Category Archives: Eavesdropping

Scaring People into Supporting Backdoors

Back in 1998, Tim May warned us of the "Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse": "terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, and money launderers." I tended to cast it slightly differently. This is me from 2005:

Beware the Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse: terrorists, drug dealers, kidnappers, and child pornographers. Seems like you can scare any public into allowing the government to do anything with those four.

Which particular horseman is in vogue depends on time and circumstance. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US government has been pushing the terrorist scare story. Recently, it seems to have switched to pedophiles and child exploitation. It began in September, with a long New York Times story on child sex abuse, which included this dig at encryption:

And when tech companies cooperate fully, encryption and anonymization can create digital hiding places for perpetrators. Facebook announced in March plans to encrypt Messenger, which last year was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of child sexual abuse material, according to people familiar with the reports. Reports to the authorities typically contain more than one image, and last year encompassed the record 45 million photos and videos, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

(That's wrong, by the way. Facebook Messenger already has an encrypted option. It's just not turned on by default, like it is in WhatsApp.)

That was followed up by a conference by the US Department of Justice: "Lawless Spaces: Warrant Proof Encryption and its Impact on Child Exploitation Cases." US Attorney General William Barr gave a speech on the subject. Then came an open letter to Facebook from Barr and others from the UK and Australia, using "protecting children" as the basis for their demand that the company not implement strong end-to-end encryption. (I signed on to another another open letter in response.) Then, the FBI tried to get Interpol to publish a statement denouncing end-to-end encryption.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on backdoors: "Encryption and Lawful Access: Evaluating Benefits and Risks to Public Safety and Privacy." Video, and written testimonies, are available at the link. Eric Neuenschwander from Apple was there to support strong encryption, but the other witnesses were all against it. New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance was true to form:

In fact, we were never able to view the contents of his phone because of this gift to sex traffickers that came, not from God, but from Apple.

It was a disturbing hearing. The Senators asked technical questions to people who couldn't answer them. The result was that an adjunct law professor was able to frame the issue of strong encryption as an externality caused by corporate liability dumping, and another example of Silicon Valley's anti-regulation stance.

Let me be clear. None of us who favor strong encryption is saying that child exploitation isn't a serious crime, or a worldwide problem. We're not saying that about kidnapping, international drug cartels, money laundering, or terrorism. We are saying three things. One, that strong encryption is necessary for personal and national security. Two, that weakening encryption does more harm than good. And three, law enforcement has other avenues for criminal investigation than eavesdropping on communications and stored devices. This is one example, where people unraveled a dark-web website and arrested hundreds by analyzing Bitcoin transactions. This is another, where policy arrested members of a WhatsApp group.

So let's have reasoned policy debates about encryption -- debates that are informed by technology. And let's stop it with the scare stories.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): The DoD just said that strong encryption is essential for national security.

All DoD issued unclassified mobile devices are required to be password protected using strong passwords. The Department also requires that data-in-transit, on DoD issued mobile devices, be encrypted (e.g. VPN) to protect DoD information and resources. The importance of strong encryption and VPNs for our mobile workforce is imperative. Last October, the Department outlined its layered cybersecurity approach to protect DoD information and resources, including service men and women, when using mobile communications capabilities.

[...]

As the use of mobile devices continues to expand, it is imperative that innovative security techniques, such as advanced encryption algorithms, are constantly maintained and improved to protect DoD information and resources. The Department believes maintaining a domestic climate for state of the art security and encryption is critical to the protection of our national security.

Eavesdropping on SMS Messages inside Telco Networks

Fireeye reports on a Chinese-sponsored espionage effort to eavesdrop on text messages:

FireEye Mandiant recently discovered a new malware family used by APT41 (a Chinese APT group) that is designed to monitor and save SMS traffic from specific phone numbers, IMSI numbers and keywords for subsequent theft. Named MESSAGETAP, the tool was deployed by APT41 in a telecommunications network provider in support of Chinese espionage efforts. APT41's operations have included state-sponsored cyber espionage missions as well as financially-motivated intrusions. These operations have spanned from as early as 2012 to the present day. For an overview of APT41, see our August 2019 blog post or our full published report.

Yet another example that demonstrates why end-to-end message encryption is so important.