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Warrant Protections against Police Searches of Our Data

The cell phones we carry with us constantly are the most perfect surveillance device ever invented, and our laws haven’t caught up to that reality. That might change soon.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear a case with profound implications on your security and privacy in the coming years. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unlawful search and seizure is a vital right that protects us all from police overreach, and the way the courts interpret it is increasingly nonsensical in our computerized and networked world. The Supreme Court can either update current law to reflect the world, or it can further solidify an unnecessary and dangerous police power.

The case centers on cell phone location data and whether the police need a warrant to get it, or if they can use a simple subpoena, which is easier to obtain. Current Fourth Amendment doctrine holds that you lose all privacy protections over any data you willingly share with a third party. Your cellular provider, under this interpretation, is a third party with whom you’ve willingly shared your movements, 24 hours a day, going back months — even though you don’t really have any choice about whether to share with them. So police can request records of where you’ve been from cell carriers without any judicial oversight. The case before the court, Carpenter v. United States, could change that.

Traditionally, information that was most precious to us was physically close to us. It was on our bodies, in our homes and offices, in our cars. Because of that, the courts gave that information extra protections. Information that we stored far away from us, or gave to other people, afforded fewer protections. Police searches have been governed by the “third-party doctrine,” which explicitly says that information we share with others is not considered private.

The Internet has turned that thinking upside-down. Our cell phones know who we talk to and, if we’re talking via text or e-mail, what we say. They track our location constantly, so they know where we live and work. Because they’re the first and last thing we check every day, they know when we go to sleep and when we wake up. Because everyone has one, they know whom we sleep with. And because of how those phones work, all that information is naturally shared with third parties.

More generally, all our data is literally stored on computers belonging to other people. It’s our e-mail, text messages, photos, Google docs, and more ­ all in the cloud. We store it there not because it’s unimportant, but precisely because it is important. And as the Internet of Things computerizes the rest our lives, even more data will be collected by other people: data from our health trackers and medical devices, data from our home sensors and appliances, data from Internet-connected “listeners” like Alexa, Siri, and your voice-activated television.

All this data will be collected and saved by third parties, sometimes for years. The result is a detailed dossier of your activities more complete than any private investigator –­ or police officer –­ could possibly collect by following you around.

The issue here is not whether the police should be allowed to use that data to help solve crimes. Of course they should. The issue is whether that information should be protected by the warrant process that requires the police to have probable cause to investigate you and get approval by a court.

Warrants are a security mechanism. They prevent the police from abusing their authority to investigate someone they have no reason to suspect of a crime. They prevent the police from going on “fishing expeditions.” They protect our rights and liberties, even as we willingly give up our privacy to the legitimate needs of law enforcement.

The third-party doctrine never made a lot of sense. Just because I share an intimate secret with my spouse, friend, or doctor doesn’t mean that I no longer consider it private. It makes even less sense in today’s hyper-connected world. It’s long past time the Supreme Court recognized that a months’-long history of my movements is private, and my e-mails and other personal data deserve the same protections, whether they’re on my laptop or on Google’s servers.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Details on the case. Two opinion pieces.

I signed on to two amicus briefs on the case.

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Inmates Secretly Build and Network Computers while in Prison

This is kind of amazing:

Inmates at a medium-security Ohio prison secretly assembled two functioning computers, hid them in the ceiling, and connected them to the Marion Correctional Institution’s network. The hard drives were loaded with pornography, a Windows proxy server, VPN, VOIP and anti-virus software, the Tor browser, password hacking and e-mail spamming tools, and the open source packet analyzer Wireshark.

Another article.

Clearly there’s a lot about prison security, or the lack thereof, that I don’t know. This article reveals some of it.

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NSA Abandons “About” Searches

Earlier this month, the NSA said that it would no longer conduct “about” searches of bulk communications data. This was the practice of collecting the communications of Americans based on keywords and phrases in the contents of the messages, not based on who they were from or to.

The NSA’s own words:

After considerable evaluation of the program and available technology, NSA has decided that its Section 702 foreign intelligence surveillance activities will no longer include any upstream internet communications that are solely “about” a foreign intelligence target. Instead, this surveillance will now be limited to only those communications that are directly “to” or “from” a foreign intelligence target. These changes are designed to retain the upstream collection that provides the greatest value to national security while reducing the likelihood that NSA will acquire communications of U.S. persons or others who are not in direct contact with one of the Agency’s foreign intelligence targets.

In addition, as part of this curtailment, NSA will delete the vast majority of previously acquired upstream internet communications as soon as practicable.

[…]

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

A quick review: under Section 702 of the Patriot Act, the NSA seizes a copy of all communications moving through a telco — think e-mail and such — and searches it for particular senders, receivers, and — until recently — key words. This pretty clearly violates the Fourth Amendment, and groups like the EFF have been fighting the NSA in court about this for years. The NSA has also had problems in the FISA court about these searches, and cites “inadvertent compliance incidents” related to this.

We might learn more about this change. Again, from the NSA’s statement:

After reviewing amended Section 702 certifications and NSA procedures that implement these changes, the FISC recently issued an opinion and order, approving the renewal certifications and use of procedures, which authorize this narrowed form of Section 702 upstream internet collection. A declassification review of the FISC’s opinion and order, and the related targeting and minimization procedures, is underway.

And the EFF is still fighting for more NSA surveillance reforms.

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Why Is the TSA Scanning Paper?

I’ve been reading a bunch of anecdotal reports that the TSA is starting to scan paper separately:

A passenger going through security at Kansas City International Airport (MCI) recently was asked by security officers to remove all paper products from his bag. Everything from books to Post-It Notes, documents and more. Once the paper products were removed, the passenger had to put them in a separate bin to be scanned separately.

When the passenger inquired why he was being forced to remove the paper products from his carry-on bag, the agent told him that it was a pilot program that’s being tested at MCI and will begin rolling out nationwide. KSHB Kansas City is reporting that other passengers traveling through MCI have also reported the paper-removal procedure at the airport. One person said that security dug through the suitcase for two “blocks” of Post-It Notes at the bottom.

Does anyone have any guesses as to why the TSA is doing this?

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The Limits of Police Subterfuge

“The next time you call for assistance because the Internet service in your home is not working, the ‘technician’ who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and — ­when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician­ — let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have ‘consented’ to an intrusive search of your home.”

This chilling scenario is the first paragraph of a motion to suppress evidence gathered by the police in exactly this manner, from a hotel room. Unbelievably, this isn’t a story from some totalitarian government on the other side of an ocean. This happened in the United States, and by the FBI. Eventually — I’m sure there will be appeals — higher U.S. courts will decide whether this sort of practice is legal. If it is, the country will slide even further into a society where the police have even more unchecked power than they already possess.

The facts are these. In June, Two wealthy Macau residents stayed at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The hotel suspected that they were running an illegal gambling operation out of their room. They enlisted the police and the FBI, but could not provide enough evidence for them to get a warrant. So instead they repeatedly cut the guests’ Internet connection. When the guests complained to the hotel, FBI agents wearing hidden cameras and recorders pretended to be Internet repair technicians and convinced the guests to let them in. They filmed and recorded everything under the pretense of fixing the Internet, and then used the information collected from that to get an actual search warrant. To make matters even worse, they lied to the judge about how they got their evidence.

The FBI claims that their actions are no different from any conventional sting operation. For example, an undercover policeman can legitimately look around and report on what he sees when he invited into a suspect’s home under the pretext of trying to buy drugs. But there are two very important differences: one of consent, and the other of trust. The former is easier to see in this specific instance, but the latter is much more important for society.

You can’t give consent to something you don’t know and understand. The FBI agents did not enter the hotel room under the pretext of making an illegal bet. They entered under a false pretext, and relied on that for consent of their true mission. That makes things different. The occupants of the hotel room didn’t realize who they were giving access to, and they didn’t know their intentions. The FBI knew this would be a problem. According to the New York Times, “a federal prosecutor had initially warned the agents not to use trickery because of the ‘consent issue.’ In fact, a previous ruse by agents had failed when a person in one of the rooms refused to let them in.” Claiming that a person granting an Internet technician access is consenting to a police search makes no sense, and is no different than one of those “click through” Internet license agreements that you didn’t read saying one thing and while meaning another. It’s not consent in any meaningful sense of the term.

Far more important is the matter of trust. Trust is central to how a society functions. No one, not even the most hardened survivalists who live in backwoods log cabins, can do everything by themselves. Humans need help from each other, and most of us need a lot of help from each other. And that requires trust. Many Americans’ homes, for example, are filled with systems that require outside technical expertise when they break: phone, cable, Internet, power, heat, water. Citizens need to trust each other enough to give them access to their hotel rooms, their homes, their cars, their person. Americans simply can’t live any other way.

It cannot be that every time someone allows one of those technicians into our homes they are consenting to a police search. Again from the motion to suppress: “Our lives cannot be private — ­and our personal relationships intimate­ — if each physical connection that links our homes to the outside world doubles as a ready-made excuse for the government to conduct a secret, suspicionless, warrantless search.” The resultant breakdown in trust would be catastrophic. People would not be able to get the assistance they need. Legitimate servicemen would find it much harder to do their job. Everyone would suffer.

It all comes back to the warrant. Through warrants, Americans legitimately grant the police an incredible level of access into our personal lives. This is a reasonable choice because the police need this access in order to solve crimes. But to protect ordinary citizens, the law requires the police to go before a neutral third party and convince them that they have a legitimate reason to demand that access. That neutral third party, a judge, then issues the warrant when he or she is convinced. This check on the police’s power is for Americans’ security, and is an important part of the Constitution.

In recent years, the FBI has been pushing the boundaries of its warrantless investigative powers in disturbing and dangerous ways. It collects phone-call records of millions of innocent people. It uses hacking tools against unknown individuals without warrants. It impersonates legitimate news sites. If the lower court sanctions this particular FBI subterfuge, the matter needs to be taken up — ­and reversed­ — by the Supreme Court.

This essay previously appeared in The Atlantic.

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FBI Agents Pose as Repairmen to Bypass Warrant Process

This is a creepy story. The FBI wanted access to a hotel guest’s room without a warrant. So agents broke his Internet connection, and then posed as Internet technicians to gain access to his hotel room without a warrant.

From the motion to suppress:

The next time you call for assistance because the internet service in your home is not working, the “technician” who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and — when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician — let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have “consented” to an intrusive search of your home.

Basically, the agents snooped around the hotel room, and gathered evidence that they submitted to a magistrate to get a warrant. Of course, they never told the judge that they had engineered the whole outage and planted the fake technicians.

More coverage of the case here.

This feels like an important case to me. We constantly allow repair technicians into our homes to fix this or that technological thingy. If we can’t be sure they are not government agents in disguise, then we’ve lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty.

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Testing for Explosives in the Chicago Subway

Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:

Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.

[…]

Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

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