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When All You See Are Clouds… A Storm Is Brewing

20 Jun

The recent disclosures that the United States Government has violated the 4th amendment of the U. S. Constitution and potentially other international law by building a clandestine program that provides G-Men at the NSA direct taps into every aspect of our digital life – our e-mail, our photos, our phone calls, our entire relationships with other people and even with our spouses, is quite concerning from a technology policy perspective.  The fact that the US Government (USG) can by legal authority usurp any part of our recorded life – which is about every moment of our day – highlights several important points to consider:

  1. Putting the issue of whether the USG/NSA should have broad access into our lives aside, we must accept that the loopholes that allow them to demand this access expose weaknesses in our technology.
  2. The fact the USG can perform this type of surveillance indicates other foreign governments and non-government organizations likely can and may already be doing so as well.
  3. Given that governments are often less technologically savvy though much more resource-rich than malevolent actors, if data is not secure from government access, is it most definitely not secure from more cunning hackers, identity thieves, and other criminal enterprises.

If we can accept the points above, then we must accept that the disclosure of PRISM and connotation through carefully but awkwardly worded public statements about the program present both a problem and an opportunity for technologists to solve regarding data security in today’s age.  This is not a debate of whether we have anything to hide, but rather a discussion of how can we secure data, because if we cannot secure it from a coercive power (sovereign or criminal), we have no real data security at all.

But before proposing some solutions, we must consider:

How Could PRISM Have Happened in the First Place?

I posit an answer devoid of politics or blame, but on an evaluation of the present state of Internet connectivity and e-commerce.  Arguably, the Internet has matured into a stable, reliable set of services.  The more exciting phase of its development saw a flourishing of ideas much like a digital Cambrian explosion.  In its awkward adolescence, connecting to the Internet was akin to performing a complicated rain dance that involved WinSock, dial-up modems, and PPP, sprinkled with roadblocks like busy signals, routine server downtime, and blue screens of death.  The rate of change in equipment, protocols, and software was meteoric, and while the World Wide Web existed (what most laypeople consider wholly as “the Internet” today), it was only a small fraction of the myriad of services and channels for information to flow.  Connecting to and using the Internet required highly specialized knowledge, which both increased the level of expertise of those developing for and consuming the Internet, while limiting its adoption and appeal – a fact some consider the net’s Golden Age.

But as with all complex technologies, eventually they mature.  The rate of innovation slows down as standardization becomes the driving technological force, pushed by market forces.  As less popular protocols and methods of exchanging information give way to young but profitable enterprises that push preferred technologies, the Internet became a much more homogeneous experience both in how we connect to and interact with it.  This shapes not only the fate of now-obsolete tech, such as UUCP, FINGER, ARCHIE, GOPHER, and a slew of other relics of our digital past, but also influenced the very design of what remains — a great example being identification and encryption.

For the Internet to become a commercializable venue, securing access to money, from online banking to investment portfolio management, to payments, was an essential hurdle to overcome.  The solution for the general problem of identity and encryption, centralized SSL certificate authorities providing assurances of trust in a top-down manner, solves the problem specifically for central server webmasters, but not for end-users wishing to enjoy the same access to identity management and encryption technology.  So while the beneficiaries like Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and company now had a solution that provided assurance to their users that you could trust their websites belonged to them and that data you exchanged with them was secure, end-users were still left with no ability to control secure communications or identify themselves with each other.

A final contributing factor I want to point out is that other protocols drifted into oblivion, more functionality was demanded over a more uniform channel — the de facto winner becoming HTTP and the web.  Originally a stateless protocol designed for minimal browsing features, the web became a solution for virtually everything, from e-mail (“webmail”), to searching, to file storage (who has even fired up an FTP client in the last year?).  This was a big win for service providers, as they, like Yahoo! and later Google, could build entire product suites on just one delivery platform, HTTP, but it was also a big win for consumers, who could throw away all their odd little programs that performed specific tasks, and could just use their web browser for everything — now even Grandma can get involved.  A more rich offering of single-shot tech companies were bought up or died out in favor of the oligarchs we know today – Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the like.

Subtly, this also represented a huge shift on where data is stored.  Remember Eudora or your Outlook inbox file tied to your computer (in the days of POP3 before IMAP was around)?  As our web browser became our interface to the online world, and as we demanded anywhere-accessibility to those services and they data they create or consume, those bits moved off our hard drives and into the nebulous service provider cloud, where data security cannot be guarenteed.

This is meaningful to consider in the context of today’s problem because:

  1. Governments and corporate enterprises were historically unable to sufficiently regulate, censor, or monitor the internet because they lacked the tools and knowledge to do so.  Thus, the Internet had security through obscurity.
  2. Due to the solutions to general problems around identity and encryption relying on central authorities,  malefactors (unscrupulous governments and hackers alike) have fewer targets to influence or assert control over to tap into the nature of trust, identity, and communications.
  3. With the collapse of service providers into a handful of powerful actors on a scale of inequity on par with a collapse of wealth distribution in America, there exist now fewer providers to surveille to gather data, and those providers host more data on each person or business that can be interrelated in a more meaningful way.
  4. As information infrastructure technology has matured to provide virtual servers and IaaS offerings on a massive scale, fewer users and companies deploy controlled devices and servers, opting instead to lease services from cloud providers or use devices, like smartphones, that wholly depend upon them.
  5. Because data has migrated off our local storage devices to the cloud, end-users have lost control over their data’s security.  Users have to choose between an outmoded device-specific way to access their data, or give up the control to cloud service providers.

There Is A Better Way

Over the next few blog posts, I am going to delve into a number of proposals and thoughts around giving control and security assurances of data back to end-users.  These will address points #2 and #4 above as solutions that layer over existing web technologies, not proposals to upend our fundamental usage of the Internet by introducing opaque configuration barriers or whole-new paradigms.  End-users should have choice whether their service providers have access to their data in a way that does not require Freenet’s darknets or Tor’s game-of-telephone style of anonymous but slow onion-routing answer to web browsing.  Rather, users should be able to positively identify themselves to the world and be able to access and receive data and access it in a cloud-based application without ever having to give up their data security, not have to trust of the service provider, be independent to access the data on any devices (access the same service securely anywhere), and not have to establish shared secrets (swap passwords or certificates).

As a good example, if you want to send a secure e-mail message today, you have three categorical options to do so:

  1. Implicitly trust a regular service provider:  Ensure both the sender and the receiver use the same server.  By sending a message, it is only at risk while the sender connects to the provider to store it and while the receiver connects the provider to retrieve it.  Both parties trust the service provider will not access or share the information.  Of course, many actors, like Gmail, still do.
  2. Use a secure webmail provider:  These providers, like Voltage.com, encrypt the sender’s connection to the service to protect the message as it is sent, and send notifications to receivers to come to a secure HTTPS site to view the message.  While better than the first option, the message is still stored in a way that can be demanded by subpoena or snooped inside the company while it sits on their servers.
  3. Use S/MIME certificates and an offline mail client:  While the most secure option for end-to-end message encryption, this cumbersome method is machine-dependent and requires senders and receivers to first share a certificate with each other – something the average user is flatly incapable of understanding or configuring.

Stay tuned to my next post, where I propose a method by which anyone could send me a message securely, without knowing anything else about me other than my e-mail address, in a way I could read online or my mobile device, in a way that no one can subpoena or snoop on in between.

 

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