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25 May 2015. Responses:

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24 May 2015

What should GCHQ do?

Date: Sun, 24 May 2015 12:09:32 +0100 (BST)
To: nettime-l[at]
From: William Waites <ww[at]>
Subject: <nettime> What should GCHQ do?

Edinburgh, May 24 2015

Back in late April, an invitation [1] was circulated around the School of Informatics which asked academics for ideas about what projects they should fund in the area of ``Cyber Defense''. Presumably the same invitation went out to various universities and other organisations. I was very much conflicted about whether to participate. On the one hand engaging with GCHQ at all seemed like a bad idea. On the other, it was an invitation to tell them directly what I think -- at least then it could be said that they had been told. As it turns out, the even was cancelled at the last minute with no explanation.

If the event had gone ahead, what would I have said? The topic was defense, keeping infrastructure and such safe from attack. This part of their job is different from the offensive surveillance (or ``signals intelligence'' in the jargon) programmes. So it stands to reason that projects that would make their SIGINT job harder would improve our defensive capabilities and make ``UK interests'' safer. After all, the GCHQ is are not the only ones with offensive capabilities, but they're reputed to be pretty well developed so trying to defend against them seems like a good tactic for improving everybody's security. If GCHQ were to fund work in that direction, they would be making a positive contribution to our collective security. That's the argument in broad strokes.

What, specifically, could this mean? One thing is to figure out how to get strong encryption used pervasively. The science is well established, we have good (technical) quality software that does encryption, but still an alarming amount of communications still happen in the clear -- both the content and the meta-data. Why is this? Originally the answer may have been expense, doing encryption is computationally more expensive than not doing it. But that is no longer much of a concern. Computers are fast. Modern computers even have hardware support for encryption (how trustworthy that hardware support is is another important thing to look at). Another answer is that using encryption is difficult. But we know how to make simple, pleasant and natural user interfaces, surely if serious effort were brought to bear this too could be overcome.

The answers probably lie in psychology, sociology and economics. The false argument that only criminals need privacy, and they don't deserve it still convinces many people. Worse, the intuition of the average user about the security properties of their actions does not match the reality. This leads to people typing their lives into Facebook under the mistaken impression that this is somehow a private communication with their friends. How can this impedence mismatch of intuition be improved? If it were improved, we could have an informed population with an accurate perception of the on-line world, less susceptible to many of the threats on the Internet. Surely the UK's population is a ``UK interest''.

Furthermore such research could similarly improve the safety of others outwith the UK since the Internet does not recognise the borders of nation-states. The security of the global population is also in the UK interest since a home computer somewhere in another country with a virus can be used to attack something that the UK cares about. Better that the owner of that home computer is educated and aware and follows good practices by default so it does not become infected in the first place. Of course this would limit the capabilities of agencies in the UK to break into that computer (which, shockingly is now completely allowed [2]) but that is worth it because it is delusional to think that any bug or exploit that allows that to happen will not be also used by criminals or countries that the UK considers to be enemies.

The Internet today, is incredibly centralised. In the UK, infrastructure itself is heavily concentrated in London. A small number of large companies are responsible for the lion's share of traffic and activity. This concentration is a risk. It was not how the Internet was conceived to operate. The risk comes because accident, disasters and bad actors have a relatively small number of targets. The concentration makes mass surveillance easier but it also makes revenue generation using advertisements (a common business model among large Internet companies) possible. The value of such a company is roughly proportional to the number of ``eyeballs'' it can sell to advertisers, so there is a strong incentive to gather as many as possible in one place. It's a lot harder to tailor advertisements if the communication between these eyeballs is encrypted. Automated analysis of behaviour patterns is more difficult and injecting ``relevant'' ads based on content is impossible.

And so we have arrived at the economic problem. The business model of advertising has the same basic requirements as mass surveillance. Thwarting one by decentralisation and ensuring confidentiality of communications means thwarting the other. Improving safety and security by encouraging pervasive encryption means finding a new economic model for the Internet that does not depend on surveillance, that transcends the Web2.0 model of capturing users in silos. Surely this too can be a fruitful direction for research.