Intel’s SGX blown wide open by, you guessed it, a speculative execution attack

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Another day, another speculative execution-based attack. Data protected by Intel’s SGX—data that’s meant to be protected even from a malicious or hacked kernel—can be read by an attacker thanks to leaks enabled by speculative execution.

Since publication of the Spectre and Meltdown attacks in January this year, security researchers have been taking a close look at speculative execution and the implications it has for security. All high-speed processors today perform speculative execution: they assume certain things (a register will contain a particular value, a branch will go a particular way) and perform calculations on the basis of those assumptions. It’s an important design feature of these chips that’s essential to their performance, and it has been for 20 years.

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Firefox now supports the newest internet security protocol

Last Friday, the Internet Engineering Task Force released the final version of TLS 1.3. This is a major update to TLS 1.2, the security protocol that secures much of the web by, among other things, providing the layer that handles the encryption of every HTTPS connection.

The updated spec promises improved security and a bit more speed, thanks to the reduced need for round trips as the browser and server negotiate the security settings. And the good news is, you can already use it today, because, as Mozilla today announced, Firefox already supports the new standard out of the box. Chrome, too, started supporting the new protocol (based on earlier drafts) in version 65.

TLS 1.3 has been a few years in the making and it’s been 10 years since the last version launched. It’s no secret that TLS 1.2 had its share of problems — though those were mostly due to its implementations, which are obviously a favorite target for hackers thanks to their ubiquity and which opened up bugs like the infamous Heartbleed vulnerability. But in addition to that, some of the algorithms that are part of TLS 1.2 have been successfully attacked.

It’s no surprise, then, that TLS 1.3 focuses on providing access to modern cryptographic methods (the folks over at Cloudflare have a more in-depth look at what exactly that means).

For users, all of this ideally means that they get access to a more secure web, as well as a slightly faster one, as the new protocol allows the browser and server to quickly negotiate which encryption to use without lots of back and forth.

Some of the companies that already support TLS 1.3 include Facebook (which says that it already serves almost half of its traffic over the new protocol), as well as Google and Cloudflare.

Outgoing Facebook CSO Alex Stamos will join Disrupt SF to talk cybersecurity

At Disrupt SF 2018, Facebook’s soon-to-be-former chief security officer Alex Stamos will join us to chat about his tenure in the top security role for the world’s biggest social network, how it feels to have weathered some of the biggest security and privacy scandals to ever hit the tech industry and securing U.S. elections in the 2018 midterms and beyond.

Following his last day at Facebook on August 17, Stamos will transition to an academic role at Stanford, starting this September. Since March, Stamos has focused on election security at Facebook as the company tries to rid its massive platform of Russian interference and bolster it against disinformation campaigns aiming to disrupt U.S. politics.

“It is critical that we as an industry live up to our collective responsibility to consider the impact of what we build, and I look forward to continued collaboration and partnership with the security and safety teams at Facebook,” Stamos said of the company he is leaving.

At Stanford, Stamos will take on a full-time role as an adjunct professor with the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and plans to conduct research, as well. Stamos previously lectured a security class at Stanford and intends to expand on that foundation with a hands-on “hack lab” where students explore real-world hacking techniques and how to defend against them. With the class, open to non-computer science majors, Stamos seeks to expose a broader swath of students to the intricacies of cybersecurity.

Prior to his time at Facebook, Stamos served as the chief information security officer at Yahoo . Stamos left in 2015 for his new security role at Facebook, reportedly over clashes at the beleaguered company over cybersecurity resources and the implementation of measures like end-to-end encryption. In both roles, Stamos navigated the choppy waters of high-profile privacy scandals while trying to chart a more secure path forward.

The full agenda is here. You can purchase tickets here.

WhatsApp now allows group voice and video calls between up to 4 people

WhatsApp has added a much-requested new feature after it began to allow users to make group voice and video calls.

It’s been just over three years since the company, which is owned by Facebook, introduced voice calls and later a video option one year later. Today, WhatsApp counts over 1.5 billion monthly users and it says they make over two billion minutes of calls via its service each day.

Starting this week, callers can now add friends by hitting the “add participant” button which appears in the top right corner of their screen. The maximum number of participants is four and, impressively, WhatsApp said the calls are end-to-end encrypted.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Telegram, a self-professed secure messaging app, hasn’t even gotten around to encrypting its group messaging chats, let alone group calls.

On the encryption side, WhatsApp has long worked with WhisperSystems to cover all messages and calls on its platform from prying eyes and ears. That said, the relationship between the two become a little more complicated this year when WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton donated $50 million of his wealth — accumulated from Facebook’s acquisition of his company in 2014 — to the Signal Foundation, which is associated with WhisperSystems.

Acton quit Facebook last year — this year he encouraged people to delete the social network for its data and privacy screw-ups — while his fellow WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum joined him in departing in May of this year.

Like Acton, Koum was apparently irked by scandals such as Cambridge Analytica, although his on record explanation for quitting was to “do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee.” Each to their own…

ProtonMail now supports PGP encryption with other clients

ProtonMail is arguably the easiest way to send end-to-end encrypted emails. But encryption only works by default with other ProtonMail users. The company is adding full PGP support so that you can send and receive encrypted emails with people who use other apps and services.

ProtonMail is pretty much like iMessage or WhatsApp, but for email. All communications between two users are seamlessly encrypted. It’s transparent for the end user as you don’t need to manage encryption keys yourself.

But encrypted emails have been around for longer than ProtonMail. OpenPGP-compliant apps let you encrypt and digitally sign emails before sending them, even if your recipient isn’t using the same app. On the recipient’s side, you can check the sender’s signature and decrypt the message.

But PGP requires that both senders and recipients know how to use the standard. There are many extensions and plugins to use PGP in email apps. And now, ProtonMail lets you manage PGP communications directly in its service.

ProtonMail was already using PGP in the background. But now, the service is exposing those features to advanced users. You can import PGP public keys for your contacts and export your own key to share it with others. Encryption and decryption is then fully automated.

In order to make that possible, ProtonMail is launching an API to fetch public key encryption keys from ProtonMail users. Many users put their PGP key on their Twitter profile or website. But if you already know the ProtonMail email address of your recipient, you can get it from your browser directly (

Finally, exposing public keys also enables a new feature — address verification. If a server gets compromised or there’s a Man-in-the-Middle attack, a person could send an email pretending to be you but with a completely different set of public and private keys.

If you’re handling highly sensitive information, you can now manually verify the address of a specific contact. For instance, if you’re meeting with a contact in person, this person can show you their public key so that you can check it against your inbox. If those two keys are identical, you can choose to trust this key for future communications.

This is an overkill for your vacation photos, but Edward Snowden would love this kind of feature. ProtonMail is keeping basic encryption features accessible while giving more control to power users. This is a great way to get started and learn more about PGP, public and private keys as well as best practices.

Decade-old Bluetooth flaw lets hackers steal data passing between devices

A large number of device makers are patching a serious vulnerability in the Bluetooth specification that allows attackers to intercept and tamper with data exchanged wirelessly. People who use Bluetooth to connect smartphones, computers, or other security-sensitive devices should make sure they install a fix as soon as possible.

The attack, which was disclosed in a research paper published Wednesday, is serious because it allows people to perform a man-in-the-middle attack on the connection between vulnerable devices. From there, attackers can view any exchanged data, which might include contacts stored on a device, passwords typed on a keyboard, or sensitive information used by medical, point-of-sale or automotive equipment. Attackers could also forge keystrokes on a bluetooth keyboard to open up a command window or malicious website in an outright compromise of the connected phone or computer.

Not novel

Bluetooth combines Simple Secure Pairing or LE Secure Connections with principles of elliptic curve mathematics to allow devices that have never connected before to securely securely establish a secret key needed for encrypted communications. The attack uses a newly developed variant of what cryptographers call an invalid curve attack to exploit a major shortcoming in the Bluetooth protocol that remained unknown for more than a decade. As a result, attackers can force the devices to use a known encryption key that allows the monitoring and modifying of data wirelessly passing between them.

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Chrome rolls out for all users ‘not secure’ markers on unencrypted pages

Google officially announced version 68 of the Chrome browser today, formalizing its plans to fulfill its past pledge to mark all unencrypted (non-HTTPS) pages as “not secure.” This move comes nearly two years after Chrome announced its slow-burning plan to promote the use of secured (HTTPS) pages across the browser.

In previous updates, the browser had already begun to mark critical HTTP pages — like those that collect bank and personal information — as “not secure.” But to move toward its goal of assumed security on its browser, Chrome announced today that it plans to begin removing the “Secure” marker on HTTPS sites this September and begin marking all unencrypted sites with a red “Not secure” marker this October.

Previously, according to Chrome, the number of HTTP sites across the internet was too high to feasibly mark all of the encrypted sites in this way, but with the increase of secured sites in the last several years, this feat has become more reasonable.

According to a Chrome Transparency Report that tracks encryption use on the browser between 2014 and 2018, the browser’s traffic from Android and ChromeOS have both seen increases in encryption rates (up to 76 percent protected from 42 percent for Android traffic and 85 percent protected up from 67 percent for ChromeOS.) The report also states that since 2014, when only 37 of the web’s top 100 sites on the browser used HTTPS as default, the number of protected top 100 sites in 2018 has risen to 83.

While these security updates from Chrome don’t appear to be a direct reaction to the security hacks in recent months, they are timely. Security, especially online, has become a particularly barbed topic following a number of bank, healthcare and election hacking incidents around the world.

“Secure” sites can’t ensure that your information is impenetrable, but Chrome says it plans to make continuing efforts in this space to ensure that its users have the most secure browser experience possible.

The quantum meltdown of encryption

The world stands at the cusp of one of the greatest breakthroughs in information technology. Huge leaps forward in all fields of computer science, from data analysis to machine learning, will result from this breakthrough. But like all of man’s technological achievements, from the combustion engine to nuclear power, harnessing quantum comes with potential dangers as well. Quantum computers have created a slew of unforeseen vulnerabilities in the very infrastructure that keeps the digital sphere safe.

The underlying assumption behind nearly all encryption ciphers used today is that their complexity precludes any attempt by hackers to break them, as it would take years for even our most advanced conventional computers to do so. But quantum computing will change all of that.

Quantum computers promise to bring computational power leaps and bounds ahead of our most advanced machines. Recently, scientists at Google began testing their cutting edge 72 qubit quantum computer. The researchers expect to demonstrate with this machine quantum supremacy, or the ability to perform a calculation impossible with traditional computers.

Chink in the Armor

Today’s standard encryption techniques are based on what’s called Public Key Infrastructure or PKI, a set of protocols brought to the world of information technology in the 1970’s. PKI works by generating a complex cipher through random numbers that only the intended recipient of a given message, the one in possession of the private key, can decode.

As a system of encoding data, PKI was sound and reliable. But in order to implement it as a method to be used in the real world, there was still one question that needed to be answered: how could individuals confirm the identity of a party reaching out and making a request to communicate? This vulnerability left the door open for cybercriminals to impersonate legitimate servers, or worse, insert themselves into a conversation between users and intercept communications between them, in what’s known as a Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attack.

The industry produced a solution to this authentication problem in the form of digital certificates, electronic documents the contents of which can prove senders are actually who they claim to be. The submission of certificates at the initiation of a session allows the parties to know who it is they are about to communicate with. Today, trusted third party companies called Certificate Authorities, or CAs, create and provide these documents that are relied upon by everyone from private users to the biggest names in tech.

The problem is that certificates themselves rely on public-key cryptographic functions for their reliability, which, in the not too distant future, will be vulnerable to attack by quantum machines. Altered certificates could then be used by cyber criminals to fake their identities, completely undermining certificates as a method of authentication.

Intel’s 17-qubit superconducting test chip for quantum computing has unique features for improved connectivity and better electrical and thermo-mechanical performance. (Credit: Intel Corporation)


Decentralizing the Threat

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to get creative when it comes to encryption.

When Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity is still unknown, revealed his revolutionary idea in a 2008 white paper, he also introduced the beginnings of a unique peer-to-peer authentication system that today we call blockchain. The brilliantly innovative blockchain system at its core is an open ledger that records transactions between two parties in a permanent way without needing third-party authentication. Blockchain provided the global record-keeping network that has kept Nakamoto’s digital currency safe from fraudsters. Blockchain is based on the concept of decentralization, spreading the authentication process across a large body of users. No single piece of data can be altered without the alteration of all other blocks, which would require the collusion of the majority of the entire network.

For years, blockchain and Bitcoin remained one and the same. About five years ago, innovators in the industry began to realize that blockchain could be used for more than just securing cryptocurrency. Altering the original system designed for Bitcoin could produce programs to be applied in a wide range of industries, from healthcare, to insurance, to political elections. Gradually, new decentralized systems began to emerge such as those of Ripple and Litecoin. In 2015, one of the original contributors to the Bitcoin codebase Vitalik Buterin released his Ethereum project also based on blockchain. What these new platforms added to the picture was the ability to record new types of data in addition to currency exchanges, such as loans and contractual agreements.

The advantages of the blockchain concept quickly became apparent. By 2017, nearly fifteen percent of all financial institutions in the world were using blockchain to secure aspects of their operations. The number of industries incorporating decentralized systems continues to grow.

Digital security key concept background with binary data code

Saving PKI

The best solution for protecting encryption from our ever-growing processing power is integrating decentralization into Public Key Infrastructure.

What this means essentially, is that instead of keeping digital certificates in one centralized location, which makes them vulnerable to being hacked and tampered with, they would be spread out in a world-wide ledger, one fundamentally impervious to alteration. A hacker attempting to modify certificates would be unable to pull off such a fraud, as it would mean changing data stored on enumerable diversified blocks spread out across the cyber sphere.

Decentralization has already been proven as a highly effective way of protecting recorded data from tampering. Similarly, using a blockchain-type system to replace the single entity Certificate Authority, can keep our digital certificates much safer. It is in fact one of the only foreseeable solutions to keep the quantum revolution from undermining the foundation of PKI.