What are Flame and Stux-net and why should I care?

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There has been much discussion in the popular press of late about something called Flame and something called Stux-net, especially with regard to national security. However, many people do not understand what they are and why they are so troubling. Basically both of these are “computer worms” which, like viruses, attempt to perform malicious acts to your computer. The difference between a “worm” and a “virus” really has to do with how they are propagated. Computer viruses are a type of malware that generally deletes or changes files. They must be permitted to execute code and write to memory, and so generally attach themselves to some program; when the user runs the program, he or she also runs the virus (unintentionally). A worm, on the other hand, can self-replicate and move through a network (like the Internet). Generally worms are designed not only to spread, but also to make specific changes to the computer, including taking control of all or part of the computer. The key to understand is that the worm can cause damage to the system.

First, let’s talk about Stux-net. You may have heard about this one in 2010 when it was reported that there had been a cyberattack on Iranian uranium-enrichment centrifuges. This worm had been introduced into the Iranian nuclear processing facility (people in the know think it was introduced on a thumb drive), and it took control of the control system. A control system manages and regulates the machinery under its control, so that humans (often quite far away) can read sensors and information about they system and make adjustments. In this case, facility being monitored was Iran’s nuclear processing facility. The control system sent messages to uranium-enriching centrifuges to spin at speeds well beyond their tolerances. Obviously then the centrifuges were damaged.

You might ask how the worm could have caused that problem. Well, the programmers of the worm found vulnerabilities in the computer programs that run the control system. It is the same process of programmers exploiting bad programming the operating system so our computers can get viruses.

The worm caused so much damage to the facility that it has set back the nuclear program in Iran. At the time, there was discussion at the time that it might have originated in the United States and Israel, but there was no evidence to back up that claim.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss who was behind it and their motives. However, it is important to note that malware can get into a physical facility, such as power plants, water treatment facilities and other public utilities. These are things we have taken for granted as protected and safe. However, The Washington Post, reported that:

A recent examination of major control systems by six hacker-researchers working with the security firm Digital Bond found that six of seven devices in the study were riddled with hardware and software flaws. Some included back doors that enabled the hackers to download passwords or sidestep security completely.

In fact, according to The Washington Post,

Uncounted numbers of industrial control computers, the systems that automate such things as water plants and power grids, were linked in, and in some cases they were wide open to exploitation by even moderately talented hackers.

Further, they note,

A researcher at Cambridge University, Eireann Leverett, used Shodan to identify more than 10,000 control computers linked to the Internet, many of them with known vulnerabilities. Leverett concluded that many operators had no idea how exposed they were — or even realized that their machines were online.

Last week the press identified a new worm deployed in Iran called Flame. This seems to be primarily surveillance malware that allows someone to turn on microphones, look at data, track what people are doing on a computer, and perhaps even listen to nearby cell phone conversations. This worm was deployed to the Iranian oil industry and was attaching itself to control systems for the rigs and other equipment. It was detected and the Iranian government has unplugged those facilities from accessing the Internet. It has also created its own task force to combat these attacks and claims it intends to build its own Internet. This same worm has been found in the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

While the worms seem different, experts are not sure. They both move in the same fashion. In addition, computer experts say that the style of programming is similar between the two. Yes, it is true that there are styles of programming just as there are styles of writing. An expert can tell the reasons Emily Dickenson works are not confused with those of James Joyce. A computer expert can tell similarities in programming by how things are named, how they flow, and how different parts of the programs are hooked together. Worse yet, these experts claim to have found code that was apparently taken directly from Stux-net and put in Flame. All of those suggest similar authors.

What is the take-away for us? All of this mischief has put a spotlight on the fact that we, as a society, depend on computers for much beyond the business and pleasure applications we generally discuss. Everything from the car you drive to the utilities use computers to control them. And, where there are computers, there are people contemplating ways of breaking them. Most of these controllers were not visible to the average user, so they did not get attention from hackers. However, that also meant that their manufacturers often got lazy in building in the security to protect them. Now that they have the attention of the hackers, companies are scrambling to protect their controllers. Otherwise, we may be in for some rough times ahead at malicious or inadvertent attacks on our infrastrucutre.

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Facebook Privacy

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If you use Facebook regularly, you probably have seen the following in the last couple of days:

PRIVACY NOTICE: Warning – any person and/or institution and/or Agent and/or Agency of any governmental structure including but not limited to the United States Federal Government also using or monitoring/using this website or any of its associated websites, you do NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content contained herein including, but not limited to my photos, and/or the comments made about my photos or any other “picture” art posted on my profile.

You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this profile and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee , agent , student or any personnel under your direction or control.

The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law. UCC 1-103 1-308 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WITHOUT PREJUDICE

Ignore it, it is one of many hoaxes that appear on Facebook.   As I understand it, the law cited has to do with commercial law, and does not address anything about privacy in Facebook or otherwise.

BUT, the hoax does remind us of an important topic, Facebook Privacy.  Your privacy in Facebook is controlled by you through your privacy settings.   To find your privacy settings, look for the small arrow on the top right hand portion of your Facebook page, circled in the image below.   If you click on it you should get a listing of pages you own and some options.

 

From this menu, select “Privacy Settings,”  and you will get a menu of your various Facebook settings like:

 

These are the items that you can control.  Clicking on the blue “Edit Settings” will allow you to control the items in those categories.  So, if you select “edit settings” in “How you connect” you see a menu such as the one below:

 

 

This literally shows who can see you and request friendship or send messages.  In my case, I have left these settings open.  I have provided no telephone numbers, so there is nothing to see.  If I provided phone numbers, though, I would make sure only “Friends” could see the numbers.  By leaving open the email address, this allows people to find me by searching on the email.

I do know people who have limited who can send friend requests to only friends of friends.  It does limit the number of times you get friend requests, but it does limit your network to people in certain categories of your life.  If that is what you want, then button it down.

The second category is what people can post in the profiles or how Facebook controls tagging.

As you can see from the drop down box, in each case you can show the information to everyone (who has a Facebook account), to Friends of Friends, or just Friends.  In addition, you can limit it to people on certain lists, or even specify the friends using custom.  For example, I have limited who can post to or see my wall to Friends.  Although little of what I post on Facebook is too personal, I do not want everyone in the world being able to read it.   Limiting it to my friends does give me some control.

Now, what if you want to limit a specific post or photo?  Facebook does give you the ability to do that individually through the inline audience selector.  When you are posting, there is a blue menu at the bottom of the post as shown below.

 

Using the small arrow, you can select who can see the post to limit it to only some people, all your friends or everyone.  This gives you individual control.

A WORD OF WARNING:  While it is important to control your privacy settings so that unintended people do not get control of your personal information, you need to remember that once something is posted, you lose control of that information.  People who can see your post can easily re-post it or save it and post it somewhere else.  This is not a case of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”  Rather, it is a case of “it is on the Internet FOREVER.”  Before you post, think carefully about how much of a problem you might have if the information ended up with your boss or co-workers, a potential boss, members of your family or whatever.  It might not be a problem today, but if it stays there forever, you might find it to be a problem later.

To WiFi or Not to WiFi ….

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We have all entered our favorite Starbucks,  Panera, hotel or other public place and connected via the free WiFi network.  It is convenient, easy and free.  Why wouldn’t you connect?  There is always a risk with a public WiFi node that people can read your messages and track your searches.  Yes they can … there is technology that allows them to do it on a non-protected (read that free) network.  But, there is an additional concern this summer.  According to Private:  Your Online Privacy Source,

This month, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center issued a stark warning to travelers:  If you use hotel Wifi hotspots abroad, you could get burned.  The alert says cybercriminals are targeting travelers abroad using pop-up windows that appear while they are trying to connect to the Internet through hotel Wifi.  The pop-ups tell hotel guests that they need to update a widely used software product.  But when they click to install it, what they get instead is malware on their laptops.

So, what can you do? If we follow our normal security procedures, download all software updates before you travel, only download updates directly form a vendor (and never click on a link in an email to do it), you are better prepared. You should also block popups because that is how the criminals advertise the software they want you to download.

In addition, if you use free WiFi spots, it would be good to use a Virtual Private Network (Private VPN).  The VPN encrypts all of your data thereby making  it useless to the criminal who might intercept it.  Without the VPN, your data is sent without any protection and someone with the right tools and abilities could intercept it and then use it for whatever purpose.  The Private article recommends using PRIVATE WiFi™.

Don’t ruin your vacation because you neglected security!

Facebook Privacy — Vote Now

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Social networking sites pose a threat to the privacy of every individual.  We love the sites because they allow us to share information and photos easily with our friends and family.  Many people also learn to hate the sites because their information suddenly is used in ways that the individual did not know could happen.  I have written before about the need to lock down your privacy in social networking sites, especially in Facebook.

Facebook is about to change their privacy settings — and they are allowing users to help them decide what to do.  In May Facebook proposed privacy changes and included a statement,

Opportunity to comment and vote Unless we make a change for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement, we will give you seven (7) days to provide us with comments on the change. If we receive more than 7000 comments concerning a particular change, we will put the change up for a vote. The vote will be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.

That 30% hurdle is pretty significant, but you should voice your opinion by voting on the referendum by June 8 at 9:00pm (PDT).  To do this, go to https://www.facebook.com/fbsitegovernance/app_130362963766777.  When you come upon that page, there are four documents to consider, the current Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), the current  Data Use Policy, the proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), and the proposed Data Use Policy.   Clearly, the proposed documents do not tighten the scope with which they protect data.  Instead the documents outline how Facebook will increasingly use more of your data in ways you did not intend.

While it is not clear that voting will make a difference, I suggest you vote BEFORE June 8.  I voted to keep the current documents and hope you will too.