Lockstep

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Email: swilson@lockstep.com.au

Consumerization of Authentication

For the second year running, the FIDO Alliance hosted a consumer authentication showcase at CES, the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, this year featuring four FIDO Alliance members.

This is a watershed in Internet security and privacy - never before has authentication been a headline consumer issue.

Sure we've all talked about the password problem for ten years or more, but now FIDO Alliance members are doing something about it, with easy-to-use solutions designed specifically for mass adoption.

The FIDO Alliance is designing the authentication plumbing for everything online. They are creating new standards and technical protocols allowing secure personal devices (phones, personal smart keys, wearables, and soon a range of regular appliances) to securely transmit authentication data to cloud services and other devices, in some cases eliminating passwords altogether.

See also my ongoing FIDO Alliance research at Constellation.

Posted in Privacy, Identity, Constellation Research, Security

Making cyber safe like cars

This is an updated version of arguments made in Lockstep's submission to the 2009 Cyber Crime Inquiry by the Australian federal government.

In stark contrast to other fields, cyber safety policy is almost exclusively preoccupied with user education. It's really an obsession. Governments and industry groups churn out volumes of well-meaning and technically reasonable security advice, but for the average user, this material is overwhelming. There is a subtle implication that security is for experts, and that the Internet isn't safe unless you go to extremes. Moreover, even if consumers do their very best online, their personal details can still be taken over in massive criminal raids on databases that hardly anyone even know exist.

Too much onus is put on regular users protecting themselves online, and this blinds us to potential answers to cybercrime. In other walks of life, we accept a balanced approach to safety, and governments are less reluctant to impose standards than they are on the Internet. Road safety for instance rests evenly on enforceable road rules, car technology innovation, certified automotive products, mandatory quality standards, traffic management systems, and driver training and licensing. Education alone would be nearly worthless.

Around cybercrime we have a bizarre allergy to technology. We often hear that 'Preventing data breaches not a technology issue' which may be politically correct but it's faintly ridiculous. Nobody would ever say that preventing car crashes is 'not a technology issue'.

Credit card fraud and ID theft in general are in dire need of concerted technological responses. Consider that our Card Not Present (CNP) payments processing arrangements were developed many years ago for mail orders and telephone orders. It was perfectly natural to co-opt the same processes when the Internet arose, since it seemed simply to be just another communications medium. But the Internet turned out to be more than an extra channel: it connects everyone to everything, around the clock.

The Internet has given criminals x-ray vision into peoples' banking details, and perfect digital disguises with which to defraud online merchants. There are opportunities for crime now that are both quantitatively and qualitatively radically different from what went before. In particular, because identity data is available by the terabyte and digital systems cannot tell copies from originals, identity takeover is child's play.

You don't even need to have ever shopped online to run foul of CNP fraud. Most stolen credit card numbers are obtained en masse by criminals breaking into obscure backend databases. These attacks go on behind the scenes, out of sight of even the most careful online customers.

So the standard cyber security advice misses the point. Consumers are told earnestly to look out for the "HTTPS" padlock that purportedly marks a site as secure, to have a firewall, to keep their PCs "patched" and their anti-virus up to date, to only shop online at reputable merchants, and to avoid suspicious looking sites (as if cyber criminals aren't sufficiently organised to replicate legitimate sites in their entirety). But none of this advice touches on the problem of coordinated massive heists of identity data.

Merchants are on the hook for unwieldy and increasingly futile security overheads. When a business wishes to accept credit card payments, it's straightforward in the real world to install a piece of bank-approved terminal equipment. But to process credit cards online, shopkeepers have to sign up to onerous PCI-DSS requirements that in effect require even small business owners to become IT security specialists. But to what end? No audit regime will ever stop organised crime. To stem identity theft, we need to make stolen IDs less valuable.

All this points to urgent public policy matters for governments and banks. It is not enough to put the onus on individuals to guard against ad hoc attacks on their credit cards. Systemic changes and technological innovation are needed to render stolen personal data useless to thieves. It's not that the whole payments processing system is broken; rather, it is vulnerable at just one point where stolen digital identities can be abused.

Digital identities are the keys to our personal kingdoms. As such they really need to be treated as seriously as car keys, which have become very high tech indeed. Modern car keys cannot be duplicated at a suburban locksmith. It's possible you've come across office and filing cabinet keys that carry government security certifications. And we never use the same keys for our homes and offices; we wouldn't even consider it (which points to the basic weirdness in Single Sign On and identity federation).

In stark contrast to car keys, almost no attention is paid to the pedigree of digital identities. Technology neutrality has bred a bewildering array of ad hoc authentication methods, including SMS messages, one time password generators, password calculators, grid cards and picture passwords; at the same time we've done nothing at all to inhibit the re-use of stolen IDs.

It's high time government and industry got working together on a uniform and universal set of smart identity tools to properly protect consumers online.

Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on identity safety, inspired by recent news that health identifiers may be back on the table in the gigantic U.S. e-health system. The security and privacy issues are large but the cyber safety technology is at hand!

Posted in Fraud, Identity, Internet, Payments, Privacy, Security

The Constellation Research Disruption Checklist for 2015

The Constellation Research analyst team has assembled a "year end checklist", offering suggestions designed to enable you to take better control of your digital strategy in 2015. We offer these actions to help you dominate "digital disruption" in the new year.

1. Matrix Commerce: Scrub your data

Guy Courtin

When it comes to Matrix Commerce, companies need to focus on the basics first. What are the basics? Cleaning up and getting your data in order. Much is discussed about the evolution of supply chains and the surrounding technologies. However these solutions are only as useful as the data that feeds them. Many CxOs that we have spoken to have discussed the need to focus on cleaning up their data. First work on a data audit to identify the most important sources of data for your efforts in Matrix Commerce. Second, focus on the systems that can process and make sense of this data. Finally, determine the systems and business processes that will be optimized with these improvements. Matrix Commerce starts with the right data. The systems and business processes that layer on top of this data are only as useful as the data. CxOs must continue to organize and clean their data house.

2. Safety and Privacy - Create your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory

Steve Wilson

In 2015, get on top of your information assets. When information is the lifeblood of your business, make sure you understand what really makes it valuable. Create (or refresh) your Enterprise Information Asset Inventory, and then think beyond the standard security dimensions of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. What sets your information apart from your competitors? Is it more complete, more up-to-date, more original or harder to acquire? To maximise the value of information, innovative organisations are gauging it in terms of utility, currency, jurisdictional certainty, privacy compliance and whatever other facets matter the most in their business environment. These innovative organizations structure their information technology and security functions to not merely protect the enterprise against threats, but to deliver the right data when and where it's needed most. Shifting from defensive security to strategic informatics is the key to success in the digital economy. Learn more about creating an information asset inventory.

3. Data to Decisions - Create your Big Data Plan of Action

Andy Mulholland

Big Data is arriving at the end of the hype cycle. In 2015, real-time decision support using ‘smart data’ extracted from Big Data will manifest as a requirement for competitiveness. Digital Business, or even just online sellers, are all reducing reaction and response times. Enterprises have huge business and technology investments in data that need to support their daily activities better, so its time to pivot from using Big Data for analysis and start examining how to deliver Smart Data to users and automated online systems. What is Smart Data? Well, let's say creating your organization's definition of Smart Data is priority number one in your Big Data strategy. Transformation in Digital markets requires a transformation in the competitive use of Big Data. Request a meeting with Constellation's CTO in residence, Andy Mulholland.

4. Next Gen CXP - Make Customer Experience Instinctual

Natalie Petouhoff

Stop thinking of Customer Experience as a functional or departmental initiative and start thinking about experience from the customer’s point of view.

Customers don’t distinguish between departments when they require service from your organization. Customer Experience is a responsibility shared amongst all employees. However, the division of companies into functional departments with separate goals means that customer experience is often fractured. Rid your company of this ethos in 2015 by using design thinking to create a culture of cohesive customer experience.

Ensure all employees live your company mythology, employ the right customer and internal-facing technologies, collect the right data, and make changes to your strategy and products as soon as possible. Read "Five Approaches to Drive Customer Loyalty in a Digital World".

5. Future of Work - Take Advantage of Collaboration

Alan Lepofsky

Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement in the way people communicate and collaborate with their colleagues and customers, shifting from closed systems like email and chat, to more transparent tools like social networks and communities. That trend will continue in 2015 as people become more comfortable with sharing and as collaboration tools become more integrated with the business software they use to get their jobs done. Employees should familiarize themselves with the tools available to them, and learn how to pick the right tool for each of the various scenarios that make up their work day. Read "Enterprise Collaboration: From Simple Sharing to Getting Work Done".

6. Future of Work - Prepare for Demographic Shifts

Holger Mueller

In the next ten years 10% to 20% of the North American and European workforce will retire. Leaders need to understand and prepare for this tremendous shift so performance remains steady as many of the workforce's highly skilled workers retire.

To ensure smooth a smooth transition, ensure your HCM software systems can accommodate a massive number of retirements, successions and career path developments, and new hires from external recruiting.

Constellation fully expects employment to be a sellers market going forward. People leaders should ensure their HCM systems facilitate employee motivation, engagement and retention, lest they lose their best employees to competitors. Read "Globalization, HR, and Business Model Success". Additional cloud HR case studies here and here.

7. Digital Marketing Transformation - Brand Priorities Must Convey Authenticity

Ray Wang

Brand authenticity must dominate digital and analog channels in 2015. Digital personas must not only reflect the brand, but also expand upon the analog experience. Customers love the analog experience, so deliver the same experience digitally. Brand conscious leaders must invest in the digital experience with an eye towards mass personalization at scale. While advertising plays a key role in distributing the brand message, investment in the design of digital experiences presents itself as a key area of investment for 2015. Download free executive brief: Can Brands Keep Their Promise?

8. Consumerization of IT: Use Mobile as the Gateway to Digital Transformation Projects

Ray Wang

Constellation believes that mobile is more than just the device. While smartphones and other devices are key enablers of 'mobile', design in digital transformation should take into account how these technologies address the business value and business model transformation required to deliver on breakthrough innovation. If you have not yet started your digital transformation or are considering using mobile as an additional digital transformation point, Constellation recommends that clients assess how a new generation of enterprise mobile apps can change the business by identifying a cross-functional business problem that cannot be solved with linear thinking, articulating the business problem and benefit, showing how the solution orchestrates new experiences, identifying how analytics and insights can fuel the business model shift, exploiting full native device features, and seeking frictionless experiences. You'll be digital before you know it. Read "Why the Third Generation of Enterprise Mobile is Designed for Digital Transformation"

9. Technology Optimization & Innovation - Prepare Your Public Cloud Strategy

Holger Mueller

In 2015 technology leaders will need to create, adjust and implement their public cloud strategy. Considering estimates pegging Amazon AWS at 15-20% of virtualized servers worldwide, CIOs and CTOs need to actively plan and execute their enterprise’s strategy vis-a-vis the public cloud. Reducing technical debt and establishing next generation best practices to leverage the new ‘on demand’ IT paradigm should be a top priority for CIOs and CTOs seeking organizational competitiveness, greater job security and fewer budget restrictions.

Posted in Social Media, Security, Privacy, Constellation Research, Cloud, Big Data

Too smart?

An Engadget report today, "Hangouts eavesdrops on your chats to offer 'smart suggestions'" describes a new "spy/valet" feature being added to Google's popular video chat tool.

  • "Google's Hangouts is gaining a handy, but slightly creepy new feature today. The popular chat app will now act as a digital spy-slash-valet by eavesdropping on your conversations to offer 'smart suggestions.' For instance, if a pal asks 'where are you?' it'll immediately prompt you to share your location, then open a map so you can pin it precisely."

It's sad that this sort of thing still gets meekly labeled as "creepy". The privacy implications are serious and pretty easy to see.

Google is evidently processing the text of Hangouts as they fly through their system, extracting linguistic cues, interpreting what's being said using Artificial Intelligence, extracting new meaning and insights, and offering suggestions.

We need some clarification about whether any covert tests of this technology have been undertaken during the R&D phase. A company obviously doesn't launch a new product like this without a lot of research, feasibility testing, prototyping and testing. Serious work on 'smart suggestions' would not start without first testing how it works in real life. So I wonder if any of this evaluation was done covertly on live data? Are Google researchers routinely eavesdropping on hangouts to develop the 'smart suggestions' technology?

If so, is such data usage covered by their Privacy Policy (you know, under the usual "in order to improve our service" justification)? And is usage sanctioned internationally in the stricter privacy regimes?

Many people have said to me I'm jumping the gun, and that Google would probably test the new Hangouts feature on its own employees. Perhaps, but given that scanning gmails is situation normal for Google, and they have a "privacy" culture that joins up all their business units so that data may be re-purposed almsot without limit, I feel sure that running AI algorithms on text without telling people would be par for the course.

In development and in operation, we need to know what steps are taken to protect the privacy of hangout data. What personally identifiable data and metadata is retained for other purposes? Who inside Google is granted access to the data and especially the synthtised insights? How long does any secondary usage persist for? Are particularly sensitive matters (like health data, financial details, corporate intellectual property etc.) filtered out?

This is well beyond "creepy". Hangouts and similar video chat are certainly wonderdful technologies. We're using them routinely for teaching, education, video conferencing, collaboration and consultation. The tools may become entrenched in corporate meetings, telecommuting, healthcare and the professions. But if I am talking with my doctor, or discussing patents with my legal team, or having a clandestine chat with a lover, I clearly do not want any unsolicited contributions from the service provider. More fundamentally, I want assurance that no machine is ever tapping into these sorts of communications, running AI algorithms, and creating new insights. If I'm wrong about covert testing on live data, then Google could do what Apple did and publish an Open Letter clarifying their data usage practices and strategies.

Come to think of it, if Google is running natural language processing algorithms over the Hangouts stream, might they be augmenting their gmail scanning the same way? Their business model is to extract insights about users from any data they get their hands on. Until now it's been a crude business of picking out keywords and using them to profile users' interests and feed targeted advertising. But what if they could get deeper information about us through AI? Is there any sign from their historical business practices that Google would not do this? And what if they can extract sensitive information like mental health indications? Even with good intent and transarency, predicting healthcare from social media is highly problematic as shown by the "Samaritans Radar" experience.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the new frontiers. Hot on the heels of the successes of IBM Watson, we're seeing Natural Language Processing and analytics rapidly penetrate business and now consumer applications. Commentators are alternately telling us that AI will end humanity, and not to worry about it. For now, I call on people to simply think clearly through the implications, such as for privacy. If AI programs are clever enough to draw deep insights about us from what we say, then the "datapreneurs" in charge of those algorithms need to remember they are just as accountable for privacy as if they have asked us reveal all by filling out a questionnaire.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Internet, Big Data

Thinking creatively about information assets in retail and hospitality

In my last blog Improving the Position of the CISO, I introduced the new research I've done on extending the classic "Confidentiality-Integrity-Availability" (C-I-A) frame for security analysis, to cover all the other qualities of enterprise information assets. The idea is to build a comprehensive account of what it is that makes information valuable in the context of the business, leveraging the traditional tools and skills of the CISO. After all, security professionals are particularly good at looking at context. Instead of restricting themselves to defending information assets against harm, CISOs can be helping to enhance those assets by building up their other competitive attributes.

Let's look at some examples of how this would work, in some classic Big Data applications in retail and hospitality.

Companies in these industries have long been amassing detailed customer databases under the auspices of loyalty programs. Supermarkets have logged our every purchase for many years, so they can for instance put together new deals on our favorite items, from our preferred brands, or from competitors trying to get us to switch brands. Likewise, hotels track when we stay and what we do, so they can personalise our experience, tailor new packages for us, and try to cross-sell services they predict we'll find attractive. Behind the scenes, the data is also used for operations to plan demand, fine tune their logistics and so on.

Big Data techniques amplify the value of information assets enormously, but they can take us into complicated territory. Consider for example the potential for loyalty information to be parlayed into insurance and other financial services products. Supermarkets find they now have access to a range of significant indicators of health & lifestyle risk factors which are hugely valuable in insurance calculations ... if only the data is permitted to be re-purposed like that.

The question is, what is it about the customer database of a given store or hotel that gives it an edge over its competitors? There many more attributes to think creatively about beyond C-I-A!

  • Utility
  • It's important to rigorously check that the raw data, the metadata and any derived analytics can actually be put to different business purposes.
    • Are data formats well-specified, and technically and semantically interoperable?
    • What would it cost to improve interoperability as needed?
    • Is the data physically available to your other business systems?
    • Does the rest of the business know what's in the data sets?
  • Completeness
    • Do you know more about your customers than your competitors do?
    • Do you supplement and enrich raw customer behaviours with questionaires, or linked data?
    • How far back in time do the records go?
    • Do you understand the reason any major gaps? Do the gaps themselves tell you anything?
    • What sort of metadata do you have? For example, do you retain time & location, trend data, changes, origins and so on?
  • Currency & Accuracy
    • Is your data up to date? Remember that accuracy can diminish over time, so the sheer age of a long term database can have a downside.
    • What mechanisms are there to keep data up to date?
  • Permissions & Consent
    • Have customers consented to secondary usage of data?
    • Is the consent specific, blanket or bundled?
    • Might customers be surprised and possibly put off to learn how their loyalty data is utilised?
    • Do the terms & conditions of participation in a loyalty program cover what you wish to do with the data?
    • Do the Ts&Cs (which might have been agreed to in the past) still align with the latest plans for data usage?
    • Are there opportunities to refresh the Ts&Cs?
    • Are there opportunities for customers to negotiate the value you can offer for re-purposing the data?

  • Compliance
  • When businesses derive new insights from data, it is possible that they are synthesising brand new Personal Information, and non-obvious privacy obligations can go along with that. The competitive advantage of Big Data can be squandered if regulations are overlooked, especially in international environments.
    • So where is the data held, and where does it flow?
    • Are applications for your data compliant with applicable regulations?
    • Is health information or similar sensitive Personal Information extracted or synthesised, and do you have specific consent for that?
    • Can you meet the Access & Correction obligations in many data protection regulations?

For more detail, my new report, "Strategic Opportunities for the CISO", is available now.

Posted in Big Data, Constellation Research, Management theory, Privacy, Security

The Prince of Data Mining

Facial recognition is digital alchemy. It's the prince of data mining.

Facial recognition takes previously anonymous images and conjures peoples' identities. It's an invaluable capability. Once they can pick out faces in crowds, trawling surreptitiously through anyone and everyone's photos, the social network businesses can work out what we're doing, when and where we're doing it, and who we're doing it with. The companies figure out what we like to do without us having to 'like' or favorite anything.

So Google, Facebook, Apple at al have invested hundreds of megabucks in face recognition R&D and buying technology start-ups. And they spend billions of dollars buying images and especially faces, going back to Google's acquisition of Picasa in 2004, and most recently, Facebook's ill-fated $3 billion offer for Snapchat.

But if most people find face recognition rather too creepy, then there is cause for optimism. The technocrats have gone too far. What many of them still don't get is this: If you take anonymous data (in the form of photos) and attach names to that data (which is what Facebook photo tagging does - it guesses who people are in photos are, attaches putative names to records, and invites users to confirm them) then you Collect Personal Information. Around the world, existing pre-biometrics era black letter Privacy Law says you can't Collect PII even indirectly like that without am express reason and without consent.

When automatic facial recognition converts anonymous data into PII, it crosses a bright line in the law.

Posted in Social Networking, Privacy, Biometrics, Big Data

From Information Security to Digital Competitiveness

Exploring new strategic opportunities for CIOs and CISOs.

For as long as we've had a distinct information security profession, it has been said that security needs to be a "business enabler". But what exactly does that mean? How can security professionals advance from their inherently defensive postures, into more strategic positions, and contribute actively to the growth of the business? This is the focus of my latest work at Constellation Research. It turns out that security professionals have special tools and skills ideally suited to a broader strategic role in information management.

The role of Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is a tough one. Security is red hot. Not a week goes by without news of another security breach.

Information now is the lifeblood of most organisations; CISOs and their teams are obviously crucial in safeguarding that. But a purely defensive mission seldom allows for much creativity, or a positive reputation amongst one's peers. A predominantly reactive work mode -- as important as it is from day to day -- can sometimes seem precarious. The good news for CISOs' career security and job satisfaction is they happen to have special latent skills to innovate and build out those most important digital assets.

Information assets are almost endless: accounts, ledgers and other legal records, sales performance, stock lists, business plans, R&D plans, product designs, market analyses and forecasts, customer data, employee files, audit reports, patent specifications and trade secrets. But what is it about all this information that actually needs protecting? What exactly makes any data valuable? These questions take us into the mind of the CISO.

Security management is formally all about the right balance of Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability in the context of the business. Different businesses have different needs in these three dimensions.

Think of the famous industrial secrets like the recipes for KFC or Coca Cola. These demand the utmost confidentiality and integrity but the availability of the information can be low (nay, must be low) because it is accessed as a whole so seldomly. Medical records too have traditionally needed confidentiality more than availability, but that's changing. Complex modern healthcare demands electronic records, and these do need high availability especially in emergency care settings.

In contrast, for public information like stock prices there is no value in confidentiality whatsoever, and instead, availability and integrity are paramount. On the other hand, market-sensitive information that listed companies periodically report to stock exchanges must have very strict confidentiality for a relatively brief period.

Security professionals routinely compile Information Asset Inventories and plan for appropriate C-I-A for each type of data held. From there, a Threat & Risk Assessment (TRA) is generally undertaken, to examine the adverse events that might compromise the Confidentiality, Integrity and/or Availability. The likelihood and the impact of each adverse event are estimated and multiplied together to gauge the practical risk posed by each known threat. By prioritising counter-measures for the identified threats, in line with the organisation's risk appetite, the TRA helps guide a rational program of investment in security.

Now their practical experience can put CISOs in a special position to enhance their organisation's information assets rather than restrict themselves to hardening information against just the negative impacts.

Here's where the CISO's mindset comes into play in a new way. The real value of information lies not so much in the data itself as in its qualities. Remember the cynical old saw "It's not what you know, it's who you know". There's a serious side to the saying, which highlights that really useful information has pedigree.

So the real action is in the metadata; that is, data about data. It may have got a bad rap recently thanks to surveillance scandals, but various thinkers have long promoted the importance of metadata. For example, back in the 1980s, Citibank CEO Walter Wriston famously said "information about money will become almost as important as money itself". What a visionary endorsement of metadata!

The important latent skills I want to draw out for CISOs is their practiced ability to deal with the qualities of data. To bring greater value to the business, CISOs can start thinking about the broader pedigree of data and not merely its security qualities. They should spread their wings beyond C-I-A, to evaluate all sorts of extra dimensions, like completeness, reliability, originality, currency, privacy and regulatory compliance.

The core strategic questions for the modern CISO are these: What is it about your corporate information that gives you competitive advantage? What exactly makes information valuable?

The CISO has the mindset and the analytical tools to surface these questions and positively engage their executive peers in finding the answers.

My new Constellation Research report will be published soon.

Posted in Security, Privacy, Management theory, Constellation Research

An unpublished letter on The Right To Be Forgotten

In response to "The Solace of Oblivion", Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, September 29th, 2014.

The "Right to be Forgotten" is an unfortunate misnomer for a balanced data control measure decided by the European Court of Justice. The new rule doesn't seek to erase the past but rather to restore some of its natural distance. Privacy is not about secrecy but moderation. Yet restraint is toxic to today's information magnates, and the response of some to even the slightest throttling of their control of data has been shrill. Google doth protest too much when it complains that having to adjust its already very elaborate search filters makes it an unwilling censor.

The result of a multi-billion dollar R&D program, Google's search engine is a great deal more than a latter-day microfiche. Its artificial intelligence tries to predict what users are really looking for, and as a result, its insights are all the more valuable to Google's real clients -- the advertisers. No search result is a passive reproduction of data from a "public domain". Google makes the public domain public. So if search reveals Personal Information that was hitherto impossible to find, then Google should at least participate in helping to temper the unintended privacy consequences.

Stephen Wilson
October 1, 2014.

Posted in Big Data, Internet, Privacy

The worst privacy misconception of all

I was discussing definitions of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) with some lawyers today, one of whom took exception to the US General Services Administration definition: information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other personal or identifying information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual". This lawyer concluded rather hysterically that under such a definition, "nobody can use the internet without a violation".

Similarly, I've seen engineers in Australia recoil at the possibility that IP and MAC Addresses might be treated as PII because it is increasingly easy to link them to the names of device owners. I was recently asked "Why are they stopping me collecting IP addresses?". The answer is, they're not.

There are a great many misconceptions about privacy, but the idea that 'if it's personal you can't use it' is by far the worst.

Nothing in any broad-based data privacy law I know of says personal information cannot be collected or used.

Rather, what data privacy laws actually say is: if you're collecting and using PII, be careful.

Privacy is about restraint. The general privacy laws of Australia, Europe and 100-odd countries say things like don't collect PII without consent, don't collect PII beyond what you demonstrably need, don't use PII collected for one purpose for other unrelated purposes, tell individuals if you can what PII you hold about them, give people access to the PII you have, and do not retain PII for longer than necessary.

Such rules are entirely reasonable, and impose marginal restrictions on the legitimate conduct of business. And they align very nicely with standard security practice which promotes the Need To Know principle and the Principle of Least Privilege.

Compliance with Privacy Principles does add some overhead to data management compared with anonymous data. If re-identification techniques and ubiquitous inter-connectedness means that hardly any data is going to stay anonymous anymore, then yes, privacy laws mean that data should be treated more cautiously than was previously the case. And what exactly is wrong with that?

If data is the new gold then it's time data custodians took more care.

Posted in Big Data, Privacy

Crowd sourcing private sector surveillance

A repeated refrain of cynics and “infomopolists” alike is that privacy is dead. People are supposed to know that anything on the Internet is up for grabs. In some circles this thinking turns into digital apartheid; some say if you’re so precious about your privacy, just stay offline.

But socialising and privacy are hardly mutually exclusive; we don’t walk around in public with our names tattooed on our foreheads. Why can’t we participate in online social networks in a measured, controlled way without submitting to the operators’ rampant X-ray vision? There is nothing inevitable about trading off privacy for conviviality.

The privacy dangers in Facebook and the like run much deeper than the self-harm done by some peoples’ overly enthusiastic sharing. Promiscuity is actually not the worst problem, neither is the notorious difficulty of navigating complex and ever changing privacy settings.

The advent of facial recognition presents far more serious and subtle privacy challenges.

Facebook has invested heavily in face recognition technology, and not just for fun. Facebook uses it in effect to crowd-source the identification and surveillance of its members. With facial recognition, Facebook is building up detailed pictures of what people do, when, where and with whom.

You can be tagged without consent in a photo taken and uploaded by a total stranger.

The majority of photos uploaded to personal albums over the years were not intended for anything other than private viewing.

Under the privacy law of Australia and data protection regulations in dozens of other jurisdictions, what matters is whether data is personally identifiable. The Commonwealth Privacy Act 1988 (as amended in 2014) defines “Personal Information” as: “information or an opinion about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable”.

Whenever Facebook attaches a member’s name to a photo, they are converting hitherto anonymous data into Personal Information, and in so doing, they become subject to privacy law. Automated facial recognition represents an indirect collection of Personal Information. However too many people still underestimate the privacy implications; some technologists naively claim that faces are “public” and that people can have no expectation of privacy in their facial images, ignoring that information privacy as explained is about the identifiability and identification of data; the words “public” and “private” don’t even figure in the Privacy Act!

If a government was stealing into our photo albums, labeling people and profiling them, there would be riots. It's high time that private sector surveillance - for profit - is seen for what it is, and stopped.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Biometrics