The past few years have been an amazing time for the deployment of encryption. In ten years, encrypted web connections have gone from a novelty into a requirement for running a modern website. Smartphone manufacturers deployed default storage encryption to billions of phones. End-to-end encrypted messaging and phone calls are now deployed to billions of users.
While this progress is exciting to cryptographers and privacy advocates, not everyone sees it this way. A few countries, like the U.K. and Australia, have passed laws in an attempt to gain access to this data, and at least one U.S. proposal has made it to Congress. The Department of Justice recently added its own branding to the mix, asking tech companies to deploy “responsible encryption“.
What, exactly, is “responsible encryption”? Well, that’s a bit of a problem. Nobody on the government’s side of the debate has really been willing to get very specific about that. In fact, a recent speech by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein implored cryptographers to go figure it out.
With this as background, a recent article by GCHQ’s Ian Levy and Crispin Robinson reads like a breath of fresh air. Unlike their American colleagues, the British folks at GCHQ — essentially, the U.K.’s equivalent of NSA — seem eager to engage with the technical community and to put forward serious ideas. Indeed, Levy and Robinson make a concrete proposal in the article above: they offer a new solution designed to surveil both encrypted messaging and phone calls.
In this post I’m going to talk about that proposal as fairly as I can — given that I only have a high-level understanding of the idea. Then I’ll discuss what I think could go wrong.
A brief, illustrated primer on E2E
The GCHQ proposal deals with law-enforcement interception on messaging systems and phone calls. To give some intuition about the proposal, I first need to give a very brief (and ultra-simplified) explanation of how those systems actually work.
The basic idea in any E2E communication systems is that each participant encrypts messages (or audio/video data) directly from one device to the other. This layer of encryption reduces the need to trust your provider’s infrastructure — ranging from telephone lines to servers to undersea cables — which gives added assurance against malicious service providers and hackers.
If you’ll forgive a few silly illustrations, the intuitive result is a picture that looks something like this:
If we consider the group chat/call setting, the picture changes slightly, but only slightly. Each participant still encrypts data to the other participants directly, bypassing the provider. The actual details (specific algorithms, key choices) vary between different systems. But the concept remains the same.
The problem with the simplified pictures above is that there’s actually a lot more going on in an E2E system than just encryption.
In practice, one of the most challenging problems in encrypted messaging stems is getting the key you need to actually perform the encryption. This problem, which is generally known as key distribution, is an age-old concern in the field of computer security. There are many ways for it to go wrong.
In the olden days, we used to ask users to manage and exchange their own keys, and then select which users they wanted to encrypt to. This was terrible and everyone hated it. Modern E2E systems have become popular largely because they hide all of this detail from their users. This comes at the cost of some extra provider-operated infrastructure.
In practice, systems like Apple iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger actually look more like this:
The Apple at the top of the picture above stands in for Apple’s “identity service”, which is a cluster of servers running in Apple’s various data centers. These servers perform many tasks, but most notably: they act as a directory for looking up the encryption key of the person you’re talking to. If that service misfires and gives you the wrong key, the best ciphers in the world won’t help you. You’ll just be encrypting to the wrong person.
These identity services do more than look up keys. In at least some group messaging systems like WhatsApp and iMessage, they also control the membership of group conversations. In poorly-designed systems, the server can add and remove users from a group conversation at will, even if none of the participants have requested this. It’s as though you’re having a conversation in a very private room — but the door is unlocked and the building manager controls who can come enter and join you.
(A technical note: while these two aspects of the identity system serve different purposes, in practice they’re often closely related. For example, in many systems there is little distinction between “group” and “two-participant” messaging. For example, in systems that support multiple devices connected to a single account, like Apple’s iMessage, every single device attached to your user account is treated as a separate party to the conversation. Provided either party has more than one device on their account [say, an iPhone and an iPad] , you can think of every iMessage conversation as being a group conversation.)
Most E2E systems have basic countermeasures against bad behavior by the identity service. For example, client applications will typically alert you when a new user joins your group chat, or when someone adds a new device to your iMessage account. Similarly, both WhatsApp and Signal expose “safety numbers” that allow participants to verify that they received the right cryptographic keys, which offers a check against dishonest providers.
But these countermeasures are not perfect, and not every service offers them. Which brings me to the GCHQ proposal.
What GCHQ wants
The Lawfare article by Levy and Robinson does not present GCHQ’s proposal in great detail. Fortunately, both authors have spent most of the touring the U.S., giving several public talks about their ideas. I had the privilege of speaking to both of them earlier this summer when they visited Johns Hopkins, so I think I have a rough handle on what they’re thinking.
In its outlines, the idea they propose is extremely simple. The goal is to take advantage of existing the weaknesses in the identity management systems of group chat and calling systems. This would allow law enforcement — with the participation of the service provider — to add a “ghost user” (or in some cases, a “ghost device”) to an existing group chat or calling session. In systems where group membership can be modified by the provider infrastructure, this could mostly be done via changes to the server-side components of the provider’s system.
I say that it could mostly be done server-side, because there’s a wrinkle. Even if you modify the provider infrastructure to add unauthorized users to a conversation, most existing E2E systems do notify users when a new participant (or device) joins a conversation. Generally speaking, having a stranger wander into your conversation is a great way to notify criminals that the game’s afoot or what have you, so you’ll absolutely want to block this warning.
While the GCHQ proposal doesn’t go into great detail, it seems to follow that any workable proposal will require providers to suppress those warning messages at the target’s device. This means the proposal will also require changes to the client application as well as the server-side infrastructure.
(Certain apps like Signal are already somewhat hardened against these changes, because group chat setup is handled in an end-to-end encrypted/authenticated fashion by clients. This prevents the server from inserting new users without the collaboration of at least one group participant. At the moment, however, both WhatsApp and iMessage seem vulnerable to GCHQ’s proposed approach.)
Due to this need for extensive server and client modifications, the GCHQ proposal actually represents a very significant change to the design of messaging systems. It seems likely that the client-side code changes would need to be deployed to all users, since you can’t do targeted software updates just against criminals. (Or rather, if you could rely on such targeted software updates, you would just use that capability instead of the thing that GCHQ is proposing.)
Which brings us to the last piece: how do get providers to go along with all of this?
While optimism and cooperation are nice in principle, it seems unlikely that communication providers are going to to voluntarily insert a powerful eavesdropping capability into their encrypted services, if only because it represents a huge and risky modification. Presumably this means that the UK government will have to compel cooperation. One potential avenue for this is to use Technical Capability Notices from the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act. Those notices mandate that a provider offer real-time decryption for sets of users ranging from 1-10,000 users, and moreover, that providers must design their systems to ensure this such a capability remains available.
And herein lies the problem.
Providers are already closing this loophole
The real problem with the GCHQ proposal is that it targets a weakness in messaging/calling systems that’s already well-known to providers, and moreover, a weakness that providers have been working to close — perhaps because they’re worried that someone just like GCHQ (or probably, much worse) will try to exploit it. By making this proposal, the folks at GCHQ have virtually guaranteed that those providers will move much, much faster on this.
And they have quite a few options at their disposal. Over the past several years researchers have proposed several designs that offer transparency to users regarding which keys they’re obtaining from a provider’s identity service. These systems operate by having the identity service commit to the keys that are associated with individual users, such that it’s very hard for the provider to change a user’s keys (or to add a device) without everyone in the world noticing.
As mentioned above, advanced messengers like Signal have “submerged” the group chat management into the encrypted communications flow, so that the server cannot add new users without the digitally authenticated approval of one of the existing participants. This design, if ported to in more popular services like WhatsApp, would seem to kill the GCHQ proposal dead.
Of course, these solutions highlight the tricky nature of GCHQ’s proposal. Note that in order to take advantage of existing vulnerabilities, GCHQ is going to have to require that providers change their system. And of course, once you’ve opened the door to forcing providers to change their system, why stop with small changes? What stops the UK government from, say, taking things a step farther, and using the force of law to compel providers not to harden their systems against this type of attack?
Which brings us to the real problem with the GCHQ proposal. As far as I can see, there are two likely outcomes. In the first, providers rapidly harden their system — which is good! — and in the process kill off the vulnerabilities that make GCHQ’s proposal viable (which is bad, at least for GCHQ). The more interest that governments express towards the proposal, the more likely this first outcome is. In the second outcome, the UK government, perhaps along with other governments, solve this problem by forcing the providers to keep their systems vulnerable. This second outcome is what I worry about.
More concretely, it’s true that today’s systems include existing flaws that are easy to exploit. But that does not mean we should entomb those flaws in concrete. And once law enforcement begins to rely on them, we will effectively have done so. Over time what seems like a “modest proposal” using current flaws will rapidly become an ossifying influence that holds ancient flaws in place. In the worst-case outcome, we’ll be appointing agencies like GCHQ as the ultimate architect of Apple and Facebook’s communication systems.
That is not a good outcome. In fact, it’s one that will likely slow down progress for years to come.