Entries Tagged "privacy"

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AI and Mass Spying

Spying and surveillance are different but related things. If I hired a private detective to spy on you, that detective could hide a bug in your home or car, tap your phone, and listen to what you said. At the end, I would get a report of all the conversations you had and the contents of those conversations. If I hired that same private detective to put you under surveillance, I would get a different report: where you went, whom you talked to, what you purchased, what you did.

Before the internet, putting someone under surveillance was expensive and time-consuming. You had to manually follow someone around, noting where they went, whom they talked to, what they purchased, what they did, and what they read. That world is forever gone. Our phones track our locations. Credit cards track our purchases. Apps track whom we talk to, and e-readers know what we read. Computers collect data about what we’re doing on them, and as both storage and processing have become cheaper, that data is increasingly saved and used. What was manual and individual has become bulk and mass. Surveillance has become the business model of the internet, and there’s no reasonable way for us to opt out of it.

Spying is another matter. It has long been possible to tap someone’s phone or put a bug in their home and/or car, but those things still require someone to listen to and make sense of the conversations. Yes, spyware companies like NSO Group help the government hack into people’s phones, but someone still has to sort through all the conversations. And governments like China could censor social media posts based on particular words or phrases, but that was coarse and easy to bypass. Spying is limited by the need for human labor.

AI is about to change that. Summarization is something a modern generative AI system does well. Give it an hourlong meeting, and it will return a one-page summary of what was said. Ask it to search through millions of conversations and organize them by topic, and it’ll do that. Want to know who is talking about what? It’ll tell you.

The technologies aren’t perfect; some of them are pretty primitive. They miss things that are important. They get other things wrong. But so do humans. And, unlike humans, AI tools can be replicated by the millions and are improving at astonishing rates. They’ll get better next year, and even better the year after that. We are about to enter the era of mass spying.

Mass surveillance fundamentally changed the nature of surveillance. Because all the data is saved, mass surveillance allows people to conduct surveillance backward in time, and without even knowing whom specifically you want to target. Tell me where this person was last year. List all the red sedans that drove down this road in the past month. List all of the people who purchased all the ingredients for a pressure cooker bomb in the past year. Find me all the pairs of phones that were moving toward each other, turned themselves off, then turned themselves on again an hour later while moving away from each other (a sign of a secret meeting).

Similarly, mass spying will change the nature of spying. All the data will be saved. It will all be searchable, and understandable, in bulk. Tell me who has talked about a particular topic in the past month, and how discussions about that topic have evolved. Person A did something; check if someone told them to do it. Find everyone who is plotting a crime, or spreading a rumor, or planning to attend a political protest.

There’s so much more. To uncover an organizational structure, look for someone who gives similar instructions to a group of people, then all the people they have relayed those instructions to. To find people’s confidants, look at whom they tell secrets to. You can track friendships and alliances as they form and break, in minute detail. In short, you can know everything about what everybody is talking about.

This spying is not limited to conversations on our phones or computers. Just as cameras everywhere fueled mass surveillance, microphones everywhere will fuel mass spying. Siri and Alexa and “Hey Google” are already always listening; the conversations just aren’t being saved yet.

Knowing that they are under constant surveillance changes how people behave. They conform. They self-censor, with the chilling effects that brings. Surveillance facilitates social control, and spying will only make this worse. Governments around the world already use mass surveillance; they will engage in mass spying as well.

Corporations will spy on people. Mass surveillance ushered in the era of personalized advertisements; mass spying will supercharge that industry. Information about what people are talking about, their moods, their secrets—it’s all catnip for marketers looking for an edge. The tech monopolies that are currently keeping us all under constant surveillance won’t be able to resist collecting and using all of that data.

In the early days of Gmail, Google talked about using people’s Gmail content to serve them personalized ads. The company stopped doing it, almost certainly because the keyword data it collected was so poor—and therefore not useful for marketing purposes. That will soon change. Maybe Google won’t be the first to spy on its users’ conversations, but once others start, they won’t be able to resist. Their true customers—their advertisers—will demand it.

We could limit this capability. We could prohibit mass spying. We could pass strong data-privacy rules. But we haven’t done anything to limit mass surveillance. Why would spying be any different?

This essay originally appeared in Slate.

Posted on December 5, 2023 at 7:10 AMView Comments

Secret White House Warrantless Surveillance Program

There seems to be no end to warrantless surveillance:

According to the letter, a surveillance program now known as Data Analytical Services (DAS) has for more than a decade allowed federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to mine the details of Americans’ calls, analyzing the phone records of countless people who are not suspected of any crime, including victims. Using a technique known as chain analysis, the program targets not only those in direct phone contact with a criminal suspect but anyone with whom those individuals have been in contact as well.

The DAS program, formerly known as Hemisphere, is run in coordination with the telecom giant AT&T, which captures and conducts analysis of US call records for law enforcement agencies, from local police and sheriffs’ departments to US customs offices and postal inspectors across the country, according to a White House memo reviewed by WIRED. Records show that the White House has, for the past decade, provided more than $6 million to the program, which allows the targeting of the records of any calls that use AT&T’s infrastructure—­a maze of routers and switches that crisscross the United States.

Posted on November 27, 2023 at 6:59 AMView Comments

Decoupling for Security

This is an excerpt from a longer paper. You can read the whole thing (complete with sidebars and illustrations) here.

Our message is simple: it is possible to get the best of both worlds. We can and should get the benefits of the cloud while taking security back into our own hands. Here we outline a strategy for doing that.

What Is Decoupling?

In the last few years, a slew of ideas old and new have converged to reveal a path out of this morass, but they haven’t been widely recognized, combined, or used. These ideas, which we’ll refer to in the aggregate as “decoupling,” allow us to rethink both security and privacy.

Here’s the gist. The less someone knows, the less they can put you and your data at risk. In security this is called Least Privilege. The decoupling principle applies that idea to cloud services by making sure systems know as little as possible while doing their jobs. It states that we gain security and privacy by separating private data that today is unnecessarily concentrated.

To unpack that a bit, consider the three primary modes for working with our data as we use cloud services: data in motion, data at rest, and data in use. We should decouple them all.

Our data is in motion as we exchange traffic with cloud services such as videoconferencing servers, remote file-storage systems, and other content-delivery networks. Our data at rest, while sometimes on individual devices, is usually stored or backed up in the cloud, governed by cloud provider services and policies. And many services use the cloud to do extensive processing on our data, sometimes without our consent or knowledge. Most services involve more than one of these modes.

To ensure that cloud services do not learn more than they should, and that a breach of one does not pose a fundamental threat to our data, we need two types of decoupling. The first is organizational decoupling: dividing private information among organizations such that none knows the totality of what is going on. The second is functional decoupling: splitting information among layers of software. Identifiers used to authenticate users, for example, should be kept separate from identifiers used to connect their devices to the network.

In designing decoupled systems, cloud providers should be considered potential threats, whether due to malice, negligence, or greed. To verify that decoupling has been done right, we can learn from how we think about encryption: you’ve encrypted properly if you’re comfortable sending your message with your adversary’s communications system. Similarly, you’ve decoupled properly if you’re comfortable using cloud services that have been split across a noncolluding group of adversaries.

Read the full essay

This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

Posted on November 8, 2023 at 7:08 AMView Comments

Spyware in India

Apple has warned leaders of the opposition government in India that their phones are being spied on:

Multiple top leaders of India’s opposition parties and several journalists have received a notification from Apple, saying that “Apple believes you are being targeted by state-sponsored attackers who are trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID ….”

AccessNow puts this in context:

For India to uphold fundamental rights, authorities must initiate an immediate independent inquiry, implement a ban on the use of rights-abusing commercial spyware, and make a commitment to reform the country’s surveillance laws. These latest warnings build on repeated instances of cyber intrusion and spyware usage, and highlights the surveillance impunity in India that continues to flourish despite the public outcry triggered by the 2019 Pegasus Project revelations.

Posted on November 2, 2023 at 7:07 AMView Comments

Messaging Service Wiretap Discovered through Expired TLS Cert

Fascinating story of a covert wiretap that was discovered because of an expired TLS certificate:

The suspected man-in-the-middle attack was identified when the administrator of jabber.ru, the largest Russian XMPP service, received a notification that one of the servers’ certificates had expired.

However, jabber.ru found no expired certificates on the server, ­ as explained in a blog post by ValdikSS, a pseudonymous anti-censorship researcher based in Russia who collaborated on the investigation.

The expired certificate was instead discovered on a single port being used by the service to establish an encrypted Transport Layer Security (TLS) connection with users. Before it had expired, it would have allowed someone to decrypt the traffic being exchanged over the service.

Posted on October 27, 2023 at 7:01 AMView Comments

New NSA Information from (and about) Snowden

Interesting article about the Snowden documents, including comments from former Guardian editor Ewen MacAskill.

MacAskill, who shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for their journalistic work on the Snowden files, retired from The Guardian in 2018. He told Computer Weekly that:

  • As far as he knows, a copy of the documents is still locked in the New York Times office. Although the files are in the New York Times office, The Guardian retains responsibility for them.
  • As to why the New York Times has not published them in a decade, MacAskill maintains “this is a complicated issue.” “There is, at the very least, a case to be made for keeping them for future generations of historians,” he said.
  • Why was only 1% of the Snowden archive published by the journalists who had full access to it? Ewen MacAskill replied: “The main reason for only a small percentage—though, given the mass of documents, 1% is still a lot—was diminishing interest.”


The Guardian’s journalist did not recall seeing the three revelations published by Computer Weekly, summarized below:

  • The NSA listed Cavium, an American semiconductor company marketing Central Processing Units (CPUs)—the main processor in a computer which runs the operating system and applications—as a successful example of a “SIGINT-enabled” CPU supplier. Cavium, now owned by Marvell, said it does not implement back doors for any government.
  • The NSA compromised lawful Russian interception infrastructure, SORM. The NSA archive contains slides showing two Russian officers wearing jackets with a slogan written in Cyrillic: “You talk, we listen.” The NSA and/or GCHQ has also compromised key lawful interception systems.
  • Among example targets of its mass-surveillance programme, PRISM, the NSA listed the Tibetan government in exile.

Those three pieces of info come from Jake Appelbaum’s PhD thesis.

Posted on October 26, 2023 at 7:00 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.