October 19, 2017

On Encryption, Archiving, and Accountability

As Elites Switch to Texting, Watchdogs Fear Loss of Accountability“, says a headline in today’s New York Times. The story describes a rising concern among rule enforcers and compliance officers:

Secure messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Confide are making inroads among lawmakers, corporate executives and other prominent communicators. Spooked by surveillance and wary of being exposed by hackers, they are switching from phone calls and emails to apps that allow them to send encrypted and self-destructing texts. These apps have obvious benefits, but their use is causing problems in heavily regulated industries, where careful record-keeping is standard procedure.

Among those “industries” is the government, where laws often require that officials’ work-related communications be retained, archived, and available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. The move to secure messaging apps frustrates these goals.

The switch to more secure messaging is happening, and for good reason, because old-school messages are increasingly vulnerable to compromise–the DNC and the Clinton campaign are among the many organizations that have paid a price for underestimating these risks.

The tradeoffs here are real. But this is not just a case of choosing between insecure-and-compliant or secure-and-noncompliant. The new secure apps have three properties that differ from old-school email: they encrypt messages end-to-end from the sender to the receiver; they sometimes delete messages quickly after they are transmitted and read; and they are set up and controlled by the end user rather than the employer.

If the concern is lack of archiving, then the last property–user control of the account, rather than employer control–is the main problem. And of course that has been a persistent problem even with email. Public officials using their personal email accounts for public business is typically not allowed (and when it happens by accident, messages are supposed to be forwarded to official accounts so they will be archived), but unreported use of personal accounts has been all too common.

Much of the reporting on this issue (but not the Times article) makes the mistake of conflating the personal-account problem with the fact that these apps use encryption. There is nothing about end-to-end encryption of data in transit that is inconsistent with archiving. The app could record messages and then upload them to an archive–with this upload also protected by end-to-end encryption as a best practice.

The second property of these apps–deleting messages shortly after use–has more complicated security implications. Again, the message becoming unavailable to the user shortly after use need not conflict with archiving. The message could be uploaded securely to an archive before deleting it from the endpoint device.

You might ask why the user should lose access to a message when that message is still stored in an archive. But this makes some sense as a security precaution. Most compromises of communications happen through the user’s access, for example because an attacker can get the user’s login credentials by phishing. Taking away the user’s access, while retaining access in a more carefully guarded archive, is a reasonable security precaution for sensitive messages.

But of course the archive still poses a security risk. Although an archive ought to be more carefully protected than a user account would be, the archive is also a big, high-value target for attackers. The decision to create an archive should not be taken lightly, but it may be justified if the need for accountability is strong enough and the communications are not overly sensitive.

The upshot of all of this is that the most modern, secure approaches to secure communication are not entirely incompatible with the kind of accountability needed for government and some other users.  Accountable versions of these types of services could be created. These would be less secure than the current versions, but more secure than old-school communications. The barriers to creating these are institutional, not technical.

European authorities fine Google for search tactics

This week the European Commission (EC) announced that it is fining Google $2.7 billion for anti-competitive tactics in the company’s iconic search product. In this post I’ll unpack what’s going on here.

I have some background on this topic. In 2011-12, when I was Chief Technologist at the FTC, the agency did a big investigation on this same topic. The FTC eventually decided not to bring a case against Google for this behavior. The EC has now reached a different conclusion.

The EC makes two main claims. First, they claim that Google dominates the search engine market in Europe–it’s pretty hard to argue with that.  Second, they claim Google designed its dominant search product in ways that unfairly advantage the company’s own Google Shopping product and unfairly disadvantage competing comparison shopping products.

Competition law is complicated, and I won’t presume to offer any legal analysis. But the basic principles motivating competition policy are not too complicated. Fair competition is encouraged. If your business grows because you improve your product, or manage your operations well, or negotiate shrewdly, or simply happen to be in the right place at the right time, that’s all good. If you amass dump trucks full of money doing this, then good for you, and thank you for your tax dollars. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work.

But if your effort is devoted to preventing fair competition, then you are probably harming consumers, and that’s a competition policy problem.  To see the difference, suppose you’re in the business of delivering packages to people’s homes.  Fair competition means buying better trucks, optimizing routes and schedules, hiring better employees, and so on.  But if you send out employees to block your competitors’ trucks, that is an anticompetitive tactic.

Now back to Google. The EC says that when users do searches relevant to shopping, Google gives its own Google Shopping product preferred placement in the search results–and higher placement leads to more clicks and more sales–while demoting competing shopping products in the search results. These two claims, self-promotion and competitor-demotion, may sound similar at first, but they raise different issues for us in understanding the case, so let’s look at them separately.

On the self-promotion claim, we know the relevant facts. On shopping-relevant searches, Google puts a box at or near the top of the search results, showing Google Shopping results with images of items for sale. That is a valuable benefit that Google Search is giving to the Google Shopping product. Is this anticompetitive? Google’s strongest argument to the contrary is that the Shopping box is essentially an ad, and Google already places ads at the top of the page. If Google auctioned that space off to the highest bidder for advertising, nobody would object. So why is it a problem if Google gives that advertising space to Google Shopping? The company could make a symbolic payment to itself to buy the space, if that made a difference to anybody.

The competitor-demotion claim is very different–the theory is less complicated, but the analysis depends more on facts not available to the public. If Google is gratuitously demoting its shopping competitors in search results, that is problematic. But Google says it is not doing that–it says that those competitors’ placements arise naturally from a search ranking algorithm based on design decisions that the company made for legitimate, pro-consumer reasons.

It’s hard for the public to tell who is right. Google’s ranking algorithm is complicated, and it changes constantly, as the Web changes and as Google works to counter sites’ attempts to game the algorithm. Is there evidence that Google tweaked the algorithm with the goal of demoting shopping competitors? Did the company make algorithm changes for the wrong reasons, or did suspicious changes happen outside the normal process? These questions are answerable in principle, but only by looking at the company’s internal information, which the EC might have but we, the public, do not.

At this point, I need to put some of my cards on the table and admit that I know more about this topic, having worked on the FTC’s investigation which asked some of the same questions. But that investigation was confidential, for good reasons, and I will not violate that confidentiality. All I’ll say is that the FTC had the legal power to compel answers to factual questions about Google’s practices (and an obligation to keep the answers confidential) and, having conducted a thorough investigation, the FTC decided not to bring a case against Google.

So why did the European authorities get a different result than the U.S. authorities? The answer might lie in differences between European and American competition law. Or it might lie in the fact that European authorities find it easier to enforce against a foreign company. Regardless of the reason, Google is presumably looking for ways to resolve the complaints that led to this investigation being started.

 

Lessons of 2016 for U.S. Election Security

The 2016 election was one of the most eventful in U.S. history. We will be debating its consequences for a long time. For those of us who pay attention to the security and reliability of elections, the 2016 election teaches some important lessons. I’ll review some of them in this post.

First, though, let’s review what has not changed. The level of election security varies considerably from place to place in the United States, depending on management, procedures, and of course technology choices. Places that rely on paperless voting systems, such as touchscreen voting machines that record votes directly in computer memories (so-called DREs), are at higher risk, because of the malleability of computer memory and the lack of an auditable record of the vote that was seen directly by the voter. Much better are systems such as precinct-count optical scan, in which the voter marks a paper ballot and feeds the ballot through an electronic scanner, and the ballot is collected in a ballot box as a record of the vote. The advantage of such a system is that a post-election audit that compares a random sample of paper ballots to the corresponding electronic records can verify with high confidence that the election results are consistent with what voters saw. Of course, you have to make the audit a routine post-election procedure.

Now, on to the lessons of 2016.

The first lesson is that nation-state adversaries may be more aggressive than we had thought. Russia took aggressive action in advance of the 2016 U.S. election, and showed signs of preparing for an attack that would disrupt or steal the election. Fortunately they did not carry out such an attack–although they did take other actions to influence the election. In the future, we will have to assume the presence of aggressive, highly capable nation-state adversaries, which we knew to be possible in principle before, but now seem more likely.

The second lesson is that we should be paying more attention to attacks that aim to undermine the legitimacy of an election rather than changing the election’s result. Election-stealing attacks have gotten most of the attention up to now–and we are still vulnerable to them in some places–but it appears that external threat actors may be more interested in attacking legitimacy.

Attacks on legitimacy could take several forms. An attacker could disrupt the operation of the election, for example, by corrupting voter registration databases so there is uncertainty about whether the correct people were allowed to vote. They could interfere with post-election tallying processes, so that incorrect results were reported–an attack that might have the intended effect even if the results were eventually corrected. Or the attacker might fabricate evidence of an attack, and release the false evidence after the election.

Legitimacy attacks could be easier to carry out than election-stealing attacks, as well. For one thing, a legitimacy attacker will typically want the attack to be discovered, although they might want to avoid having the culprit identified. By contrast, an election-stealing attack must avoid detection in order to succeed. (If detected, it might function as a legitimacy attack.)

The good news is that steps like adopting auditable paper ballots and conducting routine post-election audits are useful against both election-stealing and legitimacy attacks. If we have strong evidence of voter intent, this will make election-stealing harder, and it will make falsified evidence of election-stealing less plausible. But attacks that aim to disrupt the election process may require different types of defenses.

One thing is certain: election workers have a very difficult job, and they need all of the help they can get, from the best technology to the best procedures, if we are going to reach the level of security we need.