Monday, November 22, 2010

DOJ has granted itself new surveillance powers

Update @ 8PM 11/22/2010: EFF first sounded the alarm about roving 2703(d) orders back in 2005, which were being used to obtain phone information.

Electronic communications privacy law in the United States is hopelessly out of date. As several privacy groups have noted, the statute that governs when and how law enforcement agencies can obtain individual's private files and electronic documents hasn't really been updated since it was first written in 1986.

Over the past year, privacy groups, academics and many companies have gotten together to push for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). These stakeholders have lobbied for reform of this law, and in turn, both the House and Senate have held hearings on various issues, ranging from cloud computing to cellular location data.

Of course, complaints about the existing statute are not limited to those wishing to protect user privacy -- law enforcement agencies would very much like to expand their authority. However, as I document in this blog post, rather than going to Congress to ask for new surveillance powers, the Department of Justice, and in particular, the US Marshals Service, have simply created for themselves a new "roving" order for stored communications records.

Let that sink in for a second. Rather than wait for Congress to give it new authority, the Department of Justice has instead just given itself broad new surveillance powers.

Roving Wiretaps

For nearly 15 years, law enforcement agencies have had "roving wiretap" authority, meaning that they can get a court order that does not name a specific telephone line or e-mail account but allows them to wiretap any phone line, cell phone, or Internet connection that a suspect uses. In order to use this expanded authority, prosecutors have to show probable cause that they believe that the individual under investigation is avoiding intercepts at a particular place.

Although there are more than 2000 wiretap orders issued each year, as the table below reveals, federal and local law enforcement agencies rarely seek to use this roving authority.

Roving Pen Registers and Trap & Trace orders

While wiretap orders are used for the real-time interception of communications content, pen register and trap & trace orders are used to intercept, in real-time, non-content information associated with communications. This includes the numbers dialed, to/from addresses associated with emails, etc.

Traditionally, like wiretap orders, pen register/trap & trace orders had to name the recipient (phone company or ISP) in the order. If the government wished to go to a different ISP, they'd need to return to the judge to get another order. However, the USA PATRIOT act expanded the scope of pen register and trap & trace orders, essentially turning them into roving orders by default:

The [pen register] order . . . shall apply to any person or entity providing wire or electronic communication service in the United States whose assistance may facilitate the execution of the order.

Whenever such an order is served on any person or entity not specifically named in the order, upon request of such person or entity, the attorney for the Government or law enforcement or investigative officer that is serving the order shall provide written or electronic certification that the order applies to the person or entity being served.

Thus, post PATRIOT Act, by using a wiretap or pen register authority, law enforcement agencies can use a single court order to obtain real-time non-content data from any 3rd party that may have it, even if the service provider was not named in the original court order.

Stored communications and customer records

The vast majority of surveillance requests are not for real-time data, but for historical information. That is, rather than seeking to intercept emails or web browsing activities as they are transmitted, law enforcement agencies often seek information after the fact. This is both easier, and often much cheaper.

For example, existing surveillance reports reveal that 1773 wiretap orders were issued in 2005, 625 of which were for federal agencies. Similarly in 2005, a total of 6790 pen registers and 4393 trap & trace orders were obtained by law enforcement agencies within the Department of Justice (the FBI, DEA, ATF and the Marshals).

In that same year, Verizon received 36,000 requests for customer information from federal law enforcement agencies and 54,000 requests from state and local law enforcement agencies.

That is, Verizon's requests alone dwarf the number of publicly reported wiretaps and pen registers, by nearly 700%. This doesn't mean that the wiretap numbers are incorrect -- merely that the vast majority of requests that Verizon received were for stored records, such as historical information on the phone numbers its customers dialed, old text messages, and stored emails. It is quite reasonable to assume that other major telecommunications carriers receive a similar number of requests.

2703(d) orders

Federal law requires that law enforcement agencies first obtain a special court order (known as a 2703(d) order) before they can compel third party service providers to deliver many types of stored user non-content data. Such court orders must name the service provider that has the data, and unlike in the case of wiretaps and pen registers, Congress has not granted roving authority to law enforcement agencies. This means that law enforcement agencies are supposed to obtain a 2703(d) order naming each ISP or phone company that has data that the government would like to get.

Roving 2703(d) orders

Updated at 8PM on 11/22/2010 to give credit to EFF for first discovering roving d orders

In 2005, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a brief in federal court, objecting to a request by the Department of Justice for an order requiring "relevant service providers… to provide subscriber information about [all] numbers obtained from the use of… pen/trap devices" upon oral or written demand by relevant law enforcement officials.

Section 2703 of 18 USC provides that:
"a governmental entity may require a provider of electronic communications service…to disclose a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber or customer of such service…only when the government… obtains a court order for such disclosure under subsection (d) of this section."
As the EFF told the court:
"This language [in 2703] clearly contemplates orders that require disclosure of particular records regarding particular customers of particular providers, not general orders that the government can use on its own discretion to continuously demand unspecified records about unspecified people from unspecified providers, for the entire duration of a related pen-trap surveillance.

. . .

The Stored Communications Act simply does not authorize open-ended or "roving" orders that are enforced based on the government’s oral or written representations of its pen-trap results. Indeed, such orders would leave the government in a dangerously unchecked position to obtain subscriber information for any telephone number without court oversight or approval."

The EFF's 2005 brief objected to the government's attempts to get roving 2703(d) orders for subscriber records from phone companies. It seems that the government has since expanded its use of these roving 2703(d) orders to email providers.

I recently obtained a copy of the US Marshals Electronic Surveillance Manual, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. As I highlighted in a previous blog post, that handbook reveals that the US Marshals have adopted a policy of always obtaining a 2703(d) order whenever they seek a pen register.

The surveillance manual lists several advantages to obtaining such "hybrid" 2703(d)/pen register orders - such as the ability to get geo-location data from providers, who are prohibited by law from revealing "any information that may disclose the physical location of the subscriber" in response to a pen register order. It is not until a few paragraphs later, when another advantage of the hybrid order (and its limitations) is hinted at.

What is happening here is a bit complex. In essence, federal surveillance law does not permit for roving 2703(d) orders, but it does permit for roving pen register authority. Therefore, DOJ believes that when it staples together a pen register order and a 2703(d) order, that the roving aspect of the pen register order automatically transfers to the 2703(d) order.

Thus, DOJ believes that law enforcement agencies can send a copy of a hybrid 2703(d)/pen register order to ISPs not named in the order, and force them to disclose stored subscriber records and communications non-content data, such as email headers.

DOJ's reason for doing this, at least according to the Marshals' surveillance manual, is "because we say so":
Although compelling compliance with a Pen/Trap order that also required disclosure of stored records (e.g. subscriber) is unclear under this section, investigators should assert that compliance with the entire order is mandatory irrespective of whether a provider is specifically named in the order.
Again -- even though the law does not grant the government this expanded authority, DOJ urges investigators to still assert that that companies must comply with the request.

DOJ is using this authority

Nearly a year ago, I obtained an invoice from Google to the US Marshals Service related to a pen register order from December 2007.
The invoice states that:
"We understand that you have requested customer information regarding the user account specified in the Pen Register/Trap Trace, which includes the following information: (1) Subscriber information for the gmail account [redacted]; (2) Information regarding session timestamps and originating IP addresses for recent logins by this account; and a CD containing (3) Header information for the specified date range."

The phrasing of this text reveals that the Marshals first delivered the pen register order to a different ISP, and that the account appeared in the data delivered by that other service provider in response to the pen register request. As such, neither Google nor the particular address were named in the original pen register order issued by the judge.

Google likely received a hybrid 2703/pen register order from the US Marshals Service, and, even though the company was not named in the original order, it provided historical, stored non-content data and subscriber information to law enforcement officials. The company could very easily have told the Marshals to get lost, and come back with a 2703(d) order signed by a judge, naming Google.

I'm not sure what is more alarming, that the US government abuses its already broad surveillance powers, or that Google, a company that pledges to "be a responsible steward of the information we hold" is not in fact insisting that law enforcement agencies follow the letter of the law.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts on Microsoft's Hotmail SSL deployment

Update 10:00pm: I was contacted by an extremely well informed individual who told me that my speculation about Microsoft's webserver SSL performance was completely wrong. The individual declined to reveal the reason why the company opted to make SSL opt-in, which makes the decision even more curious. Why expose users to needless security risks if protecting them doesn't require significant additional computing resources.

On November 9, Microsoft rolled out opt-in HTTPS (SSL) protection for its Hotmail service, which came just a couple weeks after Firesheep made the importance of such security measures quite clear. For those of you just tuning in to SSL issues, Microsoft's announcement might seem like a great move. This blog post will explain why Microsoft deployed this security enhancement, why it hasn't done it by default, and why it should.


Over the past few years, researchers released several security tools that automated the capture of credentials and session cookies, allowing an attacker to easily hijack user accounts that were logged into over an insecure wifi connection. In October, 2008, Mike Perry released Cookiemonster, which made session hijacking against several major popular web 2.0 services even easier. Across the board, webmail and social networking services totally ignored the individual pleas from security researchers and academics that they protect their users by default. Google offered SSL, but disabled it by default, and the other big companies, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, didn't offer SSL at all.

Fed up with the lack of any progress, in June 2009, I published an open letter to Google's CEO, asking him to protect his customers and deploy SSL default. 37 other big name security researchers, academics and legal experts signed on, helping to get a bit of press attention. Google soon said they'd begin to study the possibility of deploying SSL by default, and then in January 2010, the company did it -- encrypting every Gmail users' entire session by default.

In addition to publishing the open letter, I sent copies of it to privacy bigshots at both Microsoft and Facebook, and told them, essentially, "don't make me write a letter for you too." Individuals at both companies thanked me for the warning, and told me they were looking into the possibility of offering SSL.

In March 2010, outgoing FTC Commissioner Pamela Jones Habour spent much of her final public speech talking about SSL.
Even though these service providers know about the vulnerabilities, and the ease with which they can be exploited, the firms continue to send private customer information over unsecured Internet connections that easily could have been secured.

My bottom line is simple: security needs to be a default in the cloud. Today, I challenge all of the companies that are not yet using SSL by default. That includes all email providers, social networking sites, and any website that transmits consumer data. Step up and protect consumers. Don’t do it just some of the time. Make your websites secure by default.
Commissioner Habour's remarks were, to my knowledge, the first time a senior government official had ever weighed in on the issue. The fact that this happened seven months after I joined the FTC is entirely coincidental.

Microsoft's move towards SSL

Just one month later, in April 2010, Microsoft announced that they too would soon offer SSL, although not by default. Fast forward to November 9, 2010, and Microsoft has made good on its promise.

Users who go out of their way to type will now receive protection for just that session. Furthermore, the first time users type in the https URL, they see a helpful dialog offering to make SSL the default for future connections.

The dialog states that Microsoft recommends the use of HTTPS by default. The problem with this, of course, is that Microsoft only shows this dialog to consumers who know enough about SSL to have visited the secure version of hotmail in the first place.

Consumers who do not know about the risks of using Hotmail over an insecure wifi connection will never see this dialog, and will thus not know that Microsoft recommends they use SSL by default.

That isn't the only way that Hotmail users can discover the availability of SSL and turn it on.

Hotmail users who regularly read the Inside Windows Live blog may have seen Microsoft's announcement of its SSL deployment, where the company announced a special URL that Hotmail users can visit to set the SSL preference: (shown below).

Curiously, neither the Inside Windows Live blog, nor the special ManageSSL web page state that Microsoft recommends the use of SSL by default, and the ManageSSL web page even has the "Don't use HTTPS automatically" option pre-selected by default.

Realistically, the vast majority of Hotmail users simply type "" into their browser, and do not read the Inside Windows Live blog, and so will be completely unaware that Microsoft now offers an SSL option. There is no mention of SSL on the regular Hotmail front page.

These users are not completely out of luck, as there is a preference within the Hotmail options that they can flip to enable SSL by default. From within their Hotmail Inbox, they need to click on "Options", then "More Options", then "Account details (password, aliases, time zone)", then "Connect with HTTPS" (the last option on the page), then "Use HTTPS automatically", and finally, click "save". See, that was easy. It only took 6 mouse clicks.

Why Microsoft doesn't use SSL by default for Hotmail

At the same time as Microsoft started to offer SSL as an option for Hotmail, it also enabled SSL by default for its SkyDrive, Photos, Docs, and Devices products. What is the difference between these services? Hotmail has lots of users, and no one uses Photos or Skydrive. Simply put, it is easy (and cheap) to deploy SSL for a service when it only has a few (hundred?) thousand users. Hotmail, which reportedly has over 500 million users, is a bit more expensive to protect.

"Wait a minute.. didn't Google say they didn't need any additional servers for SSL?" you may ask. Yes, it's true. Google was able to deploy SSL by default on their their existing servers, and according to Adam Langley, a senior Google engineer, after tweaking the OpenSSL library used by Google, SSL accounts for just 1% of the CPU overhead on those servers.

However, Google has a top notch server infrastructure, running on Linux, and a lot of really skilled engineers. Microsoft, on the other hand, uses their own products.

While Microsoft doesn't reveal too many details about the infrastructure hosting Hotmail, from Netcraft, we can see that they are using their own IIS/6.0 webserver (Netcraft lists the OS as Linux, but that is because Akamai is sitting in front of Microsoft's servers). It is of course understandable that Microsoft likes to use its own products -- unfortunately, the IIS webserver isn't very good, does not use OpenSSL, and thus SSL likely consumes quite a bit more CPU than the 1% hit that Google described.

As such, I suspect that Microsoft has instead opted to either: Pay Akamai to take care of SSL, or the company bought a large number of off the shelf SSL accelerator devices. In either case, SSL is likely costing Microsoft real money -- and, given that the company's Online Services Division lost half a billion dollars last year, it isn't too surprising why the company might be keen to try and keep its SSL related costs to a minimum.

Simply put, if Microsoft is paying a direct financial cost for SSL, then it is easy to understand why it is not offering SSL to its 500 million hotmail users by default.

What should Microsoft (and other companies) do?

When it comes to privacy and security, I think that the government can play a really important role in protecting consumers, particularly when the market has failed to deliver products that are safe by default. The problems that Firesheep has highlighted existed for years, in fact, as long as Hotmail or Facebook have existed, they have been vulnerable to account hijacking. These companies have had more than enough time to protect their customers, and have simply ignored the problem.

While I do think that privacy regulators can play a role here, I don't think it is appropriate for regulators to require that companies deliver specific products -- things get very messy when technology-ignorant bureaucrats mandate product features. However, I do think that governments can, and should compel those companies that have not protected their customers by default to at least warn users about the risks.

Earlier this year, I published a law journal article about encryption in the cloud -- which specifically focuses on fact that most services don't even offer SSL, let alone turn it on by default. In that article, I argue that if companies do not wish to protect their customers, they should at least warn them about the risks of connecting to their services when using an insecure wifi connection. Knowing that companies are unlikely to voluntarily provide such notices, I call on the government to compel the display of cigarette packet style warnings for insecure cloud based services, such as:

WARNING: Email messages that you write can be read and intercepted by others when you connect to this service using a public network (such a wireless network at a coffee shop, public library or school). If you wish to protect yourself from this risk, click here for a secure version of this service.

WARNING: The word processing documents that you create using this service can be read and modified by others when you connect to this site using a public network (such a wireless network at a coffee shop, public library or school). Widely available technologies exist that will protect you from these risks, but this service provider has opted to not offer such protective functionality.

Of course, I suspect that Microsoft and Facebook would rather eat the financial cost of deploying SSL, even if it runs into the millions of dollars, rather than display such a scary warning.. and that is exactly the point. Simply by forcing companies to reveal known risks in their products, governments can gently nudge companies to protect their customers.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

DOJ: Consumers read and understand privacy policies

The Department of Justice has a problem. One by one, judges across the country have been chipping away at DOJ's flimsy legal theories upon which it has for years compelled phone companies to disclose individuals' historical and real-time geo-location information without a warrant.

DOJ's legal theory relies upon the third party doctrine. Essentially, what this means is that companies can be compelled, without a search warrant, to disclose any information that their customers have willingly given them.

One of the most important Supreme Court cases which shaped the this rule, Smith v. Maryland, focused on the legal process through which law enforcement agencies can obtain the phone numbers dialed by a suspect:
[W]e doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial. All telephone users realize that they must 'convey' phone numbers to the telephone company, since it is through telephone company switching equipment that their calls are completed.

. . .

[W]hen he used his phone, petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company and "exposed" that information to its equipment in the ordinary course of business. In so doing, petitioner assumed the risk that the company would reveal to police the numbers he dialed.

Since that 1979 case, the government has stretched the third party doctrine, from dialed phone numbers to essentially all non-content information transmitted by a telephone, including cell site records revealing where an individual has been.

Unfortunately for the government, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently eviscerated the government's legal theory, finding that there is a big difference between dialed phone numbers, and triangulated geo-location information:
A cell phone customer has not "voluntarily" shared his location information with a cellular provider in any meaningful way. As the EFF notes, it is unlikely that cell phone customers are aware that their cell phone providers collect and store historical location information. Therefore, "[w]hen a cell phone user makes a call, the only information that is voluntarily and knowingly conveyed to the phone company is the number that is dialed and there is no indication to the user that call will also locate the caller; when a cell phone user receives a call, he hasn't voluntarily exposed anything at all.

After the Third circuit decision, magistrate judges took note, asking the Department of Justice to explain the reasons why cellular information should still be disclosed under the third party doctrine, rather than requiring a search warrant based upon a showing of probable cause.

On October 25, the Department of Justice responded in a brief (pdf) filed with a federal magistrate judge in Houston:
Cell phone users also understand that the provider will know the location of its own cell tower, and that the provider will thus have some knowledge of the user’s location. Indeed, providers’ terms of service and privacy policies make clear that the provider’s obtain this information.

. . .

Use of a cell phone is entirely voluntary, and a user will know from his experience with his cell phone and from a provider’s privacy policy/terms of service that he will communicate with a provider’s cell tower and that this communication will convey information to the provider about his location.

A footnote below the first sentence includes some text from T-Mobile's privacy policy, after which, DOJ argues that the privacy policy makes it clear that users understand their location information is communicated to T-Mobile:
The first of these paragraphs demonstrates that a cell phone customer will be aware that T-Mobile obtains information regarding the customer’s location. The second paragraph demonstrates that a customer will be aware that T-Mobile collects this information. The third paragraph demonstrates that the customer will be aware that this information becomes a T-Mobile business record.

Consumers read privacy policies, because we say so

DOJ's argument is essentially this:

  1. Phone companies disclose in their privacy policies that they have access to subscribers' location information (with citation to privacy policies).
  2. (. . .)
  3. Therefore, consumers reasonably understand that their location information is transmitted to the phone company whenever their phone is on, and thus historical location information shouldn't be protect by the 4th amendment.

What is missing, of course, is a direct claim that consumers read privacy policies. The government can't actually state this claim, because it is frankly laughable. Instead, it argues that:
"[A] user will know from his experience with his cell phone and from a provider’s privacy policy/terms of service"

The implied claim is that consumers read privacy policies. How else would a user know what is in the provider's privacy policy and terms of service unless he or she read the thing? Thus, the government's legal theory still depends upon the idea that consumers, or at least most consumers, read and understand privacy policies.

The FTC and Supreme Court discuss privacy policies

The Department of Justice isn't the only part of the US government to have made official statements regarding privacy policies, and the extent to which consumers read them. The Federal Trade Commission is tasked with protecting consumers' privacy online, and officials there frequently speak about this topic.

In introductory remarks at a privacy roundtable in December 2009, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Leibowitz told those assembled in the room that:
We all agree that consumers don’t read privacy policies – or EULAs, for that matter.

Similarly, in a August 2009 interview, David Vladeck, the head of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection told the New York Times that:
Disclosures are now written by lawyers, they’re 17 pages long. I don’t think they’re written principally to communicate information; they’re written defensively. I’m a lawyer, I’ve been practicing law for 33 years. I can’t figure out what the hell these consents mean anymore. And I don’t believe that most consumers either read them, or, if they read them, really understand it. Second of all, consent in the face of these kinds of quote disclosures, I’m not sure that consent really reflects a volitional, knowing act.

Echoing both of these statements, in an official filing earlier this year with the Commerce Department, the FTC wrote that:
The current privacy framework in the United States is based on companies' privacy practices and consumers' choices regarding how their information is used. In reality, we have learned that many consumer do not read, let alone understand such notices, limiting their ability to make informed choices.

Even the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court has weighed in the issue, albeit only in a speech before students in Buffalo, NY just a few weeks ago. Answering a student question, Roberts admitted he doesn’t usually read the terms of service or privacy polices, according to the Associated Press:
It has "the smallest type you can imagine and you unfold it like a map," he said. "It is a problem," he added, "because the legal system obviously is to blame for that." Providing too much information defeats the purpose of disclosure, since no one reads it, he said. "What the answer is," he said, "I don’t know."

Academic research on privacy policies

Academic research seems to uniformly support the FTC's arguments.

Among 222 study participants of the 2007 Golden Bear Omnibus Survey, the Samuelson Clinic found that only 1.4% reported reading EULAs often and thoroughly, 66.2% admit to rarely reading or browsing the contents of EULAs, and 7.7% indicated that they have not noticed these agreements in the past or have never read them.

Similarly, a survey of more than 2000 people by Harris Interactive in 2001 found that more than 60 percent of consumers said they had either "spent little or no time looking at websites' privacy policies" or "glanced through websites' privacy policies, but . . . rarely read them in depth." Of those individuals surveyed, only 3 percent said that "most of the time, I carefully read the privacy policies of the websites I visit."

American consumers are not alone. In 2009, the UK Information Commissioner's Office conducted a survey of more than 2000 people, and found that 71% did not read or understand privacy policies.

While the vast majority of consumers don't read privacy policies, some do seem to notice the presence of a privacy policy on a company's website. Unfortunately, most Americans incorrectly believe that the phrase privacy policy signifies that their information will be kept private. A 2003 survey by Annenberg found that 57% of 1,200 adults who were using the internet at home agreed or agreed strongly with the statement "When a web site has a privacy policy, I know that the site will not share my information with other websites or companies." In the 2005 survey, questioners asked 1,200 people whether that same statement is true or false. 59% answered it is true.

Even if consumers were interested in reading privacy policies -- doing so would likely consume a significant amount of their time. A research team at Carnegie Mellon University calculated the time to read the privacy policies of the sites used by the average consumer, and determined that:
[R]eading privacy policies carry costs in time of approximately 201 hours a year, worth about $2,949 annually per American Internet user. Nationally, if Americans were to read online privacy policies word–for–word, we estimate the value of time lost as about $652 billion annually.

Finally, even if consumers took the time to try and read privacy policies, it is quite likely that many would not be capable of understanding them. In 2004, a team of researchers analyzed the content of 64 popular website's privacy policies, and calculated the reading comprehension skills that a reader would need to understand them. Their research revealed that:
Of the 64 policies examined, only four (6%) were accessible to the 28.3% of the Internet population with less than or equal to a high school education. Thirty-five policies (54%) were beyond the grasp of 56.6% of the Internet population, requiring the equivalent of more than fourteen years of education. Eight policies (13%) were beyond the grasp of 85.4% of the Internet population, requiring the equivalent of a postgraduate education. Overall, a large segment of the population can only reasonably be expected to understand a small fragment of the policies posted.


As the academic research I have summarized here, and multiple statements by FTC officials make clear, consumers do not read privacy policies. As such, it is shocking that the Department of Justice would, in representing the official position of the United States Government, argue otherwise before a court

I hope that responsible persons inside DOJ will take note of this blog post, contact the court, and retract their claim. I also hope that the new White House Interagency Subcommittee on Privacy & Internet Policy will take note of this issue, and make sure that this sort of claim doesn't find its way into any future DOJ legal briefs.