Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump’s personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump’s cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at — but acquiesced to — the security rules prohibiting him from using a “regular” cell phone throughout his presidency.
Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump’s cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And — most personal of all — what about my cell phone calls?
There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet’s major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing “target selectors”: phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany — among them Chancellor Angela Merkel — France, Japan, and other countries.
Other countries don’t have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don’t know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman’s phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country’s phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.
Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don’t think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.
The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians — presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa — 45 countries in all.
These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200K for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.
Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone — Pixel — that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)
Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China’s recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.
Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it’s safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I’d say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.
It’s safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials — especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).
As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It’s easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO’s phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We’ve seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You’re at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn’t want to bother with security, you’re vulnerable.
This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers — including the FBI — can’t access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone’s phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.
This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.
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The US Government Accounting Office just published a new report: “Weapons Systems Cyber Security: DOD Just Beginning to Grapple with Scale of Vulnerabilities” (summary here). The upshot won’t be a surprise to any of my regular readers: they’re vulnerable.
From the summary:
Automation and connectivity are fundamental enablers of DOD’s modern military capabilities. However, they make weapon systems more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Although GAO and others have warned of cyber risks for decades, until recently, DOD did not prioritize weapon systems cybersecurity. Finally, DOD is still determining how best to address weapon systems cybersecurity.
In operational testing, DOD routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in systems that were under development, yet program officials GAO met with believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic. Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications. In addition, vulnerabilities that DOD is aware of likely represent a fraction of total vulnerabilities due to testing limitations. For example, not all programs have been tested and tests do not reflect the full range of threats.
It is definitely easier, and cheaper, to ignore the problem or pretend it isn’t a big deal. But that’s probably a mistake in the long run.
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Last month, the White House released the “National Cyber Strategy of the United States of America. I generally don’t have much to say about these sorts of documents. They’re filled with broad generalities. Who can argue with:
Defend the homeland by protecting networks, systems, functions, and data;
Promote American prosperity by nurturing a secure, thriving digital economy and fostering strong domestic innovation;
Preserve peace and security by strengthening the ability of the United States in concert with allies and partners to deter and, if necessary, punish those who use cyber tools for malicious purposes; and
Expand American influence abroad to extend the key tenets of an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet.
The devil is in the details, of course. And the strategy includes no details.
In a New York Times op-ed, Josephine Wolff argues that this new strategy, together with the more-detailed Department of Defense cyber strategy and the classified National Security Presidential Memorandum 13, represent a dangerous shift of US cybersecurity posture from defensive to offensive:
…the National Cyber Strategy represents an abrupt and reckless shift in how the United States government engages with adversaries online. Instead of continuing to focus on strengthening defensive technologies and minimizing the impact of security breaches, the Trump administration plans to ramp up offensive cyberoperations. The new goal: deter adversaries through pre-emptive cyberattacks and make other nations fear our retaliatory powers.
The Trump administration’s shift to an offensive approach is designed to escalate cyber conflicts, and that escalation could be dangerous. Not only will it detract resources and attention from the more pressing issues of defense and risk management, but it will also encourage the government to act recklessly in directing cyberattacks at targets before they can be certain of who those targets are and what they are doing.
There is no evidence that pre-emptive cyberattacks will serve as effective deterrents to our adversaries in cyberspace. In fact, every time a country has initiated an unprompted cyberattack, it has invariably led to more conflict and has encouraged retaliatory breaches rather than deterring them. Nearly every major publicly known online intrusion that Russia or North Korea has perpetrated against the United States has had significant and unpleasant consequences.
Wolff is right; this is reckless. In Click Here to Kill Everybody, I argue for a “defense dominant” strategy: that while offense is essential for defense, when the two are in conflict, it should take a back seat to defense. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and I devote a whole chapter to its implications. But as computers and the Internet become more critical to our lives and society, keeping them secure becomes more important than using them to attack others.
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The major tech companies, scared that states like California might impose actual privacy regulations, have now decided that they can better lobby the federal government for much weaker national legislation that will preempt any stricter state measures.
I’m sure they’ll still do all they can to weaken the California law, but they know they’ll do better at the national level.
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Some of us — myself included — have proposed lawful government hacking as an alternative to backdoors. A new report from the Center of Internet and Society looks at the security risks of allowing government hacking. They include:
- Disincentive for vulnerability disclosure
- Cultivation of a market for surveillance tools
- Attackers co-opt hacking tools over which governments have lost control
- Attackers learn of vulnerabilities through government use of malware
- Government incentives to push for less-secure software and standards
- Government malware affects innocent users.
These risks are real, but I think they’re much less than mandating backdoors for everyone. From the report’s conclusion:
Government hacking is often lauded as a solution to the “going dark” problem. It is too dangerous to mandate encryption backdoors, but targeted hacking of endpoints could ensure investigators access to same or similar necessary data with less risk. Vulnerabilities will never affect everyone, contingent as they are on software, network configuration, and patch management. Backdoors, however, mean everybody is vulnerable and a security failure fails catastrophically. In addition, backdoors are often secret, while eventually, vulnerabilities will typically be disclosed and patched.
The key to minimizing the risks is to ensure that law enforcement (or whoever) report all vulnerabilities discovered through the normal process, and use them for lawful hacking during the period between reporting and patching. Yes, that’s a big ask, but the alternatives are worse.
This is the canonical lawful hacking paper.
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The Five Eyes — the intelligence consortium of the rich English-speaking countries (the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) — have issued a “Statement of Principles on Access to Evidence and Encryption” where they claim their needs for surveillance outweigh everyone’s needs for security and privacy.
…the increasing use and sophistication of certain encryption designs present challenges for nations in combatting serious crimes and threats to national and global security. Many of the same means of encryption that are being used to protect personal, commercial and government information are also being used by criminals, including child sex offenders, terrorists and organized crime groups to frustrate investigations and avoid detection and prosecution.
Privacy laws must prevent arbitrary or unlawful interference, but privacy is not absolute. It is an established principle that appropriate government authorities should be able to seek access to otherwise private information when a court or independent authority has authorized such access based on established legal standards. The same principles have long permitted government authorities to search homes, vehicles, and personal effects with valid legal authority.
The increasing gap between the ability of law enforcement to lawfully access data and their ability to acquire and use the content of that data is a pressing international concern that requires urgent, sustained attention and informed discussion on the complexity of the issues and interests at stake. Otherwise, court decisions about legitimate access to data are increasingly rendered meaningless, threatening to undermine the systems of justice established in our democratic nations.
To put it bluntly, this is reckless and shortsighted. I’ve repeatedly written about why this can’t be done technically, and why trying results in insecurity. But there’s a greater principle at first: we need to decide, as nations and as society, to put defense first. We need a “defense dominant” strategy for securing the Internet and everything attached to it.
This is important. Our national security depends on the security of our technologies. Demanding that technology companies add backdoors to computers and communications systems puts us all at risk. We need to understand that these systems are too critical to our society and — now that they can affect the world in a direct physical manner — affect our lives and property as well.
This is what I just wrote, in Click Here to Kill Everybody:
There is simply no way to secure US networks while at the same time leaving foreign networks open to eavesdropping and attack. There’s no way to secure our phones and computers from criminals and terrorists without also securing the phones and computers of those criminals and terrorists. On the generalized worldwide network that is the Internet, anything we do to secure its hardware and software secures it everywhere in the world. And everything we do to keep it insecure similarly affects the entire world.
This leaves us with a choice: either we secure our stuff, and as a side effect also secure their stuff; or we keep their stuff vulnerable, and as a side effect keep our own stuff vulnerable. It’s actually not a hard choice. An analogy might bring this point home. Imagine that every house could be opened with a master key, and this was known to the criminals. Fixing those locks would also mean that criminals’ safe houses would be more secure, but it’s pretty clear that this downside would be worth the trade-off of protecting everyone’s house. With the Internet+ increasing the risks from insecurity dramatically, the choice is even more obvious. We must secure the information systems used by our elected officials, our critical infrastructure providers, and our businesses.
Yes, increasing our security will make it harder for us to eavesdrop, and attack, our enemies in cyberspace. (It won’t make it impossible for law enforcement to solve crimes; I’ll get to that later in this chapter.) Regardless, it’s worth it. If we are ever going to secure the Internet+, we need to prioritize defense over offense in all of its aspects. We’ve got more to lose through our Internet+ vulnerabilities than our adversaries do, and more to gain through Internet+ security. We need to recognize that the security benefits of a secure Internet+ greatly outweigh the security benefits of a vulnerable one.
We need to have this debate at the level of national security. Putting spy agencies in charge of this trade-off is wrong, and will result in bad decisions.
Cory Doctorow has a good reaction.
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BoingBoing has the story.
I have never quite trusted the idea of a warrant canary. But here it seems to have worked. (Presumably, if SpiderOak wanted to replace the warrant canary with a transparency report, they would have written something explaining their decision. To have it simply disappear is what we would expect if SpiderOak were being forced to comply with a US government request for personal data.)
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