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Russian Censorship of Telegram

Internet censors have a new strategy in their bid to block applications and websites: pressuring the large cloud providers that host them. These providers have concerns that are much broader than the targets of censorship efforts, so they have the choice of either standing up to the censors or capitulating in order to maximize their business. Today’s Internet largely reflects the dominance of a handful of companies behind the cloud services, search engines and mobile platforms that underpin the technology landscape. This new centralization radically tips the balance between those who want to censor parts of the Internet and those trying to evade censorship. When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors’ demands, how long can Internet freedom last?

The recent battle between the Russian government and the Telegram messaging app illustrates one way this might play out. Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender’s phone and decrypted on the receiver’s phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.

Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn’t a fixed website, it doesn’t need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.

A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking 19 million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.

More recently, Russia has been pressuring Apple not to offer the Telegram app in its iPhone App Store. As of this writing, Apple has not complied, and the company has allowed Telegram to download a critical software update to iPhone users (after what the app’s founder called a delay last month). Roskomnadzor could further pressure Apple, though, including by threatening to turn off its entire iPhone app business in Russia.

Telegram might seem a weird app for Russia to focus on. Those of us who work in security don’t recommend the program, primarily because of the nature of its cryptographic protocols. In general, proprietary cryptography has numerous fatal security flaws. We generally recommend Signal for secure SMS messaging, or, if having that program on your computer is somehow incriminating, WhatsApp. (More than 1.5 billion people worldwide use WhatsApp.) What Telegram has going for it is that it works really well on lousy networks. That’s why it is so popular in places like Iran and Afghanistan. (Iran is also trying to ban the app.)

What the Russian government doesn’t like about Telegram is its anonymous broadcast feature­ — channel capability and chats — ­which makes it an effective platform for political debate and citizen journalism. The Russians might not like that Telegram is encrypted, but odds are good that they can simply break the encryption. Telegram’s role in facilitating uncontrolled journalism is the real issue.

Iran attempts to block Telegram have been more successful than Russia’s, less because Iran’s censorship technology is more sophisticated but because Telegram is not willing to go as far to defend Iranian users. The reasons are not rooted in business decisions. Simply put, Telegram is a Russian product and the designers are more motivated to poke Russia in the eye. Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, has pledged millions of dollars to help fight Russian censorship.

For the moment, Russia has lost. But this battle is far from over. Russia could easily come back with more targeted pressure on Google, Amazon and Apple. A year earlier, Zello used the same trick Telegram is using to evade Russian censors. Then, Roskomnadzor threatened to block all of Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud; and in that instance, both companies forced Zello to stop its IP-hopping censorship-evasion tactic.

Russia could also further develop its censorship infrastructure. If its capabilities were as finely honed as China’s, it would be able to more effectively block Telegram from operating. Right now, Russia can block only specific IP addresses, which is too coarse a tool for this issue. Telegram’s voice capabilities in Russia are significantly degraded, however, probably because high-capacity IP addresses are easier to block.

Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned­ — and technically blocked­ — the practice of “domain fronting,” a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website­ — in this case Google.com­ — to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.

Tech giants have gotten embroiled in censorship battles for years. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fold, but until now there have always been options. What this particular fight highlights is that Internet freedom is increasingly in the hands of the world’s largest Internet companies. And while freedom may have its advocates — ­the American Civil Liberties Union has tweeted its support for those companies, and some 12,000 people in Moscow protested against the Telegram ban­ — actions such as disallowing domain fronting illustrate that getting the big tech companies to sacrifice their near-term commercial interests will be an uphill battle. Apple has already removed anti-censorship apps from its Chinese app store.

In 1993, John Gilmore famously said that “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” That was technically true when he said it but only because the routing structure of the Internet was so distributed. As centralization increases, the Internet loses that robustness, and censorship by governments and companies becomes easier.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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New iPhone OS May Include Device-Unlocking Security

iOS 12, the next release of Apple’s iPhone operating system, may include features to prevent someone from unlocking your phone without your permission:

The feature essentially forces users to unlock the iPhone with the passcode when connecting it to a USB accessory everytime the phone has not been unlocked for one hour. That includes the iPhone unlocking devices that companies such as Cellebrite or GrayShift make, which police departments all over the world use to hack into seized iPhones.

“That pretty much kills [GrayShift’s product] GrayKey and Cellebrite,” Ryan Duff, a security researcher who has studied iPhone and is Director of Cyber Solutions at Point3 Security, told Motherboard in an online chat. “If it actually does what it says and doesn’t let ANY type of data connection happen until it’s unlocked, then yes. You can’t exploit the device if you can’t communicate with it.”

This is part of a bunch of security enhancements in iOS 12:

Other enhancements include tools for generating strong passwords, storing them in the iCloud keychain, and automatically entering them into Safari and iOS apps across all of a user’s devices. Previously, standalone apps such as 1Password have done much the same thing. Now, Apple is integrating the functions directly into macOS and iOS. Apple also debuted new programming interfaces that allow users to more easily access passwords stored in third-party password managers directly from the QuickType bar. The company also announced a new feature that will flag reused passwords, an interface that autofills one-time passwords provided by authentication apps, and a mechanism for sharing passwords among nearby iOS devices, Macs, and Apple TVs.

A separate privacy enhancement is designed to prevent websites from tracking people when using Safari. It’s specifically designed to prevent share buttons and comment code on webpages from tracking people’s movements across the Web without permission or from collecting a device’s unique settings such as fonts, in an attempt to fingerprint the device.

The last additions of note are new permission dialogues macOS Mojave will display before allowing apps to access a user’s camera or microphone. The permissions are designed to thwart malicious software that surreptitiously turns on these devices in an attempt to spy on users. The new protections will largely mimic those previously available only through standalone apps such as one called Oversight, developed by security researcher Patrick Wardle. Apple said similar dialog permissions will protect the file system, mail database, message history, and backups.

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GreyKey iPhone Unlocker

Some details about the iPhone unlocker from the US company Greyshift, with photos.

Little is known about Grayshift or its sales model at this point. We don’t know whether sales are limited to US law enforcement, or if it is also selling in other parts of the world. Regardless of that, it’s highly likely that these devices will ultimately end up in the hands of agents of an oppressive regime, whether directly from Grayshift or indirectly through the black market.

It’s also entirely possible, based on the history of the IP-Box, that Grayshift devices will end up being available to anyone who wants them and can find a way to purchase them, perhaps by being reverse-engineered and reproduced by an enterprising hacker, then sold for a couple hundred bucks on eBay.

Forbes originally wrote about this, and I blogged that article.

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Cellebrite Unlocks iPhones for the US Government

Forbes reports that the Israeli company Cellebrite can probably unlock all iPhone models:

Cellebrite, a Petah Tikva, Israel-based vendor that’s become the U.S. government’s company of choice when it comes to unlocking mobile devices, is this month telling customers its engineers currently have the ability to get around the security of devices running iOS 11. That includes the iPhone X, a model that Forbes has learned was successfully raided for data by the Department for Homeland Security back in November 2017, most likely with Cellebrite technology.

[…]

It also appears the feds have already tried out Cellebrite tech on the most recent Apple handset, the iPhone X. That’s according to a warrant unearthed by Forbes in Michigan, marking the first known government inspection of the bleeding edge smartphone in a criminal investigation. The warrant detailed a probe into Abdulmajid Saidi, a suspect in an arms trafficking case, whose iPhone X was taken from him as he was about to leave America for Beirut, Lebanon, on November 20. The device was sent to a Cellebrite specialist at the DHS Homeland Security Investigations Grand Rapids labs and the data extracted on December 5.

This story is based on some excellent reporting, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We don’t know exactly what was extracted from any of the phones. Was it metadata or data, and what kind of metadata or data was it.

The story I hear is that Cellebrite hires ex-Apple engineers and moves them to countries where Apple can’t prosecute them under the DMCA or its equivalents. There’s also a credible rumor that Cellebrite’s mechanisms only defeat the mechanism that limits the number of password attempts. It does not allow engineers to move the encrypted data off the phone and run an offline password cracker. If this is true, then strong passwords are still secure.

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Another iPhone Change to Frustrate the Police

I recently wrote about the new ability to disable the Touch ID login on iPhones. This is important because of a weirdness in current US law that protects people’s passcodes from forced disclosure in ways it does not protect actions: being forced to place a thumb on a fingerprint reader.

There’s another, more significant, change: iOS now requires a passcode before the phone will establish trust with another device.

In the current system, when you connect your phone to a computer, you’re prompted with the question “Trust this computer?” and you can click yes or no. Now you have to enter in your passcode again. That means if the police have an unlocked phone, they can scroll through the phone looking for things but they can’t download all of the contents onto a another computer without also knowing the passcode.

More details:

This might be particularly consequential during border searches. The “border search” exception, which allows Customs and Border Protection to search anything going into the country, is a contentious issue when applied electronics. It is somewhat (but not completely) settled law, but that the U.S. government can, without any cause at all (not even “reasonable articulable suspicion”, let alone “probable cause”), copy all the contents of my devices when I reenter the country sows deep discomfort in myself and many others. The only legal limitation appears to be a promise not to use this information to connect to remote services. The new iOS feature means that a Customs office can browse through a device — a time limited exercise — but not download the full contents.

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A Hardware Privacy Monitor for iPhones

Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Edward Snowden have designed a hardware device that attaches to an iPhone and monitors it for malicious surveillance activities, even in instances where the phone’s operating system has been compromised. They call it an Introspection Engine, and their use model is a journalist who is concerned about government surveillance:

Our introspection engine is designed with the following goals in mind:

  1. Completely open source and user-inspectable (“You don’t have to trust us”)

  2. Introspection operations are performed by an execution domain completely separated from the phone”s CPU (“don’t rely on those with impaired judgment to fairly judge their state”)

  3. Proper operation of introspection system can be field-verified (guard against “evil maid” attacks and hardware failures)

  4. Difficult to trigger a false positive (users ignore or disable security alerts when there are too many positives)

  5. Difficult to induce a false negative, even with signed firmware updates (“don’t trust the system vendor” — state-level adversaries with full cooperation of system vendors should not be able to craft signed firmware updates that spoof or bypass the introspection engine)

  6. As much as possible, the introspection system should be passive and difficult to detect by the phone’s operating system (prevent black-listing/targeting of users based on introspection engine signatures)

  7. Simple, intuitive user interface requiring no specialized knowledge to interpret or operate (avoid user error leading to false negatives; “journalists shouldn’t have to be cryptographers to be safe”)

  8. Final solution should be usable on a daily basis, with minimal impact on workflow (avoid forcing field reporters into the choice between their personal security and being an effective journalist)

This looks like fantastic work, and they have a working prototype.

Of course, this does nothing to stop all the legitimate surveillance that happens over a cell phone: location tracking, records of who you talk to, and so on.

BoingBoing post.

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