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How Apple’s “Find My” Feature Works

Matthew Green intelligently speculates about how Apple’s new “Find My” feature works.

If you haven’t already been inspired by the description above, let me phrase the question you ought to be asking: how is this system going to avoid being a massive privacy nightmare?

Let me count the concerns:

  • If your device is constantly emitting a BLE signal that uniquely identifies it, the whole world is going to have (yet another) way to track you. Marketers already use WiFi and Bluetooth MAC addresses to do this: Find My could create yet another tracking channel.

  • It also exposes the phones who are doing the tracking. These people are now going to be sending their current location to Apple (which they may or may not already be doing). Now they’ll also be potentially sharing this information with strangers who “lose” their devices. That could go badly.

  • Scammers might also run active attacks in which they fake the location of your device. While this seems unlikely, people will always surprise you.

The good news is that Apple claims that their system actually does provide strong privacy, and that it accomplishes this using clever cryptography. But as is typical, they’ve declined to give out the details how they’re going to do it. Andy Greenberg talked me through an incomplete technical description that Apple provided to Wired, so that provides many hints. Unfortunately, what Apple provided still leaves huge gaps. It’s into those gaps that I’m going to fill in my best guess for what Apple is actually doing.

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Fraudulent Academic Papers

The term “fake news” has lost much of its meaning, but it describes a real and dangerous Internet trend. Because it’s hard for many people to differentiate a real news site from a fraudulent one, they can be hoodwinked by fictitious news stories pretending to be real. The result is that otherwise reasonable people believe lies.

The trends fostering fake news are more general, though, and we need to start thinking about how it could affect different areas of our lives. In particular, I worry about how it will affect academia. In addition to fake news, I worry about fake research.

An example of this seems to have happened recently in the cryptography field. SIMON is a block cipher designed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and made public in 2013. It’s a general design optimized for hardware implementation, with a variety of block sizes and key lengths. Academic cryptanalysts have been trying to break the cipher since then, with some pretty good results, although the NSA’s specified parameters are still immune to attack. Last week, a paper appeared on the International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) ePrint archive purporting to demonstrate a much more effective break of SIMON, one that would affect actual implementations. The paper was sufficiently weird, the authors sufficiently unknown and the details of the attack sufficiently absent, that the editors took it down a few days later. No harm done in the end.

In recent years, there has been a push to speed up the process of disseminating research results. Instead of the laborious process of academic publication, researchers have turned to faster online publishing processes, preprint servers, and simply posting research results. The IACR ePrint archive is one of those alternatives. This has all sorts of benefits, but one of the casualties is the process of peer review. As flawed as that process is, it does help ensure the accuracy of results. (Of course, bad papers can still make it through the process. We’re still dealing with the aftermath of a flawed, and now retracted, Lancet paper linking vaccines with autism.)

Like the news business, academic publishing is subject to abuse. We can only speculate the motivations of the three people who are listed as authors on the SIMON paper, but you can easily imagine better-executed and more nefarious scenarios. In a world of competitive research, one group might publish a fake result to throw other researchers off the trail. It might be a company trying to gain an advantage over a potential competitor, or even a country trying to gain an advantage over another country.

Reverting to a slower and more accurate system isn’t the answer; the world is just moving too fast for that. We need to recognize that fictitious research results can now easily be injected into our academic publication system, and tune our skepticism meters accordingly.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Germany Talking about Banning End-to-End Encryption

Der Spiegel is reporting that the German Ministry for Internal Affairs is planning to require all Internet message services to provide plaintext messages on demand, basically outlawing strong end-to-end encryption. Anyone not complying will be blocked, although the article doesn’t say how. (Cory Doctorow has previously explained why this would be impossible.)

The article is in German, and I would appreciate additional information from those who can speak the language.

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Why Are Cryptographers Being Denied Entry into the US?

In March, Adi Shamir — that’s the “S” in RSA — was denied a US visa to attend the RSA Conference. He’s Israeli.

This month, British citizen Ross Anderson couldn’t attend an awards ceremony in DC because of visa issues. (You can listen to his recorded acceptance speech.) I’ve heard of two other prominent cryptographers who are in the same boat. Is there some cryptographer blacklist? Is something else going on? A lot of us would like to know.

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Maliciously Tampering with Medical Imagery

In what I am sure is only a first in many similar demonstrations, researchers are able to add or remove cancer signs from CT scans. The results easily fool radiologists.

I don’t think the medical device industry has thought at all about data integrity and authentication issues. In a world where sensor data of all kinds is undetectably manipulatable, they’re going to have to start.

Research paper. Slashdot thread.

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How the Anonymous Artist Banksy Authenticates His or Her Work

Interesting scheme:

It all starts off with a fairly bog standard gallery style certificate. Details of the work, the authenticating agency, a bit of embossing and a large impressive signature at the bottom. Exactly the sort of things that can be easily copied by someone on a mission to create the perfect fake.

That torn-in-half banknote though? Never mind signatures, embossing or wax seals. The Di Faced Tenner is doing all the authentication heavy lifting here.

The tear is what uniquely separates the private key, the half of the note kept secret under lock and key at Pest Control, with the public key. The public key is the half of the note attached to the authentication certificate which gets passed on with the print, and allows its authenticity to be easily verified.

We have no idea what has been written on Pest Control’s private half of the note. Which means it can’t be easily recreated, and that empowers Pest Control to keep the authoritative list of who currently owns each authenticated Banksy work.

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Unhackable Cryptography?

A recent article overhyped the release of EverCrypt, a cryptography library created using formal methods to prove security against specific attacks.

The Quantum magazine article sets off a series of “snake-oil” alarm bells. The author’s Github README is more measured and accurate, and illustrates what a cool project this really is. But it’s not “hacker-proof cryptographic code.”

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