Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: internet privacy (Page 1 of 2)

Is cyber crime a worthwhile reason to keep the internet more secure?

One of the most surprising aspects of the radiolab episodes was the concept of the Botnet. Essentially these botnets are pieces of software that connect and can control groups of hacked or infected computers. Smaller botnets would control over 1000 computers, while larger ones could dominate over millions of computers. It's hard to imagine that somewhere, somebody sitting in front of their computer has access to a whole city’s worth of computers. I started to wonder, is my computer in any way part of one of these botnets?

The threat of cyber crime is larger than that of an invasion of privacy by the government. While the government can create and monitor your metadata and keep track of some of your movements, cyber crime actually harms you either financially or through actual attack and destruction of your data. The thing is: that for either of these two situations, it is difficult to know that we are being watched and much less by whom. With it is so easy to become infected with a virus and even become a part of a Botnet, it makes sense to view the internet as a terrifying sea full of danger. With privacy and security in mind however, would a better crackdown on the internet actually inhibit these cyber crimes? In discussions about privacy and security, it might help to also talk about the benefits of creating a safer environment for the internet.

Don't hack me

The first part of the RadioLab episode “Darkode” is probably the most interesting episode I’ve ever heard. Though it’s probably not very ethical of me, the story, the tone, and the voice just kept me laughing all the time. On the other hand, it does tell us something about internet privacy protecting. First of all, we should avoid visiting suspicious websites or downloading files from insecure resources. Maybe not in this case in the podcast, but many victims got infected by a virus created by hackers because they went into the websites that shouldn’t be opened. Therefore, surfing the internet in legal ways is an important step to protect yourself from hackers.

What’s more, in the episode, the woman was about to erase the computer files completely so that the virus will go away. However, there was important data in her computer that her husband needed. So my suggestion is to keep a backup file in a hard disk regularly, or back the files up on those online storing websites. Doing so can help to reduce your total dependence on your computer. Even if being infected by a virus is inevitable, you can still protect your data and have your files back. It’s also going to reduce the loss if you lost your laptops or phones.

In the end, for college students, there are many places to turn for help or learn about privacy protecting in the university. Try to find professional help when you’re under a potential hacking attack. There are many new things or websites in college life. Stop filling out too much personal information on the websites can help reduce the risk of private information being leaked out.

Communicating in Plain Sight

One passage from It's Complicated by danah boyd that caught my attention was, "Many teens are happy to publicly perform their social dramas for their classmates and acquaintances, provided that only those in the know will actually understand what’s really going on and those who shouldn’t be involved are socially isolated from knowing what’s unfolding. These teens know that adults might be present, but they also feel that, if asked, they could create a convincing alternate interpretation of what was being discussed."

This passage illustrates the concept of social steganography, a strategy that teens often use to privately communicate.  What I find interesting is that I have always been aware of the existence of this technique, even used it myself, but I had never realized that it was a form of steganography.  Now, it seems quite obvious.  When someone posts an "inside joke" or uses vague or special language that means something to a particular group but appears meaningless to everyone else, they are basically hiding a message in plain sight.  Anyone with access to their online profile could see what they are putting out there, but only a specific target audience would understand what they are really communicating.  Clearly, steganography has a much larger presence in everyday life than I previously thought.

As boyd explains, many adults often criticize teens for posting information publicly while also caring so much about their privacy.  They see these things as acting against each other, but what they don't realize is that teens are very careful in deciding what they expose to the public.  By using strategies such as social steganography, it is possible to have an easily accessible online presence while simultaneously maintaining control over who you share sensitive information with.

The Case for Strong Encryption

In my opinion, strong encryption should be available to the public, even terrorists and criminals, for two primary reasons, one theoretical and the other more practical.

The theoretical reason is the one that Singh identified as the primary argument in favor of strong encryption: privacy rights. As Singh notes, the Declaration of Human Rights protects privacy and communication from “arbitrary interference,” and this is a notion that most democratic governments seem to support and protect. But at the same time, virtually every government in the world conducts mass surveillance on its citizens which seems to conflict with the declaration of values. Is collecting, storing, and mining personally identifiable communications from innocent people not “arbitrary interference”? It seems that if that phrase is to mean anything at all, mass surveillance surely must be an example.

Of course, one might argue that although it is interference, it is justified by the hopes of cracking down on and deterring crime, securing the safety of the people, and ensuring national security. But this leads to the more practical argument I see in favor of publicly available strong encryption, which is that despite strong encryption being publicly available, crime and terror are no more rampant now than they were prior to the advent of the internet. And of course, as exposed by Edward Snowden, even with strong encryption available, the NSA can still effectively conduct mass surveillance.

Even if strong encryption were outlawed, criminals would still find secure avenues to communicate. For example, breakable codes and ciphers could, in some instances, provide criminals with enough security to pass on time-sensitive information before law enforcement had time to decipher the message and act on its contents. Digital steganography is also a potential subtle form of communication that would obscure messages from law enforcement to stop them from even realizing a message was being sent. And of course, meeting in person is a reliable way of communicating which is much more difficult to wiretap than an email or phone call.

Data Mining: A Lifesaver if Done Right

In the essay, "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives," author Michael Morris claims that universities should use data mining to monitor the online activity of students as a safety precaution.  Access to information about students' online behavior could theoretically be used to identify individuals at risk of committing acts of violence and allow university officials to intervene before anyone gets hurt.

Personally, I agree with the idea that university officials should have access to information that could end up saving lives.  While a certain degree of individual privacy would inevitably be sacrificed, I believe the overall benefits outweigh the costs.  It is unlikely that a typical student would even be affected by the presence of increased surveillance.  However, data mining is a controversial concept and any implementation of such practices would require clearly outlined procedures and restrictions.  First of all, it would be necessary to ensure that the algorithm used to identify red-flag behavior is reliable.  You wouldn't want it to constantly raise alarms at behavior that turns out to be completely harmless, but at the same time, it's important that when there is a real threat, even a subtle one, university officials are able to catch it and determine the correct steps of action.  Additionally, university protocol would have to be designed so that personal student information is only disclosed to appropriate parties, in accordance with FERPA regulations.

One of the most important considerations with online surveillance is the response protocol used when at-risk students are discovered.  In order for university data mining to be successful, potential threats must be dealt with tentatively.  No accusations could be made based solely on analysis of online activity; intervention would have to be non-hostile and carried out with the intent to understand the student's behavior without jumping to conclusions.  Officials must have the mindset to help at-risk students, not attack them.

In conclusion, universities should be allowed monitor student activity via data mining, since it can potentially identify risks of violent behavior.  If implemented correctly, universities could prevent tragedies without interfering with students' daily lives.  As Morris mentioned, we are all already subject to data mining from other sources, and many people are still unaware of its existence.  To me, the fact that data mining could save lives makes it well worth the sacrifice of a small degree of privacy.

Mining Student Data Could Save Lives - or Make Life Harder

In his essay, "Mining Student Data Could Save Lives", Michael Morris argues that universities should implement data mining algorithms to detect patterns in student activities on their networks (e.g. any activity occurring on the WiFi network, school computers, or communications through university email accounts). According to Morris, the implementation of these algorithms could potentially prevent violent acts from occurring on campus; after all, almost every large-scale act of campus violence has been preceded by warning signs which, if recognized before the incident, would have indicated that an act of violence was imminent and could have been prevented.

Indeed, there is something compelling about Morris' argument. A student who purchased high-powered firearms on the school network sending emails on a clearly detailing plans to perpetrate an act of violence  clearly warrants a breach of individual privacy to ensure the safety of the campus community. However, very few scenarios are this clear cut since most evidence would not be as damning as an explicit description of a violent act sent on a university email.

This raises the issue of false positives, one that is inherent in all data mining algorithms. In the article, Morris specifically cites the example of banks using data mining to detect stolen credit cards. And while these algorithms are good at detecting stolen cards, they are equally adept at generating false positives, deactivating cards after valid transactions that were deemed suspicious. Similarly, algorithms designed to monitor communications on university networks would need to be extremely sensitive even to small red flags in order to effectively prevent violent acts. However, designing the algorithm in this way would lead to false positives being regularly detected, incriminating students who had no violent intentions simply for their normal browsing activities and communications with others. If even one student is called in to "have a conversation" because of something the algorithm detected, it has already failed to do its job at the cost of individual freedom and privacy.

In principle, Morris' idea is persuasive. The perfect data mining algorithm would be ideal for stopping campus violence without the need for extreme invasion of privacy or the generation of false positives. However, the implementation of a data mining algorithm in our complex world would require sacrificing students' digital privacy for little to no benefit.

Our Version of Privacy

“Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for  privacy God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online.” - Emily Nussbaum

I strongly disagree with this statement, as it makes a lot of assumptions about today's youth. Maybe the vocal minority do all of the things stated above, but the vast majority of us are very private about our lives. I, for one, have all of my social media behind a private wall, and even then I pay careful attention to what I post. The same goes for all of my friends. I don't know a single person who has posted a 'dirty photo' online, and I've only heard of those types of photos circulating a handful of times. Sure, some of us might post our diaries, but we're doing it behind closed doors, on private accounts, for very specific people to see. While older generations might not consider this private, it's more than enough for our generation. As teenagers, we present a very cultivated public online presence to the world, one which doe does not include rantings or poetry or 'dirty photos'. We post things that make us look good. Everything else (things that won't make us look 'good') is private, in a sense. So, yes, we do have a sense of privacy.

New Type of Privacy

"I just think that [technology is] redefining what’s acceptable for people to put out about themselves. I’ve grown up with technology so I don’t know how it was before this boom of social networking. But it just seems like instead of spending all of our time talking to other individual people and sharing things that would seem private we just spend all of our time putting it in one module of communication where people can go and access it if they want to. It’s just more convenient." This was said by Alicia in Boyd's study. She believes that just because we post stuff on social media does not mean teens dislike privacy. Instead of having to talk for hours on end about our lives we post what we want online and can reminisce about it later. It is also said that adults find social media to be an oxymoron to teens wanting privacy but I believe that it is not. What is posted on instagram or facebook is chosen by the person. They decide what parts of their lives they want private. The idea of privacy changes with every generation. Today, we believe that privacy is choosing what we don't want to share. I agree with this idea. Just because I want to post a picture of me and my friends having fun on the lake or at dinner does not mean I want to share my entire life with the world. Instead I am saying that those are moments that I am ok with people knowing about. They do not know what was said during those moments or anything that occurred before or after. Just small snippets of my life that give nothing close to the big story.

The Complex Interplay Between Privacy and Publicity

“There’s a big difference between being in public and being public.… At first blush, the desire to be in public and have privacy seems like a contradiction…. teens’ engagement with social media highlights the complex interplay between privacy and publicity in the networked world we all live in now.” (boyd 57)

In boyd’s book It’s Complicated, he discusses many theses related to privacy and publicity. To my surprise, “many journalists, parents and technologists seem to believe that a willingness to share in public… is incompatible with a desire for personal privacy” (boyd 56). While it is true that by posting photos on Facebook, teens give up the privacy, of these photos, it does not mean that teens forfeit all their privacy. Emerging social networks lead to teens’ increasing online engagement with not just their friends, but also the public. As a result, we post more and more texts and photos, but we also become more aware of what to post, and with whom we share. We actually care a lot about our privacy, since we usually post things that are insignificant to be publicized, and communicate information of much significance with our close friends via texting, the more private medium.

However, the social norms mentioned by boyd are indeed quite complex on social media. Most people follow these norms in real life; for instance, when two people sit next to each other, one does not stare at the other’s phone screen to see what he or she is texting. Nonetheless, there exist conflicts between social norms and the concept of public social media. We post things, giving everyone the permission to see them, yet on the other hand we may not expect strangers and other unwanted people to view parts of our life. What’s at stake is not whether someone can view but whether one should. The reconciliation of online social norms and the public nature of social media is a challenge in today’s networked world, and should be solved as social media becomes more widely used.

The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

This weekend marked the start of NFL football season, and for an avid fan like me it's one of the most exciting weekends of the year. However, I want to talk about what happened before the games rather than what happened during them, specifically the national anthem. At the close of each rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the words "The land of the free, and the home of the brave" are sung." Those words, that I've heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, took on a different meaning when I thought about my recent reading of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

In the society of Little Brother, the "land of the free" simply is not that; rather it is a land of oppression, violations of rights and tyranny. Following the detainment of Marcus and his friends, Marcus is accused of being involved with the terrorist attack simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, many of his basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are taken away. Marcus even says on page 55 "you're talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights." These rights are fought for every day by men and women who risk their lives to keep this the "land of the free." Once we lose our freedom, we lose everything that America stands for.

On Page 56, Marcus says "The truth is I had everything to hide, and nothing," which immediately had me think about our discussion in class the other day. One of the arguments in favor of Vanderbilt surveilling our data was that "if he we had nothing to hide then why should we care." We should care because this is the United States of America. Because this is indeed the "land of the free" and certain freedoms are guaranteed to us by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. My counterargument to anyone who says we shouldn't care about our privacy being compromised if we have nothing to hide is to ask them whether or not they would be consent to the government searching their dorm, or their house every day; nearly everyone would object. I believe that our digital footprint should be treated the same way. After all, this is supposed to be the land of the free, and that freedom should extend to all aspects of our lives.

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