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Japan's Directorate for Signals Intelligence

The Intercept has a long article on Japan's equivalent of the NSA: the Directorate for Signals Intelligence. Interesting, but nothing really surprising.

The directorate has a history that dates back to the 1950s; its role is to eavesdrop on communications. But its operations remain so highly classified that the Japanese government has disclosed little about its work ­ even the location of its headquarters. Most Japanese officials, except for a select few of the prime minister's inner circle, are kept in the dark about the directorate's activities, which are regulated by a limited legal framework and not subject to any independent oversight.

Now, a new investigation by the Japanese broadcaster NHK -- produced in collaboration with The Intercept -- reveals for the first time details about the inner workings of Japan's opaque spy community. Based on classified documents and interviews with current and former officials familiar with the agency's intelligence work, the investigation shines light on a previously undisclosed internet surveillance program and a spy hub in the south of Japan that is used to monitor phone calls and emails passing across communications satellites.

The article includes some new documents from the Snowden archive.

Posted on May 21, 2018 at 9:54 AMView Comments

NIST Issues Call for "Lightweight Cryptography" Algorithms

This is interesting:

Creating these defenses is the goal of NIST's lightweight cryptography initiative, which aims to develop cryptographic algorithm standards that can work within the confines of a simple electronic device. Many of the sensors, actuators and other micromachines that will function as eyes, ears and hands in IoT networks will work on scant electrical power and use circuitry far more limited than the chips found in even the simplest cell phone. Similar small electronics exist in the keyless entry fobs to newer-model cars and the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags used to locate boxes in vast warehouses.

All of these gadgets are inexpensive to make and will fit nearly anywhere, but common encryption methods may demand more electronic resources than they possess.

The NSA's SIMON and SPECK would certainly qualify.

Posted on May 2, 2018 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Two NSA Algorithms Rejected by the ISO

The ISO has rejected two symmetric encryption algorithms: SIMON and SPECK. These algorithms were both designed by the NSA and made public in 2013. They are optimized for small and low-cost processors like IoT devices.

The risk of using NSA-designed ciphers, of course, is that they include NSA-designed backdoors. Personally, I doubt that they're backdoored. And I always like seeing NSA-designed cryptography (particularly its key schedules). It's like examining alien technology.

EDITED TO ADD (5/14): Why the algorithms were rejected.

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 6:54 AMView Comments

After Section 702 Reauthorization

For over a decade, civil libertarians have been fighting government mass surveillance of innocent Americans over the Internet. We've just lost an important battle. On January 18, President Trump signed the renewal of Section 702, domestic mass surveillance became effectively a permanent part of US law.

Section 702 was initially passed in 2008, as an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. As the title of that law says, it was billed as a way for the NSA to spy on non-Americans located outside the United States. It was supposed to be an efficiency and cost-saving measure: the NSA was already permitted to tap communications cables located outside the country, and it was already permitted to tap communications cables from one foreign country to another that passed through the United States. Section 702 allowed it to tap those cables from inside the United States, where it was easier. It also allowed the NSA to request surveillance data directly from Internet companies under a program called PRISM.

The problem is that this authority also gave the NSA the ability to collect foreign communications and data in a way that inherently and intentionally also swept up Americans' communications as well, without a warrant. Other law enforcement agencies are allowed to ask the NSA to search those communications, give their contents to the FBI and other agencies and then lie about their origins in court.

In 1978, after Watergate had revealed the Nixon administration's abuses of power, we erected a wall between intelligence and law enforcement that prevented precisely this kind of sharing of surveillance data under any authority less restrictive than the Fourth Amendment. Weakening that wall is incredibly dangerous, and the NSA should never have been given this authority in the first place.

Arguably, it never was. The NSA had been doing this type of surveillance illegally for years, something that was first made public in 2006. Section 702 was secretly used as a way to paper over that illegal collection, but nothing in the text of the later amendment gives the NSA this authority. We didn't know that the NSA was using this law as the statutory basis for this surveillance until Edward Snowden showed us in 2013.

Civil libertarians have been battling this law in both Congress and the courts ever since it was proposed, and the NSA's domestic surveillance activities even longer. What this most recent vote tells me is that we've lost that fight.

Section 702 was passed under George W. Bush in 2008, reauthorized under Barack Obama in 2012, and now reauthorized again under Trump. In all three cases, congressional support was bipartisan. It has survived multiple lawsuits by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and others. It has survived the revelations by Snowden that it was being used far more extensively than Congress or the public believed, and numerous public reports of violations of the law. It has even survived Trump's belief that he was being personally spied on by the intelligence community, as well as any congressional fears that Trump could abuse the authority in the coming years. And though this extension lasts only six years, it's inconceivable to me that it will ever be repealed at this point.

So what do we do? If we can't fight this particular statutory authority, where's the new front on surveillance? There are, it turns out, reasonable modifications that target surveillance more generally, and not in terms of any particular statutory authority. We need to look at US surveillance law more generally.

First, we need to strengthen the minimization procedures to limit incidental collection. Since the Internet was developed, all the world's communications travel around in a single global network. It's impossible to collect only foreign communications, because they're invariably mixed in with domestic communications. This is called "incidental" collection, but that's a misleading name. It's collected knowingly, and searched regularly. The intelligence community needs much stronger restrictions on which American communications channels it can access without a court order, and rules that require they delete the data if they inadvertently collect it. More importantly, "collection" is defined as the point the NSA takes a copy of the communications, and not later when they search their databases.

Second, we need to limit how other law enforcement agencies can use incidentally collected information. Today, those agencies can query a database of incidental collection on Americans. The NSA can legally pass information to those other agencies. This has to stop. Data collected by the NSA under its foreign surveillance authority should not be used as a vehicle for domestic surveillance.

The most recent reauthorization modified this lightly, forcing the FBI to obtain a court order when querying the 702 data for a criminal investigation. There are still exceptions and loopholes, though.

Third, we need to end what's called "parallel construction." Today, when a law enforcement agency uses evidence found in this NSA database to arrest someone, it doesn't have to disclose that fact in court. It can reconstruct the evidence in some other manner once it knows about it, and then pretend it learned of it that way. This right to lie to the judge and the defense is corrosive to liberty, and it must end.

Pressure to reform the NSA will probably first come from Europe. Already, European Union courts have pointed to warrantless NSA surveillance as a reason to keep Europeans' data out of US hands. Right now, there is a fragile agreement between the EU and the United States ­-- called "Privacy Shield" -- ­that requires Americans to maintain certain safeguards for international data flows. NSA surveillance goes against that, and it's only a matter of time before EU courts start ruling this way. That'll have significant effects on both government and corporate surveillance of Europeans and, by extension, the entire world.

Further pressure will come from the increased surveillance coming from the Internet of Things. When your home, car, and body are awash in sensors, privacy from both governments and corporations will become increasingly important. Sooner or later, society will reach a tipping point where it's all too much. When that happens, we're going to see significant pushback against surveillance of all kinds. That's when we'll get new laws that revise all government authorities in this area: a clean sweep for a new world, one with new norms and new fears.

It's possible that a federal court will rule on Section 702. Although there have been many lawsuits challenging the legality of what the NSA is doing and the constitutionality of the 702 program, no court has ever ruled on those questions. The Bush and Obama administrations successfully argued that defendants don't have legal standing to sue. That is, they have no right to sue because they don't know they're being targeted. If any of the lawsuits can get past that, things might change dramatically.

Meanwhile, much of this is the responsibility of the tech sector. This problem exists primarily because Internet companies collect and retain so much personal data and allow it to be sent across the network with minimal security. Since the government has abdicated its responsibility to protect our privacy and security, these companies need to step up: Minimize data collection. Don't save data longer than absolutely necessary. Encrypt what has to be saved. Well-designed Internet services will safeguard users, regardless of government surveillance authority.

For the rest of us concerned about this, it's important not to give up hope. Everything we do to keep the issue in the public eye ­-- and not just when the authority comes up for reauthorization again in 2024 -- hastens the day when we will reaffirm our rights to privacy in the digital age.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on January 31, 2018 at 6:06 AMView Comments

NSA Morale

The Washington Post is reporting that poor morale at the NSA is causing a significant talent shortage. A November New York Times article said much the same thing.

The articles point to many factors: the recent reorganization, low pay, and the various leaks. I have been saying for a while that the Shadow Brokers leaks have been much more damaging to the NSA -- both to morale and operating capabilities -- than Edward Snowden. I think it'll take most of a decade for them to recover.

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 5:58 AMView Comments

NSA "Red Disk" Data Leak

ZDNet is reporting about another data leak, this one from US Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), which is also within the NSA.

The disk image, when unpacked and loaded, is a snapshot of a hard drive dating back to May 2013 from a Linux-based server that forms part of a cloud-based intelligence sharing system, known as Red Disk. The project, developed by INSCOM's Futures Directorate, was slated to complement the Army's so-called distributed common ground system (DCGS), a legacy platform for processing and sharing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information.


Red Disk was envisioned as a highly customizable cloud system that could meet the demands of large, complex military operations. The hope was that Red Disk could provide a consistent picture from the Pentagon to deployed soldiers in the Afghan battlefield, including satellite images and video feeds from drones trained on terrorists and enemy fighters, according to a Foreign Policy report.


Red Disk was a modular, customizable, and scalable system for sharing intelligence across the battlefield, like electronic intercepts, drone footage and satellite imagery, and classified reports, for troops to access with laptops and tablets on the battlefield. Marking files found in several directories imply the disk is "top secret," and restricted from being shared to foreign intelligence partners.

A couple of points. One, this isn't particularly sensitive. It's an intelligence distribution system under development. It's not raw intelligence. Two, this doesn't seem to be classified data. Even the article hedges, using the unofficial term of "highly sensitive." Three, it doesn't seem that Chris Vickery, the researcher that discovered the data, has published it.

Chris Vickery, director of cyber risk research at security firm UpGuard, found the data and informed the government of the breach in October. The storage server was subsequently secured, though its owner remains unknown.

This doesn't feel like a big deal to me.

Slashdot thread.

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 6:44 AMView Comments

New White House Announcement on the Vulnerability Equities Process

The White House has released a new version of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP). This is the inter-agency process by which the US government decides whether to inform the software vendor of a vulnerability it finds, or keep it secret and use it to eavesdrop on or attack other systems. You can read the new policy or the fact sheet, but the best place to start is Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce's blog post.

In considering a way forward, there are some key tenets on which we can build a better process.

Improved transparency is critical. The American people should have confidence in the integrity of the process that underpins decision making about discovered vulnerabilities. Since I took my post as Cybersecurity Coordinator, improving the VEP and ensuring its transparency have been key priorities, and we have spent the last few months reviewing our existing policy in order to improve the process and make key details about the VEP available to the public. Through these efforts, we have validated much of the existing process and ensured a rigorous standard that considers many potential equities.

The interests of all stakeholders must be fairly represented. At a high level we consider four major groups of equities: defensive equities; intelligence / law enforcement / operational equities; commercial equities; and international partnership equities. Additionally, ordinary people want to know the systems they use are resilient, safe, and sound. These core considerations, which have been incorporated into the VEP Charter, help to standardize the process by which decision makers weigh the benefit to national security and the national interest when deciding whether to disclose or restrict knowledge of a vulnerability.

Accountability of the process and those who operate it is important to establish confidence in those served by it. Our public release of the unclassified portions Charter will shed light on aspects of the VEP that were previously shielded from public review, including who participates in the VEP's governing body, known as the Equities Review Board. We make it clear that departments and agencies with protective missions participate in VEP discussions, as well as other departments and agencies that have broader equities, like the Department of State and the Department of Commerce. We also clarify what categories of vulnerabilities are submitted to the process and ensure that any decision not to disclose a vulnerability will be reevaluated regularly. There are still important reasons to keep many of the specific vulnerabilities evaluated in the process classified, but we will release an annual report that provides metrics about the process to further inform the public about the VEP and its outcomes.

Our system of government depends on informed and vigorous dialogue to discover and make available the best ideas that our diverse society can generate. This publication of the VEP Charter will likely spark discussion and debate. This discourse is important. I also predict that articles will make breathless claims of "massive stockpiles" of exploits while describing the issue. That simply isn't true. The annual reports and transparency of this effort will reinforce that fact.

Mozilla is pleased with the new charter. I am less so; it looks to me like the same old policy with some new transparency measures -- which I'm not sure I trust. The devil is in the details, and we don't know the details -- and it has giant loopholes that pretty much anything can fall through:

The United States Government's decision to disclose or restrict vulnerability information could be subject to restrictions by partner agreements and sensitive operations. Vulnerabilities that fall within these categories will be cataloged by the originating Department/Agency internally and reported directly to the Chair of the ERB. The details of these categories are outlined in Annex C, which is classified. Quantities of excepted vulnerabilities from each department and agency will be provided in ERB meetings to all members.

This is me from last June:

There's a lot we don't know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue "for more than five years," which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It's not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue -- or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August -- to remain unpatched for years isn't serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was "unreal." But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

I stand by that, and am not sure the new policy changes anything.

More commentary.

Here's more about the Windows vulnerabilities hoarded by the NSA and released by the Shadow Brokers.

EDITED TO ADD (11/18): More news.

EDITED TO ADD (11/22): Adam Shostack points out that the process does not cover design flaws or trade-offs, and that those need to be covered:

...we need the VEP to expand to cover those issues. I'm not going to claim that will be easy, that the current approach will translate, or that they should have waited to handle those before publishing. One obvious place it gets harder is the sources and methods tradeoff. But we need the internet to be a resilient and trustworthy infrastructure.

Posted on November 17, 2017 at 6:02 AMView Comments

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