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Fake News and Pandemics

When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet.

The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, only with the addition of a deadly health crisis and possibly without a malicious government actor. But while the two problems — misinformation affecting democracy and misinformation affecting public health — will have similar solutions, the latter is much less political. If we work to solve the pandemic disinformation problem, any solutions are likely to also be applicable to the democracy one.

Pandemics are part of our future. They might be like the 1968 Hong Kong flu, which killed a million people, or the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed over 40 million. Yes, modern medicine makes pandemics less likely and less deadly. But global travel and trade, increased population density, decreased wildlife habitats, and increased animal farming to satisfy a growing and more affluent population have made them more likely. Experts agree that it’s not a matter of if — it’s only a matter of when.

When the next pandemic strikes, accurate information will be just as important as effective treatments. We saw this in 2014, when the Nigerian government managed to contain a subcontinentwide Ebola epidemic to just 20 infections and eight fatalities. Part of that success was because of the ways officials communicated health information to all Nigerians, using government-sponsored videos, social media campaigns and international experts. Without that, the death toll in Lagos, a city of 21 million people, would have probably been greater than the 11,000 the rest of the continent experienced.

There’s every reason to expect misinformation to be rampant during a pandemic. In the early hours and days, information will be scant and rumors will abound. Most of us are not health professionals or scientists. We won’t be able to tell fact from fiction. Even worse, we’ll be scared. Our brains work differently when we are scared, and they latch on to whatever makes us feel safer — even if it’s not true.

Rumors and misinformation could easily overwhelm legitimate news channels, as people share tweets, images and videos. Much of it will be well-intentioned but wrong — like the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccination community today ­– but some of it may be malicious. In the 1980s, the KGB ran a sophisticated disinformation campaign ­– Operation Infektion ­– to spread the rumor that HIV/AIDS was a result of an American biological weapon gone awry. It’s reasonable to assume some group or country would deliberately spread intentional lies in an attempt to increase death and chaos.

It’s not just misinformation about which treatments work (and are safe), and which treatments don’t work (and are unsafe). Misinformation can affect society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels. Right now, Ebola relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being stymied by mistrust of health workers and government officials.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how this can lead to disaster. Jay Walker, curator of the TEDMED conferences, laid out some of the possibilities in a 2016 essay: people overwhelming and even looting pharmacies trying to get some drug that is irrelevant or nonexistent, people needlessly fleeing cities and leaving them paralyzed, health workers not showing up for work, truck drivers and other essential people being afraid to enter infected areas, official sites like CDC.gov being hacked and discredited. This kind of thing can magnify the health effects of a pandemic many times over, and in extreme cases could lead to a total societal collapse.

This is going to be something that government health organizations, medical professionals, social media companies and the traditional media are going to have to work out together. There isn’t any single solution; it will require many different interventions that will all need to work together. The interventions will look a lot like what we’re already talking about with regard to government-run and other information influence campaigns that target our democratic processes: methods of visibly identifying false stories, the identification and deletion of fake posts and accounts, ways to promote official and accurate news, and so on. At the scale these are needed, they will have to be done automatically and in real time.

Since the 2016 presidential election, we have been talking about propaganda campaigns, and about how social media amplifies fake news and allows damaging messages to spread easily. It’s a hard discussion to have in today’s hyperpolarized political climate. After any election, the winning side has every incentive to downplay the role of fake news.

But pandemics are different; there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation. Google doesn’t want the results of peoples’ well-intentioned searches to lead to fatalities. Facebook and Twitter don’t want people on their platforms sharing misinformation that will result in either individual or mass deaths. Focusing on pandemics gives us an apolitical way to collectively approach the general problem of misinformation and fake news. And any solutions for pandemics are likely to also be applicable to the more general ­– and more political ­– problems.

Pandemics are inevitable. Bioterror is already possible, and will only get easier as the requisite technologies become cheaper and more common. We’re experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, which has hijacked social media to amplify its messages; we seem unable to beat back the disinformation and pseudoscience surrounding the vaccine. Those same forces will dramatically increase death and social upheaval in the event of a pandemic.

Let the Russian propaganda attacks on the 2016 election serve as a wake-up call for this and other threats. We need to solve the problem of misinformation during pandemics together –­ governments and industries in collaboration with medical officials, all across the world ­– before there’s a crisis. And the solutions will also help us shore up our democracy in the process.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

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Hacking Instagram to Get Free Meals in Exchange for Positive Reviews

This is a fascinating hack:

In today’s digital age, a large Instagram audience is considered a valuable currency. I had also heard through the grapevine that I could monetize a large following — or in my desired case — use it to have my meals paid for. So I did just that.

I created an Instagram page that showcased pictures of New York City’s skylines, iconic spots, elegant skyscrapers ­– you name it. The page has amassed a following of over 25,000 users in the NYC area and it’s still rapidly growing.

I reach out restaurants in the area either via Instagram’s direct messaging or email and offer to post a positive review in return for a free entree or at least a discount. Almost every restaurant I’ve messaged came back at me with a compensated meal or a gift card. Most places have an allocated marketing budget for these types of things so they were happy to offer me a free dining experience in exchange for a promotion. I’ve ended up giving some of these meals away to my friends and family because at times I had too many queued up to use myself.

The beauty of this all is that I automated the whole thing. And I mean 100% of it. I wrote code that finds these pictures or videos, makes a caption, adds hashtags, credits where the picture or video comes from, weeds out bad or spammy posts, posts them, follows and unfollows users, likes pictures, monitors my inbox, and most importantly — both direct messages and emails restaurants about a potential promotion. Since its inception, I haven’t even really logged into the account. I spend zero time on it. It’s essentially a robot that operates like a human, but the average viewer can’t tell the difference. And as the programmer, I get to sit back and admire its (and my) work.

So much going on in this project.

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Attacking Soldiers on Social Media

A research group at NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence catfished soldiers involved in an European military exercise — we don’t know what country they were from — to demonstrate the power of the attack technique.

Over four weeks, the researchers developed fake pages and closed groups on Facebook that looked like they were associated with the military exercise, as well as profiles impersonating service members both real and imagined.

To recruit soldiers to the pages, they used targeted Facebook advertising. Those pages then promoted the closed groups the researchers had created. Inside the groups, the researchers used their phony accounts to ask the real service members questions about their battalions and their work. They also used these accounts to “friend” service members. According to the report, Facebook’s Suggested Friends feature proved helpful in surfacing additional targets.

The researchers also tracked down service members’ Instagram and Twitter accounts and searched for other information available online, some of which a bad actor might be able to exploit. “We managed to find quite a lot of data on individual people, which would include sensitive information,” Biteniece says. “Like a serviceman having a wife and also being on dating apps.”

By the end of the exercise, the researchers identified 150 soldiers, found the locations of several battalions, tracked troop movements, and compelled service members to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including leaving their positions against orders.

“Every person has a button. For somebody there’s a financial issue, for somebody it’s a very appealing date, for somebody it’s a family thing,” Sarts says. “It’s varied, but everybody has a button. The point is, what’s openly available online is sufficient to know what that is.”

This is the future of warfare. It’s one of the reasons China stole all of that data from the Office of Personal Management. If indeed a country’s intelligence service was behind the Equifax attack, this is why they did it.

Go back and read this scenario from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Why wouldn’t a country intent on starting a war do it that way?

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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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How Surveillance Inhibits Freedom of Expression

In my book Data and Goliath, I write about the value of privacy. I talk about how it is essential for political liberty and justice, and for commercial fairness and equality. I talk about how it increases personal freedom and individual autonomy, and how the lack of it makes us all less secure. But this is probably the most important argument as to why society as a whole must protect privacy: it allows society to progress.

We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren’t as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.

Let’s take an example: hearing that parents and children are being separated as they cross the US border, you want to learn more. You visit the website of an international immigrants’ rights group, a fact that is available to the government through mass Internet surveillance. You sign up for the group’s mailing list, another fact that is potentially available to the government. The group then calls or e-mails to invite you to a local meeting. Same. Your license plates can be collected as you drive to the meeting; your face can be scanned and identified as you walk into and out of the meeting. If, instead of visiting the website, you visit the group’s Facebook page, Facebook knows that you did and that feeds into its profile of you, available to advertisers and political activists alike. Ditto if you like their page, share a link with your friends, or just post about the issue.

Maybe you are an immigrant yourself, documented or not. Or maybe some of your family is. Or maybe you have friends or coworkers who are. How likely are you to get involved if you know that your interest and concern can be gathered and used by government and corporate actors? What if the issue you are interested in is pro- or anti-gun control, anti-police violence or in support of the police? Does that make a difference?

Maybe the issue doesn’t matter, and you would never be afraid to be identified and tracked based on your political or social interests. But even if you are so fearless, you probably know someone who has more to lose, and thus more to fear, from their personal, sexual, or political beliefs being exposed.

This isn’t just hypothetical. In the months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of us censored what we spoke about on social media or what we searched on the Internet. We know from a 2013 PEN study that writers in the United States self-censored their browsing habits out of fear the government was watching. And this isn’t exclusively an American event; Internet self-censorship is prevalent across the globe, China being a prime example.

Ultimately, this fear stagnates society in two ways. The first is that the presence of surveillance means society cannot experiment with new things without fear of reprisal, and that means those experiments­ — if found to be inoffensive or even essential to society — ­cannot slowly become commonplace, moral, and then legal. If surveillance nips that process in the bud, change never happens. All social progress­ — from ending slavery to fighting for women’s rights­ — began as ideas that were, quite literally, dangerous to assert. Yet without the ability to safely develop, discuss, and eventually act on those assertions, our society would not have been able to further its democratic values in the way that it has.

Consider the decades-long fight for gay rights around the world. Within our lifetimes we have made enormous strides to combat homophobia and increase acceptance of queer folks’ right to marry. Queer relationships slowly progressed from being viewed as immoral and illegal, to being viewed as somewhat moral and tolerated, to finally being accepted as moral and legal.

In the end, it was the public nature of those activities that eventually slayed the bigoted beast, but the ability to act in private was essential in the beginning for the early experimentation, community building, and organizing.

Marijuana legalization is going through the same process: it’s currently sitting between somewhat moral, and­ — depending on the state or country in question — ­tolerated and legal. But, again, for this to have happened, someone decades ago had to try pot and realize that it wasn’t really harmful, either to themselves or to those around them. Then it had to become a counterculture, and finally a social and political movement. If pervasive surveillance meant that those early pot smokers would have been arrested for doing something illegal, the movement would have been squashed before inception. Of course the story is more complicated than that, but the ability for members of society to privately smoke weed was essential for putting it on the path to legalization.

We don’t yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they’re around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we’ll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.

The second way surveillance hurts our democratic values is that it encourages society to make more things illegal. Consider the things you do­ — the different things each of us does­ — that portions of society find immoral. Not just recreational drugs and gay sex, but gambling, dancing, public displays of affection. All of us do things that are deemed immoral by some groups, but are not illegal because they don’t harm anyone. But it’s important that these things can be done out of the disapproving gaze of those who would otherwise rally against such practices.

If there is no privacy, there will be pressure to change. Some people will recognize that their morality isn’t necessarily the morality of everyone­ — and that that’s okay. But others will start demanding legislative change, or using less legal and more violent means, to force others to match their idea of morality.

It’s easy to imagine the more conservative (in the small-c sense, not in the sense of the named political party) among us getting enough power to make illegal what they would otherwise be forced to witness. In this way, privacy helps protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

This is how we got Prohibition in the 1920s, and if we had had today’s surveillance capabilities in the 1920s, it would have been far more effectively enforced. Recipes for making your own spirits would have been much harder to distribute. Speakeasies would have been impossible to keep secret. The criminal trade in illegal alcohol would also have been more effectively suppressed. There would have been less discussion about the harms of Prohibition, less “what if we didn’t?” thinking. Political organizing might have been difficult. In that world, the law might have stuck to this day.

China serves as a cautionary tale. The country has long been a world leader in the ubiquitous surveillance of its citizens, with the goal not of crime prevention but of social control. They are about to further enhance their system, giving every citizen a “social credit” rating. The details are yet unclear, but the general concept is that people will be rated based on their activities, both online and off. Their political comments, their friends and associates, and everything else will be assessed and scored. Those who are conforming, obedient, and apolitical will be given high scores. People without those scores will be denied privileges like access to certain schools and foreign travel. If the program is half as far-reaching as early reports indicate, the subsequent pressure to conform will be enormous. This social surveillance system is precisely the sort of surveillance designed to maintain the status quo.

For social norms to change, people need to deviate from these inherited norms. People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone’s knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words. People need to be able to do things that others find distasteful, or even immoral. The minority needs protection from the tyranny of the majority.

Privacy makes all of this possible. Privacy encourages social progress by giving the few room to experiment free from the watchful eye of the many. Even if you are not personally chilled by ubiquitous surveillance, the society you live in is, and the personal costs are unequivocal.

This essay originally appeared in McSweeney’s issue #54: “The End of Trust.” It was reprinted on Wired.com.

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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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Intimate Partner Threat

Princeton’s Karen Levy has a good article computer security and the intimate partner threat:

When you learn that your privacy has been compromised, the common advice is to prevent additional access — delete your insecure account, open a new one, change your password. This advice is such standard protocol for personal security that it’s almost a no-brainer. But in abusive romantic relationships, disconnection can be extremely fraught. For one, it can put the victim at risk of physical harm: If abusers expect digital access and that access is suddenly closed off, it can lead them to become more violent or intrusive in other ways. It may seem cathartic to delete abusive material, like alarming text messages — but if you don’t preserve that kind of evidence, it can make prosecution more difficult. And closing some kinds of accounts, like social networks, to hide from a determined abuser can cut off social support that survivors desperately need. In some cases, maintaining a digital connection to the abuser may even be legally required (for instance, if the abuser and survivor share joint custody of children).

Threats from intimate partners also change the nature of what it means to be authenticated online. In most contexts, access credentials­ — like passwords and security questions — are intended to insulate your accounts against access from an adversary. But those mechanisms are often completely ineffective for security in intimate contexts: The abuser can compel disclosure of your password through threats of violence and has access to your devices because you’re in the same physical space. In many cases, the abuser might even own your phone — or might have access to your communications data because you share a family plan. Things like security questions are unlikely to be effective tools for protecting your security, because the abuser knows or can guess at intimate details about your life — where you were born, what your first job was, the name of your pet.

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