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China Spying on Undersea Internet Cables

Supply chain security is an insurmountably hard problem. The recent focus is on Chinese 5G equipment, but the problem is much broader. This opinion piece looks at undersea communications cables:

But now the Chinese conglomerate Huawei Technologies, the leading firm working to deliver 5G telephony networks globally, has gone to sea. Under its Huawei Marine Networks component, it is constructing or improving nearly 100 submarine cables around the world. Last year it completed a cable stretching nearly 4,000 miles from Brazil to Cameroon. (The cable is partly owned by China Unicom, a state-controlled telecom operator.) Rivals claim that Chinese firms are able to lowball the bidding because they receive subsidies from Beijing.

Just as the experts are justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage “back doors” in Huawei’s 5G technology, Western intelligence professionals oppose the company’s engagement in the undersea version, which provides a much bigger bang for the buck because so much data rides on so few cables.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. For years, the US and the Five Eyes have had a monopoly on spying on the Internet around the globe. Other countries want in.

As I have repeatedly said, we need to decide if we are going to build our future Internet systems for security or surveillance. Either everyone gets to spy, or no one gets to spy. And I believe we must choose security over surveillance, and implement a defense-dominant strategy.

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Attacking Soldiers on Social Media

A research group at NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence catfished soldiers involved in an European military exercise — we don’t know what country they were from — to demonstrate the power of the attack technique.

Over four weeks, the researchers developed fake pages and closed groups on Facebook that looked like they were associated with the military exercise, as well as profiles impersonating service members both real and imagined.

To recruit soldiers to the pages, they used targeted Facebook advertising. Those pages then promoted the closed groups the researchers had created. Inside the groups, the researchers used their phony accounts to ask the real service members questions about their battalions and their work. They also used these accounts to “friend” service members. According to the report, Facebook’s Suggested Friends feature proved helpful in surfacing additional targets.

The researchers also tracked down service members’ Instagram and Twitter accounts and searched for other information available online, some of which a bad actor might be able to exploit. “We managed to find quite a lot of data on individual people, which would include sensitive information,” Biteniece says. “Like a serviceman having a wife and also being on dating apps.”

By the end of the exercise, the researchers identified 150 soldiers, found the locations of several battalions, tracked troop movements, and compelled service members to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including leaving their positions against orders.

“Every person has a button. For somebody there’s a financial issue, for somebody it’s a very appealing date, for somebody it’s a family thing,” Sarts says. “It’s varied, but everybody has a button. The point is, what’s openly available online is sufficient to know what that is.”

This is the future of warfare. It’s one of the reasons China stole all of that data from the Office of Personal Management. If indeed a country’s intelligence service was behind the Equifax attack, this is why they did it.

Go back and read this scenario from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Why wouldn’t a country intent on starting a war do it that way?

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Marriott Hack Reported as Chinese State-Sponsored

The New York Times and Reuters are reporting that China was behind the recent hack of Mariott Hotels. Note that this is still uncomfirmed, but interesting if it is true.

Reuters:

Private investigators looking into the breach have found hacking tools, techniques and procedures previously used in attacks attributed to Chinese hackers, said three sources who were not authorized to discuss the company’s private probe into the attack.

That suggests that Chinese hackers may have been behind a campaign designed to collect information for use in Beijing’s espionage efforts and not for financial gain, two of the sources said.

While China has emerged as the lead suspect in the case, the sources cautioned it was possible somebody else was behind the hack because other parties had access to the same hacking tools, some of which have previously been posted online.

Identifying the culprit is further complicated by the fact that investigators suspect multiple hacking groups may have simultaneously been inside Starwood’s computer networks since 2014, said one of the sources.

I used to have opinions about whether these attributions are true or not. These days, I tend to wait and see.

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That Bloomberg Supply-Chain-Hack Story

Back in October, Bloomberg reported that China has managed to install backdoors into server equipment that ended up in networks belonging to — among others — Apple and Amazon. Pretty much everybody has denied it (including the US DHS and the UK NCSC). Bloomberg has stood by its story — and is still standing by it.

I don’t think it’s real. Yes, it’s plausible. But first of all, if someone actually surreptitiously put malicious chips onto motherboards en masse, we would have seen a photo of the alleged chip already. And second, there are easier, more effective, and less obvious ways of adding backdoors to networking equipment.

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How Surveillance Inhibits Freedom of Expression

In my book Data and Goliath, I write about the value of privacy. I talk about how it is essential for political liberty and justice, and for commercial fairness and equality. I talk about how it increases personal freedom and individual autonomy, and how the lack of it makes us all less secure. But this is probably the most important argument as to why society as a whole must protect privacy: it allows society to progress.

We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren’t as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.

Let’s take an example: hearing that parents and children are being separated as they cross the US border, you want to learn more. You visit the website of an international immigrants’ rights group, a fact that is available to the government through mass Internet surveillance. You sign up for the group’s mailing list, another fact that is potentially available to the government. The group then calls or e-mails to invite you to a local meeting. Same. Your license plates can be collected as you drive to the meeting; your face can be scanned and identified as you walk into and out of the meeting. If, instead of visiting the website, you visit the group’s Facebook page, Facebook knows that you did and that feeds into its profile of you, available to advertisers and political activists alike. Ditto if you like their page, share a link with your friends, or just post about the issue.

Maybe you are an immigrant yourself, documented or not. Or maybe some of your family is. Or maybe you have friends or coworkers who are. How likely are you to get involved if you know that your interest and concern can be gathered and used by government and corporate actors? What if the issue you are interested in is pro- or anti-gun control, anti-police violence or in support of the police? Does that make a difference?

Maybe the issue doesn’t matter, and you would never be afraid to be identified and tracked based on your political or social interests. But even if you are so fearless, you probably know someone who has more to lose, and thus more to fear, from their personal, sexual, or political beliefs being exposed.

This isn’t just hypothetical. In the months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of us censored what we spoke about on social media or what we searched on the Internet. We know from a 2013 PEN study that writers in the United States self-censored their browsing habits out of fear the government was watching. And this isn’t exclusively an American event; Internet self-censorship is prevalent across the globe, China being a prime example.

Ultimately, this fear stagnates society in two ways. The first is that the presence of surveillance means society cannot experiment with new things without fear of reprisal, and that means those experiments­ — if found to be inoffensive or even essential to society — ­cannot slowly become commonplace, moral, and then legal. If surveillance nips that process in the bud, change never happens. All social progress­ — from ending slavery to fighting for women’s rights­ — began as ideas that were, quite literally, dangerous to assert. Yet without the ability to safely develop, discuss, and eventually act on those assertions, our society would not have been able to further its democratic values in the way that it has.

Consider the decades-long fight for gay rights around the world. Within our lifetimes we have made enormous strides to combat homophobia and increase acceptance of queer folks’ right to marry. Queer relationships slowly progressed from being viewed as immoral and illegal, to being viewed as somewhat moral and tolerated, to finally being accepted as moral and legal.

In the end, it was the public nature of those activities that eventually slayed the bigoted beast, but the ability to act in private was essential in the beginning for the early experimentation, community building, and organizing.

Marijuana legalization is going through the same process: it’s currently sitting between somewhat moral, and­ — depending on the state or country in question — ­tolerated and legal. But, again, for this to have happened, someone decades ago had to try pot and realize that it wasn’t really harmful, either to themselves or to those around them. Then it had to become a counterculture, and finally a social and political movement. If pervasive surveillance meant that those early pot smokers would have been arrested for doing something illegal, the movement would have been squashed before inception. Of course the story is more complicated than that, but the ability for members of society to privately smoke weed was essential for putting it on the path to legalization.

We don’t yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they’re around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we’ll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.

The second way surveillance hurts our democratic values is that it encourages society to make more things illegal. Consider the things you do­ — the different things each of us does­ — that portions of society find immoral. Not just recreational drugs and gay sex, but gambling, dancing, public displays of affection. All of us do things that are deemed immoral by some groups, but are not illegal because they don’t harm anyone. But it’s important that these things can be done out of the disapproving gaze of those who would otherwise rally against such practices.

If there is no privacy, there will be pressure to change. Some people will recognize that their morality isn’t necessarily the morality of everyone­ — and that that’s okay. But others will start demanding legislative change, or using less legal and more violent means, to force others to match their idea of morality.

It’s easy to imagine the more conservative (in the small-c sense, not in the sense of the named political party) among us getting enough power to make illegal what they would otherwise be forced to witness. In this way, privacy helps protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

This is how we got Prohibition in the 1920s, and if we had had today’s surveillance capabilities in the 1920s, it would have been far more effectively enforced. Recipes for making your own spirits would have been much harder to distribute. Speakeasies would have been impossible to keep secret. The criminal trade in illegal alcohol would also have been more effectively suppressed. There would have been less discussion about the harms of Prohibition, less “what if we didn’t?” thinking. Political organizing might have been difficult. In that world, the law might have stuck to this day.

China serves as a cautionary tale. The country has long been a world leader in the ubiquitous surveillance of its citizens, with the goal not of crime prevention but of social control. They are about to further enhance their system, giving every citizen a “social credit” rating. The details are yet unclear, but the general concept is that people will be rated based on their activities, both online and off. Their political comments, their friends and associates, and everything else will be assessed and scored. Those who are conforming, obedient, and apolitical will be given high scores. People without those scores will be denied privileges like access to certain schools and foreign travel. If the program is half as far-reaching as early reports indicate, the subsequent pressure to conform will be enormous. This social surveillance system is precisely the sort of surveillance designed to maintain the status quo.

For social norms to change, people need to deviate from these inherited norms. People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone’s knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words. People need to be able to do things that others find distasteful, or even immoral. The minority needs protection from the tyranny of the majority.

Privacy makes all of this possible. Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.

This essay originally appeared in McSweeney’s issue #54: “The End of Trust.” It was reprinted on Wired.com.

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Cell Phone Security and Heads of State

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump’s personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump’s cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at — but acquiesced to — the security rules prohibiting him from using a “regular” cell phone throughout his presidency.

Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump’s cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And — most personal of all — what about my cell phone calls?

There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet’s major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing “target selectors”: phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany — among them Chancellor Angela Merkel — France, Japan, and other countries.

Other countries don’t have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don’t know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman’s phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country’s phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.

Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don’t think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.

The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians — presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa — 45 countries in all.

These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200K for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.

Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone — Pixel — that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)

Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China’s recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.

Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it’s safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I’d say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.

It’s safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials — especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).

As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It’s easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO’s phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We’ve seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You’re at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn’t want to bother with security, you’re vulnerable.

This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers — including the FBI — can’t access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone’s phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD: Steven Bellovin and Susan Landau have a good essay on the same topic, as does Wired. Slashdot post.

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China’s Hacking of the Border Gateway Protocol

This is a long — and somewhat technical — paper by Chris C. Demchak and Yuval Shavitt about China’s repeated hacking of the Internet Border Gateway Protocol (BGP): “China’s Maxim ­ Leave No Access Point Unexploited: The Hidden Story of China Telecom’s BGP Hijacking.”

BGP hacking is how large intelligence agencies manipulate Internet routing to make certain traffic easier to intercept. The NSA calls it “network shaping” or “traffic shaping.” Here’s a document from the Snowden archives outlining how the technique works with Yemen.

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