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Warrant Protections against Police Searches of Our Data

The cell phones we carry with us constantly are the most perfect surveillance device ever invented, and our laws haven’t caught up to that reality. That might change soon.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear a case with profound implications on your security and privacy in the coming years. The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unlawful search and seizure is a vital right that protects us all from police overreach, and the way the courts interpret it is increasingly nonsensical in our computerized and networked world. The Supreme Court can either update current law to reflect the world, or it can further solidify an unnecessary and dangerous police power.

The case centers on cell phone location data and whether the police need a warrant to get it, or if they can use a simple subpoena, which is easier to obtain. Current Fourth Amendment doctrine holds that you lose all privacy protections over any data you willingly share with a third party. Your cellular provider, under this interpretation, is a third party with whom you’ve willingly shared your movements, 24 hours a day, going back months — even though you don’t really have any choice about whether to share with them. So police can request records of where you’ve been from cell carriers without any judicial oversight. The case before the court, Carpenter v. United States, could change that.

Traditionally, information that was most precious to us was physically close to us. It was on our bodies, in our homes and offices, in our cars. Because of that, the courts gave that information extra protections. Information that we stored far away from us, or gave to other people, afforded fewer protections. Police searches have been governed by the “third-party doctrine,” which explicitly says that information we share with others is not considered private.

The Internet has turned that thinking upside-down. Our cell phones know who we talk to and, if we’re talking via text or e-mail, what we say. They track our location constantly, so they know where we live and work. Because they’re the first and last thing we check every day, they know when we go to sleep and when we wake up. Because everyone has one, they know whom we sleep with. And because of how those phones work, all that information is naturally shared with third parties.

More generally, all our data is literally stored on computers belonging to other people. It’s our e-mail, text messages, photos, Google docs, and more ­ all in the cloud. We store it there not because it’s unimportant, but precisely because it is important. And as the Internet of Things computerizes the rest our lives, even more data will be collected by other people: data from our health trackers and medical devices, data from our home sensors and appliances, data from Internet-connected “listeners” like Alexa, Siri, and your voice-activated television.

All this data will be collected and saved by third parties, sometimes for years. The result is a detailed dossier of your activities more complete than any private investigator –­ or police officer –­ could possibly collect by following you around.

The issue here is not whether the police should be allowed to use that data to help solve crimes. Of course they should. The issue is whether that information should be protected by the warrant process that requires the police to have probable cause to investigate you and get approval by a court.

Warrants are a security mechanism. They prevent the police from abusing their authority to investigate someone they have no reason to suspect of a crime. They prevent the police from going on “fishing expeditions.” They protect our rights and liberties, even as we willingly give up our privacy to the legitimate needs of law enforcement.

The third-party doctrine never made a lot of sense. Just because I share an intimate secret with my spouse, friend, or doctor doesn’t mean that I no longer consider it private. It makes even less sense in today’s hyper-connected world. It’s long past time the Supreme Court recognized that a months’-long history of my movements is private, and my e-mails and other personal data deserve the same protections, whether they’re on my laptop or on Google’s servers.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

Details on the case. Two opinion pieces.

I signed on to two amicus briefs on the case.

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Apple FaceID Hacked

It only took a week:

On Friday, Vietnamese security firm Bkav released a blog post and video showing that — by all appearances — they’d cracked FaceID with a composite mask of 3-D-printed plastic, silicone, makeup, and simple paper cutouts, which in combination tricked an iPhone X into unlocking.

The article points out that the hack hasn’t been independently confirmed, but I have no doubt it’s true.

I don’t think this is cause for alarm, though. Authentication will always be a trade-off between security and convenience. FaceID is another biometric option, and a good one. I wouldn’t be less likely to use it because of this.

FAQ from the researchers.

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Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Murder and the Security of WhatsApp

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.

Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.

One journalist reports:

Part of Daphne’s destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.

Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.

Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.

Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.

I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing “specific assistance.” The article doesn’t explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.

It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp’s security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s Cell Phone was Tapped

Politico reports that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s cell phone was compromised back in December.

I know this is news because of who he is, but I hope every major government official of any country assumes that their commercial off-the-shelf cell phone is compromised. Even allies spy on allies; remember the reports that the NSA tapped the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

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A Hardware Privacy Monitor for iPhones

Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Edward Snowden have designed a hardware device that attaches to an iPhone and monitors it for malicious surveillance activities, even in instances where the phone’s operating system has been compromised. They call it an Introspection Engine, and their use model is a journalist who is concerned about government surveillance:

Our introspection engine is designed with the following goals in mind:

  1. Completely open source and user-inspectable (“You don’t have to trust us”)

  2. Introspection operations are performed by an execution domain completely separated from the phone”s CPU (“don’t rely on those with impaired judgment to fairly judge their state”)

  3. Proper operation of introspection system can be field-verified (guard against “evil maid” attacks and hardware failures)

  4. Difficult to trigger a false positive (users ignore or disable security alerts when there are too many positives)

  5. Difficult to induce a false negative, even with signed firmware updates (“don’t trust the system vendor” — state-level adversaries with full cooperation of system vendors should not be able to craft signed firmware updates that spoof or bypass the introspection engine)

  6. As much as possible, the introspection system should be passive and difficult to detect by the phone’s operating system (prevent black-listing/targeting of users based on introspection engine signatures)

  7. Simple, intuitive user interface requiring no specialized knowledge to interpret or operate (avoid user error leading to false negatives; “journalists shouldn’t have to be cryptographers to be safe”)

  8. Final solution should be usable on a daily basis, with minimal impact on workflow (avoid forcing field reporters into the choice between their personal security and being an effective journalist)

This looks like fantastic work, and they have a working prototype.

Of course, this does nothing to stop all the legitimate surveillance that happens over a cell phone: location tracking, records of who you talk to, and so on.

BoingBoing post.

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Do the Police Need a Search Warrant to Access Cell Phone Location Data?

The US Supreme Court is deciding a case that will establish whether the police need a warrant to access cell phone location data. This week I signed on to an amicus brief from a wide array of security technologists outlining the technical arguments as why the answer should be yes. Susan Landau summarized our arguments.

A bunch of tech companies also submitted a brief.

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Amazon Patents Measures to Prevent In-Store Comparison Shopping

Amazon has been issued a patent on security measures that prevents people from comparison shopping while in the store. It’s not a particularly sophisticated patent — it basically detects when you’re using the in-store Wi-Fi to visit a competitor’s site and then blocks access — but it is an indication of how retail has changed in recent years.

What’s interesting is that Amazon is on the other of this arms race. As an on-line retailer, it wants people to walk into stores and then comparison shop on its site. Yes, I know it’s buying Whole Foods, but it’s still predominantly an online retailer. Maybe it patented this to prevent stores from implementing the technology.

It’s probably not nearly that strategic. It’s hard to build a business strategy around a security measure that can be defeated with cellular access.

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