Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 9/23/2013 | 44 comments

Andrew Froehlich
Now that we know more about the extent of government snooping both domestically and abroad, there's an important question to ask: Can we ever feel safe again?

It's fairly safe to say that many of us owe an apology to the "tin foil hat" community -- at least in regard to their claims of government spying (makes you wonder about the aliens). I'm still reeling over the increasingly incriminating details regarding how the US government (and others) have been actively monitoring, recording, and storing all kinds of information on foreigners and citizens alike. All the while, they publicly denied this until undeniable details began leaking out. Finally, the NSA has fessed up and admitted to what they were actually doing.

We're talking about things like circumventing online encryption by cracking SSL with super computers. Or even working alongside technology hardware/software companies to knowingly create backdoors into applications and operating systems. It's clear now that the Internet can in no way be considered secure as it once was.

A few months back, I blogged about the possibility that security engineers were being "played" by our governments. At the time, I was simply pontificating. Now I'm fully convinced of this fact. Companies -- including our financial institutions and healthcare providers -- have been deceived into thinking that SSL was a secure form of communication. Nope, turns out that it's not even close.

There are also suspicions that IPSec -- the protocol used for many Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnels -- is likely to be compromised. Additionally, it's looking more and more likely that hardware and software vendors were either "played" like the rest of us — or willingly assisted in creating backdoors into any and all systems. These secret backdoors have been suggested in the past with foreign IT infrastructure companies like Huawei. Now it looks like we have to come to grips that the same thing is happening on this side of the world.

So, not only have encryption protocols been compromised, we must also assume that all network, server, and desktop hardware is riddled with backdoors. This type of mistrust does not sit well with many of us, and there are increasing calls to "take the Internet back." Bruce Schneier of the Guardian recently wrote an article precisely about this topic. In it, he listed several ways to make the Internet secure once and for all. His solution is to rely on the engineering community that built the Internet to come clean and make it secure once again. Some of Mr. Schneier's suggestions include:

  1. The engineering community as a whole must blow the whistle -- and fully expose the extent of current government spying.
  2. Re-engineer the Internet from the ground up -- eliminating easy backdoors and exploits. This will make it too expensive for governments to spy on a large scale.
  3. Take the control of the Internet away from government's and give it back to the people to control.

While I respect this optimistic outlook, I seriously have my doubts that this could ever happen. So much money has already been poured into infrastructure, that to rip it out and replace it with "clean" components would be an enormous undertaking. Secondly, governments around the globe are far too entrenched in the control of the Internet that it would be nearly impossible to uproot this control. We have to admit to ourselves that the Internet is not controlled by the people, but the governments around the world. And they don't have the same ideas regarding privacy that you and I may have.

So will we ever be able to trust that communications can one day become truly secure? It's highly doubtful in my opinion. Ultimately, the means that it's up to business leaders to determine if a lack of security is something worth fighting against -- or simply a sobering new reality moving forward.

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tekedge   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/30/2013 8:29:57 PM
Can the Internet be Saved after Prism!
The govt is reeling from the aftereffects of the accusations and the proof of their spying coming forth. I think NSA will take the disciplinary measures surely to atleast save their reputation!
tekedge   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/30/2013 8:27:46 PM
Re: end of innocence
@Sara! You have me convinced!
davidfletcher   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/30/2013 7:55:53 AM
Re: Keeping the Internet Safe
No, I believe that there is still much good in the world and that even though people might be tempted many of them will still do the right thing. And in addition to that, these people we are referring to still have some controls on them that will deter them from doing the wrong thing.  They are not operating with complete lack of oversight, even though it appears that Mr. Snowden seemed to be as a contracted system administrator.  The majority of the NSA employees themselves are career employees who would not wish to lose their jobs due to a single incident of impropriety, whereas Mr. Snowden entered his employment not concerned about his employment, but intent on exposing flaws in the system. He has done that and those vulnerabilities need to be fixed.
Sara Peters   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/29/2013 6:50:22 PM
Re: Keeping the Internet Safe
@davidfletcher  I appreciate you weighing in here, Dave, since you are yourself a government employee (albeit a state employee, not federal).  So let me ask you something... I'll agree that we shouldn't vilify government employees or intelligence agents, because they are, after all, people just like us, and therefore imperfect, just like the rest of us. However, these people also have rights, powers, access that most of us don't have.

Do you think that if most people were given the same power/access that we'd all be tempted to do bad things (with the assumption that the ends justify the means)? Do you think that absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Sara Peters   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/29/2013 6:37:25 PM
Re: end of innocence
@Andrew Hahahaaa!  "@Sara -- I've always known your distain for SSL...but never really understood why until recently. You must have some kind of 6th sense :)"  A few years ago I did a big feature called "Can We Trust Online Trust?" That's when I decided I hated SSL. Eventually I'll have everyone convinced.

Anand   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/27/2013 4:05:01 AM
Re : Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?
The common man is being taken out from their comfort zone by the government. Although spying claims were rebuffed by the internet community as a whole but such allegations have turned out to be true. While the engineering community can expose the government actions, building the internet from ground up will require severe determination and man power. Most IT companies do keep backdoors in their software as a part of a contract to the government. However if the internet is indeed redesigned then it will make it harder for the governments to spy on. As far as "feeling safe" is concerned, spying has actually helped to remove threats (like terrorist plans). If the internet is made private, terrorists and other shady people would have it too easy. Terrorists can use virtually any resource to make their plans work. For e.g. utilizing the live Google maps. If you need to feel safe, not only from governments but also terrorist organisations then the internet should have a cybercrime control system that won't be affiliated to any government and won't share any information with any third parties.
Damian Romano   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/25/2013 2:12:54 PM
Re: Feeling safe...
@stotheco - to a degree, you're right. At this point is only limited pockets of freedom.
stotheco   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/25/2013 2:03:07 PM
Re: Feeling safe...
Well, in this case, I would say no more freedom...
Andrew Froehlich   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/25/2013 12:44:26 PM
Re: Keeping the Internet Safe
@davidfletcher -- Note that it's NSA staff that are the one's saying that the cases were rare -- not the WSJ or the American people. Of course they're going to say that this is considered rare. They also spent years telling us that they weren't spying on us at all.

"NSA had violated privacy rules on nearly 3,000 occasions in a one-year period"

And that's just what they're admitting to! If they lied about spying in the first place, why should we trust them now?
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davidfletcher   Can the Internet Be Saved After Prism?   9/25/2013 8:46:01 AM
Re: Keeping the Internet Safe
@Andrew That article in the WSJ also mentions that such cases are rare and that the NSA is working to ensure that appropriate disciplinary measures are taken. That is what I would expect and I am glad that they are taking it seriously.
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