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  • May 30, 2014

Standards Corner: Preventing Pervasive Monitoring

 Phil Hunt is an active member of multiple industry standards groups and committees and has spearheaded discussions, creation and ratifications of industry standards including the Kantara Identity Governance Framework, among others. Being an active voice in the industry standards development world, we have invited him to share his discussions, thoughts, news & updates, and discuss use cases, implementation success stories (and even failures) around industry standards on this monthly column.

Author: Phil Hunt

On Wednesday night, I watched NBC’s interview of Edward Snowden. The past year has been tumultuous one in the IT security industry. There has been some amazing revelations about the activities of governments around the world; and, we have had several instances of major security bugs in key security libraries: Apple's ‘gotofail’ bug  the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug, not to mention Java’s zero day bug, and others. Snowden’s information showed the IT industry has been underestimating the need for security, and highlighted a general trend of lax use of TLS and poorly implemented security on the Internet. This did not go unnoticed in the standards community and in particular the IETF.

Last November, the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) met in Vancouver Canada, where the issue of “Internet Hardening” was discussed in a plenary session. Presentations were given by Bruce Schneier, Brian Carpenter,  and Stephen Farrell describing the problem, the work done so far, and potential IETF activities to address the problem pervasive monitoring. At the end of the presentation, the IETF called for consensus on the issue. If you know engineers, you know that it takes a while for a large group to arrive at a consensus and this group numbered approximately 3000. When asked if the IETF should respond to pervasive surveillance attacks? There was an overwhelming response for ‘Yes'. When it came to 'No', the room echoed in silence. This was just the first of several consensus questions that were each overwhelmingly in favour of response. This is the equivalent of a unanimous opinion for the IETF.

Since the meeting, the IETF has followed through with the recent publication of a new “best practices” document on Pervasive Monitoring (RFC 7258). This document is extremely sensitive in its approach and separates the politics of monitoring from the technical ones.

   Pervasive Monitoring (PM) is widespread (and often covert)
surveillance through intrusive gathering of protocol artefacts,
including application content, or protocol metadata such as headers.
Active or passive wiretaps and traffic analysis, (e.g., correlation,
timing or measuring packet sizes), or subverting the cryptographic
keys used to secure protocols can also be used as part of pervasive
monitoring. PM is distinguished by being indiscriminate and very
large scale, rather than by introducing new types of technical
The IETF community's technical assessment is that PM is an attack on
the privacy of Internet users and organisations. The IETF community
has expressed strong agreement that PM is an attack that needs to be
mitigated where possible, via the design of protocols that make PM
significantly more expensive or infeasible. Pervasive monitoring was
discussed at the technical plenary of the November 2013 IETF meeting
[IETF88Plenary] and then through extensive exchanges on IETF mailing
lists. This document records the IETF community's consensus and
establishes the technical nature of PM.

The draft goes on to further qualify what it means by “attack”, clarifying that 

   The term is used here to refer to behavior that subverts the intent 
of communicating parties without the agreement of those parties. An
   attack may change the content of the communication, record the
content or external characteristics of the communication, or through
correlation with other communication events, reveal information the
parties did not intend to be revealed. It may also have other
   effects that similarly subvert the intent of a communicator. 

The past year has shown that Internet specification authors need to put more emphasis into information security and integrity. The year also showed that specifications are not good enough. The implementations of security and protocol specifications have to be of high quality and superior testing. I’m proud to say Oracle has been a strong proponent of this, having already established its own secure coding practices

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