Reinforcing the weakest link in cyber security: securing systems and software against attacks targeting unwary users

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Lu, Long
Lee, Wenke
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Unwary computer users are often blamed as the weakest link on the security chain, for unknowingly facilitating incoming cyber attacks and jeopardizing the efforts to secure systems and networks. However, in my opinion, average users should not bear the blame because of their lack of expertise to predict the security consequence of every action they perform, such as browsing a webpage, downloading software to their computers, or installing an application to their mobile devices. My thesis work aims to secure software and systems by reducing or eliminating the chances where users’ mere action can unintentionally enable external exploits and attacks. In achieving this goal, I follow two complementary paths: (i) building runtime monitors to identify and interrupt the attack-triggering user actions; (ii) designing offline detectors for the software vulnerabilities that allow for such actions. To maximize the impact, I focus on securing software that either serve the largest number of users (e.g. web browsers) or experience the fastest user growth (e.g. smartphone apps), despite the platform distinctions. I have addressed the two dominant attacks through which most malicious software (a.k.a. malware) infections happen on the web: drive-by download and rogue websites. BLADE, an OS kernel extension, infers user intent through OS-level events and prevents the execution of download files that cannot be attributed to any user intent. Operating as a browser extension and identifying malicious post-search redirections, SURF protects search engine users from falling into the trap of poisoned search results that lead to fraudulent websites. In the infancy of security problems on mobile devices, I built Dalysis, the first comprehensive static program analysis framework for vetting Android apps in bytecode form. Based on Dalysis, CHEX detects the component hijacking vulnerability in large volumes of apps. My thesis as a whole explores, realizes, and evaluates a new perspective of securing software and system, which limits or avoids the unwanted security consequences caused by unwary users. It shows that, with the proposed approaches, software can be reasonably well protected against attacks targeting its unwary users. The knowledge and insights gained throughout the course of developing the thesis have advanced the community’s awareness of the threats and the increasing importance of considering unwary users when designing and securing systems. Each work included in this thesis has yielded at least one practical threat mitigation system. Evaluated by the large-scale real-world experiments, these systems have demonstrated the effectiveness at thwarting the security threats faced by most unwary users today. The threats addressed by this thesis have span multiple computing platforms, such as desktop operating systems, the Web, and smartphone devices, which highlight the broad impact of the thesis.
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