In a joint report by The Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica, courtesy of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, it was revealed how the NSA and British GCHQ broke encryption to unlock unlock encryption used to protect emails, banking and medical records. The detailed article describes how the program, called “Bulrun,” foils the safeguards of our internet privacy:
The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.
The N.S.A. hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. In some cases, companies say they were coerced by the government into handing over their master encryption keys or building in a back door. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.
A cryptographer and research professor at Johns Hopkins University, Michael Green summerizes some of the “bad things” that the NSA and GCHQ have been doing with the joint cost of $250 million per year:
(1.) Tampering with national standards (NIST is specifically mentioned) to promote weak, or otherwise vulnerable cryptography.
(2.) Influencing standards committees to weaken protocols.
(3.) Working with hardware and software vendors to weaken encryption and random number generators.
(4.) Attacking the encryption used by ‘the next generation of 4G phones‘.
(5.) Obtaining cleartext access to ‘a major internet peer-to-peer voice and text communications system’ (Skype?)
(6.) Identifying and cracking vulnerable keys.
(7.) Establishing a Human Intelligence division to infiltrate the global telecommunications industry.
(8.) And worst of all (to me): somehow decrypting SSL connections.
Columnist on civil liberties and U.S. national security issues for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald discussed this latest revelation with Amy Goodman and Juan González of DemocracyNow!.
Transcript can be read here
“It’s what lets you enter your credit card number, check your banking records, buy and sell things online, get your medical tests online, engage in private communications. It’s what protects the sanctity of the Internet.” [..]
“The entire system is now being compromised by the NSA and their British counterpart, the GCHQ,” Greenwald says. “Systematic efforts to ensure that there is no form of human commerce, human electronic communication, that is ever invulnerable to their prying eyes.”
Security technologist and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, Bruce Schneiner said, in an article at The Guardian, that the public has been betrayed by the US government and that the NSA has undermined the social contract with the public. He proposes that since it was engineers who built the internet, it is time that they “fix it”.
One, we should expose. If you do not have a security clearance, and if you have not received a National Security Letter, you are not bound by a federal confidentially requirements or a gag order. If you have been contacted by the NSA to subvert a product or protocol, you need to come forward with your story. Your employer obligations don’t cover illegal or unethical activity. If you work with classified data and are truly brave, expose what you know. We need whistleblowers. [..]
Two, we can design. We need to figure out how to re-engineer the internet to prevent this kind of wholesale spying. We need new techniques to prevent communications intermediaries from leaking private information.
We can make surveillance expensive again. In particular, we need open protocols, open implementations, open systems – these will be harder for the NSA to subvert.
Prof. Schneiner also offers a guide to staying secure and gives five piece of advice:
1) Hide in the network. Implement hidden services. Use Tor to anonymize yourself. Yes, the NSA targets Tor users, but it’s work for them. The less obvious you are, the safer you are.
2) Encrypt your communications. Use TLS. Use IPsec. Again, while it’s true that the NSA targets encrypted connections – and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols – you’re much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.
3) Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA – so it probably isn’t. If you have something really important, use an air gap. Since I started working with the Snowden documents, I bought a new computer that has never been connected to the internet. If I want to transfer a file, I encrypt the file on the secure computer and walk it over to my internet computer, using a USB stick. To decrypt something, I reverse the process. This might not be bulletproof, but it’s pretty good.
4) Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It’s prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software. Systems relying on master secrets are vulnerable to the NSA, through either legal or more clandestine means.
5) Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations. For example, it’s harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor’s TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor’s TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it’s far less likely those changes will be discovered. Prefer symmetric cryptography over public-key cryptography. Prefer conventional discrete-log-based systems over elliptic-curve systems; the latter have constants that the NSA influences when they can.