Here is an update. So one of the problems is that I was coding on windows - duh right? Windows was changing one of the forward slashes into a backslash when it got to the files folder where the image was being held. So I then booted up my virtualbox instance of ubuntu server and set it up on there. And will wonders never cease - it worked. The other thing was is that there are more than one spot to grab the templates. I was grabbing the template from the widget when I should have been grabbing it from the other templates folder and grabbing the code from the actual theme for the plugin. If any of that makes sense.
I was able to set it up so it will go to mydomain/blog and I don’t have to forward it to the user/username/blog. Now I am in the process of styling it to the way I want it to look. I wish that there was a way to use a new version of bootstrap. There are so many more new options. I suppose I could install the newer version or add the cdn in the header, but I don’t want it to cause conflicts. Bootstrap 3 is a little lacking. I believe that v2 of nodebb uses a new version of bootstrap or they have made it so you can use any framework that you want for styling. I would have to double check though.
Thanks for your help @phenomlab! I really appreciate it. I am sure I will have more questions so never fear I won’t be going away . . . ever, hahaha.
Once in every while, you encounter a repetitive issue that no matter what you try to do to resolve it, the problem manifests itself over and over again - sometimes, even on a daily basis. Much of how the issue is remediated really depends on the person assigned to the task.
You might be puzzled at why I’d write about something like this, but it’s a situation I see constantly - one I like to refer to as “over thinker syndrome”. What do I mean by this ? Here’s the theory. Some people are very analytical when it comes to problem solving. Couple that with technical knowledge and you could land up with a situation where something relatively simple gets blown out of all proportion because the scenario played out in the mind is often much further from reality than you’d expect. And the technical reasoning is usually always to blame. Sometime around 2007, a colleague noticed that the Exchange Server (2003 wouldn’t you know) would suddenly reboot half way through a backup job. Rightly so, he wanted to investigate and asked me if this would be ok. Anyone with an ounce of experience knows that functional backups are critical in the event of a disaster - none more so than I - obviously, I have the go ahead. One bright spark in my team suggested a reboot of the server, which immediately prompted the response
“…it’s rebooting itself every day, so how will that help ?”
Joking aside, we’ve all heard the “have you rebooted” question touted at some point during helpdesk discussions, but this one was different. A system rebooting itself is usually symptomatic of an underlying issue somewhere, and my team member was ready for the task ahead. Stepping up to the plate, he asked if it was ok to install some monitoring software on the server. Usually, installing additional software components in a production server without testing first is a non-starter, but seeing as we needed to get this resolved as quickly as possible to reinstate the nightly backup (which incidentally hasn’t run successfully for 3 days by now), I provided approval to proceed without question. There’s a leap of faith at this point, as you could cause more problems than that you actually set out to resolve in the first place, but, as with anything related to information technology, someone’s you have to accept an element of risk. The software itself was actually for the RAID controller and motherboard The assigned technician had already decided it was related to something along the lines of a faulty RAM module, or perhaps an issue with the controller itself. My thoughts leaned elsewhere already at this point - is the server reboots itself at exactly the same time every day then there is an established pattern which should be investigated first. It’s a logical approach, but it’s a common trait for technical support staff to sometimes think outside of the box - or in this case, outside of the building. Not wanting to push my opinion, or trample on anyone’s toes, I decided to remain quiet and see just how far this would go before intervention was required.
In this case, not very far. The following morning after another unannounced nightly reboot, the error “the previous shutdown at [insert time and date here] was unexpected” showed up in the event log. No real surprises there, and once again, exactly the same time as the previous night. I asked my technician for an update, and he informed me that he believed that the memory was faulty and somehow causing the server to blue screen and reboot. That was actually a reasonable response and so I commended him on his research and findings, but also reminded him to perform a manual backup so that we at least had something to revert to in the event of a failure. Later that afternoon, the same tech approached me and said that he had ordered some replacement memory, and wanted to arrange downtime to fit it. Trying to keep a poker face and remain passive, I agreed and the memory was replaced the same evening around 10pm. At 2am the following morning, kaboom ! - the server rebooted itself again. Not wanting to admit defeat, our courageous tech suggested that the problem could be due to the system overheating. Another fair point, but not realistic as you’d see this in event log as a thermal shutdown. I willingly entertained this, and allowed investigations into the CPU temperature to begin - after another manual backup. Unsurprisingly, the temperature data returned no smoking gun, so that was abandoned. The next port of call was to reapply the service pack. Now, I’ll admit that this used to fix a multitude of issues under Windows NT Server (particularly Service Pack 4) but not under Windows 2003. I declined this for obvious reasons - if you reapply the service pack, you run the risk of overwriting key DLL files that could (and often will) render Exchange inoperable. Not being prepared to introduce an unprecedented risk into what was already becoming something of a showcase, I suggested that we look elsewhere.
The final (and honestly more realistic suggestion) was to enable verbose logging in Exchange. This is actually a good idea, but only if you suspect that the information store could be the issue. Given the evidence, I wasn’t convinced. If there was corruption in the store, or on any of the disks, this would show itself randomly through the day and wouldn’t wait until 2am in the morning. Not wanting to come across as condescending, I agreed, but at the same time, set a deadline to escalation. I wasn’t overly concerned about the backups as these were being completed manually each day whilst the investigations were taking place. Neither was I concerned at what could be seen at this point as wasting someone’s time when you think you may have the answer to what now seemed to be an impossible problem. This is where experience will eclipse any formal qualifications hands down. Those with university degrees may scoff at this, but those with substantially analytical thinking patterns seem to avoid logic like the plague and go off on a wild tangent looking for a dramatically technical explanation and solution to a problem when it’s much simpler than you’d expect. Hence the title of this article - Avoid the “bulldozer to find a china cup” scenario. After witnessing another pained expression on the face of my now exasperated and exhausted tech, I said “let’s get a coffee”. In agreement, he followed me to the kitchen and then asked me what I thought the problem could be. I said that if he wanted my advice, it would be to step back and look at this problem from a logical angle rather than technical. The confused look I received was priceless - the guy must have really though I’d lost the plot. After what seemed like an eternity (although in reality only a few seconds) he asked me what I meant by this. “Come with me”, I said. Finishing his coffee, he diligently followed me to the server room. Once inside, I asked him to show me the Exchange Server. Puzzled, he correctly pointed out the exact machine. I then asked him to trace the power cables and tell me where they went.
As with most server rooms, locating and identifying cables can be a bit of a challenge after equipment has been added and removed, so this took a little longer than we expected. Eventually, the tech traced the cables back to
…an old looking UPS that had a red light illuminated at the front like it had been a prop in a Terminator film.
Suddenly, the real cause of this issue dawned on the tech like a morning sunrise over the Serengeti. The UPS that the Exchange Server was unexpectedly connected to had a faulty battery. The UPS was conducting a self test at 2am each morning, and because the bypass test failed owing to the burnt battery, the connected server lost power and started back up after the offending equipment left bypass mode and went online.
Where is this going you might ask ? Here’s the moral of this (particular, and many others like it) story
Just because a problem involves technology, it doesn’t mean that the answer has to be a complex technical one
Logic and common sense has a part to play in all of our lives.
Sometimes, it makes more sense just to step back, take a breath, and see something for what it really is before deciding to commit
It’s easy to allow technical expertise to cloud your judgement - don’t fall into the trap of using a sledgehammer to break an egg
You cannot buy experience - it’s earned, gained, and leaves an indelible mark
Let’s hear your views. Did you ever come across a situation where no matter what you tried, nothing worked ? Did the solution turn out to be much simpler than you’d have ever thought ?
One thing I’ve seen a lot of over my career is the “expert” myth being touted on LinkedIn and Twitter. Originating from psychologist K. Anders Ericsson who studied the way people become experts in their fields, and then discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in the book, “Outliers“, “to become an expert it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years) of deliberate practice”. This paradigm (if you can indeed call it that) has been adopted by several so called “experts” - mostly those within the Information Security and GDPR fields. This article isn’t about GDPR (for once), but mostly those who consider themselves “experts” by virtue of the acronym. Prior to it’s implementation, nobody should have proclaimed themselves a GDPR “expert”. You cannot be an expert in something that wasn’t actually legally binding until May 25 2018, nor can you have sufficient time invested to be an expert since inception in my view. GDPR is a vast universe, and you can’t claim to know all of it.
Consultant ? Possibly, yes. Expert ? No.
The associated sales campaign isn’t much better, and can be aligned to the children’s book “Chicken Licken”. For those unfamiliar with this concept, here is a walkthrough. I’m sure you’ll understand why I choose a children’s story in this case, as it seems to fit the bill very well. What I’ve seen over the last 12 months had been nothing short of amazing - but not in the sense of outstanding. I could align GDPR here to the PPI claims furore - for anyone unfamiliar with what this “uprising” is, here’s a synopsis.
The “expert” fallacy
Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is the insurance sold alongside credit cards, loans and other finance agreements to ensure payments are made if the borrower is unable to make them due to sickness or unemployment. The PPI scandal has its roots set back as far as 1998, although compensatory payments did not officially start until 2011 once the review and court appeal process was completed. Since the deadline for PPI claims has been announced as August 2019, the campaign has become intensively aggressive, with, it would seem, thousands of PPI “experts”. Again, I would question the authenticity of such a title. It seems that everyone is doing it, therefore, it must be easy to attain (a bit like the CISSP then). I witnessed the same shark pool of so called “experts” before, back in the day when Y2K was the latest buzzword on everyone’s lips. Years of aggressive selling campaigns and similarly, years of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt - more effectively known as complete bulls…) caused an unprecedented spike that allowed companies and consultants (several of whom had never been heard of before) to suddenly appear out of the woodwork and assume the identity of “experts” in this field. In reality, it’s not possible to be a subject matter expert in a particular field or niche market unless you have extensive experience. If you compare a weapons expert to a GDPR “expert”, you’ll see just how weak this paradigm actually is. A weapons expert will have years of knowledge in a field, and could probably tell you which gun discharged a bullet just by looking at the expended shell casing. I very much doubt a self styled GDPR expert can tell you what will happen in the event of an unknown scenario around the framework and the specific legal rights (in terms of the individual who the data belongs to) and implications for the institution affected. How can they when nobody has even been exposed to such a scenario before ? This makes a GDPR expert in my view about as plausible as a Brexit expert specialising in Article 50.
What defines an expert ?
The focal point here is in the comparison. A weapons expert can be given a gun and a sample of shell casings, then asked to determine if the suspected weapon actually fired the supplied ammunition or not. Using a process of proven identification techniques, the expert can then determine if the gun provided is indeed the origin. This information is derived by using established identity techniques from the indentations and markings in the shell casing created by the gun barrel from which the bullet was expelled, velocity, angle, and speed measurements obtained from firing the weapon. The impact of the bullet and exit damage is also analysed to determine a match based on material and critical evidence. Given the knowledge and experience level required to produce such results, how long do you think it took to reach this unrivalled plateau ? An expert isn’t solely based on knowledge. It’s not solely based on experience either. In fact, it’s a deep mixture of both. Deep in the sense of the subject matter comprehension, and how to execute that same understanding along with real life experience to obtain the optimum result. Here’s an example An information technology expert should be able to
Identify and eliminate potential bottlenecks
Address security concerns,
Design high availability
Factor in extensible scalability
Consider risk to adjacent and disparate technology and conduct analysis
Ensure that any design proposal meets both the current criteria and beyond
Understand the business need for technology and be able to support it
If I leveraged external consultancy for a project, I’d expect all of the above and probably more from anyone who labels themselves as an expert - or for that fact, an architect. Sadly, I’ve been disappointed on numerous occasions throughout my career where it became evident very quickly that the so called expert (who I hasten to add is earning more an hour than I do in a day in most cases) hired for his “expertise and superior knowledge” in fact appears to know far less than I do about the same topic.
How long does it really take to become an expert ?
I’ve been in the information technology and security field since I was 16. I’m now 47, meaning 31 years experience (well, 31 as this year isn’t over yet). If you consider that experience is acquired during an 8 hour day, and used the following equation to determine the amount of years needed to reach 10,000 hours
10000 / 8 / 365 = 3.4246575342 - for the sake of simple mathematics, let’s say 3.5 years.
However, in the initial calculation, it’s 10 years (using the basis of 90 minutes invested per day) - making the expert title when aligned to GDPR even more unrealistic. As the directive was adopted on the 27 April 2016, the elapsed time period isn’t even enough to carry the first figure cited at 3.5 years, irrespective of the second. The reality here is that no amount of time invested in anything is going to make your an expert if you do not possess the prerequisite skills and a thorough understanding based on previous events in order to supplement and bolster the initial investment. I could spend 10,000 practicing a particular sport - yet effectively suck at it because my body (If you’ve met me, you’d know why) isn’t designed for the activity I’m requesting it to perform. Just because I’ve spent 10,000 hours reading about something doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination. If I calculated the hours spanned over my career, I would arrive at the below. I’m basing this on an 8 hour day when in reality, most of my days are in fact much longer.
31 x 365 x 8 = 90,520 hours
Even when factoring in vacation based on 4 weeks per year (subject to variation, but I’ve gone for the mean average),
31 x 28 X 8 = 6,944 hours to subtract
This is only fair as you are not (supposed to be) working when on holiday. Even with this subtraction, the total is still 83,578 hours. Does my investment make me an expert ? I think so, yes - based on the fact that 31 years dedicated to one area would indicate a high level of experience and professional standard - both of which I constantly strive to maintain. Still think 10,000 hours invested makes you an expert ? You decide ! What are your views around this ?
One of the most important safety nets in IT Operations is contingency. Every migration needs a rollback plan in the event that things don’t quite go the way you’d expect, and with a limited timeline to implement a change, or in some cases, a complete migration, the rollback process is one that is an essential component. Without a plan to revert all changes back to their previous state, your migration is destined for failure from the outset. No matter how confident you are (I’ve yet to meet a project manager who doesn’t build in redundancy or rollback in one form or another) there is always going to be something you’ve missed, or a change that produces undesirable results.
It is this seemingly innocent change that can have a domino effect on your migration - unless you have access to a replica environment, the result of the change cannot be realistically predicted. Admittedly, it’s a simple enough process to clone virtual machines to test against, but that’s of no consequence if your change relates to those conducted at hardware level. A classic example of this is a firewall migration. Whilst it would be possible to test policies to ensure their functionality meets the requirement of the business, confirming VPN links for example isn’t so straightforward - especially when you need to rely on external vendors to complete their piece of the puzzle before you can continue. Unless you’re deploying technology into a greenfield site, you do not have the luxury of testing a VPN into a production network during business hours. Based on this, you have a couple of choices
You perform all testing off hours by switching equipment for the replacement, and perform end to end testing. Once you are satisfied everything works as it should, you put everything back the way you found it, then schedule a date for the migration.
You configure the firewall using a separate subnet, VLAN, and other associated networking elements meaning the two environments run symmetrically
But which path is the right one ? Good question. There’s no hard and fast rule to which option you go for - although option 2 is more suited to a phased migration approach whilst option 1 is more aligned to “big bang” - in other words, moving everything at the same time. Option 2 is good for testing, but may not reflect reality as you are not targeting the same configuration. As a side note, I’ve often seen situations where residual configuration from option 1 has been left behind, meaning you either land up with a conflict of sorts, or black hole routing.
Making use of a rollback
This is where the rollback plan bridges the gap. If you find yourself in a situation where you either run out of time, or cannot continue owing to physical, logical or external constraints, then you would need to invoke your rollback plan. It’s important to note at this stage that part of the project plan should include a point where the progress is reviewed and assessed, and if necessary, the rollback is executed. My personal preference is within around 40% of the allocated time window - all relevant personnel should reconvene and provide status updates around their areas of responsibility, and give a synopsis of any issues - and be fully prepared to elaborate on these if the need arises. If the responsible manager feels that the project is at risk of overrunning it’s started time frame, or cannot be completed within that window, he or she needs to exercise authority to invoke the rollback plan. When setting the review interval, you should also consider the amount of time required to revert all changes and perform regression testing.
Rollback provides the ideal opportunity to put everything back how it was before you started on your journey - but it does depend on two major factors. Firstly, you need to allocate a suitable time period for the rollback to be completed within. Secondly, unless you have a list of changes that were made to hardware - inclusive of configuration, patching, and a myriad of others, how can you be sure that you’ve covered everything ?
Time after time I see the same problem - something gets missed, and turns out to be fundamental on Monday morning when the changes haven’t been cross checked.
So what should a contingency plan consist of ?
One surefire way to ensure that configurations are preserved prior to making changes is to create backups of running configs - 2 minutes now can save you 2 days of troubleshooting when you can’t remember which change caused your issue. For virtual machines, this is typically a snapshot that can be restored later should the need arise. A word to the wise though - don’t leave the machine running on snapshot for too long as this can rapidly deplete storage space. It’s not a simple process to recover a crashed VM that has run out of disk space.
Keep version and change control records up to date - particularly during the migration. Any change that could negatively impact the remainder of the project should be examined and evaluated, and if necessary, removed from the scope of works (provided this is a feasible step - sometimes negating a process is enough to make a project fail)
Document each step. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. I understand that we all want to get things done in a timely manner, but will you realistically remember all the changes you made in the order they were implemented ?
Use differential tools to examine and easily highlight changes between two configurations. There are a number of free tools on the internet that do this. If you’re using a Windows environment, a personal favourite of mine is WinMerge. Using a diff tool can separate the wood from the trees quickly, and provides a simple overview of changes - very useful in the small hours, I can assure you.
Working on a switch or firewall ? Learn how to use the CLI. This is often superior in terms of power and usually contains commands that are not available from the GUI. Using this approach, it’s perfectly feasible to bulk load configuration, and also back it out using the same mechanism.
What if your rollback plan doesn’t work ? Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to simulate a rollback during project planning, and this is often made worse by many changes being made at once to multiple systems. It’s not that the rollback doesn’t work - it’s usually always a case of settings being reverted before they should be. In most cases, this has the knock on effect of denying yourself access to a system - and it’s always in a place where there are no local support personnel to assist - at least, not immediately. For every migration I have completed over my career, I’ve always ensured that there is an alternative route to reach a remote device should the primary path become inaccessible. For firewalls, this can be a blessing - particularly as they usually permit access on the public interfaces.
However, delete a route inadvertently and you are toast - you lose access to the firewall full stop - get out of that one. What would I do in a situation like this where the firewall is located in Asia for example, and you are in London ? Again - contingency. You can’t remove a route on a firewall if it was created automatically by the system. In this case, a VLAN or directly connected interface will create it’s own dynamic route, and should still be available. If dealing with a remote firewall, my suggestion here would be Out Of Band Management (OOBM), but not a device connected directly to the firewall itself, as this presents a security risk if not configured properly. A personal preference is a locally connected laptop in the remote location that uses either independent WiFi or a 3G / Mifi presence. Before the migration starts, establish a WebEx or GoToMeeting session (don’t forget to disable UAC here as that can shoot you in the foot), and arrange for a network cable to be plugged into switch fabric, or directly. Direct is better if you can spare the interface, as it removes potential routing issues. Just configure the NIC on the remote machine with an address in the same subnet add the interface you’re connected to, and you’re golden.
I’ve used the above as a get out of jail free card on several occasions, and I can assure you it works.
So what are the takeaways here ?
The most important aspect is to be ready with a response - effectively a “plan b” when things go wrong. Simple planning in advance can save you having to book a flight, or foot the expense of a local IT support firm with no prior knowledge of your network - there’s the security aspect as well; you’d need to provide the password for the device which immediately invokes a change once the remediation is complete. In summary
Thoroughly plan each migration and allow time for contingency steps. You may not need them, and if you don’t, then you effectively gain time that could be used elsewhere.
Have an alternative way of reaching a remote device, and ensure necessary third party vendors are going to be available during your maintenance window should this be necessary.
Take regular config backups of all devices. You don’t necessarily need an expensive tool for this - I actually designed a method to make this work using Linux, a TFTP server, and a custom bash script - let me know if you’d like a copy 🙂
Regularly analyse (automated diff) configuration changes between configurations. Any changes that are undocumented or previously approved are a cause for alarm and should be investigated
Ensure that you have adequate documentation, and steps necessary to recover systems in the event of failure
@crazycells I guess the worst part for me was the trolling - made so much worse by the fact that the moderators allowed it to continue, insisting that the PeerLyst coming was seeing an example by allowing the community to “self moderate” - such a statement being completely ridiculous, and it wasn’t until someone else other than myself pointed out that all of this toxic activity could in fact be crawled by Google, that they decided to step in and start deleting posts.
In fact, it reached a boiling point where the CEO herself had to step in and post an article stating their justification for “self moderation” which simply doesn’t work.
Why is it that all outages seem to happen at 5:30pm on a Friday afternoon ? Back in the day during 1998 when DEC (yeah, I’m old - shoot me) was still mainstream and Windows NT Server 4.0 was the latest and greatest, I was working for a commodity trading firm in the West End as an IT Manager. The week had typically gone by with the usual activity - nothing too major to report apart from the odd support issue and the usual plethora of invoices that needed to be approved. Suddenly, one of my team emerged from the comms room and informed me that they had spotted a red light on one of the disks sitting in the Exchange server. I asked which disk it was, and said we’d need to get a replacement.
For those who haven’t been in this industry for a years (unlike me) DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) was a major player in previous years, but around 1998 started to struggle - it was then acquired by Compaq (who later on down the line in 2002 were acquired themselves by Hewlett Packard). This server was a beast - a DEC server 5000 the size of an under the counter fridge with a Mylex DAC960 RAID controller. It was so large, it had wheels with brakes. And, like a washing machine, was incredibly heavy. I’m sure the factory that manufactured servers in the 90’s used to pour concrete in them just for a bit of fun…
Here’s a little glimpse for nostalgia purposes
Those who remember DEC and it’s associated Mylex DAC960 RAID controller will also recall that the RAID5 incarnation was less than flawless. In modern RAID deployments, if a disk was marked as faulty or defunct, the controller would effectively blacklist the disk meaning that if it were to be removed then reinserted, any bad blocks would not be copied into the array hence causing corruption - it would be rejected.
Well, that’s how modern controllers work. Unfortunately, the DAC960 controller was one of those boards that when coupled with old firmware and the NT operating system created the perfect storm. It was relatively well documented at the time that plugging a faulty drive back into an array could cause corruption and spell disaster. My enterprising team member had spotted the red light on the drive, then decided to eject it out of the array. For some unknown reason, instead of taking it back to his desk to order a replacement, he reinserted the it back into the array. Now, for those of you that actually remember the disks that went inside a DEC server 5000, you’ll know that these things were like bricks in plastic containers. They were around 3 inches in height, about 6 inches long, and quite heavy. These drives even had a eject clip on each side meaning that you had to press both sides of the disk carrier and then slide out the drive before it could be fully removed. Inserting a replacement drive required much the same effort (except in reverse), and provided a satisfyingly secure “clunk” as the interface of the drive made contact with the RAID controller bus.
No sooner had I said the words
“…please tell me you didn’t plug that disk back in……”
to my team member, our central helpdesk number lit up like a Christmas tree in Times Square with users complaining they couldn’t get into email. I literally ran into the comms room and found the server with all drive bays lit solidly as if suspended in its own cryogenic state. For sake of schematics, a standard RAID5 configuration looks like the below. Essentially, the “p” component is parity. This is the stripe that contains information about the array and is spread across all disks that are members. In the event that one fails, the data is still held across the remaining drives, meaning still accessible - with a reduction in performance. The data is written across the disks in one write like a stripe (set).
At this point I’d already realised that the array had been corrupted by the returning faulty disk, and the bad stripe information was now resident on all the remaining drives. Those who understand RAID will know that if one drive in a RAID5 set fails, you still have the other remaining drives as a resilient array - but not if they are all corrupted. What I am alluding to here is shown below. The stripe was now unreadable, therefore, none of the disks were accessible
The server had completely frozen up and would not respond. I’m no fan of force powering a server off in the best of circumstances, but what choice did we have ?
The server was powered off, then turned back on again. I really was hoping that this was just a system freeze and a reboot would make all our problems go away. The less naïve and experienced part of me dragged my legs towards the backup storage area (yes, we had a rotation pool of 2 weeks on site and 2 weeks off), and started collecting the previous day’s backup from the safe. As it stands, this was clearly the next logical step. Upon restart, we were met with the below shortly after NTOSKERNEL completed it’s checks
(Not the actual BSOD of course - camera phones didn’t exist in 1998 - but as close as it gets)
Anyone familiar with the Windows operating system will have bumped into this at some point in their career, and by the more commonplace acronym BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death). Either way, it’s never a good sign when you are trying to recover a system. One of the best messages displayed by a BSOD is
I say “best” with a hint of sarcasm of course as this message is completely useless and doesn’t mean anything to anyone as such. As the internet back in 1998 was fairly infantile, gaining a decent insight wasn’t as simple or clear cut as it is today. Looking at the problem from a sensible angle, it was fairly obvious that the DAC960 controller had either failed completely, or couldn’t read the disks and caused the crash. Deciding not to invest too much time in getting this system back to life, I fired up it’s dormant sister (yes, we had two fridges :)) which started with no issues. This secondary server was originally purchased to split the load of the mailboxes across two servers for resilience purposes, but never came to fruition owing to a backlog of other projects that were further up the chain of importance. Had this exercise have taken place, only 50% of the office would have been impacted - typical.
With the server started, we then began the process of installing Exchange. Don’t get too excited - this was Exchange 5.5 and didn’t have any formal link to Active Directory, so it was never going to be the case of installing Exchange in disaster recovery mode, then playing back the database. Nope. This was going to be a directory restore first, followed by the Information Store.
With Exchange installed and the previous service packs and hotfixes applied (early versions of Exchange had a habit of not working at all after a restore unless the patching level was the same), BackupExec 6.2 (yes, I know) was set to restore to an alternative Exchange server, and the tapes loaded into the robotic arm cradle. In hindsight, it would have been a better option to install BackupExec on the Exchange server itself, and connect the tape drive to the SCSI connector. However, can you find a cable when you really need one ? In any case, the server was SCSI2 when the loader was SCSI1. This should have set alarm bells ringing at the time, but with the restore started, we went back to our seats - I then began the task of explaining to senior management about the cause of the outage and what we were doing to resolve the problem. As anyone with experience of Microsoft systems knows, attempting to predict the time to restore or copy anything (especially back in the 90’s) wasn’t a simple task, as Windows had a habit of either exaggerating the time, or sitting there not responding for ages.
Rather like a 90’s Wikipedia, NT wasn’t known for it’s accuracy.
I called home and solemnly declared I was in for a long night. It’s never easy explaining the reasons why or attempting to justify the reasons you need to work late to family members, but that’s another story. Checking on the progress of the restore, we were averaging speeds of around 2Mbps ! Cast your mind back to 1998 and think of the surrounding technology. Back in the (not so good) old days, modern switching technology and 10Gbps networks were non existent. We were stuck with old 3Com 10Mbps hubs and an even slower Frame Relay connection (256k with 128k ISDN backup) as the gateway. To make matters worse, our internet connection was based on dialup technology using a SHIVA LanRoverE. Forget 1Gb fibre - this thing dished out an awesome [sic] 33.6k speed or even 56k if you were using ISDN. Web Pages loading in about 20 seconds was commonplace - downloading drivers was an absolute nightmare as you can imagine.
Back to the restore. Having performed the basic math, and given the size of the databases (around 70Gb on a DLT 40 that was compressed to 80Gb), this was going to take over 24 hours. If you think about how hubs used to work, this meant that the 10Mbps speed of the device was actually shared across all 24 ports. This effectively reduces the port speed to 0.42Mbps - and that really depends on what the other ports are doing at the time. The restore rate remained at around 2Mbps for hours, and rather than everyone sit there watching water evaporate, I sent home the remaining staff and told them to be on standby for the entire weekend. I really couldn’t stomach food at this point, and ended up working into the night on other open tasks in an effort to catch up. I ended up falling asleep at my desk around 2am, and then being woken by the sound of my mobile (a Nokia of course) ringing. Looking at the clock, it was 5am. Checking the restore, it had progressed to the information store itself and was around 60% completed. After another 15 hours in the office, the restore finally completed.
Having restarted all of the Exchange services, even the information store came up, which really was good news. However, browsing through the mailboxes I noticed that only a quarter of the 250+ I was expecting were listed. Not knowing much about the Exchange back end at the time, I contacted a so-called Exchange specialist based in Switzerland (in case you’re wondering, we were a Swiss headquartered entity, and all external support came from there). This Exchange specialist informed me that the backup hadn’t completed properly, and a set of commands needed to be run in BackupExec to resolve this. Of course, this also meant that the restore process had to be restarted - there goes another 24+ hours, I thought to myself. With the new “settings applied” and the restore process restarted, I decided that I wasn’t going to sit in the office for another day waiting for the restore to complete, and so I decided to call one of my team to come in and occupy the watchtower.
Getting hold of someone was much more difficult than I had imagined. After letting the remainder of the team go, they all forged an exodus to the nearest door like iron filings to a magnet. So much for team ethic I thought. Eventually, I managed to get hold of a colleague who, after much griping, agreed to come into the office. I wouldn’t have minded as much if he didn’t live less than 15 minutes away, but that’s another story. My colleague arrived around 30 minutes later, and then I left the office. Getting home wasn’t a simple task. In the UK, there are often engineering works taking place over the weekend - particularly on the tube, and in most cases, local rail providers also - mine included. What should have taken about 2 hours maximum took 4, and by the time I got home, I flopped into bed exhausted. Needless to say this didn’t go down particularly well with my wife who saw me last on the previous morning - especially as after 3 hours of restlessness and a general inability to sleep, I was called by senior management - and was asked to go back in.
By now, my already frustrated wife’s temperature went from 36.9c to an erupting volcano equivalent in less than a split second. I fully appreciated her response, but I was young (well, younger), eager to impress, and also had a sense of ownership. After a somewhat heated exchange, I left for the office. I arrived in much the same time as it took me to get home in the first place, and found that the restore was of course still running. My colleague made some half baked excuse that he needed to leave the office as he had a “family emergency”. Not really in the mood to argue this, I let him leave. I then got on a conference call with the consultant we had been using. Unsurprisingly, the topic of the restore time came up.
“…You have a very slow network…” said the consultant.
“…No s**t Sherlock…” I thought. “…Do you honestly think I’m sitting here for my health ? …”
I politely “agreed”.
Eventually, the restore process completed. With a sudden feeling of euphoria, I went back into the comms room to start the services and… to my dismay, found once again that only a third of the recipients appeared in the directory. The term “FFS” didn’t go anywhere near being an accurate portrayal of my response. I was brutally upset. Hopelessly crushed. On the verge of losing it… (ok, perhaps that’s overkill). There had to be a reason for this. Something we’d missed, or just didn’t understand. I went looking for answers on a 1998 version of Yahoo (actually, I think it may have been Lycos), and found an article relating to the DS/IS Consistency Adjuster in Exchange 5.5 - this isn’t the exact resource I found, but it goes a long way to describe the fundamental process. The upshot is that the consistency adjuster needed to be run to synchronise the once orphaned mailboxes with the directory service. This entire process took a couple of hours - whilst that seems inconceivable to even the extreme Luddite, this is 1998 with SCSI1 drives, a Pentium II Processor, and 512Mb ram.
After the process completed (which incidentally looked like this)
I could then see all mailboxes ! After performing several somersaults around the office (just kidding here, but I can tell you I felt like doing it), I confirmed with a 25% random user test that I had access to mailboxes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any new mail arriving, but that was only due to a stalled mail connector on the server in Switzerland that received external mail. After a quick reboot of this gateway, mail began to flow. After around an hour of testing, I was happy that everything was working as expected. As for the consultant who had just wasted hours of my life, it’s just as well he wasn’t in the same country as me, let alone room. I went home elated - to an extremely angry wife. She’s since forgiven me of course, and now looking back, I really appreciate why - she was looking out for me, and concerned - I just didn’t appreciate that at the time.
Come Monday morning, users were back into email with everything working as expected. An emergency Exchange backup had been run, and I was in the process of writing up my postmortem report for senior management. I then got a phone call. Anyone remember a product by Fenstrae called Faxination ? This was peered with Exchange 5.5, and had stopped working since the crash. The head of operations demanded that this was resolved as a priority… Another late night… another argument at home, but that’s a story for another day.
It’s a common occurrence in today’s modern world that virtually all organisations have a considerable budget (or a strong focus on) information and cyber security. Often, larger organisations spend millions annually on significant improvements to their security program or framework, yet overlook arguably the most fundamental basics which should be (but are often not) the building blocks of any fortified stronghold.
We’ve spent so much time concentrating on the virtual aspect of security and all that it encompasses, but seem to have lost sight of what should arguably be the first item on the list – physical security. It doesn’t matter how much money and effort you plough into designing and securing your estate when you consider how vulnerable and easily negated the program or framework is if you neglect the physical element. Modern cyber crime has evolved, and it’s the general consensus these days that the traditional perimeter as entry point is rapidly losing its appeal from the accessibility versus yield perspective. Today’s discerning criminal is much more inclined to go for a softer and predictable target in the form of users themselves rather than spend hours on reconnaissance and black box probing looking for backdoors or other associated weak points in a network or associated infrastructure.
Physical vs virtual
So does this mean you should be focusing your efforts on the physical elements solely, and ignoring the perimeter altogether ? Absolutely not – doing so would be commercial suicide. However, the physical element should not be neglected either, but instead factored into any security design at the outset instead of being an afterthought. I’ve worked for a variety of organisations over my career – each of them with differing views and attitudes to risk concerning physical security. From the banking and finance sector to manufacturing, they all have common weaknesses. Weaknesses that should, in fact, have been eliminated from the outset rather than being a part of the everyday activity. Take this as an example. In order to qualify for buildings and contents insurance, business with office space need to ensure that they have effective measures in place to secure that particular area. In most cases, modern security mechanisms dictate that proximity card readers are deployed at main entrances, rendering access impossible (when the locking mechanism is enforced) without a programmed access card or token. But how “impossible” is that access in reality ?
Organisations often take an entire floor of a building, or at least a subset of it. This means that any doors dividing floors or areas occupied by other tenants must be secured against unauthorised access. Quite often, these floors have more than one exit point for a variety of health and safety / fire regulation reasons, and it’s this particular scenario that often goes unnoticed, or unintentionally overlooked. Human nature dictates that it’s quicker to take the side exit when leaving the building rather than the main entrance, and the last employee leaving (in an ideal world) has the responsibility of ensuring that the door is locked behind them when they leave. However, the reality is often the case instead where the door is held open by a fire extinguisher for example. Whilst this facilitates effective and easy access during the day, it has a significant impact to your physical security if that same door remains open and unattended all night. I’ve seen this particular offence repeatedly committed over months – not days or weeks – in most organisations I’ve worked for. In fact, this exact situation allowed thieves to steal a laptop left on the desk in an office of a finance firm I previously worked at.
Theft in general is mostly based around opportunity. As a paradigm, you could leave a £20 note / $20 bill on your desk and see how long it remained there before it went missing. I’m not implying here that anyone in particular is a thief, but again, it’s about opportunity. The same process can be aligned to Information security. It’s commonplace to secure information systems with passwords, least privilege access, locked server rooms, and all the other usual mechanisms, but what about the physical elements ? It’s not just door locks. It’s anything else that could be classed as sensitive, such as printed documents left on copiers long since forgotten and unloved, personally identifiable information left out on desks, misplaced smartphones, or even keys to restricted areas such as usually locked doors or cupboards. That 30 second window could be all that would be required to trigger a breach of security – and even worse, of information classed as sensitive. Not only could your insurance refuse to pay out if you could not demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that you had the basic physical security measures in place, but (in the EU) you would have to notify the regulator (in this case, the ICO) that information had been stolen. Not only would it be of significant embarrassment to any firm that a “chancer” was able to casually stroll in and take anything they wanted unchallenged, but significant in terms of the severity of such an information breach – and the resultant fines imposed by the ICO or SEC (from the regulatory perspective – in this case, GDPR) – at €20m or 4% of annual global (yes, global) turnover (if you were part of a larger organisation, then that is actually 4% of the parent entity turnover – not just your firm) – whichever is the highest. Of equal significance is the need to notify the ICO within 72 hours of a discovered breach. In the event of electronic systems, you could gain intelligence about what was taken from a centralised logging system (if you have one – that’s another horror story altogether if you don’t and you are breached) from the “electronic” angle of any breach via traditional cyber channels, but do you know exactly what information has taken residence on desks ? Simple answer ? No.
It’s for this very reason that several firms operate a “clean desk” policy. Not just for aesthetic reasons, but for information security reasons. Paper shredders are a great invention, but they lack AI and machine learning to wheel themselves around your office looking for sensitive hard copy (printed) data to destroy in order for you to remain compliant with your information security policy (now there’s an invention…).
But how secure are these “unbreakable” locks ? Despite the furore around physical security in the form of smart locks, thieves seem to be able to bypass these “security measures” with little effort. Here’s a short video courtesy of ABC news detailing just how easy it was (and still is in some cases) to gain access to hotel rooms using cheap technology, tools, and “how-to” articles from YouTube.
Surveillance systems aren’t exempt either. As an example, a camera system can be rendered useless with a can of spray paint or even something as simple as a grocery bag if it’s in full view. Admittedly, this would require some previous reconnaissance to determine the camera locations before committing any offence, but it’s certainly a viable prospect of that system is not monitored regularly. Additionally, (in the UK at least) the usage of CCTV in a commercial setting requires a written visible notice to be displayed informing those affected that they are in fact being recorded (along with an impact assessment around the usage), and is also subject to various other controls around privacy, usage, security, and retention periods.
Unbreakable locks ?
Then there’s the “unbreakable” door lock. Tapplock advertised their “unbreakable smart lock” only to find that it was vulnerable to the most basic of all forced entry – the screwdriver. Have a look at this article courtesy of “The Register”. In all seriousness, there aren’t that many locks that cannot be effectively bypassed. Now, I know what you’re thinking. If the lock cannot be effectively opened, then how do you gain entry ? It’s much simpler than you think. For a great demonstration, we’ll hand over to a scene from “RED” that shows exactly how this would work. The lock itself may have pass-code that “…changes every 6 hours…” and is “unbreakable”, but that doesn’t extend to the material that holds both the door and the access panel for the lock itself.
And so onto the actual point. Unless your “unbreakable” door lock is housed within fortified brick or concrete walls and impervious to drills, oxy-acetylene cutting equipment, and proximity explosive charges (ok, that’s a little over the top…), it should not be classed as “secure”. Some of the best examples I’ve seen are a metal door housed in a plasterboard / false wall. Personally, if I wanted access to the room that badly, I’d go through the wall with the nearest fire extinguisher rather than fiddle with the lock itself. All it takes is to tap on the wall, and you’ll know for sure if it’s hollow just by the sound it makes. Finally, there’s the even more ridiculous – where you have a reinforced door lock with a viewing pane (of course, glass). Why bother with the lock when you can simply shatter the glass, put your hand through, and unlock the door ?
There’s always a variety of reasons as to why you wouldn’t build your comms room out of brick or concrete – mostly attributed to building and landlord regulations in premises that businesses occupy. Arguably, if you wanted to build something like this, and occupied the ground floor, then yes, you could indeed carry out this work if it was permitted. Most data centres that are truly secure are patrolled 24 x 7 by security, are located underground, or within heavily fortified surroundings. Here is an example of one of the most physically secure data centres in the world.
Virtually all physical security aspects eventually circle back to two common topics – budget, and attitude to risk. The real question here is what value you place on your data – particularly if you are a custodian of it, but the data relates to others. Leaking data because of exceptionally weak security practices in today’s modern age is an unfortunate risk – one that you cannot afford to overlook.
I have seen this on the news before… for “normal” (and I believe “better”) development of their kids, Silicon Valley tech workers are sending their little kids to schools where technology is forbidden. So, they can use their hands and play with the soil.
You know what, I’d fully support this notion. When my daughter was at school, they had interactive white boards, but everything else was from books and physical teaching. if you look at the kids now, it’s all technology, and whilst this does indeed prepare them for a world where technology dominates, it means they lack the basic skills that we (well, I…) had as kids where you were taught practical things like how to wire up a plug (in the UK, everything comes with a plug now because there were so many accidents because of incorrect wiring), repair something that is broken etc. - now, it’s much simpler to send it to landfill rather than repair it.
The kids of today have everything and nothing in my view. If the internet as we know it completely crashed out for a week (something that will likely never happen of course) and they couldn’t use social media apps etc., then how would they cope? The university of life tends to teach at a much slower rate, and without those fundamental basic skills, how would they survive?
I read an article By Glenn S. Gerstell (Mr. Gerstell is the general counsel of the National Security Agency) with a great deal of interest. That same article is detailed below
The National Security Operations Center occupies a large windowless room, bathed in blue light, on the third floor of the National Security Agency’s headquarters outside of Washington. For the past 46 years, around the clock without a single interruption, a team of senior military and intelligence officials has staffed this national security nerve center.
The center’s senior operations officer is surrounded by glowing high-definition monitors showing information about things like Pentagon computer networks, military and civilian air traffic in the Middle East and video feeds from drones in Afghanistan. The officer is authorized to notify the president any time of the day or night of a critical threat.
Just down a staircase outside the operations center is the Defense Special Missile and Aeronautics Center, which keeps track of missile and satellite launches by China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and other countries. If North Korea was ever to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile toward Los Angeles, those keeping watch might have half an hour or more between the time of detection to the time the missile would land at the target. At least in theory, that is enough time to alert the operations center two floors above and alert the military to shoot down the missile.
But these early-warning centers have no ability to issue a warning to the president that would stop a cyberattack that takes down a regional or national power grid or to intercept a hypersonic cruise missile launched from Russia or China. The cyberattack can be detected only upon occurrence, and the hypersonic missile, only seconds or at best minutes before attack. And even if we could detect a missile flying at low altitudes at 20 times the speed of sound, we have no way of stopping it.
Something I’ve been saying all along is that technology alone cannot stop cyber attacks. Often referred to as a “silver bullet”, or “blinky lights”, this provides the misconception that by purchasing that new, shiny device, you’re completely secure. Sorry folks, but this just isn’t true. In fact, cyber crime, and it’s associated plethora of hourly attacks is evolving at an alarming rate - in fact, much faster than you’d like to believe.
You’d think that for all the huge technological advances we have made in this world, the almost daily plethora of corporate security breaches, high profile data loss, and individuals being scammed every day would have dropped down to nothing more than a trickle - even to the point where they became virtually non-existent. We are making huge progress with landings on Mars, autonomous space vehicles, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and essentially reaching new heights on a daily basis thanks to some of the most creative minds in this technological sphere. But somehow, we have lost our way, stumbled and fallen - mostly on our own sword. But why ?
Just like the Y2k Gold Rush in the late 90’s, information security has become the next big thing with companies ranging from a few employees as startups to enterprise organisations touting their services and platforms to be the best in class, and the next “must have” tool in the blue team’s already bulging arsenal of tools. Tools that on their own in fact have little effect unless they are combined with something else as equally as expensive to run. We’ve spent so much time focusing on efforts ranging from what SEIM solution we need to what will be labelled as the ultimate silver bullet capable of eliminating the threat of attack once and for all that in my opinion, we have lost sight of the original goal. With regulatory requirements and best practice pushing us towards products and services that either require additional staff to manage, or are incredibly expensive to deploy and ultimately run. Supposedly, in an effort to simplify the management, analysis, and processing of millions of logs per hour we’ve created even more platforms to ingest this data in order to make sense of it.
In reality, all we have created is a shark infested pool where larger companies consume up and coming tech startups for breakfast to ensure that they do not pose a threat to their business model / gravy train, therefore enabling them to dominate the space even further with their newly enhanced reach.
How did we get to this ? What happened to thought process and working together in order to combat the threat that increases on an hourly basis ? We seem to be so focused on making sure that we aren’t the next organisation to be breached that we have lost the art of communication and the full benefit of sharing information so that it assists others in their journey. We’ve become so obsessed with the daily onslaught of platforms that we no longer seem to have the time to even think, let alone take stock and regroup - not as an individual, but as a community.
There are a number of ”communities” that offer “free” forums and products under the open source banner, but sadly, these seem to be turning into paid-for products at a rate of knots. I understand people need to live and make money, but if awareness was raised to the point where users wouldn’t click links in phishing emails, fall for the fake emergency wire transfer request from the CEO, or be suddenly tempted by the latest offer in terms of cheap technology then we might - just might - be able to make the world a better place. In order to make this work, we first need to remove the stigma that has become so ingrained by the media and set in stone like King Arthur’s Excalibur. Let’s first start with the hacker / criminal parallel. They aren’t the same thing folks.
Nope. Not at all. Hackers are those people who find ingenious ways of getting into networks and infrastructure that you never even knew existed, trick you into parting with sensitive information (then inform you as to where you went wrong), and most importantly, educate you so that you and your network are far more secure against real attacks and real criminals. These people exist to increase your awareness, and by definition, security footprint - not use it against you in order to steal. Hackers do like to wear hoodies as they are comfortable, but you won’t find one using gloves, wearing a balaclava or sunglasses, and in some cases, they actually prefer desktops rather than laptops.
The image being portrayed here is one perpetuated by the media, and it has certainly been effective - but not in a positive way. The word “hacker” is now synonymous with criminals, where it really shouldn’t be. One defines security, whereas the other sets out to break it. If we locked up all the hackers on this planet, we’d only have the blue team remaining. It’s the job of the red team (hackers) to see how strong your defences are. Hackers exist to educate, not infiltrate (at least, not without asking for permission first :))
I personally have lost count of how many times I’ve sat in meetings where a sales pitch around a security platform is touted as a one stop shop or a Swiss army knife that can protect your entire network from a breach. Admittedly, there’s some great technology on the market that performs a variety of functions to protect your estate, but they all fail to take into consideration the weakest link in any chain - users. Irrespective of bleeding edge “combat platforms” (as I like to refer to them), criminals are becoming very adept in their approach, leveraging techniques such as social engineering. It should come as no surprise for you to learn that this type of attack can literally walk past your shiny new defence system as it relies on the one vulnerability you cannot predict - the human. Hence the term “hacking humans”.
I’m of the firm opinion that if you want to outsmart a criminal, you have to think like one. Whilst newfangled platforms are created to assist in the fight against cyber crime, they are complex to configure, suffer from alerting bloat (far too many emails so you end up missing the one where your network is actually being compromised), or are simply overwhelming and difficult to understand. Here’s the thing. You don’t need (although they do help) expensive bleeding edge platforms with flashing lights to tell you where weak points lie within your network, but you do need to understand how a criminal can and will exploit these. A vulnerability cannot be leveraged if it no longer exists, or even better, never even existed to begin with.
And so, on with the mission, and the real reason as to why I created this site. I’ve been working in information technology for 30 years, and have a very strong technical background in network design and information security.
What I want to do is create a communication, information, and awareness sharing platform. I created the original concept of what I thought this new community should look like in my head, but its taken a while to finally develop, get people interested, and on board. To my mind, those from inside and outside of the information security arena will pool together, share knowledge, raise awareness, and probably the most important, harness this new found force and drive change forward.
The breaches we are witnessing on a daily basis are not going to simply stop. They will increase dramatically in their frequency, and will get worse with each incident.
Let’s stop the “hackers are criminals” myth, start using our own unique talents in this field, and make a community that
is able to bring effective change
treats everyone as equals
The community once fully established could easily be the catalyst for change - both in perception, and inception.
Why not wield the stick for a change instead of being beaten with it, and work as a global virtual team instead ?
Will you join me ? In case I haven’t already mentioned it, this initiative has no cost - only gains. It is entirely free.
When you look at your servers or surrounding networks, what exactly do you see ? A work of art, perhaps ? Sadly, this is anything but the picture painted for most networks when you begin to look under the hood. What I’m alluding to here is that beauty isn’t skin deep - in the sense that neat cabling resembling art from the Sistine Chapel, tidy racks, and huge comms rooms full of flashing lights looks appealing from the eye candy perspective and probably will impress clients, but in several cases, this is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sounds harsh ? Of course it does, but with good intentions and reasoning. There’s not a single person responsible for servers and networks on this planet who will willingly admit that whilst his or her network looks like a masterpiece to the untrained eye, it’s a complete disaster in terms of security underneath.
In reality, it’s quite the opposite. Organisations often purchase bleeding edge infrastructure as a means of leveraging the clear technical advantages, enhanced security, and competitive edge it provides. However, under the impressive start of the art ambience and air conditioning often lies an unwanted beast. This mostly invisible beast lives on low-hanging fruit, will be tempted to help itself at any given opportunity, and is always hungry. For those becoming slightly bewildered at this point, there really isn’t an invisible beast lurking around your network that eats fruit. But, with a poorly secured infrastructure, there might as well be. The beast being referenced here is an uninvited intruder in your network. A bad actor, threat actor, bad guy, criminal…. call it what you want (just don’t use the word hacker) can find their way inside your network by leveraging the one thing that I’ve seen time and time again in literally every organisation I ever worked for throughout my career - the default username and password. I really can’t stress the importance of changing this on new (and existing) network equipment enough, and it doesn’t stop at this either.
Changing the default username and password is about 10% of the puzzle when it comes to security and basic protection principles. Even the most complex credentials can be bypassed completely by a vulnerability (or in some cases, a backdoor) in ageing firmware on switches, firewalls, routers, storage arrays, and a wealth of others - including printers (which incidentally make an ideal watering hole thanks to the defaults of FTP, HTTP, SNMP, and Telnet, most (if not all of) are usually always on. As cheaper printers do not have screens like their more expensive copier counterparts (the estate is reduced to make the device smaller and cheaper), any potential criminal can hide here and not be detected - often for months at a time - arguably, they could live in a copier without you being aware also. A classic example of an unknown exploit into a system was the Juniper firewall backdoor that permitted full admin access using a specific password - regardless of the one set by the owner. Whilst the Juniper exploit didn’t exactly involve a default username and password as such (although this particular exploit was hard-coded into the firmware, meaning that any “user” with the right coded password and SSH access remotely would achieve full control over the device), it did leverage the specific vulnerability in the fact that poorly configured devices could have SSH configured as accessible to 0.0.0.0/0 (essentially, the entire planet) rather than a trusted set of IP addresses - typically from an approved management network.
We all need to get out of the mindset of taking something out of a box, plugging it into our network, and then doing nothing else - such as changing the default username and password (ideally disabling it completely and replacing it with a unique ID) or turning off access protocols that we do not want or need. The real issue here is that today’s technology standards make it simple for literally anyone to purchase something and set it up within a few minutes without considering that a simple port scan of a subnet can reveal a wealth of information to an attacker - several of these tools are equipped with a default username and password dictionary that is leveraged against the device in question if it responds to a request. Changing the default configuration instead of leaving it to chance can dramatically reduce the attack landscape in your network. Failure to do so changes “plug and play” to “ripe for picking”, and its those devices that perform seemingly “minor” functions in your network that are the easiest to exploit - and leverage in order to gain access to neighbouring ancillary services. Whilst not an immediate gateway into another device, the compromised system can easily give an attacker a good overview of what else is on the same subnet, for example.
So how did we arrive at the low hanging fruit paradigm ?
It’s simple enough if you consider the way that fruit can weigh down the branch to the point where it is low enough to be picked easily. A poorly secured network contains many vulnerabilities that can be leveraged and exploited very easily without the need for much effort on the part of an attacker. It’s almost like a horse grazing in a field next to an orchard where the apples hang over the fence. It’s easily picked, often overlooked, and gone in seconds. When this term is used in information security, a common parallel is the path of least resistance. For example, a pickpocket can acquire your wallet without you even being aware, and this requires a high degree of skill in order to evade detection yet still achieve the primary objective. On the other hand, someone strolling down the street with an expensive camera hanging over their shoulder is a classic example of the low hanging fruit synopsis in the sense that this theft is based on an opportunity that wouldn’t require much effort - yet with a high yield. Here’s an example of how that very scenario could well play out.
Now, as much as we’d all like to handle cyber crime in this way, we can’t. It’s illegal 🙂
What isn’t illegal is prevention. 80% of security is based on best practice. Admittedly, there is a fair argument as to what exactly is classed as “best” these days, although it’s a relatively well known fact that patching the Windows operating system for example is one of the best ways to stamp out a vulnerability - but only for that system that it is designed to protect against. Windows is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vulnerabilities - it’s not just operating systems that suffer, but applications, too. You could take a Windows based IIS server, harden it in terms of permitted protocols and services, plus install all of the available patches - yet have an outdated version of WordPress running (see here for some tips on how to reduce that threat), or often even worse, outdated plugins that allow remote code execution. The low hanging fruit problem becomes even more obvious when you consider breaches such as the well-publicised Mossack Fonseca (“Panama Papers”). What became clear after an investigation is that the attackers in this case leveraged vulnerabilities in the firm’s WordPress and Joomla public facing installations - this in fact led to them being able to exploit an equally vulnerable mail server by brute-forcing it.
So what should you do ? The answer is simple. It’s harvest time.
If there is no low-hanging fruit to pick, life becomes that much more difficult for any attacker looking for a quick “win”. Unless determined, it’s unlikely that your average attacker is going to spend a significant amount of time on a target (unless it’s Fort Knox - then you’ve have to question the sophistication) then walk away empty handed with nothing to show for the effort. To this end, below are my top recommendations. They are not new, non-exhaustive, and certainly not rocket science - yet they are surprisingly missing from the “security 101” perspective in several organisations.
Change the default username and password on ALL infrastructure. It doesn’t matter if it’s not publicly accessible - this is irrelevant when you consider the level of threats that have their origins from the inside.
If you do have to keep the default username (in other words, it can’t be disabled), set the lowest possible access permissions, and configure a strong password.
Close all windows - in this case, lock down protocols and ports that are not essential - and if you really do need them open, ensure that they are restricted
Deploy MFA (or at least 2FA) to all public facing systems and those that contain sensitive or personally identifiable information
Deploy adequate monitoring and logging techniques, using a sane level of retention. Without any way of forensic examination, any bad actor can be in and out of your network well before you even realise a breach may have taken place. The only real difference is that without decent logging, you have no way of confirming or even worse, quantifying your suspicion. This can spell disaster in regulated industries. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
Ensure all Windows servers and PC’s are up to date with the latest patches. The same applies to Linux and MAC systems - despite the hype, they are vulnerable to an extent (but not in the same way as Windows), although attacks are notoriously more difficult to deploy and would need to be in the form of a rootkit to work properly
Do not let routers, firewalls, switches, etc “slip” in terms of firmware updates. Keep yourself and your team regularly informed and updated around the latest vulnerabilities, assess their impact, and most importantly, plan an update review. Not upgrading firmware on critical infrastructure can have a dramatic effect on your overall security.
Lock down USB ports, CD/DVD drives, and do not permit access to file sharing, social media, or web based email. This has been an industry standard for years, but you’d be surprised at just how many organisations still have these open and yet, do not consider this a risk.
Reduce the attack vector by segmenting your network using VLANS. For example, the sales VLAN does not need to (and shouldn’t need to) connect directly to accounting etc. In this case, a ransomware or malware outbreak in sales would not traverse to other VLANS, therefore, restricting the spread. A flat network is simple to manage, but a level playing field for an attacker to compromise if all the assets are in the same space.
Don’t use an account with admin rights to perform your daily duties. There’s no prizes for guessing the level of potential damage this can cause if your account is compromised, or you land up with malware on your PC
Educate and phish your users on a continual basis. They are the gateway directly into your network, and bypassing them is surprisingly easy. You only have to look at the success of phishing campaigns to realise that they are (and always will be) the weakest link in your network.
Devise a consistent security and risk review framework. Conducting periodic security reviews is always a good move, and you’d be surprised at just what is lurking around on your network without your knowledge. There needn’t be a huge budget for this. There are a number of open source projects and platforms that make this process simple in terms of identification, but you’ll still need to complete the “grunt” work in terms of remediation. I am currently authoring a framework that will be open source, and will share this with the community once it is completed.
Conduct regular governance and due diligence on vendors - particularly those that handle information considered sensitive (think GDPR). If their network is breached, any information they hold around your network and associated users is also at risk.
Identify weak or potential risk areas within your network. Engage with business leaders and management to raise awareness around best practice, and information security.
Perform breach simulation, and engage senior management in this exercise. As they are the fundamental core of the business function, they also need to understand the risk, and more importantly, the decisions and communication that is inevitable post breach.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to protecting your network, information, and reputation. However, the list above will form the basis of a solid framework.
The recent high profile breaches impacting organisations large and small are a testament to the fact that no matter how you secure credentials, they will always be subject to exploit. Can a password alone ever be enough ? in my view, it’s never enough. The enforced minimum should be at least with a secondary factor. Regardless of how “secure” you consider your password to be, it really isn’t in most cases – it just “complies” with the requirement being enforced.
Here’s classic example. We take the common password of “Welcome123” and put it into a password strength checker
According to the above, it’s “strong”. Actually, it isn’t. It’s only considered this way because it meets the complexity requirements, with 1 uppercase letter, at least 8 characters, and numbers. What’s also interesting is that a tool sponsored by Dashlane considers the same password as acceptable, taking supposedly 8 months to break
How accurate is this ? Not accurate at all. The password of “Welcome123” is in fact one of the passwords contained in any penetration tester’s toolkit – and, by definition, also used by cyber criminals. As most of this password combination is in fact made up of a dictionary word, plus sequential numbers, it would take less than a second to break this rather than the 8 months reported above. Need further evidence of this ? Have a look at haveibeenpwned, which will provide you with a mechanism to test just how many times “Welcome123” has appeared in data breaches
Why are credentials so weak ?
My immediate response to this is that for as long as humans have habits, and create scenarios that enable them to easily remember their credentials, then this weakness will always exist. If you look at a sample taken from the LinkedIn breach, those passwords that occupy the top slots are arguably the least secure, but the easiest to remember from the human perspective. Passwords such as “password” and “123456” may be easy for users to remember, but on the flip side, weak credentials like this can be broken by a simple dictionary attack in less than a second.
Here’s a selection of passwords still in use today – hopefully, yours isn’t on there
We as humans are relatively simplistic when it comes to credentials and associated security methods. Most users who do not work in the security industry have little understanding, desire to understand, or patience, and will naturally choose the route that makes their life easier. After all, technology is supposed to increase productivity, and make tasks easier to perform, right ? Right. And it’s this exact vulnerability that a cyber criminal will exploit to it’s full potential.
Striking a balance between the security of credentials and ease of recall has always had it’s challenges. A classic example is that networks, websites and applications nowadays typically have password policies in place that only permit the use of a so-called strong password. Given the consolidation and overall assortment of letters, numbers, non-alphanumeric characters, uppercase and lowercase, the password itself is probably “secure” to an acceptable extent, although the method of storing the credentials isn’t. A shining example of this is the culture of writing down sensitive information such as credentials. I’ve worked in some organisations where users have actually attached their password to their monitor. Anyone looking for easy access into a computer network is onto an immediate winner here, and unauthorised access or a full blown breach could occur within an alarmingly short period of time.
Leaked credentials and attacks from within
The credentials are now paired. The password has been retrieved in clear text, and by using a simple discovery technique, the username has also been acquired. Sometimes, a criminal can get extremely lucky and be able to acquire credentials with minimal effort. Users have a habit of writing down things they cannot recall easily, and in some cases, the required information is relatively easily divulged without too much effort on the part of the criminal. Sounds absurd and far fetched, doesn’t it ? Get into your office early, or work late one evening, and take a walk around the desks. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised at what you will find. Amongst the plethora of personal effects such as used gym towels and footwear, I guarantee that you will find information that could be of significant use to a criminal – not necessarily readily available in the form of credentials, but sufficient information to create a mechanism for extraction via an alternative source. But who would be able to use such information ?
Think about this for a moment. You generally come into a clean office in the mornings, so cleaners have access to your office space. I’m not accusing anyone of anything unscrupulous or illegal here, but you do need to be realistic. This is the 21st century, and as a result, it is a security measure you need to factor in and adopt into your overall cyber security policy and strategy. Far too much focus is placed on securing the perimeter network, and not enough on the threat that lies within. A criminal could get a job as a cleaner at a company, and spend time collecting intelligence in terms of what could be a vulnerability waiting to be exploited. Another example of “instant intelligence” is the network topology map. Some of us are not blessed with huge screens, and need to make do with one ancient 19″ or perhaps two. As topology maps can be quite complex, it’s advantageous to be able to print these in A3 format to make it easier to digest. You may also need to print copies of this same document for meetings. The problem here is what you do with that copy once you have finished with it ?
How do we address the issue ? Is there sufficient awareness ?
Yes, there is. Disposing of it in the usual fashion isn’t the answer, as it can easily be recovered. The information contained in most topology maps is often extensive, and is like a goldmine to a criminal looking for intelligence about your network layout. Anything like this is classified information, and should be shredded at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps one of the worst offences I’ve ever personally experienced is a member of the IT team opening a password file, then walking away from their desk without locking their workstation. To prove a point about how easily credentials can be inadvertently leaked, I took a photo with a smartphone, then showed the offender what I’d managed to capture a few days later. Slightly embarrassed didn’t go anywhere near covering it.
I’ve been an advocate of securing credentials for some time, and recently read about the author of “NIST Special Publication 800-63” (Bill Burr). Now retired, he has openly admitted the advice he originally provided as in fact, incorrect
“Much of what I did I now regret.” said Mr Burr, who advised people to change their password every 90 days and use obscure characters.
“It just drives people bananas and they don’t pick good passwords no matter what you do.”
The overall security of credentials and passwords
However, bearing in mind that this supposed “advice” has long been the accepted norm in terms of password securuty, let’s look at the accepted standards from a well-known auditing firm
It would seem that the Sarbanes Oxley 404 act dictates that regular changes of credentials are mandatory, and part of the overarching controls. Any organisation that is regulated by the SEC (for example) would be covered and within scope by this statement, and so the argument for not regularly changing your password becomes “invalid” by the act definition and narrative. My overall point here is that the clearly obvious bad password advice in the case of the financial services industry is negated by a severely outdated set of controls that require you to enforce a password change cycle and be in compliance with it. In addition, there are a vast number of sites and services that force password changes on a regular basis, and really do not care about what is known to be extensive research on password generation.
The argument for password security to be weakened by having to change it on a frequent basis is an interesting one that definitely deserves intense discussion and real-world examples, but if your password really is strong (as I mentioned previously, there are variations of this which are really not secure at all, yet are considered strong because they meet a complexity requirement), then a simple mutation of it could render it vulnerable. I took a simple lowercase phrase
The actual testing tool can be found here. So, does a potential criminal have 26 nonillion years to spare ? Any cyber criminal who possesses only basic skills won’t need a fraction of that time as this password is in fact made up of simple dictionary words, is all lowercase, and could in fact be broken in seconds.
My opinion ? Call it how you like – the password is here to stay for the near future at least. The overall strength of the password or credentials stored using MD5, bCrypt, SHA1 and so on are irrelevant when an attacker can use established and proven techniques such as social engineering to obtain your password. Furthermore, the addition of 2FA or a SALT dramatically increases password security – as does the amount of unsuccessful attempts permitted before the associated account is locked. This is a topic that interests me a great deal. I’d love to hear your feedback and comments.
@justoverclock yes, completely understand that. It’s a haven for criminal gangs and literally everything is on the table. Drugs, weapons, money laundering, cyber attacks for rent, and even murder for hire.
Nothing it seems is off limits. The dark web is truly a place where the only limitation is the amount you are prepared to spend.
What would happen if a cyber criminal attempted to scam a security professional ? Well, some time ago, this happened to me. Like everyone, I certainly receive my fair share of junk email, scams, and pretty much everything else that the internet these days tends to throw at you. For the most part, each one of these “attacks” is ignored. However, one caught my eye after only the first paragraph. Not only was the format used absurd, but the supposedly “formal tone” was nothing short of a complete joke. Unfortunately, there really is no “TL;DR” synopsis for this particular event.
Scrolling to the bottom of the article is of course up to you, but you’ll not only miss out on key information - you’ll also miss out on my sarcasm 🤣
Admittedly, this “scam” sounds far fetched. But, believe it or not, this particular campaign has a high success rate (and, all content in this article actually happened). If this were not the case, would a potential criminal go to such lengths to impersonate and engage ? No. They rely on that one human trait known as trust. Trust which in this case is readily exploited. I promise that this article will be worth your while reading. Ready ? Buckle up. its going to be an interesting ride. During the journey, I’ll highlight the warning signs and provide an explanation into each. Let’s start.
Out of the blue, I was contacted via email by someone calling themselves “Andrew Walter” - purportedly an employee at Bank of America. The first immediate sign that something is not quite all it seems here is that the email address used is in fact from the contact form on this site. What’s significant about that ? Well, there are a variety of techniques used by cyber criminals to gain access to legitimate email addresses. One known and widely used technique is the scraping of email addresses from websites and social media - in fact, the most notable is LinkedIn.
Despite its age and somewhat basic approach, it still works very well. Why didn’t I secure it ? Simple. The contact form on this site also doubles as a honeypot. You’d be surprised what lands in here - as this “campaign” did. For the record, Phenomlab does not retain any information from this contact form. The initial text in the email might have been relatively convincing if it hadn’t contained a ”glow in the dark” grammatical error within the first line. What I’m alluding to here is that the email may as well have arrived complete with sirens and flashing lights. Here’s a snapshot
Dear Mark Cutting. “I added you to my professional network in order to share a confidential proposal with you please contact me on my private email: email@example.com for briefing on proposal since i can not send attachment via linkedin”.
Actually, you didn’t. I received no such request. Let’s have a look at the initial baiting technique. Who writes an email using the full name of a person without addressing them in the business (or even personal for that fact) sense ? In addition, why would you wrap what you want to say in quotes ? Finally, “I can not send attachment via LinkedIn” - actually, I received two from trusted sources in the same platform a day earlier. This email was so cringe worthy, I thought it rude to not reply ?
Andrew, Can I ask what this is in relation to please ? Thanks
That’s the hook that a scammer needs. After this, the response is a lot more detailed as the criminal plays out the story. I’m going to highlight the areas of interest here as I go, and have attached the full text in order to keep this article sane.
I will start by saying thanks for your response…How is your family doing? I hope okay.
Good start. Make it look like you know me personally and commence with the pleasantries - even though you in fact know nothing about me, and, in reality, couldn’t care less.
My proposal is very important to me so please I want you to take the content of this mail very serious. All I want is an honest business transaction between us.
This is anything but honest
First of all, I will start by introducing myself. My name is Andrew Walter, I am currently working with Bank of America. I have been working here for 17 years now, and I have a good working record with my bank.
That’s strange. According to the array of fake Andrew Walter (Bank of America) LinkedIn profiles, you’ve been there for 12 years. Did you step into a time machine and not tell anyone ? Perhaps you banged your head and lost 5 years in the process. What’s more than likely is that like most bad liars, you’ve lost track of what you told one person as oppose to the next. At least you tried to enforce a bit of trust with your statement around “I have a good working record with my bank”.
I am also the personal accountant to Engineer (Lex Cutting ), a foreign contractor who has an investment account with my bank with a huge sum of money in it.
Note the misplaced bracket here, and also note, that there is no “Lex Cutting” in my family tree. Am I a grammar snob ? No, but I expect a “business transaction” (if you can call it that) to at least not contain basic grammatical errors.
My late client was a chemical consultant contractor with Royal Dutch Shell until his death in a fatal car accident while at France on sabbatical with his entire family. The accident unfortunately took the lives of the family members comprising of himself, his wife and two kids in the summer of 2007 may their soul rest in perfect peace.
He banked with us here at Bank of America and had a very huge sum of money in his account which has still yet not been claimed by anybody as there was no living will in place when he died.
“May their soul rest in perfect peace” and “A very huge sum of money” - instant alarm bells owing to the poor grammar. If you’re working under the pretence of being an educated individual employed by a tier 1 bank, you’re not doing a very good job.
The amount of money involved here is about $15,812,664 (Fifteen Million, Eight Hundred and Twelve Thousand six hundred and sixty four US Dollars.) in account with indefinite interest.
Holy s***, I’ve won the lottery !! Contain yourself man, and remember, its a fake ! Ok, composure resumed.
Since the death of my client; my bank and I have made several inquiries to his embassy to locate any of his extended family members or relatives but this has proven unsuccessful. I came to know about you in my search for a person who shares the same last name as my late client.
Yes - I and thousands of others no doubt. How lucky I’ve been selected for this “unique opportunity”.
employed the services of LinkedIn search solely for this purpose as I feel it would not have been the last wishes of my late client for his whole life work to be transferred to a government (Es cheat) he had always complained of their unfavorable public monetary policies, taxes and so on while he was alive.
Ok, so let me get this straight. You’ve trawled LinkedIn looking for “beneficiaries” when there are other far more orthodox and reliable channels to obtain this information. I can smell the sweat and toil of poorly conducted fraud here. Oh, and by the way, “Es cheat” is actually one word (ESCHEAT).
My bank has issued me several notices to provide the next of kin or the account risk been es cheat within the next 10 official working days. The last notice for claim came to my desk last week. I am contacting you to assist me in repatriating the funds left behind before they are declared un-serviced by my bank. I am seeking your consent to present you as the next of kin of my late client since you share and bear the same last name.
As such, the proceeds of the account can be paid to you as soon as you contact my bank and apply for the funds to be released to you as the next of kin. If we can be of one accord, I see no reason why we would not succeed. We both have to act swiftly on this matter in other to beat the deadline es cheat date.Please get back to me immediately for us to proceed.
Wait a minute. If I’m the sole beneficiary, why do you want half ? Sounds like easy money to me. And the usage of “one accord” is somewhat “odd”.
I am after the success of this transaction with your full co-operation. All I require is your honesty and full co-operation to enable us see this cool deal go through.
I bet you are. “Cool deal” ? I thought I was taking to a professional here, not a school kid. Seems like our man has let his guard down for a split second and now his “Inna Gangsta” is shining through.
I guarantee you that this will be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you and me from breaching USA laws. I want to also inform you that I am a very religious person and I cannot tell a lie because of my strong believes; I would expect the same from you.
Oh please, do me a favour. Pull the other one - its got bells on.
I will attach a copy of my international passport in my next mail for authenticity so we have equal ground to trust each other. If you are interested in my proposal I will send you more information directing you on further procedure on how we can claim the money in the account successfully. If this proposal is alright by you then kindly get back to me.
“Alright by you” - there’s that superb [sic] usage of business language again. This guy is awesome.
The content of this mail should be treated with utmost confidentiality and a quick response from you will be highly appreciated. However, if you are not interested in this proposal, please accept my apologies for sending you the message and kindly delete message, I promised that you will never hear from me. I anticipate your co-operation.
Of course. You wouldn’t want local law enforcement or the ”feds” knocking at your door now, would you ?
This by now is so hilarious that I just had to respond.
Hi. This sounds great. What would the next steps be ? Eagerly awaiting your response.
And, without delay, here’s the response
Dear Mark Cutting. I thank you for responding to my mail, I want to stress again that this transaction is very legitimate and there is no risk involved as I am the personal accountant to Late Engineer (Lex Cutting ) anything I say concerning this will be followed by the bank Executives.
I bet. Actually, I’m struggling to follow your appallingly bad grammar here, but I expect you have your “very legitimate” reasons.
However, before we can proceed further, I want you to assure me that you will be honest during the transaction and as soon as the funds is transferred to you we can meet in person and share money peacefully. You should understand that this transaction can be successful if we work together and as soon as I give you all legal procedure you will receive the funds from my bank, so I really need your assurance before we shall proceed.
Wait - you want me to be honest ? Who’s scamming who here ?? What a complete scumbag.
As I read your email I am very convinced with you and serious about this arrangement process as such, I would want you to take this serious too. My personal instinct directed me to contact you and I hope it was not a wrong thing to do.I shall direct you on the process of the claim; we shall start by sending a formal application to this effect. I will send you the text for the claims and transfer application to this effect. Thereafter, the bank will request of you the relevant back up documents to your claim and application according to the demand of our probate law for transfer of funds.
Once you have provided the Bank with their demands, they would now be under legal obligation to transfer the funds to bank account provided by you. As part of the procedure of the claims, the documents that will be required from you will have to be acquired through legal procedures as the application of claim will be complimented with a legal award we shall have to seek from our law Court here. Be assured that the procedures to be adopted in effecting the transfer in your favor will be official and legal which will protect us from any breach of the law, We have the next 10 official working days.
Right. Sounds fairly “straightforward”.
Note: High confidentiality is required at all times. Do not tell anyone about this because, it might be unsafe for both of us. It would be safer for us to communicate by email for now as we have the trust. I hope you see reason with my decision on us talking by mail for now. As soon as the money has been transferred to your account, I will look for a country of our choice where we can see in person and subsequently share the funds in the ratio as discussed earlier.
I can assure you it won’t be unsafe for me, but it probably is for you -“…now we have the trust”. Note, that the scammer gains confidence here, and starts making some fairly basic mistakes.
Above all, I personally count on God to facilitate our plan and understanding, to produce not just success but also peaceful sharing of the funds at the end of the day and a wealthy family business relationship between us. I also pray for establishment of cordial relationship between us, God being our helper.
I agree - you’re definitely going to need all the help you can get here. You’re not getting anything from me, so divine intervention is probably the only thing you have left.
As soon as I hear from you and receive your assurance, I will send you the Text of Application for you to contact my bank for the release of the funds in the account of (Lex Nicholl) to your account as his next of kin.
Hold it right there ! Who is Lex** “Nicholl”** ? Major alarm bells here. Looks like this guy has his wires crossed or didn’t get good morning injection of caffeine. This is a glaring oversight and I’m guessing all those lovingly created campaigns have a similar fault.
would advice that you follow all the steps and procedures which I will give you so that we can get to the end of this transaction quickly. I need you to send a copy of your international passport to me and I will send mine as soon as I receive your reply indicating understanding from both of us.
Of course. You need my passport. How undeniably stupid of me to think that you could complete this “transaction” without stealing the holy grail of personally identifiable documents in the process and using it like the gift that keeps giving for your other criminal campaigns (I sincerely hope they are better than this one).
Time to turn up the heat a bit
Hi. Can you send me the claims transfer forms for review ? Thanks
This guy is like a dog on heat and he’s well and truly bitten this
Dear Mark Cutting. I hope you and your family are well am so sorry for my late response as i read your email I was convinced, and I want you to understand that I need proper confirmation as I states below to be more in assurance of doing this transaction with you. The documents that will be required from us will have to be acquired through legal procedures as I explained, the application of claim will be complimented with a legal back up confirming this as a legitimate transaction, I have the account details with all access codes and will give it to you once it is required by the bank, also with me here all approvals will be provided and the transfer released to you.
We are going to keep our communication on email for now to ensure that we are under absolute security due to high level call interception here in United States I would like you to see it with me that security is very necessary we have to be on email or text messages until the transaction is completed and I will visit you to implement our sharing.
Yes, I agree that security is “very necessary” and also appreciate you do not want roughing up by “the feds” anytime soon. Let’s keep the communication on email so I don’t start to question who you are ? A quick side note here - if you want a secure channel, email is completely the opposite unless its been encrypted - which this hasn’t, and could be subject to eavesdropping. And, as a way of putting my mind at rest, here’s a lovely fake passport for your viewing pleasure. To the untrained eye, this could look convincing, but it a fake. One of the key identifiers here are the “wavy lines” over the picture. This is in fact a security watermark, and is unique for each passport issued. The lines will never repeat each other - if you look carefully at the below, the lines do in fact repeat.
Below is an actual fake passport that was used in a scam a number of years ago. You’ll notice that this one is slightly less complex as it has the watermark missing, but is still fake, nonetheless.
The transfer in your favor will be official and legal which will protect us from any breach of the law. Whatever the cost of his transaction will be, is going to be on both of us which I believe that you will not let me handle all the process alone.
Of course not. You wouldn’t want to have to share any of the spoils, would you ? And just like any other “business transaction” you don’t want to be spending any of your money unnecessarily. Interesting that he’s actually used the US English “favor” rather than the UK English of “favour”. Pity he’s not been so diligent elsewhere. I know…let’s try and spend mine.
I will give you the text application letter of the transfer request for our ledger department and also details on the way forward with the transaction once you have agreed with the following
Are you ready to maintain the high level of confidentiality required for the successful conclusion of this transaction?
Are you promising me that your account can be able to carry a transaction of such magnitude without any problem
Are you willing to accept 50% for your participation without any problems in collecting my share from you?
“Yes, yes, yes !” Let’s do this thing, and I’ll also throw in a portable radio to make the deal even more “appealing”.
I will need your help in directing me and investing part of my share in your country the investment will be under your control until I am able to take over or it can be a joint venture depending on your decision. as soon as i receive a copy of your passport or id document and i as well have attached a copy of my passport for you to see whom you are working with.
Please reply as soon as possible if you in understanding with me so that we can proceed with the bank with text application.
Now this is getting interesting. What this really means is that once I have your bank details, I won’t be making a deposit - only a withdrawal (from my account, of course). Time to contact the Bank of America - this guy is an absolute riot (anagram of idiot) and yes, I can’t spell either, or count.
Dear Sirs, I write with reference to what I believe to be a 419 Nigerian scam, sent to my email address. I am a security expert by trade, and wish to report this to yourselves. I believe the “sender” is impersonating one of your employees. I have also enclosed a scanned PDF file of the “passport”, which I also believe to be fake. I’m currently entertaining this individual as a way of reeling him in so I can report him to the necessary authorities.
Clearly, I have no intention of supplying any sensitive information, including my passport. Whilst I expect that you receive many emails of this nature, I would like confirmation that the enclosed photo in the passport is not in fact a Bank of America employee
Sadly, absolutely no response from Bank of America. I expect that they receive thousands of emails like this on a regular basis. Oh well, onward and upward. Let’s not keep our friend waiting.
Hi Mark , Thank you for your email, and understanding, we do not have much time to complete this transaction to avoid reaching the es-cheat date.i will start the preparation of the application text which will be submitted to the bank as official application to cover the estate by the family member of Late Mr. Lex Cutting.
I will send it to you for review by tomorrow. As a side note, there’s that misplaced capital letter
Well now, that’s more like it ! Now we’re best friends forever, we can lower our guard a bit and revert to informal language (well, formal in the sense that our author is suffering from capital letter displacement). Perhaps we caused a bit of suspicion in our last messages and want to be a bit more convincing ? I’m game if you are buddy. Let’s make this a bit more interesting.
Hi Andrew, Thanks for the email. I’ve just moved house, and things are in a bit of a mess, so I cannot place my passport for a few days until I’ve finished unpacking - hopefully, this doesn’t cause you any problems. I can answer “yes” to all the questions below.
In the meantime, to speed up the process, is there any way we can proceed whilst I attempt to find my passport ?
Well, look at me ! I know exactly where my passport is and I haven’t moved house - we need a bit of time here to do some further digging, so I’m throwing him off the scent for a few days whilst I perform some background investigation and analysis. I let this go on for 6 days before responding - note, that previously, “Andrew” had warned me we only had 10 days to nail this “cool deal”.
We’ve since passed that landmark, but interestingly, he’s not that worried it seems. Admittedly, at this point I thought of sending a copy of Jason Bourne’s passport which are readily available for download via a quick Google - http://www.indyprops.com/pp-bournepass.htm. However, despite my assumption that this person I’m dealing with is stupid, I don’t think there’s many people on this planet who haven’t heard of Jason Bourne or seen at least one movie from the franchise.
Based on this simple conclusion, its not a wise move in my view as it means ending the story here (unless this guy has been living under a rock)…. and there’s so much more to tell yet ! Therefore, we’ll need to take another route. Let’s increase the stakes. Note that by this point, we’re up to day 5, and we only had 10 days to complete this “cool deal”.
Its now day 11 after I’ve kept him waiting for 6 days intentionally.
Hi Andrew, Sorry for the delay. I finally found my passport, and have scanned a copy. However, I’ve read that email isn’t secure, so I can either FedEx a copy to you (I’ll need an address of course), or I can provide a secure link for you to download a password protected zip file. I’ll email you the password for that under separate cover. Would this be ok ? Keen to get things moving. Thanks
I can almost hear the cogs in motion as my best friend formulates a response. A spanner in the works and probably not on his “canned response” sheet. This guy now needs to up his game to stay in the running.
Hi mark. I hope you and your family are well? thank you so much for your mail please scan and send the copy of your international passport to this email (firstname.lastname@example.org) will can communicate much better even while i’m right in my work place i can reply over there anytime. as soon i receive your reply we will be proceeding with the text of application.
I will be waiting to hear from you.
Yes, I bet you will. This is the response I expected (note the “new” email address highlighted in yellow above - why change this now ? Keep reading) - if I then dropped out afterwards, this guy would still have a copy of my genuine passport, and could (and undoubtedly would) use this to commit other types of fraudulent activity.
Essentially, its all about the money, so if the primary campaign fails, there is a good chance the second one will succeed, which is why the passport is requested so early to avoid over investment in terms of time.
Hi Andrew, I really don’t want to send my passport by email. Can you give me an address of where it can be sent (postal) or let me know if you’d be ok downloading the copy needed from a link I will provide ? Thanks
“Hang him on a hook and let me play with him”
I’m so bad. Let’s see how much he wants this. Pushing for the postal address risks blowing the (supposedly carefully planned) cover and exposing him. He can’t exactly give me an address in Africa now, can he ? I’ve already preempted this and laid the foundations for a honeypot trap. I need to explain myself a bit here for those reading this and scratching their heads with images of Winnie the Pooh and a honey jar, so bear with me.
A honeypot is a computer system or landing page that is set up to act as a decoy to lure fraudsters and cyber criminals - its essential function is to detect, deflect or study attempts to gain unauthorized access to information systems that are not for public use. At the heart of this honeypot is a system that is capable of obtaining a wealth of information about the accessing user in terms of IP address, geographic location, and a whole variety of data that would allow the recipient to piece together a trail of breadcrumbs. Any seasoned cyber criminal knows about the existence of such technology (its not exactly new) and would typically use a TOR browser to connect to any links provided by the victim in order to avoid detection.
The TOR network is a complex array of secured computer systems acting as “nodes” that traverse the internet using a variety of encryption mechanisms and connection masking, allowing the user to hide behind a number of random proxies that make it look as though he or she is accessing from a completely different geographical location. The TOR network was originally intended for use by the US navy, but found its way out and became the favourite watering hole for many a cyber criminal - and today, known as either the deep web, or worse, the dark web. Ok, that’s enough history and boring technical terms. Let’s get back on track. Essentially, I’ve created a hidden honeypot on this site and the only two people who have this link are myself, and our scammer friend. The page cannot be indexed or crawled by Google either. Time to up the stakes
Hi Andrew, Any update to this please ? Thanks
No response. Perhaps I’ve pushed this a little too far. Let’s see
Hi Andrew, I’m concerned that I haven’t heard from you and don’t want to miss out on this amazing opportunity. Can you let me know what we need to do next please ? Thanks
I honestly thought that he wouldn’t reply, but he did.
Dear Mark Cutting. Hope all is fine with you and the family? i am writing to know if you are still interested with this transaction i need a copy of your international passport in other to know whom i’m working with for more verification as soon you send it down here
Now, when I went to school, the UK was across from America and not down - hence the term “across the pond”. Did I miss something here ? A figure of speech perhaps, but more likely a slip of the tongue. Looking at a map “down here” would indicate south, surely ?
we will be proceeding with the text of application to contact my bank for funds relic please update me as soon as possible.
And here we have another schoolboy error. This guy thinks he can relax now he’s done his chore. Not only is the text clearly copied and pasted (with the formatting intact so he first line doesn’t match the rest in terms of font size), but much worse is the fact that he’s now using a different email address altogether and hasn’t even made any attempts to hide this. Clearly, he’s got a lot going on, and there are undoubtedly hundreds of “Andrew Walter” doppelgangers lurking in the shadows like something out of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
To understand this complete failure, let’s take a closer look - perhaps he’s got some sort of “Salesforce(esque)” campaign on the go where willing participants are directed to another email address for easy reference (milking)! The email address we started with was “email@example.com” which in itself isn’t very convincing. Now we’ve suddenly switched to “firstname.lastname@example.org” and also lazy again with our grammar as “Andrew Walter” is now “andrew walter”.
I suppose I could send him a Starbucks voucher so he can get a strong coffee and wake up, but, this is his gig, so I’ll let him play his hand.
Hi Andrew, As I previously mentioned, I won’t send my passport via email because I was told it wasn’t secure. Instead, I’ll provide a link to a secure website where it can be downloaded as a zip file. I’ll also provide the password for the zip file so you can extract it. I’ll get this over to you today. Thanks
Now we’re “upping the ante” a bit. Not only do we respond to the original email, but also to the new one with the same message above. I’m relatively sure at this point that our friend isn’t exactly an experienced fraudster, and probably won’t even notice his own mistake. Wait for a bit……. then send the link. Note that the link itself has been redacted for obvious reasons and is not the original.
Dear Andrew, I’ve scanned a copy of my passport to PDF and placed it in a password protected ZIP file. It can be downloaded using the link below. https://[redacted]/KCXXu4MN8G6FZqFt4Mb7hQfRZXmHA3Fn/securedownload/ Let me know as soon as you’ve downloaded the ZIP file, and I’ll send you the password in a separate email. Thanks
I wasn’t really expecting this guy to bite if I’m being honest, but never say die - he’s just fallen straight into the honeypot (or should I say, “boiling pot”)
Hi, the link is infected i can not open it my system refused to run the link. send it via pdf which i can view before download or jpg.
Actually “Andrew”, the link **isn’t **infected. I understand your frustration though, as its very annoying having your time wasted by a moronic idiot who seems to lack the ability to string even basic sentences together…… Alright - that’s enough of that. The thing is “Andrew”, you didn’t follow my instructions. Not that this really matters at the moment anyway as I have got what I came for. The string on the carrot has just been made shorter. I know at this point, you can almost taste it, but I’m not finished with you just yet.
Hi Andrew, The link works fine on my PC. its a password protected ZIP file created by 7Zip. If you use this to extract, you’ll need to enter the password to extract the PDF which I’ll send you under separate cover. Regds
He’s in for a bit of a surprise when he gets around to opening that Zip file. There’s a PDF there all right, but it’s certainly not my passport. In fact, “Andrew” has had three attempts at downloading that file
According to the honeypot, it would appear that he’s operating out of Randburg (Johannesburg, South Africa) - a very well known fraud hotspot.
The GEO information is provided courtesy of https://db-ip.com/22.214.171.124
If those coordinates are accurate, then the local law enforcement aren’t too far away. Have a look below
In fact, about 12 miles away (dependant on exact location of course, which the local ISP can provide when requested by law enforcement agencies)
The next steps here are quite obvious. Pass it onto the local authorities to investigate, with a copy of all material received thus far
Dear Sirs, I write with reference to an incident where a scammer in your location has trawled LinkedIn and obtained my address with a view to commit coercion and fraudulent activity. The IP address that this fraud attempt has originated from is https://db-ip.com/126.96.36.199. I have a complete record of all activity, plus a copy of what I believe to be a stolen passport.
I am a security professional by trade, and wish to report this as criminal activity. I have a complete evidence chain of emails relating to this particular event - the incumbent has requested a copy of my passport (which for obvious reasons I will not be providing), and no doubt will also attempt to acquire my bank details. This person is posing as “Andrew Walter” from Bank of America - there are several fake profiles on LinkedIn relating to this individual. I am also aware that local law enforcement can request the physically connected location for this address - you should find its about 12 miles away from your location.
I have obtained this fraudster’s IP address via a honeypot on my website, which I purposely setup to extract this information. I would appreciate your cooperation in this individual’s apprehension, as it would appear that the same person is responsible for a number of similar campaigns designed to extract funds from others. I am based in the UK, but can be free to discuss as you deem fit. I have enclosed copies of all emails received so far, plus an example of the LinkedIn profiles which I believe are fake. Mark Cutting
And the below read receipt shows that this email has been read (well, opened, at least)
Your message was read on 16 May 2018 10:32:48 AM UTC. Final-recipient: RFC822; T0023694@saps.gov.za Disposition: automatic-action/MDN-sent-automatically; displayed X-MSExch-Correlation-Key: c1tMJuEijE6r4WJRtMhQlw== X-Display-Name: GPS:Randburg SC Admin
its at this point where things become much clearer. This guy really hasn’t done his homework. He’s been conversing with me outside of US time zones (well, Johannesburg is only currently 1 hour ahead of the UK after all) which can only mean he either has severe insomnia, or isn’t actually based in the USA. I wonder which one it could be ? Perhaps he should see a doctor and get some pills for that…. 🙂 I’ve since sent “Andrew” another email, but unfortunately, he hasn’t replied. I guess he’s “busy” with his next victim.
I’m a bit concerned I’ve not heard from you, and with the deadline approaching, I really do not want to miss out. Can you let me know if you were able to open the zip file with 7zip as I previously mentioned ?
When you try to extract it, you’ll need a password which I’ll provide to you once you confirm you’re able to open.
Please keep me updated.
The ironic thing here is that “Andrew” in fact already has the password for that zip file I sent him ! If he’s the hotshot he makes out to be, then I’m sure he’ll work it out. In the meantime, I’m guessing you all want to know what that zip file contained ? Well, I did say it was a PDF, but its not my passport. Here you go.
Sadly, there’s been no response to the email I sent to SAPS (South African Police Services). Oh well. They have all the evidence they need, although in fact, no actual “fraud” has been committed. That effectively means that “scoping out” a potential victim and attempting to reel them in isn’t actually an offence. Although identity impersonation certainly is and I’d be surprised if they were not interested in this.
So there you have it - a walk-through of what to look for in these types of scam. Here’s the highlights
No official institution like the Bank of America is going to allow its employees to conduct business over a GMAIL account.
In all honesty, faking the bankofamerica.com domain would have been much more convincing, and wouldn’t have taken much effort either. After a quick iteration of the real name, I found the below
If an email supposedly comes from the US, then why are all emails being sent outside of their working hours ?
Any transaction of this sort would never be conducted over email anyway - for this amount (if this were indeed real), it would have to be completed face-to-face in the presence of bank officials, lawyers, compliance, and a whole raft of others.
No institution is going to request a copy of any identifiable details (passport, bank accounts, etc.) over email.
Poor grammar is an immediate warning sign. You need at least a decent grade in English if you are going to pretend to be someone you’re not
Bad spelling is another. There are so many errors here and it makes any campaign stand up and shout “hey, I’m fake !”
Ever heard of KISS ? Nope - not these guys
What I’m referring to is the acronym was reportedly coined by Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works (creators of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among many others), which formed the basis of the relationship between the way things break, and the sophistication available to repair them. You might be puzzled at why I’d write about something like this, but it’s a situation I see constantly – one I like to refer to as “over thinker syndrome”. What do I mean by this ? Here’s the theory. Some people are very analytical when it comes to problem solving. Couple that with technical knowledge and you could land up with a situation where something relatively simple gets blown out of all proportion because the scenario played out in the mind is often much further from reality than you’d expect. And the technical reasoning is usually always to blame.
Some years ago in a previous career, a colleague noticed that the Exchange Server (2003 wouldn’t you know) would suddenly reboot half way through a backup job. Rightly so, he wanted to investigate and asked me if this would be ok. Anyone with an ounce of experience knows that functional backups are critical in the event of a disaster – none more so than I – obviously, I gave the go ahead. One bright spark in my team suggested a reboot of the server, which immediately prompted the response
“……it’s rebooting itself every day, so how will that help ?”
There’s always one, isn’t there ? The final (and honestly more realistic suggestion) was to enable verbose logging in Exchange. This is actually a good idea, but only if you suspect that the information store could be the issue. Given the evidence, I wasn’t convinced. If there was corruption in the store, or on any of the disks, this would show itself randomly through the day and wouldn’t wait until 2am in the morning. Not wanting to come across as condescending, I agreed, but at the same time, set a deadline to escalation. I wasn’t overly concerned about the backups as these were being completed manually each day whilst the investigations were taking place. Neither was I concerned at what could be seen at this point as wasting someone’s time when you think you may have the answer to what now seemed to be an impossible problem. This is where experience will eclipse any formal qualifications hands down. Those with university degrees may scoff at this, but those with substantially analytical thinking patterns seem to avoid logic like the plague and go off on a wild tangent looking for a dramatically technical explanation and solution to a problem when it’s much simpler than you’d expect.
After witnessing the pained expression on the face of my now exasperated and exhausted tech, I said “let’s get a coffee”. In agreement, he followed me to the kitchen and then asked me what I thought the problem could be. I said that if he wanted my advice, it would be to step back and look at this problem from a logical angle rather than technical. The confused look I received was priceless – the guy must have really though I’d lost the plot. After what seemed like an eternity (although in reality only a few seconds) he asked me what I meant by this. “Come with me”, I said. Finishing his coffee, he diligently followed me to the server room. Once inside, I asked him to show me the Exchange Server. Puzzled, he correctly pointed out the exact machine. I then asked him to trace the power cables and tell me where they went.
As with most server rooms, locating and identifying cables can be a bit of a challenge after equipment has been added and removed, so this took a little longer than we expected. Eventually, the tech traced the cables back to
………an old looking UPS that had a red light illuminated at the front like it had been a prop in a Terminator film.
Suddenly, the real cause of this issue dawned on the tech like a morning sunrise over the Serengeti. The UPS that the Exchange Server was unexpectedly connected to had a faulty battery. The UPS was conducting a self test at 2am each morning, and because the bypass test failed owing to the burnt battery, the connected server lost power and started back up after the offending equipment left bypass mode and went online.
Where is this going you might ask ? Here’s the moral of this particular story
Just because a problem involves technology, it doesn’t mean that the answer has to be a complex technical one
Logic and common sense has a part to play in all of our lives.
Sometimes, it makes more sense just to step back, take a breath, and see something for what it really is before deciding to commit
It’s easy to allow technical expertise to cloud your judgement – don’t fall into the trap of using a sledgehammer to break an egg
You cannot buy experience – it’s earned, gained, and leaves an indelible mark
I’m excited to announce that a new blog section has been added 😛 The blog is actually using Ghost and not NodeBB, and also sits on it’s own subdomain of https://content.sudonix.com (if you ever fancy hitting it directly).
We’ve moved all the blog articles out of the existing category here, and migrated them to the Ghost platform. However, you can still comment on these articles just like they were part of the root system. If you pick a blog article whilst logged in
Then choose the blog article you want to read
Once opened, you’ll see a short synopsis of the article
Click the link to read the rest of the post. Scroll down to the bottom, and you’ll see a space where you can provide your comments ! Take the time to read the articles, and provide your own feedback - I’d love to hear it.
The blog component is not quite finished yet - it needs some polish, and there’s a few bugs scattered here and there, but these will only manifest themselves if a certain sequence of events is met.