One picture can tell more than you think

BoatOne of my big passions is photography. I’m quite old-school as I mostly use a big DSLR, post-process my shots on the PC and upload some keepers to Flickr. But I’m also using my mobile phone camera more and more. Nothing beats the convenience of snapping a shot and being able to upload in one sweep. Some people, like me, just have a mental barrier to overcome, the technical perfectionism. A shot can be fun and interesting even if you haven’t spent hours tweaking it. I’m working on that…

Sharing photos on the net is fun, but did you know how much a single picture can tell? I’m not talking about the traditional “more than 1000 words” here. I’m talking about metadata. This is invisible data that describes the content and is embedded in the picture file. This is some of the data that a photo can contain:

  • Date and time when the picture is taken
  • Photographic parameters like lens, aperture and exposure time
  • Geographical position from a GPS-device
  • Information about the device that took the picture, brand, model, serial number, etc.
  • Name and contact information of the device’s owner
  • Information about the photo’s copyright owner and rights to use the photo
  • A lot of other info that professionals and serious amateurs can use to manage large photo collections.

All this data does really provide a lot of added value. You can automatically have shots sorted by capture time, you can plot photo locations on maps, find all shots taken with a certain camera or lens, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless. But metadata is like all other great things, it can be used and misused. The downside is naturally privacy.

I did a quick test with my Nokia Lumia, which is a Windows Phone -device. It turned out that its camera embeds the date and time, photographic parameters and the GPS-location automatically. But data about the owner is not included. This data is also kept when using all share-options that I currently have available; mail, Flickr, Facebook, SkyDrive and DropBox. There’s no setting anywhere that would control this behavior. In theory, I could reveal my exact location every time I upload a photo.

But this is not the full story. The service that you upload to can also decide how to process metadata. Facebook strips it altogether. This design was probably implemented to save storage space, but has a positive side-effect on privacy. Photographers who are interested in the photo parameters are however not happy. Flickr uses a different strategy. Metadata is extracted and used in the interface. You can decide if you want it to be showed or not. Users can also download smaller picture files without metadata, or the original with all data intact, if you choose to allow it. It’s quite natural that Flickr is more advanced as it is a site focusing on photo sharing.

So what should I do about this?

  • What data you share depend on many factors, so you really have to find out yourself. Go to the site where your pictures are shared. Download a picture of yours and examine its metadata. This can be done by opening the file’s properties or with some special tool. Photo editing software usually let you examine and manipulate the metadata. Opanda IExif is a free tool for Windows. Think about what data you can see and if you think it is a privacy problem.
  • If you share photos from your mobile device, there may not be much you can do to manage metadata. Look for settings controlling metadata in the camera program and all apps used when sharing. You may also look for alternative apps with better controls. If nothing else helps, you may have to accept the situation, restrict your sharing or disable the GPS if position info is your concern.
  • Old-school folks who share through a computer have much more options. Most workflow programs have options that control what metadata you embed in the final files. There’s also many tools available that can strip metadata from files before you upload. I already mentioned one above.

To summarize. You do not necessary have a privacy problem with metadata in photos you share. It depends on many factors. The device you take photos with, the software you use to process and transmit the shots and finally the site where they are published. And naturally your own privacy expectation, what data are you ready to share? But the most important point is to be on top of this yourself. Don’t leave it to chance. Check what you share and make up your mind if it’s OK or not.

An exercise for you. Download the photo file in this post and check what kind of metadata you can find in it. It’s taken straight from my workflow program on the PC, no data removed.

Safe surfing,
Micke

PS. Also keep this in mind if you feel tempted to cheat about when and where a shot is taken. You are unlikely to get away with it if you have photo-savvy friends.

Photo by Micke-fi @ Flickr

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Only 10% protected – Interesting study on travelers’ security habits

Kaisu who is working for us is also studying tourism. Her paper on knowledge of and behavior related to information security amongst young travelers was released in May, and is very interesting reading. The world is getting smaller. We travel more and more, and now we can stay online even when travelling. Using IT-services in unknown environments does however introduce new security risks. Kaisu wanted to find out how aware young travelers are of those risks, and what they do to mitigate them. The study contains many interesting facts. Practically all, 95,7%, are carrying a smartphone when travelling. One third is carrying a laptop and one in four a tablet. The most commonly used apps and services are taking pictures, using social networks, communication apps and e-mail, which all are used by about 90% of the travelers. Surfing the web follows close behind at 72%. But I’m not going to repeat it all here. The full story is in the paper. What I find most interesting is however what the report doesn’t state. Everybody is carrying a smartphone and snapping pictures, using social media, surfing the web and communicating. Doesn’t sound too exotic, right? That’s what we do in our everyday life too, not just when travelling. The study does unfortunately not examine the participants’ behavior at home. But I dare to assume that it is quite similar. And I find that to be one of the most valuable findings. Traveling is no longer preventing us from using IT pretty much as we do in our everyday life. I remember when I was a kid long, long ago. This was even before invention of the cellphone. There used to be announcements on the radio in the summer: “Mr. and Mrs. Müller from Germany traveling by car in Lapland. Please contact your son Hans urgently.” Sounds really weird for us who have Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Skype installed on our smartphones. There was a time when travelling meant taking a break in your social life. Not anymore. Our social life is today to an increasing extent handled through electronic services. And those services goes with us when travelling, as Kaisu’s study shows. So you have access to the same messaging channels no matter where you are on this small planet. But they all require a data connection, and this is often the main challenge. There are basically two ways to get the data flowing when abroad. You can use data roaming through the cellphone’s ordinary data connection. But that is often too expensive to be feasible, so WiFi offers a good and cheap alternative. Hunting for free WiFi has probably taken the top place on the list of travelers’ concerns, leaving pickpockets and getting burnt in the sun behind. Another conclusion from Kaisu’s study is that travelers have overcome this obstacle, either with data roaming or WiFi. The high usage rates for common services is a clear indication of that. But how do they protect themselves when connecting to exotic networks? About 10% are using a VPN and about 20% say they avoid public WiFi. That leaves us with over 70% who are doing something else, or doing nothing. Some of them are using data roaming, but I’m afraid most of them just use whatever WiFi is available, either ignoring the risks or being totally unaware. That’s not too smart. Connecting to a malicious WiFi network can expose you to eavesdropping, malware attacks, phishing and a handful other nasty tricks. It’s amazing that only 10% of the respondents have found the simple and obvious solution, a VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and creates a protected “tunnel” for your data through the potentially harmful free networks. Sounds too nerdy? No, it’s really easy. Just check out Freedome. It’s the super-simple way to be among the smart 10%.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. I recently let go of my old beloved Nokia Lumia. Why? Mainly because I couldn’t use Freedome on it, and I really want the freedom it gives me while abroad.   Image by Moyan Brenn  

August 24, 2015
BY 
suicide

Forget the personality tests – Ask Facebook instead (Poll)

It’s amazing how advertising can power huge companies. Google has over 57 000 employees and some 66 billion US dollars in revenue. And Facebook with 12 billion and 10 000 employees. These two giants are the best know providers of ad-financed services on the net. And modern advertising is targeted, which means that they must know what the users want to see. Which means that they must know you. Let’s take a closer look at Facebook. We have already written about their advertising preferences and I have been following my data for some time. Part of the data used to target ads is input by yourself, age, gender, hometown, movies you seen etc. But Facebook also analyzes what you do, both in Facebook and on other sites, to find out what you like. It’s obvious how the tracking works inside Facebook itself. Their servers just simply record what links you click. Tracking in the rest of the net is more sinister, it’s described in this earlier post. Your activity record is analyzed and you are assigned to classes of interest, called “Your Ad Preferences” by Facebook. Advertisers can then select classes they want to target, and the ad may be shown to you based on these classes. You can view and manage the list using a page that is fairly well hidden deep in Facebook’s menus. Let’s check your preferences in moment, but first some thoughts about this. Advertising may be annoying, but it is the engine that drives so many “free” services nowadays. So I’m not going to blame Facebook for being ad-financed. I’m not going to blame them for doing targeted ads either. That can in theory be a good thing, you see more relevant ads that potentially can be of value to you. But any targeted ad scheme must be based on data collection, and this is the tricky part. Can we trust Facebook et al. to handle these quite extensive personal profiles and not misuse them for other purposes? It’s also nice that Facebook is somewhat open about this and let you view “Your Ad Preferences” (Note. Not available in all countries.). But that name is really misleading. The name should be “Facebook’s Ad Preferences for You”. Yes, you can view and delete classes, but that gives you a false sense of control. Facebook keeps analyzing what you do and deleted classes will reappear shortly. I made a full clean-up a couple of months ago, but now I have no less than 210 classes of interest again! This is really amazing if you take into account that I block tracking outside of Facebook, so those activities are not contributing. And I have a principle of not clicking ads in any on-line media, including Facebook. And liking commercial pages in a very restrictive manner. But the thing is that Facebook has realized that people dislike ads. “Suggested posts” or “Sponsored posts” are in fact masqueraded ads and any interaction with them will record your interest in the classes they represent. I have to admit that I do click this kind of content regularly. And where did that suicide thing come from? No, I’m fine. I’m not going to jump off a bridge and I’m not worried about any of my dearests’ mental health. I have not interacted with any kind of Facebook content related to suicide. Except that I can’t know that for sure. Facebook tries to give an open and honest image of itself when presenting its Ad Preferences settings and the possibilities to manage them. But this rosy picture is not the full truth. The inner workings of Facebook advertising is in reality a very complex secret system. When you interact with something on Facebook, you have no way of knowing how it affects your profile. Something I have clicked was apparently associated with suicides even if I had no clue about it. Ok, time to take the Facebook personality test. Let’s see what kind of person they think you are. Follow these instructions: Go to Facebook and locate an ad, a “sponsored post” or a “suggested post”. These items should have a cross or a down-arrow in the upper right corner. Click it. Select “Why am I seeing this?” from the pop-up menu. This screen contains some interesting info but proceed to “Manage your ad preferences”. Review the list and come back here to tell us what you think of it. Delete the inappropriate classes. Deleting all may reduce the number of ads you see.   So let’s see what people think about this test’s accuracy:   [polldaddy poll=9023953]   So using Facebook’s Ad Preferences as a personality test may be entertaining, but not very accurate after all. You should probably look elsewhere for a real test. The catch is that you can select what test to take, but not how others collect data about you. Someone else may rely on this test when evaluating you. You have actually granted Facebook the right to share this data with basically anyone. Remember this clause in the agreement that you read and approved before signing up? “We transfer information to vendors, service providers, and other partners who globally support our business, such as providing technical infrastructure services, analyzing how our Services are used, measuring the effectiveness of ads and services, providing customer service, facilitating payments, or conducting academic research and surveys.” You did read it before signing, didn’t you?   Safe surfing, Micke   Image: Screenshot from facebook.com  

August 13, 2015
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Android

Android’s Stagefright bug – phone vendors taken with their pants down

You have all heard the classic mantra of computer security: use common sense, patch your system and install antivirus. That is still excellent advice, but the world is changing. We used to repeat that mantra over and over to the end users. Now we are entering a new era where we have to stress the importance of updates to manufacturers. We did recently write about how Chrysler reacted fairly quickly to stop Jeeps from being controlled remotely. They made a new firmware version for the vehicles, but didn’t have a good channel to distribute the update. Stagefright on Android demonstrates a similar problem, but potentially far more widespread. Let’s first take a look at Stagefright. What is it really? Stagefright is the name of a module deep inside the Android system. This module is responsible for interpreting video files and playing them on the device. The Stagefright bug is a vulnerability that allows and attacker to take over the system with specially crafted video content. Stagefright is used to automatically create previews of content received through many channels. This is what makes the Stagefright bug really bad. Anyone who can send you a message containing video can potentially break into your Android device without any actions from you. You can use common sense and not open fishy mail attachments, but that doesn’t work here. Stagefright takes a look at inbound content automatically in many cases so common sense won't help. Even worse. There’s not much we can do about it, except wait for a patch from the operator or phone vendor. And many users will be waiting in vain. This is because of how the Android system is developed and licensed. Google is maintaining the core Linux-based system and releasing it under an open license. Phone vendors are using Android, but often not as it comes straight from Google. They try to differentiate and modifies Android to their liking. Google reacted quickly and made a fix for the Stagefright bug. This fix will be distributed to their own Nexus-smartphones soon. But it may not be that simple for the other vendors. They need to verify that the patch is compatible with their customizations, and releasing it to their customers may be a lengthy process. If they even want to patch handsets. Some vendors seems to see products in the cheap smartphone segment as disposable goods. They are not supposed to be long-lived and post-sale maintenance is just a cost. Providing updates and patches would just postpone replacement of the phone, and that’s not in the vendor’s interest. This attitude explains why several Android vendors have very poor processes and systems for sending out updates. Many phones will never be patched. Let’s put this into perspective. Android is the most widespread operating system on this planet. 48 % of the devices shipped in 2014 were Androids (Gartner). And that includes both phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. There’s over 1 billion active Android devices (Google’s device activation data). Most of them are vulnerable to Stagefright and many of them will never receive a patch. This is big! Let’s however keep in mind that there is no widespread malware utilizing this vulnerability at the time of writing. But all the ingredients needed to make a massive and harmful worm outbreak are there. Also remember that the bug has existed in Android for over five years, but not been publically known until now. It is perfectly possible that intelligence agencies are utilizing it silently for their own purposes. But can we do anything to protect us? That’s the hard question. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, but it is however possible to give some simple advice. You can stop worrying if you have a really old device with an Android version lower than 2.2. It’s not vulnerable. Google Nexus devices will be patched soon. A patch has also been released for devices with the CyanogenMod system. The privacy-optimized BlackPhone is naturally a fast-mover in cases like this. Other devices? It’s probably best to just google for “Stagefright” and the model or vendor name of your device. Look for two things. Information about if and when your device will receive an update and for instructions about how to tweak settings to mitigate the threat. Here’s an example.   Safe surfing, Micke Image by Rob Bulmahn under CC BY 2.0

July 30, 2015
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