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Category: Privacy

I took the #DeleteFacebook Challenge

In the last weeks, Facebook has been in the news a lot for its aggressive data gathering.  What has surprised me, is not that Facebook is in the news, but that it hasn’t happened much sooner.  Facebook is possibly the most invasive data gathering, privacy invading platform the world has ever seen, despite the fact that it is cloaked behind a veil of childish logos and thumbs up buttons.  Additionally, Facebook has engaged in some truly abhorrent practices, such as gathering text messaging and phone metadata from Android usersconducting secret psychological tests on over 700,000 users in 2012, ad programs that track users’ web activity off of Facebook, to say nothing of how Facebook was and most likely is being used to propagate fake news.

As someone who has worked in various regulated industries (banking, government) it appalls me how companies like Facebook abuse their users’ privacy.  My biggest issue is that Facebook disguises its data gathering efforts under a slick veneer of innocence which disguises their true intent.  Much like tobacco adverts of yore, Facebook and its “family” are targeted primarily towards younger people who don’t understand what they are giving up in exchange for the privilege of sharing their photos with their friends.

An extremely egregious example of this occurs on election days in the US.  Facebook will ask users a question: “Did you vote today?” and give you a little sticker on your profile if you answer that you did.  Now why do you think they would do that?  To encourage people to vote?  Hardly, though that may be a side benefit.  No, the real reason they do this is to gather information about people’s voting history, which Facebook then uses in their targeted political campaigns.  Don’t believe me?  You can read about it here: https://politics.fb.com.

The problem here is that Facebook doesn’t ask their users for consent in a way that a typical user will understand.  I am not trying to mock Facebook users, but most people who don’t work in data analytics, don’t really understand the implications of mass data gathering.  The image above is how Facebook Messenger asks for permission to gain access to your contacts, SMS and phone call logs. (Courtesy of ArsTechnica)  Nowhere in this image does it say anything about collecting SMS, phone logs or anything for that matter.  It looks cute and most people wouldn’t think twice about clicking on ok.

Silicon Valley’s Culture Needs to Change

The biggest issue I have with some of what Facebook has been caught doing is that enough of the company felt it was acceptable for them to do it.   That’s the bigger issue here.  Most likely, some manager at Facebook decided, why don’t we gather all our Android users’ text data and mine it!  And nobody said a bloody thing. No leaks to the news media, no disgruntled employees writing blog posts about it, nothing….  Which ultimately means that everyone involved felt it was totally acceptable to take their users’ SMS and phone logs.   This practice only ended when Android disabled the functionality, so it wasn’t as if Facebook execs had some crisis of conscious.

But, I’m a realist.  Facebook’s revenue is generated by selling targeted advertising and the way it targets its ads is by gathering data about its audience.  Whilst Mr. Zuckerberg can write pithy non-apologies about it, nothing will change because this is how Facebook makes money.  The only way this changes, is for people like you to get off of Facebook (and Instagram, and WhatsApp) in significant numbers and for advertisers to stop spending money on Facebook ads. As long as there is a market for this data, the sad reality is that there will be more and more companies trying to invade your privacy and sell it to the highest bidder.

Educate Yourself About How Companies Monetize Your Data

You need to understand how companies are using your data and make a conscious choice about whether that company provides enough value to justify that loss in privacy.  Frankly, this is why I prefer using companies whose primary revenue stream is not derived from data monetization.  This is why I choose to use iPhones instead of Android, iMessage instead of WhatsApp, socializing with real friends instead of Facebook.  You can generally tell this is the case by whether you have to pay for a service.  Generally speaking, companies which charge for their services are not looking to invade your privacy to the same degree as companies that offer their services “for free”.  As the saying goes: “If you aren’t paying for it, YOU are the product.

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A New Threat: Stalkerware

What would you do if you attended a political event or protest and the next day, you receive targeted adverts for that political cause?  Would that be cause for concern?  After all, you don’t post about your political views, how did the advertisers know?  You didn’t sign any rosters or register, so how did they know you were there?

I recently became aware of a new category of computer-evil: stalkerware.  I thought I was being clever and would have the privilege of coining a new term, but a few other people have already coined the term.  However, I would like to propose a slightly different definition.  In an article originally appearing on Motherboard, stalkerware is defined as:

Stalkerware is defined as invasive applications running on computers and smartphones that basically send every bit of information about you to another person. This covers the gamut from programs that can be purchased online to give third parties access to basically everything on your computer from photos, text messages and emails to individual keystrokes, to apps that activate your Mac’s webcam without your knowledge.

I’m not really seeing the difference between this definition and “traditional” spyware, but stalkerware as I define it is:

Software that automatically reports your location on a regular basis without your knowledge or consent.

The stalkerware that Motherboard writes about are dedicated programs or apps that someone deliberately installs on a target’s mobile device in order to track their activity for whatever reason.  Stalkerware as I define it is a little different, in that it is not targeted at one individual.  These are applications that are installed on mobile devices that track your every move–literally stalking you–most likely without your knowledge.

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A Proposal for Data Science Ethics

In the last few days I’ve been pleased to see that the issue of privacy which I wrote about last week about ISPs being able to sell your browsing history is getting a lot more coverage in the tech blogs such as Wired, Gizmodo, ArsTechnica, FOSSBytes and many others.   I read a lot of different news sources and I was hard pressed to find ANY writers supporting this government action.

This morning, DJ Patil, former US Chief Data Scientist, posted some comments about how much damage a data scientist could do with everyone’s browsing history.  (Complete thread here)  It occurred to me that data science is perhaps one of the most powerful professions of the 21st century and yet, there is no certifying body to determine who is and who is not a data scientists, nor is there any licensing, nor any professional society to establish rules of professional conduct.  Virtually every profession which can have an impact on the public has some sort of licensing or professional conduct code, and yet data science does not.  After all, even lawyers have a code of professional ethics.

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The End of Privacy As We Know It

In the news on Friday I saw a series of articles about a recent change in communication rules which was rejected by the Senate that would have prohibited ISPs from selling your browsing histories.  I understand why ISPs would want to monetize this data, after all, this data would be extremely valuable to online advertisers to more accurately serve ads.  But I think it should give us pause to ask the question is this in fact ethical?

While there really is no 1 to 1 comparison, the closest thing(s) would be either the telephone company selling your call records, or the post office (or other courier services such as UPS) aggregating and selling the information on the outside of your mail.  I would strongly suspect that most people, if asked, would certainly not want their communication records sold to the highest bidder and yet that is precisely what Congress is allowing.

What Does This Mean for Privacy?

If ISPs are allowed to sell your browsing histories, I don’t believe that it is overstating things to say that this represents the end of privacy on the internet.  While we didn’t have much privacy on the internet any these days anyway, but if the ISPs are allowed to sell browsing records, it’s pretty much over.

With that said, it is difficult to discern exactly what is going to be allowed under the new rule change, but if I’m reading the news articles correctly it will allow ISPs to sell records of metadata of your web browsing.  To a competent analyst, this data would be a virtual gold mine for targeted advertising and all sorts of other services, none of which are really beneficial to the individual.   As I’ve shown in my Strata talks about IoT data, (here and here) if you gather enough seemingly innocuous data about an individual, it is entirely possible to put together a very accurate picture of their life.  From my own experience, if you were to look at my browsing history for a few months, you could very easily determine things like when my bills are due, what companies I do business with, when I go to work/bed, what chat services I use, things I may be interested in buying, what places I’m interested in visiting, etc.  The bottom line is that I consider my web browsing to be personal.  I don’t want to share that with anyone, not because I have something to hide, but rather because I want the choice.  I see no benefit whatsoever to the consumer in this rule change.

What can you do to protect your privacy?

Unfortunately, there really aren’t a lot of options.  From the technical perspective, there are several technical options–none great–to preserve your privacy.  It is not possible to keep the ISPs from getting your data, but you can make that data useless with TOR and VPNs.

  • Virtual Private Network (VPN):  VPNs have been traditionally used by corporations to allow remote access into private networks using the public internet.  VPNs create a secure tunnel between your computer and a proxy server then your web traffic passes through that server–which can be anywhere in the world.  For those of you who don’t work for large corporations, there are free and paid VPNs that you can use to access the web, however, I would avoid any free VPN service as they are likely making money by, you guessed it, collecting web traffic and analyzing it.   VPNs may seem like an ideal countermeasure, however there are issues with VPNs as well.  For starters, you are adding bottlenecks and complexity and hence losing speed.  Secondly many sites–particularly sites that have geographically based licensing such as Netflix–block traffic from VPNs.   VPNs don’t make you anonymous but they can make your data much more difficult to collect.
  • TOR:  TOR stands for The Onion Router (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tor_(anonymity_network)) and it is similar to a VPN but instead of using one proxy server, TOR uses a series of encrypted relays and makes traffic much more difficult.  TOR has been used in many countries to successfully evade internet censorship.  TOR has the added benefit of allowing anonymous browsing, however, it does introduce additional complexity into your browsing.  There also is a speed penalty for using TOR and you will find that you will not be able to access certain services using TOR.

Depending on how protective of your privacy you are, this may or may not matter, but it is important to understand that when using these technologies, guaranteeing your privacy depends on properly configuring them.  One small misconfiguration can expose your personal data.

I should also mention here that the so-called privacy modes that most browsers include do absolutely nothing to protect your privacy over the network.  Privacy mode erases your browsing history and cookies on your local machine, but you are still vulnerable to snooping over the network.

What else can I do?

This rule change represents a complete failure of government to do the thing it is really supposed to do–protecting the rights of its citizens.  It’s sad that the whole world was up in arms in response to Snowden’s revelations, and yet the silence is deafening in response to unlimited, widespread corporate surveillance.  Indeed, you have to read the hacker blogs (and my site) to find any kind of discussion of this issue.  This story got virtually zero coverage in the news media.

What is a real shame is that this appears to have become a partisan issue in that the vote in the Senate was a strict party-line vote.  It is entirely possible that the new Congress voted to repeal these rules simply because they were put in place by the previous administration.

At this point, the government is not looking out for its citizens’ interests in this regard and therefore it is upon individual citizens to take action to preserve our privacy.  In addition to the technical measures listed above here are some suggestions for what you can do:

  1. Contact your Congressional Representative(s) and Senator(s):  The Congressional switchboard number is 202-224-3121.  Always be courteous, professional and polite when speaking with Congressional Staff.   Be sure to convey why you are calling.  While it is unlikely that you will speak directly to your Senator or Congressman, their Staff have enormous influence and you should be respectful to them.  Make it clear that you do not welcome corporate surveillance.
  2. Educate Others:  I suspect that the reason this received so little attention is that the average person doesn’t really understand security, privacy and the consequences of this kind of data collection.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon those of us who work in data analytics and security to explain the implications of these policies in an understandable manner to non-technical people.

I would strongly urge everyone to do what they can to protest this rule change.  If we do nothing, we might wake up one day and find that our online privacy has ceased to exist.

 

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