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Supply-Chain Security

Earlier this month, the Pentagon stopped selling phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei on military bases because they might be used to spy on their users.

It’s a legitimate fear, and perhaps a prudent action. But it’s just one instance of the much larger issue of securing our supply chains.

All of our computerized systems are deeply international, and we have no choice but to trust the companies and governments that touch those systems. And while we can ban a few specific products, services or companies, no country can isolate itself from potential foreign interference.

In this specific case, the Pentagon is concerned that the Chinese government demanded that ZTE and Huawei add “backdoors” to their phones that could be surreptitiously turned on by government spies or cause them to fail during some future political conflict. This tampering is possible because the software in these phones is incredibly complex. It’s relatively easy for programmers to hide these capabilities, and correspondingly difficult to detect them.

This isn’t the first time the United States has taken action against foreign software suspected to contain hidden features that can be used against us. Last December, President Trump signed into law a bill banning software from the Russian company Kaspersky from being used within the US government. In 2012, the focus was on Chinese-made Internet routers. Then, the House Intelligence Committee concluded: “Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems.”

Nor is the United States the only country worried about these threats. In 2014, China reportedly banned antivirus products from both Kaspersky and the US company Symantec, based on similar fears. In 2017, the Indian government identified 42 smartphone apps that China subverted. Back in 1997, the Israeli company Check Point was dogged by rumors that its government added backdoors into its products; other of that country’s tech companies have been suspected of the same thing. Even al-Qaeda was concerned; ten years ago, a sympathizer released the encryption software Mujahedeen Secrets, claimed to be free of Western influence and backdoors. If a country doesn’t trust another country, then it can’t trust that country’s computer products.

But this trust isn’t limited to the country where the company is based. We have to trust the country where the software is written — and the countries where all the components are manufactured. In 2016, researchers discovered that many different models of cheap Android phones were sending information back to China. The phones might be American-made, but the software was from China. In 2016, researchers demonstrated an even more devious technique, where a backdoor could be added at the computer chip level in the factory that made the chips ¬≠ without the knowledge of, and undetectable by, the engineers who designed the chips in the first place. Pretty much every US technology company manufactures its hardware in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Taiwan.

We also have to trust the programmers. Today’s large software programs are written by teams of hundreds of programmers scattered around the globe. Backdoors, put there by we-have-no-idea-who, have been discovered in Juniper firewalls and D-Link routers, both of which are US companies. In 2003, someone almost slipped a very clever backdoor into Linux. Think of how many countries’ citizens are writing software for Apple or Microsoft or Google.

We can go even farther down the rabbit hole. We have to trust the distribution systems for our hardware and software. Documents disclosed by Edward Snowden showed the National Security Agency installing backdoors into Cisco routers being shipped to the Syrian telephone company. There are fake apps in the Google Play store that eavesdrop on you. Russian hackers subverted the update mechanism of a popular brand of Ukrainian accounting software to spread the NotPetya malware.

In 2017, researchers demonstrated that a smartphone can be subverted by installing a malicious replacement screen.

I could go on. Supply-chain security is an incredibly complex problem. US-only design and manufacturing isn’t an option; the tech world is far too internationally interdependent for that. We can’t trust anyone, yet we have no choice but to trust everyone. Our phones, computers, software and cloud systems are touched by citizens of dozens of different countries, any one of whom could subvert them at the demand of their government. And just as Russia is penetrating the US power grid so they have that capability in the event of hostilities, many countries are almost certainly doing the same thing at the consumer level.

We don’t know whether the risk of Huawei and ZTE equipment is great enough to warrant the ban. We don’t know what classified intelligence the United States has, and what it implies. But we do know that this is just a minor fix for a much larger problem. It’s doubtful that this ban will have any real effect. Members of the military, and everyone else, can still buy the phones. They just can’t buy them on US military bases. And while the US might block the occasional merger or acquisition, or ban the occasional hardware or software product, we’re largely ignoring that larger issue. Solving it borders on somewhere between incredibly expensive and realistically impossible.

Perhaps someday, global norms and international treaties will render this sort of device-level tampering off-limits. But until then, all we can do is hope that this particular arms race doesn’t get too far out of control.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

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Virginia Beach Police Want Encrypted Radios

This article says that the Virginia Beach police are looking to buy encrypted radios.

Virginia Beach police believe encryption will prevent criminals from listening to police communications. They said officer safety would increase and citizens would be better protected.

Someone should ask them if they want those radios to have a backdoor.

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Ray Ozzie’s Encryption Backdoor

Last month, Wired published a long article about Ray Ozzie and his supposed new scheme for adding a backdoor in encrypted devices. It’s a weird article. It paints Ozzie’s proposal as something that “attains the impossible” and “satisfies both law enforcement and privacy purists,” when (1) it’s barely a proposal, and (2) it’s essentially the same key escrow scheme we’ve been hearing about for decades.

Basically, each device has a unique public/private key pair and a secure processor. The public key goes into the processor and the device, and is used to encrypt whatever user key encrypts the data. The private key is stored in a secure database, available to law enforcement on demand. The only other trick is that for law enforcement to use that key, they have to put the device in some sort of irreversible recovery mode, which means it can never be used again. That’s basically it.

I have no idea why anyone is talking as if this were anything new. Several cryptographers have already explained explained why this key escrow scheme is no better than any other key escrow scheme. The short answer is (1) we won’t be able to secure that database of backdoor keys, (2) we don’t know how to build the secure coprocessor the scheme requires, and (3) it solves none of the policy problems around the whole system. This is the typical mistake non-cryptographers make when they approach this problem: they think that the hard part is the cryptography to create the backdoor. That’s actually the easy part. The hard part is ensuring that it’s only used by the good guys, and there’s nothing in Ozzie’s proposal that addresses any of that.

I worry that this kind of thing is damaging in the long run. There should be some rule that any backdoor or key escrow proposal be a fully specified proposal, not just some cryptography and hand-waving notions about how it will be used in practice. And before it is analyzed and debated, it should have to satisfy some sort of basic security analysis. Otherwise, we’ll be swatting pseudo-proposals like this one, while those on the other side of this debate become increasingly convinced that it’s possible to design one of these things securely.

Already people are using the National Academies report on backdoors for law enforcement as evidence that engineers are developing workable and secure backdoors. Writing in Lawfare, Alan Z. Rozenshtein claims that the report — and a related New York Times story — “undermine the argument that secure third-party access systems are so implausible that it’s not even worth trying to develop them.” Susan Landau effectively corrects this misconception, but the damage is done.

Here’s the thing: it’s not hard to design and build a backdoor. What’s hard is building the systems — both technical and procedural — around them. Here’s Rob Graham:

He’s only solving the part we already know how to solve. He’s deliberately ignoring the stuff we don’t know how to solve. We know how to make backdoors, we just don’t know how to secure them.

A bunch of us cryptographers have already explained why we don’t think this sort of thing will work in the foreseeable future. We write:

Exceptional access would force Internet system developers to reverse “forward secrecy” design practices that seek to minimize the impact on user privacy when systems are breached. The complexity of today’s Internet environment, with millions of apps and globally connected services, means that new law enforcement requirements are likely to introduce unanticipated, hard to detect security flaws. Beyond these and other technical vulnerabilities, the prospect of globally deployed exceptional access systems raises difficult problems about how such an environment would be governed and how to ensure that such systems would respect human rights and the rule of law.

Finally, Matthew Green:

The reason so few of us are willing to bet on massive-scale key escrow systems is that we’ve thought about it and we don’t think it will work. We’ve looked at the threat model, the usage model, and the quality of hardware and software that exists today. Our informed opinion is that there’s no detection system for key theft, there’s no renewability system, HSMs are terrifically vulnerable (and the companies largely staffed with ex-intelligence employees), and insiders can be suborned. We’re not going to put the data of a few billion people on the line an environment where we believe with high probability that the system will fail.

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Two NSA Algorithms Rejected by the ISO

The ISO has rejected two symmetric encryption algorithms: SIMON and SPECK. These algorithms were both designed by the NSA and made public in 2013. They are optimized for small and low-cost processors like IoT devices.

The risk of using NSA-designed ciphers, of course, is that they include NSA-designed backdoors. Personally, I doubt that they’re backdoored. And I always like seeing NSA-designed cryptography (particularly its key schedules). It’s like examining alien technology.

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Russia is Banning Telegram

Russia has banned the secure messaging app Telegram. It’s making an absolute mess of the ban — blocking 16 million IP addresses, many belonging to the Amazon and Google clouds — and it’s not even clear that it’s working. But, more importantly, I’m not convinced Telegram is secure in the first place.

Such a weird story. If you want secure messaging, use Signal. If you’re concerned that having Signal on your phone will itself arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.

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Subverting Backdoored Encrryption

This is a really interesting research result. This paper proves that two parties can create a secure communications channel using a communications system with a backdoor. It’s a theoretical result, so it doesn’t talk about how easy that channel is to create. And the assumptions on the adversary are pretty reasonable: that each party can create his own randomness, and that the government isn’t literally eavesdropping on every single part of the network at all times.

This result reminds me a lot of the work about subliminal channels from the 1980s and 1990s, and the notions of how to build an anonymous communications system on top of an identified system. Basically, it’s always possible to overlay a system around and outside any closed system.

How to Subvert Backdoored Encryption: Security Against Adversaries that Decrypt All Ciphertexts,” by Thibaut Horel and Sunoo Park and Silas Richelson and Vinod Vaikuntanathan.

Abstract: In this work, we examine the feasibility of secure and undetectable point-to-point communication in a world where governments can read all the encrypted communications of their citizens. We consider a world where the only permitted method of communication is via a government-mandated encryption scheme, instantiated with government-mandated keys. Parties cannot simply encrypt ciphertexts of some other encryption scheme, because citizens caught trying to communicate outside the government’s knowledge (e.g., by encrypting strings which do not appear to be natural language plaintexts) will be arrested. The one guarantee we suppose is that the government mandates an encryption scheme which is semantically secure against outsiders: a perhaps reasonable supposition when a government might consider it advantageous to secure its people’s communication against foreign entities. But then, what good is semantic security against an adversary that holds all the keys and has the power to decrypt?

We show that even in the pessimistic scenario described, citizens can communicate securely and undetectably. In our terminology, this translates to a positive statement: all semantically secure encryption schemes support subliminal communication. Informally, this means that there is a two-party protocol between Alice and Bob where the parties exchange ciphertexts of what appears to be a normal conversation even to someone who knows the secret keys and thus can read the corresponding plaintexts. And yet, at the end of the protocol, Alice will have transmitted her secret message to Bob. Our security definition requires that the adversary not be able to tell whether Alice and Bob are just having a normal conversation using the mandated encryption scheme, or they are using the mandated encryption scheme for subliminal communication.

Our topics may be thought to fall broadly within the realm of steganography: the science of hiding secret communication within innocent-looking messages, or cover objects. However, we deal with the non-standard setting of an adversarially chosen distribution of cover objects (i.e., a stronger-than-usual adversary), and we take advantage of the fact that our cover objects are ciphertexts of a semantically secure encryption scheme to bypass impossibility results which we show for broader classes of steganographic schemes. We give several constructions of subliminal communication schemes under the assumption that key exchange protocols with pseudorandom messages exist (such as Diffie-Hellman, which in fact has truly random messages). Each construction leverages the assumed semantic security of the adversarially chosen encryption scheme, in order to achieve subliminal communication.

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Adding Backdoors at the Chip Level

Interesting research into undetectably adding backdoors into computer chips during manufacture: “Stealthy dopant-level hardware Trojans: extended version,” also available here:

Abstract: In recent years, hardware Trojans have drawn the attention of governments and industry as well as the scientific community. One of the main concerns is that integrated circuits, e.g., for military or critical-infrastructure applications, could be maliciously manipulated during the manufacturing process, which often takes place abroad. However, since there have been no reported hardware Trojans in practice yet, little is known about how such a Trojan would look like and how difficult it would be in practice to implement one. In this paper we propose an extremely stealthy approach for implementing hardware Trojans below the gate level, and we evaluate their impact on the security of the target device. Instead of adding additional circuitry to the target design, we insert our hardware Trojans by changing the dopant polarity of existing transistors. Since the modified circuit appears legitimate on all wiring layers (including all metal and polysilicon), our family of Trojans is resistant to most detection techniques, including fine-grain optical inspection and checking against “golden chips”. We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach by inserting Trojans into two designs — a digital post-processing derived from Intel’s cryptographically secure RNG design used in the Ivy Bridge processors and a side-channel resistant SBox implementation¬≠ — and by exploring their detectability and their effects on security.

The moral is that this kind of technique is very difficult to detect.

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Two New Papers on the Encryption Debate

Seems like everyone is writing about encryption and backdoors this season.

I recently blogged about the new National Academies report on the same topic.

Here’s a review of the National Academies report, and another of the East West Institute’s report.

EDITED TO ADD (3/8): Commentary on the National Academies study by the EFF.

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