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Thursday, March 31, 2016


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Chanson de Roland

Our government's law enforcement, intelligence, and military services, like all technically sophisticated government law enforcement and military and intelligence services, maintains an arsenal of zero-day exploits for smartphones and all other types of computing devices. They all do that so that they can gather intelligence, conduct cyber warfare, and investigate crime. In fact, there is an industry of third-party contractors who are paid to discover and provide government's law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies with exploits, and those agencies, principally the N.S.A. has it own engineers to discover such exploits, usually for gathering intelligence and providing cyber war capability, though they are rarely also used for law enforcement. This is true for the U.K., Israeli, U.S., Russian, Chinese et al. intelligence, military, and law enforcement services. And for most of these services, such zero-day exploits are never disclosed to manufacturers or publicly disclosed in any way, except where the risk of harm to the nation from not disclosing the exploit is deemed to be greater than the benefit for law enforcement, military uses, and/or intelligence gathering.

There is no law that requires the FBI or any other U.S. law enforcement or intelligence gathering service or the military to disclose its arsenal of zero-day exploits. Nor should there be, for that would result in the unilateral disarmament of the U.S. military, intelligence, and law enforcement services in the face adversaries, hostile forces, and people of nefarious intent, such as terrorists.

What the U.S. does instead of disclosing all of its zero-day exploits is to decide which to disclose and which to keep secret. The committee that does that was setup by the President's order. It is the Vulnerabilities Equities Process. The Vulnerabilities Equity Process (Equity Process) is an senior inter-agency review process that uses a number of factors to decided, under the circumstances, whether to disclose an exploit. However, what those factors are and how the Equities Process makes its decisions is a secret, though we are told that the process is biased toward disclosing exploits to provide greater security and defense for commercial and government computing systems. See http://www.wired.com/2014/04/obama-zero-day/ and http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/us/politics/obama-lets-nsa-exploit-some-internet-flaws-officials-say.html?_r=1. The President has decided that the bias toward disclosure and defense best servers the national interests, but, if that bias is deemed to be a net harm the national interest for a particular exploit, under the prevailing circumstances, the Equities Process will decide not to disclose the exploit. And, of course, particularly close calls are left to the President.

Yet without knowing how the Equities Process reaches it decisions, vaguely stating that there is a bias toward disclosure and defense might effectively result in de facto non-disclosure for the purposes of intelligence gathering and enhancing cyberwar capabilities or even for law enforcement against ordinary crimes that don’t risk national security. But, of course, the Equity Process is a top-secret or even above top-secret process, so it can’t and shouldn’t be disclosed to the public, because to do so would result in grievous harm to U.S. interests. So we are left with hoping that we elect the right President, who will make the right decisions.

And there is the fact that not all systems are treated the same. Admiral Rogers, in his confirmation hearing to head N.S.A. and Cyber Command, said as much: There will be times when an exploit is deemed to important to disclose so that only certain critical military, governmental, and infrastructure systems will be secured, while makers of commercial systems, such smartphones and personal computers, will not be informed of the exploit, much less advised on how to patch it. See Wired report linked to supra. What this means for the Apple and its ilk is that they are on their own in securing against at least certain exploits, and that they, therefore, must retain their own engineering staffs and contractors to discover and patch exploits, for they can not reliably depend on N.S.A. to disclose all of its exploits to them.

And does Apple and its ilk have any remedy in court to force the government to disclose the exploits that it knows of? The short answer is no. There is no law that requires the government to disclose known exploits, nor is Congress likely to pass any such law, nor should it for the reasons that I stated, supra. And the Equity Process would easily qualify as a state secret so that a federal court would quickly dismiss any action on either of two unassailable grounds: First, the cause of action to force disclosure is a complaint for which the law does not grant relief, and, second, even if it did, the state secrets doctrine would require dismissal.

So Apple and its ilk must discover and patch their own exploits.

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