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Good Article About Google’s Project Zero

Fortune magazine just published a good article about Google’s Project Zero, which finds and publishes exploits in other companies’ software products.

I have mixed feeling about it. The project does great work, and the Internet has benefited enormously from these efforts. But as long as it is embedded inside Google, it has to deal with accusations that it targets Google competitors.

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Defense Against Doxing

A decade ago, I wrote about the death of ephemeral conversation. As computers were becoming ubiquitous, some unintended changes happened, too. Before computers, what we said disappeared once we’d said it. Neither face-to-face conversations nor telephone conversations were routinely recorded. A permanent communication was something different and special; we called it correspondence.

The Internet changed this. We now chat by text message and e-mail, on Facebook and on Instagram. These conversations — with friends, lovers, colleagues, fellow employees — all leave electronic trails. And while we know this intellectually, we haven’t truly internalized it. We still think of conversation as ephemeral, forgetting that we’re being recorded and what we say has the permanence of correspondence.

That our data is used by large companies for psychological manipulation ­– we call this advertising –­ is well-known. So is its use by governments for law enforcement and, depending on the country, social control. What made the news over the past year were demonstrations of how vulnerable all of this data is to hackers and the effects of having it hacked, copied and then published online. We call this doxing.

Doxing isn’t new, but it has become more common. It’s been perpetrated against corporations, law firms, individuals, the NSA and — just this week — the CIA. It’s largely harassment and not whistleblowing, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. The data in your computer and in the cloud are, and will continue to be, vulnerable to hacking and publishing online. Depending on your prominence and the details of this data, you may need some new strategies to secure your private life.

There are two basic ways hackers can get at your e-mail and private documents. One way is to guess your password. That’s how hackers got their hands on personal photos of celebrities from iCloud in 2014.

How to protect yourself from this attack is pretty obvious. First, don’t choose a guessable password. This is more than not using “password1” or “qwerty”; most easily memorizable passwords are guessable. My advice is to generate passwords you have to remember by using either the XKCD scheme or the Schneier scheme, and to use large random passwords stored in a password manager for everything else.

Second, turn on two-factor authentication where you can, like Google’s 2-Step Verification. This adds another step besides just entering a password, such as having to type in a one-time code that’s sent to your mobile phone. And third, don’t reuse the same password on any sites you actually care about.

You’re not done, though. Hackers have accessed accounts by exploiting the “secret question” feature and resetting the password. That was how Sarah Palin’s e-mail account was hacked in 2008. The problem with secret questions is that they’re not very secret and not very random. My advice is to refuse to use those features. Type randomness into your keyboard, or choose a really random answer and store it in your password manager.

Finally, you also have to stay alert to phishing attacks, where a hacker sends you an enticing e-mail with a link that sends you to a web page that looks almost like the expected page, but which actually isn’t. This sort of thing can bypass two-factor authentication, and is almost certainly what tricked John Podesta and Colin Powell.

The other way hackers can get at your personal stuff is by breaking in to the computers the information is stored on. This is how the Russians got into the Democratic National Committee’s network and how a lone hacker got into the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Sometimes individuals are targeted, as when China hacked Google in 2010 to access the e-mail accounts of human rights activists. Sometimes the whole network is the target, and individuals are inadvertent victims, as when thousands of Sony employees had their e-mails published by North Korea in 2014.

Protecting yourself is difficult, because it often doesn’t matter what you do. If your e-mail is stored with a service provider in the cloud, what matters is the security of that network and that provider. Most users have no control over that part of the system. The only way to truly protect yourself is to not keep your data in the cloud where someone could get to it. This is hard. We like the fact that all of our e-mail is stored on a server somewhere and that we can instantly search it. But that convenience comes with risk. Consider deleting old e-mail, or at least downloading it and storing it offline on a portable hard drive. In fact, storing data offline is one of the best things you can do to protect it from being hacked and exposed. If it’s on your computer, what matters is the security of your operating system and network, not the security of your service provider.

Consider this for files on your own computer. The more things you can move offline, the safer you’ll be.

E-mail, no matter how you store it, is vulnerable. If you’re worried about your conversations becoming public, think about an encrypted chat program instead, such as Signal, WhatsApp or Off-the-Record Messaging. Consider using communications systems that don’t save everything by default.

None of this is perfect, of course. Portable hard drives are vulnerable when you connect them to your computer. There are ways to jump air gaps and access data on computers not connected to the Internet. Communications and data files you delete might still exist in backup systems somewhere — either yours or those of the various cloud providers you’re using. And always remember that there’s always another copy of any of your conversations stored with the person you’re conversing with. Even with these caveats, though, these measures will make a big difference.

When secrecy is truly paramount, go back to communications systems that are still ephemeral. Pick up the telephone and talk. Meet face to face. We don’t yet live in a world where everything is recorded and everything is saved, although that era is coming. Enjoy the last vestiges of ephemeral conversation while you still can.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Google Discloses Details of an Unpatched Microsoft Vulnerability

Google’s Project Zero is serious about releasing the details of security vulnerabilities 90 days after they alert the vendors, even if they’re unpatched. It just exposed a nasty vulnerability in Microsoft’s browsers.

This is the second unpatched Microsoft vulnerability it exposed last week.

I’m a big fan of responsible disclosure. The threat to publish vulnerabilities is what puts pressure on vendors to patch their systems. But I wonder what competitive pressure is on the Google team to find embarrassing vulnerabilities in competitors’ products.

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Everyone Wants You To Have Security, But Not from Them

In December, Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was interviewed at the CATO Institute Surveillance Conference. One of the things he said, after talking about some of the security measures his company has put in place post-Snowden, was: “If you have important information, the safest place to keep it is in Google. And I can assure you that the safest place to not keep it is anywhere else.”

The surprised me, because Google collects all of your information to show you more targeted advertising. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and Google is one of the most successful companies at that. To claim that Google protects your privacy better than anyone else is to profoundly misunderstand why Google stores your data for free in the first place.

I was reminded of this last week when I appeared on Glenn Beck’s show along with cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie. Diffie said:

You can’t have privacy without security, and I think we have glaring failures in computer security in problems that we’ve been working on for 40 years. You really should not live in fear of opening an attachment to a message. It ought to be confined; your computer ought to be able to handle it. And the fact that we have persisted for decades without solving these problems is partly because they’re very difficult, but partly because there are lots of people who want you to be secure against everyone but them. And that includes all of the major computer manufacturers who, roughly speaking, want to manage your computer for you. The trouble is, I’m not sure of any practical alternative.

That neatly explains Google. Eric Schmidt does want your data to be secure. He wants Google to be the safest place for your data ­ as long as you don’t mind the fact that Google has access to your data. Facebook wants the same thing: to protect your data from everyone except Facebook. Hardware companies are no different. Last week, we learned that Lenovo computers shipped with a piece of adware called Superfish that broke users’ security to spy on them for advertising purposes.

Governments are no different. The FBI wants people to have strong encryption, but it wants backdoor access so it can get at your data. UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants you to have good security, just as long as it’s not so strong as to keep the UK government out. And, of course, the NSA spends a lot of money ensuring that there’s no security it can’t break.

Corporations want access to your data for profit; governments want it for security purposes, be they benevolent or malevolent. But Diffie makes an even stronger point: we give lots of companies access to our data because it makes our lives easier.

I wrote about this in my latest book, Data and Goliath:

Convenience is the other reason we willingly give highly personal data to corporate interests, and put up with becoming objects of their surveillance. As I keep saying, surveillance-based services are useful and valuable. We like it when we can access our address book, calendar, photographs, documents, and everything else on any device we happen to be near. We like services like Siri and Google Now, which work best when they know tons about you. Social networking apps make it easier to hang out with our friends. Cell phone apps like Google Maps, Yelp, Weather, and Uber work better and faster when they know our location. Letting apps like Pocket or Instapaper know what we’re reading feels like a small price to pay for getting everything we want to read in one convenient place. We even like it when ads are targeted to exactly what we’re interested in. The benefits of surveillance in these and other applications are real, and significant.

Like Diffie, I’m not sure there is any practical alternative. The reason the Internet is a worldwide mass-market phenomenon is that all the technological details are hidden from view. Someone else is taking care of it. We want strong security, but we also want companies to have access to our computers, smart devices, and data. We want someone else to manage our computers and smart phones, organize our e-mail and photos, and help us move data between our various devices.

Those “someones” will necessarily be able to violate our privacy, either by deliberately peeking at our data or by having such lax security that they’re vulnerable to national intelligence agencies, cybercriminals, or both. Last week, we learned that the NSA broke into the Dutch company Gemalto and stole the encryption keys for billions ­ yes, billions ­ of cell phones worldwide. That was possible because we consumers don’t want to do the work of securely generating those keys and setting up our own security when we get our phones; we want it done automatically by the phone manufacturers. We want our data to be secure, but we want someone to be able to recover it all when we forget our password.

We’ll never solve these security problems as long as we’re our own worst enemy. That’s why I believe that any long-term security solution will not only be technological, but political as well. We need laws that will protect our privacy from those who obey the laws, and to punish those who break the laws. We need laws that require those entrusted with our data to protect our data. Yes, we need better security technologies, but we also need laws mandating the use of those technologies.

This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com.

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