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Security & Surveillance

by Josef Kafka

The Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism has been jointly awarded to The Guardian and the Washington Post for their coverage of the Snowden leaks.

Today, government surveillance is a major topic of political discussion across society, but that wasn’t always the case. It’s easy to forget that just a year ago, before the Snowden leaks went public, surveillance was something that everyone wondered about but no one particularly talked about, at least not in the mainstream.

The journalists of the Washington Post and Guardian did change the face of politics, as did Snowden himself, and the Pulitzer reflects that. The award ceremony took place just days after the Heartbleed story broke, which reminded everyone just how wide-ranging internet privacy violations have become. The Heartbleed bug is one of the most serious internet security failures of recent years, and that’s saying something. Basically, the bug affects the widely-used OpenSSL encryption programme, exposing individuals’ passwords and other data to hackers. The bug may have affected up to two-thirds of the world’s websites, including Google, Facebook and other internet giants. Users are being advised to change their passwords immediately.

From the point of view of internet companies, this is called a zero-day flaw, because technicians have zero days to fix the problem.

While the first priority of individuals was to secure their information, once journalists heard the news they immediately tried to figure out who had already been aware that the Heartbleed bug existed. Inevitably, they ended up knocking on the NSA’s door. The White House and US intelligence officials have denied that the National Security Agency had any knowledge of the Heartbleed bug, or that they deliberately manipulated it to acquire confidential information. However, Bloomberg published a report indicating that the NSA was aware of the vulnerability for two years and used it to access critical intelligence. Not only that, but according to Bloomberg’s sources the agency’s analysts deliberately chose to keep quiet about the bug because of the access it afforded them, leaving individuals vulnerable to hacking by criminals, foreign intelligence agencies and other malicious groups.

Elite security organisations dedicate huge amounts of money and labour to identifying online vulnerabilities like Heartbleed. In fact, Bloomberg suggests that the NSA has 1,000 analysts working specifically to identify weaknesses. These flaw-hunters particularly target open-source protocols like OpenSSL. That’s because open-source platforms are very widely-used but also quite under-supported. A huge number of internet companies use open-source protocols, but because they are freely offered their producers are working without much funding or support. So, the security of huge swathes of the internet relies on a small number of over-worked researchers. In fact, the German programmer responsible for Heartbleed has openly accepted responsibility. He was working on his PhD at the time and inputted the error at 11.59 on New Year’s Eve, which demonstrates just how intensely these individuals are working on developing open-source platforms. No doubt, the NSA will face renewed pressure in the coming weeks. President Obama has promised a revision of surveillance policy, but as revelations continue to emerge the task he faces just keeps getting bigger.

The computer security sector, in particular, is expected to heavily criticise the US administration. Of course, for the ordinary internet user, guaranteeing your personal safety comes first. So what does this require? Firstly, you can Use a "test site" to check if a website is affected by the OpenSSL bug and then change your passwords, and then change them again when the SSL is fully repaired. If you are particularly concerned about your personal or commercial information in light of recent revelations, you should consider seeking professional advice. Internet security is a complex area and, as mentioned above, there are many powerful organisations working to undermine your security. Experts can assess whether breaches already exist, as well as advising you on how to maximise the security of your computer system. In many people’s minds, spying is still defined by trilbies and trench coats, like we read about it detective novels. But unfortunately, today’s spies are hidden behind a computer screen and the threats they pose can be far greater as a result. In response, we need to change the way we think about privacy and surveillance, as well as remaining vigilant to intrusion by either governments or companies.


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