Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Equifax: Here Is What I Want From You

My credit scores. I want my credit scores. I know you’ll give me a year of free credit monitoring, but I’m pretty sure that is only to try to sell me more stuff. Actually Equifax, you are stingy. When Anthem was breached their victims got two years of free credit monitoring AND a $1 million identity theft insurance policy. When Premera Blue Cross was breached they gave away two years of free credit monitoring. Not one year, but two full years AND I got free access for life to the results of my colonoscopy. Equifax, I just want my credit scores. The hackers get them free, why don’t I?

I decided to find out if I am one of the people impacted by the breach. What I learned was that if I can pick out apartments buildings from a lineup, know my last name, and the last six digits of my social security number then I am probably impacted. The last six of my social security number was tricky. I was able to find correspondence containing the last four digits, so that narrowed it down to a maximum of 100 guesses to get the first two. Lucky for me I got it on the third try or else I may have been locked out and had to ask a hacker for assistance.

So here’s how to find out if you are a victim.

Step 1: Go to https://krebsonsecurity.com/2017/09/equifax-breach-response-turns-dumpster-fire/ and pick out the website he indicates needs to be used. Do note that you may need to use a computer and a mobile device to verify the results. A tablet probably isn’t a bad idea either. Perhaps try it with iOS, Android, Win 10, and Symbian.

Step 2. Enter my last name and last six of my social security number (I don’t know if yours will work, but mine does, so I can confidently recommend it). Proceed to pick out ugly apartment buildings from a lineup. 

I hate these captchas. I wonder if the hackers had to complete them to get in too.

You can tell if you successfully completed step 1 by the following conspicuous message.

Have a last name?  √
Know or can guess the last six of your social security number?  √
Can pick ugly apartment buildings out of a lineup?  √

Winner!! You are the proud new owner of one glorious year of free credit monitoring!

I have to admit I got a bit queasy when the next screen appeared.

Why am I being asked for this information? Equifax knows all of this information just from my last name, the last six of my social security number, and some pictures of ugly apartment buildings now linked to my IP address. I forgot to check my VPN - it was off. I fear I am being set up. “See Mr. Investigator, he has some of the stolen data and knows which pictures are the ugly apartment buildings. He’s your culprit.” No, I think I will play it safe and appeal to the hacker’s consciences to do the right thing; Use the stolen data for good and sign me up so it doesn’t look like I committed the crime.

You may think that this sounds absurd, but do remember:

1) Equifax is desperate. Their stock tanked, they’re being grilled by congress, some of their executives sold stock at questionable times, and they face multiple lawsuits. Equifax needs a scapegoat like McCarthy needed commies.

2) The name of this blog is, after all, Security Through Absurdity. Sometimes I have to get a bit tongue-in-cheek or even absurd.

Equifax, I don’t care if you are too cheap to give two years of credit monitoring. I don’t care if you don’t give me a million bucks of identity theft protection. I don’t care about lawsuits. All I want is my credit scores. That is the only information that the hackers have that I do not have, and they got it for free.

Randy Abrams
Collector of free credit monitoring services and free identity theft insurance policies, and connoisseur of ugly apartment building fine art.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Will Passphrases Kill the Password Managers?

I won’t keep you hanging… … … much... the answer is no! If the answer was all you needed, then thank you for visiting my blog. If you would like to know why I say “no,” then keep reading.

Just in case you do not know what a passphrase is, it is a password that uses words instead of gibberish. The words may or may not have spaces in them. “thisisapassphrase” and “this is a passphrase” are both passphrases. Do not use those two examples for your passphrases though.

The argument for passphrases is that they are easy to remember, and if they are about 20 characters long or more, they can be far stronger than something like “^T28dy2a$o,v” is. That is completely correct. I am a strong proponent of passphrases.
On the NPR show All Tech Considered, Paul Grassi, the Senior Standards and Technology Adviser at NIST, is quoted as saying the following concerning password managers
“… these apps are useful because they completely randomize the password, but he says they aren't necessary to maintain security.”
The new NIST guidelines concerning passwords and passphrases are widely regarded as excellent by security experts. I wholeheartedly agree with all that Paul said, except for the part about password managers, and here are the reasons why.

1) Some sites are not going to allow long password/passphrases. If you are limited to 15 characters or less, complexity does become far more important and password managers help with that. This also means that you have to try to remember the gibberish.

2a) Depending upon how many sites you have passphrases for, many people are not going to be able to remember all of the phrases and which sites they correspond with. This leads to 2b (for the record, “2b or not 2b” is not a good passphrase.

2b) When people get to the point that they can’t remember all of the passphrases and corresponding sites, they are likely to take shortcuts that are essentially the same as incrementing passwords or using the same passphrase at multiple sites.

Cracking passwords is not as common as obtaining passwords from a data breach or a phishing attack. This is why password reuse is so dangerous. This is also why incrementing passwords makes a complex 16 character password weak. Easily recognized patters in passwords, such as “Todayis01/10/17” make the next series of password extremely easy to guess.

If a person has 20 sites with a unique username and passphrase to remember for each site, I believe that they are likely to do something far more serious than incrementing. They may use a site identifier.

Write down 20 websites that require you to log into. The next to each one write down your user name and a unique passphrase for each of them. Just to make my point., choose the first four words of a different sentence in this blog for each of the 20 website’s passphrases. As soon as you are done, stop looking at them. Even if your username is the same for all of the sites, do you remember the passphrases and corresponding sites? Most people will not. You need a way to remember all of these. The trick that I envision some people using is site identifiers.

“Tractors swim in aquariums” is a great passphrase (at least it was before I published this blog).

Now to make it easy to remember which site I use each password for…

“Tractors swim in aquariums – Gmail”

Care to guess this user’s password for Facebook, LinkedIn, and the company they work for? Websites can prevent users from including the name of the site in a password, but users are clever that way. They’ll figure out something as predictable. Of course if you write it down you are a bit worse off than using a random complex password. The gibberish passwords are hard to remember. If I see your passphrase written on a piece of paper, about a second or two is all I need to see it and remember it.

Passphrases and passwords share an identical problem. You can’t remember them all. Password managers address that problem. That is why password managers are as relevant in tomorrow’s world of ubiquitous passphrases as they are in today’s world of ubiquitous passwords.

Here is my recommendation. Use an excellent passphrase for your corporate login and remember it. Use an excellent passphrase for your personal computer login. Use an insanely good passphrase for your password manager. A sentence you create that is at least 35 characters long, such as “the purple cow danced on the cheese” is insane enough. Make sure your passphrases are at least 20 characters long and not common sentences, and you’ll be good to go for almost anywhere you currently use a password.

In future blogs I will give more detailed guidance on how to make killer passphrases.

In a different blog I will discuss the passphrase token attack and linguistic passphrase attacks. These attacks intrigue me, but I don’t think they are anything to worry about too much at this point.

Randy Abrams

Independent Security Analyst (is not my passphrase)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Evasion and Regeneration; Decoys and Deception

I recently had an interesting conversation with Alex Gounares, the CEO at Polyverse. Alex calls Polyverse’s security approach “Moving Target Defense.” Polyverse’s technology basically causes your operating system to continuously morph into something functionally the same and dynamically different, at a very high rate of speed, while replacing the container with each morph. The idea is to give attackers virtually no time to exploit a vulnerability before the vulnerability has been moved somewhere else. If malware does enter the system, the OS is replaced with a brand new, clean morphed OS almost as quickly as the malware had arrived. Full disclosure: I had been referred by a friend to Polyverse for contract work. There was not a synergy in current needs but the ensuing conversation was engaging and thought provoking. This is the “evasion and regeneration” I am talking about in the title of this blog.

One of my all-time favorite quotes goes something like this. “If you only see one solution you probably don’t understand the problem.” This sage advice that I found in the sidebar of a DIY robotics book applies to life. Sometimes when I do not like a solution. I discover I’m not actually trying to solve the real problem. Sometimes the first solution I see is the best solution. Other times I find multiple appealing solutions.  Regardless, I am always more educated by remembering to apply this principle to my life.

I really am intrigued by Alex’s classifications of defenses as “stationary” and “moving target.” The moving target defense looks to me like a novel solution. Damn. The “S” word… “solution.” “If you only see one solution…” Sigh .Now my challenge became one to see if I could find better or equally appealing solutions that use a stationary target defense. In other words “Can a stationary endpoint be defended as well as an endpoint that is moving faster than the attackers can catch and inflict damage upon?”

There are many types of stationary target defenses but for this blog I am limiting discussion to one class of stationary target defense – deception and decoy. The reason is simple. It was the first to come to mind because my friend Gadi Evron is everywhere I go. Facebook, email, countries all over the world… Gadi is everywhere. In thinking about a stationary target defense solution that might be able to provide the effectiveness of a moving target defense, I remembered Gadi telling me about how his company, Cymmetria, uses decoys and deception to keep an attacker away from a stationary target. TrapX, Attivo Networks, and CounterCraft are three other companies that use a deception and decoy strategy. Aside from any technical merits of these solutions, I absolutely love the idea of deceiving the bad guys. Digital karma. Ask me about the time I kept a PC support scammer on the line for 45 minutes. He even waited for me to “cook my breakfast.”

I have an all-time favorite example of a successful stationary target defense. The defense was called “Rope-a-dope” and it made the “Rumble in the Jungle” one of the most exciting boxing matches in history. Muhammed Ali was essentially a stationary target for almost 8 rounds. In the 8th round Ali stopped being a stationary target and destroyed George Forman in an offensive flurry lasting less than 10 seconds. Rope-a-dope worked for Ali. Although it was an offensive maneuver that ended the fight, the defense was essentially stationary. I can’t imagine that getting pummeled by George Foreman felt like an Ashiatsu massage, but I wasn’t there.
Unlike Ali’s approach, companies employing decoys and deception do not let their targets stand and take punches – no matter how hardened the target is. Different companies use different techniques, but the high level concept is to use real or virtual computers that keep attention drawn away from the target by making the decoys look like they have the Holy Grail. One of the potential weaknesses of the decoy approach is that there is still a stationary target. I’m sure that all of the companies that use this approach are aware of this and have some pretty cool counter-measures, but still, there is a stationary target. If the decoys work all of the time then the actual target does not need to move.

My favorite moving target defense analogy is the SR-71 Blackbird. This spy plane was the fastest aircraft ever to fly.  The Blackbird had vulnerabilities. The Blackbird was designed for stealth, but you don’t really fly at Mach 3+ without leaving a detectable heat signature. To add to that, the skin around parts of the fuselage could be easily damaged. How did the Blackbird defend itself?  It flew faster than the missiles could reach it, faster than any other aircraft could fly, and it moved around a lot. Stealth was still a factor too. By the time the missile got there, the Blackbird was not. It didn’t matter that the Blackbird was in plain (no pun intended) sight.

Surveillance is a critical part of moving target defenses, deception and decoy defenses, and many other security approaches. Repelling attacks is good, but not everything. You want to have a discreet, digitally intimate relationship with your attacker. You just don’t want the attacker to know they are in the relationship. This should be your relationship status


This is what the adversary’s relationship status should be

You want to stalk your enemy… watch them... What is my enemy after? How are they going after it? How are their tactics adapting? Who is attacking me? What am I going to do about it? And so on… Ah ha! The OODA Loop is back!

Update: Attivo Networks expressed concern that I may be making decoy and deception defense look like a passive technology. I am actually surprised that none of the other vendors raised this concern because they all fight the misconception that they are glorified honeypots.

Modern decoy and deception approaches employ algorithms that can create a series of dynamically changing decoys and potentially even dynamically changing network topologies in response to the tactics of attackers. This is active engagement with the enemy, not passive intelligence collection.

Again, I am not recommending or endorsing any specific technology or security market segment. We’re talking philosophic approaches and challenging assumptions. I can’t imagine any single tactic working through the entire kill chain.

Given multiple approaches to achieve the same goals, which strategy is best? I can’t tell you, I don’t know your problem.

If you are Schick you are defending trade secrets. Encryption, DRM and data recovery probably address the real problem. Yes indeed, defend your endpoints, but don’t lose focus on the problem. Get that IP protected, then worry about the network and endpoints.

If you are a hospital you are defending human lives first. Protecting the equipment required to maintain the physical well-being of a patient probably requires different protection technologies and/or approaches than protecting the systems remotely monitoring a pacemaker. Banking Trojans may be the biggest threat to the accounting department, where data theft is the major threat to systems holding health records.

Make sure you are clear on the problem, assess the suitability of the approach to the problem, and them compare technologies and approaches. The right technological approach for you may not have been mentioned in this blog.

I really wanted to share with you the concept of diverse philosophical approaches to security, and demonstrate what happens when I remember some of the wisest words I know - “If you only see one solution you probably don’t understand the problem”

This is the official end of the blog, but feel free to read on if you enjoy the diversions that research on the Internet results in.  As you all know, the problem with research on the internet is not attribution and not validation, it’s that you get diverted to rather irrelevant information that is too compelling to ignore. In thinking about analogies to use in this blog, holograms came to mind. I could think of analogies using holograms for either type of defense, but they fell apart the very first time an adversary tried to “touch them.”  This analogy requires a hologram that can be “touched” to really fly. With that in mind I remembered that George Washington once said “if you can dream it you can find it on the Internet.”

Research into my dream led me to a company called Ultrahaptics. Ultrahaptics is developing a holographic technology which can make it seem like you are touching a hologram. How cool is that?

Randy Abrams

Independent Security Analyst (ISA)
Fan of Historical Quotes (FHQ)
Chaser of Internet Squirrels (CIS)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Can Comcast/Xfinity Publish Your Trade Secrets and Letters to Grandma?

The answer looks like yes, but ask a lawyer for a legal opinion.
I have confirmation from a lawyer that I am correct.

Comcast’s most recent Terms of Service (ToS) state

“Authorization. Comcast does not claim any ownership of any material that you publish, transmit or distribute using XFINITY Internet. By using XFINITY Internet to publish, transmit, or distribute material or content, you (1) warrant that the material or content complies with the provisions of this Agreement, (2) consent to and authorize Comcast, its agents, suppliers, and affiliates to reproduce, publish, distribute, and display the content worldwide and (3) warrant that you have the right to provide this authorization. You acknowledge that material posted or transmitted using XFINITY Internet may be copied, republished or distributed by third parties, and you agree to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless Comcast, its agents, suppliers, and affiliates for any harm resulting from these actions.”

 Sending data in email clearly is transmitting material. For example, if an employee or an independent contractor who uses their Comcast account to communicate something confidential with authorized people, it appears that Comcast retains the right to publish such information  on a worldwide basis.

If a child writes an email to grandma, fair game for worldwide publication? A suicide note? Spouses exchanging love letters and/or pictures? Letters to congress people. Your attorney? The FBI?

The answer is yes.

If I am reading this wrong please let me know so I can update this blog and inform others of what it means.

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst

Monday, July 24, 2017

Enterprises Don’t Care About the 10,000 Most Common Passwords

At least yours shouldn’t. Your enterprise should not care about the 10,000 most common passwords and the reason is unbelievable! Out of the 10,000 most common passwords only 10 of had 12 or more characters. Perhaps this statistic is not surprising, but “unbelievable” did represent 10% (1) of the passwords that were 12 characters or longer! Not a single one of the passwords met the typical length and complexity requirements most enterprises inflict upon their employees.

The one 18 character password on the list was “films+pic+galleries” and was almost certainly magnitudes stronger than any 14 character password used in your organization, unless it was a category on the TV game show Jeopardy. I say “almost certainly” because there are probabilities that may make a longer password with equivalent entropy weaker than its shorter counterpart. You are not going to be able to do much about entropy and probability control enforcement for the passwords your users create though. I will discuss what I mean about probability factoring into password cracking in another blog.

Rules about using a password with at least 12 characters and multiple character sets encourage the use of 12 character passwords. This also results in the creation and use of short passwords that have predictable formats such as number or a symbol preceding or trailing a single word. What is the difference between the passwords “techniques” and “1Techniques&”? Not much. Perhaps a few seconds?

Recently NIST has adopted new guidelines concerning passwords that security experts have long been advocating for – dump complexity for length and don’t make users change their passwords frequently. In simple terms, don’t make me use “^incredible1” for a password and then swap “incredible” for another 10 letter word three months later. Trade complexity for length. It’s a win for all concerned.

I talked about passphrases in a previous blog, but I did not touch on passphrase token attacks. These are techniques that can be used that to exploit common weaknesses of passphrases. This does not mean the actual strength of a passphrase is less than a 12, or even 16 character password though. In another blog I’ll delve into token attacks and then provide easy ways to mitigate such attacks in another blog. For now, take a deep breath... Your users probably are not using very many of the rest of the top one million most commonly used passwords because they probably don’t meet your password strength criteria.

Randy Abrams

Independent Security Analyst

Friday, July 21, 2017

Remembering Your Password Can Put You at Risk – How to do One Time Passwords for the Non-Geeky

A long time ago an engineer invented a technology for computers called PCMCIA. To the best of my knowledge PCMCIA stands for People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.  Yeah, people also can’t remember 15 good passwords for 15 different sites with the rules they have to follow today. You have to use upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters when all you really need to be safe is a few words (passphrase).

Here is an example of a passphrase: boat plane dog cat fish. That passphrase can be memorized in a short amount of time although a real sentence, such as “I would sure like a ham sandwich!” is easier to remember. Both of these passphrases are far better passwords than “1Xrv24%/&4Zb.” The reason they are better is math. There’s a point where longer and simple is harder for a computer to figure out than short and complex.

So why won’t your system administrator let you stop using numbers and special characters? It’s tradition. Back in the days when passwords were limited to 8 or 12 characters it made a difference – a huge difference. It still does at some sites that only allow short passwords.

I have some good news. There is a growing shift in perspective on the subject. Standards are being set that only focus on length. You don’t even have to change your password very often, if at all, with these new standards. Passphrases are even encouraged.

I still have problems with passphrases though. It is a problem of remembering which of my 15 passphrases went with which site. You still need to use a different password or passphrase at every site you visit. I suppose I could do something like “dog cat rabbit squirrel facebook” and know that that one is for Facebook, but if someone gets that password it is the same as using the same password at every site. dog cat rabbit squirrel gmail, dog cat rabbit squirrel linkedin, etc. You are really using the same password everywhere.

Your bank has a great solution for bad passwords that rarely or never change. The solution is a onetime passwords (OTPs). You probably call them verification codes. OTPs are great for security. You get an email with a few numbers, type in the numbers and forget it. 123321 can be a really good password if someone only has two minutes to find it and guess it, and then figure out your other password. Your bank knows how to set up the system so that all you have to do is get a text and type in a few numbers, but you don’t have the bank’s resources or technical skill. What do you do? Simple, you make your own one-time passwords because for you it is free and easy.

Before I proceed I need to make a brief safety announcement.


Now that we have that out of the way, let’s do it. Go to a website and create an account, or reset your existing password for an account you already have. Now open notepad and start banging away on the keyboard like a chimpanzee.  I am serious. Completely randomly bang away for 2 or 3 seconds until you come up with something like this f43wejao;argnhol;vh;oweiuowfgrfikonarhgjo3245garfgnfr42. Don’t even think about what keys you hit, just hit a bunch of keys. Forty characters is more than enough. 30 characters is fine too. Don’t worry, you are only going to this password once and you are just going to copy and paste it anyway, so you don’t even have to type it in again. If you need to go back to the website and log in again, well that’s what password resets are for. By the way, the chimpanzee method may result in tabs and enters you will need to remove. A few places may allow tabs, but the enter key (new line) probably won’t work. Get rid of those.

This is my reset passport philosophy:
 “Reset password” is not there to help you if you forget your password, it is there to encourage you not to remember your password in the first place!
Let me repeat that.
Goto This is my reset passport philosophy
Sorry, the goto thing is geek humor.

Before we get to the part about “I don’t want to reset my password every time I log in, give me a few sentences.

Unlike the bank’s verification code, these OTPs are valid forever and still safe. The length and complexity of the password is such that one of three things will happen before a hacker cracks the password.

1) The website is gone. The company changed it or went out of business. Whatever.
2) You log in again. You just reset the password and the forever clock too.
3) You die. You will not care about that password, forever. It’s not your problem.

Now to address the complaint that it is a hassle to reset the password each time you log into a site. You are right. I usually will use this method when it is a site I rarely visit. It isn’t worth remembering another password when an occasional reset it really isn’t a big deal. I don’t do this for my email account, although it would be super secure.

For sites I use a lot, I use a password manager. Why would I use the chimpanzee password reset method it I have a password manager? I do not want to clutter up my password manager. If I sign up for a mailing list and then only log in once a year, I don’t need to have yet another entry in my password manager. If you only use less than a dozen sites then clutter isn’t a problem for you. I sign up for webinars, and all kinds of things that I wish I didn’t even need a password for. My password manager has too much stuff in it now because I didn’t think of what I just taught you until after it was cluttered. I’m getting rid of many passwords now. I’ll just reset them if I even need them again.

For the sites I do visit more frequently I use a password manager because it allows me to use very long, complex and unique passwords for each site, and they last a lifetime if the site doesn’t make me change them. I’ll get to data breaches momentarily.

Companies spend a lot of money to set up OTP systems because they can add a lot of security. You can do the same thing for free.

An important instruction for safe password manager use and then a note about data breaches.

The most critical part about using a password manager is having an extremely great, fantastic, stupendously wonderful password. The password manager holds a lot of eggs in one basket. I would recommend a passphrase that is very long. Let me show you.

My dog ate all of my books and bit my teacher.

This is an awesome password. A person I knew at Microsoft reputedly used a 75 character password. That is well beyond insanely long. It can be very easy to remember, but it’s a lot to type for me.

I can remember “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow” I’ just not going to type it in. Of note, the commas made the passphrase even stronger.

It really is best to make up your own sentence rather than a well-known one.

Now for the data breaches. There are times that a company did something wrong, really wrong, and your password was compromised. You may have to change a password. It depends on what it is. If it is an email account, a social networking account, etc. you need to change it right away. There are a few cases where it doesn’t really matter at all, but pretend like I didn’t say that… just change it.

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Child’s T-Shirt Point of Sale (POS) Attack

Despite the fact that sometimes I discuss serious security topics, the name of this blog is after all “Security through Absurdity” and so absurdity is required at times. Prepare yourself for a Costco-sized package of absurd.

As I was walking through Costco today I saw a woman pushing a cart, with her kid in it. I figured if everything else in the cart has a barcode so should her kid. And so I spoke my mind. “You needs a kid’s t-shirt with a barcode on this. I thought she was going to ignore me, but a few seconds later she finally replied "No thanks, I already pay enough for my kids." I had actually thought about the absurdity of paying for your own kid and so I had my own reply (which I thought of on the spot) "what if the barcode is a rebate?" She liked that idea. And that was the birth of the child t-shirt exploit attack.

Replacing barcodes on products to get a cheaper price was innovative - one time - many years ago. The second time it was done was ho-hum.  The Child’s T-shirt POS attack is more interesting. I’m sure I am not the only one who has thought of this, but I think my idea of how to monetize it in the real world may be innovative. The Child’s T-shirt POS Attack is the perfect application of social engineer to exploit a cashier with a barcode scanner. The attack exploits the fact that a toddler sitting in a shopping cart, wearing a t-shirt with a barcode on, it is irresistible. Cashier: “Oh isn’t that adorable. Here you go cutie, let me scan you.”  Scan - ding - five bucks off. Ten bucks if you have two kids.

Is that awesome social engineering or what? It can work too, for both Costco and you!

Costco, you owe me big time for this idea...

Sell a child’s t-shirt with a barcode on it that gives the adult accompanying the kid 2% back on each purchase. You give 2% back for executive card holders so you can’t tell me the idea is cost prohibitive. You get your brand displayed every time the kid wears the shirt. The amusement factor is such that the t-shirt will be worn a lot. You will entertain most shoppers. Parents enjoy hearing “that is so adorable” when it’s talking about their kids. You’ll get the “mommy, daddy, I want that” sales (which you get anyway). Finally, the savings makes it less painful for the parents who have to put up with “mommy, daddy, I want that.”

Marketing is about social engineering. If you want to protect against the Child’s T-shirt POS Attack then embrace it and use social engineering to your advantage.

Randy Abrams
Independent Absurdity Analyst