Entries Tagged "intelligence"

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"The Declining Half-Life of Secrets"

Several times I’ve mentioned Peter Swire’s concept of “the declining half-life of secrets.” He’s finally written it up:

The nature of secrets is changing. Secrets that would once have survived the 25 or 50 year test of time are more and more prone to leaks. The declining half-life of secrets has implications for the intelligence community and other secretive agencies, as they must now wrestle with new challenges posed by the transformative power of information technology innovation as well as the changing methods and targets of intelligence collection.

Posted on September 3, 2015 at 8:43 AMView Comments

NSA German Intercepts

On Friday, WikiLeaks published three summaries of NSA intercepts of German government communications. To me, the most interesting thing is not the intercept analyses, but this spreadsheet of intelligence targets. Here we learn the specific telephone numbers being targeted, who owns those phone numbers, the office within the NSA that processes the raw communications received, why the target is being spied on (in this case, all are designated as “Germany: Political Affairs”), and when we started spying using this particular justification. It’s one of the few glimpses we have into the bureaucracy of surveillance.

Presumably this is from the same leaker who gave WikiLeaks the French intercepts they published a week ago. (And you can read the intelligence target spreadsheet for France, too. And another for Brazil that WikiLeaks published on Saturday; Intercept commentary here.) Now that we’ve seen a few top secret summaries of eavesdropping on German, French, and Brazilian communications, and given what I know of Julian Assange’s tactics, my guess is that there is a lot more where this came from.

Der Spiegel is all over this story.

Posted on July 6, 2015 at 5:13 AMView Comments

Office of Personnel Management Data Hack

I don’t have much to say about the recent hack of the US Office of Personnel Management, which has been attributed to China (and seems to be getting worse all the time). We know that government networks aren’t any more secure than corporate networks, and might even be less secure.

I agree with Ben Wittes here (although not the imaginary double standard he talks about in the rest of the essay):

For the record, I have no problem with the Chinese going after this kind of data. Espionage is a rough business and the Chinese owe as little to the privacy rights of our citizens as our intelligence services do to the employees of the Chinese government. It’s our government’s job to protect this material, knowing it could be used to compromise, threaten, or injure its people­—not the job of the People’s Liberation Army to forebear collection of material that may have real utility.

Former NSA Director Michael Hayden says much the same thing:

If Hayden had had the ability to get the equivalent Chinese records when running CIA or NSA, he says, “I would not have thought twice. I would not have asked permission. I’d have launched the star fleet. And we’d have brought those suckers home at the speed of light.” The episode, he says, “is not shame on China. This is shame on us for not protecting that kind of information.” The episode is “a tremendously big deal, and my deepest emotion is embarrassment.”

My question is this: Has anyone thought about the possibility of the attackers manipulating data in the database? What are the potential attacks that could stem from adding, deleting, and changing data? I don’t think they can add a person with a security clearance, but I’d like someone who knows more than I do to understand the risks.

Posted on July 1, 2015 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Other GCHQ News from Snowden

There are two other Snowden stories this week about GCHQ: one about its hacking practices, and the other about its propaganda and psychology research. The second is particularly disturbing:

While some of the unit’s activities are focused on the claimed areas, JTRIG also appears to be intimately involved in traditional law enforcement areas and U.K.-specific activity, as previously unpublished documents demonstrate. An August 2009 JTRIG memo entitled “Operational Highlights” boasts of “GCHQ’s first serious crime effects operation” against a website that was identifying police informants and members of a witness protection program. Another operation investigated an Internet forum allegedly “used to facilitate and execute online fraud.” The document also describes GCHQ advice provided :to assist the UK negotiating team on climate change.”

Particularly revealing is a fascinating 42-page document from 2011 detailing JTRIG’s activities. It provides the most comprehensive and sweeping insight to date into the scope of this unit’s extreme methods. Entitled “Behavioral Science Support for JTRIG’s Effects and Online HUMINT [Human Intelligence] Operations,” it describes the types of targets on which the unit focuses, the psychological and behavioral research it commissions and exploits, and its future organizational aspirations. It is authored by a psychologist, Mandeep K. Dhami.

Among other things, the document lays out the tactics the agency uses to manipulate public opinion, its scientific and psychological research into how human thinking and behavior can be influenced, and the broad range of targets that are traditionally the province of law enforcement rather than intelligence agencies.

Posted on June 26, 2015 at 12:12 PMView Comments

More on the NSA's Capabilities

Ross Anderson summarizes a meeting in Princeton where Edward Snowden was “present.”

Third, the leaks give us a clear view of an intelligence analyst’s workflow. She will mainly look in Xkeyscore which is the Google of 5eyes comint; it’s a federated system hoovering up masses of stuff not just from 5eyes own assets but from other countries where the NSA cooperates or pays for access. Data are “ingested” into a vast rolling buffer; an analyst can run a federated search, using a selector (such as an IP address) or fingerprint (something that can be matched against the traffic). There are other such systems: “Dancing oasis” is the middle eastern version. Some xkeyscore assets are actually compromised third-party systems; there are multiple cases of rooted SMS servers that are queried in place and the results exfiltrated. Others involve vast infrastructure, like Tempora. If data in Xkeyscore are marked as of interest, they’re moved to Pinwale to be memorialised for 5+ years. This is one function of the MDRs (massive data repositories, now more tactfully renamed mission data repositories) like Utah. At present storage is behind ingestion. Xkeyscore buffer times just depend on volumes and what storage they managed to install, plus what they manage to filter out.

As for crypto capabilities, a lot of stuff is decrypted automatically on ingest (e.g. using a “stolen cert,” presumably a private key obtained through hacking). Else the analyst sends the ciphertext to CES and they either decrypt it or say they can’t. There’s no evidence of a “wow” cryptanalysis; it was key theft, or an implant, or a predicted RNG or supply-chain interference. Cryptanalysis has been seen of RC4, but not of elliptic curve crypto, and there’s no sign of exploits against other commonly used algorithms. Of course, the vendors of some products have been coopted, notably skype. Homegrown crypto is routinely problematic, but properly implemented crypto keeps the agency out; gpg ciphertexts with RSA 1024 were returned as fails.


What else might we learn from the disclosures when designing and implementing crypto? Well, read the disclosures and use your brain. Why did GCHQ bother stealing all the SIM card keys for Iceland from Gemalto, unless they have access to the local GSM radio links? Just look at the roof panels on US or UK embassies, that look like concrete but are actually transparent to RF. So when designing a protocol ask yourself whether a local listener is a serious consideration.


On the policy front, one of the eye-openers was the scale of intelligence sharing—it’s not just 5 eyes, but 15 or 35 or even 65 once you count all the countries sharing stuff with the NSA. So how does governance work? Quite simply, the NSA doesn’t care about policy. Their OGC has 100 lawyers whose job is to “enable the mission”; to figure out loopholes or new interpretations of the law that let stuff get done. How do you restrain this? Could you use courts in other countries, that have stronger human-rights law? The precedents are not encouraging. New Zealand’s GCSB was sharing intel with Bangladesh agencies while the NZ government was investigating them for human-rights abuses. Ramstein in Germany is involved in all the drone killings, as fibre is needed to keep latency down low enough for remote vehicle pilots. The problem is that the intelligence agencies figure out ways to shield the authorities from culpability, and this should not happen.


The spooks’ lawyers play games saying for example that they dumped content, but if you know IP address and file size you often have it; and IP address is a good enough pseudonym for most intel / LE use. They deny that they outsource to do legal arbitrage (e.g. NSA spies on Brits and GCHQ returns the favour by spying on Americans). Are they telling the truth? In theory there will be an MOU between NSA and the partner agency stipulating respect for each others’ laws, but there can be caveats, such as a classified version which says “this is not a binding legal document.” The sad fact is that law and legislators are losing the capability to hold people in the intelligence world to account, and also losing the appetite for it.

Worth reading in full.

Posted on May 11, 2015 at 6:26 AM

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.