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Creating a "coercion resistant" communications system

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Eleanor Saitta's (previously) 2016 essay "Coercion-Resistant Design" (which is new to me) is an excellent introduction to the technical countermeasures that systems designers can employ to defeat non-technical, legal attacks: for example, the threat of prison if you don't back-door your product. Saitta's paper advises systems designers to contemplate ways to arbitrage both the rule of law and technical pre-commitments to make it harder for governments to force you to weaken the security of your product or compromise your users. A good example of this is Certificate Transparency, a distributed system designed to catch Certificate Authorities that cheat and issue certificates to allow criminals or governments to impersonate popular websites like Google. Certificate Transparency is embedded in most browsers, which publish an automatic, cryptographically signed stream of observations about the certificates they encounter in the wild, with information about who issued them. These are appended to multiple log-servers in countries around the world, and anyone can monitor these servers to see if their own domain shows up in a certificate they don't recognize. The upshot of this is that if you run a Certificate Authority and your government (or a criminal) says, "Issue a Google certificate so we can spy on people or we'll put you up against a wall and shoot you," you can say to them, "I will do this, but you should know that the gambit will be discovered within an hour, and within 48 hours, we will be out of business." For an attacker to subvert this system, they'd need to compromise the browsers of everyone who they send the fake certificate to (if they can do this, they don't need fake certs!), or they need to hack multiple, well-guarded servers around the world, or they need to get the governments of all the countries where those servers are located to order their operators to secretly subvert them. Read the rest

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