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.

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
Lighting
Oven
Fridge
Sprinkers
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:

WhenWhatImpact
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 1.1.1.1. 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

Pas Parler?

Will the real Internet government please stand up?

Parler in Prison

This weekend, Google, Apple, and Amazon all took steps to remove the right wing conspiracy web site Parler from their services, steps that will cripple the social media site for some some period of time. In many ways, Parler had it coming to them. Amazon in particular alleged that Parler refused to take prompt action to remove abusive content that violated their terms of service.

In response, my right wing friends have gone nearly indiscriminately crazy, complaining that their 1st Amendment rights have been violated. Let’s review that amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution.

In other words, Congress cannot stop someone from speaking. But these companies are not Congress, nor an arm of the U.S. government. We could, however, say that they are a form of government, in as much as these companies, along with a small number of other ones, such as TikTok control societal discourse. What rules would govern them if they decided that moveon.org was also not to their liking? Could these services exclude content that criticizes them?

Parler is a relative newcomer. Much in the same way that Fox News has lost its conservative gleam to NewsMax, Facebook and Twitter lost their gleam when they started applying editorial control to posts. They did this because they gauged societal harm against whatever short term revenue they were collecting from the likes of Donald Trump. There was seemingly no reason they had to, at least in the United States. U.S. Law says this:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

47 USC § 230

Meddle with this rule at your peril. If we shift the burden of policing to online services, social media sites as we know them will cease to be, GMail and Yahoo! mail would be imperiled, and Amazon could no longer offer customer reviews. If there is a middle ground to be found, then scale factors must be considered. Any middle ground may well increase the risks of starting up new services. If the price of entry for a new Facebook or Twitter competitor is fancy artificial intelligence systems and patents, then we may have done ourselves no service in the long run.

The United Social Networks Nations
The United Social Networks Nations

There are other consequences to Apple and Google removing Parler from their respective phone and tablet stores: I saw one conversation in which someone was describing to her friends how to turn off automatic software updates. Software updates are the means by which developers correct vulnerabilities they have created. By disabling those updates, people leave themselves vulnerable to attack.

Today Parler is losing its voice, arguably for very deserved reasons. Tomorrow, some other site might lose its access. Will those reasons be just as good and who will decide?

I have hope and gratitude, thanks to medical research and the Internet.

I am grateful to medical researchers, those on the front line, and those who are keeping us from going crazy in our homes.

I write this to you today from my house, and you probably read this note from your house or apartment. Our lives are disrupted. We cannot go to the movies or restaurants, we cannot get our hair cut, we cannot go to weddings or baby showers, and many of us cannot go to our offices or to visit our customers or partners. We cannot go to conferences, and our kids cannot go to schools.

We are doing all of this for fear that we or people we love will die of this awful illness. We are reading horror stories from Italy of their healthcare system being overwhelmed. As I write this to you I worry that the same thing will happen in Switzerland and elsewhere. I worry for my family.

This disease spread so quickly across the planet because of the ability of humanity to scale its transportation systems to efficiently move anyone from anywhere to anywhere, whether that’s by train, plain, ship, or automobile. This was largely not the case during the Spanish Flu of 1917. We need to practice “social distancing” even more so now than then, because the world is a lot smaller and more social place than it was, thanks to all of this capability.

That same human desire to innovate is what is going to save us now. It started early on in the medical community, who have been our first responders in this crisis. They have worked to identify the genetic sequence of the virus itself, to understand its transmission vectors, and to provide the world with initial advice on how to cope with this threat. Even as early as January, researchers across the globe were attempting to develop a vaccine. In the last few days, researchers have reported four types of immunity response cells to look for as people begin to recover. There are two studies that detail how Malaria medication may both improve recoveries and reduce the virus’ infectiousness.

By dint of necessity, we are virtualizing a great many of our activities. We are all learning how to use WebEx Teams or Microsoft Teams or Zoom or Google Hangouts. We are using FaceTime and other remote collaboration tools like never before. One of my friends is planning to virtualize his Passover Seder, and asked for advice on how to do this with Webex. He dubbed this SederEx. We are planning a virtual baby shower with a cousin. I have encouraged my old Kabuki-West crowd to have a virtual Wednesday night dinner together.

The first uses of the Internet were envisioned by its funders to have been military. That’s why the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) funded the activity. It was clear from those early days and even before then that electronic communication would continue to reshape how we socialize in the world.

That’s because remote communication didn’t start with the Internet. The invention of the telephone let us “reach out and touch someone”. And that worked great for one-on-one communications. EMail gave us the ability to communicate in near real time with those around us. Instant messaging meant that people could hold several disconnected real time text conversations at once.

Today, however, we can all see each other, present to each other for work, not only hear but also see people’s reactions. In the face of this plague, people are having virtual baby showers, virtual drinks, and even virtual Passover Seders. You have to provide the non-virtual parts yourself, of course, but we are able to still be together, even when circumstances dictate that we be apart.

For those of us who have family who are a great distance away, this also represents a rare opportunity to participate in these sorts of events on an equal footing, without having the phone passed around for brief moments, simply to say hello. We are all in the same boat, this time.

The Internet is helping us remain social, as is in our nature to be. Social networks, which in the last few years could not be spoken of in public without some sort of derision, are a big part of the solution. When all of this is over, we will still need to sift through all of the negativity and nastiness that they engender, but let us give them their due as they help us stay connected to one another, as I am connecting to you today.

While we are not indebted in the same way to Internet engineers as we are to medical first responders and those who have to work through this crisis, like grocery store cashiers and police officers, let us also give Internet engineers a pat on the back for helping people self-isolate physically, without having to self-isolate socially.

And by the way, those medical research results I mentioned earlier are being shared by researchers with other researchers in a very timely fashion thanks to the Internet.