Friday, November 11, 2011

Twitter's privacy policy and the Wikileaks case

Summary: The federal judge in the Wikileaks case cited in his order a version of Twitter's privacy policy from 2010, rather than the very different policy that existed when Appelbaum, Gonggrijp and Jonsdottir created their Twitter accounts back in 2008. That older policy actually promised users that Twitter would keep their data private unless they violated the company's terms of service. It is unclear how the judge managed to miss this important detail.

Earlier this week, a federal judge in Virginia handed down an order in the high-profile Twitter/Wikileaks case. That order has already been widely covered by the media, so I won't summarize it here.

In ruling that Appelbaum, Gonggrijp and Jonsdottir did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the IP addresses that Twitter had collected, the judge specifically highlighted the existence of statements about IP address collection in Twitter's privacy policy.

(from page 3 of the order)

The judge noted that Twitter reveals in its privacy policy that it collects "many types of usage information, including physical location, IP address, browser type, the referring domain ..." To support this claim, the judge cited the "Bringola declaration" (pdf), which is a collection of screenshots from Twitter's website produced by a paralegal working for Appelbaum's lawyer.

The privacy policy reproduced in the Bringola declaration and cited by the judge was effective as of November 16, 2010, and appears to have been the current privacy policy in March of 2011 when the paralegal made the screenshots. That privacy policy included the following "Log Data" section:

Our servers automatically record information ("Log Data") created by your use of the Services. Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, the referring domain, pages visited, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, and search terms. Other actions, such as interactions with our website, applications and advertisements, may also be included in Log Data. If we haven’t already deleted the Log Data earlier, we will either delete it or remove any common account identifiers, such as your username, full IP address, or email address, after 18 months.

There is a slight problem with relying on a privacy policy created on November 16, 2010 to decide the reasonable expectation of privacy of these three individuals: They created their Twitter accounts several years before the document was written.

According to the useful website, Appelbaum's Twitter account was created on February 23, 2008, Gonggrijp created his on September 26, 2008, and Jonsdottir created hers on November 14, 2008.

Thankfully, Twitter seems to archive all the old versions of their privacy policy. It would appear that all three individuals would have "agreed to" (ignoring the fact that none of them likely read the thing in the first place) Version 1 of the privacy policy, dated May 14, 2007. The "Log data" section of that policy reads as follows:

When you visit the Site, our servers automatically record information that your browser sends whenever you visit a website ("Log Data" ). This Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type or the domain from which you are visiting, the web-pages you visit, the search terms you use, and any advertisements on which you click. For most users accessing the Internet from an Internet service provider the IP address will be different every time you log on. We use Log Data to monitor the use of the Site and of our Service, and for the Site's technical administration. We do not associate your IP address with any other personally identifiable information to identify you personally, except in case of violation of the Terms of Service.

There are a few things worth noting here:

  1. The term "referring domain" appears in privacy policy cited by the judge in his court order, but not in Version 1 of the Twitter privacy policy. This strongly suggests that the judge is citing a newer version of the Twitter policy. The term appears to have been added in Version 2 of the privacy policy, dated November 18, 2009.
  2. In Version 1 of its policy, Twitter promised its users that it would not associate their IP addresses with any other personally identifiable information sufficient to identify them personally, unless they violated the Twitter terms of service. This pro-user sentence was removed in Version 2 of Twitter's privacy policy, one year later.
  3. The government has not alleged that any of the 3 individuals violated Twitter's terms of service. As such, it would appear that they could reasonably rely on Twitter's claims that it wouldn't associate their retained IP address information with their existing account records or any other personally identifiable information.

This is very interesting.

The old version of Twitter's policy that the three individuals "agreed" to also includes the following paragraph about updates to the document:

This Privacy Policy may be updated from time to time for any reason; each version will apply to information collected while it was in place. We will notify you of any material changes to our Privacy Policy by posting the new Privacy Policy on our Site. You are advised to consult this Privacy Policy regularly for any changes.

Note, Twitter didn't say that it would send out emails to users when it updated its privacy policy, instead, it advised users to revisit the site on a regular basis to see if the policy had changed. How this sentence passed the laugh test at Twitter's HQ, I do not know.

In subsequent edits to the policy, Twitter reworded this section, so that it now reads:

We may revise this Privacy Policy from time to time. The most current version of the policy will govern our use of your information and will always be at If we make a change to this policy that, in our sole discretion, is material, we will notify you via an @Twitter update or e-mail to the email associated with your account. By continuing to access or use the Services after those changes become effective, you agree to be bound by the revised Privacy Policy.

Got that? As of Version 2 of Twitter's privacy policy, merely by continuing to use Twitter, you agree to be bound by whatever the company adds to the policy. Oh, and it is up to the company to decide if the changes to the policy are important enough to justify telling users.

I know that I am not the first researcher to point out how stupid privacy policies are, or that no one reads them. Many others have done it, and done so far more eloquently than me. My goal in writing this blog post is simple: Not only is a federal judge ruling that 3 individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to the government getting some of their Internet transaction data, but the judge isn't even citing the right version of a widely ignored privacy policy to do so. If the judge were to examine the privacy policy that existed when these three targets signed up for a Twitter account, he might decide that they do in fact have a reasonable expectation of privacy and that the government needs a warrant to get the data.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Two honest Google employees: our products don't protect your privacy

Two senior Google employees recently acknowledged that the company's products do not protect user privacy. This is quite a departure from the norm at Google, where statements about privacy are usually thick with propaganda, mistruths and often outright deception.

Google's products do not meet the privacy needs of journalists, bloggers, small businesses (or anyone else concerned about government surveillance).

Last week, I published an op-ed in the New York Times that focused on the widespread ignorance of computer security among journalists and news organizations. Governments often have no need to try and compel a journalist to reveal the identity of their sources if they can simply obtain stored communication records from phone, email and social networking companies.

Will DeVries, Google's top DC privacy lobbyist soon posted a link to the article on his (personal) Google+ page, and added the following comment:

I often disagree with Chris, but when he's right, he's dead right. Journalists (and bloggers, and small businesses) need to take a couple hours and learn to use free, widely available security measures to store data and communicate.

Let me first say that I really respect Will. Many of the people in Google's policy team default to propaganda mode when questioned. Will does not do this - he either speaks truthfully, or declines to comment. I wish companies would hire more people like him, as they significantly boost the credibility of the firm among privacy advocates.

Regarding Will's comment: If Google's products were secure out of the box, journalists would not need to "take a couple hours" to learn to protect their data and communications. Will does not tell journalists to ditch their insecure Hotmail accounts and switch to Gmail, or to ditch their easily trackable iPhones and get an Android device. Likewise, he does not advise people to stop using Skype for voice and video chat, and instead use Google's competing services. He doesn't do that, because if he described these services as more secure and resistant to government access than the competition, he'd be lying.

Google's services are not secure by default, and, because the company's business model depends upon the monetizaton of user data, the company keeps as much data as possible about the activities of its users. These detailed records are not just useful to Google's engineers and advertising teams, but are also a juicy target for law enforcement agencies.

It would be great if Google's products were suitable for journalists, bloggers, activists and other groups that are routinely the target of surveillance by governments around the world. For now, though, as Will notes, these persons will need to investigate the (non-Google) tools and methods with which they can protect their data.

Google business model is in conflict with privacy by design

At a recent conference in Kenya, Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet and Google's Chief Internet Evangelist spoke on the same panel as me. We had the following exchange over the issue of Google's lack of encryption for user data stored on the company's servers (I've edited it to show the important bits about this particular topic - the full transcript is online here).


[I]t's very difficult to monetize data when you cannot see it. And so if the files that I store in Google docs are encrypted or if the files I store on Amazon's drives are encrypted then they are not able to monetize it....And unfortunately, these companies are putting their desire to monetize your data over their desire to protect your communications.

Now, this doesn't mean that Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! are evil. They are not going out of their way to help law enforcement. It's just that their business model is in conflict with your privacy. And given two choices, one of which is protecting you from the government and the other which is making money, they are going to go with making money because, of course, they are public corporations. They are required to make money and return it to their shareholders.

Vint Cerf:

I think you're quite right, however that, we couldn't run our system if everything in it were encrypted because then we wouldn't know which ads to show you. So this is a system that was designed around a particular business model.

Google could encrypt user data in storage with a key not known to the company, as several other cloud storage companies already do. Unfortunately, Google's ad supported business model simply does not permit the company to protect user data in this way. The end result is that law enforcement agencies can, and regularly do request user data from the company -- requests that would lead to nothing if the company put user security and privacy first.