net.wars: Lost in a Haystack

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 September 2010

In the late 1990s you could always tell when a newspaper had just gotten online because it would run a story about the Good Times virus.

Wendy M Grossman

Pause for historical detail: the Good Times virus (and its many

variants) was an email hoax. An email message with the subject heading "Good Times" or, later, "Join the Crew", or "Penpal Greetings", warned recipients that opening email messages with that header would damage their computers or delete the contents of their hard drives. Some versions cited Microsoft, the FCC, or some other authority. The messages also advised recipients to forward the message to all their friends. The mass forwarding and subsequent complaints were the payload.

The point,  in any case, is that the Good Times virus was the first example of mass social engineering that spread by exploiting not particularly clever psychology and a specific kind of technical ignorance. The newspaper staffers of the day were very much ordinary new users in this regard, and they would run the story thinking they were serving their readers. To their own embarrassment, of course. You'd usually see a retraction a week or two later.

Austin Heap, the progenitor of Haystack, software he claimed was devised to protect the online civil liberties of Iranian dissidents, seems unlikely to have been conducting an elaborate hoax rather than merely failing to understand what he was doing. Either way, Haystack represents a significant leap upward in successfully taking mainstream, highly respected publications for a technical ride. Evgeny Morozov's detailed media critique underestimates the impact of the recession and staff cuts on an already endangered industry. We will likely see many more mess-equals-technology-plus-journalism stories because so few technology specialists remain in the post-recession mainstream media.

I first heard Danny O'Brien's doubts about Haystack in June, and his chief concern was simple and easily understood: no one was able to get a copy of the software to test it for flaws. For anyone who knows anything about cryptography or security, that ought to have been damning right out of the gate. The lack of such detail is why experienced technology journalists, including Bruce Schneier, generally avoided commenting on it. There is a simple principle at work here: the *only* reason to trust technology that claims to protect its users' privacy and/or security is that it has been thoroughly peer-reviewed – banged on relentlessly by the brightest and best and they have failed to find holes.

As a counter-example, let's take Phil Zimmermann's PGP, email encryption software that really has protected the lives and identities of far-flung dissidents. In 1991, when PGP first escaped onto the Net, interest in cryptography was still limited to a relatively small, though very passionate, group of people. The very first thing Zimmermann wrote in the documentation was this: why should you trust this product? Just in case readers didn't understand the importance of that question, Zimmermann elaborated, explaining how fiendishly difficult it is to write encryption software that can withstand prolonged and deliberate attacks. He was very careful not to claim that his software offered perfect security, saying only that he had chosen the best algorithms he could from the open literature. He also distributed the source code freely for review by all and sundry (who have to this day failed to find substantive weaknesses). He

concludes: "Anyone who thinks they have devised an unbreakable encryption scheme either is an incredibly rare genius or is naive and inexperienced." Even the software's name played down its capabilities:

Pretty Good Privacy.

When I wrote about PGP in 1993, PGP was already changing the world by up-ending international cryptography regulations, blocking mooted US legislation that would have banned the domestic use of strong cryptography, and defying patent claims. But no one, not even the most passionate cypherpunks, claimed the two-year-old software was the perfect, the only, or even the best answer to the problem of protecting privacy in the digital world. Instead, PGP was part of a wider argument taking shape in many countries over the risks and rewards of allowing civilians to have secure communications.

Now to the claims made for Haystack in its FAQ

However, even if our methods were compromised, our users' communications would be secure. We use state-of-the-art elliptic curve cryptography to ensure that these communications cannot be read. This cryptography is strong enough that the NSA trusts it to secure top-secret data, and we consider our users' privacy to be just as important. Cryptographers refer to this property as perfect forward secrecy.

Without proper and open testing of the entire system – peer review – they could not possibly know this. The strongest cryptographic algorithm is only as good as its implementation. And even then, as Clive Robertson writes in Financial Cryptography, technology is unlikely to be a complete solution.

What a difference a sexy news hook makes. In 1993, the Clinton Administration's response to PGP was an FBI investigation that dogged Zimmermann for two years; in 2010, Hillary Clinton's State Department fast-tracked Haystack through the licensing requirements. Why such a happy embrace of Haystack rather than existing privacy technologies such as Freenet, Tor, or other anonymous remailers and proxies remains as a question for the reader.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).