Windows 10 touts enterprise- and mobile-friendly security

Windows 10 touts enterprise- and mobile-friendly security

Microsoft has provided its latest Windows 10 operating system as a free upgrade for current Windows users, and as with most new offerings it comes standard with several security features, including ones that are aimed specifically at government and enterprise customers.

It’s not likely to mean much to agencies immediately, however, as most seem unlikely to upgrade anytime soon.  If history is any guide, given the headaches past updates have posed (think Vista, Microsoft 7 and – gasp! – Windows 8), it could be much longer than the 12 months or more that some surveys have suggested.

Also bear in mind that government agencies are notoriously slow in moving to new systems, given money and mission concerns. The fact that there’s still a large number of users on the now-officially defunct Microsoft XP is testimony to that.

Microsoft itself is touting Windows 10’s “encryption containers” and two-factor authentication (using fingerprint and facial recognition biometrics) as ways to toughen access requirements and help prevent data loss even when systems are breached.

These and other security features are becoming common in new operating systems –-  and are even seen as competitive necessities. For Microsoft, they should help the venerable desktop OS stay relevant. More important, given the company’s belated recognition of the mobile universe, it could buttress Microsoft’s attempt to make Windows 10 a viable, if minor, competitor to Apple’s iOS and the multiple varieties of Android.

In fact, some observers think Microsoft is deliberately trying to make Windows 10 much more like a smartphone environment from the get-go, combining the various security features with a new Windows Store for authorized and vetted applications, a la the Apple Store and Android app markets.

Microsoft’s Device Guard, for example, requires a three-way sign-off by app vendors, the Windows Store and the enterprise for any application to work -- an attempt to block zero-day attacks. And Windows Hello (how do they come up with these names?) is the biometric security feature that works with Windows 10’s new Passport to verify you actually have the device on which you are trying to access services within your possession.

Not everything appears hunky dory with Windows 10 security, however. The “next generation” OS apparently requires an opt-out statement by a user to decline a default feature that allows Windows 10 to share access to any network the user logs onto with contacts listed in both Outlook and Skype, the VoIP provider Microsoft bought several years ago.

Some people are poo-pooing the concern over this feature, saying users still must affirmatively allow this sharing. All well and good, but how many users will take the steps to actively opt out, safeguarding themselves from possibly leaking access credentials or unintentionally giving someone access to a network?

To be continued, no doubt.

Stage fright: Android’s Heartbleed moment?

On the Android front, there is apparently a bundle of vulnerabilities that some experts are saying could leave most Android phones open to attack with just a single multimedia text. It could, they warn, turn out to be the worst Android flaw ever, along the lines of the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug that caused such panic last year.

Apparently, the fault lies with remote execution bugs in Android's Stagefright media playback tool. Joshua Drake, a researcher at Zimperium zLabs who first reported the bugs in April, said the vulnerability could affect 95 percent of all Android devices -- and the exploits don’t even require the user to interact with the text.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team has published a formal alert on Stagefright, with pointers to various patches and other ways to guard against possible exploits.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 31, 2015 at 9:01 AM0 comments


Windows XP: The undead OS

Windows XP: The undead OS

It’s been one of the longest retirement parties in the IT world, but finally we should be able to say that Windows XP is now gone. Except that it isn’t, and what that means for the security of a – still – large slab of government XP users is an open question.

Microsoft officially ended its support for XP in April 2014, meaning it would not provide any more versions of the venerable operating system, introduced way back in 2001. At that time it also stopped providing security patches for XP through its Microsoft Security Essentials, though it continued to deliver anti-malware signature updates for a time.

That very last grace period finally came to an end on July 14 when Microsoft finished with XP signature updates along with the use of its Malicious Software Removal Tool for XP. If your XP machine gets infected with malware from now on… tough.

OK, you say, why should that bother me since every agency must have figured this out a long time ago and ditched XP in favor of another operating system that is regularly updated?

If only that were so. There still seems to be plenty of these old systems around. Market analyst firm Net Applications earlier this year said XP makes up nearly 17 percent of the total worldwide desktop operating system market share. Other analysts come in lower, but they still suggest over 10 percent of desktop users work with XP.

There are no overall figures for government, but occasional revelations indicate it’s not insubstantial. The Labor Department’s CIO was quoted earlier this year as saying there were still some 10,000 XP users in her agency, while the Navy last month signed a two-year, $9.1 million contract with Microsoft for its direct support of 100,000 mission critical systems, including thousands of XP computers.

No one expects these systems to be used forever. Labor and the Navy are both trying to transition away from these kinds of legacy systems, and so must the other agencies still running the aged operating system. However, no one knows how vulnerable the machines are.

And given the example of the recently announced breaches at the Office of Personnel Management, where OPM executives admitted the attacks on their systems could have been going on for at least a year, there’s a good chance that at least some XP systems still in use have been successfully penetrated. Attackers need only one infected machine to access other systems in the enterprise, from which they can cause damage and grab valuable data.

So, you say, at the very least agencies must be targeting these old XP systems as a priority for replacement? Again, that’s hard to say. And some recent reports and surveys indicate that desire and reality is a hard union to consummate in government IT.

The Professional Services Council in its recent CIO survey, for example, reported that cybersecurity remains the top priority for government CIOs, but that modernizing the IT environment in a way that could aid their cybersecurity efforts remains a challenge for many, because the predominant portion of their IT budgets goes to maintaining legacy systems. The Defense Department, for one, said only 20 percent of its budget is available for investing in next-generation solutions.

The situation out in state and local government is no better. In a study of state IT investment management strategies, a National Association of State CIOs  report said nearly half of state CIOs spend 80 cents of every IT dollar on maintaining existing systems.

What all of this suggests is that old Windows XP systems, particularly if they get lost in the intense competition of IT priorities, could be a problem for cybersecurity for some years yet.

According to Microsoft, Windows XP is now dead, dead, dead. Except when it’s not.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 17, 2015 at 10:35 AM1 comments


Government credentials show up on paste sites

Government credentials show up on paste sites

While much attention has been paid to the very public attacks on government agencies, particularly the breach at the Office of Personnel Management, less has been made of the whereabouts of the exfiltrated data. So how easy is it for John Doe to get his hands on the information let loose in these attacks? Extremely, it seems, according to one recent report.

Security threat analyst Recorded Future, using open source intelligence on 17 paste sites over a single year ending in November 2014, discovered possible exposure of 47 U.S. government agencies across 89 unique domains. The Energy Department alone had email/password combinations on the sites for nine different domains.

A paste site gives users -- usually programmers and coders -- a place to store and share short items in plain text. Pastebin is the best known of these, though there are dozens of others. Anyone on the web can access them, and large companies such as Facebook have started to mine them for information to make their own sites more secure.

Credentials that grant access to agency networks have become a major target for Black Hats because they more easily open up an organization’s data. In fact, most of the sophisticated attacks on government agencies were enabled by attackers who had privileged account information.

Hackers in search of credentials often target agency contractor or business partner sites, as those organizations' employees are given agency access privileges for certain uses. And Recorded Future, in fact, found that most of the exposures at the paste sites were from these kinds of third-party websites, along with government employees using their government email accounts to register for web-based services -- a growing security concern in itself.

The Recorded Future study can’t specify the actual damage from all of this posted information, but it’s easy to infer the possibilities.

Much of the potential damage could be significantly lessened with the use of fairly simple security steps such as requiring two-factor authentication for network access. However, as the Recorded Future report pointed out, OMB has found that many major agencies don’t employ this safeguard for privileged access. The OPM breach was directly tied to this lack of two-factor authentication.

Recorded Future shared the results of its analysis with the government and agencies last year, well before it made them public. It also made a list of helpful suggestions for agencies to protect  themselves against the effects of the paste site exposures:

  • Enable multi-factor authentication and/or VPNs.
  • Require government employees to use stronger passwords that change with greater regularity.
  • Gauge and define use of government email addresses on third-party sites.
  • Maintain awareness of third-party breaches and regularly assess exposure.
  • Ensure Robot Exclusion Standard (robots.txt) is set for government login pages to prevent listing of webmail/web-services in search engines.

All good suggestions. How many would you guess will be standard operating procedure at agencies a year from now?

Mudge to the rescue!

One of the other problems that plague government, along with industry at large, is being able to gauge the quality and reliability of the software it acquires. As last year’s Open SSL Heartbleed affair showed, even well established software can be vulnerable.

Peter Zatko, known affectionately in security circles by his hacker handle Mudge, is leaving his job at Google to help the government create a CyberUL, a cyber version of the famous Underwriters Laboratory that is considered a stamp of approval for the worthiness of many products. He first made his announcement on Twitter.

Zatko went to Google via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he was developing technical skills and techniques for use in cyber combat. Before that he was with BBN Technologies and other security research companies.

Not much is yet known of what Zatko will be doing for the government, but he was reportedly a member of the L0pht hacker collective in the 1990s, which published a paper that described a possible model for a CyberUL.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 06, 2015 at 11:06 AM0 comments


What’s worse: Living with legacy systems or replacing them?

What’s worse: Living with legacy systems or replacing them?

The recent revelation of a breach at the Office of Personnel Management, which could have resulted in the theft of personal information of millions of government employees, also points up the broader problem government has with legacy systems -- whether it’s worth spending the money to secure them.

Not that securing the OPM’s systems would have done much good in this case --  according to the Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity Andy Ozment, the systems were not directly penetrated.  Instead, attackers obtained OPM users’ network credentials and got to the systems and data from the inside.

Donna Seymour, the OPM’s CIO, told a recent House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform  that the department was implementing database encryption, but that some of legacy systems were not capable of accepting encryption.

Some of the OPM’s systems are over 20 years old and written in COBOL, she said, which would require a full rewrite to include encryption and other security such as multi-factor authentication.

This is a government-wide problem. Many of the financial and administrative systems that are central to the agencies’ daily operations use the nearly 60-year old COBOL. Most agency CIOs have targeted those systems for replacement, but it’s not a simple rip-and-replace job -- any mistake could have a severe impact on the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission.

For that reason, many agencies have chosen to maintain those systems for now, but that’s not cheap, either. The OPM itself said last year that maintaining its legacy systems could cost 10-15 percent more a year as people with the right kind of expertise retire. And throughout government, legacy systems account for over two-thirds of the annual IT spend.

That expertise is unlikely to be replaced. Colleges aren’t turning out COBOL-trained coders anymore, and, with COBOL way down the list of popular languages, that won’t change. Agencies could bring in consultants to rewrite the code. But, again, not cheap.

And COBOL is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Because of its ubiquity and utility, many organizations will continue to use COBOL until it’s pried out of their cold, dead hands. Meanwhile, old mainframe companies that have recently refocused on the cloud continue to update their COBOL tools to keep pace with current IT trends.

It’s not as if problems with legacy systems were the only reason for the breaches at OPM. Lawmakers also berated agency officials for their lack of attention to security governance issues that had been brought up years ago and were highlighted yet again last year in an OPM Inspector General report.

But the legacy issues are real and, according to some reports, extend even to “legacy” security systems such as signature-based firewalls, intrusion prevention systems and other widely installed devices that are just not capable of stopping modern, fast, sophisticated and chameleon-like threats.

However, at least the situation with the federal government is probably not as bad as that of a public school district in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is still running the air conditioning and heating systems for 19 schools using a Commodore Amiga -- as in the 1980s-era personal computer that was popular for home use -- because a replacement system reportedly will cost up to $2 million.

At least, we hope not.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jun 19, 2015 at 10:55 AM7 comments