April 24, 2014


The Debian OpenSSL Bug: Backdoor or Security Accident?

On Monday, Ed wrote about Software Transparency, the idea that software is more resistant to intentional backdoors (and unintentional security vulnerabilities) if the process used to create it is transparent. Elements of software transparency include the availability of source code and the ability to read or contribute to a project’s issue tracker or internal developer discussion. He mentioned a case that I want to discuss in detail: in 2008, the Debian Project (a popular Linux distribution used for many web servers) announced that the pseudorandom number generator in Debian’s version of OpenSSL was broken and insecure.
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Software Transparency

Thanks to the recent NSA leaks, people are more worried than ever that their software might have backdoors. If you don’t believe that the software vendor can resist a backdoor request, the onus is on you to look for a backdoor. What you want is software transparency.

Transparency of this type is a much-touted advantage of open source software, so it’s natural to expect that the rise of backdoor fears will boost the popularity of open source code. [Read more...]


Is the NSA keeping your encrypted traffic forever?

Much has been written recently about the NSA’s program to systematically defeat the encryption methods used on the internet and in other communications technologies – Project Bullrun, in the parlance of our times. We’ve learned that the NSA can read significant quantities of encrypted traffic on the web, from mobile phone networks, and on virtual private networks, which companies use to connect remote employees or offices to their corporate networks over the public Internet. Knowing this leaves me with a question: if the NSA captures and decrypts an enciphered message, how are the spoils to be handled? Does an encrypted e-mail or web session between people within the United States enjoy the same protections as an unencrypted e-mail between the same people?

The surprising answer appears to be that encrypted messages get less protection! [Read more...]


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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On the NSA’s capabilities

Last Thursday brought significant new revelations about the capacities of the National Security Agency. While the articles in the New York Times, ProPublica, and The Guardian skirted around technical specifics, several broad themes came out.

  • NSA has the capacity to read significant amounts of encrypted Internet traffic.
  • NSA has some amount of cooperation from vendors to weaken cryptographic aspects of their products.
  • NSA has a stable of exploits designed to break into specifically targeted computers (“tailored access”, in NSA parlance)
  • NSA shares this technology with its counterparts at some of our close allies, apparently the “five eyes” group (USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand)

The NSA appears to be taking a holistic approach toward its interception technologies. [Read more...]


Axciom Opens (Some) Consumer Data; What Should You Do?

Yesterday Axciom, a large data broker, rolled out their data transparency site, aboutthedata.com. The sites lets you view some data that Axciom has about you, including demographic data, family status, financials, commercial history, and shopping preferences.

The site also lets you correct any errors in the data. It looks like you can modify the data arbitrarily, but the Terms of Use require that any modifications be truthful.

Several people have asked how they should approach the site. Should they look? Should they correct errors? My thoughts are below.
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Ethical dilemmas faced by software engineers: A roundup of responses

Two weeks ago I asked for real-life examples of ethical dilemmas in software engineering. Many of you sent responses by email, twitter, and comments. Thank you for taking the time! Here is a quick summary (in no particular order).

Aaron Massey has written a very thoughtful post in response. I encourage you to give it a read. Let me highlight one point he makes in particular that I found very insightful:

Worse, ethics and failure tend to be lumped together, at least in software engineering. When I’ve asked questions similar to Arvind’s in the past, I’ve found that important or noticeable failures are common, but these are not always the most useful for learning ethics. Consider the Therac-25 failure, in which several deaths occurred because of a software engineering failure. While this is a serious failure, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that this is a great example of an ethical dilemma. The developers of the software weren’t tempted to introduce the bug; it was simply an accident of construction. Had they known about this beforehand, it’s likely they would have fixed it. Similar arguments can be made for things like the failed launch of the Ariane-5 or the Mars Climate Orbiter, which are also commonly mentioned. I suppose these are reasonable examples of the need to at least not be totally ambivalent about engineering projects, but they aren’t great examples of ethical dilemmas.

Next, a person who wishes to be anonymous writes by email:

Here’s one that happened to me [...] It was the website for a major clothing brand targeted at one gender. They were running a competition for entrants to win one of five of a very cool prize (think iphone or xbox). At the end of the competition management asked us to randomly extract five winners from the database. So we wrote a little script to pull five random entries — it returned 3 of one gender and 2 from the other.

We sent the names up the chain but then head office came back and asked us to redraw as they didn’t want any winners from the non-target gender. We refused based on the Anti-Discrimination Act here in my home state.

Alex Stamos points to the slides and audio of his Defcon talk on the ethics of the white hat industry, and notes that all of the examples in the end are real.

On a historical note, Steve Bellovin points to the history of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. I’d never heard of the organization; it appears that it started in 1983, has been relatively inactive for the last few years and was dissolved a few months ago.

Augie Fackler writes

designing a security algorithm without any peer review — this comes to mind because of a recent blackhat presentation about z-wave hardware showing that the algorithm (might) be sound, but there are defects in door lock implementations that can cause the security to be worthwhile. The ethical dilemma comes in because it’s clearly an under-tested security system that vendors are pushing for physical security.

Henry Corrigan-Gibbs points to his paper with Bryan Ford via Twitter:

We draw an ethical analogy between Internet freedom efforts and humanitarian aid work. This parallel motivates a number of ethical questions relating to anonymity and censorship-circumvention research.

James Grimmelmann points to several papers: Danielle Citron’s Technological Due Process, which I think is a very important paper, Bias in Computer systems by Friedman and Nissenbaum, and his own The Google Dilemma. I haven’t read the latter two yet. He also links to a Gamasutra essay on free-to-play games, which is coincidentally something I’ve been investigating in the context of my recent series on price discrimination.

Several other interesting Twitter responses: spam/mass mailing, weapons tech, Internet filtering, Facebook Beacon.

And finally, many great responses in the comments; one frequent theme was vulnerabilities/crypto/hacking/malware.

Apologies if I missed anything. Feel free to send me more! If this list keeps growing, it might be productive to set up a Wiki.