Rising Use of Encryption Foiled the Cops a Record 9 Times in 2013

Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

The spread of usable encryption tools hasn’t exactly made law enforcement wiretaps obsolete. But in a handful of cases over the past year—and more than ever before—it did shut down cops’ attempts to eavesdrop on criminal suspects, the latest sign of a slow but steady increase in encryption’s adoption by police targets over the last decade.

In nine cases in 2013, state police were unable to break the encryption used by criminal suspects they were investigating, according to an annual report on law enforcement eavesdropping released by the U.S. court system on Wednesday. That’s more than twice as many cases as in 2012, when police said that they’d been stymied by crypto in four cases—and that was the first year they’d ever reported encryption preventing them from successfully surveilling a criminal suspect. Before then, the number stood at zero.

The cases in which cops encountered encryption at all, it’s worth noting, still represent just a tiny fraction of law enforcement’s growing overall number of surveillance targets. Feds and state police eavesdropped on U.S. suspects’ phone calls, text messages, and other communications at least 3,500 times in 2013, a statistic that will likely be revised upwards over the next year as law enforcement’s data becomes more complete. Of those thousands of cases, only 41 involved encryption at all. And in 32 cases cops were able to somehow circumvent or break suspects’ privacy protections to eavesdrop on their targets unimpeded. The report doesn’t include details of the specific cases.

Those numbers still contradict the warnings from government agencies like the FBI for more than a decade that the free availability of encryption tools will eventually lead to a “going dark” problem, a dystopian future where criminals and terrorists use privacy tools to make their communications invisible to law enforcement. Last year, for instance, the Drug Enforcement Agency leaked an internal report complaining that Apple’s iMessage encryption was blocking their investigations of drug dealers. “So the cryptapocalypse they warned us about in the 90′s has come to pass,” University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze noted drily on twitter. “Strong crypto used in a whopping 0.25% of wiretaps last year.”

Even so, a look back at the last ten years’ statistics from police reports shows that encryption use is on the rise, even if the number of cases remains small and most encryption use is still futile. As recently as 2006 and 2007, police reported that they hadn’t encountered any uses of encryption at all, and only dealt with one case of a suspect using encryption in 2009, as shown in the chart below. (In Thursday’s report, police also counted another 52 cases of encryption use by their targets prior to 2013, but didn’t specify in which years those incidents had occurred.)


That steady trickle of encryption tools into the public’s hands is a sign that Americans’ awareness of surveillance is rising. Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance began dropping in July of last year, and carried with them a wave of interest in new privacy technologies. “Post-Snowden, both people and companies have become more sophisticated in safeguarding their communications,” says Hanni Fakhoury, a surveillance-focused attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “When you look at this report next year, there will no doubt be even more use of encryption.”

Crypto aside, the report noted a significant drop in the cost of cops’ surveillance. Police reported an average of $41,119 per case in which they intercepted a suspect’s communications in 2013. That’s down 18 percent from the year before, and represents the cheapest snooping ever, perhaps thanks to advances in surveillance technology. In 2003, for instance, a wiretap cost an average of $62,164, almost 50 percent more than today.

That steady drop in the price of spying may be one reason why the number of total wiretap cases has steadily grown over the past decade. Although the total wiretap count for 2013 is still incomplete, it added up to 4,927 cases in 2012, more than twice the 2,136 cases in 2003.

In other words, privacy activists have little reason to celebrate, and police complaints about encryption foiling their investigations ring hollow. “You’ll see the government prop encryption up as a boogeyman, but this is actually a very small problem for them,” he says. “It’s stretching it to say, ‘In nine cases this was an obstacle so we need to rewrite the criminal code.’ That’s overkill.”

This is the VC That Just Bought The Silk Road’s $19M In Bitcoins

The nearly 30,000 bitcoins auctioned off by the U.S. Marshals Service last week will be put to use building digital currency businesses outside of the United States.

The bitcoins are part of a massive cache of digital currency seized by the feds in connection with last year’s bust of the Silk Road online drug marketplace. In a first, they were auctioned by the Marshals Service last Friday, but until today, nobody knew who’d purchased them. It turns out that the auction’s winner was venture capitalist Tim Draper, and he’s going to store them with a company he has invested in called Vaurum. The startup sells software and services to international companies that want to set up their own bitcoin exchanges.

“He’s keeping all of the coins—he won the auction independently,” Avish Bhama, Vaurum’s CEO, tells WIRED. “He’s a client of ours so we’re storing and securing them for him. The partnership enables us to offer liquidity to emerging markets by leveraging unique market making strategies across our exchanges.”

Bitcoin is an increasingly popular currency driven by a network of computers spread across the internet. With just 13 million bitcoins in circulation, it can be hard for new companies to buy large chunks of the digital currency without driving prices up. But the arrangement with Draper will help Vaurum provide its clients with easier access to bitcoins. “It’s still quite difficult to get access to bitcoin in these developing economies, Bhama wrote blog post announcing the news, “and that’s exactly where it is needed the most. Our goal is to build reliable infrastructure and increase liquidity, which are two major challenges in the ecosystem.”

Vaurum was founded last year at Boost, a Bay Area tech incubator founded by Tim Draper’s son, Adam Draper.

ISPs File Legal Complaint in Europe Over Spying



Seven Internet service providers and non-profit groups from various countries have filed a legal complaint against the British spy agency GCHQ. Their issue: that the clandestine organization broke the law by hacking the computers of Internet companies to access their networks.

The complaint, filed with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, calls for an end to the spy agency’s targeting of system administrators in order to gain access to the networks of service providers and conduct mass surveillance. The legal action was filed in conjunction with Privacy International, and stems from reports last year that GCHQ hacked employees of the Belgian telecom Belgacom in order to access and compromise critical routers in the company’s infrastructure to monitor the communication of smartphone users that passed through the router.

The complaint notes that the employees of Belgacom were not targeted because they posed any national security threat or concern, but were instead subject to intrusive surveillance only “because they held positions as administrators of Belgacom’s networks.”

GCHQ, working in conjunction with the NSA, also reportedly targeted internet exchange points operated by three German companies—Stellar, Cetel and IABG—for a similar purpose, violating international laws, the complainants say.

“These widespread attacks on providers and collectives undermine the trust we all place on the internet and greatly endangers the world’s most powerful tool for democracy and free expression,” said Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, in a statement. “It completely cripples our confidence in the internet economy and threatens the rights of all those who use it.”

The seven complainants include Riseup and May First/People Link in the U.S.; GeenNet in the UK; Greenhost in the Netherlands; Jinbonet in South Korea; Mango Email Service in Zimbabwe and the Chaos Computer Club, a nonprofit, in Germany.

Although none of the complainants know if their workers or systems were directly targeted by the spy agencies, they say they have standing to file because they and their users are all at threat of being targeted by the surveillance.

The group accuses GCHQ and the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs of violating several laws, including the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The first violation stems from the fact that in hacking the network assets and computers of the service providers, the attackers alter these systems without the consent of their owners—potentially introducing vulnerabilities in the infrastructure that other parties may exploit—which, the group argues, is unlawful under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 without specific authorization.

The attacks on company computers and the surveillance of employees to conduct the attacks may also violate several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 8, which states that everyone has the right “to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence” and Article 10, which governs the right to free expression. The groups say the latter is threatened when GCHQ conducts mass surveillance that affects every user of an ISP.

The complainants argue that they don’t have to show that they specifically were the target of the attacks and surveillance since the European Court of Human Rights has determined in the past that “the mere existence of legislation which allows a system for the secret monitoring of communications entails a threat of surveillance for all those to whom the legislation may be applied.” Similarly, the mass surveillance “strikes at freedom of communication between users of the telecommunications services and thereby amounts in itself to an interference with the exercise of the applicants’ rights under art.8, irrespective of any measures actually taken against them.”

It’s unclear whether the complaint will have any effect. But GCHQ appears to have been concerned at various points about legal justifications for some of its hacking activity under British law.

An official, quoted in one of the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden last year referencing a hacking technique used against Belgacom, noted that “continued GCHQ involvement” in the activity “may be in jeopardy due to British legal/policy restrictions.”

In another document, a GCHQ representative discussing a software implant that conducts a so-called man-in-the-middle attack to decrypt communications, remarks that its use might be illegal.

“The UK Computer Misuse Act 1990 provides legislative protection against unauthorised access to and modification of computer material,” the representative wrote. “The act makes specific provisions for law enforcement agencies to access computer material under powers of inspection, search or seizure. However, the act makes no such provision for modification of computer material. A Man-in-the-Middle attack causes modification to computer data and will impact the reliability of the data” and therefore may not be allowed “within the current legal constraints.”

Moog’s New Theremini Looks Like a Spaceship, and Sounds Like One Too

The new Theremini from Moog Music, Inc.

The new Theremini from Moog Music, Inc. Ariel Zambelich

The theremin may be one of the oldest electronic musical instruments—it was 1920 when Leo Theremin first cooked up his simple box with antennas sticking out of it—but it’s a device that even today remains firmly anchored in the future.

The tone is otherworldly, sort of a buzzing, nasal whine. In post-war pop culture, it was the perfect weapon for setting the appropriate mood on soundtracks for films and radio shows about aliens. Adding to its unearthly vibe is the fact that you play it without even touching it. The theremin’s pitch and volume are controlled by moving your hands closer to and farther away from the two metal antennas. This not only makes the theremin a freakish crowd-pleaser, but it also makes it freakishly difficult to control. Your “playing” hand moves around in thin air, so pitch can’t be dialed in precisely, and it relies on the player knowing exactly where to place his or her hand in order to hit specific notes. Very few could master its peculiarities; Clara Rockmore famously tamed it, but most mortals just used it to make blooo-eee-boop noises, or to annoy pets, spouses, and bandmates.

Synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog began his career in musical instrument manufacturing in the 1950s by selling a simple theremin kit, so it makes sense that the company bearing his name would release the best 21st century upgrade to the theremin I’ve seen so far.

The Theremini is the latest instrument from Moog Music. The new design is not only retro-beautiful, but it injects some welcome playability into the almost-100-year-old concept. The classic theremin sound is still there, but you can now dial in pitch control. On a standard theremin, moving your right hand towards the antenna would result in a clean glissando sweep, and ever-moving-upwards note. With the Theremini’s pitch control turned on, you get a nice stair-step, so the sound advances up the scale one note at a time without all those messy notes-between-notes. Which particular scale it snaps to—major, minor, dorian, mixolydian, pentatonic, “Gypsy,” “Ryukyu”—and which root note is used gets dialed in by the performer and displayed on the LCD on the front. The level of pitch control is up to you. Same with the oscillator filter control and the built-in echo effect.

I’m happy to report it plays just like a regular theremin when you want it to. There’s a little speaker on top, along with all manner of connections on the back for plugging it into a computer or an amp. But all the glory of Leo’s original design—waving your hands around and evoking the deepest astral melancholy—is here. The new additions like the pitch control and built-in echo make it easier to play alongside other musicians, and they make the instrument far more endearing to listen to on its own, no matter how terrible you are at it.

Perhaps the best addition, though, is the selection of voices. The Moog team pulled some of its best-loved synth voices from the Animoog, it’s super-popular and super-fun iOS instrument, and baked them into the Theremini. So in addition to the classic theremin whoop, you get over 30 presets of synthy skronks, Taurus tubas, percussive plunks, and polyphonic pitter-patter. Groovy, baby.

Can You Figure Out the Movies Behind These 13 Minimalist Posters?

Hints to the answers are in the gallery above. Find the solutions at the bottom of this post.

When Charles Eames articulated his and Ray’s now-famous design philosophy, “the best for the most for the least,” he was referring to furniture. But the line could be used to describe good work from any number of design disciplines. This minimalist set of movie posters, by Spanish design firm Atipo, is one such example.

Atipo created Papers for Characters for Minke, a Spanish company that provides a range of graphic design services and workshops, both for other designers and clients. Their latest tool is an online gallery for ordering colored or card stock paper, so the Atipo team decided to showcase paper’s expressive quality with this series of abstract and symbolic movie posters. It is indeed the best (it’s creative) for the most (any movie fan could guess which poster belongs to which film) for the least (it’s just paper—not even an elementary understanding of Adobe Illustrator was needed to create the posters).

It’s a novel take on graphic design: Rather than using flat icons, or symbols pared down to skimpy geometry, each poster is a piece of card stock that’s been physically tampered with. Jaws is a royal blue piece of paper, with a toothy bite missing from one corner. Dracula is a blood red card, with two round pricks in a corner. And The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—one of the simplest designs in the series, since no tools are needed—is simply a skin-colored piece of paper that’s wrinkled at the top, and smoothes out near the bottom. The analog scratches and tears make each poster expressive in a way that digital graphics couldn’t be. These are tactile, and bear the marks of physical, human movement—much like the films they portray.

Even though most of the movies represented are classics, Atipo didn’t start the project by choosing films. Instead, they worked backwards, first figuring out all the ways they could modify pieces of paper. They made a list: a cigarette burn, a bend, a break, a scratch, and so on. Only after that did they start to compile a list of iconic films.

Can you guess which each represents? Answers are below.









1. Alien

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

3. Bonnie & Clyde

4. Jaws

5. Edward Scissorhands

6. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

7. Rear Window

8. Frankenstein

9. The Man Who Would Be King

10. Psycho

11. Dracula

12. Fahrenheit 451

13. Battleship Potemkin

Exclusive: Fatima Al-Qadiri’s Adult Swim Single Fires the National Anthem Into Space

Image: adult swim

For the fifth year, everyone’s favorite weird-ass TV network is commemorating the summer with a deluge of great music. Adult Swim’s Singles program, started last month, and this week celebrates Independence Day with “Star Spangled,” a new track by electronic composer Fatima al-Qadiri. Al-Qadiri, who grew up in Kuwait during the Iraqi Occupation of the early 1990s, cooked up a spacey, synth-driven rendition of the U.S. national anthem. And if it sounds like it’s telling you something, there’s a reason for that. “‘Star-Spangled’ is dedicated to American national nightmares,” al-Qadiri says in a statement. “On one hand, dark dreams of suburban serial killers and mangled hitch-hike heads. On the other, a false hope of national greatness cooked by covert agendas.” So, yeah, think about that when you’re grilling this weekend. The single officially drops on Friday, but we’ve got it here for an early listen.