Common security attacks and countermeasures

As a security professional, I talk to a lot of people about common security attacks and countermeasures. I’m not always certain the people I’m talking to know what these things mean. I am almost certain they aren’t willing to ask.

I know it’s more complicated than it was when I took my Security+ exam a decade ago. The stakes are much higher now. The attacks I had to identify caused inconvenience, but someone conducting a successful smurf attack on your printer won’t get you in the headlines. Today’s attacks will.

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You need a Yubikey.

I mentioned the Yubikey as the ultimate solution stolen passwords on the excellent Yahoo Marx Train forum, and another member asked me to elaborate on it. Rather than take up a lot of space with some off-topic discussion, I decided it would be better to write about it here.

The Yubikey is the best solution I’ve seen yet for the problem of remembering passwords. I am a computer security professional by trade, but I will try to avoid as much techno-jargon as I can, and explain what I do use.

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The ethics of writing nefarious security instructions

This week I posted a link to a video showing how to crack a WPS-enabled wifi network, and this week, Ars Technica wrote a firsthand account of cracking a password list. I’m sure this raises questions of ethics in some people’s minds. To be honest, spreading this kind of information makes me a little uncomfortable too, but I also think it’s necessary.

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The solution to paper passwords

I know your passwords are either written down or insecure. I know it just as surely as I know New Year’s Day is January 1.

I know because passwords have to be incredibly complex to be secure, and I know because the typical person has to juggle half a dozen of them, or more. Think about it. Your work account. Amazon. Ebay. Paypal. Facebook. Your bank. Your personal e-mail. Your credit card. Your online billpay service.

I know you’re not going to memorize a half dozen gibberish passwords that look like 5E%c2.3730pK$0/.

So you have them written down somewhere, which is OK, or you have them all set to the same thing (hopefully not “popcorn”), which isn’t OK. Even if you’re using 5E%c2.3730pK$0/ as your password.

A secured piece of paper works fine until you lose it, or you’re out somewhere and don’t have it.

The solution is a product called Lastpass. Software legend Steve Gibson talked about it at great length at http://www.grc.com/sn/sn-256.htm.

Basically it’s a program, which can run standalone or as a browser plug-in, that stores passwords securely. It mathematically slices and dices the data so that all that’s stored on LastPass’ servers is undecodable gibberish, but, given your e-mail address, your password, and a printable grid you can keep in your wallet, you can decode your password database from any computer, anywhere you happen to be.

There’s a lot of nasty math involved in cryptography, and I won’t pretend it’s my best subject. Gibson goes a lot further into the details than I want to get into. As someone who knows enough about cryptography to get CompTIA Security+ certification, and someone who’s read the official CISSP book chapter on cryptography twice, it sounds good to me.

An additional feature is the ability to store things you need rarely, but when you need them, you need them desperately. Things like your credit card numbers, driver’s license number, and your kids’ social security numbers.

There’s a free version of Lastpass, and a premium version that works on mobile phones and mobile software like Portable Firefox, which costs $12 per year.

The free version runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, which covers more than 99% of the computers out there today. And it runs in every major browser.

When you go to run Lastpass, it will import your stored passwords from your web browser(s). And it will give you a rating, based on how secure your passwords are and how often you re-use them. It will generate secure, random gibberish passwords for you and help you visit sites and change your passwords. Along the way it grades you, helping you to increase your security.

It can synchronize too. So if something happens and I have to change my Amazon password and I’m at work, my wife gets the changes, so if she needs to get into Amazon, she doesn’t have to do anything different.

It makes good security an awful lot less painful. I can pretty much say, without reservation, knowing nothing about you except that you use a computer, that you need this.

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