State of Security January 2017

Hoping to catch questions for DeVos, the billionaire nominee from my home state of Michigan for Education Secretary, who has no experience as an educator, I forget about Trump’s much anticipated news conference until I turn on the TV.  There he is, in the middle of some histrionics with CNN, refusing them the chance to ask a question because they are fake news.

“Don’t be rude!  Don’t be rude! Don’t be rude!”  Ferret faced, he yells down from his podium at a reporter who’s only trying to do his job.

Like many, I give a sigh of relief to finally hear him say Russia may have hacked information disclosed in the election.  But I may be the only person in the world who listens carefully to his generalized comments about hacking.  “And they tried to hack the Republican National Committee and they were unable to break through.”

Wait!  No!  That’s not what the FBI…  Don’t let him distract you.

I listen to him talk about how this is a problem, hacking, cybersecurity.  I think of past speeches where he’s blamed the current administration.  Past speeches where he said nobody really understands computers, what they are doing.

I work hard to follow his thoughts as he wanders off into a strange soliloquy.  He mentions “22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently… something that was extraordinary. That was probably China.”

I think how huge disclosures of people’s personal information have been happening, not recently, but for decades.  They are no longer extraordinary.

He comes back to how he’s going to fix this.  “And one of the things we’re gonna do, we have some of the greatest computer minds anywhere in the world that we’ve assembled. You saw just a sample of it two weeks ago up here where we had the six top people in the world … And we’re gonna put those minds together and we’re going to form a defense.”  All said with a face of great sincerity.

I think how those great minds earned vast fortunes – holdings larger than some small countries – selling vulnerable software, systems and devices that organizations and armies of security people, are powerless to secure.

I think how many breaches are caused by a built-in reliance on human beings to know the unknowable: what websites are safe to look at, what e-mail attachments can be safely opened, who really sent the e-mail that looks like it came from Aunt Sue?

I wonder how he thinks, especially with his promise to wipe out regulation, this can be so easily solved.

I think lots of luck Mr. Soon-to-be-President and I turn off the TV.

I’m at my desk when the phone rings.  I screen my calls, so I check the readout.  Big Insurance Company it says.  My health insurance company!  I’m not expecting a call.  Did I miss a payment?  I take the call. “This is Big Insurance Company.”  A pleasant woman’s computerized voice says. “We would like to speak to Esther Czekalski.  If you are Esther Czekalski, please press one.  If you are not, please press two.”

I do not give out my name to a caller unless I know who they are and caller IDs can be spoofed so I press the off button to hang up the call.  Pulling up my recent payment details, I call the customer support number on the bill.

After six menus, providing lots and lots more personal information – I did call the number on my monthly bill – and two sales pitches, I finally talk to a representative.  Nothing is said about a late payment.

“I got this computerized call that says it was from you and the first thing it asked me to do is provide personal information. I never, ever do that.  Are you trying to contact me for some reason?”

“Can you see the number who called you?”

“Well, yes, my phone shows me that information but I can’t look while I’m talking to you.”

She puts me on hold and then comes back to explain that Fastscripts, one of their third party partners is making calls to sell mail order prescriptions.  I hate sales calls and tell her so.  They are technically legal from my insurance company, with whom I have a business relationship, but not customer friendly.  My opinion.  She is kind and understanding, says I’m not the only customer she’s heard from today about this, and gives me the number that should have shown for the call. I say, “I’ll call you back if it doesn’t match.”

Formalities completed, she’s very polite, well trained to make sure that she’s dealt with my issue, so after we do some verbal bowing and hand-shaking, I hang up and check the number.  It doesn’t match.

I call back again.  Another trip through the menu system, another representative who has to research the issue again, she assures me it’s the Fastscripts campaign. I explain again that I was given the number and it didn’t match.  She gives me the number again, the one that should have been displayed.  “Yes, that’s the one I was given on the first call.” Again, I give her the number that shows on my phone.  It clearly doesn’t match.  She politely apologizes for taking my time, especially since I’ve had to call more than once and assures me that this was an authorized call.  She says she just wants me to feel safe.

We are speaking in slow motion now.

“But. It. Is. Not. The. Number. You. Told. Me. It. Would. Be.” I wonder if I seem as dotty as they treat me.

I explain that this is what I do for a living and if I worked for them, I would check the number that was calling me; the number I’d given them, the number that didn’t match.  Other customers might want to verify it, too.  “Use your contacts at Fastscripts, find out if this is one of theirs.  I know it’s unlikely, but someone might be using your name to collect personal information from your customers.”

“Do you have a security person I can talk to?”  I know they must, by law.

Anne comes on the line, says she’s helping me now.  We go through the issue again and she says she’ll investigate and call me back.  An hour later she does.

With a smile in her voice she explains that this wasn’t Fastscripts after all.  This was another third party partner of theirs.  This third party partner is doing a survey of their Medicare patients to see if Big Insurance Company is providing the right services, I’d be asked things like whether I was afraid of falling, for example.

“So if I’d provided my name, I would have been asked for more personal information?  About how I feel?  My health status?  And you’re doing this without advance notice, without any way for me to verify who I’m talking to other than believe a voice on the phone?”  I’m speaking loudly now.

“I understand your concern and I’ve already raised it to management.”  She says.

“Well, tell them again and tell them I said it louder!”  I can’t stop now and I’m probably yelling.  “Just give me two seconds more to speak my mind.  Legitimate companies do things like this.  Then we wonder why someone would give their private, personal information to a complete stranger?

There, I’ve had my say.  If she is their security person, she probably even agrees.  Sadly, it’s unlikely that one security professional and one dotty customer will slow down Big Insurance Company’s quest for higher sales.  More formalities, she never loses the smile in her voice, and I’m done on the phone.

I say again.  Lots of luck Mr. Soon-to-be-President, lots of luck.


Since it was necessary to truncate multiple encounters with my insurance company to make this readable, I’ve changed names.  So this should be considered as a work of fiction.  A work of fiction where the author is trying to depict events as accurately as possible.

Women in Security

Whenever I attend an information security association meeting or event, I estimate the number of women in the room, compared to men.  Rarely are women more than ten percent of the participants.

I know that extrapolating from my own experience is not statistically sound but many of the women I’ve tried to mentor had to move on to other kinds of jobs because that’s what they could get.  I don’t blame them.  But then I hear how there are so many information security jobs begging to be filled and it doesn’t make sense.

This has been true for a generation as far as I can tell.  What makes me speak of it today is a recent study, reported here by Tracy Lien in the LA Times.

Women in tech still earn far less than men, study finds 

“Significant gaps also existed in tech jobs such as video game artists (15.8%), information security specialists (14.7%) and front-end engineers (9.7%).”  (I added the emphasis.)

Tracy goes on to quote Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, “My view is that in heavily male-dominated fields, the people who are making the decisions about pay and promotion are disproportionately men, and that can play a role in why we’re seeing gaps in male and female pay,”

These same people make hiring decisions.

I’m just saying…

Save our Encryption

“When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”

This silly slogan runs through my mind as yet another headline screams that lawmakers want manufacturers to take encryption off of devices, mostly phones, to make it easier to prosecute criminals.

Unfortunately, strong opinions exist only in my mind, it seems.

Any dissension or uprising, any slogan, any Facebook meme however trite or oversimplified disputing this demand would make me feel better.  I would even settle for a statement of support if it would provoke a fraction of the populist debate that I see about guns.  People don’t seem to know or care that their right to privacy is under attack in this non-conversation.

Fine points mumbled over by the highest orders of technocratic gurus, surrounded in esoteric terms and higher math concepts, encryption tends to scare people off as a subject for dinner conversations.  Guns, well, people know guns, or think they do, at least enough to have an opinion.

Let me see if I can use this old saw to cut some new wood.  “When encryption is outlawed…”

Let’s start with the reality of outlawing encryption, something that’s been around longer than computers, simply by taking it off of them.  That can’t prevent its use.

Encryption is simple, really!

Let’s do this together, you and me.  I want to send you a message: Noon lunch at Joes.  To keep lunch just between the two of us, I’m cheap; I’m going to encrypt it.

To do this, first we need a process to transform the message. We’ll start by assigning a number to each letter in the alphabet.  A is one; b is two, and so on.

Then we need a secret, you and I.  There’s a book we both have.  We’ll agree that every message will be encrypted using a different page of our book, starting with page one for the first message.

We’ll have to make some other process decisions, like how to handle spaces, too.  Do we leave the same spaces between words when it’s encrypted?  (Bad idea as it provides clues about word length.)  Do we ignore them? Or give them a value, too?  Like the example, these decisions may influence the strength of our encryption but what’s most important is that both of us understand them the same way.

So I take our first message, “Noon lunch at Joes “and the first line from the first page in the book:  “In the beginning…”

Remember how we assigned numbers to letters?  If you numbered the same way as I did, we’ll get the value 14 for the first letter N, from the message.  Then add it to 9 for the letter I from the secret.  Then we convert that sum, 23, back to a letter, whatever letter has that number in our numbered alphabet.  It comes out as W, the 23rd letter of the alphabet.

I write down W; it’s the first letter in our coded message.

And I do it again, and again, for every letter in our message.  I bet you see why a computer could come in handy right now.  But the point is, it’s not necessary.

When you get the message, you reverse the process.  Subtract the value of I, first letter in the secret, from the first letter W, in our crypto text, write down the result, and so on.  You’re the only one who can decrypt, because you’re the only one who knows the secret.

See?  You can do encryption!

And don’t minimize what we just did.  This is a simple variation on an encryption algorithm known as the one time pad.  It was one of the hardest codes for code-breakers in World War II to crack.  So hard that it was easier to turn the enemy, to persuade someone to hand over the paper “pads” of random characters that were used – random making a stronger secret than our book— than to try to crack the coded messages.

Over the years, encryption has evolved to deal with some of the old weaknesses, among others, our wartime problem of how to share a secret with hundreds of people and still keep it secret.  (Not a problem between you and I.)  But it always has these two properties, a process to transform and a shared secret.  Simple, eh?

Computers have made it easier for us to use encryption, embedding it into apps or even into the computer’s hardware (firmware), making it faster, always ready.   Modern encryption also has stronger secrets; it’s harder to defeat.

So, while taking encryption off of our computers can’t really take away our ability to use it, it gets a lot harder for us to do well.  A lot harder for you and I to protect our information:  banking, healthcare, or anything else that’s personal to us, the kind of thing we only want to share with our select few.

Of course I can go out and buy encryption software, use it on those same devices.  But I guess they can make that illegal, too.  Which brings me back to our old saw, transformed, “… only outlaws will have encryption.”    As a friend pointed out with guns, then we know who the outlaws are.

But wait!!  When I’m a famous writer, if I use encryption to arrange a private rendezvous with my sweetheart, sans-paparazzi, will I be an outlaw?  Suspect?

Well, I guess it’s not all bad. Some people could profit from this.  Those hackers, er, software developers, in Russia who were put out of business by the pharma wars, when their spamming, illegal businesses imploded through bad leadership and the pressure of international law enforcement, those guys could use a new line of work.  A new product to sell, an international export!

Seriously, I could even see some compromise around my use of encryption if it were well defined, well protected.  For example, some kinds of encryption can be fitted with something like a master key.  This is used all of the time in big corporations so that encrypted company data won’t be lost if someone forgets their password.  It’s sometimes called a recovery key.

But who would protect that master key?  The Federal Government?  The government that seems to be telling me via the media as I write this, that I should get my tax return in early so they don’t accidently give money to a thief?

And would use of that key by law enforcement require my permission?  Notification?  A subpoena?  One that limited what information could be retrieved?

We don’t have a law in the US that defines our fundamental right to privacy, our right to protect it with tools of our choice, let alone one that covers these questions.  And sadly, I don’t hear voices demanding that we do that first, before they take away encryption, the tool that protects us from our own technology.

But, well, OK.  I DO have a constitutional right to own a gun.