It’s nigh on impossible to make a system completely secure from outside threats, especially if it’s going to be available to the general public. Still there are certain measures you can take that will make it a lot harder for a would be attacker to get at your users’ private data, which is usually enough for them to give up and move onto another more vulnerable target. However, as my previous posts on the matters of security have shown, many companies (especially start ups) eschew security in favor of working on new features or improving user experience. This might help in the short term to get users in the door, but you run the very real risk of being compromised by a malicious attacker.
The attacker might not even be entirely malicious, as what appears to be the case with one of the newest hacker groups who are calling themselves LulzSec. There’s a lot of speculation as to who they actually are but their Twitter alludes to the fact that they were originally part of Anonymous, but decided to leave them since they disagreed with the targets they were going after and were more in it for lulz than anything else. Their targets range drastically from banks to game companies and even the USA senate with the causes changing just as wildly, ranging from simply for the fun of it to retaliations for wrong doings by corporations and politicians. It would be easy to brand them as anarchists just out to cause trouble for the reaction, but some of their handiwork has exposed some serious vulnerabilities in what should have been very secure web services.
One of their recent attacks compromised more than 200,000 Citibank accounts using the online banking system. The attack was nothing sophisticated (although authorities seem to be spinning it as such) with the attackers gaining access by simply changing the identifying URL and then automating the process of downloading all the information they could. In essence Citibank’s system wasn’t verifying that the user accessing a particular URL was authorized to do so, it would be like logging onto Twitter and then typing say Ashton Kutcher’s account name into the URL bar and then being able to send tweets on his behalf. It’s basic authorization at its most fundamental level and LulzSec shouldn’t have been able to exploit such a rudimentary security hole.
There are many other examples of LulzSec hacking various other organisations with the latest round of them all being games development companies. This has drawn the ire of many gamers which just spurred them on to attack even more game and related media outlets just so they could watch the reaction. Whilst it’s kind of hard to take the line of “if you ignore them they’ll go away” when they’re unleashing a DDoS or downloading your users data the attention that’s been lavished on them by the press and butthurt gamers alike is exactly what they’re after, and yes I do get the irony of mentioning that :P. Still had they not been catapulted to Internet stardom so quickly I can’t imagine that they would continue being as brash as they are now, although there is the possibility they might have started out doing even more malicious attacks in order to get attention.
Realistically though the companies that are getting compromised by rudimentary URL and SQL injection attacks only have themselves to blame since these are the most basic security issues that have well known solutions and shouldn’t pose a risk to them. Nintendo showed that they could withstand an attack without any disruptions or loss of sensitive data and LulzSec was quick to post the security hole and then move onto to more lulzy pastures. The DDoSing of others though is a bit more troublesome to deal with, however there are many services (some of them even free) that are designed to mitigate the impact of such an incident. So whilst LulzSec might be a right pain in the backside for many companies and consumers alike their impact would be greatly softened by a strengthening of security at the most rudimentary level and perhaps giving them just a little less attention when they do manage to break through.
I’ve been on these Internets long enough to have seen my share of pyramid schemes masquerading themselves as something “revolutionary”. Back in the early 2000′s I can remember getting swept up in all sorts of “make money online” things that promised to pay you big bucks if you did surveys, clicked on links and some for just simply browsing the web. I also had a hand in bringing a few of these down, like many users of it did, when the system only did minimal checks on new users making it quite easy to make 1 person look like 200. I still keep a couple trophies of that time (a couple CDs I bought with Beenz) mostly for the sick pleasure I get in knowing that those companies were doomed from the start.
Over the years many other forms of alternate currencies came and went as did the venture capital dollars that had been invested in them. I think the last one I ever tried was EmailCash which has managed to survive by not trying to become an alternative currency, preferring to stay in the lucrative world of rewards programs. After I realised the effort I was putting into the schemes was netting me a return of much less than $1/hour I gave up on them completely and spent more time at my real job.
The idea of a inventing a currency is a tantalizing one though and the most recent addition to the long list of alternative currencies is becoming a hot topic amongst the tech community. I am of course referring to the BitCoin sensation, a decentralized peer to peer currency that allows users to “mine” BitCoins by acting as part of the payment network. It’s a very interesting idea especially when it adopts many characteristics of the platform its built on, allowing for truly anonymous transactions and a currency that can’t be controlled by any government. However, whilst I love the core idea behind BitCoin, I can’t help but feel this is an extremely elaborate pyramid scheme, and I’ll explain why.
Take a look for instance at this graph detailing the predicted number of BitCoins over the coming years:
BitCoins have an upper limit on how many can be produced, approximately 21 million if we take the creator’s word for it. BitCoins are almost infinitely divisible however so they can still be used quite extensively once the upper limit on the number has been reached. However the complexity in mining a BitCoin increases considerably over time as they start to become mined out and is accelerated by the number of people participating in the network. Thus the true benefactors of the BitCoin system are those who were in it from the beginning as back then it was relatively easy to generate BitCoins and thus they could amass quite a large amount of wealth in a short amount of time.
Like any alternative currency however BitCoins are completely useless if you can’t exchange them with other people for goods and services. It is then in the best interests of the early adopters to get other people to accept them as a legitimate form of currency. This means getting more people on the BitCoin network which, strictly speaking, doesn’t have a traditional referral system in place so it usually passes the pyramid scheme sniff test of most people. Still every additional member that joins and participates in the network is generating value for all of those that came before them, thus it is better for someone to “get in now” before the gold rush hits and the potential wealth disappears.
Also BitCoin, whilst being quite resilient to most exploitations, is still a computer system that can be manipulated. Most recently it came to light that one of the pools, DeepBit, managed to reach the critical 50% threshold of computing power that would make exploitation possible. Whilst it quickly sank back down in order to avoid such a scenario such a situation and no exploits were detected such a situation had only been “theoretically” possible until it actually happened. If BitCoin garners mass adoption you can bet there will be bot herds targeting the network in an attempt to exploit it. Whether they will be successful or not remains to be seen.
Given the rather checkered history that alternative currencies have I’ve been casting a sceptical eye over anyone who thinks that they’ve got this problem space solved, and BitCoin is no exception. Sure I was little excited about being able to generate some cash with spare CPU cycles but that feeling that this whole thing is just an elaborate pyramid scheme was too hard to shake and I’ve left it by the wayside. As a payment system it might not be a bad idea but the whole idea behind mining coins just means you’re paying to make the early adopters rich and that’s the main reason I take issue with the BitCoin system. It’s really hard to trust something when its structure too closely follows that of the ye olde pyramid scheme.
I’m not really sure I could call myself a fan boy of any technology or company any more. Sure there are there are some companies who’s products I really look forward to but if they do something completely out of line I won’t jump to their defense, instead choosing to openly criticize them in the hopes that they will get better. Still I like to make known which companies I may look upon with a rose tint just so that anyone reading these posts knows what they’re getting themselves into. One of these such companies is Sony who I’ve been a long time fan of but have still criticized them them when I’ve felt they’ve done me wrong.
Today I’ll be doing that once again.
As you’re probably already aware recently the Playstation Network (PSN), the online network that allows PS3 owners to play with each other and buy digital content, was compromised by an external entity. The attackers appear to have downloaded all account and credit card information stored on Sony’s servers prompting them to shut down the service for an unknown amount of time. The breach is of such a large scale that it has received extensive coverage in both online and traditional news outlets, raising questions about how such a breach could occur and what safeguards Sony actually has to prevent such an event occurring.
Initially there was little information as to what this breach actually entailed. Sony had chosen to shutdown the PSN to prevent any further breaches and left customers in the dark as to the reason for this happening. It took them a week to notify the general public that there had been a breach and another 4 days to contact customers directly. Details were still scant on the issue until Sony sent an open letter to Congress detailing their current level of knowledge on the breach. Part of the letter hinted that the hacktivist group Anonymous may have played a part in the breach as well but did not blame them directly for the breach. More details have made themselves public since then.
It has also recently come to light that the servers that Sony was using for the PSN were running out-dated versions of the popular Apache web server and lacked even the most rudimentary security provisions that you’d expect an online service to have. This information was also public knowledge several months before the breach occurred with posts on Sony’s forums detailing the PSN servers status. As a long time system administrator I find it extremely ludicrous that the servers were able to operate in such a fashion and I’m pretty sure I know where to lay the blame.
Whilst Anonymous aren’t behind this attack they may have unwittingly provided cover for part of the operation. Their planned DDoS on the PSN servers did go ahead and would’ve provided a timely distraction for any would be attacker looking to exploit the network. Realistically they wouldn’t have been able to get much of the data out at this point (or so I assume, Sony’s servers could have shrugged off the DDoS) but it would have given them ample opportunity to set up the system for the data dump in the second breach that occurred a few days later.
No the blame here lays squarely with those in charge, namely the PSN architects and executives. The reason I say this is simple, an engineer worth his salt wouldn’t allow servers to run unpatched without strict security procedures in place. To build something on the scale of the PSN requires at least a modicum of expertise so I can’t believe that they would build a system like that unless they were instructed to do so. I believe this stems from Sony’s belief that the PS3 was unhackable and as such could be trusted as a secure endpoint. Security 101 teaches you though that any client can’t be trusted with the data that it sends you however and this explains why Sony became so paranoid when even the most modest of hacks showed the potential for the PS3 to be exploited. In the end it was Sony’s superiority complex that did them in, pretending like their castle was impregnable.
The fallout from this incident will be long and wide reaching and Sony has a helluva lot of work to do if they’re going to fully recover from this damage. Whilst they’re doing the right thing in offering some restitution to everyone who was affected it will still take them a long time to rebuild all the good will that they’ve burned on this incident. Hopefully though this teaches them some valuable lessons on security and they’ll stop thinking they’re atop the impregnable ivory tower. In the end it will be worth it for Sony, if they choose to learn from their mistakes.
There were so many times when I was coding up early versions of Lobaco that I didn’t give any thought to security. Mostly it was because the features I was developing weren’t really capable of divulging anything that wasn’t already public so I happily kept on coding leaving the tightening up of the security for another day. Afterwards I started using some of the built in authentication services available with the Windows Communication Framework but I realised that whilst it was easy to use with the Silverlight client it wasn’t really designed for anything that wasn’t Windows based. After spending a good month off from programming what would be the last version of Geon I decided that I would have to build my own services from the ground up and with that my own security model.
You’d think with security being such a big aspect of any service that contains personal information about users that there would be dozens of articles about. Well there are but none of them were particularly helpful and I spent a good couple days researching into various authentication schemes. Finally I stumbled upon this post by Tim Greenfield who laid out the basics of what has now become the authentication system for Lobaco. Additionally he made the obvious (but oh so often missed) point that when you’re sending any kind of user name and password over the Internet you should make sure it’s done securely using encryption. Whilst that was a pain in the ass to implement it did mean that I could feel confident about my system’s security and could focus on developing more features.
However when it comes down to the crunch new features will often beat security in terms of priority. There were so many times I wanted to just go and build a couple new features without adding any security into them. The end result was that whilst I got them done they had to be fully reworked later to ensure that they were secure. Since I wasn’t really working under any deadline this wasn’t too much of a problem, but when new features trump security all the way to release you run the risk of releasing code into the wild that could prove devastating to your users.
No example of this has been more prolific than the recent security issues that have plagued the popular micro-blogging service Twitter. Both of them come hot on the heels of the release of the new Twitter website released recently that enables quite a bit more functionality and with it the potential to open up holes for exploitation. The first was intriguing as it basically allowed someone to force the user’s browser to execute arbitrary Java script. Due to the character length limit of Twitter the impact this could have was minimised, but it didn’t take long before malicious attackers got a hold of it and used it for various nefarious purposes. This was a classic example of something that could have easily been avoided if they sanitised user input rather than checking for malicious behaviour and coding against it.
The second one was a bit more ugly as it had the potential to do some quite nasty things to a user’s account. It used the session details that Twitter stores in your browser to send messages via your account. Like the other Twitter exploit it relied on the user’s typical behaviour of following links posted by the people they follow. This exploit can not be squarely blamed at Twitter either as the use of link shortening services that hide the actual link behind a short URL make it that much harder for normal users to distinguish the malicious from the mundane. Still Twitter should have expected such session jacking (I know I have) and built in counter measures to stop them from doing it.
Any large public system will attract those looking to exploit it for nefarious means, that’s part and parcel of doing business on the web. The key then is to build your systems with the expectation that they will be exploited rather than waiting for an incident to arise. As a developer I can empathise that developing code that’s resistance to every kind of attack is next to impossible but there are so many things that can be done to ensure that the casual hackers steer clear. Twitter is undergoing a significant amount of change with a vision to scale themselves up for the big time, right up there with Google and Facebook. Inevitably this will mean they’ll continue to have security concerns as they work to scale themselves out and hopefully these last two exploits have shown them that security is something they should consider more closely than they have in the past.