Some may have noticed I have gone part-time at University College London, and plan to spend the next two years engineering and launching distributed systems as part of the Chainspace project, Vega Protocol and Kryptik. A number of people have asked me “Why would an expert on Privacy Enhancing Technologies develop such an interest in distributed ledgers and blockchains?”. In this post, I will lay down why I think this space is interesting technologically, and also how it interacts and influences the engineering, adoption, and deployment of Privacy Technologies; and  how a number of  societal issues in Privacy may in fact be deeply linked with developments in Blockchains in unexpected ways.

Why are Privacy Enhancing Technologies so interesting in the first place?

Privacy is a multi-faceted field, and I have spent about 20 years working on, evaluating, and advising on systems that broadly protect privacy better than current engineering practices. Those who follow my work may notice a pattern: I research what I call in class “hard privacy” systems, namely those that assume there is no central party that may be trusted to manage honestly user data. Instead, I have used cryptography, and distributed trust to ensure that users can do useful work in a peer-to-peer manner — without disclosing any data to third parties — or, when there is a need for infrastructure, it is distributed and data is encrypted in such a way that multiple entities need to conspire to violate user privacy properties.

“Soft privacy” systems, such as those that help organizations manage privacy of data they hold better, guide cookie and retention policies, prevent discriminatory uses, and implement internal controls are very important and useful — but they are just not my main thing. Why is that? I am fascinated about how privacy interacts with power, be it corporate or government power, and see privacy as a means to ensure both liberty and the possibility of political dissent as well as economic equity through undermining what is now broadly called surveillance capitalism. Collection and access of vast personal datasets already creates such a huge imbalance of power and potential for abuse, that I would rather prevent it through “hard privacy” technologies, rather than manage it through alternatives.

It should already be obvious that the engineering tools we have to use to build cryptographic and distributed systems for privacy, are related to those used to build distributed ledgers: they involve top-notch networking and distributed systems security, including prevention of byzantine faults; the most cutting edge of zero-knowledge and other modern crypto that was initially developed for privacy applications; and a good dose of security economics to ensure all participants in the system have incentives to do the right thing. As such the technical tools between  my type of Privacy Engineering and Distributed Ledgers are one and the same.

So it is obvious why, purely on the basis of technical affinity and curiosity, I may be attracted to distributed ledgers. But it turns out there are also deeper reasons.

So what are distributed ledgers good for?

This is the question that many ask today, as the hype around this family of systems is somewhat tempered by the falling prices of tokens. And the reason the answer is harder than one might expect for a technology that has been in the public eye for over a year, is that many have promised that blockchains are a panacea for all social and technical evils that no technology can possibly be.

So let’s start with what current distributed ledgers are not particularly good for — research challenges that are best summarized in an article by Sarah Meiklejohn. Blockchains do not scale particularly well, and in particular open Nakamoto consensus based on PoW or even PoS does not seem to scale. A number of proposals are on the table, but right now they are all experimental. Blockchains are not particularly usable, either in terms of software but also due to their semantics: probabilistic finality, and a resulting high latency to get assurance. Blockchains also struggle to provide data privacy guarantees for transactional data in the chain — zcash is a gold standard in that space, and recent research shows most transactions are not very private despite best-of-breed techniques being employed. Particularly under the light of the last issue, what could possibly make blockchains interesting to a Privacy Engineer, besides technical curiosity?

There are two interesting aspects of blockchains in that respect: (1) they decentralize transaction systems; and (2) they provide an alternative monetization strategy for providing on-line services. Those, it turns out, could — and the path of technology and its impact on social life is always contingent — be extremely influential when it comes to privacy. I will explain those in turn.

Decentralized Transactions are hard.

As many in the redecentralize movement have pointed out the web and other internet systems, such as email, were initially decentralized. Then something happened in the years 2000-2010, and somehow large quasi-monopolistic service providers appeared to dominate most interactions (lets not be coy we are talking about Facebook, Google, Amazon, and smaller friends). What happened is no conspiracy: we have very good tools to decentralize the distribution of static, read-only, content. In 2000 research on peer-to-peer systems was all the rage, and led to bittorrent on the edgy side, to the DHTs that underpin today interesting projects such as IPFS. Cloudflare could be distributed with the right technical model using those techniques, and we could serve most static content in a decentralized manner.

What we do not know how to decentralize — in general — are “transaction systems”. Those are system, in which users from different security domains (not just one natural owner) may “write” to objects, and mutate their state. The core business of Amazon, Uber, AirBnB as well as more traditional industries such as banking, travel, HR, etc are based on keeping such records and mutating them safely. Traditional databases from oracle to mysql have been the traditional workhorse behind such systems. Cloud platforms allow databases to scale, using complex techniques such as crash-fail resilient consensus and replication — but they require all the infrastructure to be under a single authority.

This technical reality, namely that it is hard to build scalable decentralized transaction systems is one of the reasons why internet monopolies came to dominate most of our interactions.  However, this cannot explain everything (nothing can): techniques for achieving decentralized byzantine fault tolerance have been known since the 1980s-1990s, with PBFT and all that. So how comes they did not catch up? And when I say they did not catch up, I mean pretty much not at all: a couple of years ago one would struggle to find a single PBFT usable library in most languages. I would argue this is related to economics.

Lack of Economic model.

When the googles and facebooks of this earth established themselves it was not clear how they would make any money. Therefore they innovated, and established the ad-based model by which the user is not the customer, but rather their attention is a product to be targeted and sold for adverts. This led to the establishment of surveillance capitalism that now seems to run deeper, and also interacts in questionable ways with the advancements in machine learning — another fascinating field of computer science.

So for the years 2000-2010 the main monetization vision of online services launched was the collection of personal information, and the resulting generation of ad revenue. However, it turns out that personal information is more akin to tar sands than oil: an organization needs a lot of it to refine it into something useful — and that also leads to a monopolistic situation in which platforms that already have captured the ad revenue and a lot of personal data are difficult to dislodged. I think this has now sank in the psyche of engineers and entrepreneurs and I hardly hear any new businesses aiming to dislodge Google in terms of ad revenue — for which I am thankful. That market is captured and closed.

For a while an alternative model, based on selling mobile apps first, and then selling in-app purchases gave a glimpse of hope that on line services may be able to monetize, but that also did not last. The most monetized app were akin to “digital crack”, seeking to develop users with strange addictions; eventually others such as Instagram and Whatsapp got bough by large incumbents. Today most independent app developers make little money are are subject to the whims of every app store that may delist them at will — also controlled by large incumbents that take up to a 30% cut on revenues.

How could one have built decentralized alternatives to those? What is WhatsApp or Instagram were to operate their systems on the basis of decentralization — they would each require not one, by over four authorities to operate. What would be the incentives of such authorities to do a good job? And how could they cover their costs? This was a problem. The Tor network, for example, operates on the basis of volunteers running relays, research, foundation and state department funding — a model that cannot scale to run significant infrastructures.

Blockchains provide both technical and economic answers to enable decentralization.

This is where blockchains start to become interesting. Distributed ledgers provide platforms to technically make building decentralized apps minimally humane. Now, writing larger correct decentralized apps in solidity for Ethereum, for example, cannot be described as the most pleasant development experience. But take my word for it, it is much better than having to start from scratch writing your own byzantine consensus protocols, and ensuring they are correct. Thus they offer a technical alternative for writing transaction systems that are decentralized.

Secondly, blockchain systems integrate a system of incentives and monetization. Nodes operating the infrastructure are remunerated in many ways, from mining rewards to fees, using a micropayment system that is integrated into the platform. This solves the question of “who are the decentralized authorities and why would they work for me?” that blocked the deployment of such decentralized systems before.

At the same time, for all its ills, the ICO model — by which projects would issue their own tokens for use in a system — also provided incentives for founders and developers to initiate a project, fund development and often maintenance. Thus services on blockchains do not have to rely on ad revenue, but can instead rely on fees to survive and be sustainable, at least in theory. The open access model of those platforms also ensure that both infrastructure nodes and developers can invest in building apps without fear they may be arbitrarily excluded.

Those two features of blockchain platforms have profound implication for privacy, even though the platforms themselves today do not protect data privacy very well. First, they undermine the monopolistic position of large service providers — that by virtue of accumulating masses of user data, and using it as part of an advertising based economic model, fundamentally cannot be privacy friendly. Undermining those large silos of data both frees people from the whims of those platforms, the wide use of data to manipulate them, but also the secondary threats of governments (domestic and foreign) then dipping into those databases for their own purposes. Allowing users to pay for services they access also ensures that those services can survive and be sustainable, in ways other than selling out their users’ data.

So in brief, blockchains align incentives correctly: control over the service is decentralized, and usually subject to code (smart contracts) to ensure users are not subject to the arbitrary and opaque decision making of large online service monopolies; and secondly that payments are made to those that maintain infrastructure and services, to ensure they do not need to be tempted to pry as a business model. If this model is a success — subject to a number of contingencies — it may provide a good foundation for better, more open and humane, transaction systems that could actually redecentralize the internet.

Challenges ahead.

While the incentives are aligned this does not mean that current blockchains actually achieve all those great goals, and in particular that they provide strong privacy guarantees. For this reason I have spent some of my research time in the past looking at how we can use efficient zero-knowlege to protect privacy in transaction systems, as well as how to scale up cryptographic monetary systems and smart contract platforms with Chainspace. Scaling up those platforms to make them truly competitive with large on-line service providers and other ‘sharing economy’ silos is indeed the subject of my new start-up

With their fall the adoption of Privacy Enhancing Technologies can finally be unblocked. And already we see some of the most advanced cryptographic techniques, including zero-knowledge and selective disclosure credentials, being fielded in the context of blockchains, where they have seen little traction elsewhere in the past 20 years. While large internet services make most of their money from mining user data for ads or optimization those technologies stand no chance to see the light of day at a large scale.

I would welcome anyone working in the fields of threshold crypto-systems, multi-party computation, and censorship circumvention — techniques that intrinsically require multiple authorities to work together, to consider how their distributed infrastructures could be both engineered and incentivized using and adapting ideas from the distributed ledger research community.

Are you off for good?

The final question people ask: am I going away from academia and UCL for good? Rest assured I am coming back. My roles in all ventures involve research; I am committed to my PhD students, joint projects and colleagues at UCL; and I feel deeply passionate about teaching new generation both security engineering and privacy technologies. UCL is my natural home in the UK, being a truly open university to the world, traditionally progressive in its outlook, and in the heart of London. My adventures in industry, however successful, will only make me a stronger scholar.

You know you live in 2017 when the top headline on national newspapers relates to a ransomware attack on the National Heath Service, the UK Prime minister comments on the matter, and the the security researchers dealing with the outbreak are presented as heroic figures. As ever, The Register, has the most detailed and sophisticated technical article on the matter. But also strangely the most informative in terms of public policy. As if somehow, in our days, technical sophistication is a prerequisite also for sophisticated political comment on those matters. Other news outlets present a caricature, of the bad malware authors, the good security researcher and vendors working around the clock, the valiant government defenders, and a united humanity trying to beat the virus. I want to break that narrative open in this article, and discuss the actual political and social lessons we should be learning. In part to avoid similar disasters in the future.

First off, I am always surprised when such massive systemic outbreaks of malware, are blamed squarely on the author(s) of the malware itself, and the blame game ends there. It is without doubt that the malware author has a great share of responsibility. I personally think it is immoral to deploy ransomware in the wild, deny people access to their data, and seek to benefit from this. It is also a crime in the UK and elsewhere.

However, it is strange that a single author, or a small group of authors, without any major resources can have such a deep and widespread effect on major technological infrastructures. The absurdity becomes clear if we transpose the situation into the world of traditional engineering. Imagine all skyscrapers in major cities had to be evacuated, because a couple of teenagers with rocks were trying to blackmail business owners to pay up, to protect their precious glass windows. The fragility of software and IT systems seems to have no parallel in any other large scale engineering infrastructure — and this is not inherent, but the result of very specific micro-political, geo-political and economic decisions.

Lets take the WannaCrypt outbreak and look at the political and other social decisions that lead to the disaster — besides the agency of the malware authors:

  • The disaster was possible in part, and foremost, because IT systems within the UK critical NHS infrastructure are outdated — and for example rely on Windows XP that is not any more being maintained by Microsoft. Well, actually this is not strictly true: Microsoft does make security updates for Windows XP, but does not provide them for free — and instead Microsoft expects organizations that are locked in the OS to pay up to get patches and stay safe. So two key questions need to be asked …
  • Why is the NHS not upgrading to a new versions of Windows, or any other modern operating system? The answer is simple: line of business applications (LOB: from heath record management, specialist analysis and imaging software, to payroll) may not be compatible with new operating systems. On top of that a number of modern medical devices, such as large X-ray scanners or heart monitors, come with embedded computers running Windows XP — and only Windows XP. There is no way of upgrading them. The MEDJACK cyber-attacks were leveraging this to rampage through hospitals in 2015.
  • Is having LOB software tying you to an outdated OS, or medical devices costing millions that are not upgradeable, a fact of nature? No. It is down to a combination of terrible and naive procurement processes in health organizations, that do not take into account the need and costs if IT and security maintenance — and do not entrench it into the requirements and contracts for services, software and devices. It is also the result of the health software and devices industries being immature and unsophisticated as to the needs to secure IT. They reap the benefits of IT to make money, but without expending much of it to provide quality and security. The tragic state of security of medical devices has built the illustrious career of my friend Prof. Kevin Fu, who has found systemic attacks against implanted heart devices that could kill you, noob security bugs in medical device software, and has written extensively on the poor strategy to tackle these problem. So today’s attacks were a disaster waiting to happen — and expect more unless we learn the right lessons.
  • So given the terrible state of IT that prevents upgrading the OS, why is the NHS not paying up Microsoft to get security patches? That is because the government, and Jeremy Hunt in particular, back in 2014 decided to not pay up the money necessary to keep receiving security updates for Windows XP, despite being aware of the absolute reliance of the NHS on the outdated software. So in effect, a deliberate political decision was taken, at the highest level of the government to leave the NHS open to cyber attack. This is unlikely to be the last Windows XP security bug, so more are presumably to come.
  • Then there is the question of how malware authors, managed to get access to security bugs for windows XP? How did they get the tools necessary to attack such a mature, and rather common system, about 15 years after Windows XP was released, and only after it went out of maintenance? It turn out that the vulnerabilities they used, were in fact hoarded by the NSA as a cyber weapon — which was lost or stolen by hackers or leakers, and released into the wild! (The tool was codenamed EternalBlue). For may years, the computer security research community has been warning that stockpiling vulnerabilities in very common software for cyber-offense purposes, is dangerous. When those cyber weapons are lost, leaked, or even just used, there is proliferation of the technology necessary to attack, which criminals and foreign states can turn against critical infrastructure. This blog commented on the matter as recently as March 8, 2017 in a post entitled “What the CIA hack and leak teaches us about the bankruptcy of current “Cyber” doctrines”. This now feels like an unfortunately fulfilled prophesy, but the NHS attack was just the expected outcome of the US/UK and now common place doctrine around cyber — that contributes to and leverages insecurity rather than security. Alternative public policy options exist of course.

So to summarize, besides the author of the malware, a number of other social and systemic factors contribute to making such cyber attacks possible: from poor security standards in heath informatics industries; poor procurement processes in heath organizations; lack of liability on any of the software vendors (incl. Microsoft) for providing insecure software or devices; cost-cutting from the government on NHS cyber security with no constructive alternatives to mitigate risks; and finally the UK/US cyber-offense doctrine that inevitably leads to proliferation of cyber-weapons and their use on civilian critical infrastructures.

It it those systemic factors that need to change to avoid future failures. Bad people wishing to make money from ransomware, or other badness, will always exist. There is a discipline devoted to preventing this, and it is called security engineering. It is time industry and goverment start taking its advice seriously.


Wikileaks just published a trove of documents resulting from a hack of the CIA Engineering Development Group, the part of the spying agency that is in charge of developing hacking tools. The documents seem genuine and catalog, among other things,  a number of exploits against widely deployed commodity devices and systems, including Android, iPhone, OS X and Windows. Also smart TVs. This hack, with appropriate background, teaches us a lesson or two about the direction of public policy related to “cyber” in the US and the UK.

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Boing Boing just released a classified GCHQ document that was meant to act as the Sept 2011 guide to open research problems in Data Mining. The intended audience, Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research (HIMR), is part of the University of Bristol and composed of mathematicians working for half their time on classified problems with GCHQ.

First off, a quick perusal of the actual publication record of the HIMR makes a sad reading for GCHQ: it seems that very little research on data mining was actually performed post-2011-2014 despite this pitch. I guess this is what you get trying to make pure mathematicians solve core computer science problems.

However, the document presents one of the clearest explanations of GCHQ’s operations and their scale at the time; as well as a very interesting list of open problems, along with salient examples.

Overall, reading this document very much resembles reading the needs of any other organization with big-data, struggling to process it to get any value. The constrains under which they operate (see below), and in particular the limitations to O(n log n) storage per vertex and O(1) per edge event, is a serious threat — but of course this is only for un-selected traffic. So the 5000 or so Tor nodes probably would have a little more space and processing allocated to them, and so would known botnets — I presume.

Secondly, there is clear evidence that timing information is both recognized as being key to correlating events and streams; and it is being recorded and stored at an increasing granularity. There is no smoking gun as of 2011 to say they casually de-anonymize Tor circuits, but the writing is on the wall for the onion routing system. GCHQ at 2011 had all ingredients needed to trace Tor circuits. It would take extra-ordinary incompetence to not have refined their traffic analysis techniques in the past 5 years. The Tor project should do well to not underestimate GCHQ’s capabilities to this point.

Thirdly, one should wonder why we have been waiting for 3 years until such clear documents are finally being published from the Snowden revelations. If those had been the first published, instead of the obscure, misleading and very non-informative slides, it would have saved a lot of time — and may even have engaged the public a bit more than bad powerpoint.

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As many in the UK are fighting a rear-guard action to prevent the most shocking provisions of the IP Bill becoming law (incl. secrecy and loose definitions), I was invited to provide three public policy recommendations for strengthening IT security in the EU. Instead of trying to limit specific powers (such as backdoors) here are some more radical options, more likely to resolve the continuous tug-of-war cyber civil liberties and the security services have been engaging in a while.

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The recently unveiled UK Draft IP Bill imposes all sorts of obligations on telecommunications operators, including obligations to collaborate with warrants to facilitate surveillance, hack, notices to retain data, handing it out in bulk, and even obligations to implement bag doors, as well as gagging orders. Despite their centrality, it is surprisingly difficult to clearly understand who exactly is a “telecommunication operator”, and therefore on whom these obligations apply.

The scope of the legislation would be vastly different if it only applies to traditional telecommunication companies that control physical infrastructure, such as BT or cable companies, versus more widely to any internet service that allows messaging in any form, such as google chat, facebook, whatsapp and tinder (or any other dating app). What if it also applied to general purpose software and hardware companies, or free software projects? As ever, it is unwise to rely on the explanatory notes, or the announcements of politicians to elucidate this question — they have no legal validity. So I turn to the legislation itself, to try to get some insights.

S.193 provides definitions, and specifically S.193(8) to S.193(14) defines telecommunication operators, public and private, telecommunication services and finally telecommunication systems. We will take them in turn. I am always surprised how obscure, subtle, and wide-ranging, such definitions are.

S.193(10) Defines a telecommunications operator as being one of two things: they either offer a telecommunications “service” to persons in the UK; or they control or provide a telecommunication “system” which is at least in part in the UK, or controlled from the UK. Note the choice of subtle difference between a “service” and a “system“, as well as “offer“, “provide” versus “control“.

S.193(11) defined what a telecommunications service is: it is anything that provides, accesses, or facilitates the use of a telecommunication system. Helpfully, it points out that a service may be using a system provided by someone else: presumably this is intended to label as operators those providing services over infrastructure, logical or physical, provided by others; or software and hardware provided by others.

There is a further clarification in S.193(12): something is a telecommunications service if it is involved in the facilitation of the creation, management or storage of communications transmitted by a telecommunication system. Particularly troubling is the mention of “creation”: it might be used to argue that client side applications do facilitate the creation of communications (and their storage), and therefore are a telecommunication service. Their provision thus makes potential creators of software and apps, and for sure those providing web-mail and instant messaging services, telecommunication operators.

Finally, S.193(13) defines as a telecommunications system a system that in any way transmits communications using electric or electromagnetic energy including the communication apparatus (machinery) that is used to do this. The definition is very wide ranging, and includes all communications, except postal (which are dealt separately), and all telecommunication equipment in use.

I am not a lawyer (but neither are most MPs — only about 15% are legally trained).

My reading of the telecommunications operator definition is that it encompasses everyone that is somehow related to communications: their creation, management, storage, transmissions, processing, routing, etc. In my view this covers internet services and phone apps that allow private messaging at least: social network, instant messaging applications, dating websites, on-line games, etc. Of course it also covers trivially traditional telephony, mobile or fixed, Internet Service Providers and cable providers.

It is less clear whether only messaging and internet services, or also suppliers or hardware and software, are covered by this definition. For example, one could argue that a software vendor “provides a telecommunications system (S.193(10)(b))”, if by system we mean the software used to facilitate transmissions. In fact the definition of “system” includes the “apparatus comprised in it” (S.193(13)), namely software and hardware. Following that argument, software and hardware vendors of general computing equipment may be considered telecommunications operators — when their kit is used in the context of telecommunications. If I consider this argument reasonable, probably judges in secret courts, secretaries of state, and judicial commissioners may be convinced.

This ambiguity has far reaching consequences: if an enacted Investigatory Powers Bill, is interpreted to cover suppliers of communications software and hardware, then they may be coerced by notice to provide “interception capabilities” — government backdoors — into their software and hardware and further facilitate “interference warrants” — hacking —  against the customers of their products. Operating system manufacturers, and even processor manufacturers may not be safe from this legislation which will discredit any assertion they make about the security of their products in an international market.

I laughed out loud when I saw the calls from Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, for a mature debate on surveillance, in particular in relation to the draft investigatory Powers Bill (via Paul Bernal). My reading of the IP Bill is that it will result in, and perhaps intends, closing for ever the democratic debate about what constitutes acceptable state surveillance.

Gagging orders for targeted warrants: interception, equipment interference and communications data. S.43(1-7) impose a gag order in relation to the existence or any other aspects of an interception warrant, except for seeking legal advice. S.44(2)(a) makes it an offense to disclose anything about such a warrant, with a penalty of up to 12 months in jail and / or a fine. Similar provisions exist for “equipment interference”: S.102 makes it an offense for a telecommunication provider disclose anything about a warrant for hacking someone! Similar secrecy provisions apply to notices for handling out communication data (S.66).

These prohibitions may make sense in the context of operational needs for secrecy — such as during investigations. But what about when the warrant expires? What about either interception or equipment interference against subjects, organizations, or others that does not lead to any criminal or other conviction — namely against innocent people and associations? What is the imperative for keeping those secret? The imperative is simply to keep the debate about the surveillance capabilities, the uses of warrants, the selection of targets for surveillance, the prevalence of surveillance, and the techniques used and their proportionality secret — namely to avoid even the possibility of a mature debate in the future.

Gagging orders for retention notices. The previous warrants and notices clearly applied, at least for some time, to operations against specific targets. More interestingly, secrecy is also required when it comes to issued retention notices: S.77, makes disclosing such a notice a civil offence.

What this means is that the secretary of state may issue notices for operators to keep some communication data, but these operators are not allowed to tell anyone! This despite the significant public policy interest on the matter, that has in fact led to numerous challenges against such policies, and the eventual legal challenge of the EU Data Retention Regulation in the European Court of Justice. Of course this may lead to nonsensical outcomes: I could build a service, and deploy it in the UK or elsewhere (remember extra-territoriality S.79) only to be told that a retention notice exists covering my service — which was previously unknown to me due to secrecy, and that I cannot discuss or challenge politically openly due to the same secrecy.

This is in contrast with, for example, the Data Retention directive that provided a strict list of services and categories of data that were to be retained, in the text of the directive — not in secret. Even those provisions were found to not be proportional, so go figure what the gagging order in the IP Bill is. This provision clearly aims to make the IP Bill the last, if any, political discussion on retention, its proportionality, necessity or legitimacy in a democratic society. Once it becomes law, the gagging orders will hide what is retained at all.

Gagging orders for bulk interception and interference. Given the audacity of enabling bulk interception and bulk interference, while maintaining the IP Bill is not about mass surveillance, it is no surprise that gagging orders are also imposed on those asked to facilitate it: S.120(b) states that disclosures should not be made about the existence or facilitation of bulk interception, and S.148 prohibits disclosure of a bulk interference warrant — making it illegal to even discuss that mass hacking might be taking place! Those apply to overseas operators too.

Gagging orders for bulk communications data collection. Bulk acquisition follows the pattern, and a special offence is created in relation to disclosing anything about to it in S.133. Again, this goes way beyond protecting specific operation, since the acquisition is performed in bulk, and cannot betray any specifics. The secrecy order protects the capability to access in bulk certain categories of communication data, which in effect means shielding it from any proper scrutiny as related to its necessity, or appropriateness in the future,or any debate on that matter.

Gagging orders in relation to implementing surveillance capabilities & back doors. Finally, gagging orders apply to “technical capability notices” (as well as “national security notices” — the joker card in this legislation allowing to impose any requirement at all). In S.190(8) specified that such notices should not be disclosed.

This should put to rest any romantics — and there are few, but some, in the midst of computer security and cryptography experts — that think that we will have some kind of debate about the type of back doors; or that we can build privacy-friendly back doors; or that somehow when a new technology presents itself we will have a debate about how strong the privacy it provides should. There will be none of this: secret backdoor notices (I mean “technical capability notices”) will be issued, and enterprising geek that wants to open a debate about them will either know nothing about them, or be breaking the law. There will be no debate about what kind of back doors, of when they should be used — all will be happening in total secrecy.

Keeping surveillance evidence out of courts, and the defense’s hands. S.42(1-4) of the Draft IP Bill prevents anyone involved in interception from ever mentioning it took place as part of any legal proceedings. Note that this section is absolute: it does not have exceptions, for example in relation to the public interest: such as the ability to discuss the benefit or downsides of part interception activities; no exception for talking about this to MPs, or other democratic representatives; or even to exculpate anyone who otherwise would be wrongfully found guilty. Similar provisions (S.120(a)) keep the fruits of bulk interception out of courts.

Secret hearings in secret tribunals and commissioners. There exist provisions from RIPA for secret hearings and appeals in front of secret tribunals. There are also provisions for the commissioners looking at what is doing on. These are so weak, so removed from democratic practice, and so alien to concepts of the rule of law and democratic rule — let alone nonsensical — that I am not going to discuss them further.

In conclusion. For sure the Investigatory Powers Bill future proofs surveillance capabilities: mostly against future democratic scrutiny. Once it becomes law, its “technology” neutral provision can be applied to intercept, collect, back door, hack, even in bulk, while making it illegal to even discover, and as a result discuss or make policy about, interferences with private life the state is up to. The gagging provisions are a clear example that calls for a mature debate around surveillance are mere rhetoric, the securocrats want one last discussion  before making any discussion about surveillance simply impossible.

At last the UK government today published the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, after about a week of carefully crafted briefings aimed at managing opinion, and even dissent. The document comes bundled with a lot of supplementary material, purporting to be from “A Guide” to “Explanatory Notes”. As Richard Clayton advised me a while back: don’t read them! Those are simply smoke-and-mirrors, designed to mislead, provide material for lazy journalists and confuse the reader — the only thing that has legal validity is the law itself on pages 35-227.

The good news is that I read through those 181 pages, and extracted the “juicy bits” from a technology public policy point of view. I am no lawyer, but am not as much interested in the fine print of the law. I am interested in the capabilities that the government wants to grant itself when it comes to, basically, attacking computers and telecommunication systems — with a view to understanding the business of policing and intelligence. So here are my notes…

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This posts presents a quick opinion on a moral debate, that seems to have taken large proportions at this year’s SIGCOMM, the premier computer networking conference, related to the following paper:

Encore: Lightweight Measurement of Web Censorship with Cross-Origin Requests
by Sam Burnett (Georgia Tech) and Nick Feamster (Princeton).

The paper was accepted to be presented, along with a public review by John W. Byers (Boston) that summarizes very well the paper, and then presents an account of the program committee discussions, primarily focused on research ethics.

In a nutshell the paper proposes using unsuspecting users browsing a popular website as measuring relays to detect censorship. The website would send a page to the users’ browser — that may be in a censored jurisdiction — that actively probes potentially blocked content to establish whether it is blocked. Neat tricks to side-step and use cross domain restrictions and permissions may have other applications.

Most of the public review reflected an intense discussion on the program committee (according to insiders) about the ethical implications of fielding such a system (2/3 of the 1 side is devoted to this topic). The substantive worry is that, if such a system were to be deployed the probes may be intercepted and interpreted as willful attempt to bypass censorship, and lead to harm (in “a regime where due process for those seen as requesting censored content may not exist”). Apparently this worry nearly led to the paper being rejected. The review goes on to disavow this use case — on behalf of the reviewers — and even call such measurements unethical.

I find this rather lengthy, unprecedented and quite forceful statement a bit ironic, not to say somewhat short-sighted or even hypocritical. Here is why.

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I will be participating on a panel this afternoon on “Creating Usable and Secure Software”, in the context of the conference on Digital Citizenship and Surveillance Society. I share a platform with a number of illustrious people — Dave Hrycyszyn, Lola Oyelalo and Blaine Cook — with a much deeper experience in usable software and services development. However, I will attempt to provide some context, and my opinions, on why we can observe a broadly poor state of affairs when it comes to usability of privacy technologies — and hopefully open a discussion on how to overcome roadblocks.

My main two positions will be as follows:

  • The political context within which technical security and privacy research and development had to be conducted over the past 40 years greatly contributed to the lack of wide deployment and poor usability of privacy technologies.
  • The lack of “knowledge” about methods for developing usable privacy friendly solutions only offer a partial explanation for this poor state of affairs, and has to compete with other roadblocks that systemically undermined the deployment of usable privacy technologies.

First, it is worth reminding ourselves that research into security technologies and strong cryptography specifically, was until recently the prerogative of governments. Public discussion and know-how on this topic was developed seriously after the mid-1980s, and often despite serious pressure from the US and other governments. The technical security community is small and there remain serious technical challenges to providing privacy friendly solutions — solutions that require deep expertise developed over years of practice (requiring funding).

Second, the export control regimes, and also requirements for cooperation with law-enforcement slowed down significantly the blanket deployment of privacy technologies even after the strict export control regime of the 1990s was lifted. What makes a number of privacy technologies unusable — email encryption, instant messaging encryption — is the fact that common clients do not support them transparently and by default — requiring plug-ins, user configuration and manual key management. Thus the lasting impact of these regulation has not been the non-proliferation of strong crypto technologies, but the lack of integration of these into mainstream platforms. It is telling that the current Law Enforcement and Government narrative is not about preventing encryption know-how from spreading, but rather discouraging wide deployment of such technologies without the ability for back-door or front-door access.

Third, there are commercial pressures — which again have been related with government hostility of the wide deployment of privacy technologies. It is easy to forget that governments, are major customers of technologies. Thus they are able to dictate requirements that make it difficult to widely deploy privacy technologies. It is telling that mainstream mail clients — such as Microsoft Outlook — do not transparently support PGP based end-to-end encryption and have instead opted for S/MIME and models that make the use of encryption by individuals rather difficult. In this context one may assume that the key customers of this software — large enterprises and governments — simply never asked for such features, and in fact probably considered such a feature to conflict with other requirements (such as the need to recover mail of employees, backup, …).

These commercial pressures, have changed in the past few years, as large internet companies start relying heavily on serving end-users (search, webmail, social networking). Sadly, these companies have adopted both a business model — ad-based monetization — and a technical architecture — cloud computing — that makes meaningful privacy protection very difficult. In turn the “success” of those architectures has lead to an extreme ease of developing using this model, and an increasing difficulty in providing end-user solutions with appropriate privacy protections — let alone usable ones.

The rise of services has pushed a number of key privacy technologies into not being commercially supported and a key feature, and in effect at best a “common” — with the governance and funding problems this entails. We have recently learned about the systemic under funding of key privacy technologies such as OpenSSL and GPG. Technologies like Tor are mostly funded for their national firewall traversal features, seeing development on anonymity features suffer. Unlike other commons (health, parks, quality assurance in medicines), the state has not stepped in to either help with governance or with funding — all the opposite. For example, standardization efforts have systematically promoted “surveillance by design” instead of best of breed privacy protection; funding for surveillance technology is enormous compared to funding for privacy technologies, and somehow ironically, a number of calls for funding of privacy technologies are in the context of making surveillance more “privacy friendly” — leading to largely non-nonsensical outcomes.

So, lack of “knowledge” about how to develop usable software, while also a contributing factor, has to be seen within the context of the above structural pressures. In parallel, pressures undoubtedly exist when it comes to the discipline of UX which is in itself recent, and constantly involving. Along with serious funding for collaboration on building more usable privacy software (which the Simply Secure project that I am associated with attempts to provide), we need a strategy to counter those systemic pressures to ensure the wide deployment of usable privacy technologies.