Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Category: Privacy (page 1 of 56)

Posts under this category name relate to privacy generally, rather than distinguishing between the various ‘kinds’ of discussing or recognizing privacy.

Accountability and the Canadian Government’s Reporting of Computer Vulnerabilities and Exploits

Photo by Taskin Ashiq on Unsplash

I have a new draft paper that outlines why the Canadian government should develop, and publish, the guidelines it uses when determining whether to acquire, use, or disclose computer- and computer-system vulnerabilities. At its crux, the paper argues that an accountability system was developed in the 1970s based on the intrusiveness of government wiretaps and that state-used malware is just as, if not more so, intrusive. Government agencies should be held to at least as high a standard, today, as they were forty years ago (and, arguably, an even higher one today than in the past). It’s important to recognize that while the paper argues for a focus on defensive cybersecurity — disclosing vulnerabilities as a default in order to enhance the general security of all Canadians and residents of Canada, as well as to improve the security of all government of Canada institutions — it recognizes that some vulnerabilities may be retained to achieve a limited subset of investigative and intelligence operations. As such, the paper does not rule out the use of malware by state actors but, instead, seeks to restrict the use of such malware while also drawing its use into a publicly visible accountability regime.

I’m very receptive to comments on this paper and will seek to incorporate feedback before sending the paper to an appropriate journal around mid-December.

Abstract:

Computer security vulnerabilities can be exploited by unauthorized parties to affect targeted systems contrary to the preferences their owner or controller. Companies routinely issue patches to remediate the vulnerabilities after learning that the vulnerabilities exist. However, these flaws are sometimes obtained, used, and kept secret by government actors, who assert that revealing vulnerabilities would undermine intelligence, security, or law enforcement operations. This paper argues that a publicly visible accountability regime is needed to control the discovery, purchase, use, and reporting of computer exploits by Canadian government actors for two reasons. First, because when utilized by Canadian state actors the vulnerabilities could be leveraged to deeply intrude into the private lives of citizens, and legislative precedent indicates that such intrusions should be carefully regulated so that the legislature can hold the government to account. Second, because the vulnerabilities underlying any exploits could be discovered or used by a range of hostile operators to subsequently threaten Canadian citizens’ and residents’ of Canada personal security or the integrity of democratic institutions. On these bases, it is of high importance that the government of Canada formally develop, publish, and act according to an accountability regime that would regulate its agencies’ exploitation of computer vulnerabilities.

Download .pdf // SSRN Link

Government Surveillance Accountability: The Failures of Contemporary Interception Reports

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash

Over the past several years I’ve undertaken research exploring how, how often, and for what reasons governments in Canada access telecommunications data. As one facet of this line of research I worked with Dr. Adam Molnar to understand the regularity at which policing agencies across Canada have sought, and obtained, warrants to lawfully engage in real-time electronic surveillance. Such data is particularly important given the regularity at which Canadian law enforcement agencies call for new powers; how effective are historical methods of capturing communications data? How useful are the statistics which are tabled by governments? We answer these questions in a paper published with the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, entitled ‘Government Surveillance Accountability: The Failures of Contemporary Canadian Interception Reports.” The abstract, follows, as do links to the Canadian interception reports upon which we based our findings.

Abstract:

Real time electronic government surveillance is recognized as amongst the most intrusive types of government activity upon private citizens’ lives. There are usually stringent warranting practices that must be met prior to law enforcement or security agencies engaging in such domestic surveillance. In Canada, federal and provincial governments must report annually on these practices when they are conducted by law enforcement or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, disclosing how often such warrants are sought and granted, the types of crimes such surveillance is directed towards, and the efficacy of such surveillance in being used as evidence and securing convictions.

This article draws on an empirical examination of federal and provincial electronic surveillance reports in Canada to examine the usefulness of Canadian governments’ annual electronic surveillance reports for legislators and external stakeholders alike to hold the government to account. It explores whether there are primary gaps in accountability, such as where there are no legislative requirements to produce records to legislators or external stakeholders. It also examines the extent to which secondary gaps exist, such as where there is a failure of legislative compliance or ambiguity related to that compliance.

We find that extensive secondary gaps undermine legislators’ abilities to hold government to account and weaken capacities for external stakeholders to understand and demand justification for government surveillance activities. In particular, these gaps arise from the failure to annually table reports, in divergent formatting of reports between jurisdictions, and in the deficient narrative explanations accompanying the tabled electronic surveillance reports. The chronic nature of these gaps leads us to argue that there are policy failures emergent from the discretion granted to government Ministers and failures to deliberately establish conditions that would ensure governmental accountability. Unless these deficiencies are corrected, accountability reporting as a public policy instrument threatens to advance a veneer of political legitimacy at the expense of maintaining fulsome democratic safeguards to secure the freedoms associated with liberal democratic political systems. We ultimately propose a series of policy proposals which, if adopted, should ensure that government accountability reporting is both substantial and effective as a policy instrument to monitor and review the efficacy of real-time electronic surveillance in Canada.

Canadian Electronic Surveillance Reports

Alberta

British Columbia

Government of Canada

Manitoba

New Brunswick

Newfoundland

Nova Scotia

Ontario

Quebec

Saskatchewan

Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide

The Citizen Lab and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) have released a joint collaborative report, “Shining a Light on the Encryption Debate: A Canadian Field Guide,” which was written by Lex Gill, Tamir Israel, and myself. We argue that access to strong encryption is integral to the defense of human rights in the digital era. Encryption technologies are also essential to securing digital transactions, securing public safety, and protecting national security interests. Unfortunately, many state agencies have continues to argue that encryption poses insurmountable or unacceptable barriers to their investigative- and intelligence-gathering activities. In response, some governments have advanced irresponsible encryption policies that would limit the public availability and use of secure, uncompromised encryption technologies.

Our report examines this encryption debate, paying particular attention to the Canadian context. It provides insight and analyses for policy makers, lawyers, academics, journalists, and advocates who are trying to understand encryption technologies and the potential viability and consequences of different policies pertaining to encryption.

Section One provides a brief primer on key technical principles and concepts associated with encryption in the service of improving policy outcomes and enhancing technical literacy. In particular, we review the distinction between encryption at rest and in transit, the difference between symmetric and asymmetric encryption systems, the issue of end-to-end encryption, and the concept of forward secrecy. We also identify some of the limits of encryption in restricting the investigative or intelligence-gathering objectives of the state, including in particular the relationship between encryption and metadata.

Section Two explains how access to strong, uncompromised encryption technology serves critical public interest objectives. Encryption is intimately connected to the constitutional protections guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as those rights enshrined in international human rights law. In particular, encryption enables the right to privacy, the right to freedom of expression, and related rights to freedom of opinion and belief. In an era where signals intelligence agencies operate with minimal restrictions on their foreign facing activities, encryption remains one of the few practical limits on mass surveillance. Encryption also helps to guarantee privacy in our personal lives, shielding individuals from abusive partners, exploitative employers, and online harassment. The mere awareness of mass surveillance exerts a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression. Vulnerable and marginalized groups are both disproportionately subject to state scrutiny and may be particularly vulnerable to these chilling effects. Democracies pay a particularly high price when minority voices and dissenting views are pressured to self-censor or refrain from participating in public life. The same is true when human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others whose work demands the ability to call attention to injustice, often at some personal risk, are deterred from leveraging digital networks in pursuit of their activities. Unrestricted public access to reliable encryption technology can help to shield individuals from these threats. Efforts to undermine the security of encryption in order to facilitate state access, by contrast, are likely to magnify these risks. Uncompromised encryption systems can thus foster the security necessary for meaningful inclusion, democratic engagement, and equal access in the digital sphere.

Section Three explores the history of encryption policy across four somewhat distinct eras, with a focus on Canada to the extent the Canadian government played an active role in addressing encryption. The first era is characterized by the efforts of intelligence agencies such as the United States National Security Agency (NSA) to limit the public availability of secure encryption technology. In the second era of the 1990s, encryption emerged as a vital tool for securing electronic trust on the emerging web. In the third era—between 2000 and 2010—the development and proliferation of strong encryption technology in Canada, the United States, and Europe progressed relatively unimpeded. The fourth era encompasses from 2011 to the present day where calls to compromise, weaken, and restrict access to encryption technology have steadily reemerged.

Section Four reviews the broad spectrum of legal and policy responses to government agencies’ perceived encryption “problem,” including historical examples, international case studies, and present-day proposals. The section provides an overview of factors which may help to evaluate these measures in context. In particular, it emphasizes questions related to: (1) whether the proposed measure is truly targeted and avoids collateral or systemic impacts on uninvolved parties; (2) whether there is an element of conscription or compelled participation which raises an issue of self-incrimination or unfairly impacts the interests of a third party; and (3) whether, in considering all the factors, the response remains both truly necessary and truly proportionate. The analysis of policy measures in this sections proceeds in three categories. The first category includes measures designed to limit the broad public availability of effective encryption tools. The second category reviews measures that are directed at intermediaries and service providers. The third category focuses on efforts that target specific encrypted devices, accounts, or individuals.

Section Five examines the necessity of proposed responses to the encryption “problem.” A holistic and contextual analysis of the encryption debate makes clear that the investigative and intelligence costs imposed by unrestricted public access to strong encryption technology are often overstated. At the same time, the risks associated with government proposals to compromise encryption in order to ensure greater ease of access for state agencies are often grossly understated. When weighed against the profound costs to human rights, the economy, consumer trust, public safety, and national security, such measures will rarely—if ever—be proportionate and almost always constitute an irresponsible approach to encryption policy. In light of this, rather than finding ways to undermine encryption, the Government of Canada should make efforts to encourage the development and adoption of strong and uncompromised technology.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL REPORT

Project Support

This research was led by the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, as well as the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa. This project was funded, in part, by the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The authors would like to extend their deepest gratitude to a number of individuals who have provided support and feedback in the production of this report, including (in alphabetical order) Bram Abramson, Nate Cardozo, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Ron Deibert, Mickael E.B., Andrew Hilts, Jeffrey Knockel, Adam Molnar, Christopher Prince, Tina Salameh, Amie Stepanovich, and Mari Jing Zhou. Any errors remain the fault of the authors alone.

We are also grateful to the many individuals and organizations who gave us the opportunity to share early versions of this work, including Lisa Austin at the Faculty of Law (University of Toronto); Vanessa Rhinesmith and David Eaves at digital HKS (Harvard Kennedy School); Ian Goldberg and Erinn Atwater at the Cryptography, Security, and Privacy (CrySP) Research Group (University of Waterloo); Florian Martin-Bariteau at the Centre for Law, Technology and Society (University of Ottawa); and the Citizen Lab Summer Institute (Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto).

Authors

Lex Gill is a Citizen Lab Research Fellow. She has also served as the National Security Program Advocate to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, as a CIPPIC Google Policy Fellow and as a researcher to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She holds a B.C.L./LL.B. from McGill University’s Faculty of Law.

Tamir Israel is Staff Lawyer at the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He leads CIPPIC’s privacy, net neutrality, electronic surveillance and telecommunications regulation activities and conducts research and advocacy on a range of other digital rights-related topics.

Christopher Parsons is currently a Research Associate at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs with the University of Toronto as well as the Managing Director of the Telecom Transparency Project at the Citizen Lab. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his Ph.D from the University of Victoria.

New Report Shines Light On Limitations of Canadians’ Data Access Rights

The Citizen Lab has released a new report, “Approaching Access: A look at consumer personal data requests in Canada,” which was written by myself and my colleagues, Andrew Hilts and Masashi Crete-Nishihata. The report examines how different industries respond to Canadians’ requests to access their personal information. Such requests empower individuals to better understand what data is collected about them, the ways in which is it used, and to whom it is subsequently disclosed. While privacy policies or terms of service can be vague, the intent behind such laws is that they will let individuals understand specifically how their personal information is used.

Without knowing who is collecting personal data, for what purpose, or for how long, or the grounds under which they share it, a consumer cannot exercise their rights nor evaluate whether an organization is appropriately handling their data. Canada’s commercial privacy legislation, the Protection of Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), empowers Canadians to issue legally-binding Data Access Requests (DARs) to private companies to answer exactly these kinds of questions. This report is the result of a three year study of DARs in Canada that shows what happens when telecommunications companies, fitness trackers, and online dating services are asked by consumers to provide transparency into their data privacy practices and policies.

Between 2014-2016 we recruited participants to systematically issue DARs to telecommunications companies, fitness trackers, and online dating services used by Canadians to evaluate a series of research questions:

  • What proportion of companies contacted would respond to DARs at all?
  • What proportion of companies that did respond to DARs would respond in a relatively complete manner to all questions asked?
  • What proportion of companies that did respond to DARs would provide individuals with copies of their personal information at no or minimal cost?
  • What commonalities or differences would be found in responses to individuals in each industry group studied, and across industries?
  • To what extent would individuals who received responses be satisfied with the information they received and what, if anything, might be done to improve organizations’ disclosures to enhance individuals’ satisfaction?

Inconsistent Responses across Companies and Industries

Participants received responses from companies but the information provided varied widely across companies and industries. Variations included:

  • the specificity with which requester questions are answered;
  • what types of data are returned;
  • whether or not data retention periods are published; and
  • clarity about data disclosures to third parties, including government authorities.

Barriers to Access

Participants also encountered barriers to accessing the private information that companies retained about them. These barriers included:

  • identity verification procedures;
  • secure data transfer requirements;
  • costs offloaded to requesters; and
  • push-back by some non-Canadian companies as to whether their services to Canadian consumers in Canada are, in fact, bound by Canadian privacy law.

Towards Improved Data Access in Canada

Our report concludes with recommendations for how businesses can improve their DAR processes and related data transparency efforts, and allow citizens to more effectively exercise stewardship over their personal data.

We make seven key recommendations:.

  1. Companies should prepare and produce data retention schedules that identify specific types of information they collect and the period of time for which they retain it.
  2. Companies should prepare and publish government access handbooks that identify the different kinds of personal information they hold, and establish the specific legal powers and processes to be undertaken before the company will disclose a subscriber’s personal information.
  3. Companies should prepare transparency reports that disclosure the regularity, and rationale for which, government agencies request access to subscriber-related information.
  4. Companies should collaborate within their respective industries to establish common definitions for personal data mini-collections to which common policies are applied, such as subscriber data, metadata, content of communications, etc.
  5. Companies should not assume they know which communications method their customers would prefer to use when discussing a DAR letter. They should first ask the customer what their preferred method is, and only then pose questions to clarify the requester’s inquiries.
  6. Companies should publish data inventories describing all the kinds of personal information that they collect, and freely provide copies of a small set of representative examples of records for each kind of personal information to subscribers upon request.
  7. Either individual organizations or industry groups should communicate with non-corporate stakeholders to help streamline the request process, or to help establish requesters’ expectations. This effort might involve developing Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to expedite the issuance and response to DAR letters, or working to modify language used by web applications to more accurately reflect the data that might be handled by organizations in the course of commercial activity.

DARs provide a valuable method for understanding the kinds of information which are collected, retained, processed, and handled by private companies. This report provides a look at how companies respond to these access rights and which also draws lessons from both within specific industry groupings and across industries. Given the amounts of digital information that individuals confide to third parties on a daily basis it is imperative that they can gain access to such information upon request, especially when companies do not publish clear guidance as to their broader data collection, retention, handling, or disclosure practices.

Our report showcases how DARs can provide insight into corporate practices. But, at present processes surrounding DAR-handling and -processing are immature. Advancing DAR practices and policies requires either private-sector coordination to advance individuals’ access to their personal information, or regulatory coordination to clarify how private organizations ought to provide access to the information of which they are stewards.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL REPORT

Project Support

This research is led by the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. The project was funded via Open Effect by CIRA’s 2015-16 Community Investment Program. Additional funding was provided by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada through its Contributions Program.

Thank you to Adam Senft and Bram Abramson for review and copyediting. We are grateful to Ron Deibert for research guidance and supervision. This research would not have been possible without the Access My Info users who participated in this study.

Authors

Dr. Christopher Parsons received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his Ph.D from the University of Victoria. He is currently a Research Associate at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs as well as the Managing Director of the Telecom Transparency Project at the Citizen Lab.

Andrew Hilts is a Senior Researcher and Developer at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. His research and software development focuses on empowering citizens to exercise their digital rights online.

Masashi Crete-Nishihata is Research Director at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He researchers the socio-political impact of information controls

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