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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

December 2011 Cyber Attacks Timeline (Part II)

December 30, 2011 2 comments

This infamous 2011 is nearly gone and here it is the last post for this year concerning the 2011 Cyber Attacks Timeline. As you will soon see from an infosec perspective this month has been characterized by two main events: the LulzXmas with its terrible Stratfor hack (whose effects are still ongoing with the recent release of 860,000 accounts), and an unprecented wave of breaches in China which led to the dump of nearly 88 million of users for a theoretical cost of nearly $19 million (yes the Sony brech is close). For the rest an endless cyberwar between India and Pakistan, some hactivism and (unfortunately) the usual amounts of “minor” breaches and defacement. After the page break you find all the references.

Last but not least… This post is my very personal way to wish you a happy new infosec year.

Read more…

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Anonymous vs Syrian Electronic Soldiers

September 28, 2011 2 comments

Hactivism is making possible to bring wars and revolutions on the cyberspace, the fifth domain of war. In particular the Arab Spring has given the definitive consecration to politically driven hacking actions that have proven to be a key factor inside the protests that are changing the political landscape in the Middle East: non conventional weapons used together with “traditional” methods by both parties involved on revolutions: cyber-opponents vs cyber-supporters.

Tunisia has been the first example of this new way to provide backing to social protests: at the beginning of 2011 the Anonymous activists targeted Tunisian government sites. It was the 4th of January and this action (or Operation quoting the same term used by the Anonymous) showed to the world the real, political and social power of the Cyber warfare.

Few days later (June, 26th 2011) the same fate befell to Egypt: government sites were targeted with DDOS attacks which contributed to draw attention to ongoing protests which led to the fall of President Mubarak.

Following the wake of the Arab spring, the Anonymous also took position in the Libyan Revolution declaring their engagement with the rebels. Although, from an information security perspective, no practical consequence followed this statement, it had a huge symbolic significance, since in a clear and decisive manner, an hacker crew crossed the boundary of the cyberspace and took position on a social and political event even before performing any hacking acton.

But in Syria the revolution fought in the fifth domain has reached its “bloody” peak. On August, the 7th 2011 the Anonymous targeted the Syrian Ministry of Defense with a resounding defacement. A couple of days later, in retaliation of the previous defacement, the Syrian Electronic Soldiers defaced Anonplus, the Anonymous Social Network, that had already been, a couple of weeks before, the target of a defacement performed by the same Syrian Crew.

But the “war inside the war” fought between the two groups does not stop here: following the bloody events in Syria, on Sunday, 25th of September, the Anonymous decided to open again the hostilities unleashing a chain of defacement action, against the Syrian Government, hacking and defacing the official sites of seven major Syrian cities, which stayed up in their defaced version for more than 16 hours. The defacement actions kept on the following day in which 11 Syrian Government Sites were defaced as part of the same operation.

Of course a retaliation of the Syrian Electronic Soldier was predictable (and close in time) and targeted, in an unexpected manner, one of the most important US Universities, the University of Harvard which was victim of a resounding defacement on Monday, the 26th of September.

So far the two Cyber Armies have shown an unprecedented impetus in countering their respective acts of cyberwar. Probably the story will not end up here and, most of all, we will have to get used to watch the wars and the revolutions on a double perspective involving real battlefields and virtual battlefields. The problem here is that information security professionals and system administrators are not likely to be mere spectators, but the real soldiers of this non conventional war.

Switch Off The Revolution (With An Infrared Sensor)

Just a couple of months ago, in writing the first post about Mobile Warfare (which should have later become Consumerization of Warfare) I expressed some considerations about the growing need for illiberal government to prevent the use of mobile devices as preferred media for the rioters to capture live images of the events, and to spread the information all around the Globe by mean of Social Networks.

Cutting off the Internet has been the first clumsy countermeasure applied by Egypt and Syria, but it is really unlikely that this kind of massive preventive block will be applied again by other countries because of the huge dependence of Internet, which characterizes our epoch, and consequently, as a collateral damage, would stop other vital activities.

As a consequence, I hypothesized that possible future countermeasures will aim to make unusable directly the source of information (read mobile devices), and the media for sharing them (read social networks), relying upon a new generation of Cyber-warfare among which:

A massive Denial of Service for mobile devices through massive exploit of vulnerabilities (more and more common and pervasive on this kind of devices), through massive mobile malware deployment or also by mean of massive execution of mobile malware (as, for instance, Google did in order to remotely swipe the DroidDream malware). Honestly speaking I consider the latter option the less likely since I can easily imagine that no manufacturer will provide cooperation on this (but this does not prevent the fact that a single country could consider to leverage this channel).

No manufacturer will provide cooperation on this? Maybe… Too many times reality surpasses imagination, and when it comes to reality that surpasses the imagination, then surely it comes from Apple. This time, unfortunately, not in the sense that we’re used to (admiring products years ahead of the competition, which previously did not exist not even in our imagination), but in the sense that a patent recently filled by Apple could implicitly provide cooperation for illiberal governments to prevent smartphones to take live images of protests.

It looks like that Apple is Apple is developing software that will sense when a smartphone user is trying to record a live event, and then switch off the device’s camera (only the camera, the other functions will not be affected) by mean of infrared sensors directly installed on the device. The real reason is probably the need to prevent concertgoers to post footage of events on YouTube or other similar sites (at the expense of the organizers which sometimes sell sell their own recordings of the events), which could potentially allow Apple to negotiate better conditions with labels when dealing for placing music on sale on iTunes (and could also potentially provide another source of revenue by charging people to film live events).

But besides commercial considerations, there is another important aspect (a collateral damage I would say). The events of recent months have shown us that the concerts were not the only places where the phones have been used to capture live images. In North Africa and Middle East they have been used to document repression and illiberality. But what would have happened if this technology had really been developed? Probably it would have limited the effect of the winds of change in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, since Mobile Devices (and their cameras) played (and are playing) an important role to witness the real entity of the events.

Imagine if Apple’s device had been available to the Mubarak regime earlier this year, and Egyptian security forces had deployed it around Tahrir Square to disable cameras just before they sent in their thugs to disperse the crowd.

Would the global outcry that helped drive Mubarak from office have occurred if a blackout of protest videos had prevented us from viewing the crackdown?

This is more than speculation. since thousands of cellphone cameras in the Middle East and North Africa have been used to document human rights abuses and to share them with millions via social media. I went in Libya approximately a month before the beginning of the revolution and I was astonished by the number of iPhones noticed over there.

This is more than speculation also because the role of mobile technologies for the above mentioned events has been recognized also by Mr. Obama during his speech on Middle East.

As correctly stated, Smartphones like the iPhone and Droid are becoming extensions of ourselves. They are not simply tools to connect with friends and family, but a means to document the world around us, engage in political issues and organize with others. They literally put the power of the media in our own hands.

Apple’s proposed technology would take that power away, that is the reason why the community is moving in order to urge Steve Jobs to pull the plug on this technology.

Internet In A Suitcase

June 13, 2011 2 comments

According to a NYT article, this is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing, leading a global effort to deploy a “shadow” Internet and an independent mobile phone network that dissidents can use against repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks (as happened in Egypt and Syria).

More in detail the above mentioned effort include secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as an “Internet in a suitcase” prototype, financed with a $2 million State Department grant, which could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet. In a sort of 21st century version of Radio Free Europe relying on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub

If one puts together the pieces of the puzzles of the last events, one clearly realizes that the ingredients were already on the pot and now are being mixed in the right dosage for a recipe of freedom.

On the other hand the importance of the Internet Connectivity (in terms of presence or absence) in War Zones is unquestionable. And this is brilliantly shown from the fact that we are getting more and more familiar with the shutting down of Internet connectivity as a clumsy attempt carried out by some governments for preventing the spreading of unwelcome information and the consequent use of Social Networks for propaganda, PsyOps or real War Operations. Of course I already talked about special groups of US Army, which I dubbed “Corps of (Networks and Security) Engineers” dedicated to maintain Internet connectivity in war zones by mean of 3G or Wi-Fi drones. It looks like I was only partially right since the reality seems much closer to a spy novel featuring special agents equipped with Internet suitcases rather than soulless drones equipped with antennas.

Same speech for mobile technologies: United States officials said, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country in order to offset the Taliban’s ability to shut down the official Afghan services. More recently, a similar action was performed in Libya, with the hijacking of the Libyana Mobile Operator Network to be used by rebels groups to communicate between them. Clearly these were not episodic cases but the first examples of a real mobile warfare strategy aimed to maintain mobile connectivity (videos shot with mobile phones are a point in common of all the protests in Maghreb and Middle East) without clumsy actions such as the smuggling of Satellite Phones in Syria.

In light of these facts, Mr. Obama’s speech on the Middle East on May, the 19th assumes a new meaning and a deeper analysis shows that some prodromes of this strategy were already announced, even if in a hidden form:

Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied…

And again:

In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet.

Open support to Internet… Even if closed inside a suitcase…

Tweets Of Democracy

May 19, 2011 7 comments
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

Today President Obama held his speech on the Middle East announcing a new strategy (and new investments) for the Middle East aimed to encourage the process of Democratization in place. I gave a look to the entire speech and noticed some assertions particularly meaningful which implicitly admit the crucial role that new technologies played in the past months (and will probably play into this kind of new Middle East Mashall Plan) as triggers (and drivers) for backing the fights for human rights.

I used the term Mobile Warfare to stress the role that (consumer) mobile technologies and social networks played in the events that changed the social and political landscape in the Mediterranean Africa and more in general in the Middle East, coming to conclusion that the impact of these new technologies is defining a new democracy model which will have to be taken seriously into consideration by all those governments which still put in place severe limitations to human rights.

So, I was definitively not surprised when I noticed this assertion on Mr. Obama’s speech:

… But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world – a world of astonishing progress in places like India, Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied…

Which implicitly admits the role of Mobile Warfare: strategies of repression and diversion will not work anymore and the weapons to fight repression are just Cell Phones and Social Networks with which young people (usually most involved in the protests) can connect and not only organize life like never before but also realize that there is a world  outside the window…  On the other hand, particularly in case of Egypt, Social Network literally played a primary role in the protest, since one of the leaders was Mr. Wael Ghonim (expressly quoted by Mr. Obama’speech), a young Google Executive.

And the freedom is not only a matter of elections but also of access to new technologies:

In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger. In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.

This implies that the plan that U.S. and E.U. are going to deploy for the Middle East (a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa) will also involve funding aimed to promote the access to new technologies for facilitating the sharing of information (and the conseguent hactivism and psyops operations), a factor which the recent events have shown to become synonym of democracy. Also because, according to Cisco predictions, if in 2010 there were 12.5 billion devices connected to the Internet, there will be 25 billion by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020, and consequently it is really hard to think that filters, blocks and any other form of (social, political and technological) repression in the Middle East will stop this tide.

New Technologies? Innovative Repression!

At the end, the Syrian Government could not resist to temptation and followed the wake of Egypt a couple of months ago: since the Internet is the main culprit for the wind of changes blowing in the Middle East, nothing better than shutting it off intermittently in the areas of Damascus, Hama and Daraa. Unfortunately Syria is only the last example of the crusade led by several countries against the internet, and new related technologies: a complete, impressive, picture may be obtained reading the Freedom on the NET 2011, A Global Assessment Of Internet And Digital Media, which has anlayzed the level of freedom in accessing the Internet and new technologies, and the possible obstacles in 37 countries, including countries such as China, Iran, Egypt (and Italy as well). The report is the prosecution of a previous document issued in 2009 and take into considerations events that contributed to obstacle the Internet access in those countries in the period ranging from 2009 to 2011.

The results are well summarized by the sentence: New Technologies, Innovative Repression.

 In particular, the report emphasizes the main role played by the Social Network, stating, among the other things:

The new internet restrictions around the globe are partly a response to the explosion in the popularity of advanced applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, through which ordinary users can easily post their own content, share information, and connect with large audiences. While mostly serving as a form of entertainment, over the last two years these tools have also played a significant role in political and social activism. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, democracy advocates have relied heavily on Facebook to mobilize supporters and organize mass rallies. Similarly, Bahraini activists have used Twitter and YouTube to inform the outside world about the government’s violent response to their protests.

It is what I called the Thin Red Line (even if my country probably sits in that part of the line in which these technologies are used for entertainment).

The ways used to control the Internet vary hugely from country to country and include: preventive centralized block of unwelcome contents, total block of Social Networks, access to the Internet only available from Government- controlled sites, threats and arrests to bloggers up to true state-led cybercrime operations such as massive DDOS attacks towards web sites of media not aligned, most of all in periods close to elections.

Among the countries taken into considerations, Thailand, Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Jordan are considered at Risk, while, in the overall score, computed with a metric ranging from 0 (total liberty) to 100 (total repression) Iran is the country opposing the main obstacles to a free Internet Access with a score of 89. It is undoubtedly in good company of countries like Burma (88), Cuba (87), China (83), Tunisia (81 but before the Jasmin Revolution), Vietnam (73) and Saudi Arabia (70) occupying the bottom positions of this unwelcome ranking.

Approximately in the same days in which this very interesting document was released, the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) released another interesting ranking: The 10 Tools Of Online Oppressors: reversing the order of factors does not change the result, as matter of fact according to the last report:

  • Iran, since the disputed 2009 presidential election, has dramatically increased the sophistication of its Web blocking, as well as its efforts to destroy tools that allow journalists to access or host online content, ranking over the top for Web Blocking;
  • Belarus (showing a score of 69 in the global assessment), often uses denial-of-service, or DOS, attack to break down opposition sites during the elections, ranking on the top for Precision Censorship;
  • In Cuba, Only a small fraction of the population is permitted to use the Internet at home, with the vast majority required to use state-controlled access points with identity checks, heavy surveillance, and restrictions on access to non-Cuban sites. To post or read independent news, online journalists go to cybercafes and use official Internet accounts that are traded on the black market. That is the reason why Cuba ranks #1 for Denial Of Access;
  • In Ethiopia a state-owned telecommunications company has monopoly control over Internet access and fixed and mobile phone lines. The country has also invested in extensive satellite-jamming technology to prevent citizens from receiving news from foreign sources gaining the first place for Internet Control;
  • In Burma, exile-run news sites still face censorship and obstruction, much of it perpetrated by home governments or their surrogates. Exile-run sites that cover news in Burma face regular denial-of-service attacks, allowing the country to get the crown for Attacks for Exile Run Sites.
  • In China Journalists reporting in and about the country, have been victims of spear-phishinging installing malwer targeted to control the Journalists’ computers, in a pattern that strongly indicates the targets were chosen for their work. China is probably the most sophisticated for Malware Attacks;
  • Tunisia (under Ben Ali) had a pervasive censorship of email and social networking sites under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, gaining the first place for State Cybercrime;
  • Egypt (under Mubarak) was the first country to completely kill Internet Switch (suddenly followed by other countries such as Libya, Barhain and Tunisia);
  • Syria remains one of the world’s most dangerous places to blog due to repeated cases of short- and long-term detention, ranking #1 for Detention of Bloggers.
  • Russia is the country where online journalists have become the latest targets of anti-press violence, ranking #1 for Violence Against Online Journalists.

Some final thoughts

Thought #1: I suggest to my compatriots to read the Global Assessment Of Internet And Digital Media in the sections concerning Italy (score 26). It is a really deep interesting analysis of the factors which affects Internet access in our country.

Thought #2: In all those countries where social networks are not censored, they remain a powerful medium to spread information. According to Twitter spokesman Matt Graves, yesterday:

Twitter traffic spiked to more than 4,000 tweets per second at the beginning and end of President Obama’s speech tonight announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden,” said company spokesman Matt Graves.

This simple sentence, more than ever, explains why the blue twitter canary is so  undigested in many countries.

Mobile Warfare In Libya Comes True

April 14, 2011 8 comments

An interesting article from The Wall Street Journal confirmed what I have been writing in my posts since a couple of weeks: Mobile Technologies are destined to play a crucial role in modern conflicts (what I defined Mobile Warfare) and the traditional Military Corps of Engineers will necessarily have to be complemented by Corps of Network and Security Engineers dedicated to establish and maintain connectivity in war zones.

This is exactly what happened in Libya where the rebels, with the support of a Libyan-American telecom executive Ousama Abushagur and oil-rich Arab nations, were able to hijack Libyana Phone Network, the cellular network owned by one of the Colonel’s sons, to steal from Libyana a database of phone numbers, and to build from (partial) scratch a new cell network serving 2 million Libyans, renamed “Free Libyana”. This action was aimed to restore internal Cellular communications after Gaddafi shut down the country’s cellular and data networks.

The operation was led from Abu Dhabu by Ousama Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan telecom executive. Mr. Abushagur and two childhood friends started fund-raising on Feb. 17 to support the political protests that were emerging in Libya. During one mission to bring humanitarian aid convoys to eastern Libya, they found their cellphones jammed or out of commission, making nearly impossible planning and logistics. This was the reason why Mr.Abushagur decided to draw a plan for hijacking the Libyana Network, divert the signal and establish a new backbone free of Tripoli’s control, also with the intention to provide backing to the rebels forces which were beginning to feel the effects of the loyalist counteroffensive.

In a race against time to solve technical, engineering and legal challenges, U.A.E. and Qatar (whose officials didn’t respond to requests for comment) provided diplomatic (and economical) support to buy the telecommunications equipment needed in Benghazi. A direct support was provided also by Etilsat, Emirates Teleccomunications Corporation, which refused to comment as well). The support of the Gulf nation was necessary also because, meanwhile, it looks like that Huawei Technologies Ltd., the Chinese Company among the original contractors for Libyana’s cellular network backbone, refused to sell equipment for the rebel project, causing Mr. Abushagur and his engineers to implement a hybrid technical solution to match other companies’ hardware with the existing Libyan network.

By March 21, most of the main pieces of equipment had arrived in the U.A.E. and Mr. Abushagur shipped them to Benghazi with a team composed by three Libyan telecom engineers, four Western engineers and a team of bodyguards: the Corps of Network Engineers committed to build the new infrastructure in the war zone.

Since Col. Gaddafi’s forces were bombing the rebel capital, Mr. Abushagur diverted the Corps of Network Engineers and their equipment to an Egyptian air base on the Libyan border (another indirect show of Arab support for rebels). Once in Libya, the Corps paired with Libyana engineers and executives based in Benghazi. Together, they fused the new equipment into the existing cellphone network, creating an independent data and routing system free from Tripoli’s command. To be free from Tripoli was also a security requirement, since Col. Gaddafi had built his telecommunications infrastructure in order to route all calls (and data) through the capital in order to be easily intercepted and eavesdropped.

After implementing the network, the new Telco had to attract “customers”. A war zone is not the ideal place for advertisement, so nothing better than capturing the Tripoli-based database of phone numbers, and inserting Libyana customers and phone numbers into the new system called “Free Libyana.” The last piece of the puzzle was securing a satellite feed, through Etisalat, with which the Free Libyana calls could be routed.

An important detail: all the operation was successfully performed without the support of allied forces, the result is that rebels now can use cellphones to communicate between the front lines and opposition leaders.

If for a moment we forget that we are speaking about cellular networks, we could assimilate this event as part of a civil war operation, in which friendly countries and dissidents from abroad endeavor to provide weapons to rebels in order to turn the tide of a conflict (examples of which the history is full). In this circumstance this operation did not turn the tide of the conflict (at least so far but mobile warfare, while important, has still a smaller weight in a conflict than real warfare), nevertheless, for sure, restored mobile communications are supporting the leaders of the rebellion to better communicate among them and to better organize the resistance against the loyalists: as a matter of fact the March cutoff forced rebels to use flags to communicate on the battlefield. I will never tire of saying that the events in the Mediterranean area do (and did) not rely solely on conventional weapons but also on weapons of communications (the mobile warfare) through which rebels forces provided abroad the information necessary to witness exactly the brutal internal events and rallied international backing.

After so much theory depicted in my posts, finally the first real and meaningful example of the importance of mobile warfare in the events of Northern Africa, and that example! One single event has unleashed the importance of mobile technologies in war zone and the crucial role played by specialized teams dedicated to establish and maintain communications: the Corps of (Network and Security) Engineers.

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