Posts Tagged: Lance James

Aug 15

How Not to Start an Encryption Company

Probably the quickest way for a security company to prompt an overwhelmingly hostile response from the security research community is to claim that its products and services are “unbreakable” by hackers. The second-fastest way to achieve that outcome is to have that statement come from an encryption company CEO who served several years in federal prison for his role in running a $210 million Ponzi scheme. Here’s the story of a company that managed to accomplish both at the same time and is now trying to learn from (and survive) the experience.

unbreakabletothecoreThanks to some aggressive marketing, Irvine, Calif. based security firm Secure Channels Inc. (SCI) and its CEO Richard Blech have been in the news quite a bit lately — mainly Blech being quoted in major publications such as NBC NewsPolitico and USA Today  — talking about how his firm’s “unbreakable” encryption technology might have prevented some of the larger consumer data breaches that have come to light in recent months.

Blech’s company, founded in 2014 and with his money, has been challenging the security community to test its unbreakable claim in a cleverly unwinnable series of contests: At the Black Hat Security conference in Las Vegas last year, the company offered a new BMW to anyone who could unlock a digital file that was encrypted with its “patented” technology.

At the RSA Security Conference this year in San Francisco, SCI offered a $50,000 bounty to anyone who could prove the feat. When no one showed up to claim the prizes, SCI issued press releases crowing about a victory for its products.

Turns out, Blech knows a thing or two about complex, unwinnable games: He pleaded guilty in 2003 of civil and criminal fraud charges and sentenced to six years in U.S. federal prison for running an international Ponzi scheme.

Once upon a time, Blech was the CEO of Credit Bancorp. Ltd., an investment firm that induced its customers to deposit securities, cash, and other assets in trust by promising the impossible: a “custodial dividend” based on the profits of “risk-less” arbitrage. Little did the company’s investors know at the time, but CBL was running a classic Ponzi scheme: Taking cash and other assets from new investors to make payments to earlier ones, creating the impression of sizable returns, prosecutors said. Blech was sentenced to 72 months in prison and was released in 2007.



In April 2015, Lance James, a security researcher who has responded to challenges like the BMW and $50,000 prizes touted by SCI, began receiving taunting Tweets from Blech and Ross Harris, a particularly aggressive member of SCI’s sales team. That twitter thread (PDF) had started with WhiteHat Security CTO Jeremiah Grossman posting a picture of a $10,000 check that James was awarded from Telesign, a company that had put up the money after claiming that its StrongWebmail product was unhackable. Turns out, it wasn’t so strong; James and two other researchers found a flaw in the service and hacked the CEO’s email account. StrongWebmail never recovered from that marketing stunt.

James replied to Grossman that, coincidentally, he’d just received an email from SCI offering a BMW to anyone who could break the company’s crypto.

“When the crypto defeats you, we’ll give you a t-shirt, ‘Can’t touch this,’ you’ll wear it for a Tweet,” Blech teased James via Twitter on April 7, 2015. “Challenge accepted,” said James, owner of the security consultancy Unit 221b.  “Proprietary patented crypto is embarrassing in 2015. You should know better.”

As it happens, encrypting a file with your closed, proprietary encryption technology and then daring the experts to break it is not exactly the way you prove its strength or gain the confidence of the security community in general. Experts in encryption tend to subscribe to an idea known as Kerckhoff’s principle when deciding the relative strength and merits of any single cryptosystem: Put simply, a core tenet of Kerckhoff’s principle holds that “one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will gain full familiarity with them.”

Translation: If you want people to take you seriously, put your encryption technology on full view of the security community (minus your private encryption keys), and let them see if they can break the system.

James said he let it go when SCI refused to talk seriously about sharing its cryptography solution, only to hear again this past weekend from SCI’s director of marketing Deirdre “Dee” Murphy on Twitter that his dismissal of their challenge proved he was “obsolete.” Murphy later deleted the tweets, but some of them are saved here.

Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said companies that make claims of unbreakable technologies very often are effectively selling snake oil unless they put their products up for peer review.

“They don’t disclose their settings or what modes their ciphers are running in,” Cardozo said. “They have a patent which is laughably vague about what it’s actually doing, and yet their chief marketing officer insults security researchers on Twitter saying, ‘If our stuff is so insecure, just break it.'”

Cardozo was quick to add that although there is no indication whatsoever that Secure Channels Inc. is engaging in any kind of fraud, they are engaged in “wildly irresponsible marketing.”

“And that’s not good for anyone,” he said. “In the cryptography community, the way you prove your system is secure is you put it up to peer review, you get third party audits, you publish specifications, etc. Apple’s not open-source and they do all of that. You can download the security white paper and see everything that iMessage is doing. The same is true for WhatsApp and PGP. When we see companies like Secure Channel treating crypto like a black box, that raises red flags. Any company making such claims deserves scrutiny, but because we can’t scrutinize the actual cryptography they’re using, we have to scrutinize the company itself.”


I couldn’t believe that any security company — let alone a firm that was trying to break into the encryption industry (a business that requires precision perhaps beyond any other, no less) — could make so many basic errors and miscalculations, so I started digging deeper into SCI and its origins. At the same time I requested and was granted an interview with Blech and his team. Continue reading →

Jul 15

Finnish Decision is Win for Internet Trolls

In a win for Internet trolls and teenage cybercriminals everywhere, a Finnish court has decided not to incarcerate a 17-year-old found guilty of more than 50,000 cybercrimes, including data breaches, payment fraud, operating a huge botnet and calling in bomb threats, among other violations.

Julius "Ryan" Kivimaki.

Julius “Ryan” Kivimaki.

As the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat reports, Julius Kivimäki — a.k.a. “Ryan” and “Zeekill” — was given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to forfeit EUR 6,558.

Kivimaki vaulted into the media spotlight late last year when he claimed affiliation with the Lizard Squad, a group of young hooligans who knocked offline the gaming networks of Microsoft and Sony for most of Christmas Day.

According to the BBC, evidence presented at Kivimaki’s trial showed that he compromised more than 50,000 computer servers by exploiting vulnerabilities in Adobe’s Cold Fusion web application software. Prosecutors also said Kivimaki used stolen credit cards to buy luxury goods and shop vouchers, and participated in a money laundering scheme that he used to fund a trip to Mexico.

Kivimaki allegedly also was involved in calling in multiple fake bomb threats and “swatting” incident — reporting fake hostage situations at an address to prompt a heavily armed police response to that location. DailyDot quotes Blair Strater, a victim of Kivimaki’s swatting and harassment, who expressed disgust at the Finnish ruling.

Speaking with KrebsOnSecurity, Strater called Kivimaki “a dangerous sociopath” who belongs behind bars.

Although it did not factor into his trial, sources close to the Lizard Squad investigation say Kivimaki also was responsible for making an August 2014 bomb threat against former Sony Online Entertainment President John Smedley that grounded an American Airlines plane. That incident was widely reported to have started with a tweet from the Lizard Squad, but Smedley and others say it started with a call from Kivimaki.

In a phone interview, Smedley said he was disappointed that the judicial system in Finland didn’t do more.

“I personally got to listen to a recording of him calling in to American Airlines, and I know it was him because I talked to him myself,” Smedley said. “He’s done all kinds of bad stuff to me, including putting all of my information out on the Internet. He even attempted to use my credit numerous times. The harassment literally just did not stop.”

In an online interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Kivimaki denied involvement with the American Airlines incident, and said he was not surprised by the leniency shown by the court in his trial.

“During the trial it became apparent that nobody suffered significant (if any) damages because of the alleged hacks,” he said.

The danger in a decision such as this is that it emboldens young malicious hackers by reinforcing the already popular notion that there are no consequences for cybercrimes committed by individuals under the age of 18.

Case in point: Kivimaki is now crowing about the sentence; He’s changed the description on his Twitter profile to “Untouchable hacker god.” The Twitter account for the Lizard Squad tweeted the news of Kivimaki’s non-sentencing triumphantly: “All the people that said we would rot in prison don’t want to comprehend what we’ve been saying since the beginning, we have free passes.” Continue reading →

Aug 14

Lorem Ipsum: Of Good & Evil, Google & China

Imagine discovering a secret language spoken only online by a knowledgeable and learned few. Over a period of weeks, as you begin to tease out the meaning of this curious tongue and ponder its purpose, the language appears to shift in subtle but fantastic ways, remaking itself daily before your eyes. And just when you are poised to share your findings with the rest of the world, the entire thing vanishes.

loremipsumThis fairly describes my roller coaster experience of curiosity, wonder and disappointment over the past few weeks, as I’ve worked alongside security researchers in an effort to understand how “lorem ipsum” — common placeholder text on countless Web sites — could be transformed into so many apparently geopolitical and startlingly modern phrases when translated from Latin to English using Google Translate. (If you have no idea what “lorem ipsum” is, skip ahead to a brief primer here).

Admittedly, this blog post would make more sense if readers could fully replicate the results described below using Google Translate. However, as I’ll explain later, something important changed in Google’s translation system late last week that currently makes the examples I’ll describe impossible to reproduce.


It all started a few months back when I received a note from Lance James, head of cyber intelligence at Deloitte. James pinged me to share something discovered by FireEye researcher Michael Shoukry and another researcher who wished to be identified only as “Kraeh3n.” They noticed a bizarre pattern in Google Translate: When one typed “lorem ipsum” into Google Translate, the default results (with the system auto-detecting Latin as the language) returned a single word: “China.”

Capitalizing the first letter of each word changed the output to “NATO” — the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Reversing the words in both lower- and uppercase produced “The Internet” and “The Company” (the “Company” with a capital “C” has long been a code word for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency). Repeating and rearranging the word pair with a mix of capitalization generated even stranger results. For example, “lorem ipsum ipsum ipsum Lorem” generated the phrase “China is very very sexy.”

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Kraeh3n said she discovered the strange behavior while proofreading a document for a colleague, a document that had the standard lorem ipsum placeholder text. When she began typing “l-o-r..e..” and saw “China” as the result, she knew something was strange.

“I saw words like Internet, China, government, police, and freedom and was curious as to how this was happening,” Kraeh3n said. “I immediately contacted Michael Shoukry and we began looking into it further.”

And so the duo started testing the limits of these two words using a mix of capitalization and repetition. Below is just one of many pages of screenshots taken from their results:


The researchers wondered: What was going on here? Has someone outside of Google figured out how to map certain words to different meanings in Google Translate? Was it a secret or covert communications channel? Perhaps a form of communication meant to bypass the censorship erected by the Chinese government with the Great Firewall of China? Or was this all just some coincidental glitch in the Matrix?

For his part, Shoukry checked in with contacts in the U.S. intelligence industry, quietly inquiring if divulging his findings might in any way jeopardize important secrets. Weeks went by and his sources heard no objection. One thing was for sure, the results were subtly changing from day to day, and it wasn’t clear how long these two common but obscure words would continue to produce the same results.

“While Google translate may be incorrect in the translations of these words, it’s puzzling why these words would be translated to things such as ‘China,’ ‘NATO,’ and ‘The Free Internet,'” Shoukry said. “Could this be a glitch? Is this intentional? Is this a way for people to communicate? What is it?”

When I met Shoukry at the Black Hat security convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, he’d already alerted Google to his findings. Clearly, it was time for some intense testing, and the clock was already ticking: I was convinced (and unfortunately, correct) that much of it would disappear at any moment. Continue reading →

Feb 14

The New Normal: 200-400 Gbps DDoS Attacks

Over the past four years, KrebsOnSecurity has been targeted by countless denial-of-service attacks intended to knock it offline. Earlier this week, KrebsOnSecurity was hit by easily the most massive and intense such attack yet — a nearly 200 Gbps assault leveraging a simple attack method that industry experts say is becoming alarmingly common.


At issue is a seemingly harmless feature built into many Internet servers known as the Network Time Protocol (NTP), which is used to sync the date and time between machines on a network. The problem isn’t with NTP itself, per se, but with certain outdated or hard-coded implementations of it that attackers can use to turn a relatively negligible attack into something much, much bigger. Symantec‘s writeup on this threat from December 2013 explains the problem succinctly:

Similar to DNS amplification attacks, the attacker sends a small forged packet that requests a large amount of data be sent to the target IP Address. In this case, the attackers are taking advantage of the monlist command.  Monlist is a remote command in older version of NTP that sends the requester a list of the last 600 hosts who have connected to that server.  For attackers the monlist query is a great reconnaissance tool.  For a localized NTP server it can help to build a network profile.  However, as a DDoS tool, it is even better because a small query can redirect megabytes worth of traffic.

Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare — a company that helps Web sites stay online in the face of huge DDoS attacks — blogged Thursday about a nearly 400 Gbps attack that recently hit one of the company’s customers and leveraged NTP amplification. Prince said that while Cloudflare “generally [was] able to mitigate the attack, it was large enough that it caused network congestion in parts of Europe.”

“Monday’s DDoS proved these attacks aren’t just theoretical. To generate approximately 400Gbps of traffic, the attacker used 4,529 NTP servers running on 1,298 different networks,” Prince wrote. “On average, each of these servers sent 87Mbps of traffic to the intended victim on CloudFlare’s network. Remarkably, it is possible that the attacker used only a single server running on a network that allowed source IP address spoofing to initiate the requests. An attacker with a 1 Gbps connection can theoretically generate more than 200Gbps of DDoS traffic.” Continue reading →

Jan 14

The Adventures of a Cybercrime Gumshoe

I was fortunate to spend several hours this past week with two reporters whose work I admire. Both wanted to learn more about my job as an independent investigative reporter. Their stories about my story are below.

bbwMark Stencel, a former colleague at who similarly worked his way up from an entry-level job at the publication, wanted to hear about the challenges and rewards of going solo. Stencel’s piece, Reporter Brian Krebs Hacks it on His Own, One Scoop at a time, was written for, an online publication for and about journalists.

Stencel writes:

“All of this reporting pays off with loyal readers, even at companies who fear finding themselves covered on his site. “As someone who does payment card security for a brick and mortar retailer, ‘Brian Krebs’ is a name I never ever want to see flash across my Caller ID,” one admirer wrote in a recent reader comment.”

Separately, I spent half a day with with Business Week reporter Karen Weise, whose profile, The Cybersecurity Blogger Hackers Love to Hate, appears in this coming week’s print edition. Weise observes:

“Krebs’s talent for exposing the weaknesses in online security has earned him respect in the IT business and loathing among cybercriminals. His track record of scoops, including the Dec. 18 revelation that hackers stole tens of millions of customers’ financial data from Target (TGT), has helped him become the rare blogger who supports himself on the strength of his reputation for hard-nosed reporting.”

My favorite part of both these stories are the observations from readers. For instance, Weise quoted Lance James, head of intelligence at Deloitte, with whom I co-presented last year at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

“No intelligence agency could get as much as Brian Krebs does,” BW quotes James as saying. “Everybody wants to share with him.”

Fortunately, that’s very true: Key information that informs some of my best scoops is just as likely to come from people actively engaged in cybercrime as it is industry experts working to fight fraud. So, once again, a sincere thank you to all of my readers — lovers and haters alike.

Apr 13

Hay Maker Seeks Cyberheist Bale Out

An Oregon agricultural products company is suing its bank to recover nearly a quarter-million dollars stolen in a 2010 cyberheist. The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal challenges seeking to hold financial institutions more accountable for costly corporate account takeovers tied to cybercrime.

oregonhayOn Sept. 1, 2010, unidentified computer crooks began making unauthorized wire transfers out of the bank accounts belonging to Oregon Hay Products Inc., a hay compressing facility in Boardman, Oregon. In all, the thieves stole $223,500 in three wire transfers of just under $75,000 over a three day period.

According to a complaint filed in Umatilla County Circuit Court,  the transfers were sent from Oregon Hay’s checking account at Joseph, Ore. based Community Bank to JSC Astra Bank in Ukraine. Oregon Hay’s lawyers say the company had set a $75,000 daily limit on outgoing wires, so the thieves initiated transfers of $74,800, $74,500 and $74,200 on three consecutive days.

Unfortunately for both parties in this dispute, neither Oregon Hay nor Community Bank detected anything amiss until almost two weeks after the fraud began; on Sept. 14, the victim firm found it was unable to access its accounts online. But by that time, the money was long gone.

Both Oregon Hay and Community Bank declined to be interviewed for this story.

Businesses do not enjoy the same legal protections afforded to consumer banking customers hit by cyber thieves, and most organizations can be held responsible for any losses due to phishing or account takeovers. But as cyberheists have ramped up dramatically over the past several years, a number of victim companies have opted to sue their financial institutions in the hopes of recovering the losses.

Continue reading →