Entries Tagged "surveillance"

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Cory Doctorow on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Cory Doctorow has writtten an extended rebuttal of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. He summarized the argument on Twitter.

Shorter summary: it’s not the surveillance part, it’s the fact that these companies are monopolies.

I think it’s both. Surveillance capitalism has some unique properties that make it particularly unethical and incompatible with a free society, and Zuboff makes them clear in her book. But the current acceptance of monopolies in our society is also extremely damaging — which Doctorow makes clear.

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 6:33 AMView Comments

Collecting and Selling Mobile Phone Location Data

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Anomaly Six LLC that has an SDK that’s used by “more than 500 mobile applications.” Through that SDK, the company collects location data from users, which it then sells.

Anomaly Six is a federal contractor that provides global-location-data products to branches of the U.S. government and private-sector clients. The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.

[…]

Anomaly Six was founded by defense-contracting veterans who worked closely with government agencies for most of their careers and built a company to cater in part to national-security agencies, according to court records and interviews.

Just one of the many Internet companies spying on our every move for profit. And I’m sure they sell to the US government; it’s legal and why would they forgo those sales?

Posted on August 11, 2020 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Bart Gellman on Snowden

Bart Gellman’s long-awaited (at least by me) book on Edward Snowden, Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, will finally be published in a couple of weeks. There is an adapted excerpt in the Atlantic.

It’s an interesting read, mostly about the government surveillance of him and other journalists. He speaks about an NSA program called FIRSTFRUITS that specifically spies on US journalists. (This isn’t news; we learned about this in 2006. But there are lots of new details.)

One paragraph in the excerpt struck me:

Years later Richard Ledgett, who oversaw the NSA’s media-leaks task force and went on to become the agency’s deputy director, told me matter-of-factly to assume that my defenses had been breached. “My take is, whatever you guys had was pretty immediately in the hands of any foreign intelligence service that wanted it,” he said, “whether it was Russians, Chinese, French, the Israelis, the Brits. Between you, Poitras, and Greenwald, pretty sure you guys can’t stand up to a full-fledged nation-state attempt to exploit your IT. To include not just remote stuff, but hands-on, sneak-into-your-house-at-night kind of stuff. That’s my guess.”

I remember thinking the same thing. It was the summer of 2013, and I was visiting Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro. This was just after Greenwald’s partner was detained in the UK trying to ferry some documents from Laura Poitras in Berlin back to Greenwald. It was an opsec disaster; they would have been much more secure if they’d emailed the encrypted files. In fact, I told them to do that, every single day. I wanted them to send encrypted random junk back and forth constantly, to hide when they were actually sharing real data.

As soon as I saw their house I realized exactly what Ledgett said. I remember standing outside the house, looking into the dense forest for TEMPEST receivers. I didn’t see any, which only told me they were well hidden. I guessed that black-bag teams from various countries had already been all over the house when they were out for dinner, and wondered what would have happened if teams from different countries bumped into each other. I assumed that all the countries Ledgett listed above — plus the US and a few more — had a full take of what Snowden gave the journalists. These journalists against those governments just wasn’t a fair fight.

I’m looking forward to reading Gellman’s book. I’m kind of surprised no one sent me an advance copy.

Posted on May 20, 2020 at 2:08 PMView Comments

Another California Data Privacy Law

The California Consumer Privacy Act is a lesson in missed opportunities. It was passed in haste, to stop a ballot initiative that would have been even more restrictive:

In September 2017, Alastair Mactaggart and Mary Ross proposed a statewide ballot initiative entitled the “California Consumer Privacy Act.” Ballot initiatives are a process under California law in which private citizens can propose legislation directly to voters, and pursuant to which such legislation can be enacted through voter approval without any action by the state legislature or the governor. While the proposed privacy initiative was initially met with significant opposition, particularly from large technology companies, some of that opposition faded in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg’s April 2018 testimony before Congress. By May 2018, the initiative appeared to have garnered sufficient support to appear on the November 2018 ballot. On June 21, 2018, the sponsors of the ballot initiative and state legislators then struck a deal: in exchange for withdrawing the initiative, the state legislature would pass an agreed version of the California Consumer Privacy Act. The initiative was withdrawn, and the state legislature passed (and the Governor signed) the CCPA on June 28, 2018.

Since then, it was substantially amended — that is, watered down — at the request of various surveillance capitalism companies. Enforcement was supposed to start this year, but we haven’t seen much yet.

And we could have had that ballot initiative.

It looks like Alastair Mactaggart and others are back.

Advocacy group Californians for Consumer Privacy, which started the push for a state-wide data privacy law, announced this week that it has the signatures it needs to get version 2.0 of its privacy rules on the US state’s ballot in November, and submitted its proposal to Sacramento.

This time the goal is to tighten up the rules that its previously ballot measure managed to get into law, despite the determined efforts of internet giants like Google and Facebook to kill it. In return for the legislation being passed, that ballot measure was dropped. Now, it looks like the campaigners are taking their fight to a people’s vote after all.

[…]

The new proposal would add more rights, including the use and sale of sensitive personal information, such as health and financial information, racial or ethnic origin, and precise geolocation. It would also triples existing fines for companies caught breaking the rules surrounding data on children (under 16s) and would require an opt-in to even collect such data.

The proposal would also give Californians the right to know when their information is used to make fundamental decisions about them, such as getting credit or employment offers. And it would require political organizations to divulge when they use similar data for campaigns.

And just to push the tech giants from fury into full-blown meltdown the new ballot measure would require any amendments to the law to require a majority vote in the legislature, effectively stripping their vast lobbying powers and cutting off the multitude of different ways the measures and its enforcement can be watered down within the political process.

I don’t know why they accepted the compromise in the first place. It was obvious that the legislative process would be hijacked by the powerful tech companies. I support getting this onto the ballot this year.

EDITED TO ADD(5/17): It looks like this new ballot initiative isn’t going to be an improvement.

Posted on May 11, 2020 at 10:58 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

How Did Facebook Beat a Federal Wiretap Demand?

This is interesting:

Facebook Inc. in 2018 beat back federal prosecutors seeking to wiretap its encrypted Messenger app. Now the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to find out how.

The entire proceeding was confidential, with only the result leaking to the press. Lawyers for the ACLU and the Washington Post on Tuesday asked a San Francisco-based federal court of appeals to unseal the judge’s decision, arguing the public has a right to know how the law is being applied, particularly in the area of privacy.

[…]

The Facebook case stems from a federal investigation of members of the violent MS-13 criminal gang. Prosecutors tried to hold Facebook in contempt after the company refused to help investigators wiretap its Messenger app, but the judge ruled against them. If the decision is unsealed, other tech companies will likely try to use its reasoning to ward off similar government requests in the future.

Here’s the 2018 story. Slashdot thread.

Posted on April 29, 2020 at 12:29 PMView Comments

Global Surveillance in the Wake of COVID-19

OneZero is tracking thirty countries around the world who are implementing surveillance programs in the wake of COVID-19:

The most common form of surveillance implemented to battle the pandemic is the use of smartphone location data, which can track population-level movement down to enforcing individual quarantines. Some governments are making apps that offer coronavirus health information, while also sharing location information with authorities for a period of time. For instance, in early March, the Iranian government released an app that it pitched as a self-diagnostic tool. While the tool’s efficacy was likely low, given reports of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, the app saved location data of millions of Iranians, according to a Vice report.

One of the most alarming measures being implemented is in Argentina, where those who are caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location. In Hong Kong, those arriving in the airport are given electronic tracking bracelets that must be synced to their home location through their smartphone’s GPS signal.

Posted on April 24, 2020 at 6:02 AMView Comments

Privacy vs. Surveillance in the Age of COVID-19

The trade-offs are changing:

As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus ­ even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later.

I think the effects of COVID-19 will be more drastic than the effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: not only with respect to surveillance, but across many aspects of our society. And while many things that would never be acceptable during normal time are reasonable things to do right now, we need to makes sure we can ratchet them back once the current pandemic is over.

Cindy Cohn at EFF wrote:

We know that this virus requires us to take steps that would be unthinkable in normal times. Staying inside, limiting public gatherings, and cooperating with medically needed attempts to track the virus are, when approached properly, reasonable and responsible things to do. But we must be as vigilant as we are thoughtful. We must be sure that measures taken in the name of responding to COVID-19 are, in the language of international human rights law, “necessary and proportionate” to the needs of society in fighting the virus. Above all, we must make sure that these measures end and that the data collected for these purposes is not re-purposed for either governmental or commercial ends.

I worry that in our haste and fear, we will fail to do any of that.

More from EFF.

Posted on March 30, 2020 at 6:32 AMView Comments

Facial Recognition for People Wearing Masks

The Chinese facial recognition company Hanwang claims it can recognize people wearing masks:

The company now says its masked facial recognition program has reached 95 percent accuracy in lab tests, and even claims that it is more accurate in real life, where its cameras take multiple photos of a person if the first attempt to identify them fails.

[…]

Counter-intuitively, training facial recognition algorithms to recognize masked faces involves throwing data away. A team at the University of Bradford published a study last year showing they could train a facial recognition program to accurately recognize half-faces by deleting parts of the photos they used to train the software.

When a facial recognition program tries to recognize a person, it takes a photo of the person to be identified, and reduces it down to a bundle, or vector, of numbers that describes the relative positions of features on the face.

[…]

Hanwang’s system works for masked faces by trying to guess what all the faces in its existing database of photographs would look like if they were masked.

Posted on March 25, 2020 at 6:33 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.