Respecting User Privacy in WordPress

5762345557_159d47408e_bAutomattic  has a poor record of respecting its users’ privacy, insofar as the company has gradually added additional surveillance mechanisms into their products without effectively notifying users. Several months ago when I updated the WordPress Stats plugin I discovered that Automattic had, without warning, integrated Quantcast tracking into their Stats plugin. Specifically, there was no notice in the update, no clear statement that data would be sent to Quantcast, nor any justification for the additional tracking other than in a web forum where their CEO stated it would let Automattic “provide some cool features around uniques and people counting.” This constituted a reprehensible decision, but one that can fortunately be mediated with a great third-party plugin.

In this post, I’m going to do a few things. First, I’m going to recount why Automattic is not respecting user privacy by including Quantcast in its Stats plugin. This will include a discussion about why reasonable users are unlikely to realize that third-party tracking is appended to the Stats plugin. I’ll conclude by discussing how you can protect your web visitors’ own privacy and security by installing a terrific plugin developed by Frank Goossens.

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Recommended Books from 2011 Readings

BookDespite some cries that the publishing industry is at the precipice of financial doom, it’s hard to tell based on the proliferation of texts being published year after year. With such high volumes of new works being produced it can be incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Within scholarly circles it (sometimes) becomes readily apparent what books are above middling quality by turning to citation indices, but outside of such (often paywall protected) circles it can be more challenging to ascertain what texts are clearly worth reading and which are not.

While I can hardly claim to speak with the weight of scholarly indices, I do read (and rate) a prolific number of texts each year. In what follows, I offer a list of the ‘best’ books that I read through 2011. Some are thought-provoking, others were important in how I understood various facets of the policy process, and still others offer interesting tidbits of information that have until now been hidden in shadow. For each book I’ll identify it’s main aim and a few points about what made the book compelling enough to get onto my list. Texts are not arranged in any particular ranking order and all should be available through your preferred book seller.

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The Anatomy of Lawful Access Phone Records

ACL 2006 - Phonebook  Canadian advocates, government officials, and scholars are all concerned about the forthcoming lawful access legislation. A key shared concern is that authorities could, under the legislation, access telecommunications subscription records without court oversight. Moreover, as a condition of accessing these records businesses might be served with gag orders. Such orders would prevent Canadians from ever knowing (outside of court!) that the government had collected large swathes of information about them. In response to concerns aired in public, the Public Safety Minister has insisted that the legislation would merely let police access “phone book” information from telecommunications providers.

I maintain that such assertions obfuscate the sheer amount of information contained in the records that authorities would collect. The aim of this post is to make clear just how much information is contained in a single lawful access “phone record”, demonstrating that the government is seeking information that grossly exceeds what is contained in the white or yellow pages today. As a result, I first provide an example phone record that resembles those in every phonebook in Canada and then offer an example of a lawful access record. Remember that such requests may be filed to multiple service providers (e.g. Internet service provider, web forum hosts, blogs, mobile phone companies, etc) and thus a swathe of records can be combined to generate a comprehensive picture of any particular individual. By the conclusion of the post it should be evident that information provided under lawful access powers is more expansive than the phone records government ministers allude to and lay bare those ministers’ technical obfuscations.

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Lawful Access, Its Potentials, and Its Lack of Necessity

Image by mattwi1s0n

New surveillance powers are typically framed using benevolent and/or patriotic languages. In the United States, we see the PATRIOT Act, the Stored Communications Act, and National Security Letters. Powers associated with this surveillance assemblage have been abused and people have been spied upon in violation of the law, bureaucratic procedure, and regardless of demonstrating real and present dangers. The UK has the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which significantly expanded the capabilities of police and intelligence to monitor citizens in previously illegal ways. This legislation is also used improperly, as revealed in the yearly reports from the Interception Commissioner. In Canada, the Canadian government has publicly stated its intention to press ahead and introduce its lawful access legislation despite concerns raised by the public, members of the advocacy and academic community, and the information and privacy commissioners of Canada. Here, we can also expect uses of lawful access powers to overstep stated intents and infringe on Canadians’ rights, intrude upon their privacy, and injure their dignity.

Over the past months I’ve been actively involved in working with, and talking to, other parties about lawful access legislation. This has included speaking with members of the media, publishing an op-ed, and conducting various private discussions with stakeholders around Canada who are concerned about what this legislation may (and may not) mean. Today, in the interests of making public some of the topics of these discussions, I want to address a few things. First, I quickly summarize key elements of the lawful access legislation. Next, I note some of the potentials for how lawful access powers will likely be used. None of the potentials that I identify depend on ‘next generation’ technologies or data management/mining procedures: only technologies that exist and are in operation today are used as mini-cases. None of the cases that I outline offer significant insight into the operational working of stakeholders I’ve spoken with that can’t be reproduced from public research and records. I conclude by questioning the actual need for the expanded powers.

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Mobile Security and the Economics of Ignorance

Day 24/ Mon 17 Aug 09  Mobile penetration is extremely high in Canada. 78% of Canadian households had a mobile phone in 2010, in young households 50% exclusively have mobiles, and 33% of Canadians generally lack landlines. Given that mobile phones hold considerably more information than ‘dumb’ landlines and are widely dispersed it is important to consider their place in our civil communications landscape. More specifically, I think we must consider the privacy and security implications associated with contemporary mobile communications devices.

In this post I begin by outlining a series of smartphone-related privacy concerns, focusing specifically on location, association, and device storage issues. I then pivot to a recent – and widely reported – survey commissioned by Canada’s federal privacy commissioner’s office. I assert that the reporting inappropriately offloads security and privacy decisions to consumers who are poorly situated to – and technically unable to – protect their privacy or secure their mobile devices. I support this by pointing to intentional exploitations of users’ ignorance about how mobile applications interact with their device environments and residing data. While the federal survey may be a useful rhetorical tool I argue that it has limited practical use.

I conclude by asserting that privacy commissioners, and government regulators more generally, must focus their attention upon the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) of smartphones. Only by focusing on APIs will we redress the economics of ignorance that are presently relied upon to exploit Canadians and cheat them out of their personal information.

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Towards Progressive Internet Policy in Canada

Canadian FlagDigital literacy is a topic that is regularly raised at Internet-related events across Canada. As Garth Graham has noted, “some people will remain marginalized even when everyone is online. It’s not enough to give those who are excluded basic access to the technologies. It requires different social skills as much as different technical skills to come in from the cold of digital exclusion” (29). Perhaps in light of Canadians’ relative digital illiteracy, key Canadian policy bodies and organizations have seemingly abandoned their obligations to protect Canadian interests in the face of national and foreign belligerence. Bodies such as Industry Canada, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and the Canadian Internet Registry Authority (CIRA) are all refusing to take strong leadership roles on key digital issues that affect Canadians today.

In this post I want to first perform a quick inventory of a few ‘key issues’ that ought to be weighing upon Canadian policy bodies with authority over the Internet. I then transition to focus on what CIRA could do to take up and address some of them. I focus on this organization in particular because they are in the process of electing new members to their board; putting votes behind the right candidates might force CIRA to assume leadership over key policy issues and alleviate harms experienced by Canadians. I’ll conclude by suggesting one candidate who clearly understands these issues and has plans to resolve them, as well as how you can generally get involved in the CIRA elections.

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