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What is two-factor authentication and why should I care?

806152_48409889The 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. :(

Safe surfing,
Micke

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.

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Why your Apple Watch will probably never be infected by malware

On Tuesday Apple announced its latest iPhone models and a new piece of wearable technology some have been anxiously waiting for -- Apple Watch. TechRadar describes the latest innovation from Cupertino as "An iOS 8-friendly watch that plays nice with your iPhone." And if it works like your iPhone, you can expect that it will free of all mobile malware threats, unless you decide to "jailbreak" it. The latest F-Secure Labs Threat Report clears up one big misconception about iOS malware: It does exist, barely. In the first half of 2014, 295 new families and variants or mobile malware were discovered – 294 on Android and one on iOS.  iPhone users can face phishing scams and Wi-Fi hijacking, which is why we created our Freedome VPN, but the threat of getting a bad app on your iOS device is almost non-existent. "Unlike Android, malware on iOS have so far only been effective against jailbroken devices, making the jailbreak tools created by various hacker outfits (and which usually work by exploiting undocumented bugs in the platform) of interest to security researchers," the report explains. The iOS threat that was found earlier this year, Unflod Baby Panda, was designed to listen to outgoing SSL connections in order to steal the device’s Apple ID and password details. Apple ID and passwords have been in the news recently as they may have played a role in a series of hacks of celebrity iCloud accounts that led to the posting of dozens of private photos. Our Mikko Hypponen explained in our latest Threat Report Webinar that many users have been using these accounts for years, mostly to purchase items in the iTunes store, without realizing how much data they were actually protecting. But Unflod Baby Panda is very unlikely to have played any role in the celebrity hacks, as "jailbreaking" a device is still very rare. Few users know about the hack that gives up the protection of the "closed garden" approach of the iOS app store, which has been incredibly successful in keeping malware off the platform, especially compared to the more open Android landscape. The official Play store has seen some infiltration by bad apps, adware and spamware -- as has the iOS app store to a far lesser degree -- but the majority of Android threats come from third-party marketplaces, which is why F-Secure Labs recommends you avoid them. The vast majority of iPhone owners have never had to worry about malware -- and if the Apple Watch employs the some tight restrictions on apps, the device will likely be free of security concerns. However, having a watch with the power of a smartphone attached to your body nearly twenty-four hours a day promises to introduce privacy questions few have ever considered.    

Sep 9, 2014
BY Jason
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How should we deal with defamation and hate speech on the net? – Poll

Everybody probably agree that the net has developed a discussion culture very different from what we are used to in real life. The used adjectives vary form inspiring, free and unrestricted to crazy, sick and shocking. The (apparent) anonymity when discussing on-line leads to more open and frank opinions, which is both good and bad. It becomes especially bad when it turns into libel and hate speech. What do you think about this? Read on and let us know in the poll below. We do have laws to protect us against defamation. But the police still has a very varying ability to deal with crimes on the net. And the global nature of Internet makes investigations harder. Most cases are international, at least here in Europe where we to a large extent rely on US-based services. This is in the headlines right now here in Finland because of a recent case. The original coverage is in Finnish so I will give you a short summary in English. A journalist named Sari Helin blogged about equal rights for sexual minorities, and how children are very natural and doesn’t react anyway if a friend has two mothers, for example. This is a sensitive topic and, hardly surprising, she got a lot of negative feedback. Part of the feedback was clear defamation. Calling her a whore, among other nasty things. She considered it for a while and finally decided to report the case to the police, mainly because of Facebook comments. This is where the really interesting part begins. Recently the prosecutor released the decision about the case. They simply decided to drop it and not even try to investigate. The reason? Facebook is in US and it would be too much work contacting the authorities over there for this rather small crime. A separately interviewed police officer also stated that many of the requests that are sent abroad remain unanswered, probably for the same reason. This reflects the situation in Finland, but I guess there are a lot of other countries where the same could have happened. Is this OK? The resourcing argument is understandable. The authorities have plenty of more severe crimes to deal with. But accepting this means that law and reality drift even further apart. Something is illegal but everybody knows you will get away with the crime. That’s not good. Should we increase resourcing and work hard to make international investigations smoother? That’s really the only way to make the current laws enforceable. The other possible path is to alter our mindset about Internet discussions. If I write something pro-gay on the net, I know there’s a lot of people who dislike it and think bad things about me. Does it really change anything if some of these people write down their thoughts and comment on my writings? No, not really. But most people still feel insulted in cases like this. I think we slowly are getting used to the different discussion climate on the net. We realize that some kinds of writing will get negative feedback. We are prepared for that and can ignore libel without factual content. We value feedback from reputable persons, and anonymous submissions naturally have less significance. Pure emotional venting without factual content can just be ignored and is more shameful for the writer than for the object. Well, we are still far from that mindset, even if we are moving towards it. But which way should we go? Should we work hard to enforce the current law and prosecute anonymous defamers? Or should we adopt our mindset to the new discussion culture? The world is never black & white and there will naturally be development on both these fronts. But in which direction would you steer the development if you could decide? Now you have to pick the one you think is more important.   [polldaddy poll=8293148]   Looking forward to see what you think. The poll will be open for a while and is closed when we have enough data.   Safe surfing, Micke  

Sep 8, 2014
BY Micke