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.

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This post first appeared on the Telecom Transparency Project website.

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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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).

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