Entries Tagged "GPS"

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The US Military Buys Commercial Location Data

Vice has a long article about how the US military buys commercial location data worldwide.

The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.

This isn’t new, this isn’t just data of non-US citizens, and this isn’t the US military. We have lots of instances where the government buys data that it cannot legally collect itself.

Some app developers Motherboard spoke to were not aware who their users’ location data ends up with, and even if a user examines an app’s privacy policy, they may not ultimately realize how many different industries, companies, or government agencies are buying some of their most sensitive data. U.S. law enforcement purchase of such information has raised questions about authorities buying their way to location data that may ordinarily require a warrant to access. But the USSOCOM contract and additional reporting is the first evidence that U.S. location data purchases have extended from law enforcement to military agencies.

Posted on November 19, 2020 at 9:37 AMView Comments

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

GPS Manipulation

Long article on the manipulation of GPS in Shanghai. It seems not to be some Chinese military program, but ships who are stealing sand.

The Shanghai “crop circles,” which somehow spoof each vessel to a different false location, are something new. “I’m still puzzled by this,” says Humphreys. “I can’t get it to work out in the math. It’s an interesting mystery.” It’s also a mystery that raises the possibility of potentially deadly accidents.

“Captains and pilots have become very dependent on GPS, because it has been historically very reliable,” says Humphreys. “If it claims to be working, they rely on it and don’t double-check it all that much.”

On June 5 this year, the Run 5678, a river cargo ship, tried to overtake a smaller craft on the Huangpu, about five miles south of the Bund. The Run avoided the small ship but plowed right into the New Glory (Chinese name: Tong Yang Jingrui), a freighter heading north.

Boing Boing article.

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Security Flaws in Children's Smart Watches

A year ago, the Norwegian Consumer Council published an excellent security analysis of children’s GPS-connected smart watches. The security was terrible. Not only could parents track the children, anyone else could also track the children.

A recent analysis checked if anything had improved after that torrent of bad press. Short answer: no.

Guess what: a train wreck. Anyone could access the entire database, including real time child location, name, parents details etc. Not just Gator watches either — the same back end covered multiple brands and tens of thousands of watches

The Gator web backend was passing the user level as a parameter. Changing that value to another number gave super admin access throughout the platform. The system failed to validate that the user had the appropriate permission to take admin control!

This means that an attacker could get full access to all account information and all watch information. They could view any user of the system and any device on the system, including its location. They could manipulate everything and even change users’ emails/passwords to lock them out of their watch.

In fairness, upon our reporting of the vulnerability to them, Gator got it fixed in 48 hours.

This is a lesson in the limits of naming and shaming: publishing vulnerabilities in an effort to get companies to improve their security. If a company is specifically named, it is likely to improve the specific vulnerability described. But that is unlikely to translate into improved security practices in the future. If an industry, or product category, is named generally, nothing is likely to happen. This is one of the reasons I am a proponent of regulation.

News article.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): The EU has acted in a similar case.

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 10:30 AMView Comments

Tracking People Without GPS

Interesting research:

The trick in accurately tracking a person with this method is finding out what kind of activity they’re performing. Whether they’re walking, driving a car, or riding in a train or airplane, it’s pretty easy to figure out when you know what you’re looking for.

The sensors can determine how fast a person is traveling and what kind of movements they make. Moving at a slow pace in one direction indicates walking. Going a little bit quicker but turning at 90-degree angles means driving. Faster yet, we’re in train or airplane territory. Those are easy to figure out based on speed and air pressure.

After the app determines what you’re doing, it uses the information it collects from the sensors. The accelerometer relays your speed, the magnetometer tells your relation to true north, and the barometer offers up the air pressure around you and compares it to publicly available information. It checks in with The Weather Channel to compare air pressure data from the barometer to determine how far above sea level you are. Google Maps and data offered by the US Geological Survey Maps provide incredibly detailed elevation readings.

Once it has gathered all of this information and determined the mode of transportation you’re currently taking, it can then begin to narrow down where you are. For flights, four algorithms begin to estimate the target’s location and narrows down the possibilities until its error rate hits zero.

If you’re driving, it can be even easier. The app knows the time zone you’re in based on the information your phone has provided to it. It then accesses information from your barometer and magnetometer and compares it to information from publicly available maps and weather reports. After that, it keeps track of the turns you make. With each turn, the possible locations whittle down until it pinpoints exactly where you are.

To demonstrate how accurate it is, researchers did a test run in Philadelphia. It only took 12 turns before the app knew exactly where the car was.

This is a good example of how powerful synthesizing information from disparate data sources can be. We spend too much time worried about individual data collection systems, and not enough about analysis techniques of those systems.

Research paper.

Posted on December 15, 2017 at 6:18 AMView Comments

GPS Spoofing Attacks

Wired has a story about a possible GPS spoofing attack by Russia:

After trawling through AIS data from recent years, evidence of spoofing becomes clear. Goward says GPS data has placed ships at three different airports and there have been other interesting anomalies. “We would find very large oil tankers who could travel at the maximum speed at 15 knots,” says Goward, who was formerly director for Marine Transportation Systems at the US Coast Guard. “Their AIS, which is powered by GPS, would be saying they had sped up to 60 to 65 knots for an hour and then suddenly stopped. They had done that several times.”

All of the evidence from the Black Sea points towards a co-ordinated attempt to disrupt GPS. A recently published report from NRK found that 24 vessels appeared at Gelendzhik airport around the same time as the Atria. When contacted, a US Coast Guard representative refused to comment on the incident, saying any GPS disruption that warranted further investigation would be passed onto the Department of Defence.

“It looks like a sophisticated attack, by somebody who knew what they were doing and were just testing the system,” Bonenberg says. Humphreys told NRK it “strongly” looks like a spoofing incident. Fire Eye’s Brubaker, agreed, saying the activity looked intentional. Goward is also confident that GPS were purposely disrupted. “What this case shows us is there are entities out there that are willing and eager to disrupt satellite navigation systems for whatever reason and they can do it over a fairly large area and in a sophisticated way,” he says. “They’re not just broadcasting a stronger signal and denying service this is worse they’re providing hazardously misleading information.”

Posted on September 25, 2017 at 8:23 AMView Comments

Programming No-Fly Zones into Drones

DJI is programming no-fly zones into its drone software.

Here’s how it’ll work. The update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer that tells it not to fly around the Washington D.C. area. When users are within a 15-mile restricted zone, the drone’s motors won’t spin up, preventing it from taking off.

If this sounds like digital rights management, it basically is. And it will fail in all the ways that DRM fails. Cory Doctorow has explained it all very well.

Posted on February 12, 2015 at 12:22 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.