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the key is real, the lock is not

In the movie The Game part of the plot centered around a (simulated) "attack" on a rich man (Michael Douglas) that forced him to give up the passwords and such to his bank accounts by intercepting the cell phone call and answering it, pretending to be the bank. The basic idea (make the environment familiar enough so that you slip up) has been used online in various forms, but so far any attentive person could figure out that things were not what they seemed.

Don has posted about an unsettling idea he calls visual spoofing. Essentially he's exposing the biggest threat of all: that we end up becoming used to our UIs to the point where we trust them implicitly.

I brought up the movie at the beginning because Don's example is the online version of it (granted, there are details missing, but does anyone doubt that you could conceivably spoof the entire UI? And what then?). Douglas' character in the movie has no way at all of telling that the person on the other side is not working for the bank, but for the enemy. His keys (passwords) are intact, but the lock (bank) isn't real.

The problem is, at the core, that we tend to guard (and trust, or distrust), the key, while we implicitly trust the lock. Why? The lock is "solid, real". It's "unmovable": built into the door, or ever present in your computer screen. The key can be duplicated without you knowing. The lock cannot.

Except that the locks we've got on computer screens are themselves open to duplication. Seamless. What Don is talking about is applied to browsers. But given the ever-present infestation of all kinds of worms and viruses, how long will it take until this applies to other software too? Software that monitors keypresses has been around for a long time, but digging through all the information generated is a mess (nevermind having to get it out of the machine). This is targeted, targeted at the user, not at the system. You could simulate accounting software. Social engineering meets cracking, or phreaking (no, I don't like to use the term hacking, which I prefer to use in its original context).

Thanks, Don, for the eye-opener. Looking forward for the follow up where he'll talk about an idea he had to minimize this problem. I don't want to start thinking about possible solutions yet: I haven't even finished absorbing all the implications.

Posted by diego on February 12, 2004 at 8:59 PM

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