Google Receives Geofence Warrants

Sometimes it's hard to tell the corporate surveillance operations from the government ones:

Google reportedly has a database called Sensorvault in which it stores location data for millions of devices going back almost a decade.

The article is about geofence warrants, where the police go to companies like Google and ask for information about every device in a particular geographic area at a particular time. In 2013, we learned from Edward Snowden that the NSA does this worldwide. Its program is called CO-TRAVELLER. The NSA claims it stopped doing that in 2014 -- probably just stopped doing it in the US -- but why should it bother when the government can just get the data from Google.

Both the New York Times and EFF have written about Sensorvault.

Posted on January 28, 2020 at 6:53 AM14 Comments

Modern Mass Surveillance: Identify, Correlate, Discriminate

Communities across the United States are starting to ban facial recognition technologies. In May of last year, San Francisco banned facial recognition; the neighboring city of Oakland soon followed, as did Somerville and Brookline in Massachusetts (a statewide ban may follow). In December, San Diego suspended a facial recognition program in advance of a new statewide law, which declared it illegal, coming into effect. Forty major music festivals pledged not to use the technology, and activists are calling for a nationwide ban. Many Democratic presidential candidates support at least a partial ban on the technology.

These efforts are well-intentioned, but facial recognition bans are the wrong way to fight against modern surveillance. Focusing on one particular identification method misconstrues the nature of the surveillance society we're in the process of building. Ubiquitous mass surveillance is increasingly the norm. In countries like China, a surveillance infrastructure is being built by the government for social control. In countries like the United States, it's being built by corporations in order to influence our buying behavior, and is incidentally used by the government.

In all cases, modern mass surveillance has three broad components: identification, correlation and discrimination. Let's take them in turn.

Facial recognition is a technology that can be used to identify people without their knowledge or consent. It relies on the prevalence of cameras, which are becoming both more powerful and smaller, and machine learning technologies that can match the output of these cameras with images from a database of existing photos.

But that's just one identification technology among many. People can be identified at a distance by their heartbeat or by their gait, using a laser-based system. Cameras are so good that they can read fingerprints and iris patterns from meters away. And even without any of these technologies, we can always be identified because our smartphones broadcast unique numbers called MAC addresses. Other things identify us as well: our phone numbers, our credit card numbers, the license plates on our cars. China, for example, uses multiple identification technologies to support its surveillance state.

Once we are identified, the data about who we are and what we are doing can be correlated with other data collected at other times. This might be movement data, which can be used to "follow" us as we move throughout our day. It can be purchasing data, Internet browsing data, or data about who we talk to via email or text. It might be data about our income, ethnicity, lifestyle, profession and interests. There is an entire industry of data brokers who make a living analyzing and augmenting data about who we are ­-- using surveillance data collected by all sorts of companies and then sold without our knowledge or consent.

There is a huge ­-- and almost entirely unregulated ­-- data broker industry in the United States that trades on our information. This is how large Internet companies like Google and Facebook make their money. It's not just that they know who we are, it's that they correlate what they know about us to create profiles about who we are and what our interests are. This is why many companies buy license plate data from states. It's also why companies like Google are buying health records, and part of the reason Google bought the company Fitbit, along with all of its data.

The whole purpose of this process is for companies --­ and governments ­-- to treat individuals differently. We are shown different ads on the Internet and receive different offers for credit cards. Smart billboards display different advertisements based on who we are. In the future, we might be treated differently when we walk into a store, just as we currently are when we visit websites.

The point is that it doesn't matter which technology is used to identify people. That there currently is no comprehensive database of heartbeats or gaits doesn't make the technologies that gather them any less effective. And most of the time, it doesn't matter if identification isn't tied to a real name. What's important is that we can be consistently identified over time. We might be completely anonymous in a system that uses unique cookies to track us as we browse the Internet, but the same process of correlation and discrimination still occurs. It's the same with faces; we can be tracked as we move around a store or shopping mall, even if that tracking isn't tied to a specific name. And that anonymity is fragile: If we ever order something online with a credit card, or purchase something with a credit card in a store, then suddenly our real names are attached to what was anonymous tracking information.

Regulating this system means addressing all three steps of the process. A ban on facial recognition won't make any difference if, in response, surveillance systems switch to identifying people by smartphone MAC addresses. The problem is that we are being identified without our knowledge or consent, and society needs rules about when that is permissible.

Similarly, we need rules about how our data can be combined with other data, and then bought and sold without our knowledge or consent. The data broker industry is almost entirely unregulated; there's only one law ­-- passed in Vermont in 2018 ­-- that requires data brokers to register and explain in broad terms what kind of data they collect. The large Internet surveillance companies like Facebook and Google collect dossiers on us are more detailed than those of any police state of the previous century. Reasonable laws would prevent the worst of their abuses.

Finally, we need better rules about when and how it is permissible for companies to discriminate. Discrimination based on protected characteristics like race and gender is already illegal, but those rules are ineffectual against the current technologies of surveillance and control. When people can be identified and their data correlated at a speed and scale previously unseen, we need new rules.

Today, facial recognition technologies are receiving the brunt of the tech backlash, but focusing on them misses the point. We need to have a serious conversation about all the technologies of identification, correlation and discrimination, and decide how much we as a society want to be spied on by governments and corporations -- and what sorts of influence we want them to have over our lives.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

EDITED TO ADD: Rereading this post-publication, I see that it comes off as overly critical of those who are doing activism in this space. Writing the piece, I wasn't thinking about political tactics. I was thinking about the technologies that support surveillance capitalism, and law enforcement's usage of that corporate platform. Of course it makes sense to focus on face recognition in the short term. It's something that's easy to explain, viscerally creepy, and obviously actionable. It also makes sense to focus specifically on law enforcement's use of the technology; there are clear civil and constitutional rights issues. The fact that law enforcement is so deeply involved in the technology's marketing feels wrong. And the technology is currently being deployed in Hong Kong against political protesters. It's why the issue has momentum, and why we've gotten the small wins we've had. (The EU is considering a five-year ban on face recognition technologies.) Those wins build momentum, which lead to more wins. I should have been kinder to those in the trenches.

If you want to help, sign the petition from Public Voice calling on a moratorium on facial recognition technology for mass surveillance. Or write to your US congressperson and demand similar action. There's more information from EFF and EPIC.

Posted on January 27, 2020 at 12:21 PM27 Comments

Smartphone Election in Washington State

This year:

King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology.

Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device.

Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else.

The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes.

While advocates say this creates an auditable paper trail, many security experts say that because the ballots cross the Internet before they are printed, any subsequent audits on them would be moot. If a cyberattack occurred, an audit could essentially require double-checking ballots that may already have been altered, says Buell.

Of course it's not an auditable paper trail. There's a reason why security experts use the phrase "voter-verifiable paper ballots." A centralized printout of a received Internet message is not voter verifiable.

Another news article.

Posted on January 27, 2020 at 6:03 AM20 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: More on the Giant Squid's DNA

Following on from last week's post, here's more information on sequencing the DNA of the giant squid.

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

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on January 24, 2020 at 4:18 PM47 Comments

Technical Report of the Bezos Phone Hack

Motherboard obtained and published the technical report on the hack of Jeff Bezos's phone, which is being attributed to Saudi Arabia, specifically to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

...investigators set up a secure lab to examine the phone and its artifacts and spent two days poring over the device but were unable to find any malware on it. Instead, they only found a suspicious video file sent to Bezos on May 1, 2018 that "appears to be an Arabic language promotional film about telecommunications."

That file shows an image of the Saudi Arabian flag and Swedish flags and arrived with an encrypted downloader. Because the downloader was encrypted this delayed or further prevented "study of the code delivered along with the video."

Investigators determined the video or downloader were suspicious only because Bezos' phone subsequently began transmitting large amounts of data. "[W]ithin hours of the encrypted downloader being received, a massive and unauthorized exfiltration of data from Bezos' phone began, continuing and escalating for months thereafter," the report states.

"The amount of data being transmitted out of Bezos' phone changed dramatically after receiving the WhatsApp video file and never returned to baseline. Following execution of the encrypted downloader sent from MBS' account, egress on the device immediately jumped by approximately 29,000 percent," it notes. "Forensic artifacts show that in the six (6) months prior to receiving the WhatsApp video, Bezos' phone had an average of 430KB of egress per day, fairly typical of an iPhone. Within hours of the WhatsApp video, egress jumped to 126MB. The phone maintained an unusually high average of 101MB of egress data per day for months thereafter, including many massive and highly atypical spikes of egress data."

The Motherboard article also quotes forensic experts on the report:

A mobile forensic expert told Motherboard that the investigation as depicted in the report is significantly incomplete and would only have provided the investigators with about 50 percent of what they needed, especially if this is a nation-state attack. She says the iTunes backup and other extractions they did would get them only messages, photo files, contacts and other files that the user is interested in saving from their applications, but not the core files.

"They would need to use a tool like Graykey or Cellebrite Premium or do a jailbreak to get a look at the full file system. That's where that state-sponsored malware is going to be found. Good state-sponsored malware should never show up in a backup," said Sarah Edwards, an author and teacher of mobile forensics for the SANS Institute.

"The full file system is getting into the device and getting every single file on there­ -- the whole operating system, the application data, the databases that will not be backed up. So really the in-depth analysis should be done on that full file system, for this level of investigation anyway. I would have insisted on that right from the start."

The investigators do note on the last page of their report that they need to jailbreak Bezos's phone to examine the root file system. Edwards said this would indeed get them everything they would need to search for persistent spyware like the kind created and sold by the NSO Group. But the report doesn't indicate if that did get done.

Posted on January 24, 2020 at 8:34 AM51 Comments

Apple Abandoned Plans for Encrypted iCloud Backup after FBI Complained

This is new from Reuters:

More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud, according to one current and three former FBI officials and one current and one former Apple employee.

Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.

In private talks with Apple soon after, representatives of the FBI's cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected to the plan, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, the government sources said.

When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, according to the six sources. Reuters could not determine why exactly Apple dropped the plan.

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 6:10 AM31 Comments

Half a Million IoT Device Passwords Published

It's a list of easy-to-guess passwords for IoT devices on the Internet as recently as last October and November. Useful for anyone putting together a bot network:

A hacker has published this week a massive list of Telnet credentials for more than 515,000 servers, home routers, and IoT (Internet of Things) "smart" devices.

The list, which was published on a popular hacking forum, includes each device's IP address, along with a username and password for the Telnet service, a remote access protocol that can be used to control devices over the internet.

According to experts to who ZDNet spoke this week, and a statement from the leaker himself, the list was compiled by scanning the entire internet for devices that were exposing their Telnet port. The hacker than tried using (1) factory-set default usernames and passwords, or (2) custom, but easy-to-guess password combinations.

Posted on January 22, 2020 at 6:09 AM16 Comments

Brazil Charges Glenn Greenwald with Cybercrimes

Glenn Greenwald has been charged with cybercrimes in Brazil, stemming from publishing information and documents that were embarrassing to the government. The charges are that he actively helped the people who actually did the hacking:

Citing intercepted messages between Mr. Greenwald and the hackers, prosecutors say the journalist played a "clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime."

For instance, prosecutors contend that Mr. Greenwald encouraged the hackers to delete archives that had already been shared with The Intercept Brasil, in order to cover their tracks.

Prosecutors also say that Mr. Greenwald was communicating with the hackers while they were actively monitoring private chats on Telegram, a messaging app. The complaint charged six other individuals, including four who were detained last year in connection with the cellphone hacking.

This isn't new, or unique to Brazil. Last year, Julian Assange was charged by the US with doing essentially the same thing with Chelsea Manning:

The indictment alleges that in March 2010, Assange engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on U.S. Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNet), a U.S. government network used for classified documents and communications. Manning, who had access to the computers in connection with her duties as an intelligence analyst, was using the computers to download classified records to transmit to WikiLeaks. Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log on to the computers under a username that did not belong to her. Such a deceptive measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures.

During the conspiracy, Manning and Assange engaged in real-time discussions regarding Manning's transmission of classified records to Assange. The discussions also reflect Assange actively encouraging Manning to provide more information. During an exchange, Manning told Assange that "after this upload, that's all I really have got left." To which Assange replied, "curious eyes never run dry in my experience."

Good commentary on the Assange case here.

It's too early for any commentary on the Greenwald case. Lots of news articles are essentially saying the same thing. I'll post more news when there is some.

Posted on January 21, 2020 at 3:23 PM62 Comments

SIM Hijacking

SIM hijacking -- or SIM swapping -- is an attack where a fraudster contacts your cell phone provider and convinces them to switch your account to a phone that they control. Since your smartphone often serves as a security measure or backup verification system, this allows the fraudster to take over other accounts of yours. Sometimes this involves people inside the phone companies.

Phone companies have added security measures since this attack became popular and public, but a new study (news article) shows that the measures aren't helping:

We examined the authentication procedures used by five pre-paid wireless carriers when a customer attempted to change their SIM card. These procedures are an important line of defense against attackers who seek to hijack victims' phone numbers by posing as the victim and calling the carrier to request that service be transferred to a SIM card the attacker possesses. We found that all five carriers used insecure authentication challenges that could be easily subverted by attackers.We also found that attackers generally only needed to target the most vulnerable authentication challenges, because the rest could be bypassed.

It's a classic security vs. usability trade-off. The phone companies want to provide easy customer service for their legitimate customers, and that system is what's being exploited by the SIM hijackers. Companies could make the fraud harder, but it would necessarily also make it harder for legitimate customers to modify their accounts.

Posted on January 21, 2020 at 6:30 AM29 Comments

Clearview AI and Facial Recognition

The New York Times has a long story about Clearview AI, a small company that scrapes identified photos of people from pretty much everywhere, and then uses unstated magical AI technology to identify people in other photos.

His tiny company, Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system -- whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites -- goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.

Federal and state law enforcement officers said that while they had only limited knowledge of how Clearview works and who is behind it, they had used its app to help solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases.

[...]

But without public scrutiny, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year, according to the company, which declined to provide a list. The computer code underlying its app, analyzed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew.

And it's not just law enforcement: Clearview has also licensed the app to at least a handful of companies for security purposes.

Another article.

EDITED TO ADD (1/23): Twitter told the company to stop scraping its photos.

Posted on January 20, 2020 at 8:53 AM30 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.