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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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Facebook Plans on Backdooring WhatsApp

This article points out that Facebook’s planned content moderation scheme will result in an encryption backdoor into WhatsApp:

In Facebook’s vision, the actual end-to-end encryption client itself such as WhatsApp will include embedded content moderation and blacklist filtering algorithms. These algorithms will be continually updated from a central cloud service, but will run locally on the user’s device, scanning each cleartext message before it is sent and each encrypted message after it is decrypted.

The company even noted that when it detects violations it will need to quietly stream a copy of the formerly encrypted content back to its central servers to analyze further, even if the user objects, acting as true wiretapping service.

Facebook’s model entirely bypasses the encryption debate by globalizing the current practice of compromising devices by building those encryption bypasses directly into the communications clients themselves and deploying what amounts to machine-based wiretaps to billions of users at once.

Once this is in place, it’s easy for the government to demand that Facebook add another filter — one that searches for communications that they care about — and alert them when it gets triggered.

Of course alternatives like Signal will exist for those who don’t want to be subject to Facebook’s content moderation, but what happens when this filtering technology is built into operating systems?

The problem is that if Facebook’s model succeeds, it will only be a matter of time before device manufacturers and mobile operating system developers embed similar tools directly into devices themselves, making them impossible to escape. Embedding content scanning tools directly into phones would make it possible to scan all apps, including ones like Signal, effectively ending the era of encrypted communications.

I don’t think this will happen — why does AT&T care about content moderation — but it is something to watch?

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Attorney General William Barr on Encryption Policy

Yesterday, Attorney General William Barr gave a major speech on encryption policy — what is commonly known as “going dark.” Speaking at Fordham University in New York, he admitted that adding backdoors decreases security but that it is worth it.

Some hold this view dogmatically, claiming that it is technologically impossible to provide lawful access without weakening security against unlawful access. But, in the world of cybersecurity, we do not deal in absolute guarantees but in relative risks. All systems fall short of optimality and have some residual risk of vulnerability a point which the tech community acknowledges when they propose that law enforcement can satisfy its requirements by exploiting vulnerabilities in their products. The real question is whether the residual risk of vulnerability resulting from incorporating a lawful access mechanism is materially greater than those already in the unmodified product. The Department does not believe this can be demonstrated.

Moreover, even if there was, in theory, a slight risk differential, its significance should not be judged solely by the extent to which it falls short of theoretical optimality. Particularly with respect to encryption marketed to consumers, the significance of the risk should be assessed based on its practical effect on consumer cybersecurity, as well as its relation to the net risks that offering the product poses for society. After all, we are not talking about protecting the Nation’s nuclear launch codes. Nor are we necessarily talking about the customized encryption used by large business enterprises to protect their operations. We are talking about consumer products and services such as messaging, smart phones, e-mail, and voice and data applications. If one already has an effective level of security say, by way of illustration, one that protects against 99 percent of foreseeable threats is it reasonable to incur massive further costs to move slightly closer to optimality and attain a 99.5 percent level of protection? A company would not make that expenditure; nor should society. Here, some argue that, to achieve at best a slight incremental improvement in security, it is worth imposing a massive cost on society in the form of degraded safety. This is untenable. If the choice is between a world where we can achieve a 99 percent assurance against cyber threats to consumers, while still providing law enforcement 80 percent of the access it might seek; or a world, on the other hand, where we have boosted our cybersecurity to 99.5 percent but at a cost reducing law enforcements [sic] access to zero percent the choice for society is clear.

I think this is a major change in government position. Previously, the FBI, the Justice Department and so on had claimed that backdoors for law enforcement could be added without any loss of security. They maintained that technologists just need to figure out how: ­an approach we have derisively named “nerd harder.”

With this change, we can finally have a sensible policy conversation. Yes, adding a backdoor increases our collective security because it allows law enforcement to eavesdrop on the bad guys. But adding that backdoor also decreases our collective security because the bad guys can eavesdrop on everyone. This is exactly the policy debate we should be having­not the fake one about whether or not we can have both security and surveillance.

Barr makes the point that this is about “consumer cybersecurity,” and not “nuclear launch codes.” This is true, but ignores the huge amount of national security-related communications between those two poles. The same consumer communications and computing devices are used by our lawmakers, CEOs, legislators, law enforcement officers, nuclear power plant operators, election officials and so on. There’s no longer a difference between consumer tech and government tech — it’s all the same tech.

Barr also says:

Further, the burden is not as onerous as some make it out to be. I served for many years as the general counsel of a large telecommunications concern. During my tenure, we dealt with these issues and lived through the passage and implementation of CALEA the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. CALEA imposes a statutory duty on telecommunications carriers to maintain the capability to provide lawful access to communications over their facilities. Companies bear the cost of compliance but have some flexibility in how they achieve it, and the system has by and large worked. I therefore reserve a heavy dose of skepticism for those who claim that maintaining a mechanism for lawful access would impose an unreasonable burden on tech firms especially the big ones. It is absurd to think that we would preserve lawful access by mandating that physical telecommunications facilities be accessible to law enforcement for the purpose of obtaining content, while allowing tech providers to block law enforcement from obtaining that very content.

That telecommunications company was GTE­which became Verizon. Barr conveniently ignores that CALEA-enabled phone switches were used to spy on government officials in Greece in 2003 — which seems to have been an NSA operation — and on a variety of people in Italy in 2006. Moreover, in 2012 every CALEA-enabled switch sold to the Defense Department had security vulnerabilities. (I wrote about all this, and more, in 2013.)

The final thing I noticed about the speech is that is it not about iPhones and data at rest. It is about communications: ­data in transit. The “going dark” debate has bounced back and forth between those two aspects for decades. It seems to be bouncing once again.

I hope that Barr’s latest speech signals that we can finally move on from the fake security vs. privacy debate, and to the real security vs. security debate. I know where I stand on that: As computers continue to permeate every aspect of our lives, society, and critical infrastructure, it is much more important to ensure that they are secure from everybody — even at the cost of law-enforcement access — than it is to allow access at the cost of security. Barr is wrong, it kind of is like these systems are protecting nuclear launch codes.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

EDITED TO ADD: More news articles.

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Backdoor Built into Android Firmware

In 2017, some Android phones came with a backdoor pre-installed:

Criminals in 2017 managed to get an advanced backdoor preinstalled on Android devices before they left the factories of manufacturers, Google researchers confirmed on Thursday.

Triada first came to light in 2016 in articles published by Kaspersky here and here, the first of which said the malware was “one of the most advanced mobile Trojans” the security firm’s analysts had ever encountered. Once installed, Triada’s chief purpose was to install apps that could be used to send spam and display ads. It employed an impressive kit of tools, including rooting exploits that bypassed security protections built into Android and the means to modify the Android OS’ all-powerful Zygote process. That meant the malware could directly tamper with every installed app. Triada also connected to no fewer than 17 command and control servers.

In July 2017, security firm Dr. Web reported that its researchers had found Triada built into the firmware of several Android devices, including the Leagoo M5 Plus, Leagoo M8, Nomu S10, and Nomu S20. The attackers used the backdoor to surreptitiously download and install modules. Because the backdoor was embedded into one of the OS libraries and located in the system section, it couldn’t be deleted using standard methods, the report said.

On Thursday, Google confirmed the Dr. Web report, although it stopped short of naming the manufacturers. Thursday’s report also said the supply chain attack was pulled off by one or more partners the manufacturers used in preparing the final firmware image used in the affected devices.

This is a supply chain attack. It seems to be the work of criminals, but it could just as easily have been a nation-state.

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