[News] Why Cyber Security is a Magic Act - The FBI Can Bypass Encryption

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 31 15:07:51 EDT 2014

Weekend Edition Oct 31-Nov 02, 2014
*Why Cyber Security is a Magic Act*

  The FBI Can Bypass Encryption


Encryption has gained the attention of actors on both sides of the mass 
surveillance debate. For example in a speech at the Brookings 
Institution FBI Director James Comey complained that strong encryption 
was causing U.S. security services to "go dark." Comey described 
encrypted data as follows:

    "It's the equivalent of a closet that can't be opened, a safe
    deposit box that can't be opened, a safe that can't ever be cracked."

Got that? Comey essentially says that encryption is a sure bet. Likewise 
during an interview with James Bamford whistleblower Ed Snowden 
confidently announced that:

    "We have the means and we have the technology to end mass
    surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any
    policy changes... By basically adopting changes like making
    encryption a universal standard---where all communications are
    encrypted by default---we can end mass surveillance not just in the
    United States but around the world."

If you glanced over the above excerpts and took them at face value you'd 
probably come away thinking that all you needed to protect your civil 
liberties is the latest encryption widget. Right? Wow, let me get my 
check book out! Paging Mr. Omidyar...

Not so fast bucko. There's an important caveat, some fine print that Ed 
himself spelled out when he initially contacted film director Laura 
Poitras. In particular Snowden qualified that:

    "If the device you store the private key and enter your passphrase
    on has been hacked, it is trivial to decrypt our communications."

This corollary underscores the reality that, despite the high profile 
sales pitch that's being repeated endlessly, strong encryption alone 
isn't enough. Hi-tech subversion is a trump card as the Heartbleed bug 
graphically illustrated. In light of the NSA's mass subversion programs 
it would be naïve to think that there aren't other critical bugs like 
Heartbleed, subtle intentional flaws, out in the wild being leveraged by 

*The FBI's Tell*

James Comey's performance at Brookings was an impressive public 
relations stunt. Yet recent history is chock full of instances where the 
FBI employed malware like Magic Lantern and CIPAV to foil encryption and 
identify people using encryption-based anonymity software like Tor. If 
it's expedient the FBI will go so far as to impersonate a media outlet 
to fool suspects into infecting their own machines. It would seem that 
crooks aren't the only attackers who wield social engineering techniques.

In fact the FBI has gotten so adept at hacking computers, utilizing what 
are referred to internally as Network Investigative Techniques, that the 
FBI wants to change the law to reflect this. /The Guardian/ reports on 
how the FBI is asking the U.S. Advisory Committee on Rules and Criminal 
Procedure to move the legal goal posts, so to speak:

    "The amendment [proposed by the FBI] inserts a clause that would
    allow a judge to issue warrants to gain 'remote access' to computers
    'located within or outside that district' (emphasis added) in cases
    in which the 'district where the media or information is located has
    been concealed through technological means'. The expanded powers to
    stray across district boundaries would apply to any criminal
    investigation, not just to terrorist cases as at present."

In other words the FBI wants to be able to hack into a computer when its 
exact location is shrouded by anonymity software. Once they compromise 
the targeted machine it's pretty straightforward to install a software 
implant (i.e. malware) and exfiltrate whatever user data they want, 
including encryption passwords.

If encryption is really the impediment that director Comey makes it out 
to be then why is the FBI so keen to amend the rules in a manner which 
implies that they can sidestep it? In the parlance of poker this is a 


As a developer who has built malicious software designed to undermine 
security tools I can attest that there is a whole burgeoning industry 
which prays on naïve illusions of security. Companies like Hacking Team 
have found a lucrative niche offering products to the highest bidder 
that compromise security and... a drumroll please... defeat encryption.

There's a moral to this story. Cryptome's John Young prudently observes:

    "Protections of promises of encryption, proxy use, Tor-like
    anonymity and 'military-grade' comsec technology are magic acts ---
    ELINT, SIGINT and COMINT always prevail over comsec. The most widely
    trusted and promoted systems are the most likely to be penetrated,
    exploited, spied upon, successfully attacked, covertly compromised
    with faults hidden by promoters, operators, competitors,
    compromisers and attackers all of whom warn against the others while
    mutually benefiting from continuous alarms about security and privacy."

When someone promises you turnkey anonymity and failsafe protection from 
spies, make like that guy on The Walking Dead and reach for your 
crossbow. Mass surveillance is a vivid expression of raw power and 
control. Hence what ails society is fundamentally a political problem, 
with economic and technical facets, such that safeguarding civil 
liberties on the Internet will take a lot more than just the right app.

*/Bill Blunden///*/is an independent investigator whose current areas of 
inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional 
analysis. He is the author of several books, including //The Rootkit 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/144962636X/counterpunchmaga> , 
and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the 
Malware-Industrial Complex 
Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs./

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