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Appeasement is not Acceptable

I have avoided overt political statements on this blog, unless they fell within the sphere of technology and I felt very strongly. 

But this is beyond political. 

I am appalled at my government’s appeasement of Mr Trump. I am appalled at their willingness to do deals with this new US administration.

Through the factually verifiable acts of this new administration (for example, the dismissal of the Attorney General after opposing the president), there is a clear attempt to dismantle checks and balances that are an integral and essential part of a democratic state. There is an obvious contempt for the rule of law. 

Functioning democracies do not behave in this way.

We must not wait for this US administration to start ‘disappearing’ people who lawfully oppose the administration before we act to say, loudly and clearly, that enough is enough

Safeguarding British values (as those values are defined by my government) demands that we condemn and oppose this behaviour.

I demand that my government condemn the Trump administration’s rejection of democratic norms and utilise any and all diplomatic pressure to make this clear.

History will judge us very poorly if we sit around waiting for it to get ‘bad enough’ before we take a stand.

The Investigatory Powers Act

I sincerely hope the UK Government plans to actually debate the “Repeal the new Surveillance laws (Investigatory Powers Act)” petition in Parliament now that it has reached 100,000 signatories, including myself.

Of course, the commitment they made is carefully worded such that attracting that number of signatures merely means it will be “considered” for debate.

Recent events in the United States and elsewhere demonstrate that maintaining the right balance of power between the state and the individual is more important than ever. I would not normally get political here, but the circumstances are anything but normal — the frightening jolt the western world seems to be making towards extreme right-wing authoritarianism means that maintaining that balance is nothing short of absolutely critical.

The list of organisations who can access internet connection records is enormously wide and includes bodies as mundane as the Food Standards Agency! This is way beyond something that could be argued as essential to maintaining the UK’s operational intelligence capabilities for preventing domestic acts of mass violence.

This law would be deeply, deeply troubling at any time, but is even more so as the US election shows us the threat of home-grown extremism that rises through established political bodies and gains the powers of high office.

Personally, I urge everyone to support efforts to mount legal challenges to this legislation.

Please consider supporting organisations like Open Rights Group.

Staying Safe

I have written on this subject before, but as suspected, surveillance is back on Parliament’s agenda again.

Is the Investigatory Powers Bill the latest attempt at a “modernising” of existing laws and conventions, as is often claimed, or an unprecedented extension of surveillance powers?

I would argue strongly that the capability for your local council, tax enforcement authorities, and the myriad of other agencies that are proposed to have access to this data, to ‘see’ every thought you might have dared to research online is vastly more than would have been possible in human history. It’s also vastly more than any other country has sought the legal power to access.

Photo by Luz on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY.

Photo by Luz on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY.

Given what we know in a post-Snowden era, this proposed legislation is quite clearly not about ensuring a continued intelligence flow for the purposes of national security. That has been going on behind closed doors, away from any democratic process and meaningful oversight, for many years, and will no doubt continue. Whether or not the activities of military intelligence agencies have a strong legal foundation has apparently not stopped them from gathering what they need to do their job. It is important for me to note that I don’t doubt the hard work they do, and the success they have had over the last ten years in preventing violence in the UK. However, we know that overreach and abuse have occurred — at the kind of scale that undermines the very values our government and their agencies are there to protect.

It is clear to me that, given the secret and ‘shady’ nature of much of the activities of the security apparatus of perhaps every nation state, what we do not need to do as a democratic society is provide a strong legal protection for such morally ambiguous acts. If a tactic is invasive or aggressive, but genuinely necessary in a “lesser of two evils” sense, the fact that the actor has to take on the liability for it provides an inherent safeguard. If it is easy and low risk to employ that tactic, there is a stronger temptation for its abuse, or for its inappropriate extension into everyday investigations. When these laws are ‘sold’ to the people as being for national security and to keep us safe from violence, it cannot be acceptable that the powers are made available to other agencies for any other purposes, as the Bill proposes.

A nation state does not have the right to violate the sanctity of the boundary of someone’s home without strong justification — a warrant. A nation state similarly does not have the right to violate that boundary in the form of bulk data collection on an entire populace. The Internet connections we open and the data we transfer is something that we can keep private from our government, unless due process is followed to override that on an individual basis.

That must remain. That principle must be protected, or we’ve forgotten why we bother with this ‘free country’ thing.

It must be protected even when we face short- and medium-term risks to our safety. Why? Because it is not hyperbole to say that failing to do so lays the technical and legal foundations of a police state, which is a much more significant long-term risk.

Fortunately, there are many fighting against this Bill, which (even if you disagree with my arguments above) is widely regarded to be completely unfit for purpose.

I wholeheartedly support the Don’t Spy on Us campaign and its six principles, and I stand with them as a supporter of the Open Rights Group, one of the organisations behind the campaign.

DfontSplitter 0.4.2 for Mac — Critical Security Update

DfontSplitter icon

Today I release DfontSplitter 0.4.2 for Mac. This is a critical security update that fixes an issue relating to the Sparkle software update framework when the update pages are served over HTTP. As of 0.4.2, the update pages are now, naturally, served over HTTPS. (It was more than five years ago when the last release was made!)

The vulnerability means that in a scenario where an attacker could launch a man-in-the-middle attack during a Sparkle-enabled app’s update detection process, arbitrary JavaScript could execute in the WebView hosting the release notes. Due to the context that the WebView runs in, the app could then be convinced to run local files, expose local files to a remote server and even execute arbitrary code. More details and a full breakdown are at the post on Vulnerable Security.

This update fixes the Sparkle-related security issue by updating Sparkle and requiring HTTPS for all future DfontSplitter app update communications. Due to new build requirements in Xcode 7.2, the application now requires at least OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) and a 64-bit Intel processor.

The automatic updates feature within DfontSplitter should detect the update, but you can also download and install it manually.

Thanks to Kevin Chen for pointing out the existence of the issue with Sparkle and that it affected DfontSplitter. I had somehow missed the original reporting of the vulnerability, so I particularly appreciate Kevin bringing this to my timely attention.

The astute among you may note that in the Info.plist for this update, I explicitly disable the OS X 10.11 SDK’s check for HTTPS forward secrecy in the HTTPS communications to the update server. Once I figure out a cipher suite configuration that I am happy with, and understand, in Pound (my reverse proxy acting as the TLS terminus), I will update the app again to require forward secrecy.

The Changing Face of Vulnerability News

Heartbleed logo  Shellshock Logo

The recent news about the bash vulnerability being called “ShellShock”, and the degree to which it is getting mainstream press has got me thinking about how software vulnerabilities are now being reported in the mainstream media.

Apparently, no vulnerability these days is complete without a catchy name and logo — see Heartbleed and Shellshock! Joking aside, though, the very fact that these vulnerabilities are making non-tech news headlines puts pressure on everyone running potentially vulnerable systems to do their duty — usually as straightforward as running a pre-packaged security update.

The Heartbleed and Shellshock stories are taking the place of what we used to see reserved for particularly influental computer worms, like Sasser and Mydoom. It’s most definitely positive that some vulnerabilities are getting attention — unfortunately it is still the case that for some companies and system administrators, only outside pressure will convince them to promptly, diligently and consistently apply security updates.

What I’d like to see, is some way for people interested in improving computer security, the “good guys” for lack of a better term, to leverage this media interest to send a message to system administrators that it’s always necessary to apply software updates promptly, even when they don’t get on the TV news!

The Curse of The Black Box

The other key issue that Shellshock highlights, as did Heartbleed, is the issue of embedded ‘black box’ systems that might be vulnerable. This kind of system is everywhere — and because in many cases they are ‘set it and forget it’ machines, they represent a particular risk. It’s often very difficult to convince vendors of these systems of the importance of pushing upstream software updates down to end users, particularly when there is a lack of understanding and a lack of financial incentive.

Something big and mainstream, like Shellshock and Heartbleed, might convince system administrators to badger vendors to release patches for this kind of product, but we need to extend this further, and make it a social (or even a legal) expectation on vendors to supply security updates for any product they ship, for a reasonable lifetime period for that product.

The security landscape is too complex, and everything too interconnected, for anyone to have the opinion that “I don’t need to patch that, because there’s nothing important on it”.

Leaving Yourself in the Loop

I want to part with a few bullet points, with some actions I try to take to stay up-to-date. Automatic updates are increasingly common, but not universal, and these simple things can help you not miss a known vulnerability.

  • Document and understand the whole software footprint of the systems for which you are responsible. (This means embedded systems, software libraries, and more!)
  • Subscribe to announce mailing lists, follow Twitter accounts of the software projects and systems you use. (It pays to be in the know about available updates, and not hear about them after it is too late!)
  • Look for useful vulnerability resources for particular projects you use. (For example, for WordPress, the recently launched WPScan Vulnerability Database.)

Teaching Computer Security Basics

Over the past few years, I have ended up coming into contact with many computers belonging to individuals. My reason for doing so has varied, but usually I am helping them with something unrelated to security.

I found myself constantly saying the same things when I noticed bad security practices — “you really should update or remove Java”, “you need to actually stop clicking ‘Postpone’ and restart the computer some time”, “untick that box to install the toolbar” and so on.

Computer security is hard.

But, particularly when it comes to computers belonging to individuals, we have let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We have allowed anti-virus vendors to parrot messages about “total protection” instead of teaching sound principles and encouraging good practice.

Computer security, at least in this context, is in large part a human problem, not a technology problem.

So, a while ago, I had an idea to put together a really quick, 5-minute presentation that would encourage computer security principles that could dramatically lower the risk of individuals’ machines getting infected. I stripped it down to what I saw as the four most important principles (few enough that they might actually be remembered!):

  1. Keep software up-to-date — with emphasis on the importance of updates, despite the inconvenience, and mention the high-risk software titles du jour whose updates may not be entirely hands-off (Flash, Java, etc.).
  2. Keep up-to-date antivirus — with emphasis on such technology as the last line of defence, not ever a solution in and of itself.
  3. Install software from trusted sources — perhaps the most important principle that requires behaviour change, this is about getting people to feel confident enough to build a trust model for software and then make informed decisions about each and every installation they make.
  4. Be suspicious — in particular about communications that invite clicking on things and so on, including using alternative channels to verify legitimacy of things that look suspicious (e.g. never clicking unexplained links!)

I’ve not given this talk yet, but I’d like to. It feels that computer security on home PCs is, in general, so awful, that even a very basic set of ideas that are memorable enough to implement can probably make a significant difference to the health of our personal information infrastructure.

I would welcome feedback from others on these slides, as well as the idea.

I think it is quite important to keep it to five minutes, make it concise enough that it will be memorable and actionable, but I’m sure this idea can (and needs to) evolve and improve over time.

If you would like to use the slides, feel free to do so under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence. It would be great if many people could hear this message.

Cleaning up the IP.Board url4short mess

XDebug to the rescue…

The condensed, I-just-want-to-fix-my-site version:

On your server, try:

grep ‐ri \$mds /wherever/your/website/folder/is

to locate the injected code, and while file it resides in. You can then go into that file and remove it.

Also try re-caching all the skins and languages in the Admin Control Panel. Make sure all IP.Board updates and patches are applied to prevent the compromise happening again.

Reset your passwords and keys. Take measures to detect and continue detecting other infiltrations.

My friend Niall Brady dropped me an email, saying that some of the users of his Windows-Noob forums were reporting getting redirected to a spammy-looking site (url4short dot info) when clicking on search results to the site.

The forums run the Invision Power Board (IP.Board) software. There had been some reports of vBulletin boards being hit with this kind of spammy redirect, but fewer suggestions that this was an IPB problem. There had been a patch for a critical IPB issue released in December, but that had, obviously, been applied to the site as part of normal good practice.

Nevertheless, I was concerned. Clicking on a search engine result should definitely not be redirect somewhere other than the result page!

Without evidence that the issue was not limited to one machine, or one connection, however, it could not be ruled out that it was just malware on that visitor’s machine.

» Read the rest of this post…

Protecting your browsing with Certificate Patrol for Firefox

I read this BBC News story about mistakenly issued security certificates recently, which allowed the people with those certificates to impersonate any Google websites and intercept traffic to them. It struck me as quite significant that this particular story made it to &#8216mainstream’ tech reporting.

There is a more detailed, and perhaps more accurate, commentary on this attack on Freedom to Tinker. It perhaps may not have been ‘cyber criminals’ as the BBC reported it when I first viewed the story!

Anyway, given the attention to this issue, I thought it a good opportunity to review this kind of attack against SSL/TLS — the security system upon which we all now depend. More importantly, I wanted to show Certificate Patrol, an add-on for Firefox that would allow you to notice a suspicious change to an certificate and thwart this kind of attack.

The weaknesses inherent in having too many organisations that are able to issue security certificates for any domain are becoming more clear. While this kind of attack is extremely rare, at the moment, ‘at the moment’ is a very poor security response! Hopefully, more awareness of these limitations of the internet’s authentication infrastructure can help put pressure on browser vendors, website owners and CAs to make everyone more secure.

How to Completely Disable Java on Mac OS X Lion

The security landscape for Mac OS X is changing. It has been for some time, but every now and then, an event comes along that highlights it.

I am thoroughly disappointed with how tardy Apple can be with releasing security updates. Java has been one of the components most visibly neglected in terms of timely patches. The recent ‘Flashback’ trojan for OS X exploited old, well-known vulnerabilities in Java that Apple had failed to promptly patch.

Java on Lion is deprecated, and is no longer installed by default. However, some upgrades from Snow Leopard bring Java along with them, and some users have manually installed Java for compatibility with certain applications.

If you do not know that you need Java installed on your system, do not install it. That is the best way to mitigate any security threat that would try to leverage a Java vulnerability to get into your system.

On Lion, however, once Java is installed, it does not seem to be possible to completely remove it.

What you can do is change the permissions on the relevant files so that it is ‘neutered’ and cannot run at all.

How to Completely Disable Java for Lion

I don᾿t recommend you disable Java on Snow Leopard. It is part of the operating system there, not an optional add-on component. I have not tried this process on Snow Leopard. Proceed to disable Java like this at your own risk (even on Lion)!

While logged in as an administrator user, open Terminal from Applications > Utilities.

Type the following commands in, pressing Enter after each one. You might be asked for your password.

sudo chmod 000 /System/Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/
sudo chmod 000 /Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines

What these commands do is change the permissions mode to 000 on these Java files, meaning that no users have any permissions to even enter these folders, let alone read any files in them. This stops Java from running.

You can test that it is working, or, rather, not working, by now attempting to load Java Preferences in Applications > Utilities. You should be told that Java is not installed, and invited to install it. Click Not Now.

OS X offering to install a Java runtime

Re-enabling Java

If you suddenly find that actually you do need Java again, simply run the same commands in Terminal, but with the permissions mode 755 (the folder’s owner can read, write, and enter the directory, and everyone else can just read and enter the directory).

sudo chmod 755 System/Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/
sudo chmod 755 /Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines

It should spring back into life!


If you were unfortunate enough to be infected by Flashback (even if you did not type the Administrator password when it prompted), F-Secure has some instructions on its detection and removal. (Hat tip to @bldngnerd.)

On Phone ‘Apps’ and Risk

I just came across an interesting post on the ESET Threat Blog (ESET being the antivirus vendor who are responsible for NOD32) about smartphone apps and the risk they potentially pose in a world when we install all sorts of applications, including those that deal with important and sensitive information, on the same device.

In particular, General Hayden remarks that “In the popular culture, the availability of 10,000 applications for my smart phone is viewed as an unalloyed good. It is not — since each represents a potential vulnerability. But if we want to shift the popular culture, we need a broader flow of information to corporations and individuals to educate them on the threat. To do that we need to recalibrate what is truly secret.”

Yes, each app that you install on your smartphone is a potential vulnerability. It is precisely for that reason you should be making decisions about what you installed based upon rational thought processes. There are some things that the reward is not great enough to warrant the amount of risk taken. For example, you might choose not to drive 120 MPH (193 KPH) because the cost of potentially getting isn’t worth the benefit of arriving sooner, or perhaps even the benefit of the fun of driving so fast. If you do choose to drive that fast where it is not permitted, and you do get caught, you may discover that the consequences are so extreme you wish you hadn’t have taken the chance.

When it comes to installing software on your smartphone, take a good look at what you may be risking. Do you do online banking or shopping with your smartphone? Do you have business contacts? Contact for friends? How about access to an email account with private emails? All of the information may be compromised if the wrong app is installed. After you identify what assets you have and their value, then consider the app you are installing. What is the benefit it poses to you? Is it worth potentially risking your information for a funny picture or a game you might play a couple of times a year and can probably play online, rather than installing it on your smartphone?

It’s an interesting read — and should remind everyone using an app-capable mobile device that it is a powerful computer, and with that comes a certain degree of risk. While the major smartphone software platforms have a higher level of technical separation between apps running on the same device than you typically get with a desktop PC, we should still be thinking about what apps are sharing ‘the floor’ with others, especially those which deal with more sensitive information, like mobile banking.