Article from Issue 180/2015

Updates on technologies, trends, and tools

RC4 Finally Gets the Fork

After years of complaints about ineffective encryption, the RC4 algorithm, which has been around since 1987, is finally being phased out. Artfully coordinated announcements from Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft state that they are officially abandoning RC4 and won't support it in future browser versions.

New versions of Firefox, Chrome, and the Microsoft browsers will not support RC4 after the end of this year. Of course, the leading browser vendors have known that RC4 is inadequate for years, but the browsers have supported a "fallback mode" for websites that demand RC4 encryption. In future versions, the browsers simply won't connect to websites that ask for RC4 encryption.

This unified action from three leading browser vendors should increase the pressure on web server operators to upgrade their systems to eliminate RC4.

IBM Says TOR Network a Vehicle for Ransomware

According to a report from IBM's X-Force team, the anonymous TOR network is increasingly being used to support ransomware schemes and other Internet attack scenarios. Big Blue warned companies and ISPs to start blocking TOR traffic from their networks.

Ransomware, which encrypts the victim's hard drive and demands payment to release the data, is a growing phenomenon around the world. According to the report, attackers use the TOR network to communicate with the victim and transfer monetary payments.

The report states that the success of the TOR network as a vehicle for petty end-user ransomware attacks and SQL injection has emboldened the perpetrators, and TOR is now used for botnet control and sophisticated industrial espionage.

Although TOR services are intended to be hidden and anonymous, organizations can still take steps to keep them off the network. The report includes recommendations such as:

  • Prohibiting the use of unapproved encrypted proxy services
  • Prohibiting the use of personally subscribed proxy services
  • Prohibiting the download and installation of unapproved software
  • Prohibiting the use of personally owned removable devices
  • Prohibiting computers from booting to media other than the hard drive
  • Using publicly available lists of proxy nodes to block network traffic to and from listed sites
  • Implementing a comprehensive desk audit program

The TOR network also has legitimate functions, such as supporting the free speech rights of users in totalitarian countries. Many innocent users implement a TOR node for ideological or political reasons without realizing the node could also be used to stage criminal activities.

Mozilla Announces New Firefox API

The Mozilla project continues its overhaul of the web browser with the announcement of a new extension API called WebExtensions. The new API and its surrounding technologies will replace the add-on architecture currently used by Firefox developers. The WebExtensions API offers several advantages, including better performance and multiprocess capabilities through Mozilla's Electrolysis project, but the biggest reason for the change appears to be compatibility with other browsers. According to the announcement, "Extension code written for Chrome, Opera, or, possibly in the future, Microsoft Edge, will run in Firefox with few changes as a WebExtension."

The Firefox team also reiterated that it will require "… all extensions to be validated and signed by Mozilla starting in Firefox 41," which will arrive on September 22. The announcement also says Firefox has decided on an approximate timeline for the deprecation of XPCOM- and XUL-based addons.

Electrolysis, which continues to evolve in the background, is perhaps the most revolutionary component of the recent Firefox changes. According to Mozilla, the goal of Electrolysis is to "… render and execute web-related content in a single background 'content' process that communicates with the main Firefox process via various ipdl protocols. The two major advantages of this model are security and performance. Security improvements are accomplished through sandboxing; performance improvements are born out of the fact that multiple processes better leverage available client computing power."

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