Entries Tagged "National Security Letters"

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Reddit's Warrant Canary Just Died

Reddit has received a National Security Letter.

I have long discounted warrant canaries. A gag order is serious, and this sort of high-school trick won’t fool judges for a minute. But so far they seem to be working.

Now we have another question: now what? We have one piece of information, but not a very useful one. We know that NSLs can affect anywhere from a single user to millions of users. Which kind was this? We have no idea. Is Reddit fighting? We have no idea. How long will this go on? We don’t know that, either. When I think about what we can do to be useful here, I can’t think of anything.

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 3:16 PMView Comments

Tracking Someone Using LifeLock

Someone opened a LifeLock account in his ex-wife’s name, and used the service to track her bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial activities.

The article is mostly about how appalling LifeLock was about this, but I’m more interested in the surveillance possibilities. Certainly the FBI can use LifeLock to surveil people with a warrant. The FBI/NSA can also collect the financial data of every LifeLock customer with a National Security Letter. But it’s interesting how easy it was for an individual to open an account for another individual.

Posted on December 1, 2015 at 5:41 AMView Comments

An Open Letter to IBM's Open Letter

Last week, IBM published an “open letter” about “government access to data,” where it tried to assure its customers that it’s not handing everything over to the NSA. Unfortunately, the letter (quoted in part below) leaves open more questions than it answers.

At the outset, we think it is important for IBM to clearly state some simple facts:

  • IBM has not provided client data to the National Security Agency (NSA) or any other government agency under the program known as PRISM.
  • IBM has not provided client data to the NSA or any other government agency under any surveillance program involving the bulk collection of content or metadata.
  • IBM has not provided client data stored outside the United States to the U.S. government under a national security order, such as a FISA order or a National Security Letter.
  • IBM does not put “backdoors” in its products for the NSA or any other government agency, nor does IBM provide software source code or encryption keys to the NSA or any other government agency for the purpose of accessing client data.
  • IBM has and will continue to comply with the local laws, including data privacy laws, in all countries in which it operates.

To which I ask:

  • We know you haven’t provided data to the NSA under PRISM. It didn’t use that name with you. Even the NSA General Counsel said: “PRISM was an internal government term that as the result of leaks became the public term.” What program did you provide data to the NSA under?
  • It seems rather obvious that you haven’t provided the NSA with any data under a bulk collection surveillance program. You’re not Google; you don’t have bulk data to that extent. So why the caveat? And again, under what program did you provide data to the NSA?
  • Okay, so you say that you haven’t provided any data stored outside the US to the NSA under a national security order. Since those national security orders prohibit you from disclosing their existence, would you say anything different if you did receive them? And even if we believe this statement, it implies two questions. Why did you specifically not talk about data stored inside the US? And why did you specifically not talk about providing data under another sort of order?
  • Of course you don’t provide your source code to the NSA for the purpose of accessing client data. The NSA isn’t going to tell you that’s why it wants your source code. So, for what purposes did you provide your source code to the government? To get a contract? For audit purposes? For what?
  • Yes, we know you need to comply with all local laws, including US laws. That’s why we don’t trust you — the current secret interpretations of US law requires you to screw your customers. I’d really rather you simply said that, and worked to change those laws, than pretend that you can convince us otherwise.

EDITED TO ADD (3/25): One more thing. This article says that you are “spending more than a billion dollars to build data centers overseas to reassure foreign customers that their information is safe from prying eyes in the United States government.” Do you not know that National Security Letters require you to turn over requested data, regardless of where in the world it is stored? Or do you just hope that your customers don’t realize that?

Posted on March 24, 2014 at 6:58 AMView Comments

The Trajectories of Government and Corporate Surveillance

Historically, surveillance was difficult and expensive.

Over the decades, as technology advanced, surveillance became easier and easier. Today, we find ourselves in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, where everything is collected, saved, searched, correlated and analyzed.

But while technology allowed for an increase in both corporate and government surveillance, the private and public sectors took very different paths to get there. The former always collected information about everyone, but over time, collected more and more of it, while the latter always collected maximal information, but over time, collected it on more and more people.

Corporate surveillance has been on a path from minimal to maximal information. Corporations always collected information on everyone they could, but in the past they didn’t collect very much of it and only held it as long as necessary. When surveillance information was expensive to collect and store, companies made do with as little as possible.

Telephone companies collected long-distance calling information because they needed it for billing purposes. Credit cards collected only the information about their customers’ transactions that they needed for billing. Stores hardly ever collected information about their customers, maybe some personal preferences, or name-and-address for advertising purposes. Even Google, back in the beginning, collected far less information about its users than it does today.

As technology improved, corporations were able to collect more. As the cost of data storage became cheaper, they were able to save more data and for a longer time. And as big data analysis tools became more powerful, it became profitable to save more. Today, almost everything is being saved by someone — probably forever.

Examples are everywhere. Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple collect everything we do online at their sites. Third-party cookies allow those companies, and others, to collect data on us wherever we are on the Internet. Store affinity cards allow merchants to track our purchases. CCTV and aerial surveillance combined with automatic face recognition allow companies to track our movements; so does your cell phone. The Internet will facilitate even more surveillance, by more corporations for more purposes.

On the government side, surveillance has been on a path from individually targeted to broadly collected. When surveillance was manual and expensive, it could only be justified in extreme cases. The warrant process limited police surveillance, and resource restraints and the risk of discovery limited national intelligence surveillance. Specific individuals were targeted for surveillance, and maximal information was collected on them alone.

As technology improved, the government was able to implement ever-broadening surveillance. The National Security Agency could surveil groups — the Soviet government, the Chinese diplomatic corps, etc. — not just individuals. Eventually, they could spy on entire communications trunks.

Now, instead of watching one person, the NSA can monitor “three hops” away from that person — an ever widening network of people not directly connected to the person under surveillance. Using sophisticated tools, the NSA can surveil broad swaths of the Internet and phone network.

Governments have always used their authority to piggyback on corporate surveillance. Why should they go through the trouble of developing their own surveillance programs when they could just ask corporations for the data? For example we just learned that the NSA collects e-mail, IM and social networking contact lists for millions of Internet users worldwide.

But as corporations started collecting more information on populations, governments started demanding that data. Through National Security Letters, the FBI can surveil huge groups of people without obtaining a warrant. Through secret agreements, the NSA can monitor the entire Internet and telephone networks.

This is a huge part of the public-private surveillance partnership.

The result of all this is we’re now living in a world where both corporations and governments have us all under pretty much constant surveillance.

Data is a byproduct of the information society. Every interaction we have with a computer creates a transaction record, and we interact with computers hundreds of times a day. Even if we don’t use a computer — buying something in person with cash, say — the merchant uses a computer, and the data flows into the same system. Everything we do leaves a data shadow, and that shadow is constantly under surveillance.

Data is also a byproduct of information society socialization, whether it be e-mail, instant messages or conversations on Facebook. Conversations that used to be ephemeral are now recorded, and we are all leaving digital footprints wherever we go.

Moore’s law has made computing cheaper. All of us have made computing ubiquitous. And because computing produces data, and that data equals surveillance, we have created a world of ubiquitous surveillance.

Now we need to figure out what to do about it. This is more than reining in the NSA or fining a corporation for the occasional data abuse. We need to decide whether our data is a shared societal resource, a part of us that is inherently ours by right, or a private good to be bought and sold.

Writing in the Guardian, Chris Huhn said that “information is power, and the necessary corollary is that privacy is freedom.” How this interplay between power and freedom play out in the information age is still to be determined.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): Richard Stallman’s comments on the subject.

Posted on October 21, 2013 at 6:05 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

Take Back the Internet

Government and industry have betrayed the Internet, and us.

By subverting the Internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our Internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical Internet stewards.

This is not the Internet the world needs, or the Internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back.

And by we, I mean the engineering community.

Yes, this is primarily a political problem, a policy matter that requires political intervention.

But this is also an engineering problem, and there are several things engineers can — and should — do.

One, we should expose. If you do not have a security clearance, and if you have not received a National Security Letter, you are not bound by a federal confidentially requirements or a gag order. If you have been contacted by the NSA to subvert a product or protocol, you need to come forward with your story. Your employer obligations don’t cover illegal or unethical activity. If you work with classified data and are truly brave, expose what you know. We need whistleblowers.

We need to know how exactly how the NSA and other agencies are subverting routers, switches, the Internet backbone, encryption technologies and cloud systems. I already have five stories from people like you, and I’ve just started collecting. I want 50. There’s safety in numbers, and this form of civil disobedience is the moral thing to do.

Two, we can design. We need to figure out how to re-engineer the Internet to prevent this kind of wholesale spying. We need new techniques to prevent communications intermediaries from leaking private information.

We can make surveillance expensive again. In particular, we need open protocols, open implementations, open systems — these will be harder for the NSA to subvert.

The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that defines the standards that make the internet run, has a meeting planned for early November in Vancouver. This group needs to dedicate its next meeting to this task. This is an emergency, and demands an emergency response.

Three, we can influence governance. I have resisted saying this up to now, and I am saddened to say it, but the US has proved to be an unethical steward of the Internet. The UK is no better. The NSA’s actions are legitimizing the internet abuses by China, Russia, Iran and others. We need to figure out new means of internet governance, ones that makes it harder for powerful tech countries to monitor everything. For example, we need to demand transparency, oversight, and accountability from our governments and corporations.

Unfortunately, this is going play directly into the hands of totalitarian governments that want to control their country’s Internet for even more extreme forms of surveillance. We need to figure out how to prevent that, too. We need to avoid the mistakes of the International Telecommunications Union, which has become a forum to legitimize bad government behavior, and create truly international governance that can’t be dominated or abused by any one country.

Generations from now, when people look back on these early decades of the Internet, I hope they will not be disappointed in us. We can ensure that they don’t only if each of us makes this a priority, and engages in the debate. We have a moral duty to do this, and we have no time to lose.

Dismantling the surveillance state won’t be easy. Has any country that engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens voluntarily given up that capability? Has any mass surveillance country avoided becoming totalitarian? Whatever happens, we’re going to be breaking new ground.

Again, the politics of this is a bigger task than the engineering, but the engineering is critical. We need to demand that real technologists be involved in any key government decision making on these issues. We’ve had enough of lawyers and politicians not fully understanding technology; we need technologists at the table when we build tech policy.

To the engineers, I say this: we built the Internet, and some of us have helped to subvert it. Now, those of us who love liberty have to fix it.

This essay previously appeared in the Guardian.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread. An opposing view to my call to action. And I agree with this, even though the author presents this as an opposing view to mine.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into German.

Posted on September 15, 2013 at 11:53 AMView Comments

More on the NSA Commandeering the Internet

If there’s any confirmation that the U.S. government has commandeered the Internet for worldwide surveillance, it is what happened with Lavabit earlier this month.

Lavabit is — well, was — an e-mail service that offered more privacy than the typical large-Internet-corporation services that most of us use. It was a small company, owned and operated by Ladar Levison, and it was popular among the tech-savvy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden among its half-million users.

Last month, Levison reportedly received an order — probably a National Security Letter — to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on everyone’s e-mail accounts on Lavabit. Rather than “become complicit in crimes against the American people,” he turned the service off. Note that we don’t know for sure that he received a NSL — that’s the order authorized by the Patriot Act that doesn’t require a judge’s signature and prohibits the recipient from talking about it — or what it covered, but Levison has said that he had complied with requests for individual e-mail access in the past, but this was very different.

So far, we just have an extreme moral act in the face of government pressure. It’s what happened next that is the most chilling. The government threatened him with arrest, arguing that shutting down this e-mail service was a violation of the order.

There it is. If you run a business, and the FBI or NSA want to turn it into a mass surveillance tool, they believe they can do so, solely on their own initiative. They can force you to modify your system. They can do it all in secret and then force your business to keep that secret. Once they do that, you no longer control that part of your business. You can’t shut it down. You can’t terminate part of your service. In a very real sense, it is not your business anymore. It is an arm of the vast U.S. surveillance apparatus, and if your interest conflicts with theirs then they win. Your business has been commandeered.

For most Internet companies, this isn’t a problem. They are already engaging in massive surveillance of their customers and users — collecting and using this data is the primary business model of the Internet — so it’s easy to comply with government demands and give the NSA complete access to everything. This is what we learned from Edward Snowden. Through programs like PRISM, BLARNEY and OAKSTAR, the NSA obtained bulk access to services like Gmail and Facebook, and to Internet backbone connections throughout the US and the rest of the world. But if it were a problem for those companies, presumably the government would not allow them to shut down.

To be fair, we don’t know if the government can actually convict someone of closing a business. It might just be part of their coercion tactics. Intimidation, and retaliation, is part of how the NSA does business.

Former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio has a story of what happens to a large company that refuses to cooperate. In February 2001 — before the 9/11 terrorist attacks — the NSA approached the four major US telecoms and asked for their cooperation in a secret data collection program, the one we now know to be the bulk metadata collection program exposed by Edward Snowden. Qwest was the only telecom to refuse, leaving the NSA with a hole in its spying efforts. The NSA retaliated by canceling a series of big government contracts with Qwest. The company has since been purchased by CenturyLink, which we presume is more cooperative with NSA demands.

That was before the Patriot Act and National Security Letters. Now, presumably, Nacchio would just comply. Protection rackets are easier when you have the law backing you up.

As the Snowden whistleblowing documents continue to be made public, we’re getting further glimpses into the surveillance state that has been secretly growing around us. The collusion of corporate and government surveillance interests is a big part of this, but so is the government’s resorting to intimidation. Every Lavabit-like service that shuts down — and there have been several — gives us consumers less choice, and pushes us into the large services that cooperate with the NSA. It’s past time we demanded that Congress repeal National Security Letters, give us privacy rights in this new information age, and force meaningful oversight on this rogue agency.

This essay previously appeared in USA Today.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Danish.

Posted on August 30, 2013 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.