Access Controls

Is our entire password strategy flawed?

2014-06-19 by roryalsop. 8 comments

paj28 posed a question that really fits better here as a blog post:

Security Stack Exchange gets a lot of questions about password strength, password best practices, attacks on passwords, and there’s quite a lot for both users and sites to do, to stay in line with “best practice”.

Web sites need a password strength policy, account lockout policy, and secure password storage with a slow, salted hash. Some of these requirements have usability impacts, denial of service risks, and other drawbacks. And it’s generally not possible for users to tell whether a site actually does all this (hence

Users are supposed to pick a strong password that is unique to every site, change it regularly, and never write it down. And carefully verify the identity of the site every time you enter your password. I don’t think anyone actually follows this, but it is the supposed “best practice”.

In enterprise environments there’s usually a pretty comprehensive single sign-on system, which helps massively, as users only need one good work password. And with just one authentication to protect, using multi-factor is more practical. But on the web we do not have single sign-on; every attempt from Passport, through SAML, OpenID and OAuth has failed to gain a critical mass.

But there is a technology that presents to users just like single sign-on, and that is a password manager with browser integration. Most of these can be told to generate a unique, strong password for every site, and rotate it periodically. This keeps you safe even in the event that a particular web site is not following best practice. And the browser integration ties a password to a particular domain, making phishing all but impossible To be fair, there are risks with password managers “putting all your eggs in one basket” and they are particularly vulnerable to malware, which is the greatest threat at present.

But if we look at the technology available to us, it’s pretty clear that the current advice is barking up the wrong tree. We should be telling users to use a password manager, not remember loads of complex passwords. And sites could simply store an unsalted fast hash of the password, forget password strength rules and account lockouts.

A problem we have though is that banks tell customers never to write down passwords, and some explicitly include ‘storage on PC’ in this. Banking websites tend to disallow pasting into password fields, which also doesn’t help.

So what’s the solution? Do we go down the ‘all my eggs are in a nice secure basket’ route and use password managers?

I, like all the techies I know, use a password manager for everything. Of the 126 passwords I have in mine, I probably use 8 frequently. Another 20 monthly-ish. Some of the rest of them have been used only once or twice – and despite having a good memory for letters and numbers, I’m not going to be able to remember them so this password manager is essential for me.

I want to be able to easily open my password manager, copy the password and paste it directly into the password field.

I definitely don’t want this password manager to be part of the browser, however, as in the event of browser compromise I don’t wish all my passwords to be vacuumed up, so while functional interaction like copy and paste is essential, I’d like separation of executables.

What do you think – please comment below.

A short statement on the Heartbleed problem and its impact on common Internet users.

2014-04-11 by lucaskauffman. 2 comments

On the 7th of April 2014 a team of security engineers (Riku, Antti and Matti) at Codenomicon and Neel Mehta of Google Security published information on a security issue in OpenSSL. OpenSSL is a piece of software used in the encryption process; it helps you in coding your computer traffic to ensure unauthorized people cannot understand what you are sending from one computer network to another. It is used in many applications: for example if you use on-line banking websites, code such as OpenSSL helps to ensure that your PIN code remains secret.

The information that was released caused great turmoil in the security community, and many panic buttons were pressed because of the wide-spread use of OpenSSL. If you are using a computer and the Internet you might be impacted: people at home just as much as major corporations. OpenSSL is used for example in web, e-mail and VPN servers and even in some security appliances. However, the fact that you have been impacted does not mean you can no longer use your PC or any of its applications. You may be a little more vulnerable, but the end of the world may still be further than you think. First of all some media reported on the “Heartbleed virus”. Heartbleed is in fact not a virus at all. You cannot be infected with it and you cannot protect against being infected. Instead it is an error in the computer programming code for specific OpenSSL versions (not all) which a hacker could potentially use to obtain  information from the server (which could possibly include passwords and encryption keys, along with other random data in the server’s memory) potentially allowing him to break into a system or account.

Luckily, most applications in which OpenSSL is used, rely on more security measures than only OpenSSL. Most banks for instance continuously work to remain abreast of security issues, and have implemented several measures that lower the risk this vulnerability poses. An example of such a protective measure is transaction signing with an off-line card reader or other forms of two –factor authentication. Typically exploiting the vulnerability on its own will not allow an attacker post fraudulent transactions if you are using two-factor authentication or an offline token generator for transaction signing.

So in summary, does the Heartbleed vulnerability affect end-users? Yes, but not dramatically. A lot of the risk to the end-users can be lowered by following common-sense security principles:

  • Regularly change your on-line passwords (as soon as the websites you use let you know they have updated their software, this is worthwhile, but it should be part of your regular activity)
  • Ideally, do not use the same password for two on-line websites or applications
  • Keep the software on your computer up-to-date.
  • Do not perform on-line transactions on a public network (e.g. WiFi hotspots in an airport). Anyone could be trying to listen in.

Security Stack Exchange has a wide range of questions on Heartbleed ranging from detail on how it works to how to explain it to non-technical friends. 

Authors: Ben Van Erck, Lucas Kauffman

Stump the Chump with Auditd 01

2013-09-27 by scottpack. 1 comments

ServerFault user ewwhite describes a rather interesting situation regarding application distribution wherein code must be compiled in production. In short he wants to keep track of changes to a specific directory path and send alerts via email.

Let’s assume that there already exists some basic form of auditd in play, so as such we’ll be building out a snippet to be inserted into your existing /etc/audit/audit.rules. Ed was sparse on some of the specifics related to the application, understandably so, so let’s make some additional assumptions. Let’s assume that the source code directory in question is “/opt/application/src” and that all binaries are installed into “/opt/application/bin“.

-w /opt/application/src -p w -k app-policy
-w /opt/application/bin -p wa -k app-policy
I’ve decided to process each directory, source and binaries, separately. The commonality between the two are the ‘-w’ and the ‘-k’ options. The ‘-w’ option says to watch that directory recursively. The ‘-k’ option says to add the text “app-policy” to the output log message, this is just to make log reviews easier. The ‘-p’ option is actually where the magic happens, and is the real reason to separate these two rules out.

As we discussed in the previous post, nearly 8 months ago, the option ‘-p w’ instructs the kernel to log on file writes. One would assume this is accomplished by attaching to the POSIX system call write. That syscall, however, gets called quite a lot when files are actually saved. So as to not overwhelm the logging system auditd instead attaches to the open system call. By using the (w)rite argument we look for any instance of open that uses the O_WRONLY or O_RDWR flags. It’s worth noting that this does not mean a file was actually modified, only that it was opened in such a way that would allow for modification. For example, if a user opened “/opt/application/src/app.h” in a text editor a log would be generated, however if it was written to the terminal using cat or read using less then no log would be generated. This is pretty important to remember as many people will read a file using a text editor and simply exit without saving changes (hopefully).

We also want to watch for file writes in the binary directory except here we would expect them to be more reliable. It would be rather unusual, but not out of the question, for someone to attempt to use a text editor to open an executable. In addition we added the (a)ttribute option. This will alert us if any of the ownership or access permissions change, most importantly if a file is changed to be executable or the ownership is changed. This will not catch SELinux context changes but since SELinux uses the auditd logging engine then those changes will show up in the same log file.

Now that we have the rules constructed we can move on to the alerting. Ed wanted the events to be emailed out. This is actually quite a bit more complicated. By default auditd uses it’s own built in logger. This does make some sense when you consider the type of logging this system is intended to perform. By not relying on an external logger, like syslogd or rsyslog, it can better suffer mistaken configurations. On the downside it makes alternate logging setups trickier. There does exist a subsystem called ‘audispd’ that acts as a log multiplexor. There are a number of output plugins available, such as syslog, UNIX socket, prelude IDS, etc. None of them really do what Ed wants, so I think our best bet would run reports. Auditd is, after all, an auditing tool and not an enforcement tool. So let’s look at something a little different.

Remember how we tacked on ‘-k app-policy‘ to those rules above? Now we get to the why. Let’s try running the command:

aureport -k -ts yesterday 00:00:00 -te yesterday 23:59:59
We should now see a list of all of the logs that contain keys and occurred yesterday. Let’s look at a concrete example of me editing a file in that directory and the subsequent logs.
root@ node1:~> mkdir -p /opt/application/src
root@ node1:~> vim /opt/application/src/app.h
root@ node1:~> aureport -k

Key Report \=============================================== # date time key success exe auid event \=============================================== 1. 09/24/2013 11:41:29 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13446 2. 09/24/2013 11:41:29 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13445 3. 09/24/2013 11:41:29 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13447 4. 09/24/2013 11:41:29 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13448 5. 09/24/2013 11:41:29 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13449 6. 09/24/2013 11:41:35 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13451 7. 09/24/2013 11:41:35 app-policy yes /usr/bin/vim 1000 13450

The report tells us that at 11:41:29 on September the 24th a user ran the command “/usr/bin/vim” and triggered a rule labeled app-policy. It’s all good so far, but not very detailed. The last two fields, however, are quite useful. The first, 1000, is the UID of my personal account. That is important because notice I was actually running as root. Since I had originally used “sudo -i to gain a root shell my original UID was still preserved, this is good! The last field is a unique event ID generated by auditd. Let’s look at that first event, numbered 13446.
root@ node1:~> grep :13446 /var/log/audit/audit.log
type=SYSCALL msg=audit(1380037289.364:13446): arch=c000003e syscall=2 success=yes exit=4 a0=bffa20 a1=c2 a2=180 a3=0 items=2 ppid=21950 pid=22277 auid=1000 uid=0 gid=0 euid=0 suid=0 fsuid=0 egid=0 sgid=0 fsgid=0 ses=1226 tty=pts0 comm="vim" exe="/usr/bin/vim" subj=unconfined_u:unconfined_r:unconfined_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023 key="app-policy"
type=CWD msg=audit(1380037289.364:13446):  cwd="/root"
type=PATH msg=audit(1380037289.364:13446): item=0 name="/opt/application/src/" inode=2747242 dev=fd:01 mode=040755 ouid=0 ogid=0 rdev=00:00 obj=unconfined_u:object_r:usr_t:s0
type=PATH msg=audit(1380037289.364:13446): item=1 name="/opt/application/src/.app.h.swx" inode=2747244 dev=fd:01 mode=0100600 ouid=0 ogid=0 rdev=00:00 obj=unconfined_u:object_r:usr_t:s0
This is what we mean when we say audit logs are verbose. In the introductory blog post we discussed some of those fields so I’ll save us the pain of going over it again. What we can see, however, is that the user with uid 1000 (see auid=1000) ran the command vim as root (see euid=0) and that command resulted in a change to both “/opt/application/src/” and “/opt/application/src/.app.h.swx“.

What we should be able to see here is that the report generated by aureport doesn’t contain everything we need to see what happened, but it does tell us something happened and gives us the information necessary to find the information. In an ideal world you would have some kind of log aggregation system, like Splunk or a SIEM, and send the raw logs there. That system would then have all the alerting functionality built in to alert an admin to to the potential policy violation. However, we don’t live in a perfect world and Ed’s request for email alerts indicate he doesn’t have access to such a system. What I would do is set up a daily cron job to run that report for the previous day. Every morning the log reviewer can check their mailbox and see if any of those files changed when they weren’t supposed to. If daily isn’t reactive enough then we can simply change the values passed to ‘-ts’ and ‘-te’ and run the job more frequently.

Pulling it all together we should have something that looks like this.

# This file contains the auditctl rules that are loaded
# whenever the audit daemon is started via the initscripts.
# The rules are simply the parameters that would be passed
# to auditctl.

# First rule - delete all -D

# Increase the buffers to survive stress events. # Make this bigger for busy systems -b 320

# Feel free to add below this line. See auditctl man page -w /opt/application/src -p w -k app-policy -w /opt/application/bin -p wa -k app-policy #/etc/cron.d/audit-report

1 0 * * * root /sbin/aureport -k -ts yesterday 00:00:00 -te yesterday 23:59:59

QoTW #48: Difference between Privilege and Permission

2013-09-06 by roryalsop. 0 comments

Ali Ahmad asked, “What is the difference is between Privilege and Permission?

In many cases they seem to be used interchangeably, but in an IT environment knowing the meanings can have an impact on how you configure your systems.

D3C4FF’s top scoring answer  references this question on English Stack Exchange, which does give the literal meanings:

A permission is a property of an object, such as a file. It says which agents are permitted to use the object, and what they are permitted to do (read it, modify it, etc.). A privilege is a property of an agent, such as a user. It lets the agent do things that are not ordinarily allowed. For example, there are privileges which allow an agent to access an object that it does not have permission to access, and privileges which allow an agent to perform maintenance functions such as restart the computer.

AJ Henderson supports this view

…a user might be granted a privilege that corresponds to the permission being demanded, but that would really be semantics of some systems and isn’t always the case.

As does Gilles with this comment:

That distinction is common in the unix world, where we tend to say that a process has privileges (what they can or cannot do) and files have permissions (what can or cannot be done to them)

Callum Wilson offers the more specific case under full Role Based Access Control (RBAC)

the permission is the ER link between the role, function and application, i.e. permissions are given to roles the privilege is the ER link between an individual and the application, i.e. privileges are given to people.

And a further slight twist from KeithS:

A permission is asked for, a privilege is granted. When you think about the conversational use of the two words, the “proactive” use of a permission (the first action typically taken by any subject in a sentence within a context) is to ask for it; the “reactive” use (the second action taken in response to the first) is to grant it. By contrast, the proactive use of a privilege is to grant it, while the reactive use is to exercise it. Permissions are situation-based; privileges are time-based. Again, the connotation of the two terms is that permission is something that must be requested and granted each and every time you perform the action, and whether it is granted can then be based on the circumstances of the situation. A privilege, however, is in regard to some specific action that the subject knows they are allowed to do, because they have been informed once that they may do this thing, and then the subject proceeds to do so without specifically asking, until they are told they can no longer do this thing.

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading more detail, and other answers? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at

QoTW #46: CTRL+ALT+DEL Login – Rationale behind it?

2013-05-10 by roryalsop. 1 comments

CountZero asked this interesting question: Why is CTRL+ALT+DEL required at login on Windows systems?

His perspective was that it adds an extra step before login, so is bad from a usability perspective, so there must be a reason.

This got a lot of attention, but looking at the top answers:

Adnan‘s answer briefly describes the Secure Attention Key – the Windows kernel will only notify the Winlogon process about this key combination, which prevents it being hijacked by an application, malware or some other process.  In this way, when you press Ctrl+Alt+Del, you can be sure that you’re typing your password in the real login form and not some other fake process trying to steal your password. For example, an application which looks exactly like the windows login. An equivalent of this in Linux is Ctrl+Alt+Pause

Polynomial‘s comment on the answer further expands on the history of this notification:

As a side note: when you say it’s “wired”, what that actually means is that Ctrl+Alt+Del is a mapped to a hardware defined interrupt (set in the APIC, a physical chip on your motherboard). The interrupt was, historically, triggered by the BIOS’ keyboard handler routine, but these days it’s less clear cut. The interrupt is mapped to an ISR which is executed at ring0, which triggers the OS’s internal handler for the event. When no ISR for the interrupt is set, it (usually) causes an ACPI power-cycle event, also known as a hard reboot.

ThomasPornin describes an attack which would work if the Secure Attention Key didn’t exist:

You could make an application which goes full-screen, grabs the keyboard, and displays something which looks like the normal login screen, down to the last pixel. You then log on the machine, launch the application, and go away until some unsuspecting victim finds the machine, tries to log on, and gives his username and password to your application. Your application then just has to simulate a blue screen of death, or maybe to actually log the user on, to complete the illusion.

There is also an excellent answer over on ServerFault, which TerryChia linked to in his answer:

The Windows (NT) kernel is designed to reserve the notification of this key combination to a single process: Winlogon. So, as long as the Windows installation itself is working as it should – no third party application can respond to this key combination (if it could, it could present a fake logon window and keylog your password 😉

So there you have it – as long as your OS hasn’t been hacked, CTRL+ALT+DEL protects you.

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at

About the recent DNS Amplification Attack against Spamhaus: Countermeasures and Mitigation

2013-04-15 by lucaskauffman. 1 comments

A few weeks ago the anti-spam provider Spamhaus was hit by one of the biggest denial of service attacks ever seen, producing over 300 gbit in traffic. The technique used to generate most of the traffic was DNS Amplification, a technique which doesn’t require thousands of infected hosts, but exploits misconfigured DNS servers and a serious design flaw in DNS. We will discuss how this works, what it abuses and how Spamhaus was capable of mitigating the attack.

more »

QoTW #44: How to block or detect user setting up their own personal wifi AP in our LAN?

2013-03-22 by roryalsop. 0 comments

Nominated by Terry Chia, this question by User15580 should be of interest to anyone managing the security of network s.

The show the variety of aspects security covers in this sort of scenario:

Daniel posted the top answer, and it has nothing to do with IT, but instead focuses on the cause – if a user has installed an access point it is because they need something the existing network is not providing. This is always worth considering:

Discuss with the users what they are trying to accomplish. Perhaps create an official wifi network ( use all the security methods you wish – it will be ‘yours’ ). Or, better, two – Guest and Corporate WAPs.

Polynomial and Thomas Pornin also highlighted the fact this is a user/managerial problem, rather than a technical one.

Remember Immutable Law of Security #10: Technology is not a panacea. Whilst technology can do some amazing things, it can’t enforce user behaviour. You have a user that is bringing undue risk to the organisation, and that risk needs to be dealt with. The solution to your problem is _policy_, not technology. Set up a security policy that details explicitly disallowed behaviours, and have your users sign it. If they violate that policy, you can go to your superiors with evidence of the violation and a penalty can be enforced. As long as the users have physical access to the machines they use and their USB ports (that’s hard to avoid, unless you pour glue in all the USB ports…) and that the installed operating systems allow it (then again, hard to avoid if users are “administrators” on their systems, in particular in BYOD contexts), then the users can setup custom access points which gives access to, at least, their machine.

Rory McCune provided some information on the types of solutions which generally are used in large corporates, where they work well, including NAC and port lockdowns. Lie Ryan‘s comments tend to be appropriate on smaller networks.

k1DBLITZ also focuses on the use of technical solutions in addition to policy, and JasperWallace recommends looking for and blocking unapproved MAC addresses, and further answers discuss wireless scanning and scripted checks.

Overall, it would seem that a mixture of technical and management controls are required – the balance depending on your specific environment.

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at

QOTW #34 – iMessage – what security features are present?

2012-09-07 by Terry Chia. 0 comments

Two weeks ago, a phishing vulnerability in the text messaging function of Apple’s iPhone was discovered by pod2g. The statement released by Apple said that iMessage, Apple’s proprietary instant messaging service was secure and suggested using it instead.

Apple takes security very seriously. When using iMessage instead of SMS, addresses are verified which protects against these kinds of spoofing attacks. One of the limitations of SMS is that it allows messages to be sent with spoofed addresses to any phone, so we urge customers to be extremely careful if they’re directed to an unknown website or address over SMS.

This prompted a rather large interest in the security community over how secure iMessage really is, given that the technology behind it is not public information. There have been several blog post and articles about that topic, including one right here on security.stackexchange –  The inner workings of iMessage security?

The answer given by dr jimbob provided a few clues, sourced from several links.

It appears that the connection between the phone and Apple’s servers are encrypted with SSL/TLS (unclear which version) using a certificate self signed by Apple with a 2048 bit RSA key.

The iMessage service has been partially reverse engineered. More information can be found here and here.

My thoughts – Is iMessage truly more secure?

Compared to traditional SMS, yes. I do consider iMessage more secure. For one thing, it uses SSL/TLS to encrypt the connection between the phone and Apple’s servers. Compared to the A5/1 cipher used to encrypt SMS communications, this is much more secure.

However, iMessage still should not be used to send sensitive information. All data so far indicates that the messages are stored in plaintext in Apple’s servers. This presents several vulnerabilities. Apple or anyone able to compromise Apple’s servers would be able to read your messages – for as long as their cached.

Treat iMessage as you would emails or SMS communications. It is safe enough for daily usage, but highly sensitive information should not be sent through it.


Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at