Internet Power Struggle | TechSNAP 277

Internet Power Struggle | TechSNAP 277

We’re in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace & Bruce Schneier breaks it down. PHP gets broken, PornHub gets hacked & the disgruntled employee who wiped the router configs on his way out the door.

Plus great emails, a packed round up & more!

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Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet

  • “We’re in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace. On one side are the nimble, unorganized, distributed powers such as dissident groups, criminals, and hackers. On the other side are the traditional, organized, institutional powers such as governments and large multinational corporations. During its early days, the Internet gave coordination and efficiency to the powerless. It made them powerful, and seem unbeatable. But now the more traditional institutional powers are winning, and winning big. How these two fare long-term, and the fate of the majority of us that don’t fall into either group, is an open question – and one vitally important to the future of the Internet.”
  • “In its early days, there was a lot of talk about the “natural laws of the Internet” and how it would empower the masses, upend traditional power blocks, and spread freedom throughout the world. The international nature of the Internet made a mockery of national laws. Anonymity was easy. Censorship was impossible. Police were clueless about cybercrime. And bigger changes were inevitable. Digital cash would undermine national sovereignty. Citizen journalism would undermine the media, corporate PR, and political parties. Easy copying would destroy the traditional movie and music industries. Web marketing would allow even the smallest companies to compete against corporate giants. It really would be a new world order.”
  • “On the corporate side, power is consolidating around both vendor-managed user devices and large personal-data aggregators. It’s a result of two current trends in computing. First, the rise of cloud computing means that we no longer have control of our data. Our e-mail, photos, calendar, address book, messages, and documents are on servers belonging to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and so on. And second, the rise of vendor-managed platforms means that we no longer have control of our computing devices. We’re increasingly accessing our data using iPhones, iPads, Android phones, Kindles, ChromeBooks, and so on. Even Windows 8 and Apple’s Mountain Lion are heading in the direction of less user control.”
  • “I have previously called this model of computing feudal. Users pledge allegiance to more powerful companies who, in turn, promise to protect them from both sysadmin duties and security threats. It’s a metaphor that’s rich in history and in fiction, and a model that’s increasingly permeating computing today.”
  • “Feudal security consolidates power in the hands of the few. These companies act in their own self-interest. They use their relationship with us to increase their profits, sometimes at our expense. They act arbitrarily. They make mistakes.”
  • “Government power is also increasing on the Internet. Long gone are the days of an Internet without borders, and governments are better able to use the four technologies of social control: surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and use control. There’s a growing “cyber sovereignty” movement that totalitarian governments are embracing to give them more control – a change the US opposes, because it has substantial control under the current system. And the cyberwar arms race is in full swing, further consolidating government power.”
  • “What happened? How, in those early Internet years, did we get the future so wrong?”
  • “The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: they can make use of new technologies faster. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. But when the already powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the Internet for their needs, they had more power to magnify. That’s the difference: the distributed were more nimble and were quicker to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively. So while the Syrian dissidents used Facebook to organize, the Syrian government used Facebook to identify dissidents.”
  • “There’s another more subtle trend, one I discuss in my book Liars and Outliers. If you think of security as an arms race between attackers and defenders, technological advances – firearms, fingerprint identification, lockpicks, the radio – give one side or the other a temporary advantage. But most of the time, a new technology benefits the attackers first.”
  • “It’s quick vs. strong. To return to medieval metaphors, you can think of a nimble distributed power – whether marginal, dissident, or criminal – as Robin Hood. And you can think of ponderous institutional power – both government and corporate – as the Sheriff of Nottingham.”
  • “So who wins? Which type of power dominates in the coming decades? Right now, it looks like institutional power.”
  • “This is largely because leveraging power on the Internet requires technical expertise, and most distributed power groups don’t have that expertise. Those with sufficient technical ability will be able to stay ahead of institutional power. Whether it’s setting up your own e-mail server, effectively using encryption and anonymity tools, or breaking copy protection, there will always be technologies that are one step ahead of institutional power. This is why cybercrime is still pervasive, even as institutional power increases, and why organizations like Anonymous are still a social and political force. If technology continues to advance – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – there will always be a security gap in which technically savvy Robin Hoods can operate.”
  • “My main concern is for the rest of us: everyone in the middle. These are people who don’t have the technical ability to evade either the large governments and corporations that are controlling our Internet use, or the criminal and hacker groups who prey on us. These are the people who accept the default configuration options, arbitrary terms of service, NSA-installed back doors, and the occasional complete loss of their data. In the feudal world, these are the hapless peasants. And it’s even worse when the feudal lords – or any powers – fight each other. As anyone watching Game of Thrones knows, peasants get trampled when powers fight: when Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon fight it out in the market; when the US, EU, China, and Russia fight it out in geopolitics; or when it’s the US vs. the terrorists or China vs. its dissidents. The abuse will only get worse as technology continues to advance. In the battle between institutional power and distributed power, more technology means more damage. Cybercriminals can rob more people more quickly than criminals who have to physically visit everyone they rob. Digital pirates can make more copies of more things much more quickly than their analog forebears. And 3D printers mean that the data use restriction debate now involves guns, not movies. It’s the same problem as the “weapons of mass destruction” fear: terrorists with nuclear or biological weapons can do a lot more damage than terrorists with conventional explosives.”
  • “The more destabilizing the technologies, the greater the rhetoric of fear, and the stronger institutional power will get. This means even more repressive security measures, even if the security gap means that such measures are increasingly ineffective. And it will squeeze the peasants in the middle even more.”
  • “Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we are going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.”
  • “This won’t be an easy period for us as we try to work these issues out. Historically, no shift in power has ever been easy. Corporations have turned our personal data into an enormous revenue generator, and they’re not going to back down. Neither will governments, who have harnessed that same data for their own purposes. But we have a duty to tackle this problem.”
  • “Data is the pollution problem of the information age. All computer processes produce it. It stays around. How we deal with it — how we reuse and recycle it, who has access to it, how we dispose of it, and what laws regulate it — is central to how the information age functions. And I believe that just as we look back at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how society could ignore pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we dealt with the rebalancing of power resulting from all this new data.”
  • “I can’t tell you what the result will be. These are all complicated issues, and require meaningful debate, international cooperation, and innovative solutions. We need to decide on the proper balance between institutional and decentralized power, and how to build tools that amplify what is good in each while suppressing the bad.”

How we broke PHP, hacked PornHub, and earned $20,000

  • As we covered a few months ago, PornHub has opened up their new bug bounty program via
  • Now, a group of researchers have collected a $20,000 bounty, and are sharing the details of how they did it
  • “We have gained remote code execution on and have earned a $20,000 bug bounty on Hackerone. We were also awarded with $2,000 by the Internet Bug Bounty committee
  • “We have found two use-after-free vulnerabilities in PHP’s garbage collection algorithm. Those vulnerabilities were remotely exploitable over PHP’s unserialize function.”
  • “After analyzing the platform we quickly detected the usage of unserialize on the website. Multiple paths (everywhere where you could upload hot pictures and so on) were affected”
  • “In all cases a parameter named “cookie” got unserialized from POST data and afterwards reflected via Set-Cookie headers”
  • So, whatever data you sent to the website while uploading, was serialized and set as a cookie, which would be unserialized and read back in by each subsequent request. This is how websites maintain state across multiple requests.
  • When the researchers modified the POST request to include an a serialized PHP Exception, the PornHub website reacted to the exception
  • “This might strike as a harmless information disclosure at first sight, but generally it is known that using user input on unserialize is a bad idea”
  • “The core unserializer alone is relatively complex as it involves more than 1200 lines of code in PHP 5.6. Further, many internal PHP classes have their own unserialize methods. By supporting structures like objects, arrays, integers, strings or even references it is no surprise that PHP’s track record shows a tendency for bugs and memory corruption vulnerabilities. Sadly, there were no known vulnerabilities of such type for newer PHP versions like PHP 5.6 or PHP 7, especially because unserialize already got a lot of attention in the past”
  • “Hence, auditing it can be compared to squeezing an already tightly squeezed lemon. Finally, after so much attention and so many security fixes its vulnerability potential should have been drained out and it should be secure, shouldn’t it?”
  • The implemented a fuzzer, and started running it. Eventually they found a bug in PHP 7, but when they tried it against PornHub, it didn’t work. This suggested that PornHub used PHP 5.6. Running the fuzzer against PHP 5.6 generated more than 1 TB of logs, but no vulnerabilities.
  • “Eventually, after putting more and more effort into fuzzing we’ve stumbled upon unexpected behavior again.”
  • “A tremendous amount of time was necessary to analyze potential issues. After all, we could extract a concise proof of concept of a working memory corruption bug — a so called use-after-free vulnerability! Upon further investigation we discovered that the root cause could be found in PHP’s garbage collection algorithm, a component of PHP that is completely unrelated to unserialize. However, the interaction of both components occurred only after unserialize had finished its job. Consequently, it was not well suited for remote exploitation. After further analysis, gaining a deeper understanding for the problem’s root causes and a lot of hard work a similar use-after-free vulnerability was found that seemed to be promising for remote exploitation.”
  • “Even this promising use-after-free vulnerability was considerably difficult to exploit. In particular, it involved multiple exploitation stages.”
  • The article then goes on to explain how they exploited the use-after-free vulnerability in great detail
  • Once they had the ability to execute the code they provided, they needed a way to view the output
  • “Being able to execute arbitrary PHP code is an important step, but being able to view its output is equally important, unless one wants to deal with side channels to receive responses. So the remaining tricky part was to somehow display the result on Pornhub’s website.”
  • “Usually php-cgi forwards the generated content back to the web server so that it’s displayed on the website, but wrecking the control flow that badly creates an abnormal termination of PHP so that its result will never reach the HTTP server. To get around this problem we simply told PHP to use direct unbuffered responses that are usually used for HTTP streaming”
  • “Together with our ROP stack which was provided over POST data our payload did the following things:”
    • Created our fake object which was later on passed as a parameter to “setcookie”.
  • This caused a call to the provided add_ref function i.e. it allowed us to gain program counter control.
  • Our ROP chain then prepared all registers/parameters as discussed.
  • Next, we were able to execute arbitrary PHP code by making a call to zend_eval_string.
  • Finally, we caused a clean process termination while also fetching the output from the response body.
  • “Once running the above code we were in and got a nice view of Pornhub’s ‘/etc/passwd’ file. Due to the nature of our attack we would have also been able to execute other commands or actually break out of PHP to run arbitrary syscalls. However, just using PHP was more convenient at this point. Finally, we dumped a few details about the underlying system and immediately wrote and submitted a report to Pornhub over Hackerone.”
  • “We gained remote code execution and would’ve been able to do the following things:”
    • Dump the complete database of including all sensitive user information.
    • Track and observe user behavior on the platform.
  • Leak the complete available source code of all sites hosted on the server.
  • Escalate further into the network or root the system.
  • “It is well-known that using user input on unserialize is a bad idea. In particular, about 10 years have passed since its first weaknesses have become apparent. Unfortunately, even today, many developers seem to believe that unserialize is only dangerous in old PHP versions or when combined with unsafe classes. We sincerely hope to have destroyed this misbelief. Please finally put a nail into unserialize’s coffin so that the following mantra becomes obsolete.”
  • “You should never use user input on unserialize. Assuming that using an up-to-date PHP version is enough to protect unserialize in such scenarios is a bad idea. Avoid it or use less complex serialization methods like JSON.”

Ex-Citibank employee wipes router configs and downs entire network

  • “Lennon Ray Brown, 38, had been working at Citibank’s Irving, Texas, corporate office since 2012, first as a contractor and later as a staff employee, when he was called in by a manager and reprimanded for poor performance.”
  • “At that point, the US Department of Justice said, the rogue employee uploaded a series of commands to Citibank’s Global Control Center routers, deleting the config files for nine of the routers and causing traffic to be re-routed through a set of backup routers. Court documents show that while there was not a complete outage, the re-routing led to “congestion” on the network and at the branch offices.”
  • “Brown admits that on December 23, 2013, he issued commands to wipe the configuration files on 10 core routers within Citibank’s internal network. The resulting outage hit both network and phone access to 110 branches nationwide – about 90 per cent of all Citibank branch offices.”
  • Brown said the following in a text message to a coworker shortly after the incident:
    • “They was firing me. I just beat them to it. Nothing personal, the upper management need to see what they guys on the floor is capable of doing when they keep getting mistreated. I took one for the team.”
    • “Sorry if I made my peers look bad, but sometimes it take something like what I did to wake the upper management up.”
  • Brown admitted the intentional damage charge in February
  • Justice Department Announcement
  • Brown has been sentenced to 21 months in jail, and a $77,000 fine


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