More Trust

A couple of quotes from an “isn’t technology great!” c|net piece. Caption below lead photograph:

One of Facebook’s data centers. The social networking company is soon planning to fully support an encryption technology, called forward secrecy, that is believed to defeat even government spy agencies.

emphasis mine. How confident do you feel about that? Especially given, “performance concerns and not valuing forward secrecy enough“, and you can bet that really comes down to cost. If your main source of revenue is selling the data that you collect, you are motivated to collect it as cheaply as possible. Perhaps if you have the free-cycles you can provide some basic privacy protection. Interesting aside on how it’s probably not as easy to get right as flipping the privacy switch.

However, in the body of the article:

Most Internet companies, however, do not use an privacy-protective encryption technique that has existed for over 20 years — it’s called forward secrecy — that cleverly encodes Web browsing and Web e-mail in a way that frustrates fiber taps by national governments.

Not that important if the content can just be rubber-stamp subpoenaed from the host.

It is my contention that ad driven business model will make it close to impossible to move away from relentless collection of data (under the guise of personalizing the internet experience). Facebook, Google, et al. don’t make extra money from you finding what you are looking for more efficiently, that’s solely down to how much information they can extract and derive from your interactions and sell on to their customers.

We’ve built the perfect machine for a corporatocractic surveillance state.

A Matter of Trust

Since the NSA revelations started appearing i’ve been wondering how this can possibly end. When people start intercepting traffic (PRISM) and capturing it for later analysis (TEMPORA) you have to start to wonder how safe operation on the current internet will be in immediate future.

This piece on Netcraft discusses the interception of SSL traffic, asking the same questions as above:

Millions of websites and billions of people rely on SSL to protect the transmission of sensitive information such as passwords, credit card details, and personal information with the expectation that encryption guarantees privacy. However, recently leaked documents appear to reveal that the NSA, the United States National Security Agency, logs very high volumes of internet traffic and retains captured encrypted communication for later cryptanalysis.

It goes on to discuss a variant of this form of security called Perfect Forward Secrecy, that isn’t as widely used but theoretically could make the job analyzing intercepted traffic much harder. You might assume that some of the activities that perform on internet are reasonably secure. For example, your online banking, credit card transactions, checking your work mail, etc.

There are now several reasons to question this assumption. The biggest is obviously that the like of the NSA and GCHQ are operating at multiple levels on the network, and their capabilities are largely unknown. Webmail for example, they want to read that, and have several options as to how they go about so doing. They could run all the traffic flowing to the webmail server through a splitter, capturing a copy of it, and read the contents at their leisure. This is only slightly complicated by SSL if the certificate system is compromised and they have access to the certificate roots. The other alternative is to work through the legal system and demand that the webmail provider give them copies of any mail in which they decide to take an interest. It’s easy to imagine that net being dragged pretty wide.

And that’s only the beginning of it! The NSA, the purported largest employer of cryptographic mathematicians in the world,[citation needed, etc] could be (and probably is) years ahead of the mainstream in the art of breaking modern ciphers. They’ve sponsored competitions for becoming the new standard for encryption / hashing, and picked the winners. The creators of the new standard do very well for themselves, but maybe the NSA does better – they get to pick a standard where they already know they have an advantage.

The game theory here seems a little dubious. Knowing that there are weaknesses that you can exploit doesn’t stop them also being weaknesses that your competitors can also exploit. But perhaps they play by different rules, and anything truly important is secured under another (higher) standard. The whole thing sounds a little paranoid… which given what has been released (and acknowledged to be happening!) should probably give pause for thought.

Back to trust. Modern, complex, societies obviously require a certain degree of trust to function. Certain communications, interactions, have an expectation of privacy. You trust that the person or institution with which you are interacting is acting in good faith, be it a friend, a bank, a doctor, a co-worker. You chose whom to trust with the expectation that they are part of the network of trust that society has developed to support the complexity of interactions. By the same token, you don’t expect that the majority of your mail is being read (it is), that someone is keeping a file on you just in case you step out of line (someone is), that the majority of your phone calls will be recorded, converted to text, analyzed, and retained indefinitely (they probably are), that ever webpage that you access is logged and retained indefinitely (details).

All of which leaves me wondering. What happens if this trickle of leaks, and the activities that they reveal, continues? Does the network of trust in society start to breakdown? And, what does that look like?

I doubt most of us can imagine what it would be like to be in modernized surveillance state. It seems likely that very few of the people in power have given it much consideration either. The danger is that they’ll simply adapt to circumstances, and inevitably become increasingly controlling.

History can’t really be our guide as the capabilities available to monitor the modern society far exceed those previously available, but it is hard to imagine a fairytale ending!

Continue reading

Public Key Crypotography Explained With Paint

The video below does a reasonable job of explaining the high-level concepts of why it was safe for me to post my public key on a web page:

A lot of this stuff is counter-intuitive and hard to grasp when approaching it from a traditional ‘exchange of secrets’ point of view. The analogy to paint makes it obvious, and negates the need for having to grok the maths involved… well, unless you feel like understand and auditing the implementations.

One of the cardinal rules is that you should never ‘roll your own‘ when it comes to cryptography. There is almost always someone, or some group of people, that have better odds of getting there without making beginners mistakes.

Just Deserts

No, not another screed on the arid corners of my psyche, but the continuing effort to get you to care about encrypting your mail.

I know, i know. You don’t understand it, it’s too complicated, and you’re not doing anything wrong. And, it’s all true, it is hard to understand, the software world has done a terrible job of making this stuff accessible. And as for not doing anything wrong, well, that’s completely missing the point.

That said: enough is enough. If you’re smart enough to cook an egg, drive a car, or program a DVR, you can setup and start to send secure mail.

My public key is here:

Version: GnuPG v1.4.13 (Darwin)


Your challenge, my dear friends, is to get off your collective arses and send me an encrypted mail!

Starting points:

  • if you’re already using thunderbird get the enigmail plugin.
  • if you’re using OS X and reading your mail with (the standard mail app) then look at GPGTools / GPGMail.
  • if you’re using webmail (GMail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.) and Firefox / Chrome is your browser, then look at Mailvelope.

There are a million and one tutorials out there on getting this setup. If you find something that works for you then let me know in the comments and i’ll update this to point to them.

Update: I’d really like to know if anyone can read this with a phone.


Sleep Problem

Not me, but my venerable Mac Pro 1,1.

At some point the damn thing stopped sleeping. I’d spend time stopping apps, checking after a clean boot, looking through the output of netstat -an, etc. Nothing. Gave up and just did a lot more shutting down the machine completely. It bugged me but in a way it was good to turn it all off (less checking mail in the middle of the night…)

Today it bugged me again. On the way out to walk around the park i’d tried to sleep the beast, as usual it refused. In a fit of pique i yanked the network connection. Paranoia inspired testing? And, the machine went straight to sleep. Uh huh.

More fiddling around with Privoxy (always a candidate for being the problem in my mind), puzzling through netstat output, closing down apps., etc. More nothing. Bah.

Then, pmset:

$ pmset -g assertions
6/12/13 11:27:34 AM GMT+ 
Assertion status system-wide:
 PreventUserIdleDisplaySleep 0
 CPUBoundAssertion 0
 DisableInflow 0
 ChargeInhibit 0
 PreventSystemSleep 1
 PreventUserIdleSystemSleep 0
 ExternalMedia 0
 DisableLowPowerBatteryWarnings 0
 EnableIdleSleep 1
 NoRealPowerSources_debug 0
 UserIsActive 0
 ApplePushServiceTask 0
Listed by owning process:
 pid 94: [0x0000005e012c0010] PreventSystemSleep named: ""

All this time i’ve had internet sharing turned on… and had no idea that it stopped machines sleeping. Seeing as i don’t actually share internet from this machine it’s a little puzzling. No doubt it was turned on for a reason in the past, all that is lost in the mists of time.

Anyway, pmset -g assertions is the way to debug sleep issues! May Gub (or the ghost of Steve) help you if you ever need to read the manpage. At least i can now sleep my machine again!