The RISKS Digest
Volume 18 Issue 61

Friday, 15th November 1996

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

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San Jose garbage billing system snafu
Revealing Software Glitch Bares Credit Card Info on the Web
Good Java security doesn't imply good network security
David Martin
Making good ActiveX controls do bad things
Richard M. Smith
Invention by Design, Henry Petroski
Compile-time checking
Arthur Marsh
Eastern what time?
Mark Brader
Why Cryptography is Harder than it Looks
Bruce Schneier
Risks in cryptography advertising
Gene Berkowitz
Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

San Jose garbage billing system snafu

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Fri, 15 Nov 1996 13:15:16 PST
San Jose, California, has issued no garbage bills (186,000 homes and 3765
apartments) since the beginning of October — because of ``faulty
procedures in saving backup records.''  The city is spending $360,000 to
rectify the situation, which will take another month.  [Source: *San Jose
Mercury News*, 13 Nov 1996, courtesy of Babak Taheri.]  Garbage
collections continue, while revenue collections do not.  GOGIgigo = Garbage
Out, Garbage In, garbage in, garbage out (with respect to real and virtual
garbage, respectively).

Revealing Software Glitch Bares Credit Card Info on the Web

Edupage Editors <>
Sun, 10 Nov 1996 16:42:03 -0500 (EST)
Some Web shoppers have recently had their worst fears about electronic
commerce confirmed — the credit card information they trustingly typed in
was accessible by anyone using a simple Web browser.  The sites affected had
improperly installed a software program called SoftCart, made by Mercantec
Inc., to handle their transactions.  "Our standard documentation clearly
explains how to avoid these security break-ins," says Mercantec's president.
The problem was attributed to human error, which occurred when inexperienced
installers failed to place completed order forms in directories not
accessible to Web browsers.  Vendors affected by the glitch say they've
taken steps to remedy the situation.  (*Wall Street Journal*, 8 Nov 1996, B6)

Good Java security doesn't imply good network security

David Martin <>
15 Nov 1996 15:24:20 -0500
Many researchers have noted security flaws in existing Java implementations
as well as fundamental weaknesses in Java's security model.  Examples of the
former include attacks that confuse Java's type system, ultimately allowing
applets to execute arbitrary code with the full permission of the user
invoking the browser, and examples of the latter include the lack of audit
trails and Java's single-line-of-defense strategy.  Dean, Felten, and
Wallach's paper "Java Security: From HotJava to Netscape and Beyond" brought
most of these issues to light, sending shock waves throughout the computing
community.  (See

Until now users and system designers have been content to consider these
problems transient, confident that bugs will be mended quickly enough to
limit any damage.  Netscape, for instance, has been admirably quick in
responding to the most serious problems.

However, the giant installed base of Java-enabled browsers---each inviting
an adversary to determine the browser's actions---gives reason to suspect
some kind of fallout even in "secure" implementations of Java.  Our paper,
available at,
describes attacks on firewalls that can be launched from legal Java applets.
In certain firewall environments, a Java applet that finds itself running in
a browser behind the firewall can cause the firewall to allow incoming
telnet (or other TCP) connections to that host.  In some cases, the applet
can even use the firewall to access arbitrary hosts supposedly protected by
the firewall.

The weaknesses exploited by these attacks are neither in the Java
implementation nor in the firewall as such, but rather in the composition
of the two---and in the security model that results when browsers give
adversaries such ready access to "protected" hosts.

Our paper also describes methods for preventing applets from crossing a
firewall; this is one way to prevent such attacks.  In any case we strongly
recommend that managers of firewalled sites containing Java-enabled browsers
take a good look at the issues involved and make appropriate policy

David Martin <>, Computer Science, Boston University
Sivaramakrishnan Rajagopalan <>, Bellcore
Avi Rubin <>, Bellcore

Making good ActiveX controls do bad things

"Richard M. Smith" <>
Mon, 11 Nov 1996 23:49:03 -0500
There has been a great deal of talk about how ActiveX controls can be
written to do malicious things on the Internet.  However, what has not being
recognized is that even standard ActiveX controls can be made to do
malicious things via HTML and VBScript.  Here are two simple examples of
"good" ActiveX controls being made to do "bad" things:

  The computer crashing URL - file:///aux

  If Microsoft's ActiveMovie control is told to play a movie from the
  URL file:///aux Internet Explorer will go into an infinite loop under
  Windows 95.  Attempting to shutdown Internet Explorer by doing an "End
  Task" will more often then not crash Windows 95.  This bug can be
  exploited by the "bad guys" to create HTML pages that will crash
  people's computers when the pages are downloaded from a web site.

  VBScript and ActiveX combo disk crasher

  Even more worrisome are ActiveX controls that contain methods (i.e.,
  function calls) that write files to disks.  These methods can be used
  by a simple VBscript program to overwrite key system files like
  AUTOEXEC.BAT, CONFIG.SYS, REG.DAT etc.  The damage is done simply by
  viewing an HTML page that contains the ActiveX control and the
  malicious VBScript code.  I know of at least three commercially
  available ActiveX controls that have methods that will save files to
  disk.  Any of these controls, I believe, can be exploited to build a
  disk crash HTML page.  At least two of these controls have valid
  Authenticode digital signatures so that they can be automatically
  downloaded and executed even with the highest security settings in
  Internet Explorer 3.

The big question in my mind is what can be done about solving these sorts of
ActiveX security problems.

Richard Smith

Invention by Design, Henry Petroski

"Peter G. Neumann" <>
Mon, 28 Oct 96 9:57:08 PST
Well, one of our old-favorite sources of RISKS quotes has done it again!

  Henry Petroski
  Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing
  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  November 1996, 288 pages.  ISBN 0-674-46367-6

This book explores the underlying essence of engineering — not so much what
makes particular products tick (or not tick), but rather why is it that the
process of engineering design can evolve so successfully (or unsuccessfully,
as the case may be).  The chapters range widely over paper clips, pencils,
zippers, aluminum cans, faxes and networks, planes and computers, water and
society, bridges and politics, and finally buildings and systems.  It has
long been my contention that those of us involved in developing and using
computer systems have much to learn from the more traditional engineering
disciplines.  Henry himself modestly eschews analysis of computer system
developments and computer engineering, perhaps because there are fundamental
differences between his disciplines and our "discipline" (or lack thereof).
He typically leaves it to us to bridge the gap.  However, this book provides
us with an excellent step in that direction.

Compile-time checking (re: Eachus, RISKS-18.60)

Tue, 12 Nov 96 16:17 CST
Robert I. Eachus <> wrote in RISKS-18.60:

"Actually every Ada compiler supports arbitrary precision arithmetic--at
compile time.  Static integer constants are required to be evaluated without
overflow, and the easiest way to guarantee this is to evaluate them using an
arbitrary precision arithmetic package."

I had an integer constant evaluate *with* overflow during this past week.

Whilst updating a DNS record, I accidentally set the serial number to
19961100808, when it should have been 1996110808, corresponding to the four
digit year, two digit month and two digit hour of the day.

When checking the DNS record from the name daemon using nslookup (which is
essentially viewing a run-time interpretation of the DNS record), the serial
number looked nothing like what was entered in the DNS record. The serial
number had been evaluated, overflowed and the truncated result was being
used, without any complaint from the name daemon when it had re-loaded the
DNS record. As DNS serial numbers have to always increase for updates to
propagate, and I wanted something that wouldn't overflow, I ended up using
2996111117 as the new serial number.

As an accidental increase of a DNS serial number cannot be easily rectified,
I believe that the name daemon should have refused to load the DNS record
with a serial number that would cause an overflow.

Arthur Marsh, tel +61-8-8370-2365, fax +61-8-8223-5082

Eastern what time? (Leichter, Risks-18.60)

Mark Brader <>
Wed, 13 Nov 96 12:27:52 EST
As I was looking at Jerry Leichter's article about "-32768 and strong
typing", I was surprised to notice that it appeared under the line:

    Date: Thu,  7 Nov 96 00:33:42 EDT

As North American readers know, daylight saving time in the USA (where
Jerry's site is located) ended for the year on October 27.  So should we
take this as "Wed, 6 Nov 96 23:33:42 EST", or "Thu, 7 Nov 96 00:33:42 EST",
or something else?  And is there an interesting reason why it was wrong?

Mark Brader  SoftQuad Inc., Toronto

Why Cryptography is Harder than it Looks [LONG]

Bruce Schneier <>
Mon, 11 Nov 1996 15:37:42 -0500
  [This version completely supersedes the earlier draft
  that inadvertently appeared in RISKS-18.59.  PGN]

Bruce Schneier, Counterpane Systems

Copyright Nov 1996 by Bruce Schneier.  All rights reserved.  Permission is
given to distribute this essay, providing that it is distributed in its
entirety (including this copyright notice).  For more information on
Counterpane Systems's cryptography and security consulting, see  [The intent of this notice is stronger than
the default RISKS policy: This piece may be freely reproduced in its
entirety, but only in its entirety without modification, including this
banner and Bruce's final line of identifying information.  By RISKS
policy, such reproduced copies should also bear the relevant RISKS
masthead identification:
Risks-Forum Digest (comp.risks) Friday 15 November 1996  Volume 18 Issue 61

>From e-mail to cellular communications, from secure Web access to digital
cash, cryptography is an essential part of today's information systems.
Cryptography helps provide accountability, fairness, accuracy, and
confidentiality.  It can prevent fraud in electronic commerce and assure the
validity of financial transactions.  It can prove your identity or protect
your anonymity.  It can keep vandals from altering your Web page and prevent
industrial competitors from reading your confidential documents.  And in the
future, as commerce and communications continue to move to computer
networks, cryptography will become more and more vital.

But the cryptography now on the market doesn't provide the level of
security it advertises.  Most systems are not designed and implemented in
concert with cryptographers, but by engineers who thought of cryptography
as just another component.  It's not.  You can't make systems secure by
tacking on cryptography as an afterthought.  You have to know what you are
doing every step of the way, from conception through installation.

Billions of dollars are spent on computer security, and most of it is
wasted on insecure products.  After all, weak cryptography looks the same
on the shelf as strong cryptography.  Two e-mail encryption products may
have almost the same user interface, yet one is secure while the other
permits eavesdropping.  A comparison chart may suggest that two programs
have similar features, although one has gaping security holes that the
other doesn't.  An experienced cryptographer can tell the difference.  So
can a thief.

Present-day computer security is a house of cards; it may stand for now,
but it can't last.  Many insecure products have not yet been broken because
they are still in their infancy.  But when these products are widely used,
they will become tempting targets for criminals.  The press will publicize
the attacks, undermining public confidence in these systems.  Ultimately,
products will win or lose in the marketplace depending on the strength of
their security.


Every form of commerce ever invented has been subject to fraud, from rigged
scales in a farmers' market to counterfeit currency to phony invoices.
Electronic commerce schemes will also face fraud, through forgery,
misrepresentation, denial of service, and cheating.  In fact,
computerization makes the risks even greater, by allowing attacks that are
impossible against non-automated systems.  A thief can make a living
skimming a penny from every Visa cardholder.  You can't walk the streets
wearing a mask of someone else's face, but in the digital world it is easy
to impersonate others.  Only strong cryptography can protect against these

Privacy violations are another threat.  Some attacks on privacy are
targeted:  a member of the press tries to read a public figure's e-mail, or
a company tries to intercept a competitor's communications.  Others are
broad data-harvesting attacks, searching a sea of data for interesting
information: a list of rich widows, AZT users, or people who view a
particular Web page.

Electronic vandalism is an increasingly serious problem. Computer vandals
have already graffitied the CIA's web page, mail-bombed Internet providers,
and canceled thousands of newsgroup messages.  And of course, vandals and
thieves routinely break into networked computer systems.  When security
safeguards aren't adequate, trespassers run little risk of getting caught.

Attackers don't follow rules; they cheat.  They can attack a system using
techniques the designers never thought of.  Art thieves have burgled homes
by cutting through the walls with a chain saw.  Home security systems, no
matter how expensive and sophisticated, won't  stand a chance against this
attack.  Computer thieves come through the walls too.  They steal technical
data, bribe insiders, modify software, and collude.  They take advantage of
technologies newer than the system, and even invent new mathematics to
attack the system with.

The odds favor the attacker.  Bad guys have more to gain by examining a
system than good guys.  Defenders have to protect against every possible
vulnerability, but an attacker only has to find one security flaw to
compromise the whole system.


No one can guarantee 100% security.  But we can work toward 100% risk
acceptance.  Fraud exists in current commerce systems:  cash can be
counterfeited, checks altered, credit card numbers stolen.  Yet these
systems are still successful because the benefits and conveniences outweigh
the losses.  Privacy systems — wall safes, door locks, curtains — are not
perfect, but they're often good enough.  A good cryptographic system
strikes a balance between what is possible and what is acceptable.

Strong cryptography can withstand targeted attacks up to a point — the
point at which it becomes easier to get the information some other way.  A
computer encryption program, no matter how good, will not prevent an
attacker from going through someone's garbage.  But it can prevent
data-harvesting attacks absolutely; no attacker can go through enough trash
to find every AZT user in the country.  And it can protect communications
against non-invasive attacks: it's one thing to tap a phone line from the
safety of the telephone central office, but quite another to break into
someone's house to install a bug.

The good news about cryptography is that we already have the algorithms and
protocols we need to secure our systems.  The bad news is that that was the
easy part; implementing the protocols successfully requires considerable
expertise.  The areas of security that interact with people — key
management, human/computer interface security, access control — often defy
analysis.  And the disciplines of public-key infrastructure, software
security, computer security, network security, and tamper-resistant
hardware design are very poorly understood.

Companies often get the easy part wrong, and implement insecure algorithms
and protocols.  But even so, practical cryptography is rarely broken
through the mathematics; other parts of systems are much easier to break.
The best protocol ever invented can fall to an easy attack if no one pays
attention to the more complex and subtle implementation issues.  Netscape's
security fell to a bug in the random-number generator.  Flaws can be
anywhere: the threat model, the system design, the software or hardware
implementation, the system management.  Security is a chain, and a single
weak link can break the entire system.  Fatal bugs may be far removed from
the security portion of the software; a design decision that has nothing to
do with security can nonetheless create a security flaw.

Once you find a security flaw, you can fix it.  But finding the flaws in a
product can be incredibly difficult.  Security is different from any other
design requirement, because functionality does not equal quality.  If a
word processor prints successfully, you know that the print function works.
Security is different; just because a safe recognizes the correct
combination does not mean that its contents are secure from a safecracker.
No amount of general beta testing will reveal a security flaw, and there's
no test possible that can prove the absence of flaws.


A good design starts with a threat model: what the system is designed to
protect, from whom, and for how long. The threat model must take the entire
system into account — not just the data to be protected, but the people
who will use the system and how they will use it.  What motivates the
attackers?  Must attacks be prevented, or can they just be detected?  If
the worst happens and one of the fundamental security assumptions of a
system is broken, what kind of disaster recovery is possible?  The answers
to these questions can't be standardized; they're different for every
system.  Too often, designers don't take the time to build accurate threat
models or analyze the real risks.

Threat models allow both product designers and consumers to determine what
security measures they need.  Does it makes sense to encrypt your hard
drive if you don't put your files in a safe?  How can someone inside the
company defraud the commerce system?  How much would it cost to defeat the
tamper-resistance on the smart card?  You can't design a secure system
unless you understand what it has to be secure against.


Design work is the mainstay of the science of cryptography, and it is very
specialized.  Cryptography blends several areas of mathematics: number
theory, complexity theory, information theory, probability theory, abstract
algebra, and formal analysis, among others.  Few can do the science
properly, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: inexperienced
cryptographers almost always design flawed systems.  Good cryptographers
know that nothing substitutes for extensive peer review and years of
analysis.  Quality systems use published and well-understood algorithms and
protocols; using unpublished or unproven elements in a design is risky at

Cryptographic system design is also an art.  A designer must strike a
balance between security and accessibility, anonymity and accountability,
privacy and availability.  Science alone cannot prove security; only
experience, and the intuition born of experience, can help the
cryptographer design secure systems and find flaws in existing designs.


There is an enormous difference between a mathematical algorithm and its
concrete implementation in hardware or software.  Cryptographic system
designs are fragile.  Just because a protocol is logically secure doesn't
mean it will stay secure when a designer starts defining message structures
and passing bits around.  Close isn't close enough; these systems must be
implemented exactly, perfectly, or they will fail.  A poorly-designed user
interface can make a hard-drive encryption program completely insecure.  A
false reliance on tamper-resistant hardware can render an electronic
commerce system all but useless.  Since these mistakes aren't apparent in
testing, they end up in finished products.  Many flaws in implementation
cannot be studied in the scientific literature because they are not
technically interesting.  That's why they crop up in product after product.
Under pressure from budgets and deadlines, implementers use bad
random-number generators, don't check properly for error conditions, and
leave secret information in swap files. The only way to learn how to
prevent these flaws is to make and break systems, again and again.


In the end, many security systems are broken by the people who use them.
Most fraud against commerce systems is perpetrated by insiders.  Honest
users cause problems because they usually don't care about security.  They
want simplicity, convenience, and compatibility with existing (insecure)
systems.  They choose bad passwords, write them down, give friends and
relatives their private keys, leave computers logged in, and so on.  It's
hard to sell door locks to people who don't want to be bothered with keys.
A well-designed system must take people into account.

Often the hardest part of cryptography is getting people to use it.  It's
hard to convince consumers that their financial privacy is important when
they are willing to leave a detailed purchase record in exchange for one
thousandth of a free trip to Hawaii.  It's hard to build a system that
provides strong authentication on top of systems that can be penetrated by
knowing someone's mother's maiden name.  Security is routinely bypassed by
store clerks, senior executives, and anyone else who just needs to get the
job done.  Only when cryptography is designed with careful consideration of
users' needs and then smoothly integrated, can it protect their systems,
resources, and data.


Right now, users have no good way of comparing secure systems.  Computer
magazines compare security products by listing their features, not by
evaluating their security.  Marketing literature makes claims that are just
not true; a competing product that is more secure and more expensive will
only fare worse in the market.  People rely on the government to look out
for their safety and security in areas where they lack the knowledge to
make evaluations — food packaging, aviation, medicine.  But for
cryptography, the U.S. government is doing just the opposite.

When an airplane crashes, there are inquiries, analyses, and reports.
Information is widely disseminated, and everyone learns from the failure.
You can read a complete record of airline accidents from the beginning of
commercial aviation.  When a bank's electronic commerce system is breached
and defrauded, it's usually covered up.  If it does make the newspapers,
details are omitted.  No one analyzes the attack; no one learns from the
mistake.  The bank tries to patch things in secret, hoping that the public
won't lose confidence in a system that deserves no confidence.  In the long
run, secrecy paves the way for more serious breaches.

Laws are no substitute for engineering.  The U.S. cellular phone industry
has lobbied for protective laws, instead of spending the money to fix what
should have been designed correctly the first time.  It's no longer good
enough to install security patches in response to attacks.  Computer
systems move too quickly; a security flaw can be described on the Internet
and exploited by thousands.  Today's systems must anticipate future
attacks.  Any comprehensive system — whether for authenticated
communications, secure data storage, or electronic commerce — is likely to
remain in use for five years or more.  It must be able to withstand the
future:  smarter attackers, more computational power, and greater
incentives to subvert a widespread system.  There won't be time to upgrade
them in the field.

History has taught us:  never underestimate the amount of money, time, and
effort someone will expend to thwart a security system.  It's always better
to assume the worst.  Assume your adversaries are better than they are.
Assume science and technology will soon be able to do things they cannot
yet.  Give yourself a margin for error.  Give yourself more security than
you need today.  When the unexpected happens, you'll be glad you did.

Bruce Schneier

Risks in cryptography advertising (Gene Berkowitz)

"Gene Berkowitz" <>
Sat, 09 Nov 96 23:15:38 -0500
In EE Product News (a free advertising journal for the electronics industry)
October 1996, p. 13, highlighted as a "Semiconductor of the Month" was the
following: (I have emphasized certain portions with *...*)

> XL103 CryptChip is claimed as the industry's first real-time encryption/
> decryption chip.  *It protects data streams in applications as diverse as
> the Internet, modems, cellular telephones, pagers, and TV set-top decoders*.

> The easy-to-use IC requires no external components and *protects data
> without the burden of learning cryptography*.  Users also need not write
> complicated and difficult-to-maintain software.

> The chip's algorithm is a protected, hard-wired circuit that's *more secure
> than software because it can't be read or copied, preventing reverse
> engineering*.

> The chip encrypts (or decrypts) data at a rate of 6.5 bits/ms.  *With the
> ability to hold eight different 64-bit keys in internal EEPROM, the device
> can handle data from eight different secure systems.  In lots of 1000,
> pricing is $0.94 each* in an 8-pin plastic DIP and $0.97 in an SOIC.

How many RISKS are there in this single advertising blurb?

1. Assuming that one encryption method is suitable for any data type.
2. Is designed to be utilized by an engineer who has no understanding
   of how (or if) it works.
3. Assuming that a hardware device is more secure than a software algorithm.
4. Offering the potential attacker the ability to use 8 keys at a time for
   generating cyphertext and selling him the part for a buck...

--Gene S. Berkowitz

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