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Massachusetts Sues to Halt Defcon Subway Hacking Talk 270

Posted by timothy
from the this-has-not-been-cleared-with-upstairs dept.
According to CNET, "The state of Massachusetts has asked a federal judge for a temporary restraining order preventing three MIT students from giving a presentation on Sunday about hacking smartcards used in the Boston subway system." It'll be interesting to see whether Dutch-style openness or Soviet-style secrecy prevails in Las Vegas. Update: 08/09 20:57 GMT by T : "Too late," says reader Bluey: "Injunction was already granted."
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Massachusetts Sues to Halt Defcon Subway Hacking Talk

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  • by pha7boy (1242512) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:03PM (#24538821)

    rather then make sure they have a techie in attendance so that they may learn something and find a workaround the issue, Boston's lawyers suggested that burying your head in the sand (or, alternatively, in the piles of garbage and crap in Boston) will solve the issue just as well. "As long as we don't let them say it publicly, it does not exist" one Boston official explained the position.

    this is why I love government bureaucrats. They tend to be smarter then the average bear.

  • Frist Amendment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mordok-DestroyerOfWo (1000167) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:03PM (#24538825)
    Who needs free speech anyway?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:06PM (#24538843)

    Prior restraint [wikipedia.org], anyone?

    Tag: censorship

  • Anonymous Coward (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:11PM (#24538881)

    Barbra Streisand seen fleeing the scene.

  • Re:BS (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MindlessAutomata (1282944) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:23PM (#24538947)

    *mumbles something about Guantanamo Bay*

  • by Stan92057 (737634) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:26PM (#24538979)
    How is this burying there heads in the sand? There is a known problem,and they don't want criminals to abuse this problem until its fixed. Releasing exploits with out it being fixed is irresponsible, period end of store. I am sure 99% of the people here disagree with me, but after years of seeing exploits released to the public only to have criminals take advantage of theses exploits. Why should they try to figure out theses exploits when Black Hats do it for them time and time again. And another thing, what makes everyone thing they want or need help fixing the exploit from the public
  • by langelgjm (860756) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:36PM (#24539031) Journal

    Is MBTA actually going to get the card system provider to fix the problem? Because from what I've seen, you'll have a hard time even getting the department and the contractor to admit that the problem exists. And even if they do admit it, is the solution going to be any more than "it's unlikely people will exploit this"?

    That sort of attitude seems to be how Maryland feels about its AccuVote TS voting machines. Three independent reviews have all revealed flaws with them, but we're still using them, despite the fact that those flaws essentially mean that the contractor has violated its agreement with the State.

    Furthermore, I doubt much criminal activity is going to result from releasing the information. Only a few people are going to have the time and patience to actually follow the exploit through, and if the system is well-designed (though apparently it may not be), modifying card data shouldn't be able to damage or disrupt the system.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:39PM (#24539061)
    by "It's Digg time", do you mean "It's hit yourself in the head with a hammer until your IQ is reduced to double digits time"?
  • by Vukovar (1203574) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:41PM (#24539069)
    No one wants to admit there is an inherent flaw in their design no less expend the resources on fixing it if they don't have to. It's the Ford Pinto anology - we'd rather pay out the lawsuits for the deaths as opposed to what it would cost to correct the problem. If a handful of people hack their cards, they're willing to lose that revenue as opposed to fixing the problem. Making it public forces their hand and a third party doing it should help push them to fix it. If they find their own flaw, corporate greed kicks in - why fix it if only they know about it??
  • by langelgjm (860756) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:43PM (#24539089) Journal

    Maybe put the amount on the card, so the bus doesn't have to call home every time someone steps on a bus, but at least keep all transactions in a database so they can check for fraud after the fact.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this. I don't know about the Charlie card system, but the issue with many transit cards is that it's difficult or impossible for moving vehicles to always be able to check in with the network database to determine the value of an account. So the account value has to be stored on the card.

    This is exactly like storing the value of your ATM or gift card on the card itself. But with ATMs and gift cards, the terminal where you use them is always going to have network access (or if it doesn't you probably won't be able to use the card).

    Of course, even just storing an account number or identifier on a card doesn't make it fraud-proof. Magstripe cards are trivially easy to re-encode with only a few dollars worth of equipment. Copying these can mean defeating physical access systems, being able to use someone else's gift card balance, or worse.

  • by eggman9713 (714915) <{eggman97132007} {at} {mac.com}> on Saturday August 09, 2008 @03:52PM (#24539159)
    Just do it the way that they tried to do it in regards to the recent DNS exploits. Tell the affected organization (Boston subway system authority) that there is a problem and you are willing to work with them to fix it. If they refuse, just leave them the information and say they have x number of days to fix it and if they refuse to do anything, you are going to the press, which technically is true since journalists are allowed in limited numbers at Defcon as far as I know. That way you give them the courtesy of warning them in advance, but you aren't needing to completely shut up about it or let the problem lie unfixed. As a white hat, this guy has a moral obligation to help get problems fixed before the black hats find out.
  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by langelgjm (860756) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:06PM (#24539251) Journal

    What does free speech have to do with releasing software that will help people steal from the transit system?. It sound criminal to me, assisting people to steal.

    Right... because clearly that's what the MIT students are trying to do. Help people steal. That was their plan all along...

    It couldn't have anything to do with revealing flaws in RFID-based transit card systems that are being increasingly adopted by state and local governments all across the nation, and for that matter, the world. It couldn't have anything to do with shaming a government agency into actually getting on the ball and working with its contractor to improve security of its system. It couldn't have anything to do with plain and simply academic curiosity.

    What's it got to do with free speech? Maybe that we think they ought to have the freedom to not only do the work they've done, but talk about it as well?

  • Two problems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by belmolis (702863) <billposer@@@alum...mit...edu> on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:07PM (#24539265) Homepage

    I see two major problems with the application for the order. The first is that it claims that disclosure of how to hack the cards constitutes a danger to the public. How so? All these cards are good for is paying the fare. Hacking them allows people to ride the subway for free. That's petty larceny, not a danger to the public.

    The second is that the application asked the court to forbid:

    publicly stating or indicating that the security or integrity of the CharlieCard pass, the CharlieTicket pass, or the MBTA's Fare Media systems has been compromised.

    There's no conceivable justification for that. Even if there is justification for forbidding disclosure of the details of the hack, stating that there is a problem is certainly constitutionally protected. (It is possible that the court did not include such language in the TRO; this is what Massachusetts asked for, but possibly not what they got. Anybody got a link to the actual TRO?).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:13PM (#24539325)

    One of the problems is that the MBTA is losing money like crazy, in spite of vastly increased ridership because of gasoline prices. They can't afford to do basic mechanical maintenance and now they have to redo their smart card system too!? Of course one could argue that it would save them money in the long run, but only if people took advantage of this flaw.

    As for the database system someone suggested, that would be expensive to implement and administer, and (worst of all) would mean that people would be waiting precious seconds for the transaction to go through while they can see and hear trains arriving and leaving. People are usually in a hurry when they enter the subway station, and I know from experience that that is a stressful moment. If the system had downtime, people's tension levels would skyrocket.
    Let's NOT do it that way.

  • by RossumsChild (941873) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:14PM (#24539329)
    Right, because my idea of a perfect society is one where I can't use the damn transit system unless I want to give up any shred of privacy about my destination, travel habits, and location.
  • by mpe (36238) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:18PM (#24539387)
    What I want to know is how a system like this is even possible. Why should the value available on a smart card actually be something that can be changed by the person holding the card.

    Because the people designing these systems don't know what they are doing. This dosn't just apply to RFID systems. There was a case recently involving a magnetic strip card which could be "cloned" by the using nothing more sophisticated than scissors/knife together sticky tape/glue

    Shouldn't the card just have an ID, and that ID is tied to an account, which is tied to a person.

    Unless it's intended to also use the system to track specific individuals then you don't need any such tying. Just a method of ensuing that every ticket has a unique ID. That only one instance of a ticket with a given ID is in use at any time in the system and that a "never issued ID" or one reported lost/stolen cannot be used.

    Maybe put the amount on the card, so the bus doesn't have to call home every time someone steps on a bus, but at least keep all transactions in a database so they can check for fraud after the fact.

    A bus might well "call home" periodically anyway, for such things as uploading it's position/CCTV footage/etc at this point it can check the tickets which have recently been used. If it isn't possible to operate a data link all the time.

    It seems like the way they have it set up, would be the equivalent of having your bank account balance completely controllable by modifying the information on your bank card.

    IIRC at one time it was possible get around withdrawal limits by modifying/cloning cards since they used a read/write area to record this information on the card. So as to enable offline/batch operation of machines.

    Even retail stores have this figured out so that their gift cards only hold a number, and the actual value on the card is stored in some computer database.

    Probably only as a consequence of being exploited though :)
  • by SonicSpike (242293) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:18PM (#24539389) Homepage Journal

    "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;"

    -US Constitution

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:24PM (#24539441) Journal

    That's a pretty weak argument. All you need is a laptop with a cellular data connection. If you really have places where you can't get a cell signal, get the cell company to add a picocell at the bus stops or add a Wi-Fi hot spot. Odds are you won't have to add too many of them in any major metro area.

    Well, I'm not the one making the argument, I'm just going by what I see being implemented in transit systems. Storing the value on the card means fast retrieval and processing, and no reliance on a network. What if the data links drops for some reason? What if it takes longer than usual to connect? Transit systems have schedules to keep (ideally!).

    Furthermore, it's easy to say "get the cell company to add a picocell at the bus stops", but it's not as if a transit system can simply mandate that it be done. Who's going to pay for it? And at what point does the expense of ensuring reliable network connectivity become greater than simply expecting a certain percentage of fraud? After all, this is a transit system we're talking about, not a bank.

    If you have access to somebody else's card, yes. Otherwise, if you are able to steal access, your number space is too small. Use a 256-bit number (or 1024-bit if you're really paranoid) and ensure that new numbers are assigned randomly within that space so that your odds of picking a valid number are remarkably close to zero.

    I know. That's why I talked about copying. Plus, given that with things like gift cards, the identifier is often written on the card itself, sometimes you don't even need to have a card reader to get the information. Or, you have security leaks. When I was an undergrad, the University of Maryland inadvertently exposed the ID numbers of the entire university population through its LDAP entries. Those same IDs were used as identifiers on the magstripe cards that gave building access, and dining hall access.

  • by Tim C (15259) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:37PM (#24539535)

    Well, this is the State of Massachusetts, not Congress...

  • by cayenne8 (626475) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:43PM (#24539595) Homepage Journal
    "Right, because my idea of a perfect society is one where I can't use the damn transit system unless I want to give up any shred of privacy about my destination, travel habits, and location."

    Well, that does seem to be the goal of the US govt. at this point. The RealID (national id) alone seems to be a huge step in that direction. They aren't gonna let you travel without one soon...within the US even.

  • If this happens, (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:45PM (#24539605) Homepage Journal

    Its one more strike against the first amendment and another step down the path of the government deciding what you are allowed to know.

  • by mpe (36238) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:49PM (#24539637)
    With a correct implementation - that uses good cryptography - it is quite possible to have secure stored value cards.

    However good the cryptography such a card would be vulnerable to a "known plaintext" attack. Since an attacker can see how the encrypted information changes as they alter the value of the card and compare several with the same value.
    To make things easier these systems tend to use proprietary cryptography which equates to very poor cryptography. In the case of Mifare Classic this was described by Bruce Schneier as "kindergarten cryptography". Maybe they'd have done better to use something like the "Vigenere Cipher" which was at least considered unbreakable for 300 years.
  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:54PM (#24539665)

    Personally, seeing the direction that the govt. is headed, I really don't care if they choose to put their heads in the sand. It means free trips for anyone savvy enough (or with friends in the right places) to crack their pathetic systems. Not to rant on about how america is turning into a police state, but if I can hack my RealID or whatever bullshit congress dreams up next, and they refuse believe it can be hacked, then they don't DESERVE to know about security flaws.

  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @04:55PM (#24539675) Homepage Journal

    Even if that was the intent to show people how to steal ( which it wasn't ), its still a protected right to talk about it.

    Now that said, It wouldn't be protected speech if you ordered people to try it themselves.

    Much like its a protected to get up on your soapbox about hating a particular race/whatever and wishing them gone, but it wouldn't be protected if you were organizing a lynching.

    I hope you see the difference and why its important to the foundation of freedom in our country.

  • by moxley (895517) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:01PM (#24539715)

    Fuck this.

    They need to give their presentation regardless.

    It's clearly a first amendment issue, and when people allow things like threats from the authorities or bullshit unconstitutional court injunctions to stop them from what they want to tell the masses it only serves to justify the actions of those who would try to stop people from expressing important matters.

    From what i can tell this isn't about public safety at all, it's more about money. If it were about public safety, they would take it seriously and work with these guys to resolve the issues.

    On top of that, when these sorts of uses for RFID were being planned and discussed years ago (things like this and passports, etc) many, many people warned that this would occur...

    Someone needs to take that CD and quickly get the contents onto usenet. It's already in the public record anyway - once the cat is out of the bag it's out of the bag.

  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Wonko the Sane (25252) * on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:02PM (#24539721) Journal

    The dissonance between your post and your sig is making my brain hurt.

  • by cobaltnova (1188515) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:12PM (#24539785)
    What exactly is the scheme you are envisioning? If the bus system is not reporting usage information, the value can be read off the card, and the value on the card can be changed, I see an unpatchable security hole.

    Purchase a single card, with 10$ on it. Record the stored value, use the card, and then restore the old value. Viola. Broken card.

    However, if the card could be made to increment a counter every time it was adjusted (in such a way that could not be undone) and each card had an immutable card ID, there would seem to be an effective solution: store the value on the card, and a hash of the value, a common secret, the counter, and the immutable ID. If there isn't a hash collision, you'd have a safe system.

    Such a counter could be produced by a unerasable section of the card (akin to punching holes in a sheet of paper). To be useful, though, the card would have to allow many such "holes" to be punched. I know nothing about card technology; is there such a method? How is that effected?
  • by base3 (539820) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:26PM (#24539871)
    Thanks, Judge! I'd have never know it existed had you not tried to censor it.
  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:4, Insightful)

    by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:40PM (#24539953) Homepage Journal
    I'm not sure your equation,
    "personal information"=="software flaw"
    is valid.
    It seems like the 4th Amendment could be seen as creating a distinction.
    However, I am not a lawyer, just someone applying common sense.
    TFA:

    That could be difficult to enforce. Every one of the thousands of people here who registered for Defcon received a CD with the students' 87-page presentation titled "Anatomy of a Subway Hack." It recounts, in detail, how they wrote code to generate fake magcards. Also, it describes how they were able to use software they developed and $990 worth of hardware to read and clone the RFID-based CharlieCards.

    Seems like the MA government could or should already have all of the relevant material.
    The injunction amounts to a fart in a thunderstorm, and feckless as the RFID cards in question.

  • by Garse Janacek (554329) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @05:46PM (#24539987)

    One of the problems is that the MBTA is losing money like crazy, in spite of vastly increased ridership because of gasoline prices. They can't afford to do basic mechanical maintenance and now they have to redo their smart card system too!?

    They were somehow able to "afford" the many, many millions of dollars required to install this slow, unreliable, and annoying smart card system. That expense was how they were able to justify the fare increase. I would be fine with an increased fare if it was used to improve service, but instead the service is now significantly worse than before, the smart card machines are terrible (every month I have to wrestle with it to get it to recognize my credit card to buy a pass, and I know others who have the same problem), and they haven't even accomplished the original goal.

    And, of course, they voluntarily installed this terrible smart card system even after New York tried installing the same system, and it ended up so terrible that they voluntarily ate the lost money and went with another contractor. I never quite heard the rationale for failing to learn from their mistake...

    So, yes, they are losing money like crazy, but my sympathy is limited. They've consistently shown that they don't really know what they're doing.

    As for the card vulnerability: it's another demonstration of how worthless the system is, but it hardly matters. Part of the justification for the system was to make sure people paid their fares. It has been a dreadful failure at that, but whatever. The number of people who will go to all the trouble of counterfeiting their MBTA passes is dwarfed by the number that will simply trail someone else through the gates or hop on the green line without paying. This has always been the case. It's not a new or surprising point that secure cryptography cannot prevent social engineering. The fact that it turns out to be insecure cryptography just makes the whole thing more pathetic...

  • by drDugan (219551) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @06:18PM (#24540185) Homepage

    IANAL, but slide 5 of the presentation says "AND THIS IS VERY ILLEGAL". Maybe they are getting their rocks off, testing and exposing security weaknesses - whatever. public good, harming society, doesn't matter. if we follow free speech and assembly, the talk should not have been stopped, for ANY reason. when ever and where ever we go down the road of "illegal information" tyranny is sure to follow.

    it would seem that a much better approach would have been to allow the speech to continue, but indict and serve the people (beforehand) who did illegal behavior ASAP, then use the speech to apprehend and prosecute those who did the illegal acts.

    The state should warn them beforehand: "you will be prosecuted" for your illegal behavior X Y and Z (and BE SPECIFIC), and then at trial, public admissions make the situation worse. Gee, maybe law enforcement needs to get current, at least come into the 1990's.

    this is the same discussion going on all around while the world ramps up the global communication streams: demonizing the information or talking about it after the illegal acts, instead of what works: calmly and very publicly bringing those who do criminal behaviors to justice.

  • by moxley (895517) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @07:37PM (#24540839)

    I realize that it's easier for me to say it than it is for them to do it. That goes without saying. My entire point is that if people down start saying "damn the consequences, fuck this, I believe I have the right" then you might as well give up completely on having rights at all when you come up against any organization (corporate or governmental) that wants to stop what you are saying.

    I didn't say anything in my post about "taking up arms and shooting down the government" - I didn't even allude to such a thingm in the slightest, so I don't know where that even came from.

    Was that an attempt to raise an objection to something I didn't even say?

    Yes, I know it's out there; hence "public record" and "the cat is out of the bag."

  • Re:Frist Amendment (Score:2, Insightful)

    by T3Tech (1306739) <tj&t3technet,com> on Saturday August 09, 2008 @07:41PM (#24540871) Homepage

    I'm against this gag order, but the case about First Amendment rights seems to be weak. Under your argument, it would be fine if I posted your Social Security and credit card numbers on the internet, as long as I'm not the one stealing anything from your accounts.

    Since Social Security #'s and CC #'s shouldn't mean anything in and of themselves I see no problem. It's the whole issue of these things being used in the way they are that makes them worth anything.

    A SS# should be entirely useless outside the context of the SSA. I mean the damn cards say right on them that they are useless for identification purposes - but so many entities use the worthless number as an identifier and think it means something. I'll not go into the fact that they (SSA, SSN, etc.) should no longer exist anyway.

    CC numbers are not so useful by themselves as they once were. You still need other information for them to be useful, particularly for fraudulent purposes. One could just come up with an otherwise valid SS or CC # easily (the formats are publicly available), but they still require other information in order for them to utilized.

    In this case with the MBTA, we're talking about a government entity that is using a bad model for funding public services, here tranportation. IMO, this only reflects on a poorly managed public budget (rather typical really, many might say even inherent in government).

    So what I want to know is why is the government so inefficient that it can't provide public transportation services out of the tax revenue it collects and needs to resort to collecting fares?

    Just think of how much money they wouldn't be spending if they didn't resort to using some (typically ineffective) fare collection model that needs to constantly be tweaked to begin with. And so it goes with the nature of governments that try to be everything to everyone and people wonder why they can't do any one thing effectively. :shrugs:

  • by CastrTroy (595695) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @09:40PM (#24541797) Homepage
    You could still do it anonymously. And even without a computer network. Have an ID written onto every card. The value is also on the card. The bus scans the card, and if there are sufficient funds on the card, you can ride the bus. When the bus is done for the day, it returns to the garage, and dumps the stored data onto the system, which will scan for inconsistencies on the cards. Since you should only be able to add value with valid machines, and money should only be taken off by the bus, these two values could easily be checked by a computer system to ensure they balance out. If invalid information is found on a card (the balance doesn't equal the deposits minus the debits), then the card could be flagged. Options for flagged cards include just disabling it so it isn't accepted the next time the person tries to board the bus, or even letting the person on, and alerting transit cops so, if they are in the vicinity, can pick the guy up at the next stop. I think it would even be appropriate for there to be a camera where you enter the bus, so that a picture could be taken of those using invalid cards. You'd probably want the system to have a secret key so that it could at least sign the information on the card, so that people couldn't make up fake account numbers and store those on the card.
  • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@@@gmail...com> on Saturday August 09, 2008 @10:02PM (#24541927) Journal
    Um,if you've ever seen a bear crack open a SUV to get the sandwiches inside,they are actually pretty smart critters. A better analogy would be the opossum that tried to fool the Mac truck about to hit it by playing dead or hissing at it,which is why here in the south you see dead ones by the side of the road all the time. Instead of fixing the problem they hissed at the presenters while ignoring the fact that the web doesn't follow injunctions. We should have a "Wow,you are a dumbass!" award that we can give to brain trusts like this. I suggest the award should be a gold plated businessman with his head up his ass,as it seems that is the most likely place for business and government heads to be ATM. But as always this is my 02c,YMMV
  • by Obasan (28761) on Saturday August 09, 2008 @10:14PM (#24541983)

    I don't agree with the Massachusetts decision to attempt to stifle the presentation. This was foolish on a number of levels, not the least of which was it will probably help draw far more attention to the hack than it otherwise would have obtained.

    That being said, it is perfectly reasonable to not "fix" a system if the cost of the fix is more than the cost of fare evasion. Look - in many cities "evading the fare" is as simple as getting on the bus and choosing not to pay. These systems depend on users for the most part obeying an honor system with periodic random enforcement by transit personnel checking for passes / ticket validation. This is done across Europe and in a number of cities in Canada (not sure about the USA). Why do this? For starters most people aren't jerks, and pay their fares. Second, there will ALWAYS be a way to evade a fare system without massive (expensive) enforcement that would cost far more than the added fare revenue. You would not get on one of the systems where there is no ticket check on entry and then crow about how you evaded the system (or you wouldn't without looking like a complete dork).

    It's worth noting that this injunction is not analogous to software companies hiding known exploits in their systems where their customers may suffer the consequences. Boston IS the end user.

    Moving people from place to place should always be the highest priority of transit authorities. In general most people are good about paying their fares. Dealing with smalltime one-off thieves is a waste of their resources.

    If you use the system without paying, you are a thief and you are doing a tremendous disservice to your fellow citizens.

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