Archives For Malware

A Shared Responsibility

November 22, 2014 — Leave a comment

Applications are more and more subject to be integrated with other applications. Clear examples are Social Networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn: it’s very common to see links between them, as well as other applications integrating with Social Networks. This interconnection is so important that it has involved many Enterprise applications as well.

The net result is that the relationships between applications are defining a network, where each one of them takes a role that can big or small depending on the application characteristics, but it is an important role nevertheless.

This Network of Applications defines a new Internet, quite different from the one it was when all this started, and this new Internet is so interconnected and pervasive that it includes directly or indirectly a big part of many (most? all?) Enterprise’s infrastructures as well. We do live in the Cloud’s Era, don’t we?

This interconnected thing reminds me of our brain and of our body by extent, not only because it is clearly a parallel to the synapses, but also because it is subject to illness as well. The more I think about it, the more the dynamic of most of the current attacks shows clear similarities with the propagation of a virus in an organic body: you start with a localized infection – a system or two are compromised – then it spreads to some adjacent systems and voilà! You have a serious illness that has gained control of the attacked body. This is very like to how Advanced Persistent Threats go, and to attacks like the infamous Pass-The-Hash. The idea behind those attacks is to gain access to the real prize a step at a time, without rushing to it, trying to consolidate your position within the attacked infrastructure before someone detects you.

The main difference between the organic body and many pieces of this Network of Applications is that the latter have not yet developed the antibodies needed to detect the attacks, and therefore it is even less able to vanquish those attacks. This weakness allow compromising entire Enterprise Networks starting from a single Client and, as a consequence, gaining access to strategic resources like the Domain Controllers, through a series of patient intermediate steps.

A single weakness allows the first step; the others let the castle collapse.

If we extend those concepts to the whole Internet as a Network of Applications, it is clear that nowadays attackers have plenty of choices about how to attack and gain control of a System, if necessarily starting from a very far vulnerable point. Target’s attackers started from a supplier, for example.

One of the principles of Security is that a system is as secure as its “weakest link”. This sentence implies that the said system can be represented as a chain, where data is processed linearly. But what if you have a multi-dimensional reality, where each node could potentially talk with any other one? You rapidly have an headache… and a big opportunity for any potential attacker.

In this scenario, there is only a feasible answer to the quest for Security: that any actor considers creating Secure Applications and to maintain their security over time as a personal responsibility toward its customers, toward its peers, toward Internet as a whole and toward itself.

Do you need a server? Perhaps one hosted by an important Corporation? No problem, there is a service for that (no, not an App)… a service provided by Hackers.

Drupal Servers have very recently be compromised (see: Attackers Exploit Drupal Vulnerability) and sold to other malicious people. The hilarious part is that the attackers even patched the compromised systems, in their case to protect against further attacks, but effectively doing a better job than the actual Administrators.

This is not news, I freely admit it: this has happened in the past and will happen again and again. Nevertheless, I find it to be quite hilarious, because attackers sometimes demonstrate great entrepreneurial spirit and technical ability, sometimes even better that their victims. Like those hackers that offered a guarantee to replace a compromised server with another, if the one assigned to you had been cleaned meanwhile or for any other problem (see: Service Sells Access to Fortune 500 Firms).

The difference between Compliancy and Security could be less clear than one would expect. This is very understandable, because some Compliancy Certifications are all about Security. Let’s consider for example the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI/DSS): this is an industry standard defined by a Consortium lead by the most important Credit Card issuers, born to ensure Security of Credit Card data by defining compliancy requirements binding each part involved in the management this data, during an after the processes required to perform Credit Card transactions.

The need is clear: what is more clearly a target for malicious people than money? So, it is all too natural that the Companies issuing Credit Cards require an high level of security from anyone that is supposed to handle credit card data. This has been the origin of PCI/DSS as a Security Standard and as a Compliancy requirement.

So, being compliant with PCI/DSS would mean to be Secure, wouldn’t it? Well, unfortunately not.

The fact is that Compliancy is a first step: it allows avoiding some stupid mistakes by leveraging the experience gained over time by other people in the field, but it is not a guarantee. In fact, attackers are not limited to the scope of what the standards dictate: they can search for additional mistakes and vulnerabilities. Let’s see some examples of that.

Target is an important retailer in the U.S.: they have seen their POS (points-of-sale) compromised by a group of attackers from Russia. The weakness, for Target, has been about giving too much access to a supplier (see Fridge vendor pegged as likely source of Target breach): the attackers violated the latter first and they gained full access to Target POSs as a result. The final outcome has been that a huge number of credit card numbers have been stolen and the credibility of the chain has collapsed so badly that the CEO had to resign (see: Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel Resigns In Data Breach Fallout).

More recently, a restaurant chain in the U.S., Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shop, detected an attack to their POS too, based on vulnerabilities found in their terminals, provided by Signature Systems (see: Signature Systems Breach Expands).

Finally, only a few days ago Staples has confirmed an attack to some of their POS, with a number of credit card numbers stolen (see: Staples is investigating a potential issue involving credit card data).

Surely enough, all the organizations above would have thought to be safe because of the good security practices they have in effect and because they are Compliant. This self assuredness have ultimately been to no avail, though: proof is that they have fallen to persistent attackers.

This is a very common situation, so much that attackers are focusing their attention in trying to violate specifically retail web sites: a recent study from Imperva’s Application Defense Center group on a set of 99 applications protected by their Web Application Firewalls, has shown that 48% of the attacks from August 2013 to April 2014 have targeted retail websites, while in the same timeframe 10% of the attacks have targeted financial institutions (see: Retail applications hit hardest, Web Application Attack Report indicates).

So, all those regulations should help avoiding incurring in those threats, but the sad truth is that they can do only so much. In fact, on one hand they cannot be updated very frequently, because large organizations tend to be able to embrace change only at a slow pace; on another hand, security depends also from the specifics of the given solution: in other words, a regulation imposed by a third party need to be applied to many contexts and therefore it tends to cover as much as possible, but not everything, leaving out what is less common.

Speaking of which, I remember a customer I worked for some years ago. His company routinely engaged a Penetration Testing company to check on their public-facing applications: in doing so, they were Compliant with an internal regulation. “All greens!”, he proudly said to me was the latest result. Well, after a brief discussion that lasted no more than half an hour, I did discover an important vulnerability in the design of their solution.

The moral is that to be really safe it is better to consider Compliancy as a starting point, not as a goal, and to design and implement Security assuming that violations are a fact of life: we should simply work toward giving attackers the hardest time and to limit the (bad) effects of successful violations as much as possible.

George Orwell wrote 1984 as a SF book disguising a strong criticism to the tendency of the old Warsaw Pact Countries to spy on their own people. He would have not foreseen that it would have been a pale description of what happens today.

It seems that there are many groups out there, spying on people selected in a very interesting way: it could be very difficult to demonstrate the allegiance of those hackers to specific Governments, but the suspect is strong. For example, very recently a malware targeting Hong Kong protesters has been discovered (see: Malware program targets Hong Kong protesters who use Apple devices).

It is perhaps even more worrying that Colleges and Schools have started spying on their students, in the U.S. (see: The author of the study highlights how this behavior could lead students to be accustomed to being spied upon.

And it is a known fact that some Governmental Organizations (read: the NSA) spy on and infiltrate foreign Countries, even friendly ones (see: Core Secrets: NSA Saboteurs in China and Germany) and foreign Companies, especially in the telecommunications sector. Their goal is both to collect information and to undermine the ability to protect conversations, by weakening the encryption systems used by them.

The last chapter of this history has been written by iSight Partners, which discovered a vulnerability in Windows – patched yesterday – that has been seen to be used by a Team of Hackers from Russia to attack NATO, the Ukrainian Government, some strategic targets in Europe and an U.S. academic organization (see: iSIGHT discovers zero-day vulnerability CVE-2014-4114 used in Russian cyber-espionage campaign). As in other cases, it is very difficult to identify the sender for those attacks, but the targets and the source of the attacks are suspicious enough.

No doubt about it: we live in a scary time… or full of opportunities, depending on how you look at it.