Security is a threat-driven exercise (ComSec in the age of Big Brother follow up)
The following is a follow-up to my recent post about communication security (ComSec). I decided to write it after reading the comments to the original post which clearly showed to me that there was a dire need of even basic information about ComSec. I am going to try to keep it very, very basic so please bear with me.
First and foremost – security is a threat-driven exercise. You cannot protect against “anything”. You cannot protect against something diffuse like “they” or “the powers that be” or even “the US government”. You can only protect against a specific threat. Let’s take an example: as soon as we discuss the protection of our computers we think of the NSA. This is normal, since the NSA is the arch-villain of the IT world and the US government the number one “rogue state” on the planet.
However, what is missed here is that the NSA has no interest in most of us. But the US IRS (revenue service) might. What you have to realize here is that the NSA has means which the IRS does not and that the NSA has absolutely no intention of sharing any information with the IRS. In fact, the US IRS also probably does not care about you. The folks most likely to spy on you are your bosses, your colleagues, your family and your friends (sorry! don’t get offended; it’s more or less the same list for those most likely to murder you too). In fact, some people close to you might even want to report you to the IRS in order to get you in trouble. Once you understand that, you can also conclude the following
- All security planning must begin with the question “what is the threat?”
- Giving up on ComSec because the NSA can probably beat you is plain stupid, unless you are somebody really important to the NSA
- For the bad guys to spy after you must be worth their time as expressed in dollars and cents, including opportunity costs (time spend *not* going after somebody more important)
- It is exceedingly unlikely that the NSA will put their best and brightest on your case so don’t assume they will.
The total development cost represented in a typical Linux distribution was $1.2 billion. We’ve used his tools and method to update these findings. Using the same tools, we estimate that it would take approximately $10.8 billion to build the Fedora 9 distribution in today’s dollars, with today’s software development costs. Additionally, it would take $1.4 billion to develop the Linux kernel alone. This paper outlines our technique and highlights the latest costs of developing Linux. The Linux operating system is the most popular open source operating system in computing today, representing a $25 billion ecosystem in 2008.
Let me ask you this: did you ever think that the free software community, using a de-centralized development model, would be able to produce a product with the corporate world or a government would need to spend more than TEN BILLION dollars to develop? Let me give you another example: Debian, which is the “ultimate” GNU/Linux distribution has over 1000 developers and package maintainers worldwide (including Chinese, Indians, Russians and Americans without a security-clearance) which are selected by showing the Debian community that they are the best at what they are doing. Do you really believe that the US government could hire that amount of top-level coders and then manage them? I remind you that the NSA is an “agency”, meaning that it is a bureaucracy, run by people who have reached risen to their level of incompetence according to the “Peter Principle“. Such agencies are slow to adopt new technologies or methods, they are inherently corrupt (due to their secrecy), they are permeated with the “where I sit is where I stand” mindset which leads to a strong opposition to progress (since if you are used to doing X you will lose your job or will have to re-train if Y is introduced) and which is hopelessly politicized. Buck per buck, brain per brain, the free software community is vastly more effective than this gargantuan mega-agency.
And then there is academia. There are superb technical institutes worldwide, many in China and India, by the way, which are filled by the best and brightest mathematicians and cryptologists who are not only competing against each others, but also against all their colleagues worldwide. The “eyeballs” of these people are focused with great attention to any new encryption algorithm developed anywhere on the planet and the first thing they look after are flaws simply because being the guy (or group) who found a security flaw in a previously assumed flawless algorithm is a guaranteed claim to fame and professional success. Most of these folks are far more driven than the bureaucrats at Fort Meade! But for them to be able to do their job it is absolutely crucial that the code of the encryption application and the actual encryption algorithm be made public. All of it. If the source-code and encryption algorithm are kept secret, than very FEW “eyeballs” care review them for flaws. The conclusions from that are:
- The assumption that the NSA is miles ahead of everybody else is plain false.
- Placing your trust in peer-reviewed software and encryption algorithms is the safest possible option
- The worldwide hacker and academic communities have superior means (in money and brains equivalent) to any government agency
[Sidebar: I have personally experienced that. In the late 1990s I used to use PGP encryption for email exchanges with my Godson. Sure enough, one day my boss calls me into his office, presents me with the printout of an encrypted email of mine and ask me what this was. My reply was “an encrypted message”. He then proceeded to ask me why I was encrypting my emails. I replied that I did that to “make sure that only my correspondent could read the contents”. He gave me a long hard look, then told me to leave. This incident probably greatly contributed to my eventual termination from that job. And this was in “democratic” Switzerland…]
My advice is simple: never use any form of encryption while at work or on the clock. If your email address is something like $fdJfirstname.lastname@example.org your employer won’t even know that you are using protonmail. Just keep a reasonably low profile. For public consumption, I also recommend using Google’s Gmail. Not only does it work very well, but using Gmail makes you look “legit” in the eyes of the idiots. So why not use it? Conclusions:
- Using advanced ComSec technologies is now safe in most countries.
- The more private users and the industry will become ComSec conscious (and they are) the safer it will be to use such technologies
- Your ComSec depends on it’s weakest link and in order to identify this link you need to
- Acquire enough knowledge to understand the full chain’s function and not rely on one even very cool gadget or app.
- We live in a complex and high technology world. While you can reject it all and refuse to use advanced technologies, you thereby also make yourself the ideal passive sheep which the powers that be want you to be. What the powers that be are terrified of are the cyberpunks/cypherpunks, free software hackers, folks like Assange or Snowden and institutions like Wikileaks. They are so terrified of them that they *reassure* themselves by claiming that these are all “Russian agents” rather than to look at the terrifying reality that these are the natural and inevitable reaction to the worldwide violation of human and civil rights by the AngloZionist Empire. It is your choice as to whether educate yourself about these issues or not, but if you chose to remain ignorant while paranoid the powers that be will give you a standing ovation.
- Placing your trust in X, Y or Z does not have to be a ‘yes or no’ thing. Place as much trust in, say, open source software as you deem it to deserve, but remain prudent and cautious. Always think of the consequences of having your ComSec compromised: what would that really do to you, your family, your friends or your business. It is a dynamic and fast moving game out there, so keep yourself well informed and if you do not understand an issue, decide whom amongst those who do understand these issues you would trust. Delegating trust to trustworthy experts is a very reasonable and rational choice.
- Going low-tech might be far more costly and less safe than intelligently using high-teach solutions.
- “No-tech” at all is usually the worst choice of all, if only because it is delusional in the first place.
I tried to debunk some of the many myths and urban legends about ComSec in general and an agency like the NSA in particular. I had the time to do that once, but since this topic is not a priority for this blog, I won’t be able to repeat this exercise in the future. I hope that this has been useful and interesting, if not I apologize.
Starting next week, we will return to our more traditional topics.
Hugs and cheers,