Friday, December 18, 2009

Twitter Hack and the Iranian Cyber Army

(See continuing updates to this story below.)

Earlier this morning a DNS hack took control of traffic and redirected to a website with a splash page proclaiming, "THIS SITE HAS BEEN HACKED BY IRANIAN CYBER ARMY." This hack has a lot in common with the Dr.Hiad website defacement I reported on two weeks ago.

New information
The so-called Iranian Cyber Army has defaced websites in the same manner as Dr.Hiad. At this moment (7:35AM Eastern Time) there is a website displaying the exact image that Twitter users saw earlier today during the Twitter hack event. A screenshot of that web page is shown below. The webpage contains an email link to the Iranian Cyber Army's Gmail account.

It is likely that the Twitter DNS attackers simply pointed "" to the IP address of a defaced website like the one below. It would not make sense for them to point Twitter traffic to their own web server: that would allow them to be traced and possibly caught.

When the Twitter attackers realized they could take over Twitter's DNS, they had to decide where to point the traffic. Redirect it to Or how about a defaced webpage bearing the image of the Iranian Cyber Army?

There is some chance the Twitter attackers executed both the website defacement and the DNS takeover.

Screenshot of Iranian Cyber Army Website Defacement

DNS is Fundamental
DNS is the Internet service that kicks in when we type a website name into our browser or click a link on a web page. Type "" into your browser and DNS will lookup the IP address of the Twitter web server so your browser can connect and download all those tweets. As fundamental as DNS is to our Internet experience, it has virtually no security, particularly on our home computers and Internet connections. Also, the DNS servers "up in the cloud" are rife with vulnerabilities that enable attackers to gain control and carry out pranks like the Twitter redirection this morning.


December 18, 2009 8:20AM - Update
The defaced website that Twitter users were directed to, shown in the screenshot above, is an online forum for the Green Freedom Wave, an Iranian reform movement.

December 18, 2009 9:08AM - Update
The Green Freedom Wave website was hosted at Netfirms, a managed web server company that is well-known to website defacers who exploit weaknesses in web and database servers. These web hosting companies offer lots of functionality, including web sites, databases and online shops, at very reasonable prices. However, these features also can make them vulnerable to compromise.

The website defacement is the minor part of this story. The DNS takeover is extremely serious, especially since it happened at, which receives over 20 million visitors per month. If the site had been redirected to a web page containing malware, a huge chunk of the Internet population would be infected. Perhaps I should say a "huger" chunk: 35 million computers infected per month with one type of malware.

December 18, 2009 10:35AM - Update
The Green Freedom Wave website was probably hacked using SQL Injection, Remote File Inclusion, or similar techniques that are well-documented on the web. Note the signature line of Dr.Hiad from my earlier post. Remote File Inclusion allows an attacker to exploit a script on the target website to replace the home page of the website.

December 19, 2009 7:49AM - Update
Busy day yesterday speaking to reporters and colleagues about the Twitter DNS compromise. Here are a couple of stories:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Securing the Cloud

I will be a speaker at a free cloud security webinar sponsored by Enterprise Florida on Thursday, December 10 and 2PM Eastern Time. Cloud computing is a topic generating both hype and anti-hype right now. The anti-hype comes mostly from the security community warning that the benefits of fast, easy development and hosting are just what we do not need right now.

Also presenting will be Chris Day, Chief Security Architect at Terremark, and Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software. The event is moderated by Esther Schindler, author and industry expert.

See you there!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dr.HiaD: Islamic Terrorist or Teenager Having Fun?

Click image for expanded view

Let me steal my own thunder and go with Teen Having Fun.

Earlier today the campaign website of Bill Connor, candidate for Lieutenant Governer in South Carolina, was defaced with a graffiti-like image in the typical fashion of juvenile hackers.

Screenshot of the Bill Connor Website Defacement
Source: FITSNews Political Blog (not verified)

Click image for expanded view

The hacked page included a small amount of Arabic text, which got the attention of the candidate and former US Army officer, who served in Afghanistan. A statement on his campaign's Facebook page said, "I do hope this serves as a wakeup call to the continuing danger we face in South Carolina from the threat of radical Islam and shari’a law."

"I do hope this serves as a wakeup call to the continuing danger we face in South Carolina from the threat of radical Islam and shari’a law."

Bill Connor

Was this a political act by Isamic extremists? Examining the facts makes it hard to draw that conclusion. There are many valid threats to our safety on the Internet today, but it is important to isolate the facts and not rush to judgement when it comes to identifying and prosecuting true crime online.

"Hi ADmin your security = 0" Thus reads the graphic that displaced the candidate's home page. That statement is a poke in the eye at the web hosting company that operates the web server (not the candidate) and is typical of widespread pranks conducted by computer savvy kids who enjoy exercising their technical skills to penetrate weak server configurations from far across the Internet and leave their mark.

"Dr.HiaD" in this case is the online nickname used by the hacker. Dr.HiaD has taken credit for over one hundred such website defacements. I have seen lists of URLs of over 4,000 web pages with his signature on them. Other pranksters have perpetrated many more thousands of website hacks and even keep track of their scores. See below a screenshot of one such scorecard showing recent defacements by Dr.HiaD. The score for all "players" on this website is a staggering 43,000 on December 1, 2009 alone.

Website defacement scoresheet of Dr.HiaD
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

I have blocked out the website names in order to prevent readers from attempting to visit these sites, which may now host malware that can infect PCs. But you can see Dr.HiaD is a prolific defacement artist.

Another site Dr.HiaD hacked, that also contained a short snippet of Arabic script, was the website of a Chinese baby products company. Again, I will withhold the name of the site, but share the graphic that was posted there.

One of many other websites defaced by Dr.HiaD
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

Who is Dr.HiaD? He appears on an Arabic hacker website with the below signature. Now, when it comes to teenage hackers, it is difficult to believe everything we read. Is Dr.HiaD really 15-years-old? Is Dr.HiaD from Morocco? Hard to say for sure, but I believe he (or she) is. These pranksters must balance two competing goals: (1) not getting caught and (2) claiming and receiving credit for their exploits. For young hackers, recognition normally trumps caution. On the score-keeping website mentioned above, there are hackers from Singapore, Russia, India, Switzerland, Germany and many more countries around the world. So Dr.HiaD really could be from anywhere.

Dr.HiaD Signature on Hacker Website
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

One last point about the colors used in Bill Connor's website defacement. Some of the English letters appeared in white, green and red with black background. It is true that these are Islamic colors. But they are also the simplest colors to use in web pages. The RGB color codes for these colors are: FF0000, 00FF00, 000000, FFFFFF. Extremely simple for kids making web pages who do not want to be bothered with shades like 0CF1E2, CECE28. They are also stark and strong. Perfect for a prankster.

Let's close with a comment about the first screenshot above (source: Ray Dickenson). That one came from the website of an auto accessories company in China that was hacked by Dr.HiaD. Is this a photo of the real Dr.HiaD? Probably not. But it does convey something about the Dr's personality and the artistic flair of his or her pranks. Many teenagers who crave technical accomplishment and get into trouble pursuing recognition for their talents grow up to be valuable contributors in the computer field. Ask Michael "MafiaBoy" Calce or Kevin Mitnick.

December 2, 2009 - Update
I spoke with Susanne Schafer of the Associated Press about this story, and she wrote an article that appeared here.

December 3, 2009 - Update
The dramatic image in the first screenshot above comes from an Italian photographer, posted here on Flickr: Amegliocchi. One interesting connection is that a large number of Italian language websites were defaced by Dr.Hiad.

Connection to Dr.Hiad splash screen courtesy of TinEye, a pretty effective reverse image search engine. Want to find photos of you on the web? Try TinEye. If you dare :)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SafeCentral: New York Times article says it "protects users even if there’s malware on the computer"

A few weeks ago I demonstrated SafeCentral to Riva Richmond of the New York Times. She wrote an article appears in Friday's New York Times covering a "new breed of products" that address online identity fraud. The article features SafeCentral alongside other new services that directly address online threats to our identities and bank accounts. Riva Richmond points out that traditional tools like antivirus are struggling to keep up with the flood of high-tech crimeware that invades our computers to install keyloggers or conduct automated phishing.

This article is not an online holiday shopping scare fest. It provides helpful information on tools consumers can use to proactively protect themselves and remain safe and happy through the new year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Twitter: The Internet is a more dangerous place

Twitter has made it extremely easy for people to share news and web links and at the same time has created a boon for online criminals. It is hard to find a web service that has done more to make malware distributors' jobs easier.

I don't mean just the explosive growth in the Twitter user base. Microblogging in general, and Twitter specifically, contribute to malware distribution in fundamental ways that must be re-examined and corrected.

Here are the Twitter features that make it so dangerous:

  1. Twitter usernames are easily harvested in vast quantities

  2. Criminals can send tweets to anyone on Twitter

  3. Twitter encourages its users to share without thinking

  4. Twitter and supporting services like strip away critical context

  5. Twitter is programmable and can be automated using their published APIs

Twitter features look like an Internet criminal's wish list.

While each of these features has appeared to some degree in other Internet services like email and instant messaging, Twitter has taken them to a new level and -- as icing on the cake -- got celebrities like Ashton Kusher and Miley Cyrus to help fuel the frenzy of massive sharing.

Before describing how these features introduce vulnerabilities hackers can exploit more easily than ever, let's be clear that this is not Twitter bashing. There is a reason Twitter has become so popular: it clearly meets a need shared by many millions of users. On we see people using the best features of the Internet to be more connected and more informed. But just as we think twice about attending large gatherings during a swine flu pandemic, we should also think twice about sharing links on an infected Internet.

Okay, let's look at our hacker wish list in more detail.

Twitter usernames are easily harvested in vast quantities

Compared to email, collecting huge lists of Twitter usernames is incredibly easy. Part of the attraction of Twitter is that anyone can see what all the users are up to, including seeing usernames. Showing everyone what everyone else is saying is a great way to encourage new users to join the fun. It's also a great way to build a list of users to target.

Quality email lists, on the contrary, are harder to build. Malware authors have been very creative in building tools to collect email address lists. The Warezov worm, for example, would scan a PC for email addresses and then send itself to those addresses to continue the process. These worms, however, require a user to open a binary attachment to start the process, and then require the next recipients to do the same.

Warezov and other email worms were pretty darn effective, but gathering lists of Twitter users does not require jumping through such technical and social engineering hoops. The public nature of Twitter usernames, combined with the Twitter API (see below), make it outrageously easy "crawl" across Twitter and build massive lists of users.

Here is an interesting look at a Twitter-crawling app created by some good guys -- repeat Good Guys! -- that demonstrates the concept.

Looking at the image above, it is important to note that not only are lists of usernames easy to build, but relationships between users are also publicly available on Twitter, raising the possibility of targeted attacks against organizations using (seemingly) inside information. ("Harry Reid said you should respond to this: [click here]")

Criminals can send tweets to anyone on Twitter

Now that we have a huge list of usernames that we generated in a couple of hours, our next step will be to send them malicious links to infect their computers. Before the rist of Twitter, there were other methods malware distributors used to get links in front of people. "Spim" is the term of sending spammy links through an Instant Messaging (IM) network. But the Instant Messaging model calls for users to establish relationships by a two-way handshake. I add a new user to my contact list, they see the request and choose to accept the relationship. Then I can send messages. Now, it is true that malware writers can circumvent this requirement for a handshake but, like the email address harvesting example above, it requires malware engineering to get around protection designed into IM systems. On Twitter there is no such requirement.

Twitter has a similar model wherein I follow you and you follow me. But you do not have to choose to follow me in order to see messages from me. I can follow you, see your tweets, and send a reply that you will see in your reply box. The Replies page is labeled "Tweets mentioning [myusername]". And on Twitter, who does NOT want to see tweets mentioning them? (Miley Cyrus aside.) Compared to the effort of hacking an IM system to send unsolicited links, Twitter makes it very easy for anyone to send links to arbitrary users.

So I build a huge list of usernames, follow all the users, wait for them to tweet and then reply with: "You are so right and this proves it: [click here]"
At this point, the only thing keeping my huge list of users from clicking the link is a good dose of caution. And Twitter is not about caution. Read on.

Twitter encourages its users to share without thinking

Stepping out of the technical realm for a moment, let's look at the Twitter social phenomenon. Twitter is not about privacy. Twitter is about massive-scale sharing. The tagline on the Twitter home page is, "Share and discover what's happening right now, anywhere in the world." And, "Join the conversation." THE conversation. Not one on one conversations with your known friends. We're talking about The Big conversation that we crawled through collecting our usernames up in step one.

Twitter does provide Public or Protected accounts. But the default setting is public and the message is clear: don't be shy. Jump in the deep end of the pool.

On top of that, the first step you see after creating an account is "See if your friends are on Twitter" and a web form that asks for your Gmail, Yahoo or AOL email password. Yes, your password. Twitter will log into your email account and retrieve your contact list to see if there are matching Twitter accounts. Doesn't this sound just like our friend Warezov described above?

Of course these are features designed to maximize the number of users and connections between users, and that's the attraction of Twitter. The sunny day scenario is positive one that helps build the Big Conversation. What we are doing here is looking at these features with an eye on how they contribute to the spread of malware across the Internet.

So to recap: we have a huge list of usernames with known relationships between users, we can send any of them a link that includes some apparently familiar context even though they don't know us, and the users are in a hurry. Tweets are short and sweet and meant to be posted and read frequently. This favors the social engineering malware distributor who hopes the users do not spend too much time deciding whether or not to click a link in a tweet.

Twitter and supporting services like strip away critical context

Tweets are very short messages that don't leave a lot of room to establish familiar context. "Check this out: [click here]" is a classic line from emails that distribute malware.

The shortened URLs that appear in tweets remove all the warning signs that indicate dangerous links. When a link appears in your email, an IM message or a tweet it is important to inspect the URL and see where it goes before clicking on it. If we receive a message that looks like it is from a friend asking us to look at their vacation pictures, we have a chance to be suspicious if the URL ends in a .ru (Russia) or .cn (China). It's not likely that our friends chose a Russian or Chinese photo hosting service. Or if the link is purportedly from our bank but the URL looks like, we might be wary about clicking it.

Would you be suspicious of this URL?

URL shortening services like, or tweetburner remove all the useful context and turn all URLs into generic nonsense. There is no chance for a user to screen out risky URLs when they are shortened.

How about this one?

Then there is the risk of someone penetrating the URL shortening service itself and hijacking previously shortened links to point them to malware sites. Over 2 million shortened links were hijacked this summer at URL shortening service Cligs.

Twitter is programmable and can be automated using their published APIs

As I mentioned above, Twitter provides an Application Programming Interface (API) that lets developers create programs to automatically exercise Twitter features. Features that the API does not support can be accessed by automating web requests as described here: Scripting Twitter with cURL.


As we have seen, Twitter is a feature-rich malware distribution platform with a ready-to-go user base of 25 million Tweeters who are predisposed to do exactly what the bad guys want: click it fast. Here is a short list of things users can do protect themselves:

  • Protect your tweets: Go into your Twitter settings and click the "Protect my tweets" checkbox at the bottom. This will remove you from the public timeline and only people you approve can follow your tweets and send you replies.

  • Check those short links: Network security firm Sucuri provides a free service that scans shortened URLs with McAfee SiteAdvisor and Google's SafeBrowsing service. It's available here: AVG's LinkScanner is also an option that will scan all the links you visit in a supported browser.

  • Use Twitter security tools: Security tools designed specifically for Twitter are starting to appear on the market. I haven't evaluated them yet, but one recent example is Krab Krawler from Kaspersky.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Windows 7 Security versus Usability: The Beat Goes On

Usability and security are competing goals: the more secure a computer is, the harder it is to use. The easier a computer is to use, the less secure it is. In my opinion, Windows 7 is easier to use than Vista.

With Vista, Microsoft introduced User Account Control (UAC), which frequently shows pop-ups asking the user to confirm any configuration changes, like changing network settings. UAC was one of the biggest usability problems with Vista and was lampooned by Apple in one of their hilarious "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" commercials."

With Windows 7, Microsoft backed off on the UAC prompts, which greatly improves usability. My personal observation as a user is that Windows 7 is much more pleasant to use than Vista. This is important, because UAC had the effect of making the entire Vista experience very un-fun and slowed adoption of an operating system that has other important security improvements.

However, as is nearly always the case, increasing operating system usability also increases security risks -- risks of infection and compromise of data and functionality. The changes to Windows 7 UAC have made it easy for malware writers to turn UAC off entirely without the user's knowledge. Microsoft recommends keeping UAC turned on and yet allows malware to turn it off without the user's knowledge. A post on the Windows 7 Engineering Blog explains some of the thinking behind the no-prompt-to-turn-off-UAC issue.

The story gets much more complicated at this point. If malware is on the computer, hasn't the game already been lost? Why worry about UAC if a password-stealing Trojan is on your computer? The answer lies in the difficulties inherent in identifying a program as goodware or malware. If my son downloads a game (goodware) that has been secretly tampered with to introduce malicious capability (malware) that tries to change my system configuration, I will not see a UAC prompt warning me of the configuration change. The first step of this malicious code will be to turn off UAC and avoid warnings. I cannot depend on antivirus to detect the malware, and I cannot depend on UAC to put up a prompt that will make my son say, "Daaaaaaad??!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Will the Internet be there when you need it?

I have an article appearing in TechNewsWorld about the reliability of Internet web services. The Twitter outage in August shocked a lot of people and called into question the dependability of Internet-based services. In this article I look back on other notable outages -- eBay, MySpace, and Yahoo have all had their bad days -- and look into the root causes of the failures.

While researching the article I read "Mafiaboy: How I Cracked the Internet and Why It's Still Broken." This is the story of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that took down Yahoo, CNN and other websites in February of 2000. The perpetrator was a 15-year-old high school student from Montreal who had built up his DDoS capabilities by hacking university and corporate servers for many months. If a high school student with no budget can take down top websites, it's clear that politically-motivated adults with even modest funding can do the same or worse.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Importance of a Good (Consumer) Education

Vicki Salemi posted an article on about shopping securely online. Educating consumers about safe online behavior is extremely important, and Vicki is certainly doing her part.

The article highlights ecommerce safety tips I shared with Vicki this summer. These tips are even more important as we head towards the holidays, so I'll recap them briefly here:

  • It is best to shop on "name brand" websites that are well-known and have a distinctive look and feel. Unfamiliar websites that look cheap and poorly designed are not a wise place to spend money, even if they have eye-popping prices.

  • Check the address bar in the browser when you are ready to buy, reading from left to right, and be sure it starts with "https://" followed by the name of the website and ".com".

  • It is best to type the name of your favorite shopping website into the browser to get started. Clicking on links in emails is a risky way to start an online shopping excursion, since the links may be fake.

  • Don't forget to log out when you have made your purchases. If you remain logged in and then go browsing other sites, it is possible for malware to use that login in surprising ways.

  • Don't make purchases on public computers. Do you use public computers in libraries or other places? Don't enter your credit card or other information into computers that aren't yours. They may have information-stealing software that can give your credit card number to the bad guys.

  • Pay attention to what your anti-virus program is telling you. If it says it needs an update, get the update. If it says it expired, renew it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

High-level Attention on the Growing Cyber Crime Threat

A couple of weeks ago we warned that small businesses and local governments are being ripped off by online thieves who have learned to tap into commercial bank accounts by infecting computers with crimeware.

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs met to hear from government and industry experts on the growing threat of cyber-crime targeting small- and medium-sized businesses. In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman focused the hearing with the question: "What can be done by the public and private sectors to make commercial cyberspace secure, especially for organizations that can’t afford to have large IT staffs on the job 24/7?"

“The latest targets of cybercrime are small- and medium-sized businesses." Senator Joseph Lieberman

He went on to cite the same recent thefts from small businesses and local governments we talked about in this blog a couple of weeks ago. You can check out the hearing yourself: Cyber Attacks: Protecting Industry Against Growing Threats.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How to Protect Your Commercial Bank Account

Remember in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when Principal Rooney watched on his computer as Ferris' number of days absent ticked down..down..down? Ferris had hacked into the school computer and was "adjusting" his attendance record right under the nose of the principal.

Online criminals may be doing the same thing to your bank account. Crimeware operators are stealing money right from under the noses of consumer and commercial banking customers who may not be able to recover the stolen funds.

Crimeware - viruses that get onto your computer and steal money from your bank account

Security researcher Joe Stewart of SecureWorks details the workings of a piece of crimeware dubbed "Clampi". "Clampi is operated by a serious and sophisticated organized crime group from Eastern Europe and has been implicated in numerous high-dollar thefts from banking institutions. Any user whose system has been infected by Clampi should immediately change any and all passwords used on that system for any websites, but especially financial credentials." Full report here.

Here are examples of recent thefts from commercial bank accounts:
Brian Krebs of the Washington Post Security Fix blog now reports that users of commercial banking accounts are being warned to take extra precautions with the computers they use to do online banking. Brian reports that the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center is recommending that its members "carry out all online banking activity from a standalone, hardened, and locked-down computer from which e-mail and Web browsing is not possible."
This guidance reflects an important reality about today's Internet-connected computers. If the same computer used for online banking is also used for general web browsing, email and other Internet activities, there is a strong likelihood the computer will become infected with money- and password-stealing crimeware. We cannot assume that our computers are free of this malware that evades detection by even the best antivirus programs.
In fact, my position is that it is better to assume the computer has been compromised and take special steps to perform online banking as safely as possible. At Authentium we have created SafeCentral for just this purpose. SafeCentral creates a separate Secure Desktop that protects passwords, bank accounts and other information from crimeware.

SafeCentral provides the following protection:
  • Block keyloggers: stops crimeware keyloggers from stealing usernames, passwords and other account information

  • Blocks screenshots: Prevents crimeware from taking "snaphots" of web pages that display bank account balances and other sensitive details

  • Secure DNS: Provides its own secure DNS lookups to stop DNS-changing crimeware from sending you to fake banking sites that steal your account credentials.

  • High-tech Protection: Stops code injection attacks that can snoop on banking session even when they are protected by the familiar "HTTPS" and lock icon appearing in the browser.

  • Browser Security: Prevents malicious browser plugins from infiltrating the browser and performing real-time fraudulent bank transactions.
As you can see, we built SafeCentral to provide a separate, hardened environment on computers you already own to provide a safer online experience. Even if you buy a separate computer for online banking, we recommend that you also install and use SafeCentral to provide that extra measure of protection.

September 15, 2009: Replaced links to news stories with new, non-broken links

Monday, August 24, 2009

Give Your PC a Back-to-School Check-up

While parents are getting their kids to re-focus on math and English, it's also a good time to get the computers in the house ready for school, too.

After a long and busy summer of playing games, downloading music and browsing Facebook, PC's can be out of shape or downright dangerous for serious use. Here is a handy guide for giving your computers that back-to-school check-up.

1. Remove Dangerous Programs
P2P File Sharing programs like Limewire, eMule, or Shareaza are typically used to download pirated music, games and other programs. "Other programs" can include viruses, as I described here. Besides getting a computer infected with viruses, File Sharing programs can also make every document on your computer visible and available to users all around the world--users you don't know (and probably don't want to know). A Seattle man was sentenced earlier this month to over 3 years in prison for stealing tax returns, bank statements and canceled checks from computers all across the country.

2. Free up Disk Space
Windows needs gigabytes of free space to run properly. When important security updates are downloaded by Windows Updates, they may fail to install because of insufficient disk space. Here is a guide from Microsoft on freeing up space on your hard drive. You might ask the kids to find and delete music or videos they know they don't need anymore.

3. Run a Full Virus Scan
You do have antivirus software, don't you? If not, install a security suite immediately. AVG offers a free antivirus program you can get here. Today's antivirus programs are on all the time, watching for badware and blocking what they find. But they don't stop everything the first time they see it. So it's a good idea to pull up a chair, find your antivirus program's "Manual Scan" or "Full Scan" feature and let it run for the hour or more it may take to search the entire computer for badware. Don't worry, you don't have to sit there and watch it. Just check back periodically to see if the scan is complete and review the findings. Choose to "Quarantine" any malware that was found.

4. Set Internet Time Limits
It may have been okay for kids to stay up late on the computer during the summer, but if you want your kids to get a good night's sleep on school nights you'll need to set some limits. First, talk to your kids and agree on an appropriate schedule and the "lights out" policy for computer use. How do you monitor and enforce this policy without watching them every minute? Many security suites include Parental Controls options to set time limits on Internet usage. Wireless routers also have this feature. You can read about Netgear's here . World of Warcraft has an excellent Parental Controls feature that allows parents to create a separate password for managing a time schedule that the game servers will all enforce; the game will log your child out at whatever time you specify. (See screenshot, below) Other online games and most game consoles have at least some ability to control game play.

5. Check Printer Ink and Paper
Okay, this is an easy one. Remember the big lemonade stand banner the kids printed out this summer that used up all the yellow? You won't want any excuses when it comes time to print out that homework. So check for printer paper and get an extra ink cartridge for the printer. That way you'll avoid any "teacher's dirty looks" when your kid hands in their first assignment printed out in magenta.

Settings Play Schedules for World of Warcraft

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Are you contributing to the Twitter Denial of Service Attack?

Twitter has been dealing with a denial of service attack this morning that has resulted in millions of users not receiving or posting tweets.

These days denial of service attacks typically are launched from botnets--large numbers of consumer PCs that have been infected with Trojans that wait to do the bidding of the "bot-herders" who manage them. The users of these machines may not know anything is wrong other than, "Gee, the Internet seems slow today." Their Internet is slow because their computer is sending lots of traffic to the targeted site, in this case The bot-herders collect infected machines and then rent them out. Twitter is such a high profile site, it may be just a bot-herder or one of their customers wanting to show off the power of their bot net.

Is your computer a member of one of these botnets? It's not easy for the average Internet user to find out. Seeing rapidly blinking lights on your cable modem even if you aren't using your computer may suggest something is going on. But it could just be an updater downloading a new Firefox or operating system patch.

You may not be too worried about the state of Twitter. But you should Know that botnets can be told to do many things. They can be instructed, for example, to download keyloggers or other data stealing malware. The stolen data is then shipped off to collection servers where the bad guys can then use your bank username and password to steal money.

Keep your antivirus up to date and perform a full scan if you're a little concerned.

Download and use SafeCentral if you want to bank and shop without the worry. SafeCentral users talk about this stuff here:


It may be coincidental, but we saw a large increase yesterday in our virus-collection network. We received 200 times the normal average of emails with malicious attachments. One node, for example, went from 10 items to 2000 in a day. These were phony emails telling random recipients that a UPS parcel could not be delivered and asking the reader to "print out the attached invoice". The attachment was not an invoice, it was a trojan.

Example of the email. Do not open the attachments in these emails if you get one!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Four-star review of SafeCentral

PC Magazine published a review of SafeCentral 2.0 today, giving our latest version 4 stars. You can read the entire review here. Neil Rubenking, the reviewer, looks at a lot of products and has a good eye for what works and what doesn't. This is his second look at SafeCentral.

If you haven't given SafeCentral your first look yet, here is a little flash video to whet your appetite. Visit for the full story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Safe Travels

I've been on constant travel for the past month, connecting to various hotel, airport and coffee shop wireless networks, and talking with people about information risks while on the go. More and more travelers--business people, vacationers, kids and grandparents--are using laptops, netbooks and smartphones to stay connected, informed and entertained on the road and in the air. Our computers are more susceptible to infection by malicious software when we are on the move, connecting to different networks and dealing with distractions caused by unfamiliar surroundings and fear of missing a connecting flight. We are also far away from our safety net of computer support, whether that is the computer help desk at our company or the "computer guru" friend you can depend on to help you out of a jam.

True Story
I was sitting on an airplane at the Charlotte, NC, airport waiting to return home after visiting a couple of banks. Another business traveler sat down next to me and asked if I connected to the free Wifi the airport provides in the terminal. "I connected to the network and saw a certificate warning page," he said, "I clicked past that page and a few minutes later my McAfee antivirus started alerting me about viruses on my computer." I introduced myself and offered to take a look when we got up to cruising altitude.

We opened his laptop and I reviewed the virus alerts and looked in his browser cache. He said the only thing he did was connect to the network and open his browser, which loaded the Yahoo home page. I saw the file McAfee was complaining about, which was a download triggered by a javascript file downloaded from a server in China about a minute after the Yahoo home page loaded.

A little more reverse engineering and I found that a flash ad on the Yahoo home page had infected the computer and installed a downloader which started downloading all manner of malware. McAfee was not telling him it had blocked the infection, it was telling him he was already infected. The first Flash exploit got right past his antivirus protection with no problem. It wasn't until the second or third install of malware that McAfee finally noticed something was up.

Turns out the guy was general manager of a US company and this was the laptop he used for his corporate computing, commercial banking, everything. I strongly recommended that he rebuild the laptop, reinstall all the software and in the meantime refrain from any banking or other sensitive online use. But he was on the way to important meetings and far away from his IT support group. I invited him to stop by our offices near West Palm Beach, Florida for some cyber-assistance but I never heard from him again. I'm pretty sure he continued to use his compromised laptop, perhaps after trying multiple antivirus scan-and-clean routines.

Preparing for Travel

Given the increased chances for malware infection while traveling, here are a few things we can do to be safer on the road. These steps should be completed the day before you head out on your business trip or vacation.

1. Update Windows - Run Windows Updates and install all updates. This is your chance to let Microsoft close as many holes as possible in your operating system and Microsoft programs.

2. Update Applications - Adobe Flash Player, Apple Quicktime and a few other applications are closely tied to web browsing and are prone to exploitation if they are out of date. In the anecdote above, an out-of-date Flash Player was responsible for the business traveler's infection. Run the vulnerability scan at Secunia for free. It's a great tool that shows you what is out-of-date and gives easy links to click to make it all better (see screenshot below).

3. Update Antivirus - And, of course, make sure your antivirus is updated with the latest definition files.

Secunia Online Scan for Out-of-Date Applications

Making sure your operating system, application programs and antivirus are up-to-date will give you the best chance to stay safe during your travels. Good luck!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quips and Comments - RSA Conference 2009

I just returned from the RSA Conference in San Francisco where the focus was on cloud security, identity theft, data protection, and online fraud prevention. The Expo floor was busy, with lots of foot traffic and a higher-than-expected level of energy. Especially from the guy who escaped a straightjacket while balancing atop a high-rise unicycle and pitching a security product. We all have to multi-task.

More than half of my meetings were in hotel suites and other locations away from the Moscone Center. Power-walking between venues, it took me a while to realize that the biz-hipsters in hair gel and rock-star sunglasses were not the new wave in computer security--they were from the AdTech conference in the Moscone Center West. Yes, geeks, infosec is still in our hands.

The "gubment" was there--in the towering National Security Agency booth/condo. They could neither confirm nor deny jamming my iPhone.

More seriously, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was interviewed during the week on CBS News about cyber-spying. It's worth noting that the same basic techniques are used by spies stealing government secrets and crimeware operators stealing consumer identities. If the government cannot stop spies from stealing secret plans for our latest fighter planes or infiltrating presidential campaigns, what chance do ordinary citizens have protecting their bank accounts?

I'd like to thank Neil Rubenking, PC Magazine Lead Analyst and AppScout contributor, for taking the time to meet with us, talk about SafeCentral 2.0 and post his observations on AppScout.

Monday, March 30, 2009

When Websites Attack

Wouldn't it be crazy if a banking website infected our computer with a virus that steals money from our bank account? If you agree, then get ready for a big dose of crazy. Here's the inside scoop on a banking website we discovered doing just that: infecting its customers' computers with banking malware.

[Quick note: 60 Minutes ran a segment yesterday on infected websites. You can view the segment here. They interviewed a woman who watched her bank account get hacked before her very eyes.]
During a routine scan of banking, shopping and financial services websites, the virus lab here at Authentium discovered malicious code on the website of a credit union in Lousiana. The code, which would have been invisible to us humans, was inserted at the bottom of each web page on the site. Here are some Before and After shots of the site, showing the source code:



What does this code do?

Any Internet user who pointed their browser at the site would have the bad code downloaded and run inside their Internet Explorer or other web browser. The web browser would run this code just like all the other "good" code that shows us the text, images and links that make up the web page we're viewing. The bad code is smart. It pulls down more code from various places, jumping from China to the Ukraine and back to China. It's pretty tough for the good guys to track down the bad guys with that kind of world-hopping behavior. Here's a simple view:

During Step 3, the code tries to infect our computer, betting on the fact that our Windows software is not up to date like Microsoft warns here, or we have not updated our Adobe PDF viewer like Adobe warns here and here. In spite of these warnings from software vendors, an alarming percentage of computers remain out-of-date and vulnerable to infection.

The code in Step 3 is identified on as the (variously named) Zbot Trojan. The trojan installs a keylogger, steals sensitive data and enables fraudulent banking transactions. One thing to note in the following screenshot is that only some antivirus products detect the infection. If you were running Trend Micro or McAfee when you visited the site you would not have been protected. analysis of the infection

So the upshot of the above is: simply browsing to the credit union website can get you infected with a trojan that steals your money.

How did the code get there?

It's likely that the company managing the website did not keep the operating system, database, web server or other software up-to-date, allowing criminals to gain administrative access to the server and insert the bad code. They need to make sure the servers are up-to-date with the latest patches from Microsoft and the other vendors, just like we need to do with our own computers.

Happy Ending?

The malicious code has been removed from the banking website we are profiling here. That doesn't mean it won't be back. Authentium continues to scan banking and shopping websites to make sure that users of our SafeCentral secure browsing service are as protected as possible. SafeCentral is designed to provide safe web transactions even if you've been unlucky enough to visit a website that has infected your computer.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Kids Download the Darnedest Things

As a kid I loved to hunt wild creatures, trap them and bring them home alive. Snakes were my favorite. My mom still tells the story of my bringing home a four foot reptile during her tea party with neighborhood moms.

These days kids are just as likely to introduce dangerous creatures of the digital kind into the home computer.

An interesting segment appeared on NBC's Today Show this morning that describes the risk. The story focused on kids who downloaded and used a file sharing program to access music online. Unfortunately they were using the same computer that Mom and Dad used to prepare the family tax return and did not realize the completed tax forms were shared for the entire world to see! Any identity thief could simply type "Tax Return" into their own file sharing program's search field and find the family's 1040 form ripe for the picking. The family profiled in the Today Show story had their tax form filed electronically by an online thief who was very happy to receive their $2000 tax refund.

There are more insidious risks to file sharing networks: they are an excellent means for spreading Trojans that quietly infect computers, remain under your antivirus radar, and do more long-term damage than grabbing a tax return. File sharing programs are used by millions of users around the world to download "free" software. Need Photoshop but don't want to spend the money? File sharing programs can deliver you a "cracked" copy (a permanent free trial) or a key generator you can use to generate your own license key. Bogus key generators ("keygens") are the most common form of malware on file sharing networks.

Malware distributors watch for file sharing searches of any and all keywords and immediately offer up files that match the keywords. Searches for "Benjamin Franklin" in a file sharing program will return hits like "Benjamin Franklin keygen" or "Benjamin Franklin Greatest Hits." The files these search results point to can be executable programs or songs and videos that can deliver infections to computers that play them.

Here is an example of a file sharing search this morning. The marked entry, "benjamin franklin KeyGen," is identified by Authentium's Command Anti-Malware as "W32/Trojan2.FXIS." This is a trojan that infects the Windows login service so it runs every time a user logs in. What does it do next? Anything it wants to.

These infections can include Banking Trojans, Keyloggers and DNS Changers that are described elsewhere on this blog.

Kids do download the darndest things. Authentium's SafeCentral provides secure banking and shopping even on computers that may have been infected by the kids.

Now I'm going to call my mom and remind her that none of the snakes, crabs or lizards I brought home ever emptied the family bank account.

March 16, 2009: A couple of media outlets picked up on this story over the weekend:

Dallas Morning News - Pamela Yip covered the story in Sunday's paper here:
Protect your personal data when filing taxes online

MarketWatch - Andrea Coombes included it in last Friday's Taxing Times and will be following up with more this week in the Market Watch Personal Finance section

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Next Internet..Now

Internet Security is broken, and the best way to fix it is to start over. This is the idea presented in an excellent article in the New York Times this weekend: Do We Need a New Internet? John Markoff describes "a growing belief among engineers and security experts that Internet security and privacy have become so maddeningly elusive that the only way to fix the problem is to start over."

This is an excellent topic for debate and discussion among Internet technologists and everyday users alike. Technologists can (and will) endlessly debate the merits of a revolutionary approach like the Clean Slate program at Stanford versus a more evolutionary approach to incremental improvements like deploying DNSSEC and IPv6. Whichever approach we take, it is safe to say the solution will take decades to develop and get into mass deployment.

But the fact that stands out clearly is: Something Must Be Done.

Authentium has taken a revolutionary approach to Internet security and developed a solution that gives users access to The Next Internet, now. We recognized the limitations of DNS and the critical impact its compromise can have on Internet transactions. We saw the "maddening" failure of antivirus and firewall suites in their efforts to keep computers clean of infection by identity-stealing malware that allows criminals to "take over someone's computer from half a world away."

So we developed SafeCentral, which has its own Secure DNS and its own hardening against the keyloggers and screen-stealers found in Banker Trojans. Our goal was to create an island of safety on a computer that is otherwise adrift on an unsafe Internet, which is the only Internet we have right now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is there Safety in the Cloud?

Web applications that run in Data Centers can be well-protected with physical, network and system security by applying sufficient people, processes and technology to manage infrastructure that is directly under the control of operations staff.

Unmanaged endpoints, like desktop computers of tele-workers or laptops of mobile users who access these applications, can introduce holes into an otherwise complete security model.

The best efforts of server and network professionals can protect data in the server farm, but data that originates from or is downloaded to compromised endpoints is subject to theft and exploitation.

So, yes, there is safety in the cloud, but the endpoint is another matter.

Authentium's SafeCentral is an endpoint-based solution that creates a secure footprint on an otherwise unmanaged computer to allow it to access sensitive data and applications and block data leakage. Such leakage can result from mass-market or targeted attacks on endpoints that install keyloggers, SSL data hijackers, remote access tools or other malware.

SafeCentral creates a managed session on an otherwise unmanaged computer. SafeCentral applies special, restrictive policies to the unmanaged operating system during web application usage such that data and functions the application makes available can be shielded from monitoring, recording and theft by malware that has infected the endpoint.

Examples of shielding include:

  • Blocking keyloggers

  • Blocking screen capture

  • Preventing code injection that can steal data even out of SSL/TLS-protected web connections

  • Providing alternate, secure DNS lookups that bypass vulnerable DNS resolvers

  • Providing browser lockdown that blocks malicious plugins and extensions

Online banking is a good example of extremely sensitive web applications that run on unmanaged clients. Banking trojans are increasingly used by online criminals to take advantage of these access points to create a multi-billion-dollar industry of fraudulent transactions. The largest banks around the world will be deploying SafeCentral to their clients during 2009.

There will be many interesing ways in which remote desktops, virtual machines or virtual browsers on the client side, and other security approaches evolve over the next decade. Given that Citrix Winframe has been available for over a decade, it's clear that these technologies take time to achieve maturity and large-scale deployment.

SafeCentral is available now as a managed service that provides a secure web application client on Windows endpoints that are prone to infection and exploitation even when antivirus, antispyware, firewall and other security software is already installed. Data Center staff cannot also take responsibility for keeping endpoints clean of malware, but they can require use of SafeCentral to access their server-side applications and rest assured that web sessions remain private and protected.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where Did All the Nice Web Sites Go?

There is a new report out from Websense that summarizes their research into the status of web-based malicious code in the second half of 2008. The major takeaway for me was: there are no safe web sites anymore. By "safe" I mean not likely to contain malicious code that will infect your browser or your computer.

Here are a some snippets from the report:

77 percent of Web sites with malicious code are legitimate sites that have been compromised.
By "legitimate sites" they mean web sites that Internet users would not expect to be hosting malicious code. Sites like the New York Times, Business Week, and CNET. It's remarkable that Websense numbers show there are more legitimate websites distributing malware than there are malicious websites set up by the bad guys!

70 percent of the top 100 sites either hosted malicious content or contained a masked redirect to lure unsuspecting victims from legitimate sites to malicious sites.
A large majority of the most-visited web sites on the Internet either had malicious content on them or had links to malicious sites posted by users who exploit social networking features like comments and messages.

39 percent of malicious Web attacks included data-stealing code.
If you regularly visit web sites in the top 100 most-visited sites, chances are you were exposed to malware. You could still be safe if your operating system, web browser and plug-ins like Adobe Viewer and Flash were all the latest versions AND you did not encounter an exploit for an unpatched vulnerability. Secunia's statistics show that less than 2% of computers are fully patched, and over 45% have 11 or more insecure programs.

These numbers show the shocking truth: there is a very high chance an average Internet user will get infected with data stealing malware even if they stay on the well-lit, well-traveled portions of the web.

Dedicate a Computer for Banking and Shopping
My advice is to keep a dedicated computer for banking and shopping. Here is a checklist for this "safe computer:"

  • Make sure Windows Updates are set to automatic.
  • Always keep Adobe and Flash plugins up-to-date (make sure you don't click on fake update windows).
  • On this dedicated computer, never visit any social networking site like MySpace or Facebook.
  • Do not view any videos.
  • Do not check your email.
  • Do not read news sites.
  • Do not install any programs other than a web browser like Firefox or Safari.
  • Do not use Internet Explorer.
  • Wipe the disk and re-install Windows once every three months (more frequently if it starts behaving erratically)
  • If you are up to it, use Linux rather than Windows

I know this is a large list and it may be easier to lose weight and quit smoking than abide by its rules. I hope you're not reading this list on your dedicated safe computer, because you will have just broken a rule!

Another thing you can do is install SafeCentral and use its secure browser for banking, shopping and financial services. We built SafeCentral knowing that there are too many hoops a user needs to jump through to keep their identity and their money safe online.