Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell just published an interesting paper, making the case that free and democratic nations are at a structural disadvantage in nation-on-nation cyberattack and defense. From a blog post:
It seeks to explain why the United States is struggling to deal with the "soft" cyber operations that have been so prevalent in recent years: cyberespionage and cybertheft, often followed by strategic publication; information operations and propaganda; and relatively low-level cyber disruptions such as denial-of-service and ransomware attacks. The main explanation is that constituent elements of U.S. society -- a commitment to free speech, privacy and the rule of law; innovative technology firms; relatively unregulated markets; and deep digital sophistication -- create asymmetric vulnerabilities that foreign adversaries, especially authoritarian ones, can exploit. These asymmetrical vulnerabilities might explain why the United States so often appears to be on the losing end of recent cyber operations and why U.S. attempts to develop and implement policies to enhance defense, resiliency, response or deterrence in the cyber realm have been ineffective.
I have long thought this to be true. There are defensive cybersecurity measures that a totalitarian country can take that a free, open, democratic country cannot. And there are attacks against a free, open, democratic country that just don't matter to a totalitarian country. That makes us more vulnerable. (I don't mean to imply -- and neither do Russell and Goldsmith -- that this disadvantage implies that free societies are overall worse, but it is an asymmetry that we should be aware of.)
I do worry that these disadvantages will someday become intolerable. Dan Geer often said that "the price of freedom is the probability of crime." We are willing to pay this price because it isn't that high. As technology makes individual and small-group actors more powerful, this price will get higher. Will there be a point in the future where free and open societies will no longer be able to survive? I honestly don't know.
For many years, I have said that complexity is the worst enemy of security. At CyCon earlier this month, Thomas Dullien gave an excellent talk on the subject with far more detail than I've ever provided. Video. Slides.
Internet censors have a new strategy in their bid to block applications and websites: pressuring the large cloud providers that host them. These providers have concerns that are much broader than the targets of censorship efforts, so they have the choice of either standing up to the censors or capitulating in order to maximize their business. Today's Internet largely reflects the dominance of a handful of companies behind the cloud services, search engines and mobile platforms that underpin the technology landscape. This new centralization radically tips the balance between those who want to censor parts of the Internet and those trying to evade censorship. When the profitable answer is for a software giant to acquiesce to censors' demands, how long can Internet freedom last?
The recent battle between the Russian government and the Telegram messaging app illustrates one way this might play out. Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender's phone and decrypted on the receiver's phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.
Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn't a fixed website, it doesn't need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.
A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking19million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.
More recently, Russia has been pressuring Apple not to offer the Telegram app in its iPhone App Store. As of this writing, Apple has not complied, and the company has allowed Telegram to download a critical software update to iPhone users (after what the app's founder called a delay last month). Roskomnadzor could further pressure Apple, though, including by threatening to turn off its entire iPhone app business in Russia.
Telegram might seem a weird app for Russia to focus on. Those of us who work in security don't recommend the program, primarily because of the nature of its cryptographic protocols. In general, proprietary cryptography has numerous fatal security flaws. We generallyrecommendSignal for secure SMS messaging, or, if having that program on your computer is somehow incriminating, WhatsApp. (More than 1.5 billion people worldwide use WhatsApp.) What Telegram has going for it is that it works really well on lousy networks. That's why it is so popular in places like Iran and Afghanistan. (Iran is also trying to ban the app.)
What the Russian government doesn't like about Telegram is its anonymous broadcast feature -- channel capability and chats -- which makes it an effective platform for political debate and citizen journalism. The Russians might not like that Telegram is encrypted, but odds are good that they can simply break the encryption. Telegram's role in facilitating uncontrolled journalism is the real issue.
Iran attempts to block Telegram have been more successful than Russia's, less because Iran's censorship technology is more sophisticated but because Telegram is not willing to go as far to defend Iranian users. The reasons are not rooted in business decisions. Simply put, Telegram is a Russian product and the designers are more motivated to poke Russia in the eye. Pavel Durov, Telegram's founder, has pledged millions of dollars to help fight Russian censorship.
For the moment, Russia has lost. But this battle is far from over. Russia could easily come back with more targeted pressure on Google, Amazon and Apple. A year earlier, Zello used the same trick Telegram is using to evade Russian censors. Then, Roskomnadzor threatened to block all of Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud; and in that instance, both companies forced Zello to stop its IP-hopping censorship-evasion tactic.
Russia could also further develop its censorship infrastructure. If its capabilities were as finely honed as China's, it would be able to more effectively block Telegram from operating. Right now, Russia can block only specific IP addresses, which is too coarse a tool for this issue. Telegram's voice capabilities in Russia are significantly degraded, however, probably because high-capacity IP addresses are easier to block.
Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned -- and technically blocked -- the practice of "domain fronting," a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website -- in this case Google.com -- to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.
Tech giants have gotten embroiled in censorship battles for years. Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fold, but until now there have always been options. What this particular fight highlights is that Internet freedom is increasingly in the hands of the world's largest Internet companies. And while freedom may have its advocates -- the American Civil Liberties Union has tweeted its support for those companies, and some 12,000 people in Moscow protested against the Telegram ban -- actions such as disallowing domain fronting illustrate that getting the big tech companies to sacrifice their near-term commercial interests will be an uphill battle. Apple has already removed anti-censorship apps from its Chinese app store.
In 1993, John Gilmore famously said that "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." That was technically true when he said it but only because the routing structure of the Internet was so distributed. As centralization increases, the Internet loses that robustness, and censorship by governments and companies becomes easier.
iOS 12, the next release of Apple's iPhone operating system, may include features to prevent someone from unlocking your phone without your permission:
The feature essentially forces users to unlock the iPhone with the passcode when connecting it to a USB accessory everytime the phone has not been unlocked for one hour. That includes the iPhone unlocking devices that companies such as Cellebrite or GrayShift make, which police departments all over the world use to hack into seized iPhones.
"That pretty much kills [GrayShift's product] GrayKey and Cellebrite," Ryan Duff, a security researcher who has studied iPhone and is Director of Cyber Solutions at Point3 Security, told Motherboard in an online chat. "If it actually does what it says and doesn't let ANY type of data connection happen until it's unlocked, then yes. You can't exploit the device if you can't communicate with it."
Other enhancements include tools for generating strong passwords, storing them in the iCloud keychain, and automatically entering them into Safari and iOS apps across all of a user's devices. Previously, standalone apps such as 1Password have done much the same thing. Now, Apple is integrating the functions directly into macOS and iOS. Apple also debuted new programming interfaces that allow users to more easily access passwords stored in third-party password managers directly from the QuickType bar. The company also announced a new feature that will flag reused passwords, an interface that autofills one-time passwords provided by authentication apps, and a mechanism for sharing passwords among nearby iOS devices, Macs, and Apple TVs.
A separate privacy enhancement is designed to prevent websites from tracking people when using Safari. It's specifically designed to prevent share buttons and comment code on webpages from tracking people's movements across the Web without permission or from collecting a device's unique settings such as fonts, in an attempt to fingerprint the device.
The last additions of note are new permission dialogues macOS Mojave will display before allowing apps to access a user's camera or microphone. The permissions are designed to thwart malicious software that surreptitiously turns on these devices in an attempt to spy on users. The new protections will largely mimic those previously available only through standalone apps such as one called Oversight, developed by security researcher Patrick Wardle. Apple said similar dialog permissions will protect the file system, mail database, message history, and backups.
On May 25, the FBI asked us all to reboot our routers. The story behind this request is one of sophisticated malware and unsophisticated home-network security, and it's a harbinger of the sorts of pervasive threats from nation-states, criminals and hackers that we should expect in coming years.
VPNFilter is a sophisticatedpiece of malware that infects mostly older home and small-office routers made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, QNAP and TP-Link. (For a list of specific models, click here.) It's an impressive piece of work. It can eavesdrop on traffic passing through the router specifically, log-in credentials and SCADA traffic, which is a networking protocol that controls power plants, chemical plants and industrial systems attack other targets on the Internet and destructively "kill" its infected device. It is one of a very few pieces of malware that can survive a reboot, even though that's what the FBI has requested. It has a number of other capabilities, and it can be remotely updated to provide still others. More than 500,000 routers in at least 54 countries have been infected since 2016.
Because of the malware's sophistication, VPNFilter is believed to be the work of a government. The FBI suggested the Russian government was involved for two circumstantial reasons. One, a piece of the code is identical to one found in another piece of malware, called BlackEnergy, that was used in the December 2015 attack against Ukraine's power grid. Russia is believed to be behind that attack. And two, the majority of those 500,000 infections are in Ukraine and controlled by a separate command-and-control server. There might also be classified evidence, as an FBI affidavit in this matter identifies the group behind VPNFilter as Sofacy, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. That's the group behind a long list of attacks, including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.
Two companies, Cisco and Symantec, seem to have been working with the FBI during the past two years to track this malware as it infected ever more routers. The infection mechanism isn't known, but we believe it targets known vulnerabilities in these older routers. Pretty much no one patches their routers, so the vulnerabilities have remained, even if they were fixed in new models from the same manufacturers.
On May 30, the FBI seized control of toknowall.com, a critical VPNFilter command-and-control server. This is called "sinkholing," and serves to disrupt a critical part of this system. When infected routers contact toknowall.com, they will no longer be contacting a server owned by the malware's creators; instead, they'll be contacting a server owned by the FBI. This doesn't entirely neutralize the malware, though. It will stay on the infected routers through reboot, and the underlying vulnerabilities remain, making the routers susceptible to reinfection with a variant controlled by a different server.
If you want to make sure your router is no longer infected, you need to do more than reboot it, the FBI's warning notwithstanding. You need to reset the router to its factory settings. That means you need to reconfigure it for your network, which can be a pain if you're not sophisticated in these matters. If you want to make sure your router cannot be reinfected, you need to update the firmware with any security patches from the manufacturer. This is harder to do and may strain your technical capabilities, though it's ridiculous that routers don't automatically download and install firmware updates on their own. Some of these models probably do not even have security patches available. Honestly, the best thing to do if you have one of the vulnerable models is to throw it away and get a new one. (Your ISP will probably send you a new one free if you claim that it's not working properly. And you should have a new one, because if your current one is on the list, it's at least 10 years old.)
So if it won't clear out the malware, why is the FBI askingus to reboot our routers? It's mostly just to get a sense of how bad the problem is. The FBI now controls toknowall.com. When an infected router gets rebooted, it connects to that server to get fully reinfected, and when it does, the FBI will know. Rebooting will give it a better idea of how many devices out there are infected.
Internet of Things malware isn't new. The 2016 Mirai botnet, for example, created by a lone hacker and not a government, targeted vulnerabilities in Internet-connected digital video recorders and webcams. Other malware has targeted Internet-connected thermostats. Lots of malware targets home routers. These devices are particularly vulnerable because they are often designed by ad hoc teams without a lot of security expertise, stay around in networks far longer than our computers and phones, and have no easy way to patch them.
It wouldn't be surprising if the Russians targeted routers to build a network of infected computers for follow-on cyber operations. I'm sure many governments are doing the same. As long as we allow these insecure devices on the Internet and short of security regulations, there's no way to stop them we're going to be vulnerable to this kind of malware.
And next time, the command-and-control server won't be so easy to disrupt.
When Marc Zuckerberg testified before both the House and the Senate last month, it became immediately obvious that few US lawmakers had any appetite to regulate the pervasive surveillance taking place on the Internet.
Right now, the only way we can force these companies to take our privacy more seriously is through the market. But the market is broken. First, none of us do business directly with these data brokers. Equifax might have lost my personal data in 2017, but I can't fire them because I'm not their customer or even their user. I could complain to the companies I do business with who sell my data to Equifax, but I don't know who they are. Markets require voluntary exchange to work properly. If consumers don't even know where these data brokers are getting their data from and what they're doing with it, they can't make intelligent buying choices.
This is starting to change, thanks to a new law in Vermont and another in Europe. And more legislation is coming.
Vermont first. At the moment, we don't know how many data brokers collect data on Americans. Credible estimates range from 2,500 to 4,000 different companies. Last week, Vermont passeda law that will change that.
The law does several things to improve the security of Vermonters' data, but several provisions matter to all of us. First, the law requires data brokers that trade in Vermonters' data to register annually. And while there are many small local data brokers, the larger companies collect data nationally and even internationally. This will help us get a more accurate look at who's in this business. The companies also have to disclose what opt-out options they offer, and how people can request to opt out. Again, this information is useful to all of us, regardless of the state we live in. And finally, the companies have to disclose the number of security breaches they've suffered each year, and how many individuals were affected.
Admittedly, the regulations imposed by the Vermont law are modest. Earlier drafts of the law included a provision requiring data brokers to disclose how many individuals' data it has in its databases, what sorts of data it collects and where the data came from, but those were removed as the bill negotiated its way into law. A more comprehensive law would allow individuals to demand to exactly what information they have about them -- and maybe allow individuals to correct and even delete data. But it's a start, and the first statewide law of its kind to be passed in the face of strong industry opposition.
Vermont isn't the first to attempt this, though. On the other side of the country, Representative Norma Smith of Washington introduced a similar bill in both 2017and2018. It goes further, requiring disclosure of what kinds of data the broker collects. So far, the bill has stalled in the state's legislature, but she believes it will have a much better chance of passing when she introduces it again in 2019. I am optimistic that this is a trend, and that many states will start passing bills forcing data brokers to be increasingly more transparent in their activities. And while their laws will be tailored to residents of those states, all of us will benefit from the information.
A 2018 California ballotinitiative could help. Among its provisions, it gives consumers the right to demand exactly what information a data broker has about them. If it passes in November, once it takes effect, lots of Californians will take the list of data brokers from Vermont's registration law and demand this information based on their own law. And again, all of us -- regardless of the state we live in -- will benefit from the information.
We will also benefit from another, much more comprehensive, data privacy and security law from the European Union. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was passed in 2016 and took effect on 25 May. The details of the law are far too complex to explain here, but among other things, it mandates that personal data can only be collected and saved for specific purposes and only with the explicit consent of the user. We'll learn who is collecting what and why, because companies that collect data are going to have to ask European users and customers for permission. And while this law only applies to EU citizens and people living in EU countries, the disclosure requirements will show all of us how these companies profit off our personal data.
It has already reaped benefits. Over the past couple of weeks, you've received many e-mails from companies that have you on their mailing lists. In the coming weeks and months, you're going to see other companies disclose what they're doing with your data. One early example is PayPal: in preparation for GDPR, it published a list of the over 600 companies it shares your personal data with. Expect a lot more like this.
Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. It's not just the big companies like Facebook and Google watching everything we do online and selling advertising based on our behaviors; there's also a large and largely unregulated industry of data brokers that collect, correlate and then sell intimate personal data about our behaviors. If we make the reasonable assumption that Congress is not going to regulate these companies, then we're left with the market and consumer choice. The first step in that process is transparency. These new laws, and the ones that will follow, are slowly shining a light on this secretive industry.
The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington's demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.
"If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage," a participant later remarked. "They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact." In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America's critical infrastructure -- and possibly shut down the electrical grid.
The second is from the book The World as It Is, by President Obama's deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Here's the New York Times writing about the book.
Mr. Rhodes writes he did not learn about the F.B.I. investigation until after leaving office, and then from the news media. Mr. Obama did not impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the meddling before the election because he believed it might prompt Moscow into hacking into Election Day vote tabulations. Mr. Obama did impose sanctions after the election but Mr. Rhodes's suggestion that the targets include President Vladimir V. Putin was rebuffed on the theory that such a move would go too far.
When people try to claim that there's nosuch thing as deterrence in cyberspace, this serves as a counterexample.
EDITED TO ADD: Remember the blog rules. Comments that are not about the narrow topic of deterrence in cyberspace will be deleted. Please take broader discussions of the 2016 US election elsewhere.