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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 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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Yet Another FBI Proposal for Insecure Communications

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has given talks where he proposes that tech companies decrease their communications and device security for the benefit of the FBI. In a recent talk, his idea is that tech companies just save a copy of the plaintext:

Law enforcement can also partner with private industry to address a problem we call “Going Dark.” Technology increasingly frustrates traditional law enforcement efforts to collect evidence needed to protect public safety and solve crime. For example, many instant-messaging services now encrypt messages by default. The prevent the police from reading those messages, even if an impartial judge approves their interception.

The problem is especially critical because electronic evidence is necessary for both the investigation of a cyber incident and the prosecution of the perpetrator. If we cannot access data even with lawful process, we are unable to do our job. Our ability to secure systems and prosecute criminals depends on our ability to gather evidence.

I encourage you to carefully consider your company’s interests and how you can work cooperatively with us. Although encryption can help secure your data, it may also prevent law enforcement agencies from protecting your data.

Encryption serves a valuable purpose. It is a foundational element of data security and essential to safeguarding data against cyber-attacks. It is critical to the growth and flourishing of the digital economy, and we support it. I support strong and responsible encryption.

I simply maintain that companies should retain the capability to provide the government unencrypted copies of communications and data stored on devices, when a court orders them to do so.

Responsible encryption is effective secure encryption, coupled with access capabilities. We know encryption can include safeguards. For example, there are systems that include central management of security keys and operating system updates; scanning of content, like your e-mails, for advertising purposes; simulcast of messages to multiple destinations at once; and key recovery when a user forgets the password to decrypt a laptop. No one calls any of those functions a “backdoor.” In fact, those very capabilities are marketed and sought out.

I do not believe that the government should mandate a specific means of ensuring access. The government does not need to micromanage the engineering.

The question is whether to require a particular goal: When a court issues a search warrant or wiretap order to collect evidence of crime, the company should be able to help. The government does not need to hold the key.

Rosenstein is right that many services like Gmail naturally keep plaintext in the cloud. This is something we pointed out in our 2016 paper: “Don’t Panic.” But forcing companies to build an alternate means to access the plaintext that the user can’t control is an enormous vulnerability.

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FBI Increases Its Anti-Encryption Rhetoric

Earlier this month, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave a speech warning that a world with encryption is a world without law — or something like that. The EFF’s Kurt Opsahl takes it apart pretty thoroughly.

Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said much the same thing.

This is an idea that will not die.

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Australia Considering New Law Weakening Encryption

News from Australia:

Under the law, internet companies would have the same obligations telephone companies do to help law enforcement agencies, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. Law enforcement agencies would need warrants to access the communications.

“We’ve got a real problem in that the law enforcement agencies are increasingly unable to find out what terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings are up to because of the very high levels of encryption,” Turnbull told reporters.

“Where we can compel it, we will, but we will need the cooperation from the tech companies,” he added.

Never mind that the law 1) would not achieve the desired results because all the smart “terrorists and drug traffickers and pedophile rings” will simply use a third-party encryption app, and 2) would make everyone else in Australia less secure. But that’s all ground I’ve covered before.

I found this bit amusing:

Asked whether the laws of mathematics behind encryption would trump any new legislation, Mr Turnbull said: “The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that.

“The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Next Turnbull is going to try to legislate that pi = 3.2.

Another article. BoingBoing post.

EDITED TO ADD: More commentary.

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The US Senate Is Using Signal

The US Senate just approved Signal for staff use. Signal is a secure messaging app with no backdoor, and no large corporate owner who can be pressured to install a backdoor.

Susan Landau comments.

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think we just won the Crypto War. A very important part of the US government is prioritizing security over surveillance.

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Encryption Policy and Freedom of the Press

Interesting law journal article: “Encryption and the Press Clause,” by D. Victoria Barantetsky.

Abstract: Almost twenty years ago, a hostile debate over whether government could regulate encryption — later named the Crypto Wars — seized the country. At the center of this debate stirred one simple question: is encryption protected speech? This issue touched all branches of government percolating from Congress, to the President, and eventually to the federal courts. In a waterfall of cases, several United States Court of Appeals appeared to reach a consensus that encryption was protected speech under the First Amendment, and with that the Crypto Wars appeared to be over, until now.

Nearly twenty years later, the Crypto Wars have returned. Following recent mass shootings, law enforcement has once again questioned the legal protection for encryption and tried to implement “backdoor” techniques to access messages sent over encrypted channels. In the case, Apple v. FBI, the agency tried to compel Apple to grant access to the iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter. The case was never decided, but the legal arguments briefed before the court were essentially the same as they were two decades prior. Apple and amici supporting the company argued that encryption was protected speech.

While these arguments remain convincing, circumstances have changed in ways that should be reflected in the legal doctrines that lawyers use. Unlike twenty years ago, today surveillance is ubiquitous, and the need for encryption is no longer felt by a seldom few. Encryption has become necessary for even the most basic exchange of information given that most Americans share “nearly every aspect of their lives ­– from the mundane to the intimate” over the Internet, as stated in a recent Supreme Court opinion.

Given these developments, lawyers might consider a new justification under the Press Clause. In addition to the many doctrinal concerns that exist with protection under the Speech Clause, the
Press Clause is normatively and descriptively more accurate at protecting encryption as a tool for secure communication without fear of government surveillance. This Article outlines that framework by examining the historical and theoretical transformation of the Press Clause since its inception.

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David Cameron's Plan to Ban Encryption in the UK

In the wake of the Paris terrorist shootings, David Cameron has said that he wants to ban encryption in the UK. Here’s the quote: “If I am prime minister I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that does not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other.”

This is similar to FBI director James Comey’s remarks from last year. And it’s equally stupid.

Cory Doctorow has a good essay on Cameron’s proposal:

For David Cameron’s proposal to work, he will need to stop Britons from installing software that comes from software creators who are out of his jurisdiction. The very best in secure communications are already free/open source projects, maintained by thousands of independent programmers around the world. They are widely available, and thanks to things like cryptographic signing, it is possible to download these packages from any server in the world (not just big ones like Github) and verify, with a very high degree of confidence, that the software you’ve downloaded hasn’t been tampered with.

Cameron is not alone here. The regime he proposes is already in place in countries like Syria, Russia, and Iran (for the record, none of these countries have had much luck with it). There are two means by which authoritarian governments have attempted to restrict the use of secure technology: by network filtering and by technology mandates.

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