May 15, 2019
by Bruce Schneier
CTO, IBM Resilient
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- China Spying on Undersea Internet Cables
- Vulnerabilities in the WPA3 Wi-Fi Security Protocol
- More on the Triton Malware
- A “Department of Cybersecurity”
- New DNS Hijacking Attacks
- Iranian Cyberespionage Tools Leaked Online
- Excellent Analysis of the Boeing 737 Max Software Problems
- G7 Comes Out in Favor of Encryption Backdoors
- Vulnerability in French Government Tchap Chat App
- Fooling Automated Surveillance Cameras with Patchwork Color Printout
- Towards an Information Operations Kill Chain
- Interview of Me in Taiwan
- Stealing Ethereum by Guessing Weak Private Keys
- Defending Democracies Against Information Attacks
- On Security Tokens
- Why Isn’t GDPR Being Enforced?
- Cybersecurity for the Public Interest
- Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft
- First Physical Retaliation for a Cyberattack
- Locked Computers
- Malicious MS Office Macro Creator
- Leaked NSA Hacking Tools
- Amazon Is Losing the War on Fraudulent Sellers
- Another NSA Leaker Identified and Charged
- Cryptanalyzing a Pair of Russian Encryption Algorithms
- Reverse Engineering a Chinese Surveillance App
- Cryptanalysis of SIMON-32/64
- Upcoming Speaking Engagements
[2019.04.15] Supply chain security is an insurmountably hard problem. The recent focus is on Chinese 5G equipment, but the problem is much broader. This opinion piece looks at undersea communications cables:
But now the Chinese conglomerate Huawei Technologies, the leading firm working to deliver 5G telephony networks globally, has gone to sea. Under its Huawei Marine Networks component, it is constructing or improving nearly 100 submarine cables around the world. Last year it completed a cable stretching nearly 4,000 miles from Brazil to Cameroon. (The cable is partly owned by China Unicom, a state-controlled telecom operator.) Rivals claim that Chinese firms are able to lowball the bidding because they receive subsidies from Beijing.
Just as the experts are justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage “back doors” in Huawei’s 5G technology, Western intelligence professionals oppose the company’s engagement in the undersea version, which provides a much bigger bang for the buck because so much data rides on so few cables.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. For years, the US and the Five Eyes have had a monopoly on spying on the Internet around the globe. Other countries want in.
As I have repeatedly said, we need to decide if we are going to build our future Internet systems for security or surveillance. Either everyone gets to spy, or no one gets to spy. And I believe we must choose security over surveillance, and implement a defense-dominant strategy.
The design flaws we discovered can be divided in two categories. The first category consists of downgrade attacks against WPA3-capable devices, and the second category consists of weaknesses in the Dragonfly handshake of WPA3, which in the Wi-Fi standard is better known as the Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) handshake. The discovered flaws can be abused to recover the password of the Wi-Fi network, launch resource consumption attacks, and force devices into using weaker security groups. All attacks are against home networks (i.e. WPA3-Personal), where one password is shared among all users.
News article. Research paper: “Dragonblood: A Security Analysis of WPA3’s SAE Handshake“:
Abstract: The WPA3 certification aims to secure Wi-Fi networks, and provides several advantages over its predecessor WPA2, such as protection against offline dictionary attacks and forward secrecy. Unfortunately, we show that WPA3 is affected by several design flaws,and analyze these flaws both theoretically and practically. Most prominently, we show that WPA3’s Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) handshake, commonly known as Dragonfly, is affected by password partitioning attacks. These attacks resemble dictionary attacks and allow an adversary to recover the password by abusing timing or cache-based side-channel leaks. Our side-channel attacks target the protocol’s password encoding method. For instance, our cache-based attack exploits SAE’s hash-to-curve algorithm. The resulting attacks are efficient and low cost: brute-forcing all 8-character lowercase password requires less than 125$in Amazon EC2 instances. In light of ongoing standardization efforts on hash-to-curve, Password-Authenticated Key Exchanges (PAKEs), and Dragonfly as a TLS handshake, our findings are also of more general interest. Finally, we discuss how to mitigate our attacks in a backwards-compatible manner, and explain how minor changes to the protocol could have prevented most of our attack
This is also a good—but older—article on Triton. We don’t know who wrote it. Initial speculation was Iran; more recent speculation is Russia. Both are still speculations.
I have long been in favor of a new federal agency to deal with Internet—and especially Internet of Things—security. The devil is in the details, of course, and it’s really easy to get this wrong. In Click Here to Kill Everybody, I outline a strawman proposal; I call it the “National Cyber Office” and model it on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But regardless of what you think of this idea, I’m glad that at least someone is talking about it.
Researchers at Cisco’s Talos security division on Wednesday revealed that a hacker group it’s calling Sea Turtle carried out a broad campaign of espionage via DNS hijacking, hitting 40 different organizations. In the process, they went so far as to compromise multiple country-code top-level domains—the suffixes like .co.uk or .ru that end a foreign web address—putting all the traffic of every domain in multiple countries at risk.
The hackers’ victims include telecoms, internet service providers, and domain registrars responsible for implementing the domain name system. But the majority of the victims and the ultimate targets, Cisco believes, were a collection of mostly governmental organizations, including ministries of foreign affairs, intelligence agencies, military targets, and energy-related groups, all based in the Middle East and North Africa. By corrupting the internet’s directory system, hackers were able to silently use “man in the middle” attacks to intercept all internet data from email to web traffic sent to those victim organizations.
Cisco Talos said it couldn’t determine the nationality of the Sea Turtle hackers, and declined to name the specific targets of their spying operations. But it did provide a list of the countries where victims were located: Albania, Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Cisco’s Craig Williams confirmed that Armenia’s .am top-level domain was one of the “handful” that were compromised, but wouldn’t say which of the other countries’ top-level domains were similarly hijacked.
Another news article.
Technically this is safety and not security; there was no attacker. But the fields are closely related and there are a lot of lessons for IoT security—and the security of complex socio-technical systems in general—in here.
EDITED TO ADD (4/30): A rebuttal of sorts.
EDITED TO ADD (5/13): The comments to this blog post are of particularly high quality, and I recommend them to anyone interested in the topic.
Encourage Internet companies to establish lawful access solutions for their products and services, including data that is encrypted, for law enforcement and competent authorities to access digital evidence, when it is removed or hosted on IT servers located abroad or encrypted, without imposing any particular technology and while ensuring that assistance requested from internet companies is underpinned by the rule law and due process protection. Some G7 countries highlight the importance of not prohibiting, limiting, or weakening encryption;
There is a weird belief amongst policy makers that hacking an encryption system’s key management system is fundamentally different than hacking the system’s encryption algorithm. The difference is only technical; the effect is the same. Both are ways of weakening encryption.
EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Some clarifications.
[2019.04.26] Cyberattacks don’t magically happen; they involve a series of steps. And far from being helpless, defenders can disrupt the attack at any of those steps. This framing has led to something called the “cybersecurity kill chain“: a way of thinking about cyber defense in terms of disrupting the attacker’s process.
On a similar note, it’s time to conceptualize the “information operations kill chain.” Information attacks against democracies, whether they’re attempts to polarize political processes or to increase mistrust in social institutions, also involve a series of steps. And enumerating those steps will clarify possibilities for defense.
I first heard of this concept from Anthony Soules, a former National Security Agency (NSA) employee who now leads cybersecurity strategy for Amgen. He used the steps from the 1980s Russian “Operation Infektion,” designed to spread the rumor that the U.S. created the HIV virus as part of a weapons research program. A 2018 New York Times opinion video series on the operation described the Russian disinformation playbook in a series of seven “commandments,” or steps. The information landscape has changed since 1980, and information operations have changed as well. I have updated, and added to, those steps to bring them into the present day:
- Step 1: Find the cracks in the fabric of society—the social, demographic, economic and ethnic divisions.
- Step 2: Seed distortion by creating alternative narratives. In the 1980s, this was a single “big lie,” but today it is more about many contradictory alternative truths—a “firehose of falsehood“—that distorts the political debate.
- Step 3: Wrap those narratives around kernels of truth. A core of fact helps the falsities spread.
- Step 4: (This step is new.) Build audiences, either by directly controlling a platform (like RT) or by cultivating relationships with people who will be receptive to those narratives.
- Step 5: Conceal your hand; make it seem as if the stories came from somewhere else.
- Step 6: Cultivate “useful idiots” who believe and amplify the narratives. Encourage them to take positions even more extreme than they would otherwise.
- Step 7: Deny involvement, even if the truth is obvious.
- Step 8: Play the long game. Strive for long-term impact over immediate impact.
These attacks have been so effective in part because, as victims, we weren’t aware of how they worked. Identifying these steps makes it possible to conceptualize—and develop—countermeasures designed to disrupt information operations. The result is the information operations kill chain:
- Step 1: Find the cracks. There will always be open disagreements in a democratic society, but one defense is to shore up the institutions that make that society possible. Elsewhere I have written about the “common political knowledge” necessary for democracies to function. We need to strengthen that shared knowledge, thereby making it harder to exploit the inevitable cracks. We need to make it unacceptable—or at least costly—for domestic actors to use these same disinformation techniques in their own rhetoric and political maneuvering, and to highlight and encourage cooperation when politicians honestly work across party lines. We need to become reflexively suspicious of information that makes us angry at our fellow citizens. We cannot entirely fix the cracks, as they emerge from the diversity that makes democracies strong; but we can make them harder to exploit.
- Step 2: Seed distortion. We need to teach better digital literacy. This alone cannot solve the problem, as much sharing of fake news is about social signaling, and those who share it care more about how it demonstrates their core beliefs than whether or not it is true. Still, it is part of the solution.
- Step 3: Wrap the narratives around kernels of truth. Defenses involve exposing the untruths and distortions, but this is also complicated to put into practice. Psychologists have demonstrated that an inadvertent effect of debunking a piece of fake news is to amplify the message of that debunked story. Hence, it is essential to replace the fake news with accurate narratives that counter the propaganda. That kernel of truth is part of a larger true narrative. We need to ensure that the true narrative is legitimized and promoted.
- Step 4: Build audiences. This is where social media companies have made all the difference. By allowing groups of like-minded people to find and talk to each other, these companies have given propagandists the ability to find audiences who are receptive to their messages. Here, the defenses center around making disinformation efforts less effective. Social media companies need to detect and delete accounts belonging to propagandists and bots and groups run by those propagandists.
- Step 5: Conceal your hand. Here the answer is attribution, attribution, attribution. The quicker we can publicly attribute information operations, the more effectively we can defend against them. This will require efforts by both the social media platforms and the intelligence community, not just to detect information operations and expose them but also to be able to attribute attacks. Social media companies need to be more transparent about how their algorithms work and make source publications more obvious for online articles. Even small measures like the Honest Ads Act, requiring transparency in online political ads, will help. Where companies lack business incentives to do this, regulation will be the only answer.
- Step 6: Cultivate useful idiots. We can mitigate the influence of people who disseminate harmful information, even if they are unaware they are amplifying deliberate propaganda. This does not mean that the government needs to regulate speech; corporate platforms already employ a variety of systems to amplify and diminish particular speakers and messages. Additionally, the antidote to the ignorant people who repeat and amplify propaganda messages is other influencers who respond with the truth—in the words of one report, we must “make the truth louder.” Of course, there will always be true believers for whom no amount of fact-checking or counter speech will convince; this is not intended for them. Focus instead on persuading the persuadable.
- Step 7: Deny everything. When attack attribution relies on secret evidence, it is easy for the attacker to deny involvement. Public attribution of information attacks must be accompanied by convincing evidence. This will be difficult when attribution involves classified intelligence information, but there is no alternative. Trusting the government without evidence, as the NSA’s Rob Joyce recommended in a 2016 talk, is not enough. Governments will have to disclose.
- Step 8: Play the long game. Counterattacks can disrupt the attacker’s ability to maintain information operations, as U.S. Cyber Command did during the 2018 midterm elections. The NSA’s new policy of “persistent engagement” (see the article by, and interview with, U.S. Cyber Command Commander’s Gen. Paul Nakasone here) is a strategy to achieve this. Defenders can play the long game, too. We need to better encourage people to think for the long term: beyond the next election cycle or quarterly earnings report.
Permeating all of this is the importance of deterrence. Yes, we need to adjust our theories of deterrence to the realities of the information age and the democratization of attackers. If we can mitigate the effectiveness of information operations, if we can publicly attribute—if we can respond either diplomatically or otherwise—we can deter these attacks from nation-states. But Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election shows not just that such actions are possible but also that they’re surprisingly inexpensive to run. As these tactics continue to be democratized, more people will attempt them. Deterring them will require a different theory.
None of these defensive actions is sufficient on its own. In this way, the information operations kill chain differs significantly from the more traditional cybersecurity kill chain. The latter defends against a series of steps taken sequentially by the attacker against a single target—a network or an organization—and disrupting any one of those steps disrupts the entire attack. The information operations kill chain is fuzzier. Steps overlap. They can be conducted out of order. It’s a patchwork that can span multiple social media sites and news channels. It requires, as Henry Farrell and I have postulated, thinking of democracy itself as an information system. Disrupting an information operation will require more than disrupting one step at one time. The parallel isn’t perfect, but it’s a taxonomy by which to consider the range of possible defenses.
This information operations kill chain is a work in progress. If anyone has any other ideas for disrupting different steps of the information operations kill chain, please comment below. I will update this in a future essay.
This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.
[2019.04.29] Someone is stealing millions of dollars worth of Ethereum by guessing users’ private keys. Normally this should be impossible, but lots of keys seem to be very weak. Researchers are unsure how those weak keys are being generated and used.
Their paper is here.
[2019.04.30] To better understand influence attacks, we proposed an approach that models democracy itself as an information system and explains how democracies are vulnerable to certain forms of information attacks that autocracies naturally resist. Our model combines ideas from both international security and computer security, avoiding the limitations of both in explaining how influence attacks may damage democracy as a whole.
Our initial account is necessarily limited. Building a truly comprehensive understanding of democracy as an information system will be a Herculean labor, involving the collective endeavors of political scientists and theorists, computer scientists, scholars of complexity, and others.
In this short paper, we undertake a more modest task: providing policy advice to improve the resilience of democracy against these attacks. Specifically, we can show how policy makers not only need to think about how to strengthen systems against attacks, but also need to consider how these efforts intersect with public beliefs—or common political knowledge—about these systems, since public beliefs may themselves be an important vector for attacks.
In democracies, many important political decisions are taken by ordinary citizens (typically, in electoral democracies, by voting for political representatives). This means that citizens need to have some shared understandings about their political system, and that the society needs some means of generating shared information regarding who their citizens are and what they want. We call this common political knowledge, and it is largely generated through mechanisms of social aggregation (and the institutions that implement them), such as voting, censuses, and the like. These are imperfect mechanisms, but essential to the proper functioning of democracy. They are often compromised or non-existent in autocratic regimes, since they are potentially threatening to the rulers.
In modern democracies, the most important such mechanism is voting, which aggregates citizens’ choices over competing parties and politicians to determine who is to control executive power for a limited period. Another important mechanism is the census process, which play an important role in the US and in other democracies, in providing broad information about the population, in shaping the electoral system (through the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives), and in policy making (through the allocation of government spending and resources). Of lesser import are public commenting processes, through which individuals and interest groups can comment on significant public policy and regulatory decisions.
All of these systems are vulnerable to attack. Elections are vulnerable to a variety of illegal manipulations, including vote rigging. However, many kinds of manipulation are currently legal in the US, including many forms of gerrymandering, gimmicking voting time, allocating polling booths and resources so as to advantage or disadvantage particular populations, imposing onerous registration and identity requirements, and so on.
Censuses may be manipulated through the provision of bogus information or, more plausibly, through the skewing of policy or resources so that some populations are undercounted. Many of the political battles over the census over the past few decades have been waged over whether the census should undertake statistical measures to counter undersampling bias for populations who are statistically less likely to return census forms, such as minorities and undocumented immigrants. Current efforts to include a question about immigration status may make it less likely that undocumented or recent immigrants will return completed forms.
Finally, public commenting systems too are vulnerable to attacks intended to misrepresent the support for or opposition to specific proposals, including the formation of astroturf (artificial grassroots) groups and the misuse of fake or stolen identities in large-scale mail, fax, email or online commenting systems.
All these attacks are relatively well understood, even if policy choices might be improved by a better understanding of their relationship to shared political knowledge. For example, some voting ID requirements are rationalized through appeals to security concerns about voter fraud. While political scientists have suggested that these concerns are largely unwarranted, we currently lack a framework for evaluating the trade-offs, if any. Computer security concepts such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability could be combined with findings from political science and political theory to provide such a framework.
Even so, the relationship between social aggregation institutions and public beliefs is far less well understood by policy makers. Even when social aggregation mechanisms and institutions are robust against direct attacks, they may be vulnerable to more indirect attacks aimed at destabilizing public beliefs about them.
Democratic societies are vulnerable to (at least) two kinds of knowledge attacks that autocratic societies are not. First are flooding attacks that create confusion among citizens about what other citizens believe, making it far more difficult for them to organize among themselves. Second are confidence attacks. These attempt to undermine public confidence in the institutions of social aggregation, so that their results are no longer broadly accepted as legitimate representations of the citizenry.
Most obviously, democracies will function poorly when citizens do not believe that voting is fair. This makes democracies vulnerable to attacks aimed at destabilizing public confidence in voting institutions. For example, some of Russia’s hacking efforts against the 2016 presidential election were designed to undermine citizens’ confidence in the result. Russian hacking attacks against Ukraine, which targeted the systems through which election results were reported out, were intended to create confusion among voters about what the outcome actually was. Similarly, the “Guccifer 2.0” hacking identity, which has been attributed to Russian military intelligence, sought to suggest that the US electoral system had been compromised by the Democrats in the days immediately before the presidential vote. If, as expected, Donald Trump had lost the election, these claims could have been combined with the actual evidence of hacking to create the appearance that the election was fundamentally compromised.
Similar attacks against the perception of fairness are likely to be employed against the 2020 US census. Should efforts to include a citizenship question fail, some political actors who are disadvantaged by demographic changes such as increases in foreign-born residents and population shift from rural to urban and suburban areas will mount an effort to delegitimize the census results. Again, the genuine problems with the census, which include not only the citizenship question controversy but also serious underfunding, may help to bolster these efforts.
Mechanisms that allow interested actors and ordinary members of the public to comment on proposed policies are similarly vulnerable. For example, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) announced in 2017 that it was proposing to repeal its net neutrality ruling. Interest groups backing the FCC rollback correctly anticipated a widespread backlash from a politically active coalition of net neutrality supporters. The result was warfare through public commenting. More than 22 million comments were filed, most of which appeared to be either automatically generated or form letters. Millions of these comments were apparently fake, and attached unsuspecting people’s names and email addresses to comments supporting the FCC’s repeal efforts. The vast majority of comments that were not either form letters or automatically generated opposed the FCC’s proposed ruling. The furor around the commenting process was magnified by claims from inside the FCC (later discredited) that the commenting process had also been subjected to a cyberattack.
We do not yet know the identity and motives of the actors behind the flood of fake comments, although the New York State Attorney-General’s office has issued subpoenas for records from a variety of lobbying and advocacy organizations. However, by demonstrating that the commenting process was readily manipulated, the attack made it less likely that the apparently genuine comments of those opposing the FCC’s proposed ruling would be treated as useful evidence of what the public believed. The furor over purported cyberattacks, and the FCC’s unwillingness itself to investigate the attack, have further undermined confidence in an online commenting system that was intended to make the FCC more open to the US public.
We do not know nearly enough about how democracies function as information systems. Generating a better understanding is itself a major policy challenge, which will require substantial resources and, even more importantly, common understandings and shared efforts across a variety of fields of knowledge that currently don’t really engage with each other.
However, even this basic sketch of democracy’s informational aspects can provide policy makers with some key lessons. The most important is that it may be as important to bolster shared public beliefs about key institutions such as voting, public commenting, and census taking against attack, as to bolster the mechanisms and related institutions themselves.
Specifically, many efforts to mitigate attacks against democratic systems begin with spreading public awareness and alarm about their vulnerabilities. This has the benefit of increasing awareness about real problems, but it may—especially if exaggerated for effect—damage public confidence in the very social aggregation institutions it means to protect. This may mean, for example, that public awareness efforts about Russian hacking that are based on flawed analytic techniques may themselves damage democracy by exaggerating the consequences of attacks.
More generally, this poses important challenges for policy efforts to secure social aggregation institutions against attacks. How can one best secure the systems themselves without damaging public confidence in them? At a minimum, successful policy measures will not simply identify problems in existing systems, but provide practicable, publicly visible, and readily understandable solutions to mitigate them.
We have focused on the problem of confidence attacks in this short essay, because they are both more poorly understood and more profound than flooding attacks. Given historical experience, democracy can probably survive some amount of disinformation about citizens’ beliefs better than it can survive attacks aimed at its core institutions of aggregation. Policy makers need a better understanding of the relationship between political institutions and social beliefs: specifically, the importance of the social aggregation institutions that allow democracies to understand themselves.
There are some low-hanging fruit. Very often, hardening these institutions against attacks on their confidence will go hand in hand with hardening them against attacks more generally. Thus, for example, reforms to voting that require permanent paper ballots and random auditing would not only better secure voting against manipulation, but would have moderately beneficial consequences for public beliefs too.
There are likely broadly similar solutions for public commenting systems. Here, the informational trade-offs are less profound than for voting, since there is no need to balance the requirement for anonymity (so that no-one can tell who voted for who ex post) against other requirements (to ensure that no-one votes twice or more, no votes are changed and so on). Instead, the balance to be struck is between general ease of access and security, making it easier, for example, to leverage secondary sources to validate identity.
Both the robustness of and public confidence in the US census and the other statistical systems that guide the allocation of resources could be improved by insulating them better from political control. For example, a similar system could be used to appoint the director of the census to that for the US Comptroller-General, requiring bipartisan agreement for appointment, and making it hard to exert post-appointment pressure on the official.
Our arguments also illustrate how some well-intentioned efforts to combat social influence operations may have perverse consequences for general social beliefs. The perception of security is at least as important as the reality of security, and any defenses against information attacks need to address both.
However, we need far better developed intellectual tools if we are to properly understand the trade-offs, instead of proposing clearly beneficial policies, and avoiding straightforward mistakes. Forging such tools will require computer security specialists to start thinking systematically about public beliefs as an integral part of the systems that they seek to defend. It will mean that more military oriented cybersecurity specialists need to think deeply about the functioning of democracy and the capacity of internal as well as external actors to disrupt it, rather than reaching for their standard toolkit of state-level deterrence tools. Finally, specialists in the workings of democracy have to learn how to think about democracy and its trade-offs in specifically informational terms.
This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and has previously appeared on Defusing Disinfo.
I’ll say it again for the people in the back: with Security Keys, instead of the *user* needing to verify the site, the *site* has to prove itself to the key. Good security these days is about human factors; we have to take the onus off of the user as much as we can.
Furthermore, this “proof” from the site to the key is only permitted over close physical proximity (like USB, NFC, or Bluetooth). Unless the phisher is in the same room as the victim, they can’t gain access to the second factor.
This is why I keep using words like “transformative,” “revolutionary,” and “lit” (not so much anymore): SKs basically shrink your threat model from “anyone anywhere in the world who knows your password” to “people in the room with you right now.” Huge!
Cory Doctorow makes a critical point, that the system is only as good as its backup system:
I agree, but there’s an important caveat. Security keys usually have fallback mechanisms—some way to attach a new key to your account for when you lose or destroy your old key. These mechanisms may also rely on security keys, but chances are that they don’t (and somewhere down the line, there’s probably a fallback mechanism that uses SMS, or Google Authenticator, or an email confirmation loop, or a password, or an administrator who can be sweet talked by a social engineer).
So while the insight that traditional 2FA is really “something you know and something else you know, albeit only very recently,” security keys are “Something you know and something you have, which someone else can have, if they know something you know.”
And just because there are vulnerabilities in cell phone-based two-factor authentication systems doesn’t mean that they are useless. They’re still much better than traditional password-only authentication systems.
[2019.05.02] Politico has a long article making the case that the lead GDPR regulator, Ireland, has too cozy a relationship with Silicon Valley tech companies to effectively regulate their privacy practices.
Despite its vows to beef up its threadbare regulatory apparatus, Ireland has a long history of catering to the very companies it is supposed to oversee, having wooed top Silicon Valley firms to the Emerald Isle with promises of low taxes, open access to top officials, and help securing funds to build glittering new headquarters.
Now, data-privacy experts and regulators in other countries alike are questioning Ireland’s commitment to policing imminent privacy concerns like Facebook’s reintroduction of facial recognition software and data sharing with its recently purchased subsidiary WhatsApp, and Google’s sharing of information across its burgeoning number of platforms.
EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Daragh O Brien, a regular critic of the DPC and who was quoted in the story, believes that he was misquoted, and that the article wasn’t entirely fair.
[2019.05.03] The Crypto Wars have been waging off-and-on for a quarter-century. On one side is law enforcement, which wants to be able to break encryption, to access devices and communications of terrorists and criminals. On the other are almost every cryptographer and computer security expert, repeatedly explaining that there’s no way to provide this capability without also weakening the security of every user of those devices and communications systems.
It’s an impassioned debate, acrimonious at times, but there are real technologies that can be brought to bear on the problem: key-escrow technologies, code obfuscation technologies, and backdoors with different properties. Pervasive surveillance capitalism—as practiced by the Internet companies that are already spying on everyone—matters. So does society’s underlying security needs. There is a security benefit to giving access to law enforcement, even though it would inevitably and invariably also give that access to others. However, there is also a security benefit of having these systems protected from all attackers, including law enforcement. These benefits are mutually exclusive. Which is more important, and to what degree?
The problem is that almost no policymakers are discussing this policy issue from a technologically informed perspective, and very few technologists truly understand the policy contours of the debate. The result is both sides consistently talking past each other, and policy proposals—that occasionally become law—that are technological disasters.
This isn’t sustainable, either for this issue or any of the other policy issues surrounding Internet security. We need policymakers who understand technology, but we also need cybersecurity technologists who understand—and are involved in—policy. We need public-interest technologists.
Let’s pause at that term. The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics recently wrote that public-interest technologists are people who “study the application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good.” Tim Berners-Lee has called them “philosophical engineers.” I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus: by working on tech policy, by working on a tech project with a public benefit, or by working as a traditional technologist for an organization with a public benefit. Maybe it’s not the best term—and I know not everyone likes it—but it’s a decent umbrella term that can encompass all these roles.
We need public-interest technologists in policy discussions. We need them on congressional staff, in federal agencies, at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in academia, inside companies, and as part of the press. In our field, we need them to get involved in not only the Crypto Wars, but everywhere cybersecurity and policy touch each other: the vulnerability equities debate, election security, cryptocurrency policy, Internet of Things safety and security, big data, algorithmic fairness, adversarial machine learning, critical infrastructure, and national security. When you broaden the definition of Internet security, many additional areas fall within the intersection of cybersecurity and policy. Our particular expertise and way of looking at the world is critical for understanding a great many technological issues, such as net neutrality and the regulation of critical infrastructure. I wouldn’t want to formulate public policy about artificial intelligence and robotics without a security technologist involved.
Public-interest technology isn’t new. Many organizations are working in this area, from older organizations like EFF and EPIC to newer ones like Verified Voting and Access Now. Many academic classes and programs combine technology and public policy. My cybersecurity policy class at the Harvard Kennedy School is just one example. Media startups like The Markup are doing technology-driven journalism. There are even programs and initiatives related to public-interest technology inside for-profit corporations.
This might all seem like a lot, but it’s really not. There aren’t enough people doing it, there aren’t enough people who know it needs to be done, and there aren’t enough places to do it. We need to build a world where there is a viable career path for public-interest technologists.
There are many barriers. There’s a report titled A Pivotal Moment that includes this quote: “While we cite individual instances of visionary leadership and successful deployment of technology skill for the public interest, there was a consensus that a stubborn cycle of inadequate supply, misarticulated demand, and an inefficient marketplace stymie progress.”
That quote speaks to the three places for intervention. One: the supply side. There just isn’t enough talent to meet the eventual demand. This is especially acute in cybersecurity, which has a talent problem across the field. Public-interest technologists are a diverse and multidisciplinary group of people. Their backgrounds come from technology, policy, and law. We also need to foster diversity within public-interest technology; the populations using the technology must be represented in the groups that shape the technology. We need a variety of ways for people to engage in this sphere: ways people can do it on the side, for a couple of years between more traditional technology jobs, or as a full-time rewarding career. We need public-interest technology to be part of every core computer-science curriculum, with “clinics” at universities where students can get a taste of public-interest work. We need technology companies to give people sabbaticals to do this work, and then value what they’ve learned and done.
Two: the demand side. This is our biggest problem right now; not enough organizations understand that they need technologists doing public-interest work. We need jobs to be funded across a wide variety of NGOs. We need staff positions throughout the government: executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. President Obama’s US Digital Service should be expanded and replicated; so should Code for America. We need more press organizations that perform this kind of work.
Three: the marketplace. We need job boards, conferences, and skills exchanges—places where people on the supply side can learn about the demand.
Major foundations are starting to provide funding in this space: the Ford and MacArthur Foundations in particular, but others as well.
This problem in our field has an interesting parallel with the field of public-interest law. In the 1960s, there was no such thing as public-interest law. The field was deliberately created, funded by organizations like the Ford Foundation. They financed legal aid clinics at universities, so students could learn housing, discrimination, or immigration law. They funded fellowships at organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP. They created a world where public-interest law is valued, where all the partners at major law firms are expected to have done some public-interest work. Today, when the ACLU advertises for a staff attorney, paying one-third to one-tenth normal salary, it gets hundreds of applicants. Today, 20% of Harvard Law School graduates go into public-interest law, and the school has soul-searching seminars because that percentage is so low. Meanwhile, the percentage of computer-science graduates going into public-interest work is basically zero.
This is bigger than computer security. Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.
More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.
This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.
The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.
This essay previously appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of IEEE Security & Privacy. I maintain a public-interest tech resources page here.
[2019.05.06] I don’t have a lot of good news for you. The truth is there’s nothing we can do to protect our data from being stolen by cybercriminals and others.
Ten years ago, I could have given you all sorts of advice about using encryption, not sending information over email, securing your web connections, and a host of other things—but most of that doesn’t matter anymore. Today, your sensitive data is controlled by others, and there’s nothing you can personally to do affect its security.
I could give you advice like don’t stay at a hotel (the Marriott breach), don’t get a government clearance (the Office of Personnel Management hack), don’t store your photos online (Apple breach and others), don’t use email (many, many different breaches), and don’t have anything other than an anonymous cash-only relationship with anyone, ever (the Equifax breach). But that’s all ridiculous advice for anyone trying to live a normal life in the 21st century.
The reality is that your sensitive data has likely already been stolen, multiple times. Cybercriminals have your credit card information. They have your social security number and your mother’s maiden name. They have your address and phone number. They obtained the data by hacking any one of the hundreds of companies you entrust with the data—and you have no visibility into those companies’ security practices, and no recourse when they lose your data.
Given this, your best option is to turn your efforts toward trying to make sure that your data isn’t used against you. Enable two-factor authentication for all important accounts whenever possible. Don’t reuse passwords for anything important—and get a password manager to remember them all.
Do your best to disable the “secret questions” and other backup authentication mechanisms companies use when you forget your password—those are invariably insecure. Watch your credit reports and your bank accounts for suspicious activity. Set up credit freezes with the major credit bureaus. Be wary of email and phone calls you get from people purporting to be from companies you do business with.
Of course, it’s unlikely you will do a lot of this. Pretty much no one does. That’s because it’s annoying and inconvenient. This is the reality, though. The companies you do business with have no real incentive to secure your data. The best way for you to protect yourself is to change that incentive, which means agitating for government oversight of this space. This includes proscriptive regulations, more flexible security standards, liabilities, certification, licensing, and meaningful labeling. Once that happens, the market will step in and provide companies with the technologies they can use to secure your data.
This essay previously appeared in the Rochester Review, as part of an alumni forum that asked: “How do you best protect yourself from identity theft?”
CLEARED FOR RELEASE: We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work.
HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed. pic.twitter.com/AhgKjiOqS7
—Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 5, 2019
I expect this sort of thing to happen more—not against major countries, but by larger countries against smaller powers. Cyberattacks are too much of a nation-state equalizer otherwise.
EDITED TO ADD (5/7): Commentary.
The one thing the video doesn’t talk about is RAM theft. When RAM was expensive, stealing it was a problem.
At BlackHat Asia we released Evil Clippy, a tool which assists red teamers and security testers in creating malicious MS Office documents. Amongst others, Evil Clippy can hide VBA macros, stomp VBA code (via p-code) and confuse popular macro analysis tools. It runs on Linux, OSX and Windows.
The VBA stomping is the most powerful feature, because it gets around antivirus programs:
VBA stomping abuses a feature which is not officially documented: the undocumented PerformanceCache part of each module stream contains compiled pseudo-code (p-code) for the VBA engine. If the MS Office version specified in the _VBA_PROJECT stream matches the MS Office version of the host program (Word or Excel) then the VBA source code in the module stream is ignored and the p-code is executed instead.
In summary: if we know the version of MS Office of a target system (e.g. Office 2016, 32 bit), we can replace our malicious VBA source code with fake code, while the malicious code will still get executed via p-code. In the meantime, any tool analyzing the VBA source code (such as antivirus) is completely fooled.
[2019.05.08] In 2016, a hacker group calling itself the Shadow Brokers released a trove of 2013 NSA hacking tools and related documents. Most people believe it is a front for the Russian government. Since, then the vulnerabilities and tools have been used by both government and criminals, and put the NSA’s ability to secure its own cyberweapons seriously into question.
Does this mean that both the Chinese and the Russians stole the same set of NSA tools? Did the Russians steal them from the Chinese, who stole them from us? Did it work the other way? I don’t think anyone has any idea. But this certainly illustrates how dangerous it is for the NSA—or US Cyber Command—to hoard zero-day vulnerabilities.
The most prominent black hat companies for US Amazon sellers offer ways to manipulate Amazon’s ranking system to promote products, protect accounts from disciplinary actions, and crush competitors. Sometimes, these black hat companies bribe corporate Amazon employees to leak information from the company’s wiki pages and business reports, which they then resell to marketplace sellers for steep prices. One black hat company charges as much as $10,000 a month to help Amazon sellers appear at the top of product search results. Other tactics to promote sellers’ products include removing negative reviews from product pages and exploiting technical loopholes on Amazon’s site to lift products’ overall sales rankings.
AmzPandora’s services ranged from small tasks to more ambitious strategies to rank a product higher using Amazon’s algorithm. While it was online, it offered to ping internal contacts at Amazon for $500 to get information about why a seller’s account had been suspended, as well as advice on how to appeal the suspension. For $300, the company promised to remove an unspecified number of negative reviews on a listing within three to seven days, which would help increase the overall star rating for a product. For $1.50, the company offered a service to fool the algorithm into believing a product had been added to a shopper’s cart or wish list by writing a super URL. And for $1,200, an Amazon seller could purchase a “frequently bought together” spot on another marketplace product’s page that would appear for two weeks, which AmzPandora promised would lead to a 10% increase in sales.
Amazon has a real problem here, primarily because trust in the system is paramount to Amazon’s success. As much as they need to crack down on fraudulent sellers, they really want articles like these to not be written.
[2019.05.09] In 2015, the Intercept started publishing “The Drone Papers,” based on classified documents leaked by an unknown whistleblower. Today, someone who worked at the NSA, and then at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was charged with the crime. It is unclear how he was initially identified. It might have been this: “At the agency, prosecutors said, Mr. Hale printed 36 documents from his Top Secret computer.”
The article talks about evidence collected after he was identified and searched:
According to the indictment, in August 2014, Mr. Hale’s cellphone contact list included information for the reporter, and he possessed two thumb drives. One thumb drive contained a page marked “secret” from a classified document that Mr. Hale had printed in February 2014. Prosecutors said Mr. Hale had tried to delete the document from the thumb drive.
The other thumb drive contained Tor software and the Tails operating system, which were recommended by the reporter’s online news outlet in an article published on its website regarding how to anonymously leak documents.
[2019.05.10] A pair of Russia-designed cryptographic algorithms—the Kuznyechik block cipher and the Streebog hash function—have the same flawed S-box that is almost certainly an intentional backdoor. It’s just not the kind of mistake you make by accident, not in 2014.
Boing Boing post.
[2019.05.14] A weird paper was posted on the Cryptology ePrint Archive (working link is via the Wayback Machine), claiming an attack against the NSA-designed cipher SIMON. You can read some commentary about it here. Basically, the authors claimed an attack so devastating that they would only publish a zero-knowledge proof of their attack. Which they didn’t. Nor did they publish anything else of interest, near as I can tell.
The paper has since been deleted from the ePrint Archive, which feels like the correct decision on someone’s part.
[2019.05.14] This is a current list of where and when I am scheduled to speak:
- I’m speaking at the Code for America Summit in Oakland, California on May 30, 2019.
- I’m speaking on “Securing a World of Physically Capable Computers” at Oxford University on Monday, June 17, 2019.
The list is maintained on this page.
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Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist, called a security guru by the Economist. He is the author of over one dozen books—including his latest, Click Here to Kill Everybody—as well as hundreds of articles, essays, and academic papers. His newsletter and blog are read by over 250,000 people. Schneier is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AccessNow, and the Tor Project; and an advisory board member of EPIC and VerifiedVoting.org. He is also a special advisor to IBM Security.
Crypto-Gram is a personal newsletter. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM or IBM Security.
Copyright © 2019 by Bruce Schneier.