Monday 30 November 2009

Child Facebook Safety

Recently I was invited to participate on Radio Five Live debate on children’s usage of social networking sites, and specifically child bullying within Facebook. Various parents were calling the radio programme and were saying their children had suffered from issues like cyber bullying and the receipt of obscene messages from perverts. Several individuals thought the answer was to prevent their children using social networking websites and even suggesting banning children from using the Internet altogether.

The main point I made was banning children from using social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace will just not work, for one banning illegal activities like under aged smoking and drinking doesn’t work, sooner or later children will find a way to access social networking websites anyway, which isn’t illegal by the way. Furthermore preventing a child from using the home PC is a reckless approach in the information age and pretty pointless exercise, as children can access the internet and social networking from their mobile phones, on school computers, perhaps with friend’s laptop, crikey they can even access social networking sites through games console!

The clear answer I gave to this problem, cyber education. Not the usual optional Internet awareness classes give out of hours in secondary school, but mandatory classes on how to use the Internet safely in the later years of primary schools. For me this type of Information Communication Technology (ICT) education should not be just akin to the “don’t talk to strangers” and “crossing the road safely” type education, but needs to be as essential as Maths and English. School ICT lessons simply should not be just about how to do a bit of Desktop Publishing and putting together PowerPoint presentations, but be about the essential “life” skills on how to keep safe and secure when online.

While talking on Five Live about my thoughts on this subject, I went on to give an example of five things to which our primary children should be taught about social networking, and indeed what parents should be aware of too, apart of cyber bullying, social networking is the favourite tool of identity thieves. These five pieces of advice were:


Child Advice: The first golden rule is to only accept friend requests from people you know, by know I mean actually have met face-to-face. Secondly only accept friend requests from people you actually like. Just because you know someone it does not necessary mean you like them. If you don’t get on with someone don’t accept them as friend, as usually this leads to no good. Remember a social networking site is not supposed to be about collecting as many friends you can. If you have 100s of friends on your friend’s list, you are just asking for trouble, as no doubt most of these “friends” will be strangers, amongst which there will always be some bad apples.

Parent advice: If your child has more than 10 to 15 friends on their social networking friends list, you should be concerned, ask your child to go through their friends list and confirm who they are. Also understand most social networking sites use all sorts of “rewards” to encourage their users to amass friends, some sites like Twitter is based on it, in the case of Twitter see point 2 and 3.


Child Advice: Make sure your privacy settings is fully on, particularly ensure you are only sharing your personal postings and pictures with “Friends only”, “Friends of Friends” setting is not good, while “Public” is just asking from trouble.
Parent Advice: Periodically double child the social networking privacy settings as per child advise. Some social networking sites default new accounts with privacy fully on, but not all, for example Twitter’s privacy settings are off by default. However many applications within social networking sites tend to fool children (and adults) into switching these settings off. Leaving privacy settings off allows the world (strangers) to see your child’s comments and pictures.


Child Advice: Before posting a comment or picture, stop and think before you hit confirm. Remember once a comment or picture is posted it stays forever, just because you delete it seconds later doesn’t not mean it is gone from the internet. For instance most social networking sites send out an email updates containing your post, and can even post to other social networking sites, for instance Twitter integration with Facebook, so be very careful what you post. If you need to have private and sensitive conversation with your friends, it is always best stick to verbal communications, as you never know who could pickup on your posting.

Parent Advice: Periodically check your child’s posting to ensure you child is posting sensibility. The best way to do this is to add yourself as a friend of your child.


Child Advice: No one ever needs to know your password, except your parents. Emails from Facebook, Bebo, Twitter etc, and from social networking applications asking for your password are always false. Do not share your account with anyone and never give your password out to any of your friends.

Parent Advice: Cyber bullies and worst, often try to fool social networking users to provide them with their password, once they have it, they can get up to allsorts of nasty tricks, ensure your child uses a strong password and remind them never to share it with anyone accept yourself.


Child and Parent advice: Make sure your PC’s Anti-virus is operating and kept up-to-date, and also ensure your PC’s Firewall is enabled, and make sure you apply the latest operating systems patches on a regular basis. This will help prevent malicious software covertly installing onto your PC, such software can steal your social networking passwords and send them on to bad guys without your knowledge.

Social Networking, like most things in life, can be fun, an extremely useful tool, and ultimately safe if used responsibly.

There are several useful website resources for this below:

Kidscape (Cyber bullying Awareness for Children)

DirectGov (Cyber bullying Awareness for Adults)

A Guide to Facebook Security and Privacy

Anyone else would like to recommend further websites, please post in the comments, thanks

Saturday 28 November 2009

Gary McKinnon Extradition

Gary McKinnon is in the news again after the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson refused to block the intended extradition to the United States. I was invited to comment on Radio Five Live on Friday morning, to raise points on the security and technical specifics of the case.
It is clear Gary has plenty of public support in the UK, from people who believe he shouldn’t be extradited to the United States, mainly on human rights grounds. Gary’s lawyers stated he is happy to pled guilty to the crimes in a UK court, therefore he appears to be guilty of these crimes, but his lawyer feel justice just won’t be served if he was sent to a US court.

I have actually meet Gary a couple of years back, however my comments on Radio Five Live were made from totally impartial and an Information Security expert’s point of view. Here is a summary of what I said.

The main point to understand is, what was the motivation of Gary McKinnon’s “hacking” attack? It clearly wasn’t for fraud, as he wasn’t trying to steal any financial information, and there appears to be no accusation of Gary stealing information to sell on for profit. This is the first point to understand, as people who are motivated to hack systems to steal for personal profit, do need the book throwing at them.

The next question, did Gary set out to damage systems maliciously? Well if you listen to his lawyers, they will tell you Gary’s motive wasn’t to break and damage systems, but to acquire knowledge, mainly about UFO’s and their power source. However the US authorities say Gary’s intension was to break and damage their systems and point to messages left on their systems, such as this one below, which I understand has been verified as being left by Gary, by his lawyers.

“US foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days? It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand-down on September 11 last year...I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”

For me these are all important questions to ask and answers to understand, as there is a big difference between a fraudster using hacking techniques to steal financial information, a malicious hacker out to deliberately out to deface and break systems, and a curious hacker trying to satisfy a “What If”. Confusingly Gary is portrayed as the later, but he also tends to be branded and tarnished with same brush as these other types of hackers. I feel this is because the general media and the public do not understand the significance of the different types hacking which are occurring today.

I believe there is negligence on US system owners part. For example if I were to park a shinny new BMW in an undesirable part of town, left the car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, wouldn’t I be negligent and be at fault if the car was stolen? Would an insurance company pay out? In the same way everyone knows the Internet is a dangerous place, and for any organisation to place “sensitive” servers directly on the internet without even the basics of best practice in IT security of the day, and then has these said servers hacked, in my view that organisation has only themselves to blame. If Gary didn’t get there first someone else or perhaps even malicious application would of breached these systems eventually. The majority of Information Security professionals I know tend to share this point of view on information security, however a lawyer wouldn’t, and perhaps the people who didn’t properly secure their systems in the first place won’t exactly be blaming themselves either. But I’m definitely with the insurance company on this point.

Gary is summarised by most media as being some sort of Super Hacker, actually in my experience and knowledge of the actual “hacking” which is alleged to have occurred in this case, I have to say Gary is far from being a super hack or even an accomplished hacker. It looks like Gary didn’t really have to work very hard to access these systems, such was the alleged lack of basic security on them, and at the end of the day he got caught. Even an average grade hacker knows how to be anonymous on the internet, and how to cover their tracks properly, only the inexperienced and the not so clever hackers actually get caught. So in my view Gary is far from being a “Super Hacker".

My final point on the Radio, which will not be popular with pro-Gary campaigners, but is a word of caution. We need to give some thought to the legal precedences which could be set here. There is a problem in bringing real serious cyber criminals to justice, because hackers tend to operate across international borders. I know our US extradition treaty isn’t the best as it currently stands, but if this extradition were to be blocked, I fear the next time the we arrest a credit card fraudster operating out of the UK (which has happened recently), that the fraudster’s legal team would use this case to prevent extradition. Similar legal precedents have been used to stop the extraditon of a foreign nationals back to their country of origin, despite them committing allsorts of heinous crimes are way much more serious than breaking a few servers.

There is much more I could have said on this subject, such as looking at the way US authorities have appeared to have put in place an over the top sentencing for this crime, which doesn’t have appear reflect the actual crime. It is ridiculous that this particular type offence seems to be carrying a greater punishment than murder in terms of prison sentence time. I understand Gary's hacking at worse caused a 24 hour outage, with no member of public (or military) armed as a result, and as I said it could be argued the system owners were partially to blame as well. I don’t believe any information of value was stolen, only system “software” damage is alleged to have occurred, which is estimated to be around $700,000 by the US authorities, which many would say is kind of high for rebooting and restoring less than 100 systems. The punishment for the actual offence must fit the crime, and if it did then extradition of Gary to face justice in a US Court might not be the problem it currently is.

Sunday 1 November 2009

How Secure is your UK Online Banking?

The UK maybe still in the midst of a recession, but these times are proving anything but a recession for cybercriminals, as UK Online Banking fraud is sky rocketing at the moment. The ‘Financial Fraud Action’ showing a 55% increase for the first half of 2009, while the ‘UK Payments Administration’ figures reports a 44% year on year rise. Through my own research and underground monitoring of UK cybercriminal activity, I am seeing increasing numbers of stolen UK online bank account access details being put up for sale, and increasing numbers of keylogger malware being deployed, which are specifically targeting the theft of UK online bank access credentials covertly.
Despite these increases in criminal activity and years of warnings, UK banks still aren’t doing enough to protect their customers from the dangers of the internet. Many UK banks are still yet to provide their customers with a security best practice Two-Factor authentication access to their online banking, so are making it all too easy for cybercriminals to steal UK bank account access details. Two-Factor authentication involves using an individual hardware token which is possessed by each individual online account holder. This hardware token displays a constantly changing number on an LCD screen (see picture below), which is typed in along side the customer’s identity (name) and password to provide access to the online bank account. Using a hardware token such as this would prevent the majority of online banking theft today, as without the physical possession of the 2nd factor hardware token, you cannot gain access into the online bank account.
Many UK banks still resort to the security dated “knowledge based” authentication along side a person’s password. “Knowledge based” authentication is about asking the account holder a question which only that individual is likely to know the answer to. For example typical knowledge based questions are: What is your mother’s first name? What is the first school you attended? What is the name of your favourite pet? The problem is this type of personal information is no longer private in the information age, and can be found in all manner of places on the internet, both legitimately and illegitimately. So fraudsters who steal bank account details often do a bit of simple research to build up a knowledge profile about their target, so they can get pass the knowledge based questions as well. This information gathering can be done in just minutes from a computer keyboard, anywhere in the world, a wealth of personal details on target can be quickly found by using websites such as Google, Facebook and various public record websites like the electoral role directory I have seen UK cyber-fraudsters selling complete profiles of UK individuals along with their online bank account username and password, including one which stated the victim’s favourite pet’s name!

Two-Factor authentication will not completely solve online banking fraud, but if deployed by UK banks, would go some distance in bringing down the number of UK online bank accounts being compromised. My own research shows the majority of UK bank theft is actually done from criminals based abroad, who generally regard the UK as easy pickings and a soft target. The slow take up of Two-Factor authentication by UK banks just goes to re-enforce the UK’s perception as being a soft target by cybercriminals around the world.

Why don’t all UK banks deploy Two-Factor authentication?
Their excuse is cost. Although the actual cost of deploying Two-Factor authentication is relatively small (£3 to £6 per customer), UK banks do not want to spend in the current climate and are more than happy taking the hit on cyber fraud, which is regarded as a more acceptable cost than shelling out on security prevention, no matter the inconvenience and stress this type of fraud places on it’s victims. There is a thought, given a choice customers would be happy to pay a one off £5 fee, paying for their hardware token to gain security benefits it provides.

Seriously, why do UK Banks continue to shoot themselves in the foot by not providing Two-Factor authentication to their customers?
Ok, here is the real food for thought on the cost argument. Most UK banks actually want their customers to use online banking for reviewing bank statements, than sending paper statements to their customers in the post. Surely the cost of having a customer use online banking and being provided with a hardware token for security is much cheaper than posting 12 statements a year. I say this as I know people who are put off by using online banking because they don’t feel confident in the security, personally I think using a hardware token would give them that a security assurance. Providing a Two-Factor token could actually turn out to be a real cost saving! And let’s not forget the carbon saving by not printing those paper bank statements and shipping them around the country too.
What can you do to protect your online bank account?
IT Security Expert advice
1. If your bank does not provide Two-Factor authentication (token/key), consider switching to a bank which does.

2. Password Protection
a. Ensure your bank account password is a unique password to you. Using the same password with other websites such as Social Networking websites, Message Boards, Webmail and Job Recruitment Websites must be avoided at all costs. The bad guys hack these types of websites to specifically lift individual username and passwords for the purpose for trying against their online banking websites.
b. Change your password at least once a year, once a quarter is what I personally recommend.
c. Ensure your password is strong. By strong I mean use upper, lower case letters, at least one number, but most of all include at least one “special character”. By “special characters” I mean @, ”, $, %. However I know of one recently taken over Yorkshire based bank which actually prevents you from using special characters in your password!

3. Email Security
a. We all know about phishing Emails now, but it’s still a major problem and a favourite attack by deployed by cybercriminals to harvest online bank details. Phishing Emails are becoming more realistic and more specifically targeted. Unfortunately this attack still works, people are still suckered in by these Emails. So no matter how genuine an Email looks, never click on the links, a bank will (should) never request your accounts details or ask for you to login for any reason via an Email. Remember a phishing Email always prays on the emotion of greed (you won something) or fear (your account has been compromised, change your details).
b. Never send your bank details by Email, no matter what legitimate company or person requests it, be strong and always resist, just say no!

4. Ensure your Operating System is patched up to date, and you have Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware applications running at all times, and make sure they are kept up to date. The bad guys like to deploy key logging malware onto unsuspecting user PCs, who then have not idea their key strokes are being recorded and sent on to fraudsters, key strokes including those bank account access details, namely the username and password.

5. Check your bank statements regularly. UK banks are getting better at detecting bank fraud but it’s far from perfect. Therefore it’s important you take responsibility and check through your statements regularly looking for fraudulent transactions. Pay particular attention to internet transactions and transfers out.