Researcher Says Simple Security Fixes From Carriers Would Have Prevented NSA Collection Of Cell Communications
from the we're-nos.-1-whatever,-why-try-harder? dept
Hanlon’s Razor states: never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Replace “stupidity” with “laziness” and you’ve got one researcher’s theory as to why cell phone carriers failed to make basic efforts to provide a secure product — one that would have prevented the NSA’s collection of communications. (h/t to DSLreports)
The world’s mobile phone carriers have failed to implement technology fixes available since 2008 that would have thwarted the National Security Agency’s ability to eavesdrop on many mobile phone calls, a cyber security expert says.
Karsten Nohl, chief scientist with Berlin’s Security Research Labs, told Reuters ahead of a highly anticipated talk at a conference in Germany that his firm discovered the issue while reviewing security measures implemented by mobile operators around the world…
None of the carriers surveyed had implemented measures for thwarting a method that allows the NSA to eavesdrop on most mobile calls by unscrambling a widely used encryption technology known as A5/1[…] Nohl said that method would have been blocked if carriers had applied two patches released in 2008.
Were carriers compelled to leave this hole open for NSA exploitation? It’s a good question, but Nohl says the more likely explanation is that carriers simply didn’t find the problem worth addressing.
“I couldn’t imagine it is complicity. I think it is negligence,” he said. “I don’t want to believe in a worldwide conspiracy across all worldwide network operators. I think it is individual laziness and priority on network speed and network coverage and not security.”
As has been observed everywhere, the path of least resistance is favored by many entities, even those not explicitly performing government work. Making a minimum of effort dumped customers’ conversations right into the NSA’s lap.
Of course, if the NSA had knocked on these carriers’ doors and asked for a small favor, like leaving a security hole big enough to drive a semi full of unused privacy protections through, chances are many would have said, “Sure, why not.” Verizon and AT&T have only very belatedly joined the national conversation on intelligence gathering, after spending months shuffling around the periphery while staring at the floor. For years, these providers have handed over everything the agency’s asked for and shown an active interest in helping it anticipate what it might need next.
But Nohl’s theory dismisses a worldwide conspiracy to dump cell phone customers’ conversations into the waiting ears of the NSA — something that’s more likely to be true. While American carriers have proven to be useful NSA allies, very little has been exposed about the compliance rate of foreign carriers. Not that their resistance would matter much (or that they’d even be approached directly), as foreign intelligence agencies have been just as “helpful” as AT&T and Verizon in terms of granting access to data and communications — much of which ultimately ends up in the NSA’s sprawling lockboxes.
The moral here, if Nohl is correct, is that the industry’s idle hands are the NSA’s workshop. Not doing something can be just as harmful as complete complicity.