A dose of security

It was recently announced that Electronic Health Records (EHR) are in use in all military hospitals. Granted the article is mostly marketing screed for one company, but it still represents a big step. Outside of the Department of Defense (DoD), this probably doesn’t seem like a very big deal. Inside the DoD, it’s HUGE. This is the culmination of years of work and millions, possibly billions, of dollars spent. It’s an important step in improving the health care for Wounded Warriors.

It also sets the stage for wider adoption of EHR in the private sector. But there are reasons to be concerned about this, of course. There are few, if any, pieces of information more intrinsically private and personal than one’s medical records. And while making these records available in an electronic format offers great advantage in medical care, it opens up great risk of compromise.

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Posted June 20 2011

More Data Loss, Eh?

Comptroller Susan Combs offered another apology Thursday for the information breach in her agency, saying she now is offering a year of free credit monitoring to the 3.5 million people at risk of identity theft after their data was exposed on a public computer server…She announced in a written statement April 11 that the Social Security numbers and other personal information of 3.5 million people were left exposed for a year or more in a publicly accessible computer server at her agency.

Dallas News

According to this article in the Dallas Morning News, 3.5 million identities were left free for the taking on a public server for at least a year. That is a colossal security lapse. However, it is a fairly responsible remediation that credit monitoring is being made available for the affected users. (Contrast this with Sony’s recent Playstation Network breach; Sony won’t even confirm whether or not credit card information was accessed in their attack.) Still, had literally any effort been put into keeping that information secured, the state of Texas wouldn’t have to spend an estimated $21 million for the credit monitoring services.

The security arena is one in which the maxim “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds especially true. How much would it have cost to audit that server deployment? A few thousand dollars? Tens of thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Any answer less than “21 million dollars” means that this should never have happened.

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Posted April 29 2011

Identity Theft Without Even Trying

Last week, we received a fax at the office from a branch of Virginia Commerce Bank. It was addressed to “Katie” and had our fax number clearly written on the cover sheet. The cover sheet had this interesting quote:

This facsimile, which may contain confidential or legally privileged information, is intended for the use of the individual to whom it is addressed only. If you are not the intended recipient (or authorized delegate for the recipient) of this message, please telephone the number listed above to advise us, so that we can arrange for its proper destruction and resend it to the correct recipient. Thank you.

It probably goes without saying that there isn’t a “Katie” working here at Gemini (yet). So of course we called the number to let them know we had received this fax in error. It took my office manager over 30 minutes on the phone to get through to the appropriate person to ensure that it was understood that the information went to the wrong fax number. We followed their instructions explicitly, but nobody at the bank seemed to know what to do. Ultimately it wasted our time.

What was in the fax? The materials attached were an absolute treasure trove of information. Names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, social security numbers, drivers license numbers… and that was just on the first page. A copy of two driver’s licenses. A copy of two credit cards. A letter of incorporation, a federal EIN, and copies of two credit reports.

This is more than enough information to steal the identity of two individuals and one business. And the terrifying part of it is that nobody would have been the wiser if we didn’t take the time to phone the bank to let them know we had received the information in error.

Which brings up an interesting question. Should we have called the bank? Sure, I feel bad for the individuals and the business who are having their most private information sent via fax. Their information couldn’t be in better hands though – we know better than to do anything with this information, and we securely shredded it. On the other hand, because we called them the bank now has a record that they accidentally sent us this information. If these individuals suffer identity theft, wouldn’t they immediately consider us a suspect?

In these days of heightened concern about identity theft, why are banks still using insecure transport mechanisms such as faxes without even bothering to call the recipients to ensure successful delivery?

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Posted February 9 2011

Well, This Should Be Fun

You know those Facebook applications that occasionally pop up on your news feed, promising to add a “dislike” button, let you view who’s been looking at your profile, or implement some other feature that Facebook won’t ever support?  A lot of these applications are not much more than thinly disguised malware designed to harvest personal information or trick the user into participating in a click fraud scam.

Well, it looks like we’re in for a lot more of them, thanks to a new, cheap toolkit that allows users with little to no programming knowledge or experience create these malicious applications.  For the low price of $25, this application will guide you through the process of creating your own nefarious Facebook applications with promises of enormous return on investment by tricking your friends into filling out surveys for various third parties.

So remember, folks – be careful when you allow applications access to your Facebook profile – not all of them are safe, and not all of them deliver on their promises.  Personally, I haven’t installed any apps on Facebook, and I probably never will.


On an unrelated note, don’t forget – today is patch Tuesday!  Keep your Windows machines secure(ish) by applying those patches as soon as you can.  (Details: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/Bulletin/MS11-feb.mspx)

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Posted February 8 2011

Didn’t get that email? Did someone else?

I just got a rather interesting email in my inbox. It’s from a travel document service. The email was about an order I had just made regarding a lost passport. Which is a bit of a trick, seeing as I’ve never done business with this company, I know exactly where my passport is, and I am not traveling internationally in the immediate future. So, at first I thought it was spam; I get emails like that all the time for services I didn’t request. Usually the spam filter catches them, but one or two do get through.

But, you know, I’d never seen this one before. I had to read it to see what the scam was. And that made it far more interesting. There’s no scam. The company is perfectly legitimate, and they’re not trying to sell me anything. It’s a real order confirmation for a real order. Benjamin Hartley really did make this request.

Just, you know, not me. My name isn’t common, but there’s at least one other person with that name. And he’s not at all careful about email addresses. I’ve had email from him in the past – or, rather, from organizations to whom he’s given my email address. I feel as if I know him. I know where he went to school; I know who he works for. I know who he donates money to. I think I even saw his birthday in one of the emails. And now I know he lost his passport. I know when he’s leaving the country. Oh, and I have all the confirmation information to get his replacement passport sent wherever I please, so if I really wanted I could have, well, quite a bit more.

I’m not going to do this of course. But I obviously could. This is potentially very damaging information. And it was just emailed to me. Not even signed or encrypted – just emailed. I’ve not been stalking this guy; I’d be happier to not be receiving this information, but it keeps coming. And, ironically, the one piece of personal information I don’t have about him is his contact information. Actually, that’s not true. I called the company, and – even though I was entirely clear to them that I was not the person who made the order – they still gave me his phone number, which is a whole different security failure.

This is really rather disturbing for two reasons. First off, my nominative doppelganger needs to be far more careful with his information. I don’t know why he doesn’t worry that he never receives the emails he’s expecting; maybe he forgets about them, or checks his email so infrequently that it doesn’t matter. But he’s not getting information which he clearly should be receiving, including some potentially compromising information. Second, the travel document service needs to be far, far more careful. They should have asked me to confirm my identity before discussing the order – at minimum a birthday, but a passport number or social security number would have been better. Of course, given that I told them beforehand that I was not the person who made the order, confirmation is the least of the problems there.

In technology, we’re generally good about confirming the destination for data. Our medium may not be secure, but the technology usually knows if it has connected to the right destination. But that’s because computers do it for us. Out here in meatspace, we’re not so careful. Like this other Benjamin, we generally just assume that our data will go to the right place – or if we don’t get it, then it’s not a problem, it just got lost. And like the travel document service, we simply assume that anyone asking about specifics must be allowed to know about them, and we don’t confirm. And that’s really all that needs to be done here – get a little confirmation that data is going to the right source before sending sensitive information. If that had been the case here, I wouldn’t have been handed this man’s personal information this way. As it is, though, it makes you wonder what other information might have gone astray. The other Benjamin is lucky; his personal information went to someone without ill intent. Others may not be so fortunate.

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Posted December 27 2010

Encryption and the Law

For a while, it looked like the crypto wars had been won. Strong encryption was available, and governments were even encouraging the development of better encryption standards like AES and 3DES. Implementation is – and will likely always remain – an issue. But it was there, it was possible, and there weren’t any legal barriers to using it. And it couldn’t have happened sooner: more and more business processes are moving online, from nigh-ubiquitous email, to rolling out VoIP to save on telephony costs, to increasing outsourcing to the cloud.

The victory in the crypto wars didn’t last long. Today, there are a slew of laws in place in various countries controlling the use of strong encryption. Some, like the UK’s “Regulation of Investigatory Powers” Act allows encryption but allows law enforcement to require that information be decrypted. Others, like France, require the use of trusted third parties in case law enforcement desires the keys. Still others, like the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in the US require other forms of encryption backdoors be in place. In a few places, certain forms of encryption are simply illegal.

There’s good news here, after a fashion. If ever we needed independent confirmation that the current level of cryptographic technology is pretty good, here it is. Governments, in the form of law enforcement, espionage, and military are all concluding that it’s not practical to break existing encryption. (Of course, this doesn’t mean they can’t, just that they either don’t think they can do so fast enough, or that it’s too costly). Still, this is a good sign for the quality of the encryption.

The bad news, however, is that complying with the law may make your data insecure. Notwithstanding how you feel about a given government reading your files and intercepting your communication, it’s a given that if a backdoor exists for one party, it exists for anyone sufficiently motivated to find it. So what are your options?

Well, pretty much the typical ones. First of all, learn the relevant laws about cryptography wherever you’re doing business. This is actually pretty hard, as there doesn’t seem to be any authoritative list, even just for the US, and it’s pretty hard to figure out who would even know. But once you do, it’s time for some hard decisions. You may decide that you can be sufficiently secure within the limits imposed on you. You may choose to keep truly sensitive information off the network, maybe keep something in-house that you’d rather outsource. In some cases, you might even decide you can’t do business, though that’s a pretty extreme measure.

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Posted December 9 2010