WWW: The Hackers’ Haven

by Prasad Krishna last modified Feb 05, 2015 02:20 AM
In an increasingly connected world, it pays to be careful when sharing personal information

This story by Abraham C. Mathews was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 09-02-2015. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

Last year, Whatsapp changed its encryption algorithm several times and, every time, it was breached,” says Saket Modi, hacker, entrepreneur and CEO of Lucideus Technologies, which just created an app that monitors wayward activity on your smartphone. That’s geekspeak for: “Your WhatsApp chats, including deleted ones, would have been accessible to any hacker worth his salt”. And we are talking about a company that was valued at $19 billion at some point during the year. Only in November 2014 did WhatsApp finally embrace end-to-end encryption, which will ostensibly address the issue.

Or take the sales claim that every smartphone purchaser has heard — “Android is safe from virus.” That’s not, however, what a joint study by security solutions company Kaspersky and Interpol found. In the first half of 2014, 1,75,442 unique malicious programmes targeted at Android were discovered. Clearly a tribute to the platform on which 85 per cent of smartphones run.

In a TEDx talk last year titled ‘What’s physically possible in the virtual world’, Modi demonstrated how, with access to your smartphone for barely 20 seconds, he can see everything that has ever happened on your phone — text messages, call log, browsing history, and so on. He also showed how fraudulent emails could be disguised so as to appear to have come from a yahoo.com email address, and how you could be hacked even without being connected to the Internet. “There are only two kinds of people in the world,” he says. “Those who know they have been hacked and those who don’t.”

Epidemic Proportions
For cyber security, 2014 was annus horribilis. From celebrities whose intimate pictures were dumped on the Internet, to corporates such as Sony, JP Morgan and Target whose records were hacked into and personal information of millions of their customers compromised, it was the year when the proverbial shit hit the fan. Details (names, numbers, even favourite pizza toppings) of six lakh customers of Domino’s Pizza in France and Belgium were stolen for a $40,000 ransom. One hundred and ten million records (credit card details, social security numbers, along with addresses) from Target were stolen. The company later admitted that its sales were “meaningfully weaker” after the data theft was disclosed. One hundred and forty-five million records were stolen from eBay, 109 million from Home Depot and 83 million from JP Morgan during the year.

In 2013, a group that calls itself the Syrian Electronic Army hacked into Swedish company TrueCaller’s database. TrueCaller, an app, allows you to identify phone numbers. The data is collected from the contact list of those who download the app, which means, it even has details of those who haven’t downloaded or used the app in any way. Estimates put the number of Indians whose numbers could have been stolen at a million.

Cyber security is not yet a boardroom topic, says Anil Bhasin, MD, India & Saarc, Palo Alto Networks, which claims to create comprehensive security solutions for users but is fast becoming one with the increase in security breach incidents. Enterprises still use legacy technology that at times is 20 years old, he says, giving the example of banks that sometimes have a layer-3 staple inspection firewall, when they should ideally be running on layer-7.

When companies store your information, you also benefit. For example, when an e-commerce company does so, online shopping becomes faster and easier. But these companies should invest in measures to protect the information, says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore. But then again, he says, a lot of breaches, like the celebrity iCloud hack, happen because users are negligent with measures designed to protect them. Passwords, for instance.

A Pew Research report found that only four out of 10 Internet users changed passwords after the ‘heartbleed’ virus (which found a way to unlock encrypted data) was uncovered in April 2014. Only 6 per cent thought their information was stolen. But, in August, it emerged that a Russian crime ring had amassed 1.2 billion user name-password combinations of 500 million email addresses from 4,20,000 websites. A Kaspersky study found that the number of malicious programmes detected rose 10 times in just six months to 6,44,000 in March 2014. This shows the call for vigil cannot not be more critical.

Interestingly, your online financial payments may be relatively more secure, thanks to Reserve Bank of India’s dogged persistence in continuing with the two-step verification process for electronic payments (a one-time password and PIN verification). The central bank drew a lot of flak for barring taxi app Uber from storing payment information and automatically deducting charges at the end of a ride. But Modi isn’t impressed. He likens the two-step verification to a batsman going onto the pitch wearing just a helmet. “The rest of your body is still exposed,” he says.

Easy Targets
Here’s one easy hack that Modi describes. Any app that you download from the app store on your phone asks for a set of permissions, which mostly come as an ‘all or nothing’ option. You either grant all the access it asks for, or you can’t download the app. Suppose, you grant a scrabble app access to your text messages. Your number can then be accessed by the app provider. Now think about how your banking transactions are verified — with a one-time password sent as a text message. With access to your text messages, entering that password would hardly be a challenge for hackers, says Modi. Or, suppose you were to set up a new WhatsApp account with that same number. The verification, like we all know, comes through a one-time password sent to your number. With access to your text messages, the hacker is given a virtual key to your entire WhatsApp history.

Or, take for instance, an app that requests access to your SD card (the storage card in your phone). With that permission, the app gets access to everything on your SD card, including your most private photos. Modi’s company Lucideus recently came out with an app, UnHack, that scans your phone to see which apps can access what data. If you use the app, you will find that not only can Facebook access the call logs on your phone, but apps like Wunderlist (which organises to-do lists) and Pocket (which stores articles for future offline reading) can access your contacts as well. The apps from TED (of  TED Talks fame) as well as Flipkart can see as well as edit your personal photos and documents.

Companies —Uber, for instance — have in the past been found to be frivolous with data collected. Late last year, Uber greeted a Buzzfeed reporter who had arrived at the company’s New York headquarters with “There you are — I was tracking you”. No prior permission was sought. A venture capitalist, Peter Sims, had written earlier that his exact whereabouts in New York were displayed to a room full of people as part of a demonstration at a company event in Chicago.

Information Overload

Adam Tanner, a Harvard fellow and a Forbes columnist, was at an annual conference of the Direct Marketers Association, where he noticed a list of names of 1.8 million people with erectile dysfunction (ED), along with their email addresses and numbers. The organisers claimed the details were volunteered by the people themselves. Knowing that ED is something that men rarely admit to, he made the organisers an offer — “Let me purchase a list of a thousand people, and write to them to see if they know that they are on such a list.” The organisers refused, saying it would be an immoral use of their data. From this, one can tell that the information came from websites that took their details, promising a cure.

This, and other similar anecdotes made their way to his recent book, What Stays in Vegas, which deals with the world of personal data and the end of privacy as we know it. When Tanner meets Indians, he brings up matrimonial websites. What surprises him is the volume of information that people disclose. To westerners, details such as sub-caste or blood type, as well as in many cases the admission that a person is HIV+ is an outright breach of privacy. That people would volunteer to put this out in public is shocking. “When you are looking for a suitable match, giving the information may be important at the moment, but you must not forget that once something is on the Internet, it can never be completely deleted,” he warns.

But what is the problem if somebody has all the details, you may ask. Is the potential risk greater than the possibility of a perfect match? A PTI report from 2009 talks about a confession by an Indian Mujahideen operative who used information from such sites to get a student identity card as well as a driving licence. Mukul Shrivastava, a partner in the forensic practice at EY, gives you another alarming scenario. Let’s say somebody trawls your Facebook, what is the amount of information that such a person can get access to? Your daily routine, your physical movement, your favourite restaurant or whether you will be at home at a certain time (from a status message like “Can’t wait to watch the Devils trouncing Liverpool at ManU Café tonight!”). Even if a physical attack is not on the agenda, much of the information can be used to guess security questions (favourite cat, first school) and find out required details for phone banking (date of birth, email address, mother’s name). An HDFC Bank official says there is a rise in vishing (the voice equivalent of phishing) attacks, where people with access to bank account numbers as well as personal details pose as bank executives and lure customers with special benefits and convince them to divulge their banking passwords.  

Security is an individual’s responsibility, says Sunil Abraham. “You have to remember that you have volunteered to put the information online,” he says. Information once put online is not private anymore. It’s like making an announcement in a large hall that is broadcast on TV. That’s what the Internet is. And once the Internet gets to know, it can never really be forgotten, says Vishnu Gopal, chief technology officer at MobME, a mobile value-added services provider. It will be available on some weblink or at least on archive.org, which claims to have ‘435 billion pages saved over time’.

While reclaiming lost information might be difficult, one can still reclaim privacy. Both Facebook and Gmail have options to disable monitoring by other applications. It might be worthwhile to pay the permissions page a visit. Routine password changes, as well as keying them in every time (rather than saving them on the system) might be worth the trouble. That said, nothing works like caution.

An Attacking Refrigerator!
A year ago, Proofpoint, a US-based security solutions provider, noticed an unusual type of cyber attack. Emails were sent in batches of about a lakh, thrice a day, aimed at slowing down large enterprises. What was unique about this attack was that upto 25 per cent of the volume was sent by devices other than computers, laptops, mobile phones or such devices. Instead, the emails came from everyday consumer electronic items like network routers, televisions, and at least one refrigerator, according to the company, with not more than 10 emails from any one device, making the attack difficult to block. This is now known as the first Internet of Things or IoT-based attack, where connected everyday-use devices are hacked into and used as cyber weaponry.


With the IoT, you have devices talking to one another, opening up multiple places to be breached, says MobME’s Gopal. From your shoe to T-shirt, everything becomes a potential bot. India should be concerned. Research by securities provider Symantec says India tops the list of countries wherein Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks originate. DDoS attacks are those where hundreds of bots target a website (say, an e-commerce company) on its big discount day, thereby slowing down traffic to the site. The report says a bot’s services can be bought for as low as Rs 300 to bring down a site for a few minutes. Monthly subscription plans are available for lengthier attacks.
Corporates can never be too careful, feels Shrivastava who, as part of his investigations, comes across several instances where companies are hacked into because of lack of best practices. How many companies have blocked pen drives on office machinery, he asks. In a tiny device, a humungous amount of data can be stolen. Till the first incident happens, nobody realises the importance of security, he says. For example, at EY, the IT security does not permit copying of the text of emails by the recipient. Recent reports suggest that the JP Morgan security breach was the result of neglect of one of its servers in terms of a security upgrade.
According to a study by Microsoft,  the estimated loss to enterprises from lost data in 2014 was $491 billion.
You Against The Mafia
The fight really is about who’s weaker, says Altaf Halde, managing director, Kaspersky Lab-South Asia. “The problem here is the consumer.” Nothing excuses us from not protecting ourselves. That includes getting an anti-virus installed, but most people often disable it when it flags a particular activity that we want to pursue online.

Halde also brings up the BYOD (bring your own device) culture that is taking root. Asking employees to bring their own devices could help cut costs for a company, but that also brings in their inadequate protection, which could potentially translate into a much higher cost to the company, he says.

On the other side of the ring is the virtual underground mafia that profits from all types of data that get compromised — details of one’s sexual preferences, favourite restaurants or credit card details. Modi says in underground circles, the going rate for a stolen credit card number is $2.2 for a Visa, $2.5 for a MasterCard and $3 for an AmEx number. Transactions are made through crypto-currencies such as bitcoins, making them virtually untraceable.

As Modi says, the ideal scenario would be for all of us to throw away our smartphones and live an entirely offline existence. “But since that isn’t feasible, let’s embrace the risk, but with adequate measures to ensure that we are not affected.”