Posts Tagged: microsoft


22
Jun 17

Why So Many Top Hackers Hail from Russia

Conventional wisdom says one reason so many hackers seem to hail from Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union is that these countries have traditionally placed a much greater emphasis than educational institutions in the West on teaching information technology in middle and high schools, and yet they lack a Silicon Valley-like pipeline to help talented IT experts channel their skills into high-paying jobs. This post explores the first part of that assumption by examining a breadth of open-source data.

The supply side of that conventional wisdom seems to be supported by an analysis of educational data from both the U.S. and Russia, which indicates there are several stark and important differences between how American students are taught and tested on IT subjects versus their counterparts in Eastern Europe.

computered

Compared to the United States there are quite a few more high school students in Russia who choose to specialize in information technology subjects. One way to measure this is to look at the number of high school students in the two countries who opt to take the advanced placement exam for computer science.

According to an analysis (PDF) by The College Board, in the ten years between 2005 and 2016 a total of 270,000 high school students in the United States opted to take the national exam in computer science (the “Computer Science Advanced Placement” exam).

Compare that to the numbers from Russia: A 2014 study (PDF) on computer science (called “Informatics” in Russia) by the Perm State National Research University found that roughly 60,000 Russian students register each year to take their nation’s equivalent to the AP exam — known as the “Unified National Examination.” Extrapolating that annual 60,000 number over ten years suggests that more than twice as many people in Russia — 600,000 — have taken the computer science exam at the high school level over the past decade.

In “A National Talent Strategy,” an in-depth analysis from Microsoft Corp. on the outlook for information technology careers, the authors warn that despite its critical and growing importance computer science is taught in only a small minority of U.S. schools. The Microsoft study notes that although there currently are just over 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 2,100 of them were certified to teach the AP computer science course in 2011.

A HEAD START

If more people in Russia than in America decide to take the computer science exam in secondary school, it may be because Russian students are required to study the subject beginning at a much younger age. Russia’s Federal Educational Standards (FES) mandate that informatics be compulsory in middle school, with any school free to choose to include it in their high school curriculum at a basic or advanced level.

“In elementary school, elements of Informatics are taught within the core subjects ‘Mathematics’ and ‘Technology,” the Perm University research paper notes. “Furthermore, each elementary school has the right to make [the] subject “Informatics” part of its curriculum.” Continue reading →


13
May 17

Microsoft Issues WanaCrypt Patch for Windows 8, XP

Microsoft Corp. today took the unusual step of issuing security updates to address flaws in older, unsupported versions of Windows — including Windows XP and Windows 8. The move is a bid to slow the spread of the WanaCrypt ransomware strain that infected tens of thousands of Windows computers virtually overnight this week.

A map tracking the global spread of the Wana ransomware strain. Image: Malwaretech.com.

A map tracking the global spread of the Wana ransomware strain. Image: Malwaretech.com.

On Friday, May 12, countless organizations around the world began fending off attacks from a ransomware strain variously known as WannaCrypt, WanaDecrypt and Wanna.Cry. Ransomware encrypts a victim’s documents, images, music and other files unless the victim pays for a key to unlock them.

It quickly became apparent that Wanna was spreading with the help of a file-sharing vulnerability in Windows. Microsoft issued a patch to fix this flaw back in March 2017, but organizations running older, unsupported versions of Windows (such as Windows XP) were unable to apply the update because Microsoft no longer supplies security patches for those versions of Windows.

The software giant today made an exception to that policy after it became clear that many organizations hit hardest by Wanna were those still running older, unsupported versions of Windows.

“Seeing businesses and individuals affected by cyberattacks, such as the ones reported today, was painful,” wrote Phillip Misner, principal security group manager at the Microsoft Security Response Center. “Microsoft worked throughout the day to ensure we understood the attack and were taking all possible actions to protect our customers.”

The update to address the file-sharing bug that Wanna is using to spread is now available for Windows XP, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2003 via the links at the bottom of this advisory.

On Friday, at least 16 hospitals in the United Kingdom were forced to divert emergency patients after computer systems there were infected with Wanna. According to multiple stories in the British media, approximately 90 percent of care facilities in the U.K.’s National Health Service are still using Windows XP – a 16-year-old operating system.

According to a tweet from Jakub Kroustek, a malware researcher with security firm Avast, the company’s software has detected more than 100,000 instances of the Wana ransomware.

For advice on how to harden your systems against ransomware, please see the tips in this post.


19
Feb 17

February Updates from Adobe, Microsoft

A handful of readers have inquired as to the whereabouts of Microsoft‘s usual monthly patches for Windows and related software. Microsoft opted to delay releasing any updates until next month, even though there is a zero-day vulnerability in Windows going around. However, Adobe did push out updates this week as per usual to fix critical issues in its Flash Player software.

brokenwindowsIn a brief statement this week, Microsoft said it “discovered a last minute issue that could impact some customers” that was not resolved in time for Patch Tuesday, which normally falls on the second Tuesday of each month. In an update to that advisory posted on Wednesday, Microsoft said it would deliver February’s batch of patches as part of the next regularly-scheduled Patch Tuesday, which falls on March 14, 2017.

On Feb. 2, the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University warned that an unpatched bug in a core file-sharing component of Windows (SMB) could let attackers crash Windows 8.1, and Windows 10 systems, as well as server equivalents of those platforms. CERT warned that exploit code for the flaw was already available online. Continue reading →


11
Oct 16

Microsoft: No More Pick-and-Choose Patching

Adobe and Microsoft today each issued updates to fix critical security flaws in their products. Adobe’s got fixes for Acrobat and Flash Player ready. Microsoft’s patch bundle for October includes fixes for at least five separate “zero-day” vulnerabilities — dangerous flaws that attackers were already exploiting prior to today’s patch release. Also notable this month is that Microsoft is changing how it deploys security updates, removing the ability for Windows users to pick and choose which individual patches to install.

brokenwindowsZero-day vulnerabilities describe flaws that even the makers of the targeted software don’t know about before they start seeing the flaws exploited in the wild, meaning the vendor has “zero days” to fix the bugs.

According to security vendor Qualys, Patch Tuesday updates fix zero-day bugs in Internet Explorer and Edge — the default browsers on different versions of Windows. MS16-121 addresses a zero-day in Microsoft Office. Another zero-day flaw affects GDI+ — a graphics component built into Windows that can be exploitable through the browser. The final zero-day is present in the Internet Messaging component of Windows.

Starting this month, home and business Windows users will no longer be able to pick and choose which updates to install and which to leave for another time. For example, I’ve often advised home users to hold off on installing .NET updates until all other patches for the month are applied — reasoning that .NET updates are very large and in my experience have frequently been found to be the source of problems when applying huge numbers of patches simultaneously.

But that cafeteria-style patching goes out the…err…Windows with this month’s release. Microsoft made the announcement in May of this year and revisited the subject again in August to add more detail behind its decision:

“Historically, we have released individual patches for these platforms, which allowed you to be selective with the updates you deployed,” wrote Nathan Mercer, a senior product marketing manager at Microsoft. “This resulted in fragmentation where different PCs could have a different set of updates installed leading to multiple potential problems:

  • Various combinations caused sync and dependency errors and lower update quality
  • Testing complexity increased for enterprises
  • Scan times increased
  • Finding and applying the right patches became challenging
  • Customers encountered issues where a patch was already released, but because it was in limited distribution it was hard to find and apply proactively

By moving to a rollup model, we bring a more consistent and simplified servicing experience to Windows 7 SP1 and 8.1, so that all supported versions of Windows follow a similar update servicing model. The new rollup model gives you fewer updates to manage, greater predictability, and higher quality updates. The outcome increases Windows operating system reliability, by eliminating update fragmentation and providing more proactive patches for known issues. Getting and staying current will also be easier with only one rollup update required. Rollups enable you to bring your systems up to date with fewer updates, and will minimize administrative overhead to install a large number of updates.”

Microsoft’s patch policy changes are slightly different for home versus business customers. Consumers on Windows 7 Service Pack 1 and Windows 8.1 will henceforth receive what Redmond is calling a “Monthly Rollup,” which addresses both security issues and reliability issues in a single update. The “Security-only updates” option — intended for enterprises and not available via Windows Update —  will only include new security patches that are released for that month. 

What this means is that if any part of the patch bundle breaks, the only option is to remove the entire bundle (instead of the offending patch, as was previously possible). I have no doubt this simplifies things for Microsoft and likely saves them a ton of money, but my concern is this will leave end-users unable to apply critical patches simply due to a single patch breaking something. Continue reading →


14
Sep 16

Adobe, Microsoft Push Critical Updates

Adobe and Microsoft on Tuesday each issued updates to fix multiple critical security vulnerabilities in their software. Adobe pushed a patch that addresses 29 security holes in its widely-used Flash Player browser plug-in. Microsoft released some 14 patch bundles to correct at least 50 flaws in Windows and associated software, including a zero-day bug in Internet Explorer.

brokenwindowsHalf of the updates Microsoft released Tuesday earned the company’s most dire “critical” rating, meaning they could be exploited by malware or miscreants to install malicious software with no help from the user, save for maybe just visiting a hacked or booby-trapped Web site. Security firms Qualys and Shavlik have more granular writeups on the Microsoft patches.

Adobe’s advisory for this Flash Update is here. It brings Flash to v. 23.0.0.162 for Windows and Mac users. If you have Flash installed, you should update, hobble or remove Flash as soon as possible. Continue reading →


31
May 16

Got $90,000? A Windows 0-Day Could Be Yours

How much would a cybercriminal, nation state or organized crime group pay for blueprints on how to exploit a serious, currently undocumented, unpatched vulnerability in all versions of Microsoft Windows? That price probably depends on the power of the exploit and what the market will bear at the time, but here’s a look at one convincing recent exploit sales thread from the cybercrime underworld where the current asking price for a Windows-wide bug that allegedly defeats all of Microsoft’s current security defenses is USD $90,000.

So-called “zero-day” vulnerabilities are flaws in software and hardware that even the makers of the product in question do not know about. Zero-days can be used by attackers to remotely and completely compromise a target — such as with a zero-day vulnerability in a browser plugin component like Adobe Flash or Oracle’s Java. These flaws are coveted, prized, and in some cases stockpiled by cybercriminals and nation states alike because they enable very stealthy and targeted attacks.

The $90,000 Windows bug that went on sale at the semi-exclusive Russian language cybercrime forum exploit[dot]in earlier this month is in a slightly less serious class of software vulnerability called a “local privilege escalation” (LPE) bug. This type of flaw is always going to be used in tandem with another vulnerability to successfully deliver and run the attacker’s malicious code.

LPE bugs can help amplify the impact of other exploits. One core tenet of security is limiting the rights or privileges of certain programs so that they run with the rights of a normal user — and not under the all-powerful administrator or “system” user accounts that can delete, modify or read any file on the computer. That way, if a security hole is found in one of these programs, that hole can’t be exploited to worm into files and folders that belong only to the administrator of the system.

This is where a privilege escalation bug can come in handy. An attacker may already have a reliable exploit that works remotely — but the trouble is his exploit only succeeds if the current user is running Windows as an administrator. No problem: Chain that remote exploit with a local privilege escalation bug that can bump up the target’s account privileges to that of an admin, and your remote exploit can work its magic without hindrance.

The seller of this supposed zero-day — someone using the nickname “BuggiCorp” — claims his exploit works on every version of Windows from Windows 2000 on up to Microsoft’s flagship Windows 10 operating system. To support his claims, the seller includes two videos of the exploit in action on what appears to be a system that was patched all the way up through this month’s (May 2016) batch of patches from Microsoft (it’s probably no accident that the video was created on May 10, the same day as Patch Tuesday this month).

A second video (above) appears to show the exploit working even though the test machine in the video is running Microsoft’s Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET), a free software framework designed to help block or blunt exploits against known and unknown Windows vulnerabilities and flaws in third-party applications that run on top of Windows.

The sales thread on exploit[dot]in.

The sales thread on exploit[dot]in.

Jeff Jones, a cybersecurity strategist with Microsoft, said the company was aware of the exploit sales thread, but stressed that the claims were still unverified. Asked whether Microsoft would ever consider paying for information about the zero-day vulnerability, Jones pointed to the company’s bug bounty program that rewards security researchers for reporting vulnerabilities. According to Microsoft, the program to date has paid out more than $500,000 in bounties.

Microsoft heavily restricts the types of vulnerabilities that qualify for bounty rewards, but a bug like the one on sale for $90,000 would in fact qualify for a substantial bounty reward. Last summer, Microsoft raised its reward for information about a vulnerability that can fully bypass EMET from $50,000 to $100,000. Incidentally, Microsoft said any researcher with a vulnerability or who has questions can reach out to the Microsoft Security Response Center to learn more about the program and process.

ANALYSIS

It’s interesting that this exploit’s seller could potentially make more money by peddling his find to Microsoft than to the cybercriminal community. Of course, the videos and the whole thing could be a sham, but that’s probably unlikely in this case. For one thing, a scammer seeking to scam other thieves would not insist on using the cybercrime forum’s escrow service to consummate the transaction, as this vendor has. Continue reading →


18
May 16

Microsoft Disables Wi-Fi Sense on Windows 10

Microsoft has disabled its controversial Wi-Fi Sense feature, a component embedded in Windows 10 devices that shares access to WiFi networks to which you connect with any contacts you may have listed in Outlook and Skype — and, with an opt-in — your Facebook friends.

msoptoutRedmond made the announcement almost as a footnote in its Windows 10 Experience blog, but the feature caused quite a stir when the company’s flagship operating system first debuted last summer.

Microsoft didn’t mention the privacy and security concerns raised by Wi-Fi Sense, saying only that the feature was being removed because it was expensive to maintain and that few Windows 10 users were taking advantage of it.

“We have removed the Wi-Fi Sense feature that allows you to share Wi-Fi networks with your contacts and to be automatically connected to networks shared by your contacts,” wrote Gabe Aul, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s engineering systems team. “The cost of updating the code to keep this feature working combined with low usage and low demand made this not worth further investment. Wi-Fi Sense, if enabled, will continue to get you connected to open Wi-Fi hotspots that it knows about through crowdsourcing.”

Wi-Fi Sense doesn’t share your WiFi network password per se — it shares an encrypted version of that password. But it does allow anyone in your Skype or Outlook or Hotmail contacts lists to waltz onto your Wi-Fi network — should they ever wander within range of it or visit your home (or hop onto it secretly from hundreds of yards away with a good ‘ole cantenna!). Continue reading →


13
Apr 16

‘Badlock’ Bug Tops Microsoft Patch Batch

Microsoft released fixes on Tuesday to plug critical security holes in Windows and other software. The company issued 13 patches to tackle dozens of vulnerabilities, including a much-hyped “Badlock” file-sharing bug that appears ripe for exploitation. Also, Adobe updated its Flash Player release to address at least two-dozen flaws — in addition to the zero-day vulnerability Adobe patched last week.

Source: badlock.org

Source: badlock.org

The Windows patch that seems to be getting the most attention this month remedies seven vulnerabilities in Samba, a service used to manage file and print services across networks and multiple operating systems. This may sound innocuous enough, but attackers who gain access to private or corporate network could use these flaws to intercept traffic, view or modify user passwords, or shut down critical services.

According to badlock.org, a Web site set up to disseminate information about the widespread nature of the threat that this vulnerability poses, we are likely to see active exploitation of the Samba vulnerabilities soon.

Two of the Microsoft patches address flaws that were disclosed prior to Patch Tuesday. One of them is included in a bundle of fixes for Internet Explorer. A critical update for the Microsoft Graphics Component targets four vulnerabilities, two of which have been detected already in exploits in the wild, according to Chris Goettl at security vendor Shavlik.

Just a reminder: If you use Windows and haven’t yet taken advantage of the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, a.k.a. “EMET,” you should definitely consider it. I describe the basic features and benefits of running EMET in this blog post from 2014 (yes, it’s time to revisit EMET in a future post), but the gist of it is that EMET helps block or blunt exploits against known and unknown Windows vulnerabilities and flaws in third-party applications that run on top of Windows. The latest version, v. 5.5, is available hereContinue reading →


8
Mar 16

Adobe, Microsoft Push Critical Updates

Microsoft today pushed out 13 security updates to fix at least 39 separate vulnerabilities in its various Windows operating systems and software. Five of the updates fix flaws that allow hackers or malware to break into vulnerable systems without any help from the user, save for perhaps visiting a hacked Web site.

brokenwindowsThe bulk of the security holes plugged in this month’s Patch Tuesday reside in either Internet Explorer or in Microsoft’s flagship browser — Edge. As security firm Shavlik notes, Microsoft’s claim that Edge is more secure than IE seems to be holding out, albeit not by much. So far this year, Shavlik found, Edge has required 19 fixes versus IE’s 27.

Windows users who get online with a non-Microsoft browser still need to get their patches on: Ten of the updates affect Windows — including three other critical updates from Microsoft. As always, Qualys has a readable post about the rest of the Microsoft patches. If you experience any issues with the Windows patches, please share your experience in the comments below.

As it is known to do on patch Tuesday, Adobe issued security updates for its Reader and Acrobat software. Alas, there appears to be no update for Adobe’s Flash Player plugin as per usual on Patch Tuesday. However, an Adobe spokesperson told KrebsOnSecurity that the company will be issuing a Flash Player update on Thursday morning.


10
Feb 16

Critical Fixes Issued for Windows, Java, Flash

Microsoft Windows users and those with Adobe Flash Player or Java installed, it’s time to update again! Microsoft released 13 updates to address some three dozen unique security vulnerabilities. Adobe issued security fixes for its Flash Player software that plugs at least 22 security holes in the widely-used browser component. Meanwhile, Oracle issued an unscheduled security fix for Java, its second security update for Java in as many weeks.

brokenwindowsOne big critical update from Redmond mends more than a dozen security problems with Internet Explorer. Another critical patch addresses flaws Microsoft Edge — including four that appear to share the same vulnerability identifiers (meaning Microsoft re-used the same vulnerable IE code in its newest Edge browser). Security vendor Qualys as usual has a good roundup of the rest of the critical Microsoft updates.

Adobe issued an update for Flash Player that fixes a slew of security problems with Flash, a very powerful yet vulnerable piece of software that is also unfortunately ubiquitous. After all, as Chris Goettl at Shavlik reminds us, fixing Flash on a modern computer can be a complicated affair: “You need to update Adobe Flash for IE, Flash for Google Chrome, and Flash for Firefox to completely plug all of these 22 vulnerabilities.” Thankfully, Chrome and IE should auto-install the latest Flash version on browser restart (I had to manually restart Chrome to get the latest Flash version). Continue reading →