Encryption: Protecting Your Data
Why Encryption is Necessary
Not that many years ago, data encryption was relatively unknown to most computer users. Many realized that governments and corporations used this protection, but why did they need it?
Ministers from the ‘Five Eyes’ countries are trying to paint encryption as a dangerous or criminal activity. But in fact ordinary people depend on the encryption built into everyday services like banking and shopping to protect our privacy and security. — OpenMedia
In today's world of hacking by criminals and spying by governments, it is important that we protect our most important documents from being stolen, or if stolen, prevent fraudulent use such as identity theft.
[A]s a technological tool, encryption is extremely important, even essential, for the protection of personal information and for the security of electronic devices in use in the digital economy. Unfortunately, the crux of the problem springs from the fact there is no known way to give systemic access to government without simultaneously creating an important risk to the security of this data for the population at large. Laws should not ignore this technological fact. — Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Watch Mozilla's Encrypt series videos to better understand why we need encryption for our everyday communications and privacy.
Stand up for strong encryption. It matters.
Data Used to Be Safer
At one time most people only had a desktop computer. Few were connected to the Internet. Documents were transmitted using the mail, courier or fax.
Those that were connected used a telephone modem (dialup) so interactions with the Internet were relatively brief. Their computers only left home (or the office) when going to the repair shop.
Mobile More Vulnerable
A desktop computer is stationary and, unless you haven't secured the location, is not particularly vulnerable. Mobile devices (smart phones, tablets and laptops), on the other hand, are more likely to be used in unsecured locations (at least part of the time).
Mobile devices contain a lot of personal information — often as much as our offices used to hold. Most of these devices are continually connected to the Internet.
Portability Increased Risk
These, along with the USB hard drives and thumb drives we used to store and transfer data, are at greater risk for loss or theft just because they are portable.
Privacy Laws are Outdated
Privacy laws were developed in the days of snail mail and paper documents. They are no longer sufficient because today's storage conditions are different.
The laws were created before the Internet was widely used. Documents were normally stored on paper in locked file cabinets (or at least not accessible without physically entering the premises). The government could only legally intercept mail (with a warrant) while in transit.
Today many of us permanently store our documents and other data in online facilities like DropBox and Google Docs and our emails are left online with Gmail or Hotmail (what is referred to generically as “the Cloud”).
Just as an envelope prevents anyone from reading a letter while it's traveling through the mail, encryption stops snoopers from viewing the content of your emails and searches, and prevents hackers from getting access to your sensitive information. — Google
The assumptions old laws used in restricting access to mail delivery no longer apply. Our data is stored in online computers controlled by others. Bulk collection of data is much easier and less costly than ever before.
Encryption is under attack
We're told that the FBI, R.C.M.P. and other agencies need back doors to encryption protocols (or have it banned altogether). We are told that the authorities are only targeting terrorists or child pornographers. These are, at best, deceptive.
These agencies want every encryption protocol (if it is allowed at all) to have a “back-door” (i.e. special decryption made available to police and government agencies). These agencies already have the capability of unlocking virtually any device.
If a backdoor exists, then anyone can exploit it. All it takes is knowledge of the backdoor and the capability to exploit it. And while it might temporarily be a secret, it's a fragile secret. Backdoors are one of the primary ways to attack computer systems. — Bruce Schneier
Adding backdoors isn't so much a question of adding a secure door to the walls of a stone castle. It's like adding extra holes in the walls of a sandcastle. — Motherboard
Any backdoor can be abused:
In 2017, 22 law enforcement employees across California lost or left their jobs after abusing the computer network that grants police access to criminal histories and drivers' records, according to new data compiled by the California Attorney General's office. The records obtained by EFF show a total of 143 violations of database rules—the equivalent of an invasion of privacy every two and half days. Unfortunately, 53 violations resulted in no action being taken at all.
While specific information about the nature of the violations is not recorded, the Attorney General has outlined a variety of behaviors that would qualify as misuse. These include querying the database for personal reasons, searching data on celebrities, sharing passwords or access, providing information to unauthorized third parties, and researching a firearm the officer intends to purchase. — Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Terrorist Argument Invalid
Banning encryption (or other modern communication technologies) by using the argument that it is used by terrorists is unreasonable.
Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. And while terrorism turns society's very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response — just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too. — Bruce Schneier
Same Arguments About “Going Dark”
The history of the Clipper chip should tell us otherwise. The FBI used the same arguments about the ability of criminals to “go dark” unless a back door was included. Concerns about privacy and widespread surveillance caused it to fail.
Democracies around the world have long recognized that electronic surveillance power in the hands of government is a threat to open societies unless it is properly regulated by an effective legal system. Many countries have enacted surveillance laws, but laws on the books alone to not protect privacy. A vibrant legal system with respect for the rule of law is necessary for privacy protection in the face of ever more powerful electronic surveillance technologies. — Journal of Cybersecurity
Understanding the Implications: What's at Stake
Most people don't understand the implications of disallowing or weakening the use of encryption to protect our data. So let's use another analogy to see the fallacy of that argument.
Would you give police unrestricted access to everything you own?
Imagine if you were required by law to make a copy of EVERY key (or provide the combination) for every lock you have (home, business, mailbox, car, filing cabinets, safety deposit box, etc.) and provide them to your local police station where they would be routinely used without your permission or judicial oversight (warrant). Would you still feel your privacy is not at risk? Would you feel safer?
For a more in depth discussion see:
- Keys under doormats: mandating insecurity by requiring government access to all data and communications.
- Privacy lets you be you.
Your Voice is Needed
Do your part to make the Internet a safer place by ensuring that these misleading arguments don't compromise ecommerce and your privacy by banning encryption. We must stand together to shape the future of the Internet and keep the momentum going for surveillance reform.
Data Encryption Moves Mainstream
Microsoft made encryption easier starting with Windows 7 Ultimate's built-in BitLocker Drive Encryption and the Encrypting File System. This capability is easily obtained for other Windows versions by installing third-party software.
But how secure is that encryption software?
In providing the R.C.M.P. with access to organized criminals' phones, Blackberry also provided access to every Blackberry phone in Canada that wasn't part of a corporate network. That's what an encryption back door would do.
Snowden Reveals Massive NSA Access
Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, revealed that NSA has backdoors into virtually all operating systems and commercial encryption software — realtime access into anybody's computer was a reality.
Terrorism Threat Exploited
Governments and corporations are using the threat of terrorism to spy on their own citizens without any oversight from independent third parties and changing laws that protect your privacy so these regulations become ineffective. Everything they have is a state secret, but nothing of yours is. It is this morally-bankrupt status that Snowden felt compelled to reveal.
When asked questions about programs by Congress, the NSA and CIA lie, often reinterpreting standard terminology to their advantage (i.e. they feel they can collect information without a warrant and haven't broken any laws because no one has examined it yet). They'll state that a certain code-named program "doesn't do that" without revealing that another does. Obviously the same tactics would hardly keep you safe from legal prosecution in similar circumstances, making them "above the law" because it is impossible to hold secret courts accountable.
The NSA has turned the fabric of the internet into a vast surveillance platform, but they are not magical. They're limited by the same economic realities as the rest of us, and our best defense is to make surveillance of us as expensive as possible. — Bruce Schneier
[T]he one top-secret program the NSA desperately did not want us to expose was QUANTUM. This is the NSA's program for what is called packet injection — basically, a technology that allows the agency to hack into computers. — Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier
CIA Tools Frightening
WikiLeaks released a list of CIA Hacking Tools. Many of these are frightening, mostly because you and I are likely the target of these intrusions.
The danger of maintaining these tools is no longer a theory. Several of these tools were stolen from the spy agencies and released into the dark web where cybercriminals and hackers use them to infect our computers with ransomware and other malicious software.
One of these tools is Weeping Angel which allows the CIA to hack your smart phone or smart TV and listen in on you without your knowledge or permission — even if it is turned off.
- How the CIA can hack your iPhone, Android and smart TV and listen in on you.
- Worried the CIA hacked your Samsung TV? Here's how to tell.
Everyone is Hacking
The assumptions that only the “good guys” are using these tools is ignorant. We now live in a world where anyone has access to these tools at the cost of both individual privacy and national security.
This has weakened the Internet everywhere as well as the attractiveness of U.S. technology overseas.
Encryption is the Only Defense
The only self defense from all of the above is universal encryption. Universal encryption is difficult and expensive, but unfortunately necessary.
Encryption doesn't just keep our traffic safe from eavesdroppers, it protects us from attack. DNSSEC validation protects DNS from tampering, while SSL armors both email and web traffic.
There are many engineering and logistic difficulties involved in encrypting all traffic on the internet, but its one we must overcome if we are to defend ourselves from the entities that have weaponized the backbone. — Nicholas Weaver
What Can You Do? Five Recommendations
Don't be fooled that your communications are uninteresting — that only the “bad guys” are targets.
The NSA is spending incredible amounts of money to ensure that it can see into your computer, compromise your network and to record your phone calls, then storing the information for later study.
- Hide in the network. Implement hidden services. Use Tor to anonymize yourself. Yes, the NSA targets Tor users, but it's work for them. The less obvious you are, the safer you are.
- Encrypt your communications. Use TLS. Use IPsec. Again, while it's true that the NSA targets encrypted connections — and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols — you're much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.
- Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA — so it probably isn't. If you have something really important, use an air gap. Since I started working with the Snowden documents, I bought a new computer that has never been connected to the internet. If I want to transfer a file, I encrypt the file on the secure computer and walk it over to my internet computer, using a USB stick. To decrypt something, I reverse the process. This might not be bulletproof, but it's pretty good.
- Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It's prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software. Systems relying on master secrets are vulnerable to the NSA, through either legal or more clandestine means.
- Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations. For example, it's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered. Prefer symmetric cryptography over public-key cryptography. Prefer conventional discrete-log-based systems over elliptic-curve systems; the latter have constants that the NSA influences when they can.
I strongly recommend reading the entire article for the context and to understand what Schneier is saying.
There are a number of good encryption solutions. Pretty Good Privacy (now owned by Symantec) was one of the original products.
- Pretty Good Privacy on Wikipedia.
EFAIL Encryption Issue
Thunderbird and AppleMail are vulnerable to the EFAIL encryption vulnerability giving the attacker access to your encrypted emails. Learn more…
The solution is to turn off internal encryption and use external encryption.
Back Doors are Dangerous
Cryptkeeper's vulnerability is a simple back door that unlocks everything without knowing the user's decryption key.
The Linux encryption app Cryptkeeper has a rather stunning security bug: the single-character decryption key "p" decrypts everything. — Bruce Schneier
The revelation of a simple back door shows why it is a mistake to accept government agencies' demands for such access.
While these back doors would surely be more sophisticated, once they are revealed or exploited they make us all vulnerable even if the security failure is suddenly widely reported and corrected.
Governments Weaponize Vulnerabilities
Government agencies collect such software vulnerabilities as weapons and software vendors remain silent about known weaknesses hoping that they'll remain unknown.
Such assumptions have too often proved wrong and long-known vulnerabilities have been exploit by both criminals and foreign governments. Everyone would be better off if software was fixed before problems occurred.
Folder Encryption Solutions
SafeHouse Explorer is a free encryption solution for disks and memory sticks.
- SafeHouse Explorer uses passwords and maximum-strength 256-bit advanced encryption to completely hide and defend your sensitive files, including photos, videos, spreadsheets, databases and just about any other kind of file that you might have.
Cypherix has a number of products including corporate solutions.
- Cryptainer LE a free disk encryption software, creates multiple 25 MB of encrypted and password protected drives/containers.
- Secure IT encrypts all your files and folders. All you need to do is select a file you want to encrypt and assign a password.
- Cryptainer PE protects your data by creating multiple encrypted vaults for all your files and folders using 448-bit strong encryption without changing the way you work.
- SecureDoc Standalone for Windows full disk encryption for Windows;
- SecureDoc Standalone with FFE for Windows (which adds file and folder encryption); or
- SecureDoc for Servers.
TrueCrypt is no longer secure and has been discontinued.
You should choose another encryption solution and are free alternatives to TrueCrypt, but you should investigation potential problems with any solution and follow vulnerability reports.
Bitlocker is not recommended by Bruce Schneier (see recommendation 5) because it is more likely to have a NSA back door:
[I]t's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered.
FreeOTFE is a discontinued free, open source, "on-the-fly" transparent disk encryption program for PCs and PDAs that allows you to encrypt the entire drive.
More About Encryption
These sites have useful information on encryption:
- TrueCrypt is discontinued, try these free alternatives.
- A guide to PGP encryption from Data Recovery Labs.
- Peter Gutmann's encryption and security tutorial.
- Matt Blaze's cryptography resource will give you more insight to this technology and the various issues, including legal issues.
- Old Technopanic in New iBottles looks at arguments for and against “back doors” to encryption software.