Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Security

iovation Tokenization

C’est mois, in the first of a series for the iovation blog:

Given our commitment to responsible data stewardship, as well as the invalidation of Safe Harbor and the advent of the GDPR, we saw an opportunity to reduce these modest but very real risks without impacting the efficacy of our services. A number of methodologies for data protection exist, including encryption, strict access control, and tokenization. We undertook the daunting task to determine which approaches best address data privacy compliance requirements and work best to protect customers and users — without unacceptable impact on service performance, cost to maintain infrastructure, or loss of product usability.

The post covers encryption, access control, and tokenization.

Windows Virus Hell

So to finish up development and testing of Test.Harness.Browser in IE 6 last week, I rebooted my Linux server (the one running justatheory.com) into Windows 98, got everything working, and rebooted back into Linux. I felt that the hour or two’s worth of downtime for my site was worth it to get the new version of Test.Simple out, and although I had ordered a new Dell, didn’t want to wait for it. And it worked great; I’m very pleased with Test.Simple 0.20.

But then, in unrelated news, I released Bricolage 1.9.0, the first development release towards Bricolage 1.10, which I expect to ship next month. One of the things I’m most excited about in this release is the new PHP templating support. So on George Schlossnagle’s advice, I sent an email to webmaster@php.net. It bounced. It was late on Friday, and I’m so used to bounces being problems on the receiving end, that I simply forwarded it to George with the comment, “What the?” and went to fix dinner for company.

Then this morning I asked George, via IM, if he’d received my email. He hadn’t. I sent it again; no dice. So he asked me to paste the bounce, and as I did so, looked at it more carefully. It had this important tidbit that I’d failed to notice before:

140.211.166.39 failed after I sent the message.
Remote host said: 550-5.7.1 reject content [xbl]
550 See http://master.php.net/mail/why.php?why=SURBL

“That’s curious,” I thought, and went to read the page in question. It said I likely had a domain name in my email associated with a blacklisted IP address. Well, there were only two domain names in that email, bricolage.cc and justatheory.com, and I couldn’t see how either one of them could have been identified as a virus host. But sure enough, a quick search of the CBL database revealed that the IP address for justatheory.com—and therefore my entire home LAN— had been blacklisted. I couldn’t imagine why; at first I thought maybe it was because of past instances of blog spam appearing here, but then George pointed out that the listing had been added on August 18. So I thought back…and realized that was just when I was engaging in my JavaScript debugging exercise.

Bloody Windows!

So I took steps to correct the problem:

  1. Update my router’s firmware. I’ve been meaning to do that for a while, anyway, and was hoping to get some new firewall features. Alas, no, but maybe I’ll be able to connect to a virtual PPTP network the next time I need to.

  2. Blocked all outgoing traffic from any computer on my LAN on port 25. I send email through my ISP, but use port 587 because I found in the last year that I couldn’t send mail on port 25 on some networks I’ve visited (such as in hotels). Now I know why: so that no network users inadvertently send out viruses from their Windows boxes! I’d rather just prevent certain hosts (my Windows boxen) from sending on port 25, but the router’s NAT is not that sophisticated. So I have to block them all.

  3. Rebooted the server back into Windows 98 and installed and ran Norton AntiVirus. This took forever, but found and fixed two instances of WIN32Mimail.l@mm and removed a spyware package.

  4. Rebooted back into Linux and cleared my IP address from the blacklist databases. I don’t expect to ever use that box for Windows again, now that I have the new Dimension.

The new box comes with Windows XP SP 2 and the Symantec tools, so I don’t expect it to be a problem, especially since it can’t use port 25. But this is a PITA, and I really feel for the IT departments that have to deal with this shit day in and day out.

What I don’t understand is how I got this virus, since I haven’t used Windows 98 in this computer in a long time. How long? Here’s a clue: When I clicked the link in Norton AntiVirus to see more information on WIN32Mimail.l@mm, Windows launched my default browser: Netscape Communicator! In addition, I don’t think I’ve used this box to check email since around 2000, and I never click on attachments from unknown senders, and never .exe or .scr files at all (my mail server automatically rejects incoming mail with such attachments, and has for at least a year).

But anyway, it’s all cleaned up now, and I’ve un-blacklisted my IP, so my emails should be deliverable again. But I’m left wondering what can be done about this problem. It’s easy for me to feel safe using my Mac, Linux, and FreeBSD boxes, but, really, what keeps the Virus and worm writers from targeting them? Nothing, right? Furthermore, what’s to stop the virus and worm writers from using port 587 to send their emails? Nothing, right? Once they do start using 587—and I’m sure they will—how will anyone be able to send mail to an SMTP server on one network from another network? Because you know that once 587 becomes a problem, network admins will shut down that port, too.

So what’s to be done about this? How can one successfully send mail to a server not on your local network? How will business people be able to send email through their corporate servers from hotel networks? I can see only a few options:

  • Require them to use a mail server on the local network. They’ll have to reconfigure their mail client to use it, and then change it back when they get back to the office. What a PITA. This might work out all right if there was some sort of DNS-like service for SMTP servers, but then there would then be nothing to prevent the virus software from using it, either.
  • You can’t. You have to authenticate onto the other network using a VPN. Lots of companies rely on this approach already, but smaller companies that don’t have the IT resources to set up a VPN are SOL. And folks just using their ISPs are screwed, too.
  • Create a new email protocol that’s inherently secure. This would require a different port, some sort of negotiation and authentication process, and a way for the hosting network to know that it’s cool to use. But this probably wouldn’t work, either, because then the virus software can also connect via such a protocol to a server that’s friendly to it, right?

None of these answers is satisfactory. I guess I’ll have to set up an authenticating SMTP server and a VPN for Kineticode once port 587 starts getting blocked. Anyone else got any brilliant solutions to this problem?

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The End of Civilization

It’s the end of civilization as we know it.

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iPod Threatens UK Military Security

20 GB iPod

Following up on my screed against the idea of the “iPod security threat”, James Duncan Davidson sent me a link to []1this story about how the UK military has decided that the iPod is a security threat.

“With USB devices, if you plug it straight into the computer you can bypass passwords and get right on the system,” RAF Wing Commander Peter D’Ardenne told Reuters.

“That’s why we had to plug that gap,” he said, adding that the policy was put into effect when the MoD switched to the USB-friendly Microsoft XP operating system over the past year.

Huh. Do you mean to tell me that if you plug into the USB port of a PC that no one is logged in to, you can get access to the contents of the PC without logging in? You know, that sounds more like a Windows security flaw than an iPod problem. I mean, it’s reasonable for the military to ban external media in order to prevent their personnel and contractors from copying sensitive data onto personal devices for unknown purposes. But this Windows security hole seems, well, huge.

And the truth is that these articles that single out the iPod as a security threat are being disingenuous, in that it’s much easier and much cheaper to use a USB Flash Drive. Furthermore, this banning of storage devices really only keeps honest people honest; those who really want to copy sensitive information to take home will figure out a way to do it if they’re motivated enough.

So yeah, highly sensitive security establishments should ban personal external storage devices to keep honest people honest, but really, they should also fix the real security problem with their operating system of choice.

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Gartner: iPod is a Security Threat

20 GB iPod

Well, this is entertaining. It seems that the Gartner Group has decided that iPods are a significant security threat. I think it’s great that a company like that makes its money by telling people that, yes, you can copy files between your PC and your iPod, and that poses a serious security threat. Please.

The problem, of course, is not the iPod. Or digital cameras. Or floppies. Or CD burners. No, the problem is people. I prefer to build a company that trusts its employees. Novel concept, I know. So here’s the mantra: iPods aren’t security threats; employees are security threats.

Now, I had to think carefully about posting this, because it reminded me, suddenly, of the old gun nut statement that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The reason why I’m willing to use it for the iPod and not guns, however, has to do with design. Guns are designed to kill. It kind of makes the statement moot. I mean, what would you expect people to do with them? iPods, however, are not designed to breach security. They’re designed to listen to music, to store files, to copy your calendar, etc. Now, whether an individual person decides to use the iPod in breach of a company’s security protocols is a matter independent of the iPod’s design and intended use.

So the mantra holds: iPods aren’t security threats; employees are security threats. But guns, yeah, they’re pretty much designed for killing.

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