Entries Tagged "COVID-19"

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Me on COVID-19 Contact Tracing Apps

I was quoted in BuzzFeed:

“My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value,” Bruce Schneier, a privacy expert and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told BuzzFeed News. “I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns, I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? … This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.”

I haven’t blogged about this because I thought it was obvious. But from the tweets and emails I have received, it seems not.

This is a classic identification problem, and efficacy depends on two things: false positives and false negatives.

  • False positives: Any app will have a precise definition of a contact: let’s say it’s less than six feet for more than ten minutes. The false positive rate is the percentage of contacts that don’t result in transmissions. This will be because of several reasons. One, the app’s location and proximity systems — based on GPS and Bluetooth — just aren’t accurate enough to capture every contact. Two, the app won’t be aware of any extenuating circumstances, like walls or partitions. And three, not every contact results in transmission; the disease has some transmission rate that’s less than 100% (and I don’t know what that is).
  • False negatives: This is the rate the app fails to register a contact when an infection occurs. This also will be because of several reasons. One, errors in the app’s location and proximity systems. Two, transmissions that occur from people who don’t have the app (even Singapore didn’t get above a 20% adoption rate for the app). And three, not every transmission is a result of that precisely defined contact — the virus sometimes travels further.

Assume you take the app out grocery shopping with you and it subsequently alerts you of a contact. What should you do? It’s not accurate enough for you to quarantine yourself for two weeks. And without ubiquitous, cheap, fast, and accurate testing, you can’t confirm the app’s diagnosis. So the alert is useless.

Similarly, assume you take the app out grocery shopping and it doesn’t alert you of any contact. Are you in the clear? No, you’re not. You actually have no idea if you’ve been infected.

The end result is an app that doesn’t work. People will post their bad experiences on social media, and people will read those posts and realize that the app is not to be trusted. That loss of trust is even worse than having no app at all.

It has nothing to do with privacy concerns. The idea that contact tracing can be done with an app, and not human health professionals, is just plain dumb.

EDITED TO ADD: This Brookings essay makes much the same point.

EDITED TO ADD: This post has been translated into Spanish.

Posted on May 1, 2020 at 6:22 AMView Comments

Automatic Instacart Bots

Instacart is taking legal action against bots that automatically place orders:

Before it closed, to use Cartdash users first selected what items they want from Instacart as normal. Once that was done, they had to provide Cartdash with their Instacart email address, password, mobile number, tip amount, and whether they prefer the first available delivery slot or are more flexible. The tool then checked that their login credentials were correct, logged in, and refreshed the checkout page over and over again until a new delivery window appeared. It then placed the order, Koch explained.

I think I am writing a new book about hacking in general, and want to discuss this. First, does this count as a hack? I feel like it is, since it’s a way to subvert the Instacart ordering system.

When asked if this tool may give people an unfair advantage over those who don’t use the tool, Koch said, “at this point, it’s a matter of awareness, not technical ability, since people who can use Instacart can use Cartdash.” When pushed on how, realistically, not every user of Instacart is going to know about Cartdash, even after it may receive more attention, and the people using Cartdash will still have an advantage over people who aren’t using automated tools, Koch again said, “it’s a matter of awareness, not technical ability.”

Second, should Instacart take action against this? On the one hand, it isn’t “fair” in that Cartdash users get an advantage in finding a delivery slot. But it’s not really any different than programs that “snipe” on eBay and other bidding platforms.

Third, does Instacart even stand a chance in the long run. As various AI technologies give us more agents and bots, this is going to increasingly become the new normal. I think we need to figure out a fair allocation mechanism that doesn’t rely on the precise timing of submissions.

Posted on April 27, 2020 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Global Surveillance in the Wake of COVID-19

OneZero is tracking thirty countries around the world who are implementing surveillance programs in the wake of COVID-19:

The most common form of surveillance implemented to battle the pandemic is the use of smartphone location data, which can track population-level movement down to enforcing individual quarantines. Some governments are making apps that offer coronavirus health information, while also sharing location information with authorities for a period of time. For instance, in early March, the Iranian government released an app that it pitched as a self-diagnostic tool. While the tool’s efficacy was likely low, given reports of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, the app saved location data of millions of Iranians, according to a Vice report.

One of the most alarming measures being implemented is in Argentina, where those who are caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location. In Hong Kong, those arriving in the airport are given electronic tracking bracelets that must be synced to their home location through their smartphone’s GPS signal.

Posted on April 24, 2020 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Chinese COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign

The New York Times is reporting on state-sponsored disinformation campaigns coming out of China:

Since that wave of panic, United States intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms, according to six American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss intelligence matters. The amplification techniques are alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before.

Posted on April 23, 2020 at 12:01 PMView Comments

California Needlessly Reduces Privacy During COVID-19 Pandemic

This one isn’t even related to contact tracing:

On March 17, 2020, the federal government relaxed a number of telehealth-related regulatory requirements due to COVID-19. On April 3, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-43-20 (the Order), which relaxes various telehealth reporting requirements, penalties, and enforcements otherwise imposed under state laws, including those associated with unauthorized access and disclosure of personal information through telehealth mediums.

Lots of details at the link.

Posted on April 16, 2020 at 10:34 AMView Comments

Contact Tracing COVID-19 Infections via Smartphone Apps

Google and Apple have announced a joint project to create a privacy-preserving COVID-19 contact tracing app. (Details, such as we have them, are here.) It’s similar to the app being developed at MIT, and similar to others being described and developed elsewhere. It’s nice seeing the privacy protections; they’re well thought out.

I was going to write a long essay about the security and privacy concerns, but Ross Anderson beat me to it. (Note that some of his comments are UK-specific.)

First, it isn’t anonymous. Covid-19 is a notifiable disease so a doctor who diagnoses you must inform the public health authorities, and if they have the bandwidth they call you and ask who you’ve been in contact with. They then call your contacts in turn. It’s not about consent or anonymity, so much as being persuasive and having a good bedside manner.

I’m relaxed about doing all this under emergency public-health powers, since this will make it harder for intrusive systems to persist after the pandemic than if they have some privacy theater that can be used to argue that the whizzy new medi-panopticon is legal enough to be kept running.

Second, contact tracers have access to all sorts of other data such as public transport ticketing and credit-card records. This is how a contact tracer in Singapore is able to phone you and tell you that the taxi driver who took you yesterday from Orchard Road to Raffles has reported sick, so please put on a mask right now and go straight home. This must be controlled; Taiwan lets public-health staff access such material in emergencies only.

Third, you can’t wait for diagnoses. In the UK, you only get a test if you’re a VIP or if you get admitted to hospital. Even so the results take 1-3 days to come back. While the VIPs share their status on twitter or facebook, the other diagnosed patients are often too sick to operate their phones.

Fourth, the public health authorities need geographical data for purposes other than contact tracing – such as to tell the army where to build more field hospitals, and to plan shipments of scarce personal protective equipment. There are already apps that do symptom tracking but more would be better. So the UK app will ask for the first three characters of your postcode, which is about enough to locate which hospital you’d end up in.

Fifth, although the cryptographers – and now Google and Apple – are discussing more anonymous variants of the Singapore app, that’s not the problem. Anyone who’s worked on abuse will instantly realise that a voluntary app operated by anonymous actors is wide open to trolling. The performance art people will tie a phone to a dog and let it run around the park; the Russians will use the app to run service-denial attacks and spread panic; and little Johnny will self-report symptoms to get the whole school sent home.

I recommend reading his essay in full. Also worth reading are this EFF essay, and this ACLU white paper.

To me, the real problems aren’t around privacy and security. The efficacy of any app-based contact tracing is still unproven. A “contact” from the point of view of an app isn’t the same as an epidemiological contact. And the ratio of infections to contacts is high. We would have to deal with the false positives (being close to someone else, but separated by a partition or other barrier) and the false negatives (not being close to someone else, but contracting the disease through a mutually touched object). And without cheap, fast, and accurate testing, the information from any of these apps isn’t very useful. So I agree with Ross that this is primarily an exercise in that false syllogism: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it. It’s techies proposing tech solutions to what is primarily a social problem.

EDITED TO ADD: Susan Landau on contact tracing apps and how they’re being oversold. And Farzad Mostashari, former coordinator for health IT at the Department of Health and Human Services, on contact tracing apps.

As long as 1) every contact does not result in an infection, and 2) a large percentage of people with the disease are asymptomatic and don’t realize they have it, I can’t see how this sort of app is valuable. If we had cheap, fast, and accurate testing for everyone on demand…maybe. But I still don’t think so.

EDITED TO ADD (4/15): More details from Apple and Google.

EDITED TO ADD (4/19): Apple and Google have strengthened the security and privacy of their system.

Posted on April 13, 2020 at 6:48 AMView Comments

Cybersecurity During COVID-19

Three weeks ago (could it possibly be that long already?), I wrote about the increased risks of working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One, employees are working from their home networks and sometimes from their home computers. These systems are more likely to be out of date, unpatched, and unprotected. They are more vulnerable to attack simply because they are less secure.

Two, sensitive organizational data will likely migrate outside of the network. Employees working from home are going to save data on their own computers, where they aren’t protected by the organization’s security systems. This makes the data more likely to be hacked and stolen.

Three, employees are more likely to access their organizational networks insecurely. If the organization is lucky, they will have already set up a VPN for remote access. If not, they’re either trying to get one quickly or not bothering at all. Handing people VPN software to install and use with zero training is a recipe for security mistakes, but not using a VPN is even worse.

Four, employees are being asked to use new and unfamiliar tools like Zoom to replace face-to-face meetings. Again, these hastily set-up systems are likely to be insecure.

Five, the general chaos of “doing things differently” is an opening for attack. Tricks like business email compromise, where an employee gets a fake email from a senior executive asking him to transfer money to some account, will be more successful when the employee can’t walk down the hall to confirm the email’s validity — and when everyone is distracted and so many other things are being done differently.

NASA is reporting an increase in cyberattacks. From an agency memo:

A new wave of cyber-attacks is targeting Federal Agency Personnel, required to telework from home, during the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. During the past few weeks, NASA’s Security Operations Center (SOC) mitigation tools have prevented success of these attempts. Here are some examples of what’s been observed in the past few days:

  • Doubling of email phishing attempts
  • Exponential increase in malware attacks on NASA systems
  • Double the number of mitigation-blocking of NASA systems trying to access malicious sites (often unknowingly) due to users accessing the Internet

Here’s another article that makes basically the same points I did:

But the rapid shift to remote working will inevitably create or exacerbate gaps in security. Employees using unfamiliar software will get settings wrong and leave themselves open to breaches. Staff forced to use their own ageing laptops from home will find their data to be less secure than those using modern equipment.

That’s a big problem because the security issues are not going away. For the last couple of months coronavirus-themed malware and phishing scams have been on the rise. Business email compromise scams — where crooks impersonate a CEO or other senior staff member and then try to trick workers into sending money to their accounts — could be made easier if staff primarily rely on email to communicate while at home.

EDITED TO ADD: This post has been translated into Portuguese.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): A three-part series about home-office cybersecurity.

EDITED TO ADD: This post has been translated into Spanish.

Posted on April 7, 2020 at 10:00 AMView Comments

Privacy vs. Surveillance in the Age of COVID-19

The trade-offs are changing:

As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus ­ even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later.

I think the effects of COVID-19 will be more drastic than the effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: not only with respect to surveillance, but across many aspects of our society. And while many things that would never be acceptable during normal time are reasonable things to do right now, we need to makes sure we can ratchet them back once the current pandemic is over.

Cindy Cohn at EFF wrote:

We know that this virus requires us to take steps that would be unthinkable in normal times. Staying inside, limiting public gatherings, and cooperating with medically needed attempts to track the virus are, when approached properly, reasonable and responsible things to do. But we must be as vigilant as we are thoughtful. We must be sure that measures taken in the name of responding to COVID-19 are, in the language of international human rights law, “necessary and proportionate” to the needs of society in fighting the virus. Above all, we must make sure that these measures end and that the data collected for these purposes is not re-purposed for either governmental or commercial ends.

I worry that in our haste and fear, we will fail to do any of that.

More from EFF.

Posted on March 30, 2020 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Emergency Surveillance During COVID-19 Crisis

Israel is using emergency surveillance powers to track people who may have COVID-19, joining China and Iran in using mass surveillance in this way. I believe pressure will increase to leverage existing corporate surveillance infrastructure for these purposes in the US and other countries. With that in mind, the EFF has some good thinking on how to balance public safety with civil liberties:

Thus, any data collection and digital monitoring of potential carriers of COVID-19 should take into consideration and commit to these principles:

  • Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate. A program that collects, en masse, identifiable information about people must be scientifically justified and deemed necessary by public health experts for the purpose of containment. And that data processing must be proportionate to the need. For example, maintenance of 10 years of travel history of all people would not be proportionate to the need to contain a disease like COVID-19, which has a two-week incubation period.
  • Data collection based on science, not bias. Given the global scope of communicable diseases, there is historical precedent for improper government containment efforts driven by bias based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, and race­ — rather than facts about a particular individual’s actual likelihood of contracting the virus, such as their travel history or contact with potentially infected people. Today, we must ensure that any automated data systems used to contain COVID-19 do not erroneously identify members of specific demographic groups as particularly susceptible to infection.
  • Expiration. As in other major emergencies in the past, there is a hazard that the data surveillance infrastructure we build to contain COVID-19 may long outlive the crisis it was intended to address. The government and its corporate cooperators must roll back any invasive programs created in the name of public health after crisis has been contained.
  • Transparency. Any government use of “big data” to track virus spread must be clearly and quickly explained to the public. This includes publication of detailed information about the information being gathered, the retention period for the information, the tools used to process that information, the ways these tools guide public health decisions, and whether these tools have had any positive or negative outcomes.
  • Due Process. If the government seeks to limit a person’s rights based on this “big data” surveillance (for example, to quarantine them based on the system’s conclusions about their relationships or travel), then the person must have the opportunity to timely and fairly challenge these conclusions and limits.

Posted on March 20, 2020 at 6:25 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.