November 19, 2008

Unwinding secrecy -- how far?

One of the things that I've gradually come to believe in is that secrecy in anything is more likely to be a danger to you and yours than a help. The reasons for this are many, but include:

  • hard to get anything done
  • your attacker laughs!
  • ideal cover for laziness, a mess or incompetence

There are no good reasons for secrecy, only less bad ones. If we accept that proposition, and start unwinding the secrecy so common in organisations today, there appear to be two questions: how far to open up, and how do we do it?

How far to open up appears to be a personal-organisational issue, and perhaps the easiest thing to do is to look at some examples. I've seen three in recent days which I'd like to share.

First the Intelligence agencies: in the USA, they are now winding back the concept of "need-to-know" and replacing it with "responsibility-to-share".

Implementing Intellipedia Within a "Need to Know" Culture

Sean Dennehy, Chief of Intellipedia Development, Directorate of Intelligence, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency

Sean will share the technical and cultural changes underway at the CIA involving the adoption of wikis, blogs, and social bookmarking tools. In 2005, Dr. Calvin Andrus published The Wiki and The Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community. Three years later, a vibrant and rapidly growing community has transformed how the CIA aggregates, communicates, and organizes intelligence information. These tools are being used to improve information sharing across the U.S. intelligence community by moving information out of traditional channels.

The way they are doing this is to run a community-wide suite of social network tools: blogs, wikis, youtube-copies, etc. The access is controlled at the session level by the username/password/TLS and at the person level by sponsoring. That latter means that even contractors can be sponsored in to access the tools, and all sorts of people in the field can contribute directly to the collection of information.

The big problem that this switch has is that not only is intelligence information controlled by "need to know" but also it is controlled in horizontal layers. For same of this discussion, there are three: TOP SECRET / SECRET / UNCLASSIFIED-CONTROLLED. The intel community's solution to this is to have 3 separate networks in parallel, one for each, and to control access to each of these. So in effect, contractors might be easily sponsored into the lowest level, but less likely in the others.

What happens in practice? The best coverage is found in the network that has the largest number of people, which of course is the lowest, UNCLASSIFIED-CONTROLLED network. So, regardless of the intention, most of the good stuff is found in there, and where higher layer stuff adds value, there are little pointers embedded to how to find it.

In a nutshell, the result is that anyone who is "in" can see most everything, and modify everything. Anyone who is "out" cannot. Hence, a spectacular success if the mission was to share; it seems so obvious that one wonders why they didn't do it before.

As it turns out, the second example is quite similar: Google. A couple of chaps from there explained to me around the dinner table that the process is basically this: everyone inside google can talk about any project to any other insider. But, one should not talk about projects to outsiders (presumably there are some exceptions). It seems that SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission in USA) provisions for a public corporation lead to some sensitivity, and rather than try and stop the internal discussion, google chose to make it very simple and draw a boundary at the obvious place.

The third example is CAcert. In order to deal with various issues, the Board chose to take it totally open last year. This means that all the decisions, all the strategies, all the processes should be published and discussable to all. Some things aren't out there, but they should be; if an exception is needed it must be argued and put into policies.

The curious thing is why CAcert did not choose to set a boundary at some point, like google and the intelligence agencies. Unlike google, there is no regulator to say "you must not reveal inside info of financial import." Unlike the CIA, CAcert is not engaging in a war with an enemy where the bad guys might be tipped off to some secret mission.

However, CAcert does have other problems, and it has one problem that tips it in the balance of total disclosure: the presence of valuable and tempting privacy assets. These seem to attract a steady stream of interested parties, and some of these parties are after private gain. I have now counted 4 attempts to do this in my time related to CAcert, and although each had their interesting differences, they each in their own way sought to employ CAcert's natural secrecy to own advantage. From a commercial perspective, this was fairly obvious as the interested parties sought to keep their negotiations confidential, and this allowed them to pursue the sales process and sell the insiders without wiser heads putting a stop to it. To the extent that there are incentives for various agencies to insert different agendas into the inner core, then the CA needs a way to manage that process.

How to defend against that? Well, one way is to let the enemy of your enemy know who we are talking to. Let's take a benign example which happened (sort of): a USB security stick manufacturer might want to ship extra stuff like CAcert's roots on the stick. Does he want the negotiations to be private because other competitors might deal for equal access, or does he want it private because wiser heads will figure out that he is really after CAcert's customer list? CAcert might care more about one than they other, but they are both threats to someone. As the managers aren't smart enough to see every angle, every time, they need help. One defence is many eyeballs and this is something that CAcert does have available to it. Perhaps if sufficient info of the emerging deal is published, then the rest of the community can figure it out. Perhaps, if the enemy's enemy notices what is going on, he can explain the tactic.

A more poignant example might be someone seeking to pervert the systems and get some false certificates issued. In order to deal with those, CAcert's evolving Security Manual says all conflicts of interest have to be declared broadly and in advance, so that we can all mull over them and watch for how these might be a problem. This serves up a dilemma to the secret attacker: either keep private and lie, and risk exposure later on, or tell all upfront and lose the element of surprise.

This method, if adopted, would involve sacrifices. It means that any agency that is looking to impact the systems is encouraged to open up, and this really puts the finger on them: are they trying to help us or themselves? Also, it means that all people in critical roles might have to sacrifice their privacy. This latter sacrifice, if made, is to preserve the privacy of others, and it is the greater for it.

Posted by iang at November 19, 2008 05:16 PM | TrackBack
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