Reading Analytics and Privacy

Interesting paper: "The rise of reading analytics and the emerging calculus of reading privacy in the digital world," by Clifford Lynch:

Abstract: This paper studies emerging technologies for tracking reading behaviors ("reading analytics") and their implications for reader privacy, attempting to place them in a historical context. It discusses what data is being collected, to whom it is available, and how it might be used by various interested parties (including authors). I explore means of tracking what's being read, who is doing the reading, and how readers discover what they read. The paper includes two case studies: mass-market e-books (both directly acquired by readers and mediated by libraries) and scholarly journals (usually mediated by academic libraries); in the latter case I also provide examples of the implications of various authentication, authorization and access management practices on reader privacy. While legal issues are touched upon, the focus is generally pragmatic, emphasizing technology and marketplace practices. The article illustrates the way reader privacy concerns are shifting from government to commercial surveillance, and the interactions between government and the private sector in this area. The paper emphasizes U.S.-based developments.

Analyzing Cyber Insurance Policies

There's a really interesting new paper analyzing over 100 different cyber insurance policies. From the abstract:

In this research paper, we seek to answer fundamental questions concerning the current state of the cyber insurance market. Specifically, by collecting over 100 full insurance policies, we examine the composition and variation across three primary components: The coverage and exclusions of first and third party losses which define what is and is not covered; The security application questionnaires which are used to help assess an applicant's security posture; and the rate schedules which define the algorithms used to compute premiums.

Overall, our research shows a much greater consistency among loss coverage and exclusions of insurance policies than is often assumed. For example, after examining only 5 policies, all coverage topics were identified, while it took only 13 policies to capture all exclusion topics. However, while each policy may include commonly covered losses or exclusions, there was often additional language further describing exceptions, conditions, or limits to the coverage. The application questionnaires provide insights into the security technologies and management practices that are (and are not) examined by carriers. For example, our analysis identified four main topic areas: Organizational, Technical, Policies and Procedures, and Legal and Compliance. Despite these sometimes lengthy questionnaires, however, there still appeared to be relevant gaps. For instance, information about the security posture of third-party service and supply chain providers and are notoriously difficult to assess properly (despite numerous breaches occurring from such compromise).

In regard to the rate schedules, we found a surprising variation in the sophistication of the equations and metrics used to price premiums. Many policies examined used a very simple, flat rate pricing (based simply on expected loss), while others incorporated more parameters such as the firm's asset value (or firm revenue), or standard insurance metrics (e.g. limits, retention, coinsurance), and industry type. More sophisticated policies also included information specific information security controls and practices as collected from the security questionnaires. By examining these components of insurance contracts, we hope to provide the first-ever insights into how insurance carriers understand and price cyber risks.

Advances in Ad Blocking

Ad blockers represent the largest consumer boycott in human history. They're also an arms race between the blockers and the blocker blockers. This article discusses a new ad-blocking technology that represents another advance in this arms race. I don't think it will "put an end to the ad-blocking arms race," as the title proclaims, but it will definitely give the blockers the upper hand.

The software, devised by Arvind Narayanan, Dillon Reisman, Jonathan Mayer, and Grant Storey, is novel in two major ways: First, it looks at the struggle between advertising and ad blockers as fundamentally a security problem that can be fought in much the same way antivirus programs attempt to block malware, using techniques borrowed from rootkits and built-in web browser customizability to stealthily block ads without being detected. Second, the team notes that there are regulations and laws on the books that give a fundamental advantage to consumers that cannot be easily changed, opening the door to a long-term ad-blocking solution.

Now if we could only block the data collection as well.

Smart TV Hack via the Broadcast Signal

This is impressive:

The proof-of-concept exploit uses a low-cost transmitter to embed malicious commands into a rogue TV signal. That signal is then broadcast to nearby devices. It worked against two fully updated TV models made by Samsung. By exploiting two known security flaws in the Web browsers running in the background, the attack was able to gain highly privileged root access to the TVs. By revising the attack to target similar browser bugs found in other sets, the technique would likely work on a much wider range of TVs.

Surveillance and our Insecure Infrastructure

Since Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent of the NSA's global surveillance network, there has been a vigorous debate in the technological community about what its limits should be.

Less discussed is how many of these same surveillance techniques are used by other -- smaller and poorer -- more totalitarian countries to spy on political opponents, dissidents, human rights defenders; the press in Toronto has documented some of the many abuses, by countries like Ethiopia , the UAE, Iran, Syria, Kazakhstan , Sudan, Ecuador, Malaysia, and China.

That these countries can use network surveillance technologies to violate human rights is a shame on the world, and there's a lot of blame to go around.

We can point to the governments that are using surveillance against their own citizens.

We can certainly blame the cyberweapons arms manufacturers that are selling those systems, and the countries -- mostly European -- that allow those arms manufacturers to sell those systems.

There's a lot more the global Internet community could do to limit the availability of sophisticated Internet and telephony surveillance equipment to totalitarian governments. But I want to focus on another contributing cause to this problem: the fundamental insecurity of our digital systems that makes this a problem in the first place.

IMSI catchers are fake mobile phone towers. They allow someone to impersonate a cell network and collect information about phones in the vicinity of the device and they're used to create lists of people who were at a particular event or near a particular location.

Fundamentally, the technology works because the phone in your pocket automatically trusts any cell tower to which it connects. There's no security in the connection protocols between the phones and the towers.

IP intercept systems are used to eavesdrop on what people do on the Internet. Unlike the surveillance that happens at the sites you visit, by companies like Facebook and Google, this surveillance happens at the point where your computer connects to the Internet. Here, someone can eavesdrop on everything you do.

This system also exploits existing vulnerabilities in the underlying Internet communications protocols. Most of the traffic between your computer and the Internet is unencrypted, and what is encrypted is often vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks because of insecurities in both the Internet protocols and the encryption protocols that protect it.

There are many other examples. What they all have in common is that they are vulnerabilities in our underlying digital communications systems that allow someone -- whether it's a country's secret police, a rival national intelligence organization, or criminal group -- to break or bypass what security there is and spy on the users of these systems.

These insecurities exist for two reasons. First, they were designed in an era where computer hardware was expensive and inaccessibility was a reasonable proxy for security. When the mobile phone network was designed, faking a cell tower was an incredibly difficult technical exercise, and it was reasonable to assume that only legitimate cell providers would go to the effort of creating such towers.

At the same time, computers were less powerful and software was much slower, so adding security into the system seemed like a waste of resources. Fast forward to today: computers are cheap and software is fast, and what was impossible only a few decades ago is now easy.

The second reason is that governments use these surveillance capabilities for their own purposes. The FBI has used IMSI-catchers for years to investigate crimes. The NSA uses IP interception systems to collect foreign intelligence. Both of these agencies, as well as their counterparts in other countries, have put pressure on the standards bodies that create these systems to not implement strong security.

Of course, technology isn't static. With time, things become cheaper and easier. What was once a secret NSA interception program or a secret FBI investigative tool becomes usable by less-capable governments and cybercriminals.

Man-in-the-middle attacks against Internet connections are a common criminal tool to steal credentials from users and hack their accounts.

IMSI-catchers are used by criminals, too. Right now, you can go onto and buy your own IMSI catcher for under $2,000.

Despite their uses by democratic governments for legitimate purposes, our security would be much better served by fixing these vulnerabilities in our infrastructures.

These systems are not only used by dissidents in totalitarian countries, they're also used by legislators, corporate executives, critical infrastructure providers, and many others in the US and elsewhere.

That we allow people to remain insecure and vulnerable is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

Earlier this month, two American legislators -- Senator Ron Wyden and Rep Ted Lieu -- sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, demanding that he do something about the country's insecure telecommunications infrastructure.

They pointed out that not only are insecurities rampant in the underlying protocols and systems of the telecommunications infrastructure, but also that the FCC knows about these vulnerabilities and isn't doing anything to force the telcos to fix them.

Wyden and Lieu make the point that fixing these vulnerabilities is a matter of US national security, but it's also a matter of international human rights. All modern communications technologies are global, and anything the US does to improve its own security will also improve security worldwide.

Yes, it means that the FBI and the NSA will have a harder job spying, but it also means that the world will be a safer and more secure place.

This essay previously appeared on