The password is a really old way to protect computer systems, yet many systems we use rely solely on them when authenticating users. A simple password might have been a good idea when we used only a handful of systems, but times are changing. Today we need accounts for all the social media we are on, the mail accounts, accounts for on-line shops, the bank, the workplace, you name it… Frankly speaking, I have no idea how many on-line accounts I have. And I can make one confession. I use the same password on some of them, even if the important ones naturally have strong unique passwords.
And here we are at the core problem with passwords. They should be complex enough to withstand brute force and dictionary attacks (that is when hackers systematically try a large number of passwords in hope of finding the right one) and they should be different on all systems you use (to limit the damage if one account is compromised). Many complex passwords and limited brain capacity, that doesn’t work. There are systems to create and remember many complex passwords, but many people aren’t motivated enough to use them. That’s one reason why two-factor authentication is spreading fast.
Another reason to raise the security is that hackers may target a particular system. They may break into it to steal passwords or use phishing techniques to trick you into revealing your password to them. Or plant a keylogger in your system. They may get the password, but still fail to get access to your account if you use two-factor authentication.
But what is two-factor authentication? Let’s start with some theory. An authentication mechanism can use several factors like what you know (a password you remember), what you have (a smartcard or a mechanical key) or what you are (biometrics, retina or fingerprint scans for example). A two-factor or multi-factor authentication system uses at least two of these factors. The best known example is an ATM-card that you have combined with a PIN-code that you know.
The most common way to utilize this for an on-line service is to rely on your mobile phone. You start by entering your user ID and password normally. After that the system sends a unique one-time code to your phone. You type the code and get access to the system. Your phone is the “what you have” -item as the message is directed to that particular device and can’t be read by others. This requires two things; that you have registered your phone number with the service and that you have turned on two-factor authentication. Some services do promote this option actively and ask if you want to use it.
So should I turn it on? Yes, if the service is important to you. You gain a lot of security for a quite small extra effort. You may have noticed several news reports lately about hacked Twitter-accounts. One of the incidents did even impact the stock market. Twitter happens to be one of the major on-line services that doesn’t support two-factor authentication yet. Many of these incidents could have been avoided if they had support for it. Needless to say, if you tweet for a global news agency you really need more security than just a password. But most ordinary people have services that also are important enough to justify this extra security.
Nothing is perfect so what are the downsides with two-factor authentication? The extra effort to type the code after login is of course obvious. But many systems mitigate this by remembering your device and only requiring the code when using a new device. You also must have your phone with you when you log in, which you probably have anyway. Except if you have lost it, which could prevent you from accessing your accounts. Some configuration settings in your browser may also prevent two-factor authentication from working or force you to authenticate every time you log in, even on the same device. Apps that access your account may require some extra attention. They need an extra application specific password that you can create under security settings in the account’s web interface. And last but not least. The service provider must know your phone number, which normally is linked directly to your true identity. This is usually OK, but becomes a problem if you want to be truly anonymous on the site, or have other reasons to not trust them with your number.
And remember that two-factor authentication improves security a lot, but there is no such thing as perfect security. The skimming attacks against ATMs is a classic example. The malware Perkele targets Android devices and works together with desktop malware to defeat on-line banks. Perkele proves that on-line services’ two-factor authentication can be attacked, but this is not a major threat yet.
So the verdict is that two-factor authentication is good. Turn it on if you can. Here’s some examples of where to look for these settings:
Facebook: Security settings / Login approvals.
Google: Accounts / Security / 2-step verification.
MS Hotmail/Live: Micosoft Account / Security info / Two-step verification.
WordPress: Settings / Security / Two Step Authentication.
Twitter: Not supported yet. :(
UPDATE: Twitter got their act together just hours after posting this article. Now they also provide two-factor authentication. Great! :)
UPDATE2: Seems like Twitter was in a rush to get two-factor authentication out. The implementation is still far from perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction. I’m sure they will get things right, let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.
At Re:publica 2015, our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen told the main stage crowd that the world's top scientists are now focused on the delivery of ads. "I think this is sad," he said. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbF0sVdOjRw?rel=0&start=762&end=&autoplay=0] To give the audience a sense of how much Twitter knows about its users, he showed them the remarkable targeting the microblogging service offers its advertisers. If you use the site, you may be served promoted tweets based on the following: 1. What breakfast cereal you eat. 2. The alcohol you drink. 3. Your income. 4. If you suffer from allergies. 5. If you're expecting a child. And that's just the beginning. You can be targeted based not only on your recent device purchases but things you may be in the market for like, say, a new house or a new car. You can see all the targeting offered by logging into your Twitter, going to the top right corner of the interface, clicking on your icon and selecting "Twitter Ads". Can Twitter learn all this just based on your tweets and which accounts follow? No, Mikko said. "They buy this information from real world shops, from credit card companies, and from frequent buyer clubs." Twitter then connects this information to you based on... your phone number. And you've agreed to have this happen to you because you read and memorized the nearly 7,000 words in its Terms and Conditions. Because everyone reads the terms and conditions. Full disclosure: We do occasionally promote tweets on Twitter to promote or digital freedom message and tools like Freedome that block ad trackers. It's an effective tool and we find the irony rich. Part of our mission is to make it clear that there's no such thing as "free" on the internet. If you aren't paying a price, you are the product. Aral Balkan compares social networks to a creepy uncle" that pays the bills by listening to as many of your conversations as they can then selling what they've heard to its actual customers. And with the world's top minds dedicated to monetizing your attention, we just think you should be as aware of advertisers as they are as of you. Most of the top URLs in the world are actually trackers that you never access directly. To get a sense of what advertisers learn every time you click check out our new Privacy Checker. Cheers, Jason
F-Secure Labs reported this week on a new WhatsApp scam that’s successfully spammed over 22,000 people. Spam seems to be as old as the Internet itself, and is both a proven nuisance AND a lucrative source of revenue for spammers. Most people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, but spammers often employ very sophisticated schemes that can expose web surfers to more than just ads for Viagara or other “magic beans”. Spam typically tries to drive Internet traffic by tricking people into clicking certain websites, where scammers can bombard unsuspecting web surfers with various types of advertising. Profit motives are what keep spammers working hard to circumvent spam blocks, white lists, and other protective measures that people use to try and fight back – and it can pay off. Numerous spammers have been indicted and suspected of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from their spam campaigns, with one study projecting that spammers could generate in excess of 3.5 million dollars annually. While most spam circulates via e-mail, the popularity of services like WhatsApp is giving spammers new resources to exploit people, and new ways to make money. Here’s a few ways spammers and cyber criminals are using WhatsApp to make money off users: Following Malicious Links: One way that cyber criminals use WhatsApp to scam people is to trick them into following malicious links. For example, a recent scam sent SMS messages to WhatsApp users telling them to follow a link to update the app. But the message was not from WhatsApp, and the link didn’t provide them with any kind of update. It signed them up for an additional service, and added a hefty surcharge to victims' phone bills. Sending Premium Rate Messages: Premium rate SMS sending malware was recently determined by F-Secure Labs to be the fastest growing mobile malware threat, and WhatsApp gives cyber criminals a new way to engage in this malicious behavior. Basically the users receive a message that asks them to send a response – “I’m writing to you from WhatsApp, let me know here if you are getting my messages”, “Get in touch with me about the second job interview”, and various sexual themed messages have all been documented. Responding to these messages automatically redirects your message through a premium rate service. Spanish police claim that one gang they arrested made over 5 million euros using this scheme – leaving everyday mobile phone users to foot the bill. Manipulating Web Traffic: A lot of spam tries to direct web traffic to make money off advertising. As you might imagine, this means they have to get massive numbers of people to look at the ads they’re using for their scams. Scammers use WhatsApp to do this by using the app to spread malware or social engineer large numbers of people to visit a website under false pretenses. F-Secure Labs found that people were being directed to a website for information on where they could get a free tablet. In March there was a global spam campaign claiming people could test the new WhatsApp calling feature. Both cases were textbook scams, and instead of getting new tablets or services, the victims simply wasted their time spreading misleading spam messages and/or exposing themselves to ads. WhatsApp and other services are great for people, but like any new software, requires a bit of understanding to know how to use. Hopefully these points give WhatsApp users a heads up on how they can avoid spam and other digital threats, so they can enjoy using WhatsApp to chat with their friends. [ Image by Julian S. | Flickr ]
Espionage – it’s not just for James Bond type spies anymore. Cyber espionage is becoming an increasingly important part of global affairs, and a threat that companies and organizations handling large amounts of sensitive data are now faced with. Institutions like these are tempting targets because of the data they work with, and so attacks designed to steal data or manipulate them can give attackers significant advantages in various social, political and industrial theaters. F-Secure Labs’ latest malware analysis focuses on CozyDuke – an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) toolkit that uses combinations of tactics and malware to compromise and steal information from its targets. The analysis links it to other APTs responsible for a number of high-profile acts of espionage, including attacks against NATO and a number of European government agencies. CozyDuke utilizes much of the same infrastructure as the platforms used in these attacks, effectively linking these different campaigns to the same technology. “All of these threats are related to one another and share resources, but they’re built a little bit differently to make them more effective against particular targets”, says F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan. “The interesting thing about CozyDuke is that it’s being used against a more diverse range of targets. Many of its targets are still Western governments and institutions, but we’re also seeing it being used against targets based in Asia, which is a notable observation to make”. CozyDuke and its associates are believed to originate from Russia. The attackers establish a beachhead in an organization by tricking employees into doing something such as clicking a link in an e-mail that distracts users with a decoy file (like a PDF or a video), allowing CozyDuke to infect systems without being noticed. Attackers can then perform a variety of tasks by using different payloads compatible with CozyDuke, and this can let them gather passwords and other sensitive information, remotely execute commands, or intercept confidential communications. Just because threats like CozyDuke target organizations rather than individual citizens doesn’t mean that they don’t put regular people at risk. Government organizations, for example, handle large amounts of data about regular people. Attackers can use CozyDuke and other types of malware to steal data from these organizations, and then use what they learn about people for future attacks, or even sell it to cyber criminals. The white paper, penned by F-Secure Threat Intelligence Analyst Artturi Lehtiö, is free and available for download from F-Secure’s website. [ Image by Andrew Becraft | Flickr ]