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Time - Again - For Trustworthy Computing

Saul Hansell of the Washington Post has posted an article about real time attacks on one-time password tokens like SecurID and SafeWord. The strategy is to steal a user's one-time password after it is typed in and redirect it to a hacker to exploit immediately. The attack relies on Trojan software that has installed itself in the victim's computer.SecurID Card

One time passwords were not designed to protect against this type of thing. Once you have that sort of trojan, there's no way to use your computer reliably. Attackers can intercept what you're doing, change it to benefit them, and you won't know what happened until you look at your bank statement.

The only way to protect against such things is to ensure that your computer has not been hacked. This is hard, since there are lots of ways to attack a computer and not nearly as many ways to protect it.

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Managing Your Passwords

In 2009, another blogger posted an article on password problems that suggests 10 hard-to-follow rules.

The author highlights an important problem: attackers can do systematic trial-and-error guessing attacks against on-line sites. She focuses on a Google Gmail problem recently reported on Full Disclosure.

Here's the point: use strong protection on high-value targets. Take the time to protect your major e-mail account, your financial resources, and anything else you really value. If you're going to slack off, do it when registering to post a one-off blog comment.

Let me take a stab at my own list of recommendations.

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Whirlwind - an ancient computer

I first learned about computer architecture back in the 1970s. Much of what I learned came from a set of  block diagrams for the old Whirlwind computer built at MIT.  A few years back I had the document scanned in.


Yes, it's built out of vacuum tubes. But it is also the complete design of a stored program digital computer in about 200 pages.

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Plaxo and the Overly-Social Web

I admit I'm jaded by social web sites. It seems like today's hot business plan is always for something that's "better than Facebook" or more focused on one thing or another. Most of these sites just try to capture personal things and broadcast them: short textual bursts (Twitter), photos (Flikr), video (YouTube), school ties (Facebook), professional relationships (LinkedIn).

Can anything be left?

Plaxo helps solve a long running personal problem of mine: how do I keep my contact list up to date?

Some of these sites more-or-less help you find recent e-mail addresses. Only Plaxo synchronizes this information with your desktop contact list. It synchronizes mailing addresses and phone numbers, too. This is terrific. This is practical. And it links in to other social web sites, like Facebook.

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Cutting a "black" wire in Tyson's Corner

The LA Times, of all places, has an interesting tidbit about an incident in Northern Virginia. A construction crew in Tyson's Corner cut a "classified" fiber optic cable. And the construction site was promptly visited by men in black SUVs.

Moreover, the cable cut was fixed that very day by AT&T personnel. Impressive response time, eh?

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Crypto bypass on the iPhone 3GS

Cousin Jon sent me this Wired link: how to bypass iPhone's 3GS encryption using jailbreaking tools. I haven't paid serious attention to the iPhone (AT&T hasn't had a strong signal in my town) but crypto bypass always gets my attention.

In fact, the weakness has nothing to do with protecting personal information on an iPhone. It's all about third parties: Apple, the cell provider, and possibly an employer who provides/manages the iPhone.

If you're not troubled by being limited to the iPhone Apps Store, then the threat's relatively small, especially compared to desktop systems. Moreover, I doubt we'll see real iPhone viruses as long as most people are happy with Apple's app restrictions.

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Spyware from a Cell Phone Carrier

Here's a scary harbinger of things to come - the top Blackberry carrier in the United Arab Emirates developed its own "upgrade" and distributed it to its customers. The carrier's upgrade contains spyware that apparently sends decrypted e-mails back to the vendor.

The vendor is 60% owned by the UAE government. (digg)

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Hacking Business Accounts

A couple of months ago I talked to an attorney at a regional law firm. He mentioned that some of his clients had lost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraudulent wire transfers. I surmised that it was due to rootkits that allowed someone to remotely perform a wire transfer. I also wondered if this was a local or widespread phenomenon.

Apparently it's widespread.

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More Matlab and RC4

A reader asked for more details on the RC4 and block cipher mode functions I wrote in Matlab.

To recap, I needed a 'block cipher' to produce a complete example of how a straight block cipher fails to hide large patterns in the output, and how an appropriate block cipher mode yields something akin to white noise.

Wikipedia has a "penguin" example with a block encrypted version (penguin still visible) and a block of white noise. The white noise represents what the block mode output is supposed to look like as opposed to being the genuine output of a block cipher mode. So I built this 'real' example, more or less.

I didn't have a block cipher that worked with small blocks. But I knew it wasn't hard to implement RC4. So I created a function to map 8 bytes of data into 8 bytes of 'ciphertext' to simulate the block cipher.

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Wow. Lisp-based Web service

John Fremlin has implemented a dynamic web server in Lisp. He claims that it beats the socks off of everything else. If we're comparing Lisp against PHP, Python, Ruby, and similar scripting languages, I wouldn't be surprised if he proves to be right.

Lisp is almost the closest-to-the-machine text language interpreter there is. Forth might beat it for closest, but Lisp is soo much more powerful. Moreover, it's possible to build sane programs in Lisp that you can actually analyze. That gives us a slight hope of building reliable and secure web servers as opposed to the cobbled together things we have to live with.

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