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Maciej Cegłowski on Privacy in the Information Age

Maciej Cegłowski has a really good essay explaining how to think about privacy today:

For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call it “ambient privacy” — the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition.

Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale.

Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

He’s not the first person to talk about privacy as a societal property, or to use pollution metaphors. But his framing is really cogent. And “ambient privacy” is new — and a good phrasing.

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Visiting the NSA

Yesterday, I visited the NSA. It was Cyber Command’s birthday, but that’s not why I was there. I visited as part of the Berklett Cybersecurity Project, run out of the Berkman Klein Center and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. (BERKman hewLETT — get it? We have a web page, but it’s badly out of date.)

It was a full day of meetings, all unclassified but under the Chatham House Rule. Gen. Nakasone welcomed us and took questions at the start. Various senior officials spoke with us on a variety of topics, but mostly focused on three areas:

  • Russian influence operations, both what the NSA and US Cyber Command did during the 2018 election and what they can do in the future;

  • China and the threats to critical infrastructure from untrusted computer hardware, both the 5G network and more broadly;

  • Machine learning, both how to ensure a ML system is compliant with all laws, and how ML can help with other compliance tasks.

It was all interesting. Those first two topics are ones that I am thinking and writing about, and it was good to hear their perspective. I find that I am much more closely aligned with the NSA about cybersecurity than I am about privacy, which made the meeting much less fraught than it would have been if we were discussing Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, Section 215 the USA Freedom Act (up for renewal next year), or any 4th Amendment violations. I don’t think we’re past those issues by any means, but they make up less of what I am working on.

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A “Department of Cybersecurity”

Presidential candidate John Delaney has announced a plan to create a Department of Cybersecurity.

I have long been in favor of a new federal agency to deal with Internet — and especially Internet of Things — security. The devil is in the details, of course, and it’s really easy to get this wrong. In Click Here to Kill Everybody, I outline a strawman proposal; I call it the “National Cyber Office” and model it on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But regardless of what you think of this idea, I’m glad that at least someone is talking about it.

Slashdot thread. News story.

EDITED TO ADD: Yes, this post is perilously close to presidential politics. Any comment that opines on the qualifications of this, or any other, presidential candidate will be deleted.

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More on the Triton Malware

FireEye is releasing much more information about the Triton malware that attacks critical infrastructure. It has been discovered in more places.

This is also a good — but older — article on Triton. We don’t know who wrote it. Initial speculation was Iran; more recent speculation is Russia. Both are still speculations.

Fireeye report. BoingBoing post.

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New Shamoon Variant

A new variant of the Shamoon malware has destroyed significant amounts of data at a UAE “heavy engineering company” and the Italian oil and gas contractor Saipem.

Shamoon is the Iranian malware that was targeted against the Saudi Arabian oil company, Saudi Aramco, in 2012 and 2016. We have no idea if this new variant is also Iranian in origin, or if it is someone else entirely using the old Iranian code base.

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Using Hacked IoT Devices to Disrupt the Power Grid

This is really interesting research: “BlackIoT: IoT Botnet of High Wattage Devices Can Disrupt the Power Grid“:

Abstract: We demonstrate that an Internet of Things (IoT) botnet of high wattage devices — such as air conditioners and heaters — gives a unique ability to adversaries to launch large-scale coordinated attacks on the power grid. In particular, we reveal a new class of potential attacks on power grids called the Manipulation of demand via IoT (MadIoT) attacks that can leverage such a botnet in order to manipulate the power demand in the grid. We study five variations of the MadIoT attacks and evaluate their effectiveness via state-of-the-art simulators on real-world power grid models. These simulation results demonstrate that the MadIoT attacks can result in local power outages and in the worst cases, large-scale blackouts. Moreover, we show that these attacks can rather be used to increase the operating cost of the grid to benefit a few utilities in the electricity market. This work sheds light upon the interdependency between the vulnerability of the IoT and that of the other networks such as the power grid whose security requires attention from both the systems security and power engineering communities.

I have been collecting examples of surprising vulnerabilities that result when we connect things to each other. This is a good example of that.

Wired article.

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Lessons Learned from the Estonian National ID Security Flaw

Estonia recently suffered a major flaw in the security of their national ID card. This article discusses the fix and the lessons learned from the incident:

In the future, the infrastructure dependency on one digital identity platform must be decreased, the use of several alternatives must be encouraged and promoted. In addition, the update and replacement capacity, both remote and physical, should be increased. We also recommend the government to procure the readiness to act fast in force majeure situations from the eID providers.. While deciding on the new eID platforms, the need to replace cryptographic primitives must be taken into account — particularly the possibility of the need to replace algorithms with those that are not even in existence yet.

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