Category Archives: Security

aka infosec

CCleaner malware incident

A recent version of the popular Windows cleanup tool CCleaner contains malware, apparently added by malicious persons who gained access to a server used by the software developer, Piriform.

The malware was found only in the 32-bit version of CCleaner 5.33.6162. No other versions were affected.

Piriform reacted quickly to the discovery, and yesterday released a new version: CCleaner 5.34.

If you have CCleaner installed on any Windows computers, you should make sure you’re running version 5.34, and if not, install it as soon as possible.

Update 2017Sep23: The server that was breached is actually managed by Avast, which purchased CCleaner software developer Piriform in July.

Ongoing analysis of the hack revealed that this may have been a state-sponsored attack, and that it specifically targeted high profile technology companies. Apparently the malware in the compromised version of CCleaner contained a second payload that was only installed on about twenty computers at eight tech companies.

Patch Tuesday for September 2017

This month’s updates from Microsoft include a patch for a nasty zero-day vulnerability in the .NET framework.

The announcement for this batch of updates is of course just a link to the Security Update Guide, where it’s up to the user to wade through piles of information and determine what’s relevant.

Here’s what I’ve been able to glean from my explorations: there are ninety-four updates, affecting Internet Explorer, Edge, Windows, Office, Adobe Flash Player, Skype, and the .NET Framework. A total of eighty-five vulnerabilities are addressed, twenty-nine of which are flagged as Critical.

As you may have guessed, this month we also have yet another new version of Flash. Microsoft included the new version in updates for Edge and Internet Explorer, and Chrome will get the new version via its internal auto-updater. Desktop Flash users should visit the main Flash page to get the new version. Flash addresses two critical vulnerabilities in previous versions.

Chrome 61.0.3163.79 includes 22 security fixes

The change log for Chrome 61.0.3163.79 is another browser-challenging page, this one having over 10,000 entries. Google didn’t bother to highlight any of the changes, aside from the twenty-two security issues addressed in the new version.

Unless you’ve gone out of your way to disable the various auto-update mechanisms Google installs alongside its software, Chrome should update itself within a day or so of the new version becoming available. If not, you can usually trigger an update by visiting Chrome’s About page: click the three-dot menu button, then select Help > About Google Chrome.

Adobe Reader update fixes 67 vulnerabilities

AdobeAdobe normally releases patched versions of its main products on the second Tuesday of each month, to coincide with Microsoft’s update schedule. Occasionally they will depart from this schedule, as they have with the new versions of Reader/Acrobat announced on August 29.

The new versions of Reader and Acrobat address sixty-seven vulnerabilities, many of which were discovered by security researchers outside Adobe. All of the vulnerabilities involve either information disclosure or remote code execution.

Anyone who uses Adobe Reader or Acrobat is advised to install the new versions as soon as possible. You can do that by visiting the Acrobat Reader Download Center.

New password advice from NIST

If you’ve created an account on any service or web site in the last decade and a half, there’s a good chance you encountered some annoying password rules. The ones that insist on the use of mixed case letters, numbers, and punctuation.

NIST logoThose weird rules started appearing after 2003, when the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a document entitled Electronic Authentication Guidelines (SP 800-63), which included a set of recommendations for password security. If you’re interested, there’s an archived version of the document (PDF), with slightly updated content (Ver. 1.0.1), on the NIST site.

The Electronic Authentication Guidelines document includes recommendations for ensuring the strength of user-created passwords:

  • require a minimum of 8 character passwords, selected from an alphabet of 94 printable characters;
  • require at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter,
    one number and one special character;
  • prevent subscribers from including common words;
  • prevent permutations of the username as a password; and
  • force frequent password changes.

Users faced with these password-creation rules found ways to work around them, and in the process ended up with less secure passwords. Many users modified their existing passwords in very predictable ways, which made the work of guessing passwords much easier.

The author of those password rules now regrets much of what he said in that 2003 document: “In the end, it was probably too complicated for a lot of folks to understand very well, and the truth is, it was barking up the wrong tree.” A new version of the NIST document eliminates many of the original recommendations.

NIST now recommends using long passphrases instead of complex passwords, as described in this classic xkcd comic: ‘correct horse battery stapler’ instead of ‘Tr0ub4dor&3’.

NIST’s new recommendations to site and service providers include eliminating requirements for the use of any particular type of character, eliminating password expiry rules, allowing passwords up to 64 characters long, and allowing the use of the clipboard in password fields.

The new rules make a lot of sense. Combined with the use of a good password manager, and remembering to avoid password re-use, they should make anyone who uses them much safer online.



Firefox 55

Besides fixing twenty-nine security vulnerabilities, Firefox 55 adds support for the virtual reality technology WebVR, some new performance-related settings, and improvements to address bar functionality. The sidebar can now be on the right side of the browser, instead of only on the left. The Print Preview function now includes options for simplifying what’s printed. Starting Firefox with multiple tabs is now much faster. The Flash plugin is now ‘click to activate’ and only works with regular web and secure web URLs.

The default installation process has been modified, to simplify and ‘streamline’ installation for most users. Traditional, full installers are still available. The somewhat-less-likely-to-crash 64-bit version of Firefox is now installed by default on 64-bit systems with at least 2 GB of RAM.

Mozilla steadfastly refuses to mention version numbers in Firefox release announcements (including the one for Firefox 55), or to announce all new versions. Their rationale seems to be that the information exists somewhere, therefore they have done their job. Combined with the unpredictability of Firefox’s internal update mechanism, this is an ongoing frustration for some users (possibly only me).

On that subject, I’m still waiting for my installation of Firefox to notice that a new version is available. Firefox 55 includes changes to the browser’s built-in update process, but it’s not clear whether those changes will actually improve things. From the release notes: “Modernized application update UI to be less intrusive and more aligned with the rest of the browser. Only users who have not restarted their browser 8 days after downloading an update or users who opted out of automatic updates will see this change.

Update 2017Aug13: According to denizens of Mozilla’s official #firefox IRC channel, the Firefox update servers have been disabled because of some problems with Firefox 55. Of course, Firefox will continue to tell you that “Firefox is up to date”, which can mean several different things. There’s no word on when the update servers will be back online, or what the problems are, but a search of the bug list for Firefox shows a likely candidate: Tabs are all restored as blank frequently after restart of [sic] applying Firefox 55 update. Apparently after upgrading to Firefox 55, some users are having problem restoring tabs, and in some cases, profile information is lost. Recommendation: don’t jump the gun and install Firefox 55 manually. Wait for the next version, which will likely be 55.0.1 or 55.0.2.

Update 2017Aug15: A new post on the Mozilla blog (64-bit Firefox is the new default on 64-bit Windows) confirms that 64-bit Firefox is now the default for 64-bit Windows systems, and that the 64-bit version is much more stable than its 32-bit equivalent. It goes on to say that to get the 64-bit version, you can either download and install it manually, or “You can wait. We intend to migrate the remaining 64-bit Windows users to a 64-bit version of Firefox with a future release.” No word on just how long we’ll have to wait.

Update 2017Aug17: Today, my install of Firefox started showing 55.0.2 as the latest version on its Help > About dialog. I went ahead and let it update itself, and now I’m running the 32 bit version of 55.0.2. According to the release notes, Firefox 55.0.1 fixes the bug in the tab restoration process that was introduced in 55.0. Firefox 55.0.2 fixes a problem with profiles that was introduced in 55.0.

Patch Tuesday for August 2017

It’s once again time for the monthly headache otherwise known as Patch Tuesday.

As you’re no doubt aware from my previous whining, Microsoft no longer publishes a bulletin for each update, and finding useful information in the Security Update Guide is awkward at best. It feels like Microsoft is trying to get everyone to just give up and enable auto-update. Of course with Windows 10 you no longer have a choice: you get updates when Microsoft wants you to have them. Which is one of the reasons I don’t use that particular O/S.

From my analysis of the Security Update Guide‘s entries for August 2017, it appears that we have thirty-nine updates, addressing fifty-three vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer, Edge, Windows, SharePoint, Adobe Flash Player, and SQL Server. Eighteen of the updates are flagged as Critical. Time to fire up Windows Update on all your Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 computers.

Adobe released updates for Flash and Reader today. The Reader update (Reader DC/Continuous: 2017.012.20093; Reader 2017: 2017.011.30059; Reader DC/Classic: 2015.006.30352) addresses sixty-seven vulnerabilities. The Flash update (version addresses two vulnerabilities. Anyone still using Flash or Reader, especially as web browser plugins, should install the new versions as soon as possible.

Patch Tuesday for June 2017

In a somewhat surprising move, Microsoft is releasing more updates for Windows XP today. To be clear, Microsoft had already created these updates for corporate (paying) clients. All they’re doing is making those updates available to the rest of us. While the updates are welcome to those still running Windows XP, one wonders how paying customers feel about it.

Here’s Microsoft’s explanation: “In reviewing the updates for this month, some vulnerabilities were identified that pose elevated risk of cyber attacks by government organizations, sometimes referred to as nation-state actors or other copycat organizations.” What that probably means is that Microsoft believes — along with the rest of us — that last month’s WannaCry threat was only the beginning of the havoc coming our way in the wake of The Shadow Brokers‘ leaks. The bit about ‘government organizations’ is presumably to get people to take notice.

That announcement is also somewhat misleading, in that it talks about ‘enabling Windows Update’ in supported versions of Windows, when in fact they’re referring to automatic updates. Further, automatic updates in Windows 10 cannot be disabled.

From the June 2017 security update release announcement: “we recommend those on older platforms, such as Windows XP, prioritize downloading and applying these critical updates, which can be found in the Download Center (or alternatively in the Update Catalog).”

The Download Center site doesn’t work particularly well in Internet Explorer 8, the version my poor old Windows XP Virtual Machine is stuck with. The page does show a prompt to try Edge, which is not particularly helpful as Edge won’t run on Windows XP. Okay, how about the Update Catalog? All I get there is ‘The website has encountered a problem’.

The Download Center works a lot better in Chrome, but clicking the Microsoft Update link only tells me that I have to use Internet Explorer for that. Entering the Windows category just invites me to visit the Update Catalog. That site also seems to work with Chrome, but it’s basically just a search form. What do I search for to get the available updates for Windows XP? Searching for ‘Windows XP’ produces 870 results. Sorting the list by date shows the most recent update was in 2014.

A post on the Technet site provides additional information about the vulnerabilities: Microsoft Security Advisory 4025685 – Guidance related to June 2017 security update release. Fifteen vulnerabilities are addressed, almost all of which are flagged as Critical. But there’s nothing on that page about how to install the updates on Windows XP.

The general guidance page links to additional guidance pages, one for supported versions, and another for older versions of Windows.

The page for older versions starts by pointing out that “All security updates Microsoft provides do not check Windows Genuine Advantage status.” That means even people running bootleg copies of Windows XP can install these updates. It goes on to say “For customers on these older platforms, the following table provides information to manually download applicable security updates.”

So installing these updates on Windows XP involves manually downloading them with the links provided on the Microsoft security advisory 4025685: Guidance for older platforms page. Some of the links go to the Update Catalog, and some involve additional navigation, but I was able to use Chrome to download and install all twelve of the updates linked from the guidance page on my WinXP VM. Not exactly convenient, and certainly not fast, but it did work.

Microsoft security advisory 4025685: Guidance for supported platforms includes a summary of the month’s updates for supported software. Numerous vulnerabilities are addressed, affecting the usual software: Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, Edge, Silverlight, Skype and Flash. Extracting the complete details from the Security Update Guide is still annoyingly awkward, and the release notes are rather light on details.

Chrome 59.0.3071.86

With thirty security fixes in Chrome 59.0.3071.86, I would expect Google to emphasize the need for users to update as soon as possible. Instead, the release announcement says “This will roll out over the coming days/weeks.” Presumably Google feels that the fixed security issues are too obscure to represent any imminent threat.

To be fair, personal experience has shown that Chrome is great at detecting updates, often very soon after they become available. Visiting the About page is usually enough to trigger an update. Click the three-vertical-dots menu button, then choose Help > About.

If you have several hours to kill, you might want to check out the change log for Chrome 59.0.3071.86, which by my count contains 10,911 entries.

Google improves GMail security

I’ve tried other search services, but I always end up back at Google, because the search results are consistently better. Google does collect information about its users, and uses that information to target advertising. Google also looks at the content of GMail messages for the same reason. If that bothers you, there are ways to prevent it, or you can stop using Google’s products and services.

That said, in all my years of using Google’s services, I’ve never encountered anything that made me want to stop using them. Google does occasionally annoy me by dropping services like Reader, and Google’s advertising is ridiculously overpriced, but on balance the company provides far more benefit than any potential harm.

For example, Google spends enormous amounts of time and resources on making the web safer for everyone. Much of that effort goes unheralded, but occasionally we catch glimpses in the form of blog posts, like this one, describing recent improvements to GMail security. Compare that with Yahoo’s recent track record, which clearly shows that user security and privacy are not a priority at that company.