Entries Tagged "transparency"

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SpiderOak's Warrant Canary Died

BoingBoing has the story.

I have never quite trusted the idea of a warrant canary. But here it seems to have worked. (Presumably, if SpiderOak wanted to replace the warrant canary with a transparency report, they would have written something explaining their decision. To have it simply disappear is what we would expect if SpiderOak were being forced to comply with a US government request for personal data.)

EDITED TO ADD (8/9): SpiderOak has posted an explanation claiming that the warrant canary did not die — it just changed.

That’s obviously false, because it did die. And a change is the functional equivalent — that’s how they work. So either they have received a National Security Letter and now have to pretend they did not, or they completely misunderstood what a warrant canary is and how it works. No one knows.

I have never fully trusted warrant canaries — this EFF post explains why — and this is an illustration.

Posted on August 8, 2018 at 9:37 AMView Comments

The Fallibility of DNA Evidence

This is a good summary article on the fallibility of DNA evidence. Most interesting to me are the parts on the proprietary algorithms used in DNA matching:

William Thompson points out that Perlin has declined to make public the algorithm that drives the program. “You do have a black-box situation happening here,” Thompson told me. “The data go in, and out comes the solution, and we’re not fully informed of what happened in between.”

Last year, at a murder trial in Pennsylvania where TrueAllele evidence had been introduced, defense attorneys demanded that Perlin turn over the source code for his software, noting that “without it, [the defendant] will be unable to determine if TrueAllele does what Dr. Perlin claims it does.” The judge denied the request.


When I interviewed Perlin at Cybergenetics headquarters, I raised the matter of transparency. He was visibly annoyed. He noted that he’d published detailed papers on the theory behind TrueAllele, and filed patent applications, too: “We have disclosed not the trade secrets of the source code or the engineering details, but the basic math.”

It’s the same problem as any biometric: we need to know the rates of both false positives and false negatives. And if these algorithms are being used to determine guilt, we have a right to examine them.

EDITED TO ADD (6/13): Three more articles.

Posted on May 31, 2016 at 1:04 PMView Comments

Reddit's Warrant Canary Just Died

Reddit has received a National Security Letter.

I have long discounted warrant canaries. A gag order is serious, and this sort of high-school trick won’t fool judges for a minute. But so far they seem to be working.

Now we have another question: now what? We have one piece of information, but not a very useful one. We know that NSLs can affect anywhere from a single user to millions of users. Which kind was this? We have no idea. Is Reddit fighting? We have no idea. How long will this go on? We don’t know that, either. When I think about what we can do to be useful here, I can’t think of anything.

Posted on April 1, 2016 at 3:16 PMView Comments

The Need for Transparency in Surveillance

In Data and Goliath, I talk about the need for transparency, oversight, and accountability as the mechanism to allow surveillance when it is necessary, while preserving our security against excessive surveillance and surveillance abuse.

James Losey has a new paper that discusses the need for transparency in surveillance. His conclusion:

Available transparency reports from ICT companies demonstrate the rise in government requests to obtain user communications data. However, revelations on the surveillance capabilities of the United States, Sweden, the UK, and other countries demonstrate that the available data is insufficient and falls short of supporting rational debate. Companies can contribute by increasing granularity, particularly on the legal processes through which they are required to reveal user data. However, the greatest gaps remain in the information provided directly from governments. Current understanding of the scope of surveillance can be credited to whistleblowers risking prosecution in order to publicize illegitimate government activity. The lack of transparency on government access to communications data and the legal processes used undermines the legitimacy of the practices.

Transparency alone will not eliminate barriers to freedom of expression or harm to privacy resulting from overly broad surveillance. Transparency provides a window into the scope of current practices and additional measures are needed such as oversight and mechanisms for redress in cases of unlawful surveillance. Furthermore, international data collection results in the surveillance of individuals and communities beyond the scope of a national debate. Transparency offers a necessary first step, a foundation on which to examine current practices and contribute to a debate on human security and freedom. Transparency is not the sole responsibility of any one country, and governments, in addition to companies, are well positioned to provide accurate and timely data to support critical debate on policies and laws that result in censorship and surveillance. Supporting an informed debate should be the goal of all democratic nations.

Posted on October 27, 2015 at 9:52 AMView Comments

Organizational Doxing

Recently, WikiLeaks began publishing over half a million previously secret cables and other documents from the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia. It’s a huge trove, and already reporters are writing stories about the highly secretive government.

What Saudi Arabia is experiencing isn’t common but part of a growing trend.

Just last week, unknown hackers broke into the network of the cyber-weapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team and published 400 gigabytes of internal data, describing, among other things, its sale of Internet surveillance software to totalitarian regimes around the world.

Last year, hundreds of gigabytes of Sony’s sensitive data was published on the Internet, including executive salaries, corporate emails and contract negotiations. The attacker in this case was the government of North Korea, which was punishing Sony for producing a movie that made fun of its leader. In 2010, the U.S. cyberweapons arms manufacturer HBGary Federal was a victim, and its attackers were members of a loose hacker collective called LulzSec.

Edward Snowden stole a still-unknown number of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 and gave them to reporters to publish. Chelsea Manning stole three-quarters of a million documents from the U.S. State Department and gave them to WikiLeaks to publish. The person who stole the Saudi Arabian documents might also be a whistleblower and insider but is more likely a hacker who wanted to punish the kingdom.

Organizations are increasingly getting hacked, and not by criminals wanting to steal credit card numbers or account information in order to commit fraud, but by people intent on stealing as much data as they can and publishing it. Law professor and privacy expert Peter Swire refers to “the declining half-life of secrets.” Secrets are simply harder to keep in the information age. This is bad news for all of us who value our privacy, but there’s a hidden benefit when it comes to organizations.

The decline of secrecy means the rise of transparency. Organizational transparency is vital to any open and free society.

Open government laws and freedom of information laws let citizens know what the government is doing, and enable them to carry out their democratic duty to oversee its activities. Corporate disclosure laws perform similar functions in the private sphere. Of course, both corporations and governments have some need for secrecy, but the more they can be open, the more we can knowledgeably decide whether to trust them.

This makes the debate more complicated than simple personal privacy. Publishing someone’s private writings and communications is bad, because in a free and diverse society people should have private space to think and act in ways that would embarrass them if public.

But organizations are not people and, while there are legitimate trade secrets, their information should otherwise be transparent. Holding government and corporate private behavior to public scrutiny is good.

Most organizational secrets are only valuable for a short term: negotiations, new product designs, earnings numbers before they’re released, patents before filing, and so on.

Forever secrets, like the formula for Coca-Cola, are few and far between. The one exception is embarrassments. If an organization had to assume that anything it did would become public in a few years, people within that organization would behave differently.

The NSA would have had to weigh its collection programs against the possibility of public scrutiny. Sony would have had to think about how it would look to the world if it paid its female executives significantly less than its male executives. HBGary would have thought twice before launching an intimidation campaign against a journalist it didn’t like, and Hacking Team wouldn’t have lied to the UN about selling surveillance software to Sudan. Even the government of Saudi Arabia would have behaved differently. Such embarrassment might be the first significant downside of hiring a psychopath as CEO.

I don’t want to imply that this forced transparency is a good thing, though. The threat of disclosure chills all speech, not just illegal, embarrassing, or objectionable speech. There will be less honest and candid discourse. People in organizations need the freedom to write and say things that they wouldn’t want to be made public.

State Department officials need to be able to describe foreign leaders, even if their descriptions are unflattering. Movie executives need to be able to say unkind things about their movie stars. If they can’t, their organizations will suffer.

With few exceptions, our secrets are stored on computers and networks vulnerable to hacking. It’s much easier to break into networks than it is to secure them, and large organizational networks are very complicated and full of security holes. Bottom line: If someone sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated wants to steal an organization’s secrets, they will succeed. This includes hacktivists (HBGary Federal, Hacking Team), foreign governments (Sony), and trusted insiders (State Department and NSA).

It’s not likely that your organization’s secrets will be posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but it’s always a possibility.

Dumping an organization’s secret information is going to become increasingly common as individuals realize its effectiveness for whistleblowing and revenge. While some hackers will use journalists to separate the news stories from mere personal information, not all will.

Both governments and corporations need to assume that their secrets are more likely to be exposed, and exposed sooner, than ever. They should do all they can to protect their data and networks, but have to realize that their best defense might be to refrain from doing things that don’t look good on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com. I didn’t use the term “organizational doxing,” though, because it would be too unfamiliar to that audience.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into German.

Posted on July 10, 2015 at 4:32 AMView Comments

Is Google Too Big to Trust?

Interesting essay about how Google’s lack of transparency is hurting their trust:

The reality is that Google’s business is and has always been about mining as much data as possible to be able to present information to users. After all, it can’t display what it doesn’t know. Google Search has always been an ad-supported service, so it needs a way to sell those users to advertisers — that’s how the industry works. Its Google Now voice-based service is simply a form of Google Search, so it too serves advertisers’ needs.

In the digital world, advertisers want to know more than the 100,000 people who might be interested in buying a new car. They now want to know who those people are, so they can reach out to them with custom messages that are more likely to be effective. They may not know you personally, but they know your digital persona — basically, you. Google needs to know about you to satisfy its advertisers’ demands.

Once you understand that, you understand why Google does what it does. That’s simply its business. Nothing is free, so if you won’t pay cash, you’ll have to pay with personal information. That business model has been around for decades; Google didn’t invent that business model, but Google did figure out how to make it work globally, pervasively, appealingly, and nearly instantaneously.

I don’t blame Google for doing that, but I blame it for being nontransparent. Putting unmarked sponsored ads in the “regular” search results section is misleading, because people have been trained by Google to see that section of the search results as neutral. They are in fact not. Once you know that, you never quite trust Google search results again. (Yes, Bing’s results are similarly tainted. But Microsoft never promised to do no evil, and most people use Google.)

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 6:45 AMView Comments

Restoring Trust in Government and the Internet

In July 2012, responding to allegations that the video-chat service Skype — owned by Microsoft — was changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, Corporate Vice President Mark Gillett took to the company’s blog to deny it.

Turns out that wasn’t quite true.

Or at least he — or the company’s lawyers — carefully crafted a statement that could be defended as true while completely deceiving the reader. You see, Skype wasn’t changing its protocols to make it possible for the government to eavesdrop on users, because the government was already able to eavesdrop on users.

At a Senate hearing in March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured the committee that his agency didn’t collect data on hundreds of millions of Americans. He was lying, too. He later defended his lie by inventing a new definition of the word “collect,” an excuse that didn’t even pass the laugh test.

As Edward Snowden’s documents reveal more about the NSA’s activities, it’s becoming clear that we can’t trust anything anyone official says about these programs.

Google and Facebook insist that the NSA has no “direct access” to their servers. Of course not; the smart way for the NSA to get all the data is through sniffers.

Apple says it’s never heard of PRISM. Of course not; that’s the internal name of the NSA database. Companies are publishing reports purporting to show how few requests for customer-data access they’ve received, a meaningless number when a single Verizon request can cover all of their customers. The Guardian reported that Microsoft secretly worked with the NSA to subvert the security of Outlook, something it carefully denies. Even President Obama’s justifications and denials are phrased with the intent that the listener will take his words very literally and not wonder what they really mean.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has claimed that the NSA’s massive surveillance and data mining programs have helped stop more than 50 terrorist plots, 10 inside the U.S. Do you believe him? I think it depends on your definition of “helped.” We’re not told whether these programs were instrumental in foiling the plots or whether they just happened to be of minor help because the data was there. It also depends on your definition of “terrorist plots.” An examination of plots that that FBI claims to have foiled since 9/11 reveals that would-be terrorists have commonly been delusional, and most have been egged on by FBI undercover agents or informants.

Left alone, few were likely to have accomplished much of anything.

Both government agencies and corporations have cloaked themselves in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to verify anything they say; revelation after revelation demonstrates that they’ve been lying to us regularly and tell the truth only when there’s no alternative.

There’s much more to come. Right now, the press has published only a tiny percentage of the documents Snowden took with him. And Snowden’s files are only a tiny percentage of the number of secrets our government is keeping, awaiting the next whistle-blower.

Ronald Reagan once said “trust but verify.” That works only if we can verify. In a world where everyone lies to us all the time, we have no choice but to trust blindly, and we have no reason to believe that anyone is worthy of blind trust. It’s no wonder that most people are ignoring the story; it’s just too much cognitive dissonance to try to cope with it.

This sort of thing can destroy our country. Trust is essential in our society. And if we can’t trust either our government or the corporations that have intimate access into so much of our lives, society suffers. Study after study demonstrates the value of living in a high-trust society and the costs of living in a low-trust one.

Rebuilding trust is not easy, as anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed by a friend or lover knows, but the path involves transparency, oversight and accountability. Transparency first involves coming clean. Not a little bit at a time, not only when you have to, but complete disclosure about everything. Then it involves continuing disclosure. No more secret rulings by secret courts about secret laws. No more secret programs whose costs and benefits remain hidden.

Oversight involves meaningful constraints on the NSA, the FBI and others. This will be a combination of things: a court system that acts as a third-party advocate for the rule of law rather than a rubber-stamp organization, a legislature that understands what these organizations are doing and regularly debates requests for increased power, and vibrant public-sector watchdog groups that analyze and debate the government’s actions.

Accountability means that those who break the law, lie to Congress or deceive the American people are held accountable. The NSA has gone rogue, and while it’s probably not possible to prosecute people for what they did under the enormous veil of secrecy it currently enjoys, we need to make it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Accountability also means voting, which means voters need to know what our leaders are doing in our name.

This is the only way we can restore trust. A market economy doesn’t work unless consumers can make intelligent buying decisions based on accurate product information. That’s why we have agencies like the FDA, truth-in-packaging laws and prohibitions against false advertising.

In the same way, democracy can’t work unless voters know what the government is doing in their name. That’s why we have open-government laws. Secret courts making secret rulings on secret laws, and companies flagrantly lying to consumers about the insecurity of their products and services, undermine the very foundations of our society.

Since the Snowden documents became public, I have been receiving e-mails from people seeking advice on whom to trust. As a security and privacy expert, I’m expected to know which companies protect their users’ privacy and which encryption programs the NSA can’t break. The truth is, I have no idea. No one outside the classified government world does. I tell people that they have no choice but to decide whom they trust and to then trust them as a matter of faith. It’s a lousy answer, but until our government starts down the path of regaining our trust, it’s the only thing we can do.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD (8/7): Two more links describing how the US government lies about NSA surveillance.

Posted on August 7, 2013 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Transparency and Accountability

As part of the fallout of the Boston bombings, we’re probably going to get some new laws that give the FBI additional investigative powers. As with the Patriot Act after 9/11, the debate over whether these new laws are helpful will be minimal, but the effects on civil liberties could be large. Even though most people are skeptical about sacrificing personal freedoms for security, it’s hard for politicians to say no to the FBI right now, and it’s politically expedient to demand that something be done.

If our leaders can’t say no — and there’s no reason to believe they can — there are two concepts that need to be part of any new counterterrorism laws, and investigative laws in general: transparency and accountability.

Long ago, we realized that simply trusting people and government agencies to always do the right thing doesn’t work, so we need to check up on them. In a democracy, transparency and accountability are how we do that. It’s how we ensure that we get both effective and cost-effective government. It’s how we prevent those we trust from abusing that trust, and protect ourselves when they do. And it’s especially important when security is concerned.

First, we need to ensure that the stuff we’re paying money for actually works and has a measureable impact. Law-enforcement organizations regularly invest in technologies that don’t make us any safer. The TSA, for example, could devote an entire museum to expensive but ineffective systems: puffer machines, body scanners, FAST behavioral screening, and so on. Local police departments have been wasting lots of post-9/11 money on unnecessary high-tech weaponry and equipment. The occasional high-profile success aside, police surveillance cameras have been shown to be a largely ineffective police tool.

Sometimes honest mistakes led organizations to invest in these technologies. Sometimes there’s self-deception and mismanagement—and far too often lobbyists are involved. Given the enormous amount of security money post-9/11, you inevitably end up with an enormous amount of waste. Transparency and accountability are how we keep all of this in check.

Second, we need to ensure that law enforcement does what we expect it to do and nothing more. Police powers are invariably abused. Mission creep is inevitable, and it results in laws designed to combat one particular type of crime being used for an ever-widening array of crimes. Transparency is the only way we have of knowing when this is going on.

For example, that’s how we learned that the FBI is abusing National Security Letters. Traditionally, we use the warrant process to protect ourselves from police overreach. It’s not enough for the police to want to conduct a search; they also need to convince a neutral third party — a judge — that the search is in the public interest and will respect the rights of those searched. That’s accountability, and it’s the very mechanism that NSLs were exempted from.

When laws are broken, accountability is how we punish those who abused their power. It’s how, for example, we correct racial profiling by police departments. And it’s a lack of accountability that permits the FBI to get away with massive data collection until exposed by a whistleblower or noticed by a judge.

Third, transparency and accountability keep both law enforcement and politicians from lying to us. The Bush Administration lied about the extent of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. The TSA lied about the ability of full-body scanners to save naked images of people. We’ve been lied to about the lethality of tasers, when and how the FBI eavesdrops on cell-phone calls, and about the existence of surveillance records. Without transparency, we would never know.

A decade ago, the FBI was heavily lobbying Congress for a law to give it new wiretapping powers: a law known as CALEA. One of its key justifications was that existing law didn’t allow it to perform speedy wiretaps during kidnapping investigations. It sounded plausible — and who wouldn’t feel sympathy for kidnapping victims? — but when civil-liberties organizations analyzed the actual data, they found that it was just a story; there were no instances of wiretapping in kidnapping investigations. Without transparency, we would never have known that the FBI was making up stories to scare Congress.

If we’re going to give the government any new powers, we need to ensure that there’s oversight. Sometimes this oversight is before action occurs. Warrants are a great example. Sometimes they’re after action occurs: public reporting, audits by inspector generals, open hearings, notice to those affected, or some other mechanism. Too often, law enforcement tries to exempt itself from this principle by supporting laws that are specifically excused from oversight…or by establishing secret courts that just rubber-stamp government wiretapping requests.

Furthermore, we need to ensure that mechanisms for accountability have teeth and are used.

As we respond to the threat of terrorism, we must remember that there are other threats as well. A society without transparency and accountability is the very definition of a police state. And while a police state might have a low crime rate — especially if you don’t define police corruption and other abuses of power as crime — and an even lower terrorism rate, it’s not a society that most of us would willingly choose to live in.

We already give law enforcement enormous power to intrude into our lives. We do this because we know they need this power to catch criminals, and we’re all safer thereby. But because we recognize that a powerful police force is itself a danger to society, we must temper this power with transparency and accountability.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

Posted on May 14, 2013 at 5:48 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.