Apr 112017
Computer security is evolving in a time of social media

This blog, and its predecessor, have long maintained that computers and the internet have levelled the playing field between large corporations and small business so it was interesting Telstra’s managers say that over lunch today.

Australia’s biggest telco was showing off their cloud services for small to medium businesses with a presentation from futurist Ross Dawson on the changing technology world then real world case studies from Darwin’s Abode New Homes, Canberra’s Red Robot and Melbourne’s Cargo Crew.

Narelle Craig of Cargo Crew led with one very good reason for adopting cloud services – Cryptolocker ransomware.

After an infection that locked them out of their systems and cost the business a hundred thousand dollars, they shifted their on premise software to the cloud.

It’s easy to imagine how Cargo Crew came unstuck, a basic system that met the needs of a four person company five years ago grew into an unwieldy beast servicing 25 staff today. As the business grew, the disruption of upgrading IT systems was seen as too time consuming and costly.

Until of course something happened. A ransomware infection for Cargo Crew and for Abode a fire in a neighbouring office the evening after they’d installed a new 20,000 dollar server, where thankfully they didn’t lose anything but the scare was enough for them to start looking at alternatives.

Cargo Crew’s tale is a reminder of how basic most small to medium businesses’ IT systems are and how rudimentary their IT security is. While technology does level the playing field, there are still some things smaller businesses struggle with.

Mar 022017
how are we using data in our business

Last week I wrote a piece for Fairfax Metro – the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age – looking at how government agencies and private credit companies are mining data.

That story sparked a range of interest with my doing a twenty minute segment on ABC Brisbane today on the topic which morphed into a deeper discussion on surveillance, particularly with the Australian government’s ‘metadata’ laws.

I’ll also be talking on ABC Radio Perth on Monday, March 6 about this story at 6.15am local time (9.15am Sydney and Melbourne).

In the wake of the Australian government’s Centrelink scandala national disgrace that is only getting worse – it’s worthwhile discussing exactly what data is being gathered and how it is being used.

The answer is almost everything with commercial operators like Experian pulling in data from sources ranging from credit card applications to social media services although store loyalty cards remain the richest information source.

As the Australian Tax Office spokesperson pointed out, none of this is particularly new as they have been collecting bank deposit data since the Federal government introduced income taxes in the 1930s.

The arrival of computers in 1960s changed the scale and scope of tax offices’ abilities to track citizens’ finances and gave rise to the major commercial credit bureaus.

With the explosion of personal electronics and internet connected devices in recent years along with increased surveillance powers being granted to government and private agencies, that monitoring is only going to grow.

The best citizens can expect is to have their data protected and respected with financial providers only using what is ethical and relevant in determining our access to banking and insurance products.

Politically the only way to ensure that is to make it clear through the ballot box, the question is do we care enough?

Jan 172017
Is Yahoo! recovering under new CEO Marissa Mayer

Slowly it’s dawning on government agencies how serious online data breaches can be. That can only be a good thing.

With a billion account details exposed the Yahoo! data breach announced last year was the greatest internet security failure to date.

Now Australian government agencies are worried about the scope of the breach and the number of politicians and officeholders whose credentials may have been affected.

Other government officials compromised include those carrying out sensitive roles such as high-ranking AFP officers, AusTrac money laundering analysts, judges and magistrates, political advisors, and even an employee of the Australian Privacy Commissioner.

The ramifications of this breach are far broader than just a few malcontents grabbing the contents of disused Yahoo! mail accounts or being able to hack Flickr profiles, many of the passwords will have been used on other services, compromised profiles linked to other platforms and the possible for identity fraud is immense.

With social media and cloud computing services coupled to these accounts, it’s quite possible for someone’s entire life to be hijacked thanks to one insecure service as Wired’s Matt Horan discovered a few years ago.

Just like individuals and businesses, the ramifications of careless organisations allowing private information to be stolen can be severe for governments. It’s right that Australian agencies are concerned about where this data has gone.

The official response to continued data breaches has been weak at best so it is good that suddenly agencies are having to face the consequences of the biggest one.

A widespread scare about insecure data may be what’s required to see governments start taking data security and citizen privacy seriously. That may be the positive side of the Yahoo! breach.

Oct 312016
Networks and computers connecting to the web

This is the unedited version of an article that appeared two weeks ago in The Australian.

Cybersecurity is becoming an important responsibility for executives and directors. Often shortened to ‘cyber’, it’s easy to dismiss cybersecurity as just being the latest IT industry buzzword however ensuring information systems are secure is now firmly a management issue.

Information breaches have become embarrassingly common in recent times with events ranging from Target exposing forty million of its customers’ records in 2013, a breach which cost the company $162 million dollars, through to national security embarrassments like the Snowden revelations.

Exacerbating the risks to businesses is the dependency upon information systems to normal operations and the damage from denial of service attacks such as the outage across much of the US last weekend can be debilitating and costly. The recent Australian census saga that cost taxpayers thirty million dollars, is an illustration of how costly poorly planned responses to service interruptions and security breaches can be.

Compounding the risks for Australian executives are the breach disclosure laws tabled in Federal Parliament last week which threaten 340,000 dollars fines for individuals and 1.7 million dollars for corporations that fail to act quickly on data privacy failures.

In such a high risk environment business leaders need to be proactive says Leonard Kleinman, the Asia Pacific and Japan Chief Cyber Security Advisor for security software firm RSA, “the legislation is aimed at organisations that I’d call ‘wilfully blind’ or like to employ the concept of ‘plausible deniability’.”

As that period of ‘wilful blindness’ and ‘plausable deniability’ comes to an end, executives and directors have to start taking their responsibilities in protecting data far more seriously. The challenge lies in understanding the risks.

“What a lot organisations – both private and public – haven’t done well is their ‘Crown Jewels assessment,” says Glenn Maiden, Principal Security Consultant at Canberra’s ?Shearwater Solutions. “It has to be contextualised. My crown jewels might be credit card numbers but for that may not be the interest for foreign intelligence agencies.” Then understand where the risks are for those critical data and processes.

In understanding what those ‘crown jewels’ are, it’s important to consider what is valuable within the organisation. While to the marketing team the most valuable information may be customer data, to the COO it may be ensuring continuity of service while to external parties it could be pricing details or legal correspondence.

“The things I’ve suggested in the conversations I’ve had with organisations is simple stuff; review things like your instant response strategies – can you start an investigation quickly,” says RSA’s Kleinman. “It’s probably good to review your contracts. If you have a cloud services providers that experiences a breach, how are they going to go about doing the notification?”

In a world where subcontracting and outsourcing is normal business practice, the risk from third party vendors is real and goes beyond cloud providers. The disastrous Target hack being due to an air conditioning contractor’s compromised system and Edward Snowden himself wasn’t a direct government employee.

Privacy and security breach notifications are only part of the broader cybersecurity picture though and the field is becoming more complex. Last weekend’s massive denial of service attack that compromised many US based online services was caused by the Mirai botnet, that exploits vulnerabilities in cheap internet of things devices.

With business processes becoming increasingly connected and automated, management concerns are extending to the security, integrity and reliability of devices being used in their organisation. Even if the business critical sensors being officially purchased are of high quality, everything from smartphones to connected kettles being bought into the staff tearoom could be a potential risk to the corporate network and a business’ reputation.

It would be a mistake however to think cybersecurity is purely a technology problem however. “Ultimately insider threats are about people,” says Senior Vice President of Nuix’s threat intelligence and analysis, Keith Lowry. “These are all people who used tools or technology to do what they did and they got away with it because others were focused on the technology rather than focused on the people.”

As the business world becomes more dependent upon data and connected systems, the governance of networks and their security is going to be increasingly the responsibility of business leaders.

Oct 262016
computer and internet security

Are we focusing too much on technology and not enough on people when it comes to insider threats? Talking to Keith Lowry, the Senior Vice President of threat intelligence and analysis for Nuix, it’s hard not to come away with the impression there is too much emphasis on technology and not enough on human factors when looking at IT security risks.

Lowry gave a briefing to journalists at Nuix’s Sydney office last week discussing the types of insider threats organizations face.  “Why is it, despite all the money we’re spending, we seem to be losing the cybersecurity battle?” he asks.

“The majority of insider threat programs that I’ve seen begin with the foundation of technology when in reality the foundation of a counter insider threat program should be about people,” he stated as one of the reasons why organisations are struggling with security their networks.

Supporting his belief that people are a problem is a 2015 survey by information security company Clearswift that found more than a third of employees are willing to sell their company’s private information.

All of the six examples he cited illustrated the problem facing managers, each breach was as much a failure in managing people as it was technology not being implemented correctly.

Naturally the Chelsea Manning case was one of the headline cases, “Manning was a failure of leadership.” Lowry said, “what’s really interesting is before his unit went to Afghanistan was deemed by a psycologist to be unfit to deploy. They took him anyway.

Two of the other examples, alleged Chinese spy Hao Zhang and Russian intelligence agent Anna Chapman are classic espionage tales while Edward Snowden is a continuing tale that may well define our public security policies for a generation.

Of the examples, Aussie twosome Christopher Hill and Lukas Kamay along with US student Glenn Duffie Shriver are the two that should worry organisations the most.

Duffie-Shriver was sentenced to 48 months jail after being recruited by PRC intelligence officers while studying in China.

Born in 1981, Duffie-Shriver is part of a generation that’s far less loyal to organisations believes Lowry and, coupled with economic pressures such as student loans, they may be far more likely to be tempted by offers such those alleged to have been offered to the American scholar.

The Aussie example is probably more concerning for managements as Hill was passing Australian Bureau of Statistics data ahead of its public release to Kamay who arranged trades. Their insider trading scheme netting Kamay seven million dollars.

Kamay and Hill present a far more typical risk to most organisations as employees motivated by greed, addiction or some vulnerability are much more likely to steal data. This is certainly a human, rather than technology, problem.

Ultimately the focus on technology, foreign hackers and government agencies in protecting an organisation’s data is missing the greatest risk of all in our businesses – the people. How we manage and treat staff is essential to securing information.

Oct 252016

Last weekend a cyberattack launched from compromised webcams crippled a number of high profile services. In response, the Chinese manufacturer has withdrawn the devices from the market.

That dodgy webcams should have been used to launch a massive DDOS doesn’t surprise anyone who’s spent any time in the home automation field. These problems are endemic in the Internet of Things.

In the early 2000s I became involved in a home automation company through my IT support business. Basically we were kitting out Sydney’s harbourfront mansions with state of the art technology.

Very quickly I realised something was wrong. Almost all the home automation and CCTV systems were running on outdated, insecure software. The leading brand of home security systems used servers running on an old version of Windows 2000 at a time when malware was exploding.

It wasn’t a matter of if, but when, these systems would become hopelessly compromised given the networks they were running on were shared with the home users.

The real concern though was when I raised this with the vendors, installers and designers – no one cared. It was clear security wasn’t a concern for the market and the industry.

We could have patched the systems and boosted their security policies but given the shoddy software being used – mainly DOS batch files – and the assumed file permissions we’d have completely broken the systems and it would up to us to fix it given the attitudes of vendors and clients.

After realising this problem was industry wide I pulled the pin on that business venture as I wasn’t prepared to carry the legal risk and moral obligation of helping install dangerous equipment into people’s homes or businesses.

I’ve since watched as the Internet of Things has become fashionable with the knowledge that the industry’s cavalier attitude towards customer security hasn’t changed.

Now we’re at the stage where script kiddies can launch massive attacks from compromised webcams – God knows what the serious bad guys like state sponsored actors, criminal organisations and commercial spies are up to with these things – which shows the industry’s robotic chickens have come home to roost.

What last weekend’s events show is we have to demand better security from our technology suppliers. That though comes at a cost – we’ll pay more, we’ll have to sacrifice some convenience and we’ll have to spend time maintaining systems.

Are we prepared to wear those costs? Is the tech industry prepared to move beyond it’s ‘good enough’ attitude toward security? Are governments prepared to legislate and enforce proper design rules?

We may not have a choice if we want to enjoy the benefits of technology.

Aug 172016
padlock on a cd drive

What can consumers do to protect themselves online? Nuix’s Chief Information Security Officer, Chris Pogue, believes it’s all about sticking to the basics.

“It’s honestly easier than you think. It’s basic IT hygiene.” “Just the basics – bad passwords, reutilisation of passwords. There’s password managers available for ten dollars a year. Don’t reuse passwords.

“Close your wi-fi, don’t broadcast your Wi-Fi SSID. Make your PSK password longer than normal. Just make sure that you’re being smart and you’re exercising due diligence and you can stop a lot of attacks.”

Pogue also points out no computer, or device, is unhackable. The point with security is to make your devices less attractive to opportunistic cybercrooks.

“If you make it a little bit harder, the attacker have an ROI for their time. It’s a business, a multi-billion dollar business. They’re not going to mess around with you if you’re messing up their gross margin. Just make it not cost effective.”

“Nothing is unhackable but you just make it so it takes too much time,” he says.

One useful resource for home users is the Australian Signals Directorate’s Top Security Tips for the Home User. While basic, that advice is well worth while for those looking at protecting their systems.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas for the Black Hat conference as a guest of Nuix