Back in October of this year, we wrote about DNA testing company 23andMe’s reported data breach. Initially thought to “only” impact 1.4 million people, 23andMe has revised that estimate to a whopping 6.9 million impacted users that had data exposed including names, birthdays, locations, pictures, addresses, related family members, but not, as the company has strenuously emphasized, actual genetic data. I’m fairly certain that little nugget is not providing the relief they might hope.
Why this should matter to you
Even if you nor any immediate family is a 23andMe customer, it’s important to understand why this data breach is particularly noteworthy. 23andMe wasn’t hacked in a manner that is more commonplace for large companies – hacked or stolen credentials for someone inside the company that had privileged access, but rather through a mass breach of 14,000 customer accounts that were secured by passwords found in dark web databases, ie. these stepping-stone customers were using the same passwords that were exposed in other breaches and leaks. The hackers used those compromised accounts to essentially automate a mass cross-referencing data harvest that in the end, exposed data on nearly 7 million 23andMe customers. This last data exposure is on 23andMe – it would seem they didn’t anticipate the built-in cross-referencing services that the genetics testing company offers would be turned against itself. Also, there was the minor omission of not enforcing multi-factor authentication to secure everyone’s accounts, which might have compensated for the poor password discipline of its customers. The two take-aways? Unique passwords and multi-factor authentication should be the minimum security requirements you should expect from any service that contains your valuable data.
Image courtesy of geralt at Pixabay
I’d hazard a guess that this could be more broadly stated that people world-wide don’t understand how their data is being used by companies and governments, but the basis for this generalization comes from a study published by the US by the Annenberg School for Communication entitled “Americans Can’t Consent to Companies’ Use of Their Data.” A bold statement for a country for whom a large part of their economy is derived from monetizing digital ones and zeroes, but the subtitle tells us the rest of the story: “They Admit They Don’t Understand It, Say They’re Helpless To Control It, and Believe They’re Harmed When Firms Use Their Data – Making What Companies Do Illegitimate.”
Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue
The survey asked 2000 Americans 17 true-false questions about how companies gather and use data for digital marketing purposes, and if participants were to be graded on the traditional academic scale, most of the class failed, and only 1 person out of the 2000 got an “A”. An example of the type of knowledge tested:
FACT: The Federal Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) does not stop apps that provide information about health – such as exercise and fertility apps – from selling data collected about the app users to marketers. 82% of Americans don’t know; 45% admit they don’t know.“Americans Can’t Consent to Companies’ Use of Their Data: They Admit They Don’t Understand It, Say They’re Helpless To Control It, and Believe They’re Harmed When Firms Use Their Data – Making What Companies Do Illegitimate.” Turow, Lelkes, Draper, Waldman, 2023.
You should read this paper (or at least the summary), but I understand it if you don’t. Even though it reads easier than your typical academic paper, the topic is uncomfortable for those who have an inkling of what’s at stake, and for most of us, we’ve already resigned ourselves to not being able to do anything about it because we feel powerless to do otherwise. And this is their point – this paper wasn’t written merely as an academic exercise. The authors are basically claiming that because very few of us can understand the variety and extent to which companies collect and use our data, there is no possible way we can give genuine informed consent for them to do so. But unless there are laws that protect us in this regard, American companies can do as they please, and they will do so because their responsibility is not people but to stakeholders, and in this current market, minding everyone’s privacy is not nearly as profitable as ignoring it.
This report now provides evidence that notice-and-consent may be beyond repair—and could even be harmful to individuals and society. Companies may argue they offer ways for people to stop such tracking. But as we have seen, a great percentage of the US population has no understanding of how the basics of the commercial internet work. Expecting Americans to learn how to continually keep track of how and when to opt out, opt in, and expunge their data is folly.ibid, Page 18 (emphasis mine)
As is often the case with academic papers, rarely do the authors take on the monumental task of attempting to solve the issue, but they at least acknowledge that the possible only way to even begin is for our lawmakers to acknowledge this enormous elephant on the internet.
We hope the findings of this study will further encourage all policymakers to flip the script so that the burden of protection from commercial surveillance is not mostly on us. The social goal must be to move us away from the emptiness of consent.ibid, Page 19 (emphasis mine)
Perhaps a letter to your elected representatives asking them if they’ve read this article and have any interest in doing something about it?
Image courtesy of TAW4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Traditionally I like my year-end messages to be hopeful, but as I am someone who does not mince words when it comes to your technology, I don’t come to you at the close of 2022 with a message of optimism. If anything, I want to congratulate you for surviving this year with your sanity and health intact, if not your technology security. Accomplishing all three is something to be commended, and I am sad to report that not all of our clients were as successful, including a client and good friend who passed unexpectedly this year. This post is dedicated to him, and to everyone who fought the good fight this year, either against cyberattacks, Covid and everything between.
“Don’t take security for granted.”
This is my year-end message for you: If there is one trend I can clearly point to in this past year (and in years previous), is that you are the first and last line of defense in the war for your technology security. You are the first and last line of defense in maintaining your privacy. We here at C2 Technology are willing and able to throw ourselves in front of as many attacks as we can, but we can’t be with you in every moment, everywhere you touch technology, nor should you want us there. In almost nearly all cases of hacks that we have worked through this year, and numerous others I have read about, breaches and compromises have occurred because attackers are very successful at exploiting human, not technology, weaknesses.
One thing that I know for sure is that you can count on even more cybersecurity attacks in every aspect of your personal and business technology. There is big money in compromising your security – organized crime has moved, full-scale, into funding, staffing and managing highly effective fraud call centers and hit-squads whose primary objective is to trick you into giving them access to your stuff and then cleaning house. On top of this, there is no singular magic bullet, app, governing body nor enforcement agency that can protect you. Let me reiterate – there is no perfect, monolithic solution C2 or any other organization can provide to you to keep you perfectly safe. As with cold weather, layers are better than just a single, bulky jacket. Your best defense will be a collection of services, software and best practices. Your configuration of those layers will vary based on personal or organizational need, but everyone should at minimum be considering the following:
- Constant vigilance is the key. You should assume that you are under constant cyberthreat and act accordingly. As much as it feels distasteful say this given the current political climate, you should consider yourself on cyber-wartime footing with no armistice or ceasefire in your near future. You may have heard me jokingly compare this vigilance with paranoia, but my gallows humor may have done you a disservice in making light of this situation. Make no mistake, this is very serious, and I do not see anyone being able to let down their guard anytime soon. As I mentioned above, C2 can’t always be there for a magical, “Get down, Mr. President!” moment. All we can do is attempt to train you to spot the peril. If you have employees, you should bolster their vigilance with actual, formal training – not everyone will have the same level of urgency on technology security as the principals of the organization, but training and testing will help them understand the importance and impress upon them that this is a part of their job responsibilities, regardless of their role in the organization.
- If you aren’t using unique passwords and multi-factor authentication for your critical online accounts, you are doing the cyber equivalent of leaving the keys in your running car in a dangerous neighborhood. You should check your most-used passwords here, and if any of them show up on the list, immediately change that password everywhere you used it. Right. Now. If you can turn on multi-factor authentication for your banking and other critical service accounts and haven’t already done so, do so. Right. Now.
- Back up your files to a cloud provider on a daily basis. You can get a very reliable, easy to use service for as little as $7/month, and you might already have access to a form of cloud backups through Apple or Microsoft by virtue of other services for which you are already paying. Keep in mind, services like OneDrive and iCloud are a form of short-term backup, but do not normally provide long-term recovery of files deleted more than 30 days ago, nor can they fully protect against certain forms of ransomware attacks, so make sure you consult with your friendly neighborhood technology professional about what would be appropriate for your use case.
- Keep work and personal separate. This may be difficult to do especially if you work from home on your own technology, but the more you intermingle, the more risk you take from one side or the other. This also goes for using your home network if you have family that aren’t as security conscious as you, especially seniors and young children, both of whom are particularly vulnerable to scams that most of us spot in a heartbeat. Your technology professional will have ways to segment your work and home life, but it will result in additional expense and inconvenience.
- At the business level, antivirus and malware protection has evolved into what is now known as “endpoint protection.” The free software that comes with your new PC is NOT endpoint protection, nor is the product they are trying to upsell you. The primary difference between the two is that last generation products relied heavily on definition tables and scheduled scans of your files, which is not nearly as effective against modern malware tactics that sometimes don’t even involve something being installed in your hard drive, or software that literally changes by the hour. Endpoint protection relies on algorithms that are able to analyze the behavior of softwares and services to determine if they might be harmful, and more importantly, are designed not only to protect the device on which it’s installed, but also to protect the network to which it is connected, something that previous gen antivirus software could not do.
- If you deal with any kind of PII (personally-identifiable information) where that information is stored on your computer – even if only in transit – your hard drive should be encrypted, especially if the device housing it is easily stolen, such as a laptop. Fortunately, both Windows and Mac OS do include encryption, but it isn’t always enabled, and in the case of Windows, it is only readily available in the “Professional” (more expensive) variant of their OS.
- You should be making sure your operating system and main software apps are kept up to date. Microsoft releases updates on a weekly basis, and about half of them require a reboot to full apply. Windows 10 (and to a certain degree 11) is so stable that it can go weeks without rebooting but waiting that long can cause other problems that will be a lot more inconvenient than restarting your PC. We recommend clients restart their PCs as frequently as every 3 days – this accomplishes needed housekeeping tasks as well as clearing the “virtual crud” that all PCs accumulate through daily use, especially if you like having lots of windows and apps open.
Technology security requires a holistic approach, and I don’t mean tuning your chakras and making sure your gut biome is balanced. Every aspect of your technology, from internet provider to software services, every device used in the work process, all users, and even your clients’ and customers’ technology should be reviewed and considered when formulating your security approach. The days of “set and forget” are long gone. Protecting your technology is something that will require effort and, dare I say, constant vigilance.
While it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of our long-time readers, millions of less savvy taxpayers might be shocked to discover their online tax filing software has been caught red-handed leaking sensitive information. As discovered and reported on by non-profit news organization called The Markup, several popular online tax-filing websites including TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and HR Block have been collecting and passing user information to Facebook, including names, income, refund amounts, filing status and even dependent names and scholarship amounts.
What does this mean for you?
Most people are unaware that just about every app and website out there that isn’t strictly not-for-profit (and even some of those as well!) has a side hustle they don’t overtly share with their users/visitors/customers: data collection and selling. If you dig into their “Terms of Service” or various other fine-print agreements normal people don’t read before clicking “Accept”, you will likely find some generic or vague language that essentially says you agree to share data with their “partners” in exchange for using their services. In the case of the tax filing services, you might have even paid for that “privilege.” Don’t you feel special? In their meagre defense, the data that was gathered was done so by a very widely used data-gathering tool called Pixel developed by the #1 data-glutton, Meta née Facebook, and in a couple cases, seems to have been inadvertent or perhaps careless implementation of the data collection tool. On top of this, when asked to comment on whether Facebook was soliciting this type of data (which is illegal to share without your explicit consent!), they of course responded that partners were expressly forbidden to send Meta that data, and that Meta has filtering in place to prevent the collection of this type of data, regardless of who was sending it. It’s also been reported earlier this year that Facebook collects so much data it doesn’t fully understand how it’s used, or where it goes within Facebook’s various systems and algorithms. Should you trust a company that doesn’t even have a handle on its own data to properly filter data it’s not supposed to collect? How would they even be able to report accurately on that?
Shortly after reporting on their findings, The Markup was contacted by the named tax websites who shared that the data collection pixel had been removed from their services. Is it safe to use these services now? Probably, at least going forward. If you’ve used these services in the past few years, the damage is already done – data collection has been done on your returns and the data leaked to Facebook, regardless of whether you have a Facebook account. Unfortunately, as before, there is not much you can do about the leaks except to let your congressperson know that you expect them to take better care of your privacy. You can also contribute to organizations like the ACLU who have been fighting this fight longer than most of us realize.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As someone who is beyond jaded by social media and the mega-corporations behind them, this news isn’t surprising, and I actually expected to see it long before now, but it gives me no pleasure in seeing our worst fears play out. Motherboard has published a story today about a Nebraska teenager and her mother being charged with several felonies and misdemeanors surrounding the teen’s self-induced abortion after their Facebook DM chat logs were turned over to Nebraska law enforcement by Meta. Despite the divisive act at the root of this incident and the current political storm raging around the overturning of Roe V. Wade, I’m hoping it highlights rather than distracts from the point of this week’s blog.
Social media is the exact opposite of privacy and confidentiality
Social media and its daily use have become so pervasive that for most people it’s just a de-facto part of how they live their lives, to the point where many can’t conceive of life without it. Regardless of whether or not the women from the above story acted illegally or immorally, there should be no equivocation about whether or not a social media platform will turn over your data to law enforcement. The answer is, “Yes, they will.” In this particular instance, Meta (aka Facebook) was abiding by a court-ordered search warrant. This doesn’t excuse them morally, but also falls well within expectations we have called out, over and over again. Following the overturning of Roe V. Wade, Motherboard reached out to all the major social media platforms asking them how they would handle just these types of requests in relation to women’s health and pregnancy rights, and none of them were prepared to go on record saying they wouldn’t do exactly what Facebook did in the above case. Unfortunately, abortion simultaneously highlights and distracts from the issue – it shouldn’t matter what is being kept private – only that it is private. In case it wasn’t clear: don’t expect anything you share on social media to remain private, regardless of how that platform professes to honor that privacy. The only commitment they are required to honor is to their shareholders or the equity firm backing the company, possibly even over the laws of the land.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If there is one thing that is certain, if there is a useful technology invented that is supposed to benefit us, there is a corresponding negative usage that can and will be exploited. After the initial dopamine rush had worn off around Apple’s AirTags, people started waking up to the negative implications of a small, easy-to-conceal, wireless tracking device that utilizes one of the largest global networks in the world. Apple’s “Find My…” network is too useful to not be exploited, and the less ethical are already doing so.
What this means for you
Apple’s AirTags were initially created to track items that could be easily lost or stolen and ostensibly were made inconspicuous so that they weren’t unsightly and so thieves couldn’t easily find and discard the trackers. Once reports started flowing in of the “less orthodox” usage of AirTags, Apple immediately tried to get out in front of the problem by letting everyone know that AirTags themselves have unique, embedded serial numbers and their usage is tied to an Apple account – information they will surrender to law enforcement in a criminal investigation. But they glossed over something that more inventive hackers latched onto – what’s to stop someone from creating a “cloned” AirTag that simply bypasses Apple’s security measures? At the moment, nothing. Someone has already done so, and you can assume that Pandora’s box is not going to be closed any time soon without significant intervention from Apple.
Until that happens, you should get caught up on Apple’s lengthy advice on detecting and finding unwanted trackers. The article goes into great detail for Apple device users, so if you are an iPhone user, finding an unwanted Apple-made AirTag should be pretty straightforward (if not a wee bit unsettling). For the rest of us using Android devices, Apple has released an app called Tracker Detect (watch out for copy-cat apps!) that has to be activated manually. Not nearly as useful as its iOS counterpart, but at least they tried. If you’d like something a bit more robust and not funded by Apple, you can try AirGuard which was developed by a research team out of German university TU Darmstadt. I’ve tried both apps and while they appear to do no harm (other than possibly drain my battery faster), I can’t really verify that they work, as I apparently don’t have any unwanted trackers near me. Yay? Either way, if you suspect you are being digitally stalked, make sure you share your suspicions with your loved ones and authorities and get familiar with this site and its resources immediately!
Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay
Today’s smartphones are incredibly powerful. If you are savvy enough, and determined, you could probably do a good portion of your office job and manage most, if not all of your personal life just via a late model smartphone. Even someone like me can do a significant amount of work via smartphone. The tools are there, and the screen is just big enough to make it possible with some squinting and finger cramping, but I only do it in an emergency when I don’t have access to better tools or platforms. For most of you, email, video conferencing and phone conversations cover a large chunk of your professional life, and when you add in the social media apps, you’ve got the bases covered. But should you be using your smartphone for anything other than for what it was originally designed?
Should you be getting off my lawn?
I’ll admit it, I’ve definitely become much more conservative *gasp* when it comes to considering where technology intersects with our personal lives, especially as it pertains to privacy. Back when I had a full head of hair and maybe less brains, I fell firmly into the “what do you have to hide” category of privacy, but that was before our data was essentially and mercilessly monetized with zero regard for the consequences. And after it was purposefully gathered, categorized and analyzed, it was carelessly and unapologetically leaked repeatedly, where it could again be gathered, exploited and manipulated by folks with even less care for ethics or humanity in general. While most of us haven’t been significantly damaged individually by this in any way we can quantify, the merciless monetization of our data has definitely been to the detriment of society in general. While it might feel usefully prescient that Amazon seems to know exactly what you need when you visit their website, I’m betting you start feeling a little unsettled when every other website you visit thereafter also seems to know what you’re shopping for, like you just stepped into the Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, for the younger generations. Whether you like it or not, the breakthrough in data gathering was courtesy of rise of the smartphone and its cornucopia of useful apps. For every function of your professional and personal life that you pursue with your cellphone, the carriers and app makers and their data-hungry customers gather oodles of telemetry about you – where you shop, what social and political beliefs you peruse and pursue, what kind of foods you like, what games you play, on and on. People view smartphones as a window to the world, but don’t forget that windows work both ways, and you are providing stark, unexpurgated view of your life to folks who only see you as a profit center.
Full disclosure: On top of email, texting and phone calls, I do no small amount of social media lurking (though not posting), GPS navigation, music listening and a little shopping here and there on my smartphone. I’ve made my peace (for now) with the Faustian deal I make in trade for services I (and my clients) find incredibly useful, and to be extremely clear, even I don’t know to what extent my data has been harvested, exploited and monetized, but I like to think I’m going into it as clear-eyed as one can be in this day and age. Should we be considering this a reasonable tradeoff? Would you be willing to pay for services you use for free right if it meant you had more control over your data? Do you even care? Even I don’t know how to answer these questions right now.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
What this means for you
Let me be 100% transparent with you. I send out an email newsletter weekly via a platform called Mailchimp, and I’m using their “Free” tier of service in exchange for allowing them to use a portion of my email to advertise their service. I’m also quite certain they are gathering metadata from every email I send out, aggregating this data across all their other clients (paid or not!) and then reselling that information to various advertisers and market research firms. As we’ve been repeatedly told even well before the birth of the internet, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Google’s Gmail service, for something that is free, is actually one of the best email platforms in existence, but, as you should already know, comes at a price.
If there is something I’ve gleaned from working with people and technology for over 30 years now, it’s that we all have a calculus we perform internally that measures convenience and cost against privacy and security. For some of us, that teeter-totter tips heavily on the privacy and security side, and for others much less so, especially if the convenience means that we are able to invest effort into other things that matter more. Regardless of how your inner-seesaw is tilted, privacy and security are not balanced or elevated without significant effort, and more is being required everyday. The longer companies like Google, Facebook, and yes, even Apple sit on one end of the teeter-totter gorging themselves on your data, the harder they will be to lift or even dislodge so that you can properly enjoy the ride with someone who doesn’t always tip the scales in their favor.
Don’t expect any company, especially a for-profit one, to stand up for your privacy regardless of what they tweet or tout in their advertisements, and the same can be said for many politicians who plainly have their pockets lined by big corporations. Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us are using services that may or may not be worth the privacy we give in exchange. Your privacy is valuable, so don’t give it up so easily. You’ll definitely miss it when it’s gone.