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.

Privacy? Its by the Men’s Room

Neiman Marcus

Image via Wikipedia

While visiting the local Neiman Marcus in San Francisco I happened to go to the basement floor to visit the restrooms and found this interesting notice about a product called Euclid posted on a small sign.

It reads, “To enhance our customer’s experience, we use Euclid to identify mobile devices in and around our stores. Only the information that your device publicly broadcasts will be collected. If you do not want this information collected, or want to learn more information about Euclid, visit euclidelements.com/consumer.”

On the website, the company swears they care about privacy and they do:

  • Limited data collection
  • Only share aggregated and anonymous information
  • Easy opt-out and delete

To opt out you have to share your MAC address with this company. It seems odd to have to share identifying information with a company in order to enable them not to identify you especially since then they will also have the MAC address of the computer you used to access their website and your IP address too! Apparently the company tracks phones listening for wifi access points so they can determine your MAC address (which uniquely identifies your phone on a wifi network.)

As soon as a hacker worth her salt breaks open their database, the movements of thousands of mobile phones through malls will become public information. How much does Euclid invest in information security? No idea.

Of course, the average person entering the store–or merely walking by– will never see this sign. Consumers are advised to kiss their privacy good-bye and perhaps to turn off wifi and Bluetooth on their phones when not in use.

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Cyber security predictions for 2012

I’m no cyber security visionary…or am I? Everyone else has made their predictions. Here are my top five. Tell me I’m wrong! Does anyone make a living by doing this?

  1. Lots of security professionals will make annual predictions, most of which won’t come true, or will be so general as to be inevitable.
  2. Some organization will experience an insignificant hack which will cause an explosion of attention in the media.
  3. Some organization will experience a significant hack and most will never hear about it because it won’t be sexy.
  4. A security breach will cause a political candidate to change course.
  5. At least one organization will build a business continuity plan around the Mayan calendar.

Privacy? But I have nothing to hide!

Daniel Solove wrote a great article on why privacy matters even if one thinks they have nothing to hide. It is high time to dispel  this myth that if we’re “innocent” that we have nothing to hide.

Let me say it this way: Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

You may not have information you think needs to be hidden right now. But in a year, you may decide to run for office. You may have information that you are fine if your local bank sees, but you might be embarrassed if your co-workers had access to it. Otherwise, why not wear your social security number, date of birth and bank accounts on a tee-shirt?

Even if you think you have nothing personal to hide, what about those you love? Parents and grandparents, let me ask you some questions and tell me if they start to make you uncomfortable:

  • What time do your children get out of school?
  • What route to they walk home?
  • How long are they home alone?

There is a strong relationship between privacy and security. Each of the answers to these questions is technically “public” information and could in theory be learned legally by a third party who was very interested in the answers. But that doesn’t mean it’s something we’d want to share with a stranger who suddenly began asking these questions. Let’s face it. Even if we don’t care about our own privacy, surely there is someone’s privacy we do care about.

Everyone has some information they do not want to fall into the wrong hands at the wrong time.

A Fresh Start with Smart Grid

The Internet was a paradigm-changing set of technologies that 30 years ago few could have seen how they would change the nature of the way we communicate, the way we do business and even the way we live. Though resilient, the Internet was built on protocols and standards that were not designed with security in mind, resulting in the creation of an entire industry of security professionals, vendors, standards bodies and regulators to better secure it.

Smart Grid and its own emerging technologies, standards and protocols look to be the same kind of game changer that the Internet was. We can only imagine what new products and services the Smart Grid will enable 30 years from now.

Smart grids also represent a new challenge for security pros. For years we’ve been trained (and in some cases regulated) to implement well known sets of security controls, like firewalls or anti-virus, that help make up for the inherit weaknesses in current computing and network platforms. Isn’t the Smart Grid just another large-scale network that requires the same controls we apply to the Internet?

I hope we don’t think so.

At the 2011 Smart Grid Security Summit in San Diego, I gave a public challenge to the security pros, vendors and regulators that will help secure the Smart Grid. With Smart Grid we must question everything we assume about the traditional security controls we’ve used to secure devices and information on the Internet and focus instead on the basic security principles like least privilege and separation of duties.

My point was not to imply that we don’t need security controls in Smart Grid, nor that controls we use to protect the Internet won’t also work for Smart Grid, but rather that we should be asking ourselves why we need specific controls and what controls could we use instead that might be more effective. In other words, in Smart Grid we have the chance to design it right the first time. This is especially important considering the sheer amount of legacy gear that will have to be protected.

For example, firewalls are a common security control that security professionals recommend for securing networks. On the Internet firewalls serve a necessary albeit more and more ineffective mechanism for minimizing the attack surface of systems that sit behind the firewall. This is because most computing platforms, regardless of brand, and the applications that run on them, are sometimes less than ideal at defending themselves from the innumerable threats against them. Unfortunately, over the last 30 years attackers have learned how to exploit the inherit weaknesses in firewalls (and the people that configure them) so they don’t provide as much value as they could or should.

Does Smart Grid need firewalls? Certainly in some parts of its architecture. Germany has decided to make smart grid gateways a part of every German household. In the Home Area Network environment this may make sense. However, if smart grid components be designed to communicate only with other authorized devices then would smart grid firewalls still be necessary?

Anti-virus is another popular security control that has become a staple of any reasonable security configuration. I argue that anti-virus is a control has already begun to outlive its usefulness in traditional computer networks. We install it despite its weaknesses because it is a control laypersons have come to expect. In some cases, its mandated. But to introduce it to smart grids would be a crutch we could do without. Imagine millions of smart meters or smart transformers trying to download growing databases of virus signatures and store them in their limited memories. This misses an important point. Because of their mission-specific purposes, we should know every line of code in every piece of smart grid software. If this is true, smart devices should know when their code has been tampered with and malicious code replaced with known good. With advanced configuration management, smart grids could be extremely resistant to malware infections without traditional anti-virus software. Such a thing is nearly impossible on our favorite computing platforms. Too many applications. Smart grid software may be much more manageable.

None of this will be easy. Sometimes decisions may be made to do things quickly–or less expensively–than to meet strenuous security design principles. But the challenge stands. We have a unique opportunity to learn from past mistakes and design a system that brings all the benefits energy customers expect and demand in a way that is cost effective and resistant to cyber attack.

Movie Plot Privacy?

I talk a lot to my colleagues about privacy. Smart Grid is coming, and it’s a paradigm-changing technology much like the Internet was–and still is. By that I mean that no one was quite sure how the Internet would impact our privacy 30 years ago. We’re still learning. So it is with Smart Grid today as we try to imagine the world 30 years from now.

Smart Grid is an amazing set of technologies that could potentially change the way each of us looks at energy, the way we use it, the way we store it. Even the way we buy it.

So I sometimes tell stories about what Smart Grid might mean from a privacy perspective. One story I tell is that someday, someone with access to your energy usage data might be able to tell not only that you are watching T.V., but what you’re watching on T.V. The way a “smart” T.V. might use energy to light up pixels on a part of screen and darken them on others as it creates images to view could generate unique energy patterns and when combined with a particular model of television and other variables, could allow one to determine what movie was being watched.

For example, the movie “Die Hard” (with all its explosions at certain times in the movie) would probably have a different energy pattern than say, “Shakespeare in Love.” In theory, knowing the energy pattern generated by the T.V. would tell one what was being watched. The reaction I get when I tell this story is usually one of disbelief.

Well it turns out that this exact experiment is being done in Germany. Researchers believe that it may be possible to determine this exact sort of information from an energy customer’s usage data.

But why would a utility care about what you watch? Truth is, utilities don’t really care at all. Most utilities want to send you an accurate bill and help make you more knowledgeable about your energy consumption (plus they care about a whole lot of back end automation you would probably never see, but would make the grid even more robust and reliable.) But there are many 3rd parties that are trying to figure out how to monetize Smart Grid in other ways. Some of them might be very interested in what you watch on T.V. so they can sell you products and services they think you might like.

But there are other ways to capture this information, right?  True, but why should your Smart Grid be one of them? Privacy matters. We must all pay attention to it.

Did I tell you my story yet about how someday people may be able to determine what you’re doing on your computer based on its energy output–what you’re viewing, what you’re typing, what you’re downloading? Let’s save that one for next time.

Privacy matters.