NHS not exactly target of “cyber-attack”

The Security and Intelligence Committee takes all this cyber-thingy stuff very seriously.

I got home, put on BBC News and there was some dope being interviewed about a “cyber-attack on the NHS”, blithering on about their M3 network and how secure it is. I turned over to Sky, and there was someone from Alienvault talking sense, but not detail. Followed by the chair of the Security and Intelligence Committee, Dominic Grieve, blustering on about how seriously the government took cyber-security but admitting he didn’t know anything about technology, in case it wasn’t obvious. I have never met anyone in parliament who does (see previous rants).

So what’s actually happening? It’s not an attack on the NHS. It’s a bunch of criminals taking advantage of a big in Microsoft’s server software. Almost certainly MS17-010. An attack based on this exploit was used by NSA in America (Equation Group) until someone snaffled it and leaked it (allegedly Shadow Brokers). It’s been used in a family of ransomware called WannaCrypt, and it’s being used to extort money all over the place. I see no reason to believe the NHS has been targeted specifically. It’s targeting everyone vulnerable, all over the world. Poorer countries running more old software, or bootleg version that don’t receive updates,  are worst hit.

So why is the news full of it being the NHS, and only the NHS? One reason is that Microsoft issued a patch for MS17-010 a good while back. And the NHS didn’t apply it. Why? Because they’re still using Windows XP and Microsoft didn’t issue the patch for Windows XP. Simple.

A lot (repeat A LOT) of companies use older Microsoft systems because (a) they’ve bought them, why should they pay again; and (b) Microsoft abandoned backward compatibility with Windows 7, so a lot of legacy software (dating back to the 1980’s) won’t run any more. Upgrading isn’t so simple.

There’s a lot of money (from Crapita Illogica, Atos and G4S – amongst others) in flogging government projects dodgy Microsoft-based IT. Microsoft Servers are considered Job Security for people who can only understand how to use a wizard, but know it’ll break down regularly and they’ll be called upon to reinstall it.

No one who knows how computers work would ever use Microsoft servers except as a last resort.

Update 13-May-2017

Guess what? Microsoft has now released a patch for older versions of their server software (ie. Server 2003 and Windows XP). That was jolly quick; it’s like they had it already but didn’t release it to punish those who refused to “upgrade”.

ParentPay seriously broken (again)

400 Bad Request
ParentPay, the Microsoft-based school payment system that’s the bane of so many parents’ lives, has yet another problem. Since Saturday, every time I go to their web site I get a page back that displays as above. Eh? Where does this page come from – it’s not a browser message. A look at the source reveals what they’re up to:

<head><title>400 Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</title></head>
<body bgcolor="white">
<center><h1>400 Bad Request</h1></center>
<center>Request Header Or Cookie Too Large</center>
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->
<!-- a padding to disable MSIE and Chrome friendly error page -->


Okay, but what the hell is wrong? This is using Chrome Version 56.0 on a Windows platform. Can ParentPay not cope with its standard request header? If a cookie is too large, the only culprit can be ParentPay itself for storing too much in its own cookie.

I’ve given them three days to fix it.

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Unfortunately, parents of children at schools are forced to use this flaky web site and hand over their credit card details. How much confidence do I have in their technology? Take a guess!


So what to do about this? Well they have the URL https://parentpay.com, so I tried that too. It redirected to the original site, with a slightly different error message sent from the remote server – one that omitted mention of cookies. So it was definitely Chrome’s header? Upgrade Chrome for 56.0 to 57.0, just in case…. No dice.

A look at the cookies it stored was interesting. 67 cookies belonging to this site? I know Microsoft stuff is flabby, but this is ridiculous! Rather than trawling through them, I just decided to delete the lot.

That worked.

It appears ParentPay’s bonkers ASP code had stored more data in my browser than it was prepared to accept back. Stunning!


Windows 10 Free Upgrade failure

Last Friday was the last chance to get a free upgrade/downgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10. The Microsoft checking utility confidently announced my system was compatible, but I doubted that as I was running stuff in XP Mode, and some old Chicago (Windows 9x) software. But I thought I’d give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and try. But before that I backed up the entire hard disk.

Giving Microsoft the benefit of any doubt is always a bad plan, and in my case the installation died half way. The update was apparently downloaded, but I left it all weekend and it failed to install.

It’s hard to see why anyone who knows about computers used for serious purposes would consider “upgrading” to Windows 10 a good idea. I’m not sad I had to revert to the backup and get my Windows 7 machine back. Windows 8+ completely failed to implement the backward compatibility that Microsoft used to do so well. Upgrading DOS or Windows meant you could keep your legacy applications and hardware, but switching to OS/2, Apple, UNIX or Linux meant you could not. Now upgrading Windows means ditching older software too – in my case, I suspect my company’s accounting system. If you’re going to do anything as rash as that, you might as well break free from Microsoft completely and choose a whole new platform.

I was expecting to write something slamming Microsoft for messing up my PC this morning, but thanks to their complete incompetence, the upgrade didn’t work anyway.

ParentPay won’t support “insecure” browsers

This week that ParentPay, the Microsoftie payment system used by many schools, rolled out a web site update to support an even more limited range of browsers. This included dropping support Internet Explorer before 9 for “security reasons”.

By coincidence, in the same week Microsoft trumped their loyal fanobois at ParentPay by announcing that everything prior to version 10 was hereby deemed unsafe. ParentPay has yet to comment.

However, the notion that any version of Internet Explorer is “safe” is stretching the truth badly. All the mainstream browsers are dodgy; they all support unsafe scripting and embedded code. Microsoft may have the worst reputation, but they’re all undermined by their code and add-ons – and host operating system, to be fair. Only a few niche browsers, that don’t support things like JavaScript and ActiveX, can be considered safe; and those are the ones that ParentPay refuses to support because they don’t allow “rich content”. (And their developers are Microsoft fans). It’s definitely a case of form over security, yet again.

As an illustration of just how feeble their new browser support policy is, here’s a list  of those they’ll accept, taken from their web site:

  • Chrome 35 or higher
  • Firefox 30 or higher
  • Internet Explorer 9 or higher
  • Safari 6 or higher.

The the the the That’s All Folks!

Schools should be seriously considering their relationship with ParentPay, given the cost and inconvenience they’re forcing parents to go through in order to use it. Analysis of the traffic across my servers suggest that IE has around a third of the browser market. Of these, more than half are using IE 9 or earlier.

ParentPay’s assertion that this will only affect a “..small proportion of parents” may be literally true, but it’s disingenuous. Let’s do some simple arithmetic. Say there are 1500 parents in a secondary school. A third of these use IE – that’s 500. Half of these use an old IE (on an old PC) – that’s 250/1500 parents at each school who’ll be grossly inconvenienced. Cancel the fraction out and it’s 1/6, which could be described as a small proportion, but it’s still 250 per school.

The number of people who would be using”unsupported” browsers on tablets or mobile devices is probably very high. Anecdotally, parents have access to a PC somewhere that they currently have to go to in order to use ParentPay. Many would rather use a tablet.

It’s about time someone set up an alternative to ParentPay and schools were educated in to the benefits of open standards.

How to stop Microsoft Windows 10 upgrade

Famously, Microsoft announced that the “upgrade” to Windows 10 would be free of charge. How nice of them. Given that historically Microsoft has made a lot of money selling consumer upgrades, this is a little puzzling until you realise what happened to Windows 8 in the commercial IT world. Basically, it’s as popular as a rattlesnake in a bran tub. Commercial users are still demanding, and getting, Windows 7 whilst home lusers have had no choice – having only Windows 8 pre-installed.

Since then, Windows some users have been “encouraged” to “upgrade” to Windows 10 by having a pop-up nag screen turn up on top of their work at regular intervals. This is produced by an update called GWX (“Get Windows Ten” in Roman numerals). An update you don’t seem able to un-install. Nice!

However, Microsoft has bottled out of doing this on Enterprise versions of Windows. They’re not that crazy. Imagine what would happen if every corporate customer got “upgraded” to a version of Windows that didn’t support their bespoke CMS, all at once. Every IT support person in the world would be heading for Seattle with a pitch-fork and flaming touch. ARM and embedded Windows won’t auto-upgrade either; nor (I believe) will machines connected to a domain controller – indicative of being used in a business.

As usual, it’s the voiceless SMEs using Windows 7 Pro that left paying the price for choosing Microsoft, and I’ve heard of plenty of people falling for the nag screen and getting in to trouble.

In repose to customers’ requests, demands and threats of physical violence, Microsoft has told the world how to disable the activities of GWX, in a KB article found here. Basically you have to add the following registry keys and it should stop. To disable OS upgrading add:

Subkey: HKLM\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate
DWORD value: DisableOSUpgrade = 1

And to stop the nag screen add:

Subkey: HKLM\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\Gwx
DWORD value: DisableGwx = 1

The free “upgrade” offer only extends until July this year, so it will be interesting to see what happens then. In spite of Microsoft’s threats to drop it, Windows 7 is still being used in new installations, and from where I’m sitting, it’s the default option.

Microsoft Security Essentials hangs during a full scan

First off, can I be clear about one thing – endpoint virus scanners don’t make your computer “secure”. A lot of the most dangerous stuff gets past them, but trusting lusers believe they’re safe and will therefore take risks they outerwise wouldn’t. See my posts and academic papers passim ad nauseam. Now that’s out of the way, I favour Microsoft Security Essentials (or Microsoft Endpoint Security) on Windows as I find it less likely to make the system unusable. I don’t recommend it, except as the least-worst option.

On with the problem…

Sometimes, especially in the last year or so, I’ve found Security Essentials will stall when its doing a background scan. You may not notice its done this, but some symptoms are that web browser file downloads won’t work (it’ll download 100% but never finish) and the PC won’t hibernate automatically using the power-saving settings.

I’ve looked for solutions to this, as well as searching the web for an answer. You’ll often see people posting (without references) that this is bug and Microsoft are working on, or have now fixed it. I’ve tried theories myself to see if it’s caused by compression or archive formats causing a decompresser to break (I’ve noticed this often fits the facts), but this is little help when finding a solution, and even then it sometimes still hangs when the option to check compressed files is turned off.

What I’ve yet to find is anyone giving a real solution, so here it is:

  1. Deinstall Security Essentials.
  2. Download and install Security Essentials.

I’ve never known this not to work. On the other hand, I’ve known all the other theories you see posted on forums fail to work pretty consistently.


Microsoft plans to dump OneDrive unlimited and Windows 7

Microsoft continues to lose the plot. This week saw the announcement that OneDrive customers have a year to shift their data way, and business have a year to switch from Windows 7 to Linux Windows 10.

The problem they’re having with OneDrive is that when they sold it on the basis of “unlimited” storage, they didn’t realise the punters would actually believe them. After all, who believes what Microsoft says about any of their products? But, apparently, some credulous customers have been using it for backing up all their stuff and this has caught the folks in Redmond by surprise. So they’re withrawing the product, and users have a (at least) year to shift their stuff off, after which the Office365 subscription would have lapsed anyway. The maximum storage available after that date will be 1Tb, but they have yet explain what will happen to the excess.

And in the same week, Microsoft announced that Windows 7 will no longer be available in a year. It may surprise some to hear that it’s still available, as anyone buying a domestic PC from the high street has only had Windows 8 since 2013. However, if you buy a business machine from a business supplier, chances are it will still have Windows 7 pre-installed, with a set of Windows 8 downgrade disks in the box to satisfy an “everything now ships with Windows 8” clause in some OEM deal. Businesses don’t want Windows 8, and voted with their cheque books to keep Windows 7.

Microsoft now plans to take that choice away, and force everyone on to Windows 10. This is hardly unexpected, but now it’s official. The reasons aren’t clear to me. Okay, Windows 10 has the creepy doll sending user data back at Redmond, in order to deliver a richer user experience (and targeted adverts) and make the world a better place (for Microsoft shareholders). Possibly a case of corporate Google-envy? Is Microsoft so keen on the Google business model that they’d risk hacking off the loyal customers who’ve been buying Windows XP and Windows 7 for years? Ironically, Google is pushing it’s paid-for cloud apps, and I suspect, would like to get a larger revenue stream from selling SaaS.

Listen up, Microsoft. People buy Windows because it runs the applications they want. It has nothing to do with whether the like the colour scheme. Windows XP runs DOS stuff; Windows 7 does, just about, because it has XP emulation. This is a concept known as Backward compatibility, and Intel knows all about exploiting this and making mega $$$ if you need a reminder. Lightweight home users and kids might be impressed by the new and shiny, but business wants something that works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The beneficiaries of this will probably be Linux (including Android), Google GDrive and other cloud storage providers, and alternatives to Office: (Google Docs, OpenOffice.org and smaller companies like SoftMaker. The latter has just released SoftMaker Office 2016, with an offer to make it free for use in schools.

Safe Harbour Agreement on Data Sharing with Uncle Sam ruled unlawful

Causing trouble – Court of Justice of the European Union

The long awaited ruling about whether the Safe Harbour agreement allowing free transfer of data concerning European citizens to the USA is valid under European Law has  just been published. And it’s a doozie.

Basically a Safe Harbour agreement (note the use of the indefinite article here) means that you won’t be sent down the river for doing something that might otherwise be illegal. The specific Safe Harbour agreement in this case (2000/520/EC) says it’s okay for European data controllers to send whatever they like to the American’s because Uncle Sam is a good friend. This would otherwise be a no-no because you’d be giving up control over information that would otherwise be protected by European privacy laws.

This situation is currently being misrepresented in the popular press as being about Facebook (social media being their favourite subject after themselves); it’s not. It’s about all data. The case was brought by Austrian civil rights campaigner, Max Schrems in the Irish courts to test the legality of Facebook doing just this, as a high-profile example. A lot of American companies like to base their data centres in Dublin because, up until now, the Irish courts have been quite relaxed about what goes in compared with certain other European governments. (And lets not forget the tax breaks, and that Dublin is a nice place to be).

Hanging over this is the shadow of Edward Snowden (yet again), raising public awareness and anxiety over government access to PII. The fact that this PII is already in the hands of the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Twitter with the full knowledge of the subjects doesn’t seem to matter – it’s the principle of the thing!

Anyway, the ruling basically says that the initial ruling is incompatible with European Law, and we can’t trust the Yankees to look after it without further safeguards. Where this leaves American companies with European data centres remains to be seen.

Windows 10 – just say no

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Windows 10. Here’s the simple answer: No thanks.

Apparently it’s a bit faster than Windows 7 on the same hardware, although I’m not convinced people who say this have tested it scientifically. In other words, it may have been faster as a clean install compared with a crufty old Windows 7 installation, and in theory it could have been written to be fundamentally faster, but actually writing code that’s more efficient that previous versions isn’t really Microsoft’s style. Although the new web browser (Edge) is promising. But will it still be faster when it fully functional (i.e. supports HTML5 and suchlike properly).

That’s the good bit. Everything else is bad compared to Windows 7. Compared to Windows 8, yes, it’s better. That’s from a user’s perspective. From my perspective, it’s a big “no thanks” to the added spyware, telling Redmond exactly what you’re up to all the time and the enforced software updates, that I have an nasty suspicion are going to end up mandatory even on the business (Pro) version. Basically I don’t see what Microsoft has done to restore any trust I once had in them.

If you’ve got Windows 7, stick with it. If you’re on Windows 8 it’s swings and roundabouts but you might want to take a serious look at a Linux instead.

Unfortunately, because this is Microsoft, there’s a good chance that we’ll all be forced to use Windows 10 whether we like it or not. They had the sense to keep Windows 7 for serious users when they rebelled against Windows 8; I somehow see them fighting hard to force the issue when it comes to Windows 10.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 Security Update Plan

The headlines on luser news media are all about Windows 10 being the last ever release of Windows. Apparently Microsoft’s plan is to issue incremental updates thereafter. As those in the know, know, this has always been the way. Microsoft only releases a new version when it wants to flog it to the punters as the next great thing, and it does this by giving the latest snapshot of the code a new name (e.g. Windows 7, Windows Vista). Okay, there have been major step-ups; for example Window 2000 was the marketing name for Windows NT 5.0 (ditching some of the disastrous code in Windows NT 4.x), then came 5.1 – sold to the public as XP. Windows Vista was the next re-write; technically it was Windows 6.0. Confusingly to the punters, 6.1 was flogged as 7 and Windows 8.0 and 8.1 were 6.2 and 6.3 respectively. The reality is that OEM versions of Windows appear frequently, to track the new hardware as it turns up in production machines. It’s only the retail customers that believe in these retail versions. So what is Microsoft really doing?

Well, one effect of having a retail version of Windows is that every three years the punters stop buying new PCs, waiting for the next “version”. As Microsoft actually makes a lot more of its revenue from selling OEM licenses (bundled with PCs) than the retail versions, keeping the hardware manufacturers happy by killing off the boom/bust cycle is probably A Good Thing.

Is Microsoft getting a bit humble, acknowledging that hardware makers have a choice and Windows isn’t the only game in town? I don’t believe they do; the punters want Windows on their desktop PCs, and that’s that. So what is in it for Microsoft?

The clue is in what Terry Myerson was saying at Ignite 2015 in Chicago last week. The new version of Windows will feature greatly enhanced on-line update capabilities, with peer-to-peer patch distribution and a lot more. Patch Tuesday is to be abolished, with updates rolled out on a continuous basis. And all in the name of security.

Let’s play devil’s advocate here, and pretend that Microsoft has other reasons. First off, Patch Tuesday, the monthly release of non-critical Windows updates in an ordered manner, will become obsolete. The policy was originally formulated to avoid patches coming out willy-nilly at odd times in the month and catching IT departments off-guard; and now they’re going back to the old chaotic system. A broken update can knock your IT systems out at any time of the day or night. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, don’t despair – according to Terry Myerson, patches will be rolled out to the lucky home users first, which means that it can be pulled and business won’t be affected if an update screws up. Enterprise customers will still be given the choice as to which updates they install; it would have been a hard sell to knowledgable IT people otherwise.

Is this actually going to improve Windows security? Peer-to-peer patch distribution? 24/7 patches coming from Redmond as soon as they’re presumed ready? What could possibly go wrong?

Rather than looking at this as a security fix, I think the policy should be taken in to consideration alongside Microsoft’s move towards licensing, rather than selling, software. They want a continual revenue stream and they don’t like their software pirated. Who does? By moving to an OS model that requires the host to be Internet connected and constantly patching itself, it becomes much harder for cracked versions of the OS or applications to exist. (Microsoft’s own applications, that is). Peer-to-peer updates will make updates harder to block. If a crack turns up in the wild, the next day a patch to kill it can appear from Redmond. And if your stop paying the license fee, your copy of Windows stops working. This last aspect isn’t being talked about openly. I’m just guessing here. But considering Microsoft’s penchant for licensed/rented software of recent years, Windows 10 being released with a mechanism that appears ideal for licence enforcement should they ever decide to move to the rental business model, I think it’s a good guess.

Or it could simply be that Microsoft is panicking over the less-than-warm reception the world gave Windows 8/8.1 and had decided that releasing new retail versions frightens the horses.