The Eighth Movie-Plot Threat Contest

It's April 1, and time for another Movie-Plot Threat Contest. This year, the theme is Crypto Wars II. Strong encryption is evil, because it prevents the police from solving crimes. (No, really -- that's the argument.) FBI Director James Comey is going to be hard to beat with his heartfelt litany of movie-plot threats:

"We're drifting toward a place where a whole lot of people are going to be looking at us with tears in their eyes," Comey argued, "and say 'What do you mean you can't? My daughter is missing. You have her phone. What do you mean you can't tell me who she was texting with before she disappeared?"

[...]

"I've heard tech executives say privacy should be the paramount virtue," Comey said. "When I hear that, I close my eyes and say, 'Try to imagine what that world looks like where pedophiles can't be seen, kidnappers can't be seen, drug dealers can't be seen.'"

(More Comey here.)

Come on, Comey. You might be able to scare noobs like Rep. John Carter with that talk, but you're going to have to do better if you want to win this contest. We heard this same sort of stuff out of then-FBI director Louis Freeh in 1996 and 1997.

This is the contest: I want a movie-plot threat that shows the evils of encryption. (For those who don't know, a movie-plot threat is a scary-threat story that would make a great movie, but is much too specific to build security policies around. Contest history here.) We've long heard about the evils of the Four Horsemen of the Internet Apocalypse -- terrorists, drug dealers, kidnappers, and child pornographers. (Or maybe they're terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, and money launderers; I can never remember.) Try to be more original than that. And nothing too science fictional; today's technology or presumed technology only.

Entries are limited to 500 words -- I check -- and should be posted in the comments. At the end of the month, I'll choose five or so semifinalists, and we can all vote and pick the winner.

The prize will be signed copies of the 20th Anniversary Edition of the 2nd Edition of Applied Cryptography, and the 15th Anniversary Edition of Secrets and Lies, both being published by Wiley this year in an attempt to ride the Data and Goliath bandwagon.

Good luck.

Posted on April 1, 2015 at 6:33 AM39 Comments

Survey of Americans' Privacy Habits Post-Snowden

Pew Research has a new survey on Americans' privacy habits in a post-Snowden world.

The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

[...]

25% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (22% of all adults) say they have changed the patterns of their own use of various technological platforms "a great deal" or "somewhat" since the Snowden revelations. For instance, 18% say they have changed the way they use email "a great deal" or "somewhat"; 17% have changed the way they use search engines; 15% say they have changed the way they use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook; and 15% have changed the way they use their cell phones.

Also interesting are the people who have not changed their behavior because they're afraid that it would lead to more surveillance. From pages 22-23 of the report:

Still, others said they avoid taking more advanced privacy measures because they believe that taking such measures could make them appear suspicious:

"There's no point in inviting scrutiny if it's not necessary."

"I didn't significantly change anything. It's more like trying to avoid anything questionable, so as not to be scrutinized unnecessarily.

"[I] don't want them misunderstanding something and investigating me."

There's also data about how Americans feel about government surveillance:

This survey asked the 87% of respondents who had heard about the surveillance programs: "As you have watched the developments in news stories about government monitoring programs over recent months, would you say that you have become more confident or less confident that the programs are serving the public interest?" Some 61% of them say they have become less confident the surveillance efforts are serving the public interest after they have watched news and other developments in recent months and 37% say they have become more confident the programs serve the public interest. Republicans and those leaning Republican are more likely than Democrats and those leaning Democratic to say they are losing confidence (70% vs. 55%).

Moreover, there is a striking divide among citizens over whether the courts are doing a good job balancing the needs of law enforcement and intelligence agencies with citizens' right to privacy: 48% say courts and judges are balancing those interests, while 49% say they are not.

At the same time, the public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:

  • 82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists
  • 60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.
  • 60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders
  • 54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens. At the same time, majorities support monitoring of those particular individuals who use words like "explosives" and "automatic weapons" in their search engine queries (65% say that) and those who visit anti-American websites (67% say that).

[...]

Overall, 52% describe themselves as "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about government surveillance of Americans' data and electronic communications, compared with 46% who describe themselves as "not very concerned" or "not at all concerned" about the surveillance.

It's worth reading these results in detail. Overall, these numbers are consistent with a worldwide survey from December. The press is spinning this as "Most Americans' behavior unchanged after Snowden revelations, study finds," but I see something very different. I see a sizable percentage of Americans not only concerned about government surveillance, but actively doing something about it. "Third of Americans shield data from government." Edward Snowden's goal was to start a national dialog about government surveillance, and these surveys show that he has succeeded in doing exactly that.

More news.

Posted on March 31, 2015 at 2:49 PM25 Comments

Australia Outlaws Warrant Canaries

In the US, certain types of warrants can come with gag orders preventing the recipient from disclosing the existence of warrant to anyone else. A warrant canary is basically a legal hack of that prohibition. Instead of saying "I just received a warrant with a gag order," the potential recipient keeps repeating "I have not received any warrants." If the recipient stops saying that, the rest of us are supposed to assume that he has been served one.

Lots of organizations maintain them. Personally, I have never believed this trick would work. It relies on the fact that a prohibition against speaking doesn't prevent someone from not speaking. But courts generally aren't impressed by this sort of thing, and I can easily imagine a secret warrant that includes a prohibition against triggering the warrant canary. And for all I know, there are right now secret legal proceedings on this very issue.

Australia has sidestepped all of this by outlawing warrant canaries entirely:

Section 182A of the new law says that a person commits an offense if he or she discloses or uses information about "the existence or non-existence of such a [journalist information] warrant." The penalty upon conviction is two years imprisonment.

Expect that sort of wording in future US surveillance bills, too.

Posted on March 31, 2015 at 7:14 AM64 Comments

Brute-Forcing iPhone PINs

This is a clever attack, using a black box that attaches to the iPhone via USB:

As you know, an iPhone keeps a count of how many wrong PINs have been entered, in case you have turned on the Erase Data option on the Settings | Touch ID & Passcode screen.

That's a highly-recommended option, because it wipes your device after 10 passcode mistakes.

Even if you only set a 4-digit PIN, that gives a crook who steals your phone just a 10 in 10,000 chance, or 0.1%, of guessing your unlock code in time.

But this Black Box has a trick up its cable.

Apparently, the device uses a light sensor to work out, from the change in screen intensity, when it has got the right PIN.

In other words, it also knows when it gets the PIN wrong, as it will most of the time, so it can kill the power to your iPhone when that happens.

And the power-down happens quickly enough (it seems you need to open up the iPhone and bypass the battery so you can power the device entirely via the USB cable) that your iPhone doesn't have time to subtract one from the "PIN guesses remaining" counter stored on the device.

Because every set of wrong guesses requires a reboot, the process takes about five days. Still, a very clever attack.

More details.

Posted on March 30, 2015 at 6:47 AM43 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Using Squid Proteins for Commercial Camouflage Products

More research.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.

Posted on March 27, 2015 at 4:03 PM94 Comments

Yet Another Computer Side Channel

Researchers have managed to get two computers to communicate using heat and thermal sensors. It's not really viable communication -- the bit rate is eight per hour over fifteen inches -- but it's neat.

Posted on March 27, 2015 at 7:01 AM22 Comments

New Zealand's XKEYSCORE Use

The Intercept and the New Zealand Herald have reported that New Zealand spied on communications about the World Trade Organization director-general candidates. I'm not sure why this is news; it seems like a perfectly reasonable national intelligence target. More interesting to me is that the Intercept published the XKEYSCORE rules. It's interesting to see how primitive the keyword targeting is, and how broadly it collects e-mails.

The second really important point is that Edward Snowden's name is mentioned nowhere in the stories. Given how scrupulous the Intercept is about identifying him as the source of his NSA documents, I have to conclude that this is from another leaker. For a while, I have believed that there are at least three leakers inside the Five Eyes intelligence community, plus another CIA leaker. What I have called Leaker #2 has previously revealed XKEYSCORE rules. Whether this new disclosure is from Leaker #2 or a new Leaker #5, I have no idea. I hope someone is keeping a list.

Posted on March 26, 2015 at 9:46 AM28 Comments

Capabilities of Canada's Communications Security Establishment

There's a new story about the hacking capabilities of Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE), based on the Snowden documents.

Posted on March 25, 2015 at 6:55 AM25 Comments

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