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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.

Whiskers

One of the reasons I do love the camera on my iPhone. It truly is remarkable the enormous power we carry in our pockets!

Happy Leap Day from this random cat!

Close-up of whiskers and nose of domestic cat

Photo by Peter Upfold, available under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License, if you’d like to use it. My view in this case is that including the photo in a larger publication should not invoke the “Share Alike” clause, but modifications to the photo itself should.

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.

Merry Chris-TLS-mas

Just a quick note to wish you, dear reader, a very Happy New Year. As I enter my 11th year of blogging, I hope I will be able to make a little bit more time in 2016 for more regular posts!

Also, I’m pleased to note that thanks to the wonderful folks at the Let’s Encrypt project, the whole of my site is now served over HTTPS. Given my more recent security focus, that was something that was long overdue. I’m very grateful to the Let’s Encrypt project sponsors, as the project offers a solution that provides equal, if not better, verification that traditional Domain Validation TLS certificates, at the cost of precisely zero.

Here’s to 2016!

SaveTimer

About a month ago (whoops!), I released another open source project into the wild, SaveTimer.

This was one of those “wouldn’t that be a cool idea” moments that spontaneously resulted in a modest little project. The whole thing was conceived, built and published in the space of a few hours!

Save Timer

SaveTimer screenshot

Notify a user if they have not saved in a ‘watch directory’ for a certain interval.

Basic Description

This is a very simple application, written in C#/.NET 4.5.2, which observes a specified ‘watch directory’ on a given interval. The most recent file in the watch directory is examined to determine its last modified time. If this is older than the specified interval time, the user is shown a message reminding them to save their work. The user can suppress the messages for an indefinite period of time by right-clicking the icon in the ‘clock box’/system tray and choosing ‘Stop reminding me’.

This was written to support academic examination access arrangements, where users are intentionally only given access to a cut-down word processor such as WordPad, without spellcheck support. Unfortunately, WordPad does not autosave, so this application provides a regular reminder for the user to save. In this usage, the user is given a blank mapped drive to save in. In addition to the regular save reminders, the application also ensures that the user has saved in the correct directory to avoid data loss and ensure compliance with controlled conditions of where they must save.

SaveTimer logo

SaveTimer logo (the Dashicons clock, licensed under GPLv2 or later with font exception)

At the risk of sounding immodest, one of the most enjoyable things about this project was jumping right back into the C#/.NET environnment, with which I have spent less time recently, and discovering that I still had all of the intuition of how to build the functionality I desired. Perhaps this is testament more to Visual Studio’s IntelliSense suggestions and the simplicity of the application, rather than my memory, but it nevertheless was a rewarding feeling to quickly go from zero to an app that does a specific task quite well!

I’m also pleased to say it ran in… shall we say, production… without causing any issues. If it saves one piece of work, I think it will be worth it!

SaveTimer is released under the GNU GPLv3 or later. The code is available on GitHub and you can also download a ready-to-run executable, if you have .NET 4.5.2 installed. No installer required!

One Decade

I made my first blog post on this day ten whole years ago.

Back then it was all pre-self-hosting, and the blog (sans the rest of the website) lived over at Blogger. Beyond just the technology, I think my blogging style and the content that I have focused on has evolved quite a lot since my first few posts as well!

The years brought a migration to WordPress, upon which the blog still runs, and four major design revisions too.

pwdb_decade_pwdb2  pwdb_decade_2009  The new site design screenshot  PWDB 5.0 Mobile display

Here’s to the next ten years!

Apple Event Brain Dump

Some very raw and unfiltered thoughts on today’s Apple announcement:

I thought after all this time there’d be more content deals for the new Apple TV — the “apps” focus suggests that they are having to concede their former approach entirely and acknowledge that they won’t funnel much TV content through iTMS at all.

Harry Potter photos!

4K video capture on a phone is pretty amazing.

The MLB Apple TV app demo with watching two games at once must have been a Back to the Future II reference for 2015 — “give me channels 5, 9…”. Right? Right?

I’m interested to see (hopefully non-fanboy/girlish) thoughts on how the iPad Pro will compare with the Surface range. It’s interesting to me actually that if MS get the touchy style apps done well (they have to do a better job than with Win8!), the Surfaces also having the flexibility to run classic Windows apps too might make them more competitive in that “pro tablet” area.

I want to go play with 3D Touch when I can! If they’ve done it well, it could be quite cool.

I’m no artist in drawing terms, but the Pencil looked pretty amazing. I was deriding it at first as a silly stylus. I was wrong.

So. Much. Stuff!

Cautious Unattended Upgrades

I’m very excited to have put the ideas mentioned in my previous blog post about Cautious Unattended Upgrades into practice!

To quickly recap, the idea is that, on a Debian-based test system (‘the canary’), this is a software package that runs the latest security updates, runs an automated browser-based test suite to make sure these new updates have not broken any critical functionality on our clients’ sites, then ‘pushes’ just these package updates to the production servers.

In keeping with my original plan, the software is written in Ruby and uses Watir/Selenium WebDriver to run a suite of tests that verify, just as a human being would in a live web browser, that client websites work correctly.

A canary — as in ‘the canary in the coal mine’

Cautious Unattended Upgrades — the canary in the coal mine. Image by stevep2008 on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

I was expecting the biggest challenge would be getting this browser automation side of things working, but actually that proved very easy, which is a testament to the design of those projects.

The software is still a little rough around the edges, as I explain in the README file on GitHub, but I’m very pleased with the project’s progress. We have put it into use on our live systems at Van Patten Media, so we can keep servers promptly up-to-date with security patches without our intervention, but retain a greater peace of mind that our clients’ sites are still working as they should post-upgrade. (This is of course dependent on the quality and breadth of the tests that we write!)

I am particularly excited that this marks the first ‘real’ project in Ruby that I have written. Ruby isn’t a platform I have worked with too extensively before, so I have enjoyed challenging myself to be exposed to a different environment and quickly pick up how to achieve what I want to do. There is definitely more work to do — it really should be organised in a slightly more ‘Ruby-like’ way, and perhaps become a proper Ruby Gem, listed on rubygems.org, so those are things I will be looking at over the longer term for this project.

If you are interested in using Cautious Unattended Upgrades, or contributing to making it better, the project is licensed under a BSD-style licence and the code is available on its GitHub project page.

Automating Security Updates… Cautiously

Broken padlock

Effraction by Sébastien Launay on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

My attention has turned recently to how to automate the installation of security updates on various Linux distributions.

As Van Patten Media runs more servers, the effort and time needed to apply critical security updates promptly grows. Waiting several days to get security fixes just isn’t acceptable in a post-Shellshock era, yet there is always a risk of a completely automated update breaking important functionality.

One of the projects I will be investigating over these few weeks is how we might build an automated test environment that could apply the updates quickly to a test VM, run a test suite to verify none of our critical client functionality breaks, then push those updates to the live servers.

There are various solutions for truly automatic updates; I focus on Debian’s unattended-upgrades package here. What seems to be more difficult, however, is being able to push that list of ‘approved’ packages and just install those when we are ready.

My current train of thought on how to proceed on this is as follows:

  • Test box installs the day’s upgrades
  • Runs the test suite automatically
  • If the test suite passes, it determines which packages were most recently installed
  • Pushes that/those package names to the unattended-upgrades whitelist on the clients
  • Clients, on next unattended-upgrades run, will install those upgrades
  • Upon successful upgrade, we reset the whitelist

I am in the very early stages of looking at this, so that is a very rough sketch of where my thoughts are currently. There are missing pieces, but I was looking at Watir for the browser test suite component.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has looked at this before, or if anyone knows of any interesting similar projects I haven’t found!

Adventures in SELinux

Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) is a pretty powerful technology that adds another layer of access control to a Linux system. It helps significantly limit the ability for an attacker who has partly compromised a system to use their access to jump deeper into the system.

It has been standard in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and its derivatives for quite some time, and is often the cause of many a headache when something doesn’t work because it is being (apparently) silently blocked by SELinux’s security enhancements!

Its potential to cause breakage, especially when third-party bits and pieces are brought into the mix, means the advice from well-meaning individuals is often a cry of “just turn off SELinux!”, rendering a system without that extra layer of protection.

I will not pretend that my recent dealings with SELinux in CentOS 7 have been free of frustration, but a few simple tools have made it a surprisingly simple affair to get something up and running again if a particular behaviour (always of something a bit third-party in my experience!) is being erroneously blocked.

I think a big part of what makes SELinux get switched off in frustration is the perception that it is breaking things silently, and the psychological impact of its verbose ‘scariness’ when you do find those logs!

audit2why

As long as you remember that SELinux can be the cause of potential unexplained weirdness, your first port of call can be audit2why:

audit2why -a

What is particularly nice about this tool is how quickly you get (semi-)human readable output, detailing which rules an application is breaking. If you do hit one of these ‘weird problems’, a quick trip to this tool usually makes it clear that SELinux is the cause of the failure!

audit2allow

I was surprised by how relatively quick it was to identify an issue with audit2why and make a custom module with audit2allow to get an application working again.

There are a good set of instructions in the Red Hat manual.

It sounds like a big deal, but the tools have made it almost completely automated — it really isn’t necessary to have a deep understanding of SELinux’s internal workings.

setsebool

Finally, there are some flags that are disabled by default for SELinux protected applications that you might need. Again, audit2why will often make it clear what you need to toggle using this tool!

For example, a web server process that does legitimately send out emails might need the appropriate flag switched on. Without it, the web server doesn’t get the right to talk to sendmail.

Give SELinux Another Chance!

I suppose my point in this rambling is this: give SELinux a chance if you have given up on it in the past. If you have the time to set up your system properly (and you should!), taking a little extra to figure out how to grant only the permissions really needed does make a material difference to your security should one application be compromised. An attacker being able to get their foot in the door needs to be assumed to be possible, so making their life a lot harder at that point is worth making your life slightly harder on the odd occasion.

With a little patience and the use of the tools I have talked about, I think it is a lot easier to work with than it might seem at first glance, or when it first arrived in RHEL many moons ago!