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On Chinese “Spy Trains”

The trade war with China has reached a new industry: subway cars. Congress is considering legislation that would prevent the world’s largest train maker, the Chinese-owned CRRC Corporation, from competing on new contracts in the United States.

Part of the reasoning behind this legislation is economic, and stems from worries about Chinese industries undercutting the competition and dominating key global industries. But another part involves fears about national security. News articles talk about “spy trains,” and the possibility that the train cars might surreptitiously monitor their passengers’ faces, movements, conversations or phone calls.

This is a complicated topic. There is definitely a national security risk in buying computer infrastructure from a country you don’t trust. That’s why there is so much worry about Chinese-made equipment for the new 5G wireless networks.

It’s also why the United States has blocked the cybersecurity company Kaspersky from selling its Russian-made antivirus products to US government agencies. Meanwhile, the chairman of China’s technology giant Huawei has pointed to NSA spying disclosed by Edward Snowden as a reason to mistrust US technology companies.

The reason these threats are so real is that it’s not difficult to hide surveillance or control infrastructure in computer components, and if they’re not turned on, they’re very difficult to find.

Like every other piece of modern machinery, modern train cars are filled with computers, and while it’s certainly possible to produce a subway car with enough surveillance apparatus to turn it into a “spy train,” in practice it doesn’t make much sense. The risk of discovery is too great, and the payoff would be too low. Like the United States, China is more likely to try to get data from the US communications infrastructure, or from the large Internet companies that already collect data on our every move as part of their business model.

While it’s unlikely that China would bother spying on commuters using subway cars, it would be much less surprising if a tech company offered free Internet on subways in exchange for surveillance and data collection. Or if the NSA used those corporate systems for their own surveillance purposes (just as the agency has spied on in-flight cell phone calls, according to an investigation by the Intercept and Le Monde, citing documents provided by Edward Snowden). That’s an easier, and more fruitful, attack path.

We have credible reports that the Chinese hacked Gmail around 2010, and there are ongoing concerns about both censorship and surveillance by the Chinese social-networking company TikTok. (TikTok’s parent company has told the Washington Post that the app doesn’t send American users’ info back to Beijing, and that the Chinese government does not influence the app’s use in the United States.)

Even so, these examples illustrate an important point: there’s no escaping the technology of inevitable surveillance. You have little choice but to rely on the companies that build your computers and write your software, whether in your smartphones, your 5G wireless infrastructure, or your subway cars. And those systems are so complicated that they can be secretly programmed to operate against your interests.

Last year, Le Monde reported that the Chinese government bugged the computer network of the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. China had built and outfitted the organization’s new headquarters as a foreign aid gift, reportedly secretly configuring the network to send copies of confidential data to Shanghai every night between 2012 and 2017. China denied having done so, of course.

If there’s any lesson from all of this, it’s that everybody spies using the Internet. The United States does it. Our allies do it. Our enemies do it. Many countries do it to each other, with their success largely dependent on how sophisticated their tech industries are.

China dominates the subway car manufacturing industry because of its low prices­ — the same reason it dominates the 5G hardware industry. Whether these low prices are because the companies are more efficient than their competitors or because they’re being unfairly subsidized by the Chinese government is a matter to be determined at trade negotiations.

Finally, Americans must understand that higher prices are an inevitable result of banning cheaper tech products from China.

We might willingly pay the higher prices because we want domestic control of our telecommunications infrastructure. We might willingly pay more because of some protectionist belief that global trade is somehow bad. But we need to make these decisions to protect ourselves deliberately and rationally, recognizing both the risks and the costs. And while I’m worried about our 5G infrastructure built using Chinese hardware, I’m not worried about our subway cars.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: I had a lot of trouble with CNN’s legal department with this essay. They were very reluctant to call out the US and its allies for similar behavior, and spent a lot more time adding caveats to statements that I didn’t think needed them. They wouldn’t let me link to this Intercept article talking about US, French, and German infiltration of supply chains, or even the NSA document from the Snowden archives that proved the statements.

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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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