Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SUMIT 09 - Annual UMich IT Security Symposium

I attended a very interesting symposium at UMich on Tuesday. It's an annual event called SUMIT, and the focus is on IT-related security. The event includes a series of speakers who have interesting stories to tell, and this year was no exception.

I arrived rather late to the event, and only caught the final part of what appeared to be a very interesting talk by Wade Baker, Verizon Business Security Solutions: Cybercrime: The Actos, Their Actions, and What They're After. Wade's experience has been that data loss is often left undiscovered for five or six months, and often only becomes discovered when that data is used to commit a crime, such as fraud. His sense is that targets are often repositories of information rather than individual systems (e.g., credit companies v. a home PC with information about only a single credit card). He went on to say that most organizations do not know where most of their sensitive data is located; they'll believe that it is located only in areas X and Y, but then discover that someone made a copy in area Z as well. When asked by the audience what single activity is most effective at increasing data security, Wade suggested audits: Organizations often have adequate security policies in place, but all too often they are not followed or enforced, and an audit will reveal this.

The second speaker, Moxie Marlinspike, Institute of Disruptive Technologies, gave a very, very interesting talk entitled Some Tricks for Defeating SSL in Practice. Moxie gave a detailed and clear explanation of a tool he created, sslsniff, and how it can be used in a man-in-the-middle attack to hijack a supposedly secure web connection using SSL. Further, by taking advantage in weak integrity checking by both certificate authorities and certificate-handling software, he demonstrated how one can obtain a "wildcard cert" which allows one to spoof many different web sites. And, as if that isn't scary enough, he also demonstrated how this allows one to inject software onto a machine via automated software-update jobs (e.g., Mozilla's update feature).

The next speaker, Adam Shostack. Microsoft, discussed the economic side of computer security in his talk, New School of Information Security. Adam spoke about how there was a dearth of available data for making decisions about computer security, but that the growing body of "breach data" was improving the situation. Adam pointed to as a good example of freely available breach data.

Terry Berg, US Attorney, described the pursuit and resolution of a high-profile case against the spammer, Alan Ralsky, in his talk, To Catch (and Prosecute) a Spammer. In brief, while technology was essential both both perpetrating and later solving the crime, the law enforcement team relied heavily on old-fashioned techniques such as cooperating witnesses to make its case.

The last speaker, Alex Halderman, University of Michigan, discussed a method of defeating secure disk storage through "cold boot" attacks in his talk, Cold-Boot Attacks Against Disk Encryption. It turns out that volatile RAM is not quite so volatile after all, and if one can sufficiently chill a memory chip, one can remove it from a victim PC, install it in a new machine, boot a minimal kernel, and then search the memory for the disk encryption key. Finding the key is easier than one may think because most encryption mechanisms maintain multiple derivatives of the key, which greatly facilitates its theft. The moral of the story is that one should always shutdown a computer or laptop if it contains sensitive data and will be taken through an insecure location (e.g., airport).

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