Category Archives: Things that are bad

More CPU flaws discovered

Microsoft and Google just announced a new CPU speculative execution flaw that’s similar to Spectre and Meltdown: Speculative Store Bypass.

As with Spectre and Meltdown, almost all CPU chips made in the last ten years are affected by this issue.

The Verge: Google and Microsoft disclose new CPU flaw, and the fix can slow machines down.

Bruce Schneier thinks there are more speculative execution flaws coming. And he’s probably right.

Spectre update

Intel has decided not to produce Spectre microcode updates for some of the oldest of their affected CPUs, leaving most Core 2 chips without any hope of a Spectre fix. As for first generation CPUs, some will get updates, and some will not. Microcode updates for all CPUs from generation 2 through generation 8 have already been released.

Not sure whether your computer is affected by Spectre? If you’re running Windows, Gibson Research’s free InSpectre tool will tell you what you need to know. Looking for a Spectre BIOS update for your computer? PCWorld’s guide is a good starting point.

Intel has produced new microcode for most Spectre-affected CPUs, but some manufacturers have yet to provide corresponding BIOS updates for all affected motherboards. They may have decided not to bother developing updates for older motherboards. That’s a potential problem for millions of computers running older CPUs that are new enough to be vulnerable to Spectre. If the manufacturer hasn’t released a BIOS update with Spectre fixes for your motherboard, consider contacting them to find out when that’s going to happen.

Update 2018May24: I contacted Asus about a particular desktop PC I happen to own, and was told that “details on whether or not there will be a Spectre BIOS update for the <model> is [sic] currently not available.” That doesn’t sound very encouraging. It feels like they’re waiting to see how many complaints they get before committing resources to developing patches.

Latest Google rug-pulling is a victory for censorship

Normally when Google cancels a service, it’s annoying and baffling, but we grumble and find an alternative. Google’s latest rug-pull is much worse: it effectively hands a massive win to those who wish to prevent access to things they don’t like.

Until the feature was disabled recently by Google, it was possible to use Google’s App Engine to make web sites and other online resources available to users who would normally be blocked due to state- and corporate-sponsored censorship. The method used was referred to as domain fronting.

Google says they never meant for domain fronting to be possible with App Engine, but they also allowed it to happen for years, without any indication that it was a problem or would be stopped. So people started to rely on the service to get around censorship.

There’s a lot of hate directed towards Google these days, and a lot of it is misguided. From my perspective, enticing users with new services, only to kill those services once they are widely used, is their most infuriating habit.

Spectre/Meltdown nightmare continues

Microsoft has just released ‘out of band’ (outside the usual Patch Tuesday) updates that disable or reverse earlier updates that mitigate Spectre V2. These updates for updates are happening because Intel’s firmware fixes are causing a lot of problems for some folks.

If you were diligent and installed firmware updates on your Windows computers, you should install the new Microsoft updates as soon as possible. Of course doing that will leave your computer exposed to Spectre V2. There’s no solution, other than to be vigilant and extremely careful about visiting shady web sites, installing downloaded software, and clicking links in email.

I guess I’m lucky that no firmware updates are even available for my computers. If they were available and I had installed them, I might be suffering random reboots and even data loss.

Black-hat hackers who are working on malware that exploits the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities are no doubt enjoying this mess, and I have no doubt that we’ll start seeing real-world examples of their handiwork before long.

Spectre/Meltdown CPU flaws: latest news

It’s been about two weeks since the Spectre and Meltdown CPU flaws were revealed to the world, and we now have a better picture of the scope and impact of those flaws.

Intel CPU chips are vulnerable to both Spectre and Meltdown: almost every Intel CPU made since 1995 is affected. AMD CPUs are vulnerable to Spectre, and ARM CPUs, found in millions of mobile and IoT devices, are vulnerable to Meltdown.

Spectre variant 1 and Meltdown have been patched in Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux. So far, these updates don’t seem to have affected performance on those platforms.

Spectre variant 2 can only be fixed with a firmware update, which will be optional on most platforms, but also seems likely to result in reduced performance. Firmware updates are more difficult to install than software updates. The task should not be undertaken by casual users, since mistakes can result in ‘bricked’ (unusable) devices. One possible exception is Linux, which in some cases allows for updates to be read from a file during startup, eliminating the need for updating firmware.

Intel is making available firmware updates that will hopefully eliminate the threat on affected computers, but — as Microsoft has demonstrated — many of those computers will be slowed significantly by the updates. Intel is downplaying the performance impact, saying that many users won’t even notice the difference.

Microsoft estimates the performance impact of firmware updates on Windows computers with Intel processors will vary depending on:

  • CPU: Haswell and older will be affected more
  • O/S version: Windows 7 and 8 will be affected more than Windows 10
  • I/O bound servers could be affected greatly (Microsoft may recommend avoiding the firmware updates in this case)

Unfortunately, many PC and device makers first learned of the CPU flaws when the rest of us did: on January 3. While Intel, Microsoft, and the other major players knew about the problem months earlier, less high-profile companies are now scrambling to develop firmware updates for their devices. Most are concentrating on their most recent models, and may never release updates for older devices. For example, as of January 21, the Asus web site does not show any recent firmware updates for my Asus M70AD PC. Millions of other devices seem likely to remain permanently vulnerable to Spectre 2.

The Spectre and Meltdown flaws are very deep inside the internal hardware of almost all computers. This makes them very unusual: more difficult to fix, and potentially very dangerous. Even worse, many Internet of Things devices use affected chips; these devices are usually difficult (if not impossible) to update, and may never be fixed.

The vulnerabilities were discovered in early June 2017, and disclosed privately to CPU chip makers first, then to O/S makers, browser makers, cloud and server providers. Some arguably important groups were left out, including CERT, but despite disclosure being handled responsibly, the news leaked out ahead of schedule on January 4. A lot of work had already been done, but hardly anyone was truly ready.

Intel’s response to the flaws in their CPUs has been criticized by some, and it does seem that the chip giant is not being completely transparent. Intel continues to downplay the seriousness of the flaws, and the performance impact of firmware updates. It’s also fair to ask whether in the rush to increase processor speed, security is being neglected by Intel and the other chip makers. The Spectre and Meltdown flaws should arguably have been caught in development.

What are the actual risks involved?

A malicious process on your computer could read data from another process (such as your banking app) and send it to anyone. This kind of exploit has been demonstrated as effective, and it can even be accomplished using specially-crafted Javascript code on a web site.

A malicious process on a web-based service, server, or virtual machine could read data from another process on that machine or a virtual machine that’s controlled by someone else.

Risks going forward: this has all been rushed (despite some advance warning), and the changes are at the core of CPUs and O/S kernels. Emergency fixes have a way of causing new, hidden problems. We will probably be dealing with the fallout from these flaws for months.

Update 2018Jan23: Intel is now telling us to avoid earlier firmware updates while they work on new updates that (hopefully) avoid rebooting issues on computers running Haswell and Broadwell CPUs. Meanwhile, there’s some strong language coming from Linus Torvalds (Linux’s creator) about the quality of the firmware fixes coming from Intel.

Major slowdowns headed for almost all computers

Major patches are coming, for most operating systems and devices running modern (made in the last 10 years or so) processors. Changes to Windows, Linux, macOS, and most other systems will modify the way memory is used, ameliorating critical CPU security flaws, and slowing them down significantly in the process.

There’s been a lot of secrecy around this issue, with details of the flaws — discovered several months ago — only now coming to light as O/S vendors scramble to prepare patches. The flaws (commonly referred to as Spectre and Meltdown) involve potential leaking of information, as described in a recent post on The Register:

At best, the vulnerability could be leveraged by malware and hackers to more easily exploit other security bugs.

At worst, the hole could be abused by programs and logged-in users to read the contents of the kernel’s memory. Suffice to say, this is not great. The kernel’s memory space is hidden from user processes and programs because it may contain all sorts of secrets, such as passwords, login keys, files cached from disk, and so on.

Much of this is still speculation, but the reality may be even worse, so hang onto your socks, since this is going to get ugly. It’s easy to imagine class action lawsuits arising out of the mess.

Those of you running light operating systems on older hardware may have the last laugh: while many of the world’s computers will soon be noticeably — and unavoidably — slower, yours will keep chugging along unaffected… at least until they’re used to access any of the millions of computers that power web sites and services. Major providers may have no choice but to install the updates, significantly reducing the processing power of their systems.

For computers running Windows 10, system updates are literally unavoidable, and the slowdown inevitable. The rest of us will need to decide whether to risk leaving the vulnerabilities exposed, or patch them and deal with the resulting performance hit. Exploiting the vulnerabilities is not straightforward, and it should be possible to stay safe by avoiding risky behaviour, such as indiscriminately running unknown software, visiting dubious web sites, and opening links in email. However, the full extent of the risks involved is not yet known.

Related articles

The Verge: Intel’s processors have a security bug and the fix could slow down PCs
The Verge: Microsoft issues emergency Windows update for processor security bugs
The Verge: Intel says processor bug isn’t unique to its chips and performance issues are ‘workload-dependent’
The Verge: Processor flaw exposes 20 years of devices to new attack
The Verge: How to protect your PC against the major ‘Meltdown’ CPU security flaw
Google Security Blog: Today’s CPU vulnerability: what you need to know
Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks
SANS InfoSec: Spectre and Meltdown: What You Need to Know Right Now
Techdirt: A Major Security Vulnerability Has Plagued ‘Nearly All’ Intel CPUs For Years

Update 2018Jan04: Corrected title and content to show that the problem affects all modern processors, not just those made by Intel, and that there are multiple vulnerabilities. Also added more related articles.

KRACK Wi-Fi vulnerability: what you need to know

Last week, security researchers identified a series of vulnerabilities affecting almost all Wi-Fi devices, from computers to refrigerators. The vulnerability could allow attackers to intercept wireless communications and potentially steal credentials and other sensitive information. The vulnerabilities are collectively referred to as KRACK.

The good news is that computers running Windows and Linux already have patches available. Microsoft included fixes in the October 2017 Patch Tuesday updates.

Apple says that fixes are ready for MacOS, but there’s no word on exactly when they will actually be made available.

The bad news is that mobile devices, particularly those that run Google’s Android operating system, are vulnerable, and in some cases, might stay that way indefinitely. That’s because even though Google has prepared fixes for Android, those fixes won’t get to devices made by other vendors until those vendors make them available. Some vendors are better than others at pushing updates to their devices. Worse, some devices running older O/S versions may never get updates at all, rendering them permanently insecure.

There are mitigating factors. First, because of the responsible way in which these vulnerabilities were reported, Microsoft and other major players have had time to develop fixes, while details of the vulnerabilities were kept relatively secret until recently. That means we have a head start on the bad guys this time.

Second, exploiting these vulnerabilities requires close proximity. Attacks based on these vulnerabilities can’t be executed over the Internet.

Use caution with unpatched devices

If you use a public Wi-Fi access point with an unpatched device, you’re exposed. So until patches for your device become available, you might want to disable its Wi-Fi when you’re not at home. Most devices have settings that prevent automatically connecting to Wi-Fi networks it finds in the vicinity.

IoT devices may remain vulnerable forever

‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices, including thermostats, cars, appliances, and basically anything that can have a computer stuffed into it, often connect to the Internet using Wi-Fi. There are no security standards for IoT devices yet, and many are extremely unlikely to ever be patched.

Recommendation: identify all of your IoT devices that have the ability to connect to the Internet. For each, make sure that you’re using a wired connection, or disable networking completely, if possible. As for devices that connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi and cannot or won’t be patched or disabled, consider taking them to the nearest landfill.

References

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.

More bungled Windows updates

If you’re on the Windows Insider program — the one that gets you early looks at where Windows 10 is heading — you may have noticed some unusual updates in the last day or so.

First, a new development version of Windows 10 was rolled out to some unlucky users. This version was not intended for users, even those on the Insider Preview program. Microsoft caught the error and stopped the update, but if your computer was affected, you may notice some new “issues that impact usability of your PC.” You can roll back to the previous release, or live with any new issues until the next release.

Second, a development version of the mobile variant of Windows 10 was pushed out, again unintentionally. If your mobile device received this unfortunate update, it’s probably no longer usable. Microsoft recommends using their Windows Device Recovery Tool to fix the problem.

Microsoft wants us all to trust them to install updates whenever they want, but mistakes like these are not helping.

Ars Technica has more.

Timeline: NSA hacking tool to WannaCry

A recent Washington Post article is helping to answer some questions about Microsoft’s actions in recent months. Here’s a timeline of events:

2012 (or possibly earlier): The NSA identifies a vulnerability in Windows that affects all existing versions of the operating system, and has the potential to allow almost unfettered access to affected systems. A software tool — an exploit — is developed either for, or by, the NSA. The tool is called EternalBlue. People at the NSA worry about the potential damage if the tool or the vulnerability became public knowledge. They decide not to tell anyone, not even Windows’ developer, Microsoft.

EternalBlue finds its way into the toolkit of an elite hacking outfit known as Equation Group. Although it’s difficult to know for certain, this group is generally assumed to be operating under the auspices of the NSA. Equation Group may work for the NSA as contractors, or they may simply be NSA employees. Regardless, the group’s actions seem to align with those of the NSA: their targets are generally in places like Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Syria, and Mali.

Early to mid-2016: A hacking group calling themselves The Shadow Brokers somehow gains access to NSA systems or data, and obtains copies of various NSA documents and tools. Among those tools is EternalBlue.

August, 2016: The Shadow Brokers begin publishing their NSA haul on public services like Tumblr.

January 7, 2017: The Shadow Brokers begin selling tools that are related to EternalBlue.

Late January to early February 2017: The NSA finally tells Microsoft about the vulnerability exploited by EternalBlue. We don’t know exactly when this happened, but it clearly happened. The NSA was Microsoft’s source for this vulnerability.

February 14, 2017: Microsoft announces that February’s Patch Tuesday updates will be postponed. Their explanation is vague: “we discovered a last minute issue that could impact some customers.

Late February 2017: The Windows SMB vulnerability exploited by EternalBlue is identified publicly as CVE-2017-0144.

March 14, 2017: March’s Patch Tuesday updates from Microsoft include a fix for CVE-2017-0144, MS17-010. The update is flagged as Critical and described as Security Update for Microsoft Windows SMB Server (4013389). Nothing in Microsoft’s output on March 14 calls special attention to this update.

April 14, 2017: The Shadow Brokers release 300 megabytes of NSA material on Github, including EternalBlue.

May 12, 2017: WannaCry ransomware infection wave begins. The malware uses EternalBlue to infect vulnerable computers, mostly Windows 7 PCs in Europe and Asia. Infected computers clearly had not been updated since before March 14, and were therefore vulnerable to EternalBlue.


It’s now clear that the NSA is the real problem here. They had several opportunities to do the right thing, and failed every time, until it was too late. The NSA’s last chance to look at all good in this matter was after the vulnerability was made public, when they should have made the danger clear to the public, or at least to Microsoft. Because, after all, they knew exactly how useful EternalBlue would be in the hands of… just about anyone with bad intent.

Everyone involved in this mess acted foolishly. But whereas we’ve grown accustomed to corporations caring less about people than about money, government institutions — no matter how necessarily secretive — should not be allowed to get away with what the NSA has done. Especially when you consider that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For every WannaCry, there are probably a thousand other threats lurking out there, all thanks to the clowns at the NSA.

Ars Technica’s analysis.

Techdirt’s analysis.

WannaCry update

According to Kaspersky Labs, almost all of the computers infected with WannaCry (WCry, WannaCrypt) were running Windows 7. A small percentage (less than 1%) were running Windows XP.

Microsoft released updates in March 2017 which — if installed — protect Windows 7 computers from WannaCry infections. So all those Windows 7 WannaCry infections were only possible because users failed to install updates. This is a good argument for either enabling automatic updates, or being extremely diligent about installing updates as soon as they become available.

A researcher at Quarkslab discovered a method for decrypting files encrypted with WannaCry, although it only works on Windows XP, and only if the computer has not been restarted since the files were encrypted.

Building on the discoveries of Quarkslab, researchers at Comae Technologies and elsewhere developed a tool that can decrypt files encrypted by WannaCry on Windows 7 as well as XP. The new tool — dubbed wanakiwi by its developers — uses the same technique as its predecessor and has the same limitation: it doesn’t work if the infected computer has been restarted since encryption occurred.

The Register points out that while the NSA was hoarding exploits, Microsoft was doing something similar with patches. Microsoft is in fact still creating security updates for Windows XP and other ‘unsupported’ software; they just don’t normally make those updates available to the general public. Instead, they are only provided to enterprise customers, which pay substantial fees for the privilege. When Microsoft released the Windows XP patch in response to the WannaCry threat, the patch was already developed; all Microsoft had to do was make it available to the general public. Sure, developing updates costs money, and Microsoft wants to recover those costs somehow, but it seems clear that we would all be better off if they made all updates available to everyone.

Bruce Schneier provides a useful overview of WannaCry, and how best to protect yourself. From the article: “Criminals go where the money is, and cybercriminals are no exception. And right now, the money is in ransomware.”

Update 2017May21: Analysts have confirmed that WannaCry’s initial infections were accomplished by scanning the Internet for computers with open Server Message Block ports, then using the EternalBlue SMB exploit to install the ransomware. Once installed on any computer, WannaCry spread to other vulnerable computers on the same local network (LAN). Earlier assumptions about WannaCry using spam and phishing emails to spread were not accurate.