Resisting Surveillance on an Unprecedented Scale

By Glyn Moody

Despite being a journalist who has been writing about the Internet for 20 years, and a Briton who has lived under the unblinking eye of millions of CCTV cameras for nearly as long, I am nonetheless surprised by the revelations of Edward Snowden.

I have always had a pretty cynical view of governments and their instruments of power such as the police and secret services; I have always tried to assume the worst when it comes to surveillance and the assaults on my privacy. But I never guessed that the US and UK governments, aided and abetted to varying degrees by other countries, could be conducting what amounts to total, global surveillance of the kind revealed by Snowden’s leaked documents.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Even though some people are now claiming this level of surveillance was “obvious”, and “well-known” within the industry, that’s not my impression. Judging by the similarly shocked and outraged comments from many defenders of civil liberties and computer experts, particularly in the field of security, they, like me, never imagined that things were quite this bad. That raises an obvious question: how did it happen?

Related to that outrage in circles that concern themselves with these issues, is something else that needs explaining: the widespread lack of outrage among ordinary citizens. To be sure, some countries are better than others in understanding the implications of what has been revealed to us by Snowden (and some are worse – the UK in particular). But given the magnitude and thoroughgoing nature of the spying that is being conducted on our online activities, the response around the world has been curiously muted. We need to understand why, otherwise the task of rolling back at least some of the excesses will be rendered even more difficult.

The final question that urgently requires thought is what can, in fact, be done? Since the level of public concern is relatively low, even in those countries that are traditionally sensitive about privacy issues – Germany, for example – what are the alternatives to stricter government controls, which seem unlikely to be forthcoming?

Although there was a Utopian naivety in the mid-1990s about what the Internet might bring about, it has been clear for a while that the Internet has its dark side, and could be used to make people less, not more, free. This has prompted work to move from a completely open network, with information sent unencrypted, to one where Web connections using the HTTPS technology shield private information from prying eyes. It’s remarkable that it has only been in recent years that the pressure to move to HTTPS by default has grown strong.

That’s perhaps a hint of how the current situation of total surveillance has arisen. Although many people knew that unencrypted data could be intercepted, there was a general feeling that it wouldn’t be possible to find the interesting streams amongst the huge and growing volume flooding every second of the day through the series of digital tubes that make up the Internet.

But that overlooked one crucial factor: Moore’s Law, and its equivalents for storage and connectivity. Crudely stated, this asserts that the cost of a given computational capability will halve every 18 months or so. Put another way, for a given expenditure, the available computing power doubles every year and half. And it’s important to remember that this is geometric growth: after ten years, Moore’s Law predicts computing power increases by a factor of around 25 for a given cost.

Now add in the fact that the secret services are one of the least constrained when it comes to spending money on the latest and fastest equipment, since the argument can always be made that the extra power will be vitally important in getting information that could save lives and so on. One of the first and most extraordinary revelations conveyed from Snowden by the Guardian gave an insight into how that extra and constantly increasing computing power is being applied, in what was called the Tempora programme:

By the summer of 2011, GCHQ had probes attached to more than 200 internet links, each carrying data at 10 gigabits a second. “This is a massive amount of data!” as one internal slideshow put it. That summer, it brought NSA analysts into the Bude trials. In the autumn of 2011, it launched Tempora as a mainstream programme, shared with the Americans.

The intercept probes on the transatlantic cables gave GCHQ access to its special source exploitation. Tempora allowed the agency to set up internet buffers so it could not simply watch the data live but also store it – for three days in the case of content and 30 days for metadata.

As that indicates, two years ago the UK’s GCHQ was pulling in data at the rate of 2 terabits a second: by now it is certain to be far higher than that. Thanks to massive storage capabilities, GCHQ could hold the complete Internet flow for three days, and its metadata for 30 days.

There is one very simple reason why GCHQ is doing this: because at some point it realised it could, not just practically, because of Moore’s Law, but also legally. The UK legislation that oversees this activity – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – was passed in 2000, and drawn up based on the experience of the late 1990s. It was meant to regulate one-off interception of individuals, and most of it is about carrying out surveillance of telephones and the postal system. In other words, it was designed for an analogue world. The scale of the digital surveillance now taking place is so far beyond what was possible ten years ago, that RIPA’s framing of the law – never mind its powers – are obsolete, and GCHQ is essentially able to operate without either legal or technical constraints.

The gradual but relentless shift from piecemeal, small-scale analogue eavesdropping to constant and total surveillance may also help to explain the public’s relative equanimity in the face of these revelations. Once we get beyond the facile idea that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear – everybody has something to hide, even if it is only the private moments in their lives – there is another common explanation that people offer as to why they are not particularly worried about the activities of the NSA and GCHQ. This is that “nobody would be interested” in what they are up to, and so they are confident that they have not been harmed by the storage and analysis of the Internet data.

This is based on a fundamentally analogue view of what is going on. These people are surely right that no spy is sitting at a keyboard reading their emails or Facebook posts. That’s clearly not possible, even if the will were there. But it’s not necessary, since the data can be “read” by tireless programs that extract key information at an accelerating pace and diminishing cost thanks to Moore’s Law.

People are untroubled by this because most of them can’t imagine what today’s top computers can do with their data, and think again in analogue terms – the spy sifting slowly through so much information as to be swamped. And that’s quite understandable, since even computer experts struggle to keep up with the pace of development, and to appreciate the ramifications.

A post on the Google Search blog from last year may help to provide some sense of just how powerful today’s systems are:

When you enter a single query in the Google search box, or just speak it to your phone, you set in motion as much computing as it took to send Neil Armstrong and eleven other astronauts to the moon. Not just the actual flights, but all the computing done throughout the planning and execution of the 11-year, 17 mission Apollo program. That’s how much computing has advanced.

Now add in the fact that three billion Google queries are entered each day, and that the NSA’s computing capability is probably vastly greater than Google’s, and you have some idea of the raw power available for the analysis of the “trivial” data gathered about all of us, and how that might lead to very non-trivial knowledge about our most intimate lives.

In terms of how much information can be held, a former NSA technical director, William Binney, estimates that one NSA data centre currently being built in Utah will be able to handle and process five zettabytes of data – that’s five million million gigabytes. If you were to print out that information as paper documents, and store them in traditional filing cabinets, it would require around 42 million million cabinets occupying 17 million square kilometres of floor space.

Neither computing power nor the vast holdings of personal data on their own are a direct threat to our privacy and freedom But putting them together means that the NSA can not only find anything in those 42 million million virtual cabinets more or less instantly, but that it can cross-reference any word on any piece of paper in any cabinet – something that can’t even be contemplated as an option for human operators, let alone attempted.

It is this unprecedented ability to consolidate all the data about us, along with the data of our family, friends and acquaintances, and their family, friends and acquaintances (and sometimes even the acquaintances of our acquaintances’ acquaintances) that creates the depth of knowledge the NSA has at its disposal whenever it wants it. And while it is unlikely to call up that knowledge for most of us, it only takes a tiny anomalous event somewhere deep in the chain of acquaintance for a suspicion to propagate back through the links to taint all our innocent records, and to cause them to be added to the huge pile of data that will cross-referenced and sifted and analysed in the search for significant patterns so deep that we are unlikely to be aware of them.

Given this understandable, if regrettable, incomprehension on the part of the public about the extraordinary power at the disposal of the NSA, and what it might be able to extract as a result, the key question then becomes: what can we do to bolster our privacy? Until a few weeks ago, most people working in this field would have said “encrypt everything”. But the recent revelations that the NSA and GCHQ have succeeded in subverting just about every encryption system that is widely used online seem to destroy even that last hope.

Or maybe not. There is a rough consensus among cryptography experts that the theoretical underpinnings of encryption – the mathematical foundations – remain untouched. The problem lies in the implementation and the environment in which encryption is used. Edward Snowden probably knows better than most what the true situation is, and here’s how he put it:

Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.

That’s a hugely important clue as to what we need to do. It tells us that there is nothing wrong with crypto as such, just the corrupted implementations of otherwise strong encryption techniques. That is confirmed by recent leaks of information that show computer software companies complicit in weakening the supposedly safe products they sell – truly a betrayal of the trust placed in them by their customers.

The good news is that we have an alternative. For the last few decades, free software/open source has been building a software ecosystem that is outside the control of the traditional computer industry. That makes it much harder for the NSA to subvert, since the code is developed openly, which allows anyone to inspect it and look for backdoors – secret ways to spy on and control the software.

That’s not to say free software is completely immune to security issues. Many open source products come from companies, and it’s possible that some of them may have been pressured to weaken aspects of their work. Free software applications might be subverted as they are converted from the source code, which can be easily checked for backdoors, to the binaries – the versions that actually run on a computer – which can’t. There is also potential for online holdings of open source programs to be broken into and tampered with in subtle ways.

Despite those problems, open source is still the best hope we have when it comes to using strong encryption. But in the wake of Snowden’s revelations, the free software community needs to take additional precautions so as to minimise the risk that code is still vulnerable to attacks and subversion by spy agencies.

Beyond such measures, the open source world should also start thinking about writing a new generation of applications with strong crypto built in. These already exist, but are often hard to use. More needs to be done to make them appropriate for general users: the latter may not care much about the possibility that the NSA or GCHQ is monitoring everything they do online, but if they are offered great tools that make it easy to resist such efforts, more people may adopt them, just as millions have switched to the Firefox browser – not because it supports open standards, but because it is better.

Although the scale of the spying revealed by Snowden’s leaks is staggering, and the leaks about the thoroughgoing and intentional destruction of the Internet’s entire trust and security systems are shocking, there is no reason for despair. Even in the face of widespread public ignorance and indifference to the threat such total surveillance represents to democracy, as far as we know we can still use strong encryption implemented in open source software to protect our privacy.

Indeed, this may be an opportunity for open source to be embraced by a wider public, since we now know definitively that commercial software cannot be trusted, and is effectively spyware that you have to pay for. And just as Moore’s Law allows the NSA and GCHQ to pull in and analyse ever-more of our data, so free software, too, can benefit.

For as Moore’s Law continues to drive down the prices of personal computing devices – whether PCs, smartphones or tablets – so more people in developing countries around the world are able to acquire them. Many will adopt free software, since Western software companies often price their products at unreasonably-high levels compared to local disposable income. As open source is used more widely, so the number of people keen and able to contribute to such projects will grow, the software will improve, and more people will use it. In other words, there is a virtuous circle that produces its own kind of scaling that will help to counteract the more malign kind that underlies the ever-expanding surveillance activities of the NSA and GCHQ. As well as tools of repression, computers can also be tools of resistance when powered by free software, which is called that for a reason.

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