How I Survived a Ransomware Attack


By Art Reisman

About six months ago, I was trying to access a web site when I got the infamous message: “Your Flash Player is out-of-date”.  I was provided with a link to a site to update my Adobe Flash Player.  At the time, I thought nothing of updating my Flash Player, as this had happened perhaps 100 times already. That begs the question as to why my perfectly fine and happy Adobe Flash Player constantly needs to be updated?  Another story for another day.

In my haste, I clicked the link and promptly received the Adobe Flash update for my Mac and installed it. For all intents and purposes, that was the end of my Mac.  This thing just took it over, destroying it.  It would insidiously let me get started with my daily work and then within a few minutes I would receive a barrage of almost constant messages popping up telling me I had a virus and to call some number for help.  Classic Ransomware.  At the time I did not think Macs were vulnerable to this type of thing, as the only viruses I had contracted prior were on my Windows machines, which I tossed in the scrap pile several years ago for that very reason.

My solution to this dilemma was simply to re-load my Mac from scratch.  I was up and running again in about one hour.   A hassle yes, the end of the world – no.

Now you might be wondering what about all my data programs and files I store on my Mac?  And to that I answer what data files?  Everything I do is in the Cloud, nothing is stored on my Mac, as I believe that there is no reason to store anything locally.

Gmail, Quickbooks, WordPress, photos, documents, and everything else that I use are all stored in the Cloud!

For backup purposes, I periodically e-mail a list of all my important Cloud links to myself.  Since they are stored in Gmail, they are always accessible and I can access them from any computer.  Data recovery amounts to nothing more than finding my most recent backup list e-mail and clicking on my Cloud links as needed.

Proving The Identity of The DNC Hacker Not Likely


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By Art Reisman

CTO, APconnections

Inspired by the recent accusations regarding  the alleged Russian Hacking of the DNC e-mail servers, I ask the question, is it really possible for our intelligence  agencies to say with confidence exactly who hacked those servers?  I honestly don’t think so. To back up  my opinion, I have decided to  take our faithful blog readers through the mind and actions of  a professional hacker,  intent on breaking into a  corporate e-mail server, without leaving a trace. From there you can draw your own conclusions.

My  hacking scenario below is based  on actual techniques that our own ethical hackers use to test security at corporations. These companies  contract with us to deliberately  break into their It systems, and yes sometimes we do break in.

First we will follow our hacker through the process of a typical deliberate illegal break in, and then we will  analyze the daunting task of a forensic expert must deal with after the fact.

 

Here we go….

Phase I

  • First I need a platform for the first phase  of my attack. I want to find a computer with no formal ties to my identity. Just like  the public telephone booth of the 70’s and 80’s were used for calling in bomb threats,  the computers in your   public  libraries can easily conceal my identity.
  • To further cover my trail, I bring my own  flash memory with me to the library, it contains a software program commonly referred to  as  “BOT”. This allows me to move data programs onto the library computer without doing something like logging into my personal e-mail , which would leave a record of me being there.  In this case my BOT  specializes in crawling the Internet looking for consumer grade desktop computers to break into.
  • My BOT  searches the Internet at random looking for computers which are un-protected.  It will hit several thousand computers an hour for as long as I let it run
  • I don’t want to go to long with my BOT running from the Library,  because all the outbound activity it generates, may be detected as a virus by an Upstream ISP. The good news in my favor is that  BOTs both friendly and malicious are very common. At any time of the day there are millions of them  running all over the world.

Note, running a bot in itself is not a crime, it is just bad etiquette and annoying.  It is extremely unlikely that anybody would actually be able to see that I am trying to hack into computers (yes this is a crime)  with my BOT , because that would take very specialized equipment , and since I chose my Library at random the chances of drawing attention at this stage are minuscule. Typically a law enforcement agency must attain a warrant to set up their detection equipment.  all the upstream provider would sense is an unusual high rate of traffic coming out of the library.

  •  Once my bot has found some unprotected home computers and I have their  login credentials, I am ready for phase 2 . I save off their IP addresses and credentials, and delete the bot from the computer in the Library and leave never to return.

You might be wondering how does a BOT get access to home computers?  Many are still out there running very old versions of Windows or Linux and have generic passwords like “password”. The BOT attempts to login   through a well  known service such as SSH ( remote Login) and guesses the password. The BOT may run into 1,000 dead ends or more before cracking a single computer. Just like a mindless robot should,  it works tirelessly without complaint 

Phase II

  •  I again go to the Library and set up shop. Only this time instead of a BOT I come armed with phishing scam e-mail on my Flash.  From a computer in the library I   remotely login into one of the home computers whose credentials I attained in Phase 1 and set up shop.
  • I set up a program that will send e-mails from the home computer to people who work at the DNC with my  trojan horse content.

If I am smart, I do a little research on their back ground(s) of the poeple I sending to so as to make the e-mails as authentic as possible. Most consumers have seen the obvious scams where you get some ridiculous out of context e-mail with a link to open some file  you never asked for, that works for mass e-mailing to the public, hopeing to find  a few old ladies, or the computer illiterate, but I would assume that people who work at the DNC , would just think it is a spam e-mail and delete it.  Hence, they get something a little more personalized.   

How do I find the targeted employ e-mails at the DNC ?  That is a bit easier , many times they are published on a Web site, or  I simply guess at employee e-mails addresses , such as hclinton@dnc.com.

  • If any of the targeted e-mails I have sent to a DNC employee are opened they will, unbeknowest to them, be  installing  a keystroke logger that captures everything they type. In this way when they login into the DNC e-mail server I also get a login and access to all their e-mails

 How do I insure my victim does not suspect they have been hacked ? Stealth , Stealth , Stealth.  All of my hacking my tools such as my keystroke logger have very small inconspicuous footprints. I am not trying to crash or detroy anything at the DNC.  The person or persons who systems I gaing entry through most likely will never know.  Also I will only be using them for a very short period of time, and I will delete them on my way out.

  • Getting e-mail access. Once the keystroke logger is in place I have it report back to another one of my hacked personal computers. In this way the information I am collecting will sit on a home computer with no ties to back to me. WHen I go to collet this information , I again go to a Library with my flash card and download key stroke information, eventually I directly load up al the e-mails I can get onto my flash drive while in the Library.  I then take them to the Kremlin ( or whoever I work for and hand over the flash drives containing 10’s of thousands of e-mails for off line analysis.

 

Debunking the Russian Hacking Theory

The FBI purports to have found a  “Russian Signature file ” on the DNC server?

  •  It’s not like the hacking community has dialects associated with their hacking tools.  Although  If I was a Chinese hacker I might make sure I left a path pointing back at Russia  , why  not ? . If you recall I deleted my hacking tools on the way out, and yes I know how to scrub them so there is no latent foot print on the disk drive
  • As you can infer from my hacking example , I can hack pretty much autonomously from anywhere in the US or the world for that matter, using a series of intermediaries and without ever residing at permanent location.
  • Even if the FBI follows logs of where historical access into the DNC  has come from, the trail is going to lead to some Grandma’s computer at some random location. Remember all my contacts directly into the DNC were from my Hijacked Grandma computers. Perhaps that is enough to draw a conclusion so the FBI can  blame some poor Russian Grandma.  As the  real hacker all the better for me, let Grandma take the diversion, somebody else is going to get the blame.
  • Now let’s suppose the FBI is really on the ball and somehow figures that Grandma’s computer was just a shill hijacked by me. So they get a warrant and raid Grandma’s computer and they find a trail .  This  path is going to lead them back to the Library where I sat perhaps 3 months ago.
  • We can go another step farther, suppose the library had video surveillance and they caught me coming and going , then just perhaps they could make an ID match

By now you get the idea, assuming the hacker was a foreign sponsored professional and was not caught in the act, the trail is going to be impossible to make any definite conclusions from.

To see another detailed account of what it takes to hack into a server please  visit our 2011 article “Confessions of a hacker

Why Is IT Security FUD So Prevalent


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By Art Reisman

CTO, APconnections
www.netequalizer.com
I just read an article by Rafal Los titled Abandon FUD, Scare Tactics and Marketing Hype.

In summary, he calls out all the vendor sales  presentations with slides citing all the statistics as to why you should be scared.  Here is the excerpt:

I want you to take out the last slide deck you either made, received, or reviewed on the topic of security.  Now open it up and tell me if it fits the following mold:

  • [Slides 1~4] – some slides telling you how horrible the state of information security is, how hackers are hacking everything, and probably at least 1-2 “clippings” of articles in recent media.
  • [Slides 4~7] – some slides telling you how you need to “act now,” “get compliant,” “protect your IP,” “protect your customer data,” or other catch phrases which fall into the category of “well, duh.”
  • [Slides 7~50+] – slides telling you how if you buy this product/service you will be protected from the threat du’jour and rainbows will appear as unicorns sing your praises.

Here’s the thing… did you find the slide deck you’re looking at more or less fits the above pattern? Experience tells me the odds of you nodding in agreement right now is fairly high.

And then he blasts all vendors in general with his disgust.

Ask yourself, if you write slide decks like this one I just described – who does that actually serve?  Are you expecting an executive, security leader, or practitioner to read your slides and suddenly have a “Eureka!” moment in which they realize hackers are out to get them and they should quickly act? 

I can certainly understand his frustration.  His rant reminded me of people complaining about crappy airline service and then continuing to fly that airline because it was cheapest.

Obviously FUD is around because there are still a good number of companies that make FUD driven purchases, just like there are good number of people that fly on airlines with crappy service.  Although it is not likely that you can effect a 180 degree industry turn you can certainly make a start by taking a stand.

If you get the chance try this the next time a Vendor offers you a salivating FUD-driven slide presentation.

Simply don’t talk to the sales team.  Sales teams are a thin veneer on top of a product’s warts. Request a meeting with the Engineering or Test team of a company. This may not be possible, if you are a small IT shop purchasing from Cisco, but remember you are the customer, you pay their salaries, and this should be a reasonable request.

I did this a couple of times when I was the lead architect for an AT&T product line. Yes, I had some clout due to the size of AT&T and the money involved in the decision. Vendors would always be trying to comp me hard with free tickets to sporting events, and yet my only request was this: “I want to visit your facility and talk directly to the engineering test team.”  After days of squirming and alternative venues offered, they granted me my  request. When the day finally came, it was not the impromptu sit down with the engineering team I was hoping for. It felt more like I was visiting North Korea. I had two VP’s escort me into their test facility, probably the first time they had ever set foot in there, and as I tried to ask questions directly with their test team, the VP’s almost peed their pants.  After a while the VP’s settled down, when they realized I was not looking to ruin them, I just wanted the truth about how their product performed.

FUD is much easier to sell than the product.

 

Encryption is Not Rocket Science


The recent Apple iPhone versus the FBI case being tried in the court of public opinion is an interesting example of the fact that encryption, and the use of encryption, can be created by any individual or any business to protect their data.    All those spy movies where computers easily crack password codes are just plain fantasy.  A well-engineered encrypted password cannot be broken. Unless, of course, the person that created the encryption is forced to put in a back door for the FBI.

The point is, if I really wanted to encrypt something from all entities, I would not rely on a commercial encryption version provided by Apple or my browser, because, as we have seen, the FBI will use whatever muscle they have to make sure that they can get in.

When you are done with the the encryption exercise  below, you can go ahead and tattoo your bank password on your face without a worry that anybody would ever figure it out.

Let’s start with a typical password that you  might use for a bank account “alfred!1”

First we’ll take the alphanumeric value of each letter such that a=01, l=12, f=06, r=18, e=05 d=04. And for the 1 we can use first letter of the alphabet so that 1=A, 2=B etc. So you could just make your password 011206180504!A, which is the numeric representation of alfred!1 (note I just left the “!” alone)

Now lets put some meaningless garbage on the front of the password. Two meaningless letters, such as CD.

Now lets add 2 to the original numbers in the password, so now we get

CD031408200706!A

Now take the day of the month you were born in and add it to the first number. 03+21 = 24, I was born June 21

So now we have CF241408200706!A

Each time you apply a step to the password encryption the more difficult cracking it becomes.  I did not take this one far enough to make it impregnable to a sophisticated hacker,  but hopefully you see the point. Just keep applying  rules to your password changing it at each step. The more steps you apply, the more mathematically safe your password encryption becomes.

The advantage of creating your own encryption scheme is that all you need to do is remember how to unwind these steps to recover your password, you do not need to remember your actual password, so any time the bank forces you to change your password go ahead and change it, and write it down on your hand, or face, or all over your refrigerator. As long as you remember your encoding method, you can keep your passwords in plain site.

Believe it or not I actually write my encrypted pin codes on my ATM cards!

Hacker Sting Operation


I was just reading an article about a cyber security company that advocates hacker containment. The basic premise of the article is that hackers are going to get into your system and you can’t block them.  At some point they give specific advice that once a hacker is beyond your firewall,  you should lead them around a bit and limit the damage.  But, to be completely honest, I did not read the article far enough to learn exactly what they were proposing as a solution.  Perhaps they are right, or perhaps they have a few screws loose? The point is, their article sparked a novel idea. Why not sting the hackers?  I suspect US counter intelligence is doing this already, but there is no reason why it can’t be done at a corporate level.

Let’s assume they are correct and you can’t block hackers from getting in.  Instead of playing defense, why not play a little offense? Give the hackers a money pack with an exploding ink bomb.

What would this ink stained cash look like in cyber space?

How about a data base of fake financial records, that you carefully protect, but leave a few security holes. Then when you see anybody accessing these accounts, you go after them and prosecute the perpetrators when they try to use the accounts. Suck them into a face-to-face meeting to pick up gold bullion and arrest them, just like with any police sting. This might not stop the hacker, but it would have the effect of making their wares useless on the open market. Think about the drug dealer who rips off his customers, eventually somebody rats them out? Or kills them?

The idea would be instead of spending billions of dollars on security, spend a billion or two on laying traps for hackers that will help expose them and their customers.  If you hide enough ink bombs in your records, it might turn the tables a bit!

Do We Really Need a Home Security Network Device ?


A friend of mine sent me a note this morning, asking if our bandwidth shaping device could provide the same type of service as this new DoJo application. Their niche is basically that you cannot trust third-party devices in your home network from being hijacked. For example, the software engineers writing the code that allows you to remote control your dishwasher from your iPhone, are likely not security experts. It is a reasonable assertion that a hacker might exploit a security hole in their software.  The Dojo will detect any smart device breaches and take action, a good idea for sure.

I spent about 20 minutes reading  and thinking about their specification and what value that provides to the home user.  And then it hit me, there is a more obvious precaution to  secure your home network that you might be overlooking.

IN 2016 and going forward THERE SHOULD BE NO REASON TO STORE ANY PERSONAL DATA ON  YOUR HOME NETWORK.

  • Gmail in the cloud
  • Quick books in the cloud
  • Banking in the cloud
  • Facebook in the cloud
  • Google Docs in the cloud
  • Stock Trading in the Cloud

No, nothing is ever completely  secure, and certainly anything you put in the cloud can be hacked, but in my opinion, the level of security afforded by the cloud is far better than anything you can rig together on your home network.

Think about it…

Your bank spends hundreds of millions on staying ahead of hackers. You have secret pictures, secret questions that  challenge you about your second cousin’s favorite hobby.  They know when you coming from new or different IP address.

Gmail now tells you when there is a login from a non standard computer.

These modern cloud applications are about as secure as a consumer could hope for. For the same reason you should not keep wads of cash in a safe in your house, you should not keep any personal information on storage devices in your house. Let your dishwasher go hog wild, who cares. I catch hackers on my network all the time, they have hijacked a few servers to send spam and attack other consumers (my bad), but there is really nothing of interest laying around on any of my devices other than some geezer MP3 music, and my vacation photos on my iPad that nobody else wants to look at anyway.

But if you must secure important data in your home network yes go ahead and invest in a device like the Dojo, it can’t hurt, but before you do that change your habits and use the cloud whenever possible.

Art Reisman

CTO http://www.netequalizer.com

NetEqualizer DDoS Firewall: Simple and Effective without the Bloat


One of the challenges when creating a security tool is validating that it works when the S$%^ hits the fan.  We have heard (via anonymous sources) that many of the high-dollar solutions out there create bloated, rotting piles of information, whose only purpose is to look impressive due to their voluminous output.  A typical $100K buys you a CYA report. A tool that covers  everything, leaving the customer to decide what to do; which is usually nothing or some misguided “make work”. These non-specific tools are about as useful as a weather forecast that predicts everything all the time. Rain, Snow, Wind, Hot, Cold, for everyday of the year. If you predict everything you can’t be wrong?

On the other hand, the reports from the field coming in for our DDoS tool are:

Yes, it works.

Yes, it is simple to use.

Yes, it takes action when appropriate.

We have confirmation that our DDoS tool, combined with our shaping algorithms, has kept some very large institutions up and running while under very heavy, sophisticated DDoS attacks.   The reasons are simple. We look at the pattern of incoming packets in a normal situation.  When the pattern reaches a watermark that is clearly beyond normal, we block those incoming circuits. If needed, we can also take a softer approach, so the attacker is not aware we are throttling them.  This is needed because in some situations outright blocking will alert the attacker you are on to them and cause the attacker to double-down.

When under DDoS attack you don’t need reports; you need immediate action. If you would like to discuss our solution in more detail feel free to contact us.

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