Thursday, November 06, 2014

Protecting privacy in the GOV.UK Verify scheme

For the last two years I've been working with colleagues in the Cabinet Office's Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group to develop privacy principles for the government's online identity assurance programme. This is now close to launch, and got some front-page attention in The Times on Monday. Here is the just-published letter we sent to the newspaper with more details. The Government Digital Service has also published a response.


Today’s Times (4/11/2014) front-page story contains an error: “Virtual ID for everyone” should read “Virtual IDs for everyone”. It is a vital part of the scheme that we may all have plural identities.

For the last two years, we, as members of the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group, have been working with the dedicated Cabinet Office team to define nine Identity Assurance Principles that, if implemented across government, would protect against the Verify scheme becoming a shadow identity card system.

Control by the citizen is at the heart of these principles. You choose (and can discard) your own virtual identities. They are not imposed on you by the state. You can read more on the principles at

Obviously a citizen using a public service (online or otherwise) needs to be identifiable to that service to some degree. But this does not mean a service provider should have access to any unnecessary information about the citizen. That is what the Verify scheme was conceived, laudably, to achieve. 

Our Identity Assurance Principles are intended to ensure it does achieve that in practice. We have recommended that all existing powers of data access or disclosure should be re-approved by Parliament as these powers have themselves been transformed by modern technology. We also call for effective forms of redress, and for an effective regulatory and judicial oversight over the use of such powers.

Public support for virtual identity will depend on trust and understanding. Our Nine Principles are designed to build that, but will only do so if members of the public know what they are, and that the authorities will obey them. That is why we have asked that, after the testing phase, the principles are written into law to ensure their general application.

Yours faithfully,
Guy Herbert, General Secretary, NO2ID
Louise Bennett, BCS Policy Board Member
Dave Birch, Consult Hyperion
Ian Brown, Professor of Information Security and Privacy, Oxford Internet Institute
Emma Carr, Director, Big Brother Watch
Dr Gus Hosein, Director, Privacy International
Dr Chris Pounder, Amberhawk
Dr Edgar Whitley, London School of Economics

Monday, September 01, 2014

A tour of NATO's cyber HQ

2014-03-09 - Perevalne military base - 0116.JPG
Little Green Men by Anton Holoborodko (Антон Голобородько), CC BY-SA 3.0

NATO is in the news today, declaring that a cyber-attack on any of the military alliance's members could lead to an joint response under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Russia's invasion of Ukraine — reluctant as most NATO members are to label it as such — means this is not just a remote possibility.

I heard more about NATO's plans over the summer, when they were kind enough to invite me on a tour of their headquarters (outside Brussels), cyber-defence facilities (in Mons), and the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn (although unfortunately I couldn't make it to the latter). These plans will be finalised at the Wales Summit of NATO leaders this Thursday/Friday in Newport and Cardiff (whose poor residents have to put up with a 10 mile security fence).

Background and current strategy

NATO's mandate is cyber defence - it will not be carrying out "active defence" (e.g. striking back against hostile systems), nor coordinating member states' cybersecurity (which apparently remains a very sensitive national prerogative).

The first, basic, NATO cyber strategy came in 2008, following attacks on Estonian and Georgian systems by "patriotic hackers" that were strongly suspected to be coordinated by the Russian government. A more developed strategy was agreed in 2011, with an action plan mainly focused on securing NATO's own networks and systems, which link the member states' deployed facilities.

These systems have recently been upgraded in a 58m€ project to provide centralised protection to classified NATO networks across 51 sites, with three to complete. This gives commanders situational awareness and analytical tools, and constantly updates network sensors. 

NATO has established a Cyber Defence Management Board to coordinate policy and military activity. It has defined minimum requirements for cyber protection for national networks that NATO depends on, and national cyber capability targets (e.g. national strategy, CERT, supply chain regulations) for 2019. This has been a major driver of investment and uniformity. The Cyber Defence Committee has the lead political role in policy governance, acting as a link between the North Atlantic Council and all other NATO committees.

NATO has a good EU partnership at staff level, and holds reciprocal briefings with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Council of Europe. There is an "intense tempo" of cooperation with five Western European non-NATO partners (Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland and Finland), as well as Australia and New Zealand. Following vetting for information sharing mirrored by the intelligence domain, this allows these countries to participate in cyber coalition exercises. NATO can blend cyber intelligence with classical intelligence to do much better attribution of attacks.

The new strategy

NATO's 2014 enhanced policy brings new elements:
  • A link between cyber and collective defence. Art. V applies on a political case-by-case basis; there are no general criteria for its application.
  • A focused exploration of the threat landscape.
  • A framework for assistance to allies in cyber crises and in peacetime — the key element is information sharing, alongside rapid reaction teams, NATO as a clearing house for bilateral assistance and the civil emergency planning process, then more generally situational awareness, early warning, exchange of expertise, interoperability, and impact analysis (made possible by increased national investment reducing concerns over free riding).
  • An explicit statement that international law is applicable in the cyber domain.
  • An increased emphasis on training, education and exercises, with “coherent” use of NATO schools.
  • NATO-industry Cyber Partnerships — to be implemented post-Wales, but there are already links with industry, mainly on procurement. NATO wants a different level of information sharing, with a structured platform (building on national sharing) and bigger regular meetings. This will be voluntary, but as inclusive as possible.

The Alliance already has three “smart defence” collaborative development projects between members:
  1. Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Romania and Finland are developing smart sensors, analytical tools, and an information sharing platform.
  2. A Malware Information Sharing Platform, developed at Mons, and offered to all member states. 50% of members are already participating, and this will become NATO-wide.
  3. Portugal has launched a training and education initiative, and wants to use the NATO school to become a major hub. This will be an element in a federated network, and make training more uniform, cheaper and more effective.
Estonia has offered their cyber range to NATO — training, education, and exercises are all increasing.


These all seem sensible measures. I was surprised at how determined many of the NATO members seem to be to preserve their own sovereignty even within the Alliance (although they do need to protect themselves against Russian spies). It is astonishing that (according to the New York Times) the US, UK and Germany will not share information about their offensive cyber capabilities even with their closest allies — leaving NATO officials to scour media reports of Edward Snowden's revelations. (I hope that my expert witness statements in Big Brother Watch v UK and Privacy International v GCHQ were helpful :)

NATO suffered a substantial Distributed Denial of Service attack for the first time on 15-16 March 2014, the night before the Crimean "referendum" on joining Russia, bringing down the NATO website for 12 hours. Successful attacks on public-facing websites have no impact on NATO readiness, but are embarrassing. The Alliance was previously focused on espionage attempts against their systems. 

The enhanced strategy clearly needs to be implemented quickly, before Putin's unconventional warfare tactics and Little Green Men start making higher profile "virtual" appearances in Ukrainian and NATO member systems.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Don't spy on us!

Very inspiring today to see over 500 people turn up for the Don't Spy On Us coalition's day of action, on the first anniversary of Edward Snowden's leaks. There were some great speeches - amongst others from Bruce Schneier, Jimmy Wales, Duncan Campbell and Shami Chakrabarti. 

Here are my notes for my own panel remarks:

Maintaining privacy online is an ongoing struggle. We need changes in both technology and law.

Encrypting everything is a good starting point, and will raise the cost of mass surveillance. But it is not a panacea - it is not nearly easy enough yet for the majority of users, and anyway many organisations hold user data without sufficient organisational and technical controls to adequately protect it. 

NSA’s TURBINE programme is designed to allow control of millions of compromised systems. Even at much lower levels of sophistication, we see millions of machines in botnets. Where the Five Eyes states lead, other nations and then criminals will follow. We need much better tools for producing and verifying trustworthy systems.

Technologists can also help by developing useable open source security tools for non-geeks (GPGTools is a good example). But it's also important to work on standards (like the IETF) and find other ways to get mainstream providers to beef up security (like Google’s TLS monitoring).

One important benefit of the Snowden disclosures has been to force legal discussion of foreign intelligence collection into the open. This was previously an almost undiscussed area of international law. It's important to push stronger standards (like the Necessary & Proportionate principles) and even more importantly, to enforce them - through courts, the UN, international political processes like EU-US treaty negotiations - and every other available forum (such as the Council of Europe, WTO, TTIP…) 

This can be a boring unglamorous slog, and eats up campaign groups’ already scarce resources. But the anti-privacy voices in those venues have to be consistently countered. 

The most important way to protect online privacy is political. It takes thousands of loud voices to persuade politicians over the soothing noises of the security agencies (and the tabloid newspapers that think you can never have enough surveillance). We need many more Julian Hupperts, Claude Moraes and David Davises, in national and European parliaments, to get the long-term legal reforms required. So I hope everyone in this room is already a member of at least one campaign group like ORG or Liberty - and will get more involved in activism on these issues in future. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Finally, some high-level UK debate on Internet surveillance

You wait nine months for some UK political debate on the mass Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency and GCHQ revealed by Edward Snowden, then two speeches come along at once...

This morning I went to listen to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, give his first major speech on the issue (there is a summary in the Guardian). It was thoughtful, and went into much more depth than is typical for top-level political debate on these matters.

Having given up waiting for their coalition partners, the Lib Dems are proposing some immediate changes: reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which should be chaired by an opposition Member of Parliament and hold its meetings in public whenever possible; allowing appeals from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to the English courts; and publishing an annual government transparency report that gives much greater detail about state access to Internet communications and "metadata".

The deputy prime minister talked at length about the controversial "bulk access" to large amounts of Internet traffic that GCHQ has under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Unlike most other politicians, and certainly unlike former GCHQ directors I have heard speak on the subject, he argued that such large-scale access is not automatically acceptable so long as there are strict rules within NSA/GCHQ on access to the "collected" data.

Collection itself is intrusive (as the European Court of Human Rights has long recognised, in cases such as Leander v Sweden and Amann v Switzerland), and should only happen when necessary and proportionate. Indeed, as President Obama's review panel said:

"Although we might be safer if the government had ready access to a massive storehouse of information about every detail of our lives, the impact of such a program on the quality of life and on individual freedom would simply be too great. And this is especially true in light of the alternative measures available to the government... We recommend that the US Government should examine the feasibility of creating software that would allow the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk-data collection."
Meanwhile yesterday, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper gave a shorter speech to Demos. She acknowledged the deficiencies of the existing legal regime, and that the Intelligence and Security Committee should be chaired by an opposition MP to give it more credible independence from the government, and given permanent technological expertise. She also said that the Communications Data Bill previously proposed by the government was "far too widely drawn, giving the Home Secretary unprecedented future powers, and with too few checks and balances, and has rightly been stopped."

There seems to be a developing consensus between the two parties. Yvette Cooper has called for much more public debate about Internet surveillance, echoing Nick Clegg's concern about a loss of public confidence in the intelligence agencies. Both want stronger oversight by converting the existing interception and intelligence commissioners - retired judges  - whose work is largely unknown by the public, into a higher-profile Inspector General. And both recognise that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act now needs changing, in areas such as stronger safeguards for "metadata", and looking again at the broad powers given for GCHQ surveillance of "external" communications that start and/or end outside the British Isles (i.e. most Internet communications).

The deputy PM has asked the MoD's external think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, to convene an Obama-style review panel to report back on these issues after the next election.  By then, as Clegg said, there will be irresistible pressure for Parliament to update the UK legal framework to better reflect the realities of today's Internet - and perhaps a Labour-Lib Dem coalition that would make this happen. Hopefully those Conservative MPs such as David Davis, who have played a strong role in the public debate so far, will also be able to persuade their colleagues in government of the necessity of reform.