Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

Why some websites are deliberately designed to be insecure

Passwords remain the bane of our lives. People print them out, they re-use them or slightly change them for different services, or they simply use the same one for decades.

On the other side of the coin, for most users of a service, it’s a pain to remember a password and a bigger pain to change it – and then have to remember a new one all over again as websites change, they get hacked and/or their security policy changes.

But while passwords are imperfect, they’re the least worst option in most cases for identifying and authenticating a user, and the best way of making them more secure is to use each password for only one site, and make them long, complex, and hard to guess. However, some websites are purposely designed to be less secure by subverting those attempts. Here’s why.

2FA doesn’t work

Two-factor (2FA) authentication is often seen as a more secure method of authentication but it’s patchy at best. For example, the division between enterprise and personal environments has today all but evaporated. In the course of their jobs, people increasingly access their personal services at work using their personal devices. And employers can’t mandate 2FA for access to Facebook, for example, which might well be the chosen method of communication of a key supplier, or a way of communicating with potential customers. All FB wants is a password, and it’s not alone.

Two-factor authentication is also less convenient and takes more time. You’re prepared to tolerate this when accessing your bank account because, well, money. For most other, less important services, adding barriers to access is likely to drive users into the arms of the competition.

Password persistence

So we’re stuck with passwords until biometrics become a pervasive reality. And maybe not even then – but that’s a whole other issue. The best solution I’ve come up with to the password problem is a password manager. Specifically, KeePass, which is a free, open-source, cross-platform solution with a healthy community of third-party developers of plug-ins and utilities.

You only have to remember one password and that gets you access to everything. So you only have to remember one single master password or select the key file to unlock the whole database. And as the website says: “The databases are encrypted using the best and most secure encryption algorithms currently known (AES and Twofish).”

It works on your phone, your PC, your Mac, your tablet – you name it, and it’ll generate highly secure passwords for you, customised to your needs. So what’s not to like?

Pasting problems

Here’s the rub: some websites think they’re being more secure by preventing you from pasting a password into their password entry fields. Some website security designers will argue that that passwords to access their service should not be stored in any form. But a password manager works by pasting passwords into the password login field.

The rationale for preventing password pasting is that malware can snoop the clipboard and pass that information back to the crooks. But this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut because KeePass uses an obfuscation method to ensure the clipboard can’t be sniffed. And it will clear the password in a very short time – configurable by you – so that the exposure time can be very short; 10 seconds will do it.

In addition, as Troy Hunt, a Microsoft MVP for Developer Security, points out: “the irony of this position is that [it] makes the assumption that a compromised machine may be at risk of its clipboard being accessed but not its keystrokes. Why pull the password from memory for the small portion of people that elect to use a password manager when you can just grab the keystrokes with malware?”

In other words, preventing pasting is counter-productive; it’s reducing security. Don’t believe me? Check out this scenario.

Insecure by design

So if you can’t paste a password in, what do you do? If you use a password manager, which is probably the most secure way of storing passwords today and puts you way ahead of the game, you open up the entry for that service in KeePass, expose the password to any prying eye that happens to be passing, and copy in the password – which is likely to be long and complex – manually, character by character. Probably takes a few minutes.

Can you see anything wrong with that? If you’re sitting in a crowded coffee shop, for example?

Yup. A no-paste policy is annoying, slow, prone to mistakes, and highly insecure. Worse, it’s likely to be the security-conscious – those using password managers and the like – who are most affected. Even a simple file full of passwords – hopefully encrypted – and tucked away in an obscure location is likely to be more secure than the method many if not most people use: re-using common, easily memorable passwords.

I’ve had discussions about this with one major UK bank which implemented a no-paste policy and seems since to have reversed course – whether as a result of my intervention (and no doubt that of others too) I have no way of knowing.

Say no to no-paste

So if you encounter a website that does not allow you to paste in a password in a mistaken bid to add security, point out to them that in effect, they’re forcing people to use weak passwords that they can remember, which will be less secure.

As Troy Hunt says: “we’ve got a handful of websites forcing customers into creating arbitrarily short passwords then disabling the ability to use password managers to the full extent possible and to make it even worse, they’re using a non-standard browser behaviour to do it!”


Filed under: passwords, Security, Technology

How to stay safe on the Internet – trust no-one

Working close to the IT industry as I do, it’s hard to avoid the blizzard of announcements and general excitement around the growth of the Internet of things allied to location-based services. This, we are told, will be a great new way to market your goods and services to consumers.

You can get your sales assistants to greet shoppers by name! You can tell them about bargains by text as they walk past your store! You might even ring them up! Exclamation marks added for general effect.

But here’s the thing. Most people don’t trust big corporations any more, according to the recently published 2013 IT Risk/Reward Barometer report. Instead, finds this international study: “Across all markets surveyed, the vast majority of consumers worry that their information will be stolen (US: 90%, Mexico: 91%, India: 88%, UK: 86%).”

As a result, blizzard marketing of the kind that triangulation technologies now permits makes people feel uneasy at best and downright annoyed at worst. People ask themselves questions about who has their data, how they got it, and what control they have over that data once it’s escaped into the ether.

From ICASA’s point of view, this is largely the fault of individuals who don’t control their passwords properly or otherwise secure their systems. It’s an auditing organisation, so that’s not an unusual position to adopt. But I think it goes further than that.

As the study also points out: “Institutional trust is a critical success factor in an increasingly connected world. […] Organisations have much work to do to increase consumer (and employee) trust in how personal information is used.”

In other words, companies need to work harder at winning your trust. Does that make you feel any better?

This is clearly not an issue that will be solved – ever. For every ten organisations that are trustworthy and manage personal data responsibly – you do read that text-wall of privacy policy each time you log onto a new site, don’t you? – there will be one that doesn’t. Even if all companies were trustworthy, people will still make mistakes and hackers will win the security battle from time to time, resulting in compromised personal data.

The only rational policy for the rest of us to adopt is to trust none of them, and that is what this study shows most people tend to do.

The least you should do is to use long, complex passwords and change them regularly, using a password safe (eg KeePass) so you don’t have commit them to memory – or worse, bits of paper.

FYI, the study was conducted by ICASA, which describes itself “an independent, nonprofit, global association, ISACA engages in the development, adoption and use of globally accepted, industry-leading knowledge and practices for information systems.”

Filed under: data protection, Security, Technology, , , ,

Whom do you trust?

Keeping your data secure is something you need to be constantly aware of. Apart from the army of people out there who actively seek your credit card and other financial and personal details, not to mention the breadcrumbs that accumulate to a substantial loaf of data on social media, it’s too easy to give the stuff away on your own.

It’s really all about trust. We’re not very good at choosing whom we trust, as we tend to trust people we know – or even people we have around us sometimes. As an example, I present a little scenario I encountered yesterday on a train.

The train divides en route, so to get to your destination, you need to be in the right portion of the train. An individual opposite me sat for 45 minutes through seemingly endless announcements – from the guard, the scrolling dot matrix screens, and the irritatingly frequent, automated announcements – all conveying the same information both before, during and after the three or four stops before we arrived at the decision point about which bit of the train to be in.

At the station where a decision had to be made, she leaned across and asked if she was in the right portion of the train for her destination.

Why? She would rather trust other passengers than the umpteen announcements. She’s not alone, as I’ve seen this happen countless times.

So it’s all about whom you trust. As passengers, we were trustworthy.

So presumably were the security researchers with clipboards standing at railway stations asking passengers for their company PC’s password in exchange for a cheap biro. They gathered plenty of passwords.

I recently left a USB phone charger in a hotel belonging to a major international chain. They said they would post it back if I sent them a scanned copy of my credit card to cover the postage. That they offered suggests there must be plenty of people willing to take the gamble that their email won’t be read by someone who shouldn’t. Not to mention what happens after the hotel has finished with the data. Can they be sure the email would be securely deleted?

I declined the offer and suggested that this major chain could afford the £7 it would cost to pop it in the post. Still waiting, but not with bated breath. I don’t trust them.

Filed under: data protection, Security, Technology

Solving the ‘too many passwords’ problem

Recent events at Evernote, which was hacked and whose file containing users’ passwords could have been stolen, reminds us that, despite the insistence of the IT security industry that passwords offer poor security, that’s what we all continue to use. But there is a way to make remembering passwords easier.

As ever, there’s a trade-off between convenience and security and, it would appear that most of us, especially at the small business and consumer level, don’t want the hassle that stronger security involves. Usually, it involves some form of two-part authentication – something know and something you have – and the banks have gone furthest in implementing this. You know the drill: give us a number and then tell us something else you know.

I reckon most people can cope with this – even I, with my appalling memory, can handle it.

And then there are the burgeoning numbers of passwords we need to remember for the rest of our lives which, whether we like it or not, we are increasingly being forced to conduct online. And this is my point.

I’ve been accessing online services since 1992, so I’ve used a lot of passwords. To start with, there weren’t that many, and it was easy to remember them. The numbers of services grew and I started using the same or similar passwords for services that fell into the same category.

That’s not great security – so after hunting for a solution, I discovered a free, lightweight password generator which I used for over 10 years – until about three years ago.

What happened? The generator worked fine and produced unique passwords tied to the name of the service, but it had a number of limitations.

First of these was its inability to tune passwords to the requirements of some sites – the ones that demand a specific password length and/or format – so many digits and capitals, and no repetitions, for example.

The second was more serious: it was Windows-only. That was fine at first as I still run mainly Windows, but as mobile devices have become more capable, I now access multiple services on tablets and smartphones too – they don’t run Windows.

At that point, the answer was clearly a password safe. After some research I lit on KeePass. As the product’s website says: “KeePass is a free open source password manager, which helps you to manage your passwords in a secure way. You can put all your passwords in one database, which is locked with one master key or a key file. So you only have to remember one single master password or select the key file to unlock the whole database. The databases are encrypted using the best and most secure encryption algorithms currently known (AES and Twofish).”

Even better, it’s cross-platform – as well as Windows, there are versions for iOS, Android, MacOS, J2ME, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 – and it works. You can drive it using hotkeys so, for example, Ctrl-Alt-K brings up the database containing your passwords, which you can import from pretty much any file format you like. Other hotkeys will auto-type passwords and/or usernames into your web browser, or you can cut and paste them, in which case the software removes them from memory after a short while to enhance security.

There’s a host of other features but it’s a very easy application to set up and to use – you can get into the more advanced stuff when you’re good and ready. For example, Evernote asked all users to reset their passwords as a following the hack. KeePass generated a new password for Evernote to a security standard I’m happy with, and that was it – no dramas.

So if you ever find that you have too many passwords to remember, take a look at KeePass: free, easy to use, and does the job superbly, in my view.

UPDATE 7 June 2017
Since writing this blog post, I’ve continued to use KeePass and have not changed by positive opinion of it. I’d say though that it remains head and shoulders above an oft-touted alternative, LastPass, which is cloud-based. This means that your password and other data are not always under your personal control – and that if the company is hacked, (as almost all large targets at some point are more likely to be), then your database could be vulnerable.

Far better to stay in full control, using your own resources and two-factor authentication (2FA) to sync the password database: the combination of 2FA and encryption is mighty tough (you can never say impossible but it’s as good as in practical terms) to break.

On the other hand, I’ve stopped using Evernote, having found that Microsoft’s OneNote does it better – and remains free to use.

Filed under: Security, ,

2012: the tech year in view (part 1)

As 2012 draws to a close, here’s a round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way this year. This is part 1 of 2 – part 2 will be posted on Monday 31 December 2012.

Virsto, a company making software that boosts storage performance by sequentialising the random data streams from multiple virtual machines, launched Virsto for vSphere 2.0. According to the company, this adds features for virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI), and it can lower the cost of providing storage for each desktop by 50 percent. The technology can save money because you need less storage to deliver sufficient data throughput, says Virsto.

At the IPExpo show, I spoke with Overland which has added a block-based product called SnapSAN to its portfolio. According to the company, the SnapSAN 3000 and 5000 offer primary storage using SSD for cacheing or auto-tiering. This “moves us towards the big enterprise market while remaining simple and cost-effective,” said a spokesman. Also, Overland’s new SnapServer DX series now includes dynamic RAID, which works somewhat like Drobo’s system in that you can install differently sized disks into the array and still use all the capacity.

Storage startup Tegile is one of many companies making storage arrays with both spinning and solid-state disks to boost performance and so, the company claims boost performance cost-effectively. Tegile claims it reduces data aggressively, using de-duplication and compression, and so cuts the cost of the SSD overhead. Its main competitor is Nimble Storage.

Nimble itself launched a so-called ‘scale to fit’ architecture for its hybrid SSD-spinning disk arrays this year, adding a rack of expansion shelves that allows capacity to be expanded. It’s a unified approach, says the company, which means that adding storage doesn’t mean you need to perform a lot of admin moving data around.

Cloud computing
Red Hat launched OpenShift Enterprise, a cloud-based platform service (PaaS). This is, says Red Hat, a solution for developers to launch new projects, including a development toolkit that allows you to quickly fire up new VM instances. Based on SE Linux, you can fire up a container and get middleware components such as JBoss, php, and a wide variety of languages. The benefits, says the company, are that the system allows you to pool your development projects.

Red Hat also launched Enterprise Virtualization 3.1, a platform for hosting virtual servers with up to 160 logical CPUs and up to 2TB of memory per virtual machine. It adds command line tools for administrators, and features such as RESTful APIs, a new Python-based software development kit, and a bash shell. The open source system includes a GUI to allow you to manage hundreds of hosts with thousands of VMs, according to Red Hat.

HP spoke to me at IPExpo about a new CGI rendering system that it’s offering as a cloud-based service. According to HP’s Bristol labs director, it’s 100 percent automated and autonomic. It means that a graphics designer uses a framework to send a CGI job to a service provider who creates the film frame. The service works by estimating the number of servers required, sets them up and configures them automatically in just two minutes, then tears them down after delivery of the video frames. The evidence that it works can apparently be seen in the animated film Madagascar where, to make the lion’s mane move realistically, calculations were needed for 50,000 individual hairs.

For the future, HP Labs is looking at using big data and analytics for security purposes and is looking at providing an app store for analytics as a service.

I also spoke with Rapid7, an open-source security company that offers a range of tools for companies large and small to control and manage the security of their digital assets. It includes a vulnerability scanner, Nexpose, a penetration testing tool, Metasploit, and Mobilisafe, a tool for mobile devices that “discovers, identifies and eliminates risks to company data from mobile devices”, according to the company. Overall, the company aims to provide “solutions for comprehensive security assessments that enable smart decisions and the ability to act effectively”, a tall order in a crowded security market.

I caught up with Druva, a company that develops software to protect mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. Given the explosive growth in the numbers of end-user owned devices in companies today, this company has found itself in the right place at the right time. New features added to its flagship product inSync include better usability and reporting, with the aim of giving IT admins a clearer idea of what users are doing with their devices on the company network.

Enterasys – once Cabletron for the oldies around here – launched a new wireless system, IdentiFi. The company calls it wireless with embedded intelligence offering wired-like performance but with added security. The system can identify issues of performance and identity, and user locations, the company says, and it integrates with Enterasys’ OneFabric network architecture that’s managed using a single database.

The growth of virtualisation in datacentres has resulted in a need to manage the virtual machines, so a number of companies focusing on this problem have sprung up. Among them is vKernel, whose product vOPS Server aims to be a tool for admins that’s easy to use; experts should feel they have another pair of hands to help them do stuff, was how one company spokesman put it. The company, now owned by Dell, claims it has largest feature set for virtualisation management when you include its vKernel and vFoglight products, which provide analysis, advice and automation of common tasks.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, data protection, Enterprise, mobile, Networking, Product, Product launch, Security, Servers, Storage, Systems management, Technology, , , , , , , , , ,

Technology predictions for 2013

The approaching end of the year marks the season of predictions for and by the technology industry for the next year, or three years, or decade. These are now flowing in nicely, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Shine to rub off Apple
I don’t believe that the lustre that attaches to everything Apple does will save it from the ability of its competitors to do pretty much everything it does, but without the smugness. Some of this was deserved when it was the only company making smartphones, but this is no longer true. and despite the success of the iPhone 5, I wonder if its incremental approach – a slightly bigger screen and some nice to have features – will be enough to satisfy in the medium term. With no dictatorial obsessive at the top of a company organised and for around that individual’s modus operandi, can Apple make awesome stuff again, but in a more collective way?

We shall see, but I’m not holding my breath.

Touch screens
Conventional wisdom says that touchscreens only work when they are either horizontal and/or attached to a handheld device. It must be true: Steve Jobs said so. But have you tried using a touchscreen laptop? Probably not.

One reviewer has, though, and he makes a compelling case for them, suggesting that they don’t lead to gorilla arm, after all. I’m inclined to agree that a touchscreen laptop could become popular, as they share a style of interaction with users’ phones – and they’re just starting to appear. Could Apple’s refusal to make a touchscreen MacBook mean it’s caught wrong-footed on this one?

I predict that touchscreen laptops will become surprisingly popular.

Windows 8
Everyone’s a got a bit of a downer on Windows 8. After all, it’s pretty much Windows 7 but with a touchscreen interface slapped on top. Doesn’t that limit its usefulness? And since enterprises are only now starting to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 — and this might be the last refresh cycle that sees end users being issued with company PCs — doesn’t that spell the end for Windows 8?

I predict that it will be more successful than many think: not because it’s especially great because it certainly has flaws, especially when used with a mouse, which means learning how to use the interface all over again.

In large part, this is because the next version of Windows won’t be three years away or more, which has tended to be the release cycle of new versions. Instead, Microsoft is aiming for a series of smaller, point releases, much as Apple does but hopefully without the annoying animal names from which it’s impossible to derive an understanding of whether you’ve got the latest version.

So Windows Blue – the alleged codename – is the next version and will take into account lessons from users’ experiences with Windows 8, and take account of the growth in touchscreens by including multi-touch. And it will be out in 2013, probably the third quarter.

Bring your own device
The phenomenon whereby firms no longer provide employees with a computing device but instead allow you to bring your own, provided it fulfils certain security requirements, will blossom.

IT departments hate this bring your own device policy because it’s messy and inconvenient but they have no choice. They had no choice from the moment the CEO walked into the IT department some years ago with his shiny new iPhone – he was the first because he was the only one able to afford one at that point – and commanded them to connect it to the company network. They had to comply and, once that was done, the floodgates opened. The people have spoken.

So if you work for an employer, expect hot-desking and office downsizing to continue as the austerity resulting from the failed economic policies of some politicians continue to be pursued, in the teeth of evidence of their failure.

In the datacentre
Storage vendors will be snapped up by the deep-pocketed big boys – especially Dell and HP – as they seek to compensate for their mediocre financial performance by buying companies producing new technologies, such as solid-state disk caching and tiering.

Datacentres will get bigger as cloud providers amalgamate, and will more or less be forced to consider and adopt software-defined networking (SDN) to manage their increasingly complex systems. SDN promises to do that by virtualising the network, in the same way as the other major datacentre elements – storage and computing – have already been virtualised.

And of course, now that virtualisation is an entirely mainstream technology, we will see even bigger servers hosting more complex and mission-critical applications such as transactional databases, as the overhead imposed by virtualisation shrinks with each new generation of technology. What is likely to lag however is the wherewithal to manage those virtualised systems, so expect to see some failures as virtual servers go walkabout.

Despite the efforts of technologists to secure systems – whether for individuals or organisations, security breaches will continue unabated. Convenience trumps security every time, experience teaches us. And this means that people will find increasingly ingenious ways around technology designed to stop them walking around with the company’s customer database on a USB stick in their pocket, or exposing the rest of the world to a nasty piece of malware because they refuse to update their operating system’s defences.

That is, of course, not news at all, sadly.

Filed under: Cloud computing, Consumer, data protection, desktops, Enterprise, Laptop, mobile, Networking, operating systems, Product, Security, Servers, Storage, Technology, , , , , , , , , , ,

New developments in open source security

I just spent some time talking to Claudio Guarnieri, European security researcher for Rapid7, about some interesting new open source security developments. Guarnieri is responsible for Cuckoo Sandbox, a malware analysis system. His website reckons that “you can throw any suspicious file at it and in a matter of seconds Cuckoo will provide you back some detailed results outlining what such file did when executed inside an isolated environment.”

But he was also talking about a USB threat detection software which appears to be unique. Ghost USB Honeypot is a honeypot for malware which spreads via USB storage devices. The aim is to fool malware into infecting a fake device, from which point you can trap and/or analyse the malware.

It works by emulating a USB device so that, if a computer is infected by malware which propagates using USB flash drives, as so much of it does, the honeypot will trick the malware into infecting the emulated device, where it can be detected without compromising the host system. This kind of attack can particularly difficult to detect because it can attack high security machines that aren’t network-connected. Stuxnet was one such.

To anyone looking at it from user space or from higher levels in the kernel-mode storage architecture, the Ghost drive appears to be a real removable storage device, that strives to behave exactly like disk.sys, the operating system’s disk class driver. The key to its operation is that malware should not be able to detect that it’s not a real USB device.

You can drive it from a GUI or from the command line, and the aim is for companies to be able to deploy the software on standard client machines without the user having to get involved.

In fact, ideally, according to Ghost’s developer, Bonn University student Sebastian Poeplau, the best way to get this to work successfully is to hide it from the user so they don’t try to write to it. In this way, any write access can be assumed to be malware, and the data written is copied into an image file and can be copied off for later analysis. There’s a video of a recent presentation Poeplau gave about the project, its rationale and how it works, here.

Filed under: Business, desktops, Enterprise, Product, Security, , , , , , , , ,

Manek’s twitter stream