Democratizing Information and Privacy

September 6, 2013 § 1 Comment

No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans – the way they bank, obtain benefits from the Government and communicate with family and friends. Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.

— “The Silent Power of the N.S.A.,” The New York Times, March, 1983

The Guardian, ProPublica and the New York Times published yesterday what seems to be the most important story to date on the NSA/GCHQ global surveillance system, the Times remarking that the NSA is “winning its long-running secret war on encryption.” I wrote earlier that the central purpose of such surveillance, and I still believe this is true, is to create a world with no blind spots, in which those in power have total access to any communications at all times, an information environment in which no one is hidden or beyond their gaze, to “maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace” — and it’s about control. To maintain such a worldview, everyone must be seen as a potential enemy. And it’s about you: The major deciphering projects — Bullrun (successor to Manassas), and Edgehill — are named after famous civil war battles fought in the U.S. and Britain; any target of surveillance, whether it be foreign or domestic, friend or foe, is deemed an “adversary” in the parlance. In June, the legal procedures followed to determine whether communications emanate from U.S. persons, and the procedures to minimize data collection of such persons, were revealed. Communications emanating from an unknown physical location “will not be treated as a United States person, unless such person can be positively identified as such, or the nature or circumstances of the person’s communications give rise to a reasonable belief that such person is a United States person.” Communications determined to emanate from U.S. persons must be promptly destroyed, with the exception of “communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning, and sufficient duration may consist of any period of time during which encrypted material is subject to, or of use in, cryptanalysis.” In other words, according to these documents, the use of anonymisation techniques and cryptology will heighten your chances of being caught up in the NSA dragnet.

Part of the intelligence community’s “black budget” (a more complete version [PDF] was leaked to Cryptome), The Consolidated Cryptologic Program, employing 35,000 people, has received more than $10 billion annually over the last four years — 21% of the total funding. Although the intelligence agencies appear to be concentrating most of their efforts at code breaking and SIGINT (signals intelligence), they also engage in HUMINT (human intelligence) collection; it was reported that the British GCHQ also created a Humint Operations Team (HOT), responsible for “identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global telecommunications industry.”

The most pernicious and far-reaching aspect of the NSA’s drive to destroy privacy is the vast public/private partnership, a collaboration with industry in which the government has succeeded through force of law in introducing weaknesses into security standards, and introducing backdoors into commercial encryption products, rendering them accessible to government eavesdropping. Though the C.I.A. receives the bulk of the intelligence “black budget,” we now know thanks to Edward Snowden, with $254.9 million allotted to it this year, it is clear that this collaboration is a priority. In such a tandem agreement, private enterprise provides the tools and access necessary, while the government provides the legal authority — that is, together they accomplish what one or the other could not separately. The particular companies are not named, such information being “guarded by still higher levels of classification.” That is, while such companies offer supposedly secure methods of encryption to the public, they are simultaneously granting access to the government to their communications. Such a partnership is not new: the NSA’s project SHAMROCK, which took over the massive telegraph-reading program begun during World War II, exposed in 1975, was also built upon a cooperation with private industry leaders: RCA Global, ITT World Communications, and Western Union International. Concerns were the same as they are now: “Tordella insisted that the companies not be named in any Church Committee report, since that might subject them to ’embarrassment’ and to lawsuits. It might also make it difficult for the NSA to convince other private companies to help out on future schemes.” The desire to introduce compromised communications devices onto the market for easy access is not new either; such a scheme had already been attempted, in the form of the “Clipper Chip”:

Anticipating such a boom, the N.S.A. devised a strategy for the 90’s. It would concede the need for strong encryption but encourage a system with a key-escrow “back door” that provides access to communications for itself and law enforcement. The security agency had already developed a strong cryptosystem based on an algorithm called Skipjack, supposedly 16 million times stronger than the previous standard, D.E.S. (Data Encryption Standard). Now the agency’s designers integrated Skipjack into a new system that uses a Law Enforcement Access Field (LEAF) that adds a signal to the message that directs a potential wiretapper to the approriate key to decipher the message. These features were included in a chip called Capstone, which could handle not only telephone communications but computer data transfers and digital signatures.

Supposedly, this technology was designed for Government use, but in 1993 the National Security Agency had a sudden opportunity to thrust it into the marketplace. AT&T had come to the agency with a new, relatively low-cost secure-phone device called the Surity 3600 that was designed to use the nonexportable DES encryption algorithm. The N.S.A. suggested that perhaps AT&T could try something else: a stripped-down version of Capstone for telephone communications. This was the Clipper chip. As a result, AT&T got two things: an agreement that Uncle Sam would buy thousands of phones for its own use (the initial commitment was 9,000, from the F.B.I.) and the prospect that the phone would not suffer the unhappy fate of some other secure devices when considered for export. There was also the expectation that AT&T would sell a lot more phones, since private companies would need to buy Clipper-equipped devices to communicate with the Governmment’s Clipper phones.

It was an ingenious plan for several reasons. By agreeing to buy thousands of phones, and holding out the promise that thousands, or even millions more might be sold, AT&T phones gained a price advantage that comes with volume. (The original price of the Surity 3600 was $1,195, considerably less than the previous generation of secure phones; Mykotronx, the company making the Clipper chip, says that each chip now costs $30, but in large orders could quickly go as low as $10.) That would give the phones a big push in the marketplace. But by saturating the market, Clipper had a chance to become the standard for encryption, depending on whether businesses and individuals would be willing to accept a device that had the compromise of a government-controlled back door.

This compromise, of course, is the essence of Clipper. The Government recognizes the importance of keeping business secrets, intimate information and personal data hidden from most eyes and ears. But it also preserves a means of getting hold of that information after obtaining “legal authorization, normally a court order,” according to a White House description.

Regarding the publishing of leaked documents, a dilemma exists. There is a debate as to whether such Top Secret (and beyond) documents should be filtered, vetted and released gradually, so as to give the public time to absorb the information, or released in toto to the public regardless of any unintended consequences for NSA employees or backlash against Snowden and the recipients of the liberated data. The irony is that Snowden and the small coterie of journalists and analysts — Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, Bruce Schneier and those at ProPublica and the New York Times — to whom he has entrusted the documents detailing the surveillance programs find themselves now in a position similar to the very governments they are confronting for the abuse of their powers. That is, they are now in possession of secret information to which they alone have access, and presume to be uniquely qualified to determine what is in the public interest and what is not. We have no choice but to trust them. So, those journalists must choose between honoring any agreement with Snowden to publish the documents in the way that he intended, which is not trivial — after all, it was he who took such risks upon himself and will pay the highest price — and a more radical strategy, which would make all of it immediately available by betraying Snowden’s trust. It is true that one bears responsibility for the predictable consequences of one’s acts, and if the public perceives that releasing all the documents were to cause damage to a significant number of people, such a move could prove counterproductive, as the government could mobilize that opinion to further demonize leakers as “troublemakers” and “vigilantes” — such a consequence would have negative effects on whistleblowing and press freedoms in general, enabling the government to prosecute such behavior even more aggressively than it already is, unless a mass movement became powerful enough to confront it. It is also probable that releasing the documents in their entirety, or enlarging the circle of those reading and interpreting them, would bring that much more scrutiny to bear on the NSA’s activities, and above all speed the process of finding remedies and building the tools necessary to confront such power. The risks must be weighed against the benefits, but I see no easy answers.

In a similar way, freedom of expression must eventually be dissociated from a strict adherence to any definition of “journalism,” to be enjoyed by all, even if it entails some risks. Joel Simon provides a convincing argument in the Columbia Journalism Review:

But any effort by governments to grant privilege and protection to one class of journalists while excluding others is, in fact, a form of licensing, which is anathema to journalism. Moreover, the global information environment has become so complex that the traditional media—including the international media—is now just one source of news and information, and in some cases not the most objective one. […] Rather than erect barriers in the form of special laws, journalists should be breaking barriers down, recognizing that their ability to do their job depends less on defining a separate realm in which they operate and more on finding ways to ensure that freedom of expression is broadly defended and preserved—for journalists and non-journalists alike.

The mathematics of encryption are complicated, and Edward Snowden has stated that it is the best available protection: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.” There is a learning curve involved in implementing such a solution, however, and even some experts such as Schneier admit that they don’t use all encryption methods consistently, due to the inconvenience of time and effort involved. It is possible that effective encryption or anonymity, due to inherent complexities, will never be effortless to implement. Several self-defense guides have been published, including at the Freedom of the Press Foundation (here), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (here), as well as other independent organizations. This is not enough, however. The liberating power of cryptography needs to be democratized, and made accessible to everyone using an electronic device, because — and this is vital — everyone is concerned by this, whether they are aware of it or not. It is unacceptable that the right to privacy be made to be solely dependent upon one’s proficiency at concealing one’s activity. Surveillance is a global phenomenon which transcends national borders and cultures, and just as NSA surveillance extends beyond its original mandate to spill over onto the domestic U.S. population (whatever lies officials may voice), the need for strong privacy protection extends beyond just those who think they might have “something to hide.” As long as strong encryption and speech protection remain the domain of the select group of experts — the hacker, the engineer, the accredited journalist — and not for the rest of us, I believe that the fight for privacy, the free flow of information and against surveillance will be lost.


Update: Ken White at Popehat emphasizes what I’ve been saying about surveillance targeting the “other,” and how anyone who seeks to hide his/her activity must be viewed as an “enemy;” the quote is from an official statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s recently created tumblr:

It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption.  Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities.  Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that.


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