Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Encryption

Protecting your data

Under Attack | Encryption is Necessary | Recommendations
Encryption Principles | Encryption Software

A red padlock and “Encrypted” is laid over a blue background showing zeros and ones.

Encryption Under Attack

Encryption is under attack — by police, governments and corporations — as a criminal activity.

Ministers from the ‘Five Eyes’ countries are trying to paint encryption as a dangerous or criminal activity.

 

But in fact ordinary people depend on the encryption built into everyday services like banking and shopping to protect our privacy and security.
OpenMedia

5 Eyes (Canada, Australia, USA, UK and New Zealand): Save Encryption

Despite recent controversies, end-to-end encryption should not be weakened… [while] some additional measures are needed to mitigate the potential harms that can stem from the privacy-protecting technology.
ZDNet

Stand Up For Strong Encryption

Stand up for strong encryption. It matters.

While many of the examples on this page are old, the problem and its solution remains the same.

Return to top

Encryption is Necessary

Not that many years ago, data encryption was relatively unknown to most consumers. Many realized that governments and corporations used this protection, but why did they need it?

Consumers now regularly use encryption in their daily lives. Without encryption banking, commerce and filing of our taxes online would be unsafe.

Everyone Needs Encryption

In today's world of hacking by criminals and spying by governments, it is important that we protect our most important documents from being stolen, or if stolen, to prevent their being used to perform identity theft.

Connect Only to HTTPS Sites

Only connect to sites that are encrypted with HTTPS (HTTP over TLS), especially if you're logging into a site or sharing personal information. More…

There are still a large number of sites that still have not bothered to purchase a security certificate (or use the "Let's Encrypt free service) including some linked from this site.

Some of these sites are legacy sites that are no longer maintained, but a surprising number are current government or non-profit sites.

My recommendation is that you take care in connecting to such sites based upon their reputation and whether you NEED to access information there. Be very careful when signing in or using a credit card on a site without encryption because it is susceptible to “man-in-the-middle” attacks where your data could be stolen.

Privacy

Encryption is necessary to protect our privacy.

[A]s a technological tool, encryption is extremely important, even essential, for the protection of personal information and for the security of electronic devices in use in the digital economy.

 

Unfortunately, the crux of the problem springs from the fact there is no known way to give systemic access to government without simultaneously creating an important risk to the security of this data for the population at large. Laws should not ignore this technological fact.
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Mozilla has a series of advocacy videos that can help you to better understand issues like privacy and encryption.

Journalists, Whistle-blowers, Dissidents

Encryption also protects those vulnerable to persecution such as those working against human rights, political and corporate abuses.

Encryption tools are widely used around the world, including by human rights defenders, civil society, journalists, whistle-blowers and political dissidents facing persecution and harassment…

 

It is neither fanciful nor an exaggeration to say that, without encryption tools, lives may be endangered. In the worst cases, a Government's ability to break into its citizens' phones may lead to the persecution of individuals who are simply exercising their fundamental human rights.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Data Breaches Reveal Poor Security

Corporations or governments have suffered massive data breaches revealing the personal data of millions while protecting their own data with encryption.

One example is the Yahoo breach which initially reported 500 million accounts were breached in 2013. Now we know that all 3 billion Yahoo accounts were affected including Yahoo Mail, Tumblr, Flickr and Fantasy Football.

Data Used to Be Safer

At one time most people only had a desktop computer, which is stationary and, unless you haven't secured the location, is not particularly vulnerable. Computers only left home (or the office) when going to the repair shop.

Data Locked Up

Most documents were transmitted using snail mail, courier or fax. Otherwise they were store in locked offices, often in locked filing cabinets.

Few were connected to the Internet. Those that were connected did so temporarily via a telephone modem (dialup) so online interactions were relatively brief.

The Connected Computer

Today's computers are always connected to the Internet when powered on and most of that software is talking to the Internet at some point whether it be to validate activation, to send analytics or simply to enable features. For example, Microsoft 365, a cloud-based subscription product, has replaced the old office software installed from a CD.

Mobile More Vulnerable

Mobile devices (smart phones, tablets and laptops), on the other hand, are designed for mobility and therefore more likely to be used in unsecured locations at least part of the time.

Today's mobile devices contain a lot of personal information — often as much as our offices and their filing cabinets used to hold. Most of these devices are continually connected to the Internet.

Portability Increased Risk

Mobile devices, as well as the USB hard drives and thumb drives we used to store and transfer data, are at greater risk for loss or theft because they are portable.

Privacy Laws are Outdated

Privacy laws were developed long before the Internet was widely used.

Based Upon Physical Storage and Delivery

When our laws regarding privacy were developed, documents were normally stored on paper in locked file cabinets (or at least not accessible without physically entering the premises).

The government could only legally intercept mail (even with a warrant) while in transit. Electronic delivery was via fax machines.

Electronic Storage Today's Reality

The assumptions old laws used in restricting access to mail delivery should no longer apply because our data is stored in online computers controlled by others.

Instead, governments interpreted this as being “in transit.”

Every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.
— Edward Snowden

Bulk collection of data is much easier and less costly than ever before.

Border Searches

The rules governing border searches also predate personal computers, smartphones and online storage of our documents. Most people carried only the documents essential to their travel when crossing borders.

Governments have abused antiquated laws that permit them to search through papers to apply to our phones, computers and online accounts (if our devices are connected to these accounts when we're searched). It is even common practice for border personnel to copy the entire contents of these devices, supposedly as a deterrent to terrorism.

Encryption is the Answer

If the documents on our devices were encrypted those documents would not be easily read.

Just as an envelope prevents anyone from reading a letter while it's traveling through the mail, encryption stops snoopers from viewing the content of your emails and searches, and prevents hackers from getting access to your sensitive information.
Google

Encryption is under attack

Government agencies have already determined that we have no right to protect our privacy.

We're told that the FBI, R.C.M.P. and other agencies need back doors to encryption protocols (or have it banned altogether).

Authorities state that they are only targeting terrorists or child pornographers. These claims are, at best, deceptive.

Child exploitation is a serious problem, and Apple isn't the first tech company to bend its privacy-protective stance in an attempt to combat it. But that choice will come at a high price for overall user privacy.

 

Apple can explain at length how its technical implementation will preserve privacy and security in its proposed backdoor, but at the end of the day, even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.
Electronic Frontier Foundation

These agencies want every encryption protocol (if it is allowed at all) to have a “back-door” (i.e., special decryption made available to police and government agencies). These agencies already have the capability of unlocking virtually any device.

Back Doors to Encryption Unsafe

We cannot include “back doors” to encryption protocols that only authorized government agencies can use. Any back door is a potential exploit that can be used by criminals, hackers, foreign governments or anyone else to gain access to our personal information.

If a backdoor exists, then anyone can exploit it. All it takes is knowledge of the backdoor and the capability to exploit it.

 

And while it might temporarily be a secret, it's a fragile secret. Backdoors are one of the primary ways to attack computer systems.
Bruce Schneier
“We need to choose between security and surveillance,” Schneier told the summit audience.

 

It's just not possible to build electronic devices that keep data secret from everybody except, say, government officials trying to track the movements of terrorists.

 

“Everybody gets to spy or nobody gets to spy.”
Chris Baraniuk on BBC

Government Rules Compromise iCloud

When you read about nude photos and private information being stolen and posted on the Internet, demonstrates the fallacy of safe back doors to encrypted data:

So what's the difference between iCloud and the iPhone?

 

The iPhone, as DOJ puts it, is “warrant proof”, whereas the data stored in iCloud is warrant friendly, and was designed with this in mind.

 

Data in the iCloud is encrypted and heavily protected by Apple, but the encryption is escrowed in a way that Apple has complete access to the content so that they can service law enforcement requests for data.
Jonathan Zdziarski
Adding backdoors isn't so much a question of adding a secure door to the walls of a stone castle. It's like adding extra holes in the walls of a sandcastle.
Motherboard

Any backdoor can be abused by those entrusted with access:

In 2017, 22 law enforcement employees across California lost or left their jobs after abusing the computer network that grants police access to criminal histories and drivers' records, according to new data compiled by the California Attorney General's office.

 

The records obtained by EFF show a total of 143 violations of database rules—the equivalent of an invasion of privacy every two and half days. Unfortunately, 53 violations resulted in no action being taken at all.

 

While specific information about the nature of the violations is not recorded, the Attorney General has outlined a variety of behaviors that would qualify as misuse.

 

These include querying the database for personal reasons, searching data on celebrities, sharing passwords or access, providing information to unauthorized third parties, and researching a firearm the officer intends to purchase.
Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Terrorist Argument Invalid

Banning encryption (or other modern communication technologies) because it could potentially be used by terrorists is unreasonable.

Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then.

 

And while terrorism turns society's very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response — just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.
Bruce Schneier

The Child Porn Argument

The threats of child pornography being assisted by encryption is a widely-used argument. No one wants to be seen as “standing with the child pornographers.”

That said, while encryption may slow down or place some challenges in such investigations, there are better options than weakening encryption for everyone in order to make it easier to catch a few criminals.

In summary, while the Minister of Public Safety has asserted that encryption enables child predators and abusers to conduct crimes with impertinence, this position is not supported by the facts on the ground.

 

But instead of addressing existing policy deficiencies, or gathering and presenting robust evidence to support the government's position that encryption poses an intractable problem, the Minister has instead irresponsibly indicated support for weakening the communications of all Canadian residents, businesses, and government officials.
CitizenLab

“Going Dark”

The history of the Clipper chip is instructive.

The FBI used the same arguments about the ability of criminals to “go dark” unless a back door was included. Concerns about privacy and widespread surveillance caused it to fail. Few used Clipper because no one trusted it.

Democracies around the world have long recognized that electronic surveillance power in the hands of government is a threat to open societies unless it is properly regulated by an effective legal system.

 

Many countries have enacted surveillance laws, but laws on the books alone to not protect privacy.

 

A vibrant legal system with respect for the rule of law is necessary for privacy protection in the face of ever more powerful electronic surveillance technologies.
Journal of Cybersecurity

Understanding the Implications

Most people don't understand the implications of disallowing or weakening the use of encryption that protects our data.

The R.C.M.P. were trying to take down an organized crime ring but were stymied by the criminals using encrypted Blackberry phones. So Blackberry provided the back door to let the police close down that crime ring.

The Canadian phone maker helped police access BlackBerry messages with a key that decrypts, or unscrambles, communications sent from one phone to another, according to reports from Vice. It's essentially the encryption backdoor that companies like Apple have said they don't want to create.
CNET

The provision of access to a specific set of Mafia-owned phones compromised most Blackberry users.

According to privacy expert Christopher Parsons from Canadian security research hub Citizen Lab, the RCMP may still have the ability to read anybody's encrypted BlackBerry messages, as long as the phone isn't linked to a corporate account.
Vice

What If Police Had Total Access

What if police had permanent access to everything you own including your home, your car, your business — all without a warrant or having to justify those actions in front of a judge.

Imagine for a moment that everybody's front door has the same key. Now imagine that the police have a copy of that key, and can saunter into your living room to poke around your belongings while you're out, and without your knowledge.
Vice

Would you feel safe?

That is essentially the access to your data that a back door to encryption protocols provides, especially if there is no judicial oversight.

Learning More

For a more in depth discussion see:

Your Voice is Needed

Do your part to make the Internet a safer place by ensuring that these misleading arguments don't compromise ecommerce and your privacy by banning encryption.

Data Encryption Moves Mainstream

Microsoft made encryption easier with BitLocker Drive Encryption and the Encrypting File System, but only for some versions. This capability can be obtained by installing third-party software.

But how secure is that encryption software?

Snowden Reveals Massive NSA Access

Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, revealed that NSA has back doors into virtually all operating systems and commercial encryption software — realtime access into anybody's computer was a reality.

Terrorism Threat Exploited

Governments and corporations are using the threat of terrorism to spy on their own citizens without any oversight from independent third parties.

They changed the laws that protect your privacy so these regulations become ineffective.

Everything they have is a state secret, but nothing of yours is. It is this morally-bankrupt status that Snowden felt compelled to reveal.

When asked questions about programs by Congress, the NSA and CIA lie, often reinterpreting standard terminology to their advantage (i.e., they feel they can collect information without a warrant and haven't broken any laws because no one has examined it yet).

They'll state that a certain code-named program “doesn't do that” without revealing that another does.

Obviously the same tactics would hardly keep you safe from legal prosecution in similar circumstances. (Can you imagine a thief getting away with claiming innocence because he hadn't yet spent the money he stole?)

This makes the NSA and CIA “above the law” because it is impossible to hold secret courts accountable.

The NSA has turned the fabric of the internet into a vast surveillance platform, but they are not magical. They're limited by the same economic realities as the rest of us, and our best defense is to make surveillance of us as expensive as possible.
Bruce Schneier
[T]he one top-secret program the NSA desperately did not want us to expose was QUANTUM. This is the NSA's program for what is called packet injection — basically, a technology that allows the agency to hack into computers.
Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier

CIA Tools Frightening

WikiLeaks released a list of CIA Hacking Tools. Many of these are frightening, mostly because you and I are likely the target of these intrusions.

The danger of maintaining these tools is no longer a theory. Several of these tools were stolen from the spy agencies and released into the dark web where cybercriminals and hackers use them to infect our computers with ransomware and other malicious software.

One of these tools is Weeping Angel which allows the CIA to hack your smart phone or smart TV and listen in on you without your knowledge or permission — even if it is turned off.

Everyone is Hacking

The assumptions that only the “good guys” are using these tools is ignorant.

We now live in a world where anyone has access to these tools at the cost of both individual privacy and national security.

This has weakened the Internet everywhere as well as the attractiveness of U.S. technology overseas.

Encryption is the Only Defense

The only self defense from all of the above is universal encryption. Universal encryption is difficult and expensive, but unfortunately necessary.

Encryption doesn't just keep our traffic safe from eavesdroppers, it protects us from attack. DNSSEC validation protects DNS from tampering, while SSL armors both email and web traffic.

There are many engineering and logistic difficulties involved in encrypting all traffic on the internet, but its one we must overcome if we are to defend ourselves from the entities that have weaponized the backbone.
Nicholas Weaver

SSL is no longer sufficient (you need to use a current version of TSL instead).

Return to top

What Can You Do? Five Recommendations

Don't be fooled that your communications are uninteresting — that only the “bad guys” are targets.

“We need to choose between security and surveillance,” Schneier told the summit audience.

 

It's just not possible to build electronic devices that keep data secret from everybody except, say, government officials trying to track the movements of terrorists.

 

“Everybody gets to spy or nobody gets to spy.”
Chris Baraniuk on BBC

The NSA is spending incredible amounts of money to ensure that it can see into your computer, compromise your network and to record your phone calls, then storing the information for later study.

In NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure, Bruce Schneier listed five pieces of advice:

  1. Hide in the network. Implement hidden services. Use Tor to anonymize yourself. Yes, the NSA targets Tor users, but it's work for them. The less obvious you are, the safer you are.
  2. Encrypt your communications. Use TLS. Use IPsec. Again, while it's true that the NSA targets encrypted connections — and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols — you're much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.
  3. Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA — so it probably isn't. If you have something really important, use an air gap. Since I started working with the Snowden documents, I bought a new computer that has never been connected to the internet. If I want to transfer a file, I encrypt the file on the secure computer and walk it over to my internet computer, using a USB stick. To decrypt something, I reverse the process. This might not be bulletproof, but it's pretty good.
  4. Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It's prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software. Systems relying on master secrets are vulnerable to the NSA, through either legal or more clandestine means.
  5. Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations. For example, it's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered. Prefer symmetric cryptography over public-key cryptography. Prefer conventional discrete-log-based systems over elliptic-curve systems; the latter have constants that the NSA influences when they can.

I strongly recommend reading the entire article for the context and to understand what Schneier is saying.

Return to top

Encryption Principles

While your computer's security software may protect your data while it is running normally, your hard drive can be removed and the data collected by placing it into another computer or by using various utilities.

Data encryption works by encrypting the files, folders or even whole drive. This protection is not dependent upon the operating system's security — it works even if someone removes your hard drive.

The Downside

However, if your drive becomes corrupted or if you lose the encryption key the data will be unrecoverable, even by you.

Frequent backups become your only source of recovery in this situation and they must be physically secured to protect the previously encrypted information these backups contain.

What's Best?

Which solution is best depends upon the nature of the information on your computer and how it is used.

If you encrypt the entire drive of your laptop this ensures that all your data is safe if the computer is lost or stolen (even if the drive is removed for data extraction).

Alternatively, if only certain folders contain vulnerable information, you can simply protect those folders.

How Does It Work?

While it isn't essential to know everything about what happens when your data is encrypted, the basics will help you to implement encryption.

Usually encryption software requires you to login to use the encrypted information (or when opening certain folders if only specific folders are encrypted).

Once you have done this, operating the computer should be the same as it is with an unencrypted computer.

Performance

On modern computers with sufficient RAM and other resources, the overhead of running this software should be minimal.

Older computers may suffer slowdowns or jerky operation if there are insufficient resources to run the encryption software properly.

Use Quality Passwords

The security of this solution is dependent upon the quality of your passwords. You should take a moment to review the qualities that make a good password and you'll want to ensure your password isn't compromised.

Return to top

Encryption Software

There are a number of good encryption solutions. Pretty Good Privacy (now owned by Symantec) was one of the original products.

EFAIL Encryption Issue

Thunderbird and AppleMail are vulnerable to the EFAIL encryption vulnerability giving the attacker access to your encrypted emails. Learn more…

The solution is to turn off internal encryption and use external encryption.

Back Doors are Dangerous

Cryptkeeper Vulnerable

Cryptkeeper's vulnerability is a simple back door that unlocks everything without knowing the user's decryption key.

The Linux encryption app Cryptkeeper has a rather stunning security bug: the single-character decryption key "p" decrypts everything.
Bruce Schneier

The revelation of a simple back door shows why it is a mistake to accept government agencies' demands for such access.

While these back doors would surely be more sophisticated, once they are revealed or exploited they make us all vulnerable even if the security failure is suddenly widely reported and corrected.

Governments Weaponized Vulnerabilities

Government agencies collect such software vulnerabilities as weapons and software vendors remain silent about known weaknesses hoping that they'll remain unknown.

Such assumptions have too often proved wrong and long-known vulnerabilities have been exploit by both criminals and foreign governments. Everyone would be better off if the software was fixed before problems occurred and before vulnerabilities became public.

Folder Encryption Solutions

SafeHouse Explorer

SafeHouse Explorer is a free encryption solution for disks and memory sticks.

Cypherix

Cypherix has a number of products including corporate solutions.

WinMagic Encryption Solutions

WinMagic provides simple and seamless security that protects data and people without getting in the way.

Drive-Encryption Solutions

TrueCrypt

TrueCrypt is no longer secure and has been discontinued.

You should choose another encryption solution and are free alternatives to TrueCrypt, but you should investigation potential problems with any solution and follow vulnerability reports.

Bitlocker

As mentioned earlier, Bitlocker is not recommended by Bruce Schneier (see recommendation 5) because it is more likely to have a NSA back door:

[I]t's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered.

FreeOTFE

FreeOTFE is a discontinued free, open source, "on-the-fly" transparent disk encryption program for PCs and PDAs that allows you to encrypt the entire drive.

Return to top

More About Encryption

These sites have useful information on encryption:

Related Resources

On this site:

Found this resource useful?
Buy Me A Coffee

 

Return to top
RussHarvey.bc.ca/resources/encryption.html
Updated: December 20, 2023