Entries Tagged "essays"

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Illegal Content and the Blockchain

Security researchers have recently discovered a botnet with a novel defense against takedowns. Normally, authorities can disable a botnet by taking over its command-and-control server. With nowhere to go for instructions, the botnet is rendered useless. But over the years, botnet designers have come up with ways to make this counterattack harder. Now the content-delivery network Akamai has reported on a new method: a botnet that uses the Bitcoin blockchain ledger. Since the blockchain is globally accessible and hard to take down, the botnet’s operators appear to be safe.

It’s best to avoid explaining the mathematics of Bitcoin’s blockchain, but to understand the colossal implications here, you need to understand one concept. Blockchains are a type of “distributed ledger”: a record of all transactions since the beginning, and everyone using the blockchain needs to have access to — and reference — a copy of it. What if someone puts illegal material in the blockchain? Either everyone has a copy of it, or the blockchain’s security fails.

To be fair, not absolutely everyone who uses a blockchain holds a copy of the entire ledger. Many who buy cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum don’t bother using the ledger to verify their purchase. Many don’t actually hold the currency outright, and instead trust an exchange to do the transactions and hold the coins. But people need to continually verify the blockchain’s history on the ledger for the system to be secure. If they stopped, then it would be trivial to forge coins. That’s how the system works.

Some years ago, people started noticing all sorts of things embedded in the Bitcoin blockchain. There are digital images, including one of Nelson Mandela. There’s the Bitcoin logo, and the original paper describing Bitcoin by its alleged founder, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. There are advertisements, and several prayers. There’s even illegal pornography and leaked classified documents. All of these were put in by anonymous Bitcoin users. But none of this, so far, appears to seriously threaten those in power in governments and corporations. Once someone adds something to the Bitcoin ledger, it becomes sacrosanct. Removing something requires a fork of the blockchain, in which Bitcoin fragments into multiple parallel cryptocurrencies (and associated blockchains). Forks happen, rarely, but never yet because of legal coercion. And repeated forking would destroy Bitcoin’s stature as a stable(ish) currency.

The botnet’s designers are using this idea to create an unblockable means of coordination, but the implications are much greater. Imagine someone using this idea to evade government censorship. Most Bitcoin mining happens in China. What if someone added a bunch of Chinese-censored Falun Gong texts to the blockchain?<

What if someone added a type of political speech that Singapore routinely censors? Or cartoons that Disney holds the copyright to?

In Bitcoin’s and most other public blockchains there are no central, trusted authorities. Anyone in the world can perform transactions or become a miner. Everyone is equal to the extent that they have the hardware and electricity to perform cryptographic computations.

This openness is also a vulnerability, one that opens the door to asymmetric threats and small-time malicious actors. Anyone can put information in the one and only Bitcoin blockchain. Again, that’s how the system works.

Over the last three decades, the world has witnessed the power of open networks: blockchains, social media, the very web itself. What makes them so powerful is that their value is related not just to the number of users, but the number of potential links between users. This is Metcalfe’s law — value in a network is quadratic, not linear, in the number of users — and every open network since has followed its prophecy.

As Bitcoin has grown, its monetary value has skyrocketed, even if its uses remain unclear. With no barrier to entry, the blockchain space has been a Wild West of innovation and lawlessness. But today, many prominent advocates suggest Bitcoin should become a global, universal currency. In this context, asymmetric threats like embedded illegal data become a major challenge.

The philosophy behind Bitcoin traces to the earliest days of the open internet. Articulated in John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, it was and is the ethos of tech startups: Code is more trustworthy than institutions. Information is meant to be free, and nobody has the right — and should not have the ability — to control it.

But information must reside somewhere. Code is written by and for people, stored on computers located within countries, and embedded within the institutions and societies we have created. To trust information is to trust its chain of custody and the social context it comes from. Neither code nor information is value-neutral, nor ever free of human context.

Today, Barlow’s vision is a mere shadow; every society controls the information its people can access. Some of this control is through overt censorship, as China controls information about Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, and the Uyghurs. Some of this is through civil laws designed by the powerful for their benefit, as with Disney and US copyright law, or UK libel law.

Bitcoin and blockchains like it are on a collision course with these laws. What happens when the interests of the powerful, with the law on their side, are pitted against an open blockchain? Let’s imagine how our various scenarios might play out.

China first: In response to Falun Gong texts in the blockchain, the People’s Republic decrees that any miners processing blocks with banned content will be taken offline — their IPs will be blacklisted. This causes a hard fork of the blockchain at the point just before the banned content. China might do this under the guise of a “patriotic” messaging campaign, publicly stating that it’s merely maintaining financial sovereignty from Western banks. Then it uses paid influencers and moderators on social media to pump the China Bitcoin fork, through both partisan comments and transactions. Two distinct forks would soon emerge, one behind China’s Great Firewall and one outside. Other countries with similar governmental and media ecosystems — Russia, Singapore, Myanmar — might consider following suit, creating multiple national Bitcoin forks. These would operate independently, under mandates to censor unacceptable transactions from then on.

Disney’s approach would play out differently. Imagine the company announces it will sue any ISP that hosts copyrighted content, starting with networks hosting the biggest miners. (Disney has sued to enforce its intellectual property rights in China before.) After some legal pressure, the networks cut the miners off. The miners reestablish themselves on another network, but Disney keeps the pressure on. Eventually miners get pushed further and further off of mainstream network providers, and resort to tunneling their traffic through an anonymity service like Tor. That causes a major slowdown in the already slow (because of the mathematics) Bitcoin network. Disney might issue takedown requests for Tor exit nodes, causing the network to slow to a crawl. It could persist like this for a long time without a fork. Or the slowdown could cause people to jump ship, either by forking Bitcoin or switching to another cryptocurrency without the copyrighted content.

And then there’s illegal pornographic content and leaked classified data. These have been on the Bitcoin blockchain for over five years, and nothing has been done about it. Just like the botnet example, it may be that these do not threaten existing power structures enough to warrant takedowns. This could easily change if Bitcoin becomes a popular way to share child sexual abuse material. Simply having these illegal images on your hard drive is a felony, which could have significant repercussions for anyone involved in Bitcoin.

Whichever scenario plays out, this may be the Achilles heel of Bitcoin as a global currency.

If an open network such as a blockchain were threatened by a powerful organization — China’s censors, Disney’s lawyers, or the FBI trying to take down a more dangerous botnet — it could fragment into multiple networks. That’s not just a nuisance, but an existential risk to Bitcoin.

Suppose Bitcoin were fragmented into 10 smaller blockchains, perhaps by geography: one in China, another in the US, and so on. These fragments might retain their original users, and by ordinary logic, nothing would have changed. But Metcalfe’s law implies that the overall value of these blockchain fragments combined would be a mere tenth of the original. That is because the value of an open network relates to how many others you can communicate with — and, in a blockchain, transact with. Since the security of bitcoin currency is achieved through expensive computations, fragmented blockchains are also easier to attack in a conventional manner — through a 51 percent attack — by an organized attacker. This is especially the case if the smaller blockchains all use the same hash function, as they would here.

Traditional currencies are generally not vulnerable to these sorts of asymmetric threats. There are no viable small-scale attacks against the US dollar, or almost any other fiat currency. The institutions and beliefs that give money its value are deep-seated, despite instances of currency hyperinflation.

The only notable attacks against fiat currencies are in the form of counterfeiting. Even in the past, when counterfeit bills were common, attacks could be thwarted. Counterfeiters require specialized equipment and are vulnerable to law enforcement discovery and arrest. Furthermore, most money today — even if it’s nominally in a fiat currency — doesn’t exist in paper form.

Bitcoin attracted a following for its openness and immunity from government control. Its goal is to create a world that replaces cultural power with cryptographic power: verification in code, not trust in people. But there is no such world. And today, that feature is a vulnerability. We really don’t know what will happen when the human systems of trust come into conflict with the trustless verification that make blockchain currencies unique. Just last week we saw this exact attack on smaller blockchains — not Bitcoin yet. We are watching a public socio-technical experiment in the making, and we will witness its success or failure in the not-too-distant future.

This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/14): A research paper on erasing data from Bitcoin blockchain.

Posted on March 17, 2021 at 6:10 AMView Comments

National Security Risks of Late-Stage Capitalism

Early in 2020, cyberspace attackers apparently working for the Russian government compromised a piece of widely used network management software made by a company called SolarWinds. The hack gave the attackers access to the computer networks of some 18,000 of SolarWinds’s customers, including US government agencies such as the Homeland Security Department and State Department, American nuclear research labs, government contractors, IT companies and nongovernmental agencies around the world.

It was a huge attack, with major implications for US national security. The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the breach on Tuesday. Who is at fault?

The US government deserves considerable blame, of course, for its inadequate cyberdefense. But to see the problem only as a technical shortcoming is to miss the bigger picture. The modern market economy, which aggressively rewards corporations for short-term profits and aggressive cost-cutting, is also part of the problem: Its incentive structure all but ensures that successful tech companies will end up selling insecure products and services.

Like all for-profit corporations, SolarWinds aims to increase shareholder value by minimizing costs and maximizing profit. The company is owned in large part by Silver Lake and Thoma Bravo, private-equity firms known for extreme cost-cutting.

SolarWinds certainly seems to have underspent on security. The company outsourced much of its software engineering to cheaper programmers overseas, even though that typically increases the risk of security vulnerabilities. For a while, in 2019, the update server’s password for SolarWinds’s network management software was reported to be “solarwinds123.” Russian hackers were able to breach SolarWinds’s own email system and lurk there for months. Chinese hackers appear to have exploited a separate vulnerability in the company’s products to break into US government computers. A cybersecurity adviser for the company said that he quit after his recommendations to strengthen security were ignored.

There is no good reason to underspend on security other than to save money — especially when your clients include government agencies around the world and when the technology experts that you pay to advise you are telling you to do more.

As the economics writer Matt Stoller has suggested, cybersecurity is a natural area for a technology company to cut costs because its customers won’t notice unless they are hacked ­– and if they are, they will have already paid for the product. In other words, the risk of a cyberattack can be transferred to the customers. Doesn’t this strategy jeopardize the possibility of long-term, repeat customers? Sure, there’s a danger there –­ but investors are so focused on short-term gains that they’re too often willing to take that risk.

The market loves to reward corporations for risk-taking when those risks are largely borne by other parties, like taxpayers. This is known as “privatizing profits and socializing losses.” Standard examples include companies that are deemed “too big to fail,” which means that society as a whole pays for their bad luck or poor business decisions. When national security is compromised by high-flying technology companies that fob off cybersecurity risks onto their customers, something similar is at work.

Similar misaligned incentives affect your everyday cybersecurity, too. Your smartphone is vulnerable to something called SIM-swap fraud because phone companies want to make it easy for you to frequently get a new phone — and they know that the cost of fraud is largely borne by customers. Data brokers and credit bureaus that collect, use, and sell your personal data don’t spend a lot of money securing it because it’s your problem if someone hacks them and steals it. Social media companies too easily let hate speech and misinformation flourish on their platforms because it’s expensive and complicated to remove it, and they don’t suffer the immediate costs ­– indeed, they tend to profit from user engagement regardless of its nature.

There are two problems to solve. The first is information asymmetry: buyers can’t adequately judge the security of software products or company practices. The second is a perverse incentive structure: the market encourages companies to make decisions in their private interest, even if that imperils the broader interests of society. Together these two problems result in companies that save money by taking on greater risk and then pass off that risk to the rest of us, as individuals and as a nation.

The only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers and users is with government intervention. Companies need to pay the true costs of their insecurities, through a combination of laws, regulations, and legal liability. Governments routinely legislate safety — pollution standards, automobile seat belts, lead-free gasoline, food service regulations. We need to do the same with cybersecurity: the federal government should set minimum security standards for software and software development.

In today’s underregulated markets, it’s just too easy for software companies like SolarWinds to save money by skimping on security and to hope for the best. That’s a rational decision in today’s free-market world, and the only way to change that is to change the economic incentives.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on March 1, 2021 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Presidential Cybersecurity and Pelotons

President Biden wants his Peloton in the White House. For those who have missed the hype, it’s an Internet-connected stationary bicycle. It has a screen, a camera, and a microphone. You can take live classes online, work out with your friends, or join the exercise social network. And all of that is a security risk, especially if you are the president of the United States.

Any computer brings with it the risk of hacking. This is true of our computers and phones, and it’s also true about all of the Internet-of-Things devices that are increasingly part of our lives. These large and small appliances, cars, medical devices, toys and — yes — exercise machines are all computers at their core, and they’re all just as vulnerable. Presidents face special risks when it comes to the IoT, but Biden has the NSA to help him handle them.

Not everyone is so lucky, and the rest of us need something more structural.

US presidents have long tussled with their security advisers over tech. The NSA often customizes devices, but that means eliminating features. In 2010, President Barack Obama complained that his presidential BlackBerry device was “no fun” because only ten people were allowed to contact him on it. In 2013, security prevented him from getting an iPhone. When he finally got an upgrade to his BlackBerry in 2016, he complained that his new “secure” phone couldn’t take pictures, send texts, or play music. His “hardened” iPad to read daily intelligence briefings was presumably similarly handicapped. We don’t know what the NSA did to these devices, but they certainly modified the software and physically removed the cameras and microphones — and possibly the wireless Internet connection.

President Donald Trump resisted efforts to secure his phones. We don’t know the details, only that they were regularly replaced, with the government effectively treating them as burner phones.

The risks are serious. We know that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on Trump’s phones. Hackers can remotely turn on microphones and cameras, listening in on conversations. They can grab copies of any documents on the device. They can also use those devices to further infiltrate government networks, maybe even jumping onto classified networks that the devices connect to. If the devices have physical capabilities, those can be hacked as well. In 2007, the wireless features of Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s pacemaker were disabled out of fears that it could be hacked to assassinate him. In 1999, the NSA banned Furbies from its offices, mistakenly believing that they could listen and learn.

Physically removing features and components works, but the results are increasingly unacceptable. The NSA could take Biden’s Peloton and rip out the camera, microphone, and Internet connection, and that would make it secure — but then it would just be a normal (albeit expensive) stationary bike. Maybe Biden wouldn’t accept that, and he’d demand that the NSA do even more work to customize and secure the Peloton part of the bicycle. Maybe Biden’s security agents could isolate his Peloton in a specially shielded room where it couldn’t infect other computers, and warn him not to discuss national security in its presence.

This might work, but it certainly doesn’t scale. As president, Biden can direct substantial resources to solving his cybersecurity problems. The real issue is what everyone else should do. The president of the United States is a singular espionage target, but so are members of his staff and other administration officials.

Members of Congress are targets, as are governors and mayors, police officers and judges, CEOs and directors of human rights organizations, nuclear power plant operators, and election officials. All of these people have smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Many have Internet-connected cars and appliances, vacuums, bikes, and doorbells. Every one of those devices is a potential security risk, and all of those people are potential national security targets. But none of those people will get their Internet-connected devices customized by the NSA.

That is the real cybersecurity issue. Internet connectivity brings with it features we like. In our cars, it means real-time navigation, entertainment options, automatic diagnostics, and more. In a Peloton, it means everything that makes it more than a stationary bike. In a pacemaker, it means continuous monitoring by your doctor — and possibly your life saved as a result. In an iPhone or iPad, it means…well, everything. We can search for older, non-networked versions of some of these devices, or the NSA can disable connectivity for the privileged few of us. But the result is the same: in Obama’s words, “no fun.”

And unconnected options are increasingly hard to find. In 2016, I tried to find a new car that didn’t come with Internet connectivity, but I had to give up: there were no options to omit that in the class of car I wanted. Similarly, it’s getting harder to find major appliances without a wireless connection. As the price of connectivity continues to drop, more and more things will only be available Internet-enabled.

Internet security is national security — not because the president is personally vulnerable but because we are all part of a single network. Depending on who we are and what we do, we will make different trade-offs between security and fun. But we all deserve better options.

Regulations that force manufacturers to provide better security for all of us are the only way to do that. We need minimum security standards for computers of all kinds. We need transparency laws that give all of us, from the president on down, sufficient information to make our own security trade-offs. And we need liability laws that hold companies liable when they misrepresent the security of their products and services.

I’m not worried about Biden. He and his staff will figure out how to balance his exercise needs with the national security needs of the country. Sometimes the solutions are weirdly customized, such as the anti-eavesdropping tent that Obama used while traveling. I am much more worried about the political activists, journalists, human rights workers, and oppressed minorities around the world who don’t have the money or expertise to secure their technology, or the information that would give them the ability to make informed decisions on which technologies to choose.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on February 5, 2021 at 5:58 AMView Comments

Russia’s SolarWinds Attack and Software Security

The information that is emerging about Russia’s extensive cyberintelligence operation against the United States and other countries should be increasingly alarming to the public. The magnitude of the hacking, now believed to have affected more than 250 federal agencies and businesses — ­primarily through a malicious update of the SolarWinds network management software — ­may have slipped under most people’s radar during the holiday season, but its implications are stunning.

According to a Washington Post report, this is a massive intelligence coup by Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR). And a massive security failure on the part of the United States is also to blame. Our insecure Internet infrastructure has become a critical national security risk­ — one that we need to take seriously and spend money to reduce.

President-elect Joe Biden’s initial response spoke of retaliation, but there really isn’t much the United States can do beyond what it already does. Cyberespionage is business as usual among countries and governments, and the United States is aggressively offensive in this regard. We benefit from the lack of norms in this area and are unlikely to push back too hard because we don’t want to limit our own offensive actions.

Biden took a more realistic tone last week when he spoke of the need to improve US defenses. The initial focus will likely be on how to clean the hackers out of our networks, why the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command failed to detect this intrusion and whether the 2-year-old Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has the resources necessary to defend the United States against attacks of this caliber. These are important discussions to have, but we also need to address the economic incentives that led to SolarWinds being breached and how that insecure software ended up in so many critical US government networks.

Software has become incredibly complicated. Most of us almost don’t know all of the software running on our laptops and what it’s doing. We don’t know where it’s connecting to on the Internet­ — not even which countries it’s connecting to­ — and what data it’s sending. We typically don’t know what third party libraries are in the software we install. We don’t know what software any of our cloud services are running. And we’re rarely alone in our ignorance. Finding all of this out is incredibly difficult.

This is even more true for software that runs our large government networks, or even the Internet backbone. Government software comes from large companies, small suppliers, open source projects and everything in between. Obscure software packages can have hidden vulnerabilities that affect the security of these networks, and sometimes the entire Internet. Russia’s SVR leveraged one of those vulnerabilities when it gained access to SolarWinds’ update server, tricking thousands of customers into downloading a malicious software update that gave the Russians access to those networks.

The fundamental problem is one of economic incentives. The market rewards quick development of products. It rewards new features. It rewards spying on customers and users: collecting and selling individual data. The market does not reward security, safety or transparency. It doesn’t reward reliability past a bare minimum, and it doesn’t reward resilience at all.

This is what happened at SolarWinds. A New York Times report noted the company ignored basic security practices. It moved software development to Eastern Europe, where Russia has more influence and could potentially subvert programmers, because it’s cheaper.

Short-term profit was seemingly prioritized over product security.

Companies have the right to make decisions like this. The real question is why the US government bought such shoddy software for its critical networks. This is a problem that Biden can fix, and he needs to do so immediately.

The United States needs to improve government software procurement. Software is now critical to national security. Any system for acquiring software needs to evaluate the security of the software and the security practices of the company, in detail, to ensure they are sufficient to meet the security needs of the network they’re being installed in. Procurement contracts need to include security controls of the software development process. They need security attestations on the part of the vendors, with substantial penalties for misrepresentation or failure to comply. The government needs detailed best practices for government and other companies.

Some of the groundwork for an approach like this has already been laid by the federal government, which has sponsored the development of a “Software Bill of Materials” that would set out a process for software makers to identify the components used to assemble their software.

This scrutiny can’t end with purchase. These security requirements need to be monitored throughout the software’s life cycle, along with what software is being used in government networks.

None of this is cheap, and we should be prepared to pay substantially more for secure software. But there’s a benefit to these practices. If the government evaluations are public, along with the list of companies that meet them, all network buyers can benefit from them. The US government acting purely in the realm of procurement can improve the security of nongovernmental networks worldwide.

This is important, but it isn’t enough. We need to set minimum safety and security standards for all software: from the code in that Internet of Things appliance you just bought to the code running our critical national infrastructure. It’s all one network, and a vulnerability in your refrigerator’s software can be used to attack the national power grid.

The IOT Cybersecurity Improvement Act, signed into law last month, is a start in this direction.

The Biden administration should prioritize minimum security standards for all software sold in the United States, not just to the government but to everyone. Long gone are the days when we can let the software industry decide how much emphasis to place on security. Software security is now a matter of personal safety: whether it’s ensuring your car isn’t hacked over the Internet or that the national power grid isn’t hacked by the Russians.

This regulation is the only way to force companies to provide safety and security features for customers — just as legislation was necessary to mandate food safety measures and require auto manufacturers to install life-saving features such as seat belts and air bags. Smart regulations that incentivize innovation create a market for security features. And they improve security for everyone.

It’s true that creating software in this sort of regulatory environment is more expensive. But if we truly value our personal and national security, we need to be prepared to pay for it.

The truth is that we’re already paying for it. Today, software companies increase their profits by secretly pushing risk onto their customers. We pay the cost of insecure personal computers, just as the government is now paying the cost to clean up after the SolarWinds hack. Fixing this requires both transparency and regulation. And while the industry will resist both, they are essential for national security in our increasingly computer-dependent worlds.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on January 8, 2021 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Russia’s SolarWinds Attack

Recent news articles have all been talking about the massive Russian cyberattack against the United States, but that’s wrong on two accounts. It wasn’t a cyberattack in international relations terms, it was espionage. And the victim wasn’t just the US, it was the entire world. But it was massive, and it is dangerous.

Espionage is internationally allowed in peacetime. The problem is that both espionage and cyberattacks require the same computer and network intrusions, and the difference is only a few keystrokes. And since this Russian operation isn’t at all targeted, the entire world is at risk — and not just from Russia. Many countries carry out these sorts of operations, none more extensively than the US. The solution is to prioritize security and defense over espionage and attack.

Here’s what we know: Orion is a network management product from a company named SolarWinds, with over 300,000 customers worldwide. Sometime before March, hackers working for the Russian SVR — previously known as the KGB — hacked into SolarWinds and slipped a backdoor into an Orion software update. (We don’t know how, but last year the company’s update server was protected by the password “solarwinds123” — something that speaks to a lack of security culture.) Users who downloaded and installed that corrupted update between March and June unwittingly gave SVR hackers access to their networks.

This is called a supply-chain attack, because it targets a supplier to an organization rather than an organization itself — and can affect all of a supplier’s customers. It’s an increasingly common way to attack networks. Other examples of this sort of attack include fake apps in the Google Play store, and hacked replacement screens for your smartphone.

SolarWinds has removed its customer list from its website, but the Internet Archive saved it: all five branches of the US military, the state department, the White House, the NSA, 425 of the Fortune 500 companies, all five of the top five accounting firms, and hundreds of universities and colleges. In an SEC filing, SolarWinds said that it believes “fewer than 18,000” of those customers installed this malicious update, another way of saying that more than 17,000 did.

That’s a lot of vulnerable networks, and it’s inconceivable that the SVR penetrated them all. Instead, it chose carefully from its cornucopia of targets. Microsoft’s analysis identified 40 customers who were infiltrated using this vulnerability. The great majority of those were in the US, but networks in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Israel and the UAE were also targeted. This list includes governments, government contractors, IT companies, thinktanks, and NGOs — and it will certainly grow.

Once inside a network, SVR hackers followed a standard playbook: establish persistent access that will remain even if the initial vulnerability is fixed; move laterally around the network by compromising additional systems and accounts; and then exfiltrate data. Not being a SolarWinds customer is no guarantee of security; this SVR operation used other initial infection vectors and techniques as well. These are sophisticated and patient hackers, and we’re only just learning some of the techniques involved here.

Recovering from this attack isn’t easy. Because any SVR hackers would establish persistent access, the only way to ensure that your network isn’t compromised is to burn it to the ground and rebuild it, similar to reinstalling your computer’s operating system to recover from a bad hack. This is how a lot of sysadmins are going to spend their Christmas holiday, and even then they can&;t be sure. There are many ways to establish persistent access that survive rebuilding individual computers and networks. We know, for example, of an NSA exploit that remains on a hard drive even after it is reformatted. Code for that exploit was part of the Equation Group tools that the Shadow Brokers — again believed to be Russia — stole from the NSA and published in 2016. The SVR probably has the same kinds of tools.

Even without that caveat, many network administrators won’t go through the long, painful, and potentially expensive rebuilding process. They’ll just hope for the best.

It’s hard to overstate how bad this is. We are still learning about US government organizations breached: the state department, the treasury department, homeland security, the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories (where nuclear weapons are developed), the National Nuclear Security Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and many more. At this point, there’s no indication that any classified networks were penetrated, although that could change easily. It will take years to learn which networks the SVR has penetrated, and where it still has access. Much of that will probably be classified, which means that we, the public, will never know.

And now that the Orion vulnerability is public, other governments and cybercriminals will use it to penetrate vulnerable networks. I can guarantee you that the NSA is using the SVR’s hack to infiltrate other networks; why would they not? (Do any Russian organizations use Orion? Probably.)

While this is a security failure of enormous proportions, it is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, “virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States.” While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware.” The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations — such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks — because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: “You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.”

We don’t, and I’m sure NSA employees are grudgingly impressed with the SVR. The US has by far the most extensive and aggressive intelligence operation in the world. The NSA’s budget is the largest of any intelligence agency. It aggressively leverages the US’s position controlling most of the internet backbone and most of the major internet companies. Edward Snowden disclosed many targets of its efforts around 2014, which then included 193 countries, the World Bank, the IMF and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We are undoubtedly running an offensive operation on the scale of this SVR operation right now, and it’ll probably never be made public. In 2016, President Obama boasted that we have “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

He may have been too optimistic about our defensive capability. The US prioritizes and spends many times more on offense than on defensive cybersecurity. In recent years, the NSA has adopted a strategy of “persistent engagement,” sometimes called “defending forward.” The idea is that instead of passively waiting for the enemy to attack our networks and infrastructure, we go on the offensive and disrupt attacks before they get to us. This strategy was credited with foiling a plot by the Russian Internet Research Agency to disrupt the 2018 elections.

But if persistent engagement is so effective, how could it have missed this massive SVR operation? It seems that pretty much the entire US government was unknowingly sending information back to Moscow. If we had been watching everything the Russians were doing, we would have seen some evidence of this. The Russians’ success under the watchful eye of the NSA and US Cyber Command shows that this is a failed approach.

And how did US defensive capability miss this? The only reason we know about this breach is because, earlier this month, the security company FireEye discovered that it had been hacked. During its own audit of its network, it uncovered the Orion vulnerability and alerted the US government. Why don’t organizations like the Departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Wecurity regularly conduct that level of audit on their own systems? The government’s intrusion detection system, Einstein 3, failed here because it doesn’t detect new sophisticated attacks — a deficiency pointed out in 2018 but never fixed. We shouldn’t have to rely on a private cybersecurity company to alert us of a major nation-state attack.

If anything, the US’s prioritization of offense over defense makes us less safe. In the interests of surveillance, the NSA has pushed for an insecure cell phone encryption standard and a backdoor in random number generators (important for secure encryption). The DoJ has never relented in its insistence that the world’s popular encryption systems be made insecure through back doors — another hot point where attack and defense are in conflict. In other words, we allow for insecure standards and systems, because we can use them to spy on others.

We need to adopt a defense-dominant strategy. As computers and the internet become increasingly essential to society, cyberattacks are likely to be the precursor to actual war. We are simply too vulnerable when we prioritize offense, even if we have to give up the advantage of using those insecurities to spy on others.

Our vulnerability is magnified as eavesdropping may bleed into a direct attack. The SVR’s access allows them not only to eavesdrop, but also to modify data, degrade network performance, or erase entire networks. The first might be normal spying, but the second certainly could be considered an act of war. Russia is almost certainly laying the groundwork for future attack.

This preparation would not be unprecedented. There’s a lot of attack going on in the world. In 2010, the US and Israel attacked the Iranian nuclear program. In 2012, Iran attacked the Saudi national oil company. North Korea attacked Sony in 2014. Russia attacked the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016. Russia is hacking the US power grid, and the US is hacking Russia’s power grid — just in case the capability is needed someday. All of these attacks began as a spying operation. Security vulnerabilities have real-world consequences.

We’re not going to be able to secure our networks and systems in this no-rules, free-for-all every-network-for-itself world. The US needs to willingly give up part of its offensive advantage in cyberspace in exchange for a vastly more secure global cyberspace. We need to invest in securing the world’s supply chains from this type of attack, and to press for international norms and agreements prioritizing cybersecurity, like the 2018 Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace or the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace. Hardening widely used software like Orion (or the core internet protocols) helps everyone. We need to dampen this offensive arms race rather than exacerbate it, and work towards cyber peace. Otherwise, hypocritically criticizing the Russians for doing the same thing we do every day won’t help create the safer world in which we all want to live.

This essay previously appeared in the Guardian.

Posted on December 28, 2020 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Should There Be Limits on Persuasive Technologies?

Persuasion is as old as our species. Both democracy and the market economy depend on it. Politicians persuade citizens to vote for them, or to support different policy positions. Businesses persuade consumers to buy their products or services. We all persuade our friends to accept our choice of restaurant, movie, and so on. It’s essential to society; we couldn’t get large groups of people to work together without it. But as with many things, technology is fundamentally changing the nature of persuasion. And society needs to adapt its rules of persuasion or suffer the consequences.

Democratic societies, in particular, are in dire need of a frank conversation about the role persuasion plays in them and how technologies are enabling powerful interests to target audiences. In a society where public opinion is a ruling force, there is always a risk of it being mobilized for ill purposes — ­such as provoking fear to encourage one group to hate another in a bid to win office, or targeting personal vulnerabilities to push products that might not benefit the consumer.

In this regard, the United States, already extremely polarized, sits on a precipice.

There have long been rules around persuasion. The US Federal Trade Commission enforces laws that claims about products “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” Political advertisers must identify themselves in television ads. If someone abuses a position of power to force another person into a contract, undue influence can be argued to nullify that agreement. Yet there is more to persuasion than the truth, transparency, or simply applying pressure.

Persuasion also involves psychology, and that has been far harder to regulate. Using psychology to persuade people is not new. Edward Bernays, a pioneer of public relations and nephew to Sigmund Freud, made a marketing practice of appealing to the ego. His approach was to tie consumption to a person’s sense of self. In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays advocated engineering events to persuade target audiences as desired. In one famous stunt, he hired women to smoke cigarettes while taking part in the 1929 New York City Easter Sunday parade, causing a scandal while linking smoking with the emancipation of women. The tobacco industry would continue to market lifestyle in selling cigarettes into the 1960s.

Emotional appeals have likewise long been a facet of political campaigns. In the 1860 US presidential election, Southern politicians and newspaper editors spread fears of what a “Black Republican” win would mean, painting horrific pictures of what the emancipation of slaves would do to the country. In the 2020 US presidential election, modern-day Republicans used Cuban Americans’ fears of socialism in ads on Spanish-language radio and messaging on social media. Because of the emotions involved, many voters believed the campaigns enough to let them influence their decisions.

The Internet has enabled new technologies of persuasion to go even further. Those seeking to influence others can collect and use data about targeted audiences to create personalized messaging. Tracking the websites a person visits, the searches they make online, and what they engage with on social media, persuasion technologies enable those who have access to such tools to better understand audiences and deliver more tailored messaging where audiences are likely to see it most. This information can be combined with data about other activities, such as offline shopping habits, the places a person visits, and the insurance they buy, to create a profile of them that can be used to develop persuasive messaging that is aimed at provoking a specific response.

Our senses of self, meanwhile, are increasingly shaped by our interaction with technology. The same digital environment where we read, search, and converse with our intimates enables marketers to take that data and turn it back on us. A modern day Bernays no longer needs to ferret out the social causes that might inspire you or entice you­ — you’ve likely already shared that by your online behavior.

Some marketers posit that women feel less attractive on Mondays, particularly first thing in the morning — ­and therefore that’s the best time to advertise cosmetics to them. The New York Times once experimented by predicting the moods of readers based on article content to better target ads, enabling marketers to find audiences when they were sad or fearful. Some music streaming platforms encourage users to disclose their current moods, which helps advertisers target subscribers based on their emotional states.

The phones in our pockets provide marketers with our location in real time, helping deliver geographically relevant ads, such as propaganda to those attending a political rally. This always-on digital experience enables marketers to know what we are doing­ — and when, where, and how we might be feeling at that moment.

All of this is not intended to be alarmist. It is important not to overstate the effectiveness of persuasive technologies. But while many of them are more smoke and mirrors than reality, it is likely that they will only improve over time. The technology already exists to help predict moods of some target audiences, pinpoint their location at any given time, and deliver fairly tailored and timely messaging. How far does that ability need to go before it erodes the autonomy of those targeted to make decisions of their own free will?

Right now, there are few legal or even moral limits on persuasion­ — and few answers regarding the effectiveness of such technologies. Before it is too late, the world needs to consider what is acceptable and what is over the line.

For example, it’s been long known that people are more receptive to advertisements made with people who look like them: in race, ethnicity, age, gender. Ads have long been modified to suit the general demographic of the television show or magazine they appear in. But we can take this further. The technology exists to take your likeness and morph it with a face that is demographically similar to you. The result is a face that looks like you, but that you don’t recognize. If that turns out to be more persuasive than coarse demographic targeting, is that okay?

Another example: Instead of just advertising to you when they detect that you are vulnerable, what if advertisers craft advertisements that deliberately manipulate your mood? In some ways, being able to place ads alongside content that is likely to provoke a certain emotional response enables advertisers to do this already. The only difference is that the media outlet claims it isn’t crafting the content to deliberately achieve this. But is it acceptable to actively prime a target audience and then to deliver persuasive messaging that fits the mood?

Further, emotion-based decision-making is not the rational type of slow thinking that ought to inform important civic choices such as voting. In fact, emotional thinking threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the system, as voters are essentially provoked to move in whatever direction someone with power and money wants. Given the pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the often instant, reactive responses people have to them, how much emotion ought to be allowed in persuasive technologies? Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Finally, for most people today, exposure to information and technology is pervasive. The average US adult spends more than eleven hours a day interacting with media. Such levels of engagement lead to huge amounts of personal data generated and aggregated about you­ — your preferences, interests, and state of mind. The more those who control persuasive technologies know about us, what we are doing, how we are feeling, when we feel it, and where we are, the better they can tailor messaging that provokes us into action. The unsuspecting target is grossly disadvantaged. Is it acceptable for the same services to both mediate our digital experience and to target us? Is there ever such thing as too much targeting?

The power dynamics of persuasive technologies are changing. Access to tools and technologies of persuasion is not egalitarian. Many require large amounts of both personal data and computation power, turning modern persuasion into an arms race where the better resourced will be better placed to influence audiences.

At the same time, the average person has very little information about how these persuasion technologies work, and is thus unlikely to understand how their beliefs and opinions might be manipulated by them. What’s more, there are few rules in place to protect people from abuse of persuasion technologies, much less even a clear articulation of what constitutes a level of manipulation so great it effectively takes agency away from those targeted. This creates a positive feedback loop that is dangerous for society.

In the 1970s, there was widespread fear about so-called subliminal messaging, which claimed that images of sex and death were hidden in the details of print advertisements, as in the curls of smoke in cigarette ads and the ice cubes of liquor ads. It was pretty much all a hoax, but that didn’t stop the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission from declaring it an illegal persuasive technology. That’s how worried people were about being manipulated without their knowledge and consent.

It is time to have a serious conversation about limiting the technologies of persuasion. This must begin by articulating what is permitted and what is not. If we don’t, the powerful persuaders will become even more powerful.

This essay was written with Alicia Wanless, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

EDITED TO ADD: Ukrainian translation.

Posted on December 14, 2020 at 2:03 PMView Comments

Undermining Democracy

Last Thursday, Rudy Giuliani, a Trump campaign lawyer, alleged a widespread voting conspiracy involving Venezuela, Cuba, and China. Another lawyer, Sidney Powell, argued that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, the entire election in swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for the president.

The Republican National Committee swung in to support her false claim that Mr. Trump won in a landslide, while Michigan election officials have tried to stop the certification of the vote.

It is wildly unlikely that their efforts can block Joe Biden from becoming president. But they may still do lasting damage to American democracy for a shocking reason: the moves have come from trusted insiders.

American democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation has been very much in the news since the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016. The fear is that outsiders, whether they be foreign or domestic actors, will undermine our system by swaying popular opinion and election results.

This is half right. American democracy is an information system, in which the information isn’t bits and bytes but citizens’ beliefs. When peoples’ faith in the democratic system is undermined, democracy stops working. But as information security specialists know, outsider attacks are hard. Russian trolls, who don’t really understand how American politics works, have actually had a difficult time subverting it.

When you really need to worry is when insiders go bad. And that is precisely what is happening in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In traditional information systems, the insiders are the people who have both detailed knowledge and high level access, allowing them to bypass security measures and more effectively subvert systems. In democracy, the insiders aren’t just the officials who manage voting but also the politicians who shape what people believe about politics. For four years, Donald Trump has been trying to dismantle our shared beliefs about democracy. And now, his fellow Republicans are helping him.

Democracy works when we all expect that votes will be fairly counted, and defeated candidates leave office. As the democratic theorist Adam Przeworski puts it, democracy is “a system in which parties lose elections.” These beliefs can break down when political insiders make bogus claims about general fraud, trying to cling to power when the election has gone against them.

It’s obvious how these kinds of claims damage Republican voters’ commitment to democracy. They will think that elections are rigged by the other side and will not accept the judgment of voters when it goes against their preferred candidate. Their belief that the Biden administration is illegitimate will justify all sorts of measures to prevent it from functioning.

It’s less obvious that these strategies affect Democratic voters’ faith in democracy, too. Democrats are paying attention to Republicans’ efforts to stop the votes of Democratic voters ­- and especially Black Democratic voters -­ from being counted. They, too, are likely to have less trust in elections going forward, and with good reason. They will expect that Republicans will try to rig the system against them. Mr. Trump is having a hard time winning unfairly, because he has lost in several states. But what if Mr. Biden’s margin of victory depended only on one state? What if something like that happens in the next election?

The real fear is that this will lead to a spiral of distrust and destruction. Republicans ­ who are increasingly committed to the notion that the Democrats are committing pervasive fraud -­ will do everything that they can to win power and to cling to power when they can get it. Democrats ­- seeing what Republicans are doing ­ will try to entrench themselves in turn. They suspect that if the Republicans really win power, they will not ever give it back. The claims of Republicans like Senator Mike Lee of Utah that America is not really a democracy might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More likely, this spiral will not directly lead to the death of American democracy. The U.S. federal system of government is complex and hard for any one actor or coalition to dominate completely. But it may turn American democracy into an unworkable confrontation between two hostile camps, each unwilling to make any concession to its adversary.

We know how to make voting itself more open and more secure; the literature is filled with vital and important suggestions. The more difficult problem is this. How do you shift the collective belief among Republicans that elections are rigged?

Political science suggests that partisans are more likely to be persuaded by fellow partisans, like Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, who said that election fraud wasn’t a big problem. But this would only be effective if other well-known Republicans supported him.

Public outrage, alternatively, can sometimes force officials to back down, as when people crowded in to denounce the Michigan Republican election officials who were trying to deny certification of their votes.

The fundamental problem, however, is Republican insiders who have convinced themselves that to keep and hold power, they need to trash the shared beliefs that hold American democracy together.

They may have long-term worries about the consequences, but they’re unlikely to do anything about those worries in the near-term unless voters, wealthy donors or others whom they depend on make them pay short-term costs.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on November 27, 2020 at 6:10 AMView Comments

COVID-19 and Acedia

Note: This isn’t my usual essay topic. Still, I want to put it on my blog.

Six months into the pandemic with no end in sight, many of us have been feeling a sense of unease that goes beyond anxiety or distress. It’s a nameless feeling that somehow makes it hard to go on with even the nice things we regularly do.

What’s blocking our everyday routines is not the anxiety of lockdown adjustments, or the worries about ourselves and our loved ones — real though those worries are. It isn’t even the sense that, if we’re really honest with ourselves, much of what we do is pretty self-indulgent when held up against the urgency of a global pandemic.

It is something more troubling and harder to name: an uncertainty about why we would go on doing much of what for years we’d taken for granted as inherently valuable.

What we are confronting is something many writers in the pandemic have approached from varying angles: a restless distraction that stems not just from not knowing when it will all end, but also from not knowing what that end will look like. Perhaps the sharpest insight into this feeling has come from Jonathan Zecher, a historian of religion, who linked it to the forgotten Christian term: acedia.

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

What could this particular form of melancholy mean in an urgent global crisis? On the face of it, all of us care very much about the health risks to those we know and don’t know. Yet lurking alongside such immediate cares is a sense of dislocation that somehow interferes with how we care.

The answer can be found in an extreme thought experiment about death. In 2013, philosopher Samuel Scheffler explored a core assumption about death. We all assume that there will be a future world that survives our particular life, a world populated by people roughly like us, including some who are related to us or known to us. Though we rarely or acknowledge it, this presumed future world is the horizon towards which everything we do in the present is oriented.

But what, Scheffler asked, if we lose that assumed future world — because, say, we are told that human life will end on a fixed date not far after our own death? Then the things we value would start to lose their value. Our sense of why things matter today is built on the presumption that they will continue to matter in the future, even when we ourselves are no longer around to value them.

Our present relations to people and things are, in this deep way, future-oriented. Symphonies are written, buildings built, children conceived in the present, but always with a future in mind. What happens to our ethical bearings when we start to lose our grip on that future?

It’s here, moving back to the particular features of the global pandemic, that we see more clearly what drives the restlessness and dislocation so many have been feeling. The source of our current acedia is not the literal loss of a future; even the most pessimistic scenarios surrounding COVID-19 have our species surviving. The dislocation is more subtle: a disruption in pretty much every future frame of reference on which just going on in the present relies.

Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

Naming this malaise may seem more trouble than its worth, but the opposite is true. Perhaps the worst thing about medieval acedia was that monks struggled with its dislocation in isolation. But today’s disruption of our sense of a future must be a shared challenge. Because what’s disrupted is the structure of care that sustains why we go on doing things together, and this can only be repaired through renewed solidarity.

Such solidarity, however, has one precondition: that we openly discuss the problem of acedia, and how it prevents us from facing our deepest future uncertainties. Once we have done that, we can recognize it as a problem we choose to face together — across political and cultural lines — as families, communities, nations and a global humanity. Which means doing so in acceptance of our shared vulnerability, rather than suffering each on our own.

This essay was written with Nick Couldry, and previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13/2021): Ukrainian translation.

Posted on October 2, 2020 at 2:15 PMView Comments

On the Twitter Hack

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam — stealing bitcoin — but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter’s network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages — between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations — are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn’t yet.

Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.

In the Twitter case this week, the hacker’s tactics weren’t particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee’s cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.

This kind of attack is known as a “class break.” Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they’re not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn’t matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn’t matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.

Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.

For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter’s authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

For example, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account wasn’t hacked as Joe Biden’s was, because that account has “special protections,” the details of which we don’t know. We also don’t know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.

In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn’t have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn’t be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines — different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it’s how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.

This wasn’t Twitter’s first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump’s account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.

Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won’t. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don’t blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company’s leaders.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Czech.

Posted on July 20, 2020 at 8:49 AMView Comments

The Security Value of Inefficiency

For decades, we have prized efficiency in our economy. We strive for it. We reward it. In normal times, that’s a good thing. Running just at the margins is efficient. A single just-in-time global supply chain is efficient. Consolidation is efficient. And that’s all profitable. Inefficiency, on the other hand, is waste. Extra inventory is inefficient. Overcapacity is inefficient. Using many small suppliers is inefficient. Inefficiency is unprofitable.

But inefficiency is essential security, as the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us. All of the overcapacity that has been squeezed out of our healthcare system; we now wish we had it. All of the redundancy in our food production that has been consolidated away; we want that, too. We need our old, local supply chains — not the single global ones that are so fragile in this crisis. And we want our local restaurants and businesses to survive, not just the national chains.

We have lost much inefficiency to the market in the past few decades. Investors have become very good at noticing any fat in every system and swooping down to monetize those redundant assets. The winner-take-all mentality that has permeated so many industries squeezes any inefficiencies out of the system.

This drive for efficiency leads to brittle systems that function properly when everything is normal but break under stress. And when they break, everyone suffers. The less fortunate suffer and die. The more fortunate are merely hurt, and perhaps lose their freedoms or their future. But even the extremely fortunate suffer — maybe not in the short term, but in the long term from the constriction of the rest of society.

Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

I don’t simply mean that we need to make our food production, or healthcare system, or supply chains sloppy and wasteful. We need a certain kind of inefficiency, and it depends on the system in question. Sometimes we need redundancy. Sometimes we need diversity. Sometimes we need overcapacity.

The market isn’t going to supply any of these things, least of all in a strategic capacity that will result in resilience. What’s necessary to make any of this work is regulation.

First, we need to enforce antitrust laws. Our meat supply chain is brittle because there are limited numbers of massive meatpacking plants — now disease factories — rather than lots of smaller slaughterhouses. Our retail supply chain is brittle because a few national companies and websites dominate. We need multiple companies offering alternatives to a single product or service. We need more competition, more niche players. We need more local companies, more domestic corporate players, and diversity in our international suppliers. Competition provides all of that, while monopolies suck that out of the system.

The second thing we need is specific regulations that require certain inefficiencies. This isn’t anything new. Every safety system we have is, to some extent, an inefficiency. This is true for fire escapes on buildings, lifeboats on cruise ships, and multiple ways to deploy the landing gear on aircraft. Not having any of those things would make the underlying systems more efficient, but also less safe. It’s also true for the internet itself, originally designed with extensive redundancy as a Cold War security measure.

With those two things in place, the market can work its magic to provide for these strategic inefficiencies as cheaply and as effectively as possible. As long as there are competitors who are vying with each other, and there aren’t competitors who can reduce the inefficiencies and undercut the competition, these inefficiencies just become part of the price of whatever we’re buying.

The government is the entity that steps in and enforces a level playing field instead of a race to the bottom. Smart regulation addresses the long-term need for security, and ensures it’s not continuously sacrificed to short-term considerations.

We have largely been content to ignore the long term and let Wall Street run our economy as efficiently as it can. That’s no longer sustainable. We need inefficiency — the right kind in the right way — to ensure our security. No, it’s not free. But it’s worth the cost.

This essay previously appeared in Quartz.

EDITED TO ADD (7/14): A related piece by Dan Geer.

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 9:26 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.