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Posts tagged 'shibboleth'

Anatomy of a Phishing Attack

phishing_magnifying_glass_fi-3673555Who attacked a couple of Internet pressure groups earlier this year? Jon Thompson examines the evidence.

For those on those of us engaged in constructing carefully-crafted tests against client email filtering services, the public details of an unusually high-quality spear-phishing attack against a low value target make for interesting reading.

In this case, there were two targets: Free Press, and Fight for the Future. The attack, dubbed “Phish for the Future” in a brief analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is curious for several reasons.

Free Press is a pressure group campaigning for an open internet, fighting media consolidation by large corporations, and defending press freedom. Fight for the Future works to protect people’s basic online freedoms. Objectively, they’re working for a better online future, which makes the whole affair stand out like a pork buffet at a bar mitzvah.

The first thing that struck me was that the emails were apparently all sent during office hours. The time zones place the senders anywhere between Finland and India, but apparently resolve to office hours when normalised to a single zone.

Another interesting aspect is that even though the emails were sent on 23 active days, the attackers didn’t work weekends. This immediately marks them out as unusual. Anyone who’s run an email honeypot knows that commodity spam flows 24 hours a day.

The attackers first tried generic phishing expeditions, but quickly cranked up their targeting and psychological manipulation. This begs an interesting question: If you’re an experienced, professional, disciplined crew, why jeopardise the operation by beginning with less convincing samples that may alert the target to be on the lookout? Why didn’t they simply start with the good stuff, get the job done, and move on?

One possible explanation is that the attackers were trainees on a course, authorised to undertake a carefully controlled “live fire” exercise. Psychologically manipulative techniques such as pretending to be a target’s husband sending family photos, or a fan checking a URL to someone’s music, imply a level of confident duplicity normally associated with spying scandals.

The level of sophistication and persistence on display forms a shibboleth. It looks and smells somehow “wrong”. The published report reveals an attention to detail and target reconnaissance usually reserved for high value commercial targets. Either the attackers learn at a tremendous rate
through sheer interest alone, or they’re methodically being taught increasingly sophisticated techniques to a timetable. If it was part of a course, then maybe the times the emails were sent show a break for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea, or fall into patterns of tuition followed by practical exercises.

phishing2b-6448783The timing of the complete attack also stands out. It began on 7th July, ended on 8th August, and straddled the Net Neutrality Day of Action (12th July). With a lot happening at both targets during that time, and one assumes a lot of email flying about, perhaps the attackers believed they stood a better chance when the staff were busiest.

So, to recap, it looks like highly motivated yet disciplined attackers were operating with uncommonly sophisticated confidence against two small online freedom groups. Neither target has the business acumen of a large corporation, which rules out criminal gain, and yet an awful lot of effort was ranged against them.

The product of phishing is access, either to abuse directly or to be sold to others. Who would want secret access to organisations campaigning for online freedom? Both targets exist to change minds and therefore policy, which makes them political. They’re interesting not only to governments, but also to media companies seeking to control the internet.

I’m speculating wildly, of course. The whole thing could very easily have been perpetrated by an under-worked individual at a large company, using their office computer and keeping regular hours to avoid suspicion. The rest is down to ingenuity and personal motivation.

We’ll never know the truth, but the supporting infrastructure detailed in the EFF report certainly points to some considerable effort over a long period of time. If it was an individual, he’s out there, he’ll strike again, and he learns fast. In many ways, I’d prefer it to have been a security service training new recruits.

Went The Day Well?

 

title2bpic-8503324In The Great Escape, a Gestapo officer wishes Gordon Jackson’s character “good luck” in English as he attempts to board a bus.

In A Book About a Thousand Things, George Stimpson says that during WWII, US guards used the word “lollapalooza” to spot Japanese spies amongst Pilipino allies.

Judges 12-6: “Then said they unto him, ‘Say now Shibboleth’ And he said Sibboleth, for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan”.

These are all examples of shibboleths, named after the final example, in which a group of Gileadites identify an enemy Ephraimite from how he says a word.

Could subtle shibboleths also buy time until we can properly resolve the password reuse crisis? To answer that, we need a sprinkle of theory.

To log into a service, you must authenticate yourself by presenting certain bona fides. These fall into three broad categories:

  • Something you know
  • Something you have
  • Something you are

barclays2bpinsentry-9891496Passwords fall into the first category, as do your mother’s maiden name, your first pet, and so on.

To shore up authentication, two factor authentication is becoming more popular, and usually involves a password backed by something you have, such as a mobile phone to receive a passcode. Something you have could also be a special device that generates a one-time code. Some banks insist on such devices being present when transferring money from accounts.

What about things you are? Biometrics are the best known examples, but gait recognition has also been examined as a method of identifying people. Early research focused on thwarting smartphone theft, but has since been used in other applications.

The trouble with all this is that everything beyond simple passwords make the user do something extra or use special hardware. Everyday users tend to resist being made to change their ways for someone else’s convenience. There are also parts of the world where secondary authentication is impossible. Are we condemning those users to a second class, less secure internet. This is where shibboleths could help.

When your bank identifies rogue transactions, it’s identifying shibboleths in normal spending patterns. If you’ve ever had a text asking you to confirm unusual payments after some toerag has cloned your card, you’ll be thankful for this.

Think about this in terms of passwords. If a typical user types the same password for many years, he naturally falls into a predictable rhythm of key presses. If anyone else enters that password, the timing data will be different.

body2bpic-8592247 Encrypt the timing data before storing it, and it must be included in any password decryption effort. Remote brute force attacks would become impossibly difficult. Dumb phishing campaigns that don’t collect timing data would also be rendered useless overnight, and God knows that’d be a good thing.

It’s far from a perfect solution. You can probably think of a dozen difficulties (keyloggers, for example), but competent client-side shibboleth-spotting could at least buy the world time while someone clever creates a solution to password reuse that doesn’t divide the internet into secure haves and insecure have-nots.

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