February 21, 2018

Archives for 2015

Classified material in the public domain: what's a university to do?

Yesterday I posted some thoughts about Purdue University’s decision to destroy a video recording of my keynote address at its Dawn or Doom colloquium. The organizers had gone dark, and a promised public link was not forthcoming. After a couple of weeks of hoping to resolve the matter quietly, I did some digging and decided to write up what I learned. I posted on the web site of the Century Foundation, my main professional home:

It turns out that Purdue has wiped all copies of my video and slides from university servers, on grounds that I displayed classified documents briefly on screen. A breach report was filed with the university’s Research Information Assurance Officer, also known as the Site Security Officer, under the terms of Defense Department Operating Manual 5220.22-M. I am told that Purdue briefly considered, among other things, whether to destroy the projector I borrowed, lest contaminants remain.

I was, perhaps, naive, but pretty much all of that came as a real surprise.

Let’s rewind. Information Assurance? Site Security?

These are familiar terms elsewhere, but new to me in a university context. I learned that Purdue, like a number of its peers, has a “facility security clearance” to perform classified U.S. government research. The manual of regulations runs to 141 pages. (Its terms forbid uncleared trustees to ask about the work underway on their campus, but that’s a subject for another day.) The pertinent provision here, spelled out at length in a manual called Classified Information Spillage, requires “sanitization, physical removal, or destruction” of classified information discovered on unauthorized media.

Two things happened in rapid sequence around the time I told Purdue about my post.

First, the university broke a week-long silence and expressed a measure of regret:

UPDATE: Just after posting this item I received an email from Julie Rosa, who heads strategic communications for Purdue. She confirmed that Purdue wiped my video after consulting the Defense Security Service, but the university now believes it went too far.

“In an overreaction while attempting to comply with regulations, the video was ordered to be deleted instead of just blocking the piece of information in question. Just FYI: The conference organizers were not even aware that any of this had happened until well after the video was already gone.”

“I’m told we are attempting to recover the video, but I have not heard yet whether that is going to be possible. When I find out, I will let you know and we will, of course, provide a copy to you.”

Then Edward Snowden tweeted the link, and the Century Foundation’s web site melted down. It now redirects to Medium, where you can find the full story.

I have not heard back from Purdue today about recovery of the video. It is not clear to me how recovery is even possible, if Purdue followed Pentagon guidelines for secure destruction. Moreover, although the university seems to suggest it could have posted most of the video, it does not promise to do so now. Most importantly, the best that I can hope for here is that my remarks and slides will be made available in redacted form — with classified images removed, and some of my central points therefore missing. There would be one version of the talk for the few hundred people who were in the room on Sept. 24, and for however many watched the live stream, and another version left as the only record.

For our purposes here, the most notable questions have to do with academic freedom in the context of national security. How did a university come to “sanitize” a public lecture it had solicited, on the subject of NSA surveillance, from an author known to possess the Snowden documents? How could it profess to be shocked to find that spillage is going on at such a talk? The beginning of an answer came, I now see, in the question and answer period after my Purdue remarks. A post-doctoral research engineer stood up to ask whether the documents I had put on display were unclassified. “No,” I replied. “They’re classified still.” Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science there, later attributed that concern to “junior security rangers” on the faculty and staff. But the display of Top Secret material, he said, “once noted, … is something that cannot be unnoted.”

Someone reported my answer to Purdue’s Research Information Assurance Officer, who reported in turn to Purdue’s representative at the Defense Security Service. By the terms of its Pentagon agreement, Purdue decided it was now obliged to wipe the video of my talk in its entirety. I regard this as a rather devout reading of the rules, which allowed Purdue to “realistically consider the potential harm that may result from compromise of spilled information.” The slides I showed had been viewed already by millions of people online. Even so, federal funding might be at stake for Purdue, and the notoriously vague terms of the Espionage Act hung over the decision. For most lawyers, “abundance of caution” would be the default choice. Certainly that kind of thinking is commonplace, and sometimes appropriate, in military and intelligence services.

But universities are not secret agencies. They cannot lightly wear the shackles of a National Industrial Security Program, as Purdue agreed to do. The values at their core, in principle and often in practice, are open inquiry and expression.

I do not claim I suffered any great harm when Purdue purged my remarks from its conference proceedings. I do not lack for publishers or public forums. But the next person whose talk is disappeared may have fewer resources.

More importantly, to my mind, Purdue has compromised its own independence and that of its students and faculty. It set an unhappy precedent, even if the people responsible thought they were merely following routine procedures.

One can criticize the university for its choices, and quite a few have since I published my post. What interests me is how nearly the results were foreordained once Purdue made itself eligible for Top Secret work.

Think of it as a classic case of mission creep. Purdue invited the secret-keepers of the Defense Security Service into one cloistered corner of campus (“a small but significant fraction” of research in certain fields, as the university counsel put it). The trustees accepted what may have seemed a limited burden, confined to the precincts of classified research.

Now the security apparatus claims jurisdiction over the campus (“facility”) at large. The university finds itself “sanitizing” a conference that has nothing to do with any government contract.

I am glad to see that Princeton takes the view that “[s]ecurity regulations and classification of information are at variance with the basic objectives of a University.” It does not permit faculty members to do classified work on campus, which avoids Purdue’s “facility” problem. And even so, at Princeton and elsewhere, there may be an undercurrent of self-censorship and informal restraint against the use of documents derived from unauthorized leaks.

Two of my best students nearly dropped a course I taught a few years back, called “Secrecy, Accountability and the National Security State,” when they learned the syllabus would include documents from Wikileaks. Both had security clearances, for summer jobs, and feared losing them. I told them I would put the documents on Blackboard, so they need not visit the Wikileaks site itself, but the readings were mandatory. Both, to their credit, stayed in the course. They did so against the advice of some of their mentors, including faculty members. The advice was purely practical. The U.S. government will not give a clear answer when asked whether this sort of exposure to published secrets will harm job prospects or future security clearances. Why take the risk?

Every student and scholar must decide for him- or herself, but I think universities should push back harder, and perhaps in concert. There is a treasure trove of primary documents in the archives made available by Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The government may wish otherwise, but that information is irretrievably in the public domain. Should a faculty member ignore the Snowden documents when designing a course on network security architecture? Should a student write a dissertation on modern U.S.-Saudi relations without consulting the numerous diplomatic cables on Wikileaks? To me, those would be abdications of the basic duty to seek out authoritative sources of knowledge, wherever they reside.

I would be interested to learn how others have grappled with these questions. I expect to write about them in my forthcoming book on surveillance, privacy and secrecy.

Berkeley releases report on barriers to cybersecurity research

I’m pleased to share this report, as I helped organize this event.

Researchers associated with the UC Berkeley School of Information and School of Law, the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, and the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) released a workshop report detailing legal barriers and other disincentives to cybersecurity research, and recommendations to address them. The workshop held at Berkeley in April, supported by the National Science Foundation, brought together leading computer scientists and lawyers, from academia, civil society, and industry, to map out legal barriers to cybersecurity research and propose a set of concrete solutions.

The workshop report provides important background for the NTIA-convened multistakeholder process exploring security vulnerability disclosure, which launched today at Berkeley.  The report documents the importance of cybersecurity research, the chilling effect caused by current regulations, and the diversity of the vulnerability landscape that counsels against both single and fixed practices around vulnerability disclosures.

Read the report here.

Has Apple Doomed Ads on the Web? Will It Crush Google?

Recently Apple announced that, for the first time ever, ad-blocking plugins will be allowed in mobile Safari in iOS 9. There has been a large outpouring of commentary about this, and there seems to be pretty broad agreement on two things: (1) this action on Apple’s part was aimed at Google and (2) for publishers this will be something between terrible and catastrophic.

I believe that people are making these assessments based on a lack of understanding of the technical details of what is in fact going on.

For the most part, the public does not appreciate the extent to which, when a web browser visits a typical site, the “page” being served comes from multiple parties. Go to a typical e-commerce site, and you will find pixels, trackers, and content from additional servers, from a few to dozens.  These produce analytics for the site owner, run A/B tests, place ads, and many other things. There is even a service that knows what size clothing to sell. It is these services that are the target of ad blockers.

The reason ad blockers work is that the industry has made a standard method of ad placement, which is trivial to implement for the publishers and e-commerce web sites. Ad serving is fully browser-based, so the publishers have to do nothing more than install a line of code in their html pages that pulls in a javascript file from the ad company’s server. Once the javascript is in the web page, the ad company takes care of the rest: it figures out what ad to display and injects it into the page.

Aside from the simplicity for the publisher, this architecture has an additional advantage for the ad company: they can track users as they go from site to site. Since the web page is pulling in a javascript file from the ad company’s server, that site is able to set a permanent cookie on the user’s browser, which will be sent every subsequent time that user goes to any site that uses the services of that ad company. Thus the ad company is able to accumulate lots of data on users, without most people knowing. In some cases, people’s objection is not to the existence of ads per se, but the secret and unaccountable way in which data is collected.

It is this architecture however that renders the ad vulnerable to the blocker. In fact, ad blockers have existed for desktop browsers for a long time.

So there is nothing really new under the sun, just the growing popularity of the tracker/ad blocking software. If the use of these plugins becomes ubiquitous, only one thing would have to change – the publishers would have to insert the line of code in some way on the server side, and the ad would just look as though it came with the rest of the page. At that point, the browser plugin is useless.

What would be the knock-on effects of this? The ad companies no longer have any way to track users as they move around the web. Absent some way on the ad companies’ part to implement a cross-site evercookie (which would be considered unethical and would quickly be blocked by browser authors if discovered), the ad companies will no longer have a way to connect users on one site to users on another. The ads you’d see on a given site could be based solely on the interactions you’ve had with that one site – which would be a boon to privacy.

This is a change, for certain, but probably not the apocalypse for publishing it has been made out to be. There will be a rush to develop ad-placement technology for the server side as there was on the client, but when all settles down it will be pretty easy for the publishers to implement.

It’s even arguable that in that world of anonymous web surfing, the better web properties would be able to charge higher rates – absent spying on the readers, decisions about the value of ad placements would be based on the demographics of the readers of the site – just as for offline properties.

That being said, if you ever reveal your identity to a web site (for example by entering your e-mail address) that site could set a cookie so as to remember who you are. From that point on, information could quietly be sent to the ad server, perhaps storing all the URLs you visit on that site.

So, in the end, this change actually may be a boon for Google. If it’s really true that tracking users is so valuable for ad placement, Google has an advantage the other ad companies do not: many millions of users using Gmail and the Chrome browser, both of which Google controls. If you use Google’s e-mail, Google knows what links you are getting sent from advertisers. If you click a link in a Gmail message going to a web site with Google serving ads on the back end, you can arrive at the site with Google already knowing who you are. (This can be done unobtrusively using the http referrer header.)

Even if you don’t use Gmail, you may sign in to Chrome to sync your data across devices. This uploads information to Google’s servers so it can be sent to other devices, such as your Android phone. One of the things that can be synced is the browser history. If this is done, Google – and no one else – will have the same information they would have collected with browser cookies.

If Apple is looking to damage Google, their plan may backfire. No one else, not even Facebook, has a chance of matching this.