All Cybersecurity Technology Is Dual-Use

Dan Geer is one of the more interesting thinkers about digital security and privacy around. Geer is a sophisticated technologist with an extremely varied and rich background who has also, fairly recently, become a spook of some kind. Geer is currently the Chief Information Security Officer for In-Q-Tel, the technology investment subsidiary of the CIA, popularly and paradoxically known as a “not-for-profit venture capital firm,” but which gets much more directly involved with its investment targets with the intent of providing “‘ready-soon innovation’ (within 36 months) vital to the IC [intelligence community] mission,” and therefore shuns the phrase “venture capital.”

This might lead one to think that Geer would speak as what Glenn Greenwald likes to call a “government stenographer,” but I find his speeches and writings to be both unusually incisive and extremely independent minded. He often says things that nobody else says, and he says them from a position of knowledge and experience. And what he says often does not line up with either what one imagines “government” thinks, or with what many in industry want; he has recently suggested, contrary to what Google and many “digital freedom” advocates affirm, that the European “Right to Be Forgotten” actually does not go far enough in protecting privacy.

In his talk at the 2014 Black Hat USA conference, the same talk where he made remarks about the Right to Be Forgotten, called “Cybersecurity as Realpolitik” (text; video), Geer made the following deeply insightful observation:

All cyber security technology is dual use.

Here’s the full context of that statement:

Part of my feeling stems from a long-held and well-substantiated belief that all cyber security technology is dual use. Perhaps dual use is a truism for any and all tools from the scalpel to the hammer to the gas can — they can be used for good or ill — but I know that dual use is inherent in cyber security tools. If your definition of “tool” is wide enough, I suggest that the cyber security tool-set favors offense these days. Chris Inglis, recently retired NSA Deputy Director, remarked that if we were to score cyber the way we score soccer, the tally would be 462-456 twenty minutes into the game,[CI] i.e., all offense. I will take his comment as confirming at the highest level not only the dual use nature of cybersecurity but also confirming that offense is where the innovations that only States can afford is going on.

Nevertheless, this essay is an outgrowth from, an extension of, that increasing importance of cybersecurity. With the humility of which I spoke, I do not claim that I have the last word. What I do claim is that when we speak about cybersecurity policy we are no longer engaging in some sort of parlor game. I claim that policy matters are now the most important matters, that once a topic area, like cybersecurity, becomes interlaced with nearly every aspect of life for nearly everybody, the outcome differential between good policies and bad policies broadens, and the ease of finding answers falls. As H.L. Mencken so trenchantly put it, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

geer at black hat

Dan Geer at the Black Hat USA 2014 conference (Photo: Threatpost)

Now what Geer means by “dual-use” here is one of the term’s ordinary meanings: all cybersecurity technology (and really all digital technology) has both civilian and military uses.

But we can expand that, as Geer suggests when he mentions the scalpel, hammer, and gas can, in another way the term is sometimes used: all cybersecurity technology has both offensive and defensive uses.

This basic fact, which is obvious from any careful consideration of game theory or military or intelligence history, seems absolutely lost on the most vocal and most active proponents of personal security: the “cypherpunks” and crypto advocates who continually bombard us with the recommendation we “encrypt everything.” (In “Opt-Out Citizenship” I describe the anti-democratic nature of the end-to-end encryption movement.)

Not only that: I don’t think “cybersecurity” technology is a broad enough term, either: it would be better to say that a huge amount of digital technology is dual-use. That is to say that a great deal of digital technology has uses to which it can be and will be put that are neither obvious nor, necessarily, intended by their developers and even users, and that often work in exactly the opposite way that their developers or advocates say (or think) they do.

This is part of what drives me absolutely crazy about the cypherpunks and other crypterati who have come out in droves in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

They act and write as if they control what they do; as if, unlike the rest of the people in the world, what they do will be accepted as-is, will end the story, will have only the direct effects they intend.

Thus, they write as if significantly upping the amount and efficacy of encryption on the web is something that “bad” hackers and “bad” cypherpunks will just accept.

Despite the fact that we know that’s not true. Any advance in encryption has both offensive and defensive uses. In its most basic form, that means that while encoding or encrypting information might look defensive, the ability to decrypt or decode that information is offensive.

In another form, it means that no matter how carefully and thoroughly you develop your own encryption scheme, the very act of doing that does not merely suggest but ensures—particularly if your new technology gets adopted—that your opponents will use every means available to defeat it, including the (often, very paradoxically if viewed from the right angle, “open source”) information you’ve provided about how your technology works.

This isn’t a recipe for peace or for privacy. It’s an arms war. Cypherpunks might see it as some kind of perverse “peace war,” because they see themselves “only” developing defensive techniques—although given the penchant of those folks for obscurity and anonymity, it’s really special pleading to think that the only people involved in these efforts are engaged in defense.

But they aren’t. They are developing at best new “missile shields,” and the response of offensive technologists has to be—it is required to be, and they are paid to do it—better missiles that can get by the shields.

Further, because these crypterati almost universally adopt an anarcho-capitalist or far-right libertarian hatred for everything about government, they seem unable to grasp the fact that the actual mission of law enforcement and military intelligence—the mission they have to do, even when they are following the law and the constitution perfectly—involves doing everything in their power to crack and penetrate every encryption scheme in use. They have to. One of the ways they do that is to hire the very folks who bray so loudly about the sweet nature of absolute technical privacy—and once on the other side, who is better at finding ways around cryptography than those who pride themselves on their superior hacking skills? And the very development of these skills entails the creation of the universal surveillance systems used by the NSA as revealed by Snowden and others.

The population caught in the middle of this arms war is not made more free by it. We are increasingly imprisoned by it. We are increasingly collateral damage. Rather than (or at least in addition to) escalation, we need to talk about a different paradigm entirely: disarmament.

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