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Yet Another FBI Proposal for Insecure Communications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Susan Landau’s New Book: Listening In

Susan Landau has written a terrific book on cybersecurity threats and why we need strong crypto. Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age. It’s based in part on her 2016 Congressional testimony in the Apple/FBI case; it examines how the Digital Revolution has transformed society, and how law enforcement needs to — and can — adjust to the new realities. The book is as accessible to techies and non-techies alike, and is strongly recommended.

And if you’ve already read it, give it a review on Amazon. Reviews sell books, and this one needs more of them.

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Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Murder and the Security of WhatsApp

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.

Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.

One journalist reports:

Part of Daphne’s destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.

Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.

Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.

Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.

I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing “specific assistance.” The article doesn’t explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.

It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp’s security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.

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FBI Increases Its Anti-Encryption Rhetoric

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

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

This is an idea that will not die.

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NSA Document Outlining Russian Attempts to Hack Voter Rolls

This week brought new public evidence about Russian interference in the 2016 election. On Monday, the Intercept published a top-secret National Security Agency document describing Russian hacking attempts against the US election system. While the attacks seem more exploratory than operational ­– and there’s no evidence that they had any actual effect ­– they further illustrate the real threats and vulnerabilities facing our elections, and they point to solutions.

The document describes how the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, attacked a company called VR Systems that, according to its website, provides software to manage voter rolls in eight states. The August 2016 attack was successful, and the attackers used the information they stole from the company’s network to launch targeted attacks against 122 local election officials on October 27, 12 days before the election.

That is where the NSA’s analysis ends. We don’t know whether those 122 targeted attacks were successful, or what their effects were if so. We don’t know whether other election software companies besides VR Systems were targeted, or what the GRU’s overall plan was — if it had one. Certainly, there are ways to disrupt voting by interfering with the voter registration process or voter rolls. But there was no indication on Election Day that people found their names removed from the system, or their address changed, or anything else that would have had an effect — anywhere in the country, let alone in the eight states where VR Systems is deployed. (There were Election Day problems with the voting rolls in Durham, NC ­– one of the states that VR Systems supports ­– but they seem like conventional errors and not malicious action.)

And 12 days before the election (with early voting already well underway in many jurisdictions) seems far too late to start an operation like that. That is why these attacks feel exploratory to me, rather than part of an operational attack. The Russians were seeing how far they could get, and keeping those accesses in their pocket for potential future use.

Presumably, this document was intended for the Justice Department, including the FBI, which would be the proper agency to continue looking into these hacks. We don’t know what happened next, if anything. VR Systems isn’t commenting, and the names of the local election officials targeted did not appear in the NSA document.

So while this document isn’t much of a smoking gun, it’s yet more evidence of widespread Russian attempts to interfere last year.

The document was, allegedly, sent to the Intercept anonymously. An NSA contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, was arrested Saturday and charged with mishandling classified information. The speed with which the government identified her serves as a caution to anyone wanting to leak official US secrets.

The Intercept sent a scan of the document to another source during its reporting. That scan showed a crease in the original document, which implied that someone had printed the document and then carried it out of some secure location. The second source, according to the FBI’s affidavit against Winner, passed it on to the NSA. From there, NSA investigators were able to look at their records and determine that only six people had printed out the document. (The government may also have been able to track the printout through secret dots that identified the printer.) Winner was the only one of those six who had been in e-mail contact with the Intercept. It is unclear whether the e-mail evidence was from Winner’s NSA account or her personal account, but in either case, it’s incredibly sloppy tradecraft.

With President Trump’s election, the issue of Russian interference in last year’s campaign has become highly politicized. Reports like the one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January have been criticized by partisan supporters of the White House. It’s interesting that this document was reported by the Intercept, which has been historically skeptical about claims of Russian interference. (I was quoted in their story, and they showed me a copy of the NSA document before it was published.) The leaker was even praised by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who up until now has been traditionally critical of allegations of Russian election interference.

This demonstrates the power of source documents. It’s easy to discount a Justice Department official or a summary report. A detailed NSA document is much more convincing. Right now, there’s a federal suit to force the ODNI to release the entire January report, not just the unclassified summary. These efforts are vital.

This hack will certainly come up at the Senate hearing where former FBI director James B. Comey is scheduled to testify Thursday. Last year, there were several stories about voter databases being targeted by Russia. Last August, the FBI confirmed that the Russians successfully hacked voter databases in Illinois and Arizona. And a month later, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security official said that the Russians targeted voter databases in 20 states. Again, we don’t know of anything that came of these hacks, but expect Comey to be asked about them. Unfortunately, any details he does know are almost certainly classified, and won’t be revealed in open testimony.

But more important than any of this, we need to better secure our election systems going forward. We have significant vulnerabilities in our voting machines, our voter rolls and registration process, and the vote tabulation systems after the polls close. In January, DHS designated our voting systems as critical national infrastructure, but so far that has been entirely for show. In the United States, we don’t have a single integrated election. We have 50-plus individual elections, each with its own rules and its own regulatory authorities. Federal standards that mandate voter-verified paper ballots and post-election auditing would go a long way to secure our voting system. These attacks demonstrate that we need to secure the voter rolls, as well.

Democratic elections serve two purposes. The first is to elect the winner. But the second is to convince the loser. After the votes are all counted, everyone needs to trust that the election was fair and the results accurate. Attacks against our election system, even if they are ultimately ineffective, undermine that trust and ­– by extension ­– our democracy. Yes, fixing this will be expensive. Yes, it will require federal action in what’s historically been state-run systems. But as a country, we have no other option.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

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A Comment on the Trump Dossier

Imagine that you are someone in the CIA, concerned about the future of America. You have this Russian dossier on Donald Trump, which you have some evidence might be true. The smartest thing you can do is to leak it to the public. By doing so, you are eliminating any leverage Russia has over Trump and probably reducing the effectiveness of any other blackmail material any government might have on Trump. I believe you do this regardless of whether you ultimately believe the document’s findings or not, and regardless of whether you support or oppose Trump. It’s simple game-theory.

This document is particularly safe to release. Because it’s not a classified report of the CIA, leaking it is not a crime. And you release it now, before Trump becomes president, because doing so afterwards becomes much more dangerous.

MODERATION NOTE: Please keep comments focused on this particular point. More general comments, especially uncivil comments, will be deleted.

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Recovering an iPhone 5c Passcode

Remember the San Bernardino killer’s iPhone, and how the FBI maintained that they couldn’t get the encryption key without Apple providing them with a universal backdoor? Many of us computer-security experts said that they were wrong, and there were several possible techniques they could use. One of them was manually removing the flash chip from the phone, extracting the memory, and then running a brute-force attack without worrying about the phone deleting the key.

The FBI said it was impossible. We all said they were wrong. Now, Sergei Skorobogatov has proved them wrong. Here’s his paper:

Abstract: This paper is a short summary of a real world mirroring attack on the Apple iPhone 5c passcode retry counter under iOS 9. This was achieved by desoldering the NAND Flash chip of a sample phone in order to physically access its connection to the SoC and partially reverse engineering its proprietary bus protocol. The process does not require any expensive and sophisticated equipment. All needed parts are low cost and were obtained from local electronics distributors. By using the described and successful hardware mirroring process it was possible to bypass the limit on passcode retry attempts. This is the first public demonstration of the working prototype and the real hardware mirroring process for iPhone 5c. Although the process can be improved, it is still a successful proof-of-concept project. Knowledge of the possibility of mirroring will definitely help in designing systems with better protection. Also some reliability issues related to the NAND memory allocation in iPhone 5c are revealed. Some future research directions are outlined in this paper and several possible countermeasures are suggested. We show that claims that iPhone 5c NAND mirroring was infeasible were ill-advised.

Susan Landau explains why this is important:

The moral of the story? It’s not, as the FBI has been requesting, a bill to make it easier to access encrypted communications, as in the proposed revised Burr-Feinstein bill. Such “solutions” would make us less secure, not more so. Instead we need to increase law enforcement’s capabilities to handle encrypted communications and devices. This will also take more funding as well as redirection of efforts. Increased security of our devices and simultaneous increased capabilities of law enforcement are the only sensible approach to a world where securing the bits, whether of health data, financial information, or private emails, has become of paramount importance.

Or: The FBI needs computer-security expertise, not backdoors.

Patrick Ball writes about the dangers of backdoors.

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