Tag: bec

Sounding the Alarm on Emergency Alert System Flaws

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is urging states and localities to beef up security around proprietary devices that connect to the Emergency Alert System — a national public warning system used to deliver important emergency information, such as severe weather and AMBER alerts. The DHS warning came in advance of a workshop to be held this weekend at the DEFCON security conference in Las Vegas, where a security researcher is slated to demonstrate multiple weaknesses in the nationwide alert system.

A Digital Alert Systems EAS encoder/decoder that Pyle said he acquired off eBay in 2019. It had the username and password for the system printed on the machine.

The DHS warning was prompted by security researcher Ken Pyle, a partner at security firm Cybir. Pyle said he started acquiring old EAS equipment off of eBay in 2019, and that he quickly identified a number of serious security vulnerabilities in a device that is broadly used by states and localities to encode and decode EAS alert signals.

“I found all kinds of problems back then, and reported it to the DHS, FBI and the manufacturer,” Pyle said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “But nothing ever happened. I decided I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it yet because I wanted to give people time to fix it.”

Pyle said he took up the research again in earnest after an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Holy shit, someone could start a civil war with this thing,”’ Pyle recalled. “I went back to see if this was still a problem, and it turns out it’s still a very big problem. So I decided that unless someone actually makes this public and talks about it, clearly nothing is going to be done about it.”

The EAS encoder/decoder devices Pyle acquired were made by Lyndonville, NY-based Digital Alert Systems (formerly Monroe Electronics, Inc.), which issued a security advisory this month saying it released patches in 2019 to fix the flaws reported by Pyle, but that some customers are still running outdated versions of the device’s firmware. That may be because the patches were included in version 4 of the firmware for the EAS devices, and many older models apparently do not support the new software.

“The vulnerabilities identified present a potentially serious risk, and we believe both were addressed in software updates issued beginning Oct 2019,” EAS said in a written statement. “We also provided attribution for the researcher’s responsible disclosure, allowing us to rectify the matters before making any public statements. We are aware that some users have not taken corrective actions and updated their software and should immediately take action to update the latest software version to ensure they are not at risk. Anything lower than version 4.1 should be updated immediately. On July 20, 2022, the researcher referred to other potential issues, and we trust the researcher will provide more detail. We will evaluate and work to issue any necessary mitigations as quickly as possible.”

But Pyle said a great many EAS stakeholders are still ignoring basic advice from the manufacturer, such as changing default passwords and placing the devices behind a firewall, not directly exposing them to the Internet, and restricting access only to trusted hosts and networks.

Pyle, in a selfie that is heavily redacted because the EAS device behind him had its user credentials printed on the lid.

Pyle said the biggest threat to the security of the EAS is that an attacker would only need to compromise a single EAS station to send out alerts locally that can be picked up by other EAS systems and retransmitted across the nation.

“The process for alerts is automated in most cases, hence, obtaining access to a device will allow you to pivot around,” he said. “There’s no centralized control of the EAS because these devices are designed such that someone locally can issue an alert, but there’s no central control over whether I am the one person who can send or whatever. If you are a local operator, you can send out nationwide alerts. That’s how easy it is to do this.”

One of the Digital Alert Systems devices Pyle sourced from an electronics recycler earlier this year was non-functioning, but whoever discarded it neglected to wipe the hard drive embedded in the machine. Pyle soon discovered the device contained the private cryptographic keys and other credentials needed to send alerts through Comcast, the nation’s third-largest cable company.

“I can issue and create my own alert here, which has all the valid checks or whatever for being a real alert station,” Pyle said in an interview earlier this month. “I can create a message that will start propagating through the EAS.”

Comcast told KrebsOnSecurity that “a third-party device used to deliver EAS alerts was lost in transit by a trusted shipping provider between two Comcast locations and subsequently obtained by a cybersecurity researcher.

“We’ve conducted a thorough investigation of this matter and have determined that no customer data, and no sensitive Comcast data, were compromised,” Comcast spokesperson David McGuire said.

The company said it also confirmed that the information included on the device can no longer be used to send false messages to Comcast customers or used to compromise devices within Comcast’s network, including EAS devices.

“We are taking steps to further ensure secure transfer of such devices going forward,” McGuire said. “Separately, we have conducted a thorough audit of all EAS devices on our network and confirmed that they are updated with currently available patches and are therefore not vulnerable to recently reported security issues. We’re grateful for the responsible disclosure and to the security research community for continuing to engage and share information with our teams to make our products and technologies ever more secure. Mr. Pyle informed us promptly of his research and worked with us as we took steps to validate his findings and ensure the security of our systems.”

The user interface for an EAS device.

Unauthorized EAS broadcast alerts have happened enough that there is a chronicle of EAS compromises over at fandom.com. Thankfully, most of these incidents have involved fairly obvious hoaxes.

According to the EAS wiki, in February 2013, hackers broke into the EAS networks in Great Falls, Mt. and Marquette, Mich. to broadcast an alert that zombies had risen from their graves in several counties. In Feb. 2017, an EAS station in Indiana also was hacked, with the intruders playing the same “zombies and dead bodies” audio from the 2013 incidents.

“On February 20 and February 21, 2020, Wave Broadband’s EASyCAP equipment was hacked due to the equipment’s default password not being changed,” the Wiki states. “Four alerts were broadcasted, two of which consisted of a Radiological Hazard Warning and a Required Monthly Test playing parts of the Hip Hop song Hot by artist Young Thug.”

In January 2018, Hawaii sent out an alert to cell phones, televisions and radios, warning everyone in the state that a missile was headed their way. It took 38 minutes for Hawaii to let people know the alert was a misfire, and that a draft alert was inadvertently sent. The news video clip below about the 2018 event in Hawaii does a good job of walking through how the EAS works.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is urging states and localities to beef up security around proprietary devices that connect to the Emergency Alert System — a national public warning system used to deliver important emergency information, such as severe weather and AMBER alerts. The DHS warning came in advance of a workshop to be held this weekend at the DEFCON security conference in Las Vegas, where a security researcher is slated to demonstrate multiple weaknesses in the nationwide alert system.Read More

Slack flaw exposed users’ hashed passwords

Slack, the workplace communication platform, has notified some of its users that their hashed passwords have been subject to exposure for the last five years. The company wasn’t specific in its notice, but Wired said that the flaw was in one of its “low-friction features”. The flaw exposed hashed passwords of users when creating or revoking shared invitation links for workspaces.

“When a user performed either of these actions, Slack transmitted a hashed version of their password to other workspace members,” the company said in a notice. “It affected all users who created or revoked shared invitation links between 17 April 2017 and 17 July 2022.”

Putting a plaintext password through a hashing algorithm changes it to a cryptographically scrambled or obfuscated version of itself, now called a “ciphertext”. It is a unique string of characters with a fixed length. Adding “salt”—essentially random data—when hashing would further protect the password from getting easily extracted by threat actors.

The exposure only occurs behind the scenes, though, as Slack users who were sent these invitations couldn’t see the passwords. However, they weren’t completely inaccessible, although seeing the exposed passwords required actively monitoring encrypted traffic from Slack’s servers.

“We have no reason to believe that anyone was able to obtain plaintext passwords because of this issue. However, for the sake of caution, we have reset affected users’ Slack passwords.”

Slack warned that hashes are “secure, but not perfect.” Hashed passwords could still be revered by brute force methods.

Slack promptly patched the flaw after an independent security researcher reported it to Slack last month. It then notified the approximately 0.5 percent of all its users who may have been affected, 

The company also took this opportunity to advise its users to enable 2FA (two-factor authentication) on their accounts and create strong and unique passwords. It also advised users to check access logs, which they can find here, for their accounts.

Education hammered by exploits and backdoors in 2021 and 2022

In May of 2021, education underwent a siege of exploit attempts using the vulnerability CVE-2021-21551, which exploits a Dell system driver bug and helps attackers to gain access to a network. Considering that many schools across the United States use Dell hardware, it’s understandable to see such a large amount of this exploit. 

In fact, both Rockland Schools in Massachusetts and Visalia USD in California were hit with ransomware attacks during this period. The states that detected this threat the most were Minnesota and Michigan, with Detroit being the biggest target in the US. 

In September of 2021, there was a spike of the malicious setting, RiskwareTool.IFEOHijack, with detections having increased from July 2021 onward. This threat is flagged when malware modifies a registry setting that changes the default Windows debugger to a malware executable. It is a red flag that needs to be investigated immediately. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pinpoint which malware made the modification, but the increased presence of this threat, especially in Oklahoma and Washington State, calls for deeper threat hunting on the victims’ networks. During the same period, a spike in exploit detections was observed and Howard University was breached.

The Trojan TechSupportScam covers an array of applications all designed to fool users into calling a “tech support” number to solve a problem created by the application, such as a blue screen, error message, activation alert, etc. These tools started spiking in January of 2022.  Educational institutions in New Jersey have had to deal with this threat more than any other state, however the public school district of Albuquerque, NM suffered a breach during the same month that could have been influenced by this spike in scams. Students and staff likely encountered these threats when installing risky software and/or visiting shady sites.

Finally, Pennsylvania schools have been dealing with an active campaign of backdoors, specifically QBot, since March of 2022, which will likely result in greater infections during the rest of 2022.

Beyond spikes in detections, the education sector has dealt with an onslaught of attacks ranging from spyware and denial of service tools to ransomware.  Throughout the year, almost every month has a report of an educational institution under attack. The first half of 2021 saw attacks against schools in Florida, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, and California, while the second half saw attacks against Texas, Washington D.C., Wisconsin, and Illinois. The biggest attack of 2022, so far, would be the breach of Austin Peay State University in April, though time will tell if that remains true.

The education industry has the largest userbase out of all industries, considering the constant rotation of students and faculty. Therefore, the greatest threat to these organizations are the users themselves, who may download their own applications, visit dangerous websites, and even make system modifications to get around monitoring tools.

Recommendations for education

Our recommendation for this sector includes keeping an eye out for all new exploits that might affect your organization, especially commonly used systems. In a lot of cases, organizations may have a difficult time updating quickly, because of operational needs, but in the case of schools, a single vulnerability might be duplicated across 99% of its endpoints, which turns each of those systems into backdoors for the bad guys. So, making vulnerability patching one of the highest priorities will reduce attacks and decrease malicious file installation.

Next, systems that have been infected may leave behind artifacts of its operations, for example the IFEOHijack registry setting. Additionally, threats that may be installed on day one, might not activate until a user does something specific, or a certain date comes around, allowing the threat to hide in the meantime. To combat this threat, consider creating a secure, default system image that can be easily duplicated to endpoints, returning them to a default state. While this is likely already done by many schools every year, consider increasing the frequency to every quarter, maybe even every month, and have students save their files on cloud-based storage solutions.

By utilizing a default image, an organization can erase hidden malware, reset modified settings, and provide confidence in quickly isolating or wiping out an infected system. For the education industry, it’s not so much about what threats are actively targeting schools, but rather what threats have been left behind, that open doors for other, future attacks.

Summer of exploitation leads to healthcare under fire

May 2021 was a tough month for the Healthcare and Medical sector–the most notable threat trend at the time was the heavy use of a new popular exploit against Dell systems, leading to immense effort by attackers to utilize the exploit before it became less effective due to patching.  

During this period, hospitals in central Florida were hit with malicious attacks that disrupted their operations and forced them to conduct business via pen and paper. In addition, a hospital system in Southern California was forced to modify how it did business due to a cyberattack. The San Diego-based health system quickly moved its information technology program offline, to reduce the damage done by the attack. However it also put a roadblock in the way of legitimate employees and customers trying access their medical information online.

Figure 1. United States Healthcare and Medical Threat Family Detections by Month

After the spike in May, CVE 2021-21551 detections dropped to about a quarter of the original numbers, and remained there throughout the year, except for another spike in February 2022. It seems the primary target for these attacks were healthcare and medical organizations in Pensacola, FL, but detections for New York, Wisconsin and New Jersey weren’t far behind.

Heavy detections of TrickBot were observed, especially against organizations in York, Pennsylvania during the first three months of 2021. But detections of this threat all over the United States quickly dropped beginning in April 2021 and steadily declined throughout the time period. TrickBot isn’t a stranger to healthcare organizations and has historically targeted them for the sake of launching ransomware or causing operational disruption.

This threat is even a concern to the US Government, which released an alert, through the CISA portal, back in October of 2020, about the danger of the TrickBot organization specifically targeting Healthcare organizations.

Figure 2. United States Healthcare & Medical Family Threat Detections Pie Chart

In August and September, we observed significant spikes of AI behavioral-based detections, which lines up with a series of newsworthy healthcare breaches during the same period. 

For example, a healthcare group in central Indiana was the victim of an attack that lead to a ransomware infection and the loss of information from patients and employees, then released on the dark web. The attack itself occurred in early August and forced organizations to turn away ambulances for several days, an action which led to the death of a person in Germany.

Another attack in early August, this time against a healthcare management firm in Dallas, Texas, resulted in the theft of valuable information, including patient information, health insurance and financial data. 

Securing healthcare and medical organizations

Our recommendations for securing healthcare and medical organizations start with acknowledging that securing these organizations from every possible threat is not possible. Therefore, when considering how to defend against a ransomware attack, be sure to account for getting operations back online after an attack. This includes having plans for operating the business without the use of computers, establishing secure backups of sensitive data off-site and off-line, while still following HIPPA protocol.

Beyond that, this industry has dealt with lots of heavy attacks originating from both attempts to exploit vulnerabilities, as well as spear phishing. Quickly patching vulnerabilities is a high priority, however given that quick patching isn’t always an option, times like these require risk reduction, such as removing non-patchable endpoints from direct Internet access, creating additional layers of authentication to access high value systems, and a thorough review of user accounts and permissions, to tighten up who has access to what.

Finally, many of these organizations utilize mobile stations for inputting or reviewing data. These systems should not be able to do things like using USB drives. They should have screen protectors to prevent unintended information disclosure, and these systems should be completely wiped with a new image on a regular basis, to ensure removal of any hidden rootkit-level threats. 

How to incorporate ACM PCA into your existing Windows Active Directory Certificate Services

Using certificates to authenticate and encrypt data is vital to any enterprise security. For example, companies rely on certificates to provide TLS encryption for web applications so that client data is protected. However, not all certificates need to be issued from a publicly trusted certificate authority (CA). A privately trusted CA can be leveraged to issue certificates to help protect data in transit on resources such as load-balancers and also device authentication for endpoints and IoT devices. Many organizations already have that privately trusted CA running in their Microsoft Active Directory architecture via Active Directory Certificate Services (ADCS).

This post outlines how you can use Microsoft’s Windows 2019 ADCS to sign an AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) Private Certificate Authority (Private CA) instance, extending your existing ADCS system into your AWS environment. This will allow you to issue certificates via ACM for resources like Application Load Balancer that are trusted by your Active Directory members. The ACM PCA documentation talks about how to use an external CA to sign the ACM PCA certificate. However, it leaves the details of the external CA outside of the documentation scope.

Why use ACM PCA?

AWS Certificate Manager Private Certificate Authority (ACM Private CA or ACM PCA) is a private CA service that extends ACM certificate management capabilities to both public and private certificates. ACM PCA provides a highly available private CA service without the upfront investment and ongoing maintenance costs of operating your own private CA. ACM PCA allows developers to be more agile by providing them with APIs to create and deploy private certificates programmatically. You also have the flexibility to create private certificates for applications that require custom certificate lifetimes or resource names.

Why use ACM PCA with Windows Active Directory?

Many enterprises already use Active Directory to manage their IT resources. Whether it is on-premises or built into your AWS accounts, Active Directory’s built-in CA can be extended by ACM PCA. Using your ADCS to sign an ACM PCA means that members of your Active Directory automatically trust certificates issued by that ACM PCA. Keep in mind that these are still private certificates, and they are intended to be used just like certificates from ADCS itself. They will not be trusted by unmanaged devices, because these are not signed by a publicly trusted external CA. Therefore, systems like Mac and Linux may require that you manually deploy the ADCS certificate chain in order to trust certificates issued by your new ACM PCA.

This means it is more efficient for you to rapidly deploy certificates to your endpoint workstations for authentication. Or you can protect internal-only workloads with certificates that are constrained to your internal domain namespace. These tasks can be done conveniently through AWS APIs and the AWS SDK.

Solution overview

In the following sections, we will configure Microsoft ADCS to be able to sign a subordinate CA, deploy and sign ACM PCA, and then test the solution using a private website that is protected by a TLS certificate issued from the ACM PCA.

Configure Microsoft ADCS

Microsoft ADCS is normally deployed as part of your Windows Active Directory architecture. It can be extended to do multiple different types of certificate signing depending on your environment’s needs. Each of these different types of certificates is defined by a template that you must enable and configure. Each template contains configuration information about how Microsoft ADCS will issue the certificate type. You can copy and configure templates differently depending on your environment’s requirements. The specifics of each type of template is outside the scope of this blog post.

To configure ADCS to sign subordinate CAs

On the CA server that will be signing the private CA certificate, open the Certification Authority Microsoft Management Console (MMC).
In the left-side tree view, expand the name of the server.
Open the context (right-click) menu for Certificate Templates and choose Manage.

Figure 1: Navigating to the Manage option for the certificate templates

This opens the Certificate Template Console, which is populated with the list of optional templates.

Scroll down, open the context (right-click) menu for Subordinate Certification Authority, and choose Duplicate Template, as shown in Figure 2. This will create a duplicate of the template that you can alter for your needs, while leaving the original template unaltered for future use. Selecting Duplicate Template immediately opens the configuration for the new template.

Figure 2: Select Duplicate Template to create a copy of the Subordinate Certification Authority template

To configure and use the new template

On the new template configuration page, choose the General tab, and change the template display name to something that uniquely identifies it. The example in this post uses the name Subordinate Certification Authority – Private CA.
Select the check box for Publish certificate in Active Directory, and then choose OK. The new template appears in the list of available templates. Close the Certificate Templates Console.
Return to the Certification Authority MMC. Open the context (right-click) menu for Certificate Templates again, but this time choose New -> Certificate Template to Issue.

Figure 3: Issue the new Certificate Template you created for subordinate Cas

In the dialog box that appears, choose the new template you created in Step 1 of this procedure, and then choose OK.

That’s all that’s needed! Your CA is now ready to issue certificates for subordinate CAs in your public key infrastructure. Open a browser from either the ADCS CA server itself or through a network connection to the ADCS CA server, and use the following URL to access the certificate server’s certificate signing interface.

http://<hostname-of-your-ca-with-domain>/certsrv/certrqxt.asp

Now you can see that in the Certificate Templates list, you can choose the Subordinate Certification Authority template that you created, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: The interface to sign certificates on your CA now shows the new certificate template you created

Deploy and sign the ACM Private CA’s certificate

In this step, you will deploy the ACM PCA, which is the first step to create a subordinate CA to deploy in your AWS account. The process of deploying the ACM PCA is well documented, so this post will not go into depth about the deployment itself. Instead, this procedure focuses on the steps for taking the certificate signing request (CSR) and signing it against the ADCS, and then covers the additional steps to convert the certificates that ADCS produces into the certificate format that ACM PCA expects.

After the ACM PCA is initially deployed, it needs to have a certificate signed to authenticate it. ACM PCA offers two options for signing the new instance’s certificate. You can choose to sign either through another ACM PCA instance, or via an external CA. Since you are using ADCS in this walkthrough, you will use the process of an external CA. The ACM PCA deployment is now at a point where it needs its CSR signed by Microsoft ADCS. You should see that it is ready in the AWS Management Console for ACM PCA.

To deploy and sign the ACM PCA’s certificate

When the ACM PCA is ready, in the ACM PCA console, begin the Install subordinate CA certificate process by choosing External private CA for the CA type.

Figure 5: Options for signing the new instance’s certificate

You will then be provided the certificate signing request (CSR) for the ACM PCA. Copy and paste the CSR content into the ADCS CA signing URL you visited earlier on the CA server. Then choose Next. The next page is where you will paste in the new signed certificate and certchain in a later step.
From the ADCS CA URL, be sure that the new Subordinate Certification Authority template is selected, and then choose Submit. The new certificate will be issued to you. The ADCS issuing page provides two different formats for the certificate, either as Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER) or base64-encoded.
Copy the base64-encoded files for both the certificate and the certchain to your local computer. The certificate is already in Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) format, and its contents can be pasted into the ACM PCA certificate input in the console. However, you must convert the certchain into the format required by the ACM PCA by following these steps:
To convert the format of the certchain, use the openssl tool from the command line. The process of installing the openssl tool is outside the scope of this blog post. Refer to the OpenSSL site documentation for installation options for your operating system.
Use the following command to convert the certchain file from Public Key Cryptographic Standards #7 (PKCS7) to PEM.

openssl pkcs7 -print_certs -in certnew.p7b -out certchain.pem

Using a text editor, open the certchain.pem file and copy the last certificate block from the file, starting with —–BEGIN CERTIFICATE—– and ending with —–END CERTIFICATE—–. You will notice that the file begins with the signed certificate and includes subject= and issuer= statements. ACM PCA only accepts the content that is the certificate chain.

Return to the ACM PCA console page from Step 1, and paste the text the you just copied into the input area provided for the certificate chain. After this step is complete, the private CA is now signed by your corporate PKI.

Test the solution

Now that the ACM PCA is online, one of the things it can do is issue certificates via ACM that are trusted by your corporate Active Directory joined clients. These certificates can be used in services such as Application Load Balancers to provide TLS protected endpoints that are unique to your organization and trusted only by your internal clients.

From a client joined to our test Active Directory, Internet Explorer shows that it trusts the TLS certificate issued by AWS Certificate Manager and used on the Application Load Balancer for a private site.

Figure 6: Internet Explorer showing that it trusts the TLS certificate

For this demo, we created a test web server that is hosting an example webpage. The web server is behind an AWS Application Load Balancer. The TLS certificate attached to the Application Load Balancer is issued from the new ACM PCA.

Conclusion

Organizations that have Microsoft Active Directory deployed can use Active Directory’s Certificate Services to issue certificates for private resources. This blog post shows how you can extend that certificate trust to AWS Certificate Manager Private CA. This provides a way for your developers to issue private certificates automatically, which are trusted by your Active Directory domain-joined clients or clients that have the ADCS certificate chain installed.

For more information on hybrid public key infrastructure (PKI) on AWS, refer to these blog posts:

How to implement a hybrid PKI solution on AWS
Integrating Microsoft Active Directory with AWS Certificate Manager Private CA using Secardeo certEP

For more information on certificates for Mac and Linux, refer to the following resources:

Add certificates to a keychain using Keychain Access on Mac
Ubuntu – Installing a root CA certificate in the trust store
RedHat – Making CA certificates available to Linux command-line tools

 
If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, contact AWS Support.

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Geoff Sweet

Geoff has been in industry for over 20 years, and began his career in Electrical Engineering. Starting in IT during the dot-com boom, he has held a variety of diverse roles, such as systems architect, network architect, and, for the past several years, security architect. Geoff specializes in infrastructure security.

Using certificates to authenticate and encrypt data is vital to any enterprise security. For example, companies rely on certificates to provide TLS encryption for web applications so that client data is protected. However, not all certificates need to be issued from a publicly trusted certificate authority (CA). A privately trusted CA can be leveraged toRead More

The Security Pros and Cons of Using Email Aliases

One way to tame your email inbox is to get in the habit of using unique email aliases when signing up for new accounts online. Adding a “+” character after the username portion of your email address — followed by a notation specific to the site you’re signing up at — lets you create an infinite number of unique email addresses tied to the same account. Aliases can help users detect breaches and fight spam. But not all websites allow aliases, and they can complicate account recovery. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of adopting a unique alias for each website.

What is an email alias? When you sign up at a site that requires an email address, think of a word or phrase that represents that site for you, and then add that prefaced by a “+” sign just to the left of the “@” sign in your email address. For instance, if I were signing up at example.com, I might give my email address as krebsonsecurity+example@gmail.com. Then, I simply go back to my inbox and create a corresponding folder called “Example,” along with a new filter that sends any email addressed to that alias to the Example folder.

Importantly, you don’t ever use this alias anywhere else. That way, if anyone other than example.com starts sending email to it, it is reasonable to assume that example.com either shared your address with others or that it got hacked and relieved of that information. Indeed, security-minded readers have often alerted KrebsOnSecurity about spam to specific aliases that suggested a breach at some website, and usually they were right, even if the company that got hacked didn’t realize it at the time.

Alex Holden, founder of the Milwaukee-based cybersecurity consultancy Hold Security, said many threat actors will scrub their distribution lists of any aliases because there is a perception that these users are more security- and privacy-focused than normal users, and are thus more likely to report spam to their aliased addresses.

Holden said freshly-hacked databases also are often scrubbed of aliases before being sold in the underground, meaning the hackers will simply remove the aliased portion of the email address.

“I can tell you that certain threat groups have rules on ‘+*@’ email address deletion,” Holden said. “We just got the largest credentials cache ever — 1 billion new credentials to us — and most of that data is altered, with aliases removed. Modifying credential data for some threat groups is normal. They spend time trying to understand the database structure and removing any red flags.”

Why might spamming aliases be a bad idea? According to the breach tracking site HaveIBeenPwned.com, only about .03 percent of the breached records in circulation today include an alias.

Email aliases are rare enough that seeing just a few email addresses with the same alias in a breached database can make it trivial to identify which company likely got hacked and leaked said database. That’s because the most common aliases are simply the name of the website where the signup takes place, or some abbreviation or shorthand for it.

Hence, for a given database, if there are more than a handful of email addresses that have the same alias, the chances are good that whatever company or website corresponds to that alias has been hacked.

That might explain the actions of Allekabels, a large Dutch electronics web shop that suffered a data breach in 2021. Allekabels said a former employee had stolen data on 5,000 customers, and that those customers were then informed about the data breach by Allekabels.

But Dutch publication RTL Nieuws said it obtained a copy of the Allekabels user database from a hacker who was selling information on 3.6 million customers at the time, and found that the 5,000 number cited by the retailer corresponded to the number of customers who’d signed up using an alias. In essence, RTL argued, the company had notified only those most likely to notice and complain that their aliased addresses were suddenly receiving spam.

“RTL Nieuws has called more than thirty people from the database to check the leaked data,” the publication explained. “The customers with such a unique email address have all received a message from Allekabels that their data has been leaked – according to Allekabels they all happened to be among the 5000 data that this ex-employee had stolen.”

HaveIBeenPwned’s Hunt arrived at the conclusion that aliases account for about .03 percent of registered email addresses by studying the data leaked in the 2013 breach at Adobe, which affected at least 38 million users. Allekabels’s ratio of aliased users was considerably higher than Adobe’s — .14 percent — but then again European Internet users tend to be more privacy-conscious.

While overall adoption of email aliases is still quite low, that may be changing. Apple customers who use iCloud to sign up for new accounts online automatically are prompted to use Apple’s Hide My Email feature, which creates the account using a unique email address that automatically forwards to a personal inbox.

What are the downsides to using email aliases, apart from the hassle of setting them up? The biggest downer is that many sites won’t let you use a “+” sign in your email address, even though this functionality is clearly spelled out in the email standard.

Also, if you use aliases, it helps to have a reliable mnemonic to remember the alias used for each account (this is a non-issue if you create a new folder or rule for each alias). That’s because knowing the email address for an account is generally a prerequisite for resetting the account’s password, and if you can’t remember the alias you added way back when you signed up, you may have limited options for recovering access to that account if you at some point forget your password.

What about you, Dear Reader? Do you rely on email aliases? If so, have they been useful? Did I neglect to mention any pros or cons? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

One way to tame your email inbox is to get in the habit of using unique email aliases when signing up for new accounts online. Adding a “+” character after the username portion of your email address — followed by a notation specific to the site you’re signing up at — lets you create an infinite number of unique email addresses tied to the same account. Aliases can help users detect breaches and fight spam. But not all websites allow aliases, and they can complicate account recovery. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of adopting a unique alias for each website.Read More

Compliance Certifications: Worth the Effort?

Because demonstrating compliance with industry regulations can be cumbersome and expensive, it’s important to ensure they’re also absolutely essential.Because demonstrating compliance with industry regulations can be cumbersome and expensive, it’s important to ensure they’re also absolutely essential.Read More