Differences in App Security/Privacy Based on Country

Depending on where you are when you download your Android apps, it might collect more or less data about you.

The apps we downloaded from Google Play also showed differences based on country in their security and privacy capabilities. One hundred twenty-seven apps varied in what the apps were allowed to access on users’ mobile phones, 49 of which had additional permissions deemed “dangerous” by Google. Apps in Bahrain, Tunisia and Canada requested the most additional dangerous permissions.

Three VPN apps enable clear text communication in some countries, which allows unauthorized access to users’ communications. One hundred and eighteen apps varied in the number of ad trackers included in an app in some countries, with the categories Games, Entertainment and Social, with Iran and Ukraine having the most increases in the number of ad trackers compared to the baseline number common to all countries.

One hundred and three apps have differences based on country in their privacy policies. Users in countries not covered by data protection regulations, such as GDPR in the EU and the California Consumer Privacy Act in the U.S., are at higher privacy risk. For instance, 71 apps available from Google Play have clauses to comply with GDPR only in the EU and CCPA only in the U.S. Twenty-eight apps that use dangerous permissions make no mention of it, despite Google’s policy requiring them to do so.

Research paper: “A Large-scale Investigation into Geodifferences in Mobile Apps“:

Abstract: Recent studies on the web ecosystem have been raising alarms on the increasing geodifferences in access to Internet content and services due to Internet censorship and geoblocking. However, geodifferences in the mobile app ecosystem have received limited attention, even though apps are central to how mobile users communicate and consume Internet content. We present the first large-scale measurement study of geodifferences in the mobile app ecosystem. We design a semi-automatic, parallel measurement testbed that we use to collect 5,684 popular apps from Google Play in 26 countries. In all, we collected 117,233 apk files and 112,607 privacy policies for those apps. Our results show high amounts of geoblocking with 3,672 apps geoblocked in at least one of our countries. While our data corroborates anecdotal evidence of takedowns due to government requests, unlike common perception, we find that blocking by developers is significantly higher than takedowns in all our countries, and has the most influence on geoblocking in the mobile app ecosystem. We also find instances of developers releasing different app versions to different countries, some with weaker security settings or privacy disclosures that expose users to higher security and privacy risks. We provide recommendations for app market proprietors to address the issues discovered.

Posted on September 29, 2022 at 6:14 AM3 Comments

Cold War Bugging of Soviet Facilities

Found documents in Poland detail US spying operations against the former Soviet Union.

The file details a number of bugs found at Soviet diplomatic facilities in Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, as well as in a Russian government-owned vacation compound, apartments used by Russia personnel, and even Russian diplomats’ cars. And the bugs were everywhere: encased in plaster in an apartment closet; behind electrical and television outlets; bored into concrete bricks and threaded into window frames; inside wooden beams and baseboards and stashed within a building’s foundation itself; surreptitiously attached to security cameras; wired into ceiling panels and walls; and secretly implanted into the backseat of cars and in their window panels, instrument panels, and dashboards. It’s an impressive—­ and impressively thorough—­ effort by U.S. counterspies.

We have long read about sophisticated Russian spying operations—bugging the Moscow embassy, bugging Selectric typewriters in the Moscow embassy, bugging the new Moscow embassy. These are the first details I’ve read about the US bugging the Russians’ embassy.

Posted on September 28, 2022 at 6:19 AM11 Comments

New Report on IoT Security

The Atlantic Council has published a report on securing the Internet of Things: “Security in the Billions: Toward a Multinational Strategy to Better Secure the IoT Ecosystem.” The report examines the regulatory approaches taken by four countries—the US, the UK, Australia, and Singapore—to secure home, medical, and networking/telecommunications devices. The report recommends that regulators should 1) enforce minimum security standards for manufacturers of IoT devices, 2) incentivize higher levels of security through public contracting, and 3) try to align IoT standards internationally (for example, international guidance on handling connected devices that stop receiving security updates).

This report looks to existing security initiatives as much as possible—both to leverage existing work and to avoid counterproductively suggesting an entirely new approach to IoT security—while recommending changes and introducing more cohesion and coordination to regulatory approaches to IoT cybersecurity. It walks through the current state of risk in the ecosystem, analyzes challenges with the current policy model, and describes a synthesized IoT security framework. The report then lays out nine recommendations for government and industry actors to enhance IoT security, broken into three recommendation sets: setting a baseline of minimally acceptable security (or “Tier 1”), incentivizing above the baseline (or “Tier 2” and above), and pursuing international alignment on standards and implementation across the entire IoT product lifecycle (from design to sunsetting). It also includes implementation guidance for the United States, Australia, UK, and Singapore, providing a clearer roadmap for countries to operationalize the recommendations in their specific jurisdictions—and push towards a stronger, more cohesive multinational approach to securing the IoT worldwide.

Note: One of the authors of this report was a student of mine at Harvard Kennedy School, and did this work with the Atlantic Council under my supervision.

Posted on September 27, 2022 at 6:15 AM11 Comments

Leaking Passwords through the Spellchecker

Sometimes browser spellcheckers leak passwords:

When using major web browsers like Chrome and Edge, your form data is transmitted to Google and Microsoft, respectively, should enhanced spellcheck features be enabled.

Depending on the website you visit, the form data may itself include PII­—including but not limited to Social Security Numbers (SSNs)/Social Insurance Numbers (SINs), name, address, email, date of birth (DOB), contact information, bank and payment information, and so on.

The solution is to only use the spellchecker options that keep the data on your computer—and don’t send it into the cloud.

Posted on September 26, 2022 at 6:08 AM10 Comments

Leaking Screen Information on Zoom Calls through Reflections in Eyeglasses

Okay, it’s an obscure threat. But people are researching it:

Our models and experimental results in a controlled lab setting show it is possible to reconstruct and recognize with over 75 percent accuracy on-screen texts that have heights as small as 10 mm with a 720p webcam.” That corresponds to 28 pt, a font size commonly used for headings and small headlines.

[…]

Being able to read reflected headline-size text isn’t quite the privacy and security problem of being able to read smaller 9 to 12 pt fonts. But this technique is expected to provide access to smaller font sizes as high-resolution webcams become more common.

“We found future 4k cameras will be able to peek at most header texts on almost all websites and some text documents,” said Long.

[…]

A variety of factors can affect the legibility of text reflected in a video conference participant’s glasses. These include reflectance based on the meeting participant’s skin color, environmental light intensity, screen brightness, the contrast of the text with the webpage or application background, and the characteristics of eyeglass lenses. Consequently, not every glasses-wearing person will necessarily provide adversaries with reflected screen sharing.

With regard to potential mitigations, the boffins say that Zoom already provides a video filter in its Background and Effects settings menu that consists of reflection-blocking opaque cartoon glasses. Skype and Google Meet lack that defense.

Research paper.

Posted on September 23, 2022 at 6:43 AM24 Comments

Automatic Cheating Detection in Human Racing

This is a fascinating glimpse of the future of automatic cheating detection in sports:

Maybe you heard about the truly insane false-start controversy in track and field? Devon Allen—a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles—was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships a few weeks ago for a false start.

Here’s the problem: You can’t see the false start. Nobody can see the false start. By sight, Allen most definitely does not leave before the gun.

But here’s the thing: World Athletics has determined that it is not possible for someone to push off the block within a tenth of a second of the gun without false starting. They have science that shows it is beyond human capabilities to react that fast. Of course there are those (I’m among them) who would tell you that’s nonsense, that’s pseudoscience, there’s no way that they can limit human capabilities like that. There is science that shows it is humanly impossible to hit a fastball. There was once science that showed human beings could not run a four-minute mile.

Besides, do you know what Devon Allen’s reaction time was? It was 0.99 seconds. One thousandth of a second too fast, according to World Athletics’ science. They’re THAT sure that .01 seconds—and EXACTLY .01 seconds—is the limit of human possibilities that they will disqualify an athlete who has trained his whole life for this moment because he reacted one thousandth of a second faster than they think possible?

We in the computer world are used to this sort of thing. “The computer is always right,” even when it’s obviously wrong. But now computers are leaving the world of keyboards and screens, and this sort of thing will become more pervasive. In sports, computer systems are used to detect when a ball is out of bounds in tennis and other games and when a pitch is a strike in baseball. I’m sure there’s more—are computers detecting first downs in football?—but I’m not enough of a sports person to know them.

Posted on September 21, 2022 at 6:35 AM28 Comments

Credit Card Fraud That Bypasses 2FA

Someone in the UK is stealing smartphones and credit cards from people who have stored them in gym lockers, and is using the two items in combination to commit fraud:

Phones, of course, can be made inaccessible with the use of passwords and face or fingerprint unlocking. And bank cards can be stopped.

But the thief has a method which circumnavigates those basic safety protocols.

Once they have the phone and the card, they register the card on the relevant bank’s app on their own phone or computer. Since it is the first time that card will have been used on the new device, a one-off security passcode is demanded.

That verification passcode is sent by the bank to the stolen phone. The code flashes up on the locked screen of the stolen phone, leaving the thief to tap it into their own device. Once accepted, they have control of the bank account. They can transfer money or buy goods, or change access to the account.

Posted on September 20, 2022 at 6:29 AM21 Comments

Large-Scale Collection of Cell Phone Data at US Borders

The Washington Post is reporting that the US Customs and Border Protection agency is seizing and copying cell phone, tablet, and computer data from “as many as” 10,000 phones per year, including an unspecified number of American citizens. This is done without a warrant, because “…courts have long granted an exception to border authorities, allowing them to search people’s devices without a warrant or suspicion of a crime.”

CBP’s inspection of people’s phones, laptops, tablets and other electronic devices as they enter the country has long been a controversial practice that the agency has defended as a low-impact way to pursue possible security threats and determine an individual’s “intentions upon entry” into the U.S. But the revelation that thousands of agents have access to a searchable database without public oversight is a new development in what privacy advocates and some lawmakers warn could be an infringement of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

[…]

CBP conducted roughly 37,000 searches of travelers’ devices in the 12 months ending in October 2021, according to agency data, and more than 179 million people traveled that year through U.S. ports of entry.

More articles. Slashdot thread.

Posted on September 19, 2022 at 6:07 AM14 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.