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.
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]
This comes as no surprise after the Snowden revelations. British signal intelligence agency GCHQ has been spying illegally on a large number of internet users. What’s positively surprising is that the UK Surveillance Tribunal finally developed from a rubber stamp into something capable of making real decisions. In short, their recent decision states that the secret information exchange between the NSA and GCHQ was illegal. It’s also a welcome indication that unnecessary secrecy isn’t acceptable. Secrecy is needed in intelligence work, but has widely been misused to hide unlawful activities. We are, of course, grateful to Privacy International and its supporters, for their important work in this case. But they are not done yet! Their next step is to let you know if you’re a victim. You can submit your contact info and join a campaign where they will reveal if GCHQ has data on you. That’s nice. The more privacy-savvy of you are probably smiling right now. The campaign page clearly states “I authorise Privacy International and their legal team to pass my information to GCHQ …” That’s naturally necessary when asking GCHQ if they have data on you. But what if they didn’t? Now they have. Submitting private info to an agency that just has been exposed with illegal data processing might not sound as a good idea. And it’s not just your name, email and phone number. What may be less obvious is that your submission ties these pieces of info together. If they had just your mail, now they know to whom it belongs. Ok, time to take off the tin foil hat. I think Privacy International’s campaign is great and a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the secret world of intelligence. One should not worry too much about revealing info through this form. What you submit is probably already known to them and they could easily find out, if they had a real interest in you. So just go ahead. But the above is a great reminder that you should think twice before submitting private info. Always think about whom you submit to and for what purpose. Micke P.S. This reminds me of an old web form at a Russian server. “Enter your credit card number to check if it has been stolen on the net.” No, I didn’t enter mine either.
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