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Random 11pm thought: Privacy through insecurity. [Feb. 1st, 2010|11:47 pm]
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If you haven't considered the potential for (and potential dangers of) total lack of privacy in the information age, go watch this before reading the rest of this post.

I've met a whole bunch of cool new people in the last year, and I keep "in touch" with many of them primarily using facebook. You know how this story goes - you go to a conference or take a short course of gardening classes or something ; you meet new folk ; you spend a lot of time with them for a few weeks ; then you go your separate ways and communicate for a year or two only through the medium of broadcast "status updates" that can be read by anyone you've ever met.

One of the folk I met last year has been getting increasingly facebook-eccentric. They've been posting increasingly embarrassing and personal status updates, starting their own fan club, joining the support groups for controversial political parties, and most recently, writing long essays defending their strange and cultish religious views. Of course, none of that stuff was actually my new friend - all they're really guilty of is forgetting to log out of facebook after using a public terminal. Repeatedly.

So now, any time I see anything embarrassing on my new friend's facebook page, I'll just assume that they've left themselves logged in again, and someone's having a laugh at their expense. I don't know what's actually going on - I haven't seen or spoken to them in months. I'll just assume that anything "normal" is the truth, and anything out of the ordinary is a practical joke. And so will anyone else who knows them. If they run for the presidency of the US in 20 years time, and some journalist finds something juicy in the old digital records, the spin doctors will be able to laugh it all off. That wasn't our candidate - that was a well documented series of attacks by notorious hackers of the time.

Of course, this is just a special case of increasing the signal to noise ratio on the net - which you can do any number of ways. It's fairly well known that companies will post fake product reviews if they can get away with it. Perhaps we could all open large numbers of facebook accounts, and use each of them to communicate with 1/n of our friends. Perhaps spin doctors should spend their time inventing implausible stories about their candidates, and filling the net with them, so the real stories get lost in the mess. Perhaps they already do. I'm sure none of this is a new idea, but it tickled me that forgetting to log out, or having an easy to guess password might offer my friend more privacy in the long run, not less.

Also: I decided to try using the plural in this note - if anyone has an opinion on that vs GNPs or any other way of writing what I wanted to write, then feel free to comment.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: brokenhut
2010-02-02 09:35 am (UTC)

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I pretty much instinctively use the singular "they" in my writing, and totally didn't notice anything unusual about the construction of this post. Consider that a +1 for the venerable singular they. Personally I think GNPs generally border on the absurd, as they make the writer look like they learned their English from Allo Allo or Dad's Army. For you ze war ist over!
[User Picture]From: gaspodog
2010-02-02 10:14 am (UTC)

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I wonder if what this gives you is better defined as deniability than privacy. After all, the people who keep getting into your account have access to whatever information you put on there in the first place - regardless of how you have set the privacy controls. All you get is the ability to retort "Well, who knows what's true on there - it was hackers you know."

Another angle on your hypothetical presidential election scenario is that the candidate basically has to admit that for a long period of time, they completely neglected to perform that most basic of common-sense security activities - logging out of services when using a shared terminal. "Would you want the keys to the nuclear codes in the hands of somebody who can't even remember to log out?"

The only real way to maintain privacy online is not to post anything sensitive there, at all. If you wouldn't want a future employer / partner / government finding something out, don't put it on the Internet.
[User Picture]From: totherme
2010-02-02 02:12 pm (UTC)

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what this gives you is better defined as deniability than privacy

I think that as the proportion of complete fabrications increases, the difference between deniability and privacy approaches zero.

Let's say you want to keep your sexuality secret. You can try to keep all information about all your romantic relationships off the net - and then, as soon as someone posts one thing, there's enough to speculate on. Or, imagine if you could arrange for there to be an enormous amount of conflicting information - people claiming that you've engaged in relationships of every conceivable type, duration and intensity. If there's no other way of trusting some of those reports over the rest, then what you get is white noise, with a similar information content to silence.

the candidate basically has to admit that for a long period of time, they completely neglected to perform that most basic of common-sense security activities

Yup. Now I'm pretty sure that my friend didn't neglect that measure in an act of calculated purpose. But I'm also pretty sure they haven't left their internet banking logged in at a public terminal. I think we're talking about sacrificing the security of a facebook account for the potential benefit of clawing back some of the privacy that would have been lost if we used facebook as it were intended.

(normally when people talk about privacy vs security of course, they're wrong, but in this case, I suspect it might be a genuine trade off)

Let's imagine a limit case, where I publish my facebook password on my front page and all that sort of thing. Perhaps my account fills with spam. Some of my friends killfile me (so they don't have to read the spam - and they're not getting any actual information out of it anyway). Some other friends might enjoy reading the more elaborate lies just for their entertainment value, and might not killfile me. People stop sharing private things with me through facebook, because it's well known that if I can see it, so can anyone else. It sounds to me almost like not having an account at all - except for those occasions when people post stuff pretty publicly and facebook demands that you log in to see it anyway, because it wants everyone to log in.

Of course my friend doesn't live in the limit case. They're actually just declaring facebook to be below the "I don't care" threshold. Perhaps a more realistic presidential spin doctor would say "come on - no-one cares about facebook! It's full of lies anyway!"

Another way of looking at it is like security and fire doors. If they're more annoying than the risk of a security breach or a fire, then they end up being propped open with fire extinguishers. This annoys the building manager, because the expected loss from fire or theft is quite a lot worse for them - it's the whole building rather than just one desk - but no-one else really cares.
[User Picture]From: dynix
2010-02-02 11:36 am (UTC)

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It's a variant on a denial of service attack, in a way. Trouble is that if its done properly then no-one will know what is real or fake and so you may as well not bother.

There is something there...

You'd be better off with lots of fake namesakes I think
From: (Anonymous)
2010-02-02 07:47 pm (UTC)

Friends of Privacy

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Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End" has a "Friends of Privacy" organization which blizzards false information to create societal pseudo-privacy.

But it's not clear any approach like this can cope with signature analysis unless data availability is also restricted. Privacy may not be a lost cause, but patching it onto a system where it hasn't been designed in, may be.

And it's unclear which would be less robust - a society which lacks oversight capability, or one which gains it.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-02-03 12:17 pm (UTC)

This is a case of plausible deniability

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plausible_deniability#Use_in_computer_networks