Posts tagged ‘privacy’

Web Privacy Measurement: Genesis of a Community

Last week I participated in the Web Privacy Measurement conference at Berkeley. It was a unique event because the community is quite new and this was our very first gathering. The WSJ Data Transparency hackathon is closely related; the Berkeley conference can be thought of as an academic counterpart. So it was doubly fascinating for me — both for the content and because of my interest in the sociology of research communities.

A year ago I explained that there is an information asymmetry when it comes to online privacy, leading to a “market for lemons.” The asymmetry exists for two main reasons: one is that companies don’t disclose what data they collect about you and what they do with it; the second is that even if they do, end users don’t have the capacity to aggregate and process that information and make decisions on the basis of it.

The Web Privacy Measurement community essentially exists to mitigate this asymmetry. The primary goal is to ferret out what is happening to your data online, and a secondary one is making this information useful by pushing for change, building tools for opt-out and control, comparison of different players, etc. The size of the community is an indication of how big the problem has gotten.

Before anyone starts trotting out the old line, “see, the market can solve everything!”, let me point out that the event schedule demonstrates, if anything, the opposite. The majority of what is produced here is intended wholly or partly for the consumption of regulators. Like many others, I found the “What privacy measurement is useful for policymakers?” panel to be the most interesting one. And let’s not forget that most of this is Government-funded research to begin with.

This community is very different from the others that I’ve belonged to. The mix of backgrounds is extraordinary: researchers mainly from computing and law, and a small number from other disciplines. Most of the researchers are academics, but a few work for industrial research labs, a couple are independent, and one or two work in Government. There were also people from companies that make privacy-focused products/services, lawyers, hobbyists, scholars in the humanities, and ad-industry representatives. Overall, the community has a moderately adversarial relationship with industry, naturally, and a positive relationship with the press, regulators and privacy advocates.

The make-up is somewhat similar to the (looser-knit) group of researchers and developers building decentralized architectures for personal data, a direction that my coauthors and I have taken a skeptical view of in this recent paper. In both cases, the raison d’être of the community is to correct the imbalance of power between corporations and the public. There is even some overlap between the two groups of people.

The big difference is that the decentralization community, typified by Diaspora, mostly tries to mount a direct challenge and overthrow the existing order, whereas our community is content to poke, measure, and expose, and hand over our findings to regulators and other interested parties. So our potential upside is lower — we’re not trying to put a stop to online tracking, for example — but the chance that we’ll succeed in our goals is much higher.

Exciting times. I’m curious to see how things evolve. But this week I’m headed to PLSC, which remains my favorite privacy-related conference.

Thanks to Aleecia McDonald for reviewing a draft.

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June 4, 2012 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

A Critical Look at Decentralized Personal Data Architectures

I have a new paper with the above title, currently under peer review, with Vincent Toubiana, Solon Barocas, Helen Nissenbaum and Dan Boneh (the Adnostic gang). We argue that distributed social networking, personal data stores, vendor relationship management, etc. — movements that we see as closely related in spirit, and which we collectively term “decentralized personal data architectures” — aren’t quite the panacea that they’ve been made out to be.

The paper is only a synopsis of our work so far — in our notes we have over 80 projects, papers and proposals that we’ve studied, so we intend to follow up with a more complete analysis. For now, our goal is to kick off a discussion and give the community something to think about. The paper was a lot of fun to write, and we hope you will enjoy reading it. We recognize that many of our views and conclusions may be controversial, and we welcome comments.


While the Internet was conceived as a decentralized network, the most widely used web applications today tend toward centralization. Control increasingly rests with centralized service providers who, as a consequence, have also amassed unprecedented amounts of data about the behaviors and personalities of individuals.

Developers, regulators, and consumer advocates have looked to alternative decentralized architectures as the natural response to threats posed by these centralized services.  The result has been a great variety of solutions that include personal data stores (PDS), infomediaries, Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) systems, and federated and distributed social networks.  And yet, for all these efforts, decentralized personal data architectures have seen little adoption.

This position paper attempts to account for these failures, challenging the accepted wisdom in the web community on the feasibility and desirability of these approaches. We start with a historical discussion of the development of various categories of decentralized personal data architectures. Then we survey the main ideas to illustrate the common themes among these efforts. We tease apart the design characteristics of these systems from the social values that they (are intended to) promote. We use this understanding to point out numerous drawbacks of the decentralization paradigm, some inherent and others incidental. We end with recommendations for designers of these systems for working towards goals that are achievable, but perhaps more limited in scope and ambition.

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February 21, 2012 at 8:27 am 3 comments

Is Writing Style Sufficient to Deanonymize Material Posted Online?

I have a new paper appearing at IEEE S&P with Hristo Paskov, Neil Gong, John Bethencourt, Emil Stefanov, Richard Shin and Dawn Song on Internet-scale authorship identification based on stylometry, i.e., analysis of writing style. Stylometric identification exploits the fact that we all have a ‘fingerprint’ based on our stylistic choices and idiosyncrasies with the written word. To quote from my previous post speculating on the possibility of Internet-scale authorship identification:

Consider two words that are nearly interchangeable, say ‘since’ and ‘because’. Different people use the two words in a differing proportion. By comparing the relative frequency of the two words, you get a little bit of information about a person, typically under 1 bit. But by putting together enough of these ‘markers’, you can construct a profile.

The basic idea that people have distinctive writing styles is very well-known and well-understood, and there is an extremely long line of research on this topic. This research began in modern form in the early 1960s when statisticians Mosteller and Wallace determined the authorship of the disputed Federalist papers, and were featured in TIME magazine. It is never easy to make a significant contribution in a heavily studied area. No surprise, then, that my initial blog post was written about three years ago, and the Stanford-Berkeley collaboration began in earnest over two years ago.

Impact. So what exactly did we achieve? Our research has dramatically increased the number of authors that can be distinguished using writing-style analysis: from about 300 to 100,000. More importantly, the accuracy of our algorithms drops off gently as the number of authors increases, so we can be confident that they will continue to perform well as we scale the problem even further. Our work is therefore the first time that stylometry has been shown to have to have serious implications for online anonymity.[1]

Anonymity and free speech have been intertwined throughout history. For example, anonymous discourse was essential to the debates that gave birth to the United States Constitution. Yet a right to anonymity is meaningless if an anonymous author’s identity can be unmasked by adversaries. While there have been many attempts to legally force service providers and other intermediaries to reveal the identity of anonymous users, courts have generally upheld the right to anonymity. But what if authors can be identified based on nothing but a comparison of the content they publish to other web content they have previously authored?

Experiments. Our experimental methodology is set up to directly address this question. Our primary data source was the ICWSM 2009 Spinn3r Blog Dataset, a large collection of blog posts made available to researchers by, a provider of blog-related commercial data feeds. To test the identifiability of an author, we remove a random k (typically 3) posts from the corresponding blog and treat it as if those posts are anonymous, and apply our algorithm to try to determine which blog it came from. In these experiments, the labeled (identified) and unlabled (anonymous) texts are drawn from the same context. We call this post-to-blog matching.

In some applications of stylometric authorship recognition, the context for the identified and anonymous text might be the same. This was the case in the famous study of the federalist papers — each author hid his name from some of his papers, but wrote about the same topic. In the blogging scenario, an author might decide to selectively distribute a few particularly sensitive posts anonymously through a different channel.  But in other cases, the unlabeled text might be political speech, whereas the only available labeled text by the same author might be a cooking blog, i.e., the labeled and unlabeled text might come from different contexts. Context encompasses much more than topic: the tone might be formal or informal; the author might be in a different mental state (e.g., more emotional) in one context versus the other, etc.

We feel that it is crucial for authorship recognition techniques to be validated in a cross-context setting. Previous work has fallen short in this regard because of the difficulty of finding a suitable dataset. We were able to obtain about 2,000 pairs (and a few triples, etc.) of blogs, each pair written by the same author, by looking at a dataset of 3.5 million Google profiles and searching for users who listed more than one blog in the ‘websites’ field.[2] We are thankful to Daniele Perito for sharing this dataset. We added these blogs to the Spinn3r blog dataset to bring the total to 100,000. Using this data, we performed experiments as follows: remove one of a pair of blogs written by the same author, and use it as unlabeled text. The goal is to find the other blog written by the same author. We call this blog-to-blog matching. Note that although the number of blog pairs is only a few thousand, we match each anonymous blog against all 99,999 other blogs.

Results. Our baseline result is that in the post-to-blog experiments, the author was correctly identified 20% of the time. This means that when our algorithm uses three anonymously published blog posts to rank the possible authors in descending order of probability, the top guess is correct 20% of the time.

But it gets better from there. In 35% of cases, the correct author is one of the top 20 guesses. Why does this matter? Because in practice, algorithmic analysis probably won’t be the only step in authorship recognition, and will instead be used to produce a shortlist for further investigation. A manual examination may incorporate several characteristics that the automated analysis does not, such as choice of topic (our algorithms are scrupulously “topic-free”). Location is another signal that can be used: for example, if we were trying to identify the author of the once-anonymous blog Washingtonienne we’d know that she almost certainly resides in or around Washington, D.C. Alternately, a powerful adversary such as law enforcement may require Blogger, WordPress, or another popular blog host to reveal the login times of the top suspects, which could be correlated with the timing of posts on the anonymous blog to confirm a match.

We can also improve the accuracy significantly over the baseline of 20% for authors for whom we have more than an average number of labeled or unlabeled blog posts. For example, with 40–50 labeled posts to work with (the average is 20 posts per author), the accuracy goes up to 30–35%.

An important capability is confidence estimation, i.e., modifying the algorithm to also output a score reflecting its degree of confidence in the prediction. We measure the efficacy of confidence estimation via the standard machine-learning metrics of precision and recall. We find that we can improve precision from 20% to over 80% with only a halving of recall. In plain English, what these numbers mean is: the algorithm does not always attempt to identify an author, but when it does, it finds the right author 80% of the time. Overall, it identifies 10% (half of 20%) of authors correctly, i.e., 10,000 out of the 100,000 authors in our dataset. Strong as these numbers are, it is important to keep in mind that in a real-life deanonymization attack on a specific target, it is likely that confidence can be greatly improved through methods discussed above — topic, manual inspection, etc.

We confirmed that our techniques work in a cross-context setting (i.e., blog-to-blog experiments), although the accuracy is lower (~12%). Confidence estimation works really well in this setting as well and boosts accuracy to over 50% with a halving of recall. Finally, we also manually verified that in cross-context matching we find pairs of blogs that are hard for humans to match based on topic or writing style; we describe three such pairs in an appendix to the paper. For detailed graphs as well as a variety of other experimental results, see the paper.

We see our results as establishing early lower bounds on the efficacy of large-scale stylometric authorship recognition. Having cracked the scale barrier, we expect accuracy improvements to come easier in the future. In particular, we report experiments in the paper showing that a combination of two very different classifiers works better than either, but there is a lot more mileage to squeeze from this approach, given that ensembles of classifiers are known to work well for most machine-learning problems. Also, there is much work to be done in terms of analyzing which aspects of writing style are preserved across contexts, and using this understanding to improve accuracy in that setting.

Techniques. Now let’s look in more detail at the techniques I’ve hinted at above. The author identification task proceeds in two steps: feature extraction and classification. In the feature extraction stage, we reduce each blog post to a sequence of about 1,200 numerical features (a “feature vector”) that acts as a fingerprint. These features fall into various lexical and grammatical categories. Two example features: the frequency of uppercase words, the number of words that occur exactly once in the text. While we mostly used the same set of features that the authors of the Writeprints paper did, we also came up with a new set of features that involved analyzing the grammatical parse trees of sentences.

An important component of feature extraction is to ensure that our analysis was purely stylistic. We do this in two ways: first, we preprocess the blog posts to filter out signatures, markup, or anything that might not be directly entered by a human. Second, we restrict our features to those that bear little resemblance to the topic of discussion. In particular, our word-based features are limited to stylistic “function words” that we list in an appendix to the paper.

In the classification stage, we algorithmically “learn” a characterization of each author (from the set of feature vectors corresponding to the posts written by that author). Given a set of feature vectors from an unknown author, we use the learned characterizations to decide which author it most likely corresponds to. For example, viewing each feature vector as a point in a high-dimensional space, the learning algorithm might try to find a “hyperplane” that separates the points corresponding to one author from those of every other author, and the decision algorithm might determine, given a set of hyperplanes corresponding to each known author, which hyperplane best separates the unknown author from the rest.

We made several innovations that allowed us to achieve the accuracy levels that we did. First, contrary to some previous authors who hypothesized that only relatively straightforward “lazy” classifiers work for this type of problem, we were able to avoid various pitfalls and use more high-powered machinery. Second, we developed new techniques for confidence estimation, including a measure very similar to “eccentricity” used in the Netflix paper. Third, we developed techniques to improve the performance (speed) of our classifiers, detailed in the paper. This is a research contribution by itself, but it also enabled us to rapidly iterate the development of our algorithms and optimize them.

In an earlier article, I noted that we don’t yet have as rigorous an understanding of deanonymization algorithms as we would like. I see this paper as a significant step in that direction. In my series on fingerprinting, I pointed out that in numerous domains, researchers have considered classification/deanonymization problems with tens of classes, with implications for forensics and security-enhancing applications, but that to explore the privacy-infringing/surveillance applications the methods need to be tweaked to be able to deal with a much larger number of classes. Our work shows how to do that, and we believe that insights from our paper will be generally applicable to numerous problems in the privacy space.

Concluding thoughts. We’ve thrown open the doors for the study of writing-style based deanonymization that can be carried out on an Internet-wide scale, and our research demonstrates that the threat is already real. We believe that our techniques are valuable by themselves as well.

The good news for authors who would like to protect themselves against deanonymization, it appears that manually changing one’s style is enough to throw off these attacks. Developing fully automated methods to hide traces of one’s writing style remains a challenge. For now, few people are aware of the existence of these attacks and defenses; all the sensitive text that has already been anonymously written is also at risk of deanonymization.

[1] A team from Israel have studied authorship recognition with 10,000 authors. While this is interesting and impressive work, and bears some similarities with ours, they do not restrict themselves to stylistic analysis, and therefore the method is comparatively limited in scope. Incidentally, they have been in the news recently for some related work.

[2] Although the fraction of users who listed even a single blog in their Google profile was small, there were more than 2,000 users who listed multiple. We did not use the full number that was available.

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February 20, 2012 at 9:40 am 7 comments

Printer Dots, Pervasive Tracking and the Transparent Society

So far in the fingerprinting series, we’ve seen how a variety of objects and physical devices [1234], often even supposedly identical ones, can be uniquely fingerprinted. This article is non-technical; it is an opinion on some philosophical questions about tracking and surveillance.

Here’s a fascinating example of tracking that’s all around you but that you’re probably unaware of:

Color laser printers and photocopiers print small yellow dots on every page for tracking purposes.

My source for this is the EFF’s Seth Schoen, who has made his presentation on the subject available.

The dots are not normally visible, but can be seen by a variety of methods such as shining a blue LED flashlight, magnification under a microscope or scanning the document with a commodity scanner. The pattern of dots typically encodes the device serial number and a timestamp; some parts of the code are yet unidentified. There are interesting differences between the codes used by different manufacturers. [1] Some examples are shown in the pictures. There’s a lot more information in the presentation.

Pattern of dots from three different printers: Epson, HP LaserJet and Canon.

Schoen says the dots could have been the result of the Secret Service pressuring printer manufacturers to cooperate, going back as far as the 1980s. The EFF’s Freedom of Information Act request on the matter from 2005 has been “mired in bureaucracy.”

The EFF as well as the Seeing Yellow project would like to see these dots gone. The EFF has consistently argued against pervasive tracking. In this article on biometric surveillance, they say:

EFF believes that perfect tracking is inimical to a free society. A society in which everyone’s actions are tracked is not, in principle, free. It may be a livable society, but would not be our society.

Eloquently stated. You don’t have to be a privacy advocate to see that there are problems with mass surveillance, especially by the State. But I’d like to ask the question: can we really hope to stave off a surveillance society forever, or are efforts like the Seeing Yellow project just buying time?

My opinion is that it impossible to put the genie back into the bottle — the cost of tracking every person, object and activity will continue to drop exponentially. I hope the present series of articles has convinced you that even if privacy advocates are successful in preventing the deployment of explicit tracking mechanisms, just about everything around you is inherently trackable. [2]

And even if we can prevent the State from setting up a surveillance infrastructure, there are undeniable commercial benefits in tracking everything that’s trackable, which means that private actors will deploy this infrastructure, as they’ve done with online tracking. If history is any indication, most people will happily allow themselves to be tracked in exchange for free or discounted services. From there it’s a simple step for the government to obtain the records of any person of interest.

If we accept that we cannot stop the invention and use of tracking technologies, what are our choices? Our best hope, I believe, is a world in which the ability to conduct tracking and surveillance is symmetrically distributed, a society in which ordinary citizens can and do turn the spotlight on those in power, keeping that power in check. On the other hand, a world in which only the government, large corporations and the rich are able to utilize these technologies, but themselves hide under a veil of secrecy, would be a true dystopia.

Another important principle is for those who do conduct tracking to be required to be transparent about it, to have social and legal processes in place to determine what uses are acceptable, and to allow opting out in contexts where that makes sense. Because ultimately what matters in terms of societal freedom is not surveillance itself, but how surveillance affects the balance of power. To be sure, the society I describe — pervasive but transparent tracking, accessible to everyone, and with limited opt-outs — would be different from ours, and would take some adjusting to, but that doesn’t make it worse than ours.

I am hardly the first to make this argument. A similar position was first prominently articulated by David Brin his 1999 book Transparent Society. What the last decade has shown is just how inevitable pervasive tracking is. For example, Brin focused too much on cameras and assumed that tracking people indoors would always be infeasible. That view seems almost quaint today.

Let me be clear: I have absolutely no beef with efforts to oppose pervasive tracking. Even if being watched all of the time is our eventual destiny, society won’t be ready for it any time soon — these changes take decades if not generations. The pace at which the industry wants us to make us switch to “living in public” is far faster than we’re capable of. Buying time is therefore extremely valuable.

That said, embracing the Transparent Society view has important consequences for civil libertarians. It suggests working toward an achievable if sub-optimal goal instead of an ideal but impossible one. It also suggests that the “democratization of surveillance” should be encouraged rather than feared.

Here are some currently hot privacy and civil-liberties issues that I think will have a significant impact on the distribution of power in a ubiquitous-surveillance society: the right to videotape on-duty police officers and other public officials, transparent government initiatives including FOIA requests, and closer to my own interests, the Do Not Track opt-out mechanism, and tools like FourthParty which have helped illuminate the dark world of online tracking.

Let me close by calling out one battle in particular. Throughout this series, we’ve seen that fingerprinting techniques have security-enhancing applications (such as forensics), as well as privacy-infringing ones, but that most research papers on fingerprinting consider only the former question. I believe the primary reason is that funding is for the most part available only for the former type of research and not for the latter. However, we need a culture of research into privacy-infringing technologies, whether funded by federal grants or otherwise, in order to achieve the goals of symmetry and transparency in tracking.

[1] Note that this is just an encoding and not encryption. The current system allows anyone to read the dots; public-key encryption would allow at least nominally restricting the decoding ability to only law-enforcement personnel, but there is no evidence that this is being done.

[2] This is analogous to the cookies-vs-fingerprinting issue in online tracking, and why cookie-blocking alone is not sufficient to escape tracking.

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October 18, 2011 at 11:35 am 5 comments

Fingerprinting of RFID Tags and High-Tech Stalking

Previous articles in this series looked at fingerprinting of blank paper and digital cameras. This article is about fingerprinting of RFID, a domain where research has directly investigated the privacy threat, namely tracking people in public.

The principle behind RFID fingerprinting is the same as with digital cameras:

Microscopic physical irregularities due to natural structure and/or manufacturing defects cause observable, albeit tiny, behavioral differences.

The basics. First let’s get the obvious question out of the way: why are we talking about devious methods of identifying RFID chips, when the primary raison d’être of RFID is to enable unique identification? Why not just use them in the normal way?

The answer is that fingerprinting, which exploits the physical properties of RFID chips rather than their logical behavior, allows identifying them in unintended ways and in unintended contexts, and this is powerful. RFID applications, for example in e-passports or smart cards, can often be cloned at the logical level, either because there is no authentication or because authentication is broken. Fingerprinting can make the system (more) secure, since fingerprints arise from microscopic randomness and there is no known way to create a tag with a given fingerprint.

If sensor patterns in digital cameras are a relatively clean example of fingerprinting, RF (and anything to do with the electromagnetic spectrum in general) is the opposite. First, the data is an arbitrary waveform instead of an fixed-size sequence of bits. This means that a simple point-by-point comparison won’t work for fingerprint verification; the task is conceptually more similar to algorithmically comparing two faces. Second, the probe signal itself is variable. RFID chips are passive: they respond to the signal produced by the reader (and draw power from it).[1] This means that the fingerprinting system is in full control of what kind of signal to interrogate the chip with. It’s a bit like being given a blank canvas to paint on.

Techniques. A group at ETH Zurich has done some impressive work in this area. In their 2009 paper, they report being able to compare an RFID card with a stored fingerprint and determine if they are the same, with an error rate of 2.5%–4.5% depending on settings.[2] They use two types of signals to probe the chip with — “burst” and “sweep” — and extract features from the response based on the spectrum.

Chip response to different signals. Fingerprints are extracted from characteristic features of these responses.

Other papers have demonstrated different ways to generate signals/extract features. A University of Arkansas team exploited the minimum power required to get a response from the tag at various frequencies. The authors achieved a 94% true-positive rate using 50 identical tags, with only a 0.1% false-positive rate. (About 6% of the time, the algorithm didn’t produce an output.)

Yet other techniques, namely the energy and Q factor of higher harmonics were studied in a couple of papers out of NIST. In the latter work, they experimented with 20 cards which consisted of 4 batches of 5 ‘identical’ cards in each. The overall identification accuracy was 96%.

It seems safe to say that RFID fingerprinting techniques are still in their infancy, and there is much room for improvement by considering new categories of features, by combining different types of features, or by using different classification algorithms on the extracted features.

Privacy. RF fingerprinting, like other types of fingerprinting, shows a duality between security-enhancing and privacy-infringing applications, but in a less direct way.  There are two types of RFID systems: “near-field” based on inductive coupling, used in contactless smartcards and the like, and “far field” based on backscatter, used in vehicle identification, inventory control, etc. The papers discussed so far pertain to near-field systems. There are no real privacy-infringing applications of near-field RF fingerprinting, because you can’t get close enough to extract a fingerprint without the owner of the tag knowing about it. Far-field systems, to which we will now turn, are ideally suited to high-tech stalking.

Fingerprinting provides the ability to enhance the security of near-field RFID systems and to infringe privacy in the context of far-field RFID chips.

In a recent paper, the Zurich team mentioned earlier investigated the possibility of tracking a people in a shopping mall based on strategically placed sensors, assuming that shoppers have several (far-field) RFID tags on them. The point is that it is possible to design chips that prevent tracking at the logical level by authenticating the reader, but this is impossible at the physical level.

Why would people have RFID tags on them? Tags used for inventory control in stores, and not deactivated at the point-of-sale are one increasingly common possibility — they would end up in shopping bags (or even on clothes being worn, although that’s less likely). RFID tags in wallets and medical devices are another source; these are tags that the user wants to be present and functional.

What makes the tracking device the authors built powerful is that it is low-cost and can be operated surreptitiously at some distance from the victim: up to 2.75 meters, or 9 feet. They show that 5.4 bits of entropy can be extracted from a single tag, which means that 5 tags on a person gives 22 bits, easily enough to distinguish everyone who might be in a particular mall.

To assess the practical privacy risk, technological feasibility is only one dimension. We also need to ask who the adversary is and what the incentives are. Tracking people, especially shoppers, in physical space has the strongest incentive of all: selling products. While online tracking is pervasive, the majority of shopping dollars are still spent offline, and there’s still no good way to automatically identify people when they are in the vicinity in order to target offers to them. Facial recognition technology is highly error-prone and creeps people out, and that’s where RF fingerprinting comes in.

That said, RF fingerprinting is only one of the many ways of passively tracking people en masse in physical space — unintentional leaks of identifiers from smartphones and logical-layer identification of RFID tags seem more likely — but it’s probably the hardest to defend against. It is possible to disable RFID tags, but this is usually irreversible and it’s difficult to be sure you haven’t missed any. RFID jammers are another option but they are far from easy to use and are probably illegal in the U.S. One of the ETH Zurich researchers suggests tinfoil wrapping when going out shopping :-)

[1] Active RFID chips exist but most commercial systems use passive ones, and that’s what the fingerprinting research has focused on.

[2] They used a population of 50 tags, but this number is largely irrelevant since the experiment was one of binary classification rather than 1-out-of-n identification.


Thanks to Vincent Toubiana for comments on a draft.

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October 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm Leave a comment

Google+ and Privacy: A Roundup

By all accounts, Google has done a great job with Plus, both on privacy and on the closely related goal of better capturing real-life social nuances. [1] This article will summarize the privacy discussions I’ve had in the first few days of using the service and the news I’ve come across.

The origin of Circles

“Circles,” as you’re probably aware, is the big privacy-enhancing feature. A presentation titled “The Real-Life Social Network” by user-experience designer Paul Adams almost exactly a year ago went viral in the tech community; it looks likely this was the genesis, or at least a crystallization, of the Circles concept.

But Adams defected to Facebook a few months later, which lead to speculation that it was the end of whatever plans Google may have had for the concept. But little did the world know at the time that Plus was a company-wide, bet-the-farm initiative involving 30 product teams and hundreds of engineers, and that the departure of one made no difference.

Meanwhile, Facebook introduced a friend-lists feature but it was DOA. When you’re staring at a giant list of several hundred “friends” — Facebook doesn’t do a good job of discouraging indiscriminate friending — categorizing them all is intimidating to say the least. My guess is that Facebook was merely playing the privacy communication game.

Why are circles effective?

I did an informal poll to see if people are taking advantage of Circles to organize their friend groups. Admittedly, I was looking at a tech-savvy, privacy-conscious group of users, but the response was overwhelming, and it was enough to convince me that Circles will be a success. There’s a lot of excitement among the early user community as they collectively figure out the technology as well as the norms and best practices for Circles. For example, this tip on how to copy a circle has been shared over 400 times as I write this.

One obvious explanation is that Circles captures real-life boundaries, and this is what users have been waiting for all along. That’s no doubt true, but I think there’s more to it than that. Multiple people have pointed out how the exemplary user interface for creating circles encouraged them to explore the feature. It is gratifying to see that Google has finally learned the importance of interface and interaction design in getting social right.

There are several other UI features that contribute to the success of Circles. When friending someone, you’re forced to pick one or more circles, instead of being allowed to drop them into a generic bucket and categorize them later. But in spite of this, the UI is so good that I find it no harder than friending on Facebook.

In addition, you have to pick circles to share each post with (but again the interface makes it really easy). Finally, each post has a little snippet that shows who can see it, which has the effect of constantly reminding you to mind the information flow. In short, it is nearly impossible to ignore the Circles paradigm.

The resharing bug

Google+ tries to balance privacy with Twitter-like resharing, which is always going to be tricky. Amusing inconsistencies result if you share a post with a circle that doesn’t include the original poster. A more serious issue, pointed out by many people including an FT blogger, is that  “limited” posts can be publicly reshared. To their credit, Google engineers acknowledged it and quickly disabled the feature.

Meanwhile, some have opined that this issue is “totally bogus” and that this is how life works and how email works, in that when you tell someone a secret, they could share it with others. I strongly disagree, for two reasons.

First, this is not how the real world (or even email) works. Someone can repeat a secret you told them in real life, or forward an email, but they typically won’t broadcast it to the whole world. We’re talking about making something public here, something that will be forever associated with your real name and could very well come up in a web search.

Second, user-interface hints are an important and well-established way of nudging privacy-impacting behaviors. If there’s a ‘share’ button with a ‘public’ setting, many users will assume that it is OK to do just that. Twitter used to allow public retweets of protected tweets, and a study found that this had been done millions of times. In response, Twitter removed this ability. The privicons project seeks to embed similar hints in emails.

In other words, the privacy skeptics are missing the point: the goal of the feature is not to try to technologically prevent leakage of protected information, but to better communicate to users what’s OK to share and what isn’t. And in this case, the simplest way to do that is to remove the 1-click ability to share protected content publicly, and instead let users copy-paste if they really want to do that. It would also make sense to remind users to be careful when they’re sharing a limited to their circles, which, I’m happy to see, is exactly what Google is doing.

The tip you now see when you share a limited post (with another limited group). This is my favorite Google+ feature.

A window into your circles

Paul Ohm points out that if someone shares content with a set of circles that includes you, you get to see 21 users who are part of those circles, apparently picked at random. [2] This means that if you look at these lists of 21 over time you can figure out a lot about someone’s circles, and possibly decipher them completely. Note that by default your profile shows a list of users in your circles, but not who’s in which circle, which for most people is significantly more sensitive.

In my view, this is an interesting finding, but not anything Google needs to fix; the feature is very useful (and arguably privacy-enhancing) and the information leakage is an inevitable tradeoff. But it’s definitely something that users would do well to be aware of: the secrecy of your circles is far from bulletproof.

Speaking of which, the network visibility of different users on their profile page confused me terribly, until I realized Google+ is A/B testing that privacy setting! These are the two possibilities you could see when you edit your profile and click the circles area in the left sidebar: A, B. This is very interesting and unusual. At any rate, very few users seem to have changed the defaults so far, based on a random sample of a few dozen profiles.

Identity and distributed social networking

Some people are peeved that Google+ discourages you from participating pseudonymously. I don’t think a social network that wants to target the mainstream and wants to capture real-world relationships has any real choice about this. In fact, I want it to go further. Right now, Google+ often suggests I add someone I’ve already added, which turns out to be because I’ve corresponded with multiple email addresses belonging to that person. Such user confusion could be minimized if the system did some graph-mining to automatically figure out which identities belong to the same person. [3]

A related question is what this will mean for distributed social networking, which was hailed a year ago as the savior of privacy and user control. My guess is that Google+ will take the wind out of it — Google takeout gives you a significant degree of control over your data. Further, due to the Apple-Twitter integration and the success of Android, the threat of Facebook monopolizing identities has been obliterated; there are at least three strong players now.

Another reason why Google+ competes with distributed social networks: for people worried about the social networking service provider (or the Government) reading their posts, client-side encryption on top of Google+ could work. The Circles feature is exactly what is needed to make encrypted posts viable, because you can make a circle of those who are using a compatible encryption/decryption plugin. At least a half-dozen such plugins have been created over the years (examples: 1, 2), but it doesn’t make much sense to use these over Facebook or Twitter. Once the Google+ developer API rolls out, I’m sure we’ll see yet another avatar of the encrypted status message idea, and perhaps the the n-th time will be the charm.

Concluding thoughts

Two years ago, I wrote that there’s a market case for a privacy-respecting social network to fill Livejournal’s shoes. Google+ seems poised to fulfill most of what I anticipated in that essay; the asymmetric nature of relationships and the ability to present different facets of one’s life to different people are two important characteristics that the two social networks have in common. [4]

Many have speculated on whether, and to what extent, Google+ is a threat to Facebook. One recurring comparison is Facebook as “ghetto” compared to Plus, such as in this image making the rounds on Reddit, reminiscent of Facebook vs. Myspace a few years ago. This perception of “coolness” and “class” is the single biggest thing Google+ has got going for it, more than any technological feature.

It’s funny how people see different things in Google+. While I’m planning to use Google+ as a Livejournal replacement for protected posts, since that’s what fits my needs, the majority of the commentary has compared it to Facebook. A few think it could replace Twitter, generalizing from their own corner of the Google+ network where people haven’t been using the privacy options. Forbes, being a business publication, thinks LinkedIn is the target. I’ve seen a couple of commenters saying they might use it instead of Yammer, another business tool. According to yet other articles, Flickr, Skype and various other Internet companies should be shaking in their boots. Have you heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant?

In short, Google+ is whatever you want it to be, and probably a better version of it. It’s remarkable that they’ve pulled this off without making it a confusing, bloated mess. Myspace founder Tom Anderson seems to have the most sensible view so far: Google+ is simply a better … Google, in that the company now has a smoother, more integrated set of services. You’d think people would have figured it out from the name!

[1] I will use the term “privacy” in this article to encompass both senses.

[2] It’s actually 22 users, including yourself and the poster. It’s not clear just how random the list is; in my perusal, mutual friends seem to be preferentially picked.

[3] I am not suggesting that Google+ should prevent users from having multiple accounts, although Circles makes it much less useful/necessary to have multiple accounts.

[4] On the other hand, when it comes to third party data collection, I do not believe that the market can fix itself.

I’m grateful to Joe HallJonathan Mayer, and many, many others with whom I had interesting discussions, mostly via Google+ itself, on the topics that led to this post.

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July 3, 2011 at 7:04 pm 13 comments

Data-mining Contests and the Deanonymization Dilemma: a Two-stage Process Could Be the Way Out

Anonymization, once the silver bullet of privacy protection in consumer databases, has been shown to be fundamentally inadequate by the work of many computer scientists including myself. One of the best defenses is to control the distribution of the data: strong acceptable-use agreements including prohibition of deanonymization and limits on data retention.

These measures work well when outsourcing data to another company or a small set of entities. But what about scientific research and data mining contests involving personal data? Prizes are big and only getting bigger, and by their very nature involve wide data dissemination. Are legal restrictions meaningful or enforceable in this context?

I believe that having participants sign and fax a data-use agreement is much better from the privacy perspective than being able to download the data with a couple of clicks. However, I am sympathetic to the argument that I hear from contest organizers that every extra step will result a big drop-off in the participation rate. Basic human psychology suggests that instant gratification is crucial.

That is a dilemma. But the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to feel that a two-step process could be a way to get the best of both worlds. Here’s how it would work.

For the first stage, the current minimally intrusive process is retained, but the contestants don’t get to download the full data. Instead, there are two possibilities.

  • Release data on only a subset of users, minimizing the quantitative risk. [1]
  • Release a synthetic dataset created to mimic the characteristics of the real data. [2]

For the second stage, there are various possibilities, not mutually exclusive:

  • Require contestants to sign a data-use agreement.
  • Restrict the contest to a shortlist of best performers from the first stage.
  • Switch to an “online computation model” where participants upload code to the server (or make database queries over the network) and obtain results, rather than download data. recently announced a contest that conformed to this structure—a synthetic data release followed by a semi-final and a final round in which selected contestants upload code to be evaluated against data. The reason for this structure appears to be partly privacy and partly the fact that are trying to improve the performance of their live system, and performance needs to be judged in terms of impact on real users.

In the long run, I really hope that an online model will take root. The privacy benefits are significant: high-tech machinery like differential privacy works better in this setting. But even if such techniques are not employed, although there is the theoretical possibility of contestants extracting all the data by issuing malicious queries, the fact that queries are logged and might be audited should serve as a strong deterrent against such mischief.

The advantages of the online model go beyond privacy. For example, I served on the Heritage Health Prize advisory board, and we discussed mandating a limit on the amount of computation that contestants were allowed. The motivation was to rule out algorithms that needed so much hardware firepower that they couldn’t be deployed in practice, but the stipulation had to be rejected as unenforceable. In an online model, enforcement would not be a problem. Another potential benefit is the possibility of collaboration between contestants at the code level, almost like an open-source project.

[1] Obtaining informed consent from the subset whose data is made publicly available would essentially eliminate the privacy risk, but the caveat is the possibility of selection bias.

[2] Creating a synthetic dataset from a real one without leaking individual data points and at the same time retaining the essential characteristics of the data is a serious technical challenge, and whether or not it is feasible will depend on the nature of the specific dataset.

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June 14, 2011 at 6:54 pm Leave a comment

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I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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