Will Spyware Work?

Monitoring voice and e-mail traffic sounds like a good way to thwart terrorism. The problem? Sorting through the results takes too long for early warning.

As
the United States tries to grapple with the new realities
of war and terrorism, questions for its intelligence
community keep coming: How could something like September
11 occur without plans being detected? Who was tracking
the activities of suspected terrorists inside the country?
How were they even here in the first place? What happened
to those high-tech, Big Brother-type surveillance tools
like the notorious global-communications eavesdropping
network Echelon, or Carnivore, the FBI’s Internet snoopware,
that were supposed to sniff out criminal activity?


For several decades, electronic systems have been
quietly put in place to intercept satellite communications,
tap phone calls, monitor e-mail and Web traffic and
then turn this massive flow of information into intelligence
reports for U.S. leaders and investigative aids for
law enforcement. Yet despite the $30 billion invested
in them, and all the secrecy afforded them, government
information technologies still could not connect the
proverbial dots of the World Trade Center plot. “Obviously,
there were intelligence failures on a number of levels,”
says Barry Posen, a defense policy analyst with MIT’s
Center for International Studies.

Now that it is apparent that these supposedly all-seeing
government systems are not all-knowing, how can we ascertain
that they work at all? While the technologies to intercept
and capture any and every communication conjure images
of an Orwellian omniscience (see “Big
Brother Logs On
,”
TR September 2001),
many experts say the ability to derive useful knowledge
from all that data is still far from plausible. Even
as the processing times get faster and the software
gets smarter, the process of turning raw data into assured
intelligence is far from perfect. If the goal is capturing,
listening to and then actually sussing every single
electronic communication in the United States, “In practical
terms, we’re not even close,” says Gary McGraw, CTO
at Cigital, a Dulles, VA-based network security software
vendor.

It doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying, however.
Today, the U.S. intelligence community comprises more
than a dozen major agencies, including the CIA, FBI
and the National Security Agency. Within these bodies,
there are dozens more departments, such as the CIA’s
directorate of science and technology, that specifically
develop information technologies to aid in the practice
of knowing what other people don’t want them to know.

While the agencies theoretically cooperate, especially
since September 11, there is no centralized information
system to compare and contrast data collected among
them. Critics claim that this bureaucratic and technical
fragmentation is one reason terrorists were able to
hatch their plan under the government’s radar.

It is far from the only one. Even if intelligence
agencies seamlessly integrate their knowledge, the tools
available to them now and for the foreseeable future
do not appear up to the task of providing the early
warning needed to thwart terrorist plots. “My first
reaction is not necessarily a question of why didn’t
these tools work, but how hard it would have been to
discover this in the first place,” says Sayan Chakraborty,
vice president of engineering at Sigaba, a San Mateo,
CA-based company specializing in e-mail encryption.

Hearing without Listening


Despite its most recent, catastrophic lapses, the United
States has a long and distinguished history of successfully
using advanced information-gathering and analysis tools
against its enemies. The Signals Intelligence Section,
the forerunner of today’s National Security Agency,
came into being in World War II, when the United States
broke the Japanese military code known as Purple and
discovered plans to invade Midway Island. The NSA’s
early forays in cryptography contributed to the development
of the first supercomputers and other information technologies.
In his book The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s
Directorate of Science and Technology,
National
Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson
published more than 40 declassified documents that trace
the CIA’s exploitation of science and technology for
the purposes of intelligence gathering. “From the early
1950s to the present, technology has played an essential
part in analysis,” he says.


The granddaddy of today’s governmental electronic
surveillance is Echelon, the National Security Agency’s
infamous, yet officially unacknowledged, global surveillance
network. Said to be the most comprehensive and sophisticated
signals intelligence setup in existence, Echelon reportedly
has the capability to monitor every communication transmitted
by satellite outside of U.S. bordersÑby some counts,
three billion telephone calls, e-mail messages, faxes
and broadcasts daily. Technically, Echelon technology
could monitor domestic communications too, though that
is prohibited under U.S. law.

According to a European Parliament report released
in September, Echelon collects information through a
complex web of radio antennae at listening stations
across the planet. Other sources claim that one listening
station in particular, at Menwith Hill in England, operated
by U.S. and British intelligence services, is placed
in the most convenient spot to tap transatlantic communications
cables as well. Investigations cited by the American
Civil Liberties Union and others report that Echelon
rakes these immense volumes of data through “dictionary”
software that operates on a vast computer network hosted
by intelligence agencies from five countriesÑthe
United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The dictionary program flags messages containing any
of a set of predetermined keywords, such as “bomb” or
“President Bush.” The words are rumored to be changed
on a regular basis.

How the actual process of data sifting works remains
a mystery. National security restrictions prohibit anyone
from speaking publicly about the program. Quips one
source who has followed the technology, “Anyone who
knows about it won’t talk about it, and anyone who talks
about it doesn’t really know about it.” Some experts
suspect, however, that Echelon’s data processing is
based on a variety of technologies in use in the commercial
world today, including speech recognition and word pattern
finding. “Word pattern recognition is nothing new,”
says Winn Schwartau, a security consultant in Seminole,
FL, and the author of Information Warfare and Cybershock.
“We’ve been using that sort of stuff for years. But
if you look at how advanced the searching abilities
for the average person have become, I can only imagine
the type of stuff that government security agencies
have in operation.”

According to Schwartau and others, the ability to
sort through billions of messages and divine anything
useful encompasses a number of techniques. Speech recognition
systems and optical character readers convert spoken
words (from phone conversations) and printed text (as
from intercepted faxes) into catalogued and searchable
digital data. Language translation software turns many
of the world’s spoken tongues into the English that
the U.S. intelligence community prefers. Data-mining
software searches volumes of data and establishes relationships
among them by finding similarities and patterns.

Echelon has supposedly been using techniques like
these to churn data into knowledge about foreign governments,
corporations and even specific individuals since the
1970s. Subjects of surveillance are reported to have
even included the likes of Princess Diana, whose work
eliminating land mines ran counter to U.S. policy. And
in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, according
to reports from the German newspaper Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung,
snippets produced by Echelon
intimated that “a big operation” was in place by terrorists
seeking to destroy “American targets.” Other information
collected may in hindsight be pieced together to divine
a much clearer picture of the operation. Unfortunately,
things did not come together in time to warn of the
attacks.

Watch What You Type


Another government snooping technology that has been
the subject of controversy since long before September
11 is Carnivore. Comprising a set of programs in development
by the FBI since 1996, Carnivore is devised to intercept
data traffic sent over the Internet to assist federal
authorities in criminal investigation. According to
the FBI, Carnivore is installed only with the cooperation
of an Internet service provider and after obtaining
appropriate judicial approval to track e-mail, instant
messages and Web search trails. And the system inspects
only those communications that are legally authorized
for interception.


That, at least, is the theory. Civil liberties organizations
such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
and the Electronic Privacy Information Center worry
Carnivore could be used to monitor much more than that.

To counter that suspicion, the U.S. Department of
Justice hired Chicago-based IIT Research Institute to
perform the only testing of Carnivore permitted outside
government agencies. According to IIT’s report, published
last December, Carnivore works much like the commercial
network diagnostic programsÑcalled “sniffers”Ñthat
are used to monitor corporate networks, and runs on
nothing more than an average personal computer.

After securing the proper warrants, the FBI will approach
an Internet service provider to attach a Carnivore-loaded
PC to its internal cabling. When plugged into a hub,
the collection computer sees all data packets going
by. It then copies only those packets that match settings
prescribed by the FBI and approved by court order. Agents
can view the captured packets in two different modes.
In so-called pen mode, the system displays only information
that identifies the sender and the intended recipientÑnumerical
Internet addresses and e-mail namesÑand subject
lines. In “full mode,” the agent can access not just
this address information but also the entire contents
of the message.

Once Carnivore has been installed at the Internet
service provider, it is controlled remotely, according
to the IIT report. The collection computer is connected
to an analog voice line installed specifically for the
particular tap. The intercepted data are stored on a
two-gigabyte disk, which is then taken back to FBI laboratories
for analysis. The data packetsÑbroken bits of e-mail
messages, Web pages and any other form of data sent
across the InternetÑcan then be rebuilt and reviewed.

While Echelon and Carnivore are the most infamous
intelligence collection tools, they are not the only
ones, however. Government skunk works are constantly
cooking up new tools to assist in covert surveillance
operations. These include other quasi-legendary projects
like Tempest, the code word for a number of surveillance
technologies that can capture data displayed on computer
screens by picking up electromagnetic emissions from
the internal electron beams that create the images.

Every once in a while, the intelligence community
opens its cloak to show off some of its tricks. Last
March, for example, Larry Fairchild, director of the
CIA’s office of advanced information technology, brought
a group of reporters into the basement of the agency’s
headquarters in Langley, VA. There, he demonstrated
two programs deemed safe for public consumption: Fluent
and Oasis.

Fluent performs computer searches of documents written
in different languages. An analyst types in a query
in English, just as if he or she were using a garden-variety
search engine like Google. The software fishes out relevant
documents in a number of foreign languagesÑincluding
Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Korean
and UkrainianÑand then translates them into English.

Oasis converts audio signals from television and radio
broadcasts, such as those from Qatar-based al-Jazeera,
into text. It distinguishes accents, whether the speaker
is male or female, and whether one voice is different
from another of the same gender. The software then generates
a transcript of those transmissions, identifying which
voice uttered which statements. While Oasis can today
comprehend only English-language programs, the CIA is
developing versions that work in Chinese and Arabic,
among other languages. Oasis can reportedly process
and analyze a half-hour broadcast in as little as 10
minutes, as opposed to the 90 minutes that the task
typically takes for an analyst working without the software.

Future Futility

Assuming all this impressive high-tech wizardry is
fully operational, how could a band of terrorists, including
many already suspected as such, operate within U.S.
borders for years and still escape detectionÑundoubtedly
making phone calls and exchanging e-mail with coconspirators
all the while? The answers, unfortunately, don’t provide
a basis for optimism about the ability of these systems
to offer much protection in the new war against terrorism.

First, security and intelligence experts agree that
the mass of information generated every day around the
world far outstrips the capacity of present-day technologies
to process it. “You’re talking about incredible mountains
of information, and trying to find that needle,” says
McGraw.

Intelligence agency leaders themselves have admitted
their vulnerabilities. “We’re behind the curve in keeping
up with the global telecommunications revolution,” National
Security Agency director Michael Hayden told CBS’s 60
Minutes
in a rare public admission last February.
In testimony to Congress days after the attacks on the
World Trade Center and Pentagon, Attorney General John
Ashcroft warned that terrorists still have the “competitive
advantage” when it comes to domestic espionage, and
that “we are sending our troops into the modern field
of battle with antique weapons.”

Then there is the matter of encryption technologies
that can turn even intercepted communications into gobbledygook.
“The odds are nigh on impossible that the NSA or anybody
else is going to be able to break” an encrypted message,
says security expert and author Schwartau. Another technology
that Osama bin Laden’s minions reportedly used falls
under the rubric of steganography: cloaking one type
of data file within another. It is possible, for example,
to hide a text file with attack plans within a bit-mapped
photo of Britney Spears. Just try to filter down the
number of those images flying around the Internet.

And even the most advanced spying technology can be
stymied by embarrassingly primitive countermeasures.
Conspirators can go the old-fashioned route of disguising
their activities by using simple ciphers that substitute
letters for numbers or other letters; Thomas Jefferson
used such codes in his international communiqu*s
as George Washington’s secretary of state. Cigital’s
McGraw says this would be the easiest way to avoid detection:
“To use a crude example: maybe the terrorists substituted
the word ‘banana’ for ‘bomb’ and ‘orange’ for ‘World
Trade Center.’ Do you flag every unusual pattern with
random associations?”

Beyond the pure technology issues lies the question
of how these tools can be used in a way that is compatible
with an open and democratic society. Even in the rally-round-the-flag
mood following the attacks, many U.S. citizens expressed
concern about the government’s expanding authority to
snoop on their movements and communications. Organizations
like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are highly vigilant
about governmental attempts to expand the use of surveillance
technologies such as Carnivore. “We really have no sense
beyond a few basics they decided to reveal about how
they use these tools,” says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney
for the organization. “They just want us to accept that
they need them, without explaining why or how.”

And while technologies like Carnivore have proved
useful in investigations of specific individuals, they
could be abused when directed at wider groups. People
can quickly become “suspects” on no more evidence than
an e-mail received or a Web site visited.

In the end, computer-based surveillance technologies
may be best employed after the fact, says John Pike,
director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web-based military
and intelligence policy group headquartered in Alexandria,
VA. He notes that Carnivore, in particular, “was very
effective in tracking down” and arresting former FBI
agent and Soviet spy Robert Hanssen. “It also helped
dramatically after the bombing to track down these terrorists’
activities. It helped them detain at least 400 to 500
other people as suspects.” According to Pike, U.S. citizens
are going to have to become comfortable with such mass
arrests if this type of technology is going to be used.

Even if the obstacles of bureaucracy, societal resistance
and technical limitations were all to be surmounted,
there’s no assurance that high-tech spyware would ever
provide the kind of security that people now crave.
Will these technologies help recognize the danger next
time? Even the most sophisticated intelligence paraphernalia
still can’t guarantee success when pitted against the
malevolent combination of human ingenuity and capacity
for evil.

Author: Kevin Hogan

News Service: Tech Review

URL: http://techreview.com/magazine/dec01/hogan.asp