Entries Tagged "UK"

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Securing Communications in a Trump Administration

Susan Landau has an excellent essay on why it’s more important than ever to have backdoor-free encryption on our computer and communications systems.

Protecting the privacy of speech is crucial for preserving our democracy. We live at a time when tracking an individual—­a journalist, a member of the political opposition, a citizen engaged in peaceful protest­—or listening to their communications is far easier than at any time in human history. Political leaders on both sides now have a responsibility to work for securing communications and devices. This means supporting not only the laws protecting free speech and the accompanying communications, but also the technologies to do so: end-to-end encryption and secured devices; it also means soundly rejecting all proposals for front-door exceptional access. Prior to the election there were strong, sound security arguments for rejecting such proposals. The privacy arguments have now, suddenly, become critically important as well. Threatened authoritarianism means that we need technological protections for our private communications every bit as much as we need the legal ones we presently have.

Unfortunately, the trend is moving in the other direction. The UK just passed the Investigatory Powers Act, giving police and intelligence agencies incredibly broad surveillance powers with very little oversight. And Bits of Freedom just reported that “Croatia, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Hungary all want an EU law to be created to help their law enforcement authorities access encrypted information and share data with investigators in other countries.”

Posted on November 23, 2016 at 2:01 PMView Comments

UK Admitting "Offensive Cyber" Against ISIS/Daesh

I think this might be the first time it has been openly acknowledged:

Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, has said Britain is using cyber warfare in the bid to retake Mosul from Islamic State. Speaking at an international conference on waging war through advanced technology, Fallon made it clear Britain was unleashing its cyber capability on IS, also known as Daesh. Asked if the UK was launching cyber attacks in the bid to take the northern Iraqi city from IS, he replied:

I’m not going into operational specifics, but yes, you know we are conducting military operations against Daesh as part of the international coalition, and I can confirm that we are using offensive cyber for the first time in this campaign.

Posted on October 24, 2016 at 2:12 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

How GCHQ Tracks Internet Users

The Intercept has a new story from the Snowden documents about the UK’s surveillance of the Internet by the GCHQ:

The mass surveillance operation ­ code-named KARMA POLICE­ was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.


One system builds profiles showing people’s web browsing histories. Another analyzes instant messenger communications, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cell phone locations, and social media interactions. Separate programs were built to keep tabs on “suspicious” Google searches and usage of Google Maps.


As of March 2009, the largest slice of data Black Hole held—41 percent—was about people’s Internet browsing histories. The rest included a combination of email and instant messenger records, details about search engine queries, information about social media activity, logs related to hacking operations, and data on people’s use of tools to browse the Internet anonymously.

Lots more in the article. The Intercept also published 28 new top secret NSA and GCHQ documents.

Posted on September 29, 2015 at 6:16 AMView Comments

David Cameron's Plan to Ban Encryption in the UK

In the wake of the Paris terrorist shootings, David Cameron has said that he wants to ban encryption in the UK. Here’s the quote: “If I am prime minister I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that does not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other.”

This is similar to FBI director James Comey’s remarks from last year. And it’s equally stupid.

Cory Doctorow has a good essay on Cameron’s proposal:

For David Cameron’s proposal to work, he will need to stop Britons from installing software that comes from software creators who are out of his jurisdiction. The very best in secure communications are already free/open source projects, maintained by thousands of independent programmers around the world. They are widely available, and thanks to things like cryptographic signing, it is possible to download these packages from any server in the world (not just big ones like Github) and verify, with a very high degree of confidence, that the software you’ve downloaded hasn’t been tampered with.

Cameron is not alone here. The regime he proposes is already in place in countries like Syria, Russia, and Iran (for the record, none of these countries have had much luck with it). There are two means by which authoritarian governments have attempted to restrict the use of secure technology: by network filtering and by technology mandates.

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 2:07 PMView Comments

NSA/GCHQ/CSEC Infecting Innocent Computers Worldwide

There’s a new story on the c’t magazin website about a 5-Eyes program to infect computers around the world for use as launching pads for attacks. These are not target computers; these are innocent third parties.

The article actually talks about several government programs. HACIENDA is a GCHQ program to port-scan entire countries, looking for vulnerable computers to attack. According to the GCHQ slide from 2009, they’ve completed port scans of 27 different countries and are prepared to do more.

The point of this is to create ORBs, or Operational Relay Boxes. Basically, these are computers that sit between the attacker and the target, and are designed to obscure the true origins of an attack. Slides from the Canadian CSEC talk about how this process is being automated: “2-3 times/year, 1 day focused effort to acquire as many new ORBs as possible in as many non 5-Eyes countries as possible.” They’ve automated this process into something codenamed LANDMARK, and together with a knowledge engine codenamed OLYMPIA, 24 people were able to identify “a list of 3000+ potential ORBs” in 5-8 hours. The presentation does not go on to say whether all of those computers were actually infected.

Slides from the UK’s GCHQ also talk about ORB detection, as part of a program called MUGSHOT. It, too, is happy with the automatic process: “Initial ten fold increase in Orb identification rate over manual process.” There are also NSA slides that talk about the hacking process, but there’s not much new in them.

The slides never say how many of the “potential ORBs” CSEC discovers or the computers that register positive in GCHQ’s “Orb identification” are actually infected, but they’re all stored in a database for future use. The Canadian slides talk about how some of that information was shared with the NSA.

Increasingly, innocent computers and networks are becoming collateral damage, as countries use the Internet to conduct espionage and attacks against each other. This is an example of that. Not only do these intelligence services want an insecure Internet so they can attack each other, they want an insecure Internet so they can use innocent third parties to help facilitate their attacks.

The story contains formerly TOP SECRET documents from the US, UK, and Canada. Note that Snowden is not mentioned at all in this story. Usually, if the documents the story is based on come from Snowden, the reporters say that. In this case, the reporters have said nothing about where the documents come from. I don’t know if this is an omission—these documents sure look like the sorts of things that come from the Snowden archive—or if there is yet another leaker.

Posted on August 18, 2014 at 5:45 AMView Comments

Detaining David Miranda

Last Sunday, David Miranda was detained while changing planes at London Heathrow Airport by British authorities for nine hours under a controversial British law—the maximum time allowable without making an arrest. There has been much made of the fact that he’s the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter whom Edward Snowden trusted with many of his NSA documents and the most prolific reporter of the surveillance abuses disclosed in those documents. There’s less discussion of what I feel was the real reason for Miranda’s detention. He was ferrying documents between Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a filmmaker and his co-reporter on Snowden and his information. These document were on several USB memory sticks he had with him. He had already carried documents from Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro to Poitras in Berlin, and was on his way back with different documents when he was detained.

The memory sticks were encrypted, of course, and Miranda did not know the key. This didn’t stop the British authorities from repeatedly asking for the key, and from confiscating the memory sticks along with his other electronics.

The incident prompted a major outcry in the UK. The UK’s Terrorist Act has always been controversial, and this clear misuse—it was intended to give authorities the right to detain and question suspected terrorists—is prompting new calls for its review. Certainly the UK. police will be more reluctant to misuse the law again in this manner.

I have to admit this story has me puzzled. Why would the British do something like this? What did they hope to gain, and why did they think it worth the cost? And—of course—were the British acting on their own under the Official Secrets Act, or were they acting on behalf of the United States? (My initial assumption was that they were acting on behalf of the US, but after the bizarre story of the British GCHQ demanding the destruction of Guardian computers last month, I’m not sure anymore.)

We do know the British were waiting for Miranda. It’s reasonable to assume they knew his itinerary, and had good reason to suspect that he was ferrying documents back and forth between Greenwald and Poitras. These documents could be source documents provided by Snowden, new documents that the two were working on either separately or together, or both. That being said, it’s inconceivable that the memory sticks would contain the only copies of these documents. Poitras retained copies of everything she gave Miranda. So the British authorities couldn’t possibly destroy the documents; the best they could hope for is that they would be able to read them.

Is it truly possible that the NSA doesn’t already know what Snowden has? They claim they don’t, but after Snowden’s name became public, the NSA would have conducted the mother of all audits. It would try to figure out what computer systems Snowden had access to, and therefore what documents he could have accessed. Hopefully, the audit information would give more detail, such as which documents he downloaded. I have a hard time believing that its internal auditing systems would be so bad that it wouldn’t be able to discover this.

So if the NSA knows what Snowden has, or what he could have, then the most it could learn from the USB sticks is what Greenwald and Poitras are currently working on, or thinking about working on. But presumably the things the two of them are working on are the things they’re going to publish next. Did the intelligence agencies really do all this simply for a few weeks’ heads-up on what was coming? Given how ham-handedly the NSA has handled PR as each document was exposed, it seems implausible that it wanted advance knowledge so it could work on a response. It’s been two months since the first Snowden revelation, and it still doesn’t have a decent PR story.

Furthermore, the UK authorities must have known that the data would be encrypted. Greenwald might have been a crypto newbie at the start of the Snowden affair, but Poitras is known to be good at security. The two have been communicating securely by e-mail when they do communicate. Maybe the UK authorities thought there was a good chance that one of them would make a security mistake, or that Miranda would be carrying paper documents.

Another possibility is that this was just intimidation. If so, it’s misguided. Anyone who regularly reads Greenwald could have told them that he would not have been intimidated—and, in fact, he expressed the exact opposite sentiment—and anyone who follows Poitras knows that she is even more strident in her views. Going after the loved ones of state enemies is a typically thuggish tactic, but it’s not a very good one in this case. The Snowden documents will get released. There’s no way to put this cat back in the bag, not even by killing the principal players.

It could possibly have been intended to intimidate others who are helping Greenwald and Poitras, or the Guardian and its advertisers. This will have some effect. Lavabit, Silent Circle, and now Groklaw have all been successfully intimidated. Certainly others have as well. But public opinion is shifting against the intelligence community. I don’t think it will intimidate future whistleblowers. If the treatment of Chelsea Manning didn’t discourage them, nothing will.

This leaves one last possible explanation—those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with—that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the US and UK intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.

And it’s not going to be good for them, either. They seem to want Snowden so badly that that they’ll burn the world down to get him. But every time they act impulsively aggressive—convincing the governments of Portugal and France to block the plane carrying the Bolivian president because they thought Snowden was on it is another example—they lose a small amount of moral authority around the world, and some ability to act in the same way again. The more pressure Snowden feels, the more likely he is to give up on releasing the documents slowly and responsibly, and publish all of them at once—the same way that WikiLeaks published the US State Department cables.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on some new NSA secret programs that are spying on Americans. It got the information from “interviews with current and former intelligence and government officials and people from companies that help build or operate the systems, or provide data,” not from Snowden. This is only the beginning. The media will not be intimidated. I will not be intimidated. But it scares me that the NSA is so blind that it doesn’t see it.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve been thinking about it, and there’s a good chance that the NSA doesn’t know what Snowden has. He was a sysadmin. He had access. Most of the audits and controls protect against normal users; someone with root access is going to be able to bypass a lot of them. And he had the technical chops to cover his tracks when he couldn’t just evade the auditing systems.

The AP makes an excellent point about this:

The disclosure undermines the Obama administration’s assurances to Congress and the public that the NSA surveillance programs can’t be abused because its spying systems are so aggressively monitored and audited for oversight purposes: If Snowden could defeat the NSA’s own tripwires and internal burglar alarms, how many other employees or contractors could do the same?

And, to be clear, I didn’t mean to say that intimidation wasn’t the government’s motive. I believe it was, and that it was poorly thought out intimidation: lashing out in anger, rather than from some Machiavellian strategy. (Here’s a similar view.) If they wanted Miranda’s electronics, they could have confiscated them and sent him on his way in fifteen minutes. Holding him for nine hours—the absolute maximum they could under the current law—was intimidation.

I am reminded of the phone call the Guardian received from British government. The exact quote reported was: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” That’s something you would tell your child. And that’s the power dynamic that’s going on here.

EDITED TO ADD (8/27): Jay Rosen has an excellent essay on this.

EDITED TO ADD (9/12): Other editors react.

Posted on August 27, 2013 at 6:39 AMView Comments

How Security Becomes Banal

Interesting paper: “The Banality of Security: The Curious Case of Surveillance Cameras,” by Benjamin Goold, Ian Loader, and Angélica Thumala (full paper is behind a paywall).

Abstract: Why do certain security goods become banal (while others do not)? Under what conditions does banality occur and with what effects? In this paper, we answer these questions by examining the story of closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) in Britain. We consider the lessons to be learned from CCTV’s rapid—but puzzling—transformation from novelty to ubiquity, and what the banal properties of CCTV tell us about the social meanings of surveillance and security. We begin by revisiting and reinterpreting the historical process through which camera surveillance has diffused across the British landscape, focusing on the key developments that encoded CCTV in certain dominant meanings (around its effectiveness, for example) and pulled the cultural rug out from under alternative or oppositional discourses. Drawing upon interviews with those who produce and consume CCTV, we tease out and discuss the family of meanings that can lead one justifiably to describe CCTV as a banal good. We then examine some frontiers of this process and consider whether novel forms of camera surveillance (such as domestic CCTV systems) may press up against the limits of banality in ways that risk unsettling security practices whose social value and utility have come to be taken for granted. In conclusion, we reflect on some wider implications of banal security and its limits.

Posted on August 23, 2013 at 1:23 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.