Cybersecurity: Russian Hackers, Privacy, and You


I was invited to give a presentation about Cybersecurity at WordCamp Orange County 2017, I chose to discuss privacy aimed toward the average user. It was my first WordCamp presentation.

WordCamp is a conference that focuses on everything WordPress. WordCamps are informal, community-organized events that are put together by WordPress users like you. Everyone from casual users to core developers participate, share ideas, and get to know each other.


Here is the video of my presentation:


Misconceptions: Safe in the Cloud

By Chris Williams

A cloud of confusion

“Just put it in the cloud, and it’ll be safe. Right?”

Well, it’s not nearly that simple. While cloud applications are often viewed as a great way to offload security concerns to a third-party that act alone does not necessarily make your data more secure. On the contrary, a poor choice of cloud service provider might instead make your data less secure.

The cloud really isn’t a specific thing or place, nor is it defined by a new or emerging technology. It’s a metaphor and a buzz-word at the same time. All “cloud” actually means is that the resource in question is remotely located and Internet-accessible. This definition includes many rather mundane concepts such as offsite data centers, hosted web and/or application servers, as well as web-based email such as Yahoo. Google Docs and Dropbox, which many users take for granted (both in terms of accessibility and security) are located in the cloud.
In summary, if you’re using it, and you or your organization does not support it onsite using your own resources, then it’s probably cloud.

Cloud security characteristics

What characteristics make the cloud more secure than your environment? Scale is most likely one such characteristic, as cloud service providers are typically large enterprises that bring almost immeasurable resources to the table. Unless your organization utilizes all of the latest technologies and techniques to manage threats, supported by an elite stable of IT security professionals, chances are that a malicious attacker will get through your defenses before, for instance, Amazon’s.

Cloud providers also have to meet at least a minimum of security standards to stay in operation, based on whatever laws are pertinent to the service in question. These standards vary greatly, from Federal laws to unenforceable industry recommendations, but they do exist. As a cloud customer, your Service Level Agreement should specify that data security is an integral part of the services being performed; therefore, liability (in the event of a breach) may to some extent fall upon the third party. However, the concept of cyber indemnity is still somewhat a grey area.

Now, scale can work the other way as well. This is due to two factors: one, cloud data centers hold much more data from a variety of end users when compared to private onsite storage facilities. Consequently the risk/reward ratio leans much more heavily towards the “reward” side as far as hackers are concerned; the fact that large enterprises handle so many customers’ data means they can, for lack of a better way of putting it, generally afford to get hit a couple times before consequences are felt. Imagine it from a criminal’s perspective: would you rather infiltrate a single company, or get the data from a dozen companies all in one campaign?

Other considerations

There’s also the issue of data-in-transit; many administrators forget about this topic, focusing on the more obvious issue of data-at-rest. But there needs to be a discussion about how your data gets to the cloud (Internet connection), what the ramifications are for supporting that connection, and what might go wrong even if the connection is configured properly.

Suppose your environment is not intended to be connected to the web—it is an enclosed network segment with no publicly visible IP addresses, nor any gateway between that LAN and the outside world. Then, suppose we add a router and a public IP (which is Network Address Translated to a bunch of private IPs)—now, we have Internet access and can access our cloud storage and backup services, but there’s also an additional access point for bad guys that did not exist before. Was that a net security increase, or decrease?

Let’s also suppose that your data is encrypted while in transit, as it should be. Can it be intercepted while traversing public Internet infrastructure? Technically, yes, although the encryption would be hard (not impossible) to break. And, although you could potentially get a VPN from your gateway to the other endpoint, that adds additional cost, more overhead such as key management, etc. while still not achieving 100% security.

The takeaway

As an IT professional, I don’t believe in security through obscurity. However, I also must concede that some cloud providers are extremely attractive to attackers due to the sheer volume of data contained. While I can entertain the thought of navigating this quandary by selecting a less well-known service provider to store my data, at that point am I simply compromising on the advantages of scale and resources that made cloud so compelling to begin with?

Companies that offer cloud services of all types from SaaS to IaaS want to sell you on those services. If “reducing the size of your IT workforce by 70% by switching to cloud” sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Similarly, it sounds like a great idea to transfer risk to a third party—until it becomes evident that the scope of risk being transferred is only a small portion of your organization’s true risk expectancy.

Copyright © 2017 ParadoxPrime IA, All rights reserved

Current Events – Top 5 Cybersecurity Developments of 2016

By Chris Williams

To kick off the new year, we’ll take a look back at 5 of the most important cybersecurity events and trends from 2016, along with the circumstances that made each noteworthy.

5 – IoT-fueled DDoS attacks result in highest throughput events in Internet history

The threat posed by distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack has increased significantly over the past year; as attack techniques including reflection and amplification become more sophisticated, the amount of traffic which can be directed to attack a target now measures in hundreds of Gbps and will likely break the 1 Tbps threshold (if it hasn’t already) in a single attack before long.

We examine some of the causes and implications of this trend in greater detail, in an earlier article:

4 – Among the first publicized instances of a nation state employing cyber warfare to influence the democratic process of another nation state

No voting machines were breached, and no tallies were altered—one cannot say that the election was “hacked” in a strict sense. Instead, information was obtained illegally by a team of hackers and then disseminated for use in a large-scale information campaign designed to influence the outcome of the election by shifting public opinion; a much more roundabout method that creates a measure of “plausible deniability” for all those involved, to be sure.

According to what has been released, the team that breached the Democratic National Committee’s network and obtained incriminating emails from key DNC personnel was not working directly for Russia. This is hardly a surprise. According to those same reports, however, investigators have been able to determine the origin of the hackers as well as their financial ties to Russian stakeholders; this, combined with various intelligence that demonstrates Russian officials had some knowledge in the campaign, paints a fairly compelling albeit circumstantial case.

However, the “who/what/when/where/why/how” isn’t necessarily the most pressing issue we face—our follow-up question should be, “what comes next?” Since the floodgates of political interventionism have apparently been opened, and the United States still has yet to address a multitude of issues with its critical infrastructure (among many other targets), there is ample cause for concern. Could a more direct election hack be next? Could we face a Stuxnet-style attack on our nuclear plants, or an attack similar to the one which took down power stations in the Ukraine? With the latest attacks in Kiev also being linked to Russia, it’s definitely a question worth asking.

3 – Ransomware continues to increase in prevalence, cybersecurity experts talk preparedness

Although ransomware has existed in some form for the better part of this decade, 2015 and 2016 both saw significant leaps in both the complexity and ubiquity of this unique strain of malware. By the end of 2016, losses to consumers and businesses skyrocketed to an estimated $1B; that figure puts this rapidly expanding form of cybercrime in a position to potentially replace credit card fraud as the top fiscal threat to organizations and consumers. It’s of course too early to see what 2017 holds, but we can only hope that increased awareness of the risks (as well as mitigating strategies such as appropriate back-up procedures for critical data) causes this trend to reverse itself.

In the meantime, hospitals, retailers, law enforcement agencies, and even private users should all be wary of suspicious files, unsolicited emails, and other potential vectors that we’ve discussed in previous posts. Like many attacks, a human element must be exploited in order to be successful; cybersecurity experts continually point to users as the most easily exploitable target, but training methods have not kept pace with threats.

2 – Apple sets a precedent by favoring consumer privacy over the demands of intelligence agencies

The terrorist attacks which occurred in San Bernardino in late 2015 had consequences which will almost certainly influence consumer privacy and data security for many years—due not to the nature of the attacks themselves, but rather the course of subsequent investigation and legal maneuverings which continued well into 2016.

At issue was one of the iPhones used by the attackers, which was locked using Apple’s built-in device encryption feature; the FBI requested Apple to provide them a means of bypassing that encryption, but their request was refused on the grounds of privacy protection. (There were other factors, however the premise “If we give you a backdoor then anyone can potentially have the same backdoor” is a fair argument which summarizes Apple’s position). Even after the conflict had escalated to a lawsuit, Apple stayed the course, declining to provide a workaround to investigating agencies; however, since the FBI eventually found another way of cracking the phone’s security measures, the suit was dropped and the whole affair essentially fizzled out.

Apple’s refusal to cooperate is a polarizing topic, with their stance drawing both praise and criticism from cybersecurity professionals. Regardless of how that debate plays out, the important thing to note is that private companies cannot be compelled to provide consumer information to government agencies without due process—at least not yet. Additionally, Apple was among the first companies of its size to publicly decline putting a backdoor into their systems; technology and telecom companies have historically complied with even the most invasive of federal programs in the interests of national security.

1 – Data breaches result in billions of compromised consumer records throughout organizations worldwide

The following is a “short list” of data breaches which were publicized (not necessarily took place) in 2016:

  • Yahoo 1 billion user accounts
  • Yahoo (again) 500 million user accounts
  • MySpace 360 million user accounts
  • LinkedIn 167 million user accounts
  • Office of Child Support Enforcement 5 million records
  • 21st Century Oncology 2.2 million patient records
  • Verizon 1.5 million enterprise clients
  • Centene 950,000 patient records
  • IRS 700,000 taxpayer records
  • FBI 20,000 employee records
  • DHS 9,000 employee records

Over the past few weeks we’ve examined data breach trends and discussed some potential safeguards which consumers should be cognizant of. You can check out these articles at:

The takeway

If 2016 was any indication, the cybersecurity landscape for 2017 will consist of a vast array of threats; consumers, businesses, and governments are all susceptible in part because of the common (human) element. User training & awareness programs should be considered by all organizations, regardless of size.

Copyright © 2017 ParadoxPrime IA, All rights reserved

Recognizing Computer Threats – Data Breach Awareness, Part II

By Chris Williams

Recap from Part I

Large-scale data breaches are increasing in both frequency and magnitude, leading to an unprecedented threat to consumers’ confidential personal and financial information. Laws currently on the books concerning data breach notifications are fairly weak; compromised organizations often sit on information for weeks or months (occasionally years) before notifying affected customers that their data has been leaked—this is completely unacceptable yet seems to be common practice in certain industries such as web-based email.

Users should use unique passwords that are not shared among multiple accounts; re-using passwords creates a single point of failure that dramatically increases a consumer’s risk of private data being exposed during a hack.

There are a number of ways in which the average consumer can protect themselves from exposure, and it starts by understanding the companies you do business with; get to know their practices and policies, and make sure that they follow all applicable laws concerning what is done with your data.

Data privacy laws

How are organizations protecting your data? Do you have any recourse if you suspect they are not following these practices?

The Privacy Act of 1974 states that consumers have a right to determine how their personally identifiable information is used: more specifically, that they must give prior consent in writing before any of their PII is disseminated by a company (or organization/agency); they must be able to obtain copies of their personal records with that company upon request; and they must be provided with a means to amend or correct any incorrect information that exists in that company’s records. This doesn’t give users the level of granularity which many would like, but it’s a start.

Organizations that collect personal information of any kind should post their privacy policies online. Most do, even if these policies can be difficult to locate; alongside this, consumers can usually find the contact information for whomever is responsible for providing copies of records, and updating incorrect records. While creating an account or signing up for a service, email subscription, etc. the end-user agreement should also spell out the organization’s privacy and data collection policies—if not, that could be a potential red flag.

The Privacy act does include some provision for redressing violations in civil court: “The Privacy Act provides for four separate and distinct civil causes of action, see 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g), two of which provide for injunctive relief – amendment lawsuits under (g)(1)(A) and access lawsuits under (g)(1)(B) – and two of which provide for compensatory relief in the form of monetary damages – damages lawsuits under (g)(1)(C) and (g)(1)(D).” Litigation aside, there’s plenty of incentive for organizations to comply with these rules; among those incentives is simply public image. Customers can be very quick to turn upon companies that fail to meet privacy regulations; this can cascade quickly into widespread distrust and loss of reputation with consumers and/or industry peers. That in mind, contacting the organization to address a complaint might be more than sufficient—no need to call a lawyer just yet.

FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is another federal law which governs disclosure and maintenance of information, this time dealing with the educational sector. Student records such as transcripts are protected, requiring express written consent from the student (or their legal guardian if under 18) before being disseminated for any reason, other than on official school business. Much like the Privacy Act, concerned individuals must follow a designated path to request corrections or amendments; additionally, the record owner has a right to request copies of those records as well as to receive them in a timely manner.

For information on understanding your FERPA rights, or for reporting suspected violations, visit the following:

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is another federal law; aimed at the healthcare sector, it is otherwise similar in concept to the previous two. Health insurance providers, doctors, hospitals, specialists, and anyone who deals with protected health information (PHI) of any kind must follow these rules. This also includes HR employees at organizations that offer health care plans as part of compensation packages.

If you have additional HIPAA questions or need to report a potential violation, the following page should help:

The takeaway

It’s extremely critical that organizations treat confidential consumer information with the respect it deserves. Many companies do not have policies or procedures that address this issue, however. Where possible avoid an unnecessary risk of doing business with organizations that have poor/nonexistent privacy policies; same holds true for companies that consistently disregard information security best practices. Laws such as the Privacy Act, HIPAA, and FERPA contain numerous measures to enforce compliance; it is important to report suspected violations for both your protection as well as the protection of other consumers.

Copyright © 2017 ParadoxPrime IA, All rights reserved

Recognizing Computer Threats – Data Breach Awareness, Part I

By Chris Williams

Data breach

If it seems like data breaches are becoming more and more commonplace all the time, that’s because it’s true: the frequency of data breach and security incidents that result in some level of data leakage is on the rise. On top of that, the public’s perception of these incidents is becoming more acute. This is in part because a larger percentage of data breaches are being publicized than ever before. Due to the prevalence of both national and state laws which require companies to notify consumers when their personally identifiable information (PII) is compromised, it is essentially unavoidable: organizations must have procedures in their incident response plans to deal with these types of contingencies. Private organizations such as Payment Card Institute (PCI) have their own rules concerning how breach notifications must take place; they typically enforce such policies through audits and by assessing non-compliance penalties.

Breach notifications

Best practice after a data breach is to send breach notification notices out as soon as the scope of the incident has been reasonably well determined; this is both for compliance purposes as well as for good “public relations”. On the other hand, companies that are slow to publicize data breaches are often maligned in the court of public opinion. Despite the bad PR that can occur when a company’s security practices are implicated after a security incident, some public forgiveness can be gained by simply being forthcoming. Additionally, when organizations provide supplemental services such as credit monitoring to data breach victims, the extra expense is typically justified by the positive effect on consumer confidence. Transparency, expediency, and ownership of the incident are surprisingly effective tools in retaining customers after an incident occurs.

All this being said, with the sheer number of incidents happening, consumers still need to understand how to minimize their risks. It is important to know what steps to take if an incident occurs targeting a service provider or retailer that they utilize. It is also vital to recognize that not all organizations are forthcoming when a breach occurs, even if the law says they should be.

Webmail accounts: use unique passwords

A data breach that compromises your email account password can mean more than just a loss of privacy (although that is of course the primary concern since most of us are uncomfortable with the prospect of strangers reading our emails). Exposure of personally identifiable information (PII) is often linked to identity theft and other forms of fraud; criminals may use this info directly or sell it via black market. This information is used to open fraudulent bank accounts, make purchases with compromised payment cards, and so on. Many users fail to consider the considerable level of PII that is exposed during a data breach. The following non-comprehensive list includes a few good examples:

Correspondences with companies you do business with, including healthcare providers (noteworthy because of the depth of information these companies retain); lists of personal friends, family members, and associates; employment-related messages such as recruitment or application emails; vacation plans; event invites; receipts for purchases, often with partially visible payment information; billing and shipping addresses; and much, much more.

A compromised webmail account can provide hackers with tremendous detail regarding your personal life—and accounts you may have with e-commerce sites and other services—therefore it is important not to re-use any passwords across multiple different services.

Scenario: compromised webmail password

Tom uses Yahoo for webmail. Tom’s email address is also the user name for his Amazon account, and the passwords for his Yahoo and Amazon profiles are identical. Let’s imagine his Yahoo password is stolen during a mass data breach; hackers can then gain access to his inbox, and read all of his messages. From there they determine that he has an Amazon account by skimming through transaction emails. Their next step will of course be By simply entering the same password used to access his Yahoo inbox they will easily gain access to Tom’s Amazon account, because the password was re-used for both accounts; by contrast, they could not have done so if the passwords were different. (They would, however, still have his Amazon user name since it’s the same as his Yahoo email address).

Amazon, like most e-commerce retailers, allows customers to re-use payment cards that they have previously saved.  Whoever has access to Tom’s account also has access to make unauthorized purchases—without even having to provide a credit card.

The takeaway

Breach notification laws exist to protect consumers whose protected information may have been affected by a security breach. Unfortunately, these laws are not as comprehensive or as compelling as they could be, and so many companies are still slow to report & publicize incidents.

Using the same credentials for multiple email and/or other accounts is inadvisable. This practice creates a single point of failure by which attackers can gain access to all of your private data. Monitor your inbox for unsolicited messages, and check your Sent folder from time to time. Again, just because your webmail provider has not announced an incident does not mean no such event has taken place.

There’s plenty more so say about this topic: we’ll be back soon with part II!

Copyright © 2016 ParadoxPrime IA, All rights reserved