Entries Tagged "essays"

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Warrant Protections against Police Searches of Our Data

The cell phones we carry with us constantly are the most perfect surveillance device ever invented, and our laws haven’t caught up to that reality. That might change soon.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear a case with profound implications for your security and privacy in the coming years. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unlawful search and seizure is a vital right that protects us all from police overreach, and the way the courts interpret it is increasingly nonsensical in our computerized and networked world. The Supreme Court can either update current law to reflect the world, or it can further solidify an unnecessary and dangerous police power.

The case centers on cell phone location data and whether the police need a warrant to get it, or if they can use a simple subpoena, which is easier to obtain. Current Fourth Amendment doctrine holds that you lose all privacy protections over any data you willingly share with a third party. Your cellular provider, under this interpretation, is a third party with whom you’ve willingly shared your movements, 24 hours a day, going back months—even though you don’t really have any choice about whether to share with them. So police can request records of where you’ve been from cell carriers without any judicial oversight. The case before the court, Carpenter v. United States, could change that.

Traditionally, information that was most precious to us was physically close to us. It was on our bodies, in our homes and offices, in our cars. Because of that, the courts gave that information extra protections. Information that we stored far away from us, or gave to other people, afforded fewer protections. Police searches have been governed by the “third-party doctrine,” which explicitly says that information we share with others is not considered private.

The Internet has turned that thinking upside-down. Our cell phones know who we talk to and, if we’re talking via text or e-mail, what we say. They track our location constantly, so they know where we live and work. Because they’re the first and last thing we check every day, they know when we go to sleep and when we wake up. Because everyone has one, they know whom we sleep with. And because of how those phones work, all that information is naturally shared with third parties.

More generally, all our data is literally stored on computers belonging to other people. It’s our e-mail, text messages, photos, Google docs, and more ­ all in the cloud. We store it there not because it’s unimportant, but precisely because it is important. And as the Internet of Things computerizes the rest our lives, even more data will be collected by other people: data from our health trackers and medical devices, data from our home sensors and appliances, data from Internet-connected “listeners” like Alexa, Siri, and your voice-activated television.

All this data will be collected and saved by third parties, sometimes for years. The result is a detailed dossier of your activities more complete than any private investigator—­ or police officer—­ could possibly collect by following you around.

The issue here is not whether the police should be allowed to use that data to help solve crimes. Of course they should. The issue is whether that information should be protected by the warrant process that requires the police to have probable cause to investigate you and get approval by a court.

Warrants are a security mechanism. They prevent the police from abusing their authority to investigate someone they have no reason to suspect of a crime. They prevent the police from going on “fishing expeditions.” They protect our rights and liberties, even as we willingly give up our privacy to the legitimate needs of law enforcement.

The third-party doctrine never made a lot of sense. Just because I share an intimate secret with my spouse, friend, or doctor doesn’t mean that I no longer consider it private. It makes even less sense in today’s hyper-connected world. It’s long past time the Supreme Court recognized that a months-long history of my movements is private, and my e-mails and other personal data deserve the same protections, whether they’re on my laptop or on Google’s servers.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Details on the case. Two opinion pieces.

I signed on to two amicus briefs on the case.

EDITED TO ADD (12/1): Good commentary on the Supreme Court oral arguments.

Posted on November 29, 2017 at 7:33 AMView Comments

Me on the Equifax Breach

Testimony and Statement for the Record of Bruce Schneier
Fellow and Lecturer, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School

Hearing on “Securing Consumers’ Credit Data in the Age of Digital Commerce”

Before the

Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection
Committee on Energy and Commerce
United States House of Representatives

1 November 2017
2125 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Mister Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today concerning the security of credit data. My name is Bruce Schneier, and I am a security technologist. For over 30 years I have studied the technologies of security and privacy. I have authored 13 books on these subjects, including Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (Norton, 2015). My popular newsletter CryptoGram and my blog Schneier on Security are read by over 250,000 people.

Additionally, I am a Fellow and Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government—where I teach Internet security policy—and a Fellow at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. I am a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AccessNow, and the Tor Project; and an advisory board member of Electronic Privacy Information Center and VerifiedVoting.org. I am also a special advisor to IBM Security and the Chief Technology Officer of IBM Resilient.

I am here representing none of those organizations, and speak only for myself based on my own expertise and experience.

I have eleven main points:

1. The Equifax breach was a serious security breach that puts millions of Americans at risk.

Equifax reported that 145.5 million US customers, about 44% of the population, were impacted by the breach. (That’s the original 143 million plus the additional 2.5 million disclosed a month later.) The attackers got access to full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers.

This is exactly the sort of information criminals can use to impersonate victims to banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, cell phone companies and other businesses vulnerable to fraud. As a result, all 143 million US victims are at greater risk of identity theft, and will remain at risk for years to come. And those who suffer identify theft will have problems for months, if not years, as they work to clean up their name and credit rating.

2. Equifax was solely at fault.

This was not a sophisticated attack. The security breach was a result of a vulnerability in the software for their websites: a program called Apache Struts. The particular vulnerability was fixed by Apache in a security patch that was made available on March 6, 2017. This was not a minor vulnerability; the computer press at the time called it “critical.” Within days, it was being used by attackers to break into web servers. Equifax was notified by Apache, US CERT, and the Department of Homeland Security about the vulnerability, and was provided instructions to make the fix.

Two months later, Equifax had still failed to patch its systems. It eventually got around to it on July 29. The attackers used the vulnerability to access the company’s databases and steal consumer information on May 13, over two months after Equifax should have patched the vulnerability.

The company’s incident response after the breach was similarly damaging. It waited nearly six weeks before informing victims that their personal information had been stolen and they were at increased risk of identity theft. Equifax opened a website to help aid customers, but the poor security around that—the site was at a domain separate from the Equifax domain—invited fraudulent imitators and even more damage to victims. At one point, the official Equifax communications even directed people to that fraudulent site.

This is not the first time Equifax failed to take computer security seriously. It confessed to another data leak in January 2017. In May 2016, one of its websites was hacked, resulting in 430,000 people having their personal information stolen. Also in 2016, a security researcher found and reported a basic security vulnerability in its main website. And in 2014, the company reported yet another security breach of consumer information. There are more.

3. There are thousands of data brokers with similarly intimate information, similarly at risk.

Equifax is more than a credit reporting agency. It’s a data broker. It collects information about all of us, analyzes it all, and then sells those insights. It might be one of the biggest, but there are 2,500 to 4,000 other data brokers that are collecting, storing, and selling information about us—almost all of them companies you’ve never heard of and have no business relationship with.

The breadth and depth of information that data brokers have is astonishing. Data brokers collect and store billions of data elements covering nearly every US consumer. Just one of the data brokers studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data elements, and another adds more than 3 billion new data points to its database each month.

These brokers collect demographic information: names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, gender, age, marital status, presence and ages of children in household, education level, profession, income level, political affiliation, cars driven, and information about homes and other property. They collect lists of things we’ve purchased, when we’ve purchased them, and how we paid for them. They keep track of deaths, divorces, and diseases in our families. They collect everything about what we do on the Internet.

4. These data brokers deliberately hide their actions, and make it difficult for consumers to learn about or control their data.

If there were a dozen people who stood behind us and took notes of everything we purchased, read, searched for, or said, we would be alarmed at the privacy invasion. But because these companies operate in secret, inside our browsers and financial transactions, we don’t see them and we don’t know they’re there.

Regarding Equifax, few consumers have any idea what the company knows about them, who they sell personal data to or why. If anyone knows about them at all, it’s about their business as a credit bureau, not their business as a data broker. Their website lists 57 different offerings for business: products for industries like automotive, education, health care, insurance, and restaurants.

In general, options to “opt-out” don’t work with data brokers. It’s a confusing process, and doesn’t result in your data being deleted. Data brokers will still collect data about consumers who opt out. It will still be in those companies’ databases, and will still be vulnerable. It just won’t be included individually when they sell data to their customers.

5. The existing regulatory structure is inadequate.

Right now, there is no way for consumers to protect themselves. Their data has been harvested and analyzed by these companies without their knowledge or consent. They cannot improve the security of their personal data, and have no control over how vulnerable it is. They only learn about data breaches when the companies announce them—which can be months after the breaches occur—and at that point the onus is on them to obtain credit monitoring services or credit freezes. And even those only protect consumers from some of the harms, and only those suffered after Equifax admitted to the breach.

Right now, the press is reporting “dozens” of lawsuits against Equifax from shareholders, consumers, and banks. Massachusetts has sued Equifax for violating state consumer protection and privacy laws. Other states may follow suit.

If any of these plaintiffs win in the court, it will be a rare victory for victims of privacy breaches against the companies that have our personal information. Current law is too narrowly focused on people who have suffered financial losses directly traceable to a specific breach. Proving this is difficult. If you are the victim of identity theft in the next month, is it because of Equifax or does the blame belong to another of the thousands of companies who have your personal data? As long as one can’t prove it one way or the other, data brokers remain blameless and liability free.

Additionally, much of this market in our personal data falls outside the protections of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. And in order for the Federal Trade Commission to levy a fine against Equifax, it needs to have a consent order and then a subsequent violation. Any fines will be limited to credit information, which is a small portion of the enormous amount of information these companies know about us. In reality, this is not an effective enforcement regime.

Although the FTC is investigating Equifax, it is unclear if it has a viable case.

6. The market cannot fix this because we are not the customers of data brokers.

The customers of these companies are people and organizations who want to buy information: banks looking to lend you money, landlords deciding whether to rent you an apartment, employers deciding whether to hire you, companies trying to figure out whether you’d be a profitable customer—everyone who wants to sell you something, even governments.

Markets work because buyers choose from a choice of sellers, and sellers compete for buyers. None of us are Equifax’s customers. None of us are the customers of any of these data brokers. We can’t refuse to do business with the companies. We can’t remove our data from their databases. With few limited exceptions, we can’t even see what data these companies have about us or correct any mistakes.

We are the product that these companies sell to their customers: those who want to use our personal information to understand us, categorize us, make decisions about us, and persuade us.

Worse, the financial markets reward bad security. Given the choice between increasing their cybersecurity budget by 5%, or saving that money and taking the chance, a rational CEO chooses to save the money. Wall Street rewards those whose balance sheets look good, not those who are secure. And if senior management gets unlucky and the a public breach happens, they end up okay. Equifax’s CEO didn’t get his $5.2 million severance pay, but he did keep his $18.4 million pension. Any company that spends more on security than absolutely necessary is immediately penalized by shareholders when its profits decrease.

Even the negative PR that Equifax is currently suffering will fade. Unless we expect data brokers to put public interest ahead of profits, the security of this industry will never improve without government regulation.

7. We need effective regulation of data brokers.

In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that Congress require data brokers be more transparent and give consumers more control over their personal information. That report contains good suggestions on how to regulate this industry.

First, Congress should help plaintiffs in data breach cases by authorizing and funding empirical research on the harm individuals receive from these breaches.

Specifically, Congress should move forward legislative proposals that establish a nationwide “credit freeze”—which is better described as changing the default for disclosure from opt-out to opt-in—and free lifetime credit monitoring services. By this I do not mean giving customers free credit-freeze options, a proposal by Senators Warren and Schatz, but that the default should be a credit freeze.

The credit card industry routinely notifies consumers when there are suspicious charges. It is obvious that credit reporting agencies should have a similar obligation to notify consumers when there is suspicious activity concerning their credit report.

On the technology side, more could be done to limit the amount of personal data companies are allowed to collect. Increasingly, privacy safeguards impose “data minimization” requirements to ensure that only the data that is actually needed is collected. On the other hand, Congress should not create a new national identifier to replace the Social Security Numbers. That would make the system of identification even more brittle. Better is to reduce dependence on systems of identification and to create contextual identification where necessary.

Finally, Congress needs to give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to set minimum security standards for data brokers and to give consumers more control over their personal information. This is essential as long as consumers are these companies’ products and not their customers.

8. Resist complaints from the industry that this is “too hard.”

The credit bureaus and data brokers, and their lobbyists and trade-association representatives, will claim that many of these measures are too hard. They’re not telling you the truth.

Take one example: credit freezes. This is an effective security measure that protects consumers, but the process of getting one and of temporarily unfreezing credit is made deliberately onerous by the credit bureaus. Why isn’t there a smartphone app that alerts me when someone wants to access my credit rating, and lets me freeze and unfreeze my credit at the touch of the screen? Too hard? Today, you can have an app on your phone that does something similar if you try to log into a computer network, or if someone tries to use your credit card at a physical location different from where you are.

Moreover, any credit bureau or data broker operating in Europe is already obligated to follow the more rigorous EU privacy laws. The EU General Data Protection Regulation will come into force, requiring even more security and privacy controls for companies collecting storing the personal data of EU citizens. Those companies have already demonstrated that they can comply with those more stringent regulations.

Credit bureaus, and data brokers in general, are deliberately not implementing these 21st-century security solutions, because they want their services to be as easy and useful as possible for their actual customers: those who are buying your information. Similarly, companies that use this personal information to open accounts are not implementing more stringent security because they want their services to be as easy-to-use and convenient as possible.

9. This has foreign trade implications.

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported that 100,000 Canadians had their data stolen in the Equifax breach. The British Broadcasting Corporation originally reported that 400,000 UK consumers were affected; Equifax has since revised that to 15.2 million.

Many American Internet companies have significant numbers of European users and customers, and rely on negotiated safe harbor agreements to legally collect and store personal data of EU citizens.

The European Union is in the middle of a massive regulatory shift in its privacy laws, and those agreements are coming under renewed scrutiny. Breaches such as Equifax give these European regulators a powerful argument that US privacy regulations are inadequate to protect their citizens’ data, and that they should require that data to remain in Europe. This could significantly harm American Internet companies.

10. This has national security implications.

Although it is still unknown who compromised the Equifax database, it could easily have been a foreign adversary that routinely attacks the servers of US companies and US federal agencies with the goal of exploiting security vulnerabilities and obtaining personal data.

When the Fair Credit Reporting Act was passed in 1970, the concern was that the credit bureaus might misuse our data. That is still a concern, but the world has changed since then. Credit bureaus and data brokers have far more intimate data about all of us. And it is valuable not only to companies wanting to advertise to us, but foreign governments as well. In 2015, the Chinese breached the database of the Office of Personal Management and stole the detailed security clearance information of 21 million Americans. North Korea routinely engages in cybercrime as way to fund its other activities. In a world where foreign governments use cyber capabilities to attack US assets, requiring data brokers to limit collection of personal data, securely store the data they collect, and delete data about consumers when it is no longer needed is a matter of national security.

11. We need to do something about it.

Yes, this breach is a huge black eye and a temporary stock dip for Equifax—this month. Soon, another company will have suffered a massive data breach and few will remember Equifax’s problem. Does anyone remember last year when Yahoo admitted that it exposed personal information of a billion users in 2013 and another half billion in 2014?

Unless Congress acts to protect consumer information in the digital age, these breaches will continue.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will be pleased to answer your questions.

Posted on November 8, 2017 at 6:33 AMView Comments

IoT Cybersecurity: What's Plan B?

In August, four US Senators introduced a bill designed to improve Internet of Things (IoT) security. The IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017 is a modest piece of legislation. It doesn’t regulate the IoT market. It doesn’t single out any industries for particular attention, or force any companies to do anything. It doesn’t even modify the liability laws for embedded software. Companies can continue to sell IoT devices with whatever lousy security they want.

What the bill does do is leverage the government’s buying power to nudge the market: any IoT product that the government buys must meet minimum security standards. It requires vendors to ensure that devices can not only be patched, but are patched in an authenticated and timely manner; don’t have unchangeable default passwords; and are free from known vulnerabilities. It’s about as low a security bar as you can set, and that it will considerably improve security speaks volumes about the current state of IoT security. (Full disclosure: I helped draft some of the bill’s security requirements.)

The bill would also modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse and the Digital Millennium Copyright Acts to allow security researchers to study the security of IoT devices purchased by the government. It’s a far narrower exemption than our industry needs. But it’s a good first step, which is probably the best thing you can say about this legislation.

However, it’s unlikely this first step will even be taken. I am writing this column in August, and have no doubt that the bill will have gone nowhere by the time you read it in October or later. If hearings are held, they won’t matter. The bill won’t have been voted on by any committee, and it won’t be on any legislative calendar. The odds of this bill becoming law are zero. And that’s not just because of current politics—I’d be equally pessimistic under the Obama administration.

But the situation is critical. The Internet is dangerous—and the IoT gives it not just eyes and ears, but also hands and feet. Security vulnerabilities, exploits, and attacks that once affected only bits and bytes now affect flesh and blood.

Markets, as we’ve repeatedly learned over the past century, are terrible mechanisms for improving the safety of products and services. It was true for automobile, food, restaurant, airplane, fire, and financial-instrument safety. The reasons are complicated, but basically, sellers don’t compete on safety features because buyers can’t efficiently differentiate products based on safety considerations. The race-to-the-bottom mechanism that markets use to minimize prices also minimizes quality. Without government intervention, the IoT remains dangerously insecure.

The US government has no appetite for intervention, so we won’t see serious safety and security regulations, a new federal agency, or better liability laws. We might have a better chance in the EU. Depending on how the General Data Protection Regulation on data privacy pans out, the EU might pass a similar security law in 5 years. No other country has a large enough market share to make a difference.

Sometimes we can opt out of the IoT, but that option is becoming increasingly rare. Last year, I tried and failed to purchase a new car without an Internet connection. In a few years, it’s going to be nearly impossible to not be multiply connected to the IoT. And our biggest IoT security risks will stem not from devices we have a market relationship with, but from everyone else’s cars, cameras, routers, drones, and so on.

We can try to shop our ideals and demand more security, but companies don’t compete on IoT safety—and we security experts aren’t a large enough market force to make a difference.

We need a Plan B, although I’m not sure what that is. Comment if you have any ideas.

This essay previously appeared in the September/October issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

Posted on October 18, 2017 at 9:58 AMView Comments

On the Equifax Data Breach

Last Thursday, Equifax reported a data breach that affects 143 million US customers, about 44% of the population. It’s an extremely serious breach; hackers got access to full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, driver’s license numbers—exactly the sort of information criminals can use to impersonate victims to banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, and other businesses vulnerable to fraud.

Many sites posted guides to protecting yourself now that it’s happened. But if you want to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, your only solution is government regulation (as unlikely as that may be at the moment).

The market can’t fix this. Markets work because buyers choose between sellers, and sellers compete for buyers. In case you didn’t notice, you’re not Equifax’s customer. You’re its product.

This happened because your personal information is valuable, and Equifax is in the business of selling it. The company is much more than a credit reporting agency. It’s a data broker. It collects information about all of us, analyzes it all, and then sells those insights.

Its customers are people and organizations who want to buy information: banks looking to lend you money, landlords deciding whether to rent you an apartment, employers deciding whether to hire you, companies trying to figure out whether you’d be a profitable customer—everyone who wants to sell you something, even governments.

It’s not just Equifax. It might be one of the biggest, but there are 2,500 to 4,000 other data brokers that are collecting, storing, and selling information about you—almost all of them companies you’ve never heard of and have no business relationship with.

Surveillance capitalism fuels the Internet, and sometimes it seems that everyone is spying on you. You’re secretly tracked on pretty much every commercial website you visit. Facebook is the largest surveillance organization mankind has created; collecting data on you is its business model. I don’t have a Facebook account, but Facebook still keeps a surprisingly complete dossier on me and my associations—just in case I ever decide to join.

I also don’t have a Gmail account, because I don’t want Google storing my e-mail. But my guess is that it has about half of my e-mail anyway, because so many people I correspond with have accounts. I can’t even avoid it by choosing not to write to gmail.com addresses, because I have no way of knowing if newperson@company.com is hosted at Gmail.

And again, many companies that track us do so in secret, without our knowledge and consent. And most of the time we can’t opt out. Sometimes it’s a company like Equifax that doesn’t answer to us in any way. Sometimes it’s a company like Facebook, which is effectively a monopoly because of its sheer size. And sometimes it’s our cell phone provider. All of them have decided to track us and not compete by offering consumers privacy. Sure, you can tell people not to have an e-mail account or cell phone, but that’s not a realistic option for most people living in 21st-century America.

The companies that collect and sell our data don’t need to keep it secure in order to maintain their market share. They don’t have to answer to us, their products. They know it’s more profitable to save money on security and weather the occasional bout of bad press after a data loss. Yes, we are the ones who suffer when criminals get our data, or when our private information is exposed to the public, but ultimately why should Equifax care?

Yes, it’s a huge black eye for the company—this week. Soon, another company will have suffered a massive data breach and few will remember Equifax’s problem. Does anyone remember last year when Yahoo admitted that it exposed personal information of a billion users in 2013 and another half billion in 2014?

This market failure isn’t unique to data security. There is little improvement in safety and security in any industry until government steps in. Think of food, pharmaceuticals, cars, airplanes, restaurants, workplace conditions, and flame-retardant pajamas.

Market failures like this can only be solved through government intervention. By regulating the security practices of companies that store our data, and fining companies that fail to comply, governments can raise the cost of insecurity high enough that security becomes a cheaper alternative. They can do the same thing by giving individuals affected by these breaches the ability to sue successfully, citing the exposure of personal data itself as a harm.

By all means, take the recommended steps to protect yourself from identity theft in the wake of Equifax’s data breach, but recognize that these steps are only effective on the margins, and that most data security is out of your hands. Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission will get involved, but without evidence of “unfair and deceptive trade practices,” there’s nothing it can do. Perhaps there will be a class-action lawsuit, but because it’s hard to draw a line between any of the many data breaches you’re subjected to and a specific harm, courts are not likely to side with you.

If you don’t like how careless Equifax was with your data, don’t waste your breath complaining to Equifax. Complain to your government.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: In the early hours of this breach, I did a radio interview where I minimized the ramifications of this. I didn’t know the full extent of the breach, and thought it was just another in an endless string of breaches. I wondered why the press was covering this one and not many of the others. I don’t remember which radio show interviewed me. I kind of hope it didn’t air.

Posted on September 13, 2017 at 12:49 PMView Comments

Book Review: Twitter and Tear Gas, by Zeynep Tufekci

There are two opposing models of how the Internet has changed protest movements. The first is that the Internet has made protesters mightier than ever. This comes from the successful revolutions in Tunisia (2010-11), Egypt (2011), and Ukraine (2013). The second is that it has made them more ineffectual. Derided as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” the ease of action without commitment can result in movements like Occupy petering out in the US without any obvious effects. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, and Zeynep Tufekci teases that out in her new book Twitter and Tear Gas.

Tufekci is a rare interdisciplinary figure. As a sociologist, programmer, and ethnographer, she studies how technology shapes society and drives social change. She has a dual appointment in both the School of Information Science and the Department of Sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Her regular New York Times column on the social impacts of technology is a must-read.

Modern Internet-fueled protest movements are the subjects of Twitter and Tear Gas. As an observer, writer, and participant, Tufekci examines how modern protest movements have been changed by the Internet­—and what that means for protests going forward. Her book combines her own ethnographic research and her usual deft analysis, with the research of others and some big data analysis from social media outlets. The result is a book that is both insightful and entertaining, and whose lessons are much broader than the book’s central topic.

“The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” is the book’s subtitle. The power of the Internet as a tool for protest is obvious: it gives people newfound abilities to quickly organize and scale. But, according to Tufekci, it’s a mistake to judge modern protests using the same criteria we used to judge pre-Internet protests. The 1963 March on Washington might have culminated in hundreds of thousands of people listening to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was the culmination of a multi-year protest effort and the result of six months of careful planning made possible by that sustained effort. The 2011 protests in Cairo came together in mere days because they could be loosely coordinated on Facebook and Twitter.

That’s the power. Tufekci describes the fragility by analogy. Nepalese Sherpas assist Mt. Everest climbers by carrying supplies, laying out ropes and ladders, and so on. This means that people with limited training and experience can make the ascent, which is no less dangerous—to sometimes disastrous results. Says Tufekci: “The Internet similarly allows networked movements to grow dramatically and rapidly, but without prior building of formal or informal organizational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next.” That makes them less able to respond to government counters, change their tactics­—a phenomenon Tufekci calls “tactical freeze”—make movement-wide decisions, and survive over the long haul.

Tufekci isn’t arguing that modern protests are necessarily less effective, but that they’re different. Effective movements need to understand these differences, and leverage these new advantages while minimizing the disadvantages.

To that end, she develops a taxonomy for talking about social movements. Protests are an example of a “signal” that corresponds to one of several underlying “capacities.” There’s narrative capacity: the ability to change the conversation, as Black Lives Matter did with police violence and Occupy did with wealth inequality. There’s disruptive capacity: the ability to stop business as usual. An early Internet example is the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. And finally, there’s electoral or institutional capacity: the ability to vote, lobby, fund raise, and so on. Because of various “affordances” of modern Internet technologies, particularly social media, the same signal—a protest of a given size—reflects different underlying capacities.

This taxonomy also informs government reactions to protest movements. Smart responses target attention as a resource. The Chinese government responded to 2015 protesters in Hong Kong by not engaging with them at all, denying them camera-phone videos that would go viral and attract the world’s attention. Instead, they pulled their police back and waited for the movement to die from lack of attention.

If this all sounds dry and academic, it’s not. Twitter and Tear Gasis infused with a richness of detail stemming from her personal participation in the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, as well as personal on-the-ground interviews with protesters throughout the Middle East—particularly Egypt and her native Turkey—Zapatistas in Mexico, WTO protesters in Seattle, Occupy participants worldwide, and others. Tufekci writes with a warmth and respect for the humans that are part of these powerful social movements, gently intertwining her own story with the stories of others, big data, and theory. She is adept at writing for a general audience, and­despite being published by the intimidating Yale University Press—her book is more mass-market than academic. What rigor is there is presented in a way that carries readers along rather than distracting.

The synthesist in me wishes Tufekci would take some additional steps, taking the trends she describes outside of the narrow world of political protest and applying them more broadly to social change. Her taxonomy is an important contribution to the more-general discussion of how the Internet affects society. Furthermore, her insights on the networked public sphere has applications for understanding technology-driven social change in general. These are hard conversations for society to have. We largely prefer to allow technology to blindly steer society or—in some ways worse—leave it to unfettered for-profit corporations. When you’re reading Twitter and Tear Gas, keep current and near-term future technological issues such as ubiquitous surveillance, algorithmic discrimination, and automation and employment in mind. You’ll come away with new insights.

Tufekci twice quotes historian Melvin Kranzberg from 1985: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” This foreshadows her central message. For better or worse, the technologies that power the networked public sphere have changed the nature of political protest as well as government reactions to and suppressions of such protest.

I have long characterized our technological future as a battle between the quick and the strong. The quick—dissidents, hackers, criminals, marginalized groups—are the first to make use of a new technology to magnify their power. The strong are slower, but have more raw power to magnify. So while protesters are the first to use Facebook to organize, the governments eventually figure out how to use Facebook to track protesters. It’s still an open question who will gain the upper hand in the long term, but Tufekci’s book helps us understand the dynamics at work.

This essay originally appeared on Vice Motherboard.

The book on Amazon.com.

Posted on July 14, 2017 at 12:06 PMView Comments

NSA Document Outlining Russian Attempts to Hack Voter Rolls

This week brought new public evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Monday, the Intercept published a top-secret National Security Agency document describing Russian hacking attempts against the US election system. While the attacks seem more exploratory than operational ­—and there’s no evidence that they had any actual effect ­—they further illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.

The document describes how the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, attacked a company called VR Systems that, according to its website, provides software to manage voter rolls in eight states. The August 2016 attack was successful, and the attackers used the information they stole from the company’s network to launch targeted attacks against 122 local election officials on October 27, 12 days before the election.

That is where the NSA’s analysis ends. We don’t know whether those 122 targeted attacks were successful, or what their effects were if so. We don’t know whether other election software companies besides VR Systems were targeted, or what the GRU’s overall plan was—if it had one. Certainly, there are ways to disrupt voting by interfering with the voter registration process or voter rolls. But there was no indication on Election Day that people found their names removed from the system, or their address changed, or anything else that would have had an effect—anywhere in the country, let alone in the eight states where VR Systems is deployed. (There were Election Day problems with the voting rolls in Durham, NC ­—one of the states that VR Systems supports ­—but they seem like conventional errors and not malicious action.)

And 12 days before the election (with early voting already well underway in many jurisdictions) seems far too late to start an operation like that. That is why these attacks feel exploratory to me, rather than part of an operational attack. The Russians were seeing how far they could get, and keeping those accesses in their pocket for potential future use.

Presumably, this document was intended for the Justice Department, including the FBI, which would be the proper agency to continue looking into these hacks. We don’t know what happened next, if anything. VR Systems isn’t commenting, and the names of the local election officials targeted did not appear in the NSA document.

So while this document isn’t much of a smoking gun, it’s yet more evidence of widespread Russian attempts to interfere last year.

The document was, allegedly, sent to the Intercept anonymously. An NSA contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, was arrested Saturday and charged with mishandling classified information. The speed with which the government identified her serves as a caution to anyone wanting to leak official US secrets.

The Intercept sent a scan of the document to another source during its reporting. That scan showed a crease in the original document, which implied that someone had printed the document and then carried it out of some secure location. The second source, according to the FBI’s affidavit against Winner, passed it on to the NSA. From there, NSA investigators were able to look at their records and determine that only six people had printed out the document. (The government may also have been able to track the printout through secret dots that identified the printer.) Winner was the only one of those six who had been in e-mail contact with the Intercept. It is unclear whether the e-mail evidence was from Winner’s NSA account or her personal account, but in either case, it’s incredibly sloppy tradecraft.

With President Trump’s election, the issue of Russian interference in last year’s campaign has become highly politicized. Reports like the one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January have been criticized by partisan supporters of the White House. It’s interesting that this document was reported by the Intercept, which has been historically skeptical about claims of Russian interference. (I was quoted in their story, and they showed me a copy of the NSA document before it was published.) The leaker was even praised by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who up until now has been traditionally critical of allegations of Russian election interference.

This demonstrates the power of source documents. It’s easy to discount a Justice Department official or a summary report. A detailed NSA document is much more convincing. Right now, there’s a federal suit to force the ODNI to release the entire January report, not just the unclassified summary. These efforts are vital.

This hack will certainly come up at the Senate hearing where former FBI director James B. Comey is scheduled to testify Thursday. Last year, there were several stories about voter databases being targeted by Russia. Last August, the FBI confirmed that the Russians successfully hacked voter databases in Illinois and Arizona. And a month later, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official said that the Russians targeted voter databases in 20 states. Again, we don’t know of anything that came of these hacks, but expect Comey to be asked about them. Unfortunately, any details he does know are almost certainly classified, and won’t be revealed in open testimony.

But more important than any of this, we need to better secure our election systems going forward. We have significant vulnerabilities in our voting machines, our voter rolls and registration process, and the vote tabulation systems after the polls close. In January, DHS designated our voting systems as critical national infrastructure, but so far that has been entirely for show. In the United States, we don’t have a single integrated election. We have 50-plus individual elections, each with its own rules and its own regulatory authorities. Federal standards that mandate voter-verified paper ballots and post-election auditing would go a long way to secure our voting system. These attacks demonstrate that we need to secure the voter rolls, as well.

Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­—by extension ­—our democracy. Yes, fixing this will be expensive. Yes, it will require federal action in what’s historically been state-run systems. But as a country, we have no other option.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 10:24 AMView Comments

WannaCry and Vulnerabilities

There is plenty of blame to go around for the WannaCry ransomware that spread throughout the Internet earlier this month, disrupting work at hospitals, factories, businesses, and universities. First, there are the writers of the malicious software, which blocks victims’ access to their computers until they pay a fee. Then there are the users who didn’t install the Windows security patch that would have prevented an attack. A small portion of the blame falls on Microsoft, which wrote the insecure code in the first place. One could certainly condemn the Shadow Brokers, a group of hackers with links to Russia who stole and published the National Security Agency attack tools that included the exploit code used in the ransomware. But before all of this, there was the NSA, which found the vulnerability years ago and decided to exploit it rather than disclose it.

All software contains bugs or errors in the code. Some of these bugs have security implications, granting an attacker unauthorized access to or control of a computer. These vulnerabilities are rampant in the software we all use. A piece of software as large and complex as Microsoft Windows will contain hundreds of them, maybe more. These vulnerabilities have obvious criminal uses that can be neutralized if patched. Modern software is patched all the time—either on a fixed schedule, such as once a month with Microsoft, or whenever required, as with the Chrome browser.

When the US government discovers a vulnerability in a piece of software, however, it decides between two competing equities. It can keep it secret and use it offensively, to gather foreign intelligence, help execute search warrants, or deliver malware. Or it can alert the software vendor and see that the vulnerability is patched, protecting the country—and, for that matter, the world—from similar attacks by foreign governments and cybercriminals. It’s an either-or choice. As former US Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith has said, “Every offensive weapon is a (potential) chink in our defense—and vice versa.”

This is all well-trod ground, and in 2010 the US government put in place an interagency Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) to help balance the trade-off. The details are largely secret, but a 2014 blog post by then President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator, Michael Daniel, laid out the criteria that the government uses to decide when to keep a software flaw undisclosed. The post’s contents were unsurprising, listing questions such as “How much is the vulnerable system used in the core Internet infrastructure, in other critical infrastructure systems, in the US economy, and/or in national security systems?” and “Does the vulnerability, if left unpatched, impose significant risk?” They were balanced by questions like “How badly do we need the intelligence we think we can get from exploiting the vulnerability?” Elsewhere, Daniel has noted that the US government discloses to vendors the “overwhelming majority” of the vulnerabilities that it discovers—91 percent, according to NSA Director Michael S. Rogers.

The particular vulnerability in WannaCry is code-named EternalBlue, and it was discovered by the US government—most likely the NSA—sometime before 2014. The Washington Post reported both how useful the bug was for attack and how much the NSA worried about it being used by others. It was a reasonable concern: many of our national security and critical infrastructure systems contain the vulnerable software, which imposed significant risk if left unpatched. And yet it was left unpatched.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue “for more than five years,” which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It’s not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue—or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August to remain unpatched for years isn’t serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was “unreal.” But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

Perhaps the NSA thought that no one else would discover EternalBlue. That’s another one of Daniel’s criteria: “How likely is it that someone else will discover the vulnerability?” This is often referred to as NOBUS, short for “nobody but us.” Can the NSA discover vulnerabilities that no one else will? Or are vulnerabilities discovered by one intelligence agency likely to be discovered by another, or by cybercriminals?

In the past few months, the tech community has acquired some data about this question. In one study, two colleagues from Harvard and I examined over 4,300 disclosed vulnerabilities in common software and concluded that 15 to 20 percent of them are rediscovered within a year. Separately, researchers at the Rand Corporation looked at a different and much smaller data set and concluded that fewer than six percent of vulnerabilities are rediscovered within a year. The questions the two papers ask are slightly different and the results are not directly comparable (we’ll both be discussing these results in more detail at the Black Hat Conference in July), but clearly, more research is needed.

People inside the NSA are quick to discount these studies, saying that the data don’t reflect their reality. They claim that there are entire classes of vulnerabilities the NSA uses that are not known in the research world, making rediscovery less likely. This may be true, but the evidence we have from the Shadow Brokers is that the vulnerabilities that the NSA keeps secret aren’t consistently different from those that researchers discover. And given the alarming ease with which both the NSA and CIA are having their attack tools stolen, rediscovery isn’t limited to independent security research.

But even if it is difficult to make definitive statements about vulnerability rediscovery, it is clear that vulnerabilities are plentiful. Any vulnerabilities that are discovered and used for offense should only remain secret for as short a time as possible. I have proposed six months, with the right to appeal for another six months in exceptional circumstances. The United States should satisfy its offensive requirements through a steady stream of newly discovered vulnerabilities that, when fixed, also improve the country’s defense.

The VEP needs to be reformed and strengthened as well. A report from last year by Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake, who both previously worked on cybersecurity policy at the White House National Security Council, makes some good suggestions on how to further formalize the process, increase its transparency and oversight, and ensure periodic review of the vulnerabilities that are kept secret and used for offense. This is the least we can do. A bill recently introduced in both the Senate and the House calls for this and more.

In the case of EternalBlue, the VEP did have some positive effects. When the NSA realized that the Shadow Brokers had stolen the tool, it alerted Microsoft, which released a patch in March. This prevented a true disaster when the Shadow Brokers exposed the vulnerability on the Internet. It was only unpatched systems that were susceptible to WannaCry a month later, including versions of Windows so old that Microsoft normally didn’t support them. Although the NSA must take its share of the responsibility, no matter how good the VEP is, or how many vulnerabilities the NSA reports and the vendors fix, security won’t improve unless users download and install patches, and organizations take responsibility for keeping their software and systems up to date. That is one of the important lessons to be learned from WannaCry.

This essay originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

Posted on June 2, 2017 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Who Are the Shadow Brokers?

In 2013, a mysterious group of hackers that calls itself the Shadow Brokers stole a few disks full of NSA secrets. Since last summer, they’ve been dumping these secrets on the Internet. They have publicly embarrassed the NSA and damaged its intelligence-gathering capabilities, while at the same time have put sophisticated cyberweapons in the hands of anyone who wants them. They have exposed major vulnerabilities in Cisco routers, Microsoft Windows, and Linux mail servers, forcing those companies and their customers to scramble. And they gave the authors of the WannaCry ransomware the exploit they needed to infect hundreds of thousands of computer worldwide this month.

After the WannaCry outbreak, the Shadow Brokers threatened to release more NSA secrets every month, giving cybercriminals and other governments worldwide even more exploits and hacking tools.

Who are these guys? And how did they steal this information? The short answer is: we don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses based on the material they’ve published.

The Shadow Brokers suddenly appeared last August, when they published a series of hacking tools and computer exploits­—vulnerabilities in common software—­from the NSA. The material was from autumn 2013, and seems to have been collected from an external NSA staging server, a machine that is owned, leased, or otherwise controlled by the US, but with no connection to the agency. NSA hackers find obscure corners of the Internet to hide the tools they need as they go about their work, and it seems the Shadow Brokers successfully hacked one of those caches.

In total, the group has published four sets of NSA material: a set of exploits and hacking tools against routers, the devices that direct data throughout computer networks; a similar collection against mail servers; another collection against Microsoft Windows; and a working directory of an NSA analyst breaking into the SWIFT banking network. Looking at the time stamps on the files and other material, they all come from around 2013. The Windows attack tools, published last month, might be a year or so older, based on which versions of Windows the tools support.

The releases are so different that they’re almost certainly from multiple sources at the NSA. The SWIFT files seem to come from an internal NSA computer, albeit one connected to the Internet. The Microsoft files seem different, too; they don’t have the same identifying information that the router and mail server files do. The Shadow Brokers have released all the material unredacted, without the care journalists took with the Snowden documents or even the care WikiLeaks has taken with the CIA secrets it’s publishing. They also posted anonymous messages in bad English but with American cultural references.

Given all of this, I don’t think the agent responsible is a whistleblower. While possible, it seems like a whistleblower wouldn’t sit on attack tools for three years before publishing. They would act more like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, collecting for a time and then publishing immediately­—and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom. That’s not what we’re seeing here; it’s simply a bunch of exploit code, which doesn’t have the political or ethical implications that a whistleblower would want to highlight. The SWIFT documents are records of an NSA operation, and the other posted files demonstrate that the NSA is hoarding vulnerabilities for attack rather than helping fix them and improve all of our security.

I also don’t think that it’s random hackers who stumbled on these tools and are just trying to harm the NSA or the US. Again, the three-year wait makes no sense. These documents and tools are cyber-Kryptonite; anyone who is secretly hoarding them is in danger from half the intelligence agencies in the world. Additionally, the publication schedule doesn’t make sense for the leakers to be cybercriminals. Criminals would use the hacking tools for themselves, incorporating the exploits into worms and viruses, and generally profiting from the theft.

That leaves a nation state. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to be both capable of hacking the NSA and willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are capable, but would never publish, because they wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the US. Countries like North Korea or Iran probably aren’t capable. (Additionally, North Korea is suspected of being behind WannaCry, which was written after the Shadow Brokers released that vulnerability to the public.) As I’ve written previously, the obvious list of countries who fit my two criteria is small: Russia, China, and­—I’m out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.

It was generally believed last August, when the first documents were released and before it became politically controversial to say so, that the Russians were behind the leak, and that it was a warning message to President Barack Obama not to retaliate for the Democratic National Committee hacks. Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too. But the problem with the Russia theory is, why? These leaked tools are much more valuable if kept secret. Russia could use the knowledge to detect NSA hacking in its own country and to attack other countries. By publishing the tools, the Shadow Brokers are signaling that they don’t care if the US knows the tools were stolen.

Sure, there’s a chance the attackers knew that the US knew that the attackers knew—­and round and round we go. But the “we don’t give a damn” nature of the releases points to an attacker who isn’t thinking strategically: a lone hacker or hacking group, which clashes with the nation-state theory.

This is all speculation on my part, based on discussion with others who don’t have access to the classified forensic and intelligence analysis. Inside the NSA, they have a lot more information. Many of the files published include operational notes and identifying information. NSA researchers know exactly which servers were compromised, and through that know what other information the attackers would have access to. As with the Snowden documents, though, they only know what the attackers could have taken and not what they did take. But they did alert Microsoft about the Windows vulnerability the Shadow Brokers released months in advance. Did they have eavesdropping capability inside whoever stole the files, as they claimed to when the Russians attacked the State Department? We have no idea.

So, how did the Shadow Brokers do it? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That’s possible, but seems very unlikely for the organization to make that kind of rookie mistake. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA?

If it is a mole, my guess is that the person was arrested before the Shadow Brokers released anything. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what that person delivered while he or she was still in danger. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they’ll never get another one.

That points to two possibilities. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He’s the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can’t be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash, either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it’s theoretically possible. There’s nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, but that’s just the sort of thing that would be left out. It’s not needed for a conviction.

If the source of the documents is Hal Martin, then we can speculate that a random hacker did in fact stumble on it—­no need for nation-state cyberattack skills.

The other option is a mysterious second NSA leaker of cyberattack tools. Could this be the person who stole the NSA documents and passed them on to someone else? The only time I have ever heard about this was from a Washington Post story about Martin:

There was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee [a worker in the Office of Tailored Access Operations], one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said.

Of course, “not thought to have” is not the same as not having done so.

It is interesting that there have been no public arrests of anyone in connection with these hacks. If the NSA knows where the files came from, it knows who had access to them—­and it’s long since questioned everyone involved and should know if someone deliberately or accidentally lost control of them. I know that many people, both inside the government and out, think there is some sort of domestic involvement; things may be more complicated than I realize.

It’s also not over. Last week, the Shadow Brokers were back, with a rambling and taunting message announcing a “Data Dump of the Month” service. They’re offering to sell unreleased NSA attack tools­—something they also tried last August­—with the threat to publish them if no one pays. The group has made good on their previous boasts: In the coming months, we might see new exploits against web browsers, networking equipment, smartphones, and operating systems—Windows in particular. Even scarier, they’re threatening to release raw NSA intercepts: data from the SWIFT network and banks, and “compromised data from Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean nukes and missile programs.”

Whoever the Shadow Brokers are, however they stole these disks full of NSA secrets, and for whatever reason they’re releasing them, it’s going to be a long summer inside of Fort Meade­—as it will be for the rest of us.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic, and is an update of this essay from Lawfare.

Posted on May 30, 2017 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Ransomware and the Internet of Things

As devastating as the latest widespread ransomware attacks have been, it’s a problem with a solution. If your copy of Windows is relatively current and you’ve kept it updated, your laptop is immune. It’s only older unpatched systems on your computer that are vulnerable.

Patching is how the computer industry maintains security in the face of rampant Internet insecurity. Microsoft, Apple and Google have teams of engineers who quickly write, test and distribute these patches, updates to the codes that fix vulnerabilities in software. Most people have set up their computers and phones to automatically apply these patches, and the whole thing works seamlessly. It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s the best we have.

But it is a system that’s going to fail in the “Internet of things”: everyday devices like smart speakers, household appliances, toys, lighting systems, even cars, that are connected to the web. Many of the embedded networked systems in these devices that will pervade our lives don’t have engineering teams on hand to write patches and may well last far longer than the companies that are supposed to keep the software safe from criminals. Some of them don’t even have the ability to be patched.

Fast forward five to 10 years, and the world is going to be filled with literally tens of billions of devices that hackers can attack. We’re going to see ransomware against our cars. Our digital video recorders and web cameras will be taken over by botnets. The data that these devices collect about us will be stolen and used to commit fraud. And we’re not going to be able to secure these devices.

Like every other instance of product safety, this problem will never be solved without considerable government involvement.

For years, I have been calling for more regulation to improve security in the face of this market failure. In the short term, the government can mandate that these devices have more secure default configurations and the ability to be patched. It can issue best-practice regulations for critical software and make software manufacturers liable for vulnerabilities. It’ll be expensive, but it will go a long way toward improved security.

But it won’t be enough to focus only on the devices, because these things are going to be around and on the Internet much longer than the two to three years we use our phones and computers before we upgrade them. I expect to keep my car for 15 years, and my refrigerator for at least 20 years. Cities will expect the networks they’re putting in place to last at least that long. I don’t want to replace my digital thermostat ever again. Nor, if I ever need one, do I want a surgeon to ever have to go back in to replace my computerized heart defibrillator in order to fix a software bug.

No amount of regulation can force companies to maintain old products, and it certainly can’t prevent companies from going out of business. The future will contain billions of orphaned devices connected to the web that simply have no engineers able to patch them.

Imagine this: The company that made your Internet-enabled door lock is long out of business. You have no way to secure yourself against the ransomware attack on that lock. Your only option, other than paying, and paying again when it’s reinfected, is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Ultimately, we will also need the network to block these attacks before they get to the devices, but there again the market will not fix the problem on its own. We need additional government intervention to mandate these sorts of solutions.

None of this is welcome news to a government that prides itself on minimal intervention and maximal market forces, but national security is often an exception to this rule. Last week’s cyberattacks have laid bare some fundamental vulnerabilities in our computer infrastructure and serve as a harbinger. There’s a lot of good research into robust solutions, but the economic incentives are all misaligned. As politically untenable as it is, we need government to step in to create the market forces that will get us out of this mess.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself.

EDITED TO ADD: A good cartoon.

Posted on May 25, 2017 at 6:15 AMView Comments

The Future of Ransomware

Ransomware isn’t new, but it’s increasingly popular and profitable.

The concept is simple: Your computer gets infected with a virus that encrypts your files until you pay a ransom. It’s extortion taken to its networked extreme. The criminals provide step-by-step instructions on how to pay, sometimes even offering a help line for victims unsure how to buy bitcoin. The price is designed to be cheap enough for people to pay instead of giving up: a few hundred dollars in many cases. Those who design these systems know their market, and it’s a profitable one.

The ransomware that has affected systems in more than 150 countries recently, WannaCry, made press headlines last week, but it doesn’t seem to be more virulent or more expensive than other ransomware. This one has a particularly interesting pedigree: It’s based on a vulnerability developed by the National Security Agency that can be used against many versions of the Windows operating system. The NSA’s code was, in turn, stolen by an unknown hacker group called Shadow Brokers ­ widely believed by the security community to be the Russians ­ in 2014 and released to the public in April.

Microsoft patched the vulnerability a month earlier, presumably after being alerted by the NSA that the leak was imminent. But the vulnerability affected older versions of Windows that Microsoft no longer supports, and there are still many people and organizations that don’t regularly patch their systems. This allowed whoever wrote WannaCry ­—it could be anyone from a lone individual to an organized crime syndicate—to use it to infect computers and extort users.

The lessons for users are obvious: Keep your system patches up to date and regularly backup your data. This isn’t just good advice to defend against ransomware, but good advice in general. But it’s becoming obsolete.

Everything is becoming a computer. Your microwave is a computer that makes things hot. Your refrigerator is a computer that keeps things cold. Your car and television, the traffic lights and signals in your city and our national power grid are all computers. This is the much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT). It’s coming, and it’s coming faster than you might think. And as these devices connect to the Internet, they become vulnerable to ransomware and other computer threats.

It’s only a matter of time before people get messages on their car screens saying that the engine has been disabled and it will cost $200 in bitcoin to turn it back on. Or a similar message on their phones about their Internet-enabled door lock: Pay $100 if you want to get into your house tonight. Or pay far more if they want their embedded heart defibrillator to keep working.

This isn’t just theoretical. Researchers have already demonstrated a ransomware attack against smart thermostats, which may sound like a nuisance at first but can cause serious property damage if it’s cold enough outside. If the device under attack has no screen, you’ll get the message on the smartphone app you control it from.

Hackers don’t even have to come up with these ideas on their own; the government agencies whose code was stolen were already doing it. One of the leaked CIA attack tools targets Internet-enabled Samsung smart televisions.

Even worse, the usual solutions won’t work with these embedded systems. You have no way to back up your refrigerator’s software, and it’s unclear whether that solution would even work if an attack targets the functionality of the device rather than its stored data.

These devices will be around for a long time. Unlike our phones and computers, which we replace every few years, cars are expected to last at least a decade. We want our appliances to run for 20 years or more, our thermostats even longer.

What happens when the company that made our smart washing machine—or just the computer part—goes out of business, or otherwise decides that they can no longer support older models? WannaCry affected Windows versions as far back as XP, a version that Microsoft no longer supports. The company broke with policy and released a patch for those older systems, but it has both the engineering talent and the money to do so.

That won’t happen with low-cost IoT devices.

Those devices are built on the cheap, and the companies that make them don’t have the dedicated teams of security engineers ready to craft and distribute security patches. The economics of the IoT doesn’t allow for it. Even worse, many of these devices aren’t patchable. Remember last fall when the Mirai botnet infected hundreds of thousands of Internet-enabled digital video recorders, webcams and other devices and launched a massive denial-of-service attack that resulted in a host of popular websites dropping off the Internet? Most of those devices couldn’t be fixed with new software once they were attacked. The way you update your DVR is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Solutions aren’t easy and they’re not pretty. The market is not going to fix this unaided. Security is a hard-to-evaluate feature against a possible future threat, and consumers have long rewarded companies that provide easy-to-compare features and a quick time-to-market at its expense. We need to assign liabilities to companies that write insecure software that harms people, and possibly even issue and enforce regulations that require companies to maintain software systems throughout their life cycle. We may need minimum security standards for critical IoT devices. And it would help if the NSA got more involved in securing our information infrastructure and less in keeping it vulnerable so the government can eavesdrop.

I know this all sounds politically impossible right now, but we simply cannot live in a future where everything—from the things we own to our nation’s infrastructure ­—can be held for ransom by criminals again and again.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on May 23, 2017 at 5:55 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.