Skip to content


Kiwicon X: Pwning ML for Fun and Profit

I presented “Pwning ML for Fun and Profit” at Kiwicon X

When: Friday, Nov 18th, 2016 at 14:15
Where: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Everyone is talking ML this and AI that as if they expect some kind of Utopian beast to be waiting just behind the next door and whisk us all away to a technological-paradise. It would seem dire warnings of every Sci-Fi book and movie ever haven’t been enough to dissuade people from cooking statistics and math into an techno-optimist soup of dubious origin and expecting us to swallow. Obviously security can’t just sit here and watch the catastrophes unfold. I aim to lay out some of the most awful yet still amusing examples of how and why we can and will break things. This presentation attempts to offer the audience a refreshingly realistic look at the terrible flaws in ML, the ease of altering outcomes and the dangers ahead.

Copy of Presentation: kiwiconX.daviottenheimer.pdf (5 MB)

Posted in History, Security.


“Using Behavioral Economics to Inform Policy” – Dr. Adam Oliver

Here is a copy for convenience of the 2014 presentation by Dr. Adam Oliver, a London School of Economics (LSE) Reader in Health Economics and Policy:

nudge.oliver
(PDF 2.1 MB)

Dr. Oliver is published in the areas of health equity, economic evaluation, risk and uncertainty, and the economics and policy of health care reform. The interface between economics and political science in health care policy analysis motivates his current research.

Since 2001 he has worked at the LSE, where currently he is Lecturer in Health Economics and Policy in the Department of Social Policy, and Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of LSE Health and Social Care, one of the largest research institutes in the health-related social sciences in Europe. 2005-06 Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellow in Health Care Policy, Dr. Oliver holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Newcastle and an MSc in health economics from the University of York. He is a 1995-97 Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho) Research Scholar, Founding Chair of the Health Equity Network, Founding Coordinator of the Preference Elicitation Group, and a former Coordinator of the European Health Policy Group. He also is Founding Co-Editor of the journal, Health Economics, Policy and Law.

See also the forthcoming “Behavioural Public Policy“, an interdisciplinary and international peer-reviewed journal devoted to behavioural research and its relevance to public policy.

Posted in Security.


I should blog more again, I know

Thanks to everyone recently telling me they miss my blog posts. To be honest I have a queue of written posts unreleased because I went through one of those writing phases where erratic Tweets seemed like an easier public legacy than slogging through full paragraphs and illustrations. For six years I wrote a post every day, come rain or shine. Now it’s down to a post every harvest moon if that.

Of course in private I write for a living, typing up analysis and trying to expose fun facts of history for the many corporations building security teams and products. As the private load increased, my public writing necessarily changed to keep some distance. Balance wasn’t really expected.

Recent posts in particular I have been asked to release include defense of backdoors, surveillance camera economics and models for patching IoT…with a little elbow grease and a hammer applied to this rusty site they may soon be appearing.

Posted in Security.


2016 BSidesLV Ground Truth Keynote: Great Disasters of Machine Learning

I presented the Ground Truth Keynote at the 2016 BSidesLV conference:

Great Disasters of Machine Learning: Predicting Titanic Events in Our Oceans of Math

When: Wednesday, August 3, 10:00 – 10:30
Where: Tuscany, Las Vegas
Cost: Free (as always!)
Event Link: ground-truth-keynote-great-disasters-of-machine-learning

This presentation sifts through the carnage of history and offers an unvarnished look at some spectacular past machine learning failures to help predict what catastrophes may lay ahead, if we don’t step in. You’ve probably heard about a Tesla autopilot that killed a man…

Humans are great at failing. We fail all the time. Some might even say intelligence is so hard won and infrequent let’s dump as much data as possible into our “machines” and have them fail even faster on our behalf at lower cost or to free us. What possibly could go wrong?

Looking at past examples, learning from failures, is meant to ensure we avoid their repetition. Yet it turns out when we focus our machines narrowly, and ignore safety decision controls or similar values, we simply repeat avoidable disasters instead of achieving faster innovations. They say hindsight is 20-20 but you have to wonder if even our best machines need corrective lenses. At the end of the presentation you may find yourself thinking how easily we could have saved a Tesla owner’s life.

Copy of Presentation Slides: 2016BSidesLV.daviottenheimer.pdf (8 MB)

Full Presentation Video:

Some of my other BSides presentations:

Posted in History, Security.


How We Could Use Cyber Letters of Marque

Rick Holland pointed out today that Dave Aitel last April wrote an article “US Steel demonstrates why we need Cyber Letters of Marque

…while economic competitiveness is at some level a strategic need, the particular defense of a US Company is not something the NSA can and should prioritize. The answer to this problem is allowing private companies to offer their services under strict law enforcement and intelligence community oversight to perform the actions needed, including remote intrusion, data exfiltration and analysis, that would allow US Steel and the US Government to build a rock-solid case for criminal liability and sanctions. In that sense, cyber Letters of Marque are more similar to private investigator licensing than privateer licensing.

To me this misses the real point of letters of marque. An extension of government services under license is approaching the for-hire contract system as used already. The infamous Blackwater company, for example, implemented privatized security services.

We are trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service

Let me set aside a US-centric perspective for a moment, given that it has not ratified the 1856 Declaration of Paris signed by 55 states to formally outlaw privateers. Arguably this is because American leaders thought they never would want or have a standing military and thus would rely on privateers for self-defense against established European armies. The Constitution Article 1, Section 8 still has letters of marque as an enumerated power of Congress.

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

Note that 2 year limit on funding Armies. US Congress right now can issue a letter of marque to private entities, who would be given neither funding nor oversight, so they can submit prizes won to a court for judicial determination.

On a more global note what really we ought be talking about here is how someone wronged directly can take action, akin to self-defense or hiring a body-guard, when their government says an organized defense is unavailable. A letter of marque thus would be offered as license to defend self in consideration of a court after-the-fact, where a government entity can not help.

In historic terms (before 1855) any authority might issue a letter to “privateers”; spoils of enemies found were to be brought back to that issuer’s court for settlement. Upon seizing goods the privateer returned to an admiralty or authority for assessment in what we might call a “spoils court”.

An excellent example of this was when two ships with American flags attacked a British ship because at war. A fourth ship sailed late into this battle flying a British flag and chased away the two American ships. Sounds like a simple case of British nation-state defending self against two American privateers, right?

No, this fourth ship then dropped its British flag, raised an American one, and scuttled the already heavily damaged British ship that it had pretended to defend. Now acting as an American privateer it could enter an American port alone with enemy spoils as a “patriotic” duty under a letter of marque. Had the fourth ship simply helped the other two American ships a spoils court would have awarded at most a third of the full sum it received.

The use of an authority for judgment of spoils and settlement is what distinguishes the “patriotic” privateers from pirates who operated independently and eschewed judgment by larger global organizations (pirates often were those who had left working for large organizations and set out on their own specifically to escape unjust/unhealthy treatment).

So I say letters of marque have a different and more controversial spin from the licensing or even a contractor model mentioned above in Aitel’s post:

…allowing private companies to offer their services under strict law enforcement and intelligence community oversight to perform the actions needed…

Strict oversight? What also we must consider is issuing letters to companies wronged that will not have strict oversight (because cost/complexity). How can we allow self-defense, a company to legally take action against their “enemies”, using after-the-fact oversight in courts?

We seek to maintain accountability while also releasing obligation for funding or strict coordination by an authority. This takes us into a different set of ethics concerns versus a system of strict oversight, as I illustrated with the American ship example above. Ultimately the two wronged American ships had recourse. They sued the fourth ship for claiming spoils unfairly, since it arrived late in the battle. Courts ruled in their favor, giving them their “due”.

Here’s a simple example in terms of US Steel:

The US government finds itself unable to offer any funds or oversight for a response to attack reported by US Steel. Instead the government issues a letter of marque. US Steel itself, or through private firms it contracts, finds and seizes the assets used by its attackers. Assets recovered and details of case are submitted to court, which judges their actions. Spoils in modern terms could mean customers, IP or even infrastructure.

In other words, if US Steel finds 90% of IP theft is originating from a specific service provider, and a “take over” of that provider would stop attacks, the courts could rule after US Steel defends itself that seized provider assets (e.g. systems and their networks found with IP stolen from US Steel) are a “prize” for US Steel.

It’s not a clear-cut situation, obviously, because it’s opening the possibility of powerful corporations seizing assets from anyone they see and think they can take. That would be piracy. Instead accountability for prizes is considered by authority of courts, to reduce abuse of letters.

Posted in History, Sailing, Security.


“T V E S L E”: The Poetry of Encryption in 1080s AD

1550-boite-a-chiffrerWhile reading about the French use of encryption during the 16C I ran into a reference that said French Kings borrowed cryptography concepts from Arabs. A little more digging and I found an example by Hervé Lehning in “L’Univers des codes secrets: De l’antiquité à Internet”.

He writes that Muhammad ibn Abbad al-Mu’tamid (المعتمد بن عباد), King of Seville from 1069-1092, used birds in poetry for secret correspondence. For example:

La tourterelle du matin craint le vautour,
Qui pourtant préfère les nuées d’étourneaux,
Ou au moins les sarcelles et les loriots
Qui plus que tout craignent les éperviers.

Matching names of birds to their first letter we get “t v e s l e”, which Lehning contends is the message “tues-le”: kill him

My translation:

The morning dove fears the vulture,
yet who prefers swarms of starlings,
or at least teal and orioles,
who most of all fear the hawk.

Would love to find the original imagery as I imagine the King’s poetry to be highly calligraphic or even a form of pictorial encoding.

Posted in History, Poetry, Security.


Easy BlueTooth Car Hack: “Press OK to Continue”

Looking at a brand new vehicle console interface for BlueTooth connections we found it prompted the user to select a device name, yet used a limited visual space. The prompt, right in front of the driver on the center console, asks (changed slightly to mask offending vehicle manufacturer):

Would you like to connect…

Then the device name gets inserted immediately after. This led to the natural question whether we could dictate behavior instead of asking the user to make a decision.

We changed a phone name to “Press OK to Continue” put phone into discovery/connect mode and waited in a parking lot. Soon after we had a rogue connection to a car, as a driver thought “Press OK to Continue” was a prompt, not the device name.

Posted in Security.


American Pro-Slavery History Markers

Charlotte, North Carolina, has a history marker that I noticed while walking on the street.

It is in need of major revision. Let me start at the end of the story first. A search online found a “NC Markers” program with an entry for L-56 CONFEDERATE NAVY YARD.

Closer to the end of the war…tools and machinery from the yard were moved from Charlotte to Lincolnton. Before the yard could be reassembled and activated in Lincolnton, the war ended. After the war the yard’s previous landowner, Colonel John Wilkes, repossessed the property, for which the Confederate government had never paid him. Where the Confederate Navy Yard once operated, he established Mecklenburg Iron Works. It operated from 1865 until 1875 when it burned.

Note the vague “the war ended” sentence. This supposedly historic account obscures the simple context of the Confederates losing the war. I find that extremely annoying.

To make the problem more clear, compare the above L-56 official account with the UNC Charlotte Special Collections version of the same history:

The exact date of the formation of the Mecklenburg Iron Works is unknown, as is ownership of the firm until its purchase in 1859 by Captain John Wilkes. There is evidence, though, that the firm existed as early as 1846. The son of Admiral Charles Wilkes, John was graduated first in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1847. Following a stint in the U.S. Navy, Wilkes married and moved to Charlotte in 1854. Two years after he purchased the iron works, the Confederate government took it over and used it as a naval ordnance depot. After the Civil War, Wilkes regained possession of the Iron Works, which he operated until his death in 1908. His sons, J. Renwick and Frank, continued the business until 1950, when they sold it to C. M. Cox and his associates.

So many things to notice here:

  1. There was a Captain John Wilkes, not Colonel, although neither story says for which side he fought. An obituary lists him as U.S. Navy and says he was active during Civil War
  2. Captain John Wilkes was the son of infamous Union Navy Admiral Charles Wilkes, who was given a court-martial in 1864. Was John, son, fighting for the North with father, or South against him?
  3. There is evidence these Iron Works were established long before the Civil War. NC Markers says “as early as 1846″. The Charlotte library says Vesuvius Furnace, Tizrah Forge and Rehoboth Furnace were operating 35 years earlier, with a picture of the Mecklenburg Iron Works to illustrate 1810.(1)
  4. Wilkes was not just “yard’s previous landowner”, he ran an iron works two years before the Confederate government took possession of it. Did he lose it as he went to fight for the North, or did he give it to help fight for the South? Seems important to specify yet no one does. In any case the iron works was pre-established, used during Civil War and continued on afterwards

The bigger question of course is who cares that there is a Confederate Navy yard in Charlotte, North Carolina? Why was a sign created in 1954 to commemorate the pro-slavery military?

Taking a picture of the sign meant I could show it to an executive business woman I met in Charlotte, and I asked her why it was there. She told me “Democrats put up that sign for their national convention”. She gave this very strangely political answer about the Democrats in her very authoritative voice while being completely wrong. She ended with an explanation that there was no mention of slavery because (yelling at me and walking away) “CIVIL WAR WAS ABOUT TAXES, NOT SLAVERY. I KNOW MY HISTORY”.

I found this also very annoying. Apparently white educated elites in North Carolina somehow have come to believe Civil War was not about slavery. She was not the only one to say this.

What actually happened, I found with a little research, was the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program started in 1935. They put up the signs, with no mention of Democrats of political conventions, as you can tell from the link I gave at the start of this post.

Here is how the NC Markers program explains the official purpose of a CONFEDERATE NAVY YARD sign on the street:

For residents the presence of a state marker in their community can be a source of pride

Source of pride.

Honestly I do not see what they are talking about. What are people reading this sign meant to be proud of exactly? Is a failed attempt by pro-slavery military to create a Navy a proud moment? Confederate yards failed apparently because of huge shortages in raw materials and labor, which ultimately were because of failures in leadership. That is pride material?

What am I missing here?

The sign is dated as 1954. Why this date? It was the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” doctrine, opening the door for the civil rights movement. It was the year after Wilkes oldest surviving child died. Does a pro-slavery military commemoration sign somehow make more sense in 1954 (city thumbing nose at Supreme Court or maybe left in will of Wilkes last remaining child) than it does in 2016?

A petition at the University of Mississippi to change one of their campus monuments explains the problem with claiming this as a pride sign:

Students and faculty immediately objected to this language, which 1) failed to acknowledge slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, 2) ignored the role white supremacy played in shaping the Lost Cause ideology that gave rise to such memorials, and 3) reimagined the continued existence of the memorial on our campus as a symbol of hope.

[…]

From the 1870s through the 1920s, memorial associations erected more than 1,000 Confederate monuments throughout the South. These monuments reaffirmed white southerners’ commitment to a “Lost Cause” ideology that they created to justify Confederate defeat as a moral victory and secession as a defense of constitutional liberties. The Lost Cause insisted that slavery was not a cruel institution and – most importantly – that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War.

Kudos to the Mississippi campaign to fix bad history and remove Lost Cause propaganda. The North Carolina sign’s 1950s date suggests there might be a longer period of monuments being erected. When I travel to the South I am always surprised to run into these “proud” commemorations of slavery and a white-supremacy military. I am even more surprised that the residents I show them to usually have no idea where exactly they are, why they still are standing or who put them up.

At the very least North Carolina should re-write the sign to be more accurate. Here is my suggestion:

MECKLENBURG IRON WORKS: Established here 1810. Seized by pro-slavery forces 1862 after defeat in Portsmouth, Va to supply Navy. Freed in 1865.

That seems fair. The official “essay” of the NC Markers really also should be rewritten.

For example NC Markers wrote:

in time it began to encounter difficulty obtaining and retraining trained workers

Too vague. I would revise that to “Southerners depended heavily on immigrants and Northerners for shipyard labor. As soon as first shots were fired upon the Union by the South, starting a Civil War, many of the skilled laborers left and could not be replaced. Over-mobilization of troops further contributed to huge labor shortages.

NC Markers also wrote:

given its location along the North Carolina Railroad and the South Carolina Railroad, it was connected to several seaboard cities, enabling it to transport necessary products to the Confederate Navy

Weak analysis. I would revise that to “despite creating infrastructure to make use of the Confederate Navy Yard it had no worth without raw materials. Unable to provide enough essential and basic goods, gross miscalculation by Confederate leaders greatly contributed to collapse of plans for a Navy”

But most of all, when they wrote “the war ended” I would revise to say “the Confederates surrendered to the Union, and with their defeat came the end of slavery”.

Let residents be proud of ending the pro-slavery nation, or more specifically returning the Iron Works to something other than fighting for perpetuation of slavery.

So here is the beginning of the story, at its end. Look at this sign on the street in Charlotte, next to Bank of America headquarters:

charlotte-pro-slavery-militia-memorial-sign


(1) 1810 – Iron Industry screenshot from Charlotte – Mecklenburg Library
1810-IronIndustry-Mecklenburg

Posted in History, Sailing, Security.


Elevator Social Engineering

I’ve spent years fiddling with social engineering at a bank of elevators. At first it was just part of the job (getting past security) and now it’s become something more of an analytic game.

Let’s say you have six doors, where you have to push the button and wait for one to open. A crowd forms, three, five, maybe even seven people. Should you try to jump in first when the door opens?

No.

Time and again I find it better to step towards the door and hold it open until it’s completely full. Everyone else will move sheepishly towards the first door they see, or at least the closest open one. Encourage this behavior and help as many people as possible quickly squeeze into a tiny box together. Maybe even push all the floor buttons for them. Then jump out and let the doors close without you inside. The more you pushed in the better.

Pat yourself on the back, push the elevator button again and step alone into the next elevator that opens its doors. Of course the congratulations really depends on how well you estimated flow of arriving passengers and where they’re going (could be a group together choosing a single floor).

It’s a great game of allocation logistics that soon will be replaced by computers assigning people to elevators using basic math. Enjoy it while you can.

Posted in Security.


Encryption is a good thing. It prevents crime.

Does encryption prevent crime?

Recently I wrote of how the ANC used encryption to help defeat apartheid rule in South Africa. Looking back at that example being on the right side of history meant being on the wrong side of a law, which ultimately meant committing a crime to prevent a crime. Privacy from surveillance was essential to creating change (e.g. ending the crime of apartheid) because a lack of privacy could mean arrest, imprisonment or even death. So yes, we can point to an example where encryption prevented crime, by enabling crime.

Confused?

When we hear encryption prevents crime we probably need to ask for hard evidence to give us perspective or context. Rather than look at a rather complex issue case by case by case, I wonder if a larger body of work already is available. Has anyone written studies of how encryption prevents crime across the board, over time? Although I have searched far and wide, nothing has appeared so far. Please comment below or contact me if you know of such a study.

A good example of where I have searched is the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS). It has many great resources and links, with well-known cryptographers studying social issues. I thought for sure it would have at least several titles on this topic. Yet so far I have not uncovered any vetted research on the economics of preventing crime with encryption.

We may be left for now pulling from examples, specific qualitative cases, such as the ANC. Here is a contemporary one to contemplate: TJX used encryption for wireless communication, and yet ended up having their encryption cited as a major reason for breach, as explained by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

TJXonWEP

The point here is that, despite a fair number of qualitative technical assessments, we seem to lack quantitative study of benefits to crime fighting from encryption. We also lack nuance in how we talk about the use of encryption, which is why you might hear people claim “encryption is either on or off”. That binary thinking obviously does us no favors. Saying the lock is either open or closed doesn’t get at the true issue of whether a lock is capable of stopping crime. Encryption at TJX was on, and yet it was not strong enough to stop crime.

Another good example of where I have searched is the Verizon Breach report, arguably the best breach analysis in our industry. Unfortunately even those thorough researchers have not yet looked into the data to reveal encryption’s effect on crime.

What I am getting at is we probably should not passively accept people making claims about crime being solved, as if true and a foregone conclusion without supporting evidence. Let us see data and analysis of encryption solving crime.

While searching for studies I did find a 2015 Slate article that told readers encryption prevents “millions of crimes”. Bold claim.

…default encryption on smartphones will prevent millions of crimes, including one of the most prevalent crimes in modern society: smartphone theft. In the long run, widespread smartphone encryption will ultimately preserve law and order far more than it will undermine it.

Here is why I think it could be better to challenge these statements instead of letting them slip through. The author arrived at this conclusion through sleight of hand, blurring encryption with data from studies that say a “kill switch” option has been linked to lower rates of physical theft. These studies do not have data on encryption. Protip: encryption and kill switch are very different things. Not the same thing at all and data from one is not transferable to the other. Then, as if we simply swallowed without protest two very different things being served as equivalent, the author brings up ways that a kill switch can fail and therefore is inferior to encryption.

In logic terms it would be A solves for C, therefore use B to solve for C. And on top of that B is better than A because D. This is roughly like:

A: pizza solves C: hunger
B: therefore use water to solve for C: hunger
A: pizza gets soggy when wet, therefore B: water best to solve C: hunger because D: doesn’t get soggy

A careful reader should wonder why something designed to preserve and protect data from theft (encryption) is substituted directly for something designed to make a physical device “unattractive” to re-sellers (kill switch), which may not be related at all to data theft.

…kill switches—even if turned on by default—have serious shortcomings that default encryption doesn’t. First, the consumer has to actually choose to flip the switch and brick the phone after it’s been stolen. Second, the signal instructing the smartphone to lock itself actually has to reach the phone. That can’t happen if the crooks just turn the phone off and then take some trivial steps to block the signal, or ship the phone out of the country, before turning the phone back on to reformat it for resale. (Smartphone theft is increasingly an international affair for which kill switches are not a silver bullet.) And finally, enterprising hackers are always working to provide black market software solutions to bypass the locks, which is one of the reasons why there is a thriving market for even locked smartphones, as demonstrated by a quick search on eBay. Those same hackers, however, would be decisively blocked by a strong default encryption solution.

That last line is nonsense. If nothing else this should kill the article’s credibility on encryption’s role in solving crime. Hard to believe someone would say enterprising hackers always work to bypass locks in one sentence and then next say that “strong default encryption” is immune to these same enterprising hackers. Who believes hackers would be “decisively blocked” because someone said the word “strong” for either locks or encryption? Last year’s strong default encryption could be next year’s equivalent to easily bypassed.

What really is being described in the article is a kill switch becomes more effective using encryption, because the switch is less easily bypassed (encryption helps protects the switch from tampering). That is a good theory. No one should assume we can replace a kill switch with encryption and expect a straight risk equivalency. While encryption helps the kill switch, the reverse also is true. A switch actually can make encryption far safer by erasing the key remotely or on failed logins, for example. Encryption can be far stronger if access to it can be “killed”.

Does installing encryption by itself on a device make hardware unattractive to re-sellers? Only if data is what the attackers are after. Most studies of cell phone theft are looking at the type of crime where grab-and-run is profitable because of a device resale market, not data theft. Otherwise encryption could actually translate to higher rate of thefts because a device could be sold without risk of exposing privacy information. It actually reduces risk to thieves if they aren’t able to get at the data and can just sell the device as clean, potentially making theft more lucrative. Would that increase crime because of encryption? Just a thought. Here’s another one: what if attackers use encryption to lock victims out of their own devices, and then demand a ransom to unlock? Does encryption then get blamed for increasing crime?

Slate pivots and twists in their analysis, blurring physical theft (selling iPhones on eBay) with data theft (selling identity or personal information), without really thinking about the weirdness of real-world economics. More importantly, they bring up several tangential concepts and theories, yet do not offer a single study focused on how encryption has reduced crime. Here’s a perfect example of what I mean by tangential.

As one fascinating study by the security company Symantec demonstrated, phone thieves will almost certainly go after the data on your stolen phone in addition to or instead of just trying to profit from sale of the hardware itself. In that study, Symantec deliberately “lost” 50 identical cellphones stocked with a variety of personal and business apps and data, then studied how the people who found the unsecured phones interacted with them. The upshot of the study: Almost everyone who got hold of one of the phones went straight for the personal information stored on that phone. Ninety-five percent of the people who picked up a phone tried to access personal or sensitive information, or online services like banking or email. Yet only half of those people made any attempt to return the phone—even though the owner’s phone number and email address were clearly marked in the contacts app.

What is fascinating to me is the number of times encryption or crypto appears in that study: zero. Not even once.

Symantec did not turn on encryption to see if any of the results changed. That study definitely is not about encryption helping or hurting crime. Can we try to extrapolate? Would people try harder to access data once they realize it is encrypted, being the curious types, looking for a key or guessing a PIN? Would attempts to return phones go down from half to zero when contact information is encrypted and can’t be read, causing overall phone loss numbers to go up?

And yet clearly the Slate author would have us believe Symantec’s study, which does not include encryption, proves encryption will help. The author gets even bolder from there, jumping to conclusions like this one, a perfect example of what I mean by jumping.

There wouldn’t have been a breach at all if that information had been encrypted.

If encryption, then no more breach…Hey, I think I get it!

  1. Collect Encrypted Underpants
  2. ?
  3. Profit!

No. This is all so wrong. Look again at the TJX breach I mentioned earlier. Look especially at the part where encryption was “in place” when the breach happened.

TJX was using encryption technology for wireless networking, known generally as WEP, that used the RC4 stream cipher for confidentiality and CRC-32 checksum for integrity. There’s the encryption, right there, in the middle of a report discussing a huge, industry changing breach. Despite encryption, or arguably even because of misuse/overconfidence in weak encryption, we saw one of the largest breaches in history. Again, the crux of the issue is we aren’t using nuance in our discussion of encryption “solving” crimes. Far more detail and research of real-world applied encryption is greatly preferred to people saying “encryption is good, prevents crime” dropping the mike and walking off stage.

Studies of encryption effects on crime beg details of how we would define levels of “strong”, what is “proper” key management, “gaps” between architecture and operation…but my point again is we don’t seem to have any studies that tell us where, when or how exactly encryption prevented crimes generally, let alone a prediction for our future. Say for example we treat encryption as a tax on threats, an additional cost for them to be successful. Can we model a decline in attacks over time? I would love to see evidence that higher taxes lower likelihood of threats across time compared to lower taxes (e.g. as has been illustrated with US cigarette policies):

Smoking_Tax_Cancer_Plot

We know encryption can prevent types of crime. We no longer have an apartheid government in South Africa, proving a particular control has utility for a specific issue. I just find it interesting how easily people want to use a carte blanche argument for general crime being solved, greater good, when we talk about encryption. People call on us to sign a big encryption check, despite offering no real study or analysis of impact at a macro or quantitative level. That probably should change before we get into policy-level debates about the right or wrong thing to do with regulation of encryption.


Updated to add reference:

European Axis Signal Intelligence in WWII as revealed by TICOM Investigations and other prisoner of war interrogations and captured material, principally German, 1 May 1946

“Target Intelligence Committee.” The project, which was originally conceived by Colonel George A. Bicher, Director of the Signal Intelligence Division, ETOUSA, in the summer of 1944, aimed at the investigation and possible exploitation of German cryptologic organizations, operations, installations, and personnel, as soon as possible after the
impending collapse of the German forces.

Posted in History, Security.