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Attorney General William Barr on Encryption Policy

Yesterday, Attorney General William Barr gave a major speech on encryption policy — what is commonly known as “going dark.” Speaking at Fordham University in New York, he admitted that adding backdoors decreases security but that it is worth it.

Some hold this view dogmatically, claiming that it is technologically impossible to provide lawful access without weakening security against unlawful access. But, in the world of cybersecurity, we do not deal in absolute guarantees but in relative risks. All systems fall short of optimality and have some residual risk of vulnerability a point which the tech community acknowledges when they propose that law enforcement can satisfy its requirements by exploiting vulnerabilities in their products. The real question is whether the residual risk of vulnerability resulting from incorporating a lawful access mechanism is materially greater than those already in the unmodified product. The Department does not believe this can be demonstrated.

Moreover, even if there was, in theory, a slight risk differential, its significance should not be judged solely by the extent to which it falls short of theoretical optimality. Particularly with respect to encryption marketed to consumers, the significance of the risk should be assessed based on its practical effect on consumer cybersecurity, as well as its relation to the net risks that offering the product poses for society. 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. If one already has an effective level of security say, by way of illustration, one that protects against 99 percent of foreseeable threats is it reasonable to incur massive further costs to move slightly closer to optimality and attain a 99.5 percent level of protection? A company would not make that expenditure; nor should society. Here, some argue that, to achieve at best a slight incremental improvement in security, it is worth imposing a massive cost on society in the form of degraded safety. This is untenable. If the choice is between a world where we can achieve a 99 percent assurance against cyber threats to consumers, while still providing law enforcement 80 percent of the access it might seek; or a world, on the other hand, where we have boosted our cybersecurity to 99.5 percent but at a cost reducing law enforcements [sic] access to zero percent the choice for society is clear.

I think this is a major change in government position. Previously, the FBI, the Justice Department and so on had claimed that backdoors for law enforcement could be added without any loss of security. They maintained that technologists just need to figure out how: ­an approach we have derisively named “nerd harder.”

With this change, we can finally have a sensible policy conversation. Yes, adding a backdoor increases our collective security because it allows law enforcement to eavesdrop on the bad guys. But adding that backdoor also decreases our collective security because the bad guys can eavesdrop on everyone. This is exactly the policy debate we should be having­not the fake one about whether or not we can have both security and surveillance.

Barr makes the point that this is about “consumer cybersecurity,” and not “nuclear launch codes.” This is true, but ignores the huge amount of national security-related communications between those two poles. The same consumer communications and computing devices are used by our lawmakers, CEOs, legislators, law enforcement officers, nuclear power plant operators, election officials and so on. There’s no longer a difference between consumer tech and government tech — it’s all the same tech.

Barr also says:

Further, the burden is not as onerous as some make it out to be. I served for many years as the general counsel of a large telecommunications concern. During my tenure, we dealt with these issues and lived through the passage and implementation of CALEA the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. CALEA imposes a statutory duty on telecommunications carriers to maintain the capability to provide lawful access to communications over their facilities. Companies bear the cost of compliance but have some flexibility in how they achieve it, and the system has by and large worked. I therefore reserve a heavy dose of skepticism for those who claim that maintaining a mechanism for lawful access would impose an unreasonable burden on tech firms especially the big ones. It is absurd to think that we would preserve lawful access by mandating that physical telecommunications facilities be accessible to law enforcement for the purpose of obtaining content, while allowing tech providers to block law enforcement from obtaining that very content.

That telecommunications company was GTE­which became Verizon. Barr conveniently ignores that CALEA-enabled phone switches were used to spy on government officials in Greece in 2003 — which seems to have been an NSA operation — and on a variety of people in Italy in 2006. Moreover, in 2012 every CALEA-enabled switch sold to the Defense Department had security vulnerabilities. (I wrote about all this, and more, in 2013.)

The final thing I noticed about the speech is that is it not about iPhones and data at rest. It is about communications: ­data in transit. The “going dark” debate has bounced back and forth between those two aspects for decades. It seems to be bouncing once again.

I hope that Barr’s latest speech signals that we can finally move on from the fake security vs. privacy debate, and to the real security vs. security debate. I know where I stand on that: As computers continue to permeate every aspect of our lives, society, and critical infrastructure, it is much more important to ensure that they are secure from everybody — even at the cost of law-enforcement access — than it is to allow access at the cost of security. Barr is wrong, it kind of is like these systems are protecting nuclear launch codes.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Fake News and Pandemics

When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet.

The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, only with the addition of a deadly health crisis and possibly without a malicious government actor. But while the two problems — misinformation affecting democracy and misinformation affecting public health — will have similar solutions, the latter is much less political. If we work to solve the pandemic disinformation problem, any solutions are likely to also be applicable to the democracy one.

Pandemics are part of our future. They might be like the 1968 Hong Kong flu, which killed a million people, or the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed over 40 million. Yes, modern medicine makes pandemics less likely and less deadly. But global travel and trade, increased population density, decreased wildlife habitats, and increased animal farming to satisfy a growing and more affluent population have made them more likely. Experts agree that it’s not a matter of if — it’s only a matter of when.

When the next pandemic strikes, accurate information will be just as important as effective treatments. We saw this in 2014, when the Nigerian government managed to contain a subcontinentwide Ebola epidemic to just 20 infections and eight fatalities. Part of that success was because of the ways officials communicated health information to all Nigerians, using government-sponsored videos, social media campaigns and international experts. Without that, the death toll in Lagos, a city of 21 million people, would have probably been greater than the 11,000 the rest of the continent experienced.

There’s every reason to expect misinformation to be rampant during a pandemic. In the early hours and days, information will be scant and rumors will abound. Most of us are not health professionals or scientists. We won’t be able to tell fact from fiction. Even worse, we’ll be scared. Our brains work differently when we are scared, and they latch on to whatever makes us feel safer — even if it’s not true.

Rumors and misinformation could easily overwhelm legitimate news channels, as people share tweets, images and videos. Much of it will be well-intentioned but wrong — like the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccination community today ­– but some of it may be malicious. In the 1980s, the KGB ran a sophisticated disinformation campaign ­– Operation Infektion ­– to spread the rumor that HIV/AIDS was a result of an American biological weapon gone awry. It’s reasonable to assume some group or country would deliberately spread intentional lies in an attempt to increase death and chaos.

It’s not just misinformation about which treatments work (and are safe), and which treatments don’t work (and are unsafe). Misinformation can affect society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels. Right now, Ebola relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being stymied by mistrust of health workers and government officials.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how this can lead to disaster. Jay Walker, curator of the TEDMED conferences, laid out some of the possibilities in a 2016 essay: people overwhelming and even looting pharmacies trying to get some drug that is irrelevant or nonexistent, people needlessly fleeing cities and leaving them paralyzed, health workers not showing up for work, truck drivers and other essential people being afraid to enter infected areas, official sites like CDC.gov being hacked and discredited. This kind of thing can magnify the health effects of a pandemic many times over, and in extreme cases could lead to a total societal collapse.

This is going to be something that government health organizations, medical professionals, social media companies and the traditional media are going to have to work out together. There isn’t any single solution; it will require many different interventions that will all need to work together. The interventions will look a lot like what we’re already talking about with regard to government-run and other information influence campaigns that target our democratic processes: methods of visibly identifying false stories, the identification and deletion of fake posts and accounts, ways to promote official and accurate news, and so on. At the scale these are needed, they will have to be done automatically and in real time.

Since the 2016 presidential election, we have been talking about propaganda campaigns, and about how social media amplifies fake news and allows damaging messages to spread easily. It’s a hard discussion to have in today’s hyperpolarized political climate. After any election, the winning side has every incentive to downplay the role of fake news.

But pandemics are different; there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation. Google doesn’t want the results of peoples’ well-intentioned searches to lead to fatalities. Facebook and Twitter don’t want people on their platforms sharing misinformation that will result in either individual or mass deaths. Focusing on pandemics gives us an apolitical way to collectively approach the general problem of misinformation and fake news. And any solutions for pandemics are likely to also be applicable to the more general ­– and more political ­– problems.

Pandemics are inevitable. Bioterror is already possible, and will only get easier as the requisite technologies become cheaper and more common. We’re experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, which has hijacked social media to amplify its messages; we seem unable to beat back the disinformation and pseudoscience surrounding the vaccine. Those same forces will dramatically increase death and social upheaval in the event of a pandemic.

Let the Russian propaganda attacks on the 2016 election serve as a wake-up call for this and other threats. We need to solve the problem of misinformation during pandemics together –­ governments and industries in collaboration with medical officials, all across the world ­– before there’s a crisis. And the solutions will also help us shore up our democracy in the process.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

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Data, Surveillance, and the AI Arms Race

According to foreign policy experts and the defense establishment, the United States is caught in an artificial intelligence arms race with China — one with serious implications for national security. The conventional version of this story suggests that the United States is at a disadvantage because of self-imposed restraints on the collection of data and the privacy of its citizens, while China, an unrestrained surveillance state, is at an advantage. In this vision, the data that China collects will be fed into its systems, leading to more powerful AI with capabilities we can only imagine today. Since Western countries can’t or won’t reap such a comprehensive harvest of data from their citizens, China will win the AI arms race and dominate the next century.

This idea makes for a compelling narrative, especially for those trying to justify surveillance — whether government- or corporate-run. But it ignores some fundamental realities about how AI works and how AI research is conducted.

Thanks to advances in machine learning, AI has flipped from theoretical to practical in recent years, and successes dominate public understanding of how it works. Machine learning systems can now diagnose pneumonia from X-rays, play the games of go and poker, and read human lips, all better than humans. They’re increasingly watching surveillance video. They are at the core of self-driving car technology and are playing roles in both intelligence-gathering and military operations. These systems monitor our networks to detect intrusions and look for spam and malware in our email.

And it’s true that there are differences in the way each country collects data. The United States pioneered “surveillance capitalism,” to use the Harvard University professor Shoshana Zuboff’s term, where data about the population is collected by hundreds of large and small companies for corporate advantage — and mutually shared or sold for profit The state picks up on that data, in cases such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s use of Google search data to map epidemics and evidence shared by alleged criminals on Facebook, but it isn’t the primary user.

China, on the other hand, is far more centralized. Internet companies collect the same sort of data, but it is shared with the government, combined with government-collected data, and used for social control. Every Chinese citizen has a national ID number that is demanded by most services and allows data to easily be tied together. In the western region of Xinjiang, ubiquitous surveillance is used to oppress the Uighur ethnic minority — although at this point there is still a lot of human labor making it all work. Everyone expects that this is a test bed for the entire country.

Data is increasingly becoming a part of control for the Chinese government. While many of these plans are aspirational at the moment — there isn’t, as some have claimed, a single “social credit score,” but instead future plans to link up a wide variety of systems — data collection is universally pushed as essential to the future of Chinese AI. One executive at search firm Baidu predicted that the country’s connected population will provide them with the raw data necessary to become the world’s preeminent tech power. China’s official goal is to become the world AI leader by 2030, aided in part by all of this massive data collection and correlation.

This all sounds impressive, but turning massive databases into AI capabilities doesn’t match technological reality. Current machine learning techniques aren’t all that sophisticated. All modern AI systems follow the same basic methods. Using lots of computing power, different machine learning models are tried, altered, and tried again. These systems use a large amount of data (the training set) and an evaluation function to distinguish between those models and variations that work well and those that work less well. After trying a lot of models and variations, the system picks the one that works best. This iterative improvement continues even after the system has been fielded and is in use.

So, for example, a deep learning system trying to do facial recognition will have multiple layers (hence the notion of “deep”) trying to do different parts of the facial recognition task. One layer will try to find features in the raw data of a picture that will help find a face, such as changes in color that will indicate an edge. The next layer might try to combine these lower layers into features like shapes, looking for round shapes inside of ovals that indicate eyes on a face. The different layers will try different features and will be compared by the evaluation function until the one that is able to give the best results is found, in a process that is only slightly more refined than trial and error.

Large data sets are essential to making this work, but that doesn’t mean that more data is automatically better or that the system with the most data is automatically the best system. Train a facial recognition algorithm on a set that contains only faces of white men, and the algorithm will have trouble with any other kind of face. Use an evaluation function that is based on historical decisions, and any past bias is learned by the algorithm. For example, mortgage loan algorithms trained on historic decisions of human loan officers have been found to implement redlining. Similarly, hiring algorithms trained on historical data manifest the same sexism as human staff often have. Scientists are constantly learning about how to train machine learning systems, and while throwing a large amount of data and computing power at the problem can work, more subtle techniques are often more successful. All data isn’t created equal, and for effective machine learning, data has to be both relevant and diverse in the right ways.

Future research advances in machine learning are focused on two areas. The first is in enhancing how these systems distinguish between variations of an algorithm. As different versions of an algorithm are run over the training data, there needs to be some way of deciding which version is “better.” These evaluation functions need to balance the recognition of an improvement with not over-fitting to the particular training data. Getting functions that can automatically and accurately distinguish between two algorithms based on minor differences in the outputs is an art form that no amount of data can improve.

The second is in the machine learning algorithms themselves. While much of machine learning depends on trying different variations of an algorithm on large amounts of data to see which is most successful, the initial formulation of the algorithm is still vitally important. The way the algorithms interact, the types of variations attempted, and the mechanisms used to test and redirect the algorithms are all areas of active research. (An overview of some of this work can be found here; even trying to limit the research to 20 papers oversimplifies the work being done in the field.) None of these problems can be solved by throwing more data at the problem.

The British AI company DeepMind’s success in teaching a computer to play the Chinese board game go is illustrative. Its AlphaGo computer program became a grandmaster in two steps. First, it was fed some enormous number of human-played games. Then, the game played itself an enormous number of times, improving its own play along the way. In 2016, AlphaGo beat the grandmaster Lee Sedol four games to one.

While the training data in this case, the human-played games, was valuable, even more important was the machine learning algorithm used and the function that evaluated the relative merits of different game positions. Just one year later, DeepMind was back with a follow-on system: AlphaZero. This go-playing computer dispensed entirely with the human-played games and just learned by playing against itself over and over again. It plays like an alien. (It also became a grandmaster in chess and shogi.)

These are abstract games, so it makes sense that a more abstract training process works well. But even something as visceral as facial recognition needs more than just a huge database of identified faces in order to work successfully. It needs the ability to separate a face from the background in a two-dimensional photo or video and to recognize the same face in spite of changes in angle, lighting, or shadows. Just adding more data may help, but not nearly as much as added research into what to do with the data once we have it.

Meanwhile, foreign-policy and defense experts are talking about AI as if it were the next nuclear arms race, with the country that figures it out best or first becoming the dominant superpower for the next century. But that didn’t happen with nuclear weapons, despite research only being conducted by governments and in secret. It certainly won’t happen with AI, no matter how much data different nations or companies scoop up.

It is true that China is investing a lot of money into artificial intelligence research: The Chinese government believes this will allow it to leapfrog other countries (and companies in those countries) and become a major force in this new and transformative area of computing — and it may be right. On the other hand, much of this seems to be a wasteful boondoggle. Slapping “AI” on pretty much anything is how to get funding. The Chinese Ministry of Education, for instance, promises to produce “50 world-class AI textbooks,” with no explanation of what that means.

In the democratic world, the government is neither the leading researcher nor the leading consumer of AI technologies. AI research is much more decentralized and academic, and it is conducted primarily in the public eye. Research teams keep their training data and models proprietary but freely publish their machine learning algorithms. If you wanted to work on machine learning right now, you could download Microsoft’s Cognitive Toolkit, Google’s Tensorflow, or Facebook’s Pytorch. These aren’t toy systems; these are the state-of-the art machine learning platforms.

AI is not analogous to the big science projects of the previous century that brought us the atom bomb and the moon landing. AI is a science that can be conducted by many different groups with a variety of different resources, making it closer to computer design than the space race or nuclear competition. It doesn’t take a massive government-funded lab for AI research, nor the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. The research conducted in the open science literature will trump research done in secret because of the benefits of collaboration and the free exchange of ideas.

While the United States should certainly increase funding for AI research, it should continue to treat it as an open scientific endeavor. Surveillance is not justified by the needs of machine learning, and real progress in AI doesn’t need it.

This essay was written with Jim Waldo, and previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

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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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Protecting Yourself from Identity Theft

I don’t have a lot of good news for you. The truth is there’s nothing we can do to protect our data from being stolen by cybercriminals and others.

Ten years ago, I could have given you all sorts of advice about using encryption, not sending information over email, securing your web connections, and a host of other things­ — but most of that doesn’t matter anymore. Today, your sensitive data is controlled by others, and there’s nothing you can personally to do affect its security.

I could give you advice like don’t stay at a hotel (the Marriott breach), don’t get a government clearance (the Office of Personnel Management hack), don’t store your photos online (Apple breach and others), don’t use email (many, many different breaches), and don’t have anything other than an anonymous cash-only relationship with anyone, ever (the Equifax breach). But that’s all ridiculous advice for anyone trying to live a normal life in the 21st century.

The reality is that your sensitive data has likely already been stolen, multiple times. Cybercriminals have your credit card information. They have your social security number and your mother’s maiden name. They have your address and phone number. They obtained the data by hacking any one of the hundreds of companies you entrust with the data­ — and you have no visibility into those companies’ security practices, and no recourse when they lose your data.

Given this, your best option is to turn your efforts toward trying to make sure that your data isn’t used against you. Enable two-factor authentication for all important accounts whenever possible. Don’t reuse passwords for anything important — ­and get a password manager to remember them all.

Do your best to disable the “secret questions” and other backup authentication mechanisms companies use when you forget your password­ — those are invariably insecure. Watch your credit reports and your bank accounts for suspicious activity. Set up credit freezes with the major credit bureaus. Be wary of email and phone calls you get from people purporting to be from companies you do business with.

Of course, it’s unlikely you will do a lot of this. Pretty much no one does. That’s because it’s annoying and inconvenient. This is the reality, though. The companies you do business with have no real incentive to secure your data. The best way for you to protect yourself is to change that incentive, which means agitating for government oversight of this space. This includes proscriptive regulations, more flexible security standards, liabilities, certification, licensing, and meaningful labeling. Once that happens, the market will step in and provide companies with the technologies they can use to secure your data.

This essay previously appeared in the Rochester Review, as part of an alumni forum that asked: “How do you best protect yourself from identity theft?”

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Defending Democracies Against Information Attacks

To better understand influence attacks, we proposed an approach that models democracy itself as an information system and explains how democracies are vulnerable to certain forms of information attacks that autocracies naturally resist. Our model combines ideas from both international security and computer security, avoiding the limitations of both in explaining how influence attacks may damage democracy as a whole.

Our initial account is necessarily limited. Building a truly comprehensive understanding of democracy as an information system will be a Herculean labor, involving the collective endeavors of political scientists and theorists, computer scientists, scholars of complexity, and others.

In this short paper, we undertake a more modest task: providing policy advice to improve the resilience of democracy against these attacks. Specifically, we can show how policy makers not only need to think about how to strengthen systems against attacks, but also need to consider how these efforts intersect with public beliefs­ — or common political knowledge­ — about these systems, since public beliefs may themselves be an important vector for attacks.

In democracies, many important political decisions are taken by ordinary citizens (typically, in electoral democracies, by voting for political representatives). This means that citizens need to have some shared understandings about their political system, and that the society needs some means of generating shared information regarding who their citizens are and what they want. We call this common political knowledge, and it is largely generated through mechanisms of social aggregation (and the institutions that implement them), such as voting, censuses, and the like. These are imperfect mechanisms, but essential to the proper functioning of democracy. They are often compromised or non-existent in autocratic regimes, since they are potentially threatening to the rulers.

In modern democracies, the most important such mechanism is voting, which aggregates citizens’ choices over competing parties and politicians to determine who is to control executive power for a limited period. Another important mechanism is the census process, which play an important role in the US and in other democracies, in providing broad information about the population, in shaping the electoral system (through the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives), and in policy making (through the allocation of government spending and resources). Of lesser import are public commenting processes, through which individuals and interest groups can comment on significant public policy and regulatory decisions.

All of these systems are vulnerable to attack. Elections are vulnerable to a variety of illegal manipulations, including vote rigging. However, many kinds of manipulation are currently legal in the US, including many forms of gerrymandering, gimmicking voting time, allocating polling booths and resources so as to advantage or disadvantage particular populations, imposing onerous registration and identity requirements, and so on.

Censuses may be manipulated through the provision of bogus information or, more plausibly, through the skewing of policy or resources so that some populations are undercounted. Many of the political battles over the census over the past few decades have been waged over whether the census should undertake statistical measures to counter undersampling bias for populations who are statistically less likely to return census forms, such as minorities and undocumented immigrants. Current efforts to include a question about immigration status may make it less likely that undocumented or recent immigrants will return completed forms.

Finally, public commenting systems too are vulnerable to attacks intended to misrepresent the support for or opposition to specific proposals, including the formation of astroturf (artificial grassroots) groups and the misuse of fake or stolen identities in large-scale mail, fax, email or online commenting systems.

All these attacks are relatively well understood, even if policy choices might be improved by a better understanding of their relationship to shared political knowledge. For example, some voting ID requirements are rationalized through appeals to security concerns about voter fraud. While political scientists have suggested that these concerns are largely unwarranted, we currently lack a framework for evaluating the trade-offs, if any. Computer security concepts such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability could be combined with findings from political science and political theory to provide such a framework.

Even so, the relationship between social aggregation institutions and public beliefs is far less well understood by policy makers. Even when social aggregation mechanisms and institutions are robust against direct attacks, they may be vulnerable to more indirect attacks aimed at destabilizing public beliefs about them.

Democratic societies are vulnerable to (at least) two kinds of knowledge attacks that autocratic societies are not. First are flooding attacks that create confusion among citizens about what other citizens believe, making it far more difficult for them to organize among themselves. Second are confidence attacks. These attempt to undermine public confidence in the institutions of social aggregation, so that their results are no longer broadly accepted as legitimate representations of the citizenry.

Most obviously, democracies will function poorly when citizens do not believe that voting is fair. This makes democracies vulnerable to attacks aimed at destabilizing public confidence in voting institutions. For example, some of Russia’s hacking efforts against the 2016 presidential election were designed to undermine citizens’ confidence in the result. Russian hacking attacks against Ukraine, which targeted the systems through which election results were reported out, were intended to create confusion among voters about what the outcome actually was. Similarly, the “Guccifer 2.0” hacking identity, which has been attributed to Russian military intelligence, sought to suggest that the US electoral system had been compromised by the Democrats in the days immediately before the presidential vote. If, as expected, Donald Trump had lost the election, these claims could have been combined with the actual evidence of hacking to create the appearance that the election was fundamentally compromised.

Similar attacks against the perception of fairness are likely to be employed against the 2020 US census. Should efforts to include a citizenship question fail, some political actors who are disadvantaged by demographic changes such as increases in foreign-born residents and population shift from rural to urban and suburban areas will mount an effort to delegitimize the census results. Again, the genuine problems with the census, which include not only the citizenship question controversy but also serious underfunding, may help to bolster these efforts.

Mechanisms that allow interested actors and ordinary members of the public to comment on proposed policies are similarly vulnerable. For example, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) announced in 2017 that it was proposing to repeal its net neutrality ruling. Interest groups backing the FCC rollback correctly anticipated a widespread backlash from a politically active coalition of net neutrality supporters. The result was warfare through public commenting. More than 22 million comments were filed, most of which appeared to be either automatically generated or form letters. Millions of these comments were apparently fake, and attached unsuspecting people’s names and email addresses to comments supporting the FCC’s repeal efforts. The vast majority of comments that were not either form letters or automatically generated opposed the FCC’s proposed ruling. The furor around the commenting process was magnified by claims from inside the FCC (later discredited) that the commenting process had also been subjected to a cyberattack.

We do not yet know the identity and motives of the actors behind the flood of fake comments, although the New York State Attorney-General’s office has issued subpoenas for records from a variety of lobbying and advocacy organizations. However, by demonstrating that the commenting process was readily manipulated, the attack made it less likely that the apparently genuine comments of those opposing the FCC’s proposed ruling would be treated as useful evidence of what the public believed. The furor over purported cyberattacks, and the FCC’s unwillingness itself to investigate the attack, have further undermined confidence in an online commenting system that was intended to make the FCC more open to the US public.

We do not know nearly enough about how democracies function as information systems. Generating a better understanding is itself a major policy challenge, which will require substantial resources and, even more importantly, common understandings and shared efforts across a variety of fields of knowledge that currently don’t really engage with each other.

However, even this basic sketch of democracy’s informational aspects can provide policy makers with some key lessons. The most important is that it may be as important to bolster shared public beliefs about key institutions such as voting, public commenting, and census taking against attack, as to bolster the mechanisms and related institutions themselves.

Specifically, many efforts to mitigate attacks against democratic systems begin with spreading public awareness and alarm about their vulnerabilities. This has the benefit of increasing awareness about real problems, but it may ­ especially if exaggerated for effect ­ damage public confidence in the very social aggregation institutions it means to protect. This may mean, for example, that public awareness efforts about Russian hacking that are based on flawed analytic techniques may themselves damage democracy by exaggerating the consequences of attacks.

More generally, this poses important challenges for policy efforts to secure social aggregation institutions against attacks. How can one best secure the systems themselves without damaging public confidence in them? At a minimum, successful policy measures will not simply identify problems in existing systems, but provide practicable, publicly visible, and readily understandable solutions to mitigate them.

We have focused on the problem of confidence attacks in this short essay, because they are both more poorly understood and more profound than flooding attacks. Given historical experience, democracy can probably survive some amount of disinformation about citizens’ beliefs better than it can survive attacks aimed at its core institutions of aggregation. Policy makers need a better understanding of the relationship between political institutions and social beliefs: specifically, the importance of the social aggregation institutions that allow democracies to understand themselves.

There are some low-hanging fruit. Very often, hardening these institutions against attacks on their confidence will go hand in hand with hardening them against attacks more generally. Thus, for example, reforms to voting that require permanent paper ballots and random auditing would not only better secure voting against manipulation, but would have moderately beneficial consequences for public beliefs too.

There are likely broadly similar solutions for public commenting systems. Here, the informational trade-offs are less profound than for voting, since there is no need to balance the requirement for anonymity (so that no-one can tell who voted for who ex post) against other requirements (to ensure that no-one votes twice or more, no votes are changed and so on). Instead, the balance to be struck is between general ease of access and security, making it easier, for example, to leverage secondary sources to validate identity.

Both the robustness of and public confidence in the US census and the other statistical systems that guide the allocation of resources could be improved by insulating them better from political control. For example, a similar system could be used to appoint the director of the census to that for the US Comptroller-General, requiring bipartisan agreement for appointment, and making it hard to exert post-appointment pressure on the official.

Our arguments also illustrate how some well-intentioned efforts to combat social influence operations may have perverse consequences for general social beliefs. The perception of security is at least as important as the reality of security, and any defenses against information attacks need to address both.

However, we need far better developed intellectual tools if we are to properly understand the trade-offs, instead of proposing clearly beneficial policies, and avoiding straightforward mistakes. Forging such tools will require computer security specialists to start thinking systematically about public beliefs as an integral part of the systems that they seek to defend. It will mean that more military oriented cybersecurity specialists need to think deeply about the functioning of democracy and the capacity of internal as well as external actors to disrupt it, rather than reaching for their standard toolkit of state-level deterrence tools. Finally, specialists in the workings of democracy have to learn how to think about democracy and its trade-offs in specifically informational terms.

This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and has previously appeared on Defusing Disinfo.

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Judging Facebook’s Privacy Shift

Facebook is making a new and stronger commitment to privacy. Last month, the company hired three of its most vociferous critics and installed them in senior technical positions. And on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the company will pivot to focus on private conversations over the public sharing that has long defined the platform, even while conceding that “frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.”

There is ample reason to question Zuckerberg’s pronouncement: The company has made — and broken — many privacy promises over the years. And if you read his 3,000-word post carefully, Zuckerberg says nothing about changing Facebook’s surveillance capitalism business model. All the post discusses is making private chats more central to the company, which seems to be a play for increased market dominance and to counter the Chinese company WeChat.

In security and privacy, the devil is always in the details — and Zuckerberg’s post provides none. But we’ll take him at his word and try to fill in some of the details here. What follows is a list of changes we should expect if Facebook is serious about changing its business model and improving user privacy.

How Facebook treats people on its platform

Increased transparency over advertiser and app accesses to user data. Today, Facebook users can download and view much of the data the company has about them. This is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. The company could be more transparent about what data it shares with advertisers and others and how it allows advertisers to select users they show ads to. Facebook could use its substantial skills in usability testing to help people understand the mechanisms advertisers use to show them ads or the reasoning behind what it chooses to show in user timelines. It could deliver on promises in this area.

Better — and more usable — privacy options. Facebook users have limited control over how their data is shared with other Facebook users and almost no control over how it is shared with Facebook’s advertisers, which are the company’s real customers. Moreover, the controls are buried deep behind complex and confusing menu options. To be fair, some of this is because privacy is complex, and it’s hard to understand the results of different options. But much of this is deliberate; Facebook doesn’t want its users to make their data private from other users.

The company could give people better control over how — and whether — their data is used, shared, and sold. For example, it could allow users to turn off individually targeted news and advertising. By this, we don’t mean simply making those advertisements invisible; we mean turning off the data flows into those tailoring systems. Finally, since most users stick to the default options when it comes to configuring their apps, a changing Facebook could tilt those defaults toward more privacy, requiring less tailoring most of the time.

More user protection from stalking. “Facebook stalking” is often thought of as “stalking light,” or “harmless.” But stalkers are rarely harmless. Facebook should acknowledge this class of misuse and work with experts to build tools that protect all of its users, especially its most vulnerable ones. Such tools should guide normal people away from creepiness and give victims power and flexibility to enlist aid from sources ranging from advocates to police.

Fully ending real-name enforcement. Facebook’s real-names policy, requiring people to use their actual legal names on the platform, hurts people such as activists, victims of intimate partner violence, police officers whose work makes them targets, and anyone with a public persona who wishes to have control over how they identify to the public. There are many ways Facebook can improve on this, from ending enforcement to allowing verifying pseudonyms for everyone­ — not just celebrities like Lady Gaga. Doing so would mark a clear shift.

How Facebook runs its platform

Increased transparency of Facebook’s business practices. One of the hard things about evaluating Facebook is the effort needed to get good information about its business practices. When violations are exposed by the media, as they regularly are, we are all surprised at the different ways Facebook violates user privacy. Most recently, the company used phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication for advertising and networking purposes. Facebook needs to be both explicit and detailed about how and when it shares user data. In fact, a move from discussing “sharing” to discussing “transfers,” “access to raw information,” and “access to derived information” would be a visible improvement.

Increased transparency regarding censorship rules. Facebook makes choices about what content is acceptable on its site. Those choices are controversial, implemented by thousands of low-paid workers quickly implementing unclear rules. These are tremendously hard problems without clear solutions. Even obvious rules like banning hateful words run into challenges when people try to legitimately discuss certain important topics. Whatever Facebook does in this regard, the company needs be more transparent about its processes. It should allow regulators and the public to audit the company’s practices. Moreover, Facebook should share any innovative engineering solutions with the world, much as it currently shares its data center engineering.

Better security for collected user data. There have been numerous examples of attackers targeting cloud service platforms to gain access to user data. Facebook has a large and skilled product security team that says some of the right things. That team needs to be involved in the design trade-offs for features and not just review the near-final designs for flaws. Shutting down a feature based on internal security analysis would be a clear message.

Better data security so Facebook sees less. Facebook eavesdrops on almost every aspect of its users’ lives. On the other hand, WhatsApp — purchased by Facebook in 2014 — provides users with end-to-end encrypted messaging. While Facebook knows who is messaging whom and how often, Facebook has no way of learning the contents of those messages. Recently, Facebook announced plans to combine WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram, extending WhatsApp’s security to the consolidated system. Changing course here would be a dramatic and negative signal.

Collecting less data from outside of Facebook. Facebook doesn’t just collect data about you when you’re on the platform. Because its “like” button is on so many other pages, the company can collect data about you when you’re not on Facebook. It even collects what it calls “shadow profiles” — data about you even if you’re not a Facebook user. This data is combined with other surveillance data the company buys, including health and financial data. Collecting and saving less of this data would be a strong indicator of a new direction for the company.

Better use of Facebook data to prevent violence. There is a trade-off between Facebook seeing less and Facebook doing more to prevent hateful and inflammatory speech. Dozens of people have been killed by mob violence because of fake news spread on WhatsApp. If Facebook were doing a convincing job of controlling fake news without end-to-end encryption, then we would expect to hear how it could use patterns in metadata to handle encrypted fake news.

How Facebook manages for privacy

Create a team measured on privacy and trust. Where companies spend their money tells you what matters to them. Facebook has a large and important growth team, but what team, if any, is responsible for privacy, not as a matter of compliance or pushing the rules, but for engineering? Transparency in how it is staffed relative to other teams would be telling.

Hire a senior executive responsible for trust. Facebook’s current team has been focused on growth and revenue. Its one chief security officer, Alex Stamos, was not replaced when he left in 2018, which may indicate that having an advocate for security on the leadership team led to debate and disagreement. Retaining a voice for security and privacy issues at the executive level, before those issues affected users, was a good thing. Now that responsibility is diffuse. It’s unclear how Facebook measures and assesses its own progress and who might be held accountable for failings. Facebook can begin the process of fixing this by designating a senior executive who is responsible for trust.

Engage with regulators. Much of Facebook’s posturing seems to be an attempt to forestall regulation. Facebook sends lobbyists to Washington and other capitals, and until recently the company sent support staff to politician’s offices. It has secret lobbying campaigns against privacy laws. And Facebook has repeatedly violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent order regarding user privacy. Regulating big technical projects is not easy. Most of the people who understand how these systems work understand them because they build them. Societies will regulate Facebook, and the quality of that regulation requires real education of legislators and their staffs. While businesses often want to avoid regulation, any focus on privacy will require strong government oversight. If Facebook is serious about privacy being a real interest, it will accept both government regulation and community input.

User privacy is traditionally against Facebook’s core business interests. Advertising is its business model, and targeted ads sell better and more profitably — and that requires users to engage with the platform as much as possible. Increased pressure on Facebook to manage propaganda and hate speech could easily lead to more surveillance. But there is pressure in the other direction as well, as users equate privacy with increased control over how they present themselves on the platform.

We don’t expect Facebook to abandon its advertising business model, relent in its push for monopolistic dominance, or fundamentally alter its social networking platforms. But the company can give users important privacy protections and controls without abandoning surveillance capitalism. While some of these changes will reduce profits in the short term, we hope Facebook’s leadership realizes that they are in the best long-term interest of the company.

Facebook talks about community and bringing people together. These are admirable goals, and there’s plenty of value (and profit) in having a sustainable platform for connecting people. But as long as the most important measure of success is short-term profit, doing things that help strengthen communities will fall by the wayside. Surveillance, which allows individually targeted advertising, will be prioritized over user privacy. Outrage, which drives engagement, will be prioritized over feelings of belonging. And corporate secrecy, which allows Facebook to evade both regulators and its users, will be prioritized over societal oversight. If Facebook now truly believes that these latter options are critical to its long-term success as a company, we welcome the changes that are forthcoming.

This essay was co-authored with Adam Shostack, and originally appeared on Medium OneZero. We wrote a similar essay in 2002 about judging Microsoft’s then newfound commitment to security.

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Cybersecurity for the Public Interest

The Crypto Wars have been waging off-and-on for a quarter-century. On one side is law enforcement, which wants to be able to break encryption, to access devices and communications of terrorists and criminals. On the other are almost every cryptographer and computer security expert, repeatedly explaining that there’s no way to provide this capability without also weakening the security of every user of those devices and communications systems.

It’s an impassioned debate, acrimonious at times, but there are real technologies that can be brought to bear on the problem: key-escrow technologies, code obfuscation technologies, and backdoors with different properties. Pervasive surveillance capitalism — ­as practiced by the Internet companies that are already spying on everyone­ — matters. So does society’s underlying security needs. There is a security benefit to giving access to law enforcement, even though it would inevitably and invariably also give that access to others. However, there is also a security benefit of having these systems protected from all attackers, including law enforcement. These benefits are mutually exclusive. Which is more important, and to what degree?

The problem is that almost no policymakers are discussing this policy issue from a technologically informed perspective, and very few technologists truly understand the policy contours of the debate. The result is both sides consistently talking past each other, and policy proposals — ­that occasionally become law­ — that are technological disasters.

This isn’t sustainable, either for this issue or any of the other policy issues surrounding Internet security. We need policymakers who understand technology, but we also need cybersecurity technologists who understand­ — and are involved in — ­policy. We need public-interest technologists.

Let’s pause at that term. The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics recently wrote that public-interest technologists are people who “study the application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good.” Tim Berners-Lee has called them “philosophical engineers.” I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus: by working on tech policy, by working on a tech project with a public benefit, or by working as a traditional technologist for an organization with a public benefit. Maybe it’s not the best term­ — and I know not everyone likes it­ — but it’s a decent umbrella term that can encompass all these roles.

We need public-interest technologists in policy discussions. We need them on congressional staff, in federal agencies, at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in academia, inside companies, and as part of the press. In our field, we need them to get involved in not only the Crypto Wars, but everywhere cybersecurity and policy touch each other: the vulnerability equities debate, election security, cryptocurrency policy, Internet of Things safety and security, big data, algorithmic fairness, adversarial machine learning, critical infrastructure, and national security. When you broaden the definition of Internet security, many additional areas fall within the intersection of cybersecurity and policy. Our particular expertise and way of looking at the world is critical for understanding a great many technological issues, such as net neutrality and the regulation of critical infrastructure. I wouldn’t want to formulate public policy about artificial intelligence and robotics without a security technologist involved.

Public-interest technology isn’t new. Many organizations are working in this area, from older organizations like EFF and EPIC to newer ones like Verified Voting and Access Now. Many academic classes and programs combine technology and public policy. My cybersecurity policy class at the Harvard Kennedy School is just one example. Media startups like The Markup are doing technology-driven journalism. There are even programs and initiatives related to public-interest technology inside for-profit corporations.

This might all seem like a lot, but it’s really not. There aren’t enough people doing it, there aren’t enough people who know it needs to be done, and there aren’t enough places to do it. We need to build a world where there is a viable career path for public-interest technologists.

There are many barriers. There’s a report titled A Pivotal Moment that includes this quote: “While we cite individual instances of visionary leadership and successful deployment of technology skill for the public interest, there was a consensus that a stubborn cycle of inadequate supply, misarticulated demand, and an inefficient marketplace stymie progress.”

That quote speaks to the three places for intervention. One: the supply side. There just isn’t enough talent to meet the eventual demand. This is especially acute in cybersecurity, which has a talent problem across the field. Public-interest technologists are a diverse and multidisciplinary group of people. Their backgrounds come from technology, policy, and law. We also need to foster diversity within public-interest technology; the populations using the technology must be represented in the groups that shape the technology. We need a variety of ways for people to engage in this sphere: ways people can do it on the side, for a couple of years between more traditional technology jobs, or as a full-time rewarding career. We need public-interest technology to be part of every core computer-science curriculum, with “clinics” at universities where students can get a taste of public-interest work. We need technology companies to give people sabbaticals to do this work, and then value what they’ve learned and done.

Two: the demand side. This is our biggest problem right now; not enough organizations understand that they need technologists doing public-interest work. We need jobs to be funded across a wide variety of NGOs. We need staff positions throughout the government: executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. President Obama’s US Digital Service should be expanded and replicated; so should Code for America. We need more press organizations that perform this kind of work.

Three: the marketplace. We need job boards, conferences, and skills exchanges­ — places where people on the supply side can learn about the demand.

Major foundations are starting to provide funding in this space: the Ford and MacArthur Foundations in particular, but others as well.

This problem in our field has an interesting parallel with the field of public-interest law. In the 1960s, there was no such thing as public-interest law. The field was deliberately created, funded by organizations like the Ford Foundation. They financed legal aid clinics at universities, so students could learn housing, discrimination, or immigration law. They funded fellowships at organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP. They created a world where public-interest law is valued, where all the partners at major law firms are expected to have done some public-interest work. Today, when the ACLU advertises for a staff attorney, paying one-third to one-tenth normal salary, it gets hundreds of applicants. Today, 20% of Harvard Law School graduates go into public-interest law, and the school has soul-searching seminars because that percentage is so low. Meanwhile, the percentage of computer-science graduates going into public-interest work is basically zero.

This is bigger than computer security. Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.

More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.

This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.

The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.

This essay previously appeared in the January/February issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

Together with the Ford Foundation, I am hosting a one-day mini-track on public-interest technologists at the RSA Conference this week on Thursday. We’ve had some press coverage.

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Blockchain and Trust

In his 2008 white paper that first proposed bitcoin, the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto concluded with: “We have proposed a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust.” He was referring to blockchain, the system behind bitcoin cryptocurrency. The circumvention of trust is a great promise, but it’s just not true. Yes, bitcoin eliminates certain trusted intermediaries that are inherent in other payment systems like credit cards. But you still have to trust bitcoin — and everything about it.

Much has been written about blockchains and how they displace, reshape, or eliminate trust. But when you analyze both blockchain and trust, you quickly realize that there is much more hype than value. Blockchain solutions are often much worse than what they replace.

First, a caveat. By blockchain, I mean something very specific: the data structures and protocols that make up a public blockchain. These have three essential elements. The first is a distributed (as in multiple copies) but centralized (as in there’s only one) ledger, which is a way of recording what happened and in what order. This ledger is public, meaning that anyone can read it, and immutable, meaning that no one can change what happened in the past.

The second element is the consensus algorithm, which is a way to ensure all the copies of the ledger are the same. This is generally called mining; a critical part of the system is that anyone can participate. It is also distributed, meaning that you don’t have to trust any particular node in the consensus network. It can also be extremely expensive, both in data storage and in the energy required to maintain it. Bitcoin has the most expensive consensus algorithm the world has ever seen, by far.

Finally, the third element is the currency. This is some sort of digital token that has value and is publicly traded. Currency is a necessary element of a blockchain to align the incentives of everyone involved. Transactions involving these tokens are stored on the ledger.

Private blockchains are completely uninteresting. (By this, I mean systems that use the blockchain data structure but don’t have the above three elements.) In general, they have some external limitation on who can interact with the blockchain and its features. These are not anything new; they’re distributed append-only data structures with a list of individuals authorized to add to it. Consensus protocols have been studied in distributed systems for more than 60 years. Append-only data structures have been similarly well covered. They’re blockchains in name only, and — as far as I can tell — the only reason to operate one is to ride on the blockchain hype.

All three elements of a public blockchain fit together as a single network that offers new security properties. The question is: Is it actually good for anything? It’s all a matter of trust.

Trust is essential to society. As a species, humans are wired to trust one another. Society can’t function without trust, and the fact that we mostly don’t even think about it is a measure of how well trust works.

The word “trust” is loaded with many meanings. There’s personal and intimate trust. When we say we trust a friend, we mean that we trust their intentions and know that those intentions will inform their actions. There’s also the less intimate, less personal trust — we might not know someone personally, or know their motivations, but we can trust their future actions. Blockchain enables this sort of trust: We don’t know any bitcoin miners, for example, but we trust that they will follow the mining protocol and make the whole system work.

Most blockchain enthusiasts have a unnaturally narrow definition of trust. They’re fond of catchphrases like “in code we trust,” “in math we trust,” and “in crypto we trust.” This is trust as verification. But verification isn’t the same as trust.

In 2012, I wrote a book about trust and security, Liars and Outliers. In it, I listed four very general systems our species uses to incentivize trustworthy behavior. The first two are morals and reputation. The problem is that they scale only to a certain population size. Primitive systems were good enough for small communities, but larger communities required delegation, and more formalism.

The third is institutions. Institutions have rules and laws that induce people to behave according to the group norm, imposing sanctions on those who do not. In a sense, laws formalize reputation. Finally, the fourth is security systems. These are the wide varieties of security technologies we employ: door locks and tall fences, alarm systems and guards, forensics and audit systems, and so on.

These four elements work together to enable trust. Take banking, for example. Financial institutions, merchants, and individuals are all concerned with their reputations, which prevents theft and fraud. The laws and regulations surrounding every aspect of banking keep everyone in line, including backstops that limit risks in the case of fraud. And there are lots of security systems in place, from anti-counterfeiting technologies to internet-security technologies.

In his 2018 book, Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, Kevin Werbach outlines four different “trust architectures.” The first is peer-to-peer trust. This basically corresponds to my morals and reputational systems: pairs of people who come to trust each other. His second is leviathan trust, which corresponds to institutional trust. You can see this working in our system of contracts, which allows parties that don’t trust each other to enter into an agreement because they both trust that a government system will help resolve disputes. His third is intermediary trust. A good example is the credit card system, which allows untrusting buyers and sellers to engage in commerce. His fourth trust architecture is distributed trust. This is emergent trust in the particular security system that is blockchain.

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.

When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money. If there’s a bug in the code of your smart contract, you lose all of your money. If someone successfully hacks the blockchain security, you lose all of your money. In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit?

Blockchain enthusiasts point to more traditional forms of trust — bank processing fees, for example — as expensive. But blockchain trust is also costly; the cost is just hidden. For bitcoin, that’s the cost of the additional bitcoin mined, the transaction fees, and the enormous environmental waste.

Blockchain doesn’t eliminate the need to trust human institutions. There will always be a big gap that can’t be addressed by technology alone. People still need to be in charge, and there is always a need for governance outside the system. This is obvious in the ongoing debate about changing the bitcoin block size, or in fixing the DAO attack against Ethereum. There’s always a need to override the rules, and there’s always a need for the ability to make permanent rules changes. As long as hard forks are a possibility — that’s when the people in charge of a blockchain step outside the system to change it — people will need to be in charge.

Any blockchain system will have to coexist with other, more conventional systems. Modern banking, for example, is designed to be reversible. Bitcoin is not. That makes it hard to make the two compatible, and the result is often an insecurity. Steve Wozniak was scammed out of $70K in bitcoin because he forgot this.

Blockchain technology is often centralized. Bitcoin might theoretically be based on distributed trust, but in practice, that’s just not true. Just about everyone using bitcoin has to trust one of the few available wallets and use one of the few available exchanges. People have to trust the software and the operating systems and the computers everything is running on. And we’ve seen attacks against wallets and exchanges. We’ve seen Trojans and phishing and password guessing. Criminals have even used flaws in the system that people use to repair their cell phones to steal bitcoin.

Moreover, in any distributed trust system, there are backdoor methods for centralization to creep back in. With bitcoin, there are only a few miners of consequence. There’s one company that provides most of the mining hardware. There are only a few dominant exchanges. To the extent that most people interact with bitcoin, it is through these centralized systems. This also allows for attacks against blockchain-based systems.

These issues are not bugs in current blockchain applications, they’re inherent in how blockchain works. Any evaluation of the security of the system has to take the whole socio-technical system into account. Too many blockchain enthusiasts focus on the technology and ignore the rest.

To the extent that people don’t use bitcoin, it’s because they don’t trust bitcoin. That has nothing to do with the cryptography or the protocols. In fact, a system where you can lose your life savings if you forget your key or download a piece of malware is not particularly trustworthy. No amount of explaining how SHA-256 works to prevent double-spending will fix that.

Similarly, to the extent that people do use blockchains, it is because they trust them. People either own bitcoin or not based on reputation; that’s true even for speculators who own bitcoin simply because they think it will make them rich quickly. People choose a wallet for their cryptocurrency, and an exchange for their transactions, based on reputation. We even evaluate and trust the cryptography that underpins blockchains based on the algorithms’ reputation.

To see how this can fail, look at the various supply-chain security systems that are using blockchain. A blockchain isn’t a necessary feature of any of them. The reasons they’re successful is that everyone has a single software platform to enter their data in. Even though the blockchain systems are built on distributed trust, people don’t necessarily accept that. For example, some companies don’t trust the IBM/Maersk system because it’s not their blockchain.

Irrational? Maybe, but that’s how trust works. It can’t be replaced by algorithms and protocols. It’s much more social than that.

Still, the idea that blockchains can somehow eliminate the need for trust persists. Recently, I received an email from a company that implemented secure messaging using blockchain. It said, in part: “Using the blockchain, as we have done, has eliminated the need for Trust.” This sentiment suggests the writer misunderstands both what blockchain does and how trust works.

Do you need a public blockchain? The answer is almost certainly no. A blockchain probably doesn’t solve the security problems you think it solves. The security problems it solves are probably not the ones you have. (Manipulating audit data is probably not your major security risk.) A false trust in blockchain can itself be a security risk. The inefficiencies, especially in scaling, are probably not worth it. I have looked at many blockchain applications, and all of them could achieve the same security properties without using a blockchain­ — of course, then they wouldn’t have the cool name.

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

To answer the question of whether the blockchain is needed, ask yourself: Does the blockchain change the system of trust in any meaningful way, or just shift it around? Does it just try to replace trust with verification? Does it strengthen existing trust relationships, or try to go against them? How can trust be abused in the new system, and is this better or worse than the potential abuses in the old system? And lastly: What would your system look like if you didn’t use blockchain at all?

If you ask yourself those questions, it’s likely you’ll choose solutions that don’t use public blockchain. And that’ll be a good thing — especially when the hype dissipates.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (2/11): Two commentaries on my essay.

I have wanted to write this essay for over a year. The impetus to finally do it came from an invite to speak at the Hyperledger Global Forum in December. This essay is a version of the talk I wrote for that event, made more accessible to a general audience.

It seems to be the season for blockchain takedowns. James Waldo has an excellent essay in Queue. And Nicholas Weaver gave a talk at the Enigma Conference, summarized here. It’s a shortened version of this talk.

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Public-Interest Tech at the RSA Conference

Our work in cybersecurity is inexorably intertwined with public policy and­ — more generally­ — the public interest. It’s obvious in the debates on encryption and vulnerability disclosure, but it’s also part of the policy discussions about the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, social media platforms, and pretty much everything else related to IT.

This societal dimension to our traditionally technical area is bringing with it a need for public-interest technologists.

Defining this term is difficult. One blog post described public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics in this field wrote that “public-interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest/generate public benefits/promote the public good.”

I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus, either by working on tech policy (for the EFF or as a congressional staffer, as examples), working on a technology project with a public benefit (such as Tor or Signal), or working as a more traditional technologist for an organization with a public-interest focus (providing IT security for Human Rights Watch, as an example). Public-interest technology isn’t one thing; it’s many things. And not everyone likes the term. Maybe it’s not the most accurate term for what different people do, but it’s the best umbrella term that covers everyone.

It’s a growing field — one far broader than cybersecurity — and one that I am increasingly focusing my time on. I maintain a resources page for public-interest technology. (This is the single best document to read about the current state of public-interest technology, and what is still to be done.)

This year, I am bringing some of these ideas to the RSA Conference. In partnership with the Ford Foundation, I am hosting a mini-track on public-interest technology. Six sessions throughout the day on Thursday will highlight different aspects of this important work. We’ll look at public-interest technologists inside governments, as part of civil society, at universities, and in corporate environments.

  1. How Public-Interest Technologists are Changing the World . This introductory panel lays the groundwork for the day to come. I’ll be joined on stage with Matt Mitchell of Tactical Tech, and we’ll discuss how public-interest technologists are already changing the world.
  2. Public-Interest Tech in Silicon Valley. Most of us work for technology companies, and this panel discusses public-interest technology work within companies. Mitchell Baker of Mozilla Corp. and Cindy Cohn of the EFF will lead the discussion, looking at both public-interest projects within corporations and employee activism initiatives by corporate employees.
  3. Working in Civil Society. Bringing a technological perspective into civil society can transform how organizations do their work. Through a series of lightning talks, this session examines how this transformation can happen from a variety of perspectives: exposing government surveillance, protecting journalists worldwide, preserving a free and open Internet, bringing a security focus to artificial intelligence research, protecting NGO networks, and more. For those of us in security, bringing tech tools to those who need them is core to what we do.
  4. Government Needs You. Government needs technologists at all levels. We’re needed on legislative staffs and at regulatory agencies in order to make effective tech policy, but we’re also needed elsewhere to implement policy more broadly. We’re needed to advise courts, testify at hearings, and serve on advisory committees. At this session, you’ll hear from public-interest technologists who have had a major impact on government from a variety of positions, and learn about ways you can get involved.
  5. Changing Academia. Higher education needs to incorporate a public-interest perspective in technology departments, and a technology perspective in public-policy departments. This could look like ethics courses for computer science majors, programming for law students, or joint degrees that combine technology and social science. Danny Weitzner of MIT and Latanya Sweeney of Harvard will discuss efforts to build these sorts of interdisciplinary classes, programs, and institutes.
  6. The Future of Public-Interest Tech Creating an environment where public-interest technology can flourish will require a robust pipeline: more people wanting to go into this field, more places for them to go, and an improved market that matches supply with demand. In this closing session, Jenny Toomey of the Ford Foundation and I will sum up the day and discuss future directions for growing the field, funding trajectories, highlighting outstanding needs and gaps, and describing how you can get involved.

Check here for times and locations, and be sure to reserve your seat.

We all need to help. I don’t mean that we all need to quit our jobs and go work on legislative staffs; there’s a lot we can do while still maintaining our existing careers. We can advise governments and other public-interest organizations. We can agitate for the public interest inside the corporations we work for. We can speak at conferences and write opinion pieces for publication. We can teach part-time at all levels. But some of us will need to do this full-time.

There’s an interesting parallel to public-interest law, which covers everything from human-rights lawyers to public defenders. In the 1960s, that field didn’t exist. The field was deliberately created, funded by organizations like the Ford Foundation. They created a world where public-interest law is valued. Today, when the ACLU advertises for a staff attorney, paying a third to a tenth of a normal salary, it gets hundreds of applicants. Today, 20% of Harvard Law School grads go into public-interest law, while the percentage of computer science grads doing public-interest work is basically zero. This is what we need to fix.

Please stop in at my mini-track. Come for a panel that interests you, or stay for the whole day. Bring your ideas. Find me to talk about this further. Pretty much all the major policy debates of this century will have a strong technological component — and an important cybersecurity angle — and we all need to get involved.

This essay originally appeared on the RSA Conference blog.

Michael Brennan of the Ford Foundation also wrote an essay on the event.

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