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Paul Merrell

Obama to propose legislation to protect firms that share cyberthreat data - The Washington Post - 0 views

  • President Obama plans to announce legislation Tuesday that would shield companies from lawsuits for sharing computer threat data with the government in an effort to prevent cyber­attacks. On the heels of a destructive attack at Sony Pictures Entertainment and major breaches at JPMorgan Chase and retail chains, Obama is intent on capitalizing on the heightened sense of urgency to improve the security of the nation’s networks, officials said. “He’s been doing everything he can within his executive authority to move the ball on this,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss legislation that has not yet been released. “We’ve got to get something in place that allows both industry and government to work more closely together.”
  • The legislation is part of a broader package, to be sent to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, that includes measures to help protect consumers and students against ­cyberattacks and to give law enforcement greater authority to combat cybercrime. The provision’s goal is to “enshrine in law liability protection for the private sector for them to share specific information — cyberthreat indicators — with the government,” the official said. Some analysts questioned the need for such legislation, saying there are adequate measures in place to enable sharing between companies and the government and among companies.
  • “We think the current information-sharing regime is adequate,” said Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group. “More companies need to use it, but the idea of broad legal immunity isn’t needed right now.” The administration official disagreed. The lack of such immunity is what prevents many companies from greater sharing of data with the government, the official said. “We have heard that time and time again,” the official said. The proposal, which builds on a 2011 administration bill, grants liability protection to companies that provide indicators of cyberattacks and threats to the Department of Homeland Security.
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  • But in a provision likely to raise concerns from privacy advocates, the administration wants to require DHS to share that information “in as near real time as possible” with other government agencies that have a cybersecurity mission, the official said. Those include the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s ­Cyber Command, the FBI and the Secret Service. “DHS needs to take an active lead role in ensuring that unnecessary personal information is not shared with intelligence authorities,” Jaycox said. The debates over government surveillance prompted by disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have shown that “the agencies already have a tremendous amount of unnecessary information,” he said.
  • The administration official stressed that the legislation will require companies to remove unnecessary personal information before furnishing it to the government in order to qualify for liability protection. It also will impose limits on the use of the data for cybersecurity crimes and instances in which there is a threat of death or bodily harm, such as kidnapping, the official said. And it will require DHS and the attorney general to develop guidelines for the federal government’s use and retention of the data. It will not authorize a company to take offensive cyber-measures to defend itself, such as “hacking back” into a server or computer outside its own network to track a breach. The bill also will provide liability protection to companies that share data with private-sector-developed organizations set up specifically for that purpose. Called information sharing and analysis organizations, these groups often are set up by particular industries, such as banking, to facilitate the exchange of data and best practices.
  • Efforts to pass information-sharing legislation have stalled in the past five years, blocked primarily by privacy concerns. The package also contains provisions that would allow prosecution for the sale of botnets or access to armies of compromised computers that can be used to spread malware, would criminalize the overseas sale of stolen U.S. credit card and bank account numbers, would expand federal law enforcement authority to deter the sale of spyware used to stalk people or commit identity theft, and would give courts the authority to shut down botnets being used for criminal activity, such as denial-of-service attacks.
  • It would reaffirm that federal racketeering law applies to cybercrimes and amends the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by ensuring that “insignificant conduct” does not fall within the scope of the statute. A third element of the package is legislation Obama proposed Monday to help protect consumers and students against cyberattacks. The theft of personal financial information “is a direct threat to the economic security of American families, and we’ve got to stop it,” Obama said. The plan, unveiled in a speech at the Federal Trade Commission, would require companies to notify customers within 30 days after the theft of personal information is discovered. Right now, data breaches are handled under a patchwork of state laws that the president said are confusing and costly to enforce. Obama’s plan would streamline those into one clear federal standard and bolster requirements for companies to notify customers. Obama is proposing closing loopholes to make it easier to track down cybercriminals overseas who steal and sell identities. “The more we do to protect consumer information and privacy, the harder it is for hackers to damage our businesses and hurt our economy,” he said.
  • In October, Obama signed an order to protect consumers from identity theft by strengthening security features in credit cards and the terminals that process them. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said there is concern that a federal standard would “preempt stronger state laws” about how and when companies have to notify consumers. The Student Digital Privacy Act would ensure that data entered would be used only for educational purposes. It would prohibit companies from selling student data to third-party companies for purposes other than education. Obama also plans to introduce a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. And the White House will host a summit on cybersecurity and consumer protection on Feb. 13 at Stanford University.
Gonzalo San Gil, PhD.

The Linux Ghost Flaw: Everything You Need To Know [# Via Marshall Jones] - 1 views

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    [The GHOST vulnerability is a flaw in a vital part of every major Linux distro. It could, in theory, allow hackers to take control of computers without the need for a username or password.+
Paul Merrell

Canadian Spies Collect Domestic Emails in Secret Security Sweep - The Intercept - 0 views

  • Canada’s electronic surveillance agency is covertly monitoring vast amounts of Canadians’ emails as part of a sweeping domestic cybersecurity operation, according to top-secret documents. The surveillance initiative, revealed Wednesday by CBC News in collaboration with The Intercept, is sifting through millions of emails sent to Canadian government agencies and departments, archiving details about them on a database for months or even years. The data mining operation is carried out by the Communications Security Establishment, or CSE, Canada’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. Its existence is disclosed in documents obtained by The Intercept from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The emails are vacuumed up by the Canadian agency as part of its mandate to defend against hacking attacks and malware targeting government computers. It relies on a system codenamed PONY EXPRESS to analyze the messages in a bid to detect potential cyber threats.
  • Last year, CSE acknowledged it collected some private communications as part of cybersecurity efforts. But it refused to divulge the number of communications being stored or to explain for how long any intercepted messages would be retained. Now, the Snowden documents shine a light for the first time on the huge scope of the operation — exposing the controversial details the government withheld from the public. Under Canada’s criminal code, CSE is not allowed to eavesdrop on Canadians’ communications. But the agency can be granted special ministerial exemptions if its efforts are linked to protecting government infrastructure — a loophole that the Snowden documents show is being used to monitor the emails. The latest revelations will trigger concerns about how Canadians’ private correspondence with government employees are being archived by the spy agency and potentially shared with police or allied surveillance agencies overseas, such as the NSA. Members of the public routinely communicate with government employees when, for instance, filing tax returns, writing a letter to a member of parliament, applying for employment insurance benefits or submitting a passport application.
  • Chris Parsons, an internet security expert with the Toronto-based internet think tank Citizen Lab, told CBC News that “you should be able to communicate with your government without the fear that what you say … could come back to haunt you in unexpected ways.” Parsons said that there are legitimate cybersecurity purposes for the agency to keep tabs on communications with the government, but he added: “When we collect huge volumes, it’s not just used to track bad guys. It goes into data stores for years or months at a time and then it can be used at any point in the future.” In a top-secret CSE document on the security operation, dated from 2010, the agency says it “processes 400,000 emails per day” and admits that it is suffering from “information overload” because it is scooping up “too much data.” The document outlines how CSE built a system to handle a massive 400 terabytes of data from Internet networks each month — including Canadians’ emails — as part of the cyber operation. (A single terabyte of data can hold about a billion pages of text, or about 250,000 average-sized mp3 files.)
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  • The agency notes in the document that it is storing large amounts of “passively tapped network traffic” for “days to months,” encompassing the contents of emails, attachments and other online activity. It adds that it stores some kinds of metadata — data showing who has contacted whom and when, but not the content of the message — for “months to years.” The document says that CSE has “excellent access to full take data” as part of its cyber operations and is receiving policy support on “use of intercepted private communications.” The term “full take” is surveillance-agency jargon that refers to the bulk collection of both content and metadata from Internet traffic. Another top-secret document on the surveillance dated from 2010 suggests the agency may be obtaining at least some of the data by covertly mining it directly from Canadian Internet cables. CSE notes in the document that it is “processing emails off the wire.”
Paul Merrell

Remaining Snowden docs will be released to avert 'unspecified US war' - ‪Cryptome‬ * The Register - 1 views

  • All the remaining Snowden documents will be released next month, according t‪o‬ whistle-blowing site ‪Cryptome, which said in a tweet that the release of the info by unnamed third parties would be necessary to head off an unnamed "war".‬‪Cryptome‬ said it would "aid and abet" the release of "57K to 1.7M" new documents that had been "withheld for national security-public debate [sic]". <a href="http://pubads.g.doubleclick.net/gampad/jump?iu=/6978/reg_security/front&sz=300x250%7C300x600&tile=3&c=33U7RchawQrMoAAHIac14AAAKH&t=ct%3Dns%26unitnum%3D3%26unitname%3Dwww_top_mpu%26pos%3Dtop%26test%3D0" target="_blank"> <img src="http://pubads.g.doubleclick.net/gampad/ad?iu=/6978/reg_security/front&sz=300x250%7C300x600&tile=3&c=33U7RchawQrMoAAHIac14AAAKH&t=ct%3Dns%26unitnum%3D3%26unitname%3Dwww_top_mpu%26pos%3Dtop%26test%3D0" alt=""></a> The site clarified that will not be publishing the documents itself.Transparency activists would welcome such a release but such a move would be heavily criticised by inteligence agencies and military officials, who argue that Snowden's dump of secret documents has set US and allied (especially British) intelligence efforts back by years.
  • As things stand, the flow of Snowden disclosures is controlled by those who have access to the Sn‪o‬wden archive, which might possibly include Snowden confidants such as Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. In some cases, even when these people release information to mainstream media organisations, it is then suppressed by these organisations after negotiation with the authorities. (In one such case, some key facts were later revealed by the Register.)"July is when war begins unless headed off by Snowden full release of crippling intel. After war begins not a chance of release," Cryptome tweeted on its official feed."Warmongerers are on a rampage. So, yes, citizens holding Snowden docs will do the right thing," it said.
  • "For more on Snowden docs release in July watch for Ellsberg, special guest and others at HOPE, July 18-20: http://www.hope.net/schedule.html," it added.HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) is a well-regarded and long-running hacking conference organised by 2600 magazine. Previous speakers at the event have included Kevin Mitnick, Steve Wozniak and Jello Biafra.In other developments, ‪Cryptome‬ has started a Kickstarter fund to release its entire archive in the form of a USB stick archive. It wants t‪o‬ raise $100,000 to help it achieve its goal. More than $14,000 has already been raised.The funding drive follows a dispute between ‪Cryptome‬ and its host Network Solutions, which is owned by web.com. Access to the site was bl‪o‬cked f‪o‬ll‪o‬wing a malware infection last week. ‪Cryptome‬ f‪o‬under J‪o‬hn Y‪o‬ung criticised the host, claiming it had ‪o‬ver-reacted and had been sl‪o‬w t‪o‬ rest‪o‬re access t‪o‬ the site, which ‪Cryptome‬ criticised as a form of cens‪o‬rship.In resp‪o‬nse, ‪Cryptome‬ plans to more widely distribute its content across multiple sites as well as releasing the planned USB stick archive. ®
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    Can't happen soon enough. 
Paul Merrell

How to Encrypt the Entire Web for Free - The Intercept - 0 views

  • If we’ve learned one thing from the Snowden revelations, it’s that what can be spied on will be spied on. Since the advent of what used to be known as the World Wide Web, it has been a relatively simple matter for network attackers—whether it’s the NSA, Chinese intelligence, your employer, your university, abusive partners, or teenage hackers on the same public WiFi as you—to spy on almost everything you do online. HTTPS, the technology that encrypts traffic between browsers and websites, fixes this problem—anyone listening in on that stream of data between you and, say, your Gmail window or bank’s web site would get nothing but useless random characters—but is woefully under-used. The ambitious new non-profit Let’s Encrypt aims to make the process of deploying HTTPS not only fast, simple, and free, but completely automatic. If it succeeds, the project will render vast regions of the internet invisible to prying eyes.
  • Encryption also prevents attackers from tampering with or impersonating legitimate websites. For example, the Chinese government censors specific pages on Wikipedia, the FBI impersonated The Seattle Times to get a suspect to click on a malicious link, and Verizon and AT&T injected tracking tokens into mobile traffic without user consent. HTTPS goes a long way in preventing these sorts of attacks. And of course there’s the NSA, which relies on the limited adoption of HTTPS to continue to spy on the entire internet with impunity. If companies want to do one thing to meaningfully protect their customers from surveillance, it should be enabling encryption on their websites by default.
  • Let’s Encrypt, which was announced this week but won’t be ready to use until the second quarter of 2015, describes itself as “a free, automated, and open certificate authority (CA), run for the public’s benefit.” It’s the product of years of work from engineers at Mozilla, Cisco, Akamai, Electronic Frontier Foundation, IdenTrust, and researchers at the University of Michigan. (Disclosure: I used to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I was aware of Let’s Encrypt while it was being developed.) If Let’s Encrypt works as advertised, deploying HTTPS correctly and using all of the best practices will be one of the simplest parts of running a website. All it will take is running a command. Currently, HTTPS requires jumping through a variety of complicated hoops that certificate authorities insist on in order prove ownership of domain names. Let’s Encrypt automates this task in seconds, without requiring any human intervention, and at no cost.
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  • The benefits of using HTTPS are obvious when you think about protecting secret information you send over the internet, like passwords and credit card numbers. It also helps protect information like what you search for in Google, what articles you read, what prescription medicine you take, and messages you send to colleagues, friends, and family from being monitored by hackers or authorities. But there are less obvious benefits as well. Websites that don’t use HTTPS are vulnerable to “session hijacking,” where attackers can take over your account even if they don’t know your password. When you download software without encryption, sophisticated attackers can secretly replace the download with malware that hacks your computer as soon as you try installing it.
  • The transition to a fully encrypted web won’t be immediate. After Let’s Encrypt is available to the public in 2015, each website will have to actually use it to switch over. And major web hosting companies also need to hop on board for their customers to be able to take advantage of it. If hosting companies start work now to integrate Let’s Encrypt into their services, they could offer HTTPS hosting by default at no extra cost to all their customers by the time it launches.
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    Don't miss the video. And if you have a web site, urge your host service to begin preparing for Let's Encrypt. (See video on why it's good for them.)
Paul Merrell

Guest Post: NSA Reform - The Consequences of Failure | Just Security - 0 views

  • In the absence of real reform, people and institutions at home and abroad are taking matters into their own hands. In America, the NSA’s overreach is changing the way we communicate with and relate to each other. In order to evade government surveillance, more and more Americans are employing encryption technology.  The veritable explosion of new secure messaging apps like Surespot, OpenWhisper’s collaboration with WhatsApp, the development and deployment of open source anti-surveillance tools like Detekt, the creation of organizationally-sponsored “surveillance self-defense” guides, the push to universalize the https protocol, anti-surveillance book events featuring free encryption workshops— are manifestations of the rise of the personal encryption and pro-privacy digital resistance movement. Its political implications are clear: Americans, along with people around the world, increasingly see the United States government’s overreaching surveillance activities as a threat to be blocked.
  • The federal government’s vacuum-cleaner approach to surveillance—manifested in Title II of the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and EO 12333—has backfired in these respects, and the emergence of this digital resistance movement is one result. Indeed, the existence and proliferation of social networks hold the potential to help this movement spread faster and to more of the general public than would have been possible in decades past. This is evidenced by the growing concern worldwide about governments’ ability to access reams of information about people’s lives with relative ease. As one measure, compared to a year ago, 41% of online users in North America now avoid certain Internet sites and applications, 16% change who they communicate with, and 24% censor what they say online. Those numbers, if anywhere close to accurate, are a major concern for democratic society.
  • Even if commercially available privacy technology proves capable of providing a genuine shield against warrantless or otherwise illegal surveillance by the United States government, it will remain a treatment for the symptom, not a cure for the underlying legal and constitutional malady. In April 2014, a Harris poll of US adults showed that in response to the Snowden revelations, “Almost half of respondents (47%) said that they have changed their online behavior and think more carefully about where they go, what they say, and what they do online.” Set aside for a moment that just the federal government’s collection of the data of innocent Americans is itself likely a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Harris poll is just one of numerous studies highlighting the collateral damage to American society and politics from NSA’s excesses: segments of our population are now fearful of even associating with individuals or organizations executive branch officials deem controversial or suspicious. Nearly half of Americans say they have changed their online behavior out of a fear of what the federal government might do with their personal information. The Constitution’s free association guarantee has been damaged by the Surveillance State’s very operation.
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  • The failure of the Congress and the courts to end the surveillance state, despite the repeated efforts by a huge range of political and public interest actors to effect that change through the political process, is only fueling the growing resistance movement. Federal officials understand this, which is why they are trying—desperately and in the view of some, underhandedly—to shut down this digital resistance movement. This action/reaction cycle is exactly what it appears to be: an escalating conflict between the American public and its government. Without comprehensive surveillance authority reforms (including a journalist “shield law” and ironclad whistleblower protections for Intelligence Community contractors) that are verifiable and enforceable, that conflict will only continue.
Paul Merrell

The Great SIM Heist: How Spies Stole the Keys to the Encryption Castle - 0 views

  • AMERICAN AND BRITISH spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe, according to top-secret documents provided to The Intercept by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The hack was perpetrated by a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQ document, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data. The company targeted by the intelligence agencies, Gemalto, is a multinational firm incorporated in the Netherlands that makes the chips used in mobile phones and next-generation credit cards. Among its clients are AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers around the world. The company operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities. One of its three global headquarters is in Austin, Texas and it has a large factory in Pennsylvania. In all, Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year. Its motto is “Security to be Free.”
  • With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Possessing the keys also sidesteps the need to get a warrant or a wiretap, while leaving no trace on the wireless provider’s network that the communications were intercepted. Bulk key theft additionally enables the intelligence agencies to unlock any previously encrypted communications they had already intercepted, but did not yet have the ability to decrypt.
  • Leading privacy advocates and security experts say that the theft of encryption keys from major wireless network providers is tantamount to a thief obtaining the master ring of a building superintendent who holds the keys to every apartment. “Once you have the keys, decrypting traffic is trivial,” says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The news of this key theft will send a shock wave through the security community.”
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  • According to one secret GCHQ slide, the British intelligence agency penetrated Gemalto’s internal networks, planting malware on several computers, giving GCHQ secret access. We “believe we have their entire network,” the slide’s author boasted about the operation against Gemalto. Additionally, the spy agency targeted unnamed cellular companies’ core networks, giving it access to “sales staff machines for customer information and network engineers machines for network maps.” GCHQ also claimed the ability to manipulate the billing servers of cell companies to “suppress” charges in an effort to conceal the spy agency’s secret actions against an individual’s phone. Most significantly, GCHQ also penetrated “authentication servers,” allowing it to decrypt data and voice communications between a targeted individual’s phone and his or her telecom provider’s network. A note accompanying the slide asserted that the spy agency was “very happy with the data so far and [was] working through the vast quantity of product.”
  • The U.S. and British intelligence agencies pulled off the encryption key heist in great stealth, giving them the ability to intercept and decrypt communications without alerting the wireless network provider, the foreign government or the individual user that they have been targeted. “Gaining access to a database of keys is pretty much game over for cellular encryption,” says Matthew Green, a cryptography specialist at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. The massive key theft is “bad news for phone security. Really bad news.”
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    Remember all those NSA claims that no evidence of their misbehavior has emerged? That one should never take wing again. Monitoring call content without the involvement of any court? Without a warrant? Without probable cause?  Was there even any Congressional authorization?  Wiretapping unequivocally requires a judicially-approved search warrant. It's going to be very interesting to learn the government's argument for this misconduct's legality. 
Paul Merrell

From Radio to Porn, British Spies Track Web Users' Online Identities - 1 views

  • HERE WAS A SIMPLE AIM at the heart of the top-secret program: Record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet.” Before long, billions of digital records about ordinary people’s online activities were being stored every day. Among them were details cataloging visits to porn, social media and news websites, search engines, chat forums, and blogs. The mass surveillance operation — code-named KARMA POLICE — was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The revelations about the scope of the British agency’s surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Previous reports based on the leaked files have exposed how GCHQ taps into Internet cables to monitor communications on a vast scale, but many details about what happens to the data after it has been vacuumed up have remained unclear.
  • Amid a renewed push from the U.K. government for more surveillance powers, more than two dozen documents being disclosed today by The Intercept reveal for the first time several major strands of GCHQ’s existing electronic eavesdropping capabilities.
  • The surveillance is underpinned by an opaque legal regime that has authorized GCHQ to sift through huge archives of metadata about the private phone calls, emails and Internet browsing logs of Brits, Americans, and any other citizens — all without a court order or judicial warrant
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  • A huge volume of the Internet data GCHQ collects flows directly into a massive repository named Black Hole, which is at the core of the agency’s online spying operations, storing raw logs of intercepted material before it has been subject to analysis. Black Hole contains data collected by GCHQ as part of bulk “unselected” surveillance, meaning it is not focused on particular “selected” targets and instead includes troves of data indiscriminately swept up about ordinary people’s online activities. Between August 2007 and March 2009, GCHQ documents say that Black Hole was used to store more than 1.1 trillion “events” — a term the agency uses to refer to metadata records — with about 10 billion new entries added every day. As of March 2009, the largest slice of data Black Hole held — 41 percent — was about people’s Internet browsing histories. The rest included a combination of email and instant messenger records, details about search engine queries, information about social media activity, logs related to hacking operations, and data on people’s use of tools to browse the Internet anonymously.
  • Throughout this period, as smartphone sales started to boom, the frequency of people’s Internet use was steadily increasing. In tandem, British spies were working frantically to bolster their spying capabilities, with plans afoot to expand the size of Black Hole and other repositories to handle an avalanche of new data. By 2010, according to the documents, GCHQ was logging 30 billion metadata records per day. By 2012, collection had increased to 50 billion per day, and work was underway to double capacity to 100 billion. The agency was developing “unprecedented” techniques to perform what it called “population-scale” data mining, monitoring all communications across entire countries in an effort to detect patterns or behaviors deemed suspicious. It was creating what it said would be, by 2013, “the world’s biggest” surveillance engine “to run cyber operations and to access better, more valued data for customers to make a real world difference.”
  • A document from the GCHQ target analysis center (GTAC) shows the Black Hole repository’s structure.
  • The data is searched by GCHQ analysts in a hunt for behavior online that could be connected to terrorism or other criminal activity. But it has also served a broader and more controversial purpose — helping the agency hack into European companies’ computer networks. In the lead up to its secret mission targeting Netherlands-based Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world, GCHQ used MUTANT BROTH in an effort to identify the company’s employees so it could hack into their computers. The system helped the agency analyze intercepted Facebook cookies it believed were associated with Gemalto staff located at offices in France and Poland. GCHQ later successfully infiltrated Gemalto’s internal networks, stealing encryption keys produced by the company that protect the privacy of cell phone communications.
  • Similarly, MUTANT BROTH proved integral to GCHQ’s hack of Belgian telecommunications provider Belgacom. The agency entered IP addresses associated with Belgacom into MUTANT BROTH to uncover information about the company’s employees. Cookies associated with the IPs revealed the Google, Yahoo, and LinkedIn accounts of three Belgacom engineers, whose computers were then targeted by the agency and infected with malware. The hacking operation resulted in GCHQ gaining deep access into the most sensitive parts of Belgacom’s internal systems, granting British spies the ability to intercept communications passing through the company’s networks.
  • In March, a U.K. parliamentary committee published the findings of an 18-month review of GCHQ’s operations and called for an overhaul of the laws that regulate the spying. The committee raised concerns about the agency gathering what it described as “bulk personal datasets” being held about “a wide range of people.” However, it censored the section of the report describing what these “datasets” contained, despite acknowledging that they “may be highly intrusive.” The Snowden documents shine light on some of the core GCHQ bulk data-gathering programs that the committee was likely referring to — pulling back the veil of secrecy that has shielded some of the agency’s most controversial surveillance operations from public scrutiny. KARMA POLICE and MUTANT BROTH are among the key bulk collection systems. But they do not operate in isolation — and the scope of GCHQ’s spying extends far beyond them.
  • The agency operates a bewildering array of other eavesdropping systems, each serving its own specific purpose and designated a unique code name, such as: SOCIAL ANTHROPOID, which is used to analyze metadata on emails, instant messenger chats, social media connections and conversations, plus “telephony” metadata about phone calls, cell phone locations, text and multimedia messages; MEMORY HOLE, which logs queries entered into search engines and associates each search with an IP address; MARBLED GECKO, which sifts through details about searches people have entered into Google Maps and Google Earth; and INFINITE MONKEYS, which analyzes data about the usage of online bulletin boards and forums. GCHQ has other programs that it uses to analyze the content of intercepted communications, such as the full written body of emails and the audio of phone calls. One of the most important content collection capabilities is TEMPORA, which mines vast amounts of emails, instant messages, voice calls and other communications and makes them accessible through a Google-style search tool named XKEYSCORE.
  • As of September 2012, TEMPORA was collecting “more than 40 billion pieces of content a day” and it was being used to spy on people across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, according to a top-secret memo outlining the scope of the program. The existence of TEMPORA was first revealed by The Guardian in June 2013. To analyze all of the communications it intercepts and to build a profile of the individuals it is monitoring, GCHQ uses a variety of different tools that can pull together all of the relevant information and make it accessible through a single interface. SAMUEL PEPYS is one such tool, built by the British spies to analyze both the content and metadata of emails, browsing sessions, and instant messages as they are being intercepted in real time. One screenshot of SAMUEL PEPYS in action shows the agency using it to monitor an individual in Sweden who visited a page about GCHQ on the U.S.-based anti-secrecy website Cryptome.
  • Partly due to the U.K.’s geographic location — situated between the United States and the western edge of continental Europe — a large amount of the world’s Internet traffic passes through its territory across international data cables. In 2010, GCHQ noted that what amounted to “25 percent of all Internet traffic” was transiting the U.K. through some 1,600 different cables. The agency said that it could “survey the majority of the 1,600” and “select the most valuable to switch into our processing systems.”
  • According to Joss Wright, a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, tapping into the cables allows GCHQ to monitor a large portion of foreign communications. But the cables also transport masses of wholly domestic British emails and online chats, because when anyone in the U.K. sends an email or visits a website, their computer will routinely send and receive data from servers that are located overseas. “I could send a message from my computer here [in England] to my wife’s computer in the next room and on its way it could go through the U.S., France, and other countries,” Wright says. “That’s just the way the Internet is designed.” In other words, Wright adds, that means “a lot” of British data and communications transit across international cables daily, and are liable to be swept into GCHQ’s databases.
  • A map from a classified GCHQ presentation about intercepting communications from undersea cables. GCHQ is authorized to conduct dragnet surveillance of the international data cables through so-called external warrants that are signed off by a government minister. The external warrants permit the agency to monitor communications in foreign countries as well as British citizens’ international calls and emails — for example, a call from Islamabad to London. They prohibit GCHQ from reading or listening to the content of “internal” U.K. to U.K. emails and phone calls, which are supposed to be filtered out from GCHQ’s systems if they are inadvertently intercepted unless additional authorization is granted to scrutinize them. However, the same rules do not apply to metadata. A little-known loophole in the law allows GCHQ to use external warrants to collect and analyze bulk metadata about the emails, phone calls, and Internet browsing activities of British people, citizens of closely allied countries, and others, regardless of whether the data is derived from domestic U.K. to U.K. communications and browsing sessions or otherwise. In March, the existence of this loophole was quietly acknowledged by the U.K. parliamentary committee’s surveillance review, which stated in a section of its report that “special protection and additional safeguards” did not apply to metadata swept up using external warrants and that domestic British metadata could therefore be lawfully “returned as a result of searches” conducted by GCHQ.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, GCHQ appears to have readily exploited this obscure legal technicality. Secret policy guidance papers issued to the agency’s analysts instruct them that they can sift through huge troves of indiscriminately collected metadata records to spy on anyone regardless of their nationality. The guidance makes clear that there is no exemption or extra privacy protection for British people or citizens from countries that are members of the Five Eyes, a surveillance alliance that the U.K. is part of alongside the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “If you are searching a purely Events only database such as MUTANT BROTH, the issue of location does not occur,” states one internal GCHQ policy document, which is marked with a “last modified” date of July 2012. The document adds that analysts are free to search the databases for British metadata “without further authorization” by inputing a U.K. “selector,” meaning a unique identifier such as a person’s email or IP address, username, or phone number. Authorization is “not needed for individuals in the U.K.,” another GCHQ document explains, because metadata has been judged “less intrusive than communications content.” All the spies are required to do to mine the metadata troves is write a short “justification” or “reason” for each search they conduct and then click a button on their computer screen.
  • Intelligence GCHQ collects on British persons of interest is shared with domestic security agency MI5, which usually takes the lead on spying operations within the U.K. MI5 conducts its own extensive domestic surveillance as part of a program called DIGINT (digital intelligence).
  • GCHQ’s documents suggest that it typically retains metadata for periods of between 30 days to six months. It stores the content of communications for a shorter period of time, varying between three to 30 days. The retention periods can be extended if deemed necessary for “cyber defense.” One secret policy paper dated from January 2010 lists the wide range of information the agency classes as metadata — including location data that could be used to track your movements, your email, instant messenger, and social networking “buddy lists,” logs showing who you have communicated with by phone or email, the passwords you use to access “communications services” (such as an email account), and information about websites you have viewed.
  • Records showing the full website addresses you have visited — for instance, www.gchq.gov.uk/what_we_do — are treated as content. But the first part of an address you have visited — for instance, www.gchq.gov.uk — is treated as metadata. In isolation, a single metadata record of a phone call, email, or website visit may not reveal much about a person’s private life, according to Ethan Zuckerman, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Civic Media. But if accumulated and analyzed over a period of weeks or months, these details would be “extremely personal,” he told The Intercept, because they could reveal a person’s movements, habits, religious beliefs, political views, relationships, and even sexual preferences. For Zuckerman, who has studied the social and political ramifications of surveillance, the most concerning aspect of large-scale government data collection is that it can be “corrosive towards democracy” — leading to a chilling effect on freedom of expression and communication. “Once we know there’s a reasonable chance that we are being watched in one fashion or another it’s hard for that not to have a ‘panopticon effect,’” he said, “where we think and behave differently based on the assumption that people may be watching and paying attention to what we are doing.”
  • When compared to surveillance rules in place in the U.S., GCHQ notes in one document that the U.K. has “a light oversight regime.” The more lax British spying regulations are reflected in secret internal rules that highlight greater restrictions on how NSA databases can be accessed. The NSA’s troves can be searched for data on British citizens, one document states, but they cannot be mined for information about Americans or other citizens from countries in the Five Eyes alliance. No such constraints are placed on GCHQ’s own databases, which can be sifted for records on the phone calls, emails, and Internet usage of Brits, Americans, and citizens from any other country. The scope of GCHQ’s surveillance powers explain in part why Snowden told The Guardian in June 2013 that U.K. surveillance is “worse than the U.S.” In an interview with Der Spiegel in July 2013, Snowden added that British Internet cables were “radioactive” and joked: “Even the Queen’s selfies to the pool boy get logged.”
  • In recent years, the biggest barrier to GCHQ’s mass collection of data does not appear to have come in the form of legal or policy restrictions. Rather, it is the increased use of encryption technology that protects the privacy of communications that has posed the biggest potential hindrance to the agency’s activities. “The spread of encryption … threatens our ability to do effective target discovery/development,” says a top-secret report co-authored by an official from the British agency and an NSA employee in 2011. “Pertinent metadata events will be locked within the encrypted channels and difficult, if not impossible, to prise out,” the report says, adding that the agencies were working on a plan that would “(hopefully) allow our Internet Exploitation strategy to prevail.”
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