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Security Threat Analysis: Interview With Dino A. Dai Zovi

Security Threat Analysis: Interview With Dino A. Dai Zovi
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We sat down with Dino A. Dai Zovi, a security researcher focused on offensive security and former member of the Sandia National Laboratories' Information Design Assurance Red Team (the guys who test the security of national agencies). Check it out.

In our continuing series on personal computing security, today we’re talking with Dino A. Dai Zovi. Three years ago, the organizers of CanSecWest started a contest titled Pwn2Own. This contest involved the challenge of exploiting fully-patched retail laptops. Hack the laptop and you’d win the machine as the prize. Dino A. Dai Zovi was the first person to take down a Mac during the first Pwn2Own. Last year and this year, Charlie Miller took the honor of taking down two fully patched Macs. Dino and Charlie are co-authors on the The Mac Hacker's Handbook.

Alan: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. So, before we begin, why don't you tell a little bit about yourself? 

Dino: I am a computer security professional and independent security researcher. My professional experience spans penetration testing, software security auditing, and security management. I am a co-author of two books, the most recent being The Mac Hacker's Handbook with Charlie Miller. I often speak at security conferences about my security research on exploitation techniques, 802.11 wireless client security, and hardware virtualization-based rootkits. I focus on offensive security research because I believe that it is necessary to view systems as an attacker would in order to design more secure systems.

Alan: Is “offensive” security research what’s most commonly practiced now?

Dino: It is in the rarity of the computer security industry, and still considered “taboo” by many practitioners. While some conferences, such as the Black Hat Briefings and CanSecWest, have a large number of talks that discuss security weaknesses, the larger conferences such as the RSA Expo cover it significantly less.

Alan: I did not realize that distinction. Now it makes sense why Black Hat Briefings and CanSecWest always seems to have the most interesting and innovative work being presented. How did you get started in the security business?

Dino: I had begun teaching myself computer security in high school and had been doing some miscellaneous consulting work since then, mostly performing penetration tests for local and remote businesses. That wasn't enough to pay my way through college, so I also worked part-time as a Unix systems administrator. I kept focusing on security in school and at work, and eventually I began working as a contractor for a research lab performing security analysis for their Unix administration group. From there, I was also able to start working for their Red Team and was eventually hired into that group to perform Red Team security assessments for external organizations. After I had graduated from college, I moved to NYC and started working for @stake, the digital security consulting firm that was later purchased by Symantec.

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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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