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Cyber safety is a huge problem. Photo credit: John Schnobrich

The ‘Internet apocalypse’ that nobody cares about

A historic event of unprecedented magnitude that will keep the specialists busy for many months to come: This information has not exited the mainstream media nor the public at large.

Published: January 29, 2022, 11:55 am

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    “Log4j” is not known to anyone outside of developer circles. And many who use this piece of computer code are not even aware of its vulnerability. For PCs, smartphones, game consoles and internet-enabled objects in general, it is one of the most used programs in the world with up to a billion downloads per year. Because of its severity, the Log4j vulnerability has been given its own name. It’s called “Log4Shell”.

    Some 25 years ago, Ceki Gülcü, who now owns his own software consulting company, wrote his master’s thesis in cryptography at the IBM research laboratory near Zurich in Switzerland. After his studies, he remained employed in an IBM team that dealt with data security.

    The software he developed writes down what happens when you use software and Log4j version 1 was created. Ceki Gülcü explained the functionality of Log4j using the example of the black box in an airplane, which records the conversations of the pilots, the speed, the altitude and all the technical aspects that are programmed to monitor and control the flight.

    Log4j’s software is open source, i.e. software that is made available to the general public free of charge. Such software has a reputation for being generally safe precisely because of its transparency. It is assumed that many eyes ensure that possible problems are recognized and solved.

    In 2000, the program was officially handed over to the Apache open source foundation. This non-profit foundation is made up of volunteer developers and contributors. In 2006, Ceki Gülcü left the project and developed his own software such as SLF4J or LogBack, which are well known and popular today.

    In 2012, the Apache Foundation started a complete revision under the name Log4j Version 2. A special function was introduced: Log4j 2 analyzes and interprets external programs before their content is used further.

    And this is exactly where the vulnerability was discovered over a month ago: An attacker can submit a specially crafted file that Log4j falsely accepts. This means that any code from external sources can be executed. Another option is to simply freeze the compromised computer and then demand a ransom.

    The discovery of the vulnerability reads like a thriller. It was Chen Zhaojun, a member of the Alibaba Cloud Security team, who discovered the vulnerability. He informed the Apache Foundation and together with them made the vulnerability public on December 9, 2021, giving the developers enough time to fix the problem. After a leak on a Chinese blogging platform shortly before publication, there were discussions about the details of the vulnerability. Hackers didn’t wait: the first attacks were observed in the first few days after discovery.

    Maximum damage

    Giants like NASA, Twitter, Oracle and Apple are known to use programs in which the Log4j vulnerability is present. For example, iCloud, Apple’s online storage service, could have been hacked via this vulnerability. In theory, the small helicopter that NASA sent to Mars is also vulnerable, as some of the programs used to communicate with it from Earth are based on Log4j. Small and medium-sized businesses, government agencies and even individuals with private servers at home are also affected, and it will take some time before the extent of the gap is known.

    Furthermore, it is clear that the Belgian Ministry of Defense was the first known victim of a Log4Shell attack. Spectacular precautionary measures were taken, for example in Canada with the preventive shutdown of government servers or in Germany with the giant company Bosch, which also manufactures connected objects and admitted to being affected, but without giving further details.

    Actually, this vulnerability may have been discovered and exploited by hackers long before, without anyone noticing. As a reminder, version 2 was released in 2012. It is therefore not impossible that criminals could have smuggled malicious programs into computer systems. For some actors, gaining access to confidential information is more attractive than being paid for it. It is feared that the first wave of attacks was just an initial earthquake before a tsunami of larger attacks.

    What should a digital future look like?

    The fact is that neither society nor governments are prepared for accelerated digitization today.

    Before governments continue to push for electronic voting and the automated exchange of medical data, societies should discuss the kind of future they want.  This includes a public discussion on the legal aspects, security and data protection, infrastructure, open source, surveillance, sovereignty over our data, democracy, culture, copyright. And of course censorship must also be included in the discussions. And public participation is necessary because the transition concerns us all – we urgently need to assume digital responsibility.

    This “computer apocalypse” raises the question of the importance of our digital world. Contingency plans should be put in place since technical measures alone are not enough. Countries and businesses need to prepare to continue working in the event of a larger network failure. In addition, crisis communication infrastructure should be planned.

    Each person is responsible for the security of their own computer system and makes sure to know the basics of home privacy: All sensitive data should be kept in a separate area from the internet. Change the passwords regularly, as well as the password for a WLAN and install a password on any hard drive.

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