Cybercops and zero day vulns

Don't believe the hype


Infosec blog The start of the Infosec conference tomorrow will witness one of the first public appearances of the new Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Dubbed the UK's FBI by Britain's tabloids, SOCA will tackle drug trafficking, immigration crime, money laundering and identity fraud by developing intelligence on organised crime and pursuing key suspects while disrupting criminal activity.

The agency will bring together more than 4,000 police, customs and immigration experts to create Britain's first non-police law-enforcement authority. Officers from the National High Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) joined these ranks when the agency launched earlier this month. The Home Office has said that drug and people trafficking, fraud, and identity theft will be among SOCA's top priorities.

Despite its assigned role as a leading agency in fighting identity theft, critics are questioning how much of SOCA's resources will put into the fight against cybercrime. Spyblog, for example, said the launch of the agency signals a very low priority for computer crime.

Like any police agency in the UK, SOCA is ultimately accountable to the public, whose needs and concerns help shape its priorities. Divisional bosses from Greater Manchester Police or the Metropolitan Police, for example, regularly meet the general public. The frequent result of these meetings is that increased resources are put into combating burglaries or antisocial behavior, for example, in particular areas. Because resources are finite, this has the undesirable effect of reducing the number of officers assigned to combat other problems.

In the case of SOCA, it's easy to see how similar pressures might affect its mandate. Combating organised child abuse, a role it will share with other agencies, will always be a priority, but how much resource will be placed towards fighting computer hacking and virus writing?

Perhaps a question to this answer will come when Tony Neate, a former officer of the NHTCU and current e-crime liaison officer at SOCA, chairs a debate E-Crime: Who Got Caught Out Last Year?.

The Mirapoint cracked

It won't come as a surprise for you to hear that Register staffers receive huge volumes of junk mail. I myself get about 300 to 400 spam messages per day against up to 100 pieces of legitimate mail, many of them press releases.

Over the last three years I've tried several approaches to anti-spam filtering. The best results have come with SpamBayes, largely because it allows users to train the product on what they see as spam and, crucially, what they see as legitimate emails (ham). The only disadvantage with the product is that you have to download every message before filtering takes place. Using SpamBayes in conjunction with an email filtering service from Avecho, set to remove only transparently bad emails, proved to be an effective approach.

Since the demise of Avecho I've been obliged to rely on the native email filtering service provided by El Reg's ISP Telstra. The service, which is underpinned by technology from security appliance vendor Mirapoint, is the bane of my working life. The filter is perhaps 80 per cent to 90 per cent effective in identifying and junking spam messages. That's worse than other products I've tried, but still not terrible. What really let's the service down is the quantity and importance of messages it flags as spam.

Most ecommerce transactions - for example travel confirmations from Opodo and and kit purchases from - get flagged as spam. Direct person to person queries also often get junked, as do press releases, unless the sender is white listed. Because of this, I have to manually go through my inbox. Using the service is, for me, like driving a car that never starts in the morning. Other Reg staffers have also experienced frustrations with the service.

I first complained about the service's shortcomings to Mirapoint a year ago, since when the false positive issue has become more noticeable. In conversation with Mirapoint on Monday, representatives of the firm said it products were "demonstrably capable". If so, why is Telstra's service binning ecommerce receipts, we asked? Mirapoint responded by saying all it could do was recommend how its technology was set up and that ultimately it relies on its service providers. Telstra is one of a dozen ISPs that provide hosted email security services based on Mirapoint's technology.

Mirapoint said it hadn't received feedback about excessive false positives from Telstra, or any of its other service providers. Nonetheless, it conceded that its reputation might be tarnished via its association with Telstra's indifferent service. It said it would make inquiries, but warned there might be "no quick fix".

Security disclosure

Let me make a small bet that VoIP security, along with how to respond to so-called zero day vulnerabilities, will be a hot topic at this year's Infosec. The latter was heavily discussed last month when two security vendors, including eEye, released security patches to defend against an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser.

Last week, security tools firm ISS warned that using third-party patches could violate the license agreements for software installed on their systems. Organisations can feel pushed into believing that, on balance, applying an unofficial patch is safer than remaining exposed to attack. But ISS warns that such fixes have not gone through rigorous testing. "The reason why a vendor like Microsoft takes some time to release a hotfix is because they have to ensure quality and system integrity across multiple combinations of Windows service packs, international editions, and supported hardware platforms. The unofficial patches being developed by these third-party organisations are opportunistic PR efforts rather than serious security fixes," ISS X-Force director Gunter Ollmann said.

That's fighting talk.

eEye chief hacking officer Marc Maiffret argued that ISS's warning is little more than a pitch for its virtual patch technology. "This is funny considering their press release attempts to say that third party security companies are only creating these free patches for marketing purposes. The only difference between them and the third party companies in that case is that ISS has not done anything to provide the community a free work around for the problem, you have to buy their product," Maiffret told El Reg.

"ISS's products, like most of the third party patches, go about modifying/patching code in order to divert attacks. So, if ISS really believes its statements, then it should probably do a follow up press release which tells people they could/might/who really knows be violating their EULA by using ISS security products," he added.

Ouch. ®

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