Crypto backdoors are a horrible idea

From time to time various law enforcement and government types whine that encryption is a bad thing because it allows criminals to hide from authorities.  That is usually followed by a call for security backdoors that allow government authorities to get around the security measures.

That’s a really bad idea – or as Cory Doctorow puts it in a post entitled Once Again: Crypto backdoors are an insane, dangerous idea: “Among cryptographers, the idea that you can make cryptosystems with deliberate weaknesses intended to allow third parties to bypass them is universally considered Just Plain Stupid.”

They build in a vulnerability to exploit – there are enough problems keeping things secure already.  And the thought that government authorities can be trusted to use that backdoor only for the “right” purposes, and to keep the backdoor out of the hands of others is wishful thinking.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Chatting in Secret

The Intercept has an article entitled Chatting in Secret While We’re All Being Watched that’s a good read for anyone interested in how to keep communications private.  It was written by Micah Lee, who works with Glenn Greenwald to ensure their communications with Edward Snowden are private.

Even if you don’t want to read the detailed technical instructions on how to go about it, at least read the first part of the article that explains at a high level how communications can be intercepted, and the steps needed to stop that risk.

Communicating in secret is not easy.  It takes effort to set it up, and it’s easy to slip up along the way.  As is usually the case in any kind of security – physical or electronic – its about raising the difficulty level for someone to breach the security.  The more efforts someone might take to try to intercept your communications, the more work it takes to keep it secret.  For example, you raise the sophistication level of the thief who might burglarize your house as you increase security – from locking your doors, to deadbolts, to break resistant glass, to alarms, etc.  It doesn’t take much extra security to make the thief go to another house, but it may take a lot more if a thief wants something specific in your house .

Edward Snowden’s communications, for example, require very diligent efforts, given the resources that various authorities might use to intercept those communications.

For the record, I think Snowden should be given a medal and a ticker tape parade, not jail time.  I recommend watching Citizenfour, the documentary about Snowden that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars.  Also to read security expert Bruce Schneier’s book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World.  Another book to put this into context in Canada (based on my read of the introduction – I haven’t made it farther than that yet) is Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era, edited by Michael Geist.

I challenge anyone to watch/read those and not be creeped out.

Cross-posted to Slaw

Bill C-51 (Anti-Terrorist Act, 2015) passed by Senate despite massive opposition

Bill C-51 (Anti-Terrorist Act, 2015) has been passed by the Senate despite massive opposition against its privacy unfriendly invasive powers.  See, for example, commentary by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, this article by security law professors entitled “Why Can’t Canada Get National Security Law Right“, and this post on Openmedia.ca .

Yet in the United States, the USA Freedom Act was just passed that pulled back a bit on the ability of the NSA to collect domestic data.

There seems to be no evidence that all this invasive spying and data collection actually reduces or prevents terrorism or crime.  The cost is enormous – both in terms of the direct cost of collecting, storing and analyzing it – and the costs to the economy.  A new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation says that US companies will likely lose more than $35 billion in foreign business as a result of NSA operations.

And that’s not to mention the cost to civil liberties and privacy.  As many people have pointed out, 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual.

1984 warning

Cross-posted to Slaw

Happy World Backup Day

Today is world backup day, a reminder of how important it is to back up our data – and to do it daily.

(I have not been able to figure out the origins of this day – Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it – but the sentiment is a good one.)

For just one example, if your defenses are down and you get hit with a Crypto Virus that locks up all your files, you can restore your files from yesterday’s backup, rather than paying the ransom.

For practical thoughts on some things to consider about how and why to back up all your data, take a look at this article by David Bilinsky.

Also take a look at this infographic by Cloudwards – a cloud storage promoter – that has some info about the causes of lost data, and issues to consider around backup solutions.

Cloudwards.net – World Backup Day 2015
Courtesy of: Cloudwards.net

Russian hackers amass 1.2 billion username/password combinations

A New York Times story says that: “A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion user name and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses…”.  This was discovered by a company called Hold Security, that so far has not named the sites.  I’m a bit skeptical of the news, however, when Hold Security has a paid service to find out if your site is affected by this.

This emphasizes yet again the importance of using proper passwords and taking advantage of multi-factor authentication wherever it is offered.

Since the only good password is one we can’t possible remember, and they should be different for each site, the best approach is to use a password manager.  Password managers both create strong unique passwords and save them for you.  Here’s a recent PC Mag article on The Best Password Managers.

Make sure your password to get into your password manager is a strong one, and take advantage of multifactor authentication for it.  Make sure you have a backup copy of those passwords.  And lets hope that the password manager sites have protected themselves strongly enough that they can’t be compromised.

Cross posted to Slaw

http://harrisonpensa.com/lawyers/david-canton

Are you vulnerable to Heartbleed?

A serious flaw has been discovered in OpenSSL – the browser encryption standard used by an estimated two-thirds of the servers on the internet.  This flaw has been there for a couple of years, and allows hackers to read data stored in memory.  That gives hackers access to anything in memory, including security keys, user names and passwords, emails and documents.  More detail is on Gigaom and Schneier on Security.

An update to OpenSSL fixes the flaw.  Anyone who has a website should ask their service provider if it affects their site, and have it updated immediately.

And for those of you still using Windows XP or Office 2003 – upgrade that immediately as well.  I was surprised to read this morning that as many as 30% of Windows based computers still use XP.  As of today, Microsoft is no longer supporting them.

[cross-posted on Slaw]

NSA spying – musings about the surveillance state

Today’s Slaw post:

Much has been written about the NSA / Prism communications monitoring scandal over the last few days, including Simon’s recent post. Many things are unclear, and there are more questions than answers, but these things are clear to me.

Some people defend or trivialize it by saying that actual phone conversations and emails are not being monitored – just metadata. Metadata simply means data about data – it doesn’t mean that it is innocuous or public. The phone “just metadata” being tracked is equivalent to looking at one’s phone bill – numbers called, duration, etc. That definitely contains personal information which raises serious privacy issues. Reminds me of the “it’s just allergies” allergy medication ads.

Another comment that is supposed to make it better is that US citizens are not being targeted by the NSA. Who is targeted doesn’t change the fact that personal information on citizens is being collected and retained. And why is it somehow acceptable to spy on and violate the privacy of people in other countries?

Some ask why it is okay for Google to use knowledge it gains from searching your e-mails to sell advertising, but not okay for Google to pass it on to the government. There is a huge difference. Google serves up those ads without knowing or retaining the identity of the recipient. Privacy principles apply to contextual or behavioural advertising and contextual information (such as Google Now), and we can opt out of receiving it. Privacy obligations limit how long personal information is retained, who it can be disclosed to, and how it can be used. None of those concepts apply to NSA monitoring, and opting out is not an option. The devil is in the details when it comes to privacy, security and surveillance.

Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information that started this, is apparently hiding in Hong Kong, and US authorities are eager to get him back to the US and charge him criminally. If he had done the same thing in certain countries in the Middle East or Asia, people in the US would be praise him as a hero and chastise the government for its retaliation against him. If those countries were doing the same surveillance as the NSA is, those in the US would demonize the state for its unacceptable assault on civil liberties and privacy.

I do not welcome the surveillance state.

http://harrisonpensa.com/lawyers/david-canton

There is secure, then there is secure

Today’s Slaw post

This ars technica article points out that Microsoft scans Skype message contents for signs of fraud, which means that Microsoft can read them.  While Skype messages may be encrypted to prevent third parties from reading them, that apparently does not apply to Microsoft. 

This is not just a Microsoft issue.  Other providers of communication and data storage may also be able to do that for certain services (Facebook, Google).  A close read of various service provider terms of use and privacy policies show they have the option to review data.  It is usually intended as a way to control things like spam and fraud or violations of acceptable use policies.

Users will have to decide if they require true end to end encryption where the service provider can’t access data at all, or whether they can accept service provider access and rely on contractual promises on what the service provider will do with that.  The answer may vary depending on the sensitivity of the information being stored or communicated by the service, or legal or contractual obligations one has regarding the information.

Gadgets encroach on privacy

For the London Free Press – April 8, 2013 – Read this at lfpress.com 

Machines that become self-aware and rebel against their human creators is a popular science fiction theme. A threat more immediate than Terminator’s Skynet or BSG’s rebelling “toasters” is that of our belongings spying on us.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, it enables more intrusion into individual privacy. Our belongings increasingly generate information about us, and the Internet will make more of our belongings — such as our homes and appliances — connected and able to share that information.

The use of data tracking and collecting by cars and smartphones are good examples.

Our smartphones and the applications we use every day are collecting more and more information about us. The inclusion of “black boxes” in cars also allows this same intrusion.

Many of us have smartphones. This new terminology provides an accurate description of how powerful these devices have become. Most people are focused, and understandably excited, about the capabilities they have provided. But there is a less of a focus on the sheer amount of personal information they can provide to various third parties and what potential impact this could have in the future.

The average smartphone user would likely use their phone for e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, GPS and even personal banking. With simple access to a person’s phone, organizations would be able to obtain almost a complete profile of a person and have access to all of their personal data. Modern smartphones contain little in terms of disclosing who and where this information is held and what steps are being taken to protect it.

Personal data collection has also increased considerably in cars. Though the concept of a talking car in Knight Rider seemed to be a ridiculous idea when the show first aired, we are closer to that day than ever.

For example, some car insurance companies offer discounts to people who provide them with black-box information about their cars, such as where and when they drive and how fast they drive. Though this information can be useful assisting insurance adjusters and the police to determine liability in the event of a crash, this also can be viewed as extremely intrusive.

This is not meant to suggest technological developments should be stopped, but there does need to be a real effort to think things through. What information is collected? Is that information really needed? Is it stored on the device or somewhere else? For how long is it stored? Who has access to it? For what purpose can they use it? If others have access, is it made anonymous or tied to an individual? What choices do we as individuals have over this information?

Do we feel comfortable with cellphone providers, car manufacturers, insurance companies and police knowing our every move?

How the dissemination of this information will be controlled by the courts and balanced with individual rights will develop over time. The Ontario Court of Appeal recently held that police can access, without a warrant, a phone of a person being arrested that does not contain a passcode.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled a wiretap warrant is needed for police to obtain access to text messages in the possession of a cell company.

Some argue this collection and sharing of information should be OK for those who have “nothing to hide”, but it is a much more complex matter than that.

www.harrisonpensa.com/lawyers/david-canton