The revelations regarding the extensive digital intelligence gathering programs of the American National Security Agency by Edward Snowden won’t have escaped your notice. Since the first reports around June 5th of 2013, the hits have not stopped coming; each consecutive unveiling being of larger scale, depth and intensity than its predecessor.
It is interesting to note that Snowden was hardly the first whistleblower on the massive internet espionage operation by the US government. On January 20th 2006 an employee of AT&T approached the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with proof that AT&T was cooperating in an NSA intelligence program and on july 2nd 2012 three NSA employees shored up a lawsuit by that same organisation.
The facts are hard to ignore: wiretapping heads of state, allied or not, hacking telecom corporations, large scale internet wiretapping and forcing American technology firms to provide access to customer information or worse: building a backdoor into their products. Summing matters up sometimes stretches the bounds of credibility.
As Jacob Appelbaum put it during his talk at the German CCC conference late last year, the NSA´s operations have really only been limited by Time. Had Snowden waited another year, chances are that we would have seen even bigger programs come to the surface. And perhaps we still might; if Snowden is to be believed we haven’t seen the last of his work.
The impact on our online privacy is consistently mentioned by the various news media. Organisations of all sizes and nationalities are asking themselves just how safe their data is. Do they have unwanted American visitors on their network? How are they going to keep out the NSA? Or other intelligence agencies? Cán you keep them out at all?
In my opinion, these questions aren´t simply valid, but due to the immensity and depth of these intelligence gathering programs and the long list of involved corporations, a considerable bit of research should be more than warranted.
Thanks to Snowden´s revelations we have enough material to make three assumptions:
- Virtually all the internet traffic is tapped. Because it’s not just the NSA spying on internet traffic but –to varying degree- almost every national intelligence agency on the planet, there is a reasonable degree of certainty that all of our traffic is intercepted and looked at, regardless of where it´s going or where its´ coming from. In case you´re wondering, this certainly includes smartphone traffic.
- American and British hardware (laptops, desktops, servers, USB devices, mice, keyboards, smartphones et cetera) are very likely all compromised by a backdoor through which remote access can be obtained. If it hasn´t been built in during fabrication, it could still be inserted during transportation, with the aid of transportation firms. For safety sake it is reasonable to assume that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand firms are performing such tasks for their respective intelligence agencies as well, given that these countries are also part of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering pact between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
- We cannot trust American technology firms. It is unfortunate for those that haven´t been compromised, but due to American anti-terrorism laws you simply cannot trust them you’re your data. Whether they are paid or forced to cooperate is, in the end, unimportant for you; they will provide the NSA with intelligence or build those backdoors into their products that are so prevalent and so desired. Your data simply isn´t safe with American online service providers, and thanks to the PATRIOT act it doesn´t even matter if the data itself is on US soil or not. It also doesn´t matter if you are not American. Or if you´re a citizen of an allied country. The American justice system pretty much completely ignores non-citizens and as such, virtually everything done to your data is considered legal. Your data can be reached and inspected regardless of where it resides, and they do it on a shockingly large scale. Here too, it would be wise to lump British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian firms in on this.
And its not just US firms that have been exploited in such a fashion. Among the firms on the list below you will also see enterprises that have a lot to lose if banned from the American technology market, such as Samsung. Lets put some names to faces. Do you have products in your network or at home that are made by these companies?
Then you almost certainly have a backdoor into your network through which the NSA can enter your network unseen. Perhaps more than one. And now that it is public knowledge that these backdoors exist, it is highly likely that they are exploitable by other parties as well.
The US is, thanks to strong representation in the Technology market, in a very comfortable position where gaining remote access is concerned. This doesn’t stop other nations from attempting the same level of access or intelligence, and quite successfully.
China, Russia and Iran also developed strong Cyber programs of which digital espionage is a substantial element. Closer to home the French DGSE was embarrassed by sudden publication of their own cyber espionage program, not a week after they publicly denounced such practices. Israel has also been known to have a very effective digital intelligence gathering program.
If you still have doubts about whether or not you might be compromised, the EFF has published an electronic file containing exactly what vendors and their respective products give unwanted access to commercial networks. You will encounter the term “persistent backdoor” very often, which means that there is a built-in back door in the product through which unauthorised access to the network is easily attained.
They work virtually the same as the software companies install so that their employees can work from home, with the notable exception that your organisation doesn’t know, support or condone about this ‘feature’ of the products they installed and considered safe.
So why should companies care about this? You’ll often hear the argument that such programs revolve around national security, and is an affair between nation states, not commerce. And yet there have been several cases that show that this is certainly not always the case. Information obtained by national espionage programs can easily be used to great commercial advantage.
There are some prime examples in which national intelligence agencies provided firms with information that gave them a competitive advantage during critical moments while competing with foreign competitors, such as during the negotiations of lucrative contracts. On July 5th 2000 the European Parliament launched an investigation into contract negotiations taking place in Brasil in 1994.
In this case the French firm Thomson-CSF lost a contract to the American defence contractor Raytheon to a tune of $1.3 billion because Raytheon had received crucial information intercepted by an American intelligence agency. In 2000, aircraft manufacturer Airbus lost a Saudi contract worth $6 billion to American firms Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in equal fashion.
Both these incidents took place during the ECHELON program, an earlier iteration of the PRISM program that we have heard so much about in recent months. The amount of data that is being intercepted and monitored makes the ECHELON program pale in comparison.n
Whether you do business internationally or not, having intruders on your networks and mobile devices are almost certainly unwanted. There are ways to defend yourself, but depending on which hardware and software you are using, you may have to start looking for different vendors offering similar products.
This isn’t always practical. Imagine replacing Microsoft Windows with a Linux distribution on all of your systems. This may not be feasible due to lack of staff capable of supporting Linux. Replacing servers, desktops, laptops or networking equipment with equivalent products made by vendors of a different nationality can be difficult, but you could still take steps in the right direction.
For instance, if you are currently using remote access tokens by RSA, you may want to consider replacing them. By its very nature, remote access technology is an exceptionally critical service that can immediately defeat all of your network security measures. Whether you will be safe after a full overhaul of your network will likely always remain a mystery; Snowden or some other whistleblower might implicate yet more firms that are complicit with national intelligence agencies.
To have a realistic chance at securing your network, it must be capable of segmenting your various suppliers and vendors. Ideally your network architecture is designed in such a way that no single vendor or supplier can compromise the entire network by itself.
Outsourcing your data or network services to a cloud provider is equally a hazardous idea. You have to be absolutely assured that your provider does not store your data outside your nation’s borders, which would open up avenues for foreign entities to gain access. Most nations have laws in place for their intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtaining access to systems within their sovereign territory with or without the consent of its owner.
If you have assured yourself that your cloud provider won’t suddenly change its policy. Be aware that most of the firms implicated by Snowden have kept -or have been forced to keep- silent about their assistance to the NSA. If your privacy has been violated, you may learn of it much too late or not at all.
Also, it is critical that you encrypt your data. This includes both data in transit and data at rest, so the smart move is to not leave any data unencrypted on online services such as Dropbox. Be sure to use encryption that is not commonly used on the Internet, or made by any of the implicated firms listed above.
The NSA, and more than likely many intelligence agencies with them, is especially capable of cracking the most used encryption methods such as SSL (Secure HTTP, which ensures that well-known lock icon in front of a web address in your browser). Custom, strong and domestically made crypto technology is the best choice to protect both your network traffic as well as encrypting data storage devices.
Finally, it is important that you have a strong identity & access management program. None of the measures above amount to very much if an employee or supplier has access to your network and happily provides this access to a third party with bad intentions.
Protecting information today is more complex than before. To have a chance at keeping unwanted visitors off your network tomorrow, you must lay the foundation today. Although this can be a considerable undertaking, you can at least be assured that it will not get any easier. The time of leaning back casually without having to worry about security has certainly passed.
About the Author: Don Eijndhoven (@ArgentConsulting), Chief Executive Officer of Argent Consulting B.V, lead cyber security architect and guest lecturer Cyber Resillience at the Nyenrode Business University. Don can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this and other guest author articles are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.
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 US Wiretapping Heads of State: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1259508/edward-snowden-us-government-has-been-hacking-hong-kong-and-china
 US wiretapping allied heads of state: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/nsa-spied-on-european-union-offices-a-908590.html
 NSA pays or forces firms to provide access to customer data: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-paying-us-companies-for-access-to-communications-networks/2013/08/29/5641a4b6-10c2-11e3-bdf6-e4fc677d94a1_story_1.html
 Companies forced to cooperate with NSA surveillance programs: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57593538-38/how-the-u.s-forces-net-firms-to-cooperate-on-surveillance/
 RSA paid to build in backdoors for the NSA: http://arstechnica.com/security/2014/01/how-the-nsa-may-have-put-a-backdoor-in-rsas-cryptography-a-technical-primer/
 Leaked Documents show NSA compromising computer hardware and communication technology on a massive scale: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20131230/09221925711/leaked-documents-show-nsa-compromising-computer-hardware-communication-technology-massive-scale.shtml
 Appelbaum´s NSA ANT Catalog: https://www.eff.org/files/2014/01/06/20131230-appelbaum-nsa_ant_catalog.pdf
 RSA infiltrated by NSA more deeply than thought: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/31/us-usa-security-nsa-rsa-idUSBREA2U0TY20140331
 NSA aims to crack all common encryption using Quantum Computing: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2083760/report-nsa-looking-to-crack-all-encryption-with-quantum-computer.html
 PLEASE NOTE: We are NOT referring to what is commonly called ‘home brew’ cryptography, which is usually undocumented and often easy to crack. There are many professional and capable providers of cryptography all over the world, and it is these firms that are meant.