Playing the phishing blame game
The buck stops ... somewhere over there
Comment In 2004, I came across an empirical study published by the CERT/CC that indicated a diminishing correlation between the number of vendor-issued vulnerabilities and the number of reported security incidents. In the years prior to 2002, the number of reported security breaches had always been proportional to the number of vendor-published vulnerabilities. That corollary made sense, since attacks and worms followed vulnerabilities.
However, in 2003 and beyond this was no longer the case. The number of incidents rose dramatically as compared to the number of published I wondered about the reasons for this fundamental change. Could it be a population explosion in the hacker community? Unlikely. Had the fall of Enron prompted auditors and investigators to take over corporate America and actually report every security breach? No. The events of the months to follow clarified what I feel are the real reasons.
In February of 2005, I researched a news article that reported a Florida businessman, Joe Lopez, had lost over $90,000 from his online bank account at the Bank of America. The compromise was attributed to a keystroke logging Trojan named Coreflood that was found on Lopez's computer during a US Secret Service investigation. After reading that article, the big question seemed to be, "who was to blame, the customer, Joe Lopez, or the financial institution, the Bank of America?"
In May of 2005, my company was hired to investigate a forensics case similar to the one described above. The user had lost $50,000 in three separate fund transfers from her online account. The bank in question had hired experts to assess the security of their own networks and systems. The results indicated that the bank's systems were immune to any attack that may have resulted in this compromise - and they believed they did their part. Forensic analysis of the compromised user's home computer provided the evidence of the compromise - a keystroke-logging Trojan that was tailored to capture the user's credentials; electronically mail them to a server several thousands of miles away; and then delete itself. So who's to blame, the "unaware" end-user or the "negligent" bank?
Recently, I received a phone call from my cousin in London informing me that he had lost £8000 in a similar manner to the scenario described above. This conversation proved to be my moment of enlightenment. Eureka! It's the end user attacks that are superseding the conventional attacks we've seen against servers for years, ultimately increasing the total number of reported security incidents dramatically.
The pieces of the puzzle were coming together. With over 200 remotely exploitable vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer, the market leader in web browsers, and 49 per cent annual growth in the number of broadband users; and 26 per cent growth month-over-month in the number of phishing sites on the internet (of which 78 per cent targeted financial institutions), the rise in attacks against end users for their banking credentials was becoming common.
Who's to blame?
Revisiting the argument of who's to blame for these attacks, the blame can be supported on either side. The fact is that those involved need to think beyond the legal debate and continue to play each of their respective roles to counter this threat. I strongly believe that financial institutions need to "up-the--ante" and go well-beyond introducing those links on their web pages that educate users about keyloggers, viruses, Trojans and phishing attempts.
Some banks now provide RSA tokens that generate one-time passwords to mitigate the risk associated with stolen credentials to their customers - but most still do not. Another example of some forward progress is the Stanford Federal Credit Union who has implemented an authentication solution from Passmark Security that goes beyond conventional passwords.
These approaches are significant initiatives and may not be economically feasible or timely solutions for many financial institutions -- after all, if their own systems are secure, what have they got to lose? Besides their customers and their customer's money, that is.
Even slight changes, such as a conspicuous message on the main page of the bank's website educating users about these threats and the appropriate countermeasures can be very useful. Or, displaying the latest phishing statistics from the Anti-Phishing Working Group would be very easy to do. Or, providing links to websites like Microsoft's Windows Update that checks both the browser and operating system patch levels can have a positive impact. These have virtually no cost to the financial institution, but can be a great value in educating their customers about the risks.
Regulators like the FDIC have already been advising financial institutions against using single-factor authentication and finally upgrading to two-factor authentication - a positive step towards better security. Given the "epidemic nature" (as described by the US-CERT) of the problem, a more firm regulatory stance requiring the deployment of stronger authentication systems may prove to be successful.
In the meantime, let's all take control of our destinies, or at least our bank accounts, and doing the things that most SecurityFocus readers already know: patching our systems (especially those accessed via web browsers); installing personal firewalls; updating anti-virus definitions; browsing the Internet logged in as a non-administrative user on the operating system.; and educating users about the risks that probably still exist on their home machines. Every little bit can help.
Rohyt Belani is the Director of Proactive Security at Red Cliff Consulting. He is a contributing author for Osborne's Hack Notes – Network Security, as well as Addison Wesley's Extrusion Detection: Security Monitoring for Internal Intrusions. Rohyt is also a regular speaker at various industry conferences and forums including OWASP, HTCIA, FBI-Cyber Security Summit, ASIS, New York State Cyber Security Conference, HackInTheBox-Malaysia, and CPM.