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Posts tagged 'nsa'

Anatomy of a Phishing Attack

Phishing AttackWe look at phishing attack tactics and impact. Who attacked a couple of internet pressure groups earlier this year? Let’s examine the evidence.

It is interesting to read about the public details of an unusually high-quality spear-phishing attack against a low value target. Particularly if you are engaged in constructing carefully-crafted tests of email security services.

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Quantum Inside?

quantum computers

Is this the dawn of the quantum computer age? Jon Thompson investigates the progress we’ve been making with quantum computers.

Scientists are creating quantum computers capable of cracking the most fiendish encryption in the blink of an eye. Potentially hostile foreign powers are building a secure quantum internet that automatically defeats all eavesdropping attempts.

Single computers far exceeding the power of a hundred supercomputers are within humanity’s grasp. 

Are these stories true, as headlines regularly claim? The answer is increasingly yes, and it’s to China we must look for much current progress.

The quantum internet

Let’s begin with the uncrackable “quantum internet”. Sending messages using the properties of the subatomic world has been possible for years; the security world considers it the “gold standard” of secure communications. Chinese scientists recently set a new distance record for sending information using quantum techniques. They transmitted data 1,200Km to a special satellite. What’s more, China is implementing a quantum networking infrastructure.

QuantumCTek recently announced it is to deploy a network for government and military employees in the Chinese city of Jinan. This will be secured using quantum key distribution. Users will send messages encrypted by traditional means, with a second “quantum” channel distributing the associated decryption keys. Reading the keys destroys the delicate state of the photons that carry them. As such, it can only be done once by the recipient. Otherwise the message cannot be decrypted and the presence of an eavesdropper is instantly apparent.

The geopolitical implications of networks no foreign power can secretly tap are potentially immense. What’s scarier is quantum computers cracking current encryption in seconds. What’s the truth here?

Quantum computers threaten encryption

Popular asymmetric encryption schemes, such as RSA, elliptic curve and SSL, are under threat from quantum computing. In fact, after mandating elliptic curve encryption for many years, the NSA recently declared it potentially obsolete due to the coming quantum computing revolution.

Asymmetric encryption algorithms use prime factors of massive numbers as the basis for their security. It takes a supercomputer far too long to find the right factors to be useful. However, experts believe a quantum algorithm called Shor’s Algorithm will find it easy.

For today’s strong symmetric encryption the news is currently a little better. Initially, quantum computers will have a harder time cracking systems like AES and Blowfish. These use the same key to encrypt and decrypt. Quantum computers will only really halve the time required. So, if you’re using AES with a 256-bit key, in future it’ll be as secure as a 128-bit key.

A quantum leap

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How far are we from quantum computers making the leap from flaky lab experiments to full production? The answer depends on the problem you want to solve, because not all quantum computers are the same. In fact, according to IBM, they fall into three classes.

The least powerful are quantum annealers. These are available now in the form of machines from Canada’s D-Wave. They have roughly the same power as a traditional computer but are especially good at solving optimisation problems in exquisite detail.  Airbus is already using this ability to increase the efficiency of wing aerodynamics.

More powerful are analogue quantum computers. These are much more difficult to build, and IBM thinks they’re about five years away. They will be the first class of quantum computers to exceed the power of conventional machines. Again, they won’t run programs as we think of them, but instead will simulate incredibly complex interactions, such as those found in life sciences, chemistry and materials science.

The most powerful machines to come are universal quantum computers, which is what most people think of when discussing quantum computers. These could be a decade or more away, but they’re coming. And when they arrive they will be exponentially more powerful than today’s fastest supercomputers. They will run programs as we understand them, including Shor’s Algorithm, and will be capable of cracking encryption with ease. Scientists are developing these computers and the software programs they’ll run. The current list stands at about 50 specialised but immensely powerful algorithms. Luckily, there are extremely complex engineering problems to overcome before this class of hardware becomes a reality.

More news on quantum computers

Meanwhile, quantum computer announcements are coming thick and fast.

IBM has announced the existence of a very simple device it claims is the first step on the path to a universal quantum computer. Called IBM Q, there’s a web portal for anyone to access and program it, though learning how and what you can do with such a device could take years.

Google is pursuing the quantum annealing approach. The company says it plans to demonstrate a reliable quantum chip before the end of 2017, and in doing so will assert something called “quantum supremacy“, meaning that it can reliably complete specialised tasks faster than a conventional computer. Microsoft is also in on the action. Its approach is called StationQ, and the company been quietly researching quantum technologies for over a decade.

Our Universal Future

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While there’s still a long way to go, the presence of industry giants means there’s no doubt that quantum computers are entering the mainstream. It’ll probably be the fruits of their computational power that we see first in everyday life, rather than the hardware itself. We’ll start to see solutions to currently difficult problems and improvements in the efficiency of everything. Expect good things including improved data transmission and better batteries for electric cars.

Life will really change when universal quantum computers finally become a reality. Be in no doubt that conventional encryption will one day be a thing of the past. Luckily, researchers are already working on so-called post-quantum encryption algorithms that these machines will find difficult to crack.

As well as understandable fears over privacy, and even the rise of quantum artificial intelligence, the future also holds miracles in medicine and other areas that are currently far from humanity’s grasp. The tasks to which we put these strange machines remains entirely our own choice. Let’s hope we choose wisely.

Behind the CIA’s hacking tools

CIA's hacking tools

Who is behind the CIA’s hacking tools? Surprisingly ordinary geeks, it seems.

At the start of March came the first part of yet another Wikileaks document dump. This time is details the CIA’s hacking capabilities. The world suddenly feared spooks watching them through their TVs and smartphones. It all made for great headlines.

The Agency has developed scores of interesting projects, not to mention a stash of hitherto unknown zero day vulnerabilities. The dump also gives notes on how to create well-behaved, professional malware. Malware that stands the least chance of detection, analysis and attribution to Langley.

We’ve also learned some useful techniques for defeating antivirus software, which the Agency calls Personal Security Products (PSPs).

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Trump’s Cybersecurity Policy

trump-3170923What does a Trump presidency mean for global cybersecurity?

Washington is nervous. No one knows if President Trump understands cybersecurity, or whether he’ll listen to those who do.

Some pundits are already suggesting that his first 100 days in office will include a cyber emergency.

How he responds is crucial, but his comments so far have instilled little confidence.

“Cyber is becoming so big today, it’s becoming something that a number of years ago, a short number of years ago wasn’t even a word.”

“We have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is — it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”

To be fair, Trump’s campaign site does say that he’ll order a review of “all U.S. cyber defences and vulnerabilities” by a specially assembled Cyber Review Team formed from “the military, law enforcement and the private sector”.

But Washington needs to know if he will implement or even believe the Cyber Review Team’s recommendations. After all, this is the man who, when experts discovered Russian-backed groups attacking the Democratic National Committee, said:

“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

According to The Washington Post, a sense of dread is descending on the US intelligence community. Former CIA director Michael Hayden summed up the mood:

“I cannot remember another president-elect who has been so dismissive of intelligence received during a campaign or so suspicious of the quality and honesty of the intelligence he was about to receive.”

Trump’s policy also places an onus on deterring attacks by state and non-state actors, and he has a has a particular thing about China’s hackers. He seems openly irritated by the country’s refusal to observe intellectual property law. His plan here is to:

“Enforce stronger protections against Chinese hackers … and our responses to Chinese theft will be swift, robust, and unequivocal.”

By this logic, it’s apparently difficult to attribute an attack when it’s Russia, but not when it’s China. This kind of thinking will need to change or it could damage superpower relationships at a uniquely dangerous point in world history.

Part of the danger is that a sufficiently irked President could order a pre-emptive cyber-strike against China to show everyone who’s boss. How will he pick the right target if he doesn’t listen to his advisors? China’s a very big place, and what looks like state-sponsored hacking to some might in fact turn out to be private enterprise. Such actions could be taken as an act of war, and even a limited cyberwar could leave swathes of the internet useless until rebuilt.

Trump also famously likes to abandon the script and simply ad lib during speeches, but national security depends on secrecy. Will he blurt out something in a speech that gives an enemy state a clue about America’s capabilities or, even worse, her vulnerabilities?

gchq-9563617Trump’s view that “torture works” could also irreparably damage the relationship between GCHQ and the NSA. Torture is a no-no for the UK. The Cheltenham Doughnut is expressly forbidden from sharing intelligence with countries that openly engage in torture.

A change in policy by the US would further compromise the flow of intelligence already put at risk by Brexit. The Open Rights Group also believes that Trump will exert a great deal of influence over the UK’s intelligence community.

Retaining skilled infosec talent from abroad is also about to become more of a problem for US companies, because Trump plans a crackdown on H-1B work visas. Taking up the slack means boosting cybersecurity degree courses, but any increase in trained manpower will take time to trickle through. In the meantime, who will fill the skills gap?

Ultimately, Trump is going to have to stop threatening and promising things he can’t deliver, and start listening to his advisors. To do so, he must leave his preconceptions at the door to the Oval Office and think calmly and clearly before acting. Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess, but it’s not hyperbole to suggest that a huge amount depends on it.

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