We talk a lot about privacy on the net nowadays. Some claim that privacy is dead, and you just have to cope with it. Some are slightly less pessimistic. But all agree that our new cyber-society will redefine and reduce what we once knew as personal privacy.
The privacy threat is not monolithic. There are actually many different kinds of privacy threats and they are sometimes mixed up. So let’s set this straight and have a look at the three major classes of privacy.
This is about controlling what data you share with your family, spouse, friends, colleagues etc. Tools for doing this are passwords on web accounts, computers and mobile devices, as well as your privacy settings in Facebook and other social media.
This is the fundamental level of privacy that most of us are aware of already. When this kind of privacy is discussed, it is usually about Facebook privacy settings and how to protect your on-line accounts against hackers. Yes, protection against hacking is actually a sort of privacy issue too.
Who knows most about your life? You, your spouse or Facebook? Chances are that the service providers you use have the most comprehensive profile on you. At least if we only count data that is stored in an organized and searchable way. This profile may be a lot wider than what you have shared yourself. Google knows what you Google for and your surfing habits are tracked and blended into the profile. The big data companies also try to include as much as possible of your non-digital life. Credit card data, for example, is low-hanging fruit that tells a lot about us.
But what exactly are they doing with that data? It’s said that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you ARE the product. The multitude of free services on the net is made possible by business models that utilize the huge database. Marketing on the service provider’s own page is the first step. Then they sell data to other marketing companies or run embedded marketing. And it gets scary when they start to sell data to other companies too. Like someone who consider employing you or who need to figure out if you’re a high-risk insurance customer.
The main problem with provider privacy is that there aren’t any simple tools to guard you. The service provider can use data in their systems freely no matter what kind of password you use to keep outsiders out. The only way to master this is to control what data they get on you, and your own behavior is what matters here. But it is hard to live a normal cyber-life and fight the big-data companies. I have posted some advice about Facebook and plan to come back to other aspects of the issue in later posts.
The security and privacy of Internet is to a large extent enforced by legislation and trust, not by technical methods like encryption. But don’t expect the law to protect you if you do a crime. Authorities can break your privacy if there is a justified need for it. This can be a good compromise that guards both our privacy and security, as long as the authorities are trustworthy.
But what happens if they aren’t? Transparency and control are after all things that make the work harder for authorities, so they don’t like it. And a big threat, like terrorism for example, can easily be misused to expand their powers far beyond what’s reasonable. Authority privacy really becomes an issue when the working mode changes from requesting data on selected targets to siphoning up a broad stream of data and storing it for future use. There has been plenty of revelations recently showing that this is exactly what has happened in the US.
There can be many problems because of this. It is, first of all, apparent that data collected by US is misused. The European Union and United Nations are probably not very dangerous terrorist organizations, but still they rank high on the target list. Data collected by authorities is also supposed to be guarded well and used for our own good only. But keep in mind that a single person, Edward Snowden, could walk out with gigabytes of top secret data. He did the right thing and spoke out when his own ethics couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s why we know about him. But how many secret Snowdens have there been before him? More selfish persons who have exchanged data for a luxury life in some other country without going public. Maybe your data? Are you sure China, Russia or Iran don’t have some of the data that the US authorities have collected about you?
And let’s finally play a little game to remind us about how volatile the world is. Imagine that today’s Internet and computer technology was available in 1920. The Weimar republic, also known as Germany, was blooming in the golden twenties. But Europe was not too steady. The authorities had Word War I in fresh memory and wanted to protect the citizens against external threats. They set up a petabyte-datacenter and stored all mails, Facebook updates, cloud files etc. This was widely accepted as some criminal cases had been solved using the data, and the police was proud to present the cases in media. The twenties passed and the thirties brought depression and new rulers. The datacenter proved to be very useful once again, as it was possible to track everybody who had been in contact with Jews and communists. It also brought a benefit in the war to come because many significant services were located in Germany and foreign companies and state persons had been careless enough to use them. The world map might look different today if this imaginary scenario really had happened.
No, something like that could never happen today, you might be thinking. Well, I can’t predict the future but I bet a lot of people were saying the same in the twenties. So never take the current situation for granted. The world will change, often to the better but sometimes to the worse.
So lack of authority privacy is not something that will hurt you right away in your daily life. Your spouse or friends will not learn embarrassing details about you this way, and it will not drown you in spam. But the long term effect of the stored data is hard to predict and there are plenty of plausible harmful scenarios. This really means that proper privacy legislation and trustworthy authorities is of paramount importance for the Internet. A primary set of personal data is of course needed by the authorities to run society’s daily business. But data exceeding that should only be collected based on a justified suspicion, and not be kept any longer than needed. There need to be transparency and control of this handling to ensure it follows regulations, and to keep up peoples’ trust in the authorities.
So what can I do while waiting for the world to get its act together on authority privacy? Not much, I’m afraid. You could stop using a computer but that’s not convenient. Starting to use encryption extensively is another path, but that’s almost as inconvenient. Technology is not the optimal solution because this isn’t a technical problem. It’s a political problem. Political problems are supposed to be solved in the voting booth. It also helps to support organizations like EFF.
A new Mercedes. Nice. Or maybe an Audi R8? That would be cool. But hold it! Don’t sell your old car yet! Liking and sharing that giveaway campaign on Facebook will NOT give you a new car. Those prizes doesn’t even exist. They are just hoaxes. Internet and Facebook is full of crap, junk, rubbish, nonsense and gibberish. Nobody knows how many chain letters there are spreading some kind of unbelievable story. False celebrity news, bogus first-aid advice, phony charity campaigns and this kind of giveaways. We tend to think about these chain letters as hoaxes, pretty harmless jokes that doesn’t hurt us. But that’s not the full story. A hoax can be harmful, like the outright dangerous first aid advice that some people keep spreading. But a car giveaway is probably a harmless and safe prank, even if it’s false? No, not really. These chain letters are actually not traditional hoaxes, they are like-farming scams. There’s no free lunch, you don’t pay for Facebook with money but with your private data. The like-farming scams work in the same currency. You will not lose any money even if you like the page and share it. Instead you will participate in building a page with a lot of supporters, which is valuable and can be sold later. Needless to say, you will not get any of that money. Here’s how it works. Any business has a problem when starting on Facebook. An empty page without likes isn’t trustworthy. So the scammers set up a page containing anything that can go viral. A promise to get a luxury car works well. They just have to tell everyone to like the page and to share it as much as possible, to keep the chain reaction going and get even more likes. The scammers wait until there’s enough likes before they clean out the content, rename it and start looking for a buyer. The price is in “$ per k”, meaning dollars per 1000 likes. A page with 100 000 likes could sell for over $1000. So sharing the page can make quite a lot of money for the scammers if you have a lot of gullible friends, who in turn have a lot of gullible friends, and so on … The downside for you is that the likes stick even if the page is redesigned for some totally different purpose. Your face will be an evangelist for the page’s new owners and show up next to their brand. And you have no idea about what you will be promoting. I have friends who are anti-fur activists. You can probably imagine what one of them would feel when discovering that she likes a fur-coat designer! And finally some concrete advice. Review your list of old likes regularly. Remove everything except those things you truly like and want to support. When you encounter a giveaway post like this, check the involved brand’s main page in Facebook by searching for the brand name. You will in most cases notice that the giveaway is a totally different page that just is named similarly. That’s a strong scam indicator. Use common sense. From the above you get an idea about what likes in Facebook are worth. Does it make sense to give away luxury cars for this? Don’t participate in scams like this. It might feel tempting, but remember that your chance to win is exactly zero. Spread knowledge every time you see a scam of this kind. Comment with a link to this post or the appropriate description on Hoax-Slayer or Snopes. Those sites are by the way fun and educating reading. I recommend spending some time there getting familiar with other types of hoaxes too. Read at least these two articles: Facebook car giveaway on Snopes and Facebook like-farming scams on Hoax-Slayer . Safe surfing, Micke
It's been well over a year since the first revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden became public. Though President Obama has called for reforms in his government's mass surveillance polices, the one significant attempt to reform U.S. laws and end "bulk collection" of data-- the USA Freedom Act -- failed in November. And many privacy advocates warned that even that bill was far too limited to do much good or excite the public. With the PATRIOT Act, the law passed in the immediately aftermath of 9/11, up for renewal in 2015, there may be a larger debate about the tactics embraced by the NSA over the last decade and a half coming. But for now, all that has changed is that we are slightly more informed about how governments may be spying on us. Will we just give in to an "aquarium" life and a perverse definition of "privacy"? Watch our Mikko Hypponen's latest talk "The Internet is On Fire" and see if you're ready to grab the microphone. [protected-iframe id="5ce619b9eead69a01a130cf64c867a33-10874323-9129869" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/QKe-aO44R7k?rel=0" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0"] How have the Snowden revelations changed your views about privacy? [Image by Josh Hallett via Flickr]
Fresh off his latest talk at at TEDxBrussels, our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen sat down for a little session of "ask me anything" on reddit. You can read all of the questions people had for him and answers here. WARNING: There is a lot to go through. With over 3,200 comment's, Mikko's AMA ranks among one of the more popular threads in the subreddit's history. For a quick taste of what Mikko had to say about artificial intelligence, Tor, and Edward Snowden, here are slightly edited versions of 5 of our favorite questions and answers. How safe are current smart phones and how secure are their connections? - Jadeyard The operating systems on our current phones (and tablets) are clearly more secure than the operating systems on our computers. That's mostly because they are much more restricted. Windows Phones and iOS devices don't have a real malware problem (they still have to worry about things like phishing though). Android is the only smartphone platform that has real-world malware for it (but most of that is found in China and is coming from 3rd party app stores). It is interesting the Android is the first Linux distribution to have a real-world malware problem. Lots of people are afraid of the viruses and malware only simply because they are all over the news and relatively easy to explain to. I am personally more afraid of the silently allowed data mining (i.e. the amount of info Google can get their hands on) and social engineering style of "hacking". How would you compare these two different threats and their threat levels on Average Joes point of view - which of them is more likely to cause some harm. Or is there something else to be more afraid of even more (govermental level hacks/attacks)? - BadTaster There are different problems: problems with security and problems with privacy. Companies like Google and Facebook make money by trying to gather as much information about you as they can. But Google and Facebook are not criminals and they are not breaking the law. Security problems come from criminals who do break the law and who directly try to steal from you with attacks like banking trojans or credit card keyloggers. Normal, everyday people do regularily run into both problems. I guess getting hit by a criminal attack is worse, but getting your privacy eroded is not a laughing matter either. Blanket surveillance of the internet also affects us all. But comparing these threats to each other is hard. Hi, Mikko! Do you subscribe to Elon Musk's statements and conceptions of AI being the single biggest threat to humans? - matti80 Elon is the man. I've always thought of Tony Stark as my role model and Elon is the closest thing we have in the real world. And he's right. Artificial Intelligence is scary. I believe introducing an entity with superior intelligence into your own biosphere is a basic evolutionary mistake. Europol's cybercrime taskforce recently took down over a hundred darknet servers. Did the news shake your faith in TOR? - brain4narchy People use Tor for surfing the normal web anonymized, and they use Tor Hidden Service for running websites that are only accessible for Tor users. Both Tor use cases can be targeted by various kinds of attacks. Just like anywhere else, there is no absolute security in Tor either. I guess the takedown showed more about capabilities of current law enforcement than anything else. I use Tor regularly to gain access to sites in the Tor Hidden Service, but for protecting my own privacy, I don't rely on Tor. I use VPNs instead. In addition to providing you an exit node from another location, VPNs also encrypt your traffic. However, Tor is free and it's open source. Most VPNs are closed source, and you have to pay for them. And you have to rely on the VPN provider, so choose carefully. We have a VPN product of our own, which is what I use. If you ever met Snowden what would be the first question you would ask him? - SaPro19 'What would you like to drink? It's on me.' Cheers, Sandra