Essays: 2013 Archives
Google recently announced that it would start including individual users' names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached—without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.
These changes come on the heels of Google's move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over.
The public/private surveillance partnership between the NSA and corporate data collectors is starting to fray. The reason is sunlight. The publicity resulting from the Snowden documents has made companies think twice before allowing the NSA access to their users' and customers' data.
Pre-Snowden, there was no downside to cooperating with the NSA.
In the Information Age, it's easier than ever to steal and publish data. Corporations and governments have to adjust to their secrets being exposed, regularly.
When massive amounts of government documents are leaked, journalists sift through them to determine which pieces of information are newsworthy, and confer with government agencies over what needs to be redacted.
Managing this reality is going to require that governments actively engage with members of the press who receive leaked secrets, helping them secure those secrets—even while being unable to prevent them from publishing.
Distributed citizen groups and nimble hackers once had the edge. Now governments and corporations are catching up. Who will dominate in the decades ahead?
We're in the middle of an epic battle for power in cyberspace. On one side are the traditional, organized, institutional powers such as governments and large multinational corporations. On the other are the distributed and nimble: grassroots movements, dissident groups, hackers, and criminals. Initially, the Internet empowered the second side.
The basic government defense of the NSA's bulk-collection programs—whether it be the list of all the telephone calls you made, your email address book and IM buddy list, or the messages you send your friends—is that what the agency is doing is perfectly legal, and doesn't really count as surveillance, until a human being looks at the data.
It's what Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper meant when he lied to Congress. When asked, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" he replied, "No sir, not wittingly." To him, the definition of "collect" requires that a human look at it. So when the NSA collects—using the dictionary definition of the word—data on hundreds of millions of Americans, it's not really collecting it, because only computers process it.
We already know the NSA wants to eavesdrop on the internet. It has secret agreements with telcos to get direct access to bulk internet traffic. It has massive systems like TUMULT, TURMOIL, and TURBULENCE to sift through it all. And it can identify ciphertext—encrypted information—and figure out which programs could have created it.
Historically, surveillance was difficult and expensive.
Over the decades, as technology advanced, surveillance became easier and easier. Today, we find ourselves in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, where everything is collected, saved, searched, correlated and analyzed.
But while technology allowed for an increase in both corporate and government surveillance, the private and public sectors took very different paths to get there.
Since I started working with Snowden's documents, I have been using a number of tools to try to stay secure from the NSA. The advice I shared included using Tor, preferring certain cryptography over others, and using public-domain encryption wherever possible.
I also recommended using an air gap, which physically isolates a computer or local network of computers from the internet. (The name comes from the literal gap of air between the computer and the internet; the word predates wireless networks.)
But this is more complicated than it sounds, and requires explanation.
The National Security Agency has made repeated attempts to develop attacks against people using Tor, a popular tool designed to protect online anonymity, despite the fact the software is primarily funded and promoted by the US government itself.
Top-secret NSA documents, disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, reveal that the agency's current successes against Tor rely on identifying users and then attacking vulnerable software on their computers. One technique developed by the agency targeted the Firefox web browser used with Tor, giving the agency full control over targets' computers, including access to files, all keystrokes and all online activity.
But the documents suggest that the fundamental security of the Tor service remains intact.
Secret servers and a privileged position on the internet's backbone used to identify users and attack target computers
The online anonymity network Tor is a high-priority target for the National Security Agency. The work of attacking Tor is done by the NSA's application vulnerabilities branch, which is part of the systems intelligence directorate, or SID. The majority of NSA employees work in SID, which is tasked with collecting data from communications systems around the world.
According to a top-secret NSA presentation provided by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, one successful technique the NSA has developed involves exploiting the Tor browser bundle, a collection of programs designed to make it easy for people to install and use the software.
By reporting on the agency's actions, the vulnerabilities in our computer systems can be fixed. It's the only way to force change
Today, the Guardian is reporting on how the NSA targets Tor users, along with details of how it uses centrally placed servers on the internet to attack individual computers. This builds on a Brazilian news story from last week that, in part, shows that the NSA is impersonating Google servers to users; a German story on how the NSA is hacking into smartphones; and a Guardian story from two weeks ago on how the NSA is deliberately weakening common security algorithms, protocols, and products.
The common thread among these stories is that the NSA is subverting the internet and turning it into a massive surveillance tool. The NSA's actions are making us all less safe, because its eavesdropping mission is degrading its ability to protect the US.
As I report in The Guardian today, the NSA has secret servers on the Internet that hack into other computers, codename FOXACID. These servers provide an excellent demonstration of how the NSA approaches risk management, and exposes flaws in how the agency thinks about the secrecy of its own programs.
Here are the FOXACID basics: By the time the NSA tricks a target into visiting one of those servers, it already knows exactly who that target is, who wants him eavesdropped on, and the expected value of the data it hopes to receive. Based on that information, the server can automatically decide what exploit to serve the target, taking into account the risks associated with attacking the target, as well as the benefits of a successful attack.
Cyber War Will Not Take Place
by Thomas Rid
Hurst & Co., 2013, 218 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 84904 280 2
Cyber war is possibly the most dangerous buzzword of the Internet era. The fear-inducing rhetoric surrounding it is being used to justify major changes in the way the internet is organised, governed, and constructed. And in Cyber War Will Not Take Place, Thomas Rid convincingly argues that cyber war is not a compelling threat. Rid is one of the leading cyber war sceptics in Europe, and although he doesn't argue that war won't extend into cyberspace, he says that cyberspace's role in war is more limited than doomsayers want us to believe.
The primary difficulty of cyber security isn't technology—it's policy. The Internet mirrors real-world society, which makes security policy online as complicated as it is in the real world. Protecting critical infrastructure against cyber-attack is just one of cyberspace's many security challenges, so it's important to understand them all before any one of them can be solved.
The list of bad actors in cyberspace is long, and spans a wide range of motives and capabilities.
The nation can survive the occasional terrorist attack, but our freedoms can't survive an invulnerable leader like Keith Alexander operating within inadequate constraints.
Leaks from the whistleblower Edward Snowden have catapulted the NSA into newspaper headlines and demonstrated that it has become one of the most powerful government agencies in the country. From the secret court rulings that allow it to collect data on all Americans to its systematic subversion of the entire Internet as a surveillance platform, the NSA has amassed an enormous amount of power.
There are two basic schools of thought about how this came to pass. The first focuses on the agency's power.
We recently learned that U.S. intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it. At least that's what an intelligence briefing from the White House reveals. With the combined abilities of our national intelligence apparatus—the CIA, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and all the rest—it's not surprising that we had advance notice.
When Apple bought AuthenTec for its biometrics technology—reported as one of its most expensive purchases—there was a lot of speculation about how the company would incorporate biometrics in its product line. Many speculate that the new Apple iPhone to be announced tomorrow will come with a fingerprint authentication system, and there are several ways it could work, such as swiping your finger over a slit-sized reader to have the phone recognize you.
Apple would be smart to add biometric technology to the iPhone. Fingerprint authentication is a good balance between convenience and security for a mobile device.
The NSA has huge capabilities – and if it wants in to your computer, it's in. With that in mind, here are five ways to stay safe
Now that we have enough details about how the NSA eavesdrops on the internet, including today's disclosures of the NSA's deliberate weakening of cryptographic systems, we can finally start to figure out how to protect ourselves.
For the past two weeks, I have been working with the Guardian on NSA stories, and have read hundreds of top-secret NSA documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. I wasn't part of today's story—it was in process well before I showed up—but everything I read confirms what the Guardian is reporting.
At this point, I feel I can provide some advice for keeping secure against such an adversary.
The NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. We engineers built the internet – and now we have to fix it
Government and industry have betrayed the internet, and us.
By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.
This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned.
Big-government secrets require a lot of secret-keepers. As of October 2012, almost 5m people in the US have security clearances, with 1.4m at the top-secret level or higher, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Most of these people do not have access to as much information as Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor turned leaker, or even Chelsea Manning, the former US army soldier previously known as Bradley who was convicted for giving material to WikiLeaks. But a lot of them do—and that may prove the Achilles heel of government.
The latest Snowden document is the US intelligence 'black budget.' There's a lot of information in the few pages the Washington Post decided to publish, including an introduction by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. In it, he drops a tantalizing hint: 'Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit internet traffic.'
Honestly, I'm skeptical. Whatever the NSA has up its top-secret sleeves, the mathematics of cryptography will still be the most secure part of any encryption system. I worry a lot more about poorly designed cryptographic products, software bugs, bad passwords, companies that collaborate with the NSA to leak all or part of the keys, and insecure computers and networks.
I've recently seen two articles speculating on the NSA's capability, and practice, of spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. The evidence is all circumstantial and smacks of conspiracy thinking—and I have no idea whether any of it is true or not—but it's a good illustration of what happens when trust in a public institution fails.
The NSA has repeatedly lied about the extent of its spying program. James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has lied about it to Congress.
I jacked a visitor's badge from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, last month. The badges are electronic; they're enabled when you check in at building security. You're supposed to wear it on a chain around your neck at all times and drop it through a slot when you leave.
I kept the badge.
The Syrian Electronic Army attacked again this week, compromising the websites of the New York Times, Twitter, the Huffington Post and others.
Political hacking isn't new. Hackers were breaking into systems for political reasons long before commerce and criminals discovered the Internet. Over the years, we've seen U.K.
We Need Protection from Intelligence-Gathering Run Amok
This essay also appeared in the Livingston Daily and the Daily Journal.
If there's any confirmation that the U.S. government has commandeered the Internet for worldwide surveillance, it is what happened with Lavabit earlier this month.
Lavabit is—well, was—an e-mail service that offered more privacy than the typical large-Internet-corporation services that most of us use.
The scariest explanation of all? That the NSA and GCHQ are just showing they don't want to be messed with.
Last Sunday, David Miranda was detained while changing planes at London Heathrow Airport by British authorities for nine hours under a controversial British law—the maximum time allowable without making an arrest. There has been much made of the fact that he's the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Edward Snowden trusted with many of his NSA documents and the most prolific reporter of the surveillance abuses disclosed in those documents. There's less discussion of what I feel was the real reason for Miranda's detention. He was ferrying documents between Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and his co-reporter on Snowden and his information.
Ever since Edward Snowden walked out of a National Security Agency facility in May with electronic copies of thousands of classified documents, the finger-pointing has concentrated on government's security failures. Yet the debacle illustrates the challenge with trusting people in any organization.
The problem is easy to describe. Organizations require trusted people, but they don't necessarily know whether those people are trustworthy.
Last weekend a Texas couple apparently discovered that the electronic "baby monitor" in their children's bedroom had been hacked. According to a local TV station, the couple said they heard an unfamiliar voice coming from the room, went to investigate and found that someone had taken control of the camera monitor remotely and was shouting profanity-laden abuse. The child's father unplugged the monitor.
What does this mean for the rest of us? How secure are consumer electronic systems, now that they're all attached to the Internet?
Technology companies have to fight for their users, or they'll eventually lose them.
It turns out that the NSA's domestic and world-wide surveillance apparatus is even more extensive than we thought. Bluntly: The government has commandeered the Internet. Most of the largest Internet companies provide information to the NSA, betraying their users. Some, as we've learned, fight and lose.
In one Maryland county, SWAT teams were deployed once a day on average in 2009, most often to serve search or arrest warrants.
War as a rhetorical concept is firmly embedded in American culture. Over the past several decades, federal and local law enforcement has been enlisted in a war on crime, a war on drugs and a war on terror. These wars are more than just metaphors designed to rally public support and secure budget appropriations. They change the way we think about what the police do.
In July 2012, responding to allegations that the video-chat service Skype—owned by Microsoft—was changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, Corporate Vice President Mark Gillett took to the company's blog to deny it.
Turns out that wasn't quite true.
Or at least he—or the company's lawyers—carefully crafted a statement that could be defended as true while completely deceiving the reader. You see, Skype wasn't changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, because the government was already able to eavesdrop on users.
At a Senate hearing in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured the committee that his agency didn't collect data on hundreds of millions of Americans.
This essay also appeared in The Memphis Commercial Appeal, Stuff, The Guardian Comment Is Free, and Veterans Today.
Imagine the government passed a law requiring all citizens to carry a tracking device. Such a law would immediately be found unconstitutional. Yet we all carry mobile phones.
Whenever national cybersecurity policy is discussed, the same stories come up again and again. Whether the examples are called acts of cyberwar, cyberespionage, hacktivism, or cyberterrorism, they all affect national interest, and there is a corresponding call for some sort of national cyberdefence.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to identify attackers and their motivations in cyberspace. As a result, nations are classifying all serious cyberattacks as cyberwar.
NSA apologists say spying is only used for menaces like "weapons of mass destruction" and "terror." But those terms have been radically redefined.
One of the assurances I keep hearing about the U.S. government's spying on American citizens is that it's only used in cases of terrorism. Terrorism is, of course, an extraordinary crime, and its horrific nature is supposed to justify permitting all sorts of excesses to prevent it. But there's a problem with this line of reasoning: mission creep.
Today, the United States is conducting offensive cyberwar actions around the world.
More than passively eavesdropping, we're penetrating and damaging foreign networks for both espionage and to ready them for attack. We're creating custom-designed Internet weapons, pre-targeted and ready to be "fired" against some piece of another country's electronic infrastructure on a moment's notice.
This is much worse than what we're accusing China of doing to us.
Edward Snowden broke the law by releasing classified information. This isn't under debate; it's something everyone with a security clearance knows. It's written in plain English on the documents you have to sign when you get a security clearance, and it's part of the culture. The law is there for a good reason, and secrecy has an important role in military defense.
The NSA's surveillance of cell-phone calls show how badly we need to protect the whistle-blowers who provide transparency and accountability.
Yesterday, we learned that the NSA received all calling records from Verizon customers for a three-month period starting in April. That's everything except the voice content: who called who, where they were, how long the call lasted—for millions of people, both Americans and foreigners. This "metadata" allows the government to track the movements of everyone during that period, and build a detailed picture of who talks to whom. It's exactly the same data the Justice Department collected about AP journalists.
Facebook regularly abuses the privacy of its users. Google has stopped supporting its popular RSS feeder. Apple prohibits all iPhone apps that are political or sexual. Microsoft might be cooperating with some governments to spy on Skype calls, but we don't know which ones.
The FBI wants a new law that will make it easier to wiretap the Internet. Although its claim is that the new law will only maintain the status quo, it's really much worse than that. This law will result in less-secure Internet products and create a foreign industry in more-secure alternatives. It will impose costly burdens on affected companies.
Terrorism causes fear, and we overreact to that fear. Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are, and we fear them more than probability indicates we should.
The internet has turned into a massive surveillance tool. We're constantly monitored on the internet by hundreds of companies—both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated—sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us.
Ephemeral conversation is over.
As part of the fallout of the Boston bombings, we're probably going to get some new laws that give the FBI additional investigative powers. As with the Patriot Act after 9/11, the debate over whether these new laws are helpful will be minimal, but the effects on civil liberties could be large. Even though most people are skeptical about sacrificing personal freedoms for security, it's hard for politicians to say no to the FBI right now, and it's politically expedient to demand that something be done.
If our leaders can't say no—and there's no reason to believe they can—there are two concepts that need to be part of any new counterterrorism laws, and investigative laws in general: transparency and accountability.
The FBI and the CIA are being criticized for not keeping better track of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the months before the Boston Marathon bombings. How could they have ignored such a dangerous person? How do we reform the intelligence community to ensure this kind of failure doesn't happen again?
It's an old song by now, one we heard after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and after the Underwear Bomber's failed attack in 2009.
A new bill moving through Congress would give the authorities unprecedented access to citizens' information.
Our government collects a lot of information about us. Tax records, legal records, license records, records of government services received--it's all in databases that are increasingly linked and correlated. Still, there's a lot of personal information the government can't collect. Either they're prohibited by law from asking without probable cause and a judicial order, or they simply have no cost-effective way to collect it.
It is easy to feel scared and powerless in the wake of attacks like those at the Boston Marathon. But it also plays into the perpetrators' hands.
As the details about the bombings in Boston unfold, it'd be easy to be scared. It'd be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something—anything—to keep us safe.
It'd be easy, but it'd be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared.
The focus on training obscures the failures of security design
Should companies spend money on security awareness training for their employees? It's a contentious topic, with respected experts on both sides of the debate. I personally believe that training users in security is generally a waste of time, and that the money can be spent better elsewhere. Moreover, I believe that our industry's focus on training serves to obscure greater failings in security design.
I'm going to start with three data points.
One: Some of the Chinese military hackers who were implicated in a broad set of attacks against the U.S. government and corporations were identified because they accessed Facebook from the same network infrastructure they used to carry out their attacks.
Two: Hector Monsegur, one of the leaders of the LulzSac hacker movement, was identified and arrested last year by the FBI.
A core, not side, effect of technology is its ability to magnify power and multiply force—for both attackers and defenders. One side creates ceramic handguns, laser-guided missiles, and new-identity theft techniques, while the other side creates anti-missile defense systems, fingerprint databases, and automatic facial recognition systems.
The problem is that it's not balanced: Attackers generally benefit from new security technologies before defenders do. They have a first-mover advantage.
Americans have a weird relationship with the word “war”. We hate using it to describe actual wars but we love using it in a rhetorical context. We had the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs and the war on terror.
One of the big “wars” we’re talking about now is cyber war and, in this case, the word is dangerous.
Cyber-espionage is old news. What's new is the rhetoric, which is reaching a fever pitch right now.
For technology that was supposed to ignore borders, bring the world closer together, and sidestep the influence of national governments, the Internet is fostering an awful lot of nationalism right now. We've started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.
I see this as an effect of all the cyberwar saber-rattling that's going on right now.
Security Has Become a For-Profit Business
This is an edited version of a longer essay.
It's a new day for the New York Police Department, with technology increasingly informing the way cops do their jobs. With innovation come new possibilities, but also new concerns.
For one, the NYPD is testing a security apparatus that uses terahertz radiation to detect guns under clothing from a distance. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained back in January, "If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation, for example a weapon, the device will highlight that object."
Ignore, for a moment, the glaring constitutional concerns, which make the stop-and-frisk debate pale in comparison: virtual strip-searching, evasion of probable cause, potential profiling.
Whether it's Syria using Facebook to help identify and arrest dissidents or China using its "Great Firewall" to limit access to international news throughout the country, repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and control. They're getting really good at it, and the IT industry is helping. We're helping by creating business applications -- categories of applications, really -- that are being repurposed by oppressive governments for their own use:
- What is called censorship when practiced by a government is content filtering when practiced by an organization. Many companies want to keep their employees from viewing porn or updating their Facebook pages while at work.
Recently, Elon Musk and The New York Times took to Twitter and the internet to argue the data -- and their grievances -- over a failed road test and car review. Meanwhile, an Applebee's server is part of a Change.org petition to get her job back after posting a pastor's no-tip receipt comment online. And when he wasn't paid quickly enough, a local Fitness SF web developer rewrote the company's webpage to air his complaint.
All of these 'cases' are seeking their judgments in the court of public opinion.
As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, security people like me wonder about the process. How does it work, and just how hard would it be to hack the vote?
The rules for papal elections are steeped in tradition. John Paul II last codified them in 1996, and Benedict XVI left the rules largely untouched.
This morning, I flew from Boston to New York. Before that, I woke up in a hotel, trusting everyone on the staff who has a master key. I took a Boston taxi to the airport, trusting not just the taxi driver, but everyone else on the road. At Boston's Logan Airport, I had to trust everyone who worked for the airline, everyone who worked at the airport, and the thousands of other passengers. I also had to trust everyone who came in contact with the food I bought and ate before boarding my plane.
This essay appeared as a response to Edge's annual question, "What *Should* We Be Worried About?"
All disruptive technologies upset traditional power balances, and the Internet is no exception. The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that's only half the story. The Internet empowers everyone. Powerful institutions might be slow to make use of that new power, but since they are powerful, they can use it more effectively.
Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, by Harvey Molotch, Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $35.
Security is both a feeling and a reality, and the two are different things. People can feel secure when they’re actually not, and they can be secure even when they believe otherwise.
This discord explains much of what passes for our national discourse on security policy.
Society runs on trust. Over the millennia, we've developed a variety of mechanisms to induce trustworthy behavior in society. These range from a sense of guilt when we cheat, to societal disapproval when we lie, to laws that arrest fraudsters, to door locks and burglar alarms that keep thieves out of our homes. They're complicated and interrelated, but they tend to keep society humming along.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.