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A Review of the Grizzly Steppe (Russian Hacking) Report

December 31, 2016 Leave a comment

 
I, like many, have heard the stories that the Russians hacked into sensitive applications/servers in an effort to compromise the US elections. That is a bold statement and if true, may justify the actions recently taken by the Obama administration. So it was with keen interest that I rushed to read the findings from the Joint Analysis Report (JAR-16-20296) between DHS and the FBI to see what evidence they had to substantiate these claims.

The full report may be found here:

grizzlysteppe
The report makes the following claims:

“This document provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election…”

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

 
Based on this information the US felt like it had the smoking gun and definitive proof of the following:

  • The Who – the Russians were behind the attack
  • The Why – to affect the US elections in order to guide the outcome

With this information in hand, I continued reading to now learn about:

  • The How – how the attacks were performed
  • The Proof – the evidence to substantiate Who, Why, and How

 
The report describes the “How” in a two pronged attack as follows:
 

Hack #1 – Casting the Phish Net…

 
Phishing
 
1. A general spearphishing attack was sent to more than 1,000 people which included (in addition to others) several people from the U.S. Government.
 
Note: The number “1,000” is very specific so it seems like the government has some knowledge of the recipients – but they stop short of specifying if that 1,000 was directed at a particular party or not. I would think that would be important to know if the purpose of the attack was to affect the US election.
 
2. The attack led to one person from a particular U.S. political party falling prey to the attack and opening an attachment containing malware. This led to a chain of events where the malware was able to:
 

  • Establish persistence on a “political party system”
  • “Escalate privileges”
  • “Enumerate Active Directory accounts”
  • “Exfiltrate email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure”

 
Note: This all sounds really impressive, but what does it all mean? If you remove all the jargon (enumerate, exfiltrate, etc.) and put this in layman’s terms, it sounds like the following occurred:
 

  • Someone installed malware on their PC when they opened a file that they shouldn’t have
  • Somehow the malware was able to gain privileged access to Active Directory
  • The malware was able to perform a search against Active Directory
  • The results of the search returned several email accounts

 

With this information on mind, there are a few things I am curious about.

 
First, the malware is only able to impersonate the user on the operating system on which it was installed. I’m not sure how a “normal user” can have escalated privileges in Active Directory unless that user is an administrator with escalated privileges (which brings up a whole different conversation about administrators knowing better). So I am curious how the malware was able to “escalate privileges” on its own.
 
Second, if the user (hence the malware) was not an administrator and they were able to perform an unauthorized search against Active Directory, then that indicates that Active Directory authorization and/or limitations were not configured properly. It has been my experience that Active Directory is (by default) pretty well locked down. Is it possible that the default settings were “relaxed” a bit and therefore may have opened up a hole?
 
Finally, would I really need “escalated privileges” just to troll email accounts? Couldn’t I simply scan the Outlook address book to obtain this information? It seems like the approach described in the report would take a lot of effort to code and would have a limited chance of success. Wouldn’t the malware have to land on an administrator’s computer for this approach to work?
 
3. Either way, the end result was that APT29 was able to get a list of email addresses from Active Directory.
 
Fast forward almost a year later (summer 2015 to spring 2016) and this takes us to the second part of our story.
 

Hack #2 – Hooking the Phish…

 
spear_phishing
1. In the second hack, a targeted spearphishing attack was launched against the same political party that was compromised in the first attack.
 
Note: It should be noted that while the first attach was general (casting a net if you will), the second attack was targeted at a certain set of people using specific information to more easily trick those people. While the report doesn’t specifically say this, it is assumed that the attack targeted those email addresses that were obtained from the first attack.
 
Does this indicate that the political party in question was targeted because the end goal was to affect the election? If so, then this attack was planned almost a year in advance when we really didn’t have a clear picture as to who the candidates would be from either party. Were the Russians hedging their bets in case a certain party (or a certain candidate) was found to be leading? It seems more plausible that the second attack was launched more against a certain set of users more as a target of opportunity than anything else.
 
2. This spearphishing attack tricked multiple people into “changing their passwords through a fake webmail domain hosted by APT28”.
 
3. Upon initial login, APT28 was able to obtain the “real” credentials of users associated with the political party in question.
 
4. With these credentials in hand, APT28 was able to log into the real email server and access content (emails, attachments, etc.). The report goes on to say that this information was subsequently “leaked to the press and publicly disclosed.”
 

Where’s the Smoking Gun?

 
While the report is somewhat interesting, it does not provide the “smoking gun” that was anticipated. The report does provide a list of 48 hacker names of which APT28 and APT29 are included. The title of the table is “Reported Russian Military and Civilian Intelligence Services (RIS)” but there is nothing more than that to introduce the table and tell us anything about the names contained in the table. Am I supposed to jump to the conclusion that because APT28 and APT29 are listed that this is definitive proof that:
 

  • they are the ones behind these attacks
  • no one else has attempted to use these names as their hacking alias
  • they specifically targeted a particular political party
  • their intent was to affect the US election
  • and most importantly, they are “state sponsored”

 
The last item is one of the most important as the administration has chosen to take action against Russia (the state) as if they sanctioned the attacks. If that is true then the need for a smoking gun becomes infinitely more important and that information is simply not provided. Going back to a statement made early on in the report,
 

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

 
the government has made it clear that it is stepping outside of normal protocol by publicly naming the attacker in the JAR. But they don’t provide any information to back up their claim. Nor is there anything specifically that indicates that this had anything to do with an attempt to affect the outcome of the US election; in fact, the information presented may lead one to believe the contrary.
 
In general, the report lacks information and forces us to accept the government’s assertion of the Who (the Russians) and the Why (to affect the election) without providing the Proof. Maybe the government has more information that they are not sharing, but to ask me to simply trust without verifying is asking me to trust too much.

The Next Generation of Identity Management

March 1, 2015 4 comments

The face of identity is changing. Historically, it was the duty of an identity management solution to manage and control an individual’s access to corporate resources. Such solutions worked well as long as the identity was safe behind the corporate firewall – and the resources were owned by the organization.

But in today’s world of social identities (BYOI), mobile devices (BYOD), dynamic alliances (federation), and everything from tractors to refrigerators being connected to the Internet (IoT), companies are finding that legacy identity management solutions are no longer able to keep up with the demand. Rather than working with thousands to hundreds of thousands of identities, today’s solutions are tasked with managing hundreds of thousands to millions of identities and include not only carbon-based life forms (people) but also those that are silicon-based (devices).

In order to meet this demand, today’s identity solutions must shift from the corporation-centric view of a user’s identity to one that is more user-centric. Corporations typically view the identity relationship as one between the user and the organization’s resources. This is essentially a one-to-many relationship and is relatively easy to manage using legacy identity management solutions.

One to Many Relationship

What is becoming evident, however, is the growing need to manage many-to-many relationships as these same users actually have multiple identities (personas) that must be shared with others that, in turn, have multiple identities, themselves.

Many to Many Relationships

The corporation is no longer the authoritative source of a user’s identity, it has been diminished to the role of a persona as users begin to take control of their own identities in other aspects of their lives.

Identity : the state or fact of being the same one as described.

Persona : (in the psychology of C. G. Jung) the mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment.

In developing the next generation of identity management solutions, the focus needs to move away from the node (a reference to an entry in a directory server) and more towards the links (or relationships) between the nodes (a reference to social graphs).

Social Graph

In order to achieve this, today’s solutions must take a holistic view of the user’s identity and allow the user to aggregate, manage, and decide with whom to share their identity data.

Benefits to Corporations

While corporations may perceive this as a loss of control, in actuality it is the corporation that stands to benefit the most from a user-centric identity management solution. Large corporations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in an attempt to manage a user’s identity only to find that much of what they have on file is incorrect. There are indeed many characteristics that must be managed by the organization, but many of a user’s attributes go well-beyond a corporation’s reach. In such cases, its ability to maintain accurate data within these attributes is relatively impossible without the user’s involvement.

Take for instance a user’s mobile telephone number; in the past, corporations issued, sponsored, and managed these devices. But today’s employees typically purchase their own mobile phones and change carriers (or even phone numbers) on a periodic basis. As such, corporate white pages are filled with inaccurate data; this trend will only increase as users continue to bring more and more of themselves into the workplace.

Legacy identity solutions attempt to address this issue by introducing “end-user self-service” – a series of Web pages that allow a user to maintain their corporate profile. Users are expected to update their profile whenever a change occurs. The problem with this approach is that users selectively update their profiles and in some cases purposely supply incorrect data (in order to avoid after hours calls). The other problem with this approach is that it still adheres to a corporate-centric/corporate-owned identity mindset. The truth is that users’ identities are not centralized, they are distributed across many different systems both in front of and behind the corporate firewall and while companies may “own” certain data, it is the information that the user brings from other sources that is elusive to the company.

Identity Relationship Management

A user has relationships that extend well beyond those maintained within a company and as such has core identity data strewn across hundreds, if not thousands of databases. The common component in all of these relationships is the user. It is the user who is in charge of that data and it is the user who elects to share their information within the context of those relationships. The company is just one of those relationships, but it is the one for which legacy identity management solutions have been written.

Note: Relationships are not new, but the number of relationships that a user has and types of relationships they have with other users and other things is rapidly growing.

Today’s identity management solutions must evolve to accept (or at a minimum acknowledge) multiple authoritative sources beyond their own. They must evolve to understand the vast number of relationships that a user has both with other users, but also with the things the user owns (or uses) and they must be able to provide (or deny) services based on those relationships and even the context of those relationships. These are lofty goals for today’s identity management solutions as they require vendors to think in a whole new way, implement a whole new set of controls, and come up with new and inventive interfaces to scale to the order of millions. To borrow a phrase from Ian Glazer, we need to kill our current identity management solutions in order to save them, but such an evolution is necessary for identity to stay relevant in today’s relationship-driven world.

I am not alone in recognizing the need for a change.  Others have come to similar conclusions and this has given rise to the term, Identity Relationship Management (or IRM).  The desire for change is so great in fact that Kantara has sponsored the Identity Relationship Management Working Group of which I am privileged to be a member.  This has given rise to a LinkedIn Group on IRM, a Twitter feed (@irmwg), various conferences either focused on or discussing IRM, and multiple blogs of which this is only one.

LinkedIn IRM Working Group Description:

In today’s internet-connected world, employees, partners, and customers all need anytime access to secure data from millions of laptops, phones, tablets, cars, and any devices with internet connections.

Identity relationship management platforms are built for IoT, scale, and contextual intelligence. No matter the device, the volume, or the circumstance, an IRM platform will adapt to understand who you are and what you can access.

Call to Action

Do you share similar thoughts and/or concerns?  Are you looking to help craft the future of identity management?  If so, then consider being part of the IRM Working Group or simply joining the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.

 

Gimme My Damn Data – And Help Me Understand It!

March 25, 2013 Leave a comment

I recently read a Computerworld article that discussed the reluctance of physicians to share patient data with the patients themselves.  The article referenced a survey conducted by Accenture and Harris Interactive that found of the 3,700 physicians asked, only 31% felt that patients should have access to their own healthcare records.

“It found that 82% of U.S. physicians want patients to update their electronic health records with information about themselves, but only 31% believe patients should have full access to that record; 65% believe patients should have only limited access. Four percent said patients should have no access at all.”

This can best be represented by the following graphic from the Computerworld article:

Accenture Survey

This is old school thinking and is akin to asking someone to “show me yours and I will ‘think’ about showing you mine” (but probably won’t).  How very one-sided.

When I first joined the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium (PDEC), I did so because I believed that people should be allowed to take control of their own data.  To me, “personal data” was roughly defined as identity and PII data; this was largely due to my identity background.  But over the past year this has shifted towards healthcare data and while many of the same thoughts apply, the ROI on managing healthcare data can be much higher as it directly correlates to a person’s primary asset – their health.

Google Health, Microsoft HealthVault, CareZone – there is no shortage of applications designed to assist people in managing their healthcare data.  While some efforts have failed, others remain hopeful.  But as this survey demonstrates, there is still a long way to go to change the minds of those who are diagnosing and managing this data – the physicians, themselves.  If they could only understand that patients are uniquely capable of assisting in the management of their own healthcare; but in order to do so, they need the data (and they need to understand what it means).

Over the past couple of years we have been developing applications that utilize the Lifedash platform.  This allows our users to take control of their own data and selectively share it with others.  Our latest application is CareSync and it is directly focused on healthcare.  We are currently in a beta of the Web application and are piloting our Health Assistant services. Both of these offerings allow people to aggregate and manage their own healthcare in a collaborative environment but allows them to do it safely and securely. The feedback we have received from our participants has been overwhelmingly positive as people are losing faith in the healthcare system.  They either want to (or feel forced to) take an active role in managing their own (or family’s) healthcare but to do so, they need the data.

With the reluctance of most physicians to share it is challenging at best.  There are, however, techniques that you can use to obtain this information but it requires persistence (the word “nagging” comes to mind).  It should not be that way – after all, it is our data.

In the words of healthcare activist e-Patient Dave, just “give me my damn data!”  Or as I would add, just “give me my damn data, help me to understand what you just gave me, and tell me how I compare to others in my situation!”

The Dimishing Non-Digital World (or How to get Outed by a Photo Booth)

August 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently attended a high school reunion where a major draw involved the use of a photo booth. You remember photo booths, right? Kiosks where one or more people hide behind a curtain and take pictures of themselves in all sorts of poses. At the end of the session, the kiosk spits out copies of the pictures much to the chagrin of those who aren’t quite as photogenic as they initially thought they were. In our case, reunion attendees were treated to an assortment of funny hats, glasses, and mustaches before entering the booth. They posed with silly expressions, engaged in silly activities, and in some cases even took silly actions to the extreme (I will leave that to your own imagination).

The point I am trying to make is that once the curtain was closed and the camera light came on people began performing in ways that would be considered unheard of in other settings. Adults who mere minutes before were prim and proper were now raving exhibitionists behind the privacy of a thin veil of cloth. When the curtain was once again opened, they returned to their “normal” behavior and giggled as they left the booth with memories in hand.

So why the sudden change? How did a thin piece of cloth make any difference as to how they acted? The difference was not the curtain, the difference stemmed from their perception of privacy and the context of the situation. People tend to act differently in settings where they feel their actions are private and when the context of the situation is known, they oftentimes let their guard down and act more naturally (or more boldly as the case may be). Just think about Congressman Weiner and his Twitter outing, Alec Baldwin and his fatherly advice to his daughter, or even conversations that you may have had over email, chat, or text when you didn’t think anyone was looking. When people feel more secure in their settings (privacy) and know the rules by which to play (context), they oftentimes act in totally different ways.

The problem with this behavior in a digital society is that you are never truely off the grid and it is all too easy for things to be taken out of context when information is shared inadvertantly. In our current digital society privacy is a facade as few companies take privacy seriously and there are fewer online places where your information is truly secure. Unfortunately, that can also be said of our offline world as more and more of it is becomming digitized as well.

Even within the sacred confines of a photo booth our privacy is not really private at all. Ironically photo booths now take digital photos which are then stored on the kiosk’s computer hard drive. While this expidites the printing process, the possability of those photos being shared with unintended parties is very real. At least that is what I observed shortly after the reunion when pictures from the photo booth began appearing on Facebook. At first I thought that attendees were scanning their own photos and posting them. This thought was immediately dismissed when I saw my own pictures start to appear.

From what I can surmise, the operator of the photo booth provided digital copies of everyone’s photos to one of the reunion committee members who took it upon themselves to post the pictures to Facebook. I am not going to get into the legal, moral, or ethical issues behind this action, but suffice to say, no notice was posted and no permission was granted. Now, I truly believe that those involved had the best intentions of the reunion attendees in mind, but the problem is that they did not have the right to make that decision on their own.

Intersection cameras, movies on demand (on any device), automobiles that act as WIFI hot spots, Internet connected scales, and yes photo booths – these are only a few examples of how every aspect of our life is becoming affected (or even consumed) by digitalization. All of that content is finding its way into the hands of people who may have good intentions, but who do not understand the ramifications that disclosure of such information may have. As such, they may not take the same care that you or I might take with our own information and may share it with others – all under the guise of good intentions.

So what happens to our privacy when our information falls into the hands of others? Is it even possible to assume that they have our best intentions in mind when their own companies make money by selling our data to the highest bidder? Can we assume that the context in which we operated is even valid when it may simply be a ruse to get us to let our guards down? Like Rip Van Winkle awaking from his 20 year slumber only to find a world that he no longer recognizes, we too must take care that we resist our own apethetical slumber or we too will wake up to a world we no longer recognize.

A New Generation of Indentured Servitude

June 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Your digital identity is comprised of information that you volunteer about yourself and information that is observed about you as you simply participate in life. You can (somewhat) control the personal data that you share with others, but have you ever wondered about the type of information that is gathered about you, how long it is retained, and how it is used?

A friend of mine introduced me to a video that provides insight into these questions. It contains an interesting perspective on how your digital identity is comprised, collected and used.

It is interesting to note that almost four years of our lives is owned by someone else – and we willingly give it away.  Does that make us indentured servants to those vendors who provide us “free services” in return?

The speaker makes another interesting comment at the end of the video,

The global Internet becomes the personal Internet and information ceases to be information at all.

I am not entirely sure that I agree with that statement; I guess it depends on who it is being made about.  Unless we (the ones who generate the data) benefit in the form of better applications, streamlined experiences, or potentially even financial returns, then I don’t see it becoming a “personal Internet” at all.

In our current form of indentured servitude, we continue to give away pieces of our freedom in return for very little.

It is time to turn the model around.

Facebook’s Initial Public Offering Disaster

May 19, 2012 1 comment

 Facebook’s IPO was a relative disaster.

While it brought billions into Facebook’s coffers, one could hardly call the first day of trading a success. They opened at $38/share and ended up the day at $38.27 (a gain of less than 1%).

The only reason why their stock didn’t dip below the opening price was because they were being propped up by bankers who poured in millions every time the stock threatened to go below $38/share. In fact, the stock price was a flat $38/share a mere 30 seconds before the closing bell before the bankers once again jumped in to help save “Face”. (See “How Facebook’s Bankers Saved an IPO, Kept Shares Above $38” for more information.)

They say that people vote with their pocket books. Based on first day of trading, Facebook is ready to be voted out of office. Is this indicative of social media sites, in general or are people getting tired of Facebook?

My daughter said something quite profound when I told her about what happened. She said, “Dad, it’s just a web site. People get tired of it and they go elsewhere.” Wow, so Facebook may be subject to the same fate suffered by mega-giant portals like AOL, Yahoo, and Netscape? Maybe that’s why sites like Pinterest are trending upwards while Facebook is trending down.

Is it possible that people are getting tired of Facebook not adding anything more to their life than just a time-suck?

Trust in Me

April 10, 2012 4 comments

Trust in me, I’m the social media vendor providing this FREE service because I want to make you happy.  I know that all of this infrastructure and the thousands of employees I have working for me are costing a small fortune, but I do this because I care …. I care about YOU!

Trust in me, I’m the software development company who develops these FREE applications because we are looking out for you.  We know that you need something entertaining to do or something informative to occupy your time.  We ask you questions about your preferences so that we can customize the software for YOU.  That’s the only reason, trust us.

Trust in me, I’m a one man developer operating out of my house creating these FREE applications so that you don’t have to pay for the premium ones.  I have no visions of grandeur for myself.  I have no dreams of making money for myself, I am doing this for you!

REALLY?  No catches at all?  Awesome, where do I sign up?

I learned a long time ago that there is no such thing as a free lunch, yet people continue to be duped into believing lies to the contrary.  Let me be clear,

Privacy is an illusion in our current social media landscape.  Period. 

If you think that these FREE services are free then think again; they are anything but.  In fact, social media companies and application developers are making money off of the very things that are most precious to you – they are making money by selling information about you and your loved ones.  Whether they are selling this information directly or indirectly through advertising, these entities are collecting thousands of pages of information about you – enough to fill volumes of books.  Don’t believe me, read Kim Cameron’s article, 24 Year Old Student Lights Match:  Europe Versus Facebook.

Your preferences, your habits, your activity – essentially your life – is meticulously tracked by social media sites and used to predict your behavior.  With this information in hand, they seek out those who are looking to target those with this behavior or are willing to pay to gain access to these people.  It is a well-known fact that social media sites may know more about you than your own family members do, but social media is not the only culprit.  “Real world” businesses have been tracking your behavior for years and are just as savvy as social media sites (see How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did).  The amount and types of data associated with social media sites is much greater than that obtained in brick and mortar stores as it is more plentiful, easier to gather, easier to store, and easier to analyze.

In George Orwell’s book, 1984, we were worried about a Big Brother that we feel never came.  In reality, however, he came and brought his whole family with him and they are all watching us.  Get used to it, or take the steps necessary to protect your information assets the same way you protect the money in your bank or your legal documents.

Last month, I wrote a blog entry entitled Which Line Do You Want To Be In? in which I stated that people are

willing to trade important things in life for short term gain

Unfortunately when convenience and privacy are at odds with each other, people tend to throw privacy out the window in trade for convenience.  Are these people oblivious or do they simply feel that they have no choice.  Have they made a conscious decision or are they simply uneducated to the risks associated with privacy breaches?  I tend to believe that most people are too trusting and do not know (or simply do not understand) what information is collected about them and what happens when their information is inadvertently shared.  You can classify these people based on age and/or knowledge of technology as follows:

  • Typical Kids – who do not yet understand privacy implications
  • Typical Adults – who may understand privacy, but don’t understand technology and how it can affect their privacy
  • Tech-Savvy Adults – who understand privacy AND take an active role in protecting themselves on social media sites

For those of you who fall in the third category, I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but unfortunately the vast majority of people do not attend the church where this message is being preached.  There are still many people who have never heard the message or if they have, they simply choose to ignore it.  Is it because they disagree that information is being tracked?  Or is it maybe that privacy policies on most social media web sites are simply too difficult to read and/or understand and it is simply easier just to “click through” to get to the site that we want.

I once heard that marketing agencies build their message so that a person with a 7th Grade education can understand it.  That is an unfortunate statement to the intelligence of the average American.  Unfortunately, it is also a statement that many companies rely on when crafting their legal documents.

Suffice to say, if the price is FREE, it may be costing you dearly.

Categories: Personal, Privacy, Trust