It’s been a decade, how secure are you now?

A month ago I downloaded a well-known shareware application from a download web site–a site that has been around long enough for me to recognize the name. I wanted to test the download speeds on a freshly installed Windows 2008 server in my data center and multi-threaded download managers are a good way to load up your bandwidth pipe. I double-clicked on the installer, saw my mouse turn to an hourglass, and then disappear. I saw the hard drive lights flicker a few times, and then nothing else happened.

I knew right away something wasn’t right and that was quickly confirmed when I realized I couldn’t launch Task Manager or Regedit: I was infected with malware. A trojan to be more specific.

In the last ten years I have been infected once or twice before–usually by something minor like spyware attached to a game my kids downloaded–but I had never anything major like this. Bringing up a command prompt, I quickly fought the infection with my arsenal of cmdlines I had gathered over the years. But once I thought I had the thing completely gone, it once again would appear in my task lists and runonce entries.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was using WMI events to keep itself alive on my system. Because these types of infections are difficult to detect and even more difficult to remove, I went after the file system, removing any binaries related to the trojan. Using timestamps and several SysInternals tools, I was able to eliminate all of the infected files, although the trojan was still active–albeit neutered–on my system.

I spent two days working on the server and ultimately ended up with a system that would blue screen before loading Windows. I finally just gave up and reinstalled the system to a fresh state. What bothered me most wasn’t the time I had wasted fighting this trojan, it was the fact that it had beat me. In fact, it beat me using the very same tactics I myself had developed and used over the years.

But as I got thinking I realized that what really bothered me is that this was a fully patched server running Windows 2008 behind two firewalls. And I was downloading a trusted application from a web site I recognized. And most of all, it bothered me that this is 2009 and I still got infected.

A decade ago I remember telling my clients that it would take ten years for the tech industry to get caught up with security. There was simply too much stuff to fix and not enough talent to fix it. Well that ten years has come and I wonder how those clients are doing now. The daily security headlines nowadays really aren’t much different than they were in 1999. Some new worm threatens the Internet infrastructure. Some .gov or .mil was hacked, probably by The Chinese, and it turns out you can still get hacked no matter how many initials you have after your signature and no matter how many standards you comply with.

It’s 2009 and I am still forced to use ancient, unencrypted protocols like FTP, Telnet, and SNMP. And even where public key encryption is commonplace, like with SSL encrypted protocols, I still find myself faced with things like having to decide whether I should trust a self-signed certificate or not.

Then there’s e-mail. Not only is it unencrypted, but it is unauthenticated and also subject to tampering. Nevertheless, I finally stopped installing PGP on all my computers because no one ever sends me PGP-encrypted e-mails and no one is ever able to read the ones I send encrypted. And this is 2009.

Even though it’s 2009, so many are still fooled by those fake e-mails from their banks. And even though spam filters work pretty well at protecting us from seeing our spam, there are still thousands of spam messages that end up on my servers every day.

And when I send an e-mail, there’s no guarantee that only the recipient will receive my message. There’s no guarantee that other’s can’t read or even modify my message.

Ten years ago we knew exactly what it would take to fix our security problems. We got the firewalls down pretty good. Code is generally more secure now. And most of us are good at keeping our systems up-to-date with patches.

But we still don’t have widely-adopted solutions for authentication, encryption, and data integrity. We still have weak passwords and our mother’s still have the same maiden names. And most people are simply too underequipped or undermotivated to combat the skills of the malware developers.

That means that despite all our advances in security technology, the best ways to hack someone are the same as they have always been—through a malicious e-mail attachment, or some infected download, or simply guessing someone’s password.

This is a serious problem, a problem that will take a decade to fix.

10 Ways to add to my paranoia

A couple of years ago I wrote an article at about my security paranoia, which ended up in a lot of people thinking I went way too far and perhaps needed some mental help. In the article I wrote that instead of the word paranoia, I prefer meticulous precaution.

With astronomical growth in spyware and an increase in search engine poisoning, how is my meticulous precaution doing? Well, it’s just plain paranoia now.

So in addition to all the well-known best practices and the stuff I mentioned a couple years ago, here are some additional precautions I feel compelled to take:

1. I have an isolated virtual machine always open that I use just for e-mail and instant messaging. This machine is a member of my domain because I need to move stuff in and out of there so often, but firewall rules and other precautions limit its exposure. Plus I never browse the web from this machine.

2. I have another virtual machine always open for general web browsing and downloading. In this VM I have IE7, Firefox, Netscape, Opera, and Safari installed, as well as all the file downloaders, proxies, filters, and anything else cool I find. The browser security settings themselves are moderately secure, but relaxed enough for good web compatibility. This is where I do all my web 2.0 stuff.

3. I have another extremely isolated and extremely hardened virtual machine for more adventurous web browsing and other risky internet stuff. Just IE7 and Firefox here but lots of scanners, blockers, filters, and just about every security-related add-in I can find. I usually keep scripts, active content, and even images turned off in the browsers. Oh yeah and this vm isn’t even on my physical machine here, it’s at my data center and I connect to it via Terminal Services.

4. And of course I have a separate virtual machine on standby (suspended) for all my financial stuff. There are also a few other VM’s I keep on standby for other dedicated and potentially sensitive tasks. All these virtual machines means I need 4GB RAM and 3 monitors to get any work done.

5. Speaking of financial stuff, whenever I create a new financial account, I set up a new e-mail alias just for that account. In the case of PayPal, I created the account under that unique e-mail address but I added several other e-mail aliases that I can give out to people when they pay me so I never have to reveal my secret login address. When I get an e-mail from PayPal to any address but the secret one my Outlook rules will automatically discard it. And speaking of PayPal, I highly recommend spending five bucks to get a security key for your account.

6. I also use secret e-mail addresses for handling sensitive information. The fact that GMail keeps every e-mail forever is kind of scary, especially since it is a web-based app that could so easily fall prey to a cross-site scripting or similar attacks. This is especially a problem because so many web sites insist on sending you a plaintext e-mail with the account information you just barely set.

So I have an incoming mail filter on my GMail account that looks for words like “password” and “login information,” automatically forwards them on to another non-public e-mail address, and then deletes GMail’s archive copy. If you use Gmail, do a search for “password” and see what it comes up with. In case you were wondering, yes I do need a spreadsheet to keep track of all my e-mail accounts.

7. I frequently exit out of then re-open my web browsers, which are set to clear cache, history, and cookies upon exiting. I don’t want some cross-site scripting attack stealing any session cookies. And I never log out from a sensitive web site, I always exit the browser.

8. Occasionally I use the snapshots feature of VMWare to roll back the OS partition of my most sensitive machines. It’s my version of a Crazy Ivan.

9. And most importantly I back up frequently so I have no problem wiping a machine and starting from scratch if I suspect a malware infection or security breach.

10. Ok, well I’m withholding number 10 because I’m just too paranoid to tell you about it.

Making sense of Microsoft malware protection

In case you haven’t noticed, in the last few years Microsoft has released a number of different client protection tools. First it was Windows Defender, then OneCare, and now we are seeing a big push on the Forefront product line. In fact, there are a number of tools that provide overlapping client protection. Continue reading “Making sense of Microsoft malware protection” »

Really, Vista Security Isn’t Lame

Recently a friend was complaining to me about the “screen flickering” that occurs whenever a User Account Control (UAC) prompt comes up in Vista and he wanted to know how to turn it off—not UAC, just the dimming and flickering effects. He said he already looked in the display settings and didn’t see anything there. Continue reading “Really, Vista Security Isn’t Lame” »

Don’t buy Vista for the security?!

This absurd article at cnet claims that security experts don’t recommend buying Windows Vista for the security features. The article tries to cast doubt on the effectiveness of new security features in Vista. But I disagree. I think security experts do recommend switching to Vista. Continue reading “Don’t buy Vista for the security?!” »