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Engaging engineers in privacy

Updated from original post January 2013.

I have come to believe that a systemic conceptual shortfall affects typical technologists’ thinking about privacy. It may be that engineers tend to take literally the well-meaning slogan that “privacy is not a technology issue”. And I say this in all seriousness.

Online, we’re talking about data privacy, or data protection, but systems designers bring to work a spectrum of personal outlooks about privacy in the human sphere. Yet what matters is the precise wording of data privacy law, like Australia’s Privacy Act. To illustrate the difference, here’s the sort of experience I’ve had time and time again.

During the course of conducting a PIA in 2011, I spent time with the development team working on a new government database. These were good, senior people, with sophisticated understanding of information architecture, and they’d received in-house privacy training. But they harboured restrictive views about privacy. An important clue was the way they habitually referred to “private” information rather than Personal Information (or equivalently, Personally Identifiable Information, PII). After explaining that Personal Information is the operable term in Australian legislation, and reviewing its definition as essentially any information about an identifiable person, we found that the team had not appreciated the extent of the PII in their system. They had overlooked that most of their audit logs collect PII, albeit indirectly and automatically, and that information about clients in their register provided by third parties was also PII (despite it being intuitively ‘less private’ by virtue of originating from others).

I attributed these blind spots to the developers’ loose framing of “private” information. Online and in privacy law alike, things are very crisp. The definition of PII as any data relating to an individual whose identity is readily apparent sets a low bar, embracing a great many data classes and, by extension, informatics processes. It might be counter-intuitive that PII originating from some many places (even the public domain) falls under privacy regulations, yet the definition of PII is clear cut and readily factored into systems analysis. After getting that, the team engaged in the PIA with fresh energy, and we found and rectified several privacy risks that had gone unnoticed.

Here are some more of the recurring misconceptions I’ve noticed over the past decade:


  • “Personal” Information is sometimes taken to mean especially delicate information such as payment card details, rather than any information pertaining to an identifiable individual; see also this exchange with US data breach analyst Jake Kouns over the Epsilon incident in 2011 in which tens of millions of user addresses were taken from a bulk email house;
  • the act of collecting PII is sometimes regarded only in relation to direct collection from the individual concerned; technologists can overlook that PII provided by a third party to a data custodian is nevertheless being collected by the custodian; likewise technologists may not appreciate that generating PII internally, through event logging for instance, also represent collection.

These instances and others show that many ICT practitioners suffer important gaps in their understanding. Security professionals in particular may be forgiven for thinking that most legislated Privacy Principles are legal technicalities irrelevant to them, for generally only one of the principles in any given set is overtly about security; see:


  • no. 5 of the OECD Privacy Principles
  • no. 4 of the Fair Information Practice Principles in the US
  • no. 8 of the Generally Accepted Privacy Principles of the US and Canadian accounting bodies,
  • no. 4 of the older National Privacy Principles of Australia, and
  • no. 11 of the new Australian National Privacy Principles.

Yet all of the privacy principles in these regimes are impacted by information technology and security practices; see Mapping Privacy requirements onto the IT function, Privacy Law & Policy Reporter, v10.1 & 10.2, 2003. I believe the gaps in the privacy knowledge of ICT practitioners are not random but are systemic, probably resulting from privacy training for non-privacy professionals not being properly integrated with their particular world views.

To properly deal with data privacy, ICT practitioners need to have privacy framed in a way that leads to objective design requirements. Luckily there already exist several unifying frameworks for systematising the work of development teams. One tool that resonates strongly with data privacy practice is the Threat & Risk Assessment (TRA).

A TRA is for analysing infosec requirements and is widely practiced in the public and private sectors in Australia. There are a number of standards that guide the conduct of TRAs, such as ISO 31000. A TRA is used to systematically catalogue all foreseeable adverse events that threaten an organisation’s information assets, identify candidate security controls to mitigate those threats, and prioritise the deployment of controls to bring all risks down to an acceptable level. The TRA process delivers real world management decisions, understanding that non zero risks are ever present, and that no organisation has an unlimited security budget.

The TRA exercise is readily extensible to help Privacy by Design. A TRA can expressly incorporate privacy as an aspect of information assets worth protecting, alongside the conventional security qualities of confidentiality, integrity and availability ("C.I.A.").

Lockstep AusCERT 2013 Designing Privacy by Design (1 2) ASSET INVENTORY  pbd tra

A crucial subtlety here is that privacy is not the same as confidentiality, yet they are frequently conflated. A fuller understanding of privacy leads designers to consider the Collection, Use, Disclosure and Access & Correction principles, over and above confidentiality when they analyse information assets. The table above illustrates how privacy related factors can be accounted for alongside “C.I.A.”. In another blog post I discuss the selection of controls to mitigate privacy threats, within a unified TRA framework.

And in this post I look at how the definitional uncertainties in privacy and the unfolding identifiability of PII should not cause security professionals much anxiety - because they're trained to deal with uncertainties and likelihoods.

We continue to actively research the closer integration of security and privacy practices.

Posted in Security, Privacy

Hacking over breakfast

The other morning, out of the blue, a sort of mini DEF CON came to a business breakfast in Sydney, with a public demonstration of how to crack the Australian government's logons for businesses.

Hardware infosec specialists ICT Security convened a breakfast meeting ostensibly to tell people about Bitcoin. The only clue they had a bigger agenda was buried in the low key byline "How could Bitcoin technology compromise your password database security?". I confess I missed the sub-plot altogether.

After a wide-ranging introduction to all things Bitcoin - including the theory of money, random numbers, Block Chains, ASICs and libertarianism - an ICT Security architect stepped up to talk about AusKEY, the Australian Government B2G Single Sign On system. And what was the Bitcoin connection? Well it happens that the technology needed for Bicoin mining - namely affordable, high-performance custom chips for number crunching - is exactly what's needed to mount brute-force attacks on hashed passwords. And so ICT Security went on to demonstrate that the typical AusKEY password can be easily cracked. Moreover, they also showed off security holes in the AusKEY Java code where 'master' key details can be found in the clear.

The company says it has brought these vulnerabilities to the government's attention.

They said that their technique could defeat passwords as long as 10 mixed characters, which exceeds the regular advice for password safe practices.

It's not entirely clear what ICT Security was seeking to achieve by now demonstrating the attack in public.

White hat exposees are a keen feature of the security ecosystem, and very problematic. In Australia, such exercises are often met with criminal investigation. For example, in 2011 First State Super reported a young man to police after he sent them evidence that he found how the fund's client logons could be guessed. Early this year, Public Transport Victoria called in the law after a self-professed "security researcher" reported (at first privately) a simple hack to expose travellers' confidential details. And merely being in possession of evidence of an alleged cyber break-in was enough to get journalist Ben Grubb arrested by Queensland Police in 2011. So alleged hacking can attract zealous policing casting a wide net.

Government security managers will likely be smarting about the adverse AusKEY publicity. Just three months ago the hacker and writer Nik Cubrilovic published a raft of weaknesses in "MyGov", a Single Sign On for individuals in Australia's social security system. In classic style, Cubrilovic first raised his findings privately with the Department of Human Services, but when he got no satisfaction, he went public. At this stage, I don't know if the government has taken the MyGov matter further.

For mine, the main lesson of this morning's demonstration is that single factor government authentication is obsolete. It is not good enough for citizens to be brought into e-government systems using twenty year old password security. The world is moving on and fast; see the advances being made by the FIDO Alliance to standardise Multi Factor Authentication.

In fact the AusKEY system actually offers an optional hardware USB key, but it hasn't been popular. That must change. E-government is way too important for single factor authentication. Which is probably the name of ICT Security's game.

Posted in Security

Getting the security privacy balance wrong

National security analyst Dr Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote of the government’s data retention proposals in the Sydney Morning Herald of August 14. I am a privacy advocate who accepts in fact that law enforcement needs new methods to deal with terrorism. I myself do trust there is a case for greater data retention in order to weed out terrorist preparations, but I reject Bergin’s patronising call that “Privacy must take a back seat to security”. He speaks soothingly of balance yet he rejects privacy out of hand. As such his argument for balance is anything but balanced.

Suspicions are rightly raised by the murkiness of the Australian government’s half-baked data retention proposals and by our leaders’ excruciating inability to speak cogently even about the basics. They bandy about metaphors for metadata that are so bad, they smack of misdirection. Telecommunications metadata is vastly more complex than addresses on envelopes; for one thing, the Dynamic IP Addresses of cell phones means for police to tell who made a call requires far more data than ASIO and AFP are letting on (more on this by Internet expert Geoff Huston here).

The way authorities jettison privacy so casually is of grave concern. Either they do not understand privacy, or they’re paying lip service to it. In truth, data privacy is simply about restraint. Organisations must explain what personal data they collect, why they collect, who else gets to access the data, and what they do with it. These principles are not at all at odds with national security. It’s given his polar status as cult hero or pariah, Ed Snowden has in my view provided some of best balanced analysis of national security and civil rights.

Cryptographers have a saying: There is no security in obscurity. Nothing is gained by governments keeping the existence of surveillance programs secret or unexplained, but the essential trust of the public is lost when their privacy is treated with contempt.

Posted in Trust, Security, Privacy

BlackBerry Security Summit, 29 July 2014

Summary: BlackBerry is poised for a fresh and well differentiated play in the Internet of Things, with its combination of handset hardware security, its uniquely rated QNX operating system kernel, and its experience with the FIDO device authentication protocols.

To put it plainly, BlackBerry is not cool.

And neither is security.

But maybe two wrongs can make a right, in terms of a compelling story. BlackBerry's security story has always been strong, it's getting stronger, and it could save them.

Today I attended the BlackBerry Security Summit in New York City (Disclosure: my travel and accommodation were paid by BlackBerry). The event was announced very recently; none of my colleagues had heard of it. So what was the compelling need to put on a security show in New York? It turned out to be the 9:00am announcement that BlackBerry is acquiring the German voice security specialists Secusmart. BlackBerry and Secusmart have worked together for a long time; their stated aim is to put a real secure phone in the "hand of every President and every Chancellor".

Secusmart CEO Hans-Christoph Quelle is a forceful champion of voice security; in this age of evidently routine spying by state and competitors alike, there is enormous demand building for counter-surveillance in telephony and messaging. Secusmart is also responsible for the highly rated Micro SD cards that BlackBerry proudly use as removable security modules in their handsets. And this is where the SecuSmart tie-up really resonates for me. It comes hot on the heels of last week's Cloud Security Summit, where there was so much support for personal Hardware Security Modules (HSMs), be they Micro SD cards, USB keys, NFC Secure Elements, the good old "Trusted Platform Module" (TPM) or any number of proprietary chip sets.

Today's event also showcased BlackBerry's QNX division (acquired in 2010) and its secure operating system. CEO John Chen reckons that the software in 50% of connected cars runs on the QNX OS (and in high reliability settings like power stations, wind turbines and even gaming machines, the penetration is even higher). And so he is positioning BlackBerry as a major player in the Internet of Things.

We heard from QNX founder Dan Dodge about the elegance of their system. At just 100,000 lines of code, Dodge stressed that his team knows the software inside-out. There is not a single line of code in their OS that QNX did not write themselves. In contrast, such mastery is utterly impossible in the 15,000,000 lines that make up Linux or the estimated 50-70 million lines in Windows. It happens that I've recently lamented the parlous state of software quality and the need to return to first principles security. So I am on Dan Dodge's wavelength.

BlackBerry's security people had a little bit to say about identity as well, and apparently more's to come. For now, they are flagging that with 250 million customers in their messaging system, BBM represents "one of the biggest identity systems in the world". And as such the company does plan to "federate" it somehow. They reminded us at the same time of the BlackBerry Cloud slated for launch in December.

Going forward, the importance of strong, physical Two Factor Authentication for accessing the cloud is almost a given now. And the smartphone is fast becoming the predominant access mechanism, so the combination of secure elements, handsets and high security infrastructure is potent.

There's a lot that BlackBerry is keeping close to its chest, but for me one extant piece of the IoT puzzle was conspicuously absent today: the role of the FIDO Alliance protocols. After all, BlackBerry has been a FIDO Board Member for a long time. It seems to me that FIDO's protocols for exchanging verified authentication signals and information about devices should be an important element of BlackBerry's play in both its software infrastructure and its devices.

In closing, I'll revisit the very first thing we heard at today's event. It was a video testimonial, telling us "If you need nuclear security, you need BlackBerry". As I said, security really isn't cool. Jazzing up the company's ability to deliver "nuclear" grade to demanding clients is actually not the right message. Security in the Internet of Things -- and therefore in everyday life -- may turn out to be just as important.

We basically know that nuclear power plants are inherently risky; we know that planes will occasionally fall out of the sky. Paradoxically, the community has a reasonable appetite for risk and failures in very complex systems like those. Individually and/or collectively we have decided we just can't live without electricity and travel and so we've come to settle on a roughly acceptable finite cost in terms of failures. But when the mundanities of life go digital, the tolerance of failure will drop. When our cars and thermostats and light switches are connected to the Internet, and when a bug or a script kiddie's stunt can soon send whole neighbourhoods into a spin, consumers won't stand for it.

So the very best security we can currently engineer is in fact going to be necessary at scale for smart appliances, wearables, connected homes, smart meters and networked cars. We need a different gauge for this type of security, and it's going to be very tough to engineer and deploy economically. But right now, with its deep understanding of dependable OS's and commitment to high quality device hardware, it seems to me BlackBerry has a head-start in the Internet of Things.

Posted in Software engineering, Security, Identity, Cloud

Postcard from Monterey 2 #CISmcc

Second Day Reflections from CIS Monterey.

Follow along on Twitter at #CISmcc (for the Monterey Conference Centre).

The Attributes push

At CIS 2013 in Napa a year ago, several of us sensed a critical shift in focus amongst the identerati - from identity to attributes. OIX launched the Attributes Exchange Network (AXN) architecture, important commentators like Andrew Nash were saying, 'hey, attributes are more interesting than identity', and my own #CISnapa talk went so far as to argue we should forget about identity altogether. There was a change in the air, but still, it was all pretty theoretical.

Twelve months on, and the Attributes push has become entirely practical. If there was a Word Cloud for the NSTIC session, my hunch is that "attributes" would dominate over "identity". Several live NSTIC pilots are all about the Attributes.

ID.me is a new company started by US military veterans, with the aim of improving access for the veterans community to discounted goods and services and other entitlements. Founders Matt Thompson and Blake Hall are not identerati -- they're entirely focused on improving online access for their constituents to a big and growing range of retailers and services, and offer a choice of credentials for proving veterans bona fides. It's central to the ID.me model that users reveal as little as possible about their personal identities, while having their veterans' status and entitlements established securely and privately.

Another NSTIC pilot Relying Party is the financial service sector infrastructure provider Broadridge. Adrian Chernoff, VP for Digital Strategy, gave a compelling account of the need to change business models to take maximum advantage of digital identity. Broadridge recently announced a JV with Pitney Bowes called Inlet, which will enable the secure sharing of discrete and validated attributes - like name, address and social security number - in an NSTIC compliant architecture.

Mind Altering

Yesterday I said in my #CISmcc diary that I hoped to change my mind about something here, and half way through Day 2, I was delighted it was already happening. I've got a new attitude about NSTIC.

Over the past six months, I had come to fear NSTIC had lost its way. It's hard to judge totally accurately when lurking on the webcast from Sydney (at 4:00am) but the last plenary seemed pedestrian to me. And I'm afraid to say that some NSTIC committees have got a little testy. But today's NSTIC session here was a turning point. Not only are there a number or truly exciting pilots showing real progress, but Jeremy Grant has credible plans for improving accountability and momentum, and the new technology lead Paul Grassi is thinking outside the box and speaking out of school. The whole program seems fresh all over again.

In a packed presentation, Grassi impressed me enormously on a number of points:

  • Firstly, he advocates a pragmatic NSTIC-focused extension of the old US government Authentication Guide NIST SP 800-63. Rather than a formal revision, a companion document might be most realistic. Along the way, Grassi really nailed an issue which we identity professionals need to talk about more: language. He said that there are words in 800-63 that are "never used anywhere else in systems development". No wonder, as he says, it's still "hard to implement identity"!
  • Incidentally I chatted some more with Andrew Hughes about language; he is passionate about terms, and highlights that our term "Relying Party" is an especially terrible distraction for Service Providers whose reason-for-being has nothing to do with "relying" on anyone!
  • Secondly, Paul Grassi wants to "get very aggressive on attributes", including emphasis on practical measurement (since that's really what NIST is all about). I don't think I need to say anything more about that than Bravo!
  • And thirdly, Grassi asked "What if we got rid of LOAs?!". This kind of iconoclastic thinking is overdue, and was floated as part of a broad push to revamp the way government's orthodox thinking on Identity Assurance is translated to the business world. Grassi and Grant don't say LOAs can or should be abandoned by government, but they do see that shoving the rounded business concepts of identity into government's square hole has not done anyone much credit.

Just one small part of NSTIC annoyed me today: the persistent idea that federation hubs are inherently simpler than one-to-one authentication. They showed the following classic sort of 'before and after' shots, where it seems self-evident that a hub (here the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange FCCX) reduces complexity. The reality is that multilateral brokered arrangements between RPs and IdPs are far more complex than simple bilateral direct contracts. And moreover, the new forms of agreements are novel and untested in real world business. The time and cost and unpredictability of working out these new arrangements is not properly accounted for and has often been fatal to identity federations.

IMG 5412 BEFORE cropped
IMG 5413 AFTER cropped


The dog barks and this time the caravan turns around

One of the top talking points at #CISmcc has of course been FIDO. The FIDO Alliance goes from strength to strength; we heard they have over 130 members now (remember it started with four or five less than 18 months ago). On Saturday afternoon there was a packed-out FIDO show case with six vendors showing real FIDO-ready products. And today there was a three hour deep dive into the two flagship FIDO protocols UAF (which enables better sharing of strong authentication signals such that passwords may be eliminated) and U2F (which standardises and strengthens Two Factor Authentication).

FIDO's marketing messages are improving all the time, thanks to a special focus on strategic marketing which was given its own working group. In particular, the Alliance is steadily clarifying the distinction between identity and authentication, and sticking adamantly to the latter. In other words, FIDO is really all about the attributes. FIDO leaves identity as a problem to be addressed further up the stack, and dedicates itself to strengthening the authentication signal sent from end-point devices to servers.

The protocol tutorials were excellent, going into detail about how "Attestation Certificates" are used to convey the qualities and attributes of authentication hardware (such as device model, biometric modality, security certifications, elapsed time since last user verification etc) thus enabling nice fine-grained policy enforcement on the RP side. To my mind, UAF and U2F show how nature intended PKI to have been used all along!

Some confusion remains as to why FIDO has two protocols. I heard some quiet calls for UAF and U2F to converge, yet that would seem to put the elegance of U2F at risk. And it's noteworthy that U2F is being taken beyond the original one time password 2FA, with at least one biometric vendor at the showcase claiming to use it instead of the heavier UAF.

Surprising use cases

Finally, today brought more fresh use cases from cohorts of users we socially privileged identity engineers for the most part rarely think about. Another NSTIC pilot partner is AARP, a membership organization providing "information, advocacy and service" to older people, retirees and other special needs groups. AARP's Jim Barnett gave a compelling presentation on the need to extend from the classic "free" business models of Internet services, to new economically sustainable approaches that properly protect personal information. Barnett stressed that "free" has been great and 'we wouldn't be where we are today without it' but it's just not going to work for health records for example. And identity is central to that.

There's so much more I could report if I had time. But I need to get some sleep before another packed day. All this changing my mind is exhausting.

Cheers again from Monterey.

Posted in Security, Privacy, PKI, Language, Identity, Federated Identity, e-health

Postcard from Monterey #CISmcc

First Day Reflections from CIS Monterey.

Follow along on Twitter at #CISmcc (for the Monterey Conference Centre).

The Cloud Identity Summit really is the top event on the identity calendar. The calibre of the speakers, the relevance and currency of the material, the depth and breadth of the cohort, and the international spread are all unsurpassed. It's been great to meet old cyber-friends in "XYZ Space" at last -- like Emma Lindley from the UK and Lance Peterman. And to catch up with such talented folks like Steffen Sorensen from New Zealand once again.

A day or two before, Ian Glazer of Salesforce asked in a tweet what we were expecting to get out of CIS. And I replied that I hoped to change my mind about something. It's unnerving to have your understanding and assumptions challenged by the best in the field ... OK, sometimes it's outright embarrassing ... but that's what these events are all about. A very wise lawyer said to me once, around 1999 at the dawn of e-commerce, that he had changed his mind about authentication a few times up to that point, and that he fully expected to change his mind again and again.

I spent most of Saturday in Open Identity Foundation workshops. OIDF chair Don Thibeau enthusiastically stressed two new(ish) initiatives: Mobile Connect in conjunction with the mobile carrier trade association GSM Association @GSMA, and HIE Connect for the health sector. For the uninitiated, HIE means Health Information Exchange, namely a hub for sharing structured e-health records among hospitals, doctors, pharmacists, labs, e-health records services, allied health providers, insurers, drug & device companies, researchers and carers; for the initiated, we know there is some language somewhere in which the letters H.I.E. stand for "Not My Lifetime".

But seriously, one of the best (and pleasantly surprising) things about HIE Connect as the OIDF folks tell it, is the way its leaders unflinchingly take for granted the importance of privacy in the exchange of patient health records. Because honestly, privacy is not a given in e-health. There are champions on the new frontiers like genomics that actually say privacy may not be in the interests of the patients (or more's the point, the genomics businesses). And too many engineers in my opinion still struggle with privacy as something they can effect. So it's great -- and believe me, really not obvious -- to hear the HIE Connects folks -- including Debbie Bucci from the US Dept of Health and Human Services, and Justin Richer of Mitre and MIT -- dealing with it head-on. There is a compelling fit for the OAUTH and OIDC protocols here, with their ability to manage discrete pieces of information about users (patients) and to permission them all separately. Having said that, Don and I agree that e-health records permissioning and consent is one of the great UI/UX challenges of our time.

Justin also highlighted that the RESTful patterns emerging for fine-grained permissions management in healthcare are not confined to healthcare. Debbie added that the ability to query rare events without undoing privacy is also going to be a core defining challenge in the Internet of Things.

MyPOV: We may well see tremendous use cases for the fruits of HIE Exchange before they're adopted in healthcare!

In the afternoon, we heard from Canadian and British projects that have been working with the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) program now for a few years each.

Emma Lindley presented the work they've done in the UK Identity Assurance Program (IDAP) with social security entitlements recipients. These are not always the first types of users we think of for sophisticated IDAM functions, but in Britain, local councils see enormous efficiency dividends from speeding up the issuance of eg disabled parking permits, not to mention reducing imposters, which cost money and lead to so much resentment of the well deserved. Emma said one Attributes Exchange beta project reduced the time taken to get a 'Blue Badge' permit from 10 days to 10 minutes. She went on to describe the new "Digital Sources of Trust" initiative which promises to reconnect under-banked and under-documented sections of society with mainstream financial services. Emma told me the much-abused word "transformational" really does apply here.

MyPOV: The Digital Divide is an important issue for me, and I love to see leading edge IDAM technologies and business processes being used to do something about it -- and relatively quickly.

Then Andre Boysen of SecureKey led a discussion of the Canadian identity ecosystem, which he said has stabilised nicely around four players: Federal Government, Provincial Govt, Banks and Carriers. Lots of operations and infrastructure precedents from the payments industry have carried over.
Andre calls the smart driver license of British Columbia the convergence of "street identity and digital identity".

MyPOV: That's great news - and yet comparable jurisdictions like Australia and the USA still struggle to join governments and banks and carriers in an effective identity synthesis without creating great privacy and commercial anxieties. All three cultures are similarly allergic to identity cards, but only in Canada have they managed to supplement drivers licenses with digital identities with relatively high community acceptance. In nearly a decade, Australia has been at a standstill in its national understanding of smartcards and privacy.

For mine, the CIS Quote of the Day came from Scott Rice of the Open ID Foundation. We all know the stark problem in our industry of the under-representation of Relying Parties in the grand federated identity projects. IdPs and carriers so dominate IDAM. Scott asked us to imagine a situation where "The auto industry was driven by steel makers". Governments wouldn't put up with that for long.

Can someone give us the figures? I wonder if Identity and Access Management is already more economically ore important than cars?!

Cheers from Monterey, Day 1.

Posted in Smartcards, Security, Identity, Federated Identity, e-health, Cloud, Biometrics, Big Data

Hotel database security

International hotels are a fantastic target for identity thieves. Hotel databases don't just hold credit card numbers and billing addresses (which are held for weeks in advance of a stay and for weeks afterwards to cover incidentals), but for many customers the hotel also has their home address, mobile phone number, driver licence number, airline memberships and arrival flight details. And even passport number is routinely collected by hotels in Asia. It's a complete cornucopia for criminals.

And the most dangerous, most difficult to control threat vector in the hotel industry won't be war-driving or SQL injection attacks or any of the other high tech hacking tools used by organised crime. It will be the inside job. Thousands of itinerant hotel workers in every corner of the world have the opportunity to access office systems after hours, and simply download the contents of central databases to a thumb drive.

The vulnerability of hotel databases to identity thieves has clear implications for national security. I trust that counter terrorism agencies are working on this problem? These databases reveal the forward travel plans for thousands of VIPs worldwide.

We should expect that organised criminals and terrorist organisations are tapped into hotel databases as we speak, and are mining them systematically.

Posted in Fraud, Security

Security Heartache

For the second time in as many months, a grave bug has emerged in core Internet security software. In February it was the "Goto Fail" bug in the Apple operating system iOS that left web site security inoperable; now we have "Heartbleed", a flaw that leaves many secure web servers in fact open to attackers sniffing memory contents looking for passwords and keys.

Who should care?

There is no shortage of advice on what to do if you're a user. And it's clear how to remediate the Heartbleed bug if you're a web administrator (a fix has been released). But what is the software fraternity going to do to reduce the incidence of these disastrous human errors? In my view, Goto Fail and Heartbleed are emblematic of chaotic software craftsmanship. It appears that goto statements are used with gay abandon throughout web software today, creating exactly the unmaintainable spaghetti code that the founders of Structured Programming warned us about in the 1970s. Testing is evidently lax; code inspection seems non-existent. The Heartbleed flaw is in a piece of widely used Open Source software, and was over-looked first by the programmer, and then by the designated inspector, and then it went unnoticed for two years in the wild.

What are the ramifications of Heartbleed?

"Heartbleed" is a flaw in an obscure low level feature of the "Transport Layer Security" (TLS) protocol. TLS has an optional feature dubbed "Heartbeat" which a computer connected in a secure session can use to periodically test if the other computer is still alive. Heartbeat involves sending a request message with some dummy payload, and getting back a response with duplicate payload. The bug in Heartbeat means the responding computer can be tricked into sending back a dump of 64 kiloytes of memory, because the payload length variable goes unchecked. (For the technically minded, this error is qualitatively similar to a buffer overload; see also the OpenSSL Project description of the bug). Being server memory used in security management, that random grab has a good chance of including sensitive TLS-related data like passwords, credit card numbers and even TLS session keys. The bug is confined to the OpenSSL security library, where it was introduced inadvertently as part of some TLS improvements in late 2011.

The flawed code is present in almost all Open Source web servers, or around 66% of all web servers worldwide. However not all servers on the Internet run SSL/TLS secure sessions. Security experts Netcraft run automatic surveys and have worked out that around 17% of all Internet sites would be affected by Heartbleed – or around half a million widely used addresses. These include many banks, financial services, government services, social media companies and employer extranets. An added complication is that the Heartbeat feature leaves no audit trail, and so a Heartbleed exploit is undetectable.

If you visit an affected site and start a secure ("padlocked") session, then an attacker that knows about Heartbleed can grab random pieces of memory from your session. Researchers have demonstrated that session keys can be retrieved, although it is said to be difficult. Nevertheless, Heartbleed has been described by some of the most respected and prudent commentators as catastrophic. Bruce Schneier for one rates its seriousness as "11 out of 10".

Should we panic?

No. The first rule in any emergency is "Don't Panic". But nevertheless, this is an emergency.

The risk of any individual having been harmed through Heartbleed is probably low, but the consequences are potentially grave (if for example your bank is affected). And soon enough, it will be simple and cheap to take action, so you will hear experts say 'it is prudent to assume you have been compromised' and to change your passwords.

However, you need to wait rather than rush into premature action. Until the websites you use have been fixed, changing passwords now may leave you more vulnerable, because it's highly likely that criminals are trying to exploit Heartbleed while they can. It's best to avoid using any secure websites for the time being. We should redouble the usual Internet precautions: check your credit card and bank statements (but not online for the time being!). Stay extra alert to suspicious looking emails not just from strangers but from your friends and colleagues too, for their cloud mail accounts might have been hacked. And seek out the latest news from your e-commerce sites, banks, government and so on. The Australian banks for instance were relatively quick to act; by April 10 the five biggest institutions confirmed they were safe.

Lessons for the Software Craft

Heartbleed for me is the last straw. I call it pathetic that mission critical code can harbour flaws like this. So for a start, in the interests of clarity, I will no longer use the term "Software Engineering". I've written a lot in the past about the practice and the nascent profession of programming but it seems we're just going backwards. I'm aware that calling programming a "craft" will annoy some people; honestly, I mean no offence to basket weavers.

I'm no merchant of doom. I'm not going to stop banking and shopping online (however I do refuse Internet facing Electronic Health Records, and I would not use a self-drive car). My focus is on software development processes and system security.

The modern world is increasingly dependent on software, so it passes understanding we still tolerate such ad hoc development processes.

The programmer responsible for the Heartbleed bug has explained that he made a number of changes to the code and that he "missed validating a variable" (referring to the unchecked length of the Heartbeat payload). The designated reviewer of the OpenSSL changes also missed that the length was not validated. The software was released into the wild in March 2012. It went unnoticed (well, unreported) until a few weeks ago and was rectified in an OpenSSL release on April 7.

I'd like to avoid apportioning individual blame, so I am not interested in the names of the programmer and the reviewer. But we have to ask: when so many application security issues boil down to overflow problems, why is it not second nature to watch out for bugs like Heartbleed? How did experienced programmers make such an error? Why was this flaw out in the wild for two years before it was spotted? I thought one of the core precepts of Open Source Software was that having many eyes looking over the code means that errors will be picked up. But code inspection seems not to be widely practiced anymore. There's not much point having open software if people aren't actually looking!

As an aside, criminal hackers know all about overflow errors and might be more motivated to find them than innocent developers. I fear that the Heartbleed overflow bug could have been noticed very quickly by hackers who pore over new releases looking for exactly this type of exploit, or equally by the NSA which is reported to have known about it from the beginning.

Where does this leave systems integrators and enterprise developers? Have they become accustomed to taking Open Source Software modules and building them in, without a whole lot of regression testing? There's a lot to be said for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) but no enterprise can take "free" too literally; the total cost of development has to include reasonable specification, verification and testing of the integrated whole.

As discussed in the wake of Goto Fail, we need to urgently and radically lift coding standards.

Posted in Software engineering, Security

Calling for a uniform approach to card fraud, offline and on

This blog is an edited extract from an article of the same name, first published in the Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce, December 2012, vol. 17, no.3.

Abstract

The credit card payments system is a paragon of standardisation. No other industry has such a strong history of driving and adopting uniform technologies, infrastructure and business processes. No matter where you keep a bank account, you can use a globally branded credit card to go shopping in almost every corner of the world. Seamless convenience is underpinned by the universal Four Party settlement model, and a long-standing card standard that works the same with ATMs and merchant terminals everywhere.

So with this determination to facilitate trustworthy and supremely convenient spending everywhere, it’s astonishing that the industry is still yet to standardise Internet payments. Most of the world has settled on the EMV standard for in-store transactions, but online we use a wide range of confusing and largely ineffective security measures. As a result, Card Not Present (CNP) fraud is growing unchecked. This article argues that all card payments should be properly secured using standardised hardware. In particular, CNP transactions should use the very same EMV chip and cryptography as do card present payments.

Skimming and Carding

With “carding”, criminals replicate stolen customer data on blank cards and use those card copies in regular merchant terminals. “Skimming” is one way of stealing card data, by running a card through a copying device when the customer isn’t looking (but it’s actually more common for card data to be stolen in bulk from compromised merchant and processor databases).

A magnetic stripe card stores the customer’s details as a string of ones and zeroes, and presents them to a POS terminal or ATM in the clear. It’s child’s play for criminals to scan the bits and copy them to a blank card.

The industry responded to skimming and carding with EMV (aka Chip-and-PIN). EMV replaces the magnetic storage with an integrated circuit, but more importantly, it secures the data transmitted from card to terminal. EMV works by first digitally signing those ones and zeros in the chip, and then verifying the signature at the terminal. The signing uses a Private Key unique to the cardholder and held safely inside the chip where it cannot be tampered with by fraudsters. It is not feasible to replicate the digital signature without having access to the inner workings of the chip, and thus EMV cards resist carding.

Online Card Fraud

Conventional Card Not Present (CNP) transactions are vulnerable because, a lot like the old mag stripe cards, they rest on clear text cardholder data. On its own, a merchant server cannot tell the difference between the original card data and a copy, just as a terminal cannot tell an original mag stripe card from a criminal's copy.

So CNP fraud is just online carding.

Despite the simplicity of the root problem, the past decade has seen a bewildering patchwork of flimsy and expensive online payments fixes. Various One Time Passwords have come and gone, from scratchy cards to electronic key fobs. Temporary SMS codes have been popular but were recently declared unsafe by the Communications Alliance in Australia, a policy body representing the major mobile carriers.

“3D Insecure”

Meanwhile, extraordinary resources have been squandered on the novel “3D Secure” scheme (MasterCard “SecureCode” and “Verified by Visa”). 3D Secure take-up is piecemeal; it’s widely derided by merchants and customers alike. It is often blocked by browsers; and it throws up odd looking messages that can appear like a phishing attack or other malfunction. Moreover, it upsets the underlying Four Party settlements architecture, slowing transactions to a crawl and introducing untold legal complexities. Payments regulators too appear to have lost interest in 3D Secure.

So why doesn’t the card payments industry go back to its roots, preserve its global Four Party settlement architecture and standards, and tackle the real issue?

Kill two birds with one chip

We could stop most online fraud by using the same chip technologies we deployed to kill off skimming and carding.

It is technically simple to reproduce the familiar card-present user experience in a standard computer. It would just take the will of the financial services industry to make payments by smartcard standard. Computers with built-in smartcard readers have come and gone; they're commonplace in some Eastern European and Asian markets where smartcards are normal for e-health and online voting.

With dual interface and contactless smartcards, the interface options open right up. The Dell E series Latitudes have contactless card readers as standard (aimed at the US Personal ID Verification PIV market). But most mobile devices now feature NFC or “Near Field Communications”, a special purpose device-to-device networking capability, which until now has mostly been used to emulate a payment card. But NFC tablets and smartphones can switch into reader emulation mode, so as to act as a smartcard terminal. Other researchers have recently demonstrated how to read a smartcard via NFC to authenticate the cardholder to a mobile device.

As an alternative, the SIM or other "Secure Element" of most mobile devices could be used to digitally sign card transactions directly, in place of the card. That’s essentially how NFC payment apps works for Card Present transactions – but nobody has yet made the leap to use smart phone hardware security for Card Not Present.

Using a smart payment card with a computer could and should be as easy as using Paywave or Paypass.

Conclusion: Hardware security

All serious payments systems use hardware security. The classic examples include SIM cards, EMV, the Hardware Security Modules mandated by regulators in all ATMs, and the Secure Elements of NFC devices. With well designed hardware security, we gain a lasting upper hand in the criminal arms race.

The Internet and mobile channels will one day overtake the traditional physical payments medium. Indeed, commentators already like to say that the “digital economy” is simply the economy. Therefore, let us stop struggling with stopgap Internet security measures, and let us stop pretending that PCI-DSS audits will stop organised crime stealing card numbers by the million. Instead, we should kill two birds with one stone, and use chip technology to secure both card present and CNP transactions, to deliver the same high standards of usability and security in all channels.

Posted in Smartcards, Security, Payments, Fraud

Who's listening to Ed Snowden?

In one of the most highly anticipated sessions ever at the annual South-by-Southwest (SXSW) culture festival, NSA whistle blower Ed Snowden appeared via live video link from Russia. He joined two privacy and security champions from the American Civil Liberties Union – Chris Soghoian and Ben Wizner – to canvass the vexed tensions between intelligence and law enforcement, personal freedom, government accountability and digital business models.

These guys traversed difficult ground, with respect and much nuance. They agreed the issues are tough, and that proper solutions are non-obvious and slow-coming. The transcript is available here.

Yet afterwards the headlines and tweet stream were dominated by "Snowden's Tips" for personal online security. It was as if Snowden had been conducting a self-help workshop or a Cryptoparty. He was reported to recommend we encrypt our hard drives, encrypt our communications, and use Tor (the special free-and-open-source encrypted browser). These are mostly fine suggestions but I am perplexed why they should be the main takeaways from a complex discussion. Are people listening to Snowdenis broader and more general policy lessons? I fear not. I believe people still conflate secrecy and privacy. At the macro level, the confusion makes it difficult to debate national security policy properly; at a micro level, even if crypto was practical for typical citizens, it is not a true privacy measure. Citizens need so much more than secrecy technologies, whether it's SSL-always-on at web sites, or do-it-yourself encryption.

Ed Snowden is a remarkably measured and thoughtful commentator on national security. Despite being hounded around the word, he is not given to sound bites. His principal concerns appear to be around public accountability, oversight and transparency. He speaks of the strengths and weaknesses of the governance systems already in place; he urges Congress to hold security agency heads to account.

When drawn on questions of technology, he doesn't dispense casual advice; instead he calls for multifaceted responses to our security dilemmas: more cryptological research, better random number generators, better testing, more robust cryptographic building blocks and more careful product design. Deep, complicated engineering stuff.

So how did the media, both mainstream and online alike, distill Snowden's sweeping analysis of politics, policy and engineering into three sterile and quasi-survivalist snippets?

Partly it's due to the good old sensationalism of all modern news media: everyone likes a David-and-Goliath angle where individuals face off against pitiless governments. And there's also the ruthless compression: newspapers cater for an audience with school-age reading levels and attention spans, and Twitter clips our contributions to 140 characters.

But there is also a deeper over-simplification of privacy going on which inhibits our progress.

Too often, people confuse privacy for secrecy. Privacy gets framed as a need to hide from prying eyes, and from that starting position, many advocates descend into a combative, everyone-for-themselves mindset.

However privacy has very little to do with secrecy. We shouldn't have to go underground to enjoy that fundamental human right to be let alone. The social reality is that most of us wish to lead rich and quite public lives. We actually want others to know us – to know what we do, what we like, and what we think – but all within limits. Digital privacy (or more clinically, data protection) is not about hiding; rather it is a state where those who know us are restrained in what they do with the knowledge they have about us.

Privacy is the protection you need when your affairs are not confidential!

So encryption is a sterile and very limited privacy measure. As the SXSW panellists agreed, today's encryption tools really are the preserve of deep technical specialists. Ben Wizner quipped that if the question is how can average users protect themselves online, and the answer is Tor, then "we have failed".

And the problems with cryptography are not just usability and customer experience. A fundamental challenge with the best encryption is that everyone needs to be running the tools. You cannot send out encrypted email unilaterally – you need to first make sure all your correspondents have installed the right software and they've got trusted copies of your encryption keys, or they won't be able to unscramble your messages.

Chris Soghoian also nailed the business problem that current digital revenue models are largely incompatible with encryption. The wondrous free services we enjoy from the Googles and Facebooks of the world are funded in the main by mining our data streams, figuring out our interests, habits and connections, and monetising that synthesised information. The web is in fact bankrolled by surveillance – by Big Business as opposed to government.

End-to-end encryption prevents data mining and would ruin the business model of the companies we've become attached to. If we were to get serious with encryption, we may have to cough up the true price for our modern digital lifestyles.

The SXSW privacy and security panellists know all this. Snowden in particular spent much of his time carefully reiterating many of the basics of data privacy. For instance he echoed the Collection Limitation Principle when he said of large companies that they "can't collect any data; [they] should only collect data and hold it for as long as necessary for the operation of the business". And the Openness Principle: "data should not be collected without people's knowledge and consent". If I was to summarise Snowden's SXSW presentation, I'd say privacy will only be improved by reforming the practices of both governments and big businesses, and by putting far more care into digital product development. Ed Snowden himself doesn't promote neat little technology tips.

It's still early days for the digital economy. We're experiencing an online re-run of the Wild West, with humble users understandably feeling forced to take measures into their own hands. So many individuals have become hungry for defensive online tools and tips. But privacy is more about politics and regulation than technology. I hope that people listen more closely to Ed Snowden on policy, and that his lasting legacy is more about legal reform and transparency than Do-It-Yourself encryption.

Posted in Security, Privacy, Internet