(Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”)

Archive for June 2014

JUNE 2014 Global Threat Intelligence Report

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Executive Summary:

In the month of June 2014 there were 3 top breaches that caused a loss of data within the range of 242,908 personal records. This is just one aspect of loss due to compromises due to criminal activities as well as state actors today within the realm of hacking. This report is being presented to you to give insight into what is happening in the world today and this last month online and in corporations where information security is involved.

This month has seen more activities from not only nation state actors but also defenders within the US working towards stopping them. Crowdstrike, Fireeye, and others have put out reports on actors and methods that are currently attacking infrastructures both private and public. In this report you will see some of the highlights from global events that is germane to your understanding of the threatscape today.

Screenshot from 2014-06-30 10:02:04

Report Highlights:

  • OpenSSL had another vulnerability found that could cause compromise of people’s credentials.
  • Iranian hackers attempted to socially engineer and spearphish numerous defense base users with LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter
  • A social engineering campaign was launched against the author of this report via LinkedIn in an attempt at intelligence gathering
  • The Russian state has allegedly launched attacks using the HAVEX RAT which attacks SCADA and ICS systems (Energy Sector)
  • The Syrian Electronic Army attacks Reuters website and defaces it in an propaganda campaign
  • The Dyreza RAT bypasses SSL sessions by stealing credentials and is attacking larger bank users
  • ANONYMOUS is planning an OP on ISIS funding states
  • ISIS/ISIL leveraging Twitter for propaganda and recruitment purposes
  • SEA (Syrian Electronic Army) Compromises and defaces Reuters website

Global Threats

Open SSL:


Post the Heartbleed vulnerabilities disclosure, attackers have been working on other vulnerabilities within the code for SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption. This is the encryption that protects internet traffic and has been the standard for many years. As of June 5th a new vulnerability was released and has been since patched in the code by the makers of SSL.

The attack allowed for a “Man in the Middle” attack that could have led to decryption of traffic and loss of credentials and data. This means that an intermediary machine would have to be in the middle of the traffic for this to work. This attack is feasible and it has been recommended that all instances within your environment that are vulnerable to this should be patched as soon as practicable.


The attack can only be performed between a vulnerable client *and* server. OpenSSL clients are vulnerable in all versions of OpenSSL. Servers are only known to be vulnerable in OpenSSL 1.0.1 and 1.0.2-beta1. Users of OpenSSL servers earlier than 1.0.1 are advised to upgrade as a precaution

This attack though and Heartbleed show an inherent security problem with commonly used protocols or software like this due to the prevalence of use and the level of compromise that could come from exploiting this type of bug.

Social Engineering via LinkedIn: NEWSCASTER


On May 28th iSight Partners put out a report on an alleged Iranian phishing and social engineering campaign that used some common tactics for APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) actors. This campaign started in or around August 2013 and continued up until the roll up after this report was put on the internet.

The site above posed as an on air radio station as well as a news site catering to topics that defense base individuals would be interested in. In tandem with this or at least in parallel, the adversary also created a group of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIN to socially engineer targets and backstop the fictitious site.

The parallell attack consisted of socially engineering employees and heads of departments up to and including high level brass in the military and C level exectuives from places like Pratt & Whitney and other companies that make defense hardware. Once users had accepted LinkedIN requests or Facebook requests they would be enticed to go to the Newsonair site to read the news and perhaps listen online. The links sent to the targets would then be drive by sites for infection or simple sites that requested users credentials to enter their site for content. These attempts would then perhaps net the adversary the users credentials to Outlook (one particular attack was a page that presented an outlook login) and thus compromising their email as well as perhaps other access such as VPN (depending on implementations)

According to the iSight report the gambit of socially engineering people via Facebook and LinkedIN worked well enough to gather approximately two thousand users “friending” or adding the fictitious (cutout) accounts that the adversary had created to mine for access. Given the numbers accredited to have been within the friends/linkedin connections it is a high probability that the adversary had at least some insight into the workings of their targets habits and perhaps even may have elicited access through the drive by attacks as well as perhaps SE data from unaware targets.


This campaign is not important or of note in its modus operandi generally as APT goes but it is an object lesson that should be heeded. The melding of the SE with the drive by attacks show how easy it is to attempt to get users to compromise their systems as well as their personal/corporate data through social media attacks.

Where this may in fact be an Iranian actor (not nation state but instead a hacker/group in Iran looking to carry out a campaign under the rubric of political fervor) we have also seen actors like the Lampeduza Republic (carders who attacked Target) use the same APT tactics to affect their goal of stealing PCI data.

Given that social media is so prevalent today, it is a given that campaigns are ongoing within the space and that our users as well as our executives could fall prey to these attacks by other adversaries than APT (Nation-state or other) As such we should insure that our education on Phishing as well as Social media attacks and SE should continue if not actually expand. This is the current and future of pivot attacks that will continue to be the means by which attackers break into companies and extract data.

Another factor to take into account is the endpoint where traffic is going on the internet. In the case of newsonair the IP space was located physically in DFW (Texas) but the end point of the data trail leads to Iran and a server within the Islamic Republic. IDS and SIEM can help to determine traffic patterns to such places outside of the country and should be leveraged to determine where data is ex-filtrating to. In the case of this team the SIEM and IDS solutions actually caught the traffic (hits on sites) as well as malware telemetry and remediation tools stopped the malware from compromising machines.

Social Engineering via LinkedIn: Personal Account



I personally received this invite from an alleged recruiter. Upon inspection of the account I found that the user had inconsistencies in their profile and began digging into it. Once I took the headshot and put it into an image search engine I was able to determine that the person in it certainly was not the person they claimed to be in LinkedIn.

By using the email address attached to the account I was able to then look up the metadata on the real person behind the account. This person does live in Alaska and purportedly works for a telco there. Having tracked him further using the email account provided in the LinkedIn profile I was able to track much of his life because he had placed it all online for anyone to see. This included an arrest report in 2013 for being drunk and trespassing in a residence.





The analysis for this incident follows much of what is discussed in the NEWSCASTER report. The takeaway is that your social media profile can lead to corporate or personal compromise. Care should be taken as to what you share and with whom on such sites as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc as they can be used to create a dossier on you for further attacks.

In the case of this attempt, the user had poor OPSEC (Operational Security) and thus his legend (cover story) lacked credibility as well as leaving bread crumbs to follow easily to his real name and location. I personally do not list the companies I am employed by because of such attacks and leakage of information that would be counter to security. As such, this attacker was looking for what he had hoped was a target with entre into the government and military spaces that I listed in past jobs that I had had.

** Note at 6am 6/30/14 the user had 109 connections within the federal and MIL space**

HAVEX RAT (Russia)

scan_lanimage from F-Secure blog


The HAVEX RAT (Remote Access Tool) has been leveraged by Russian APT to attack specific industries that now include power systems and energy companies. This actor group has modified the RAT and their modus operandi to attack SCADA and ICS systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) in hopes of perhaps carrying out supply chain attacks on those systems. This is the 43rd iteration of this RAT tool in use by this actor (RU)  This group also has used the “LightsOut Exploit Kit” watering hole attack as well to carry out attacks ( according to MalwareMustDie and Cisco.

**Crowdstrike designates this group “Energetic Bear” and currently this month showed them to be active and being reported on by the press.**

**Further analysis by Symantec HERE having named it DRAGONFLY**


This group of alleged Russian attackers has been active for some time now (circa 2012) and have been seeking data from systems within the energy sector. Given that Russia is a large player in the energy sector it is easy to assume that their motives are for state/private consumption within the energy space. The attacks have been not only on US assets but also on French and other countries companies that they have interests in.  As a whole, this group is believed to be nation state but it can be seen as perhaps a co-owned endeavour on the part of the state and the oligarchs who run the large petro and other energy concerns within the former USSR.

With the advent of the HAVEX RAT’s SCADA/ICS functionality though it can be an assumption that attacks on those systems could be used in ways that could help the Russian state’s prices on energy consumables as well as further other deeper state desires of the Putin government. An attack by an adversary with a horse in the game and geopolitical with monetary repercussions on the supply chains of certain competitors would place the Russian government in a better position globally if not regionally.




Dyreza is a new RAT that has a special method of gathering intelligence. This malware performs an SSL bypass allowing credentials to then be passed in the clear as a kind of man in the middle attack. It in fact steals the credentials in the targets browser thus nullifying the encrypted session altogether. Currently the primary targets of this malware/RAT have been Bank of America, Natwest, Citibank, RBS, and Ulsterbank. This malware campaign also has been cited to have an adversary set that is planning on turning this into a malware as a service model of business. They have set up money “mules” and are seeking to make this a global campaign that one can buy into as a full pipeline from compromise to money movement and laundering.


While this RAT and group (Assumed to be Russian with the naming of Dyreza) are ambitious they have failed to program encrypted comm’s into their model thus SIEM and IDS traffic will easily capture and stop their activities. While their approach is novel, they are not as yet a true threat to a larger swath of corporations due to their technical limitations. It is also assumed that these new players are attempting to cash in on the void that was left by the GoZeus takedown recently. Until such time as they next iteration includes encrypted C&C this group should not be considered a major threat actor.

APT Activities



Crowdstrike reported on a new PLA unit active online today attacking corporations and government entities naming the unit (Unit 61486) as well as some of the players involved by name. In what is called OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) the Crowdstrike team reported on the actual names of PLA members who comprise this unit including pictures and personal details. Crowdstrike is calling this group “Putter Panda” and they are primraily attacking the government, defense, and technology research sectors.

PLA Unit 61486 focuses their exploits against popular productivity applications such as Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office to deploy custom malware through targeted email attacks (i.e. SpearPhishing)

**Currently there are 13 groups/cells within the Chinese PLA active today as APT (Advanced Persistent Threats)**


Attribution is a troublesome thing in hacking and cyber warfare but the data presented by Crowdstrike is compelling enough to say that they in fact were right. However, the usefulness of such reports is called into question as relations with China sour and the legalities surrounding all of this preclude any solid action of merit. In the case of the Putter Panda report and their doxing of the PLA players it may be a moot point. Outing these players will not necessarily change their tactics as we have seen from the Mandiant reporting on CN activities in the past. In the case of the Mandiant report those actors changed some of their activities but on the whole they fell back into the same practices.

On the legal front outing such sources of attacks also may in fact lead to some sort of naming and shaming at a political level that the US may leverage but I personally unsure of it’s efficacy. As we have seen to date the US and the globe lack the proper legal means to attack these problems as well as politically there are no common grounds for countries to apply warfare as separate from civil actions taken by individuals perhaps at the governments behest. In the case of the PLA they are military however, many of their proxy actors are private citizens that are motivated by patriotism and perhaps monetary incentives to carry out these attacks.

On the whole this is just another common APT group within the arcology of Chinese APT who’s OPSEC (Operational Security) was lacking and thus they re-used information or aligned information and backstopping for their campaigns with personal data. This allowed OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) analysts to easily follow Wang Dong’s trail back to his own personal accounts with photographs etc. While this is a marketing coup for Crowdstrike the efficacy as mentioned above is still questionable on outing these players.

Iran (See above NEWSCASTER campaign)

Russia(See above HAVEX RAT campaign)

Syria/SEA (Syrian Electronic Army)


The SEA attacked and compromised the Reuters website on June 22nd 2014. This attack followed the usual protocol of defacement by the Syrian Electronic Army and its leader Th3Pr0. The SEA is a group that has formed to fight on the web in a propaganda war of web defacements for the Assad regime. It seems that this hack against the Reuters site was carried out via an attack on a third party vendor who had access to key systems. Someone from SEA fooled a company employee, into giving up their password and then used the access to Taboola’s Backstage platform to change the header in the Reuters widget, and thus to deface the page.

Screenshot from 2014-06-30 11:41:46


It is debated whether or not the SEA is considered to really be a nation state actor or not. As yet it is indeterminate if the SEA has backing from the Assad regime (i.e. money and support) but is something that should be watched and thought about. Such instances of anarchy and propaganda online are much more common post the Anonymous and LulzSec incidents from 2010 on and the model is now popular with online movements.

For the most part SEA’s attacks are more propaganda than anything on the level of espionage or acts of warfare. It is debatable whether or not SEA is really capable of much more than defacements but it may also be that the actors within this group may have been holding back on more serious actions. Given their penchant for SE attacks to gather access it is very possible that they could carry out more devastating attacks against their targets internal systems.

It is the recommendation of this assessment that a little of both applies here.



Screenshot from 2014-06-30 12:10:29


Anonymous has announced that it plans on attacking ISIS/ISIL funding sources and state backers. In an operation they are calling OP: NO2ISIS Anonymous claims they will be attacking the sources of funding for the group that is presently taking over large sections of Iraq. The three primary targets of Op: No2ISIS will be Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar but may include other targets as they get intelligence implicating other countries or individuals.

Anonymous plans to attack these sources of funding because they claim that ISIS is not something they can attack online as they are fighting a ground war in Iraq and Syria. Another reason that the Anonymous collective has targeted ISIS is because ISIS took over the account @theanonmessage (an Anon account) and feels that this operation would suffice for retribution against the newly minted terrorist organization. It is not possible to know what real damage Anonymous can have against the funding of ISIS nor perhaps against ISIS itself due to the primary modus operandi of distributed denial of service may or may not have any effect on those targeted.



It is of note that Anonymous feels moved to target the funding structure of ISIS for a couple of reasons. Firstly, a frontal attack on ISIS, as they say in their media is hard because ISIS is in fact fighting a ground war in Iraq. However, ISIS does use Twitter and other social media very effectively in a propaganda and recruitment war and this could be attacked rather easily by a group such as Anonymous. This cognitive dissonance on the part of the Anon’s makes them look a bit more impotent than they would like on the whole and this operation will likely hardly be a win in any book against ISIS or their funding feeds. This operation will likely have little to no effect on ISIS nor their funding and it is the opinion of this assessment that Anonymous would be better served by attacking the ISIS media wing instead. By degrading the ISIS capabilities for propaganda and recruitment Anonymous might play a better role within the GWOT.


ISIS/ISIL (Islamic State of Nineveh)



The ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has been in a media jihad for some time now and it has accelerated this campaign with the current takeover of sections of Iraq that it has been carrying out. ISIS has a media arm that has been using social media such as Twitter (as seen above) to leverage the internet in a propaganda war as well as a recruitment drive. The group has not only been using twitter with individual accounts but also has created a twitter application that allowed the terrorist organization to use other accts to geometrically reach a larger audience. The tool would be loaded on to user systems and had an API function that allowed the user to put in their credentials and authorize the app to post ISIS jihadi media posts to all of the followers of that account.

Screenshot from 2014-06-30 13:07:59


ISIS has been rather novel in their use of Twitter online. Their creation of an application to bypass Twitter’s own systems is interesting to see as well as it’s inherent means of doubling or quadrupling their messages getting out through proxy accounts. (i.e. users allowing themselves to be the conduit of the media jihad) As a means of propagandizing their war in Iraq as well as a tool for recruitment (which has been rising since their campaigns both digitally and on the ground have taken off) ISIS has harnessed the internet and social media in a way that the old guard of Al Qaida never did. This is clearly an advance and should be noted not only from the position of the GWOT but also any other movement that might learn from ISIS and begin their own propaganda wars using social media as the primary medium.



Facebook has recently published a 2012 study in the March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was to determine whether it could alter the emotional state of its users and prompt them to post either more positive or negative content, the site’s data scientists enabled an algorithm, for one week, to automatically omit content that contained words associated with either positive or negative emotions from the central news feeds of 689,003 users. This study found that it could manipulate those users emotions to a certain degree by said manipulation.

According to an abstract of the study, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” The study was partially funded by the Army Research Office — an agency within the U.S. Army that funds basic research in the military’s interest  according to a press release from Cornell University.


While this type of testing is a normative thing within the psychology sphere, the problem that many have latched onto is that the US military funded this one. The assessment of this story and the study itself does lead one to believe that on the whole the military as well as Facebook have some ethical questions to face about this. Facebook surely is looking to manipulate their users for purposes of sales and the synergy of that in tandem with the military’s desire for PSYOPS tools is rather assured. By using social media like Twitter or Facebook, the millitary as well as other actors could manipulate populaces en mas with these techniques and this is a dangerous precedent to set.



Overall this report has been put together to show a high level approach to global trends in threats online. The actors are varied from criminal syndicates, to nation state actors and spies, to global jihadist movements abroad. Truly the internet and computers have brought a new and very extensible means of espionage, terror, and manipulation of peoples through social media, hacking, and other means within the digital realm.

As we have been seeing the technologies are becoming easier to master for many to use guerrilla tactics and unconventional warfare online to further their goals. Whether that be a nation state like Russia using malware to  effect the supply chains of other nation states energy companies or Ukrainian syndicates seeking to steal masses of personal data along with credit card numbers and pins we are seeing a change in paradigms digitally. All of the attacks written about in this report are fodder for the reader to consider the technological landscape today and the types of attack methods as well as goals that predicate them.

The takeaways from this June report are the following bullet points:

  • Social engineering has always been a staple but now that social media is in the mix it’s use is much more devastating to organizations
  • Malware tools are constantly being upgraded or created anew with various attack vectors that leverage phishing/spearphising/ and social media attacks
  • Globally, intelligence gathering techniques are no longer solely the purview of nation state actors and their spy agencies alone.
  • Propaganda and misdirection are becoming more popular not only with nation state actors but also terrorists and criminal gangs



APPENDIX A: LINKS…/CrowdStrike_Global_Threat_Report_2013.pdf—threats/advanced-threats/a-dyre-new-banking-trojan/d/d-id/1278620,d.aWw



Written by Krypt3ia

2014/06/30 at 18:00

Posted in Threat Intel

Dropping DOX on APT: aka Free Lessons on OPSEC!

with 3 comments



“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

“Prince Hal” Henry V Act 4 Scene 3 ~William Shakespeare

Stuck in The Middle with APT and YOU:

If you are like me then you too have to look at the feeds from FireEye, Crowdstrike, Mandiant, and others on a daily basis for my job. The job that I speak of includes fighting APT at times and having to keep executives aware of what is going on as well. Lately though, since the drop by Mandiant on the “China problem” (aka CN actors 1-13) there has been a huge uptick in reports that try to do the same thing, i.e. name and shame those attackers as a means to an end. That means to an end I feel 99.999% of the time is to garner attention by the media and to increase market share.

Others may have reasons that are more closely aligned with “America FUCK YEAH!” and may be well intentioned but misguided to my mind. I have seen the gamut of this and I too have played my roll in this as well. I have dox’d players in the Jihad as well as nation state actors (mostly wannabe’s) on this very blog and have watched as a pile of nothing really happened most of the time. These big companies though that sell “Threat Intelligence” seem to really mostly be driven by attention and marketing appeal for their services than nation state concerns in my opinion when they drop dox on B or C level players in the “great game” and sadly I think this is rather useless, well, in the great game that is, not in the bottom line of lining their pockets right? …But I digress…

Let’s face it folks, we are all subject to the great game and we have little to no power in it on the whole. The APT and the nation state will continue their games of thievery and espionage. The companies selling services will ubiquitously use their “insider” knowledge gathered from all of their clients DNS traffic to generate these reports and market them to garner more clients and we, the people at the end of and the beginning of this process will just have to sit by and get played. Sure, if you are running your program right in your environment and you are getting good threat intelligence telemetry at the least, then you can attempt to staunch the exfil flow but really, in the end that flow is after the fact right? The PWN has happened and you are just being reactive. From this though you feel a certain amount of angst right? So when some company drops dox on some third stringer in China you pump your fist in the air and say “FUCK YEAH! GOT YOU!” and feel good right?

Yeah… I have news for you. It doesn’t mean anything. It will not stop it from happening. In fact, the services you just paid for that just shamed Wang Dong just taught him a valuable lesson….


What Wang and the PLA just learned is that Crowdstrike offers FREE OPSEC TRAINING! If any of you out there believe that this will curb the insatiable Chinese Honey-badger they have another thing coming. While it may feel like a slam dunk it is really just a Pyrrhic victory in a larger war while it is really in fact a marketing coup. The Chinese don’t care and in fact all they will do is re-tool their exploits/ttp’s/C&C’s and learn from their mistakes to become more stealthy. Really, we are training the 3rd string to be better at their job when we drop all this stuff on the net. This is a direct forced reaction to their being outed instead of attempting to just share the data in a more covert manner within the IC community or other more secretive channels where it could be used effectively in my opinion.

So yeah, some PLA kids got a spanking and now they are known entities but really, this will not stop them from doing their job and it certainly will have an effect of changing their operational paradigms to be more subtle and inscrutable. While the marketing goal has been fulfilled I see really little other value in doing this ….unless there is a greater unseen game going on here. Some might imply that there is another dimension here and that may include disinformation or other back channel pressures by the government. In fact it was alluded to by the Crowdstrike folks that the government is fully aware and part of the whole “process” on these. So, is this also a synergistic tool for marketing AND nation state agendas for the US?

Eh… Given my opinion of late of the current Admin and the IC, not so much. Nope, I think in the end I will stick to the opinion that this is nothing more than marketing smoke and magic…

I hope the third stringers appreciate the free OPSEC lessons. I mean gee, the going rate for classes is pretty high.



Written by Krypt3ia

2014/06/17 at 13:11


The Psych of Sec

with 5 comments

I recently gave this presentation at BsidesCT and have found that slideshare does not like my sense of graphic design as well as a slide deck at times alone just doesn’t tell the full story of the presentation. So, I am going to add commentary here that I gave in person and let you all see a better picture of what was talked about.


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Computer security starts and ends with people. People are the ones creating the hardware, software, processes, and operating the internet of things. We are the reason we have these problems around security and we are the reason as well that things don’t get done right or are abused. Our species, the tool user, has created a series of tools that outstrip our capacities to comprehend them en mas as well as operate them securely as a whole. I want you to remember one thing from this talk and that is that we are the reason we can’t have nice things as they say today. We are the beginning and the end of the problem and we must address this smartly to overcome the problem.


Screenshot from 2014-06-15 05_55_34

First though we will start out with the biological makeup of the brain that causes the dissonance that we are seeing today within the security community at large. The organic brain is the key to much of our problems around security. We have a lump of brain matter that has varying sections that operate in different ways and much of the time are the cause of our not being so able to handle security tasks very well as well as predisposes us to certain types of failures. These predispositions can be overcome but we have to work at improving out abilities of cognition as well as deal with the host of emotional and social issues that stem from our brains and our societal makeup.


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Our brains are a wonder and yet they are the product of evolution that did not include computers from the start. The brain has some limitations in scope where cognition is concerned and you can see this in the form of such things as inability to remember hard passwords and long term memory and learning processes. We have simply created a tool (computers) that outstrip our capacities to retain and manipulate information and as such we have created a shortcut for ourselves to ease our brains burden. Unfortunately at the same time we have opened ourselves up to more insecurities now because of the tools that we have created to ease that brain workload.


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Keeping all of the above in mind let’s take a look at the two primary actors in my presentation on security within the brain that come to bear on the issue. The first part of the brain that I will cover is the Amygdala. The Amygdala (shown above) is the part of the brain that deals with emotion as well as fight or flight responses. This part of the brain is the more reactionary and plays a key role in our abilities to react to stimuli such as needing to say “That’s a tiger and it’s about to eat me RUN!” The amygdala also functions as the short term memory agent to translate memories and data into long term memory in another part of the brain. Overall the Amygdala is that section of the brain that is reactive and knee jerk while the next part of our brain I will cover is the more reasoned one. A part of the brain that is almost diametrically opposed to the Amygdala, the Prefrontal Cortex.


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While the Amygdala was great for our ancestors on the great savannah and still functions well for immediate threat responses it is a rather poor organ for information security today. Since the Amygdala deals with imminent threats to our lives the Prefrontal Cortex (henceforth PFC) deals with the more abstract things such as long term threats and other kinds of reasoning. While the Amygdala is freaking out at every little sound the PFC says “wait, we’ve heard that before.. It’s a cat so calm down”

Herein lies one of the primary reasons that infosec today has so many issues. The brain, while being really good at certain things that served us well in the past is not so well suited on average to long term threats due to this dichotomy of the PFC and the Amygdala. One of the primary functions of the Amygdala is to take really bad things and insure that the rest of the brain cognates that they were bad and to remember them long term. An example of this would be say 9/11. We all pretty much remember where we were and what we were doing when it happened. This is the amygdala processing something horrible into long term memory because it was scary.

Now ponder your everyday computer security problems. Are they life or death? On average they are not and thus without the huge scare factor, the memory engram isn’t created quickly if at all because the PFC rationalizes that this is nothing to really fear and is not as important as other tasks it is being hit with through all of the stimuli it gets daily. So you see that our physical makeup within the brain creates a certain cognitive dissonance to the problems of long term and abstract security concepts such as we face every day in INFOSEC.


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Cognitive bias is a factor that comes from the aforementioned brain fight that we have between the Amygdala and the PFC. The bias issue is a large part of why we fail so much in security from the people side of the equation and it is rather systemic to the entirety of the problem. From the structural issues I just spoke about above we have bias issues where things like “It won’t happen to me” come to the fore. Unless the user has been really hit hard with real effects from a security incident, life or death kinds of incidents, the brain just does not really process that on average as a high priority to store in long term memory and this is a problem where we are concerned.

So unless the problems are fight or flight and life or death, then we tend to get these bias issues of it can’t happen or it won’t happen because it hasn’t already happened. We are poor at looking at statistics and relating them to probabilities that we will be victims of the same attack. This too is also part of the brains way of coping with day to day life really. If we all feared going out for a walk because we thought we’d get attacked by a bear then no one would go anywhere. It’s the brains ability to rationalize and normalize all of this that allows us to live our lives. So it’s a thin line really but it is one that we have to address in security to maximize our abilities to protect our data and perhaps our way of life, if you believe the hype.


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How often have you heard users complain that passwords are too complex to remember? How many times have you heard those same users complain that just as they have gotten to the point where they can remember a password they now are being forced to change them? These aren’t just users being lazy. These are people who like all of us, have the same brain makeup that inherently causes us to tend to not remember these things so well.

As I spoke to earlier the brain does not do a great job with fight or flight vs. long term threats and so goes it as well for memory leaks let’s call them. Unless you train your brain or you are a savant the average person is not going to remember a long non standard multi variable password. It’s just a function of the brain. So we will have people who make the shortcut of writing it down and as tool users we really should just use a password safe on our smartphone right? Well then you have ANOTHER password to remember!

The brain loves to make shortcuts and use heuristics and well, changing passwords so much and making them difficult is anathema to the way the brain operates. The same goes for HCI’s (Human Computer Interfaces) in general too. Take a serious look at Windows and you will see just how poorly it is designed to really do things with the operating system effectively. There are too many flaming hoops for common users and their brains to bear so they just go with what works until it breaks. They don’t get under the hood because once you do that is having to become a specialist.

HCI’s should be designed more simplistically to allow for users to follow a process and really be able to handle their systems. MAC (APPLE) does this pretty well on the OS side but one has to remember that even they have this issue because the technology is too complex really to simplify everything into useable bytes for the average end user to truly own their system. It’s not that they are lazy (these users) per se, but really, do you have to be an engineer to set up a firewall?


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Now that we have talked about brain makeup and the cognition issues let’s start talking about the emotional and psychological issues that come to play here. The brain works the way it works physically but all of that comprises a whole that has a life of it’s own and that is within the psychological realm. Why we react at a base level is one thing, but organically we will all respond differently depending on our psychological makeups as well.

First off though let’s put this on the table… Security is a “feeling” Think about this from the actual word and definition to the implications of that. Outside the abstract idea of this our relationship with this notion is emotional and deals with the brain. From soup to nuts here, from creation of systems to abuse of them we are all going along dealing with the feeling of security being the core of how we react, or don’t to situations.

So once again, harkening back to earlier slides take into account how we are wired in our daily dealings with INFOSEC.


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Building on the psychology of human beings we next have to move further out to how collectives of humans work together where security is concerned. We have individual behaviors but then when we get in groups there are all kinds of dynamics that come up through the social aspect of society. There are many unwritten rules within our societies that differ and on average we are all beholden to them. If you go outside the norms there usually are punitive actions that are taken against you and this is a factor on how we react to things.

A key here though for me is to look at how this structure plays out on behaviour that can be and is abused all of the time as well as how it may be leveraged or changed to better serve security. In the case listed on this slide of authority figures, this is a common chink in the armor that social engineers use to trick people into phishing exploits or other attacks where data is handed over to them by a user afraid to rock the boat. Our social natures are the very same thing that are so helpful to the smart adversary because we on average are going to react much the same way.


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Now look at the social behaviours in the petri dish that is the corporation today. A collective amalgam of how we are wired interacting with our social mores in tandem with the corporate needs put on us all. Many times businesses, which funnily enough now are considered by law (tenuously) as people or entities make some stunningly counter-intuitive decisions. many times this counter-intuitive behaviour directly affects the security of a company. A primary driver of this may be the perception of “productivity” where people are feeling pressed to be productive and will bypass security altogether to appear as productive.

Another factor that I have found is that often times a company will have a large body of security policies but no enforcement of them at all. This means in the collective unconscious that they are not important and there is no real negative effect for not following them. This is a cognitive dissonance that adds to our problems of trying to secure things. If there are no bad things happening when people do not follow the play book, then how do you get it to them that it is important to really do these things? One has to look at the social structures in the companies today as well as the social animals that run them. If you do not look at this aspect of security then you will be doomed to just repeat the failures we see every day.


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The adversaries out there also have their own psyche’s, social structures, and all the same issues we have.. In their personal spheres but not where it concerns how they attack us. The smart adversary is going to use the psychology and the social norms against us to get what they want. What’s more they are not bound by the mores and the rules we have in our own societal and corporate structures and this is a key fact. We need to take this into account when we talk about how we secure our networks and our data because those are all rules based and when rules don’t matter to the adversary, well, they are pretty useless aren’t they?

I think we in security need to take a good look at how our societies run, our psychologies, and our biases to get a better handle on how we might effect better security with them in mind. A converse to this is to use the adversary’s rule-less model against them as well. Now by this I don’t necessarily mean hacking back. What I do mean is to study the adversary and their habits, their social dynamics, and use that intelligence against them. How? Well, build better security here with that data as well as perhaps deeper knowledge of how they operate to just stop them cold to start …but that is another presentation down the line I suppose.


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On the other side of this fence is the defender class. The defenders have to work within the rules of the companies they work for, the social structures they live in, and overall must act within the bounds of rules laid upon them. This is a real issue for many defenders as they watch attacks happen that may have been stopped had there been a real pentest in the past that allowed a no holds barred approach. Alternately perhaps the defender feels frustrated by the rules themselves because those that make the rules do not comprehend the security issues to start with, no matter how they may try to enlighten them.

All too often today I hear people talk about users as just dull witted and not willing to do what is right. I say that sure there is some of that but you have to understand why they are that way innately as well as understand the pressures upon them to make them disregard things as they do. This is not a binary and as much as many people in this field would love it to be, it is a much more complex and abstract issue than that. So when you get frustrated next time around by obstructive behavior from the user level up to corporate with regard to security take a step back and ponder this. How can you make a change here by looking at behavior and understanding the rudiments of behavior?



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To sum up here we have a lot of talk about the ROI of security measures like awareness training. Some say it is useless but I say it is not. In fact I would say that the current model of security awareness (i.e. once a year by powerpoint) is not enough. The reality is that people learn only by repetitive means. This is why we teach children times tables in school as well as innately children want to be read the same story over and over and over again. Our brain makes long term memory and learning by repetitive means. So yes, I would say our current model of awareness is useless because we are not really teaching anything to anyone by not doing it repeatedly and more than once a year.

I think we also need to take a long hard look at our rather simplistic ideal that the technology solution is the panacea to all our ills. The FireEye technology did not fail in the target hack. What failed was the people and the organizations mores about reporting and reacting that were at fault. Often times the implementation of security products is also the problem in that they weren’t done at all and weren’t monitored. This is an organic issue not a technological issue and we need to hold ourselves accountable to that fact. From design to implementation and management we are 99% of the time the organic failure that causes a breach and loss of data.

Face that fact and do something about it. Don’t just buy another blinky light product. Do the hard work and work with the users.


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Written by Krypt3ia

2014/06/16 at 15:51

Posted in Presentations