So yesterday, we were greeted with another bombshell from the Snowden archives.

After finding out the day before that GCHQ had spied on lawyers, we now find out that GCHQ and the NSA conspired to steal the encryption keys to pretty much every sim card in the world, meaning that they can easily break the (admittedly weak) encryption used to protect your phonecalls and text messages.

Personally, I’m not terribly concerned about this, because the idea that your mobile phone is insecure is hardly news. What is of concern to me, is how they went about getting those keys.

It seems that in order to get these keys, the intelligence agencies hunted down and placed under invasive surveillance ordinary innocent people, who just happened to be employed by or have dealings with the companies they were interested in.

The full capabilities of the global surveillance architecture they command was deployed against entirely unremarkable and innocent individuals. People like you and me, who’s entire private lives were sifted through, just in case they exposed some information that could be used against the companies which they worked.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear

If there is a silver lining in all this, with any luck it will go some way towards shattering the idea that because you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

This is, primarily, a coping strategy. It’s a lie people tell themselves so they can avoid confronting an awkward or terrifying fact, a bit like saying climate change isn’t real, or that smoking won’t kill me.

Generally, it is taken to mean that you’ve done nothing wrong, i.e. illegal (and of course, that’s not what privacy is about, and what you consider being “wrong” has typically not been the same as what those in power consider “wrong”).

Fundamentally, it misses the point that you don’t get to decide what others are going to find interesting, or suspect you of knowing. In this instance, innocent people had their privacy invaded purely because they had suspected access to information that the intelligence agencies found interesting. This is something that, were I to do something similar, I’d go to jail for a very long time.

Now consider that one of the NSA’s core missions is to advance US economic interests, spying on Brazilian oil companies and European trade negotiations, etc. If I worked at a competitor of a US company, I’d be very careful what I said in any insecure form of communication.

You do have something to hide.

GCHQoogle: so much for "Don't be evil"Given what we now know about the mass surveillance, and attack on the infrastructure of the internet, conducted by Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA (as well as their Chinese, Russian, German, etc counterparts).

Given that we now know, for a fact, that almost every byte of non-encrypted traffic is recorded and analysed, shouldn’t we now make a concerted effort to finally deprecate vanilla HTTP in favour of HTTP over TLS (HTTPS)?

When you use HTTP, it is a trivial matter for an attacker to see the content of the pages you visit, when, and how often you visit them. When using HTTP, there is also no guarantee that the content of the page hasn’t been modified without your knowledge, exposing you to all kinds of attacks.

Encryption, by and large, removes these problems, as well as massively increasing the cost of mass surveillance. Is it not time for all of us, as well as standards organisation like the IETF, push to make HTTPS the default? Even during my time I’ve seen insecure protocols like telnet and FTP go from widespread use to being almost completely replaced by secure alternatives (ssh and scp), so could we not do the same with HTTP?

Certificate authorities

Ok, there is one big difference between HTTPS and ssh (ok, many many, but one I care about here), and that is that HTTPS relies on certificate authorities. These are necessary in order to distribute trust, so that browsers can know to automatically accept a certificate and verify the server it is connecting to is who it says it is.

This is much nicer for the average user than, say, manually verifying the server’s fingerprint (as you have to do with SSH), but comes with some pretty serious problems if we were to make it default:

  • Every site owner would have to get a certificate, and these can only be obtained by a certificate authority if you don’t want browsers to pop up a big red warning, meaning we further bake these guys in to the Internet’s DNA.
  • Certificate authorities can be directly pressured by governments, so, a government attacker could MITM you on a secure connection and present you with a certificate that your browser accepts as valid, and so will give you no warning (of course, this is much more costly than the blanked mass surveillance that is currently going on).
  • Getting a certificate either costs money, and/or has restrictions placed on their use (for example, no commercial use, in the case of StartCom). This is really bad, since it essentially requires permission from a third party to launch a site.

It is this last causes me most concern, since it essentially provides an easy way of suppressing minority views.

Imagine that we lived in a world where HTTP had been deprecated, and browsers no longer supported unencrypted HTTP, or could, but you had to request it specifically (essentially the reverse of what we currently have). You wanted to launch a site that expressed a minority view – perhaps you were critical of your government, or you wanted to leak some information about crimes being committed, is it not inconceivable that you could have trouble obtaining a certificate? Given that certificate authorities are companies who worry about their bottom line, and are a convenient point for the bad guys to apply pressure?

If you couldn’t get a certificate in this environment, it could dramatically reduce the audience that would see your site.

So, perhaps before we move to deprecate HTTP, we must first find a better way than certificate authorities to distribute trust? How could we accomplish this? Perhaps we could take advantage of the fact that most people’s browsers automatically update, and so we could distribute browsers with expected certificates for sites hard coded into them (giving an added advantage that we could pin certificates)?

Anyway, its complicated, and I’m thinking aloud here… what are your thoughts?

The internet as we know it is under threat as never before. Surveillance, government censorship and secret corporate power plays threaten to destroy the Internet as a free and open platform for communication.

Much of the problem originates from the fact that the Internet has become ever increasingly centralised. In recent years, powerful encumbered players and elites have seen their power threatened, and have systematically attempted to “manage” the internet.

Communication and the free flow of information is too important a thing to allow to be threatened in such a way, so is it time that the citizens took control?

Citizen network

So, here’s a few thoughts on what this might look, and what I would like to see.

What I’d like to see are a range of local mesh networks grow up, providing free local connectivity to users. Initially, these will be highly local, but as the edges of the network expand, they’ll start to see other local networks and automatically negotiate routing between them. For networks further afield, perhaps an edge node which also has internet connectivity could provide a tunnelled link over the wider internet.

Hard encryption should be baked in, rather than added as an afterthought, and the network should aim for a situation where no unencrypted traffic is seen.

It should be possible to construct this sort of network with inexpensive and freely available hardware and software; perhaps, for small areas, a network of wifi repeaters, and for larger links perhaps a mixture of technologies – inter-network radio or microwave links, or even laying of fibre depending on the budget of those involved.

The goals of these networks should be to provide free access to anyone, and freedom for anyone to run a node on the network. With any luck, this will eventually kill the ISP business, and, in the UK at least, break BT’s stranglehold on connectivity.

There are a few local net projects about of course (they’re quite popular in Greece, apparently), but so far I don’t think we’ve seen much of an attempt to build them elsewhere, or to connect them together.

It’s a big job, but we built the Internet once, could we do it again?