Who wants to be safe? Online protection as a black box

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[6 min read]

Hacking that affects individuals is very widespread. The Pew Research Center reports nearly 2/3 of online Americans have experienced some form of data theft. A total of about 50% of onliners think their personal data are less secure than five years ago (see previous post for other details).

What does “data theft” look like? Pew examined seven types, and found that only two – fraudulent credit charges and stolen tax refunds – entailed direct financial loss. The others involved some less definable harm, such as an attacker getting his hands on social security numbers or login credentials for social media accounts. We call it “compromising” the data.

This amorphous concept of “compromised data” is growing into one of the chief barriers standing in the way of advances in cybersecurity for end-users. It takes what’s already invisible and annoying (see: strong passwords), and adds a hefty dose of abstraction. Exactly when can we say a piece of data has been sufficiently “compromised” to start worrying and take action? What kind of action?

WhatsApp: how secure?

Let’s look at WhatsApp to see how a popular messaging service handles security for a billion users – and how adding security can actually lead to trouble as well as safety.

Last year WhatsApp announced deployment of end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for all messages and media crossing its systems. Their FAQ assures users that everything they send is “secured from falling into the wrong hands” – right from the sender’s device all the way to the recipient’s (hence “end-to-end”). Marketing wants to be reassuring, not to mention emphatic as to why their platform is better than competing platforms. Continue reading

Security fatigue: problems in password paradise

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[5 min read]

A new survey from the Pew Research Center paints a bleak picture of how Internet users feel about their online security. The report starts with bad news about passwords, the high profile tool in the toolkit: “69% of online adults say they do not worry about how secure their online passwords are.”

How does not worrying look in real life?

Consider the findings from Keeper, a vendor of password management software. It recently tallied its annual list of the world’s favorite passwords. The top 10 list opposite, taken from an analysis of 10 million sample passwords, illustrates pretty well what end-users mean by not worrying. These passwords are so terrible that the estimated crack time for the “safest” choice on the list (#6) is about 9/1000 of a second – for the others, the effective crack time is zero seconds. This preference for easy – and insecure – passwords goes hand in hand with a set of attitudes to online security that’s not easy to fathom.

To begin with, Pew notes a tension between lack of trust in institutions and reluctance to take personal action on security:

“[While] they express skepticism about whether the businesses and institutions they interact with can adequately protect their personal information, a substantial share of the public admits that they do not always incorporate cybersecurity best practices into their own digital lives.”

Internet users are right to feel skeptical. Site operators as varied as Target, Ashley Madison and Yahoo! have shown they’re not only lousy at network security, but irresponsible in disclosure and damage control. In December, Yahoo! admitted that hackers had breached its systems and stole information from one billion accounts – and had done so three years before management got around to discussing the attack publicly.

A second and more counter-intuitive finding concerns what people do in response to suffering from an actual online attack:

“Americans who have personally experienced a major data breach are generally no more likely than average to take additional means to secure their passwords (such as using password management software).”

What explains such quick dismissal of self-interest?

Despite being a part of daily life, I think most people find passwords not just difficult but, well, weird. The better they are, the worse they are, since what makes them hard to crack also makes them hard to handle. Unlike, say, car locks and safe deposit boxes, passwords work invisibly on assets that are also invisible. Even as we type them, they dissolve into rows of inscrutable little dots. Plus they’re often stored on remote servers, i.e. in the “cloud” – the perfect metaphor for a tool you can’t see or understand.

Perhaps this abstract quality is what prompts people to manage their passwords in another kind of remote cloud: their brains. Two-thirds of onliners (65%) say memorizing their passwords is their most used strategy, while 86% use memorizing as at least one approach. The way distant second? Writing passwords on a piece of paper, the most used method for only 18% of respondents.

Software developers look at this behavior and think they can put us out of our misery by selling us password management software – 1Password, Dashlane, Keeper, etc – the tools security experts recommend most highly.

The bad news, however, is that almost nobody uses them. A mere 12% of onliners say they use these applications at least sometimes, while those who say they use a password manager most often amount to a tiny minority of 3%. Pew cautions this is not niche behavior, as password software “is used relatively rarely across a wide range of demographic groups.”

There’s a useful lesson here.

People at the selling end of the consumer tech business see code as the solution to everything. If you have trouble remembering your passwords and that makes you unsafe and you’re generally miserable about it all, then you’re gonna love our software. What’s wrong with this logic is not how good the software is or how cheap or how user-friendly. The problem is that it’s software.

This mental fatigue extends far past security. It’s only part of the fallout from how mainstream consumers are taught to behave in the digital world – to expect everything we touch to be effortless, easy and user-friendly, even when it clearly isn’t. Vendors know their customers won’t take lessons, respond to scares or read the manual so they just pretend there’s nothing to learn in the first place.

Same deal with hardware. As a tech at the Apple Genius Bar once explained to me, customers come in with broken, manhandled $1500 machines they’ve never maintained or even cleaned, and leave with their repair ready for more abuse. Imagine treating a $1500 Weber gas barbecue that way.

The only way mainstream consumers are ever going to make peace with their devices – and their passwords – is by getting to know them better. Mystification is a terrible motivator, as I can attest after a decade teaching 20-somethings how their digital world works.

Getting this particular demographic to put down their phones, their ingrained habits and their fear of exploring technology (yep, you heard that right), is hard work for all. Like most people, students have been persuaded there must be an app for that – one that will allow them to learn how a data packet crosses the Internet without any effort on their part. Or while texting. Well, there isn’t and there won’t be.

I see a wholesale change in our approach to understanding digital technology as one of the most important educational missions of the next decade. I’ll be writing more about this educational challenge in the coming weeks and months.

(The Pew survey on cybersecurity is available here.)

D.E.

Continue reading

Dialing for digital dollars: inside the Cancon sausage factory

sausage-factory

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A little sympathy for Mélanie Joly, please.

melanie-jolyImagine if your job was to save the purveyors of Canadian content from the ravishes of American cultural imperialists, cord-cutters, cord-shavers, cord-nevers, millennials in general, digerati, incumbent ISPs, Reed Hastings, VPN developers, Jeff Bezos, Chicken Little, Hulu, cloud computing vendors, Henny Penny and Reed Hastings. It’s harder than it looks.

Contrary to popular belief, Ms Joly is doing exactly what the Minister of Canadian Heritage should be doing these days: looking for money to put into the pockets of Canada’s network content providers so they can make bigger and better Webisodes for the digital age. Yet her ideas for accomplishing this daunting task have drawn vociferous criticism. Many criticisms have focused on issues outside the Minister’s mandate and are based on little appreciation of how things actually work in her department.

So let’s head on over to the sausage factory where the sausage mandarins have been cooking up our Cancon policy for the last half-century.

We’ll start with Minister Joly’s least popular trial balloon: slapping an “Internet tax” on everyone’s ISP bill. My friends at OpenMedia have been pointing out with alarm that such a tax would only serve to raise the price of Internet access, when Canadians already pay high prices for mediocre service (you can sign their petition here).

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OpenMedia: Joly’s tax would make us as bad as Hungary

Could there be anything worse than this tax “on the Internet”? Yes! A tax on Netflix, an idea that just won’t die, thanks to Joly’s alleged plan to bring the streaming giant “into the system” – Ottawa code for we’re gonna tax the daylights outta Netflix.  Continue reading

Smart objects, dumb ideas: your hyperconnected future (Pew/Elon 2016)

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We’re all going to hell in an IP-enabled handbasket.

The bland-looking control panel depicted above is the heart of a smart home – automated up the wazoo, so your fingers can play master of the universe with the lighting, audio system, appliances, heating and cooling, sprinklers, pool, spa, garage door – and your alleged security system.

Alleged because smart homes, cars and all the other items you’ll be connecting to the public automated-cat_feederInternet will offer unprecedented opportunites for hackers to infiltrate your life. Most personal devices like computers are already insecure enough. But so-called “smart” devices will be far more difficult for consumers to organize, update and secure than the familiar devices we can see and hold. (If you think any object in our lives will be spared, check out the automated cat feeder adjacent, courtesy Wikipedia.) Continue reading

An uncertain future for higher ed (Pew/Elon 2016)

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Last month I wrote about the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I included comments on the ubiquitous use of algorithms and the costs that entails. That was one of five questions on the 2016 survey. I answered two others: one on the future of education (#2) and the other on the effects of ever-increasing connectedness (#5).

My views on the future of higher education – especially in the liberal arts – have grown more pessimistic over the last year and a half. They’ve been shaped by the research and interviews I’ve done while working on a book proposal aimed at the uses and misuses of technology in the classroom. The working title, Turned off Tech, reflects the long-ago inciting incident: confiscating student phones and all other digital devices, the better to make the classroom a place to learn again.

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Students adjust nicely to the idea that paying attention is a good way to find out how digital technologies work – as opposed to staring into a screen and expecting some miracle of osmosis. These days they’re much more concerned about what happens after they leave class and graduate. Many tell me that their 4-year degree was a painful necessity that will bring nothing by itself. Continue reading

Why algorithms are bad for you (Pew/Elon 2016)

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Statue of al-Khwārizmī, the 9th-century mathematician whose name gave us “algorithm”

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I’ve written a lot about the Pew Research Center. Pew does a great deal of invaluable survey research on the behaviors and attitudes we develop online (okay, “we” means American here). In a departure from the science of probability surveys, Pew teamed up with researchers at Elon University back in 2004 to launch their Imagining the Internet project.

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About every two years, the team prepares a set of questions that’s sent to a list of stakeholders and experts around the world. The questions reflect current hot-button items – but ask the participants to imagine how online trends will look a decade from now. The topics have ranged from broad social concerns like privacy and hyperconnectivity, to more technology-oriented questions like cloud computing and Big Data.

The 7th version of the survey was fielded this summer; it’s my 4th shot at predicting what life will be like in 2025. (For a look at what the survey tackled in 2014, see my posts starting with one on security, liberty and privacy.) Continue reading

Broadband as essential and affordable: what the research says

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Internet founders Cerf and Kahn

In most developed countries, broadband Internet connectivity has become a necessary part of life. That claim will come as little surprise to anyone who’s been forced to spend even a few hours without Internet access. But it’s a long way from how you feel when cut off, to defining broadband as an essential service to which all citizens have a legal right.

Much ink has been spilt over the quality, speed and price of broadband in recent years, lots of it right here. These issues keep getting increasingly weighty as broadband keeps getting increasingly essential. The importance of broadband is reflected in its wide-ranging role as the enabling technology responsible for bringing us social media, VoIP, streaming TV shows, cloud computing, multiplayer gaming, software upgrades, e-books, government services, job applications and a great deal more.

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As broadband has become essential to participation in social, cultural and economic activities, its affordability has become an important policy question in many high-income countries. In Canada, the CRTC has historically taken an explicitly hands-off approach by not regulating what we pay for retail broadband. In the spring of 2015, however, the Commission launched a public proceeding to explore whether it’s time to declare broadband an essential service (CRTC 2015-134). As part of its deliberations, the CRTC decided to look at the affordability of broadband access for Canadians with low incomes. (I participated in this proceeding as a consultant to OpenMedia, a consumer advocacy organization based in Vancouver. A final CRTC decision is probably several months away.)

Our study for the CRTC on affordability in communications services was completed in the spring of 2016

Late last year, the CRTC signaled its interest in research on the concept of affordability – not just pricing but the more complex concept of ability and willingness to pay an ISP for service in a given broadband market. Last January, with the goal of collecting more information on this topic, the Commission asked my colleagues at Ryerson University, Reza Rajabiun and Catherine Middleton, as well as yours truly, to prepare an independent review of research on affordability in the communications industries. We were asked in particular to identify empirical thresholds for measuring the affordability of essential communications services in Canada, with an emphasis on broadband because of its central role as an enabling technology.

One of our key findings was that access to essential broadband services is not affordable for households with incomes below $25,000 per year. We based this calculation on the standard income threshold used by the UN Broadband Commission for defining the affordability of communications services. In the course of the proceeding noted above, some consumer advocacy organizations recommended that the CRTC adopt this measure for purposes of its policymaking framework.

Our final report is in the public domain, but hasn’t been officially released by the Commission. As provided in our agreement with the CRTC, we’re therefore making the report available for those interested in looking at what academic, industry and government researchers have written in the last several years about the affordability of broadband services in a wide range of developed and developing countries. The full pdf is available here.

D.E.