Announcing Floodwatch

floodwatch

Most web users are now pretty aware that their browsing and searching habits are constantly tracked. This tracking data is captured by advertising companies that then feed our information into ever-growing profiles that presume to know our age, gender, income strata, as well as our preferences and shopping habits. It’s exactly these profiles that generates the ads that to follow you from website to website, to remind you that, “Hey, you were shopping for sneakers, right?”.

But you are not your browser history. Far too often, your browsing patterns can lead to inaccurate assumptions about your preferences and personal characteristics. These inaccuracies are melded into your internet persona, which then influences what ads you see or how much you’re charged for an item. [Read more...]

The Washington Post’s Surveillance Coverage Won a Pulitzer!

pulitzerThe Washington Post was just awarded a Pulitzer for, “its revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.”

I am very proud to work with Barton Gellman and to be identified as part of this reporting team!

Read more here.

Security at the Mercy of Advertising

mixedmode

Yahoo’s latest move is yet another example of the tension between end-user security and the online advertising ecosystem.

Last year, Yahoo announced plans to enable encryption by default as a direct response to a story that Barton Gellman and I wrote about the NSA’s collection of millions of address books globally.  One of the slides we referenced in that story indicated that the NSA was collecting substantially more addresses from Yahoo than the other providers (444,743 from Yahoo vs. 105,068 from Hotmail or 33,697 from Gmail). These figures make sense given that, at the time, Yahoo was still not using default encryption for their front-end webmail users, let alone their back end email delivery (something I’ve written about previously).

Today, Yahoo announced they’ve made progress on their encryption plans with the help of former iSec Partner’s cofounder, and information security guru, Alex Stamos.  As Alex’s first post as Yahoo CISO indicates: [Read more...]

Apple’s #gotofail weekend

gotofail

In case you spent your weekend watching closing ceremonies and not reading tech news, there was a lot of buzz around a security problem in Apple products. On Friday, Apple released an emergency update for iOS7 that fixed a severe vulnerability in their SSL/TLS implementation on the iPhone.

For those who are not technically inclined, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) are the encryption protocols underlying, among many things, the little lock icon you see in the upper right corner of your browser. This encryption protects you from eavesdroppers when logging into any secure site, like your bank account. It also protects you from actors like the NSA (and other governments) scooping up your emails in bulk when you’re … well … anywhere. After Apple released the emergency update for iPhone, security firm CrowdStrike examined the patch and reverse engineered the vulnerabilities it was addressing, only to find out that it repaired some pretty significant parts of the iPhone operating system. They also found that the same vulnerability exists in Apple’s OS X operating system meaning that the problem extends to Mac OS X laptops/desktops, not just iPhones. [Read more...]

PEN America Essay: Understanding the Threat

I wrote this essay for a conference hosted by PEN America on the chilling effects of surveillance. I was asked to address what questions researchers should focus on and I discussed the threat posed by stored data and the opportunity for researchers to create new transparency tools. It was originally published here, but you can also read it below!


How do we protect something we can barely see?

As much time as we spend discussing privacy, you would think it’d be easy to define. Yet the more we discuss it, the more it becomes apparent that our definitions of privacy vary widely. For some it means keeping only their deepest secrets safe, while for others any information collected about them without their consent is perceived as a violation. Despite these inconsistencies, most definitions of privacy depend on knowing and controlling what information is collected about us.

Most of the time users don’t realize how much information they are sharing, how it’s stored, or who has access to it. In the analog world, controlling one’s own information was relatively straightforward. Obvious physical and cost barriers limit how quickly and how far information about an individual can be shared. Its reach was our personal circle of friends or maybe a wider community if there were a diligent town gossip. But technology has expanded the reach of information significantly. Now, there are vast quantities of data collected about individual users daily, often stored indefinitely in data centers operated by private companies, and available to anyone that is granted (or can forcefully obtain) access. [Read more...]

The Cost of Surveillance

actual numbers

Graph showing the difference in hourly cost between various location tracking techniques.

The Yale Law Journal Online (YLJO) just published an article that I co-authored with Kevin Bankston (first workshopped at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference last year) entitled “Tiny Constables and the Cost of Surveillance: Making Cents Out of United States v. Jones.” In it, we discuss the drastic reduction in the cost of tracking an individual’s location and show how technology has greatly reduced the barriers to performing surveillance. We estimate the hourly cost of location tracking techniques used in landmark Supreme Court cases JonesKaro, and Knotts and use the opinions issued in those cases to propose an objective metric: if the cost of the surveillance using the new technique is an order of magnitude (ten times) less than the cost of the surveillance without using the new technique, then the new technique violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, the graph above shows that tracking a suspect using a GPS device is 28 times cheaper than assigning officers to follow him. [Read more...]

The Limits of Harvesting Users Online

The state of New Jersey recently announced a $1 million settlement with E-Sports Entertainment, LLC over allegations that the company installed malware on its customers’ computers. The Attorney General claimed that E-Sports’ software allowed the company to use its customer’s computers to mine for Bitcoins without the user’s knowledge, generating thousands of dollars in Bitcoin value for E-Sports (and no value for the users) after numerous reports of unusually high CPU usage by their customers.  E-Sports released a statement apologizing and clarifying that this was the behavior of a rogue programmer. They also announced that they are donating the value of the bitcoins ($3,713) to the American Cancer Society plus doubling the donation from their own funds.

There were multiple components to the New Jersey case, including a privacy count regarding monitoring of users’ computer even when they were offline. However, the Bitcoin aspect of the complaint is extremely prescient, as there seems to be a burgeoning trend of government regulators looking more seriously at Bitcoin.

[Read more...]

TLS – A simple step to improve cloud email security

tls

The Washington Post published a new piece by Barton Gellman and myself on Wednesday that revealed new insights into how the NSA conducts surveillance on US technology companies. Specifically, we described how the NSA captures data flowing between the private data centers of companies like Google and Yahoo. Google announced last month that it’s beginning to encrypt these links (possibly based on some precinct paranoia) and the WSJ reports that other firms are “racing to encrypt data.” This is a great development, in my opinion, as even if the NSA weren’t monitoring these links, it’s safe to assume that other foreign governments are.

However, as the firms begin to beef up their own internal security, its also important to note that links BETWEEN companies are still unencrypted.  For example, when Google users send email to Yahoo users, that communication is still entirely “cleartext” and accessible in bulk to anyone listening. I had researched this question a few months ago and found that, of the four US webmail providers (Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL), only Gmail supports encrypted email transport (see the graphic above).

[Read more...]

Why Apple’s claim that it can’t intercept iMessages is largely semantics

insideapple
This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Post last Saturday in response to Apple’s claims about the security of iMessage.


A lively debate is brewing over the security of Apples iMessages. I was recently quoted on this issue, but Apple has since responded, and it seems important to clarify that the argument now seems to be largely a matter of semantics.
In case you missed it, a group of researchers at Quarklab recently analyzed the iMessage protocol, including the trust model and key exchange, and found some mistakes that leave iMessages open to attacks. I had also previously demonstrated that iCloud backups, including backed-up iMessages, could easily be accessed by Apple. This news is important because previous reports suggested that iMessage encryption was a major impediment to law enforcement, and Apple specifically described iMessage data as “protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them” in response to their reported participation in the NSA’s PRISM program.

Apple stands by its claim that its software can’t be intercepted and that it is not reading iMessages. In that article, Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said: “iMessage is not architected to allow Apple to read messages. The research discussed theoretical vulnerabilities that would require Apple to re-engineer the iMessage system to exploit it, and Apple has no plans or intentions to do so.”

But Apple’s response that it cannot intercept messages is a bit misleading.

Apple controls the entire stack: the phone operating system (iOS), iMessage application, the SSL certificates, and key exchange. Quarklab’s researchers demonstrated that if they could obtain (or fake) a trusted Apple SSL certificate AND man-in-the-middle the iMessage key exchange, they would be in a position to intercept or tamper with iMessage. Basically, that means iMessage could be vulnerable if an actor is able to convince the application that they are authorized to carry the data and to insert themselves between the users.
[Read more...]

A Group of Geeks Submitted Questions on NSA Activities

geeksquad1

I recently submitted comments to the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies along with 46 other leading technologists.  The mission of this Review Group is to assess whether technological advances, specifically technical data collection capabilities, have undermined the public trust.  (Spoiler alert: they have.)

Our comments focused on the need for a technical expert to advise the panel on how online systems work and what the implications are of tapping into them.  We also expressed our concern that the NSA’s efforts to subvert encryption and to plant backdoors undermine security for everyone online.  Most importantly, our comments include a number of technical questions that we feel this panel should focus on and, when possible, ask that the intelligence community provide answers.  You can read the full comments here.

The panel’s work was affected by last week’s government shutdown.  It’s not clear how this delay will impact their timeline for a final report, if at all, but I don’t expect to hear answers to our questions soon.

CIR/NPR Collaboration – Your Data and Who Has Access to It

I collaborated with NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting to develop this script describing who is tracking you throughout your day.  The video shows how your digital trail can be assembled into a pretty complete picture of who you are.  Some of the script may seem pretty far fetched, but every example was vetted by yours truly and occurs every day (in the US).

You can read the corresponding CIR story here.
NPR’s 4 part series on “All Tech Considered” below called “Your Digital Trail” below:

Part 1: How It Can Be Used Against You
Part 2: Privacy Company Access
Part 3: Does The Fourth Amendment Protect Us?
Part 4: Data Fuels Political And Legal Agendas

Questions on the Google AdID

I’ve received a few inquiries about the recent announcement of Google AdID. Because Google hasn’t released many details about the implementation, I am a bit reluctant to speculate too broadly. However, I thought it would be useful to present some thoughts on the potential reasons for this shift and its impact on consumer privacy.

Google’s proposed advertising ID seems to be motivated by the following factors:

  1. The increasing number of consumers blocking 3rd party cookies. Recent studies indicate that consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy online and as many as 20% have blocked browser cookies.  I suspect this figure will rise as privacy issues continue to capture public attention.
  2. The trend of advertisers moving to non-cookie based identifiers (e.g. browser fingerprinting).
  3. To avoid missteps along the same lines of Apple/Safari.
  4. The increased pressure to offer advertisers ‘enhanced’ cross-device tracking capabilities like they already do with google analytics.
  5. The tension (and lack of progress) in the Do-Not-Track negotiations–specifically, the Digital Advertising Alliance’s (DAA) recent abandonment of the process. (Google is a member of the DAA.)

[Read more...]

Bits of Freedom: The Dutch Perspective

The Bits of Freedom Crew

I was recently invited to be a visiting fellow at Bits of Freedom in Amsterdam. This was a great opportunity to gain insight into the European privacy debate, not to mention escape the DC summer and visit an amazing city full of bicycles.

Bits of Freedom is a digital rights organization, not unlike the EFF in the United States. They are a mix of lawyers, activists, and tech folk who work at the intersection of technology and human rights. BoF focuses on issues such as transparency, active hacking, net neutrality, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The staff employ a variety of tools to meet their goals including FOIA, government transparency reports, advocacy campaigns, and direct lobbying to, “influence legislation and self-regulation” both in the Netherlands and across the EU.

My visit focused on learning from the experts here as well as providing some of my own perspective. [Read more...]

How Protecting Your Privacy Could Make You the Bad Guy

pandora netherlands

There’s a funny catch-22 when it comes to privacy best practices. The very techniques that experts recommend to protect your privacy from government and commercial tracking could be at odds with the antiquated, vague Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

A number of researchers (including me) recently joined an amicus brief (filed by Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society in the “Weev” case), arguing how security and privacy researchers are put at risk by this law.

However, I’d also like to make the case here that the CFAA is bad privacy policy for consumers, too. [Read more...]

Comments for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

I am speaking today at the PCLOB meeting on Sections 215 and 702 of the PATRIOT Act.  My panel begins at 12:30 and you can watch it live here.

I will be commenting on the role of technology in these programs, focused on how the limits of technology suggest that claims that surveillance programs can avoid targeting Americans are probably overstated. [Read more...]

As Technology Changes, So Should Law

Improved technology enabled the NSA’s mass surveillance programs and future improvements will make collecting data on citizens easier and easier.

Recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency come as no surprise to those with a technical background in the workings of digital communications. The leaked documents show how the NSA has taken advantage of the increased use of digital communications and cloud services, coupled with outdated privacy laws, to expand and streamline their surveillance programs. This is a predictable response to the shrinking cost and growing efficiency of surveillance brought about by new technology. The extent to which technology has reduced the time and cost necessary to conduct surveillance should play an important role in our national discussion of this issue.

The American public previously, maybe unknowingly, relied on technical and financial barriers to protect them from large-scale surveillance by the government. These implicit protections have quickly eroded in recent years as technology industry advances have reached intelligence agencies, and digital communications technology has spread through society. As a result, we now have to replace these “naturally occurring” boundaries and refactor the law to protect our privacy.
[Read more...]

Intercepting Skype?

I recently came across what looks to be a ‘pitch deck’ by a company claiming it can provide (and has patents on) the Legal Interception of Skype communications.  They claim they’re currently ‘Deployed within US government and overseas in telecom infrastructure supporting 30+ million people’.

I tried looking for the two patents they reference but came up empty although I’m told JCJ is a pseudonym for this Canadian/American company and that it’s possible that they’ve opted to hide their patents.

Anyone have thoughts on whether this is real/vaporware and which ’8 person company’ this could be? [Read more...]

PRISM: Solving for X

prism

Figure 1: PRISM

I thought it would be a fun exercise to describe PRISM  based on information publicly available through the press, private companies, and the DNI. Specifically, how would this system look if we took all the statements made at face value?  This might be a stretch, but it seems like a worthwhile exercise  – not unlike a multivariate equation when one or more of the variables are unknown.

While PRISM is potentially the least troubling with respect to its legality and the type/volume of information of the 4 programs we’ve learned about, it is also the most technically puzzling. There have been many theories on the architecture of PRISM and I’ve been inundated with requests to help press/advocates understand it — so here goes. [Read more...]

MobileScope’s Been Acquired

I am excited to announce that MobileScope has been acquired by Evidon.

I co-developed MobileScope with David Campbell and Aldo Cortesi so that individuals could see and control the data their smartphones were sharing. It was a labor of love, and this sale will make MobileScope available to a broader audience. You can follow the developments here at http://www.evidon.com/mobilescope or more about the sale here.

I’ll still be continuing my life as an independent researcher/consultant but am super excited that there’s a developing market for privacy technologies.

Why We Still Need DNT

Earlier this month, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) met face-to-face in California to discuss Do Not Track standards, and there’s a lot of concern about whether the group will to meet their self-imposed July deadline. Do Not Track has been getting attention from the media again after the recent re-introduction of the legislation, mostly focused on the controversy it provokes, whether it’s necessary given the upcoming browser modifications, or how unlikely it is to pass Congress. In fact, I will be participating in a panel hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus titled “Enabling Do Not Track Privacy: Is It Dead or Alive?“, which will be broadcast on CSPAN today. (Watch it here.)

The conversation about tracking isn’t new. Exactly thirteen years ago the very same set of stakeholders were debating the very same set of issues: privacy, 3rd party cookies, and what tracking defaults should be. In fact, if you didn’t notice the date of the article (07/21/2000), you might confuse it for breaking news. Many of the players cited in that article are the same you’d see quoted today (here’s looking at you Microsoft, Doubleclick, Mozilla (Netscape), National Advertising Initiative, and EPIC), and we seem no closer to developing comprehensive standards for online tracking than we were 13 years ago. It can get discouraging. [Read more...]

Facepalm

facepalm
There’s been a lot of attention around the Israeli facial recognition startup Face.com.  They, amongst other things, make a mobile app called “KLIK” which lets users tag their friend’s faces in real-time, as they walk down the street. Just today, they announced that they’re being acquired by Facebook for $100M.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a different kind of excitement surrounding the startup. I found an extremely basic vulnerability in the which the app allows access to other user’s KLIK information, including private ‘authentication tokens’ (i.e keys) for user’s Facebook & Twitter accounts (KLIK relies on Facebook to use the app).

Face.com essentially allowed anyone to hijack a KLIK user’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to get access to photos and social graph (which enables ‘face prints’), even if that information isn’t public.

[Read more...]

Cookies from Nowhere

gingerbread_man

Google is tracking Safari users across the web even though when they attempt to block 3rd party cookies and have never visited Google.com. This is a function of the anti phishing and malware lists used by both Safari, Firefox (and, of course, Chrome) that automatically update from Google in the background and places Google cookies.

This is a separate issue than the one uncovered Feb 17, 2012 surrounding Google circumvention of Safari’s default cookie blocking features. Essentially, even though Google has fixed the Doubleclick issue due to ‘social sync’, they are still able to track Safari users everywhere there is a +1 button on the web, even when users have 3rd party cookies blocked.

[Read more...]

Analysis of Carrier IQ Software

Log Pile by Lars Hammer on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/a4XR3b

Log Pile by Lars Hammer on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/a4XR3b

There has been some confusion and multiple conflicting statements about the Carrier IQ issues that were highlighted in Trevor Ekharts’s initial video some weeks ago.  I will attempt to hopefully clarify some of that confusion and show that, despite statements to the contrary, there is capture and transmission of sensitive information to 3rd parties resulting from misconfigured Carrier IQ software. [Read more...]

Flash Cookies and Privacy II

A detailed technical followup to Flash Cookies and Privacy II, describing the mechanisms behind Hulu/KISSmetrics’ respawning practices

cookiemonsterdeleteI thought I’d take the time to elaborate a bit further regarding the technical mechanisms described in our Flash Cookies and Privacy II paper that generated a bit of buzz recently. For a bit of background, I, along with Chris Hoofnagle and Nathan Good, had the honor of supervising Mika Ayenson and Dietrich J. Wambach in replicating our previous 2009 study which found that websites were circumventing user choice by deliberately restoring previously deleted HTTP cookies using persistent storage outside of the control of the browser (a practice we dubbed ‘respawning’).

In our follow up study, we found that Hulu was still respawning deleted user cookies using homegrown Flash and Javascript code present on the Hulu.com site. Additionally, Hulu, Spotify, and many others were also respawning using code provided by analytics firm KISSmetrics.* Hitten Shah, the founder of KISSmetrics, initially confirmed that the research surrounding respawning was correct in an interview with Ryan Singel although he later criticized the findings after a lawsuit was filed.

(*Hulu and KISSmetrics have both ceased respawning as of July 29th 2011)

[Read more...]

Flash Cookies and Privacy II: Now with HTML5 and ETag Respawning

KISSmetricspersistentracking_large

In August 2009, the research team published Flash Cookies and Privacy, a paper that demonstrated that popular websites were using Flash cookies to track users.  Some advertisers has adopted this technology because it allowed persistent tracking, even where users had taken steps to avoid web profiling. This allowed sites to reinstantiate HTTP cookies deleted by a user, making tracking more resistant to users’ privacy-setting behaviors.

In this followup study, we reassess the flash cookies landscape and examine a new tracking vector, HTML5 local storage and cache cookies via eTags. [Read more...]

W3C Position Paper for Workshop on Web Tracking

I prepared a short position paper for the first W3C Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy on March 24, 2011.

I argue that the current proposals for allowing users to opt-out of tracking (which amount to either “do not collect/retain” or “do not use to target ads”) are not workable. I propose a third option focused primarily on the active removal of persistent identifiers that are used to correlate browsing activity over multiple sessions or multiple websites, allowing collecting data in de-identified form.

Read the paper here.

Flash Cookies and Privacy

flashcookies1.fig3

In August 2009, I and other graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley – School of Law, Berkeley Center for Law & Technology published Flash Cookies and Privacy, a paper that examined of the use of ‘Flash cookies’ by popular websites.

Websites and Cookies

Advertisers are increasingly concerned about unique tracking of users online. Several studies have found that over 30% of users delete first party HTTP cookies once a month, thus leading to overestimation of the number of true unique visitors to websites, and attendant overpayment for advertising impressions.

Mindful of this problem, online advertising companies have attempted to increase the reliability of tracking methods. In 2005, United Virtualities (UV), an online advertising company, exclaimed, “All advertisers, websites and networks use [HTTP] cookies for targeted advertising, but cookies are under attack.” The company announced that it had, “developed a backup ID system for cookies set by web sites, ad networks and advertisers, but increasingly deleted by users. UV’s ‘Persistent Identification Element’ (PIE) is tagged to the user’s browser, providing each with a unique ID just like traditional cookie coding. However, PIEs cannot be deleted by any commercially available antispyware, mal-ware, or adware removal program. They will even function at the default security setting for Internet Explorer.”

United Virtualities’ PIE leveraged a feature in Adobe’s Flash MX: the “local shared object,” also known as the “Flash cookie.” [Read more...]