An interesting story of uncovering an anonymous Internet social media account.
Entries Tagged "anonymity"
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Over the past few months, I have been watching my blog comments decline in civility. I blame it in part on the contentious US election and its aftermath. It’s also a consequence of not requiring visitors to register in order to post comments, and of our tolerance for impassioned conversation. Whatever the causes, I’m tired of it. Partisan nastiness is driving away visitors who might otherwise have valuable insights to offer.
I have been engaging in more active comment moderation. What that means is that I have been quicker to delete posts that are rude, insulting, or off-topic. This is my blog. I consider the comments section as analogous to a gathering at my home. It’s not a town square. Everyone is expected to be polite and respectful, and if you’re an unpleasant guest, I’m going to ask you to leave. Your freedom of speech does not compel me to publish your words.
I like people who disagree with me. I like debate. I even like arguments. But I expect everyone to behave as if they’ve been invited into my home.
I realize that I sometimes express opinions on political matters; I find they are relevant to security at all levels. On those posts, I welcome on-topic comments regarding those opinions. I don’t welcome people pissing and moaning about the fact that I’ve expressed my opinion on something other than security technology. As I said, it’s my blog.
So, please… Assume good faith. Be polite. Minimize profanity. Argue facts, not personalities. Stay on topic.
Schneier on Security is not a professional operation. There’s no advertising, so no revenue to hire staff. My part-time moderator — paid out of my own pocket — and I do what we can when we can. If you see a comment that’s spam, or off-topic, or an ad hominem attack, flag it and be patient. Don’t reply or engage; we’ll get to it. And we won’t always post an explanation when we delete something.
My own stance on privacy and anonymity means that I’m not going to require commenters to register a name or e-mail address, so that isn’t an option. And I really don’t want to disable comments.
I dislike having to deal with this problem. I’ve been proud and happy to see how interesting and useful the comments section has been all these years. I’ve watched many blogs and discussion groups descend into toxicity as a result of trolls and drive-by ideologues derailing the conversations of regular posters. I’m not going to let that happen here.
Interesting research: “De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks“:
Abstract: Can online trackers and network adversaries de-anonymize web browsing data readily available to them? We show — theoretically, via simulation, and through experiments on real user data — that de-identified web browsing histories can be linked to social media profiles using only publicly available data. Our approach is based on a simple observation: each person has a distinctive social network, and thus the set of links appearing in one’s feed is unique. Assuming users visit links in their feed with higher probability than a random user, browsing histories contain tell-tale marks of identity. We formalize this intuition by specifying a model of web browsing behavior and then deriving the maximum likelihood estimate of a user’s social profile. We evaluate this strategy on simulated browsing histories, and show that given a history with 30 links originating from Twitter, we can deduce the corresponding Twitter profile more than 50% of the time. To gauge the real-world effectiveness of this approach, we recruited nearly 400 people to donate their web browsing histories, and we were able to correctly identify more than 70% of them. We further show that several online trackers are embedded on sufficiently many websites to carry out this attack with high accuracy. Our theoretical contribution applies to any type of transactional data and is robust to noisy observations, generalizing a wide range of previous de-anonymization attacks. Finally, since our attack attempts to find the correct Twitter profile out of over 300 million candidates, it is — to our knowledge — the largest scale demonstrated de-anonymization to date.
Google’s new ways to violate your privacy and — more importantly — how to opt out.
In this article, detailing the Australian and then worldwide investigation of a particularly heinous child-abuse ring, there are a lot of details of the pedophile security practices and the police investigative techniques. The abusers had a detailed manual on how to scrub metadata and avoid detection, but not everyone was perfect. The police used information from a single camera to narrow down the suspects. They also tracked a particular phrase one person used to find him.
This story shows an increasing sophistication of the police using small technical clues combined with standard detective work to investigate crimes on the Internet. A highly painful read, but interesting nonetheless.
Here’s the story of how it was done. First, a fake ad on torrent listings linked the site to a Latvian bank account, an e-mail address, and a Facebook page.
Using basic website-tracking services, Der-Yeghiayan was able to uncover (via a reverse DNS search) the hosts of seven apparent KAT website domains: kickasstorrents.com, kat.cr, kickass.to, kat.ph, kastatic.com, thekat.tv and kickass.cr. This dug up two Chicago IP addresses, which were used as KAT name servers for more than four years. Agents were then able to legally gain a copy of the server’s access logs (explaining why it was federal authorities in Chicago that eventually charged Vaulin with his alleged crimes).
Using similar tools, Homeland Security investigators also performed something called a WHOIS lookup on a domain that redirected people to the main KAT site. A WHOIS search can provide the name, address, email and phone number of a website registrant. In the case of kickasstorrents.biz, that was Artem Vaulin from Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Der-Yeghiayan was able to link the email address found in the WHOIS lookup to an Apple email address that Vaulin purportedly used to operate KAT. It’s this Apple account that appears to tie all of pieces of Vaulin’s alleged involvement together.
On July 31st 2015, records provided by Apple show that the me.com account was used to purchase something on iTunes. The logs show that the same IP address was used on the same day to access the KAT Facebook page. After KAT began accepting Bitcoin donations in 2012, $72,767 was moved into a Coinbase account in Vaulin’s name. That Bitcoin wallet was registered with the same me.com email address.
Interesting paper: “Anonymization and Risk,” by Ira S. Rubinstein and Woodrow Hartzog:
Abstract: Perfect anonymization of data sets has failed. But the process of protecting data subjects in shared information remains integral to privacy practice and policy. While the deidentification debate has been vigorous and productive, there is no clear direction for policy. As a result, the law has been slow to adapt a holistic approach to protecting data subjects when data sets are released to others. Currently, the law is focused on whether an individual can be identified within a given set. We argue that the better locus of data release policy is on the process of minimizing the risk of reidentification and sensitive attribute disclosure. Process-based data release policy, which resembles the law of data security, will help us move past the limitations of focusing on whether data sets have been “anonymized.” It draws upon different tactics to protect the privacy of data subjects, including accurate deidentification rhetoric, contracts prohibiting reidentification and sensitive attribute disclosure, data enclaves, and query-based strategies to match required protections with the level of risk. By focusing on process, data release policy can better balance privacy and utility where nearly all data exchanges carry some risk.
At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this week, Apple talked about something called “differential privacy.” We know very little about the details, but it seems to be an anonymization technique designed to collect user data without revealing personal information.
What we know about anonymization is that it’s much harder than people think, and it’s likely that this technique will be full of privacy vulnerabilities. (See, for example, the excellent work of Latanya Sweeney.) As expected, security experts are skeptical. Here’s Matt Green trying to figure it out.
So while I applaud Apple for trying to improve privacy within its business models, I would like some more transparency and some more public scrutiny.
EDITED TO ADD (6/17): Here’s a slide deck on privacy from the WWDC.
Jonathan Mayer, Patrick Mutchler, and John C. Mitchell, “Evaluating the privacy properties of telephone metadata“:
Abstract: Since 2013, a stream of disclosures has prompted reconsideration of surveillance law and policy. One of the most controversial principles, both in the United States and abroad, is that communications metadata receives substantially less protection than communications content. Several nations currently collect telephone metadata in bulk, including on their own citizens. In this paper, we attempt to shed light on the privacy properties of telephone metadata. Using a crowdsourcing methodology, we demonstrate that telephone metadata is densely interconnected, can trivially be reidentified, and can be used to draw sensitive inferences.
New research, but not a new result. There have been several similar studies over the years. This one uses only anonymized call and SMS metadata to identify people who volunteered for the study.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.