As online threats multiply, who’s the hacker now?

March was a tough month for hackers.

First we learned from WikiLeaks that the CIA has an arsenal of code designed to break into the world’s phones, cars and TVs, not to mention old-fashioned computers. Then the US authorities announced indictments in the largest hacking case on record: the breach of half a billion Yahoo accounts in 2014. Two of the men charged are Russian spies.

The Kremlin is becoming particularly adept at blending high espionage and lowdown criminal pursuits like the online theft of other people’s data. The king of that particular castle is Evgeniy Bogachev, the guy opposite with his Bengal cat and matching pyjamas. They say he’s extremely wealthy, and once had upwards of half a million computers under his command. He’s also a criminal standout for having a $3 million FBI bounty on his close cropped head. Back home in his redoubt on the Black Sea, however, Bogachev is a popular asset among intelligence operatives.
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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.

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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

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

Netflix? it’s not the content, stupid, it’s the connectivity (2)

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Fresh evidence from Akamai about Canada’s lousy broadband speeds

Time now for some empirical evidence, featuring Akamai’s recently published State of the Internet report for Q2 of 2014. 

Akamai’s Intelligent Platform is a cloud computing technology that operates in some 90 countries around the world. Because of the scale and sophistication of its operations, it collects and analyzes huge amounts of real-time (not advertised) data about broadband speeds and related variables (based on roughly two trillion requests for Web content every day). Akamai includes in its analysis every country from which it receives requests for content from more than 25,000 unique IP addresses. Currently that’s 139 countries. Continue reading

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (2)

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Happy updates (July 25)

1) Ms Marsha. One of the best illustrations of the political clout wielded by the incumbent US broadband providers lies in their ability to kill any attempt at the creation of muni broadband networks. Twenty states have passed laws banning public-sector broadband alternatives, encouraged by the industry lobbies and those who might be harmed by competition, like poor, struggling Comcast. As I note in the 2nd para below, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is one of the great congressional champions of this free-market exercise. She is more determined than ever to ensure nobody in her own state or any state ever gets better, more affordable service. Such is her reputation that in a comment posted to a story in Ars yesterday, a reader added this apology:

A bit off topic: As a Tennessee state resident, I’d like to personally apologize to the rest of the country, hell the world maybe for that matter, for Marsha Blackburn. Another fine example of what you can buy of [sic] you are a corporation with enough money to line the right pockets.

On the upside, Brodkin’s story is entitled “FCC gets its chance to overturn state limits on broadband competition” – reporting on a petition to the FCC from a community-owned electric utility to overturn the state law barring it from providing fiber-based Internet access – in Chattanooga (Tennessee!).

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2) Transparency enforcement. And in other good news related to policing the ISPs, the FCC on Wednesday issued an Enforcement Advisory that holds two surprises. The FCC will fine any broadband provider that intentionally misleads its customers; and the rule behind this notice is one of the few survivors of the DC Circuit appeal by Verizon that vacated most of the 2010 Open Internet Order. The advisory begins thusly:

Providers of broadband Internet access services must disclose accurate information about their service offerings and make this information accessible to the public. This requirement, known as the Open Internet Transparency Rule, has been in full force and effect since 2011. The Transparency Rule ensures that consumers have access to information that helps them make informed choices about the broadband Internet access services they buy, so that consumers are not misled or surprised by the quality or cost of the services they actually receive.

I’ve uploaded the pdf here.

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How about we blame the Republicans instead? (cont’d)

As I was saying in the previous post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should not be getting the rap for the open Internet NPRM issued in May. Especially not for his alleged determination to push through paid prioritization, since a) Wheeler has plainly disavowed it, and b) the Notice spends far more time analyzing other issues I see as a greater threat, like the utter lack of transparency or accountability in what broadband providers sell to the public. And picking this fight with paid prioritization is going to do nothing for the pro-Internet movement in the US or elsewhere (NPRM pdf here).

rep.-blackburn-2Instead, say I, opponents of the big-business, anti-consumer school of thought should pay more attention to what the black hats are saying – who, for convenience, we’ll call “Republicans.” These guys include a broad swath of personalities, from the FCC’s two Republican Commissioners, to the incumbents like Verizon that want no regulation and lots of “flexibility,” to my favorite right-wing curmudgeon, Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee congresswoman who has succeded in getting a bill passed to call a halt to all that outrageous muni broadband that competes with Comcast, TWC et al. They have main three arguments, all of them pure sophistry, but great headline-grabbers. Continue reading

The Internet in 2025: 12 reasons to fear our online future (Pew 5)

patel-theverge-internet-is-fuckedBe very afraid: see Nilay Patel’s hard-hitting post in The Verge last week

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The trends are mostly about fragmentation

Or at least the triumph of depth of experience over outreach and a sense of commonality.

This is the 5th and last of my responses from the 2013-14 edition of the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I only answered 5 of this year’s 8 questions; my four prior responses are these:

The final Pew question was the only one described as open-ended, i.e. it did not begin with the usual Yes/No binary choice. By the time I was done writing my relatively short response, I was seriously depressed. As Free Press president Craig Aaron said to The Verge’s Nilay Patel: “What we need right now is decisive action. We can still unfuck the Internet.” Sure, but where’s decisive action going to come from? The FCC? The CRTC? Questions for another time. Continue reading