Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

When they say it’s not about the money…

Posted by Charles II on September 11, 2013

Ryan Gallagher, Slate:

On Sunday, Brazilian TV show Fantastico published previously undisclosed details based on documents obtained by Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The 13-minute news segment focused on the revelation that, according to the leaked files, the NSA apparently targeted Brazil’s state-run Petrobras oil producer for surveillance—undermining a recent statement by the agency that it “does not engage in economic espionage in any domain.” The Petrobras detail has been picked up internationally, and is likely to cause a serious stir in Brazil. (The country is still reeling from the revelation last week that the NSA spied on its president.) But Fantastico delivered several other highly significant nuggets that deserve equal attention.

Google is listed as a target. So are the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and SWIFT, a financial cooperative that connects thousands of banks and is supposed to help “securely” facilitate banking transactions made between more than 200 countries. Other documents show that the NSA’s so-called STORMBREW program—which involves sifting Internet traffic directly off of cables as it is flowing past—is being operated with the help of a “key corporate partner” at about eight key locations across the United States where there is access to “international cables, routers, and switches.” According to a leaked NSA map, this surveillance appears to be taking place at network junction points in Washington, Florida, Texas, at two places in California, and at three further locations in or around Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania.

far from “cracking” SSL encryption—a commonly used protocol that shows up in your browser as HTTPS—the spy agencies have been forced to resort to so-called “man-in-the-middle” attacks to circumvent the encryption by impersonating security certificates in order to intercept data.

Documents from GCHQ’s “network exploitation” unit show that it operates a program called “FLYING PIG” that was started up in response to an increasing use of SSL encryption by email providers like Yahoo, Google, and Hotmail. The FLYING PIG system appears to allow it to identify information related to use of the anonymity browser Tor (it has the option to query “Tor events”) and also allows spies to collect information about specific SSL encryption certificates.

When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.


7 Responses to “When they say it’s not about the money…”

  1. Stormcrow said

    When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.


    I’d be surprised if the oligarchs made as much money off this as the NSA has sunk into it.

    And the long-term economic fallout is going to be the infosec equivalent of Chernobyl. Man-in-the-middle attacks against SSL strike directly at confidentiality of BANKING TRANSACTIONS.

    In other words, the NSA has spent the last 10 years fucking over the same banksters whose interests President 0 has spent the last 5 years trying to protect!

    This is simply what happens when you hand the spies a blank check. Period. End of sentence.

    • Charles II said

      The implication of the article is that the US is committing economic espionage in order to benefit its companies. By knowing the positions of other countries in trade deals, the US is able to get advantage for US companies. This is one example. I wouldn’t be surprised if internal Petrobras discussions ended up in the hands of Goldman Sachs oil futures traders.

      I agree with you that compromising security certificates amounts to dining on the golden goose. Brand USA is now the Jolly Roger. But if Ed Snowden had just not leaked this information, the Benjamins would still be rolling in.

      • Stormcrow said

        I think you’re wrong on both points.

        The history of the VENONA operation has been well covered in a couple of the sources I’ve read. In particular, Baggot went over it in detail in The First War of Physics, and Rhodes also covered it in the 2012 edition of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

        Charles, they didn’t even tell the CIA about this until 1952. Chocolate Jesus, they didn’t tell Harry S. Truman, and he was the President of the United States!!

        Think for a bit about what that implies.

        This is cryptographic espionage. Once it becomes public knowledge, your operation is done. So you tell absolutely no-one who does not need to know. And you don’t even tell them unless you have prima facie reasons to consider them especially trustworthy.

        And as for Ed Snowden … that was inevitable. If it hadn’t been Snowden, it would have been somebody else under a different set of circumstances.

        The political culture right now is an incubator for a sort of intelligence actor that the world has not really seen since the last of the Cambridge 5 ceased operations 50 years ago: the idealistically committed insider.

        Do you really think the Snowden and Manning incidents happened so close together by coincidence?

        Neither Manning nor Snowden have a sponsoring ideology, which is the point of divergence with the Cambridge 5 in the 1940-50 period. It also makes their sort of operation far more difficult to prevent.

        These are genuine lone wolves, and they self-generate when they comprehend the implications of the data they’re dealing with.

        You cannot screen them out with background checks and you cannot screen them out them with polygraph tests. They don’t have circles of “subversive friends” the way so many of the KGB’s assets had in the 1940s. You couldn’t even screen them out with mental telepathy, if you had that to use.

        They are utterly and genuinely sincere, and they have squeaky clean backgrounds.

        When they arrive.

        Their work changes them.

        A phenomenon that’s been understood for centuries but which nobody seems to grasp; watch a good rendition of “Macbeth” and you’ll see that Shakespeare understood it well.

        That means we’re going to see more like them.

      • Charles II said

        I hope you’re right about other whistleblowers emerging, Stormcrow. Anyone intelligent enough to understand what the NSA is doing ought to recognize that it endangers and does not enhance national security.

        I do freely admit that the economic espionage angle is speculative, but it’s now at the level of a sWAG. It’s not a new issue. It dates back to Echelon.

        Segments of the USG have been out of control for longer than I can remember. One of the fascinating things about the Honduran coup was that it seems likely that it was ordered within the military/intel community without presidential approval. I tend to think Hillary was in the loop, but not the president.

        But the same thing has happened elsewhere. Hoover operated without presidential authorization. The Pentagon continues to refuse to be audited. Presidents seize powers that belong to Congress, like War Powers. Members of the Supreme Court engage in wildly corrupt activity with impunity. In short, the government is far more anarchic than civics textbooks would have it. And nowhere is this more true than in the intelligence services.

        I’m not sure I would call either Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden “squeaky clean.” Manning was ultracompetent, but was almost discharged and had altercations and other indications of instability. Snowden inflated his resume, claiming classes at Johns Hopkins that he didn’t take, and claimed he would receive a degree from U. Liverpool that he wasn’t going to get. If there were stable career lines that would promote people gradually as they demonstrate trustworthiness, I don’t think either would have gained the degree of access they did. But of course that would reduce the profit margins at Booz Allen.

        I also can’t agree that if people learn that an intelligence agency is gathering intelligence, it becomes incapable of gathering intelligence. There are exceptions, like Ivy Bells. And certainly the revelation of man-in-the-middle attacks using buggered security certificates has seriously inconvenienced the NSA. But often people do know that the NSA is listening and talk anyway, believing either that they are more clever than the NSA or that the NSA is overwhelmed with data. Certainly the recent track record of the NSA will not inspire fear in our adversaries.

  2. Meanwhile, we find out why GCHQ/NSA held Glenn Greenwald’s partner for so long at the airport — Glenn uses PGP, which every security expert worth the name for the last twenty-odd years has said is unbreakable:

    If they could break PGP, they wouldn’t need to hold people at airports.

  3. Stormcrow said

    I also can’t agree that if people learn that an intelligence agency is gathering intelligence, it becomes incapable of gathering intelligence.

    OK, this sticks out furthest, and I can speak to it clearly.

    I’m not asserting that “if people learn that an intelligence agency is gathering intelligence, it becomes incapable of gathering intelligence”.

    I’m referring to something far more specific: VENONA, like the present-day SSL surveillance, was a cryptographic intelligence operation. More specifically, it relied upon an attack against a correctable weakness.

    Here’s the situation VENONA exploited:

    The USSR’s foreign intelligence services began employment of one-time pads for particularly sensitive communications way back in 1929. This method was so secure, when properly employed, that it’s still theoretically unbreakable, even today.

    But they were also victims of runaway success. The KGB’s own archives describe what the 30s and 40s were like: Soviet intelligence raked in anything and everything. The volume of data they were collecting was immense, beyond anything they had reasonably expected. Or prepared for.

    And this lead them to a disastrous compromise: in order to handle the volume of traffic they now had to transmit, they started reusing their one-time pads.

    That’s how you screw up, with an unbreakable cryptographic system, so badly that your enemies eat you for breakfast.

    After that, all it took to read the KGB’s most sensitive transmissions was one brilliant cryptanalyst, and a hell of a lot of patience.

    Now. Suppose the KGB had gotten wind of the mere fact that the proto-NSA was doing this. What would they have done then?

    • Charles II said

      I don’t think we disagree on anything substantive, Stormcrow. When you say “More specifically, it relied upon an attack against a correctable weakness,” we’re in accord. What makes the compromise of an intelligence gathering technique fatal is when what has been compromised is easily remediable. Like Ivy Bells. If the Soviets knew it was there, they could have easily disabled it and made sure that no other American subs were able to get near their cable.

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