Webpage of Eric Verheul

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I am a part-time professor in the Digital Security Group of the Radboud University Nijmegen and I am scientifically active in the field of information security, i.e., the field that deals with the protection of the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information. I also provide consultancy to organizations on information security that inspire my research/education and vice versa.

 

My inaugural lecture given on Thursday 30 January 2014 in Nijmegen (in Dutch).

 

Google Scholar list with citations.

 

Below I have written some of my ideas on information security.

 

The playing field: the increasing challenge of information security

 

Lack of senior management commitment and awareness

Roughly speaking information security consists of security management and technical (operational) security. Technical information security deals with the development of IT security products and surrounding processes that help organizations to protect their information. Although technical information security is an important part of information security it needs to be aligned with security management. Security management is the counterpart of technical information security and deals with the way management of an organization is (or rather should be) in control of business information security risks. Security management is the engine of information security as it drives information security. A common framework for security management is defined in the ISO 27001 standard which is based on a continuous Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. I think that the alignment of technical information security with security management is the real challenge in information security: using the right IT security products to control the real business risks. And that is different from running all the IT security products the organization’s IT department can think of without any meaningful involvement from senior management, which is too often the situation.

 

To identify the real business risks, thorough risk assessments need to be conducted.Endnote1

 

Adequate information security within organizations also requires real commitment and security awareness of senior management of organizations. And in my experience senior management of organizations are sometimes naive with respect to the information security risks of their organizations. And with the rise of (targeted) attacks, see below, such naivety is getting more and more dangerous.  It seems that senior management of some organizations first need to have a serious security incident before they act. If the organization notices the incident at all, that is. Certainly incidents where confidentiality of information is involved (e.g., privacy, commercial sensitive information, intellectual property) changes are that organizations do not notice their occurrence at all.Endnote2

 

As a mildly amusing anecdote on management awareness; in 2003 I thought that the so-called vulnerability exploit in Internet Explorer was a  convincing demonstration of the pitiful state of security in commonly used IT. This exploit implies that any website has access to the information in a user’s clipboard through Internet Explorer (the internal memory buffer you fill when you use copy-paste in Word, Outlook and the like). Just think of the implications: any text you copy and paste is readable on the internet. That could be passwords, parts of sensitive emails, privileged stock exchange information enabling trading with prior knowledge et cetera. And of course by using automatic refreshing web pages, an attacker could continuously monitor the contents of a user’s clipboard! I demonstrated the vulnerability to senior management of several organizations but nobody seemed to be really impressed and I finally gave up. Their response would typically be that it was a ‘techie’ thing and ‘who could seriously be interested in my information?’. Baffling. But it explains why security professionals currently still might have a hard time explaining the seriousness of possible targeted attacks (see below) at their organization. They might get the same reaction: ‘it is a “techie” thing’ and  ‘who could seriously be interested in my information?’ Just wait, I guess, and finally you will see who was interested.Endnote3

 

The rapidly increasing challenge and the power of money

The trouble is that the challenge of information security is rapidly getting bigger every day, and security professionals are increasingly lagging behind on their opponents. This challenge is increasingly getting harder with the rapid development of:

·         security exploits in ICT and its usage arising from the functionality thirst of users

·         the threat of information from internationally organized crime and intelligence agencies of hostile nation states in their quest for money and/or power.

If security professionals used to be one step behind, currently they are two steps behind. One can argue that internal organized crime is gradually getting the capabilities that were previously limited to intelligence agencies. With the big difference that organized crime seems to care less when their activities get exposed. To indicate, due to the organization required for it, breaking cryptographic keys used to be the prerequisite of intelligence agencies. But nowadays organized crime also seems organized enough to invest in breaking keys as is indicated by this Fox-IT report. I actually worry if perhaps the scientific community, e.g. computer science students,  is unknowingly providing technical assistance to organized crime. The rise of the involvement of organized crime in cybercrime therefore also opens a new potential for plausible deniability for intelligence agencies.

 

And do not underestimate the power of (tax-less) money. I always like to play the following game with my colleagues demonstrating the power of money:

 “Suppose it’s a Friday afternoon and we have a difficult report to finish for this important client in New York (i.e. in a time zone -6 hours from ours) that expects the report today. It’s your girlfriend’s birthday and you planned this wonderful evening out but I -  as the project manager – am trying to persuade you to keep working on the report all evening and part of the night too. Would you be persuaded to keep working on the report if I’d promise you to give you the best job appraisal there is? No, probably not; your girlfriend would simply not accept that. But what if I promise you 2.000 Euro in cash if you work the whole evening/night?”

Most of the colleagues I played this game with would be persuaded with the 2.000 Euro in cash reward; the ones that wouldn’t didn’t have a girlfriend to start with.

 

Visible indications of the challenge

There are many visible indications of the increase of the information security challenge. These indications can for instance be found in the fraud figures in e-banking published by banks. In the Netherlands this figure was 1.9 million Euro in 2009, 9.8 million Euro in 2010 and 11.2 million Euro in only the first half of 2011. See NVB and AD. Indications can also be found in the rise of attacks from the internet on key persons (or their secretaries) of organizations whereby they are lured to open email attachments or to visit certain reliable looking websites. The objective is deception or – more extreme – retrieval of information by placing espionage software through the attachment of website. The espionage software effectively allows the attacker to take over the attacked workstation including its webcam, microphone and access to fileservers the attacked person has access to. This perhaps sounds like the script of a bad movie, but this happens and more and more often too. And of course only a small portion of these attacks is identified and/or publicized.

 

One of first publically documented incidents of this type originates from 2008 with an attack on the Dalai Lama from Chinese soil (Ghostnet) whereby more than 1200 (!) computers in 103 countries were compromised of which 30% can be considered as high-value diplomatic, political, economic and military targets. Recently targeted attacks took place in Canada and Norway. Moreover the software facilitating taking over computers is getting more and more user-friendly too as is indicated by the user interface of the SpyEye bot below. SpyEye is one of the successors of the Zeus bot. In fact, a whole service oriented criminal industry is emerging where some criminal organizations take care of finding the vulnerabilities (exploits), others use the exploits in malicious code (attachments, websites) and couple them with code to be run on the victim’s machine (payload, typically rootkits) that provide other parties the services to load bots like Torpig and SpyEye and finally you have people take care of the configuration of the bots themselves whereby meticulously analysing the website aimed to harvest from the infection. Depending of the actual attack many more parties might be involved, e.g. money mules for getting the actual money from e-banking fraud. And the power of tax-less money keeps the cooperation running smoothly. Also see this interesting 2009 report on Mebroot / Torpig.

 

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Stepping stone attacks

Particularly worrisome I think are targeted attacks that take place on organizations where the objective of the attackers is not access to the organization itself but access to one of its clients, i.e. the targeted organizations are only used as stepping stones. An interesting incident of this type is the targeted attack on EMC/RSA whereby the cryptographic keys in its SecureID challenge response tokens were compromised. The attackers (allegedly from Chinese soil) were interested in getting access to defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin. Such stepping-stone attacks are particularly worrisome for two reasons:

·         organizations are typically unaware they can be used as a stepping-stone; they are usually have a hard time finding their own security risk let alone those of their clients,

·         there are many organizations that can be used as stepping stones for getting access to others. To indicate, any popular website might be an interesting target to allow http redirect targets to websites infecting them using invisible iframes and in fact there are already a trading  places for compromised websites for exactly this.

 

We indeed live in interesting times as security professionals.

 

My interests in all this

My scientific interests in the field are focussed on security management (education) and technical information security (research).

I give a course on security management based on the ISO 27001 standard inspired by the by the challenges I encounter in my consultancy work implementing security management in practice based on ISO 27001:  how to identify the relevant information security risks an organization faces and how can senior management be persuaded to act on that? I must admit I have a hard time explaining the business value of ISO 27001 to technical students that typically like to solve everything with technical tools instead of with these fuzzy things called “risk analyses” and “procedures”. The non-conciseness of the ISO 27001 does not help either; standardization institutes still seem to get paid by the page.

 

My research is also inspired by my consultancy work and vice versa. Currently I am focussing on two topics:

·         Prevention and early identification of cybercrime attacks, most notably targeted attacks. Unchartered territory I think.

·         Technical information security related to compliancy with privacy laws, specifically the applications of pseudonimization and anonymization techniques enabling organizations to effectively use (and link) databases with personal data for analysis purposes or testing purposes. Actually this topic can be considered as a more positive use of information security, i.e. not to keep the attackers out, but to enable organizations to do things that were not possible before.

The added value in both topics consists of a complex technical solution coupled with a tailored management organization.

 

These are some of my papers.

You can contact me on one of the email addresses below.

 

 

 



Endnote1

I’m always amazed by these multinational organizations that seem to think that one risk assessment and treatment for the whole organization suffices. These assessments surprisingly often result in the selection of all the 133 controls from ISO 27002 as risk treatment. When you perform a risk assessment it is also helpful that you actually know which systems are yours and which are of subcontractors. Once I was a client site asking whose a particular router was; the client said they assumed it was owned by their telco and I asked the client to look into this. Well, it turned out it was not owned by their telco and it actually was  theirs. And of course it was not secured at all, it still had all standard configuration and passwords active.

 

Endnote2

As a mildly amusing anecdote; I once tested the internet Intrusion Detection System (IDS) of a sensitive organization by running all kinds of automated attacks against them (e.g. using Metasploit). At a certain time my network connectivity to the site was lost and I thought that the IDS had worked. What actually happened was that my Internet Service Provider had noticed my attempts, decided my connection had been compromised by a bot and had disconnected my ADSL connection. The organization itself had not noticed my attempts at all.

 

Endnote3

·         I finally convinced two people to actively act on the clipboard vulnerability. My wife who started using another browser and the security officer of a police organization that had its content scanner configured to remove the ‘getData’ method on the fly.

·         Microsoft actually issued a security patch related to the vulnerability in 2002. However, apparently they actually did not consider it a vulnerability that any website could read the clipboard contents. The vulnerability they addressed was a flaw in the configuration the concerned user could use to stop this default behaviour (‘Allow paste operations via script’). Or in the words of Microsoft: “This is an information disclosure vulnerability. Specifically, it could enable a web site to programmatically read the contents of a user's clipboard, even when the user has enabled the setting to prevent sites from being able to do this. The default setting for this option is to allow programmatic access to the clipboard. Therefore, the risk created by this vulnerability is no worse than the default setting for this feature. However, because it allows a security setting that controls the privacy of information to be bypassed, it does constitute a vulnerability.”

·         The vulnerability (or feature in the perspective of Microsoft) was active until Internet Explorer 6. Starting from Internet Explorer 7 the user was warned for a website requesting access to the clipboard. This is still the behaviour Internet Explorer 8 as you can see here. I wonder how many people will give act correctly on the request.