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Detecting Drone Surveillance with Traffic Analysis

This is clever:

Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel have built a proof-of-concept system for counter-surveillance against spy drones that demonstrates a clever, if not exactly simple, way to determine whether a certain person or object is under aerial surveillance. They first generate a recognizable pattern on whatever subject­ — a window, say — someone might want to guard from potential surveillance. Then they remotely intercept a drone’s radio signals to look for that pattern in the streaming video the drone sends back to its operator. If they spot it, they can determine that the drone is looking at their subject.

In other words, they can see what the drone sees, pulling out their recognizable pattern from the radio signal, even without breaking the drone’s encrypted video.

The details have to do with the way drone video is compressed:

The researchers’ technique takes advantage of an efficiency feature streaming video has used for years, known as “delta frames.” Instead of encoding video as a series of raw images, it’s compressed into a series of changes from the previous image in the video. That means when a streaming video shows a still object, it transmits fewer bytes of data than when it shows one that moves or changes color.

That compression feature can reveal key information about the content of the video to someone who’s intercepting the streaming data, security researchers have shown in recent research, even when the data is encrypted.

Research paper and video.

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More on the NSA’s Use of Traffic Shaping

“Traffic shaping” — the practice of tricking data to flow through a particular route on the Internet so it can be more easily surveiled — is an NSA technique that has gotten much less attention than it deserves. It’s a powerful technique that allows an eavesdropper to get access to communications channels it would otherwise not be able to monitor.

There’s a new paper on this technique:

This report describes a novel and more disturbing set of risks. As a technical matter, the NSA does not have to wait for domestic communications to naturally turn up abroad. In fact, the agency has technical methods that can be used to deliberately reroute Internet communications. The NSA uses the term “traffic shaping” to describe any technical means the deliberately reroutes Internet traffic to a location that is better suited, operationally, to surveillance. Since it is hard to intercept Yemen’s international communications from inside Yemen itself, the agency might try to “shape” the traffic so that it passes through communications cables located on friendlier territory. Think of it as diverting part of a river to a location from which it is easier (or more legal) to catch fish.

The NSA has clandestine means of diverting portions of the river of Internet traffic that travels on global communications cables.

Could the NSA use traffic shaping to redirect domestic Internet traffic — ­emails and chat messages sent between Americans, say­ — to foreign soil, where its surveillance can be conducted beyond the purview of Congress and the courts? It is impossible to categorically answer this question, due to the classified nature of many national-security surveillance programs, regulations and even of the legal decisions made by the surveillance courts. Nevertheless, this report explores a legal, technical, and operational landscape that suggests that traffic shaping could be exploited to sidestep legal restrictions imposed by Congress and the surveillance courts.

News article. NSA document detailing the technique with Yemen.

This work builds on previous research that I blogged about here.

The fundamental vulnerability is that routing information isn’t authenticated.

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