When does safe and productive use of cryptography cross over to cryptophilia?

Encryption makes the Internet possible, but there are some controversial and other downright stupid uses for which we all pay.

Imagine someone creating or supporting a technology that consumes vast amounts of energy only to produce nothing of intrinsic value and being proud of that of that fact. Such is the mentality of Bitcoin supporters. As the Financial Times reported several days ago, Bitcoin mining, the process by which this electronic fools’ gold is “discovered”, takes up as much power as a small country. And for what?

Cambridge University Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index shows that bitcoin mining consumes more energy than entire countries
Cambridge University Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index

The euro, yen, and dollar are all tied to the fortunes and monetary policies of societies as represented by various governments. Those currencies are all governed by rules of their societies. Bitcoin is an attempt to strip away those controls. Some simply see cryptocurrencies as a means to disrupt the existing banking system, in order to nab a bit of the financial sector’s revenue. If so, right now they’re not succeeding.

In fact nothing about cryptocurrency is succeeding, while people waste a tremendous amount of resources. Bitcoin has been an empty speculative commodity and a vehicle for criminals to receive ransoms and other fees, as happened recently when the Colonial Pipeline paid a massive $4.4 million to DarkSide, a gang of cyber criminals.

What makes this currency attractive to hackers is that otherwise intelligent people purchase and promote the pseudo-currency. Elon Musk’s abrupt entrance and exit (that some might call Pump and Dump), demonstrates how fleeting that value may be.

Bitcoin is nothing more than an expression of what some would call crypto-governance, a belief that somehow technology is above it all and somehow is its own intrinsic benefit to some vague society. I call it cryptophilia: an unnatural and irrational love of all things cryptography, in an attempt to defend against some government, somewhere.

Cryptography As a Societal Benefit

Let’s be clear: Without encryption there could be no Internet. That’s because it would simply be too easy for criminals to steal information. And as is discussed below, we have no shortage of criminals. Today, thanks to efforts by people like letencrypt.org, the majority of traffic on the Internet is encrypted, and by and large this is a good thing.

This journey took decades, and it is by no means complete.

Some see encryption as a means by those in societies who lack basic freedoms as a means to express themselves. The argument goes that in free societies, governments are not meant to police our speech or our associations, and so they should have no problem with the fact that we choose to do so out of their ear shot, the implication being that governments themselves are the greatest threat to people.

Distilling Harm and Benefit

Bitcoin is an egregious example of how this can go very wrong. A more complicated case to study is the Tor network, which obscures endpoints through a mechanism known as onion routing. The proponents of Tor claim that it protects privacy and enables human rights. Critics find that Tor is used for illicit activity. Both may be right.

Back in 2016, Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare reported that, “Based on data across the CloudFlare network, 94% of requests that we see across the Tor network are per se malicious.” He went on to highly that a large portion of spam originated in some way from the Tor network.

One recent study by Eric Jardine and colleagues has shown that some 6.7% of all ToR requests are likely malicious activity. The study also asserts that so-called “free” countries are bearing the brunt of the cost of Tor, both in terms of infrastructure and crime. The Center for Strategic Studies quantifies the cost at $945 billion, annually, with the losses having accelerated by 50% over two years. The Tor network is key enabling technology for the criminals who are driving those costs, as the Colonial Pipeline attack so dramatically demonstrated.

Visualization of TOR network, showing packets flowing largely between Europe and the US.
Torflow visualization of the Tor network (2016)

Each dot on the diagram above demonstrates a waste of resources, as packets make traversals to mask their source. Each packet may be routed and rerouted numerous times. What’s interesting to note is how dark Asia, Africa, and South America were.

Wall Street dark web market arrests in Europe and the US

While things have improved somewhat since 2016, bandwidth in many of these regions still comes at a premium. This is consistent with Jardine’s study. Miscreants such as DarkSide are in those dots, but so too are those who are seeking anonymity for what you might think are legitimate reasons.

One might think that individuals have not been prosecuted for using encrypted technologies, but governments have been successful in infiltrating some parts of the so-called dark web. A recent takedown of a child porn ring followed a large drug bust last year by breaking into Tor network sites is enlightening. First, one wonders how many other criminal enterprises haven’t been discovered. As important, if governments we like can do this, so can others. The European Commission recently funded several rounds of research into distributed trust models. Governance was barely a topic.

Other Forms of Cryptophilia: Oblivious HTTP

A new proposal known as Oblivious HTTP has appeared at the IETF that would have proxies forward encrypted requests to web servers, with the idea of obscuring traceable information about the requestor.

The flow diagram for Obvlivious HTTP shows a client talking through a proxy to a request resource to the target resource.
Oblivious HTTP, from draft-thomson-http-oblivious-01

This will work with simple requests a’la DNS over HTTP, but as the authors note, there are several challenges. The first is that HTTP header information, which would be lost as part of this transaction, actually facilitates the smooth use o the web. This is particularly true with those evil cookies about which we hear so much. Thus any sort of session information would have to be re-created in the encrypted web content, or worse, in the URL itself.

Next, there is a key discovery problem: if one is encrypting end-to-end, one needs to have the correct key for the other end. If one allows for the possibility of receiving such information using non-oblivious methods to the desired web site, then it is possible to obscure the traffic in the future. But then an interloper may know at least that the site was visited once.

The other challenge is that there is no point of obscuring the information if the proxy itself cannot be trusted, and it doesn’t run for free: someone has to pay its bills. This brings us back to Jardine, and who is paying for all of this.

Does encryption actually improve freedom?

Perhaps the best measure of whether encryption has improved freedoms can be found in the place with the biggest barrier to those freedoms on the Internet: China. China is one of the least free countries in the world, according to Freedom House.

Snapshot from Freedom House shows China toward the bottom in terms of Freedoms
From Freedom House

Another view of the same information comes from Global Partners Digital:

Much of Asia has substantial restrictions on encryption.
Freedom to use encryption: not all countries are assessed.

Paradoxically, one might answer the question that freedom and encryption seem to go hand in glove, at least to a certain point. However, the causal effects seem to indicate that encryption is an outgrowth of freedom, and not the other way around. China blocks the use of Tor, as it does many sites through its Great Firewall, and there has been no lasting documented example that demonstrates that tools such as Tor have had a lasting positive impact.

On the other hand, to demonstrate how complex the situation is, and why Jardine’s (and everyone else’s) work is so speculative, it’s not like dissidents and marginalized people are going to stand up for a survey, and say, “Yes, here I am, and I’m subverting my own government’s policies.”

Oppression as a Service (OaaS)

Cryptophiliacs believe that they can ultimately beat out, or at least stay ahead of the authorities, whereas China has shown its great firewall to be fully capable of adapting to new technologies over time. China and others might also employ another tactic: persisting meta-information for long periods of time, until flaws in privacy-enhancing technology can be found.

This gives rise to a nefarious opportunity: Oppression as a Service. Just as good companies will often test out new technology in their own environments, and then sell it to others, so too could a country with a lot of experience at blocking or monitoring traffic. The price they charge might well depend on their aims. If profit is pure motive, some countries might balk at the price. But if ideology is the aim, common interest could be found.

For China, this could be a mere extension of its Belt and Road initiative. Cryptography does not stop oppression. But it may – paradoxically – stop some communication, as our current several Internets continue to fragment into the multiple Internets that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt raised in 2018 thought he was predicting (he was really observing).

Could the individual seeking to have a private conversation with a relative or partner fly under the radar of all of this state mechanism? Perhaps for now. VPN services for visitors to China thrive; but those same services are generally not available to Chinese residents, and the risks of being caught using them may far outweigh the benefits.

Re-establishing Trust: A Government Role?

In the meantime, cyber-losses continue to mount. Like any other technology, the genie is out of the bottle with encryption. But should services that make use of it be encouraged? When does its measurable utility become more a fetish?

By relying on cryptography we may be letting ourselves and others off the hook for their poor behavior. When a technical approach to enable free speech and privacy exists, who says to a miscreant country, “Don’t abuse your citizens”? At what point do we say that, regardless, and at what point do democracies not only take responsibility for their own governments’ bad behavior, but also press totalitarian regimes to protect their citizens?

The answer may lie in the trust models that underpin cryptography. It is not enough to encrypt traffic. If you do so, but don’t know who you are dealing with on the other end, all you have done is limited your exposure to that other end. But trusting that other end requires common norms to be set and enforced. Will you buy your medicines from just anyone? And if you do and they turn out to be poisons, what is your redress? You have none if you cannot establish rules of the Internet road. In other words, governance.

Maybe It’s On Us

Absent the sort of very intrusive government regulation that China imposes, the one argument that cryptophiliacs have in their pocket that may be difficult for anyone to surmount is the idea that, with the right tools, the individual gets to decide this issue, and not any form of collective. That’s no form of governance. At that point we had better all be cryptophiliacs.

We as individuals have a responsibility to decide the impact of our decisions. If buying a bitcoin is going to encourage more waste and prop up criminals, maybe we had best not. That’s the easy call. The hard call is how we support human rights while at the same time being able to stop attacks on our infrastructure, where people can die as a result, but for different reasons.

Editorial note: I had initially misspelled cryptophilia. Thanks to Elizabeth Zwicky for pointing out this mistake.

Arlington National Cemetery: for those who served, and remained true

Those who attempted insurrection must never be laid to rest at Arlington.

There is a price for freedom and there is a price for dishonor. The history of Arlington National Cemetery reflects both. The land had great appeal to the Quartermaster General of the Union Army, General Montgomery Meigs, because Robert E. Lee’s home rested on it, and he despised Lee for having taken up arms against the Union. The land was unceremoniously wrested from the Lee family in an undermarket tax sale in January of 1864.

Arlington National Cemetary and the Lee Home.
Arlington Cemetery and the Lee Mansion

The first soldier laid to rest there was twenty one year old Private William Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, on May 13, 1864, but he and others were not initially interred near Lee’s house. Such burials happened only later, at Meig’s explicit instructions, so that Lee could not ever return to the estate without seeing the damage he and the rebels had caused. Meigs’ hatred of rebels only intensified with the death of his son John in October, that same year.

Born of such resentment Arlington Cemetery is now the pinnacle of the national cemetery system of the United States, an honor we pay those who have sacrificed, where generals and privates alike share some space.

Congress has denied burial at Arlington to murderers and certain others. They should also strip that privilege from anyone who was part of this year’s attempted insurrection. To allow burial of such people there would be to desecrate the memory of the sacrifice of those who dedicated their lives to our freedoms, many of who gave what Lincoln called the last full measure of their devotion to the Union.

That Bench

An empty bench at the shopping center

Before the pandemic, Saturday was The Big Day in our town. It was the day when people shopped, and it was the day when people socialized. It would be when the Pfadi (the Girl+Boy Scouts) would do their hikes and play their games, and it was where the new and old would meet. And many would do so in the shopping center in the center of town.

A fixture within the shopping center in the center of our town is this bench. I would call it the old Italian bench, because old men would meet there and converse… animatedly… in Italian. And no, if you weren’t old, and didn’t speak Italian, you would certainly not be invited to join in, and you would be frowned upon for sitting on that bench on a Saturday morning. It was their bench at that time, and everyone in town knew it. And why not? It was a pleasure to see them enjoying each other’s company.

That bench has been empty for over a year.

One of the things I missed in California was a sense of community. It has been something that I have treasured in my little town. It is not something that Zoom, WebEx, Meetecho, FaceTime, or Skype can replace, nor is it something that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or WhatsApp can replace. The human contact, not just of friends and family, but of community has been missing.

As we get beyond the pandemic, I hope that bench fills soon, that the animated Italian conversations return, and that families can also meet at that shopping center and let their children play either indoors or out while they have a cup of coffee or a meal together, as we did. I hope we can regain our community.

Who has access to that smart home you’re buying?

You got the keys to the house, but someone else may have the keys to all of the systems inside the house, including the door locks.

You’ve just moved into a lovely house. It has these wonderful smart lights, with a wonderful smart oven, fancy smart thermostats, with a smart refrigerator, smart locks, and a smart security system. There’s only one problem: not only do you not have all that fancy access for your apps, but perhaps the old owner still does, and he didn’t leave willingly, something you don’t know. Sounds crazy? We sure have come a long way from just getting the keys and the garage door openers, and one cannot just call a locksmith.

Philips Hue Bridge
Philips Hue Bridge

Many – but not all – IoT-enabled devices have some form of factory reset capability. Often, this amounts to inserting a paperclip into a pinhole and holding it for 10 seconds or so, but as we’ll see the procedure varies by device type, and it is not possible for some devices. Your stove is unlikely to have anything to stick a metal object in, for instance, nor will outdoor lights. In these cases, there will generally be some vendor instructions. In the case of Philips Hues, the only available reset option is to reset the bridge that is used to communicate with the lights. If the bridge is fastened to the wall, as demonstrated in the picture, this means removing it first. This, by the way, requires not only that the bridge be re-paired with the lights and with your app, but that all configuration for the lights be re-established.

Yale Assure Lever Lock
Yale Assure Lever

What about smart locks? Clearly one of the highest priorities upon taking possession of a home is to control who can enter. If you are leasing a home, some smart locks have master codes that the landlord will set and maintain. In this case, all is “good” (assuming you don’t mind your landlord having access) unless the landlord loses the code. If you bought your dwelling, or if the landlord did lose the code, what to do? Again, this will vary by vendor. For example, here are the instructions for the Yale Assure Lever (YRD256):

  1. Remove battery cover and batteries.
  2. Remove the interior escutcheon to access the reset button.
  3. Locate the white reset button near the PCB cable connector.
  4. Press and hold the reset button for a minimum of three (3) seconds while simultaneously replacing the batteries.
  5. Once batteries are replaced, release the reset button.
  6. Reassemble the lock.

You might be wondering what an escutcheon is. According to Google, it’s a flat piece of metal for protection and often ornamentation, around a keyhole, door handle, or light switch.

SKS Double Oven
SKS Double Oven

Next, let’s have a look at the oven. Let’s say that you have a Signature Kitchen Suite Double Wall Oven such as the one pictured to the left. According to the instructions, all it says is… follow the app instructions. You better hope there are some, or a service call to SKS will be in order. By the way, one might reasonably ask what could happen if you don’t reset this device? First, the device itself won’t be able to receive security updates, assuming the company issues any to begin with. This means the oven could be vulnerable to attack. If the oven app was used by the previous owner, then the chances are, it has joined and would be looking for the old Wifi network. But we really can’t say, because there’s no clear documentation. This holds true for many “smart” devices.

Genie StealthDrive 750 Plus
Genie StealthDrive 750 Plus

Oh and then there’s that garage door. Here’s the Genie StealthDrive 750 Plus, featuring what they call Aladdin Connect. Their stated “advantage” is that you can “Control and monitor the status of your garage door from anywhere with your smart device.” Or the previous owner can. Or your ex-husband can. The good news is that garage door manufacturers have been in business for a long time, and understand the need to deal with lost or misplaced remotes. The bad news is that they haven’t been in the Internet security business for very long, and there are indeed no instructions on how to reset Aladdin Connect, other than to unplug it.

Oh dear.

How does one take possession of that house?!

While it is impossible to provide a comprehensive guide about all smart devices, here are here are some guidelines that will help.

First, learn about what IoT devices are in the house prior to entering a contract, or by including full disclosure and assistance as a contingency of sale. Having documentation and a customer support number available will help to assess what effort is required to shift control from the old owner to you. The simplest case may be for the old owner to transfer control to you in whatever application controls the smart appliance. Otherwise, a reset will be required.

You might want to use a simple table along the lines of the following to assist.

SystemIoT Enabled?Manual located?Known how to reset?Customer Service contact Handoff Complete
Smart Locks
Door Bell
Climate Control
Garage Door
Smart device handover checklist

It may not be possible to reset certain devices, as we discussed. In this case, what is important is that you read the documentation and understand when you have received the necessary supervisory access. You should be able to understand who has control and who doesn’t. If there are passwords involved, you should be change them. If there is a list of authorized users, you should be able to view them and disable the ones you don’t know. If you can’t perform these features, it may cost money to correct the situation. You should know about that cost in advance.

Is all of this Smart Stuff worth it?

While it may help to think about what benefit you will gain by having smart appliances in the house, increasingly the choice may no longer be yours, as IoT capabilities diffuse through the industry. If you are moving into a place, you don’t want to have to worry about who has control of the door locks. If you are installing door locks, you may want to think twice about the headaches that may occur when you move out. Whatever you do, keep all manuals! They will be needed later.

I should point out that the vendors I named in this post are not bad vendors, but in all likelihood representative of where the market is today. Few vendors are likely to do better than them.

Is there hope for the future?

Yes. Smart home device capabilities are still evolving. Just like we had universal remote controls for televisions in the 1980s, at least some access control functions are likely to be aggregated into one or two control systems. The reason this is likely is that no manufacturer really ever wants to hear from you, because phone calls have to be answered by people whose salary takes away from their profits. This means that incentives are likely aligned for manufacturers to cooperate on standards to facilitate handover.

Can the Internet Get “Walled”?

What’s the Suez Canal of the Internet?

The Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal
Ever Given

Over the last few days we bore witness to a minor economic disaster, thanks to the Ever Given having firmly planted itself into both walls of the Suez Canal. The Financial Times gives a very good overview of the factors that to this mishap. In that article, Brendan Greeley describes how the Ever Given got “walled” more so than just grounded, because it implanted itself into the canal walls.

For those of us whose life is about providing resilient services, one has to ask: where was the failure? Mr. Greeley goes into some depth about how the sheer height (beam), weight, and width of the ship, the shape of the canal, the water forces and wind all contributed to this mishap. He also pointed out that the economics favor larger vessels. This is an externality- there is no chance that the owners will ever pay for the amount of damage the blocked canal has caused, which is estimated to have been up to $10 billion. Syria was reportedly rationing fuel because of the blockage, and fuel prices across the globe ticked up. Several ships rerouted to go around the horn of Africa, risking hijackings.

The other far bigger failure here is that there is but one canal through which upon which large portions of the world economy depends. One big anything doesn’t make for good resilience. That canal could fail again. Knowing this, Iran has offered to create an alternate shipping lane, adding at least a bit of redundancy into the system. Ultimately, manufacturers throughout the supply chain can re-evaluate how to manage this sort of delivery delay. Should new lanes be formed? Should more production be closer to the end consumer? A new canal would surely cost tens of billions of dollars, and may offer only limited resilience. After all, why wouldn’t the same failure happen in both canals? In all likelihood it won’t be this precise “walling”, the hope being that canal operators and pilots will update their procedures to limit the risk.

We Internet geeks understand this class of problem in great detail, in many dimensions. A major benefit of cloud computing is to spread load across multiple CPUs in multiple locations, so that no single failure would cause disruption.

Taken individually and impacting individual customers, it’s a sure bet that cloud services are far more reliable than people rolling their own, just as it is safer to use a container vessel than trying to carry one’s products across in a dingy. However, the flip side of that coin is the impact those services have when they fail. Some examples:

2016Mirai BOTNET / DYN attackTwitter, other services out for a day
2020GMail, YouTube, Google DocsServices disrupted for an hour
2020Amazon Web Services East Coast Data CenterLarge numbers of application services failed
2020Cloudflare DNS outageClient resolvers failed for 27 minutes
2021Microsoft Teams and Office 365Services to their customers unavailable for four hours

Can an Internet-wide failure happen? Where’s that “Internet canal” bottleneck? I wrote about that for Cisco not long ago. It could very well be cloud-based DNS resolvers, such as Cloudflare’s What we know is that these services can fail because they have done so in the past. Last year, MIT sage Dan Geer looked at market concentration effects on cybersecurity risk, which opens up a bigger question. This time, The Ever Given failed without any malice. Geer’s major point is that there is an asymmetric attack on large targets, like popular cloud services. The same perhaps can be said about the Suez Canal.

Note that large cloud services are not the only aggregate risk we face. Geer’s earlier work looked at software monocultures. When a large number of systems all use the same software, a single attack can affect all, or at least a great many, of them. This is just another example of a Suez Canal.

The economic drivers are always toward economies of scale, whether that’s a large cloud service or a single supplier, but at the often hidden price of aggregate resiliency. The cost generally amounts to an externality because of the size and scope of the service as well as the impact of an outage on others are not understood until an event happens. Having not considered it a week ago, some producers are considering this question today.

Courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102251045