As 2013 winds to a close, there’s no denying it’s been a fascinating year – and no one agrees more than Mikko Hypponen, malware adventurer, famed TED speaker, and F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer. But how will the extraordinary events of 2013 influence the Internet in 2014? I sat down with Mr. Hypponen to hear his thoughts about the Snowden revelations, crypto currencies and the hidden Web.
How will the Internet change as a result of Snowden’s revelations?
The Web came around 20 years ago. For the first 15 years of the Web, we lived in a sort of utopia where there really were no borders, no distances, no geographies, no countries. People couldn’t care less about where their data was stored. For once, we had something truly global.
What I’m seeing happening right now is we are losing this utopia, and the reason is that this wholesale espionage is being used against the citizens of the world. So people are starting to ask questions like where is my data stored, under which country’s laws, which country is this software coming from. These are questions nobody was asking 20 years ago, and this is a really sad development because this great global Internet is becoming shattered and broken down by country lines. So in 2014 and beyond this segregation of the Internet will continue.
What’s the worst case scenario?
The worst case is the Internet becoming a series of disconnected islands because people don’t trust foreign countries anymore, especially powerful countries like the USA. Basically complete breaking of the global trust.
And the best case?
Best case is that Snowden keeps leaking explosive stuff about wrongdoings of the US intelligence agencies. Eventually he leaks such bad stuff that the revelations outweigh whatever Snowden himself has done. He’s forgiven by the US people, he receives a hero’s welcome at home, the US intelligence agencies are brought back under control, and everybody wins.
How should people change how they use the Web in 2014 because of the revelations?
One thing that I said during my TEDxBrussels talk in October was that people shouldn’t be worried, they should be outraged. Fighting this sort of thing with technical measures is hard. If change is going to happen, it’s going to happen through political change and international pressure.
But as far as technical things, my advice is to use encryption everywhere, use strong passwords or a password manager (like F-Secure Key), use cloud services from countries that aren’t conducting wholesale blanket surveillance. Use the same good computing hygiene that you would use to protect yourself from computer crime and malware.
So on the whole, is it good that Snowden did what he did?
Absolutely it’s a good thing. Regardless of Snowden’s motives, he did us a favor by revealing the details of these intelligence agencies. Because they are out of control. The fact that they undermine encryption algorithms makes us all less secure.
What do you think about whistleblowing in general?
Protecting valid whistleblowers is very important because they alert us to wrongdoing that would otherwise never have been revealed.
All these companies like Google and Facebook say they have not been complying with and didn’t know anything about PRISM. What do you think?
I don’t believe these companies are voluntarily cooperating. When Google says “we are not giving data to the NSA” I believe them. I believe most of these companies are victims themselves. I believe they are getting breached by their own government.
What do you think is the US intelligence agencies’ ultimate goal? Do you think their goal is to protect America from terrorism, or is it something more sinister?
I don’t think it’s either. I don’t think the people working inside the NSA are evil people with some sinister plot. I believe they’re trying to fulfill their mission which is to provide signals intelligence. They are fulfilling their mission – but the problem is, they seem to be willing to go to any lengths to do it. They’ve lost their way. They’ve lost sight of their original goals, they’ve become too powerful and they’re out of control. It’s not just about terrorism either, or why would they be tapping Angela Merkel’s phone?
Any other predictions for 2014?
On a different subject entirely, I think 2014 will be the year when crypto currencies like Bitcoin switch from being something that only geeks are aware of to something that regular people know about. The age of virtual, crypto currencies is finally here and it’s long overdue. The one to go mainstream might not be Bitcoin, but maybe a clone or son of it. Of course, just like cash, Bitcoin can be used for good and for bad. And we’re seeing the use for bad in the online crime world.
In April I noted on Twitter when Bitcoin value had reached 100 US dollars, and I predicted it would break $1000 by the end of the year. Today it’s $980. Good call!
(Bitcoin broke $1000 a few days after this interview)
And what about the hidden Web, or deep Web we’ve been hearing about lately?
When the Web originated, the powers that be didn’t see the importance of the Internet. Now the powers that be are trying to control it as much as they can, which means the whole Internet is changing, and we’re fighting for its future.
We’re seeing people who still want to be free on the Web moving to the hidden Web, which will be brought under control as well, in time. And bad things are happening on the hidden Web for sure, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is bad. People think it’s bad, but that’s what they used to think about the traditional Web as well.
See more of Mikko’s recent comments:
TEDx Brussels talk: How the NSA Betrayed the World’s Trust – Time to Act
Reuters TV interview: In Cloud We Trust
Reuters TV interview: Bitcoin – the Latest Front in Cybercrime
A little iPhone history was made this month -- a iOS device was infected by just clicking on a link. This sort of attack had previously only worked on devices where the owner had purposely installed a "jailbreak" hack. So before you do anything -- even read the rest of this post -- you should update your iOS software to the latest version of iOS 9, or iOS 10 beta, which has some nice new privacy features. Here's how this historic attack happened, according to The Verge: Earlier this month, an Emirati human rights activist named Ahmed Mansoor got a suspicious text. It promised new details of torture in the country’s state prisons, along with a link to follow if he was interested. If Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted it with malware, capable of logging encrypted messages, activating the microphone and secretly tracking its movements. To our cyber security advisor Erka Koivunen, this is a glaring example of a threat that is not "advanced" -- as in APT, advanced persistent threat. Think about what goes into a real APT. "They do reconnaissance properly and understand what the victim is susceptible to. They have good timing and only create visible noise when it suits their interest," he told us. "And they have a plan B ready in case someone starts snooping their activities." Here, the the most exploitable iPhone vulnerability ever known has now been exposed and patched -- for what? It's a bit baffling to Erka who compares it to throwing "expensive exploits at this guy like kids throwing rocks." You just don't see zero-day vulnerabilities like this -- especially on what had been one of the more secure platforms available -- that often. This has some security researchers thinking: Perverse incentives: Should I take up political activism so I get more interesting 0day sent my way? /me wonders — halvarflake (@halvarflake) August 26, 2016 //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js So, if you haven't already, update now. And if you're involved in politics in *any way* whatsoever, realize that someone will try to hack you -- sooner or later. So beware of those links in strange texts and email attachments in general. [Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr]
Bitcoin has not only changed the economics of cybercrime by providing crooks with an encrypted, nearly anonymous payment system autonomous from any central bank. It's also changed researchers' ability to track how much money criminals are making. "Bitcoin is based on Blockchain, and Blockchain is a public ledger of transactions. So all Bitcoin transactions are public," explains Mikko Hyppönen, F-Secure's Chief Research Officer. "Now, you don’t know who is who. But we can see money moving around, and we can see the amounts." Every victim of Ransomware -- malware that encrypts files and demands a payment for their release -- is given a unique wallet to transfer money into. Once paid, some ransomware gangs move the bitcoins to a central wallet. "We've been monitoring some of those wallets," Mikko says. "And we see Bitcoins worth millions and millions. We see a lot of money." Watching crooks rake in so much money, tax-free, got him thinking: "I began to wonder if there are in fact cybercrime unicorns." A cybercrime unicorn? (View this as a PDF) A tech unicorn is a privately held tech company valued at more than a billion dollars. Think Uber, AirBNB or Spotify -- only without the investors, the overhead and oversight. (Though the scam is so profitable that some gangs actually have customer service operations that could rival a small startup.) "Can we use this comparison model to cybercrime gangs?" Mikko asks. "We probably can’t." It's simply too hard to cash out. Investors in Uber have people literally begging to buy their stakes in the company. Ransomware gangs, however, have to continually imagine ways to turn their Bitcoin into currency. "They buy prepaid cards and then they sell these cards on Ebay and Craigslist," he says. "A lot of those gangs also use online casinos to launder the money." But even that's not so easy, even if the goal is to sit down at a online table and attempt to lose all your money to another member of your gang. "If you lose large amounts of money you will get banned. So the gangs started using bots that played realistically and still lose – but not as obviously." Law enforcement is well aware of extremely alluring economics of this threat. In 2015, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received "2,453 complaints identified as Ransomware with losses of over $1.6 million." In 2016, hardly has a month gone by without a high-profile case like Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paying 40 Bitcoin, about $17,000 USD at the time, to recover its files. And these are just the cases we're hearing about. The scam is so effective that it seemed that the FBI was recommending that victims actually pay the ransom. But it turned out their answer was actually more nuanced. "The official answer is the FBI does not advise on whether or not people should pay," Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor, writes. "But if victims haven’t taken precautions… then paying is the only remaining alternative to recover files." What sort of precautions? For Mikko, the answer obvious. "Backups. If you get hit you restore yesterday’s backup and carry on working. It could be more cumbersome if it’s not just one workstation, if your whole network gets hit. But of course you should always have good, up to date, offline backups. And 'offline' is the key!" What's also obvious is that too few people are prepared when Ransomware hits. Barring any disruptions to the Bitcoin market, F-Secure Labs predicts this threat will likely persist, with even more targeted efforts designed to elicit even greater sums. If you end up in an unfortunate situation when your files are held hostage, remember that you're dealing with someone who thinks of cybercrime as a business. So you can always try to negotiate. What else do you have to lose?
This is really an old problem, but it’s in the headlines again. Pokémon Go is yet another example of a “free” game with a business model based on in-app purchases. These games are also known as F2P, standing for free-to-play. You can start playing, and get hooked, for free. But soon you run into a situation where you can’t proceed without buying virtual stuff in the game. The stuff you buy is virtual but the payment is very real money. This is no doubt a profitable model. Pokémon Go went straight to the top and for example Finland-based Supercell, maker of Clash of Clans, has constantly reported nice profits. This can naturally cause trouble for addicted adults, but the real problems arise when kids get hooked. There are numerous public stories about kids making purchases for hundreds or even thousands of Euros, often without even understanding how much they have spent. And the sinister part is that this can go on for a while until you get the credit card bill, and it’s too late. Your chances to get a refund are somewhere between slim and none. But how can this happen? Let’s take a look at the most common scenarios. Your kid has set up the new device and created the needed account with Apple or Google. Everything is fine until he or she needs an app that isn’t free. You enter your credit card on the kid’s device and make the purchase, but you don’t pay any attention to the security settings. This may give your kid carte blanche to buy anything he or she likes, and you pay the bill. You have entered your credit card but set up the kid’s store account so that a password only you know is required for every purchase. But there are some convenient settings that allow purchases without a password within a limited time window after the password has been entered. Kids learn very quickly to utilize this opportunity. Let’s assume the same setup as in the previous point, but with the correct security settings. Now the password is needed for every purchase. But the store account is still owned by the kid and the password can be reset. The password reset link will be sent to the kid’s mail or phone number. It’s carte blanche again with the new password. Ok, you create an account you own for the kids phone. It’s tied to your mail and phone number, so the password reset trick shouldn’t work anymore. You put down your phone and head for the toilet. Your kid has been waiting for the opportunity and initiates the password reset request. Your phone is there on the table wide open, with the reset link in the mail. You can figure out the rest yourself. And of course the simple alternative. You think the store password on your kid’s device is secret. But in reality it is either too easy to guess or someone has been looking over your shoulder. So there’s many things that can go wrong, but what can we do to avoid it? There are many ways to fight this problem, but this is in my opinion the best approach: Let the kid set up the store account on the device and set own passwords. Just like an adult would use a phone, except that there’s no payment method registered. Never enter your credit card number on the kid’s device. On Android, get familiar with Google Play Family. This feature enables you to purchase stuff for your kid on your own device. On iPhone, send apps or money as gifts. There may be applications that bypass the store and handle credit card transactions directly. This can typically be handled with vouchers or other prepaid payment methods instead. The application usually guides the users and list all supported methods. Let’s also take a look at the hard way. Follow these instructions if you for some reasons must have your credit card registered as a payment method on the kid’s device. Make sure the store is protected with a good password that only you know. Make sure the kid isn’t watching too closely when you enter it. Make sure the store is set up to require the password every time a purchase is made. Make sure the store account is attached to an e-mail only you have access to. Make sure the e-mail password is decent and not known to your kid. Make sure your phone’s security settings are decent. Use a PIN or password your kid doesn’t know and make sure it locks automatically quickly enough. Even better, do not have the e-mail of your kids store account on your phone. Access it through web mail when needed. So this is after all a quite complex issue. There are many variations and other ways to deal with the problem. Did I miss some simple and clever way? Write a comment if you think I did. And finally. Yes, there’s also many ways to lock the kids out of the store completely. This does no doubt solve some problems, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. They will after all live their lives in a world where digital devices and services are as natural as breathing. They deserve the opportunity to start practicing for that right now. Let them browse the store and discover all the fun stuff. And be part of the group and use all the same apps as their friends. Let them have fun with the phone and learn, even if they will learn some things the hard way. Don’t ruin it for them. Safe surfing, Micke