Cyberwars: “Bigger than Heartbleed”

Shellshock-bash-header-664x374Just months after the Heartbleed bug made waves across the internet, a new security flaw has emerged which threatens to compromise everything from major servers to connected cameras. It is known as the Bash or Shellshock bug, a quarter-century old vulnerability that could put everything from major internet companies and small-scale web hosts to wi-fi connected devices at risk.

This  flaw allows malicious code execution within the bash shell – commonly accessed through Command Prompt on PC or Mac’s Terminal application – to take over an operating system and access confidential information. According to the open-source software company Red Hat, bash shells are run in the background of many programs, and the bug is triggered when extra code is added within the lines of Bash code.

heartbleed-iconBecause the bug interacts with a large percentage of software currently in use, and does in ways that are unexpected, Robert Graham – an internet security expert – claims that the Bash bug is bigger than Heartbleed. As he explained it:

We’ll never be able to catalogue all the software out there that is vulnerable to the Bash bug. While the known systems (like your Web server) are patched, unknown systems remain unpatched. We see that with the Heartbleed bug: six months later, hundreds of thousands of systems remain vulnerable.

According to a report filed by Ars Technica, the vulnerability could affect Unix and Linux devices, as well as hardware running Max OS X – particularly Mac OS X Mavericks (version 10.9.4). Graham warned that the Bash bug was also particularly dangerous for connected devices because their software is built using Bash scripts, which are less likely to be patched and more likely to expose the vulnerability to the outside world.

shellshock_bashAnd since the bug has existed for some two and a half decades, a great number of older devices will be vulnerable and need to be patched because of it. By contrast, The Heartbleed bug was introduced into OpenSSL more than two years ago, allowing random bits of memory to be retrieved from impacted servers. And according to security researcher Bruce Schneier, roughly half a million websites could be vulnerable.

For the time being, the administrative solution is to apply patches to your operating system. Tod Beardsley, an engineering manager at security firm Rapid7, claims that even though the vulnerability’s complexity is low, the level of danger it poses is severe. In addition, the wide range of devices affected by the bug make it essential that system administrators apply patches immediately.

cyber_virusAs Beardsley explained during an interview with CNET:

This vulnerability is potentially a very big deal. It’s rated a 10 for severity, meaning it has maximum impact, and ‘low’ for complexity of exploitation — meaning it’s pretty easy for attackers to use it… The affected software, Bash, is widely used so attackers can use this vulnerability to remotely execute a huge variety of devices and Web servers. Using this vulnerability, attackers can potentially take over the operating system, access confidential information, make changes etc. Anybody with systems using bash needs to deploy the patch immediately.

Attackers can potentially take over the operating system, access confidential information, and make changes. After conducting a scan of the internet to test for the vulnerability, Graham reported that the bug “can easily worm past firewalls and infect lots of systems” which he says would be “‘game over’ for large networks”. Similar to Beardsley, Graham said the problem needed immediate attention.

cyber-hackIn the meantime, Graham advised people to do the following:

Scan your network for things like Telnet, FTP, and old versions of Apache (masscan is extremely useful for this). Anything that responds is probably an old device needing a Bash patch. And, since most of them can’t be patched, you are likely screwed.

How lovely! But then again, these sorts of exploitable vulnerabilities are likely to continue to pop up until we rethink how the internet is run. As the Heartbleed bug demonstrated, the problem at the heart (no pun!) of it all is that vast swaths of the internet run on open-source software that is created by only a handful of people who are paid very little (and sometimes, not at all) for performing this lucrative job.

In addition, there is a terrible lack of oversight and protection when it comes to the internet’s infrastructure. Rather than problems being addressed in an open-source manner after they emerge, there needs to be a responsible body of committed and qualified individuals who have the ability to predict problems in advance, propose possible solutions, and come up with a set of minimum standards and regulations.

cryptographyEnsuring that it is international body would also be advisable. For as the Snowden leaks demonstrated, so much of the internet is controlled the United States. And as always, people need to maintain a degree of vigilance, and seek out information – which is being updated on a regular basis – on how they might address any possible vulnerabilities in their own software.

I can remember reading not long ago that the growing amount of cyber-attacks would soon cause people to suffer from “alert fatigue”. Well, those words are ringing in my ears, as it seems that a growing awareness of our internet’s flaws is likely to lead to “bug fatique” as well. Hopefully, it will also urge people to action and lead to some significant reforms in how the internet is structured and administered.


Cyberwars: The Month of Cyberattacks

hackers_securityThe month of August has been a busy time for online security specialists, due to numerous cyberattacks being reported close to each other. First came word that supermarket chain Supervalu had been hacked, followed by news of security breaches at a largest American medical group, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then the UPS Store. In all cases, the intrusions led to the theft of millions of users’ personal data.

The worst of the lot appears to have been the massive cyberattack on Community Health Systems, one of the largest hospital chains in the US that oversees 206 hospitals in 29 states. According to the company, the intrusion led to stolen Social Security numbers, patient names, addresses, birth dates and telephone numbers of some 4.5 million patients. And as usual, the attack is believed to have had the backing of a foreign government. is the largest known attack to involve hospital patient information since the US government began tracking these types of data breaches in 2009. According to Elysium Digital data security expert Joseph Calandrino:

One possible goal of this attack is to facilitate future targeted attacks. The type of data that was stolen from the hospital system is often used to verify a person’s identify. The exposure of this data creates a risk that the hackers could leverage it to gain access to other accounts and information.

As is so often the case these days, it is believed the cyberattack originated in China. Security firm Mandiant, which investigated the breach in April and June, said the hackers belong to a group that targets crucial infrastructure, such as defense, engineering, financial services, and health care companies. It’s unclear if these hackers are affiliated with the Chinese government.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsVarious security experts have long accused China of waging a cyberwar on US government and private company websites. For example, a report that was released by Mandiant back in 2013 linked Unit 61398 of the China’s People’s Liberation Army to a large number of cyberattacks on US soil. However, the Chinese government has flatly denied that it is involved in cyber-espionage or hacking.

Community Health Systems has since reported that it stopped the cyberattack by removing the malicious software used by the hackers and is notifying its patients of the breach. It has also been reported that the hack may have been facilitated by the Heartbleed bug, a flaw in OpenSSL that hackers use to exploit to obtain encrypted data. The timing certainly seems apt, as the bug was revealed back in April and the attack took place between April and June.

nsasecurity_primary-100041064-largeHowever, this was were merely one of several breaches that took place over the past few months. In addition to the CHS, UPS, and numerous major outlets, cybersecurity firm Hold Security identified what was arguably the largest known data breach in history earlier this month. In this attack, the Russian cybergang Cybervor allegedly stole 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses.

With these latest attacks, it appears that large-scale security breaches carried out by individual hackers and sponsored by nation-states is becoming the new normal. And as these kinds of attacks become more common, cybersecurity experts are concerned that people may suffer from “alert fatigue”, where they will basically cease caring about and not be aware of breaches that affect them.

RAND_hqIn addition, security experts would like people to keep in mind that there is a difference between a spike in activity and reporting on activity. Much like the problems of violence, teen sex and crime rates, there is likely a gap between an actual increase and the perception of one. As Lillian Ablon, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, explained:

Back during Operation Aurora [in 2009], when Google got hacked, Google coming out [in 2010] was a big step in the industry. Before that, companies didn’t really talk about being breached.

Legally, companies and government agencies are required to report security breaches to the public only when customer data is involved, and only in 47 states. Alabama, New Mexico, and South Dakota lack mandatory reporting laws, and few laws on the books extract penalties when a breach occurs. Still, whatever the magnitude of the number of security breaches, it’s also true that we are living in an increasingly uncertain world when it comes to keeping our data safe.

internetNaturally, public vigilance is a good policy, but its not exactly a solution. When the hacks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Community Health Systems, the Cybervor attack, and hack of the DHS, the attacks were suspected of coming from abroad. More and more, attacks are being staged from a location that is far removed from the source, and backed by third parties who are likely unknown.

Security experts believe that the eventual solution will require businesses to rethink how they operate, putting a much bigger emphasis on security. But the consequences of that could have global economic implications, if better security hurts competitiveness. In the short term, it means that customers who do business with companies that suffer security breaches will need to be that much more vigilant.

That means not reusing passwords for multiple accounts, using two-factor authentication when available, and keeping a close eye on bank statements and credit card activity. And as for the breaches themselves, there’s not much you can do except be prepared to hear about more of them, more often. For better or for worse, it is the age we live in, where big data means big data intrusion!

Sources:, (2), (3)

Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!