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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Lawful Hacking: Using Existing Vulnerabilities for Wiretapping on the Internet

Steve Bellovin

Steve Bellovin - Columbia University

Apr 29, 2015

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For years, legal wiretapping was straightforward: the officer doing the intercept connected a tape recorder or the like to a single pair of wires. By the 1990s, though, the changing structure of telecommunications — there was no longer just “Ma Bell” to talk to — and new technologies such as ISDN and cellular telephony made executing a wiretap more complicated for law enforcement. Simple technologies would no longer suffice. In response, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which mandated a standardized lawful intercept interface on all local phone switches. Technology has continued to progress, and in the face of new forms of communication — Skype, voice chat during multi-player online games, many forms of instant messaging, etc.— law enforcement is again experiencing problems. The FBI has called this “Going Dark”: their loss of access to suspects’ communication. According to news reports, they want changes to the wiretap laws to require a CALEA -­like interface in Internet software.

CALEA , though, has its own issues: it is complex software specifically intended to create a security hole — eavesdropping capability — in the already-­complex environment of a phone switch. It has unfortunately made wiretapping easier for everyone, not just law enforcement. Congress failed to heed experts’ warnings of the danger posed by this mandated vulnerability, but time has proven the experts right. The so-­called “Athens Affair”, where someone used the built-­in lawful intercept mechanism to listen to the cell phone calls of high Greek officials, including the Prime Minister, is but one example. In an earlier work, we showed why extending CALEA to the Internet would create very serious problems, including the security problems it has visited on the phone system.

This talk explores the viability and implications of an alternative method for addressing law enforcement’s need to access communications: legalized hacking of target devices through existing vulnerabilities in end-­user software and platforms.

About the Speaker

Steven M. Bellovin is the Percy K. and Vidal L. W. Hudson Professor of computer science at Columbia University, where he does research on networks, security, and especially why the two don't get along, as well as related public policy issues. In his spare professional time, he does some work on the history of cryptography. He joined the faculty in 2005 after many years at Bell Labs and AT&T Labs Research, where he was an AT&T Fellow. He received a BA degree from Columbia University, and an MS and PhD in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While a graduate student, he helped create Netnews; for this, he and the other perpetrators were given the 1995 Usenix Lifetime Achievement Award (The Flame). Bellovin has served as Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is serving on the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Advisory Committee, and the Technical Guidelines Development Committee of the Election Assistance Commission; he has also received the 2007 NIST/NSA National Computer Systems Security Award and has been elected to the Cybersecurity Hall of Fame.
Bellovin is the co-author of Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, and holds a number of patents on cryptographic and network protocols. He has served on many National Research Council study committees, including those on information systems trustworthiness, the privacy implications of authentication technologies, and cybersecurity research needs; he was also a member of the information technology subcommittee of an NRC study group on science versus terrorism. He was a member of the Internet Architecture Board from 1996-2002; he was co-director of the Security Area of the IETF from 2002 through 2004.

More details may be found at http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/informal-bio.html.

Unless otherwise noted, the security seminar is held on Wednesdays at 4:30P.M. STEW G52, West Lafayette Campus. More information...


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