Today is The day we fight back.

The day we fight back” is a international day of activism, held on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz‘s death. Swartz was an American computer programmer, writer and political activist who was driven to suicide by bullying from the US government, after he attempted to make public a number of scientific journals (the copyright wars now have a body count, read more, it’s horrific.)

On this day we commemorate Swartz’s death by holding an international day of protest against the illegal mass surveillance programs, conducted by the NSA and GCHQ (as well as others), that are used to invade the private lives of everyone on the planet, as revealed by whistle blower Edward Snowden.

The NSA and GCHQ, among other things, have attempted to subvert the technologies that we all use – to keep our medical records safe, to communicate in private about sensitive matters, to shop and bank securely online. In short, they have conspired (and succeeded) in making the internet a less safe place for you and your family, so it is fitting that today is also Safer Internet day.

So, today, do something to make the Internet a safe place for you and your family to work and play. Fight back.

So, we’re on the cusp of 2014, and I was going to write a yearly review of some of the things I’ve done, places I’ve been etc. I might do that later, but right now I thought I’d draw your attention to this absolutely terrifying talk on the scope of the NSA and GCHQ’s surveillance and information warfare capability, by Jacob Applebaum.

It’s fairly long, and somewhat technical, but in short, every paranoid fantasy that we in the IT security world have had, appears to be true, and it gets much much worse…

Militarisation of the Internet

The full capabilities of what has been deployed, in the wild, against ordinary citizens is still coming to light, but here are some highlights, in no particular order:

  • Computer hardware and components have been compromised on mass; including wireless cards, hard drive firmware, Ethernet cables (!!)
  • Your ADSL router can be used to spy on you (natch), but also to perform attacks on those geographically near you, and routinely is.
  • Practically every piece of communication infrastructure has been subverted, which can put lives at risk (for example, the box they use to pretend to be a cell tower and record activity while, say, spying on the Ecuadorian embassy or flying over a city in a drone, doesn’t appear to route 999/112/911 calls).
  • Ordering hardware over the internet? There’s a good chance it has been intercepted and bugged without your knowledge.

The list goes on, seriously, watch the video…

Yes, you are owned

So, some of the capability discussed doesn’t fall under “mass surveillance”. Flying a drone over your house, intercepting your mail, or giving you Cancer so that they can read what’s on your computer screen (and you were worried about the back scatter X-ray at the airport), doesn’t scale. These techniques would likely only be deployed against people of interest – security researches, journalists, democracy advocates, Muslims etc, and then, only if they couldn’t get you another way.

Of course, they almost certainly already have you.

The back doors placed in the computer hardware and software products that every one of us owns need only be switched on, and then they can record your entire life (and keep it for 15 years). Even if you believe that the NSA/GCHQ will never abuse this capability, by accident or design, the documentation presented proves that some of these back doors have been discovered and exploited independently. It is therefore the height of naivety (and I’d go so far to say it’s criminal negligence) to assume that foreign governments, criminals or terrorist organisations won’t be able to use the same exploits to similar effect.

I’m scared, what can I do?

Not a lot at the moment, but the first step to finding a solution is admitting you have a problem.

The fact that many of these exploits could not have been created without the criminal complicity of various US companies is worth noting (it would be good to have a full list), and if you’re in charge of purchasing decisions, it might be worth boycotting these companies. Few things will affect change faster than the market punishing this kind of collaboration.

It’s clear that proprietary software and hardware is a major problem, especially in networking equipment, so the importance of projects like the open router project can not be over stressed. You may also like to consider the surveillance capability of any new hardware you buy, and perhaps you might want to leave your cell phone at home or not buy that internet connected TV?

I also think that detection of these attacks needs to be looked at more closely, and developing new forensic tools for widespread use should be a priority, since raising the risk of detection has a herd immunity/deterrence effect. I think that the fact that the bad guys seem to love RC6 encrypted UDP is interesting, and it is something that we can start actively looking for, and report anything suspicious.

Remember, a secure internet secures everybody, and we as technologists have a moral obligation to do everything we can. This means developing tools and technologies to protect people, and helping our less technical friends and family to use them to protect themselves, and it means building countermeasures against these sorts of attacks into the architectures and platforms we build.

It also means not collaborating with organisations that seek to attack our freedom, saying no to that NSA/GCHQ recruiter, and it means blowing the whistle when you see abuses taking place.

Be safe out there.

One of the hardest things I’ve found during my ongoing process of PRISM breaking my life, was securing my communication with others, especially via email.

Interestingly, this has very little to do with technical reasons; Email encryption is a faff, true, but there has been a lot of work to smooth over the rough edges (and it’s certainly not a big ask for technical people like myself). There are OpenPGP plugins for most clients these days, and technologies like S/MIME are universally supported and almost completely transparent in every day use.

The main problem is that nobody else seems bothered, even technical people, so my tactic here is really just to keep going on about this like a broken record…

Even if you think you have got “Nothing to hide…” (the canonical example of a bullshit argument if ever there was one), you should be encrypting your communication.

Consider that ECHELON, the forerunner of PRISM, has been used for industrial espionage in order to give American companies a competitive advantage, if your business has an American competitor (or Chinese or Russian or French for that matter), do you really want them knowing about the deals you’re working on?

Or to put it all more succinctly; when you send a letter, why do you put it in an envelope?

Of course, if the person you’re emailing is using Gmail or Hotmail you’re doubly screwed, so perhaps it’d be better to give up on email altogether… and to some extent I have, and now do much of my communication via IM, certainly if it’s anything confidential.

Skype, we know now is monitored, so that’s out, as to is Google Talk, however both can be secured by using a technology like OTR, which is much less of a UX nightmare providing you use a talk client rather than Google web interface. I’ve at least had some success in getting people to secure their chats, but there’s still a long way to go.

As an aside, it is relatively trivial to run Jabber on your own server and communicate with other users on other servers (like google talk) entirely transparently. This doesn’t do much to secure your communication unless both sides of the communication have done this, but running your own stuff is all for the good, and hey, it means you’re not a whoever@gmail!