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Supply-Chain Security and Trust

The United States government’s continuing disagreement with the Chinese company Huawei underscores a much larger problem with computer technologies in general: We have no choice but to trust them completely, and it’s impossible to verify that they’re trustworthy. Solving this problem ­ which is increasingly a national security issue ­ will require us to both make major policy changes and invent new technologies.

The Huawei problem is simple to explain. The company is based in China and subject to the rules and dictates of the Chinese government. The government could require Huawei to install back doors into the 5G routers it sells abroad, allowing the government to eavesdrop on communications or ­– even worse ­– take control of the routers during wartime. Since the United States will rely on those routers for all of its communications, we become vulnerable by building our 5G backbone on Huawei equipment.

It’s obvious that we can’t trust computer equipment from a country we don’t trust, but the problem is much more pervasive than that. The computers and smartphones you use are not built in the United States. Their chips aren’t made in the United States. The engineers who design and program them come from over a hundred countries. Thousands of people have the opportunity, acting alone, to slip a back door into the final product.

There’s more. Open-source software packages are increasingly targeted by groups installing back doors. Fake apps in the Google Play store illustrate vulnerabilities in our software distribution systems. The NotPetya worm was distributed by a fraudulent update to a popular Ukranian accounting package, illustrating vulnerabilities in our update systems. Hardware chips can be back-doored at the point of fabrication, even if the design is secure. The National Security Agency exploited the shipping process to subvert Cisco routers intended for the Syrian telephone company. The overall problem is that of supply-chain security, because every part of the supply chain can be attacked.

And while nation-state threats like China and Huawei ­– or Russia and the antivirus company Kaspersky a couple of years earlier ­– make the news, many of the vulnerabilities I described above are being exploited by cybercriminals.

Policy solutions involve forcing companies to open their technical details to inspection, including the source code of their products and the designs of their hardware. Huawei and Kaspersky have offered this sort of openness as a way to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. This is not a worthless gesture, and it helps, but it’s not nearly enough. Too many back doors can evade this kind of inspection.

Technical solutions fall into two basic categories, both currently beyond our reach. One is to improve the technical inspection processes for products whose designers provide source code and hardware design specifications, and for products that arrive without any transparency information at all. In both cases, we want to verify that the end product is secure and free of back doors. Sometimes we can do this for some classes of back doors: We can inspect source code ­ this is how a Linux back door was discovered and removed in 2003 ­ or the hardware design, which becomes a cleverness battle between attacker and defender.

This is an area that needs more research. Today, the advantage goes to the attacker. It’s hard to ensure that the hardware and software you examine is the same as what you get, and it’s too easy to create back doors that slip past inspection. And while we can find and correct some of these supply-chain attacks, we won’t find them all. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack problem, except we don’t know what a needle looks like. We need technologies, possibly based on artificial intelligence, that can inspect systems more thoroughly and faster than humans can do. We need them quickly.

The other solution is to build a secure system, even though any of its parts can be subverted. This is what the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon meant in April when she said about 5G, “You have to presume a dirty network.” Or more precisely, can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the Internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

Security is a lot harder than reliability. We don’t even really know how to build secure systems out of secure parts, let alone out of parts and processes that we can’t trust and that are almost certainly being subverted by governments and criminals around the world. Current security technologies are nowhere near good enough, though, to defend against these increasingly sophisticated attacks. So while this is an important part of the solution, and something we need to focus research on, it’s not going to solve our near-term problems.

At the same time, all of these problems are getting worse as computers and networks become more critical to personal and national security. The value of 5G isn’t for you to watch videos faster; it’s for things talking to things without bothering you. These things ­– cars, appliances, power plants, smart cities –­ increasingly affect the world in a direct physical manner. They’re increasingly autonomous, using A.I. and other technologies to make decisions without human intervention. The risk from Chinese back doors into our networks and computers isn’t that their government will listen in on our conversations; it’s that they’ll turn the power off or make all the cars crash into one another.

All of this doesn’t leave us with many options for today’s supply-chain problems. We still have to presume a dirty network ­– as well as back-doored computers and phones — and we can clean up only a fraction of the vulnerabilities. Citing the lack of non-Chinese alternatives for some of the communications hardware, already some are calling to abandon attempts to secure 5G from Chinese back doors and work on having secure American or European alternatives for 6G networks. It’s not nearly enough to solve the problem, but it’s a start.

Perhaps these half-solutions are the best we can do. Live with the problem today, and accelerate research to solve the problem for the future. These are research projects on a par with the Internet itself. They need government funding, like the Internet itself. And, also like the Internet, they’re critical to national security.

Critically, these systems must be as secure as we can make them. As former FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler has explained, there’s a lot more to securing 5G than keeping Chinese equipment out of the network. This means we have to give up the fantasy that law enforcement can have back doors to aid criminal investigations without also weakening these systems. The world uses one network, and there can only be one answer: Either everyone gets to spy, or no one gets to spy. And as these systems become more critical to national security, a network secure from all eavesdroppers becomes more important.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

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A Feminist Take on Information Privacy

Maria Farrell has a really interesting framing of information/device privacy:

What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact
    — ‘user engagement’ — that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.

  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.

  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

  • They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.

  • It’s impossible to just cut them off. They’ve wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?

Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true.

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Amazon Is Losing the War on Fraudulent Sellers

Excellent article on fraudulent seller tactics on Amazon.

The most prominent black hat companies for US Amazon sellers offer ways to manipulate Amazon’s ranking system to promote products, protect accounts from disciplinary actions, and crush competitors. Sometimes, these black hat companies bribe corporate Amazon employees to leak information from the company’s wiki pages and business reports, which they then resell to marketplace sellers for steep prices. One black hat company charges as much as $10,000 a month to help Amazon sellers appear at the top of product search results. Other tactics to promote sellers’ products include removing negative reviews from product pages and exploiting technical loopholes on Amazon’s site to lift products’ overall sales rankings.

[…]

AmzPandora’s services ranged from small tasks to more ambitious strategies to rank a product higher using Amazon’s algorithm. While it was online, it offered to ping internal contacts at Amazon for $500 to get information about why a seller’s account had been suspended, as well as advice on how to appeal the suspension. For $300, the company promised to remove an unspecified number of negative reviews on a listing within three to seven days, which would help increase the overall star rating for a product. For $1.50, the company offered a service to fool the algorithm into believing a product had been added to a shopper’s cart or wish list by writing a super URL. And for $1,200, an Amazon seller could purchase a “frequently bought together” spot on another marketplace product’s page that would appear for two weeks, which AmzPandora promised would lead to a 10% increase in sales.

This was a good article on this from last year. (My blog post.)

Amazon has a real problem here, primarily because trust in the system is paramount to Amazon’s success. As much as they need to crack down on fraudulent sellers, they really want articles like these to not be written.

Slashdot thread. Boing Boing post.

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Judging Facebook’s Privacy Shift

Facebook is making a new and stronger commitment to privacy. Last month, the company hired three of its most vociferous critics and installed them in senior technical positions. And on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the company will pivot to focus on private conversations over the public sharing that has long defined the platform, even while conceding that “frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.”

There is ample reason to question Zuckerberg’s pronouncement: The company has made — and broken — many privacy promises over the years. And if you read his 3,000-word post carefully, Zuckerberg says nothing about changing Facebook’s surveillance capitalism business model. All the post discusses is making private chats more central to the company, which seems to be a play for increased market dominance and to counter the Chinese company WeChat.

In security and privacy, the devil is always in the details — and Zuckerberg’s post provides none. But we’ll take him at his word and try to fill in some of the details here. What follows is a list of changes we should expect if Facebook is serious about changing its business model and improving user privacy.

How Facebook treats people on its platform

Increased transparency over advertiser and app accesses to user data. Today, Facebook users can download and view much of the data the company has about them. This is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. The company could be more transparent about what data it shares with advertisers and others and how it allows advertisers to select users they show ads to. Facebook could use its substantial skills in usability testing to help people understand the mechanisms advertisers use to show them ads or the reasoning behind what it chooses to show in user timelines. It could deliver on promises in this area.

Better — and more usable — privacy options. Facebook users have limited control over how their data is shared with other Facebook users and almost no control over how it is shared with Facebook’s advertisers, which are the company’s real customers. Moreover, the controls are buried deep behind complex and confusing menu options. To be fair, some of this is because privacy is complex, and it’s hard to understand the results of different options. But much of this is deliberate; Facebook doesn’t want its users to make their data private from other users.

The company could give people better control over how — and whether — their data is used, shared, and sold. For example, it could allow users to turn off individually targeted news and advertising. By this, we don’t mean simply making those advertisements invisible; we mean turning off the data flows into those tailoring systems. Finally, since most users stick to the default options when it comes to configuring their apps, a changing Facebook could tilt those defaults toward more privacy, requiring less tailoring most of the time.

More user protection from stalking. “Facebook stalking” is often thought of as “stalking light,” or “harmless.” But stalkers are rarely harmless. Facebook should acknowledge this class of misuse and work with experts to build tools that protect all of its users, especially its most vulnerable ones. Such tools should guide normal people away from creepiness and give victims power and flexibility to enlist aid from sources ranging from advocates to police.

Fully ending real-name enforcement. Facebook’s real-names policy, requiring people to use their actual legal names on the platform, hurts people such as activists, victims of intimate partner violence, police officers whose work makes them targets, and anyone with a public persona who wishes to have control over how they identify to the public. There are many ways Facebook can improve on this, from ending enforcement to allowing verifying pseudonyms for everyone­ — not just celebrities like Lady Gaga. Doing so would mark a clear shift.

How Facebook runs its platform

Increased transparency of Facebook’s business practices. One of the hard things about evaluating Facebook is the effort needed to get good information about its business practices. When violations are exposed by the media, as they regularly are, we are all surprised at the different ways Facebook violates user privacy. Most recently, the company used phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication for advertising and networking purposes. Facebook needs to be both explicit and detailed about how and when it shares user data. In fact, a move from discussing “sharing” to discussing “transfers,” “access to raw information,” and “access to derived information” would be a visible improvement.

Increased transparency regarding censorship rules. Facebook makes choices about what content is acceptable on its site. Those choices are controversial, implemented by thousands of low-paid workers quickly implementing unclear rules. These are tremendously hard problems without clear solutions. Even obvious rules like banning hateful words run into challenges when people try to legitimately discuss certain important topics. Whatever Facebook does in this regard, the company needs be more transparent about its processes. It should allow regulators and the public to audit the company’s practices. Moreover, Facebook should share any innovative engineering solutions with the world, much as it currently shares its data center engineering.

Better security for collected user data. There have been numerous examples of attackers targeting cloud service platforms to gain access to user data. Facebook has a large and skilled product security team that says some of the right things. That team needs to be involved in the design trade-offs for features and not just review the near-final designs for flaws. Shutting down a feature based on internal security analysis would be a clear message.

Better data security so Facebook sees less. Facebook eavesdrops on almost every aspect of its users’ lives. On the other hand, WhatsApp — purchased by Facebook in 2014 — provides users with end-to-end encrypted messaging. While Facebook knows who is messaging whom and how often, Facebook has no way of learning the contents of those messages. Recently, Facebook announced plans to combine WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram, extending WhatsApp’s security to the consolidated system. Changing course here would be a dramatic and negative signal.

Collecting less data from outside of Facebook. Facebook doesn’t just collect data about you when you’re on the platform. Because its “like” button is on so many other pages, the company can collect data about you when you’re not on Facebook. It even collects what it calls “shadow profiles” — data about you even if you’re not a Facebook user. This data is combined with other surveillance data the company buys, including health and financial data. Collecting and saving less of this data would be a strong indicator of a new direction for the company.

Better use of Facebook data to prevent violence. There is a trade-off between Facebook seeing less and Facebook doing more to prevent hateful and inflammatory speech. Dozens of people have been killed by mob violence because of fake news spread on WhatsApp. If Facebook were doing a convincing job of controlling fake news without end-to-end encryption, then we would expect to hear how it could use patterns in metadata to handle encrypted fake news.

How Facebook manages for privacy

Create a team measured on privacy and trust. Where companies spend their money tells you what matters to them. Facebook has a large and important growth team, but what team, if any, is responsible for privacy, not as a matter of compliance or pushing the rules, but for engineering? Transparency in how it is staffed relative to other teams would be telling.

Hire a senior executive responsible for trust. Facebook’s current team has been focused on growth and revenue. Its one chief security officer, Alex Stamos, was not replaced when he left in 2018, which may indicate that having an advocate for security on the leadership team led to debate and disagreement. Retaining a voice for security and privacy issues at the executive level, before those issues affected users, was a good thing. Now that responsibility is diffuse. It’s unclear how Facebook measures and assesses its own progress and who might be held accountable for failings. Facebook can begin the process of fixing this by designating a senior executive who is responsible for trust.

Engage with regulators. Much of Facebook’s posturing seems to be an attempt to forestall regulation. Facebook sends lobbyists to Washington and other capitals, and until recently the company sent support staff to politician’s offices. It has secret lobbying campaigns against privacy laws. And Facebook has repeatedly violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent order regarding user privacy. Regulating big technical projects is not easy. Most of the people who understand how these systems work understand them because they build them. Societies will regulate Facebook, and the quality of that regulation requires real education of legislators and their staffs. While businesses often want to avoid regulation, any focus on privacy will require strong government oversight. If Facebook is serious about privacy being a real interest, it will accept both government regulation and community input.

User privacy is traditionally against Facebook’s core business interests. Advertising is its business model, and targeted ads sell better and more profitably — and that requires users to engage with the platform as much as possible. Increased pressure on Facebook to manage propaganda and hate speech could easily lead to more surveillance. But there is pressure in the other direction as well, as users equate privacy with increased control over how they present themselves on the platform.

We don’t expect Facebook to abandon its advertising business model, relent in its push for monopolistic dominance, or fundamentally alter its social networking platforms. But the company can give users important privacy protections and controls without abandoning surveillance capitalism. While some of these changes will reduce profits in the short term, we hope Facebook’s leadership realizes that they are in the best long-term interest of the company.

Facebook talks about community and bringing people together. These are admirable goals, and there’s plenty of value (and profit) in having a sustainable platform for connecting people. But as long as the most important measure of success is short-term profit, doing things that help strengthen communities will fall by the wayside. Surveillance, which allows individually targeted advertising, will be prioritized over user privacy. Outrage, which drives engagement, will be prioritized over feelings of belonging. And corporate secrecy, which allows Facebook to evade both regulators and its users, will be prioritized over societal oversight. If Facebook now truly believes that these latter options are critical to its long-term success as a company, we welcome the changes that are forthcoming.

This essay was co-authored with Adam Shostack, and originally appeared on Medium OneZero. We wrote a similar essay in 2002 about judging Microsoft’s then newfound commitment to security.

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Blockchain and Trust

In his 2008 white paper that first proposed bitcoin, the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto concluded with: “We have proposed a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust.” He was referring to blockchain, the system behind bitcoin cryptocurrency. The circumvention of trust is a great promise, but it’s just not true. Yes, bitcoin eliminates certain trusted intermediaries that are inherent in other payment systems like credit cards. But you still have to trust bitcoin — and everything about it.

Much has been written about blockchains and how they displace, reshape, or eliminate trust. But when you analyze both blockchain and trust, you quickly realize that there is much more hype than value. Blockchain solutions are often much worse than what they replace.

First, a caveat. By blockchain, I mean something very specific: the data structures and protocols that make up a public blockchain. These have three essential elements. The first is a distributed (as in multiple copies) but centralized (as in there’s only one) ledger, which is a way of recording what happened and in what order. This ledger is public, meaning that anyone can read it, and immutable, meaning that no one can change what happened in the past.

The second element is the consensus algorithm, which is a way to ensure all the copies of the ledger are the same. This is generally called mining; a critical part of the system is that anyone can participate. It is also distributed, meaning that you don’t have to trust any particular node in the consensus network. It can also be extremely expensive, both in data storage and in the energy required to maintain it. Bitcoin has the most expensive consensus algorithm the world has ever seen, by far.

Finally, the third element is the currency. This is some sort of digital token that has value and is publicly traded. Currency is a necessary element of a blockchain to align the incentives of everyone involved. Transactions involving these tokens are stored on the ledger.

Private blockchains are completely uninteresting. (By this, I mean systems that use the blockchain data structure but don’t have the above three elements.) In general, they have some external limitation on who can interact with the blockchain and its features. These are not anything new; they’re distributed append-only data structures with a list of individuals authorized to add to it. Consensus protocols have been studied in distributed systems for more than 60 years. Append-only data structures have been similarly well covered. They’re blockchains in name only, and — as far as I can tell — the only reason to operate one is to ride on the blockchain hype.

All three elements of a public blockchain fit together as a single network that offers new security properties. The question is: Is it actually good for anything? It’s all a matter of trust.

Trust is essential to society. As a species, humans are wired to trust one another. Society can’t function without trust, and the fact that we mostly don’t even think about it is a measure of how well trust works.

The word “trust” is loaded with many meanings. There’s personal and intimate trust. When we say we trust a friend, we mean that we trust their intentions and know that those intentions will inform their actions. There’s also the less intimate, less personal trust — we might not know someone personally, or know their motivations, but we can trust their future actions. Blockchain enables this sort of trust: We don’t know any bitcoin miners, for example, but we trust that they will follow the mining protocol and make the whole system work.

Most blockchain enthusiasts have a unnaturally narrow definition of trust. They’re fond of catchphrases like “in code we trust,” “in math we trust,” and “in crypto we trust.” This is trust as verification. But verification isn’t the same as trust.

In 2012, I wrote a book about trust and security, Liars and Outliers. In it, I listed four very general systems our species uses to incentivize trustworthy behavior. The first two are morals and reputation. The problem is that they scale only to a certain population size. Primitive systems were good enough for small communities, but larger communities required delegation, and more formalism.

The third is institutions. Institutions have rules and laws that induce people to behave according to the group norm, imposing sanctions on those who do not. In a sense, laws formalize reputation. Finally, the fourth is security systems. These are the wide varieties of security technologies we employ: door locks and tall fences, alarm systems and guards, forensics and audit systems, and so on.

These four elements work together to enable trust. Take banking, for example. Financial institutions, merchants, and individuals are all concerned with their reputations, which prevents theft and fraud. The laws and regulations surrounding every aspect of banking keep everyone in line, including backstops that limit risks in the case of fraud. And there are lots of security systems in place, from anti-counterfeiting technologies to internet-security technologies.

In his 2018 book, Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, Kevin Werbach outlines four different “trust architectures.” The first is peer-to-peer trust. This basically corresponds to my morals and reputational systems: pairs of people who come to trust each other. His second is leviathan trust, which corresponds to institutional trust. You can see this working in our system of contracts, which allows parties that don’t trust each other to enter into an agreement because they both trust that a government system will help resolve disputes. His third is intermediary trust. A good example is the credit card system, which allows untrusting buyers and sellers to engage in commerce. His fourth trust architecture is distributed trust. This is emergent trust in the particular security system that is blockchain.

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.

When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money. If there’s a bug in the code of your smart contract, you lose all of your money. If someone successfully hacks the blockchain security, you lose all of your money. In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit?

Blockchain enthusiasts point to more traditional forms of trust — bank processing fees, for example — as expensive. But blockchain trust is also costly; the cost is just hidden. For bitcoin, that’s the cost of the additional bitcoin mined, the transaction fees, and the enormous environmental waste.

Blockchain doesn’t eliminate the need to trust human institutions. There will always be a big gap that can’t be addressed by technology alone. People still need to be in charge, and there is always a need for governance outside the system. This is obvious in the ongoing debate about changing the bitcoin block size, or in fixing the DAO attack against Ethereum. There’s always a need to override the rules, and there’s always a need for the ability to make permanent rules changes. As long as hard forks are a possibility — that’s when the people in charge of a blockchain step outside the system to change it — people will need to be in charge.

Any blockchain system will have to coexist with other, more conventional systems. Modern banking, for example, is designed to be reversible. Bitcoin is not. That makes it hard to make the two compatible, and the result is often an insecurity. Steve Wozniak was scammed out of $70K in bitcoin because he forgot this.

Blockchain technology is often centralized. Bitcoin might theoretically be based on distributed trust, but in practice, that’s just not true. Just about everyone using bitcoin has to trust one of the few available wallets and use one of the few available exchanges. People have to trust the software and the operating systems and the computers everything is running on. And we’ve seen attacks against wallets and exchanges. We’ve seen Trojans and phishing and password guessing. Criminals have even used flaws in the system that people use to repair their cell phones to steal bitcoin.

Moreover, in any distributed trust system, there are backdoor methods for centralization to creep back in. With bitcoin, there are only a few miners of consequence. There’s one company that provides most of the mining hardware. There are only a few dominant exchanges. To the extent that most people interact with bitcoin, it is through these centralized systems. This also allows for attacks against blockchain-based systems.

These issues are not bugs in current blockchain applications, they’re inherent in how blockchain works. Any evaluation of the security of the system has to take the whole socio-technical system into account. Too many blockchain enthusiasts focus on the technology and ignore the rest.

To the extent that people don’t use bitcoin, it’s because they don’t trust bitcoin. That has nothing to do with the cryptography or the protocols. In fact, a system where you can lose your life savings if you forget your key or download a piece of malware is not particularly trustworthy. No amount of explaining how SHA-256 works to prevent double-spending will fix that.

Similarly, to the extent that people do use blockchains, it is because they trust them. People either own bitcoin or not based on reputation; that’s true even for speculators who own bitcoin simply because they think it will make them rich quickly. People choose a wallet for their cryptocurrency, and an exchange for their transactions, based on reputation. We even evaluate and trust the cryptography that underpins blockchains based on the algorithms’ reputation.

To see how this can fail, look at the various supply-chain security systems that are using blockchain. A blockchain isn’t a necessary feature of any of them. The reasons they’re successful is that everyone has a single software platform to enter their data in. Even though the blockchain systems are built on distributed trust, people don’t necessarily accept that. For example, some companies don’t trust the IBM/Maersk system because it’s not their blockchain.

Irrational? Maybe, but that’s how trust works. It can’t be replaced by algorithms and protocols. It’s much more social than that.

Still, the idea that blockchains can somehow eliminate the need for trust persists. Recently, I received an email from a company that implemented secure messaging using blockchain. It said, in part: “Using the blockchain, as we have done, has eliminated the need for Trust.” This sentiment suggests the writer misunderstands both what blockchain does and how trust works.

Do you need a public blockchain? The answer is almost certainly no. A blockchain probably doesn’t solve the security problems you think it solves. The security problems it solves are probably not the ones you have. (Manipulating audit data is probably not your major security risk.) A false trust in blockchain can itself be a security risk. The inefficiencies, especially in scaling, are probably not worth it. I have looked at many blockchain applications, and all of them could achieve the same security properties without using a blockchain­ — of course, then they wouldn’t have the cool name.

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

To answer the question of whether the blockchain is needed, ask yourself: Does the blockchain change the system of trust in any meaningful way, or just shift it around? Does it just try to replace trust with verification? Does it strengthen existing trust relationships, or try to go against them? How can trust be abused in the new system, and is this better or worse than the potential abuses in the old system? And lastly: What would your system look like if you didn’t use blockchain at all?

If you ask yourself those questions, it’s likely you’ll choose solutions that don’t use public blockchain. And that’ll be a good thing — especially when the hype dissipates.

This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (2/11): Two commentaries on my essay.

I have wanted to write this essay for over a year. The impetus to finally do it came from an invite to speak at the Hyperledger Global Forum in December. This essay is a version of the talk I wrote for that event, made more accessible to a general audience.

It seems to be the season for blockchain takedowns. James Waldo has an excellent essay in Queue. And Nicholas Weaver gave a talk at the Enigma Conference, summarized here. It’s a shortened version of this talk.

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Propaganda and the Weakening of Trust in Government

On November 4, 2016, the hacker “Guccifer 2.0,: a front for Russia’s military intelligence service, claimed in a blogpost that the Democrats were likely to use vulnerabilities to hack the presidential elections. On November 9, 2018, President Donald Trump started tweeting about the senatorial elections in Florida and Arizona. Without any evidence whatsoever, he said that Democrats were trying to steal the election through “FRAUD.”

Cybersecurity experts would say that posts like Guccifer 2.0’s are intended to undermine public confidence in voting: a cyber-attack against the US democratic system. Yet Donald Trump’s actions are doing far more damage to democracy. So far, his tweets on the topic have been retweeted over 270,000 times, eroding confidence far more effectively than any foreign influence campaign.

We need new ideas to explain how public statements on the Internet can weaken American democracy. Cybersecurity today is not only about computer systems. It’s also about the ways attackers can use computer systems to manipulate and undermine public expectations about democracy. Not only do we need to rethink attacks against democracy; we also need to rethink the attackers as well.

This is one key reason why we wrote a new research paper which uses ideas from computer security to understand the relationship between democracy and information. These ideas help us understand attacks which destabilize confidence in democratic institutions or debate.

Our research implies that insider attacks from within American politics can be more pernicious than attacks from other countries. They are more sophisticated, employ tools that are harder to defend against, and lead to harsh political tradeoffs. The US can threaten charges or impose sanctions when Russian trolling agencies attack its democratic system. But what punishments can it use when the attacker is the US president?

People who think about cybersecurity build on ideas about confrontations between states during the Cold War. Intellectuals such as Thomas Schelling developed deterrence theory, which explained how the US and USSR could maneuver to limit each other’s options without ever actually going to war. Deterrence theory, and related concepts about the relative ease of attack and defense, seemed to explain the tradeoffs that the US and rival states faced, as they started to use cyber techniques to probe and compromise each others’ information networks.

However, these ideas fail to acknowledge one key differences between the Cold War and today. Nearly all states — whether democratic or authoritarian — are entangled on the Internet. This creates both new tensions and new opportunities. The US assumed that the internet would help spread American liberal values, and that this was a good and uncontroversial thing. Illiberal states like Russia and China feared that Internet freedom was a direct threat to their own systems of rule. Opponents of the regime might use social media and online communication to coordinate among themselves, and appeal to the broader public, perhaps toppling their governments, as happened in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

This led illiberal states to develop new domestic defenses against open information flows. As scholars like Molly Roberts have shown, states like China and Russia discovered how they could “flood” internet discussion with online nonsense and distraction, making it impossible for their opponents to talk to each other, or even to distinguish between truth and falsehood. These flooding techniques stabilized authoritarian regimes, because they demoralized and confused the regime’s opponents. Libertarians often argue that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Vladimir Putin discovered was that the best antidote to more speech was bad speech.

Russia saw the Arab Spring and efforts to encourage democracy in its neighborhood as direct threats, and began experimenting with counter-offensive techniques. When a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine collapsed due to popular protests, Russia tried to destabilize new, democratic elections by hacking the system through which the election results would be announced. The clear intention was to discredit the election results by announcing fake voting numbers that would throw public discussion into disarray.

This attack on public confidence in election results was thwarted at the last moment. Even so, it provided the model for a new kind of attack. Hackers don’t have to secretly alter people’s votes to affect elections. All they need to do is to damage public confidence that the votes were counted fairly. As researchers have argued, “simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side believing that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable.”

These two kinds of attacks — “flooding” attacks aimed at destabilizing public discourse, and “confidence” attacks aimed at undermining public belief in elections — were weaponized against the US in 2016. Russian social media trolls, hired by the “Internet Research Agency,” flooded online political discussions with rumors and counter-rumors in order to create confusion and political division. Peter Pomerantsev describes how in Russia, “one moment [Putin’s media wizard] Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West.” Similarly, Russian trolls tried to get Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-Black Lives Matter protesters to march at the same time and place, to create conflict and the appearance of chaos. Guccifer 2.0’s blog post was surely intended to undermine confidence in the vote, preparing the ground for a wider destabilization campaign after Hillary Clinton won the election. Neither Putin nor anyone else anticipated that Trump would win, ushering in chaos on a vastly greater scale.

We do not know how successful these attacks were. A new book by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck suggests that Russian efforts had no measurable long-term consequences. Detailed research on the flow of news articles through social media by Yochai Benker, Robert Farris, and Hal Roberts agrees, showing that Fox News was far more influential in the spread of false news stories than any Russian effort.

However, global adversaries like the Russians aren’t the only actors who can use flooding and confidence attacks. US actors can use just the same techniques. Indeed, they can arguably use them better, since they have a better understanding of US politics, more resources, and are far more difficult for the government to counter without raising First Amendment issues.

For example, when the Federal Communication Commission asked for comments on its proposal to get rid of “net neutrality,” it was flooded by fake comments supporting the proposal. Nearly every real person who commented was in favor of net neutrality, but their arguments were drowned out by a flood of spurious comments purportedly made by identities stolen from porn sites, by people whose names and email addresses had been harvested without their permission, and, in some cases, from dead people. This was done not just to generate fake support for the FCC’s controversial proposal. It was to devalue public comments in general, making the general public’s support for net neutrality politically irrelevant. FCC decision making on issues like net neutrality used to be dominated by industry insiders, and many would like to go back to the old regime.

Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the Florida and Arizona votes work on a much larger scale. There are clear short-term benefits to asserting fraud where no fraud exists. This may sway judges or other public officials to make concessions to the Republicans to preserve their legitimacy. Yet they also destabilize American democracy in the long term. If Republicans are convinced that Democrats win by cheating, they will feel that their own manipulation of the system (by purging voter rolls, making voting more difficult and so on) are legitimate, and very probably cheat even more flagrantly in the future. This will trash collective institutions and leave everyone worse off.

It is notable that some Arizonan Republicans — including Martha McSally — have so far stayed firm against pressure from the White House and the Republican National Committee to claim that cheating is happening. They presumably see more long term value from preserving existing institutions than undermining them. Very plausibly, Donald Trump has exactly the opposite incentives. By weakening public confidence in the vote today, he makes it easier to claim fraud and perhaps plunge American politics into chaos if he is defeated in 2020.

If experts who see Russian flooding and confidence measures as cyberattacks on US democracy are right, then these attacks are just as dangerous — and perhaps more dangerous — when they are used by domestic actors. The risk is that over time they will destabilize American democracy so that it comes closer to Russia’s managed democracy — where nothing is real any more, and ordinary people feel a mixture of paranoia, helplessness and disgust when they think about politics. Paradoxically, Russian interference is far too ineffectual to get us there — but domestically mounted attacks by all-American political actors might.

To protect against that possibility, we need to start thinking more systematically about the relationship between democracy and information. Our paper provides one way to do this, highlighting the vulnerabilities of democracy against certain kinds of information attack. More generally, we need to build levees against flooding while shoring up public confidence in voting and other public information systems that are necessary to democracy.

The first may require radical changes in how we regulate social media companies. Modernization of government commenting platforms to make them robust against flooding is only a very minimal first step. Up until very recently, companies like Twitter have won market advantage from bot infestations — even when it couldn’t make a profit, it seemed that user numbers were growing. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg have begun to worry about democracy, but their worries will likely only go so far. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his business model depends on not understanding it. Sharp — and legally enforceable — limits on automated accounts are a first step. Radical redesign of networks and of trending indicators so that flooding attacks are less effective may be a second.

The second requires general standards for voting at the federal level, and a constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Technical experts nearly universally favor robust voting systems that would combine paper records with random post-election auditing, to prevent fraud and secure public confidence in voting. Other steps to ensure proper ballot design, and standardize vote counting and reporting will take more time and discussion — yet the record of other countries show that they are not impossible.

The US is nearly unique among major democracies in the persistent flaws of its election machinery. Yet voting is not the only important form of democratic information. Apparent efforts to deliberately skew the US census against counting undocumented immigrants show the need for a more general audit of the political information systems that we need if democracy is to function properly.

It’s easier to respond to Russian hackers through sanctions, counter-attacks and the like than to domestic political attacks that undermine US democracy. To preserve the basic political freedoms of democracy requires recognizing that these freedoms are sometimes going to be abused by politicians such as Donald Trump. The best that we can do is to minimize the possibilities of abuse up to the point where they encroach on basic freedoms and harden the general institutions that secure democratic information against attacks intended to undermine them.

This essay was co-authored with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared on Motherboard, with a terrible headline that I was unable to get changed.

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Survey Data on Americans and Cybersecurity

Pew Research just published their latest research data on Americans and their views on cybersecurity:

This survey finds that a majority of Americans have directly experienced some form of data theft or fraud, that a sizeable share of the public thinks that their personal data have become less secure in recent years, and that many lack confidence in various institutions to keep their personal data safe from misuse. In addition, many Americans are failing to follow digital security best practices in their own personal lives, and a substantial majority expects that major cyberattacks will be a fact of life in the future.

Here’s the full report.

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Over 700 Million People Taking Steps to Avoid NSA Surveillance

There’s a new international survey on Internet security and trust, of “23,376 Internet users in 24 countries,” including “Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States.” Amongst the findings, 60% of Internet users have heard of Edward Snowden, and 39% of those “have taken steps to protect their online privacy and security as a result of his revelations.”

The press is mostly spinning this as evidence that Snowden has not had an effect: “merely 39%,” “only 39%,” and so on. (Note that these articles are completely misunderstanding the data. It’s not 39% of people who are taking steps to protect their privacy post-Snowden, it’s 39% of the 60% of Internet users — which is not everybody — who have heard of him. So it’s much less than 39%.)

Even so, I disagree with the “Edward Snowden Revelations Not Having Much Impact on Internet Users” headline. He’s having an enormous impact. I ran the actual numbers country by country, combining data on Internet penetration with data from this survey. Multiplying everything out, I calculate that 706 million people have changed their behavior on the Internet because of what the NSA and GCHQ are doing. (For example, 17% of Indonesians use the Internet, 64% of them have heard of Snowden and 62% of them have taken steps to protect their privacy, which equals 17 million people out of its total 250-million population.)

Note that the countries in this survey only cover 4.7 billion out of a total 7 billion world population. Taking the conservative estimates that 20% of the remaining population uses the Internet, 40% of them have heard of Snowden, and 25% of those have done something about it, that’s an additional 46 million people around the world.

It’s probably true that most of those people took steps that didn’t make any appreciable difference against an NSA level of surveillance, and probably not even against the even more pervasive corporate variety of surveillance. It’s probably even true that some of those people didn’t take steps at all, and just wish they did or wish they knew what to do. But it is absolutely extraordinary that 750 million people are disturbed enough about their online privacy that they will represent to a survey taker that they did something about it.

Name another news story that has caused over ten percent of the world’s population to change their behavior in the past year? Cory Doctorow is right: we have reached “peak indifference to surveillance.” From now on, this issue is going to matter more and more, and policymakers around the world need to start paying attention.

Related: a recent Pew Research Internet Project survey on Americans’ perceptions of privacy, commented on by Ben Wittes.

EDITED TO ADD (12/15): Reddit thread.

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