January 18, 2017

Engineering an insider-attack-resistant email system and why you wouldn't want to use it

Earlier this week, Felten made the observation that the government eavesdropping on Lavabit could be considered as an insider attack against Lavabit users. This leads to the obvious question: how might we design an email system that’s resistant to such an attack? The sad answer is that we’ve had this technology for decades but it never took off. Phil Zimmerman put out PGP in 1991. S/MIME-based PKI email encryption was widely supported by the late 1990’s. So why didn’t it become ubiquitous?
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There’s anonymity on the Internet. Get over it.

In a recent interview prominent antivirus developer Eugene Kaspersky decried the role of anonymity in cybercrime. This is not a new claim – it is touched on in the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency Report and Cybersecurity Act of 2009, among others – but it misses the mark. Any Internet design would allow anonymity. What renders our Internet vulnerable is primarily weakness of software security and authentication, not anonymity.

Consider a hypothetical of three Internet users: Alice, Bob, and Charlie. If Alice wants to communicate anonymously with Charlie, she may relay her messages through Bob. While Charlie knows Bob is an intermediary, Charlie does not know with whom he is ultimately communicating. For even greater anonymity Alice can pass her messages through multiple Bobs, and by applying cryptography she can ensure no individual Bob can piece together that she is communicating with Charlie. This basic approach to anonymity is remarkable in its independence of the Internet’s design: it only requires that some Bob(s) can and do run intermediary software. Even on an Internet where users could verify each other’s identity this means of anonymity would remain viable.

The sad state of software security – the latest DHS weekly bulletin alone identified over 40 “high severity” vulnerabilities – is what enables malicious users to exploit the Internet’s indelible capacity for anonymity. Modifying the prior hypothetical, suppose Alice now wants to spam, phish, denial of service (DoS) attack, or hack Charlie. After compromising Bob’s computer with malicious software (malware), Alice can send emails, host websites, and launch DoS attacks from it; Charlie knows Bob is apparently misbehaving, but has no means of discovering Alice’s role. Nearly all spam, phishing, and DoS attacks are now perpetrated with networks of compromised computers like Bob’s (botnets). At the writing of a July 2009 private sector report, just five botnets sourced nearly 75% of spam. Worse yet, botnets are increasingly self-perpetuating: spam and phishing websites propagate malware that compromises new computers for the botnet.

Shortcomings in authentication, the means of proving one’s identity either when necessary or at all times, are a secondary contributor to the Internet’s ills. Most applications rely on passwords, which are easily guessed or divulged through deception – the very mechanisms of most phishing and account hijacking. There are potential technical solutions that would enable a user to authenticate themselves without the risk of compromising accounts. But any approach will be undermined by weaknesses in underlying software security when a malicious party can trivially compromise a user’s computer.

The policy community is already trending towards acceptance of Internet anonymity and refocusing on software security and authentication; the recent White House Cyberspace Policy Review in particular emphasizes both issues. To the remaining unpersuaded, I can only offer at last a truism: There’s anonymity on the Internet. Get over it.

When spammers try to go legitimate

I hate to sound like a broken record, complaining about professional mail distribution / spam-houses that are entirely unwilling to require their customers to follow a strict opt-in discipline. But I’m going to complain again and I’m going to name names.

Today, I got a spam touting a Citrix product (“Free virtualization training for you and your students!”). This message arrived in my mailbox with an unsubscribe link hosted by xmr3.com which bounced me back to a page at Citrix. The Citrix page then asks me for assorted personal information (name, email, country, employer). There was also a mailto link from xmr3 allowing me to opt-out.

At no time did I ever opt into any communication from Citrix. I’ve never done business with them. I don’t know anybody who works there. I could care less about their product.

What’s wrong here? A seemingly legitimate company is sending out spam to people who have never requested anything from them. They’re not employing any of the tactics that are normally employed by spammers to hide themselves. They’re not advertising drugs for sexual dysfunction or replicas of expensive watches. Maybe they got my email by surfing through faculty web pages. Maybe they got my email from some conference registration list. They’ve used a dubious third-party to distribute the spam who provides no method for indicating that their client is violating their terms of service (nor can their terms of service be found anywhere on their home page).

Based on this, it’s easy to advocate technical countermeasures (e.g., black-hole treatment for xmr3.com and citrix.com) or improvements to laws (the message appears to be superficially compliant with the CAN-SPAM act, but a detailed analysis would take more time than it’s worth). My hope is that we can maybe also apply some measure of shame. Citrix, as a company, should be embarrassed and ashamed to advertise itself this way. If it ever became culturally acceptable for companies to do this sort of thing, then the deluge of “legitimate” spam will be intolerable.