Coronavirus and the Right to Privacy

 The coronavirus has unquestionably changed the way we live. It has also forced us into strange and, until just a few weeks ago, unthinkable ethical dilemmas. To visit loved ones is worth genuine ethical reflection. Modern nations, especially in the West, are built on an ethics of individual freedoms and the right to privacy. However, the current global health crisis is forcing us to rethink just how fundamental those ethics should be. While we already feel this with regards to the freedom of movement, we are just beginning to contemplate how the coronavirus can and should effect our right to privacy.

Contact Tracing and Enforced Quarantine

In order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, experts emphasize the importance of tracking every contact infected patients have had with others. Countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have all taken aggressive measure trace all potential contact infected people have had. These measures are widely considered to be a large reason why these countries have been successful in lowering the rate of transmission. However, the aggressive measures taken have come at the cost of individual privacies.

Taiwan and Singapore, for example, regularly post detailed information about everyone who test positive, including where they live and work, what train stations they have used, and what bars and restaurants they frequent. South Korea now has an app that allows users to track the exactly movement of those infected.

Countries are also using location data to enforce quarantine for those infected. Israel, for example, is now using data collection techniques previously used for counterterrorism efforts to identify anyone potentially exposed to the virus. The government uses this information to send text messages to those exposed ordering them to quarantine.

European and the U.S. Response

As the coronavirus spreads to Europe and the U.S., lawmakers are exploring the use of similar techniques. Italy now uses location data to monitor whether people are obeying quarantine orders. In the U.S., the White House is reportedly in conversations with tech companies to use anonymized location data to track the spread of the virus. HIPPA regulations are being waived to allow doctors and mental health providers to more freely use telecommunication to speak with patients. Companies in Italy, Austria, and Germany have also announced that they will provide location data to governments.

However, with privacy regulations such as the GDPR, it is unclear how aggressively European countries will be able to use personal information. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) released a statement urging governments to continue to abide by privacy regulations in place. At the same time, however, the EDPB conceded that countries may suspend such regulations “when processing is necessary for reasons of substantial public interest in the area of public health.”

Consequences

Relaxing the right to privacy has garnered mixed responses by government officials and security experts. Many have pointed out that while the measures taken are extreme, personal information such as location data is highly effective in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. “We are stretched very thin in most states,” said the director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, “so this kind of technology can help every state to prioritize, given their limited resources, which communities, which areas, need more aggressive tracking and testing.”

Others are concerned how this could endanger those whose information is made public. In South Korea, some have used information released by the government to identify infected individuals and attack them online. This has led officials to question how the government uses this information, worrying it will discourage others from getting tested for fear of being publicly exposed.

While nearly all countries have explained suspending the right to privacy is a temporary measure for the benefit of the public health, many worry it will have a permanent effect on how governments and countries view privacy concerns. After 9/11, for example, the U.S. used highly invasive surveillance measures that have since become common place among law enforcement agencies. According to the New York Times, privacy experts worry something similar could happen after the current crisis.

What restrictions we, as a society, can tolerate, and what effect this will have after the current crisis remains an open question. However, it may also involve a false choice.  There are technologies to both assist contract tracing and preserve anonymity.  Privacy by Design does not have to be put on pause as we develop these tools.  In fact, if we want to encourage wide adoption, it might be required.

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A Breach of Breaches Past

A breach of breaches past has come back to haunt us. Last week, a cybersecurity expert discovered a that a collection of over 5 billion records from previous data dumps were left exposed and publicly accessible. What’s worse, the exposure reportedly occurred at the hands of a cybersecurity firm. Because all of the data was previously exposed, no new information was put at risk. However, the size and sensitive nature of the data involved could lead to renewed risk for victims of previous breaches

What was Exposed and How?

A UK-based firm created a database of exposed information from some of the biggest data dumps between 2012 and 2019. This includes records from well-known data dumps such as Adobe, Last.FM, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others. What’s more, the records within the database includes some highly-sensitive such as emails and passwords. The exact reason for compiling this database is not yet clear.

NOTE: Company’s data and customer records were not exposed, incident involved only previously reported data breaches collections.

The incident was not the result of any malicious action. Instead, the firm placed the records in Elasticsearch, an open source data and analytics search engine, and neglected to use any password protection or firewalls to keep the database private.

The lack of such basic protections may be because Elasticsearch’s security features are disabled by default. In fact, Elasticsearch has suffered a series of similar breaches within the past few years. Only two months ago, 250 million records of Microsoft customers were exposed through similar misconfigurations on Elasticsearch servers. Given amount and size of these exposures, it is unclear why Elasticsearch has not taken more steps to ensure the security of their services.

Consequences

Just because the data involved in this breach has all been previously leaked does not mean this incident isn’t something to be concerned about. According to reports, the records are extremely well structured, and the sheer size of the database makes the information easily accessible for hackers to use in phishing schemes or to resell online. This could lead to those whose records were previously exposed see a renewal of fraud attempts in the upcoming months.

Want to see if the breach of breaches past could come back to haunt you? We recommend going to haveibeenpwned.com. The website allows you to search any email address or passwords you have used to see if your information was exposed in previous breaches, including many of the breaches involved in this incident.

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Hacker Fails

Recently, we’ve written a series of articles looking the at various ways the coronavirus intersects with cybersecurity concerns. And while we don’t want to downplay the importance of maintaining cybersecurity practices throughout the crisis, we could all use a little distraction from time to time. So, we decided to have some fun today. And what is more fun than hearing stories about hackers who completely and totally messed up? So, without further ado, we present three major hacker fails to keep your mind off the news for a few minutes.

Hacker Fail #1: The Spy Who Hacked Me (Then Posted it on YouTube)

This should go without saying, but if you’re going to install malware on hospital computers, you probably shouldn’t upload a video of yourself doing it. As it happens, that is exactly what Jesse William McGraw did. McGraw was a night security guard at Northern Central Medical Plaza in Dallas. One night he decided to film a video of himself pretending to be a spy who was infiltrating the premises (with James Bond music and all). Of course, as a security guard, he had access to the entire building and wasn’t actually doing anything illegal. That is, until he started installing malware on a dozen of the hospital’s computers.

Authorities quickly arrested McGraw and discovered he was actually the leader of a hacking group called the Electronik Tribulation Army. For his part, McGraw was sentenced to 9 years in prison and ordered to pay over $30,000 in restitution.

Hacker Fail #2: VPN FML

This story involves one of the most news-worthy cyber-attacks in the past few years: and hack and leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee. The documents were leaked online over the course of few months by a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0. While leaking the documents, Guccifer portrayed himself as a lone hacker conducted the attack for the fun of it.

Of course, we know now that this hack was instead conducted by the Russian government, specifically the GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency. As it turned out, tracing the hack back to the GRU didn’t take much work because Guccifer made a very simple mistake: he forgot to turn on his VPN. VPN’s help users stay anonymous online by connecting to the internet using shared IP addresses. Guccifer routinely used a VPN to cover his tracks online, but at one point simply forgot to turn it on before logging onto a social media site. The mistake allowed authorities to trace the hackers location directly back to GRU headquarters.

And the rest, they say, is quite literally history.

Hacker Fail #3: Hoist with his own petard

We saved the stupidest for last. For a while now, a transcript of a chat between hackers has been passed around the internet. In the chat, two rivals hackers were arguing with one another and threatening to attack the other. One of the hackers claimed to be using a program that allowed him to remotely delete a hard drive by simply entering in the target’s IP address. Calling his bluff, the other hacker shared his IP in the chat. However, instead of giving his actually IP, he gave him a loopback address that pointed right back at the would-be hacker’s own computer. So, when he ran the IP address through the program, he ended up wiping out his own hard drive instead of his rival’s.

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Communication Key to Keeping Remote Workers Engaged and Cyber Safe

At this point, many companies have instituted work at home policies.  And, assuming that the organizations have taken the right steps to secure their remote workers and increase their bandwidth to handle the increased loads and redundancies, business can get back to the new normal, correct?

Not quite.  The key to managing remotely is communication.  And I’m not talking about emails from the company referencing COVID-19.  I’m talking about ongoing communication that keeps the staff engaged, strengthens the culture and overcomes isolation.

There are many ways to do this.  Here are a few you can do right away.

  1.  Daily virtual standup meetings.  Have your teams jump on a video call same time each day to have a quick chat about what went well and what blockers have come up since the prior days call.  Make it video so people can see each other which improves the socialization aspect of the meeting.
  2. Catch them doing something good.  Each day call out someone for doing something well, especially if it involves helping clients or each other.  Support is now a key differentiator and it should be rewarded.
  3. Conduct white-hat phishing exercises.  Phishing hasn’t gone away.  In fact, COVID-19 has given the bad guys something else to use a lure.  Keep your team digitally aware by running phishing simulations, but let them know you are doing it and reward them for any phish they report.  That way you both sensitive the team to be on the lookout for suspicious emails and keep them positively engaged at the same time.
  4. Step up security training for privileged users.  With the changes to network access and perhaps the installation of additional technologies to support remote access, it is critical you spend the time with your systems, application and network teams on security role-based training to ensure that the assets are appropriately configured.  Misconfiguration poses a large cyber threat in the best of times;  even more so now.  Of course, make sure you are catching them doing something good, as well. (See #2 above.)
  5. Create standing “tea-times”.  Let’s face it, part of working together is socialization.  For teams not used to working remotely (and therefore not used to connecting with each other on a social basis remotely), carve out some time each day which permits them to reach out and talk to each other about whatever they want.  You don’t have to over engineer this, giving permission might be all you need to do.

The resilience of an organization’s ability to respond to any challenge is in no small part due to the strength and resilience of its culture.  Focusing on, communicating with, and recognizing your staff will go a long way to keep people working together.  Even when they’re apart.

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Privacy in the Age of Coronavirus

One can argue about the steps taken so far with regards to the coronavirus, but perhaps no other report has had an impact on what the United States is now doing to curb the spread of the virus than the report published on March 16 by the UK’s Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team.  In plain, stark language, the report warns of the dangers of doing nothing and emphasizes that if we want to minimize mortality rate “combining all four interventions (social distancing of the entire population, case isolation, household quarantine and school and university closure) is predicted to have the largest impact.”

Key to this is case isolation and household quarantine, both of which are containment measures.  Containment requires, at minimum identification (you have to know who is symptomatic to make sure they are isolated and you have to know who the symptomatic were in contact with to make sure they are quarantined) and communication (you have to know whether you’ve been in contact with someone if you are to self-quarantine).

The technologies exist to help both identification and communication, but at a potential cost to privacy. There’s the impact on privacy to the symptomatic individual, those with whom they have been in contact, and even locations (towns, neighborhoods, stores) through which the person traveled.  These risks are not insubstantial. In the case of individuals, it could result in stigmatization, harassment, and even physical threats (if not harm); in the case of locations, it could result in severe economic losses and stigmatization itself.  The key to leverage technology with containment is to identify potential privacy risks and embed privacy practices into the technology to minimize those risks.

The MIT Media Lab is doing just this.  Yesterday, they released an open-source application called Private Kit: Safe Paths which uses your phone to track your location data and uses that to trace where symptomatic individuals have been and share that information to others so that they can determine whether they may have been in contact with those individuals.  And, the app does it in a privacy-preserving way.  The app works like this: it first logs your phone’s location data, but keeps it on your phone so that you retain possession of it.  If you are diagnosed, you have the choice to consent to sharing your location data with health officials who can make it public.  Ultimately, the app will share symptomatic location data with others without the middleman of a health authority so that one can see if they have been in recent contact with anyone who has been symptomatic.  It’s a powerful tool that has the potential to have a material impact on containment efforts.

Of particular interest, is the whitepaper MIT developed on this application that outlines the various privacy risks pertaining to containment and how Private Kit addresses them.  The report provides an instruction lesson to any organization conduct privacy risk assessments or evaluating privacy controls relative to GDPR or CCPA regulations or to better serve the needs of its constituents.

When confronted with the enormity of something like the coronavirus, its both critical and refreshing to know that we don’t have to throw out our rights to deal with it.  After all, in battling something like this virus, we are not only defending our selves, we are preserving the very freedoms that define who we are.

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