Ten years after: What’s changed since Snowden?

By on 11 Jul 2023

Category: Tech matters

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A draft has now hit its third revision, which I strongly encourage people to read. The memo draft-farrell-tenyearsafter discusses the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation about the NSA’s activities, presenting the different perspectives of the authors.

This draft has four authors: Stephen Farrell from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland; Farzaneh Badii from Digital Medusa; Bruce Schneier from Harvard University; and Steven M. Bellovin from Columbia University.

It’s this mix of backgrounds that makes the draft so interesting. Stephen is the IETF’s Security Area Director concerned with reviewing drafts and proposals for their security context and risks, as well as the documents focusing on security as their main topic. Farzaneh is a human rights advocate, and Bruce is a cryptographer and a cryptography advocate. He was one of the people selected to sift through the cache of materials in the ‘Snowden Revelations’ released to the media 10 years ago now. Steven is an academic in cryptography and law and has also been a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner.

The four bring their own unique voices to the consideration of ‘what’s changed in the 10 years’, and a pleasantly personal view to a sometimes relatively dry and technical document space. The draft is not a regular IETF document with ‘normative’ language directing things to be done or not done in protocols but a set of personal reflections. The authors aim to offer historical context while highlighting the security and privacy challenges that the technical community should address.

It’s a document designed to make the technical community think. How should the current state of Internet governance regarding the use of cryptography by Internet users and governments be evaluated? Specifically, how does it serve to safeguard users, or work against them?

Edward Snowden’s release of information was a watershed moment for this generation that is comparable to the Daniel Ellsberg release of information (Pentagon Papers) about the Vietnam War in two ways — it changed society’s common understanding of what governments do, and said they do, and it invoked national security laws against the people trying to share that information with society.

As Stephen Farrell points out, the IETF was under pressure to reflect the government’s ambition to limit cryptography in standards, or to specify forms of cryptographic algorithms that aligned with the government’s desire to ‘see inside’. Instead, the IETF consensus position was to specify the highest level of cryptography possible — the ones commonly held to be the best at the time in open review and specification. It was probably the only sensible outcome, but a good choice, nonetheless.

As a contribution to the future, the draft points out this isn’t a static decision. The IETF needs to keep reflecting on forthcoming cryptographic risks and opportunities. It must design systems that will survive the possibility of Quantum Cryptographic methods (which weaken the long-standing public-private key algorithm model built around the RSA model) and encompass ‘Crypto-agility’.

The draft also flags the risk of the metadata, the non-payload related information that always lies alongside any communication between two or more parties and the inherent risks of information leakage in that metadata. As the document says in closing:

Intelligence agencies won’t go away, nor will national restrictions on cryptography. We have to pick the right path while staying true to our principles.

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