Entries Tagged "Facebook"

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Privacy and Control

In January Facebook Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, declared the age of privacy to be over. A month earlier, Google Chief Eric Schmidt expressed a similar sentiment. Add Scott McNealy’s and Larry Ellison’s comments from a few years earlier, and you’ve got a whole lot of tech CEOs proclaiming the death of privacy—especially when it comes to young people.

It’s just not true. People, including the younger generation, still care about privacy. Yes, they’re far more public on the Internet than their parents: writing personal details on Facebook, posting embarrassing photos on Flickr and having intimate conversations on Twitter. But they take steps to protect their privacy and vociferously complain when they feel it violated. They’re not technically sophisticated about privacy and make mistakes all the time, but that’s mostly the fault of companies and Web sites that try to manipulate them for financial gain.

To the older generation, privacy is about secrecy. And, as the Supreme Court said, once something is no longer secret, it’s no longer private. But that’s not how privacy works, and it’s not how the younger generation thinks about it. Privacy is about control. When your health records are sold to a pharmaceutical company without your permission; when a social-networking site changes your privacy settings to make what used to be visible only to your friends visible to everyone; when the NSA eavesdrops on everyone’s e-mail conversations—your loss of control over that information is the issue. We may not mind sharing our personal lives and thoughts, but we want to control how, where and with whom. A privacy failure is a control failure.

People’s relationship with privacy is socially complicated. Salience matters: People are more likely to protect their privacy if they’re thinking about it, and less likely to if they’re thinking about something else. Social-networking sites know this, constantly reminding people about how much fun it is to share photos and comments and conversations while downplaying the privacy risks. Some sites go even further, deliberately hiding information about how little control—and privacy—users have over their data. We all give up our privacy when we’re not thinking about it.

Group behavior matters; we’re more likely to expose personal information when our peers are doing it. We object more to losing privacy than we value its return once it’s gone. Even if we don’t have control over our data, an illusion of control reassures us. And we are poor judges of risk. All sorts of academic research backs up these findings.

Here’s the problem: The very companies whose CEOs eulogize privacy make their money by controlling vast amounts of their users’ information. Whether through targeted advertising, cross-selling or simply convincing their users to spend more time on their site and sign up their friends, more information shared in more ways, more publicly means more profits. This means these companies are motivated to continually ratchet down the privacy of their services, while at the same time pronouncing privacy erosions as inevitable and giving users the illusion of control.

You can see these forces in play with Google‘s launch of Buzz. Buzz is a Twitter-like chatting service, and when Google launched it in February, the defaults were set so people would follow the people they corresponded with frequently in Gmail, with the list publicly available. Yes, users could change these options, but—and Google knew this—changing options is hard and most people accept the defaults, especially when they’re trying out something new. People were upset that their previously private e-mail contacts list was suddenly public. A Federal Trade Commission commissioner even threatened penalties. And though Google changed its defaults, resentment remained.

Facebook tried a similar control grab when it changed people’s default privacy settings last December to make them more public. While users could, in theory, keep their previous settings, it took an effort. Many people just wanted to chat with their friends and clicked through the new defaults without realizing it.

Facebook has a history of this sort of thing. In 2006 it introduced News Feeds, which changed the way people viewed information about their friends. There was no true privacy change in that users could not see more information than before; the change was in control—or arguably, just in the illusion of control. Still, there was a large uproar. And Facebook is doing it again; last month, the company announced new privacy changes that will make it easier for it to collect location data on users and sell that data to third parties.

With all this privacy erosion, those CEOs may actually be right—but only because they’re working to kill privacy. On the Internet, our privacy options are limited to the options those companies give us and how easy they are to find. We have Gmail and Facebook accounts because that’s where we socialize these days, and it’s hard—especially for the younger generation—to opt out. As long as privacy isn’t salient, and as long as these companies are allowed to forcibly change social norms by limiting options, people will increasingly get used to less and less privacy. There’s no malice on anyone’s part here; it’s just market forces in action. If we believe privacy is a social good, something necessary for democracy, liberty and human dignity, then we can’t rely on market forces to maintain it. Broad legislation protecting personal privacy by giving people control over their personal data is the only solution.

This essay originally appeared on Forbes.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): Google responds. And another essay on the topic.

Posted on April 6, 2010 at 7:47 AMView Comments

Guide to Microsoft Police Forensic Services

The “Microsoft Online Services Global Criminal Compliance Handbook (U.S. Domestic Version)” (also can be found here, here, and here) outlines exactly what Microsoft will do upon police request. Here’s a good summary of what’s in it:

The Global Criminal Compliance Handbook is a quasi-comprehensive explanatory document meant for law enforcement officials seeking access to Microsoft’s stored user information. It also provides sample language for subpoenas and diagrams on how to understand server logs.

I call it “quasi-comprehensive” because, at a mere 22 pages, it doesn’t explore the nitty-gritty of Microsoft’s systems; it’s more like a data-hunting guide for dummies.

When it was first leaked, Microsoft tried to scrub it from the Internet. But they quickly realized that it was futile and relented.

Lots more information.

Posted on March 9, 2010 at 6:59 AMView 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

Privacy Violations by Facebook Employees

I don’t know if this is real, but it seems perfectly reasonable that all of Facebook is stored in a huge database that someone with the proper permissions can access and modify. And it also makes sense that developers and others would need the ability to assume anyone’s identity.

Rumpus: You’ve previously mentioned a master password, which you no longer use.

Employee: I’m not sure when exactly it was deprecated, but we did have a master password at one point where you could type in any user’s user ID, and then the password. I’m not going to give you the exact password, but with upper and lower case, symbols, numbers, all of the above, it spelled out ‘Chuck Norris,’ more or less. It was pretty fantastic.

Rumpus: This was accessible by any Facebook employee?

Employee: Technically, yes. But it was pretty much limited to the original engineers, who were basically the only people who knew about it. It wasn’t as if random people in Human Resources were using this password to log into profiles. It was made and designed for engineering reasons. But it was there, and any employee could find it if they knew where to look.

I should also say that it was only available internally. If I were to log in from a high school or library, I couldn’t use it. You had to be in the Facebook office, using the Facebook ISP.

Rumpus: Do you think Facebook employees ever abused the privilege of having universal access?

Employee: I know it has happened in the past, because at least two people have been fired for it that I know of.

[…]

Employee: See, the thing is—and I don’t know how much you know about it—it’s all stored in a database on the backend. Literally everything. Your messages are stored in a database, whether deleted or not. So we can just query the database, and easily look at it without every logging into your account. That’s what most people don’t understand.

Rumpus: So the master password is basically irrelevant.

Employee: Yeah.

Rumpus: It’s just for style.

Employee: Right. But it’s no longer in use. Like I alluded to, we’ve cracked down on this lately, but it has been replaced by a pretty cool tool. If I visited your profile, for example, on our closed network, there’s a ‘switch login’ button. I literally just click it, explain why I’m logging in as you, click ‘OK,’ and I’m you. You can do it as long as you have an explanation, because you’d better be able to back it up. For example, if you’re investigating a compromised account, you have to actually be able to log into that account.

Rumpus: Are your managers really on your ass about it every time you log in as someone else?

Employee: No, but if it comes up, you’d better be able to justify it. Or you will be fired.

Rumpus: What did they do?

Employee: I know one of them went in and manipulated some other person’s data, changed their religious views or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he got reported, got found out, got fired.

Posted on January 19, 2010 at 11:25 AMView Comments

Helpful Hint for Fugitives: Don't Update Your Location on Facebook

Fugitive caught after updating his status on Facebook.”

Investigators scoured social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace but initially could find no trace of him and were unable to pin down his location in Mexico.

Several months later, a secret service agent, Seth Reeg, checked Facebook again and up popped MaxiSopo. His photo showed him partying in front of a backdrop featuring logos of BMW and Courvoisier cognac, sporting a black jacket adorned with a not-so-subtle white lion.

Although Sopo’s profile was set to private, his list of friends was not. Scoville started combing through it and was surprised to see that one friend listed an affiliation with the justice department. He sent a message requesting a phone call.

“We figured this was a person we could probably trust to keep our inquiry discreet,” Scoville said.

Proving the 2.0 adage that a friend on Facebook is rarely a friend indeed, the former official said he had met Sopo in Cancun’s nightclubs a few times, but did not really know him and had no idea he was a fugitive. The official learned where Sopo was living and passed that information back to Scoville, who provided it to Mexican authorities. They arrested Sopo last month.

It’s easy to say “so dumb,” and it would be true, but what’s interesting is how people just don’t think through the privacy implications of putting their information on the Internet. Facebook is how we interact with friends, and we think of it in the frame of interacting with friends. We don’t think that our employers might be looking—they’re not our friends!—that the information will be around forever, or that it might be abused. Privacy isn’t salient; chatting with friends is.

Posted on October 19, 2009 at 7:55 AMView Comments

Predicting Characteristics of People by the Company they Keep

Turns out “gaydar” can be automated:

Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by the virtual company they keep.

This sort of thing can be generalized:

The work has not been published in a scientific journal, but it provides a provocative warning note about privacy. Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public. Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.

EDITED TO ADD (9/29): Better information from the MIT Newspaper.

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 7:13 AMView Comments

File Deletion

File deletion is all about control. This used to not be an issue. Your data was on your computer, and you decided when and how to delete a file. You could use the delete function if you didn’t care about whether the file could be recovered or not, and a file erase program—I use BCWipe for Windows—if you wanted to ensure no one could ever recover the file.

As we move more of our data onto cloud computing platforms such as Gmail and Facebook, and closed proprietary platforms such as the Kindle and the iPhone, deleting data is much harder.

You have to trust that these companies will delete your data when you ask them to, but they’re generally not interested in doing so. Sites like these are more likely to make your data inaccessible than they are to physically delete it. Facebook is a known culprit: actually deleting your data from its servers requires a complicated procedure that may or may not work. And even if you do manage to delete your data, copies are certain to remain in the companies’ backup systems. Gmail explicitly says this in its privacy notice.

Online backups, SMS messages, photos on photo sharing sites, smartphone applications that store your data in the network: you have no idea what really happens when you delete pieces of data or your entire account, because you’re not in control of the computers that are storing the data.

This notion of control also explains how Amazon was able to delete a book that people had previously purchased on their Kindle e-book readers. The legalities are debatable, but Amazon had the technical ability to delete the file because it controls all Kindles. It has designed the Kindle so that it determines when to update the software, whether people are allowed to buy Kindle books, and when to turn off people’s Kindles entirely.

Vanish is a research project by Roxana Geambasu and colleagues at the University of Washington. They designed a prototype system that automatically deletes data after a set time interval. So you can send an email, create a Google Doc, post an update to Facebook, or upload a photo to Flickr, all designed to disappear after a set period of time. And after it disappears, no one—not anyone who downloaded the data, not the site that hosted the data, not anyone who intercepted the data in transit, not even you—will be able to read it. If the police arrive at Facebook or Google or Flickr with a warrant, they won’t be able to read it.

The details are complicated, but Vanish breaks the data’s decryption key into a bunch of pieces and scatters them around the web using a peer-to-peer network. Then it uses the natural turnover in these networks—machines constantly join and leave—to make the data disappear. Unlike previous programs that supported file deletion, this one doesn’t require you to trust any company, organisation, or website. It just happens.

Of course, Vanish doesn’t prevent the recipient of an email or the reader of a Facebook page from copying the data and pasting it into another file, just as Kindle’s deletion feature doesn’t prevent people from copying a book’s files and saving them on their computers. Vanish is just a prototype at this point, and it only works if all the people who read your Facebook entries or view your Flickr pictures have it installed on their computers as well; but it’s a good demonstration of how control affects file deletion. And while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s also new and therefore deserves further security analysis before being adopted on a wide scale.

We’ve lost the control of data on some of the computers we own, and we’ve lost control of our data in the cloud. We’re not going to stop using Facebook and Twitter just because they’re not going to delete our data when we ask them to, and we’re not going to stop using Kindles and iPhones because they may delete our data when we don’t want them to. But we need to take back control of data in the cloud, and projects like Vanish show us how we can.

Now we need something that will protect our data when a large corporation decides to delete it.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

EDITED TO ADD (9/30): Vanish has been broken, paper here.

Posted on September 10, 2009 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Privacy Salience and Social Networking Sites

Reassuring people about privacy makes them more, not less, concerned. It’s called “privacy salience,” and Leslie John, Alessandro Acquisti, and George Loewenstein—all at Carnegie Mellon University—demonstrated this in a series of clever experiments. In one, subjects completed an online survey consisting of a series of questions about their academic behavior—”Have you ever cheated on an exam?” for example. Half of the subjects were first required to sign a consent warning—designed to make privacy concerns more salient—while the other half did not. Also, subjects were randomly assigned to receive either a privacy confidentiality assurance, or no such assurance. When the privacy concern was made salient (through the consent warning), people reacted negatively to the subsequent confidentiality assurance and were less likely to reveal personal information.

In another experiment, subjects completed an online survey where they were asked a series of personal questions, such as “Have you ever tried cocaine?” Half of the subjects completed a frivolous-looking survey—”How BAD are U??”—with a picture of a cute devil. The other half completed the same survey with the title “Carnegie Mellon University Survey of Ethical Standards,” complete with a university seal and official privacy assurances. The results showed that people who were reminded about privacy were less likely to reveal personal information than those who were not.

Privacy salience does a lot to explain social networking sites and their attitudes towards privacy. From a business perspective, social networking sites don’t want their members to exercise their privacy rights very much. They want members to be comfortable disclosing a lot of data about themselves.

Joseph Bonneau and Soeren Preibusch of Cambridge University have been studying privacy on 45 popular social networking sites around the world. (You may not have realized that there are 45 popular social networking sites around the world.) They found that privacy settings were often confusing and hard to access; Facebook, with its 61 privacy settings, is the worst. To understand some of the settings, they had to create accounts with different settings so they could compare the results. Privacy tends to increase with the age and popularity of a site. General-use sites tend to have more privacy features than niche sites.

But their most interesting finding was that sites consistently hide any mentions of privacy. Their splash pages talk about connecting with friends, meeting new people, sharing pictures: the benefits of disclosing personal data.

These sites do talk about privacy, but only on hard-to-find privacy policy pages. There, the sites give strong reassurances about their privacy controls and the safety of data members choose to disclose on the site. There, the sites display third-party privacy seals and other icons designed to assuage any fears members have.

It’s the Carnegie Mellon experimental result in the real world. Users care about privacy, but don’t really think about it day to day. The social networking sites don’t want to remind users about privacy, even if they talk about it positively, because any reminder will result in users remembering their privacy fears and becoming more cautious about sharing personal data. But the sites also need to reassure those “privacy fundamentalists” for whom privacy is always salient, so they have very strong pro-privacy rhetoric for those who take the time to search them out. The two different marketing messages are for two different audiences.

Social networking sites are improving their privacy controls as a result of public pressure. At the same time, there is a counterbalancing business pressure to decrease privacy; watch what’s going on right now on Facebook, for example. Naively, we should expect companies to make their privacy policies clear to allow customers to make an informed choice. But the marketing need to reduce privacy salience will frustrate market solutions to improve privacy; sites would much rather obfuscate the issue than compete on it as a feature.

This essay originally appeared in the Guardian.

Posted on July 16, 2009 at 6:05 AMView Comments

Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (8)

The penultimate session of the conference was “Privacy,” moderated by Tyler Moore.

Alessandro Acquisti, Carnegie Mellon University (suggested reading: What Can Behavioral Economics Teach Us About Privacy?; Privacy in Electronic Commerce and the Economics of Immediate Gratification), presented research on how people value their privacy. He started by listing a variety of cognitive biases that affect privacy decisions: illusion of control, overconfidence, optimism bias, endowment effect, and so on. He discussed two experiments. The first demonstrated a “herding effect”: if a subject believes that others reveal sensitive behavior, the subject is more likely to also reveal sensitive behavior. The second examined the “frog effect”: do privacy intrusions alert or desensitize people to revealing personal information? What he found is that people tend to set their privacy level at the beginning of a survey, and don’t respond well to being asked easy questions at first and then sensitive questions at the end. In the discussion, Joe Bonneau asked him about the notion that people’s privacy protections tend to ratchet up over time; he didn’t have conclusive evidence, but gave several possible explanations for the phenomenon.

Adam Joinson, University of Bath (suggested reading: Privacy, Trust and Self-Disclosure Online; Privacy concerns and privacy actions), also studies how people value their privacy. He talked about expressive privacy—privacy that allows people to express themselves and form interpersonal relationships. His research showed that differences between how people use Facebook in different countries depend on how much people trust Facebook as a company, rather than how much people trust other Facebook users. Another study looked at posts from Secret Tweet and Twitter. He found 16 markers that allowed him to automatically determine which tweets contain sensitive personal information and which do not, with high probability. Then he tried to determine if people with large Twitter followings post fewer secrets than people who are only twittering to a few people. He found absolutely no difference.

Peter Neumann, SRI (suggested reading: Holistic systems; Risks; Identity and Trust in Context), talked about lack of medical privacy (too many people have access to your data), about voting (the privacy problem makes the voting problem a lot harder, and the end-to-end voting security/privacy problem is much harder than just securing voting machines), and privacy in China (the government is requiring all computers sold in China to be sold with software allowing them to eavesdrop on the users). Any would-be solution needs to reflect the ubiquity of the threat. When we design systems, we need to anticipate what the privacy problems will be. Privacy problems are everywhere you look, and ordinary people have no idea of the depth of the problem.

Eric Johnson, Dartmouth College (suggested reading: Access Flexibility with Escalation and Audit; Security through Information Risk Management), studies the information access problem from a business perspective. He’s been doing field studies in companies like retail banks and investment banks, and found that role-based access control fails because companies can’t determine who has what role. Even worse, roles change quickly, especially in large complex organizations. For example, one business group of 3000 people experiences 1000 role changes within three months. The result is that organizations do access control badly, either over-entitling or under-entitling people. But since getting the job done is the most important thing, organizations tend to over-entitle: give people more access than they need. His current work is to find the right set of incentives and controls to set access more properly. The challege is to do this without making people risk averse. In the discussion, he agreed that a perfect access control system is not possible, and that organizations should probably allow a certain amount of access control violations—similar to the idea of posting a 55 mph speed limit but not ticketing people unless they go over 70 mph.

Christine Jolls, Yale Law School (suggested reading: Rationality and Consent in Privacy Law, Employee Privacy), made the point that people regularly share their most private information with their intimates—so privacy is not about secrecy, it’s more about control. There are moments when people make pretty big privacy decisions. For example, they grant employers the rights to monitor their e-mail, or test their urine without notice. In general, courts hold that blanket signing away of privacy rights—”you can test my urine on any day in the future”—are not valid, but immediate signing away of privacy of privacy rights—”you can test my urine today”—are. Jolls believes that this is reasonable for several reasons, such as optimism bias and an overfocus on the present at the expense of the future. Without realizing it, the courts have implemented the system that behavioral economics would find optimal. During the discussion, she talked about how coercion figures into this; the U.S. legal system tends not to be concerned with it.

Andrew Adams, University of Reading (suggested reading: Regulating CCTV), also looks at attitudes of privacy on social networking services. His results are preliminary, and based on interviews with university students in Canada, Japan, and the UK, and are very concordant with what danah boyd and Joe Bonneau said earlier. From the UK: People join social networking sites to increase their level of interaction with people they already know in real life. Revealing personal information is okay, but revealing too much is bad. Even more interestingly, it’s not okay to reveal more about others than they reveal themselves. From Japan: People are more open to making friends online. There’s more anonymity. It’s not okay to reveal information about others, but “the fault of this lies as much with the person whose data was revealed in not choosing friends wisely.” This victim responsibility is a common theme with other privacy and security elements in Japan. Data from Canada is still being compiled.

Great phrase: the “laundry belt”—close enough for students to go home on weekends with their laundry, but far enough away so they don’t feel as if their parents are looking over their shoulder—typically two hours by public transportation (in the UK).

Adam Shostack’s liveblogging is here. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments. Matt Blaze’s audio is here.

Posted on June 12, 2009 at 3:01 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.