Europe Already Has Draft Standard For Real-Time Government Snooping On Services Like Facebook And Gmail

Tech Dirt

As the old joke goes, standards are wonderful things, that’s why we have so many of them. But who would have thought that ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, has already produced a draft standard on how European governments can snoop on cloud-based services like Facebook and Gmail — even when encrypted connections are used?

ETSI DTR 101 567, to give it the full title, was pointed out to us by Erich Moechel, who has written an excellent exploration of its elements (original in German). Here’s the summary from the draft standard (Microsoft Word format):

The present document provides an overview on requests for handover and delivery of real-time information associated with cloud/virtual services. The report identifies Lawful Interception needs and requirements in the converged cloud/virtual service environment, the challenges and obstacles of complying with those requirements, what implementations can be achieved under existing ETSI LI [Lawful Interception] standards, and what new work may be required to achieve needed Lawful Interception capabilities. Cloud Services in whichever forms they take (Infrastructure, Software, Platform or combinations of these) are often trans border in nature and the information required to maintain Lawful Interception (LI) capability or sufficient coverage for LI support may vary in different countries, or within platforms of different security assurance levels. This work aims to ensure capabilities can be maintained while allowing business to utilise the advantages and innovations of Cloud Services and was undertaken cooperatively with relevant cloud security technical bodies.

As that makes clear, this is being presented as “maintaining” interception capabilities in a world where cloud computing makes previous approaches inapplicable. The new standard specifically mentions social networking, file sharing and video conferencing as new areas that need to be addressed.

One key section spells out how this is to be achieved:

If the traffic is encrypted, the entity responsible for key management must ensure it can be decrypted by the CSP [Communication Service Provider] or LEA [Law Enforcement Agency].

In order to maintain LI coverage the cloud service provider must implement a Cloud Lawful Interception Function (CLIF). This can be by way of Applications Programming Interface (API) or more likely ensuring presentation of information in a format recognisable to interception mechanisms. Deep packet inspection is likely to be a constituent part of this system.

As this makes clear, along with the intercepted information, the standard envisages encryption keys being handed over routinely. Just to make things complete, DPI — deep packet inspection — is also regarded as a likely element of the system.

Since this is currently a draft, the threat it represents might be seen as purely theoretical; but a recent article in the Guardian confirms that the UK government “quietly agreed to measures that could increase the ability of the security services to intercept online communication” — a reference to the ETSI draft. The Guardian also provides us with some explanation of why this draft just happens to be available at precisely the moment when the UK government is announcing a plan that seems likely to use it:

Etsi has faced criticism in the past for the pre-emptive inclusion of wiretapping capabilities, a decision that critics say encouraged European governments to pass their wiretapping laws accordingly. According to Ross Anderson, professor in security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, the institute has strong links with the intelligence agencies and has a significant British contingent, along with a number of US government advisers.

It’s a classic case of policy laundering; here’s how it will probably work.

The British government insists now that it will “only” gather communications data, and not content. At the same time, it will require that ISPs adopt the new ETSI cloud interception standard (once it’s been finalized) in the “black boxes” that they must install under the proposed snooping legislation. That will put in place all the capabilities needed for accessing encrypted streams — since those providing cloud services will be required to hand over the encryption keys — and hence the content. The UK government may not intend accessing content today, but thanks to the wonders of function creep, when it decides to do it tomorrow the facility will be there waiting for it.

Meanwhile, European governments will be able to point to the UK’s adoption of the ETSI standard as just “good practice”; they will ask their own ISPs to implement it, while insisting that they too have no intention of accessing the contents of people’s Internet streams either. Until, that is, the day comes — probably in the wake of some terrorist attack or pedophile scandal — when the governments will note that since the capability is available, it would be “irresponsible” not to use it to tackle these terrible crimes. The US government will then bemoan the fact that Europe is taking better care of its citizens than it can, and will therefore pass laws requiring US ISPs to install similar real-time access to their systems, and for cloud-based services to hand over the encryption keys. Luckily, there will be a well-tried European standard that can serve as a model….