Mobile: +61 (0) 414 488 851
Email: swilson@lockstep.com.au

Finding friends gets a little harder

The highest court in Germany has ruled that Facebook’s “Find Friends” function is unlawful there. The decision is the culmination of legal action started in 2010 by German consumer groups, and confirms the rulings of other lower courts in 2012 and 2014. The gist of the privacy breach is that Facebook is illegitimately using details of third parties obtained from members, to market to those third parties without their consent. Further, the “Find Friends” feature was found to not be clearly explained to members when they are invited to use it.

My Australian privacy colleague Anna Johnston and I published a paper in 2011 examining these very issues; see "Privacy Compliance Problems for Facebook", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, V31.2, December 1, 2011, at the Social Science Research Network, SSRN.

Here’s a recap of our analysis.

One of the most significant collections of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) by online social networks is the email address books of members who elect to enable “Find Friends” and similar functions. This is typically the very first thing that a new user is invited to do when they register for an OSN. And why wouldn’t it be? Finding friends is core to social networking.

New Facebook members are advised, immediately after they first register, that “Searching your email account is the fastest way to find your friends”. There is a link to some minimal explanatory information:

    • Import contacts from your account and store them on Facebook's servers where they may be used to help others search for or connect with people or to generate suggestions for you or others. Contact info from your contact list and message folders may be imported. Professional contacts may be imported but you should send invites to personal contacts only. Please send invites only to friends who will be glad to get them.

This is pretty subtle. New users may not fully comprehend what is happening when they elect to “Find Friends”.

A key point under international privacy regulations is that this importing of contacts represents an indirect collection of PII of others (people who happen to be in a member’s email address book), without their, knowledge let alone authorisation.

By the way, it’s interesting that Facebook mentions “professional contacts” because there is a particular vulnerability for professionals which I reported in The Journal of Medical Ethics in 2010. If a professional, especially one in sole practice, happens to have used her web mail to communicate with clients, then those clients’ details may be inadvertently uploaded by “Find Friends”, along with crucial metadata like the association with the professional concerned. Subsequently, the network may try to introduce strangers to each other on the basis they are mutual “friends” of that certain professional. In the event she happens to be a mental health counsellor, a divorce attorney or a private detective for instance, the consequences could be grave.

It’s not known how Facebook and other OSNs will respond to the German decision. As Anna Johnston and I wrote in 2011, the quiet collection of people’s details in address books conflicts with basic privacy principles in a great many jurisdictions, not just Germany. The problem has been known for years, so various solutions might be ready to roll out quite quickly. The fix might be as simple in principle as giving proper notice to the people who’s details have been uploaded, before their PII is used by the network. It seems to me that telling people what’s going on like this would, fittingly, be the “social” thing to do.

But the problem from the operators’ commercial points of view is that notices and the like introduce friction, and that’s the enemy of infomopolies. So once again, a major privacy ruling from Europe may see a re-calibration of digital business practices, and some limits placed on the hitherto unrestrained information rush.

Posted in Social Networking, Privacy

Weak links in the Blockchain

One of the silliest things I've read yet about blockchain came out in Business Insider Australia last week. They said that the blockchain “in effect” lets the crowd police the monetary system.

In the rush to make bigger and grander claims for the disruptive potential of blockchain, too many commentators are neglecting the foundations. If they think blockchain is important, then it’s all the more important they understand what it does well, and what it just doesn’t do at all.

Blockchain has one very clever, very innovative trick: it polices the order of special events (namely Bitcoin spends) without needing a central authority. The main “security” that blockchain provides is nottamper resistance or inviolability per se -- you can get that any number of ways using standard cryptography -- but rather it’s the process for a big network of nodes to reach agreement on the state of a distributed ledger, especially the order of updates to the ledger.

To say blockchain is “more secure” is a non sequitur. Security claims need context.

  • If what matters is agreeing ‘democratically’ on the order of events in a decentralised public ledger, without any central authority, then blockchain makes sense.
  • But if you don't care about the order of events, then blockchain is probably irrelevant or, at best, heavily over-engineered.
  • And if you do care about the order of events (like stock transactions) but you have some central authority in your system (like a stock exchange), then blockchain is not only over-engineered, but its much-admired maths is compromised by efforts to scale it down, into private chains and the like, for the power of the original blockchain consensus algorithm lies in its vast network, and the Bitcoin rewards for the miners that power it.

A great thing about blockchain is the innovation it has inspired. But let’s remember that the blockchain (the one underpinning Bitcoin) has been around for just seven years, and its spinoffs are barely out of the lab. Analysts and journalists are bound to be burnt if they over-reach at this early stage.

The initiatives to build smaller, private or special purpose distributed ledgers, to get away from Bitcoin and payments, detract from the original innovation, in two important ways. Firstly, even if they replace the Bitcoin incentive for running the network (i.e. mining or “proof of work”) with some other economic model (like “proof of stake”), they compromise the tamper resistance of blockchain by shrinking the pool. And secondly, as soon as you fold some command and control back into the original utopia, blockchain’s raison d'etre is no longer clear, and its construction looks over-engineered.

Business journalists are supposed to be sceptical about technology, but many have apparently taken leave of their critical faculties, even talking up blockchain as a "trust machine". You don’t need to be a cryptographer to understand the essence of blockchain, you just have to be cautious with magic words like “open” and “decentralised”, and the old saw "trust". What do they really mean? Blockchain does things that not all applications really need, and it doesn't do what many apps do need, like access control and confidentiality.

Didn't we learn from PKI that technology doesn't confer trust? It's been claimed that putting land titles on the blockchain will prevent government corruption. To which I say, please heed Bruce Schneier, who said only amateurs hack computers; professional criminals hack people.

Posted in Security, Payments, Innovation, Blockchain, Trust