Night of the Storm

Very rarely do I have bad or disturbing dreams. This morning was quite the fantastic exception.

It was a dream so vivid that I could no longer find sleep. It was so crisp and clear that when I let the dogs out to fulfill their morning duties I went with them just so I could look around the house, the yard, and the neighborhood. I needed to verify the world did in fact still exist and everything in existence remained in its place, unchanged from the night before when I went to bed.

As I stood in the back yard watching the dogs poop, the faintest glimpse of a summer morning sun beginning to extend itself from behind buildings and trees to the east, I looked at the house to the north of ours. The old, white sided house with gray asphalt shingles has been vacant for ten months. As I looked, the building was standing as it should. As it always does. And yet it wasn’t. Shadows from my dream were alive in my mind and were fighting the raw data my brain was receiving from my optic nerve. The modest house before me stood in flux between two realities.

This is what I saw…

I woke for no reason. My alarm did not sound. The dogs did not stir. The room was dark, but glowed ever so slightly as the morning twilight diffused through the window blinds. Everything seemed as it should.

In the distance I could hear the faintest of strange sounds. I peered through the blinds and was meet with destruction on a level I’ve never imagined.

The small, one story house directly west and across the street from us had been flattened. There were no walls. No roof. No foundation. I was instantly gripped with panic at the thought of our neighbors lying dead beneath the remains of what used to be their home.

Should I throw on a pair of shorts and shoes and dig through the rubble for their lifeless bodies? Should I call 911? I tried to rouse Nate, my husband, from bed but he didn’t want to wake and rolled over ignoring me. I picked up my cell phone and called 911.

The phone rang and rang and rang some more. Eventually it was answered by a man. His voice was distant and I could tell he was exhausted physically and mentally. To no reaction I explained the terrible sight outside my window. There was an air of “there isn’t anything we can do anyway” about the way he spoke to me. Then, to my great relief I saw my neighbor and his wife walking around the rubble in their yard. I apologized to the man from 911 for wasting his time and hung up.

It was then that I fully perceived the destruction that had been laid upon the neighborhood. There really was nothing the man from 911 would have been able to do. Help could not have made it to our street if they had tried.

A second house across the street had also been reduced to a pile of rubble. The craggy white oaks that our neighborhood is known for had been shattered and tossed. Limbs 36 inches in diameter tossed this way and that as if they had been twigs. Centennial trunks pushed over like mere blades of grass.

High above the ground in what remained of one tree was a mangled ball of metal that used to be a car. It dawned on me suddenly that it was my car.

“Nate! We’re going to need to buy a new car,” I said, but Nate barely stirred. Looking down from the window I then saw our other car. It had been ripped from our driveway, balled up like a piece of junk mail, and now sat in our front yard, leaning against the front of the house. “Make that cars. We need to buy new cars.”

For the briefest of moments my next thought was as to how we were going to get to work that day. The surreal situation had not sunk in yet. I didn’t yet realize that I would not be going anywhere. Somehow Nate and I, along with our three dogs, had slept through something terrible.

In the hallway outside our bedroom I found that all the other windows in the house had been blown out. Looking north from the window in the bathroom I could see that the windows of the neighboring house had been blown out as well. Through the broken window across from me I could see clearly into the upstairs of the vacant building. Light streamed in, illuminating the collapsed roof that filled the entirety of the second story. There was no longer anything left of the gray shingles on top of the structure.

Walking out of the bathroom I turned and went into my office. The office sits on the back side of the second story of our house. It has a small, rectangular window with an air conditioner shoved in it. The air conditioner was still there, but around it gaping holes from which the growing morning light poured through.

Wind whistled from the holes in the wall as I looked out to the northeast and was greeted by the same level of destruction as I saw looking west out our bedroom windows.

I knew I needed to go outside and survey the damage to our house. Although the ceiling of the second story was still intact and the damage seemed resigned mostly to the windows, I knew based on the destruction around us that there had to be more.

Downstairs the windows were also all blown out. The front door of the house was rendered impassable by Nate’s destroyed car. Our backdoor I found to be equally impassable, blocked by a large tree trunk and jumbled branches.

The side door, just off the landing which leads down into the basement, was partially blocked by another tree. With some difficulty I managed to open the storm door just enough to squeeze through and out into our driveway.

The scene awaiting me at the end of the driveway was more of the same. Up and down the street were mangled, wadded up cars. Some houses were standing but badly damaged, others were simply gone. Remnants of trees and other debris was everywhere.

Looking up at our house I found that, despite the second story ceiling seeming to be undamaged from the inside, from the outside our roof had been sheered clean off. It was probably lying in the yard of some other lot blocks away.

I slowly walked south down the street, weaving around the wreckage that was strewn as far as the eye could see. A couple blocks I walked and every block was the same. Destroyed homes. Splintered trees. Smashed cars.

As I walked people began to appear on the street. The sound of a single, solitary chainsaw could be heard as someone somewhere made a vain attempt at cleaning up.

That’s when I woke up.

Mail-in-a-Box… some days the struggle is real.

I would just like to say they at I really like Mail-in-a-Box. It is a great, free option for running and administering your own email server. A lot of the features make it really easy to use and maintain.

That is except when something goes wrong… which seems to be much more than it should.

I’ve had updates fail.

I’ve had issue with OpenSSL dependencies.

Most recently I’ve had an issue with renewing the Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate.

Each time this happens, I spend hours digging through the forums, trying things and hoping I don’t somehow make the problem worse!

If you use Mail-in-a-Box, and it fails to auto-renew your SSL certificate (which Mail-in-a-Box is supposed to do for you automatically 14 days before expiration) and starts giving you the following error:

Something unexpected went wrong: Error creating new cert :: 
Too many certificates already issued for exact set of domains:

Then I would suggest you try the following BEFORE you try anything else:

  1. Log in as an admin to the Mail-in-a-Box control panel.
  2. Go to Mail > Users.Mail-in-a-Box add new users
  3. Add a new email (such as test@box1.yourdomain.com).new user add
  4. Go to System > TLS (SSL) Certificates. You should now be able to re-issue the certificate.manage TLS (SSL)
  5. Afterwards you can delete the new email you added.

The entire process I’ve described here will take you 2-3 minutes. Much better than wasting hours trying to uninstall, reinstall, reconfigure, etc as suggested in the Mail-in-a-Box forums. If it doesn’t fix it, then move on to the more complicated “fixes” and hopefully one of them will work for you. They didn’t work for me. Personally I suspect it is a bug in Mail-in-a-Box but based on the forums I don’t think the developers agree.

Practice what you preach: HTTPS Everywhere!

I have long been a proponent of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere campaign. Using HTTPS for all websites, whether you are exchanging personally identifiable information or not, simply makes sense.

I don’t say this out of some concern about Big Brother and the NSA watching me. I say it because the average, everyday user expects privacy.

When average Jane sits down at a coffee shop and uses the free WIFI she would get really upset if a stranger started looking over her shoulder and watching what she was doing and what websites she was accessing.

What she doesn’t realize is that I could sit in my car in the coffee shop parking lot and use a free program like Wireshark to spy on everything she is doing without her ever knowing. That is, unless she is using encryption.

One of the best things users can do to protect themselves is use a VPN service. A VPN encrypts all of the traffic in and out of your computer. Some people use a VPN to connect remotely to their work intranet. Others use it to to protect their privacy or to anonymize their web browsing. But we are talking about average Jane here who has never even heard of this magical VPN thingy.

This is where HTTPS comes in. It doesn’t cost her anything and all internet browsers can do it right out of the box. Not only can it help prevent someone from snooping on her browsing, but it also ensures she is connected to the website that she thinks she is connected to.

For example, everyone has at some point typed a website URL incorrectly and ended up someplace else. If that someplace else is a malicious website attempting to pass as the legitimate site you can more easily identify it by looking at the site’s encryption certificate, or lack thereof.

So why don’t everyone’s websites support HTTPS? Because encryption certificates can be expensive. Fortunately, there is a great organization called the Internet Security Research Group. They have a free and open certificate authority service.

But wait, it gets even better! The Certbot from the Electronic Frontier Foundation makes it incredibly easy to enable HTTPS on your website and automatically provision (and renew) certificates from Let’s Encrypt.

Thanks to Let’s Encrypt and Certbot, I’ve now changed my website over to HTTPS. Now everyone else should too. Let’s Encrypt and Certbot make it so easy there really aren’t many excuses that can be made for not doing it.

For more information, check out:

Malware Analysis: Capstone Update 6 – Finished!

I probably could have kept working on this project for much longer, but like all good things it had to come to an end at some point.

I have learned so much, and as my adventure at Drake University comes to a close, I can’t wait to apply everything I’ve learned to the real world. Plus, I’ve found one more fun hobby. Don’t be surprised if you see the occasional malware analysis post every once in a while moving forward.

If you are interested in reading my final paper I am posting it here.

Mitigating x86 based Windows Cyber Incidents by way of Malware Reverse Engineering
(Full Paper)

Mitigating x86 based Windows Cyber Incidents by way of Malware Reverse Engineering
(Poster Presentation)