Format Aside

A new reflection attack was unveiled today which can increase the size of a DDoS attack by 51,000-fold.  It uses memcached, an object caching system designed to speed up web applications, to amplify attacks against a target.  This represents a substantial increase from previous attacks, which have used network time servers to amplify attacks 58-fold and DNS servers to amplify attacks 50-fold.

Attacks seen this week have surpassed 500 Gbps, which is pretty amazing considering only a small percentage of publicly-available memcached servers are being used to launch those attacks.  It’ll be interesting to see if any larger attacks are launched in the coming weeks… and what their targets will be.

The article over at Ars Technica is pretty good, and is worth a read.

Format Aside

The vulnerability was patched in WordPress v4.7.2 two weeks ago, but millions of sites haven’t yet updated.  This leaves them open to a vulnerability in the WordPress REST API, which can allow malicious actors to edit any post on a site.

Ars Technica has a very nice writeup on the effects of the exploit, which has resulted in the defacement of a staggering number of websites (including the websites of Glenn Beck, the Utah Office of Tourism, and even the official Suse Linux site).  Sucuri and Wordfence also have very good articles about the effects of the vulnerability.

If you have a WordPress site, you should immediately check to make sure you’re on the latest version (v4.7.2).

Format Aside

I’ve noticed a growing trend in more advanced computer users lately: some of them have begun advocating against using antivirus software.  Instead, they suggest using browser extensions like uBlock Origin (which I use and recommend), combined with safe browsing practices, to remove the need for antivirus software altogether.  Ars Technica did a very nice write-up on this trend today, and it’s worth a look.

For what it’s worth, I still use Avast as an antivirus package.  But it hasn’t alerted me to any issues or found any viruses in at least a year, so perhaps it’s time to consider freeing up some memory on my computer.

Format Aside

Ars Technica did a nice job of creating an impartial write-up on why Hillary Clinton used an external email server, and how it was actually used.  It sounds to me like there’s an institutional history of using private email to conduct business, largely due to obstructive or incompetent IT services (in fairness to the State Department IT team, there are likely a number of complicated policies and legal requirements that they’re trying to work around, which is difficult).  Still, that’s not an excuse to use a home server to manage official communication– if you must use your own email address, at least use something like Google Apps or Microsoft Exchange Online, where you have teams of people professionally managing the email environment 1.

It’s also interesting to see that the NSA basically shot down any possibility of her getting a secured mobile device; I would have thought that providing the Secretary of State– the person who comes fourth in the presidential line of succession– with secure communications at all time would be a priority for them.

You can read the full story here.


  1. Of course, there is still the issue of all email traffic being unsecured and transmitted in plaintext.  But you could use a PGP solution to reduce risks there.

What is asymmetric cryptography?

Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman were jointly awarded the 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award today.  Their 1976 paper, New Directions in Cryptography, essentially created asymmetric cryptography.  Today, asymmetric cryptography secures our online communications—from PGP-secured texts, emails, and files, to TLS and SSL-secured websites (including this one).  So how does asymmetric cryptography work, and how is the Diffie-Hellman key exchange more secure than older methods of encryption?

Symmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption relies on a key 1 shared between two or more people.  A message is encrypted using this key, and can then be decrypted by the same key held by somebody else.  Think of it like the front door of a house.  Alice has a key to the door, so she can lock and unlock the door.  Bob also has a key, so he can also lock and unlock the door.  In fact, anyone with a copy of that key can both lock and unlock the door whenever they want.  In the case of a message, this means that anyone with the right key can encrypt (lock) the message, or decrypt (unlock) the message.

It’s possible to break symmetric encryption 2, though it takes time.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples is from World War II, when the Allies were struggling to crack encrypted Nazi communications.  The encryption was created with a key that changed daily, and through the use of the Enigma machines.   The cryptography was eventually broken, but largely through the skill of the codebreakers, poor operating practice from some of the German operators, and the capture of key tables and hardware by the Allies.

Asymmetric encryption

Asymmetric encryption, in contrast to symmetric encryption, uses a pair of keys to encrypt messages.  One of the two keys is made public to everyone, and one is kept private (the two types of keys were called, cleverly enough, the public key and the private key, respectively).  Messages encrypted with the public key can only be decrypted using the private key 3, which ensures that the contents of the message can’t be read by anyone except the holder of the (hopefully secure) private key.  So if Alice wants to send an encrypted message to Bob, she starts by finding his public key.  She then encrypts her message using that, and sends it to Bob.  When Bob receives it, he uses his private key to decrypt the message.  If he wants to respond, he can encrypt his reply using Alice’s public key, and the cycle continues.  Since the public keys are usually published or exchanged in a way that lets each party be confident that it belongs to whomever they are sending it to, this ensures that the identity of the recipient can be verified.  Alice knows that only Bob can unlock her message, and Bob knows that only Alice can unlock his.

This is commonly used on websites that are secured by SSL/TLS (including this one).  Pretty much every major website is secured via SSL, and browsers will display a green padlock in the address bar of secured sites.  This serves two purposes; it will prove that the website belongs to whomever it purports to belong to, and it encrypts traffic between your computer and the website so that it can’t be read by attackers, your ISP, or others who may have a vested interest in what you do.
This works in exactly the same way that the messages between Alice and Bob did.  When you visit a website secured with SSL, your browser and the server exchange public keys.  The server encrypts traffic to you using your public key, which your browser decrypts.  And your browser encrypts traffic to the server using the server’s public key, which the server decrypts.  Anyone trying to listen in on the conversation your browser and the server are having will hear nothing but random gibberish.  There’s one additional thing that your browser does to ensure that it’s not talking to a fake server that’s pretending to be the real website: it takes the public key presented by the server, and it compares it to a repository of public keys.  If it matches, it’s the real server.  If it doesn’t, it could be an imposter– and somebody could be listening in.

So the next time you’re wandering around the web, take a minute to appreciate that little green padlock in the corner of your screen, and think about the incredibly complicated math that underpins security on the internet.  It works invisibly to keep your communications safe, secure, and most importantly—private.


 

I’m not a cryptographer or a security specialist, just somebody who enjoys reading and learning about security.  If you think I left out something important, please send me an email so I can fix it.

  1. Essentially, a key is a piece of really complicated math.
  2. It’s also possible to break asymmetric encryption, or any encryption
  3. Basically, the message is sent through a mathematical formula that only works one way… unless you have the incredibly complicated and unique formula that comprises the private key.

How Stories Drive the Stock Market

I came across this article today in The New York Times written by Robert Shiller.  Shiller is a Sterling Professor at Yale University who studies macroeconomics, behavioral economics, and public attitudes regarding markets, so he’s very qualified to discuss the role of stories in our economy.

The general gist of the article, as I understand it, is that stock markets are driven as much by feelings and stories than they are by data and rationality.  It underscores the need to critically inspect information that you’re given– it may be rooted in truth, but it could easily be influenced by emotion.  It also underscores why economic predictions can be so difficult to get right, and why economics is a social science; our assumptions are rooted in the belief that people are rational actors who carefully make the best decisions possible, even though people are famously irrational.  If we’re driven by stories and emotions, it’s much harder to predict people’s actions and reactions.

 

Listing image by Sam valadi, and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.