Entries Tagged "anonymity"

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Realistic Masks

They’re causing problems:

A white bank robber in Ohio recently used a “hyper-realistic” mask manufactured by a small Van Nuys company to disguise himself as a black man, prompting police there to mistakenly arrest an African American man for the crimes.

In October, a 20-year-old Chinese man who wanted asylum in Canada used one of the same company’s masks to transform himself into an elderly white man and slip past airport security in Hong Kong.

Authorities are even starting to think that the so-called Geezer Bandit, a Southern California bank robber believed for months to be an old man, might actually be a younger guy wearing one of the disguises made by SPFXMasks.

News coverage of the incidents has pumped up demand for the masks, which run from $600 to $1,200, according to company owner Rusty Slusser. But he says he’s not happy about it.


Slusser opened SPFXMasks in 2003. His six-person crew uses silicone that looks and feels like flesh, down to the pores. Each strand of hair ­ and it’s human hair ­ is sewn on individually. Artists methodically paint the masks to create realistic skin tones.

“I wanted to make something that looks so real that when you go out for Halloween no one can tell,” Slusser said. “It’s like ‘Mission: Impossible’ ­ you pull it over your head one time and that’s it. It’s like a 10-hour makeup job in 10 seconds.”

He experimented until he found the right recipe for silicone that would seem like skin. A key discovery was that if the inside of the mask is smooth ­ even if the outside is bumpy with pores, a nose and other features ­ it will stretch over most faces and move with facial muscles.

Posted on December 14, 2010 at 1:12 PMView Comments

De-Anonymizing Social Network Users

Interesting paper: “A Practical Attack to De-Anonymize Social Network Users.”

Abstract. Social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Xing have been reporting exponential growth rates. These sites have millions of registered users, and they are interesting from a security and privacy point of view because they store large amounts of sensitive personal user data.

In this paper, we introduce a novel de-anonymization attack that exploits group membership information that is available on social networking sites. More precisely, we show that information about the group memberships of a user (i.e., the groups of a social network to which a user belongs) is often sufficient to uniquely identify this user, or, at least, to significantly reduce the set of possible candidates. To determine the group membership of a user, we leverage well-known web browser history stealing attacks. Thus, whenever a social network user visits a malicious website, this website can launch our de-anonymization attack and learn the identity of its visitors.

The implications of our attack are manifold, since it requires a low effort and has the potential to affect millions of social networking users. We perform both a theoretical analysis and empirical measurements to demonstrate the feasibility of our attack against Xing, a medium-sized social network with more than eight million members that is mainly used for business relationships. Our analysis suggests that about 42% of the users that use groups can be uniquely identified, while for 90%, we can reduce the candidate set to less than 2,912 persons. Furthermore, we explored other, larger social networks and performed experiments that suggest that users of Facebook and LinkedIn are equally vulnerable (although attacks would require more resources on the side of the attacker). An analysis of an additional five social networks indicates that they are also prone to our attack.

News article. Moral: anonymity is really, really hard—but we knew that already.

Posted on March 8, 2010 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Anonymity and the Internet

Universal identification is portrayed by some as the holy grail of Internet security. Anonymity is bad, the argument goes; and if we abolish it, we can ensure only the proper people have access to their own information. We’ll know who is sending us spam and who is trying to hack into corporate networks. And when there are massive denial-of-service attacks, such as those against Estonia or Georgia or South Korea, we’ll know who was responsible and take action accordingly.

The problem is that it won’t work. Any design of the Internet must allow for anonymity. Universal identification is impossible. Even attribution—knowing who is responsible for particular Internet packets—is impossible. Attempting to build such a system is futile, and will only give criminals and hackers new ways to hide.

Imagine a magic world in which every Internet packet could be traced to its origin. Even in this world, our Internet security problems wouldn’t be solved. There’s a huge gap between proving that a packet came from a particular computer and that a packet was directed by a particular person. This is the exact problem we have with botnets, or pedophiles storing child porn on innocents’ computers. In these cases, we know the origins of the DDoS packets and the spam; they’re from legitimate machines that have been hacked. Attribution isn’t as valuable as you might think.

Implementing an Internet without anonymity is very difficult, and causes its own problems. In order to have perfect attribution, we’d need agencies—real-world organizations—to provide Internet identity credentials based on other identification systems: passports, national identity cards, driver’s licenses, whatever. Sloppier identification systems, based on things such as credit cards, are simply too easy to subvert. We have nothing that comes close to this global identification infrastructure. Moreover, centralizing information like this actually hurts security because it makes identity theft that much more profitable a crime.

And realistically, any theoretical ideal Internet would need to allow people access even without their magic credentials. People would still use the Internet at public kiosks and at friends’ houses. People would lose their magic Internet tokens just like they lose their driver’s licenses and passports today. The legitimate bypass mechanisms would allow even more ways for criminals and hackers to subvert the system.

On top of all this, the magic attribution technology doesn’t exist. Bits are bits; they don’t come with identity information attached to them. Every software system we’ve ever invented has been successfully hacked, repeatedly. We simply don’t have anywhere near the expertise to build an airtight attribution system.

Not that it really matters. Even if everyone could trace all packets perfectly, to the person or origin and not just the computer, anonymity would still be possible. It would just take one person to set up an anonymity server. If I wanted to send a packet anonymously to someone else, I’d just route it through that server. For even greater anonymity, I could route it through multiple servers. This is called onion routing and, with appropriate cryptography and enough users, it adds anonymity back to any communications system that prohibits it.

Attempts to banish anonymity from the Internet won’t affect those savvy enough to bypass it, would cost billions, and would have only a negligible effect on security. What such attempts would do is affect the average user’s access to free speech, including those who use the Internet’s anonymity to survive: dissidents in Iran, China, and elsewhere.

Mandating universal identity and attribution is the wrong goal. Accept that there will always be anonymous speech on the Internet. Accept that you’ll never truly know where a packet came from. Work on the problems you can solve: software that’s secure in the face of whatever packet it receives, identification systems that are secure enough in the face of the risks. We can do far better at these things than we’re doing, and they’ll do more to improve security than trying to fix insoluble problems.

The whole attribution problem is very similar to the copy-protection/digital-rights-management problem. Just as it’s impossible to make specific bits not copyable, it’s impossible to know where specific bits came from. Bits are bits. They don’t naturally come with restrictions on their use attached to them, and they don’t naturally come with author information attached to them. Any attempts to circumvent this limitation will fail, and will increasingly need to be backed up by the sort of real-world police-state measures that the entertainment industry is demanding in order to make copy-protection work. That’s how China does it: police, informants, and fear.

Just as the music industry needs to learn that the world of bits requires a different business model, law enforcement and others need to understand that the old ideas of identification don’t work on the Internet. For good or for bad, whether you like it or not, there’s always going to be anonymity on the Internet.

This essay originally appeared in Information Security, as part of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. You can read Marcus’s response below my essay.

EDITED TO ADD (2/5): Microsoft’s Craig Mundie wants to abolish anonymity as well.

What Mundie is proposing is to impose authentication. He draws an analogy to automobile use. If you want to drive a car, you have to have a license (not to mention an inspection, insurance, etc). If you do something bad with that car, like break a law, there is the chance that you will lose your license and be prevented from driving in the future. In other words, there is a legal and social process for imposing discipline. Mundie imagines three tiers of Internet ID: one for people, one for machines and one for programs (which often act as proxies for the other two).

Posted on February 3, 2010 at 6:16 AMView Comments

EFF on Locational Privacy

Excellent paper: “On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever.”

Some threats to locational privacy are overt: it’s evident how cameras backed by face-recognition software could be misused to track people and record their movements. In this document, we’re primarily concerned with threats to locational privacy that arise as a hidden side-effect of clearly useful location-based services.

We can’t stop the cascade of new location-based digital services. Nor would we want to—the benefits they offer are impressive. What urgently needs to change is that these systems need to be built with privacy as part of their original design. We can’t afford to have pervasive surveillance technology built into our electronic civic infrastructure by accident. We have the opportunity now to ensure that these dangers are averted.

Our contention is that the easiest and best solution to the locational privacy problem is to build systems which don’t collect the data in the first place. This sounds like an impossible requirement (how do we tell you when your friends are nearby without knowing where you and your friends are?) but in fact as we discuss below it is a reasonable objective that can be achieved with modern cryptographic techniques.

Modern cryptography actually allows civic data processing systems to be designed with a whole spectrum of privacy policies: ranging from complete anonymity to limited anonymity to support law enforcement. But we need to ensure that systems aren’t being built right at the zero-privacy, everything-is-recorded end of that spectrum, simply because that’s the path of easiest implementation.

I’ve already written about wholesale surveillance.

Posted on August 14, 2009 at 6:30 AMView Comments

Identifying People using Anonymous Social Networking Data


Computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Dr Vitaly Shmatikov, from the University of Texas at Austin, developed the algorithm which turned the anonymous data back into names and addresses.

The data sets are usually stripped of personally identifiable information, such as names, before it is sold to marketing companies or researchers keen to plumb it for useful information.

Before now, it was thought sufficient to remove this data to make sure that the true identities of subjects could not be reconstructed.

The algorithm developed by the pair looks at relationships between all the members of a social network—not just the immediate friends that members of these sites connect to.

Social graphs from Twitter, Flickr and Live Journal were used in the research.

The pair found that one third of those who are on both Flickr and Twitter can be identified from the completely anonymous Twitter graph. This is despite the fact that the overlap of members between the two services is thought to be about 15%.

The researchers suggest that as social network sites become more heavily used, then people will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a veil of anonymity.

More details:

In “De-anonymizing social networks,” Narayanan and Shmatikov take an anonymous graph of the social relationships established through Twitter and find that they can actually identify many Twitter accounts based on an entirely different data source—in this case, Flickr.

One-third of users with accounts on both services could be identified on Twitter based on their Flickr connections, even when the Twitter social graph being used was completely anonymous. The point, say the authors, is that “anonymity is not sufficient for privacy when dealing with social networks,” since their scheme relies only on a social network’s topology to make the identification.

The issue is of more than academic interest, as social networks now routinely release such anonymous social graphs to advertisers and third-party apps, and government and academic researchers ask for such data to conduct research. But the data isn’t nearly as “anonymous” as those releasing it appear to think it is, and it can easily be cross-referenced to other data sets to expose user identities.

It’s not just about Twitter, either. Twitter was a proof of concept, but the idea extends to any sort of social network: phone call records, healthcare records, academic sociological datasets, etc.

Here’s the paper.

Posted on April 6, 2009 at 6:51 AMView Comments

The Techniques for Distributing Child Porn

Fascinating history of an illegal industry:

Today’s schemes are technologically very demanding and extremely complex. It starts with the renting of computer servers in several countries. First the Carders are active to obtain the credit cards and client identities wrongfully. These data are then passed to the falsifiers who manufacture wonderful official documents so that they can be used to identify oneself. These identities and credit card infos are then sold as credit card kits to operators. There is still an alternative where no credit card is needed: in the U.S. one can buy so-called Visa or MasterCard gift cards. However, these with a certain amount of money charged Visa or MasterCard cards usually only usable in the U.S.. Since this anonymous gift cards to buy, these are used to over the Internet with fake identities to pay. Using a false identity and well-functioning credit card servers are then rented and domains purchased as an existing, unsuspecting person. Most of the time an ID is required and in that case they will simply send a forged document. There is yet another alternative: a payment system called WebMoney (webmoney.ru) that is in Eastern Europe as widespread as PayPal in Western Europe. Again, accounts are opened with false identities. Then the business is very simple in Eastern Europe: one buys domains and rents servers via WebMoney and uses it to pay.

As soon as the server is available, a qualified server admin connects to it via a chain of servers in various countries with the help of SSH on the new server. Today complete partitions are encrypted with TrueCrypt and all of the operating system logs are turned off. Because people consider the servers in Germany very reliable, fast and inexpensive, these are usually configured as HIDDEN CONTENT SERVERS. In other words, all the illegal files such as pictures, videos, etc. are uploaded on these servers – naturally via various proxies (and since you are still wondering what these proxies can be – I’ll explain that later). These servers are using firewalls, completely sealed and made inaccessible except by a few servers all over the world – so-called PROXY SERVERs or FORWARD SERVERs. If the server is shut down or Someone logs in from the console, the TrueCrypt partition is unmounted. Just as was done on the content servers, logs are turned off and TrueCrypt is installed on the so-called proxy servers or forward servers. The Russians have developed very clever software that can be used as a proxy server (in addition to the possibilities of SSL tunneling and IP Forwarding). These proxy servers accept incoming connections from the retail customers and route them to the content Servers in Germany – COMPLETELY ANONYMOUSLY AND UNIDENTIFIABLY. The communication link can even be configured to be encrypted. Result: the server in Germany ATTRACTS NO ATTENTION AND STAYS COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS because its IP is not used by anyone except for the proxy server that uses it to route the traffic back and forth through a tunnel – using similar technology as is used with large enterprise VPNs. I stress that these proxy servers are everywhere in the world and only consume a lot of traffic, have no special demands, and above all are completely empty.

Networks of servers around the world are also used at the DNS level. The DNS has many special features: the refresh times have a TTL (Time To Live) of approximately 10 minutes, the entries usually have multiple IP entries in the round robin procedure at each request and rotate the visitor to any of the forward proxy servers. But what is special are the different zones of the DNS linked with extensive GeoIP databases … Way, there are pedophiles in authorities and hosting providers, allowing the Russian server administrators access to valuable information about IP blocks etc. that can be used in conjuction with the DNA. Each one who has little technical knowledge will understabd the importance and implications of this… But what I have to report to you is much more significant than this, and maybe they will finally understand to what extent the public is cheated by the greedy politicians who CANNOT DO ANYTHING against child pornography but use it as a means to justify total monitoring.

Posted on March 11, 2009 at 5:49 AMView Comments

Defeating Caller ID Blocking

TrapCall is a new service that reveals the caller ID on anonymous or blocked calls:

TrapCall instructs new customers to reprogram their cellphones to send all rejected, missed and unanswered calls to TrapCall’s own toll-free number. If the user sees an incoming call with Caller ID blocked, he just presses the button on the phone that would normally send it to voicemail. The call invisibly loops through TelTech’s system, then back to the user’s phone, this time with the caller’s number displayed as the Caller ID.

There’s more:

In addition to the free service, branded Fly Trap, a $10-per-month upgrade called Mouse Trap provides human-created transcripts of voicemail messages, and in some cases uses text messaging to send you the name of the caller—information not normally available to wireless customers. Mouse Trap will also send you text messages with the numbers of people who call while your phone was powered off, even if they don’t leave a message.

With the $25-a-month Bear Trap upgrade, you can also automatically record your incoming calls, and get text messages with the billing name and street address of some of your callers, which TelTech says is derived from commercial databases.

Posted on February 26, 2009 at 12:53 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.