October 23, 2017

Archives for September 2013

On Security Backdoors

I wrote Monday about revelations that the NSA might have been inserting backdoors into security standards. Today I want to talk through two cases where the NSA has been accused of backdooring standards, and use these cases to differentiate between two types of backdoors.
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No Facebook, No Service?

The Idaho Statesman, my sort-of-local newspaper, just announced that it will follow the lead of the Miami Herald and no longer allow readers to post anonymous comments to online stories. Starting September 15, readers who want to make comments will have to login through Facebook. This is the second time I’ve encountered a mandatory Facebook login for users trying to gain access to a third-party service. The first time was when I tried to sign up last year for the music streaming service Spotify. (Spotify now allows users to create an account using an email address, but it didn’t always.)  I’m not a Facebook fan for reasons related to Facebook’s privacy and information practices, but that’s really neither here nor there. The question is whether I should have to be a Facebook user to access services on the Internet that have no natural or necessary connection to Facebook. I’m not talking here about giving users the option to login through Facebook if they want to share their online activities with Facebook friends. I’m talking about conditioning access to a non-Facebook service, or to some aspect of that service, on a user’s having a Facebook account. Internet users are accustomed to dealing with lots of intermediaries, from broadband providers to search engines, to get access to services and information. The Internet is all about mediated transfers of information. I get that. But this strikes me as a troubling new layer of intermediation.

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NSA Apparently Undermining Standards, Security, Confidence

The big NSA revelation of last week was that the agency’s multifaceted strategy to read encrypted Internet traffic is generally successful. The story, from the New York Times and ProPublica, described NSA strategies ranging from the predictable—exploiting implementation flaws in some popular crypto products; to the widely-suspected but disappointing—inducing companies to insert backdoors into products; to the really disturbing—taking active steps to weaken public encryption standards. Dan wrote yesterday about how the NSA is defeating encryption.

To understand fully why the NSA’s actions are harmful, consider this sentence from the article:

Many users assume — or have been assured by Internet companies — that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way.

In security, the worst case—the thing you most want to avoid—is thinking you are secure when you’re not. And that’s exactly what the NSA seems to be trying to perpetuate.
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