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The Myth of Consumer-Grade Security

The Department of Justice wants access to encrypted consumer devices but promises not to infiltrate business products or affect critical infrastructure. Yet that’s not possible, because there is no longer any difference between those categories of devices. Consumer devices are critical infrastructure. They affect national security. And it would be foolish to weaken them, even at the request of law enforcement.

In his keynote address at the International Conference on Cybersecurity, Attorney General William Barr argued that companies should weaken encryption systems to gain access to consumer devices for criminal investigations. Barr repeated a common fallacy about a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer encryption: “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.”

The thing is, that distinction between military and consumer products largely doesn’t exist. All of those “consumer products” Barr wants access to are used by government officials — heads of state, legislators, judges, military commanders and everyone else — worldwide. They’re used by election officials, police at all levels, nuclear power plant operators, CEOs and human rights activists. They’re critical to national security as well as personal security.

This wasn’t true during much of the Cold War. Before the Internet revolution, military-grade electronics were different from consumer-grade. Military contracts drove innovation in many areas, and those sectors got the cool new stuff first. That started to change in the 1980s, when consumer electronics started to become the place where innovation happened. The military responded by creating a category of military hardware called COTS: commercial off-the-shelf technology. More consumer products became approved for military applications. Today, pretty much everything that doesn’t have to be hardened for battle is COTS and is the exact same product purchased by consumers. And a lot of battle-hardened technologies are the same computer hardware and software products as the commercial items, but in sturdier packaging.

Through the mid-1990s, there was a difference between military-grade encryption and consumer-grade encryption. Laws regulated encryption as a munition and limited what could legally be exported only to key lengths that were easily breakable. That changed with the rise of Internet commerce, because the needs of commercial applications more closely mirrored the needs of the military. Today, the predominant encryption algorithm for commercial applications — Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) — is approved by the National Security Agency (NSA) to secure information up to the level of Top Secret. The Department of Defense’s classified analogs of the Internet­ — Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) and probably others whose names aren’t yet public — use the same Internet protocols, software, and hardware that the rest of the world does, albeit with additional physical controls. And the NSA routinely assists in securing business and consumer systems, including helping Google defend itself from Chinese hackers in 2010.

Yes, there are some military applications that are different. The US nuclear system Barr mentions is one such example — and it uses ancient computers and 8-inch floppy drives. But for pretty much everything that doesn’t see active combat, it’s modern laptops, iPhones, the same Internet everyone else uses, and the same cloud services.

This is also true for corporate applications. Corporations rarely use customized encryption to protect their operations. They also use the same types of computers, networks, and cloud services that the government and consumers use. Customized security is both more expensive because it is unique, and less secure because it’s nonstandard and untested.

During the Cold War, the NSA had the dual mission of attacking Soviet computers and communications systems and defending domestic counterparts. It was possible to do both simultaneously only because the two systems were different at every level. Today, the entire world uses Internet protocols; iPhones and Android phones; and iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal to secure their chats. Consumer-grade encryption is the same as military-grade encryption, and consumer security is the same as national security.

Barr can’t weaken consumer systems without also weakening commercial, government, and military systems. There’s one world, one network, and one answer. As a matter of policy, the nation has to decide which takes precedence: offense or defense. If security is deliberately weakened, it will be weakened for everybody. And if security is strengthened, it is strengthened for everybody. It’s time to accept the fact that these systems are too critical to society to weaken. Everyone will be more secure with stronger encryption, even if it means the bad guys get to use that encryption as well.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Manipulative Social Media Practices

The Norwegian Consumer Council just published an excellent report on the deceptive practices tech companies use to trick people into giving up their privacy.

From the executive summary:

Facebook and Google have privacy intrusive defaults, where users who want the privacy friendly option have to go through a significantly longer process. They even obscure some of these settings so that the user cannot know that the more privacy intrusive option was preselected.

The popups from Facebook, Google and Windows 10 have design, symbols and wording that nudge users away from the privacy friendly choices. Choices are worded to compel users to make certain choices, while key information is omitted or downplayed. None of them lets the user freely postpone decisions. Also, Facebook and Google threaten users with loss of functionality or deletion of the user account if the user does not choose the privacy intrusive option.

[…]

The combination of privacy intrusive defaults and the use of dark patterns, nudge users of Facebook and Google, and to a lesser degree Windows 10, toward the least privacy friendly options to a degree that we consider unethical. We question whether this is in accordance with the principles of data protection by default and data protection by design, and if consent given under these circumstances can be said to be explicit, informed and freely given.

I am a big fan of the Norwegian Consumer Council. They’ve published some excellent research.

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Public Hearing on IoT Risks

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding hearings on IoT risks:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC, Commission, or we) will conduct a public hearing to receive information from all interested parties about potential safety issues and hazards associated with internet-connected consumer products. The information received from the public hearing will be used to inform future Commission risk management work. The Commission also requests written comments.

Maybe I should send them my book manuscript.

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