Fighting Gag Orders On NSA & FBI Surveillance

One aspect of post 9/11 surveillance which civil libertarians have objected to is the prohibition against disclosing requests for information, adding to the secrecy of these programs.  Cory Doctorow has discussed a possible way to get out information when the NSA or other government agencies  seek information, going back to an idea a librarian had in reaction to the portions of the Patriot Act which prohibited librarians from telling the subject about an information request:

In 2004, American librarians recoiled at the FBI’s demands to rummage through their patrons’ reading habits and use them to infer terroristic intent, and at the FBI’s gag orders preventing librarians from telling their patrons when the police had come snooping.

Jessamyn West, a radical librarian, conceived of a brilliant solution, a sign on the wall of her library reading “THE FBI HAS NOT BEEN HERE (watch very closely for the removal of this sign).” After all, she reasoned, if the law prohibited her from telling people that the FBI had been in, that wasn’t the same as her not not telling people the FBI hadn’t been in, right?

I was reminded of this last week on a call with Nico Sell, one of the organisers of the annual security conference Defcon (whose founder, Jeff Moss, told the NSA that it would not be welcome at this year’s event). Nico wanted me to act as an adviser to her company Wickr, which provides a platform for private messaging. I asked her what she would do in the event that she got a Lavabit-style order to pervert her software’s security.

She explained that her company had committed to publishing regular transparency reports, modelled on those used by companies like Google, with one important difference. Google’s reports do not give the tally of secret orders served on it by governments, because doing so would be illegal. Sell has yet to receive a secret order, so she can legally report in each transparency report: “Wickr has received zero secret orders from law enforcement and spy agencies. Watch closely for this notice to disappear.” When the day came that her service had been served by the NSA, she could provide an alert to attentive users (and, more realistically, journalists) who would spread the word. Wickr is designed so that it knows nothing about its users’ communications, so an NSA order would presumably leave its utility intact, but notice that the service had been subjected to an order would be a useful signal to users of other, related services.

This gave me an idea for a more general service: a dead man’s switch to help fight back in the war on security. This service would allow you to register a URL by requesting a message from it, appending your own public key to it and posting it to that URL.

Once you’re registered, you tell the dead man’s switch how often you plan on notifying it that you have not received a secret order, expressed in hours. Thereafter, the service sits there, quietly sending a random number to you at your specified interval, which you sign and send back as a “No secret orders yet” message. If you miss an update, it publishes that fact to an RSS feed.

Such a service would lend itself to lots of interesting applications. Muck-raking journalists could subscribe to the raw feed, looking for the names of prominent services that had missed their nothing-to-see-here deadlines. Security-minded toolsmiths could provide programmes that looked through your browser history and compared it with the URLs registered with the service and alert you if any of the sites you visit ever show up in the list of possibly-compromised sites.

This won’t help for another type of snooping which has been discovered recently–accessing smart phone data. The NSA can discover the data on the smartphones of suspected terrorists, and perhaps also view the nude pictures on celebrities’ smart phones before they leak to the press.