Hacking and Philosophy: Surveillance State

hnpss

If you don’t live under a rock (though you may want to now) you probably saw yesterday’s article from Spiegel that revealed the NSA has its own catalog for spy gadgets. Today they released an interactive graphic with the catalog’s contents, and even if you’re not a regular reader of Hacking & Philosophy, you’re going to want to take a look at it. I recommend glancing over IRATEMONK, in the “Computer Hardware” category. As the article explains, IRATEMONK is

An implant hidden in the firmware of hard drives from manufacturers including Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor and Samsung that replaces the Master Boot Record (MBR).

It isn’t clear whether the manufacturers are complicit in implanting IRATEMONK in their hardware, or if the NSA has just developed it to work with those drives. Either way, it raises an important question: how do we know we can trust the hardware? The short answer is that we can’t. According to the text accompanying the graphic, the NSA

…[installs] hardware units on a targeted computer by, for example, intercepting the device when it’s first being delivered to its intended recipient, a process the NSA calls ‘interdiction.’

We’re interested to hear your responses to this: is the situation as bleak as it seems? How do you build a system that you know you can trust? Are there any alternatives that better guarantee you aren’t being spied on? Read on for more.

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ScareMail Tries to Disrupt NSA Email Surveillance

scaremail

Are you on the NSA’s email watchlist? Do you want to be?  This project is called ScareMail and it’s designed to mess with the NSA’s  email surveillance programs.

[Benjamin Grosser] has written it as a plugin for many popular web browsers, and it uses an algorithm to generate a clever but ultimately useless narrative in the signature of your email using as many probable NSA search terms as possible. The idea behind this is if enough people use it, it will overload the NSA’s search results, ultimately making their email keyword tracking useless.

So how does it work? The algorithm starts with natural language processing (NLP) and an original source of text — he picked Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Using the processor it identifies all nouns and verbs in the original text and replaces them with properly formatted and conjugated “scary” words that he’s indexed from a list of hypothetical NSA key words. To ensure each signature is unique, he makes use of a Markov chain to generate new texts that are completely different each time. The result is a somewhat coherent paragraph that doesn’t make any real sense.

But wait! Surveillance like this is bad, but hypothetically it could work! Well, maybe. But the point is: 

ScareMail reveals one of the primary flaws of the NSA’s surveillance efforts: words do not equal intent.

Stick around after the break to see a proper video explanation of ScareMail by [Ben] himself.

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TEMPEST: A Signal Problem

tempest

TEMPEST is the covername used by the NSA and other agencies to talk about emissions from computing machinery that can divulge what the equipment is processing. We’ve covered a few projects in the past that specifically intercept EM radiation. TEMPEST for Eliza can transmit via AM using a CRT monitor, and just last Fall a group showed how to monitor USB keyboards remotely. Through the Freedom of Information Act, an interesting article from 1972 has been released. TEMPEST: A Signal Problem (PDF) covers the early history of how this phenomenon was discovered. Uncovered by Bell Labs in WWII, it affected a piece of encryption gear they were supplying to the military. The plaintext could be read over that air and also by monitoring spikes on the powerlines. Their new, heavily shielded and line filtered version of the device was rejected by the military who simply told commanders to monitor a 100 feet around their post to prevent eavesdropping. It’s an interesting read and also covers acoustic monitoring. This is just the US history of TEMPEST though, but from the anecdotes it sounds like their enemies were not just keeping pace but were also better informed.

[via Schneier]