Posts filed under 'Web security

Jul 13, '12

I have the privilege of serving as co-chair of the program committee for the Anti-Phishing Working Group’s eCrime Researchers Summit, to be held October 23-24 in Las Croabas, Puerto Rico. This has long been one of my favorite conferences to participate in, because it is held in conjunction with the APWG general meeting. This ensures that participation in the conference is evenly split between academia and industry, which leads to in-depth discussions of the latest trends in online crime. It also provides a unique audience for academic researchers to discuss their work, which can foster future collaboration.

Some of my joint work with Richard Clayton appearing at this conference has been discussed on this blog, from measuring the effectiveness of website take-down in fighting phishing to uncovering the frequent lack of cooperation between security firms. As you will see from the call for papers, the conference seeks submissions on all aspects of online crime, not just phishing. Paper submissions are due August 3, so get to work so we can meet up in Puerto Rico this October!
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Jun 6, '12

UPDATE 2012-06-07: LinkedIn has confirmed the leak is real, that they “recently” switched to salted passwords (so the data is presumably an out-of-date backup) and that they’re resetting passwords of users involved in the leak. There is still no credible information about if the hackers involved have the account names or the rest of the site’s passwords. If so, this incident could still have serious security consequences for LinkedIn users. If not, it’s still a major black eye for LinkedIn, though they deserve credit for acting quickly to minimise the damage.

LinkedIn appears to have been the latest website to suffer a large-scale password leak. Perhaps due to LinkedIn’s relatively high profile, it’s made major news very quickly even though LinkedIn has neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Unfortunately the news coverage has badly muddled the facts. All I’ve seen is a list 6,458,020 unsalted SHA-1 hashes floating around. There are no account names associated with the hashes. Most importantly the leaked file has no repeated hashes. All of the coverage appears to miss this fact. Most likely, the leaker intentionally ran it through ‘uniq’ in addition to removing account info to limit the damage. Also interestingly, 3,521,180 (about 55%) of the hashes have the first 20 bits over-written with 0. Among these, 670,785 are otherwise equal to another hash, meaning that they are actually repeats of the same password stored in a slightly different format (LinkedIn probably just switched formats at some point in the past). So there are really 5,787,235 unique hashes leaked. (more…)

Jun 1, '12

Over a year ago, we blogged about a bug at Gawker which replaced all non-ASCII characters in passwords with ‘?’ prior to checking. Along with Rubin Xu and others I’ve investigated issues surrounding passwords, languages, and character encoding throughout the past year. This should be easy: websites using UTF-8 can accept any password and hash it into a standard format regardless of the writing system being used. Instead though, as we report a new paper which I presented last week at the Web 2.0 Security and Privacy workshop in San Francisco, passwords still localise poorly both because websites are buggy and users have been trained to type ASCII passwords only. This has broad implications for passwords’ role as a “universal” authentication mechanism. (more…)

May 12, '12

Two years ago, Hyoungshick Kim, Jun Ho Huh and I wrote a paper On the Security of Internet banking in South Korea in which we discussed an IT security policy that had gone horribly wrong. The Government of Korea had tried in 1998 to secure electronic commerce by getting all the banks to use an officially-approved AciveX plugin, effectively locking most Koreans into IE. We argued in 2010 that this provided less security than it seemed, and imposed high usability and compatibility costs. Hyoungshick presented our paper at a special conference, and the government withdrew the ActiveX mandate.

It’s now apparent that the problem is still there. The bureaucracy created a procedure to approve alternative technologies, and (surprise) still hasn’t approved any. Korean web businesses remain trapped in the bubble, and fall farther and farther behind. This may well come to be seen as a warning to other governments to adopt true open standards, if they want to avoid a similar fate. The Cabinet Office should take note – and don’t forget to respond to their consultation!

Mar 7, '12

Using a multi-word “passphrase” instead of a password has been suggested for decades as a way to thwart guessing attacks. The idea is now making a comeback, for example with the Fastwords proposal which identifies that mobile phones are optimised for entering dictionary words and not random character strings. Google’s recent password advice suggests condensing a sentence to form a password, while Komanduri et al.’s recent lab study suggests simply requiring longer passwords may be the best security policy. Even xkcd espouses multi-word passwords (albeit with randomly-chosen words). I’ve been advocating through my research though that authentication schemes can only be evaluated by studying large user-chosens distribution in the wild and not the theoretical space of choices. There’s no public data on how people choose passphrases, though Kuo et al.’s 2006 study for mnemonic-phrase passwords found many weak choices. In my recent paper (written with Ekaterina Shutova) presented at USEC last Friday (a workshop co-located with Financial Crypto), we study the problem using data crawled from the now-defunct Amazon PayPhrase system, introduced last year for US users only. Our goal wasn’t to evaluate the security of the scheme as deployed by Amazon, but learn more how people choose passphrases in general. While this is a relatively limited data source, our results suggest some caution on this approach. (more…)

Jan 30, '12

Jon Anderson, Ben Laurie, Kris Kennaway, and I were pleased to see prominent mention of Capsicum in the recent FreeBSD 9.0 press release:

Continuing its heritage of innovating in the area of security research, FreeBSD 9.0 introduces Capsicum. Capsicum is a lightweight framework which extends a POSIX UNIX kernel to support new security capabilities and adds a userland sandbox API. Originally developed as a collaboration between the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and Google and sponsored by a grant from Google, FreeBSD was the prototype platform and Chromium was the prototype application. FreeBSD 9.0 provides kernel support as an experimental feature for researchers and early adopters. Application support will follow in a later FreeBSD release and there are plans to provide some initial Capsicum-protected applications in FreeBSD 9.1.

“Google is excited to see the award-winning Capsicum work incorporated in FreeBSD 9.0, bringing native capability security to mainstream UNIX for the first time,” said Ulfar Erlingsson, Manager, Security Research at Google.

We first wrote about Capsicum, a hybridisation of the capability system security model with POSIX operating system semantics developed with support from Google, in Capsicum: practical capabilities for UNIX (USENIX Security 2010 and ;login magazine). Capsicum targets the problem of operating system support for application compartmentalisation — the restructuring of applications into a set of sandboxed components in order to enforce policies and mitigate security vulnerabilities. While Capsicum’s hybrid capability model is not yet used by the FreeBSD userspace, experimental kernel support will make Capsicum more accessible to researchers and software developers interested in deploying application sandboxing. For example, the Policy Weaving project at the University of Wisconsin has been investigating automated application compartmentalisation in support of security policy enforcement using Capsicum.

Nov 8, '11

Google recently launched a major advertising campaign around its “Good to Know” guides to online safety and privacy. Google’s password advice has appeared on billboards in the London underground and a full-page ad in The Economist. Their example of a “very strong password” is ‘2bon2btitq’, taken from the famous Hamlet quote “To be or not to be, that is the question”.
Empirically though, this is not a strong password-it’s almost exactly average! (more…)

Oct 20, '11

News travels fast. Blogs and other websites pick up a news story only about 2.5 hours on average after it has been reported by traditional media. This leads to an almost continuous supply of new “trending” topics, which are then amplified across the Internet, before fading away relatively quickly. Many web companies track these terms, on search engines and in social media.

However narrow, these first moments after a story breaks present a window of opportunity for miscreants to infiltrate web and social network search results in response. The motivation for doing so is primarily financial. Websites that rank high in response to a search for a trending term are likely to receive considerable amounts of traffic, regardless of their quality.

In particular, the sole goal of many sites designed in response to trending terms is to produce revenue through the advertisements that they display in their pages, without providing any original content or services. Such sites are often referred to as “Made for AdSense” (MFA) after the name of the Google advertising platform they are often targeting. Whether such activity is deemed to be criminal or merely a nuisance remains an open question, and largely depends on the tactics used to prop the sites up in the search-engine rankings. Some other sites devised to respond to trending terms have more overtly sinister motives. For instance, a number of malicious sites serve malware in hopes of infecting visitors’ machines, or peddle fake anti-virus software.

Together with Nektarios Leontiadis and Nicolas Christin, I have carried out a large-scale measurement and analysis of trending-term exploitation on the web, and the results are being presented at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS) in Chicago this week. Based on a collection of over 60 million search results and tweets gathered over nine months, we characterize how trending terms are used to perform web search-engine manipulation and social-network spam. The full details can be found in the paper and presentation. (more…)

Aug 24, '11

Last week, in retaliation against the heavy-handed response to planned protests against the BART metro system in California, the hacktivist group Anonymous hacked into several BART servers. They leaked part of a database of users from myBART, a website which provides frequent BART riders with email updates about activities near BART stations. An interesting aspect of the leak is that 1,346 of the 2,002 accounts seem to have randomly-generated passwords-a rare opportunity to study this approach to password security. (more…)

Aug 12, '11

The usability community has long complained about the problems of passwords (remember the Adams and Sasse classic). These days, even our beloved XKCD has something to say about the difficulties of coming up with a password that is easy to memorize and hard to brute-force. The sensible strategy suggested in the comic, of using a passphrase made of several common words, is also the main principle behind Jakobsson and Akavipat’s fastwords. It’s a great suggestion. However, in the long term, no solution that requires users to remember secrets is going to scale to hundreds of different accounts, if all those remembered secrets have to be different (and changed every couple of months).

This is why, as I previously blogged, I am exploring the space of solutions that do not require the memorization of any secrets—whether passwords, passphrases, PINs, faces, graphical squiggles or anything else. My SPW paper, Pico: No more passwords, was finalized in June (including improvements suggested in the comments to the previous blog post) and I am about to give an invited talk on Pico at Usenix Security 2011 in San Francisco.

Usenix talks are recorded and the video is posted next to the abstracts: if you are so inclined, you will be able to watch my presentation shortly after I give it.

To encourage adoption, I chose not to patent any aspect of Pico. If you wish to collaborate, or fund this effort, talk to me. If you wish to build or sell it on your own, be my guest. No royalties due—just cite the paper.


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