The Security Solution – Part 1

Last week I suggested a “solution” to the problem of bad things happening in the cyber world. We want to avoid bad things from happening when we go online or when we use our computers (or phones, tablets, etc.).

I have repeatedly said you can’t prevent bad things from happening. But that doesn’t mean we are defenseless. The “solution” that I talked about last week is a blueprint for what we CAN do. This isn’t a method we are taught when we learn security. So, you won’t find it in a textbook. But it is a way of looking at the problem that summarizes a lot of the learning and experience from a formal program and translates it into a way of applying it. Continue reading “The Security Solution – Part 1”

Airport Shooting & Safety Online

Again last week, a gunman opened fire upon a crowd of people, this time in an airport. You probably heard about it. He had flown in from Alaska. He had checked his luggage, which had a gun in it. Upon retrieving his luggage, he removed the gun and began firing. Several people died, more more wounded.

image of luggage carousel at airport

I was a bit surprised that he could have done this because I didn’t realize that it was possible to ship guns in luggage that you could retrieve upon landing. I then wondered if the powers that be would now pass regulations that forbid the transport of weapons in any luggage. But then, even if they were to do that, there are other kinds of weapons such a person could use, and someone could also cause harm without any weapons.

 

Later, I realized that, since the baggage area is outside the security zone, this could happen another way. Anybody could drive up to the drop-off or pick-up area with a weapon, enter the building, and begin shooting. That could take place outside, in the baggage or ticketing areas, or anywhere that is accessible without passing through the security screening centers.

To prevent that, one would have to have to have security at every entrance. Can you imagine everybody that arrives on airport property going through security scanning? The cost would be tremendous, the delays would be outrageous. The flow of movement would be severely restricted. Who would pay for all that? We would, of course, through taxes and/or higher ticket prices, or access fees to enter airport property.

Even that wouldn’t prevent problems. Weapons that don’t show up on security scanners would still get through. Items that are allowed, like ball-point pens would be allowed through. A pen or pencil could be a weapon, although that would be more of a close range attack and would be against one victim at a time, even if it affected many people in succession. And someone trained in combat skills (the perpetrator in this instance was trained in combat skills) could do a lot of damage without a weapon.

 

So, do we begin to treat airports like federal buildings? We screen for weapons at federal courthouses and at the social security office. However, we don’t do that kind of screening at pseudo-government offices like post offices. Should we?

Some might say we should. But the cost alone would be enormous, to say nothing of the negative impact upon our access to the services we need (buying stamps, mailing packages…. or flying to our destination).

What about when we go to the grocery store or the mall. Should we be required to go through a security screening post when we go to buy milk? Or gas? Or when we walk into a bookstore, or when we buy a gift for a baby shower?

Maybe we should put law enforcement on every block and screen people who are out walking their dog? That way, we would be safer! At least the 80 year-old who is trying to maintain their mobility by walking around the block can’t gun us down. Maybe we need to screen all the cars turning onto our street so they can’t execute a drive-by shooting.

image of vehicle checkpoint guarding entrance of residential street

Am I getting carried away?

My point is that we can’t prevent bad things like this from happening, much as we might like to. If we try to enforce safety to the maximum extent possible, we would end up in a world that few of us would want. Novels have been written about that: 1984; Brave New World; and more recently, the Divergent trilogy. Even in those novels, there were people that didn’t conform and actions were necessary to prevent their “unlawful activity.” Even if we did have such a world, there would still be incidents! But the consequences of trying to achieve that “safety” would destroy our freedom.

One thing I know is that we can’t regulate the world into a place where these kinds of incidents CANNOT happen. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. But we do seem to like making rules without considering the less obvious consequences, and we often don’t like the consequences. Even then, when we do make rules, incidents still happen. They will as long as people get angry and act on that anger, as long as people are greedy, and even when people just feel threatened. We can work on learning to behave better, but even if EVERYBODY went through training programs to improve their behavior, we would still have problems.

 

Let’s apply this to online security. I hope I’ve made my point that we can’t prevent bad incidents from occurring in the real world. We can’t prevent bad incidents in the cyber world either.

When we hear about a virus or some other malware that is attacking computers, we think we need some reliable way to stop it.

When we hear about a hacker, we think we need to catch them and lock them up.

When we hear about a breach of personal information, we want that company held accountable.

Here’s my message: We can’t stop these things from happening.

To do so, the world we would create would be one we wouldn’t accept.

Imagine a world where:
*   You can no longer post pictures online because they could contain malware or could contain “information” that should not be published
*   You can no longer share videos
*   Web sites are just text, like a college textbook without pictures
*   Your computer no longer goes to many of the web sites you like to go to; those sites are blocked because someone could use that site to attack you. (No more CNN, no more weather, no more Facebook, Pinterest, etc.)
*   Your e-mails are returned undeliverable and the e-mail from your friends doesn’t reach you (because someone else who uses the same service as your friends: hotmail, gmail, etc., broke the rules and sent bad e-mails and now that e-mail provider is blacklisted)

And the list could go on and on.

We can’t prevent the things we don’t want unless we make it impossible to do the things we do want.

 

Regulation won’t solve the problem. Regulation has the following results:

*   The worst offenders will ignore the regulations.

*   In many cases, regulations make it harder for honest people to operate. (That’s one of the reasons I don’t currently allow comments on my blog. If someone were to make a “bad” comment, to protect myself from liability I have to meet the requirements of regulations. Those regulations have financial and filing requirements, in addition to the measures that I would naturally take without any regulations.)

*   Regulation can’t stop attacks and breaches. It can only provide an incentive to people to do something about them.

Most companies would love to do something about them. However, a checklist of steps to take won’t assure you won’t be attacked or have customer data stolen. A checklist can help, but attacks will still be successful and data breaches will still occur. Trying to solve the problem by rules and regulations would be like making it illegal for you to ever make a mistake about anything:

New Federal Law: “From now on, you aren’t allowed to forget things and you aren’t allowed to make mistakes. Penalites for violation: $1000 fine per occurrence; imprisonment after three strikes.”

Most people would love to stop forgetting things and making mistakes. It’s just not possible. Solving security problems is much like trying to prevent mistakes or natural disasters.

 

The real solution is to:
*   Take appropriate measures to make it harder for those bad things to occur
*   Learn the warning signs and respond to them, which might keep us out of the line of fire when they occur
*   Realize that bad things will still occur despite all efforts
*   Have plans of what to do if we do find ourselves in a problem situation and what to do to reduce the damage if something bad does happen (e.g., wear bulletproof vests for an active shooter scenario; have data backups in case of a ransomware attack)

We may have limited options in an active shooter situation. We have better chances of preparation for a cyber scenario.

Doing these things won’t prevent bad things from happening. What it can do is reduce the frequency of occurrences, and reduce the severity of the impact when they do occur.

image of lightbulb indicating bright idea, with four bullet points from The Real Solution list above

 

 

Uh-oh! That wasn’t expected!

When I was a kid, there was a short period of time that I thought I wanted to be a mailman when I grew up. I followed the mailman throughout the neighborhood as he delivered mail. At one point, I thought I was going to help the homeowners and let them know the mail had arrived. So I rang the doorbell when the postman left the mail in the box. I was quickly instructed not to do that anymore!

I don’t remember exactly how long that phase lasted. Probably not very long.

 

In later years, I had a “job” delivering the weekly advertising supplement to a neighborhood in the community. That was hard work. They would deliver a large bundle of the advertising pamphlet, called Penny Power, to my doorstep. They also had stacks of supplemental ads and plastic bags. First, I had to put one of each of the many advertising fliers together with each Penny Power. Then, I had to fold each Penny Power and the associated flyers and place them in a plastic bag. That would take more than a couple hours. Then, I had to go to my territory and walk up to each porch and delivery a bag of advertising goodies onto each porch. Then proceed to the next house. And the next. And the next. Until I had delivered several hundred Penny Powers with the additional advertising flyers stuffed into their respective plastic bags.

That was a heavy bundle to carry, a lot of walking, a lot of time, for a little income. Let me emphasize the word “little.” There was a lot of turnover in that job. I found out why!

 

I don’t see too many mail carriers delivering mail to the front doors of houses on their routes these days. Perhaps it is just the communities I have lived in recently. What I typically see instead is a mailbox on the street. The mail carrier deliveries the mail from their vehicle. In some cases, all the mailboxes for a community (or apartment complex) are located in one central location and the residents have to go to that location to get their mail.

But I do remember the days of walking with the postman to each door.

 

Some of the houses had a very handy arrangement for the homeowner. A mailslot in their door! They didn’t have to go outside to get their mail. The mail carrier just slipped it through the slot and it fell inside the house, just inside the door! What a marvelous invention!

Usually.

But then, there are the neighborhood mischief makers. Typically, they would run up to the house, ring the doorbell, and run away. On Halloween, they might “egg” a house. What if one of them had gotten the idea of putting rotten eggs through the mailslots? Not a pleasant thought. Eww!

image of Rotten Eggs

How would you stop that? You could lock the screen door so they can’t put the eggs through the slot anymore. But then the postal carrier couldn’t deliver your mail. If you want your mail, you need to allow the possibility that the kids can push rotten eggs into your house.

Or, you could put up a mailbox outside your door and lock your door. Now the kids can’t use your mailslot anymore. Neither can the postal carrier. Hopefully, it won’t be so much fun for the kids to put rotten eggs in your mailbox and they will stop.

But now, the marvelous invention of the mailslot is no longer of any use to you. It has become a liability. You also had the extra expense and effort of putting up a mailbox outside your house. And you now have to open the door to get your mail. Not a lot of extra effort. But, on a freezing cold day, it’s not as nice as having it dropped inside your door. And you may need to fix your hair or put on an extra layer of clothing before getting the mail. You don’t want to get caught looking too “unkempt” by a neighbor walking by as you step briefly out the front door.

 

Wait a minute! I thought this was supposed to be about keeping safe online!

OK, here goes…..

Our computer has a lot of “mailslots” in it.

What I am referring to as “mailslots” are useful bits of computer programming that do cool things that we like. They make it easy for us to do what we want to do. Some may automatically show us a preview of files when we hold the mouse over them, such as showing us a picture preview. Some automatically check our e-mail every 10 minutes. Others ring a bell, play a few notes, or say “You’ve got mail!” when a new e-mail arrives. Some automatically save our progress when we are typing a letter, just in case we forget to save it.

image of e-mail delivery with bell to notify and words You've Got Mail!

When it comes to the Internet, some of those “mailslots” display pictures. If they didn’t, every time there was a picture, we would have to:
* Tell the computer to go out and “download” the picture.
* Then we would have to open a special program that views pictures. We would need to make sure we got the correct program for the type of picture we wanted to view. (There are several different “types” of pictures that get displayed on web pages, each with a different file extension, or “format.”)
* Then, once you opened the picture-viewing program, you would need to find the picture you downloaded and open it.
* Next, if you didn’t want to keep it, you would need to open another program that lets you work with files.
* Fnally, you would need to find that picture you downloaded and delete it.

A lot of work! And you’d have to repeat that process for EACH and EVERY picture you wanted to see. Many of those pictures wouldn’t be of any interest to you, certainly not worth all that work.

But, we don’t have to do all that work. Instead, our web browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc.) automatically displays these pictures for us. This is really useful. It enhances our experience. We can enjoy surfing the web instead of getting hung up on the mechanics of how the computer is really doing all that extra work for us. Technology is great! Until it isn’t. Until someone sticks rotten eggs through our mailslots.

And therein lies the problem. If we want our mail delivered inside our house, we have to face the risk that someone might deliver rotten eggs. If we want the convenience of “easy” and of a “rich, enjoyable experience,” we have to face the possibility someone might find a way to use those “mailslots” (useful programs) to deliver unwanted material or experiences. Those “rotten eggs” could be viruses. They could steal our information. Or they could hold our computers or information hostage, for ransom. (See my recent posts on ransomware.)

If we were to make our computers so the mischief-makers CAN’T do this undesirable stuff, we would end up with a computer that doesn’t do what we want it to. But, with computers, instead of just having to open the door to get our mail, we would have to go through ALL the above steps (and some that I haven’t even mentioned) just to see whether a picture on that web page is even one we might want to see. And, to view that web page in the first place, there could be a whole lot of additional steps involved. Most people would revolt.

 

So, what are these “rotten eggs”? They could be any way that an attacker can utilize some desirable feature built into our computers and use them to do something we don’t want them to do.

As an example, let’s continue with the picture-viewing discussion above. In 2004, it was discovered that there was a problem with the way Windows processed pictures so that you could view them. If someone sent you a bad picture (that is, one that someone with bad intentions had created) it could crash your program or even, in some circumstances, compromise your computer. That particular issue was fixed, but only if you updated your computer with the proper security updates.

However, that isn’t the only time that Windows has had problems with displaying pictures. As recently as May 2016, Microsoft released a security bulletin revealing that there were FIVE different vulnerabilities related to displaying images that had been recently discovered. In some cases, sensitive information could be released to the attacker. In other cases, the attacker could compromise your computer. And for this to happen, all you would need to do is visit a web page that had a “bad” picture on it. That could even be a seemingly innocuous picture on a web page that is usually considered to be on a “safe” or “trusted” site.

image of Cartoon-like Bomb Wearing a Silly Face Mask for Disguise

When this happens, Microsoft (and many other vendors) usually try to fix the problems as soon as possible (though some companies don’t). In some cases, it may take awhile to fix the problem. Once they do, the “fix” needs to be applied to your computer. For Microsoft, if you have “automatic updates” turned on, this SHOULD happen automatically (although, from experience, I can tell you that these updates sometimes fail). For other companies, you may have to apply the updates yourself. And, there are problems out there that haven’t been discovered yet. What if the bad guys find them and take advantage of them before the good guys find them and fix them. It happens all the time.

What this means is, if we want to be able to see pictures on our computers, including when we visit a web page, we will be subject to the risk that our computer can be compromised.

 

It doesn’t stop at picures. In 2016, Microsoft issued 155 security bulletins. Some of these advised of multiple issues. Many of them were critical.

It isn’t just Microsoft. All software is potentially subject to vulnerabilities. Microsoft’s programs are so powerful and so complex, there are a lot of pieces of programming code in which unexpected and unforeseen issues can be found. And Microsoft is a popular program, so the bad guys go looking for problems to take advantage of. (There are also a lot of good guys looking for the problems, so they can be fixed before the bad guys find them. That’s another reason so many security bulletins are issued.)

Other companies may have fewer issues. Some of that is because they are “smaller” and less “complex.” Some of that is because they are not as popular. But some of that is because they are not responding to issues and fixing them, or telling us about them.

ALL software has the potential to have these kinds of issues. (Mac and Linux users included. Yes, these systems have their issues as well, despite some people’s claims to the contrary.)

 

So, where does that leave us? Do we choose to lock the door so the mischief-makers can’t put rotten eggs in our mailslots? When it comes to computers, that would mean turning our computer off and leaving it off. There isn’t a way to escape these risks if we use our computers.

There are two things we can do.

First, we can keep informed of what the risks are and how to take appropriate measures to REDUCE those risks (we can’t eliminate them completely).

Secondly, we need to recognize there is still the possiblility that we can be affected by the threats. Our best response to that is to take other measures to protect ourselves against the damage that could be caused if a threat does affect us. (This would be like installing a sprinkler system to put out a fire. Damage is still done, both by the fire and by the water from the sprinklers, but not as much damage as if there were no sprinkler system to put out the fire.)

My blog is a start towards taking those two steps. This year, I will be providing additional options to go further with those steps. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you recognize that there is always risk, first be thankful that we have as few problems as we do. Then, use your computer with the knowledge that 100% safety is not an option and that it is up to you to do the best you can to escape as many of the potential problems as possible. Again, that comes down to learning what you can do (and then acting on that knowledge).

E-mail from my Sister!

Thanksgiving morning. Early. I check my e-mail and see a message from my sister.

3:24 a.m….. She was up early. Or maybe was still up from Wednesday night.

She said “hi phil” and then included a link, closing with her name in the format doejane (although it had her real name instead of doejane).

I looked at the link and it appeared to go to some blog.

Why is she just sending me a link?

image of e-mail described in this post

I am always suspicious when I receive an e-mail with just a link, especially if the link looks to me like it is a blog. And yet, it appears to be from my sister on Thanksgiving day. Could it really be legitimate?

It was sent to my e-mail address that I only give to my family and a couple of other restricted places. So, if it isn’t my sister, how did they know I have this particular e-mail address.

If this were to happen to you, what would you do?

As for me, I wouldn’t follow the link. If it isn’t a safe link, clicking on it is a good way to get your computer compromised . Even if the e-mail is really from someone you know. I looked a little further.

The e-mail address was [mysistersname]@tampabay.rr.com. Well, that’s strange. If it ends in tampabay.rr.com, that means that the person sending it gets their Internet service from Charter Communications, previously Time Warner Cable. More specifically, they get it from the TampaBay location for that provider. That means they are/were located in the Tampa area. (Or they are faking their address as coming from there.)

But my sister lives in the northeast part of the nation.

Strange.

same image as above, but with 'tampabay' circled

So, now I have the following information:

The person sending the e-mail connects from a Tampa area account (or pretends to).
The person’s e-mail sounds like a personal e-mail but only includes “hi phil” plus a link, and then their name (run together with no space, last name first).

This is pretty suspicious. It has to be an attempt to fool me. If I were to click on that link, I would likely have a compromised computer.

But the perpetrator did several things amazingly well.

1) They used my sister’s actual name. It is a bit unusual that it is lower case and signed “last name first,” run together with no space. But some of my friends sign their names all lower case.

2) They sent it to me using my e-mail address that is given out to very few people. I give out my other e-mail addresses to lots of people, but not this one.

3) They sent it on Thanksgiving Day, a time that loved ones are more likely to be in contact with us.

Would you have clicked on the link?

 

So, how should you handle this? The bad guys are smart (at least some of them). You don’t want to ignore e-mail from loved ones.

Let’s examine this situation. There are clues that there might be a problem.

The biggest clue is the address specifies it came from the wrong part of the country. But if the address had been from @gmail.com, we wouldn’t have that clue. And, even for me, I didn’t discover the problem with the address until I started looking, which was after I was already suspicous.

The biggest giveaway for me was that the e-mail contained only a link between the greeting and signature. This is always suspicious to me. Of course, some of my friends regularly send e-mails like that. Maybe some of your friends do as well. With those friends, at least that is their pattern for sending e-mails. But, I often don’t click on their links either.

My response to such cases is the following:

* I pay attention to the link itself. I recognized this as likely being a blog. I know that a lot of attempts by attackers use this technique. (It really helps to become familiar with the techniques attackers use so you can recognize attempts when they occur.)

* As a rule, I don’t click on links just because someone sends them. I evaluate the likelihood that it is safe and also whether I think it might actually be of interest.

* If I thought this really did come from my sister, I still wouldn’t click on the link because it looks too much like the style used by attackers. I would contact her first and make sure it really came from her (even if the e-mail address was her true e-mail address) and try to get some more information about it.

(By the way, I did receive an e-mail from my sister later that day. It didn’t have links to blogs, but had actual sentences with relevant remarks. Also, it came from her REAL e-mail address, which was in the format of janiedoe@…… instead of doejane@.)

Final analysis:
The e-mail likely came from someone who was either trying to compromise computers or someone trying to sell something. (I’m sure you’ve seen spam e-mails for weight loss, body part enhancement, pills, etc.)

Be careful when you go through your e-mail. Even if it comes from someone you know or is about something you are interested in. The bad guys will use holidays, events, or anything else to trick us into opening their e-mails.

 

What else are they likely to do at this time of year? You may have seen e-mails about failed delivery attempts from DHL or UPS. Do you have any packages coming at this time of year? I do.

Image of package on porch, wrapped as gift

In fact, UPS failed to deliver the package I had ordered. The tracking information said it was on the truck for delivery this past Monday, but it didn’t arrive. The next day, it was scheduled again to be delivered. A little after 3:00, I looked online and the tracking info said they had delivered it. Nobody had rung the doorbell but I looked around outside. The package wasn’t here. I had to call the shipper, and they are filling the order again.

But, what if I had gotten an e-mail from UPS? It would be tempting to open it since they had failed their delivery a couple times already. If a bad guy had sent me one of these e-mails in the last couple days, the scenario was ripe for me to open it to find out what was happening with my delivery. Knowing that this is how the bad guys operate, I still wouldn’t have opened the e-mail. I would have gone to the shipping company’s site using the tracking number I already had (which is what I did). Then, I would have called them using the number I already had (which I also did). They said there was nothing they could do since it was marked as delivered.

They didn’t send me an e-mail about this. But what if they had? Do you think I would have opened it, because of being upset about their failures and hoping for some kind of satisfaction? Suppose a bad guy had sent a malicious “failed delivery” e-mail this week. I’ve certainly received a bunch of those in the past. But this time I already knew there were delivery problems. And I wanted it fixed!

What would YOU have done? Would you have clicked to find out what was going on with the failed delivery?

 

The main thing I want you to take away from this is:
Think before you click.

Many of us are overloaded with information. Some of that comes through e-mail, especially if you get lots of e-mail. If we are feeling like there’s too much information coming our way, it is easy to pay less attention to individual e-mails. That could put us at risk for falling prey to at attacker’s tricks, because we fail to think before opening the e-mail or clicking on a link.

I get a couple hundred e-mails daily. Most of them are never opened. I scan through the sender names and subjects fairly quickly. Some are deleted. I place the majority into an “archive” folder without opening them. They are there if I ever need to refer back to or search for something. Only a few get opened. One of those was the e-mail from my sister. Or rather, the one that looked like it was from my sister.

It is important to keep paying attention. As we open the e-mails that we think are of interest or from someone we want to hear from, we need to be aware of the possibility that it could be a trick. It could be someone pretending to be our family or friend. Or it could be an e-mail about something that is very relevant to our life on that particular day, such as a package that we are trying to get delivered. Holidays are a time that some of the bad guys step up their attacks. It is also a time that we may be more susceptible.

Again, the main thing I want you to take away from this is:
Think before you open or click.

The second thing is to become aware of the tricks the bad guys play so you don’t fall victim to them.

3 – Ransomware Prevention

So, now you understand what ransomware is, and how to be prepared so you don’t have to pay the ransom if you get attacked by it.

But, prevention is better than fixing the problem after it has occurred. Unfortunately, as with many things in security, there is no guaranteed way to protect yourself (apart from never turning on your computer or mobile device; and that’s not a helpful solution).

On the other hand, there are some things you can do to make it less likely that you will be affected.

But first, let me list some of the common ways that computers become infected with ransomware:

   * E-mail
         – Opening attachments that have malicious components
         – Clicking on links, that take us to a site that infects us

   * Visiting a web site and taking an action that causes an infection
         – Clicking on something
               (including a box that says “close” or “cancel”)
         – Moving your mouse over something

           One type of web site notice that is known to be likely to infect you if you respond to it is one that says you have engaged in illegal activity and law enforcement is being notified, suggesting you take action now to avoid further activity and to “click here to get details”

   * Phone calls, e.g., a call from someone saying they are from an accounting or billing department and they are sending an invoice and to open it when it arrives or some other phone call that advises you to take some action. If you open the attachment when you receive it, you get infected.

   * Visiting sites that can infect us just by visiting them, with no need to take any action (discussed in the daily tips). This is the most insidious method, as we can become infected despite taking precautions. Use of an ad-blocker and turning off automated functionality may protect you in some cases from some of these, but even then, there is no guarantee you can’t be infected. And turning off functionality may affect other web sites you rely on and render them inoperative.

 

So, what can you do to reduce your chance of becoming a victim?

I provided daily tips during National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Many of those tips included measures that, if taken, can help to protect you.

Perhaps you read those and thought, “that makes sense,” or “I’ve heard that before but….”

It might be a good idea to go back and take another look at those. (You might also wish to purchase the long versions when they become available soon.) But, they will only help you if you apply them.

 

So, some of the measures you can take are:

   * Learn how the bad guys attack us so you can recognize attempts to victimize you

   * Be cautious of e-mail attachments. Don’t open any that are suspicious. Think before opening ANY attachment and consider whether it might be one that could be dangerous.

   * Be cautious about links in e-mail. Links are a useful way to refer someone to good information. But they are also used by bad guys to send you to a page that will infect your computer. Before you click on ANY link, consider whether it might be one that could be dangerous.

   * Don’t respond to pop-ups, web pages, e-mails, or phone calls that try to scare you to take action or some bad result will occur. Although there may be instances where a response would be advised (an alert from the community warning you about evacuation for a coming hurricane, if you have previously signed up to receive such notifications), any unsolicited scare announcements should be regarded as suspicious.

   * Set your e-mail settings to protect you, as discussed in one of the daily tips.

   * Don’t use administrative accounts for normal daily usage. Restrict your account to an account that doesn’t have full control. (Discussed in one of the daily tips.)

   * Use security software but don’t rely on it to keep you safe. It can block a lot of threats but none of it will detect all the threats, including ransomware threats. If security software is your only protection, you are at high risk.

   * If you see a pop-up or web page that says your computer is infected or you’ve engaged in some illegal activity, don’t click the link or take the action it tells you to. If you were to do that, you may infect your computer.

   * Keep your software updated (discussed in daily tips).

   * Keep reading this blog and enroll in my courses when they become available. The basic course will be quite reasonably priced and will give you a lot of detailed information that will significantly help you to keep safe. Alternately, find some other source of reliable information whereby you can keep informed to protect yourself and return to it regularly.

Again, awareness of the threats and of the ways the criminals “get” you, and of measures you can take to protect yourself, is perhaps the most important key to remaining safe. Of course, you need to do more than just become informed, you need to put what you learn into practice.

 

To wrap up these posts on ransomware, at least for now, your best approach is threefold:

1) Take appropriate measures to keep yourself safe (discussed above, although these are only some of the steps needed to keep safe)
(Prevention)

2) Have a backup that you know is reliable (don’t keep it on your computer) and either encrypt any data that is sensitive or remove it from your computer–discussed in last week’s post
(Recovery, after becoming infected)

3) Become informed and continue to keep yourself informed from a reliable source/sources
(Prevention)

2 – How to Avoid Ransomware Payment

Last week I talked about the problem of ransomware and how you can forever lose access to your data, unless you pay the ransom to the criminal who is extorting you.

What if you didn’t have to pay and you don’t lose access to your files? How would you like to thwart the criminal’s attempts to take advantage of you?

It is possible. But it takes preparation and periodic “maintenance.” And it has to be done properly. That is the catch. Most people fail at one of those.

What is the answer?

Back up your data.

If you have all your data available in another place, the threat of losing that data because of ransomware is no longer much of a threat. Of course, there is the inconvenience of getting your computer into a stable condition and also of replacing all that data. But, if you can do that, the criminal no longer has much leverage, as long as you are willing to take the steps to restore everything to the way it should be.

With this solution, you win in two ways. You can avoid having to pay the ransom. You also know that your computer is in a healthy state (if your backup was done before it became infected).

On the other hand, if you pay the ransom, and the criminal does restore your data to a usable state, there is still a problem. Do you trust the criminal who just took advantage of you to play honestly and fairly with you? Or did they perhaps leave some malicious software on your computer? Are they monitoring your activity? Will they repeat their crime again? There is a very good chance that your computer is no longer in a “safe” condition once it has been compromised, even though the criminal “fixed it” for you.

Let’s put it another way? If someone stole money from you, would you hire them to be your bookkeeper or your accountant?
 

So, you are better off having a backup and restoring your computer and data than if you rely on the criminal to fix things after you pay a ransom.


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There are, however, some problems with this approach.

  *  Most people don’t back up their computers, even if they know it is a good idea to do so.
  *  Any new data added after the last backup would be “lost.” (The answer to this problem is to always back up any new data.)
  *  People who back up their computers and data often don’t do a good job and are unable to use their backups if they need them.
  *  The best way to restore after a compromise is to restore everything. Most people aren’t prepared to do this.

However, if you do have good backups and have all your important data backed up, you have everything you need and don’t have to worry about losing your data. You can refuse to pay the ransom and not worry.
 

Now, I’m sure many of you will see this as a major problem. You aren’t sure how to back up your computer or data. You have questions about what to back up and how to do it. And there are a lot more questions and concerns you may have.

To answer those questions and concerns, I will be creating a course on backing up your data. How soon I do that will depend in part upon the level of interest (how many people put their name on the notification list). If you are interested, you can sign up HERE. (Signing up does NOT obligate you to participate when the time comes, but does assure you will be sent notification.)
 

There is a second concern related to ransomware that is not nearly as common but does apply in some instances. As mentioned last week, in certain cases, the criminal will threaten to release your sensitive data to the public if you don’t pay.

There are two solutions to this problem. First, don’t keep anything sensitive on your computer. (This can be tricky, because there are sometimes traces of activity, even if you take precautions to eliminate it.)

Secondly, use encryption for any sensitive data. Best practices recommend encrypting anything you don’t want someone else to gain access to.

However, you need to use a good encryption solution and you need to do everything properly. There isn’t time to talk about that here. A lot of encryption is done poorly. However, even SOME encryption would probably be better than none. If your data are encrypted with a good solution, the criminal won’t be able to access your sensitive data. If the solution isn’t so good, it is still possible that they won’t find it worthwhile to try to break the encryption so they can blackmail you. They may go on to the next victim that hasn’t taken any precautions. (Just like a lock on the door of your house: A criminal can still break in, but if you take good security precautions on your home safety, there is a good chance they will find another victim, unless there is some reason they are really motivated to break into YOUR house.)

To review:

If you become a victim of ransomware and you can recover your computer and your data from backups, you don’t have to worry about losing access to your data. Although it may be an inconvenience, you can refuse to pay and still access your data.

If you are using a good encryption solution for sensitive data and not making mistakes in proper use of it, you are in good position to ignore any attempts to blackmail you with threats for release of that data.
 

To apply these solutions will require that you take measures BEFORE you become a victim. Your particular situation will determine how much effort that advance preparation will involve. You have a some choices:

  *  You can learn how to take those measures and apply them yourself.

  *  You can hire someone else to implement those measures for you. However, if you do this, I still recommend you learn at least the basics, for two reasons:
        –  You can make sure the person doing it is “covering all the important bases” and not missing something critical
        –   You will be aware of YOUR part in making sure the solution works as desired (if you make mistakes with backups, or especially with encryption, you may find that the backup or encryption fails to protect you)

  *  If you are in need of a solution for a particular situation, you can engage me as a consultant to work with you to discuss and/or address your particular circumstances.

Regardless of which choice makes the most sense to you, I want you to be aware of one thing:

If you are hit by ransomware, there is a way to refuse to pay these criminals and still not lose data. But, you must take proper precautions BEFORE anything happens.

1 – What is Ransomware?

QUIZ:

What is RansomWare?

a) Hacker’s threat to post your sensitive information online unless you provide payment

b) Malicious software that encrypts your files and demands a payment to recover them

c) Electronic communication (e-mail, text) from kidnappers stating their demands for return of victim, occurring most frequently with tourists to Central and South American countries

d) A popular new game app for the iPhone

 

Ransomware has been around for quite some time, but it has been increasing in prevalence, especially over the last couple years. I have seen a great deal of talk about ransomware in security circles this year. I have also seen instances of companies making promises of protection from ransomware that they can’t possibly keep.

In looking for statistics, I have found a wide range of figures for losses and/or ransom amounts paid, depending upon the source of information. However, multiple sources suggest that the payments were in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars last year with a significant increase for 2016.

 

So, what is ransomware? The correct answer to the quiz above is “b.” RansomWare is software that holds your information hostage until you make payment to the perpetrator. The perpetrator says they will make it possible to restore your access to your files if you make the requested payment. There is usually a deadline. If you miss the deadline, you are out of luck and will no longer be able to recover them.

However, if you answered “a,” you may be choosing a secondary tactic used by some ransomware criminals. Although the “threat” is usually that you will forever lose access to your files, there have been cases in which they have added a second threat that they will release your information to the public, probably posting on a web site. If the loss of the files isn’t incentive enough, perhaps public embarassment or the exposure of your sensitive data might be enough to convince you to pay. So, while “a” is not the correct definition of ransomware, it may be part of the “threat” in certain instances.

 


Pay up OR ELSE
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Ransomware typically acts in one of two different ways.

The first method is to prohibit access to your files and your computer. Your screen may be locked or blocked so that your normal ability to use your computer is prohibited. If you pay the ransom, they promise that they will unlock your system.

The second method is more serious. Your files are encrypted and you can no longer access them. Or, more accurately, the contents of those files are no longer available. As an example, if your file used to say: “Once upon a time….” it now may say something like: “.8Y%r&b4g.cX7|KWm]+/#+}RL0PQ>I.” The file is now worthless, until it has been unencrypted (decrypted).

With earlier versions of some types of ransomware, it was sometimes possible to decrypt the files without paying because of the criminal’s poor implementation of the “cryptographic algorithm.” In other words, the developer of the software that encrypted the files didn’t do a good job of implementing the technology to encrypt them. That meant their encryption could be broken.

However, ransomware has improved in sophistication and the developers have been fixing the problems with their software. Their software is becoming “better.” That means that it is not going to be possible to break the encryption that is now being used and the files cannot be recovered without the help of the criminal.

So, how do you get your files back? The attacker promises to provide the mechanism to decrypt (unencrypt) those files, but only if you pay them. And, there is a deadline. The ability to decrypt your files and make them usable again depends upon a “key.” They have the key and can use it to decrypt your files so you can access them again. However, when the deadline arrives, they will delete that key. If that key is deleted, you will never get access to your files again. Not even the attacker would be able to help you once the key has been deleted.

Typically, there is a countdown timer counting down to the deadline. There are also instructions on how to make payment. The method for making payment is typically by using “Bitcoins.” That is the new “currency” of the underworld, although it is also being used by legitimate people as well. Payment with bitcoins makes it harder to trace.

Use of bitcoins makes it harder for most people to make payment. How do you pay with bitcoins? Where do you get them?

To solve that problem, the attacker (extortionist) will typically provide instructions. However, some will provide an alternative for those that have trouble understanding how to make the payment. In some cases, the attacker will agree to unlock your files and restore access to them if you allow them to use your computer in their efforts to infect others to collect payment from other people.

 

So, you can either fund future criminal activities by paying the extortionist (attacker) or you can agree to become an accomplice in the crimes by allowing them to use your computer to carry out their criminal deeds. (Next week, I will talk about other choices you have, where you can avoid paying, thwarting the criminal’s attempts, and still not lose all your information.)

 

The most publicized victims are corporations. Businesses of all sizes and types have been victimized. However, individual home computer users are also victimized. The amount of the ransom demanded usually varies, depending upon the ability of the victim to pay and, sometimes, on the value of the data or the importance of the system attacked. However, the attacker’s goal is to get paid, so the amount they ask is typically an amount that they expect the victim will likely be able to pay, even if it is expensive for them.

You may think that paying is the best choice, if it is an amount that you are capable of paying. There are several problems with this approach. As mentioned above, you will be funding the extortionist’s future endeavors and also encouraging them to continue their exploits. However, there are also numerous instances where the victim has paid the ransom and has not gotten their files back. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the attacker repeats the attack. They have gained access to your system and can hold it ransom again whenever they want to. They may also have planted other malicious software on it and may have extracted your data already as well. If you pay once, it seems likely that you will pay again if they repeat their attack again in a couple months.

For a number of reasons, paying is not recommended. The best options are prevention and having an alternative response in place.

There are things you can do to greatly reduce your chances of becoming a victim. There are also things that you can do to minimize the impact if you do get victimized. You should do both. Reducing your chance of becoming a victim is an important first step, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll escape. But, if you have also taking steps to minimize the negative impact, you can turn a catastrophe into a mere inconvenience. Check back next week to hear more about that.

Implementation

Today, I want to review another theme that we saw in several of the tips from last month. That is the idea that a good security solution can be “broken” if it is implemented poorly.

Let me give an example that will illustrate the idea of implementation.

A traffic light can be an effective method of controlling traffic and avoiding accidents at the intersection of two busy streets. However, implementation is important.

An example of poor implementation would be if the light were green at the same time in all four directions. Fortunately, traffic lights are implemented to stop traffic on one road before traffic is permitted to flow on the other.

Another example of poor implementation would be if one of the signal lights were positioned behind a sign or a tree branch, so that the oncoming driver has no way of seeing the signal until he is far too close to be able to stop. A city official might conceivably argue that people should slow down so that they can stop in time if the signal happens to be red. But, knowing that a lot of people won’t, that argument would be flawed. Those responsible for traffic lights need to make sure the signals are visible from a sufficient distance to allow drivers to respond safely.

A good solution needs good implementation or it becomes a poor solution.

 

Problems with implementation occur repeatedly in security. Some of the places we saw it last month include:

*   The “chip” credit cards. The use of the chip could result in a lot better protection than it does in the U.S. By allowing the customer to still swipe the card or, with many of the cards, allowing the use of a signature instead of depending upon the chip, security is weakened. Although we discussed that the European version still allows for fraud to occur, the American version is far weaker.

*   The banks’ handling of security questions to verify identity, using information that is not that difficult to obtain.

*   WiFi security, both public and at home

*   Backups, which even the technology experts at well-funded organizations fail with on a regular basis

Implementation failures occur in at least three areas:

1) When the solution is being developed. The manufacturer of the equipment, the programmer of the software, and/or the creator of the solution may try to incorporate a good security idea in a way that weakens it or renders it ineffective. Or they could fail to take into account factors that are important for it to be effective.

2) When the solution is put into place. This could be when someone installs software on their computer or when they set up equipment. An example would be failing to change the password that comes with a new baby monitor, or using a weak password, or not having any password at all.

3) When the solution is being used. An example would be writing the password on a piece of paper and attaching it to the computer screen. Or having an alarm system for your home, but forgetting to turn it on when you leave the house.

All these kinds of failures can occur from a variety of causes, including:
*   Lack of knowledge
*   Carelessness
*   Human error
*   Inadequate planning
*   Impatience

Certainly that is not a complete list of causes.

In addition, failures can occur as the result of the difficulty of trying to address a complex situation or one that changes. That especially applies to security, a situation which is magnified by the common causes listed above.

 

Here are some thoughts on each of the stages where these kinds of problems can occur, and an approach to deal with them.

1) In the development of the solution. The consumer doesn’t have much direct control over how the manufacturer or designer creates the product. However, they can ask questions before buying, they can consider security as an important factor in their choice of which brand and model they purchase, and they can provide feedback to the manufacturer that security is important to them.

We have seen “fast food” establishments offer “healthier” choices as a result of public sentiment. If manufacturers and programmers know that the buyer will go somewhere else if the products don’t adequately address security concerns, they may begin to do a better job in the design of the products. In the meantime, by considering security and asking questions before purchasing (or having someone knowledgeable help in the purchase decision), the consumer can end up with a better choice from the selection of products available.

 

2) In the installation. By becoming aware of what is involved, the consumer can reduce the chances of making mistakes during installation. This may mean reading the directions, doing research, or simply asking questions of someone who knows what is involved.

Most people wouldn’t install a new furnace by themselves but would ask an expert. They would, however, install a new toaster (“just plug it in”) all by themselves. With computers, the installation issue can be tricky. Systems can be made relatively easy to install and seem more like installing a toaster. However, some security solutions address complex issues and installation may require “furnace” expertise even though it seems as simple as a toaster installation. Encryption solutions are one example of complex issues requiring precise implementation. Even though the encryption software may be simple to install, the “other factors” are extremely important. Ignoring those other factors results in a “broken” solution.

The answer to this does not require becoming an expert. However, it does require an awareness of which solutions require the greater level of expertise. Then, one can seek help when appropriate.

 

3) Use of the solution.
Knowing what things you need to watch out for (the threats and risks) and what things you need to do or avoid doing (practices) will help you avoid the most common mistakes made. There is always the possibility of making a mistake, no matter how much knowledge one acquires. However, awareness of the issues goes a very long ways towards avoiding the most common problems.

 

There are two main concepts I would like you to take away from today’s discussion:

* First, when someone makes claims about how good the security in their technology or solution is, remember that the way they implement it makes all the difference. They may say their product uses “state-of-the-art encryption” (or use some technical terms describing the type of encryption they use). They may say they use “two-factor authentication.” They may throw around words like “heuristics” or “adaptive technology” or some other impressive sounding terms.

When these claims are made, remember that no matter how good the claim of their technology sounds, it can be seriously flawed if it hasn’t been implemented well. That happens frequently. There are products and solutions that are well-designed and the claims being made are valid. I just want you to recognize that a really good-sounding claim using all the right words may end up being a flawed solution. Don’t be seduced by their claim just because it sounds good. (Reviewing third-party evaluations; getting opinions from informed parties and/or experts; asking questions; etc. are ways to address this.)

 

* Secondly, what YOU do with a product or other solution, both in setting it up and also in using it, makes a significant difference in whether or not it provides the desired results. The key to this is learning what is necessary to set up and to use it correctly. Whether you learn this by reading the directions and doing some additional research, or asking someone knowledgeable, or possibly “both of the above,” remaining secure requires you to be an active participant so you don’t end up “breaking” an otherwise good solution.

The other part of your involvement in the equation is to become aware of:
   a) The risks and threats that you face
   b) The options you have to address those risks
   c) The pros and cons of the “solutions” that you have available to you

One additional element would be helpful to know:
   d) A framework to make good choices in the complex environment of the many threats and issues and with the myriad of solutions to address them.

If you know “All of the above” (a, b, c, and d), you will be in a position to navigate the minefield and come out in one piece. Stick around and you will find all of that available, although it will take some time. When I say “some time,” I really mean a “little bit” of time on an ongoing basis as you learn a little bit now and a little bit more later.

The Security Solution

One common misconception about security is that you go out and buy a security program and install it on your computer, and that the security software will keep you safe. It would be really nice if that was all that was necessary. But security is a lot more than just installing a security program.

As we saw through the month of October with the 31 security “tips,” security involves a lot more than something a single piece of software can address. Security software is an important part of the solution. But it is nowhere near sufficient to keep you safe.

Some of the things we talked about during National Cyber Security Awareness Month were:

* Misleading promises made by marketers (some of them fully believe they can deliver on those promises but don’t realize there are limitations)

* Power failures and lightning strikes (that can destroy data and/or equipment)

* Common human error (forgetting to save a file, deleting something)

* Criminals (who have added the use of computers and electronic communications to their arsenal in order to steal, extort, commit fraud, and ….)

* Features that enable ease of use and automation also result in additional risks. Lowering the risks may result in less convenience. Some people will find loss of convenience unacceptable.

* Security solutions that sound good but overlook important factors and don’t fully address the risks (e.g., the new chip credit cards; “remote wipe”).

* Sometimes, security is sacrificed in favor of profitability (app builders).

Many of these are not the kinds of things that security software can address. Some of these can be addressed by security software but humans who own the systems will find a way around them, often for the sake of convenience. In addition, criminals on a mission to conduct their crime will find a way around them. For a considerable number of reasons, security software is only part of the solution.

One of the main points I want you to take away from last month’s posts (in addition to learning a few specific things) is that keeping safe means you will need to become more aware and continue to learn more over the years. I am not suggesting you become an “expert.” Nor am I suggesting you undertake an extensive study in the field of security. For anyone who wishes to do that, great! I would be happy to discuss that with you.

However, for all the rest of you, I want you to learn a little bit at a time on an ongoing basis. I will be offering a way to do that which will be inexpensive, easy, and (hopefully) may even be fun at times. But, whether or not you learn from me, I want you to learn from somebody.

Again, security has no “silver bullet.” There is no single solution. There is no solution that will be able to address all you need to know and to do in order to remain safe, apart from the ongoing process of keeping up with the changing security environment. As we have seen, some of those threats extend beyond the cyber world into the real world and may affect your health and safety.

If we want to be informed about world events, we don’t watch the news for one day and then decide that we know all there is to know from then on. If you want to be informed of world events, you watch the news, or read the paper, or follow it online, on an ongoing basis. In the world of security, the world of threats and what we need to know to keep safe continue to evolve, and the same ongoing process is required. That is the closest solution we have to remaining safe.

Without this knowledge, more than likely, most of us will be lucky a lot of the time. But, it only takes one time to make you wish you’d taken it more seriously. Maybe it would be loss of data, maybe identity theft, or maybe just the cost and inconvenience of not being able to use your computer until it gets fixed or replaced. Don’t forget that, for a great many people, their computer will be compromised and will be used to attack other people or carry out other criminal activities, without them ever finding out that they are enabling these activities to occur by remaining unaware.

So, the first “theme” I want you to take away from the past month’s tips is that security has a lot of pieces and that a lot of remaining safe depends upon you learning more about it.

If I needed to boil it all down into one word, that word would be

“AWARENESS”

That is what I wish for you.