Jacob Appelbaum, a US computer security researcher who works with WikiLeaks and about whom I wrote back in 2012 because of the harassment he receives every single time he returns to the US after traveling abroad, gave a presentation at the 30C3 Conference held in Germany in December 2013.
He said that the NSA’s goal is to control people by controlling their machines and NSA spying is only limited by their budgets and time. The talk is long and parts of it were quite technical and over my head (the audience consisted of technical people) but the parts that I could understand were both fascinating and, as he described it, “wrist-splitting depressing”. For me, the most interesting bit begins at the 42-minute mark. You can read an article that describes much of the talk if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.
I wrote a little about his talk earlier but want to pick up on another aspect that he touched upon.
He spoke about how the NSA is able to penetrate into Apple’s systems because of its weak protections against infiltration and he posed the question as to whether this was because Apple was colluding with the US government or whether since Steve Jobs’s death, the quality of the company’s software has been declining.
“Either they have a huge collection of exploits that work against Apple products — meaning they are hoarding information about critical systems American companies product and sabotaging them — or Apple sabotages it themselves… Everything that the United States government accused the Chinese of doing — which they are also doing, I believe—we are learning that the US government has been doing to American companies.”
He said that one way that the NSA gets data from computers is by adding backdoors in the computer casing so that it cannot be detected by examining the motherboard. He also said that the NSA uses devices that beam one kilowatt of radio-frequency energy at people at short range without having done any study of the health and safety considerations of irradiating people that way for long times.
In his talk, he spoke about the difficulties created by the Edward Snowden documents for the reporters working on them. Although the documents name the perpetrators of the spying as well as their victims, he said that they had to redact those as the price they had to pay to be able to continue to publish stories based on the documents. Their goal was to expose the programs not the individuals.
He said that the US government’s actions are sabotaging American companies in the global marketplace because foreign governments and companies will no longer want to hire Americans because of suspicions that they are acting as agents of the US government. He also said that any weakness that the NSA can exploit, others can too. So by deliberately weakening encryption standards and creating other backdoors, they are weakening security precautions that can be exploited by anyone with any motives.
One serious consequence of the US government co-opting American tech companies as accomplices in its spying programs is that now all American computer security specialists (like him) are viewed with suspicion around the globe as possible agents of the NSA and thus their businesses are affected.
Marketplace also ran a report back on January 16, 2014 on the impact of Obama’s spying programs on the computer business world. It interviewed Brough Turner, the founder and CTO at netBlazr, an internet service provider in Watertown, Mass.
“I was in Germany in October, and it was pretty clear that American services are completely suspicious and American products are somewhat suspicious,” Turner said. “That was three months ago. At this point, the situation is much more negative.”
Turner says that Obama can start putting some of these concerns at ease if he proposes a policy to protect the privacy of foreign internet users.
The NSA revelations are also calling into question the security of cloud computing, said Matt Simons, the director of social and economic justice at ThoughtWorks, which builds custom software for business around the world. He says moving software to the cloud has, in part, fueled this tech boom
But “people are seeking to build their own clouds, people are seeking to use clouds that are not storing their data inside the United States,” Simons said.
He added that the NSA revelations appear to be having a bigger impact on small and medium sized businesses. While there are few alternatives to Google, Facebook and Amazon, the global competition for smaller scale products is fierce.
Now that everyone in the tech industry knows about the spying and many of the ways it is being carried out, they have the opportunity to begin to organize and fight back.