No, you don’t need my social security number.

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– (phone rings) Hello.
– Hello, I’m calling from American Express. Are you Mr. *****  ******?
– Yes, great that someone finally reacts to my reclamation.
– First I need to verify your identity. What’s your social security number?
– Excuse me but you are calling me on a number that you have in your register, so you can be pretty confident that you are talking to the right person. But I have no way of knowing that you really are from Amex. So YOU tell ME what my social security number is. I know you have it on file.
– (silence) Well, eh … we must identify our customers to be able to serve them by phone. It’s company policy.
– Yes, I know that. But I’m certainly NOT going to give out my number to a stranger who calls and asks for it. I really need some kind of identification from you first.

It went on like that for a while until I proposed a compromise. I told her the first part of my number and she told me the last digits. It all matched and we were able to proceed.

This post is not about American Express, it is about a severe and widespread problem that is visible in this case. The problem is these Social Security Numbers, SSNs, or National Identification Numbers which is a proper global term. They appear in most countries, in many forms and under many names. But they all have two things in common. They were designed to be unique and distinguish persons with the same name. And they are misused for identification.

The practice of using the SSN as proof of identity is really fundamentally flawed. They are used in the same way as a password, knowledge of the “secret” is supposed to prove who you are. The problem is just that the SSN isn’t designed to be secret. If you are a little bit Internet savvy, you know the basic rules for safe passwords. Think of your SSN as a password. It’s assigned once for your whole lifetime and you can’t change it. You are forced to use the same SSN on all services you use. It’s printed on various documents, depending on what country you live in. It’s recorded in numerous registers, and you don’t even know where all those registers are and who’s got access to them. Would you handle the password to your favorite net service this way? Hell, no! Still knowledge of this fundamentally flawed “password” may enable anyone to get credit, order goods, close accounts, etc. in someone else’s name. Scary!

But what can we do about it? Let’s refresh the memory with some practical advice about how to handle your SSN.

  • Do some googling and look for national advice about SSN security in your country. Laws and practices vary and a local source is typically more accurate. But here comes some generic advice.
  • Do not give out your SSN unless you know who he other part is.
  • Verify that the other part has a valid reason to use your SSN before you reveal it.
  • If a business demands your SSN, you can refuse to give it but the business can refuse to serve you. You can either comply or spend your money elsewhere.
  • Some try to phish for SSNs, look out for fraudulent web forms that ask for it.
  • Check what documents you carry in your wallet that have the SSN printed. Avoid carrying those documents daily, if possible, as your wallet may get stolen.
  • Invoices, tax documents etc. may have the SSN printed. Think about how you dispose those papers. If you have a shredder, use it.
  • Needless to say, don’t post the SSN on the net in any context.

This will help a bit, but not cure the fundamental problem. Your SSN is still used and stored so widely that you may be the victim of identity theft even if you do all this.

The problem is really the misuse of SSNs as proof of identity. And the next question is obvious, what should we use instead? Yes, that’s right. There is no common, safe and reliable method for identifying a caller. Some companies have their own methods to improve security. They may require both your SSN and for example a customer number or invoice number. Better, but still not good as those additional numbers aren’t protected very well either. The banks have good systems with sheets of one-time passwords, or similar. These system have been developed with security in mind and are typically reliable enough. They are developed for on-line access but often work for identifying a caller as well.

Banks have good systems, but they are unique for each bank. We would really need national systems, or even better, a global system for reliable identification of persons both on-line and over the phone. More and more of our transactions cross borders and national systems do not help if you are dealing with someone overseas, like in this case. The problem is not technical, public key cryptography and digital signatures could be deployed to achieve this. But agreeing on a reliable global identification standard that won’t become a privacy threat would certainly be a significant political achievement.

So we probably have to live with this flaw for quite a long time. National solutions will no doubt become available in some countries. Estonia is usually quick to utilize new technology and this is no exception, An electronic ID is a good fundament even if reliable identification over the phone still would require some additional technology. But the rest of us just have to acknowledge the risk, keep our non-secret SSNs as secret as possible and hope for the best.

Safe surfing,
Micke

Image by DonkeyHotey @ Flickr.

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Juhannus

How To Prepare Yourself and Your Phone For Juhannus

In Finland, there is this thing called juhannus. A few years ago, our former colleague Hetta described it like this: Well, Midsummer – or juhannus – as it is called in Finnish, is one of the most important public holidays in our calendar. It is celebrated, as you probably guessed, close to the dates of the Summer Solstice, when day is at its longest in the northern hemisphere. Finland being so far up north, the sun doesn’t set on juhannus at all. Considering that in the winter we get the never ending night, it’s no surprise we celebrate the sun not setting. So what do Finns do to celebrate juhannus? I already told you we flock to our summer cottages, but what then? We decorate the cottage with birch branches to celebrate the summer, we stock up on new potatoes which are just now in season and strawberries as well. We fire up the barbecue and eat grilled sausages to our hearts content. We burn bonfires that rival with the unsetting sun. And we get drunk. If that isn't vivid enough, this video may help: [protected-iframe id="f18649f0b62adf8eb1ec638fa5066050-10874323-9129869" info="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsuomifinland100%2Fvideos%2F1278272918868972%2F&show_text=0&width=560" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" style="border: none; overflow: hidden;" scrolling="no"] And because the celebration is just so... celebratory, it's easy to lose your phone. So here are a few ways to prepare yourself for a party that lasts all night. 1. Don't use 5683 as your passcode. That spells love and it's also one of the first passcodes anyone trying to crack into your phone will try. So use something much more creative -- and use a 6-digit code if you can on your iPhone. You can also encrypt your Android. 2. Write down your IMEI number. If you lose your phone, you're going to need this so make sure you have it written down somewhere safe. 3. Back your content up. This makes your life a lot easier if your party goes too well and it's pretty simple on any iOS device. Just make sure you're using a strong, unique password for your iCloud account. Unfortunately on an Android phone, you'll have to use a third-party app. 4. Maybe just leave it home. Enjoy being with your friends and assume that they'll get the pictures you need to refresh your memory. And while you're out you can give your phone a quick internal "clean" with our free Boost app. [Image by Janne Hellsten | Flickr]

June 22, 2016
instagram bug hunter, mikko and jani, young hacker

10-Year-Old Who Took Home $10,000 Instagram Bug Bounty Visits F-Secure Labs

Mikko Hyppönen -- our Chief Research Officer and probably the most famous code warrior ever to come out of Finland -- likes to point out that he was born the same year as the internet. Jani -- the ten-year-old from Helsinki who made international news by earning Instagram's top bug bounty prize for uncovering a security flaw in the photo-sharing site -- was born a couple a years after Facebook was invented in 2004 and just four years before Instagram went online in 2010. And he's already made some history. Jani discovered a flaw in the site that would have allowed him -- or anyone -- to delete content from any user from the site, even stars with tens of millions of followers including Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Beyonce. Like any good white-hat hacker he didn't take advantage of the vulnerability. Instead, he reported the bug to Facebook, which now owns the app, directly. His maturity paid off. Even though he is not technically old enough to use the site according Instagram's terms and conditions, he's become the youngest person ever to win a $10,000 bug bounty, which he's used to purchase a soccer ball, a bike and other essential gear for being ten. To celebrate his feat, F-Secure Labs invited Jani to visit our headquarters for a hamburger and a tour. The visit gave our experts a chance to share their stories about how they were drawn to cybersecurity. Mikko learned to love computers from his mother who was in the industry. Päivi was guided into the field by her father and discovered that she has a passion for rooting out spam.  When Tomi was a kid striving to learn the rules of the coin games his friends played so he could hack them and win, he recognized that he didn't see the world like everyone else. Jani has already discovered the same thing. Though he finds plenty of time for school and playing with his friends, he spends 2-3 hours during his off days hunting for vulnerabilities and looking out for new bug bounty programs -- like our own -- that allow him to test his skills. How did he find the vulnerability in Instagram? First he created two accounts. He posted a comment using one account and then just using the publicly available content id number he was able to delete the comment using the other. Immediately he recognized the potential for such a flaw to be exploited. Mikko and Tomi were impressed by how Jani used Linux and Burp Suite --  a tool that pros like the analysts in our Labs use to analyze network traffic -- to help identify the bug. While he used to be interested in a career in video games, Jani says he's now thinking about becoming a cybersecurity specialist. Mikko and Tomi advised him to finish school and stay on the right side of the law. They also invited him to spend a week or two working at the Labs to see how he likes the job, when he's old enough. He's planning on taking them up on the offer, saying that F-Secure looks like a "fun and cool" place to work. Nice. We're always looking for new talent and even Mikko may retire one day.  

June 22, 2016
BY