Updating email addresses, GDPR style

After scrambling to find a bandaid solution for the upcoming domainpocalypse caused by EURid, I set myself out tomake sure that all my accounts everywhere use a more stable domain. Some of you might have noticed, because it was very visible in me submitting .mailmap files to a number of my projects to bundle together old and new addresses alike.

Unfortunately, as I noted on the previous post, not all the services out there allow you to change your email address from their website, and of those, very few allow you to delete the account altogether (I have decided that, in some cases, keeping an account open for a service I stopped using is significantly more annoying than just removing it). But as Daniel reminded me in the comments, the Right to rectification or Right to correction, allows me to leverage GDPR for this process.

I have thus started sending email to the provided Data Protection contact for various sites lacking an email editing feature:

Hello,

I’m writing to request that my personal data is amended, under my right to correction (Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation), Article 16), by updating my email address on file as [omissis — new email] (replacing the previous [omissis — old email] — which this email is being sent from, and to which you can send a request to confirm identity).

I take the occasion to remind you that you have one month to respond to this request free of charge per Art. 12(3), that according to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office interpretation (https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-the-general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr/individual-rights/right-of-access/) you must comply to this request however you receive it, and that it applies to the data as it exists at the time you receive this.

The responses to this have been of all sorts. Humans being amused at the formality of the requests, execution of the change as requested, and a couple of push backs, which appear to stem from services that not only don’t have a self-service way to change the email address, but also seem to lack technical means to change it.

The first case of this is myGatwick — the Gatwick airport flyer portal. When I contacted the Data Protection Officer to change my email address, the first answer was that at best they could close the account for the old email address and open a new one. I pointed out that’s not what I asked to do and not what the GDPR require them to do, and they tried to argue that email addresses are not personal data.

The other interesting case if Tile, the beacon startup, which will probably be topic of a separate blog post because their response to my GDPR request is a long list of problems.

What this suggests to me is that my first guess (someone used email addresses as primary keys) is not as common as I feared — although that appears to be the problem for myGatwick, given their lack of technical means. Instead, the databases appears to be done correctly, but the self-service feature of changing email address is just not implemented.

While I’m not privy to product decisions for the involved services, I can imagine that one of the reasons why it was done that way, is that implementing proper access controls to avoid users locking themselves in, or to limit the risk of account takeover, is too expensive in terms of engineering.

But as my ex-colleague Lea Kissner points out on Twitter, computers would be better at not introducing human errors in the process to begin with.

Of all the requests I sent and were actioned, there were only two cases in which I have been asked to verify anything about either the account or the email address. In both cases my resorting to GDPR requests was not because the website didn’t have the feature, but rather that it failed: British Airways and Nectar (UK). Both actioned the request straight from Twitter, and asked security questions (not particularly secure, but still good enough compared to the rest).

Everyone else have at best sent an email to the old address to inform of the change, in reply to my request. This is the extent of the verification most of the DPO appear to have put on GDPR requests. None of the services were particularly critical: takeaway food, table bookings, good tea. But if it was not me sending these requests I would probably be having a bad half an hour the next time I tried using them.

Among the requests I sent yesterday there was one to delete my account to Detectify — I have used it when it was a free trial, found it not particularly interesting to me, and moved on. While I have expressed my intention to disable my account on Twitter, the email I sent was actioned, deleting my account (or at least it’s expected to have been deleted now), without a confirmation request of any kind, or any verification that I did indeed have access to the account.

Maybe they checked the email headers to figure out that I was really sending as the right email address, instead of just assumed so because it looked that way. I can only imagine that they would have done more due process if I was a paying customer, if nothing else to keep getting money. I just find it interesting that it’s a security-oriented company, and didn’t realise that it’s much more secure to provide the self-service interfaces rather than letting a human decide, there.

dot-EU Kerfuffle: what’s in an email anyway?

You may remember that last year I complained about what I defined the dot-EU kerfuffle, related to the news that EURid had been instructed to cancel the domain registrations of UK entities after Brexit. I thought the problem was passed when they agreed to consider European citizen as eligible holders of dot-EU domains, with an agreement reached last December, and due to enter into effect in… 2022.

You would think that, knowing that a new regulation needs to enter into effect, EURid would stop their plan of removing access to those domains for the UK residents for the time being, but it’s not so. Indeed, they instead sent a notice that effectively suggests that any old and new domain that would be then taken off the zone by marking them as WITHDRAWN first, and REVOKED second.

This means that on 2020-03-30, a lot of previously-assigned domains will be available for scammers, phishers, and identity thieves, unless they are transferred before this coming May!

You can get more user-focused read of this in this article by The Register, which does good justice to the situation, despite the author seemingly being a leaver, from the ending of a previous article linked there. One of the useful part of that article is knowing that there are over 45 thousands domain name assigned to individuals residing in the UK — and probably a good chunk of those are of either Europhiles Brits, or citizen of other EU countries residing in the UK (like me).

Why should we worry about this, given the amount of other pressing problems that Brexit is likely to cause? Well, there is a certain issue of people being identified by email addresses that contain domain names. What neither EURid nor The Register appear to have at hand (and me even less) would be to figure out how many of those domains actually are used as logins, or receive sensitive communications such as GP contacts from NHS, or financial companies.

Because if someone can take over a domain, they can take over the email address, and very quickly from there you can ruin the life of, or at least heavily bother, any person that might be using a dot-EU domain. The risks for scams, identity theft and the like are being ignored once again by EURid to try to make a political move, at a time when nobody is giving a damn of what EURid is doing.

As I said in the previous post, I have been using flameeyes[dot]eu as my primary domain for the past ten or eleven years. The blog was moved on its own domain. My primary website is still there but will be moved shortly. My primary email address is changed. You’ll see me using a dot-com email address more often.

I’m now going through the whole set of my accounts to change the email they have on file for me with a new one on a dot-com domain. This is significantly helped by having all of them on 1password, but that’s not enough — it only tells you which services that use email as username. It says nothing about (say) the banks that use a customer number, but still have your email on file.

And then there are the bigger problems.

Sometimes the email address is immutable.

You’d be surprised on how many websites have either no way to change an email address. My best guess is that whoever designed the database schema thought that just using the email address as a primary key was a good idea. This is clearly not the case, and it has not been the case ever. I’d be surprised if anyone who got their first email address from an ISP would be making that mistake, but in the era of GMail, it seems this is often forgotten.

I now have a tag for 1Password to show me which accounts I can’t change the email address of. Some of them are really minimal services, that you probably wouldn’t be surprised to just store an email address as identifier, such as the Fallout 4 Map website. Some appear to have bugs with changing email addresses (British Airways). Some … surprised me entirely: Tarsnap does not appear to have a way to change email address either.

While for some of these services being unable to receive email is not a particularly bad problem, for most of them it would be. Particularly when it comes to plane tickets. Let alone the risk that any one of those services would store passwords in plain text, and send them back to you if you forgot them. Combine that with people who reuse the same password everywhere, and you can start seeing a problem again.

OAuth2 is hard, let’s identify by email.

There is another problem if you log into services with OAuth2-based authentication providers such as Facebook or (to a lesser extent) Google. Quite a few of those services would create an account for you at first login, and use the email address that they are given by the identity provider. And then they just match the email address the next time you login.

While changing Google’s email address is a bit harder (but not impossible if, like me, you’re using GSuite), changing the address you register on Facebook with is usually easy (exceptions exist). So if you signed up for a service through Facebook, and then changed your Facebook address, you may not be able to sign in again — or you may end up signing up for the service again when you try.

In my case, I changed the domain associated of my Google account, since it’s a GSuite (business) account. That made things even more fun, because even if services may remember that Facebook allows you to change your email address, many might have forgotten that technically Google allows you to do that too. While Android and ChromeOS appear to work fine (which honestly surprised me, sorry colleagues!), Pokémon Go got significantly messed up when I did that — luckily I had Facebook connected to it as well, so a login later, and disconnect/reconnect of the Google account, was enough for it to work.

Some things are working slightly better than other. Pocket, which allows you to sign in with either a Firefox account, a Google account, or an email/password pair, appears to only care about the email address of the Google account. So when I logged in, I ended up with a new account and no access to the old content. The part that works well is that you can delete the new account, and immediately after login to the old one and replace the primary email address.

End result? I’m going through nearly every one of my nearly 600 accounts, a few at a time, trying to change my email address, and tagging those where I can’t. I’m considering writing a standard template email to send to any support address for those that do not support changing email address. But I doubt they would be fixed in time before Brexit. Just one more absolute mess caused by Cameron, May, and their friends.

Why do we still use Ghostscript?

Late last year, I have had a bit of a Twitter discussion on the fact that I can’t think of a good reason why Ghostscript is still a standard part of the Free Software desktop environment. The comments started from a security issue related to file-access from within a PostScript program (i.e. a .ps file), and at the time I actually started drafting some of the content that is becoming this post now. I then shelved most of it because I’ve been busy and it was not topical.

Then Tavis had to bring this back to the attention of the public, and so I’m back writing this.

To be able to answer the question I pose in the title we have to first define what Ghostscript is — and the short answer is, a PostScript renderer. Of course it’s a lot more than just that, but for the most part, that’s what it is. It deals with PostScript programs (or documents, if you prefer), and renders them into different formats. PostScript is rarely if at all use in modern desktops — not just because it’s overly complicated, but because it’s just not that useful in a world that mostly settled in PDF, which is essentially a “compiled PostScript”.

Okay not quite. There are plenty of qualifications that go around that whole paragraph, but I think it matches the practicalities of the case fairly well.

PostScript has found a number of interesting niche uses though, a lot of which focus around printing, because PostScript is the language that older (early?) printers used. I have not seen any modern printers speak PostScript though, at least after my Kyocera FS-1020, and even those who do, tend to support alternative “languages” and raster formats. On the other hand, because PostScript was a “lingua franca” for printers, CUPS and other printer-related tooling still use PostScript as an intermediate language.

In a similar fashion, quite a few software that deal with faxes (yes, faxes), tend to make use of Ghostscript itself. I would know because I wrote one, under contract, a long time ago. The reason is frankly pragmatic: if you’re on the client side, you want Windows to “print to fax”, and having a virtual PostScript printer is very easy — at that point you want to convert the document into something that can be easily shoved down the fax software throat, which ends up being TIFF (because TIFF is, as I understand it, the closest encoding to the physical faxes). And Ghostscript is very good at doing that.

Indeed, I have used (and seen used) Ghostscript in many cases to basically combine a bunch of images into a single document, usually in TIFF or PDF format. It’s very good at doing that, if you know how to use it, or you copy-paste from other people’s implementation.

Often, this is done through the command line, too, the reason for which is to be found in the licenses used by various Ghostscript implementations and versions over time. Indeed, while many people think of Ghostscript as an open source Swiss Army Knife of document processing, it actually is dual-licensed. The Wikipedia page for the project shows eight variant, with at least four different licenses over time. The current options are AGPLv3 or the commercial paid-for license — and I can tell you that a lot of people (including the folks I worked under contract for), don’t really want to pay for that license, preferring instead the “arms’ length” aggregation of calling the binary rather than linking it in. Indeed, I wrote a .NET Library to do just that. It’s optimized for (you guessed it right) TIFF files, because it was a component of an Internet Fax implementation.

So where does this leave us?

Back ten years ago or so, when effectively every Free Software desktop PDF viewer was effectively forking the XPDF source code to adapt it to whatever rendering engine they needed, it took a significant list of vulnerabilities that needed to be fixed time and time again for the Poppler project to take off, and create One PDF Rendering To Rule Them All. I think we need the same for Ghostscript. With a few differences.

The first difference is that I think we need to take a good look at what Ghostscript, and Postscript, are useful for in today’s desktops. Combining multiple images in a single document should _not_ require processing all the way to PostScript. There’s no reason to! Particularly not when the images are just JPEG files, and PDF can embed them directly. Having a tool that is good at combining multiple images into a PDF, with decent options for page size and alignment, would probably replace many of the usages of Ghostscript that I had in my own tools and scripts over the past few years.

And while rendering PostScript for either display or print are similar enough tasks, I have some doubt the same code would work right for both. PostScript and Ghostscript are often used in _networked_ printing as well. In which case there’s a lot of processing of untrusted input — both for display and printing. Sandboxing – and possibly writing this in a language better suited to deal with untrusted input than C is – would go a long way to prevent problems there.

But there are a few other interesting topics that I want to point out on this. I can’t think of any good reason for _desktops_ to support PostScript out of the box in 2019. While I can still think of a lot of tools, particularly from the old timers, that use PostScript as an intermediate format, most people _in the world_ would use PDF nowadays to share documents, not PostScript. It’s kind of like sharing DVI files — which I have done before, but I now wonder why. While both formats might have advantages over PDF, in 2019 they definitely lost the format war. macOs might still support both (I don’t know), but Windows and Android definitely don’t, which make them pretty useless to share knowledge with the world.

What I mean with that is that it’s probably due time that PostScript becomes an _optional_ component of the Free Software Desktop, one that the users need to enable explicitly _if they ever need it_, just to limit the risks that accepting, displaying and thumbnailing full, Turing-complete programs masqueraded as documents. Even Microsoft stopped running macros in Office documents by default, when they realize the type of footgun it had become.

Of course talk is cheap, and I should probably try to help directly myself. Unfortunately I don’t have much experience with graphics formats, beside for maintaining unpaper, and that is not a particularly good result either: I tried using libav’s image loading, and it turns out it’s actually a mess. So I guess I should either invest my time in learning enough about building libraries for image processing, or poke around to see if someone wrote a good multi-format image processing library in, say, Rust.

Alternatively, if someone starts to work on this and want to have some help with either reviewing the code, or with integrating the final output in places where Ghostscript is used, I’m happy to volunteer my time. I’m fairly sure I can convince my manager to let me do some of that work as a 20% project.

Passwords, password managers, and family life

Somehow, I always end up spending time writing about passwords when I even breach the subject on Twitter.

In this case, I’ve been asking around about password managers, as after many years with LastPass I want to reconsider if there is a better alternative, particularly as my needs have changed (or rather, are going to, in the not too distant future).

One of the thing that I’m looking for is a password manager that can generate diceware/xkcd-style passwords: a set of words in a certain language that are easy to say on (say) the phone, and type on systems where there is no password manager app. The reason for this is that there are a few places in which I need to be able to give the password to someone else who might not otherwise be trusted with the full password list. For instance the WiFi password for my apartment, or my mother’s house.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are a number of situations where an account is not just an user. Or rather, you may want to allow h multiple users (people) to access the same account. Say for instance my energy provider’s dashboard. Or the phone provider. Or the online grocery shopping…

All of these things expect a single (billing) account, but they may rather be shared with a household than with a single individual. A few services do have a concept of a shared account, but very few do, and that makes less and less sense as the world progresses to such an everything-connected level.

I think it might be easy to figure out from the way I’ve been expressing this just above, but just to make sure not to leave “clues” rather than clear information that can be obviously be taken for public knowledge, I got to think about this because I have (finally, someone might say) found a soulmate. And while we don’t yet live together, I start to see the rough corners of these. We have not gotten to “What’s the Netflix password, again?” but I did end up changing the password to the account for Los Angeles transport card, to give her access, after setting it first with LastPass (we were visiting, and I added both of our TAP cards to the same account).

As I made clear earlier, part of this was a (minor) problem with my mother, too. But significantly less so: she never cared to have access to the power provider, phone company, and so on. Just as long as she had a copy of the invoices from time to time (which I solved by having a mailing list, which only the two of us subscribe to, as the contact address for all the services I use or used for the household in Italy).

Service providers take note: integrating with Google Drive or Dropbox so that the invoices get automatically added to a shared folder would be a lovely feature to have. And not just for households. I would love if it was easier to just have a copy of my invoices automatically added to, and indexed by, Google Drive.

But now, with a partner, it’s different. As the word implies, it’s a partnership, an equal standing. Once we will move in, we’ll share the expenses, and that means sharing the access to the accounts. Which means I don’t want to be the only one having the passwords. So I need a password manager that not only allows me to share the passwords easily, but also that allows her to use the passwords easily — which likely will translate to be able to read them off the phone, and type in a work computer’s incognito window (because she likely won’t be allowed to install the password manager on a work computer).

Which is why I’m looking for a new password manager: LastPass is actually fairly great when it comes to sharing passwords with other accounts. But it’s effectively useless when it comes to “typeable” passwords. Their “Make pronounceable” option is okay to make it easier to spell out, but I don’t want to have to use an eight-letters password to be able to type it easily, when I could just as easily use a three-words combination that is significantly stronger.

And while I could just use xkcdpass on my laptop and generate those shared passwords (which is what I did with my mother’s router), that does not really scale (it still keeps me as the gatekeeper), and it does not make the security usability for my SO. And it wouldn’t be fair to keep the password hygiene for me only.

Similarly, any solution that involves running personal infrastructure (servers, cron, git, whatever) is not an option: not only I’m increasingly not relying on it myself (I even gave up on running my own blog’s webapp!), but most of my family is not even slightly interested in figuring out how to do that. And I don’t blame the least, they have enough of their own things to care about.

If you have any suggestions for a new password manager, please do let me know. I think I may try 1Password next, if nothing else because I think Troy Hunt’s opinion is worth something, and if he backed 1Password, there has to be a reason.

The dot-EU kerfuffle — or how EURid is messing with their own best supporters

TL;DR summary: be very careful if you use a .eu domain as your point of contact for anything. If you’re thinking of registering a .eu domain to use as your primary domain, just don’t.


I have forecasted a rant when I pointed out I changed domain with my move to WordPress.

I have registered flameeyes.eu nearly ten years ago, part of the reason was because flameeyes.com was (at the time) parked to a domain squatter, and part because I have been a strong supported of the European Union.

In those ten years I started using the domain not just for my website, but as my primary contact email. It’s listed as my contact address everywhere, I have all kind of financial, commercial and personal services attached to that email. It’s effectively impossible for me to ever detangle from it, even if I spend the next four weeks doing nothing but amending registrations — some services just don’t allow you to ever change email address; many requires you to contact support and spend time talking with a person to get the email updated on the account.

And now, because I moved to the United Kingdom, which decided to leave the Union, the Commission threatens to prevent me from keeping my domain. It may sound obvious, since EURid says

A website with a .eu or .ею domain name extension tells your customers that you are a legal entity based in the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway and are therefore, subject to EU law and other relevant trading standards.

But at the same time it now provides a terrible collapse of two worlds: technical and political. The idea that you any entity in control of a .eu domain is by requirement operating under EU law sounds good on paper… until you come to this corner case where a country leaves the Union — and now either you water down this promise, eroding trust in the domain by not upholding this law domain, or you end up with domain takeover, eroding trust in the domain on technical merit.

Most of the important details for this are already explained in a seemingly unrelated blog post by Hanno Böck: Abandoned Domain Takeover as a Web Security Risk. If EURid will forbid renewal of .eu domains for entities that are no longer considered part of the EU, a whole lot of domains will effectively be “up for grabs”. Some may currently be used as CDN aliases, and be used to load resources on other websites; those would be the worst, as they would allow the controller of the domains to inject content in other sites that should otherwise be secure.

But even more important for companies that used their .eu domain as their primary point of contact: think of any PO, or invoice, or request for information, that would be sent to a company email address — and now think of a malicious actor getting access to those communications! This is not just the risk that me (and any other European supporter who happened to live in the UK, I’m sure I’m not alone) as a single individual have — it’s a possibly unlimited amount of scams that people would be subjected to, as it would be trivial to pass for a company, once their domain is taken over!

As you can see from the title, I think this particular move is also going to hit the European supporters the most. Not just because of those individuals (like me!) who wanted to signal how they feel part of something bigger than their country of birth, but also because I expect a number of UK companies used .eu domain specifically to declare themselves open to European customers — as otherwise, between pricing in Sterling, and a .co.uk domain, it would always feel like buying “foreign goods”. Now those companies, that believed in Europe, find themselves in the weakest of positions.

Speaking of individuals, when I read the news I had a double-take, and had to check the rules for .eu domains again. At first I assumed that something was clearly wrong: I’m a European Union citizen, surely I will be able to keep my domain, no matter where I live! Unfortunately, that’s not the case:

In this first step the Registrant must verify whether it meets the General
Eligibility Criteria, whereby it must be:
(i) an undertaking having its registered office, central administration or
principal place of business within the European Union, Norway, Iceland
or Liechtenstein, or
(ii) an organisation established within the European Union, Norway, Iceland
or Liechtenstein without prejudice to the application of national law, or
(iii) a natural person resident within the European Union, Norway, Iceland or
Liechtenstein.

If you are a European Union citizen, but you don’t want your digital life to ever be held hostage by the Commission or your country’s government playing games with it, do not use a .eu domain. Simple as that. EURid does not care about the well-being of their registrants.

If you’re a European company, do think twice on whether you want to risk that a change in government for the country you’re registered in would lead you to open both yourself, your suppliers and your customers into the a wild west of overtaken domains.

Effectively, what EURid has signalled with this is that they care so little about the technical hurdles of their customers, that I would suggest against ever relying on a .eu domain for anyone at all. Register it as a defense against scammers, but don’t do business on it, as it’s less stable than certain microstate domains, or even the more trendy and modern gTLDs.

I’ll call this a self-goal. I still trust the European Union, and the Commission, to have the interests of the many in their mind. But the way they tried to apply a legislative domain to the .eu TLD was brittle at best to begin with, and now there’s no way out of here that does not ruin someone’s day, and erode the trust in that very same domain.

It’s also important to note that most of the bigger companies, those that I hear a lot of European politicians complain about, would have no problem with something like this: just create a fully-own subsidiary somewhere in Europe, say for instance Slovakia, and have it hold onto the domain. And have it just forward onto a gTLD to do business on, so you don’t even give the impression of counting on that layer of legislative trust.

Given the scary damage that would be caused by losing control over my email address of ten years, I’m honestly considering looking for a similar loophole. The cost of establishing an LLC in another country, firmly within EU boundaries, is not pocket money, but it’s still chump change compared to the amount of damage (financial, reputation, relationships, etc) that it would be a good investment.

Designing My Password Manager

So while at the (in my opinion excellent) Enigma, Tavis decided to nerd snipe me into thinking of how would I design a password manager. This because he knows (and disagree with) my present choice of using LastPass as my password manager of choice, despite the existence of a range of opensource password managers.

The main reason why I have discarded the choice of the available password managers is that, in my opinion, they all miss the main point of what a password manager should be: convenient. Password reuse is a problem because it’s more convenient than using dozens, maybe hundreds of different passwords for all the different services. An easy to use password manager is even more convenient than reusing password.

The first problem I found with effectively all of the opensource password managers I know of just use a single file-blob, and leave to you the problem of syncing it. The best I have seen was one software providing integration with Dropbox, Google Drive and ownCloud to sync the blob around, just as long as you don’t make conflicting changes on different devices. To me, the ability to make independent changes to services is actually a big requirement. This means that I would be using a file format that allows encrypting “per row”, both the keys and the values (because you don’t want to leak which accounts the user registered on, if the file is leaked). I would probably gravitate around something like the Bigtable format.

Another problem, which is present in Chrome SmartLock too, is the lack of support for what LastPass call “equivalent domains”. Due to many silly reasons, particularly if you travel a lot or if you live in different countries, you end up collecting a long list of websites using either separate domain names, or at least different TLDs. An example of this is Amazon, that use a constellation of different domains, but all share the same account management (except for Amazon Japan). A sillier example for this are Yelp and TripAdvisor, that decide to change your TLDs depending on the IP address you’re coming from, despite being the kind of services you would use particularly outside your usual country.

Admittedly, as Tavis suggested, these should be solved by the services themselves, using a single host for login/identity management. I do not expect this to happen any time soon. My previous proposal for this was defining equivalence as part as a well known configuration file (together with other improvements to password management). I now have some personal introspection questions about this, because I wonder if there is a privacy risk in sending requests to other domain to validate the reciprocal equivalence configurations. So I think I’ll leave this up for debate for later.

The next design bit is figuring out how should the password generator behave. We already have a number of good password generators of different types, including software implementations of diceware passwords (despite the site repeatedly telling you not to use computer random generators — to add to the inconvenience), and xkcdpass, that generate passwords that are easier to remember or at least to type. I think that a good password manager should allow for more than just the random-bunch-of-characters passwords that LastPass uses.

In particular, for me, I have a few websites for which I use passwords generated by xkcdpass, because I need to actually type in the password, rather than use the password manager autofill capabilities. This is the case of Sony and Nintendo accounts, that need to be typed from consoles, and of Telegram, as I need to type the password on my watch to receive messages there. Unfortunately implementing this is probably going to be an UX nightmare — one of the reason being the ability to select different wordlists. Non-English speakers are likely interested in using their own language for it. Or even the English speakers that are not afraid of other languages, and may decide to throw off a possible attacker anyway.

Ideally, the password generation settings would be stored on a domain-by-domain basis, so that if a certain website only allows numbers in its passcode, or it has a specific character limit, the same setting is used to generated a password if it’s ever breached. This may sound minor, but to me it would be so much more of a time (and frustration) saver, that it would easily become a killer feature.

But all of these idea fall to nothing without good, convenient, and trustworthy client implementations. Right now one of the many weak spots of LastPass is its Chrome extension (and Firefox too). A convenient password manager, though, ought to be able to integrate with the browser and, since it’s 2018 after all, with your phone. Unfortunately, here is where any opensource offering can’t really help as much as we would all like: it still relies (hugely) on trust. As far as I can tell, there is no way to make absolutely certain that the code of a Chrome extension on the Web Store, or of an Android app on either Play Store or F-Droid, corresponds exactly with a certain source distribution.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a real problem right now, with closed source extensions too. You need to trust the extension is not injecting malicious content in your webpage, or exfiltrating data out of your browser session. Earlier this year a widely used Chrome extension was reported as malicious, but it wasn’t until that was identified that it was removed from Chrome’s repository. At least I can have a (maybe underserved) trust in LogMeIn not to intentionally ruin their reputation by pushing actively malicious code to the Store. Would I say the same for a random single developer maintaining their widely used extension?

What this means to me is that building a good replacement for LastPass is not just a technical problem that needs to be solved by actively syncing with cloud storage services… it’s a problem of social trust, and that requires quite a bit of thought from many actors of the market: browser vendors, device manufacturers, and developers, which I’m not sure is currently happening. So I don’t hold my breath, and keep at compromises. I made mine with my threats in mind, you should make yours with what concerns you the most.

SMS for two-factors authentication

Having spent now a few days at the 34C3 (I’ll leave comments over that to discussion to happen in front of a very warm coffee with a nice croissant to the side), I have heard a few times already presenters referencing the SS7 hack as an everyday security threat. You probably are not surprised I don’t agree with that being an everyday security issue, while still thinking this is a real security issue.

Indeed, while some websites refer to the SS7 hack as the reason not to use SMS for auth, at least you can find more reasonable articles talking about the updated NIST recommendation. Myself, the preference for TOTP (as it’s used in authenticator apps), is because I don’t need to be registered on a mobile network and I can use it to login while in flights.

I want to share some more thoughts that add up to the list of reasons to not use SMS as the second factor authentication. Because while I do not believe SS7 attack is something that all users should be accounting for in their day-to-day life, it is an addition to the list of reasons why SMS auth is not a good idea at all, and I don’t want people to think that, since they are unlikely to be attacked by someone leveraging SS7, they are okay with using SMS authentication instead.

The obvious first problem is reliability: as I said in the post linked above, SMS-based authentication requires you to have access to the phone with the SIM, and that it’s connected to the network and allowed to receive the SMS. This is fine if you never travel and you have good reception where you need to use this. But myself, I have had multiple situations in which I was unable to receive SMS (in flights as I said already, or while visiting China the first time, with 3 Ireland not giving access to any roaming partners to pay-as-you-go customers, or even at my own desk at my office with 3 UK after I moved to London).

This lack of reliability is unfortunate, but not by itself a security issue: it prevents you from accessing the account that the 2FA is set on, and that would sound like it’s doing what it’s designed to do, failing close. At the same time, this increases the friction of using 2FA, reducing usability, and pushing users, bit by bit, to stop using 2FA altogether. Which is a security problem.

The other problem is the ability to intercept or hijack those messages. As you can guess by what I wrote above, I’m not referring to SS7 hacks or equivalent. It’s all significantly more simple.

The first way to intercept the SMS auth messages is having access to the phone itself. Most phones, iOS and Android alike, are configured to show new text messages in the standby page. In some cases, only a part of the message is visible, and to have access to the rest of the message you’d have to unlock the phone – assuming the phone is locked at all – but 2FA authentication messages tend to be very short and to the point, showing the number in the preview, for ease of access. On Android, such a message can also be swiped away without unlocking the phone. An user that would be victim to this type of interception might have a very hard time noticing this, as nowadays it’s likely the SMS app is not opened very often, and a swiped-off notification would take time to be noticed1.

The hijacking I have in mind is a bit more complicated and (probably) noticeable. Instead of using the SS7 hack, you can just take over a phone number by leveraging the phone providers. And this can be done in (at least) two ways: you can convince the victim’s phone provider to reprovision the number to a new SIM card within the same operator, or you can port the number to a new operator. The complexity or easiness of these two processes change a lot between countries, some countries are safer than others.

For instance, the UK system for number portability is what I expect to be the more secure (if not the most userfriendly) I have seen. The first step is to get a Portability Authorization Code (PAC) for the number you want to port. You do that by calling the current provider. None of the three providers I had up to now in the UK had any way to get this code online, which is a tad safer, as a misplaced password cannot bring full access to the account line. And while the code could be “intercepted” the same way as I pointed out above for authentication codes, the (new) operator does get in touch with you reminding you when the portability will take place, and giving you a chance to contact them if it doesn’t sound right. In the case of Vodafone, they also send you an email when you request the PAC, meaning just swiping away the notification is not enough to hide the fact that it was requested in the first place.

In Ireland, a portability request completes in the span of less than an hour, and only requires you to have (brief) access to the line you want to take over, as the new operator will send you a code to confirm the request. Which means the process, while being significantly easier for the customers, is also extremely insecure. In Italy, I actually went to the store with the line that I wanted to port, and I don’t remember if they asked anything but my IDs to open the new line. No authentication code is involved at all, so if you can fake enough documents, you likely can take over any lines. I do not remember if they notified my old SIM card before the move. I have not tried number portability in France, but it appears you can get the RIO (the equivalent transfer code) from the online system of Free at the very least.

The good thing about all the portability processes I’ve seen up to now is that at least they do not drop a new number on the old SIM card. I was told that this is (or was at least) actually common for US providers, where porting a number out just assign a new number to the old SIM. In that case, it would probably take a while for a victim to notice they had their account taken over. And that would not be a surprise.

If you’re curious, you can probably try that by yourself. Call your phone provider from another number than your own, see how many and which security questions they ask you to identify that it is actually their customer calling, instead of a random stranger. I think the funniest I’ve had was Three Ireland, that asked me for the number I “recently” sent a text message to, or a recent call made or received — you can imagine that it’s extremely easy to force you to get someone to send you a text message, or have them call you, if you’re close enough to them, or even just have them pick up the phone and reporting to the provider that you were last called by the number you used.

And then there is the other interesting point of SMS-based authentication: the codes last longer in time. A TOTP has a short lifetime by design, as it’s time based. Add some fuzzing, most of the implementations I’ve seen allow a single code to be valid for 2× the time the code is displayed on the authenticator, by accepting a code from the past, or from the future, generally at half the expected duration. Since the normal case has the code lasting for 60 seconds, they would accept a code 30 seconds before it’s supposed to be used, and 30 seconds after. But text messages can (and do) take much longer than that.

And this is particularly useful for attackers of systems that do not implement 2FA correctly. Entering the wrong OTP most of the time does not invalidate a login attempt, at least not on the first mistake, because users can mistype, or they can miss the window to send an OTP over. But sometimes there are egregious errors, such as that made by N26, where they neither ratelimited, nor invalidated the OTP requests, allowing a simple bruteforcing of a valid OTP. Since TOTP change without requesting a new code, bruteforcing those give you a particularly short time span of viability… SMS on the other hand, open for a much larger window of opportunity.

Oh and remember the Barclays single-factor-authentication? How long do you think it would take to spoof the outgoing number of the SMS that needs to be sent (with the text “Y”) to authorize the transaction, even without having access to the text message that was sent?


  1. This is an argument for using another of your messaging apps to receive text messages, whether it is Facebook Messenger, Hangouts or Signal. Assuming you use any of those on a day-to-day basis, you would then have an easy way to notice if you received messages you have not seen before.
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Barclays and the single factor authentication

In my previous post on the topic I have barely touched on one of the important reasons why I did not like Barclays at all. The reason for that was that I still had money into my account with them, and I wanted to make sure that was taken care of before lamenting further on the state of their security. As I managed to close my account now, I should go on and discuss this further, even though I have touched upon the major topics of this.

Barclays online banking system relies heavily on what I would define as “single factor authentication”.

Usually, you define authentication factors as things you have or things you know. In the case of Barclays, the only thing they effectively rely upon is “access to the debit card”. Okay, technically you could say that by itself it’s a two-factor system, as it requires access to the debit card and to its PIN. And since the EMV-CAP protocol they use for this factor executes directly on the chipcard, it is not susceptible to the usual PIN-stripping attacks as most card fraud with chip-and-pin cards uses.

But this does not count for much when the PIN of the card they issued me was 7766 — and to lament of that is why I waited to close the account and give them back the card. It seems like there’s a pattern of banks issuing “easy to remember” 4-digit PINs: XYYX, XXYY, etc. One of my previous (again, cancelled) cards had a PIN terribly easy to remember for a computerist, at least not for the average person though: 0016.

Side note: I have read someone suggesting to badly scribbled a wrong PIN on the back of a card as a theft prevention. Though I like that idea, I’m just afraid the banks won’t like it anyway. Also it would take some work to make the scribble being easily misunderstood for different digits so that they can try the three times needed to block it.

You access Barclays online banking account through the use of the Identify method provided by CAP, which means you put the card into the reader, provide the PIN, and you get an 8-digits identifier that can be used to login on the website. Since I’m no expert of how CAP works internally, I will only venture a guess that this is similar to a counter-based OTP, as the card has no access to a real-time clock, and there is no challenge provided for this information.

This account access sounds secure, but it’s really not any more secure than an username and password, at least when it comes to dealing with phishing. You may think that producing a façade that shows the full Barclays login, and proxies the responses in real time is a lot of work, but the phishing tools are known for being flexible, and they don’t really need to reproduce the whole website, just the parts they care about getting data from. The rest can easily be proxied as it is without any further change, of course.

So what can we do once you can fool someone into logging in to the bank? Well, you can’t really do much, as most of the actions require further CAP confirmation: wires, new standing orders, and so on so forth. You can, though, get a lot of information about the victim, including enough proofs of address or identity that you can really mess with their life. It also makes it possible to cancel things like standing orders to pay for rent, which would be quite messy to deal with for most people — although most of the phishing is not done for the purpose of messing with people, and more to get their money.

As I said, for sending money you need to have access to the CAP codes. That includes having access not only to the device itself, but also the card and the PIN. To execute those transactions, Barclays will ask you to sign a transaction by providing the CAP device with the account number and the amount to wire. This is good and it’s pretty hard to tamper with, hopefully (I do not make any guarantee on the implementation of CAP), so even if you’re acting through a proxy-phishing site, your wires are probably safe.

I say probably, because the way the challenge-response is implemented, only the 8-digits account number is used during the signature. If the phishers are attacking a victim that they studied for long enough, which may be the case when attacking businesses, you could know which account they pay every month manually, and set up an account with the same number at a different bank (different sort code). The signature would be valid for both.

To be fair to Barclays, implementing the CAP fully, the way they did here, is actually more secure than what Ulster Bank (and I assume the rest of RBS Group) does, with an opaque “challenge” token. While this may encode more information, the fact that it’s opaque means there is no way for the user to know whether what they are signing is indeed what they meant to.

Now, these mitigations are actually good. They require continuous access to the card on request, and that makes it very hard for phishing to just keep using the site in the background after the user logged in. But they still rely on effectively a single factor. If someone gets a hold of the card and the PIN (and we know at least some people will write the real one on the back of the card), then it’s game over: it’s like the locks on my flat’s door: two independent locks… except they use the same key. Sure, it’s a waste of time to pick both, so it increases the chances a neighbour would walk in on wannabe burglars trying to open the apartment door. But there’s a single key, I can’t just use two separate keychains to make sure a thief would only grab one of the two, and if anyone gets it from me, well, it’s game over.

Of course Barclays knows that this is not enough, so they include a risk engine. If something in the transactions don’t comply with their profile of your activity, it’s considered risky and they require an additional verification. This verification happens to be in form of text messages. I will not suggest that the problem with these is with GSM-layer attacks, as that is still not (yet) in the hands of the type of criminals aiming at personal bank accounts, but there is at the very least the risk that a thieve would get a handle of my bag with both my card and my phone, so the only “factors” that are still in my head, rather than tied to the physical objects, are the (provided) PIN of the card, and the PIN of the phone.

This profile fitting is actually the main reason why I got frustrated with Barclays: since I had just opened the account, most of the transactions were all “exceptional”, and that is extremely annoying. This was compounded by the fact that my phone provider didn’t even let me receive SMS from the office, due to lack of coverage (now fixed), and the fact that at least for wires, the Barclays UI does not warn you to check your phone!

There is also the problem with the way Barclays handle these “exceptional transactions”: debit card transactions are out-and-out rejected. The Verified by Visa screen tells you to check your phone, but the phone will only ask you if it was your transaction or not, and after you confirm it is, it’ll ask you to “retry in a couple of minutes” — retrying too quickly will lead to the transactions being blocked by the processor directly, with a temporary card lock. The wire transfer one will unblock the execution of the wire, which is good, but it can also push the wire to after the cut-off time for non-“Faster Payments” wires.

Update (2017-12-30): since I did not make this very clear, I have added a note about this at the bottom of my new post, about the fact hat confirming these transactions only need you to spoof the sender, since the content and destination of the text message to send are known (it only has to say “Y”, and it’s always to the same service number). So this validation should not really count as a second factor authentication for a skilled attacker.

These are all the reasons for which I abandoned Barclays as fast as I could. Some of those are actually decent mitigation strategies, but the fact that they do not really increase security, while increasing inconvenience, makes me doubt the validity of their concerns and threat models.

Taking over a postal address, An Post edition

As I announced a few months ago, I’m moving to London. One of the tasks before the move is setting up postal address redirection, so that the services unable to mail me across the Irish Sea can still reach me. Luckily I know for a fact that An Post (the Irish postal service) has a redirection service, if not a cheap one.

A couple of weeks ago, I went on to sign up for the services, and I found that I had two choices: I could go to the post office (which is inside the EuroSpar next door), show a photo ID and a proof of address, and pay cash or with a debit card1; or I could fill in the form online, pay with a credit card, and then post out a physical signed piece of paper. I chose the latter.

There are many laughable things that I could complain about, in the process of setting up the redirection, but I want to focus on what I think is the big, and most important problem. After you choose the addresses (original and new destination), it will ask you where you want your confirmation PIN sent.

There is a reason why they do that. I set up the redirect well before I moved, and in particular I chose to redirect mail from my apartment to my local office — this way I can either batch together the mail, or simply ask for an inter-office forwarding. This meant I had access to both the original and the new address at the same time — but for many people, particularly moving out of the country, by the time they know where to forward the mail, they might only have access to the new address.

The issue is that if you decide to get the PIN at the new address, the only notification sent to the old address is one letter, confirming the activation of the redirection, sent to the old address. This is likely meant so you can call An Post and have them cancel the redirection if that was done against your will.

While this stops a possible long-term takeover of a mail address, it still allows a wide window of opportunity for a takeover. Also, it has one significant drawback: the letter does not tell you where the mail will be redirected!

Let’s say you want to take over someone’s address (let’s look later what for). First you need to know their address; this is the simplest part of course. Now you can fill in the request on An Post’s website for the redirection — the original address is not given any indication that a request was filled – and get the PIN at the new address. Once the PIN is received, there is some time to enable the redirection.

Until activation is completed, and the redirection time is selected, no communication is given to the original address.

If your target happens to be travelling or otherwise unable to get to their mail for a few weeks, then you have an opportunity. You can take over the address, get some documents at the given address, and get your hands on them. Of course the target will become suspicious when coming back, finding a note about redirection and no mail. But finding a way to recover the mail without being tied to an identity is left as an exercise to the reader.

So what would you accomplish, beside annoying your target, and possibly get some of their unsolicited mail? Well, there are a significant amount of interesting targets in the postal mail you receive in Ireland.

For instance, take credit card statements. Tesco Bank does not allow you to receive them electronic, and Ulster Bank will send you the paper copy even though you opt-in to all the possible electronic communications. And a credit card statement in Ireland include a lot more information than other countries, including just enough to take over the credit card. Tesco Bank for instance will authenticate you with the 16 digits PAN (on the statement), your full address (on the statement), the credit limit (you guessed it, on the statement), and your date of birth (okay, this one is not on the statement, but you can probably find my date of birth pretty easily).

And even if you don’t want to take over the full credit card, having the PAN is extremely useful in and by itself, to take over other accounts. And since you have the statement, it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out what the card is used for — take over an Amazon account, you can take over a lot more things.

But there are more concrete problems too — for instance I do receive a significant amount of pseudo-cash2 in form of Tesco vouchers — having physical control of the vouchers effectively means having the cash in your hand. Or say you want to get a frequent guest or frequent flyer card, because a card is often just enough to get the benefits, and have access to the information on the account. Or just get enough of a proof of address to register on any other service that will require one.

Because let’s remember: an authentication system is just as weak as its weakest link. So all those systems requiring a proof of address? You can skip over all of them by just having one recent enough proof of address, by hijacking someone’s physical mail. And that’s just a matter of paying for it.


  1. An Post is well known for only accepting VISA Debit cards, and refuses both MasterCard Debit and VISA Credit cards. Funnily enough, they issue MasterCard cards, but that’s a story for another time.
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  2. I should at some point write a post about pseudo-cash and the value of a euro when it’s not a coin.
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Shame Cube, or how I leaked my own credit card number

This is the story of how I ended up calling my bank at 11pm on a Sunday night to ask them to cancel my credit card. But it started with a complete different problem: I thought I found a bug in some PDF library.

I asked Hanno and Ange since they both have lots more experience with PDF as a format than me (I have nearly zero), as I expected this to be complete garbage either coming from random parts of the file or memory within the process that was generating or reading it, and thought it would be completely inconsequential. As you probably have guessed by the spoiler in both the title of the post and the first paragraph, it was not the case. Instead that string is a representation of my credit card number.

After a few hours, having worked on other tasks, and having just gone back and forth with various PDFs, including finding a possibly misconfigured AGPL library in my bank’s backend (worth of another blog post), I realized that Okular does not actually show a title for this PDF, which suggested a bug in Dolphin (the Plasma file manager). In particular Poppler’s pdfinfo also didn’t show any title at all, which suggested there’s a problem with a different part of the code. Since the problem was happening with my credit card statements, and the credit card statements include the full 16-digits PAN, I didn’t want to just file a bug attaching a sample, so instead I started asking around for help to figure out which part of the code is involved.

Albert Astals Cid sent me the right direction by telling me the low-level implementation was coming from KFileMetadata, and that quickly pointed me at this interesting piece of heuristics which is designed to guess the title of a document by looking at the first page. The code is quite a bit convoluted, so I couldn’t at first just exclude uninitialized memory access, but I couldn’t figure out where it could be coming from, so I decided to copy the code into a single executable to play around with it. The good news was that it would give me the exact same answer, so it was not uninitialized memory. Instead, the parser was mis-reading something in the file, which by being stable meant it wasn’t likely a security issue, just sub-optimal code.

As there is no current, updated tool for PDF that behaves like mkvinfo, that is print an element-by-element description of the content of a PDF file, I decided to just play with the code to figure out how it decided what to use as the title. Printing out each of the possible titles being evaluated showed it was considering first my address, then part of the summary information, then this strange string. What is going on there?

The code is a bit difficult to follow, particularly for me at first since I had no idea how PDF works to begin with. But the summary of it is that it goes through the textboxes (I knew already that PDF text is laid out in boxes) of the first page, joining together the text if the box has markers to follow up. Each of these entries is stored into a map of text heights, together with a “watermark” of the biggest text size encountered during this loop. If, when looking at a textbox, the height is lower than the previous maximum height, it gets discarded. At the end, the first biggest textbox content is reported as the title.

Once I disabled the height check and always reported all the considered title textboxes, I noticed something interesting: the string that kept being reported was found together with a number of textboxes that are drawn on top of the bank giro credit system — The Wikipedia page appears to talk only of the UK system. Ireland, as usual, appears to have kept their own version of the same system, and all the credit card statements, and most bills, will have a similar pre-printed “credit cheque” at the bottom. Even when they are direct-debited. The cheque includes a very big barcode… and that’s where I started sweating a bit.

The reason of the sweat is that by then I already guessed I made a huge mistake sharing the string that Dolphin was showing me. The reference to pay up a credit card is universally the full 16-digits number (PAN). Indeed the full number is printed on the cheque, and as the “An Post Ref” (An Post being the Irish postal system), and the account information (10-digits, excluding the 6-digits IIN) is printed on the bottom of the same. All of this is why I didn’t want to share the sample file, and why I always destroy the statements that arrive, in paper form, from the banks. At this point, the likeliness of the barcode containing the same information was seriously high.

My usual Barcode Scanner for Android didn’t manage to understand the barcode though, which made it awkward. Instead I decided to confirm I was actually looking at the content of the barcode in an encoded form with a very advanced PDF inspection tool: strings $file | grep Font. This did bring up a reference to /BaseFont /Code128ARedA. And that was the confirmation I needed. Indeed a quick search for that name brings you to a public domain font that implements Code 128 barcodes as a TrueType font. This is not uncommon, particularly as it’s the same method used by most label printers, including the Dymo I used to use for labelling computers.

At that point a quick comparison of the barcode I had in front of me with one generated through an online generator (but only for the IIN because I don’t want to leak it all), confirmed I was looking at my credit card number, and that my tweet just leaked it — in a bit of a strange encoding that may take some work to decode, but still leaked it. I called Ulster Bank and got the card cancelled and replaced.

Which lessons I can learn from this experience? First of all to consider credit card statements even more of a security risk than I ever imagine. It also gave me a practical instance of what Brian Krebs advocates for years regarding barcodes of boarding passes and similar. In particular it looks like both Ulster Bank and Tesco Bank use the same software to generate the credit card statements (which is easily told not to be the same system that generates the normal bank statements), which is developed by Fiserv (their name is in the Author field of the PDF), and they all rely on using the normal full card number for payment.

This is something I don’t really understand. In Italy, you only use the 16-digits number to pay the bank one-off by wire, and instead the statements never had more than the last five digits of the card. Except for the Italian American Express — but that does not surprise me too much as they manage it from London as well.

I’m now looking to see how I can improve on the guessing of the title for the PDFs in the KFileMetadata library — although I’m warming up to the idea of just sending a patch that delete that part of the code altogether, and if the file has no title, no title is displayed. The simplest solutions are, usually, the better.