Announcing 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


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


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


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

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


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.