The Privacy BlogThoughts on privacy, security, and other stuff.

TAG | mobile

FacebookMessenger nouveau logo

The Internet is on fire with outrage right now about the security warnings in the Facebook Messenger app. The furor is based on the viral spread of a post on the Huffington Post back in December of last year. The issue has come to the fore because Facebook is taking the messaging capability out of the main Facebook app, so users will have to install the Messenger app if they want to continue to use the capability.

The particular problem is with the warnings presented to users when they install the app on Android. Many articles are describing this as the “terms of service” but the warning are the standard text displayed by Android based on the specific permissions the app is requesting.

Here are the warnings as listed in that original the Huffington Post article:

  • Allows the app to change the state of network connectivity
  • Allows the app to call phone numbers without your intervention. This may result in unexpected charges or calls. Malicious apps may cost you money by making calls without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to send SMS messages. This may result in unexpected charges. Malicious apps may cost you money by sending messages without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to record audio with microphone. This permission allows the app to record audio at any time without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.
  • Allows the app to read you phone’s call log, including data about incoming and outgoing calls. This permission allows apps to save your call log data, and malicious apps may share call log data without your knowledge.
  • Allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you’ve called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals.
  • Allows the app to read personal profile information stored on your device, such as your name and contact information. This means the app can identify you and may send your profile information to others.
  • Allows the app to access the phone features of the device. This permission allows the app to determine the phone number and device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number connected by a call.
  • Allows the app to get a list of accounts known by the phone. This may include any accounts created by applications you have installed.

This strikes me as more an inditement of the over broad requests for permissions by apps in Android than any particular evil intent on Facebook’s part. Obviously many of these things would be very bad indeed, if Facebook actually did them. After significant searching I have not seen any suggestion at all that Facebook is or is likely to do any of these things without your knowledge.

Many articles are ranting about the possibility that Facebook might turn on your camera or microphone without warning and capture embarrassing sounds or images. Doing so would be disastrous for Facebook, so it seems very unlikely.

After reviewing the actual Facebook privacy policies and terms of service in the Messenger app, I don’t see any sign that these actions would be permitted but of course Facebook does have the right to change the policies, basically at will.

Don’t take from this that I am a Facebook apologist. Anyone looking back through this blog will see many cases where I have criticized them and their actions (here, here, here, here for example). There are major problems with the amount of data Facebook collects, how they collect it from almost everywhere on the Internet (not just their website or apps), and their privacy policies. I have turned off location tracking for the Messenger app on my iPhone because I don’t want Facebook tracking that.

However….. Facebook is not going to start turning on your camera at night to take naked pictures of you! There is a lot about privacy on the Internet to worry about, lets stay focused on the real stuff rather than these fantasies.

· ·

Play

Standard-Profile-Picture.jpgIn episode 21 of our podcast for July, I talk about:

  • A decision giving Canadians more rights to Anonymity
  • Iraq’s recent blocking of social media and more
  • Iran’s outright criminalization of social media
  • A court decision requiring warrants to access cell tower location data
  • Another court stating that irrelevant seized data needs to be deleted after searches
  • A massive failure of data anonymization in New York City
  • A court requiring a defendant to decrypt his files so they can be searched
  • The Supreme Court ruling protecting cellphones from warrantless search.
  • Phone tracking streetlights in Chicago
  • And a small change for iPhones bringing big privacy benefits

· · · · · ·

Policeman with cellphone

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a warrant before searching suspect’s cellphone. Before this, cellphones were treated just like anything else a suspect might carry, including wallet, keys, address book, or various other “pocket litter”.

Police are generally allowed to search suspects for weapons and to prevent the distraction of evidence. Because of the massive amount of storage on a modern smartphone, and its direct connection into so many other stores of data and communications, the court felt that the contents of these devices was qualitatively different and deserving of greater protection.

It is important to remember that the police can still take the phone, and that they can then get a warrant to search it if there is probable cause. They are simply prevented from searching it without the warrant, possibly in the hope (but not expectation) of finding evidence.

This decision may lay the groundwork for according similar protections to cloud stored data, which once would have been kept in the home in hard copy. Law enforcement officials claim that technology is making life easier for criminals and harder for law enforcement. I find that hard to believe and have not seen any really good studies of the matter. If you have, please let me know!

It strikes me that the routine preservation of emails and other communications, along with the massive use of server logged communications from text messages to social media, actually makes things much easier for law enforcement on the whole.

The fact that the decision was unanimous suggests that we may be entering a period of re-evaluating outdated precedents from the pre-internet era.

Some key quotes from the decision:

  • Regarding treating phones like other pocket litter – “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon,”
  • On the impact on law enforcement – “Privacy comes at a cost.”
  • “Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualita- tive sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself mislead- ing shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicom- puters that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, librar- ies, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”
  • “The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further com- plicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an ar- restee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot defini- tively foreclose.”
  • “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant,”

Some Excellent Articles for further reading:

With cellphone search ruling, Supreme Court draws a stark line between digital and physical searches – The Washington Post

Police Need a Warrant to Search Your Cellphone, Supreme Court Says | Re/code

Supreme Court: Police Need Warrants to Search Cellphone Data – WSJ

Note: In the picture above, the policeman is actually just using his own cellphone.

Lance Cottrell is the Founder and Chief Scientist of Anonymizer. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

· · ·

Play

PrivacyPodcastGraphicIn episode 16 of the Privacy Blog Podcast for January, Twenty Fourteen I talk about:
Biological Advanced Persistent Threats
The Apps on your mobile devices that may be enabling surveillance
Why you may soon know more about how much information your service providers are revealing to the government
The total compromise of the TorMail anonymous email service
How the British government is using pornography as a trojan horse for Internet Censorship.
And finally why continued use of a deprecated cryptographic signature algorithm could undermine the security of the Web

· · ·

Sochi MapRussia’s Surveillance State | World Policy Institute

In March of 2013 the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the US State Department issued a travel advisory for Americans planning to attend the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

As I blogged before, this is expected to be one of the most aggressively surveilled events ever.

The advice for cyber protection in the advisory is interesting:

Consider traveling with “clean” electronic devices—if you do not need the device, do not take it. Otherwise, essential devices should have all personal identifying information and sensitive files removed or “sanitized.” Devices with wireless connection capabilities should have the Wi-Fi turned off at all times. Do not check business or personal electronic devices with your luggage at the airport. … Do not connect to local ISPs at cafes, coffee shops, hotels, airports, or other local venues. … Change all your passwords before and after your trip. … Be sure to remove the battery from your Smartphone when not in use. Technology is commercially available that can geo-track your location and activate the microphone on your phone. Assume any electronic device you take can be exploited. … If you must utilize a phone during travel consider using a “burn phone” that uses a SIM card purchased locally with cash. Sanitize sensitive conversations as necessary.

Obviously this is not just good advice for attending the Olympics, but would also apply to China, or any other situation where it is important to protect your electronic information.

The ability to conduct sophisticated surveillance and cyber attack is widespread. If you are engaged in business that is a likely target of economic espionage, then you should be following these kinds of practices any time you travel anywhere, and perhaps even at home.

Lance Cottrell is the Founder and Chief Scientist of Anonymizer. Follow me on Facebook and Google+.

· ·

Older posts >>