December 9, 2022

NSA, the FISA Court, and Risks of Tech Summaries

Yesterday the U.S. government released a previously-secret 2011 opinion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), finding certain NSA surveillance and analysis activities to be illegal. The opinion, despite some redactions, gives us a window into the interactions between the NSA and the court that oversees its activities—including why oversight and compliance of surveillance are challenging.
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Revisiting the potential hazards of the 'Protect America' act

In light of recent news reports about NSA wiretapping of U.S. Internet communications, folks may be interested in some background on the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ provisions of the Protect America act, and the potential security risks such wiretapping systems can introduce. Here’s a 2007 article a group of us wrote entitled “Risking Communications Security: Potential Hazards of the ‘Protect America’ Act”. http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~jrex/papers/PAA.pdf

CALEA II: Risks of wiretap modifications to endpoints

Today I joined a group of twenty computer scientists in issuing a report criticizing an FBI plan to require makers of secure communication tools to redesign their systems to make wiretapping easy. We argue that the plan would endanger the security of U.S. users and the competitiveness of U.S. companies, without making it much harder for criminals to evade wiretaps.

The FBI argues that the Net is “going dark”—that they are losing their ability to carry out valid wiretap warrants. In fact, this seems to be a golden age of surveillance—more collectable communications are available than ever before, including whole new categories of information such as detailed location tracking. Regardless, the FBI wants Congress to require that voice, video, and text communication tools be (re-)designed so that lawful wiretap orders can be executed quickly and silently.

Our report focuses in particular on the drawbacks of mandating wiretappability of endpoint tools—that is, tools that reside on the user’s computer or phone. Traditional wiretaps are executed on a provider’s equipment. That approach works for the traditional phone system (wiretap in the phone company’s switching facility) or a cloud service like GMail (get data from the service provider). But for P2P technologies such as Skype, information can only be captured on the user’s computer, which means that the Skype software would have to be changed to add a virtual “wiretap port” that could be activated remotely without the user’s knowledge.
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A Free Internet, If We Can Keep It

“We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. ”

These two sentences, from Secretary of State Clinton’s groundbreaking speech on Internet freedom, sum up beautifully the challenge facing our Internet policy. An open Internet can advance our values and support our interests; but we will only get there if we make some difficult choices now.

One of these choices relates to anonymity. Will it be easy to speak anonymously on the Internet, or not? This was the subject of the first question in the post-speech Q&A:

QUESTION: You talked about anonymity on line and how we have to prevent that. But you also talk about censorship by governments. And I’m struck by – having a veil of anonymity in certain situations is actually quite beneficial. So are you looking to strike a balance between that and this emphasis on censorship?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the challenges we face. On the one hand, anonymity protects the exploitation of children. And on the other hand, anonymity protects the free expression of opposition to repressive governments. Anonymity allows the theft of intellectual property, but anonymity also permits people to come together in settings that gives them some basis for free expression without identifying themselves.

None of this will be easy. I think that’s a fair statement. I think, as I said, we all have varying needs and rights and responsibilities. But I think these overriding principles should be our guiding light. We should err on the side of openness and do everything possible to create that, recognizing, as with any rule or any statement of principle, there are going to be exceptions.

So how we go after this, I think, is now what we’re requesting many of you who are experts in this area to lend your help to us in doing. We need the guidance of technology experts. In my experience, most of them are younger than 40, but not all are younger than 40. And we need the companies that do this, and we need the dissident voices who have actually lived on the front lines so that we can try to work through the best way to make that balance you referred to.

Secretary Clinton’s answer is trying to balance competing interests, which is what good politicians do. If we want A, and we want B, and A is in tension with B, can we have some A and some B together? Is there some way to give up a little A in exchange for a lot of B? That’s a useful way to start the discussion.

But sometimes you have to choose — sometimes A and B are profoundly incompatible. That seems to be the case here. Consider the position of a repressive government that wants to spy on a citizen’s political speech, as compared to the position of the U.S. government when it wants to eavesdrop on a suspect’s conversations under a valid search warrant. The two positions are very different morally, but they are pretty much the same technologically. Which means that either both governments can eavesdrop, or neither can. We have to choose.

Secretary Clinton saw this tension, and, being a lawyer, she saw that law could not resolve it. So she expressed the hope that technology, the aspect she understood least, would offer a solution. This is a common pattern: Given a difficult technology policy problem, lawyers will tend to seek technology solutions and technologists will tend to seek legal solutions. (Paul Ohm calls this “Felten’s Third Law”.) It’s easy to reject non-solutions in your own area because you have the knowledge to recognize why they will fail; but there must be a solution lurking somewhere in the unexplored wilderness of the other area.

If we’re forced to choose — and we will be — what kind of Internet will we have? In Secretary Clinton’s words, “the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” We’ll have a free Internet, if we can keep it.

Soghoian: 8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight

If you’re interested at all in surveillance policy, go and read Chris Soghoian’s long and impassioned post today. Chris drops several bombshells into the debate, including an audio recording of a closed-door talk by Sprint/NexTel’s Electronic Surveillance Manager, bragging about how easy the company has made it for law enforcement to get customers’ location data — so easy that the company has serviced over eight million law enforcement requests for customer location data.

Here’s the juiciest quote:

“[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

— Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel.

Chris has more quotes, facts, and figures, all implying that electronic surveillance is much more widespread that many of us had thought.

Probably, many of these surveillance requests were justified, in the sense that a fair-minded citizen would think their expected public benefit justified the intrusiveness. How many were justified, we don’t know. We can’t know — and that’s a big part of the problem.

It’s deeply troubling that this has happened without significant public debate or even much disclosure. We need to have a discussion — and quickly — about what the rules for electronic surveillance should be.