I feel a little better now. After blogging about how my world was coming to an end because my faith in the mathematics of encryption had been shaken, a graduate of ours who read my post sent me something that made me feel a little less alarmed. A security expert the rest of the world and I hold in highest regard, Bruce Schneier, also weighed in today on the revelations that the NSA had broken much of the encryption that protects data online. Schneier doesn’t dispute that encryption online is broken, for it is. However, he confirms my hope that it isn’t the underlying mathematics that is to blame. Rather, NSA has broken encryption by working with companies to introduce vulnerabilities that weaken it. That subterfuge, combined with individuals’ continued use of weak proprietary encryption techniques and passwords, has left us all very vulnerable online.
Certainly, Schneier doesn’t paint an entirely happy picture. Not at all. The fact that the NSA has persuaded technology companies to purposely weaken their products should startle. Can there be a more persuasive reason to use open-source software in the wake of these findings? I don’t think so.
The reason I abandoned my position on the ledge after reading Schneier’s comments is that he reminds us that there are, indeed, alternatives. It is a lot harder to hide trickery in software that is thoroughly and constantly reviewed by an international community of privacy-valuing software developers working for free to satisfy their personal love of the practice than it is to slip flaws into propriety code nobody but Microsoft or Apple engineers ever get to see. The world-reviewed variety of code is called open-source, because the programming instructions that comprise open-source software can be downloaded in their entirety and can be changed by anyone who wants to add or improve its functionality. Proprietary software sold by a company for profit cannot be reviewed in the same, accept-all-comers kind of way. Although I’m not a Linux fanboy, simply because I’ve never had a compelling reason to switch, I’ve long understood the benefits the open-source model provides in terms of immediate fixes for problems, clear expression of functionality, and the reduced risk that maladies will persist long-term. Schneier’s explanation in the wake of these new revelations makes open-source solutions all the more appealing.
There is still plenty to worry about on this issue. Schneier explains that the NSA has enormous capabilities to collect and analyze data from personal conversations. It is especially skilled in collecting metadata for conversations, which identify the participants, their locations, and the timing and length of their correspondence.
Moreover, most of the world uses commercial software solutions, like Windows or OSX and Microsoft Office, and it would be foolhardy to think that will change any time soon. So, the back doors the NSA seems to have negotiated or secretly planted in these products will continue to compromise the privacy of most people.
Furthermore, security is not easy to implement. People like convenient solutions and leave tools that force them to think like computer scientists. They want and need simplicity. Most of the open-source security solutions are not easy to use and require some expertise, so they aren’t options people line up to use.
Schneier also notes that the NSA’s primary target is not individuals’ computers, but rather the networks that tie them together. They collect vast quantities of data from these networks, sometimes by siphoning the data from the main trunks through agreements with companies like AT&T. They exploit weaknesses in networking equipment like routers and switches and firewalls, appliances which are far less frequently patched for vulnerabilities than individuals’ personal computers. These devices fall under the control of a closed society of corporately-employed network engineers. Individual users can’t do much about how badly these connecting pipes leak their private data. So, this is where the NSA surveillance team focuses most of its effort. Still, Schneier doesn’t mince words in claiming, “If the NSA wants in to your computer, it’s in.” In other words, one way or another, the NSA can capture your data.
Nevertheless, Schneier offers us a few reasons for comfort. Some of them are practical. He gives five recommendations at the end of his article for how to protect ourselves against surveillance programs like the NSA’s,wisely tempering some of his recommendations with warnings about how the NSA targets those who follow some of his advice. In these recommendations, he promotes the use of open-source, public-domain encryption solutions. He also suggests using “virgin” computers that have never connected to the Internet for very sensitive work. While that may sound impractical, it seems to me that the increased use of virtual machines may, in fact, make that a relatively easy practice to follow.
As a Computer Scientist who believes in the unequaled honesty of mathematics, my most pleasant takeaway from Schneier’s writing is his concluding paragraph:
“Trust the math. Encryption is your friend. Use it well, and do your best to ensure that nothing can compromise it. That’s how you can remain secure even in the face of the NSA.”
In math we trust.