August 10, 2007

Susan Landau on threats to the USA: don't forget Pogo

The Washington Post, in the person of Susan Landau, lays out in more clear terms where USA cyber-defence is heading

The immediate problem is fiber optics. Until recently, telecommunication signals came through the air. The NSA used satellites and antennas to pick up conversations of foreigners talking to other foreigners. Modern communications, however, use fiber; since conversations don't go through the air, the NSA wants to access communications at land-based switches.

Because communications from around the world often go through the United States, the government can still get access to much of the information it seeks. But wiretapping within the United States has required a FISA search warrant, and the NSA apparently found using FISA too time-consuming, even though emergency access was permitted as long as a warrant was applied for and granted within 72 hours of surveillance.

Avoiding warrants for these cases sounds simple, though potentially invasive of Americans' civil liberties. Most calls outside the country involve foreigners talking to foreigners. Most communications within the country are constitutionally protected -- U.S. "persons" talking to U.S. "persons." To avoid wiretapping every communication, NSA will need to build massive automatic surveillance capabilities into telephone switches. Here things get tricky: Once such infrastructure is in place, others could use it to intercept communications.

Grant the NSA what it wants, and within 10 years the United States will be vulnerable to attacks from hackers across the globe, as well as the militaries of China, Russia and other nations.

Landau choses the evil foreign hacker as her bogeyman. This is is understandable if we recall who her audience is. The threat however is closer to home; to paraphrase Pogo, Americans have not yet met their enemy, but he is you.

A basic assumption of security was that the NSA was historically no threat to any person, only to nations. Intel info was closely guarded, and breaches of this info was a national security breach, we the people were far better protected by the battle against foreign spies than anything else. No chinese wall, then, more a great wall-of-china around secret tracts of Maryland.

Now that wall-of-china has been torn down and replaced by trade-grade chinese walls. Breaching chinese walls simply requires the right contact, the right excuse, the right story. Since 9/11, intel info and trade info are all one and the same, and it is now reasonable, expected even, that hundreds of thousands of new readers of data can trawl through criminal databases, intel summaries, background reports and the like.

For illumination, see the SWIFT battle. The problem wasn't that the NSA was reading the SWIFT traffic, it had been doing that for decades. The problem was the burgeoning spread of the data, as highlighted by events: the Department of Justice now felt it reasonable, indeed required, to get in on the act. Pundits will argue that it was a governed programme, but its secret governance was a setup for more breaches.

It wasn't the first, nor the second, and it wasn't going to be the last. If we had to choose between the evil chinese hacker and the enemy-who-is-us, I for one would take the evil chinese hacker every time. We can deal with the external enemy, we know how. But the internal enemy, the enemy who is us, he is the destruction of civil society, and there is no army to fight that threat.

Posted by iang at August 10, 2007 10:56 AM | TrackBack

"But the internal enemy, the enemy who is us, he is the destruction of civil society, and there is no army to fight that threat"

Were you the shadow screen-writer for 'V for Vendetta' by any chance :-)

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at August 22, 2007 07:24 AM
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