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Tag: Surveillance (page 1 of 31)

A Predator in Your Pocket : A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry

With a series of incredible co-authors at the Citizen Lab, I’ve co-authored a report that extensively investigates the stalkerware ecosystem. Stalkerware refers to spyware which is either deliberately manufactured to, or repurposed to, facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, or harassment. “A Predator in Your Pocket” is accompanied by a companion legal report, also released by the Citizen Lab. This companion report is entitled “Installing Fear: A Canadian Legal and Policy Analysis of Using, Developing, and Selling Smartphone Spyware and Stalkerware Applications,” and conducts a comprehensive criminal, civil, regulatory, and international law assessment of the legality of developing, selling, and using stalkerware.

A Predator In Your Pocket: Executive Summary

Persons who engage in technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment sometimes install spyware on a targeted person’s mobile phone. Spyware has a wide range of capabilities, including pervasive monitoring of text and chat messages, recording phone logs, tracking social media posts, logging website visits, activating a GPS system, registering keystrokes, and even activating phones’ microphones and cameras, as well as sometimes blocking incoming phone calls. These capabilities can afford dramatic powers and control over an individual’s everyday life. And when this software is used abusively, it can operate as a predator in a person’s pocket, magnifying the pervasive surveillance of the spyware operator.

Intimate partner violence, abuse, and harassment is routinely linked with efforts to monitor and control a targeted person. As new technologies have seeped into everyday life, aggressors have adopted and repurposed them to terrorize, control, and manipulate their current and former partners. When National Public Radio conducted a survey of 72 domestic violence shelters in the United States, they found that 85% of domestic violence workers assisted victims whose abuser tracked them using GPS. The US-based National Network to End Domestic Violence found that 71% of domestic abusers monitor survivors’ computer activities, while 54% tracked survivors’ cell phones with stalkerware. In Australia, the Domestic Violence Resources Centre Victoria conducted a survey in 2013 that found that 82% of victims reported abuse via smartphones and 74% of practitioners reported tracking via applications as often occurring amongst their client base. In Canada, a national survey of anti-violence support workers from 2012 found that 98% of perpetrators used technology to intimidate or threaten their victims, that 72% of perpetrators had hacked the email and social media accounts of the women and girls that they targeted, and that a further 61% had hacked into computers to monitor online activities and extract information. An additional 31% installed computer monitoring software or hardware on their target’s computer.

Spyware that possesses powerful surveillance capabilities are routinely marketed to consumer audiences to facilitate intimate partner surveillance, parent-child monitoring, or monitoring of employees. When these powerful capabilities are used to facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, or harassment, we refer to such spyware as stalkerware.

Across a range of use-cases, spyware can easily transform into stalkerware. Perhaps most obviously, spyware that is explicitly sold or licenced to facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, or harassment, including pernicious intrusions into the targeted person’s life by way of physical or digital actions, constitutes stalkerware by definition. However, spyware can also operate as stalkerware when surveillance software that is sold for ostensibly legitimate purposes (e.g., monitoring young children or employees) is repurposed to facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, or harassment. To be clear, this means that even application functions which are included in mobile operating systems, such as those which help to find one’s friends and colleagues, can constitute stalkerware under certain circumstances.

“The Predator in Your Pocket: A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry” is a report that was collaboratively written by researchers from computer science, political science, criminology, law, and journalism studies. As befits their expertise, the report is divided into several parts, with each focusing on specific aspects of the consumer spyware ecosystem, which includes: technical elements associated stalkerware applications, stalkerware companies’ marketing activities and public policies, and these companies’ compliance with Canadian federal commercial privacy legislation.

Part 1 discusses the harms which are associated with a person being targeted by stalkerware, the full range of marketed capabilities associated with such malicious software, and lays out our justification for conducting research into a small handful of companies: in short, we found that the following companies appeared to be the most popular in the commercial markets in Canada, the United States, and Australia, and so we directed our resources on examining:

1) FlexiSPY;
2) Highster Mobile;
3) Hoverwatch;
4) Mobistealth;
5) mSpy;
6) TeenSafe;
7) TheTruthSpy; and
8) Cerberus.

The rest of Part 1 provides a literature review for the subsequent Parts of the report, and makes clear where our research is meant to fill gaps in the published literature, or otherwise to reconfirm or retest results which have been published by other researchers. We posed a series of research questions based on assessments of relevant disciplinary literatures which are taken up in each of the following Parts of the report.

Part 2 undertakes a technical assessment of specific stalkerware applications. We focused on Android applications because Android-based stalkerware involves actually installing malware on a targeted person’s devices. This process stands in contrast to stalkerware for iOS, which routinely depends on obtaining a targeted person’s iCloud password to exfiltrate information for the person’s iCloud backups. In the course of our research, we examined network activity, measured protection from commercial anti-virus products as well as Google’s Play Protect system, and determined the extent to which stalkerware applications’ self-update mechanisms might expose targeted persons to digital security risks in excess of those exclusively associated with the violence, abuse, and harassment from the operator of the stalkerware. Emergent from this research, we found that:

  • Stalkerware we examined depends on intermediaries, principally located in the United States, Netherlands, and Hong Kong;
  • Antivirus products generally identify stalkerware apps as being malicious;
  • Google Play Protect can block stalkerware installation and remove installed stalkerware but it may not protect against the newest versions of stalkerware applications until a period of time after they are released; and
  • Stalkerware developers insecurely implemented software update systems.

In Part 3, we evaluated how companies which sold stalkerware, and software which could be repurposed as stalkerware, marketed their products to prospective customers. We used marketing intelligence methods, as well as content analysis, to conclude that many of the companies studied were actively promoting their software for the purposes of facilitating stalking and, by extension, intimate partner violence, abuse, and harassment. More specifically, we found that:

  • Consumer spyware companies’ blog and search engine optimization content revealed that most companies had extensive references to spousal monitoring;
  • One company, mSpy, encoded concealed HTML text which advertised spousal spying on their website as a way to make their products more easily discoverable by people searching for ways to conduct intimate partner surveillance;
  • Few companies significantly purchased Google Ads as part of their search engine optimization strategies, with the exception of mSpy;
  • The substance of paid Google Ads tended to favour the use of the tools for general spying, hacking, or tracking, and did not include adwords that might help persons targeted by stalkerware to detect or remove the respective companies’ software; and
  • Individual organic searches that related to the spyware companies in our sample overwhelmingly favoured terms that identified the general use of the tools for spying, hacking, or tracking, and explicitly noted the circumvention of security features of products associated with the broader digital ecosystem.

Part 4 of the report undertook a content assessment of companies’ user-facing public policies. We interrogated companies’ respective privacy policies, terms of service documents, and End User Licence Agreements using a structured question set. This methodology let us better understand the policies which the companies adopted concerning the collection, processing, and storage of personal information
associated with stalkerware operators as well as with the persons targeted by these operators. Emergent from this assessment, we concluded that the companies:

  • Failed to make it clear how the victims of stalkerware can have their data deleted when they have not meaningfully consented to the collection;
  • Failed to fully account for the personally identifiable information that can be captured when operating the software, thus circumventing the purpose and rationale of privacy policies to educate those affected by software to understand how it operates and collects such information; and
  • Failed to adopt policies to notify persons targeted by stalkerware in the case of data breaches, or even individuals contracting for the services.

In Part 5, we conducted an assessment of stalkerware companies’ business practices through the lens of Canada’s federal commercial privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Our assessment examined the extent to which companies are accountable to PIPEDA and their corresponding obligations. We ultimately concluded that:

  • Stalkerware companies should be found accountable under PIPEDA for the collection and processing of targeted persons’ personal data on the basis that the companies collect personal information, engage in relevant commercial activities, and collect, use, or disclose targeted persons’ data;
  • Given the potential for stalkerware companies to argue that they are exempt from PIPEDA’s obligations, the OPC should issue an interpretation bulletin or additional accompanying statement to the Guidelines for obtaining meaningful consent or Guidance on inappropriate data practices that specifically address stalkerware, or the use of spyware in abusive contexts. Additionally, Parliament should consider reforming commercial sector data protection legislation to close loopholes that we have identified;
  • Stalkerware companies ought to be obligated under PIPEDA to have extremely stringent data security practices based on the sensitivity of the data that they collect, process, disclose, and store; this pertains when these applications are used for ostensibly “legitimate” purposes and, as such, should apply to the collection of intimate data in the course of products being (re)purposed for stalkerware; and
  • PIPEDA and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) identify significant obligations that are imposed upon companies which sell products that have features enabling them to be used as stalkerware. The strength of the GDPR is ultimately found in the significant financial penalties which can be assigned to companies which fail to comply with the law. This is a strength that Parliament should add to PIPEDA by way of enabling the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to impose administrative monetary penalties and directly enforce its recommendations on companies.

Notably, PIPEDA only applies to the activities undertaken by business and organizations; as such, our assessment does not attend to the broader Canadian criminal law, tort law, privacy law, product liability, consumer protection, intellectual property, and intermediary liability law that are attached to the legality of using, creating and developing, selling, or facilitating the distribution of stalkerware applications. A broader legal assessment of stalkerware, as well as a set of recommendations for legal and policy reform to address some of the harms that stalkerware engenders, can be found in a companion report entitled “Installing Fear: A Canadian Legal and Policy Analysis of Using, Developing, and Selling Smartphone Spyware and Stalkerware Applications.”

In Part 6, we collect our major findings from our multidisciplinary research and propose a range of recommendations that would mitigate some of the harms associated with stalkerware companies’ practices and products. We focused on issues associated with consent, accountability and redress by jurisdiction, as well as data security and data protection. Specifically, our major findings included:

  • There were significant and disturbing failures by the companies in this study to obtain meaningful and ongoing consent, which seriously increased the risks and threats faced by those who operators target with stalkerware. This omission was further marked by failures to ensure that targeted persons could exercise their data access and deletion rights under Canadian privacy law;
  • While these companies were accountable under Canadian consumer privacy law, the limited ‘bite’ of that law may impede its ability—and, by extension, that of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada—to establish preemptive deterrence or ex post remedy and enforcement;
  • Not all of the companies in this study indicated that data security was a meaningful element in their privacy policies, despite Canadian law imposing data security obligations; and
  • Google’s Play Protect service in tandem with antivirus applications appeared, in initial testing, to relatively reliably identify stalkerware. However, more long-term testing is required to further confirm these results.

Ultimately, the availability of stalkerware applications is the result of broader social conditions that either lead developers to believe it is appropriate to create software designed for stalking or, alternately, to create applications for ostensibly legitimate purposes that can be repurposed to facilitate surreptitious intimate partner surveillance. The recommendations that we propose in this report might, if adopted, rebalance stark information asymmetries between the operator and target(s) of stalkerware. This rebalancing would address a core aspect of how stalkerware works as a tool to facilitate intimate partner violence, abuse, and harassment: by mitigating the potential for operators to engage in pervasive and surreptitious surveillance. Adopting these recommendations would also ensure meaningful and ongoing consent to any individuals that might use these tools for ostensibly legitimate purposes.

These recommendations are, however, only part of a much broader series of technical and social transformations which are required to remedy the wider, and pervasive, issues that give rise to forms of gender-related violence, abuse, and harassment. While the technical and legal remedies outlined in this report might provide important relief in the context of consumer spyware, the ongoing struggle to transcend patriarchal gender inequalities, misogyny, and corrosive societal norms around controlling, abusive, and violent behaviour directed at women, girls, non-binary persons, and children is an undertaking that requires critical and supportive communities at its core. We hope that this report provides insight into some of the deleterious manifestations of these norms, and that the structural recommendations which we provide help to alleviate some of these long-standing social harms.

Download “The Predator in Your Pocket: A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry”

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

Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports

‘Radome at Hartland Point’ by shirokazan (CC BY 2.0) at https://flic.kr/p/dfn9ei

Adam Molnar and I have a new paper on accountability and signals intelligence, which we will be presenting at the Security Intelligence & Surveillance in the Big Data Age workshop. The workshop will be held at the University of Ottawa later this month as part of the Big Data Surveillance partnership project that is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The paper focuses exclusively on the mechanisms which are needed for civil society actors to evaluate the propriety of actions undertaken by signals intelligence agencies. In it, we argue that Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency’s public accountability reporting might be enhanced by drawing on lessons from existing statutory electronic surveillance reporting. Focusing exclusively on Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), we first outline the relationships between accountability of government agencies to their respective Ministers and Members of Parliament, the role of transparency in enabling governmental accountability to the public, and the link between robust accountability regimes and democratic legitimacy of government action. Next, we feature a contemporary bulk data surveillance practice undertaken by Canada’s signals intelligence agency and the deficiencies in how CSE’s existing review body makes the Establishment’s practices publicly accountable to Parliamentarians and the public alike. We then discuss how proposed changes to CSE oversight and review mechanisms will not clearly rectify the existing public accountability deficits. We conclude by proposing a principle-based framework towards a robust public accountability process that is linked to those underlying domestic and foreign statutory electronic surveillance reports.

A copy of our paper, titled, “Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports,” is available at the Social Sciences Research Network as well as for download from this website.

Update to the SIGINT Summaries

As part of my ongoing research into the Edward Snowden documents, I have found and added an additional two documents to the Canadian SIGINT Summaries. The Summaries include downloadable copies of leaked Communications Security Establishment (CSE) documents, along with summary, publication, and original source information. CSE is Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency and has operated since the Second World War.

Documents were often produced by CSE’s closest partners which, collectively, form the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network. This network includes the CSE, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

All of the documents are available for download from this website. Though I am hosting the documents they were all first published by another party. The new documents and their summaries are listed below. The full list of documents and their summary information is available on the Canadian SIGINT Summaries page.

These documents came to light as I examined the activities that took place between the NSA and New Zealand signals intelligence agencies. The first, “NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand” notes that Canada is a member of the SIGINT Seniors Pacific group as well as SIGINT Seniors Europe. The second, “SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes”, notes how CSE and GCSB define shaping as “industry engagement and collection bending” as well as CSEC had considered audit analysts’ accounts similar to the NSA, though the prospect of such auditing had rearisen as a discussion point.

NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand

Summary: This document summarizes the status of the NSA’s relationship with New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). The GCSB has been forced to expend more of its resources on compliance auditing following recommendations after it exceeded its authority in assisting domestic law enforcement, but continues to be focused on government and five eyes priorities and encouraged to pursue technical interoperability with NSA and other FVEY nations.

The NSA provides GCSB with “raw traffic, processing, and reporting on targets of mutual interest, in addition to technical advice and equipment loans.” The GCSB primarily provides the NSA with access to communications which would otherwise remain inaccessible. These communications include: China, Japanese/North Korean/Vietnamese/South American diplomatic communications, South Pacific Island nations, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Antartica, as well as French police and nuclear testing activities in New Caledonia.

Of note, GCSB is a member of SIGINT Seniors Pacific (SSPAC) (includes Australia, Canada, France, India, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, United Kingdom, and United States) as well as SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR) (includes Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States).

Document Published: March 11, 2015
Document Dated: April 2013
Document Length: 3 pages
Associated Article: Snowden revelations: NZ’s spy reach stretches across globe
Download Document: NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand
Classification: TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY
Authoring Agency: NSA
Codenames: None

SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes

Summary: This document summarizes the state of signals development amongst the Five Eyes (FVEY). It first outline the core imperatives for the group, including: ensuring that the top technologies are being identified for use and linked with the capability they bring; that NSA shaping (targeting routers) improves (while noting that for CSE and GCSB shaping involves “industry engagement and collection bending”); improving on pattern of life collection and analysis; improving on IP address geolocation that covers Internet, radio frequency, and GSM realms; analyzing how convergence of communications systems and technologies impacts SIGINT operations.

Privacy issues were seen as being on the groups’ radar, on the basis that the “Oversight & Compliance team at NSA was under-resourced and overburdened.” Neither GCSB or DSD were able to sponsor or audit analysts’ accounts similar to the NSA, and CSEC indicated it had considered funding audit billets; while dismissed at the time, the prospect has re-arisen. At the time the non-NSA FVEYs were considering how to implement ‘super-user’ accounts, where specific staff will run queries for counterparts who are not directly authorized to run queries on selective databases.

GCSB, in particular, was developing its first network analyst team in October 2009 and was meant to prove the utility of network analysis so as to get additional staff for later supporting STATEROOM and Computer Network Exploitation tasks. Further, GCSB was to continue its work in the South Pacific region, as well as expanding cable access efforts and capabilities during a 1 month push.  There was also a problem where 20% of GCSB’s analytic workforce lacked access to DSD’s XKEYSCORE, which was a problem given that GCSB provided NSA with raw data. The reason for needing external tools to access data is GCSB staff are prohibited from accessing New Zealand data.

Document Published: March 11, 2015
Document Dated: June 8-9, 2009
Document Length: 3 pages
Associated Article: Snowden revelations: NZ’s spy reach stretches across globe
Download Document: SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes
Classification: TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL
Authoring Agency: NSA
Codenames: STATEROOM, XKEYSCORE

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