Monthly Archives: July 2011

Will Newzbin be blocked?

This morning the UK High Court granted an injunction to a group of movie companies which is intended to force BT to block access to “newzbin 2” by their Internet customers. The “newzbin 2” site provides an easy way to search for and download metadata files that can be used to automate the downloading of feature films (TV shows, albums etc) from Usenet servers. ie it’s all about trying to prevent people from obtaining content without paying for a legitimate copy (so called “piracy“).

The judgment is long and spends a lot of time (naturally) on legal matters, but there is some technical discussion — which is correct so far as it goes (though describing redirection of traffic based on port number inspection as “DPI” seems to me to stretch the jargon).

But what does the injunction require of BT? According to the judgment BT must apply “IP address blocking in respect of each and every IP address [of]” and “DPI based blocking utilising at least summary analysis in respect of each and every URL available at the said website and its domains and sub domains“. BT is then told that the injunction is “complied with if the Respondent uses the system known as Cleanfeed“.

There is almost nothing about the design of Cleanfeed in the judgment, but I wrote a detailed account of how it works in a 2005 paper (a slightly extended version of which appears as Chapter 7 of my 2005 PhD thesis). Essentially it is a 2-stage system, the routing system redirects port 80 (HTTP) traffic for relevant IP addresses to a proxy machine — and that proxy prevents access to particular URLs.

So if BT just use Cleanfeed (as the injunction indicates) they will resolve (and which are currently both on, and they will then filter access to, and It will be interesting to experiment to determine how good their pattern matching is on the proxy (currently Cleanfeed is only used for child sexual abuse image websites, so experiments currently pose a significant risk of lawbreaking).

It will also be interesting to see whether BT actually use Cleanfeed or if they just ‘blackhole’ all access to The quickest way to determine this (once the block is rolled out) will be to see whether or not works or not. If it does work then BT will have obeyed the injunction but the block will be trivial to evade (add a “s” to the URL). If it does not work then BT will not be using Cleanfeed to do the blocking!

BT users will still of course be able to access Newzbin (though perhaps not by using https), but depending on the exact mechanisms which BT roll out it may be a little less convenient. The simplest method (but not the cheapest) will be to purchase a VPN service — which will tunnel traffic via a remote site (and access from there won’t be blocked). Doubtless some enterprising vendors will be looking to bundle a VPN with a Newzbin subscription and an account on a Usenet server.

The use of VPNs seems to have been discussed in court, along with other evasion techniques (such as using web and SOCKS proxies), but the judgment says “It is common ground that, if the order were to be implemented by BT, it would be possible for BT subscribers to circumvent the blocking required by the order. Indeed, the evidence shows the operators of Newzbin2 have already made plans to assist users to circumvent such blocking. There are at least two, and possibly more, technical measures which users could adopt to achieve this. It is common ground that it is neither necessary nor appropriate for me to describe those measures in this judgment, and accordingly I shall not do so.

There’s also a whole heap of things that Newzbin could do to disrupt the filtering or just to make their site too mobile to be effectively blocked. I describe some of the possibilities in my 2005 academic work, and there are doubtless many more. Too many people consider the Internet to be a static system which looks the same from everywhere to everyone — that’s just not the case, so blocking systems that take this as a given (“web sites have a single IP address that everyone uses”) will be ineffective.

But this is all moot so far as the High Court is concerned. The bottom line within the judgment is that they don’t actually care if the blocking works or not! At paragraph #198 the judge writes “I agree with counsel for the Studios that the order would be justified even if it only prevented access to Newzbin2 by a minority of users“. Since this case was about preventing economic damage to the movie studios, I doubt that they will be so sanguine if it is widely understood how to evade the block — but the exact details of that will have to wait until BT have complied with their new obligations.

Phone hacking, technology and policy

Britain’s phone hacking scandal touches many issues of interest to security engineers. Murdoch’s gumshoes listened to celebs’ voicemail messages using default PINs. They used false-pretext phone calls – blagging – to get banking and medical records.

We’ve known for years that private eyes blag vast amounts of information (2001 book, from page 167; 2006 ICO Report). Centralisation and the ‘Cloud’ are making things worse. Twenty years ago, your bank records were available only in your branch; now any teller at any branch can look them up. The dozen people who work at your doctor’s surgery used to be able to keep a secret, but the 840,000 staff with a logon to our national health databases?

Attempts to fix the problem using the criminal justice system have failed. When blagging was made illegal in 1995, the street price of medical records actually fell from £200 to £150! Parliament increased the penalty from fines to jail in 2006 but media pressure scared ministers off implementing this law.

Our Database State report argued that the wholesale centralisation of medical and other records was unsafe and illegal; and the NHS Population Demographics Service database appears to be the main one used to find celebs’ ex-directory numbers. Celebs can opt out, but most of them are unaware of PDS abuse, so they don’t. Second, you can become a celeb instantly if you are a victim of crime, war or terror. Third, even if you do opt out, the gumshoes can just bribe policemen, who have access to just about everything.

In future, security engineers must pay much more attention to compartmentation (even the Pentagon is now starting to get it), and we must be much more wary about the risk that law-enforcement access to information will be abused.