Entries Tagged "web privacy"
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Google releases statistics:
Google received more than 15,600 requests in the January-June period, 10 percent more than the final six months of last year. The requests in the latest period spanned more than 25,400 individual accounts worldwide – a tiny fraction of Google’s more than billion users.
The highest volume of government demands for user data came from the U.S. (5,950 requests, a 29 percent increase from the previous six-month stretch); India (1,739 requests, up 2 percent); France (1,300 requests, up 27 percent); Britain (1,273 requests, up 10 percent); and Germany (1,060 requests, up 38 percent).
The company usually complies with at least a portion of most government demands. Google has said that it often has little choice because it must obey laws in the countries where it operates. The alternative is to leave, as it did last year when it shifted its search engine to Hong Kong so it wouldn’t have to follow mainland China’s censorship requirements.
In the U.S., Google gave federal, state and other agencies what they wanted 93 percent of the time. The nearly 6,000 requests affected more than 11,000 user accounts during the January-June period.
In India, Google honored 70 percent of the 1,739 requests, which targeted more than 2,400 users, the second highest totals.
Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., rejected the most government demands for user information in Argentina, where 68 percent of the requests were denied. Less than 50 percent of the government requests for user data were complied with in Canada, Chile, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey and South Korea.
I’m sure they have an office full of attorneys versed in the laws of various countries.
Patent application number 2011/023240:
Communicating Information in a Social Network System about Activities from Another Domain
Abstract: In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain. The method includes maintaining a profile for each of one or more users of the social networking system, each profile identifying a connection to one or more other users of the social networking system and including information about the user. The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the thirdparty website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.
EDITED TO ADD (10/24): Facebook claims that, while they do collect information on non-users, they don’t use it for profiling. This feels like hair-splitting to me; I get emails from Facebook with lists of friends who are already on the site.
EDITED TO ADD (10/24): It’s a patent application, not a patent.
A couple of weeks ago Wired reported the discovery of a new, undeletable, web cookie:
Researchers at U.C. Berkeley have discovered that some of the net’s most popular sites are using a tracking service that can’t be evaded—even when users block cookies, turn off storage in Flash, or use browsers’ “incognito” functions.
The Wired article was very short on specifics, so I waited until one of the researchers—Ashkan Soltani—wrote up more details. He finally did, in a quite technical essay:
ShareMeNot is a Firefox add-on for preventing tracking from third-party buttons (like the Facebook “Like” button or the Google “+1” button) until the user actually chooses to interact with them. That is, ShareMeNot doesn’t disable/remove these buttons completely. Rather, it allows them to render on the page, but prevents the cookies from being sent until the user actually clicks on them, at which point ShareMeNot releases the cookies and the user gets the desired behavior (i.e., they can Like or +1 the page).
One website can learn if you’re logged into other websites.
When you visit my website, I can automatically and silently determine if you’re logged into Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and Digg. There are almost certainly thousands of other sites with this issue too, but I picked a few vulnerable well known ones to get your attention. You may not care that I can tell you’re logged into Gmail, but would you care if I could tell you’re logged into one or more porn or warez sites? Perhaps http://oppressive-regime.example.org/ would like to collect a list of their users who are logged into http://controversial-website.example.com/?
There’s a lot more.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission released its privacy report: “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change.”
From the press release:
One method of simplified choice the FTC staff recommends is a “Do Not Track” mechanism governing the collection of information about consumer’s Internet activity to deliver targeted advertisements and for other purposes. Consumers and industry both support increased transparency and choice for this largely invisible practice. The Commission recommends a simple, easy to use choice mechanism for consumers to opt out of the collection of information about their Internet behavior for targeted ads. The most practical method would probably involve the placement of a persistent setting, similar to a cookie, on the consumer’s browser signaling the consumer’s choices about being tracked and receiving targeted ads.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that President Obama will seek sweeping laws enabling law enforcement to more easily eavesdrop on the internet. Technologies are changing, the administration argues, and modern digital systems aren’t as easy to monitor as traditional telephones.
The government wants to force companies to redesign their communications systems and information networks to facilitate surveillance, and to provide law enforcement with back doors that enable them to bypass any security measures.
The proposal may seem extreme, but—unfortunately—it’s not unique. Just a few months ago, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and India threatened to ban BlackBerry devices unless the company made eavesdropping easier. China has already built a massive internet surveillance system to better control its citizens.
Formerly reserved for totalitarian countries, this wholesale surveillance of citizens has moved into the democratic world as well. Governments like Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom are debating or passing laws giving their police new powers of internet surveillance, in many cases requiring communications system providers to redesign products and services they sell. More are passing data retention laws, forcing companies to retain customer data in case they might need to be investigated later.
Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to seek expanded digital eavesdropping. The 1994 CALEA law required phone companies to build ways to better facilitate FBI eavesdropping into their digital phone switches. Since 2001, the National Security Agency has built substantial eavesdropping systems within the United States.
These laws are dangerous, both for citizens of countries like China and citizens of Western democracies. Forcing companies to redesign their communications products and services to facilitate government eavesdropping reduces privacy and liberty; that’s obvious. But the laws also make us less safe. Communications systems that have no inherent eavesdropping capabilities are more secure than systems with those capabilities built in.
Any surveillance system invites both criminal appropriation and government abuse. Function creep is the most obvious abuse: New police powers, enacted to fight terrorism, are already used in situations of conventional nonterrorist crime. Internet surveillance and control will be no different.
Official misuses are bad enough, but the unofficial uses are far more worrisome. An infrastructure conducive to surveillance and control invites surveillance and control, both by the people you expect and the people you don’t. Any surveillance and control system must itself be secured, and we’re not very good at that. Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement will mine collected internet data or eavesdrop on Skype and IM conversations?
These risks are not theoretical. After 9/11, the National Security Agency built a surveillance infrastructure to eavesdrop on telephone calls and e-mails within the United States. Although procedural rules stated that only non-Americans and international phone calls were to be listened to, actual practice didn’t always match those rules. NSA analysts collected more data than they were authorized to and used the system to spy on wives, girlfriends and famous people like former President Bill Clinton.
The most serious known misuse of a telecommunications surveillance infrastructure took place in Greece. Between June 2004 and March 2005, someone wiretapped more than 100 cell phones belonging to members of the Greek government—the prime minister and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and justice—and other prominent people. Ericsson built this wiretapping capability into Vodafone’s products, but enabled it only for governments that requested it. Greece wasn’t one of those governments, but some still unknown party—a rival political group? organized crime?—figured out how to surreptitiously turn the feature on.
Surveillance infrastructure is easy to export. Once surveillance capabilities are built into Skype or Gmail or your BlackBerry, it’s easy for more totalitarian countries to demand the same access; after all, the technical work has already been done.
Western companies such as Siemens, Nokia and Secure Computing built Iran’s surveillance infrastructure, and U.S. companies like L-1 Identity Solutions helped build China’s electronic police state. The next generation of worldwide citizen control will be paid for by countries like the United States.
We should be embarrassed to export eavesdropping capabilities. Secure, surveillance-free systems protect the lives of people in totalitarian countries around the world. They allow people to exchange ideas even when the government wants to limit free exchange. They power citizen journalism, political movements and social change. For example, Twitter’s anonymity saved the lives of Iranian dissidents—anonymity that many governments want to eliminate.
Yes, communications technologies are used by both the good guys and the bad guys. But the good guys far outnumber the bad guys, and it’s far more valuable to make sure they’re secure than it is to cripple them on the off chance it might help catch a bad guy. It’s like the FBI demanding that no automobiles drive above 50 mph, so they can more easily pursue getaway cars. It might or might not work—but, regardless, the cost to society of the resulting slowdown would be enormous.
It’s bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state. No matter what the eavesdroppers say, these systems cost too much and put us all at greater risk.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.