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ISO Rejects NSA Encryption Algorithms

The ISO has decided not to approve two NSA-designed block encryption algorithms: Speck and Simon. It’s because the NSA is not trusted to put security ahead of surveillance:

A number of them voiced their distrust in emails to one another, seen by Reuters, and in written comments that are part of the process. The suspicions stem largely from internal NSA documents disclosed by Snowden that showed the agency had previously plotted to manipulate standards and promote technology it could penetrate. Budget documents, for example, sought funding to “insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems.”

More than a dozen of the experts involved in the approval process for Simon and Speck feared that if the NSA was able to crack the encryption techniques, it would gain a “back door” into coded transmissions, according to the interviews and emails and other documents seen by Reuters.

“I don’t trust the designers,” Israeli delegate Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at the University of Haifa, told Reuters, citing Snowden’s papers. “There are quite a lot of people in NSA who think their job is to subvert standards. My job is to secure standards.”

I don’t trust the NSA, either.

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Security Vulnerabilities in AT&T Routers

They’re actually Arris routers, sold or given away by AT&T. There are several security vulnerabilities, some of them very serious. They can be fixed, but because these are routers it takes some skill. We don’t know how many routers are affected, and estimates range from thousands to 138,000.

Among the vulnerabilities are hardcoded credentials, which can allow “root” remote access to an affected device, giving an attacker full control over the router. An attacker can connect to an affected router and log-in with a publicly-disclosed username and password, granting access to the modem’s menu-driven shell. An attacker can view and change the Wi-Fi router name and password, and alter the network’s setup, such as rerouting internet traffic to a malicious server.

The shell also allows the attacker to control a module that’s dedicated to injecting advertisements into unencrypted web traffic, a common tactic used by internet providers and other web companies. Hutchins said that there was “no clear evidence” to suggest the module was running but noted that it was still vulnerable, allowing an attacker to inject their own money-making ad campaigns or malware.

I have written about router vulnerabilities, and why the economics of their production makes them inevitable.

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Journalists Generally Do Not Use Secure Communication

This should come as no surprise:

Alas, our findings suggest that secure communications haven’t yet attracted mass adoption among journalists. We looked at 2,515 Washington journalists with permanent credentials to cover Congress, and we found only 2.5 percent of them solicit end-to-end encrypted communication via their Twitter bios. That’s just 62 out of all the broadcast, newspaper, wire service, and digital reporters. Just 28 list a way to reach them via Signal or another secure messaging app. Only 22 provide a PGP public key, a method that allows sources to send encrypted messages. A paltry seven advertise a secure email address. In an era when anything that can be hacked will be and when the president has declared outright war on the media, this should serve as a frightening wake-up call.

[…]

When journalists don’t step up, sources with sensitive information face the burden of using riskier modes of communication to initiate contact­ — and possibly conduct all of their exchanges­ — with reporters. It increases their chances of getting caught, putting them in danger of losing their job or facing prosecution. It’s burden enough to make them think twice about whistleblowing.

I forgive them for not using secure e-mail. It’s hard to use and confusing. But secure messaging is easy.

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Alternatives to Government-Mandated Encryption Backdoors

Policy essay: “Encryption Substitutes,” by Andrew Keane Woods:

In this short essay, I make a few simple assumptions that bear mentioning at the outset. First, I assume that governments have good and legitimate reasons for getting access to personal data. These include things like controlling crime, fighting terrorism, and regulating territorial borders. Second, I assume that people have a right to expect privacy in their personal data. Therefore, policymakers should seek to satisfy both law enforcement and privacy concerns without unduly burdening one or the other. Of course, much of the debate over government access to data is about how to respect both of these assumptions. Different actors will make different trade-offs. My aim in this short essay is merely to show that regardless of where one draws this line — whether one is more concerned with ensuring privacy of personal information or ensuring that the government has access to crucial evidence — it would be shortsighted and counterproductive to draw that line with regard to one particular privacy technique and without regard to possible substitutes. The first part of the paper briefly characterizes the encryption debate two ways: first, as it is typically discussed, in stark, uncompromising terms; and second, as a subset of a broader problem. The second part summarizes several avenues available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies seeking access to data. The third part outlines the alternative avenues available to privacy-seekers. The availability of substitutes is relevant to the regulators but also to the regulated. If the encryption debate is one tool in a game of cat and mouse, the cat has other tools at his disposal to catch the mouse — and the mouse has other tools to evade the cat. The fourth part offers some initial thoughts on implications for the privacy debate.

Blog post.

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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 Secret Code of Beatrix Potter

Interesting:

As codes go, Potter’s wasn’t inordinately complicated. As Wiltshire explains, it was a “mono-alphabetic substitution cipher code,” in which each letter of the alphabet was replaced by a symbol­ — the kind of thing they teach you in Cub Scouts. The real trouble was Potter’s own fluency with it. She quickly learned to write the code so fast that each sheet looked, even to Linder’s trained eye, like a maze of scribbles.

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Passwords at the Border

The password-manager 1Password has just implemented a travel mode that tries to protect users while crossing borders. It doesn’t make much sense. To enable it, you have to create a list of passwords you feel safe traveling with, and then you can turn on the mode that only gives you access to those passwords. But since you can turn it off at will, a border official can just demand you do so. Better would be some sort of time lock where you are unable to turn it off at the border.

There are a bunch of tricks you can use to ensure that you are unable to decrypt your devices, even if someone demands that you do. Back in 2009, I described such a scheme, and mentioned some other tricks the year before. Here’s more. They work with any password manager, including my own Password Safe.

There’s a problem, though. Everything you do along these lines is problematic, because 1) you don’t want to ever lie to a customs official, and 2) any steps you take to make your data inaccessible is in itself suspicious. Your best defense is not to have anything incriminating on your computer or in the various social media accounts you use. (This advice was given to Australian citizens by their Department of Immigration and Border Protection specifically to Muslims pilgrims returning from hajj. Bizarrely, an Australian MP complained when Muslims repeated that advice.)

The EFF has a comprehensive guide to both the tech and policy of securing your electronics for border crossings.

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NSA Brute-Force Keysearch Machine

The Intercept published a story about a dedicated NSA brute-force keysearch machine being built with the help of New York University and IBM. It’s based on a document that was accidentally shared on the Internet by NYU.

The article is frustratingly short on details:

The WindsorGreen documents are mostly inscrutable to anyone without a Ph.D. in a related field, but they make clear that the computer is the successor to WindsorBlue, a next generation of specialized IBM hardware that would excel at cracking encryption, whose known customers are the U.S. government and its partners.

Experts who reviewed the IBM documents said WindsorGreen possesses substantially greater computing power than WindsorBlue, making it particularly adept at compromising encryption and passwords. In an overview of WindsorGreen, the computer is described as a “redesign” centered around an improved version of its processor, known as an “application specific integrated circuit,” or ASIC, a type of chip built to do one task, like mining bitcoin, extremely well, as opposed to being relatively good at accomplishing the wide range of tasks that, say, a typical MacBook would handle. One of the upgrades was to switch the processor to smaller transistors, allowing more circuitry to be crammed into the same area, a change quantified by measuring the reduction in nanometers (nm) between certain chip features.

Unfortunately, the Intercept decided not to publish most of the document, so all of those people with “a Ph.D. in a related field” can’t read and understand WindsorGreen’s capabilities. What sorts of key lengths can the machine brute force? Is it optimized for symmetric or asymmetric cryptanalysis? Random brute force or dictionary attacks? We have no idea.

Whatever the details, this is exactly the sort of thing the NSA should be spending their money. Breaking the cryptography used by other nations is squarely in the NSA’s mission.

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Shadow Brokers Releases the Rest of Their NSA Hacking Tools

Last August, an unknown group called the Shadow Brokers released a bunch of NSA tools to the public. The common guesses were that the tools were discovered on an external staging server, and that the hack and release was the work of the Russians (back then, that wasn’t controversial). This was me:

Okay, so let’s think about the game theory here. Some group stole all of this data in 2013 and kept it secret for three years. Now they want the world to know it was stolen. Which governments might behave this way? The obvious list is short: China and Russia. Were I betting, I would bet Russia, and that it’s a signal to the Obama Administration: “Before you even think of sanctioning us for the DNC hack, know where we’ve been and what we can do to you.”

They published a second, encrypted, file. My speculation:

They claim to be auctioning off the rest of the data to the highest bidder. I think that’s PR nonsense. More likely, that second file is random nonsense, and this is all we’re going to get. It’s a lot, though.

I was wrong. On November 1, the Shadow Brokers released some more documents, and two days ago they released the key to that original encrypted archive:

EQGRP-Auction-Files is CrDj”(;Va.*NdlnzB9M?@K2)#>deB7mN

I don’t think their statement is worth reading for content. I still believe the Russia are more likely to be the perpetrator than China.

There’s not much yet on the contents of this dump of Top Secret NSA hacking tools, but it can’t be a fun weekend at Ft. Meade. I’m sure that by now they have enough information to know exactly where and when the data got stolen, and maybe even detailed information on who did it. My guess is that we’ll never see that information, though.

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