NSA’s Speech-to-Text capabilities

The Intercept has a lengthy article on what we know on the NSA’s speech recognition capabilities. Putting aside the actual capabilities, just the fact that anything you say will be recorded, stored and may be accessed at any point in the future only protected by “policy” sends shivers down my spine.

“People still aren’t realizing quite the magnitude that the problem could get to,” Raj said. “And it’s not just surveillance,” he said. “People are using voice services all the time. And where does the voice go? It’s sitting somewhere. It’s going somewhere. You’re living on trust.” He added: “Right now I don’t think you can trust anybody.”

Also when all the voice data gets automatically transcribed, made keyword-searchable, flagged and presented to agents as “potentially interesting” there’s basically no way of producing any sort of indication for suspicion other than pointing at a black box and mumbling something vaguely resembling “correlation.”

“When the NSA identifies someone as ‘interesting’ based on contemporary NLP [Natural Language Processing] methods, it might be that there is no human-understandable explanation as to why beyond: ‘his corpus of discourse resembles those of others whom we thought interesting’; or the conceptual opposite: ‘his discourse looks or sounds different from most people’s.'”

Privacy Consequences of the SPE Hack

Bruce Schneier in his comments on the recent Sony Hack cites a Gizmondo article that sums it up very well why privacy is important to everyone even for mundane everyday stuff we do on the internet:

These are people who did nothing wrong. They didn’t click on phishing links, or use dumb passwords (or even if they did, they didn’t cause this). They just showed up. They sent the same banal workplace emails you send every day, some personal, some not, some thoughtful, some dumb. Even if they didn’t have the expectation of full privacy, at most they may have assumed that an IT creeper might flip through their inbox, or that it was being crunched in an NSA server somewhere. For better or worse, we’ve become inured to small, anonymous violations. What happened to Sony Pictures employees, though, is public. And it is total.

And in Bruce’s words:

These people didn’t have anything to hide. They aren’t public figures. Their details aren’t going to be news anywhere in the world. But their privacy has been violated, and there are literally thousands of personal tragedies unfolding right now as these people deal with their friends and relatives who have searched and reads this stuff.

They Don’t Care About Your “Online” Privacy

Messenger apps show your friends’ online status. Anytime you open the app, they’ll notify the service that you’re “online” at the moment. Now everybody else can see it in their contact lists.

And with everybody I mean anybody! If you have a phone number you can check that person’s online status as often as you want from wherever you want (no need to be friends or anything).

So did a group of researchers at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. They used this “feature” to “find out how frequently and how long users spent with their popular messenger” on a random sample of 1000 people in different countries for over eight months.

Looking through the project’s website should make it clear how little the creators of those apps care …

Moreover, we were able to run our monitoring solution against the WhatsApp services from July 2013 to April 2014 without any interruption. Although we monitored personal information of thousands of users for several months — and thus strongly deviated from normal user behaviour — our monitoring efforts were not inhibited in any way.

… and that they don’t want you to be able to care.

Unfortunately, affected messenger services (like WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.) currently provide no option for disabling access to a user’s “online” status. Even WhatsApp’s newly introduced privacy controls fail to prevent online status tracking, as users still cannot opt-out of disclosing their availability to anonymous parties.

Choosing Comfort Over Privacy

It looks like Apple “needs” to upload even your unsaved documents to its servers to make the newly introduced Continuity “feature” work.

Also it seems Apple silently uploads names and email addresses of all the people you correspond with–no, not only the ones in your address book–just to have a “consistent” experience when displaying recent addresses.

It scares me how little their customer’s privacy must be worth when they choose (these are not accidental data “leaks”) to silently violate them in order to provide comfort features.

Update 2014-10-30:
It seems there is at least a hidden configuration option to turn this behavior off:

 

Apple’s Spotlight Search Phones Home

OS X Yosemite seems to have gained the feature to “phone home” when you do spotlight searches. It’ll send search terms and your location data to Apple’s servers. Of course it’s perfectly in line with Apple’s recent “trust us, we won’t collect unnecessary data” rhetoric.

[…] Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and consultant, confirmed the behavior, labeling it “probably the worst example of ‘privacy by design’ I’ve seen yet.” Users don’t even have to search to give up their privacy. Apple immediately sends the user’s location to the company, according to Soltani.

You can turn it off, but it’s on by default.