Monday, May 07, 2018

All these vulnerabilities, rarely matter.

There is a serious misalignment of interests between Application Security vulnerability assessment vendors and their customers. Vendors are incentivized to report everything they possible can, even issues that rarely matter. On the other hand, customers just want the vulnerability reports that are likely to get them hacked. Every finding beyond that is a waste of time, money, and energy, which is precisely what’s happening every day. Let’s begin exploring this with some context:

Within any Application Security vulnerability statistics report published over the last 10 years, they’ll state that the vast majority of websites contain one or more serious issues — typically dozens. To be clear, we’re NOT talking about website infected with malvertizements or network based vulnerabilities that can trivially found via Shodan and the like. Those are separate problems. I’m talking exclusively about Web application vulnerabilities such as SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting, Cross-Site Request Forgery, and several dozen more classes. The data shows only half of those reported vulnerabilities ever get fixed and doing so take many months. Pair this with Netcraft’s data that states there’s over 1.7B sites on the Web. Simple multiplication tells us that’s A LOT of vulnerabilities in the ecosystem laying exposed. 

The most interesting and unexplored question to me these days is NOT the sheer size of the vulnerability problem, or why so many issue remain unresolved, but instead figuring out why all those ‘serious’ website vulnerabilities are NOT exploited. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of websites certainly do get exploited, perhaps on the order of millions per year, but it’s certainly not in the realm of tens or even hundreds of millions like the data suggests it could be. And the fact is, for some reason, the vast majority of plainly vulnerable websites with these exact issues remain unexploited for years upon years. 

Some possible theories as to why are:
  1. These ‘vulnerabilities’ are not really vulnerabilities in the directly exploitable sense.
  2. The vulnerabilities are too difficult for the majority of attackers to find and exploit.
  3. The vulnerabilities are only exploitable by insiders.
  4. There aren’t enough attackers to exploit all or even most of the vulnerabilities.
  5. There are more attractive targets or exploit vectors for attackers to focus on.
Other plausible theories?

As someone who worked in the Application Security vulnerability assessment vendor for 15+ years, here is something to consider that speaks to theory #1 and #2 above. 

During the typical sales process, ‘free’ competitive bakeoffs with multiple vendors is standard practice. 9 out of 10 times, the vendor who produces the best results in terms of high-severity vulnerabilities with low false-positives will win the deal. As such, every vendor is heavily incentivized to identify as many vulnerabilities as they can to demonstrate their skill and overall value. Predictively then, every little issue will be reported, from the most basic information disclosure issues to the extremely esoteric and difficult to exploit. No vendor wants to be the one who missed or didn’t report something that another vendor did and risk losing a deal. More is always better. As further evidence, ask any customer about the size and fluff of their assessment reports.

Understanding this, the top vulnerability assessment vendors invest millions upon millions of dollars each year in R&D to improve their scanning technology and assessment methodology to uncover every possible issue. And it makes sense because this is primarily how vendors win deals and grow their business.

Before going further, let’s briefly discuss the reason why we do vulnerability assessments in the first place. When it comes to Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), specifically testing in production, the whole point is to find and fix vulnerabilities BEFORE an attacker will find and exploit them. It’s just that simple. And technically, it just takes the exploitation of one vulnerability for the attacker to succeed.

Here’s the thing: if attackers really aren’t finding, exploiting, or even caring about these vulnerabilities as we can infer from the supplied data — the value in discovering them in the first place becomes questionable. The application security industry industry is heavily incentivized to find vulnerabilities that for one reason or another have little chance of actual exploitation. If that’s the case, then all those vulnerabilities that DAST is finding rarely matter much and we’re collectively wasting precious time and resources focusing on them. 

Let’s tackle Static Application Security Testing (SAST) next. 

The primary purpose of SAST is to find vulnerabilities during the software development process BEFORE they land in production where they’ll eventually be found by DAST and/or exploited by attackers. With this in mind, we must then ask what the overlap is between vulnerabilities found by SAST and DAST. If you ask someone who is an expert in both SAST and DAST, specifically those with experience in this area of vulnerability correlation, they’ll tell you the overlap is around 5-15%. Let’s state that more clearly, somewhere between 5-15% of the vulnerabilities reported by SAST are found by DAST. And let’s remember, from an I-dont-want-to-be-hacked perspective, DAST or attacker-found vulnerabilities are really the only vulnerabilities that matter. Conceptually, SAST helps find them those issues earlier. But, does it really? I challenge anyone, particularly the vendors, to show actual broad field evidence.

Anyway, what then are all those OTHER vulnerabilities that SAST is finding, which DAST / attackers are not?  Obviously, it’ll be some combination of theories #1 - #3 above. They’re not really vulnerabilities, they’re too difficult to remotely find/exploit, or attackers don’t care about them. In either case, what’s the real value for the other 85-95% of vulnerabilities reported by SAST? A: Not much. If you want to know why so many reported 'vulnerabilities' aren’t fixed, this is your long-winded answer. 

This is also why cyber-insurance firms feel comfortable writing policies all day long, even if they know full well their clients are technically riddled with vulnerabilities, because statistically they know those issues are unlikely to be exploited or lead to claims. That last part is key — claims. Exploitation of a vulnerability does not automatically result in a ‘breach,’ which does not necessarily equate to a ‘material business loss,’ and loss is the only thing the business or their insurance carrier truly cares about. Many breaches do not result is losses. This is an crucial point that many InfoSec pros are unable to distinguish between — breach and loss. They are NOT the same thing.

So far we’ve discussed the misalignment of interests between Application Security vulnerability assessment vendors and their customers. The net-result of which is that that we’re wasting huge amounts of time, money, and energy finding and fixing vulnerabilities that rarely matter. If so, the first thing we need to do is come up with a better way to prioritize and justify remediation, or not, of the vulnerabilities we already know exist and should care about. Secondly, we must more efficiently invest our resources in the application security testing process. 

We’ll begin with the simplest risk formula: probability (of breach) x loss (expected) = risk.

Let’s make up some completely bogus numbers to fill in the variables. In a given website we know there’s a vanilla SQL Injection vulnerability in a non-authenticated portion of the application, which has a 50% likelihood of being exploited over a year period. If exploitation results in a material breach, the expected loss is $1,000,000 for incident handling and clean up. Applying our formula:

$1,000,000 (expected loss) x 0.5 (probability of breach) = $500,000 (risk)

In which case, in can be argued that if the SQL injection vulnerability in question costs less than $500,000 to fix, then that’s the reasonable choice. And, the sooner the better. If remediation costs more than $500,000, and I can’t imagine why, then leave it as is. The lesson is that the less a vulnerability costs to fix the more sense it makes to do so. Next, let’s change the variables to the other extreme. We’ll cut the expected loss figure in half and reduce the likelihood of breach to 1% over a year.

$500,000 (expected loss) x 0.01 (probability of breach) = $5,000 (risk)

Now, if vulnerability remediation of the SQL Injection vulnerability costs less than $5,000, it makes sense to fix it. If more, or far more, then one could argue it makes business sense not to. This is the kind of decision that makes the vast majority of information security professionals extremely uncomfortable and instead why they like to ask the business to, “accept the risk.” This way their hands are clean, don’t have to expose their inability to do risk management, and can safely pull an, “I told you so,” should an incident occur. Stating plainly, if your position is recommending that the business should fix each and every vulnerability immediately regardless of the cost, then you’re really not on the side of the business and you will continue being ignored.

What’s needed to enable better decision-making, specifically how to decide what known vulnerabilities to fix or not to fix, is a purpose-built risk matrix specifically for application security. A matrix that takes each vulnerability class, assigns a likelihood of actual exploitation using whatever available data, and containing an expected loss range. Where things will get far more complicated is that the matrix should take into account the authentication status of the vulnerability, any mitigating controls, the industry, resident data volume and type, insider vs external threat actor, a few other things to improve accuracy. 

While never perfect, as risk modeling never is, I’m certain we could begin with something incredibly simple that would far outperform our the way we currently do things — HIGH, MEDIUM, LOW (BLEH!). When it comes to vulnerability remediation, how exactly is a business supposed to make good informed decisions about remediation using traffic light signals? As we’ve seen, and as all previous data indicates, they don’t. Everyone just guesses and 50% of issues go unfixed.

InfoSec's version of the traffic light: This light is green, because in most places where we put this light it makes sense to be green, but we're not taking into account anything about the current street’s situation, location or traffic patterns. Should you trust that light has your best interest at heart?  No.  Should you obey it anyway?  Yes. Because once you install something like that you end up having to follow it, no matter how stupid it is.

Assuming for a moment the aforementioned matrix is created, all of a sudden it fuels the solution to the lack of efficiency in the application security testing process. Since we’ll know exactly what types of vulnerabilities we care about in terms of actual business risk and financial loss, investment can be prioritized to only look for those and ignore all the other worthless junk. Those bulky vulnerability assessment reports would likely dramatically decrease in size and increase in value.

If we really want to push forward our collective understanding of application security and increase the value of our work, we need to completely change the way we think. We need to connect pools of data. Yes, we need to know what vulnerabilities websites currently have — that matter. We need to know what vulnerabilities various application security testing methodologies actually test for. Then we need to overlap this data set with what vulnerabilities attackers predominately find and exploit. And finally, within that data set, which exploited vulnerabilities lead to the largest dollar losses.

If we can successfully do that, we’ll increase the remediation rates of the truly important vulnerabilities, decrease breaches AND losses, and more efficiently invest our vulnerability assessment dollars. Or, we can leave the status quo for the next 10 years and have the same conversations in 2028. We have work to do and a choice to make. 


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My next start-up, Bit Discovery



The biggest and most important unsolved problem in Information Security, arguably all of IT, is asset inventory. Rather, the lack of an up-to-date asset inventory that includes all websites, servers, databases, desktops, laptops, data, and so on. Strange as it sounds, the vast majority of organizations with more than even a handful of websites simply do not know what they are, where they are, what they do, or who is responsible for them. This is also strange because an asset inventory is the first step of every security standard and recommended by every expert.

After many of years of research, it turns out the reason why is rather simple: There are currently no enterprise-grade products, or at least anything widely adopted, that solves this problem. This is important because obviously it’s impossible to secure what you don’t know you own. And, without an up-to-day asset inventory, the most basic and reasonable security questions simply can’t be answered:
  • What percentage of our websites have been tested for vulnerabilities?
  • Which of our websites have GDPR, PCI-DSS, or other compliance concerns?
  • Which of our websites are up-to-date on their patches, or not?
  • An organization has been acquired, what IT assets do they have?
As of today, with Bit Discovery, all of this is about to change. BitDiscovery is a website asset inventory solution designed to be lightning fast, super simple, and incredibly comprehensive.

While identifying the websites owned by a particular organization may sound simple at first blush, let me tell you, it’s not. In fact, asset inventory is probably the most challenging technical problem I’ve ever worked on in my entire career. As Robert ‘RSnake’ Hansen’s, member of Bit Discovery’s founding team describes in glorious detail, the variety of challenges are absolutely astounding. Just in terms of cpu, memory, disk, bandwidth, software and scalability in general, we’re talking about a legitimate big data problem.

Then there’s the challenges that websites may exist on different IP-ranges, domains, hosting providers, fall under a variety of marketing brands, managed by various subsidiaries and partners, confused by domain typo-squatters and phishing scams, and may come and go without warning. Historically, finding all of an organizations websites is typically conducted through on-demand scanning seeded by a domain name or IP-address range. For anyone who has ever tried this model, they know it’s tedious, time consuming (hours, days, etc), and false-positive and false-negative prone. It became clear that solving the asset inventory problem required a completely different approach.

Bit Discovery, thanks to the acquisition and integration of OutsideIntel, is unique because we take routine snapshots of the entire Internet, organizing massive amounts of information (WHOIS, passive DNS, netblock info, port scans, web crawling, etc.), extract metadata, and distil it down to simple and elegant asset inventory tracking. As a completely web-based application, this is what gives Bit Discovery its incredible speed and comprehensiveness. Instead of waiting days or weeks for an asset discovery scan to complete, searches take just seconds or less.

After years of hard work and months private beta product testing with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, we’re finally ready to officially announce Bit Discovery and just weeks away from our first full production release. I’m particularly proud and personally honored to be joined by an absolutely world-class founding team. As an entrepreneur you couldn’t ask for a better, more experienced, or inspiring group of people. All of us have worked together for many years on a variety of projects, and we’re ready for our next adventure! Our vision is that every organization in the world needs an asset inventory, which includes what we like to say, “Every. Little. Bit.”

Founding Team (5):

Investment ($2,700,000, led by Aligned Partners):
As you can see, our goals at Bit Discovery are extremely ambitious and we need strong financial backing fully realize them. As part of the company launch, we’re also thrilled to announce a $2,700,000 early stage round led by Susan Mason (Managing Partner, Aligned Partners).

During our fund raising process, we interviewed well over a dozen exceptional venture capitalist firms, and we were very picky in the process. Aligned’s experience, style, and investment approach matched with us perfectly. Their team specializes in experienced founding teams who have been-there-and-done-that, who operate companies in a capital efficient manner, who know their market and customers well, and where the founders and investors interests are in alignment. That’s us and we couldn’t be happier with the partnership.

And, as Steve Jobs would say, “one more thing.” Every company can benefit from the assistance and personal backing by other highly experienced industry professionals. The funding round includes individual investments by Alex Stamos (Chief of Information Security, Facebook), Jeff Moss (Founder, Black Hat and Defcon), JimManico (Founder, Manicode Security), and Brian Mulvey (Managing Partner, PeakSpan Capital).

Collectively, between Bit Discovery’s founding team and investor group, I’ve never seen or heard of a more experienced and accomplished team that brings everything together for a company launch. We have everything we need for a runaway success story. We have the right team, the right product, the right financial partners, and we’re at the right time in the market. All we have to do is put in the work, serve our customers well, and the rest will take care of itself.

Finally, the Bit Discovery team wants to personally thank all the many people who helped us along the way and behind the scenes. We sincerely appreciate everyone’s help. We couldn’t have gotten this far without you. Look out world, we’re ready to do this!

Friday, March 09, 2018

SentinelOne and My New Role

Two years ago, I joined SentinelOne as Chief of Security Strategy to help in the fight against malware and ransomware. I’d been following the evolution of ransomware for several years prior, and like a few others, saw that all the ingredients were in place for this area of cyber-crime to explode.

We knew it was likely that a lot of people were going to get hurt, that significant damage could be inflicted, and something needed to be done. The current anti-malware solutions, even the most popular, were ill-equipped to handle the onslaught. Unfortunately, we weren’t wrong, and that was about the time I was first introduced to SentinelOne.

When I met SentinelOne, it was just a tiny Silicon Valley start-up. It was quickly apparent to me that they had the right team, the right technology, and most importantly – the right vision necessary to make a meaningful difference in the world. SentinelOne is something special, a place poised for greatness, and an opportunity where I knew I could make a personal impact. The time was right for me, so I made the leap! Today, only a short while later, SentinelOne is a major player in the endpoint protection with super high aspirations.

Since joining I have had a front row seat to several global ransomware outbreaks including WannaCry, nPetya, and other lesser-known malware events as the SentinelOne team "laid the hardcore smackdown" on all of them. One particularly memorable event was WannaCry launching at the exact moment I was on stage giving a keynote presentation to raise awareness about ransomware. Quite an experience, but also a proud moment as all of our customers remained completely protected. One can't hope for better than that!

On SentinelOne's behalf, I have had the unique opportunity to participate in the global malware dialog, learn a ton more about the information security industry, continue helping protect hundreds of companies, and something I’m personally proud of: launch the first ever product warranty against ransomware ($1,000,000). I contributed to some cutting-edge research alongside some truly brilliant and passionate people. It’s been a tremendous experience, one which I’m truly thankful for.

I wish I had all the time in the world to pursue all of my many interests, which as an entrepreneur, is one of my greatest challenges. For me, it will soon be time to announce and launch my next adventure -- a new startup! I’ll share more details in a few weeks, but it’s something my co-founders and I have been quietly working on for years.

The best part is that I don’t have to say goodbye to SentinelOne. I’ll be moving into a company advisory role. This way I still get to remain connected, in-the-know and continue helping SentinelOne achieve its full potential.

For now, a very special thank you to everyone at SentinelOne, especially Tomer Weingarten (Co-Founder, CEO) for leading the charge and allowing me to be a part of the journey.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Ad-Tech Industry Must Finally Admit That Their Product (Ads) is Dangerous

How would you react if I told you that computer security experts are six times more likely to run just an ad blocking software on their PCs, over just anti-malware? Would you be surprised?



That was the result from a Twitter poll I conducted last year, in which more than 1,000 self-identified computer security experts shared that they are more concerned about ads than malware. While social media polls are admittedly unscientific, I’d argue these numbers are actually pretty close to reality, which means that roughly three-out-of-four computer security experts largely view ad-blocking as a more indispensable part of protection than anti-virus software by far. Let that sink in for a moment.

Malvertising, or malicious ads, are hurting people – a lot of people. Anyone who is familiar with the malware problem will tell you that. As just one example of many, last year ads appeared on the New York Times, BBC, AOL, NFL and other popular websites in a malicious campaign attempting to install “ransomware” on visitors’ computers. To put things into context, the chances are better that the average internet user - roughly 99 percent of the population - will be hacked via their own browser then they will by a nation-state. The reason for this? Online ads.



I understand the business model… really, I do. Publishers rely on their viewers seeing ads because that’s how they make their money. In return they provide all of us with free content and services. If ads are blocked, publishers make less money, and the free content and services dries up. On the other hand, these same ads are one of the leading threats to personal security and privacy. So, what we have here is an online version of a Mexican standoff. Neither side is able to proceed without exposing themselves to danger. 

So here we are without many technical options:  the only thing internet users can do to protect themselves is to install an ad blocker (like hundreds of million of users have already done); and the only thing a publisher can do is to use an ad blocker detector on their website(s). This allows them to decide to block content and/or issue a plea to whitelist their ads. Unfortunately, the technology model for publishers to ‘safely’ include third-party content such as ads into their pages is also lacking. There just isn’t a comprehensive and scalable way to check billions of ads daily to see if they’re safe to distribute – or if the origin of an ad is reputable. Of course, publishers can also supplement or replace advertising revenue streams with a paid-for-content model, hosting conferences, asking for donations, and so on.

Let's also be very clear— neither the publisher, advertisers, or the ad-tech industry that binds everything together takes on any liability for malvertising, infecting a user with malware, or the resultant damage. This also means that they have zero incentives to meaningfully address the problem, and never ever seem to want to talk about the security concerns that make ad blocking an essential security practice. They only want to talk about the money their side is losing, or how to make ads more visually tolerable. But even if ads magically become less obnoxious and less costly in terms of bandwidth, we still have the security problem. Until the advertising technology industry admits that their product - the ads themselves -  are simply dangerous, there can be no real resolution.

Monday, February 20, 2017

InfoSec warranties and guarantees

This is a living list of InfoSec companies who offer warranties and guarantees on their various products and services. If you know of others that should be on the list, please comment. 
  1. Cymmetria
  2. KnowBe4
  3. AsTech Consulting (press release), Vigilance / Qualys (terms)
  4. Waratek
  5. SentinelOne
  6. Trusona
  7. WhiteHat Security
  8. Symantec & Norton (money-back)
  9. McAfee (money-back)
  10. Trustwave 
  11. HIPAA Secure New
  12. Forcepoint
  13. Avira
  14. Proofpoint
  15. DigiCert 
  16. Comodo
  17. Armor
  18. Verizon (100% uptime SLA), including DDoS

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

InfoSec Start-up Advising and Product Recommendations

As a long-time InfoSec veteran and entrepreneur, I’m often asked by company founders to join their advisory board and lend a hand. Sometimes the founders need someone with experience they can trust to bounce ideas off of, provide guidance on how to scale their business, point out the many pitfalls to avoid, make key introductions, and so on. I’ve been in this advisor role for many years, as well as mentoring more than fifty young businesses over the last five years alone through a startup incubator. Making this contribution has been highly rewarding, both personally and professionally. It leverages the many successes and mistakes I’ve made in my career to help others. Advising and mentoring is something I plan to continue doing for the foreseeable future. The only downside is that due to time constraints, I have to be extremely selective. 

When I come across a hot new start-up, I fully research the company, try out the product, research their target market, meet the management team, speak with a handful of customers, and if I have something useful to offer, only then do I feel comfortable enough to get involved. Oh, another requirement is that none should be competitive with one another. Because I do my homework and have a deep understanding of the information security industry, I’m often asked by colleagues what companies I’d recommend in a particular space or a product to solve a particular enterprise problem. For those interested, below is where I’ve placed my bets and what I’m recommending.

Full Disclosure: I’ve a financial interest in most of these companies below, but not all of them. And if I don't have a stake, it doesn't mean I won't recommend them -- I can be just as impressed otherwise. I’ve also indicated where I serve in an official advisory capacity.


Anti-Bot

FunCAPTCHA (Advisory Board)
“FunCaptcha is the fastest and most effective way to protect your website from spam and abuse. We stop billions of spammers every year for clever brands that monetize their registrations and content.”


Anti-Virus / Endpoint Protection (Enterprise)

SentinelOne (Employed)
"SentinelOne unifies endpoint threat prevention, detection and response in a single platform driven by sophisticated machine learning and intelligent automation. With SentinelOne, organizations can detect malicious behavior across multiple vectors, rapidly eliminate threats with fully-automated, integrated response capabilities, and adapt their defenses against the most advanced cyber attacks."


Bug Bounty / Security Crowd-Sourcing

Bugcrowd (Advisory Board)
"The pioneer and innovator in crowdsourced security testing for the enterprise, Bugcrowd harnesses the power of tens of thousands security researchers to surface critical software vulnerabilities and level the playing field in cybersecurity. Bugcrowd also provides a range of responsible disclosure and managed service options that allow companies to commission a customized security testing program that fits their specific requirements. Bugcrowd’s proprietary vulnerability disclosure platform is deployed by Tesla, Pinterest, Western Union, Fitbit and many others."


Website Vulnerability Assessment 

"WhiteHat Security is the leading provider of website risk management solutions. Sentinel, WhiteHat's flagship product, is the most accurate, complete and cost-effective website vulnerability management solution available. It delivers the flexibility, simplicity and manageability that organizations need to take control of website security and prevent Web attacks. WhiteHat Sentinel is built on a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform designed from the ground up to scale massively, support the largest enterprises and offer the most compelling business efficiencies, lowering your overall cost of ownership."


Security Risk and Vulnerability Intelligence

Kenna Security (Advisory Board)
"Kenna is a software-as-a-service Risk and Vulnerability Intelligence platform that accurately measures risk and prioritizes remediation efforts before an attacker can exploit an organization’s weaknesses. Kenna automates the correlation of vulnerability data, threat data, and 0-day data, analyzing security vulnerabilities against active Internet breaches so that InfoSec teams can prioritize remediations and report on their overall risk posture."


Security-in-the-SDLC / Security Requirements 

SD Elements (Advisory Board)
"SD Elements automates software security requirements based on your project’s technology, business and compliance drivers. SD Elements eliminates security vulnerabilities in the most cost effective way, before scanning begins."



AppSec Vulnerability Remediation

"AsTech Consulting is a security consulting company which helps clients understand their risks and what to do about them. As independent security specialists, we employ very experienced security professionals, more than half of which have over 15 years of relevant experience."


Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP)

"Prevoty provides a new RASP (runtime application self-protection) capability, enabling applications to protect themselves. Unlike traditional security approaches that try to defend against hackers at the network layer, Prevoty works inside the application itself and the analysis engine is smart enough to actively prevent anything malicious from executing. "


Browser Security & Privacy

"We have a mission to save the web by increasing browsing speed and safety for users, while growing ad revenue share for content creators."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

What keeps me in the security industry

It’s common for long-time information experts like myself to be asked what keeps us in the security industry. Some say it’s a good stable job that nicely pays the bills. Others find the work interesting and enjoy the constant intellectual challenge. Some the like the people, the community, the culture, and exchange of ideas. Of course for many, it be some combination of all these things. For myself, while each of the above plays a part, I must admit those haven’t been my core reasons to stay on for a long time now.

Like I’ve said many times in the past, the Internet is single greatest invention we’re likely to witness in our lifetime. The Internet is a place that now connects over 2 billion people. The Internet is how we communicate and keep up with friends and family. It’s where we shop. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world. It’s where bank and pay bills. It’s what entertains us and how we get from place to place. It’s how we better ourselves. Entire economies are now dependent on the Internet. If you think about it, we’re often more open and honest about our most intimate secrets with the Google search box than any our closest confidants. There is not a single person among us, or perhaps anyone we know, that won’t be online today. Something this important, this vital to the world and to humanity, must be protected. The Internet.

The time each of us has in this life is limited and far too short. Every day is a gift. And in that time few people ever get an opportunity to be a part of something greater than themselves. A chance to make an impact and to do something that truly matters. Internet security matters. So for me, to play even a small part in helping to protect the Internet and the billions of people connected feels like a good way to spend ones life time. That’s why I’m still here.

In the immortal words of Dan Geer, “There is never enough time. Thank you for yours.”

Monday, June 06, 2016

I'm joining the fight against malware and ransomware with SentinelOne

Today is a big day for me. I’m contributing to a company called SentinelOne, but I really don’t think of it as a job. I’ve accepted an opportunity to work side by side with other brilliant and highly motivated people where we’re all helping to solve important and challenging InfoSec problems. In this case, malware and ransomware. You see, more than anything, I want to make a positive impact on InfoSec. As I’ve said many times, we who work InfoSec are responsible for protecting the greatest invention we’ll see if our lifetime — the Web, the Internet, and the billions of people using it every day. That’s our mission, our calling. As such, I’ve always kept a evolving list of our industries biggest challenges, which I include in most of my slide decks.

  1. Intersection of security guarantees and cyber-insurance
  2. Explosion of Ransomware
  3. Vulnerability remediation
  4. Industry skill shortage
  5. Measuring the impact of SDLC security controls

The only problem on the list I haven’t gotten the chance to work on is ransomware, an incredibly effective and fast-growing form of malware that’s taking over. I’ve long railed hard about the crap antivirus products on the market and the billions of dollars people and companies spend annually to effectively make themselves less secure. Yes, that’s right, I said LESS secure. The FBI recently published that ransomware victims paid out $209 million in Q1 2016 compared to $24 million for ALL of 2015. Some non-trivial percentage of those ransom dollars will be used for R&D, so the smart money says ransomware will quickly get even more sophisticated and out of hand. And to that point, in recent and well publicized news, ransomware is also responsible for disrupting the care of patients in a few hospitals. This can’t be allowed — lives are at risk!

In my life after WhiteHat, I looked at ton of companies and interesting opportunities where I could lend a helping hand, of which there was no shortage. My inbox was crushed with many worthy projects, but I knew I had to choose wisely. Then out pops a company with some super cool tech and few have heard of them, SentinelOne. SentinelOne is right smack in the middle of the malware/ransomware war, for which Gartner calls next-generation endpoint protection (NG EPP). I met with the founders, the team, all super cool and passionate people. A real gem of a start-up. I felt strongly that I needed to join this fight. Plus, I’ll be working on some exciting stuff behind that scenes that I can’t wait to share with world. Good things take time, so please, standby!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Life is Better without Username Reuse (email aliases FTW!)

Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, PayPal, Yahoo, Google. We keep accounts with many of these websites. They and many others use email addresses as the first half of the classic username and password combo. They do this because email addresses are unique and double as a reasonably secure communication channel with the user. And of course we often sign-up for things online to receive information by entering our email address. All this email address sharing, while technically nothing being wrong with it, unfortunately causes several highly annoying problems. These problems can be solved, or at least made far easier to deal with, by leveraging email address aliases. An email alias is where you create one or more email addresses that all send to the same account, vaguely similar to desktop folder shortcuts.

With email address sharing / username reuse, by far the biggest problem we run into is spam. And the more we share and reuse our email addresses across systems, the bigger the spam problem becomes. Sometimes websites sell our email addresses. Other times they share them with third-partie business partners, and from time to time they get leaked in a data breach. Whatever the case, once an email address is out there, it’s out there. No taking it back and no amount of mailing list opting out will help. I know. I’ve tried.

There are other problems too. Anyone who knows your email address can easily determine what systems you’re using (i.e. “This email address is already registered.”). This issue is not only a privacy issue, but a potential security issue as it makes it easier to target your account via brute force, phishing, password recovery hacks, etc. And of course when you have several online accounts, you’re constantly notified via email, which explodes your inbox. Creating rules in your email app using strings in the subject or content body helps, but doing so isn’t easy and never comprehensive. When all these problems are tied to your email email address, there is no escape. You can’t easily kill or change your main email address because all your friends, family, and business contacts use it too.

My solution to these problems, which has been working great, is by using email address aliases based on custom domain name. For example, my personal domain is jeremiahgrossman.com. So as an example, I create a new email alias that’s just for Facebook, like fb@jeremiahgrossman.com. Or on Paypal it would be pp@jeremiahgrossman. You can technically use any email alias for this purpose, even a random one. When email is sent to these aliases they automatically forward to my main email address. I never reuse these email address aliases for any other than their intended use, and never use my main email address to register for anything if I can help it.

It does cost a few bucks to pay for domain name and email hosting, but it ain’t much these days and the value is WAY worth it. When things are set up this way, I can be reasonably sure that any email to these aliases, that is supposedly from them, is legit and not a phishing scam because no one else knows the email address / username I used. And since the particular website is only using the email address alias I gave them, inbox rules are way easier.

Then if the email address is leaked, gets spammed out, or whatever, I can just kill it off, create another, and change the account email address / username. The up front work is a little tedious, but again, worth it. And the best part, when you have your own domain name, email aliases are essentially free — I’ve about 100 now. And there is no reason you can’t use any old crap domain name either.

Good luck!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Millions experience serious computer security problems and have no one to call for help

A couple times a week, people I may or may not know reach out to me for help because they’re experiencing some kind of computer security catastrophe. Sometimes the situation is serious, other times not. They might be dealing with an online bank account takeover, online scam, data breach, malware infection, identity theft, and the list goes on and on from there. Whatever the circumstance, a great many people often find themselves thrust into the deep end of this technology driven world, without the know-how to solve the problem on their own, and no one to call for help. These experiences are especially painful for the elderly and small-business owners, whose livelihood are disrupted, and the stress takes a toll on them. Personally, I hate it when good people get taken advantage of.

In the most recent case, I was introduced to the founder of a TV and movie production company through a mutual friend. They explained that someone is messing with their website and actively using their company name to scam their business contacts. They said ‘hacked,’ but that could mean anything these days. The situation was causing them real brand damage, and with over a dozen show titles to their credit, the business impact is severe. Even over the impersonal medium of email, you could sense a deep feeling of helplessness and desperation. As you might expect, I tend to keep myself happily occupied with family, work, and martial arts and don’t have a lot of time to spare for things like this. But, this plea originated from a good friend, the victim didn’t have anyone else to turn to, and helping out felt like the right thing to do.

After taking a call and exchanging a few emails, I got the real story. Someone, a scammer, registered an incredibly similar domain name to the legitimate one used by the production company. The fake domain name was being used to create a clone of the real website. The scammer then subtly changed the names and photos of the staff and updated the contact information so that any incoming communication would instead go to them. Through email, phone calls, or search results visitors would be contacted by the scammer, who pretended to be with the production company, and would proceed to con their victims out of money. This is a simple, inexpensive, and effective scam that could happen to basically anyone – and it does.

The near-term plan was to get the scam website taken down. Long-term, try to take ownership over the look-a-like domain name.

To start, the first thing I needed to know is who owns the offending domain name. A quick WHOIS lookup revealed the registrar is GoDaddy, but the domain owner itself was masked by Domains By Proxy, a popular service for those wishing to preserve their online privacy. I often use this service myself! This means without going through a legal process, obtaining the real domain owner information isn’t going to happen. Still, in the event the production company would like to try and get ownership over the domain using ICANN’s and trademark law, they have the registrar info to further that process. Next, I needed to identify where the website is being hosted. The ‘dig’ command easily gets me the IP address of the cloned website and an ARIN lookup tells me who the IP address belongs to — the name of the hosting provider. For those curious, collectively performing these tasks took me far less time than writing this paragraph.

Let’s pause our story for a moment to consider the technical knowledge required to get this far, which includes a set of skills many techies take for granted and forget that the vast majority of people simply don’t have. Few people can explain what a domain name is, have any idea what a domain registrar or an IP address is, what’s WHOIS, or even ICANN. They’ve certainly never heard of ARIN, and only a vague familiarity with hosting providers for that matter. And thus far, we’ve only collected purely public information and in doing so reached a point where most can’t get to on their own. Techies should empathize and exercise patience with those not nearly as literate in how the Internet works as we are. Anyway, back to our story.

Now that we’ve learned who the hosting provider is, I helped the production company founder draft an email to send that concisely explains the problem and what we’d like the action to be. Take down the website! Their website nicely listed the abuse@ email address and I pressed send on the message. I figured it could be a while for them to get back to us, and in the meantime decided to take a close look at the scammer’s website.

Using every web hackers best friend, view-source, I skimmed the underlying code of the website. Maybe the scammer left clues as to their identity, tools they used to clone the website, or whatever. In less than 60 seconds, I immediately spotted something very interesting. While the HTML of the page is hosted locally, all the CSS, images, and most importantly, the Javascript is being SRC’ed in from the real website! As you’ll see if a moment, this was a major oversight on the scammer’s part. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? We’ll see. :)

1)    In the logs of the real website, we should be able to ascertain who and how many people visited the scammers website. Because every time someone visits one of his web pages, their browser automatically pulls in the aforementioned third-party content from something we control. This means the visitors IP address is logged, as is what web page they are currently looking at — called the referer. And yes, this is intentionally misspelled and a throwback to Internet antiquity.

2)    If we have the visitors IP address information, it’s quite likely we also have the scammer’s too! Provided they didn’t mask that as well. And if they are, that’s useful bit of information as well. Either way, their IP address is probably the first one we see the in the logs when the referer of the fake website appeared. If we decide to go after the bad guy directly, we at least have something to begin tracking them down with. Subpoenaing the hosting provider or Domains By Proxy is of course another possible course of action, but we’ll see about that path later.

3)    This is the big one. Any web hacker would have quickly theorized that we can probably modify the javascript on the real website, which again is called by the fake website, to at least temporarily redirect it’s visitors. And, that’s exactly what we did! A quick 3-line block of code did just the trick!

if (window.location.host != ‘<real-website.com>') {
        window.location = ‘<real-website.com>’;
}
 
At this moment, we got the production company and visitors of the scammer’s website some immediate relief. That is until the bad guy notices what we did and updates their website code, which is trivial to do. Next I ask the domain registrar (GoDaddy) about the process for taking ownership over domain names that are designed for abuse. They point us towards an ICANN’s trademark dispute policy and suggested we consult with a lawyer experienced in such legal measures. I then advise the founder to seriously consider going down his route.

A couple days go by, and while we wait for the hosting provider to respond, we notice the aforementioned redirect stopped working. As expected, the scammer caught on and fixed their code so that all the web page files now point locally. Drat! What we did learn is the scammer is sentient, responsive, and persistent. He didn’t care so much that were we onto his little game. Interesting. Such brazenness indicated that the scammer is probably outside the US jurisdiction – or optionally just stupid. Then like magic on the same exact day, and the timing could not have been better, the hosting provider informs us that they completed their investigation and disable the scammers website. Success!

For now, my work is done and the production company founder profusely express their thankfulness. This was a good feeling. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the end of our little story, or that it will be a happy one. After all, this is the security of the web we’re talking about, and plainly said, it’s fundamentally broken.

You see, the scammer can easily set up shop with a new hosting provider and start the identical scam all over again and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to prevent that. There is no good way to help visitors tell the difference between the real website from the fake one. And even if we use ICANN’s process to take ownership over the domain name, the scammer could easily just register another suitable look-a-like domain in no time flat and we’re back at it all over again. This problem is never ending and there really is no good way to solve it once and for all. A website owner’s only option is to wait for something bad to happen, give me or someone else with the right skills a call for help, and proceed similarly.

What I can do is actively monitoring the illegitimate domain name to see when and if it’s IP address changes. If it does, this would indicate that the scammer is moving hosting providers. It took a couple weeks, and that’s exactly what appears to be happening right now. Grr. This is kind of thing happens every day, to who knows how many people, and honestly I’m not sure what the answer is. One thing I do know, the world needs the help of a lot more good computer security people. Join in!