It was recently revealed that the NSA and FBI have been using the US Patriot act to conduct blanket, unwarranted, surveillance of US citizens (and anyone who happens to talk to a US citizen), and of course comes as no surprise. The fact that major companies, Google, Verizon, Apple, to name but a few, were complicit in this, is very disappointing.

In the UK, the security services already track your phone calls, RIPA makes it a criminal offence to refuse to decrypt data (or what they believe is encrypted data) on the government’s request, and with plans to re-introduce universal internet surveillance (shamelessly capitalising on the tragic murder in south London of a young man, re-branded as “Terrorism”), we are taking the lead in creating the “Cradle to Grave” Surveillance State.

History shows that the greatest threat to an individual’s liberty comes from the state itself, rather than some foreign actor. My good friend Ben Werdmuller recently coined a new “Second Amendment”, which I thoroughly agree with:

Privacy being necessary to the sanctity of a free state, the right of the people to own and encrypt data shall not be infringed.

Of course, it is easier said than done. You can’t trust cloud based services to protect you; Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, your phone company and ISP are all complicit.

Wider use of encryption would be a start, but that’s hard to do in isolation. Email encryption is a microcosm of the problem; I’ve had a public key available for over a decade, but the grand total of encrypted emails I’ve received can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is not because encryption or key management is necessarily complicated, it’s just that there is no motivation for me to use it if nobody else is as well.

It is useless in isolation.

Newer technologies fare better, without the need to carry too much legacy baggage, they can afford to switch on encryption from the get-go. Many, especially IM clients, have another advantage in that they are synchronous, and so could do content negotiation ahead of time. So, perhaps a mail client/webmail client with Webfinger support, and wider adoption of that?

Might help.

However, I think the biggest issue is that society at large tolerates the state doing this sort of thing. Perhaps “We the people” should start presenting a more unified opposition.

The UK Government snooping bill will apparently “handle” HTTPS and encrypted communication protocols like Skype.

More clarification is clearly needed, but to me this is concerning and means on of the following:

  1. Nothing new, and this was just hand waving: The bill already plans to monitor connection data, so even with HTTPs which encrypts content an observer can monitor requests at the domain level. The page request and any payload is encrypted, but the fact that you’re visiting a given site is not, meaning that an observer will be able to see that you visited, but not which pages therein.
  2. They have site/tool level back doors: More worrying is that the snoopers have muscled back doors into sites like gmail and facebook, and protocols such as skype.

    Rumours about Skype back doors have previously been circulated, but have been denied. Skype’s own websites state that all communication is encrypted and that no transport node on the network has access to the unencrypted data, but since the tool is proprietary it is impossible to independently verify this. In my view this damages the tool’s credibility as a tool to conduct business communication securely.

  3. Compromised root certificates: Most concerning would be if the snoops had managed to strong arm certificate providers into compromising the SSL root certificates, allowing them to perform a man in the middle attack without the usual warnings. This is particularly alarming and puts at risk our entire eCommerce and banking ecosystem when these are inevitably left on a train.

Urgent clarification is needed, but to me this casts doubt on centrally issued certificate based encryption and proprietary protocols, for the time being at least.

Image “GCHQ” by James Stringer.

As you are probably aware, Nosy-parker in chief Theresa May wants to record all the internet activity and emails of everyone in the UK, just in case you do something the government thinks is wrong (or decides is wrong sometime later down the line should you become “Politically inconvenient”).

One wily UK citizen recently did a very British act of defiance and, using the Freedom of Information Act, requested CCDP like information for just one UK individual, namely Theresa May.

Since she is so keen on snooping on the rest of us, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.

After a certain amount of back and forth the request was unsurprisingly denied. What I find interesting is that the request was denied on cost grounds due to the breadth of the request. This begs the obvious question: if the cost of obtaining this information for one person proves too costly to comply with a simple FOI request, and that by their own admission the request is too broad, how on earth can they justify doing the same for ~65 million people?

As a government minister, much of the requested information would almost certainly be recorded anyway as a matter of course.

My suspicion of course is that this request was never going to be complied with, as always there is one rule for us and another for them, cost was just a convenient excuse. In the words of Lance-Corporal Jones, “They don’t like it up ’em”.