[ISN] Your computer is not secure.

From: InfoSec News (isn@private)
Date: Sun Apr 30 2006 - 22:41:38 PDT


By Meir Rinde 
April 27, 2006 

When agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
arrested convicted felon Michael Crooker on a charge of illegally
shipping a firearm across state lines, they searched his apartment in
the Feeding Hills neighborhood of Agawam, Mass. and found substances
that gave them pause.

They called in military and civilian hazardous material units, and a
bomb squad, and police closed off all areas within 1,000 feet. A story
spread that investigators found the poison ricin in the apartment; in
reality, they found castor beans, which have commercial uses but do
contain ricin. They also found lye, which is used in ricin production,
and rosary peas, which contain a toxin called abrin. In Crooker´s car
they found powerful homemade fireworks, and they conducted a
controlled explosion of at least one device.

That was almost two years ago. He´s now locked up at the state
correctional facility in Suffield Connecticut, awaiting trial on a
single charge of trying to ship an air-gun silencer to a man in Ohio.

The 52-year-old ex-con fills his time studying his case and writing
letters to the judge, as well as filing lawsuits against the
government and other parties, as he has done all his life.

Among the entities he has targeted is the computer maker Hewlett
Packard. In his suit, Crooker traces back the history of his Compaq
Presario notebook computer, which the ATF seized when he was arrested.

He bought it in September 2002, expressly because it had a feature
called DriveLock, which freezes up the hard drive if you don´t have
the proper password.

The computer´s manual claims that ¨if one were to lose his Master
Password and his User Password, then the hard drive is useless and the
data cannot be resurrected even by Compaq´s headquarters staff,¨
Crooker wrote in the suit.

Crooker has a copy of an ATF search warrant for files on the computer,
which includes a handwritten notation: ¨Computer lock not able to be
broken/disabled. Computer forwarded to FBI lab.¨ Crooker says he
refused to give investigators the password, and was told the computer
would be broken into ¨through a backdoor provided by Compaq,¨ which is
now part of HP.

It´s unclear what was done with the laptop, but Crooker says a
subsequent search warrant for his e-mail account, issued in January
2005, showed investigators had somehow gained access to his 40
gigabyte hard drive. The FBI had broken through DriveLock and accessed
his e-mails (both deleted and not) as well as lists of websites he´d
visited and other information. The only files they couldn´t read were
ones he´d encrypted using Wexcrypt, a software program freely
available on the Internet.

Despite the exposure of his e-mails, Crooker isn´t in prison on a
chemicals or explosives charge. Rather, he´s been detained for two
years on a single firearms charge because the judge thinks he´s too
dangerous to let out on bail.

A six-page rap sheet included in his firearms charge file lists
arrests going back to March 1970, when he was 16 and committed an
armed robbery while wearing a ski mask, according to the Springfield
Republican. In 1977, he was accused of threatening to kill President
Gerald Ford; he was cleared, but convicted of mailing death threats to
the police chief of Southwick, Mass., where he grew up, and to a
probation officer. In 1986, he was charged with rape and attempted
murder; the charges stemmed from a phone argument with his wife, he
says, and were dropped. In 1993, he plead guilty to a conspiracy to
possess guns, witness tampering -- he admits he blew up a witness´s
car -- and IRS fraud. He and an accomplice had filed about 70 false
tax returns and pocketed the refunds.

The judge who ordered him to remain incarcerated described Crooker as
¨a real threat to the community at large, if not particular
individuals as well.¨ The judge wrote that prosecutors believe Crooker
has made ricin in the past; that he is accused of keeping three
hundred rounds of ammunition at his parents´ house; that in letters he
refers to Timothy McVeigh as a ¨martyr¨ and ¨expresses admiration for
Osama bin Laden´s brilliance.¨

If the government agrees Crooker is so dangerous he can´t stay at home
while he awaits trial, should he be allowed to use purportedly
unbreakable computer security systems to hide potentially criminal

Because of cases like Crooker´s, some might argue the government
should have access to security backdoors to discourage criminals or at
least catch them more easily, much as the technology in the movie
Minority Report allows police to prevent crime by arresting criminals
before they act.

Of course, Crooker does not agree. Sitting in a low-ceilinged prison
visiting room last week, his bright yellow prison jumpsuit hanging
loosely on his narrow six-foot frame, Crooker rifled through stacks of
legal documents and criticized what he described as HP´s deception in
not admitting up front that DriveLock was flawed, and in selling him
out to the feds.

¨Even if it´s the CIA and the NSA, it´s wrong for HP to say, ¨we can´t
help you if you lose your password´,¨ he said. ¨It´s causing people to
hide things on their computers, and they´re not secure.¨

Crooker argues that by providing the FBI with a way to circumvent
DriveLock, and claiming the system was impenetrable when there was
actually a backdoor, HP committed a breach of contract.

We left a message for HP´s lawyer, Thomas W. Evans of Cohen & Fierman
in Boston, and got a call back from Ryan Donovan, a company spokesman
in Palo Alto, Calif.

¨We don´t comment on pending litigation,¨ he said.

In a legal response sent to Crooker but not yet available in court,
Evans says HP didn´t help the FBI, and argues it was unreasonable for
Crooker to expect that data he entered on the laptop would remain
inaccessible to others.

Crooker´s goal is primarily to get money from HP. He´s demanded
$350,000, and would probably accept much less. But he has also stepped
into a much larger debate over computer security: whether HP and other
companies are providing their customers with sufficiently strong
protection and whether the government should allow anyone access to
security systems so strong that even federal law enforcement agents
have a hard time breaking through them.

Crooker has spent many years in prison, but he´s had some success with
the law as well. In 1984, when he faced a charge of having an
unregistered machine gun, a federal District Court panel reviewed his
claims that he should have access to certain ATF documents. Although
he ultimately didn´t get everything he wanted, the judges ruled ATF
hadn´t given a specific enough reason for withholding the documents,
and Crooker v. BATF became an important footnote to discussions of
Freedom of Information law.

In his current criminal case, he argues that although the silencer
would fit on an actual firearm, it was only intended for use on the
air gun it was attached to. ¨You wouldn´t believe the hearings and
motions we´ve filed on this,¨ he said.

He knows firearms law inside and out. He´s published a pamphlet called
A Felon´s Guide to Legal Firearms Ownership , which you can buy online
for $4.95.

But his lawsuit against HP may be a long shot. Crooker appears to face
strong counterarguments to his claim that HP is guilty of breach of
contract, especially if the FBI made the company provide a backdoor.

¨If they had a warrant, then I don´t see how his case has any merit at
all,¨ said Steven Certilman, a Stamford attorney who heads the
Technology Law section of the Connecticut Bar Association. ¨Whatever
means they used, if it´s covered by the warrant, it´s legitimate.¨

If HP claimed DriveLock was unbreakable when the company knew it was
not, that might be a kind of false advertising.

But while documents on HP´s web site do claim that without the correct
passwords, a DriveLock´ed hard drive is ¨permanently unusable,¨ such
warnings may not constitute actual legal guarantees.

According to Certilman and other computer security experts, hardware
and software makers are careful not to make themselves liable for the
performance of their products.

¨I haven´t heard of manufacturers, at least for the consumer market,
making a promise of computer security. Usually you buy naked hardware
and you´re on your own,¨ Certilman said. In general, computer
warrantees are ¨limited only to replacement and repair of the
component, and not to incidental consequential damages such as the
exposure of the underlying data to snooping third parties,¨ he said.  
¨So I would be quite surprised if there were a gaping hole in their
warranty that would allow that kind of claim.¨

That point meets with agreement from the noted computer security
skeptic Bruce Schneier, the chief technology officer at Counterpane
Internet Security in Mountain View, Calif.

¨I mean, the computer industry promises nothing,¨ he said last week.  
¨Did you ever read a shrink-wrapped license agreement? You should read
one. It basically says, if this product deliberately kills your
children, and we knew it would, and we decided not to tell you because
it might harm sales, we´re not liable. I mean, it says stuff like
that. They´re absurd documents. You have no rights.¨

Schneier entered the field of computer security as a cryptographer. He
invented an algorithm called Blowfish, which is used in many software
programs including Wexcrypt, which Crooker used on some of his files,
and which the FBI has apparently been unable to crack.

In recent years Schneier has been a prominent critic of most computer
security schemes, saying that they´re not reliable in part because
companies aren´t financially liable for failures. He described
Crooker´s lawsuit as ¨kind of funny.¨

¨Part of me says, ´Well, go get them,´¨ Schneier said. ¨Because the
industry, for years, makes all of these false promises. So here´s
someone who´s saying, ´Look, goddammit, I believed them, and I got
arrested,´ or something. So that´s kind of neat, actually.¨

Online, self-declared computer geeks have discussed at length how to
unlock DriveLock´ed hard drives. The general consensus is that, unlike
many computer password systems, DriveLock is a hard-drive-only system,
a technology added to the drive, rather than a routine in the computer
software. Only a chip on the hard drive knows where the password is
stored, and the chip simply will not allow the drive to spin if the
password is not provided. Putting the drive in a different computer,
or tinkering with computer system files, doesn´t help. Encryption
isn´t the problem, either: your files may just be sitting there, in
readable form, but the drive refuses to work.

The computer geeks seem to throw up their hands at devising a
home-office method of getting around DriveLock. However, in a ¨clean
room¨ laboratory setting it should be possible to take apart a hard
drive and scan the platters where magnetic information is stored.

A few companies advertise password removal services for a fee, such as
Nortek Computers Limited, in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. For $85, the
company will simply erase your hard drive, which removes the password
and at least makes the drive useable again. For $285, the company will
copy your information off the drive, wipe the drive, and put the
information back on, sans the password, said Chris Boyer, a support
specialist at Nortek.

He wouldn´t describe how it´s done, except to say that some computer
drives can be penetrated using ¨non-invasive¨ methods, while others
are more difficult. ¨There´s quite a bit involved, engineering-wise
and facility-wise,¨ Boyer said. The company is alert to suspicious
clients who seem to be trying to break into someone else´s computer,
and keeps records of device serial numbers, he said. It has removed
passwords for law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada, England,
Denmark and other countries.

The availability of commercial password removal suggests HP may be
sincere when it says it didn´t help the FBI. But Crooker said that´s
no obstacle to his lawsuit. ¨Why are HP and Compaq still advertising
this DriveLock system when they have to know about the Canadian
operation for $285?¨ he asked. ¨They´re lulling us into this sense of
security, when for $285 it can be exposed? It ain´t right.¨

In the recent past the federal government has attempted to build in
backdoors to certain computer systems: In the early 1990s, the
National Security Agency tried to require the installation of a chip
in phone transmission systems, so agents could eavesdrop on encrypted
conversations. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil
liberties groups attacked the proposal, which eventually died
(although recently AT&T reportedly allowed the NSA to monitor millions
of phone calls without warrants, using specially installed

So while DriveLock may not be wholly secure, software that uses
Blowfish and other encryption methods remains widely available. To
civil liberty advocates, that´s good news, even if it means
individuals like Michael Crooker can hide their secrets from law

¨Encryption software is becoming a very ordinary thing. That´s a very
positive development in terms of limiting the erosion of privacy in
certain ways,¨ said Seth Schoen, a staff technologist at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Crooker said he understands the argument for allowing the government
to penetrate computer security systems. ¨I can see both sides of it,¨
he said. But that doesn´t mean he´s letting HP off the hook for
pretending DriveLock was really secure.

That´s a point security experts would agree with: undisclosed flaws
are the Achilles´ heel of any security scheme, because then the user
of the system doesn´t even know what kind of incursions to watch out

For Bruce Schneier, the key to preventing such flaws is the kind of
legal liability that Michael Crooker is trying to create, forcing
companies to pay though the nose until they develop security that
really works.

¨Unfortunately, this probably isn´t a great case,¨ Schneier said.  
¨Here´s a man who´s not going to get much sympathy. You want a
defendant who bought the Compaq computer, and then, you know, his
competitor, or a rogue employee, or someone who broke into his office,
got the data. That´s a much more sympathetic defendant.¨

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