People use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) for lots of reasons, both legitimate and… less so. They are commonly required for remote access to workplace computers by employees. They are used by people who do their banking from public WiFi networks. They are used by people who can’t afford to pay for dozens of streaming and cable services and instead rely on still-considered-illegal downloads of copyrighted media. And some people use VPNs to get around ridiculous regional limitations on access to streaming media.
I myself fit into at least two of those general categories of VPN users. I won’t say which.
Because people want (and rightly feel they deserve) access to their culture, and because Big Media is willing to go after absolutely anyone who dares to defy their stranglehold on culture, savvy media consumers rely on VPNs to avoid costly (and absurd) lawsuits.
But sadly, some VPN services exist only to fleece gullible consumers. There are numerous ways in which a VPN provider can cause problems for its customers:
Faulty service can leave the customer’s activity exposed.
Logging customer activity, and being willing to provide those logs to Big Media’s law enforcement lackeys, essentially renders a VPN service pointless.
Requiring installation of software that is then used by the VPN provider to route other customer traffic through the customer’s computer is just a horrible idea.
Selling customer information to anyone who wants it.
Poor security can lead to customer data being exposed.
Recently, a group of VPN providers, all owned and operated by one company in Hong Kong, was discovered to be doing many of the problematic things listed above. Needless to say, all of these VPN providers should be avoided:
In general, VPN services should be carefully researched before using them. There are numerous VPN rating sites on the web, but many of them are maintained by the VPN providers themselves, and not to be trusted. TorrentFreak’s “Which VPN Providers Really Take Privacy Seriously” series is both trustworthy and comprehensive, and focuses on investigating the privacy claims of VPN providers.
Brian Krebs recently investigated the extremely shady proxy service provider Microleaves (currently being rebranded as ‘Shifter.io’). This service uses a huge network of computers runing their software, often installed without the knowledge of their owners.
Pegasus is spyware that can be installed on Apple and Android mobile systems. It’s difficult to detect, and difficult to remove. Pegasus is developed by NSO Group, who deny that the software is being used for anything nefarious, or that if it is, that use has nothing to do with NSO Group.
The methods used to install Pegasus on mobile devices have changed over the years. It can be installed directly, with physical access to the target device, which is presumably how it ends up on devices legitimately. Pegasus can also be installed more surreptitiously. Previously, that involved inviting the user to click a link in an email or SMS message. More recently, it’s being installed using app and O/S exploits that require no interaction from the user, including a very nasty exploit for WhatsApp.
Pegasus is not a virus. It does not spread on its own. Further, it’s important to distinguish between Pegasus and the methods used to install it. Pegasus does not typically arrive on a device at random. Devices are specifically targeted, and those targets are often used by journalists, suspected terrorists, and other people whose activities are tracked by government agencies and criminal organizations.
The main problem here is not Pegasus, but the way security vulnerabilities are discovered and — more importantly — how information about vulnerabilities is disseminated. Unfortunately, some organizations perform this research not for the public good, but for themselves and their partners, legitimate and otherwise. In an ideal world, when a vulnerability is discovered, the vendor is informed privately and then proceeds to develop and release a fix. In reality, vulnerabilities and exploits are often hoarded.
Advice to anyone who operates a mobile device and wants to reduce the likelihood of Pegasus or other unwanted software being installed without their knowledge: stay informed regarding security vulnerabilities in your device’s O/S and any apps you run. When you learn about a zero-click exploit, immediately install a fix if one is available, or uninstall the affected app. If it’s an unpatched O/S vulnerability, all you can do is hope that you’re not being targeted.
Canadians: if you’ve tried to access your CRA accounts recently, you probably noticed that you can no longer log in. That’s because normal access has been disabled while the CRA works to undo the damage caused by two recent attacks on their services.
The CRA systems were penetrated by persons unknown over the past two weeks. According to the CRA, the breaches have been contained, but the My Account, My Business Account and Represent a Client services have been disabled as a precaution.
Several thousand user accounts have been compromised. Starting in early August, unusual and unauthorized access to accounts was noticed by the account holders and reported to the CRA. In some cases, email, banking, and other account details were changed by the attackers. Fraudulent CERB payments were also issued.
Access to the compromised accounts was apparently gained via ‘credential stuffing’, which is based on the sadly-still-true fact that many people continue to use specific passwords on multiple systems. To be clear: if nobody ever did that, this type of attack would never be successful.
“Of the roughly 12 million active GCKey accounts in Canada, the passwords and usernames of 9,041 users were acquired fraudulently and used to try and access government services, a third of which accessed such services and are being further examined for suspicious activity,” according to a statement from the CRA.
The CRA is in the process of alerting people whose accounts were compromised.
A new version of Firefox fixes some annoying problems with pinned tabs, improves password management, adds the ability to import bookmarks from the new Chromium-based Edge, resolves some long-standing issues with add-on management, introduces Facebook Container, and addresses several bugs, including twelve security vulnerabilities.
Starting with Firefox 74.0, it is no longer possible for add-ons to be installed programmatically. In other words, add-ons cannot be added by software; it can only be done manually by the user. Add-ons that were added by software in previous versions of Firefox can now be removed via the Add-ons manager, something that was previously not possible.
Facebook Container is a new Firefox add-on that “works by isolating your Facebook identity into a separate container that makes it harder for Facebook to track your visits to other websites with third-party cookies.” People who are concerned about Facebook’s ability to track their activity across browser sessions and tabs can use this add-on to limit that tracking, without having to access Facebook in a separate browser.
You can wait for Firefox to update itself, which — assuming that option is enabled — may take a day or so, or you can trigger an update by navigating Firefox’s ‘hamburger’ menu to Help > About Firefox. You’ll see an Update button if a newer version is available.
Security fixes and some welcome changes to notifications and tracking protection were released in the form of Firefox 72.0 on January 7. Firefox 72.0.1 followed the next day, adding one more security fix.
Site notifications are those annoying messages that pop up when you’re browsing web sites, asking — somewhat ironically — whether you want to see notifications for that site. You can still choose to see those, but now Firefox lets you suppress them. To control notifications, navigate Firefox’s Settings to Privacy & Security > Permissions, then click on the Settings button next to Notifications.
Firefox’s already helpful tracking protections were enhanced in version 72 with the addition of fingerprint script blocking. Fingerprinting is a technique used by many companies to better understand you and your online behaviour. While arguably harmless (it’s mostly about providing better ad targeting) fingerprinting is also creepy and a privacy concern. By default, Firefox now blocks scripts that are known to be involved.
Current versions of Firefox default to updating themselves automatically, but you can check for available updates by navigating Firefox’s menu to Help > About Firefox.
Some security breaches are worse than others. If your bank suffers a breach, the potential for damage is enormous, because banks necessarily store a lot of critical information about you and your money.
Almost as bad are breaches of health-related services, because those systems may store extremely private information about you and your medical history.
The Ars Technica story about this provides a helpful summary of what happened, although it starts out by saying that LifeLabs “paid hackers an undisclosed amount for the return of personal data they stole”. Data can be copied, and when someone copies data to which they have no legal access, it’s a crime. But the idea that data can be ‘returned’ is bizarre.
It’s more likely that LifeLabs was the victim of a ransomware attack, in which data is encrypted by attackers, rendering the data useless until a ransom is paid and the data decrypted by the attackers.
However, it’s also possible that the attackers copied the data to their own systems before encrypting it, with the aim of selling that extremely valuable data, containing names, addresses, email addresses, customer login IDs and passwords, health card numbers, and lab tests. So far, there’s no evidence that the data has made its way to any of the usual dark web markets for such data, but there’s no way to be sure that won’t happen.
Charles Brown, President and CEO of LifeLabs, posted An Open Letter to LifeLabs Customers on December 17, in which he discloses the breach and apologizes to customers. While it’s good to see the company take responsibility, an apology is hardly sufficient. Even the offer of “one free year of protection that includes dark web monitoring and identity theft insurance” seems unlikely to satisfy affected customers. There’s at least one petition in the works, “calling on Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI) to investigate LifeLabs, and put forward recommendations to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
In British Columbia, users access their LifeLabs test results online using a service called eHealth. It’s not clear whether LifeLabs’ relationship with eHealth is in any way related to this breach. At this point it appears that it makes no difference whether you signed up to access your test results using eHealth. In other words, changing your eHealth password, while advisable, seems unlikely to mitigate the potential damage.
However, as usual in the case of any breach, you should review your passwords, and if you’ve used your LifeLabs or eHealth password for any other site or service, change those passwords to something unique. Do it now.
When enabled, Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection reduces your exposure to the information-gathering efforts that otherwise silently occur when you browse. It also provides protection against cryptominers, which surrepticiously use a portion of your computer’s resources to make money for someone else.
New in Firefox 69.0 is a feature that allows you to block any video you encounter, not just those with autoplayed audio: Block Autoplay.
The ‘Always Activate’ option for Flash content has been removed. Firefox now asks for permission before it will play any Flash content.
Default installations of Firefox will usually update themselves, but if you’re not sure what version you’re running, click the browser’s ‘hamburger’ menu button at the top right, then navigate to Help > About Firefox.
If you have an email address, and you’ve ever used it to register for online services and sites, there’s a good chance you’ve received email that threatens you in some way, and some of it is downright creepy.
This email may refer to your name. It may include a password you’ve used in the past, or even currently. The email may appear to have been sent from your own email address, and may claim to have taken over that email account.
The good news is that very little of what these emails claim is actually true. The bad news is that you still have a problem.
But why does this happen?
It all starts when someone gets careless, or someone else decides that the IT budget is too high.
Imagine that you’re the person responsible for information security at any company that… uses computers (so basically, any company on the planet). Now imagine that you’re bad at your job. Or disgruntled. Or your manager keeps cutting your budget. Inevitably, things start to slide. Security updates don’t get installed. Software that isn’t properly checked for security implications gets installed on company computers. Users don’t get security training. Bad decisions are made, such as not properly encrypting user passwords. And so, the company’s computers, and the data they contain, become vulnerable. Eventually, malicious people figure this out, and through various means — many of which are trivially simple to carry out — gain access to your data. And that data includes information about your customers. That information is then sold online, to other, even less scrupulous people. Brian Krebs documents many of these breaches; here’s one example.
You can find these lists online if you know where to look. Some are only accessible from the dark web. Some are published more brazenly, on easily-accessed public web sites, including Facebook.
Sometimes these lists contain passwords. In really awful cases, the passwords aren’t even encrypted. But usually they are encrypted, which makes them slightly less useful. Only slightly, because many people still use terrible passwords: common passwords, like 1234; passwords that are used by the same person in multiple places; and passwords that are easy to crack.
Any password can be cracked, by which I mean converted from its encrypted form to its original, unencrypted form. Short and simple passwords can be cracked in nanoseconds. Longer, more complex passwords take longer. At any given point in time, passwords that are long and complex enough simply can’t be cracked quickly enough to be worth the attempt. This is a moving target. As computers get faster, the point at which a password becomes worth cracking gets nearer.
These shady lists of users, passwords, and email addresses can be used for lots of things, ranging from merely irritating to criminal. But there’s money to be made, as long as you don’t care about being a world-class asshole.
If you’re an asshole, and you’re looking for an easy way to make money and irritate people, just shell out a few bucks for one of these lists, and download a few scripts that turn that list into spam. Because computers are really good at things like this, you hardly have to do any actual work. Just feed a list into some crappy script, sit back, and watch the money pour in. If you had to do this with paper and snail mail, it clearly would not be worthwile.
A user’s story
Let’s look at this another way: from the perspective of Iam Notreal, an ordinary Internet user. Iam registered for an account at LinkedIn in 2011 using his real name and his NopeMail account, firstname.lastname@example.org. He also used the same password he uses everywhere else: banana1234.
In 2012, intruders gained access to LinkedIn servers and were able to download its user database. The database included usernames, email addresses, and poorly-encrypted passwords. Now Iam’s real name, real email address, and an encrypted form of his one and only password are on a list, and, beginning in 2016, that list is being sold on the dark web to anyone who has a few bucks to spare.
In 2016, Iam starts getting spam to his NopeMail account. Most of it is ordinary spam: poorly-worded appeals to click a link. Occasionally he receives spam that mentions his real name, which is alarming, but not particularly harmful. At some point, Bill tries to ‘unsubscribe’ from what he believes is a mailing list, by replying to one of these spam emails. Congratulations, Iam, you’ve just graduated to a new list, of confirmed, valid, active email addresses. This list will also be sold on the dark web, at a higher price than the original list.
Meanwhile, other dark forces are at work behind the scenes. Someone runs the original list through a widely-available password cracker. This software looks at each encrypted password and attempts to decrypt it based on a set of parameters, including lists of commonly-used passwords. Sadly, Iam’s password is rather short, and contains a common word, and it takes the software about a nanosecond to crack it. Now Iam is on an even more valuable list, which includes cracked passwords.
Fast forward to 2018, and now Iam is getting email that claims to have taken over his email account, or to have video from Iam’s own webcam showing him doing unmentionable things, and it also includes Iam’s one and only password, right there in plain text. Iam is panicked: if the sender knows his password, are the rest of the claims true? He doesn’t know it, but the sender’s claims are bullshit.
As scary as this sounds, it’s only the most common use of lists like these circa late 2018, early 2019. The same information could be used to take over Iam’s LinkedIn account (if he ignored warnings from LinkedIn to change his password, or if he changed it back to the same password), take over his NopeMail account (if he failed to change its password after the LinkedIn breach), or take over any other account that can be found on any other service he uses, once it’s discovered.
Why is that spam coming from my own email address or my own mail server?
Unfortunately, it remains trvially easy to spoof almost all information contained in an email message. Current anti-spam efforts like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC are focused on validation, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from spewing out email with mostly-forged headers. That includes the FROM header, which means scammers can make email look like it came from just about any address they want. Only close inspection of all the headers reveals the actual source.
Why does that spam contain my password?
If a scammer has access to a purloined user list that includes plaintext or cracked passwords, it’s a simple matter of customizing the content of their malicious spam so that the username and/or password vary, depending on the unlucky recipient.
What you should do
Stop using crappy passwords. If you’re not sure how crappy your password is, check it at howsecureismypassword.net. You can also install this extension in your Chrome browser; it will warn you if your password is too weak.
Stop re-using passwords. If site A is hacked, and your password for site A is the same as for site B, you’ll have to change your password on both sites.
Use a password manager. Yes, it’s annoying to have an extra step whenever you want to log in somewhere, but using a password manager means that you only ever have to remember one password. They can also generate passwords for you, saving you the trouble.
Check Have I been pwned to see how many breaches have included your email addresses and passwords.
Sign up at Spycloud to continuously monitor your email address for inclusion in breaches.
Although there are ways to use purloined user lists besides spam, most of the damage we see is related to email.
Despite being really old technology, email has continually improved in terms of security. Newer technologies like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC make it much easier for email providers to determine which email is legitimate and which is not.
You can help by making sure any email domains you manage use SPF, DKIM, and DMARC. If your mail provider doesn’t use these technologies, lean on them to start. If they resist, find another provider. I have several clients who use the business mail service provided by telecom giant Telus here in Canada. Telus farms this work out to a provider in the USA called Megamailservers. The Megamailservers service does not currently support DKIM or DMARC, and there’s nothing on their web site (or that of Telus) about any plans to change that.
Password Management Software
So, everyone should use a password manager. But wait, didn’t I just read that all the most popular password managers can be bypassed very easily? Yup. Opinions vary as to whether the risk of such exploits is significant. From my perspective, the risk is this: yes, a malicious actor needs physical, remote, or programmatic access to your computer to use these exploits. But once they have access, they no longer have to waste time looking for interesting information. All they need to do is look for password manager data and sent it to themselves. That makes their job MUCH easier.
But using a password manager is still much safer than not using one.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when formatted email first became widely-used, displaying formatted email was dangerous, because vulnerabilities in Windows allowed specially-crafted email to execute code on the recipient’s machine. Merely previewing formatted email was risky.
Windows updates and email client changes reduced the effectiveness of malware embedded in the content of email, although clickable links and attachments were still — and continue to be — dangerous.
These days, the dangers of enabling formatted text and images in email are mostly about privacy. A significant portion of all email — especially email sent through mass messaging services like Mailchimp — contains tiny images that, when viewed in an email client, tell the sender when you viewed it. This information is used by the sender to determine the effectiveness of their email campaign. It’s not dangerous, but it is creepy. Of course, not all embedded images are there for marketing reasons; some have more nefarious purposes.
The dangers of email can be almost eliminated by configuring your client software to display email in plain text (without any formatting), and without images. Better still, for those concerned about having their actions tracked online, using text-only email prevents any image-based tracking that would otherwise occur when you open your email.
Most desktop email client software has options that force all email to be viewed in a plain text format. Web-based clients are less likely to offer this option, but some, including GMail, can at least be configured not to display images.
I have always recommended the use of text-only email, and I follow my own advice. Email is still the easiest way for malicious persons to induce unwary users into taking actions that should be avoided. As long as that’s true, the only truly safe way to use email is to disable formatting and images. This also makes email less engaging, but I’m willing to forego fancy-looking email for safety and privacy.