Category: Digital self-defence (page 1 of 3)

Cory Doctorow on Big Tech, monopolies, and decentralisation

I’m not one to watch a 30-minute video, as usually it’s faster and more interesting to read the transcription. I’ll always make an exception, however, for Cory Doctorow who not only speaks almost as fast as I can read, but is so enthusiastic and passionate about his work that it’s a lot more satisfying to see him speak.

You have to watch his keynote at the Decentralized Web Summit last month. It’s not only a history lesson and a warning, but he puts in ways that really make you see what the problem is. Inspiring stuff.

Source: Boing Boing

Designing for privacy

Someone described the act of watching Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, testifying before Congress as “low level self-harm”. In this post, Joe Edelman explains why:

Zuckerberg and the politicians—they imagine privacy as if it were a software feature. They imagine a system has “good privacy” if it’s consensual and configurable; that is, if people explicitly agree to something, and understand what they agree to, that’s somehow “good for privacy”. Even usually-sophisticated-analysts like Zeynep Tufekci are missing all the nuance here.

Giving the example of a cocktail party where you’re talking to a friend about something confidential and someone else you don’t know comes along, Edelman introduces this definition of privacy:

Privacy, n. Maintaining a sense of what to show in each environment; Locating social spaces for aspects of yourself which aren’t ready for public display, where you can grow those parts of yourself until they can be more public.

I really like this definition, especially the part around “locating social spaces for aspects of yourself which aren’t ready for public display”. I think educators in particular should note this.

Referencing his HSC1 Curriculum which is the basis for workshops he runs for staff from major tech companies, Edelman includes a graphic on the structural features of privacy. I’ll type this out here for the sake of legibility:

  • Relational depth (close friends / acquaintances / strangers / anonymous / mixed)
  • Presentation (crafted / basic / disheveled)
  • Connectivity (transient / pairwise / whole-group)
  • Stakes (high / low)
  • Status levels (celebrities / rank / flat)
  • Reliance (interdependent / independent)
  • Time together (none / brief / slow)
  • Audience size (big / small / unclear)
  • Audience loyalty (loyal / transient / unclear)
  • Participation (invited / uninvited)
  • Pretext (shared goal / shared values / shared topic / many goals (exchange) / emergent)
  • Social Gestures (like / friend / follow / thank / review / comment / join / commit / request / buy)

The post is, of course, both an expert response to the zeitgeist, and a not-too-subtle hint that people should take his course. I’m sure Edelman goes into more depth about each of these structural features in his workshops.

Nevertheless, and even without attending his sessions (which I’m sure are great) there’s value in thinking through each of these elements for the work I’m doing around the MoodleNet project. I’ve probably done some thinking around 70% of these, but it’s great to have a list that helps me organise my thinking a little more.

Source: Joe Edelman

Every part of your digital life is being tracked, packaged up, and sold

I’ve just installed Lumen Privacy Monitor on my Android smartphone after reading this blog post from Mozilla:

New research co-authored by Mozilla Fellow Rishab Nithyanand explores just this: The opaque realm of third-party trackers and what they know about us. The research is titled “Apps, Trackers, Privacy, and Regulators: A Global Study of the Mobile Tracking Ecosystem,” and is authored by researchers at Stony Brook University, Data & Society, IMDEA Networks, ICSI, Princeton University, Corelight, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[…]

In all, the team identified 2,121 trackers — 233 of which were previously unknown to popular advertising and tracking blacklists. These trackers collected personal data like Android IDs, phone numbers, device fingerprints, and MAC addresses.

The link to the full report is linked to in the quotation above, but the high-level findings were:

»Most trackers are owned by just a few parent organizations. The authors report that sixteen of the 20 most pervasive trackers are owned by Alphabet. Other parent organizations include Facebook and Verizon. “There is a clear oligopoly happening in the ecosystem,” Nithyanand says.

» Mobile games and educational apps are the two categories with the highest number of trackers. Users of news and entertainment apps are also exposed to a wide range of trackers. In a separate paper co-authored by Vallina-Rodriguez, he explores the intersection of mobile tracking and apps for youngsters: “Is Our Children’s Apps Learning?

» Cross-device tracking is widespread. The vast majority of mobile trackers are also active on the desktop web, allowing companies to link together personal data produced in both ecosystems. “Cross-platform tracking is already happening everywhere,” Nithyanand says. “Fifteen of the top 20 organizations active in the mobile advertising space also have a presence in the web advertising space.”

We’re finally getting the stage where a large portion of the population can’t really ignore the fact that they’re using free services in return for pervasive and always-on surveillance.

Source: Mozilla: Read, Write, Participate

Survival in the age of surveillance

The Guardian has a list of 18 tips to ‘survive’ (i.e. be safe) in an age where everyone wants to know everything about you — so that they can package up your data and sell it to the highest bidder.

On the internet, the adage goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. That joke is only 15 years old, but seems as if it is from an entirely different era. Once upon a time the internet was associated with anonymity; today it is synonymous with surveillance. Not only do modern technology companies know full well you’re not a dog (not even an extremely precocious poodle), they know whether you own a dog and what sort of dog it is. And, based on your preferred category of canine, they can go a long way to inferring – and influencing – your political views.

Mozilla has pointed out in a recent blog post that the containers feature in Firefox can increase your privacy and prevent ‘leakage’ between tabs as you navigate the web. But there’s more to privacy and security than just that.

Here’s the Guardian’s list:

  1. Download all the information Google has on you.
  2. Try not to let your smart toaster take down the internet.
  3. Ensure your AirDrop settings are dick-pic-proof.
  4. Secure your old Yahoo account.
  5. 1234 is not an acceptable password.
  6. Check if you have been pwned.
  7. Be aware of personalised pricing.
  8. Say hi to the NSA guy spying on you via your webcam.
  9. Turn off notifications for anything that’s not another person speaking directly to you.
  10. Never put your kids on the public internet.
  11. Leave your phone in your pocket or face down on the table when you’re with friends.
  12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over.
  13. An Echo is fine, but don’t put a camera in your bedroom.
  14. Have as many social-media-free days in the week as you have alcohol-free days.
  15. Retrain your brain to focus.
  16. Don’t let the algorithms pick what you do.
  17. Do what you want with your data, but guard your friends’ info with your life.
  18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting.

A bit of a random list in places, but useful all the same.

Source: The Guardian

Alternatives to all of Facebook’s main features

Over on a microcast at Patreon (subscribers only, I’m afraid) I referenced an email conversation I’ve been having about getting people off Facebook.

WIRED has a handy list of apps that replicate the functionality of the platform. It’s important to bear in mind that no other platform has the same feature set as Facebook. Of course it doesn’t, because no other platform has the dollars and support of the military-industrial complex quite like Facebook.

Nevertheless, here’s what WIRED suggests:

(Note: I haven’t included ‘birthday reminders’ as that would have involved linking to a Facebook help page, and I don’t link to Facebook. Full stop.)

I’ve used, and like, all of the apps on that list, with the exception of Paperless Post, which looks like it’s iOS-only.

OK, so it’s not easy getting people off a site that provides so much functionality, but it’s certainly possible. Lead by example, people.

Source: WIRED

The only privacy policy that matters is your own

Dave Pell writes NextDraft, a daily newsletter that’s one of the most popular on the web. I used to subscribe, and it’s undeniably brilliant, but a little US-centric for my liking.

My newsletter, Thought Shrapnel, doesn’t track you. In fact, I have to keep battling MailChimp (the platform I use to send it out) as it thinks I’ve made a mistake. Tracking is so pervasive but I have no need to know exactly how many people clicked on a particular link. It’s an inexact science, anyway.

Pell has written a great post about online privacy:

The story of Cambridge Analytica accessing your personal data on Facebook, supposedly creating a spot-on psychographic profile, and then weaponizing your own personality against you with a series of well-worded messages is now sweeping the media. And it will get louder. And it will pass. And then, I promise, there will be another story about your data being stolen, borrowed, hacked, misused, shared, bought, sold and on and on.

He points out the disconnect between rich people such as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, going to “great lengths” to protect his privacy, whilst simultaneously depriving Facebook users of theirs.

They are right to want privacy. They are right to want to keep their personal lives walled off from anyone from nosy neighbors to potential thieves to, well, Matt Richtel. They should lock their doors and lock down their information. They are right not to want you to know where they live, with whom they live, or how much they spend. They’re right to want to plug a cork in the social media champagne bottle we’ve shaken up in our blind celebration of glass houses.

They are right not to want to toss the floor planks that represent their last hint of personal privacy into the social media wood chipper. They are right in their unwillingness to give in to the seeming inevitability of the internet sharing machine. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that most of the buttons you press on the web are labeled with the word submit?

A Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) is something that’s been in the news recently as Donald Trump has taken his shady business practices to the whitehouse. Pell notes that the principle behind NDAs is nevertheless sound: you don’t get to divulge my personal details without my permission.

So you should follow their lead. Don’t do what they say. Do what they do. Better yet, do what they NDA.

[…]

There’s a pretty simple rule: never share anything on any site anywhere on the internet regardless of any privacy settings unless you are willing to accept that the data might one day be public.

The only privacy policy that matters is your own.

Source: Dave Pell

The security guide as literary genre

I stumbled across this conference presentation from back in January by Jeffrey Monro, “a doctoral student in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where [he studies] the textual and material histories of media technologies”.

It’s a short, but very interesting one, taking a step back from the current state of play to ask what we’re actually doing as a society.

Over the past year, in an unsurprising response to a host of new geopolitical realities, we’ve seen a cottage industry of security recommendations pop up in venues as varied as The New York TimesVice, and even Teen Vogue. Together, these recommendations form a standard suite of answers to some of the most messy questions of our digital lives. “How do I stop advertisers from surveilling me?” “How do I protect my internet history from the highest bidder?” And “how do I protect my privacy in the face of an invasive or authoritarian government?”

It’s all very well having a plethora of guides to secure ourselves against digital adversaries, but this isn’t something that we need to really think about in a physical setting within the developed world. When I pop down to the shops, I don’t think about the route I take in case someone robs me at gunpoint.

So Monro is thinking about these security guides as a kind of ‘literary genre’:

I’m less interested in whether or not these tools are effective as such. Rather, I want to ask how these tools in particular orient us toward digital space, engage imaginaries of privacy and security, and structure relationships between users, hackers, governments, infrastructures, or machines themselves? In short: what are we asking for when we construe security as a browser plugin?

There’s a wider issue here about the pace of digital interactions, security theatre, and most of us getting news from an industry hyper-focused on online advertising. A recent article in the New York Times was thought-provoking in that sense, comparing what it’s like going back to (or in some cases, getting for the first time) all of your news from print media.

We live in a digital world where everyone’s seemingly agitated and angry, all of the time:

The increasing popularity of these guides evinces a watchful anxiety permeating even the most benign of online interactions, a paranoia that emerges from an epistemological collapse of the categories of “private” and “public.” These guides offer a way through the wilderness, techniques by which users can harden that private/public boundary.

The problem with this ‘genre’ of security guide, says Monro, is that even the good ones from groups like EFF (of which I’m a member) make you feel like locking down everything. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s very limiting.

Communication, by its very nature, demands some dimension of insecurity, some material vector for possible attack. Communication is always already a vulnerable act. The perfectly secure machine, as Chun notes, would be unusable: it would cease to be a computer at all. We can then only ever approach security asymptotically, always leaving avenues for attack, for it is precisely through those avenues that communication occurs.

I’m a great believer in serendipity, but the problem with that from a technical point of view is that it increases my attack surface. It’s a source of tension that I actually feel most days.

There is no room, or at least less room, in a world of locked-down browsers, encrypted messaging apps, and verified communication for qualities like serendipity or chance encounters. Certainly in a world chock-full with bad actors, I am not arguing for less security, particularly for those of us most vulnerable to attack online… But I have to wonder how our intensive speculative energies, so far directed toward all possibility for attack, might be put to use in imagining a digital world that sees vulnerability as a value.

At the end of the day, this kind of article serves to show just how different our online, digital environment is from our physical reality. It’s a fascinating sideways look, looking at the security guide as a ‘genre’. A recommended read in its entirety — and I really like the look of his blog!

Source: Jeffrey Moro

GDPR, blockchain, and privacy

I’m taking an online course about the impending General Data Protection Regulatin (GDPR), which I’ve writing about on my personal blog. An article in WIRED talks about the potential it will have, along with technologies such as blockchain.

People have talked about everyone having ‘private data accounts’ which they then choose to hook up to service providers for years. GDPR might just force that to happen:

A new generation of apps and websites will arise that use private-data accounts instead of conventional user accounts. Internet applications in 2018 will attach themselves to these, gaining access to a smart data account rich with privately held contextual information such as stress levels (combining sleep patterns, for example, with how busy a user’s calendar is) or motivation to exercise comparing historical exercise patterns to infer about the day ahead). All of this will be possible without the burden on the app supplier of undue sensitive data liability or any violation of consumers’ personal rights.

As the article points out, when we know what’s going to happen with our data, we’re probably more likely to share it. For example, I’m much more likely to invest in voice-assisted technologies once GDPR hits in May:

Paradoxically, the internet will become more private at a moment when we individuals begin to exchange more data. We will then wield a collective economic power that could make 2018 the year we rebalance the digital economy.

This will have a huge effect on our everyday information landscape:

The more we share data on our terms, the more the internet will evolve to emulate the physical domain where private spaces, commercial spaces and community spaces can exist separately, but side by side. Indeed, private-data accounts may be the first step towards the internet as a civil society, paving the way for a governing system where digital citizens, in the form of their private micro-server data account, do not merely have to depend on legislation to champion their private rights, but also have the economic power to enforce them as well.

I have to say, the more I discover about the provisions of GDPR, the more excited and optimistic I am about the future.

Source: WIRED

More haste, less speed

In the last couple of years, there’s been a move to give names to security vulnerabilities that would be otherwise too arcane to discuss in the mainstream media. For example, back in 2014, Heartbleed, “a security bug in the OpenSSL cryptography library, which is a widely used implementation of the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol”, had not only a name but a logo.

The recent media storm around the so-called ‘Spectre’ and ‘Meltdown’ shows how effective this approach is. It also helps that they sound a little like James Bond science fiction.

In this article, Zeynep Tufekci argues that the security vulnerabilities are built on our collective desire for speed:

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

Helpfully, she gives a layperson’s explanation of what went wrong with these two security vulnerabilities:

Almost all modern microprocessors employ tricks to squeeze more performance out of a computer program. A common trick involves having the microprocessor predict what the program is about to do and start doing it before it has been asked to do it — say, fetching data from memory. In a way, modern microprocessors act like attentive butlers, pouring that second glass of wine before you knew you were going to ask for it.

But what if you weren’t going to ask for that wine? What if you were going to switch to port? No problem: The butler just dumps the mistaken glass and gets the port. Yes, some time has been wasted. But in the long run, as long as the overall amount of time gained by anticipating your needs exceeds the time lost, all is well.

Except all is not well. Imagine that you don’t want others to know about the details of the wine cellar. It turns out that by watching your butler’s movements, other people can infer a lot about the cellar. Information is revealed that would not have been had the butler patiently waited for each of your commands, rather than anticipating them. Almost all modern microprocessors make these butler movements, with their revealing traces, and hackers can take advantage.

Right now, she argues, systems have to employ more and more tricks to squeeze performance out of hardware because the software we use is riddled with surveillance and spyware.

But the truth is that our computers are already quite fast. When they are slow for the end-user, it is often because of “bloatware”: badly written programs or advertising scripts that wreak havoc as they try to track your activity online. If we were to fix that problem, we would gain speed (and avoid threatening and needless surveillance of our behavior).

As things stand, we suffer through hack after hack, security failure after security failure. If commercial airplanes fell out of the sky regularly, we wouldn’t just shrug. We would invest in understanding flight dynamics, hold companies accountable that did not use established safety procedures, and dissect and learn from new incidents that caught us by surprise.

And indeed, with airplanes, we did all that. There is no reason we cannot do the same for safety and security of our digital systems.

There have been patches going out over the past few weeks since the vulnerabilities came to light from major vendors. For-profit companies have limited resources, of course, and proprietary, closed-source code. This means there’ll be some devices that won’t get the security updates at all, leaving end users in a tricky situation: their hardware is now almost worthless. So do they (a) keep on using it, crossing their fingers that nothing bad happens, or (b) bite the bullet and upgrade?

What I think the communities I’m part of could have done better at is shout loudly that there’s an option (c): open source software. No matter how old your hardware, the chances are that someone, somewhere, with the requisite skills will want to fix the vulnerabilities on that device.

Source: The New York Times

DuckDuckGo moves beyond search

This is excellent news:

Today we’re taking a major step to simplify online privacy with the launch of fully revamped versions of our browser extension and mobile app, now with built-in tracker network blocking, smarter encryption, and, of course, private search – all designed to operate seamlessly together while you search and browse the web. Our updated app and extension are now available across all major platforms – Firefox, Safari, Chrome, iOS, and Android – so that you can easily get all the privacy essentials you need on any device with just one download.

I have a multitude of blockers installed, which makes it difficult to recommend just one to people. Hopefully this will simplify things:

For the last decade, DuckDuckGo has been giving you the ability to search privately, but that privacy was only limited to our search box. Now, when you also use the DuckDuckGo browser extension or mobile app, we will provide you with seamless privacy protection on the websites you visit. Our goal is to expand this privacy protection over time by adding even more privacy features into this single package. While not all privacy protection can be as seamless, the essentials available today and those that we will be adding will go a long way to protecting your privacy online, without compromising your Internet experience.

It looks like the code is all open source, too! 👏 👏 👏

Source: DuckDuckGo blog