Entries Tagged "privacy"

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Airline Passenger Profiling

From an anonymous reader who works for the airline industry in the United States:

There are two initiatives in the works, neither of which leaves me feeling very good about privacy rights.

The first is being put together by the TSA and is called the “Secure Flight Initiative.” An initial test of this program was performed recently and involved each airline listed in the document having to send in passenger information (aka PNR data) for every passenger that “completed a successful domestic trip” during June 2004. A sample of some of the fields that were required to be sent: name, address, phone (if available), itinerary, any comments in the PNR record made by airline personnel, credit card number and expiration date, and any changes made to the booking before the actual flight.

This test data was transmitted to the TSA via physical CD. The requirement was that we “encrypt” it using pkzip (or equivalent) before putting it on the CD. We were to then e-mail the password to the Secure Flight Initiative e-mail address. Although this is far from ideal, it is in fact a big step up. The original process was going to have people simply e-mail the above data to the TSA. They claim to have a secure facility where the data is stored.

As far as the TSA’s retention of the data, the only information we have been given is that as soon as the test phase is over, they will securely delete the data. We were given no choice but had to simply take their word for it.

Rollout of the Secure Flight initiative is scheduled for “next year” sometime. They’re going to start with larger carriers and work their way down to the smaller carriers. It hasn’t been formalized (as far as I know) yet as to what data will be required to be transmitted when. My suspicion is that upon flight takeoff, all PNR data for all passengers on board will be required to be sent. At this point, I still have not heard as to what method will be used for data transmission.

There is another initiative being implemented by the Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. This (unnamed) initiative is essentially the same thing as the Secure Flight program. That’s right — two government agencies are requiring us to transmit the information separately to each of them. So much for information sharing within the government.

Most larger carriers are complying with this directive by simply allowing the CBP access to their records directly within their
reservation systems (often hosted by folks like Sabre, Worldspan, Galileo, etc). Others (such as the airline I work for) are opting to
only transmit the bare requirements without giving direct access to our system. The data is transmitted over a proprietary data network that is used by the airline industry.

There are a couple of differences between the Secure Flight program and the one being instituted by the CBP. The CBP’s program requires that PNR data for all booked passengers be transmitted:

  • 72 hours before flight time
  • 24 hours before flight time
  • 8 hours before flight time
  • and then again immediately after flight departure

The other major difference is that it looks as though there will be a requirement that we operate in a way that allows them to send a request for data for any flight at any time which we must send back in an automated fashion.

Oh, and just as a kick in the pants, the airlines are expected to pay the costs for all these data transmissions (to the tune of several thousand dollars a month).

Posted on December 22, 2004 at 10:06 AMView Comments

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

For many Americans, the end of the year is charitable contribution time. (The reasons are tax-related.) While there is no shortage of worthy causes around the world, I would like to suggest contributing at least something to EPIC.

Since its founding ten years ago, EPIC has worked to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. They maintain one of the most extensive websites on privacy and free speech issues on the Internet. They litigate Freedom of Information Act, First Amendment, and privacy cases. They publish books on open government and privacy. They train law school students about the Internet and the public interest. They testify frequently before Congress about emerging civil liberties issues. They provide an extensive listing of privacy resources as well as a guide to practical privacy tools.

Remember when it became public that JetBlue (and other airlines) provided passenger information to the U.S. government in violation of their own privacy policies? Or when it was revealed that the CAPPS-II airline passenger profiling system would be used for other, non-terrorism, purposes? EPIC’s FOIA work uncovered those stories.

December 15th is the 213th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. Read through it again today, and notice how the different laws protect the security of Americans. I’m proud to be a member of EPIC’s Advisory Board. They do good work, and we’re all a lot more secure because of it.

EPIC’s website

U.S. Bill of Rights

Posted on December 15, 2004 at 9:10 AMView Comments

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

For many Americans, the end of the year is charitable contribution time. (The reasons are tax-related.) While there is no shortage of worthy causes around the world, I would like to suggest contributing at least something to EPIC.

Since its founding ten years ago, EPIC has worked to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values, and to promote the Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet. They maintain one of the most extensive websites on privacy and free speech issues on the Internet. They litigate Freedom of Information Act, First Amendment, and privacy cases. They publish books on open government and privacy. They train law school students about the Internet and the public interest. They testify frequently before Congress about emerging civil liberties issues. They provide an extensive listing of privacy resources as well as a guide to practical privacy tools.

Remember when it became public that JetBlue (and other airlines) provided passenger information to the U.S. government in violation of their own privacy policies? Or when it was revealed that the CAPPS-II airline passenger profiling system would be used for other, non-terrorism, purposes? EPIC’s FOIA work uncovered those stories.

December 15th is the 213th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. Read through it again today, and notice how the different laws protect the security of Americans. I’m proud to be a member of EPIC’s Advisory Board. They do good work, and we’re all a lot more secure because of it.

EPIC’s website

U.S. Bill of Rights

Posted on December 15, 2004 at 9:10 AMView Comments

Canada and the USA PATRIOT Act

The Information & Privacy Commissioner for the Province of British Columbia, Canada, has just published an extensive report titled “Privacy and the USA Patriot Act – Implications for British Columbia Public Sector Outsourcing.”

It’s an interesting trend. It’s one thing for countries to complain about U.S. counterterrorism policies, but it’s quite another for countries to reduce their commerce with the U.S. The latter will get noticed in Washington far quicker than the former.

Posted on December 10, 2004 at 8:48 AMView Comments

The Digital Person

Last week, I stayed at the St. Regis hotel in Washington, DC. It was my first visit, and the management gave me a questionnaire, asking me things like my birthday, my spouse’s name and birthday, my anniversary, and my favorite fruits, drinks, and sweets. The purpose was clear; the hotel wanted to be able to offer me a more personalized service the next time I visited. And it was a purpose I agreed with; I wanted more personalized service. But I was very uneasy about filling out the form.

It wasn’t that the information was particularly private. I make no secret of my birthday, or anniversary, or food preferences. Much of that information is even floating around the Web somewhere. Secrecy wasn’t the issue.

The issue was control. In the United States, information about a person is owned by the person who collects it, not by the person it is about. There are specific exceptions in the law, but they’re few and far between. There are no broad data protection laws, as you find in the European Union. There are no Privacy Commissioners, as you find in Canada. Privacy law in the United States is largely about secrecy: if the information is not secret, there’s little you can do to control its dissemination.

As a result, enormous databases exist that are filled with personal information. These databases are owned by marketing firms, credit bureaus, and the government. Amazon knows what books we buy. Our supermarket knows what foods we eat. Credit card companies know quite a lot about our purchasing habits. Credit bureaus know about our financial history, and what they don’t know is contained in bank records. Health insurance records contain details about our health and well-being. Government records contain our Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses, mother’s maiden names, and a host of other things. Many driver’s license records contain digital pictures.

All of this data is being combined, indexed, and correlated. And it’s being used for all sorts of things. Targeted marketing campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg. This information is used by potential employers to judge our suitability as employees, by potential landlords to determine our suitability as renters, and by the government to determine our likelihood of being a terrorist.

Some stores are beginning to use our data to determine whether we are desirable customers or not. If customers take advantage of too many discount offers or make too many returns, they may be profiled as “bad” customers and be treated differently from the “good” customers.

And with alarming frequency, our data is being abused by identity thieves. The businesses that gather our data don’t care much about keeping it secure. So identity theft is a problem where those who suffer from it — the individuals — are not in a position to improve security, and those who are in a position to improve security don’t suffer from the problem.

The issue here is not about secrecy, it’s about control. The issue is that both government and commercial organizations are building “digital dossiers” about us, and that these dossiers are being used to judge and categorize us through some secret process.

A new book by George Washington University Law Professor Daniel Solove examines the problem of the growing accumulation of personal information in enormous databases. The book is called The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, and it is a fascinating read.

Solove’s book explores this problem from a legal perspective, explaining what the problem is, how current U.S. law fails to deal with it, and what we should do to protect privacy today. It’s an unusually perceptive discussion of one of the most
vexing problems of the digital age — our loss of control over our personal information. It’s a fascinating journey into the almost surreal ways personal information is hoarded, used, and abused in the digital age.

Solove argues that our common conceptualization of the privacy problem as Big Brother — some faceless organization knowing our most intimate secrets — is only one facet of the issue. A better metaphor can be found in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In the book, a vast faceless bureaucracy constructs a huge dossier about a person, who can’t find out what information exists about him in the dossier, why the information has been gathered, or what it will be used for. Privacy is not about intimate secrets; it’s about who has control of the millions of pieces of personal data that we leave like droppings as we go through our daily life. And until the U.S. legal system recognizes this fact, Americans will continue to live in an world where they have little control over their digital person.

In the end, I didn’t complete the questionnaire from the St. Regis Hotel. While I was fine with the St. Regis in Washington, DC, having that information to make my subsequent stays a little more personal, and was probably fine with that information being shared among other St. Regis hotels, I wasn’t comfortable with the St. Regis doing whatever they wanted with that information. I wasn’t comfortable with them selling the information to a marketing database. I wasn’t comfortable with anyone being able to buy that information. I wasn’t comfortable with that information ending up in a database of my habits, my preferences, my proclivities. It wasn’t the primary use of that information that bothered me, it was the secondary uses.

Solove has done much more thinking about this issue than I have. His book provides a clear account of the social problems involving information privacy, and haunting predictions of current U.S. legal policies. Even more importantly, the legal solutions he provides are compelling and worth serious consideration. I recommend his book highly.

The book’s website

Order the book on Amazon

Posted on December 9, 2004 at 9:18 AMView Comments

Desktop Google Finds Holes

Google’s desktop search software is so good that it exposes vulnerabilities on your computer that you didn’t know about.

Last month, Google released a beta version of its desktop search software: Google Desktop Search. Install it on your Windows machine, and it creates a searchable index of your data files, including word processing files, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mail messages, cached Web pages and chat sessions. It’s a great idea. Windows’ searching capability has always been mediocre, and Google fixes the problem nicely.

There are some security issues, though. The problem is that GDS indexes and finds documents that you may prefer not be found. For example, GDS searches your browser’s cache. This allows it to find old Web pages you’ve visited, including online banking summaries, personal messages sent from Web e-mail programs and password-protected personal Web pages.

GDS can also retrieve encrypted files. No, it doesn’t break the encryption or save a copy of the key. However, it searches the Windows cache, which can bypass some encryption programs entirely. And if you install the program on a computer with multiple users, you can search documents and Web pages for all users.

GDS isn’t doing anything wrong; it’s indexing and searching documents just as it’s supposed to. The vulnerabilities are due to the design of Internet Explorer, Opera, Firefox, PGP and other programs.

First, Web browsers should not store SSL-encrypted pages or pages with personal e-mail. If they do store them, they should at least ask the user first.

Second, an encryption program that leaves copies of decrypted files in the cache is poorly designed. Those files are there whether or not GDS searches for them.

Third, GDS’ ability to search files and Web pages of multiple users on a computer received a lot of press when it was first discovered. This is a complete nonissue. You have to be an administrator on the machine to do this, which gives you access to everyone’s files anyway.

Some people blame Google for these problems and suggest, wrongly, that Google fix them. What if Google were to bow to public pressure and modify GDS to avoid showing confidential information? The underlying problems would remain: The private Web pages would still be in the browser’s cache; the encryption program would still be leaving copies of the plain-text files in the operating system’s cache; and the administrator could still eavesdrop on anyone’s computer to which he or she has access. The only thing that would have changed is that these vulnerabilities once again would be hidden from the average computer user.

In the end, this can only harm security.

GDS is very good at searching. It’s so good that it exposes vulnerabilities on your computer that you didn’t know about. And now that you know about them, pressure your software vendors to fix them. Don’t shoot the messenger.

This article originally appeared in eWeek.

Posted on November 29, 2004 at 11:15 AMView Comments

New Security Vulnerability: Clueless Users

I can’t make heads or tails of this story:

A security loophole at a bank allowed easy access to sensitive credit card information, the BBC has found.

The Morgan Stanley website allowed users to access account details after entering just the first digit of a credit card number.

The shortcut would only work if the account holder had set up the computer to automatically save passwords.

It seems to me that if you set up your computer to automatically save passwords and autofill them onto webpages, you shouldn’t be surprised when your computer does exactly that.

Posted on November 22, 2004 at 10:24 AMView Comments

The Problem with Electronic Voting Machines

In the aftermath of the U.S.’s 2004 election, electronic voting machines are again in the news. Computerized machines lost votes, subtracted votes instead of adding them, and doubled votes. Because many of these machines have no paper audit trails, a large number of votes will never be counted. And while it is unlikely that deliberate voting-machine fraud changed the result of the presidential election, the Internet is buzzing with rumors and allegations of fraud in a number of different jurisdictions and races. It is still too early to tell if any of these problems affected any individual elections. Over the next several weeks we’ll see whether any of the information crystallizes into something significant.

The U.S has been here before. After 2000, voting machine problems made international headlines. The government appropriated money to fix the problems nationwide. Unfortunately, electronic voting machines — although presented as the solution — have largely made the problem worse. This doesn’t mean that these machines should be abandoned, but they need to be designed to increase both their accuracy, and peoples’ trust in their accuracy. This is difficult, but not impossible.

Before I can discuss electronic voting machines, I need to explain why voting is so difficult. Basically, a voting system has four required characteristics:

  1. Accuracy. The goal of any voting system is to establish the intent of each individual voter, and translate those intents into a final tally. To the extent that a voting system fails to do this, it is undesirable. This characteristic also includes security: It should be impossible to change someone else’s vote, ballot stuff, destroy votes, or otherwise affect the accuracy of the final tally.

  2. Anonymity. Secret ballots are fundamental to democracy, and voting systems must be designed to facilitate voter anonymity.

  3. Scalability. Voting systems need to be able to handle very large elections. One hundred million people vote for president in the United States. About 372 million people voted in India’s June elections, and over 115 million in Brazil’s October elections. The complexity of an election is another issue. Unlike many countries where the national election is a single vote for a person or a party, a United States voter is faced with dozens of individual election: national, local, and everything in between.

  4. Speed. Voting systems should produce results quickly. This is particularly important in the United States, where people expect to learn the results of the day’s election before bedtime. It’s less important in other countries, where people don’t mind waiting days — or even weeks — before the winner is announced.

Through the centuries, different technologies have done their best. Stones and pot shards dropped in Greek vases gave way to paper ballots dropped in sealed boxes. Mechanical voting booths, punch cards, and then optical scan machines replaced hand-counted ballots. New computerized voting machines promise even more efficiency, and Internet voting even more convenience.

But in the rush to improve speed and scalability, accuracy has been sacrificed. And to reiterate: accuracy is not how well the ballots are counted by, for example, a punch-card reader. It’s not how the tabulating machine deals with hanging chads, pregnant chads, or anything like that. Accuracy is how well the process translates voter intent into properly counted votes.

Technologies get in the way of accuracy by adding steps. Each additional step means more potential errors, simply because no technology is perfect. Consider an optical-scan voting system. The voter fills in ovals on a piece of paper, which is fed into an optical-scan reader. The reader senses the filled-in ovals and tabulates the votes. This system has several steps: voter to ballot to ovals to optical reader to vote tabulator to centralized total.

At each step, errors can occur. If the ballot is confusing, then some voters will fill in the wrong ovals. If a voter doesn’t fill them in properly, or if the reader is malfunctioning, then the sensor won’t sense the ovals properly. Mistakes in tabulation — either in the machine or when machine totals get aggregated into larger totals — also cause errors. A manual system — tallying the ballots by hand, and then doing it again to double-check — is more accurate simply because there are fewer steps.

The error rates in modern systems can be significant. Some voting technologies have a 5% error rate: one in twenty people who vote using the system don’t have their votes counted properly. This system works anyway because most of the time errors don’t matter. If you assume that the errors are uniformly distributed — in other words, that they affect each candidate with equal probability — then they won’t affect the final outcome except in very close races. So we’re willing to sacrifice accuracy to get a voting system that will more quickly handle large and complicated elections. In close races, errors can affect the outcome, and that’s the point of a recount. A recount is an alternate system of tabulating votes: one that is slower (because it’s manual), simpler (because it just focuses on one race), and therefore more accurate.

Note that this is only true if everyone votes using the same machines. If parts of town that tend to support candidate A use a voting system with a higher error rate than the voting system used in parts of town that tend to support candidate B, then the results will be skewed against candidate A. This is an important consideration in voting accuracy, although tangential to the topic of this essay.

With this background, the issue of computerized voting machines becomes clear. Actually, “computerized voting machines” is a bad choice of words. Many of today’s voting technologies involve computers. Computers tabulate both punch-card and optical-scan machines. The current debate centers around all-computer voting systems, primarily touch-screen systems, called Direct Record Electronic (DRE) machines. (The voting system used in India’s most recent election — a computer with a series of buttons — is subject to the same issues.) In these systems the voter is presented with a list of choices on a screen, perhaps multiple screens if there are multiple elections, and he indicates his choice by touching the screen. These machines are easy to use, produce final tallies immediately after the polls close, and can handle very complicated elections. They also can display instructions in different languages and allow for the blind or otherwise handicapped to vote without assistance.

They’re also more error-prone. The very same software that makes touch-screen voting systems so friendly also makes them inaccurate. And even worse, they’re inaccurate in precisely the worst possible way.

Bugs in software are commonplace, as any computer user knows. Computer programs regularly malfunction, sometimes in surprising and subtle ways. This is true for all software, including the software in computerized voting machines. For example:

In Fairfax County, VA, in 2003, a programming error in the electronic voting machines caused them to mysteriously subtract 100 votes from one particular candidates’ totals.

In San Bernardino County, CA in 2001, a programming error caused the computer to look for votes in the wrong portion of the ballot in 33 local elections, which meant that no votes registered on those ballots for that election. A recount was done by hand.

In Volusia County, FL in 2000, an electronic voting machine gave Al Gore a final vote count of negative 16,022 votes.

The 2003 election in Boone County, IA, had the electronic vote-counting equipment showing that more than 140,000 votes had been cast in the Nov. 4 municipal elections. The county has only 50,000 residents and less than half of them were eligible to vote in this election.

There are literally hundreds of similar stories.

What’s important about these problems is not that they resulted in a less accurate tally, but that the errors were not uniformly distributed; they affected one candidate more than the other. This means that you can’t assume that errors will cancel each other out and not affect the election; you have to assume that any error will skew the results significantly.

Another issue is that software can be hacked. That is, someone can deliberately introduce an error that modifies the result in favor of his preferred candidate. This has nothing to do with whether the voting machines are hooked up to the Internet on election day. The threat is that the computer code could be modified while it is being developed and tested, either by one of the programmers or a hacker who gains access to the voting machine company’s network. It’s much easier to surreptitiously modify a software system than a hardware system, and it’s much easier to make these modifications undetectable.

A third issue is that these problems can have further-reaching effects in software. A problem with a manual machine just affects that machine. A software problem, whether accidental or intentional, can affect many thousands of machines — and skew the results of an entire election.

Some have argued in favor of touch-screen voting systems, citing the millions of dollars that are handled every day by ATMs and other computerized financial systems. That argument ignores another vital characteristic of voting systems: anonymity. Computerized financial systems get most of their security from audit. If a problem is suspected, auditors can go back through the records of the system and figure out what happened. And if the problem turns out to be real, the transaction can be unwound and fixed. Because elections are anonymous, that kind of security just isn’t possible.

None of this means that we should abandon touch-screen voting; the benefits of DRE machines are too great to throw away. But it does mean that we need to recognize its limitations, and design systems that can be accurate despite them.

Computer security experts are unanimous on what to do. (Some voting experts disagree, but I think we’re all much better off listening to the computer security experts. The problems here are with the computer, not with the fact that the computer is being used in a voting application.) And they have two recommendations:

  1. DRE machines must have a voter-verifiable paper audit trails (sometimes called a voter-verified paper ballot). This is a paper ballot printed out by the voting machine, which the voter is allowed to look at and verify. He doesn’t take it home with him. Either he looks at it on the machine behind a glass screen, or he takes the paper and puts it into a ballot box. The point of this is twofold. One, it allows the voter to confirm that his vote was recorded in the manner he intended. And two, it provides the mechanism for a recount if there are problems with the machine.

  2. Software used on DRE machines must be open to public scrutiny. This also has two functions. One, it allows any interested party to examine the software and find bugs, which can then be corrected. This public analysis improves security. And two, it increases public confidence in the voting process. If the software is public, no one can insinuate that the voting system has unfairness built into the code. (Companies that make these machines regularly argue that they need to keep their software secret for security reasons. Don’t believe them. In this instance, secrecy has nothing to do with security.)

Computerized systems with these characteristics won’t be perfect — no piece of software is — but they’ll be much better than what we have now. We need to start treating voting software like we treat any other high-reliability system. The auditing that is conducted on slot machine software in the U.S. is significantly more meticulous than what is done to voting software. The development process for mission-critical airplane software makes voting software look like a slapdash affair. If we care about the integrity of our elections, this has to change.

Proponents of DREs often point to successful elections as “proof” that the systems work. That completely misses the point. The fear is that errors in the software — either accidental or deliberately introduced — can undetectably alter the final tallies. An election without any detected problems is no more a proof the system is reliable and secure than a night that no one broke into your house is proof that your door locks work. Maybe no one tried, or maybe someone tried and succeeded…and you don’t know it.

Even if we get the technology right, we still won’t be done. If the goal of a voting system is to accurately translate voter intent into a final tally, the voting machine is only one part of the overall system. In the 2004 U.S. election, problems with voter registration, untrained poll workers, ballot design, and procedures for handling problems resulted in far more votes not being counted than problems with the technology. But if we’re going to spend money on new voting technology, it makes sense to spend it on technology that makes the problem easier instead of harder.

This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.com.

Posted on November 10, 2004 at 9:15 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.