Entries Tagged "Google"

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Metadata Equals Surveillance

Back in June, when the contents of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents were just starting to be revealed and we learned about the NSA collecting phone metadata of every American, many people—including President Obama—discounted the seriousness of the NSA’s actions by saying that it’s just metadata.

Lots and lots of people effectively demolished that trivialization, but the arguments are generally subtle and hard to convey quickly and simply. I have a more compact argument: metadata equals surveillance.

Imagine you hired a detective to eavesdrop on someone. He might plant a bug in their office. He might tap their phone. He might open their mail. The result would be the details of that person’s communications. That’s the “data.”

Now imagine you hired that same detective to surveil that person. The result would be details of what he did: where he went, who he talked to, what he looked at, what he purchased—how he spent his day. That’s all metadata.

When the government collects metadata on people, the government puts them under surveillance. When the government collects metadata on the entire country, they put everyone under surveillance. When Google does it, they do the same thing. Metadata equals surveillance; it’s that simple.

EDITED TO ADD (10/12): According to Snowden, the administration is partially basing its bulk collection of metadata on an interpretation by the FISC of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

EDITED TO ADD (10/28): this post has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on September 23, 2013 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Google Knows Every Wi-Fi Password in the World

This article points out that as people are logging into Wi-Fi networks from their Android phones, and backing up those passwords along with everything else into Google’s cloud, that Google is amassing an enormous database of the world’s Wi-Fi passwords. And while it’s not every Wi-Fi password in the world, it’s almost certainly a large percentage of them.

Leaving aside Google’s intentions regarding this database, it is certainly something that the US government could force Google to turn over with a National Security Letter.

Something else to think about.

Posted on September 20, 2013 at 7:05 AMView Comments

New NSA Leak Shows MITM Attacks Against Major Internet Services

The Brazilian television show “Fantastico” exposed an NSA training presentation that discusses how the agency runs man-in-the-middle attacks on the Internet. The point of the story was that the NSA engages in economic espionage against Petrobras, the Brazilian giant oil company, but I’m more interested in the tactical details.

The video on the webpage is long, and includes what I assume is a dramatization of an NSA classroom, but a few screen shots are important. The pages from the training presentation describe how the NSA’s MITM attack works:

However, in some cases GCHQ and the NSA appear to have taken a more aggressive and controversial route—on at least one occasion bypassing the need to approach Google directly by performing a man-in-the-middle attack to impersonate Google security certificates. One document published by Fantastico, apparently taken from an NSA presentation that also contains some GCHQ slides, describes “how the attack was done” to apparently snoop on SSL traffic. The document illustrates with a diagram how one of the agencies appears to have hacked into a target’s Internet router and covertly redirected targeted Google traffic using a fake security certificate so it could intercept the information in unencrypted format.

Documents from GCHQ’s “network exploitation” unit show that it operates a program called “FLYING PIG” that was started up in response to an increasing use of SSL encryption by email providers like Yahoo, Google, and Hotmail. The FLYING PIG system appears to allow it to identify information related to use of the anonymity browser Tor (it has the option to query “Tor events“) and also allows spies to collect information about specific SSL encryption certificates.

It’s that first link—also here—that shows the MITM attack against Google and its users.

Another screenshot implies is that the 2011 DigiNotar hack was either the work of the NSA, or exploited by the NSA.

Here’s another story on this.

Posted on September 13, 2013 at 6:23 AMView Comments

Restoring Trust in Government and the Internet

In July 2012, responding to allegations that the video-chat service Skype—owned by Microsoft—was changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, Corporate Vice President Mark Gillett took to the company’s blog to deny it.

Turns out that wasn’t quite true.

Or at least he—or the company’s lawyers—carefully crafted a statement that could be defended as true while completely deceiving the reader. You see, Skype wasn’t changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, because the government was already able to eavesdrop on users.

At a Senate hearing in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured the committee that his agency didn’t collect data on hundreds of millions of Americans. He was lying, too. He later defended his lie by inventing a new definition of the word “collect,” an excuse that didn’t even pass the laugh test.

As Edward Snowden’s documents reveal more about the NSA’s activities, it’s becoming clear that we can’t trust anything anyone official says about these programs.

Google and Facebook insist that the NSA has no “direct access” to their servers. Of course not; the smart way for the NSA to get all the data is through sniffers.

Apple says it’s never heard of PRISM. Of course not; that’s the internal name of the NSA database. Companies are publishing reports purporting to show how few requests for customer-data access they’ve received, a meaningless number when a single Verizon request can cover all of their customers. The Guardian reported that Microsoft secretly worked with the NSA to subvert the security of Outlook, something it carefully denies. Even President Obama’s justifications and denials are phrased with the intent that the listener will take his words very literally and not wonder what they really mean.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

There’s much more to come. Right now, the press has published only a tiny percentage of the documents Snowden took with him. And Snowden’s files are only a tiny percentage of the number of secrets our government is keeping, awaiting the next whistle-blower.

Ronald Reagan once said “trust but verify.” That works only if we can verify. In a world where everyone lies to us all the time, we have no choice but to trust blindly, and we have no reason to believe that anyone is worthy of blind trust. It’s no wonder that most people are ignoring the story; it’s just too much cognitive dissonance to try to cope with it.

This sort of thing can destroy our country. Trust is essential in our society. And if we can’t trust either our government or the corporations that have intimate access into so much of our lives, society suffers. Study after study demonstrates the value of living in a high-trust society and the costs of living in a low-trust one.

Rebuilding trust is not easy, as anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed by a friend or lover knows, but the path involves transparency, oversight and accountability. Transparency first involves coming clean. Not a little bit at a time, not only when you have to, but complete disclosure about everything. Then it involves continuing disclosure. No more secret rulings by secret courts about secret laws. No more secret programs whose costs and benefits remain hidden.

Oversight involves meaningful constraints on the NSA, the FBI and others. This will be a combination of things: a court system that acts as a third-party advocate for the rule of law rather than a rubber-stamp organization, a legislature that understands what these organizations are doing and regularly debates requests for increased power, and vibrant public-sector watchdog groups that analyze and debate the government’s actions.

Accountability means that those who break the law, lie to Congress or deceive the American people are held accountable. The NSA has gone rogue, and while it’s probably not possible to prosecute people for what they did under the enormous veil of secrecy it currently enjoys, we need to make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Accountability also means voting, which means voters need to know what our leaders are doing in our name.

This is the only way we can restore trust. A market economy doesn’t work unless consumers can make intelligent buying decisions based on accurate product information. That’s why we have agencies like the FDA, truth-in-packaging laws and prohibitions against false advertising.

In the same way, democracy can’t work unless voters know what the government is doing in their name. That’s why we have open-government laws. Secret courts making secret rulings on secret laws, and companies flagrantly lying to consumers about the insecurity of their products and services, undermine the very foundations of our society.

Since the Snowden documents became public, I have been receiving e-mails from people seeking advice on whom to trust. As a security and privacy expert, I’m expected to know which companies protect their users’ privacy and which encryption programs the NSA can’t break. The truth is, I have no idea. No one outside the classified government world does. I tell people that they have no choice but to decide whom they trust and to then trust them as a matter of faith. It’s a lousy answer, but until our government starts down the path of regaining our trust, it’s the only thing we can do.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/7): Two more links describing how the US government lies about NSA surveillance.

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Another Perspective on the Value of Privacy

A philosophical perspective:

But while Descartes’s overall view has been rightly rejected, there is something profoundly right about the connection between privacy and the self, something that recent events should cause us to appreciate. What is right about it, in my view, is that to be an autonomous person is to be capable of having privileged access (in the two senses defined above) to information about your psychological profile ­ your hopes, dreams, beliefs and fears. A capacity for privacy is a necessary condition of autonomous personhood.

To get a sense of what I mean, imagine that I could telepathically read all your conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings—I could know about them in as much detail as you know about them yourself—and further, that you could not, in any way, control my access. You don’t, in other words, share your thoughts with me; I take them. The power I would have over you would of course be immense. Not only could you not hide from me, I would know instantly a great amount about how the outside world affects you, what scares you, what makes you act in the ways you do. And that means I could not only know what you think, I could to a large extent control what you do.

That is the political worry about the loss of privacy: it threatens a loss of freedom. And the worry, of course, is not merely theoretical. Targeted ad programs, like Google’s, which track your Internet searches for the purpose of sending you ads that reflect your interests can create deeply complex psychological profiles—especially when one conducts searches for emotional or personal advice information: Am I gay? What is terrorism? What is atheism? If the government or some entity should request the identity of the person making these searches for national security purposes, we’d be on the way to having a real-world version of our thought experiment.

But the loss of privacy doesn’t just threaten political freedom. Return for a moment to our thought experiment where I telepathically know all your thoughts whether you like it or not From my perspective, the perspective of the knower—your existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. Our relationship would be so lopsided that there might cease to be, at least to me, anything subjective about you. As I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.

Posted on July 9, 2013 at 6:24 AMView Comments

My Talk at Google

Last week, I gave a talk at Google. It’s another talk about power and security, my continually evolving topic-of-the-moment that could very well become my next book. This installment is different than the previous talks and interviews, but not different enough that you should feel the need to watch it if you’ve seen the others.

There are things I got wrong. There are contradictions. There are questions I couldn’t answer. But that’s my process, and I’m okay with doing it semi-publicly. As always, I appreciate comments, criticisms, reading suggestions, and so on.

EDITED TO ADD (6/30): Two commentaries on the talk.

EDITED TO ADD (8/1): To date, 14,000 people have watched the talk.

Posted on June 28, 2013 at 2:42 PMView Comments

More on Feudal Security

Facebook regularly abuses the privacy of its users. Google has stopped supporting its popular RSS feeder. Apple prohibits all iPhone apps that are political or sexual. Microsoft might be cooperating with some governments to spy on Skype calls, but we don’t know which ones. Both Twitter and LinkedIn have recently suffered security breaches that affected the data of hundreds of thousands of their users.

If you’ve started to think of yourself as a hapless peasant in a Game of Thrones power struggle, you’re more right than you may realize. These are not traditional companies, and we are not traditional customers. These are feudal lords, and we are their vassals, peasants, and serfs.

Power has shifted in IT, in favor of both cloud-service providers and closed-platform vendors. This power shift affects many things, and it profoundly affects security.

Traditionally, computer security was the user’s responsibility. Users purchased their own antivirus software and firewalls, and any breaches were blamed on their inattentiveness. It’s kind of a crazy business model. Normally we expect the products and services we buy to be safe and secure, but in IT we tolerated lousy products and supported an enormous aftermarket for security.

Now that the IT industry has matured, we expect more security “out of the box.” This has become possible largely because of two technology trends: cloud computing and vendor-controlled platforms. The first means that most of our data resides on other networks: Google Docs, Salesforce.com, Facebook, Gmail. The second means that our new Internet devices are both closed and controlled by the vendors, giving us limited configuration control: iPhones, ChromeBooks, Kindles, BlackBerry PDAs. Meanwhile, our relationship with IT has changed. We used to use our computers to do things. We now use our vendor-controlled computing devices to go places. All of these places are owned by someone.

The new security model is that someone else takes care of it—without telling us any of the details. I have no control over the security of my Gmail or my photos on Flickr. I can’t demand greater security for my presentations on Prezi or my task list on Trello, no matter how confidential they are. I can’t audit any of these cloud services. I can’t delete cookies on my iPad or ensure that files are securely erased. Updates on my Kindle happen automatically, without my knowledge or consent. I have so little visibility into the security of Facebook that I have no idea what operating system they’re using.

There are a lot of good reasons why we’re all flocking to these cloud services and vendor-controlled platforms. The benefits are enormous, from cost to convenience to reliability to security itself. But it is inherently a feudal relationship. We cede control of our data and computing platforms to these companies and trust that they will treat us well and protect us from harm. And if we pledge complete allegiance to them—if we let them control our email and calendar and address book and photos and everything—we get even more benefits. We become their vassals; or, on a bad day, their serfs.

There are a lot of feudal lords out there. Google and Apple are the obvious ones, but Microsoft is trying to control both user data and the end-user platform as well. Facebook is another lord, controlling much of the socializing we do on the Internet. Other feudal lords are smaller and more specialized—Amazon, Yahoo, Verizon, and so on—but the model is the same.

To be sure, feudal security has its advantages. These companies are much better at security than the average user. Automatic backup has saved a lot of data after hardware failures, user mistakes, and malware infections. Automatic updates have increased security dramatically. This is also true for small organizations; they are more secure than they would be if they tried to do it themselves. For large corporations with dedicated IT security departments, the benefits are less clear. Sure, even large companies outsource critical functions like tax preparation and cleaning services, but large companies have specific requirements for security, data retention, audit, and so on—and that’s just not possible with most of these feudal lords.

Feudal security also has its risks. Vendors can, and do, make security mistakes affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Vendors can lock people into relationships, making it hard for them to take their data and leave. Vendors can act arbitrarily, against our interests; Facebook regularly does this when it changes peoples’ defaults, implements new features, or modifies its privacy policy. Many vendors give our data to the government without notice, consent, or a warrant; almost all sell it for profit. This isn’t surprising, really; companies should be expected to act in their own self-interest and not in their users’ best interest.

The feudal relationship is inherently based on power. In Medieval Europe, people would pledge their allegiance to a feudal lord in exchange for that lord’s protection. This arrangement changed as the lords realized that they had all the power and could do whatever they wanted. Vassals were used and abused; peasants were tied to their land and became serfs.

It’s the Internet lords’ popularity and ubiquity that enable them to profit; laws and government relationships make it easier for them to hold onto power. These lords are vying with each other for profits and power. By spending time on their sites and giving them our personal information—whether through search queries, e-mails, status updates, likes, or simply our behavioral characteristics—we are providing the raw material for that struggle. In this way we are like serfs, toiling the land for our feudal lords. If you don’t believe me, try to take your data with you when you leave Facebook. And when war breaks out among the giants, we become collateral damage.

So how do we survive? Increasingly, we have little alternative but to trust someone, so we need to decide who we trust—and who we don’t—and then act accordingly. This isn’t easy; our feudal lords go out of their way not to be transparent about their actions, their security, or much of anything. Use whatever power you have—as individuals, none; as large corporations, more—to negotiate with your lords. And, finally, don’t be extreme in any way: politically, socially, culturally. Yes, you can be shut down without recourse, but it’s usually those on the edges that are affected. Not much solace, I agree, but it’s something.

On the policy side, we have an action plan. In the short term, we need to keep circumvention—the ability to modify our hardware, software, and data files—legal and preserve net neutrality. Both of these things limit how much the lords can take advantage of us, and they increase the possibility that the market will force them to be more benevolent. The last thing we want is the government—that’s us—spending resources to enforce one particular business model over another and stifling competition.

In the longer term, we all need to work to reduce the power imbalance. Medieval feudalism evolved into a more balanced relationship in which lords had responsibilities as well as rights. Today’s Internet feudalism is both ad hoc and one-sided. We have no choice but to trust the lords, but we receive very few assurances in return. The lords have a lot of rights, but few responsibilities or limits. We need to balance this relationship, and government intervention is the only way we’re going to get it. In medieval Europe, the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law provided the stability that feudalism lacked. The Magna Carta first forced responsibilities on governments and put humans on the long road toward government by the people and for the people.

We need a similar process to rein in our Internet lords, and it’s not something that market forces are likely to provide. The very definition of power is changing, and the issues are far bigger than the Internet and our relationships with our IT providers.

This essay originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website. It is an update of this earlier essay on the same topic. “Feudal security” is a metaphor I have been using a lot recently; I wrote this essay without rereading my previous essay.

EDITED TO ADD (6/13): There is another way the feudal metaphor applies to the Internet. There is no commons; every part of the Internet is owned by someone. This article explores that aspect of the metaphor.

Posted on June 13, 2013 at 11:34 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.