Sunday, May 08, 2011

Internet Security and Satellite Internet: A gap that needs to be patched?

Today there are over a million computers in America that connect to the Internet via a satellite connection, and the number continues to grow. During this past winter I used my spare time to write a white paper on satellite Internet connectivity, mainly to drive home the point that it is no substitute for DSL/cable/fiber when it comes to broadband access for rural communities. The white paper has just been published by the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance (RuMBA).

However, an interesting security issue came up in the course of writing this 22-page paper and I thought I would highlight it here. If you like, you can download the full report at no charge from this link. (You can also read more about this research in this blog post.)

One of the reasons nobody should seriously consider defining satellite Internet as broadband is the daily download limit that satellite services impose, typically about 400 megabytes a day, which is less than some operating system upgrades we have seen in recent years. These capacity limits are not just a serious inconvenience, they have serious implications for computer security.

Basically, satellite Internet users have to turn off automated updating of operating systems and applications to prevent incurring costs and usage restrictions arising from bandwidth caps. However, as I am sure you know, computer and software makers increasingly rely on these automated processes to distribute the security “patches” required to prevent exploitation of computers by criminal hackers.

Computers with unpatched operating systems and applications are a prime target for hackers as these machines are more easily exploited and turned into “zombies” under the control of attackers. Zombies are then orchestrated into “botnets” that are used to attack other systems, from commercial and government websites to utility systems and entire sections of the Internet itself. The Department of Homeland Security today considers unpatched consumer computers a threat to national security and the problem has been openly discussed by cyber-security officials at the federal level since at least 2002.

Some might argue that computers on a relatively slow satellite connection (you're lucky to get above 256Kbps when uploading) are not attractive to botnet builders, But some botnet attacks don't need much speed or capacity to be effective. The fact that the IP address blocks occupied by these "at risk" systems are relatively easy to identify may also be considered an added risk factor.

Solutions are possible, like special exemptions on bandwidth caps for authorized OS and application patches, but so far I have not heard any talk of these being implemented. Since the federal government is currently handing over tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to satellite Internet service providers to help them build their subscriber base, maybe that money should come with strings, like better provision for prompt security patching.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Twitter Spam Getting Bad, Now Poisoning Health-Related Search Results

What is Twitter spam? A whole bunch of "people" tweeting the same thing from accounts that are likely automated. These bogus accounts have a human name followed by a number, like Colettaj339. When you check out the profile you see this person has:
  • Sent many tweets (all pushing links), 
  • Not followed anyone (Following=0). 
In other words, the account merely exists to direct clicks to a promotion in return for money. Following the pattern of previous forms of spam this Twitter-spam is growing fast and targeting vulnerable people.

For example, I have been encountering more and more of this stuff when searching Twitter for the term "hemochromatosis" which is a scary and potentially fatal genetic condition that causes iron overload, a toxic buildup of iron in joints and organs like the liver, heart, brain, thyroid and so on.

Given the pathetically poor level of knowledge about this condition that exists in the general medical population it is very common for people who find they have hemochromatosis to turn to various channels on the Internet for information, including Twitter.

My hemochromatosis search on Twitter today found a bunch of tweeted links leading to a pitch page for an eBook on Iron Overload priced at $37. Bear in mind that the highly regarded and medically reviewed Iron Disorders Institute Guide to Hemochromatosis can be purchased in paperback on for a lot less than half that price, and can be had as an eBook on Kindle for $9.89.

Maybe the tweet-spammed book is brilliant and worth $37 but the large number of spam Tweets makes me doubtful. And this is by no means the first targeting of hemochromatosis sufferers on Twitter. Tweet spam leading people to an article site has also used this hook. In fact, I'm willing to bet that whenever you search a nasty disease, for example multiple sclerosis, you will see this Tweet spam. Here are some observations about this depressing phenomenon:
  1. Cobb's First Law of Communications Technology: Every new communications technology will quickly be abused, most likely by people lying in the hopes of making money.
  2. Twitter has not done enough to make sure new accounts are opened by real people.
  3. Twitter is not doing enough to remove blatant spam accounts (email me as scobb[at]scobb[dot]net for the algorithm to identify these accounts guys, it's not that complicated)
  4. A depressingly large number of people need to ask themselves whether what they are doing with their computers is helping or hurting their fellow man, woman, or child.
  5. Until the median level of morality among computer literate humans starts to rise, we will see spam, scams, fraud, and the like continuing to poison the technology and waste precious resources (like the energy that email spam wastes, enough to power millions of homes).
BTW, if you want solid information about hemochromatosis, visit The Iron Disorders Institute. If you want Twitter to do more to stop Twitter-spam contact the company. I find that a fax to the CEO is a good communications channel to use: Mr. Evan Williams, CEO, Twitter, Inc., 795 Folsom St., Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94107, fax 415-222-0922.