Monday 30 March 2009

Protect Your Identity & Don’t Implicitly Trust

I was looking at new cars over the weekend, I saw a car I liked and naturally wanted to take it out for a test drive. On making this request, the car sales guy immediately asked to see my driver’s license or credit card.  A little puzzled by the “or credit card”, I asked whether he needed either one to prove I was lawful to drive, or for identification purposes.  The sales guy said told me it was their policy, and need it to prove my identity and to keep hold of for “security” while I took the car out.
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the UK, and there are certain elements which we cannot control in protecting ourselves, such as when companies lose or have stolen our personal information. But there are many elements we still can control, such as protecting the personal information we have in our possession. A UK driver’s license is one of the strongest forms of proving our identity in the UK, and therefore has value to identity thieves, who can easily clone fake versions using your details and their picture.  Therefore the last thing anyone should be doing is to implicitly trusting companies and strangers with holding these important forms of personal identification, especially if the document is going to be held out of sight for any period of time, or be photocopied.

Its clear many people are not doing enough to protect their identities, as the sales guy response was to tell me not to worry, as they do this thing all the time, and then went on to inform me that my driver’s license would be photocopied, but the details would be kept safe. Noooo! It doesn’t need a formal risk assessment to establish there was no way I was going to implicitly trust a car salesman with anything, let alone my key personal details and documentation.

So I came up with my own very simple solution, I just had the sales guy accompany me on the test drive, and so I didn’t allow a total “stranger” to hold on to and copy one of my key identity documents and the salesman could be sure I return with the car.  By the way, I didn’t buy the car!

Before handing over identity documents, just consider whether it is actually necessary, don't be afriad to question what they are needed for, and whether they will be photocopied. Consider what may happen to your identity documentation while it is out of your sight. Heaven forbid if it is photocopied, as at that point you lose complete control over protecting the document and another element of your identity protection.

Friday 20 March 2009

UK Payment Card Fraud Continues to Soar

APACS, a UK trade association for payments and payment service providers, released their annual statistics on UK payment (credit) card fraud losses. As expected the APACS statistics shows UK payment card fraud is continuing to rise, breaking the £600 Million a year mark for the first time. 2008 fraud figures announced by APACS

In these times of billion pound bank bailouts, these figures might seem small fry, but we should remember these fraud costs are indirectly paid for by all of us payment card holders, and are recouped by card providers through higher interest rates and various charges. The card issuers and banks do cover consumers against payment card fraud losses and usually reimburse all fraudulent card transactoins, but just as insurance fraud losses are factored into our insurance premiums, payment card fraud losses are passed on to consumers, so in the grand scheme of things we all foot the bill for payment card fraud in UK. So we really ought to care more about these rising trends in UK payment card fraud, which increased by 14% in 2008. We should be questioning what the payment card industry and merchants are doing in tackling this problem and protecting our payment card information.

Another factor card issuers and banks overlook, is the personal stress and inconvenience card fraud causes the victim, especially if a bank card is compromised.

I’ll break down the APACS stats in another blog entry over the next couple days, explaining the trend, and the impact of the introduction of Chip & Pin in the UK.

As APACS released UK payment card fraud losses stats for 2008, the BBC published an undercover investigation report, which exposed how UK payment cards and personal details can be stolen to order from an India Call Centre. BBC Overseas credit card scam exposed Call Centres are one of the prime locations for targeted information theft, and particularly with internal based payment card information theft. It’s can be such a lucrative trade, so no surprisingly Call Centres are actively specifically targeted and even infiltrated by criminal gangs.

UK based Call Centres are problematic enough to secure against these types of threats, however where UK companies outsource or move their call centre function offshore to save money, so the risk of fraud, in my view, increases. Why? Well to be perfectly blunt crime rates are just a lot higher and less controlled in places like India than in the UK. Secondly UK companies generally do a very poor job of validating the security of their offshore and are mostly third party operated Call Centre due to the distant location. Companies often assume the required security policies and procedures are being practiced, and rarely conduct on-site security audits of the offshore Call Centre. Finally it is extremely difficult to criminal and credit check nationals in countries like India, because of the population size and commonality of names.  So it is of no real surprise to me when I read these types of stories, as it’s been happening for years now. I guess due to quick reimbursement process with UK card fraud, UK consumers tend not to question how their card details were stolen in the first place, and so such Call Centre operations aren’t put under the required scrutiny. I always avoid providing my card details over phone to anyone at all costs; it’s actually safer to pay online or in person than to tell someone you can’t even see your card and personal information.

The Payment Card Industry (PCI) has a Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), which all merchants and payment processes are suppose to comply with, but what I find interesting in my card fraud research, is most Call Centres, UK based or not, just aren’t complying with the PCI standard. It’s routine to record all calls, so these voice recordings end holding volumes of card information and are often left unprotected, while operators routinely write down full payment card details, including the 3 digit security code, often known as the CVV2 number. According to PCI DSS requirements, the three digit security code is not allowed to be stored (written down), and that’s for a good reason, to help prevent card fraud.
So if you are a generally low paid Call Centre operator, you have all the information you need to commit card fraud against countless victims, a full name, a full address, full card number, card expiry date and the security code, plus other personal data such as email address. Combining a payment card with a profile of the personal details about the payment card holder, increases the black market value ten fold. I find most dodgy Call Centre operators who “skim” card payment details, don’t actually commit the card fraud transactions themselves, but they tend to sell the card information on to other criminals, so a real division labour.
Thanks to the global economic down turn, and judging by what I'm seeing on the ground, I think its safe to say UK payment card fraud will continue to soar into 2009. As payment card holders, be mindful in protecting your card information, so when that hotel receptionist over the phone asks for your card CVV2 number as part of the booking process, question it and refuse. And most importantly scrutinise your card statements, as an unknown percentage of card fraud goes completely unnoticed by us consumers, and so is not being refunded by card issuers and does not appear on those APACS card fraud statistics.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

BBC Click’s Pointless & Unethical Botnet usage

After watching the latest BBC Click technology projavascript:void(0)gramme (see and watch on BBC iPlayer (UK Only) click here), it is clear BBC Click not only controlled a botnet of 1,696 PCs to send Spam Emails, but actually paid criminals for the privilege! The angle for the BBC Click programme was to illustrate and highlight the internet botnet problem. Which to be fair is a good awareness objective and interesting, however botnets have been widely known about for many years now, certainly within security circles anyway.

"After months of investigation and a few thousand dollars, we had managed to buy a botnet from hackers in Russia and the Ukraine." - BBC Click

I'm ALL for raising awareness of cybercriminal activities, but I think BBC Click programme crossed the ethical line on this one, in they actually used a botnet (namely thousands of PCs infected with centrally controlled malware) without the PC owner’s permission to send out Spam Emails. Which is just not an illegal act in my view but a pretty immoral way to make a point. Furthermore I am troubled the BBC paid criminals thousands of pounds of license payer’s money to buy the botnet. I think they were ill-advised to take this course of action, surely the programme makers could have spoken with any one of the many security vendors on the forefront of dealing with and understanding intricacies of botnets instead.

Many security vendors and organisations have a wealth of real world information and data on botnets accumulated over many years, as well as the botnet key output, which is namely Spam Emails, and to a lesser extent botnet usage in denial of service attacks.
I mean wouldn't it be completely unacceptable to use thousands of pounds of licenser payer cash to buy drugs, just to prove there is a drugs problem, when everyone already knows there is a drugs problem.

I don't enjoy bashing the BBC as I am a huge fan of their many excellent services provided on TV, Radio and Online, however I think they dropped the ball with this one.

I carry out a great deal of research on cybercriminal activity and methodology myself, especially with online payment card fraud. However I am extremely careful to never to cross the ethical and law breaking line, even though it can be highly frustrating at times.  For instance I would consider it highly unethical to purchase stolen payment card details from a cybercriminal, and it certainly would be illegal (it's fraud) to try use stolen credit card information to just prove a point.  Despite some frustrations, I generally find such limits within my own research do not affect my ability to produce good results and raise awareness of important security issues

In fact I have been asked to perform unethical and illegal criminal and hacking actions on several occasions by reporters working for national newspapers, all of which I have refused on ethical grounds.

So I guess I'm pretty disappointed with the BBC Click programme, as I am sure they could have easily illustrated botnet usage within a lab environment, and backed this up with the real world factual data on criminal botnet usage from the anti-spam vendors.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Spotify: An Application Security Vulnerability

Yesterday Spotify, a Swedish based online music/social networking type business, announced their music application had been successfully breached by a “Group". The Group/attackers managed to exploit what Spotify describe as a "bug" in their software, which is PR spin, yes maybe it's a bug or just bad application design causing the issue, still most security professionals would describe it as a security vulnerability within the application. This vulnerability was fixed on 19th December 2008.

I don’t know how or even whether Spotify had been testing their application for security vulnerabilities, but in my view it’s fairly likely a decent third party application penetration test or code review would have uncovered the vulnerability long before it was taken advantage of by the mystery Group. I think it’s dangerous to assume only the “Mystery Group” had taken advantage of the vulnerability, as eluded to on the Spotify breach statement. Just who this Group is and their motives for illegally exploiting personal details are unknown to me at this time of writing.

Credit where credit is due, the Spotify application account management did not store passwords in a plaintext form, but hashed the password (i.e. the password stored as a fixed value equating to the password plaintext when processed by a hashing algorithm) using a unique key (salt), creating a unique hash value for each user's account password. This is application security best practice, unlike what we saw with the recent Monster website breach. It was these unique password hash values along with account holder's personal details which were able to be compromised within the application.

Despite the good use of “salted” hashing, an individual password hash value can be “brute forced” or ran against a “dictionary attack” by the attacker to obtain the original password in plaintext, just not on mass.

Spotify were keen to stress that credit card details were not stolen, however credit card information isn’t always the prime information target for an attacker. Personal information can be worth much more than credit card details on the black market. Obtaining a person’s website password together with a raft of personal information, especially the person’s email address and login handle, is highly valued by Internet based fraudsters. Why? because most people tend to use the same internet login credentials on all their website accounts, the average internet user tends not to understand the importance, or just poorly risk assess the importance of using different passwords with their FaceBook and online banking web accounts.

If you had signed up to Spotify prior to 19th December 2008, in addition to the Spotify advice, ensure you are not using the same password on other websites (do this anyway!), if so it goes without saying to change your passwords as soon as possible and double check nothing untoward has occurred with those web accounts.