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.
When he was still working in cyber security for the Finnish government, Erka Koivunen met a NATO diplomat that there was "nothing new" about the era we now live in. Foreign envoys have always lived with the constant awareness that their private communications could be "leaked" for their enemies to exploit. "Anything that was written down could eventually be discovered," Erka, who is now an F-Secure Cyber Security Advisor, told me. "So the most sensitive conversations never took place in writing." Given the massive email leaks that have now hit the worlds of business, with the Sony hacks, and politics, with the leaks of U.S. political figures, is this how we should all start thinking? Does everyone alive in the twenty-first century have to operate like a NATO diplomat? Or a C-level executive who knows any word she types could be subpoenaed? Or the campaign chair of a presidential campaign? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be increasingly clear. "Whatever you write, you may need to defend your position in public," Erka said. Relying on an insecure medium The problems with email begin with the general insecurity of it as a means of communication. It's more like sending a postcard than sending a sealed letter, Erka explains. "As soon as the message goes out of your or your company’s systems, you lose control of it," Erka explained. "This is by far the biggest problem of the good-ole-email. Messages can be eavesdropped, altered, delayed, replayed or dropped altogether without you ever knowing." To actually spy on email as it's being transmitted generally requires legal access to telecommunications infrastructure or extraordinary technical knowhow and resources. Think law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Since these groups have a vested interest in cloaking their activities, they had little incentive to engage in the massive sort of leaking of gigabytes of private data we've seen from Wikileaks. However, we appear to be at the end of the era of "the gentleman's agreement" between countries, as cyber policy expert Mara Tam explained on a recent episode of the Risky.Biz podcast. This agreement went something like: "Gentlemen read each other's email, but they don't leak it to the public." The leaks from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden helped make the public aware of how much information the government potentially could access. But the exposure of a private individual's digital communication to the world presents a stark new reality for anyone who conducts business online. "Personal mailboxes store gigabytes’ worth of conversation history that will be a treasure trove for attackers for multiple reasons," Erka said. "There are sensitive discussions about business strategy, customers, competitors, products. There is also internal gossip, badmouthing and other damaging stuff." Activist Naomi Klein told The Intercept that "this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from." And we don't yet have a full sense of the potential ways this mass of data can be used against us. A competitor could use private information to tarnish someone’s reputation and hackers can mine the data to prepare for future cyber intrusions or to gain access to your other accounts through password resets. Letting the public decide what's private Leaks have already cost some executives their jobs and could swing the U.S. presidential election. But in a sense, we're all victims of this new risk to all of our privacy. "Whatever you write in an email you have to consider, are you ready for your boss, your spouse, your business partners to read it?" Erka asked. This new reality leads inevitably to the tragedy of self-censorship. Zeynep Tufekci -- a "techno-sociologist" -- has been doing a running commentary on the Wikileaks revelations and is very disturbed by what she's seeing. "People gossiping in internal conversation is not a scandal—but destroying public/private boundaries will paralyze dissent, not the powerful," she tweeted. Wikileaks is releasing more documents than it could ever sift through in the hopes that the newsworthy information will be discerned by interested researchers around the world. But along with potentially relevant items, intensely private information has been revealed. "For example, a suicide attempt was publicized through Podesta indiscriminate dump (Wikileaks tweeted it out)," she noted. "Who will want to be political?" This makes the loss of email seem dire, but perhaps it speaks to a not just a flaw in the medium's security but the medium itself. "The deeper problem with email is that it has never quite settled on a social mode," The New York Times Farhad Manjoo wrote. "An email can be as formal as a legal letter or as tossed off as drive-by insult. This invites confusion." What can you do? So, should you be like that NATO diplomat content to keep all of your deepest secrets out of writing? Can you expect yourself to remove all snark and potentially offensive thoughts from your emails? Should you assume that your email box is like a box of letters in your attic, vulnerable to anyone who can get access to it? These answers are ultimately up to you and how you use -- or don't use -- email. F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan has found that young people he's interviewed are increasingly abandoning email as communication tool. "They only have an account -- typically Gmail -- in order to sign up for stuff," he said. If this continues, email is on its way out, whether it's private or not. For now, lawyers, doctors and other professionals with explicit legal responsibilities, email has a much more defined role that cannot be easily abandoned or circumvented. As far as your work email goes, consult your IT staff for guidance as you may be under legal obligation to preserve your data. But for your personal email, Erka suggests you have to at least be aware of how likely you are to be a target and what you can do to contain any potential damage -- besides using a strong unique password for every email account you have and only entering your account information on the secure webpage of your email provider. If you are involved in international politics, for instance, there's no question. You are a target. Hackers are either after your emails or are trying to get access to powerful people in your contacts. If you're someone with no power, no tumultuous relationships and no interest in politics, you're likely not to be on anyone's radar... yet. The problem is no one knows where you'll be in a few years and our inboxes are big enough to last a lifetime. "When everyone is using cloud-based emails like Gmail, there's no need to save space," Erka said. "That's the whole selling point of those services: Never delete anything." If you see the potential for enough damage, you many want these recent leaks as an inspiration to launch a serious spring cleaning of your personal online inboxes, including email and social media. "You may want to delete the messages you don't need and sort the stuff you do want into folders that you take off the web and can store on a secure backup," Erka suggested. Yes, you will lose the convenience of being able to search your Gmail box through a simple interface, but so will potential hackers. He also recommends sharing documents through sharing platforms and cloud services such as Sharepoint, Salesforce or Dropbox. "These links can require separate authentication upon opening and the sender can control how long it will be valid," Erka said. "If the email gets stolen and leaked years later the chances are the link will be invalid by that time." For quick conversations, Sean suggests Wickr, which offers self-destructing messages through a mobile app or a desktop client with easy encryption, something that just doesn't exist for most email. "For professionals, Wickr has a paid service which will retain messages for a legal requirement, and will then securely delete them post-requirement," he said. Regardless of policy, employers have a vested interest in moving their staff away from an over-reliance on email for more than privacy reasons. "Actual phone calls and face-to-face discussions that get out of your chair are probably more useful than email or chat threats," Sean said. "So rather than swap from one to the other – just learn to better utilize what you work with best." These leaks offer a sobering reminder that email is not secure. But, perhaps, the more important message is that it as a means of communication, it was never very smart. [Image by Alan Levine |Flickr]
Why doesn't VPN work on my hotel Wi-Fi? What special benefits does a VPN give to me in my country? How does online tracking work? Who's that handsome dude who writes your blog? These questions (except for that last one) are the kind we get from our Freedome fans on a regular basis. Instead of always writing text responses like it's 2010 or something, we decided to start answering these questions on video - on an FAQ-style playlist that can be found on the F-Secure YouTube channel. Do you have any questions related to Freedome, VPN or anything even loosely related to privacy? Ask away and you might even win a a prize! You can comment on this blog post, drop us a line on Twitter with the hashtag #AskFreedomeVPN, or comment on this post or on one of the #AskFreedomeVPN videos on YouTube. They don't have to be easy! Keep checking out the playlist regularly, as we update new answers to frequently asked privacy questions all the time. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLkMjG1Mo4pKL0JFjRTd4vCvK4An5QTp5D
Occasionally we get a question on our privacy community about a Wi-Fi hotspot blocking VPNs. Thankfully this doesn't happen very often, but we decided to write this letter to let companies that do this know why they shouldn't. Dear business providing free Wi-Fi but blocking VPN, First of all, we don’t want to seem ungrateful. Thank you for giving us free internet on your premises. We all appreciate a reliable hotspot to occupy our time while we fight boredom in a hotel room, rest up before evening bingo on a cruise ship, or sip on a Mocacchino at a downtown café before picking up the kids. Data caps on our mobile plans are getting less and less in the way of us enjoying our time online when away from home, and we thank you for helping us avoid this problem. But what you may not realize is that every public Wi-Fi hotspot is also a golden opportunity for cyber criminals. It’s not your fault, this is just a fact of life we're trying to live with. Most traffic sent over Wi-Fi is basically out there for the taking, and anyone with a laptop and readily available programs can easily intercept all unencrypted data sent over your hotspot. There are a few tricks for users to make sure all their traffic stays encrypted and private, but using a VPN is arguably the easiest way. And yes, it is harder for you to monitor or control what VPN users do on your hotspot. But is having that control so important that you’re willing to trade your customers’ security for it? By blocking VPN on your Wi-Fi, you are actively telling your customers to put their private data at risk while surfing, or to not surf at all. It’s the equivalent of giving people access to a beautiful sandy beach, but telling them they can only use it if they don’t wear sunblock. Ultimately, it’s your hotspot and your call. But if you care about your customers, don't be in the minority of businesses that forces them to give up their online security and privacy. Best wishes, the FreedomeVPN team. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnTFGiV27Zw