Tag Archives: media hype

Virus Researchers are community outcasts

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles attacking and defending AMTSO and their attempt at establishing standards for the testing of counter-malware products. Unfortunately I think BOTH sides are missing the larger picture here. AMTSO was formed to address some critical shortcomings in the testing of counter-malware products: some tests were arguably unethical, most unscientific and some just poor from the word go. So where does the dissent come from? It comes from the very people who done or supported those poor non-science based tests. Yet it goes beyond that. The people who are condemning AMTSO and their efforts are in some cases well respected in the general security arena, and are very knowledgeable, and this is the rub. These people, most people in academia, and in management as well do not recognize Malware research and prevention as a specialty niche. They attempt to apply the same rule-set to fighting a malware outbreak as they do a simple intrusion, and see nothing wrong with that solution.

A majority of people not engaged in the Malware field as a profession still feel that the average Security Professional has the same knowledge and skill sets as used by the Counter Malware Professionals. Unfortunately nothing can be further from the truth. It goes beyond the abilities and skills for reverse engineering, programming, and identifying abnormal network traffic. This argument goes back to at least the early 1990’s when in a panel discussion a firewalls specialist attempted to answer a question about a virus. On that panel was Wolfgang Stiller, creator of Integrity Master Anti-Virus, Wolfgang interrupted him saying along the lines of “look I’m here for the virus questions, I would never presume to speak with authority or experience on firewalls issues, but you presume to have the same experience and expertise with viruses that I do, and that is mistaken”. Similar exchanges have happened on other panels with people such as Robert Vibert and Rob Rosenberger, among others. These are also the same people who demand that anti-malware products protect against threats that are not viruses, nor are they specifically malware, but “Potentially unwanted programs”. So this is not a new phenomenon. The question in my mind is why does it still exist?

Anti-Virus ‘Experts’ helped establish the disaster recovery field, and were among the very first to teach classes in th at subject. It was the Anti-Virus Researchers who developed the field of Computer Forensics, in both cases it was the Anti-Virus field that had the necessary expertise and skill set needed to fill the holes and expand the career field. So now that Disaster Recovery, and Computer Forensics are recognized as specialty fields and given a high degree of respect from schools and management, what happened to the Anti-Virus researcher? Their mindset is not of an operational nature, they bore easily, some may even say they have attention deficit disorder (ADD), yet they are anal about doing things the same way every-time. They dwell on minutiae, arguing to the point of splitting hairs. I sometimes think some of my colleagues can SEE the traffic on the wire in their minds eye. Yet with all this contribution to the Computer Security Community they are still (almost purposely) maligned and misunderstood. At a Virus Bulletin Conference, I stated that we as a community must take action or go from the ranks of professional, to the ranks of the tradesmen. I still don’t know what action that is, or how to go about it, but AMTSO is a good step in that direction, and the naysayers need to start looking outside their comfort zone and realize they know enough to be dangerous and not enough to be helpful at this point.

Ken Bechtel
Team Anti-Virus
Virus Researcher and Security pontificator

NTEOTWAWKI

Given all the hype generated by the ridiculously titled Gawker Article about the so called ‘iPad’ hack, I’m somewhat reluctant to add to any more of the noise over what is really a pretty run of the mill story, but because I’m procrastinating on other jobs, I’ll write something. Warning: this story does involve the shocking exposure of people’s email addresses, said addresses getting revealed when they shouldn’t have been, and yes….er…well, no, that’s about it actually.

Indeed, Paul Ducklin of Sophos wrote a very nice article stating the rather important fact that, every time you send an email, that passes your email out on to the open internet. Of course, that’s not an excuse to have a poorly written web app that will spit out the email addresses of your partner company’s clientele at will. Partner company, I hear you cry, wasn’t this an Apple problem? Yes, indeed, this is absolutely nothing to do with Apple, it’s not an Apple problem, and it’s not a breach of Apple’s security, nor is it a breach of the iPad. In fact, it was solely down to a web application on AT&T’s website. It doesn’t even involve touching an iPad. But, but, you may splutter, isn’t this is an iPad disaster? No. Not even slightly; not once did the ‘attackers’ go near any one’s iPad. The ‘attack’ was purely a script  that sent ICCID numbers (this links a SIM card to an email address) to the AT&T application, in sequence, to see if their database had that number with an email attached – and if so, that came back. That’s right, it’s a SIM card identifier. The only ‘iPad’ part is that the ‘attackers’ spoofed the browser in the requests, to make the app think the request was coming from an iPad.

The upshot is that, as this page rightly points out (thanks to @securityninja for the link)

“There’s no hack, no infiltration, and no breach, just a really poorly designed web application that returns e-mail address when ICCID is passed to it.”

So, the correct title of that original Gawker article might have been “Badly designed AT&T web application leaks email addresses when given SIM card ID”, but that wouldn’t be “The End Of The World As We Know It”.

In a week where one ‘journalist’ writing here (thanks to @paperghost for the link) claimed that some security people confessing to being ‘hackers’ (whatever that means) “confirms our suspicions that the whole IT insecurity industry is a self-perpetuating cesspool populated by charlatans”, it might be time for the world of the media to turn that oh so critical eye on itself and ask who is really generating the hype in the information security world?

If you’re interested in keeping up with genuine Mac/Apple related security issues, a good resource is maintained here by my good friend David Harley

UPDATE: The original ‘attackers’ have published a response to the furore here. Pretty much confirms what I was saying

“There was no breach, intrusion, or penetration, by any means of the word.”

Andrew Lee
CEO AVIEN/CTO K7 Computing

Attack of the Mutant Zombie Flesh Eating Chickens From Mars

Yesterday there was widespread reportage of one of those periodic stories that make media types drool; and make security experts cringe in despair.

However, this ‘summer slow day news story’ was so widely (mis)reported, that it does bear commenting on. The story in question was titled (by the BBC) as “First Human Infected with Computer Virus“. This of course conjures up the idea of a person getting sick, by means of malicious computer code (a claim that is, and will remain for a significant amount of time, well within the realm of science fiction).

What actually happened is much more mundane. It appears that the ‘researcher’ placed a piece of replicating code onto an RFID chip, and used that to infect the reader control system which then (at least in theory) could then pass the code back to other similar RFID devices. So far, so boring. We know that it is possible to have storage devices contain code (malicious or not) and pass that code between themselves via other systems. The difference in this case is that the researcher then injected the ‘infected’ (rather bizzarely he refers to this as ‘corrupted’ making me doubt that it was even a virus) chip into his hand, and claimed that this made him infected.

The news stories all got caught up with the fact that this gave him special Jedi powers enabling him to open doors with a simple wave of his hands (ok, maybe they didn’t exactly say that, but hand waving was involved), or…horror of all horrors….activate his mobile phone. Surely a deadly device if one had ever been made. So; we already know that RFID chips can open doors (after all, that’s a valid use for many of them) and they can carry code. The ONLY difference is that this ‘researcher’ inserted the chip into his flesh. To claim that this makes him ‘infected by a computer virus’ is a bit like saying that if I dropped the same chip into a cup of coffee, a steaming fresh cow pat, or even a mutant zombie flesh eating chicken from Mars, those would also be ‘infected’.

As Graham Cluley pointed out, the only interest that this story might have generated otherwise would be in a security research into vulnerabilities of RFID readers. You need a vulnerable reader to get affected by the code, and then you need to be able to read the other RFID tags/chips with that reader to ‘infect’ them. There’s a valid point in that RFID exploits could be used to compromise security and or privacy – but that’s not new knowledge, we’ve known that for many years.

As Chris Boyd (@paperghost on Twitter) nicely summed up “In conclusion then, “man infected with computer virus” is basically “device for opening doors works as intended”.”

Andrew Lee
AVIEN CEO / CTO K7 Computing