CAT | GeoLocation
The ability to use remotely loaded images in HTML emails for tracking has been known for years, but perhaps not widely known.
The On The Media: TLDR podcast just re-surfaced the issue in the above article, where they talk about a free Gmail plugin called Streak, which provides this capability.
It automatically embeds the hidden images in emails you send, then lets you see when and even where the recipient opens them.
Because they appear to use IP address based locations, you can block the “where” part by using Anonymizer Universal.
You can block this tracking completely by turning off the loading of images in your emails. Of course, if you then choose to load images, know that you are also enabling tracking. If you block image loading you will also find that your email become much less attractive and significantly more difficult to read.
Welcome to Episode 10 of The Privacy Blog Podcast, brought to you by Anonymizer.
In July’s episode, I’ll be talking about the storage capacity of the NSA’s data center in Utah and whether the US really is the most surveilled country in the world. Next, I’ll explain why the new royal baby is trying to hack you and how your own phone’s SIM card could be putting your privacy at risk.
Lastly, I’ll discuss the current legal status of law enforcement geolocation, Yahoo!’s decision to reuse account names, and some exciting Anonymizer Universal news.
As always, feel free to leave any questions in the comments section. Thanks for listening!
ArsTechnica has a nice article on a recent ruling by the US Fifth Circuit court of appeals.
In this 2-1 decision, the court ruled that cellular location information is not covered by the fourth amendment, and does not require a warrant. The logic behind this ruling is that the information is part of business records created and stored by the mobile phone carriers in the ordinary course of their business.
Therefor, the data actually belongs to the phone company, and not to you. The Stored Communications Act says that law enforcement must get a warrant to obtain the contents of communications (the body of emails or the audio of a phone call) but not for meta-data like sender, recipient, or location.
The court suggests that if the public wants privacy of location information that they should demand (I suppose through market forces) that providers delete or anonymize the location information, and that legislation be enacted to require warrants for access to it. Until then, they say we have no expectation of privacy in that information.
The Fifth Circuit covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
This ruling conflicts with a recent New Jersey Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that law enforcement does not have that right, which ruling only applies in New Jersey.
Montana has a law requiring a warrant to obtain location information, while in California a similar bill was vetoed.
It seems very likely that one or more of these cases will go to the supreme court.
The House Judiciary Committee is going to be discussing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. There is a chance that they will strengthen it.
This act was written decades ago, before there were any real cloud solutions. Email was downloaded by your email client, and immediately deleted from the server. They law assumed that any email left on a server more than 180 days had been abandoned, and so no warrant was required for law enforcement to obtain it.
These days, with services like gmail, we tend to keep our email on the servers for years, with no thought that it has been abandoned. Law enforcement is opposing reforms of this law because it would make their work more difficult. Doubtless it would, as does almost any civil liberty.
Earlier this month Zoe Lofgren introduced the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection act, amending ECPA. It would require a warrant to obtain cell phone location information. There is clearly some momentum for reform.
Face book announced that it will soon start automatically suggesting your name for tagging photos any time it thinks it recognizes you in a picture. This automatic facial recognition is the default and will be done unless you explicitly opt out.
It looks like you need to customize your privacy settings to disable this. In Facebook, look under the “account” menu and select “Privacy Settings”.
From there click the “Customize settings” link at the bottom of the table. Within there, look for “Suggest photos of me to friends”, and set it to “Disabled”.
I suspect that few people will simply stumble on that.
Other people tagging you in photos can lead to embarrassment you might want to avoid. Having your name suggested just makes that more likely.
While you are at it, you might want to change the setting that allows others to “check you in” to locations. That can tell thieves you are away from home or stalkers where to find you.
CNN has a good article on the announcement. Facebook lets users opt out of facial recognition – CNN.com
Last week I did an interview on a San Diego news program about issues with many cameras and smart phones in particular embedding very accurate location information in your pictures. If your camera (smart phone or whatever) has GPS, then the EXIF meta data in the picture will contain your location to within about 20 feet. This can be disabled, but is typically on by default.
While this can be useful when you are trying to sort and organize the pictures on your computer, the risk shows up when you start to share the pictures. By combining date and time information in the pictures I can tell if they are recent. If you are on vacation and posting on the road, an attacker can tell that you are away from home and your home probably unguarded. Pictures of your home and family can provide the exact location of your house as well.
The good news is that major sites for sharing pictures like Facebook and Flickr seem to strip out that information from the photos. It is unclear if that is intentional or just a byproduct of how they are processing and displaying the images. In any case, the data is certainly available to the sites themselves.
I strongly encourage everyone to download an EXIF editor to be able to strip this information from pictures before uploading, and to turn off location tracking in their cameras and mobile phone photo applications to prevent the capture of that information in the first place.
The story is about a german politician Malte Spitz who sued to obtain the retained cell tower records for his own phone, then provided them to the newspaper. The newspaper has created a nice map and timeline tool to allow you to play Spitz’s movements over 6 months. The resolution is impressive and should be a real wake up call about the level of detailed information being gathered on us all.
Of course, if the phone company was capturing GPS or WiFi based location information the data would be much more accurate. While GPS would quickly drain the battery, many modern phones have WiFi enabled all the time, so that information would be readily available without any additional impact on the phone’s performance.
There has been a lot of excitement in the privacy community around the introduction of a social location service by Facebook. Having blown the dust off my test account, I don’t really understand all the fuss.
It appears that this capability only applies to mobile devices right now (although I have blogged in the past about the ability to locate your computer). When using the mobile site, or the FaceBook app, there is a button that allows you to “Check In” at your current location. It appears that this is exclusively an overt act, and that nothing is taking place passively in the background.
The privacy defaults (at least for me) were fairly restrictive. My check-in is only shared with “friends” by default. The only really interesting setting was that it defaults to show your location to others who are checked-in at the same location around the same time, but that was easily changed.
The FAQ talks about and links to the privacy settings in a prominent way. It feels strange to say this, but I don’t think they have done a bad thing here. Obviously there are major privacy and security implications to telling people where you are all the time, and it may lead to stalking and/or home robberies, but you really have to ask them to do it to you. Caveat emptor.
Of course, none of this should suggest that I have any intention of ever using the service myself.
I note that most of the other social location players, like Gowalla, Yelp, Booyah and Foursquare were at the announcement. This could certainly impact them in a big way, either for good or ill. That seems like the real story, and my thoughts on that are well out of scope for this blog.
This very short article describes a really simple attack that enables someone to discover your physical location with a very high degree of reliability and accuracy.
Given that information, it is easy to pass this information to a Location Services API which returns a location good to a few hundred feet, sometimes much closer. Here is a website that does this for you.
In an interesting CNET article Google CEO Schmidt talks about how new technologies are going to impact society. One of his comments really struck me. Schmidt said that the only way to handle the new technologies is “much greater transparency and no anonymity.”
I have not seen the arguments and evidence behind such a bold claim. I would have argued exactly the opposite. We need MORE anonymity for users and more transparency and accountability from data collectors like Google.