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Strengthening the Internet 29 May 2020

Fact Sheet: Government Hacking

What Is It and When Should It Be Used?

Originally published: 29 May 2020
Updated: 7 September 2022

Encryption is a critical component of our day-to-day lives. For much of the world, basic aspects of life rely on encryption to function. Power systems, transport, financial markets, and baby monitors[1] are more trustworthy because of encryption. Encryption protects our most vulnerable data from criminals and terrorists, but it can also hide criminal content from governments.

Government hacking is one of the approaches national security and law enforcement agencies use to obtain access to otherwise encrypted information (e.g., the FBI hired a hacking company to unlock the iPhone at the center of the San Bernardino case). It complements their other efforts to obtain exceptional access by asking or requiring tech companies to have the technical ability to decrypt users’ content when it is requested for law enforcement purposes.

The Internet Society believes strong encryption is vital to the health of the Internet and is deeply concerned about any policy or action that might put that in jeopardy—regardless of its motivation. Government hacking poses a risk of collateral damage to both the Internet and its users, and as such should only ever be considered as a tool of last resort, to be deployed under strict conditions and verifiable safeguards.

Government Hacking Defined

We define ‘government hacking’ as government entities (e.g., national security or law enforcement agencies or private actors on their behalf) exploiting vulnerabilities in systems, software, or hardware to gain access to information that is otherwise encrypted or inaccessible.

Dangers of Government Hacking

Exploiting vulnerabilities of any kind, whether for law enforcement purposes, security testing, or any other purpose, should not be taken lightly. From a technical perspective, hacking an information, communications, or technology (ICT) resource without consent of the user or owner is always an attack, regardless of its motivation. Attacks can damage a device, system, or an active communications stream, or leave them in a less secure state. This significantly increases the risk of future breaches, potentially causing harm to all users of the system.[2]

The risks are increased when governments exploit “zero-day vulnerabilities”—vulnerabilities in software or hardware that are unknown to the vendor or that have not yet been mitigated (e.g. no patch has been released). This approach is particularly dangerous as it exposes the Internet and its users to new security risks for which there is no ready defense. Because of this, there must be clear processes for responsible disclosure and coordinated mitigation of discovered security vulnerabilities as soon as possible so that they can be dealt with.[3]

Exploits can be stolen, leaked, or replicated. Even government entities with the highest levels of security have been compromised. For example, the ShadowBrokers group hacked the U.S. National Security Agency and publicly exposed the agency’s EternalBlue zero-day exploit; the Italian security firm, Hacking Team, was hacked in 2015; and a collection of Central Intelligence Agency hacking tools known as Vault 7 were leaked in 2017.

Any exploit, regardless of its origin, can be re-purposed by criminals or nation-state actors to attack innocent users. The Petya/NotPetya ransomware (based on EternalBlue) caused real-life consequences such as delays in medical treatment, suspension of banking operations, and disruption of port services. These incidents highlight the dangers of any entity – including governments – hoarding zero-day vulnerabilities and creating and storing exploits.

Commercial hacking teams do not only sell their services to the “good guys”. In 2019, security researchers discovered that the software from the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence firm used by many government agencies, had been used to hack into the WhatsApp accounts of journalists and activists and covertly inspect their communications. Other similar news reports indicate that this was by no means the only such use of the technology.

One target can turn into many. Government hacking may be intended to be targeted and surgical, a hacking technique or exploit that works on one target can be turned against other devices of the same kind, and often also other devices and systems. Vulnerabilities and tools can also be discovered or improperly disclosed, or used for other purposes, e.g., to engage in cyber-attacks or cyber warfare by advanced persistent threat (APT) actors, who are often state-aligned. Possibly the most famous example of an APT is the Stuxnet virus, allegedly created by the U.S. and Israeli governments to destroy Iranian nuclear centrifuges, then spread around the globe (well beyond the intended target) affecting millions of other systems.

Weaknesses in computer systems are discovered by attackers all the time. Keeping a weakness secret (to exploit it later) won’t prevent it from being discovered by others.  For example, for the Android operating system, the rediscovery rate for high and critical severity weaknesses has been as much as 23% within a year.[4] Given the existence of weaknesses, the most motivated—like criminals, terrorists, and hostile governments—will work harder than anyone else to find and exploit them. Their value is demonstrated by the prices and demand in black and grey markets.[5] Having deployed working exploits to reverse engineer will make that even easier.

Crossing jurisdictions. There is also the risk of inadvertently infiltrating or tampering with a foreign nation’s networks or systems—an act that could be regarded as an attack against the nation, its interests, or its citizens, with the associated political, economic, and potential cyber-attack consequences. It also may encourage some countries to pursue a sovereign Internet approach.

The Internet Society’s Position on Encryption and Government Hacking

As a technical foundation for trust on the Internet, encryption promotes freedom of expression, commerce, privacy, and user trust, and helps protect data and communications from accidental and malicious harm. The Internet Society believes encryption should be the norm for Internet traffic and data storage, and it is not alone in that belief. For instance, the UN special rapporteur on Human Rights and the OECD have both made strong statements in support of cryptographic tools.

Legal and technical attempts to limit the use of encryption, even if well-intentioned, will negatively impact the security of law-abiding citizens and of the Internet at large.

Government hacking to circumvent encryption also risks the security of innocent users, critical systems (including government networks and services), and the Internet.

We do not support government hacking that poses a risk to the security of the Internet and its users. Because of the risk of collateral damage, it should never become a routine approach for law enforcement or governments to gain access to encrypted content. We also oppose laws and other rules that require tech companies to build security vulnerabilities into their products and services. There is abundant evidence that such vulnerabilities are inevitably leaked or discovered and used for harm.

The risk is particularly acute for government hacking that relies on zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits (as noted above). However, it is also a risk where vulnerabilities are known but un-patched – perhaps because systems are too old, because people cannot afford more secure devices, or due to inadequate patching procedures.

As a general principle, exploiting flaws in any system creates an inherent danger. Even in a perfect scenario where a government entity uses an exploit with the best of intentions, with appropriate authorization, and with a positive result; there is a high risk that the exploit will not stay within the confines of that government. The system, as a whole, becomes less secure merely because the exploit has been used, regardless of the intention.

Given the inherent risks, governments should not collect, solicit, buy, create, store, or exploit vulnerabilities for the purposes of gaining access to information for national security or other law enforcement purposes unless the following conditions apply:

  • Serious—when it can be demonstrated that it is necessary to protect human life, counter imminent and significant risks to public safety, or prevent the most serious of crimes.
  • Last resort—when there is no other viable alternative.
  • Judicial—when it is pursuant to a properly executed judicial warrant.
  • Proportionate—an operation can be objectively considered a targeted and proportionate undertaking that is scoped as narrowly as possible.
  • Risk mitigation—there is no foreseeable risk of damage or other harm to the security of others.
  • Procedural—an impact assessment, based on established criteria, must be completed, and assessed in advance. The criteria should be transparent and defined by relevant stakeholders, and regularly reviewed. This process should include but not be limited to law enforcement, judicial officers, technical specialists, and civil society.
  • Bounded—each instance of government hacking must be authorized based on the pre-approved criteria, and with a clear termination date. “Rolling” authorizations (renewing by default every few weeks or months) should not be used as a means of subverting this requirement.

Never in human history has so much data been available to governments and their enforcement agencies: indeed, in some instances, enforcement has failed not because of a lack of data, but because of a surfeit of it.

The Internet Society urges governments to prioritize other avenues for the collection, analysis and use of information and evidence, so as not to undermine the security of devices, software, and Internet services. This includes analysis of the wealth of open-source intelligence, accessible data held by service providers, relevant communications metadata, and gathering non-digital evidence such as information from witnesses and documents.


Endnotes:

[1] Well-designed baby monitors and security cameras should be securing their data to ensure its confidentiality over the Internet – not all of them do.

[2] Technical hacking may also damage the integrity of digital evidence, thus undermining effective law enforcement and judicial process.

[3] This goes further than a call to create Vulnerability Equities Processes (such as e.g., https://cyberstability.org/norms/#toggle-id-5) in that it calls to disclose every vulnerability.

[4] Herr & Schneier: “What You See Is What You Get: Revisions to Our Paper on Estimating Vulnerability Rediscovery” (Lawfare 2017) https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/Vulnerability%20Rediscovery%20%28belfer-revision%29.pdf

[5] See e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyber-arms_industry#Notable_markets for some named examples of those markets

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