AT&T Hotspots: Now with Advertising Injection

While traveling through Dulles Airport last week, I noticed an Internet oddity. The nearby AT&T hotspot was fairly fast—that was a pleasant surprise.

But the web had sprouted ads. Lots of them, in places they didn’t belong.

Last I checked, Stanford doesn’t hawk fashion accessories or telecom service.1 And it definitely doesn’t run obnoxious ads that compel you to wait.

The NSA’s Domestic Cybersecurity Surveillance

Earlier today, the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency has secretly expanded its role in domestic cybersecurity. In short, the NSA believes it has authority to operate a warrantless, signature-based intrusion detection system—on the Internet backbone.1

Owing to the program’s technical and legal intricacies, the Times-ProPublica team sought my explanation of related primary documents.2 I have high confidence in the report’s factual accuracy.3

Since this morning’s coverage is calibrated for a general audience, I’d like to provide some additional detail. I’d also like to explain why, in my view, the news is a game-changer for information sharing legislation.


The Efficacy of Google’s Privacy Extension

Over four years ago, Google launched a Chrome privacy extension. Keep My Opt-Outs arrived with a media splash, and it presently has over 400,000 users worldwide.1

It’s a top result on the Chrome Web Store,2 and it’s even endorsed by a faux celebrity.

Unfortunately, the Keep My Opt-Outs extension isn’t nearly as effective as Google claims. It hasn’t been updated for years, resulting in only half of the promised coverage. Keep My Opt-Outs also doesn’t work in Chrome’s private browsing mode, despite the user’s explicit permission.

If you’re currently running Keep My Opt-Outs, I’d encourage switching to Disconnect or Privacy Badger.3 Adblock, Adblock Plus, and Ghostery are also excellent privacy tools, when configured properly.

In this post, I’ll explain why Google emphasized the Keep My Opt-Outs extension, how the code works, and what went awry.

Exploring a Hacker Marketplace

In the sharing economy, you can hire a one-off driver (Uber), courier (Postmates), grocery shopper (Instacart), housekeeper (Homejoy), or just about any other variety of henchman (TaskRabbit). So, what about hiring a hacker?

That’s the premise of Hacker’s List, a website launched in November. Anyone can post or bid on a hacking project. Hacker’s List arranges secure communication and payment escrow.

An online black market is, to be sure, nothing new. The rise and fall of the Silk Road received extensive media coverage.

What’s unusual about Hacker’s List is that it, purportedly, isn’t a black market. The website is public, projects and bids are open (albeit pseudonymous), and the owner has identified himself. (He runs a small security firm in Denver.) Hacker’s List was even featured on the front page of the New York Times.

Out of curiosity, I decided to leverage this openness. Who tries to hire a hacker? Is the website as popular as its owner claims? Most importantly, does the website facilitate illegal transactions, or solely white hat hacking?

To answer these questions—and, admittedly, to procrastinate on my dissertation—I cobbled together a crawler. You can find the source on GitHub, and the crawl data on Google Docs.

Here’s the short version: most requests are unsophisticated and unlawful, very few deals are actually struck, and most completed projects appear to be criminal.

“We Support Strong Encryption”

A good Washington talking point delivers zero content. A great Washington talking point sounds substantive… while delivering zero content.

In the spirit of honoring greatness, I’d like to call attention to the current White House position on cryptographic backdoors. It received its most public airing from President Obama, in a February 13 interview with RE/CODE.

“I’m a strong believer in strong encryption,” explained the President. “[T]here’s no scenario in which we don’t want really strong encryption.”

President Obama isn’t the only official invoking “strong encryption.” (And strongly, too.) In just about every recent conversation with an administration policymaker, I’ve been subjected to some version of the line.

You Can’t Backdoor a Platform

According to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, encryption should come with a backdoor. It’s not a new policy position—it dates to the Crypto Wars of the 1990s—but it’s gaining new Beltway currency.

Cryptographic backdoors are a bad idea. They introduce unquantifiable security risks, like the recent FREAK vulnerability. They could equip oppressive governments, not just the United States. They chill free speech. They impose costs on innovators and reduce foreign demand for American products. The list of objections runs long.

I’d like to articulate an additional, pragmatic argument against backdoors. It’s a little subtle, and it cuts across technology, policy, and law. Once you see it, though, you can’t unsee it.

Cryptographic backdoors will not work. As a matter of technology, they are deeply incompatible with modern software platforms. And as a matter of policy and law, addressing those incompatibilities would require intolerable regulation of the technology sector. Any attempt to mandate backdoors will merely escalate an arms race, where usable and secure software stays a step ahead of the government.

The easiest way to understand the argument is to walk through a hypothetical. I’m going to use Android; much of the same analysis would apply to iOS or any other mobile platform.

The Turn-Verizon Zombie Cookie

Verizon Wireless injects a unique header into customer web traffic. When the practice came to light last year, it was widely panned. Numerous security researchers pointed out that this “supercookie” could trivially be used to track mobile subscribers, even if they had opted out, cleared their cookies, or entered private browsing mode.1 But Verizon persisted, emphasizing that its own business model did not use the header for tracking.

Out of curiosity, I went looking for a company that was taking advantage of the Verizon header to track consumers. I found one—Turn, a headline Verizon advertising partner. They’re “bringing sexy back to measurement.”


In NSA Appeals, DOJ Misleads About Medical and Financial Records

Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in a challenge to the NSA’s phone metadata program. While watching, I noticed some quite misleading legal claims by the government’s counsel. I then reviewed last month’s oral arguments in the D.C. Circuit, and I spotted a similar assertion.

In both cases, the government attorney waved away constitutional concerns about medical and financial records. Congress, he suggested, has already stepped in to protect those files.

With respect to ordinary law enforcement investigations, that’s only slightly true. And with respect to nation security investigations, that’s really not right.


Executive Order 12333 on American Soil, and Other Tales from the FISA Frontier

When the National Security Agency collects data inside the United States, it’s regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. There’s a degree of court supervision and congressional oversight.

When the agency collects data outside the United States, it’s regulated by Executive Order 12333. That document embodies the President’s inherent Article II authority to conduct foreign intelligence. There’s no court involvement, and there’s scant legislative scrutiny.

So, that’s the conventional wisdom. American soil: FISA. Foreign soil: EO 12333. Unfortunately, the legal landscape is more complicated.

In this post, I’ll sketch three areas where the NSA collects data inside the United States, but under Executive Order 12333. I’ll also note two areas where the NSA collects data outside the United States, but under FISA.