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Uber Drivers Hacking the System to Cause Surge Pricing

Interesting story about Uber drivers who have figured out how to game the company’s algorithms to cause surge pricing:

According to the study. drivers manipulate Uber’s algorithm by logging out of the app at the same time, making it think that there is a shortage of cars.

[…]

The study said drivers have been coordinating forced surge pricing, after interviews with drivers in London and New York, and research on online forums such as Uberpeople.net. In a post on the website for drivers, seen by the researchers, one person said: “Guys, stay logged off until surge. Less supply high demand = surge.”

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Passengers, of course, have long had tricks to avoid surge pricing.

I expect to see more of this sort of thing as algorithms become more prominent in our lives.

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Uber Uses Ubiquitous Surveillance to Identify and Block Regulators

The New York Times reports that Uber developed apps that identified and blocked government regulators using the app to find evidence of illegal behavior:

Yet using its app to identify and sidestep authorities in places where regulators said the company was breaking the law goes further in skirting ethical lines — and potentially legal ones, too. Inside Uber, some of those who knew about the VTOS program and how the Greyball tool was being used were troubled by it.

[…]

One method involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around authorities’ offices on a digital map of the city that Uber monitored. The company watched which people frequently opened and closed the app — a process internally called “eyeballing” — around that location, which signified that the user might be associated with city agencies.

Other techniques included looking at the user’s credit card information and whether that card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.

Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations to catch Uber drivers also sometimes bought dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees went to that city’s local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable.

In all, there were at least a dozen or so signifiers in the VTOS program that Uber employees could use to assess whether users were new riders or very likely city officials.

If those clues were not enough to confirm a user’s identity, Uber employees would search social media profiles and other available information online. Once a user was identified as law enforcement, Uber Greyballed him or her, tagging the user with a small piece of code that read Greyball followed by a string of numbers.

When Edward Snowden exposed the fact that the NSA does this sort of thing, I commented that the technologies will eventually become cheap enough for corporations to do it. Now, it has.

One discussion we need to have is whether or not this behavior is legal. But another, more important, discussion is whether or not it is ethical. Do we want to live in a society where corporations wield this sort of power against government? Against individuals? Because if we don’t align government against this kind of behavior, it’ll become the norm.

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Corporations Misusing Our Data

In the Internet age, we have no choice but to entrust our data with private companies: e-mail providers, service providers, retailers, and so on.

We realize that this data is at risk from hackers. But there’s another risk as well: the employees of the companies who are holding our data for us.

In the early years of Facebook, employees had a master password that enabled them to view anything they wanted in any account. NSA employees occasionally snoop on their friends and partners. The agency even has a name for it: LOVEINT. And well before the Internet, people with access to police or medical records occasionally used that power to look up either famous people or people they knew.

The latest company accused of allowing this sort of thing is Uber, the Internet car-ride service. The company is under investigation for spying on riders without their permission. Called the “god view,” some Uber employees are able to see who is using the service and where they’re going — and used this at least once in 2011 as a party trick to show off the service. A senior executive also suggested the company should hire people to dig up dirt on their critics, making their database of people’s rides even more “useful.”

None of us wants to be stalked — whether it’s from looking at our location data, our medical data, our emails and texts, or anything else — by friends or strangers who have access due to their jobs. Unfortunately, there are few rules protecting us.

Government employees are prohibited from looking at our data, although none of the NSA LOVEINT creeps were ever prosecuted. The HIPAA law protects the privacy of our medical records, but we have nothing to protect most of our other information.

Your Facebook and Uber data are only protected by company culture. There’s nothing in their license agreements that you clicked “agree” to but didn’t read that prevents those companies from violating your privacy.

This needs to change. Corporate databases containing our data should be secured from everyone who doesn’t need access for their work. Voyeurs who peek at our data without a legitimate reason should be punished.

There are audit technologies that can detect this sort of thing, and they should be required. As long as we have to give our data to companies and government agencies, we need assurances that our privacy will be protected.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

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