July 29, 2016

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Brexit Exposes Old and Deepening Data Divide between EU and UK

After the Brexit vote, politicians, businesses and citizens are all wondering what’s next. In general, legal uncertainty permeates Brexit, but in the world of bits and bytes, Brussels and London have in fact been on a collision course at least since the 90s. The new British prime minister, Theresa May, has been personally responsible for a deepening divide across the North Sea on data and communication policy. Although EU citizens will see stronger privacy and cybersecurity protections through EU law post-Brexit, multinational companies should be particularly worried about how future regulation will treat the loads of data they traffic about customers, employees, and deals between the EU and the UK.  [Read more…]

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Who Will Secure the Internet of Things?

Over the past several months, CITP-affiliated Ph.D. student Sarthak Grover and fellow Roya Ensafi been investigating various security and privacy vulnerabilities of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the home network, to get a better sense of the current state of smart devices that many consumers have begun to install in their homes.

To explore this question, we purchased a collection of popular IoT devices, connected them to a laboratory network at CITP, and monitored the traffic that these devices exchanged with the public Internet. We initially expected that end-to-end encryption might foil our attempts to monitor the traffic to and from these devices. The devices we explored included a Belkin WeMo Switch, the Nest Thermostat, an Ubi Smart Speaker, a Sharx Security Camera, a PixStar Digital Photoframe, and a Smartthings hub.

What We Found: Be Afraid!

Many devices fail to encrypt at least some of the traffic that they send and receive. Investigating the traffic to and from these devices turned out to be much easier than expected, as many of the devices exchanged personal or private information with servers on the Internet in the clear, completely unencrypted.

We recently presented a summary of our findings to the Federal Trade Commission, last week at PrivacyCon.  The video of Sarthak’s talk is available from the FTC website, as well as on YouTube.  Among some of the more striking findings include:

  • The Nest thermostat was revealing location information of the home and weather station, including the user’s zip code, in the clear.  (Note: Nest promptly fixed this bug after we notified them.)
  • The Ubi uses unencrypted HTTP to communicate information to its portal, including voice chats, sensor readings (sound, temperature, light, humidity). It also communicates to the user using unencrypted email. Needless to say, much of this information, including the sensor readings, could reveal critical information, such as whether the user was home, or even movements within a house.
  • The Sharx security camera transmits video over unencrypted FTP; if the server for the video archive is outside of the home, this traffic could also be intercepted by an eavesdropper.
  • All traffic to and from the PixStar photoframe was sent unencrypted, revealing many user interactions with the device.

Traffic capture from Nest Thermostat in Fall 2015, showing user zip code and other information in cleartext.

Traffic capture from Ubi, which sends sensor values and states in clear text.

Some devices encrypt data traffic, but encryption may not be enough. A natural reaction to some of these findings might be that these devices should encrypt all traffic that they send and receive. Indeed, some devices we investigated (e.g., the Smartthings hub) already do so. Encryption may be a good starting point, but by itself, it appears to be insufficient for preserving user privacy.  For example, user interactions with these devices generate traffic signatures that reveal information, such as when power to an outlet has been switched on or off. It appears that simple traffic features such as traffic volume over time may be sufficient to reveal certain user activities.

In all cases, DNS queries from the devices clearly indicate the presence of these devices in a user’s home. Indeed, even when the data traffic itself is encrypted, other traffic sent in the clear, such as DNS lookups, may reveal not only the presence of certain devices in your home, but likely also information about both usage and activity patterns.

Of course, there is also the concern about how these companies may use and share the data that they collect, even if they manage to collect it securely. And, beyond the obvious and more conventional privacy and security risks, there are also potential physical risks to infrastructure that may result from these privacy and security problems.

Old problems, new constraints. Many of the security and privacy problems that we see with IoT devices sound familiar, but these problems arise in a new, unique context, which present unique challenges:

  • Fundamentally insecure. Manufacturers of consumer products have little interest in releasing software patches and may even design the device without any interfaces for patching the software in the first place.  There are various examples of insecure devices that ordinary users may connect to the network without any attempts to secure them (or any means of doing so).  Occasionally, these insecure devices can result in “stepping stones” into the home for attackers to mount more extensive attacks. A recent study identified more than 500,000 insecure, publicly accessible embedded networked devices.
  • Diverse. Consumer IoT settings bring a diversity of devices, manufacturers, firmware versions, and so forth. This diversity can make it difficult for a consumer (or the consumer’s ISP) to answer even simple questions such as exhaustively identifying the set of devices that are connected to the network in the first place, let alone detecting behavior or network traffic that might reveal an anomaly, compromise, or attack.
  • Constrained. Many of the devices in an IoT network are severely resource-constrained: the devices may have limited processing or storage capabilities, or even limited battery life, and they often lack a screen or intuitive user interface. In some cases, a user may not even be able to log into the device.  

Complicating matters, a user has limited control over the IoT device, particularly as compared to a general-purpose computing platform. When we connect a general purpose device to a network, we typically have at least a modicum of choice and control about what software we run (e.g., browser, operating system), and perhaps some more visibility or control into how that device interacts with other devices on the network and on the public Internet. When we connect a camera, thermostat, or sensor to our network, the hardware and software are much more tightly integrated, and our visibility into and control over that device is much more limited. At this point, we have trouble, for example, even knowing that a device might be sending private data to the Internet, let alone being able to stop it.

Compounding all of these problems, of course, is the access a consumer gives an untrusted IoT device to other data or devices on the home network, simply by connecting it to the network—effectively placing it behind the firewall and giving it full network access, including in many cases the shared key for the Wi-Fi network.

A Way Forward

Ultimately, multiple stakeholders may be involved with ensuring the security of a networked IoT device, including consumers, manufacturers, and Internet service providers. There remain many unanswered questions concerning both who is able to (and responsible for) securing these devices, but we should start the discussion about how to improve the security for networks with IoT devices.

This discussion will include both policy aspects (including who bears the ultimate responsibility for device insecurity, whether devices need to adopt standard practices or behavior, and for how long their manufacturers should continue to support them), as well as technical aspects (including how we design the network to better monitor and control the behavior of these often-insecure devices).

Devices should be more transparent. The first step towards improving security and privacy for IoT should be to work with manufacturers to improve the transparency of these IoT devices, so that consumers (and possibly ISPs) have more visibility into what software the devices are running, and what traffic they are sending and receiving. This, of course, is a Herculean effort, given the vast quantity and diversity of device manufacturers; an alternative would be trying to infer what devices are connected to the network based on their traffic behavior, but doing so in a way that is both comprehensive, accurate, and reasonably informative seems extremely difficult.

Instead, some IoT device manufacturers might standardize on a manifest protocol that announces basic information, such as the device type, available sensors, firmware version, the set of destinations the device expects to communicate with (and whether the traffic is encrypted), and so forth. (Of course, such a manifest poses its own security risks.)

Network infrastructure can play a role. Given such basic information, anomalous behavior that is suggestive of a compromise or data leak would be more evident to network intrusion detection systems and firewalls—in other words, we could bring more of our standard network security tools to bear on these devices, once we have a way to identify what the devices are and what their expected behavior should be. Such a manifest might also serve as a concise (and machine readable!) privacy statement; a concise manifest might be one way for consumers to evaluate their comfort with a certain device, even though it may be far from a complete privacy statement.

Armed with such basic information about the devices on the network, smart network switches would have a much easier way to implement network security policies. For example, a user could specify that the smart camera should never be able to communicate with the public Internet, or that the thermostat should only be able to interact with the window locks if someone is present.

Current network switches don’t provide easy mechanisms for consumers to either express or implement these types of policies. Advances in Software-Defined Networking (SDN) in software switches such as Open vSwitch may make it possible to implement policies that resolve contention for shared resources and conflicts, or to isolate devices on the network from one another, but even if that is a reasonable engineering direction, this technology will only take us part of the way, as users will ultimately need far better interfaces to both monitor network activity and express policies about how these devices should behave and exchange traffic.

Update [20 Jan 2015]: After significant press coverage, Nest has contacted the media to clarify that the information being leaked in cleartext was not the zip code of the thermostat, but merely the zip code that the user enters when configuring the device. (Clarifying statement here.) Of course, when would a user ever enter a zip code other than that of their home, where the thermostat was located?

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A clear line between offense and defense

The New York Times, in an editorial today entitled “Arms Control for a Cyberage“, writes,

The problem is that unlike conventional weapons, with cyberweapons “there’s no clear line between offense and defense,” as President Obama noted this month in an interview with Re/code, a technology news publication. Defense in cyberwarfare consists of pre-emptively locating the enemy’s weakness, which means getting into its networks.

This is simply wrong.
[Read more…]

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Expert Panel Report: A New Governance Model for Communications Security?

Today, the vulnerable state of electronic communications security dominates headlines across the globe, while surveillance, money and power increasingly permeate the ‘cybersecurity’ policy arena. With the stakes so high, how should communications security be regulated? Deirdre Mulligan (UC Berkeley), Ashkan Soltani (independent, Washington Post), Ian Brown (Oxford) and Michel van Eeten (TU Delft) weighed in on this proposition at an expert panel on my doctoral project at the Amsterdam Information Influx conference. [Read more…]

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“Loopholes for Circumventing the Constitution”, the NSA Statement, and Our Response

CBS News and a host of other outlets have covered my new paper with Sharon Goldberg, Loopholes for Circumventing the Constitution: Warrantless Bulk Surveillance on Americans by Collecting Network Traffic Abroad. We’ll present the paper on July 18 at HotPETS [slides, pdf], right after a keynote by Bill Binney (the NSA whistleblower), and at TPRC in September. Meanwhile, the NSA has responded to our paper in a clever way that avoids addressing what our paper is actually about. [Read more…]

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Will Greenwald’s New Book Reveal How to Conduct Warrantless Bulk Surveillance on Americans from Abroad?

Tomorrow, Glenn Greenwald’s highly anticipated book ‘No Place to Hide’ goes on sale. Apart from personal accounts on working with whisteblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and elsewhere, Mr. Greenwald announced that he will reveal new surveillance operations by Western intelligence agencies. In the last weeks, Sharon Goldberg and I have been finishing a paper on Executive Order 12333 (“EO 12333”). We argue that EO 12333 creates legal loopholes for U.S. authorities to circumvent the U.S. Constitution and conduct largely unchecked and unrestrained bulk surveillance of American communications from abroad. In addition, we present several known and new technical means to exploit those legal loopholes. Today, we publish a summary of our new paper in this post.

We stress that we’re not in a position to suggest that U.S. authorities are actually structurally circumventing the Constitution using the international loophole we discuss in the paper.  But, we’re wondering: will the gist of our analysis be part of Greenwald’s new revelations tomorrow? A first snippet of Greenwald’s new book in The Guardian, about hacking American routers destined for use overseas, seems to point in that direction. Here’s our summary. [Read more…]

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Signing Mass Surveillance Declarations and Petitions: Should Academics Take a Stance?

Quite often, especially since the Snowden revelations began, tech policy academics will be approached by NGO’s and colleagues to sign petitions ‘to end mass surveillance’. It’s not always easy to decide whether you want to sign. If you’re an academic, you might want to consider co-signing one initiative launched today. [Read more…]

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The Politics of the EU Court Data Retention Opinion: End to Mass Surveillance?

The Wall Street Journal headlines: “EU Court Opinion: Data Retention Directive Incompatible With Fundamental Rights”. The Opinion is strong, but in fact not yet an outright victory to privacy and civil liberties. The jury is out: the Opinion is a non-binding, but influential advice to the E.U. Court, that will deliver its final judgment come next spring. Now is a perfect moment to analyze the Opinion, as well as the institutional politics of the E.U. Court — critical in understanding the two-tier approach to surveillance and fundamental rights in Europe. The two-tier approach converges, after 60 years, when the E.U. accedes to the European Convention of Human Rights anytime soon. Amidst the Snowden revelations, these are the fundamental legal developments that will ultimately answer the question whether European law can end mass surveillance.

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NSA Strategy 2012-16: Outsourcing Compliance to Algorithms, and What to Do About It

Over the weekend, two new NSA documents revealed a confident NSA SIGINT strategy for the coming years and a vast increase of NSA-malware infected networks across the globe. The excellent reporting overlooked one crucial development: constitutional compliance will increasingly be outsourced to algorithms. Meaningful oversight of intelligence practises must address this, or face collateral constitutional damage. [Read more…]

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When an Ethnographer met Edward Snowden

If you talk about ‘metadata’, ‘big data’ and ‘Big Brother’ just as easily as you order a pizza, ethnography and anthropology are probably not your first points of reference. But the outcome of a recent encounter of ethnographer Tom Boellstorff and Edward Snowden (not IRL but IRP), is that tech policy wonks and researchers should be careful with their day to day vocabulary, as concepts carry politics of control and power.

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