Anonymity on the net is a topic that is discussed more and more frequently. We all know that many services on the net can be used anonymously. Or can they? The Internet is a giant data processing machine, and data about us users is getting more and more important. Anonymity on the net is to an increasing degree becoming a hallucination. Your access is logged, your surfing is tracked by cookies and the big data companies are even gathering info about your non-digital life. People are to an increasing degree doing things online thinking they are anonymous, but in reality they leave traces behind. These traces can lead back to their real identities, and in worst case put them in serious trouble.
I’m not going into the big picture about anonymity and privacy here. I’m going to present a tool that can be used to obfuscate your true identity. The anonymity network TOR. This is a tool and network that provides fairly strong protection against anyone who try to find out where a connection over the Internet really came from.
Let’s first debunk two myths.
So what’s the problem we are trying to tackle here? Practically all services on the net log all access. This log contains the so called IP-address that you are using, no matter if you have entered your real name at the site or not. The IP-address is a numeric code that is unique for all devices that connect to the net. Your ISP assigns one to your computer (or router, or modem) automatically when you connect to the net and you don’t have to worry about that. When you surf “anonymously” on a site, the site owner will know this IP-address but not who it has been assigned to. That information remains in the ISP’s log and is typically revealed only to authorities when investigating crimes. (Depends on local laws.) So you can under normal circumstances be traced back to your ISP, but the trace stops there.
So you have a certain level of privacy when surfing from home. But what about your computer at work? Here the company is in the ISP’s position. All traffic you generate can easily be traced to the company, but not to your workstation. The company’s administrators may be able to trace further, but that depends on how the internal network is managed.
Here’s some examples of situations where the default protection may be insufficient:
TOR is a privacy network that routes your traffic through a chain of several randomly picked servers before it goes to the site you are accessing. The traffic is encrypted all the way from your computer to the last relay machine. The protocol is also designed so that the relaying machines never know more than they need to know. The first server knows who you are but not what you are doing or what site you are accessing. The last server can see your traffic in plaintext and knows where it is going, but do not know who you are. None of this is however logged by the TOR relays as their purpose is to ensure your privacy. Even if someone with malicious intent would get hold of one of these servers, they would not be able to reveal your secret.
The simplest way to use TOR is to download and install the browser bundle. It consists of two parts that work together seamlessly. “Vidalia” is the control center that sets up the chain of secure servers and handles communication. “TorBrowser” is a Firefox-based web browser that is preconfigured to communicate through TOR. It makes it easy to start using TOR, no nerdy settings needed. A separate browser is also really necessary to guard your privacy as your normal browser is full of cookies that can identify you.
Installing TOR is easy, but that alone does not guard your identity. If you want to be truly anonymous at some certain site, you need to follow some additional guidelines.
Disclaimer. I hope you never truly need this kind of protection. But if you are in doubt, play safe and cover your tracks. Also keep in mind that it is tricky to be truly anonymous on the net. That is especially true if you are wanted by the authorities. Do not rely solely on this article if you are in a situation where your personal safety depends on anonymity, like for high-end whistle-blowers or opposition activists in non-democratic countries. What’s said above is a good start in these situations too, but you should get a more comprehensive understanding of on-line anonymity before putting yourself at risk.
Check what your surfing looks like from the site owners’ perspective. This site reveals the info. If using several connections, like home and work, check all of them. If you install TOR, visit the site from the TorBrowser to see how the address has changed.
PS. Another way to see the need for anonymity. The law protects our property against thieves, but still we use locks. The law protects our privacy on-line (to some extent), but most people do not enforce that in any way. TOR is for privacy what a lock is for theft. Why not play safe and lock it?
Photo by zigazou76 @ Flickr
Every time you go online, your personal privacy is at risk – it’s as simple as that. Whether you’re creating an account on a website, shopping, or just browsing, information like your email, IP address and browsing history are potential targets for interested parties. All too often, that information is sold on or sometimes even stolen without you even knowing it. And the threats to our online privacy and security are evolving. Fast. As F-Secure’s Online Protection Service Lead, Christine Bejerasco’s job is to make life online safer and more secure. “We’re basically online defenders. And when your job is to create solutions that help protect people, the criminals and attackers you’re protecting them against always step up their game. So it’s like an arms race. They come up with new ways of attacking users and our job is to outsmart them and defend our users,” Christine says. Sounds pretty dramatic, right? Well that’s because it is. While it used to be that the biggest threat to your online privacy was spam and viruses, the risks of today and tomorrow are potentially way more serious. “Right now we’re in the middle of different waves of ransomware. That’s basically malware that turns people’s files into formats they can’t use. We’ve already seen cases of companies and individual people having their systems and files hijacked for ransom. It’s serious stuff and in many cases very sad. If your online assets aren’t protected right now you should kind of feel like you’re going to bed at night with your front door not only unlocked but wide open.” Christine and her team of 11 online security superheroes (eight full-time members and three super-talented interns) are on the case in Helsinki. Here’s more on Christine and her work in her own words: Where are you from? The Philippines Where do you live and work? I live in Espoo and work at F-Secure in Ruoholahti, Helsinki. Describe your job in 160 characters or less? Online guardian who strives to give F-Secure users a worry-free online experience. One word that best describes your work? Engaging How long is a typical work day for you? There is no typical workday. It ranges from 6 – 13 hours, depending on what’s happening. What sparked your interest in online security? At the start it was just a job. As a computer science graduate, I was just looking for a job where I could do something related to my field. And then when I joined a software security company in the Philippines, I was introduced to this world of online threats and it’s really hard to leave all the excitement behind. So I’ve stayed in the industry ever since. Craziest story you’ve ever heard about online protection breach? Ashley Madison. Some people thought it was just a funny story, but it had pretty serious consequences for some of the people on that list. Does it frustrate you that so many people don’t care about protecting their online privacy? Yeah, it definitely does. But you grow to understand that people don’t value things until they lose it. It’s like insurance. You don’t think about it until something bad happens and then you care. What’s your greatest work achievement? Shaping the online protection service in the Labs from its starting stages to where we are today. What’s your idea of happiness? Road trips and a bottle of really good beer. Which (non-work-related) talent would you most like to have? Hmmm… tough. Maybe, stock-market prediction skills? What are your favorite apps? Things Stumbleupon What blogs do you like? Security blogs (F-Secure Security blog of course and others – too many to list.) Self-Help Blogs (Zen Habits, Marc and Angel, etc.) Who do you admire most? I admire quite a few people for different reasons. Warren Buffett for his intensity, simplicity and generosity. Mikko Hyppönen for his idealism and undying dedication to the online security fight. And Mother Theresa for embodying the true meaning of how being alive is like being in school for your soul. Do you ever, ever go online without protection? Not with systems associated to me personally, or with someone else. But of course, when we are analyzing online threats, then yes. See how to take control of your online privacy – watch the film and hear more from Christine. See how Freedome VPN will keep you protected and get it now.
The Sony hack of late 2014 sent shock waves through Hollywood that rippled out into the rest of the world for months. The ironic hack of the dubious surveillance software company Hacking Team last summer showed no one is immune to a data breach - not even a company that specializes in breaking into systems. After a big hack, some of the first questions asked are how the attacker got in, and whether it could have been prevented. But today we're asking a different question: whether, once the attacker was already in the network, the breach could have been detected. And stopped. Here's why: Advanced attacks like the ones that hit Sony and Hacking Team are carried out by highly skilled attackers who specifically target a certain organization. Preventive measures block the great majority of threats out there, but advanced attackers know how to get around a company's defenses. The better preventive security a company has in place, the harder it will be to get in…but the most highly skilled, highly motivated attackers will still find a way in somehow. That's where detection comes in. Thinking like an attacker If an attacker does get through a company's defensive walls, it's critical to be able detect their presence as early as possible, to limit the damage they can do. There has been no official confirmation of when Sony's actual breach first took place, but some reports say the company had been breached for a year before the attackers froze up Sony's systems and began leaking volumes of juicy info about the studio's inner workings. That's a long time for someone to be roaming around in a network, harvesting data. So how does one detect an attacker inside a network? By thinking like an attacker. And thinking like an attacker requires having a thorough knowledge of how attackers work, to be able to spot their telltale traces and distinguish them from legitimate users. Advanced or APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks differ depending on the situation and the goals of the attacker, but in general their attacks tend to follow a pattern. Once they've chosen a target company and performed reconnaissance to find out more about the company and how to best compromise it, their attacks generally cover the following phases: 1. Gain a foothold. The first step is to infect a machine within the organization. This is typically done by exploiting software vulnerabilities on servers or endpoints, or by using social engineering tactics such as phishing, spear-phishing, watering holes, or man-in-the-middle attacks. 2. Achieve persistence. The initial step must also perform some action that lets the attacker access the system later at will. This means a persistent component that creates a backdoor the attacker can re-enter through later. 3. Perform network reconnaissance. Gather information about the initial compromised system and the whole network to figure out where and how to advance in the network. 4. Lateral movement. Gain access to further systems as needed, depending on what the goal of the attack is. Steps 2-4 are then repeated as needed to gain access to the target data or system. 5. Collect target data. Identify and collect files, credentials, emails, and other forms of intercepted communications. 6. Exfiltrate target data. Copy data to the attackers via network. Steps 5 and 6 can also happen in small increments over time. In some cases these steps are augmented with sabotaging data or systems. 7. Cover tracks. Evidence of what was done and how it was done is easily erased by deleting and modifying logs and file access times. This can happen throughout the attack, not just at the end. For each phase, there are various tactics, techniques and procedures attackers use to accomplish the task as covertly as possible. Combined with an awareness and visibility of what is happening throughout the network, knowledge of these tools and techniques is what will enable companies to detect attackers in their networks and stop them in their tracks. Following the signs Sony may have been breached for a year, but signs of the attack were there all along. Perhaps these signs just weren't being watched for - or perhaps they were missed. The attackers tried to cover their tracks (step 7) with two specific tools that forged logs and file access and creation times - tools that could have been detected as being suspicious. These tools were used throughout the attack, not just at the end, so detection would have happened well before all the damage was done, saving Sony and its executives much embarrassment, difficult PR, lost productivity, and untold millions of dollars. In the case of Hacking Team, the hacker known as Phineas Fisher used a network scanner called nmap, a common network scanning tool, to gather information about the organization’s internal network and figure out how to advance the attack (step 3). Nmap activity on a company internal network should be flagged as a suspicious activity. For moving inside the network, step 4, he used methods based on the built-in Windows management framework, PowerShell, and the well-known tool psexec from SysInternals. These techniques could also potentially have been picked up on from the way they were used that would differ from a legitimate user. These are just a few examples of how a knowledge of how attackers work can be used to detect and stop them. In practice, F-Secure does this with a new service we've just launched called Rapid Detection Service. The service uses a combination of human and machine intelligence to monitor what's going on inside a company network and detect suspicious behavior. Our promise is that once we've detected a breach, we'll alert the company within 30 minutes. They'll find out about it first from us, not from the headlines. One F-Secure analyst sums it up nicely: "The goal is to make it impossible for an attacker to wiggle his way from an initial breach to his eventual goal." After all, breaches do happen. The next step, then, is to be prepared. Photo: Getty Images