For the first time since ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden began revealing the scope of surveillance being conducted by the U.S. and its allies, there is a serious debate in the U.S. Congress about whether or not the government’s massive data collection should be reigned in, as key provisions of PATRIOT Act are about to expire. The law passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 then expanded over the course of the last decade is the foundation of the U.S. surveillance state.
Given the Obama administration’s embrace of both the law and its willingness to make extraordinary claims about online activities of other governments, F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan made this definitive prediction at the beginning of 2015: “Section 215 and Section 206 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act will be reauthorized before their June 1, 2015 expiration date.”
If past is prologue, this prediction will come true. But there is some hope of reform.
On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul spoke for more than 10-hours in opposition of the law’s renewal on the floor of the Senate. His goal was to draw attention to the issue — and his presidential campaign — and draw down some of the time before the Senate is set to recess this weekend, in hopes of disrupting a backroom deal to renew the law with no changes. (Ironically, if you’re keeping up this debate, you may see Paul’s ads following you around the internet.)
The Senate now faces two very busy and intense days of legislating. Here’s what you should know about the most important privacy debate in the world.
1. If Section 215 — the “library records” portion of the law which has been used to justify the collection of all phone records — expires, the NSA is legally required to shut down its phone surveillance program.
The Justice Department has warned lawmakers about this necessity, largely as a way of encouraging legislative action. Of course, restrictions on the law have been broken by the government before.
2. A bill reforming Section 215 has passed the House with a huge majority.
The USA Freedom Act is supported by the Obama White House and many reformers and rolls back a program that would not have prevented the 9/11 attacks and “was not essential to preventing attacks” according to a group appointed by the president to review surveillance policies. Paul opposes the Freedom Act because it forces telecoms to retain data providing the opportunity for what he calls “bulky, perhaps bulk collection.”
He asked, “Do we end up giving more power to the intelligence community when we’re trying to limit their power?”
3. Some believe that even the USA Freedom Act will end up expanding the government’s power to spy.
Marcy Wheeler, who covers government surveillance extensively on her blog Emptywheel, believes that the law could actually expand Section 215 to include access to your smartphone.
4. This issue unites both political parties and divides them internally.
Republican Senator Paul has been one of the most consistent critics of the PATRIOT Act. Seven Democrats joined him on the floor of the Senate Wednesday but only one Republican. The GOP controls both houses of Congress, but GOP leaders in the Senate are refusing to even hold a vote on the USA Freedom Act, which is backed by GOP leaders of the House. Democrats were vocal critics of the law under George W. Bush but Democratic President Obama voted for it and for retroactive immunity for the telecoms on his way to becoming president. His administration clearly does not want the law to expire and while it backs the Freedom Act, it would likely accept an extension with no reform.
5. None of this would be happening without Edward Snowden.
This debate and a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals stating that Congress never authorized bulk collection of phone records were both prompted by Snowden’s leaks. Before they became public concerns about the law, which have long been expressed by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden among others, were largely ignored as the PATRIOT Act enjoyed overwhelming support from both parties.
[Image by thierry ehrmann | Flickr]
Mobile devices have largely avoided the malware outbreaks that have plagued PCs for decades now for a simple reason -- app stores. Nearly all -- or even all -- the software that's on your phone or tablet now came through these official portals, where they endured some degree of vetting. But this doesn't mean it's impossible to have your security or privacy compromised by bad apps. Here's a quick run-through of the basics you need to know to keep the data on your mobile device safe and private. 1. Stick to the official app stores. If you have an iOS device, you can only use the official App Store, unless you "jailbreak" your device and take your security into your own hands. Android users, however, have more freedom. And with freedom, there's a little danger. "Anything ending in .apk might be malicious," Tom Van De Wiele, F-Secure Security Consultant, tells me. "So the official Google Play store is the only place you should get your apps." He offers a simple metaphor to remember this concept: "You don’t pick up shiny food from the street and put it in your mouth either, no matter what the promise is." In case you missed the point: The Play store is the clean table -- everywhere else is the grimy, filthy floor. 2. ANDROID USERS: Make sure to block downloads from "Unknown sources". "Phishing campaigns are focussing on providing .apk files to unsuspecting victims by email, SMS, MMS, Skype and other means," Tom says. He recommends you avoid these scams by blocking downloads from unknown sources. To do this, via iKidApps.com: Navigate to your Android phone’s home screen. Tap the Android "Menu" button. Choose "Settings". Open "Applications". Make sure there is no green check mark next to the Unknown sources item. If there is a green check mark next to Unknown sources, disable the setting. 3. ANDROID AND IOS USERS: Don't assume that your apps have been vetted for privacy. "It is not in Google’s interest to remove a lot of apps as they generate advertisement revenue for Google," Tom says, adding that the Play store doesn't do nearly as much vetting for malicious apps as the Apple iOS store does and instead opts for a “clean-up-as-you-go model." But that doesn't mean iOS apps are completely nuisance free. "Apple has the 'walled garden' of trying to control what they can when it comes to their application eco-system," he says. "This does not take into account apps that invade your privacy by asking you, for example if the app can 'access the address book', which will result in sending the contents of the address book to a remote location." You have to check the app permissions yourself to avoid these data-farming apps. 4. Look out for "bait ware." Both app stores have been plagued by what Tom calls "bait ware". These are apps "where the user is fooled into generating a lot of advertisement revenue by randomly popping up ads, fake buttons and other arbitrary functionality." New parents need to especially be on the lookout for these apps. "This is especially prevalent in baby and toddler applications which look very enticing to download and try but are merely empty husks with interwoven advertisement." Why do these apps prosper despite their dubious quality? Tom says, "Both Apple and Google are reluctant to remove them as it becomes a slippery slope on where to draw the line between sincere and malevolent behavior of an application." 5. "Walled gardens" aren't perfect solutions so check reviews and be suspicious of newer apps. Google's approach invites malicious apps to occasionally appear in its store. Often they're imitations or clones of much more popular apps. This is much, much more rare in the iOS App Store, but it has happened. To preserve your security, privacy and disk space, do some basic due diligence and check the reviews to see if they seem real and offer some substantive testimony that the app is legit. [Image by PhotoAtelier | Flickr]
A great deal has happened within the online privacy sphere in the last 12 months. The subject has become a genuinely hot topic, and we have done our best to dissect relevant industry issues into an easily readable form while reporting directly from the eye of the storm, so to speak. Here are five essential reads to get you up to speed on the state of online privacy, VPN, and related topics. An Open Letter to Businesses who Block VPN on Their Wi-Fi Networks Ultimately, allowing the use of VPN on your Wi-Fi hotspot is your call. However, if you truly care about your customers, don’t be in the minority of businesses that forces them to give up their online security and privacy while browsing on your network. A Twitter user asked us a question that inspired our most viral article of the year, as well as the video response we produced as a follow-up. In the post and video, we emphasize the fact that companies end up shooting themselves in the foot by putting their customers’ security at risk. If you ever come across this consumer-unfriendly practice, we urge you to share the article and/or video! Read the full article here. How Does Encryption Work? “. . .It’s easy to forget that easy access to encryption greatly benefits even normal web users like you and me.” Our widely shared article on encryption exhibits a 360-degree view on encryption, providing readers with an overview of its history and a straightforward explanation of how modern VPNs ingeniously work to protect your privacy. If you’re interested in learning what’s under the hood of online privacy, this article is for you. 4 People Who See What Porn You Watch “A large majority of web users are lulled into a false sense of security by Incognito mode or private browsing, but this is only one of the steps needed toward becoming private online.” Many things take place “behind the scenes” on the Internet – these are things that we can’t see and therefore don’t think about. This admittedly attention-grabbing headline was meant as a wakeup call to the fact that adult content browsing histories aren’t as private as most people would like to think. Read up on a few people who have access to your porn browsing history, as well as some quick tips that can help prevent snooping. Privacy, Patriotism and PR: The Case of Apple vs. FBI “In this debate, privacy, patriotism and public relations are just some of the factors influencing a public discourse that has shifted to reflect new and often clashing attitudes towards encryption.” The Apple Vs. FBI case was the Clash of the Titans between privacy players that dominated mainstream news outlets throughout the first half of 2016, with ripples that are sure to affect the dynamics between companies and governments for years to come. We made a conscious effort to explore the issue from every possible angle, and the article is still a very relevant read. Why Do Newspapers Spy on You? “The longer something on the Internet is free, the harder it will be to make people start paying for it.” Who pays for a product that costs something to make but is free for the customer? In this article, we look at the idiosyncratic purchasing habits of modern web users and why these habits have lead news websites and other services to sacrifice their visitors’ privacy in order to stay in business. This piece is good food for thought for all consumers of online news.
"I believe data is the new oil," F-Secure's chief research officer Mikko Hypponen says. "And just like oil brought us both prosperity and problems, data will bring us prosperity, and problems." We're just beginning to understand how so-called "big data" is changing everything, even medical care. A new report from the Century Foundation reveals how the private information we share with practitioners gets anonymized and then mined. That information combined with metrics from search engines and wearables can then be melded for "predicative analysis" which is able to project behavior with “a surprising degree of accuracy," despite laws meant to protect medical privacy. Presumably these learnings could be used to make us healthier but they could also be used to deny us treatments or insurance coverage. And while we worry about government surveillance, many of us voluntarily share our thoughts, pictures and intimate details about our lives with Facebook, which then purchases more information about us from third-parties to make sure the ads we see are even more effective. Mikko has noted that Twitter connects our offline data to our profiles through our phone number. So when you share your mobile number for a proactive reason, such as activating two-factor authentication or account recovery, we're also feeding the data beast to make ourselves even more profitable to the sites we use. And then there's Internet of Things, which is coming into your home whether you like it or not. "You will buy whole appliances and you won't even know they are IoT appliances. I mean, you go and buy a toaster and there is an IoT feature... Why would you even need IoT features in a goddamn toaster?" Mikko asks. "But it's going to be online anyway. Why? Because it's going to be so cheap to put it online. And the benefits it creates are not benefits for you, the consumer, they're benefits for the manufacturer. Because now they can collect analytics." Our Freedome VPN team has found that when it comes to connecting with free Wi-Fi, people are willing to give up almost anything -- even their first born. Data. On one hand, prosperity and opportunity. On the other, problems and problems we haven't yet imagined. That's why controlling our personal information matters more than ever. Data Privacy Day -- held annually on 28 January -- is an international effort to get people around the globe to think about the importance of controlling what we share. To mark the day, Mikko will be doing a Reddit IAmA on the day before -- 27 January -- where you can ask him anything and our Freedome VPN team will be in the streets spreading the word about the importance of privacy. To prepare you can read Mikko's recent Q&A session on Quora and feast on this playlist of dozens of talks and interviews he's given: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAChQaySECY?list=PLkMjG1Mo4pKIRUqHj1eUMDqvV5a0o2CoS]