Insecure by design

CALEA (Computer Assistance Law Enforcement) is quietly in the background of current news again, because the FBI is pushing congress to mandate that all future routing equipment manufactured will include back doors for law enforcement. Like in CALEA mandates for telephone switching equipment, such back doors require no warrant to activate, and hence can be secretly enabled at will. Some vendors have already eagerly embraced CALEA inspired backdoors to internet routing equipment in anticipation of future intercept mandates, thereby already compromising the integrity and security their current and future customers. This approach of using backdoors on Internet connected systems, even more so than the original CALEA mandates for wiretapping backdoors in telephone switching centers, is a danger to both our infrastructure and our society.

CALEA has required that all telephone switching equipment manufactured since 1994 must include backdoors to enable wiretapping. While the need for lawful legal intercept is estimated to be in the range of 1000 or so wiretaps per year, and past practices have required not only warrants but also physical access to switching centers, these requirements were neither unduly burdensome, nor unduly expensive for the limited number of lawful investigations normally engaged in per year, whether back then or today. What these historic pre-CALEA limitations did assure is that the cost of mass privacy invasion would be far too expensive to ever effectively undertake.

By contrast, CALEA mandated backdoors allows one to activate wiretaps remotely on any scale desired, and to do so entirely in secret. Indeed, the NSA wiretapping scandal is an example of how CALEA can be misused. That the huge volume of information being collected, and the fact that most of the older telephone switching equipment does not normally support true network remote access, had forced the NSA to co-locate facilities in a number of switching centers to collect their data. Applying CALEA backdoors to distributed and even end-user deployed routing equipment that is already Internet connected of course eliminates the need to co-locate facilities, and hence would make it much harder to detect or determine the scope of any future illegal government activities, in regard to misusing Internet wiretapping.

While these mandates may be only originally intended for spying and use within North America, clearly, with proprietary telephone switching systems, such equipment was often also sold overseas. As the Greek prime minister discovered in 2004, when he and 100 other governmental officials were tapped for over a year by someone making use a CALEA mandated backdoor, “source secret by obscurity” backdoors often do not remain secret. Of course this is not the only incident where CALEA backdoors have been used for espionage purposes by others. Such systems are hence inherently insecure by design.

When one deliberately builds in government mandated backdoors that can be opened in secret and without notice, one is opening such systems to undetected access by anyone who can discover and operate them, including those who may be deemed even more undesirable than national governments spying on their own citizens. Even, as noted in the case of the Greek Government, the security of government facilities themselves may be compromised by outside parties. Such information may be used to blackmail individuals, to acquire identity information for theft, or to acquire passwords and information that could be used to compromise the underlying security of key infrastructures and safety systems, like for example power generation systems.

Personally I do not feel any “safer” in a state that requires the infrastructure for enabling or engages in mass surveillance of it's own citizens, or that practices guilt until proven innocent while claiming to do so in the name of my “protection” and safety. Indeed, I find that such a state is in fact a far greater danger to the safety of myself, my children, and the people as a whole, than the potential threats I am supposedly being protected against, whether real or imagined.


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