How to prevent a data breach, lessons learned from the infosec vendors themselves

This fall there have been data breaches at the internal networks of several major security vendors. I had two initial thoughts when I first started hearing about these breaches: First, if the infosec vendors can’t keep their houses in order, how can ordinary individuals or non-tech companies stand a chance? And then I thought it would be useful to examine these breaches as powerful lessons to be avoided by the rest of us. You see, understanding the actual mechanics of what happened during the average breach isn’t usually well documented. Even the most transparent businesses with their breach notifications don’t really get down into the weeds. I studied these breaches and have come away with some recommendations for your own infosec practices.

The breaches are:

You will notice a few common trends from these breaches. First, the delay in identifying the breach, and then notifying customers.  It took NordVPN five weeks before they notified by their datacenter provider, and they found out the attack was part of an attack on their other VPN vendor customers. “The datacenter deleted the user accounts that the intruder had exploited rather than notify us.”  It took Avast months to identify their breach. Initially, IT staffers dismissed the unauthorized access as a false positive and ignored the logged entry. Months later it was re-examined and determined to be malicious. It took two months for Trend to track down exactly what happened before the employee was identified and then terminated.

Finally, about 4,000 users on a support forum have notified by ZoneAlarm about a data breach. Data compromised includes names, email addresses, hashed passwords, and birthdates. The issue was outdated forum software code that wasn’t patched to current versions. Their breach happened at least several weeks before being noticed and emails were sent out to affected users within 24 hours of when they figured the situation out.

These delays are an issue for anyone. Remember, the EU, through GDPR, gives companies 72 hours to notify regulators. These regulators have issued some pretty big fines for those companies who don’t meet this deadline, such as British Airways.

Second is a question of relative transparency. Most of the vendors were very transparent about what happened and when. You’ll notice that for three out of the four situations I have linked to the actual vendor’s blog posts that describe the breach and what they have done about it. The sole exception is ZoneAlarm, which has not posted any details publicly. The company is owned by Check Point, and while they have been very forthcoming with emails to reporters that is still not the same as posting something online for the world to see.

Third is the issue that insider threats are real. Employees will always be the weakest link in any security strategy. With Trend, customer data (including telephone numbers but no payment data) was divulged by a rogue employee who sold the data from 68,000 customers in a support database to a criminal third party. This can happen to anyone, but you should contemplate how to make a leak such as this more difficult.

Finally, recovery, remediation and repair aren’t easy, even for the tech vendors that know what they are doing (at least most of the time). Part of the problem is first figuring out what actual harm was done, what the intruders did and what gear has to be replaced. Avast’s blog post is the most instructive of the three and worth reading carefully. They have embarked on a major infrastructure replacement, as their CISO told me in a separate interview here. For example, they found that some of their TLS keys were obtained but not used. Avast then  revoked and reissued various encryption certificates and pushed out updates of its various software products to ensure that they weren’t polluted or compromised by the attackers. Both Avast and NordVPN also launched massive internal audits to track what happened and to ensure that no other parts of their computing infrastructure were affected.

But part of the problem is that our computing infrastructures have become extremely complex. Even our own personal computer applications are impossible to navigate (just try setting up your Facebook privacy options in a single sitting). How many apps does the average person use these days? Can you honestly tell me that there is some cloud login that you haven’t used since 2010 that doesn’t have a breached password? Now expand that to your average small business that allows its employees to bring their personal phones to work and their company laptops home and you have a nightmare waiting to happen: all it takes is one of your kids clicking on some dodgy link on your laptop, or you downloading an app to your phone, and it is game over. And as a friend of mine who uses a Mac found out recently, a short session on an open Wifi network can infect your computer. (Macs aren’t immune, despite popular folklore.)

So I will leave you with a few words of hope. Study these breaches and use them as lessons to improve your own infosec, both corporate and personal. Treat all third-party sources of technology as if they are your own and ask these vendors and suppliers the hard questions about their security posture. Make sure your business has a solid notification plan in place and test it regularly as part of your normal disaster recovery processes. Trust nothing at face value, and if your tech suppliers don’t measure up find new ones that will. And as you have heard me say before, tighten up all your own logins with smartphone-based authentication apps and password managers, and use a VPN when you are on a public network.

Further misadventures in fake news

The term fake news is used by many but misunderstood. It has gained notoriety as a term of derision from political figures about mainstream media outlets. But when you look closer, you can see there are many other forms that are much more subtle and far more dangerous. The public relations firm Ogilvy wrote about several different types of fake news (satire, misinformation, sloppy reporting and purposely deceptive).

But that really doesn’t help matters, especially in the modern era of state-sponsored fake news. We used to call this propaganda back when I was growing up. To better understand this modern context, I suggest you examine two new reports that present a more deliberate analysis and discussion:

  • The first is by Renee Diresta and Shelby Grossman for Stanford University’s Internet Observatory project called Potemkin Pages and Personas, Assessing GRU Online Operations. It documents two methods of Russia’s intelligence agency commonly called the GRU, narrative laundering and hack-and-leaking false data. I’ll get into these methods in a moment. For those of you that don’t know the reference, Potemkin means a fake village that was built in the late 1700’s to impress a Russian monarch who would pass by a region and fooled into thinking there were actual people living there. It was a stage set with facades and actors dressed as inhabitants.
  • The second report is titled Simulated media assets: local news from Vlad Shevtsov, a Russian researcher who has investigated several seemingly legit local news sites in Albany, New York (shown below) and Edmonton, Alberta. These sites constructed their news pages out of evergreen articles and other service pieces that have attracted millions of page views, according to analytics. Yet they have curious characteristics, such as being viewed almost completely from mobile sources outside their local geographic area.

Taken together, this shows a more subtle trend towards how “news” can be manipulated and shaped by government spies and criminals. Last month I wrote about Facebook and disinformation-based political campaigns. Since then Twitter announced they were ending all political advertising. But the focus on fake news in the political sphere is a distraction. What we should understand is that the entire notion of how news is being created and consumed is undergoing a major transition. It means we have to be a lot more skeptical of what news items are being shared in our social feeds and how we obtain facts. Move over Snopes.com, we need a completely new set of tools to vet the truth.

Let’s first look at the Shevtsov report on the criminal-based news sites, for that is really the only way to think about them. These are just digital Potemkin villages: they look like real local news sites, but are just containers to be used by bots to generate clicks and ad revenue. Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman provides a larger context in his analysis here. These sites gather traffic quickly, stick around for a year or so, and then fade away, after generating millions of dollars in ad revenues. They take advantage of legitimate ad serving operations, including Google’s AdSense, and quirks in the organic search algorithms that feed them traffic.

This is a more insidious problem than seeing a couple of misleading articles in your social news feed for one reason: the operators of these sites aren’t trying to make some political statement. They just want to make money. They aren’t trying to fool real readers: indeed, these sites probably have few actual carbon life forms that are sitting at keyboards.

The second report from Stanford is also chilling It documents the efforts of the GRU to misinform and mislead, using two methods.

— narrative laundering. This makes something into a fact by repetition through legit-sounding news sources that are also constructs of the GRU operatives. This has gotten more sophisticated since another Russian effort led by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) was uncovered during the Mueller report. That entity (which was also state-sponsored) specialized in launching social media sock puppets and creating avatars and fake accounts.  The methods used by the GRU involved creating Facebook pages that look like think tanks and other media outlets. These “provided a home for original content on conflicts and politics around the world and a primary affiliation for sock puppet personas.” In essence, what the GRU is doing is “laundering” their puppets through six affiliated media front pages. The researchers identified Inside Syria Media Center, Crna Gora News Agency, Nbenegroup.com, The Informer, World News Observer, and Victory for Peace as being run by the GRU, where their posts would be subsequently picked up by lazy or uncritical news sites.

What is interesting though is that the GRU wasn’t very thorough about creating these pages. Most of the original Facebook posts had no engagements whatsoever. “The GRU appears not to have done even the bare minimum to achieve peer-to-peer virality, with the exception of some Twitter networking, despite its sustained presence on Facebook. However, the campaigns were successful at placing stories from multiple fake personas throughout the alternative media ecosystem.” A good example of how the researchers figured all this out was how they tracked down who really was behind the Jelena Rakocevic/Jelena Rakcevic persona. “She” is really a fake operative that purports to be a journalist with bylines on various digital news sites. In real life, she is a biology professor in Montenegro with a listed phone number for a Mercedes dealership.

— hack-and-leak capabilities. We are now sadly familiar with the various leak sites that have become popular across the interwebs. These benefitted from some narrative laundering as well. The GRU got Wikileaks and various mainstream US media to pick up on their stories, making their operations more effective. What is interesting about the GRU methods is that they differed from those attributed to the IRA “They used a more modern form of memetic propaganda—concise messaging, visuals with high virality potential, and provocative, edgy humor—rather than the narrative propaganda (long-form persuasive essays and geopolitical analysis) that is most prevalent in the GRU material.”

So what are you gonna do to become more critical? Librarians have been on the front lines of vetting fake news for years. Lyena Chavez of Merrimack College has four easy “tells” that she often sees:

  • The facts aren’t verifiable from the alleged sources quoted.
  • The story isn’t published in other credible news sources, although we have seen how the GRU can launder the story and make it more credible.
  • The author doesn’t have appropriate credentials or experience.
  • The story has an emotional appeal, rather than logic.

One document that is useful (and probably a lot more work than you signed up for) is this collection from her colleague at Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars. She has tips and various open source methods and sites that can help you in your own news vetting. If you want more, take a look at an entire curriculum that the Stony Brook J-school has assembled.

Finally, here are some tools from Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko, who has collected them to vet her own stories.

 

RSA blog: Giving thanks and some thoughts on 2020

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. And as we think about giving thanks, I remember when 11 years ago I put together a speech that somewhat tongue-in-cheek gave thanks to Bill Gates (and by extension) Microsoft for creating the entire IT support industry. This was around the time that he retired from corporate life at Microsoft.

My speech took the tack that if it wasn’t for leaky Windows OS’s and its APIs, many of us would be out of a job because everything would just work better. Well, obviously there are many vendors who share some of the blame besides Microsoft. And truthfully Windows gets more than its share of attention because it is found on so many desktops and running so many servers of our collective infrastructure.

Let’s extend things into the present and talk about what we in the modern-day IT world have to give thanks for. Certainly, things have evolved in the past decade, and mostly for the better: endpoints have a lot better protection and are a lot less leaky than your average OS of yesteryear.

You can read my latest blog post for RSA here abiout what else we have to be thankful for.

HPE blog: CISO faces breach on first day on the job

Most IT managers are familiar with the notion of a zero-day exploit or finding a new piece of malware or threat. But what is worse is not knowing when your company has been hacked for several months. That was the situation facing Jaya Baloo when she left her job as the chief information security officer (CISO) for Dutch mobile operator KPN and moved to Prague-based Avast. She literally walked into her first day on the job having to deal with a breach that had been active months earlier.

She has learned many things from her years as a security manager, including how to place people above systems, not to depend on prayer as a strategy has learned many things from her years as a security manager, including how to place people above systems and create a solid infrastructure plan, ignore compliance porn and the best ways to fight the bad guys. You can read my interview with her on HPE’s Enterprise.Nxt blog here.

Adaptive access and step-up authentication with Thales SafeNet Trusted Access

SafeNet Trusted Access from Thales is an access management and authentication service. By helping to prevent data breaches and comply with regulations, it allows organizations to migrate to the cloud simply and securely.

 

MobilePass+ is available on iPhones and Android smartphones and Windows desktops. More information here. 

Pricing starts at $3/user/month for all tokens and services.

Red Hat Developer website editorial support

For the past several months, I have been working with the editorial team that manages the Red Hat Developers website. My role is to work with the product managers, the open source experts and the editors to rewrite product descriptions and place the dozens of Red Hat products into a more modern and developer-friendly and appropriate context. It has been fun to collaborate with a very smart and dedicated group. This work has been unbylined, but you can get an example of what I have done with this page on ODO and another page on Code Ready Containers.

Here is an example of a bylined article I wrote about container security for their blog.

HPE blog: Top 10 great security-related TED talks

I love watching TED Talks. The conference, which covers technology, entertainment, and design, was founded by Ricky Wurman in 1984 and has spawned a cottage industry featuring some of the greatest speakers in the world. I attended a TED Talk when it was still an annual event. I was also fortunate to meet Wurman when he was producing his Access city guides, an interesting mix of travelogue and design.

This is an idiosyncratic guide to my favorites TED Talks around cybersecurity and general IT operations, plus some of the lessons I’ve learned. Security TED Talks look at the past, but the lessons are often still relevant today.  (Shown here is Lorrie Faith Cranor, who gave a great talk on passwords.) Moreover, what might seem like a new problem has often been around for years.If you get a chance to attend a local event, do it. You will meet interesting people both on and off the stage.

RSA blog: Are you really cyber aware?

It is once again October, and cybersecurity awareness month,. Last year I wrote a blog post for RSA that mentioned four different areas of focus:

  • More comprehensive adoption of multi-factor authentication (MFA) tools and methods
  • Ensuring better backups to thwart ransomware and other attacks
  • Paying more attention to cloud data server configuration
  • Doing continuous security awareness training

For this year’s post, I re-examine each of these areas, chart progress and trends, and offer a few new suggestions. Attackers have gotten more determined and targeted and software supply chains have become more porous and insecure. What is clear is that security awareness remains a constant battle. Standing still is admitting defeat. Chances are you aren’t as aware as you think you should be, and hopefully I have given you a few ideas to improve.

CSOonline: 5 trends shaking up multi-factor authentication

Analysts predict that the multi-factor authentication (MFA) market will continue to grow, fed by the demand for more secure digital payments and rising threats, phishing attacks and massive breaches of large collections of passwords. This growth is also motivating MFA vendors to add new factor methods (such as some of the newer hardware tokens shown here) and make their products easier to integrate with custom corporate and public SaaS applications. That is the good news.

The bad news is twofold, and you can read my latest update for CSOonline on MFA trends here to find out more about how this market has evolved.

CSOonline: The top 5 email encryption tools: More capable, better integrated

I have updated my review of top email encryption tools for CSOonline/Network World this week. Most of the vendors have broadened the scope of their products to include anti-phishing, anti-spam and DLP. I last looked at these tools a few years ago, and have seen them evolve:

  • HPE/Voltage SecureMail is now part of Micro Focus, part of an acquisition of other HPE software products
  • Virtru Pro has extended its product with new features and integrations
  • Inky no longer focuses on an endpoint encryption client and has instead moved into anti-phishing
  • Zix Gateway rebranded and widened its offerings
  • Symantec Email Security.cloud has added integrations

In my post today, I talk about recent trends in encryption and more details about each of these five products.

 

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