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More on Backdooring (or Not) WhatsApp

Yesterday, I blogged about a Facebook plan to backdoor WhatsApp by adding client-side scanning and filtering. It seems that I was wrong, and there are no such plans.

The only source for that post was a Forbes essay by Kalev Leetaru, which links to a previous Forbes essay by him, which links to a video presentation from a Facebook developers conference.

Leetaru extrapolated a lot out of very little. I watched the video (the relevant section is at the 23:00 mark), and it doesn’t talk about client-side scanning of messages. It doesn’t talk about messaging apps at all. It discusses using AI techniques to find bad content on Facebook, and the difficulties that arise from dynamic content:

So far, we have been keeping this fight [against bad actors and harmful content] on familiar grounds. And that is, we have been training our AI models on the server and making inferences on the server when all the data are flooding into our data centers.

While this works for most scenarios, it is not the ideal setup for some unique integrity challenges. URL masking is one such problem which is very hard to do. We have the traditional way of server-side inference. What is URL masking? Let us imagine that a user sees a link on the app and decides to click on it. When they click on it, Facebook actually logs the URL to crawl it at a later date. But…the publisher can dynamically change the content of the webpage to make it look more legitimate [to Facebook]. But then our users click on the same link, they see something completely different — oftentimes it is disturbing; oftentimes it violates our policy standards. Of course, this creates a bad experience for our community that we would like to avoid. This and similar integrity problems are best solved with AI on the device.

That might be true, but it also would hand whatever secret-AI sauce Facebook has to every one of its users to reverse engineer — which means it’s probably not going to happen. And it is a dumb idea, for reasons Steve Bellovin has pointed out.

Facebook’s first published response was a comment on the Hacker News website from a user named “wcathcart,” which Cardozo assures me is Will Cathcart, the vice president of WhatsApp. (I have no reason to doubt his identity, but surely there is a more official news channel that Facebook could have chosen to use if they wanted to.) Cathcart wrote:

We haven’t added a backdoor to WhatsApp. The Forbes contributor referred to a technical talk about client side AI in general to conclude that we might do client side scanning of content on WhatsApp for anti-abuse purposes.

To be crystal clear, we have not done this, have zero plans to do so, and if we ever did it would be quite obvious and detectable that we had done it. We understand the serious concerns this type of approach would raise which is why we are opposed to it.

Facebook’s second published response was a comment on my original blog post, which has been confirmed to me by the WhatsApp people as authentic. It’s more of the same.

So, this was a false alarm. And, to be fair, Alec Muffet called foul on the first Forbes piece:

So, here’s my pre-emptive finger wag: Civil Society’s pack mentality can make us our own worst enemies. If we go around repeating one man’s Germanic conspiracy theory, we may doom ourselves to precisely what we fear. Instead, we should ­ we must ­ take steps to constructively demand what we actually want: End to End Encryption which is worthy of the name.

Blame accepted. But in general, this is the sort of thing we need to watch for. End-to-end encryption only secures data in transit. The data has to be in the clear on the device where it is created, and it has to be in the clear on the device where it is consumed. Those are the obvious places for an eavesdropper to get a copy.

This has been a long process. Facebook desperately wanted to convince me to correct the record, while at the same time not wanting to write something on their own letterhead (just a couple of comments, so far). I spoke at length with Privacy Policy Manager Nate Cardozo, whom Facebook hired last December from EFF. (Back then, I remember thinking of him — and the two other new privacy hires — as basically human warrant canaries. If they ever leave Facebook under non-obvious circumstances, we know that things are bad.) He basically leveraged his historical reputation to assure me that WhatsApp, and Facebook in general, would never do something like this. I am trusting him, while also reminding everyone that Facebook has broken so many privacy promises that they really can’t be trusted.

Final note: If they want to be trusted, Adam Shostack and I gave them a road map.

Hacker News thread.

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Facebook Plans on Backdooring WhatsApp

This article points out that Facebook’s planned content moderation scheme will result in an encryption backdoor into WhatsApp:

In Facebook’s vision, the actual end-to-end encryption client itself such as WhatsApp will include embedded content moderation and blacklist filtering algorithms. These algorithms will be continually updated from a central cloud service, but will run locally on the user’s device, scanning each cleartext message before it is sent and each encrypted message after it is decrypted.

The company even noted that when it detects violations it will need to quietly stream a copy of the formerly encrypted content back to its central servers to analyze further, even if the user objects, acting as true wiretapping service.

Facebook’s model entirely bypasses the encryption debate by globalizing the current practice of compromising devices by building those encryption bypasses directly into the communications clients themselves and deploying what amounts to machine-based wiretaps to billions of users at once.

Once this is in place, it’s easy for the government to demand that Facebook add another filter — one that searches for communications that they care about — and alert them when it gets triggered.

Of course alternatives like Signal will exist for those who don’t want to be subject to Facebook’s content moderation, but what happens when this filtering technology is built into operating systems?

The problem is that if Facebook’s model succeeds, it will only be a matter of time before device manufacturers and mobile operating system developers embed similar tools directly into devices themselves, making them impossible to escape. Embedding content scanning tools directly into phones would make it possible to scan all apps, including ones like Signal, effectively ending the era of encrypted communications.

I don’t think this will happen — why does AT&T care about content moderation — but it is something to watch?

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Judging Facebook’s Privacy Shift

Facebook is making a new and stronger commitment to privacy. Last month, the company hired three of its most vociferous critics and installed them in senior technical positions. And on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the company will pivot to focus on private conversations over the public sharing that has long defined the platform, even while conceding that “frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.”

There is ample reason to question Zuckerberg’s pronouncement: The company has made — and broken — many privacy promises over the years. And if you read his 3,000-word post carefully, Zuckerberg says nothing about changing Facebook’s surveillance capitalism business model. All the post discusses is making private chats more central to the company, which seems to be a play for increased market dominance and to counter the Chinese company WeChat.

In security and privacy, the devil is always in the details — and Zuckerberg’s post provides none. But we’ll take him at his word and try to fill in some of the details here. What follows is a list of changes we should expect if Facebook is serious about changing its business model and improving user privacy.

How Facebook treats people on its platform

Increased transparency over advertiser and app accesses to user data. Today, Facebook users can download and view much of the data the company has about them. This is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. The company could be more transparent about what data it shares with advertisers and others and how it allows advertisers to select users they show ads to. Facebook could use its substantial skills in usability testing to help people understand the mechanisms advertisers use to show them ads or the reasoning behind what it chooses to show in user timelines. It could deliver on promises in this area.

Better — and more usable — privacy options. Facebook users have limited control over how their data is shared with other Facebook users and almost no control over how it is shared with Facebook’s advertisers, which are the company’s real customers. Moreover, the controls are buried deep behind complex and confusing menu options. To be fair, some of this is because privacy is complex, and it’s hard to understand the results of different options. But much of this is deliberate; Facebook doesn’t want its users to make their data private from other users.

The company could give people better control over how — and whether — their data is used, shared, and sold. For example, it could allow users to turn off individually targeted news and advertising. By this, we don’t mean simply making those advertisements invisible; we mean turning off the data flows into those tailoring systems. Finally, since most users stick to the default options when it comes to configuring their apps, a changing Facebook could tilt those defaults toward more privacy, requiring less tailoring most of the time.

More user protection from stalking. “Facebook stalking” is often thought of as “stalking light,” or “harmless.” But stalkers are rarely harmless. Facebook should acknowledge this class of misuse and work with experts to build tools that protect all of its users, especially its most vulnerable ones. Such tools should guide normal people away from creepiness and give victims power and flexibility to enlist aid from sources ranging from advocates to police.

Fully ending real-name enforcement. Facebook’s real-names policy, requiring people to use their actual legal names on the platform, hurts people such as activists, victims of intimate partner violence, police officers whose work makes them targets, and anyone with a public persona who wishes to have control over how they identify to the public. There are many ways Facebook can improve on this, from ending enforcement to allowing verifying pseudonyms for everyone­ — not just celebrities like Lady Gaga. Doing so would mark a clear shift.

How Facebook runs its platform

Increased transparency of Facebook’s business practices. One of the hard things about evaluating Facebook is the effort needed to get good information about its business practices. When violations are exposed by the media, as they regularly are, we are all surprised at the different ways Facebook violates user privacy. Most recently, the company used phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication for advertising and networking purposes. Facebook needs to be both explicit and detailed about how and when it shares user data. In fact, a move from discussing “sharing” to discussing “transfers,” “access to raw information,” and “access to derived information” would be a visible improvement.

Increased transparency regarding censorship rules. Facebook makes choices about what content is acceptable on its site. Those choices are controversial, implemented by thousands of low-paid workers quickly implementing unclear rules. These are tremendously hard problems without clear solutions. Even obvious rules like banning hateful words run into challenges when people try to legitimately discuss certain important topics. Whatever Facebook does in this regard, the company needs be more transparent about its processes. It should allow regulators and the public to audit the company’s practices. Moreover, Facebook should share any innovative engineering solutions with the world, much as it currently shares its data center engineering.

Better security for collected user data. There have been numerous examples of attackers targeting cloud service platforms to gain access to user data. Facebook has a large and skilled product security team that says some of the right things. That team needs to be involved in the design trade-offs for features and not just review the near-final designs for flaws. Shutting down a feature based on internal security analysis would be a clear message.

Better data security so Facebook sees less. Facebook eavesdrops on almost every aspect of its users’ lives. On the other hand, WhatsApp — purchased by Facebook in 2014 — provides users with end-to-end encrypted messaging. While Facebook knows who is messaging whom and how often, Facebook has no way of learning the contents of those messages. Recently, Facebook announced plans to combine WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram, extending WhatsApp’s security to the consolidated system. Changing course here would be a dramatic and negative signal.

Collecting less data from outside of Facebook. Facebook doesn’t just collect data about you when you’re on the platform. Because its “like” button is on so many other pages, the company can collect data about you when you’re not on Facebook. It even collects what it calls “shadow profiles” — data about you even if you’re not a Facebook user. This data is combined with other surveillance data the company buys, including health and financial data. Collecting and saving less of this data would be a strong indicator of a new direction for the company.

Better use of Facebook data to prevent violence. There is a trade-off between Facebook seeing less and Facebook doing more to prevent hateful and inflammatory speech. Dozens of people have been killed by mob violence because of fake news spread on WhatsApp. If Facebook were doing a convincing job of controlling fake news without end-to-end encryption, then we would expect to hear how it could use patterns in metadata to handle encrypted fake news.

How Facebook manages for privacy

Create a team measured on privacy and trust. Where companies spend their money tells you what matters to them. Facebook has a large and important growth team, but what team, if any, is responsible for privacy, not as a matter of compliance or pushing the rules, but for engineering? Transparency in how it is staffed relative to other teams would be telling.

Hire a senior executive responsible for trust. Facebook’s current team has been focused on growth and revenue. Its one chief security officer, Alex Stamos, was not replaced when he left in 2018, which may indicate that having an advocate for security on the leadership team led to debate and disagreement. Retaining a voice for security and privacy issues at the executive level, before those issues affected users, was a good thing. Now that responsibility is diffuse. It’s unclear how Facebook measures and assesses its own progress and who might be held accountable for failings. Facebook can begin the process of fixing this by designating a senior executive who is responsible for trust.

Engage with regulators. Much of Facebook’s posturing seems to be an attempt to forestall regulation. Facebook sends lobbyists to Washington and other capitals, and until recently the company sent support staff to politician’s offices. It has secret lobbying campaigns against privacy laws. And Facebook has repeatedly violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent order regarding user privacy. Regulating big technical projects is not easy. Most of the people who understand how these systems work understand them because they build them. Societies will regulate Facebook, and the quality of that regulation requires real education of legislators and their staffs. While businesses often want to avoid regulation, any focus on privacy will require strong government oversight. If Facebook is serious about privacy being a real interest, it will accept both government regulation and community input.

User privacy is traditionally against Facebook’s core business interests. Advertising is its business model, and targeted ads sell better and more profitably — and that requires users to engage with the platform as much as possible. Increased pressure on Facebook to manage propaganda and hate speech could easily lead to more surveillance. But there is pressure in the other direction as well, as users equate privacy with increased control over how they present themselves on the platform.

We don’t expect Facebook to abandon its advertising business model, relent in its push for monopolistic dominance, or fundamentally alter its social networking platforms. But the company can give users important privacy protections and controls without abandoning surveillance capitalism. While some of these changes will reduce profits in the short term, we hope Facebook’s leadership realizes that they are in the best long-term interest of the company.

Facebook talks about community and bringing people together. These are admirable goals, and there’s plenty of value (and profit) in having a sustainable platform for connecting people. But as long as the most important measure of success is short-term profit, doing things that help strengthen communities will fall by the wayside. Surveillance, which allows individually targeted advertising, will be prioritized over user privacy. Outrage, which drives engagement, will be prioritized over feelings of belonging. And corporate secrecy, which allows Facebook to evade both regulators and its users, will be prioritized over societal oversight. If Facebook now truly believes that these latter options are critical to its long-term success as a company, we welcome the changes that are forthcoming.

This essay was co-authored with Adam Shostack, and originally appeared on Medium OneZero. We wrote a similar essay in 2002 about judging Microsoft’s then newfound commitment to security.

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Facebook’s New Privacy Hires

The Wired headline sums it up nicely — “Facebook Hires Up Three of Its Biggest Privacy Critics“:

In December, Facebook hired Nathan White away from the digital rights nonprofit Access Now, and put him in the role of privacy policy manager. On Tuesday of this week, lawyers Nate Cardozo, of the privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Robyn Greene, of New America’s Open Technology Institute, announced they also are going in-house at Facebook. Cardozo will be the privacy policy manager of WhatsApp, while Greene will be Facebook’s new privacy policy manager for law enforcement and data protection.

I know these people. They’re ethical, and they’re on the right side. I hope they continue to do their good work from inside Facebook.

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The Effects of GDPR’s 72-Hour Notification Rule

The EU’s GDPR regulation requires companies to report a breach within 72 hours. Alex Stamos, former Facebook CISO now at Stanford University, points out how this can be a problem:

Interesting impact of the GDPR 72-hour deadline: companies announcing breaches before investigations are complete.

1) Announce & cop to max possible impacted users.
2) Everybody is confused on actual impact, lots of rumors.
3) A month later truth is included in official filing.

Last week’s Facebook hack is his example.

The Twitter conversation continues as various people try to figure out if the European law allows a delay in order to work with law enforcement to catch the hackers, or if a company can report the breach privately with some assurance that it won’t accidentally leak to the public.

The other interesting impact is the foreclosing of any possible coordination with law enforcement. I once ran response for a breach of a financial institution, which wasn’t disclosed for months as the company was working with the USSS to lure the attackers into a trap. It worked.

[…]

The assumption that anything you share with an EU DPA stays confidential in the current media environment has been disproven by my personal experience.

This is a perennial problem: we can get information quickly, or we can get accurate information. It’s hard to get both at the same time.

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Facebook Is Using Your Two-Factor Authentication Phone Number to Target Advertising

From Kashmir Hill:

Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.” I managed to place an ad in front of Alan Mislove by targeting his shadow profile. This means that the junk email address that you hand over for discounts or for shady online shopping is likely associated with your account and being used to target you with ads.

Here’s the research paper. Hill again:

They found that when a user gives Facebook a phone number for two-factor authentication or in order to receive alerts about new log-ins to a user’s account, that phone number became targetable by an advertiser within a couple of weeks. So users who want their accounts to be more secure are forced to make a privacy trade-off and allow advertisers to more easily find them on the social network.

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Manipulative Social Media Practices

The Norwegian Consumer Council just published an excellent report on the deceptive practices tech companies use to trick people into giving up their privacy.

From the executive summary:

Facebook and Google have privacy intrusive defaults, where users who want the privacy friendly option have to go through a significantly longer process. They even obscure some of these settings so that the user cannot know that the more privacy intrusive option was preselected.

The popups from Facebook, Google and Windows 10 have design, symbols and wording that nudge users away from the privacy friendly choices. Choices are worded to compel users to make certain choices, while key information is omitted or downplayed. None of them lets the user freely postpone decisions. Also, Facebook and Google threaten users with loss of functionality or deletion of the user account if the user does not choose the privacy intrusive option.

[…]

The combination of privacy intrusive defaults and the use of dark patterns, nudge users of Facebook and Google, and to a lesser degree Windows 10, toward the least privacy friendly options to a degree that we consider unethical. We question whether this is in accordance with the principles of data protection by default and data protection by design, and if consent given under these circumstances can be said to be explicit, informed and freely given.

I am a big fan of the Norwegian Consumer Council. They’ve published some excellent research.

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Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, news articles and commentators have focused on what Facebook knows about us. A lot, it turns out. It collects data from our posts, our likes, our photos, things we type and delete without posting, and things we do while not on Facebook and even when we’re offline. It buys data about us from others. And it can infer even more: our sexual orientation, political beliefs, relationship status, drug use, and other personality traits — even if we didn’t take the personality test that Cambridge Analytica developed.

But for every article about Facebook’s creepy stalker behavior, thousands of other companies are breathing a collective sigh of relief that it’s Facebook and not them in the spotlight. Because while Facebook is one of the biggest players in this space, there are thousands of other companies that spy on and manipulate us for profit.

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it “surveillance capitalism.” And as creepy as Facebook is turning out to be, the entire industry is far creepier. It has existed in secret far too long, and it’s up to lawmakers to force these companies into the public spotlight, where we can all decide if this is how we want society to operate and — if not — what to do about it.

There are 2,500 to 4,000 data brokers in the United States whose business is buying and selling our personal data. Last year, Equifax was in the news when hackers stole personal information on 150 million people, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers.

You certainly didn’t give it permission to collect any of that information. Equifax is one of those thousands of data brokers, most of them you’ve never heard of, selling your personal information without your knowledge or consent to pretty much anyone who will pay for it.

Surveillance capitalism takes this one step further. Companies like Facebook and Google offer you free services in exchange for your data. Google’s surveillance isn’t in the news, but it’s startlingly intimate. We never lie to our search engines. Our interests and curiosities, hopes and fears, desires and sexual proclivities, are all collected and saved. Add to that the websites we visit that Google tracks through its advertising network, our Gmail accounts, our movements via Google Maps, and what it can collect from our smartphones.

That phone is probably the most intimate surveillance device ever invented. It tracks our location continuously, so it knows where we live, where we work, and where we spend our time. It’s the first and last thing we check in a day, so it knows when we wake up and when we go to sleep. We all have one, so it knows who we sleep with. Uber used just some of that information to detect one-night stands; your smartphone provider and any app you allow to collect location data knows a lot more.

Surveillance capitalism drives much of the internet. It’s behind most of the “free” services, and many of the paid ones as well. Its goal is psychological manipulation, in the form of personalized advertising to persuade you to buy something or do something, like vote for a candidate. And while the individualized profile-driven manipulation exposed by Cambridge Analytica feels abhorrent, it’s really no different from what every company wants in the end. This is why all your personal information is collected, and this is why it is so valuable. Companies that can understand it can use it against you.

None of this is new. The media has been reporting on surveillance capitalism for years. In 2015, I wrote a book about it. Back in 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an award-winning two-year series about how people are tracked both online and offline, titled “What They Know.”

Surveillance capitalism is deeply embedded in our increasingly computerized society, and if the extent of it came to light there would be broad demands for limits and regulation. But because this industry can largely operate in secret, only occasionally exposed after a data breach or investigative report, we remain mostly ignorant of its reach.

This might change soon. In 2016, the European Union passed the comprehensive General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. The details of the law are far too complex to explain here, but some of the things it mandates are that personal data of EU citizens can only be collected and saved for “specific, explicit, and legitimate purposes,” and only with explicit consent of the user. Consent can’t be buried in the terms and conditions, nor can it be assumed unless the user opts in. This law will take effect in May, and companies worldwide are bracing for its enforcement.

Because pretty much all surveillance capitalism companies collect data on Europeans, this will expose the industry like nothing else. Here’s just one example. In preparation for this law, PayPal quietly published a list of over 600 companies it might share your personal data with. What will it be like when every company has to publish this sort of information, and explicitly explain how it’s using your personal data? We’re about to find out.

In the wake of this scandal, even Mark Zuckerberg said that his industry probably should be regulated, although he’s certainly not wishing for the sorts of comprehensive regulation the GDPR is bringing to Europe.

He’s right. Surveillance capitalism has operated without constraints for far too long. And advances in both big data analysis and artificial intelligence will make tomorrow’s applications far creepier than today’s. Regulation is the only answer.

The first step to any regulation is transparency. Who has our data? Is it accurate? What are they doing with it? Who are they selling it to? How are they securing it? Can we delete it? I don’t see any hope of Congress passing a GDPR-like data protection law anytime soon, but it’s not too far-fetched to demand laws requiring these companies to be more transparent in what they’re doing.

One of the responses to the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that people are deleting their Facebook accounts. It’s hard to do right, and doesn’t do anything about the data that Facebook collects about people who don’t use Facebook. But it’s a start. The market can put pressure on these companies to reduce their spying on us, but it can only do that if we force the industry out of its secret shadows.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

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