Some essential additions to our Internet glossary

1390397_79061953_330Times are changing and we have to learn new things all the time. People interested in privacy on the Internet have been faced with a flood of new acronyms and terms lately. Here comes a brief list of terminology that has remained fairly unknown for a long time, but suddenly become very central to how our cyber society is developing. Keep these in mind if you want to be privacy-savvy.

The best know signal intelligence system of the cold war era. Operated by the NSA and capable to store and analyze both data and telephone traffic globally. Today a legacy system.

FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
A US law that, together with other related laws and amendments, controls usage of non-US citizens’ communications for the benefit of US interests. Controls is however a misleading word as it pretty much boils down to carte blanche to spy on foreigners. This is of paramount importance for the whole Internet as most of the cloud services are run by American companies, and most users are foreigners.

FISC, FISA-Court, United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
A secret US court that is supposed to review and approve data gathering efforts under the FISA and related laws. Evil tongues call it a rubber stamp, but it has actually denied 11 requests out of a total of 33 949 during 1979-2012. (Some of those 11 were approved after modification.)

Gag Order
A court order to shut up about something.

GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters
UK’s own NSA. Responsible for gathering info from Internet traffic for the needs of the UK government and military.

A former encrypted mail service run by Ladar Levinson. Became iconic in the fight for Internet privacy when closed down in August 2013. According to Ladar: “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” This smells NSL (see below) to high heaven.

NSA, National Security Agency
USA’s main signals intelligence agency. Operates globally to intercept and decode information. Recent reports indicate that NSA’s strategy largely seems to be to store as much information as possibly for further use, rather than picking targets and eavesdropping selectively. NSA is also a leader in cryptography and cryptanalysis, and is believed to have more supercomputer capacity than anyone else on this planet.

NSL, National security letter
An order from a US agency to hand over information or implement information gathering systems. These letters come with strict gag orders that even prevents the subject from revealing the existence of a NSL or seeking legal advice about it. Their legal status is controversial because of the broad gag orders that are in conflict with the 1st amendment. Anyone should keep the NSLs in mind when listening to top executives of Google, Facebook, Apple etc. who denies that NSA can tap into their systems.

Currently the best known of all the data gathering programs run by NSA. PRISM is apparently a database application that stores data from many sources.

SIGINT, Signals intelligence
Operations aiming to gather information by eavesdropping on communications and other signals or stored data. Involves the art of decoding or decrypting messages as well as gathering information by analyzing traffic patterns.

A system run by UK’s GCHQ that collects data in real time from internet and telephone communications.

Utah data center
A data center located in Bluffdale, Utah and operated by the NSA. The center is about to be finalized and believed to provide 3 – 12 Exabyte of storage data right now, more in the future as storage technology evolves. It has been said that five Exabyte is equivalent to all words ever spoken by humans since the dawn of time. This is outdated, but still interesting when trying to imagine how much an Exabyte really is. So what exactly is NSA going to do with all this storage?

A NSA system that gives analysts powerful tools to query for information about identified targets or suspicious patterns in larger datasets.

A person who makes crimes or other unethical activities known to a larger public, often by violating agreements or the law. A significant portion of what we know about SIGINT on the Internet has been revealed by whistleblowers.

This list of secret NSA programs and codenames is far from complete. Security guru Bruce Schneier puts it very well in a TED interview together with our Mikko Hyppönen.

Bruce Schneier: “First, be careful with names. PRISM is a specific NSA database, just a part of the overall NSA surveillance effort. The agency has been playing all sorts of games with names, dividing their efforts up and using many different code names in an attempt to disguise what they’re doing. It allows them to deny that a specific program is doing something, while conveniently omitting the fact that another program is doing the thing and the two programs are talking to each other. So I am less interested in what is in the specific PRISM database, and more what the NSA is doing overall with domestic surveillance.”

Very well said! Here you can find a more comprehensive list of NSA programs and codenames.

Safe surfing,

More posts from this topic


Why Bring your own Device (BYOD)?

Do you ever use your personal phone to make work related calls? Or send work related e-mails? Maybe you even use it to work on Google Docs, or access company files remotely? Doing these things basically means you’re implementing a BYOD policy at your work, whether they know it or not. BYOD – that’s bring your own device – isn’t really a new trend, but it is one that’s becoming more widespread. Statistics from TrackVia suggest that younger generations are embracing BYOD on a massive scale, with nearly 70% of surveyed Millennials admitting that they use their own devices and software, regardless of their employer’s policies on the matter. This is essentially pressuring employers to accept the trend, as the alternative could mean imposing security restrictions that limit how people go about their work. Consequently, Gartner predicts that 38% of businesses will stop providing employees with devices by 2016. It kind of seems like workers are enforcing the trend, and not businesses. But it’s happening because it’s so much easier to work with phones, tablets, and computers that you understand and enjoy. Work becomes easier, productivity goes up, life becomes more satisfying, etc. This might sound like an exaggeration, and maybe it is a little bit. BYOD won’t solve all of life’s problems, but it really takes advantage of the flexibility modern technology offers. And that’s what mobility should be about, and that’s what businesses are missing out on when they anchor people to a specific device. BYOD promotes a more “organic” aspect of technology in that it’s something people have already invested in and want to use, not something that’s being forced upon them. But of course, there are complications. Recent research confirms that many of these same devices have already had security issues. It’s great to enjoy the benefits of using your own phone or tablet for sending company e-mails, but what happens when things go wrong? You might be turning heads at work by getting work done faster and more efficient, but don’t expect this to continue if you happen to download some malicious software that infiltrates your company’s networks. You’re not alone if you want to use your own phone, tablet, or computer for work. And you’re not even alone if you do this without telling your boss. But there’s really no reason not to try and protect yourself first. You can use security software to reduce the risk of data breaches or malicious infections harming your employer. And there’s even a business oriented version of F-Secure's popular Freedome VPN called Freedome for Business that can actually give you additional forms of protection, and can help your company manage an entire fleet of BYOD and company-owned devices. It’s worth bringing these concerns to an employer if you find yourself using your own devices at the office. After all, statistics prove that you’re not alone in your concerns, and your employer will most likely have to address the issue sooner rather than later if they want the company to use technology wisely.  

Apr 17, 2015
sign license

POLL – How should we deal with harmful license terms?

We blogged last week, once again, about the fact that people fail to read the license terms they approve when installing software. That post was inspired by a Chrome extension that monetized by collecting and selling data about users’ surfing behavior. People found out about this, got mad and called it spyware. Even if the data collection was documented in the privacy policy, and they technically had approved it. But this case is not really the point, it’s just an example of a very common business model on the Internet. The real point is what we should think about this business model. We have been used to free software and services on the net, and there are two major reasons for that. Initially the net was a playground for nerds and almost all services and programs were developed on a hobby or academic basis. The nerds were happy to give them away and all others were happy to get them for free. But businesses run into a problem when they tried to enter the net. There was no reliable payment method. This created the need for compensation models without money. The net of today is to a significant part powered by these moneyless business models. Products using them are often called free, which is incorrect as there usually is some kind of compensation involved. Nowadays we have money-based payment models too, but both our desire to get stuff for free and the moneyless models are still going strong. So what do these moneyless models really mean? Exposing the user to advertising is the best known example. This is a pretty open and honest model. Advertising can’t be hidden as the whole point is to make you see it. But it gets complicated when we start talking targeted advertising. Then someone need to know who you are and what you like, to be able to show you relevant ads. This is where it becomes a privacy issue. Ordinary users have no way to verify what data is collected about them and how it is used. Heck, often they don’t even know under what legislation it is stored and if the vendor respects privacy laws at all. Is this legal? Basically yes. Anyone is free to make agreements that involve submitting private data. But these scenarios can still be problematic in several ways. They may be in conflict with national consumer protection and privacy laws, but the most common complaint is that they aren’t fair. It’s practically impossible for ordinary users to read and understand many pages of legalese for every installed app. And some vendors utilize this by hiding the shady parts of the agreement deep into the mumbo jumbo. This creates a situation where the agreement may give significant rights to the vendor, which the users is totally unaware of. App permissions is nice development that attempts to tackle this problem. Modern operating systems for mobile devices require that apps are granted access to the resources they need. This enables the system to know more about what the app is up to and inform the user. But these rights are just becoming a slightly more advanced version of the license terms. People accept them without thinking about what they mean. This may be legal, but is it right? Personally I think the situation isn’t sustainable and something need to be done. But what? There are several ways to see this problem. What do you think is the best option?   [polldaddy poll=8801974]   The good news is however that you can avoid this problem. You can select to steer clear of “free” offerings and prefer software and services you pay money for. Their business model is simple and transparent, you get stuff and the vendor get money. These vendors do not need to hide scary clauses deep in the agreement document and can instead publish privacy principles like this.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by Orin Zebest at Flickr

Apr 15, 2015
webpage screenshot TOS

Sad figures about how many read the license terms

Do you remember our stunt in London where we offered free WiFi against getting your firstborn child? No, we have not collected any kids yet. But it sure was a nice demonstration of how careless we have become with user terms of software and service. It has been said that “Yes, I have read then license agreement” is the world’s biggest lie. Spot on! This was proven once again by a recent case where a Chrome extension was dragged into the spotlight accused of spying on users. Let’s first check the background. The “Webpage Screenshot” extension, which has been pulled from the Chrome Web Store, enabled users to conveniently take screenshots of web page content. It was a very popular extension with over 1,2 million users and tons of good reviews. But the problem is that the vendor seemed to get revenues by uploading user behavior, mainly visited web links, and monetizing on that data. The data upload was not very visible in the description, but the extension’s privacy policy did mention it. So the extension seemed to be acting according to what had been documented in the policy. Some people were upset and felt that they had been spied on. They installed the extension and had no clue that a screenshot utility would upload behavior data. And I can certainly understand why. But on the other hand, they did approve the user terms and conditions when installing. So they have technically given their approval to the data collection. Did the Webpage Screenshot users know what they signed up for? Let’s find out. It had 1 224 811 users when I collected this data. The question is how many of them had read the terms. You can pause here and think about it if you want to guess. The right answer follows below.   [caption id="attachment_8032" align="aligncenter" width="681"] Trying to access Webpage Screenshot gave an error in Chrome Web Store on April 7th 2015.[/caption]   The privacy policy was provided as a shortened URL which makes it possible to check its statistics. The link had been opened 146 times during the whole lifetime of the extension, slightly less than a year. Yes, only 146 times for over 1,2 million users! This means that only 0,012 % clicked the link! And the number of users who read all the way down to the data collection paragraph is even smaller. At least 99,988 % installed without reading the terms. So these figures support the claim that “I have read the terms” is the biggest lie. But they also show that “nobody reads the terms” is slightly incorrect.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. Does F-Secure block this kind of programs? Typically no. They are usually not technically harmful, the user has installed them deliberately and we can’t really know what the user expects them to do. Or not to do. So this is not really a malware problem, it’s a fundamental problem in the business models of Internet.   Images: Screenshots from the Webpage Screenshot homepage and Chrome Web Store    

Apr 8, 2015