If anything, what [Bytes, Bombs and Spies] points out is how little value you can get from traditional political-science terms and concepts. Escalatory ladder makes little sense with a domain where a half-decade of battlefield preparation and pre-placement are required for attacks, where attacks have a more nebulous connection to effect, deniability is a dominant characteristic, and where intelligence gathering and kinetic effect require the same access and where emergent behavior during offensive operations happens far beyond human reaction time.
- Dave Aitel, There is no Escalatory Ladder in the Matrix
Nothing quite like starting the day by refreshing a password that was apparently compromised, and then trying to determine where/how the operators might have obtained the login credentials in the first place. Still, props to Google’s AI systems for detecting the aberrant login attempt and blocking it, as well as for password managers which make having unique login credentials for every service so easy to manage/replace.
Zetter’s book engages in a heroic effort to summarize, describe, and explain the significance of the NSA’s and Israel’s first ‘cyber weapon’, named Stuxnet. This piece of malware was used to disrupt the production of nuclear material in Iran as part of broader covert efforts to delimit the country’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon.
Multiple versions of Stuxnet were created, as were a series of complementary or derivative malware species with names such as Duqu and Flame. In all cases the malware was unusually sophisticated and relied on chains of exploits or novel techniques that advanced certain capabilities from academic theory to implementable practice. The reliance on zero-day vulnerabilities, or those for which no patches are available, combined with deliberate efforts to subvert the Windows Update system as well as use fraudulently signed digital certificates, bear the hallmarks of developers being willing to compromise global security for the sake of a specific American-Israeli malware campaign. In effect, the decision to leave the world’s computers vulnerable to the exploits used in the creation of Stuxnet demonstrate that offence was prioritized over defence by the respective governments and their signals intelligence agencies which authored the malware.
The book regales the reader with any number of politically sensitive tidbits of information: the CIA was responsible for providing some information on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the IAEA, Russian antivirus researchers were monitored by Israeli (and perhaps other nations’) spies, historically the CIA and renown physicists planted false stories in Nature, the formal recognition as cyberspace as the fifth domain of battle in 2010 was merely formal recognition of work that had been ongoing for a decade prior, the shift to a wildly propagating version of Stuxnet likely followed after close access operations were no longer possible and the flagrancy of the propagation was likely an error, amongst many other bits of information.
Zetter spends a significant amount of time unpacking the ways in which the United States government determines if a vulnerability should be secretly retained for government use as part of a vulnerabilities equities process. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security who were quoted in the book noted that they had never received information from the National Security Agency of a vulnerability and, moreover, that in cases where the Agency was already exploiting a reported vulnerability it was unlikely that disclosure would happen after entering the vulnerability into the equities process. As noted by any number of people in the course of the book, the failure by the United States (and other Western governments) to clearly explain their vulnerabilities disclosure processes, or the manners in which they would respond to a cyber attack, leaves unsettled the norms of digital security as well as leaves unanswered the norms and policies concerning when (and how) a state will respond to cyber attacks. To date these issues remain as murky as when the book was published in 2014.
The Countdown to Zero Day, in many respects, serves to collate a large volume of information that has otherwise existed in the public sphere. It draws in interviews, past technical and policy reports, and a vast quantity of news reports. But more than just collating materials it also explains the meanings of them, draws links between them that had not previously been made in such clear or straightforward fashions, and explains the broader implications of the United States’ and Israel’s actions. Further, the details of the book render (more) transparent how anti-virus companies and malware researchers conduct their work, as well as the threats to that work in an era when a piece of malware could be used by a criminal enterprise or a major nation-state actor with a habit of proactively working to silence researchers. The book remains an important landmark in the history of security journalism, cybersecurity, and the politics of cybersecurity. I would heartily recommend it to a layperson and expert alike.
If those responsible for security believe that the law does not give them enough power to protect security effectively, they must try to persuade the law-makers, Parliament and the provincial legislatures, to change the law. They must not take the law into their own hands. This is a requirement of a liberal society.
Canada, Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Second Report: Freedom and Security Under the Law, vol 1, Part II (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1981) at 45.
I shifted over to this domain name, and WordPress environment, a little over eight months ago. In addition to moving multiple years of content I also committed to at least one post a week though, ideally, would post many more than that!
I’ve been largely successful with meeting those goals. As such, I’ve been able to maintain a regular personal writing habit. It’s also meant I’ve locked down some of my ruminations and thoughts so that I can reflect on them later on down the line.
However, there are some things that I’m not entirely happy with. First, I’ve been privately writing small ‘reviews’ of books and movies but haven’t gotten around to posting them here. Part of that is wanting to do them ‘well’ and the other reason is that I’m trying to decide if I should have posts and then a master page that links to the posts, or just posts, or just a page. But expect that to be figured out pretty soon.1 I also really like the idea of putting up a gear/software list of things that I routinely use, and want to steal an idea from a friend of mine who posts the podcasts that she’s really into at any given time. And I want to put some thought into developing a public blogroll, likely based on the RSS feeds that I consume, though I admit that I’m not entirely sure of the utility of blogrolls in this day and age.
The reason for contemplating these changes to some of the content and structure? Mostly because I think I can move more of my writing to this location; there’ve only been a few times that I thought I was getting too ‘close’ to mimicking the work on my professional web presence or private journal, and even then the tone was sufficiently different that it belonged here as opposed to those other locations. But I’m also motivated to modify some of the content here because I want what I write to be interesting and useful for other people; I often find that bloggers’ reviews and insights about the things they use are the only way that I discover the existence of certain tools, products, workflows, and cultural items. So I want to give back to others, just as they have freely given to me and everyone else who visits (or has visited) their sites.
I spent some time this week writing about a recent proposal to significantly weaken the security of the devices we carry with us on a daily basis. In short, I think that the proposal:
doesn’t address the real technical or policy problems associated with developing a global backdoor system to our most personal electronic devices. Specifically the architect of the solution overestimates the existent security characteristics of contemporary devices, overestimates the ability of companies to successfully manage a sophisticated and globe-spanning key management system, fails to address international policy issues about why other governments couldn’t or wouldn’t demand similar kinds of access (think Russia, China, Iran, etc), fails to contemplate an adequate key revocation system, and fails to adequately explain why why the exceptional access system he envisions is genuinely needed.
Device security, and especially efforts to weaken it, fundamentally raises technical and policy issues. Neither type of issue can be entirely divorced from the other, and it’s important to recognize that the policy issues are both domestic and international; failing to address them both, at the same time, means that any proposal will almost certainly have terminal weaknesses.
Inspiring Quotation of the Week
“Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.”
— Michael A. Singer
Great Photography Shots
The shots from this year’s Sony 2018 World Photography Awards are stunning. Here are some of my favourites:
Music I’m Digging
Neat Podcast Episodes
Good Reads for the Week
- How and Why to Keep Your Team Out of Communication Debt
- Is the hammer about to drop on Ontario beer?
- Life Inside S.C.L., Cambridge Analytica’s Parent Company
- Basic Income Is Already Transforming Life and Work In a Postindustrial Canadian City
- Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match
- The Secret Language of Ships
- Dating apps are refuges for Egypt’s LGBTQ community, but they can also be traps
- ISO blocks NSA’s latest IoT encryption systems amid murky tales of backdoors and bullying
- I suspect I’ll opt to a post-per-review, with them aggregated on a distinct page. ↩
Earlier this year, I suggested that the current concerns around Facebook data being accessed by unauthorized third parties wouldn’t result in users leaving the social network in droves. Not just because people would be disinclined to actually leave the social network but because so many services use Facebook.
Specifically, one of the points that I raised was:
3. Facebook is required to log into a lot of third party services. I’m thinking of services from my barber to Tinder. Deleting Facebook means it’s a lot harder to get a haircut and impossible to use something like Tinder.
At least one company, Bumble, is changing its profile confirmation methods: whereas previously all Bumble users linked their Facebook information to their Bumble account for account identification, the company is now developing their own verification system. Should a significant number of companies end up following Bumble’s model then this could have a significant impact on Facebook’s popularity, as some of the ‘stickiness’ of the service would be diminished.1
I think that people moving away from Facebook is a good thing. But it’s important to recognize that the company doesn’t just provide social connectivity: Facebook has also made it easier for businesses to secure login credential and (in others cases) ‘verify’ identity.2 In effect one of the trickiest parts of on boarding customers has been done by a third party that was well resourced to both collect and secure the data from formal data breaches. As smaller companies assume these responsibilities, without the equivalent to Facebook’s security staff, they are going to have to get very good, very fast, at protecting their customers’ information from data breaches. While it’s certainly not impossible for smaller companies to rise to the challenge, it won’t be a cost free endeavour, either.
It will be interesting to see if more companies move over to Bumble’s approach or if, instead, businesses and consumers alike merely shake their heads angrily at Facebook’s and continue to use the service despite its failings. For what it’s worth, I continue to think that people will just shake their heads angrily and little will actually come of the Cambridge Analytica story in terms of affecting the behaviours and desires of most Facebook users, unless there are continued rapid and sustained violations of Facebook users’ trust. But hope springs eternal and so I genuinely do hope that people shift away from Facebook and towards more open, self-owned, and interesting communications and networking platforms.
Thoughtful Quotation of the Week
The brands themselves aren’t the problem, though: we all need some stuff, so we rely on brands to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire as if new trinkets are a shortcut to a more complete life. That external pressure shouldn’t be a sign to consume. If anything, it’s a sign to pause and ask, “Who am I buying this for?”
Great Photography Shots
Music I’m Digging
Neat Podcast Episodes
Good Reads for the Week
- First XDR typhoid is on the verge of being untreatable, spreading globally
- Sweden’s violent reality is undoing a peaceful self-image
- OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to change the world — then it all went wrong
- Eyewear consumers blast effort to cease online sales
- Chat Is Google’s Next Big Fix For Android’s Messaging Mess
- I think that the other reasons I listed in my earlier post will still hold. Those points were:
1. Few people vote. And so they aren’t going to care that some shady company was trying to affect voting patterns.
2. Lots of people rely on Facebook to keep passive track of the people in their lives. Unless communities, not individuals, quit there will be immense pressure to remain part of the network. ↩
- I’m aware that it’s easy to establish a fake Facebook account and that such activity is pretty common. Nevertheless, an awful lot of people use their ‘real’ Facebook accounts that has real verification information, such as email addresses and phone numbers. ↩
The Israeli firm, a subsidiary of Japan’s Sun Corporation, hasn’t made any major public announcement about its new iOS capabilities. But Forbes was told by sources (who asked to remain anonymous as they weren’t authorized to talk on the matter) that in the last few months the company has developed undisclosed techniques to get into iOS 11 and is advertising them to law enforcement and private forensics folk across the globe. Indeed, the company’s literature for its Advanced Unlocking and Extraction Services offering now notes the company can break the security of “Apple iOS devices and operating systems, including iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iPad Pro and iPod touch, running iOS 5 to iOS 11.” Separately, a source in the police forensics community told Forbes he’d been told by Cellebrite it could unlock the iPhone 8. He believed the same was most probably true for the iPhone X, as security across both of Apple’s newest devices worked in much the same way.
If Cellebrite has, indeed, found a way of compromising all iOS devices then they’ve accomplished a pretty impressive task. I have to wonder whether the vulnerabilities emerged from studying the iBoot leak or their own software or hardware research. Assuming Cellebrite’s claims are legitimate they serve to underscore the position that government’s shouldn’t introduce backdoors or vulnerabilities into devices given that doing so will only exacerbate the existing problems associated with securing devices. Security is designed to add friction, not totally prevent an unauthorized party’s actions, and deliberately reducing such friction will put all users at greater jeopardy.