On-Line Privacy Battles Highlited

Opponents and supporters of interception methods built into network system architecture met at two recent conferences

Battle lines between companies trying to restore privacy to telecommunications and those who have worked secretly to keep networks "surveillance friendly" have been exposed at two recent conferences.

"In the long term, privacy is doomed", the second International Security Solutions Europe Conference was told in Barcelona, Spain last week by U.S. lawyer Stuart Baker, of Washington law firm Steptoe and Johnson.

"When it's gone, I don't think we will notice", he said.

Mr Baker, who served as the General Counsel (senior lawyer) of the U.S. National Security Agency from 1992-1994, began his speech in "anonymous" disguise, wearing a large black cycle mask and a baseball cap turned back to front. He made a series of rude remarks about himself and others, in an attempt to show the dangers of what he called "the anonymity industry". The audience appeared baffled by his conduct.

Mr Baker had spent the early and mid-1990s campaigning for the acceptance of the NSA's plan for the CLIPPER chip, which would encrypt private phone conversations but make the keys accessible to the US government. In Barcelona, he claimed that the US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis had produced major judgments on privacy because he was upset when a friend of his found that his daughter's party invitation list had been published in a newspaper. Judge Brandeis coined the celebrated definition of privacy as ``the right to be left alone''.

The week before in London, the "International Forum on Surveillance by Design" heard how methods were being evolved both to attack and to protect privacy on new communications networks. The meeting, hosted by the London School of Economics' Department of Information Systems, heard how, as CLIPPER was abandoned, security and law enforcement organisations had begun a series of international collaborations to exploit information available on the new networks.

Although the CLIPPER plan was ridiculed and forgotten, and the ensuing battle to control cryptology has been lost by the U.S. government, the effect of the battle has been to set back effective cryptographic standards by at least a decade. CLIPPER was devised by the U.S. government in 1990 to head off plans by AT&T, the U.S. telecommunications giant, to start selling secure phones to the general public. Ten years later, only one company has a similar telephone scrambler product near the market.

Eric Blossom, chief technology officer with Starium Inc of Monterey, California, showed the London conference the first model of the new Starium secure phone. The Starium, which resembles the shape and form of a Palm Pilot (and was designed by the same team), can be connected to most phones by plugging it in between the handset and the base unit.

When two Starium equipped phones communicate, they use the standard Diffie-Hellman key exchange to set up encryption keys, and then "go secure". Unauthorised listeners will then hear only scrambled digital speech. Whit Diffie, one of the inventors of public key cryptography, is a board member of Starium, Inc.

Blossom said that the first Beta trial and demonstration models of Starium would be shipped out from California in a few weeks time. But some of the audience drew breath when they heard the expected price - $699 (U.S.) - of the commercial unit, scheduled to go on sale in 2001. Blossom also said, however, that he was arranging for the Starium system to be incorporated in new GSM and 3G phones. Enabling encryption in these phones might cost $5 a month, he said. Another scheme the company has considered is to make compatible PC secure telephony software available as shareware, thus allowing Starium phones to communicate directly with any suitably equipped PC user - thus enhancing their utility.

If Starium's project succeeds, the general public around the world should enjoy the same security as today's governmental secure phone systems. Had NSA not intervened, that might have happened five years ago.

Another major project to protect privacy was described by staff from the world's largest "anonymity industry" provider, Zero Knowledge Systems of Montreal, Canada. ZKS was also one of the London conference sponsors. Zero Knowledge's "Freedom" system is based on a worldwide server network that relays subscribers traffic anonymously and untraceably. The subscription-based system uses successive shells of encryption to ensure that no-one - neither the company, nor the Freedom Servers which accept and route traffic, nor any unauthorised interceptors - can identify the source, destination or content of a data packet.

Freedom users set up one or more pseudonymous identities called "nyms" to handle their e-mail, web browsing, and other net traffic. However, the current version of Freedom software is complex for users to understand, and imposes an inevitable time penalty needed for the multiple encryption and decryption operations each packet undergoes. According to Paul Hamilton, ZKS Engineering chief, a new and more user-friendly version of Freedom will be launched by December 2000. The company has already signed up tens of thousands of users, he said. A Linux Freedom client is also on its way soon.

Former NSA counsel Stuart Baker cited ZKS a week later as a leading member of the "anonymity industry" and claimed "in the long term, law enforcement will find ways to make anonymity partial". Companies like ZKS, he threatened, could in some countries face civil discovery suits, or even "could be charged with complicity in crime". Its "something to keep your eyes on", he added with apparent enthusiasm.

Many speakers at the LSE conference helped unravel the opaque or secret processes through which new communications networks from mobile phones to the Internet were being turned into data sources for law enforcement and security agencies. Tony Bunyan of Statewatch explained how today's network vulnerabilities to interception resulted from collaboration between the U.S. FBI and the European Union starting from the early 1990s. He highlighted how all EU nations were caught up in modernising interception laws, and were seeking access to extra data on telecommunications users and their traffic.

Erich Moechel, of Quintessenz, Austria revealed how the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), had led the way in building interception capabilities into new communications systems. A specialised group with limited representation (and no privacy advocates or legal advisers) had been meeting through the 1990s. Originally called the Security Techniques Advisory Group (STAG) it was now known as the Security Technical Committee. The committee would next meet in mid October, in Milan and then in Tel Aviv. European companies participating in ETSI had helped the Israelis design new interception systems, he said.

One of ETSI's security papers, known as ES 201 671, called for the incorporation of law enforcement "handover interfaces" into telephone switches. The specification included commands which would allow intelligence agencies to manipulate and control the networks, Moechel said. According to ETSI documents, these specifications are now being revised to "support (sic) IP-based and other new telecommunications technologies". The organisations supporting this work were British Telecom, the UK Department of Trade and Industry, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson and Nokia. One of their tasks is to create interception systems for third generation mobile phones.

Speakers from the UK, the Netherlands and Russia explained how advanced and intrusive interception methods were already incorporated into their national laws. Britain had passed the RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) Act, while Russia's security service was in the middle of implementing the SORM law, which requires Russian ISPs to copy all their traffic to the security service facilities. In the Netherlands, explained Maurice Wessling, a 1998 Telecommunications Act had not only provided for internet interception but also computer bugging. "Black box" sniffers had been installed in ISP's premises, linked to a national internet tapping centre which opened in March 2000. A parallel system requires network operators to maintain parallel databases on their subscribers personal data, which can be read without the ISP's knowledge.

Provisions to allow for international interception of communications were also being built into the Cybercrime Convention now being negotiated within the Council of Europe, according to Gus Hosein of LSE. The precise provisions had not yet been settled, but would be arranged soon.

The conference's warmest welcome went to Boris Pustinsev of Russia's Citizens Watch organisation, which is leading the struggle against SORM. "He's been protesting for 45 years, been in and out of the gulag", said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He's one of the bravest people I know".

Stephanie Perrin, a former Canadian privacy commissioner who now works for Zero Knowledge Systems, said in closing that the international privacy debate was becoming increasingly unpleasant. "The debate seems to be getting extremely violent. You need to spend a lot of time getting yourself out of that good guy/bad guy binary".

The penalties for getting it wrong would be severe, she said. "A surveillance system that is built into the architecture can have horrendous consequences ... The psychological impact of surveillance is the important issue. I don't believe that you can do that (remove privacy protections) without destroying the human spirit". (Duncan Campbell )