Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts about the Apple vs FBI iPhone firmware case

Not trying to provide the full story here, just a few thoughts and directions as to security, privacy and civil rights. (for the backdrop – Apple’s Tim Cook letter explains it best: https://www.apple.com/customer-letter/)

From a technical perspective, Apple is fully capable to alleviating a lot of the barriers the FBI is currently facing with unlocking the phone (evidence) in question. It is an iPhone 5C, which does not have the enhanced security features implemented in iPhones from version 5S and above (security enclave – see Dan Guido’s technical writeup here: http://blog.trailofbits.com/2016/02/17/apple-can-comply-with-the-fbi-court-order/).

Additionally, when dealing with more modern versions, it is also feasible for Apple to provide updates to the security enclave firmware without erasing the content of the phone.

But from a legal perspective we are facing not only a slippery slope, but a cliff as someone eloquently noted on twitter. Abiding by a legal claim based on an archaic law (All Writs act – originally part of the Judiciary act of 1789) coupled with just as shaky probably cause claim, basically opens up the door for further requests that will build up on the precedent set here if Apple complies with the court’s order.
One can easily imagine how “national security” (see how well that worked out in the PATRIOT ACT) will be used to trump civil rights and provide access to anyone’s private information.

We have finally reached a time where technology, which was an easy crutch for law enforcement to rely on, is no longer there to enable spying (legal, or otherwise) on citizens. We are back to a time now where actual hard work needs to be done in order to act on suspicions and real investigations have to take place. Where HUMINT is back on the table, and law enforcement (and non-LE forces) have to step up their game, and again – do proper investigative work.

Security is obviously a passion for me, and supporting (and sometimes helping) it advance in order to provide everyone with privacy and comfort has been my ethics since I can remember myself dealing with it (technology, security, and privacy). So is national security and the pursuit of anything that threatens it, and I don’t need to show any credentials for either.

This is an interesting case, where these two allegedly face each other. But it’s a clear cut from where I’m standing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tim Cook and Apple drew a line in the sand. A very clear line. It is a critical time now to understand which side of the line everybody stands on. Smaller companies that lack Apple’s legal and market forces, which have bent over so far to similar “requests” from the government can find solace in a market leader drawing such a clear line. Large companies (I’m looking at you Google!) should also make their stand very clear – to support that line. Crossing that line means taking a step further towards being one of the regimes we protect ourselves from. Dark and dangerous ones, who do not value life, who treat people based on their social, financial, racial, gender, or belief standing differently. That’s not where or who we want to be.

Or at least I’d like to think so.

Update: Apparently Google is standing on the right side of the line:

Update 2 (2/20/16): Seems like the story is developing more rapidly, so figured I’d add a couple more elements here.

First – a good review from a forensic perspective on the FBI’s request puts the entire thing in even shadier legal standings if the data from the phone would be used in such a way: http://www.zdziarski.com/blog/?p=5645

Second – Apple today (2/20) updated that while the phone was in the FBI’s custody, it’s iCloud ID has been reset, basically eliminating one of the easier paths to recover data from the phone (http://abcnews.go.com/US/san-bernardino-shooters-apple-id-passcode-changed-government/story?id=37066070). This would have been a major oversight by the FBI, who would have failed to establish a clear “hands-off” policy on anything related to the terrorists assets – including it’s employer’s digitally controlled assets. Later in the day, and probably after getting under scrutiny for allegedly performing the iCloud account reset “on their own accord”, the San Bernardino County’s official account notified that it essentially tampered with the evidence based on the FBI’s request.

If this indeed is the case, we are looking at a much more problematic practice that exceeds incompetence, and moves into malpractice.

line-in-the-sand1

p.s. additional reading on this, from a couple of different authors who I wholeheartedly agree with:

http://www.macworld.com/article/3034355/ios/why-the-fbis-request-to-apple-will-affect-civil-rights-for-a-generation.html

And the EFF’s stand: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/02/eff-support-apple-encryption-battle

An obituary to pentesting?

I just saw a blog post in which Mike Kemp discovers the realities of 2010 (linkedin). (disclaimer – I know Mike and love him as a person, and this is my way of poking at him a bit – no disrespect here, but pretty much the opposite)

Now, go read that post (yes, I know, it’s long, but trust me).
This isn’t new (albeit very honest, direct and true),but here are a couple of comments I have:

  1. Penetration Testing is dead. Overrated, and abused by fancy vulnerability scanning, it died a few years ago. If you are still paying for one – check carefully what you are actually getting…
  2. Automation is king. I actually argue that 80% of what’s sold as a pentest by the major providers can/should be automated. All those scanner monkeys should be fired or forced to step up their game and actually do some work.
  3. Compliance? Really? Do you really want to go there? It’s got nothing to do with security, and if you thought so for a second I want to have what you were on when you did.
  4. Standards. This is where Mike touches on a sensitive topic for me (yes, PTES…). I’d actually challenge Mike to show me how PTES (which he mentions in the post – but you already know that because you read it, right?!) restricts providers by providing the engagement steps – which they should follow. There’s no restriction to scope, and I have personally used PTES in red team engagements. Full scope, no bars held. But still with a standard to follow, and something the client can also keep track of and know what to expect (and demand).
  5. I fully agree on the “pass the wealth” point where you should call in someone else who’s an expert to deal with a specific client request. Done that many times, and have never lost a customer that way.

Last but not least – yes, I do think that most pentesters can be replaced with a script. As they should. I do however have a solid advice to Mike and others who are still valuable professionals that have skills which are not replaceable by automation: demand a proper engagement model. And yes – I’m referring to the PTES again. You’d notice that threat modeling is part of it. Done properly threat modeling achieves multiple goals:

  • Forces the discussion to be around security rather than compliance, price or other factors that have nothing to do with security.
  • Scope goes out the window as threat models focus on the BUSINESS and not the TECHNOLOGY.
  • Enables the organization to test itself against its adversaries (threat actors/communities) rather than against pentesters. Much more rewarding, and correct.
  • Enables the provider (if it can muster to perform a decent threat model with the client) to charge decent rates for its services. You can clearly show how this isn’t some automated software running and spitting out reports, but skills and experience playing. It’s then your responsibility to follow through on it and make sure the final deliverable also looks like that (otherwise you are looking at a very short success rate for trying to adopt only part of this approach).

I actually welcome the hordes of scanner monkeys and tool-jockeys. They make the real professionals look even better. And although professionals don’t often have the marketing/sales power of the big-[number], trust me – they are busy, and doing work that the “big” and “trusted” suppliers can’t even start to put on their canned proposal templates.

Debunking the “8200”, “81” and other #### ex-Israeli Army Intelligence myth

I’m a known and pretty vocal advocate of self learning, self starting, and inquisitive entrepreneurial spirit. As such, I’ve witnessed over my years in the security industry, a lot of occasions where the halo or myth surrounding some so-called “elite” units in the Israeli Army Intelligence has blinded people.
Such blindness comes from a very small percentage of people who capitalized on what used to be highly selective knowledge and experience in a narrow field of practice. But that was almost 20 years ago. Companies like Checkpoint, Nice, and Amdocs, were all started by alumni of such intelligence units, who basically applied their specific experience from the army signals intelligence unites to building firewall systems, telecom and spy/monitoring technologies.

Nowadays, the reality could not be further from this. What used to be a very specific skill-set and knowledge, is mostly open, and freely accessible to anyone with the right aptitude to pick up and master. Back in the days you had to earn your “hacker cred” in order to get access to the forums where people were sharing knowledge, today most of that “exclusive/unique” knowledge is wide open and available.

And today I ran across an article that infuriated me because of its ignorance. Enter: “The cyber labor market in Israel, the cyber guild“. In this article, the author claims, again, that the “ex-#” alumni phenomenon is filling the Israeli market and basically owning it to a point where non-guild members are shunned out. It claims that whereas information and knowledge should (or is?) open, in the guild market it matters more where you came from than what you actually know and have experience with.

I respectfully call BS on this. It’s just not the reality anymore. Yes, there is an obvious alumni network effect, but such that is just as common with other alumni organizations (think Ivy-league Universities, local schools, or any other melting-pot where people get to know one another). But the “guild” part is just wrong. It’s actually the complete opposite. After the initial success of the early founders, the “Ex-#” units basked in the glow and enjoyed a fairly long streak of alumni that only had to mention their unit’s name (or even not that – just to keep things more hush-hush) in order to nail a high-paying job. However, with such high expectations, the failures became more apparent. And then the realization – that 8200, which is the largest unit (people-wise) in the Army, does not actually employ thousands of talented programmers and hackers. That a huge percentage of it are grunt workers, pushing papers, poring over analyst reports, and operating the collection and dissemination processes and technologies. Glorified IT support in most cases. And with that, the sham evolved. The “friend brings friend” system worked most of the time when the initial friend was one of the actually few talented alumni, who brought their few talented friends. The rest ended up blowing the bubble out of proportion, and infusing the industry with the glorified IT technicians. And the industry balked fairly quickly. I have personally witnessed companies hurting and buckling under the cost of incompetent alumni recruitment, and eventually realize their mistake and quietly ditch those. I have personally interviewed tens (if not hundreds) of people, and very quickly realized (again – after making a few trust mistakes myself) that my gut feeling and personal assessment of ones personality is more consistent than their alleged history in a “famous” unit.

I have personally mentored extremely talented people who had to fight for their place, had to learn programming languages and platforms, gain their experience in the real world, and become some of the more sought after talents out there. At the same time I’ve seen the “ex-#” alumni stagnate at dead-end jobs because they could not scale beyond their alleged field of expertise. The market is highly capitalistic out there. It won’t tolerate too much of the halo effect, and albeit huge efforts in fueling that effect through several alumni organizations, and alumnus in executive positions, this doesn’t really hold. If you are looking for innovation and “thinking outside the box” maybe try to look for people who have not been indoctrinated in a very strict environment to perform a very narrow task. Look for people with broad experience, from different paths of life, who share core traits – curiosity, innovation, drive, and the ability to say “I don’t know”. That’s how the modern market operates. There is no guild. And if you are led to believe so – try to see who/what is it that gave you that impression. You’ll be quick to learn that it is mostly self-serving marketing created to favor the less talented who need to rely on riding the coattails of the successful few. Who by the way – were mostly self-taught and would have made it without having the “ex-#” experience 😉

Yes, you knew exactly what you were walking into…

I’m writing this in response to a very well put together article written by my friend Dave Lewis on CSO Online: “Are you a legitimate military target?“.
In the article Dave talks about how security researchers, practitioners, and security vendors are suddenly “surprised” to find themselves potentially being under the scrutiny of foreign (and guess what – domestic) governments and militaries.

Dave quotes Mikko Hypponen, F-Secure’s Chief Research officer who keynoted the FIRST conference last week in Berlin, saying “I didn’t sign up for this”.
Well, sorry to take the other side – but you did. We all did. Even those of us who have been in the industry for almost 20 years. We grew up on movies like “War Games“, on the stories such as Cliff Stoll’s “The Cuckoo’s Egg“, and those of us who were pushing the boundaries and practicing security research, also knew that we were playing fast and loose with the law a lot of times (successfully for those of us with a clear record).
Well ,guess what, just like a nuclear physicist becomes a target (legitimate or not) for a foreign nation because they are associated with another nation’s nuclear program, so are we.

Any new piece of information that may allow an advantage in the greater scheme of things is highly sought after by nation states, and if you are not aware of it, well, good luck to you.

I join Dave’s closing comment on the difference between espionage and warfare. We all need to understand though that there are governments and their intelligence services behind both of these. So yes, we all knew very well what we were walking into when we found our first 0-day, vulnerability, or realized that we can bypass controls, processes, hardware, software or whatever it is we hack our way through. This kind of knowledge and skill is a far cry from a new crocheting technique.

p.s. I’ve mentioned the law here, and if you know me you know that one of my advice to any fellow practitioner is usually “get a lawyer”. This isn’t just for fun – law is just as hackable as cheap knockoff Chinese firmware, or a shady Israeli device driver. I highly encourage everyone to at least study your local legislation in relation to computer “stuff”, as well as dabble a bit in the international aspects of it.

Post RSA musings

So it finally happened – I’ve had my first RSA in 9 years.

And what an experience. Suffice to say that I ended that week with no voice, a bad back, and minimally functioning knees, but given the premise of the show I’d peg is as a huge success.

First – having BSides to catch up with friends and colleagues was a perfect beginning to the week (not to mention the weekend in Napa right before – thanks for having me, Tenable!). There still is a huge value that I see in BSides, and BSidesSF specifically. Albeit the great venue (thanks OpenDNS), some more hallway-con was sorely missed. Be it the way the venue is laid out (preventing from more active/vocal discussions from happening other than outside), or the decision to run a dry venue (not even bring your own alcohol), I’d want to see how peer-engagement gets more focus there.

Second – the ability to “hack” RSA from a technical person’s perspective, and yes, I still consider myself somewhat technical, regardless of my ability to don on a suite and behave like a business guy. Which is sort of what hacking RSA is… It was intriguing having interactions with people outside of the echo-chamber (aka infosec) who deal with security and having them take a preconceived notion of me as a sales person. Or with those who gravitated to me as “I needed to talk to someone who is technical” – probably after snooping around a bit and choosing their approach based on existing conversations 😉

Last (and I saved the downer for here) – the show floor. After getting over the sheer size of the convention (no worries – BlackHat has a way to go until it becomes an RSA), I had my expectations adjusted a bit. Walking through the halls, you get into a realization that a lot of the companies showing there (especially the south hall) should probably have no reason to exist. The same regurgitation of “threat intelligence”, “endpoint protection” (i.e. APT, 0day, etc…), and your usual “trust me, I’m an engineer” approaches, were becoming comical to a point where I’d need to keep my gaze pointed far away and ignore the noise while walking around. I truly expected to see some new innovative approaches to security, and companies who would break out of the circle-jerk of security vendors. Unfortunately I didn’t see many, the reason for which I can’t really put my finger on (maybe the cost of entry to RSA?).

Overall, a great experience (and yes – lots of new business too), so yes, I believe my #notatrsa streak has come to an end. Or maybe I’m just getting old 😉

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Yes – you can engage with other evangelists at RSA! (and what seemed like a weird obsession – collect truckloads of branded t-shirts and vendor giveaways).