Essays: 2005 Archives
In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, President Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he started using it to avoid the law.
This past Thursday, the New York Times exposed the most significant violation of federal surveillance law in the post-Watergate era. President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to engage in domestic spying, wiretapping thousands of Americans and bypassing the legal procedures regulating this activity.
This isn't about the spying, although that's a major issue in itself.
Bush may have bypassed federal wiretap law to deploy more high-tech methods of surveillance.
When President Bush directed the National Security Agency to secretly eavesdrop on American citizens, he transferred an authority previously under the purview of the Justice Department to the Defense Department and bypassed the very laws put in place to protect Americans against widespread government eavesdropping. The reason may have been to tap the NSA's capability for data mining and widespread surveillance.
Illegal wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. In the 1950s and '60s, in a program called "Project Shamrock," the NSA intercepted every single telegram coming in or going out of the United States.
How would you feel if you invested millions of dollars in quantum cryptography, and then learned that you could do the same thing with a few 25-cent Radio Shack components?
I'm exaggerating a little here, but if a new idea out of Texas A&M University turns out to be secure, we've come close.
Earlier this month, Laszlo Kish proposed securing a communications link, like a phone or computer line, with a pair of resistors. By adding electronic noise, or using the natural thermal noise of the resistors -- called "Johnson noise" -- Kish can prevent eavesdroppers from listening in.
Over the past few years, we have seen hacking transform from a hobbyist activity to a criminal one. Hobbyist threats included defacing web pages, releasing worms that did damage, and running denial-of-service attacks against major networks. The goal was fun, notoriety, or just plain malice.
The new criminal attacks have a more focused goal: profit.
Since 9/11, our nation has been obsessed with air-travel security. Terrorist attacks from the air have been the threat that looms largest in Americans' minds. As a result, we've wasted millions on misguided programs to separate the regular travelers from the suspected terrorists -- money that could have been spent to actually make us safer.
Consider CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight.
This essay also appeared in The Age.
Two weeks ago, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone caused a stir by ridiculing airplane security in a public speech. She derided much of post-9/11 airline security, especially the use of plastic knives instead of metal ones, and said "a lot of what we do is to make people feel better as opposed to actually achieve an outcome."
As a foreigner, I know very little about Australian politics. I don't know anything about Senator Vanstone, her politics, her policies, or her party.
Spying tools are now routinely used against ordinary, law-abiding Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
Christmas 2003, Las Vegas. Intelligence hinted at a terrorist attack on New Year's Eve. In the absence of any real evidence, the FBI tried to compile a real-time database of everyone who was visiting the city. It collected customer data from airlines, hotels, casinos, rental car companies, even storage locker rental companies. All this information went into a massive database -- probably close to a million people overall -- that the FBI's computers analyzed, looking for links to known terrorists.
It's a David and Goliath story of the tech blogs defeating a mega-corporation.
On Oct. 31, Mark Russinovich broke the story in his blog: Sony BMG Music Entertainment distributed a copy-protection scheme with music CDs that secretly installed a rootkit on computers. This software tool is run without your knowledge or consent -- if it's loaded on your computer with a CD, a hacker can gain and maintain access to your system and you wouldn't know it.
The Sony code modifies Windows so you can't tell it's there, a process called "cloaking" in the hacker world.
In 2004, when the U.S. State Department first started talking about embedding RFID chips in passports, the outcry from privacy advocates was huge. When the State Department issued its draft regulation in February, it got 2,335 comments, 98.5 percent negative. In response, the final State Department regulations, issued last week, contain two features that attempt to address security and privacy concerns.
If you’ll forgive the possible comparison to hurricanes, Internet epidemics are much like severe weather: they happen randomly, they affect some segments of the population more than others, and your previous preparation determines how effective your defense is.
Zotob was the first major worm outbreak since MyDoom in January 2004. It happened quickly—less than five days after Microsoft published a critical security bulletin (its 39th of the year). Zotob’s effects varied greatly from organization to organization: some networks were brought to their knees, while others didn’t even notice.
At a security conference last week, Howard Schmidt, the former White House cybersecurity adviser, took the bold step of arguing that software developers should be held personally accountable for the security of the code they write.
He's on the right track, but he's made a dangerous mistake. It's the software manufacturers that should be held liable, not the individual programmers. Getting this one right will result in more-secure software for everyone; getting it wrong will simply result in a lot of messy lawsuits.
Last week California became the first state to enact a law specifically addressing phishing. Phishing, for those of you who have been away from the internet for the past few years, is when an attacker sends you an e-mail falsely claiming to be a legitimate business in order to trick you into giving away your account info -- passwords, mostly. When this is done by hacking DNS, it's called pharming.
Financial companies have until now avoided taking on phishers in a serious way, because it's cheaper and simpler to pay the costs of fraud.
At John Roberts' confirmation hearings last week, there weren't enough discussions about science fiction. Technologies that are science fiction today will become constitutional questions before Roberts retires from the bench. The same goes for technologies that cannot even be conceived of now. And many of these questions involve privacy.
Leaving aside the political posturing and the finger-pointing, how did our nation mishandle Katrina so badly? After spending tens of billions of dollars on homeland security (hundreds of billions, if you include the war in Iraq) in the four years after 9/11, what did we do wrong? Why were there so many failures at the local, state and federal levels?
These are reasonable questions.
Sometimes it seems like the people in charge of homeland security spend too much time watching action movies. They defend against specific movie plots instead of against the broad threats of terrorism.
We all do it. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats.
In general, the problems of securing a university network are no different than those of securing any other large corporate network. But when it comes to data security, universities have their own unique problems. It's easy to point fingers at students—a large number of potentially adversarial transient insiders. Yet that's really no different from a corporation dealing with an assortment of employees and contractors—the difference is the culture.
The epidemic of personal data thefts and losses - most recently 40 million individuals by Visa and MasterCard - should concern us for two reasons: personal privacy and identity theft.
Real reform is required to solve these problems. We need to reduce the amount of personal information collected, limit how it can be used and resold, and require companies that mishandle our data to be liable for that mishandling. And, most importantly, we need to make financial institutions liable for fraudulent transactions.
Counterpane Internet Security Inc. monitors more than 450 networks in 35 countries, in every time zone. In 2004 we saw 523 billion network events, and our analysts investigated 648,000 security "tickets." What follows is an overview of what's happening on the Internet right now, and what we expect to happen in the coming months.
In 2004, 41 percent of the attacks we saw were unauthorized activity of some kind, 21 percent were scanning, 26 percent were unauthorized access, 9 percent were DoS (denial of service), and 3 percent were misuse of applications.
Over the past few months, the two attack vectors that we saw in volume were against the Windows DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model) interface of the RPC (remote procedure call) service and against the Windows LSASS (Local Security Authority Subsystem Service).
Reports are coming in torrents. Criminals are known to have downloaded personal credit information of over 145,000 Americans from ChoicePoint's network. Hackers took over one of Lexis Nexis' databases, gaining access to personal files of 32,000 people. Bank of America Corp. lost computer data tapes that contained personal information on 1.2 million federal employees, including members of the U.S.
Recently I published an essay arguing that two-factor authentication is an ineffective defense against identity theft (see www.schneier.com/essay-083.html). For example, issuing tokens to online banking customers won't reduce fraud, because new attack techniques simply ignore the countermeasure. Unfortunately, some took my essay as a condemnation of two-factor authentication in general. This is not true.
In the post-9/11 world, there's much focus on connecting the dots. Many believe data mining is the crystal ball that will enable us to uncover future terrorist plots. But even in the most wildly optimistic projections, data mining isn't tenable for that purpose. We're not trading privacy for security; we're giving up privacy and getting no security in return.
Opinion: The courts need to recognize that in the information age, virtual privacy and physical privacy don't have the same boundaries.
For at least seven months last year, a hacker had access to T-Mobile's customer network. He is known to have accessed information belonging to 400 customers—names, Social Security numbers, voice mail messages, SMS messages, photos—and probably had the ability to access data belonging to any of T-Mobile's 16.3 million U.S. customers.
It's happened to all of us: We sign up for some online account, choose a difficult-to-remember and hard-to-guess password, and are then presented with a "secret question" to answer. Twenty years ago, there was just one secret question: "What's your mother's maiden name?" Today, there are more: "What street did you grow up on?" "What's the name of your first pet?" "What's your favorite color?" And so on.
The point of all these questions is the same: a backup password. If you forget your password, the secret question can verify your identity so you can choose another password or have the site e-mail your current password to you.
There's a security problem with many Internet authentication systems that's never talked about: there's no way to terminate the authentication.
A couple of months ago, I bought something from an e-commerce site. At the checkout page, I wasn't able to just type in my credit-card number and make my purchase. Instead, I had to choose a username and password.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.