The Conference Formerly Known as Oakland, day 1

I’m attending the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, 2012 and I’m going to try taking notes and posting them here, again. The last time I tried this (at CCS 2010), most of the notes didn’t ever get posted, but I paid a whole lot more attention to the talks than I do when I’m not taking notes. This time, I’m going to try to clean up the notes and post them the next morning at the latest.

S&P was at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland, California for thirty-odd years, and they didn’t really want to leave, but there wasn’t room for all the people who wanted to attend. Last year they turned nearly 200 people away. This year, it’s in San Francisco at a hotel on Union Square—amusingly, the exact same hotel that USENIX Security was at, last August—with much higher capacity, and while I still have to get up at dawn to get there on time, at least I don’t have to drive.

I have not had time to read any of the papers, so this is all based on the talks, only. However, where possible I have linked each section heading to the paper or to a related website.

Mozilla folks: I would like to draw your attention particularly to the talks entitled Dissecting Android Malware, The Psychology of Security for the Home Computer User, and User-Driven Access Control.

Session 1: System Security

A Framework to Eliminate Backdoors from Response Computable Authentication

On time is approximate; I missed the opening remarks and enough of this first talk that I couldn’t understand what it was about. Something about sandboxing verification of passwords to eliminate the possibility of backdoors? This doesn’t seem like a sensible problem description to me (if you can’t trust your authentication library, you have been hosed since eight o’clock, Day One) so I probably misunderstood.

Safe Loading—A Foundation for Secure Execution of Untrusted Programs

Lots of applications nowadays include sandboxes for execution of native code that’s not necessarily correct and therefore may be exploitable by malicious inputs. This might include the bulk of the application code, and it might need to load system shared libraries. Historically this has been done by running the system-provided dynamic loader inside the sandbox. They propose to reimplement the loader as trusted (outside-the-sandbox) code, which means that the privilege of loading machine code into the process can be removed from the sandbox, and (again, they claim) also facilitates exporting fine-grained control information from the loader to the code verifier (if any).

There was not a lot of detail on what they actually did to the loader, so I am left not really knowing whether this is an interesting concept. Part of it seems obvious—of course the loader should be outside the sandbox—and part of it seems to be in aid of Java-style code verification which I had been under the impression was instead of sandboxing.

Flash Memory for Ubiquitous Hardware Security Functions

Now we’re getting more interesting. These folks have figured out how to extract information about the physical properties of individual bits of flash memory, which they use to implement a hardware random number generator (spiffy) and a physical device fingerprint (blech) without needing any special hardware.

When you write to flash, the amount of charge that gets loaded into each cell’s floating gate is linear in the time the write line is active. Due to unavoidable manufacturing variation, no two cells require exactly the same amount of charge to flip from one to zero. Normally, the controller holds each write line active until it reads back the desired bit from each cell, but the low-level control protocol lets you abort a write that hasn’t completed. So if you do a whole bunch of writes (of a page of zeroes) and abort them all well before they should have finished, you can count the number of writes required to flip each cell, and that’s a unique fingerprint for that page of flash memory.

1024 bits of flash can be fingerprinted in less than a second with excellent repeatability and very low chance of collision (probabilities of undesired outcomes less than 2-80, if I remember correctly). The fingerprint gets noisier as the memory gets older, but they say it’s acceptably stable over the design lifetime of the memory chip (500,000 cycles).

Random number generation works on the same concept: if you charge a floating gate just barely to its threshold, it will become unstable, oscillating between one and zero as thermal noise adds or removes electrons. Thermal noise goes down with temperature; they found acceptable randomness down to -80°C. This behavior actually improves with the age of memory: the unstable region gets wider. Unfortunately, they did not describe the statistical properties of the randomness; if you were using other pages of your flash memory for something else, I could easily imagine there being undesirable correlations.

Personally, I’m not convinced there are any legitimate use cases for an unclonable hardware fingerprint, and hardware random number generation takes only a small amount of special circuitry, so I view this paper as an argument for removing the abort write capability from the memory control protocol.

During Q&A someone asked, can an adversary use this technique to detect which pages have been read (or, more likely, written) more often? They didn’t think of trying that, alas.

ReDeBug: Finding Unpatched Code Clones in Entire OS Distributions

Code reuse by copying is very common. When a security bug is discovered in widely-reused code, it has to be fixed in all of the copies, which is tedious, slow, and error-prone. For instance, a 2009 bounds-checking bug in Expat needed to be fixed in 386 copies (looking at the entirety of SourceForge plus the Debian package repository) and some of those copies didn’t get fixed for more than two years. Using the tool they presented, the authors found exploitable bugs from 2001 still present in 2011.

The tool in question is an automated mechanism for finding these buggy copies at enormous scale: the Debian packages together constitute 350 million lines of code, SourceForge is roughly two billion lines all told. They chose to use syntactic rather than semantic matching, both for efficiency and to minimize false positives: since every match has to be checked by hand, anything one can do to reduce human effort is vital at this scale. To compensate for the increased potential for false negatives, they do syntactic normalization on both the code and the bugfixes before matching. Using a Bloom filter backed up by more precise checks, they are able to scan all of SourceForge in three hours or so, and in near-constant time in the number of fixes to check for.

False negatives are mostly caused by renamed variables, and oddly enough, it has fewer false negatives than a similar tool that pays attention to semantics, possibly because it can’t be fooled by trivial semantic changes.

Someone asked if this was a special case of plagiarism detection (or vice versa) and they said they thought it was different, because plagiarism detection compares full files to each other instead of fragments (code changes) to files.

(Editorial note: This project really ought to have a site from which their scanner and fixes are disseminated, but I can’t find it.)

Session 2: Malware

Prudent Practices for Designing Malware Experiments

More a starting point for discussion than a presentation of results, the authors propose 19 guidelines for better research on malware in the wild, in 4 categories: safety, transparency (reproducibility), realism, and correct datasets. Most of it seemed obvious to me, but then, I’ve done social science research, where we worry about external validity all the time (and even then perhaps not enough). Working on computers it’s easier to set up perfectly controlled lab experiments of questionable relevance to real life. They did go through a bunch of published papers and state that all of them could have been improved by consideration of these guidelines, but they did not show any bad examples.

One point sticks with me: Data sets may have skewed distribution of malware samples, so maybe you detect 90% of all malware in your sample but it’s all type A, because types B through F only comprised 10% of the data set.

An audience member pointed out that some of these contradict each other (safety vs realism, for instance); their reply was it’s not a checklist of things you must do, it’s a checklist of things you should have considered in your design. Which is fair.

Abusing File Processing in Malware Detectors for Fun and Profit

We’re going to take the the world’s best malware detector and put it up against the world’s simplest virus, and the virus will be invisible, and we’re not going to change the virus itself at all.

This is a classic problem in a new context. Different types of malware infect different types of file, some file types are more vulnerable than others, and some file types have to be normalized before you can scan for malware signatures. Therefore, malware detectors must first determine what kind of file they’re looking at, before they can decide whether there is malware within the file. The core OS and its applications also have to make that determination, and if they don’t use exactly the same algorithm, malware may be able to evade detection but still get executed.

They gave several examples: the simplest is that some archive formats begin with the name of the first file in the archive, rather than with a magic number as they ought to. Therefore, the file name can be chosen to mimic the magic number of some other file type, and this can fool the scanner into thinking that the archive is actually something innocuous, while an extraction tool (which perhaps does not consider the possibility that it’s been given a non-archive) still unpacks the malware.

I said this was a classic problem: it’s very nearly the same as the content sniffing problem, familiar to us Web security folks. But it’s nastier. We were able to change all the browsers to use the same, ambiguity-free sniffing algorithm, because there are only a few browser implementations and only a dozen or so file formats they need to understand. Malware detectors have to process many more formats, most of which can no longer be changed, no matter how wrong they are. (Your humble correspondent wishes to opine that there is no excuse for any file format that doesn’t have a magic number of at least four bytes at offset zero, if it was designed after the PNG specification demonstrated the proper way to do things. Which was in 1997.)

Will behavioral detection help? Nope, behavioral analysis needs the same preprocessing. Could we teach applications to tell the malware detector what they think they are processing? Perhaps, and this may be the best available option, but it requires buy-in from everyone everywhere, which is difficult at best.

Dissecting Android Malware: Characterization and Evolution

The authors have collected a large set of Android malware, dissected all of it, and describe its general characteristics. Two things stand out. First, the most common way to trick users into installing malware on Android is repackaging, where the bad guys download a popular application, add malware to it, and reupload it—usually to a third-party app market, but increasingly to the official Google market. Second, by far the most popular thing for this malware to do is steal money by sending text messages to premium services (think 1-900 numbers). There are a variety of tricks that the malware can pull to make these texts invisible to the user; the associated Android privilege enumerators are overwhelmingly likely to indicate an app containing malware.

Audience question: How do we deal with the way so many Android phones are wildly out of date, and most users are at the mercy of the carrier for updates? Alas, nobody has a good answer to this one.

Session 3: Attacks 1

Distance Hijacking Attacks on Distance Bounding Protocols

Distance bounding protocols allow one entity (the prover) to demonstrate to another (the verifier) that the physical distance between the two is less than some limit. This often comes up in wireless applications. You don’t want someone to be able to relay the signal from your car’s keyless-entry fob to your car, while you are nowhere near your car (and thus, steal your car). You don’t want your office building’s wireless network to be accessible to people in the parking lot with high-power antennas, even if they have legitimate (perhaps stolen) access credentials. Brands and Chaum figured out one way to do this back in 1993, using signal propagation time as a proxy for distance; it’s hard to tamper with the speed of light. Unfortunately, the query and response whose delay are measured can’t go over a cryptographic secure channel, because that would slow things down enough to swamp the measurement. Instead, the protocol has all its cryptographic goo in messages before and after the critical fast response. While it is good enough to defend against three classes of attack (which I confess I didn’t really understand), there is a fourth, and that’s what is being presented here. The hijacking attack steals the fast response of a legitimate user who is in the acceptable range, and substitutes the attacker’s identity. (This one makes sense to me, and I’m surprised no one has thought of it before.)

The presenters demonstrated a fix: basically making the data in the fast response be bound to the legitimate user’s identity, which can be done by tweaking the initial cryptographic goo; no additional operations needed. They also reformalized the attack classification, and claim that it is now exhaustive.

The good news here is, these protocols are not yet widely deployed (although perhaps they should be), so there isn’t a huge installed base of vulnerable hardware that can’t easily be fixed. Which brings us to the next talk:

Don’t Trust Satellite Phones: A Security Analysis of Two Satphone Standards

There is a huge installed base of satphones: 350 to 500,000 active users of the two most popular standards (GMR-1 and -2). The protocol specifications are public, but their ciphers are not. Telephone standards organizations have a long and embarrassing history of making up their own ciphers in secret, which turn out to be completely broken; the GMR ciphers are no exception.

The authors of this paper reverse-engineered the GMR ciphers from the DSP firmware of two satellite phones—one using GMR-1, one using GMR-2. In both cases, the complete firmware could be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website. Reverse engineering was easier for GMR-1, which uses an LFSR construction directly derived from the GSM cellular standard; they just looked for lots of shifts and XORs. For GMR-2 they had to write their own disassembler and dig through call graphs.

Both algorithms turn out to be hilariously weak. GMR-1 is based on A5/2 (that’s the weaker GSM cipher) with adjustments that don’t help; they can recover the session key with 232 operations, using ciphertext only. GMR-2 is a byte-oriented stream cipher invented without reference to any standard technique, except that it reuses a couple of DES S-boxes to add some nonlinearity. They need about 80 bytes of known plaintext to break it, but only 218 operations; if they can have more known plaintext, the attack gets cheaper. Known plaintext should be easy to come by, since the protocol has predictable control messages.

Conclusion: Security through obscurity is still no good. These satcomm standards offer no real privacy. And it’s going to be a real pain to fix, because of the huge installed base of handsets—not to mention the satellites in orbit; nobody in attendance knew how tweakable that firmware is, but it probably isn’t very.

Memento: Learning Secrets from Process Footprints

Modern software design often breaks a single application into many OS-level processes to gain better fault and security isolation. If one process fails or is subverted, the overall application may still be able to recover. This is good, but has an undesirable side effect: OS-level process monitoring tools now expose more information about the internal state of the application. Many of these tools were not designed with security in mind; even before this trend, for instance, any user on a Unix system could use the netstat and lsof tools to discover the peer addresses of all users’ active TCP sockets. The problem is not new, but now it is worse.

One might reasonably ask: who uses a multiuser time-sharing system anymore? Indeed, those are rare nowadays, but the OS-level user abstraction has been recycled to put a security boundary between mutually untrusted applications running on the same machine. For instance, Android allocates a user ID to each application.

In this paper, a zero-privilege process (they tested on Android, but the concept applies to any platform with a process-monitoring API) is able to eavesdrop on user input and websites visited, simply by monitoring other processes’ CPU and memory usage. When the browser loads a particular web site, a content process for that site will allocate memory over time (as data comes in from the network); the process’s overall size, as a function of time, is a unique, stable fingerprint for 20% to 40% of webpages tested. It is OS and browser dependent, but machine independent, so an attacker could develop a database of sites-of-interest and deploy it as malware. More detail is available by paying attention to differentials in memory allocation in response to user activity. For instance, the content process is likely to grow substantially more after a succesful login than an unsuccessful one.

CPU usage monitoring is even nastier. Each keystroke the user types causes a CPU usage spike. The spike’s duration is far shorter than the typical interval between keystrokes; therefore, monitoring for these spikes reveals inter-keystroke intervals, which are sufficient information to recover the text that was entered.

The authors’ proposed solution is to stop reporting fine-grained resource usage across user boundaries. During Q&A, someone suggested degrading the resolution of these APIs or rate-limiting applications that use them, but the speaker said that this isn’t always sufficient—coarse-grained monitoring is still enough for site identification.

My editorial observation: diagnostic APIs are a rich well of side channel attacks, because diagnostic tools intrinsically need to know everything that’s going on. We don’t want to take diagnostics away from the actual human user. But how does the system know that this process is trusted to run diagnostics? Again, we’ll come back to this.


Foundations is code for formal proofs of system security, and these are mostly lost on me, and besides I wanted some fresh air, so I skipped this session and went out to Union Square and found a cafe with better tea than the hotel was brewing (hot water in thermos dispensers designed for coffee is almost never hot enough for good tea).

Access Control and Attestation

The Psychology of Security for the Home Computer User

This is a study of risks inherent in normal activity on the Internet, and users’ understanding of those risks. It’s mostly a meta-analysis of earlier studies. They begin by pointing out that we no longer assume users know what they’re doing, and propose a new class of unwitting accomplice vulnerabilities—users who facilitate security breaches by not understanding the implications of their actions.

The analysis focuses on home computer users, since (according to a Symantec study from 2007) they suffer 95% of the attacks. According to another study (by Gartner?) there are projected to be 2 billion personal computers in use by 2014 (including smartphones), so this is an enormous and highly diverse group in terms of needs, wants, resources, and abilities. Most studies use college students as a survey population, but this is only one of many home-user subpopulations, and probably skewed toward more technically skilled users.

That said, they think we know these things pretty well: the majority of home users have no formal training in computer use (ed.: this doesn’t mean much, I have almost no formal training in computer use). Many do, however, get security advice from public sources of information (news articles, websites, library books, etc), from the people who sold them the computer, and/or from friends and relatives. Non-expert users’ ideas of risks from Internet use are vaguer than experts’, and lead to less personal concern; the more knowledgeable a user is, the more seriously they take threats. The problem seems to be mostly that non-experts don’t realize that something bad could happen to them—one person was quoted as saying why would I be attacked, when I make less than $40,000 a year? Perhaps because of this, they overestimate the cost and underestimate the value of security measures. Finally, self-reported use of security software (such as antivirus software) is much higher than actual use.

The authors end with a call to action: longitudinal studies, updates for older studies, broader demographics (particularly people who are either less comfortable, or too comfortable, with tech). Measure actions rather than self-reports, qualitative data rather than 10-point scales, and assess decision making factors (gain from risky actions, cost and probability of risk, etc). Figure out how to translate study data into better education and better security practices.

An audience member commented that cognitive load of security notifications is a neglected factor, and I would add that security notifications frequently interrupt task flow to present the user with a screenful of impenetrable jargon, and perhaps we should forgive them for smacking the whatever button.

User-Driven Access Control: Rethinking Permission Granting in Modern Operating Systems

This was my favorite presentation of the day; it answers questions raised by several other presentations, and offers a compelling solution for problems we’ve struggled with for years.

We have this problem where users don’t want to have to make explicit permission decisions, especially not either when it interrupts their task flow (pop up confirmation dialogs) or when it occurs out of context (Android-style permission manifests). Most users don’t have the right mental models to understand the questions being asked and their implications. And yet, the trend is to ask more of these questions, as we (laudably) take more and more implicit privilege away from each process.

The authors set out to design in-context, non-disruptive, least-privilege permission grants, and they found a way to do it: access control gadgets that derive permission grants from natural UI actions. For instance, if you click the paste button, you can be assumed to want to grant the foreground application access to the system clipboard—but only once, right now. (They cite studies that show that users often think this is how it works already!) If the system, rather than the application, controls the UI elements that carry these semantics, this can be done reliably.

There are, of course, a whole lot of details, but they claim that it’s all doable. Tricky aspects include: balancing legitimate application needs for visual customization against user recognition of the UI elements; composition of resource access grants (this button activates the microphone and the camera?); allowing keystroke commands and gestures as well as visual buttons; allowing applications to expose their own gadgets for access to their own sensitive functions; granting decoupled permission to take actions at either scheduled or programmatic times in the future. One also has to worry about malicious apps that try to trick the user into granting a privilege without knowing they have; this has been studied for a while on the web (where often it does work like this already) and we have options that are probably as good as we’re going to get.

Good audience question: what about gadgets that provide an application with fake data? (I want to videoconference, but I want the far end to see this picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head, not my filthy apartment.) They hadn’t studied that but they like the idea.

New Results for Timing-Based Attestation

Switching gears for the last talk of the day, the research question is now: can we do something about malware tampering with malware-detecting software? It won’t help to add more detection software (malware can tamper with it just as well), or to add self-checking logic (malware can tamper with that too). But maybe we can make it so that the self-check won’t work correctly if it’s modified, in a way that an external (assumed good) monitor will notice. Their suggestion is to write a self-check loop which is so tightly optimized that any modification will make it run slower than it ought to.

They describe this as independent confirmation of an earlier incarnation of the same concept (Pioneer), but with improvements: more hardware independence, works over multiple network hops, doesn’t disrupt normal activity of the computer. It still has to run at very high privilege and lock down the CPU for the duration of the check, so that even one additional instruction in the inner loop will throw the timing off; and it still has to start with an accurate estimation of how fast the CPU ought to run.

In evaluation on a medium-sized LAN (up to 10 network hops, not much overall latency) their system can detect the insertion of a conditional branch in the inner loop, which added 2% additional overhead, natural variation being much smaller. With a TPM that can sign timestamps, network overhead can be removed from the equation—but some (supposedly identical) TPMs generate a lot more timing noise than others, and they don’t know why.

The obvious adaptation by malware is: notice that the self-check is about to happen, undo the modifications and hide, then put yourself back afterward. Of course this assumes that there is somewhere to hide, but they thought there would usually be somewhere to hide, because scanning all of memory is not practical even if you could know what was supposed to be in every byte. Fixing this, they say, is a work in progress.

Responses to “The Conference Formerly Known as Oakland, day 1”

  1. Robert O'Callahan

    Thanks for reporting this! It’s a really helpful summary.

    On User-Driven Access Control: Rethinking Permission Granting in Modern Operating Systems, what’s new there? Deriving permission grants from UI actions is as old as <input type="file">.

    1. Zack Weinberg

      It’s an old idea, but they’ve done a really thorough synthesis and a bunch of practical application; like, they have a story for having one button that grants a bundle of related permissions, and so on. I’m probably going to write a whole post about it after I have time to read the paper, because I really want to see B2G adopt this model rather than install-time permission manifests.

  2. APF

    I like the user-driven access control work, too. However, I think they sell a rosier picture than the truth: there are a non-trivial number of things that are very difficult to represent with access control gadgets. They cherry-picked their examples to be ones that are easy to represent with trusted UI. In some cases, to get around problems, their proposed trusted UI ends up being equivalent to a consent dialog (e.g., a camera button that says Permanent access next to a picture of a camera that you press at some point in time before the camera actually starts).

    A question I’ve been thinking really hard about lately is how to quantitatively measure the impact on developers and functionality of different types of trusted UI, to help figure out whether trusted UI is the right way to go. I haven’t come up with a good answer yet.