Posts Tagged: CDT

Oct 15

Cybersecurity Information (Over)Sharing Act?

The U.S. Senate is preparing to vote on cybersecurity legislation that proponents say is sorely needed to better help companies and the government share information about the latest Internet threats. Critics of the bill and its many proposed amendments charge that it will do little, if anything, to address the very real problem of flawed cybersecurity while creating conditions that are ripe for privacy abuses. What follows is a breakdown of the arguments on both sides, and a personal analysis that seeks to add some important context to the debate.

Up for consideration by the full Senate this week is the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), a bill designed to shield companies from private lawsuits and antitrust laws if they seek help or cooperate with one another to fight cybercrime. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post each recently published editorials in support of the bill.

Update, 6:57 p.m. ET: The Senate this afternoon passed CISA by a vote of 74-21.

Original story:

“The idea behind the legislation is simple: Let private businesses share information with each other, and with the government, to better fight an escalating and constantly evolving cyber threat,” the WSJ said in an editorial published today (paywall). “This shared data might be the footprint of hackers that the government has seen but private companies haven’t. Or it might include more advanced technology that private companies have developed as a defense.”

“Since hackers can strike fast, real-time cooperation is essential,” the WSJ continued. “A crucial provision would shield companies from private lawsuits and antitrust laws if they seek help or cooperate with one another. Democrats had long resisted this legal safe harbor at the behest of plaintiffs lawyers who view corporate victims of cyber attack as another source of plunder.”

The Post’s editorial dismisses “alarmist claims [that] have been made by privacy advocates who describe it as a ‘surveillance’ bill”:

“The notion that there is a binary choice between privacy and security is false. We need both privacy protection and cybersecurity, and the Senate legislation is one step toward breaking the logjam on security,” the Post concluded. “Sponsors have added privacy protections that would scrub out personal information before it is shared. They have made the legislation voluntary, so if companies are really concerned, they can stay away. A broad coalition of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has backed the legislation, saying that cybertheft and disruption are “advancing in scope and complexity.”

But critics of CISA say the devil is in the details, or rather in the raft of amendments that may be added to the bill before it’s passed. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a nonprofit technology policy group based in Washington, D.C., has published a comprehensive breakdown of the proposed amendments and their potential impacts.

CDT says despite some changes made to assuage privacy concerns, neither CISA as written nor any of its many proposed amendments address the fundamental weaknesses of the legislation. According to CDT, “the bill requires that any Internet user information volunteered by a company to the Department of Homeland Security for cybersecurity purposes be shared immediately with the National Security Agency (NSA), other elements of the Intelligence Community, with the FBI/DOJ, and many other Federal agencies – a requirement that will discourage company participation in the voluntary information sharing scheme envisioned in the bill.”

CDT warns that CISA risks turning the cybersecurity program it creates into a backdoor wiretap by authorizing sharing and use of CTIs (cyber threat indicators) for a broad array of law enforcement purposes that have nothing to do with cybersecurity. Moreover, CDT says, CISA will likely introduce unintended consequences:

“It trumps all law in authorizing companies to share user Internet communications and data that qualify as ‘cyber threat indicators,’ [and] does nothing to address conduct of the NSA that actually undermines cybersecurity, including the stockpiling of zero day vulnerabilities.”


On the surface, efforts to increase information sharing about the latest cyber threats seem like a no-brainer. We read constantly about breaches at major corporations in which the attackers were found to have been inside of the victim’s network for months or years on end before the organization discovered that it was breached (or, more likely, they were notified by law enforcement officials or third-party security firms).

If only there were an easier way, we are told, for companies to share so-called “indicators of compromise” — Internet addresses or malicious software samples known to be favored by specific cybercriminal groups, for example — such breaches and the resulting leakage of consumer data and corporate secrets could be detected and stanched far more quickly.

In practice, however, there are already plenty of efforts — some public, some subscription-based — to collect and disseminate this threat data. From where I sit, the biggest impediment to detecting and responding to breaches in a more timely manner comes from a fundamental lack of appreciation — from an organization’s leadership on down — for how much is riding on all the technology that drives virtually every aspect of the modern business enterprise today. While many business leaders fail to appreciate the value and criticality of all their IT assets, I guarantee you today’s cybercrooks know all too well how much these assets are worth. And this yawning gap in awareness and understanding is evident by the sheer number of breaches announced each week. Continue reading →

Dec 13

Help Bring Privacy Laws Into 21st Century

Lost in the ongoing media firestorm over the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities is the discussion about concrete steps to bring the nation’s communications privacy laws into the 21st Century. Under current laws that were drafted before the advent of the commercial Internet, federal and local authorities can gain access to mobile phone and many email records without a court-issued warrant. In this post, I’ll explain what federal lawmakers and readers can do to help change the status quo [tl;dr: if you’d rather skip the explanation and go right to the What Can You Do? section, click here] cloudprivacy

The Center for Democracy & Technology, a policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C., has a concise and informative primer on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the 1986 statute that was originally designed to protect Americans from Big Brother and from government overreach. Unfortunately, the law is now so outdated that it actually provides legal cover for the very sort of overreach it was designed to prevent.

Online messaging was something of a novelty when lawmakers were crafting the ECPA, which gave email moving over the network essentially the same protection as a phone call or postal letter. In short, it required the government to obtain a court-approved warrant to gain access to that information. But the Justice Department wanted different treatment for stored electronic communications. (Bear in mind that this was way before anyone was talking about “cloud” storage; indeed CDT notes that electronic storage of digital communications in 1986 was quite expensive, and it wasn’t unusual for email providers to delete messages that were more than a few months old).

CDT explains the bargain that was struck to accommodate the government’s concerns:

“Congress said that after 180 days email would no longer be protected by the warrant standard and instead would be available to the government with a subpoena, issued by a prosecutor or FBI agent without the approval of a judge,” CDT wrote. “At the same time, Congress concluded that, while the contents of communications must be highly protected in transit, the ‘transactional data’ associated with communications, such as dialing information showing what numbers you are calling, was less sensitive. ECPA allowed the government to use something less than a warrant to obtain this routing and signaling information.”

Fast-forward to almost 2014, and we find of course that most people store their entire digital lives “in the cloud.” This includes not only email, but calendar data, photos and other sensitive information. Big cloud providers like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have given users so much free storage space that hardly anyone has cause to delete their stuff anymore. Not only that, but pretty much everyone is carrying a mobile phone that can be used to track them and paint a fairly detailed account of their daily activities.

But here’s the thing that’s screwy about ECPA: If you’re the kind of person who stores all that information on your laptop, the government can’t get at it without a court-ordered warrant. Leave it in the hands of email, mobile and cloud data providers, however, and it’s relatively easy pickings for investigators.

“There has been an interpretation of the law from the government that says any document stored in the cloud can be accessed with a subpoena, regardless of how old it is,” said Mark Stanley, a communications strategist with CDT. “The government can access emails over 180 days old with just a subpoena. “We also know that the [Justice Department] has interpreted the law to say that any emails that are opened — regardless of how old they are — can be accessed without a warrant.”

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Sep 13

WHOIS Privacy Plan Draws Fire

Internet regulators are pushing a controversial plan to restrict public access to WHOIS Web site registration records. Proponents of the proposal say it would improve the accuracy of WHOIS data and better protect the privacy of people who register domain names. Critics argue that such a shift would be unworkable and make it more difficult to combat phishers, spammers and scammers.

ardsA working group within The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system, has proposed scrapping the current WHOIS system — which is inconsistently managed by hundreds of domain registrars and allows anyone to query Web site registration records. To replace the current system, the group proposes creating a more centralized WHOIS lookup system that is closed by default.

According to an interim report (PDF) by the ICANN working group, the WHOIS data would be accessible only to “authenticated requestors that are held accountable for appropriate use” of the information.

“After working through a broad array of use cases, and the myriad of issues they raised, [ICANN’s working group] concluded that today’s WHOIS model—giving every user the same anonymous public access to (too often inaccurate) registration data—should be abandoned,” ICANN’s “expert working group” wrote. The group said it “recognizes the need for accuracy, along with the need to protect the privacy of those registrants who may require heightened protections of their personal information.”

The working group’s current plan envisions creating what it calls an “aggregated registration directory service” (ARDS) to serve as a clearinghouse that contains a non-authoritative copy of all of the collected data elements. The registrars and registries that operate the hundreds of different generic top-level domains (gTLDs, like dot-biz, dot-name, e.g.) would be responsible for maintaining the authoritative sources of WHOIS data for domains in their gTLDs. Those who wish to query WHOIS domain registration data from the system would have to apply for access credentials to the ARDS, which would be responsible for handling data accuracy complaints, auditing access to the system to minimize abuse, and managing the licensing arrangement for access to the WHOIS data.

The plan acknowledges that creating a “one-stop shop” for registration data also might well paint a giant target on the group for hackers, but it holds that such a system would nevertheless allow for greater accountability for validating registration data.

Unsurprisingly, the interim proposal has met with a swell of opposition from some security and technology experts who worry about the plan’s potential for harm to consumers and cybercrime investigators.

“Internet users (individuals, businesses, law enforcement, governments, journalists and others) should not be subject to barriers – including prior authorization, disclosure obligations, payment of fees, etc. – in order to gain access to information about who operates a website, with the exception of legitimate privacy protection services,” reads a letter (PDF) jointly submitted to ICANN last month by G2 Web Services, OpSec Security, LegitScript and DomainTools.

“Internet users have the right to know who is operating a website they are visiting (or, the fact that it is registered anonymously),” the letter continues. “Today, individuals review full WHOIS records and, based on any one of the fields, identify and report fraud and other abusive behaviors; journalists and academics use WHOIS data to conduct research and expose miscreant behavior; and parents use WHOIS data to better understand who they (or their children) are dealing with online. These and other uses improve the security and stability of the Internet and should be encouraged not burdened by barriers of a closed by default system.”

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Dec 10

What You Should Know About History Sniffing

Researchers have discovered that dozens of Web sites are using simple Javascript tricks to snoop into visitors’ Web browsing history. While these tricks are nothing new, they are in the news again, so it’s a good time to remind readers about ways to combat this sneaky behavior.

The news is based on a study released by University of California, San Diego researchers who found that a number of sites were “sniffing” the browsing history of visitors to record where they’d been.

This reconnaissance works because browsers display links to sites you’ve visited differently than ones you haven’t: By default, visited links are purple and unvisited links are blue. History-sniffing code running on a Web page simply checks to see if your browser displays links to specific URLs as purple or blue.

These are not new discoveries, but the fact that sites are using this technique to gather information from visitors seems to have caught many by surprise: A lawyer for two California residents said they filed suit against one of the sites named in the report — YouPorn — alleging that it violated consumer-protection laws by using the method.

As has been broadly reported for months, Web analytics companies are starting to market products that directly take advantage of this hack.  Eric Peterson reported on an Israeli firm named Beencounter that openly sells a tool to Web  site developers to query whether site visitors had previously visited up to 50 specific URLs.

The Center for Democracy & Technology noted in March that another company called Tealium has been marketing a product taking advantage of this exploit for nearly two years.  “Tealium’s “Social Media” service runs daily searches of a customer’s name for news and blog postings mentioning the customers, and then runs a JavaScript application on the customer’s site to determine whether visitors had previously read any of those stories,” CDT wrote. “The service allows Tealium customers a unique insight into what sites visitors had previously read about the company that may have driven them to the company’s Web site.”

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