Intro: 2 posts, 1 bored security tinkerer
I was stuck on a cross-country plane trip recently, and I started reading up on some security posts. I found two interesting ones, both of which happened to be written by Darren Pauli:
As a best practice, from way back in my journalism undergrad days, I try to always go to the source of news articles I read. So, for both of these posts I dug in and tried to see the facts and chronology as the articles reported them vs what the actual sources said. Let’s dig in and see what we find!
Article 1: How unresponsive and culpable was CyanogenMod?
The first article was published by The Register on 13 October 2014 and claimed that 10 million phones were vulnerable to a Man in the Middle (MitM) attack and it was a zero day exploit.
On October 14th CyanogenMod (CM) responded, ‘In Response to The Register “MITM” Article.‘
Then McAfee jumped on the bandwagon of an exploit possibly affecting a lot of Android users. On October 17th the McAfee blog published a piece on this vulnerability as well saying, “it appears easily fixable once it’s actually acknowledged and addressed by the CyanogenMod team.”
The issues I see with the scenario painted in these articles are threefold:
- The initial piece by Pauli states that the source of the attack is open source code in a 2 year old vulnerability. How can this be both a zero day exploit AND a 2 year old vulnerability? Unsurprisingly, CM’s response cites this point as well.
- A whole 3 days had passed when McAfee posted their blog piece stating that CM hadn’t responded when, in fact, they had. CM’s response was published 24 hours after the original Register article.
- The issue purportedly affected “10 million users” already sounds good, so there was no need to erroneously report that it affected “12 million” as the McAfee piece did.
Article 2: Was TOR really vulnerable?
In the second post, Pauli’s title starts off with, “STAY AWAY” and the subtitle “USB plugged into Atlas, Global servers.” He goes on to pull a quote from the tor-talk mailing list, citing Thomas White saying, “the chassis of the servers was opened and an unknown USB device was plugged in.”
More so than the first article, there’s a number of issues with this piece. Some are minor, but some are egregious:
- The only link to the thread about the incident on the tor-talk link is wrong. He cited a thread about hidden services instead of the one on possibly illicitly inserted USB devices.
- The subtitle “USB plugged into Atlas, Global servers” references White’s instances of Atlas and Globe as if they were the one and only ones, when in fact they’re not. The Tor Project instead links directly to atlas.torproject.org, from their homepage no less.
- By the time the story was published, the issue had been fixed and Tor users at large didn’t even notice:
- Dec 21 20:17 UTC – Initial post to the tor-talk list is made by White
- Dec 21 20:55 UTC – White posts the fingerprint of all the servers he felt could have been compromised.
- Dec 21 21:05 UTC – Jacob Appelbaum rejects the possibly compromised nodes so that general public Tor users won’t unknowingly use them.
- Dec 21 23:54 UTC – White gives an extensive update.
- Dec 22 05:58 UTC – Pauli writes his piece for The Register.
- The title of the article, “STAY AWAY” goes against a explicit request from White in his 23:54 update, “Tor isn’t broken. Stop panicking.” White’s request was penned before Pauli even published his article.
Clicks clicks clicks
I feel like The Register’s articles, and the related McAfee piece, though having quite a bit of truth to them, take advantage of the facts. The Tor piece borders on fearmongering. Put it all together and I think that tech writers and bloggers can easily shoot out a piece that gets the clicks. To make matters worse, both Register pieces haven’t been updated to reflect not-so-recent updates: issues cited aren’t of concern by the developers and maintainers of CyanogenMod and Tor respectively.
Given I’m new to critiquing news pieces, I reached out to Pauli for comment. He didn’t get back to me. If he does, and it turns out I’ve gotten any of the facts wrong, I’ll be sure to post an update!
The reg has really gone downhill since getting featured in the Google news stream. The faux outage tabloid-like titles have taken over and parody has become normality. I don’t read them anymore.