SSL and internet security news

Monthly Archive: October 2019

WhatsApp Sues NSO Group

WhatsApp is suing the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group in California court:

WhatsApp’s lawsuit, filed in a California court on Tuesday, has demanded a permanent injunction blocking NSO from attempting to access WhatsApp computer systems and those of its parent company, Facebook.

It has also asked the court to rule that NSO violated US federal law and California state law against computer fraud, breached their contracts with WhatsApp and “wrongfully trespassed” on Facebook’s property.

This could be interesting.

EDITED TO ADD: Citizen Lab has a research paper in the technology involved in this case. WhatsApp has an op ed on their actions. And this is a good news article on how the attack worked.

EDITED TO ADD: Facebook is deleting the accounts of NSA Group employees.

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Former FBI General Counsel Jim Baker Chooses Encryption Over Backdoors

In an extraordinary essay, the former FBI general counsel Jim Baker makes the case for strong encryption over government-mandated backdoors:

In the face of congressional inaction, and in light of the magnitude of the threat, it is time for governmental authorities­ — including law enforcement­ — to embrace encryption because it is one of the few mechanisms that the United States and its allies can use to more effectively protect themselves from existential cybersecurity threats, particularly from China. This is true even though encryption will impose costs on society, especially victims of other types of crime.

[…]

I am unaware of a technical solution that will effectively and simultaneously reconcile all of the societal interests at stake in the encryption debate, such as public safety, cybersecurity and privacy as well as simultaneously fostering innovation and the economic competitiveness of American companies in a global marketplace.

[…]

All public safety officials should think of protecting the cybersecurity of the United States as an essential part of their core mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And they should be doing so even if there will be real and painful costs associated with such a cybersecurity-forward orientation. The stakes are too high and our current cybersecurity situation too grave to adopt a different approach.

Basically, he argues that the security value of strong encryption greatly outweighs the security value of encryption that can be bypassed. He endorses a “defense dominant” strategy for Internet security.

Keep in mind that Baker led the FBI’s legal case against Apple regarding the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. In writing this piece, Baker joins the growing list of former law enforcement and national security senior officials who have come out in favor of strong encryption over backdoors: Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, Richard Clarke, Ash Carter, William Lynn, and Mike McConnell.

Edward Snowden also agrees.

EDITED TO ADD: Good commentary from Cory Doctorow.

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Dark Web Site Taken Down without Breaking Encryption

The US Department of Justice unraveled a dark web child-porn website, leading to the arrest of 337 people in at least 18 countries. This was all accomplished not through any backdoors in communications systems, but by analyzing the bitcoin transactions and following the money:

Welcome to Video made money by charging fees in bitcoin, and gave each user a unique bitcoin wallet address when they created an account. Son operated the site as a Tor hidden service, a dark web site with a special address that helps mask the identity of the site’s host and its location. But Son and others made mistakes that allowed law enforcement to track them. For example, according to the indictment, very basic assessments of the Welcome to Video website revealed two unconcealed IP addresses managed by a South Korean internet service provider and assigned to an account that provided service to Son’s home address. When agents searched Son’s residence, they found the server running Welcome to Video.

To “follow the money,” as officials put it in Wednesday’s press conference, law enforcement agents sent fairly small amounts of bitcoin­ — roughly equivalent at the time to $125 to $290­ — to the bitcoin wallets Welcome to Video listed for payments. Since the bitcoin blockchain leaves all transactions visible and verifiable, they could observe the currency in these wallets being transferred to another wallet. Law enforcement learned from a bitcoin exchange that the second wallet was registered to Son with his personal phone number and one of his personal email addresses.

Remember this the next time some law enforcement official tells us that they’re powerless to investigate crime without breaking cryptography for everyone.

More news articles. The indictment is here. Some of it is pretty horrifying to read.

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Mapping Security and Privacy Research across the Decades

This is really interesting: “A Data-Driven Reflection on 36 Years of Security and Privacy Research,” by Aniqua Baset and Tamara Denning:

Abstract: Meta-research—research about research—allows us, as a community, to examine trends in our research and make informed decisions regarding the course of our future research activities. Additionally, overviews of past research are particularly useful for researchers or conferences new to the field. In this work we use topic modeling to identify topics within the field of security and privacy research using the publications of the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy (1980-2015), the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (1993-2015), the USENIX Security Symposium (1993-2015), and the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (1997-2015). We analyze and present data via the perspective of topics trends and authorship. We believe our work serves to contextualize the academic field of computer security and privacy research via one of the first data-driven analyses. An interactive visualization of the topics and corresponding publications is available at https://secprivmeta.net.

I like seeing how our field has morphed over the years.

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NordVPN Breached

There was a successful attack against NordVPN:

Based on the command log, another of the leaked secret keys appeared to secure a private certificate authority that NordVPN used to issue digital certificates. Those certificates might be issued for other servers in NordVPN’s network or for a variety of other sensitive purposes. The name of the third certificate suggested it could also have been used for many different sensitive purposes, including securing the server that was compromised in the breach.

The revelations came as evidence surfaced suggesting that two rival VPN services, TorGuard and VikingVPN, also experienced breaches that leaked encryption keys. In a statement, TorGuard said a secret key for a transport layer security certificate for *.torguardvpnaccess.com was stolen. The theft happened in a 2017 server breach. The stolen data related to a squid proxy certificate.

TorGuard officials said on Twitter that the private key was not on the affected server and that attackers “could do nothing with those keys.” Monday’s statement went on to say TorGuard didn’t remove the compromised server until early 2018. TorGuard also said it learned of VPN breaches last May, “and in a related development we filed a legal complaint against NordVPN.”

The breach happened nineteen months ago, but the company is only just disclosing it to the public. We don’t know exactly what was stolen and how it affects VPN security. More details are needed.

VPNs are a shadowy world. We use them to protect our Internet traffic when we’re on a network we don’t trust, but we’re forced to trust the VPN instead. Recommendations are hard. NordVPN’s website says that the company is based in Panama. Do we have any reason to trust it at all?

I’m curious what VPNs others use, and why they should be believed to be trustworthy.

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Public Voice Launches Petition for an International Moratorium on Using Facial Recognition for Mass Surveillance

Coming out of the Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in Albania, Public Voice is launching a petition for an international moratorium on using facial recognition software for mass surveillance.

You can sign on as an individual or an organization. I did. You should as well. No, I don’t think that countries will magically adopt this moratorium. But it’s important for us all to register our dissent.

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Calculating the Benefits of the Advanced Encryption Standard

NIST has completed a study — it was published last year, but I just saw it recently — calculating the costs and benefits of the Advanced Encryption Standard.

From the conclusion:

The result of performing that operation on the series of cumulated benefits extrapolated for the 169 survey respondents finds that present value of benefits from today’s perspective is approximately $8.9 billion. On the other hand, the present value of NIST’s costs from today’s perspective is $127 million. Thus, the NPV from today’s perspective is $8,772,000,000; the B/C ratio is therefore 70.2/1; and a measure (explained in detail in Section 6.1) of the IRR for the alternative investment perspective is 31%; all are indicators of a substantial economic impact.

Extending the approach of looking back from 2017 to the larger national economy required the selection of economic sectors best represented by the 169 survey respondents. The economic sectors represented by ten or more survey respondents include the following: agriculture; construction; manufacturing; retail trade; transportation and warehousing; information; real estate rental and leasing; professional, scientific, and technical services; management services; waste management; educational services; and arts and entertainment. Looking at the present value of benefits and costs from 2017’s perspective for these economic sectors finds that the present value of benefits rises to approximately $251 billion while the present value of NIST’s costs from today’s perspective remains the same at $127 million. Therefore, the NPV of the benefits of the AES program to the national economy from today’s perspective is $250,473,200,000; the B/C ratio is roughly 1976/1; and the appropriate, alternative (explained in Section 6.1) IRR and investing proceeds at the social rate of return is 53.6%.

The report contains lots of facts and figures relevant to crypto policy debates, including the chaotic nature of crypto markets in the mid-1990s, the number of approved devices and libraries of various kinds since then, other standards that invoke AES, and so on.

There’s a lot to argue with about the methodology and the assumptions. I don’t know if I buy that the benefits of AES to the economy are in the billions of dollars, mostly because we in the cryptographic community would have come up with alternative algorithms to triple-DES that would have been accepted and used. Still, I like seeing this kind of analysis about security infrastructure. Security is an enabling technology; it doesn’t do anything by itself, but instead allows all sorts of things to be done. And I certainly agree that the benefits of a standardized encryption algorithm that we all trust and use outweigh the cost by orders of magnitude.

And this isn’t the first time NIST has conducted economic impact studies. It released a study of the economic impact of DES in 2001.

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