Entries Tagged "privacy"

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Bulk Surveillance of Money Transfers

Just another obscure warrantless surveillance program.

US law enforcement can access details of money transfers without a warrant through an obscure surveillance program the Arizona attorney general’s office created in 2014. A database stored at a nonprofit, the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), provides full names and amounts for larger transfers (above $500) sent between the US, Mexico and 22 other regions through services like Western Union, MoneyGram and Viamericas. The program covers data for numerous Caribbean and Latin American countries in addition to Canada, China, France, Malaysia, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine and the US Virgin Islands. Some domestic transfers also enter the data set.


You need to be a member of law enforcement with an active government email account to use the database, which is available through a publicly visible web portal. Leber told The Journal that there haven’t been any known breaches or instances of law enforcement misuse. However, Wyden noted that the surveillance program included more states and countries than previously mentioned in briefings. There have also been subpoenas for bulk money transfer data from Homeland Security Investigations (which withdrew its request after Wyden’s inquiry), the DEA and the FBI.

How is it that Arizona can be in charge of this?

Wall Street Journal podcast—with transcript—on the program. I think the original reporting was from last March, but I missed it back then.

Posted on January 24, 2023 at 7:14 AMView Comments

The FBI Identified a Tor User

No details, though:

According to the complaint against him, Al-Azhari allegedly visited a dark web site that hosts “unofficial propaganda and photographs related to ISIS” multiple times on May 14, 2019. In virtue of being a dark web site—­that is, one hosted on the Tor anonymity network—­it should have been difficult for the site owner’s or a third party to determine the real IP address of any of the site’s visitors.

Yet, that’s exactly what the FBI did. It found Al-Azhari allegedly visited the site from an IP address associated with Al-Azhari’s grandmother’s house in Riverside, California. The FBI also found what specific pages Al-Azhari visited, including a section on donating Bitcoin; another focused on military operations conducted by ISIS fighters in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria; and another page that provided links to material from ISIS’s media arm. Without the FBI deploying some form of surveillance technique, or Al-Azhari using another method to visit the site which exposed their IP address, this should not have been possible.

There are lots of ways to de-anonymize Tor users. Someone at the NSA gave a presentation on this ten years ago. (I wrote about it for the Guardian in 2013, an essay that reads so dated in light of what we’ve learned since then.) It’s unlikely that the FBI uses the same sorts of broad surveillance techniques that the NSA does, but it’s certainly possible that the NSA did the surveillance and passed the information to the FBI.

Posted on January 17, 2023 at 7:02 AMView Comments

Threats of Machine-Generated Text

With the release of ChatGPT, I’ve read many random articles about this or that threat from the technology. This paper is a good survey of the field: what the threats are, how we might detect machine-generated text, directions for future research. It’s a solid grounding amongst all of the hype.

Machine Generated Text: A Comprehensive Survey of Threat Models and Detection Methods

Abstract: Advances in natural language generation (NLG) have resulted in machine generated text that is increasingly difficult to distinguish from human authored text. Powerful open-source models are freely available, and user-friendly tools democratizing access to generative models are proliferating. The great potential of state-of-the-art NLG systems is tempered by the multitude of avenues for abuse. Detection of machine generated text is a key countermeasure for reducing abuse of NLG models, with significant technical challenges and numerous open problems. We provide a survey that includes both 1) an extensive analysis of threat models posed by contemporary NLG systems, and 2) the most complete review of machine generated text detection methods to date. This survey places machine generated text within its cybersecurity and social context, and provides strong guidance for future work addressing the most critical threat models, and ensuring detection systems themselves demonstrate trustworthiness through fairness, robustness, and accountability.

Posted on January 13, 2023 at 7:13 AMView Comments

Experian Privacy Vulnerability

Brian Krebs is reporting on a vulnerability in Experian’s website:

Identity thieves have been exploiting a glaring security weakness in the website of Experian, one of the big three consumer credit reporting bureaus. Normally, Experian requires that those seeking a copy of their credit report successfully answer several multiple choice questions about their financial history. But until the end of 2022, Experian’s website allowed anyone to bypass these questions and go straight to the consumer’s report. All that was needed was the person’s name, address, birthday and Social Security number.

Posted on January 12, 2023 at 7:18 AMView Comments

Security Vulnerabilities in Eufy Cameras

Eufy cameras claim to be local only, but upload data to the cloud. The company is basically lying to reporters, despite being shown evidence to the contrary. The company’s behavior is so egregious that ReviewGeek is no longer recommending them.

This will be interesting to watch. If Eufy can ignore security researchers and the press without there being any repercussions in the market, others will follow suit. And we will lose public shaming as an incentive to improve security.


After further testing, we’re not seeing the VLC streams begin based solely on the camera detecting motion. We’re not sure if that’s a change since yesterday or something I got wrong in our initial report. It does appear that Eufy is making changes—it appears to have removed access to the method we were using to get the address of our streams, although an address we already obtained is still working.

Posted on December 9, 2022 at 7:11 AMView Comments

The Decoupling Principle

This is a really interesting paper that discusses what the authors call the Decoupling Principle:

The idea is simple, yet previously not clearly articulated: to ensure privacy, information should be divided architecturally and institutionally such that each entity has only the information they need to perform their relevant function. Architectural decoupling entails splitting functionality for different fundamental actions in a system, such as decoupling authentication (proving who is allowed to use the network) from connectivity (establishing session state for communicating). Institutional decoupling entails splitting what information remains between non-colluding entities, such as distinct companies or network operators, or between a user and network peers. This decoupling makes service providers individually breach-proof, as they each have little or no sensitive data that can be lost to hackers. Put simply, the Decoupling Principle suggests always separating who you are from what you do.

Lots of interesting details in the paper.

Posted on December 7, 2022 at 7:04 AMView Comments

Computer Repair Technicians Are Stealing Your Data

Laptop technicians routinely violate the privacy of the people whose computers they repair:

Researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recovered logs from laptops after receiving overnight repairs from 12 commercial shops. The logs showed that technicians from six of the locations had accessed personal data and that two of those shops also copied data onto a personal device. Devices belonging to females were more likely to be snooped on, and that snooping tended to seek more sensitive data, including both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, documents, and financial information.


In three cases, Windows Quick Access or Recently Accessed Files had been deleted in what the researchers suspect was an attempt by the snooping technician to cover their tracks. As noted earlier, two of the visits resulted in the logs the researchers relied on being unrecoverable. In one, the researcher explained they had installed antivirus software and performed a disk cleanup to “remove multiple viruses on the device.” The researchers received no explanation in the other case.


The laptops were freshly imaged Windows 10 laptops. All were free of malware and other defects and in perfect working condition with one exception: the audio driver was disabled. The researchers chose that glitch because it required only a simple and inexpensive repair, was easy to create, and didn’t require access to users’ personal files.

Half of the laptops were configured to appear as if they belonged to a male and the other half to a female. All of the laptops were set up with email and gaming accounts and populated with browser history across several weeks. The researchers added documents, both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, and a cryptocurrency wallet with credentials.

A few notes. One: this is a very small study—only twelve laptop repairs. Two, some of the results were inconclusive, which indicated—but did not prove—log tampering by the technicians. Three, this study was done in Canada. There would probably be more snooping by American repair technicians.

The moral isn’t a good one: if you bring your laptop in to be repaired, you should expect the technician to snoop through your hard drive, taking what they want.

Research paper.

Posted on November 28, 2022 at 10:44 AMView Comments

Apple’s Device Analytics Can Identify iCloud Users

Researchers claim that supposedly anonymous device analytics information can identify users:

On Twitter, security researchers Tommy Mysk and Talal Haj Bakry have found that Apple’s device analytics data includes an iCloud account and can be linked directly to a specific user, including their name, date of birth, email, and associated information stored on iCloud.

Apple has long claimed otherwise:

On Apple’s device analytics and privacy legal page, the company says no information collected from a device for analytics purposes is traceable back to a specific user. “iPhone Analytics may include details about hardware and operating system specifications, performance statistics, and data about how you use your devices and applications. None of the collected information identifies you personally,” the company claims.

Apple was just sued for tracking iOS users without their consent, even when they explicitly opt out of tracking.

Posted on November 22, 2022 at 10:28 AMView Comments

NSA Over-surveillance

Here in 2022, we have a newly declassified 2016 Inspector General report—”Misuse of Sigint Systems”—about a 2013 NSA program that resulted in the unauthorized (that is, illegal) targeting of Americans.

Given all we learned from Edward Snowden, this feels like a minor coda. There’s nothing really interesting in the IG document, which is heavily redacted.

News story.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): Non-paywalled copy of the Bloomberg link.

Posted on November 11, 2022 at 6:25 AMView Comments

Using Wi-FI to See through Walls

This technique measures device response time to determine distance:

The scientists tested the exploit by modifying an off-the-shelf drone to create a flying scanning device, the Wi-Peep. The robotic aircraft sends several messages to each device as it flies around, establishing the positions of devices in each room. A thief using the drone could find vulnerable areas in a home or office by checking for the absence of security cameras and other signs that a room is monitored or occupied. It could also be used to follow a security guard, or even to help rival hotels spy on each other by gauging the number of rooms in use.

There have been attempts to exploit similar WiFi problems before, but the team says these typically require bulky and costly devices that would give away attempts. Wi-Peep only requires a small drone and about $15 US in equipment that includes two WiFi modules and a voltage regulator. An intruder could quickly scan a building without revealing their presence.

Research paper.

Posted on November 8, 2022 at 6:15 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.