We recently felt it necessary to take, temporarily, extreme action for the majority of University users: we blocked Google Docs.
Why would we do such a thing, you might well ask. Surely Google Docs is a perfectly legitimate site, widely used by staff and students as part of their work and personal lives?
We know that. Unfortunately, it is also frequently used for illegal activities; importantly, illegal activities which threaten the security of the University’s systems and data.
Many readers will be aware that over the past few years, phishing has been a major problem for us. Not the sort of phishing in which the attacker gets hold of online banking details – in general that’s a matter for users, their banks, and law enforcement. What we care about are phishing attacks harvesting credentials for University systems, in particular email accounts.
In general the attackers are seeking accounts from which to send out spam. Lots of spam. Universities tend to have well-connected email systems which are generally considered reputable by other email providers. In the absence of effective monitoring, it can be easy for over a million messages to be sent out before someone happened to notice. Once a compromised account is closed off, the attackers simply move to another one. Every so often they need to send out a bunch of phishing emails to snare some more accounts from which to advertise their little blue pills or whatever.
For a successful phishing attack, the attackers need some means of capturing login credentials. Not so long ago, they’d simply ask for users to reply to the phishing email, including their details. These days that approach is less common, and most attacks bear a link to a web form. The forms are hosted anywhere they can find – perhaps a compromised webserver, perhaps one of the world’s many free webform hosting providers.
Now, Mom & Pop’s Free Form Farm is unlikely to be used by many legitimate users, and if we were to block access to it, it’s unlikely to be a big deal for anyone but the phishers. But as well as all the small providers, there’s a big one: Google Docs.
Google Docs and phishing
Google Docs has many advantages. One significant one is that millions of people use it for perfectly law-abiding purposes. Another is that traffic is encrypted. Many educational establishments will have some capability for filtering traffic to malicious URLs as it flows through their network. That’s easy with unencrypted traffic. If the site uses SSL, then you have to do some kind of SSL interception. Straightforward on a corporate network full of tightly-managed systems. Much harder on a network full of student machines, visitor laptops and the like, and in our opinion, something to be avoided.
So how can you stop your users reaching the phishing forms? Assuming that the phishing emails get past all your anti-spam and anti-malware defences, you essentially need to ask Google nicely if they could take the form down. That’s simple enough – Google’s own security team have advised us that the best way is to use the “Report abuse” link that’s at the bottom of each page. Easy enough.
Unfortunately, you then need to wait for them to take action. Of late that seems typically to take a day or two; in the past it’s been much longer, sometimes on a scale of weeks. Most users are likely to visit the phishing form when they first see the email. After all it generally requires “urgent” action to avoid their account being shut down. So the responses will be within a few hours of the mails being sent, or perhaps the next working day. If the form is still up, they lose. As do you – within the next few days, you’re likely to find another spam run being dispatched from your email system.
Over the past few weeks there has been a marked increase in phishing activity against our users. Now, we may be home to some of the brightest minds in the nation. Unfortunately, their expertise in their chosen academic field does not necessarily make them an expert in dealing with such mundane matters as emails purporting to be from their IT department. Some users simply see that there’s some problem, some action is required, carry it out, and go back to considering important matters such as the mass of the Higgs Boson, or the importance of the March Hare to the Aztecs. Granted, many, if not most of our users do spot the scams, and do nothing (or better, warn us about it). But as with most spam, it only takes a small proportion to respond for the attacks to be worthwhile. And we have tens of thousands of users. Despite all attempts at user education, some will inevitably respond. We see a good mix: first-year “digital native” undergraduates, ancillary staff, emeritus professors.
The recent attacks have often seen us dealing with several account compromises within a short length of time. We are keen to see that compromises and associated spam runs do not adversely impact the University’s “reputation” with external email services such as Hotmail and GMail. We have had problems in the past in which Hotmail have rejected all mail from us over a period of many days, owing to too high a proportion of the mail from us being marked as spam. Such incidents can cause major disruption to legitimate University business, especially given the number of sites which make use of Live@edu and other outsourced email solutions. Spam is not the only threat to University business from an account compromise, of course – something the University of East Anglia know all too well.
Almost all the recent attacks have used Google Docs URLs, and in some cases the phishing emails have been sent from an already-compromised University account to large numbers of other Oxford users. Seeing multiple such incidents the other afternoon tipped things over the edge. We considered these to be exceptional circumstances and felt that the impact on legitimate University business by temporarily suspending access to Google Docs was outweighed by the risks to University business by not taking such action. While this wouldn’t be effective for users on other networks, in the middle of the working day a substantial proportion of users would be on our network and actively reading email. A temporary block would get users’ attention and, we hoped, serve to moderate the “chain reaction”.
It is fair to say that the impact on legitimate business was greater than anticipated, in part owing to the tight integration of Google Docs into other Google services. This was taken into account along with changes to the threats and balance of risks over the course of the afternoon, and after around two and a half hours, the restrictions on access to Google Docs were removed.
We appreciate and apologise for the disruption this caused for our users. Nevertheless, we must always think in terms of the overall risk to the University as a whole, and we certainly cannot rule out taking such action again in future, although our thresholds for doing so may be somewhat higher. We are meanwhile investigating several possible technical measures for reducing the risks to the University with less impact on legitimate network usage, and will be reviewing our emergency communications procedures.
We will also be pressuring Google that they need to be far more responsive, if not proactive, regarding abuse of their services for criminal activities. Google’s persistent failures to put a halt to criminal abuse of their systems in a timely manner is having severe consequences for us, and for many other institutions. If OxCERT are alerted to criminal abuse of a University website, we would certainly aim to have it taken down within two working hours, if not substantially quicker. Even out of official hours there is a good chance of action being taken. We have to ask why Google, with the far greater resources available to them, cannot respond better. Indeed much, if not all, of the process could be entirely automated – and part of their corporate culture is that their programmers and sysadmins should be automating common tasks such that they can devote efforts to more interesting matters. Google may not themselves be being evil, but their inaction is making it easier for others to conduct evil activities using Google-provided services.