The Future of Ransomware

Ransomware isn’t new, but it’s increasingly popular and profitable.

The concept is simple: Your computer gets infected with a virus that encrypts your files until you pay a ransom. It’s extortion taken to its networked extreme. The criminals provide step-by-step instructions on how to pay, sometimes even offering a help line for victims unsure how to buy bitcoin. The price is designed to be cheap enough for people to pay instead of giving up: a few hundred dollars in many cases. Those who design these systems know their market, and it’s a profitable one.

The ransomware that has affected systems in more than 150 countries recently, WannaCry, made press headlines last week, but it doesn’t seem to be more virulent or more expensive than other ransomware. This one has a particularly interesting pedigree: It’s based on a vulnerability developed by the National Security Agency that can be used against many versions of the Windows operating system. The NSA’s code was, in turn, stolen by an unknown hacker group called Shadow Brokers ­ widely believed by the security community to be the Russians ­ in 2014 and released to the public in April.

Microsoft patched the vulnerability a month earlier, presumably after being alerted by the NSA that the leak was imminent. But the vulnerability affected older versions of Windows that Microsoft no longer supports, and there are still many people and organizations that don’t regularly patch their systems. This allowed whoever wrote WannaCry ­– it could be anyone from a lone individual to an organized crime syndicate — to use it to infect computers and extort users.

The lessons for users are obvious: Keep your system patches up to date and regularly backup your data. This isn’t just good advice to defend against ransomware, but good advice in general. But it’s becoming obsolete.

Everything is becoming a computer. Your microwave is a computer that makes things hot. Your refrigerator is a computer that keeps things cold. Your car and television, the traffic lights and signals in your city and our national power grid are all computers. This is the much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT). It’s coming, and it’s coming faster than you might think. And as these devices connect to the Internet, they become vulnerable to ransomware and other computer threats.

It’s only a matter of time before people get messages on their car screens saying that the engine has been disabled and it will cost $200 in bitcoin to turn it back on. Or a similar message on their phones about their Internet-enabled door lock: Pay $100 if you want to get into your house tonight. Or pay far more if they want their embedded heart defibrillator to keep working.

This isn’t just theoretical. Researchers have already demonstrated a ransomware attack against smart thermostats, which may sound like a nuisance at first but can cause serious property damage if it’s cold enough outside. If the device under attack has no screen, you’ll get the message on the smartphone app you control it from.

Hackers don’t even have to come up with these ideas on their own; the government agencies whose code was stolen were already doing it. One of the leaked CIA attack tools targets Internet-enabled Samsung smart televisions.

Even worse, the usual solutions won’t work with these embedded systems. You have no way to back up your refrigerator’s software, and it’s unclear whether that solution would even work if an attack targets the functionality of the device rather than its stored data.

These devices will be around for a long time. Unlike our phones and computers, which we replace every few years, cars are expected to last at least a decade. We want our appliances to run for 20 years or more, our thermostats even longer.

What happens when the company that made our smart washing machine — or just the computer part — goes out of business, or otherwise decides that they can no longer support older models? WannaCry affected Windows versions as far back as XP, a version that Microsoft no longer supports. The company broke with policy and released a patch for those older systems, but it has both the engineering talent and the money to do so.

That won’t happen with low-cost IoT devices.

Those devices are built on the cheap, and the companies that make them don’t have the dedicated teams of security engineers ready to craft and distribute security patches. The economics of the IoT doesn’t allow for it. Even worse, many of these devices aren’t patchable. Remember last fall when the Mirai botnet infected hundreds of thousands of Internet-enabled digital video recorders, webcams and other devices and launched a massive denial-of-service attack that resulted in a host of popular websites dropping off the Internet? Most of those devices couldn’t be fixed with new software once they were attacked. The way you update your DVR is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Solutions aren’t easy and they’re not pretty. The market is not going to fix this unaided. Security is a hard-to-evaluate feature against a possible future threat, and consumers have long rewarded companies that provide easy-to-compare features and a quick time-to-market at its expense. We need to assign liabilities to companies that write insecure software that harms people, and possibly even issue and enforce regulations that require companies to maintain software systems throughout their life cycle. We may need minimum security standards for critical IoT devices. And it would help if the NSA got more involved in securing our information infrastructure and less in keeping it vulnerable so the government can eavesdrop.

I know this all sounds politically impossible right now, but we simply cannot live in a future where everything — from the things we own to our nation’s infrastructure ­– can be held for ransom by criminals again and again.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

from The Future of Ransomware

Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots — all without making us any safer.

In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn’t keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that’s in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it’s also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they’re functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.

And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn’t take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn’t remove the threat.

Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren’t domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn’t perfect security — the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all — but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.

I don’t have access to classified intelligence, and I can’t comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage — something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what’s on their hard drives.

Safety is another concern. We’re already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.

Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won’t accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it’s rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.

I don’t know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.

As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.

A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It’s a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.

The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it’s like to go through “normal” security screening. And since frequent fliers — likely to be more wealthy — no longer see the problem, they don’t have any incentive to fix it.

Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can’t work on their flights to and from D.C.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.

from Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

It’s rare: Fishermen caught a 19-foot-long giant squid off the coast of Ireland on Monday, only the fifth to be seen there since 1673. Also the first in 22 years. As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered. Read my blog posting guidelines here….

from Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

It’s rare: Fishermen caught a 19-foot-long giant squid off the coast of Ireland on Monday, only the fifth to be seen there since 1673. Also the first in 22 years. As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered. Read my blog posting guidelines here….

from Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

It’s rare:

Fishermen caught a 19-foot-long giant squid off the coast of Ireland on Monday, only the fifth to be seen there since 1673.

Also the first in 22 years.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

from Friday Squid Blogging: Giant Squid Caught Off the Coast of Ireland

NSA Abandons “About” Searches

Earlier this month, the NSA said that it would no longer conduct “about” searches of bulk communications data. This was the practice of collecting the communications of Americans based on keywords and phrases in the contents of the messages, not based on who they were from or to.

The NSA’s own words:

After considerable evaluation of the program and available technology, NSA has decided that its Section 702 foreign intelligence surveillance activities will no longer include any upstream internet communications that are solely “about” a foreign intelligence target. Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly “to” or “from” a foreign intelligence target. These changes are designed to retain the upstream collection that provides the greatest value to national security while reducing the likelihood that NSA will acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency’s foreign intelligence targets.

In addition, as part of this curtailment, NSA will delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable.

[…]

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

A quick review: under Section 702 of the Patriot Act, the NSA seizes a copy of all communications moving through a telco — think e-mail and such — and searches it for particular senders, receivers, and — until recently — key words. This pretty clearly violates the Fourth Amendment, and groups like the EFF have been fighting the NSA in court about this for years. The NSA has also had problems in the FISA court about these searches, and cites “inadvertent compliance incidents” related to this.

We might learn more about this change. Again, from the NSA’s statement:

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

And the EFF is still fighting for more NSA surveillance reforms.

from NSA Abandons "About" Searches

NSA Abandons “About” Searches

Earlier this month, the NSA said that it would no longer conduct “about” searches of bulk communications data. This was the practice of collecting the communications of Americans based on keywords and phrases in the contents of the messages, not based on who they were from or to. The NSA’s own words: After considerable evaluation of the program and available…

from NSA Abandons “About” Searches

WannaCry Ransomware

Criminals go where the money is, and cybercriminals are no exception.

And right now, the money is in ransomware.

It’s a simple scam. Encrypt the victim’s hard drive, then extract a fee to decrypt it. The scammers can’t charge too much, because they want the victim to pay rather than give up on the data. But they can charge individuals a few hundred dollars, and they can charge institutions like hospitals a few thousand. Do it at scale, and it’s a profitable business.

And scale is how ransomware works. Computers are infected automatically, with viruses that spread over the internet. Payment is no more difficult than buying something online ­– and payable in untraceable bitcoin -­- with some ransomware makers offering tech support to those unsure of how to buy or transfer bitcoin. Customer service is important; people need to know they’ll get their files back once they pay.

And they want you to pay. If they’re lucky, they’ve encrypted your irreplaceable family photos, or the documents of a project you’ve been working on for weeks. Or maybe your company’s accounts receivable files or your hospital’s patient records. The more you need what they’ve stolen, the better.

The particular ransomware making headlines is called WannaCry, and it’s infected some pretty serious organizations.

What can you do about it? Your first line of defense is to diligently install every security update as soon as it becomes available, and to migrate to systems that vendors still support. Microsoft issued a security patch that protects against WannaCry months before the ransomware started infecting systems; it only works against computers that haven’t been patched. And many of the systems it infects are older computers, no longer normally supported by Microsoft –­ though it did belatedly release a patch for those older systems. I know it’s hard, but until companies are forced to maintain old systems, you’re much safer upgrading.

This is easier advice for individuals than for organizations. You and I can pretty easily migrate to a new operating system, but organizations sometimes have custom software that breaks when they change OS versions or install updates. Many of the organizations hit by WannaCry had outdated systems for exactly these reasons. But as expensive and time-consuming as updating might be, the risks of not doing so are increasing.

Your second line of defense is good antivirus software. Sometimes ransomware tricks you into encrypting your own hard drive by clicking on a file attachment that you thought was benign. Antivirus software can often catch your mistake and prevent the malicious software from running. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s an important part of any defense.

Your third line of defense is to diligently back up your files. There are systems that do this automatically for your hard drive. You can invest in one of those. Or you can store your important data in the cloud. If your irreplaceable family photos are in a backup drive in your house, then the ransomware has that much less hold on you. If your e-mail and documents are in the cloud, then you can just reinstall the operating system and bypass the ransomware entirely. I know storing data in the cloud has its own privacy risks, but they may be less than the risks of losing everything to ransomware.

That takes care of your computers and smartphones, but what about everything else? We’re deep into the age of the “Internet of things.”

There are now computers in your household appliances. There are computers in your cars and in the airplanes you travel on. Computers run our traffic lights and our power grids. These are all vulnerable to ransomware. The Murai botnet exploited a vulnerability in internet-enabled devices like DVRs and webcams to launch a denial-of-service attack against a critical internet name server; next time it could just as easily disable the devices and demand payment to turn them back on.

Re-enabling a webcam will be cheap; re-enabling your car will cost more. And you don’t want to know how vulnerable implanted medical devices are to these sorts of attacks.

Commercial solutions are coming, probably a convenient repackaging of the three lines of defense described above. But it’ll be yet another security surcharge you’ll be expected to pay because the computers and internet-of-things devices you buy are so insecure. Because there are currently no liabilities for lousy software and no regulations mandating secure software, the market rewards software that’s fast and cheap at the expense of good. Until that changes, ransomware will continue to be profitable line of criminal business.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Daily News.

from WannaCry Ransomware