What did the Snowden leaks tell us about modern surveillance capabilities? And what did we learn about our ability to defend against them?
And while the leaks themselves have receded into the past a bit — and the world has continued to get more complicated — the technical concerns that Snowden alerted us to are only getting more salient.
The idea that governments would conduct large-scale interception of our communications traffic was a point of view that relatively few “normal people” spent time thinking about — it was mostly confined to security mailing lists and X-Files scripts. Sure, everyone understood that government surveillance was a thing, in the abstract. But actually talking about this was bound to make you look a little silly, even in paranoid circles.
That these concerns have been granted respectability is one of the most important things Snowden did for us.
Prior to Snowden, even surveillance-skeptics would probably concede that, yes, the NSA collects data on specific targets. But even the most paranoid observers were shocked by the sheer scale of what the NSA was actually doing out there.
The Snowden revelations detailed several programs that were so astonishing in the breadth and scale of the data being collected, the only real limits on them were caused by technical limitations in the NSA’s hardware.
From 2008-2010 the NSA and GCHQ collected millions of still images from every Yahoo! Messenger webchat stream, and used them to build a massive database for facial recognition. The collection of data had no particular rhyme or reason — i.e., it didn’t target specific users who might be a national security threat. It was just… everything.
In case anyone thought the NSA avoided attacks on American providers, a series of leaks in 2014 documented that the NSA had tapped the internal leased lines used to connect Google and Yahoo datacenters. This gave the agencies access to vast and likely indiscriminate access to torrents of data on U.S. and European users, information was likely above and beyond the data that these companies already shared with the U.S. under existing programs like PRISM.
...in case you believe that this all ended after Snowden’s leaks, we’ve learned even more disturbing things since. For example, in 2015, Yahoo got caught installing what has been described as a “rootkit” that scanned every single email in its database for specific selectors, at the request of the U.S. government. This was so egregious that the company didn’t even tell it’s CISO, who left the next week. In fact, we know a lot more about Yahoo’s collaboration during this time period, thanks to Snowden.
The Snowden leaks also helped shatter a second illusion: the idea that the NSA was on the side of the angels when it comes to making the Internet more secure. I’ve written about this plenty on this blog (with sometimes exciting results), but maybe this needs to be said again.
One of the most important lessons we learned from the Snowden leaks was that the NSA very much prioritizes its surveillance mission, to the point where it is willing to actively insert vulnerabilities into encryption products and standards used on U.S. networks. And this kind of thing wasn’t just an occasional crime of opportunity — the agency spent $250 million per year on a program called the SIGINT Enabling Project. Its goal was, basically, to bypass our commercial encryption at any cost.
Not only does it appear that the NSA deliberately backdoored Dual EC, it seems that they did so (and used NIST) in order to deploy the backdoor into U.S. security products. Later investigations would show that Dual EC was present in software by RSA Security (allegedly because of a secret contract with the NSA) and in firewalls made by Juniper Networks.
(Just to make everything a bit more horrifying, Juniper’s Dual EC backdoor would later be hijacked and turned against the United States by unknown hackers — illustrating exactly how reckless this all was.)
And finally, there are the mysteries. Snowden slides indicate that the NSA has been decrypting SSL/TLS and IPsec connections at vast scale. Even beyond the SIGINT Enabling-type sabotage, this raises huge questions about what the hell is actually going on here. There are theories. These may or may not be correct, but at least now people are thinking about them. At very least, it’s clear that something is very, very wrong.