Category Archives: Politics

Meeting Snowden in Princeton

I’m at Princeton where Ed Snowden is due to speak by live video link in a few minutes, and have a discussion with Bart Gellmann.

Yesterday he spent four hours with a group of cryptographers from industry and academia, of which I was privileged to be one. The topic was the possible and likely countermeasures, both legal and technical, against state surveillance. Ed attended as the “Snobot”, a telepresence robot that let him speak to us, listen and move round the room, from a studio in Moscow. As well as over a dozen cryptographers there was at least one lawyer and at least one journalist familiar with the leaked documents. Yesterday’s meeting was under the Chatham House rule, so I may not say who said what; any new disclosures may have been made by Snowden, or by one of the journalists, or by one of the cryptographers who has assisted journalists with the material. Although most of what was discussed has probably appeared already in one place or another, as a matter of prudence I’m publishing these notes on the blog while I’m enjoying US first-amendment rights, and will sanitise them from my laptop before coming back through UK customs.

The problem of state surveillance is a global one rather than an NSA issue, and has been growing for years, along with public awareness of it. But we learned a lot from the leaks; for example, wiretaps on the communications between data centres were something nobody thought of; and it might do no harm to think a bit more about the backhaul in CDNs. (A website that runs TLS to a CDN and then bareback to the main server is actually worse than nothing, as we lose the ability to shame them.) Of course the agencies will go for the low-hanging fruit. Second, we also got some reassurance; for example, TLS works, unless the agencies have managed to steal or coerce the private keys, or hack the end systems. (This is a complex discussion given CDNs, problems with the CA ecology and bugs like Heartbleed.) And it’s a matter of record that Ed trusted his life to Tor, because he saw from the other side that it worked.

Third, the leaks give us a clear view of an intelligence analyst’s workflow. She will mainly look in Xkeyscore which is the Google of 5eyes comint; it’s a federated system hoovering up masses of stuff not just from 5eyes own assets but from other countries where the NSA cooperates or pays for access. Data are “ingested” into a vast rolling buffer; an analyst can run a federated search, using a selector (such as an IP address) or fingerprint (something that can be matched against the traffic). There are other such systems: “Dancing oasis” is the middle eastern version. Some xkeyscore assets are actually compromised third-party systems; there are multiple cases of rooted SMS servers that are queried in place and the results exfiltrated. Others involve vast infrastructure, like Tempora. If data in Xkeyscore are marked as of interest, they’re moved to Pinwale to be memorialised for 5+ years. This is one function of the MDRs (massive data repositories, now more tactfully renamed mission data repositories) like Utah. At present storage is behind ingestion. Xkeyscore buffer times just depend on volumes and what storage they managed to install, plus what they manage to filter out.

As for crypto capabilities, a lot of stuff is decrypted automatically on ingest (e.g. using a “stolen cert”, presumably a private key obtained through hacking). Else the analyst sends the ciphertext to CES and they either decrypt it or say they can’t. There’s no evidence of a “wow” cryptanalysis; it was key theft, or an implant, or a predicted RNG or supply-chain interference. Cryptanalysis has been seen of RC4, but not of elliptic curve crypto, and there’s no sign of exploits against other commonly used algorithms. Of course, the vendors of some products have been coopted, notably skype. Homegrown crypto is routinely problematic, but properly implemented crypto keeps the agency out; gpg ciphertexts with RSA 1024 were returned as fails.

With IKE the NSA were interested in getting the original handshakes, harvesting them all systematically worldwide. These are databased and indexed. The quantum type attacks were common against non-crypto traffic; it’s easy to spam a poisoned link. However there is no evidence at all of active attacks on cryptographic protocols, or of any break-and-poison attack on crypto links. It is however possible that the hacking crew can use your cryptography to go after your end system rather than the content, if for example your crypto software has a buffer overflow.

What else might we learn from the disclosures when designing and implementing crypto? Well, read the disclosures and use your brain. Why did GCHQ bother stealing all the SIM card keys for Iceland from Gemalto, unless they have access to the local GSM radio links? Just look at the roof panels on US or UK embassies, that look like concrete but are actually transparent to RF. So when designing a protocol ask yourself whether a local listener is a serious consideration.

In addition to the Gemalto case, Belgacom is another case of hacking X to get at Y. The kind of attack here is now completely routine: you look for the HR spreadsheet in corporate email traffic, use this to identify the sysadmins, then chain your way in. Companies need to have some clue if they’re to stop attacks like this succeeding almost trivially. By routinely hacking companies of interest, the agencies are comprehensively undermining the security of critical infrastructure, and claim it’s a “nobody but us” capability. however that’s not going to last; other countries will catch up.

Would opportunistic encryption help, such as using unauthenticated Diffie-Hellman everwhere? Quite probably; but governments might then simply compel the big service forms to make the seeds predictable. At present, key theft is probably more common than key compulsion in US operations (though other countries may be different). If the US government ever does use compelled certs, it’s more likely to be the FBI than the NSA, because of the latter’s focus on foreign targets. The FBI will occasionally buy hacked servers to run in place as honeypots, but Stuxnet and Flame used stolen certs. Bear in mind that anyone outside the USA has zero rights under US law.

Is it sensible to use medium-security systems such as Skype to hide traffic, even though they will give law enforcement access? For example, an NGO contacting people in one of the Stans might not want to incriminate them by using cryptography. The problem with this is that systems like Skype will give access not just to the FBI but to all sorts of really unsavoury police forces.

FBI operations can be opaque because of the care they take with parallel construction; the Lavabit case was maybe an example. It could have been easy to steal the key, but then how would the intercepted content have been used in court? In practice, there are tons of convictions made on the basis of cargo manifests, travel plans, calendars and other such plaintext data about which a suitable story can be told. The FBI considers it to be good practice to just grab all traffic data and memorialise it forever.

The NSA is even more cautious than the FBI, and won’t use top exploits against clueful targets unless it really matters. Intelligence services are at least aware of the risk of losing a capability, unlike vanilla law enforcement, who once they have a tool will use it against absolutely everybody.

Using network intrusion detection against bad actors is very much like the attack / defence evolution seen in the anti-virus business. A system called Tutelage uses Xkeyscore infrastructure and matches network traffic against signatures, just like AV, but it has the same weaknesses. Script kiddies are easily identifiable from their script signatures via Xkeyscore, but the real bad actors know how to change network signatures, just as modern malware uses packers to become highly polymorphic.

Cooperation with companies on network intrusion detection is tied up with liability games. DDoS attacks from Iran spooked US banks, which invited the government in to snoop on their networks, but above all wanted liability protection.

Usability is critical. Lots of good crypto never got widely adopted as it was too hard to use; think of PGP. On the other hand, Tails is horrifically vulnerable to traditional endpoint attacks, but you can give it as a package to journalists to use so they won’t make so many mistakes. The source has to think “How can I protect myself?” which makes it really hard, especially for a source without a crypto and security background. You just can’t trust random journalists to be clueful about everything from scripting to airgaps. Come to think of it, a naive source shouldn’t trust their life to securedrop; he should use gpg before he sends stuff to it but he won’t figure out that it’s a good idea to suppress key IDs. Engineers who design stuff for whistleblowers and journalists must be really thoughtful and careful if they want to ensure their users won’t die when they screw up. The goal should be that no single error should be fatal, and so long as their failures aren’t compounded the users will stay alive. Bear in mind that non-roman-language countries use numeric passwords, and often just 8 digits. And being a target can really change the way you operate. For example, password managers are great, but not for someone like Ed, as they put too many of the eggs in one basket. If you’re a target, create a memory castle, or a token that can be destroyed on short notice. If you’re a target like Ed, you have to compartmentalise.

On the policy front, one of the eye-openers was the scale of intelligence sharing – it’s not just 5 eyes, but 15 or 35 or even 65 once you count all the countries sharing stuff with the NSA. So how does governance work? Quite simply, the NSA doesn’t care about policy. Their OGC has 100 lawyers whose job is to “enable the mission”; to figure out loopholes or new interpretations of the law that let stuff get done. How do you restrain this? Could you use courts in other countries, that have stronger human-rights law? The precedents are not encouraging. New Zealand’s GCSB was sharing intel with Bangladesh agencies while the NZ government was investigating them for human-rights abuses. Ramstein in Germany is involved in all the drone killings, as fibre is needed to keep latency down low enough for remote vehicle pilots. The problem is that the intelligence agencies figure out ways to shield the authorities from culpability, and this should not happen.

Jurisdiction is a big soft spot. When will CDNs get tapped on the shoulder by local law enforcement in dodgy countries? Can you lock stuff out of particular jurisdictions, so your stuff doesn’t end up in Egypt just for load-balancing reasons? Can the NSA force data to be rehomed in a friendly jurisdiction, e.g. by a light DoS? Then they “request” stuff from a partner rather than “collecting” it.

The spooks’ lawyers play games saying for example that they dumped content, but if you know IP address and file size you often have it; and IP address is a good enough pseudonym for most intel / LE use. They deny that they outsource to do legal arbitrage (e.g. NSA spies on Brits and GCHQ returns the favour by spying on Americans). Are they telling the truth? In theory there will be an MOU between NSA and the partner agency stipulating respect for each others’ laws, but there can be caveats, such as a classified version which says “this is not a binding legal document”. The sad fact is that law and legislators are losing the capability to hold people in the intelligence world to account, and also losing the appetite for it.

The deepest problem is that the system architecture that has evolved in recent years holds masses of information on many people with no intelligence value, but with vast potential for political abuse.

Traditional law enforcement worked on individualised suspicion; end-system compromise is better than mass search. Ed is on the record as leaving to the journalists all decisions about what targeted attacks to talk about, as many of them are against real bad people, and as a matter of principle we don’t want to stop targeted attacks.

Interference with crypto in academia and industry is longstanding. People who intern with a clearance get a “lifetime obligation” when they go through indoctrination (yes, that’s what it’s called), and this includes pre-publication review of anything relevant they write. The prepublication review board (PRB) at the CIA is notoriously unresponsive and you have to litigate to write a book. There are also specific programmes to recruit cryptographers, with a view to having friendly insiders in companies that might use or deploy crypto.

The export control mechanisms are also used as an early warning mechanism, to tip off the agency that kit X will be shipped to country Y on date Z. Then the technicians can insert an implant without anyone at the exporting company knowing a thing. This is usually much better than getting stuff Trojanned by the vendor.

Western governments are foolish to think they can develop NOBUS (no-one but us) technology and press the stop button when things go wrong, as this might not be true for ever. Stuxnet was highly targeted and carefully delivered but it ended up in Indonesia too. Developing countries talk of our first-mover advantage in carbon industrialisation, and push back when we ask them to burn less coal. They will make the same security arguments as our governments and use the same techniques, but without the same standards of care. Bear in mind, on the equities issue, that attack is way way easier than defence. So is cyber-war plausible? Politically no, but at the expert level it might eventually be so. Eventually something scary will happen, and then infrastructure companies will care more, but it’s doubtful that anyone will do a sufficiently coordinated attack on enough diverse plant through different firewalls and so on to pose a major threat to life.

How can we push back on the poisoning of the crypto/security community? We have to accept that some people are pro-NSA while others are pro-humanity. Some researchers do responsible disclosure while others devise zero-days and sell them to the NSA or Vupen. We can push back a bit by blocking papers from conferences or otherwise denying academic credit where researchers prefer cash or patriotism to responsible disclosure, but that only goes so far. People who can pay for a new kitchen with their first exploit sale can get very patriotic; NSA contractors have a higher standard of living than academics. It’s best to develop a culture where people with and without clearances agree that crypto must be open and robust. The FREAK attack was based on export crypto of the 1990s.

We must also strengthen post-national norms in academia, while in the software world we need transparency, not just in the sense of open source but of business relationships too. Open source makes it harder for security companies to sell different versions of the product to people we like and people we hate. And the NSA may have thought dual-EC was OK because they were so close to RSA; a sceptical purchaser should have observed how many government speakers help them out at the RSA conference!

Secret laws are pure poison; government lawyers claim authority and act on it, and we don’t know about it. Transparency about what governments can and can’t do is vital.

On the technical front, we can’t replace the existing infrastructure, so it won’t be possible in the short term to give people mobile phones that can’t be tracked. However it is possible to layer new communications systems on top of what already exists, as with the new generation of messaging apps that support end-to-end crypto with no key escrow. As for whether such systems take off on a large enough scale to make a difference, ultimately it will all be about incentives.

Medical privacy seminar on May 4th

On Monday May 4th, the Dutch medical privacy campaigner Guido van’t Noordende will visit us in Cambridge. OK, it’s a bank holiday, but that’s the only day he’ll be in town. His talk will be on The Dutch electronic patient record system and beyond – towards physician-controlled decentralized medical record exchange.

Four years ago, Guido blocked an attempt to legislate for a central hub for medical records that would have enabled doctor A to see the records of doctor B on a simple pull model; there would have been a hub at the ministry with read access to everything. Other countries have wrestled with this problem, with greater and lesser degrees of success; for example, Norway just passed a medical data-sharing law and are starting to figure out what to build. In Britain of course we had the care.data fiasco. And in the Netherlands, they’re revisiting the issue once more. This will become a live issue in one country after another.

The announcement for Guido’s talk is here.

Another scandal about forensics

The FBI overstated forensic hair matches in nearly all trials up till 2000. 26 of their 28 examiners overstated forensic matches in ways that favoured prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far. 32 defendants were sentenced to death, of whom 14 were executed or died in prison.

In the District of Columbia, the only jurisdiction where defenders and prosecutors have re-investigated all FBI hair convictions, three of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony have been exonerated through DNA testing since 2009, and courts have cleared two more. All five served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder. The FBI examiners in question also taught 500 to 1,000 state and local crime lab analysts to testify in the same ways.

Systematically flawed forensic evidence should be familiar enough to readers of this blog. In four previous posts here I’ve described problems with the curfew tags that are used to monitor the movements of parolees and terrorism suspects in the UK. We have also written extensively on the unreliability of card payment evidence, particularly in banking disputes. However, payment evidence can also be relevant to serious criminal trials, of which the most shocking cases are probably those described here and here. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men were arrested after being wrongly suspected of buying indecent images of children, when in fact they were victims of credit card fraud. Having been an expert witness in one of those cases, I wrote to the former DPP Kier Starmer on his appointment asking him to open a formal inquiry into the police failure to understand credit card fraud, and to review cases as appropriate. My letter was ignored.

The Washington Post article argues cogently that the USA lacks, and needs, a mechanism to deal with systematic failures of the justice system, particularly when these are related to its inability to cope with technology. The same holds here too. In addition to the hundreds of men wrongly arrested for child porn offences in Operation Ore, there have been over two hundred prosecutions for curfew tag tampering, no doubt with evidence similar to that offered in cases where we secured acquittals. There have been scandals in the past over DNA and fingerprints, as I describe in my book. How many more scandals are waiting to break? And as everything goes online, digital evidence will play an ever larger role, leading to more systematic failures in future. How should we try to forestall them?

Talk in Oxford at 5pm today on the ethics and economics of privacy in a world of Big Data

Today at 5pm I’ll be giving the Bellwether Lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute. My topic is Big Conflicts: the ethics and economics of privacy in a world of Big Data.

I’ll be discussing a recent Nuffield Bioethics Council report of which I was one of the authors. In it, we asked what medical ethics should look like in a world of ‘Big Data’ and pervasive genomics. It will take the law some time to catch up with what’s going on, so how should researchers behave meanwhile so that the people whose data we use don’t get annoyed or surprised, and so that we can defend our actions if challenged? We came up with four principles, which I’ll discuss. I’ll also talk about how they might apply more generally, for example to my own field of security research.

Can we have medical privacy, cloud computing and genomics all at the same time?

Today sees the publication of a report I helped to write for the Nuffield Bioethics Council on what happens to medical ethics in a world of cloud-based medical records and pervasive genomics.

As the information we gave to our doctors in private to help them treat us is now collected and treated as an industrial raw material, there has been scandal after scandal. From failures of anonymisation through unethical sales to the care.data catastrophe, things just seem to get worse. Where is it all going, and what must a medical data user do to behave ethically?

We put forward four principles. First, respect persons; do not treat their confidential data like were coal or bauxite. Second, respect established human-rights and data-protection law, rather than trying to find ways round it. Third, consult people who’ll be affected or who have morally relevant interests. And fourth, tell them what you’ve done – including errors and security breaches.

The collection, linking and use of data in biomedical research and health care: ethical issues took over a year to write. Our working group came from the medical profession, academics, insurers and drug companies. We had lots of arguments. But it taught us a lot, and we hope it will lead to a more informed debate on some very important issues. And since medicine is the canary in the mine, we hope that the privacy lessons can be of value elsewhere – from consumer data to law enforcement and human rights.

To freeze or not to freeze

We think we may have discovered a better polygraph.

Telling truth from lies is an ancient problem; some psychologists believe that it helped drive the evolution of intelligence, as hominids who were better at cheating, or detecting cheating by others, left more offspring. Yet despite thousands of years of practice, most people are pretty bad at lie detection, and can tell lies from truth only about 55% of the time – not much better than random.

Since the 1920s, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have used the polygraph, which measures the physiological stresses that result from anxiety. This is slightly better, but not much; a skilled examiner may be able to tell truth from lies 60% of the time. However it is easy for an examiner who has a preconceived view of the suspect’s innocence or guilt to use a polygraph as a prop to help find supporting “evidence” by intimidating them. Other technologies, from EEG to fMRI, have been tried, and the best that can be said is that it’s a complicated subject. The last resort of the desperate or incompetent is torture, where the interviewee will tell the interviewer whatever he wants to hear in order to stop the pain. The recent Feinstein committee inquiry into the use of torture by the CIA found that it was not just a stain on America’s values but ineffective.

Sophie van der Zee decided to see if datamining people’s body movements might help. She put 90 pairs of volunteers in motion capture suits and got them to interview each other; half the interviewees were told to lie. Her first analysis of the data was to see whether you could detect deception from mimicry (you can, but it’s not much better than the conventional polygraph) and to debug the technology.

After she joined us in Cambridge we had another look at the data, and tried analysing it using a number of techniques, some suggested by Ronald Poppe. We found that total body motion was a reliable indicator of guilt, and works about 75% of the time. Put simply, guilty people fidget more; and this turns out to be fairly independent of cultural background, cognitive load and anxiety – the factors that confound most other deception detection technologies. We believe we can improve that to over 80% by analysing individual limb data, and also using effective questioning techniques (as our method detects truth slightly more dependably than lies).

Our paper is appearing at HICSS, the traditional venue for detection-deception technology. Our task for 2015 will be to redevelop this for low-cost commodity hardware and test it in a variety of environments. Of course, a guilty man can always just freeze, but that will rather give the game away; we suspect it might be quite hard to fidget deliberately at exactly the same level as you do when you’re not feeling guilty. (See also press coverage.)

Our Christmas message for troublemakers: how to do anonymity in the real world

On the 5th of December I gave a talk at a journalists’ conference on what tradecraft means in the post-Snowden world. How can a journalist, or for that matter an MP or an academic, protect a whistleblower from being identified even when MI5 and GCHQ start trying to figure out who in Whitehall you’ve been talking to? The video of my talk is now online here. There is also a TV interview I did later, which can be found here, while the other conference talks are here.

Enjoy!

Ross

Curfew tags – the gory details

In previous posts I told the story of how Britain’s curfew tagging system can fail. Some prisoners are released early provided they wear a tag to enforce a curfew, which typically means that they have to stay home from 7pm to 7am; some petty offenders get a curfew instead of a prison sentence; and some people accused of serious crimes are tagged while on bail. In dozens of cases, curfewees had been accused of tampering with their tags, but had denied doing so. In a series of these cases, colleagues and I were engaged as experts, but when we demanded tags for testing, the prosecution was withdrawn and the case collapsed. In the most famous case, three men accused of terrorist offences were released; although one has since absconded, the other two are now free in the UK.

This year, a case finally came to trial. Our client, to whom we must refer simply as “Special Z”, was accused of tag tampering, which he denied vigorously. I was instructed as an expert along with my colleague Dr James Dean of Materials Science. Here is my expert report, together with James’s report and addendum, as well as a video of a tag being removed using much less than the amount of force required by the system specification.

The judge was not ready to set a precedent that could have thrown the UK tagging system into chaos. However, I understand our client has now been released on other grounds. Although the court did order us to hand back all the tags, and fragments of broken tags, so as to protect G4S’s intellectual property, it did not make a secrecy order on our expert reports. We publish them here in the hope that they might provide useful guidance to defendants in similar cases in the future, and to policymakers when tagging contracts come up for renewal, whether in the UK or overseas.

Spooks behaving badly

Like many in the tech world, I was appalled to see how the security and intelligence agencies’ spin doctors managed to blame Facebook for Lee Rigby’s murder. It may have been a convenient way of diverting attention from the many failings of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ documented by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its report yesterday, but it will be seriously counterproductive. So I wrote an op-ed in the Guardian.

Britain spends less on fighting online crime than Facebook does, and only about a fifth of what either Google or Microsoft spends (declaration of interest: I spent three months working for Google on sabbatical in 2011, working with the click fraud team and on the mobile wallet). The spooks’ approach reminds me of how Pfizer dealt with Viagra spam, which was to hire lawyers to write angry letters to Google. If they’d hired a geek who could have talked to the abuse teams constructively, they’d have achieved an awful lot more.

The likely outcome of GCHQ’s posturing and MI5’s blame avoidance will be to drive tech companies to route all the agencies’ requests past their lawyers. This will lead to huge delays. GCHQ already complained in the Telegraph that they still haven’t got all the murderers’ Facebook traffic; this is no doubt due to the fact that the Department of Justice is sitting on a backlog of requests for mutual legal assistance, the channel through which such requests must flow. Congress won’t give the Department enough money for this, and is content to play chicken with the Obama administration over the issue. If GCHQ really cares, then it could always pay the Department of Justice to clear the backlog. The fact that all the affected government departments and agencies use this issue for posturing, rather than tackling the real problems, should tell you something.