Happy Data Privacy Day!

This is a day, internationally, to help remind everyone that their personal data is being processed every second of the day—whether it is through interactions at  work, the health field, public authorities, online purchases , or casual web surfing. On top of all that, if you are a smart phone user,  Apple or Google can likely tell exactly where you are at any minute of the day.

For these reasons, I’d like to offer a friendly reminder to be aware of your personal responsibility to protect your data to the best of your abilities.  The National Cyber Security Alliance offers some sage advice in the title of their online safety, security and privacy campaign:  Stop. Think. Connect.

Basically, the general idea is for you, as a responsible internet user, to always wade with caution into the open waters of the internet.  In the same way that you would not simply leap off a cliff into the rushing waters of a river without taking your personal safety into account, you shouldn’t randomly click every link that comes across your internet browser on your phone or computer.  This is also true of links in your email—even if it is coming from a friend.


If I can offer one action that everyone should do as they browse the internet or check mail, it would be to check the links you are clicking.  Whether you are using a browser or an email client, you have a status bar.  As you prepare to click on a button or web address  (STOP) glance down at the status bar to (THINK) make certain that the address looks legitimate and then (CONNECT) click it to go on to read and/or see more.

Here are two examples:

Figure 1: Checking a URL in your web browser
Figure 1: Checking a URL in your web browser

In Figure 1, you can see my browsing with Firefox to that bastion of good news, Buzzfeed.  You’ll notice that I’m pointing to a link (1) while the status bar indicates the URL where the link will take me if I click it (2).  In that status bar, read the URL address to see if it looks safe.  This works the same if you are using the university’s Outlook web interface (Wayne Connect), Gmail, or any other email provider.

Figure 2: Checking web addresses in Outlook email client.
Figure 2: Checking a URL in Outlook email client.

In Figure 2, While using Outlook to read Today@Wayne, I decide I want to read more about an article on the web.  I’m pointing to a link (1),  a tool tip pops up to tell me the URL that will open up in my browser (2), and the status bar also tells me the URL that will open up in my browser (3). Again, decide whether that link looks reliable.

By taking a few extra seconds, you can protect yourself from malicious code on a website or a phishing attempt via your email.


I am happy to announce that our cyber security team has been working on a project that will make life easier for all university users.

Currently, every six months, you receive a message that informs you that you must change your password to access all the WSU systems (Academica, Wayne Connect, Canvas, STARS, etc.). At that point, you try to come up with something you know you will remember and something you haven’t used before. To make certain it is accepted, you figure out a password phrase that uses lower case letters, upper case letters and numbers.

Well, here’s the good news.

In about a week, you can create a password and never have to make another one again.

How, you ask?  Simple. Using the same requirements, make a password that has 15 or more characters in it. If you do that, you’ll never be asked to change your password again.

Now, the question:  How will I remember a password with 15 characters?

You can choose random words that are easy for you to remember and simply put a space between them.  Security experts have learned that using multiple random words (three and up is best) provides a great balance between usability and security.  These types of passwords are actually difficult for hackers to determine.

So, after Feb. 5, take the time to make a new password. Investing a small amount of time now will save you lots of time later because you’ll never have to do it again.


April 15 is coming, and so are the IRS scams

Most Wayne State folks have now received their W2 forms and are probably putting off thinking about submitting their income tax returns, so now is the time to start worrying about all the things that could go wrong.

As most readers will remember, Wayne State was one of a number of universities whose employees were hit with fraudulent returns last year. This happens when someone illegally files in your place, fiddling with the numbers so that they will get a refund. Generally speaking, when this happens you are not on the hook, but it can be a pain in the neck to get it sorted out and it will probably interfere with your filing for several years afterwards, so it’s a good idea to take actions that will reduce the likelihood of being a victim.

There is a limit to what you can do, but I’ve collected all the key safety steps here — the major step you can take is to increase your vigilance online. Do not share your social security number (which means it should never appear in an email or anywhere else other than where it is legally required [such as on your tax return]). And although your bank needs to know it, there is no reason it should appear on any bank website or on any paperwork you receive through the mail from your bank. Of course, it will appear in correspondence with the government (such as a dreaded letter from the IRS or correspondence with the state or city about taxes owed or a happy letter about refunds due).

The most effective positive action you can take is to file as early as possible (although a friend of mine posted on their Facebook page a couple of days ago that someone had already filed in their place). I realize it’s as American as apple pie to put it off till the evening of April 14, but it is a good defensive strategy to file really early.

Additionally, it is extremely important you do not let yourself get phished. Phishing (luring victims in with realistic-looking emails) is the most widely used weapon in identity theft. In fact, we will be doing one (or perhaps more) anti-phishing training sessions over the next couple of weeks. Our Chief Security Officer, Kevin Hayes, and I, your Chief Privacy Officer, have a roadshow we’ll be starting shortly. The first presentation will be on Feb. 10 at 1 p.m. in Bernath Auditorium. We’ll explain how phishing works and what you can do to fight back.

Two-factor authentication is coming to your phone (or other device)

As I’m sure you know, the internet is an increasingly dangerous place, and the most frequent source of compromised computers is people responding to phishing emails. The Security office at C&IT is working 24/7 to keep track of phishing and block people’s access to bad sites, but unfortunately it is just not enough, so C&IT is about to introduce two-factor authentication for certain WSU websites.

The danger with phishing is that people will log into websites that are not what they seem to be, and input their credentials (AccessID plus password) . The bad guys running the phony websites then take those credentials and use them to log into sensitive Wayne State sites, like your bank direct deposit setup page, where they redirect your paycheck to a bank of their choosing. And yes, this has indeed happened recently to Wayne State employees. They also use those credentials to install bad stuff on your computer, which they then use to attack other computers within Wayne State.

Since people are easily fooled into clicking on things they shouldn’t, we’re also combating the problem from our end, by beefing up security on certain Wayne State websites—pages within Academica, like PayStub, Direct Deposit etc. We are introducing what is called ‘two-factor’ authentication. (The current system is ‘one-factor’ authentication, where you simply type your password, which is ‘something you know’ into a box). Two-factor authentication adds an additional layer of security by having you touch ‘something you have’1. Wayne State has contracted with Duo, a nationally-known Ann Arbor-based company to implement this additional layer.

How does it work?

If you have a smart phone (iPhone, Droid, Windows phone) you can download a free app on the device, and go through a simple registration process. You get the app in the usual way (from the App Store/Google Play etc., by searching for ‘Duo’). You go through a one-time set-up process, and after that, when you log in to the sites that WSU has protected through Duo, your phone will pop up an ‘Approve’ or ‘Deny’ button:

Duo on iPhone

If you push ‘Approve,’ Timesheet, Pay Stub, and a few other websites, such as native Banner2, will open up. There are additional wrinkles that can simplify your interaction with Duo–you can read about them here.

The process for other flavors of smartphone is the same. See here for Android and scroll down on this page for other devices.

If you would prefer not to use Duo’s app, you have many other choices. You can choose to receive a text message and then type that number into the website, or a phone call (where you can just press # as a response). And there are other ways to do it too. Details can be found here.

If you don’t want to use any device (smart phone, tablet, flip phone, computer) there are other ways to log on (contact the C&IT Help Desk for additional information).

For much more detail on how this works, go to our FAQ.

Many universities and other organizations with sensitive websites that everyone needs to access are moving in this direction. Normally it only adds one or two seconds to the time it takes to log on to Academica or Banner (C&IT employees have been using Duo for a few months, based on the cutely-named  notion that we should ‘eat our own dogfood’).

As always, if you have questions you can contact the Help Desk, or you can add a comment below–I always read and respond to comments.


1 You can read about this way of classifying security methods on this website.

2 Technically you will need Duo whenever you access ‘Self-service Banner’. This includes facilities you access from Academica such as Pay Stub, Time Sheet, Direct Deposit, tax forms etc. In short, to get to any page within Academica that looks like this:

Self-service Banner image


What does the Yahoo Breach mean? Fix your password now!

You may have heard that Yahoo suffered a security breach which they revealed last week, although it’s not exactly clear when it happened, or even when they became aware of it. You probably don’t think this matters to you, but you might be surprised. There are some things you should do immediately, and some things you should do in the next few days.

First the facts: According to Reuters,  at least 500 million (yes, half a billion) accounts were hacked. That means that user names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, and encrypted passwords were all stolen. Unencrypted passwords, payment data (bank account information) were not taken. According to Bruce Schneier this is the largest breach in history.

Yahoo is claiming that the breach happened in 2014, and that they became aware of it recently, although some have questioned that claim.

So what does this have to do with you? First, if you know you have a Yahoo account, change the password now. Although they claim it happened two years ago, unless you’re sure you’ve changed the password since then, change it now.

Second, many other things are linked to Yahoo. For example, if you have a Uverse account, and use the email address associated with it, that’s the same set of credentials. The same for Flickr. Also, change the security questions (and especially the answers).[1]

Finally, if you used the same password for any other account, particularly your Wayne State email/Academica/AccessID account, CHANGE THE PASSWORD NOW!!! Especially if you have the same access ID (i.e. as I do, geoffnathan@yahoo.com)[2]

This is a good reason, unfortunately, for the annoying requirement for frequent password changes—people reuse passwords. On the other hand, if you use a password manager (like LastPass or Dashlane or Keepass) you don’t need to worry about it. You can read a discussion of the various password managers here

Finally, check back here later in the week to hear about a new security measure C&IT will be implementing that will change the way you get to things like your pay stub, your time sheet and your direct-deposit information in Academica.

[1]    This is a good time to reiterate that you should not use standard answers to security questions. So if it asks you your mother’s maiden name, LIE. Nobody cares, and that answer can’t be Googled, and isn’t on Facebook. Just make sure you record you answer somewhere where you can find it.

[2]    And, before you can get smart with me, as I am writing this I have already changed it.

Log in more safely

Starting today you’ll see a new log-in screen when you go to the web-based version of Wayne Connect. This is part of a long-term project to unify the log-in screens of all of Wayne’s major services, Blackboard, Academica, and Wayne Connect. Although there are esthetic (and ‘branding’) advantages, the main reason is to help all WSU users make sure they are on the right page for logging in. This is crucial because of the innumerable phishing attempts we seem to be getting these days, all of which encourage us to log in to fake WSU pages.
You don’t actually need to do anything different. The log in process is identical—put in your AccessID and password as before. But if you’re worried, look to see that the address bar in your browser is green, it says https, and that there’s a padlock symbol visible. These are the signals that you are actually connecting to Wayne State, and not a sketchy phishing site in Lower Slobbovia.
Here’s what to look for:

Chrome Log-in


Another advantage to this system is that our security office will be able to recognize hacking attempts more easily and will be able to recognize when people have forgotten their passwords and therefore help them in a secure fashion.

The new log-in screen now shows up when you go to Academica and Wayne Connect, and will be phased in for Blackboard and other systems shortly.

Anatomy of a Phishing Onslaught

Recently Wayne State University was attacked, a small skirmish in a diffuse, ongoing cyberwar, albeit without a single, defined enemy. This is an account of what happened, why it happened, and how the university responded. I have tried to make the explanation of each event relatively non-technical, but a certain amount of geekery seems unavoidable.

On May 11, at 9:48 in the morning 182 University computers received an email message from a computer belonging to a local contractor who was doing work on the WSU campus. The message had the subject line ‘invoice’, and the text of the message said merely ‘Check invoice’. There was a zip file attached. A zip file is a data file that has been ‘compressed’ so it can travel more easily over the tight ‘passages’ of the email system. It’s a perfectly respectable way of making large files (such as pictures, pdf files and such) fit within email size limits.

However, when the recipients clicked on the file labeled ‘invoice123.zip’ it extracted into a file named ‘e9058.pdf’, which showed up on the screen as a file with an attached (blurry) image of the Adobe Acrobat logo, making it look like a real pdf. When the respondents with Windows computers (but notably not Macs or Linux machines) then ‘opened’ the pdf file, the following things happened:

  1. that person’s computer connected to some external websites
  2. from which it then downloaded additional malware, which proceded to search their computer for personal banking logins
  3. it then connected to remote ‘command and control’ servers. passing control of the computer overseas.
  4. finally it looked in the local Outlook address book and used it to send the infecting email message to addresses it found there.

It took about an hour for the first three computers to get infected, but the attack was discovered by the C&IT Security office after the second computer began spreading the virus. Between the time that the second computer was detected and when it was shut off the network, seven minutes elapsed, and during those seven minutes that computer sent out 4462 virus emails.

By the time the third computer was infected, C&IT’s security office was able to take action to stop the further spread of the virus. A set of filters on the WSU email system blocked transmission of the zip file, but by noon 150 computers had been infected, and 111 of them were sending out email with the attached zip file.

You might wonder why our Symantec antivirus software didn’t detect the infection when the attachment was opened. The answer is that Symantec (and all other antivirus systems) rely on known virus ‘signatures’ (identifying features), and this was what is known as a ‘zero-day’ attack—a brand new virus never before seen ‘in the wild’. It takes the antivirus people a day or so to develop the specific tools needed for each new virus and distribute them to their users.

In addition, because the virus relied on Outlook address books, people got email from people they knew, who did occasionally send them invoices.

The spread of the virus was effectively stopped by 11:50. Our security team isolated it and determined that it was connecting our computers to Serbia and Ukraine. The Security team then set the university firewall to block connections there, and identified all of the infected computers.

In order to clean up the infection those machines maintained by C&IT (i.e. managed by the DeskTech unit) were reformatted, and outside of the DeskTech domain local administrators were given guidance on how to clean the machines under their control.

In addition, within the DeskTech domain a program called AppLocker was turned on. This prevents computers from running software that did not have an appropriate signature, or which were installed in nonstandard places in a computer (i.e. not in Program Files). Unfortunately this broke a number of specialized programs that various people around campus relied upon, and special rules had to be written to fix this.

By the evening only a few infected computers were not yet fixed,and the original attacker used that to their advantage. Overnight new instructions were passed down to these few straggling machines, and the next day a new attack was launched, sending attachments with different names, but the same modus operandi. These were blocked within 20 minutes of the first occurrence, but to ensure no further attacks, there was a temporary block placed on all zip files sent through the email system. Since there are many legitimate uses of zip files, this block will be ended shortly.

Meanwhile, everyone who was affected was required to change their WSU passwords. Careful examination of system logs showed that four of those AccessID’s were tried from Russia (while their owners were at work on campus) but none of the logins succeeded, so apparently no passwords were compromised.

What can we learn from this adventure?

The faster the IT security guys can act the less harmful the infection. Forwarding suspicious emails to the Security Office (or dragging them to the Phishing applet in Wayne Connect) is valuable. A delay of even an additional hour could have been catastrophic for the campus.

Smooth coordination between the security office and desktop support enabled the spread of the infection to be halted quickly.

We continually remind folks not to click on attachments they don’t expect from people they don’t know. Now we need to modify this—don’t click on any attachment, regardless of sender, unless you are sure it is safe. The text of the email message should reference the content of the attachment and you should be expecting that content. If it doesn’t either phone the sender or just delete it.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about how to resist phishing attempts, you can take the anti-phishing training we make available through Accelerate, HR’s online training system. To get there, log in to Academica, then search for ‘Accelerate’ in the search box (unless you’ve already been there, in which case it should show up in your personalized links). Start Accelerate, then Browse the Catalog, C&IT Security Awareness Program, and finally PhishProof (Part 3), Launch.

Don’t open mystery attachments, and don’t send them either

Most people know that a sophisticated phishing attack has hit the campus over the past few days. It came from within the campus, and consisted of a message saying ‘Check invoice’ and had an attachment that was a .zip file. If you clicked on the link (say because it came from someone you knew, and did occasionally receive invoices) your computer was infected and it immediately began spreading the infection further.

So, for right now C&IT is blocking all .zip file attachments. And it just reinforces the message that we have been sending: ‘Don’t click on attachments you aren’t expecting’.

But there’s another lesson also. If you do need to send an attachment (and it’s not inherently a bad thing to do) say something in the email message itself about what the attachment is and why you are sending it. So instead of ‘Check invoice’ say something like ‘Here’s the invoice from the Blixeldorf Corporation that we were waiting for’. That kind of text in an email message is impossible to fake (and, of course, if the recipient wasn’t waiting for that invoice they’ll know it’s fake).

So don’t open mystery attachments, and make sure any that you send aren’t mysteries to the people you send them to.

If you do need to send a .zip file in the coming days, you can do so via Wayne Connect Briefcase.

This month, learn not to get phished!

As you’ve heard, this month is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Wayne State has decided to celebrate by helping folks develop awareness of phishing techniques. By now everyone should be familiar with phishing (note I don’t even use ‘scare quotes’ to mark the word). But even though we read about it in the papers, and online, a scary number of our colleagues got phished in the past twelve months. Some of them were tricked into getting their direct deposit checks rerouted to a pop-up bank in Nigeria (really!) while others got their computers infected and had to have them reformatted, occasionally losing the data stored on them. And yes, I’m talking about our Wayne State colleagues, not people somewhere else.

C&IT has developed a quiz designed specifically for the Wayne State community. It is intended to help you recognize the warning signs in a phishing message. We’re hoping that heightened awareness and some training (hidden in the quiz) will help protect not only you, but the entire WSU community.

We will be sending out an invitation by email to participate in the ‘survey’. Every completed quiz will be automatically entered in a drawing to win one of two prizes. Students are eligible for a $100 gift card to Barnes & Noble. Employees are eligible for a Wayne State prize pack. Winners will be notified in early November.

My next blog will include specific tips on how to recognize phishing email messages, such as hovering over any links to see whether what pops up matches the text you can see (and also whether, if it’s claiming to come from Wayne State it has a .wayne.edu address).

So watch your mailboxes for more on this topic.

How to prevent your heart from bleeding

By now probably everyone has heard about the Heartbleed problem, but just in case you haven’t, here’s a quick summary. One of the programs1 that websites use to communicate securely with customers, called OpenSSL, turns out to have a vulnerability that would let bad guys snoop on traffic to and from those websites even though the data exchanged between them is supposed to be encrypted (as indicated by the icon of a closed padlock in the address bar, and https in the address itself).

The accidentally unlocked ‘door’ has been around for a while, and so there is a chance that your communications with Gmail, Facebook, tumblr and others have been snooped on. There is even a chance that your password has been swiped, and, of course, if you use the same password in various sites, any stolen password will work on all those sites.

What can you do? First of all, all your Wayne State data is safe–the WSU systems were not running OpenSSL, so they are all safe. The Wayne VPN is vulnerable, but the VPN itself was protected from external attacks in another way, so there is no risk there. But, of course, you have passwords on many other sites, and for some of those you should probably consider some password ‘maintenance’. Specifically, you should probably change those once a month for a while. I’ve already changed my Gmail and Dropbox passwords, and am working on several others.

The real takeaway from this event is that you should not reuse passwords from site to site. Of course, that’s easier to say than to do–most of us have dozens, if not hundreds of passwords, so some kind of password management device is becoming more and more necessary. I, myself, use Lastpass, which stores my passwords online (of course I use a unique, complex but rememberable password for that). It not only stores all my passwords, it even suggests complex non-memorable passwords. Since it will automatically fill them in for me I don’t need to remember them. If you don’t like having it fill things in automatically you can invoke it (there’s a plug-in for every popular web browser), display the password and copy it into the relevant website as you log in.

Note that I have no connection with Lastpass, and there are other worthy competitors such as Keepass and Roboform. You can read a review of them here

Lastpass has an interactive form you can use to see whether your favorite websites have been protected. You can find that here.

If you are interested in the technical details on how Heartbleed works you can watch this video , which lasts about 8 minutes. It’s not horribly abstruse–if you kinda know how websites communicate with your computer you can follow it.

Mashable  has a good summary of which websites you need to worry about.

One final thought. NEVER send your password to anyone for any reason through email. And, in fact, if an email tells you to change your password, if you think it actually is authentic, don’t follow a link in the email to change it. Instead, use a bookmark, or type in the web address yourself, so that you know you are changing the password in the right place, and not in a rogue server in Tuvalu.


1 I know that calling it a ‘program’ oversimplifies things, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.

More goofy password and security stories

We’ve all heard the terrible story about Target’s sloppiness with our credit card data. And one writer for the New York Times says:

Stop asking me for my email address

On the other hand, we now know that the password for the nuclear launch codes was never reset from ‘00000000’. Anything else was hard to remember.

I’m not making this up

Finally, a competitor to TheOnion1 suggests that the NSA has other fish to fry now that they have access to all American’s emails:

The NSA combats insensitive emails

Happy New Year from Proftech.


1For those who are unfamiliar with TheOnion, it is a satirical news website. lightly braised turnip is similar.