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October 28, 2011

Crypto: the revenge

I recently had occasion to try out Gnu Privacy Guard, the Free Software Foundation's version of PGP, Phil Zimmermann's legendary Pretty Good Privacy software. It was the first time I'd encrypted an email message since about 1995, and I was both pleasantly surprised and dismayed.

First, the good. Public key cryptography is now implemented exactly the way it should have been all along: once you've installed it and generated a keypair, encrypting a message is ticking a box or picking a menu item inside your email software. Even key management is handled by a comprehensible, well-designed graphical interface. Several generations of hard work have created this and also ensured that the various versions of PGP, OpenPGP, and GPG are interoperable, so you don't have to worry about who's using what. Installation was straightforward and the documentation is good.

Now, the bad. That's where the usability stops. There are so many details you can get wrong to mess the whole thing up that if this stuff were a form of contraception desperate parents would be giving babies away on street corners.

Item: the subject line doesn't get encrypted. There is nothing you can do about this except put a lot of thought into devising a subject line that will compel people to read the message but that simultaneously does not reveal anything of value to anyone monitoring your email. That's a neat trick.

Item: watch out for attachments, which are easily accidentally sent in the clear; you need to encrypt them separately before bundling them into the message.

Item: while there is a nifty GPG plug-in for Thunderbird - Enigmail - Outlook, being commercial software, is less easily supported. GPG's GpgOL module works only with 2003 (SP2 and above) and 2007, and not on 64-bit Windows. The problem is that it's hard enough to get people to change *one* habit, let alone several.

Item: lacking appropriate browser plug-ins, you also have to tell them to stop using Webmail if the service they're used to won't support IMAP or POP3, because they won't be able to send encrypted mail or read what others send them over the Web.

Let's say you're running a field station in a hostile area. You can likely get users to persevere despite these points by telling them that this is their work system, for use in the field. Most people will put up with a some inconvenience if they're being paid to do so and/or it's temporary and/or you scare them sufficiently. But that strategy violates one of the basic principles of crypto-culture, which is that everyone should be encrypting everything so that sensitive traffic doesn't stand out. They are of course completely right, just as they were in 1993, when the big political battles over crypto were being fought.

Item: when you connect to a public keyserver to check or download someone's key, that connection is in the clear, so anyone surveilling you can see who you intend to communicate with.

Item: you're still at risk with regard to traffic data. This is what RIPA and data retention are all about. What's more significant? Being able to read a message that says, "Can you buy milk?" or the information that the sender and receiver of that message correspond 20 times a day? Traffic data reveals the pattern of personal relationships; that's why law enforcement agencies want it. PGP/GPG won't hide that for you; instead, you'll need to set up a proxy or use Tor to mix up your traffic and also protect your Web browsing, instant messaging, and other online activities. As Tor's own people admit, it slows performance, although they're working on it (PDF).

All this says we're still a long way from a system that the mass market will use. And that's a damn shame, because we genuinely need secure communications. Like a lot of people in the mid-1990s, I'd have thought that by now encrypted communications would be the norm. And yet not only is SSL, which protects personal details in transit to ecommerce and financial services sites, the only really mass-market use, but it's in trouble. Partly, this is because of the technical issues raised in the linked article - too many certification authorities, too many points of failure - but it's also partly because hardly anyone understands how to check that a certificate is valid or knows what to do when warnings pop up that it's expired or issued for a different name. The underlying problem is that many of the people who like crypto see it as both a cool technology and a cause. For most of us, it's just more fussy software. The big advance since the mid 1990s is that at least now the *developers* will use it.

Maybe mobile phones will be the thing that makes crypto work the way it should. See, for example, Dave Birch's current thinking on the future of identity. We've been arguing about how to build an identity infrastructure for 20 years now. Crypto is clearly the mechanism. But we still haven't solved the how.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

October 21, 2011

Printers on fire

It used to be that if you thought things were spying on you, you were mentally disturbed. But you're not paranoid if they're really out to get you, and new research at Columbia University, with funding from DARPA's Crash program, exposes how vulnerable today's devices are. Routers, printers, scanners - anything with an embedded system and an IP address.

Usually what's dangerous is monoculture: Windows is a huge target. So, argue Columbia computer science professor Sal Stolfo and PhD student Ang Cui, device manufacturers rely on security by diversity: every device has its own specific firmware. Cui estimates, for example, that there are 300,000 different firmware images for Cisco routers, varying by feature set, model, operating system version, hardware, and so on. Sure, what's the payback? Especially compared to that nice, juicy Windows server over there?

"In every LAN there are enormous numbers of embedded systems in every machine that can be penetrated for various purposes," says Cui.

The payback is access to that nice, juicy server and, indeed, the whole network Few update - or even check - firmware. So once inside, an attacker can lurk unnoticed until the device is replaced.

Cui started by asking: "Are embedded systems difficult to hack? Or are they just not low-hanging fruit?" There isn't, notes Stolfo, an industry providing protection for routers, printers, the smart electrical meters rolling out across the UK, or the control interfaces that manage conference rooms.

If there is, after seeing their demonstrations, I want it.

Their work is two-pronged: first demonstrate the need, then propose a solution.

Cui began by developing a rootkit for Cisco routers. Despite the diversity of firmware and each image's memory layout, routers are a monoculture in that they all perform the same functions. Cui used this insight to find the invariant elements and fingerprint them, making them identifiable in the memory space. From that, he can determine which image is in place and deduce its layout.

"It takes a millisecond."

Once in, Cui sets up a control channel over ping packets (ICMP) to load microcode, reroute traffic, and modify the router's behaviour. "And there's no host-based defense, so you can't tell it's been compromised." The amount of data sent over the control channel is too small to notice - perhaps a packet per second.

"You can stay stealthy if you want to."

You could even kill the router entirely by modifying the EEPROM on the motherboard. How much fun to be the army or a major ISP and physically connect to 10,000 dead routers to restore their firmware from backup?

They presented this at WOOT (Quicktime), and then felt they needed something more dramatic: printers.

"We turned off the motor and turned up the fuser to maximum." Result: browned paper and...smoke.

How? By embedding a firmware update in an apparently innocuous print job. This approach is familiar: embedding programs where they're not expected is a vector for viruses in Word and PDFs.

"We can actually modify the firmware of the printer as part of a legitimate document. It renders correctly, and at the end of the job there's a firmware update." It hasn't been done before now, Cui thinks, because there isn't a direct financial pay-off and it requires reverse-engineering proprietary firmware. But think of the possibilities.

"In a super-secure environment where there's a firewall and no access - the government, Wall Street - you could send a resume to print out." There's no password. The injected firmware connects to a listening outbound IP address, which responds by asking for the printer's IP address to punch a hole inside the firewall.

"Everyone always whitelists printers," Cui says - so the attacker can access any computer. From there, monitor the network, watch traffic, check for regular expressions like names, bank account numbers, and social security numbers, sending them back out as part of ping messages.

"The purpose is not to compromise the printer but to gain a foothold in the network, and it can stay for years - and then go after PCs and servers behind the firewall." Or propagate the first printer worm.

Stolfo's and Cui's call their answer a "symbiote" after biological symbiosis, in which two biological organisms attach to each other to mutual benefit.

The goal is code that works on an arbitrarily chosen executable about which you have very little knowledge. Emulating a biological symbiote, which finds places to attach to the host and extract resources, Cui's symbiote first calculates a secure checksum across all the static regions of the code, then finds random places where its code can be injected.

"We choose a large number of these interception points - and each time we choose different ones, so it's not vulnerable to a signature attack and it's very diverse." At each device access, the symbiote steals a little bit of the CPU cycle (like an RFID chip being read) and automatically verifies the checksum.

"We're not exploiting a vulnerability in the code," says Cui, "but a logical fallacy in the way a printer works." Adds Stolfo, "Every application inherently has malware. You just have to know how to use it."

Never mind all that. I'm still back at that printer smoking. I'll give up my bank account number and SSN if you just won't burn my house down.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

October 14, 2011

Think of the children

Give me smut and nothing but! - Tom Lehrer

Sex always sells, which is presumably why this week's British headlines have been dominated by the news that the UK's ISPs are to operate an opt-in system for porn. The imaginary sales conversations alone are worth any amount of flawed reporting:

ISP Customer service: Would you like porn with that?

Customer: Supersize me!

Sadly, the reporting was indeed flawed. Cameron, it turns out was merely saying that new customers signing up with the four major consumer ISPs would be asked if they want parental filtering. So much less embarrassing. So much less fun.

Even so, it gave reporters such as Violet Blue, at ZDNet UK, a chance to complain about the lack of transparency and accountability of filtering systems.

Still, the fact that so many people could imagine that it's technically possible to turn "Internet porn" on and off as if operated a switch is alarming. If it were that easy, someone would have a nice business by now selling strap-on subscriptions the way cable operators do for "adult" TV channels. Instead, filtering is just one of several options for which ISPs, Web sites, and mobile phone operators do not charge.

One of the great myths of our time is that it's easy to stumble accidentally upon porn on the Internet. That, again, is television, where idly changing channels on a set-top box can indeed land you on the kind of smut that pleased Tom Lehrer. On the Internet, even with safe search turned off, it's relatively difficult to find porn accidentally - though very easy to find on purpose. (Especially since the advent of the .xxx top-level domain.)

It is, however, very easy for filtering systems to remove non-porn sites from view, which is why I generally turn off filters like "Safe search" or anything else that will interfere with my unfettered access to the Internet. I need to know that legitimate sources of information aren't being hidden by overactive filters. Plus, if it's easy to stumble over pornography accidentally I think that as a journalist writing about the Net and in general opposing censorship I think I should know that. I am better than average at constraining my searches so that they will retrieve only the information I really want, which is a definite bias in this minuscule sample of one. But I can safely say that the only time I encounter unwanted anything-like-porn is in display ads on some sites that assume their primary audience is young men.

Eli Pariser, whose The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You I reviewed recently for ZDNet UK, does not talk in his book about filtering systems intended to block "inappropriate" material. But surely porn filtering is a broad-brush subcase of exactly what he's talking about: automated systems that personalize the Net based on your known preferences by displaying content they already "think" you like at the expense of content they think you don't want. If the technology companies were as good at this as the filtering people would like us to think, this weekend's Singularity Summit would be celebrating the success of artificial intelligence instead of still looking 20 to 40 years out.

If I had kids now, would I want "parental controls"? No, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I don't really believe the controls keep them safe. What keeps them safe is knowing they can ask their parents about material and people's behavior that upsets them so they can learn how to deal with it. The real world they will inhabit someday will not obligingly hide everything that might disturb their equanimity.

But more important, our children's survival in the future will depend on being able to find the choices and information that are hidden from view. Just as the children of 25 years ago should have been taught touch typing, today's children should be learning the intricacies of using search to find the unknown. If today's filters have any usefulness at all, it's as a way of testing kids' ability to think ingeniously about how to bypass them.

Because: although it's very hard to filter out only *exactly* the material that matches your individual definition of "inappropriate", it's very easy to block indiscriminately according to an agenda that cares only about what doesn't appear. Pariser worries about the control that can be exercised over us as consumers, citizens, voters, and taxpayers if the Internet is the main source of news and personalization removes the less popular but more important stories of the day from view. I worry that as people read and access only the material they already agree with our societies will grow more and more polarized with little agreement even on basic facts. Northern Ireland, where for a long time children went to Catholic or Protestant-owned schools and were taught that the other group was inevitably going to Hell, is a good example of the consequences of this kind of intellectual segregation. Or, sadly, today's American political debates, where the right and left have so little common basis for reasoning that the nation seems too polarized to solve any of its very real problems.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

October 7, 2011

In the club

Sometime around noon on October 8, 2011 I will no longer be a car owner. This is no small thing: like many Americans I started dreaming about my own car when I was 13 and got my license at 16. I have owned a car almost continuously since January 1975. What makes this a suitable topic for net.wars is that without the Internet it wouldn't have happened.

Since 1995, online retailing has progressively removed the need to drive to shops. By now, almost everything I buy is either within a few minutes' walk or online. I can no longer remember the last time I was in a physical supermarket in the UK.

The advent in 2005 of London's technology-reliant congestion charge (number plate recognition, Internet payment) meant a load of Londoners found it convenient to take advantage of the free parking in my area. I don't know what goes on in the heads of people who resent looking down their formerly empty street and seeing some strange cars parked for the day, but they promptly demanded controlled parking zones, even on my street, where daytime parking has never been an issue but the restaurants clog it up from 7pm to midnight. The CPZ made that worse. Result: escalating paranoia about taking the car anywhere in case I couldn't park when I got back.

But the biggest factor is a viable alternative. Car clubs and car-sharing were newspaper stories for some years until earlier this year, while walking a different route to the tube station, I spotted a parking space marked "CAR CLUB ONLY". It turns out that within a few minutes' walk of my house are five or six Streetcars (merging with Zipcar). For £60 a year I can rent one of these by the hour, including maintenance, insurance, tax, emergency breakdown service, congestion charge and, most important, its parking space. At £5.25 an hour it will take nearly 100 hours a year to match the base cost of car ownership - insurance, road tax, test, parking, AA membership, before maintenance. (There is no depreciation on a 24-year-old car!)

The viability of car clubs depends on the existence of both the Internet and mobile phone networks. Sharing expensive resources, even cars, is nothing new, but they would have relied on personal connections. The Internet is enabling sharing among strangers: you book via their Web site or mobile phone up to a few minutes before you want the car, and if necessary extend it by sending an SMS.

And so it was that about a month and a half ago it occurred to me that one day soon I would begin presiding over my well-loved car's slow march to scrap metal. How much should you spend on maintaining a car you hardly ever drive? If I sold it now, some other Nissan Prairie-obsessive could love it to death. A month later it passed its MOT for the cost of a replacement light bulb and promptly went up on eBay.

In journalism, they say one is a story, three is a trend. I am the second person on my street to sell their car and join the club in the last two months. The Liberal Democrat council that created the car club spaces can smirk over this: though some residents have complained in the local paper about the loss of parking for the car-owning public, the upshot will be less congestion overall.

The Internet is not going to kill the car industry, but it is going to reshape the pattern of distribution of car ownership among the population. Until now it's been a binary matter: you owned a car or you didn't. Most likely, the car industry will come out about even or a little ahead: some people who would have bought cars won't, some who wouldn't have bought cars will join a club, the clubs themselves will buy cars. City-dwellers have long been a poor market for car sales - lifelong Manhattanites often never learn how to drive - and today's teens are as likely to derive their feelings of freedom and independence from their mobile phones as from a car. The people who should feel threatened are probably local taxi drivers.

Nonetheless, removing the need to own a car to have quick access to one will remove a lot of excess capacity (as airlines would call it). What just-in-time manufacturing has done for companies like Dell and Wal-Mart, just-in-time ownership can now do for consumers: why have streets full of cars just sitting around all day?

To make it work, of course, consumers will have to defy decades of careful marketing designed to make them self-identify with particular brands and models (the car club cars are not beautiful Nissan Prairies but silly silver lozenges). Also, the club must keep its promise to provide a favorable member:car ratio, and the council must continue to allocate parking spaces.

Still, it's all in how you think about it. Membership in Zipcar in one location gives you access to the cars in all the rest. So instead of owning one car, I now have cars all over the world. Is that cool or what?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.