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Information Security South Africa (ISSA) 2010

Reading time ~4 min

Last week we presented an invited talk at the ISSA conference on the topic of online privacy (embedded below, click through to SlideShare for the original PDF.)

The talk is an introductory overview of Privacy from a Security perspective and was prompted by discussions between security & privacy people along the line of “Isn’t Privacy just directed Security? Privacy is to private info what PCI is to card info?” It was further prompted by discussion with Joe the Plumber along the lines of “Privacy is dead!”

The talk, is unfortunately best delivered as a talk, and not as standalone slides, so here’s some commentary:

We start off the problem statement describing why privacy has grown in importance. The initial reactions were based on new technology allowing new types of information to be captured and disseminated. While the example given is from the 1980s, the reaction is a recurring one, as we’ve seen with each release of new tech (some examples: Cameras, Newspapers, Credit Cards, The Internet, Facebook). Reactions are worsened by the existence of actors with the funding & gall to collect and collate much information to further potentially disagreeable goals (usually Governments). However, the new threat is that there has been a fundamental shift in the way in which we live our lives, where information about us is no longer merely *recorded* online, but rather, our lives are *lived* on line. It is quite possible that for an average day, from waking up to going to sleep, a significant number of the actions you perform will not only be conducted (in part) online, but that it is possible for them to be conducted using the services of one service provider. My intention is not to beat up on Google, but rather use them as an example. They are a pertinent example, as every business book seems to use them as one. The, arguably, most successful corporation of our current age’s primary business model is the collection & monetisation of private data. Thus, while Google is the example, there are and will be many followers.

The next section moves into providing a definition of privacy, and attempts to fly through some fairly dry aspects of philosophy, law & psychology. We’ve done some entry-level work on collating the conception of privacy across history and these fields, however, brighter minds, such as Daniel Solove and Kamil Reddy have done better jobs of this. In particular, Solove’s paper “I’ve got nothing to hide”, and other misconception of privacy is a good introductory read. The key derived point however, is that private data is data with an implied access control & authorised use. Which of the implied access controls & authorised uses are reasonable to enforce or can be legally enforced is a developing field.

As the talk is about “Online Privacy” the talk moves into a description of the various levels at which private data is collected, what mechanisms are used to attempt to collect that data, and what sort of data can be gleaned. It was an academic conference, so I threw in the word “taxonomy.” Soon, it will be more frequently quoted than Maslow’s Hierarchy, any day now.

At each level, a brief demonstration of non-obvious leaks and their implications was demonstrated. From simple techniques such as cross-site tracking using tracking pixels or cookies, to exploit of rich browser environments such as the simple CSS history hack, to less structured and less obvious leaks such as search data (as demonstrated by the AOL leak), moving to deanonymisation of an individual by correlating public data sets (using the awesome Maltego) and finally to unintended leaks provided by meta-data (through analysis of twitter & facebook friends groups).

Finally, a mere two slides are used to explain some of the implications and defenses. These are incomplete and are the current area of research I’m engaged in.