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Fighting Leakers at Apple

Apple is fighting its own battle against leakers, using people and tactics from the NSA.

According to the hour-long presentation, Apple’s Global Security team employs an undisclosed number of investigators around the world to prevent information from reaching competitors, counterfeiters, and the press, as well as hunt down the source when leaks do occur. Some of these investigators have previously worked at U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, and in the U.S. military.

The information is from an internal briefing, which was leaked.

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The Dangers of Secret Law

Last week, the Department of Justice released 18 new FISC opinions related to Section 702 as part of an EFF FOIA lawsuit. (Of course, they don’t mention EFF or the lawsuit. They make it sound as if it was their idea.)

There’s probably a lot in these opinions. In one Kafkaesque ruling, a defendant was denied access to the previous court rulings that were used by the court to decide against it:

…in 2014, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) rejected a service provider’s request to obtain other FISC opinions that government attorneys had cited and relied on in court filings seeking to compel the provider’s cooperation.


The provider’s request came up amid legal briefing by both it and the DOJ concerning its challenge to a 702 order. After the DOJ cited two earlier FISC opinions that were not public at the time — one from 2014 and another from 2008­ — the provider asked the court for access to those rulings.

The provider argued that without being able to review the previous FISC rulings, it could not fully understand the court’s earlier decisions, much less effectively respond to DOJ’s argument. The provider also argued that because attorneys with Top Secret security clearances represented it, they could review the rulings without posing a risk to national security.

The court disagreed in several respects. It found that the court’s rules and Section 702 prohibited the documents release. It also rejected the provider’s claim that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause entitled it to the documents.

This kind of government secrecy is toxic to democracy. National security is important, but we will not survive if we become a country of secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law.

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Attributing the DNC Hacks to Russia

President Barack Obama’s public accusation of Russia as the source of the hacks in the US presidential election and the leaking of sensitive e-mails through WikiLeaks and other sources has opened up a debate on what constitutes sufficient evidence to attribute an attack in cyberspace. The answer is both complicated and inherently tied up in political considerations.

The administration is balancing political considerations and the inherent secrecy of electronic espionage with the need to justify its actions to the public. These issues will continue to plague us as more international conflict plays out in cyberspace.

It’s true that it’s easy for an attacker to hide who he is in cyberspace. We are unable to identify particular pieces of hardware and software around the world positively. We can’t verify the identity of someone sitting in front of a keyboard through computer data alone. Internet data packets don’t come with return addresses, and it’s easy for attackers to disguise their origins. For decades, hackers have used techniques such as jump hosts, VPNs, Tor and open relays to obscure their origin, and in many cases they work. I’m sure that many national intelligence agencies route their attacks through China, simply because everyone knows lots of attacks come from China.

On the other hand, there are techniques that can identify attackers with varying degrees of precision. It’s rarely just one thing, and you’ll often hear the term “constellation of evidence” to describe how a particular attacker is identified. It’s analogous to traditional detective work. Investigators collect clues and piece them together with known mode of operations. They look for elements that resemble other attacks and elements that are anomalies. The clues might involve ones and zeros, but the techniques go back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The University of Toronto-based organization Citizen Lab routinely attributes attacks against the computers of activists and dissidents to particular Third World governments. It took months to identify China as the source of the 2012 attacks against the New York Times. While it was uncontroversial to say that Russia was the source of a cyberattack against Estonia in 2007, no one knew if those attacks were authorized by the Russian government ­until the attackers explained themselves. And it was the Internet security company CrowdStrike, which first attributed the attacks against the Democratic National Committee to Russian intelligence agencies in June, based on multiple pieces of evidence gathered from its forensic investigation.

Attribution is easier if you are monitoring broad swaths of the Internet. This gives the National Security Agency a singular advantage in the attribution game. The problem, of course, is that the NSA doesn’t want to publish what it knows.

Regardless of what the government knows and how it knows it, the decision of whether to make attribution evidence public is another matter. When Sony was attacked, many security experts­myself included­were skeptical of both the government’s attribution claims and the flimsy evidence associated with it. I only became convinced when the New York Times ran a story about the government’s attribution, which talked about both secret evidence inside the NSA and human intelligence assets inside North Korea. In contrast, when the Office of Personnel Management was breached in 2015, the US government decided not to accuse China publicly, either because it didn’t want to escalate the political situation or because it didn’t want to reveal any secret evidence.

The Obama administration has been more public about its evidence in the DNC case, but it has not been entirely public.

It’s one thing for the government to know who attacked it. It’s quite another for it to convince the public who attacked it. As attribution increasingly relies on secret evidence­ — as it did with North Korea’s attack of Sony in 2014 and almost certainly does regarding Russia and the previous election — ­the government is going to have to face the choice of making previously secret evidence public and burning sources and methods, or keeping it secret and facing perfectly reasonable skepticism.

If the government is going to take public action against a cyberattack, it needs to make its evidence public. But releasing secret evidence might get people killed, and it would make any future confidentiality assurances we make to human sources completely non-credible. This problem isn’t going away; secrecy helps the intelligence community, but it wounds our democracy.

The constellation of evidence attributing the attacks against the DNC, and subsequent release of information, is comprehensive. It’s possible that there was more than one attack. It’s possible that someone not associated with Russia leaked the information to WikiLeaks, although we have no idea where that someone else would have obtained the information. We know that the Russian actors who hacked the DNC­ — both the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit — ­are also attacking other political networks around the world.

In the end, though, attribution comes down to whom you believe. When Citizen Lab writes a report outlining how a United Arab Emirates human rights defender was targeted with a cyberattack, we have no trouble believing that it was the UAE government. When Google identifies China as the source of attacks against Gmail users, we believe it just as easily.

Obama decided not to make the accusation public before the election so as not to be seen as influencing the election. Now, afterward, there are political implications in accepting that Russia hacked the DNC in an attempt to influence the US presidential election. But no amount of evidence can convince the unconvinceable.

The most important thing we can do right now is deter any country from trying this sort of thing in the future, and the political nature of the issue makes that harder. Right now, we’ve told the world that others can get away with manipulating our election process as long as they can keep their efforts secret until after one side wins. Obama has promised both secret retaliations and public ones. We need to hope they’re enough.

This essay previously appeared on

EDITED TO ADD: The ODNI released a declassified report on the Russian attacks. Here’s a New York Times article on the report.

And last week there were Senate hearings on this issue.

EDITED TO ADD: A Washington Post article talks about some of the intelligence behind the assessment.

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Automatically Identifying Government Secrets

Interesting research: “Using Artificial Intelligence to Identify State Secrets,” by Renato Rocha Souza, Flavio Codeco Coelho, Rohan Shah, and Matthew Connelly.

Abstract: Whether officials can be trusted to protect national security information has become a matter of great public controversy, reigniting a long-standing debate about the scope and nature of official secrecy. The declassification of millions of electronic records has made it possible to analyze these issues with greater rigor and precision. Using machine-learning methods, we examined nearly a million State Department cables from the 1970s to identify features of records that are more likely to be classified, such as international negotiations, military operations, and high-level communications. Even with incomplete data, algorithms can use such features to identify 90% of classified cables with

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Intelligence Oversight and How It Can Fail

Former NSA attorneys John DeLong and Susan Hennessay have written a fascinating article describing a particular incident of oversight failure inside the NSA. Technically, the story hinges on a definitional difference between the NSA and the FISA court meaning of the word “archived.” (For the record, I would have defaulted to the NSA’s interpretation, which feels more accurate technically.) But while the story is worth reading, what’s especially interesting are the broader issues about how a nontechnical judiciary can provide oversight over a very technical data collection-and-analysis organization — especially if the oversight must largely be conducted in secret.

From the article:

Broader root cause analysis aside, the BR FISA debacle made clear that the specific matter of shared legal interpretation needed to be addressed. Moving forward, the government agreed that NSA would coordinate all significant legal interpretations with DOJ. That sounds like an easy solution, but making it meaningful in practice is highly complex. Consider this example: a court order might require that “all collected data must be deleted after two years.” NSA engineers must then make a list for the NSA attorneys:

  1. What does deleted mean? Does it mean make inaccessible to analysts or does it mean forensically wipe off the system so data is gone forever? Or does it mean something in between?

  2. What about backup systems used solely for disaster recovery? Does the data need to be removed there, too, within two years, even though it’s largely inaccessible and typically there is a planned delay to account for mistakes in the operational system?

  3. When does the timer start?

  4. What’s the legally-relevant unit of measurement for timestamp computation­ — a day, an hour, a second, a millisecond?

  5. If a piece of data is deleted one second after two years, is that an incident of noncompliance? What about a delay of one day? ….

  6. What about various system logs that simply record the fact that NSA had a data object, but no significant details of the actual object? Do those logs need to be deleted too? If so, how soon?

  7. What about hard copy printouts?

And that is only a tiny sample of the questions that need to be answered for that small sentence fragment. Put yourself in the shoes of an NSA attorney: which of these questions — ­in particular the answers­ — require significant interpretations to be coordinated with DOJ and which determinations can be made internally?

Now put yourself in the shoes of a DOJ attorney who receives from an NSA attorney a subset of this list for advice and counsel. Which questions are truly significant from your perspective? Are there any questions here that are so significant they should be presented to the Court so that that government can be sufficiently confident that the Court understands how the two-year rule is really being interpreted and applied?

In many places I have separated different kinds of oversight: are we doing things right versus are we doing the right things? This is very much about the first: is the NSA complying with the rules the courts impose on them? This is about the first kind. I believe that the NSA tries very hard to follow the rules it’s given, while at the same time being very aggressive about how it interprets any kind of ambiguities and using its nonadversarial relationship with its overseers to its advantage.

The only possible solution I can see to all of this is more public scrutiny. Secrecy is toxic here.

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Subconscious Keys

I missed this paper when it was first published in 2012:

“Neuroscience Meets Cryptography: Designing Crypto Primitives Secure Against Rubber Hose Attacks”

Abstract: Cryptographic systems often rely on the secrecy of cryptographic keys given to users. Many schemes, however, cannot resist coercion attacks where the user is forcibly asked by an attacker to reveal the key. These attacks, known as rubber hose cryptanalysis, are often the easiest way to defeat cryptography. We present a defense against coercion attacks using the concept of implicit learning from cognitive psychology. Implicit learning refers to learning of patterns without any conscious knowledge of the learned pattern. We use a carefully crafted computer game to plant a secret password in the participant’s brain without the participant having any conscious knowledge of the trained password. While the planted secret can be used for authentication, the participant cannot be coerced into revealing it since he or she has no conscious knowledge of it. We performed a number of user studies using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to verify that participants can successfully re-authenticate over time and that they are unable to reconstruct or even recognize short fragments of the planted secret.

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Corporate Abuse of Our Data

Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.

This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.

I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.

For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.

This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.

So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?

To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.

Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”

My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules — Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware” — making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.

That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.

Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.

This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.

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