- (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.
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.
Image by DonkeyHotey @ Flickr.
Would you give up your firstborn child or favorite pet to use free WiFi? Of course not. Sounds crazy, right? But in an independent investigation conducted on behalf of F-Secure, several people agreed to do just that – just to be able to instantly, freely connect to the Internet while on the go. For the experiment, we asked Finn Steglich of the German penetration testing company, SySS, to build a WiFi hotspot, take it out on the streets of London, and set it up and wait for folks to connect. The purpose? To find out how readily people would connect to an unknown WiFi hotspot. (You can view our complete report, see the video and listen to the podcast below.) Thing is, public hotspots are insecure. Public WiFi simply wasn’t built with 21st century security demands in mind. When you use public WiFi without any added security measures, you leak data about yourself from your device. We know it, but we wanted to find out in general how well people out on the street know, whether or not they take precautions, and what kind of data they would actually leak. We also enlisted the help of freelance journalist Peter Warren of the UK’s Cyber Security Research Institute, who came along to document it all. Accompanying the two was Sean Sullivan, F-Secure’s Security Advisor. [protected-iframe id="4904e81e9615a16d107096f242273fee-10874323-40632396" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/OXzDyL3gaZo" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""] Leaking personal information What we found was that people readily and happily connected, unaware their Internet activity was being spied on by the team. In just a half-hour period, 250 devices connected to the hotspot. Most of these were probably automatic connections, without their owner even realizing it. 33 people actively sent Internet traffic, doing web searches, sending email, etc. The team collected 32 MB of traffic – which was promptly destroyed in the interest of consumer privacy. The researchers were a bit surprised when they found that they could actually read the text of emails sent over a POP3 network, along with the addresses of the sender and recipient, and even the password of the sender. Encryption, anyone? If you aren’t already using it, you should be! The Herod clause For part of the experiment, the guys enabled a terms and conditions (T&C) page that people needed to agree to before being able to use the hotspot. One of the terms stipulated that the user must give up their firstborn child or most beloved pet in exchange for WiFi use. In the short time the T&C page was active, six people agreed to the outlandish clause. Of course, this simply illustrates the lack of attention people pay to such pages. Terms and conditions are usually longer than most people want to take time to read, and often they’re difficult to understand. We, of course, won’t enforce the clause and make people follow through with surrendering their loved ones – but this should give us all pause: What are we really signing up for when we check the “agree” box at the end of a long list of T&C’s we don’t read? There's a need for more clarity and transparency about what's actually being collected or required of the user. The problem So what’s really the issue here? What’s going to happen to your data, anyway? The problem is there are plenty of criminals who love to get their hands on WiFi traffic to collect usernames, passwords, etc. It’s easy and cheap enough for them to set up their own hotspot somewhere (the whole hotspot setup only cost SySS about 200 euros), give it a credible-looking name, and just let the data flow in. And even if a hotspot is provided by a legitimate business or organization, criminals can still use “sniffing” tools to spy on others’ Internet traffic. So be warned: Public WiFi is NOT secure or safe. But we’re not saying don’t use it, we’re saying don’t use it without proper security. A good VPN will provide encryption so even if someone tries, they can’t tap into your data. The Solution F-Secure Freedome is our super cool, super simple wi-fi security product, or VPN. Freedome creates a secure, encrypted connection from your device and protects you from snoops and spies, wherever you go and whatever WiFi you use. (Bonus: It also includes tracking protection from Internet marketers, browsing protection to block malicious sites and apps, and lets you choose your own virtual location so you can view your favorite web content even when you’re abroad.) Still don’t believe that public WiFi poses risks? Take a closer look next time you’re faced with a terms and conditions page for public WiFi hotspot. “A good number of open wi-fi providers take the time to tell you in their T&C that there are inherent risks with wireless communications and suggest using a VPN,” Sullivan says. “So if you don't take it from me, take it from them.” Check out the full report here (PDF): Tainted Love - How Wi-Fi Betrays Us Listen to the podcast, featuring interviews with Victor Hayes, the "Father of WiFi," our Sean Sullivan and others: [audio mp3="http://fsecureconsumer.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/wifi_experiment_podcast.mp3"][/audio] Disclaimer: During the course of this experiment, no user was compromised at any point nor user data exposed in a way that it could have been subject to misuse. We have not logged any user information, and during the experiment a lawyer supervised all our activities to avoid breaching any laws. Video by Magneto Films
Yet another high-profile vulnerability in the headlines, Shellshock. This one could be a big issue. The crap could really hit the fan big time if someone creates a worm that infects servers, and that is possible. But the situation seems to be brighter for us ordinary users. The affected component is the Unix/Linux command shell Bash, which is only used by nerdy admins. It is present in Macs as well, but they seem to be unaffected. Linux-based Android does not use Bash and Windows is a totally different world. So we ordinary users can relax and forget about this one. We are not affected. Right? WRONG! Where is your cloud content stored? What kind of software is used to protect your login and password, credit card number, your mail correspondence, your social media updates and all other personal info you store in web-based systems? Exactly. A significant part of that may be on systems that are vulnerable to Shellshock, and that makes you vulnerable. The best protection against vulnerabilities on your own devices is to make sure the automatic update services are enabled and working. That is like outsourcing the worries to professionals, they will create and distribute fixes when vulnerabilities are found. But what about the servers? You have no way to affect how they are managed, and you don’t even know if the services you use are affected. Is there anything you can do? Yes, but only indirectly. This issue is an excellent reminder of some very basic security principles. We have repeated them over and over, but they deserve to be repeated once again now. You can’t control how your web service providers manage their servers, but you can choose which providers you trust. Prefer services that are managed professionally. Remember that you always can, and should, demand more from services you pay for. Never reuse your password on different services. This will not prevent intrusions, but it will limit the damage when someone breaks into the system. You may still be hurt by a Shellshock-based intrusion even if you do this, but the risk should be small and the damage limited. Anyway, you know you have done your part, and its bad luck if an incident hurts you despite that. Safe surfing, Micke PS. The best way to evaluate a service provider’s security practices is to see how they deal with security incidents. It tells a lot about their attitude, which is crucial in all security work. An incident is bad, but a swift, accurate and open response is very good. Addition on September 30th. Contrary to what's stated above, Mac computers seem to be affected and Apple has released a patch. It's of course important to keep your device patched, but this does not really affect the main point of this article. Your cloud content is valuable and part of that may be on vulnerable servers.
Unlike Team Fortress 2 or Doom, two of the most popular PC games of all time, GameOver ZeuS is not a game you can buy online or would willingly download on to your computer. What is GameOver ZeuS? While we’ve talked about banking Trojans before, none have been as detrimental to users as the GameOver ZeuS or GOZ Trojan, which initially began infecting users in 2012. Gameover ZeuS is designed to capture banking credentials from infected computers, and make wire transfers to criminal accounts overseas. It was allegedly authored by Russian hacker Evgeniy Bogachev, who then implanted it on computers all around the world; building a network of infected machines - or bots - that his crime syndicate could control from anywhere. It’s predominately spread through spam e-mail or phishing messages. So far, it’s been estimated to scam people out of hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s only getting worse. It doesn’t stop there; Gameover ZeuS can also be modified by hackers to load different kinds of Trojans on to it. One such Trojan is a ransomware called CryptoLocker, which is a devastating malware that locks a user’s most precious files by encrypting all the files until he or she pays the hacker a ransom. In June 2014, the FBI, Europol, and the UK’s National Crime Agency announced they had been working closely with various security firms and academic researchers around the world and took action under a program dubbed “Operation Trovar.” This initiative temporarily disrupted the system that was spreading the Trojan and infecting computers, allowing a temporary pause in additional computers from being infected. However, computers that were already infected remained at risk, as they were still compromised. What’s next? The disruption of the GameOver ZeuS botnet was a great success in many ways, but it’s not over. Our security advisor, Sean Sullivan, worries that this temporary disruption was actually more dangerous than completely taking it down. “Without arresting Bogachev, Gameover ZeuS is still a huge threat and likely to evolve to become more dangerous. The hackers can just as easily program a future version of the Trojan to initiate a “self-destruct” order (like destroy every file on a computer) if the ransom isn’t paid, or if authorities try to intervene.” What can we do to protect our digital freedom? Beware of malicious spam and phishing attempts — don’t open any attachments within emails unless you are specifically expecting something. Check email attachments carefully, and make sure you don’t open any files that automatically launch, which frequently end in .exe Have an Internet security solution in place and keep it up to date Keep your Windows operating system and your Internet browser plugins updated Back up all of your personal files regularly Also, check your machines to be sure you do not carry the Gameover ZeuS Trojan. For more information on how this powerful Trojan works and how it is spread, check out this this video. [protected-iframe id="888198d18fd45eae52e6400a39fb4437-10874323-9129869" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/JhiPDbTIsqw?hl=en_US&version=3&rel=0" width="640" height="360"] Have more questions? Ask us here on the blog.