Democratizing Security

Every now and again it’s good to take a step back and assess what you’re working on. It’s been a little over a year since my co-founder Borski and I took a step back at our former jobs in the defense and intelligence community -- he doing offensive software security, and I doing security consulting. What we realized then, and what is still true now, is there are more security issues affecting our world than the ones we encountered in our work. Every day, each of us is affected by the lack of good security products as we give away our personal, credit, and other sensitive information to insecure websites. But why?

The security market is broken. We’re stuck in a rut between services that are cheap but provide poor security (if they actually provide security at all), and services that are expensive, but outdated. It’s too simple for a service to spit out unactionable results, forcing you to hire an expensive security consultant, or to acquire a security product, roll it as their own, and call it good for years afterward without a single useful update.

I’m tired of falling in love with a service but having to avoid it because of its security flaws. There is no reason we can’t have a great security option for the small and medium-sized companies at a fraction of the cost, a solution that stays up-to-date on the latest hacks and can scan remotely, on a schedule, with five-minute setup: automated, proactive, integrated and affordable. Security needs to be democratized – accessible to and understandable by the masses.

Today marks our initial product release: a release we hope will be the first step of many in securing your information. We at Tinfoil Security are “ex-offense,” now playing defense. 93% of the hundreds of companies we’ve scanned have had at least one vulnerability. We help them get to zero. In addition to the heavy security experience brought by our team of MIT engineers, ease of use and actionability are our top priority. We respect your time.

Your data is one of your greatest assets. It’s time you have a partner that helps you protect your data, and cares about your security as if it were their own. We’re taking a new leap into the security market, making it efficient and agile.

I hope you join us.

Start a free scan now at


Co-founder & CEO

“To safeguard a public-facing website against external threats, a business needs two things: a team whose job is keeping up to date on the latest hacks and exploits and the ability to run safety scans randomly, periodically, and from an external location. This is the combination that Tinfoil offers as a service – a strong and growing team of security experts ready to run your site through the security gauntlet. To me, this is ‘peace of mind as a service,’” says Kirill Sheynkman, Senior Managing Director of RTP Ventures. “Much the way most heavy-trafficked global sites didn’t think of going live without first reading their ‘Gomez Report’, no company that opens its web application to the world should ever do so without continuous, external monitoring and safety provided by Tinfoil.”

Ainsley Braun

Ainsley Braun is the co-founder and CEO of Tinfoil Security. She's consistently looking for interesting, innovative ways to improve the way security is currently implemented. She spends a lot of her time thinking about the usability and pain points of security, and loves talking with Tinfoil's users. She also loves rowing, flying kites, and paragliding.

Tags: Free Scan Launch Public Beta Redesign United

Major Airline Reveals Passenger Information

Update 5/24/2012: United has confirmed that they have found and fixed this specific issue.

Something we talk about a lot at Tinfoil is the existence of two mindsets when engineering software: building and breaking. Thinking about security requires a different mindset than building working software. You have to keep all of the terrible things that can happen in your head. Whether this validation is personal, peer reviewed, statically or dynamically analyzed (by someone like us), it is crucial to making sure your software performs like you think it does when fate (or malicious users) conspire against it.

In this case, it was a late night and I was trying to buy a last-minute flight, shopping around to get a reasonable price. I had several tabs open to various airlines, and was searching on and off for a few hours. I finally made a decision and decided to purchase a ticket from United Airlines.

I picked a seat and was presented with a page to enter my info for the TSA (pretty standard these days). United had recently updated their site’s interface and had a dropdown to select saved passengers. I clicked the dropdown and was surprised to see a large number of names, none of which were mine. I looked down the list, noticing patterns in people with the same last name, and realized what I was likely looking at: the passenger manifest for the flight.

Kind of scary, and nothing I had any business looking at. This was something that I ran into completely organically, no shenanigans or security testing on my part (we need approval from a site’s owner to run most security testing, and I’m not going to go out and violate wire fraud laws).

As serendipity would have it, a help widget popped up on the page, likely because I wasn’t moving forward in the purchasing process. I dutifully called United to report the problem. Emulating my account they weren’t able to reproduce the issue. I still could, and several parts of the site like the account management page were completely broken and displaying “None” for all of the values. Finally giving up and logging out, everything was back to normal. Hmmm.

So what was going on?

I don’t have direct access to United’s code, but I think that my session (likely invalid) was part of the problem, since logging out seemed to solve the problem. Sessions, especially long-lived ones, can be tricky to manage. If my session was broken, I should have been issued a new one or in the worst case (from a UX perspective) lost my progress and had to log in again. Instead, it defaulted to showing me things that didn’t belong to me. Some list was probably supposed to be filtered by the user in the session, and since my user was now unset or invalid nothing got filtered out. Just some educated guessing here but it illustrates a situation where an invalid session leads to a lot of private information getting leaked.

Session management and authentication are listed as an OWASP Top 10 issue and probably deserve their own blog post but the overarching principle that could have saved the day here is Failing Securely.

Failure scenarios and edge cases come up frequently in software, but can sometimes be left to the wayside. Fate conspires against us, power gets cut, kernels panic, null pointers abound and software needs to respond accordingly if it can. If it can’t, it needs to fail out as gracefully as possible. Constructs like database transactions can assist, but they need to be considered carefully when validating the system.

Netflix takes this to the extreme with their Chaos Monkey, which randomly kills processes. Your code could stop executing at any time, and for no good reason. Random faults like this pose a greater challenge to software builders, but accounting for it can be considered in two stages.

The first stage (the easier one) is to just fail out. The job or request fails, and hopefully something will drive it again. The trick here is to consider where and how things can fail, and how the system will respond. The analysis of what customers will see, what background jobs get stuck, or state that could be in limbo is what makes this interesting. Even if your database is rolling back a transaction, other actions like network requests can’t be rolled back. It can’t always be picked up by static or dynamic analysis, but good tests can help set expectations.

The next stage, recovering from a fault without interrupting the user, is more complex. Ideally you want to rescue the situation and keep marching forward: self-healing. Not always possible, and there’s a balance of complexity to consider but a system that can maintain itself is a powerful thing.

United has had some time to work through these issues, so we’re pretty confident this has been fixed, and we haven’t been able to reproduce it since.

Whether you go for something heavy handed like the Chaos Monkey or wait for Murphy’s Law to intervene, keep failure in mind. Thinking about failure early, as United should have, will help ensure that you won’t fail so publicly later. Tinfoil Security can also help with that, finding vulnerabilities like this before your customers do.

(Thanks to Solomon Bisker, Spike Gronim, Koyel Bhattacharyya, Ray He, Nick Semenkovich, Michael Borohovski, and Ainsley Braun for reading drafts of this post.)

Ben Sedat

Ben Sedat is the Engineering Wizard of Tinfoil Security. He's a bit of a blend between a traditional software engineer (builder) and security engineer (breaker). He spends a lot of time thinking about security: both detection as well as creating solutions for the security issues that exist in software and the internet. He also plays lots of video games. Lots.

Tags: United airline fail failure privacy security