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Archive for May, 2009

The New Intrusion Detection: Part 1

Most of you who know me reasonably well know that I have been interested in intrusion detection for the better part of 20 years. I realized how potentially valuable it was after witnessing a myriad of attacks over the years when I was the manager of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) based incident response team, CIAC. Great strides in the intrusion detection arena were being made at the time, and when the US Air Force asked me to work on the Distributed Intrusion Detection System (DIDS) Project after I left LLNL, I could not have been happier. Read more…

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Pressure to Back Down on Web Security Policies

I noticed a news item yesterday that stated that in response to a recent survey, 86 percent of IT managers indicated that they have been pressured to back down on Web security policies. The survey indicated that the pressure came from senior management as well as marketing and sales staff. Almost half of the respondents reported that employees ignore security policies to gain access to services such as Facebook and Twitter, and more than half said that their organizations did not have a way to find malware or to resist URL redirect attacks.

How could this happen? I suspect that there are at least three fundamental causes: Read more…

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I’m Clouded Out

I’m at the Interop Conference in Las Vegas right now. I got here yesterday afternoon, and from the moment I checked in for the conference to now I have been amazed to see the number of times the word “cloud” is being used in signs, vendor booths, and conference talks. I’ve written previously about my extreme contempt for this trite and nearly meaningless buzzword, but the recent barrage of the use of this moronic term has started to push me over the edge. Read more…

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Another Intrusion Detection Failure at the University of California-Berkeley

The University of California-Berkeley (UCB) recently experienced a major data security compromise. This one involved health services center data pertaining to more than 160,000 students, alumni, and sometimes also their parents or spouses – Social Security numbers (SSNs) and health insurance data. Sadly, the break-in ostensibly transpired in early October last year, but the breach was not detected until early April this year. The attackers appear to have had access to the victim server for at least a half year after their initial unauthorized access to the victim machine. The apparent cause of the incident, which university officials reported was perpetrated by computer criminals from Eastern Europe, was an unpatched SQL injection vulnerability in a Web application. A law enforcement investigation is ongoing. Read more…

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A Short and Shortsighted History of Hacks: Part 2 – The Internet Sniffing Attacks

May 15th, 2009 No comments

My last blog entry was an attempt to fill in critical missing pieces from Computerworld’s “A short history of hacks.” Unbelievably, this otherwise well-written piece missed two of the major series of cybersecurity attacks that have ever occurred. The first was the Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield attacks that occurred in the early 1990’s. I’d like to now focus on the plethora of Internet sniffer attacks that occurred between 1994 and 1996.

Some attacks are dramatic. Attackers may write brilliant scripts to exploit a not very well-known vulnerability, or may play “cat and mouse” with a technical staff trying to defend a network. The sniffer attacks that were so widespread between 1994 and 1996 were not dramatic, and the effort required on the part of the attackers was far less than any time before. But during this period more hosts were compromised than at any previous time in Internet history.

By the mid-1990’s Ethernet was a household word; token ring networks and other alternatives were becoming far less prevalent. Ethernet technology has many practical advantages, but it has a property that until the time widespread sniffer attacks were discovered was largely overlooked. This technology is “shared media” technology, meaning that any host or device connected to a local Ethernet segment can capture any data that traverse that segment. Attackers exploited this property by breaking into one host or device on an Ethernet and then changing the network interface to go into promiscuous mode. The “bad guys” then harvested the mostly cleartext content of the traffic traversing Ethernets to obtain an untold number of passwords. The attackers focused on network segments owned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on which external routers were placed. Consequently, frequently all network traffic coming in and out of the ISP’s networks was gleaned—a mindboggling nightmarefor the “white hat” community. Dr. Matt Bishop of the University of California at Davis, who had been closely following these attacks, surmised that attackers had obtained so many passwords that they were unable to use them within a reasonable period of their having obtained them and thus had to stockpile them.

I left CIAC in 1992, so I learned of most of the sniffer attacks with which I became acquainted through word of mouth. However, in the mid-1990’s I still had an account on one of CIAC’s machines. One day I discovered that my password for this account did not work, so I called the system administrator, who quickly reset the password. I was confident, however, that I knew the password and that somehow it had been changed. What I did not realize at that time was that just a few weeks earlier one of the members of the then current CIAC team went to Brookhaven National Laboratory to respond to the pandemic sniffing attacks there. After this person collected log data and other information, this person then did a cleartext login back to the same CIAC server to which I had access. Worse yet, this person also entered the password required for root access. After gaining unauthorized superuser access, the perpetrator then almost certainly set the network interface in promiscuous mode and then used captured passwords to gain unauthorized access to many other Lawrence Livermore Lab hosts. The number of compromised systems must have been embarrassing both for CIAC and Livermore Lab. I am also quite sure that this person for some reason also changed the password to my account. About the only good thing out of this ugly episode is the realization of the need to avoid terrible mistakes of this nature when handling incidents!

Today, secure shell (ssh) is widely used, something that precludes the kind of sniffing attacks that occurred in the mid-1990’s. Terminal (tty) sniffing is now far more common. But the sheer number of systems that were compromised by sniffing attacks in the mid-1990’s should have deserved mention in “A short history of hacks,” which should thus be renamed “A short and shortsided history of hacks.”

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What Is A Secure Code Audit And Do I Need One?

May 13th, 2009 No comments

Secure Code Auditing is a structured approach to identifying, evaluating and mitigating programming and database security risks to web applications, databases and general network security. The majority of programmers are not security-minded, let alone security experts. Applications and infrastructure are typically designed with security vulnerabilities that can lead to security exploitations and potentially catastrophic results for your servers, network, and your business overall. When the programming team lacks security expertise and experience, and where security vulnerabilities may be an important issue for your business, a subsequent secure code audit is required. Different security consulting companies approach secure code audits differently, but essentially have the same goals in mind. This article is my description of what a secure code audit is, how we approach code inspection, and how to balance the factors that influence secure code audits. Read more…

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A Short and Shortsighted History of Hacks: Part 1 – The Desert Storm/Desert Shield Attacks

May 12th, 2009 No comments

A few days ago I discovered a Web posting with a fascinating title, “A short history of hacks,” on the Computerworld site. A nicely written piece, it covered events such as the Morris and ILoveYou worms, as well as the distributed denial of service attacks in February, 2000 that ended up being so costly for companies such as ZDnet, Amazon, e-trade and eBay. Amazingly, however, this history did not mention two of the most dramatic and severe series of cyber attacks that have ever occurred, the Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield attacks against the US military in 1990 and 1991 and the widespread Internet sniffer attacks between 1994 and 1996 (to be covered in the my next blog entry).

The Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shied attacks occurred at a time when the Internet was still very young and not all that widely used. You may recall that soon after the Morris Worm struck in 1988, the US Department of Defense (DoD) split the Arpanet into two separate networks, the NSFnet (later to be called “the Internet”) and the Milnet. The DoD’s motivation was to protect the military’s main unclassified network from events such as widespread worm infections originating from the public network. At the time, the NSFnet the Milnet were only two of a number of wide area networks used for long haul communications. Among the other networks that existed at the time were NASA’s SPAN network, IBM’s BITnet, and the Department of Energy’s ESnet, The DoD did not want to totally isolate the Milnet, however. Accordingly, gateway machines that enabled traffic to get to and from networks such as ESnet were put in place. What the DOD did not anticipate was the possibility that attackers might be able to gain unauthorized access to hosts in other networks and then go right through the gateways to gain unauthorized access to Milnet hosts.

The first indications of the widespread break-ins into Milnet hosts were from log entries in Department of Energy (DoE) machines. The attackers broke into DoE machines using what now seems like very rudimentary attack methods, including password guessing (or sometimes even using null passwords), exploiting a VMS vulnerability in the SYSMAN utility, exploiting trust relationships between hosts, and a few others. Once they gained access to a host, they often already had super-user privileges, but if they did not, they exploited other vulnerabilities to take complete control of the victim systems. They then installed back doors. By breaking into hosts at DoE sites such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Fermi National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, and Brookhaven National Laboratory, the attackers had more than enough springboards from which they could launch attacks against Milnet hosts at military centers such as US Navy Headquarters, the Pacific Fleet Command,, Rome Air Force Base, Kelly Air Force Base, the Pentagon, and many more, which they did successfully day after day for well over a year.

Once the attackers broke into DoD hosts, they used commands such as grep in Unix systems to discover files that contained the information they desired: information about military equipment, weapons systems, troop and warship movements (especially in connection with Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield) and much more—they often even searched for “nuclear!” The attackers stole so much information that they quickly filled the hard drives of their own machines. They then resorted to downloading huge amounts of information onto systems at the University of Chicago and Bowling Green University.

Incident response was a very new function when these attacks occurred. The DoE’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability (CIAC) first noticed the attacks and reported them to officials at both DoE and DoD. CERT/CC also received reports of attacks with similar patterns from Internet users. At one point the DoD, DoE, U.S. Navy’s incident response team, the National Security Agency, the US State Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Army Intelligence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, CIAC and CERT/CC were involved. Cooperation and coordination were extremely difficult to obtain, but despite many obstacles (most of them political and bureaucratic in nature), these entities managed to conduct reasonably successful investigation efforts.

The gang of attackers was led by a rather harsh ringleader who taught his understudies how to hack into systems in return for his receiving the information they were able to glean. I knew the names of all the principal attackers, and because of a successful CIAC effort to tap their electronic talk sessions, I even learned where they lived at the time. The attacks, which originated from the Netherlands, were ostensibly financially motivated. The ringleader wanted to find a buyer for the information, but to the best of my knowledge he was never successful in doing so. The State Department pressed the Netherlands to charge the identified individuals, but this country declined to do so on the basis that at the time, breaking into systems was not a against Dutch law. To at least some degree, however, justice was served—the ringleader reportedly ended up going to prison for credit card fraud.

The news of the attacks did not reach the public until John Markoff of the New York Times published a front page story describing the attacks in the fall of 1990. How he pieced together the bits and pieces of information that he had amassed was simply amazing. Additionally, about the same time ABC News ran a lead story about the attacks. Later, NIST had me publish an unclassified account of the attacks.

In all, little changed as a result of the attacks. The DoD and DoE did not really improve their cyber security, nor did US legislators propose or pass any national legislation that required better security within the government. As you undoubtedly know, cyber security within the government has improved somewhat over time, but it still has a long way to go. If powers-that-be within the US government had taken the lessons learned from the Desert Storm/Desert Shield attacks more seriously, however, the government would without question be way ahead of where it is now.

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CERT’s with Teeth?

Joe Stewart of SecureWorks recently went on record as favoring giving Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) the authority to engage in operations that disrupt attackers’ activities. .In a recent SecurityFocus posting, Stewart propounded that when attacks occur, the attention of those who respond to the incident should be on the perpetrators of the attack, not the attacks themselves. This strategy, Stewart argues, will result in disruption of the attacker’s ability to perpetrate further attacks, and will also greatly increase the risk associated with perpetrating attacks on systems, thereby potentially decreasing the likelihood that perpetrators will actually carry out attacks that they have planned. Stewart has touted the model for South Korea’s CERT, which has the power to crash entire domains or (if necessary) isolate parts of networks to thwart further attacks. Read more…

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The Five Phase Approach of Malicious Hackers

Hackers typically approach an attack using five common phases. It is important to understand these phases of hacking attacks in order to better defend against them. Here we’ll discuss the five hacker phases to better understand them and how they relate to each other. This information is useful for network administrators, and essential for network security consultants. Read more…

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President Obama’s First 100 Days: A Cybersecurity Report Card

How well President Obama has done in his first 100 days in office is currently a very hot and controversial topic. So-called political experts have come up with a wide spectrum of opinions ranging from judging him to be the best President the US has had in a half century to those that deem him to be little more than a spending-crazed liberal. Although one’s evaluation of the President is likely to be shaped more by political ideology than anything else, certain issues on which Obama should be evaluated have little to do with ideology. Cybersecurity is one of these issues. Read more…

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