Entries Tagged "essays"

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U.S. Port Security and Proxies

My twelfth essay for Wired.com is about U.S. port security, and more generally about trust and proxies:

Pull aside the rhetoric, and this is everyone’s point. There are those who don’t trust the Bush administration and believe its motivations are political. There are those who don’t trust the UAE because of its terrorist ties—two of the 9/11 terrorists and some of the funding for the attack came out of that country—and those who don’t trust it because of racial prejudices. There are those who don’t trust security at our nation’s ports generally and see this as just another example of the problem.

The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn’t compromise security, voters—at least the particular lawmakers we trust—need to understand that.

Regardless of the outcome of the Dubai deal, we need more transparency in how our government approaches counter-terrorism in general. Secrecy simply isn’t serving our nation well in this case. It’s not making us safer, and it’s properly reducing faith in our government.

Proxies are a natural outgrowth of society, an inevitable byproduct of specialization. But our proxies are not us and they have different motivations—they simply won’t make the same security decisions as we would. Whether a king is hiring mercenaries, an organization is hiring a network security company or a person is asking some guy to watch his bags while he gets a drink of water, successful security proxies are based on trust. And when it comes to government, trust comes through transparency and openness.

Posted on February 23, 2006 at 7:07 AMView Comments

Security in the Cloud

One of the basic philosophies of security is defense in depth: overlapping systems designed to provide security even if one of them fails. An example is a firewall coupled with an intrusion-detection system (IDS). Defense in depth provides security, because there’s no single point of failure and no assumed single vector for attacks.

It is for this reason that a choice between implementing network security in the middle of the network—in the cloud—or at the endpoints is a false dichotomy. No single security system is a panacea, and it’s far better to do both.

This kind of layered security is precisely what we’re seeing develop. Traditionally, security was implemented at the endpoints, because that’s what the user controlled. An organization had no choice but to put its firewalls, IDSs, and anti-virus software inside its network. Today, with the rise of managed security services and other outsourced network services, additional security can be provided inside the cloud.

I’m all in favor of security in the cloud. If we could build a new Internet today from scratch, we would embed a lot of security functionality in the cloud. But even that wouldn’t substitute for security at the endpoints. Defense in depth beats a single point of failure, and security in the cloud is only part of a layered approach.

For example, consider the various network-based e-mail filtering services available. They do a great job of filtering out spam and viruses, but it would be folly to consider them a substitute for anti-virus security on the desktop. Many e-mails are internal only, never entering the cloud at all. Worse, an attacker might open up a message gateway inside the enterprise’s infrastructure. Smart organizations build defense in depth: e-mail filtering inside the cloud plus anti-virus on the desktop.

The same reasoning applies to network-based firewalls and intrusion-prevention systems (IPS). Security would be vastly improved if the major carriers implemented cloud-based solutions, but they’re no substitute for traditional firewalls, IDSs, and IPSs.

This should not be an either/or decision. At Counterpane, for example, we offer cloud services and more traditional network and desktop services. The real trick is making everything work together.

Security is about technology, people, and processes. Regardless of where your security systems are, they’re not going to work unless human experts are paying attention. Real-time monitoring and response is what’s most important; where the equipment goes is secondary.

Security is always a trade-off. Budgets are limited and economic considerations regularly trump security concerns. Traditional security products and services are centered on the internal network, because that’s the target of attack. Compliance focuses on that for the same reason. Security in the cloud is a good addition, but it’s not a replacement for more traditional network and desktop security.

This was published as a “Face-Off” in Network World.

The opposing view is here.

Posted on February 15, 2006 at 8:18 AMView Comments

Multi-Use ID Cards

My eleventh column for Wired.com is about ID cards, and why you don’t—and won’t—have a single card in your wallet for everything. It has nothing to do with security.

My airline wants a card with its logo on it in my wallet. So does my rental car company, my supermarket and everyone else I do business with. My credit card company wants me to open up my wallet and notice its card; I’m far more likely to use a physical card than a virtual one that I have to remember is attached to my driver’s license number. And I’m more likely to feel important if I have a card, especially a card that recognizes me as a frequent flier or a preferred customer.

Some years ago, when credit cards with embedded chips were new, the card manufacturers designed a secure, multi-application operating system for these smartcards. The idea was that a single physical card could be used for everything: multiple credit card accounts, airline affinity memberships, public-transportation payment cards, etc. Nobody bought into the system: not because of security concerns, but because of branding concerns. Whose logo would get to be on the card? When the manufacturers envisioned a card with multiple small logos, one for each application, everyone wanted to know: Whose logo would be first? On top? In color?

The companies give you their own card partly because they want complete control of the rules around their own system, but mostly because they want you to carry around a small piece of advertising in your wallet. An American Express Gold Card is supposed to make you feel powerful and everyone else feel green. They want you to wave it around.

Posted on February 9, 2006 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Risks of Losing Portable Devices

Last July I blogged about the risks of storing ever-larger amounts of data in ever-smaller devices.

Last week I wrote my tenth Wired.com column on the topic:

The point is that it’s now amazingly easy to lose an enormous amount of information. Twenty years ago, someone could break into my office and copy every customer file, every piece of correspondence, everything about my professional life. Today, all he has to do is steal my computer. Or my portable backup drive. Or my small stack of DVD backups. Furthermore, he could sneak into my office and copy all this data, and I’d never know it.

This problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

There are two solutions that make sense. The first is to protect the data. Hard-disk encryption programs like PGP Disk allow you to encrypt individual files, folders or entire disk partitions. Several manufacturers market USB thumb drives with built-in encryption. Some PDA manufacturers are starting to add password protection—not as good as encryption, but at least it’s something—to their devices, and there are some aftermarket PDA encryption programs.

The second solution is to remotely delete the data if the device is lost. This is still a new idea, but I believe it will gain traction in the corporate market. If you give an employee a BlackBerry for business use, you want to be able to wipe the device’s memory if he loses it. And since the device is online all the time, it’s a pretty easy feature to add.

But until these two solutions become ubiquitous, the best option is to pay attention and erase data. Delete old e-mails from your BlackBerry, SMSs from your cell phone and old data from your address books—regularly. Find that call log and purge it once in a while. Don’t store everything on your laptop, only the files you might actually need.

EDITED TO ADD (2/2): A Dutch army officer lost a memory stick with details of an Afgan mission.

Posted on February 1, 2006 at 10:32 AMView Comments

Anonymity and Accountability

Last week I blogged Kevin Kelly’s rant against anonymity. Today I wrote about it for Wired.com:

And that’s precisely where Kelly makes his mistake. The problem isn’t anonymity; it’s accountability. If someone isn’t accountable, then knowing his name doesn’t help. If you have someone who is completely anonymous, yet just as completely accountable, then—heck, just call him Fred.

History is filled with bandits and pirates who amass reputations without anyone knowing their real names.

EBay’s feedback system doesn’t work because there’s a traceable identity behind that anonymous nickname. EBay’s feedback system works because each anonymous nickname comes with a record of previous transactions attached, and if someone cheats someone else then everybody knows it.

Similarly, Wikipedia’s veracity problems are not a result of anonymous authors adding fabrications to entries. They’re an inherent property of an information system with distributed accountability. People think of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia, but it’s not. We all trust Britannica entries to be correct because we know the reputation of that company, and by extension its editors and writers. On the other hand, we all should know that Wikipedia will contain a small amount of false information because no particular person is accountable for accuracy—and that would be true even if you could mouse over each sentence and see the name of the person who wrote it.

Please read the whole thing before you comment.

Posted on January 12, 2006 at 4:36 AMView Comments

The Security Threat of Unchecked Presidential Power

This past Thursday, the New York Times exposed the most significant violation of federal surveillance law in the post-Watergate era. President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to engage in domestic spying, wiretapping thousands of Americans and bypassing the legal procedures regulating this activity.

This isn’t about the spying, although that’s a major issue in itself. This is about the Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search. This is about circumventing a teeny tiny check by the judicial branch, placed there by the legislative branch, placed there 27 years ago—on the last occasion that the executive branch abused its power so broadly.

In defending this secret spying on Americans, Bush said that he relied on his constitutional powers (Article 2) and the joint resolution passed by Congress after 9/11 that led to the war in Iraq. This rationale was spelled out in a memo written by John Yoo, a White House attorney, less than two weeks after the attacks of 9/11. It’s a dense read and a terrifying piece of legal contortionism, but it basically says that the president has unlimited powers to fight terrorism. He can spy on anyone, arrest anyone, and kidnap anyone and ship him to another country … merely on the suspicion that he might be a terrorist. And according to the memo, this power lasts until there is no more terrorism in the world.

Yoo starts by arguing that the Constitution gives the president total power during wartime. He also notes that Congress has recently been quiescent when the president takes some military action on his own, citing President Clinton’s 1998 strike against Sudan and Afghanistan.

Yoo then says: “The terrorist incidents of September 11, 2001, were surely far graver a threat to the national security of the United States than the 1998 attacks. … The President’s power to respond militarily to the later attacks must be correspondingly broader.”

This is novel reasoning. It’s as if the police would have greater powers when investigating a murder than a burglary.

More to the point, the congressional resolution of Sept. 14, 2001, specifically refused the White House’s initial attempt to seek authority to preempt any future acts of terrorism, and narrowly gave Bush permission to go after those responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Yoo’s memo ignored this. Written 11 days after Congress refused to grant the president wide-ranging powers, it admitted that “the Joint Resolution is somewhat narrower than the President’s constitutional authority,” but argued “the President’s broad constitutional power to use military force … would allow the President to … [take] whatever actions he deems appropriate … to pre-empt or respond to terrorist threats from new quarters.”

Even if Congress specifically says no.

The result is that the president’s wartime powers, with its armies, battles, victories, and congressional declarations, now extend to the rhetorical “War on Terror”: a war with no fronts, no boundaries, no opposing army, and—most ominously—no knowable “victory.” Investigations, arrests, and trials are not tools of war. But according to the Yoo memo, the president can define war however he chooses, and remain “at war” for as long as he chooses.

This is indefinite dictatorial power. And I don’t use that term lightly; the very definition of a dictatorship is a system that puts a ruler above the law. In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he immediately started using it to avoid the law.

This is, fundamentally, why this issue crossed political lines in Congress. If the president can ignore laws regulating surveillance and wiretapping, why is Congress bothering to debate reauthorizing certain provisions of the Patriot Act? Any debate over laws is predicated on the belief that the executive branch will follow the law.

This is not a partisan issue between Democrats and Republicans; it’s a president unilaterally overriding the Fourth Amendment, Congress and the Supreme Court. Unchecked presidential power has nothing to do with how much you either love or hate George W. Bush. You have to imagine this power in the hands of the person you most don’t want to see as president, whether it be Dick Cheney or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.

Laws are what give us security against the actions of the majority and the powerful. If we discard our constitutional protections against tyranny in an attempt to protect us from terrorism, we’re all less safe as a result.

This essay was published today as an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the Yoo memo. Remember, think of this power in the hands of your least favorite politician when you read it:

You have asked for our opinion as to the scope of the President’s authority to take military action in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. We conclude that the President has broad constitutional power to use military force. Congress has acknowledged this inherent executive power in both the War Powers Resolution, Pub. L. No. 93-148, 87 Stat. 555 (1973), codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1541-1548 (the “WPR”), and in the Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224 (2001). Further, the President has the constitutional power not only to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.

There’s a similar reasoning in the Braybee memo, which was written in 2002 about torture:

In a series of opinions examining various legal questions arising after September 11, we have examined the scope of the President’s Commander-in-Chief power. . . . Foremost among the objectives committed by the Constitution to [the President’s] trust. As Hamilton explained in arguing for the Constitution’s adoption, “because the circumstances which may affect the public safety are not reducible within certain limits, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority, which is to provide for the defense and safety of the community, in any manner essential to its efficacy.”

. . . [The Constitution’s] sweeping grant vests in the President an unenumerated Executive power . . . The Commander in Chief power and the President’s obligation to protect the Nation imply the ancillary powers necessary to their successful exercise.

NSA watcher James Bamford points out how this action was definitely considered illegal in 1978, which is why FISA was passed in the first place:

When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was created in 1978, one of the things that the Attorney General at the time, Griffin Bell, said—he testified before the intelligence committee, and he said that the current bill recognizes no inherent power of the President to conduct electronic surveillance. He said, “This bill specifically states that the procedures in the bill are the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance may be conducted.” In other words, what the President is saying is that he has these inherent powers to conduct electronic surveillance, but the whole reason for creating this act, according to the Attorney General at the time, was to prevent the President from using any inherent powers and to use exclusively this act.

Also this from Salon, discussing a 1952 precedent:

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues that the president’s authority rests on two foundations: Congress’s authorization to use military force against al-Qaida, and the Constitution’s vesting of power in the president as commander-in-chief, which necessarily includes gathering “signals intelligence” on the enemy. But that argument cannot be squared with Supreme Court precedent. In 1952, the Supreme Court considered a remarkably similar argument during the Korean War. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, widely considered the most important separation-of-powers case ever decided by the court, flatly rejected the president’s assertion of unilateral domestic authority during wartime. President Truman had invoked the commander-in-chief clause to justify seizing most of the nation’s steel mills. A nationwide strike threatened to undermine the war, Truman contended, because the mills were critical to manufacturing munitions.

The Supreme Court’s rationale for rejecting Truman’s claims applies with full force to Bush’s policy. In what proved to be the most influential opinion in the case, Justice Robert Jackson identified three possible scenarios in which a president’s actions may be challenged. Where the president acts with explicit or implicit authorization from Congress, his authority “is at its maximum,” and will generally be upheld. Where Congress has been silent, the president acts in a “zone of twilight” in which legality “is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law.” But where the president acts in defiance of “the expressed or implied will of Congress,” Justice Jackson maintained, his power is “at its lowest ebb,” and his actions can be sustained only if Congress has no authority to regulate the subject at all.

In the steel seizure case, Congress had considered and rejected giving the president the authority to seize businesses in the face of threatened strikes, thereby placing President Truman’s action in the third of Justice Jackson’s categories. As to the war power, Justice Jackson noted, “The Constitution did not contemplate that the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy will constitute him also Commander in Chief of the country, its industries, and its inhabitants.”

Like Truman, President Bush acted in the face of contrary congressional authority. In FISA, Congress expressly addressed the subject of warrantless wiretaps during wartime, and limited them to the first 15 days after war is declared. Congress then went further and made it a crime, punishable by up to five years in jail, to conduct a wiretap without statutory authorization.

The Attorney General said that the Administration didn’t try to do this legally, because they didn’t think they could get the law passed. But don’t worry, an NSA shift supervisor is acting in the role of a FISC judge:

GENERAL HAYDEN: FISA involves the process—FISA involves marshaling arguments; FISA involves looping paperwork around, even in the case of emergency authorizations from the Attorney General. And beyond that, it’s a little—it’s difficult for me to get into further discussions as to why this is more optimized under this process without, frankly, revealing too much about what it is we do and why and how we do it.

Q If FISA didn’t work, why didn’t you seek a new statute that allowed something like this legally?

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: That question was asked earlier. We’ve had discussions with members of Congress, certain members of Congress, about whether or not we could get an amendment to FISA, and we were advised that that was not likely to be—that was not something we could likely get, certainly not without jeopardizing the existence of the program, and therefore, killing the program. And that—and so a decision was made that because we felt that the authorities were there, that we should continue moving forward with this program.

Q And who determined that these targets were al Qaeda? Did you wiretap them?

GENERAL HAYDEN: The judgment is made by the operational work force at the National Security Agency using the information available to them at the time, and the standard that they apply—and it’s a two-person standard that must be signed off by a shift supervisor, and carefully recorded as to what created the operational imperative to cover any target, but particularly with regard to those inside the United States.

Q So a shift supervisor is now making decisions that a FISA judge would normally make? I just want to make sure I understand. Is that what you’re saying?

Senators from both parties are demanding hearings:

Democratic and Republican calls mounted on Tuesday for U.S. congressional hearings into President George W. Bush’s assertion that he can order warrantless spying on Americans with suspected terrorist ties.

Vice President Dick Cheney predicted a backlash against critics of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies. He also dismissed charges that Bush overstepped his constitutional bounds when he implemented the recently disclosed eavesdropping shortly after the September 11 attacks.

Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees into whether the government eavesdropped “without appropriate legal authority.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would prefer separate hearings by the Judiciary Committee, which has already promised one, and Intelligence Committee.

This New York Times paragraph is further evidence that we’re talking about an Echelon-like surveillance program here:

Administration officials, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the information, suggested that the speed with which the operation identified “hot numbers” – the telephone numbers of suspects – and then hooked into their conversations lay behind the need to operate outside the old law.

And some more snippets.

There are about a zillion more URLs I could list here. I posted these already, but both Oren Kerr and
Daniel Solove have good discussions of the legal issues. And here are three legal posts by Marty Lederman. A summary of the Republican arguments. Four good blog posts. Spooks comment on the issue.

And this George W. Bush quote (video and transcript), from December 18, 2000, is just too surreal not to reprint: “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”

I guess 9/11 made it a heck of a lot easier.

Look, I don’t think 100% of the blame belongs to President Bush. (This kind of thing was also debated under Clinton.) The Congress, Democrats included, have allowed the Executive to gather power at the expense of the other two branches. This is the fundamental security issue here, and it’ll be an issue regardless of who wins the White House in 2008.

EDITED TO ADD (12/21): FISC Judge James Robertson resigned yesterday:

Two associates familiar with his decision said yesterday that Robertson privately expressed deep concern that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court’s work.

….Robertson indicated privately to colleagues in recent conversations that he was concerned that information gained from warrantless NSA surveillance could have then been used to obtain FISA warrants. FISA court Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who had been briefed on the spying program by the administration, raised the same concern in 2004 and insisted that the Justice Department certify in writing that it was not occurring.

“They just don’t know if the product of wiretaps were used for FISA warrants—to kind of cleanse the information,” said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the FISA warrants. “What I’ve heard some of the judges say is they feel they’ve participated in a Potemkin court.”

More generally, here’s some of the relevant statutes and decisions:

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)” (1978).

Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001),” the law authorizing Bush to use military force against the 9/11 terrorists.

United States v. United States District Court,” 407 U.S. 297 (1972), a national security surveillance case that turned on the Fourth Amendment.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld,” 124 S. Ct. 981 (2004), the recent Supreme Court case examining the president’s powers during wartime.

[The Government’s position] cannot be mandated by any reasonable view of the separation of powers, as this view only serves to condense power into a single branch of government. We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens. Youngstown Steel and Tube, 343 U.S. at 587. Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in times of conflict with other Nations or enemy organizations, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.

And here are a bunch of blog posts:

Daniel Solove: “Hypothetical: What If President Bush Were Correct About His Surveillance Powers?.”

Seth Weinberger: “Declaring War and Executive Power.”

Juliette Kayyem: “Wiretaps, AUMF and Bush’s Comments Today.”

Mark Schmitt: “Alito and the Wiretaps.”

Eric Muller: “Lawless Like I Said.”

Cass Sunstein: “Presidential Wiretap.”

Spencer Overton: “Judge Damon J. Keith: No Warrantless Wiretaps of Citizens.”

Will Baude: “Presidential Authority, A Lament.”

And news articles:

Washington Post: “Clash Is Latest Chapter in Bush Effort to Widen Executive Power.”

The clash over the secret domestic spying program is one slice of a broader struggle over the power of the presidency that has animated the Bush administration. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney came to office convinced that the authority of the presidency had eroded and have spent the past five years trying to reclaim it.

From shielding energy policy deliberations to setting up military tribunals without court involvement, Bush, with Cheney’s encouragement, has taken what scholars call a more expansive view of his role than any commander in chief in decades. With few exceptions, Congress and the courts have largely stayed out of the way, deferential to the argument that a president needs free rein, especially in wartime.

New York Times: Spying Program Snared U.S. Calls.”

A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.

Posted on December 21, 2005 at 6:50 AM

NSA and Bush's Illegal Eavesdropping

When President Bush directed the National Security Agency to secretly eavesdrop on American citizens, he transferred an authority previously under the purview of the Justice Department to the Defense Department and bypassed the very laws put in place to protect Americans against widespread government eavesdropping. The reason may have been to tap the NSA’s capability for data-mining and widespread surveillance.

Illegal wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. In the 1950s and ’60s, in a program called “Project Shamrock,” the NSA intercepted every single telegram coming into or going out of the United States. It conducted eavesdropping without a warrant on behalf of the CIA and other agencies. Much of this became public during the 1975 Church Committee hearings and resulted in the now famous Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The purpose of this law was to protect the American people by regulating government eavesdropping. Like many laws limiting the power of government, it relies on checks and balances: one branch of the government watching the other. The law established a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and empowered it to approve national-security-related eavesdropping warrants. The Justice Department can request FISA warrants to monitor foreign communications as well as communications by American citizens, provided that they meet certain minimal criteria.

The FISC issued about 500 FISA warrants per year from 1979 through 1995, and has slowly increased subsequently—1,758 were issued in 2004. The process is designed for speed and even has provisions where the Justice Department can wiretap first and ask for permission later. In all that time, only four warrant requests were ever rejected: all in 2003. (We don’t know any details, of course, as the court proceedings are secret.)

FISA warrants are carried out by the FBI, but in the days immediately after the terrorist attacks, there was a widespread perception in Washington that the FBI wasn’t up to dealing with these new threats—they couldn’t uncover plots in a timely manner. So instead the Bush administration turned to the NSA. They had the tools, the expertise, the experience, and so they were given the mission.

The NSA’s ability to eavesdrop on communications is exemplified by a technological capability called Echelon. Echelon is the world’s largest information “vacuum cleaner,” sucking up a staggering amount of voice, fax, and data communications—satellite, microwave, fiber-optic, cellular and everything else—from all over the world: an estimated 3 billion communications per day. These communications are then processed through sophisticated data-mining technologies, which look for simple phrases like “assassinate the president” as well as more complicated communications patterns.

Supposedly Echelon only covers communications outside of the United States. Although there is no evidence that the Bush administration has employed Echelon to monitor communications to and from the U.S., this surveillance capability is probably exactly what the president wanted and may explain why the administration sought to bypass the FISA process of acquiring a warrant for searches.

Perhaps the NSA just didn’t have any experience submitting FISA warrants, so Bush unilaterally waived that requirement. And perhaps Bush thought FISA was a hindrance—in 2002 there was a widespread but false believe that the FISC got in the way of the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui (the presumed “20th hijacker”)—and bypassed the court for that reason.

Most likely, Bush wanted a whole new surveillance paradigm. You can think of the FBI’s capabilities as “retail surveillance”: It eavesdrops on a particular person or phone. The NSA, on the other hand, conducts “wholesale surveillance.” It, or more exactly its computers, listens to everything. An example might be to feed the computers every voice, fax, and e-mail communication looking for the name “Ayman al-Zawahiri.” This type of surveillance is more along the lines of Project Shamrock, and not legal under FISA. As Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote in a secret memo after being briefed on the program, it raises “profound oversight issues.”

It is also unclear whether Echelon-style eavesdropping would prevent terrorist attacks. In the months before 9/11, Echelon noticed considerable “chatter”: bits of conversation suggesting some sort of imminent attack. But because much of the planning for 9/11 occurred face-to-face, analysts were unable to learn details.

The fundamental issue here is security, but it’s not the security most people think of. James Madison famously said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Terrorism is a serious risk to our nation, but an even greater threat is the centralization of American political power in the hands of any single branch of the government.

Over 200 years ago, the framers of the U.S. Constitution established an ingenious security device against tyrannical government: they divided government power among three different bodies. A carefully thought out system of checks and balances in the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch, ensured that no single branch became too powerful.

After watching tyrannies rise and fall throughout Europe, this seemed like a prudent way to form a government. Courts monitor the actions of police. Congress passes laws that even the president must follow. Since 9/11, the United States has seen an enormous power grab by the executive branch. It’s time we brought back the security system that’s protected us from government for over 200 years.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Salon.

I wrote another essay about the legal and constitutional implications of this. The Minneapolis Star Tribune will publish it either Wednesday or Thursday, and I will post it here at that time.

I didn’t talk about the political dynamics in either essay, but they’re fascinating. The White House kept this secret, but they briefed at least six people outside the administration. The current and former chief justices of the FISC knew about this. Last Sunday’s Washington Post reported that both of them had misgivings about the program, but neither did anything about it. The White House also briefed the Committee Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and they didn’t do anything about it. (Although Sen. Rockefeller wrote a bizarre I’m-not-going-down-with-you memo to Cheney and for his files.)

Cheney was on television this weekend citing this minimal disclosure as evidence that Congress acquiesced to the program. I see it as evidence of something else: if people from both the Legislative and the Judiciary branches knowingly permitted unlawful surveillance by the Executive branch, then the current system of checks and balances isn’t working.

It’s also evidence about how secretive this administration is. None of the other FISC judges, and none of the other House or Senate Intelligence Committee members, were told about this,­ even under clearance. And if there’s one thing these people hate, it’s being kept in the dark on a matter within their jurisdiction. That’s why Senator Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was so upset yesterday. And it’s pushing Senator Specter, and some of the Republicans in these Judiciary committees, further into the civil liberties camp.

There are about a zillion links worth reading, but here are some of them you might not yet have seen. Some good newspaper commentaries. An excellent legal analysis. Three blog posts. Four more blog posts. Daniel Solove on FISA. Two legal analyses. An interesting “Democracy Now” commentary, including interesting comments on the NSA’s capabilities by James Bamford. And finally, my 2004 essay on the security of checks and balances.

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”—William Pitt, House of Commons, 11/18/1783.

Posted on December 20, 2005 at 12:45 PMView Comments

Totally Secure Classical Communications?

My eighth Wired column:

How would you feel if you invested millions of dollars in quantum cryptography, and then learned that you could do the same thing with a few 25-cent Radio Shack components?

I’m exaggerating a little here, but if a new idea out of Texas A&M University turns out to be secure, we’ve come close.

Earlier this month, Laszlo Kish proposed securing a communications link, like a phone or computer line, with a pair of resistors. By adding electronic noise, or using the natural thermal noise of the resistors—called “Johnson noise”—Kish can prevent eavesdroppers from listening in.

In the blue-sky field of quantum cryptography, the strange physics of the subatomic world are harnessed to create a secure, unbreakable communications channel between two points. Kish’s research is intriguing, in part, because it uses the simpler properties of classic physics—the stuff you learned in high school—to achieve the same results.

At least, that’s the theory.

I go on to describe how the system works, and then discuss the security:

There hasn’t been enough analysis. I certainly don’t know enough electrical engineering to know whether there is any clever way to eavesdrop on Kish’s scheme. And I’m sure Kish doesn’t know enough security to know that, either. The physics and stochastic mathematics look good, but all sorts of security problems crop up when you try to actually build and operate something like this.

It’s definitely an idea worth exploring, and it’ll take people with expertise in both security and electrical engineering to fully vet the system.

There are practical problems with the system, though. The bandwidth the system can handle appears very limited. The paper gives the bandwidth-distance product as 2 x 106 meter-Hz. This means that over a 1-kilometer link, you can only send at 2,000 bps. A dialup modem from 1985 is faster. Even with a fat 500-pair cable you’re still limited to 1 million bps over 1 kilometer.

And multi-wire cables have their own problems; there are all sorts of cable-capacitance and cross-talk issues with that sort of link. Phone companies really hate those high-density cables, because of how long it takes to terminate or splice them.

Even more basic: It’s vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks. Someone who can intercept and modify messages in transit can break the security. This means you need an authenticated channel to make it work—a link that guarantees you’re talking to the person you think you’re talking to. How often in the real world do we have a wire that is authenticated but not confidential? Not very often.

Generally, if you can eavesdrop you can also mount active attacks. But this scheme only defends against passive eavesdropping.

For those keeping score, that’s four practical problems: It’s only link encryption and not end-to-end, it’s bandwidth-limited (but may be enough for key exchange), it works best for short ranges and it requires authentication to make it work. I can envision some specialized circumstances where this might be useful, but they’re few and far between.

But quantum key distributions have the same problems. Basically, if Kish’s scheme is secure, it’s superior to quantum communications in every respect: price, maintenance, speed, vibration, thermal resistance and so on.

Both this and the quantum solution share another problem, however; they’re solutions looking for a problem. In the realm of security, encryption is the one thing we already do pretty well. Focusing on encryption is like sticking a tall stake in the ground and hoping the enemy runs right into it, instead of building a wide wall.

Arguing about whether this kind of thing is more secure than AES—the United States’ national encryption standard—is like arguing about whether the stake should be a mile tall or a mile and a half tall. However tall it is, the enemy is going to go around the stake.

Software security, network security, operating system security, user interface—these are the hard security problems. Replacing AES with this kind of thing won’t make anything more secure, because all the other parts of the security system are so much worse.

This is not to belittle the research. I think information-theoretic security is important, regardless of practicality. And I’m thrilled that an easy-to-build classical system can work as well as a sexy, media-hyped quantum cryptosystem. But don’t throw away your crypto software yet.

Here’s the press release, here’s the paper, and here’s the Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/31): Here’s an interesting rebuttal.

Posted on December 15, 2005 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Benevolent Worms

Yet another story about benevolent worms and how they can secure our networks. This idea shows up every few years. (I wrote about it in 2000, and again in 2003. This quote (emphasis mine) from the article shows what the problem is:

Simulations show that the larger the network grows, the more efficient this scheme should be. For example, if a network has 50,000 nodes (computers), and just 0.4% of those are honeypots, just 5% of the network will be infected before the immune system halts the virus, assuming the fix works properly. But, a 200-million-node network ­ with the same proportion of honeypots ­ should see just 0.001% of machines get infected.

This is from my 2003 essay:

A worm is not “bad” or “good” depending on its payload. Viral propagation mechanisms are inherently bad, and giving them beneficial payloads doesn’t make things better. A worm is no tool for any rational network administrator, regardless of intent.

A good software distribution mechanism has the following characteristics:

  1. People can choose the options they want.
  2. Installation is adapted to the host it’s running on.
  3. It’s easy to stop an installation in progress, or uninstall the software.
  4. It’s easy to know what has been installed where.

A successful worm, on the other hand, runs without the consent of the user. It has a small amount of code, and once it starts to spread, it is self-propagating, and will keep going automatically until it’s halted.

These characteristics are simply incompatible. Giving the user more choice, making installation flexible and universal, allowing for uninstallation—all of these make worms harder to propagate. Designing a better software distribution mechanism, makes it a worse worm, and vice versa. On the other hand, making the worm quieter and less obvious to the user, making it smaller and easier to propagate, and making it impossible to contain, all make for bad software distribution.

All of this makes worms easy to get wrong and hard to recover from. Experimentation, most of it involuntary, proves that worms are very hard to debug successfully: in other words, once worms starts spreading it’s hard to predict exactly what they will do. Some viruses were written to propagate harmlessly, but did damage—ranging from crashed machines to clogged networks—because of bugs in their code. Many worms were written to do damage and turned out to be harmless (which is even more revealing).

Intentional experimentation by well-meaning system administrators proves that in your average office environment, the code that successfully patches one machine won’t work on another. Indeed, sometimes the results are worse than any threat of external attack. Combining a tricky problem with a distribution mechanism that’s impossible to debug and difficult to control is fraught with danger. Every system administrator who’s ever distributed software automatically on his network has had the “I just automatically, with the press of a button, destroyed the software on hundreds of machines at once!” experience. And that’s with systems you can debug and control; self-propagating systems don’t even let you shut them down when you find the problem. Patching systems is fundamentally a human problem, and beneficial worms are a technical solution that doesn’t work.

Posted on December 5, 2005 at 2:50 PMView Comments

Airplane Security

My seventh Wired.com column is on line. Nothing you haven’t heard before, except for this part:

I know quite a lot about this. I was a member of the government’s Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security. We looked at the TSA’s program for matching airplane passengers with the terrorist watch list, and found a complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear system architecture, inadequate testing. (Our report was on the TSA website, but has recently been removed—”refreshed” is the word the organization used—and replaced with an “executive summary” (.doc) that contains none of the report’s findings. The TSA did retain two (.doc) rebuttals (.doc), which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by saying that we didn’t have access to the requisite information.) Our conclusions match those in two (.pdf) reports (.pdf) by the Government Accountability Office and one (.pdf) by the DHS inspector general.

That’s right; the TSA is disappearing our report.

I also wrote an op ed for the Sydney Morning Herald on “weapons”—like the metal knives distributed with in-flight meals—aboard aircraft, based on this blog post. Again, nothing you haven’t heard before. (And I stole some bits from your comments to the blog posting.)

There is new news, though. The TSA is relaxing the rules for bringing pointy things on aircraft:.

The summary document says the elimination of the ban on metal scissors with a blade of four inches or less and tools of seven inches or less – including screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers – is intended to give airport screeners more time to do new types of random searches.

Passengers are now typically subject to a more intensive, so-called secondary search only if their names match a listing of suspected terrorists or because of anomalies like a last-minute ticket purchase or a one-way trip with no baggage.

The new strategy, which has been tested in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Orange County, Calif., will mean that a certain number of passengers, even if they are not identified by these computerized checks, will be pulled aside and subject to an added search lasting about two minutes. Officials said passengers would be selected randomly, without regard to ethnicity or nationality.

What happens next will vary. One day at a certain airport, carry-on bags might be physically searched. On the same day at a different airport, those subject to the random search might have their shoes screened for explosives or be checked with a hand-held metal detector. “By design, a traveler will not experience the same search every time he or she flies,” the summary said. “The searches will add an element of unpredictability to the screening process that will be easy for passengers to navigate but difficult for terrorists to manipulate.”

The new policy will also change the way pat-down searches are done to check for explosive devices. Screeners will now search the upper and lower torso, the entire arm and legs from the mid-thigh down to the ankle and the back and abdomen, significantly expanding the area checked.

Currently, only the upper torso is checked. Under the revised policy, screeners will still have the option of skipping pat-downs in certain areas “if it is clear there is no threat,” like when a person is wearing tight clothing making it obvious that there is nothing hidden. But the default position will be to do the more comprehensive search, in part because of fear that a passenger could be carrying plastic explosives that might not set off a handheld metal detector.

I don’t know if they will still make people take laptops out of their cases, make people take off their shoes, or confiscate pocket knives. (Different articles have said different things about the last one.)

This is a good change, and it’s long overdue. Airplane terrorism hasn’t been the movie-plot threat that everyone worries about for a while.

The most amazing reaction to this is from Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants:

When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safety but the aisles will be running with blood.

How’s that for hyperbole?

In Beyond Fear and elsewhere, I’ve written about the notion of “agenda” and how it informs security trade-offs. From the perspective of the flight attendants, subjecting passengers to onerous screening requirements is a perfectly reasonable trade-off. They’re safer—albeit only slightly—because of it, and it doesn’t cost them anything. The cost is an externality to them: the passengers pay it. Passengers have a broader agenda: safety, but also cost, convenience, time, etc. So it makes perfect sense that the flight attendants object to a security change that the passengers are in favor of.

EDITED TO ADD (12/2): The SFWG report hasn’t been removed from the TSA website, just unlinked.

EDITED TO ADD (12/20): The report seems to be gone from the TSA website now, but it’s available here.

Posted on December 1, 2005 at 10:14 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.