Holding your phone wrong is … right?

A big joke in the cellphone industry was the excuse Apple gave for the “antennagate” issue upon introduction of the iPhone 4: “you’re holding it wrong.”  Funny enough, holding it wrong may be the way to go in the future.

You’ve probably seen published lists of the most commonly used PIN numbers, including such creative numerology as 1111 or 5683 (spells out LOVE). Security experts look at those lists and shake our heads wondering what people were thinking when they hit “1” four times and thought their phone was secure.

Of course, at least they’re using a PIN of some sort in an effort to protect their phone. Even if the PIN is considered “weak,” the stark reality is most people don’t use one simply because PIN codes are inconvenient and take time to enter. In fact, most people don’t use any means of data protection at all.

Thank goodness you’re not one of those PIN-less cellphone users, right?

Well, what if I told you your PIN, no matter how cleverly created, is now trivial to hack?  And that nifty complicated thumb sliding lock pattern you came up with that would require the hacker to be double-jointed to pull off?  Even easier.

There’s a new PIN and lock pattern proof-of-concept hack from Dr. Adam Aviv and his team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that uses the accelerometer in your phone to detect how it moves in space specifically during the unlock process.  As you move your thumb to hit the PIN numbers or trace the unlock pattern, this hack track the accelerometer data and matches it against its database of known patterns. They’ve been working on this attack vector for a few years now. Their previous approach utilized the gyroscopic sensors which lead to very imprecise measurements, but this new approach uses the accelerometer sensor in a “high bandwidth” mode and the results are pretty spectacular. In controlled settings with the subject seated they were able to guess the PIN number used 43% of the time and the unlock pattern 73% of the time.  When the subject was walking, the accuracy dropped greatly due to the additional movement noise introduced to the sensors that resulted in only 20% of PINs and 40% of patterns guessed.  They also mention the possibility of utilizing machine learning to determine text-based passwords as well, but mention no collected data against it.

I suspect long key presses for alternate characters may be difficult to decipher from the accelerometer data, but they do briefly mention key permutations (each key having multiple values from long presses), which increases the number of guesses required to get a four number PIN combination. If one were to use a very complicated password or random characters you could make it highly unlikely to guess your password using this method. Of course, you would also be spending the bulk of your time on your Smartphone entering an unlock password.

Another possible solution is to change the orientation of your phone (i.e. holding it wrong). Since Dr. Aviv’s team is only reading the accelerometer values and not the gyroscope values, which track pitch and roll of your phone, one could throw their data off. If they accounted for this circumstance and polled the gyroscope to determine orientation values while polling the accelerometer, the data sets would be much more complex as a result.

So clearly the best response to this type of attack method is to boogie down, run, jump, etc. while unlocking your phone. Personally, I’m working on some sick dubstep and James Brown moves to go along with my android unlock pattern that should make it near unreadable.


June Updates and Patch Report

It’s “Patch Tuesday” week again, so let’s summarize several of the more important updates and patches.


Did you know there were two sets up updates this month? The normal Tuesday updates came out as expected, but before that, there was a special update to make sure this week’s updates were trustworthy. What happened is that Flame made the news and a part of the malware was designed to take advantage of a flaw with Microsoft certificates. So, to fix it, Microsoft had to release an update… but since that certificate was part of the update process, it had to be released early.

If you did not apply the update when it first came out, you’ll probably be okay. However, this is yet another example of why it’s important to stay on top of these. If you fall behind, not only are you unprotected against current threats, but you also cannot trust the updates that are waiting in the wings. If you are worried about falling behind, it may be time to consider patch management software.

The second round included updates for Remote Desktop, Internet Explorer and .Net. The IE one is being exploited, so update your workstations and laptops ASAP. Also, if you are one of the many companies exposing Remote Desktop to the internet, this is a very good example as to why that isn’t the best strategy. The flaw made public this week allows people to access those systems without logging in. If you are accessing RDP directly over the internet, it’s time to stop. There are some extremely simple and cost effective (some even free) VPN solutions out there. Please use them.

More details are here and here.

The Always-Expanding Hack List

If you regularly use LinkedIn, Last.fm, Twitter and/or eHarmony, it’s time to change your passwords. It’s also time to trust the users of those sites a little bit less. When a password breach occurs, not only is your data at risk, but so are all of your social connections. If one of your friends had a weak password, someone could log into their account and view all the information you share with them. While there’s nothing we can do directly in response to these attacks other than change our passwords, we really need to start putting more pressure on these sites to ensure they are protecting our data with better than minimal standards. If you are in the position of storing customer data, you might want to review your own processes, too. It’d be better to do that before a breach.


Adobe has released an update for … ColdFusion. If you’re not using ColdFusion, you don’t have to worry about Adobe patches this month. Also, if you’re running ColdFusion 10, you’re good. Kind of a shocker, I know.

If you’re running an older version of ColdFusion, read the details here.


It’s out … it’s finally out!  If you’re running vSphere 5, you can read the hardening guide.  This is a guide to both hardening AND assessing VMware infrastructures. Basically, all the auditors now have guidance, so expect them to get more annoying about it. Also, expect your assessors to have more documentation backing up why certain changes should be made. A good plan would be to actually make them! It’s usually going to make sense for you and the time you spend arguing would be better spent fixing issues.

I know that making some changes to a virtual environment can affect a lot of servers, but guess what happens if a flaw in your system is abused? I am firmly of the mind that a planned outage is much better than an unplanned one. Please harden your infrastructure.


Sadly, Apple did not release an IOS hardening guide. Instead, they just lifted the curtain a little bit and gave us a peek inside with the IOS security specs. If you are writing policies around mobile devices and have to support Apple, you should probably read this. It will also help you assess MDM solutions.


If you’re running PHP, you should know it’s being attacked.  Keep it updated and if you can, seriously consider layering PHP-Suhosin, Mod_Security2 and AppArmor around it. PHP is good for developers, but it’s also good for attackers. If you want to use it for the former, you have to accept the risk from the latter.


Please excuse the tech speak here. If you are running MySQL and it was compiled with GCC using SSE, people can likely log into your system with the wrong password. Details are here. This issue is known to affect Ubuntu 64bit, OpenSUSE 64bit, Debian Unstable 64bit, Fedora and Arch Linux. Luckily, the more commonly used Ubuntu 32bit, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and the official binaries from MySQL are not affected.

In general, you should apply the patch immediately when available. You should also only expose your MySQL interface to the applications that need them and to the DBA’s network. Most real world problems involving this vulnerability involve people who chose to make MySQL accessible over the internet. Like RDP, there are almost no good reasons to do this … so don’t.

Last.fm leaks passwords

LinkedIn wasn’t the only major web presence with a security breach last week. Popular streaming music service, Last.fm, sent out emails this weekend to their 40+ million subscribers regarding a password breach and were quick to point out the breach only affected a “small fraction” of users and that “this follows recent password leaks on other sites …” I suppose if everyone else is doing it, you might as well join in on the fun!

As a Last.fm user, I received one of their customer emails. Unfortunately, it went straight to my Spam box and I didn’t see it until this morning. Here’s what it said:

Much like the LinkedIn breach, the same rules for changing your password that Josh outlined last week apply with Last.fm. In case you missed his post, read it here. Otherwise, here are Josh’s tips for creating a strong password:

  • Change your password to something random, long and complex… at least 20 characters.
  • Do not use this password anywhere else.
  • If you don’t remember these sorts of passwords easily, use a tool like KeePassLastPass or1Password.
  • If you are responsible for the security of others, get them to change their passwords too.

Isn’t that easy? Now go and change your Last.fm password and your LinkedIn one, too, if you haven’t already done so. And if you’re looking for love via eHarmony (data breach last Wednesday), change that password, as well!

LinkedIn Password Leak – Whose Interests are being Served?

As I’m sure most of you have heard, there is a LinkedIn password breach going on. As breaches continue to happen, they seem to move faster and faster. Within 24 hours of the breach occurring, 60% of over six million passwords were cracked. Since people are also reading blogs more quickly these days, I’ll leap straight into what you need to do. Then if you’re still interested, keep reading for a bit of analysis.

  • Change your LinkedIn password to something random, long and complex… at least 20 characters.
  • Do not use this password anywhere else.
  • If you don’t remember these sorts of passwords easily, use a tool like KeePassLastPass or1Password.
  • If you are responsible for the security of others, get them to change their passwords too.

That’s it.

Now, let’s look at what happened. First of all, a set of six million encrypted passwords appeared within the attacker community and help was asked for in cracking them. Now, the passwords are referred to as unsalted SHA1. This means that, while the passwords were encrypted using a reasonable algorithm, they were not salted. This means they are much easier to crack and this explains the speed with which they were found out.

The passwords were posted without email addresses. However, it is not reasonable to assume that malicious attackers would ask for help cracking passwords that they couldn’t use, so it is very likely that they have this information. They may also have a pile of passwords that were NOT posted because they had already cracked those passwords. So, understanding these facets of the attacker community, let’s look at LinkedIn’s response.

  • Members that have accounts associated with the compromised passwords will notice that their LinkedIn account password is no longer valid.
  • These members will also receive an email from LinkedIn with instructions on how to reset their passwords. There will not be any links in this email. Once you follow this step and request password assistance, then you will receive an email from LinkedIn with a password reset link.
  • These affected members will receive a second email from our Customer Support team providing a bit more context on this situation and why they are being asked to change their passwords.

On the face of it, this is reasonable. After all, if LinkedIn sent you an email with a password reset link, it’d look a whole lot similar to a fraudulent email with a password stealing link (which if you follow that link, is happening right now). So, props to LinkedIn for thinking this through.

However, there is still the matter of trust.

See, the key to this whole response is “Members that have accounts associated with the compromised passwords”. This concerns me as it implies that LinkedIn pulled encrypted passwords from their database and compared them to the PUBLIC breach data. Which means they could be missing accounts attackers have not released … perhaps ones with simple passwords or particularly sensitive account details. Suppose they filtered out all accounts that started as “ceo@” or “president@”. Intelligent criminals would want to keep those sorts of accounts to themselves, even if they took a while longer to crack.

One of the core rules of dealing with a data breach is if you don’t know how it happened and can prove it only affected a limited number of accounts, you must assume they are compromised. In this case, a better security response would be to put information about the breach on the front page. At this time, there’s nothing there. Once I log in, though, there is a tiny link under “LinkedIn Today” that references an article on CNN about the breach. Basically, there is nothing prominent or official other than their blog … which you must be following to notice.

The response that I would like to see would involve the following pieces:

  • Information as to what happened and what LinkedIn is doing to prevent a recurrence.
  • Information about how to select a good password and change it on the system.
  • This information sent out via email, posted on the blog and highlighted after logging in to the system.

Instead, the best we get is this advice, which is inadequate. Let’s pick this apart. The original is in italics. My commentary will be in bold.

Changing Your Password:

  • Never change your password by following a link in an email that you did not request, since those links might be compromised and redirect you to the wrong place.
    • I agree with this.
  • You can change your password from the LinkedIn Settings page. 
    • If your account has been compromised, you should be locked out and unable to access the Settings page. They should direct people to the next bullet instead.
  • If you don’t remember your password, you can get password help by clicking on the Forgot password? link on the Sign in page.
    • This is good, as it requires any password to involve an out-of-band mechanism like access to your email account.
  • In order for passwords to be effective, you should aim to update your online account passwords every few months or at least once a quarter.
    • Bad, bad, bad! Needing to change passwords frequently implies poor security on the part of the administrators. If they are monitoring their systems and capable of knowing when an event occurs, they will tell you when to change your password. People that are forced to frequently change passwords tend to select weaker passwords and use them on more sites. This means that if ANY site is breached, ALL accounts are placed at risk. This is probably the worst advice they give.

Creating a Strong Password:

  • Variety – Don’t use the same password on all the sites you visit.
    • Good. Also, don’t use the same base. For example, if you pick “password123″ as a base, and your LinkedIn password was “password123LI”, it’s not a big stretch to “password123FB” for Facebook or “password123WF” for Wells Fargo.
  • Don’t use a word from the dictionary.
    • I think we put too much emphasis on this. The fact is the dictionaries we use in the security world are very different from your average Mirriam Webster or OED.
  • Length – Select strong passwords that can’t easily be guessed with 10 or more characters.
    • I think that 10 is too short. I say 20 above. Most of mine are over 30. The longer the password, the more time you have to deal with resets in the event of a breach.
  • Think of a meaningful phrase, song or quote and turn it into a complex password using the first letter of each word.
    • Passphrases are good… completely random strings are better. I like to use passphrases to access my password wallets, and the wallets to store the real passwords.
  • Complexity – Randomly add capital letters, punctuation or symbols.
    • I agree with the general intent here, but humans are bad at randomness. Let a computer generate your passwords and you’ll be a lot better off.
  • Substitute numbers for letters that look similar (for example, substitute “0″ for “o” or “3″ for “E”.
    • Bad advice. Most attacker dictionaries include these substitutions so it only makes things more difficult for you.
  • Never give your password to others or write it down.
    • Well, never give your password to others anyway. If you can’t remember a good password, write it down.  Just store the paper in a secure place… like a safe. Better yet, store it in a password wallet system that keeps the datafile in a digital “safe”, properly encrypted and away from prying eyes.

A few other account security and privacy best practices to keep in mind are:

  • Sign out of your account after you use a publicly shared computer.
    • You know what would be better? “Don’t sign into your account from a public computer.”
  • Manage your account information and privacy settings from the Profile and Account sections of your Settings page.
    • If you understand the privacy settings in each social media system you use, give yourself a gold star. It might be better if sites like LinkedIn had secure defaults and users could choose to weaken them.
  • Keep your antivirus software up to date.
    • Yes, because of all the LinkedIn viruses we see running amok. This is like a car company issuing a brake recall with the advice “remember to only drive on roads”. The truth is that anti-malware systems are needed because our operating system and application vendors have failed in their jobs. It’s not LinkedIn’s fault, but the advice doesn’t really belong here either.
  • Don’t put your email address, address or phone number in your profile’s Summary.
    • Really?  I mean, REALLY?  Isn’t the whole point of LinkedIn to share your contact information with others? Hmm… perhaps LinkedIn’s stock does better if people only contact one another through LinkedIn’s “mail” system. Then again, perhaps more people would use that system if it worked more reliably. Perhaps I’m editorializing a bit more than I should be. ;)
  • Only connect to people you know and trust.
    • This is interesting advice, given that many people use LinkedIn to meet new people and get new opportunities. LinkedIn offers very little to people that would actually follow this rule, as if you already know and trust someone, you already have their contact information. LinkedIn never really took off as a content platform like MySpace, Facebook or even Google+. Everyone knows that no one is going to follow this advice.  Besides, the greater risk here is leaking your personal information to someone you “know and trust” whose account has been compromised. This is a case for a security tradeoff and careful consideration of what you share. A blind prohibition is not useful.
  • Report any privacy issues to Customer Service.
    • Here’s a bit of advice. Only refer people to your customer service when you know it’s good.  Just sayin’.

Basically, what we have here is a situation where LinkedIn has strong incentives to downplay the issue. They look bad already, so the smaller and less significant the breach, the less immediate damage they face. They also do not want the world to seriously consider the risks of sharing personal information via the Internet. After all, the entire business model of social media is riskier than we’d like to think. The sooner everyone figures this out, the less money the owners make and the more people in the industry lose their jobs.

This is in direct conflict with that the users (or product) of LinkedIn need. We need to be able to trust the people we give our information to. We need to know they are doing what they should … investing in good technology, people and processes and being forthright with us regarding what is happening. We need a partner that communicates with us with our own needs in mind, not just their own.

When one person is best served with honesty and the person they are talking to is best served by lying, there are going to be problems. Consider this in the wake of any breach, whatever side you land on. The long term future of any relationship in conflict is less than rosy.

No password or else!

Oftentimes, life as a ‘good guy’ in the security world can be tough. With daily stories of hacked data breaches and cyber jerks scoring your hard-earned money, you can sometimes feel that the battle just might not be winnable. But then you’re reminded of how much fun it is to create a security strategy that not only protects your client, but gives a metaphorical middle finger to any attacker sniffing around looking for a score. When you get to make the rules and you’re in control of the situation, a hacker attacking your system is just an idle threat.

In many respects, cyber attackers are like this 7-year-old girl threatening her parents for unfettered access to the internet. They promise retaliation or “nitmares,” but when all is said and done, you hold the key, or in this instance, the password, to your security. Nobody likes to reward a petulant child who throws a tantrum, so take advantage of your upper hand, build your defenses to the best of your abilities and laugh at their futility when they scream, “I WANT, I WANT, I WANT!!!”

Filed under: Security Rants