June 19, 2006

Black Helicopter #2 (ThreatWatch) - It's official - Internet Eavesdropping is now a present danger!

A group of American cryptographers and Internet engineers have
criticised the FCC for issuing an order that amounts to a wiretap instruction for all VoIP providers.

For many people, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) looks like a nimble way of using a computer to make phone calls. Download the software, pick an identifier and then wherever there is an Internet connection, you can make a phone call. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense that anything that can be done with a telephone, including the graceful accommodation of wiretapping, should be able to be done readily with VoIP as well.

The FCC has issued an order for all ``interconnected'' and all broadband access VoIP services to comply with Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) --- without specific regulations on what compliance would mean. The FBI has suggested that CALEA should apply to all forms of VoIP, regardless of the technology involved in the VoIP implementation.

In brief the crypto community's complaint is that it is very difficult to implement such enforced access, and to do so may introduce risks. I certainly agree with the claim of risks, as any system that has confused requirements becomes brittle. But I wouldn't bet on a company not coming out with a solution to these issues, if the right way to place the money was found. I've previously pointed out that Skype left in a Centralised Vulnerability Party (CVP, sometimes called a TTP), and last week we were reminded of the PGP Inc blunder by strange and bewildering news over in Mozilla's camp.

So where are we? The NSA has opened up the ability to pen-trace all US phones, more or less. Anyone who believes this is as far as it goes must be disconnected from the net. The EFF's suit alleges special boxes that split out the backbone fibre and suck it down to Maryland in real time. The FBI has got the FCC to order all the VoIP suppliers into line. Mighty Skype has been brought to heel by the mighty dollar, so it's only a phone call away.

Over in other countries - where are they, again? - there is some evidence that police in European countries have routine access to all cellphone records. There is other evidence that the EU may already have provided the same call records to the US (but not the other way around, how peculiar of those otherwise charming Europeans) in much the same way as last week the EU were found to be illegally passing private data on air travellers. To bring this into perspective, China of course leads the *public* battle for most prominent and open eavesdropper with their Cisco Specials, but one wonders whether they would be actually somewhat embarrassed if their capabilities were audited and compared?

If you are a citizen of any country, it seems, you need not feel proud. What can we conclude?

  1. Eavesdropping has now moved to a real threat for at least email and VoIP, in some sense or other.
  2. Can we say that it is a validated threat? No, I think not. We have not measured the frequency and cost levels so we have no actuarial picture. We know it is present, but we don't know how big it is. I'll write more on this shortly.
  3. The *who* that is doing it is no longer the secure, secret world of the spooks who aren't interested in you. The who now includes the various other agencies, and they *are* interested in you.
  4. Which means we are already in a world of widespread sharing across a wide range of government agencies. (As if sharing intel has not been a headline since 9/11 !)
  5. it is only one step from open commercial access. Albeit almost certainly illegal, there isn't likely to be anything you can do about illegally shared data, because it is the very agents of the law which are responsible for the breach, and they will utter the defence of "national security," to you, and the price, to your attacker.
  6. An assault on crypto can't be that far off. The crypto wars are either already here again, or so close we can smell them.
  7. We are not arguing here, today, whether this is a good thing for the mission to keep us safe from terrorists, or a bad thing. Which is just as well, because it appears that when they are given the guy's head on a plate, the law enforcement officers still prefer to send out for takeaway.

My prediction #1for 2006 that government will charge into cyberspace in a big way is pretty much confirmed at this stage. Obviously this was happening all along, so it was going to come out. How important is this to you the individual? Here's an answer: quite important. And here's
some evidence:

What is Political Intelligence?Political intelligence is information collected by the government about individuals and groups.
Files secure under the Freedom of Information Act disclose that government officials have long been
interested in all forms of data. Information gathered by government agents ranges from the most personal data about sexual liaisons and preferences to estimates of the strength of groups opposing U.S. policies. Over the years, groups and individuals have developed various ways of limiting the collection of information and preventing such intelligence gathering from harming their work.

It has now become routine for political activists -- those expressing their rights under democracy -- to be investigated by the FBI. In what is a blowback to the days of J.Edgar Hoover, these activists now routinely advising their own people on how to lawfully defend themselves.

Hence the pamphlet above. There are two reasons for gathering information on 'sexual liasons and preferences.' Firstly, blackmail or extortion. Once an investigator has secret information on someone, the investigator can blackmail -- reveal that information -- in order to extort the victim to turn on someone else. Secondly, there may be some act that is against the law somewhere, which gives a really easy weapon against the person. Actually, they are both the same reason.

If there is anyone on the planet who thinks that such information shouldn't be protected then, I personally choose not to be persuaded by that person's logic ("I've got nothing to hide") and I believe that we now have a danger. It's not only from the harvesting by the various authorities:

Peter G, 41, asked for a divorce from his wife of six years, Lori G, 38, in March 2001. ... Lori G filed a counterclaim alleging the following: <snip...> and wiretapping. The wiretapping charges are what make this unfortunate case relevant to Police Blotter. ... But Peter admitted to "wiretapping" Lori's computer.

The description is general: Peter used an unspecified monitoring device to track his wife's computer transactions and record her e-mails. Lori was granted $7,500 on the wiretapping claim. ...

This is hardly the first time computer monitoring claims have surfaced in marital spats. As previously reported by CNET News.com, a Florida court ruled last year that a wife who installed spyware on her husband's computer to secretly record evidence of an extramarital affair violated state law.

Some hints on how to deal with that danger. Skype is probably good for the short term in talking to your loved one while he still loves you, notwithstanding their CVP, as that involves an expensive, active aggressive act which incurs a risk for the attacker. However, try and agree to keep the message history off - you have to trust each other on this, as the node and your partner's node remain at greater danger. Email remains poor because of the rather horrible integration of crypto into standard clients - so use Skype or other protected chat tools.

Oh, and buy a Mac laptop. Although we do expect Macs to come under increased attention as they garner more market share, there is still a benefit in being part of a smaller population, and the Mac OS is based on Unix and BSD, which has approximately 30 years of attention to security. Windows has approximately 3 years, and that makes a big difference.

(Disclosure: I do not own a Mac myself, but I do sometimes use one. I hate the GUI, and the MacMini keyboards are trash.)

Posted by iang at June 19, 2006 01:20 PM | TrackBack

A MacMini comes without a keyboard.

Have you considered making use of binary compatibility and emulators? You could do the following on a FreeBSD system: enable Linux binary compatibility, install Linux shared libraries, install a Linux version of VMware Player (which is free), then run Microsoft Windows (and any desired applications) within the VMware emulator. Avoid virus/spyware infections by isolating different Windows installations and, if necessary, working on a throwaway copy.

That would give you a secure system with all the Windows software at your fingertips, quarantined. All you need on the FreeBSD system is extra diskspace and memory for the virtual machines.

Posted by: Felix at June 23, 2006 11:31 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Hit preview to see your comment as it would be displayed.