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Storing Encrypted Photos in Google’s Cloud

New paper: “Encrypted Cloud Photo Storage Using Google Photos“:

Abstract: Cloud photo services are widely used for persistent, convenient, and often free photo storage, which is especially useful for mobile devices. As users store more and more photos in the cloud, significant privacy concerns arise because even a single compromise of a user’s credentials give attackers unfettered access to all of the user’s photos. We have created Easy Secure Photos (ESP) to enable users to protect their photos on cloud photo services such as Google Photos. ESP introduces a new client-side encryption architecture that includes a novel format-preserving image encryption algorithm, an encrypted thumbnail display mechanism, and a usable key management system. ESP encrypts image data such that the result is still a standard format image like JPEG that is compatible with cloud photo services. ESP efficiently generates and displays encrypted thumbnails for fast and easy browsing of photo galleries from trusted user devices. ESP’s key management makes it simple to authorize multiple user devices to view encrypted image content via a process similar to device pairing, but using the cloud photo service as a QR code communication channel. We have implemented ESP in a popular Android photos app for use with Google Photos and demonstrate that it is easy to use and provides encryption functionality transparently to users, maintains good interactive performance and image quality while providing strong privacy guarantees, and retains the sharing and storage benefits of Google Photos without any changes to the cloud service

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Intentional Flaw in GPRS Encryption Algorithm GEA-1

General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is a mobile data standard that was widely used in the early 2000s. The first encryption algorithm for that standard was GEA-1, a stream cipher built on three linear-feedback shift registers and a non-linear combining function. Although the algorithm has a 64-bit key, the effective key length is only 40 bits, due to “an exceptional interaction of the deployed LFSRs and the key initialization, which is highly unlikely to occur by chance.”

GEA-1 was designed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute in 1998. ETSI was — and maybe still is — under the auspices of SOGIS: the Senior Officials Group, Information Systems Security. That’s basically the intelligence agencies of the EU countries.

Details are in the paper: “Cryptanalysis of the GPRS Encryption Algorithms GEA-1 and GEA-2.” GEA-2 does not have the same flaw, although the researchers found a practical attack with enough keystream.

Hacker News thread.

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FBI/AFP-Run Encrypted Phone

For three years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Australian Federal Police owned and operated a commercial encrypted phone app, called AN0M, that was used by organized crime around the world. Of course, the police were able to read everything — I don’t even know if this qualifies as a backdoor. This week, the world’s police organizations announced 800 arrests based on text messages sent over the app. We’ve seen law enforcement take over encrypted apps before: for example, EncroChat. This operation, code-named Trojan Shield, is the first time law enforcement managed an app from the beginning.

If there is any moral to this, it’s one that all of my blog readers should already know: trust is essential to security. And the number of people you need to trust is larger than you might originally think. For an app to be secure, you need to trust the hardware, the operating system, the software, the update mechanism, the login mechanism, and on and on and on. If one of those is untrustworthy, the whole system is insecure.

It’s the same reason blockchain-based currencies are so insecure, even if the cryptography is sound.

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Double-Encrypting Ransomware

This seems to be a new tactic:

Emsisoft has identified two distinct tactics. In the first, hackers encrypt data with ransomware A and then re-encrypt that data with ransomware B. The other path involves what Emsisoft calls a “side-by-side encryption” attack, in which attacks encrypt some of an organization’s systems with ransomware A and others with ransomware B. In that case, data is only encrypted once, but a victim would need both decryption keys to unlock everything. The researchers also note that in this side-by-side scenario, attackers take steps to make the two distinct strains of ransomware look as similar as possible, so it’s more difficult for incident responders to sort out what’s going on.

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Signal Adds Cryptocurrency Support

According to Wired, Signal is adding support for the cryptocurrency MobileCoin, “a form of digital cash designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy and even their anonymity.”

Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, describes the new payments feature as an attempt to extend Signal’s privacy protections to payments with the same seamless experience that Signal has offered for encrypted conversations. “There’s a palpable difference in the feeling of what it’s like to communicate over Signal, knowing you’re not being watched or listened to, versus other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview. “I would like to get to a world where not only can you feel that when you talk to your therapist over Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the session over Signal.”

I think this is an incredibly bad idea. It’s not just the bloating of what was a clean secure communications app. It’s not just that blockchain is just plain stupid. It’s not even that Signal is choosing to tie itself to a specific blockchain currency. It’s that adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.

And I see no good reason to do this. Secure communications and secure transactions can be separate apps, even separate apps from the same organization. End-to-end encryption is already at risk. Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies.

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary from Stephen Deihl:

I think I speak for many technologists when I say that any bolted-on cryptocurrency monetization scheme smells like a giant pile of rubbish and feels enormously user-exploitative. We’ve seen this before, after all Telegram tried the same thing in an ICO that imploded when SEC shut them down, and Facebook famously tried and failed to monetize WhatsApp through their decentralized-but-not-really digital money market fund project.

[…]

Signal is a still a great piece of software. Just do one thing and do it well, be the trusted de facto platform for private messaging that empowers dissidents, journalists and grandma all to communicate freely with the same guarantees of privacy. Don’t become a dodgy money transmitter business. This is not the way.

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BlackBerry Phone Cracked

Australia is reporting that a BlackBerry device has been cracked after five years:

An encrypted BlackBerry device that was cracked five years after it was first seized by police is poised to be the key piece of evidence in one of the state’s longest-running drug importation investigations.

In April, new technology “capabilities” allowed authorities to probe the encrypted device….

No details about those capabilities.

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On the Twitter Hack

Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.

The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam — stealing bitcoin — but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.

Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter’s network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages — between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations — are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn’t yet.

Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.

In the Twitter case this week, the hacker’s tactics weren’t particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee’s cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.

This kind of attack is known as a “class break.” Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they’re not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn’t matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn’t matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.

Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.

For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter’s authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.

There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.

The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.

The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.

For example, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account wasn’t hacked as Joe Biden’s was, because that account has “special protections,” the details of which we don’t know. We also don’t know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.

In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn’t have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn’t be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines — different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it’s how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.

This wasn’t Twitter’s first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump’s account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.

Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won’t. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don’t blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company’s leaders.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

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