Report of HIPAA Breaches

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights publishes a list of reported breaches of healthcare information.

More information on breach reporting requirements can be found here:



Equifax Security Breach & Credit Freezes

By now, you’ve heard of the Equifax security breach. There’s plenty of coverage on it so I won’t go into detail here.

However, a friend asked me what I felt they should do next and I figured I’d share my recommendation (which really goes for any security breach that affects your personally identifiable information.)

We may all might was well do three things:

  1. Go to Equifax’s website to see if we might be victims of this latest breach: They have a handy tool for you to check if you’re part of the breach.
  2. Sign up for the free credit monitoring that Equifax is providing (if available to you, on the same website)
  3. Consider signing up to freeze your credit report.

Its this last one I want to discuss in more detail. The Identify Theft Resource Center has some great info on the pros and cons of credit freezes. There’s often a cost associated with freezing (and thawing) your credit report for long periods of time and sometimes you have to be a victim of ID theft to start. Worse, the rules vary state to state. But it makes me wonder why this isn’t the default setting for all consumers?

Why isn’t our credit frozen automatically and easy to thaw (by the consumer) with minimal hassle? Especially since these credit companies are collecting information about us without our explicit consent, it seems that consumers should have better defense against ID theft than simple credit monitoring, which is generally clunky and temporary. Criminals have great patience and they know the monitoring only lasts one to two years.

If thawing one’s report to sign up for new credit was easy, there’s really no reason from a consumer perspective why we wouldn’t want to enable this fundamental and powerful privacy feature.

My Accidental Epiphany: Debit Card Two Step Verification

Two things happened to me yesterday almost at the same time that changed the way I will use my debit card forever.

First, some background: I have two different bank accounts. One has all my money and my loan info. I’ll call that my secret account. The other I set up because Amazon demands a bank account to auto-deposit (the very meager) proceeds of my book sales and I wasn’t about to give them the keys to my (admittedly tiny) kingdom. On the rare occasion I sell a book, Amazon puts the token payment in the second account and I manually transfer it to the first. Let’s call that my transaction account. Needless to say, the balance is usually zero, or close to it.

Now the first event: I got a new debit card in the mail. It came in the usual plain envelope from my bank. I immediately took it down to the local branch office to reset my pin number and turned in my old debit card for secure shredding. Here’s what I failed to realize: The debit card they sent me was for the transaction account. The card I gave to the bank to shred was for the secret one! I know, I know. I need to pay closer attention to the paperwork that comes with these dang cards.

The reason I found this out was because of the second event. I love to go almost every Sunday to the local farmer’s market and many vendors there don’t take credit cards. So I visited the local convenience store to take some money out of the ATM. When I inserted the debit card, it told me I could not withdraw money because I had insufficient funds. It was then I realized the mistake I made with the cards. Aw, man! Now, how would I get my fresh-squeezed juice?!

That’s when it hit me. I whipped out my handy smart phone and used the bank’s mobile app to transfer the money I needed from my secret account to the transactional account. Instantly, I was able to use the ATM to retrieve the money I needed and buy my yummy juice. That’s when my epiphany hit me: Why don’t I ALWAYS do my debit transactions this way? Some companies, like CostCo, don’t take credit cards, only debit cards. I always feel a twinge of insecurity when I use my secret debit card there. Security pros know that its always better to use credit cards online or in stores because if the card number is stolen, its better that the bad guys charge to your credit account (which you can then easily dispute and be refunded after signing an affidavit) than have your entire savings or checking account drained of your hard-earned cash and bounce a bunch of checks in the process. Messy. Very messy.

This epiphany, which is really just a play on the two-step verification process, is the answer! Of course, parents have been doing this for years with their college kids’ debit cards, but here’s the step-by-step procedure to set this up if you do a lot of business with your debit card:

  1. Assuming you already have a bank account (we will call that your secret account), set up a second one that will be used SOLEY for individual transactions. Deposit the minimum amount the bank requires and no more. Always try to leave this account empty (or with the minimum balance to avoid fees).
  2. Work with the bank to set up this transactional account so that you can transfer money between it and your secret one.
  3. Request a debit card for this new transactional account. Use ONLY this debit card when conducting business.
  4. Whenever you need to take money out of the ATM or want to make a payment using a debit card (thanks, Costco!), first use your bank’s mobile app to transfer the money you need from your secret account to your transactional account.
  5. Then use the transactional debit card to process the payment (or take out the money!) Easy peasy!
  6. If someone (like Amazon) ever needs to SEND you a payment using your bank account info (danger! danger! always be suspicious of such requests…Paypal may be a better option, but guess what? Paypal needs your account info too), give them the transactional bank account info. As soon as the payment arrives, transfer it to your secret account.

The benefits of this two-step method is that if your debit card info is ever lost by the people or places you do business with it, evil hackers will have access to…an empty bank account. Ha! Take that, villains! I’m kidding guys. Please don’t hurt me. It could also be useful to help manage your money by performing all transactions through a single transactional account.

Anyways. I was thinking about calling my bank to request a new debit card for my secret account. Now I’m thinking I might not need it. Oh, and if more people buy my books, I won’t have to transfer money at all. I could just live off the proceeds of their generosity. Get on it, book fans! 😉

Thanks for reading.

The Three Laws of Privacy in the Internet of Things

Internet-of-ThingsLet’s say that tomorrow they invented the flying car and anyone could afford one. What would you see in your town by this weekend? A portion of your neighbors–the technology-driven–would already have one and be bumping into trees and power lines while they tried to park their new rides. A larger portion, let’s call them the technology-mindfuls, might be considering how such a car will fit into their lifestyle, and might be taking advantage of public transportation that flies already. Finally, there would be the technology-humbugs that simply would not have anything to do with these new-fangled flying machines.

Imagine the chaos of all these new flying cars in the air. What would be the new rules of the road? Could cars fly over each other? Would they need to follow existing streets? Where are flying cars allowed to park? How do we decide who is at fault when accidents occur? How long would it take legislators to battle out a new set of laws and policies regarding the use of flying cars? How long would it take security folks to develop defenses to protect lives and property from so many objects whizzing around in the sky?

What’s happening now with the Internet of Things feels a little bit like flying cars. We are seeing a multitude of new and generally affordable technologies that people are learning how to use–and misuse. We have technology-driven consumers buying the latest gadgets without fully understanding how to protect themselves while using them. We have companies developing these technologies without fully understanding how to protect the devices or the consumers that use them.

Now that International Privacy Day is over, I reflect on how far the technologies we’ve come to rely on provide us convenience and weigh the risks to our privacy and security by enabling them.

Security is concerned with protecting data: Access controls, encryption…basically making sure data’s confidentiality, integrity and availability cannot be compromised. Privacy is concerned about these things too. However, privacy also examines transparency–giving consumers more information about an organization’s practices regarding the collection and use of their data; and choice, empowering users to make decisions about what data is collected about them, about with whom it is shared, and about what is done with the data…and even how long it is stored.

I was reminded of one of my favorite movies based loosely on a story by one of my favorite authors: I, Robot by Issac Asimov. In the story, society is introduced to a fantastic new technology that promises to benefit all.

Aware that people tend to be afraid of the unknown and that this new technology may be viewed with suspicion, the manufacturer derives a set of Three Laws with the intent of assuring a nervous public that they have nothing to worry about.

The Three Laws of Robotics went something like this:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Quite predictably, when the Three Laws are violated, panic ensues.

In a way, the Internet of Things is much like the robots of the story. We have thousands of fantastic new technologies, all promising great benefits, each carrying the risk of making consumers afraid about how these technologies will affect them.

So I got to thinking, what if the Internet of Things had its own version of the Three Laws…the Three Privacy Laws of the IOT…rooted in Privacy By Design? They might read a little something like this:

  • An organization shall not collect data in a manner that causes injury to a person, or through unintended consequences, allows a person to come to harm.
  • An organization shall not collect more data than it needs to service a person and shall protect the data it collects at all times.
  • An organization collecting data about a person shall give that person visibility and control regarding the collection, retention and sharing of their data so long as it does not conflict with the Second Law.

A tech maker of IoT devices could certify that they had met all the requirements of the Laws and when the certification process was complete, they could let their customers know that they were “Three Laws Ready” just like the company in the movie.

No matter what new article I read about privacy or the IoT, it always comes back to one thing: Trust. Trust is more than about good intentions, as we discovered in 2014, the year of the mega breach. As the people in Asimov’s story discovered, its also about executing transparency, choice and damn good security. Miss any one of these and don’t be surprised if panic ensues.

As a privacy advocate, I’m passionate about making sure we get it right. Whether its robots or flying cars, the technologies are advancing faster than some people’s ability to keep up. That doesn’t mean the makers of those technologies have any more right to violating our privacy. Assuming ignorance on the part of consumers may be a time-honored way of making money, but public or private organizations that operate in such a manner will eventually discover who actually holds the power. And in this age of social media connections and instant communications, Hell hath no fury like a consumer burned.

And this technology-mindful really want his flying car, so they better get it right the first time.

Data Privacy – My Privacy Pet Peeve

English: Paper Shredders = Security, Privacy &...

I hear it every day. Someone, even privacy professionals, will use the phrase “data privacy.”

There’s a serious problem with this phrase no matter how you interpret it. Reading it one way, one might think it was referring to data’s privacy (pardon my improper use of the apostrophe here, but I use it to make a point.) Of course, data has no privacy. It could care less whether it is revealed or kept confidential. Its just data and its not shy at all.

Another way one could interpret this could be that the phrase speaks to the act of keeping data confidential. Again, this is a common but inadequate way of looking at what privacy is about.

The problem with the phrase is that when we speak of “data privacy” the conversation inevitably leads to discussions about security controls–safeguards to protecting the confidentiality and integrity of the data. We talk about encryption, access privileges, and (if we’re on our game) how to properly dispose of information when its no longer required.

Certainly one cannot have good privacy without good security, but talking about privacy exclusively in terms of security controls ignores the privacy controls that are so critical to good privacy. Things like individual choice, and notice. Why? Because it completely ignores what privacy is REALLY all about: Protecting the freedom of the individual to make decisions without unwanted influence.

Privacy is not and will never be about data except that data can be used as a tool to damage privacy. We should always seek to describe privacy in terms of how it affects the individual.

I’m willing to make one exception to this rule. When we want to describe various aspects of what affects our privacy then adding a modifier to privacy makes sense. For example, if I use the term “energy privacy” you know I am speaking about the privacy risks associated with one’s energy usage data and not one’s personally identifiable information. Its a good shortcut to start a conversation quickly.

But perhaps we can agree to be more purposeful around how we use these terms and recognize that they are not synonymous with the privacy of the individual?

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The Concept of Energy Privacy

My comments are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of my company.

English: WASHINGTON (Oct. 7, 2011) An advanced...

For the last several years, Personally Identifiable Information, or PII, has been the buzz in privacy circles. That’s old school now. By itself, PII is fairly useless for violating one’s privacy, except as it pertains to identity fraud, or when coupled with other sensitive information that ties our behavior to our identity.

Lately, I’ve been tossing a new phrase in my new role (and really to anyone that will listen): “Energy Privacy.” That is, privacy issues having to do with an energy utility customer’s detailed energy usage information, generally obtained through “smart meters” or “advanced metering infrastructure.” The concept of energy privacy is nothing new to utilities. They’ve been analyzing coarse-grained usage data for years and have been generally very good at protecting customer privacy while doing it.

The difference now is how fine the granularity is becoming. Forget monthly reads. Smart meters are reading our energy usage in near-real time (even though many utilities only collect reads every 15 minutes or every hour.) Privacy professionals typically fear that this means that 3rd parties will be able to tell when customers are home and when they are not based on their usage.

Please. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what we can expect.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe smart meters and the smart grid in general can provide some great benefits to everyone: customers, utilities and 3rd parties wanting to sell awesome products and services that will improve our lives and perhaps help preserve the environment. Energy usage information will help utilities build grids that are more reliable and less susceptible to power outages while accommodating more unpredictable renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and a flood of new energy-soaking devices like electric cars. I get it and I embrace it as long as my privacy is respected.

But consider this analogy. Today’s smart meters are akin to binoculars on the sides of our homes. The algorithms used to analyze usage information in order to find patterns that describe how the energy is being used allow anyone with access to it to see inside our homes the types of devices we plug in. For example, refrigerators, air conditioners, or electric vehicles. Analysts can see when we’re using these devices, how often, and how many we have.

Tomorrow’s algorithms will be more like microscopes. Not only will we be able to see that a consumer has a refrigerator, but what brand and model it is, what condition it is in, and even how much food it has in it (full refrigerators use less energy than empty ones…if I know the expected output of your brand and model, I can determine this.) Analysts will be able to tell what you’re watching on television. Tomorrow’s algorithms will be able to not only detect devices, but predict behavior. Of course, early algorithms will be used to determine how we can save energy. That’s a primary reason smart grid exists. But what if an algorithm could be written to determine whether a single parent was neglecting their kids? Not enough food in the fridge, too much time on the game console? Must be bad parenting. What if usage data could be used to detect criminal activity or “unwanted” behavior…I don’t just mean pot growers. I mean anything that society deems unacceptable at the moment. Maybe someone has too many water features plugged in their backyard, or watches TV too much (shouldn’t you be looking for a job?) All that is needed to see an average person’s behavior inside their home is to examine their usage data.

Now couple that with California’s consideration of plans to build an energy data center to house and analyze all this energy usage data. Their intentions are good. They want to help plan future infrastructure needs, especially local governments. They want to help us reduce energy use. But when the government wants to peer inside our homes with a microscope, regardless of their stated intentions, what privacy do we really have left?

Some say that as long as the data is anonymous or aggregated that it should be fine to share the information. Does anyone recall the privacy breach at AOL in which hundreds of thousands of “anonymous” customers were at risk of having their personal searches tied to them? How long will it be before an algorithm is developed that can determine who we are simply by our energy use coupled with the treasure trove of free information available on the Internet, such as Google Maps? How difficult will it be for smart mathematicians to de-aggregate information that we thought was aggregated? I don’t know except that it will be sooner than we think.

Enter the importance of energy privacy. Our energy usage data will say more about us than whether we are home or not. A lot more. This by itself is not a bad thing IF we as consumers have control over whom the data is shared with and how it is used. Give consumers control and confidence builds.

My goal is to raise awareness of the importance–and value–of your energy usage data. So informed, you can begin to participate in the discussion about how your usage information will be used and whom it will be shared with. I believe that as long as consumers have knowledge of the risks of sharing this information, have the ability to decide who they would like to share it with (referred to as “opt-in”), and the ability to review and terminate any such sharing in the future, that the consumer then retains control of this information. Control equals power.

At the vanguard of protecting our energy privacy are utilities (who often get a bad rap for protecting such information) and privacy advocates who understand the potential risks and are fighting to preserve this last bastion of personal privacy. Why should utilities care about your privacy? Its quite simple: They don’t want you to remove the smart meter from your house. Even if you don’t fully trust your own utility, you can absolutely trust that they have an intrinsic business-minded reason to passionately protect your privacy. They want you to participate.

Now is the time for us all to consider how important our energy privacy is inside our own homes and how much intrusion we are willing to tolerate. Ask your utility and your government about your energy privacy and what they’re doing to protect it. Let’s have a conversation and ensure consumers retain the power they have every right to expect.

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Microsoft Adheres to Privacy Principles


Microsoft took a bold step last month in announcing that IE 10 will ship with “do not track” enabled by default. Advertisers are up in arms about it. They claim it will “harm consumers.” Really? When we believe that protecting an individual’s privacy somehow harms them we have entered a very Orwellian world of double-speak.


Microsoft has adhered to a fundamental principle of Privacy By Design: Make privacy the default setting. All of us that ever hated Microsoft for shipping products with security and privacy features turned off (and every other feature turned on!) should be shouting for joy and leaping to defend this embattled company.


Microsoft made the right call. I hope they stick to it.


Will it hurt marketers and advertisers? Doubtful under this voluntary system (see related articles.) But let’s say they played by the rules and did not bypass the setting. If anything, it means marketers will have to try harder to convince consumers to overcome their inertia to disable privacy protection. Or here’s a novel idea, advertisers: Convince consumers to give you the information you want willingly instead of sneaking it from cookies and other deceptive tools.


What is true is that the direction we are headed is generally the wrong one. Everyone from big companies to political campaigns are recognizing the power of “big data” and they all want more of it. And let’s be very honest about why they want it: To manipulate you and me. We can go back and forth all day about it helps get the right ads in front of the right people, but remove all the double-speak and what you have left is manipulation.


I for one don’t want to be manipulated. Catered to, perhaps. Pampered, for sure. But go manipulate someone else as far as I’m concerned. Why not give every person browsing the web that same opportunity for privacy without having to take extra steps to protect themselves? The bold and the foolhardy can always undo the settings at their convenience.


In the end, Microsoft’s choice will not undo the millions of dollars spent on Internet advertising. Nor, unfortunately does the cynic in me believe it will technically protect our privacy. But it has started a conversation, which for now, is good enough for me. I hope more people wake up to the importance of protecting their fragile privacy.





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Infragard Social Media and Public Safety Event

Recently the San Diego chapter of Infragard invited me to speak at our “Social Media and Public Safety” event on May 23rd. The event was held at the beautiful Irwin Jacobs auditorium at Qualcomm’s headquarters. It’s a fantastic facility for such events.

I gave a talk on “Social Media 101” to explain some of the basics of common social media and why emergency and incident responders should be using it. It’s not often that information security professionals talk up the importance of using social media, mostly because we’re so busy preaching why they are so bad for security and privacy. But they are valuable tools that emergency responders can ignore only at their peril. My premise is that if we don’t understand how to use such tools ourselves, how can we help others protect themselves online?

SDG&E arrived to demonstrate their new Incident Command Trailer. Very cool.

My conclusion? Get involved! Use the tools. Learn the culture. Pick a topic you care about and aren’t worried about from a privacy perspective  (like fishing for example!) and post only about that. Anything is better than nothing and nothing is what the bad guys are hoping we will do.

While the event was going on, we used twitter hashtag #sdcssm which was trending locally in San Diego until at least 9pm that night. Take that, #songstogetlaidby!

For those interested in a copy of my presentation, I’ve made it available here.