Friday, June 22, 2018

An Awesomely Good Bad Password

You would think that “Let's try again” (without the quotes) would be a horrific password but “Let's try again” is a fantastic password. Granted, for almost every use case the password is pretty bad, but I have a use case that makes the password quite satisfactory. What makes this password so good?

The answer is steganography. Steganography is the art of hiding information in plain sight. So, you might say that it is not well hidden since I just told you that it is a password, but you might be wrong. What if “Let's try again” is a decoy? It is not a decoy. Perhaps another phrase in the blog is the real password.

The truth is that there is one person in the world who knows to look here for a password to decrypt something. The contents of the encrypted item will be fairly temporal. Even if the item is decrypted by the wrong party then any potential damage will be contained. Now I could have hidden the password in the picture below, but I didn’t. I will be writing a couple of blogs on steganography in the near future, and I will use an audio file that clearly shows how secret messages can be sent in files.

For now, my work is done. The one person in the world who needed the password now has the password. The encrypted container will soon be destroyed.

Welcome to the world of steganography, it’s even more fun than “Fun With Flags!”

The Internet is pointless without cats. Mrs. Mewer was a sweet heart.

Randy Abrams
Senior Security Analyst

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Who Is Killing The Anonymizing VPNs?

The primary use for a VPN is to keep data encrypted from the point of origin to its destination. For corporations this means that when you start working on your emails on public WiFi at the airport, the data cannot be seen by people who are “sniffing” what is being sent across the network. Neither the corporation nor the users are trying to hide their location; it’s all about keeping that data private to the company. An anonymizing VPN serves the same purpose, however it is also used to hide the user’s location. When I use my anonymizing VPN it may look like I am in an entirely different state or country than I really at. In between the time data is sent through the anonymizing VPN to its destination, my IP address is effectively changed. I may be in Colorado, but to the websites I visit I’m in Tokyo. Well, I was until I decided to be in London. The only place I am not is where I am.

For the rest of this post I will generally refer to anonymizing VPNs simply as VPNs for simplicity, but not all VPNs are used for anonymity.

Ever since 9/11 encrypted communications by private citizens has been placed squarely in the crosshairs of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and probably the FDA too. FDA is a three letter acronym (TLA) so the FDA probably has to take a stand on encryption. Some laws and the interpretation of these laws require an innocent suspect (and guilty ones too) to provide passwords required to decrypt data that may be of interest to investigators, but so far encrypted data in transit through anonymizing VPNs has been relatively secure.

I’m not convinced that the biggest threat anonymizing VPNs face is the government though. I believe it is private industry and the reason may have more to do with security than disregard for privacy; and it is a pain in the @ss. But then so are the archaic password complexity requirements that most companies inflict upon their users. If security was painless only masochists would be insecure. Yes, advertisers and data aggregators despise privacy and hence hate these VPNs, but they probably are not the foe. The foe is security. A prime example of the situation involves Google – particularly Gmail. I access Gmail on my laptop as well as on my phone. I also have VPN clients on my laptop and on my phone. So here’s what happens. The email client on my laptop which appears to be in London, polls for new email at specified intervals. Polling for email requires my email client to automatically log into my Gmail account to check for new email, and it also tells Google that I am in London. My email client on my phone, which appears to be in Tokyo, polls for email five seconds later and tells Google that I am in Tokyo. What do you think that looks like to Google? I’ll show you.

I may not always be a big fan of Google, but they blocked the log in attempt because they are trying to protect me. It is annoying to get these messages multiple times a day, but giving credit where credit is due, Google no longer makes me change my password every time this happens. That’s nice, but what is really uncalled for is making me solve five captcha’s when I search for the meaning of the word “Omphaloskepsis.” Now when Google does that I just use Bing. Of course I only search using Google or Bing if I am not satisfied with the results from Usually DuckDuckGo finds what I need. I assume Google is forcing the captchas because of the anonymizing VPN I use, rather than the “suspicious activity” I am told was seen emanating from my computer. I can’t be sure that there was no suspicious activity though… I was using Lenovo laptops and we all know what happens when Lenovo pre-loads software.

Banks are not particularly fond of customers changing their locations frequently, or sometimes at all. For quite a while when I tried to access my account at a specific bank, I was told that I could not access my account at that time. Once I disabled my VPN I was granted access. The bank was not trying to force me to stop using the VPN, they just wanted to keep my account secure. Now I usually just have to answer challenge questions instead of being denied access. As a side note, I once discovered a bug (not a security bug) on my credit union’s website. In order to reproduce the issue I had to make it look as if I was in another location; but not just any location would work. If you want to set off alarms at a financial institution, where do you want them to think you are logging in from? Yes, Brazil. Banking Trojans seem to thrive in Brazil. They’re born there, they have their little bot kids there, and eventually retire in Brazil.

Typically I don’t try to sell anything on my blog, but I will make an exception this time because I can and I can loosely tie it to the subject. Anyone want to buy a rare, vintage, clear body Microsoft Mouse?

I decided to post this exact mouse for sale on Craigslist. Craigslist wouldn’t let me access their site until I turned off my VPN, or appeared to come from a different location. Appearing to come from a different location is an important point that I will get back to. Recently I tried to access one of my frequent flier accounts. Once again I had to turn off the VPN, or appear to come from a different location. Forced VPN relocation is becoming more and more common. The reason that changing the exit location makes a difference is that some of the IP addresses from exit points have been blacklisted.  In addition to using VPNs for good things, VPNs are used by cybercriminals too.

Once an IP address is identified as being associated with cybercrime it gets blacklisted. Craigslist, airlines, and most other companies do not care if I am in in Seattle, Texas, Denmark, Hong Kong, and so on, but they do care if IP addresses I use are also associated with criminal activity. Sometimes I have to try several different exit points before I am allowed to connect to a site. It can take 30 seconds or even a minute or more to do what should take a few milliseconds. That may not sound like a lot of time, but think about a single webpage taking a minute to load.

No, the anonymizing VPNs are not going to be killed by Google or Craigslist (although they might be beaten senseless by United Airlines), but I believe that users of anonymizing VPNs are finding an increasing number of problems when using them. The US government doesn’t need to do anything about the challenges that VPNs present; private enterprise will do it for them for free.

On a final note, regardless of its rarity it does not appear that I am going to get $150 for that mouse anytime soon.

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst

Friday, December 1, 2017

RFID Tags in Clothing – What Could Go Wrong

Sometimes we need a break from all of the serious security issues we deal with and talk about. This blog is a break from breaches, sabotage, espionage and camouflage. If you want serious security today might I recommend Top 4 Reasons Why Hackers Plant Geolocation Malware on Websites, or some of my previous blogs such as Evasion and Regeneration; Decoys and Deception, or New Equifax Website Compromise.

Recently I had to shop for a washing machine. I had forgotten that now a days washing machines are part of the Internet of Things (IoT).  It was pretty easy to narrow down my choices of washing machines; if the washing machine listens and tells all to Google then I don’t want it, I have my Android phone for that. I would need to remember not to talk about confidential information when I am in the laundry room… Google hears all, Google sells all.

All of these high tech washing machines made me contemplate what other absurd things we can apply IoT technology to?  I decided that IoT clothes would be absurd… until I had my million dollar idea for a ground breaking application of the technology.

You see, I am really about function over form. My sense of fashion is only marginally better than most IoT vendor’s knowledge of the need for IoT security. I reason that if I could have RFID tags in my clothes, I could put my sports coat next to a shirt and then my mobile phone will tell me if the clothes work together. Next I put a tie with the shirt and sports coat and my phone tells me if it is business casual or a misdemeanor.

RFID tags would be solve my fashion impairment affliction. I could take pictures of my clothes to the store with me and know if something will pop before I buy it. It’s not just me, it’s a wonderful application for color blind people (who without exception have a better sense of color coordination than I do).

I could bring my clothes to the washing machine and it will TELL me which items can safely be washed with each other! The cost savings would be enormous. No more buying clothes that work together at the store and then inadvertently dyeing them to a color that no longer works with anything -including impressionist paintings.

There's also the problem that fashion changes. My app will be updated every time there is a new fashion (black is timeless). At last, if I buy on the first day of the cycle, my clothes can be fashionable for the full six months of their planned obsolescence. What's more, I could enter the name of an opera house or a burger joint and my phone will tell me if the clothes are acceptable for the dress code. Evidently sandals do not count as shoes at those fancy shmancy opera houses. I actually knew that and intentionally wore them when my ex-girlfriend tried to make me go to see the opera Lily.

So what could go wrong with putting RFID tags in clothes? Perhaps a manufacturing error puts the wrong chip in my clothes I'm wearing for an interview at T.J. Maxx. Suppose a hacker is able to hack the RFID chips and flash them to the 1970's fashion styles? If there is a manufacturing product recall for a defective RFID tag (the cheap ones are read only) is the shirt replaced with a refurbished shirt? Will the shirt be depreciated based on wear? If I am a clothing manufacturer would my competition hack into my system and sabotage my RFID tag stock?

Yes, there are potential security risks but still, if we nerds can finally go incognito in public it is a risk we are willing to take.

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sometimes It Isn’t All About Russia

Saying that Russia has been in the news for espionage and hacking, etc. is like saying there’s oxygen in the air – it seems we breathe that news. Despite whatever Russian hackers have done, people get so hung up on the marketing value of the Russia brand that they forget there was supposed to be a story too. The exploitation of DDE is an example.

There are many articles about Russian hackers exploiting the terrorist attack in New York in order to lure people into opening documents that are booby-trapped with DDE content.  There are two real stories here and Russian hackers are not one of them. We have a story involving confidence attacks and another story about DDE exploitation.

Happy Birthday Sweet 16

2017 marks the 16th anniversary of the Anna Kournikova worm. Amusingly, at least to me is that when I thought of using the Anna Kournikova worm as an example in this blog, I had completely forgotten that Anna hails from Russia. I also wasn’t thinking about the lyrics either. “You've turned into the prettiest girl I've ever seen.” is also in the lyrics to the song. That Anna is from Russia was not relevant to the story of the worm. That Anna is a lovely woman is only relevant to the construction of the worm attack. The story is about techniques that are highly effective in enticing users to execute malware. The point of “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen” is that we are not dealing with anything new.  The “ILoveYou” worm is a year older but nobody says “Happy Birthday Sweet Seventeen” so Anna it is. There is also another interesting parallel between the Anna Kournikova worm and the DDE exploit attack vector. Jan de Wit, the author of the Anna Kournikova worm, used a virus construction kit to generate the worm for him. Not to say that Russian, Chinese, American and other hackers are not sophisticated, but tutorials to exploit the DDE vulnerability are on YouTube.’ Just sayin

If, like Jan, you prefer to use a kit, Metasploit has a module all set up for you.

Prescriptive Guidance

Russian hackers using exploits to deliver malware is not a story. Using a tragedy as a lure is not a story. Anyone involved in security already knew that exploitation the terrorist attack story would be happening within minutes. If you are going to use the Russian brand for marketing (like I am now), use the marketing for good. In that spirit I would like to provide at least a little prescriptive guidance. 

1) Read
Despite the varying nature of usefulness, Microsoft usually provides mitigation strategies for vulnerabilities. In this case you should read the Microsoft Security Advisory 4053440 titled “Securely opening Microsoft Office documents that contain Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) fields.”

Many security companies have excellent write-ups of the actual threat, how it works, what Yara rules and Snort signatures may be available, and other truly relevant information. Read those articles if security is your thing. Read my blog if it isn’t .

2) Keep your eye on the ball
Perhaps you can employ Microsoft’s mitigation strategies, but whether you can or cannot, remember that blocking these attacks is part of a strategy, not the goal. Protecting data is the goal.

There are books, courses, and I believe even theologies that deal with data protection, but “how to” is beyond the scope of this blog and outside of my area of practice. Cutting through the haze of hype is the story I want to tell. If you are keeping your eye on the ball, the DDE vulnerability is a reminder that protecting your data is the endgame. If your data is vulnerable to exploitation of DDE, perhaps DDE is not your biggest problem. The DDE issue might also be a reminder to audit/test your defense systems. 

I often recall Greg Thompson’s post on LinkedIn in the wake of WannaCry. Growing weary of the Gregorian chant “Patch Patch Patch Patch Patch Patch Patch Patch Patch” he exclaimed:

Like Greg said, “...we need to re-think how we control/manage vulnerabilities.” 

Thanks Greg, for the reminder to keep my eye on the ball.

You see… sometimes it isn’t all about Russia, but it just might be about tennis lessons with from Anna Kournikova. Anna’s story is timeless and I think that Anna is too - she is just as beautiful as she was 16 years ago when a worm by her namesake made the world news.

In the blog "Internal Audits, Lawsuits, ad Love Letters, I promised a blog dealing with the Malware aspect of using public computers. You can find that blog  on the Quttera blog at Public Computers and Malware.

Randy Abrams
Senior Security Analyst at Quttera Labs

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Internal Audits, Lawsuits, and Love Letters

What Comes to the Business Center Computer Stays on the Business Center Computer

Several examples of data left behind on public computers will be shared in this blog. When possible or deemed necessary attempts were made to notify the owners of that their data had been at risk. Sensitive content was also deleted from these computers. Typically I deleted all temporary files as well as those left behind in common locations.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I am not a hacker. It took no special skills to find the files in the examples used below. If a computer was reasonably well locked down, and some are, I wouldn’t know how to hack into it. The only “special tool” I used that was not on the computers inspected was a hex editor. A hex editor is very useful in determining the true file type of a file that does not have its regular extension.
Please Help

Do any of my readers know how many bags of mints every United Airlines flight leaving St Louis should have onboard? I found a copy of the Trans States Airlines (TSA) August 2009 Bid Quiz on a public computer in a hotel. I have been dying to find the answer to this question ever since.

Tools of Social Engineering

Trans Sates Airlines is or was a regional carrier for United Airlines. As I was looking through some “temporary” files on a computer in Austin, TX I came across a “bid quiz” and a PDF containing a training roster that included the names of several flight attendants, what appears to be their employee numbers, dates of training and training locations. However I did not find this quiz and PDF in 2009, it was 2012 when I first encountered it three years on that computer before I removed it.

What comes to the business center computer stays on the business center computer.

The story does not end there. I only had time to review a few of the temporary files at the time so I copied the rest of them onto a thumb drive for later perusal and use as training material.

In 2016 I finally got around to inspecting the files as I was creating a new training presentation. Seven years after the file had been left for dead in that temporary directory it was still relevant. In early 2017 there were at least 5 flight attendants still employed by TSA (not the TSA). At least one or two flight attendants had gone to work for other airlines. Finding the flight attendants was as simple as typing their names into a LinkedIn search box. From 2009 to 2012 the file was publically available as a weapon of social engineering. Today it may be an even more effective attack tool. Knowing several years of a victims past and colleagues can be quite convincing.

“Hey, I remember you. We talked on some flights between St, Louis and was it IAD?” Wow this brings back memories. Do you know what Jane is up to now? She was such a sweetheart. Last I heard she opened a yoga studio in Australia.”   Nice foundation for a confidence scam, except there is a lot more on social media now to build on. I did reach out to TSA. I offered to return their data if they wanted it and I requested the answer to the question about the mints. I received no reply.

Are You Traveling for Business or for Pleasure?
If you are a home user you might want to know what you could be leaving behind on these computers. My favorite finds are Yahoo emails that can be found in the temporary internet files directories. Temporary files from html email frequently have names that look like this “H2YDZKEU.htm.”

Those files then open in the browser like this

Aside from the fact that the email was sent to me, there were several other email addresses on the “TO:” line. Sometimes the emails indicate a transfer from a work account to a home account. Protecting yourself really isn’t as easy as telling a browser to delete all of the temporary files, at least Internet Explorer doesn’t remove them all. There are several other places to find temporary files on a windows computer.

I am a Security Professional, I got it

If you are responsible for enterprise IT/security I have some solid advice for you. Pray. Pray really hard. I do not care if you are an atheist, pray!  If you play D&D you are already a step ahead of me.

You might want to let the CEO know what things have been found on these computers. We’re not talking about the malware threats. Why let the CEO know? Aside from the fact that the CEO may be an offender, you may need some support to get the funds required to protect proprietary information. I’ll give you a bit of ammo below. Examples relevant to Finance and HR can be found.

An Internal Audit and a Bit More

While dumpster diving on a business center computer I came across an internal audit for a major chain that provides cash advances. I discovered which branch was being audited, the contact at the branch, and the auditor’s findings. While the branch received a satisfactory rating, issues such as a check missing a payee and a missing disclosure were noted.


On the same computer a document concerning a cash advance was also found. The document contained the customer’s name, address, phone number, customer number, and transaction logs.

Yeah, there’s no legal liability there… is there?

A Lawsuit

On one occasion I discovered correspondence between a very large law firm and their client. The client was filing a claim against the Manville Trust. In this case the PDF was sent to the claimant’s yahoo account, and was also sent via snail mail to the claimant at the hotel he was staying at. I did not include the law office’s logo on the letter head. It was not the lawyers who opened the doc on the public computers, they employ about two dozen lawyers who could make life hard for me if they were made aware that I exist and they are board or just mean.

The Love Letter – A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Olga, the one who opened the email, may not care if the world knows that Kenny is in love with her, but she might not want her email address to be shared. I didn’t email her to find out though.

Not all correspondence is a love letter. One document left behind was titled:  “A Letter to Just One of the Other Women”

If the letter, a Word document) had been to Mary, or Sue, or Linda, I would not have redacted the name. The letter was to a woman whose first name is unique. There is only one person with that name on Facebook. The letter was much longer and contained information that corroborated identification. Even with a more common name personal identification may have been possible through correlation of a variety of social networking sites. The document was also probably edited or even composed on the hotel computer. One can speculate that the letter was sent as an attachment and the original was forgotten.

The odds are that you do not have a letter to the other woman, but have you ever composed anything that required discretion or read any such items on a public computer? Perhaps saved them?

Did you ever print out a boarding pass? I could have re-assigned a middle seat to a passenger late last year. His flight didn’t depart for hours! It was a long flight too.

In early 2017 I found a number of items on the computer in an executive lounge at an airport. I came across a financial advisor’s communications in a document that indicated it contained proprietary information and trade secrets.

Typically strategic development plans are not for public consumption. I have only included a small part of this document.

In this case I’m not really sure that the company cared. They never got back to me on Facebook. Also found was an investment firm’s communications with an indicator that the content included proprietary trade secrets. It actually appeared to be boiler-plate, but I don’t know.

Amusingly, on the same computer was a PDF with installation instructions for a Chamberlain garage door opener. I left the installation instructions on the computer for the benefit of others who may find them useful.

A few additional examples.

The spreadsheet I found with the names, salaries, and merit raises for faculty at a university in Texas should never have been there. Of course the faculty are woefully underpaid. Teachers need to be appreciated more.

Online banking is like money in the bank.

There was enough information in the HTML file to identify the account owner, where he lived, multiple sources of income, and places he frequented.

Finally, there are always the selfies and the pets. Out of respect for private citizens I have anonymized these pictures.

A Most Gratifying Experience

On one hotel computer I found a spreadsheet with the names of the salespeople, their team leaders, and how much product each had sold. This information belonged to a fairly large company that is the leader in their field. When I contacted the appropriate person, among her first words were “we will begin training immediately?” That is what this is all about.

Understand private and corporate risk, and act accordingly

This blog does not address the malware threats. I will be writing about that on the Quttera blog.

One final word of caution. Should you decide to look for what was left behind on a business center computer, there are somethings that you can never un-see…

I warned you.

My blog dealing with the malware risk when  using public computers is live at Public Computers and Malware

Randy Abrams
Senior Security Analyst at Quttera Labs

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Cleaning and Gutting Phish for Beginners

To start with, beginners don’t usually clean phish but anyone can help to get the cleaning process started. Admitting that someone else has a problem is the first step toward fixing the problem! If it is your own website that is hosting a phish then it is up to you to clean it, or get help cleaning it.

Phishing links can be dangerous to click on as they make take you to a site with exploits. If you have a safe environment, such as a virtual machine or sandbox, then it is typically ok to follow the link, but be sure to replace the VM with a pristine copy or delete the contents of the sandbox.

When you receive an email that you suspect or know is a phish, before you delete it share it with Phishtank. The easiest way to get it to PhishTank is to forward the email to PhishTank make phish available for people to validate. Security companies can also pull information so as to more quickly block the phishing attacks. It is a great idea to sign up for an account at PhishTank. If you have the know-how to tell a phish from spam you can help by logging into PhishTank and evaluating some phish.

If the phish is attacking customers of a financial institution you might be able to contact the institution, but frequently it is hard to find a way to report the phish to. Sometimes you can message the affected company on social media and find out where they would like the phish forwarded to.
Sometimes you can let website owners know when their websites are being used to host the phishing pictures and kits.

Now let’s move along to gutting a phish. We will start with the small phish.

We’ve all seen these before. I particularly like the professional touches on this one such as To: Undisclosed-Recipients and “This message was sent to “”.” I right-clicked on the email so I could view the source text. On the lower right you can see the context menu. Here are the entire contents of the body (guts) of the phish.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<p><a href=""><img alt="Mountain View" src="" style="width: 592px; height: 473px;" /></a></p>

There are two significant things going on here. src="hxxp://"   is where the picture in the email is coming from. This is the second link above. The first link is the smelly part of the phish. hxxp:// is where the phishing kit used to be located. It was replaced with a 404.
These links happen to be shortened URLs, but there are many sites that provide URL shortening services. You really want to know where you are going before you go there, so expand the URL back to the full version before you decide to click. The JoshMeister has some great tips for decoding links that have been shortened by using a variety of services.

Since this URL is shortened by we just add a + sign to the link and hit enter. This takes us to the site where we are shown the full URL. In this case hxxp://

hxxps:// is not the link that matters. That one has advertising that would give the phish away. The one you want is the smaller one in orange. hxxp:// leads us to the plain picture shown at the beginning of the gutting section of this blog.

When you click on the picture in the Phishing email you would have been taken to the phishing kit which asked for your login information and many other details. It even asked you to create 5 challenge questions that are commonly used. I liked the one that asked “What is your father’s middle name?” I answered “The one between his first name and his last name.” I do not suggest that you visit the phishing sites though. I was using my wife’s computer so I was never at risk.

So how did I help to clean this phish? First I admitted that someone else had a problem and then I let them know that there was a problem.

I wrote up more about this specific incident in a blog titled “Phishing for a Gold Medal” at Quttera. I am now a Senior Security Analyst at Quttera. I included a couple of more shots of this particular phish and a tiny bit of biographical information about the gold medal winning Olympic athlete.
In addition to my personal blogs here, I hope you will follow me at Quttera as well!

Randy Abrams
Independent Security Analyst by night and
Senior Security Analyst at Quttera Labs

I Am Pleased To Announce My New Position with Quttera

I am now a Senior Security Analyst at Quttera. Quttera is a company devoted to helping small and medium site businesses secure their websites...almost for free... the cost is pretty small, so even small businesses can afford to secure their websites. I'd look at "about us" first to get an idea of what Quttera is all about. It's just a paragraph that gets right to the point.

I am a really big fan of heuristics and I have been for many years. That is one of the reasons I decided to work for Quttera. I also like to help people become more secure online, and Quttera allows me to do just that.

OK, I'll return to my typical blogging style right after recommending you give the Quttera Free Online Website Malware Scanner.  I also like free online security scanners!

Randy Abrams
Senior Security Analyst