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The German government warns its workers not to use Windows 8

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August 23, 2013

Microsoft's new Windows 8 operating system is so vulnerable to the average hacker that Germany's businesses and government workers should not use it, the country's top authorities have warned in a series of leaked documents.

According to several files published in the German weekly 'Der Zeit', the Euro nation's officials fear Germans' data is not secure thanks to the OS' Trusted Computing technology-– a set of specifications and protocols that relies on every computer having a unique cryptographic key built into the hardware that's used to dictate what software can be run.

Authorities at Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) later clarified that it was the Trusted Computing specs in Windows 8 in conjunction with the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip embedded in the hardware that creates the alleged security issues.

BSI released a statement that backtracked slightly, insisting that using Windows 8 in combination with a TPM may make a system safer, but noting that it is investigating "some critical aspects related to specific scenarios in which Windows 8 is operated in combination with a hardware that has a TPM 2.0".

Trusted Computing is a controversial large set of specifications developed by a group of companies including AMD, Cisco, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Wave Systems Corp.

The technology is designed to stop the use of software and the files which do not contain the correct digital rights permissions (thus protecting the property of vendors behind the protocols), including "unauthorised operating systems" (a specific function of the much-maligned Secure Boot).

Microsoft argues that Secure Boot protects users from rootkits and other malware attacks. The set of permissions is automatically updated online, outside of the control of the user.

A machine that contains a Trusted Platform Module and runs software adhering to the Trusted Computing specifications is, arguably, under the control of the vendor-– in this case Microsoft.

It also identifies the machine to the vendor, meaning that users' identities can be linked to their machines as well as their online activities. As Microsoft is a U.S. company, opponents to the protocols argue, users' data is theoretically accessible to U.S. spooks in the National Security Agency via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as Der Zeit points out.

A TPM 2.0 chip is being built into more and more computers running Windows 8. The newspaper obtained an internal document from Germany's Ministry of Economic Affairs written at the beginning of 2012. It warned of "the loss of full sovereignty over information technology" and that "the security objectives of confidentiality" and integrity are no longer guaranteed".

It continued-- "The use of Trusted Computing is unacceptable for the federal administration and the operators of critical infrastructure."

And Trusted Platform Module 2.0 is considerably more invasive than older versions. Once this is rolled out across all Windows PCs, the Germans fear, there will be "simply no way to tell what exactly Microsoft does to its system through remote updates".

"From the perspective of the BSI, the use of Windows 8 in combination with a TPM 2.0 is accompanied by a loss of control over the operating system and the hardware used. This results in new risks for the user, especially for the federal government and critical infrastructure."

We previously described Trusted Computing as the "widely derided idea of computing secured for, and against, its users".

The leaked documents advised that Windows 7 is still safe to use, at least until 2020. Windows 8, on the other hand, is so tied up with Trusted Computing protocols that it is already "unfit for use".

As can be expected, Microsoft has denied there was any backdoor. In a lengthy statement, a spokeswoman insisted that users cannot expect "privacy without good security". Redmond argued that users could purchase machines whose manufacturers had disabled the TPMs.

Presumably this will one day become a selling point, although Microsoft still argues that this will actually make the hardware less "secure".

She said-- "TPM 2.0 is designed to be on by default with no user interaction required. Since most users accept OS defaults, requiring the user to enable the TPM will lead to IT users being less secure by default and increase the risk that their privacy will be violated. We believe that government policies promoting this result are ill-advised."

It's also important to note that any user concerns about TPM 2.0 are addressable. The first concern, generally expressed as “lack of user control,” isn't correct as most OEMs have the ability to turn off the TPM in x86 machines. Thus, purchasers can buy PCs with TPMs disabled (of course, they will also be unable to utilize the security features enabled by the technology).

The second concern, generally expressed as “lack of user control over choice of operating system,” is also incorrect. In fact, Windows has been designed so that users can clear/reset the TPM for ownership by another OS if they wish. Many TPM functions can also be used by multiple OSes (including Linux) concurrently.

Rumors about a backdoor in Windows are almost as old as Microsoft itself. In 2009, we reported on the NSA's admission that it had worked with developers on Windows 7's operating system security, forcing Microsoft to deny that there was a backdoor left open to hackers.

In other internet security news

Less than fifteen days after it was first made aware of the issue, Xerox is now rolling out a fix for a printer software glitch that caused numbers in documents scanned by certain of its WorkCentre multi-function printers (MFPs) to come up garbled and unformatted.

Xerox said late last night-- "Our engineering team has been working around the clock to deliver the patch. We have conducted extensive testing both in our labs and in the field to ensure a quality result and an easy installation for your IT staff."

The printer glitch can cause certain digits to be transposed when documents are scanned in as PDFs. For example, the number "6" might become an "8", a potential nightmare for accountants and others who rely on copies of spreadsheets and similarly number-heavy documents.

Xerox says it has determined that the bug only crops up when scanning what it terms "stress documents" – documents containing very small type, for example, or other issues that make them hard to read with the naked eye.

Initially, Xerox had believed that the copier issue could be fixed by changing certain settings. Upon further investigation, however, that turned out not to be the case, and the self-styled "Document Company" warned customers that producing a patch for the glitch could take several weeks.

It will take at least a few more days to patch all of the affected devices, but some lucky few Xerox customers could begin updating their printers today after the company issued its first round of patches late last night.

The first devices to get the fix include the Xerox ConnectKey, WorkCentre 75xx, WorkCentre 57xx and ColorQube 93xx series.

Xerox says it will release more patches for "the remainder of the affected products". The company said in early August that 14 models were affected in its next round of fixes, which it hopes to ship the week of August 26.

To further simplify the patch process, Xerox has created a one-stop website at www.xerox.com/scanpatch where customers can download both the appropriate patches and support documents explaining how to apply them.

Xerox says that customers can either download and install the patches themselves or contact local service or support reps to take care of it.

In other internet security news

The Guardian’s photo of the computers it claims to have smashed in order to appease the British government over the Snowden affair has been called into question over both what it shows, and what it doesn’t.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger yesterday revealed that GCHQ operatives in July paid the newspaper a visit in order to vet the wrecking of one or more computers so that the encrypted contents of their hard drives could no longer be accessed and perhaps one day fall into the wrong hands.

A follow-up story featured a snap of the remains of a computer that held files leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian and destroyed at the request of the British government. The photo is the one you see at the left.

The photo certainly shows the remains of a MacBook all right. But Guardian photographer Roger Tooth’s photo also contains what is clearly a second MacBook laptop, along with an old graphics card. You can see the three output connectors on the backplane, and another motherboard, possibly a small desktop computer or maybe another device, given the large areas empty of circuitry.

The larger of the three motherboards seems too small to have played host to the graphics card, suggesting the Guardian picture shows the remains of at least four computers - and incomplete ones at that. The photo is actually too small to identify the graphics card and the three motherboards precisely.

But even at this size, it’s clear there is no sign of either hard drives or solid-state storage. Given the vigor with which “a senior editor and a Guardian computer expert” clearly applied themselves to the destruction of the devices that’s perhaps not surprising - these components must have been reduced to invisible dust.

According to the paper, its two staffers “used angle grinders and other tools to pulverise the hard drives and memory chips” while being watched by GCHQ techies “who took notes and photographs, but who left empty-handed”.

If that’s the case, why does the Guardian picture show so little of the three, possibly four machines? There’s not much beyond motherboard, storage and memory inside modern Mac laptops, but what about the desktop’s or desktops’ wiring, power supplies, fans, chassis, optical drives and casings?

Nor does the Guardian’s second story explain why the paper’s computer specialist felt the need to vent such spleen on a graphics card which surely couldn’t be used to cache Snowden’s encrypted leaks.

The apparent destruction of chippery on the pictured boards could give some credit to wild conspiracy theories to the effect that the world's major investigative agencies could even read information out of RAM after it has lost power, perhaps through some ultra-advanced scanning of residual quantum ghosts in the computer.

Or maybe they simply feared that if they didn't destroy all the chips they might miss a non-volatile one. Rusbridger himself describes the destruction as a “peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism”, not least because he admits the paper has plenty of other copies of the Snowden files.

But the GCHQ has apparently been happy to take his word for it that the only ones on British soil have now been destroyed completely.

A more cynical observer might conclude that the Guardian staff simply took a handful of IT department cast-offs of the kind all large organizations have lying about somewhere and set about destroying them for the spies' benefit.

But then why did the GCHQ team fall for it? Or perhaps there was subsequently some confusion at the Graun photo desk.

According to Rusbridger, the GCHQ team never touched the hard drives so presumably had to take the Guardian’s word that the computers contained the contentious content the government would prefer we didn’t see.

In other internet security news

Upstart security consultancy firm LastPass says it has patched a security hole that meant several Windows versions of its password-management software were capable of leaking login credentials that had been auto-filled into fields by its password manager.

The security hole which affected Internet Explorer users on Windows only meant that an attacker who managed to obtain a memory dump of Internet Explorer would be able to extract unencrypted password strings as well.

"This is the same type of attack that we have written about frequently in the context of banking malware," writes security researcher Paul Ducklin on the Sophos security blog.

Pulling off the attack would normally require either physical access to a targeted machine or an attack involving the planting of malware on a mark's PC, a level of compromise that makes most security protections redundant.

LastPass resolved the issue with a security update that also comes with a variety of performance enhancements and other tweaks. The relevant portion of the advisory explains-- "Resolved - The security issue with IE exclusively while logged in to LastPass only-- Prevent IE from adding passwords to in memory decryption cache".

The security repair is one of eighteen items in LastPass v2.5.0/1/2, which also offers improved synchronisation and support for upcoming versions of Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 11.

In other internet security news

Yesterday, Syrian online hacktivists once again claimed that they are responsible for defacing the websites of CNN, Time Magazine and The Washington Post. This isn't the first time it happens, and will most likely happen again.

However, these latest attempts by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) are somewhat misleading, according to computer security experts who say that the hacking crew actually ransacked Outbrain, a marketing firm used by The WashingtonPost.com, Time.com and many others to provide links to related articles.

It's generally understood that the miscreants, who back Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, compromised Outbrain's online systems and hijacked those embedded links to point to the SEA's website.

Outbrain confirmed its security was breached, which it said was pulled off using phishing emails posing as messages to various staff from its CEO.

Marc Gaffan, co-founder of web security firm Incapsula explains-- "The cause of the breach was actually performed by sending phishing emails to all Outbrain employees which caused them to surrender their email passwords. With access to employee email accounts, the hackers were able to obtain or reset passwords to the admin areas of the content marketing platform, leading to the visible part of the breach."

"If Outbrain's admin areas had two-factor authentication enabled on them, this could have been prevented," he suggested.

In a statement, The Washington Post added that one of its staffers did have his Twitter profile compromised by the SEA earlier this week, but explained that the main aspect of Thursday's hack relied on breaking into Outbrain's systems.

Earlier this week the Twitter account of one of our journalists was compromised as part of a larger attack aimed at social media management group SocialFlow, and Thursday an attack on content recommendation service Outbrain caused some some content to redirect to the the SEA homepage.

Outbrain responded to the hack by temporarily suspending its services. The SEA, meanwhile, congratulated itself on drilling into Outbrain's control panels on its official Twitter account.

"@TIME, @CNN, @Washingtonpost websites hacked in one strike by hacking @outbrain #SEA #SyrianElectronicArmy #Syria pic.twitter.com/5OI1BE2oCM— SyrianElectronicArmy (@Official_SEA16) August 15, 2013," read the Twitter post.

Outbrain's content-recommendation app embedded into web pages is supposed to help internet publishers boost their online traffic. Users are offered links to articles and other items to read or watch.

SEA foot soldiers alleged they obtained access to Outbrain's email spools, but as of this morning, this still remains unconfirmed.

The Syrian Electronic Army is a loose-knit hacker group loyal to President al-Assad. Its campaign of online disruption began in mid-2011, and has involved distributed denial-of-service attacks against servers, phishing emails to access passwords, pro-Assad graffiti on websites, and spamming against governments, online services and media outlets that are perceived hostile to the government of civil-war-torn Syria.

Its 'expertise' is firing off spear-phishing emails to hijack Twitter accounts and other social-networking profiles run by media organizations and then to use the compromised logins to push links to pro-Assad propaganda.

If you need reliability when it comes to SMTP servers, get the best, get Port 587.

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Source: Germany's Federal Office.

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