As I do almost every day, I was looking through security news this morning. An article by Graham Cluley about a security issue—CERT CVE-2015-2865 —with the SwiftKey keyboard on Samsung Galaxy phones caught my eye. The security issue with the keyboard is because it updates itself automatically over an unencrypted HTTP connection instead of over HTTPS and does not verify the downloaded update. It cannot be uninstalled or disabled or replaced with a safer version from the Google Play store. Even if it is not the default keyboard on your phone, successful exploitation of this issue could allow a remote attacker to access your camera, microphone, GPS, install malware, or spy on you.

Samsung provided a firmware patch early this year to affected cell phone service providers.

What to do: Check with your cell phone service provider to see if the patch has been applied to your phone. I talked to Verizon this morning, and my phone does have the patch. Do not attach your phone an insecure Wi-Fi connection until you are sure you have the patch—which is not a good idea anyway.

~

An interesting article in Atlantic Monthly discusses purging data in online government and corporate (think insurance or Google) databases when it is two years old, since they cannot keep these online databases secure. I can see their point, but some of that information may actually be useful or even needed after two years. For instance, I would prefer that background checks were kept for longer than two years, although I would certainly like the information they contain to be secured.

Maybe archiving is a better idea instead of purging. It is interesting option, and it certainly deserves more thought.

~

Lastly, LastPass: I highly recommend password managers. I tried LastPass and it was not for me. I do not like the idea of storing my sensitive information in the cloud (for “cloud” think “someone else’s computer”), but it is very convenient. Most of the time, you achieve convenience by giving up some part of security.

LastPass announced a breach on Monday –not their first. They said that “LastPass account email addresses, password reminders, server per user salts, and authentication hashes were compromised.”

For mitigation: They have told their user community that they will require verification when a user logs in from a new device or IP address. In addition,

  1. You should change your master password, particularly if you have a weak password. If you used your master password on other sites, you should change those passwords as well.
  2. To make a strong password, make it long and strong. It should be at least 15 characters—longer is better—contain upper- and lowercase letters, digits, and symbols. It should not contain family, pet, or friend names, hobby or sports references,  birthdates, wedding anniversaries, or topics you blog about. Passphrases are a good idea, and you can make them even more secure by taking the first letter of each word of a long phrase that you will remember. For example:

    I love the Wizard of Oz! It was my favorite movie when I was a child.

    becomes

    IltWoO! IwmfmwIwac$

    Everywhere a letter is used a second time, substitute a numeral or symbol, and it will be difficult to crack:

    IltWo0! 1>mf3wi<@c$

  3. When you create a LastPass master password, it will ask you to create a reminder. Let’s say you took your childhood dog’s name, added the number “42,” and the color “blue” because he had a blue collar to make your new master password: osC@R-forty2-Blew! If your reminder is “dog 42 blue,” your password could be much easier to crack. Maybe you even talked about Oscar in a Facebook post. So again, do not use a pet’s name in your password. Then put something in for the reminder that has no relation to your password: “Blank” or “Poughkeepsie” for instance.
  4. Keep your master password someplace safe. Do not leave a copy in clear text on your phone or your computer or taped to your monitor. Put it in a locked drawer or better—your safe deposit box.
  5. Back up your password database periodically to a device you store offline, and printing the list and storing both the printout and the backup in a sealed envelope in your safe deposit box is a good idea as well.
  6. Use two-factor authentication. If you don’t know anything about it, this Google account article will explain it.

Let me tell you about children who are leading changes in a wide variety of areas including education, research on cancer and asthma, and even information security and privacy. It was eye-opening to me because many people—including me!—discount discoveries made by children because they are “too young” to add significant information to a dialog. What they could add—if we give them a chance—is a fresh perspective.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an information security keynote presentation given by Reuben Paul. I attend many security events every year, so that might not seem so unusual, except that this amazing young man is only nine years old. He gave his first information security presentation Infosec from the Mouth of Babes at the 2014 DerbyCon conference in Kentucky at the age of eight, and he has given many presentations since then. Here is his story. His father, Mano Paul, is an information security trainer and consultant.

Reuben’s talk at DerbyCon discussed three topics:

  1. Why should you teach kids about Information Security?
  2. How can you teach kids about Information Security?
  3. What can kids teach you about Information Security?

Reuben’s advice at DerbyCon? “[Parents and educators should] teach … kids to use [technology] safely and securely.”

Many grownups do not have the level of understanding of privacy and security that Reuben does. How did Reuben gain that understanding? Reuben credits his parents and his school for being supportive, but some credit belongs to Reuben. He imagined how children could participate in information security and privacy, and insisted on being heard. That takes, well, imagination as well as persistence.

Then I started looking at other amazing children. I found a section on TED Talks called “TED under 20.”

One of the first videos I saw was called Science is for everyone, kids included. The video tells the story of neuroscientist Beau Lotto working with a class of 25 eight- to ten-year-old children from Blackawton Primary School, Blackawton, Devon, UK. The children developed an experiment on training bees to choose flowers according to rules. Then the children wrote and submitted a paper, which was published by the Royal Society Biology Letters.

The paper is free to download and fun to read!

The conclusion the Blackawton Primary School children came to was that “Play enables humans (and other mammals) to discover (and create) relationships and patterns. When one adds rules to play, a game is created. This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature.”

Jo Lunt, science teacher at Blackawton Primary School, said, “I think one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the children’s approach to learning science. They don’t get so hung up or worried about getting the answer right. They think more about the journey they’re on and the learning they’re doing along the way.”

How I harnessed the wind, is the story of William Kamkwamba. Malawi, the country where he lived, experienced a drought in 2001. He and his family not only couldn’t pay for his schooling, they were all starving because their crops failed. He was determined to help his family find a solution for the drought. He found a book in the library with plans for a windmill. At the age of 14, he built his first windmill from scrap yard materials to pump water for crop irrigation and to create electricity.

Award-winning teenage science in action explains the projects of the three teenage girls who won the 2011 Google Science Fair. Lauren Hodge, age 13-14 category, conducted her research on how carcinogens formed while grilling chicken. Shree Bose’s project, the age 17-18 age category and grand prize winner, concentrated on reasons why cancer survivors developed resistance to chemotherapy. Naomi Shah, age 15-16 category, used a complex mathematical model to look at ways to improve air quality for asthmatics.

Children learn very rapidly, and since they have used technology all their lives, they will often master new skills with an ease that will take your breath away. Be the change, mentor change, and be willing to change. Be open to learning from anyone who can teach you!

Be the change … for information privacy! Part 2

Posted: April 20, 2015 by IntentionalPrivacy in Uncategorized

Continued from Part 1

Case: Identity theft

I first became aware of identity theft in 1996 when my credit card number was stolen. I had rented a car, and my application had every piece of information that they could dig out of me, including a copy of the front and back of my credit card and my driver’s license. I can picture the rental agent leaving my file on the desk in her cubicle while she went to the car lot to check out a car for her next clients, who were sitting at her desk. While she was gone, they copied my information. At the time, I lived only a couple of hours away from the Canadian border. When the credit card company called to alert me because the card usage was not in line with my card profile, they told me somebody in Canada used my card to buy “services” over the phone. The charge was only $75, but it took forever to get it off my bill: paperwork, registered letters, phone calls, time, and frustration.

Of course, the car rental company (a nationwide chain) denied everything, but it was the only place I had used my card where the information was out of my sight, and the thieves had details such as my address.

Outcome: I persisted and eventually the charge was removed from my statement.

Case: Confidential information sent in email

We used the same accountant for years. One year after we completed the intake for our taxes, I asked him when we could stop back to pick up the completed forms. He said that he would email them to us. I asked if they would be encrypted and he said yes. I nodded and we left. Three days later, I received an email with our taxes attached as a PDF.

I was livid. I called his office, and asked why he had sent our taxes in an unencrypted PDF through email. He told me they were encrypted.

What he meant was that he filed taxes with the IRS using SSL encryption. He said that his IT staff told him they could not encrypt email attachments.

Email is not a secure method of communication. While it may be transmitted using TLS encryption (Transport Layer Security protocol provides encryption for transmission between servers), when receiving email servers do not accept encrypted transfers, your email is sent in unencrypted plain text.

I tried to explain to him that he could even use a compression program like WinZip (which I knew he had) with a shared password. Nope. He would not listen. I sent him a letter where I carefully explained cryptography and options for using it that were inexpensive and not difficult to implement. Then I explained that because he would not consider them, I was ending our business relationship. That was very difficult because our families had been friends for years.

Outcome: I changed our tax accountant.

Case: My financial institution leaked my information when they changed the monthly statement format.

I use online bill payment to pay most of my bills. I always reconcile my paper statement against my checkbook register. A couple of years ago when I glanced through my statement, I saw to my horror that both my social security number and my credit card number were printed in the transaction section of the statement. I realized that one of my Sallie Mae loans was using my social security number as the account number when they returned payment information.

I called the bank immediately.

The customer service representative did not understand my concerns. When I hung up, I wrote a letter to each board member at my financial institution and sent copies to Sallie Mae and my credit card company. The credit card company did not understand either, but Sallie Mae stopped using my social security number as my account number (which they should not have been doing anyway, it’s against the law).

Think about how many people this could have affected! If a breach of the banking website occurred, if someone at the printer looked through the statements, if the statements got lost in transit, if someone had stolen mail from a mailbox … there are a number of scenarios where statements could have been used by the nefarious.

Outcome: Sallie Mae changed my account number, and on the very next statement, only the last four numbers of my credit card number printed on my statement.

Case: Doctor’s office wants to submit my information to a research project.

I made an appointment with a new physician. Part of the paperwork was a permission form to submit my information to a research project. There was no ending date for permission to stop, no information about the research project, and no information about how they de-identified data. I asked the receptionist to clarify some of these details for me, so she called the nurse in charge of the research project. The nurse said de-identified data means that you cannot be identified. I asked her what specific identifying information they used in the study. Instead of answering me (I am pretty sure she did not know), she told me not to sign the form as the study was not being conducted any more anyway. Which brought up another question in my mind: If they were not using my information for a study, why were they asking me if they could use it?

Unfortunately, it takes very little data to identify someone by comparing identity information to public records such as voter registration. One such study conducted at Harvard University by Professor Latanya Sweeney showed that 87% of the population can be uniquely identified through three variables—a patient’s birth date, zip code, and gender.

Outcome: My information is not being used in a research project.

Case: My employer changed insurance companies

For the last 2 years, I have worked as a contractor. My employer decided to switch health insurance carriers. The experience was very disorganized from several standpoints, but from an information privacy perspective, it was a nightmare. The insurance company they chose (not Anthem)—very large and very old—combines a social security number with a three-digit employer code into an account number used for signing up. I called and asked if there was an alternative method of signing up. No.

Against my better judgment—since I needed medical insurance—I decided to sign up. The sign-up website is hosted by a benefits administrator subcontractor. Their privacy policies were a mess, mixing up personal pronouns with collective nouns in several places. A company that is careless about privacy policies often has gaps in other parts of their infrastructure.

Curious about how they treated passwords, I tried using a four-character password. It worked! Of course I changed it to something more secure immediately.

I wrote my employer and the insurance company’s senior management about my concerns, and sent copies to the US Department of Labor. The insurance company response explained that they and their benefit administrator used industry-standard security measures.

Two weeks later, the Anthem breach happened. So much for industry standards.

Outcome: I discontinued insurance coverage.

Case: Conference attendee information thrown in a wastebasket

I volunteer at events a couple of times a year. I like to work the registration desk because I meet a wide variety of people. As we were packing up the registration desk, I saw a listing of conference attendees—name, email, employer, and phone number—in the trash. I plucked it out, and said to the registration coordinator that the list should not be in the trash.

She said she did not have a shredder. I took the list home and shredded it myself.

The next day, I discussed it with the conference coordinator.

Outcome: New procedures to shred confidential information were implemented

Ask questions. Speak up. Nobody cares more about your data than you do! If you see private information leaking, it is very important to point it out. If you do not want to take the time to do it for yourself, do it for your children and your grandchildren. Do it for your older family members. Do it for people who do not understand how important privacy is. Do it to protect your job.

The fallout from a breach affects customers (identity theft and raised prices), employees (lost jobs and closed stores), and stockholders.

Be the change you want to see!

Be the change … for information privacy! Part 1

Posted: April 20, 2015 by IntentionalPrivacy in Uncategorized

Personal information about us leaks every day in multiple ways.

A friend told me recently that he has no expectation of privacy, and that no one else should either. He thinks that a lack of privacy will affect each of the six generations (according to NPR) that are around today until we work out what information should be private and how to protect it:

  • The GI generation is anyone aged 90 or older; their probable privacy impact will be in the financial and medical information areas, or their identity could be stolen.
  • The Silent generation is between the ages 72 to 89; their probable privacy impact will be in the financial and medical information areas, or their identity could be stolen. The privacy impact could be greater if they are still working or using social media, email, or electronic banking.
  • Baby Boomers are those people between the ages 50 to 71, and they should think about the privacy of their information, especially if they still work. Many people in this generation use email, social media, and electronic banking. So tax returns, financial information, medical information, and other confidential information could be affected. Like every generation, they should protect themselves, their school-aged children, and elder family members against identity theft.
  • Generation Xers are between the ages 35 to 49 and they should definitely consider privacy issues; many are far too free with their information on social media and through email. Financial information, medical information, and other confidential information are just some of the areas that could be affected, but they also must consider privacy issues for their children and elder family members. Like every generation, they should protect themselves, their school-aged children, and elder family members against identity theft.
  • Millennials are between the ages 14 to 34; these people should definitely be concerned about the privacy of their information; many people in this age group are far too free with their information. Sometimes people in this age group even post photos of their credit card on Facebook (argh!). Financial and medical information, and other confidential information are just some of the areas that could be affected, but they also must consider privacy issues for their children. They should protect themselves and their school-aged children against identity theft.
  • Generation Z (also known as the iGeneration) are children between the ages one to 13. Children have to depend on the ability of other people to protect their information. For instance, some parents do not understand that they need to check their children’s credit ratings as well as their own. By the time a child has reached an age where he or she can take out credit, their identity could have been stolen and their credit ruined. Bad credit can affect a person’s ability to get a job, rent or buy a home, or buy a car.

Most people do not understand the need for information privacy (until it affects them) and many organizations—because they are made up of people—do not understand either.

So, what do you do when you realize that an organization is not protecting your private information? Explain to them the change you want to see. I start with a phone call to customer service and if I do not achieve my goal, then I write letters to executives and send copies to regulatory agencies. I may not achieve the results I wanted, but I let them know that if they cannot address my issue, I will choose to move (whenever possible) to a different organization that is more supportive of my needs.

Maybe the organization will not listen this time, but they may be more receptive for the next customer.

Part 2 delivers case histories.

Part 1 explains why you might decide to use secure messaging.

If you decide you want to use a secure messaging app, here are some factors you might consider:

  • How secure is the program? Does it send your messages in plaintext or does it encrypt your communications?
  • How user friendly is it?
  • How many people overall use it? A good rule for security and privacy: do not be an early adapter! Let somebody else work the bugs out. The number of users should be at least several thousand.
  • What do users say about using it? Make sure you read both positive and negative comments. Test drive it before you trust it.
  • How many people do you know who use it? Could you persuade your family and friends to use it?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What happens to the message if the receiver is not using the same program as the sender?
    • Does it notify you first and offer other message delivery options or does the message encryption fail?
    • For those cases where the encryption fails, does the message not get sent or is it sent and stored unencrypted on the other end?
  • Will it work on other platforms besides yours? Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows, etc.
  • Does the app include an anonymizer, such as Tor?
  • While the app itself may not cost, consider whether the messages will be sent using data or SMS? Will it cost you money from that standpoint?

The Electronic Freedom Foundation recently published an article called “The Secure Messaging Scorecard” that might help you find an app that meets your needs. Here are a few of the protocols used by the applications listed in the article:

I picked out a few apps that met all of their parameters, and put together some notes on cost, protocols, and platforms. While I have not used any of them, I am looking forward to testing them, and will let you know how it goes.

 

App Name Cost Platforms Protocol Notes
ChatSecure + Orbot Free; open source; GitHub iOS, Android OTR, XMPP, Tor, SQLCipher
CryptoCat Free; open source; GitHub Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, OS X, iPhone; Facebook Messsenger OTR – single conversations; XMPP – group conversations Group chat, file sharing; not anonymous
Off-The-Record Messaging for Windows (Pidgin) Free Windows, GNOME2, KDE 3, KDE 4 OTR, XMPP, file transfer protocols
Off-The-Record Messaging for Mac (Adium) Free Adium 1.5 or later runs on Mac OS X 10.6.8 or newer OTR, XMPP, file transfer protocols No recent code audit
Signal (iPhone) / RedPhone (Android) Free iPhone, Android, and the browser ZTRP
Silent Phone / Silent Text https://silentcircle.com/pricing Desktop: Windows ZRTP, SCIMP Used for calling, texting, video chatting, or sending files
Telegram (secret chats) Free Android, iPhone / iPad, Windows Phone, Web- version, OS X (10.7 up), Windows/Mac/Linux Mproto Cloud-based; runs a cracking contest periodically
TextSecure Free Android Curve25519, AES-256, HMAC-SHA256.

Sources
http://en.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security/ch048_tools-secure-textmessaging/
http://security.stackexchange.com/questions/11493/how-hard-is-it-to-intercept-sms-two-factor-authentication
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16812064
http://www.practiceunite.com/notifications-the-3-factor-in-choosing-a-secure-texting-solution/
http://www.tomsguide.com/us/iphone-jailbreak-risks,news-18850.html

When you send a message, who controls your messages? You write them and you get them, but what happens in the middle? Where are they stored? Who can read them? Email, texts, instant messaging and Internet relay chat (IRC), videos, photos, and (of course) phone calls all require software. Those programs are loaded on your phone or your tablet by the device manufacturer and the service provider. However, you can choose to use other – more secure – programs.

In the old days of the 20th century, a landline telephone call (or a fax) was an example of point-to-point service. Except for wiretaps or party lines, or situations where you might be overheard or the fax intercepted, that type of messaging was reasonably secure. Today, messaging does not usually go from your device—whether it is a cell phone, laptop, computer, or tablet—directly to the receiver’s device. Landlines are becoming scarcer, as digital phones using Voice over IP (VoIP) are becoming more prevalent. Messages are just like any other Internet activities: something (or someone) is in the middle.

It’s a lot like the days when an operator was necessary to connect your call. You are never really sure if someone is listening to your message.

What that means is that a digital message is not be secure without taking extra precautions. It may go directly from your device to your provider’s network or it may be forwarded from another network; it often depends on where you are located in relation to a cell phone tower and how busy it is. Once the message has reached your provider’s network, it may bounce to a couple of locations on their network, and then—depending on whether your friend is a subscriber of the same provider—the message may stay on the same network or it may hop to another provider’s network, where it will be stored on their servers, and then finally be delivered to the recipient.

Understand that data has different states and how the data is treated may be different depending on the state. Data can be encrypted when it is transmitted and it can be encrypted when it is stored, or it can remain unencrypted in either state.

Everywhere it stops on the path from your device to the destination, the message is stored. The length of time it is kept in storage depends on the provider’s procedures, and it could be kept for weeks or even years. It gets backed up and it may be sent to offsite storage. At any time along its travels, it can be lost, stolen, intercepted or subpoenaed. If the message itself is encrypted, it cannot be read without access to the key. If the application is your provider’s, they may have access to the message even if it is encrypted if they have access to the key.

Is the message sent over an encrypted channel or is it sent in plain text? If you are sending pictures of LOLZ cats, who cares? But if you are discussing, say, a work-related topic, or a medical or any other confidential issue, you might not want your messages available on the open air. In fact, it’s better for you and your employer if you keep your work and personal information separated on your devices. This can happen by carrying a device strictly for work or maybe through a Mobile Device Management application your employer installed that is a container for your employer’s information. If you do not keep your information separate and your job suddenly comes to an end, they may have the right to wipe your personal device or you may not be able to retrieve any personal information stored on a work phone. Those policies you barely glanced at before you signed them when you started working at XYZ Corporation? It is a good idea to review them at least once a year and have a contingency plan! I have heard horror stories about baby pictures and novels that were lost forever after a job change.

Are you paranoid yet? If not, I have not explained this very well!

A messaging app that uses encryption can protect your communications with the following disclaimers. These apps cannot protect you against a key logger or malware designed to intercept your communications. They cannot protect you if someone has physical or root access to your phone. That is one of the reasons that jail-breaking your phone is such a bad idea—you are breaking your phone’s built-in security protections.

An app also cannot protect you against leaks by someone you trusted with your information. Remember: If you do not want the files or the texts you send to be leaked by someone else, do not send the information.

If you decide that you want to try one or more messaging applications, it is really important to read the documentation thoroughly so you understand what the app does and what it does not do and how to use it correctly. And, finally: Do not forget your passphrase!! Using a password manager such as KeePass or LastPass is a necessity today. Also back up your passwords regularly and put a copy—digital and/or paper—of any passwords you cannot afford to lose in a safe deposit box or cloud storage. If you decide to use cloud storage, make sure you encrypt the file before you upload it. Cloud storage is a term that means you are storing your stuff on someone else’s computer.

Part 2

I have recently started using the WhiteHat Aviator browser, which uses the anonymous search engine Disconnect. It is available for Windows and Mac here. It works pretty well (although it is sometimes slow). When I use it for sites like Gmail where I use two-factor authentication, I do have to enter both the second factor and the password every time I load the website. It will not save the code like Firefox can for thirty days.

I am planning on installing Disconnect on my phone next. If that works out, I will try the premium version, which includes encrypted Internet, safe browsing, and location control.

Another anonymous search engine is DuckDuckGo.

I also use Firefox with extensions NoScript, Ghostery, Adblock Plus, and Lightbeam. Lightbeam is particularly fascinating to look at; it shows all the sites that track me, even after all those add-ons. NoScript can be painful to use because you have to enable every single site.

After the last set of Adobe Flash 0days (two in a week!), I uninstalled Adobe Flash and Air. After all, if I really need Flash, I can always use Google Chrome, where Flash is built in.

I rarely use Internet Explorer any more.

And while you are updating your browser, make sure your Java version is current.

Data-Privacy-Day-2015roundInternational Data Privacy Day—called Data Protection Day in Europe—is celebrated in the US, Canada, and 27 European countries every year on January 28. It started on January 28, 1981, when the members of the Council of Europe signed the Convention for Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data. In the US, Data Privacy Day is sponsored by StaySafeOnline.

Ever thought, why should I protect my information? Listen to Glenn Greenwald’s Ted Talk on Why Privacy Matters. Not only will it help you understand, but it might galvanize you to action!

Some tips on how to better protect your data include:

  • Use “Do Not Track” on your browser. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explains how to turn on “Do Not Track” in some common browsers here. The EFF is a great resource about how to better protect your personal information.
  • Think before you share personal information, whether through email, on social media sites, or over the phone. Once you share information, you have no control over what happens to it. Help your children learn what is okay for them to share.
  • Check the privacy settings on social media sites you use on a regular basis. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, … privacy policies change, which may impact your privacy settings.
  • Protect your computer by keeping your operating system and applications updated. On Windows, Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector helps me keep my applications current.
  • Create strong, unique passwords for every important site. Have a problem remembering all those passwords? Me too! Use a password manager like KeePass or LastPass. If you want to protect your information more, use two-factor authentication for email and social media site log-ins.
    • Help setting up Google’s Two-Factor Authentication
    • Help setting up Microsoft’s Two-Factor Authentication
  • Back up your important data regularly—pictures, documents, music, videos, or whatever is important to you—at least once a week. If you use a physical device, disconnect it between backups. To ensure that your information is safe, use two physical backup devices, alternate them, and keep one someplace safe like a safe deposit box. If you use a cloud backup, use a physical back up as well. Online services can go offline temporarily or even go out of business, while devices break, become corrupted, lost, stolen, or infected by malware. Periodically try to recover documents to ensure that your backups are functional.

Other tips

  • Mozilla’s Get Smart on Privacy
  • FTC’s Consumer Information
  • Check out DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t track you. Want to see how much tracking happens in your browser? Check out the Firefox Lightbeam addin.
  • Try WhiteHat Security Lab’s Aviator browser. Note: if you use two-factor authentication, you will need to enter a code every time you open up a site that uses it.

Your cell phone can be taken over by hackers who will view through your camera and watch you enter your passwords and other information.  Here in Austin at the IEEE “Globecom” conference on global communication last December, I attended a presentation from Temple University researchers who compromised an Android cell phone. 

Doctoral candidate Longfei Wu and five colleagues from Temple University, the University of Massachusetts, and Beijing University exploited vulnerabilities in the Android cell phone to seize control of the camera.

Having done that – and having reduced their footprint to one pixel – they then watched finger touches to the keyboard in order to guess passwords.  Some sequences were more secure than others.  1459 and 1479 were easy to identify.  1359 and 1471 were harder to guess.  The fundamental fact remains: They took control of the camera without the cell phone owner being aware of it.

Moreover, the Android operating system does not provide you with a log file of usage.  There is no way for you to review what your phone has been doing. However, the researchers fixed that. 

“We make changes to the CheckPermission() function ofActicityManagerService, and write a lightweight defense app such that whenever the camera is being called by apps with CAMERA permission, the defense app will be informed along with the caller’s Application Package Name.

[…]

There are three parts of warnings in our defense scheme. First, an alert dialog including the name of the suspicious app is displayed. In case the warning message cannot be seen immediately by the user (e.g., the user is not using the phone), the defense app will also make sound and vibration to warn the user of spy camera attacks. Besides, the detailed activity pattern of suspected apps are logged so that the user can check back.” — from “Security Threats to Mobile Multimedia Applications: Camera-based Attacks on Mobile Phones”,IEEE Communications Magazine, March 2014.”

If you want to protect your phone, you have to figure out how for yourself.  Very few ready-made defense apps exist for Android, or iPhone.  You could join a local hacker club such as DefCon.  (For Ann Arbor, it is DefCon 734; for Minneapolis it is DC612.)  That brings up the problem of trust.  When I go to computer security conferences, I never take a computer; and I do not answer my phone.  I do trust the organizers of our local groups, LASCON, ISSA, OWASP,  and B-Sides; but I do not trust everyone who comes to every meeting.  If you want someone to “jailbreak” your phone, and program something on it for you, then you really need strong trust.  It is best to do it for yourself.

“Unfortunately, it’s not uploaded online. To support the defense scheme, I modified the Android system and generate new image files. This means if someone want to use the defense function, he/she must flash the phone. As a result, all the installed stuff may get lost. I think people wouldn’t like that to happen. Besides, the Android version I used for testing is 4.1-4.3, while the most recent release is 5.0.” – Longfei Wu, reply to email.

As “the Internet of Things” connects your washing machine and your car to your home thermostat and puts them all online along with your coffee-maker and alarm clock, all of them connected to the television box that never shuts off and always listens, you will be increasingly exposed to harm.

A friend of mine called me for help after she started getting pop-ups every time she opened her web browser. She asked me how her computer got into this mess. While I could not pinpoint an exact cause (no log files), I suspect she downloaded crapware with a software installation she trusted.

She also wanted to know why anyone would want to inflict this malware on her computer. The answer is simple: Money.

So what can you do to avoid this problem? The consensus advice is to only download programs from a trusted source. Ok! That’s great advice! But what is a “trusted source”?

HowToGeek.com explains in “Yes, Every Freeware Download Site Is Serving Crapware” that all the major free download sites–Tucows, CNET Downloads / Download.com, FileHippo, SnapFiles, MajorGeeks, and yes, even SourceForge–include adware and even malware with their installers. While some sites are better than others about telling you what they’re including and about allowing you to uncheck those additions, they all do it.

What to do instead? Go to the developer’s website and download from there. And support those software authors that do not include crapware by donating to support their development work.

Other steps to take:

  • Back up regularly (at least once a week or oftener), then disconnect the media. Test your backups by periodically restoring a file. I also recommend alternating backup media to offsite storage, such as a safe-deposit box. Backup media–just like any other technology–can break, become corrupted, get lost or stolen.
  • If you back up to a  cloud provider, your back ups can become unavailable if their storage media becomes unavailable for any reason, so use physical backup media as well.
  • On Windows systems, set System Restore Points.
  • Change your IMPORTANT passwords as soon as you can from a computer that is not infected. Use a unique, strong password for each site.
  • Can’t remember all those passwords? Use a password manager. Note: Do NOT lose this password! I use the Professional versions of KeePass and Portable KeePass, and KeePass2Android (available from Google Play), but cloud-based LastPass is also very popular. (LastPass is more convenient, but I am leery of cloud-based services for availability reasons.)

If you have recent back-ups and your files get locked by a version of CryptoLocker / CryptoWall, you may not have to pay to get your files back (depending on how recent your backups are).

For an interesting read, check out Kaspersky’s 2014 Trends in the Internet Security Industry.