Entries Tagged "Google"

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Click Fraud and the Problem of Authenticating People

Google’s $6 billion-a-year advertising business is at risk because it can’t be sure that anyone is looking at its ads. The problem is called click fraud, and it comes in two basic flavors.

With network click fraud, you host Google AdSense advertisements on your own website. Google pays you every time someone clicks on its ad on your site. It’s fraud if you sit at the computer and repeatedly click on the ad or—better yet—write a computer program that repeatedly clicks on the ad. That kind of fraud is easy for Google to spot, so the clever network click fraudsters simulate different IP addresses, or install Trojan horses on other people’s computers to generate the fake clicks.

The other kind of click fraud is competitive. You notice your business competitor has bought an ad on Google, paying Google for each click. So you use the above techniques to repeatedly click on his ads, forcing him to spend money—sometimes a lot of money—on nothing. (Here’s a company that will commit click fraud for you.)

Click fraud has become a classic security arms race. Google improves its fraud-detection tools, so the fraudsters get increasingly clever … and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, Google is facing multiple lawsuits from those who claim the company isn’t doing enough. My guess is that everyone is right: It’s in Google’s interest both to solve and to downplay the importance of the problem.

But the overarching problem is both hard to solve and important: How do you tell if there’s an actual person sitting in front of a computer screen? How do you tell that the person is paying attention, hasn’t automated his responses, and isn’t being assisted by friends? Authentication systems are big business, whether based on something you know (passwords), something you have (tokens) or something you are (biometrics). But none of those systems can secure you against someone who walks away and lets another person sit down at the keyboard, or a computer that’s infected with a Trojan.

This problem manifests itself in other areas as well.

For years, online computer game companies have been battling players who use computer programs to assist their play: programs that allow them to shoot perfectly or see information they normally couldn’t see.

Playing is less fun if everyone else is computer-assisted, but unless there’s a cash prize on the line, the stakes are small. Not so with online poker sites, where computer-assisted players—or even computers playing without a real person at all—have the potential to drive all the human players away from the game.

Look around the internet, and you see this problem pop up again and again. The whole point of CAPTCHAs is to ensure that it’s a real person visiting a website, not just a bot on a computer. Standard testing doesn’t work online, because the tester can’t be sure that the test taker doesn’t have his book open, or a friend standing over his shoulder helping him. The solution in both cases is a proctor, of course, but that’s not always practical and obviates the benefits of internet testing.

This problem has even come up in court cases. In one instance, the prosecution demonstrated that the defendant’s computer committed some hacking offense, but the defense argued that it wasn’t the defendant who did it—that someone else was controlling his computer. And in another case, a defendant charged with a child porn offense argued that, while it was true that illegal material was on his computer, his computer was in a common room of his house and he hosted a lot of parties—and it wasn’t him who’d downloaded the porn.

Years ago, talking about security, I complained about the link between computer and chair. The easy part is securing digital information: on the desktop computer, in transit from computer to computer or on massive servers. The hard part is securing information from the computer to the person. Likewise, authenticating a computer is much easier than authenticating a person sitting in front of the computer. And verifying the integrity of data is much easier than verifying the integrity of the person looking at it—in both senses of that word.

And it’s a problem that will get worse as computers get better at imitating people.

Google is testing a new advertising model to deal with click fraud: cost-per-action ads. Advertisers don’t pay unless the customer performs a certain action: buys a product, fills out a survey, whatever. It’s a hard model to make work—Google would become more of a partner in the final sale instead of an indifferent displayer of advertising—but it’s the right security response to click fraud: Change the rules of the game so that click fraud doesn’t matter.

That’s how to solve a security problem.

This essay appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Click Monkeys is a hoax site.

EDITED TO ADD (7/25): An evalution of Google’s anti-click-fraud efforts, as part of the Lane Gifts case. I’m not sure if this expert report was done for Google, for Lane Gifts, or for the judge.

Posted on July 13, 2006 at 5:22 AMView Comments

Googling for Covert CIA Agents

It’s easy to blow the cover of CIA agents using the Internet:

The CIA asked the Tribune not to publish her name because she is a covert operative, and the newspaper agreed. But unbeknown to the CIA, her affiliation and those of hundreds of men and women like her have somehow become a matter of public record, thanks to the Internet.

When the Tribune searched a commercial online data service, the result was a virtual directory of more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal agency telephone numbers and the locations of some two dozen secret CIA facilities around the United States.

Only recently has the CIA recognized that in the Internet age its traditional system of providing cover for clandestine employees working overseas is fraught with holes, a discovery that is said to have “horrified” CIA Director Porter Goss.

Seems to be serious:

Not all of the 2,653 employees whose names were produced by the Tribune search are supposed to be working under cover. More than 160 are intelligence analysts, an occupation that is not considered a covert position, and senior CIA executives such as Tenet are included on the list.

Covert employees discovered

But an undisclosed number of those on the list—the CIA would not say how many—are covert employees, and some are known to hold jobs that could make them terrorist targets.

Other potential targets include at least some of the two dozen CIA facilities uncovered by the Tribune search. Most are in northern Virginia, within a few miles of the agency’s headquarters. Several are in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington state. There is one in Chicago.

Some are heavily guarded. Others appear to be unguarded private residences that bear no outward indication of any affiliation with the CIA.

A senior U.S. official, reacting to the computer searches that produced the names and addresses, said, “I don’t know whether Al Qaeda could do this, but the Chinese could.”

There are more articles.

Posted on March 13, 2006 at 11:02 AMView Comments

The Future of Privacy

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a sea change in the battle for personal privacy.

The pervasiveness of computers has resulted in the almost constant surveillance of everyone, with profound implications for our society and our freedoms. Corporations and the police are both using this new trove of surveillance data. We as a society need to understand the technological trends and discuss their implications. If we ignore the problem and leave it to the “market,” we’ll all find that we have almost no privacy left.

Most people think of surveillance in terms of police procedure: Follow that car, watch that person, listen in on his phone conversations. This kind of surveillance still occurs. But today’s surveillance is more like the NSA’s model, recently turned against Americans: Eavesdrop on every phone call, listening for certain keywords. It’s still surveillance, but it’s wholesale surveillance.

Wholesale surveillance is a whole new world. It’s not “follow that car,” it’s “follow every car.” The National Security Agency can eavesdrop on every phone call, looking for patterns of communication or keywords that might indicate a conversation between terrorists. Many airports collect the license plates of every car in their parking lots, and can use that database to locate suspicious or abandoned cars. Several cities have stationary or car-mounted license-plate scanners that keep records of every car that passes, and save that data for later analysis.

More and more, we leave a trail of electronic footprints as we go through our daily lives. We used to walk into a bookstore, browse, and buy a book with cash. Now we visit Amazon, and all of our browsing and purchases are recorded. We used to throw a quarter in a toll booth; now EZ Pass records the date and time our car passed through the booth. Data about us are collected when we make a phone call, send an e-mail message, make a purchase with our credit card, or visit a website.

Much has been written about RFID chips and how they can be used to track people. People can also be tracked by their cell phones, their Bluetooth devices, and their WiFi-enabled computers. In some cities, video cameras capture our image hundreds of times a day.

The common thread here is computers. Computers are involved more and more in our transactions, and data are byproducts of these transactions. As computer memory becomes cheaper, more and more of these electronic footprints are being saved. And as processing becomes cheaper, more and more of it is being cross-indexed and correlated, and then used for secondary purposes.

Information about us has value. It has value to the police, but it also has value to corporations. The Justice Department wants details of Google searches, so they can look for patterns that might help find child pornographers. Google uses that same data so it can deliver context-sensitive advertising messages. The city of Baltimore uses aerial photography to surveil every house, looking for building permit violations. A national lawn-care company uses the same data to better market its services. The phone company keeps detailed call records for billing purposes; the police use them to catch bad guys.

In the dot-com bust, the customer database was often the only salable asset a company had. Companies like Experian and Acxiom are in the business of buying and reselling this sort of data, and their customers are both corporate and government.

Computers are getting smaller and cheaper every year, and these trends will continue. Here’s just one example of the digital footprints we leave:

It would take about 100 megabytes of storage to record everything the fastest typist input to his computer in a year. That’s a single flash memory chip today, and one could imagine computer manufacturers offering this as a reliability feature. Recording everything the average user does on the Internet requires more memory: 4 to 8 gigabytes a year. That’s a lot, but “record everything” is Gmail’s model, and it’s probably only a few years before ISPs offer this service.

The typical person uses 500 cell phone minutes a month; that translates to 5 gigabytes a year to save it all. My iPod can store 12 times that data. A “life recorder” you can wear on your lapel that constantly records is still a few generations off: 200 gigabytes/year for audio and 700 gigabytes/year for video. It’ll be sold as a security device, so that no one can attack you without being recorded. When that happens, will not wearing a life recorder be used as evidence that someone is up to no good, just as prosecutors today use the fact that someone left his cell phone at home as evidence that he didn’t want to be tracked?

In a sense, we’re living in a unique time in history. Identification checks are common, but they still require us to whip out our ID. Soon it’ll happen automatically, either through an RFID chip in our wallet or face-recognition from cameras. And those cameras, now visible, will shrink to the point where we won’t even see them.

We’re never going to stop the march of technology, but we can enact legislation to protect our privacy: comprehensive laws regulating what can be done with personal information about us, and more privacy protection from the police. Today, personal information about you is not yours; it’s owned by the collector. There are laws protecting specific pieces of personal data—videotape rental records, health care information—but nothing like the broad privacy protection laws you find in European countries. That’s really the only solution; leaving the market to sort this out will result in even more invasive wholesale surveillance.

Most of us are happy to give out personal information in exchange for specific services. What we object to is the surreptitious collection of personal information, and the secondary use of information once it’s collected: the buying and selling of our information behind our back.

In some ways, this tidal wave of data is the pollution problem of the information age. All information processes produce it. If we ignore the problem, it will stay around forever. And the only way to successfully deal with it is to pass laws regulating its generation, use and eventual disposal.

This essay was originally published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Posted on March 6, 2006 at 5:41 AMView Comments

Google and Privacy

Daniel Solove on Google and privacy:

A New York Times editorial observes:

At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words “neck” and “snap.” The data were taken from the defendant’s computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which—unbeknownst to many users—keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.

This is an interesting fact—Google keeps records of every search in a way that can be traceable to individuals. The op-ed goes on to say:

Google has been aggressive about collecting information about its users’ activities online. It stores their search data, possibly forever, and puts “cookies” on their computers that make it possible to track those searches in a personally identifiable way—cookies that do not expire until 2038. Its e-mail system, Gmail, scans the content of e-mail messages so relevant ads can be posted. Google’s written privacy policy reserves the right to pool what it learns about users from their searches with what it learns from their e-mail messages, though Google says it won’t do so. . . .

The government can gain access to Google’s data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. . . .

This is an important point. No matter what Google’s privacy policy says, the fact that it maintains information about people’s search activity enables the government to gather that data, often with a mere subpoena, which provides virtually no protection to privacy—and sometimes without even a subpoena.

Solove goes on to argue that if companies like Google want to collect people’s data (even if people are willing to supply it), the least they can do is fight for greater protections against government access to that data. While this won’t address all the problems, it would be a step forward to see companies like Google use their power to foster meaningful legislative change.

EDITED TO ADD (12/3): Here’s an op ed from The Boston Globe on the same topic.

Posted on November 30, 2005 at 3:08 PMView Comments

Searching Google for Unpublished Data

We all know that Google can be used to find all sorts of sensitive data, but here’s a new twist on that:

A Spanish astronomer has admitted he accessed internet telescope logs of another astronomer’s observations of a giant object orbiting beyond Neptune ­but denies doing anything wrong.

Jose-Luis Ortiz of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada told New Scientist that it was “perfectly legitimate” because he found the logs on a publicly available website via a Google search. But Mike Brown, the Caltech astronomer whose logs Ortiz uncovered, claims that accessing the information was at least “unethical” and may, if Ortiz misused the data, have crossed the line into scientific fraud.

Posted on September 23, 2005 at 1:43 PMView Comments

Eric Schmidt on Secrecy and Security

From Information Week:

InformationWeek: What about security? Have you been paying as much attention to security as, say Microsoft—you can debate whether or not they’ve been successful, but they’ve poured a lot of resources into it.

Schmidt: More people to a bad architecture does not necessarily make a more secure system. Why don’t you define security so I can answer your question better?

InformationWeek: I suppose it’s an issue of making the technology transparent enough that people can deploy it with confidence.

Schmidt: Transparency is not necessarily the only way you achieve security. For example, part of the encryption algorithms are not typically made available to the open source community, because you don’t want people discovering flaws in the encryption.

Actually, he’s wrong. Everything about an encryption algorithm should always be made available to everyone, because otherwise you’ll invariably have exploitable flaws in your encryption.

My essay on the topic is here.

Posted on May 31, 2005 at 1:09 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.