Category Archives: Commentary

These posts are commentary and thoughts on world events, mostly on technology and event interactions.

Silk Road Shutdown and OPSEC

The infosec, legal, and drug worlds were shocked today with the Department of Justice’s indictment of Ross William Ulbricht as the accused Dread Pirate Roberts, the administrator of the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a tor-based black market making available drugs, forgeries, hacking tools, and more its clients worldwide. Since its opening, it has been the site for approximately a billion dollars in sales via bitcoin.

Given its importance, and the money involved, one would think that Ulbricht would have a strong set of OPSEC. Reading the indictment itself, however, indicates how wrong this assumption is, especially at the beginning of the Silk Road. It reads like a how-not-to, including crossing identities, having incriminating evidence sent to an address under his name, and more.

At this point, it is worth a digression to talk about Operational Security, or OPSEC. OPSEC is the process by which one determines how information can be assembled to be used against them. In the case of someone running a site such as the Silk Road, the threats the face are monumental. This includes nation-states, with extensive surveillance capability as well as pressure to use such tools in targeting such a black-market administrator. Given this, extensive preparation and discipline is necessary to avoid exposing any information about false identities created for protection (for more in-depth information on hacker OPSEC, see the grugq’s presentation).

During the first days of the Silk Road, someone under the username “altoid” began spreading information about it. The same apparent user, with the same username, appears on bitcointalk a few days later and later looks for development help, posting his email address. This email address is used by Ulbricht for his LinkedIn profile contact. His full name is used in March 2012 asking for assistance with implementing certain php code over tor. This username and gmail connection is changed later, but the original tie-ins had been recorded. Even worse, the replacement email he used ([email protected]) is later seen in the ssh key needed to log in as the Silk Road administrator.

You can also see some spillover on his YouTube profile, where he links to videos about “How to Get Away with Stealing” and “The Market for Security”. It also contains videos from the Mises Institute, which is also cited in the Dread Pirate Robert’s Silk Road signature. While not directly incriminating, these add philosophical correlation with an interview that the Dread Pirate Roberts gave to Forbes. This interview adds an additional wrinkle to the story, where he claims that he was not the first to use the name Dread Pirate Roberts, just as the character did in the Princess Bride. No other evidence supports this claim, however, and it appears to be misdirection.

Canadian mail has broad authority (warning: PDF) to search packages crossing their border. This information was most likely enough to ask Canadian law enforcement to search for packages being sent to Ulbricht, or alternately he was just very unlucky. Regardless, a search of a package being sent to Ulbricht’s residence in San Francisco from Canada revealed several fake documents, apparently intended to purchase additional server access for the Silk Road’s growing resource needs.

Combined, this information gave investigators enough information to locate the physical address of the Silk Road server. They made a forensic copy of it on July 23 2013, and were then able to access its code base. Within it they found evidence of the only IP address by which administrative access was available, and showed access from the VPN located there granted to an internet cafe approximately 500ft from where Ulbricht lived. This address was also recorded in Google logs to be where Ulbricht had logged into his gmail from.

On July 26 2013, agents from Homeland Security Investigations confronted Ulbricht at the mailing address for the false identification. He not only admitted they were his, but that such documentation could be purchased from the Silk Road. This further implicated him and showed direct knowledge of the site.

By that point his trail is so well known by the investigators that I’m not sure how much it hurt. Regardless, he should have known to not say anything and demand a lawyer. Without the foundational work setting up and perfecting a process to protect himself, however, this appears to have been the likely outcome. This became more true with the growth of his success.

The iPhone 5s Biometric Unlock

The biometrics hacking team of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) has successfully bypassed the biometric security of Apple's TouchID using easy everyday means. A fingerprint of the phone user, photographed from a glass surface, was enough to create a fake finger that could unlock an iPhone 5s secured with TouchID. This demonstrates – again – that fingerprint biometrics is unsuitable as access control method and should be avoided.

Apple had released the new iPhone with a fingerprint sensor that was supposedly much more secure than previous fingerprint technology. A lot of bogus speculation about the marvels of the new technology and how hard to defeat it supposedly is had dominated the international technology press for days.

"In reality, Apple's sensor has just a higher resolution compared to the sensors so far. So we only needed to ramp up the resolution of our fake", said the hacker with the nickname Starbug, who performed the critical experiments that led to the successful circumvention of the fingerprint locking. "As we have said now for more than years, fingerprints should not be used to secure anything. You leave them everywhere, and it is far too easy to make fake fingers out of lifted prints."[1]

[1] via CCC | Chaos Computer Club breaks Apple TouchID.

The new iPhone has a biometric unlock option. It took all of three days for a break to show up for it, as was generally expected as well. While this is obviously an indictment of its security, I do somewhat agree with Apple and several other commentators regarding it retaining value.

Apple technology security is strictly weaker in many ways than similar Android options. Apple, for instance, can decrypt iPhones, whereas Google appears to have no such capability. They have also historically shown how their infrastructure allows for attackers to destroy data, although Google is not impervious to this either. I personally use Android (cyanogenmod on a Galaxy S3), with full device encryption and a screen password far longer than is healthy. Unlocking my phone can take up to ten seconds, which most people simply will not put up with.

That is the value in the biometric unlock for the iPhone. A dedicated opponent will be able to get you to unlock it, easier with physical intimidation than an information-based key perhaps. Screen pins should be seen as opposition from casual data theft. Someone who steals your phone, or takes it from a table to try to get some information quickly, often faces absolutely no barrier. Apple’s talking points point out a majority of users have no security pin utilized currently (although I have not found the specific number, if it is available). Tools exist to remotely wipe a phone if custody is lost, and a small barrier may be enough to give time to use that capability.

The one potentially huge concern to this method of unlock however is in allowing Apple aggregation of biometric information. As of now, Apple stores the information locally on the iPhone in question. Any government would love that information and, as demonstrated above, they have those ties with Apple. There is also the question as to if that information can be transferred off the phone if someone has physical access to the device. These are issues that should be addressed, and until they are my support is tentative. Regardless, something that encourages adaptation of a security mindset is helpful.

A First Look at International Anger at the Snowden Revelations.

Internet security and policy experts say the Brazilian government’s reaction to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is understandable, but warn it could set the Internet on a course of Balkanization.

“The global backlash is only beginning and will get far more severe in coming months,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank. “This notion of national privacy sovereignty is going to be an increasingly salient issue around the globe.”

While Brazil isn’t proposing to bar its citizens from U.S.-based Web services, it wants their data to be stored locally as the nation assumes greater control over Brazilians’ Internet use to protect them from NSA snooping.

The danger of mandating that kind of geographic isolation, Meinrath said, is that it could render inoperable popular software applications and services and endanger the Internet’s open, interconnected structure.

via Brazil Looks to Break from U.S.-Centric Internet |

This article in Time this week shows one of the most likely impacts from the Snowden leaks on U.S. spying. Justifiably, other countries are upset. Some will use this anger to do what they wanted to already, which is to bring some of their national data in-house. This will allow them to put an additional roadblock against the NSA (far from insurmountable) while allowing their own intelligence agencies to potentially mine that data.

While Time talks in fear of the Balkanization of the Internet, they ignore that this has already widely happened in the entertainment industry. The industry itself put up countless barriers from enjoying their goods in certain regions, and despite that people go around them. VPNs, proxies, and pirating allows people to access music and videos not “sold” in their country. Nothing indicates that this would change if new services went up elsewhere in the world to challenge titans from the USA.

The biggest threat, or opportunity, arising from this anger is true competition over security. Tools like email cannot be done securely, simply because of the information they leak in headers. You can encrypt the data within the email, but a dedicated adversary will still get what they want from it. If some usable replacements for this, that included whole-chain encryption, there could be a sizable uptick in usage from this. The same goes for basic network traffic, while options like Tor exist they can’t be trusted due to the limited number of exit nodes an adversary has to control in order to monitor the network. Unless vast numbers of users move to Tor, and move a lot of applications to hidden services, this option doesn’t seem to have a lot of future to it either. It does offer a framework for future technologies to be developed.

Realistically, the only way any of these turn detrimental to the future of the Internet is if new protocols or software are developed that intentionally block other regions. Even in that circumstance, however, as I said before there should be ways around those barriers. Even better, if those protocols are built with privacy and security as core philosophies, they could help provide something to replace those that are used now.