On a Kernel Backdoor and IT Security

It just became public that a custom built Linux kernel for embedded devices has been shipped and installed in production with a root debug backdoor open to anyone, see here for the announcement and for example here for some more details.

Besides the gravity of this particular incident and the difficulty of remediating it (I expect that many devices shipped with this kernel will never be updated) a couple of considerations come to my mind:

  • first of all the need for IT Security Awareness and Education starting from everybody working in IT : anybody can make a mistake or even a blunder, but there should be safety nets proportional to the risks and IT professional should always be aware of the “security” consequences of what they do;
  • the process of “bringing into production” IT products (aka Change Management) should be improved: as of today most of the time the really important test of an IT product is the final User Acceptance Test, which means that it is only important that the features requested by the final users work as expected. But this is not enough, and it is not like this in many other industries, think for example of televisions, refrigerators, cars etc. they all need to pass safety tests and be labelled accordingly otherwise they cannot be sold on the market. Why is it not like this also for IT products? As of today it is difficult to think of security standards, tests and labels common to all IT products, but it should be possible to agree on and adopt some common IT security baseline.

Monitoring Outgoing Traffic to Detect Intrusions

Monitoring outgoing traffic to detect intrusions in IT systems is not a new concept but often it does not seem to be enough appreciated, understood and implemented.

IT security defences cannot guarantee us against every possibile attack, so we must be prepared to the event of an intrusion and to manage the associated incident.

The first step in incident management is to detect an intrusion. Traditional tools like Anti-Virus, Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems (IDS/IPS) etc. do their job but they can be bypassed. But intrusions can also be detected by monitoring the outgoing traffic.

In my recent personal experience, some intrusions have been detected and stopped because the outgoing traffic was monitored and blocked. Since the deployed malware was not able to call back home, it did not do anything and there was no damage; and since the outgoing traffic was monitored, the intrusion was immediately detected.

But monitoring the outgoing traffic to detect intrusions is becoming more and more difficult. For example attackers are adopting more often stealth techniques like using fake DNS queries. An interesting example has been recently described by FireEye in “MULTIGRAIN – POINT OF SALE ATTACKERS MAKE AN UNHEALTHY ADDITION TO THE PANTRY” . In this case, malware is exfiltrating data by making DNS calls to domains with names like log.<encoded data to exfiltrate>.evildomain.com . Obviously the DNS query fails, but in the logs of the receiving DNS server it is written the name of the requested domain, that is the data that the malware is exfiltrating.

As attackers are getting more creative to hide the back communication between malware and their Command & Control services, IT Security will need to devise more proactive approaches to monitoring and blocking outgoing traffic.

Hacking Your Phone from 60 Minutes

It is worth reading this script “Hacking Your Phone” from CBS 60 Minutes aired on April 17, 2016.

SS7 vulnerabilities are not new and should be known to the carriers. As usual the problem is on patching and implementing security measures to prevent illegal access to the network (in this demonstration they were legally granted access to SS7).

Malware and what it can do on phones, tablets, PCs etc. should be well known, at least to those who care about IT security.

NTIA Request for Comment on IoT Policies

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force, has announced a Request for Comment on the key issues regarding the deployment of Internet of Things.

This is one of the first steps towards creating some policies and / or regulations on IoT devices, and can be a very good occasion for stating clearly some security baselines.

GSMA and Security of IoT

GSMA just announced the availability of the “GSMA IoT Security Guidelines”. Potentially this could have quite a good impact on the security of IoTs. Even if GSMA speaks only for the mobile telecommunications industry, its importance in today communications market is undeniable. The idea behind it should be that companies and providers who plan to connect new IoT devices to the network, will follow these Security Guidelines to provide some level of security to the device communications, at least.

Let’s hope that this will be a first real step towards the IT security of IoTs, but first we need to read and understand these guidelines and then, in case, see if they are implemented and if their implementation will provide the expected benefits.

On the Privacy of Webcams and Security of IoTs

The article ‘“Internet of Things” security is hilariously broken and getting worse’ of ARS Technica shows how, using Shodan , one can find pictures from millions of open Webcams on internet.

The issue is not new but the scale of the problem is threatening. As the article nicely points out:

  • people do not care about the security or privacy features of the devices they buy
  • the important points are cost and easiness to manage (which means it is better if there are no password to access it)
  • only to throw away the device the day they find themselves on Shodan or in a picture on a newspaper and say “never again”.

But who is going to do something about it? Who should defend the privacy of people and the security of Internet? Should the IoT market be regulated or self-regulated or something in between?

Writing Software and Security Bugs

Writing software is really hard: not only it is quite difficult to implement the functionalities that customers and final users desire and sometimes require, but it is also extremely difficult to write bug-free software, free from both functionality bugs and security bugs. (And it is not always easy to understand if there is a difference and what is the difference between functionality and security bugs.)

Unfortunately, except that for software developers (and not even for all of them), the fact that writing software is quite hard comes as a surprise or it is just plainly impossible to accept. How much harder could be building an engine than writing the software to pilot an airplane? (Consider moreover that of today most of the work of building an engine is done by software.)

Here I collected a random selection of recent news from The Register in different ways relevant to this subject:

One of the first examples of IoT and security risks

Among IT practitioners there are a lot of ideas and discussions on the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and the security risks associated to them.

If IoT has many positive and useful future developments, the security aspects are very difficult to manage to the point of posing a very big question mark on the idea itself of IoT.

One example is described in the research “House of Keys: Industry-Wide HTTPS Certificate and SSH Key Reuse Endangers Millions of Devices Worldwide” published by SEC Consult, which shows how many hosts, typically home and SOHO routers for internet access, use the same cryptographic keys, which are public and well know, so that anyone can impersonate them and anyone who can intercept their traffic can decrypt it.

Even if the impacts of this vulnerability are probably not very high, it seems extremely difficult to fix, since the new devices will be fixed but the millions already in use will probably never be fixed and will remain active for a few more years.

Even more worrisome is that these are IT devices developed, built and sold by IT companies that should known about IT and IT security. What will happen when billions of devices will be connected to internet (the real IoT) developed, built and sold by non IT companies?

Cryptography is too risky: should we use something else to secure IT systems?

Obviously the title of this post is provocative, but reading some recent news it is evident that us, IT professionals and IT industry, are not good in managing cryptography. The consequence is that we deploy cryptography in IT products and give a false sense of security to the users. This actually can have worse consequences than if we would not use cryptography at all. I will give just a couple of examples.

This research paper shows how a well-known brand of hard disks has implemented disk encryption in totally faulty ways, to the point that for some disk models hardly any security is provided by the built-in disk encryption functionalities. This is just another of many similar cases, where cryptographic protocols and algorithms are incorrectly implemented so to cancel all or most of the security that they should provide.

Another research paper shows how a well-funded agency or corporation can in practice break the encryption of any data encrypted with the Diffie-Hellmann (DH) key exchange algorithm using keys up to 1024 bits included. Should we be shocked by this news? Not really since already 10 years ago it was known that a key of 1024 bits is too short for DH. Indeed, as per RFC 7525, a 1024 bit DH key offers a security less than a conventional bit security of 80 bits, but again RFC 7525 states that the absolute (legacy) minimum required conventional bit security must be 112 bits, and the current minimum required conventional bit security is 128 bits, that would practically correspond to a 2048 bits DH key. Even if we, IT professionals and IT industry, have known for at least 10 years that 1024 bits DH keys are too short to offer security to the data that they should protect, as of today a too large number of HTTPS websites, VPNs and SSH servers use DH keys of 1024 bits or less (see again the research paper mentioned above).

Unfortunately these are not two isolated examples, recent news are full of similar facts. So I start to wonder if we are good enough to manage cryptography or if we should look into something else to protect IT systems.

IT Security and Cars (and the IoT world)

This news is a very good example of how IT security is generally perceived, almost like an annoying add-on or an after-thought, in any case better to think about it later …

Security should be one of the pillar of any IT product and service but very seldom it is.

It will be very interesting to see how Security and IoT (Internet of Things) will go together, the first glimpses are not promising even if many people warn of the possible disasters ahead.