BurnBox Makes Hidden Files Look Like You’ve Deleted Them

Miers likens the problem to a craft project. “You can clean up the things you actually made, but the glitter gets everywhere, it gets all over the place, and operating systems are not good at cleaning it up,” he says.

For BurnBox to work fully as intended, operating systems and applications would likely need to be reimagined with stronger privacy protections. “BurnBox is just one piece of this puzzle of a whole ecosystem of apps,” says Nirvan Tyagi, a PhD candidate at Cornell University and the lead author on the paper. “Here is this problem and we have a solution to one part of it.”

Absent that broader buy-in, BurnBox would help most against someone going through your phone by hand, rather than a full forensic analysis. Although the mere presence of BurnBox on a device might raise the suspicions of a border control agent or similar adversary. In the current version, nothing conceals its existence, though a fully developed version could hide inside, say, inside a calculator app.

For now, the researchers have only developed a way for BurnBox to work for a single client. You couldn’t use it on a Dropbox folder synced between multiple devices. “We have to have this model where you have two different devices and they keep in-sync about what’s deleted and what’s not,” says Miers, but that poses technical hurdles that the team has not yet overcome.

Safe Travels

At least one company has already launched a BurnBox-type product: password manager 1Password. Last year, the company released Travel Mode, a feature which allows users to temporarily remove sensitive passwords from their device and then reinstate them later when they’ve crossed the border. The feature is technologically different and less sophisticated, but it addresses similar kinds of threats.

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“A lot of the ideas behind it are certainly usable,” Jeffrey Goldberg, a security architect at 1Password, says of BurnBox. “I’m not going to rule out that we would try to build on it. On the other hand, we’re fairly happy with Travel Mode and its current threat model.”

One difference between Travel Mode and BurnBox is where the keys to regain the data are located. A savvy border agent could simply compel you to open a browser, log into your 1Password account and turn Travel Mode off. BurnBox requires that you store the key to regain access to your revoked files somewhere not on your person as an added layer of security.

A serious issue with BurnBox, Travel Mode, and other tools like them is that deceiving border officials can have serious consequences. If a sophisticated law enforcement official detects that you’re lying in some way, it’s possible you might get charged with obstructing justice or another crime. In the United Kingdom last year, the director of an activist organization was convicted of willfully obstructing justice after he refused to decrypt his phone and laptop, for example.

The researchers behind BurnBox, however, have considered some of these issues. They designed their system so that users wouldn’t have to lie directly; they can honestly say that there’s no way to regain access to a revoked file while in custody, since the key is meant to be stored in a safe place. Still, if the application were to be fully developed, it could raise a number of legal issues for those who use it. For now, BurnBox remains a cryptographic feat, but not yet a full security solution.

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