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Posts with keyword: privacy

How risky to privacy is Apple's fingerprint reader?

Congratulations to Apple for featuring a fingerprint reader as part of its new iPhone. It was reported by The Wall Street Journal here, in the blog of Bruce Schneier here, by Time Tech here, and in dozens of other places. Very much expectedly, this revelation spurred anxiety among the conspiracy theorists out there. The two common concerns that were raised are:

  • Apple will have a database of all our fingerprints.

  • What if someone breaks into the device and gets at our fingerprint?

(There is another line of concern, related to the fifth amendment and how its protection may be foiled by authenticating using biometrics alone, but this is a legal concern which is off topic.)

While a bit of paranoid thinking is always helpful, security engineering requires more than crying out each time a mega-corporate launches a new technology that involves private data. Assets and threats need to be determined, and then we can decide whether or not the risk is worth the benefits.

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Protecting private data: with law or with technology?

There is an ongoing debate on the need for new regulations that protect individuals’ personal data. Regulation is said to be required to protect the personal data of citizens, consumers, patients, etc., both against corporate service providers as well as against governments.

There is a growing concern about the implications of the data collection habits of social network operators, such as Facebook, as well as other service providers. Even those individuals who claim to not see any tangible risk behind the massive collection of data on themselves by service providers, still feel unease with the amount of data available on them, and on which they have no control.

On the state side, knowing that your government may monitor every single email and phone call reminds of George Orwell’s book “nineteen eighty-four". It is largely agreed that this practice, if not outright eliminated, shall at least be better controlled.

This essay discusses the two possible domains for such better control:
technology and regulation, arguing that the former is tremendously more effective than the latter.

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Against the collection of private data: The unknown risk factor

I bet there are thousands of blog posts advocating privacy and explaining why people should resist governments and companies collecting personal data. I dare to write yet another one because I would like to make a couple of points that I have never seen made before. This post will discuss one of these two points: the unknown risk.

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Companies collect data on us --- so what?

It is very common among security people to take privacy issues seriously. When we hear that a particular service collects personal data on us, we get extremely anxious. We will not use services that collect personal data that are not necessary to render the service. Sometimes we will forgo using a useful service, just because it requires that we feed in personal data, or because we do not like the wording of the privacy policy, of its lack of…

To us, security people, having a company collect personal information on our shopping habits, surfing habits, reading habits, or eating habits, is just wrong. Technologists like
Cory Doctorow call to treat personal data like weapons-grade plutonium, because data that is collected never vanishes. Others, like Bruce Schneier, write essays on why the average (that is, non-criminal) citizen should not agree to being watched, although he did nothing wrong. All is true, and having governments collect too much data on individuals is risky. Such data, if available, is likely to be abused at some point in time, a point which is probably closer than it appears.

It is easy to explain why one would not like the government to have too much data on himself. I would like to discuss another type of data: the commercial data that privately held companies such as Amazon, Google (on Google apps users), and Facebook, collect. Why should I care about having my personal data on-line?

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Is E-mail encryption really too complex?

Every once in a while we read yet another article revealing the level to which e-mail encryption is uncommon. The last one I saw is here. Whenever the debate is raised about how come e-mail encryption is so seldom used, we hear the common opinion that e-mail encryption is just not easy enough for the commons; yet. It is not intuitive enough, it is not user-friendly, it is too intrusive to the typical work-flow, and so forth. Indeed, e-mail encryption for the masses is with us for more than a decade already, and other than a few geeks and a few privacy-savvy individuals, people just don’t use it.

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Evaluating Commercial Counter-Forensic Tools

I have just enjoyed reading “Evaluating Commercial Counter-Forensic Tools” by Matthew Geiger from Carnegie Mellon University. The paper presents failures in commercially-available applications that offer covering the user’s tracks. These applications perform removal of (presumably) all footprints left by browsing and file management activities, and so forth. To make a long story short: seven out of seven such applications failed, to this or that level, in fulfilling their claims.

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