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Polish security firm launch Qubes 1.0, a new operating system

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September 5, 2012

A security research lab based in Poland, Invisible Things Lab (ITL), has announced Qubes 1.0, the first production release of a new desktop operating system designed to provide unprecedented security through the pervasive use of virtualization.

"Contrary to popular belief, there are no general purpose desktop operating systems that would be formally proven to be 100 percent secure and that's unfortunate," said ITL founder and CEO Joanna Rutkowska, announcing the release on Monday.

"At the very best, there are some parts that are formally verified, such as some microkernels, but not whole OSs," she added.

But to help rectify the situation, Rutkowska and her team built Qubes, an operating system that uses virtual machines (VMs) to isolate sensitive applications and their data from parts of the system that may be vulnerable to potential compromises.

However, in case you have to ask, Qubes wasn't written from scratch, but instead draws upon existing open source code, although it uses it in various and innovative ways.

At its core is the Xen hypervisor, which it uses to create and manage the various virtual machines that form its security model. In Qubes, users can create as many VMs – also known as domains – as they want, and assign them varying security levels based on the sensitivity of the applications and data they will be using in them. For example, one user might decide to create "home", "work", "banking", and "shopping" domains, each shielded from the others and each with its own security rules.

Below all of these application domains, Qubes maintains a separate administrative domain that provides a common graphical user interface for all running applications.

No matter which domains the various applications might be running under, they can all share the desktop on the same screen, and share the same input devices.

Additionally, a Qubes desktop OS running VMs is available in various security levels marked as green, yellow, and red.

But that doesn't mean they can share data. The user has ultimate control over which files and other data can pass between which domains. Even operations as simple as cut-and-paste between domains aren't allowed without explicit user approval. That represents a rather powerful security feature in and by itself.

Qubes can also enforce network policies for each domain, both to prevent unwanted network activity by malware and to block commonplace user mistakes.

For instance, a user could configure Qubes so that only a web browser running in the banking domain can access online banking sites, while browsers running in other domains are totally blocked from those sites.

Qubes can even create disposable VMs for one-time actions that could compromise security even though they would ordinarily be allowed. For instance, a user could choose to open a PDF file from a suspicious source in a disposable VM, minimizing the potential damage it could cause if the file contained exploit code or a virus.

Rutkowska cautions that, particularly in this early phase, Qubes shouldn't be considered a "100 percent safe" OS, but rather a "reasonably secure" one. That's because despite all of the many layers of security built into the Qubes security model, the security it provides isn't automatic, however.

Instead, it relies on the user to make some decisions, which Rutkowska admits won't be the right approach for everyone.

"This provides for greater flexibility for more advanced users," she writes, "but the price to pay is that Qubes OS requires some skills and actual thinking to actually make the user's data more secure."

Rutkowska also warns that there may yet be some bugs in the Qubes code that could be used to compromise its security model. And she should know. In 2006, she made a name for herself in the security community by creating Blue Pill, a rootkit based on the hardware virtualization support features found in modern AMD and Intel processors.

Users who would like to try out the new OS can do so by downloading an ISO and following the instructions on the Qubes website. For those who would like to try to crack Qubes' security, on the other hand, Rutkowska says that you are more than welcomed.

In other internet security news

A prominent group of hackers has released large quantities of sensitive data from banks, government agencies and consulting firms and has promised even more data leaks in the near future.

"Team Ghost Shell's final form of protest this summer against the banks, politicians and for all the fallen hackers this year," wrote in a Pastebin post titled "Project Hell Fire" this weekend.

"With the help of it's various divisions, MidasBank & the newest branch, OphiusLab. One million accounts/records leaked. We are also letting everyone know that more releases, collaborations with Anonymous and others, plus two more projects are still scheduled for this fall and winter. It's only the beginning," wrote the site's blog post.

It's still unclear how much data was published and from how many organizations, but security firm Imperva analyzed the data and said some of the breached databases contain more than 30,000 records.

"It's hard to say with precision just how much data was stolen, but you can say this is a pretty significant breach," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at Imperva.

Whoever stole that data mostly used SQL injection attacks, common attacks that are easy for Web sites to protect against.

The data includes administrator login information, usernames and passwords and files from content management systems, although it didn't appear to have much sensitive information in those files, Imperva said.

"There was some vulnerability with a content management system that they were able to exploit across multiple locations and download file upon file upon file," Rachwald said.

Team GhostShell also offered six billion databases from a Chinese mainframe that it claims contained technology from China, Japan and possibly other countries. More than 100 billion databases from a mainframe at an unnamed U.S. stock exchange mainframe and access points to three or four Department of Homeland Security servers were also offered.

"The sensitive information isn't that great but it may be good for street cred," the post says. The leak, like so many others, highlights some of the amazingly lax password practices people and companies follow. "The passwords show the usual '123456' common issue," the Imperva blog post said.

"But one law firm implemented an interesting password system where the root password, 'law321' was pre-pended with your initials. So if your name is Mickey Mouse, your password is 'mmlaw321'. Worse, the law firm didn't require users to regularly change the password either."

In other internet security news

A critical Java security vulnerability that first appeared earlier this week actually leverages two zero-day security holes within Java itself. This most recent revelation comes as it was discovered that Oracle knew about the security flaw as early as April of this year.

To be sure, Windows, Mac OS X and Linux desktops running multiple browser platforms are all vulnerable to outside attacks. Exploit code already in circulation first uses a security hole to gain access the restricted sun.awt.SunToolkit class before a second flaw is used to disable the Security Manager, and ultimately to break out of the Java sandbox.

Unpatched vulnerabilities to the so-called Gondvv exploit were introduced in Java 7.0, released in July 2011. All versions of Java 7 are also vulnerable but older Java 6 versions appear to be immune, at least for now.

This means that Mac OS X users who follow best practices and apply the latest version of software applications are actually more at risk of attacks.

As a result of these two security vulnerabilities in the most recent version of Java, potential hackers and attackers can spread viruses and malware simply by tricking users into visiting booby-trapped websites.

Worse, malicious code can be loaded onto vulnerable computers without user interaction. The zero-day exploit has already made its way into the infamous Blackhole Exploit kit.

"Due to the Java zero-day, Black Hole exploitation success rates increased from 10 percent to 25 percent," says Aviv Raff, chief technology officer at Seculert.

Modules to test for the exploit have also been folded into Metasploit, the widely used penetration testing framework. In addition, the Java exploit has already appeared in targeted attacks originating on Chinese-hosted domains, security researchers at FireEye warn. AlienVault has also spotted examples of active malfeasance.

Oracle, which has maintained the Java code since it acquired Sun Microsystems in 2007, has yet to issue an advisory note on the issue. In the absence of a security patch for a potent and already abused vulnerability, the best advice is to disable Java in all web browsers, the most obvious attack route.

Instructions on how to do this can be found in an advisory by the U.S. CERT and on F-Secure's website. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-Secure, commented: "The perpetual vulnerability machine that is Oracle's Java Runtime Environment (JRE) has yet another highly exploitable vulnerability (Bulletin CVE-2012-4681). And it's being commoditised at this very moment. There being no latest patch against this, the only solution is to totally disable Java."

When you disable Java in Chrome, it's still possible to enable the technology for a specific site that users trust. This is a useful exception for banking sites and the like that require the use of Java. The site exception controls built into Chrome are explained in a Google knowledge base article on its site.

In other internet security news

We're starting to get some reports that a recent release of an app from Facebook may violate user's rights. Facebook is accused by a consumer lobby group of breaching Germany's privacy laws with the launch of its App Center last week.

To be sure, Facebook has been threatened with possible legal action if it fails to respond to the Federation of German Consumer Organizations within the next seven days.

The lobby group says that Facebook was farming out customer information without informing its users that their data was being used, according to the Associated Press.

Facebook has until September 4th, 2012, to resolve this matter, the group said, or else it could face potential litigation.

Data protection officials in Germany have been strong-arming Facebook for quite some time now. Most recently, Hamburg's data protection commissioner Dr Johannes Caspar confirmed earlier this month that his office had reopened its probe of Facebook's facial recognition technology, complaining that the network was building a massive biometric database of its users without obtaining permission.

The investigation had been suspended to allow time for the Irish data protection authority to conclude its talks with Facebook, whose European office is headquartered in Ireland.

Nevertheless, that probe had included an audit of the company's data policy. Come early autumn, the Irish district prosecutor will rule on whether Facebook should face legal action under existing EU privacy laws.

We spoke to a Facebook spokeswoman in Germany, who declined to comment, saying only that the company is "currently looking into the letter." We will update you when and if we hear more from Facebook.

On top of these privacy issues, Facebook has some serious security issues with its site. Cim Stordal, a fifteen years old teenager has discovered some critical security flaws in Facebook's programming code. When he's not in school, Cim spends part of his time playing the Team Fortress video game, shooting his Airsoft pellet gun, and working in a fish store in Bergen, Norway.

Stordal started looking for security vulnerabilities in software when he was just 14 years old last year. "I have always loved being on the PC and I already was programming some C++," he said. "So I wanted to do something new and constructive, so I searched around and learned Basic programming."

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Source: Qubes OS.

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