TOP-SECRET – EU Parliament Study on Mass Surveillance

The following study was released in two parts by the European Parliament Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) program earlier this month.

Part 1 – Risks and opportunities raised by the current generation of network services and applications 66 pages Download
Part 1 – Annex 1
66 pages Download
(13.3 MB PDF)
Part 1 – Annex 2
66 pages Download
Part 2 – Technology foresight, options for longer term security and privacy improvements 80 pages Download
Part 2 – Annex 1 100 pages Download
Part 2 – Annex 2
4 pages Download
Complete study and all appendices in a ZIP archive Download
(17.5 MB ZIP)

The disclosure of controversial mass surveillance programmes by intelligence and national security agencies has evoked an international debate on the right of citizens to be protected from illegitimate or warrantless collection and analysis of their data and meta-data. This report aims at identifying what are the risks of data breaches for users of publicly available Internet services such as web browsing, email, social networks, cloud computing, or voice communications, via personal computers or mobile devices, and what are the possible impacts for the citizens and the European Information Society. In this context a clear distinction has to be made between data and meta-data. Also it must be differentiated between mass unwarranted and indiscriminate interception, and targeted lawful interception of Internet and telephony data for the purpose of law enforcement and crime investigation. While targeted lawful interception constitutes a necessary and legitimate instrument of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, mass surveillance is considered a threat to civil liberties such as the right to freedom of opinion and expression. These civil liberties are essential human rights in democratic societies and of particular importance for safeguarding independent journalism and political opposition.

Meta-data is data that is produced when electronic communication channels, like Internet or telephony are used and that provides information about the time, the origin the destination, the location, the duration and the frequency of communications carried out. Meta-data does, however, not contain the content of communications. Two types of meta-data exist, meta-data that provides data on the content (e.g. read/write/modify attributes of the file, author of the document, GPS location of a picture, etc.), and meta-data of the communication (e.g. sender, receiver, communication duration, communication starting date and time, communication channel, communication protocol used, etc.). In the context of this study, the cardinal interest lies on communication meta-data.

Communication meta-data is routinely gathered by telecom providers and Internet service providers as part of their business operations. Different laws and regulations exist in Europe and other countries that define the retention period of this data. The lawful interception of meta-data is targeted surveillance required by law enforcement authorities and is not considered as mass surveillance. The analysis of meta-data, despite the fact that it does not contain content, can reveal very detailed information about the person who has generated it.

Another potential source of information containing private data are Cookies. Cookies are text files that visited websites store on a user’s local disk. Cookies allow for smarter and faster navigation, and are commonly used for personalizing website content, as well as ads and features by associated third parties. No evidence has been found that government agencies are leveraging the information that can be inferred from the data contained in Cookies through collaboration with commercial tracking companies.

The structured nature of meta-data is ideally suited for analysis using data mining techniques such as pattern recognition, machine learning, and information or data fusion. Meta-data analysis can reveal an extraordinary amount of information about people’s habits and associations that when aggregated – data over time, or linked with other datasets – can expose even richer personal information and associational details. Unless special precautions are taken, few personal secrets of everyday life would withstand close analysis of meta-data.

Government agencies are intercepting meta-data either through their own technical capabilities, or accessing it through service providers on the basis of lawful requests, or under threat of fines. They also possess powerful capabilities to break system protections and to infiltrate systems and networks by applying advanced hard and software technology.

Commercial surveillance technology vendors are selling software applications and tools for surveillance purposes as advanced solutions for lawful communications data (including both metadata and content) interception, collection, processing and/or analysis. Clients are governments, intelligence organizations, national security and law enforcement agencies which use these intelligence platforms and tools for collecting, processing and analysing both, mass and targeted communications data.

The legal context for commercial surveillance technology vendors is defined in different national and international laws, agreements and regulations. The Wassenaar Agreement, a comprehensive international treaty on export controls, including surveillance technology and undersigned by 42 states, has been extended in 2013 to law enforcement/intelligence gathering tools and IP network surveillance systems or equipment. Notwithstanding, the report of the UN OHCHR of June 2014 states that in most states, legal standards are either non-existent or inadequate to deal with the modern communications surveillance environment.

But also national security agencies themselves have developed a number of highly sophisticated hard and software interception tools that enable them to penetrate networking equipment, monitor mobile phones and computers and divert or even modify data without being noticed.

A special focus in the endeavour of mass surveillance is on breaking encryption that may prevent access to relevant data for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Software flaws in the implementation of encryption algorithms can lead to vulnerabilities which may be easily exploitable, regardless of the complexity, the theoretical strength or quality of the applied encryption technique. Security agencies have managed to exploit such vulnerabilities, allegedly by introducing backdoors in encryption standards, but have had only limited success with traditional cryptanalytic attacks. The new generation of encryption technology is proficient enough to avoid deterministic brute force attacks and provides the most reliable protection against unauthorized data access if its implementation and configuration parameters are well set up. Major attacks occur when implementations of current encryption technologies do not faithfully comply with their specifications, or when bugs and flaws – sometimes deliberately – are injected at code level. This is the reason for calling for a policy action that guarantees European citizens access to certified, resilient and open source implementations of different encryption specifications.

For an end user it is practically impossible to detect whether meta-data generated while navigating through the web, sending mails, or establishing other communications through Internet is being analysed or used by third parties and even less, if a system is subject to a complex attack orchestrated by powerful opponents like government agencies. Citizens can protect their privacy by applying safety conscious practices and using special software tools and services that help hiding their digital traces. Firewalls, anti-virus software, Virtual Private Networks, anonymizing proxies and networks and, most importantly, cryptography are technical means accessible to end users. But even though it is possible to hinder unauthorized access to private data or meta-data by applying a mix of different protection mechanisms, there is no means for guaranteeing total immunity against such attacks. Policy options that are considered of help in reducing the risk of privacy intrusion by mass surveillance in a short to mid-term timeframe are: a) the promotion of open source operating systems and applications that allow for constant inspection and scrutiny by a large community of experts and verification and validation bodies and b) investing in and stimulating the integration of user friendly, utility-like software solutions.

The threat posed by mass surveillance practices can however not be solved on a technical terrain. Intelligence and security agencies will always have a competitive advantage in winning a race for technological supremacy in Internet security due to the resources at their command. The problem needs to be addressed on a political level. An adequate balance between civil liberties and legitimate national security interests needs to be established, based on a public discussion that empowers citizens to decide upon their civil rights affected and the societal values at stake.

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