Archive for 'Security'

thingsThe hoi polloi are running fast towards the banner marked “Internet of Things“.   They are running at full speed chanting “I-o-T, I-o-T, I-o-T” all along the way. But for the most part, they are each running towards something different.  For some, it is a network of sensors; for others, it is a network of processors; for still others, it is a previously unconnected and unnetworked  embedded system but now connected and attached to a network;  some say it is any of those things connected to the cloud; and there are those who say it is simply renaming whatever they already have and including the descriptive marketing label “IoT” or “Internet of Things” on the box.

So what is it?  Why the excitement? And what can it do?

At its simplest, the Internet of Things is a collections of endpoints of some sort each of which has a sensor or a number of sensors, a processor, some memory and some sort of wireless connectivity.  The endpoints are then connected to a server – where “server” is defined in the broadest possible sense.  It could be a phone, a tablet, a laptop or desktop, a remote server farm or some combination of all of those (say, a phone that then talks to a server farm).  Along the transmission path, data collected from the sensors goes through increasingly higher levels of analysis and processing.  For instance, at the endpoint itself raw data may be displayed or averaged or corrected and then delivered to the server and then stored in the cloud.  Once in the cloud, data can be analyzed historically, compared with other similarly collected data, correlated to other related data or even unrelated data in an attempt to search for unexpected or heretofore unseen correlations.  Fully processed data can then be delivered back to the user in some meaningful way. Perhaps the processed data could be displayed as trend display or as a prescriptive suite of actions or recommendations.  And, of course, the fully analyzed data and its correlations could also be sold or otherwise used to target advertising or product or service recommendations.

There is a further enhancement to this collection of endpoints and associated data analysis processes described in my basic IoT system.  The ‘things’ on this Internet of Things could also use to the data it collects to improve itself.  This could include identifying missing data elements or sensor readings, bad timing assumptions or other ways to improve the capabilities of the overall system.  If the endpoints are reconfigurable either through programmable logic (like Field Programmable Gate Arrays) or through software updates then new hardware or software images could be distributed with enhancements (or, dare I say, bug fixes) throughout the system to provide it with new functionality.  This makes the IoT system both evolutionary and field upgradeable.  It extends the deployment lifetime of the device and could potentially extend the time in market at both the beginning and the end of the product life cycle. You could get to market earlier with limited functionality, introduce new features and enhancement post deployment and continue to add innovations when the product might ordinarily have been obsoleted.

Having defined an ideal IoT system, the question becomes how does one turn it into a business? The value of these IoT applications are based on the collection of data over time and the processing and interpretation (mining) of said data.  As more data are collected over time the value of the analysis increases (but likely asymptotically approaching some maximal value).  The data analysis could include information like:

  • Your triathlon training plan is on track, you ought to taper the swim a bit and increase the running volume to 18 miles per week.
  • The drive shaft on your car will fail in the next 1 to 6 weeks – how about I order one for you and set up an appointment at the dealership?
  • If you keep eating the kind of food you have for the past 4 days, you will gain 15 pounds by Friday.

The above sample analysis is obviously from a variety of different products or systems but the idea is that by mining collected and historical data from you, and maybe even people ‘like’ you, certain conclusions may be drawn.

Since the analysis is continuous and the feedback unsynchronized to any specific event or time, the fees for these services would have to be subscription-based.  A small charge every month would deliver the analysis and prescriptive suggestions as and when needed.

This would suggest that when you a buy a car instead of an extended service contract that you pay for as a lump sum upfront, you pay, say, $5 per month and the IoT system is enabled on your car and your car will schedule service with a complete list of required parts and tasks exactly when and as needed.

Similarly in the health services sector, your IoT system collects all of your biometric data automatically, loads your activity data to Strava, alerts you to suspicious bodily and vital sign changes and perhaps even calls the doctor to set up your appointment.

The subscription fees should be low because they provide for efficiencies in the system that benefit both the subscriber and the service provider.  The car dealer orders the parts they need when they need them, reducing inventory, providing faster turnaround of cars, obviating the need for overnight storage of cars and payment for rentals.

Doctors see patients less often and then only when something is truly out of whack.

And on and on.

Certainly the possibility for tiered levels of subscription may make sense for some businesses.  There may be ‘free’ variants that provide limited but still useful information to the subscriber but at the cost of sharing their data for broader community analysis. Paid subscribers who share their data for use in broader community analysis may get reduced subscription rates. There are obvious many possible subscription models to investigate.

These described industry capabilities and direction facilitated by the Internet of Things are either pollyannaish or visionary.  It’s up to us to find out. But for now, what do you think?

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next-big-thing1There is a great imbalance in the vast internet marketplace that has yet to be addressed and is quite ripe for the picking. In fact, this imbalance is probably at the root of the astronomical stock market valuations of existing and new companies like Google, facebook, Twitter and their ilk.

It turns out that your data is valuable.  Very valuable.  And it also turns out that you are basically giving it away.  You are giving it away – not quite for free but pretty close.  What you are getting in return is personalization. You get advertisements targeted at you providing you with products you don’t need but are likely to find quite iresistable.  You get recommendations for other sites that ensure that you need never venture outside the bounds of your existing likes and dislikes. You get matched up with companies that provide services that you might or might not need but definitely will think are valuable.

Ultimately, you are giving up your data so businesses can more efficiently extract more money from you.

If you are going to get exploited in this manner, it’s time to make that exploitation a two way street. Newspapers, for instance, are rapidly arriving at the conclusion that there is actual monetary value in the information that they provide.  They are seeing that the provision of vetted, verified, thougful and well-written information is intrinsicly worth more than nothing.  They have decided that simply giving this valuable commodity away for free is giving up the keys to the kingdom.  The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Economist and others are seeing that people are willing to pay and do actually subscribe.

There is a lesson in this for you – as a person. There is value in your data.  Your mobile movements, your surf trail, your shopping preferences  It  should not be the case that you implicitly surrender this information for better personalization or even a $5 Starbucks gift card.  This constant flow of data from you, your actions, movements and keystrokes ought to result in a constant flow of money to you.  When you think about it, why isn’t the ultimate personal data collection engine, Google Glass, given away for free? Because people don’t realize that personal data collection is its primary function.  Clearly, the time has come for the realization of a personal paywall.

The idea is simple, if an entity wants your information they pay you for it.  Directly.  They don’t go to Google or facebook and buy it – they open up an account with you and pay you directly.  At a rate that you set.  Then that business can decide if you are worth what you think you are or not.  You can adjust your fee up or down anytime and you can be dropped or picked up by followers. You could provide discount tokens or free passes for friends.  You could charge per click, hour, day, month or year.  You might charge more for your mobile movements and less for your internet browsing trail.  The data you share comes with an audit trail that ensures that if the information is passed on to others without your consent you will be able to take action – maybe even delete it – wherever it is.  Maybe your data lives for only a few days or months or years – like a contract or a note – and then disappears.

Of course, you will have to do the due diligence to ensure you are selling your information to a legitimate organization and not a Nigerian prince.  This, in turn, may result in the creation of a new class of service providers who vet these information buyers.

This data reselling capability would also provide additional income to individuals.  It would not a living wage to compensate for having lost a job but it would be some compensation for participating in facebook or LinkedIn or a sort of kickback for buying something at Amazon and then allowing them to target you as a consumer more effectively. It would effectively reward you for contributing the information that drives the profits of these organizations and recognize the value that you add to the system.

The implementation is challenging and would require encapsulating data in packets over which you exert some control.  An architectural model similar to bitcoin with a central table indicating where every bit of your data is at any time would be valuable and necessary. Use of the personal paywall would likely require that you include an application on your phone or use a customized browser that releases your information only to your paid-up clients. In addition, some sort of easy, frictionless mechanism through which companies or organizations could automatically decide to buy your information and perhaps negotiate (again automatically) with your paywall for a rate that suits both of you would make use of the personal paywall invisible and easy. Again this technology would have to screen out fraudulent entities and not even bother negotiating with them.

There is much more to this approach to consider and many more challenges to overcome.  I think, though, that this is an idea that could change the internet landscape and make it more equitable and ensure the true value of the internet is realized and shared by all its participants and users.

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basicsI admit it. I got a free eBook.  I signed up with O’Reilly Media as a reviewer. The terms and conditions of this position were that when I get an  eBook,  I agree to write a review of it.  Doesn’t matter if the review is good or bad (so I guess, technically, this is NOT log rolling).  I just need to write a review.  And if I post the review, I get to choose another eBook to review.  And so on. So, here it is.  The first in what will likely be an irregular series.  My review.

The book under review is “The Basics of Web Hacking” subtitled “Tools and Techniques to Attack the Web” by Josh Pauli. The book was published in June, 2013 so it is fairly recent.  Alas, recent in calendar time is actually not quite that recent in Internet time – but more on this later.

First, a quick overview. The book provides an survey of hacking tools of the sort that might be used for either the good of mankind (to test and detect security issues in a website and application installation) or for the destruction of man and the furtherance of evil (to identify and exploit security issues in a website and application installation).  The book includes a several page disclaimer advising against the latter behavior suggesting that the eventual outcomes of such a path may not be pleasant.  I would say that the disclaimer section is written thoughtfully with the expectation that readers would take seriously its warnings.

For the purposes of practice, the book introduces the Damn Vulnerable Web Application (DVWA).  This poorly-designed-on-purpose web application allows you to use available tools and techniques to see exactly how vulnerabilities are detected and exploits deployed. While the book describes utilizing an earlier version of the application, figuring out how to install and use the newer version that is now available is a helpful and none-too-difficult experience as well.

Using DVWA as a test bed, the book walks you through jargon and then techniques and then practical exercises in the world of hacking. Coverage of scanning, exploitation, vulnerability assessment and attacks suited to each vulnerability including a decent overview of the vast array of available tools to facilitate these actions.  The number of widely available very well built applications with easy-to-use interfaces is overwhelming and quite frankly quite scary.  Additionally, a plethora of web sites provide a repository of information regarding already known to be vulnerable web sites and how they are vulnerable (in many cases these sites remain vulnerable despite the fact that they have been notified)

The book covers usage of applications such as Burp Suite, Metasploit, nmap, nessus, nikto and The Social Engineer Toolkit. Of course, you could simply download these applications and try them out but the book marches through a variety of useful hands-on experiments that exhibit typical real-life usage scenarios. The book also describes how the various applications can be used in combination with each other which can make investigation and exploitation easier.

In the final chapter, the book describes design methods and application development rules that can either correct or minimize most vulnerabilities as well as providing a relatively complete list of “for further study” items that includes books, groups, conferences and web sites.

All in all, this book provides a valuable primer and introduction to detecting and correcting vulnerabilities in web applications.  Since the book is not that old, changes to applications are slight enough that figuring out what the changes are and how to do what the book is describing is a great learning experience rather than simply an exercise in frustration. These slight detours actually serve to increase your understanding of the application.

I say 4.5 stars out of 5 (docked a star because these subject areas tend to get out-of-date too quickly but if you read it NOW you are set to grow with the field)

See you at DEFCON!

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3d keyA spate of recent articles describes the proliferation of back doors in systems.  There are so many such back doors in so many systems, it claims, that the idea of a completely secure and invulnerable system is, at best, a fallacy.  These back doors may be as result of the system software or even designed into the hardware.  Some back doors are designed in to the systems to facilitate remote update, diagnosis, debug and the like – usually never with the intention of being a security hole.  Some are inserted with subterfuge and espionage in mind by foreign-controlled entities keen on gaining access to otherwise secure systems.  Some may serve both purposes, as well. And some, are just design or specification errors.  This suggests that once you connect a system to a network, some one, some how will be able to access.  As if to provide an extreme example, a recent break-in at the United States Chamber of Commerce was traced to an internet-connected thermostat.

That’s hardware.  What about software?  Despite the abundance of anti-virus software and firewalls, a little social engineering is all you really need to get through to any system. I have written previously about the experiment in which USB memory sticks seeded in a parking lot were inserted in corporate laptops by more than half of employees who found them without any prompting. Email written as if sent from a superior is often utilized to get employees to open attached infected applications that install themselves and open a hole in a firewall for external communications and control.

The problem is actually designed in.  The Internet was built for sharing. The sharing was originally limited to trusted sources. A network of academics. The idea that someone would try to do something awful to you – except as some sort of prank – was inconceivable.

That was then.

Now we are in a place where the Internet is omnipresent.  It is used for sharing and viewing cat videos and for financial transactions.  It is used for the transmission of top secret information and buying cheese.  It connected to servers containing huge volumes of sensitive and personal customer data: social security numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, addresses, health information, etc.  And now, not a day goes by without reports of another breach.  Sometimes attributed to Anonymous, the Chinese, organized crime or kids with more time than sense, these break-ins are relentless and everyone is susceptible

So what to do?

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that, at the height of the cold war, when the United States captured a Soviet fighter jet and were examining it, they discovered that there was no solid state electronics in it.  The entire jet was designed using vacuum tubes.  That set the investigators thinking.  Were the Soviets merely backward or did they design using tubes to guard against EMP attacks?

Backward to the future?

Are we headed to a place where the most secure organizations will go offline.  They will revert to paper documents, file folders and heavy cabinets stored in underground vaults?  Of course such systems are not completely secure, as no system actually is.  On the other hand, a break in requires physical presence, carting away tons of documents requires physical strength and effort.  Paper is a material object that cannot be easily spirited away as a stream of electrons. Maybe that’s the solution. But what of all the information infrastructure built up for convenience, cost effectiveness, space savings and general efficiency? Do organizations spend more money going back to paper, staples, binders and hanging folders? And then purchase vast secure spaces to stow these materials?

Will there instead a technological fix in designing a parallel Internet infrastructure from the ground up redesigned so that it incorporates authentication, encryption and verifiable sender identification? Then all secure transactions and information could move to that newer, safer Internet? Is that newer, safer Internet just a .secure domain? Won’t that just be a bigger, better and more value laden target for evil-doers? And what about back-doors – even in a secure infrastructure, an open door or even a door with a breakable window ruins even the finest advanced security infrastructure.  And, of course, there is always social engineering of people that provides access more easily that any other technique. Or spies. Or people thinking they are “doing good”.

The real solution may not yet even be defined or known.  Is it Quantum Computing (which is really just a parallel environment of a differently-developed computing infrastructure)? Or is it really nothing – in that there is no solution and we are stuck with tactical solutions?  It’s an interesting question but for now, it is clear as it was some 20 years ago when Scott McNeally said it “The future of the Internet is security”.

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gate-with-no-fence-please-keep-locked-articleScott McNealy, the former CEO of the former Sun Microsystems, in the late 1990s, in an address to the Commonwealth Club said that the future of the Internet is in security. Indeed, it seems that there has been much effort and capital invested in addressing security matters. Encryption, authentication, secure transaction processing, secure processors, code scanners, code verifiers and host of other approaches to make your system and its software and hardware components into a veritable Fort Knox. And it’s all very expensive and quite time consuming (both in development and actual processing). And yet we still hear of routine security breeches, data and identity theft, on-line fraud and other crimes. Why is that? Is security impossible? Unlikely? Too expensive? Misused? Abused? A fiction?

Well, in my mind, there are two issues and they are the weak links in any security endeavour. The two actually have one common root. That common root, as Pogo might say, “is us”. The first one that has been in the press very much of late and always is the reliance on password. When you let the customers in and provide them security using passwords, they sign up using passwords like ‘12345’ or ‘welcome’ or ‘password’. That is usually combated through the introduction of password rules. Rules usually indicate that passwords must meet some minimum level of complexity. This would usually be something like requiring that each password must have a letter and a number and a punctuation mark and be at least 6 characters long. This might cause some customers to get so aggravated because they can’t use their favorite password that they don’t both signing up at all. Other end users get upset but change their passwords to “a12345!” or “passw0rd!” or “welc0me!”. And worst of all, they write the password down and put it in a sticky note on their computer.

Of course, ordinary users are not the only ones to blame, administrators are human, too, and equally as fallible. Even though they should know better, they are equally likely to have the root or administrator password left at the default “admin” or even nothing at all.

The second issue is directly the fault of the administrator – but it is wholly understandable. Getting a system, well a complete network of systems, working and functional is quite an achievement. It is not something to be toyed around with once things are set. When your OS supplier or application software provider delivers a security update, you will think many times over before risking system and network stability to apply it. The choice must be made. The administrator thinks: “Do I wreak havoc on the system – even theoretical havoc – to plug a security hole no matter how potentially damaging?” And considers that: “Maybe I can rely on my firewall…maybe I rely on the fact that our company isn’t much of a target…or I think it isn’t.” And rationalizes: “Then I can defer the application of the patch for now (and likely forever) in the name of stability.”

The bulk of hackers aren’t evil geniuses that stay up late at night doing forensic research and decompilation to find flaws, gaffes, leaks and holes in software and systems. No they are much more likely to be people who read a little about the latest flaws and the most popular passwords and spend their nights just trying stuff to see what they can see. A few of them even specialize in social engineering in which they simply guess or trick you into divulging your password – maybe by examining your online social media presence.

The notorious stuxnet malware worm may be a complex piece of software engineering but it would have done nothing were it not for the peril of human curiosity. The virus allegedly made its way into secure facilities on USB memory sticks. Those memory sticks were carried in human hands and inserted into the targeted computers by those same hands. How did they get into those human hands? A few USB sticks with the virus were probably sprinkled in the parking lot outside the facility. Studies have determined that people will pick up USB memory sticks they find and insert them in their PCs about 60% of the time. The interesting thing is that the likelihood of grabbing and using those USB devices goes up to over 90% if the device has a logo on it.

You can have all the firewalls and scanners and access badges and encryption and SecureIDs and retinal scans you want. In the end, one of your best and most talented employees grabbing a random USB stick and using it on his PC can be the root cause of devastation that could cost you staff years of time to undo.

So what do you do? Fire your employees? Institute policies so onerous that no work can be done at all? As is usual, the best thing to do is apply common sense. If you are not a prime target like a government, a security company or a repository of reams of valuable personal data – don’t go overboard. Keep your systems up-to-date. The time spent now will definitely pay off in the future. Use a firewall. A good one. Finally, be honest with your employees. Educate them helpfully. None of the scare tactics, no “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, just straight talk and a little humor to help guide and modify behavior over time.

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