Archive for the 'Security' Category

Neoliberalism’s revolving door

[link] Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Well, guess what? The former Head of the NSA has found a lucrative retirement deal.

As the four-star general in charge of U.S. digital defenses, Keith Alexander warned repeatedly that the financial industry was among the likely targets of a major attack. Now he’s selling the message directly to the banks.

Joining a crowded field of cyber-consultants, the former National Security Agency chief is pitching his services for as much as $1 million a month. The audience is receptive: Under pressure from regulators, lawmakers and their customers, financial firms are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into barriers against digital assaults.

Alexander, who retired in March from his dual role as head of the NSA and the U.S. Cyber Command, has since met with the largest banking trade groups, stressing the threat from state-sponsored attacks bent on data destruction as well as hackers interested in stealing information or money.

“It would be devastating if one of our major banks was hit, because they’re so interconnected,” Alexander said in an interview.

Nice work if you can get it. First of all you use your position in the state bureaucracy to scare the shit out of banks. Then you pitch your services as the guy who can help them escape Nemesis.

The US fears back-door routes into the net because it’s building them too

[link] Sunday, October 13th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

At a remarkable conference held at the Aspen Institute in 2011, General Michael Hayden, a former head of both the NSA and the CIA, said something very interesting. In a discussion of how to secure the “critical infrastructure” of the United States he described the phenomenon of compromised computer hardware – namely, chips that have hidden “back doors” inserted into them at the design or manufacturing stage – as “the problem from hell”. And, he went on, “frankly, it’s not a problem that can be solved”.

Now General Hayden is an engaging, voluble, likable fellow. He’s popular with the hacking crowd because he doesn’t talk like a government suit. But sometimes one wonders if his agreeable persona is actually a front for something a bit more disingenuous. Earlier in the Aspen discussion, for example, he talked about the Stuxnet worm – which was used to destroy centrifuges in the Iranian nuclear programme – as something that was obviously created by a nation-state, but affected not to know that the US was one of the nation-states involved.

Given Hayden’s background and level of security clearance, it seems inconceivable that he didn’t know who built Stuxnet. So already one had begun to take his contributions with a modicum of salt. Nevertheless, his observation about the intractability of the problem of compromised hardware seemed incontrovertible…

Read on.

LATER: I come on this amazing piece of detective work which uncovers a backdoor installed in some D-Link routers.

Why having a passcode might not protect your iPhone 5s from unauthorised use

[link] Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Well, well. Alongside the discovery that the iPhone 5s fingerprint system isn’t quite as secure as advertised comes this.

If you have an iPhone 5 or older and have updated your operating system to Apple’s new iOS 7 version, you should be aware that the password (or “passcode”) required on your phone’s lock screen no longer prevents strangers from accessing your phone.

They can use Siri, the voice-command software, to bypass the password screen and access your phone, instead.

The good news is that distressed iPhone 5S owners can apparently foil this workaround by controlling access to Siri in the phone’s settings menu. The trail is: Settings –> General –> Passcode Lock [enter passcode] –> Allow access when locked > Siri > switch from green to white.

Smart meters might not be so clever after all

[link] Sunday, August 18th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make credulous. In the case of technology, especially technology involving computers, that’s pretty easy to do. Quite why people are so overawed by computers when they are blase about, say, truly miraculous technologies such as high-speed trains, is a mystery that we will have to leave for another day. The only thing we need to remember is that when important people, for example government ministers, are confronted with what a sceptical friend of mine calls “computery” then they check in their brains at the door of the meeting room. From then on, credulity is their default setting.

In which state, they are easy meat for technological visionaries, evangelists and purveyors of snake oil. This would be touching if it weren’t serious. Exhibit A in this regard is the government’s plan for “smart meters”…

American ‘justice’

[link] Sunday, August 4th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Do you think that, as a society, the United States has become a basket case? Well, join the club. I’m not just thinking of the country’s dysfunctional Congress, pathological infatuation with firearms, addiction to litigation, crazy healthcare arrangements, engorged prison system, chronic inequality, 50-year-old military-industrial complex and out-of-control security services. There is also its strange irrationality about the use and abuse of computers.

Two events last week provided case studies of this…

There are lies, damned lies and… official statements about NSA surveillance

[link] Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

How to spy on every American

[link] Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Simple. Just do three-hop analysis.

Deputy Director John C. Inglis told Congress last week that the agency conducts “three-hop” analysis.

Three-hop (also known as “three degree”) analysis means:

The government can look at the phone data of a suspected terrorist, plus the data of all of the contacts, then all of those peoples contacts, and all of those peoples contacts.

This means that a lot of people could be caught up in the dragnet:

If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.

Given that there are now approximately 875,000 people in the government database of suspected terrorists – including many thousands of Americans – every single American living on U.S. soil could easily be caught up in the dragnet.

For example, 350 million Americans divided by 2.5 million Americans caught up in dragnet for each suspected terrorist, means that a mere 140 potential terrorists could lead to spying on all Americans. There are tens of thousands of Americans listed as suspected terrorists … including just about anyone who protests anything that the government or big banks do.

Wikipedia Switches to HTTPS

[link] Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Some interesting fallout from revelations about NSA’s XKeyscore.

The Wikimedia Foundation has announced it will soon be switching its services over to the secure–i.e., unsnoopable–HTTPS protocol. It’s a move that’s been planned for a while, but the foundation has been pushed to implement it now because of the revelations about the NSA’s global Internet surveillance system. The foundation notes that it is being “specifically targeted by XKeyscore.”

In a statement, the foundation says it “believes strongly in protecting the privacy of its readers and editors. Recent leaks of the NSA’s XKeyscore program have prompted our community members to push for the use of HTTPS by default for the Wikimedia projects.” Starting from August 21st the HTTPS protocol will be turned on for all logged-in users. The site also outlined six further technical steps it has to take to protect all its user data and activities from surveillance, although it acknowledges that it can’t predict a timescale for the moves to be completed. Instead the foundation urges its users to use other secure browsing services.

Why (most) Brits don’t seem to be overly concerned about NSA snooping

[link] Saturday, July 27th, 2013

I had an inquiry yesterday from a German journalist asking whether it was true that British people are less concerned than Germans are about the Snowden revelations, and if so why.

Here’s my reply:

Dear [xxx]

1. I think it’s broadly true that, in general, the British public is less concerned about the NSA/Snowden revelations than is the case in Germany. That, at any rate, is the conclusion I draw from the only national opinion polling data I’ve seen — conducted by YouGov and published online.

My reading of the survey results is that

  • the great British public isn’t very worked up about the issues.
  • British people are pretty resigned to being surveilled.
  • My reasons for thinking this:

  • When asked whether the law should be changed to give the security services easy access to phone and online activity, 51% thought that would be going too far, but 39% thought it would be a good idea.
  • When asked how much personal data people thought the security services already had access to, 44% replied “almost everything in practice” and 48% thought that the security services had “wide access to a lot” of personal information.
  • People seem to be slightly supportive of Snowden’s whistleblowing. Just over half (52%) said that he had done the right thing, while 37% thought he had been wrong to do it.
  • On the question of whether Snowden should be prosecuted, people are evenly divided (43% each way).
  • Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, when people were asked if they were surprised by the revelations that Britain’s government surveillance organisation GCHQ had also been monitoring Internet traffic, only 2% said that they had been “very surprised”, 14% were “somewhat surprised” but 83% said that they had been “not at all surprised”.
  • 2. The interesting question, of course, is why the British view differs from that of Germans. Here I can only offer a few speculations.

  • It is partly a reflection the conviction (some would call it a delusion?) that Britain enjoys a “special relationship” with the US, and that this means Britons tend to be more tolerant of US excesses than they are of the excesses of other nations (e.g. Russia or France).
  • There is undoubtedly a special relationship between the security agencies of the UK (GCHQ) and the US (NSA). Some people see this as a continuation of the World War II intelligence-sharing arrangements between the two countries. Cynics see it as an attempt by an economically-enfeebled country to maintain a seat at the “top table” by being useful to the Americans. (Some commentators interpret the British government’s determination to renew its submarine nuclear ‘deterrent’ as an analogous case of “imperial afterglow” — the reluctance to concede that Britain is now just a middle-rank power.) One of my academic colleagues who is an expert in computer security occasionally refers dismissively to GCHQ as “an overseas franchise of the NSA”.
  • The problem of the “Two Cultures” (science and technology). The British public — and particularly its mass media — seems remarkably ignorant about science and technology. Critically, this is also true of British legislators. Of the 600+ MPs in the House of Commons, for example, only three have research degrees. As a result, lay people — and legislators — think that anything connected with computer technology is essentially incomprehensible and best left to experts.
  • Britain has no recent historical experience of being invaded, and so the culture has no clear understanding of the consequences of intensive surveillance technology and records falling into the “wrong” hands.
  • Yours sincerely


    Nothing to hide so nothing to fear? Oh, yeah?

    [link] Friday, July 26th, 2013

    One of the most infuriating episodes of the NSA/Snowden/Tempora story was Foreign Secretary William Hague’s patronising little speech to the Commons, arguing that “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”. I had a go at this in a direct way, but felt that the Hague view (which is widespread, nay ubiquitous, among our ruling elites) needs a more considered, philosophically-informed riposte. And, lo and behold, up it comes on OpenDemocracy, in the form of a terrific interview with Quentin Skinner, the historian and political philosopher, in which he discusses various conceptions of liberty.

    When asked about surveillance, he said this:

    The idea that there is no problem with surveillance as long as you have nothing to hide simply points to the complacency of the liberal view of freedom by contrast with the republican one. The liberal thinks that you are free so long as you are not coerced. The republican agrees, of course, that if you are coerced then you are not free. But freedom for the republican consists not in being free from coercion in respect of some action, but rather in being free from the possibility of coercion in respect of it.

    When William Hague told the House of Commons that no one has anything to fear so long as they have done nothing wrong he was missing an absolutely crucial point about freedom. To be free we not only need to have no fear of interference but no fear that there could be interference. But that latter assurance is precisely what cannot be given if our actions are under surveillance. So long as surveillance is going on, we always could have our freedom of action limited if someone chose to limit it. The fact that they may not make that choice does not make us any less free, because we are not free from surveillance and the possible uses that can be made of it. Only when we are free from such possible invasions of our rights are we free; and this freedom can be guaranteed only where there is no surveillance.

    I think it very important that the mere fact of there being surveillance takes away liberty. The response of those who are worried about surveillance has so far been too much couched, it seems to me, in terms of the violation of the right to privacy. Of course it’s true that my privacy has been violated if someone is reading my emails without my knowledge. But my point is that my liberty is also being violated, and not merely by the fact that someone is reading my emails but also by the fact that someone has the power to do so should they choose. We have to insist that this in itself takes away liberty because it leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power. It’s no use those who have possession of this power promising that they won’t necessarily use it, or will use it only for the common good. What is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power.

    The situation is made much worse once you come to know — as all of us now know — that we are in fact subject to surveillance. For now there is a danger that we may start to self-censor in the face of the known fact that we may be being scrutinised by powerful and potentially hostile forces. The problem is not that we know that something will happen to us if we say certain things. It’s that we don’t know what may happen to us. Perhaps nothing will happen. But we don’t know, and are therefore all too likely to keep quiet, or to self-censor. But these are infringements of liberty even according to the liberal account. Surely the liberal and the republican can agree that, if the structures of power are such that I feel obliged to limit my own freedom of expression, then my liberty has to that degree been undermined.