Bots, Like This! I am an Ardent Fan of HTTPS and Certificates!

This is an experiment in Machine Learning, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, whatever.

But I need proper digression first.

Last autumn, I turned my back on social media and went offline for a few days.

There, in that magical place, the real world was offline as well. A history of physics museum had to be opened, just for us.

The sign says: Please call XY and we open immediately.

Scientific instruments of the past have a strange appeal, steampunk-y, artisanal, timeless. But I could not have enjoyed it, hadn’t I locked down the gates of my social media fortresses before.

Last year’ improved’ bots and spammers seem to have invaded WordPress. Did their vigilant spam filters feel a disturbance of the force? My blog had been open for anonymous comments since more than 5 years, but I finally had to restrict access. Since last year every commentator needs to have one manually approved comment.

But how to get attention if I block the comments? Spam your links by Liking other blogs. Anticipate that clickers will be very dedicated: Clicking on your icon only takes the viewer to your gravatar profile. The gravatar shows a link to the actual spammy website.

And how to pick suitable – likeable – target blog posts? Use your sophisticated artificial intelligence: If you want to sell SSL certificates (!) pick articles that contain key words like SSL or domain – like this one. BTW, I take the ads for acne treatment personally. Please stick to marketing SSL certificates. Especially in the era of free certificates provided by Let’s Encrypt.

Please use a different image for your different gravatars. You have done rather well when spam-liking the post on my domains and HTTPS, but what was on your mind when you found my post on hijacking orphaned domains for malvertizing?

Did statements like this attract the army of bots?

… some of the pages contain links to other websites that advertize products in a spammy way.

So what do I need to do to make you all like this post? Should I tell you that have a bunch of internet domains? That I migrated my non-blogs to HTTPS last year? That WordPress migrated blogs to HTTPS some time ago? That they use Let’s Encrypt certificates now, just as the hosting provider of my other websites does?

[Perhaps I should quote ‘SSL’ and ‘TLS’, too.]

Or should I tell you that I once made a fool of myself for publishing my conspiracy theories – about how Google ditched my blog from their index? While I actually had missed that you need to add the HTTPS version as a separate item in Google Webmaster Tools?

So I despearately need help with Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing. Google shows me ads for their free online marketing courses on Facebook all the time now.

Or I need help with HTTPS (TLS/SSL) – embarrassing, as for many years I did nothing else than implementing Public Key Infrastructures and troubleshooting certificates? I am still debugging of all kinds weird certificate chaining and browser issues. The internet is always a little bit broken, says Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

[Is X.509 certificate a good search term? No, too nerdy, I guess.]

Or maybe you are more interested in my pioneering Search Term Poetry and Spam Poetry.  I need new raw material.

Like this! Like this! Like this!

Maybe I am going to even approve a comment and talk to you. It would not be the first time I fail the Turing test on this blog.

Don’t let me down, bots! I count on you!

Update 2018-02-13: So far, this post was a success. The elkemental blog has not seen this many likes in years.… and right now I noticed that the omnipresent suit bot also started to market solar energy and to like my related posts!

Update 2018-02-18: They have not given up yet – we welcome another batch of bots!

bots-welcome-experiment-success-2

Update 2018-04-01: They become more subtle – now they spam-like comments – albeit (sadly) not the comments on this article. Too bad I don’t display the comment likes – only I see them in the admin console 😉

bots-welcome-experiment-success-3

The Orphaned Internet Domain Risk

I have clicked on company websites of social media acquaintances, and something is not right: Slight errors in formatting, encoding errors for special German characters.

Then I notice that some of the pages contain links to other websites that advertize products in a spammy way. However, the links to the spammy sites are embedded in this alleged company websites in a subtle way: Using the (nearly) correct layout, or  embedding the link in a ‘news article’ that also contains legit product information – content really related to the internet domain I am visiting.

Looking up whois information tells me that these internet domain are not owned by my friends anymore – consistent with what they actually say on the social media profiles. So how come that they ‘have given’ their former domains to spammers? They did not, and they didn’t need to: Spammers simply need to watch out for expired domains, seize them when they are available – and then reconstruct the former legit content from public archives, and interleave it with their spammy messages.

The former content of legitimate sites is often available on the web archive. Here is the timeline of one of the sites I checked:

Clicking on the details shows:

  • Last display of legit content in 2008.
  • In 2012 and 2013 a generic message from the hosting provider was displayed: This site has been registered by one of our clients
  • After that we see mainly 403 Forbidden errors – so the spammers don’t want their site to be archived – but at one time a screen capture of the spammy site had been taken.

The new site shows the name of the former owner at the bottom but an unobtrusive link had been added, indicating the new owner – a US-based marketing and SEO consultancy.

So my take away is: If you ever feel like decluttering your websites and free yourself of your useless digital possessions – and possibly also social media accounts, think twice: As soon as your domain or name is available, somebody might take it, and re-use and exploit your former content and possibly your former reputation for promoting their spammy stuff in a shady way.

This happened a while ago, but I know now it can get much worse: Why only distribute marketing spam if you can distribute malware through channels still considered trusted? In this blog post Malwarebytes raises the question if such practices are illegal or not – it seems that question is not straight-forward to answer.

Visitors do not even have to visit the abandoned domain explicitly to get hacked by malware served. I have seen some reports of abandoned embedded plug-ins turned into malicious zombies. Silly example: If you embed your latest tweets, Twitter goes out-of-business, and its domains are seized by spammers – you Follow Me icon might help to spread malware.

If a legit site runs third-party code, they need to trust the authors of this code. For example, Equifax’ website recently served spyware:

… the problem stemmed from a “third-party vendor that Equifax uses to collect website performance data,” and that “the vendor’s code running on an Equifax Web site was serving malicious content.”

So if you run any plug-ins, embedded widgets or the like – better check out regularly if the originating domain is still run by the expected owner – monitor your vendors often; and don’t run code you do not absolutely need in the first place. Don’t use embedded active badges if a simple link to your profile would do.

Do a painful boring inventory and assessment often – then you will notice how much work it is to manage these ‘partners’ and rather stay away from signing up and registering for too much services.

Update 2017-10-25: And as we speak, we learn about another example – snatching a domain used for a Dell backup software, preinstalled on PCs.

Other People Have Lives – I Have Domains

These are just some boring update notifications from the elkemental Webiverse.

The elkement blog has recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and the punktwissen blog will turn five in December. Time to celebrate this – with new domain names that says exactly what these sites are – the ‘elkement.blog‘ and the ‘punktwissen.blog‘.

Actually, I wanted to get rid of the ads on both blogs, and with the upgrade came a free domain. WordPress has a detailed cookie policy – and I am showing it dutifully using the respective widget, but they have to defer to their partners when it comes to third-party cookies. I only want to worry about research cookies set by Twitter and Facebook, but not by ad providers, and I am also considering to remove social media sharing buttons and the embedded tweets. (Yes, I am thinking about this!)

On the websites under my control I went full dinosaur, and the server sends only non-interactive HTML pages sent to the client, not requiring any client-side activity. I now got rid of the last half-hearted usage of a session object and the respective cookie, and I have never used any social media buttons or other tracking.

So there are no login data or cookies to protect, but yet I finally migrated all sites to HTTPS.

It is a matter of principle: I of all website owners should use https. Since 15 years I have been planning and building Public Key Infrastructures and troubleshooting X.509 certificates.

But of course I fear Google’s verdict: They have announced long ago to HTTPS is considered a positive ranking by its search engine. Pages not using HTTPS will be tagged as insecure using more and more terrifying icons – e.g. http-only pages with login buttons already display a striked-through padlock in Firefox. In the past years I migrated a lot of PKIs from SHA1 to SHA256 to fight the first wave of Insecure icons.

Finally Let’s Encrypt has started a revolution: Free SSL certificates, based on domain validation only. My hosting provider uses a solution based on Let’s Encrypt – using a reverse proxy that does the actual HTTPS. I only had to re-target all my DNS records to the reverse proxy – it would have been very easy would it not have been for all my already existing URL rewriting and tweaking and redirecting. I also wanted to keep the option of still using HTTP in the future for tests and special scenario (like hosting a revocation list), so I decided on redirecting myself in the application(s) instead of using the offered automated redirect. But a code review and clean-up now and then can never hurt 🙂 For large complex sites the migration to HTTPS is anything but easy.

In case I ever forget which domains and host names I use, I just need to check out this list of Subject Alternative Names again:

(And I have another certificate for the ‘test’ host names that I need for testing the sites themselves and also for testing various redirects ;-))

WordPress.com also uses Let’s Encrypt (Automattic is a sponsor), and the SAN elkement.blog is lumped together with several other blog names, allegedly the ones which needed new certificates at about the same time.

It will be interesting what the consequences for phishing websites will be. Malicious websites will look trusted as being issued certificates automatically, but revoking a certificate might provide another method for invalidating a malicious website.

Anyway, special thanks to the WordPress.com Happiness Engineers and support staff at my hosting provider Puaschitz IT. Despite all the nerdiness displayed on this blog I prefer hosted / ‘shared’ solutions when it comes to my own websites because I totally like it when somebody else has to patch the server and deal with attacks. I am an annoying client – with all kinds of special needs and questions – thanks for the great support! 🙂

Give the ‘Thing’ a Subnet of Its Own!

To my surprise, the most clicked post ever on this blog is this:

Network Sniffing for Everyone:
Getting to Know Your Things (As in Internet of Things)

… a step-by-step guide to sniff the network traffic of your ‘things’ contacting their mothership, plus a brief introduction to networking. I wanted to show how you can trace your networked devices’ traffic without any specialized equipment but being creative with what many users might already have, by turning a Windows PC into a router with Internet Connection Sharing.

Recently, an army of captured things took down part of the internet, and this reminded me of this post. No, this is not one more gloomy article about the Internet of Things. I just needed to use this Internet Sharing feature for the very purpose it was actually invented.

The Chief Engineer had finally set up the perfect test lab for programming and testing freely programmable UVR16x2 control systems (successor of UVR1611). But this test lab was a spot not equipped with wired ethernet, and the control unit’s data logger and ethernet gateway, so-called CMI (Control and Monitoring Interface), only has a LAN interface and no WLAN.

So an ages-old test laptop was revived to serve as a router (improving its ecological footprint in passing): This notebook connects to the standard ‘office’ network via WLAN: This wireless connection is thus the internet connection that can be shared with a device connected to the notebook’s LAN interface, e.g. via a cross-over cable. As explained in detail in the older article the router-laptop then allows for sniffing the traffic, – but above all it allows the ‘thing’ to connect to the internet at all.

This is the setup:

Using a notebook with Internet Connection Sharing enabled as a router to connect CMI (UVR16x2's ethernet gatway) to the internet

The router laptop is automatically configured with IP address 192.168.137.1 and hands out addresses in the 192.168.137.x network as a DHCP server, while using an IP address provided by the internet router for its WLAN adapter (indicated here as commonly used 192.168.0.x addresses). If Windows 10 is used on the router-notebook, you might need to re-enable ICS after a reboot.

The control unit is connected to the CMI via CAN bus – so the combination of test laptop, CMI, and UVR16x2 control unit is similar to the setup used for investigating CAN monitoring recently.

The CMI ‘thing’ is tucked away in a private subnet dedicated to it, and it cannot be accessed directly from any ‘Office PC’ – except the router PC itself. A standard office PC (green) effectively has to access the CMI via the same ‘cloud’ route as an Internet User (red). This makes the setup a realistic test for future remote support – when the CMI plus control unit has been shipped to its proud owner and is configured on the final local network.

The private subnet setup is also a simple workaround in case several things can not get along well with each other: For example, an internet TV service flooded CMI’s predecessor BL-NET with packets that were hard to digest – so BL-NET refused to work without a further reboot. Putting the sensitive device in a private subnet – using a ‘spare part’ router, solved the problem.

The Chief Engineer's quiet test lab for testing and programming control units

Internet of Things. Yet Another Gloomy Post.

Technically, I work with Things, as in the Internet of Things.

As outlined in Everything as a Service many formerly ‘dumb’ products – such as heating systems – become part of service offerings. A vital component of the new services is the technical connection of the Thing in your home to that Big Cloud. It seems every energy-related system has got its own Internet Gateway now: Our photovoltaic generator has one, our control unit has one, and the successor of our heat pump would have one, too. If vendors don’t bundle their offerings soon, we’ll end up with substantial electricity costs for powering a lot of separate gateways.

Experts have warned for years that the Internet of Things (IoT) comes with security challenges. Many Things’ owners still keep default or blank passwords, but the most impressive threat is my opinion is not hacking individual systems: Easily hacked things can be hijacked to serve as zombie clients in a botnet and lauch a joint Distributed Denial of Service attack against a single target. Recently the blog of renowned security reporter Brian Krebs has been taken down, most likely as an act of revenge by DDoSers (Crime is now offered as a service as well.). The attack – a tsunami of more than 600 Gbps – was described as one of the largest the internet had seen so far. Hosting provider OVH was subject to a record-breaking Tbps attack – launched via captured … [cue: hacker movie cliché] … cameras and digital video recorders on the internet.

I am about the millionth blogger ‘reporting’ on this, nothing new here. But the social media news about the DDoS attacks collided with another social media micro outrage  in my mind – about seemingly unrelated IT news: HP had to deal with not-so-positive reporting about its latest printer firmware changes and related policies –  when printers started to refuse to work with third-party cartridges. This seems to be a legal issue or has been presented as such, and I am not interested in that aspect here. What I find interesting is the clash of requirements: After the DDoS attacks many commentators said IoT vendors should be held accountable. They should be forced to update their stuff. On the other hand, end users should remain owners of the IT gadgets they have bought, so the vendor has no right to inflict any policies on them and restrict the usage of devices.

I can relate to both arguments. One of my main motivations ‘in renewable energy’ or ‘in home automation’ is to make users powerful and knowledgable owners of their systems. On the other hand I have been ‘in security’ for a long time. And chasing firmware for IoT devices can be tough for end users.

It is a challenge to walk the tightrope really gracefully here: A printer may be traditionally considered an item we own whereas the internet router provided by the telco is theirs. So we can tinker with the printer’s inner workings as much as we want but we must not touch the router and let the telco do their firmware updates. But old-school devices are given more ‘intelligence’ and need to be connected to the internet to provide additional services – like that printer that allows to print from your smartphone easily (Yes, but only if your register it at the printer manufacturer’s website before.). In addition, our home is not really our castle anymore. Our computers aren’t protected by the telco’s router / firmware all the time, but we work in different networks or in public places. All the Things we carry with us, someday smart wearable technology, will check in to different wireless and mobile networks – so their security bugs should better be fixed in time.

If IoT vendors should be held accountable and update their gadgets, they have to be given the option to do so. But if the device’s host tinkers with it, firmware upgrades might stall. In order to protect themselves from legal persecution, vendors need to state in contracts that they are determined to push security updates and you cannot interfere with it. Security can never be enforced by technology only – for a device located at the end user’s premises.

It is horrible scenario – and I am not sure if I refer to hacking or to proliferation of even more bureaucracy and over-regulation which should protect us from hacking but will add more hurdles for would-be start-ups that dare to sell hardware.

Theoretically a vendor should be able to separate the security-relevant features from nice-to-have updates. For example, in a similar way, in smart meters the functions used for metering (subject to metering law) should be separated from ‘features’ – the latter being subject to remote updates while the former must not. Sources told me that this is not an easy thing to achieve, at least not as easy as presented in the meters’ marketing brochure.

Linksys's Iconic Router

That iconic Linksys router – sold since more than 10 years (and a beloved test devices of mine). Still popular because you could use open source firmware. Something that new security policies might seek to prevent.

If hardware security cannot be regulated, there might be more regulation of internet traffic. Internet Service Providers could be held accountable to remove compromised devices from their networks, for example after having noticed the end user several times. Or smaller ISPs might be cut off by upstream providers. Somewhere in the chain of service providers we will have to deal with more monitoring and regulation, and in one way or other the playful days of the earlier internet (romanticized with hindsight, maybe) are over.

When I saw Krebs’ site going offline, I wondered what small business should do in general: His site is now DDoS-protected by Google’s Project Shield, a service offered to independent journalists and activists after his former pro-bono host could not deal with the load without affecting paying clients. So one of the Siren Servers I commented on critically so often came to rescue! A small provider will not be able to deal with such attacks.

WordPress.com should be well-protected, I guess. I wonder if we will all end up hosting our websites at such major providers only, or ‘blog’ directly to Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn (now part of Microsoft) to be safe. I had advised against self-hosting WordPress myself: If you miss security updates you might jeopardize not only your website, but also others using the same shared web host. If you live on a platform like WordPress or Google, you will complain from time to time about limited options or feature updates you don’t like – but you don’t have to care about security. I compare this to avoiding legal issues as an artisan selling hand-made items via Amazon or the like, in contrast to having to update your own shop’s business logic after every change in international tax law.

I have no conclusion to offer. Whenever I read news these days – on technology, energy, IT, anything in between, The Future in general – I feel reminded of this tension: Between being an independent neutral netizen and being plugged in to an inescapable matrix, maybe beneficial but Borg-like nonetheless.

Have I Seen the End of E-Mail?

Not that I desire it, but my recent encounters of ransomware make me wonder.

Some people in say, accounting or HR departments are forced to use e-mail with utmost paranoia. Hackers send alarmingly professional e-mails that look like invoices, job applications, or notifications of postal services. Clicking a link starts the download of malware that will encrypt all your data and ask for ransom.

Theoretically you could still find out if an e-mail was legit by cross-checking with open invoices, job ads, and expected mail. But what if hackers learn about your typical vendors from your business website or if they read your job ads? Then they would send plausible e-mails and might refer to specific codes, like the number of your job ad.

Until recently I figured that only medium or larger companies would be subject to targeted attacks. One major Austrian telco was victim of a Denial of Service attacked and challenged to pay ransom. (They didn’t, and were able to deal with the attack successfully.)

But then I have encountered a new level of ransomware attacks – targeting very small Austrian businesses by sending ‘expected’ job applications via e-mail:

  • The subject line was Job application as [a job that had been advertised weeks ago at a major governmental job service platform]
  • It was written in flawless German, using typical job applicant’s lingo as you learn in trainings.
  • It was addressed to the personal e-mail of the employee dealing with applications, not the public ‘info@’ address of the business
  • There was no attachment – so malware filters could not have found anything suspicious – but only a link to a shared cloud folder (‘…as the attachments are too large…’) – run by a a legit European cloud company.
  • If you clicked the link (which you should not so unless you do this on a separate test-for-malware machine in a separate network) you saw a typical applicant’s photo and a second file – whose name translated to JobApplicationPDF.exe.

Suspicious features:

  • The EXE file should have triggered red lights. But it is not impossible that a job application creates a self-extracting archive, although I would compare that to wrapping your paper application in a box looking like a fake bomb.
  • Google’s Image Search showed that the photo has been stolen from a German photographer’s website – it was an example for a typical job applicant’s photo.
  • Both cloud and mail service used were less known ones. It has been reported that Dropbox had removed suspicious files so it seemed that attackers tuned to alternative services. (Both mail and cloud provider reacted quickly and sht down the suspicious accounts)
  • The e-mail did not contain a phone number or street address, just the pointer to the cloud store: Possible but weird as an applicant should be eager to encourage communications via all channels. There might be ‘normal’ issues with accessing a cloud store link (e.g. link falsely blocked by corporate firewall) – so the HR department should be able to call the applicant.
  • Googling the body text of the e-mail gave one result only – a new blog entry of an IT professional quoting it at full length. The subject line was personalized to industry sector and a specific job ad – but the bulk of the text was not.
  • The non-public e-mail address of the HR person was googleable as the job ad plus contact data appeared on a job platform in a different language and country, without the small company’s consent of course. So harvesting both e-mail address and job description automatically.

I also wonder if my Everything as a Service vision will provide a cure: More and more communication has been moved to messaging on social networks anyway – for convenience and avoiding false negative spam detection. E-Mail – powered by old SMTP protocol with tacked on security features, run on decentralized mail servers – is being replaced by messaging happening within a big monolithic block of a system like Facebook messaging. Some large employer already require their applications to submit their CVs using their web platforms, as well as large corporations demand that their suppliers use their billing platform instead of sending invoices per e-mail.

What needs to be avoided is downloading an executable file and executing it in an environment not controlled by security policies. A large cloud provider might have a better chance to enforce security, and viewing or processing an ‘attachment’ could happen in the provider’s environment. As an alternative all ‘our’ devices might be actually be part of a service and controlled more tightly by centrally set policies. Disclaimer: Not sure if I like that.

Iconic computer virus - from my very first small business website in 1997. Image credits mine.

(‘Computer virus’ – from my first website 1997. Credits mine)

 

All My Theories Have Been Wrong. Fortunately!

I apologize to Google. They still like my blog.

This blog’s numbers plummeted as per Webmaster Tools, here and here you find everything you never wanted to know about it. I finally figured that my blog was a victim of Google’s latest update Panda 4.1. Sites about ‘anything’ had suffered, and the Panda rollout matched the date of the onset of the decline.

Other things happened in autumn, too: I had displayed links to latest WordPress blog posts on my other websites, but my feed parser suddenly refused to work. The root cause was the gradual migration of all WP.com blogs and feeds to https:// only. Only elkement’s blog had been migrated at that time; our German blog’s feed was affected two months later.

Recently also the German blog started its descent in impressions and clicks, again two months after elkement’s blog. I pondered about https URLs again – the correlation was too compelling. Then suddenly the answer came to me:

!

!!

!!!

You need to add the https URL as an additional site in Webmaster Tools.

!!!

!!

!

It was that simple. All the traffic I missed was here all the time – tucked away in the statistics for https://elkement.wordpress.com. This also answers the question I posed in my last Google rant post: Why do I see more Search Engine referrers in WordPress stats than clicks in Webmaster Tools? I had just looked in the wrong place.

I had briefly considered the https thing last year but ruled it out as I misinterpreted Webmaster Tools – falsely believing that one entry for a site would cover both the http and the https version. These are the results for both URLs – treated like separate entities by Webmaster Tools:

Results for http : // elkement.wordpress.com  – abysmal:

(Edit: I cannot use a link here and have to add those weird blanks – otherwise WP will always convert both URL and text to https automatically even if the prefix is displayed as http in the editor.)

Google traffic for http version of this blogResults for https://elkement.wordpress.com – better by a factor of 100: Way more Google traffic for the https version of this blog URLPopular pages were the first to ‘move’ over to the https entry. This explains why my top page was missing first from http pages impressions – the book review which I assumed to have been penalized by Panda as an alleged cross-link scam. In full paranoia mode I was also concerned of my adding random Wikimedia images to my poetry.

But now I will do it again as I feel relieved. And relaxed – as this Panda. Giant panda01 960______________________________

You have read a post in my new category Make a Fool of Myself. (I tried to top the self-sabotaging effect of writing about my business website being hacked – as a so-called security expert.)

Yet the theory was all too compelling. I found numerous examples of small sites penalized by Panda in a weird way. See this discussion: A shop’s webmaster makes a product database with succinct descriptions available online and is penalized for ‘key word spamming’ – as his key words are part of each product name. Advice by SEO experts: Circumscribe your product names.

Legend has it that Panda was named after a Google engineer. I figured it was because the Panda is so choosy, insisting on bamboo eucalyptus (*), just as Google scrutinizes our sites more and more. (*) One more theory I got wrong, now edited! Thanks to commentator Cleo for pointing out the mistake.