Category: Opinion



I wrote yesterday about the control systems implemented in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and the fact that, since the issue was reported in 2008, not much information on the way these systems interoperate, if at all. There have been references to “firewalling” the two networks from each other and this got my thinking after I posted:

  • Modern aircraft often have 30-year, or more, lifespans
  • Some element of the safety-case given to the FAA must rest on the fact that there are no inputs into the passenger entertainment system, i.e. there aren’t any network ports in the cabin
  • Some airlines are moving to implement WiFi on aircraft, like Delta and Lufthansa.
  • Over the 30-year lifespan of an aircraft, the cabin will be upgraded, entertainment system changed and services added

Thirty years is a long time to rely on an IT system. There aren’t many operational systems now running that were implemented in 1981. Those that are still running are seen to be very vulnerable to attack and treated very carefully. This is because the types of attacks have evolved massively in this time, with systems implemented just months ago vulnerable to attack.

My question is: how will these security systems be maintained? What if a vulnerability is found in the firewall(s) itself? How will the safety case change if the parameters of the entertainment system change? Does the FAA have any recommendations of the logical segregation of traffic if data from, for instance, WiFi hotspots, or GSM/3G pico-cells implemented in cabins needs to run over the same cabling infrastructure?

Again, maybe I have the wrong end of the stick, but I am concerned that, seemingly, no-one’s really looking into the implications of this and, given my own experience, unless these systems are implemented by people with a very deep understanding of process control security, it may not have been thought about.

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Boeing 787


Way back in 2008 there were a number of stories floating around that the new Boeing 787, the first production airframe of which was delivered this week, had a serious security weakness. It turns out that Boeing, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to not segregate the flight control systems from the seat-back entertainment systems and would, instead, firewall them from each other.

I’ve been searching online but can’t find any up-to-date information whether this architecture was changed. Some good articles on this came from Wired and Bruce Schneier’s blog. Wikipedia’s 787 entry includes the following:

The airplane’s control, navigation, and communication systems are networked with the passenger cabin’s in-flight internet systems.In January 2008, Boeing responded to reports about FAA concerns regarding the protection of the 787’s computer networks from possible intentional or unintentional passenger access by stating that various hardware and software solutions are employed to protect the airplane systems. These included air gaps for the physical separation of the networks, and firewalls for their software separation. These measures prevent data transfer from the passenger internet system to the maintenance or navigation systems.

The reference to firewalls and air gaps leads me to suspect that these systems are not fully segregated. If this is the case, I really hope that they’ve had some seriously good information security advice.Process control systems, and this is a process control system of sorts, aren’t always as well implemented as they could be. Where there is a safety-critical element, air gaps or data diodes are the only ways to go.

Designing out the vulnerabilities has to be better than retrofitting security afterwards.

I’d welcome comments from anyone, especially those who know more about the actual implementation.

Update: I’ve added another post about this here.

Private Emails


Michael Gove is reported to have been using his private email account and won’t reply to emails sent to his official address. There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea. Here is my (almost certainly incomplete) list just in case the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove happens to pass by:

  1. It’s not based in the UK. In fact, Google pride themselves in not telling you were the data is held (just try finding out);
  2. Google is a US-headquartered company. As per Microsoft’s announcement, the US PATRIOT Act seemingly trumps EU and UK data protection law, even if the data was in the EU;
  3. You can’t encrypt the emails at rest;
  4. There’s no guarantee that the data will be there tomorrow, as this example from Yahoo amply demonstrates;
  5. While Gmail allows you to turn on HTTPS and a form of two-factor authentication, these are optional and probably turned off;
  6. The foreign governments are alleged to have already hacked into Gmail;
  7. On occasion, email accounts have been mixed up, where one person reads someone else’s mail;
  8. These emails may not be retrievable under the Freedom of Information Act.

You only risk what you don’t value. If Mr. Gove believes the emails he receives and send to be of such low importance to put them at this sort of risk, is he the best person to be a cabinet minister?

New Airport Security Scanners


The security systems at airports are an interesting example of security “theatre”, where much of what goes on is about re-assurance rather than being particularly effective. I’ve blogged before about this and had some interesting responses, especially around the intrusiveness of current processes versus their effectiveness and where vulnerabilities lie. For obvious reasons, I won’t go in to this.

However, the TSA in the United States is rolling out a new version of their full-body scanner, apparently in response to the criticism that the old-versions were a step too far: the TSA initially denied, for example, that pictures of people’s naked bodies could be stored until several incidents emerged of security staff doing exactly that. Apparently this will be available as a software upgrade. The question is, will the UK do the same?

The new scanner overlays identified potential threats from scans over a generic diagram representing the human form and so masking who the subject is. This has to be a good thing, but like I said in my earlier post, a reliance on technology rather than using intelligence-led investigations will always lead to vulnerabilities while inconveniencing that majority of people.

I’d rather the people who would do me harm never made it to the airport.


So far, this year, hundreds of millions of users of online services have had their accounts compromised or sites taken down. From Sony, Nintendo, the US Senate, SOCA, Gmail to the CIA, the FBI and the US version of X-Factor. Self-inflicted breaches have occurred at Google, DropBox and Facebook. Hackers have formed semi-organised super-groups, such as LulzSec and Anonymous. Are we at the point where information security professionals are starting to say, “I told you so”?

The telling thing about nearly all of these breaches is simple it would have been to limit the impact: passwords have been stored in the clear, known vulnerabilities not patched, corporate secrecy getting in the way of a good PR message and variable controls on sites of the same brand.

The media’s response is often “hire the hackers!”, an idea that is fundamentally flawed. Would you hire a bank robber to develop the security for a bank? No. The fact is that there are tens of thousands of information security professionals, many of whom are working in the organisations recently attacked, who know very well what needs to be done to fix many of the problems being exploited.

Many corporations have decided to prioritise functionality over security to the extent where even basic security fundamentals get lost. There needs to be a re-assessment of every organisation’s priorities as LulzSec and Anonymous will soon realise that there are juicy and easier pickings away from the large corporates and Government sites, who have had the foresight to invest in information security controls.

This may sadly be just the beginning.


While I am not a lawyer and others have said this before, notably Rob Carolina in his talk “The Cyberspace Frontier has Closed“, I thought it worth reviewing some recent developments that demonstrate the fact that the Internet is not lawless and behaviour online may well result in liabilities “in the real world”.

There still seems to be this perception that laws don’t apply to online activity. Take Joanne Fraill, the juror who was jailed for eight months for contempt of court by contacting one of the defendants in the trial she was on. She had received clear guidance from the Judge on the case, as had all of the other jurors, not to research the case online and definitely not to contact anyone related to the trial. I had exactly the same advice when I was a juror at the Old Bailey a couple of years ago.

And, yet, she still did it, no doubt believing that:

  1. It wasn’t so bad, and;
  2. She wouldn’t get caught anyway.

She was wrong. The trial collapsed.

This sort of thinking is rife online, which is exacerbated by the fact that any search will bring back results that confirm every point of view on every subject, thus not really being much help.

Other areas on the Internet that people should consider in terms of consequences, include:

  • Copyright infringements
  • Data protection issues
  • Harassment
  • Money laundering
  • Tax evasion
  • Libel

Some of these apply to corporate organisations in a different way to individuals. For example, a data protection breach has the potential to seriously damage an organisations reputation. Libel may get you a hefty fine.

Just because people have a romantic notion of the Internet where normal laws don’t apply, doesn’t make it reality.

Wiping Hard Disks


I want to a presentation by Robert Thibadeau on Thursday last week, who was talking at an ISSA UK Chapter meeting, relating to Advanced Persistent Threats (APT), specifically where an attacker is able to modify some part of the pre-boot code, prior to an Operating System being loaded. The thrust of the discussion was about encrypted hard drives being a part of the armoury against these types of attacks, along with Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs).

As we all know, the standard practise of secure erasure for hard disks is to overwrite every sector seven times.

And then there was this nugget of information that I found highly interesting: this won’t work on Solid State Drives (SSDs). The architecture of these drives is determined by the underlying memory technology. Each “sector” on an SSD can only be written to about 1,000 times. In order to deliver a decent lifespan on the more expensive drives, therefore, the drive actually contains significantly more storage than stated on the packaging, with all data going through a load-balancer, to distribute the “writes” across the drive.

This means that it is very difficult to use a process involving overwriting data as each sector may actually be in a completely different place each time you try to overwrite it.

Robert’s proposed solution to this is to encrypt all data on SSDs, regardless of whether they’re in mobile devices or not. This way, the data can be rendered unreadable simply by erasing the encryption key.

It’s worth considering and factoring in to asset disposal processes.


News reaches us of the latest, unannounced Facebook feature: facial recognition. What this implies is that Facebook will trawl through all the photos on the site, automatically “tagging” you in pictures that the system think you’re in.

Great time saver, you might think, but there are several things to think about:

  1. It was enabled, quietly, without user consent and requires users to actively disable the feature
  2. No technology of this sort is 100% accurate, so if you don’t disable it, you may find yourself tagged in embarrassing pictures that aren’t of you
  3. This is an indication of the power of data mining. What’s to stop Facebook mining Google or Bing, looking for pictures on other sites?

With thanks to the Sophos blog on this topic, here’s how you disable it:

Go to Account -> Privacy Settings -> Customise Settings (near the bottom) and go to the “Things others share” section.

Then go down to “Suggest photos of me to friends” and click the edit button.

 

Then select “Disable”.

If Facebook want to be seen to be taking privacy seriously, they should start by adopting a policy of opt-in for new features.

Sony’s Woes


Sony continue to get attacked. Over, and over again. In different countries with different impacts. Searching Google News for “sony hack” comes up with 1880+ articles (6th of June 2011).

It seems to me that Sony don’t have an effective, consistent strategy for dealing with the security of their global online presence. These attacks have gone beyond what the attackers can achieve in terms of compromising systems and are now almost simply providing Sony’s brand and reputation a beating. Even if a script-kiddie were to deface a small-scale, country specific website, the mere fact that it happens to be a Sony site guarantees headlines.

As I have said in previous posts, the biggest change the Internet brings is that distance is no longer a factor when dealing with crime: a hack can look like it’s coming from the other side of the world when, in fact, it’s actually being performed in a coffee shop down the road.

Companies facing these types of issues really have to do some serious work in limiting the impact of future attacks. The first issue is identifying all of the targets, however tenuous a link they may have with the parent brand, and prioritise them in terms of their connectivity to back-end systems or sensitive data. Classify them and review existing controls then implement consistent controls making best use of limited security resources.

I’ve heard senior executives at various organisations state that they don’t see the point of implementing good security because they don’t believe they are a target. It’s impossible to say what motivates every hack, but it’s definitely true to say that it costs organisations less in the long run if they do things properly from the start rather than trying to bolt on security processes after a major incident.

Just look at Sony.


Human beings are natural risk assessors. Every decision we take, from when to cross the road, to what food to eat is, at least in part, based on an innate risk assessment.

People are able to do this because in the real world it is possible to see, or imagine, the consequences of an action going wrong. So, when crossing the road, people tend not to walk out in front of a moving car.

Children are the exception; they often undertake risky activities because they don’t have the experience to be able to judge whether what they’re doing is dangerous.

When using a computer, connected to the Internet, it is very difficult to judge the threat level or understand the risk because there is such a lack of information available to help inform.

Companies have spent years trying to work out the level of warning before “click-fatigue” takes over. I remember using an early iteration of ZoneAlarm’s firewall, where every minute, a pop-up would appear asking to authorise a particular app, or to tell me I was being port-scanned. While I knew the difference between allowing inbound NetBIOS and outbound POP3 access, the vast majority of people don’t. Nor do they know the significance of being port-scanned, having their anti-virus block a Trojan horse or what issues they face on an unsecured wireless network.

There needs to be a recognition that there’s a difference between technical risks that can result in the compromise of the person’s computer and associated data, and activities that lead to identity theft.

I’d like to see a simple “threat-o-meter” on computers that takes information from the various systems in place on most people’s computers, like the firewall, anti-virus software and the type of network connected to, and displays a simple coloured chart to indicate how worried the user should be.

It could be extended to take information from vulnerability scanning tools, like Secunia, or rate the severity of seeing a particular piece of malware. Add this to some basic information on the configuration of the machine, like password length, firewall configuration or whether auto-updates are enabled and it could provide really useful feedback to the user on how to reduce risk.

All of this information is about the context of the device. Most users don’t want to be information security professionals.

Comments welcome.

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