Witnesses at IPBill committee

Britain needs a fresh start for privacy

Witnesses: Professor Bill Buchanan, Erka Koivunen, Cyber Security Advisor, F-Secure and Eric King, Deputy Director, Privacy International.

Yesterday, F-Secure’s cyber security adviser Erka Koivunen was called to the British Parliament to give expert witness testimony to the Joint Committee scrutinising the draft Investigatory Powers Bill (also known as the Snoopers’ Charter).

Erka’s testimony follows F-Secure’s bid back in October to warn the government that its plans to implicate technology companies in its bid to collect data on people’s digital lives was technically flawed and potentially harmful to British business. You can watch his testimony here — it begins at timestamp 15:13:50 or 58:45 on a mobile device.

The draft Bill was introduced in early November, the Joint Committee has spent the last month or so listening to witness testimonies and receiving written evidence. We can expect the Committee to give its report in early next year after which the Bill would proceed to the Parliament sessions.

The Bill proposed by the Home Office aims to overhaul the powers law enforcement and intelligence agencies have to collect data within the UK. However, given the fact that most of the activities have been taking place already, the biggest changes appear to be how the government would define specific terms to its advantage.

We, and many other expert witnesses, have voiced our concerns over the ambiguity of the terms and lack of clarity as to which type of companies the requirements would fall to.

The text refers to telecommunications service operators as ‘Communications Service Providers’ (CSP), apparently in an effort to expand the scope from traditional operators to the likes of Skype, Facebook and Apple. Regardless of where in the world they operate from. The loosely defined providers are expected to collect and store data of their users’ internet usage – the so-called Internet Connection Records (ICR). In some government comments, these have been likened to an itemised telephone bill. Sounds harmless, doesn’t it?

There are also passages about interception and something that has been referred to as ‘Equipment Interference’. These are conducted in a targeted fashion but also in bulk or in a subject-matter fashion.

Nice, but what do these terms mean, exactly?

Interception is something that a layman would call eavesdropping.

This is where somebody else’s communication is being monitored, copied and stored without the consent of the communicating parties. According to the Bill, that someone can be an individual, a group of people exhibiting similar trait or basically everyone. The eavesdropper may snoop in on the content of the communication or may be limited to the so-called metadata. Eavesdropping can be considered to be a passive activity although the preparatory act of equipping the communications systems for eavesdropping and the data extraction are anything but passive.

Equipment Interference is a euphemism that covers everything from ‘police malware’ to be planted on a suspect’s computer and ranging all the way to introduction of backdoors to software products or outright breaking in to other people’s computers and networks. These actions are active by nature, and highly covert. The law enforcement and intelligence officials will not discuss anything about what, how or when. But here they are, asking for parliament’s blessing.

Even the obvious-sounding term appears to be laden with hidden meanings. In the evidence given to the Committee, it has become clear that the proposed Internet Connection Record is not a thing. This type of ‘itemized’ data is not being collected at the moment and the operators see no value in collecting such material. Rather the contrary! Collecting and storing session logs from all internet traffic and all users generates huge amounts of data that must at the same time be kept secure and accessible. Not an easy task!

To accompany Erka Koivunen’s appearance, F-Secure has also submitted written evidence which provides more detail for the Committee to consider.

Here are F-Secure’s main concerns:

Lack of clarity
o There is a great level of ambiguity in the Bill’s scope and applicability to not only F-Secure but technology and cyber security industry as a whole
o The Bill can be interpreted in a fashion that it forbids the use of strong cryptography, most notably the use of end-to-end encryption.

Extremely broad mandate
o The Bill introduces a variety of bulk collection methods and even the so-called targeted methods appear overly broad
o Our own evidence suggests that LE hasn’t exhausted even the existing avenues to acquire information via targeted requests.

One mustn’t break the technological foundations of our information society in an effort to defend our safety
o By deliberately weakening cryptography and breaking the cyber security protections, one does harm to businesses and to ordinary citizens by exposing them to criminal activity online.
o By constantly lowering the barrier to engage in active network attacks one only encourages other nations and non-state actors to follow suit.

Democracy requires transparency, freedom of speech requires privacy and we should expect that authorities give much consideration to proportionality. What is commendable about the Bill, however, is that what we believe to be the first time, the mandate of law enforcement and intelligence services to operate in cyberspace is being discussed in the Parliament. While we have strong reservation towards the Bill, we applaud British government’s courage to bring the difficult topic for the public debate and subject it to democratic process. We hope this is not the end but rather a fresh start.

More posts from this topic

dead end

Should We Stop Thinking of Email As Private?

When he was still working in cyber security for the Finnish government, Erka Koivunen met a NATO diplomat that there was "nothing new" about the era we now live in. Foreign envoys have always lived with the constant awareness that their private communications could be "leaked" for their enemies to exploit. "Anything that was written down could eventually be discovered," Erka, who is now an F-Secure Cyber Security Advisor, told me. "So the most sensitive conversations never took place in writing." Given the massive email leaks that have now hit the worlds of business, with the Sony hacks, and politics, with the leaks of U.S. political figures, is this how we should all start thinking? Does everyone alive in the twenty-first century have to operate like a NATO diplomat? Or a C-level executive who knows any word she types could be subpoenaed? Or the campaign chair of a presidential campaign? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be increasingly clear. "Whatever you write, you may need to defend your position in public," Erka said. Relying on an insecure medium The problems with email begin with the general insecurity of it as a means of communication. It's more like sending a postcard than sending a sealed letter, Erka explains. "As soon as the message goes out of your or your company’s systems, you lose control of it," Erka explained. "This is by far the biggest problem of the good-ole-email. Messages can be eavesdropped, altered, delayed, replayed or dropped altogether without you ever knowing." To actually spy on email as it's being transmitted generally requires legal access to telecommunications infrastructure or extraordinary technical knowhow and resources. Think law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Since these groups have a vested interest in cloaking their activities, they had little incentive to engage in the massive sort of leaking of gigabytes of private data we've seen from Wikileaks. However, we appear to be at the end of the era of "the gentleman's agreement" between countries, as cyber policy expert Mara Tam explained on a recent episode of the Risky.Biz podcast. This agreement went something like: "Gentlemen read each other's email, but they don't leak it to the public." The leaks from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden helped make the public aware of how much information the government potentially could access. But the exposure of a private individual's digital communication to the world presents a stark new reality for anyone who conducts business online. "Personal mailboxes store gigabytes’ worth of conversation history that will be a treasure trove for attackers for multiple reasons," Erka said. "There are sensitive discussions about business strategy, customers, competitors, products. There is also internal gossip, badmouthing and other damaging stuff." Activist Naomi Klein told The Intercept that "this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from." And we don't yet have a full sense of the potential ways this mass of data can be used against us. A competitor could use private information to tarnish someone’s reputation and hackers can mine the data to prepare for future cyber intrusions or to gain access to your other accounts through password resets. Letting the public decide what's private Leaks have already cost some executives their jobs and could swing the U.S. presidential election. But in a sense, we're all victims of this new risk to all of our privacy. "Whatever you write in an email you have to consider, are you ready for your boss, your spouse, your business partners to read it?" Erka asked. This new reality leads inevitably to the tragedy of self-censorship. Zeynep Tufekci -- a "techno-sociologist" -- ‏has been doing a running commentary on the Wikileaks revelations and is very disturbed by what she's seeing. "People gossiping in internal conversation is not a scandal—but destroying public/private boundaries will paralyze dissent, not the powerful," she tweeted. Wikileaks is releasing more documents than it could ever sift through in the hopes that the newsworthy information will be discerned by interested researchers around the world. But along with potentially relevant items, intensely private information has been revealed. "For example, a suicide attempt was publicized through Podesta indiscriminate dump (Wikileaks tweeted it out)," she noted. "Who will want to be political?" This makes the loss of email seem dire, but perhaps it speaks to a not just a flaw in the medium's security but the medium itself. "The deeper problem with email is that it has never quite settled on a social mode," The New York Times Farhad Manjoo wrote. "An email can be as formal as a legal letter or as tossed off as drive-by insult. This invites confusion." What can you do? So, should you be like that NATO diplomat content to keep all of your deepest secrets out of writing? Can you expect yourself to remove all snark and potentially offensive thoughts from your emails? Should you assume that your email box is like a box of letters in your attic, vulnerable to anyone who can get access to it? These answers are ultimately up to you and how you use -- or don't use -- email. F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan has found that young people he's interviewed are increasingly abandoning email as communication tool. "They only have an account -- typically Gmail -- in order to sign up for stuff," he said. If this continues, email is on its way out, whether it's private or not. For now, lawyers, doctors and other professionals with explicit legal responsibilities, email has a much more defined role that cannot be easily abandoned or circumvented. As far as your work email goes, consult your IT staff for guidance as you may be under legal obligation to preserve your data. But for your personal email, Erka suggests you have to at least be aware of how likely you are to be a target and what you can do to contain any potential damage -- besides using a strong unique password for every email account you have and only entering your account information on the secure webpage of your email provider. If you are involved in international politics, for instance, there's no question. You are a target. Hackers are either after your emails or are trying to get access to powerful people in your contacts. If you're someone with no power, no tumultuous relationships and no interest in politics, you're likely not to be on anyone's radar... yet. The problem is no one knows where you'll be in a few years and our inboxes are big enough to last a lifetime. "When everyone is using cloud-based emails like Gmail, there's no need to save space," Erka said. "That's the whole selling point of those services: Never delete anything." If you see the potential for enough damage, you many want these recent leaks as an inspiration to launch a serious spring cleaning of your personal online inboxes, including email and social media. "You may want to delete the messages you don't need and sort the stuff you do want into folders that you take off the web and can store on a secure backup," Erka suggested. Yes, you will lose the convenience of being able to search your Gmail box through a simple interface, but so will potential hackers. He also recommends sharing documents through sharing platforms and cloud services such as Sharepoint, Salesforce or Dropbox. "These links can require separate authentication upon opening and the sender can control how long it will be valid," Erka said. "If the email gets stolen and leaked years later the chances are the link will be invalid by that time." For quick conversations, Sean suggests Wickr, which offers self-destructing messages through a mobile app or a desktop client with easy encryption, something that just doesn't exist for most email. "For professionals, Wickr has a paid service which will retain messages for a legal requirement, and will then securely delete them post-requirement," he said. Regardless of policy, employers have a vested interest in moving their staff away from an over-reliance on email for more than privacy reasons. "Actual phone calls and face-to-face discussions that get out of your chair are probably more useful than email or chat threats," Sean said. "So rather than swap from one to the other – just learn to better utilize what you work with best." These leaks offer a sobering reminder that email is not secure. But, perhaps, the more important message is that it as a means of communication, it was never very smart. [Image by Alan Levine |Flickr]

October 20, 2016

An Open Letter to Businesses that Block VPNs on their Free Wi-Fi

Occasionally we get a question on our privacy community about a Wi-Fi hotspot blocking VPNs. Thankfully this doesn't happen very often, but we decided to write this letter to let companies that do this know why they shouldn't. Dear business providing free Wi-Fi but blocking VPN, First of all, we don’t want to seem ungrateful. Thank you for giving us free internet on your premises. We all appreciate a reliable hotspot to occupy our time while we fight boredom in a hotel room, rest up before evening bingo on a cruise ship, or sip on a Mocacchino at a downtown café before picking up the kids. Data caps on our mobile plans are getting less and less in the way of us enjoying our time online when away from home, and we thank you for helping us avoid this problem. But what you may not realize is that every public Wi-Fi hotspot is also a golden opportunity for cyber criminals. It’s not your fault, this is just a fact of life we're trying to live with. Most traffic sent over Wi-Fi is basically out there for the taking, and anyone with a laptop and readily available programs can easily intercept all unencrypted data sent over your hotspot. There are a few tricks for users to make sure all their traffic stays encrypted and private, but using a VPN is arguably the easiest way. And yes, it is harder for you to monitor or control what VPN users do on your hotspot. But is having that control so important that you’re willing to trade your customers’ security for it? By blocking VPN on your Wi-Fi, you are actively telling your customers to put their private data at risk while surfing, or to not surf at all.  It’s the equivalent of giving people access to a beautiful sandy beach, but telling them they can only use it if they don’t wear sunblock. Ultimately, it’s your hotspot and your call. But if you care about your customers, don't be in the minority of businesses that forces them to give up their online security and privacy. Best wishes, the FreedomeVPN team.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnTFGiV27Zw

October 7, 2016