What in the World is the NSA Doing?

By David Collier-Brown
October 26, 2013

The last few weeks have been the confirmation of a pessimist's worst fears. The NSA, CSE and other security services have been engaging in widespread extralegal snooping on the internet.

What's been happening
The U.S. NSA, our own Communications Security Establishment (in Canada) and various foreign security services have been working diligently at weakening codes by subverting computer standards committees[i], gaining access to https in real time by creating fake SSL certificates for sites like google.com[ii], collecting telephony traffic by establishing listening posts, in part with cooperation with the telcos[iii], getting access to on-server information by planting back doors, via secret court orders[iv], and collecting "who I'm talking to" information by publicly collecting telephone billing records, photographing physical mail and collecting cell phone and email metadata[v].

This is not the usual, proportional "spy versus spy", but a widespread effort to ensure the security services can gain access to everyone's data, whether or not they are a legitimate target of the services' attention.

What does this mean
This is a thorough, professional effort to obtain access to everyone's communications, to be able to read them immediately, and to be able to save them away and read them later.
The security services are concerned about terrorists, and are using their expertise in counter-espionage to make sure no-one can communicate without the NSA being able to read those communications.

They do not necessarily wish to read them right now, as they have not identified everyone who has a real chance of being a terrorist, but they do wish to be able to get their suspects' communications from their records, decrypt them, learn if they are terrorists, and if so, what they've been doing.

To do so, they have to make everyone's communications insecure.

Every time they weaken the terrorists' security, they weaken ours. They don't just weaken our security against snooping by the U.S. government, but also weaken it against criminals, notably criminals who wish to collect such things as credit-card numbers and confidential business documents. Most foolishly, every time the security services weaken our security, they weaken their own communications security and that of their governments.

Making codes easier to break
The newest revelation is that the U.S. NSA has been subverting computer standards committees to make it easier to break codes. Not just codes used by terrorists, but also codes used by banks to protect your transactions at automatic teller machines, by credit card companies to protect your credit card numbers and PINs, and by businesses who provide web sites with credit- and bank-card payment options.

Regrettably, making these codes weaker makes them easier for anyone to read, not just the NSA and our own CSE. Now that we know the way in which they were weakened, ordinary criminals can use the knowledge to reverse-engineer the changes and discover how to break the same codes.

It is not the NSA who is the biggest risk here, but rather criminals who have had their work made easier by the NSA's efforts. That is not to say that government data collection has not been a problem in the past: you may recollect J. Edgar Hoover's of the U.S. FBI collecting "potentially embarrassing information" on U.S. politicians. It is by no means impossible that a modern NSA employee might start a side business in collecting and selling credit-card numbers.

Getting access to https in real time
Https is the secure communications protocol use for web sites, including credit-card sales and bank sites. It depends on "SSL certificates" saying that such and such a site is really American Express, the Royal Bank of Canada or Google.

One of the things the security services have been doing is creating false certificates, so that, in one instance, a government site could pretend to be American Express. This is not limited to the NSA: a fake certificate for google.com was issued by a Dutch certificate agency to an Iranian security service[vi].

The only disadvantage of this attack is that the criminal or spy has to do this kind of snooping while you're actually talking to a website. This is a great disadvantage to a spy, who wants a particular person's information and so has to be listening continually for them. It is of little concern to a criminal: they will pretend to be a bank and steal money from anyone who happens to come along.

That an Iranian security service was caught getting a fake certificate from a Dutch agency for an American company is arguably just the tip of the iceberg. Other services, professional criminals and quite ordinary companies can obtain fake certificates as well, perhaps for a company's competitor.

Collecting telephone traffic
An older, similarly large-scale effort to collect telephone traffic and traffic records required particular telephone companies to establish "listening posts" in their main exchanges.

Subsequently, the desire for access to all telephone data led to the U.S. Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required all telephone switches have eavesdropping capabilities built in. The equipment was widely sold, and there were public scandals in Greece (2005) and Italy (2006) when criminals were found using these "back doors".

The information collected is kept for long periods of time, so that is a person is found to be of interest to the security services, their past communications can be inspected, and their contacts similarly designated "persons of interest".

Back doors and spyware
More recently, at least two encrypted email providers in the U.S. shut down their services on the grounds that they can be required to break their customers' security[vii]. At least one is the subject of a court order of an unspecified nature, which is arguably a "National Security Letter" or an order from the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Such orders also prohibit the recipient from disclosing they are the subject of such an order.

This is the internet equivalent of the wholesale wiretapping of telephone systems, and exposes email providers, internet service providers and businesses like Twitter or Facebook to the kind of attacks suffered by Vodaphone Greece in 2005viii. Like telephone back doors, the businesses are required to install the equipment at their own expense, and are fined when it is hacked.

In May of this year, we learned that Chinese hackers breached Google's system for providing surveillance data for the FBI[ix], so such back doors are actively being targeted by criminals and other security services.

Who talks to who
The collection of information on who has communicated with who is a classic bit of spyware. If one has even a moderate collection of this information, you can find who are the "well connected" people in a group. An example is Kieran Healey's essay about looking at the information the British had before the American revolution: had they known how to use metadata at that time, the would have identified Paul Revere as one of the organizers in Boston, well before his famous ride[x].

It's very useful to unethical advertisers, who would love to have the chance to buy a list of your friends right after you made a major purchase. They could then write to them all on your behalf to say "I just bought X, you should too".

It is also valuable to criminals. Cell-phone billing data contains not just who you called, but where each of you were. Imagine the convenience to a housebreaker if they found you were in Aruba. They could bring a moving-truck around and remove all the saleable contents of your house, knowing you wouldn't be around to say that you weren't moving.

What harm does this do
The harm to non-spies is typically from criminal early adopters: they have good financial motivations to seek out the work of the NSA and friends, turn it to their ends and defeat ours.

This is not the only risk to individuals, though. Anyone who displeases a member of the security services is at risk, whether the reason for the displeasure is real, or instead because someone is sleeping with the wrong person. The more powerful the security service, the more risk of a J. Edgar Hoover turning its power to personal ends.

The natural conservatism of a security service makes its excessive power a risk to anyone who wishes to change society: J. Edgar Hoover was particularly incensed at the civil rights movement, and targeted Nobel laureate Martin Luther King because of his push for civil rights for blacks.

Ironically, one of the harms the NSA does is to its own government. The CIA needs secure communications to its spies and counter-spies, legislators need secure communications with their staffs, and the FBI needs to secure its own communications against the criminals it investigates.

Businesses suffer from "spear phishing" attacks now: criminals target them in hopes of selling their secrets to their competitors. In the case of companies bidding for contracts, a few thousand dollars paid to a criminal hacker can yield hundreds of thousands in a won bid.

U.S. business in particular[xi] suffer from the fact that the NSA is engaging in snooping: their customers are properly concerned that their security is non-existent, and deal with business in other countries.

This is very like the prohibition of the 1920s and 30s: a faction demonizes something that everyone else wants, and an underground economy promptly comes into existence. Of course, the underground economy makes its decisions via "St. Valentine's day massacres", not courts. In an effort to reduce terrorism and criminality, the NSA encourages criminality.

What do we do about it
First, fix the technology. The Internet Engineering Task Force sets the standards for the internet, and is urgently lookingxii at both the long-term standards process and the fixes the technology will require in the short run. This will be discussed further at the Vancouver IETF meeting in December 2013. As of the time this was written Phillip Hallam-Baker had just submitted[xiii] a draft RFC on PRISM-Proof Security Considerations[xiv], addressing the technology.

In parallel, the Electronic Freedom Foundation has provided a web-site of available software that is relatively resistant to spying, "prism-break.org". This contains recommendations for software for personal computers, phones, iPads and the like.
Second, watch the watchers. In Canada, we have had trouble with the oversight of the RCMP, followed by similar problems with CSIS, and now it's the turn of the Communications Security Establishment. We need our security services, but we also need to rein them in when they overreach.

Allow electronic (counter-)espionage, but under the same kind of controls we apply to the RCMP and CSIS. We allow secret wiretap orders against common criminals, but the law requires they be disclosed to the public, and to the person spied upon, if the wiretap did not result in charges. This has to be managed carefully, to protect the investigation as well as the person being investigated, but we have done so in the past, and can do so again in the future.

Allow security services to be part of our standards-making process, but require them to ensure that the result is security for their own spies, for the governments who fund them, and for the citizens of their nations.

Prohibit so-called "lawful interception", the standard term for imposing hardware and software insecurities on internet-based companies like facebook, on communications-hardware companies like cisco, on individual internet service providers and on telephone companies. Do not create holes in standard communications hardware, but instead provide the police and security services with powerful recorders they can install if they have a court order. Forcing the companies to provide wiretap hardware at their own cost and then fining them when they are subverted is adding insult to injury, and needs to stop.

Finally, restore the rule of law, on a country-by-country basis.
The Internet Society[xv] urges "every citizen of the Internet: let your government representatives know that, even in matters of national security, you expect privacy, rule of law, and due process in any handling of your data."

We had the RCMP burning barns[xvi], CSIS funneling funds to white supremacists[xvii], and now we have CSE handing off standards-making to the NSA[xviii] as part of subverting our security. These are all unacceptable actions, and call for a judicial inquiry into the actions of the CSE.

What the NSA has been doing is breaking the law. Most of the actions described here would be illegal in Canada, and many are even illegal in the United States. We need to publicly review our co-operation with the NSA in these area, and wherever breaches of our law are found, punish the malefactors.


i. Firsthand account of NSA sabotage of Internet security standards, Cory Doctorow, September 8, 2013, http://boingboing.net/2013/09/08/firsthand-account-of-nsa-sabot.html

ii.New NSA Leak Shows MITM Attacks Against Major Internet Services, Bruce Schneier, Sept 30, 2013, https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/09/new_nsa_leak_sh.html

iii. NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls, Declan McCullagh, cNet, June 15, 2013, http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57589495-38/nsa-spying-flap-extends-to-contents-of-u.s-phone-calls/

iv. Anonymous Web-host shut down, owner arrested; Tor users compromised by Javascript exploit, Cory Doctorow, August 4, 2013, http://boingboing.net/2013/08/04/anonymous-web-host-shut-down.html#more-247505

v. How the US government has spied on almost every American for a decade, ExtremeTech, Sebastian Anthony, June 7, 2013, http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/157624-how-the-us-government-fbi-and-nsa-is-spying-on-almost-every-american

vi. Fake Google SSL Certificate Emerges With Ability to Hijack User Accounts, Fahmida Y. Rashid, eWeek, 2011-08-30, http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Security/Fake-Google-SSL-Certificate-Emerges-With-Ability-to-Hijack-User-Accounts-270126

vii. Lavabit, Silent Circle shut down e-mail: What alternatives are left? Hayley Tsukayama The Washington Post, August 9, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/lavabit-silent-circle-shut-down-e-mail-what-alternatives-are-left/2013/08/09/639230ec-00ee-11e3-96a8-d3b921c0924a_story.html

viii. Vodafone Greece rogue phone taps: details at last, Heise Online, 16 July 2007, http://www.h-online.com/security/news/item/Vodafone-Greece-rogue-phone-taps-details-at-last-733244.html

ix. Google says hackers based in China accessed U.S. officials' Gmail accounts, Washington Post, Cecilia Kang and Ellen Nakashima, June 1, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-06-01/business/35236080_1_gmail-accounts-lanxiang-vocational-school-e-mail-service

x. Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere, Kieran Healey, Slate, June 10, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/06/prism_metadata_analysis_paul_revere_identified_by_his_connections_to_other.single.html

xi. NSA snooping could cost U.S. tech companies $35 billion over three years, Andrea Peterson, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/08/07/nsa-snooping-could-cost-u-s-tech-companies-35-billion-over-three-years/ Washington Post, August 7, 2013

xii. Security and Pervasive Monitoring, Jari Arkko and Stephen Farrell, IETF, https://www.ietf.org/blog/2013/09/security-and-pervasive-monitoring/

xiii. IETF floats draft PRISM-proof security considerations, ParityNews, Ravi Mandalia, http://www.paritynews.com/2013/09/12/2776/ietf-floats-draft-prism-proof-security-considerations/

xiv. PRISM-Proof Security Considerations, draft-hallambaker-prismproof-req-00, https://www.ietf.org/id/draft-hallambaker-prismproof-req-00.txt

xv. Internet Society, Internet Society Responds to Reports of the U.S. Government's Circumvention of Encryption Technology, 9 September 2013, http://www.internetsociety.org/news/internet-society-responds-reports-us-government%E2%80%99s-circumvention-encryption-technology

xvii. Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 1979-1981, Mr. Justice D.C. McDonald, http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/pco-bcp/commissions-ef/mcdonald1979-81-eng/mcdonald1979-81-eng.htm

xviii. Canada's Security Agency Accused of SpyInternet Society, Internet Society Responds to Reports of the U.S. Government's Circumvention of Encryption Technology, 9 September 2013, http://www.internetsociety.org/news/internet-society-responds-reports-us-government%E2%80%99s-circumvention-encryption-technologying on Canadians, Clyde Farnsworth, August 28, 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/28/world/canada-s-security-agency-accused-of-spying-on-canadians.html

xix. Canada Facilitated NSA's Effort To Weaken Encryption Standards, Michael Geist, September 11, 2013 http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/6951/196/

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