Security Vacuum - Anything Better Than Nothing?

"I don't have a Facebook account as I am worried about privacy/identity theft/my boss knowing what I did last Saturday/my patients/pupils/clients seeing what I did last Saturday...".  A fair assumption you would think?  Facebook can easily be replaced with any other on line account linked to the personality of an individual such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and so on.

Whilst there are various settings that can now be put in place to increase privacy on some of the social networking sites, suspicion still remains.  However, what would happen if you didn't create a Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn account?  Sure, there would be a definite reduction in risk of any of your personal information, photos or history being made available, as it wouldn't be there in the first place.

But, what would happen if some one else put that information there in your place?

If there is no Facebook account representing you, what is stopping someone from creating one?  That in itself is not difficult and hundreds of fake accounts are created each day.  What would it take to create an account in your name?  A fake email address would be needed.  That is probably the easiest thing to do on line today, with the plethora of free email accounts.  Signup to Facebook, with a minimum of personal information.  First name, last name and ideally a date of birth, but as many leave DoB off due to security issues anyway, not having that information certainly wouldn't raise suspicions.

The next step is to start making that account, look, act and feel like you.  Certainly a picture would help massively.  How difficult would that be for you?  Are professional or social pictures available via Google or would an associate or acquaintance have a picture themselves of you?  Slightly more tricky but not unobtainable.  Next is the big social engineering piece of convincing your friends and family that the on line account is in fact you.  A list of known friends and contacts would be needed, but would they simply question a request from a seemingly trusted source?  Probably not and the request would be accepted without analysis.  Suddenly a would be attacker is in an incredibly powerful position of having assumed your identity, albeit in a small corner of the on line world to small group of your social circle.

In this case, the best form of counter measure, was in fact to set up an account, even if not actively being used.  A 'get there first' strategy.

The same approach can be applied to the recent DNS changes for new Top Level Domains.  These new domains are covering new specific tags such as .app, .xxx, .game, .free and so on, instead of the more traditional .com or .org.  Whilst many of the big brands such as Google, Amazon and Apple all square up and try to get the extensions that align with their current business goals, what about the domains they're not going after? anyone?  Something as benign as a registration and fake page on a supposedly adult themed extension could reek havoc for an organisations brand and reputation.

As the rise of technical countermeasures becomes more sophisticated and more expensive and time consuming to overcome, organised criminals and hackers are increasingly relying on carefully executed social engineering and fraud related attacks, in order to penetrate corporate networks, personal identities and any other area for monetary reward.

Putting your head in the sand isn't an option and sometimes it's better to provide a more offensive security counter measure than simply react once an attack has occurred.

(Simon Moffatt)

LinkedIn - Weak Passwords & Poor Protection?

Last week saw the release of 6.5 million passwords for the online professional social network LinkedIn.  LinkedIn, for those that don't use it, is a place to publish an online version of your career history and connect to work colleagues and acquaintances away from the more friends focused Facebook.  The site is popular, with over 160 million users spread across 200 countries, with no real direct competitor.

The release contained only the passwords of the users and not the associated email addresses, making the hack only slightly less worrying.  The passwords were also hashed, seemingly with the SHA1 algorithm, but unsalted.  The salting factor is generally what makes hashing more secure and without, many of the passwords were easily reversed back into plain text.  The failure to properly use a salt during the hashing phase is deemed to be a major failure in basic password security.

It was the analysis of the hashed passwords that initially led to the news that the leaked passwords were in fact from the LinkedIn site.  Several of the passwords used the words 'linkedin' or 'LinkedIn' within them.  The hashed passwords were then posted onto a Russian on line forum where users were asked for help in the reverse hashing process.  Whilst several of the passwords have allegedly been reversed into plain text, many argue that out of the 6.5 million, only a small percentage of the easiest passwords will be converted to plaintext.

Whilst the true risk could be relatively small, LinkedIn's response has been swift.  An acknowledgement arrived saying data had been released and the accounts their believed to be impacted have had a password reset requirement flag set.  The questions still arise: How did the hackers get access to the hash data?  How long had they had access for?  More importantly, if the entry method is still unknown, do LinkedIn know that they no longer have access?

A prompt to quickly reset all 6.5 million passwords, is futile if the hackers also have access to the new hash data...  Another area of concern is that LinkedIn also offers a premium service that would require the credit card details to be used to pay for the subscription.  Was this data compromised?

The main remediation steps seem to have been to forcefully reset the accounts of those known to be effected, whilst a blog entry by Linked In Director Vincente Silveira advises for everyone to reset their password on Linked In regularly and to not use the same password for multiple sites.  The password, of course should be as long and complex as possible (whilst still being able to remember it..)

As many on line sites become more popular, it is inevitable a hacking incident or a breach will occur simply due to the complexity of the sites involved (huge data centres, many members of staff, contractors, integration points & 3rd party libraries) as well as the huge driver of being a hacker against large and well known brands.

Whilst many will argue that poor protection of the assets is to be blame, individuals will have a duty as well, for making sure passwords are secure and kept safe.  Ultimately though, it's up to the service provider to keep information assets secure and develop trust between themselves and their community.  Incidents like this, although potentially more newsworthy than truly impacting, serve to destroy that trust and image.

(Simon Moffatt)