Entries Tagged "fear"

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Scaring People into Supporting Backdoors

Back in 1998, Tim May warned us of the “Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse”: “terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, and money launderers.” I tended to cast it slightly differently. This is me from 2005:

Beware the Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse: terrorists, drug dealers, kidnappers, and child pornographers. Seems like you can scare any public into allowing the government to do anything with those four.

Which particular horseman is in vogue depends on time and circumstance. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US government has been pushing the terrorist scare story. Recently, it seems to have switched to pedophiles and child exploitation. It began in September, with a long New York Times story on child sex abuse, which included this dig at encryption:

And when tech companies cooperate fully, encryption and anonymization can create digital hiding places for perpetrators. Facebook announced in March plans to encrypt Messenger, which last year was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of child sexual abuse material, according to people familiar with the reports. Reports to the authorities typically contain more than one image, and last year encompassed the record 45 million photos and videos, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

(That’s wrong, by the way. Facebook Messenger already has an encrypted option. It’s just not turned on by default, like it is in WhatsApp.)

That was followed up by a conference by the US Department of Justice: “Lawless Spaces: Warrant Proof Encryption and its Impact on Child Exploitation Cases.” US Attorney General William Barr gave a speech on the subject. Then came an open letter to Facebook from Barr and others from the UK and Australia, using “protecting children” as the basis for their demand that the company not implement strong end-to-end encryption. (I signed on to another another open letter in response.) Then, the FBI tried to get Interpol to publish a statement denouncing end-to-end encryption.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on backdoors: “Encryption and Lawful Access: Evaluating Benefits and Risks to Public Safety and Privacy.” Video, and written testimonies, are available at the link. Eric Neuenschwander from Apple was there to support strong encryption, but the other witnesses were all against it. New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance was true to form:

In fact, we were never able to view the contents of his phone because of this gift to sex traffickers that came, not from God, but from Apple.

It was a disturbing hearing. The Senators asked technical questions to people who couldn’t answer them. The result was that an adjunct law professor was able to frame the issue of strong encryption as an externality caused by corporate liability dumping, and another example of Silicon Valley’s anti-regulation stance.

Let me be clear. None of us who favor strong encryption is saying that child exploitation isn’t a serious crime, or a worldwide problem. We’re not saying that about kidnapping, international drug cartels, money laundering, or terrorism. We are saying three things. One, that strong encryption is necessary for personal and national security. Two, that weakening encryption does more harm than good. And three, law enforcement has other avenues for criminal investigation than eavesdropping on communications and stored devices. This is one example, where people unraveled a dark-web website and arrested hundreds by analyzing Bitcoin transactions. This is another, where policy arrested members of a WhatsApp group.

So let’s have reasoned policy debates about encryption — debates that are informed by technology. And let’s stop it with the scare stories.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): The DoD just said that strong encryption is essential for national security.

All DoD issued unclassified mobile devices are required to be password protected using strong passwords. The Department also requires that data-in-transit, on DoD issued mobile devices, be encrypted (e.g. VPN) to protect DoD information and resources. The importance of strong encryption and VPNs for our mobile workforce is imperative. Last October, the Department outlined its layered cybersecurity approach to protect DoD information and resources, including service men and women, when using mobile communications capabilities.

[…]

As the use of mobile devices continues to expand, it is imperative that innovative security techniques, such as advanced encryption algorithms, are constantly maintained and improved to protect DoD information and resources. The Department believes maintaining a domestic climate for state of the art security and encryption is critical to the protection of our national security.

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 6:11 AMView Comments

Can Everybody Read the US Terrorist Watch List?

After years of claiming that the Terrorist Screening Database is kept secret within the government, we have now learned that the DHS shares it “with more than 1,400 private entities, including hospitals and universities….”

Critics say that the watchlist is wildly overbroad and mismanaged, and that large numbers of people wrongly included on the list suffer routine difficulties and indignities because of their inclusion.

The government’s admission comes in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Alexandria by Muslims who say they regularly experience difficulties in travel, financial transactions and interactions with law enforcement because they have been wrongly added to the list.

Of course that is the effect.

We need more transparency into this process. People need a way to challenge their inclusion on the list, and a redress process if they are being falsely accused.

Posted on February 28, 2019 at 6:22 AMView Comments

What Happened to Cyber 9/11?

A recent article in the Atlantic asks why we haven’t seen a”cyber 9/11″ in the past fifteen or so years. (I, too, remember the increasingly frantic and fearful warnings of a “cyber Peal Harbor,” “cyber Katrina” — when that was a thing — or “cyber 9/11.” I made fun of those warnings back then.) The author’s answer:

Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.

Commenting on the article, Rob Graham adds:

I think there are lots of warning from so-called “experts” who aren’t qualified to make such warnings, that the press errs on the side of giving such warnings credibility instead of challenging them.

I think mostly the reason why cyberterrorism doesn’t happen is that which motivates violent people is different than what which motivates technical people, pulling apart the groups who would want to commit cyberterrorism from those who can.

These are all good reasons, but I think both authors missed the most important one: there simply aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Let’s ask the question more generally: why hasn’t there been another 9/11 since 2001? I also remember dire predictions that large-scale terrorism was the new normal, and that we would see 9/11-scale attacks regularly. But since then, nothing. We could credit the fantastic counterterrorism work of the US and other countries, but a more reasonable explanation is that there are very few terrorists and even fewer organized ones. Our fear of terrorism is far greater than the actual risk.

This isn’t to say that cyberterrorism can never happen. Of course it will, sooner or later. But I don’t foresee it becoming a preferred terrorism method anytime soon. Graham again:

In the end, if your goal is to cause major power blackouts, your best bet is to bomb power lines and distribution centers, rather than hack them.

Posted on November 19, 2018 at 6:50 AMView Comments

John Mueller and Mark Stewart on the Risks of Terrorism

Another excellent paper by the Mueller/Stewart team: “Terrorism and Bathtubs: Comparing and Assessing the Risks“:

Abstract: The likelihood that anyone outside a war zone will be killed by an Islamist extremist terrorist is extremely small. In the United States, for example, some six people have perished each year since 9/11 at the hands of such terrorists — vastly smaller than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings. Some argue, however, that the incidence of terrorist destruction is low because counterterrorism measures are so effective. They also contend that terrorism may well become more frequent and destructive in the future as terrorists plot and plan and learn from experience, and that terrorism, unlike bathtubs, provides no benefit and exacts costs far beyond those in the event itself by damagingly sowing fear and anxiety and by requiring policy makers to adopt countermeasures that are costly and excessive. This paper finds these arguments to be wanting. In the process, it concludes that terrorism is rare outside war zones because, to a substantial degree, terrorists don’t exist there. In general, as with rare diseases that kill few, it makes more policy sense to expend limited funds on hazards that inflict far more damage. It also discusses the issue of risk communication for this hazard.

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:54 AMView Comments

Subway Elevators and Movie-Plot Threats

Local residents are opposing adding an elevator to a subway station because terrorists might use it to detonate a bomb. No, really. There’s no actual threat analysis, only fear:

“The idea that people can then ride in on the subway with a bomb or whatever and come straight up in an elevator is awful to me,” said Claudia Ward, who lives in 15 Broad Street and was among a group of neighbors who denounced the plan at a recent meeting of the local community board. “It’s too easy for someone to slip through. And I just don’t want my family and my neighbors to be the collateral on that.”

[…]

Local residents plan to continue to fight, said Ms. Gerstman, noting that her building’s board decided against putting decorative planters at the building’s entrance over fears that shards could injure people in the event of a blast.

“Knowing that, and then seeing the proposal for giant glass structures in front of my building ­- ding ding ding! — what does a giant glass structure become in the event of an explosion?” she said.

In 2005, I coined the term “movie-plot threat” to denote a threat scenario that caused undue fear solely because of its specificity. Longtime readers of this blog will remember my annual Movie-Plot Threat Contests. I ended the contest in 2015 because I thought the meme had played itself out. Clearly there’s more work to be done.

Posted on January 30, 2018 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Daniel Miessler on My Writings about IoT Security

Daniel Miessler criticizes my writings about IoT security:

I know it’s super cool to scream about how IoT is insecure, how it’s dumb to hook up everyday objects like houses and cars and locks to the internet, how bad things can get, and I know it’s fun to be invited to talk about how everything is doom and gloom.

I absolutely respect Bruce Schneier a lot for what he’s contributed to InfoSec, which makes me that much more disappointed with this kind of position from him.

InfoSec is full of those people, and it’s beneath people like Bruce to add their voices to theirs. Everyone paying attention already knows it’s going to be a soup sandwich — a carnival of horrors — a tragedy of mistakes and abuses of trust.

It’s obvious. Not interesting. Not novel. Obvious. But obvious or not, all these things are still going to happen.

I actually agree with everything in his essay. “We should obviously try to minimize the risks, but we don’t do that by trying to shout down the entire enterprise.” Yes, definitely.

I don’t think the IoT must be stopped. I do think that the risks are considerable, and will increase as these systems become more pervasive and susceptible to class breaks. And I’m trying to write a book that will help navigate this. I don’t think I’m the prophet of doom, and don’t want to come across that way. I’ll give the manuscript another read with that in mind.

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 3:26 PMView Comments

My Priorities for the Next Four Years

Like many, I was surprised and shocked by the election of Donald Trump as president. I believe his ideas, temperament, and inexperience represent a grave threat to our country and world. Suddenly, all the things I had planned to work on seemed trivial in comparison. Although Internet security and privacy are not the most important policy areas at risk, I believe he — and, more importantly, his cabinet, administration, and Congress — will have devastating effects in that area, both in the US and around the world.

The election was so close that I’ve come to see the result as a bad roll of the dice. A few minor tweaks here and there — a more enthusiastic Sanders endorsement, one fewer of Comey’s announcements, slightly less Russian involvement — and the country would be preparing for a Clinton presidency and discussing a very different social narrative. That alternative narrative would stress business as usual, and continue to obscure the deep social problems in our society. Those problems won’t go away on their own, and in this alternative future they would continue to fester under the surface, getting steadily worse. This election exposed those problems for everyone to see.

I spent the last month both coming to terms with this reality, and thinking about the future. Here is my new agenda for the next four years:

One, fight the fights. There will be more government surveillance and more corporate surveillance. I expect legislative and judicial battles along several lines: a renewed call from the FBI for backdoors into encryption, more leeway for government hacking without a warrant, no controls on corporate surveillance, and more secret government demands for that corporate data. I expect other countries to follow our lead. (The UK is already more extreme than us.) And if there’s a major terrorist attack under Trump’s watch, it’ll be open season on our liberties. We may lose a lot of these battles, but we need to lose as few as possible and as little of our existing liberties as possible.

Two, prepare for those fights. Much of the next four years will be reactive, but we can prepare somewhat. The more we can convince corporate America to delete their saved archives of surveillance data and to store only what they need for as long as they need it, the safer we’ll all be. We need to convince Internet giants like Google and Facebook to change their business models away from surveillance capitalism. It’s a hard sell, but maybe we can nibble around the edges. Similarly, we need to keep pushing the truism that privacy and security are not antagonistic, but rather are essential for each other.

Three, lay the groundwork for a better future. No matter how bad the next four years get, I don’t believe that a Trump administration will permanently end privacy, freedom, and liberty in the US. I don’t believe that it portends a radical change in our democracy. (Or if it does, we have bigger problems than a free and secure Internet.) It’s true that some of Trump’s institutional changes might take decades to undo. Even so, I am confident — optimistic even — that the US will eventually come around; and when that time comes, we need good ideas in place for people to come around to. This means proposals for non-surveillance-based Internet business models, research into effective law enforcement that preserves privacy, intelligent limits on how corporations can collect and exploit our data, and so on.

And four, continue to solve the actual problems. The serious security issues around cybercrime, cyber-espionage, cyberwar, the Internet of Things, algorithmic decision making, foreign interference in our elections, and so on aren’t going to disappear for four years while we’re busy fighting the excesses of Trump. We need to continue to work towards a more secure digital future. And to the extent that cybersecurity for our military networks and critical infrastructure allies with cybersecurity for everyone, we’ll probably have an ally in Trump.

Those are my four areas. Under a Clinton administration, my list would have looked much the same. Trump’s election just means the threats will be much greater, and the battles a lot harder to win. It’s more than I can possibly do on my own, and I am therefore substantially increasing my annual philanthropy to support organizations like EPIC, EFF, ACLU, and Access Now in continuing their work in these areas.

My agenda is necessarily focused entirely on my particular areas of concern. The risks of a Trump presidency are far more pernicious, but this is where I have expertise and influence.

Right now, we have a defeated majority. Many are scared, and many are motivated — and few of those are applying their motivation constructively. We need to harness that fear and energy to start fixing our society now, instead of waiting four or even eight years, at which point the problems would be worse and the solutions more extreme. I am choosing to proceed as if this were cowpox, not smallpox: fighting the more benign disease today will be much easier than subjecting ourselves to its more virulent form in the future. It’s going to be hard keeping the intensity up for the next four years, but we need to get to work. Let’s use Trump’s victory as the wake-up call and opportunity that it is.

Posted on December 15, 2016 at 3:50 AM

Memphis Airport Inadvertently Gets Security Right

A local newspaper recently tested airport security at Memphis Airport:

Our crew sat for 30 minutes in the passenger drop-off area Tuesday without a word from anyone, and that raised a number of eyebrows.

Certainly raised mine. Here’s my question: why is that a bad thing? If you’re worried about a car bomb, why do you think length of time sitting curbside correlates with likelihood of detonation? Were I a car bomber sitting in the front seat, I would detonate my bomb pretty damned quick.

Anyway, the airport was 100% correct in its reply:

The next day, the airport told FOX13 they take a customer-friendly “hassle free” approach.

I’m certainly in favor of that. Useless security theater that adds to the hassle of traveling without actually making us any safer doesn’t help anyone.

Unfortunately, the airport is now reviewing its procedures, because fear wins:

CEO Scott Brockman sent FOX13 a statement saying in part “We will continue to review our policies and procedures and implement any necessary changes in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): The airport PR person commented below. “Jim Turner of the Cato Institute” is actually Jim Harper.

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 12:26 PMView Comments

Fear and Anxiety

More psychological research on our reaction to terrorism and mass violence:

The researchers collected posts on Twitter made in response to the 2012 shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They looked at tweets about the school shooting over a five-and-a-half-month period to see whether people used different language in connection with the event depending on how geographically close they were to Newtown, or how much time had elapsed since the tragedy. The analysis showed that the further away people were from the tragedy in either space or time, the less they used words related to sadness (loss, grieve, mourn), suggesting that feelings of sorrow waned with growing psychological distance. But words related to anxiety (crazy, fearful, scared) showed the opposite pattern, increasing in frequency as people gained distance in either time or space from the tragic events. For example, within the first week of the shootings, words expressing sadness accounted for 1.69 percent of all words used in tweets about the event; about five months later, these had dwindled to 0.62 percent. In contrast, anxiety-related words went up from 0.27 percent to 0.62 percent over the same time.

Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety? The authors point out that as people feel more remote from an event, they shift from thinking of it in very concrete terms to more abstract ones, a pattern that has been shown in a number of previous studies. Concrete thoughts highlight the individual lives affected and the horrific details of the tragedy. (Images have >particular power to make us feel the loss of individuals in a mass tragedy.) But when people think about the event abstractly, they’re more apt to focus on its underlying causes, which is anxiety inducing if the cause is seen as arising from an unresolved issue.

This is related.

Posted on February 16, 2016 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Terrifying Technologies

I’ve written about the difference between risk perception and risk reality. I thought about that when reading this list of Americans’ top technology fears:

  1. Cyberterrorism
  2. Corporate tracking of personal information
  3. Government tracking of personal information
  4. Robots replacing workforce
  5. Trusting artificial intelligence to do work
  6. Robots
  7. Artificial intelligence
  8. Technology I don’t understand

More at the link.

Posted on December 9, 2015 at 1:48 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.