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

5639011991_8848ea5561_b

– (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

Windows 10, Windows privacy and security, Windows 10 new features

5 things you need to know to feel secure on Windows 10

Windows upgrades used to be like an international holiday, as PC users stepped up and shared what they liked -- much of Windows 7 --- and hated -- all of Windows 8 and Vista -- about the latest version of the world's most popular operating system. In this way, Windows 10 is the end of an era. This is the "final version" of the OS, which is now almost truly universal, meaning it has a similar feel across nearly all Windows-compatible device. After you step up to this version, there will be continual updates but no new version to upgrade to. It's the birth of "Windows as a service," according to Verge. So if you're taking free upgrade to the new version or getting a new computer are device, here are 5 things you need to know as you get used to the Windows that could be with you for the rest of your life. 1.Our Chief Research Office Mikko Hypponen noted Windows 10 still hides double extensions by default. “Consider a file named doubleclick.pdf.bat. If ‘hide extensions’ is enabled, then this will be shown in File Explorer as ‘doubleclick.pdf’. You, the user, might go ahead and double-click on it, because it’s just a PDF, right?” F-Secure Security Advisor Tom Gaffney told Infosecurity Magazine. “In truth, it’s a batch file, and whatever commands it contains will run when you double-click on it.” Keep this in mind when you do or DON'T click on unknown files. 2. You could end up sharing your Wi-Fi connection with all your contacts. There's some debate about whether or not Windows 10's Wi-Fi Sense is a security risk in that it shares your Wi-Fi connection with social media contacts by default, as Windows Phone has for a while now. ZDNet's Ed Bott says no, noting that "you have to very consciously enable sharing for a network. It's not something you'll do by accident." Security expert Brian Krebs is more skeptical, given how we're "conditioned to click 'yes' to these prompts." "In theory, someone who wanted access to your small biz network could befriend an employee or two, and drive into the office car park to be in range, and then gain access to the wireless network," The Register's Simon Rockman wrote. "Some basic protections, specifically ones that safeguard against people sharing their passwords, should prevent this." Gaffney notes that Wi-Fi Sense is “open to accidental and deliberate misuse.” So what to do? Krebs recommends the following: Prior to upgrade to Windows 10, change your Wi-Fi network name/SSID to something that includes the terms “_nomap_optout”. [This is Windows opt-out for Wi-Fi Sense]. After the upgrade is complete, change the privacy settings in Windows to disable Wi-Fi Sense sharing. 3. There are some privacy issues you should know about. Basically "whatever happens, Microsoft knows what you're doing," The Next Web's Mic Wright noted. Microsoft, according to its terms and conditions, can gather data “from you and your devices, including for example ‘app use data for apps that run on Windows’ and ‘data about the networks you connect to.'” And they can also disclose it to third parties as they feel like it. You can't do much about that but you should check your privacy settings and you can stop advertisers from know exactly who you are. Want a deep dive into the privacy issues? Visit Extreme Tech. 4. The new Action Center could be useful but it could get annoying. This notification center makes Windows feel more like an iPhone -- because isn't the point of everything digital to eventually merge into the same thing? BGR's Zach Epstein wrote "one location for all of your notifications is a welcome change." But it can get overwhelming. "In Windows 10, you can adjust notifications settings by clicking the notifications icon in the system tray," he wrote. "The click All settings, followed by System and then Notifications & actions." 5. Yes, F-Secure SAFE, Internet Security and Anti-Virus are all Windows 10 ready. [Image by Brett Morrison | Flickr]

July 30, 2015
BY 
Android

Android’s Stagefright bug – phone vendors taken with their pants down

You have all heard the classic mantra of computer security: use common sense, patch your system and install antivirus. That is still excellent advice, but the world is changing. We used to repeat that mantra over and over to the end users. Now we are entering a new era where we have to stress the importance of updates to manufacturers. We did recently write about how Chrysler reacted fairly quickly to stop Jeeps from being controlled remotely. They made a new firmware version for the vehicles, but didn’t have a good channel to distribute the update. Stagefright on Android demonstrates a similar problem, but potentially far more widespread. Let’s first take a look at Stagefright. What is it really? Stagefright is the name of a module deep inside the Android system. This module is responsible for interpreting video files and playing them on the device. The Stagefright bug is a vulnerability that allows and attacker to take over the system with specially crafted video content. Stagefright is used to automatically create previews of content received through many channels. This is what makes the Stagefright bug really bad. Anyone who can send you a message containing video can potentially break into your Android device without any actions from you. You can use common sense and not open fishy mail attachments, but that doesn’t work here. Stagefright takes a look at inbound content automatically in many cases so common sense won't help. Even worse. There’s not much we can do about it, except wait for a patch from the operator or phone vendor. And many users will be waiting in vain. This is because of how the Android system is developed and licensed. Google is maintaining the core Linux-based system and releasing it under an open license. Phone vendors are using Android, but often not as it comes straight from Google. They try to differentiate and modifies Android to their liking. Google reacted quickly and made a fix for the Stagefright bug. This fix will be distributed to their own Nexus-smartphones soon. But it may not be that simple for the other vendors. They need to verify that the patch is compatible with their customizations, and releasing it to their customers may be a lengthy process. If they even want to patch handsets. Some vendors seems to see products in the cheap smartphone segment as disposable goods. They are not supposed to be long-lived and post-sale maintenance is just a cost. Providing updates and patches would just postpone replacement of the phone, and that’s not in the vendor’s interest. This attitude explains why several Android vendors have very poor processes and systems for sending out updates. Many phones will never be patched. Let’s put this into perspective. Android is the most widespread operating system on this planet. 48 % of the devices shipped in 2014 were Androids (Gartner). And that includes both phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. There’s over 1 billion active Android devices (Google’s device activation data). Most of them are vulnerable to Stagefright and many of them will never receive a patch. This is big! Let’s however keep in mind that there is no widespread malware utilizing this vulnerability at the time of writing. But all the ingredients needed to make a massive and harmful worm outbreak are there. Also remember that the bug has existed in Android for over five years, but not been publically known until now. It is perfectly possible that intelligence agencies are utilizing it silently for their own purposes. But can we do anything to protect us? That’s the hard question. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, but it is however possible to give some simple advice. You can stop worrying if you have a really old device with an Android version lower than 2.2. It’s not vulnerable. Google Nexus devices will be patched soon. A patch has also been released for devices with the CyanogenMod system. The privacy-optimized BlackPhone is naturally a fast-mover in cases like this. Other devices? It’s probably best to just google for “Stagefright” and the model or vendor name of your device. Look for two things. Information about if and when your device will receive an update and for instructions about how to tweak settings to mitigate the threat. Here’s an example.   Safe surfing, Micke Image by Rob Bulmahn under CC BY 2.0

July 30, 2015
BY 
browser security, business security, banking trojan

The Devil’s in… the browser

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Cyber Defense that happened to real people in real life, costing very real money. It was only just past 1 pm, but Magda was already exhausted. She had recently fired her assistant, so she was now having to personally handle all of the work at her law office. With the aching pain in her head and monstrous hunger mounting in her stomach, Magda thought it was time for a break. She sat at her desk with a salad she had bought earlier that morning and decided she’d watch a short online video her friends had recently told her about. She typed the title in the browser and clicked on a link that took her to the site. A message popped up that the recording couldn’t be played because of a missing plugin. Magda didn’t have much of an idea what the “plugin” was, which wasn’t surprising considering that her computer knowledge was basic at best – she knew enough to use one at work, but that was pretty much all. It was the recently sacked assistant, supported by an outsourced IT firm, who took care of all things related to computers and software. A post-it stuck to Magda’s desk had been unsuccessfully begging her to install an antivirus program. “What was this about?”, Magda tried to remember. At moments like this, she regretted letting the girl go. After some time, she recalled that her assistant had mentioned something about a monthly subscription plan for some antivirus software to protect the computers, tablets and mobile phones. This solution, flexible and affordable for small businesses like Magda’s firm, had also been also recommended by the outsourced IT provider. Despite a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right, she clicked “install”. After a few seconds, the video actually played. Magda was very proud of herself: she had made the plugin thing work! A few days later, she logged into her internet banking system to pay her firm’s bills. As she looked at the balance of the account, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The money was gone! The transaction history showed transfers to accounts that were completely unknown to her. She couldn’t understand how somebody was able to break in and steal her money. The bank login page was encrypted, and besides that, she was the only person who knew the login credentials... At the bank she learnt that they had recorded a user login and transfer orders. Everything had been according to protocol, so the bank had no reason to be suspicious. The bank’s security manager suggested to Magda that she may have been the victim of a hacker’s attack. The IT firm confirmed this suspicion after inspecting Magda’s computer. Experts discovered that the plugin Magda had downloaded to watch the video online was actually malware that stole the login credentials of email accounts, social networking sites and online banking services. Magda immediately changed her passwords and decided to secure them better. She finally had good antivirus software installed, which is now protecting all of the data stored on her computer. She recalled that her bank had long been advising to do that, but she had disregarded their advice. If only she hadn’t... Her omission cost her a lot of money. She was happy, though, that money was all she lost. She didn’t even want to imagine what might have happened if any of her case or clients information had been compromised. That would have been the end of her legal career. "This is why you should always use different browsers for different sorts of tasks," F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan explains. "Any browser you use for sensitive financial transactions should be used just for that, especially at work." To get an inside look at business security, be sure to follow our Business Insider blog.

July 28, 2015