Tag Archives: surveillance state

Stasi Reborn: Democratizing Internet Censorship

The internet is the “spiritual home” of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. So China’s leader, Xi Jinping, described it in 2016. He said he expected citizens to help keep the place tidy. Many have taken up the challenge. In December 2019 netizens reported 12.2m pieces of “inappropriate” content to the authorities—four times as many as in the same month of 2015. The surge does not indicate that the internet in China is becoming more unruly. Rather, censorship is becoming more bottom-up

Officials have been mobilising people to join the fight in this “drawn-out war”, as a magazine editor called it in a speech in September to Shanghai’s first group of city-appointed volunteer censors. “Internet governance requires that every netizen take part,” an official told the gathering. It was arranged by the city’s cyber-administration during its first “propaganda month” promoting citizen censorship. The 140 people there swore to report any online “disorder”…

 Information-technology rules, which took effect on December 1st, 2019 oblige new subscribers to mobile-phone services not only to prove their identities, as has long been required, but also to have their faces scanned. That, presumably, will make it easier for police to catch the people who post the bad stuff online.

Excerpt from  The Year of the Rat-fink: Online Censorship, Economist, Jan 18, 2020

The Repressive Digital Technologies of the West

A growing, multi-billion-dollar industry exports “intrusion software” designed to snoop on smartphones, desktop computers and servers. There is compelling evidence that such software is being used by oppressive regimes to spy on and harass their critics. The same tools could also proliferate and be turned back against the West. Governments need to ensure that this new kind of arms export does not slip through the net.

A recent lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, for instance, alleges that more than 1,400 users of its messaging app were targeted using software made by NSO Group, an Israeli firm. Many of the alleged victims were lawyers, journalists and campaigners. (NSO denies the allegations and says its technology is not designed or licensed for use against human-rights activists and journalists.) Other firms’ hacking tools were used by the blood-soaked regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. These technologies can be used across borders. Some victims of oppressive governments have been dissidents or lawyers living as exiles in rich countries.

Western governments should tighten the rules for moral, economic and strategic reasons. The moral case is obvious. It makes no sense for rich democracies to complain about China’s export of repressive digital technologies if Western tools can be used to the same ends. The economic case is clear, too: unlike conventional arms sales, a reduction in spyware exports would not lead to big manufacturing-job losses at home.

The strategic case revolves around the risk of proliferation. Software can be reverse-engineered, copied indefinitely and—potentially—used to attack anyone in the world…. There is a risk that oppressive regimes acquire capabilities that can then be used against not just their own citizens, but Western citizens, firms and allies, too. It would be in the West’s collective self-interest to limit the spread of such technology.

A starting-point would be to enforce existing export-licensing more tightly… Rich countries should make it harder for ex-spooks to pursue second careers as digital mercenaries in the service of autocrats. The arms trade used to be about rifles, explosives and jets. Now it is about software and information, too. Time for the regime governing the export of weapons to catch up

The spying business: Western firms should not sell spyware to tyrants, Economist, Dec. 14, 2019

Dodging the Camera: How to Beat the Surveillance State in its Own Game

Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), face-recognition systems are spreading like knotweed. Facebook, a social network, uses the technology to label people in uploaded photographs. Modern smartphones can be unlocked with it… America’s Department of Homeland Security reckons face recognition will scrutinise 97% of outbound airline passengers by 2023. Networks of face-recognition cameras are part of the police state China has built in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. And a number of British police forces have tested the technology as a tool of mass surveillance in trials designed to spot criminals on the street.  A backlash, though, is brewing.

Refuseniks can also take matters into their own hands by trying to hide their faces from the cameras or, as has happened recently during protests in Hong Kong, by pointing hand-held lasers at cctv cameras. to dazzle them. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of privacy campaigners and academics are looking at ways to subvert the underlying technology directly…

Laser Pointers Used to Blind CCTV cameras during the Hong Kong Protests 2019

In 2010… an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created “cv [computer vision] Dazzle”, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled….

Modern Make-Up to Hide from CCTV cameras

HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes are available…

Hyperface Clothing for Camouflage

 Even in China, says Mr Harvey, only a fraction of cctv cameras collect pictures sharp enough for face recognition to work. Low-tech approaches can help, too. “Even small things like wearing turtlenecks, wearing sunglasses, looking at your phone [and therefore not at the cameras]—together these have some protective effect”. 

Excerpts from As face-recognition technology spreads, so do ideas for subverting it: Fooling Big Brother,  Economist, Aug. 17, 2019

Wikipedia Lawsuit against U.S. NSA

Excerpts from the Lawsuit of Wikipedia against the NSA

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF MARYLAND, Case 1:15-cv-00662-RDB, Filed 03/10/15

The government conducts at least two kinds of surveillance under the The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA).  Under a program called “PRISM,” the government obtains stored and real-time communications directly from U.S. companies—such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft—that provide communications services to targeted accounts.

This case concerns a second form of surveillance, called Upstream. Upstream surveillance involves the NSA’s seizing and searching the internet communications of U.S. citizens and residents en masse as those communications travel across the internet “backbone” in the United States. The internet backbone is the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers that facilitates both domestic and international communication via the internet.The NSA conducts Upstream surveillance by connecting surveillance devices to multiple major internet cables, switches, and routers inside the United States. These access points are controlled by the country’s largest telecommunications providers, including Verizon Communications, Inc. and AT&T, Inc. ….

. With the assistance of telecommunications providers, the NSA intercepts a wide variety of internet communications, including emails, instant messages, webpages, voice calls, and video chats. It copies and reviews substantially all international emails and other “text-based” communications—i.e., those whose content includes searchable text.

More specifically, Upstream surveillance encompasses the following processes, some of which are implemented by telecommunications providers acting at the NSA’s direction:

• Copying. Using surveillance devices installed at key access points, the NSA makes a copy of substantially all international text-based communications—and many domestic ones—flowing across certain high-capacity cables, switches, and routers. The copied traffic includes email, internet-messaging communications, web-browsing content, and search-engine queries.

• Filtering. The NSA attempts to filter out and discard some wholly domestic communications from the stream of internet data, while preserving international communications. The NSA’s filtering out of domestic communications is incomplete, however, for multiple reasons. Among them, the NSA does not eliminate bundles of domestic and international communications that transit the internet backbone together. Nor does it eliminate domestic communications that happen to be routed abroad.

• Content Review. The NSA reviews the copied communications—including their full content—for instances of its search terms. The search terms, called “selectors,” include email addresses, phone numbers, internet protocol (“IP”) addresses, and other identifiers that NSA analysts believe to be associated with foreign intelligence targets. Again, the NSA’s targets are not limited to suspected foreign agents and terrorists, nor are its selectors limited to individual email addresses. The NSA may monitor or “task” selectors used by large groups of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing— such as the IP addresses of computer servers used by hundreds of different people.

• Retention and Use. The NSA retains all communications that contain selectors associated with its targets, as well as those that happened to be bundled with them in transit….

NSA analysts may read, query, data-mine, and analyze these communications with few restrictions, and they may share the results of those efforts with the FBI, including in aid of criminal investigations….. In other words, the NSA copies and reviews the communications of millions of innocent people to determine whether they are discussing or reading anything containing the NSA’s search terms. The NSA’s practice of reviewing the content of communications for selectors is sometimes called “about” surveillance. This is because its purpose is to identify not just communications that are to or from the NSA’s targets but also those that are merely “about” its targets. Although it could do so, the government makes no meaningful effort to avoid the interception of communications that are merely “about” its targets; nor does it later purge those communications.

PDF document of Lawsuit

Surveillance: Private Web Spiders

With so many cheap or free tools out there, it is easy for anyone to set up their own NSA-esque operations and collect data. Though breaching systems and taking data without authorisation is against the law, it is possible to do a decent amount of surveillance entirely legally using open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools…. Daniel Cuthbert, chief operating officer of security consultancy Sensepost, has been happily using OSINT tool Maltego (its open-source version is charmingly called Poortego) [pdf] to track a number of people online.

Over a few days this summer, he was “stalking” a Twitter user who appeared to be working at the Central Intelligence Agency. Maltego allowed him to collect all social media messages sent out into the internet ether in the area around the CIA’s base in Langley, Virginia. He then picked up on the location of further tweets from the same user, which appeared to show her travelling between her own home and a friend or partner’s house. Not long after Cuthbert started mapping her influence, her account disappeared.

But Cuthbert has been retrieving far more illuminating data by running social network accounts related to Islamic State through Maltego. By simply adding names to the OSINT software and asking it to find links between accounts using commands known as “transforms”, Maltego draws up real-time maps showing how users are related to each other and then uncovers links between their followers. It is possible to gauge their level of influence and which accounts are bots rather than real people. Where GPS data is available, location can be ascertained too, though it is rare to find accounts leaking this – only about 2% of tweets have the feature enabled, says Cuthbert.

He has been trying, with mixed results thanks to Twitter’s deletion of accounts spreading Isis propaganda, to determine how tech savvy its members are and how they operate online. Over the past month, Cuthbert has looked at links between a number of pro-Isis users, including one with the handle @AbuHussain104, who has only tweeted 28 times, yet has more than 1,300 followers already. The prominent pro-sharia law Islamic activist Anjem Choudary has been a keen retweeter of Hussain’s words.  The London-based professional hacker has noted the group’s ability to attract followers online; his research shows how a handful of Isis-affiliated accounts have myriad links and wide influence.

Cuthbert is now on the lookout for slipups that reveal the true identity or location of the tweeter. “This is a concern for high-ranking Isis leaders, so much so, they issued a guide on using social media,” he notes, referring to reports of an as-yet unconfirmed document.,,,

Metagoofil, which runs on Linux or Mac machines, is an ideal software for uncovering data businesses have mistakenly leaked onto the internet. Running this free tool in a Linux distribution, hackers can command it to hunt for files related to a particular domain, specifying how many Google searches to look through and how many documents to download. It will then extract whatever metadata the user is looking for and store it all in a file for perusal later on.

For those who want instant visual results, the Shodan search tool is a remarkable piece of work. Simple searches can reveal miraculous details. For instance, type “IP camera” into the search bar and more than 1.3m internet-connected IP cameras show up from across the world. Add “country:gb” and you’ll be shown more than 54,000 based in Great Britain. You could specify a manufacturer too, such as Samsung. That provides just 13 results. From there, it’s a matter of clicking on the IP addresses to see which ones allow you to view live footage either with or without a password (if you guess the password, even if it’s a default one such as “admin”, it will mean you are likely to have broken the Computer Misuse Act).  Either way, it is very easy to find poorly secured cameras – many have a username of “admin” and no password whatsoever, according to previous research. It is that straightforward: no coding skills required….

“The tools are mostly for reconnaissance,” says Christian Martorella, creator of Metagoofil and theHarvester, another OSINT software that pentesters – or “ethical hackers” – use to map their clients’ internet footprint. “This helps the pentester to have as much information as possible about the targets and plan the attacks. This phase is very important but … pentesters usually overlook this phase or dedicate little time, while attackers seem to spend more time in this phase.”

Privacy-conscious folk can also benefit from OSINT. While looking into how his internet service provider [ISP] was interfering with his internet connection, in a method similar to that used by Verizon for its controversial “permacookie” tracking software, researcher Lee Brotherston last month used Shodan to find servers that intercepted his traffic. The wide range of Perftech servers he found were based across the world, and though his ISP was simply using a “man-in-the-middle” technique to add a warning banner to a website he visited, … But what if the ISP was coerced by a government and dropped malware onto people’s machines as they tried to access websites? The much-maligned surveillance tool FinSpy is used for just for that purpose: it is placed into the data centres of ISPs and intercepts traffic to force surreptitious downloads of surveillance software. Instead of dropping banners, as Brotherston’s ISP did, it injects malicious JavaScript.  “When you hear about repressive governments that start installing malware on activists’ machines and then arresting them… it’s the same technique. They’re injecting data into a webpage,” says Brotherston, a Canada-based Brit. “If you’re injecting this, you may have a valid business case for doing, it but someone could break in and start dropping malware on people’s machines.”

A number of developers, inspired by the success of Shodan creator John Matherly, have drawn up search sites for hackable systems. Perhaps the most useful for security professionals, whether of the blackhat or whitehat variety, is the Kickstarter-funded PunkSPIDER, a web app vulnerability search engine, which issues an alert as soon as the visitor arrives: “Please do not use this site for malicious purposes … use it wisely or we’ll have to take it away”. It’s remarkably simple. Type or paste in a URL and it will reveal what vulnerabilities have been documented for the related site.

Such is the openness of the web, and such is the carelessness of so many web denizens, any determined citizen can gather up reams of sensitive information on others and collect enough data to create a decent picture of who they are, where they are and what they are doing. The tools are now accessible for the typical web user.

Excerpts fromTom, Fox-Brewster, Tracking Isis, stalking the CIA: how anyone can be big brother online, Guardian, Nov. 12, 2014

Internet or Equinet?

“The Internet governance should be multilateral, transparent, democratic,and representative, with the participation of governments, private sector, civil society, and international organizations, in their respective roles. This should be one of the foundational principles of Internet governance,” the external affairs ministry says in its initial submission to the April 23-24 Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, also referred as NETmundial, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The proposal for a decentralised Internet is significant in view of Edward Snowden’s Wikileaks revelations of mass surveillance in recent months.

“The structures that manage and regulate the core Internet resources need to be internationalized, and made representative and democratic. The governance of the Internet should also be sensitive to the cultures and national interests of all nations.”The mechanism for governance of the Internet should therefore be transparent and should address all related issues. The Internet must be owned by the global community for mutual benefit and be rendered impervious to possible manipulation or misuse by any particular stake holder, whether state or non-state,” the ministry note says.  NETmundial will see representatives from nearly 180 countries participating to debate the future of Internet…

The US announced last month of its intent to relinquish control of a vital part of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).  “Many nations still think that a multilateral role might be more suitable than a multistakeholder approach and two years back India had proposed a 50-nation ‘Committee of Internet Related Policies’ (CIRP) for global internet governance,” Bhattacharjee added.

The concept of Equinet was first floated by Communications Minister Kapil Sibal in 2012 at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan.  Dr. Govind, chief executive officer, National Internet Exchange of India, is hopeful that Equinet is achievable. “Equinet is a concept of the Internet as a powerful medium benefiting people across the spectrum.It is all the more significant for India as we have 220 million Internet users, standing third globally after China and the US.””Moreover, by the year-end India’s number of Internet users are expected to surpass that of the US. The word Equinet means an equitable Internet which plays the role of an equaliser in the society and not limited only to the privileged people.”

He said the role of government in Internet management is important as far as policy, security and privacy of the cyber space is concerned, but the roles of the private sector, civil society and other stakeholders are no less. “Internet needs to be managed in a more collaborative, cooperative, consultative and consensual manner.”  Talking about the global strategy of renaming Internet as Equinet, he said: “Globally the US has the largest control over the management of the Internet, which is understandable since everything about Internet started there. Developing countries have still not much say over the global management of the Internet. But it is important that the Internet management be more decentralised and globalised so that the developing countries have more participation, have a say in the management where their consent be taken as well.”  The ministry note said: “A mechanism for accountability should be put in place in respect of crimes committed in cyberspace, such that the Internet is a free and secure space for universal benefaction. A ‘new cyber jurisprudence’ needs to be evolved to deal with cyber crime, without being limited by political boundaries and cyber-justice can be delivered in near real time.”

But other experts doubt the possibility of an Equinet or equalising the Internet globally.  Sivasubramanian Muthusamy, president, Internet Society India, Chennai, who is also a participant in the NETmundial, told IANS that the idea of Equinet is not achievable.  “Totally wrong idea. Internet provides a level playing field already. It is designed and operated to be universally accessible, free and open. Internet as it is operated today offers the greatest hope for developing countries to access global markets and prosper.”  “The idea of proposing to rename the Internet as Equinet has a political motive, that would pave way for telecom companies to have a bigger role to bring in harmful commercial models that would destabilize the open architecture of the Internet. If India is considering such a proposal, it would be severely criticized. The proposal does not make any sense. It is wrong advice or misplaced input that must have prompted the government of India to think of such a strange idea,” he said.

Excerpt from India wants Internet to become Equinet, Business Standard, Apr. 20, 2014

State Surveillance of Twitter Protesters

Enthusiasts called protesters in Egypt, Iran, Moldova and Tunisia “Twitter revolutionaries”. That was premature: much of the social-media content supporting the pro-democracy cause came from supporters abroad. But protests in Turkey and Brazil, where digital media are especially popular, do show how technology can muster, manage and amplify demonstrations. Zeynep Tufekci of Princeton University interviewed scores of Turkish protesters. Most cited social media as a spur.

Social media mean that pictures and video spread rapidly; supporters arrive more quickly than police can cart them away, so governments can no longer rely on quelling minor protests by force. A video circulating in Brazil advises citizen journalists to work in packs, adopting military formations to catch government wrongdoing from every available angle.

Highlighting outrageous police behaviour can prompt people to get involved. It also can show more innocuous scenes than the punch-ups and arrests that attract news photographers. These may encourage the hesitant or timid, showing that “protesters are not hooligans or terrorists but people just like you,” says Ethan Zuckerman of MIT.   Social media also counter inflammatory or complacent official channels. When a Turkish television station broadcast a documentary about penguins instead of the street protests, wags photoshopped the bedraggled birds into images of police soaking youths with water cannon, and circulated them in disgust.

Swelling the number of protesters is one thing. Co-ordinating them is another. Several hundred social-media pages advertised demonstrations across Brazil, offering tips on dodging water cannon; some sought volunteers to care for demonstrators’ children. They also helped to direct people who wished to protest in cities abroad. Brazilian hackers used denial of service attacks to briefly disable government websites, including one for next year’s costly football World Cup. All this can help give startling momentum in the real world and online. But it does not necessarily make the protests effective. An amorphous digital crowd can find it hard to agree on demands, accept compromises, or discipline provocateurs. Online voting and other clever e-democracy tools may solve this problem. But not yet.

In the meantime technology can serve the powerful, too. Protesters in Turkey and Brazil say their mobile internet access was throttled, though congestion, not censorship, may be the real culprit. Instructions issued over social networks are easily monitored by police. Amateur footage provides authorities with visual records of those who attend. Witness, an American charity which trains citizen journalists, says that where official snooping is a danger, protesters should be filmed only from behind; last July YouTube, an online video site, introduced a face-blurring tool.

Most protesters are not so careful, and police are getting better at capturing this information themselves. Since 2011 cops in Brazil have tried head-mounted face-detection cameras, which authorities claim can capture up to 400 faces a second. Hoisting them on cheap drones would offer an even better view. Police forces can also recognise demonstrators without actually seeing them: some officers in America have kit capable of recording the identifying code of all the mobile phones within a given area, and officials can also beg or seize the data from mobile operators.

More sought-after is technology that can help forestall protests. Digital marketers have long analysed social-media messages to gauge opinions about products and brands. Brazil’s security services are said to be increasing online monitoring: this can alert police to impending unrest, and spot the main troublemakers. Such tools are experimental. Technology still gives protesters the upper hand, though what they do with it is another question.

Internet protests: The digital demo, Economist, June 29, 2013, at 56