Posts Tagged: eff


30
Mar 17

Post-FCC Privacy Rules, Should You VPN?

Many readers are understandably concerned about recent moves by the U.S. Congress that would roll back privacy rules barring broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) from sharing or selling customer browsing history, among other personal data. Some are concerned enough by this development that they’re looking at obfuscating all of their online browsing by paying for a subscription to a virtual private networking (VPN) service. This piece is intended to serve as a guidepost for those contemplating such a move.

vpnOn Tuesday, the House approved a Senate resolution to roll back data privacy regulations enacted late last year at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would block ISPs from selling to advertisers information about where you go and what you do online. President Trump has signaled his intent to sign the bill (S.J. Res. 34) into law soon.

As shocking as this sounds, virtually nothing has changed about the privacy of the average American’s connection to the Internet as a result of this action by Congress, except perhaps a greater awareness that ISP customers don’t really have many privacy protections by default. The FCC rules hadn’t yet gone into effect, and traditional broadband providers successfully made the case to lawmakers that the new rules put them at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis purely Web-based rivals such as Facebook and Google.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped news outlets from breathlessly urging concerned citizens to reclaim their privacy by turning to VPN providers. And VPN providers have certainly capitalized on the news. One quite large (and savvy) VPN provider even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times listing the names of the Republican senators who voted to repeal the still-dormant regulations.

I’m happy if this issue raises the general level of public awareness about privacy and the need for Internet users everywhere to take a more active role in preserving it. And VPNs can be a useful tool for protecting one’s privacy online. However, it’s important to understand the limitations of this technology, and to take the time to research providers before entrusting them with virtually all your browsing data — and possibly even compounding your privacy woes in the process.

In case any readers are unclear on the technology, in a nutshell VPNs rely on specialized software that you download and install on your computer. Some VPN providers will supply customers with their own custom brand of VPN software, while others may simply assign customers a set user credentials and allow users to connect to the service via open-source VPN software like OpenVPN.

Either way, the software creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and the VPN provider, effectively blocking your ISP or anyone else on the network (aside from you and the VPN provider) from being able to tell which sites you are visiting or viewing the contents of your communications. A VPN service allows a customer in, say, New York City, to tunnel his traffic through one of several servers around the world, making it appear to any Web sites that his connection is coming from those servers, not from his ISP in New York.

If you just want a VPN provider that will keep your ISP from snooping on your everyday browsing, virtually any provider can do that for you. But if you care about choosing from among VPN providers with integrity and those that provide reliable, comprehensive, trustworthy and affordable offerings, you’re going to want to do your homework before making a selection. And there are plenty of factors to consider.

For better or worse, there are hundreds of VPN providers out there today. Simply searching the Web for “VPN” and “review” is hardly the best vetting approach, as a great many VPN companies offer “affiliate” programs that pay people a commission for each new customer they help sign up. I say this not to categorically discount VPN providers that offer affiliate programs, but more as a warning that such programs can skew search engine results in favor of larger providers.

That’s because affiliate programs often create a perverse incentive for unscrupulous marketers to do things like manufacture phony VPN reviews by the virtual truckload, reviews that are aimed at steering as many people as possible to signing up with the service and earning them commissions. In my admittedly limited experience, this seems to have the effect of funneling search results toward VPN providers which spend a lot of money marketing their offerings and paying for affiliate programs.

Also, good luck figuring out who owns and operates many of these companies. Again, from the admittedly few instances in which I’ve attempted to determine exactly who or what is at the helm of a specific VPN provider, I can say that this has not been a particularly fruitful endeavor.

My bar for choosing a VPN provider has more to do with selecting one that makes an effort to ensure its customers understand how to use the service securely and safely, and to manage their customers’ expectations about the limitations of using the service. Those include VPN companies that take the time to explain seemingly esoteric but important concepts, such as DNS and IPv6 leaks, and whether they keep any logs of customer activity. I also tend to put more stock in VPN providers that offer payment mechanisms which go beyond easily-traceable methods such as credit cards or PayPal, to offering more privacy-friendly payment options like Bitcoin (or even cash).

Many VPN providers claim they keep zero records of customer activity. However, this is almost always untrue if you take the time to read the fine print. Also, some VPN services can’t truthfully make this claim because they merely resell network services offered by third-parties. Providers that are honest and up-front about what information they collect and keep and for how long carry more weight in my book.

Most VPN providers will keep basic information about their customers, including any information supplied at the creation of the account, as well as the true Internet address of the customer and the times that customers connect and disconnect from the service. I’ve found that VPN providers which collect the minimum amount of information about their customers also tend to offer little or no customer support. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you know what you’re doing and don’t need or want a lot of hand-holding. For my part, I would avoid any VPN provider which asks for personal information that isn’t required by the form of payment I choose.

Then there are more practical, day-to-day considerations that may have little to do with privacy and anonymity. For example, some VPN providers pay a great deal of attention to privacy and security, but may not offer a huge number of servers and locations to chose from. This can present issues for people who frequently watch streaming video services that are restricted for use in specific countries. Other VPN providers may offer an impressive range of countries and/or states to chose from, but do not provide fast enough speeds to reliably satisfy data-intensive applications, such as streaming video. Continue reading →


7
Feb 17

House Passes Long-Sought Email Privacy Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill that would update the nation’s email surveillance laws so that federal investigators are required to obtain a court-ordered warrant for access to older stored emails. Under the current law, U.S. authorities can legally obtain stored emails older than 180 days using only a subpoena issued by a prosecutor or FBI agent without the approval of a judge.

cloudprivacyThe House passed by a voice vote The Email Privacy Act (HR 387). The bill amends the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 1986 statute that was originally designed to protect Americans from Big Brother and from government overreach. Unfortunately, the law is now so outdated that it actually provides legal cover for the very sort of overreach it was designed to prevent.

Online messaging was something of a novelty when lawmakers were crafting ECPA, which gave email moving over the network essentially the same protection as a phone call or postal letter. In short, it required the government to obtain a court-approved warrant to gain access to that information.

But the U.S. Justice Department wanted different treatment for stored electronic communications. Congress struck a compromise, decreeing that after 180 days email would no longer be protected by the warrant standard and instead would be available to the government with an administrative subpoena and without requiring the approval of a judge. Continue reading →


11
Dec 13

Help Bring Privacy Laws Into 21st Century

Lost in the ongoing media firestorm over the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance activities is the discussion about concrete steps to bring the nation’s communications privacy laws into the 21st Century. Under current laws that were drafted before the advent of the commercial Internet, federal and local authorities can gain access to mobile phone and many email records without a court-issued warrant. In this post, I’ll explain what federal lawmakers and readers can do to help change the status quo [tl;dr: if you’d rather skip the explanation and go right to the What Can You Do? section, click here] cloudprivacy

The Center for Democracy & Technology, a policy think-tank based in Washington, D.C., has a concise and informative primer on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the 1986 statute that was originally designed to protect Americans from Big Brother and from government overreach. Unfortunately, the law is now so outdated that it actually provides legal cover for the very sort of overreach it was designed to prevent.

Online messaging was something of a novelty when lawmakers were crafting the ECPA, which gave email moving over the network essentially the same protection as a phone call or postal letter. In short, it required the government to obtain a court-approved warrant to gain access to that information. But the Justice Department wanted different treatment for stored electronic communications. (Bear in mind that this was way before anyone was talking about “cloud” storage; indeed CDT notes that electronic storage of digital communications in 1986 was quite expensive, and it wasn’t unusual for email providers to delete messages that were more than a few months old).

CDT explains the bargain that was struck to accommodate the government’s concerns:

“Congress said that after 180 days email would no longer be protected by the warrant standard and instead would be available to the government with a subpoena, issued by a prosecutor or FBI agent without the approval of a judge,” CDT wrote. “At the same time, Congress concluded that, while the contents of communications must be highly protected in transit, the ‘transactional data’ associated with communications, such as dialing information showing what numbers you are calling, was less sensitive. ECPA allowed the government to use something less than a warrant to obtain this routing and signaling information.”

Fast-forward to almost 2014, and we find of course that most people store their entire digital lives “in the cloud.” This includes not only email, but calendar data, photos and other sensitive information. Big cloud providers like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have given users so much free storage space that hardly anyone has cause to delete their stuff anymore. Not only that, but pretty much everyone is carrying a mobile phone that can be used to track them and paint a fairly detailed account of their daily activities.

But here’s the thing that’s screwy about ECPA: If you’re the kind of person who stores all that information on your laptop, the government can’t get at it without a court-ordered warrant. Leave it in the hands of email, mobile and cloud data providers, however, and it’s relatively easy pickings for investigators.

“There has been an interpretation of the law from the government that says any document stored in the cloud can be accessed with a subpoena, regardless of how old it is,” said Mark Stanley, a communications strategist with CDT. “The government can access emails over 180 days old with just a subpoena. “We also know that the [Justice Department] has interpreted the law to say that any emails that are opened — regardless of how old they are — can be accessed without a warrant.”

Continue reading →


28
Jan 10

Dear Snowflake: Happy ‘Data Privacy Day’

Here in the States, today is “National Data Privacy Day.” Declared as such on this day a year ago by the U.S. Congress, this unofficial holiday is meant to remind teens and young adults about the importance of protecting their personal information online, particularly in the context of social networking.

What’s that? You didn’t know about NDPD? Yeah, neither did I: A bloke I know from the U.K. clued me in over instant message with a link to this Wikipedia page. Oddly enough, his note interrupted my reading of a story about how at least 30 congressional Web sites were defaced in apparent response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. Social networking, indeed. [Update, 1:29 p.m. The AP is now reporting 49 House sites were hacked].

Incidentally, I got interested in the mass defacement story while searching for a distraction from going through all the mail on my desk. Among the bills and other notices we received recently was  a notice from the National Archives and Records Administration. It seems someone had stolen or misplaced a hard drive from the Archives a while back that contained the Social Security information on my wife (the breach affected roughly 250,000 other people as well). Why did the NARA have my wife’s Social? She made the mistake of touring the White House during the Clinton administration.

I, for one, applaud Congress for its example in encouraging all of us to take a  moment to reflect — at least once a year — on just how little privacy most of us have in today’s online world, and how little control most of us have over the security of personal information that countless organizations hold about us.

Little children are sometimes taught that — just as no two snowflakes are exactly alike – each of us is unique and special. There’s ample evidence to suggest this is also basically true for our online selves as well.

Continue reading →