Nov 132018
 

Yeah, so our illustrious Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton has come out pushing his agenda for a “back door” to encrypted messaging applications.  How someone so naïve got to be in such a position of power, I have no idea.   Perhaps “Yes, Minister” is more of a documentary than a comedy than I’d like to imagine.

It’s not the first time a politician has suggested the idea, and each time, I wonder how much training they’ve had in things like mathematics (particularly on prime numbers, exponentiation, remainders from division: these are the building blocks for algorithms like RSA, Diffie-Hellman, etc).

Now, they’ll tell us, “We’re not banning encryption, we just want access to ${MESSAGING_APPLICATION}”.  Sure, fine… but ${MESSAGING_APPLICATION} isn’t the only one, and these days, it isn’t impossible to imagine that someone with appropriate skills can write their own secure messaging application.  The necessary components are integral to every modern web browser.  Internet routers and IP cameras, many of which have poor security and are rarely patched, provide easy means to host the server-side component of such a system freely as well as an abundance of cheap VPS hosting, and as far as ways of “obscuring the meaning” of communications, we’re spoiled for choice!

So, shut one application down, they’ll just move to another.

Then there’s the slippery slope.  After compromising maybe a dozen applications by legal force, it’s likely there’ll be laws passed to ban all encryption.  Maybe our government should talk to the International Telegraph Union and ask how their 1880s ban on codewords worked out?

The thing is, for such surveillance to work, they have to catch each and every message, and scrutinise it for alternate meanings, and such meanings may not be obvious to third parties.  Hell, my choice of words and punctuation on this very website may be a “signal” to that tells someone to dress up as Big Bird and do the Chicken Dance in the Queen Street Mall.

This post (ignoring the delivery mechanism) isn’t encrypted, but could have hidden meanings with agreed parties.  That, and modern technology provides all kinds of ways to hide data in plain sight.

Is this a photo of a funny sign, or does it have a message buried within?

Digital cameras often rely on SD cards that are formatted with the FAT file system.  This is a file system which stores files as a linked list of clusters.  These clusters can wind up being stored out-of-order, a problem known as fragmentation.  Defragmentation tools were big business in the 90s.

FAT is used because it’s simple to implement and widely supported, and on SD cards, seek times aren’t a problem so fragmentation has less of an effect on performance.

It’s not hard to conceive of a steganography technique for sharing a one-time pad which exploits this property to use some innocuous photos on a SD card, arranged in such a way so that the 4kB clusters are randomised in their distribution.  The one-time pad would be shared almost right under the noses of postal workers unnoticed, since when they plug the SD card into their computer, it’ll just show photos that look “normal”.  The one time pad would reach its destination, then could be used for secret communications that could not be broken.

So, the upshot is banning encryption will be useless because such messages can be easily hidden from view even without encryption.

Then there’s the impact of these back doors.  The private keys to these back doors had better be very very VERY secure, because everyone’s privacy depends on them.  I mean EVERYONE.  Mr. Dutton included.

Bear in mind that the movie industry tried a similar approach for securing DVDs and Bluray discs.  It failed miserably.  CSS encryption keys used on some DVDs were discovered, then it was found that CSS was weak anyway and could be trivially brute-forced.  HDCP used in Bluray also has had its secret encryption key discovered.

See, suppose a ban was imposed.  Things like this blog, okay, you’ll be hitting it over clear-text, the way it had been for a number of years… and for me to log in, I’d have to do so over plain-text HTTP.  I’d probably just update it when at home, where I can use wired Ethernet to connect to the blog.  No real security issue there.  There’s a problem of code injection for my few visitors, it’d be nice to be able to digitally “sign” the page without encrypting it to avoid that problem.  I guess if this became the reality, we’d be looking into it.

Internet banking and other “sensitive” activities would be a problem though.  I do have Internet banking now, but it’s thankfully on a separate account to my main savings, so if that got compromised, you wouldn’t get a lot of cash, however identity theft is a very real risk.

Then there’s our workplaces.  My workplace happens to do work for Defence from time to time.  They look after the energy management systems on a few SE Queensland bases: Enoggera (Gallipoli Barracks), Amberley (yours truly interrogated the Ethernet switches to draw a map of that network, which I still have a few old copies of), Canungra, Oakey, … to name a few.

We rely on encryption to keep our remote access to those sites secure.  Take that away, and we either have to do all that work “in the clear”, or send people on site.  The latter is expensive, and in some cases, the people who have clearance to step on site don’t have all the domain knowledge, so they’ll be bringing others who are not cleared and “supervising” them.

Johnny Jihadist doesn’t have to break into a defence base, they just have to look on as a contractor “logs in”.  If the electrical and water meters on a site indicate minimal usage, then maybe the barracks are empty and they can strike.  You can actually infer a lot of information from the sorts of data collected by an EMS.  A scary amount.

So our national security actually depends on civilian encryption being as strong as government encryption.  Setting up 256-bit AES with 4096-bit RSA key agreement and authentication is a few clicks and is nearly impenetrable: back-door it, and it’s worthless.

Even if you break the encryption, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to find the message that you’re looking for.  Or you might just wind up harassing some poor teenager that uploaded a cute but grainy kitten photo because you thought the background noise in the JPEG was some sort of coded message.

I think if we’re going to get on top of national security issues, the answer is not to spy on each other, it’s to openly talk to each other.  Get to know those around you, and accept each other’s differences.  Colonel Klink didn’t have any luck with the iron fist approach, what makes today’s ministers think they are different?