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Missouri Governor Vows to Prosecute St. Louis Post-Dispatch for Reporting Security Vulnerability

On Wednesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story about how its staff discovered and reported a security vulnerability in a Missouri state education website that exposed the Social Security numbers of 100,000 elementary and secondary teachers. In a press conference this morning, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) said fixing the flaw could cost the state $50 million, and vowed his administration would seek to prosecute and investigate the “hackers” and anyone who aided the publication in its “attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R), vowing to prosecute the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for reporting a security vulnerability that exposed teacher SSNs.

The Post-Dispatch says it discovered the vulnerability in a web application that allowed the public to search teacher certifications and credentials, and that more than 100,000 SSNs were available. The Missouri state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reportedly removed the affected pages from its website Tuesday after being notified of the problem by the publication (before the story on the flaw was published).

The newspaper said it found that teachers’ Social Security numbers were contained in the HTML source code of the pages involved. In other words, the information was available to anyone with a web browser who happened to also examine the site’s public code using Developer Tools or simply right-clicking on the page and viewing the source code.

The Post-Dispatch reported that it wasn’t immediately clear how long the Social Security numbers and other sensitive information had been vulnerable on the DESE website, nor was it known if anyone had exploited the flaw.

But in a press conference Thursday morning, Gov. Parson said he would seek to prosecute and investigate the reporter and the region’s largest newspaper for “unlawfully” accessing teacher data.

“This administration is standing up against any and all perpetrators who attempt to steal personal information and harm Missourians,” Parson said. “It is unlawful to access encoded data and systems in order to examine other peoples’ personal information. We are coordinating state resources to respond and utilize all legal methods available. My administration has notified the Cole County prosecutor of this matter, the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Digital Forensics Unit will also be conducting an investigation of all of those involved. This incident alone may cost Missouri taxpayers as much as $50 million.”

While threatening to prosecute the reporters to the fullest extent of the law, Parson sought to downplay the severity of the security weakness, saying the reporter only unmasked three Social Security numbers, and that “there was no option to decode Social Security numbers for all educators in the system all at once.”

“The state is committed to bringing to justice anyone who hacked our systems or anyone who aided them to do so,” Parson continued. “A hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to information or content. This individual did not have permission to do what they did. They had no authorization to convert or decode, so this was clearly a hack.”

Parson said the person who reported the weakness was “acting against a state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”

“We will not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished, and refuse to let them be a pawn in the news outlet’s political vendetta,” Parson said. “Not only are we going to hold this individual accountable, but we will also be holding accountable all those who aided this individual and the media corporation that employs them.”

In a statement shared with KrebsOnSecurity, an attorney for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the reporter did the responsible thing by reporting his findings to the DESE so that the state could act to prevent disclosure and misuse.

“A hacker is someone who subverts computer security with malicious or criminal intent,” the attorney Joe Martineau said. “Here, there was no breach of any firewall or security and certainly no malicious intent. For DESE to deflect its failures by referring to this as ‘hacking’ is unfounded. Thankfully, these failures were discovered.”

Aaron Mackey is a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit digital rights group based in San Francisco. Mackey called the governor’s response “vindictive, retaliatory, and incredibly short-sighted.”

Mackey noted that Post-Dispatch did everything right, even holding its story until the state had fixed the vulnerability. He said the governor also is attacking the media — which serves a crucial role in helping give voice (and often anonymity) to security researchers who might otherwise remain silent under the threat of potential criminal prosecution for reporting their findings directly to the vulnerable organization.

“It’s dangerous and wrong to go after someone who behaved ethically and responsibly in the disclosure sense, but also in the journalistic sense,” he said. “The public had a right to know about their government’s own negligence in building secure systems and addressing well-known vulnerabilities.”

Mackey said Gov. Parson’s response to this incident also is unfortunate because it will almost certainly give pause to anyone who might otherwise find and report security vulnerabilities in state websites that unnecessarily expose sensitive information or access. Which also means such weaknesses are more likely to be eventually found and exploited by actual criminals.

“To characterize this as a hack is just wrong on the technical side, when it was the state agency’s own system pulling that SSN data and making it publicly available on their site,” Mackey said. “And then to react in this way where you don’t say ‘thank you’ but actually turn on the reporter and researchers and go after them…it’s just weird.”

How Coinbase Phishers Steal One-Time Passwords

A recent phishing campaign targeting Coinbase users shows thieves are getting smarter about phishing one-time passwords (OTPs) needed to complete the login process. It also shows that phishers are attempting to sign up for new Coinbase accounts by the millions as part of an effort to identify email addresses that are already associated with active accounts.

A Google-translated version of the now-defunct Coinbase phishing site, coinbase.com.password-reset[.]com

Coinbase is the world’s second-largest cryptocurrency exchange, with roughly 68 million users from over 100 countries. The now-defunct phishing domain at issue — coinbase.com.password-reset[.]com — was targeting Italian Coinbase users (the site’s default language was Italian). And it was fairly successful, according to Alex Holden, founder of Milwaukee-based cybersecurity firm Hold Security.

Holden’s team managed to peer inside some poorly hidden file directories associated with that phishing site, including its administration page. That panel, pictured in the redacted screenshot below, indicated the phishing attacks netted at least 870 sets of credentials before the site was taken offline.

The Coinbase phishing panel.

Holden said each time a new victim submitted credentials at the Coinbase phishing site, the administrative panel would make a loud “ding” — presumably to alert whoever was at the keyboard on the other end of this phishing scam that they had a live one on the hook.

In each case, the phishers manually would push a button that caused the phishing site to ask visitors for more information, such as the one-time password from their mobile app.

“These guys have real-time capabilities of soliciting any input from the victim they need to get into their Coinbase account,” Holden said.

Pressing the “Send Info” button prompted visitors to supply additional personal information, including their name, date of birth, and street address. Armed with the target’s mobile number, they could also click “Send verification SMS” with a text message prompting them to text back a one-time code.

SIFTING COINBASE FOR ACTIVE USERS

Holden said the phishing group appears to have identified Italian Coinbase users by attempting to sign up new accounts under the email addresses of more than 2.5 million Italians. His team also managed to recover the username and password data that victims submitted to the site, and virtually all of the submitted email addresses ended in “.it”.

But the phishers in this case likely weren’t interested in registering any accounts. Rather, the bad guys understood that any attempts to sign up using an email address tied to an existing Coinbase account would fail. After doing that several million times, the phishers would then take the email addresses that failed new account signups and target them with Coinbase-themed phishing emails.

Holden’s data shows this phishing gang conducted hundreds of thousands of halfhearted account signup attempts daily. For example, on Oct. 10 the scammers checked more than 216,000 email addresses against Coinbase’s systems. The following day, they attempted to register 174,000 new Coinbase accounts.

In an emailed statement shared with KrebsOnSecurity, Coinbase said it takes “extensive security measures to ensure our platform and customer accounts remain as safe as possible.” Here’s the rest of their statement:

“Like all major online platforms, Coinbase sees attempted automated attacks performed on a regular basis. Coinbase is able to automatically neutralize the overwhelming majority of these attacks, using a mixture of in-house machine learning models and partnerships with industry-leading bot detection and abuse prevention vendors. We continuously tune these models to block new techniques as we discover them. Coinbase’s Threat Intelligence and Trust & Safety teams also work to monitor new automated abuse techniques, develop and apply mitigations, and aggressively pursue takedowns against malicious infrastructure. We recognize that attackers (and attack techniques) will continue to evolve, which is why we take a multi-layered approach to combating automated abuse.”

Last month, Coinbase disclosed that malicious hackers stole cryptocurrency from 6,000 customers after using a vulnerability to bypass the company’s SMS multi-factor authentication security feature.

“To conduct the attack, Coinbase says the attackers needed to know the customer’s email address, password, and phone number associated with their Coinbase account and have access to the victim’s email account,” Bleeping Computer’s Lawrence Abrams wrote. “While it is unknown how the threat actors gained access to this information, Coinbase believes it was through phishing campaigns targeting Coinbase customers to steal account credentials, which have become common.”

This phishing scheme is another example of how crooks are coming up with increasingly ingenious methods for circumventing popular multi-factor authentication options, such as one-time passwords. Last month, KrebsOnSecurity highlighted research into several new services based on Telegram-based bots that make it relatively easy for crooks to phish OTPs from targets using automated phone calls and text messages.These OTP phishing services all assume the customer already has the target’s login credentials through some means — such as through a phishing site like the one examined in this story.

Savvy readers here no doubt already know this, but to find the true domain referenced in a link, look to the right of “http(s)://” until you encounter the first slash (/). The domain directly to the left of that first slash is the true destination; anything that precedes the second dot to the left of that first slash is a subdomain and should be ignored for the purposes of determining the true domain name.

In the phishing domain at issue here — coinbase.com.password-reset[.]com — password-reset[.]com is the destination domain, and the “coinbase.com” is just an arbitrary subdomain of password-reset[.]com. However, when viewed in a mobile device, many visitors to such a domain may only see the subdomain portion of the URL in their mobile browser’s address bar.

The best advice to sidestep phishing scams is to avoid clicking on links that arrive unbidden in emails, text messages or other media. Most phishing scams invoke a temporal element that warns of dire consequences should you fail to respond or act quickly. If you’re unsure whether the message is legitimate, take a deep breath and visit the site or service in question manually — ideally, using a browser bookmark so as to avoid potential typosquatting sites.

Also, never provide any information in response to an unsolicited phone call. It doesn’t matter who claims to be calling: If you didn’t initiate the contact, hang up. Don’t put them on hold while you call your bank; the scammers can get around that, too. Just hang up. Then you can call your bank or wherever else you need.

By the way, when was the last time you reviewed your multi-factor settings and options at the various websites entrusted with your most precious personal and financial information? It might be worth paying a visit to 2fa.directory (formerly twofactorauth[.]org) for a checkup.

Patch Tuesday, October 2021 Edition

Microsoft today issued updates to plug more than 70 security holes in its Windows operating systems and other software, including one vulnerability that is already being exploited. This month’s Patch Tuesday also includes security fixes for the newly released Windows 11 operating system. Separately, Apple has released updates for iOS and iPadOS to address a flaw that is being actively attacked.

Firstly, Apple has released iOS 15.0.2 and iPadOS 15.0.2 to fix a zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2021-30883) that is being leveraged in active attacks targeting iPhone and iPad users. Lawrence Abrams of Bleeping Computer writes that the flaw could be used to steal data or install malware, and that soon after Apple patched the bug security researcher Saar Amar published a technical writeup and proof-of-concept exploit derived from reverse engineering Apple’s patch.

Abrams said the list of impacted Apple devices is quite extensive, affecting older and newer models. If you own an iPad or iPhone — or any other Apple device — please make sure it’s up to date with the latest security patches.

Three of the weaknesses Microsoft addressed today tackle vulnerabilities rated “critical,” meaning that malware or miscreants could exploit them to gain complete, remote control over vulnerable systems — with little or no help from targets.

One of the critical bugs concerns Microsoft Word, and two others are remote code execution flaws in Windows Hyper-V, the virtualization component built into Windows. CVE-2021-38672 affects Windows 11 and Windows Server 2022; CVE-2021-40461 impacts both Windows 11 and Windows 10 systems, as well as Server versions.

But as usual, some of the more concerning security weaknesses addressed this month earned Microsoft’s slightly less dire “important” designation, which applies to a vulnerability “whose exploitation could result in compromise of the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of user data, or of the integrity or availability of processing resources.”

The flaw that’s under active assault — CVE-2021-40449 — is an important “elevation of privilege” vulnerability, meaning it can be leveraged in combination with another vulnerability to let attackers run code of their choice as administrator on a vulnerable system.

CVE-2021-36970 is an important spoofing vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows Print Spooler. The flaw was discovered by the same researchers credited with the discovery of one of two vulnerabilities that became known as PrintNightmare — the widespread exploitation of a critical Print Spooler flaw that forced Microsoft to issue an emergency security update back in July. Microsoft assesses CVE-2021-36970 as “exploitation more likely.”

“While no details have been shared publicly about the flaw, this is definitely one to watch for, as we saw a constant stream of Print Spooler-related vulnerabilities patched over the summer while ransomware groups began incorporating PrintNightmare into their affiliate playbook,” said Satnam Narang, staff research engineer at Tenable. “We strongly encourage organizations to apply these patches as soon as possible.”

CVE-2021-26427 is another important bug in Microsoft Exchange Server, which has been under siege lately from attackers. In March, threat actors pounced on four separate zero-day flaws in Exchange that allowed them to siphon email from and install backdoors at hundreds of thousands of organizations.

This month’s Exchange bug earned a CVSS score of 9.0 (10 is the most dangerous). Kevin Breen of Immersive Labs points out that Microsoft has marked this flaw as less likely to be exploited, probably because an attacker would already need access to your network before using the vulnerability.

“Email servers will always be prime targets, simply due to the amount of data contained in emails and the range of possible ways attackers could use them for malicious purposes. While it’s not right at the top of my list of priorities to patch, it’s certainly one to be wary of.”

Also today, Adobe issued security updates for a range of products, including Adobe Reader and Acrobat, Adobe Commerce, and Adobe Connect.

For a complete rundown of all patches released today and indexed by severity, check out the always-useful Patch Tuesday roundup from the SANS Internet Storm Center, and the Patch Tuesday data put together by Morphus Labs. And it’s not a bad idea to hold off updating for a few days until Microsoft works out any kinks in the updates: AskWoody.com frequently has the lowdown on any patches that are causing problems for Windows users.

On that note, before you update please make sure you have backed up your system and/or important files. It’s not uncommon for a Windows update package to hose one’s system or prevent it from booting properly, and some updates have been known to erase or corrupt files.

So do yourself a favor and backup before installing any patches. Windows 10 even has some built-in tools to help you do that, either on a per-file/folder basis or by making a complete and bootable copy of your hard drive all at once.

And if you wish to ensure Windows has been set to pause updating so you can back up your files and/or system before the operating system decides to reboot and install patches on its own schedule, see this guide.

If you experience glitches or problems installing any of these patches this month, please consider leaving a comment about it below; there’s a decent chance other readers have experienced the same and may chime in here with useful tips.

What Happened to Facebook, Instagram, & WhatsApp?

Facebook and its sister properties Instagram and WhatsApp are suffering from ongoing, global outages. We don’t yet know why this happened, but the how is clear: Earlier this morning, something inside Facebook caused the company to revoke key digital records that tell computers and other Internet-enabled devices how to find these destinations online.

Kentik’s view of the Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp outage.

Doug Madory is director of internet analysis at Kentik, a San Francisco-based network monitoring company. Madory said at approximately 11:39 a.m. ET today (15:39 UTC), someone at Facebook caused an update to be made to the company’s Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) records. BGP is a mechanism by which Internet service providers of the world share information about which providers are responsible for routing Internet traffic to which specific groups of Internet addresses.

In simpler terms, sometime this morning Facebook took away the map telling the world’s computers how to find its various online properties. As a result, when one types Facebook.com into a web browser, the browser has no idea where to find Facebook.com, and so returns an error page.

In addition to stranding billions of users, the Facebook outage also has stranded its employees from communicating with one another using their internal Facebook tools. That’s because Facebook’s email and tools are all managed in house and via the same domains that are now stranded.

“Not only are Facebook’s services and apps down for the public, its internal tools and communications platforms, including Workplace, are out as well,” New York Times tech reporter Ryan Mac tweeted. “No one can do any work. Several people I’ve talked to said this is the equivalent of a ‘snow day’ at the company.”

The outages come just hours after CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a much-anticipated interview with Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who recently leaked a number of internal Facebook investigations showing the company knew its products were causing mass harm, and that it prioritized profits over taking bolder steps to curtail abuse on its platform — including disinformation and hate speech.

We don’t know how or why the outages persist at Facebook and its other properties, but the changes had to have come from inside the company, as Facebook manages those records internally. Whether the changes were made maliciously or by accident is anyone’s guess at this point.

Madory said it could be that someone at Facebook just screwed up.

“In the past year or so, we’ve seen a lot of these big outages where they had some sort of update to their global network configuration that went awry,” Madory said. “We obviously can’t rule out someone hacking them, but they also could have done this to themselves.”

Update, 4:37 p.m. ET: Sheera Frenkel with The New York Times tweeted that Facebook employees told her they were having trouble accessing Facebook buildings because their employee badges no longer worked. That could be one reason this outage has persisted so long: Facebook engineers may be having trouble physically accessing the computer servers needed to upload new BGP records to the global Internet.

Update, 6:16 p.m. ET: A trusted source who spoke with a person on the recovery effort at Facebook was told the outage was caused by a routine BGP update gone wrong. The source explained that the errant update blocked Facebook employees — the majority of whom are working remotely — from reverting the changes. Meanwhile, those with physical access to Facebook’s buildings couldn’t access Facebook’s internal tools because those were all tied to the company’s stranded domains.

In the meantime, several different domain registration companies listed the domain Facebook.com as up for sale. This happened thanks to automated systems that look for registered domains which appear to be expired, abandoned or recently vacated. There’s no reason to believe Facebook.com will actually be sold as a result, but it’s fun to consider how many billions of dollars it could fetch on the open market.

This is a developing story and will likely be updated throughout the day.

FCC Proposal Targets SIM Swapping, Port-Out Fraud

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is asking for feedback on new proposed rules to crack down on SIM swapping and number port-out fraud, increasingly prevalent scams in which identity thieves hijack a target’s mobile phone number and use that to wrest control over the victim’s online identity.

In a long-overdue notice issued Sept. 30, the FCC said it plans to move quickly on requiring the mobile companies to adopt more secure methods of authenticating customers before redirecting their phone number to a new device or carrier.

“We have received numerous complaints from consumers who have suffered significant distress, inconvenience, and financial harm as a result of SIM swapping and port-out fraud,” the FCC wrote. “Because of the serious harms associated with SIM swap fraud, we believe that a speedy implementation is appropriate.”

The FCC said the proposal was in response to a flood of complaints to the agency and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about fraudulent SIM swapping and number port-out fraud. SIM swapping happens when the fraudsters trick or bribe an employee at a mobile phone store into transferring control of a target’s phone number to a device they control.

From there, the attackers can reset the password for almost any online account tied to that mobile number, because most online services still allow people to reset their passwords simply by clicking a link sent via SMS to the phone number on file.

Scammers commit number port-out fraud by posing as the target and requesting that their number be transferred to a different mobile provider (and to a device the attackers control).

The FCC said the carriers have traditionally sought to address both forms of phone number fraud by requiring static data about the customer that is no longer secret and has been exposed in a variety of places already — such as date of birth and Social Security number. By way of example, the commission pointed to the recent breach at T-Mobile that exposed this data on 40 million current, past and prospective customers.

What’s more, victims of SIM swapping and number port-out fraud are often the last to know about their victimization. The FCC said it plans to prohibit wireless carriers from allowing a SIM swap unless the carrier uses a secure method of authenticating its customer. Specifically, the commission proposes that carriers be required to verify a “pre-established password” with customers before making any changes to their accounts.

According to the FCC, several examples of pre-established passwords include:

-a one-time passcode sent via text message to the account phone number or a pre-registered backup number
-a one-time passcode sent via email to the email address associated with the account
-a passcode sent using a voice call to the account phone number or pre-registered back-up telephone number.

The commission said it was also considering updating its rules to require wireless carriers to develop procedures for responding to failed authentication attempts and to notify customers immediately of any requests for SIM changes.

Additionally, the FCC said it may impose additional customer service, training, and transparency requirements for the carriers, noting that too many customer service personnel at the wireless carriers lack training on how to assist customers who’ve had their phone numbers stolen.

The FCC said some of the consumer complaints it has received “describe wireless carrier customer service representatives and store employees who do not know how to address instances of fraudulent SIM swaps or port-outs, resulting in customers spending many hours on the phone and at retail stores trying to get resolution. Other consumers complain that their wireless carriers have refused to provide them with documentation related to the fraudulent SIM swaps, making it difficult for them to pursue claims with their financial institutions or law enforcement.”

“Several consumer complaints filed with the Commission allege that the wireless carrier’s store employees are involved in the fraud, or that carriers completed SIM swaps despite the customer having previously set a PIN or password on the account,” the commission continued.

Allison Nixon, an expert on SIM swapping attacks chief research officer with New York City-based cyber intelligence firm Unit221B, said any new authentication requirements will have to balance the legitimate use cases for customers requesting a new SIM card when their device is lost or stolen. A SIM card is the small, removable smart card that associates a mobile device to its carrier and phone number.

“Ultimately, any sort of static defense is only going to work in the short term,” Nixon said. “The use of SMS as a 2nd factor in itself is a static defense. And the criminals adapted and made the problem actually worse than the original problem it was designed to solve. The long term solution is that the system needs to be responsive to novel fraud schemes and adapt to it faster than the speed of legislation.”

Eager to weigh in on the FCC’s proposal? They want to hear from you. The electronic comment filing system is here, and the docket number for this proceeding is WC Docket No. 21-341.

The Rise of One-Time Password Interception Bots

In February, KrebsOnSecurity wrote about a novel cybercrime service that helped attackers intercept the one-time passwords (OTPs) that many websites require as a second authentication factor in addition to passwords. That service quickly went offline, but new research reveals a number of competitors have since launched bot-based services that make it relatively easy for crooks to phish OTPs from targets.

An ad for the OTP interception service/bot “SMSRanger.”

Many websites now require users to supply both a password and a numeric code/OTP token sent via text message, or one generated by mobile apps like Authy and Google Authenticator. The idea is that even if the user’s password gets stolen, the attacker still can’t access the user’s account without that second factor — i.e. without access to the victim’s mobile device or phone number.

The OTP interception service featured earlier this year Otp[.]agency — advertised a web-based bot designed to trick targets into giving up OTP tokens. This service (and all others mentioned in this story) assumes the customer already has the target’s login credentials through some means.

OTP Agency customers would enter a target’s phone number and name, and then the service would initiate an automated phone call that alerts that person about unauthorized activity on their account. The call would prompt the target to enter an OTP token generated by their phone’s mobile app (“for authentication purposes”), and that code would then get relayed back to the bad guy customers’ panel at the OTP Agency website.

OTP Agency took itself offline within hours of that story. But according to research from cyber intelligence firm Intel 471, multiple new OTP interception services have emerged to fill that void. And all of them operate via Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging system.

“Intel 471 has seen an uptick in services on the cybercrime underground that allow attackers to intercept one-time password (OTP) tokens,” the company wrote in a blog post today. “Over the past few months, we’ve seen actors provide access to services that call victims, appear as a legitimate call from a specific bank and deceive victims into typing an OTP or other verification code into a mobile phone in order to capture and deliver the codes to the operator. Some services also target other popular social media platforms or financial services, providing email phishing and SIM swapping capabilities.”

Intel471 says one new Telegram OTP bot called “SMSRanger” is popular because it’s remarkably easy to use, and probably because of the many testimonials posted by customers who seem happy with its frequent rate of success in extracting OTP tokens when the attacker already has the target’s “fullz,” personal information such as Social Security number and date of birth. From their analysis:

“Those who pay for access can use the bot by entering commands similar to how bots are used on popular workforce collaboration tool Slack. A simple slash command allows a user to enable various ‘modes’ — scripts aimed as various services — that can target specific banks, as well as PayPal, Apple Pay, Google Pay, or a wireless carrier.

Once a target’s phone number has been entered, the bot does the rest of the work, ultimately granting access to whatever account has been targeted. Users claim that SMSRanger has an efficacy rate of about 80% if the victim answered the call and the full information (fullz) the user provided was accurate and updated.”

Another OTP interception service called SMS Buster requires a tad more effort from a customer, Intel 471 explains:

“The bot provides options to disguise a call to make it appear as a legitimate contact from a specific bank while letting the attackers choose to dial from any phone number. From there, an attacker could follow a script to trick a victim into providing sensitive details such as an ATM personal identification number (PIN), card verification value (CVV) and OTP, which could then be sent to an individual’s Telegram account. The bot, which was used by attackers targeting Canadian victims, gives users the chance to launch attacks in French and English.” 

These services are springing up because they work and they’re profitable. And they’re profitable because far too many websites and services funnel users toward multi-factor authentication methods that can be intercepted, spoofed, or misdirected — like SMS-based one-time codes, or even app-generated OTP tokens.

The idea behind true “two-factor authentication” is that the user is required to present two out of three of the following: Something they have (mobile devices); something they know (passwords); or something they are (biometrics). For example, you present your credentials to a website, and the site prompts you to approve the login via a prompt that pops up on your registered mobile device. That is true two-factor authentication: Something you have, and something you know (and maybe also even something you are).

The 2fa SMS Buster bot on Telegram. Image: Intel 471.

In addition, these so-called “push notification” methods include important time-based contexts that add security: They happen directly after the user submits their credentials; and the opportunity to approve the push notification expires after a short period.

But in so many instances, what sites request is basically two things you know (a password and a one-time code) to be submitted through the same channel (a web browser). This is usually still better than no multi-factor authentication at all, but as these services show there are now plenty of options of circumventing this protection.

I hope these OTP interception services make clear that you should never provide any information in response to an unsolicited phone call. It doesn’t matter who claims to be calling: If you didn’t initiate the contact, hang up. Don’t put them on hold while you call your bank; the scammers can get around that, too. Just hang up. Then you can call your bank or whoever else you need.

Unfortunately, those most likely to fall for these OTP interception schemes are people who are less experienced with technology. If you’re the resident or family IT geek and have the ability to update or improve the multi-factor authentication profiles for your less tech-savvy friends and loved ones, that would be a fabulous way to show you care — and to help them head off a potential disaster at the hands of one of these bot services.

When was the last time you reviewed your multi-factor settings and options at the various websites entrusted with your most precious personal and financial information? It might be worth paying a visit to 2fa.directory (formerly twofactorauth[.]org) for a checkup.

Apple AirTag Bug Enables ‘Good Samaritan’ Attack

The new $30 AirTag tracking device from Apple has a feature that allows anyone who finds one of these tiny location beacons to scan it with a mobile phone and discover its owner’s phone number if the AirTag has been set to lost mode. But according to new research, this same feature can be abused to redirect the Good Samaritan to an iCloud phishing page — or to any other malicious website.

The AirTag’s “Lost Mode” lets users alert Apple when an AirTag is missing. Setting it to Lost Mode generates a unique URL at https://found.apple.com, and allows the user to enter a personal message and contact phone number. Anyone who finds the AirTag and scans it with an Apple or Android phone will immediately see that unique Apple URL with the owner’s message.

When scanned, an AirTag in Lost Mode will present a short message asking the finder to call the owner at at their specified phone number. This information pops up without asking the finder to log in or provide any personal information. But your average Good Samaritan might not know this.

That’s important because Apple’s Lost Mode doesn’t currently stop users from injecting arbitrary computer code into its phone number field — such as code that causes the Good Samaritan’s device to visit a phony Apple iCloud login page.

A sample “Lost Mode” message. Image: Medium @bobbyrsec

The vulnerability was discovered and reported to Apple by Bobby Rauch, a security consultant and penetration tester based in Boston. Rauch told KrebsOnSecurity the AirTag weakness makes the devices cheap and possibly very effective physical trojan horses.

“I can’t remember another instance where these sort of small consumer-grade tracking devices at a low cost like this could be weaponized,” Rauch said.

Consider the scenario where an attacker drops a malware-laden USB flash drive in the parking lot of a company he wants to hack into. Odds are that sooner or later some employee is going to pick that sucker up and plug it into a computer — just to see what’s on it (the drive might even be labeled something tantalizing, like “Employee Salaries”).

If this sounds like a script from a James Bond movie, you’re not far off the mark. A USB stick with malware is very likely how U.S. and Israeli cyber hackers got the infamous Stuxnet worm into the internal, air-gapped network that powered Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities a decade ago. In 2008, a cyber attack described at the time as “the worst breach of U.S. military computers in history” was traced back to a USB flash drive left in the parking lot of a U.S. Department of Defense facility.

In the modern telling of this caper, a weaponized AirTag tracking device could be used to redirect the Good Samaritan to a phishing page, or to a website that tries to foist malicious software onto her device.

Rauch contacted Apple about the bug on June 20, but for three months when he inquired about it the company would say only that it was still investigating. Last Thursday, the company sent Rauch a follow-up email stating they planned to address the weakness in an upcoming update, and in the meantime would he mind not talking about it publicly?

Rauch said Apple never acknowledged basic questions he asked about the bug, such as if they had a timeline for fixing it, and if so whether they planned to credit him in the accompanying security advisory. Or whether his submission would qualify for Apple’s “bug bounty” program, which promises financial rewards of up to $1 million for security researchers who report security bugs in Apple products.

Rauch said he’s reported many software vulnerabilities to other vendors over the years, and that Apple’s lack of communication prompted him to go public with his findings — even though Apple says staying quiet about a bug until it is fixed is how researchers qualify for recognition in security advisories.

“I told them, ‘I’m willing to work with you if you can provide some details of when you plan on remediating this, and whether there would be any recognition or bug bounty payout’,” Rauch said, noting that he told Apple he planned to publish his findings within 90 days of notifying them. “Their response was basically, ‘We’d appreciate it if you didn’t leak this.’”

Rauch’s experience echoes that of other researchers interviewed in a recent Washington Post article about how not fun it can be to report security vulnerabilities to Apple, a notoriously secretive company. The common complaints were that Apple is slow to fix bugs and doesn’t always pay or publicly recognize hackers for their reports, and that researchers often receive little or no feedback from the company.

The risk, of course, is that some researchers may decide it’s less of a hassle to sell their exploits to vulnerability brokers, or on the darknet — both of which often pay far more than bug bounty awards.

There’s also a risk that frustrated researchers will simply post their findings online for everyone to see and exploit — regardless of whether the vendor has released a patch. Earlier this week, a security researcher who goes by the handle “illusionofchaos” released writeups on three zero-day vulnerabilities in Apple’s iOS mobile operating system — apparently out of frustration over trying to work with Apple’s bug bounty program.

Ars Technica reports that on July 19 Apple fixed a bug that llusionofchaos reported on April 29, but that Apple neglected to credit him in its security advisory.

“Frustration with this failure of Apple to live up to its own promises led illusionofchaos to first threaten, then publicly drop this week’s three zero-days,” wrote Jim Salter for Ars. “In illusionofchaos’ own words: ‘Ten days ago I asked for an explanation and warned then that I would make my research public if I don’t receive an explanation. My request was ignored so I’m doing what I said I would.’”

Rauch said he realizes the AirTag bug he found probably isn’t the most pressing security or privacy issue Apple is grappling with at the moment. But he said neither is it difficult to fix this particular flaw, which requires additional restrictions on data that AirTag users can enter into the Lost Mode’s phone number settings.

“It’s a pretty easy thing to fix,” he said. “Having said that, I imagine they probably want to also figure out how this was missed in the first place.”

Apple has not responded to requests for comment.

Update, 12:31: Rauch shared an email showing Apple communicated their intention to fix the bug just hours before — not after — KrebsOnSecurity reached out to them for comment. The story above has been changed to reflect that.

Indictment, Lawsuits Revive Trump-Alfa Bank Story

In October 2016, media outlets reported that data collected by some of the world’s most renowned cybersecurity experts had identified frequent and unexplained communications between an email server used by the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, one of Russia’s largest financial institutions. Those publications set off speculation about a possible secret back-channel of communications, as well as a series of lawsuits and investigations that culminated last week with the indictment of the same former federal cybercrime prosecutor who brought the data to the attention of the FBI five years ago.

The first page of Alfa Bank’s 2020 complaint.

Since 2018, access to an exhaustive report commissioned by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on data that prompted those experts to seek out the FBI has been limited to a handful of Senate committee leaders, Alfa Bank, and special prosecutors appointed to look into the origins of the FBI investigation on alleged ties between Trump and Russia.

That report is now public, ironically thanks to a pair of lawsuits filed by Alfa Bank, which doesn’t directly dispute the information collected by the researchers. Rather, it claims that the data they found was the result of a “highly sophisticated cyberattacks against it in 2016 and 2017” intended “to fabricate apparent communications” between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization.

The data at issue refers to communications traversing the Domain Name System (DNS), a global database that maps computer-friendly coordinates like Internet addresses (e.g., 8.8.8.8) to more human-friendly domain names (example.com). Whenever an Internet user gets online to visit a website or send an email, the user’s device sends a query through the Domain Name System.

Many different entities capture and record this DNS data as it traverses the public Internet, allowing researchers to go back later and see which Internet addresses resolved to what domain names, when, and for how long. Sometimes the metadata generated by these lookups can be used to identify or infer persistent network connections between different Internet hosts.

The DNS strangeness was first identified in 2016 by a group of security experts who told reporters they were alarmed at the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and grew concerned that the same attackers might also target Republican leaders and institutions.

Scrutinizing the Trump Organization’s online footprint, the researchers determined that for several months during the spring and summer of 2016, Internet servers at Alfa Bank in Russia, Spectrum Health in Michigan, and Heartland Payment Systems in New Jersey accounted for nearly all of the several thousand DNS lookups for a specific Trump Organization server (mail1.trump-email.com).

This chart from a court filing Sept. 14, 2021 shows the top sources of traffic to the Trump Organization email server over a four month period in the spring and summer of 2016. DNS lookups from Alfa Bank constituted the majority of those requests.

The researchers said they couldn’t be sure what kind of communications between those servers had caused the DNS lookups, but concluded that the data would be extremely difficult to fabricate.

As recounted in this 2018 New Yorker story, New York Times journalist Eric Lichtblau met with FBI officials in late September 2016 to discuss the researchers’ findings. The bureau asked him to hold the story because publishing might disrupt an ongoing investigation. On Sept. 21, 2016, Lichtblau reportedly shared the DNS data with B.G.R., a Washington lobbying firm that worked with Alfa Bank.

Lichtblau’s reporting on the DNS findings ended up buried in an October 31, 2016 story titled “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” which stated that the FBI “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like marketing email or spam,” that might explain the unusual DNS connections.

But that same day, Slate’s Franklin Foer published a story based on his interactions with the researchers. Foer noted that roughly two days after Lichtblau shared the DNS data with B.G.R., the Trump Organization email server domain vanished from the Internet — its domain effectively decoupled from its Internet address.

Foer wrote that The Times hadn’t yet been in touch with the Trump campaign about the DNS data when the Trump email domain suddenly went offline.  Odder still, four days later the Trump Organization created a new host — trump1.contact-client.com — and the very first DNS lookup to that new domain came from servers at Alfa Bank.

The researchers concluded that the new domain enabled communication to the very same server via a different route.

“When a new host name is created, the first communication with it is never random,” Foer wrote. “To reach the server after the resetting of the host name, the sender of the first inbound mail has to first learn of the name somehow. It’s simply impossible to randomly reach a renamed server.”

“That party had to have some kind of outbound message through SMS, phone, or some noninternet channel they used to communicate [the new configuration],” DNS expert Paul Vixie told Foer. “The first attempt to look up the revised host name came from Alfa Bank. If this was a public server, we would have seen other traces. The only look-ups came from this particular source.”

THE THEORIES

Both the Trump organization and Alfa Bank have denied using or establishing any sort of secret channel of communications, and have offered differing explanations as to how the data gathered by the experts could have been faked or misinterpreted.

In a follow-up story by Foer, the Trump Organization suggested that the DNS lookups might be the result of spam or email advertising various Trump properties, and said a Florida based marketing firm called Cendyn registered and managed the email server in question.

But Cendyn told CNN that its contract to provide email marketing services to the Trump Organization ended in March 2016 — weeks before the DNS lookups chronicled by the researchers started appearing. Cendyn told CNN that a different client had been communicating with Alfa Bank using Cendyn communications applications — a claim that Alfa Bank denied.

Alfa Bank subsequently hired computer forensics firms Mandiant and Stroz Friedberg to examine the DNS data presented by the researchers. Both companies concluded there was no evidence of email communications between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. However, both firms also acknowledged that Alfa Bank didn’t share any DNS data for the relevant four-month time period identified by the researchers.

Another theory for the DNS weirdness outlined in Mandiant’s report is that Alfa Bank’s servers performed the repeated DNS lookups for the Trump Organization server because its internal Trend Micro antivirus product routinely scanned domains in emails for signs of malicious activity — and that incoming marketing emails promoting Trump properties could have explained the traffic.

The researchers maintained this did not explain similar and repeated DNS lookups made to the Trump Organization email server by Spectrum Health, which is closely tied to the DeVos family (Betsy DeVos would later be appointed Secretary of Education by President Trump).

FISHING EXPEDITION

In June 2020, Alfa Bank filed two “John Doe” lawsuits, one in Pennsylvania and another in Florida. Their stated purpose was to identify the anonymous hackers behind the “highly sophisticated cyberattacks” that they claim were responsible for the mysterious DNS lookups.

Alfa Bank has so far subpoenaed at least 49 people or entities — including all of the security experts quoted in the 2016 media stories referenced above, and others who’d merely offered their perspectives on the matter via social media. At least 15 of those individuals or entities have since been deposed. Alfa Bank’s most recent subpoena was issued Aug. 26, 2021.

L. Jean Camp, a professor at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing, was among the first to publish some of the DNS data collected by the research group. In 2017, Alfa Bank sent Camp a series of threatening letters suggesting she was “a central figure” in the what the company would later claim was “malicious cyber activity targeting its computer network.” The letters and responses from her attorneys are published on her website.

Camp’s attorneys and Indiana University have managed to keep her from being deposed by both Alfa Bank and John H. Durham, the special counsel appointed by the Trump administration to look into the origins of the Russia investigation (although Camp said Alfa Bank was able to obtain certain emails through the school’s public records request policy).

“If MIT had had the commitment to academic freedom that Indiana University has shown throughout this entire process, Aaron Swartz would still be alive,” Camp said.

Camp said she’s bothered that the Alfa Bank and Trump special counsel investigations have cast the researchers in such a sinister light, when many of those subpoenaed have spent a lifetime trying to make the Internet more secure.

“Not including me, they’ve subpoenaed some people who are significant, consistent and important contributors to the security of American networks against the very attacks coming from Russia,” Camp said. “I think they’re using law enforcement to attack network security, and to determine the ways in which their previous attacks have been and are being detected.”

Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer at the computer science department at University of California, Berkeley, told KrebsOnSecurity he complied with the subpoena requests for specific emails he’d sent to colleagues about the DNS data, noting that Alfa Bank could have otherwise obtained them through the schools’ public records policy.

Weaver said Alfa Bank’s lawsuit has nothing to do with uncovering the truth about the DNS data, but rather with intimidating and silencing researchers who’ve spoken out about it.

“It’s clearly abusive, so I’m willing to call it out for what it is, which is a John Doe lawsuit for a fishing expedition,” Weaver said.

TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY

Among those subpoenaed and deposed by Alfa Bank was Daniel J. Jones, a former investigator for the FBI and the U.S. Senate who is perhaps best known for his role in leading the investigation into the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jones runs The Democracy Integrity Project (TDIP), a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. whose stated mission includes efforts to research, investigate and help mitigate foreign interference in elections in the United States and its allies overseas. In 2018, U.S. Senate investigators asked TDIP to produce and share a detailed analysis of the DNS data, which it did without payment. That lengthy report was never publicly released by the committee nor anyone else.

That is, until Sept. 14, 2021, when Jones and TDIP filed their own lawsuit against Alfa Bank. According to Jones’ complaint, Alfa Bank had entered into a confidentiality agreement regarding certain sensitive and personal information Jones was compelled to provide as part of complying with the subpoena.

Yet on Aug. 20, Alfa Bank attorneys sent written notice that it was challenging portions of the confidentiality agreement. Jones’ complaint asserts that Alfa Bank intends to publicly file portions of these confidential exhibits, an outcome that could jeopardize his safety.

This would not be the first time testimony Jones provided under a confidentiality agreement ended up in the public eye. TDIP’s complaint notes that before Jones met with FBI officials in 2017 to discuss Russian disinformation campaigns, he was assured by two FBI agents that his identity would be protected from exposure and that any information he provided to the FBI would not be associated with him.

Nevertheless, in 2018 the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a redacted report on Russian active measures. The report blacked out Jones’ name, but a series of footnotes in the report named his employer and included links to his organization’s website. Jones’ complaint spends several pages detailing the thousands of death threats he received after that report was published online.

THE TDIP REPORT

As part of his lawsuit against Alfa Bank, Jones published 40 pages from the 600+ page report he submitted to the U.S. Senate in 2018. From reviewing its table of contents, the remainder of the unpublished report appears to delve deeply into details about Alfa Bank’s history, its owners, and their connections to the Kremlin.

The report notes that unlike other domains the Trump Organization used to send mass marketing emails, the domain at issue — mail1.trump-email.com — was configured in such a way that would have prevented it from effectively sending marketing or bulk emails. Or at least prevented most of the missives sent through the domain from ever making it past spam filters.

Nor was the domain configured like other Trump Organization domains that demonstrably did send commercial email, Jones’ analysis found. Also, the mail1.trump-email.com domain was never once flagged as sending spam by any of the 57 different spam block lists published online at the time.

“If large amounts of marketing emails were emanating from mail1.trump-email.com, it’s likely that some receivers of those emails would have marked them as spam,” Jones’ 2018 report reasons. “Spam is nothing new on the internet, and mass mailings create easily observed phenomena, such as a wide dispersion of backscatter queries from spam filters. No such evidence is found in the logs.”

However, Jones’ report did find that mail1.trump-email.com was configured to accept incoming email. Jones cites testing conducted by one of the researchers who found the mail1.trump-email.com rejected messages with an automated reply saying the server couldn’t accept messages from that particular sender.

“This test reveals that either the server was configured to reject email from everyone, or that the server was configured to accept only emails from specific senders,” TDIP wrote.

The report also puts a finer point on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of that Trump Organization email domain just two days after The New York Times shared the DNS data with Alfa Bank’s representatives.

“After the record was deleted for mail1.trump-email.com on Sept. 23, 2016, Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health continued to conduct DNS lookups for mail1.trump-email.com,” reads the report. “In the case of Alfa Bank, this behavior persisted until late Friday night on Sept. 23, 2016 (Moscow time). At that point, Alfa Bank ceased its DNS lookups of mail1.trump-email.com.”

Less than ten minutes later, a server assigned to Alfa Bank was the first source in the DNS data-set examined (37 million DNS records from January 1, 2016 to January 15, 2017) to conduct a DNS look-up for the server name ‘trump1.contact-client.com.’ The answer received was 66.216.133.29 — the same IP address used for mail1.trump-email.com that was deleted in the days after The New York Times inquired with Alfa Bank about the unusual server connections.

“No servers associated with Alfa Bank ever conducted a DNS lookup for trump1.contact-client.com again, and the next DNS look-up for trump1.contact-client.com did not occur until October 5, 2016,” the report continues. “Three of these five look-ups from October 2016 originated from Russia.”

A copy of the complaint filed by Jones against Alfa Bank is available here (PDF).

THE SUSSMANN INDICTMENT

The person who first brought the DNS data to the attention of the FBI in Sept. 2016 was Michael Sussmann, a 57-year-old cybersecurity lawyer and former computer crimes prosecutor who represented the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Last week, the special counsel Durham indicted Sussmann on charges of making a false statement to the FBI. The New York Times reports the accusation focuses on a meeting Sussmann had Sept. 19, 2016 with James A. Baker, the FBI’s top lawyer at the time. Sussmann had reportedly met with Baker to discuss the DNS data uncovered by the researchers.

“The indictment says Mr. Sussmann falsely told the F.B.I. lawyer that he had no clients, but he was really representing both a technology executive and the Hillary Clinton campaign,” The Times wrote.

Sussmann has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

ANALYSIS

The Sussmann indictment refers to the various researchers who contacted him in 2016 by placeholder names, such as Tech Executive-1 and Researcher-1 and Researcher-2. The tone of indictment reads as if describing a vast web of nefarious or illegal activities, although it doesn’t attempt to address the veracity of any specific concerns raised by the researchers.  Here is one example:

“From in or about July 2016 through at least in or about February 2017, however, Originator-I, Researcher-I, and Researcher-2 also exploited Internet Company­-1′ s data and other data to assist Tech Executive-I in his efforts to conduct research concerning Trump’s potential ties to Russia.”

Quoting from emails between Tech Executive-1 and the researchers, the indictment makes clear that Mr. Durham has subpoenaed many of the same researchers who’ve been subpoenaed and or deposed in the concurrent John Doe lawsuits from Russia’s Alfa Bank.

To date, Alfa Bank has yet to name a single defendant in its lawsuits. In the meantime, the Sussmann indictment is being dissected by many users on social media who have been closely following the Trump administration’s inquiry into the Russia investigation. The majority of these social media posts appear to be crowdsourcing an effort to pinpoint the real-life identities behind the placeholder names in the indictment.

At one level, it doesn’t matter which explanation of the DNS data you believe: There is a very real possibility that the way this entire inquiry has been handled could negatively affect the FBI’s ability to collect crucial and sensitive investigative tips for years to come.

After all, who in their right mind is going to volunteer confidential information to the FBI if they fear there’s even the slightest chance that future shifting political winds could end up seeing them prosecuted, threatened with physical violence or death on social media, and/or exposed to expensive legal fees and depositions from private companies as a result?

Such a perception could give rise to a sort of “chilling effect,” discouraging honest, well-meaning people from speaking up when they suspect or know about a potential threat to national security or sovereignty.

This would be a less-than-ideal outcome in the context of today’s top cyber threat for most organizations: Ransomware. With few exceptions, the U.S. government has watched helplessly as organized cybercrime gangs — many of whose members hail from Russia or from former Soviet nations that are friendly to Moscow — have extorted billions of dollars from victims, and disrupted or ruined countless businesses.

To help shift the playing field against ransomware actors, the Justice Department and other federal law enforcement agencies have been trying to encourage more ransomware victims to come forward and share sensitive details about their attacks. The U.S. government has even offered up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cybercriminals involved in ransomware.

But given the way the government has essentially shot the all of the messengers with its handling of the Sussmann case, who could blame those with useful and valid tips if they opted to stay silent?

Does Your Organization Have a Security.txt File?

It happens all the time: Organizations get hacked because there isn’t an obvious way for security researchers to let them know about security vulnerabilities or data leaks. Or maybe it isn’t entirely clear who should get the report when remote access to an organization’s internal network is being sold in the cybercrime underground.

In a bid to minimize these scenarios, a growing number of major companies are adopting “Security.txt,” a proposed new Internet standard that helps organizations describe their vulnerability disclosure practices and preferences.

An example of a security.txt file. Image: Securitytxt.org.

The idea behind Security.txt is straightforward: The organization places a file called security.txt in a predictable place — such as example.com/security.txt, or example.com/.well-known/security.txt. What’s in the security.txt file varies somewhat, but most include links to information about the entity’s vulnerability disclosure policies and a contact email address.

The security.txt file made available by USAA, for example, includes links to its bug bounty program; an email address for disclosing security related matters; its public encryption key and vulnerability disclosure policy; and even a link to a page where USAA thanks researchers who have reported important cybersecurity issues.

Other security.txt disclosures are less verbose, as in the case of HCA Healthcare, which lists a contact email address, and a link to HCA’s “responsible disclosure” policies. Like USAA and many other organizations that have published security.txt files, HCA Healthcare also includes a link to information about IT security job openings at the company.

Having a security.txt file can make it easier for organizations to respond to active security threats. For example, just this morning a trusted source forwarded me the VPN credentials for a major clothing retailer that were stolen by malware and made available to cybercriminals. Finding no security.txt file at the retailer’s site using gotsecuritytxt.com (which checks a domain for the presence of this contact file), KrebsonSecurity sent an alert to its “security@” email address for the retailer’s domain.

Many organizations have long unofficially used (if not advertised) the email address security@[companydomain] to accept reports about security incidents or vulnerabilities. Perhaps this particular retailer also did so at one point, however my message was returned with a note saying the email had been blocked. KrebsOnSecurity also sent a message to the retailer’s chief information officer (CIO) — the only person in a C-level position at the retailer who was in my immediate LinkedIn network. I still have no idea if anyone has read it.

Although security.txt is not yet an official Internet standard as approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), its basic principles have so far been adopted by at least eight percent of the Fortune 100 companies. According to a review of the domain names for the latest Fortune 100 firms via gotsecuritytxt.com, those include Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, HCA Healthcare, Kroger, Procter & Gamble, USAA and Walmart.

There may be another good reason for consolidating security contact and vulnerability reporting information in one, predictable place. Alex Holden, founder of the Milwaukee-based consulting firm Hold Security, said it’s not uncommon for malicious hackers to experience problems getting the attention of the proper people within the very same organization they have just hacked.

“In cases of ransom, the bad guys try to contact the company with their demands,” Holden said. “You have no idea how often their messages get caught in filters, get deleted, blocked or ignored.”

GET READY TO BE DELUGED

So if security.txt is so great, why haven’t more organizations adopted it yet? It seems that setting up a security.txt file tends to invite a rather high volume of spam. Most of these junk emails come from self-appointed penetration testers who — without any invitation to do so — run automated vulnerability discovery tools and then submit the resulting reports in hopes of securing a consulting engagement or a bug bounty fee.

This dynamic was a major topic of discussion in these Hacker News threads on security.txt, wherein a number of readers related their experience of being so flooded with low-quality vulnerability scan reports that it became difficult to spot the reports truly worth pursuing further.

Edwin “EdOverflow” Foudil, the co-author of the proposed notification standard, acknowledged that junk reports are a major downside for organizations that offer up a security.txt file.

“This is actually stated in the specification itself, and it’s incredibly important to highlight that organizations that implement this are going to get flooded,” Foudil told KrebsOnSecurity. “One reason bug bounty programs succeed is that they are basically a glorified spam filter. But regardless of what approach you use, you’re going to get inundated with these crappy, sub-par reports.”

Often these sub-par vulnerability reports come from individuals who have scanned the entire Internet for one or two security vulnerabilities, and then attempted to contact all vulnerable organizations at once in some semi-automated fashion. Happily, Foudil said, many of these nuisance reports can be ignored or grouped by creating filters that look for messages containing keywords commonly found in automated vulnerability scans.

Foudil said despite the spam challenges, he’s heard tremendous feedback from a number of universities that have implemented security.txt.

“It’s been an incredible success with universities, which tend to have lots of older, legacy systems,” he said. “In that context, we’ve seen a ton of valuable reports.”

Foudil says he’s delighted that eight of the Fortune 100 firms have already implemented security.txt, even though it has not yet been approved as an IETF standard. When and if security.txt is approved, he hopes to spend more time promoting its benefits.

“I’m not trying to make money off this thing, which came about after chatting with quite a few people at DEFCON [the annual security conference in Las Vegas] who were struggling to report security issues to vendors,” Foudil said. “The main reason I don’t go out of my way to promote it now is because it’s not yet an official standard.”

Has your organization considered or implemented security.txt? Why or why not? Sound off in the comments below.

Trial Ends in Guilty Verdict for DDoS-for-Hire Boss

A jury in California today reached a guilty verdict in the trial of Matthew Gatrel, a St. Charles, Ill. man charged in 2018 with operating two online services that allowed paying customers to launch powerful distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Internet users and websites. Gatrel’s conviction comes roughly two weeks after his co-conspirator pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to running the services.

The user interface for Downthem[.]org.

Prosecutors for the Central District of California charged Gatrel, 32, and his business partner Juan “Severon” Martinez of Pasadena, Calif. with operating two DDoS-for-hire or “booter” services — downthem[.]org and ampnode[.]com.

Despite admitting to FBI agents that he ran these booter services (and turning over plenty of incriminating evidence in the process), Gatrel opted to take his case to trial, defended the entire time by public defenders. Facing the prospect of a hefty sentence if found guilty at trial, Martinez pleaded guilty on Aug. 26 to one count of unauthorized impairment of a protected computer.

Gatrel was convicted on all three charges of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, including conspiracy to commit unauthorized impairment of a protected computer, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and unauthorized impairment of a protected computer.

Investigators say Downthem helped some 2,000 customers launch debilitating digital assaults at more than 200,000 targets, including many government, banking, university and gaming Web sites.

Prosecutors alleged that in addition to running and marketing Downthem, the defendants sold huge, continuously updated lists of Internet addresses tied to devices that could be used by other booter services to make attacks far more powerful and effective. In addition, other booter services also drew firepower and other resources from Ampnode.

Booter and stresser services let customers pick from among a variety of attack methods, but almost universally the most powerful of these methods involves what’s known as a “reflective amplification attack.” In such assaults, the perpetrators leverage unmanaged Domain Name Servers (DNS) or other devices on the Web to create huge traffic floods.

Ideally, DNS servers only provide services to machines within a trusted domain — such as translating an Internet address from a series of numbers into a domain name, like example.com. But DNS reflection attacks rely on consumer and business routers and other devices equipped with DNS servers that are (mis)configured to accept queries from anywhere on the Web.

Attackers can send spoofed DNS queries to these DNS servers, forging the request so that it appears to come from the target’s network. That way, when the DNS servers respond, they reply to the spoofed (target) address.

The bad guys also can amplify a reflective attack by crafting DNS queries so that the responses are much bigger than the requests. For example, an attacker could compose a DNS request of less than 100 bytes, prompting a response that is 60-70 times as large. This “amplification” effect is especially pronounced if the perpetrators query dozens of DNS servers with these spoofed requests simultaneously.

The government charged that Gatrel and Martinez constantly scanned the Internet for these misconfigured devices, and then sold lists of Internet addresses tied to these devices to other booter service operators.

Gatrel’s sentencing is scheduled for January 27, 2022. He faces a statutory maximum sentence of 35 years in federal prison. However, given the outcome of past prosecutions against other booter service operators, it seems unlikely that Gatrel will spend much time in jail.

The case against Gatrel and Martinez was brought as part of a widespread crackdown on booter services in Dec. 2018, when the FBI joined with law enforcement partners overseas to seize 15 different booter service domains.

Federal prosecutors and DDoS experts interviewed at the time said the operation had three main goals: To educate people that hiring DDoS attacks is illegal, to destabilize the flourishing booter industry, and to ultimately reduce demand for booter services.

The jury is still out on whether any of those goals have been achieved with lasting effect.

The original complaint against Gatrel and Martinez is here (PDF).