A National Security Agency system that analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls and text messages cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019, but yielded only a single significant investigation, according to a newly declassified study.
Moreover, only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already possess, said the study, which was produced by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and briefed to Congress on Tuesday.
The privacy board, working with the intelligence community, got several additional salient facts declassified as part of the rollout of its report. Among them, it officially disclosed that the system has gained access to Americans’ cellphone records, not just logs of landline phone calls.
It also disclosed that in the four years the Freedom Act system was operational, the National Security Agency produced 15 intelligence reports derived from it. The other 13, however, contained information the F.B.I. had already collected through other means, like ordinary subpoenas to telephone companies.
The report cited two investigations in which the National Security Agency produced reports derived from the program: its analysis of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., in June 2016 and of the November 2016 attack at Ohio State University by a man who drove his car into people and slashed at them with a machete. But it did not say whether the investigations into either of those attacks were connected to the two intelligence reports that provided unique information not already in the possession of the F.B.I.
Entries Tagged "NSA"
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Jim Sanborn, who designed the Kryptos sculpture in a CIA courtyard, has released another clue to the still-unsolved part 4. I think he’s getting tired of waiting.
Did we mention Mr. Sanborn is 74?
Holding on to one of the world’s most enticing secrets can be stressful. Some would-be codebreakers have appeared at his home.
Many felt they had solved the puzzle, and wanted to check with Mr. Sanborn. Sometimes forcefully. Sometimes, in person.
Elonka Dunin, a game developer and consultant who has created a rich page of background information on the sculpture and oversees the best known online community of thousands of Kryptos fans, said that some who contact her (sometimes also at home) are obsessive and appear to have tipped into mental illness. “I am always gentle to them and do my best to listen to them,” she said.
Mr. Sanborn has set up systems to allow people to check their proposed solutions without having to contact him directly. The most recent incarnation is an email-based process with a fee of $50 to submit a potential solution. He receives regular inquiries, so far none of them successful.
The ongoing process is exhausting, he said, adding “It’s not something I thought I would be doing 30 years on.”
Another news article.
EDITED TO ADD (2/13): Another article.
I have a related personal story. Back in 1993, during the first Crypto Wars, I and a handful of other academic cryptographers visited the NSA for some meeting or another. These sorts of security awareness posters were everywhere, but there was one I especially liked — and I asked for a copy. I have no idea who, but someone at the NSA mailed it to me. It’s currently framed and on my wall.
I’ll bet that the NSA didn’t get permission from Jay Ward Productions.
Tell me your favorite in the comments.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the corporate surveillance operations from the government ones:
Google reportedly has a database called Sensorvault in which it stores location data for millions of devices going back almost a decade.
The article is about geofence warrants, where the police go to companies like Google and ask for information about every device in a particular geographic area at a particular time. In 2013, we learned from Edward Snowden that the NSA does this worldwide. Its program is called CO-TRAVELLER. The NSA claims it stopped doing that in 2014 — probably just stopped doing it in the US — but why should it bother when the government can just get the data from Google.
Yesterday’s Microsoft Windows patches included a fix for a critical vulnerability in the system’s crypto library.
A spoofing vulnerability exists in the way Windows CryptoAPI (Crypt32.dll) validates Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) certificates.
An attacker could exploit the vulnerability by using a spoofed code-signing certificate to sign a malicious executable, making it appear the file was from a trusted, legitimate source. The user would have no way of knowing the file was malicious, because the digital signature would appear to be from a trusted provider.
A successful exploit could also allow the attacker to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks and decrypt confidential information on user connections to the affected software.
That’s really bad, and you should all patch your system right now, before you finish reading this blog post.
This is a zero-day vulnerability, meaning that it was not detected in the wild before the patch was released. It was discovered by security researchers. Interestingly, it was discovered by NSA security researchers, and the NSA security advisory gives a lot more information about it than the Microsoft advisory does.
Exploitation of the vulnerability allows attackers to defeat trusted network connections and deliver executable code while appearing as legitimately trusted entities. Examples where validation of trust may be impacted include:
- HTTPS connections
- Signed files and emails
- Signed executable code launched as user-mode processes
The vulnerability places Windows endpoints at risk to a broad range of exploitation vectors. NSA assesses the vulnerability to be severe and that sophisticated cyber actors will understand the underlying flaw very quickly and, if exploited, would render the previously mentioned platforms as fundamentally vulnerable.The consequences of not patching the vulnerability are severe and widespread. Remote exploitation tools will likely be made quickly and widely available.Rapid adoption of the patch is the only known mitigation at this time and should be the primary focus for all network owners.
Early yesterday morning, NSA’s Cybersecurity Directorate head Anne Neuberger hosted a media call where she talked about the vulnerability and — to my shock — took questions from the attendees. According to her, the NSA discovered this vulnerability as part of its security research. (If it found it in some other nation’s cyberweapons stash — my personal favorite theory — she declined to say.) She did not answer when asked how long ago the NSA discovered the vulnerability. She said that this is not the first time the NSA sent Microsoft a vulnerability to fix, but it was the first time it has publicly taken credit for the discovery. The reason is that the NSA is trying to rebuild trust with the security community, and this disclosure is a result of its new initiative to share findings more quickly and more often.
Barring any other information, I would take the NSA at its word here. So, good for it.
And — seriously — patch your systems now: Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016/2019. Assume that this vulnerability has already been weaponized, probably by criminals and certainly by major governments. Even assume that the NSA is using this vulnerability — why wouldn’t it?
EDITED TO ADD: Washington Post article.
EDITED TO ADD (1/16): The attack was demonstrated in less than 24 hours.
Brian Krebs blog post.
The NSA has released a security advisory warning of the dangers of TLS inspection:
Transport Layer Security Inspection (TLSI), also known as TLS break and inspect, is a security process that allows enterprises to decrypt traffic, inspect the decrypted content for threats, and then re-encrypt the traffic before it enters or leaves the network. Introducing this capability into an enterprise enhances visibility within boundary security products, but introduces new risks. These risks, while not inconsequential, do have mitigations.
The primary risk involved with TLSI’s embedded CA is the potential abuse of the CA to issue unauthorized certificates trusted by the TLS clients. Abuse of a trusted CA can allow an adversary to sign malicious code to bypass host IDS/IPSs or to deploy malicious services that impersonate legitimate enterprise services to the hosts.
A further risk of introducing TLSI is that an adversary can focus their exploitation efforts on a single device where potential traffic of interest is decrypted, rather than try to exploit each location where the data is stored.Setting a policy to enforce that traffic is decrypted and inspected only as authorized, and ensuring that decrypted traffic is contained in an out-of-band, isolated segment of the network prevents unauthorized access to the decrypted traffic.
To minimize the risks described above, breaking and inspecting TLS traffic should only be conducted once within the enterprise network. Redundant TLSI, wherein a client-server traffic flow is decrypted, inspected, and re-encrypted by one forward proxy and is then forwarded to a second forward proxy for more of the same,should not be performed.Inspecting multiple times can greatly complicate diagnosing network issues with TLS traffic. Also, multi-inspection further obscures certificates when trying to ascertain whether a server should be trusted. In this case, the “outermost” proxy makes the decisions on what server certificates or CAs should be trusted and is the only location where certificate pinning can be performed.Finally, a single TLSI implementation is sufficient for detecting encrypted traffic threats; additional TLSI will have access to the same traffic. If the first TLSI implementation detected a threat, killed the session, and dropped the traffic, then additional TLSI implementations would be rendered useless since they would not even receive the dropped traffic for further inspection. Redundant TLSI increases the risk surface, provides additional opportunities for adversaries to gain unauthorized access to decrypted traffic, and offers no additional benefits.
Nothing surprising or novel. No operational information about who might be implementing these attacks. No classified information revealed.
In an extraordinary essay, the former FBI general counsel Jim Baker makes the case for strong encryption over government-mandated backdoors:
In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities — including law enforcement — to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.
I am unaware of a technical solution that will effectively and simultaneously reconcile all of the societal interests at stake in the encryption debate, such as public safety, cybersecurity and privacy as well as simultaneously fostering innovation and the economic competitiveness of American companies in a global marketplace.
All public safety officials should think of protecting the cybersecurity of the United States as an essential part of their core mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And they should be doing so even if there will be real and painful costs associated with such a cybersecurity-forward orientation. The stakes are too high and our current cybersecurity situation too grave to adopt a different approach.
Basically, he argues that the security value of strong encryption greatly outweighs the security value of encryption that can be bypassed. He endorses a “defense dominant” strategy for Internet security.
Keep in mind that Baker led the FBI’s legal case against Apple regarding the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. In writing this piece, Baker joins the growing list of former law enforcement and national security senior officials who have come out in favor of strong encryption over backdoors: Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, Richard Clarke, Ash Carter, William Lynn, and Mike McConnell.
Edward Snowden also agrees.
EDITED TO ADD: Good commentary from Cory Doctorow.
Glenn Gerstell, the General Counsel of the NSA, wrote a long and interesting op-ed for the New York Times where he outlined a long list of cyber risks facing the US.
There are four key implications of this revolution that policymakers in the national security sector will need to address:
The first is that the unprecedented scale and pace of technological change will outstrip our ability to effectively adapt to it. Second, we will be in a world of ceaseless and pervasive cyberinsecurity and cyberconflict against nation-states, businesses and individuals. Third, the flood of data about human and machine activity will put such extraordinary economic and political power in the hands of the private sector that it will transform the fundamental relationship, at least in the Western world, between government and the private sector. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the digital revolution has the potential for a pernicious effect on the very legitimacy and thus stability of our governmental and societal structures.
He then goes on to explain these four implications. It’s all interesting, and it’s the sort of stuff you don’t generally hear from the NSA. He talks about technological changes causing social changes, and the need for people who understand that. (Hooray for public-interest technologists.) He talks about national security infrastructure in private hands, at least in the US. He talks about a massive geopolitical restructuring — a fundamental change in the relationship between private tech corporations and government. He talks about recalibrating the Fourth Amendment (of course).
The essay is more about the problems than the solutions, but there is a bit at the end:
The first imperative is that our national security agencies must quickly accept this forthcoming reality and embrace the need for significant changes to address these challenges. This will have to be done in short order, since the digital revolution’s pace will soon outstrip our ability to deal with it, and it will have to be done at a time when our national security agencies are confronted with complex new geopolitical threats.
Much of what needs to be done is easy to see — developing the requisite new technologies and attracting and retaining the expertise needed for that forthcoming reality. What is difficult is executing the solution to those challenges, most notably including whether our nation has the resources and political will to effect that solution. The roughly $60 billion our nation spends annually on the intelligence community might have to be significantly increased during a time of intense competition over the federal budget. Even if the amount is indeed so increased, spending additional vast sums to meet the challenges in an effective way will be a daunting undertaking. Fortunately, the same digital revolution that presents these novel challenges also sometimes provides the new tools (A.I., for example) to deal with them.
The second imperative is we must adapt to the unavoidable conclusion that the fundamental relationship between government and the private sector will be greatly altered. The national security agencies must have a vital role in reshaping that balance if they are to succeed in their mission to protect our democracy and keep our citizens safe. While there will be good reasons to increase the resources devoted to the intelligence community, other factors will suggest that an increasing portion of the mission should be handled by the private sector. In short, addressing the challenges will not necessarily mean that the national security sector will become massively large, with the associated risks of inefficiency, insufficient coordination and excessively intrusive surveillance and data retention.
A smarter approach would be to recognize that as the capabilities of the private sector increase, the scope of activities of the national security agencies could become significantly more focused, undertaking only those activities in which government either has a recognized advantage or must be the only actor. A greater burden would then be borne by the private sector.
It’s an extraordinary essay, less for its contents and more for the speaker. This is not the sort of thing the NSA publishes. The NSA doesn’t opine on broad technological trends and their social implications. It doesn’t publicly try to predict the future. It doesn’t philosophize for 6000 unclassified words. And, given how hard it would be to get something like this approved for public release, I am left to wonder what the purpose of the essay is. Is the NSA trying to lay the groundwork for some policy initiative ? Some legislation? A budget request? What?
Charlie Warzel has a snarky response. His conclusion about the purpose:
He argues that the piece “is not in the spirit of forecasting doom, but rather to sound an alarm.” Translated: Congress, wake up. Pay attention. We’ve seen the future and it is a sweaty, pulsing cyber night terror. So please give us money (the word “money” doesn’t appear in the text, but the word “resources” appears eight times and “investment” shows up 11 times).
Susan Landau has a more considered response, which is well worth reading. She calls the essay a proposal for a moonshot (which is another way of saying “they want money”). And she has some important pushbacks on the specifics.
I don’t expect the general counsel and I will agree on what the answers to these questions should be. But I strongly concur on the importance of the questions and that the United States does not have time to waste in responding to them. And I thank him for raising these issues in so public a way.
I agree with Landau.
The Department of Justice wants access to encrypted consumer devices but promises not to infiltrate business products or affect critical infrastructure. Yet that’s not possible, because there is no longer any difference between those categories of devices. Consumer devices are critical infrastructure. They affect national security. And it would be foolish to weaken them, even at the request of law enforcement.
In his keynote address at the International Conference on Cybersecurity, Attorney General William Barr argued that companies should weaken encryption systems to gain access to consumer devices for criminal investigations. Barr repeated a common fallacy about a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer encryption: “After all, we are not talking about protecting the nation’s nuclear launch codes. Nor are we necessarily talking about the customized encryption used by large business enterprises to protect their operations. We are talking about consumer products and services such as messaging, smart phones, e-mail, and voice and data applications.”
The thing is, that distinction between military and consumer products largely doesn’t exist. All of those “consumer products” Barr wants access to are used by government officials — heads of state, legislators, judges, military commanders and everyone else — worldwide. They’re used by election officials, police at all levels, nuclear power plant operators, CEOs and human rights activists. They’re critical to national security as well as personal security.
This wasn’t true during much of the Cold War. Before the Internet revolution, military-grade electronics were different from consumer-grade. Military contracts drove innovation in many areas, and those sectors got the cool new stuff first. That started to change in the 1980s, when consumer electronics started to become the place where innovation happened. The military responded by creating a category of military hardware called COTS: commercial off-the-shelf technology. More consumer products became approved for military applications. Today, pretty much everything that doesn’t have to be hardened for battle is COTS and is the exact same product purchased by consumers. And a lot of battle-hardened technologies are the same computer hardware and software products as the commercial items, but in sturdier packaging.
Through the mid-1990s, there was a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer-grade encryption. Laws regulated encryption as a munition and limited what could legally be exported only to key lengths that were easily breakable. That changed with the rise of Internet commerce, because the needs of commercial applications more closely mirrored the needs of the military. Today, the predominant encryption algorithm for commercial applications — Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) — is approved by the National Security Agency (NSA) to secure information up to the level of Top Secret. The Department of Defense’s classified analogs of the Internet — Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and probably others whose names aren’t yet public — use the same Internet protocols, software, and hardware that the rest of the world does, albeit with additional physical controls. And the NSA routinely assists in securing business and consumer systems, including helping Google defend itself from Chinese hackers in 2010.
Yes, there are some military applications that are different. The US nuclear system Barr mentions is one such example — and it uses ancient computers and 8-inch floppy drives. But for pretty much everything that doesn’t see active combat, it’s modern laptops, iPhones, the same Internet everyone else uses, and the same cloud services.
This is also true for corporate applications. Corporations rarely use customized encryption to protect their operations. They also use the same types of computers, networks, and cloud services that the government and consumers use. Customized security is both more expensive because it is unique, and less secure because it’s nonstandard and untested.
During the Cold War, the NSA had the dual mission of attacking Soviet computers and communications systems and defending domestic counterparts. It was possible to do both simultaneously only because the two systems were different at every level. Today, the entire world uses Internet protocols; iPhones and Android phones; and iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal to secure their chats. Consumer-grade encryption is the same as military-grade encryption, and consumer security is the same as national security.
Barr can’t weaken consumer systems without also weakening commercial, government, and military systems. There’s one world, one network, and one answer. As a matter of policy, the nation has to decide which takes precedence: offense or defense. If security is deliberately weakened, it will be weakened for everybody. And if security is strengthened, it is strengthened for everybody. It’s time to accept the fact that these systems are too critical to society to weaken. Everyone will be more secure with stronger encryption, even if it means the bad guys get to use that encryption as well.
This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.
Interesting analysis: “Examining the Anomalies, Explaining the Value: Should the USA FREEDOM Act’s Metadata Program be Extended?” by Susan Landau and Asaf Lubin.
Abstract: The telephony metadata program which was authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, remains one of the most controversial programs launched by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Under the program major U.S. carriers were ordered to provide NSA with daily Call Detail Records (CDRs) for all communications to, from, or within the United States. The Snowden disclosures and the public controversy that followed led Congress in 2015 to end bulk collection and amend the CDR authorities with the adoption of the USA FREEDOM Act (UFA).
For a time, the new program seemed to be functioning well. Nonetheless, three issues emerged around the program. The first concern was over high numbers: in both 2016 and 2017, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued 40 orders for collection, but the NSA collected hundreds of millions of CDRs, and the agency provided little clarification for the high numbers. The second emerged in June 2018 when the NSA announced the purging of three years’ worth of CDR records for “technical irregularities.” Finally, in March 2019 it was reported that the NSA had decided to completely abandon the program and not seek its renewal as it is due to sunset in late 2019.
This paper sheds significant light on all three of these concerns. First, we carefully analyze the numbers, showing how forty orders might lead to the collection of several million CDRs, thus offering a model to assist in understanding Intelligence Community transparency reporting across its surveillance programs. Second, we show how the architecture of modern telephone communications might cause collection errors that fit the reported reasons for the 2018 purge. Finally, we show how changes in the terrorist threat environment as well as in the technology and communication methods they employ in particular the deployment of asynchronous encrypted IP-based communications has made the telephony metadata program far less beneficial over time. We further provide policy recommendations for Congress to increase effective intelligence oversight.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.