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Clarifying the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

A federal court has ruled that violating a website’s terms of service is not “hacking” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The plaintiffs wanted to investigate possible racial discrimination in online job markets by creating accounts for fake employers and job seekers. Leading job sites have terms of service prohibiting users from supplying fake information, and the researchers worried that their research could expose them to criminal liability under the CFAA, which makes it a crime to “access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access.”

So in 2016 they sued the federal government, seeking a declaration that this part of the CFAA violated the First Amendment.

But rather than addressing that constitutional issue, Judge John Bates ruled on Friday that the plaintiffs’ proposed research wouldn’t violate the CFAA’s criminal provisions at all. Someone violates the CFAA when they bypass an access restriction like a password. But someone who logs into a website with a valid password doesn’t become a hacker simply by doing something prohibited by a website’s terms of service, the judge concluded.

“Criminalizing terms-of-service violations risks turning each website into its own criminal jurisdiction and each webmaster into his own legislature,” Bates wrote.

Bates noted that website terms of service are often long, complex, and change frequently. While some websites require a user to read through the terms and explicitly agree to them, others merely include a link to the terms somewhere on the page. As a result, most users aren’t even aware of the contractual terms that supposedly govern the site. Under those circumstances, it’s not reasonable to make violation of such terms a criminal offense, Bates concluded.

This is not the first time a court has issued a ruling in this direction. It’s also not the only way the courts have interpreted the frustratingly vague Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

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Privacy vs. Surveillance in the Age of COVID-19

The trade-offs are changing:

As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus ­ even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later.

I think the effects of COVID-19 will be more drastic than the effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: not only with respect to surveillance, but across many aspects of our society. And while many things that would never be acceptable during normal time are reasonable things to do right now, we need to makes sure we can ratchet them back once the current pandemic is over.

Cindy Cohn at EFF wrote:

We know that this virus requires us to take steps that would be unthinkable in normal times. Staying inside, limiting public gatherings, and cooperating with medically needed attempts to track the virus are, when approached properly, reasonable and responsible things to do. But we must be as vigilant as we are thoughtful. We must be sure that measures taken in the name of responding to COVID-19 are, in the language of international human rights law, “necessary and proportionate” to the needs of society in fighting the virus. Above all, we must make sure that these measures end and that the data collected for these purposes is not re-purposed for either governmental or commercial ends.

I worry that in our haste and fear, we will fail to do any of that.

More from EFF.

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Friday Squid Blogging: Squid Can Edit Their Own Genome

Amazing:

Revealing yet another super-power in the skillful squid, scientists have discovered that squid massively edit their own genetic instructions not only within the nucleus of their neurons, but also within the axon — the long, slender neural projections that transmit electrical impulses to other neurons. This is the first time that edits to genetic information have been observed outside of the nucleus of an animal cell.

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

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Story of Gus Weiss

This is a long and fascinating article about Gus Weiss, who masterminded a long campaign to feed technical disinformation to the Soviet Union, which may or may not have caused a massive pipeline explosion somewhere in Siberia in the 1980s, if in fact there even was a massive pipeline explosion somewhere in Siberia in the 1980s.

Lots of information about the origins of US export controls laws and sabotage operations.

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On Cyber Warranties

Interesting article discussing cyber-warranties, and whether they are an effective way to transfer risk (as envisioned by Ackerlof’s “market for lemons”) or a marketing trick.

The conclusion:

Warranties must transfer non-negligible amounts of liability to vendors in order to meaningfully overcome the market for lemons. Our preliminary analysis suggests the majority of cyber warranties cover the cost of repairing the device alone. Only cyber-incident warranties cover first-party costs from cyber-attacks — why all such warranties were offered by firms selling intangible products is an open question. Consumers should question whether warranties can function as a costly signal when narrow coverage means vendors accept little risk.

Worse still, buyers cannot compare across cyber-incident warranty contracts due to the diversity of obligations and exclusions. Ambiguous definitions of the buyer’s obligations and excluded events create uncertainty over what is covered. Moving toward standardized terms and conditions may help consumers, as has been pursued in cyber insurance, but this is in tension with innovation and product diversity.

[..]

Theoretical work suggests both the breadth of the warranty and the price of a product determine whether the warranty functions as a quality signal. Our analysis has not touched upon the price of these products. It could be that firms with ineffective products pass the cost of the warranty on to buyers via higher prices. Future studies could analyze warranties and price together to probe this issue.

In conclusion, cyber warranties — particularly cyber-product warranties — do not transfer enough risk to be a market fix as imagined in Woods. But this does not mean they are pure marketing tricks either. The most valuable feature of warranties is in preventing vendors from exaggerating what their products can do. Consumers who read the fine print can place greater trust in marketing claims so long as the functionality is covered by a cyber-incident warranty.

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Facial Recognition for People Wearing Masks

The Chinese facial recognition company Hanwang claims it can recognize people wearing masks:

The company now says its masked facial recognition program has reached 95 percent accuracy in lab tests, and even claims that it is more accurate in real life, where its cameras take multiple photos of a person if the first attempt to identify them fails.

[…]

Counter-intuitively, training facial recognition algorithms to recognize masked faces involves throwing data away. A team at the University of Bradford published a study last year showing they could train a facial recognition program to accurately recognize half-faces by deleting parts of the photos they used to train the software.

When a facial recognition program tries to recognize a person, it takes a photo of the person to be identified, and reduces it down to a bundle, or vector, of numbers that describes the relative positions of features on the face.

[…]

Hanwang’s system works for masked faces by trying to guess what all the faces in its existing database of photographs would look like if they were masked.

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Internet Voting in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is considered allowing for Internet voting. I have joined a group of security experts in a letter opposing the bill.

Cybersecurity experts agree that under current technology, no practically proven method exists to securely, verifiably, or privately return voted materials over the internet. That means that votes could be manipulated or deleted on the voter’s computer without the voter’s knowledge, local elections officials cannot verify that the voter’s ballot reflects the voter’s intent, and the voter’s selections could be traceable back to the individual voter. Such a system could violate protections guaranteeing a secret ballot, as outlined in Section 2, Article II of the Puerto Rico Constitution.

The ACLU agrees.

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Hacking Voice Assistants with Ultrasonic Waves

I previously wrote about hacking voice assistants with lasers. Turns you can do much the same thing with ultrasonic waves:

Voice assistants — the demo targeted Siri, Google Assistant, and Bixby — are designed to respond when they detect the owner’s voice after noticing a trigger phrase such as ‘Ok, Google’.

Ultimately, commands are just sound waves, which other researchers have already shown can be emulated using ultrasonic waves which humans can’t hear, providing an attacker has a line of sight on the device and the distance is short.

What SurfingAttack adds to this is the ability to send the ultrasonic commands through a solid glass or wood table on which the smartphone was sitting using a circular piezoelectric disc connected to its underside.

Although the distance was only 43cm (17 inches), hiding the disc under a surface represents a more plausible, easier-to-conceal attack method than previous techniques.

Research paper. Demonstration video.

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