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de-anonymization

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De-anonymization Story

This is important:

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill was general secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), effectively the highest-ranking priest in the US who is not a bishop, before records of Grindr usage obtained from data brokers was correlated with his apartment, place of work, vacation home, family members’ addresses, and more.

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The data that resulted in Burrill’s ouster was reportedly obtained through legal means. Mobile carriers sold­ — and still sell — ­location data to brokers who aggregate it and sell it to a range of buyers, including advertisers, law enforcement, roadside services, and even bounty hunters. Carriers were caught in 2018 selling real-time location data to brokers, drawing the ire of Congress. But after carriers issued public mea culpas and promises to reform the practice, investigations have revealed that phone location data is still popping up in places it shouldn’t. This year, T-Mobile even broadened its offerings, selling customers’ web and app usage data to third parties unless people opt out.

The publication that revealed Burrill’s private app usage, The Pillar, a newsletter covering the Catholic Church, did not say exactly where or how it obtained Burrill’s data. But it did say how it de-anonymized aggregated data to correlate Grindr app usage with a device that appears to be Burrill’s phone.

The Pillar says it obtained 24 months’ worth of “commercially available records of app signal data” covering portions of 2018, 2019, and 2020, which included records of Grindr usage and locations where the app was used. The publication zeroed in on addresses where Burrill was known to frequent and singled out a device identifier that appeared at those locations. Key locations included Burrill’s office at the USCCB, his USCCB-owned residence, and USCCB meetings and events in other cities where he was in attendance. The analysis also looked at other locations farther afield, including his family lake house, his family members’ residences, and an apartment in his Wisconsin hometown where he reportedly has lived.

Location data is not anonymous. It cannot be made anonymous. I hope stories like these will teach people that.

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Commercial Location Data Used to Out Priest

A Catholic priest was outed through commercially available surveillance data. Vice has a good analysis:

The news starkly demonstrates not only the inherent power of location data, but how the chance to wield that power has trickled down from corporations and intelligence agencies to essentially any sort of disgruntled, unscrupulous, or dangerous individual. A growing market of data brokers that collect and sell data from countless apps has made it so that anyone with a bit of cash and effort can figure out which phone in a so-called anonymized dataset belongs to a target, and abuse that information.

There is a whole industry devoted to re-identifying anonymized data. This was something that Snowden showed that the NSA could do. Now it’s available to everyone.

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Identifying the Person Behind Bitcoin Fog

The person behind the Bitcoin Fog was identified and arrested. Bitcoin Fog was an anonymization service: for a fee, it mixed a bunch of people’s bitcoins up so that it was hard to figure out where any individual coins came from. It ran for ten years.

Identifying the person behind Bitcoin Fog serves as an illustrative example of how hard it is to be anonymous online in the face of a competent police investigation:

Most remarkable, however, is the IRS’s account of tracking down Sterlingov using the very same sort of blockchain analysis that his own service was meant to defeat. The complaint outlines how Sterlingov allegedly paid for the server hosting of Bitcoin Fog at one point in 2011 using the now-defunct digital currency Liberty Reserve. It goes on to show the blockchain evidence that identifies Sterlingov’s purchase of that Liberty Reserve currency with bitcoins: He first exchanged euros for the bitcoins on the early cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox, then moved those bitcoins through several subsequent addresses, and finally traded them on another currency exchange for the Liberty Reserve funds he’d use to set up Bitcoin Fog’s domain.

Based on tracing those financial transactions, the IRS says, it then identified Mt. Gox accounts that used Sterlingov’s home address and phone number, and even a Google account that included a Russian-language document on its Google Drive offering instructions for how to obscure Bitcoin payments. That document described exactly the steps Sterlingov allegedly took to buy the Liberty Reserve funds he’d used.

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Security Analysis of Apple’s “Find My…” Protocol

Interesting research: “Who Can Find My Devices? Security and Privacy of Apple’s Crowd-Sourced Bluetooth Location Tracking System“:

Abstract: Overnight, Apple has turned its hundreds-of-million-device ecosystem into the world’s largest crowd-sourced location tracking network called offline finding (OF). OF leverages online finder devices to detect the presence of missing offline devices using Bluetooth and report an approximate location back to the owner via the Internet. While OF is not the first system of its kind, it is the first to commit to strong privacy goals. In particular, OF aims to ensure finder anonymity, untrackability of owner devices, and confidentiality of location reports. This paper presents the first comprehensive security and privacy analysis of OF. To this end, we recover the specifications of the closed-source OF protocols by means of reverse engineering. We experimentally show that unauthorized access to the location reports allows for accurate device tracking and retrieving a user’s top locations with an error in the order of 10 meters in urban areas. While we find that OF’s design achieves its privacy goals, we discover two distinct design and implementation flaws that can lead to a location correlation attack and unauthorized access to the location history of the past seven days, which could deanonymize users. Apple has partially addressed the issues following our responsible disclosure. Finally, we make our research artifacts publicly available.

There is also code available on GitHub, which allows arbitrary Bluetooth devices to be tracked via Apple’s Find My network.

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