Notes from AusCERT 2008

The interesting discussions from the Australian security conference

I've had the pleasure of speaking and attending this year's AusCERT 2008 security conference held in Gold Coast, Australia. If you've never been to Australia, you're missing some of the best that life has to offer, and I feel the same way about the conference. Although a bit smaller than most US security conferences, it's intentionally kept small (around 1,000 participants) and makes up in quality speaker presentations and vendor participation what it lacks in headcount. One of the great attributes of the typical Aussie is their aversion to marketing hype, along with their ability to "cut the fat off a chicken" (as my grandmother used to say) and pull out the salient points. If a vendor tries to push marketing fluff about their product too much, they are likely to get verbally assailed rugby-style. Here are some of my favorite notes and quotes from selected speakers:

Kimberly Zenz, of iDefense, discussed cybercrime within the Russian federation of countries. Longtime readers of mine already know about the power and scale of the Russian Business Network, but Zenz showed that I was being quite myopic by considering RBN the only Russian threat. Essentially, cybercrime against foreigners is widespread, as are services (money laundering, bulletproof hosting services, and so on) supporting cybercrime. For example, hundreds of legitimate companies exist in Russia to launder ill-gotten gains. Many have public, physical points of presence and advertise, "Three convenient offices located next to the metro."

Zenz shared that cybercrime against foreigners is not seen as a completely bad thing in most Russian circles. She revealed that when speaking to a Russian minister who was supposed to be preventing cybercrime, he bragged about the quality of their malicious hackers -- so much for getting global cooperation against the threat. But my favorite quote from her talk addressed what she felt needed to happen before Russia started to better fight cybercrime: "I can only hope that Russian-against-Russian cybercrime continues to grow." While most Russians don't see anything wrong with Russian-against-foreigner cybercrime, when directed internally, it causes locally felt pain. Zenz thinks that rising domestic cybercrime could, if only incidentally, cause foreign crime to be taken more seriously.

Ziv Mador, senior program manager with Microsoft US Research and Response (and my coworker), shared some interesting data points collected by Microsoft's anti-malware tools (such as Windows Defender) and their reach into hundreds of millions of computers. Although I think I know malware fairly well, many things he said startled me. For instance, Microsoft's most recent Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (see Figure 43), revealed that large percentages of people, when told that they are trying to install malware or other potentially unwanted software, tell Microsoft's products to get out of the way and to allow it. For instance, between 25 and 53 per cent of people, when told of a Trojan downloader, choose to install it. Why? Great social engineering, I guess. Many end-users will ignore any warning to see the latest viral (ironic use in this case) public video or cool game or add-on program. It reveals how difficult it is to pull off anti-malware defense, when people knowingly install malware. It goes to show that after two decades of trying, end-user education has its limits.

Dr. Charles Miller, of hacking Apple products fame, gave a presentation on the backroom world of researchers being paid for zero-day exploits. He said that although there are many legitimate companies paying for zero-day exploits, the market remains fragmented and undisciplined. He said while prices for some zero-days ranged from US$500 to more than $80,000, many remain unsold. In perhaps one of the boldest admissions, Dr. Miller discussed how much he was paid for two vulnerabilities he sold a few years ago. He was able to sell a SAMBA exploit for US$80,000, and while negotiating a friend's PowerPoint exploit for US$8,000 to $20,000, saw the market collapse when Microsoft released a patch that fixed the exploit. He also shared that selling zero-days to anyone apart from the vendor didn't feel quite right, but that vulnerabilities researchers need to make a living.

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Alexander Seger spoke about the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime. Essentially, the Convention on Cybercrime is attempting to facilitate a global approach on cybercrime by creating judicial agreement on computer security laws and procedures. Cybercrime, by its very nature, often crosses state, federal, and national boundaries. The convention hopes to give criminals fewer places to hide by making globally common laws. It deals with substantive criminal law, criminal procedure law, and police and judicial cooperation. Signed by many European and non-European nations (it's even ratified by the United States), what it is trying to accomplish has to be successful if we are to have any hope of diminishing cybercrime. Learn about it and push for it.

There were dozens of other equally interesting speakers. Bill Cheswick ("father of perimeter firewalls and honeypots") talked about the future use of passwords. David Litchfield, of Oracle-hacking database fame, discussed his soon to be freely released forensic collection database tool known as Quisix. Microsoft's Scott Charney, delivering the conference keynote, discussed the history of Internet malware and ended with the End-to-End Trust initiative. If you haven't seen Mr. Charney, he's among Microsoft's best C-level speakers.

Even the Aussie press was ever present. Speaker topics and quotes were relayed to online and mainstream sources that would make any news service jealous. Although many of the headlines were intentionally provocative (reporters have to make a living too), the article content was fairly evenhanded, including when covering controversial topics.

I always love conferences where I'm more excited about sitting in the audience than I am about speaking there. AusCERT 2008 was one of those conferences, and I recommend it to anyone who wants short talks (most are 45 minutes or less) that are high on content and low on marketing fluff.