Web sites being taken down for much of the day by “Mirai,” a zombie malware strain that enslaved “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices such as wireless routers, security cameras and digital video recorders for use in large-scale online attacks.

Now, experts are sounding the alarm about the emergence of what appears to be a far more powerful strain of IoT attack malware — variously named “Reaper” and “IoTroop” — that spreads via security holes in IoT software and hardware. And there are indications that over a million organizations may be affected already.

Reaper isn’t attacking anyone yet. For the moment it is apparently content to gather gloom to itself from the darkest reaches of the Internet. But if history is any teacher, we are likely enjoying a period of false calm before another humbling IoT attack wave breaks.

On Oct. 19, 2017, researchers from Israeli security firm CheckPoint announced they’ve been tracking the development of a massive new IoT botnet “forming to create a cyber-storm that could take down the Internet.” CheckPoint said the malware, which it called “IoTroop,” had already infected an estimated one million organizations.

The discovery came almost a year to the day after the Internet witnessed one of the most impactful cyberattacks ever — against online infrastructure firm Dyn at the hands of “Mirai,” an IoT malware strain that first surfaced in the summer of 2016. According to CheckPoint, however, this new IoT malware strain is “evolving and recruiting IoT devices at a far greater pace and with more potential damage than the Mirai botnet of 2016.”

Unlike Mirai — which wriggles into vulnerable IoT devices using factory-default or hard-coded usernames and passwords — this newest IoT threat leverages at least nine known security vulnerabilities across nearly a dozen different device makers, including AVTECH, D-Link, GoAhead, Netgear, and Linksys, among others (click each vendor’s link to view security advisories for the flaws).

This graphic from CheckPoint charts a steep, recent rise in the number of Internet addresses trying to spread the new IoT malware variant, which CheckPoint calls “IoTroop.”

Both Mirai and IoTroop are computer worms; they are built to spread automatically from one infected device to another. Researchers can’t say for certain what IoTroop will be used for but it is based at least in part on Mirai, which was made to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

While DDoS attacks target a single Web site or Internet host, they often result in widespread collateral Internet disruption. IoT malware spreads by scanning the Internet for other vulnerable devices, and sometimes this scanning activity is so aggressive that it constitutes an unintended DDoS on the very home routers, Web cameras and DVRs that the bot code is trying to subvert and recruit into the botnet.

However, according to research released Oct. 20 by Chinese security firm Netlab 360, the scanning performed by the new IoT malware strain (Netlab calls it the more memorable “Reaper”) is not very aggressive, and is intended to spread much more deliberately than Mirai. Netlab’s researchers say Reaper partially borrows some Mirai source code, but is significantly different from Mirai in several key behaviors, including an evolution that allows Reaper to more stealthily enlist new recruits and more easily fly under the radar of security tools looking for suspicious activity on the local network. Continue reading →


28
Aug 17

Tech Firms Team Up to Take Down ‘WireX’ Android DDoS Botnet

A half dozen technology and security companies — some of them competitors — issued the exact same press release today. This unusual level of cross-industry collaboration caps a successful effort to dismantle ‘WireX,’ an extraordinary new crime machine comprising tens of thousands of hacked Android mobile devices that was used this month to launch a series of massive cyber attacks.

Experts involved in the takedown warn that WireX marks the emergence of a new class of attack tools that are more challenging to defend against and thus require broader industry cooperation to defeat.

This graphic shows the rapid growth of the WireX botnet in the first three weeks of August 2017.

This graphic shows the rapid growth of the WireX botnet in the first three weeks of August 2017.

News of WireX’s emergence first surfaced August 2, 2017, when a modest collection of hacked Android devices was first spotted conducting some fairly small online attacks. Less than two weeks later, however, the number of infected Android devices enslaved by WireX had ballooned to the tens of thousands.

More worrisome was that those in control of the botnet were now wielding it to take down several large websites in the hospitality industry — pelting the targeted sites with so much junk traffic that the sites were no longer able to accommodate legitimate visitors.

Experts tracking the attacks soon zeroed in on the malware that powers WireX: Approximately 300 different mobile apps scattered across Google‘s Play store that were mimicking seemingly innocuous programs, including video players, ringtones or simple tools such as file managers.

“We identified approximately 300 apps associated with the issue, blocked them from the Play Store, and we’re in the process of removing them from all affected devices,” Google said in a written statement. “The researchers’ findings, combined with our own analysis, have enabled us to better protect Android users, everywhere.”

Perhaps to avoid raising suspicion, the tainted Play store applications all performed their basic stated functions. But those apps also bundled a small program that would launch quietly in the background and cause the infected mobile device to surreptitiously connect to an Internet server used by the malware’s creators to control the entire network of hacked devices. From there, the infected mobile device would await commands from the control server regarding which Websites to attack and how.

A sampling of the apps from Google's Play store that were tainted with the WireX malware.

A sampling of the apps from Google’s Play store that were tainted with the WireX malware.

Experts involved in the takedown say it’s not clear exactly how many Android devices may have been infected with WireX, in part because only a fraction of the overall infected systems were able to attack a target at any given time. Devices that were powered off would not attack, but those that were turned on with the device’s screen locked could still carry on attacks in the background, they found.

“I know in the cases where we pulled data out of our platform for the people being targeted we saw 130,000 to 160,000 (unique Internet addresses) involved in the attack,” said Chad Seaman, a senior engineer at Akamai, a company that specializes in helping firms weather large DDoS attacks (Akamai protected KrebsOnSecurity from hundreds of attacks prior to the large Mirai assault last year).

The identical press release that Akamai and other firms involved in the WireX takedown agreed to publish says the botnet infected a minimum of 70,000 Android systems, but Seaman says that figure is conservative.

“Seventy thousand was a safe bet because this botnet makes it so that if you’re driving down the highway and your phone is busy attacking some website, there’s a chance your device could show up in the attack logs with three or four or even five different Internet addresses,” Seaman said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “We saw attacks coming from infected devices in over 100 countries. It was coming from everywhere.”

BUILDING ON MIRAI

Security experts from Akamai and other companies that participated in the WireX takedown say the basis for their collaboration was forged in the monstrous and unprecedented distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks launched last year by Mirai, a malware strain that seeks out poorly-secured “Internet of things” (IoT) devices such as security cameras, digital video recorders and Internet routers.

The first and largest of the Mirai botnets was used in a giant attack last September that knocked this Web site offline for several days. Just a few days after that — when the source code that powers Mirai was published online for all the world to see and use — dozens of copycat Mirai botnets emerged. Several of those botnets were used to conduct massive DDoS attacks against a variety of targets, leading to widespread Internet outages for many top Internet destinations.

Allison Nixon, director of security research at New York City-based security firm Flashpoint, said the Mirai attacks were a wake-up call for the security industry and a rallying cry for more collaboration.

“When those really large Mirai DDoS botnets started showing up and taking down massive pieces of Internet infrastructure, that caused massive interruptions in service for people that normally don’t deal with DDoS attacks,” Nixon said. “It sparked a lot of collaboration. Different players in the industry started to take notice, and a bunch of us realized that we needed to deal with this thing because if we didn’t it would just keep getting bigger and rampaging around.”

Mirai was notable not only for the unprecedented size of the attacks it could launch but also for its ability to spread rapidly to new machines. But for all its sheer firepower, Mirai is not a particularly sophisticated attack platform. Well, not in comparison to WireX, that is.

CLICK-FRAUD ORIGINS

According to the group’s research, the WireX botnet likely began its existence as a distributed method for conducting “click fraud,” a pernicious form of online advertising fraud that will cost publishers and businesses an estimated $16 billion this year, according to recent estimates. Multiple antivirus tools currently detect the WireX malware as a known click fraud malware variant.

The researchers believe that at some point the click-fraud botnet was repurposed to conduct DDoS attacks. While DDoS botnets powered by Android devices are extremely unusual (if not unprecedented at this scale), it is the botnet’s ability to generate what appears to be regular Internet traffic from mobile browsers that strikes fear in the heart of experts who specialize in defending companies from large-scale DDoS attacks. Continue reading →


2
Aug 17

Flash Player is Dead, Long Live Flash Player!

Adobe last week detailed plans to retire its Flash Player software, a cross-platform browser plugin so powerful and so packed with security holes that it has become the favorite target of malware developers. To help eradicate this ubiquitous liability, Adobe is enlisting the help of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla. But don’t break out the bubbly just yet: Adobe says Flash won’t be put down officially until 2020.

brokenflash-aIn a blog post about the move, Adobe said more sites are turning away from proprietary code like Flash toward open standards like HTML5, WebGL and WebAssembly, and that these components now provide many of the capabilities and functionalities that plugins pioneered.

“Over time, we’ve seen helper apps evolve to become plugins, and more recently, have seen many of these plugin capabilities get incorporated into open web standards,” Adobe said. “Today, most browser vendors are integrating capabilities once provided by plugins directly into browsers and deprecating plugins.”

It’s remarkable how quickly Flash has seen a decline in both use and favor, particularly among the top browser makers. Just three years ago, at least 80 percent of desktop Chrome users visited a site with Flash each day, according to Google. Today, usage of Flash among Chrome users stands at just 17 percent and continues to decline (see Google graphic below).

For Mac users, the turning away from Flash began in 2010, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously penned his “Thoughts on Flash” memo that outlined the reasons why the technology would not be allowed on the company’s iOS products. Apple stopped pre-installing the plugin that same year.

The percentage of Chrome users over time that have used Flash on a Web site. Image: Google.

The percentage of Chrome users over time that have used Flash on a Web site. Image: Google.

“Today, if users install Flash, it remains off by default,” a post by Apple’s WebKit Team explains. “Safari requires explicit approval on each website before running the Flash plugin.”

Mozilla said that starting this month Firefox users will choose which websites are able to run the Flash plugin.

“Flash will be disabled by default for most users in 2019, and only users running the Firefox Extended Support Release will be able to continue using Flash through the final end-of-life at the end of 2020,” writes Benjamin Smedberg for Mozilla. “In order to preserve user security, once Flash is no longer supported by Adobe security patches, no version of Firefox will load the plugin.” Continue reading →


16
Jul 17

Porn Spam Botnet Has Evil Twitter Twin

Last month KrebsOnSecurity published research into a large distributed network of apparently compromised systems being used to relay huge blasts of junk email promoting “online dating” programs — affiliate-driven schemes traditionally overrun with automated accounts posing as women. New research suggests that another bot-promoting botnet of more than 80,000 automated female Twitter accounts has been pimping the same dating scheme and prompting millions of clicks from Twitter users in the process.

One of the 80,000+ Twitter bots ZeroFOX found that were enticing male Twitter users into viewing their profile pages.

One of the 80,000+ Twitter bots ZeroFOX found that were enticing male Twitter users into viewing their profile pages.

Not long after I published Inside a Porn-Pimping Spam Botnet, I heard from researchers at ZeroFOX, a security firm that helps companies block attacks coming through social media.

Zack Allen, manager of threat operations at ZeroFOX, said he had a look at some of the spammy, adult-themed domains being promoted by the botnet in my research and found they were all being promoted through a botnet of bogus Twitter accounts.

Those phony Twitter accounts all featured images of attractive or scantily-clad women, and all were being promoted via suggestive tweets, Allen said.

Anyone who replied was ultimately referred to subscription-based online dating sites run by Deniro Marketing, a company based in California. This was the same company that was found to be the beneficiary of spam from the porn botnet I’d written about in June. Deniro did not respond to requests for comment.

“We’ve been tracking this thing since February 2017, and we concluded that the social botnet controllers are probably not part of Deniro Marketing, but most likely are affiliates,” Allen said.

ZeroFOX found more than 86,262 Twitter accounts were responsible for more than 8.6 million posts on Twitter promoting porn-based sites, many of them promoting domains in a swath of Internet address space owned by Deniro Marketing (ASN19884).

Allen said 97.4% of bot display names had the pattern “Firstname Surname” with the first letters of each name capitalized, and each name separated by a single whitespace character that corresponded to common female names.

An analysis of the Twitter bot names used in the scheme. Graphic: ZeroFOX.

An analysis of the Twitter bot names used in the scheme. Graphic: ZeroFOX.

The accounts advertise adult content by routinely injecting links from their twitter profiles to a popular hashtag, or by @-mentioning a popular user or influencer on Twitter. Those profile links are shortened with Google’s goo.gl link shortening service, which then redirects to a free hosting domain in the dot-tk (.tk) domain space (.tk is the country code for Tokelau — a group of atolls in the South Pacific).

From there the system is smart enough to redirect users back to Twitter if they appear to be part of any automated attempt to crawl the links (e.g. by using site download and mirroring tools like cURL), the researchers found. They said this was likely a precaution on the part of the spammers to avoid detection by automated scanners looking for bot activity on Twitter. Requests from visitors who look like real users responding to tweets are redirected to the porn spam sites.

Because the links promoted by those spammy Twitter accounts all abused short link services from Twitter and Google, the researchers were able to see that this entire botnet has generated more than 30 million unique clicks from February to June 2017. Continue reading →


9
May 17

Emergency Fix for Windows Anti-Malware Flaw Leads May’s Patch Tuesday

Adobe and Microsoft both issued updates today to fix critical security vulnerabilities in their software. Microsoft actually released an emergency update on Monday just hours ahead of today’s regularly scheduled “Patch Tuesday” (the 2nd Tuesday of each month) to fix a dangerous flaw present in most of Microsoft’s anti-malware technology that’s being called the worst Windows bug in recent memory. Separately, Adobe has a new version of its Flash Player software available that squashes at least seven nasty bugs.

crackedwinLast week, Google security researchers Natalie Silvanovich and Tavis Ormandy reported to Microsoft a flaw in its Malware Protection Engine, a technology that exists in most of Redmond’s malware protection offerings — including Microsoft Forefront, Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender. Rather than worry about their malicious software making it past Microsoft’s anti-malware technology, attackers could simply exploit this flaw to run their malware automatically once their suspicious file is scanned.

“To exploit this vulnerability, a specially crafted file must be scanned by an affected version of the Microsoft Malware Protection Engine,” Microsoft warned. “If the affected antimalware software has real-time protection turned on, the Microsoft Malware Protection Engine will scan files automatically, leading to exploitation of the vulnerability when the specially crafted file scanned.”

On May 8, Microsoft released an out-of-band fix for the problem, demonstrating unusual swiftness in addressing a serious issue with its software.

“Still blown away at how quickly @msftsecurity responded to protect users, can’t give enough kudos.” Google’s Ormandy tweeted on Monday. “Amazing.”

In addition to the anti-malware product update, Microsoft today released fixes for dangerous security flaws in a range of products, from Internet Explorer and Edge to Windows, Microsoft Office, .NET, and of course Adobe Flash Player. Continue reading →


3
Feb 17

How Google Took on Mirai, KrebsOnSecurity

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

Google Security Reliability Engineer Damian Menscher speaking at the Enigma conference this week. Photo: @mrisher

Addressing the Enigma 2017 security conference in Oakland, Calif., Menscher said his team only briefly considered whether it was such a good idea to invite a news site that takes frequent swings at the DDoS-for-hire industry.

“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 →


22
Nov 16

Akamai on the Record KrebsOnSecurity Attack

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.

A visual depiction of the increasing size and frequency of DDoS attacks against KrebsOnSecurity.com, between 2012 and 2016. Source: Akamai.

Akamai said so-called “booter” or “stresser” DDoS-for-hire services that sell attacks capable of knocking Web sites offline continue to account for a large portion of the attack traffic in mega attacks. According to Akamai, most of the traffic from those mega attacks in Q3 2016 were thanks to Mirai — the now open-source malware family that was used to coordinate the attack on this site in September and a separate assault against infrastructure provider Dyn in October.

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 behind Google‘s Project Shield, a free program run by Google to help protect journalists and dissidents from online censorship.

“Almost as soon as the site was on the Prolexic network, it was hit by a trio of attacks based on the Dirt Jumper DDoS tookit,” Akamai wrote of this site. “Those attacks marked the start of hundreds of attacks that were mitigated on the routed platform.”

In total, Akamai found, this site received 269 attacks in the little more than four years it was on the Prolexic/Akamai network. Continue reading →


25
Sep 16

The Democratization of 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.

underwater

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

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 →


7
Sep 16

The Limits of SMS for 2-Factor Authentication

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.

2faMark 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.

Nevertheless, text messaging codes to users isn’t the safest way to do two-factor authentication, even if some entities — like the U.S. Social Security Administration and Sony’s Playstation network — are just getting around to offering two-factor via SMS.

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 →


24
Aug 16

United Airlines Sets Minimum Bar on Security

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.

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 →