Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vanguard.com Doesn't "Recognize" Me

I upgraded the hard drive on my home computer. The first time I tried to log into my Vanguard account online, it asked me to answer a security question. No problem I thought to myself. The site just doesn't recognize me since I have a new drive. It wants extra information to be sure I'm me. This is part of PassMark "sitekey" functionality. I typed in the answer to the question and was promptly told "sorry, invalid answer". Weird. I tried again. same result. I was 95% sure I was entering the correct answer, but each time I tried, it didn't work. Eventually I got an email telling me I disabled my ability to log in from an unrecognized computer due to repeated wrong answers. Nice. The web site didn't inform me of this - only the email. The email also stated I could now only log in if I used a recognized computer. To log in from an unrecognized computer, I would have to reset my security questions or call Vanguard customer service. Great.

Luckily, I had logged into Vanguard from my work computer, meaning it was "recognized" and I wasn't asked a security question. Using my work computer, I logged in and reset my security questions and answers as required. Now back to my home computer. I was quite confident facing a security question this time. But again, failure! Why does it not accept my answer? I was 100% sure it was correct this time. I just reset them for cryin' out loud.

At this point I concluded that it was a bug in Vanguard's site. Do I call their customer support? Ugh. Instead I took the approach of trying to get the site to "recognize" my home computer. Long story short, I copied a single file from my work computer to my home computer and solved the problem. I knew the PassMark/sitekey solution uses a Flash local shared object to determine whether a computer is recognized. It does not use a persistent cookie as you might first guess. Anyway, I found the shared object file "PassMark.sol" in the following directory on my work computer:

C:\Documents and Settings\[user]\Application Data\Macromedia\Flash Player\#SharedObjects\xxxxxxxx\vanguard.com\passmark\flash\pmfso.swf

where "xxxxxxxx" changes for different users. I copied PassMark.sol over to the corresponding directory on my home computer and it worked like a charm! Vanguard's site suddenly recognized my home computer and I got logged in.

This episode was very frustrating and got me wondering how normal users feel. After all, I was only able to solve the problem with:

  • Luck - I had another computer that was recognized
  • Esoteric knowledge - Vanguard's site uses Flash shared objects to recognize a computer
The vast majority of users are not web application security experts. They must be going crazy, and on the phone with support a lot.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Patent Abuse?

This is not strictly an application security post, but I just read an amazing article about a security/tech company here in Dallas. I had never heard of DeepNines, Inc. even though I live in DFW and work in the information security field. Based on the article, my first impression of DeepNines is not good. Apparently they won an $18 million settlement against McAfee because McAfee violated their patent. Their patent is "for detecting attacks on a site in a communications network and for taking actions to reduce and/or redirect such attacks". Not satisfied with their windfall, they are suing again, this time Secure Computing, which was just acquired by... McAfee. Now McAfee has to deal with them all over again!

This looks like an egregious case of patent trolling to me. How could a patent be granted for such a thing? Patents are supposed to be "nonobvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention" (ref). It's highly questionable that's true here. It's like patenting a steering wheel as "the process of taking an action to cause the rotation about a vertical axis the front-most wheels of a vehicle causing said vehicle to turn in a rightward or leftward direction."

One of my previous employers is dealing with something very similar. It's too bad there are companies that don't like to compete on the merits of their technology or customer service. They find it easier to acquire questionable patents and then sue the pants off anyone they see as a threat. For some companies, patent trolling actually seems to be the true business model.

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