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Paul Merrell

As Belgium threatens fines, Facebook's defence of tracking visitors rings hollow | nsnb... - 0 views

  • Facebook has been ordered by a Belgian court to stop tracking non-Facebook users when they visit the Facebook site. Facebook has been given 48 hours to stop the tracking or face possible fines of up to 250,000 Euro a day.
  • Facebook has said that it will appeal the ruling, claiming that since their european headquarters are situated in Ireland, they should only be bound by the Irish Data Protection Regulator. Facebook’s chief of security Alex Stamos has posted an explanation about why non-Facebook users are tracked when they visit the site. The tracking issue centres around the creation of a “cookie” called “datr” whenever anyone visits a Facebook page. This cookie contains an identification number that identifies the same browser returning each time to different Facebook pages. Once created, the cookie will last 2 years unless the user explicitly deletes it. The cookie is created for all visitors to Facebook, irrespective of whether they are a Facebook user or even whether they are logged into Facebook at the time. According to Stamos, the measure is needed to: Prevent the creation of fake and spammy accounts Reduce the risk of someone’s account being taken over by someone else Protect people’s content from being stolen Stopping denial of service attacks against Facebook
  • The principle behind this is that if you can identify requests that arrive at the site for whatever reason, abnormal patterns may unmask people creating fake accounts, hijacking a real account or just issuing so many requests that it overwhelms the site. Stamos’ defence of tracking users is that they have been using it for the past 5 years and nobody had complained until now, that it was common practice and that there was little harm because the data was not collected for any purpose other than security. The dilemma raised by Facebook’s actions is a common one in the conflicting spheres of maintaining privacy and maintaining security. It is obvious that if you can identify all visitors to a site, then it is possible to determine more information about what they are doing than if they were anonymous. The problem with this from a moral perspective is that everyone is being tagged, irrespective of whether their intent was going to be malicious or not. It is essentially compromising the privacy of the vast majority for the sake of a much smaller likelihood of bad behaviour.
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    I checked and sure enough: five Facebook cookies even though I have no Facebook account. They're gone now, and I've created an exception blocking Facebook from planting more cookies on my systems. 
Paul Merrell

XKeyscore Exposé Reaffirms the Need to Rid the Web of Tracking Cookies | Elec... - 0 views

  • The Intercept published an expose on the NSA's XKeyscore program. Along with information on the breadth and scale of the NSA's metadata collection, The Intercept revealed how the NSA relies on unencrypted cookie data to identify users. As The Intercept says: "The NSA’s ability to piggyback off of private companies’ tracking of their own users is a vital instrument that allows the agency to trace the data it collects to individual users. It makes no difference if visitors switch to public Wi-Fi networks or connect to VPNs to change their IP addresses: the tracking cookie will follow them around as long as they are using the same web browser and fail to clear their cookies." The NSA slides released by The Intercept give detailed guides to understanding the data transmitted by these cookies, as well as how to find unique machine identifiers that analysts can use to differentiate between multiple machines using the same IP address. We've written before about how spy agencies piggyback on social media account data to find Internet users' names or other identifying info, and these slides drive home the point that HTTP cookies leave users vulnerable to government surveillance, since any intermediary (or spy agency) can read the sensitive data they contain.
  • Worse yet, most of the time these identifying cookies come from third-party sources on webpages, and users have no meaningful way to opt out of receiving them (short of blocking all third party cookies) since advertisers (the main server of these types of cookies) refuse to honor the Do Not Track header.  Browser makers could help address this sort of non-consensual tracking by both advertisers and the NSA with some simple technical changes—changes that have been shown to reduce the number of third party cookies received by 67%. So far, though, they've been unwilling to build privacy protecting features in by default. Until they do, the best way for users to protect themselves is by installing a privacy protecting app like Privacy Badger, which is designed to block these types of uniquely identifying tracking cookies, or HTTPS Everywhere to block the transmission of HTTP cookies.
Paul Merrell

Verizon Will Now Let Users Kill Previously Indestructible Tracking Code - ProPublica - 0 views

  • Verizon says it will soon offer customers a way to opt out from having their smartphone and tablet browsing tracked via a hidden un-killable tracking identifier. The decision came after a ProPublica article revealed that an online advertiser, Turn, was exploiting the Verizon identifier to respawn tracking cookies that users had deleted. Two days after the article appeared, Turn said it would suspend the practice of creating so-called "zombie cookies" that couldn't be deleted. But Verizon couldn't assure users that other companies might not also exploit the number - which was transmitted automatically to any website or app a user visited from a Verizon-enabled device - to build dossiers about people's behavior on their mobile devices. Verizon subsequently updated its website to note Turn's decision and declared that it would "work with other partners to ensure that their use of [the undeletable tracking number] is consistent with the purposes we intended." Previously, its website had stated: "It is unlikely that sites and ad entities will attempt to build customer profiles.
  • However, policing the hundreds of companies in the online tracking business was likely to be a difficult task for Verizon. And so, on Monday, Verizon followed in the footsteps of AT&T, which had already declared in November that it would stop inserting the hidden undeletable number in its users' Web traffic. In a statement emailed to reporters on Friday, Verizon said, "We have begun working to expand the opt-out to include the identifier referred to as the UIDH, and expect that to be available soon." Previously, users who opted out from Verizon's program were told that information about their demographics and Web browsing behavior would no longer be shared with advertisers, but that the tracking number would still be attached to their traffic. For more coverage, read ProPublica's previous reporting on Verizon's indestructible tracking and how one company used the tool to create zombie cookies.
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    Good for Pro Publica!
Paul Merrell

Mozilla Sets New Plans for Do Not Track Browser | Adweek - 0 views

  • Much to the disappointment of the digital advertising establishment, Mozilla is going ahead with plans to automatically block third-party cookie tracking in its Firefox browser. Mozilla first announced its Do Not Track browser in February, only to back off in May saying it needed to do more testing. But that didn't stop a growing chorus of loud protests from the advertising community, which argued that the browser would choke off the ad-supported Internet. The Interactive Advertising Bureau's general counsel Mike Zaneis called Mozilla's browser nothing less than a "nuclear first strike" against the ad community. No date has been set for when Firefox will turn on the feature, but advertisers, which have been regularly meeting with Mozilla and were hopeful for a compromise, are already lashing back at Mozilla.
  • "It's troubling," said Lou Mastria, the managing director for the Digital Advertising Alliance, which manages an online self-regulatory program called Ad Choices that provides consumers with the choice to opt-out of targeted ads. "They're putting this under the cloak of privacy, but it's disrupting a business model," Mastria said. Advertisers are worried that Mozilla's plans could be the death knell to thousands of small Web publishers that depend on third-party targeted ads to stay in business. Nearly 1,000 signed a petition urging Mozilla to change its plans.  "One publisher said that 20 percent of their business would go away. That's huge," said Mastria. "Mozilla is really picking business model winners and losers."
  • Not all cookies will be blocked under Mozilla's latest plans for its proposed browser; there will be exceptions. Through a partnership with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, the two are launching a Cookie Clearinghouse. Overseen by a six-person panel, it will determine a list of undesirable cookies and then block those. "The Cookie Clearinghouse will create, maintain and publish objective information," Aleecia McDonald, director of privacy at CIS, said in a statement. "Web browser companies will be able to choose to adopt the lists we publish to provide new privacy options to their users." But others say the approach is far from objective. "What these organizations and the privacy groups that back them are really saying is 'let us choose for you because we know best,' " said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "The proponents of this model have claimed they are empowering users. ... This is basically Sarah Palin's 'Death Panels' but for the Internet."
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  • Advertisers have so far resisted some of the Do Not Track proposals advocated by privacy groups arguing they are technological solutions that could quickly be rendered obsolete by the fast-moving Internet economy. When Micosoft launched its Do Not Track default browser, advertisers said they would not honor it. Meanwhile, members of the World Wide Web Consortium's tracking group, represented by advertisers, privacy groups and other stakeholders, have been unable to reach consensus about a universal Do Not Track browser solution. In Congress, where baseline privacy legislation has moved at a glacial pace, Mozilla's news gave Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) more ammunition for his Do Not Track Online Act. Introduced earlier this year, the bill hasn't gotten much traction and only has one co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "With major Web browsers now starting to provide privacy protections by default, it's even more important to give businesses the regulatory certainty they need and consumers the privacy protections they deserve," Rockefeller said in a statement. "I hope this will end the emerging back and forth so we can act quickly to pass new legislation."
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    Cookie Clearinghouse. Overseen by a six-person panel, it will determine a list of undesirable cookies and then block those.
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