Category Archives: Alphabet Agencies

Software Industry Greed is Driving the Assault on our Privacy & Security

The motivation to release software, without proper testing, in order to generate a quick buck is as much of a threat to our security and privacy as the activities of hackers and alphabet agencies. It is time that software companies started to pay the price for the sorry mess that their greed is helping to create.

Once upon a time these matters could be considered in isolation but with the “Internet of Things” connecting millions more devices every day we are headed for a world that will have 28 billion IoT devices by 2020.

Consumer concern will not halt the rollout. A staggeringly high number of consumers hold serious concerns about the possibility of their information getting stolen from everyday devices – their smart home, their tablet, their laptop. One would think therefore that this concern would pressure software manufacturers to be more rigorous in their pre-GA testing activities. Not so.

Why? Because so much of this IoT stuff is embedded and consumer awareness is mainly limited to the high profile exposures. Consumers are not hesitating to purchase connected devices because consumers do not know that the devices are connected.

Samsung’s SmartThings smart home platform is a leaky colander of loosely connected hack prone software. IoT security hardening is not just about the particular application but also about building security into the network connections that link applications and that link devices.

And then there is the “Data”. The amount of this stuff that is generated by IoT is intractably large. As few as 10,000 households can generate 215 million discrete data points every day. This creates more entry points for hackers and leaves sensitive information vulnerable.

The number and variety of privacy attack vectors becomes unmanageable very quickly. From the CIA hacking your Samsung TV, uBeacons doing their bit (uXDT & Audio Beacons – Introduce your Paranoia to your Imagination), hackers controlling your car, it’s a worryingly real threat to the personal security and privacy of every one of us.

If the CIA’s Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI), who are tasked with delivering cyber-espionage tools and intelligence gathering capabilities, cannot even secure their own USB drives then what chance do the rest of us have.

Unfortunately the answer is that we have no chance.

ENDS 

The CIA Dark Triad – Windows, macOS & Linux

According to the WikiLeaks Vault 7 dump the CIA deploys malware that includes the capability to hack, remotely view and/or clone devices running the Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems.

This seems to suggest that the agency has no problem bypassing encryption, proxies, VPN and that Tor anonymity is a myth.

This does not mean that each of the point solutions offering a product under each of the above headings have been compromised. Rather it means that the OS level hack capability of the CIA – as seen on iOS and Android – means that they can gain full control of the device and render any point solution counter measures moot.

Therefore they subvert the platform which by extension means that anything that is running on the platform is subverted.

Tablet, laptop, smart-phone, AV device – it seems they are all fair game and in that case so is everything that you do on them.

You have been warned.

You are being watched.

ENDS

“Bypassing” Encryption is the same as “Breaking” Encryption

According to the Vault 7 WikiLeaks data the CIA made phone malware that can read your private chats without breaking encryption.

Anyone with half a clue always knew that the best way to subvert encryption was to bypass encryption as we at TMG Corporate Services have always done. From our blog post Am I Being Surveilled? on 29th March 2016:

Still – the point is made I think – visual intercepts are economically viable even for local LE – it’s just an ultra low light wifi enabled pin-hole snake camera in the right spot. One above the driver and passenger seat belt brackets in a private vehicle is a good location (easy access to and plenty of space behind the plastic covering the B pillar to store the bits).

Five uninterrupted minutes and both are installed. Just wait for the target to take a Sunday drive and game on. Most people rest the handset on their lap while typing stationary in traffic or better still upright and in front or on top of the wheel when driving – using one hand – which gives a nice unobstructed keystroke by keystroke view of their typing activities.

Most successful hacks are low tech

Today I have seen a bunch of publications and experts trying to assure people that this is nothing to worry about. The purity of encryption is in tact. It is an academic point.

If you are in the business of handling sensitive data then don’t use your cell phone to transmit it. It’s that simple.

* In the hours since the documents were made available by WikiLeaks, a misconception was developed, making people believe the CIA “cracked” the encryption used by popular secure messaging software including Signal and WhatsApp.

WikiLeaks asserted that: “These techniques permit the CIA to bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloakman by hacking the “smart” phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

This statement by WikiLeaks made most people think that the encryption used by end-to-end encrypted messaging clients such as Signal and WhatsApp has been broken. No, it hasn’t. Instead, the CIA has tools to gain access to entire phones, which would of course “bypass” encrypted messaging apps because it fails all other security systems virtually on the phone, granting total remote access to the agency.

The WikiLeaks documents do not show any attack particular against Signal or WhatsApp, but rather the agency hijacks the entire phone and listens in before the applications encrypt and transmit information.

It’s like you are sitting in a train next to the target and reading his 2-way text conversation on his phone or laptop while he’s still typing, this doesn’t mean that the security of the app the target is using has any issue.

In that case, it also doesn’t matter if the messages were encrypted in transit if you are already watching everything that happens on the device before any security measure comes into play.

But this also doesn’t mean that this makes the issue lighter, as noted by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, “This incorrectly implies CIA hacked these apps/encryption. But the docs show iOS/Android are what got hacked—a much bigger problem.”

* From The Hacker News

ENDS

“All uR devICE r belong 2 US”, Vault 7, Weeping Angel, the CIA & Your Samsung TV

CIA malware and hacking tools are built by EDG (Engineering Development Group), a software development group within CCI (Center for Cyber Intelligence), a department belonging to the CIA’s DDI (Directorate for Digital Innovation). The DDI is one of the five major directorates of the CIA.

The attack against Samsung smart TVs was developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s MI5/BTSS.

The EDG is responsible for the development, testing and operational support of all backdoors, exploits, malicious payloads, trojans, viruses and any other kind of malware used by the CIA in its covert operations world-wide.

The increasing sophistication of surveillance techniques has drawn comparisons with George Orwell’s 1984, but “Weeping Angel”, developed by the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), which infests smart TVs, transforming them into covert microphones, is it’s most emblematic realization.

After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on.

In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.

ENDS

Extracted entirely from Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed

When The Privacy Advocate Becomes An Apologist For The Opponent

It does not matter to me whether the “The Guardian Falsely Slammed WhatsApp For a “Security Backdoor” – It’s Actually Not” according to a Peter Stone thread on Peerlyst.

Bruce Schneier also weighed into the debate saying “This is not a backdoor. This really isn’t even a flaw. It’s a design decision that put usability ahead of security in this particular instance.”

Tellingly though he went to say that “How serious this is depends on your threat model. If you are worried about the US government — or any other government that can pressure Facebook — snooping on your messages, then this is a small vulnerability. If not, then it’s nothing to worry about.”

The main stream media sponsored spat had @Moxie from @WhisperSystems siding with @WhatsApp and @Facebook in a face off against @Guardian and their contributor @tobiasboelter (Security and Crypto at UC Berkeley) in a “man in the middle” versus “design” versus “vulnerability” versus “backdoor” versus “privacy” versus “convenience” versus “user experience” tit for tat.

If you take Schneier’s statement about who should worry about the WhatsApp “design choice” in handling “blocking” / “non-blocking” then irony drips from Moxie’s apologist defence of the WhatsApp handling of key changes when one notes that in a Jun 12, 2013 blog post he wrote “We Should All Have Something To Hide” .

Moxie at Open Whisper Systems, the designers of the well respected SIGNAL encrypted voice and messaging app, responded to the “backdoor” allegations in WhatsApp’s implementation of the SIGNAL protocol in a blog post on their site.

It was in response to Mr. Boelter’s piece in the Guardian newspaper “WhatsApp vulnerability explained: by the man who discovered it” which they say was in response to the Facebook denial that the vulnerability was a deliberate loophole.

The debate is complicated for people not involved in the security industry there are pro’s and con’s in the arguments that both sides make. Some of it is pure semantics, some of it represents shades of opinion other aspects are “interpretations”.

It all essentially stems from WhatsApp approach to handling encryption key changes in certain scenarios and their attitude to “non-blocking”. SIGNAL handles all key changes with “blocking” but WhatsApp chooses to go with “non-blocking”. There is therefore a fundamental difference between the WhatsApp app’s implementation of the Open Whisper System protocol and the implementation that underpins the SIGNAL app.

The integrity of the SIGNAL app is not being questioned. The Wall Street Journal stated about the latter in a Jan. 24, 2017 11:16 a.m. ET article that “Messaging App Has Bipartisan Support Amid Hacking Concerns” describing SIGNAL “as a smartphone app that allows users to send encrypted messages, is gaining popularity in the political world amid rising fears about hacking and surveillance in the wake of a tumultuous election year.”

My worry is not about WhatsApp’s Open Whisper Systems implementation because frankly I would not use it. I would not use it because I do not trust Facebook (the owners of WhatsApp or Zuckerberg). Zuckerberg because he tried to cover up the Facebook facilitation of the NSA PRISM program before the Snowden revelations embarrassed him into trying to apply a retrofit fix to his betrayal of Facebook users. And WhatsApp because frankly they are sharing their users data with Facebook despite denials.

When the advocates become apologists for the mainstream then they longer deserve to be called advocates in the purest sense of the word. And Moxie does consider himself “pure”. He is not.

In July 2016 Wired wrote “Meet Moxie Marlinspike, the Anarchist Bringing Encryption to All of Us” but being an “anarchist” and an ally of Zuckerberg are incompatible ideological stances.

ENDS

Mass Surveillance & The Oxford Comma Analogy

Acknowledgments, Contributions & References: This blog post was written in collaboration with and using contributions from Mr. Dean Webb (find Dean’s profile on PeerLyst). The clever and insightful bits are all Dean, the space fillers and punctuation are mine – except the “Oxford Comma” analogy, which even though it is lifted from @Grammarly on Twitter, is mine – and I like it (a lot). Enjoy.

Who Do We Like, Who Do We Dislike (Today)

Wearable tech is on its way, for surveillance during times when one is away from the vidscreen. But we need this stuff in order to protect against Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia. We will always be at war with Eurasia until 20 January, at noon. Then we will always have been at war with Eastasia. And then we will need all this stuff to protect against Eastasia.

On a more serious note, anonymity has been dead for quite some time. As an example, about 10 years ago Dean Webb was running a web forum for students involved in an academic competition.

He and other teachers had volunteered to be admins for the board. They had a student that began to harass others on the board and post some highly inappropriate material. They banned his account, and he would connect again with another account.

So, Dean took down the IP addresses he’d used for his accounts and did a quick lookup on their ownership. They were at a certain university, so he contacted that university with the information and the times of access and they were able to determine which student was involved.

He was told to stop posting, or face discipline at the university. That got him to stop.

Simple Methods, Complex Implications

The point is, that IP address and timestamp for most people is going to be what gets them in the end. They don’t know what a VPN is from a hole in the ground, let alone what a TOR node is.

At best, most of them will use a browser in anonymous / incognito mode, without realising that cookies are still retained and updated, credit card transactions remain on the record, and ISPs will still retain IP address information with timestamps.

It could be argued that a Layer 2 hijacking of someone else’s line is the way to go anonymously, but that involves a physical alteration of someone’s gear, and that means physical evidence, which is very difficult to erase completely.

Even if anonymity is not completely dead (mostly dead, perhaps?), it is certainly outside the reach of most people because they lack general IT knowledge about the basics of the Internet.

I (Graham) was met with the following comment when I posted a tweet some time before Xmas 2016 about Identity Theft:

“despite the hysteria the theft of most peoples personal information is / will be inconsequential”

The use of the word “inconsequential” by the commenter on my post reminded me of the hilarious Doctor Evil therapy session monologue in the Austin Powers movie when Doctor Evil stated, when asked about his life, that “the details of my life are quite inconsequential”. But 60 seconds of monologue later it was quite clear that they were far from “inconsequential” – it is a matter of perspective as to what is and what is not. That is the problem. And that is the potential worry.

Threat Awareness & Counter Measures

The vast majority of people and their browsing habits are innocuous. The point though that the comment misses and which is the point that Dean makes in his comments about the average John Q. Citizen’s awareness of the threats and the countermeasures available is that the public in general has moved their private communications on to a platform where they do not understand the implications of the ability of externals to eavesdrop or to store and reference data at a future point.

There was a blog post I (Graham) made some time ago about the risk of “profiling” and of “false positives” and the threat that they posed especially with respect to miscarriages of justice. (See “The Sword of Islam” story below)

The point is not whether “the theft of most peoples personal information is / will be inconsequential” or the storage of most peoples browsing history or contacts with other parties is / will be inconsequential or not – the point is that it can be made to look very different to what was actually happening originally.

Like a misquoted partial comment in a newspaper article – actions taken out of context can look very different.

The Oxford Comma Analogy

Recently I posted a tweet about the Oxford comma and it does indirectly inform the point that I am trying to make here:

Excerpt begins from Grammarly

“Unless you’re writing for a particular publication or drafting an essay for school, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings.

“I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma:

“I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.”

Those who oppose the Oxford comma argue that rephrasing an already unclear sentence can solve the same problems that using the Oxford comma does. For example:

“I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

could be rewritten as:

“I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.”

Excerpt Ends

The analogy serves to demonstrate one of the main concerns of mass surveillance and mass retention of user data. People are now being profiled and tracked and their behaviours stored and analysed and they do not know why or by whom or for what purpose – they barely understand how to use a browser.

In the wrong hands that potentially makes them cannon fodder. Accuse me of being alarmist and dramatic – fair enough – so did everyone four years ago when I wrote about mass immigration as a weapon, the rise of radical Islam and the dangers of the USA supporting a sectarian Shi’a government in Baghdad, the marginalisation of Sunnis and the Ba’ath party, the randomness of the Arab Spring, the threat of Libya turning into a terrorist haven and so on.

The point is people ignore these developments at their peril but you may as well be talking to a concrete block. You can make all the compelling philosophical points that you like to someone but if they do not have the capacity to understand them then you are wasting your time.

And most of our politicians fall into that category.

Mass Profiling, Mass Surveillance Will Be Inconsequential Until It Isn’t

Dean once met a man named Saifal Islam. He has a devil of a time getting on an airplane because a terror group has the same name – “Sword of Islam”.

He is constantly explaining that the man (him) isn’t the group (them) and that he’s had his name longer than they’ve had theirs. That, yes, the group (them) should be banned from getting on airplanes, but that, no, the man (him) should be allowed on the plane.

Hell of a false positive, and that’s not the only one. Mismatches on felon voting lists, warrants served to the wrong address for no-knock police invasions, people told that they can’t renew driver’s licenses because they’re dead, the list goes on.

Be happy in the knowledge though that your data is apparently “inconsequential” and this privacy debate and the growing intrusion on your personal life is all “hysterical” alarmism.

You can use that statement when you are in the dock defending your very own hysterical “false positive” – no charge.

The next post will be “KarmaWare & Thieves of Thoughts” again in collaboration with Mr. Dean Webb.

ENDS

Silencing the Canary & The Key Powers & Reach of The IPA

Please Note: This post is not an advertisement for or an endorsement of ProtonMail 

The Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) was approved by the UK Parliament and after receiving Royal Assent this week will become The Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) coming into force in 2017. The law gives broad new powers to the UK’s intelligence agencies (GCHQ, MI5, MI6) and law enforcement.

In theory, companies offering encryption services, that are not based in the UK, do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IPA – but that is not actually the reality. Strong encryption isn’t just important for privacy, but also key to providing security in the digital age.

Laws like the IPA pose an unprecedented threat to democracy, and are strikingly similar to surveillance laws from totalitarian states but there are tools today that can help protect your digital rights.

Below is a short summary of the most relevant points of the IPA which was written by ProtonMail, a Swiss based firm that offers encrypted email services. The key powers of the Investigatory Powers Act are:

(Start of ProtonMail Summary – Paraphrased)

Retention of Internet browsing records for 1 year

This is in our opinion the worst part of the law. Imagine your browsing history for the entire past year accessible to the government or police without a warrant. This would allow the construction of detailed profiles on every citizen, and categorization based on political views, personal beliefs, and much more. All UK communication service providers (so Internet providers, phone companies, email providers, etc), will be required to retain 1 year of your internet connection records in a central database. This database includes what sites you visited, when you visited the site, for how long, who you called, who you emailed, etc. All of this data will be stored in a central database accessible to the government and law enforcement. More troubling is that no warrant or judicial oversight is required to gain access to this database, the police will have sole discretion to decide when they need to access this database.

Bulk collection of communications data

British communications providers will be required by law to assist in intercepting communications data in relation to an investigation. So far, foreign companies are not required to comply, but as we will discuss below, there are some caveats to this.

Breaking Encryption

Communication providers will be mandated by law to remove encryption whenever it is “practical”. The law is particularly dangerous because it doesn’t well define what is the meaning of “practical”, which means this can be subject to the government’s interpretation.

Enforcement of gag orders

When a communications provider receives a request for data, it is not permitted to reveal that the request took place. Under the IPA, it is now a criminal offense for either the communications provider, or somebody working for the provider, to reveal a data request. Thus, if the powers of the IPA are abused, a whistleblower would be committing a criminal offense by revealing the abuse.

Impact of the IPA outside of the UK

In theory, the IPA only applies to UK companies, but today with the rise of large multinational tech companies, even non-UK companies can be pressured to comply if they have a significant UK presence and employees in the UK.

Since any such requests will happen behind the scenes, we will never know if foreign companies do comply with the IPA. Since the UK is a member of the Five Eyes network, along with the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the intelligence scooped up by the IPA will also be shared with US intelligence so UK residents could find their private data being shared beyond UK borders.

Encrypted email accounts can protect your email communications from being intercepted or read by government agencies. The rest of your online activities can also be protected. In particular, using VPN services that don’t have a physical presence in the UK, and also using apps like Signal for text messaging, or Tresorit for file sharing.

Most importantly, everyone needs to spread the word that more surveillance and less encryption isn’t the solution to today’s security challenges.

(End of ProtonMail Summary)

Silencing the Canary 

A warrant canary is a colloquial term for a regularly published statement that a service provider has not received legal process that it would be prohibited from saying it had received. The canary is a reference to the canaries used to provide warnings in coal mines, which would become sick before miners from carbon monoxide poisoning, warning of the danger.

Once a service provider does receive legal process, the speech prohibition goes into place, and the canary statement is removed. Warrant canaries are often provided in conjunction with a transparency report, listing the process the service provider can publicly say it received over the course of a particular time period.

A company might issue a semi-annual transparency report, stating that it had not received any national security letters in the six month period. NSLs under the Patriot Act come with a gag, which purports to prevent the recipient from saying it has received one. (While a federal court has ruled that the NSL gags are unconstitutional, that order is currently stayed pending the government’s appeal). When the company who is in receipt of an NSL issues a subsequent transparency report without that statement, the reader may infer from the silence that the company has now received an NSL.

The IPA has a different approach to this Silencing the Canary: the lawfulness of the U.K. Investigatory Powers Bill’s secrecy provisions under the ECHR .

END