Lillipop encryption by default is still in the future. No consipricy here; it seems like they don't have the appropriate drivers yet. But while relaxing the requirement might make sense technically, it's not a good public relations move.
The thing about infrastructure is that everyone uses it. If it's secure, it's secure for everyone. And if it's insecure, it's insecure for everyone. This forces some hard policy choices.
When I was working with the Guardian on the Snowden documents, the one top-secret program the NSA desperately did not want us to expose was QUANTUM. This is the NSA's program for what is called packet injection--basically, a technology that allows the agency to hack into computers.
Turns out, though, that the NSA was not alone in its use of this technology. The Chinese government uses packet injection to attack computers. The cyberweapons manufacturer Hacking Team sells packet injection technology to any government willing to pay for it. Criminals use it. And there are hacker tools that give the capability to individuals as well.
All of these existed before I wrote about QUANTUM. By using its knowledge to attack others rather than to build up the internet's defenses, the NSA has worked to ensure that anyone can use packet injection to hack into computers.
This isn't the only example of once-top-secret US government attack capabilities being used against US government interests. StingRay is a particular brand of IMSI catcher, and is used to intercept cell phone calls and metadata. This technology was once the FBI's secret, but not anymore. There are dozens of these devices scattered around Washington, DC, as well as the rest of the country, run by who-knows-what government or organization. By accepting the vulnerabilities in these devices so the FBI can use them to solve crimes, we necessarily allow foreign governments and criminals to use them against us.
Similarly, vulnerabilities in phone switches--SS7 switches, for those who like jargon--have been long used by the NSA to locate cell phones. This same technology is sold by the US company Verint and the UK company Cobham to third-world governments, and hackers have demonstrated the same capabilities at conferences. An eavesdropping capability that was built into phone switches to enable lawful intercepts was used by still-unidentified unlawful intercepters in Greece between 2004 and 2005.
These are the stories you need to keep in mind when thinking about proposals to ensure that all communications systems can be eavesdropped on by government. Both the FBI's James Comey and UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently proposed limiting secure cryptography in favor of cryptography they can have access to.
But here's the problem: technological capabilities cannot distinguish based on morality, nationality, or legality; if the US government is able to use a backdoor in a communications system to spy on its enemies, the Chinese government can use the same backdoor to spy on its dissidents.
Even worse, modern computer technology is inherently democratizing. Today's NSA secrets become tomorrow's PhD theses and the next day's hacker tools. As long as we're all using the same computers, phones, social networking platforms, and computer networks, a vulnerability that allows us to spy also allows us to be spied upon.
We can't choose a world where the US gets to spy but China doesn't, or even a world where governments get to spy and criminals don't. We need to choose, as a matter of policy, communications systems that are secure for all users, or ones that are vulnerable to all attackers. It's security or surveillance.
As long as criminals are breaking into corporate networks and stealing our data, as long as totalitarian governments are spying on their citizens, as long as cyberterrorism and cyberwar remain a threat, and as long as the beneficial uses of computer technology outweighs the harmful uses, we have to choose security. Anything else is just too dangerous.
This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.
Scientists are attaching cameras to Humboldt squid to watch them communicate with each other.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven't covered.
Over the next two weeks, I am speaking about my new book -- Data and Goliath, if you've missed it -- in New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. Stop by to get your book signed, or just to say hello.
In December, Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was interviewed at the CATO Institute Surveillance Conference. One of the things he said, after talking about some of the security measures his company has put in place post-Snowden, was: "If you have important information, the safest place to keep it is in Google. And I can assure you that the safest place to not keep it is anywhere else."
The surprised me, because Google collects all of your information to show you more targeted advertising. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and Google is one of the most successful companies at that. To claim that Google protects your privacy better than anyone else is to profoundly misunderstand why Google stores your data for free in the first place.
I was reminded of this last week when I appeared on Glenn Beck's show along with cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie. Diffie said:
You can't have privacy without security, and I think we have glaring failures in computer security in problems that we've been working on for 40 years. You really should not live in fear of opening an attachment to a message. It ought to be confined; your computer ought to be able to handle it. And the fact that we have persisted for decades without solving these problems is partly because they're very difficult, but partly because there are lots of people who want you to be secure against everyone but them. And that includes all of the major computer manufacturers who, roughly speaking, want to manage your computer for you. The trouble is, I'm not sure of any practical alternative.
That neatly explains Google. Eric Schmidt does want your data to be secure. He wants Google to be the safest place for your data as long as you don't mind the fact that Google has access to your data. Facebook wants the same thing: to protect your data from everyone except Facebook. Hardware companies are no different. Last week, we learned that Lenovo computers shipped with a piece of adware called Superfish that broke users' security to spy on them for advertising purposes.
Governments are no different. The FBI wants people to have strong encryption, but it wants backdoor access so it can get at your data. UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants you to have good security, just as long as it's not so strong as to keep the UK government out. And, of course, the NSA spends a lot of money ensuring that there's no security it can't break.
Corporations want access to your data for profit; governments want it for security purposes, be they benevolent or malevolent. But Diffie makes an even stronger point: we give lots of companies access to our data because it makes our lives easier.
I wrote about this in my latest book, Data and Goliath:
Convenience is the other reason we willingly give highly personal data to corporate interests, and put up with becoming objects of their surveillance. As I keep saying, surveillance-based services are useful and valuable. We like it when we can access our address book, calendar, photographs, documents, and everything else on any device we happen to be near. We like services like Siri and Google Now, which work best when they know tons about you. Social networking apps make it easier to hang out with our friends. Cell phone apps like Google Maps, Yelp, Weather, and Uber work better and faster when they know our location. Letting apps like Pocket or Instapaper know what we're reading feels like a small price to pay for getting everything we want to read in one convenient place. We even like it when ads are targeted to exactly what we're interested in. The benefits of surveillance in these and other applications are real, and significant.
Like Diffie, I'm not sure there is any practical alternative. The reason the Internet is a worldwide mass-market phenomenon is that all the technological details are hidden from view. Someone else is taking care of it. We want strong security, but we also want companies to have access to our computers, smart devices, and data. We want someone else to manage our computers and smart phones, organize our e-mail and photos, and help us move data between our various devices.
Those "someones" will necessarily be able to violate our privacy, either by deliberately peeking at our data or by having such lax security that they're vulnerable to national intelligence agencies, cybercriminals, or both. Last week, we learned that the NSA broke into the Dutch company Gemalto and stole the encryption keys for billions yes, billions of cell phones worldwide. That was possible because we consumers don't want to do the work of securely generating those keys and setting up our own security when we get our phones; we want it done automatically by the phone manufacturers. We want our data to be secure, but we want someone to be able to recover it all when we forget our password.
We'll never solve these security problems as long as we're our own worst enemy. That's why I believe that any long-term security solution will not only be technological, but political as well. We need laws that will protect our privacy from those who obey the laws, and to punish those who break the laws. We need laws that require those entrusted with our data to protect our data. Yes, we need better security technologies, but we also need laws mandating the use of those technologies.
This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com.
Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Edward Snowden did an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit.
Point out anything interesting in the comments.
And note that Snowden mentioned my new book:
One of the arguments in a book I read recently (Bruce Schneier, "Data and Goliath"), is that perfect enforcement of the law sounds like a good thing, but that may not always be the case.
New paper: "Surreptitiously Weakening Cryptographic Systems," by Bruce Schneier, Matthew Fredrikson, Tadayoshi Kohno, and Thomas Ristenpart.
Abstract: Revelations over the past couple of years highlight the importance of understanding malicious and surreptitious weakening of cryptographic systems. We provide an overview of this domain, using a number of historical examples to drive development of a weaknesses taxonomy. This allows comparing different approaches to sabotage. We categorize a broader set of potential avenues for weakening systems using this taxonomy, and discuss what future research is needed to provide sabotage-resilient cryptography.
AT&T is charging a premium for gigabit Internet service without surveillance:
The tracking and ad targeting associated with the gigabit service cannot be avoided using browser privacy settings: as AT&T explained, the program "works independently of your browser's privacy settings regarding cookies, do-not-track and private browsing." In other words, AT&T is performing deep packet inspection, a controversial practice through which internet service providers, by virtue of their privileged position, monitor all the internet traffic of their subscribers and collect data on the content of those communications.
What if customers do not want to be spied on by their internet service providers? AT&T allows gigabit service subscribers to opt out -- for a $29 fee per month.
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, AT&T is forgoing revenue by not spying on its customers, and it's reasonable to charge them for that lost revenue. On the other hand, this sort of thing means that privacy becomes a luxury good. In general, I prefer to conceptualize privacy as a right to be respected and not a commodity to be bought and sold.
EDITED TO ADD: It's actually even more expensive.
New research on tracking the location of smart phone users by monitoring power consumption:
PowerSpy takes advantage of the fact that a phone's cellular transmissions use more power to reach a given cell tower the farther it travels from that tower, or when obstacles like buildings or mountains block its signal. That correlation between battery use and variables like environmental conditions and cell tower distance is strong enough that momentary power drains like a phone conversation or the use of another power-hungry app can be filtered out, Michalevsky says.
One of the machine-learning tricks the researchers used to detect that "noise" is a focus on longer-term trends in the phone's power use rather than those than last just a few seconds or minutes. "A sufficiently long power measurement (several minutes) enables the learning algorithm to 'see' through the noise," the researchers write. "We show that measuring the phone's aggregate power consumption over time completely reveals the phone's location and movement."
Even so, PowerSpy has a major limitation: It requires that the snooper pre-measure how a phone's power use behaves as it travels along defined routes. This means you can't snoop on a place you or a cohort has never been, as you need to have actually walked or driven along the route your subject's phone takes in order to draw any location conclusions.
I'm not sure how practical this is, but it's certainly interesting.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.