You may have heard about Storify. A new tool that you can use to publish private conversations in Facebook. Scary, isn’t it? Or that’s at least the angle many headlines take. But the full picture is a lot less dramatic. In fact, Storify does not enable you to do anything that you couldn’t do before, it just makes it easier. And it is an excellent reminder about the risks with so called private messages.
Most legislations provide a fairly high level of protection for messages in transit. The goal is to prevent 3rd parties from eavesdropping and tampering with the messages. But what many forget is that the parties involved in the communication have rights to use the message. It means that the recipient has fairly free hands to use what you write as soon as the message hits the inbox. Your only protection is really your trust in the other part. You may write things that both parties understand should remain private, and it may be sufficient protection today. But what about the future? We all know that trust can change. Many who have gone through a divorce know that the person you trust the most of all may become your worst enemy.
So what about Facebook and Storify? It’s just a good reminder about what can happen to “private” messages. The same threat exists in any kind of messaging service. Not only on the Internet, phone calls can be recorded and misused as well. Letters on paper can be copied, scanned and published. Facebook didn’t provide tools for publishing private messages, but that never prevented users from using copy-paste or taking screenshots of the messages. And our good old e-mail is no better. It has a button called Forward for this purpose.
The only thing that can protect you from this kind of leaks is to not write things that would be embarrassing if published. Be polite and adopt a no-nonsense attitude even in private communications. Think twice before reveling secrets over electronic communication systems. Even if you use encryption it only protects you against 3rd parties, not against the recipient. And last but not least. Do not turn your friends into enemies. That’s probably the biggest reason for leaked private messages.
Photo by Sam Catanzaro @ Flickr
This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]
We have repeatedly countered the arguments that people don’t have anything to hide, and can comfortable ignore the privacy threats on the Internet. That’s a very unwise attitude and here’s some more examples why. We have also talked a lot about on-line scams and how to avoid them. A key challenge for any scammer is to be trustworthy in the eyes of the victim. And this is where your data enters the picture. I have written a story about how a scammer can be more convincing if he knows your travel plans. Let’s cover a more business-oriented case this time. A controller at a firm in Omaha, Nebraska received mails from the CEO asking him to make a series of money transfers to China, and he transferred a total of $17.2 millions. Yes, you guessed it. The sender was not the CEO and a scammer made a nice profit. The obvious lesson we learn in both these cases is naturally that mail isn’t trustworthy. Mail itself does not provide any kind of sender authentication. The sender address is easily faked. Authentication of the other part must rely on the mail contents, a cryptographic signature or information that only the perceived sender can know. And this leads us to the less obvious lesson we can learn here. It looks like the Ohama-scammer had information about the victim. He knew who can handle money transfers. He also knew that the CEO had some business in China, which made the transfers sound legit. He probably also knew that this person doesn’t meet the CEO face to face daily as that would have ruined the scam. Part of this info is publicly available, like the name of the CEO. We don’t know how he got hold of the rest, but it is obvious that it helped the scammer. So here we have an excellent example of how criminals can utilize tiny grains of info to scam huge piles of money. But what should this Ohama-company have done differently? The controller should have called the CEO to verify the transactions. The company should analyze what info the scammer had, and go through their security policies. And that is pretty much what private persons should do too. Learn to think critically when someone approaches you by mail and verify the sender if in doubt. Also guard all your data to make this kind of targeted attack as hard as possible. This company responded by firing the controller. That's not an option for you if you fall for a scam and let go of your own money. Safe surfing, Micke PS. Was it right to fire the controller? Hard to say. Part of the responsibility naturally lies on the one who was gullible enough to trust an e-mail. But it also depends on if the company had proper rules in place for validating transfer requests. Did he break any concrete rules when sending the money? If he didn't, then the company is responsible too. Photo by Images Money
Ordinary people here in Finland have been confronted with yet another cybersecurity acronym lately, DoS. And this does not mean that retro-minded people are converting back to the pre-Windows operating system MS-DOS that we used in the eighties. Today DoS stands for Denial of Service. This case started on New Year’s Eve when customers of the OP-Pohjola bank experienced problems withdrawing cash from ATMs and accessing the on-line bank. The problems have now continued with varying severity for almost a week. What happens behind the scene is that someone is controlling a large number of computers. All these computers are instructed to bombard the target system with network traffic. This creates an overload situation that prevents ordinary customers from accessing the system. It’s like a massive cyber traffic jam. The involved computers are probably ordinary home computes infected with malware. Modern malware is versatile and can be used for varying purposes, like stealing your credit card number or participating in DoS-attacks like this. But what does this mean for me, the ordinary computer user? First, you are not at risk even if a system you use is the victim of a DoS-attack. The attack cannot harm your computer even if you try to access the system during the attack. Your data in the target system is usually safe too. The attack prevents people from accessing the system but the attackers don’t get access to data in the system. So inability to use the system is really the only harm for you. Well, that’s almost true. What if your computer is infected and participates in the attack? That would use your computer resources and slow down your Internet connection, not to speak about all the other dangers of having malware on your system. Keeping the device clean is a combination of common sense when surfing and opening attachments, and having a decent protection program installed. So you can participate in fighting DoS-attacks by caring for your own cyber security. But why? Who’s behind attacks like this and what’s the motive? Kids having fun and criminals extorting companies for money are probably the most common motives right now. Sometimes DoS-victims also accuse their competitors for the attack. But cases like this does always raise interesting questions about how vulnerable our cyber society is. There has been a lot of talk about cyber war. Cyber espionage is already reality, but cyber war is still sci-fi. This kind of DoS-attack does however give us a glimpse of what future cyber war might look like. We haven’t really seen any nations trying to knock out another county’s networks. But when it happens, it will probably look like this in greater scale. Computer-based services will be unavailable and even radio, TV, electricity and other critical services could be affected. So a short attack on a single bank is more like an annoyance for the customers. But a prolonged attack would already create sever problems, both for the target company and its customers. Not to talk about nation-wide attacks. Cyber war might be sci-fi today, but it is a future threat that need to be taken seriously. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Andreas Kaltenbrunner.