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.

More posts from this topic

iot

The big things at CES? Drones, privacy and The Internet of Things

F-Secure is back from CES -- where the tech world comes together in Las Vegas to preview some of the latest innovations – some which might change our lives in the coming years, others never to be seen or heard again. Inside the over 200,000 square meter exhibit space, Drones flew, and made a fashion statement; hearing aids got smartphone apps; and 3-D printers printed chocolate. We made a stir of our own with Freedome. Our David Perry reminded the industry professionals that the mobile devices nearly all of them were carrying can do more than connect us. "I want you to stop and think about this," he told RCR Wireless News as he held his smartphone up on the event floor. "This has two cameras on it. It has two microphones. It has GPS. It has my email. It has near-field detectors that can tell not only where I am but who I'm sitting close to. This is a tremendous amount of data. Every place I browse on the internet. What apps I'm running. What credit cards I have. And this phone doesn't take any steps to hide my privacy." In this post-Snowden world, where professionals are suddenly aware of how much their "meta-data" can reveal about them. Privacy also played a big role in the discussion of one the hottest topics of 2015 -- the Internet of Things (IoT). The world where nearly everything that can be plugged in -- from washing machines to light bulbs to toasters -- will be connected to the internet is coming faster than most predicted. Samsung promised every device they make will connect to the net by the end of the decade. If you think your smartphone holds a lot of private data, how about your smarthome? "If people are worried about Facebook and Google storing your data today, wait until you see what is coming with #IoT in next 2-5 years," our Ed Montgomery tweeted during the event's keynote speeches, which included a talk from US Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez that tackled privacy issues on the IoT. Newly detected attacks on home routers suggest that the data being collected in our connected appliances could end up as vulnerable to snoops and hackers as our PCs. Some fear that these privacy risks may prevent people from adopting technologies that could eventually save us time, effort and energy. At F-Secure we recognize the promise that IoT and smart homes hold and we’re excited about the coming years. But we also understand the potential threats, risks, and dangers. We feel that our job is to enable our customers to fully enjoy the benefits of IoT and that is why we’re working on new innovations that will help customers to adopt IoT and smart home solutions in a safe and controlled way. It will be an exciting journey and we invite you to learn more about our future IoT solutions in the coming months. We at F-Secure’s IoT team would like to hear from you! Are you ready to jump on the IoT? What would your dream connected home look like? Or have you perhaps already set up your smart home? What are you worried about? How could your smart home turn into a nightmare? Read the rules and post your thoughts below for your chance to win one of our favorite things -- an iPad Air 2 16 GB Wi-Fi. [Image by One Tech News | via Flickr]

Jan 21, 2015
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Authentication is a two way street!

In computer security, we throw around the word authentication all the time. It means a process or mechanism that is used to prove that you are you, (or that someone else or something else proves to you that they are they). Imagine yourself in a wartime  encampment. Someone approaches the sentry and the sentry calls out "Flash" The approaching soldier replies, "Thunder". This is a classic sign and countersign password set from World War II. The answer doesn't make any sense, and that's entirely on purpose. This was to prove to the soldier that he was at the right camp, and to the sentry that he was one of his own. There is a lot of chatter about signs and countersigns at one of my favorite blogs, and you can find it here. In the age of computers, things get a lot more complicated, but it's basically the same process. The website wants to know who you are, that you are the right person, and that is authentication. Now there are three methods of authentication, and they are: 1. Something you have, such as your driver's license, credit card, etc. 2. Something you know, such as a password. 3. Something you are, such as your fingerprint, retinal scan, or facial structure. This is called biometric authentication. On a computer, you actually have other things that can be known about you. There is your IP address (the address assigned to your computer on the internet), and your computer itself has a unique identifying serial number that isn't too difficult to read. Your operating system identifies itself, so do many other pieces of hardware and software on your computer, all unique, and all traceable back to you. One of the things that we use to protect ourselves is a kind of authentication called a password. This creates a lot of confusion in our lives, and small wonder--what follows is abstracted from my personal blog: Hackers are into lockpicking.  Every year at DEFCON there are lock picking contests and demonstrations, and you can buy the various tools (picks, bump keys, etc.) at Black Hat and DEFCON and many other such events. Now,  Timo Hirvonen tells me that this is a legitimate extension of learning Penetration testing, and I believe that that he is absolutely correct. I actually took up lockpicking in the summer of 1965, long before I ever dealt with a computer, but that's a story for another day. This is actually relevant, so you might want to stay with me, here. Take a look at the typical key pictured above. This is a key to a pin tumbler lock, and is the most common kind. Notice that the little notches in the key is at a different depth. The key would insert into the keyhole, which is in the part of the lock called a cylinder. When all the notches on the key line up properly, the pins line up so that the cylinder can turn. They have to be very accurate. Our example here is a five pin lock, so this key would only need notches cut in five places. The pins each have a number of discrete settings, and just to make it easy, let's imagine that there are five different settings for each pin. So how many possible combinations is that? Five times five is 25, but that's not it. Neither is five times five times five, or 125, correct. This would be a very simple lock, but it would carry a grand total of 3,125 combinations (five to the power of five). If each pin had six possible positions, you could raise that to 15,625 different combinations. With a pin tumbler lock, like the one shown here, there is also a restriction that the key has to be the right keyway (that's what they call all the channels and grooves that let the key fit into the lock). Each brand of lock uses a unique keyway which is why the key shop has hundreds of different key blanks hanging on a big rotating display. This is a very close model of an internet password. The number of pins is equivalent to the number of characters, and the number of possible positions is equal to the number of possible characters. This is why people keep telling you that a password is either strong or weak.  Let's look at it. Imagine a very short password of only two characters. If you use only numbers, then there are only ten possibilities for each character position. (0-9) so with that limitation, a two digit password using only numerals in base ten would give you only 100 possible combinations. If you had to type that in by hand it might be too much trouble, but a computer could feed those hundred combinations in less than a single second. The same two character password, if it used alphabetical characters, instead of numbers, would give you 676 possible combinations, instead of a hundred. Going to more places, or more pins, would give you an even greater combination, such as noted below. Well, you don't have to. You can get a program known as a password manager. The one we make here at F-secure is called KEY. We will take a look at that in just a little bit. First we want to make a couple of things clear.So, as you can see, it becomes much more difficult to crack a longer password, or a password with more available characters. That is not the end of the story. If you use a password made up of words that can be found in any dictionary, then a hacker could attack your password with a dictionary. Really. It's actually called a dictionary attack. So the best password would be gibberish.  How would you ever remember such a thing? 1. Passwords are extremely valuable, they are the online version of your keys, and eventually your car will start and your door will open to a password, rather than to a physical key. (I am very tempted to run off on a tangent, here)  You need to pay some attention to your passwords, because they are getting stolen left and right and because they open the door to your email, to your reputation and to your bank account. RUNNING OFF ON A TANGENT Car keys have gotten much more complicated over the last decade. First we added electronic door locks to the car, and the key acts as a remote control. Other functions come with that, including trunk release, and some kind of an alarm system. On top of all that, there is a secondary locking mechanism included with your key, where the car will only open for a key with both the proper physical keyway and tumbler pattern (( as described above)) AND the proper electronic signature.  So, in my car, for example, a new key needs to be cut and then programmed, and a new key costs almost $300! Now they tell you that's because it takes extra programming, but it's really because you NEED a car key, and based on the brand of car you drive, and I drive a Lexus, they hit you up for the highest price the traffic will bear. The circuitry isn't worth nearly that much, and neither is the 'programming'.  This is indicative of the state of the world. Drive a 1961 Buick, and you can buy a key for a buck, drive a 2001 Lexus, and the key is $300---the newest models skip the physical key entirely, and cost even more. They only charge what the traffic will bear. 2. It is very important that you not use the same password for everything. If you do, when somebody cracks one of your passwords they can find all of them. Some people use simple, same passwords for things they don't really care about (your Cookie Bakery discount code coupon, for example) but use stronger, unique passwords for more important things, like missile launch codes. 3. Do not use passwords that can be derived from the names of your pets, or the name of your spouse, or your boat, or anything that could ever be found out about you from a thorough analysis of your Facebook page. 4. Back up your data!  I use two different backups on everything, and a third backup on the most important data. I back up to a NAS (network attached storage) device, and to the cloud, and the third method is secret. Never put yourself in a situation where somebody could hack into your account and steal or delete anything you are going to need. Having said that, I want to say that too many things are authenticated these days (that's what a password is all about, authentication--it's when you prove that you are you) If you are doing a lot online you might actually be known via hundreds of passwords and who can possibly keep up with that? Nobody, that's who. It's just another example of FUTURE SHOCK, brilliantly predicted in 1971 by Doctor Alvin Toffler. My point? Maybe we are authenticating too much. Does your nephew's Bar Mitzvah really need me to get a password to reply to the evite? Do I really need a strong password to protect my registration to a trade show? The universal and always increasing demand for new passwords kind of cheapen the image they have to the public. If you need to keep track of a hundred passwords, then you might not put so much effort into managing them. Here at F-Secure we have a solution and it is called KEY. I use it on all my devices and I think it handles things very well indeed. It synchronizes all your passwords to all of your devices under a single master password. The keys are safely encrypted and cannot be extracted from either the install nor the cloud. It can and will generate new and stronger passwords for your most valuable data. You might want to look into it. Persevere, David Perry Huntington Beach, California 10/29/2014

Jan 8, 2015
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