close
  • Sc chevron_right

    Security and Cheap Complexity

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Friday, 26 August - 12:19 · 1 minute

I’ve been saying that complexity is the worst enemy of security for a long time now. ( Here’s me in 1999.) And it’s been true for a long time.

In 2018, Thomas Dullien of Google’s Project Zero talked about “cheap complexity.” Andrew Appel summarizes :

The anomaly of cheap complexity. For most of human history, a more complex device was more expensive to build than a simpler device. This is not the case in modern computing. It is often more cost-effective to take a very complicated device, and make it simulate simplicity, than to make a simpler device. This is because of economies of scale: complex general-purpose CPUs are cheap. On the other hand, custom-designed, simpler , application-specific devices, which could in principle be much more secure, are very expensive.

This is driven by two fundamental principles in computing: Universal computation , meaning that any computer can simulate any other; and Moore’s law , predicting that each year the number of transistors on a chip will grow exponentially. ARM Cortex-M0 CPUs cost pennies, though they are more powerful than some supercomputers of the 20th century.

The same is true in the software layers. A (huge and complex) general-purpose operating system is free, but a simpler, custom-designed, perhaps more secure OS would be very expensive to build. Or as Dullien asks, “How did this research code someone wrote in two weeks 20 years ago end up in a billion devices?”

This is correct. Today, it’s easier to build complex systems than it is to build simple ones. As recently as twenty years ago, if you wanted to build a refrigerator you would create custom refrigerator controller hardware and embedded software. Today, you just grab some standard microcontroller off the shelf and write a software application for it. And that microcontroller already comes with an IP stack, a microphone, a video port, Bluetooth, and a whole lot more. And since those features are there, engineers use them.

  • Sc chevron_right

    Mudge Files Whistleblower Complaint against Twitter

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Wednesday, 24 August - 21:54

Peiter Zatko, aka Mudge, has filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC against Twitter, claiming that they violated an eleven-year-old FTC settlement by having lousy security. And he should know; he was Twitter’s chief security officer until he was fired in January.

The Washington Post has the scoop (with documents) and companion backgrounder . This CNN story is also comprehensive.

EDITED TO ADD: Another news article . Slashdot thread .

  • Sc chevron_right

    Apple’s Lockdown Mode

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Sunday, 31 July, 2022 - 18:21 · 1 minute

I haven’t written about Apple’s Lockdown Mode yet, mostly because I haven’t delved into the details. This is how Apple describes it:

Lockdown Mode offers an extreme, optional level of security for the very few users who, because of who they are or what they do, may be personally targeted by some of the most sophisticated digital threats, such as those from NSO Group and other private companies developing state-sponsored mercenary spyware. Turning on Lockdown Mode in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura further hardens device defenses and strictly limits certain functionalities, sharply reducing the attack surface that potentially could be exploited by highly targeted mercenary spyware.

At launch, Lockdown Mode includes the following protections:

  • Messages: Most message attachment types other than images are blocked. Some features, like link previews, are disabled.
  • Web browsing: Certain complex web technologies, like just-in-time (JIT) JavaScript compilation, are disabled unless the user excludes a trusted site from Lockdown Mode.
  • Apple services: Incoming invitations and service requests, including FaceTime calls, are blocked if the user has not previously sent the initiator a call or request.
  • Wired connections with a computer or accessory are blocked when iPhone is locked.
  • Configuration profiles cannot be installed, and the device cannot enroll into mobile device management (MDM), while Lockdown Mode is turned on.

What Apple has done here is really interesting. It’s common to trade security off for usability, and the results of that are all over Apple’s operating systems—and everywhere else on the Internet. What they’re doing with Lockdown Mode is the reverse: they’re trading usability for security. The result is a user experience with fewer features, but a much smaller attack surface. And they aren’t just removing random features; they’re removing features that are common attack vectors.

There aren’t a lot of people who need Lockdown Mode, but it’s an excellent option for those who do.

News article .

EDITED TO ADD (7/31): An analysis of the effect of Lockdown Mode on Safari.

  • Sc chevron_right

    When Security Locks You Out of Everything

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Tuesday, 28 June, 2022 - 16:49 · 1 minute

Thought experiment story of someone who lost everything in a house fire, and now can’t log into anything:

But to get into my cloud, I need my password and 2FA. And even if I could convince the cloud provider to bypass that and let me in, the backup is secured with a password which is stored in—you guessed it—my Password Manager.

I am in cyclic dependency hell. To get my passwords, I need my 2FA. To get my 2FA, I need my passwords.

It’s a one-in-a-million story, and one that’s hard to take into account in system design.

This is where we reach the limits of the “Code Is Law” movement.

In the boring analogue world—I am pretty sure that I’d be able to convince a human that I am who I say I am. And, thus, get access to my accounts. I may have to go to court to force a company to give me access back, but it is possible .

But when things are secured by an unassailable algorithm—I am out of luck. No amount of pleading will let me without the correct credentials. The company which provides my password manager simply doesn’t have access to my passwords. There is no-one to convince. Code is law.

Of course, if I can wangle my way past security, an evil-doer could also do so.

So which is the bigger risk?

  • An impersonator who convinces a service provider that they are me?
  • A malicious insider who works for a service provider?
  • Me permanently losing access to all of my identifiers?

I don’t know the answer to that.

Those risks are in the order of most common to least common, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in risk order. They probably are, but then we’re left with no good way to handle someone who has lost all their digital credentials—computer, phone, backup, hardware token, wallet with ID cards—in a catastrophic house fire.

I want to remind readers that this isn’t a true story. It didn’t actually happen. It’s a thought experiment.

  • Sc chevron_right

    Attacks on Managed Service Providers Expected to Increase

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Monday, 16 May, 2022 - 21:14

CISA, NSA, FBI, and similar organizations in the other Five Eyes countries are warning that attacks on MSPs — as a vector to their customers — are likely to increase. No details about what this prediction is based on. Makes sense, though. The SolarWinds attack was incredibly successful for the Russian SVR, and a blueprint for future attacks.

News articles .

  • Sc chevron_right

    Corporate Involvement in International Cybersecurity Treaties

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Thursday, 5 May, 2022 - 20:31 · 5 minutes

The Paris Call for Trust and Stability in Cyberspace is an initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron during the 2018 UNESCO’s Internet Governance Forum. It’s an attempt by the world’s governments to come together and create a set of international norms and standards for a reliable, trustworthy, safe, and secure Internet. It’s not an international treaty, but it does impose obligations on the signatories. It’s a major milestone for global Internet security and safety.

Corporate interests are all over this initiative, sponsoring and managing different parts of the process. As part of the Call, the French company Cigref and the Russian company Kaspersky chaired a working group on cybersecurity processes , along with French research center GEODE. Another working group on international norms was chaired by US company Microsoft and Finnish company F-Secure, along with a University of Florence research center. A third working group’s participant list includes more corporations than any other group.

As a result, this process has become very different than previous international negotiations. Instead of governments coming together to create standards, it is being drive by the very corporations that the new international regulatory climate is supposed to govern. This is wrong.

The companies making the tools and equipment being regulated shouldn’t be the ones negotiating the international regulatory climate, and their executives shouldn’t be named to key negotiation roles without appointment and confirmation. It’s an abdication of responsibility by the US government for something that is too important to be treated this cavalierly.

On the one hand, this is no surprise. The notions of trust and stability in cyberspace are about much more than international safety and security. They’re about market share and corporate profits. And corporations have long led policymakers in the fast-moving and highly technological battleground that is cyberspace.

The international Internet has always relied on what is known as a multistakeholder model, where those who show up and do the work can be more influential than those in charge of governments. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that agrees on the technical protocols that make the Internet work, is largely run by volunteer individuals. This worked best during the Internet’s era of benign neglect, where no one but the technologists cared. Today, it’s different. Corporate and government interests dominate, even if the individuals involved use the polite fiction of their own names and personal identities.

However, we are a far cry from decades past, where the Internet was something that governments didn’t understand and largely ignored. Today, the Internet is an essential infrastructure that underpins much of society, and its governance structure is something that nations care about deeply. Having for-profit tech companies run the Paris Call process on regulating tech is analogous to putting the defense contractors Northrop Grumman or Boeing in charge of the 1970s SALT nuclear agreements between the US and the Soviet Union.

This also isn’t the first time that US corporations have led what should be an international relations process regarding the Internet. Since he first gave a speech on the topic in 2017, Microsoft President Brad Smith has become almost synonymous with the term “Digital Geneva Convention.” It’s not just that corporations in the US and elsewhere are taking a lead on international diplomacy, they’re framing the debate down to the words and the concepts.

Why is this happening? Different countries have their own problems, but we can point to three that currently plague the US.

First and foremost, “cyber” still isn’t taken seriously by much of the government, specifically the State Department. It’s not real to the older military veterans, or to the even older politicians who confuse Facebook with TikTok and use the same password for everything. It’s not even a topic area for negotiations for the US Trade Representative. Nuclear disarmament is “real geopolitics,” while the Internet is still, even now, seen as vaguely magical, and something that can be “fixed” by having the nerds yank plugs out of a wall.

Second, the State Department was gutted during the Trump years. It lost many of the up-and-coming public servants who understood the way the world was changing. The work of previous diplomats to increase the visibility of the State Department’s cyber efforts was abandoned. There are few left on staff to do this work, and even fewer to decide if they’re any good. It’s hard to hire senior information security professionals in the best of circumstances; it’s why charlatans so easily flourish in the cybersecurity field. The built-up skill set of the people who poured their effort and time into this work during the Obama years is gone.

Third, there’s a power struggle at the heart of the US government involving cyber issues, between the White House, the Department of Homeland Security (represented by CISA), and the military (represented by US Cyber Command). Trying to create another cyber center of power within the State Department threatens those existing powers. It’s easier to leave it in the hands of private industry, which does not affect those government organizations’ budgets or turf.

We don’t want to go back to the era when only governments set technological standards. The governance model from the days of the telephone is another lesson in how not to do things. The International Telecommunications Union is an agency run out of the United Nations. It is moribund and ponderous precisely because it is run by national governments, with civil society and corporations largely alienated from the decision-making processes.

Today, the Internet is fundamental to global society. It’s part of everything. It affects national security and will be a theater in any future war. How individuals, corporations, and governments act in cyberspace is critical to our future. The Internet is critical infrastructure. It provides and controls access to healthcare , space , the military, water , energy , education , and nuclear weaponry . How it is regulated isn’t just something that will affect the future. It is the future.

Since the Paris Call was finalized in 2018, it has been signed by 81 countries — including the US in 2021 — 36 local governments and public authorities, 706 companies and private organizations, and 390 civil society groups. The Paris Call isn’t the first international agreement that puts companies on an equal signatory footing as governments. The Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism and the Christchurch Call to eliminate extremist content online do the same thing. But the Paris Call is different. It’s bigger. It’s more important. It’s something that should be the purview of governments and not a vehicle for corporate power and profit.

When something as important as the Paris Call comes along again, perhaps in UN negotiations for a cybercrime treaty, we call for actual State Department officials with technical expertise to be sitting at the table with the interests of the entire US in their pocket…not people with equity shares to protect.

This essay was written with Tarah Wheeler, and previously published on The Cipher Brief.

  • Sc chevron_right

    Details of an NSA Hacking Operation

    news.movim.eu / Schneier · Wednesday, 2 March, 2022 - 20:35

Pangu Lab in China just published a report of a hacking operation by the Equation Group (aka the NSA). It noticed the hack in 2013, and was able to map it with Equation Group tools published by the Shadow Brokers (aka some Russian group).

…the scope of victims exceeded 287 targets in 45 countries, including Russia, Japan, Spain, Germany, Italy, etc. The attack lasted for over 10 years. Moreover, one victim in Japan is used as a jump server for further attack.

News article .