Weekend Photography

An amazing shot by Philipp Schmidli of a cyclist in front of the moon.


PetaPixel explains the work involved in getting that shot in “Silhouettes in a Giant Moonrise, Captured Using a 1200mm Lens.” (Thanks to Bob Blakely).

Also in the realm of impressive tool use is this:


Orangutan from Borneo photographed using a spear tool to fish at Primatology.net, via Anita Leirfall.

Me, I took a picture of some very cute baby geese, but it didn’t come out.

The Psychology of Password Managers

As I think more about the way people are likely to use a password manager, I think there’s real problems with the way master passwords are set up. As I write this, I’m deeply aware that I’m risking going into a space of “it’s logical that” without proper evidence.

Let’s start from the way most people will likely come to a password manager. They’ll be in an exploratory mood, and while they may select a good password, they may also select a simple one that’s easy to remember. That password, initially, will not be protecting very much, and so people may be tempted to pick one that’s ‘appropriate’ for what’s being protected.

Over time, the danger is that they will not think to update that password and improve it, but their trust in the password manager will increase. As their trust increases, the number of passwords that they’re protecting with a weak master password may also increase.

Now we get to changing the master password. Assuming that people can find it, how often will someone wake up and say “hey, I should change my master password?” Changing a master password is also scary. Now that I’ve accumulated hundreds of passwords, what happens if I forget my new password? (As it turns out, 1Password makes weekly backups of my password file, but I wasn’t aware of that. Also, what happens to the old files if I change my master password? Am I now exposed for both? That’s ok in the case that I’m changing out of caution, less ok if I’m changing because I think my master was exposed.)

Perhaps there’s room for two features here: first, that on password change, people could choose to have either master password unlock things. (Encrypt the master key with keys derived from both the old & new masters. This is no less secure than having backups available, and may address a key element of psychological acceptability.) You’d have to communicate that this will work, and let people choose. User testing that text would be fascinating.

A second feature might be to let people know how long they’ve been using the same master password, and gently encourage them to change it. This one is tricky mostly because I have no idea if it’s a good idea. Should you pick one super-strong master and use it for decades? Is there value to changing it now and again? Where could we seek evidence with which to test our instincts? What happens to long term memory as people age? Does muscle memory cause people to revert their passwords? (I know I’ve done it.) We could use a pattern like the gold bar to unobtrusively prompt.

A last element that might improve the way people use master passwords would be better browser integration. Having just gone to check, I was surprised how many sites my browser is tracking. Almost all of them were low value, and all of them now are. But why do we have two places that can store this, especially when one is less secure than the other. A browser API that allows a password manager to say “I’ve got this one” would be a welcome improvement.

Studying these ideas and seeing which ones are invalidated by data gathering would be cool. Talking to people about how they use their password managers would also be interesting work. As Bonneau has show, the quest to replace passwords is going to be arduous. Learning how to better live with what we have seems useful.

The Breach Trilogy: Assume, Confirm, Discuss

We’ve been hearing for several years that we should assume breach. Many people have taken this to heart (although today’s DBIR still says it’s still months to detect those breaches).

I’d like to propose (predict?) that breach as a central concept will move through phases. Each of these phases will go through a hype cycle, and I think of them as sort of a trilogy.

We all understand “Assume Breach,” so let’s move on to “Confirm Breach.”

Confirm Breach will be a cold place. Our heroes will be on the run from an evil empire whose probes penetrate to every corner of the network. Over-dependence on perimeter defenses will be shown to be vulnerable to big, clumsy social engineering attacks. Okay, okay, I’m working too hard for the Empire Strikes Back angle here. But really, no one really wants to confirm a breach. We are running from APT, and we really do over-depend on perimeter defenses. As we get more comfortable with the fact that confirm a breach rarely hurts the breached organization very much, we’ll start to see less reticence to confirm breaches.

Recently, I was talking to someone whose organization had banned the term “breach” so they don’t have to report. That’s going to raise eyebrows and look more and more churlish and unsustainable.

Organizations and their counsel will start to realize that the broad message from Congress and the Executive Branch in the US, and Privacy Commissioners and Legislatures elsewhere is to disclose incidents. Their willingness to contort themselves to avoid such disclosure is going to drop. First the need to do so and then the professionalism of those offering such advice will be called into question by other lawyers.

In the meanwhile, legislators and then legislatures will get tired of lawyers playing word games, and propose stricter and stricter laws. For example, Lexology reports that the Belgian Privacy Commissioner is asking for breach notification within 48 hours. Such a requirement risks pulling firefighters from a fire, and putting them on form-filling. And it’s a direct response to the ongoing delays in reporting breaches without a clear explanation of why it took so long.

That will lead to an era of “Discuss Breach.”

Once we get to a point where breach confirmations are routine, we can look forward to really discussing them in depth, and understand the root cause, the controls that were in place, the detective mechanisms that worked, and the impact of the incident.

When we’re in the world of Discuss Breach, the pace at which things will get better will accelerate dramatically.

(In the future, someone will make a bad trilogy about deny breach, assume mitochlorians, and we’ll all pretend it didn’t happen.)

The best part of exploit kits

Following up on my post on exploit kit statistics (no data? really folks?), I wanted to share a bit of a head-shaker for a Friday with way too much serious stuff going on.

Sometimes, researchers obscure all the information, such as this screenshot. I have no idea who these folks think they’re protecting by destroying information like this, but what do you expect from someone whose web site requires javascript from 4 domains to render a basic web page? (bad HTML here).

Thinking would be welcome.

1Password & Hashcat

The folks at Hashcat have some interesting observations about 1Password. The folks at 1Password have a response, and I think there’s all sorts of fascinating lessons here.

The crypto conversations are interesting, but at the end of the day, a lot of security is unavoidably contributed by the master password strength. I’d like to offer up a simple contribution. Agilebits should make two non-cryptographic changes in addition to any crypto changes.

These relate to the human end of the issue, and how real humans make decisions. That is, picking a master password is a one time event, and even if there’s a strength meter, factors of memorability, typability, etc all come into play when the user selects a password when first installing 1Password.

Those human factors are not good for security, but I think they’re addressable.

First, the master password entry screens should display the same password strength meter that’s displayed everywhere else. It’s all well and good to discuss in a blog post that people need strong master passwords, but the software should give regular feedback about the strength of that master password. Displaying a strength meter each time it’s entered creates some small risk of information disclosure via shoulder-surfing, and adds pressure to make it stronger.

Second, they should make it easier to change the master password. I looked around, couldn’t figure out how to do so in a few minutes. [Update: It’s in preferences, security. I thought I’d looked there, may have missed it.]


If master passwords are so important, then it’s important for the software to help its customers get them right.

There’s an interesting link here to “Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt.” In that 1999 paper, Whitten and Tygar made the point that all the great crypto in PGP couldn’t protect its users if they didn’t make the right decisions, and making those decisions is hard.

In this case, the security of password vaults depends not only on the crypto, but also on the user interface. Figuring out the mental models that people have around password storage tools, and how the interface choices those tools make develop those mental models is an important area, and deserves lots of careful attention.

Exploit Kit Statistics

On a fairly regular basis, I come across pages like this one from SANS, which contain fascinating information taken from exploit kit control panels:

Exploit Kit Control panel

There’s all sorts of interesting numbers in that picture. For example, the success rate for owning XP machines (19.61%) is three times that of Windows 7. (As an aside, the XP number is perhaps lower than “common wisdom” in the security community would have it.) There are also numbers for the success rates of exploits, ranging from Java OBE at 35% down to MDAC at 1.85%.

That’s not the only captured control panel. There’s more, for example, M86, Spider Labs and webroot.

I’m fascinated by these numbers, and have two questions:

  • Is anyone capturing the statistics shown and running statistics over time?
  • Is there an aggregation of all these captures? If not, what are the best search terms to find them?

By looking for evidence first, the Brits do it right

Looking for evidence of effectiveness

As it happens, both the US Government and the UK government are leading “cyber security standards framework” initiatives right now. ┬áThe US is using a consensus process to “incorporate existing consensus-based standards to the fullest extent possible”, including “cybersecurity standards, guidelines, frameworks, and best practices” and “conformity assessment programs”. In contrast, the UK is asking for evidence that any proposed standard or practice is beneficial or even “best”.

The Brits are doing it right. I hope the US follows their lead.

5 Years of New School

Five years ago Friday was the official publication date of The New School of Information Security. I want to take this opportunity to look back a little and look forward to the next few years.

Five years ago, fear of a breach and its consequences was nearly universal, and few people thought anything but pain would come of talking about our problems. Many people found it shocking when we challenged best practices, or asked if there was evidence for the ways we invested in security. I’d like to think we played some small role in how the culture of information security has changed. I’m hopeful that culture will continue to evolve in ways that focus on outcomes and data about those outcomes. At the same time, as I reflect, I go back to what Andrew and I wrote.

We wrote that the New School of Information Security is:

  • Learning from other professions, such as economics and psychology; to unlock the problems that stymie the security field. The way forward cannot be found solely in mathematics or technology.
  • Sharing objective data and analysis widely. A fetish for secrecy has held us back.
  • The embrace of the scientific method for solving important security problems. Analyzing real-world outcomes is the best way for information security to become a mature discipline.

We’ve seen tremendous movement in the sharing of objective data. From the DBIR to Mandiant’s report to revelations from Google, RSA, Bit9 and many others, we see people willing to talk about what went wrong. Sure, they sometimes add some spin, but that’s human nature. We’re seeing data being shared, or as I now like to say, published. We can’t take credit for that. Lots of people did a lot of hard work to convince their organizations to publish that data, and we’re learning from it and collections like the Open Security Foundation’s dataset.

We’ve also heard from countless folks about how much they liked the book, how it’s influenced their thinking and their actions, and that’s been a wonderful return on our work.

What we haven’t seen as much of is learning from other professions, such as economics and psychology. It’s still to common to complain that people will click on anything, we still argue with a paucity of data about if training people makes any sense. (Although if you have any data, I’d love to get it some attention at BlackHat.)

We also haven’t yet seen a lot of published data on the effectiveness of various security investments. As far as I know, no compliance regime yet requires breached entities to report back to those who create the standard about what went wrong, perpetuating the wicked environment in which we work, and wasting the time and money of those who need to comply.

Sadly, the pervious two paragraphs relate to what we wrote in chapters 5 and 6. For those of you who enjoyed the book, let me ask you to re-read them. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, now’s a great time. [Update: Even better, Addison Wesley is offering 40% off with code NEWSCHOOL40 to help us celebrate! Apply the code after proceeding to checkout.]

Andrew and I remain optimistic that our world can get better, and we’re proud to have helped illuminate a path forward.

I swear, I'm just looking at the articles!

Apparently, Playboy (possibly NSFW) has an app on iTunes. However, to get an app through the censors prudes “appropriate content” editors, there’s none of Playboy’s trademark nudes.

The Playboy app on ITunes

There hasn’t been such good news for their writers since the braille edition.

I’ll leave the jokes to you.

It’s worth thinking about this as the sanitized future if companies like Apple get to decide what we read or look at on the devices we buy.