Don’t Let the Press be your Intrusion Detection System

All of the highly-publicized breaches last year continue to highlight that organizations are still wrestling with how to get a handle on their cybersecurity[1].  Breaches put the confidentiality and the integrity of your information at risk, as we recently saw with the hack into the Democratic National Committee’s email[2]. A denial of service attack impacts your availability, as we have recently seen with the attacks against the DNS provider Dyn[3].  In cases like these or similar, organizations were not aware of the extent of the issue until they read it in the press.

So, why are organizations usually the last to know?

  1. Protecting confidentiality requires surgically reducing access to information. The information needs to be available and modifiable, just not to everyone. To do this takes an understanding of the workflow. Just opening the data up to all is a fast way to get a system deployed.
  2. Management lacks clear metrics on the state of cyber security in their organization. Few know any real information on how effective their current protection is. For example are all the virus scanners up to date in an organization? Can people bypass the proxies? Currently, management is given useless data like number of attacks blocked at the firewall, number of spam messages stopped, or number of viruses caught by virus scanner. (Why do I call these useless? I’ll be following that up in my next post – and tell you what you should be looking for. But suffice it to say – you have the data – you just aren’t looking at it correctly.)
  3. The perimeter defense just isn’t working. Many organizations have firewalls, web proxies and virus scanners that protect laptops at work. However, those same laptops are then used at home, where they are not behind the web proxy or firewall.
  4. There are very few really good cybersecurity professionals out there, which probably contributes to #2
  5. The bad guys are relentless.


As management is not seeing the right picture, most then are unaware that their cybersecurity defenses are inadequate. They don’t yet see a need to invest in monitoring the technologies they’ve invested in. And, this leads to no monitoring, which re-enforces the strategy of not investing in cybersecurity.

The Cycle of Inaction


Good management means that you invest efficiently, and investing in something that is not needed is inefficient. Lacking effective information, the perception becomes that there isn’t a problem. This feeds what I call the Cycle of Inaction. This cycle is caused by believing the investment in protection is enough, and lacking additional information, must be working. This leads to complacency, when metrics are actually needed. A complacency that sometimes is broken by a press article.

This cycle of inaction can lead to spectacular failures. Of note over the past couple of years, we have the hack of the NSA toolkit, the recent release of the CIA cyber toolkit, the hack of Yahoo!’s passwords, the hack of Target, the hack of …

We know of these events because the press is the Intrusion Detection System (IDS) of default for many organizations. That IDS, however, is not easy to control, and definitely reports what we call “trailing metrics,” or a metric about a problem AFTER it has happened.

What Is Your Cybersecurity Maturity

I’ve found that the cybersecurity issue that the industry is confronting is very similar to the quality issues that the industry tackled in the 1970s and 1980s. To address and improve quality, the ultimate solution was to install a mature process within an organization. A mature process is defined as a process that is repeatable, with quality-based decisions made using meaningful metrics.

I offer that many organizations are at a maturity level of 1, if the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) metrics are used. Getting to a CMM maturity level of 2 (of which there are 5) appears to be a little bit away for cybersecurity. If the struggle is to get to CMM 2, perhaps it makes sense to sub-divide the maturity level 1 into sub levels, as in the list below.

Level Action You are first to tell the story You can investigate privately You can prevent a large incident
1.1 Organization learns about cybersecurity failures via the press, where the message is uncontrolled and incident needs to be addressed.
1.2 Organization learns about cybersecurity failures via a third party, privately (e.g. law enforcement or a business partner) The message can be controlled, as can the response to the incident.
1.3 Organization learns about cybersecurity failures internally. This allows the organization to control the message of the incident as well as the response.
1.4 Organization notes indicators that an incident is about to happen. Here, the organization can take steps to mitigate an incident before it happens.

To increase your cybersecurity maturity, you need to improve your ability to monitor the cybersecurity of your digital assets, by analyzing the outputs of the technologies you have invested in.

Consider, your organization currently has firewalls to protect against bad things coming from the outside. You have web proxies and even content filters to protect against bad things coming from the outside. And, you have anti-virus scanners on your desktop.

With all of those layers of defense, it seems reasonable to conclude that no virus should ever reach the desktop. Measure that. Any time that any computer’s virus scanner detects a virus, a root cause investigation should be performed to determine which security control failed. For example, if a desktop has recently been infected with ransomware, a forensic analysis should be performed to determine how the virus got on the system. At the highest level, the cause will be one of these two things:

  1. The user violated a security practice, such as plugging in a USB.
  2. An existing cybersecurity technology failed. Did it not work? Was it improperly deployed?

Collect these metrics on the root causes, and soon you will have a clearer picture of the effectiveness of the controls.

Next topic, suggestions for effect metrics, to help you increase your “sense” of cybersecurity within your organization.



[1] Let’s define cybersecurity as the protection of the confidentiality and integrity of information, along with ensuring that the information is available when needed to whomever needs it

[2] Krebs, B. (2017,January). The Download on the DNC Hack. Retrieved from

[3] Newman, L. H. (2016, December). The Botnet That Broke the Internet Isn’t Going Away, retrieved from

Speed matters. How to make a forensic image as quickly as possible.

The typical method used to create a forensic image is to connect the source disk to a write-blocker. The write-blocker is then connected to a computer and a forensic image is made. This process needs to be updated to keep up with the capacity and speeds of the newest disk drive. By making the process as efficient as possible, the forensic imaging times can be substantially reduced.

When making a forensic image of a disk drive, it is necessary to copy every byte available from the source disk and to ensure that nothing is written to the source disk. As the capacity of disk drives has increased, the time required to make a forensic image has also increased. For example, a 20GB disk drive would take approximately 8 minutes to image at best. A 200GB could take approximately 50 minutes at best, while a 1TB disk drive would take approximately 2.5 hours.

We can calculate how fast a disk drive can be imaged by dividing the total capacity of the disk by the maximum sustained transfer rate (MSTR) of the disk. The MSTR is the manufacturers information on how fast data can be read off of a disk drive for a very large transfer. The MSTR tells us how fast data comes off of the disk. (Note that the maximum burst transfer rate is not of use to us since it only provides information on how quickly data comes out of the disk cache, and it only applies to a small amount of data.)

Let’s look at a 1.5TB Western Digitial Caviar Green disk drive as an example. The data for this drive is available here.  This disk drive has a capacity of 1,500,301 MB and it has a maximum sustained transfer rate of 110 MB/s. Thus, it would take 227.3 minutes (almost 4 hours) to forensically copy the entire contents of the disk drive. (A transfer rate of 110MB/s is 6.6 GB/minute.) To achieve this speed, all parts of the forensic imaging process must be able to process data at a rate of 6.6GB/minute or greater.

Using a USB 2.0 write-blocker would slow this transfer rate down dramatically, as USB 2.0 has a maximum data transfer rate of approximately 34 MB/s. Using a USB 2.0 write-blocker when imaging the 1.5TB disk drive would require 735.4 minutes (over 12 hours).

Other factors that can alter the efficiency of the disk imaging process include:

  • The buffer size of a data transfer.
  • The filesystem where the data is being written to.
  • Whether compression is used when making the forensic image.

All of the above factors need to be tuned to ensure that forensic images are made as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I have recently published a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences entitiled Characteristic of Forensic Imaging. This article discusses the impacts of different factors on the efficiency of forensic imaging. I am also preparing a web page that will provide simple scripts to allow you to evaluate the efficiency of your forensic imaging setup.

the latest on credit card frauds

Recently I worked with Acme (the name has been changed to protect their identify), a retail company that had been contacted by their bank. (Let’s call the company Acme.) During an investigation of some credit card frauds, the bank discovered that many of the fraudulent transactions appeared to have one location in common, Acme.

The analysis works like this. Let’s assume that Joe Smith and Mary Jones used their credit cards at Acme on March 1st. Then, on March 20th, both Joe’s and Mary’s credit cards were involved in fraudulent transactions. Once a credit card is involved in a fraudulent transaction, the banks look to see if this transaction is part of a larger fraud. So, they check the historical transactions of Joe and Mary, looking for the business that they both have in common. The theory is simple, if Joe and Mary visited a company with a security breach, it will be seen in the historical analysis.

This type of fraud analysis is useful for detecting when many credit cards are compromised at a business. If the bank can identify the location where credit card numbers were compromised, it can prevent future fraud from that compromise. In order to do that, the bank will need to cancel all credit cards that were used at the business where the compromised occurred and re-issue new ones.

Back to Acme. So, based upon fraud analysis, the bank had strong reason to believe that somehow Acme was leaking credit card numbers. In fact, the bank suspected that over 70 fraudulent transactions resulted from a problem with Acme. Our review of Acme showed that their network was Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliant. The credit card numbers were protected in Acme’s network. So, the card numbers were not leaking out because a network hacker.

This left only two options. The first is that an employee or employees were stealing the credit card numbers through the use of a skimmer, or that Acme’s card processor was hacked. Based upon the fact that only certain transactions at Acme were reported as compromised, this meant that the skimmer possibility was much more likely.

While there has been a lot of work on securing credit card data over the network, the physical credit card is still vulnerable to the skimming attack.

In order to protect yourself, do not let you credit card out of your sight when you use it. Because when it is out of your sight, it is possible that the person that took your credit card also took a copy of your credit card.



Why won’t my call go through? Denial of service in the cell phone network.

Recently, some of the major cellular carriers have released “Network Extenders”, also known as femtocell. The network extender is a device that a subscriber purchases to extend the reach of the cell phone network. (In effect, the subscriber is paying for the privilege of increasing the cellular network coverage. What a deal!)

The network extender is conceptually similar to a Wi-Fi access point. Both connect to the Internet via wire, and both provide wireless services. While the Wi-Fi device provides Internet services, the femtocell provides cellular services.

The femtocell basically appears as a new cell tower to cell phones that are within its range. And, the femtocell will process calls for any and all cell phones that successfully register with the cell phone while is it connected to the Internet. Effectively, the femtocell is just a new gateway to the cellular network.

It is not possible for the cell phone owner to choose to connect to the femtocell or to a regular cell tower. The decision on how the cell phone connects to the cell network is made by the cell phone and the “cell tower”. And, this did not used to be a problem, when only the cellular carriers were putting up cell towers. However, the release of the network extender has allowed individuals to deploy cell towers.

Recently, I encountered a denial of service issue with a cell phone that I tracked back to an issue with a femtocell. A cell phone has registered with the femtocell to connect to the wireless network. However, the femtocell lost connectivity to the Internet. (Remember, the femtocell is a gateway that uses the Internet to connect to the cellular network.)

Since the femtocell still had power, the wireless side was still active. This meant that any cell phone that had registered with the femtocell thought that it was still connected to the cellular network. However, the femtocell had no ability to connect to the cellular network, since the Internet was done. It appears that the current cell phones do not have the ability to determine if they are connected to a cell tower that is active.

Thus, the cell phone could not make or receive calls or text messages. And the user had no ability to tell the cell phone to switch to a working cell tower. The only was to get the cell phone working again was to move to a different area, outside of the range of the femtocell. And, the cell phone reported 3 or 4 bars during the entire outage.

Until the carriers improve the algorithm that a cell phone uses to ensure it has an active cell tower, about the only thing the subscriber can do is use a Voice over IP (VoIP) application as a backup to the standard phone. And, this will only work if the VoIP application can use the Wi-Fi network for calls. And, if that is not possible, use email, which should still work via Wi-Fi if the cell tower is not functioning.


SCADA and security

A recent article  by Hal Hodson of Information Age reports that the FBI has publicly stated that hackers have successfully targeted SCADA systems in three unnamed US communities. The attacks were reported to have the potential to shut down electricity at a nearby mall as well as the potential to dump sewage. Just weeks earlier came an announcement from the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center that claimed a water pump failure was caused by a hacker attacking the pump control system. The failure came from the attackers repeatedly turning the pump on and off. (The Illinois hacking attack has been refuted the FBI, so then it must not be one of the three sites reported above, right?)

So, what exactly is SCADA? Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. SCADA systems control power production and distribution, such as those used for the generation of electricity or the delivery of water to communities. They are basically used to support the infrastructure that we rely upon. Thus, the failure of SCADA systems can impact a large number of people.

In a display of the potential damage that can be caused by an attack on the SCADA network , let’s look back to Stuxnet . This malware was reported to have targeted very specific Siemens based SCADA systems. (The attack was so specific that there was speculation that the purpose of the malware was to damage the nuclear facilities of Iran.) While details are hard to come by, it appears that the Stuxnet attack resulted in damage to centrifuges. (The centrifuge is used to separate different isotopes of uranium.)

Stuxnet caused incorrect data to be reported, which lead to the control systems effectively “mis-operating” the equipment. This “mis-operation” then resulted in damage. Stuxnet further revealed that it is difficult to prevent SCADA systems from malware attack. Theoretically, Stuxnet should not have been able to infect the SCADA systems controlling the centrifuges. However, in practice, it did because somehow the malware was introduced, either through an Internet connection or carried in via a USB. This reveals the risks of taking SCADA systems that are already network capable systems and making them accessible via the Internet.

So, you would think that a malware infection such as Stuxnet could not happen again. Not so fast, as Iran has reported that they are now dealing with another virus, the Duqu virus, that is targeting their civil defense system.

Well, what can we learn from all of this? Certainly, virus scanners are less effective now, especially against a determined adversary. Therefore, it truly is important that SCADA systems be shielded from the introduction of malware, whether it is via the Internet or through a USB device.

As consumers, we all have an interest in the security of the SCADA systems that manage our power, our water, and even our prisons.

How to find hidden passwords (and how to protect them)

While preparing to teach a computer forensic workshop, I discovered a new live Linux distribution entitled C.A.IN.E, (Computer Aided Investigative Environment.) This software is one of a few live Linux distributions that allows a user to boot Linux from a CD or DVD and start a forensic investigation. The distribution includes tools to make forensic and analyze forensic images. Since it is freeware, it is easy to make use of the software as part of the workshop.

In addition to Linux tools, NBCAINE version 2.5 includes WinTaylor, a set of tools that are designed to run on a Windows system.This software can be loaded onto a USB through the “dd” utility. (Once loaded on the USB,  a user can boot the live distro off of the USB and not access the WinTaylor tools or plug the USB into a running Windows system and access the WinTaylor tools.) Included in the WinTaylor section of the software are Windows based tools from NirSoft that allow a user to recover passwords saved in popular web browsers, view recent file activity on the Windows system, view information about USB drives attached to the computer and more.

The NirSoft tools include some noteworthy ones that are designed to uncover passwords stored on Windows systems. For example, when you log into a password protected website, Internet Explorer (and other browsers) give you the option to save the login information so that you don’t need to enter it the next time. A Nirsoft utility, iepv.exe(Internet Explorer Password Viewer), retrieves and displays the userids and passwords. If you use Microsoft Outlook and save your POP3 or IMAP password,  the Nirsoft utility mailpv.exe will retrieve and display the accounts and passwords saved in Outlook. And, WirelessKeyView.exe will display the wireless network names and associated passwords that are stored in your system.

I encourage you to obtain these tools and run them on your system to reveal how many passwords are stored on your system. If you discover sensitive passwords stored on your system and you allow others to use your system, you will want to ensure that you clean out the stored passwords.

While you might not be able to delete all of the saved passwords, at least you will now have a better handle on all of the passwords stored on your system that are recoverable.

Revenge Hacking

Revenge is a powerful motivator for hacking. Take, for example, the case of Barry Ardolf of Minnesota. Trouble started when Mr. Ardolf was accused by a neighbor of kissing their 4-year boy on the lips. When the parents confronted Mr. Ardolf, he confessed that the accusation was true. Naturally, the parents of the 4-year old contacted the police. This made Mr. Ardolf angry and he decided to seek revenge.

As part of his revenge, court documents indicate that Mr. Ardolf used aircrack, a freely available wireless security tool, to discover the Wired Enhanced Privacy (WEP ) password for his neighbor’s network.  With the neighbor’s WEP password, Mr. Ardolf could use his own computer to connect to the neighbor’s wireless network. Once connected to the wireless network, Mr. Ardolf would be able to access the Internet using the  neighbor’s IP address. Thus, any activity performed by Mr. Ardolf on the Internet would be tracked back to his neighbor’s residence. This provided the opportunity for Mr. Ardolf to take revenge by taking actions that would appear to be done by his neighbor.

Meanwhile, the “hacked” neighbor had been getting reports that coworkers were receiving bizarre email messages that could not be explained. The neighbor had taken the step of bringing in a security consultant to monitor activity on his network. During the time that the monitor was active, the Secret Service investigated an email threat that was found to have been sent from Mr. Ardolf through the neighbor’s wireless network. Since it was sent from “hacked” network, the IP address of the email message came back to the neighbor, not Mr. Ardolf. This lead the Secret Service to visit the neighbor, who turnover over the information from the monitor. In the monitor logs was Mr. Ardolf’s POP3 username and password, presumably known only to Mr. Ardolf. This piece of incriminating information cause the government to turn its attention toward Mr. Ardolf.

The username and password found in the monitor log gave the government probable cause to obtain a search warrant for Mr. Ardolf’s residence. Examination of his computers revealed that he had sent the threatening email, as well as created false email addresses and MySpace accounts designed to appear to be the neighbor.

Further, evidence was uncovered  that Mr. Ardolf had in his possession underage illicit images. He appears to have sent these images from the fake accounts that he created, apparently to “frame” his neighbor.

There are a few lessons that show up from this case. One is that revenge is a powerful and dangerous motivation, one that I covered in my book from a few years ago, High Tech Crimes Revealed.  Revenges is a dangerous motivation since the goal is to damage or hurt another.

Another lesson is that security weaknesses can be used to attack home networks as well as business networks. While WEP encryption is better that no encryption, it suffers from security flaws that can be easily exploited using freely available tools.

In this case, the use of improved WiFi Protect Access (WPA) encryption would have made it more difficult for Mr. Ardolf to break into the neighbor’s wireless network.