The Problem with the Universal Right to Online Privacy

privacy(As published on Norse on April 15, 2015)

A landmark decision by the UN Human Rights Council was made on March 26th to cover privacy issues arising from the pervasive monitoring by the UK and the US, in an attempt to establish that freedom from excessive (online) surveillance is a basic human right.

The resolution was spearheaded by Germany and Brazil, where public debate about online surveillance has been most intense. Naturally, German PM Angela Merkel has not yet forgotten the fact that her mobile phone was tapped, and event went as far as kicking out the CIA station chief in Berlin.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a trip to the US in protest of the surveillance on Brazil’s political leaders. Given that it is prime US policy to keep tabs (well, and taps) on all political leaders in the entire continent of South America, there is little doubt that the sentiment is shared amongst all South American nations.

It was expected that the resolution be blocked by the US and the UK, but it was adopted by consensus and the UN will be appointing a Rapporteur in June. This Rapporteur will have the authority to “remit to monitor, investigate and report on privacy issues and offer advice to governments about compliance. They will also look into alleged violations.”

The initiative, which contains the phrase, “the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communications technology and at the same time enhances the capacity of governments, companies and individuals to undertake surveillance, interception and data collection, which may violate or abuse human rights,” sounds very compelling and a worthy cause.

However, those who are skeptical of such an initiative have much reason to be.

To start, the UN has over the years steadily ignored both Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (where the Right to Privacy is mentioned).

This is hardly surprising since quite a number of UN member states have a rather uncomfortable record with Human Rights as a whole, and there has yet been little appetite for a clash on this subject.

Another major reason to remain skeptical is the equally uncomfortable fact that virtually 100% of all the UN member states are involved with pervasive online surveillance programs in one way or another.

In that respect there is plenty of negative sentiment to go around when it comes to online surveillance, and rightly not all of it is directed towards the US and the UK.

Even Germany, who is taking the lead in setting up this initiative, has been caught with its’ proverbial pants down when it was discovered that their own national security service BND was sharing data on German citizens with the NSA.

They are hardly alone in this: The number of European countries that hasn’t been subject to news in that area can be counted on one hand. To put forth an act that limits their own intelligence gathering operations seem counterproductive at best.

Lastly, it can be argued that the “Universal Right to Privacy” does not translate equally to “Universal Right to Online Privacy.”

However foolish it may seem, we have had a number of examples where such a translation proved much more difficult than it appeared. And these were not small topics: The laws surrounding warfare, for instance, or cybercrime.

Taking all these facts into account, it seems reasonable that this new initiative has some credibility issues. It will be very interesting to see if it develops some teeth moving forward.

Enterprise Security vs. Nation State Threat Actors

enterprisevnationThe recently published Snowden/NSA/GCHQ slides regarding the Gemalto hack have caused quite a stir amongst security practitioners, board members and politicians alike. But the uproar is minor when considering that it is now more than clear that not only non-allied nations such as China, Russia and Iran are attacking commercial entities. Nation states that we are on good terms with are apparently equally willing and able to attack their allies, just to get ahead in the Intelligence and Battlefield Preparation game. Good friend and excellent analyst Richard Stiennon already acknowledged (allied) nation states as a threat actor for the commercial industry in his article “NSA Surveillance Extends the Threat” in 2013. He asserted that the NSA was leading the threat hierarchy and was advocating a global re-evaluation of ones’ security stance. From what has been unveiled recently this is due for a revision yet again, as it is clear that British GCHQ is following the same playbook. Given both their membership in the “Five Eyes” community (of which all nations in the Five Eyes are core participants) it is increasingly safer to assume that Australia, Canada and New Zealand follow the same methodology, but that is beside the point of this article.

What does this mean?

When comparing the slides and modus operandi concerning Gemalto with what was disclosed about the Belgacom hack, useful observations can be made regarding the tactics employed by GCHQ and the NSA. And that MO demonstrates quite clearly what the real problems for commercial entities are when faced with a nation state as an adversary.

First off, they are difficult to expect. That’s right: Expect, not Detect (although that is probably equally true). Nation states have considerably different motives and these may not always be obvious. Gemalto and Belgacom were targeted because they were gatekeepers to communication networks; in this case telecommunications. They in turn contained what the NSA and GCHQ were actually after: the communications (potentially) running over those networks. It seems like arguing semantics when we differentiate between the targeting the communications networks and the communications themselves, but it is quite relevant: Both the NSA and GCHQ have other legal recourses to obtain the communications they are looking for, but are actively and purposely choosing other avenues. In short, it is not usually obvious what governments are interested in, and even if they have other (legal) means to obtain their target, they might still attack you if that proves to be more useful or less of a hassle.

Second, they are nearly impossible to deter. Cyber criminals generally tend to pick the low-hanging fruit. This will probably remain true as long as there remains so much of it available. The other major category popular with cyber criminals is the ‘big score’, where the spoils of a successful heist are so rich high that attackers consider their time and resources a good investment. Naturally this last group has more staying power than the first group, but both will eventually bug out if the operation is found to be too difficult or risky. Corporate espionage can potentially stay in the game where a cyber-criminal would have given up, but that is very dependent on the level of resources and risk that a firm is willing to commit.  You can deter them by securing your infrastructure to such a degree that the reward of breaking in is not worth the effort. Governments have deeper pockets and thus far seem to be more-or-less immune to criminal prosecution. This significantly alters the equation for such parties. The local social environment of the attacker also plays a role. Corporate spies or criminals basically get told[1] “Get in there if you can”, while soldiers get told “Get in there [period]”. Government operatives don’t get deterred by tedious work or lack of funds. To keep them out it has to be made impossible to break in and, provided it can be done, the task will be Herculean and costly.

It should also be pointed out that governmental espionage is not solely about national security. Many intelligence services are tasked not only with security, but also so-called ‘Economic Intelligence’. To put it bluntly, they are also looking for anything that might give their national corporations an edge against foreign competitors. The reason is simple: successful corporations are a boon to any nation. Not just for the additional tax income they generate, but also for the additional jobs and innovation power they bring. Some intelligence agencies focus more on this than the others, but most do it to some degree. We have seen evidence of this before, during the Echelon program. Several high stake deals were won by American firms due to the intelligence provided to them by the American intelligence apparatus. We can only guess at what intelligence the NSA is currently feeding to American firms. Perhaps the tech firms that are under the NSA yoke are being rewarded sub-rosa as compensation for the multi-billion dollar loss they have incurred (or will incur) over lost trust.

Third, they have capabilities unique to this category of attacker. When looking at the Belgacom and Gemalto hack, it is clear that one major new factor in their approach is Intelligence. Highly trained government intelligence agents are tasked with scoping out the target. They will find key target personnel in short order. It is their job to do so, and even in small nations these operatives are trained and experienced to a degree that will never be matched by a corporate entity. This might be the most effective tool in their arsenal, and next to impossible to defend against. The average person working for a corporate entity will be completely unarmed against people professionally trained in disciplines such as surveillance and interrogation. Would they spot a tail when walking or driving? Would they realize they are being interrogated during a seemingly innocuous conversation with a stranger? Would their family? What is worse, is that nothing private is off-limits when gathering intelligence. Private emails, browsing history, social media, cellphone conversations and text messages are all scrutinized in the hopes of finding a way inside the target organization. They are not above infecting a staff member with a piece of custom-made malware if it furthers their goal. The more staff a company has, the bigger this attack vector is. The problem is exacerbated when dealing with technologically advanced nations, due to higher degrees of technological refinement in their attacks.

Fourth, that we know of their operations does not mean they have stopped. It sounds strange, but for some reason many people seem to think the threat is over now that we are aware of it. It is stating the obvious, but that is not the case. All that has really changed is that we now have some measure of tangible proof to something that was strongly suspected for a long time. The repeated wake-up calls are working to force a long overdue focus on security, but it still has to be acted upon and followed through on. The security industry finally has the clout to address the serious issues, and it can be done without overhyping the matter. Throw away old disparaging sayings such as “if they want to get in, they’ll get in” and do what can be done.

 

Naturally there is more to this issue than the points described above. What is clear is that the corporate world is faced with a potential adversarial class that it is not equipped to deal with. In this regard the world is not that different from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. The Dutch VOC company had a large fleet of merchant ships that were regularly attacked by foreign ships of war belonging to nations that the Netherlands was at war with at the time. The naval frigates outclassed the often cumbersome trading vessels, and defending themselves to a sufficient degree simply wasn’t economically feasible. This problem grew to such an extent that valuable VOC convoys eventually received Dutch naval escorts for protection, even though they did have to help pay for them. What is worth wondering about, is whether we can find a similar common ground with Government and truly co-defend in a meaningful manner.

 

[1] Or conceive the notion themselves, naturally.

Information Security, Post-Snowden

As published on Tripwire’s State of Security:

The revelations regarding the extensive digital intelligence gathering programs of the American National Security Agency by Edward Snowden won’t have escaped your notice. Since the first reports around June 5th of 2013, the hits have not stopped coming; each consecutive unveiling being of larger scale, depth and intensity than its predecessor.

It is interesting to note that Snowden was hardly the first whistleblower on the massive internet espionage operation by the US government. On January 20th 2006 an employee of AT&T approached the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with proof that AT&T was cooperating in an NSA intelligence program and on july 2nd 2012 three NSA employees shored up a lawsuit by that same organisation.

The facts are hard to ignore: wiretapping heads of state[1], allied or not[2], hacking telecom corporations[3], large scale internet wiretapping[4] and forcing American technology firms to provide access to customer information[5] or worse: building a backdoor into their products[6]. Summing matters up sometimes stretches the bounds of credibility.

As Jacob Appelbaum put it during his talk at the German CCC conference late last year, the NSA´s operations have really only been limited by Time. Had Snowden waited another year, chances are that we would have seen even bigger programs come to the surface. And perhaps we still might; if Snowden is to be believed we haven’t seen the last of his work.

The impact on our online privacy is consistently mentioned by the various news media. Organisations of all sizes and nationalities are asking themselves just how safe their data is. Do they have unwanted American visitors on their network? How are they going to keep out the NSA? Or other intelligence agencies? Cán you keep them out at all?

In my opinion, these questions aren´t simply valid, but due to the immensity and depth of these intelligence gathering programs and the long list of involved corporations, a considerable bit of research should be more than warranted.

Thanks to Snowden´s revelations we have enough material to make three assumptions:

  • Virtually all the internet traffic is tapped. Because it’s not just the NSA spying on internet traffic but –to varying degree- almost every national intelligence agency on the planet, there is a reasonable degree of certainty that all of our traffic is intercepted and looked at, regardless of where it´s going or where its´ coming from. In case you´re wondering, this certainly includes smartphone traffic.
  • American and British hardware (laptops, desktops, servers, USB devices, mice, keyboards, smartphones et cetera) are very likely all compromised by a backdoor through which remote access can be obtained. If it hasn´t been built in during fabrication, it could still be inserted during transportation, with the aid of transportation firms[7]. For safety sake it is reasonable to assume that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand firms are performing such tasks for their respective intelligence agencies as well, given that these countries are also part of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering pact between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • We cannot trust American technology firms. It is unfortunate for those that haven´t been compromised, but due to American anti-terrorism laws you simply cannot trust them you’re your data. Whether they are paid or forced to cooperate is, in the end, unimportant for you; they willprovide the NSA with intelligence or build those backdoors into their products that are so prevalent and so desired. Your data simply isn´t safe with American online service providers, and thanks to the PATRIOT act it doesn´t even matter if the data itself is on US soil or not. It also doesn´t matter if you are not American. Or if you´re a citizen of an allied country. The American justice system pretty much completely ignores non-citizens and as such, virtually everything done to your data is considered legal. Your data can be reached and inspected regardless of where it resides, and they do it on a shockingly large scale. Here too, it would be wise to lump British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian firms in on this.

And its not just US firms that have been exploited in such a fashion. Among the firms on the list below you will also see enterprises that have a lot to lose if banned from the American technology market, such as Samsung. Lets put some names to faces. Do you have products in your network or at home that are made by these companies?

Then you almost certainly have a backdoor into your network through which the NSA can enter your network unseen. Perhaps more than one. And now that it is public knowledge that these backdoors exist, it is highly likely that they are exploitable by other parties as well.

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The US is, thanks to strong representation in the Technology market, in a very comfortable position where gaining remote access is concerned. This doesn’t stop other nations from attempting the same level of access or intelligence, and quite successfully.

China, Russia and Iran also developed strong Cyber programs of which digital espionage is a substantial element. Closer to home the French DGSE was embarrassed by sudden publication of their own cyber espionage program, not a week after they publicly denounced such practices. Israel has also been known to have a very effective digital intelligence gathering program.

If you still have doubts about whether or not you might be compromised, the EFF has published an electronic file[8] containing exactly what vendors and their respective products give unwanted access to commercial networks. You will encounter the term “persistent backdoor” very often, which means that there is a built-in back door in the product through which unauthorised access to the network is easily attained.

They work virtually the same as the software companies install so that their employees can work from home, with the notable exception that your organisation doesn’t know, support or condone about this ‘feature’ of the products they installed and considered safe.

So why should companies care about this? You’ll often hear the argument that such programs revolve around national security, and is an affair between nation states, not commerce. And yet there have been several cases that show that this is certainly not always the case. Information obtained by national espionage programs can easily be used to great commercial advantage.

There are some prime examples in which national intelligence agencies provided firms with information that gave them a competitive advantage during critical moments while competing with foreign competitors, such as during the negotiations of lucrative contracts. On July 5th 2000 the European Parliament launched an investigation into contract negotiations taking place in Brasil in 1994.

In this case the French firm Thomson-CSF lost a contract to the American defence contractor Raytheon to a tune of $1.3 billion because Raytheon had received crucial information intercepted by an American intelligence agency. In 2000, aircraft manufacturer Airbus lost a Saudi contract worth $6 billion to American firms Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in equal fashion.

Both these incidents took place during the ECHELON program, an earlier iteration of the PRISM program that we have heard so much about in recent months. The amount of data that is being intercepted and monitored makes the ECHELON program pale in comparison.n

Whether you do business internationally or not, having intruders on your networks and mobile devices are almost certainly unwanted. There are ways to defend yourself, but depending on which hardware and software you are using, you may have to start looking for different vendors offering similar products.

This isn’t always practical. Imagine replacing Microsoft Windows with a Linux distribution on all of your systems. This may not be feasible due to lack of staff capable of supporting Linux. Replacing servers, desktops, laptops or networking equipment with equivalent products made by vendors of a different nationality can be difficult, but you could still take steps in the right direction.

For instance, if you are currently using remote access tokens by RSA[9], you may want to consider replacing them. By its very nature, remote access technology is an exceptionally critical service that can immediately defeat all of your network security measures. Whether you will be safe after a full overhaul of your network will likely always remain a mystery; Snowden or some other whistleblower might implicate yet more firms that are complicit with national intelligence agencies.

To have a realistic chance at securing your network, it must be capable of segmenting your various suppliers and vendors. Ideally your network architecture is designed in such a way that no single vendor or supplier can compromise the entire network by itself.

Outsourcing your data or network services to a cloud provider is equally a hazardous idea. You have to be absolutely assured that your provider does not store your data outside your nation’s borders, which would open up avenues for foreign entities to gain access. Most nations have laws in place for their intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtaining access to systems within their sovereign territory with or without the consent of its owner.

If you have assured yourself that your cloud provider won’t suddenly change its policy. Be aware that most of the firms implicated by Snowden have kept -or have been forced to keep- silent about their assistance to the NSA. If your privacy has been violated, you may learn of it much too late or not at all.

Also, it is critical that you encrypt your data. This includes both data in transit and data at rest, so the smart move is to not leave any data unencrypted on online services such as Dropbox. Be sure to use encryption that is not commonly used on the Internet, or made by any of the implicated firms listed above.

The NSA, and more than likely many intelligence agencies with them, is especially capable of cracking the most used encryption methods such as SSL[10] (Secure HTTP, which ensures that well-known lock icon in front of a web address in your browser). Custom, strong and domestically made crypto technology is the best choice to protect both your network traffic as well as encrypting data storage devices[11].

Finally, it is important that you have a strong identity & access management program. None of the measures above amount to very much if an employee or supplier has access to your network and happily provides this access to a third party with bad intentions.

Protecting information today is more complex than before. To have a chance at keeping unwanted visitors off your network tomorrow, you must lay the foundation today. Although this can be a considerable undertaking, you can at least be assured that it will not get any easier. The time of leaning back casually without having to worry about security has certainly passed.

picAbout the Author:  Don Eijndhoven (@ArgentConsulting), Chief Executive Officer of Argent Consulting B.V, lead cyber security architect and guest lecturer Cyber Resillience at the Nyenrode Business University. Don can be reached at d.eijndhoven@argentconsulting.nl.