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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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Facebook Will Verify the Physical Location of Ad Buyers with Paper Postcards

It’s not a great solution, but it’s something:

The process of using postcards containing a specific code will be required for advertising that mentions a specific candidate running for a federal office, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global director of policy programs, said. The requirement will not apply to issue-based political ads, she said.

“If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,” Harbath said at a weekend conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, where executives from Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google also spoke.

“It won’t solve everything,” Harbath said in a brief interview with Reuters following her remarks.

But sending codes through old-fashioned mail was the most effective method the tech company could come up with to prevent Russians and other bad actors from purchasing ads while posing as someone else, Harbath said.

It does mean a several-days delay between purchasing an ad and seeing it run.

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Facebook Fingerprinting Photos to Prevent Revenge Porn

This is a pilot project in Australia:

Individuals who have shared intimate, nude or sexual images with partners and are worried that the partner (or ex-partner) might distribute them without their consent can use Messenger to send the images to be “hashed.” This means that the company converts the image into a unique digital fingerprint that can be used to identify and block any attempts to re-upload that same image.

I’m not sure I like this. It doesn’t prevent revenge porn in general; it only prevents the same photos being uploaded to Facebook in particular. And it requires the person to send Facebook copies of all their intimate photos.

Facebook will store these images for a short period of time before deleting them to ensure it is enforcing the policy correctly, the company said.

At least there’s that.

More articles.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s getting worse:

According to a Facebook spokesperson, Facebook workers will have to review full, uncensored versions of nude images first, volunteered by the user, to determine if malicious posts by other users qualify as revenge porn.

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Technology to Out Sex Workers

Two related stories:

PornHub is using machine learning algorithms to identify actors in different videos, so as to better index them. People are worried that it can really identify them, by linking their stage names to their real names.

Facebook somehow managed to link a sex worker’s clients under her fake name to her real profile.

Sometimes people have legitimate reasons for having two identities. That is becoming harder and harder.

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WhatsApp Security Vulnerability

Back in March, Rolf Weber wrote about a potential vulnerability in the WhatsApp protocol that would allow Facebook to defeat perfect forward secrecy by forcibly change users’ keys, allowing it — or more likely, the government — to eavesdrop on encrypted messages.

It seems that this vulnerability is real:

WhatsApp has the ability to force the generation of new encryption keys for offline users, unbeknown to the sender and recipient of the messages, and to make the sender re-encrypt messages with new keys and send them again for any messages that have not been marked as delivered.

The recipient is not made aware of this change in encryption, while the sender is only notified if they have opted-in to encryption warnings in settings, and only after the messages have been re-sent. This re-encryption and rebroadcasting effectively allows WhatsApp to intercept and read users’ messages.

The security loophole was discovered by Tobias Boelter, a cryptography and security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He told the Guardian: “If WhatsApp is asked by a government agency to disclose its messaging records, it can effectively grant access due to the change in keys.”

The vulnerability is not inherent to the Signal protocol. Open Whisper Systems’ messaging app, Signal, the app used and recommended by whistleblower Edward Snowden, does not suffer from the same vulnerability. If a recipient changes the security key while offline, for instance, a sent message will fail to be delivered and the sender will be notified of the change in security keys without automatically resending the message.

WhatsApp’s implementation automatically resends an undelivered message with a new key without warning the user in advance or giving them the ability to prevent it.

Note that it’s an attack against current and future messages, and not something that would allow the government to reach into the past. In that way, it is no more troubling than the government hacking your mobile phone and reading your WhatsApp conversations that way.

An unnamed “WhatsApp spokesperson” said that they implemented the encryption this way for usability:

In WhatsApp’s implementation of the Signal protocol, we have a “Show Security Notifications” setting (option under Settings > Account > Security) that notifies you when a contact’s security code has changed. We know the most common reasons this happens are because someone has switched phones or reinstalled WhatsApp. This is because in many parts of the world, people frequently change devices and Sim cards. In these situations, we want to make sure people’s messages are delivered, not lost in transit.

He’s technically correct. This is not a backdoor. This really isn’t even a flaw. It’s a design decision that put usability ahead of security in this particular instance. Moxie Marlinspike, creator of Signal and the code base underlying WhatsApp’s encryption, said as much:

Under normal circumstances, when communicating with a contact who has recently changed devices or reinstalled WhatsApp, it might be possible to send a message before the sending client discovers that the receiving client has new keys. The recipient’s device immediately responds, and asks the sender to reencrypt the message with the recipient’s new identity key pair. The sender displays the “safety number has changed” notification, reencrypts the message, and delivers it.

The WhatsApp clients have been carefully designed so that they will not re-encrypt messages that have already been delivered. Once the sending client displays a “double check mark,” it can no longer be asked to re-send that message. This prevents anyone who compromises the server from being able to selectively target previously delivered messages for re-encryption.

The fact that WhatsApp handles key changes is not a “backdoor,” it is how cryptography works. Any attempt to intercept messages in transmit by the server is detectable by the sender, just like with Signal, PGP, or any other end-to-end encrypted communication system.

The only question it might be reasonable to ask is whether these safety number change notifications should be “blocking” or “non-blocking.” In other words, when a contact’s key changes, should WhatsApp require the user to manually verify the new key before continuing, or should WhatsApp display an advisory notification and continue without blocking the user.

Given the size and scope of WhatsApp’s user base, we feel that their choice to display a non-blocking notification is appropriate. It provides transparent and cryptographically guaranteed confidence in the privacy of a user’s communication, along with a simple user experience. The choice to make these notifications “blocking” would in some ways make things worse. That would leak information to the server about who has enabled safety number change notifications and who hasn’t, effectively telling the server who it could MITM transparently and who it couldn’t; something that WhatsApp considered very carefully.

How serious this is depends on your threat model. If you are worried about the US government — or any other government that can pressure Facebook — snooping on your messages, then this is a small vulnerability. If not, then it’s nothing to worry about.

Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread. BoingBoing post. More here.

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