Back when I first heard about Facebook I was working for a private university known for its “dry” campus. I was asked to consult on the case of a student who was being disciplined for violating the no-alcohol policy because a picture had been discovered of them buying booze at a nearby supermarket. It had been uploaded by the student’s friend to a hot new website called Facebook. I distinctly remember discussing this with staff and faculty at the time, predicting, “This is going to get a lot of kids in trouble.” There was discussion of banning access to the site, but filtering internet content back then wasn’t as straightforward as it is now, and the discussion was tabled with a promise to review the issue at a later time. Fast-forward to the present, where Facebook is still getting a lot of people in trouble, and themselves as well.
From the frying pan, to the fire, to…incinerator?
It might be hard to believe, but it was only June when we had to air out the latest load of dirty laundry from Facebook. Prior to that, they have been blog subjects seven times this year alone, and none of them were for something good! I’d say this month’s two-fer entry might be their pièce de résistance of colossal cock-ups, but there are still 90 days left in the year, and Facebook seems bent on setting some sort of record for destroying themselves.
First, they were caught red-handed letting advertisers use phone numbers provided by users for authentication purposes, something they had previously denied. To add insult to injury, it’s also come to light that they will also target individuals through contact information uploaded by their friends through the Facebook app, even if the individual never provided any sort of consent for such use.
If that isn’t enough to get your blood boiling, how about 50M Facebook users having their accounts compromised? Rather than the old-fashioned password hack, attackers exploited a bug in Facebook’s “View as” feature which allowed them to essentially steal the authentication token used to provide continued access after you’ve initially logged in. Think of this token as a VIP wristband you might wear at an event that also gets you access to the backstage. This token not only provides you a quick login to Facebook but to dozens of other connected services, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, that allow users to authenticate through Facebook instead of creating a unique login and password. Just like the wristband, Facebook only looks at the token and not the person using it, to determine what they are allowed to access, so you might get an inkling of why it being stolen is kind of a bad thing. The investigation is still ongoing, but according to Facebook, no passwords or credit cards were stolen, and it doesn’t look like the perpetrators of the September breach used their “wristbands” get into the various third-party platforms it could have granted access to, but I’d put even money on Facebook having yet another, “Wait, hold my beer,” moment, so don’t put the pitchforks too far out of reach.
Unfortunately for the two billion humans who are still trying to get some sort enjoyment (or livelihood) out of Facebook, there really isn’t any platform that comes close to being able to replace it. Your choices are “deal with it” or go cold turkey, the latter of which I don’t see any of my Facebook-hooked friends doing any time soon. If you’ve tied your various other online services to Facebook’s login in the pursuit of convenience, it only makes giving up Facebook that much harder and further illustrates just how dangerous this type of practice can be – Facebook login gave everyone a shovel, and quite a few people dug a hole that they have no idea how to get out of. Sadly, not climbing out of that hole and permanently putting the shovel aside essentially rewards Facebook for their negligent security practices, something that we should not do if we ever want the service to be something more than a way for advertisers and hackers (and Facebook!) to exploit for their own profit.
It had all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster: a massive data breach, hackers hired by Russian spies, and a secret operation that went on for years undetected. Except for one rather pedestrian and crucial element. According to indictments handed down by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the hackers penetrated Yahoo’s security not through some sophisticated cyber-tango of caffeine-fueled hacker artistry. There weren’t any high-tech micro computers covertly implanted into neon-lit server racks following a series of cleverly choreographed hi-jinks. No, the largest single leak of Personally Identifying Information was enabled by a Yahoo employee falling for a spear phishing attack.
Here comes the email security soapbox again!
What’s a spear phishing attack and what makes it different from the rest of the spam you get in your email? Typical spam and phishing emails are sent to as many people as possible in the hopes that a small percentage will click the link or open the attachment, whereas spear phishing is designed to target a very specific audience or even a particular individual. They are typically several levels more sophisticated than the usual garbage clogging our email as the content is custom-tailored to appear believable to the target. While I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads at how a single click on a fake email could lead to the largest breach in history against a storied dot-com darling, keep in mind that in the ongoing plate-spinning war of internet security, the good guys only win if they can keep all the plates spinning, and the bad guys win if even a single plate falls.
There are many lessons to be learned from this incident, but perhaps the most important one of all still remains: all security systems are only as strong as the weakest link, and many times that weakest link is a human. Given enough resources, time and determination, any security system can be hacked, and any company or organization can be breached. What’s a business owner to do in light of a seemingly unstoppable force? Just like preparing for two other famously unavoidable eventualities, planning for security breach will prepare you to react properly and deliberately rather than a mad scramble for recovery. Not sure how to get started? Pick up the phone and let C2 give you a leg up on getting ready.
In the latest dramatic chapter of the ongoing encryption battle between the FBI and Apple, the feds have admitted that they worsened their chances of ever finding out the contents of the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone when they reset its associated iCloud password in a misguided attempt to access the locked device. According to Apple, prior to that reset, the FBI may have been able to gain access to the device without Apple having to provide a controversial backdoor to its otherwise very secure smartphones. On top of the FBI’s blunder and lack of understanding of Apple’s iPhone security, it’s also clear that several members of the House Judiciary Committee leading the hearings on this controversy are also poorly versed in how smartphone security works. To be fair to everyone, Apple’s iCloud system is arcane even to me, so it’s easy to see how someone unfamiliar with the system could make this mistake.
What this means for you:
Making fun of government officials being ignorant about high tech subjects is like shooting fish in a barrel. The “series of tubes” analogy used by Senator Ted Stevens is just one of many examples of US lawmakers struggling to understand admittedly complex technologies like the internet and encryption. Back then (10 years ago!) it might have been acceptable to dismiss their technology naivety as understandable – after all they are congress people, not IT consultants. But now, in an increasingly technology-permeated society, their ignorance or willful disregard of technology can lead to very bad decisions that have widespread and long-lasting consequences. This is just as applicable to your personal and workplace tech. While it’s impossible to be an expert on everything, if you rely on technology for critical business operations, you should have more than a basic understanding of how to turn it on and off. At minimum you should know what risks come with that technology, and if you cannot claim to be an expert in the technology in question, you should always consult with an experienced technology professional before making game-changing decisions.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Hacktivism is not new, but when the data stolen and released targets a group already beseiged by violent acts of “protest”, have the hackers stepped over the line into actual terrorism? What if the data stolen contains sensitive data aside from financial information, such as medical records, or proof of infidelity? What if the security hole could be used to crash a moving vehicle? Following the scandalous breach at Ashley Madison comes three more hacks that will add to your gray hairs. First up is the “doxing” of Planned Parenthood employees after a hacking group penetrated their network and gained access to employee information, which they promptly released online. It’s not a far stretch to imagine those 300 people being targeted for harassment and violence by more “hands-on” anti-abortion groups now that their information has been made public. Regardless of your feelings about a group’s politics, lining up people in the cross-hairs on an issue known to incite extreme acts of violence is never the right way to protest.
That’s not the worst of it. Keep reading.
UCLA Health – one of the largest hospital systems in the country – revealed that it too had been hacked, and sensitive data on 4.5 million patients and employees has been compromised. While admitting that the usual sensitive information was likely exposed, UCLA officials could not confirm whether the data had actually been stolen, and to add insult to injury, they are only now admitting to the hack, months after the actual breach was detected. No mention was made whether medical records were exposed, though one imagines if such a thing had happened, the enormous liability exposure would lead to full disclosure. One would hope.
If you happened to be a UCLA patient and the owner of a new Jeep Cherokee, you are probably having a really bad week. Fiat Chrysler is recalling over one million new SUV’s after details were released by two hackers who were able to physically disable a moving Jeep Cherokee and send it into a ditch, while the driver was helpless to do anything about it. With our cars becoming increasingly automated and connected (and at some point, self-driving), you can bet this type of event will become more commonplace. It’s good that Fiat Chrysler decided to recall the potentially dangerous vehicles, but indicative of a wider blind spot in all industries of the mounting threat of cyberattacks. Hackers have supposedly been trying for years to call attention to security problems like ones exploited in the Jeep, as others have in industries like airplane manufacturing. Let’s hope no one has to crash a plane to get their attention.
Today’s headline alludes to a concept perhaps as old as civilization itself. Plato expressed it as, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will watch the watchers? In a spectacular demonstration of what a well-executed hack can do, an unknown hacker has virtually imploded the operations of a digital surveillance company known (ironically now) as Hacking Team. Despite the rather colorful name, this Italian security company has contracts with dozens of government agencies from all over the world, including the United States. Their product? Essentially spyware for conducting remote surveillance and other covert digital operations. The unknown hacker taunted the company and its employees by taking over Hacking Team’s Twitter account and began sharing extremely sensitive internal files through tweets purportedly coming from the company itself. Once the breach was discovered, Hacking Team contacted its clients and strongly recommended they cease using any of the company’s software. Given the general public distaste for Hacking Team’s type of software and the amount of daylight this shines on its customers, its highly likely that very few contracts will be renewed, leaving the company’s future in very uncertain terms.
What this means for you:
Unless you happened to be on the list of Hacking Team customers, there’s not a lot you need to worry from your own organization’s perspective. However, as a citizen of a supposedly democratic nation, you should be concerned about how our government agencies conduct themselves. Should law enforcement agencies be allowed to break the law in order to do their jobs? Who will watch the watchers? Are those people (I’m talking about Congress now) qualified to make proper decisions when they barely understand how the Internet works? To translate this into more relatable (and actionable) terms, do you understand enough about your own organization’s security and technology to make informed decisions on what to buy, what to use, and who to hire? In the case of Hacking Team, it appears that the hacker breached the company through the personal computers of its own system administrators, an irony within an irony. Are you adhering to the security standards to which you hold your own employees accountable?
A little over two years ago, I wrote about a hacker who was able to demonstrate hacking and takeover of an airplane’s flight control system, and suggested that it may be awhile before someone was able to execute this same type of hack “in the wild.” Unfortunately for everyone, it’s happened sooner than we might hope: notorious hacker Chris Roberts of One World Labs has claimed that he managed to penetrate an airplane’s flight control system while it was in flight and was able to temporarily alter the plane’s trajectory by overriding controls on a wing engine, forcing the plane to fly sideways for an short period. After joking via Twitter about his hacking activities on an April flight, Roberts was detained by the FBI and his equipment seized. According to affadavits published of the FBI interviews with Roberts, it appears as if the FBI believes Roberts is in fact capable of hacking planes while in flight.
What this means for you:
I’m actually quite surprised this hasn’t happened sooner, and with much more horrifying results. On the scale of expertise on technology security, I consider myself to be only moderately well-trained and informed, but it doesn’t take a expert to comprehend why this is going to be an increasingly dangerous problem. Because all security systems are essentially designed by humans, they will inherently be flawed. Hackers count on this weakness and are able to exploit it over and over again. In the case of the above alleged hacking incidents (yes, there was more than one), Roberts exploited a hardware weakness – he was able to physically connect his equipment to the plane by cracking the inflight entertainment box under his seat – and a software weakness – he used default passwords to circumvent the security of the plane’s control systems. In both cases he would have been foiled if the people who designed and implemented the systems had taken more care in their work. According to Roberts, his actions are meant to goad the industry into taking security more seriously, and maybe now that the FBI seems be backing his claims, something might get done.
Overall, security is an uphill battle, and requires more energy, money and expertise than most companies can field at any given time. Like insurance, many folks have a hard time spending money to secure against something that might happen. In this case, like the other inevitabilities we insure against, accepting the fact that you will be hacked (even if you already have been) at some point in the near future, will help you frame your investments in security in a more realistic and practical perspective, and doing something proactive will often put you ahead of your competition. Embattled industries like airlines should definitely keep this in mind.
A client recently asked me, “What’s the difference between ‘malware’ and a ‘virus’? Is ‘spyware’ still a thing? Are these pop-ups a virus, or something else? Was I hacked?!?” As a computer user who could easily remember the earliest days of computer viruses, his confusion was understandable, especially when the media and sometimes even industry pros have a tendency to use those terms interchangeably when they really aren’t. The complexity of today’s malware landscape is complex enough to fill multiple textbooks, but I’ll try to boil it down to the things most professionals should know.
The term “hacking” is probably the most mis-appropriated term in use today. Originally, the true purpose of hacking something was to make alterations to how a device (or system) operated in order to achieve results different from the originally intended purpose of the hacked object. This could take just about any form: the brilliant, life-saving hacks used to return the Apollo 13 crew safely to earth in 1961, all the way to subverting computer security systems to paralyze a giant corporation in 2014. The important qualifier in determining if something was “hacked” is identifying actual, human-driven intent. In most cases, malware-compromised systems are the result of an “infection” versus a purposeful hacking.
The term “malware” is a portmanteau of the two words “malicious software” which, as you might imagine, is used to describe any sort of non-native programming or code loaded into a device that subverts the device’s original purpose, with the result that its activities cause some form of harm (hence the “mal” part). Malware covers a broad range of code including the annoying pop-ups and browser redirects that take control of your internet searches to show you advertising (aka “adware”), to the incredibly disruptive (and effective) malware that encrypts your data and holds it for ransom (aka “ransomware”). “Spyware” still exists – though it has taken a dark turn from it’s original advertising roots of harvesting your demographics to now harvesting your sensitive personal information for the purposes of identity theft.
Though a computer “virus” is still considered malware, most malware found today are not considered actual viruses. In keeping with the spirit of its biological predecessor, a true computer virus distinguishes itself by insinuating itself into or altering the host’s code with the express purpose of multiplying and spreading, something that is relatively rare at the moment in most malware, even the ones that spread via email. Though they exhibit virus-like infection patterns, their methods of spreading are more akin to poisoning or parasitic infection.
How it all comes together
It’s important to note that malware is often a primary tool in any computer hacking effort. It can be used to weaken or subvert security systems, usually by installing other programs that facilitate other activities that can range from gathering passwords, data and opening security backdoors to erasing hard drives and crippling critical network infrastructure. Though they find little comfort in it, I tell my clients that most malware infections are akin to getting the flu: it’s highly unlikely someone set out to get you sick. Typically you got it from someone who didn’t even know they were contagious.
However, similar to their biological counterparts, other digital pathogens may take advantage of your computer’s compromised immune system to cause further damage. At best, these malware infections take the form of a symbiotic parasite that may surface relatively innocuous symptoms (pop-ups, Google doesn’t work, etc.), but those redirects can lead you to further infection by more harmful malware. At the extreme, they can lead to the digital equivalent of metastatic cancer, usually with fatal results. Suffice it to say, any form of malware infection should not be tolerated, regardless of the host machine’s primary purpose, and should be taken care of immediately.
America’s biggest bank JP Morgan Chase announced last week that it was the latest victim of a major security breach. According to their regulatory filing, data from nearly 80 million customers was exposed in a successful hacking attempt earlier this year. Though the bank was quick to emphasize that our money and most sensitive bits of info such as dates of birth, social security, passwords and IDs weren’t stolen, names, addresses, emails and phone numbers were – all which could be used to facilitate an identity theft, but which aren’t considered protected or sensitive in most cases. While it’s troubling that the country’s number one bank got hacked, what’s even more worrying is that the media, the public, and even Wall Street seemed to shrug it off and carry on.
What this means for you:
Americans seem to be developing what some analysts are dubbing data breach fatigue: everytime we look up, yet another high-profile company or livelihood staple has been hacked. The list reads like a modern family’s honey-do list: Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, EBay, UPS, Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Albertsons, SuperValu, CHS, etc. There have been nearly 600 data breaches reported this year, up 27% over last year, and we aren’t even done with 2014. Fortunately, only a small percentage of the total population have been negatively impacted in a signficant way, though most of us have probably had one or more credit cards get canceled and replaced for fraudulent activity. What this is leading to is the general perception that these data breaches are “bad” only in a vaguely annoying way, and there is not much that an average person can do to protect themselves, “Heck, if JP Morgan can’t figure out how to keep the hackers at bay, how can I ever stand a chance?”
While it’s true you can’t stop JP Morgan from getting hacked, you can make it harder for cybercriminals to hack you: don’t give in to the fatigue – make them fight for every bit they try to steal from you. Change your passwords regularly, and use unique passwords for your important accounts. Keep a close eye on your credit card statements and your credit history. Make sure your all computers you use have up-to-date and functioning antivirus software. Avoid email attachments and unfamiliar websites. What was once considered “paranoia-level” precautions are the new standard of online safety. Considering that nearly half of Americans adults have had some form of their personal data stolen through an online breach, it’s safe to say that “they” are out to get you – paranoia or not.
Despite what US mainstream media might be conveying with their breathless coverage of celebrity accounts being hacked for their lewd selfies, not all hacking activity is for titillation or criminal exploitation. A duo of hackers, self-dubbed LulzSecPeru, have penetrated multiple Peruvian government websites and servers, defacing webpages and stealing confidential data as a demonstration of their hacking abilities and purportedly to shake things up politically. Among the data stolen were several thousand emails from the former Prime Minister, which revealed the presence of possible undue influence by Peruvian industry lobbies. The sudden transparency nearly forced the resignation of the entire cabinet in a Congressional vote of no confidence which only missed passing by one vote.
What this means for you:
Once again, hackers prove that if it touches the internet (and sometimes even when it doesn’t), privacy breaches are just around the corner, especially when what is hidden is likely to be highly valuable to someone. Though this particular feat was slightly less salacious than the celebrity breaches, the only rule of thumb that can be followed is this: if you don’t want your “dirty little secrets” spread all over the internet, don’t put it on an internet-facing computer, cloud server or mobile device. Information, especially confidential data, is the new currency of the world economy, and as with all currencies, most folks will go to great lengths to amass it, especially if it has the potential to undermine authority or generate wealth. Complete isolation from the internet is impossible for most businesses, but you should review very carefully what information is stored where, and the potential damage it can cause your company if it were stolen or exposed in a security breach.