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[liberationtech] Schrodinger’s Catnip: Questions & Answers on NSA Data Collection

Adam Back adam at
Fri Jun 14 01:57:36 PDT 2013

Very nice analysis, thanks.

My supposition is that the next stage of this saga, is the NSA could stop
collecting the data from the phone companies, but mandate that the phone
companies retain the data indefinitely.  Already in many countries and quite
possibly the US also against peoples expectations, the phone companies keep
pen-register and location data for decades.

The only thing they give up is hiding from the phone company what searches
they are executing.

However even that risk is rather small - they can require security clearance
equivalent to the employee or sub-contractor that the NSA/CIA itself would

The next objection might be that they do not control the computing
environment, however that is also likely overcomeable.  Eg we know from
previous leaks NSA has fibre tap rooms were collocated next to telco office
space.  Surely its also easily overcomeable, the NSA can specify the
environment, have the company paid, but NSA equivalent security cleared
contractor install it to NSA specification.  Basically a of the security
apparatus is apparently sub-contracted, so whether the telcos, ISPs and
service providers pay for the equipment, power and space and whether the
telcos pay for the NSA equivalent security-cleared sub-contractors (and are
re-imbursed by NSA) or the contractors are paid for by government direct is
a rather small distinction.

Technology is fortunately (and unfortunately) immensely flexible for
working around any arbitrary restrictions.

Maybe NSA can lease the space its currently using back to the telcos and
transfer the sub-contractor operating it to the respective telcos.  Or a
shared telco consortium.

So it seems to me a few leases and contracts could be signed and they can
continue business as usual because then its the telcos retaining the data.

Now in europe we have the data protection act which says that companies can
not retain information without a legitimate business need (amongst other
things).  However even here telcos are reportedly retaining pen-register and
location indefinitely.  This is even required under the data retention
directive, which is about retaining records for 6months to 2 years to make
it easier for law enforcement to obtain records by subpoena.

So because of this I suspect its not going to improve even with a successful
US constitutional challenge - they can seemingly do the same thing, just
contract out the datbase to the telcos and ISPs.

As Mark Rasch noted the objectionable thing is the general warrant to get
all records handed over to the government.  However the precursor to that is
the telco and ISP retaining that information in the first place.  At least
in europe apparently they are legally required to retain it, specifically to
make law enforcement easier.  That itself seems like some kind of warrant
precursor, or pre-emptive wiretap of everyone.  Wiretap everyone (or
pen-register record everyone) and give the government information on
presentation of a warrant.

A question for Mark Rasch therefore is whether it would remain
unconstitutional if the NSA required the telcos and ISPs to store the data
in a searchable form.  If not its game over, and the difference is probably
technical - worth arguing about, but of limited practical consequence.

Unfortunately I think the only solution is forward-secret end2end and
opportunistic encryption, and LOTs of it.  Maybe even whole countries
mandating their ISPs VPN protect their peering traffic.  

Maybe further digial mixes because we are also seeing the freedom of
association attacked.  And freedom of speech.

There are probably other undisclosed uses of this data by the US governmen
that people would be even more alarmed about.  For example I am not sure
about Main Core, a list of reportedly 8 million americans who might be
pre-emptively incarcerated in event of some future nationnal security
emergency.  You could well imagine they would feed main core with
information gleened from PRISM and pen-register searches.

Cloud service like gmail, hotmail, facebook, dropbox, twitter etc are
another problem.  They log and collate associations, in social graphs.  They
retain cleartext.  Some things can be protected while still leveraging
cloud - eg you can encrypt data for storage by a cloud provider, and still
share the data with other users.  Mega did it the with their second
offering, there are a number of more secure cloud offerings that do it.

Open source is key.  You need to be able to look at the code, and verify
that it is the code being run, which typically is going to mean running the
code on your own hardware.  Even if you cant read code, the availabilit
helps as other people will read it and speak up if anything careless or
malicious is found.

Finally the other frontier is hardware tampering and software backdoors. 
The US is worried about chinese tech companies putting hardware or firmware
backdoors in the equipment, and Chinese companies manufacture much of it. 
You know personally I feel less threatened in terms of civil liberties by
Chinese hacks - they are not interested in associations of indivdiduals
outside of China, they are interested in industrial espionage and spying. 
Those targets can take care of themselves, individuals cant.  Even if the
Chinese did build association graphs, they are not sharing it with echelon
partners, and apparently that club is growing, Holland also in a recent news
article was receiving such info.

Software backdoors are another issue; you really want an open software
stack.  Things like carrierIQ otherwise end up on devices and report, or can
be remote triggered to report keystrokes and anything else.  Smartphones
never seem to be quite fully open, even with android it seems typically
there is some closed area that could backdoor your phone.  Remote forced
upgrade is also bad.  So I think surprisingly your best bet is Chinese
equipment and open source stack, and lots of forward secure, end to end
encryption for comms, and user controlled keys for cloud storage, mixes, ToR
for email and browsing.

Of course you could imagine if push came to shove the Chinese and US
intelligence agencies could trade access to backdoors, or search terms for
their respective backdoor harvests.  Maybe they already are.


On Thu, Jun 13, 2013 at 08:09:23PM -0700, Yosem Companys wrote:
>From: Mark Rasch <mdrasch at AOL.COM>
>Schrodinger’s Catnip
>DISCLAIMER: I know nothing about the NSA surveillance programs other
>than what I read in the papers.  Thus, my legal analysis of the
>program may be completely wrong, since they are highly fact dependent.

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