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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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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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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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Glitter Bomb against Package Thieves

Stealing packages from unattended porches is a rapidly rising crime, as more of us order more things by mail. One person hid a glitter bomb and a video recorder in a package, posting the results when thieves opened the box. At least, that’s what might have happened. At least some of the video was faked, which puts the whole thing into question.

That’s okay, though. Santa is faked, too. Happy whatever you’re celebrating.

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The Future of Forgeries

This article argues that AI technologies will make image, audio, and video forgeries much easier in the future.

Combined, the trajectory of cheap, high-quality media forgeries is worrying. At the current pace of progress, it may be as little as two or three years before realistic audio forgeries are good enough to fool the untrained ear, and only five or 10 years before forgeries can fool at least some types of forensic analysis. When tools for producing fake video perform at higher quality than today’s CGI and are simultaneously available to untrained amateurs, these forgeries might comprise a large part of the information ecosystem. The growth in this technology will transform the meaning of evidence and truth in domains across journalism, government communications, testimony in criminal justice, and, of course, national security.

I am not worried about fooling the “untrained ear,” and more worried about fooling forensic analysis. But there’s an arms race here. Recording technologies will get more sophisticated, too, making their outputs harder to forge. Still, I agree that the advantage will go to the forgers and not the forgery detectors.

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New Technique to Hijack Social Media Accounts

Access Now has documented it being used against a Twitter user, but it also works against other social media accounts:

With the Doubleswitch attack, a hijacker takes control of a victim’s account through one of several attack vectors. People who have not enabled an app-based form of multifactor authentication for their accounts are especially vulnerable. For instance, an attacker could trick you into revealing your password through phishing. If you don’t have multifactor authentication, you lack a secondary line of defense. Once in control, the hijacker can then send messages and also subtly change your account information, including your username. The original username for your account is now available, allowing the hijacker to register for an account using that original username, while providing different login credentials.

Three news stories.

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