Posts Tagged 'security'

Backdoors to encryption — 100 years of experience

The question of whether those who encrypt data, at rest or in flight, should be required to provide a master decryption key to government or law enforcement is back in the news, as it is periodically.

Many have made the obvious arguments about why this is a bad idea, and I won’t repeat them.

But let me point out that we’ve been here before, in a slightly different context. A hundred years ago, law enforcement came up against the fact that criminals knew things that could (a) be used to identify other criminals, and (b) prevent other crimes. This knowledge was inside their heads, rather than inside their cell phones.

Then, as now, it seemed obvious that law enforcement and government should be able to extract that knowledge, and interrogation with violence or torture was the result.

Eventually we reached (in Western countries, at least) an agreement that, although there could be a benefit to the knowledge in criminals’ heads, there was a point beyond which we weren’t going to go to extract it, despite its potential value.

The same principle surely applies when the knowledge is on a device rather than in a head. At some point, law enforcement must realise that not all knowledge is extractable.

(Incidentally, one of the arguments made about the use of violence and torture is that the knowledge extracted is often valueless, since the target will say anything to get it to stop. It isn’t hard to see that devices can be made to use a similar strategy. They would have a pin code or password that could be used under coercion and that would appear to unlock the device, but would in fact produce access only to a virtual subdevice which seemed innocuous. Especially as Customs in several countries are now demanding pins and passwords as a condition of entry, such devices would be useful for innocent travellers as well as guilty — to protect commercial and diplomatic secrets for a start.)

‘AI’ performance not what it seems

As I’ve written about before, ‘AI’ tends to be misused to refer to almost any kind of data analytics or derived tool — but let’s, for the time being, go along with this definition.

When you look at the performance of these tools and systems, it’s often quite poor, but I claim we’re getting fooled by our own cognitive biases into thinking that it’s much better than it is.

Here are some examples:

  • Netflix’s recommendations for any individual user seem to overlap 90% with the ‘What’s trending’ and ‘What’s new’ categories. In other words, Netflix is recommending to you more or less what it’s recommending to everyone else. Other recommendation systems don’t do much better (see my earlier post on ‘The Sound of Music Problem’ for part of the explanation).
  • Google search results are quite good at returning, in the first few links, something relevant to the search query, but we don’t ever get to see what was missed and might have been much more relevant.
  • Google News produces what, at first glance, appear to be quite reasonable summaries of recent relevant news, but when you use it for a while you start to see how shallow its selection algorithm is — putting stale stories front and centre, and occasionally producing real howlers, weird stories from some tiny venue treated as if they were breaking and critical news.
  • Self driving cars that perform well, but fail completely when they see certain patches on the road surface. Similarly, facial recognition systems that fail when the human is wearing a t-shirt with a particular patch.

The commonality between these examples, and many others, is that the assessment from use is, necessarily, one-sided — we get to see only the successes and not the failures. In other words (HT Donald Rumsfeld), we don’t see the unknown unknowns. As a result, we don’t really know how well these ‘AI’ systems really do, and whether it’s actually safe to deploy them.

Some systems are ‘best efforts’ (Google News) and that’s fair enough.

But many of these systems are beginning to be used in consequential ways and, for that, real testing and real public test results are needed. And not just true positives, but false positives and false negatives as well. There are two main flashpoints where this matters: (1) systems that are starting to do away with the human in the loop (self driving cars, 737 Maxs); and (2) systems where humans are likely to say or think ‘The computer (or worse, the AI) can’t be wrong’; and these are starting to include policing and security tools. Consider, for example, China’s social credit system. The fact that it gives low scores to some identified ‘trouble makers’ does not imply that everyone who gets a low score is a trouble¬† maker — but this false implication lies behind this and almost all discussion of ‘AI’ systems.

China-Huawei-Canada fail

Huawei has been trying to convince the world that they are a private company with no covert relationships to the Chinese government that might compromise the security of their products and installations.

This attempt has been torpedoed by the Chinese ambassador to Canada who today threatened ‘retaliation’ if Canada joins three of the Five Eyes countries (and a number of others) in banning Huawei from provisioning 5G networks. (The U.K. hasn’t banned Huawei equipment, but BT is uninstalling it, and the unit set up jointly by Huawei and GCHQ to try to alleviate concerns about Huawei’s hardware and software has recently reported that it’s less certain about the security of these systems now than it was when the process started.)

It’s one thing for a government to act as a booster for national industries — it’s another to deploy government force directly.

China seems to have a tin ear for the way that the rest of the world does business; it can’t help but hurt them eventually.

Lessons from Wannacrypt and its cousins

Now that the dust has settled a bit, we can look at the Wannacrypt ransomware, and the other malware  that are exploiting the same vulnerability, more objectively.

First, the reason that this attack vector existed is because Microsoft, a long time ago, made a mistake in a file sharing protocol. It was (apparently) exploited by the NSA, and then by others with less good intentions, but the vulnerability is all down to Microsoft.

There are three pools of vulnerable computers that played a role in spreading the Wannacrypt worm, as well as falling victim to it.

  1. Enterprise computers which were not being updated in a timely way because it was too complicated to maintain all of their other software systems at the same time. When Microsoft issues a patch, bad actors immediately try to reverse engineer it to work out what vulnerability it addresses. The last time I heard someone from Microsoft Security talk about this, they estimated it took about 3 days for this to happen. If you hadn’t updated in that time, you were vulnerable to an attack that the patch would have prevented. Many businesses evaluated the risk of updating in a timely way as greater than the risk of disruption because of an interaction of the patch with their running systems — but they may now have to re-evaluate that calculus!
  2. Computers running XP for perfectly rational reasons. Microsoft stopped supporting XP because they wanted people to buy new versions of their operating system (and often new hardware to be able to run it), but there are many, many people in the world for whom a computer running XP was a perfectly serviceable product, and who will continue to run it as long as their hardware keeps working. The software industry continues to get away with failing to warrant their products as fit for purpose, but it wouldn’t work in other industries. Imagine the discovery that the locks on a car stopped working after 5 years — could a manufacturer get away with claiming that the car was no longer supported? (Microsoft did, in this instance, release a patch for XP, but well after the fact.)
  3. Computers running unregistered versions of Microsoft operating systems (which therefore do not get updates). Here Microsoft is culpable for an opposite reason. People can run an unregistered version for years and years, provided they’re willing to re-install it periodically. It’s technically possible to prevent (or make much more difficult) this kind of serial illegality.

The analogy is with public health. When there’s a large pool of unvaccinated people, the risk to everyone increases. Microsoft’s business decisions make the pool of ‘unvaccinated’ computers much larger than it needs to be. And while this pool is out there, there will always be bad actors who can find a use for the computers it contains.

Advances in Social Network Analysis and Mining Conference — Sydney

This conference will be in Sydney in 2017, from 31st July to 3rd August.

http://asonam.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/2017/

As well as the main conference, there is also a workshop, FOSINT: Foundations of Open Source Intelligence, which may be of even more direct interest for readers of this blog.

Also I will be giving a tutorial on Adversarial Analytics as part of the conference.

Even more security theatre

I happened to visit a consulate to do some routine paperwork. Here’s the security process I encountered:

  1. Get identity checked from passport, details entered (laboriously) into online system.
  2. Cell phone locked away.
  3. Wanded by metal detection wand.
  4. Sent by secure elevator to another floor, to a waiting room with staff behind bullet-proof glass.

Here’s the thing: I got to carry my (unexamined) backpack with me through the whole process!

And what’s the threat from a cell phone in this context? Embarrassing pictures of the five year old posters on the wall of the waiting room?

I understand that government departments have difficulty separating serious from trivial risks, because if anything happened they would be blamed, regardless of how low-probability the risk was. But there’s no political reason not to make whatever precautions you decide to take actually helpful to reduce the perceived risks.

“But I don’t have anything to hide” Part III

I haven’t been able to verify it, but Marc Goodman mentions (in an interview with Tim Ferriss) that the Mumbai terrorists searched the online records of hostages when they were deciding who to kill. Another reason not to be profligate about what you post on social media.