Is Digital Privacy a Privilege Of The Wealthy?

It’s a chilly spring morning in 1987, and things aren’t going so well for you. The threats and stalking weren’t your fault, but you’re genuinely afraid for your safety and the police couldn’t help much. After thinking long and hard, you’ve decided your best option is to disappear and start over. You pack your family’s belongings into your Fiero, empty your bank accounts (a couple grand in cash), close out your accounts without forwarding, and hit the road. You’re sick to your stomach scared to leave, but you’re also relatively confident – you can find cash work and lodging pretty much anywhere, (under an assumed name with counterfeit papers, if necessary). Go far enough and keep your head down, and it’s not likely he’ll find you again without a good PI or a string of bad luck.

★ ★ ★

It’s 30 years later, and the business of fleeing an abuser has changed dramatically. Many elements of our world are still familiar, but the nature of personal privacy has changed dramatically. The internet, mobile phones, and social media brought the world closer, often in incredible and inspiring ways, but also in ways that fundamentally harm our ability to keep any element of our daily activity private or secure. The field of network security has grown from an afterthought to a standard college degree program and a major element of global military forces. News coverage shows us terrifying ways our personal data and digital devices can be abused, constantly bombarding us with reminders to restrict access to our data and internet presence.

Yet, the “common sense” security and privacy advice we offer frequently carries costs. Security experts can tweet about an Android version being obsolete and horrifically vulnerable to snooping a thousand times, but billions of people in the world simply can’t go out and buy a good quality new phone. There are wonderful commercial identity monitoring and digital privacy services available, for a yearly fee that might cut into many people’s medication budget. Even finding quality security education has tangible and intangible costs.

Whenever I tackle an extremely complex and contentious security topic, I endeavor to offer a variety of differing expert views to readers. Through a series of eight scenarios, I’ve invited seven security and digital privacy professionals to join me weighing in on the fundamental question of how much of a privilege digital privacy, and the abilities to “restrict” or  “remove” our digital footprint, really are. The discussion is generally North America-centric  – international privacy laws vary greatly. However, many of our privacy and personal security solutions are not specific to any country. Our general conclusion is that while convenience and absolute anonymity can be a privilege that comes with resources, there are many effective low-cost ways to drastically improve personal digital privacy.

My colleagues, who generously contributed their time and knowledge to this article without compensation or sponsorship, are as follows:

  • Viss / Dan Tentler – Founder of Phobos Group. Dark Wizard. Breaker of things. Essentially a static analog for “targeted, skilled espionage for hire”.
  • Munin / Eric Rand – Blue team consultant; amateur blacksmith; consistently paranoid
  • Krypt3ia – Old Crow, DFIR, Threat Intel, Targeter: krypt3ia.com @krypt3ia
  • Lloyd Miller – Managing Director at Delve, a competitive intelligence, research, and policy consulting firm
  • plum / Chris Plummer – Former IBM, DoD, now staff at exeter.edu. Oxford commas at 603security.com, chasing120.com, and @chrisplummer.
  • CiPHPerCoder / Scott Arciszewski – CDO at Paragon Initiative Enterprises, writes and breaks cryptography code. https://paragonie.com/blog/author/scott-arciszewski – @CiPHPerCoder on Twitter
  • evacide / Eva Galperin – Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

 


Question 1: Mobile Device Privacy

Smartphones are woefully vulnerable to compromise and surveillance by numerous sources, from advertisers, to criminals, to suspicious spouses, to nation state adversaries. As our “second brain”, they contain massive amounts of our sensitive information, such as where we’ve been, our contacts, and our account logins. The common security boffin recommendation is to always own an up to date phone (often specifically an iPhone), replacing it whenever it becomes obsolete. Good quality phones aren’t cheap, but smartphones are frequently a necessary part of modern life. What are your privacy and security suggestions to somebody who can’t afford a new iPhone every few years, but needs a smartphone for work or school?

Munin – Limit your threat surface. Only install those apps that are essential for what you need, and avoid random web browsing on it. Don’t open attachments on it – set your email client to text only. Apply updates if they’re available for your platform. Don’t root or jailbreak it – yes, it lets you do a bunch of cool things, but it also opens up significant maintenance problems.

Lesley – Even if you can’t afford a new phone, please routinely check the version of Android or iOS you’re using. Once the phone is out of date and no longer receiving updates, reset it to factory and treat it as cautiously as you would a public computer. No matter the age of your phone, avoid installing any apps with too many permissions, including access to your microphone, GPS, camera, contacts, or phone identification. Keep location services turned off.

On another note, while the ubiquitous iPhone has pretty good security “out of the box”, there are also very good arguments for using an up-to-date Android phone from which the battery can be physically removed, if privacy is a big concern. There are few things more reliable than physically breaking a circuit.

Viss – There are carrier free phones that you can buy that cost half of what carrier phones do. A OnePlus2 will cost you around $300, and they get software updates several times a year. You can also get a Google Nexus or Google Pixel. All of these non-carrier phones get software updates way way more often than any phone that a carrier will try to sell you. That alone is a pretty huge improvement, even before taking personal measures to secure a mobile device. Also, a OnePlus, Nexus or Pixel will likely last years, and remove the need to buy a new phone every 12 months.

Lloyd – I don’t think good security comes cheap with phones, but Munin gives the best advice – if nothing else, only do the bare minimum necessary to accomplish what you need to do, and cut out the rest.

plumIn theory, devices purely for work or school should not be all that demanding in terms of features, so they should be remotely affordable. The carrier market is white hot right now.  Chances are, there’s at least one in your region with a pretty compelling deal on a handset. This is difficult because for short money you’re into a new phone that you may not necessarily understand how to secure.  To that end, don’t go out on an island – buy something your friends and family are familiar with, so they can help you.  While many are averse to working with salespeople, you may find one that knows quite a bit about keeping your handset locked down. It’s worth the ask; there are really good people out there who know a lot more than simply how to sell you a phone.  You may not get it perfect, but it will be better than out-of-the-box.

Krypt3ia Phones, like much of the technology today we buy and use that could lead to compromise of significant amounts of our data are coming down in price in certain spaces while going up in others. So if you want to have a burn phone (and now you can get smart phones too cheaply) you can try to firewall yourself off by only doing certain things with a burner phone. I guess the thing is that generally here any phone at any time could be that device that leads to your data being open to attack.

It may also be of use to have a phone that has less functionality like a flip phone to carry out some tasks as the lesser the technology level the less the adversary has to work with as attack surfaces go. The reality however is no matter what you do you are subject to technologies that you do not have control over completely. As an example, I recently gave up a phone that I liked quite a bit because the provider did not update the operating system for security patches and had not done so in over a year. They just don’t really care, so I had to move on to a system that I could push the updates on. Still though, if you are relying on technology to protect you and YOU aren’t in control of every aspect of that, and are competent at it, it is a null sum game. Best I can advise you is to compartmentalize as much as you can. Use code words for things (i.e. appointments in calendars, names in phone books, etc) to obfuscate and make it that much harder for the adversary to get a toe hold.

CiPHPerCoderNon-carrier phones like One Plus are a good idea, as Viss said, but one important obstacle is how purchasing is structured. If you get a carrier phone, you probably aren’t dropping $800 right then and there; instead, they roll the cost of the device into your monthly payments. If you get a non-carrier phone, you have to purchase it yourself. I believe it’s worth it to find a way to overcome this obstacle (so that you won’t be left vulnerable when an Android vulnerability surfaces if your carrier is negligent) but this comes down to a cost-benefit decision.

A related concern for most people is data privacy. For example, using a secure, private messaging app like Signal or WhatsApp instead of an insecure choice (Telegram, unencrypted SMS) to communicate with your friends is a great move. Encrypting your phone with a passphrase (to be clear: not a PIN code, swipe pattern, or fingerprint; you want a passphrase) prevents anyone (for example, at the airport) from accessing your private data while it’s powered off. I recommend a longer passphrase (e.g. 20 lowercase letters, generated randomly) instead of mixing different character classes, to minimize frustration and typos.

evacide – (most of the useful technical advice has already been given, so I am going on a bit on a tangent here) Phones are one of the most clear-cut examples of money buying security, but when you’re making digital security/privacy decisions, always keep in mind the attacker in mind. Your most up-to-date iPhone will not help you if you’ve been coerced into giving your password to your abusive partner or that partner has installed an app (covertly or otherwise)  on your phone that allows them to spy on you. For these cases, it may be appropriate to covertly purchase a cheap second burner phone, which may not be as secure against hackers, but which may allow you to covertly communicate without alerting your abuser.

Question 2: You, on the Internet

Companies like FamilyTreeNow and Intelius collect data about every US citizen they can; even ones who don’t regularly use a computer. This data often includes addresses, phone numbers, social media profiles, criminal history, as well as family member names and birthdates. Obviously, this data can be very damaging when used inappropriately, and generates global privacy and security concerns far beyond simply being in a local phone book. Removing this data from hundreds of these companies is a huge undertaking, but commercial subscription services that do it reliably aren’t cheap. What’s the best option on a tight budget?

Viss https://www.abine.com/deleteme/landing.php – spend $129.

Munin – Do what you can to minimize the harm – that’s the name of the game here. If you can’t afford a good service, do what you can by yourself. It won’t be perfect, but reducing the threat surface to a minimum will help. Remember, you don’t always have to outrun the bear – you can last a lot longer if you can outrun the other campers.

Lloyd – I don’t believe takedown notices are an effective strategy in the whack-a-mole world of personal data aggregation. You can send them, but the sites can ignore them. Additionally, a lot of that information including birth, property, voter registration, and criminal/legal records are government-generated and legally protected public records. There are several very reputable services, including Intelius (get it?), you can pay to do help remove some of this information, but I would ensure they offer guarantees and other identity/credit protection services.

Lesley – Third party privacy services are out of many people’s’ price range, but certainly the most effective solution for everyday privacy concerns short of a new identity. Privacy is also a constant battle – you need to look at a subscription service more than a one-time removal. If you absolutely can’t afford one, you can opt-out of many services for free, but it’s a time consuming and convoluted process. As a last resort, at least remove your data from the top 20-25 services to try to delay and frustrate people trying to research you. Don’t make a harasser’s life easy.

plumTwo years ago I discovered a downloadable database of voter registration data that included DOB from eight US states, and it had already been online for several years and mirrored in Europe. For the individuals in these states, through no fault of their own, their identities are permanently at risk.  In truth we’re talking about mitigation, not prevention. Anyone’s best hope is an annual ID theft monitoring service. Some employers actually offer these free of charge.  Tight budget? You’re left to pull a free credit report once a year and hope you catch something. The system is pretty broken here.

Krypt3ia The ONLY way to avoid this is to not be you any more. So, you fake your own death after getting decent documentation with another name. Get credit set up for that person, a whole “new suit” as they say and then live that life and never talk to anyone from your past.

But oh wait… Now you have a new name and series of datapoints to worry about!

Best bet, go live off the grid in the woods or become homeless.

Another null sum game.

CiPHPerCoderI’ve got personal experience with the downside of these services. When I was a teenager, my mother’s hobby (which consumed most of her waking hours when not working) was genealogy research through websites like Ancestry.com. It’s kind of funny in that, as I taught myself more about computer security and online privacy, she was unwittingly working hard to ensure that I would never have privacy online. Many years ago (either 2009 or 2010), an Internet troll had used this publicly available data to send me harassing emails, demanding that I take my blog offline forever.

Despite that experience, I don’t have a solution here.

It’s obviously an extortion racket; using the threat of public exposure to get people to pay up. The alternative to reaching into your wallet is playing whack-a-mole with third parties that mirror your personal information. The first option provides this industry with the incentive and resources to continue harming people’s’ lives. The other maximizes the harm they cause your own life (by wasting time trying to achieve a modicum of the privacy you should, rightfully, already have).

However, like many other areas of security, layered defenses work wonders to fend off attackers. Making a new pseudonym and linking it to a false persona is challenging and requires a ton of discipline to be successful. Even if you can’t protect your personal information, you can prevent malicious parties from connecting your screen name to your real name without drowning in a moral quandary.

Question 3: Traveling Abroad with Digital Devices

Travel is often considered a privilege, but people from all backgrounds do travel internationally. There are firm warnings from security professionals about bringing mobile devices and computers into less friendly countries (especially ones that conduct extensive monitoring and seizure) as they may conduct forensics on them or insert surveillance hardware or software. This adds a layer of risk to somebody who is trying to remain unseen. The blanket advice is usually to bring a separate, disposable computer and phone if they’re required. Computers and phones aren’t cheap. What would you recommend to somebody who needs to travel overseas to a dubious location but doesn’t have a big budget?

Munin – If you’re travelling for business, see about having your company handle the purchase of separate, designated equipment. If you’re there for a conference or just visiting, see if any of your friends in that country [social media’s great for making friends in foreign parts] will be willing to let you borrow equipment while you’re there. Remember that any kind of electronics you bring across a border – especially these days – is probably going to get searched, so avoid the problem if possible. Also, take some time ahead of time to set up a benign social media profile – put some noncontroversial or patriotic looking activity on it, and lock down or suspend your real accounts before you travel. If you end up being forced, coerced, or pressured into giving up online activity, refer to that account as your only account. Part of being safe is looking like you’re not worth harassing – so keep the lowest profile possible.

Viss – Do you HAVE to travel with your phone? Or your laptop? Can you use a chromebook, and just buy a burner phone while you’re in another country? Do you feel that you’re in a position where customs here or there will try to get into your phone? Here’s a fun trick: Select a cloud backup provider (Spideroak, Box, Dropbox, ec2, whoever, doesn’t matter). Make a titanium backup or nandroid backup of your phone. Make sure to use the encryption option. Put your encrypted phone backup into cloud storage before you leave. Format your phone in the air on the plane. If anybody wants to look at your phone, they can see it – there’s nothing on it. Have fun. When you get to your destination, pull down your phone backup and restore it. You may want to remove all your downloads and stored media beforehand. If you take the time to either A) have a dedicated travel phone that you do this to, or B) just occasionally trim your phone storage down you can get this to under a gig.

Lesley Echoing Viss, consider very carefully if you really need the phone, or you just feel irrationally naked without it. Payphones may be rare, but they still exist in most transportation hubs, as do calling cards that work internationally (they are often sold in airports), and paper maps. If there is no way you can function without a phone, there are relatively cheap (<$40) options for unlocked disposable phones such as BLU’s, and SIM cards can usually be purchased a convenience stores when you arrive at your destination. Leave your sensitive personal data, including your fingerprints, off of any burner phone. Use it for travel essentials only. Stick to a “dumb phone” if you can.

Lloyd – For short term use, you can get used smartphones off Craigslist, get a prepaid SIM card, install just the contacts and apps you need for the trip, and then toss it on your way home. And, as everyone else has said, if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.

plum – I would never travel internationally with personal devices. Everyone has done well to discuss the risks, and from a practical perspective the logistics alone of getting a lost device returned to you from across a border – presuming a scenario that involves total honesty and goodwill – we’re talking long odds.

Krypt3ia – A USB stick with TAILS and an internet cafe or other access to a PC. Light footprint or you are in trouble. At this point you are dealing with nation states, and you will not win. INFIL and EXFIL into and out of countries is best done with very little on you. A mini USB (32 gig) can easily be tossed or eaten or destroyed. Not so much any other more expensive and luggable assets. For that matter you can cache them and in some cases secret them in your luggage where the color X-Ray and other schemes of detection can be obfuscated.

CiPHPerCoder – These are all good answers, so the only thing I can really offer is my setup. For domestic travel, I just have an encrypted laptop and encrypted mobile phone. If I’m traveling internationally, however, I’ll do the following:

  1. Rent a throwaway Virtual Private Server (VPS) from one of the providers on LowEndBox.
  2. Configure the VPS so that I can only SSH in via a Tor Hidden Service, using public key authentication (no passwords) with a SSH keypair unique to that server. (Ed25519.)
  3. Encrypt anything I need and store it on the server. (Veracrypt.)
  4. Purchase or repurpose a new laptop with a fresh Windows install for traveling purposes.
  5. Carry a USB or SD card with a Veracrypt-encrypted file containing the SSH private key.

TAILS can be procured on-site, and verified through other channels. I’d leave the phone at home.

Total cost: less than $10 if you already have the hardware on hand.

evacide – If you’re traveling for business, your business should have a policy in place your digital devices and travel. If they don’t already have one, this is the time to encourage them to do so. If you are crossing the US border, I recommend reading the advice EFF has written up as part of Surveillance Self Defense on this subject: https://ssd.eff.org/en/module/things-consider-when-crossing-us-border.  In general, I would make sure my devices are password-protected, encrypted, and turned off when crossing the border. Particularly sensitive information should be removed from the device in advance, encrypted, and stored on a server for (secure! encrypted!) download if you need it when you arrive at your destination.

Question 4: Credit and Identity Theft Monitoring

Identity goes hand in hand with privacy. More Americans have had a credit or debit card stolen in the past couple years than those who have not, and data breaches and identity theft are huge problems. Services that proactively monitor and protect against this come with a monthly or yearly fee. What’s an affordable and effective solution for responsibly keeping an eye on your identity and credit? Are there solutions for people who can’t get a credit card?

Viss – Most credit cards these days come with alerting capabilities that will tell you if a charge comes through past a certain amount. Turn that on and set it to like $50. Anything over $50 and you get a text or an email. INSTANT notification if something sneaky is going on. You can’t do much about it not getting stolen in the first place, for example in the case of Target, the malware was in the cash registers and nobody knew. But you can know immediately if an attacker tries to use your card for evil, and you can call it in right away. Simply do this with every card.

Munin – If at all possible, do -not- use a debit card for anything. Every transaction is a gamble – so gamble with the bank’s money, not your own, and use a credit card if at all possible. An affordable alternative to paid services is to be ‘lucky’ enough to be in a breach – haven’t we all, at this point, received several years’ worth of “credit monitoring” to compensate us for the time and stress of having our identities compromised? More seriously, though, follow Krebs’ advice – lock down your account with the major credit bureaus, and unlock it if you have a specific need for a credit check. It’s not perfect, but it’s affordable and will reduce harm.

Lloyd – Using anonymizing services like Sudo, Blur (Abine), or Privacy.com allow you to make purchases with credit cards you have 100% control over. Therefore, if an online store’s is comprised, you can just delete the card and move on. Lock down your credit reports and do that for any of your children as well – people don’t monitor their children’s credit, making them vulnerable to identity theft as well. You can also get prepaid credit cards using very little information. You should research which features you prefer like ease of reloading, low or no monthly fee versus per-purchase fees, or usability. Generally, Chase and Amex are great introductory options. For international travel, Kaiku offers a prepaid card with no foreign transaction fees, great for short trips abroad. Keep in mind Know Your Customer laws make it very difficult to access to U.S. banking system and stay anonymous from the U.S. government for very long or while handling large transactions.

plumThe OPM breach, the Target breach, the Home Depot breach have really paid off for me; the past few years of free monitoring have been nice.  LastPass actually bundles free credit monitoring, so that is worth exploring when this is done.

And as Munin mentioned, debit cards are cast from pure evil in a mold of good intentions. Never gamble on a retailer’s security posture with real money. Charge everything.  If you don’t have access to credit, use as much cash as possible and be very judicious in your check writing.  Every check you write says “hi, here’s my full name, here’s where I live, and here’s where I keep all of my money; in fact here’s my account number”.  That’s a lot to hand over to a complete stranger.

Krypt3iaMost banks do this now for you at no charge. I would not trust these companies to protect my data anyway. It is just adding to the complex web of your data being out there for others to abuse. Keep an eye on your accounts regularly and make sure your credit card/bank has your current number to call. Don’t waste money.

Lesley – Cash is your friend. Otherwise, a few people have already correctly noted how very risky bank debit cards are for your privacy and money. Unfortunately, many people are financially unable to get credit (or credit that promotes responsible use). There are a few options out there. Prepaid debit cards are one – although they may not have fraud protection, the amount of money which can be stolen from them is limited by the amount of money the purchaser loads them with. They can also lend some anonymity. Another option is a reputable credit card designed for people with low or no credit, designed to theoretically build credit over time. Legitimate options tend to be low limit, from a reputable creditor, with some security deposit required, and should always be designed to be paid off every month in full. Unfortunately this is a security blog, so I recommend you seek some free financial advice.

CiPHPerCoderThe credit bureaus are not your friend. Do not count on them correcting any mistakes on your credit history. Do as Munin and Viss suggested. Normally, the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but in this case prevention is your only recourse: There is no effective cure.

evacide – When you make online purchases, consider not storing your credit card number as part of your account. The same goes for storing your credit card number in your browser. Use 2FA whenever possible to protect your accounts and a password manager to create strong, unique passwords, so that if one account is compromised, the rest of them are still safe.

Question 5: On the People Still Using Windows XP

Tons of people have computers. Some of those computers are so old they are no longer patched or remotely secure.  While operating system vendors have gotten better at forcing security updates in recent versions, security (especially in the era of the cloud) doesn’t necessarily indicate personal privacy. In terms of fundamentals from operating system, to browser, to antivirus, what are your suggestions to somebody who wants to upgrade their computer in a privacy-friendly way, but can’t afford more than a couple hundred dollars?

Viss – Microsoft gives updates to small businesses and students. Linux is free. Running linux is generally fine for people who simply need “a browser so they can Facebook and Gmail”, and that will keep them from the vast majority of exploits, drive by downloads and other attacks that by and large only target Windows. From the perspective of the operating systems, it tends to get a little hairy because they are designed to spy on people at this point. Github has several examples of an “unfuck script” that one can run on a Windows 10 installation to turn off all that telemetry. Once that’s done, I wager a combination of Windows Defender, EMET, and Malwarebytes for ransomware run all together and cranked all the way up should be a pretty good start. It’s surely more than most consumers would do on their own reconnaissance.

Munin – Most folks will be fine with a Chromebook. They’re kind of stuck in the Google ecosystem, which I don’t like, but they get continual patching and have a vastly lowered threat surface. If you’re OK with the whole “webapps for everything” thing – and let’s get real; that’s 90% of everyone’s usage these days anyway – then a Chromebook will likely meet your needs.

Lloyd – Chromebooks sacrifice some measure of privacy to Google in exchange for affordable computing experience. If you are not concerned what Google knows about you, this is a fine option. It is very difficult to keep operating systems up to date long term without regularly upgrading your computer.

plumBasic, cheap ($200-ish), new systems seem easy enough to find. Certainly my best advice here concerns the disposal of old systems, as the general public is almost entirely in the dark when it comes to sanitizing equipment they don’t want anymore.  I say this a lot – the lifecycle of personal computing is so incomplete.  It’s so easy to get a new system, but we never really talk about how to get rid of the old one.  Getting familiar with a utility like DBAN, which for $0 will wipe any trace of your existence from a hard drive, is a great first step.

Krypt3ia Become more savvy about how  your systems work. Keep them patched and try to keep up with the attacks out there. However, for the average normal person out there these things I just said sound like the teacher on Peanuts. Once again, do not trust any operating system unless you have complete control over it and frankly no one out there can do this. It is thus important that you learn some OPSEC lessons. But again, try getting this through to Gramma, it is not that easy. It takes education and not the once a year kind.

CiPHPerCoderIf you’re still on Windows XP, this probably means one of the following:

  1. You lack the capital to purchase a newer computer.
    • In this case, make the switch to Ubuntu or Linux Mint, which are great and user-friendly GNU/Linux operating systems.
    • If you’d like to get familiar before you commit to a new OS, get Virtualbox (it’s free).
  2. You’re a company that needs to use software that doesn’t work on newer versions of Windows.
    • Consider switching to something like Qubes and running your Windows XP-dependent software inside of an isolated virtual machine to minimize the risk of a full system compromise.

Otherwise, you should just upgrade to a newer version of Windows. Laziness is incompatible with security.

Lesley – Part of this comes down to a distinction between privacy from companies, privacy from governments, or privacy from traditional criminals and the average nosy Joe or Jane.

An updated version of Chrome OS or Windows has a professional security team behind it releasing patches and responding to reports of vulnerabilities. This is really important. Of course, those companies rely heavily on cloud computing and telemetry – that’s how they provide the user experience which their customers expect. We’ve been focusing heavily on solutions for people facing criminal / stalker-type privacy concerns. In those situations, Chrome OS is an affordable option (assuming associated Google accounts are well-secured). Up-to-date Windows (while pricier) can be a good choice, too.

If you’re worried about privacy from companies, commercial options probably aren’t a great choice. This is where more user friendly versions of Linux like Mint or Ubuntu may be feasible. Of course, these distributions of Linux are ostensibly free, but that’s somewhat offset by the amount of time required to learn to configure and secure them.

If you’re worried about sophisticated actors, not only should you keep sensitive data off the internet, but you should restrict sensitive work to full disk encrypted systems without any speakers or network, Bluetooth, or wireless adapters physically installed.

Question 6: Private Digital Communications

There are numerous reasons to use encryption, and communicate and browse the internet privately. Abuse and harassment victims, whistleblowers, celebrities, journalists, and even government and military personnel may have to contend with being targets of surveillance, physical threats, or blackmail. Beyond overt risk, we have a fundamental right to privacy from the massive networks of data collection of advertisers and marketing firms that buy and sell our intimate details. While some services like Signal, Tor, and Protonmail are free, trustworthy VPN often isn’t. What are your suggestions for somebody non-technical who wants to communicate and browse with minimal potential for interception, without paying a lot?

Viss – Wire is free. Signal is free. Tor is free. VPNs are not. I run a small VPN service for exactly this reason. It’s IPSEC not SSL. That’s an important distinction, as well as it’s not “an app”. My VPN service uses Cisco hardware, not just “some cloud instances”. Do some homework on any VPN provider you elect to choose and try to steer clear of SSL based VPNs. They usually collect data about you and where you go, so while it may protect you from the skiddies in the coffee shop, it’s not protecting you from the vendor collecting your data for your $5 VPN account. If you’re a bit more technically inclined you could simply use an SSH tunnel. For that same $5 you could spin up a Digital Ocean host and use that as an SSH tunnel endpoint. Or you could stand up your own VPN. If you’re concerned about a private messenger on your phone being an indicator of you doing something shady, then install a bunch of them and use them for silly things. I have a wire room setup for “only gifs, no talking allowed”. There are nearly 40 people in there and nobody says a word, we just post silly gifs. So while it looks like there may be discussions happening to any outside viewers who can’t see the messages, it’s just noise. If you make lots of noise, it’s super easy to get signal through it. You just have to make sure the patterns of signal to noise aren’t super obvious.

Munin – “Use Tor, Use Signal” is the cliche in our world now, but it’s really going to depend on your specific needs. Harassment victims have different threats than whistleblowers, than celebrities, than journalists – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps talk to one of us, or some other trusted source, to figure out what your threat surface is, and work out what tools you have available that can best be used to manage it?

Lloyd – Depending on who you’re concerned about watching you, Signal, Wickr, and WhatsApp are fine for communication. I’m also a big fan of a pen and a piece of paper, and old fashioned face-to-face meetings. And never use a free VPN.

Krypt3ia Use Signal, Use TOR Browser, and understand that everything you do on the net, everything you put out there is a threat to that privacy. For that matter, every device is giving up your private data and giving the companies and governments a portrait of “you” that can be used against you. How would I obfuscate this data? There are some means such as add-ons to FireFox (TrackMeNot and uBlock) You may also want to read Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press), which had some good ideas on how to use digital chaff to try and limit the real data these corporations have on us. If you have an adversary though that is directly in opposition, then use encryption (GPG, Protonmail, etc) but always know that the endpoints are always suspect (those you email with and the company serving you the service) so really, own the end point, forget the secrecy.

plumGreat points have already been made.  I’ll add that it is critically important to remember to assess all of your online activity and electronic communication through the lens of litigation. If it exist(s)(ed), it can be subpoenaed.  If this presents an unacceptable operational risk for you, hash things out face-to-face.  If the logistics are not practical, follow Lloyd’s golden rule above: never use a free VPN.  Tor is a go-to. While a little different, I would also keep an eye on Brave.

CiPHPerCoder – The only VPN you can trust is the one you’ve setup and administer. Most users aren’t technical enough to do this, and therefore shouldn’t use VPNs.

That said, there isn’t a winning concoction here that doesn’t require some user education to provide robust security against sophisticated threats.

Tor is great, but only if you understand its limitations. Tor + unencrypted HTTP means the exit node can sniff or alter your traffic.

Signal is great, but only if the person you’re talking with also uses it; otherwise, you’re communicating over unencrypted SMS. (You can turn the SMS fallback off.)

Whatever technology you choose, take 5 minutes to read through the documentation. The better you know your tools, the less likely you’ll make a fatal mistake when using them.

evacide – Before you choose a secure or private communications tool, think about your threat model: are you trying to protect your communications from criminals? From the government or law enforcement? From your parents or your spouse? These are all very different models. How important is it to you that the message should be secure? How important is it that the message actually gets to you in a timely fashion? (I’ve lost track of the number of arguments I’ve gotten into with my friends and family because a Signal message didn’t go through).  Are you OK with giving out your phone number for this communication?  Seriously, and I cannot emphasize this enough, Signal is not always the answer.

Lesley – A lot of differing opinions and options have been provided with regards to this problem – hopefully providing a starting point for consideration and discussion about private communications. I want to stress again that no matter what options you choose, noise is critical. Most of the private communications methods listed above hide the message, not the fact that you’re hiding a message. If you use VPN or encrypted messaging only for sensitive conversations or browsing you’re trying to hide, anybody watching will immediately start to look at that specific communication in more detail. For this reason, one of the first things I check in a computer under forensic investigation is the private / incognito browsing history. It usually contains only activity the user wanted to hide.

Whether want to prevent an angry ex or a multinational criminal organization from intercepting your sensitive communications, make sure they are lost in a sea of everyday benign private traffic. That’s why Tor usage is so highly encouraged by privacy advocates for everyday communication – if only foreign journalists under death threat by rogue dictators used it, their traffic would be easy to spot and target.

Question 7: Authentication

Online accounts are always a target, and passwords are generally easy to guess by casual criminals and advanced actors alike. So, we frequently advise people to enable two-factor authentication on their accounts through an app or (less desirably) SMS. The problem is, not everybody has a smartphone of their own – particularly one that works everywhere reliably. What are your suggestions to somebody who uses online accounts, but doesn’t own their own phone?

Viss get a Google voice number, and set up hangouts to accept SMS messages. DO NOT SHARE THIS NUMBER WITH ANYBODY. You can set up 2FA SMS for everything that uses it, and those texts will hit Google hangouts. You can get them on a desktop/laptop, or through hangouts on your phone. The connection between your phone and Google is cert-pinned SSL, and the ‘secure texts’ will come through over data not SMS. It’s not a silver bullet, but it defeats Stingray attacks and mobile phone “man in the middle” attacks. You can also configure Google voice to either forward those SMS messages to another number, or email them to you, or another email account. There are many options.

Lesley – An alternative option is a physical two-factor security key, a tiny object which is inserted into the USB port of the computer you are using while you log into a wide range of web services. U2F keys are well under 20 dollars, easily purchased from many online retailers, and should theoretically last far longer than many electronic devices. The downsides are that if you lose the key you may be in trouble, it won’t be usable in places which block the use of USB ports, and it could potentially be seized.

Lloyd – U2F keys aren’t a cheaper option than what Viss recommends. I like physical keys but they have weaknesses: your key can be stolen, there is still limited support for physical keys, and they cost money. If you’re someone who forgets things, leaving your key at home or in the wrong bag can cost you a day of work if you aren’t careful.

plumWithout a true “something you have”, 2FA starts down a road of compromise.  Like Viss, I have not completely criminalized the use of SMS, and he presents a creative solution.  Burner phones can serve this purpose well.  For five bucks, a refill card for a thousand text messages could last a while.

CiPHPerCoderThis came up a lot in the discussion of the Guardian’s terribly misleading WhatsApp article. In the real world, a lot of users share phones and swap out SIM cards rapidly. In the WhatsApp case, this makes public keys change rapidly, which could create a UX nightmare for people who have used WhatsApp for years and never even heard of encryption. Many of the 2FA assumptions break down in a shared-device scenario.

If you’re in dire straits here, Viss’ Google Voice number suggestion is probably your best bet. I’ve not heard any other realistic solutions for folks who share phones and don’t own security keys. If 2FA isn’t available, outright, consider making it more of a point to use a password manager (KeePassX, LastPass, 1Password, etc.) than if you had 2FA.

Munin – This particular question’s been giving me problems for a few days now. The long and short of it is that, as far as 2FA is concerned, the users are entirely at the mercy of the vendors as to what nature of 2FA solutions the vendors support – for instance, though I really, -really- want to use a yubikey with twitter, twitter declines to support this option and only allows SMS based second-factor auth.

Unlike the other questions here, this is one in which the user has very little control over whether or not they can effectively follow the advice given.

The ‘correct’ solution would be to only use services from vendors that support proper 2FA – but when those services won’t “do the job” – e.g. all your contacts are on a service that doesn’t do this correctly – you’re inherently limited in what you can do.

So my ultimate advice here would be – if you -can- follow the solutions given above, do so; if you’re not able to, then do the absolute best you can with what you have available. If you don’t have a unique device available for a second factor, it’s best not to push for a compromised second factor over a non-compromised single factor. Control what you can, and look for opportunities to make it better; and pay special attention to those things you cannot control – monitoring is a kind of mitigation.

Question 8: You, in the Real World

We’ve discussed our online lives in detail, but what we do every day in the physical world leaves a huge digital footprint as well. This includes all kinds of activities, like shopping, banking, and our hobbies and work. Let’s think in terms of our introductory example of a victim of stalking and abuse (this time, in 2017). What are feasible actions he or she can take in day-to-day life, with a small budget, to reduce the digital footprint left by his or her activities (while still remaining a part of modern society)?

Viss – Use a combination of personal travel and ridesharing applications or public transit to mask surface travel. Combine using different credit cards with paying in cash. Change travel routes to not consistently use the same path to get to destination. Make random stops (at shops, for coffee, etc, whatever) to make it harder to determine where you are going. Turn off your phone from time to time (yank the battery if you can). Don’t spend a lot of time walking on the street in the open. Travel in a vehicle or on public transit as often as you can. Do not dress to impress. Do not stand out. Plain shoes, jeans, t-shirt. If you want to blend in, then blend in. You can look spectacular later. Pay attention to your surroundings. See if people are pointing cameras at you. Take detours and see if you see the same people over and over again. If you think you are being followed, validate that feeling by taking more detours and seeing if the same people are there. If you are confident you are being followed, let the people following you see you taking their photo or recording them. It helps if you have more than a phone – like a GoPro or a camera of some kind. Usually in that scenario they’ll have no idea WTF to do. The easiest way to not be a victim is to not simply lie down and take it. If you feel you’re being victimized, complaining about it on Facebook or writing a longwinded gif-riddled post on imgur will solve nothing. Get evidence of stalking or abuse. As much as you can. Confront the problem head on. If your abuser is physically abusing you get a restraining order and back that up with video evidence. http://www.wikihow.com/Be-More-Perceptive This is a good start.

TL;DR: everything on the internet leaves some kind of log. Don’t post stuff online then try to remove it. Just don’t post it in the first place. Don’t openly volunteer information for the sake of small talk. If someone asks how your day was, tell them – but don’t feel obligated to explain that it’s going poorly because your car insurance carrier dropped you because you were unable to make your last payment, and that was because trouble at work led to you being fired. That’s a lot to unpack and gives random people WAY WAY MORE INFORMATION than they need to just chat you up. It takes a bit of practice, but you can usually turn those kinds of conversations around onto them, and have them tell you a life story while not saying a word.

Krypt3ia

Physical:

  1. Enhance your situational awareness
  2. Understand where the cameras are and seek places with less of them to do business
  3. Understand where the cameras are and seek to obfuscate their seeing you (hat, glasses, scarf etc and look down, not into them.
  4. Randomize your routine, in fact do not have a routine
  5. Read up and practice counter-surveillance techniques (I can recommend books) but really having real practical experience and mentorship is key

Digital:

  1. Take all of the advice above in this document and use it.
  2. Leave your digital equipment behind or put them in Faraday bags
  3. Understand the precepts of OPSEC with regard to the internet
  4. Be vigilant

plumEndeavor to use more cash.  Every time you use a credit card, you’re generating data about where you are and what you’re doing.

Don’t allow mobile apps to use your location automatically, or at all.  Don’t check in.  The world doesn’t need to know you’re going for a run on your lunch break *right now*.  Tell them later about how you had a great run today, without mentioning where and when.  Small things like this. You’re not hiding your habits, you’re just removing the unnecessary precision in describing them.

Augment your digital protection strategy with self-defense skills.  You may never need to use them, but you’ll feel a hell of a lot more confident.  And when you’re confident, you carry yourself better, you’re more aware of your surroundings, and you turn the tables on being vulnerable.

Lloyd – Privacy and security are practice, and can’t be done alone. Your information, even your home address, is known and stored in devices and on paper by your friends, family, and coworkers. Most “hacks” occur via social engineering, where unsophisticated people are exploited for the information they keep. Educating the people around you should always be a part of any physical security practice.

Lesley – Pseudonyms and fake backgrounds aren’t just for criminals, people on the run, or spies. Sometimes, a little white lie is legal and okay, and even recommended. There are lots of places in your daily life where you can operate outside your real identity without even violating terms of use agreements. Countless examples include the fact that you don’t have to ship or receive packages at your house, you don’t have to provide real answers to your security questions, and you rarely are required to register for incentive or loyalty programs under your real name or address. Consider what information you are providing third parties out of naive, good-hearted honesty, versus what information you are providing out of legally-obligated honesty. Data collection and marketing firms don’t have your interests in mind. Why are you treating them like you have an honest, confidential relationship?

CiPHPerCoderIf you can, turn your phone off and take the battery out when traveling or discussing anything sensitive with your friends or family. Try to practice common sense at all times. Don’t, for example, take needless selfies and then share them publicly on social media if you’re trying to attain better privacy. Simply put: They don’t need to know, so don’t tell them.

Paying with cash has two benefits: It’s not directly linked to your bank account, and it promotes better money management discipline than debit/credit cards (which in turn will allow you to save money toward some of the solutions discussed above that might be out of your budget).

evacideA lot of the advice above means making major changes to the way you live. Think about how much you’re willing to change in order to avoid your stalker/abuser. A lot of victims are trying to balance their desire for privacy and distance from their abuser with a desire to continue living their lives in a normal fashion. Some simple steps such a person can take include using a pseudonym on social media accounts, locking down one’s social media accounts so that content can only be viewed by trusted friends, and making one’s trusted friends aware of the situation so that they can alter you if they are contacted by your stalker/abuser trying to get information out of them.

Munin – The advice above is all good, but ultimately, the real problem is in balancing proper paranoia with the ability to function as a person. This is very difficult.

Balancing the need to stay hidden with the very real psychological dangers of isolation is difficult even for trained professionals – so maintaining such a cover will necessarily cause stress and strain. If you have anyone that you can trust, make sure you can stay in contact with them to keep an even keel. That will help with balance, and help you remember how to use the other advice appropriately.

★ ★ ★

(Additional credit on this article goes to Bill Sempf, who contributed extensive expertise on skiptrace investigative methodology.)

All opinions in this article are that of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers, past, present, or future.

The $5 Vendor-Free Crash Course: Cyber Threat Intel

Threat intelligence is currently the trendy thing in information security, and as with many new security trends, frequently misunderstood and misused. I want to take the time to discuss some common misunderstandings about what threat intelligence is and isn’t, where it can be beneficial, and where it’s wasting your (and your analysts’) time and money.

To understand cyber threat intelligence as more than a buzzword, we must first understand what intelligence is in a broader sense. Encyclopedia Britannica provides this gem of a summary:

“… Whether tactical or strategic, military intelligence attempts to respond to or satisfy the needs of the operational leader, the person who has to act or react to a given set of circumstances. The process begins when the commander determines what information is needed to act responsibly.”

The purpose of intelligence is to aid in informed decision making. Period. There is no point in doing intelligence for intelligence’s sake.

Cyber threat intelligence is not simply endless feeds of malicious IP addresses and domain names. To truly be useful intelligence, threat Intel should be actionable and contextual. That doesn’t mean attribution of a set of indicators to a specific country or organization; for most companies that is at the best futile and at the most, dangerous. It simply means gathering data to anticipate, detect, and mitigate threat actor behavior as it may relate to your organization.  If threat intelligence is not contextual or is frequently non-actionable in your environment, you’re doing “cyber threat” without much “intelligence” (and it’s probably not providing much benefit).

Threat intelligence should aid you in answering the following six questions:

  1. What types of actors might currently pose a threat to your organization or industry? Remember that for something to pose a threat, it must have capability, opportunity, and intent.
  2. How do those types of actors typically operate?
  3. What are the “crown jewels” prime for theft or abuse in your environment?
  4. What is the risk of your organization being targeted by these threats? Remember that risk is a measure of probability of you being targeted and harm that could be caused if you were.
  5. What are better ways to detect and mitigate these types of threats in a timely and proactive manner?
  6. How can these types of threats be responded to more effectively?

Note that the fifth question is the only one that really involves those big lists of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs). There is much more that goes into intelligence about the threats that face us than simply raw detection of specific file hashes or domains without any context. You can see this in good quality threat intelligence reports – they clearly answer “what” and “how” while also providing strategic and tactical intelligence.

I’m not a fan of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” mentality of using every raw feed of IoCs available. This is incredibly inefficient and difficult to vet and manage. The real intelligence aspect comes in when selecting which feeds of indicators and signatures are applicable to your environment, where to place sensors, and which monitored alerts might merit a faster response. Signatures should be used as opposed to one-off indicators when possible. Indicators and signatures should be vetted and deduplicated. Sensibly planning expiration for indicators that are relatively transient (like compromised sites used in phishing or watering hole attacks) is also pretty important for your sanity and the health of your security appliances.

So, how do you go about these tasks if you can’t staff a full time threat intelligence expert? Firstly, many of the questions about how you might be targeted and what might be targeted in your environment can be answered by your own staff. After your own vulnerability assessments, bring your risk management, loss prevention, and legal experts into the discussion, (as well as your sales and development teams if you develop products or services). Executive buy-in and support is key at this stage. Find out where the money is going to and coming from, and you will have a solid start on your list of crown jewels and potential threats. I also highly recommend speaking to your social media team about your company’s global reputation and any frequent threats or anger directed at them online. Are you disliked by a hacktivist organization? Do you have unscrupulous competitors? This all plays into threat intelligence and security decisions.

Additionally, identify your industry’s ISAC or equivalent, and become a participating member. This allows you the unique opportunity to speak under strict NDA with security staff at your competitors about threats that may impact you both. Be cognizant that this is a two way street; you will likely be expected to participate actively as opposed to just gleaning information from others, so you’ll want to discuss this agreement with your legal counsel and have the support of your senior leadership. It’s usually worth it.

Once you have begun to answer questions about how you might be targeted, and what types of organizations might pose a threat, you can begin to make an educated decision about which specific IOCs might be useful, and where to apply them in your network topology. For instance, most organizations are impacted by mass malware, yet if your environment consists entirely of Mac OS, a Windows ransomware indicator feed is probably not high in your priorities. You might, however, have a legacy Solaris server containing engineering data that could be a big target for theft, and decide to install additional sensors and Solaris signatures accordingly.

There are numerous commercial threat intelligence companies who will sell your organization varying types of cyber threat intelligence data of varying qualities (in the interest of affability, I’ll not be rating them in this article). When selecting between paid and free intelligence sources (and indeed, you should probably be using a combination of both), keep the aforementioned questions in mind. If a vendor’s product will not help answer a few of those questions for you, you may want to look elsewhere. When an alert fires, a vendor who sells “black box” feeds of indicators without context may cause you extra time and money, while conversely a vendor who sells nation state attribution in great detail doesn’t really provide the average company any actionable information.

Publicly available sources of threat intelligence data are almost endless on the internet and can be as creative as your ability to look for them. Emerging Threats provides a fantastic feed of free signatures that include malware and exploits used by advanced actors. AlienVault OTX and CIRCL’s MISP are great efforts to bring together a lot of community intelligence into one place. Potentially useful IoC feeds are available from many organizations like abuse.ch, IOC Bucket, SANS ISC DShield and MalwareDomains.com (I recommend checking out hslatman’s fairly comprehensive list.). As previously noted, don’t discount social media and your average saved Google search as a great source of Intel, as well.

The most important thing to remember about threat intelligence is that the threat landscape is always changing – both on your side, and the attackers’. You are never done with gathering intelligence or making security decisions based it. You should touch base with everybody involved in your threat intelligence gathering and process on a regular basis, to ensure you are still using actionable data in the correct context.

***

In summary, don’t do threat intelligence for the sake of doing threat intelligence. Give careful consideration to choosing intelligence that can provide contextual and actionable information to your organization’s defense. This is a doable task, possible even for organizations that do not have dedicated threat intelligence staff or budgets, but it will require some regular maintenance and thought.


Many thanks to the seasoned Intel pros who kindly took the time to read and critique this article: @swannysec, @MalwareJake, and @edwardmccabe

I highly recommend reading John Swanson’s work on building a Threat Intel program next, here.

Starting an InfoSec Career – The Megamix – Chapter 7

 

Chapter 7: Landing the Job

So, we’ve come this far in your infosec journey. You’ve studied hard, attended conferences, played a CTF or two, updated your resume, and networked a bit within the information security community. Great work!

Let’s prepare for your very first information security interview.

 


=== What to Say ===

There have been nigh infinite pieces written on the subject of interviewing, but I’d like to briefly share some basic interview skills that have really served me and my candidates well:

  • Make sure spend at least 30 minutes researching the organization you will be interviewing at. What are their strategic goals or products? Where do they have offices? What’s their corporate culture like? Consider what interests you about their mission, and how you feel you could benefit them as a security professional.
  • Always bring several printed copies of your resume and references to your interview, formatted the way you intended. HR systems will often remove formatting and line breaks before routing your resume to a hiring manager, and your copy may be more pleasant to read. You will also want a copy to reference, yourself.
  • Bring note taking materials to your interview, and make sure you’ve written down a few relevant questions to ask your interviewers about the position and the organization.
  • Arrive 15 minutes early for your interview, and be polite to everybody you meet. You never know if the person you make eye contact with and say “good morning” to in the hall will be interviewing you, later.
  • Make eye contact, and pay attention during the interview. Most of us are introverts, and this can be a challenge. Make the effort to be personable and show that you are listening to your interviewers.
  • Put your phone away and on silent. I shouldn’t have to say this.
  • Answer questions honestly. Most of my colleagues and I would very much prefer, “I’m not sure”, to an evasive answer or an outright lie, particularly on technical questions. Often, knowing where you would look something up is an okay answer to a technical question. When we ask you questions about where you could improve, there should be a real response that verifies you are a human. Everybody has some area they can improve in, and we will never believe you’re utterly perfect.
  • The initial interview is not normally the appropriate place to ask about compensation. Yes, infosec is an understaffed and in demand field. You have better chances than most at landing the job. No, your Masters in Information Security does not guarantee you the position immediately in lieu of a technical interview.
  • Do talk about your (legal) infosec-related hobbies and activities! We want to hear about the security lab you built in your house, the book you read, the CTF that you participated in, or the security related talks and projects you’re participating in. They show you are an interested and involved candidate, and a good fit for our teams.

 

 


=== What to Know ===

The previous chapters in this blog series suggested ways to build your foundational skills in the key areas of networking, systems administration, and security, so I won’t dwell too much on the necessity of knowing the fundamentals of these things such as common ports and protocols, malware types, and operating system functionality in an entry level infosec interview. Suffice to say, this is where the free educational resources, formal training, and your home lab really come into play.

You should ensure, before going to an interview, that you are up to date on the basics of current threats and security news. What you learned at your university is almost certainly not current enough for most interviews. There are a lot of great resources that provide information on ongoing threat activity. For instance, I really like the exploit kit status dashboard at (ProofPoint) EmergingThreats. SANS ISC posts botnet and scanner activity from publicly submitted data, and Sophos posts a nice free malware dashboard that shows their overview of currently detected malware. Threat trackers, coupled with the blogs, news services, and educational resources we’ve previously discussed, should enable you to go to your interview ready to answer general questions about the top threats that are currently plaguing organizations.

 


=== What Not to Say ===

 

 

In May, I surveyed a broad swath of security professionals to share the statements they hear from interview candidates that are the most indicative that the person is inexperienced in professional information security work. I’d like to share a few of the most popular, and why they carry that connotation. Keep in mind, the selected statements by candidates aren’t necessarily technically wrong; they more often tend to oversimplify or ignore administrative and business-related problems in security. It would be wise to choose your words diplomatically before saying any of the following things:

“Antivirus is obsolete, and a waste of money! Get rid of it.”

We can’t all be Netflix, dramatic headlines or not. It’s true that antimalware programs have a lot of problems to contend with in the 2010s. Between a cat and mouse game with well-funded malware authors, and polymorphism and regular botnet updates, simply maintaining a library of static signatures is indeed not effective anymore. Most decent antivirus vendors recognize this, and have implemented new tactics like heuristic engines and HIPS functionality to catch new variants and unknown threats. Antivirus is one component of a solid ‘defense in depth’ solution. It has a reasonable potential to mitigate a percentage of things that slip past network IPS, firewalls, web filters, attachment sandboxes, and other enterprise security solutions.

“Why are you wasting money on $x commercial product? I can do the same thing with this open source project on GitHub”

We love the philosophy and price tag on open source projects, and it’s great that commercial vendors have open source competition that drives them to improve and enhance their products. This doesn’t mean that free tools are always a viable replacement for commercial tools in an enterprise environment. There are intangible things which usually come with the purchase of a good quality commercial security product: support, regular updates, scalability, certifications, and product warranties. Those intangible things can have a tangible cost for an enterprise implementing an open source product in their stead. For instance, the organization may have to hire a full time developer to maintain and tweak the tool to their needs and scale. They may also be solely legally liable if a vulnerability in free open source software is exploited in a breach – a risk many organizations’ legal teams will simply not accept.

“They deserved to get breached because they didn’t remove Java / Flash / USB functionality / Obsolete Software…”

Most organizations exist to provide a product or service, and that’s usually not “security”. As security professionals, we’re just one small part of our organizations and their mission, and we never function in a vacuum. Oversimplified assertions like this are a dead giveaway that a candidate is not used to compromising and negotiating inside a business environment. Yes, in an ideal security world, we would use hardened operating systems with limited administrative rights and no insecure applications. Few of us actually operate in that ideal world, and many of us work at an operational scale alone that renders this unfeasible. We do what we can; navigating the political risk management game where we must to provide the most secure environment we are capable of.

“Just block China/Russia/x… IPs.”

Once again, this indicates a candidate is thinking only as a security person (and a biased security person) and not as a member of a business. Unfortunately, it also shows a lack of technical knowledge, as many attackers use large, global networks of compromised hosts to launch attacks.

“Security Awareness is a waste of money. Users will always be stupid.”

This is an appalling lack of confidence in your own ‘team’. Yes, some end users will probably always click / ignore / fail to report. (Most security people will also click when properly socially engineered.) The point of security awareness is not to create a perfect environment where nobody ever clicks on a phishing message or ignores an alert window – if your management has made that their measure of success, they’re doing security wrong. The point of security awareness is to improve awareness of threats, encourage some employees to report potential threats so you can respond, and decrease day to day problems so you can focus on the more severe ones.

“[Fortune 100] should have already have gotten rid of $OS and gone to $OTHEROS, because it’s more secure / real security people use $OTHEROS.”

This is dogmatic elitism without real business or technical foundation. Any up-to-date operating system can have a valid use case in business and in security work. A good red team or blue team security professional should be able to secure, compromise, and use tools on OSX, Linux, and Windows effectively (and indeed, there are valuable tools unique to each). It’s okay to have an operating system preference and to intelligently discuss the merits of $OperatingSystem for your specific use case. Don’t assume everybody else’s use case is the same.

“Hack them back / have the attackers arrested…”

We all crave the movie ending where the black hat hackers get their comeuppance and are thrown in jail. Unfortunately, unless we work for a LEO, the military, or a huge global telco, we’re rarely likely to get it. “Hacking back” of any sort is usually wildly illegal (especially because attacks are almost always launched from compromised hosts that belong to law-abiding people). Arrests happen when time-consuming coordinated efforts between security firms, global law enforcement, and lawyers are successful. Even the terrifying financial spearphish to your CFO is likely to not be chased down by law enforcement for some time. When permitted, absolutely do share your threat intelligence with law enforcement and working groups to aid in these important efforts. Expect any response received will take significant time.

“Don’t you monitor every brute force attempt against your perimeter? I count the dictionary attacks against my honeypot every night!”

No, monitoring this would be a waste of time in most large organizations. Behavioral trends and specific sequences of events that could indicate a compromise are more valuable to monitor. Time is money.

Any statement beginning with, “Why don’t you just…?” or “It’s simple…”

It pretty much never is that simple, so don’t personally insult your interviewer by assuming it is
.

 


***

This concludes the InfoSec Career Megamix! I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog series and that it has been helpful to you in furthering your own security career. Many thanks to everybody who has commented on my blogs or provided input and suggestions. Please do check out the links to other peoples’ wonderful work on the subject which I have included throughout the blogs.

[You can find the previous chapters in this blog series here:

The Fundamentals

> Education & Certifications

> Fields and Niches

Blue Team Careers in Depth

Red Team Careers in Depth

Self-Study Options]

Gen Con 2015 – A Big “Thank You!” from Us to You!

Wow! I can’t believe Gen Con is already over. We had an amazing time at the con and giving our Hacking in Fiction panel for 43 lovely people on Thursday night. I want to extend a big thanks to my co-speakers, Johnny and Beltface. We ended up going over our allotted 90 minutes again – mostly because we had so much fun answering fantastic audience questions. Also, thanks to our many Twitter friends who came out to roast us, like Joe, 0DDJ0BB, Lslybot, and Justin!

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Just some awesome costumes I snapped pictures of!

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Our most frequently asked question that I want to restate here for the world was, “I don’t have much experience; how do I get into infosec/hacking?”

If you’re asking us that question, you’re on the right track. I firmly believe have the best community out there in a professional field. There are tremendous resources for anyone out there who has the will and motivation to be good at infosec. They usually don’t come with any dependency on expensive degree programs or certifications. My recommendations are:

  • Go to independent security conferences, Def Con, DerbyCon, Shmoocon, GrrCon, and various local BSides are great options to learn about security and network with other people who share your interests. You can get into most of these conferences for 100-200 dollars and a hotel room. There is no experience requirement, and there are usually talks at technical levels from management skills to sophisticated reverse engineering. Yes, these conferences can be intimidating, but follow basic best practices like not using a credit/ATM card, turning off WIFI on your phone, and not bringing a production computer, and you’ll find them an intriguing and welcoming environment with lots of fun!
  • Use your internet resources. Blogs, Twitter, and Podcasts are a great way to learn more about current events in InfoSec. Don’t rely on bulletins from vendors or government agencies. Some of my favorite general security news sources are:

    Paul’s Security Weekly

    Naked Security – Sophos

    Krebs on Security

    Dark Reading | Security

    Steve Ragan | CSO Online

    We Live Security

  • Find your local hacker meetups and attend. As well as 2600, DC(area code) groups, and BSides, many metro areas have independent security meetups. These are a great way to network and find a mentor.
  • Do publicly shared CTF exercises to learn more about hacking. Beyond “Hack this Site“, many agencies post online ‘Capture the Flag’ exercises in blue team and red team areas of security that allow you to take your best shot at a hacking simulation and then see the results when it ends. I recommend all of the SANS exercise, especially their holiday challenges.
  • Build your own lab, and experiment! It’s really not that expensive to build a hacking lab at home. Virtualization has made it relatively affordable to construct a VM lab environment with an attacker and defender machine(s) in which you can simulate the area of security of your choice. It looks fantastic in interviews if you can describe your home lab an d
  • Don’t get intimidated! While I highly recommend you always be certain you have permission to hack the computer network(s) you are experimenting with, there are plenty of legal and affordable ways to learn more about information security. Everyone who legitimately claims to work in ‘infosec’ or ‘cyber’ should have a solid understanding of how bad guys think. Avail yourself of available resources, and test your skills!

Lesley’s Rules of SOC

I see a lot of the same errors made repeatedly as organizations stand up Security Operations. They not only result in lost time and money, but often result in breaches and malware outbreaks. I tweeted these out of frustration quite some time ago and I’ve since been repeatedly asked for a blog post condensing and elaborating on them. So, without further ado, here are Lesley’s Rules of SOC, in their unabridged form. Enjoy!


  1. You can’t secure anything if you don’t know what you’re securing. 

    Step one in designing and planning a SOC should be identifying high value targets in your organization, and who wants to steal or deface them. This basic risk and threat analysis shows you where to place sensors, what hours you should be staffed in what regions, what types of skill and talent you need on your team, and what your Incident Response plan might need to include,

  2. If you’re securing and monitoring one area really well and ignoring another, you’re really not securing anything. 

    An unfortunate flaw in we as an infosec community is that we often get distracted by the newest, coolest exploit. The vast majority of breaches and compromises don’t involve a cool exploit at all. They involve unpatched systems, untrained employees, and weak credentials. Unfortunately, I often see organizations spending immense time on their crown jewel systems like their domain controllers, and very little paid to their workstations or test systems. All an attacker needs to be in a network is a single vulnerable system from which he or she can move laterally to other devices (see the Target breach). I also see people following the letter of the law in PCI compliance, ignoring all the software and human practices beyond this insufficient box.

  3. You can buy the shiniest magic box, but if its not monitored, updated, and maintained with your input, you’re not doing security. 

    Security is a huge growth market, and vendors get better and better at selling solutions to executives with every newsworthy data breach. A lot of ‘cybersecurity’ solutions are now being sold as a product in a box – ‘install our appliances on your network and become secure’, This is simply not the case. Vendor solutions vary vastly in quality and upkeep. All of this is moot if the devices are placed in illogical places in the network, so that the devices can’t see inbound or outbound internet traffic, or host to host traffic. Even with a sales engineer providing product initial setup, a plan must be developed for the devices to be patched and updated. Who will troubleshoot the devices if they fail? And finally, their output must be monitored by somebody who understands the output. I’m constantly appalled by the poor documentations big vendors provide for the signatures produced by their product. Blocking alone is not adequate. Who is attacking and what is the attack?

  4. If your executives aren’t at the head of your InfoSec initiatives, they’re probably clicking on phishing emails. 

    I think this is pretty self explanatory. Security is not an initiative that can be ‘tacked on’ at a low level in an organization. To get the support and response needed to respond to incidents and prevent compromise, the SOC team must have a fast line to their organization’s executives in an emergency. 

  5. Defense in Depth, mother##%er. Your firewall isn’t stopping phishing, zero days, or port 443. 

    I constantly hear organizations (and students, and engineers) bragging about their firewall configs. This is tone deaf and obsolete thinking. Firewalls, even next generation firewalls that operate at layer 7, can only do so much. As I’ve said previously, exploits from outside to inside networks are not the #1 way that major breaches are occurring. All it takes is one employee clicking yes to security prompts on a phishing message or compromised website to have malware resident on a host inside their network. The command and control traffic from that host can take nigh infinite forms, many of which won’t be caught by a firewall without specific threat intelligence. You can’t block port 80 or 443 at the firewall in most any environment, and that’s all that’s really needed for an attacker to remote control a system. So you have to add layers of detection that have more control and visibility. such as HIDS, internal IDS, and system level restrictions. 

  6. There are a lot of things that log besides your firewall and antivirus. 

    I wrote a post on this a while back listing a bunch. The thing that horrifies me more than SOCs that don’t have a decent SIEM or log aggregation solution are the ones that only monitor their antivirus console and firewall. So many network devices and systems can provide security logs. Are you looking at authentication or change logs? DNS requests? Email? 

  7. Good security analysts and responders are hard to find. Educate, motivate, and compensate yours. 

    Or you will lose them just as they are becoming experienced. Our field has almost a 0% unemployment rate. 

  8. Make good connections everywhere in your organization. People will know who to report security incidents to, and you’ll know who to call when they do. 

    There’s often a personality and culture clash between infosec people and the rest of the business. This is really dangerous. We are ultimately just another agency supporting the business and business goals. All of our cases involve other units in or organization to some extent or another. 

  9. If you don’t have some kind of Wiki or KB with processes, contact info, and lessons learned, you’re doing it wrong. 

    I can’t believe I have to say this because it’s true of almost any scientific or technical field. If you don’t write down what you did and how you did it, the next person who comes along will have to spend the time and effort to recreate your steps and potentially make the same mistakes. This also means everybody on your team needs to be able to make notes and comment on processes, not just one gatekeeper. 

  10. You can’t do everything simultaneously. Identify and triage your security issues and tackle one project at a time. 

    Plenty of the horror stories I hear from security operations centers in their early stages involve taking on too much at once – especially without the guidance of a project manager. These teams drop everything because they can’t do it all simultaneously. We have the unfortunate tendency to be ideas people without organizing the projects and tasks we develop into structured projects.

  11. Threat Intelligence is not a buzzword and does not center around APTs. Have good feeds of new malware indicators. 

    Yes, there are predatory companies selling threat intelligence feeds with little or no value (or ones that consist entirely of otherwise free data). The peril in discounting threat intelligence is that signature based malware and threat detection is becoming less valuable every day. Every sample of the same malware campaign can look different due to polymorphism, and command and control mechanisms have gotten complex enough that traffic can change drastically. We are forced, at this point, to start looking in a more sophisticated way at who is attacking and how they operate to predict what they will do next. The includes things from identifying domains resolving to a set of IPs to sophisticated intelligence analysis. How far you take threat intelligence depends on time, funding, and industry, but every organization should be making it a part of their security plan.

  12. if your employees have to DM me for help with their basic SIEM / log aggregation, you’re failing at training. 

    Happens all the time, folks. I see a lot of good people at organizations with terrible training cultures. Make sure everybody has a level of basic knowledge from the start, and isn’t so intimidated in asking for help that he or she feels forced to go outside your organization. 

  13. Team build, and don’t exclude. The SOC that plays well will respond well together and knows their members’ strengths and shortfalls. 

    Prototypical hacker culture, while an absolute blast, is not for everyone. I’ve seen people shamed out of infosec for the most bizarre reasons – the fact is that some people don’t drink alcohol, or want to go to cons, or think Cards Against Humanity is appropriate. Yes, we are generally intelligent people and we can be rather eccentric. That doesn’t mean that people who find these things unpleasant don’t have skills and knowledge to contribute. Accept that they don’t have the same interests and move on without badgering. It’s their personal choice. When you plan your teambuilding activities, try to make them inclusive – people with kids might not be able to hang out at the bar at midnight.

  14. If you seek hires do it in range of places. Grads, veterans, exploit researchers, and more all may have different stuff to offer. 

    I see a lot of organizations with a relationship with a infosec group or university that only recruit from that specific pool. As with lack of genetic diversity, this provides no advancement or innovation. There are tons of places to find interesting perspectives on infosec from well educated candidates. It’s important to bring fresh ideas and perspective into your team.

  15. if your ticketing system doesn’t work in a security context, get your own dang ticketing system and forward. 

    There are two main reasons that you shouldn’t be using the same ticketing system for security cases that your IT department uses for everyday help desk operations. The first is security – there is no reason that your IT contractors or non-IT staff in general should be able to see the details of sensitive cases, even by an error in permissions. This also includes their accounts, should they become compromised. The second is that these ticketing systems are not designed with security incidents in mind. A security incident case management platform should do Critical things like store malware samples safely, provide court admissible records of evidence hashes and case notes, and integrate with SIEM or log aggregation solutions. If your ticketing solution is not doing these basic functions, it’s high time to consider a separate platform.

  16. DO virtualize your malware analysis. DON’T virtualize your security applications unless the vendor says how to. 

    Virtualization software is critical for lots of reasons in infosec – from setting up malware analysis labs to CTFs to honeypots. It is not appropriate for all security applications and solutions. Most organizations are heavily pushing virtualization as a cost saving initiative, but be very cautious when presuming all resource intensive and highly specialized security tools will function alike when virtualized.