Intro to trouble: LinkedIn and trusting the cloud (part II)

[continued from part I]

Expanding attack surface

In terms of risk, Intro amounts to expanding the attack surface, the universe of ways a system can be targeted by adversaries. It’s not that email was absolutely safe before Intro and somehow became intolerably dangerous afterwards. Instead users incur additional risks– their messages can be compromised in transit to or during processing at LinkedIn datacenters.

LinkedIn response outlines mitigations in place to manage that risk. But discussing defenses is getting ahead of ourselves. The critical question is not whether Intro design is taking necessary steps at the technology level to manage the delta. Before going down the path of evaluating countermeasures, there is a more basic question: does the value proposition make sense? Is the service provided by LinkedIn valuable enough to justify the risk? That question can not be answered in isolation without looking at both benefits and risks side of the equation. Much like deciding whether an investment is appropriate, we need to compare its expected returns to the incremental addition of attack surface.

Weighing risks and benefits

In this case the expected reward from installing Intro is that email messages are  annotated with profile information about the sender, drawn from their LinkedIn profile. The potential risks are also clear: email flowing through LinkedIn systems is susceptible to attacks both in transit to/from LinkedIn as well during the brief time it is being processed by LinkedIn systems. (This is a best-case generous interpretation; we taking the designers at their word that messages are not stored. That statement can not be verified without access to LinkedIn operational environment.) What could possibly go wrong? Here is a sampling of potential risks:

  • State-sponsored attackers can break into LinkedIn systems to capture email as it is routed through this system.
  • Interception of messages in transit by breaking SSL, via using fraudulent digital certificates from incompetent/dishonest CA on behalf of LinkedIn.
  • LinkedIn insiders can modify the system to divert certain messages
  • Law-enforcement and surveillance requests can compel LinkedIn to start storing messages, against the stated design intent.

Again these are all incremental risks. It’s not that SSL was absolutely safe when used only for connecting to the original email provider or that provider was somehow immune from getting 0wned by China. The point is that all of those risks are increased by having one more participant attackers can target. How much depends on the relative security of LinkedIn compared to the email provider already entrusted by the user with access to their messages. If a Gmail user started routing their traffic via Intro, chances are the risks have drastically increased: given its past experience of responding to APT attacks and investments in SSL such as certificate pinning, Google is likely a much harder target than LinkedIn.

Reasonable people may disagree

Is it worth it? The answer may well vary between individuals or in managed IT environments, between different enterprise philosophies. At least for this blogger, there is no conceivable universe where scribbling profile information in email messages– information that can be obtained in other ways, if a little less conveniently by visiting the LinkedIn website to run a manual search– is worth the risk of exposing raw email messages to a third-party. Simply put LinkedIn is not an appropriate “trusted third-party” for access to user email. This is not a reflection on LinkedIn or the quality of its internal security practices. The same concept implemented by Facebook or Twitter would be equally inappropriate and dubious in value proposition.

Also worth pointing out: this is not an automatic rejection of relying on cloud services or affording special treatment to email. Enterprises often contract with third-party for security services to screen all incoming email for that company.  This is accomplished by routing the messages to servers run by that third-party to be scanned for malware and spam. A decade ago commentators were asking  whether it is appropriate to outsource such services. Two key differences from Intro make it easier to answer  that question:

  • Clear security benefits to counter-balance risks. Blocking malware and phishing attacks arriving via email is a security feature. On the one hand, routing messages to third-party systems increases attack surface in ways similar to Intro. On the other hand, the enterprise expects reduced malware prevalence and corresponding improvement in host security.
  • Alternatives are significantly more costly or less effective. While email screening can be done on-premises as installed software, such designs face the problem of keeping up-to-date with new attack mitigations. By contrast outsourced systems benefit from having visibility into attacks across multiple customers and can respond to new threats faster by aggregating this information.

This is why it is not completely gratuitous for an outsourced security provider to have access to email traffic.  Screening email is the raison d’etre for these services; they could not provide any value otherwise. There is no similar urgency or necessity for a social network such as LinkedIn to access user email. As the existence of Facebook and any number of other successful specialized social networking sites demonstrates, access to user emails is not in anyway a prerequisite to operating a viable business in that space.


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