Our CEO in CSO: Ripped from the headlines – are your messages secure in these encrypted apps?

In the investigations of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, the FBI has retrieved messages from Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp. While there are weaknesses inherent in all of these apps, the question remains: What does a good data protection scheme look like?


A few days ago, the FBI revealed that Michael Cohen’s messages sent with Signal and WhatsApp are now available as evidence in the on-going investigation into his various dealings. While thousands of emails and documents have already been recovered from Cohen’s devices, home, hotel room, and office, the recovery of data from messaging apps that promise end-to-end encryption is surprising. One would presume that end-to-end message encryption should ensure that those messages are unrecoverable without assistance from Mr. Cohen. However, clearly that is not the case.

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AI? What about NI? Enhancing Natural Intelligence Makes Better Lawyers

By Mobile Helix CEO & Co-founder, Seth Hallem in Legal IT Professionals

Seth HallemA good lawyer helps you see around the bend. In my experience over the years as a client, I have found that each time my attorney points out something in a contract or business decision that I had not anticipated, I ignore the next bill when it comes in and I pay it gladly. When I feel that my attorney is simply a contract factory, I look at each bill closely and start to wonder if there is a better way.

I recently had this experience with my company’s attorney and, as has become my custom, I did not pay any attention to the forthcoming invoice. I did, however, stop to think about how my company, as a legal technology provider, could facilitate more such interactions for our customers and their clients.

Bend fog tyler-lastovich-371909-unsplash.jpg

A few months ago, I read an article summarizing a survey conducted by Clio. The headline of this survey is that lawyers bill only 2.3 of every 8 working hours, instead spending the plurality of their day on administrative tasks. This article jogged my memory of another article from the American Psychological Association (APA) that outlined the significant productivity lost due to context switching and distractions. If my attorney is to be a source of insight, he or she cannot be compromised by distractions that lessen her effectiveness.

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Hacking is a booming business, and it’s time for a disruption – CSO Online

By Mobile Helix CEO and Co-founder, Seth Hallem

Hackers are siphoning billions from the global economy each year by stealing data for profit. However, in spite of this rising threat, enterprises continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. It is time to change our assumptions and to re-think how we protect sensitive data.

Hacking is a booming business. Business has been good for several years now. Data breaches are at all-time highs. Cyber-attacks are skyrocketing, and ransomware is a growing fad. And the best news of all is that the same old tricks (see XSS, SQL Injection, SPAM ….) are still working just as well as they always have. How is it possible that a business that was estimated to cost the global economy $450 billion dollars is continuing to grow? That is a lot of money diverted to criminals in lieu of legitimate participants in our global economy.

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What CISOs must learn from Bitcoin and a research team at Georgia Tech

By Seth Hallem, originally published in HelpNetSecurity, Sept. 16, 2013

It has been an eventful time in the mobile world with two recent breaking stories revealing vulnerabilities in the security infrastructure for Android and iOS respectively. While vastly different in their nature, both point to a fundamental lesson that CISOs in an increasingly mobile world cannot ignore – when it comes to encryption, read the fine print. Otherwise you may find yourself up the proverbial creek without a paddle (i.e., remediation strategy).

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In the aftermath of yet another Meltdown, no secrets are safe – Seth Hallem

Meltdown and Spectre reveal that perfect information protection comes at an increasingly steep cost.

In the field of data security, 2018 began with a jolt. The revelation of the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities has taught us that in 2018 (and beyond), nothing is sacred.

Speculative execution, the architectural concept that is exploited in the Spectre vulnerability, has been in use by mainframe processors since the mid-1970s. It is taught in Computer Architecture 101 in universities around the world. And yet, it turns out that the security implications were never fully understood until about seven months ago.

Out-of-order execution, the culprit in the Meltdown vulnerability, is also a ubiquitous concept, although Meltdown is easily avoided with a better implementation of the concept.

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Who can you trust in a BYOX world?

Apple has long held the reputation as the most trusted device vendor in the new BYOX World. iPhones and iPads are the devices that corporate executives demand most, and, fortunately, they are also the devices that corporate IT is most likely to trust. Generally that trust relies on Apple’s approach to the app store – a supposed “walled garden” that keeps the malware out, and allows only well-written and productive apps in. Although the actual merit of that trust is open to debate , trust in Apple has endured.

On Friday, Apple released iOS update 7.0.6 and iOS 6.1.6 without much fanfare and with the advice that users should install it to “fix an issue with SSL verification”. So far, the patch has been issued for iOS but not for OSX, which is also impacted by the vulnerability. Read the details of the vulnerability, and it is clear that this is a serious vulnerability that merits a serious response. Should this vulnerability be a wake-up call to IT to rethink that trusted view of Apple?

How significant is the problem? Should users be concerned?

The short answer is, very significant, and yes users should be very concerned.

The problem lies in Apple’s implementation of a critical aspect of the SSL/TLS (secure socket layer, or its newer revision called transport layer security) protocol – a key foundation of Internet security that allows sensitive information to be exchanged securely over public networks. It turns out that Apple software isn’t performing SSL certification verification properly. This vulnerability leaves iPhone, iPad and Mac computer users open to a potentially serious man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack.

The flaw is caused by a very simple coding mistake in the SSL certificate verification code in Apple’s Secure Transport library. It appears that this flaw has existed since iOS 6, and was still present in the latest beta version of iOS 7.1. Certificate verification is the implementation for one of SSL’s most fundamental precepts – end-to-end trusted communications. The idea behind the SSL certificate mechanism is that an SSL client (e.g., your web browser) can verify the authenticity of a website that it is communicating with by requesting a certificate. This certificate is similar in spirit to a passport – it is a unique, cryptographically secure mechanism for declaring a website’s identity, and, much like passports, certificates are issued by trusted entities called Certificate Authorities. Certificate Authorities take responsibility for ensuring that certificates are only issued to deserving recipients – legitimate businesses whose intentions are not malicious or illegal.
If certificate verification is not functioning properly, the entire system of chained trust falls apart enabling MITM attacks.

In such an attack, a malicious entity is able to intercept “secure” communications between an individual and the intended recipient or website. The attacker is able to read, insert and modify the data in the intercepted communication. The malicious entity can also impersonate a trusted website to install malware or steal valuable data like login credentials and passwords.

A worst-case scenario would look something like this: An unsuspecting user connects to a public WiFi hotspot. If that hotspot had a malicious listener attached to it, that listener could intercept traffic intended for an e-commerce or electronic banking site and steal usernames, passwords, account numbers, credit card numbers, etc. The user would have no warning that this theft was happening, and from the user’s perspective browsing to the malicious site would appear no different than browsing to the legitimate site. This is a dangerous vulnerability indeed.

So what are the implications of this troubling news?

No software is immune from vulnerabilities, and many serious vulnerabilities are uncovered that receive little or no attention in spite of the fact that their impact may be as severe as this issue in iOS and OSX. Apple is perhaps unfairly held on a pedestal, and from that pedestal even the slightest mistake can easily turn into a media storm. However, Apple has made a serious mistake in this case, and it is not the vulnerability itself.

The difference between those vendors that “get” security and those that don’t is in how they respond when vulnerabilities are inevitably discovered. Microsoft has been down this road and back, and prior to Bill Gates’ “Trustworthy Computing” memo Microsoft was the worst offender of all, both in terms of the number of vulnerabilities in their software and their repeated poor responses to them. However, Microsoft realized that growing their business in the enterprise required trust, and building trust with their largest customers meant getting serious about security. The result is not 0 vulnerabilities – that is impossible. The result is proactive, clear processes for communicating vulnerabilities and their impacts to customers and a patching process that allows IT to update effected software without forcing IT to broadly apply major upgrades that may have other, unintended and unwanted consequences.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple’s largest customers are not corporate entities that demand a robust security strategy. Apple builds devices for consumers, and it is these tens of millions of individual customers who are now forcing IT to embrace Apple devices, regardless of whether or not IT has any relationship with or influence on Apple. To some degree, Apple’s response to this issue shows that they are in tune with their customers, and, unfortunately for IT, IT is not Apple’s customer. Apple is not alone in its allegiance to consumers; Google and the Android ecosystem is the same, if not worse. So what is IT to do?

The Answer:

To keep data protected and secure, IT must retain control of the technology that ensures data security and that means entrusting the sanctity of sensitive corporate data with a company that views corporate IT as its most important customer. This does not mean that forcing all end users to Windows Phone is a good, or even viable idea.

Consumerization is here to stay. That means that IT has to adjust to the reality that end users are making device choices, not IT. Device centric security, however, in a consumer-driven mobile market, delivers a very troubling false sense of security.

The solution? A data focused security approach that remains fully under the control of IT and provides the appropriate level of protection and control that IT needs to keep data safe. In this case, when a security vulnerability appears, which it inevitably will, IT has the necessary tools, relationships, and control at their disposal to diagnose and fix the problem on their own timeline for their own users.

Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time that we see stories like this about potentially serious security vulnerabilities in software that we rely on and use every day. However, we do have the option to retake control of the solutions we use to secure our most sensitive data, and to ensure that our sensitive data is fully protected and under our own control.

– Seth

The Dangers of Outsourcing Mobile Security

Two stories broke recently revealing vulnerabilities in the security infrastructure for Android and iOS respectively. While vastly different in their nature, both point to a fundamental lesson that the enterprise must learn – don’t rely on mobile device OEMs or mobile OSs for enterprise grade security – ensure you are in direct control of security for sensitive corporate information including encryption and access control.

Two separate yet significant approaches to compromising encryption on Android and iOS broke in the news recently. The Android vulnerability, discovered as a result of a compromised Bitcoin transaction, is most directly relevant to encryption. In short, the Android operating system does not properly seed the PRNG (pseudo-random number generator) used by the built-in cryptography APIs. Randomness is essential to ensure that (a) encryption keys cannot be guessed, and (b) an attacker cannot successfully guess the contents of intercepted, encrypted messages. In short, any app that relies on these vulnerable APIs for its essential encryption functions is flawed, including everything from Bitcoin to a vast array of enterprise-targeted mobile apps developed by third party and in-house developers.

On the iOS side, a group of researchers at Georgia Tech successfully submitted an app with malicious capabilities and intentions to the Apple App Store. What the researchers discovered is that the cornerstone of Apple’s App approval process is a static analysis of the app code. How does malware posted to the App Store implicate iOS encryption? Well, the link here is indirect – malware installed on a device can exploit an OS vulnerability to “jailbreak” the device; once “jailbroken” the OS can no longer be trusted, and an untrustworthy OS should not be used for encryption nor should it be trusted to report on its own health and safety when a device management solution tries to determine if it is “jailbroken” or not.

The wake-up call for the enterprise is not in the nature of these attacks themselves – it is in the remediation they require. Enterprises have become adept at managing security vulnerabilities with all of their major vendors, and IT understands that vulnerabilities are a fact of life. The key to vulnerability management is to act on them quickly and effectively once identified. Here we come to the core issue.

Employees access corporate systems with a broad variety of Android and iOS devices. IT can neither upgrade the operating system on Android nor can it influence which apps are admitted to the Apple App Store. IT’s only viable strategy for remediating vulnerabilities in the mobile ecosystem is to attempt to block access to corporate systems or to blacklist access to specific apps. Neither approach is attractive. Locking broad swaths of employees out of corporate systems is not a particularly productive answer. Similarly, attempting to maintain an accurate malware blacklist is destined for failure (see anti-virus).

IT’s best (and only) strategy in a mobile enterprise is to retain complete control of the components of the mobile software stack that matter most. Encryption and access control are the building blocks of the mobile security infrastructure, and the software implementing these two operations must be as firmly in IT’s control as is possible. In practice, this means that a software-only container, which includes its own full stack implementation of all cryptography functions and all secure network protocols (e.g., a full SSL/TLS stack), should be the only software trusted to handle sensitive corporate data and to authenticate corporate users. This strategy is not perfect because no software (including the container itself) is perfect, but it restores control to IT when vulnerabilities are discovered.

As IT quickly loses control of the endpoint devices that employees choose to access corporate systems and data, IT must consider carefully when and where it is essential to retain control and how to do so. When security really matters, a secure container approach is the only answer. The question from there is how to deliver a first class mobile experience while still retaining the protections that a software container affords. As without a rich and compelling user experience, users will be reluctant to take advantage of the mobile app irrespective of its level of security.

– Seth

A smarter approach to securing sensitive corporate data while increasing flexibility and reducing complexity. Too good to be true?

We are going to be talking about security a lot because we see some real issues with the current enterprise security models and we also have some smart and practical ideas about how to do it better. To help frame our thinking at the highest level, it all starts with a shift in focus to securing sensitive corporate data and not the device that is being used to access it. This shift is profound, and has impacts on the whole enterprise security paradigm.

Over the last 10 years, corporate IT has witnessed an astounding transition often called “consumerization”, but better termed “empowerment”, as individual employees have assumed the right to seek and adopt the tools that they need to best execute their jobs. Consumerization has had a profound impact on IT’s software infrastructure, and now its impact is extending to endpoint computing devices. Technology has arrived at the point where IT can cease to treat the various devices that employees use to interact with corporate data and applications as infrastructure, and can treat them as tools.

Infrastructure should be centrally managed and controlled by IT. However, the increasing device diversity in today’s endpoint computing market does not fit with a “command and control” model. Diversity in form factor and operating system encourages consumers (who are also employees) to adopt the devices that best fit their personal needs, budget and preferences. As such, IT’s preferences are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as employees find a way to bring their chosen tools to work – starting with mobile phones and then tablets and now leaking into other computing devices. Hence, IT needs to recognize that devices are tools, not infrastructure, and IT can (and should) embrace this transition.
Rethinking endpoint devices as tools requires two fundamental changes in thinking for corporate IT: (1) applications infrastructure must migrate to a ubiquitous platform, not a vendor or device-specific platform, and (2) endpoint security must focus on data, not devices.

Corporate applications, whether they are built in-house or built by a 3rd party, must operate on any device to enable employees to choose the best and most convenient device tools for their jobs. IT has already made great strides in this area – application infrastructure for “fixed” use has increasingly moved to the corporate intranet or, more recently, the cloud. The web and the browser is already a ubiquitous delivery vehicle. What has been missing is the full feature set required to power IT’s complete application stack across both fixed and mobile access and use: including sufficient performance, offline access, flexible and powerful graphics, and a complete client-side programming language.

HTML5 is very close to being that platform. Where gaps in the standard remain, PhoneGap (now Apache Cordova) is a viable, cross-platform, and open source option for closing those gaps through simple integration. Hence, with the browser as the target application platform, IT can build a unified applications suite targeting devices as varied as smartphones and desktops.

While HTML5 addresses the development and delivery of applications to any device, it does not necessarily secure the data. However, browsers do solve one of the most important aspects of endpoint security via the https protocol – browsers can ensure end-to-end trusted communication to the corporate network. Hence, a security solution for browsers is simply a matter of securing data at the endpoint and leveraging the features already available in the https protocol to ensure trusted communications.

Notice that device security plays no role in securing corporate data delivered through a browser. IT cannot keep up with the diversity of devices employees will demand while dragging along an expensive and complex software security stack (including anti-virus, personal firewalls, full-disk encryption, network access control, application whitelisting, mobile device management, etc.) to secure them. A more reasonable and effective goal than securing all devices touching corporate data is to secure all apps touching corporate data. The more those apps converge on the browser as the delivery platform, the more this challenge reduces to building a secure, cross-platform corporate browser. In brief, building a truly secure corporate browser requires:

• Full encryption of all client-side data
• Client and server validation using https’ certificate validation features
• Protecting access to corporate apps with a unified sign-in
• A comprehensive data policy engine built into the browser that allows policies for data sharing and offline access to travel with the data itself and be contextually aware
• App-level device-independent implementation of all critical security functionality to ensure that security is not compromised by a compromised device or operating system

A secure browser that enhances the rendering and communication features of a standard browser with the additional security features outlined above enables corporate IT to build a unified applications platform that extends across devices of all shapes and sizes without compromise in functionality, performance, or security. The endpoint device then transitions to a tool for employees to select, rather than another piece of infrastructure that must support the sanctioned IT software stack to ensure its acceptability in the corporate environment.

Mobile security is part of our mission at Mobile Helix. We provide our customers with highly secure solutions which allow their employees to meet and exceed the company’s business objectives. Our solutions support this approach to security – to find out more about them, please go to our website: www.mobilehelix.com


– Seth