Courtesy Klint Finley, Wired.co.uk
When NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden first emailed Glenn Greenwald, he insisted on using email encryption software called PGP for all communications. But this month, we learned that Snowden used another technology to keep his communications out of the NSA’s prying eyes. It’s called Tails. And naturally, nobody knows exactly who created it.
Tails is a kind of computer-in-a-box. You install it on a DVD or USB drive, boot up the computer from the drive and, voila, you’re pretty close to anonymous on the internet. At its heart, Tails is a version of the Linux operating system optimized for anonymity. It comes with several privacy and encryption tools, most notably Tor, an application that anonymizes a user’s internet traffic by routing it through a network of computers run by volunteers around the world.
Snowden, Greenwald and their collaborator, documentary film maker Laura Poitras, used it because, by design, Tails doesn’t store any data locally. This makes it virtually immune to malicious software, and prevents someone from performing effective forensics on the computer after the fact. That protects both the journalists, and often more importantly, their sources.
"The installation and verification has a learning curve to make sure it is installed correctly," Poitras told Wired by e-mail. "But once the set up is done, I think it is very easy to use."
An operating system for anonymity
Originally developed as a research project by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Tor has been used by a wide range of people who care about online anonymity: everyone from Silk Road drug dealers, to activists, whistleblowers, stalking victims and people who simply like their online privacy.
Tails makes it much easier to use Tor and other privacy tools. Once you boot into Tails — which requires no special setup — Tor runs automatically. When you’re done using it, you can boot back into your PC’s normal operating system, and no history from your Tails session will remain.
The developers of Tails are, appropriately, anonymous. All of Wired’s questions were collectively –and anonymously — answered by the group’s members via email.
They’re protecting their identities, in part, to help protect the code from government interference. "The NSA has been pressuring free software projects and developers in various ways," the group says, referring to a conference last year at which Linux creator Linus Torvalds implied that the NSA had asked him place a backdoor in the operating system.
But the Tails team is also trying to strike a blow against the widespread erosion of online privacy. "The masters of today’s Internet, namely the marketing giants like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, and the spying agencies, really want our lives to be more and more transparent online, and this is only for their own benefit," the group says. "So trying to counterbalance this tendency seems like a logical position for people developing an operating system that defends privacy and anonymity online."
But since we don’t know who wrote Tails, how do we now it isn’t some government plot designed to snare activists or criminals? A couple of ways, actually. One of the Snowden leaks show the NSA complaining about Tails in a Power Point Slide; if it’s bad for the NSA, it’s safe to say it’s good for privacy. And all of the Tails code is open source, so it can be inspected by anyone worried about foul play. "Some of us simply believe that our work, what we do, and how we do it, should be enough to trust Tails, without the need of us using our legal names," the group says.
According to the group, Tails began five years ago. "At that time some of us were already Tor enthusiasts and had been involved in free software communities for years," they says. "But we felt that something was missing to the panorama: a toolbox that would bring all the essential privacy enhancing technologies together and made them ready to use and accessible to a larger public."
The developers initially called their project Amnesia and based it on an existing operating system called Incognito. Soon the Amnesia and Incognito projects merged into Tails, which stands for The Amnesic Incognito Live System.
And while the core Tails group focuses on developing the operating system for laptops and desktop computers, a separate group is making a mobile version that can run on Android and Ubuntu tablets, provided the user has root access to the device.
Know your limitations
In addition to Tor, Tails includes privacy tools like PGP, the password management system KeePassX, and the chat encryption plugin Off-the-Record. But Tails doesn’t just bundle a bunch of off the shelf tools into a single package. Many of the applications have been modified to improve the privacy of its users.
But no operating system or privacy tool can guarantee complete protection in all situations.
Although Tails includes productivity applications like OpenOffice, GIMP and Audacity, it doesn’t make a great everyday operating system. That’s because over the course of day-to-day use, you’re likely to use one service or another that could be linked with your identity, blowing your cover entirely. Instead, Tails should only be used for the specific activities that need to be kept anonymous, and nothing else.
The developers list several other security warnings in the site documentation.
Of course the group is constantly working to fix security issues, and they’re always looking for volunteers to help with the project. They’ve also applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation, and are collecting donations via the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the group that first disclosed Tails’ role in the Snowden story.
That money could go a long way toward helping journalists — and others — stay away from the snoops. Reporters, after all, aren’t always the most tech-savvy people. As Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman told the Freedom of the Press Foundation, "Tails puts the essential tools in one place, with a design that makes it hard to screw them up. I could not have talked to Edward Snowden without this kind of protection. I wish I’d had it years ago."
Courtesy Peter Bright, ArsTechnica.com
Security company RSA was paid $10 million to use the flawed Dual_EC_DRBG pseudorandom number generating algorithm as the default algorithm in its BSafe crypto library, according to sources speaking to Reuters.
The Dual_EC_DRBG algorithm is included in the NIST-approved crypto standard SP 800-90 and has been viewed with suspicion since shortly after its inclusion in the 2006 specification. In 2007, researchers from Microsoft showed that the algorithm could be backdoored: if certain relationships between numbers included within the algorithm were known to an attacker, then that attacker could predict all the numbers generated by the algorithm. These suspicions of backdooring seemed to be confirmed this September with the news that the National Security Agency had worked to undermine crypto standards.
The impact of this backdooring seemed low. The 2007 research, combined with Dual_EC_DRBG’s poor performance, meant that the algorithm was largely ignored. Most software didn’t implement it, and the software that did generally didn’t use it.
One exception to this was RSA’s BSafe library of cryptographic functions. With so much suspicion about Dual_EC_DRBG, RSA quickly recommended that BSafe users switch away from the use of Dual_EC_DRBG in favor of other pseduorandom number generation algorithms that its software supported. This raised the question of why RSA had taken the unusual decision to use the algorithm in the first place given the already widespread distrust surrounding it.
RSA said that it didn’t enable backdoors in its software and that the choice of Dual_EC_DRBG was essentially down to fashion: at the time that the algorithm was picked in 2004 (predating the NIST specification), RSA says that elliptic curves (the underlying mathematics on which Dual_EC_DRBG is built) had become “the rage” and were felt to “have advantages over other algorithms.”
Reuters’ report suggests that RSA wasn’t merely following the trends when it picked the algorithm and that contrary to its previous claims, the company has inserted presumed backdoors at the behest of the spy agency. The $10 million that the agency is said to have been paid was more than a third of the annual revenue earned for the crypto library.
Other sources speaking to Reuters said that the government did not let on that it had backdoored the algorithm, presenting it instead as a technical advance.
Courtesy Gregg Keizer, Computerworld
The security researcher who yesterday was awarded $100,000 by Microsoft spent about two weeks pondering, then demonstrating a new way to circumvent Windows’ defensive technologies.
In an interview today, James Forshaw, the head of vulnerability research at U.K.-based Context Information Security, described in the most general terms the work that resulted in the big bounty.
"When Microsoft announced the initial bounties, I first thought about the mitigations I wanted to go over." said Forshaw. "Windows has a lot of mitigating in place, so I started to brainstorm. I asked myself, ‘How would I do it [if I was a cyber criminal]?’"
From start to finish — from those brainstorming sessions to an exploit that proved his mitigation bypass approach worked — Forshaw said he spent about half a month on the project. "From my initial thought to a full working proof of concept was about two weeks," he said.
Forshaw stressed that the two weeks of solid work were atop the years he’s spent in information security, hammering home the point that winning submissions, whether for a bonus program like Microsoft’s or those that browser makers and other vendors run to collect details on specific vulnerabilities, almost always goes to very experienced, long-time researchers.
"This is not something that anyone’s done before, but then again, nothing is completely revolutionary," said Forshaw.
Microsoft echoed that yesterday. In a Tuesday blog post, Katie Moussouris, a senior security strategist with the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC), and the manager of the bounty programs, said that a Microsoft engineer had independently found a variant of the attack technique class that Forshaw reported.
"But James’ submission was of such high quality and outlined some other variants such that we wanted to award him the full $100,000 bounty," wrote Moussouris.
Courtesy Sean Gallagher, ArsTechnica
Information security firm Trustwave has reported a potential cyber-attack vector to a device you may have never expected the phrase "security vulnerability" would be applied (other than in reference to the end of a toilet paper roll, that is). In an advisory issued August 1, Trustwave warned of a Bluetooth security vulnerability in Inax’s Satis automatic toilet.
Functions of the Satis—including the raising and lowering of its lid and operation of its bidet and flushing nozzles—can be remotely controlled from an Android application called "My Satis" over a Bluetooth connection. But the Bluetooth PIN to pair with the toilet—"0000"—is hard-coded into the app. "As such, any person using the ‘My Satis’ application can control any Satis toilet," the security advisory noted. "An attacker could simply download the ‘My Satis’ application and use it to cause the toilet to repeatedly flush, raising the water usage and therefore utility cost to its owner. Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, [or] activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user."
And you thought the only thing you had to worry about was dropping your phone into the toilet.
Courtesy Sean Gallagher, ArsTechnica
The National Security Agency’s broad Internet monitoring program can do a whole lot more than provide a look inside a person’s Internet life. According to documents on the X-Keyscore program published byThe Guardian, the system can also be used to find computers that are vulnerable to attack, allowing the NSA’s Tailored Access Office to exploit them.
A training slide on the capabilities of X-Keyscore provided to The Guardian by Edward Snowden entitled “TAO” (for Tailored Access Operations, the organization within the NSA that hacks the networks of foreign governments and organizations) states that vulnerability profiles used by TAO to find targeted systems can be used to “show me all the exploitable machines in country X.” The “fingerprints” for vulnerabilities are added as a filtering criteria for X-Keyscore’s filtering application “engines”—a worldwide distributed cluster of Linux servers attached to the NSA’s Internet backbone tap points.
Enlarge / "Show me all the exploitable machines in country X"—like searching for a banana bread recipe on Google.
This capability essentially turns X-Keyscore into a sort of passive port scanner, watching for network behaviors from systems that match the profiles of systems for which the NSA’s TSO has exploits constructed, or for systems that have already been exploited by other malware that the TSO can leverage. This could allow the NSA to search broadly for systems within countries such as China or Iran by watching for the network traffic that comes from them through national firewalls, at which point the NSA could exploit those machines to have a presence within those networks.
Other slides in the set of documents explain how X-Keyscore could be used to track down VPN sessions and determine who they belong to from selected countries. The program could also be used to capture metadata on the use of PGP encryptions in e-mails and encrypted Word documents for later decryption. While X-Keyscore keeps a "buffer" of all the Internet traffic it traps at its tap locations for about three days, metadata on traffic can be kept for up to 30 days, allowing the NSA to trace and store information on who created documents passing across the Internet. "No other system performs this on raw unselected bulk traffic," the document states—implying that searches can be made across traffic that hasn’t been specifically tagged for monitoring.
Whose VPN connection shall we crack today, Brain?
A high court judge has ruled that a computer scientist cannot publish an academic paper over fears that it could lead to vehicle theft.
Flavio Garcia, from the University of Birmingham, has cracked the algorithm behind Megamos Crypto—a system used by several luxury car brands to verify the identity of keys used to start the ignition. He was intending to present his results at the Usenix Security Symposium.
But Volkswagen’s parent company, which owns the Porsche, Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini brands, asked the court to prevent the scientist from publishing his paper. It said that the information could "allow someone, especially a sophisticated criminal gang with the right tools, to break the security and steal a car."
The company asked the scientists to publish a redacted version of the paper without the crucial codes, but the researchers declined, claiming that the information is publicly available online.
Instead, they protested that "the public have a right to see weaknesses in security on which they rely exposed," adding that otherwise, "industry and criminals know security is weak but the public do not."
The judge, Colin Birss, ultimately sided with the car companies, despite saying he "recognized the importance of the right for academics to publish."
Courtesy Dan Goodin, ArsTechnica
Enlarge / Unsafe at any speed: The speedometer of a 2010 Toyota Prius that has been hacked to report an incorrect reading.
Just about everything these days ships with tiny embedded computers that are designed to make users’ lives easier. High-definition TVs, for instance, can run Skype and Pandora and connect directly to the Internet, while heating systems have networked interfaces that allow people to crank up the heat on their way home from work. But these newfangled features can often introduce opportunities for malicious hackers. Witness "Smart TVs" from Samsung or a popular brand of software for controlling heating systems in businesses.
Now, security researchers are turning their attention to the computers in cars, which typically contain as many as 50 distinct ECUs—short for electronic control units—that are all networked together. Cars have relied on on-board computers for some three decades, but for most of that time, the circuits mostly managed low-level components. No more. Today, ECUs control or finely tune a wide array of critical functions, including steering, acceleration, braking, and dashboard displays. More importantly, as university researchers documented in papers published in 2010 and 2011, on-board components such as CD players, Bluetooth for hands-free calls, and "telematics" units for OnStar and similar road-side services make it possible for an attacker to remotely execute malicious code.
The research is still in its infancy, but its implications are unsettling. Trick a driver into loading the wrong CD or connecting the Bluetooth to the wrong handset, and it’s theoretically possible to install malicious code on one of the ECUs. Since the ECUs communicate with one another using little or no authentication, there’s no telling how far the hack could extend.
Later this week at the Defcon hacker conference, researchers plan to demonstrate an arsenal of attacks that can be performed on two popular automobiles: a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape, both 2010 models. Starting with the premise that it’s possible to infect one or more of the ECUs remotely and cause them to send instructions to other nodes, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek have developed a series of attacks that can carry out a range of scary scenarios. The researchers work for Twitter and security firm IOActive respectively.
Among the attacks: suddenly engaging the brakes of the Prius, yanking its steering wheel, or causing it to accelerate. On the Escape, they can disable the brakes when the SUV is driving slowly. With an $80,000 grant from the DARPA Cyber Fast Track program, they have documented the cars’ inner workings and included all the code needed to make the attacks work in the hopes of coming up with new ways to make vehicles that are more resistant to hacking.
Enlarge / The door is not really ajar.
"Currently, there is no easy way to write custom software to monitor and interact with the ECUs in modern automobiles," a white paper documenting their work states. "The fact that a risk of attack exists but there is not a way for researchers to monitor or interact with the system is distressing. This paper is intended to provide a framework that will allow the construction of such tools for automotive systems and to demonstrate the use on two modern automobiles."
The hacking duo reverse-engineered the vehicles’ CAN, or controller area networks, to isolate the code one ECU sends to another when requesting it take some sort of action, such as turning the steering wheel or disengaging the brakes. They discovered that the network has no mechanism for positively identifying the ECU sending a request or using an authentication passcode to ensure a message sent to a controller is coming from a trusted source. These omissions make it easy for them to monitor all messages sent over the network and to inject phony messages that masquerade as official requests from a trusted ECU.
"By examining the CAN on which the ECUs communicate, it is possible to send proprietary messages to the ECUs in order to cause them to take some action, or even completely reprogram the ECU," the researchers wrote in their report. "ECUs are essentially embedded devices, networked together on the CAN bus. Each is powered and has a number of sensors and actuators attached to them."
Using a computer connected to the cars’ On-Board Diagnostic System, Miller and Valasek were able to cause the vehicles to do some scary things. For instance, by tampering with the so-called Intelligent Park Assist System of the Prius, which helps drivers parallel park, they were able to jerk the wheel of the vehicle, even when it’s moving at high speeds. The feat takes only seconds to perform, but it involved a lot of work to initially develop, since it required requests made in precisely the right sequence from multiple ECUs. By replaying the request in the same order, they were able to control the steering even when the Prius wasn’t in reverse, as is usually required when invoking the park assist system. They developed similar techniques to control acceleration, braking, and other critical functions, as well as ways to change readings displayed by speedometers, odometers, and other dashboard features.
For a video demonstration of the hacks, see this segment from Monday’s The Today Show. In it, both Toyota and the Ford Motor company emphasize that the manipulations Miller and Valasek carry out require physical access to the car’s computer systems. That’s a fair point, but it’s also worth remembering the previous research showing that there are often more stealthy ways to commandeer a vehicle’s on-board computers. The aim behind this latest project wasn’t to develop new ways to take control but to show the range of things that are possible once that happens.
When combined with the previous research into hacking cars’ Bluetooth and other interfaces, the proof-of-concept exploits should serve as a wake-up call not only to automobile manufacturers, but to anyone designing other so-called Internet-of-things devices. If Apple, Microsoft, and the rest of the computing behemoths have to invest heavily to ensure their products are hack-resistant, so too will those embedding tiny computers into their once-mundane wares. A car, TV, or even your washing machine that interacts with Internet-connected services is only nifty until someone gets owned.