Thursday, December 21, 2017

Is there such a thing as online privacy? 7 essential reads

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Who’s sharing your secrets? Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Over the course of 2017, people in the U.S. and around the world became increasingly concerned about how their digital data are transmitted, stored and analyzed. As news broke that every Yahoo email account had been compromised, as well as the financial information of nearly every adult in the U.S., the true scale of how much data private companies have about people became clearer than ever.

This, of course, brings them enormous profits, but comes with significant social and individual risks. Many scholars are researching aspects of this issue, both describing the problem in greater detail and identifying ways people can reclaim power over the data their lives and online activity generate. Here we spotlight seven examples from our 2017 archives.

1. The government doesn’t think much of user privacy

One major concern people have about digital privacy is how much access the police might have to their online information, like what websites people visit and what their emails and text messages say. Mobile phones can be particularly revealing, not only containing large amounts of private information, but also tracking users’ locations. As H.V. Jagadish at University of Michigan writes, the government doesn’t think smartphones’ locations are private information. The legal logic defies common sense:

“By carrying a cellphone – which communicates on its own with the phone company – you have effectively told the phone company where you are. Therefore, your location isn’t private, and the police can get that information from the cellphone company without a warrant, and without even telling you they’re tracking you.

2. Neither do software designers

But mobile phone companies and the government aren’t the only people with access to data on people’s smartphones. Mobile apps of all kinds can monitor location, user activity and data stored on their users’ phones. As an international group of telecommunications security scholars found, ”More than 70 percent of smartphone apps are reporting personal data to third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics, the Facebook Graph API or Crashlytics.“

Those companies can even merge information from different apps – one that tracks a user’s location and another that tracks, say, time spent playing a game or money spent through a digital wallet – to develop extremely detailed profiles of individual users.

3. People care, but struggle to find information

Despite how concerned people are, they can’t actually easily find out what’s being shared about them, when or to whom. Florian Schaub at the University of Michigan explains the conflicting purposes of apps’ and websites’ privacy policies:

"Companies use a privacy policy to demonstrate compliance with legal and regulatory notice requirements, and to limit liability. Regulators in turn use privacy policies to investigate and enforce compliance with regulations.”

That can leave consumers without the information they need to make informed choices.

4. Boosting comprehension

Another problem with privacy policies is that they’re incomprehensible. Anyone who does try to read and understand them will be quickly frustrated by the legalese and awkward language. Karuna Pande Joshi and Tim Finin from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County suggest that artificial intelligence could help:

“What if a computerized assistant could digest all that legal jargon in a few seconds and highlight key points? Perhaps a user could even tell the automated assistant to pay particular attention to certain issues, like when an email address is shared, or whether search engines can index personal posts.”

That would certainly make life simpler for users, but it would preserve a world in which privacy is not a given.

5. Programmers could help, too

Jean Yang at Carnegie Mellon University is working to change that assumption. At the moment, she explains, computer programmers have to keep track of users’ choices about privacy protections throughout all the various programs a site uses to operate. That makes errors both likely and hard to track down.

Yang’s approach, called “policy-agnostic programming,” builds sharing restrictions right into the software design process. That both forces developers to address privacy, and makes it easier for them to do so.

6. So could a new way of thinking about it

But it may not be enough for some software developers to choose programming tools that would protect their users’ data. Scott Shackelford from Indiana University discussed the movement to declare cybersecurity – including data privacy – a human right recognized under international law.

He predicts real progress will result from consumer demand:

“As people use online services more in their daily lives, their expectations of digital privacy and freedom of expression will lead them to demand better protections. Governments will respond by building on the foundations of existing international law, formally extending into cyberspace the human rights to privacy, freedom of expression and improved economic well-being.”

But governments can be slow to act, leaving people to protect themselves in the meantime.

7. The real basis of all privacy is strong encryption

The fundamental way to protect privacy is to make sure data is stored so securely that only the people authorized to access it are able to read it. Susan Landau at Tufts University explains the importance of individuals having access to strong encryption. And she observes police and the intelligence community are coming around to understanding this view:

“Increasingly, a number of former senior law enforcement and national security officials have come out strongly in support of end-to-end encryption and strong device protection …, which can protect against hacking and other data theft incidents.”

The ConversationOne day, perhaps, governments and businesses will have the same concerns about individuals’ privacy as people themselves do. Until then, strong encryption without special access for law enforcement or other authorities will remain the only reliable guardian of privacy.

Jeff Inglis, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

FBI tries to crack another smartphone: 5 essential reads

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Who should be allowed inside? PopTika/
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.

Federal investigators following up on the mass shooting at a Texas church on Nov. 5 have seized the alleged shooter’s smartphone – reportedly an iPhone – but are reporting they are unable to unlock it, to decode its encryption and read any data or messages stored on it.

The situation adds fuel to an ongoing dispute over whether, when and how police should be allowed to defeat encryption systems on suspects’ technological devices. Here are highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of that debate.

#1. Police have never had unfettered access to everything

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have in recent years – especially since the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California – been increasing calls for what they term “exceptional access,” a way around encryption that police could use to gather information on crimes both future and past. Technology and privacy scholar Susan Landau, at Tufts University, argues that limits and challenges to investigative power are strengths of democracy, not weaknesses:

“[L]aw enforcement has always had to deal with blocks to obtaining evidence; the exclusionary rule, for example, means that evidence collected in violation of a citizen’s constitutional protections is often inadmissible in court.”

Further, she notes that almost any person or organization, including community groups, could be a potential target for hackers – and therefore should use strong encryption in their communications and data storage:

“This broad threat to fundamental parts of American society poses a serious danger to national security as well as individual privacy. Increasingly, a number of former senior law enforcement and national security officials have come out strongly in support of end-to-end encryption and strong device protection (much like the kind Apple has been developing), which can protect against hacking and other data theft incidents.”

#2. FBI has other ways to get this information

The idea of weakening encryption for everyone just so police can have an easier time is increasingly recognized as unworkable, writes Ben Buchanan, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Instead,

“The future of law enforcement and intelligence gathering efforts involving digital information is an emerging field that I and others who are exploring it sometimes call "lawful hacking.” Rather than employing a skeleton key that grants immediate access to encrypted information, government agents will have to find other technical ways – often involving malicious code – and other legal frameworks.“

Indeed he observes, when the FBI failed to force Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone,

"the FBI found another way. The bureau hired an outside firm that was able to exploit a vulnerability in the iPhone’s software and gain access. It wasn’t the first time the bureau had done such a thing.”

#3. It’s not just about iPhones

When the San Bernardino suspect’s iPhone was targeted by investigators, Android researchers William Enck and Adwait Nadkarni at North Carolina State University tried to crack a smartphone themselves. They found that one key to encryption’s effectiveness is proper setup:

“Overall, devices running the most recent versions of iOS and Android are comparably protected against offline attacks, when configured correctly by both the phone manufacturer and the end user. Older versions may be more vulnerable; one system could be cracked in less than 10 seconds. Additionally, configuration and software flaws by phone manufacturers may also compromise security of both Android and iOS devices.”

#4. What they’re not looking for

What are investigators hoping to find, anyway? It’s nearly a given that they aren’t looking for emails the suspect may have sent or received. As Georgia State University constitutional scholar Clark Cunningham explains, the government already believes it is allowed to read all of a person’s email, without the email owner ever knowing:

“[The] law allows the government to use a warrant to get electronic communications from the company providing the service – rather than the true owner of the email account, the person who uses it.

"And the government then usually asks that the warrant be "sealed,” which means it won’t appear in public court records and will be hidden from you. Even worse, the law lets the government get what is called a “gag order,” a court ruling preventing the company from telling you it got a warrant for your email.“

#5. The political stakes are high

With this new case, federal officials risk weakening public support for giving investigators special access to circumvent or evade encryption. After the controversy over the San Bernardino shooter’s phone, public demand for privacy and encryption climbed, wrote Carnegie Mellon professor Rahul Telang:

"Repeated stories on data breaches and privacy invasion, particularly from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, appears to have heightened users’ attention to security and privacy. Those two attributes have become important enough that companies are finding it profitable to advertise and promote them.

"Apple, in particular, has highlighted the security of its products recently and reportedly is doubling down and plans to make it even harder for anyone to crack an iPhone.”

The ConversationIt seems unlikely this debate will ever truly go away: Police will continue to want easy access to all information that might help them prevent or solve crimes, and regular people will continue to want to protect their private information and communications from prying eyes, whether that’s criminals, hackers or, indeed, the government itself.

Jeff Inglis, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Using truly secure passwords: 6 essential reads

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Scholars have ideas about how to help solve our password problems. vladwei/
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: the following is roundup of previously published articles.

Passwords are everywhere – and they present an impossible puzzle. Social media profiles, financial records, personal correspondence and vital work documents are all protected by passwords. To keep all that information safe, the rules sound simple: Passwords need to be long, different for every site, easy to remember, hard to guess and never written down. But we’re only human! What is to be done about our need for secure passwords?

Get good advice

Sadly, much of the password advice people have been given over the past decade-plus is wrong, and in part that’s because the real threat is not an individual hacker targeting you specifically, write five scholars who are part of the Carnegie Mellon University passwords research group:

“People who are trying to break into online accounts don’t just sit down at a computer and make a few guesses…. [C]omputer programs let them make millions or billions of guesses in just a few hours…. [So] users need to go beyond choosing passwords that are hard for a human to guess: Passwords need to be difficult for a computer to figure out.”

To help, those researchers have developed a system that checks passwords as users create them, and offers immediate advice about how to make each password stronger.

Use a password manager

All that computing power can work to our advantage too, writes Elon University computer scientist Megan Squire:

“The average internet user has 19 different passwords. It’s easy to see why people write them down on sticky notes or just click the ‘I forgot my password’ link. Software can help! The job of password management software is to take care of generating and remembering unique, hard-to-crack passwords for each website and application.”

That sounds like a good start.

Getting emoji – 🐱💦🎆🎌 – into the act

Then again, it might be even better not to use any regular characters. A group of emoji could improve security, writes Florian Schaub, an assistant professor of information and of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan:

“We found that emoji passcodes consisting of six randomly selected emojis were hardest to steal over a user’s shoulder. Other types of passcodes, such as four or six emojis in a pattern, or four or six numeric digits, were easier to observe and recall correctly.”

Still, emoji are – like letters and numbers – drawn from a finite library of options. So they’re vulnerable to being guessed by powerful computers.

Drawing toward a solution

To add even more potential variation to the mix, consider making a quick doodle-like drawing to serve as a password. Janne Lindqvist from Rutgers University calls that sort of motion a “gesture,” and is working on a system to do just that:

“We have explored the potential for people to use doodles instead of passwords on several websites. It appeared to be no more difficult to remember multiple gestures than it is to recall different passwords for each site. In fact, it was faster: Logging in with a gesture took two to six seconds less time than doing so with a text password. It’s faster to generate a gesture than a password, too: People spent 42 percent less time generating gesture credentials than people we studied who had to make up new passwords. We also found that people could successfully enter gestures without spending as much attention on them as they had to with text passwords.”

Easier to make, faster to enter, and not any more difficult to remember? That’s progress.

A world without passwords

Any type of password is inherently vulnerable, though, because it is an heir to centuries of tradition in writing, writes literature scholar Brian Lennon of Pennsylvania State University:

“[E]ven the strongest password … can be used anywhere and at any time once it has been separated from its assigned user. It is for this reason that both security professionals and knowledgeable users have been calling for the abandonment of password security altogether.”

What would be left then? Only attributes about who we are as living beings.

The unknowable password

Identifying people based not on what they know, but rather their actual biology, is perhaps the ultimate goal. This goes well beyond fingerprints and retina scans, Elon’s Squire explains:

“[A] computer game similar to ‘Guitar Hero’ [can] train the subconscious brain to learn a series of keystrokes. When a musician memorizes how to play a piece of music, she doesn’t need to think about each note or sequence. It becomes an ingrained, trained reaction usable as a password but nearly impossible even for the musician to spell out note by note, or for the user to disclose letter by letter.”

That might just do away with passwords altogether. And yet if you’re really just longing for the days of deadbolts, padlocks and keys, you’re not alone.

Don’t just leave things to a password

User authentication using an electronic key is here, as Penn State-Altoona information sciences and technology professor Jungwoo Ryoo writes:

“A new, even more secure method is gaining popularity, and it’s a lot like an old-fashioned metal key. It’s a computer chip in a small portable physical form that makes it easy to carry around. (It even typically has a hole to fit on a keychain.) The chip itself contains a method of authenticating itself … And it has USB or wireless connections so it can either plug into any computer easily or communicate wirelessly with a mobile device.”

The ConversationJust don’t leave your keys on the table at home.

Jeff Inglis, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

3.14 essential reads about π for Pi Day

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We need just a little more party hat… Yelp/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.

On March 14, or 3/14, mathematicians and other obscure-holiday aficionados celebrate Pi Day, honoring π, the Greek symbol representing an irrational number that begins with 3.14. Pi, as schoolteachers everywhere repeat, represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

What is Pi Day, and what, really, do we know about π anyway? Here are three-and-bit-more articles to round out your Pi Day festivities.

A silly holiday

First off, a reflection on this “holiday” construct. Pi itself is very important, writes mathematics professor Daniel Ullman of George Washington University, but celebrating it is absurd:

The Gregorian calendar, the decimal system, the Greek alphabet, and pies are relatively modern, human-made inventions, chosen arbitrarily among many equivalent choices. Of course a mood-boosting piece of lemon meringue could be just what many math lovers need in the middle of March at the end of a long winter. But there’s an element of absurdity to celebrating π by noting its connections with these ephemera, which have themselves no connection to π at all, just as absurd as it would be to celebrate Earth Day by eating foods that start with the letter “E.”

And yet, here we are, looking at the calendar and getting goofily giddy about the sequence of numbers it shows us.

There’s never enough

In fact, as Jon Borwein of the University of Newcastle and David H. Bailey of the University of California, Davis, document, π is having a sustained cultural moment, popping up in literature, film and song:

Sometimes the attention given to pi is annoying. On 14 August 2012, the U.S. Census Office announced the population of the country had passed exactly 314,159,265. Such precision was, of course, completely unwarranted. But sometimes the attention is breathtakingly pleasurable.

Come to think of it, pi can indeed be a source of great pleasure. Apple’s always comforting, and cherry packs a tart pop. Chocolate cream, though, might just be where it’s at.

Strange connections

Of course π appears in all kinds of places that relate to circles. But it crops up in other places, too – often where circles are hiding in plain sight. Lorenzo Sadun, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, explores surprising appearances:

Pi also crops up in probability. The function f(x)=e-x², where e=2.71828… is Euler’s number, describes the most common probability distribution seen in the real world, governing everything from SAT scores to locations of darts thrown at a target. The area under this curve is exactly the square root of π.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Historical pi

If you want to engage with π more directly, follow the lead of Georgia State University mathematician Xiaojing Ye, whose guide starts thousands of years ago:

The earliest written approximations of pi are 3.125 in Babylon (1900-1600 B.C.) and 3.1605 in ancient Egypt (1650 B.C.). Both approximations start with 3.1 – pretty close to the actual value, but still relatively far off.

By the end of his article, you’ll find a method to calculate π for yourself. You can even try it at home!

An irrational bonus

And because π is irrational, we’ll irrationally give you even one more, from education professor Gareth Ffowc Roberts at Bangor University in Wales, who highlights the very humble beginnings of the symbol π:

After attending a charity school, William Jones of the parish of Llanfihangel Tre’r Beirdd landed a job as a merchant’s accountant and then as a maths teacher on a warship, before publishing A New Compendium of the Whole Art of Navigation, his first book in 1702 on the mathematics of navigation. On his return to Britain he began to teach maths in London, possibly starting by holding classes in coffee shops for a small fee.

Shortly afterwards he published “Synopsis palmariorum matheseos,” a summary of the current state of the art developments in mathematics which reflected his own particular interests. In it is the first recorded use of the symbol π as the number that gives the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

The ConversationWhat made him realize that this ratio needed a symbol to represent a numeric value? And why did he choose π? It’s all Greek to us.

Jeff Inglis, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Understanding net neutrality: 10 essential reads

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Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories, and is an updated version of an article previously published Jan. 24, 2017.

Ajit Pai. Federal Communications Commission

Ajit Pai, President Trump’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is a longtime foe of net neutrality. He has proposed completely repealing the Obama administration’s 2015 Open Internet Order, a decision the commission will likely vote to confirm on Dec. 14.

But what is net neutrality, this policy Pai has spent years criticizing? Here are some highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of the controversy around the concept of keeping the internet open:

1. Public interest versus private profit

The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:

Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.

The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?

2. Media is the basis of democracy

Pai’s move against net neutrality, media scholar Christopher Ali at the University of Virginia writes, is just part of a larger effort at the FCC to accelerate the deregulation trend of the past 30 years. The stakes are high:

Media is more than just our window on the world. It’s how we talk to each other, how we engage with our society and our government. Without a media environment that serves the public’s need to be informed, connected and involved, our democracy and our society will suffer….

If only a few wealthy companies control how Americans communicate with each other, it will be harder for people to talk among ourselves about the kind of society we want to build.

3. Pushing back against corporate control

Competition is already fairly limited, it turns out. Across America, most people have very little – if any – choice in who their internet provider is. Communication studies professor Amanda Lotz at the University of Michigan explains the concerns raised by a monopoly marketplace and the potential effects of turning back the current policy of net neutrality:

The rules were created out of concern internet service providers would reserve high-speed internet lanes for content providers who could pay for it, while relegating to slower speeds those that didn’t – or couldn’t, such as libraries, local governments and universities. Net neutrality is also important for innovation, because it protects small and start-up companies’ access to the massive online marketplace of internet users.

In this view, the internet is a public utility that should be preserved and protected for all to access freely.

4. Getting around the rules

Even with net neutrality rules in place, companies were pushing the boundaries of what is legal. In recent years, many mobile internet providers have been simultaneously imposing and creating exemptions from limits on how much data their customers can use in a given month. Called “zero rating policies,” these exemptions omit from the monthly cap certain types of data, or certain companies’ data. For example, T-Mobile customers can listen endlessly to Spotify internet radio regardless of how much high-speed data they use for other purposes. Information systems scholars Liangfei Qiu, Soohyun Cho and Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay at the University of Florida examined the effects of those policies on the marketplace:

At first glance, zero rating plans would seem to be good for consumers because they allow users to consume traffic for free. But our research suggests the variety of content may be reduced, which in the long run harms consumers.

Their findings suggest that keeping the internet open would be best for the public.

5. Regulation isn’t always a good solution

However, regulating with that sort of goal could be risky because of the fast-changing nature of the internet, writes technology policy scholar Scott Wallsten at Georgetown:

Today’s business models may not be viable in the future. Net neutrality rules run counter to that reality by freezing in place a particular industry structure, making it difficult for firms to respond to underlying changes in technology and consumer demand over time.

6. A vestige of the 20th century

Whether net neutrality rises or falls, however, the debate will continue. The rules and frameworks the government uses to try to regulate the internet are long out of date, and were written to address a very different time, when landline telephone service was not yet ubiquitous. Boston University communication and law professor T. Barton Carter explained what the real solution is:

The laws governing the internet were written in the early 20th century, decades before the companies that dominate the internet like Google and YouTube even existed. The only solution is a complete rewrite of the 80-year-old Communications Act – unfortunately a fool’s errand in today’s Washington.

7. Can net neutrality even happen?

And maintaining net neutrality itself could be a major challenge, if not a fool’s errand, thanks to important technical details that could make the ideal impossible, writes University of Michigan computer scientist Harsha Madhyastha:

If one user is streaming video and another is backing up data to the cloud, should both of them have their data slowed down? Or would users’ collective experience be best if those watching videos were given priority? That would mean slightly slowing down the data backup, freeing up bandwidth to minimize video delays and keep the picture quality high.

8. Check for yourself

What it looks like when an internet provider throttles content. Screenshot of Northeastern University Wehe app, CC BY-ND

Northeastern University computer scientist David Choffnes describes how his team built an app that can measure exactly how internet service providers handle different types of traffic:

The methods we used and the tools we developed investigate how internet service providers manage your traffic and demonstrate how open the internet really is – or isn’t – as a result of evolving internet service plans, as well as political and regulatory changes. Regular people can explore their own services with our mobile app for Android, which is out now; an iOS version is coming soon.

Letting people see whether, and how, their data service handles internet traffic may be the best way to show people the importance of an open internet.

9. Very large stakes

If net neutrality is repealed, it could spell disaster for America’s position as an international leader in online innovation, writes global business scholar Bhaskar Chakravorti at Tufts:

Based on our findings, I believe that rolling back net neutrality rules will jeopardize the digital startup ecosystem that has created value for customers, wealth for investors and globally recognized leadership for American technology companies and entrepreneurs. The digital economy in the U.S. is already on the verge of stalling; failing to protect an open internet would further erode the United States’ digital competitiveness, making a troubling situation even worse.

10. Setting clearer guidelines

If Pai’s proposal goes through, it will signal that future changes in partisan control in Washington, D.C., could also lead to major shifts in internet regulation. A key part of this potential problem is lack of clarity in the laws, meaning regulators and courts have to sort through major policy questions that would better be dealt with in Congress, writes Timothy Brennan, a former chief economist at the FCC who is now a public policy scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He explains three steps Congress could take to simplify the debate – without even having to agree on the policy itself:

If Congress could enact legislation that removed the distinction between “telecommunication” and “information” services, reinforced the importance of the public interest in communications and restored antitrust enforcement power for regulators, the FCC would be better able to develop net neutrality regulations – whatever they may turn out to be – with solid substantive and legal foundations.

The ConversationThat could go a long way to furthering both public debate and public policy.

Jeff Inglis, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.