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Maciej Cegłowski on Privacy in the Information Age

Maciej Cegłowski has a really good essay explaining how to think about privacy today:

For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call it “ambient privacy” — the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition.

Until recently, ambient privacy was a simple fact of life. Recording something for posterity required making special arrangements, and most of our shared experience of the past was filtered through the attenuating haze of human memory. Even police states like East Germany, where one in seven citizens was an informer, were not able to keep tabs on their entire population. Today computers have given us that power. Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia are using this newfound capacity as a tool of social control. Here in the United States, we’re using it to show ads. But the infrastructure of total surveillance is everywhere the same, and everywhere being deployed at scale.

Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

He’s not the first person to talk about privacy as a societal property, or to use pollution metaphors. But his framing is really cogent. And “ambient privacy” is new — and a good phrasing.

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Alex Stamos on Content Moderation and Security

Former Facebook CISO Alex Stamos argues that increasing political pressure on social media platforms to moderate content will give them a pretext to turn all end-to-end crypto off — which would be more profitable for them and bad for society.

If we ask tech companies to fix ancient societal ills that are now reflected online with moderation, then we will end up with huge, democratically-unaccountable organizations controlling our lives in ways we never intended. And those ills will still exist below the surface.

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Security Vulnerabilities in US Weapons Systems

The US Government Accounting Office just published a new report: “Weapons Systems Cyber Security: DOD Just Beginning to Grapple with Scale of Vulnerabilities” (summary here). The upshot won’t be a surprise to any of my regular readers: they’re vulnerable.

From the summary:

Automation and connectivity are fundamental enablers of DOD’s modern military capabilities. However, they make weapon systems more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Although GAO and others have warned of cyber risks for decades, until recently, DOD did not prioritize weapon systems cybersecurity. Finally, DOD is still determining how best to address weapon systems cybersecurity.

In operational testing, DOD routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in systems that were under development, yet program officials GAO met with believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic. Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications. In addition, vulnerabilities that DOD is aware of likely represent a fraction of total vulnerabilities due to testing limitations. For example, not all programs have been tested and tests do not reflect the full range of threats.

It is definitely easier, and cheaper, to ignore the problem or pretend it isn’t a big deal. But that’s probably a mistake in the long run.

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Cabinet of Secret Documents from Australia

This story of leaked Australian government secrets is unlike any other I’ve heard:

It begins at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.

The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one can find the keys.

They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill.

Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files.

The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade.

Nearly all the files are classified, some as “top secret” or “AUSTEO”, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.

Yes, that really happened. The person who bought and opened the file cabinets contacted the Australian Broadcasting Corp, who is now publishing a bunch of it.

There’s lots of interesting (and embarassing) stuff in the documents, although most of it is local politics. I am more interested in the government’s reaction to the incident: they’re pushing for a law making it illegal for the press to publish government secrets it received through unofficial channels.

“The one thing I would point out about the legislation that does concern me particularly is that classified information is an element of the offence,” he said.

“That is to say, if you’ve got a filing cabinet that is full of classified information … that means all the Crown has to prove if they’re prosecuting you is that it is classified ­ nothing else.

“They don’t have to prove that you knew it was classified, so knowledge is beside the point.”

[…]

Many groups have raised concerns, including media organisations who say they unfairly target journalists trying to do their job.

But really anyone could be prosecuted just for possessing classified information, regardless of whether they know about it.

That might include, for instance, if you stumbled across a folder of secret files in a regular skip bin while walking home and handed it over to a journalist.

This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat. The Australian Broadcasting Corp gets their funding from the government, and was very restrained in what they published. They waited months before publishing as they coordinated with the Australian government. They allowed the government to secure the files, and then returned them. From the government’s perspective, they were the best possible media outlet to receive this information. If the government makes it illegal for the Australian press to publish this sort of material, the next time it will be sent to the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, or Wikileaks. And since people no longer read their news from newspapers sold in stores but on the Internet, the result will be just as many people reading the stories with far fewer redactions.

The proposed law is older than this leak, but the leak is giving it new life. The Australian opposition party is being cagey on whether they will support the law. They don’t want to appear weak on national security, so I’m not optimistic.

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WhatsApp Vulnerability

A new vulnerability in WhatsApp has been discovered:

…the researchers unearthed far more significant gaps in WhatsApp’s security: They say that anyone who controls WhatsApp’s servers could effortlessly insert new people into an otherwise private group, even without the permission of the administrator who ostensibly controls access to that conversation.

Matthew Green has a good description:

If all you want is the TL;DR, here’s the headline finding: due to flaws in both Signal and WhatsApp (which I single out because I use them), it’s theoretically possible for strangers to add themselves to an encrypted group chat. However, the caveat is that these attacks are extremely difficult to pull off in practice, so nobody needs to panic. But both issues are very avoidable, and tend to undermine the logic of having an end-to-end encryption protocol in the first place.

Here’s the research paper.

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