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Not Safe For Not Working On

There’s an old Soviet saying:

If you think it, don’t say it.
If you say it, don’t write it.
If you write it, don’t be surprised.

It’s not a pleasant way to live.  The coiner of this quote was not celebrating his oppression.  The power of the Western brand has long been associated with its outright rejection of this sort of thought policing.

In the wake of a truly profound compromise of sensitive photographs of celebrities, those of us in Information Security find ourselves called upon to answer what this all means – to average citizens, to celebrities, to a global economy that has found itself transformed in ways not necessarily planned.  Let’s talk about some things we don’t normally discuss.

Victim Shaming Goes Exponential

Dumdum?  Really?

We shouldn’t entirely be surprised.  Victim shaming is par for the course in Infosec, and more than Infosec, for uncomfortably similar reasons.  When social norms are violated, a society that cannot punish the transgressor will punish the victim.  If the victim is not made a monster, their unpunished victimization today could become our unpunished victimization tomorrow.  And that’s such a dark and scary conclusion that it’s really quite tempting to say –

No, it’s OK.  Only these celebrities got hacked, not me, because they were so stupid they took sexy photos.  It attracted the hackers.

As if the hackers knew there had to be such photos in the first place, and only stole the photos.  As if we don’t all have private lives, with sensitive bits, that could be or already have been acquired by parties unknown.  We’ve all got something to lose.  And frankly, it may already be lost.

You Don’t Necessarily Know When You’ve Been Hit, Let Alone What’s Gone

There’s a peculiar property of much criminality in the real world:  You notice.  A burgled home is missing things, an assaulted body hurts.  These crimes still occur, but we can start responding to them immediately.  If there’s one thing to take away from this compromise, it’s that when it comes to information theft you might find out quickly, or you may never find out at all.  Consider this anonymous post, forwarded by @OneTrueDoxbin to the surprisingly insightful @SwiftOnSecurity:


It is a matter of undisputable fact that “darknet” information trading networks exist.  People collected stamps, after all, and there’s way rarer stuff floating around out there than postal artifacts.  This sort of very personal imagery is the tip of a very large and occasionally deeply creepy iceberg.  The most interesting aspects of Swift’s research have centered on the exceptions – yes, he found, a significant majority of the files came from iPhones, implicating some aspect of the Apple iCloud infrastructure.  But not all – there’s some JVC camcorder data here, a Motorola RAZR EXIF extension there – and there’s a directory structure that no structured database might have but a disorganized human whose photo count doesn’t number in the billions would absolutely use.  The exceptions show more of a network and less of a lone operator.

The key element of a darknet is, of course, staying dark.  It’s hard to do that if you’re taunting your victims, and so generally they don’t.  Some of the images they found in his research went back years.  A corollary of not discovering one attack is not detecting many, extending over many victims and coming from multiple attackers.

Of course, darknets have operational security risks, same as anyone, and eventually someone might come in to game the gamers.  From someone who claims to be the original leaker:

“People wanted shit for free. Sure, I got $120 with my bitcoin address, but when you consider how much time was put into acquiring this stuff (i’m not the hacker, just a collector), and the money (I paid a lot via bitcoin as well to get certain sets when this stuff was being privately traded Friday/Saturday) I really didn’t get close to what I was hoping.

Real?  Fake?  Can’t really know.  Pretty risky, trying to draw together a narrative less than a hundred hours since the initial compromise was detected.  It’s the Internet, people lie, even more so anonymously.  It fits with my personal theory that the person who acquired these images isn’t necessarily the person who’s distributing them (I figured hacker-on-hacker theft), but heh.  It’s amazingly easy to have your suspicions confirmed.

One reporter asked me how it was possible that J.P. Morgan could immediately diagnose and correct their extended infection, while Apple couldn’t instantaneously provide similar answers.  As I told them, J.P. Morgan knew without question they were hit, and had the luxury of deciding its disclosure schedule (with some constraints); this particular case simply showed up on 4Chan during Labor Day Weekend when presumably half the people who would investigate were digging their way back from Burning Man.  Internal discoveries and external surprises just follow different schedules.

I’ve personally been skeptical that an account brute forcing bug that happened to be discovered around now, was also used for this particular attack.  There’s only so many days in the year and sometimes multiple events happen close in time just randomly.  As it happens, Apple has confirmed at least some of these celebrity raids have come via account attacks, but whether brute forcing was required hasn’t been disclosed.  It does seem that this exploit has been used in the field since at least May, however, lending some credibility.

We have, at best, a partial explanation.  Much as we desperately would like this to be a single, isolated event, with a nice, well defined and well funded defender who can make sure this never happens again – that’s just not likely to be the case.  We’re going to learn a lot more about how this happened, and in response, there will be improvements.  But celebrity (and otherwise) photo exploitation will not be found to be an isolated attack and it won’t be addressed or ended with a spot fix to password brute forcing.

So there’s a long investigation ahead, quite a bit longer than a single press cycle.

Implications For Cloud Providers

Are we actually stuck right now at another password debate?  Passwords have failed us yet again, let’s have that tired conversation once more?  Sam Biddle, who otherwise did some pretty good research in this post, did have one somewhat amusing paragraph:

To fix this, Apple could have simply forced everyone to use two-factor verification for their accounts. It’s easy, and would have probably prevented all of this.

Probably the only time “simply”, “easy”, and “two-factor verification” have ever been seen in quite such proximity, outside of marketing materials anyway.  There’s a reason we use that broken old disco tech.

Still, we have to do better.  So-called “online brute-forcing” – where you don’t have a database of passwords you want to crack, but instead have to interact with a server that does – is a far slower, and far noisier affair.

But noise doesn’t matter if nobody is listening.  Authentication systems could probably do more to detect brute force attacks across large numbers of accounts.  And given the wide variety of systems that interface with backend password stores, it’s foolish to expect them all to implement rate limiting correctly.  Limits need to exist as close as possible to the actual store, independent of access method.

Sam’s particularly right about the need to get past personal entropy.  Security questions are time bombs in a way even passwords aren’t.  In a world of tradeoffs, I’m beginning to wonder if voice prints across sentences aren’t better than personal information widely shared.  Yes, I’m aware of the downsides, but look at the competition.


OK.  It’s time to ban Password1.  Many users like predictable passwords.  Few users like their data being compromised.  Which wins?  Presently, the former.  Perhaps this is the moment to shift that balance.  Service providers (cloud and otherwise) are burying their heads in the sand and going with password policies that can only be called inertial.   Defenders are using simple rules like “doesn’t have an uppercase letter” and “not enough punctuation” to block passwords while attackers are just straight up analyzing password dumps and figuring out the most likely passwords to attempt in any scenario.  Attackers are just way ahead.  That has to change.  Defenders have password dumps too now.  It’s time we start outright blocking passwords common enough that they can be online brute forced, and it’s time we admit we know what they are.

We’re not quite ready to start generating passwords for users, and post-password initiatives like Fido are still some of the hardest things we’re working on in all of computer engineering.  But there’s some low hanging fruit, and it’s probably time to start addressing it.

And we can’t avoid the elephant in the room any longer.

In Which The Nerd Has To Talk About Sex Because Everyone Else Won’t

It’s not all victim shaming. At least some of the reaction to this leak of celebrity nudity can only be described as bewilderment.  Why are people taking these photos in the first place?  Even with the occasional lack of judgment… there’s a sense of surprise.  Is everybody taking and sending sexy photos?

No.  Just everyone who went through puberty owning a cell phone.

I’m joking, of course.  There are also a number of people who grew up before cell phones who nonetheless discovered that a technology able to move audio, still images, and videos across the world in an instant could be a potent enabler of Flirting-At-A-Distance.  This tends to reduce distance, increasing…happiness.

Every generation thinks it invents sex, but to a remarkable degree generations don’t talk to each other about what they’ve created.  It’s rarely the same, and though older generations can (and do) try, there is nothing in all of creation humans take less advice about than mating rituals.

So, yeah.  People use communication technologies for sexy times.  Deal with it.

Interestingly, to a very limited extent, web browsers actually do.  You may have noticed that each browser has Porn Mode.  Oh, sure, that particular name never makes it through Corporate Branding.  It gets renamed “InPrivate Browsing” or “Incognito Mode” or “The I’m Busy I’ll Be Out In A Minute Window”.  The actual feature descriptions are generally hilarious parallel constructions about wanting to use a friend’s web browser to buy them a gift, but not having the nature of the gift show up in their browser cache.  But we know the score and so do browser developers, who know the market share they’d lose if they didn’t support safer consumption of pornography (at least in the sense that certain sites don’t show up on highly visible “popular tabs” pages during important presentations).

I say all this because of a tweet that is accurate, and needs to be understood outside the context of shaming the victim:

Technology can do great, wonderful, and repeatedly demanded things, and still have a dark side.  That’s not limited to sexy comms.  That applies to the cloud itself.

True story:  A friend of mine and I are at the airport in Abu Dhabi a few years back.  We get out of the taxi, she drops her cell phone straight into a twenty foot deep storm drain.  She starts panicking:  She can’t leave her phone.  She can’t lose her phone.  She’s got pictures of her kids on that phone that she just can’t lose.  “No problem, I get police” says the taxi driver, who proceeds to drive off, with all our stuff.

We’re ten thousand miles away from home, and our flight’s coming.  Five minutes go by. Ten.  Fifteen…and the taxi driver returns, with a police officer, who rounds up some airport workers who agree to help us retrieve the phone (which, despite being submerged for twenty minutes, continued to work just fine).

Probably the best customer service I’ve ever received while traveling, but let me tell you, I’d have rather just told my friend to pull the photos off the cloud.

The reality is that cell phone designers have heard for years what a painful experience it is to lose data, and have prioritized the seamless recovery of those bits best they can. It’s awful to lose your photos, your emails, your contacts.  No, really, major life disruption.  Lot of demand to fix that.  But in all things there are engineering tradeoffs, and data that is stored in more than one location can be stolen from more than one location.  98% of the time, that’s OK, you really don’t want to lose photos of your loved ones.  You don’t care if the pics are stolen, you’re just going to post them on Facebook anyway.

2% of the time, those pictures weren’t for Facebook.  2% of the time, no it’s cool, those can go away, you can always take more selfies.  Way better to lose the photos than see them all over the Internet.  Terrible choice to have to make, but not generally a hard decision.

So the game becomes, separate the 98% from the 2%.


So, actual concrete advice.  Just like browsers have porn mode for the personal consumption of private imagery, cell phones have applications that are significantly less likely to lead to anyone else but your special friends seeing your special bits.  I personally advise Wickr, an instant messaging firm that develops secure software for iPhone and Android.  What’s important about Wickr here isn’t just the deep crypto they’ve implemented, though it’s useful too.  What’s important in this context is that with this code there’s just a lot fewer places to steal your data from.  Photos and other content sent in Wickr don’t get backed up to your desktop, don’t get saved in any cloud, and by default get removed from your friend’s phone after an amount of time you control.  Wickr is of course not the only company supporting what’s called “ephemeral messaging”; SnapChat also dramatically reduces the exposure of your private imagery (with the caveat that with SnapChat, unlike Wickr, SnapChat itself gets an unencrypted copy of your imagery and messaging so you have to hope they’re not saving anything.  Better for national intelligence services, worse for you).

Sure, you can hunt down settings that reduce your exposure to specific cloud services.  You’ve still got to worry about desktop backups, and whatever your desktop is backing up to.  But really, if you can keep your 2% far away from your 98%, you’ll be better off.

In the long run, I think the standard photo applications will get a UI refresh, to allow “sensitive photographs” (presumably of surprise birthday parties in planning) to be locked to the device, allowed through SMS only in directly authenticated circumstances, and not backed up.  Something like a lock icon on the camera screen.  I don’t think the feature request could have happened before this huge leak.  But maybe now it’s obvious just how many people require it.

Categories: Security
  1. Faraday Cage
    September 4, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Great post Dan. Level headed advice, accurate advice without all the hyperbole. Makes me wonder what, if anything, Apple will say about this incident at their event on Tuesday. If they were wise, they’d use your analysis.

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