Entries Tagged "secrecy"

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The Mathematics of Conspiracy

This interesting study tries to build a mathematical model for the continued secrecy of conspiracies, and tries to predict how long before they will be revealed to the general public, either wittingly or unwittingly.

The equation developed by Dr Grimes, a post-doctoral physicist at Oxford, relied upon three factors: the number of conspirators involved, the amount of time that has passed, and the intrinsic probability of a conspiracy failing.

He then applied his equation to four famous conspiracy theories: The belief that the Moon landing was faked, the belief that climate change is a fraud, the belief that vaccines cause autism, and the belief that pharmaceutical companies have suppressed a cure for cancer.

Dr Grimes’s analysis suggests that if these four conspiracies were real, most are very likely to have been revealed as such by now.

Specifically, the Moon landing “hoax” would have been revealed in 3.7 years, the climate change “fraud” in 3.7 to 26.8 years, the vaccine-autism “conspiracy” in 3.2 to 34.8 years, and the cancer “conspiracy” in 3.2 years.

He also ran the model against two actual conspiracies: the NSA’s PRISM program and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

From the paper:

Abstract: Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. Conversely, historical examples of exposed conspiracies do exist and it may be difficult for people to differentiate between reasonable and dubious assertions. In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants­—the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure. The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.

Lots on the psychology of conspiracy theories here.

EDITED TO ADD (3/12): This essay debunks the above research.

Posted on March 2, 2016 at 12:39 PMView Comments

UK Government Promoting Backdoor-Enabled Voice Encryption Protocol

The UK government is pushing something called the MIKEY-SAKKE protocol to secure voice. Basically, it’s an identity-based system that necessarily requires a trusted key-distribution center. So key escrow is inherently built in, and there’s no perfect forward secrecy. The only reasonable explanation for designing a protocol with these properties is third-party eavesdropping.

Steven Murdoch has explained the details. The upshot:

The design of MIKEY-SAKKE is motivated by the desire to allow undetectable and unauditable mass surveillance, which may be a requirement in exceptional scenarios such as within government departments processing classified information. However, in the vast majority of cases the properties that MIKEY-SAKKE offers are actively harmful for security. It creates a vulnerable single point of failure, which would require huge effort, skill and cost to secure ­ requiring resource beyond the capability of most companies. Better options for voice encryption exist today, though they are not perfect either. In particular, more work is needed on providing scalable and usable protection against man-in-the-middle attacks, and protection of metadata for contact discovery and calls. More broadly, designers of protocols and systems need to appreciate the ethical consequences of their actions in terms of the political and power structures which naturally follow from their use. MIKEY-SAKKE is the latest example to raise questions over the policy of many governments, including the UK, to put intelligence agencies in charge of protecting companies and individuals from spying, given the conflict of interest it creates.

And GCHQ previously rejected a more secure standard, MIKEY-IBAKE, because it didn’t allow undetectable spying.

Both the NSA and GCHQ repeatedly choose surveillance over security. We need to reject that decision.

Posted on January 22, 2016 at 2:23 PMView Comments

Replacing Judgment with Algorithms

China is considering a new “social credit” system, designed to rate everyone’s trustworthiness. Many fear that it will become a tool of social control—but in reality it has a lot in common with the algorithms and systems that score and classify us all every day.

Human judgment is being replaced by automatic algorithms, and that brings with it both enormous benefits and risks. The technology is enabling a new form of social control, sometimes deliberately and sometimes as a side effect. And as the Internet of Things ushers in an era of more sensors and more data—and more algorithms—we need to ensure that we reap the benefits while avoiding the harms.

Right now, the Chinese government is watching how companies use “social credit” scores in state-approved pilot projects. The most prominent one is Sesame Credit, and it’s much more than a financial scoring system.

Citizens are judged not only by conventional financial criteria, but by their actions and associations. Rumors abound about how this system works. Various news sites are speculating that your score will go up if you share a link from a state-sponsored news agency and go down if you post pictures of Tiananmen Square. Similarly, your score will go up if you purchase local agricultural products and down if you purchase Japanese anime. Right now the worst fears seem overblown, but could certainly come to pass in the future.

This story has spread because it’s just the sort of behavior you’d expect from the authoritarian government in China. But there’s little about the scoring systems used by Sesame Credit that’s unique to China. All of us are being categorized and judged by similar algorithms, both by companies and by governments. While the aim of these systems might not be social control, it’s often the byproduct. And if we’re not careful, the creepy results we imagine for the Chinese will be our lot as well.

Sesame Credit is largely based on a US system called FICO. That’s the system that determines your credit score. You actually have a few dozen different ones, and they determine whether you can get a mortgage, car loan or credit card, and what sorts of interest rates you’re offered. The exact algorithm is secret, but we know in general what goes into a FICO score: how much debt you have, how good you’ve been at repaying your debt, how long your credit history is and so on.

There’s nothing about your social network, but that might change. In August, Facebook was awarded a patent on using a borrower’s social network to help determine if he or she is a good credit risk. Basically, your creditworthiness becomes dependent on the creditworthiness of your friends. Associate with deadbeats, and you’re more likely to be judged as one.

Your associations can be used to judge you in other ways as well. It’s now common for employers to use social media sites to screen job applicants. This manual process is increasingly being outsourced and automated; companies like Social Intelligence, Evolv and First Advantage automatically process your social networking activity and provide hiring recommendations for employers. The dangers of this type of system—from discriminatory biases resulting from the data to an obsession with scores over more social measures—are too many.

The company Klout tried to make a business of measuring your online influence, hoping its proprietary system would become an industry standard used for things like hiring and giving out free product samples.

The US government is judging you as well. Your social media postings could get you on the terrorist watch list, affecting your ability to fly on an airplane and even get a job. In 2012, a British tourist’s tweet caused the US to deny him entry into the country. We know that the National Security Agency uses complex computer algorithms to sift through the Internet data it collects on both Americans and foreigners.

All of these systems, from Sesame Credit to the NSA’s secret algorithms, are made possible by computers and data. A couple of generations ago, you would apply for a home mortgage at a bank that knew you, and a bank manager would make a determination of your creditworthiness. Yes, the system was prone to all sorts of abuses, ranging from discrimination to an old-boy network of friends helping friends. But the system also couldn’t scale. It made no sense for a bank across the state to give you a loan, because they didn’t know you. Loans stayed local.

FICO scores changed that. Now, a computer crunches your credit history and produces a number. And you can take that number to any mortgage lender in the country. They don’t need to know you; your score is all they need to decide whether you’re trustworthy.

This score enabled the home mortgage, car loan, credit card and other lending industries to explode, but it brought with it other problems. People who don’t conform to the financial norm—having and using credit cards, for example—can have trouble getting loans when they need them. The automatic nature of the system enforces conformity.

The secrecy of the algorithms further pushes people toward conformity. If you are worried that the US government will classify you as a potential terrorist, you’re less likely to friend Muslims on Facebook. If you know that your Sesame Credit score is partly based on your not buying “subversive” products or being friends with dissidents, you’re more likely to overcompensate by not buying anything but the most innocuous books or corresponding with the most boring people.

Uber is an example of how this works. Passengers rate drivers and drivers rate passengers; both risk getting booted out of the system if their rankings get too low. This weeds out bad drivers and passengers, but also results in marginal people being blocked from the system, and everyone else trying to not make any special requests, avoid controversial conversation topics, and generally behave like good corporate citizens.

Many have documented a chilling effect among American Muslims, with them avoiding certain discussion topics lest they be taken the wrong way. Even if nothing would happen because of it, their free speech has been curtailed because of the secrecy surrounding government surveillance. How many of you are reluctant to Google “pressure cooker bomb”? How many are a bit worried that I used it in this essay?

This is what social control looks like in the Internet age. The Cold-War-era methods of undercover agents, informants living in your neighborhood, and agents provocateur is too labor-intensive and inefficient. These automatic algorithms make possible a wholly new way to enforce conformity. And by accepting algorithmic classification into our lives, we’re paving the way for the same sort of thing China plans to put into place.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can get the benefits of automatic algorithmic systems while avoiding the dangers. It’s not even hard.

The first step is to make these algorithms public. Companies and governments both balk at this, fearing that people will deliberately try to game them, but the alternative is much worse.

The second step is for these systems to be subject to oversight and accountability. It’s already illegal for these algorithms to have discriminatory outcomes, even if they’re not deliberately designed in. This concept needs to be expanded. We as a society need to understand what we expect out of the algorithms that automatically judge us and ensure that those expectations are met.

We also need to provide manual systems for people to challenge their classifications. Automatic algorithms are going to make mistakes, whether it’s by giving us bad credit scores or flagging us as terrorists. We need the ability to clear our names if this happens, through a process that restores human judgment.

Sesame Credit sounds like a dystopia because we can easily imagine how the Chinese government can use a system like this to enforce conformity and stifle dissent. Our own systems seem safer, because we don’t believe the corporations and governments that run them are malevolent. But the dangers are inherent in the technologies. As we move into a world where we are increasingly judged by algorithms, we need to ensure that they do so fairly and properly.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on January 8, 2016 at 5:21 AMView Comments

A History of Privacy

This New Yorker article traces the history of privacy from the mid 1800s to today:

As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets. In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late. The horse is out of the barn. The post office has opened your mail. Your photograph is on Facebook. Google already knows that, notwithstanding your demographic, you hate kale.

Posted on November 30, 2015 at 12:47 PMView Comments

"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

No-Fly List Uses Predictive Assessments

The US government has admitted that it uses predictive assessments to put people on the no-fly list:

In a little-noticed filing before an Oregon federal judge, the US Justice Department and the FBI conceded that stopping US and other citizens from travelling on airplanes is a matter of “predictive assessments about potential threats,” the government asserted in May.

“By its very nature, identifying individuals who ‘may be a threat to civil aviation or national security’ is a predictive judgment intended to prevent future acts of terrorism in an uncertain context,” Justice Department officials Benjamin C Mizer and Anthony J Coppolino told the court on 28 May.

“Judgments concerning such potential threats to aviation and national security call upon the unique prerogatives of the Executive in assessing such threats.”

It is believed to be the government’s most direct acknowledgement to date that people are not allowed to fly because of what the government believes they might do and not what they have already done.

When you have a secret process that can judge and penalize people without due process or oversight, this is the kind of thing that happens.

Posted on August 20, 2015 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Organizational Doxing

Recently, WikiLeaks began publishing over half a million previously secret cables and other documents from the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia. It’s a huge trove, and already reporters are writing stories about the highly secretive government.

What Saudi Arabia is experiencing isn’t common but part of a growing trend.

Just last week, unknown hackers broke into the network of the cyber-weapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team and published 400 gigabytes of internal data, describing, among other things, its sale of Internet surveillance software to totalitarian regimes around the world.

Last year, hundreds of gigabytes of Sony’s sensitive data was published on the Internet, including executive salaries, corporate emails and contract negotiations. The attacker in this case was the government of North Korea, which was punishing Sony for producing a movie that made fun of its leader. In 2010, the U.S. cyberweapons arms manufacturer HBGary Federal was a victim, and its attackers were members of a loose hacker collective called LulzSec.

Edward Snowden stole a still-unknown number of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 and gave them to reporters to publish. Chelsea Manning stole three-quarters of a million documents from the U.S. State Department and gave them to WikiLeaks to publish. The person who stole the Saudi Arabian documents might also be a whistleblower and insider but is more likely a hacker who wanted to punish the kingdom.

Organizations are increasingly getting hacked, and not by criminals wanting to steal credit card numbers or account information in order to commit fraud, but by people intent on stealing as much data as they can and publishing it. Law professor and privacy expert Peter Swire refers to “the declining half-life of secrets.” Secrets are simply harder to keep in the information age. This is bad news for all of us who value our privacy, but there’s a hidden benefit when it comes to organizations.

The decline of secrecy means the rise of transparency. Organizational transparency is vital to any open and free society.

Open government laws and freedom of information laws let citizens know what the government is doing, and enable them to carry out their democratic duty to oversee its activities. Corporate disclosure laws perform similar functions in the private sphere. Of course, both corporations and governments have some need for secrecy, but the more they can be open, the more we can knowledgeably decide whether to trust them.

This makes the debate more complicated than simple personal privacy. Publishing someone’s private writings and communications is bad, because in a free and diverse society people should have private space to think and act in ways that would embarrass them if public.

But organizations are not people and, while there are legitimate trade secrets, their information should otherwise be transparent. Holding government and corporate private behavior to public scrutiny is good.

Most organizational secrets are only valuable for a short term: negotiations, new product designs, earnings numbers before they’re released, patents before filing, and so on.

Forever secrets, like the formula for Coca-Cola, are few and far between. The one exception is embarrassments. If an organization had to assume that anything it did would become public in a few years, people within that organization would behave differently.

The NSA would have had to weigh its collection programs against the possibility of public scrutiny. Sony would have had to think about how it would look to the world if it paid its female executives significantly less than its male executives. HBGary would have thought twice before launching an intimidation campaign against a journalist it didn’t like, and Hacking Team wouldn’t have lied to the UN about selling surveillance software to Sudan. Even the government of Saudi Arabia would have behaved differently. Such embarrassment might be the first significant downside of hiring a psychopath as CEO.

I don’t want to imply that this forced transparency is a good thing, though. The threat of disclosure chills all speech, not just illegal, embarrassing, or objectionable speech. There will be less honest and candid discourse. People in organizations need the freedom to write and say things that they wouldn’t want to be made public.

State Department officials need to be able to describe foreign leaders, even if their descriptions are unflattering. Movie executives need to be able to say unkind things about their movie stars. If they can’t, their organizations will suffer.

With few exceptions, our secrets are stored on computers and networks vulnerable to hacking. It’s much easier to break into networks than it is to secure them, and large organizational networks are very complicated and full of security holes. Bottom line: If someone sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated wants to steal an organization’s secrets, they will succeed. This includes hacktivists (HBGary Federal, Hacking Team), foreign governments (Sony), and trusted insiders (State Department and NSA).

It’s not likely that your organization’s secrets will be posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but it’s always a possibility.

Dumping an organization’s secret information is going to become increasingly common as individuals realize its effectiveness for whistleblowing and revenge. While some hackers will use journalists to separate the news stories from mere personal information, not all will.

Both governments and corporations need to assume that their secrets are more likely to be exposed, and exposed sooner, than ever. They should do all they can to protect their data and networks, but have to realize that their best defense might be to refrain from doing things that don’t look good on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com. I didn’t use the term “organizational doxing,” though, because it would be too unfamiliar to that audience.

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

Posted on July 10, 2015 at 4:32 AMView Comments

The Secrecy of the Snowden Documents

Last weekend, the Sunday Times published a front-page story (full text here), citing anonymous British sources claiming that both China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents. It’s a terrible article, filled with factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims about both Snowden’s actions and the damage caused by his disclosure, and others have thoroughly refuted the story. I want to focus on the actual question: Do countries like China and Russia have copies of the Snowden documents?

I believe the answer is certainly yes, but that it’s almost certainly not Snowden’s fault.

Snowden has claimed that he gave nothing to China while he was in Hong Kong, and brought nothing to Russia. He has said that he encrypted the documents in such a way that even he no longer has access to them, and that he did this before the US government stranded him in Russia. I have no doubt he did as he said, because A) it’s the smart thing to do, and B) it’s easy. All he would have had to do was encrypt the file with a long random key, break the encrypted text up into a few parts and mail them to trusted friends around the world, then forget the key. He probably added some security embellishments, but—regardless—the first sentence of the Times story simply makes no sense: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files…”

But while cryptography is strong, computer security is weak. The vulnerability is not Snowden; it’s everyone who has access to the files.

First, the journalists working with the documents. I’ve handled some of the Snowden documents myself, and even though I’m a paranoid cryptographer, I know how difficult it is to maintain perfect security. It’s been open season on the computers of the journalists Snowden shared documents with since this story broke in July 2013. And while they have been taking extraordinary pains to secure those computers, it’s almost certainly not enough to keep out the world’s intelligence services.

There is a lot of evidence for this belief. We know from other top-secret NSA documents that as far back as 2008, the agency’s Tailored Access Operations group has extraordinary capabilities to hack into and “exfiltrate” data from specific computers, even if those computers are highly secured and not connected to the Internet.

These NSA capabilities are not unique, and it’s reasonable to assume both that other countries had similar capabilities in 2008 and that everyone has improved their attack techniques in the seven years since then. Last week, we learned that Israel had successfully hacked a wide variety of networks, including that of a major computer antivirus company. We also learned that China successfully hacked US government personnel databases. And earlier this year, Russia successfully hacked the White House’s network. These sorts of stories are now routine.

Which brings me to the second potential source of these documents to foreign intelligence agencies: the US and UK governments themselves. I believe that both China and Russia had access to all the files that Snowden took well before Snowden took them because they’ve penetrated the NSA networks where those files reside. After all, the NSA has been a prime target for decades.

Those government hacking examples above were against unclassified networks, but the nation-state techniques we’re seeing work against classified and unconnected networks as well. In general, it’s far easier to attack a network than it is to defend the same network. This isn’t a statement about willpower or budget; it’s how computer and network security work today. A former NSA deputy director recently said that if we were to score cyber the way we score soccer, the tally would be 462­456 twenty minutes into the game. In other words, it’s all offense and no defense.

In this kind of environment, we simply have to assume that even our classified networks have been penetrated. Remember that Snowden was able to wander through the NSA’s networks with impunity, and that the agency had so few controls in place that the only way they can guess what has been taken is to extrapolate based on what has been published. Does anyone believe that Snowden was the first to take advantage of that lax security? I don’t.

This is why I find allegations that Snowden was working for the Russians or the Chinese simply laughable. What makes you think those countries waited for Snowden? And why do you think someone working for the Russians or the Chinese would go public with their haul?

I am reminded of a comment made to me in confidence by a US intelligence official. I asked him what he was most worried about, and he replied: “I know how deep we are in our enemies’ networks without them having any idea that we’re there. I’m worried that our networks are penetrated just as deeply.”

Seems like a reasonable worry to me.

The open question is which countries have sophisticated enough cyberespionage operations to mount a successful attack against one of the journalists or against the intelligence agencies themselves. And while I have my own mental list, the truth is that I don’t know. But certainly Russia and China are on the list, and it’s just as certain they didn’t have to wait for Snowden to get access to the files. While it might be politically convenient to blame Snowden because, as the Sunday Times reported an anonymous source saying, “we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted,” the NSA and GCHQ should first take a look into their mirrors.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I wrote about this essay on Lawfare:

A Twitter user commented: “Surely if agencies accessed computers of people Snowden shared with then is still his fault?”

Yes, that’s right. Snowden took the documents out of the well-protected NSA network and shared with people who don’t have those levels of computer security. Given what we’ve seen of the NSA’s hacking capabilities, I think the odds are zero that other nations were unable to hack at least one of those journalists’ computers. And yes, Snowden has to own that.

The point I make in the article is that those nations didn’t have to wait for Snowden. More specifically, GCHQ claims that “we have now seen our agents and assets being targeted.” One, agents and assets are not discussed in the Snowden documents. Two, it’s two years after Snowden handed those documents to reporters. Whatever is happening, it’s unlikely to be related to Snowden.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Two threads on Reddit.

EDITED TO ADD (7/14): Another refutation.

Posted on June 22, 2015 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.