Entries Tagged "national security policy"

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Bulk Surveillance of Money Transfers

Just another obscure warrantless surveillance program.

US law enforcement can access details of money transfers without a warrant through an obscure surveillance program the Arizona attorney general’s office created in 2014. A database stored at a nonprofit, the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), provides full names and amounts for larger transfers (above $500) sent between the US, Mexico and 22 other regions through services like Western Union, MoneyGram and Viamericas. The program covers data for numerous Caribbean and Latin American countries in addition to Canada, China, France, Malaysia, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine and the US Virgin Islands. Some domestic transfers also enter the data set.


You need to be a member of law enforcement with an active government email account to use the database, which is available through a publicly visible web portal. Leber told The Journal that there haven’t been any known breaches or instances of law enforcement misuse. However, Wyden noted that the surveillance program included more states and countries than previously mentioned in briefings. There have also been subpoenas for bulk money transfer data from Homeland Security Investigations (which withdrew its request after Wyden’s inquiry), the DEA and the FBI.

How is it that Arizona can be in charge of this?

Wall Street Journal podcast—with transcript—on the program. I think the original reporting was from last March, but I missed it back then.

Posted on January 24, 2023 at 7:14 AMView Comments

The US Has a Shortage of Bomb-Sniffing Dogs

Nothing beats a dog’s nose for detecting explosives. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough dogs:

Last month, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a nearly 100-page report about working dogs and the need for federal agencies to better safeguard their health and wellness. The GOA says that as of February the US federal government had approximately 5,100 working dogs, including detection dogs, across three federal agencies. Another 420 dogs “served the federal government in 24 contractor-managed programs within eight departments and two independent agencies,” the GAO report says.

The report also underscores the demands placed on detection dogs and the potential for overwork if there aren’t enough dogs available. “Working dogs might need the strength to suddenly run fast, or to leap over a tall barrier, as well as the physical stamina to stand or walk all day,” the report says. “They might need to search over rubble or in difficult environmental conditions, such as extreme heat or cold, often wearing heavy body armor. They also might spend the day detecting specific scents among thousands of others, requiring intense mental concentration. Each function requires dogs to undergo specialized training.”

A decade and a half ago I was optimistic about bomb-sniffing bees and wasps, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Posted on November 23, 2022 at 11:23 AMView Comments

Regulating DAOs

In August, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the cryptocurrency platform Tornado Cash, a virtual currency “mixer” designed to make it harder to trace cryptocurrency transactions—and a worldwide favorite money-laundering platform. Americans are now forbidden from using it. According to the US government, Tornado Cash was sanctioned because it allegedly laundered over $7 billion in cryptocurrency, $455 million of which was stolen by a North Korean state-sponsored hacking group.

Tornado Cash is not a traditional company run by human beings, but instead a series of “smart contracts”: self-executing code that exists only as software. Critics argue that prohibiting Americans from using Tornado Cash is a restraint of free speech, pointing to court rulings in the 1990s that established that computer language is a form of language, and that software programs are a form of speech. They also suggest that the Treasury Department has the authority to sanction only humans and not software.

We think that the most useful way to understand the speech issues involved with regulating Tornado Cash and other decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) is through an analogy: the golem. There are many versions of the Jewish golem legend, but in most of them, a person-like clay statue comes to life after someone writes the word “truth” in Hebrew on its forehead, and eventually starts doing terrible things. The golem stops only when a rabbi erases one of those letters, turning “truth” into the Hebrew word for “death,” and the golem ceases to function.

The analogy between DAOs and golems is quite precise, and has important consequences for the relationship between free speech and code. Ultimately, just as the golem needed the intervention of a rabbi to stop wreaking havoc on the world, so too do DAOs need to be subject to regulation.

The equivalency of code and free speech was established during the first “crypto wars” of the 1990s, which were about cryptography, not cryptocurrencies. US agencies tried to use export control laws to prevent sophisticated cryptography software from being exported outside the US. Activists and lawyers cleverly showed how code could be transformed into speech and vice versa, turning the source code for a cryptographic product into a printed book and daring US authorities to prevent its export. In 1996, US District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that computer code is a language, just like German or French, and that coded programs deserve First Amendment protection. That such code is also functional, instructing a computer to do something, was irrelevant to its expressive capabilities, according to Patel’s ruling. However, both a concurring and dissenting opinion argued that computer code also has the “functional purpose of controlling computers and, in that regard, does not command protection under the First Amendment.”

This disagreement highlights the awkward distinction between ordinary language and computer code. Language does not change the world, except insofar as it persuades, informs, or compels other people. Code, however, is a language where words have inherent power. Type the appropriate instructions and the computer will implement them without hesitation, second-guessing, or independence of will. They are like the words inscribed on a golem’s forehead (or the written instructions that, in some versions of the folklore, are placed in its mouth). The golem has no choice, because it is incapable of making choices. The words are code, and the golem is no different from a computer.

Unlike ordinary organizations, DAOs don’t rely on human beings to carry out many of their core functions. Instead, those functions have been translated into a set of instructions that are implemented in software. In the case of Tornado Cash, its code exists as part of Ethereum, a widely used cryptocurrency that can also run arbitrary computer code.

Cryptocurrency zealots thought that DAOs would allow them to place their trust in secure computer code, which would do exactly what they wanted it to do, rather than fallible human beings who might fail or cheat. Humans could still have input, but under rules that were enshrined in self-running software. The past several years of DAO activity has taught these zealots a series of painful and expensive lessons on the limits of both computer security and incomplete contracts: Software has bugs, and contracts may do weird things under unanticipated circumstances. The combination frequently results in multimillion-dollar frauds and thefts.

Further complicating the matter is that individual DAOs can have very different rules. DAOs were supposed to create truly decentralized services that could never turn into a source of state power and coercion. Today, some DAOs talk a big game about decentralization, but provide power to founders and big investors like Andreessen Horowitz. Others are deliberately set up to frustrate outside control. Indeed, the creators of Tornado Cash explicitly wanted to create a golem-like entity that would be immune from law. In doing so, they were following in a long libertarian tradition.

In 2014, Gavin Woods, one of Ethereum’s core developers, gave a talk on what he called “allegality” of decentralized software services. Woods’s argument was very simple. Companies like PayPal employ real people and real lawyers. That meant that “if they provide a service to you that is deemed wrong or illegal … then they get fucked … maybe [go] to prison.” But cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin “had no operator.” By using software running on blockchains rather than people to run your organization, you could do an end-run around normal, human law. You could create services that “cannot be shut down. Not by a court, not by a police force, not by a nation state.” People would be able to set whatever rules they wanted, regardless of what any government prohibited.

Woods’s speech helped inspire the first DAO (The DAO), and his ideas live on in Tornado Cash. Tornado Cash was designed, in its founder’s words, “to be unstoppable.” The way the protocol is “designed, decentralized and autonomous …[,] there’s nobody in charge.” The people who ran Tornado Cash used a decentralized protocol running on the Ethereum computing platform, which is itself radically decentralized. But they used indelible ink. The protocol was deliberately instructed never to accept an update command.

Other elements of Tornado Cash—­its website, and the GitHub repository where its source code was stored—­have been taken down. But the protocol that actually mixes cryptocurrency is still available through the Ethereum network, even if it doesn’t have a user-friendly front end. Like a golem that has been set in motion, it will just keep on going, taking in, processing, and returning cryptocurrency according to its original instructions.

This gets us to the argument that the US government, by sanctioning a software program, is restraining free speech. Not only is it more complicated than that, but it’s complicated in ways that undercut this argument. OFAC’s actions aren’t aimed against free speech and the publication of source code, as its clarifications have made clear. Researchers are not prohibited from copying, posting, “discussing, teaching about, or including open-source code in written publications, such as textbooks.” GitHub could potentially still host the source code and the project. OFAC’s actions are aimed at preventing persons from using software applications that undercut one of the most basic functions of government: regulating activities that it deems endangers national security.

The question is whether the First Amendment covers golems. When your words are used not to persuade or argue, but to animate a mindless entity that will exist as long as the Ethereum blockchain exists and will carry out your final instructions no matter what, should your golem be immune from legal action?

When Patel issued her famous ruling, she caustically dismissed the argument that “even one drop of ‘direct functionality'” overwhelmed people’s expressive rights. Arguably, the question with Tornado Cash is whether a possibly notional droplet of free speech expressivity can overwhelm the direct functionality of running code, especially code designed to refuse any further human intervention. The Tornado Cash protocol will accept and implement the routine commands described by its protocol: It will still launder cryptocurrency. But the protocol itself is frozen.

We certainly don’t think that the US government should ban DAOs or code running on Ethereum or other blockchains, or demand any universal right of access to their workings. That would be just as sweeping—and wrong—as the general claim that encrypted messaging results in a “lawless space,” or the contrary notion that regulating code is always a prior restraint on free speech. There is wide scope for legitimate disagreement about government regulation of code and its legal authorities over distributed systems.

However, it’s hard not to sympathize with OFAC’s desire to push back against a radical effort to undermine the very idea of government authority. What would happen if the Tornado Cash approach to the law prevailed? That is, what would be the outcome if judges and politicians decided that entities like Tornado Cash could not be regulated, on free speech or any other grounds?

Likely, anyone who wanted to facilitate illegal activities would have a strong incentive to turn their operation into a DAO—and then throw away the key. Ethereum’s programming language is Turing-complete. That means, as Woods argued back in 2014, that one could turn all kinds of organizational rules into software, whether or not they were against the law.

In practice, it wouldn’t be so easy. Turning business principles into running code is hard, and doing it without creating bugs or loopholes is much harder still. Ethereum and other blockchains still have hard limits on computing power. But human ingenuity can accomplish many things when there’s a lot of money at stake.

People have legitimate reasons for seeking anonymity in their financial transactions, but these reasons need to be weighed against other harms to society. As privacy advocate Cory Doctorow wrote recently: “When you combine anonymity with finance—­not the right to speak anonymously, but the right to run an investment fund anonymously—you’re rolling out the red carpet for serial scammers, who can run a scam, get caught, change names, and run it again, incorporating the lessons they learned.”

It’s a mistake to defend DAOs on the grounds that code is free speech. Some code is speech, but not all code is speech. And code can also directly affect the world. DAOs, which are in essence autonomous golems, made from code rather than clay, make this distinction especially stark.

This will become even more important as robots become more capable and prevalent. Robots are even more obviously golems than DAOs are, performing actions in the physical world. Should their code enjoy a safe harbor from the law? What if robots, like DAOs, are designed to obey only their initial instructions, however unlawful­—and refuse all further updates or commands? Assuming that code is free speech and only free speech, and ignoring its functional purpose, will at best tangle the law up in knots.

Tying free speech arguments to the cause of DAOs like Tornado Cash imperils some of the important free speech victories that were won in the past. But the risks for everyone might be even greater if that argument wins. A world where democratic governments are unable to enforce their laws is not a world where civic spaces or civil liberties will thrive.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

EDITED TO ADD (10/26): Peter Van Valkenburgh wrote a rebuttal to our essay. My co-author responds. And Evan Geer, who started this whole conversation, responds to Henry.

Posted on October 14, 2022 at 9:08 AMView Comments

The Justice Department Will No Longer Charge Security Researchers with Criminal Hacking

Following a recent Supreme Court ruling, the Justice Department will no longer prosecute “good faith” security researchers with cybercrimes:

The policy for the first time directs that good-faith security research should not be charged. Good faith security research means accessing a computer solely for purposes of good-faith testing, investigation, and/or correction of a security flaw or vulnerability, where such activity is carried out in a manner designed to avoid any harm to individuals or the public, and where the information derived from the activity is used primarily to promote the security or safety of the class of devices, machines, or online services to which the accessed computer belongs, or those who use such devices, machines, or online services.


The new policy states explicitly the longstanding practice that “the department’s goals for CFAA enforcement are to promote privacy and cybersecurity by upholding the legal right of individuals, network owners, operators, and other persons to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information stored in their information systems.” Accordingly, the policy clarifies that hypothetical CFAA violations that have concerned some courts and commentators are not to be charged. Embellishing an online dating profile contrary to the terms of service of the dating website; creating fictional accounts on hiring, housing, or rental websites; using a pseudonym on a social networking site that prohibits them; checking sports scores at work; paying bills at work; or violating an access restriction contained in a term of service are not themselves sufficient to warrant federal criminal charges. The policy focuses the department’s resources on cases where a defendant is either not authorized at all to access a computer or was authorized to access one part of a computer—such as one email account—and, despite knowing about that restriction, accessed a part of the computer to which his authorized access did not extend, such as other users’ emails.

News article.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Josephine Wolff writes about this update.

Posted on May 24, 2022 at 6:11 AMView Comments

ICE Is a Domestic Surveillance Agency

Georgetown has a new report on the highly secretive bulk surveillance activities of ICE in the US:

When you think about government surveillance in the United States, you likely think of the National Security Agency or the FBI. You might even think of a powerful police agency, such as the New York Police Department. But unless you or someone you love has been targeted for deportation, you probably don’t immediately think of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This report argues that you should. Our two-year investigation, including hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests and a comprehensive review of ICE’s contracting and procurement records, reveals that ICE now operates as a domestic surveillance agency. Since its founding in 2003, ICE has not only been building its own capacity to use surveillance to carry out deportations but has also played a key role in the federal government’s larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives. By reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies, ICE has created a surveillance infrastructure that enables it to pull detailed dossiers on nearly anyone, seemingly at any time. In its efforts to arrest and deport, ICE has—without any judicial, legislative or public oversight—reached into datasets containing personal information about the vast majority of people living in the U.S., whose records can end up in the hands of immigration enforcement simply because they apply for driver’s licenses; drive on the roads; or sign up with their local utilities to get access to heat, water and electricity.

ICE has built its dragnet surveillance system by crossing legal and ethical lines, leveraging the trust that people place in state agencies and essential service providers, and exploiting the vulnerability of people who volunteer their information to reunite with their families. Despite the incredible scope and evident civil rights implications of ICE’s surveillance practices, the agency has managed to shroud those practices in near-total secrecy, evading enforcement of even the handful of laws and policies that could be invoked to impose limitations. Federal and state lawmakers, for the most part, have yet to confront this reality.

EDITED TO ADD (5/13): A news article.

Posted on May 11, 2022 at 9:24 AMView Comments

Corporate Involvement in International Cybersecurity Treaties

The Paris Call for Trust and Stability in Cyberspace is an initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron during the 2018 UNESCO’s Internet Governance Forum. It’s an attempt by the world’s governments to come together and create a set of international norms and standards for a reliable, trustworthy, safe, and secure Internet. It’s not an international treaty, but it does impose obligations on the signatories. It’s a major milestone for global Internet security and safety.

Corporate interests are all over this initiative, sponsoring and managing different parts of the process. As part of the Call, the French company Cigref and the Russian company Kaspersky chaired a working group on cybersecurity processes, along with French research center GEODE. Another working group on international norms was chaired by US company Microsoft and Finnish company F-Secure, along with a University of Florence research center. A third working group’s participant list includes more corporations than any other group.

As a result, this process has become very different than previous international negotiations. Instead of governments coming together to create standards, it is being drive by the very corporations that the new international regulatory climate is supposed to govern. This is wrong.

The companies making the tools and equipment being regulated shouldn’t be the ones negotiating the international regulatory climate, and their executives shouldn’t be named to key negotiation roles without appointment and confirmation. It’s an abdication of responsibility by the US government for something that is too important to be treated this cavalierly.

On the one hand, this is no surprise. The notions of trust and stability in cyberspace are about much more than international safety and security. They’re about market share and corporate profits. And corporations have long led policymakers in the fast-moving and highly technological battleground that is cyberspace.

The international Internet has always relied on what is known as a multistakeholder model, where those who show up and do the work can be more influential than those in charge of governments. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that agrees on the technical protocols that make the Internet work, is largely run by volunteer individuals. This worked best during the Internet’s era of benign neglect, where no one but the technologists cared. Today, it’s different. Corporate and government interests dominate, even if the individuals involved use the polite fiction of their own names and personal identities.

However, we are a far cry from decades past, where the Internet was something that governments didn’t understand and largely ignored. Today, the Internet is an essential infrastructure that underpins much of society, and its governance structure is something that nations care about deeply. Having for-profit tech companies run the Paris Call process on regulating tech is analogous to putting the defense contractors Northrop Grumman or Boeing in charge of the 1970s SALT nuclear agreements between the US and the Soviet Union.

This also isn’t the first time that US corporations have led what should be an international relations process regarding the Internet. Since he first gave a speech on the topic in 2017, Microsoft President Brad Smith has become almost synonymous with the term “Digital Geneva Convention.” It’s not just that corporations in the US and elsewhere are taking a lead on international diplomacy, they’re framing the debate down to the words and the concepts.

Why is this happening? Different countries have their own problems, but we can point to three that currently plague the US.

First and foremost, “cyber” still isn’t taken seriously by much of the government, specifically the State Department. It’s not real to the older military veterans, or to the even older politicians who confuse Facebook with TikTok and use the same password for everything. It’s not even a topic area for negotiations for the US Trade Representative. Nuclear disarmament is “real geopolitics,” while the Internet is still, even now, seen as vaguely magical, and something that can be “fixed” by having the nerds yank plugs out of a wall.

Second, the State Department was gutted during the Trump years. It lost many of the up-and-coming public servants who understood the way the world was changing. The work of previous diplomats to increase the visibility of the State Department’s cyber efforts was abandoned. There are few left on staff to do this work, and even fewer to decide if they’re any good. It’s hard to hire senior information security professionals in the best of circumstances; it’s why charlatans so easily flourish in the cybersecurity field. The built-up skill set of the people who poured their effort and time into this work during the Obama years is gone.

Third, there’s a power struggle at the heart of the US government involving cyber issues, between the White House, the Department of Homeland Security (represented by CISA), and the military (represented by US Cyber Command). Trying to create another cyber center of power within the State Department threatens those existing powers. It’s easier to leave it in the hands of private industry, which does not affect those government organizations’ budgets or turf.

We don’t want to go back to the era when only governments set technological standards. The governance model from the days of the telephone is another lesson in how not to do things. The International Telecommunications Union is an agency run out of the United Nations. It is moribund and ponderous precisely because it is run by national governments, with civil society and corporations largely alienated from the decision-making processes.

Today, the Internet is fundamental to global society. It’s part of everything. It affects national security and will be a theater in any future war. How individuals, corporations, and governments act in cyberspace is critical to our future. The Internet is critical infrastructure. It provides and controls access to healthcare, space, the military, water, energy, education, and nuclear weaponry. How it is regulated isn’t just something that will affect the future. It is the future.

Since the Paris Call was finalized in 2018, it has been signed by 81 countries—including the US in 2021—36 local governments and public authorities, 706 companies and private organizations, and 390 civil society groups. The Paris Call isn’t the first international agreement that puts companies on an equal signatory footing as governments. The Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism and the Christchurch Call to eliminate extremist content online do the same thing. But the Paris Call is different. It’s bigger. It’s more important. It’s something that should be the purview of governments and not a vehicle for corporate power and profit.

When something as important as the Paris Call comes along again, perhaps in UN negotiations for a cybercrime treaty, we call for actual State Department officials with technical expertise to be sitting at the table with the interests of the entire US in their pocket…not people with equity shares to protect.

This essay was written with Tarah Wheeler, and previously published on The Cipher Brief.

Posted on May 6, 2022 at 6:01 AMView Comments

US Disrupts Russian Botnet

The Justice Department announced the disruption of a Russian GRU-controlled botnet:

The Justice Department today announced a court-authorized operation, conducted in March 2022, to disrupt a two-tiered global botnet of thousands of infected network hardware devices under the control of a threat actor known to security researchers as Sandworm, which the U.S. government has previously attributed to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (the GRU). The operation copied and removed malware from vulnerable internet-connected firewall devices that Sandworm used for command and control (C2) of the underlying botnet. Although the operation did not involve access to the Sandworm malware on the thousands of underlying victim devices worldwide, referred to as “bots,” the disabling of the C2 mechanism severed those bots from the Sandworm C2 devices’ control.

The botnet “targets network devices manufactured by WatchGuard Technologies Inc. (WatchGuard) and ASUSTek Computer Inc. (ASUS).” And note that only the command-and-control mechanism was disrupted. Those devices are still vulnerable.

The Justice Department made a point that they did this before the botnet was used for anything offensive.

Four more news articles. Slashdot post.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): WatchGuard knew and fixed it nearly a year ago, but tried to keep it hidden. The patches were reverse-engineered.

Posted on April 7, 2022 at 9:31 AMView Comments

NASA’s Insider Threat Program

The Office of Inspector General has audited NASA’s insider threat program:

While NASA has a fully operational insider threat program for its classified systems, the vast majority of the Agency’s information technology (IT) systems—including many containing high-value assets or critical infrastructure—are unclassified and are therefore not covered by its current insider threat program. Consequently, the Agency may be facing a higher-than-necessary risk to its unclassified systems and data. While NASA’s exclusion of unclassified systems from its insider threat program is common among federal agencies, adding those systems to a multi-faceted security program could provide an additional level of maturity to the program and better protect agency resources. According to Agency officials, expanding the insider threat program to unclassified systems would benefit the Agency’s cybersecurity posture if incremental improvements, such as focusing on IT systems and people at the most risk, were implemented. However, on-going concerns including staffing challenges, technology resource limitations, and lack of funding to support such an expansion would need to be addressed prior to enhancing the existing program.

Further amplifying the complexities of insider threats are the cross-discipline challenges surrounding cybersecurity expertise. At NASA, responsibilities for unclassified systems are largely shared between the Office of Protective Services and the Office of the Chief Information Officer. In addition, Agency contracts are managed by the Office of Procurement while grants and cooperative agreements are managed by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Nonetheless, in our view, mitigating the risk of an insider threat is a team sport in which a comprehensive insider threat risk assessment would allow the Agency to gather key information on weak spots or gaps in administrative processes and cybersecurity. At a time when there is growing concern about the continuing threats of foreign influence, taking the proactive step to conduct a risk assessment to evaluate NASA’s unclassified systems ensures that gaps cannot be exploited in ways that undermine the Agency’s ability to carry out its mission.

Posted on March 23, 2022 at 6:16 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.