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Minimizing Risk

Security Threat Analysis: Interview With Dino A. Dai Zovi
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Alan: Reading between the lines, do you know of a startup that’s working on such a solution? The Mac would actually be a great platform as the proof-of-concept--there’s a predictable set of hardware that would have to be supported.

Dino: There are a number of products that provide behavior-based anti-malware for Windows, but I also would love it if there would be a solution for Macs as well.

Alan: When we talk about general, rather than signature-based solutions, and think about Gray Hat strategies, we have to talk about things like Deep Packet Inspection technology. The “Golden Shield” project (a.k.a. the Great Firewall of China) was developed by the Chinese government to censor the information their citizens have access to. The NSA used Deep Packet Inspection to identify Voice-Over-IP packets to allow wire-tapping of VoIP conversations in the same way they could do so with the regular plain old telephone system. 

With that said, what do you think is the role for desktop deep packet inspection? If I had a box between my computer and the Internet, it could make sure that random data wasn’t going out. 

Dino: I don’t think deep packet inspection has a role on the desktop. That is a like watching your living room TV from your backyard. You already have the data and processes running on your machine, your security systems should examine them in that state where they have more information on the behavior.

Alan: But as a separate box, it may be possible to minimize the risk of a sophisticated exploit that disables the security systems that are running on the same machine. The box would have its own OS, would not be exposed to breach via Web browsers or plugins that run on the same device? Or do you think that today's security tools are "good enough" where that extra level of paranoia is overkill?

Dino: A secure hypervisor or even a kernel driver would be secure enough for most home users if they didn't run as an administrator when they were surfing the Web. It is way easier for malware to evade packet inspection than it is for it to exploit a kernel vulnerability. There is absolutely no reason why Web malware couldn't be delivered over SSL, except that it hasn't been necessary up to this point.

Alan: Many of the exploits demonstrated at Pwn2Own have come through non-core operating system elements such as QuickTime (your exploit in '07), Adobe Flash, or Web browsers (IE8, Firefox, and Safari).

In hindsight, was there anything that could have been done on the user end? That is, if you had outgoing firewalls, anti-spyware/anti-malware software, weren't logged in as a root user, would that have done anything to limit the extent of these exploits? Or are we at the mercy of the software developers to protect us?

Dino: No matter what, users are at the mercy of application and operating system software developers. The user can only take secure configuration and third-party security add-ons so far. Outgoing firewalls still have to allow the Web browser to connect to Web-based TCP ports, so an attacker can simply program their exploit payload to do the same. Anti-spyware and anti-malware systems catch high-level actions that malware takes, such as installing back doors, so they may not notice the simpler remote shell payloads used in Pwn2Own exploits. Even if users log in as less-privileged accounts, an attacker may still gain access to their data. A less-privileged account makes it more difficult for spyware to maintain persistent access to the system, but does not prevent gaining initial access.

Disabling unneeded plugins reduces the risk of attack, but there are not enough options in current Web browsers to disable little-used functionality or restrict them to trusted Web sites. Internet Explorer has the most flexible security policy settings, but even it does not let you grant Flash or Java access to selected sites. Selectively granting privileges to enhanced functionality to Web sites is an area where most Web browsers can improve.

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  • 0 Hide
    cruiseoveride , April 6, 2009 6:30 AM
    Wonder why he didnt mention SELinux
  • 0 Hide
    mrubermonkey , April 6, 2009 8:17 AM
    If it were so easy to "take down the Internet" I am sure Iran or China would have done it by now, but the vagueness of his last answer does add to the mystic of his image.
  • 0 Hide
    AlanDang , April 6, 2009 9:35 AM
    Not really -- the black hats make money off the Internet -- it doesn't help them. By definition though, the risk is always about "taking down" a few IXP's or the +1 nodes.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 6, 2009 10:02 AM
    "Selectively granting privileges to enhanced functionality to Web sites is an area where most Web browsers can improve".

    They may not be core functions but everyone I know who is concerned with security on the Internet uses Firefow with the add-ins Noscript & Flashblock.
  • 1 Hide
    vaskodogama , April 6, 2009 10:08 AM
    mrubermonkeyIf it were so easy to "take down the Internet" I am sure Iran or China would have done it by now, but the vagueness of his last answer does add to the mystic of his image.

    I am from Iran, All the Iranian Goverment can do, is blocking porn and politics web sites! :D 
    [We People mostly not believe in the goverment, and ayatollahs, because they are mostly thieves! We Stand on the ground of wealth, and they are teroring us and eat our oil and money! This is a Tech site, so i'm not gonna talk more about this! cheers!]
  • 0 Hide
    pcworm , April 6, 2009 11:14 AM
    I'm also from Iran , come one, we still connect using bloody dial up, you guys cant be serious! although due to the "no copyright" law we can buy Windows, Mathlab, VS 2008 team System,office 2007 and a lot more for less than a dollar each...:-) you dont need broadband here cause piracy is official
  • -2 Hide
    Gutbop , April 6, 2009 11:29 AM
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
  • -9 Hide
    Gutbop , April 6, 2009 11:29 AM
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
  • -8 Hide
    Gutbop , April 6, 2009 11:30 AM
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 6, 2009 3:17 PM
    I am a Mac user as well. I also use many versions of Windows and Linux in VM. I am not a security expert or anything but why is everyone hung up on someone taking down the internet. Hackers use the net to make money or prove a point. I don't think they are going to shut the net down and hold it hostage, who would be forking over the money anyway. And if they did it to prove a point how would they ever get recognition for the task when all communication stops.
  • 0 Hide
    bounty , April 6, 2009 3:51 PM
    Actually if there was a country that didn't like "the west," and they wanted to disrupt our economy, the internet is the softest target. I don't see North Korea flying over and dropping bombs on our factories. I could see them taking some DNS servers out and making it real hard for those factories to sell anything. And since info flows freely via the net, it's not like you need to use a ton of resources to gain this attack vector, just a few smart people, an internet connection and some time.
  • 0 Hide
    michaelahess , April 6, 2009 4:30 PM
    DNS, the achilles heel of the net....I think I met this guy once, not sure, but a buddy of mine is in the exact same line of business, might have just heard him talking about him though.....the name just sounds so familiar, maybe he wiped my mind before we walked away.....{homer simpson} ummmm, conspiracy theories....
  • -2 Hide
    antiacid , April 6, 2009 8:13 PM
    Honestly, I found this interview short, lacking in detail and depth and strong on the evangelism.

    Sure, you can make a point of saying "we aren't on Apple's payroll" but at the end of the article, it is still a pretty big advertisement to them for no reason. The main point is that the new malwares are not based on OS flaws but on browser flaws, yet you still go out of your way to advertise the security of OSX (even going as far as speculating on tiger leopard features).

    Anyway, if the guy obviously isn't going to comment or answer a question, cut it out of the interview instead of having a longer question than the associated answer...
  • 2 Hide
    AlanDang , April 6, 2009 10:14 PM
    Browser flaws are still tied to the operating system. We bring it up because it's a natural question -- at the end of the day, there must be one computer that these security researchers are using and surprisingly, many security professionals use a Mac on a regular basis.

    By definition, I am a technology evangelist. I want to share with others the benefits of what technology can bring to the table and also what its limitations are. Fundamentally, I think that security is going to be as significant of an issue to a computer enthusiast as "cooling/thermal management" was. The threats are real and increasing. The people who claim that they have never been infected by malware are either ignorant that they have been infected or limiting their online experience by disabling flash, javascript, etc.

    Right and if we edited the comments, readers would start to cry censorship. That is the conversation we had.
  • 1 Hide
    zonezero , April 7, 2009 12:32 AM
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
  • 0 Hide
    zonezero , April 7, 2009 12:32 AM
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
  • 0 Hide
    zonezero , April 7, 2009 12:32 AM
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 7, 2009 5:48 AM
    He's cute. :p 
  • 0 Hide
    dedhorse , April 7, 2009 4:36 PM
    So basically, he uses OSX for web browsing, while all his real work is done on Vista in a VM, which tells you all you need to know about those two operating systems.
  • 1 Hide
    BillLake , April 8, 2009 7:56 PM
    Wow, no matter what is said, people defend or attack the OS based on who made it. Apple or Microsoft are just tools, OS X is only less targeted while even if Vista is more secure it is more targeted. Currently you are safe on a OS X based PC and that is what he said. No one is saying it is more secure, in fact he said and so did Charlie Miller that OS X is less secure but safer.

    If you really want to be safe, why not use a diskless system, boot off a live CD and only use that to surf the web, then the infection can only be in the memory unless you get a virus that attacks the flash prom on the system.
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