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COMPUTER SECURITY, HOW BAD IS IT?
(A special report by volunteers of The Open Records Project)
August 3, 2021

"On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog."* Similarly nobody knows you're a cyber-criminal. Computers were one of man's greatest inventions. Then the Internet brought computer power to millions, some of whom were very bad people. This paper will analyze both.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
In the current computer environment and at the current state of the art of computer security, NO computer or computer containing device can be considered safe from intrusion and complete compromise.

Internet connectivity increases the risk of intrusion, but any computer that allows external input devices including USB drives, DVD/CD readers, scanners, printers, or wireless connectivity of any kind must be considered similarly at risk.

The risks derive from four primary elements:
1. The Internet by its nature cannot guarantee the origination of any traffic.
2. Popular legacy computers chips manufactured by INTEL and AMD are extremely complex and contain hardware flaws that can be exploited by hackers and are not easily remediated.
3. Legacy operating systems, particularly those made by Microsoft, are essentially porous to intrusion.
4. By human nature computer users tend to click on interesting WEB sites and emails that may contain intrusive code.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
- HOW THE INTERNET WORKS AND DOESN'T WORK
- THE INTEL/AMD ATTACK SURFACE
- THE OPERATING SYSTEM ATTACK SURFACE
- SOCIAL ENGINEERING
- DEATH BY AIRGAP
- PERPETRATORS AND BUSINESS MODELS
- TWO COMMON MEANS OF DESTRUCTION
- NEXT-GEN EXTORTIONWARE
- ELECTIONS
- IMPLICATIONS
- ASYMETRICAL WARFARE, PROXY WARRIORS
- GOVERNMENT REPONSE
- POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

HOW THE INTERNET WORKS AND DOESN'T WORK
The Internet sends messages from one computer to another computer in a manner similar to a telephone call. When you receive a phone call the originating phone number is displayed on your cellphone or callerID box if you have a land-line.


All Internet messages also contain a number from the originator. That number is called the "Internet Protocol" number or IP.

Of course many people are deluged with junk phone calls that show an "originating" phone number and sometimes a name. The phone spammers know how to fake the "originating" number so you will answer the phone instead of ignoring it.

Internet hackers do the same thing with IP numbers. The hacker can make the IP number be anything, the IP of a trusted compatriot or just a random number. Sometimes the hacker will use a compromised computer to relay a message to a destination thereby showing the IP of the compromised computer. If an IRS computer has been compromised, the hacker can bounce the message off the computer and make it appear to originate with the IRS.

The ease of hacking IP addresses makes identifying cyber-criminals very difficult.

THE INTEL/AMD ATTACK SURFACE
The most advanced microprocessors of today use a variety of techniques to squeeze the tiniest bit of extra performance out of hundreds of millions of transistors.

The techniques include:
- Fetching and decoding a series of instructions prior to their execution (pipelining),
- Fetching, decoding, and executing instructions on both options of a branch before the branch is taken (speculative execution for branch prediction), and
- Attempting to put idled logic blocks to work on several programs at the same time (hyper-threading).

The results do yield performance improvements but entail massively complex logic to implement. As with complexity in operating systems, complexity in logic leads to oversights and security holes.

These are five of the more important security vulnerabilities found in INTEL/AMD computer architectures:
SPECTRE
FORESHADOW
SPOILER
MELTDOWN
FALLOUT
Intel will not be able to find an easy fix for this one...

THE OPERATING SYSTEM ATTACK SURFACE
The most up-to-date public repository of computer security threats is the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database maintained by the National Cybersecurity Division of the Department of Homeland Security. The database lists 6,323 vulnerabilities associated with Microsoft as of July 23, 2021. The totals include both operating system vulnerabilities and Microsoft application vulnerabilities.

Microsoft Windows 10 is installed on over a billion devices worldwide making it the largest target for hackers.


117 NEW Microsoft Vulnerabilities Were Found in JUNE 2021..

The most recent and most severe ones include:
HiveNightmare
PrintNightmare
Hafnium Exchange Hack
Remote Desktop HACK (RDP)

Computer programs and particularly operating systems are highly complex. Windows 10 consists of over 50 million lines of program. No single individual can comprehend all the operations.

Legacy programs like Windows contain millions of lines written decades ago that are just copied into each successive revision. The individuals who wrote that code and understood how it worked are long gone.

As a result attempts to patch vulnerabilities often both break functionality as well as introduce new vulnerabilities.

Microsoft thought it patched the printnightmare hole but the patch had its own bug.

The history of Microsoft's lengthy and ongoing security breaches is compelling evidence that NO MICROSOFT SOFTWARE should ever be considered secure and that NO MICROSOFT SOFTWARE should ever be used for mission critical applications.

SOCIAL ENGINEERING
Social Engineering for computer hacking is the manipulation of a computer user to take an action that will enable the intrusion. An example would be clicking on a link that will install malicious code.

The paper Principle of Persuation specifies five elements of persuasion:

1.Authority: Use of an authoritative name, e.g., a company CEO
2.Social proof: Build a campaign that uses peer pressure to encourage behaviour
3.Liking, similarity, deception: Successful persuasion works when people or subject matters are familiar
4.Commitment, Reciprocation & Consistency: People like to be consistent and like to believe what others say and do: repaying a favour, for example
5.Distraction: By creating a sense of urgency, e.g., an item will be more expensive if you don't act now, a scammer can distract a person from the signs of a scam.

In other words, don't click on an EMERGENCY link emailed from your boss criticizing your recent work. Also, don't click on "photos" of Kim Kardashian.

The clicked link can include everything from a scripted WORD document to a corrupted image file to an innocent looking Javascript block. All can contain malware which can render your computer available for intrusion.


DEATH BY AIRGAP
The Internet is the source for most intrusion malware. However any computer that accepts some sort of electronic input is vulnerable even if it IS NOT connected to the Internet. Intrusions can be performed using USB flash drives, DVD/CD disks, scanners, printers, or wireless connection of any kind.

Flash drives actually contain a small embedded computer that handles error correction and reliability algorithms. Sophisticated perpetrators can re-program this embedded computer to change the drive's contents. The Internet has re-programming instructions simple enough to be performed by a high school student. Here is a flash re-programming tutorial in Russian.

Several devastating intrusions were executing using USB flash drives including:

STUXNET which destroyed thousands of Iranian nuclear centrifuges,
PETYA blamed for $10 billion in damage worldwide including a Ukranian nuclear power plant, Maersk (the largest container shipper in the world), and $400 million damage to FedEx,
Agent.BTZ was behind a massive cyber-attack that penetrated classified US military computers world-wide.

PERPETRATORS AND BUSINESS MODELS
Early Internet intruders were mostly satisfied with "defacing" web pages of prominent web sites and then bragging about it. Many of these perpetrators were in fact very young "script kiddies" who found intrusion scripts written by others and posted on various Internet forums.

Current perpetrators appear to be a mixture of professional cyber-criminals seeking monetary gain and state actors seeking political advantage. In some cases it's possible that state actors are contracting with criminals who may possess more sophisticated intrusion skills. The money to be made is immense.

Determining the identity of hacking organizations is difficult since on the Internet, "Nobody knows you're a dog." "Organization" names are created and destroyed in an instant. Some groups use different names at different times. Some are strickly mercenary and some are completely state owned.

A few examples with guesses as to their countries:
INDIA - BELLTROX
INDIA - DARKBASIN (May actually be BELLTROX)
CHINA - ANZHIYIDA
GERMANY - GAMMA GROUP A commercial supplier to spies.
ISRAEL - NSO A spy supplier.
ISRAEL - CANDIRU Another business selling hacks to spies.
RUSSIA - DARKSIDE
RUSSIA - REvil

There are actually cyber-criminal TRADE SHOWS

TWO COMMON MEANS OF DESTRUCTION
Ransomware and Extortionware are just two of the more common destructive tools enabled by hardware and software vulnerabilities. An intruder can break into a computer and encrypt all the valuable data and then promise to release a decryption key after a ransom is paid, usually in an untraceable cryptocurrency. This is called Ransomware and according to Internet security firm Emsisoft cost victims as much as $179 BILLION in 2020. Common targets are Fortune 500 companies and municipalities. Many ransom payments by public companies are not publicly revealed to avoid impacting stock prices.

Paying ransom has at least three downsides beyond the loss of money. First, the perpetrators sometimes take the money and don't release the decryption keys.

Second, even if the decryption keys are delivered and files are recovered, there is no guarantee that the original vulnerability will not be attacked again. Con artists often repeatedly hit soft targets who have shown willingness to pay.

Third, the perpetrator may run an extortion based on the data revealed in the ransom attack.


To prepare an Extortionware attack a more sophisticated perpetrator will first download critical data before encrypting it locally. The downloaded data will often contain potentially damaging financial information, emails documenting illegal activity, or a secret porn habit of a senior executive. After the ransom is paid an extortion attempt is made threatening to reveal the damaging secrets unless another large payment is made.

NEXT-GEN EXTORTIONWARE
Using computer intrusions to obtain lots of money is good, but achieving real power can be even better, particularly if you are a state actor or someone seeking to influence government behavior. Instead of extorting a CEO, target a high government official. For example, what is the value of extorting the longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives?

What is the value of extorting a president's son?

The beauty of Next-Gen Extortionware is the near impossibility of prosecuting the crime. Kidnappers and extortionists get caught when physical people try to collect physical ransom. In cyberspace neither the money nor the people are real. They are bits and bytes representing Bitcoin or Ethereum and IP addresses to temporary email addresses at Internet cafes in Bangladesh.

ELECTIONS
Hacking election computers is a special case of computer intrusion with the advantages of Next-Gen Extortionware plus the benefit that few will know the crime occurred. Few will be motivated to investigate, and even fewer will know how to investigate. Similarly the kids hacking grading computers are often far more tech-savvy than the school computer operators.

University Grade Hack
Purdue Grade Hack
High School Grade Hack
Another High School Hack
Hacking College Admission
Hack Top 10 Students


There are even grade hacking businesses. Here's how to hire them:
How to Hire a Grade Hacker
Change My Grade

Due to the ease of hacking election computers NO COMPUTER or computer containing device should be used to mark or count election ballots. All ballot marking and ballot counting should be done manually with paper ballots. Computers should only be used for voter registration, and then only with great care.

IMPLICATIONS
The implications of massive and total computer insecurity are, NO commercial enterprise, military installation, power plant, water treatment facility, oil refinery, nuclear power generator, city, state, or federal government is safe from destruction by computer intrusion and resulting ransom, extortion, or espionage.

The ORP is not the only organization making that prediction.

Gartner Predicts Hacked Computers Will Start Killing People By 2025. Gartner is a $4.5 billion IT consulting shop with 15,000 employees worldwide. Their press release is clearly designed to drum up business, but they do have a point.

UPDATE:
SOLARWINDS is a large software management company that services almost all Fortune 500 companies, most of the Federal government, and 300,000 other customers. In December 2020 SolarWinds customers were the victims of a massive cyber-attack and data-breach.

In February 2021, Microsoft President Brad Smith said that it was "the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen".

On the August 3, 2021 Q2 2021 Earnings Call SolarWinds President and Chief Executive Officer said, "It is an unfortunate fact that no company regardless of its size, competency, and resources seemed immune to cyber attacks as evidenced by the recent high-profile breaches."

ASYMMETRICAL WARFARE, PROXY WARRIORS
Cyber-attacks have been recognized as a form of untraditional asymmetrical warfare for about a decade. Cyber attacks have the following advantages for a physically weak power:

- They can negate hundred billion dollar military investments of much larger opponents.
- They can be fought with inexpensive expendable proxy warriors, cyber-criminals hired for a job.
- They are plausibly deniable thereby limiting counter-strikes.
- They can be scaled from small "warning shots" up to "starve a country into submission".

The Berkman Klein Center at Harvard has proposed modifications to international law to mitigate the threat.

The proposed modifications could replicate successes of the Kellog Briand Pact and the Washington Naval Treaty.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
The government response to recent attacks has been a combination of bravado and bumbleness.

The Nation Security Agency motto is "Defending our Nation. Securing the Future." It is an intelligence agency of the US Department of Defense. With a classified budget and staffing believed to be $10.8 billion and 30,000-40,000 employees. it is the premier national cyber-security facility.

Like most intelligence agencies the NSA is controversial as it attempts to thread the needle between citizen security and national security. The agency appears to have prioritized national security over citizen security and offensive capabilities over defense. As a result it left both itself and US citizens with a less than robust protection from computer intrusions.

NSA runs the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) to collect and develop tools to hack into any computer, router, firewall, or other electronic device.

The Equation Group is a collection of hackers and hacking tools believed to be associated with TAO. As such they have access to the massive resource of the NSA.

In 2016 a hacker group called The Shadow Brokers penetrated the Equation Group computers and copied all the hacking tools. These tools were released into the wild over the next several months.

One of the NSA tools was co-opted by the North Koreans to launch the Worldwide WannaCry ransomware attack infecting 230,000 computers in 150 countries. Estimated costs incurred due to the attack ran into the billions of dollars.

It is very easy to blame the NSA for letting itself get hacked, having its hacking tools stolen, and having its stolen tools wreak havoc across 150 countries. However the NSA uses computers like the rest of the world.

If you use a computer, no matter how sophisticated you are and how many billions you have for security, NO computer can be protected from intrusion, not even an NSA computer.

The FBI also has a cyber-crimes division. Their primary activity seems to be posting MOST WANTED cyber-criminals. Most of the names posted appear to be foreign nationals of powers hostile to the United States. Furthermore there seems to be no list of CAPTURED CYBER-CRIMINALS.

Tough guy Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, decided to up the US game on July 24, 2020 bragging, "There's a new sheriff in town" for cyber-warfare.

The laughter from cyber-criminals could be heard across two oceans.

The only thing worse that being laughed at is having a leader discuss getting into a "shooting war" over a cyber-breach.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
To begin with, computer intrusions should probably not be defined as an act of war but as an act of piracy. It is not politically, diplomatically, or economically efficient to send the 82nd Airborne Division to shoot it out with FancyBear in suburban Moscow.

Furthermore to fight pirates you don't send billion dollar bureaucracies that can't keep their own secrets, or Harvard inspired ambassadors with treaties and pacts, or a private school educated "sheriff" who can't spell computer. You send computer-savy corsairs with Letters of Marque.

Instead of creating a international incident and killing hundreds or thousands in collateral damage, be sophisticated and nuanced but send a precise and pointed message:

- In winter turn off the heat to the cat-house favored by party elite when they are celebrating Stalin's Birthday.
- Make every streetlight in downtown Moscow blink "SOS" in green.

If something more kinetic is called for, run a Politburo Supercar off a building during the May Day speech.

The message should be crystal clear,

If you mess with the US, we will turn your lights out. Have a nice day.


John McAfee may be gone but there are many other like him just itching to mess with cyber-pirates.

As always, if you know something say something, and say it to WHISTLEBLOWER@openrecords.org.

* Peter Steiner's New Yorker cartoon https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f8/Internet_dog.jpg



Copyright The Open Records Project 2021