Encryption, a double edged sword for businesses and home users trying to stay safe on the Internet

People may think of encryption as a technology that protects users’ privacy and security. And it’s true, encryption can be a powerful tool to protect ones privacy and secure sensitive information.  However, the current trend toward encrypting everything has created a significant challenge for businesses and users trying to stay safe from hackers and malware.

Encryption is the process of scrambling data so that only the intended users can access it. There are many forms of encryption.  Some encryption technologies protect data in transit such as TLS/HTTPS, which protects the information passed back and forth to websites and through email.  Other forms of encryption are used to protect data at rest on hard drives, iPhones, and cloud storage.

What does this mean for me, my business or my family?

It’s great to know that my credit card number is safe as I buy products online or conduct online banking.  But this same technology is also helping the bad guys to hide their malware and their efforts to steal our money, resources and secrets. The expensive technologies we’ve put in place including gateway firewalls, web filters, email scanning, Antivirus, etc. has been rendered increasingly ineffective now that more and more traffic is protected by the cloak of encryption. The content can only be viewed once it is executed and unpacked on your machine or your network, and by then it too late!

Imagine my 9 year old son, at home, going to YouTube.com to search for videos for fast cars and Hot Rods.  I do limit his access to sites by category, but YouTube.com is considered a legitimate and safe site.  YouTube.com is run entirely over HTTPS, encrypting all traffic from my home computer to the YouTube.com servers.  Once he’s connected, the Next Generation Layer 7 Firewall I have installed at home (perhaps overkill for home but this is my line of work) can’t see anything going back and forth between my son’s input and the results that YouTube gives him because its all encrypted.  His search terms and the results are blind to the filtering I put in place. So when that video of Hot Rods shows up, which was not at all what he was expecting, me and my wife are put in the unenviable position of answering our very inquisitive son why someone might make that video!

The same is true with other legitimate sites.  Almost 50% of websites online are WordPress sites.  These sites, if not maintained, are highly susceptible to compromise. I’ve seen many examples of sites becoming compromised and distributing malware to unsuspecting visitors.  That Youth Hockey site forum or Spa website you frequent may be the source of your next computer virus!  If the site is being run over HTTPS, that traffic is not being filtered by the web filters, firewalls or Antivirus you have in place, letting the malware into your network and your computer unobstructed.

Even this silly Blog is encrypted over HTTPS.  I could be infecting your machine right now! Encryption is being used heavily throughout the hacker world to evade detection and for distributing their malware..

Why is everything being encrypted and how did we arrive at this point?

When Edward Snowden released his Wikileaks documents in June 2013, aside from the specific details and revelations, its greatest impact was that they shattered one of the basic operating principles of the Internet, there is privacy in numbers. It was always understood that the sheer volume of transactions and data on the Internet made the Internet relatively private for most of us.

Why would anyone care about a personal email to my grandma about my plans to meet her on New Year’s Eve?  This email is one of trillions and the subject is seemingly irrelevant to anyone else but Grandma. The amount of time, money and effort for some organization to find, catalog, store and correlate this one email was thought to be improbable if not impossible. It’s like walking through Times Square on New Year’s Eve picking my nose.  Who would notice or care?

But we learned how the U.S. Government had put systems in place to do just that, record huge amounts of data from all communications systems and the Internet, cataloging the information and making this data usable through artificial intelligence, analytics, pattern matching and targeted searches.  Content and data streams from large companies such as Google and Microsoft had also been intercepted and fed into these systems.

Learning of this made individuals, Google and other institutions mad.  People’s privacy and confidence had been breached!  But really, how does this affect me and my email to Grandma?

Our trust and privacy was violated!

Google, Microsoft and other large companies immediately began implementing greater encryption across all their systems.  In 2014, Google made news by modifying their search algorithm to make the results of encrypted sites appear higher in search results and by publishing statistics about ISPs and websites who did and did not encrypt their web and email traffic.  So now this silly blog site is encrypted because I want to be found on Google! Along with this trend, the technology progressed and the processing overhead of encrypting traffic and decryption no longer posed significant overhead for providers.

Now all your search requests to Google, increasing numbers of websites, emails and more are encrypted, making access to this information by the prying eyes of the government and other unwanted and dangerous actors much harder if not impossible to access.  There are even moves to encrypt more traffic on the internet including DNS and other communications.

But are we safer and is our information more secure?

Unfortunately we’re not any safer today. According to Symantec’s latest Threat Report, there were almost double the number of Zero-Day threats discovered in 2015 then in 2014, a record 9 mega data breaches in 2015, over 50% increase in Spear-Phishing campaigns targeted at employees and the list of troubling statistics goes on.  The unintended consequence of ubiquitous encryption has only made the detection and discovery of malware and hackers efforts even harder.

It may be true that the U.S. Government no longer has ready access to your data, but now the tools and solution we have to protect ourselves have been compromised by the use of encryption.  Our personal data has become the domain of private corporations such as Google, who have built walls around their systems with encryption with little oversight and transparency.  Hackers can now more easily and stealthily steal our information and avoid detection with the help of encryption.

Instead of the U.S. Government knowing about my email to my grandma and my plans to meet her in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, Google, their affiliated advertising partners and also anyone else who sees the geographical coordinates published by my photo on Instagram and Facebook know exactly what I’m up to.  Also, because the hackers have successfully installed a quiet keylogger on my machine that was downloaded from the secure Youth Hockey site, they have successfully co-opted my good credit rating and opened 5 credit cards in my name and have left me with $50k in loans. They also managed to rob my house while they knew I was out of town.

What’s a person to do?  I like the privacy encryption provides but I don’t want to be a victim.

I’m not saying encryption is bad or we should stop using it.  However, it does pose a particular challenge to people and businesses alike trying to stay safe on the Internet and protect their information.  There are some technological solutions available to help mitigate these risks including HTTPS inspection solutions, and software and hardware pattern matching solutions.  They are worth consideration for many businesses but they’re expensive and hard to implement effectively.

Also, Antivirus companies are releasing new products and technologies that are starting to address these challenges through sophisticated behavior analysis, so staying up-to-date and implementing their new solutions is important.  There are also some notable startups that are taking different approaches to identifying and fighting malware including Cylance and Barkley.

Keeping computers up-to-date with all their software including OS (Windows, Linux and Mac) and all third party software (Java, flash, browsers, plugins, Microsoft Office, etc.) is also critical in protecting yourself. There are lots of solutions for businesses to deploy updates and patches across a network.  Home users or small offices can use a free tool called Secunia PSI.

The most effective and important thing anyone can do to stay safe is follow Safe Internet Behaviors.  Companies should be testing and training their users by sending out malicious like emails and phone calls to try and trick them into giving out information or access that they shouldn’t. There are now many solutions like PhishingBox that can provide these services.



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