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Everything wrong with TalkingPoint’s “Cybersecurity” episode

Channel News Asia posted last week that hackers could steal your info by just knowing your phone number.

Woah!! Must be some uber NSA stuff right–but no, it was a couple of guys with Metasploit and they required a LOT more than ‘just’ the phone number.

The post was an add-on to a current affairs show called Talking Point, that aired an episode last week about cybersecurity, which (like most mainstream media reporting) had more than a few errors I’d like to address.

Problem 1: Cost of cybercrime — but no context

The show starts off, by highlighting that Cybercrime cost Singaporeans S$1.25bln, which might be true, but lacks context, or rather had the context removed.

Because the very report that estimated the cost, also mentioned that society was willing to tolerate malicious activity that cost less than 2% of GDP, like Narcotics (0.9%) and even pilferage (1.5%). S$1.25bln is less than 0.3% of Singapore’s GDP, and is long way off the 2% threshold. Giving out big numbers without context gives readers the wrong impression.

So allow me to provide context on just how big that S$1.25bln is.

In 2010, Singapore’s retail sector lost S$222 mln to shrinkage, a term used to describe the losses attributed to employee theft, shoplifting, administrative error, and others. Had we split the cost of cybercrime across different industry based on their percentage of overall GDP, the total losses for cybercrime on the retail sector in 2015 would be $225 mln–almost identical to what the sector lost to shrinkage….7 years ago!

Cybercrime is a problem, but not one that is wildly out of proportion to the other issues society is facing.

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Cyberwar assessment of Malaysia vs. DPRK

Would North Korea ever declare war on Malaysia?

Probably not.

But nothing is predictable when you’re dealing with a erratic despot who killed his own uncle with an anti-aircraft gun.

Realistically though, few nations have the resources and political will, to launch a war, half-way across the world. And neither Malaysia nor North Korea are one of those ‘few’ nations. But what if, instead of moving armies we just moved malicious code? What if we fought a cyberwar with the North Koreans, how would it look like, and could we win? Let’s find out.

Cyber is new domain of war

Cyber is a new domain of warfare, and this domains involves new ways of thinking and paradigm shifts. In the 18th and 19th century, the most powerful nation on earth, Great Britain had the worlds greatest Navy, and that allowed the empire to control the trade that flowed through the seas, and protect the island nation. Strategically Britain’s Navy was essential to the protection of Britain, and the projection of its power around the world.

As we move from trading over the seas to trading over network cables, the parallels of having a Cyber-Navy become more apparent by the day. After all, the data that pass through our networks have an inherent value above and beyond the physical goods they may represent.

Let’s say you’re buying a new laptop online, you enter your password into the online shopping portal, and then inevitably your credit card details. Your password and card information has value, inherent to itself, regardless of the laptop the transaction represents. We still ship physical goods via sea-lanes and air-freight, but the data transversing the internet has tradeable value.

More apparent when you consider that the vast majority of ‘money’ is traded in digital form, over the internet. Just ask the Bangladesh Central Bank, that lost millions of dollars (which could have been Billions) to hackers who infiltrated their network, and issued electronic instructions to wire money.

But there are things far more important than money.

In today’s world of ‘fake news’ and election tampering, it could be argued that having a Cyber Army is a necessity not just to protect trade and finance, but the very core of a country’s democracy.

And there we see the first issue with Cyber defense of critical infrastructure–is it a civil or military function?

Private companies in any country run their own security guards, banks hire private firms to protect the cash in the safe. If a bank gets robbed, the manager calls the police, and the entire apparatus is a civilian function. But a private company in Malaysia (or anywhere else) isn’t worried about military attack. After all, armies don’t attack banks or companies don’t they?

On the internet, everyone is fair game.

Strong evidence suggest that state sponsored actors have attacked banks, stolen secrets from chemical companies, even attacked Facebook. In a non-cyber world, having an army attack civilian infrastructure in peace-time would be insane! But that is the norm on the internet.

So whose job is it to protect civilian infrastructure from military attack during peace time?

The Americans have drawn clear delineation, that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) protects civilian government infrastructure (and helps private companies when called upon), while US Cyber Command protects the Military infrastructure. Malaysia (and most other countries) have no such delineation–and the problem is that governments get hacked all the time, even ours, and it’s unclear to me which Malaysian government agency is actually responsible for the security of our infra.

But before we evaluate our defensive capabilities, let’s evaluate the North Korean defense.

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Writing a WordPress Restoration script

WordPress sites get hacked all the time, because the typical WordPress blogger install 100’s of shitty plugins and rarely updates their site. On the one hand, it’s great that WordPress has empowered so many people to begin blogging without requiring the ‘hard’ technical skills, on the other it just gives criminals a large number of potential victims.

Two years ago, when I studied the details of phishing attacks that targeted Maybank and RHB, I found that attackers use compromised WordPress sites to host their phishing content. They’d first hack into a seemingly random WordPress website, host their phishing content there, and then blast out emails to unsuspecting victims with links to pointing back to their hacked bounty. If the hack works they’d get free username and passwords, and if they were ever caught, most evidence would point to the unsuspecting WordPress site owner.

So if you have a WordPress site (like me), chances are you’re in the cross-hairs of hackers already, and securing your site is the responsible thing to do.

In general WordPress sites should be:

  • Updated Automatically
  • Use a minimal number of plugins
  • Use plugins only from reputable publishers
  • Use themes only from reputable publishers–and have only one theme in the install directory
  • Employ strong passwords for the admin & user
  • Have the permissions of the underlying folders set accordingly (i.e.CHMOD them all)

But even if you took all precautions to hardened your site, there’s always a possibility of it getting hacked. No security is perfect, and you should look into backups–backup often and to a separate location. That way, a compromised site can be rebuilt, even if it were defaced. The last thing you want is to lose your precious design and data, because some one installed a shitty plugin over the weekend.

Today, I’ll walk through a short bash script I wrote to backup (and restore) a WordPress installation from scratch. It took me quite a while to write this (partly because I have no experience with Bash scripts), but I thought it would be good to walkthrough the details of the script and what it does.

The full script is available on github here, and the usage instructions will be maintained there. The write-up below describes code the first production release, linked here, even though I’ve since updated the scripts to include some modifications, and as we speak I’m just about the release version 1.2.

So here we go…

Special Thanks

The following 3 folks, were greatly influential in the writing of the script, listed in no particular order. No to mention, the wonderful folks at stackoverflow that helped tremendously as well.

Thanks to Andrea Fabrizi for the awesome DropboxUploader script
Thanks to Ben Kulbertis for the awesome Cloudflare update script
Thanks to Peteris.Rocks for inspiring me with his Unattended WordPress Installation script


As a pre-requisite to all this, I made the following decisions.

The back ups would be stored in DropBox– Dropbox has free options (up to 2GB) and has versioning by default.All your backups are versioned and kept for 30 days (not just the latest upload, which gets destroyed if you’re hit by malware). Doing this on AWS requires extra work, which I wasn’t prepared to do, and AWS has no free tier for S3 storage.

Also, I use CloudFlare to maintain the DNS. It’s optional of course, but I needed a DNS provider that had an API, and they were the logical choice. This allowed the script to update your DNS as well.

Finally, the script assumes a standard LAMP stack, i.e. Linux (specifically Ubuntu 16.04), Apache , MySql and PHP. PHP is enforced by WordPress itself so that’s fine.But the ‘trend’ these days is to have NGINX instead of Apache, and MariaDB instead of MySQL. I kept things in ‘classic’ mode for now, I may revisit in the future.

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So you got hit by Ransomware

Last Monday, I got a text message from my uncle saying his office computer was hacked, and he couldn’t access any of his files. Even without probing further, I already knew he’d been hit with ransomware and was now an unwitting victim in a criminal industry estimated to be worth Billions of dollars.

After learning a bit more, I found out that the IT guys at the company backed up their data (which was good), but stored all backup files on the same computer (which was bad). I guess they kept it on a different hard-drive which mitigated the risk of hard-disk crashes, but didn’t effect any other type of risk. What if someone had broken into the office and stolen the whole computer? What if the Office was burnt to the ground or flooded? With all the backups on the same computer these risk would completely wipe out all their data–even if the files were stored in separate drives.

Ransomware is particularly interesting, the ‘industry’ has experienced tremendous growth the last 2 years, and it’s now the number one cyber-threat small business owners face. But before going into ways of addressing the threat, it’s important we understand cyber-threats in general, and for that we need the CIA.

Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability (CIA)

No, not the spy agency, but the acronym that stands for Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability.The three pillars make up the InfoSec Triad, and a threat is something to affects any one of the them.

  • Confidentiality means keeping the data confidential only to authorized users
  • Integrity is assuring the accuracy and completeness of data and that it hasn’t been tampered with
  • Availability refers to the ability to make it available on request

People often focus on Confidentiality, going all out on setting strong passwords, file encryption and firewalls to protect data for being siphoned out. But security threats, like Ransomware and DDOS attacks, do not affect the confidentiality or integrity of data–and the protections you put in place to help with confidentiality and integrity are useless against them.

File encryption, a necessary tool to protect  the confidentiality of your data, does not protect against ransomware attacks (you can still encrypt and encrypted file), and setting strong passwords does not protect your website from being hit by a DDOS.

There is no panacea in cyber security, only specific actions to address specific threats, and unless you’re addressing availability threats like ransomware and DDOS attacks, your general anti-virus is quite useless against it. So let’s breakdown the Ransomware threat and see how its evolved to become the darling of cybercriminals everywhere.

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Relax dear-citizen your contactless card is relatively safe—ish

As Malaysia slowly (but surely) migrates to Chip and Pin, some banks have taken the opportunity to issue not just new Pin-enabled cards, but contactless-enabled ones as well.

To be clear, Banks are only mandated to issue new Pin cards (replacing the signature cards you had before), but are taking the opportunity to also embed contactless capabilities into them as well. After all they’re already issuing new cards to every (single!) card holder, might as well get them on the contactless bandwagon while they’re at it.

The reason for being so gung-ho about contactless is purely economical. Research suggest that the easier payment methods become, the more money people are willing to spend. People with credit cards spend more than people with just cash, and 0% interest schemes have been a godsend to retailers. Contactless payments, which don’t involve cumbersome Pins or signatures, are clearly the next evolutionary step, with one research paper suggesting they increase customer spending by nearly 10%.

Banks make money from small percentages per transactions, the more transactions at higher amounts, the more money they stand to make. So if an extra dollar worth of electronics in a contactless card increases revenue by 10%–why not?!

Pins are for security, Contactless is for convenience

But while PINs are a security feature, contactless is all about convenience. And conveniences trade-off security, so it stands to reason that contactless cards are less secure than regular ‘contact’ ones.

The question is whether that trade-off is worth the increase in convenience. After all, nothing is absolutely secure, and in today’s criminally infested internet, keeping your money under the mattress is safer than keeping it in a bank–but nobody does it because the mattress would be too inconvenient.

So what convenience are you getting with a contactless cards?

For one thing, no more waiting for a receipt printout to sign on, or bending down to an inconveniently placed pinpad to type in your PIN. Plus, for someone with gigantic fingers like me, I jump on the opportunity to avoid having to fidget with pinpads that must have been designed for dwarf children after they’ve been struck by the ray gun from Honey I shrunk the kids.

But that’s about it–the only convenience contactless cards provide is that you can do contactless payments–up to a specified amount.

The question now is what security trade offs are you making for this remarkable feature?

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Facebook giving China a censorship tool?

The New York Times reported this week that Facebook has ‘quitely developed’ a censorship tool, specifically for the Chinese government to suppress content on their platform. The piece writes:

“the social network quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added” – New York Times

The report goes on to say, that Facebook intends to grant that capability to a 3rd-party, who will “have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds“.

In short, they’re creating a censorship on demand for China, in exchange for access to the worlds largest market.

Censorship in an encrypted world

While Facebook have neither confirmed nor denied this, this will give China special priviledge to the platform, one that no other nation currently has. Today, most governments face an all-or-nothing approach to censorship on encrypted sites like Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. China famously censor of all Wikipedia on days leading up to the anniversary Tianamen square massacre, simply because they have no ability to censor specific pages.

If I were browsing for chicken curry recipes on Wikipedia, while you were researching political dissent on the same site, our traffic would look identical to anyone ‘sniffing’ along the line. These ‘in transit’ censorship attempts are failing, and for Governments like China, a ‘block the whole damn thing’ approach is the only alternative.

This new tool however, will grant them granular control, to block specific posts and news on the social network,because the censorship now will occur at source, rather than in-transit. It is a radical shift in the way censorship will be performed on the internet, not just in China, but across the world.

It’s also worthwhile to note, that other governments have tried these ‘all-or-nothing’ approaches as well, including Brazil who famously blocked all of Whatsapp (also owned by Facebook) for 72 hours, because a Judge was ‘unhappy’ that Whatsapp responded via email and in English. Fortunately for Brazilians, the ban didn’t last that long.

Whatsapp is a private communications tool, and Facebook is a social network–the similarity is that they both use encryption and this is problematic for governments. In the case of Whatsapp, the two ends of the encrypted channel belong to users, and Whatsapp would be unable to provide any content of communications within that channel–even if it wanted to. In the case of Facebook, since one end belongs to the company–it is able to provide some control.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Facebook and censorship in China–but first let’s take a look at Facebook.

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Securing your StarHub Home Router

As with all new shiny equipment,  a newly installed router in your home requires a few things to be configured to properly secure it.

Goes without saying, that you should change your WiFi password the moment the technician leaves your home, but there are other things you’d need to configure in order to secure your router against common attacks.

Now remember, even if you follow all the advice on this post, there’s a strong chance that you’d still be hacked somewhere down the road–especially if you’re relying on a crappy consumer grade router, but taking these precautions raises your security level above the general population, giving you an edge over everybody else, and sometimes the difference between being hacked and staying safe could be one simple configuration on a router.

For this post, I’m going to use the standard Dlink 868L router that StarHub gave me when I signed-up for their 1Gbps package. While the post is specific, the general principles still apply to any router you own.

Step 1: Logon to the router

Goes without saying, all changes have to be made on the router itself. The good news is that all general purpose routers like the Dlink-868L come with a web interface, i.e. the router host a website on your network that you can use to change settings.

Fire up a browser like Chrome or Firefox (God forbid you’re on Internet Explorer), and point the address bar to and you ‘should’ come to the router homepage (image below). If not, try the other possible addresses, like or, if none of those work, you’ll need to go to your ipconfig on your local windows client to determine the ‘gateway’ ip address of your router.

Once there, you’ll see the following screen. For most StarHub customers, just logon with the admin user and leave the password field blank–as in don’t enter anything for the password.


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Preventing a DDOS is not going to be easy

As a follow-up to my previous post on DDOS attacks [1,2], I’ve seen a lot of so-called ‘solutions’ to the problem, which really aren’t solutions at all.

While it’s still not explicitly clear that the StarHub DDOS was executed by Mirai, a recently released malware built specifically for DDOS, the timing and similarity of it to other Mirai attacks leave little room for doubt–at least to me.

If indeed, StarHub was a victim of a Mirai based attack, it would seem extremely odd that their CTO would reference phishing emails as a vector for infection. So a few things don’t quite line up here, including the advice from the CTO to change the default username and password, when Brian Krebs already reported that doesn’t quite help:

Several readers have pointed out that while advising IoT users to change the password via the device’s Web interface is a nice security precaution, it may or may not address the fundamental threat. That’s because Mirai spreads via communications services called “telnet” and “SSH,” which are command-line, text-based interfaces that are typically accessed via a command prompt (e.g., in Microsoft Windows, a user could click Start, and in the search box type “cmd.exe” to launch a command prompt, and then type “telnet” <IP address> to reach a username and password prompt at the target host).

The trouble is, even if one changes the password on the device’s Web interface, the same default credentials may still allow remote users to log in to the device using telnet and/or SSH.

If you’re more technically inclined, I strongly suggest listening the feature interview on last week’s risky business podcast.

But the last piece of advice that the StarHub CTO gave, that didn’t make sense to me at all was this:

“If you were to buy a webcam from Sim Lim Square, try to get a reputable one”

Again, this may seem like good advice, but it doesn’t conform to the evidence. Brian Krebs has a list of devices that are hack-able, and they include the likes of Panasonic, RealTek, Samsung and Xerox. All of which regular consumers would consider ‘reputable’.

So StarHub claimed that you should change your passwords–but doesn’t protect you from Mirai.

StarHub claim that you should buy equipment from ‘reputable’ suppliers, but even reputable suppliers produce hackable IOT devices, that can’t be secured.

Finally StarHub are going to be sending technicians out in the field to help subscribers, and while this is laudable, it’s not a sustainable solution. It only fixes a short-term problem, because as long consumers continue to buy hack-able IOT devices, the threat isn’t going to go away.

And how often can StarHub afford to send technicians to make home visits before the cost start becoming un-bearable?

The way to view this issue is from a legal, economical and technical perspective–and in that order.

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How the StarHub DDOS (possibly) happened

starhub-dns-attackCustomers of Singaporean ISP StarHub, suffered two major disruptions to their service over the past week, in what the telco said was a result of a “intentional and likely malicious distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks”.

Oh the humanity!!

In what appears to be a copycat of the Dyn attack we saw (at roughly the same time), the attack signals the first local salvo in the war of IOT devices. But is it really that serious?

If you’re wondering what the hell happened, let’s walk this through step-by-step, from the attackers perspective.