SE Labs

Posts tagged 'education'

SE Labs introducing cyber security to schools

It’s widely acknowledged that the cyber security workforce needs more talented young people to engage. Just as we, at SE Labs, want to help fix information technology security by testing products and services, we also want to encourage an interest among young people, hopefully igniting a passion for understanding and defending against hacking attacks.

We test next-gen security products AND encourage the gen-next!

Our attempts to enable youth from progressing from complete novice, through to getting their first job and then to reaching the top of industry, is an initiative to bring about the needed change and fill the gaps.

As part of our new corporate social responsibility programme we set up an event at Carshalton Boys Sports College to introduce the concept of cyber security and its career prospects to the students.

Around 15 participants ranged from year 10s to sixth formers (aged 16-18) attended the main presentation and all year groups approached us at the stand we set up.

We outlined various topics in the presentation including the different types of cybercrime and attacks; and institutions offering free and paid courses to certain age groups on cyber security, aimed at students.

We also addressed how to break into the cyber security sector; what positions are available in the industry; and how employees are in high demand in both public and private sectors, part- and full-time, in virtually every industry in countries around the world.

Then we went through a test run of a targeted attack to demonstrate what it looks like and what it means.

“Why do we use Kali Linux?”, “What should I do to get into cyber security?”, “What are the skills required?”, were a few curious questions asked by the students at the end of the presentation.

Those who came over to the stand wanted to know who we were, what we do and simply, “what is cyber security?”

They were interested in who are clients are (we gave limited answers due to NDAs), what do they need us and how did we manage to get this far. A lot of these were asked by the younger years who were inquisitive to learn more about this subject. Positive!

Feedback from the college:

On behalf of the Governors, Head Principle, students and parents of Carshalton Boys Sports College, I would like to thank you for your valued input, helping to make our Directions and Destinations Day a great success. 

Our staff work tirelessly to open our students’ minds to the possibilities available to them, but without the support of partners like you, that job would be impossible. Together we had the school filled with a sense of purpose all day and responses we have had from students and parents have shown us that the day has inspired our students. 

We have already started thinking about the future and would be grateful if you have any suggestions about how we might make things even better next year. 

Thank you once again for giving your time, energy and expertise last week.

Well, yes! A career in cyber security is a journey for sure, but a worthwhile one. And in the end, it’s more about people than machines, as a mind’s software can be more powerful than any hardware.

Pooja Jain, March 2018

Can You Hear Me?


Are cyber-scammers creating their own fake news stories to exploit? Jon Thompson investigates.

The UK media recently exploded with news of a new phone-based scam. Apparently, all that’s needed for fraudsters to drain your bank account is a recording of you saying “yes”. It runs as follows:

  1. Someone calls and asks if you can hear them
  2. They record you saying “Yes”
  3. They take your ID and money

What doesn’t ring true is the lack of detail between steps 2 and 3. How, exactly, do attackers use this snippet of audio without the rest of your identity? Myth busting site Snopes has the answer: they don’t. A good half hour of searching also failed to turn up a single verified victim of the scam despite a huge number of almost identical news reports warning people about it.

Whether it’s a hoax or not, it’s certainly easy to see how cyber-scammers can take advantage of the generated fear. Your “bank” calls, says you’ve been the victim of this very scam, and asks you to visit a special web site to enter your details and get your money back. Previous cybersecurity incidents certainly provide good evidence that such secondary scams may soon plague a phone near you.

Remember the TalkTalk hack of October 2015 and the scandalised headlines that followed? Four million customers were suddenly at risk, according to some ill-informed reports. The supposed Russian jihadist gang behind the attack was ransoming the purloined data. The Daily Express even reported that they were already raiding the accounts to fund their evil deeds.

The truth was far more mundane. A 17-year-old boy from Norwich had discovered an SQL injection using a vulnerability scanner, and syphoned off about 157,000 account records. However, with this data potentially in the wild, any attempted fraud experienced by TalkTalk customers was suddenly blamed on the hack.

In fact, telephone-based cyber-fraud is a numbers game. The more calls you make, the more likely it is that you’ll hit the right set of circumstances. It’s a brute force attack, and that’s exactly what the scammers started to do. Nearly 18 months later, they’re still finding ways to use the hack as a pretext to call unsuspecting customers.


At the time, some customers even reported that their broadband was being deliberately slowed by criminals, who then called them offering to fix the problem in exchange for visiting a phishing site and entering account details to get a special refund. Again, this is a numbers game: for every set of circumstances that make the scam work, there might be thousands of calls to people with the wrong broadband provider or who have no bandwidth problems. It’s never the precision spear phishing attack it’s reported to be by the bemused victims.

So, high profile hacks can subsequently spawn profitable campaigns for fraudulent callers keen to cash in on the chaos and fear. The problem is, juicy high profile hacks come along at random. What’s needed is something more dependable.

This brings us back to the supposed “Can you hear me?” scam. Several reports in the past few days on Who Called and other very active nuisance call sites have mentioned the scam in passing as something else to look out for, but none say that this was the focus of the call being reported. The story has begun to take on a life of its own, but without any direct evidence that the scam actually exists.

Could it be that scammers themselves have concocted and spread a fake news story, which they intend to subsequently exploit with a campaign? It’s not that great a leap of imagination, given the innovations developing in other areas of bulk cybercrime, such as ransomware. Only time will tell, but the next few months should be fascinating for both threat watchers and cyber-criminals alike.

17 Things Spammers Get Wrong

No one publishes successful phishing and ransomware emails. Jon Thompson thinks he knows why.

ransomware-8145580The headlines say phishing scams are at an all-time high, and ransomware is growing exponentially, but conspicuous by their absence are examples of the emails behind successful attacks. It’s becoming the cliché in the room, but there may be a reason: embarrassment.

Running an email honeypot network, you receive a flood of malicious email every day. Most is littered with glaring errors that point to lazy, inarticulate crooks trying to make the quickest buck from the least effort. When you do come across a rare, well though-out campaign, it shines like a jewel in a sea of criminal mediocrity.

To the average spammer, however, it’s all just a numbers game. He cranks the handle on the botnet, so to speak, and money comes out.

This poses an important question: why, given the quality of most malicious spam, are new ransomware infections and high profile phishing attacks still making headlines almost every single day? Clearly, we’re massively overestimating the amount of effort and intelligence invested by spammers.

With that in mind, what follows is a short list of 17 mistakes I routinely see, all of which immediately guarantee that an email is malicious. There are others, but these are the main ones. If this list reflects the mistakes found in the spam behind the headlines, then the size yet lack of sophistication of the problem should become apparent.

1.    No Subject Header

This error is particularly prevalent in ransomware campaigns. Messages whose payloads have very low VirusTotal scores are being sent with no subject header. Maybe the sender thinks it’ll pique the curiosity of the recipient, but it should also alert spam filters even before they examine the attachment.

2.    No Set Dressing


Look at any real communication from a bank, PayPal, a store, etc. It is well formatted, the HTML is clean, the language is clear, and the branding is obvious. Legitimate companies and banks don’t tend to send important messages in plain text.

3.    Generic Companies


Generic companies are rare but I do occasionally see them. Who is “the other financial institution” and why has it refused my transaction? Vague, instantiated company names like this, with an accompanying attachment, are clear indicators of spam.

4.    Multiple Recipients

This is another example of laziness on the part of spammers. OK, they may have found an open relay to willingly spread messages rather than buy extra time on a botnet, but anything other than a one-to-one sender to recipient ratio should be an instant red flag.

5.    Poor Salutation

Much apparently personalised spam doesn’t use a competent salutation, or uses a salutation that is simply the user name part of the email address (i.e.: “Dear fred.smith”). It would take effort to code a script that personalises the messages by stripping off the first name and capitalising the initial. Effort is the enemy of the fast buck.

6.    No Body Text

Sending an email with a tantalizing subject header such as “Overdue – Please Respond!” but no body text explaining what or why it’s overdue is as common in commodity ransomware as having no subject header. The attack again relies entirely on the natural curiosity of the recipient, who can and should simply ignore it. Spam filters should also take a keen interest.

7.    Auto-translated Body Text


Machine translation has the amusing habit of mapping the grammar of one language onto another, resulting in errors that no native speaker would ever make. Manual translation by a highly fluent speaker is far superior to machine translation, but the translator must also have knowledge of the subject matter for his text to appear convincing. Again, this is effort.

8.    The Third Person

This is a great example of a spam writer trying to distance himself from his crime. “PayPal has detected an anomaly in your account” and “they require you to log in to verify your account” just look weird in the context of a security challenge. This is supposed to be from PayPal, isn’t it?

9.    Finger Trouble


I’m fast concluding that some cybercriminals really do wear thick leather gloves while typing, just like in the pictures. Either that or they’re blind drunk. Random punctuation marks and extra characters that look like they’ve been hit at the same time as the correct ones don’t make a good impression. Simply rejecting emails that have more than a certain percentage of spelling mistakes might prevent many of these messages from getting through.

10.    Unexpected Plurals and Tenses

Using “informations” instead of “information” is a dead giveaway for spam and should be blocked when in combination with other indicators. Phrases such as “we detect a problem” instead of “we detected a problem” also stick out a mile.

11.    Missing Definite Article

Many spam emails stand out as somehow “wrong” because they miss out the definite article. One recent example I saw read: “Access is blocked because we detect credit card linked to your PayPal account has expired.” An associated return address gave the whole thing a distinct whiff of vodka.

12.    The Wrong Word

“Please review the document and revert back to us immediately”. Revert? Really? Surely, you mean “get back”, not “revert back”. It may be difficult for spam filters to weed out this kind of error, but humans should spot it without difficulty.

13.    Misplaced Emphasis


Unusually capitalised phrases such as “You must update Your details to prevent Your Account from being Suspended” look weird. Initial capitalisation isn’t used for emphasis in English sentences, and hints at someone trying to make the message sound more official and urgent than it is.

14.    Tautological Terrors


“It is extremely mandatory that you respond immediately”. Not just mandatory but extremely mandatory? Wow, I’d better click that link right away! Urgent calls to action like this overplay the importance of the message in ways that mark them out as fake.

15.    Grandiosity


Using grand words where normal ones should appear to make a message sound more authoritative are a dead giveaway.  Here’s an example from last September when a gang famously tried to distribute malware on the back of a new media player release: “To solemnise the release of our new software”. Solemnise means to mark with a formal ceremony.

What they really meant was: “To mark the release of our new software”.  The whole message was also riddled with the most outrageous auto-translate errors that it made difficult reading.

16.    Overly-grand Titles

Why would the Microsoft Chief Support Manager be contacting me personally all the way from the US to give me a refund? Wouldn’t he delegate this important work to a local minion? Similarly, the head of the IMF doesn’t usually spend their days emailing strangers about ATM cards stacked high with cash.

17.    Obfuscated URLs

If the collar doesn’t match the cuffs, it’s a lie. In other words, if the message contains the name of a high-street bank (for example) and a URL from a shortening service such as, spam filters should be blocking the message without question, regardless of the rest of the content.

Recovering From Password Fatigue

How do we solve the need for lots of strong passwords?

xkcd2bpassword_strength-2697560Mention password strength online and someone will usually reference the famous XKCD password cartoon. If you haven’t seen it, the idea is that the entropy of the password must be as high as possible, and that this can be adequately achieved by stapling together easily-remembered conjunctions of words
rather than difficult-to-remember strings of meaningless symbols. Some commentators have since pointed out flaws in the logic behind that cartoon.

Entropy is a head-twisting concept. Put simply, it is a measure of the chaos, disorder or unpredictability something contains. In information theory, entropy can be calculated and boils down to how many unknowns there are in a piece of data.

Consider a game of hangman. At the beginning of the game, none of the letters are known. Because there are many different possibilities, we can say that the unknown word contains high entropy. As you reveal each letter, the entropy quickly drops because of the way the English language works. Q is usually followed by U, for example, and not P or S or J. After revealing surprisingly few letters, we can usually infer the full word and win the game.

Passwords need high entropy. There should be no relationship between letters, so that if one character becomes known, it does not compromise the rest. If someone shoulder surfs you and spots you typing something like “M4nch3st” and they know you’re a Manchester City or United fan from glancing at your coffee mug, then your carefully placed capital and number substitutions are all for naught.

Many people still think that strong passwords are required to protect from brute force attacks, but this is largely false. When cybercriminals want passwords, they either take them by the million using attacks such as SQL injections, or have people hand them over in phishing attacks. Because of this, we need lots of passwords to compartmentalise our lives into discrete blocks. Compromise one account and the others stay secure. Re-use them across accounts, and one key fits many locks.

There are lots of strategies for generating and remembering high entropy passwords. One successful technique is as follows:

1: Take a long line from a favourite book, play, song, nursery rhyme, whatever.

2: Take the initial letters from the words in the line and put them together.

3: Change vowels into numbers and other symbols, capitalise others.

Et voila! A long, high entropy password you cannot forget. Here’s an example based on an episode of a sitcom that came to mind just now quite by chance:

In the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, the Major says something like: “I must have been keen on her; I took her to see India!”

The 13 initials in this phrase are: imhbkohithtsi

Changing some letters to symbols and capitalising others gives: !mHbK0H1ThTsI

password2bstrength-2964104The online password strength meters I tried claim this password is strong or even very strong. Someone would have to know you were keen on that episode of that sitcom, guess the exact line from it, and guess exactly how you’d mangled the initials to stand a chance of recovering the generated password.

Now do that for the dozens of sites you need to log into, even those sites you intend to use very little but for which you must still set up an account. Ideally, each password must be different and unrelated. It’s just not practical, is it? In fact, that sinking feeling you’re probably experiencing has a name: password fatigue.

We could just store all our passwords in our browsers and create a master password to protect them. But what if we want to log in from another laptop, tablet or phone? This problem has led to the rise of the password manager.

A good password manger needs to securely store all your passwords, and to sync across all your devices. It should automatically capture the passwords you enter as it goes, and should contain some nice-to-have features. For example, the option to generate random, very high entropy passwords would be good. Intelligent form filling would also be useful.

There are other potential advantages to password managers. Because they recognise the sites you visit, if you get taken in by a phishing email and click on a link to enter your password, the manager will not recognise it, and should fail to cough up the creds. If you’ve allowed the manager to generate random passwords that you never see, there’s no danger of you overriding it either.

I’m not going to recommend a single password manager, but you should check them out sooner rather than later. Instead I will point you to a comparison chart for you to make your own decision.

There are pros and cons to using password managers, however. Some people, like our own Simon Edwards, have argued that caution is needed. Last year, for example, cloud-based password manager LastPass was hacked and user data spilled (including security questions and encrypted passwords). Malware has also targeted local password managers such as KeepPass that do not use a cloud service.

Because of these weaknesses and attacks, passwords and password managers may not be enough. A good password manager also needs to feature 2-factor authentication. Biometric authentication would be even better as this is substantially harder to subvert.

How The Clinton Campaign Was Really Hacked

hillary-clinton-3961580The 2016 US Presidential Election may not be the first held in the shadow of Wikileaks, but it is the most entertaining.

When John Podesta received an email apparently from Google in March this year warning that someone had used his password to sign into his account, events began to resemble an episode of Veep, with Chinese whispers quickly replacing information.

Not knowing any better, Podesta forwarded the email to a member of staff to deal with. After a hop or two, the email was passed to the Clinton campaign’s IT Helpdesk Manager. He in turn made the rookie mistake of not inspecting the message’s header or checking the  link it contained. Both would have shown this to be a phishing attack. 


Instead, the Helpdesk Manager concluded that the email was real, and Mr Podesta should change his password right away. However, the reply also contained the advice that Podesta should ignore the email and log in directly to Google. He even supplied the correct URL to do this and explicitly said that Podesta should turn on 2-factor authentication at the same time.

The Helpdesk Manager has since been somewhat unfairly vilified in the press. The fact is that his explicit advice was lost in favour of a simpler message as his reply began to filter back up the chain of command.


According Wikileaks, Sara Latham seems to have been the person who actually contacted the helpdesk on Podesta’s behalf. She also received the Manager’s reply, and added her own endorsement of the phishing link.

Having been told it was real, it seems that either Special Assistant Milia Fisher or Podesta himself then clicked on the original phishing link and attempted to change the password. The rest has been pundit fodder ever since.


You can bet that the Clinton campaign  spent money on insurance, health and safety training, and other measures to ensure a safe working environment, so why not basic cybersecurity training? Maybe it did, and the people concerned simply didn’t attend. It seems sensible that in future campaigns, no one should get access to devices without first demonstrating that they can spot a simple phishing email, IT helpdesk Managers included.

Monitor Unknown Connections with Currports

Uncover dodgy connections and malicious activity with this handy, free utility.

If you’ve ever downloaded an unknown executable or suspect something may have subverted your defences, you need to know of any malicious connections. Written and maintained by Nir Sofer, Currports gives you a clear, interactive view of all TCP and UDP connections being made by your Windows computer. Unlike Process Monitor, which is part of the excellent Windows Sysinternals suite, Currports isn’t a massive firehose of events that needs taming to be of any use.

You can download Currports from its homepage. The link is near the bottom. If you run a 64-bit architecture, be sure to download the 64-bit version. You can run Currports from anywhere including the desktop. It will create a configuration file called cports.cfg in whichever folder you run it from (including the desktop).

Setting Up
Run Currports and expand the display. By default, the listing is unsorted and doesn’t automatically update, but we can change that. Press Alt + 1 to set an update time of one second, Alt + 2 for two seconds and so on.

Scroll across the display to see the information offered on each connection. Each time you press CTRL+Plus (on the keypad) the columns will auto-resize themselves.

If you double click on a line, a pop-up appears giving details of the process. This basically summarises the data in each of the columns. You can highlight a piece of information, then copy and paste it into other documents etc.

If you grab a column header with the mouse, you can pull it to wherever you want. I advise pulling “Process Created On” to the very left of the display because this acts as a handy time index to events. You can also go to View -> Choose Columns and re-order them, or switch off those you don’t require. If you find it difficult to follow lines across the screen, you can also mark every other line in light grey, and add gridlines from this menu.

There’s another useful column way over to the right of the display. It’s the Remote IP Country column. This will give you the country each remote IP address is assigned to, but it doesn’t display anything until we download the legacy GeoLite City Database. Download the Binary/xz version of the file and place it in the same directory as the same folder as Currports. Re-run Currports, move the Remote IP Country column to a place where you can see it, and you should see the column start to populate as connections are made. If not, you probably downloaded the wrong database. It’s the Binary/xz format you need. You don’t have to unpack it; just place it in the same directory as Currports.

To test the setup, open the Edge browser to generate lots of connections. Sure enough, the screen fills with new connections to different IP addresses as it accesses news, adverts and lots of other guff from multiple countries. The names of servers are resolved into host names where possible, as are city and country names if you downloaded the GeoLite City Database.

Setting Options
Currports has a range of useful options. Most control what’s displayed. Particularly useful is Mark Ports of Unidentified Applications, which is set by default. Any suspicious ports are coloured pink. Suspicious in this context means no icon, no version information, and so on.

To save you from having to sit and actively monitor Currports waiting for an infection to make its move, you can set the Beep on New Ports option. This can become quite noisy on a busy system, but if you just need to know if a suspect process on a specially prepared victim system is making outside connections without you having to stare at the screen for hours, this is the option for you.

You can also log activity by selecting File -> Log Changes. This begins writing to cports.log, which is a plain text file. It logs new connections and connections that close. The log file is written to the same folder from which you started Currports.

You can also filter Currports’ on-screen output. The format of a filter varies slightly depending on what you filter.

For example, to remove all instances of svchost.exe from the display, enter the following line:


To only show HTTP and HTTPS traffic and exclude all other connected processes:


You can use local, remote or both to define which end of the connection you’re interested in.  Similarly, the allowed protocols are TCP, UDP and TCPUDP (both).

The include directive means that everything else is excluded, so you’ll need to build up the output using multiple include lines.

Nice Touches
The icon bar gives you quick access to some useful functionality. For example, select a process, hit the red cross, and its connections will drop. This isn’t recommended in normal use, but if you want to see if a piece of malware automatically re-establishes its connection it’s what you need.

Select one or more processes and hit the floppy disk icon. This allows you to save all the data from those lines as a text file.

Drag and drop the target icon onto an application and it should highlight the processes for you. On a fresh installation of Windows 10 Home this didn’t work, but your mileage may vary.

You can set and toggle the display filter with the next two icons. This second option is very useful in cases where you need to clear down the display to just the processes that interest you, then open it back up to all processes. 


The next two icons deal with copying the details for one or more processes into the paste buffer for inclusion in another document, and viewing a process’ properties (double clicking also displays the properties).

Searching for strings is accomplished with the binoculars icon, which allows you to specify case sensitivity.

Finally, you can export the entire display into HTML format, which is then opened in your default browser.

All pretty interesting stuff, but what can you do with Currports other than satisfy your curiosity?

Using Currports
Currports comes into its own as part of the behavioural analysis of potential malware. If you’ve downloaded a piece of older, unsupported application, it’s immensely useful to see if it’s leaking information or calling home.

Depending on the type of infection, several things may happen. A botnet client will try to contact its command server for instructions, a payload and a target list. Ransomware might also call home for an encryption key, but much of it also explores your network looking for other machines with unprotected shares to hold hostage. If it does so, you’ll see multiple connection attempts to lots of other addresses on the subnet.

It’s not unusual for some forms of malware to open connections to the site router while attempting to find vulnerabilities to exploit. It’s easier to attack your router from the inside of the network than from the (supposedly) hardened public side. If it can install a fake certificate or subvert DNS caching, it can redirect traffic to attack servers.

Many drive-by infections need somewhere to download and run their payloads. They can’t use the system directories, so tend to use your temporary directory. In a similar vein, much of today’s malware likes to masquerade as legitimate system processes, such as svchost.exe. A Svchost with a process path leading to your temporary directory instead of WINDOWSSystem32 is clearly not legitimate, for example. Anything out of the ordinary (Excel making connections to Romania?) should be investigated.

There are also times where all hell seems to let loose, but which are completely benign. Windows Update, for example. For this reason, it’s useful to install Windows in a VM, download and set Currports running, and just get a feel for what happens during various major operating system events. Also, install an antivirus product and watch the connections fly as it updates itself.

So, there we have it: a simple, useful utility to give you a clear 1,000-foot view of the connections being made. I may have missed one or two options, but if you have any interesting uses for Currports, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Interview With The Bank Manager

barclays-2502387Pundits pontificating about online fraud is all well and good, but what do the banks think, and how do they protect us? 

To find the truth, we talked candidly to a branch manager from UK bank NatWest.

SE: First of all, what’s the scale of the online fraud problem from the bank’s perspective?

I won’t lie. It’s massive. We’re always being told about phishing emails, and you can report them to us online. Scam phone calls pretending to be the bank and asking for your account details and passwords are also huge. Just to be sure, we never ask for passwords. No one does Well, no one legitimate anyway.

SE: If you’re scammed can you get your money back?

It all depends. The basic thing is if it’s not a transaction you’ve made, its fraud and we can help. If it’s something you’ve done yourself that’s it, the money’s gone. Where it gets tricky is when you think you’re signing up to a one-off payment but the small print says it’s every month and you don’t realise. It might be cleverly worded, but it’s up to you to read what it is you’re buying.  If there’s any doubt, don’t do it or bring it in for us to check.

SE: How do you protect people’s money in general? 
102bgolden2brules-3149731The monitoring systems now are really good. They put blocks on cards when something suspicious happens, and block dodgy transactions while we find out if they’re legitimate. Tell us you’re going to France for the week and we’ll know not to block your cards if we see a cash withdrawal from Paris. If you tell us you usually go to France about now then we can keep the card active for you. It’s just when we see things out of the ordinary that the system will react. A lot of the time people get their cards blocked on holiday because they forgot to tell us. It’s a pain for them, but if you tell us what you’re doing it’s usually fine.

We see a lot of “Make $2000 a month from home”-style spam. What’s the scam there?

It’s usually money laundering. A foreign gang wants your bank details to put money into your account, then you send it on to someone either at home or abroad but keep an agreed percentage as commission. It’s an old one, that. Sometimes, they want you to physically receive and send on stolen bank cards as well, or ones that have been obtained fraudulently. But you’re being used. Basically, if you’re caught acting as a money mule, then you’re as guilty as the bloke who gave you the money to carry. We have a legal obligation to report anything over a certain amount transferred from abroad into people’s accounts. Again, it’s one of the things the system looks for that’s out of the ordinary.

Can the banks stop people being duped into sending money to scammers abroad?


You mean like rich Nigerian princes and lottery wins that need a processing fee? At the end of the day, it’s their money. We can only advise. We can say: look, we think this looks like a scam. But if they want to send it abroad then we have to do it for them. If it’s a large amount, we’ll ask them in to sit down and think is this really what they want. [We try to] find out how well they understand what they’re doing and where they’re sending it. We have had cases where people have lost considerable amounts because they’re convinced it’s real.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve seen?

I was asked to look at the cash machine outside the branch I was managing once, and there was a piece of wire hanging out of the card slot. That’s all it was. But it prevented the card from being returned, so people walk off thinking the machine’s swallowed it. You pull on the wire and the card pops out. It’s called a Lebanese Loop.  Simple and easy. Once you’ve got the card you’ve got the expiry date and the CVV number on the back and you can go shopping.

What’s your personal message to customers?

Basically, it’s always a scam. If it looks like something where you think you can get one over on the sender, it’s still a scam. These people aren’t stupid. No one wants to give you free money. You haven’t won a foreign lottery, either. There’s no pot of gold. They may only want a small processing fee, but if they get a lot of fees, it’s very profitable for them. Start with the idea that everything’s a scam, ask us to confirm anything you get that you don’t understand and you’ll be alright.

What other guidance is there for people?


There’s lots about but it’s a bit scattered. Barclays did a good TV advert about phone scams. We’ve published a really comprehensive leaflet about online scams in conjunction with the police that covers all the different frauds. You can download that, and we have a web site for reporting scams. But if you have any questions the best thing is to just call the bank or walk into a branch and ask. That’s the best thing.

A Very Sophisticated Hack…

cbsdenver-1670505If you search for the phrase “very sophisticated hack” and do a little digging, you’ll soon discover that what are initially claimed to be diabolical plots by fiendish cybercriminals often turn out to be nothing more than incompetence or naivety on the part of the victims. They only appear sophisticated to the average Joe.

Banks, casinos, hospitals, health insurers, dating sites, even telecoms providers have all fallen in the past year. Digging reveals SQL injections (I’m looking at you, TalkTalk) to second hand switches with no firewalls protecting the SWIFT network in Bangladesh.
While these issues are bread and butter to security testing and code review companies, there is one piece of the IT security puzzle that can never be truly secured, no matter how hard you try. It weighs about 1.3Kg (about 3lbs in old money) and it sits in front of every endpoint, every BYOD, every spam email, everything, wondering whether to click that link, install that program, insert the flash drive it found, or type in its credentials.

talktalk-2579443It’s been said that your brain starts working the moment you wake, and doesn’t stop until you get to work. Many incidents reported as “sophisticated” confirm this truism, along with the one about not being able to make anything idiot proof because idiots are so ingenious. Fooling someone into doing or telling you something they shouldn’t is the oldest hack in the book, but it’s no less potent for its age. For that reason, the unwitting symbiosis of naive user and cybercriminal is virtually unbeatable.

Part of my work involves maintaining the company spam honeypot network. By the time you’ve seen your 100th identical, badly-spelt phishing email whizz by in the logs, you can’t believe anyone would fall for them. But they do, especially spear phishing attacks. There’s a ransomware epidemic, and it’s making millions a day.

I’m left concluding that people don’t approach their inboxes with a high enough degree of


cynicism. Would HR really summon you to a disciplinary meeting by sending you an email demanding you click a link to an external web site and enter your corporate username and password to prove it’s you?

Like suspiciously quiet toddlers, the human element will always be the unpredictable elephant in the cybersecurity room. At SE Labs, we test the endpoint protection that keeps users safe from themselves. To do so, we use fresh threats caught painstakingly in the wild on a daily basis. We can always help build better protection, but cybercriminals will always strive to make better toddlers out of users.

But users are not toddlers; they’re responsible, busy adults. To them, cybersecurity is just a very dull art practised by dull people in IT, and their equally friends who come in with laptops every so often to check everything.

This point leads me to one final truism: get them laughing, get them learning. All the user security training in the world will fail to change behaviours if it’s dull. People best remember what they enjoy. Make cyber security fun for users, and you may just get them to apply a healthy dose of cynicism to their inboxes.

The Great Anti-Virus Conspiracy

20110517023616-6824093One problem with the internet is that anyone can set themselves up as an expert. There’s money to be made from convenient messages. Examples abound in nutrition and health, as well as many other areas.

Despite widespread public ridicule, such sites thrive and make their owners rich because they play into what people already believe. The tendency being exploited is called confirmation bias, and it can even exert enough power over us to compromise the online safety of entire nations. 

Take this post from the Above Top Secret forum from 2008. The author began with the hunch that the biggest beneficiaries of malware are the anti-virus (AV) companies themselves. However, Google only returned stories explaining why this view was incorrect. This raised the author’s suspicions. Did anyone else have any information?

The ensuing nine pages of comments were a tour de force of ideas, theories and claims, but a recurring theme was distrust. Many commenters simply don’t trust what they don’t understand, and they don’t understand computers or AV. 



It took a few seconds to find similar examples from other forums, some dating back to 2005 and even 2002. There are many more and they usually cover the same ideas, but a common theme is still distrust. Compounding this, some commenters vaguely remember something about John McAfee once claiming to have written viruses to create demand for his first AV product, which of course proves everything.


That was a decade or more ago, but with phishing and ransomware now firmly in the public eye, the benefit of online protection will be obvious, right? Not necessarily.

In August 2016, the Daily Mail reported that some AV products can fail to adequately secure your computer. The research being reported actually identified the potential for man-in-the-middle certificate attacks. It’s something our own Simon Edwards wrote about in a more general context in his own blog over 18 months earlier

As usual, the comment section of the Daily Mail’s report was far more revealing than the article:




And so on. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that despite living in a world now publicly trying to cope with a grand cybercrime epidemic, such uninformed views are so mainstream. There’s even a certain pride to some of them.

The McAfee virus-writing story is also still doing the rounds. Mr McAfee hasn’t helped matters by claiming to have planted keyloggers in laptops he then gave away to government officials in Belize. But did he really write malware to create demand for his own AV software?

In March 2014, McAfee went on the Alex Jones show to talk conspiracies (what else?). A caller asked if he was indeed responsible for writing early malware. Despite Jones talking over portions of his answer, this was the nub of his reply:

There were at the time thousands of computer viruses, he said. We could barely keep up with the viruses that were out there, so we certainly had no time to build new ones. It would just be a senseless thing to do. So I can categorically say, and you can talk to any of the McAfee employees that were there are the time, that thought never crossed anyone’s mind.

Indeed, in his book Computer Viruses and Malware, John Aycock of the University of Calgary in Canada also points out that if AV companies really are writing malware and yet simultaneously failing to detect some of it, then what’s the point in all that effort being expended for zero gain? 

So, how do you protect the distrustful, the misinformed, and even the downright cynical online? One solution is to do it automatically, but this demands that governments, their intelligence agencies, and the ISPs become involved in actively blocking malicious content. Public reaction to any such suggestion is predictably very bad.

When GCHQ recently proposed their DNS filtering technology to block malicious domains, there was instant outrage. The Guardian, which broke the Edward Snowden story, has little love for the Cheltenham Doughnut, and was predictably upset. As usual, it’s the public’s comments that are really interesting. 

So, we’re at an impasse. Despite their poor reputations, governments and the intelligence agencies they run are the only entities with the authority and capabilities to attempt to protect entire nations online. However, the tools they use are by their very nature shadowy, double-edged and closed to scrutiny. The public at large worries that policing cyberspace means the erosion of freedom and privacy. Nothing will convince us that this isn’t the start of a dictatorship or a new world order. Too much evidence of past lies and misdeeds confirms this deep-seated bias. 


If the public won’t listen to the government, who will it listen to? Who is it listening to?

Something about the caller who asked John McAfee if he wrote early viruses keeps coming back to me. He seemed to remember being told something by some old OSSguy. This idea of an unnamed source vaguely remembered is a common feature of discussions where facts are scarce and conjecture runs free. It’s a feature of the threads I referenced above.

That being the case, maybe it’s down to us, as infosec professionals, to be those sources in future. Maybe it’s down to us to engage friends and family, to explain how cybercrime works, how it relies on them not protecting themselves, and what to do about it.

But then again, I would say that wouldn’t I. 😉


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