Entries Tagged "Amazon"
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A worker in Amazon’s packaging department in India figured out how to deliver electronics to himself:
Since he was employed with the packaging department, he had easy access to order numbers. Using the order numbers, he packed his order himself; but instead of putting pressure cookers in the box, he stuffed it with iPhones, iPads, watches, cameras, and other expensive electronics in the pressure cooker box. Before dispatching the order, the godown also has a mechanism to weigh the package. To dodge this, Bhamble stuffed equipment of equivalent weight,” an officer from Vithalwadi police station said. Bhamble confessed to the cops that he had ordered pressure cookers thrice in the last 15 days. After he placed the order, instead of, say, packing a five-kg pressure cooker, he would stuff gadgets of equivalent weight. After receiving delivery clearance, he would then deliver the goods himself and store it at his house. Speaking to mid-day, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Zone IV) Vasant Jadhav said, “Bhamble’s job profile was of goods packaging at Amazon.com’s warehouse in Bhiwandi.
This is an interesting story of a reviewer who had her review deleted because Amazon believed she knew the author personally.
Leaving completely aside the ethics of friends reviewing friends’ books, what is Amazon doing conducting this kind of investigative surveillance? Do reviewers know that Amazon is keeping tabs on who their friends are?
Facebook regularly abuses the privacy of its users. Google has stopped supporting its popular RSS feeder. Apple prohibits all iPhone apps that are political or sexual. Microsoft might be cooperating with some governments to spy on Skype calls, but we don’t know which ones. Both Twitter and LinkedIn have recently suffered security breaches that affected the data of hundreds of thousands of their users.
If you’ve started to think of yourself as a hapless peasant in a Game of Thrones power struggle, you’re more right than you may realize. These are not traditional companies, and we are not traditional customers. These are feudal lords, and we are their vassals, peasants, and serfs.
Power has shifted in IT, in favor of both cloud-service providers and closed-platform vendors. This power shift affects many things, and it profoundly affects security.
Traditionally, computer security was the user’s responsibility. Users purchased their own antivirus software and firewalls, and any breaches were blamed on their inattentiveness. It’s kind of a crazy business model. Normally we expect the products and services we buy to be safe and secure, but in IT we tolerated lousy products and supported an enormous aftermarket for security.
Now that the IT industry has matured, we expect more security “out of the box.” This has become possible largely because of two technology trends: cloud computing and vendor-controlled platforms. The first means that most of our data resides on other networks: Google Docs, Salesforce.com, Facebook, Gmail. The second means that our new Internet devices are both closed and controlled by the vendors, giving us limited configuration control: iPhones, ChromeBooks, Kindles, BlackBerry PDAs. Meanwhile, our relationship with IT has changed. We used to use our computers to do things. We now use our vendor-controlled computing devices to go places. All of these places are owned by someone.
The new security model is that someone else takes care of it — without telling us any of the details. I have no control over the security of my Gmail or my photos on Flickr. I can’t demand greater security for my presentations on Prezi or my task list on Trello, no matter how confidential they are. I can’t audit any of these cloud services. I can’t delete cookies on my iPad or ensure that files are securely erased. Updates on my Kindle happen automatically, without my knowledge or consent. I have so little visibility into the security of Facebook that I have no idea what operating system they’re using.
There are a lot of good reasons why we’re all flocking to these cloud services and vendor-controlled platforms. The benefits are enormous, from cost to convenience to reliability to security itself. But it is inherently a feudal relationship. We cede control of our data and computing platforms to these companies and trust that they will treat us well and protect us from harm. And if we pledge complete allegiance to them — if we let them control our email and calendar and address book and photos and everything — we get even more benefits. We become their vassals; or, on a bad day, their serfs.
There are a lot of feudal lords out there. Google and Apple are the obvious ones, but Microsoft is trying to control both user data and the end-user platform as well. Facebook is another lord, controlling much of the socializing we do on the Internet. Other feudal lords are smaller and more specialized — Amazon, Yahoo, Verizon, and so on — but the model is the same.
To be sure, feudal security has its advantages. These companies are much better at security than the average user. Automatic backup has saved a lot of data after hardware failures, user mistakes, and malware infections. Automatic updates have increased security dramatically. This is also true for small organizations; they are more secure than they would be if they tried to do it themselves. For large corporations with dedicated IT security departments, the benefits are less clear. Sure, even large companies outsource critical functions like tax preparation and cleaning services, but large companies have specific requirements for security, data retention, audit, and so on — and that’s just not possible with most of these feudal lords.
The feudal relationship is inherently based on power. In Medieval Europe, people would pledge their allegiance to a feudal lord in exchange for that lord’s protection. This arrangement changed as the lords realized that they had all the power and could do whatever they wanted. Vassals were used and abused; peasants were tied to their land and became serfs.
It’s the Internet lords’ popularity and ubiquity that enable them to profit; laws and government relationships make it easier for them to hold onto power. These lords are vying with each other for profits and power. By spending time on their sites and giving them our personal information — whether through search queries, e-mails, status updates, likes, or simply our behavioral characteristics — we are providing the raw material for that struggle. In this way we are like serfs, toiling the land for our feudal lords. If you don’t believe me, try to take your data with you when you leave Facebook. And when war breaks out among the giants, we become collateral damage.
So how do we survive? Increasingly, we have little alternative but to trust someone, so we need to decide who we trust — and who we don’t — and then act accordingly. This isn’t easy; our feudal lords go out of their way not to be transparent about their actions, their security, or much of anything. Use whatever power you have — as individuals, none; as large corporations, more — to negotiate with your lords. And, finally, don’t be extreme in any way: politically, socially, culturally. Yes, you can be shut down without recourse, but it’s usually those on the edges that are affected. Not much solace, I agree, but it’s something.
On the policy side, we have an action plan. In the short term, we need to keep circumvention — the ability to modify our hardware, software, and data files — legal and preserve net neutrality. Both of these things limit how much the lords can take advantage of us, and they increase the possibility that the market will force them to be more benevolent. The last thing we want is the government — that’s us — spending resources to enforce one particular business model over another and stifling competition.
In the longer term, we all need to work to reduce the power imbalance. Medieval feudalism evolved into a more balanced relationship in which lords had responsibilities as well as rights. Today’s Internet feudalism is both ad hoc and one-sided. We have no choice but to trust the lords, but we receive very few assurances in return. The lords have a lot of rights, but few responsibilities or limits. We need to balance this relationship, and government intervention is the only way we’re going to get it. In medieval Europe, the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law provided the stability that feudalism lacked. The Magna Carta first forced responsibilities on governments and put humans on the long road toward government by the people and for the people.
We need a similar process to rein in our Internet lords, and it’s not something that market forces are likely to provide. The very definition of power is changing, and the issues are far bigger than the Internet and our relationships with our IT providers.
This essay originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website. It is an update of this earlier essay on the same topic. “Feudal security” is a metaphor I have been using a lot recently; I wrote this essay without rereading my previous essay.
EDITED TO ADD (6/13): There is another way the feudal metaphor applies to the Internet. There is no commons; every part of the Internet is owned by someone. This article explores that aspect of the metaphor.
The Finnish phone giant has since admitted that it decrypts secure data that passes through HTTPS connections — including social networking accounts, online banking, email and other secure sessions — in order to compress the data and speed up the loading of Web pages.
The basic problem is that https sessions are opaque as they travel through the network. That’s the point — it’s more secure — but it also means that the network can’t do anything about them. They can’t be compressed, cached, or otherwise optimized. They can’t be rendered remotely. They can’t be inspected for security vulnerabilities. All the network can do is transmit the data back and forth.
But in our cloud-centric world, it makes more and more sense to process web data in the cloud. Nokia isn’t alone here. Opera’s mobile browser performs all sorts of optimizations on web pages before they are sent over the air to your smart phone. Amazon does the same thing with browsing on the Kindle. MobileScope, a really good smart-phone security application, performs the same sort of man-in-the-middle attack against https sessions to detect and prevent data leakage. I think Umbrella does as well. Nokia’s mistake was that they did it without telling anyone. With appropriate consent, it’s perfectly reasonable for most people and organizations to give both performance and security companies that ability to decrypt and re-encrypt https sessions — at least most of the time.
This is an area where security concerns are butting up against other issues. Nokia’s answer, which is basically “trust us, we’re not looking at your data,” is going to increasingly be the norm.
Interesting details of an Amazon Marketplace scam. Worth reading.
Most scams use a hook to cause a reaction. The idea being that if you are reacting, they get to control you. If you take the time to stop and think things through, you take control back and can usually spot the scam. Common hooks involve Urgency, Uncertainty, Sex, Fear or Anger. In this case, it’s all about Urgency, Uncertainty and Fear. By setting the price so low, they drive urgency high, as you’re afraid that you might miss the deal. They then compound this by telling me there was an error in the shipment, trying to make me believe they are incompetent and if I act quickly, I can take advantage of their error.
The second email hypes the urgency, trying to get me to pay quickly. I did not reply, but if I had, the next step in a scam like this is to sweeten the deal if I were to act immediately, often by pretending to ship my non-existent camera with a bonus item (like a cell phone) overnight if I give them payment information immediately.
Of course, if I ever did give them my payment information, they’d empty my checking account and, if they’re with a larger attacker group, start using my account to traffic stolen funds.
Chris Cardinal discovered someone running such a scam on Amazon using his account: the scammer contacted Amazon pretending to be Chris, supplying his billing address (this is often easy to guess by digging into things like public phone books, credit reports, or domain registration records). Then the scammer secured the order numbers of items Chris recently bought on Amazon. In a separate transaction, the scammer reported that the items were never delivered and requested replacement items to be sent to a remailer/freight forwarder in Portland.
The scam hinged on the fact that Gmail addresses are “dot-blind” (firstname.lastname@example.org is the same as email@example.com), but Amazon treats them as separate addresses. This let the scammer run support chats and other Amazon transactions that weren’t immediately apparent to Chris.
If you’ve used Amazon.com at all, you’ll notice something very quickly: they require your password. For pretty much anything. Want to change an address? Password. Add a billing method? Password. Check your order history? Password. Amazon is essentially very secure as a web property. But as you can see from my chat transcript above, the CSR team falls like dominoes with just a few simple data points and a little bit of authoritative prying.
It’s clear that there’s a scam going on and it’s probably going largely unnoticed. It doesn’t cost the end user anything, except perhaps suspicion if they ever have a legitimate fraud complaint. But it’s also highlighting that Amazon is entirely too lax with their customer support team. I was told by my rep earlier today that all you need is the name, email address, and billing address and they pretty much can let you do what you need to do. They’re unable to add payment methods or place new orders, or review existing payment methods, but they are able to read back order numbers and process refund/replacement requests.
There’s a great deal of potential for fraud here. For one thing, it would be dirt simple for me to get and receive a second camera for free. That’s the sort of thing you’re really only going to be able to pull off once a year or so, but still, they sent it basically no questions asked. (It was delivered Fedex Smartpost, which means handed off to the USPS, so perhaps the lack of tracking custody contributes to their willingness to push the replacement.) Why Amazon’s reps were willing to assign the replacement shipment to a different address is beyond me. I was told it’s policy to only issue them to the original address, but some clever social engineering (“I’m visiting family in Oregon, can you ship it there?”, for instance) will get around that.
EDITED TO ADD (1/14): Comments from the original author of the piece.
Four squids on the cover of this week’s Economist represent the four massive (and intrusive) data-driven Internet giants: Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon.
Interestingly, these are the same four companies I’ve been listing as the new corporate threat to the Internet.
The first of three pillars propping up this outside threat are big data collectors, which in addition to Apple and Google, Schneier identified as Amazon and Facebook. (Notice Microsoft didn’t make the cut.) The goal of their data collection is for marketers to be able to make snap decisions about the product tastes, credit worthiness, and employment suitability of millions of people. Often, this information is fed into systems maintained by governments.
Notice that Microsoft didn’t make the Economist’s cut either.
I gave that talk at the RSA Conference in February of this year. The link in the article is from another conference the week before, where I test-drove the talk.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.
These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.
Feudalism provides security. Classical medieval feudalism depended on overlapping, complex, hierarchical relationships. There were oaths and obligations: a series of rights and privileges. A critical aspect of this system was protection: vassals would pledge their allegiance to a lord, and in return, that lord would protect them from harm.
Of course, I’m romanticizing here; European history was never this simple, and the description is based on stories of that time, but that’s the general model.
And it’s this model that’s starting to permeate computer security today.
I Pledge Allegiance to the United States of Convenience
Traditional computer security centered around users. Users had to purchase and install anti-virus software and firewalls, ensure their operating system and network were configured properly, update their software, and generally manage their own security.
This model is breaking, largely due to two developments:
- New Internet-enabled devices where the vendor maintains more control over the hardware and software than we do — like the iPhone and Kindle; and
- Services where the host maintains our data for us — like Flickr and Hotmail.
Now, we users must trust the security of these hardware manufacturers, software vendors, and cloud providers.
We choose to do it because of the convenience, redundancy, automation, and shareability. We like it when we can access our e-mail anywhere, from any computer. We like it when we can restore our contact lists after we’ve lost our phones. We want our calendar entries to automatically appear on all of our devices. These cloud storage sites do a better job of backing up our photos and files than we would manage by ourselves; Apple does a great job keeping malware out of its iPhone apps store.
In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.
Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.
Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.
For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.
Yet feudal security isn’t without its risks.
Our lords can make mistakes with security, as recently happened with Apple, Facebook, and Photobucket. They can act arbitrarily and capriciously, as Amazon did when it cut off a Kindle user for living in the wrong country. They tether us like serfs; just try to take data from one digital lord to another.
Ultimately, they will always act in their own self-interest, as companies do when they mine our data in order to sell more advertising and make more money. These companies own us, so they can sell us off — again, like serfs — to rival lords…or turn us in to the authorities.
Historically, early feudal arrangements were ad hoc, and the more powerful party would often simply renege on his part of the bargain. Eventually, the arrangements were formalized and standardized: both parties had rights and privileges (things they could do) as well as protections (things they couldn’t do to each other).
Today’s internet feudalism, however, is ad hoc and one-sided. We give companies our data and trust them with our security, but we receive very few assurances of protection in return, and those companies have very few restrictions on what they can do.
This needs to change. There should be limitations on what cloud vendors can do with our data; rights, like the requirement that they delete our data when we want them to; and liabilities when vendors mishandle our data.
Like everything else in security, it’s a trade-off. We need to balance that trade-off. In Europe, it was the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law that undermined the ad hoc feudal system; it provided more security and stability for both lords and vassals. But these days, government has largely abdicated its role in cyberspace, and the result is a return to the feudal relationships of yore.
Perhaps instead of hoping that our Internet-era lords will be sufficiently clever and benevolent — or putting our faith in the Robin Hoods who block phone surveillance and circumvent DRM systems — it’s time we step in in our role as governments (both national and international) to create the regulatory environments that protect us vassals (and the lords as well). Otherwise, we really are just serfs.
A version of this essay was originally published on Wired.com.
Interesting post — and discussion — on Making Light about ebook fraud. Currently there are two types of fraud. The first is content farming, discussed in these two interesting blog posts. People are creating automatically generated content, web-collected content, or fake content, turning it into a book, and selling it on an ebook site like Amazon.com. Then they use multiple identities to give it good reviews. (If it gets a bad review, the scammer just relists the same content under a new name.) That second blog post contains a screen shot of something called “Autopilot Kindle Cash,” which promises to teach people how to post dozens of ebooks to Amazon.com per day.
The second type of fraud is stealing a book and selling it as an ebook. So someone could scan a real book and sell it on an ebook site, even though he doesn’t own the copyright. It could be a book that isn’t already available as an ebook, or it could be a “low cost” version of a book that is already available. Amazon doesn’t seem particularly motivated to deal with this sort of fraud. And it too is suitable for automation.
Broadly speaking, there’s nothing new here. All complex ecosystems have parasites, and every open communications system we’ve ever built gets overrun by scammers and spammers. Far from making editors superfluous, systems that democratize publishing have an even greater need for editors. The solutions are not new, either: reputation-based systems, trusted recommenders, white lists, takedown notices. Google has implemented a bunch of security countermeasures against content farming; ebook sellers should implement them as well. It’ll be interesting to see what particular sort of mix works in this case.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.