Half-Baked: The Opportunity To Secure Cookie-Based Identifiers From Passive Surveillance

rkBJB0J-300x225Andrew Hilts and I have released a new paper that is titled “Half-Baked: The Opportunity To Secure Cookie-Based Identifiers From Passive Surveillance.” Cookie-based identifiers are used by websites to deliver advertisements as well as collect analytics information about website visitors. Incidentally, intelligence agencies such as the NSA, GCHQ, CSE, and other Western signals intelligence bodies use the same identifiers to track the activities of individuals and their devices as they access, and use, the Internet. The paper respond to a series of basic questions: To what extent do major online properties encrypt the advertising, cookie, and other digital identifiers used by the NSA and other intelligence agencies to track users and their devices around the globe? Since the Snowden revelations began have providers actually encrypted more, or less, of these identifiers?

Full Abstract

Documents released by Edward Snowden have revealed that the National Security Agency, and its Australian, British, Canadian, and New Zealand equivalents, routinely monitor the Internet for the identifiers that are contained in advertising and tracking cookies. Once collected, the identifiers are stored in government databases and used to develop patterns of life, or the chains of activities that individuals engage in when they use Internet-capable devices. This paper investigates the extent to which contemporary advertising and analytics identifiers that are used in establishing such patterns continue to be transmitted in plaintext following Snowden’s revelations. We look at variations in the secure transmission of cookie-based identifiers across different website categories, and identify practical steps for both website operators and ad tracking companies to take to better secure their audiences and readers from passive surveillance.

Download the Paper

This post first appeared on the Telecom Transparency Project website.

The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?

UVic CrestToday, I am happy to make my completed doctoral dissertation available to the public. The dissertation examines what drives, and hinders, wireline network practices that are enabled by Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) routers. Such routers are in wide use by Internet service providers (ISPs) in Canada, the United States, and United Kingdom, and offer the theoretical capacity for service providers to intrusively monitor, mediate, and modify their subscribers’ data packets in real or near-real time. Given the potential uses of the routers, I was specifically interested in how the politics of deep packet inspection intersected with the following issues: network management practices, content control and copyright, advertising, and national security/policing.

Based on the potential capabilities of deep packet inspection technologies – and the warnings that such technologies could herald the ‘end of the Internet’ as it is know by citizens of the West – I explored what has actually driven the uptake of the technology in Canada, the US, and the UK. I ultimately found that though there were variations in different states’ regulatory processes, regulators tended to arrive at common conclusions. Regulatory convergence stands in opposition to the divergence that arose as elected officials entered into the DPI debates: such officials have been guided by domestic politics, and tended to reach significantly different conclusions. In effect, while high-expertise regulatory networks reached common conclusions, elected political officials have demonstrated varying degrees of technical expertise and instead have focused on the politics of communications surveillance. In addition to regulators and elected officials, court systems have also been involved in adjudicating how, when, and under what conditions DPI can be used to mediate data traffic. Effectively, government institutions have served as the primary arenas in which DPI issues are taken up, though the involved government actors often exhibited their own interests in how issues were to be taken up or resolved. The relative role of these different state bodies in the case studies arguably reflects underlying political cultures: whereas regulators are principally involved in the Canadian situation, elected officials and courts play a significant role in the US, whereas the UK has principally seen DPI debates settled by regulators and elected officials.

Ultimately, while there are important comparative public policy conclusions to the dissertation, such conclusions only paint part of the picture about the politics of deep packet inspection. The final chapter of the dissertation discusses why the concepts of surveillance and privacy are helpful, but ultimately insufficient, to appreciate the democratic significance of deep packet inspection equipment. In response, I suggest that deliberative democratic theory can provide useful normative critiques of DPI-based packet inspection. Moreover, these critiques can result in practical policy proposals that can defray DPI-based practices capable of detrimentally stunting discourse between citizens using the Internet for communications. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how this research can be advanced in the future; while I have sought to clear away some of the murk concerning the technology, my research represents only the first of many steps to reorient Internet policies such that they support, as opposed to threaten, democratic values.

Formal Abstract:

Surveillance on the Internet today extends beyond collecting intelligence at the layer of the Web: major telecommunications companies use technologies to monitor, mediate, and modify data traffic in real time. Such companies functionally represent communicative bottlenecks through which online actions must pass before reaching the global Internet and are thus perfectly positioned to develop rich profiles of their subscribers and modify what they read, do, or say online. And some companies have sought to do just that. A key technology, deep packet inspection (DPI), facilitates such practices.

In the course of evaluating the practices, regulations, and politics that have driven DPI in Canada, the US, and UK it has become evident that the adoption of DPI tends to be dependent on socio-political and economic conditions. Simply put, market or governmental demand is often a prerequisite for the technology’s adoption by ISPs. However, the existence of such demand is no indication of the success of such technologies; regulatory or political advocacy can lead to the restriction or ejection of particular DPI-related practices.

The dissertation proceeds by first outlining how DPI functions and then what has driven its adoption in Canada, the US, and UK. Three conceptual frameworks, path dependency, international governance, and domestic framing, are used to explain whether power structures embedded into technological systems themselves, international standards bodies, or domestic politics are principally responsible for the adoption or resistance to the technology in each nation. After exploring how DPI has arisen as an issue in the respective states I argue that though domestic conditions have principally driven DPI’s adoption, and though the domestic methods of governing DPI and its associated practices have varied across cases, the outcomes of such governance are often quite similar. More broadly, I argue that while the technology and its associated practices constitute surveillance and can infringe upon individuals’ privacy, the debates around DPI must more expansively consider how DPI raises existential risks to deliberative democratic states. I conclude by offering some suggestions on defraying the risks DPI poses to such states.

Download ‘The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?’ (.pdf)

Agenda Denial and UK Privacy Advocacy

stopFunding, technical and political savvy, human resources, and time. These are just a few of the challenges standing before privacy advocates who want to make their case to the public, legislators, and regulators. When looking at the landscape there are regularly cases where advocates are more successful than expected or markedly less than anticipated; that advocates stopped BT from permanently deploying Phorm’s Webwise advertising system was impressive, whereas the failures to limit transfers of European airline passenger data to the US were somewhat surprising.[1] While there are regular analyses of how privacy advocates might get the issue of the day onto governmental agendas there is seemingly less time spent on how opponents resist advocates’ efforts. This post constitutes an early attempt to work through some of the politics of agenda-setting related to deep packet inspection and privacy for my dissertation project. Comments are welcome.

To be more specific, in this post I want to think about how items are kept off the agenda. Why are they kept off, who engages in the opposition(s), and what are some of the tactics employed? In responding to these questions I will significantly rely on theory from R. W. Cobb’s and M. H. Ross’ Cultural Strategies of Agenda Denial, linked with work by other prominent scholars and advocates. My goal is to evaluate whether the strategies that Cobb and Ross write about apply to the issues championed by privacy advocates in the UK who oppose the deployment of the Webwise advertising system. I won’t be working through the technical or political backstory of Phorm in this post and will be assuming that readers have at least a moderate familiarity with the backstory of Phorm – if you’re unfamiliar with it, I’d suggest a quick detour to the wikipedia page devoted to the company.

Continue reading

Do You Know Who Your iPhone’s Been Calling?

The-Apple-iPhone-3GS-gets-a-phoneAn increasing percentage of Western society is carrying a computer with them, everyday, that is enabled with geo-locative technology. We call them smartphones, and they’re cherished pieces of technology. While people are (sub)consciously aware of this love-towards-technology, they’re less aware of how these devices are compromising their privacy, and that’s the topic of this post.

Recent reports on the state of the iPhone operating system show us that the device’s APIs permit incredibly intrusive surveillance of personal behaviour and actions. I’ll be walking through those reports and then writing somewhat more broadly about the importance of understanding how APIs function if scrutiny of phones, social networks, and so forth is to be meaningful. Further, I’ll argue that privacy policies – while potentially useful for covering companies’ legal backends – are less helpful in actually educating end-users about a corporate privacy ethos. These policies, as a result, need to be written in a more accessible format, which may include a statement of privacy ethics that is baked into a three-stage privacy statement.

iOS devices, such as the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV 2.0, and iPod touch, have Unique Device Identifiers (UDIDs) that can be used to discretely track how customers use applications associated with the device. A recent technical report, written by Eric Smith of PSKL, has shed light into how developers can access a device UDID and correlate it with personally identifiable information. UDIDs are, in effect, serial numbers that are accessible by software. Many of the issues surrounding the UDID are arguably similar to those around the Pentium III’s serial codes (codes which raised the wrath of the privacy community and were quickly discontinued. Report on PIII privacy concerns is available here).

Continue reading

Update: Feeva, Advertising, and Privacy

MusicBrainzServersWhen you spend a lot of time working in the areas of copyright, traffic sniffing and analysis, and the Internet’s surveillance infrastructure more generally, there is a tendency to expect bad things on a daily basis. This expectation is built up from years of horrors, and I’m rarely disappointed in my day-to-day research. Thus, when Wired reported that a company called Feeva was injecting locational information into packet headers the actions didn’t come across as surprising; privacy infringements as reported in the Wired piece are depressingly common. In response I wrote a brief post decrying the modification of packet-headers for geolocational purposes and was quoted by Jon Newton on P2Pnet on my reactions to what I understood at the time was going on.

After the post, and quotations turned up on P2Pnet, folks at Feeva quickly got ahold of me. I’ve since had a few conversations with them. It turns out that (a) there were factual inaccuracies in the Wired article; (b) Feeva isn’t the privacy-devastating monster that they came off as in the Wired article. Given my increased familiarity with the technology I wanted to better outline what their technology does and alter my earlier post’s conclusion: Feeva is employing a surprising privacy-protective advertising system. As it stands, their system is a whole lot better at limiting infringements on individuals’ privacy for advertising-related purposes than any other scalable model that I’m presently aware of.

Before I get into the post proper, however, I do want to note that I am somewhat limited in the totality of what I can speak about. I’ve spoken with both Feeva’s Chief Technology Officer, Miten Sampat, and Chief Privacy Officer, Dr. Don Lloyd Cook, and they’ve been incredibly generous in sharing both their time and corporate information. The two have been incredibly forthcoming with the technical details of the system employed and (unsurprisingly) some of this information is protected. As such, I can’t get into super-specifics (i.e. X technology uses Y protocol and Z hardware) but, while some abstractions are required, I think that I’ve managed to get across key elements of the system they’ve put in place.

Continue reading

Apple and Locational Data Sharing

Apple’s entrance into the mobile advertising marketplace was born with their announcement of iAd. Alongside iAd comes persistent locational surveillance of Apple’s customers for the advantage of advertisers and Apple. The company’s advertising platform is controversial because Apple gives it a privileged position in their operating system, iOS4, and because the platform can draw on an iPhone’s locational awareness (using the phone’s GPS functionality) to deliver up targeted ads.

In this post I’m going to first give a brief background on iAd and some of the broader issues surrounding Apple’s deployment of their advertising platform. From there, I want to recap what Steve Jobs stated in a recent interview at the All Things Digital 8 concerning how Apple approaches locational surveillance through their mobile devices and then launch into an analysis of Apple’s recently changed terms of service for iOS4 devices as it relates to collecting, sharing, and retaining records on an iPhone’s geographic location. I’ll finish by noting that Apple may have inadvertently gotten itself into serious trouble as a result of its heavy-handed control of the iAd environment combined with modifying the privacy-related elements of their terms of service: Apple seems to have awoken the German data protection authorities. Hopefully the Germans can bring some transparency to a company regularly cloaked in secrecy.

Apple launched the iAd beta earlier this year and integrates the advertising platform into their mobile environment such that ads are seen within applications, and clicking on ads avoids taking individuals out of the particular applications that the customers are using. iAds can access core iOS4 functionality, including locational information, and can be coded using HTML 5 to provide rich advertising experiences. iAd was only made possible following Apple’s January acquisition of Quattro, a mobile advertising agency. Quattro was purchased after Apple was previously foiled in acquiring AdMob by Google last year (with the FTC recently citing iAd as a contributing reason why the Google transaction was permitted to go through). Ostensibly, the rich advertising from iAds is intended to help developers produce cheap and free applications for Apple’s mobile devices while retaining a long-term, ad-based, revenue stream. Arguably, with Apple taking a 40% cut of all advertising revenue and limiting access to the largest rich-media mobile platform in the world, advertising makes sense for their own bottom line and its just nice that they can ‘help’ developers along the way… Continue reading