How Google Should Respond To Revelation That NSA Uses Its Cookies To Track And Exploit

from the moving-on-now dept

The latest Washington Post story from the Snowden leaks highlights how the NSA was able to effectively piggyback on Google’s ad-tracking cookies to track someone’s online activities and to “enable remote exploitation” (the details of that exploitation are not revealed, but there are a few ways that would be possible).

It’s important to note, first off, that it does not appear that that the NSA is doing this in any “bulk” sense. Rather it appears to be accessing this and other data via more specific orders. That is, rather than going through everyone’s surfing habits, it’s using this particular “trick” when it’s looking for someone (or something) specific, and likely getting a FISA court order to do so.

Still, this should raise very serious concerns — and it should lead internet companies to rethink the way they use cookies. I know that some people want an extreme solution, in which cookies go away entirely, but that ignores the many benefits that cookies/tracking can provide. As we’ve said in the past, privacy is always about tradeoffs, and generally it should be about tradeoffs where individuals can assess if what they’re giving up is worth what they get in return. The problem here is that the information on what they were giving up was not clear at all, and open to abuse — meaning that things may have tilted pretty far in one direction.

There is value in cookies and being able to track certain user information, but the implementation has been done in a manner that makes it way too easy to let the NSA piggyback on the results.

Image courtesy of Parker Higgins.

There are solutions — though they may not be easy. Prof. Ed Felten has a good discussion about how commercial websites can still track users without letting the NSA piggyback on their work: by extending HTTPS to more or less everything they do:

An approach that does work is for the tracking entity to use https, the secure web protocol, for its communication with the user’s computer. This ensures that the unique ID that is transmitted is protected by encryption in a way that doesn’t leak to an eavesdropper any information about which connections are to the same user. Implementing https on a larger site is not as easy as it should be, but it seems to be the price of surveillance-proof tracking.

For what it’s worth “not as easy as it should be” would be considered by some to be something of an understatement. It’s not easy, period. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s something that probably needs to be done. Eight giant internet companies earlier this week took a strong stand on reforming surveillance. To show that they’re serious about this, moving to an all HTTPS world would be a very clear step that they’re not just saying things, but actually doing things to protect their users’ privacy from an overreaching NSA.

Felten also notes another alternative, which would be storing everything on the client side:

Another approach to protecting users is to switch to a method that holds all of the stored information on the client side, that is, in the user’s browser. The idea is that rather than having the server accumulate a record of the user’s activities (or some kind of preference profile based on those activities), you would instead have the user’s browser store the same information for you. This approach is taken by some of the privacy-preserving behavioral advertising systems that have been proposed. If information is accumulated on the user’s own computer, there doesn’t need to be a unique identifier that is sent across the Internet every time the user accesses your site. Instead, you can send encrypted data only at the times you need it. This requires more aggressive re-engineering of an ad or analytics service, but it provides additional benefits to the user in terms of privacy and transparency.

As he notes, there are significant challenges there as well, and potential side effects in the way certain things would work, but it is also an approach worth exploring.

Either way, if companies are serious about protecting their users privacy, looking into ways to protect cookie data and stop the NSA cookie monster would be a good start.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,
Companies: google

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “How Google Should Respond To Revelation That NSA Uses Its Cookies To Track And Exploit”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Ninja (profile) says:

Wouldn’t work for me as I delete cookies upon closing the browsers =/

Anyway, merely encrypting the communications is not enough if you use lousy encryption or portions of your site are sent via unencrypted connections. Google for instance doesn’t seem to use extended validation certificates that make some types of attack harder and it seems from what I read that they are using encryption that has been compromised by the NSA (or at least part of their encryption is done via such tools). Surely EVs are not the panacea but for now they can help you spot MITM attacks, no? Eventually the certification system will have to be replaced with something more reliable.

Techdirt is running with some pretty good encryption settings (again I’m not an expert, I’m going for what I’ve read) but it allows insecure stuff.

Please those with more knowledge than me correct me if I’m wrong but is this line of thought right? I’m seeing people touting encryption as the way to go without thinking about these issues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Eventually the certification system will have to be replaced with something more reliable.

Two problems in securing Internet communications are.
1) Trustworthy identification of who you are talking to.
2) Secure operating systems and software.
Certificate authorities have proven to be less than fully trustworthy. Desktop operating systems, along with their application, have become too complex to fully audit.
This makes fully secure communication over the Internet very difficult. Unless you get keys in a fashion that ensure you know whose key it is, and use a system for which you have written all the software for, assume that a government can read your communication if they decide to target you.
That said, widespread use of GPG, and Linus or BSD systems, will probably allow private person to person communications to remain private unless directly targeted by a government. As for the rest of anybodies Internet activities, getting lost in the haystacks is the main protection against an overbearing government. The weakness that NSA has is that the more data it gathers the more people it needs to employ to follow up on any leads that they develop. and the more leaky it will become.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Regen the cookies

Is not that effective, the attacker can still use your own browser to do the decoding, so encryption won’t help, neither will regeneration since he can send the valid cookie first and take over that session, leaving the account owner forced to login again or even unable to login since the server will not be capable of dicerning who is who, but even with a short window of opportunity machines are way faster than any human, by the time you are finished typing any login an automated script could have made thousands of requests

It does stop however born man in the middle attacks.

Anonymous Coward says:

I suspect everything should be Client side.

A Distributed Social Network where Family/Friends/Public facing pages only exist in your browser linking to files in a safe folder on your computer would stop Facebook/Google having everything on you. Plus you would hold anonymous public pages of other folk (for when their computers are turned off. If that worked – then you could start encrypted email between Family/Friends/Public, and then a Distributed Search. By donating a small amount of processing power and storage you could have distributed everything which would be private and have the added benefit of killing off Facebook and google.

Anonymous Coward says:

Selling pictures on eBay for a living.

Do spies really need all that?
C’mon, they could just tell it straight up what they want and I bet that someone in some other country would hand it to them, why all the cloak and dagger?

This is a brave new world where even scammers are being straight up honest about what they are doing and people still give them money, without them having to lie, cheat or steal anything is unbelievable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Incognito is future

No incognito means it stores all relevant data in memory, not that it doesn’t store anything at all.

It also won’t help since what they are stealing from Google is basically a session cookie, after they get that they don’t need your computer anymore they can pass themselves as you to Google servers or any of the services that you can access, is one of the most powerful ways to get access to all accounts hold by one person in Google and even insert evilware in some places like the Google dropbox, Google docs(it accepts scripts) or whatever, the minute you log in into any of those services your computer could get owned not just your online Google accounts.

Most XSS attacks target session cookies is the best way to steal accounts around and it works to this day everywhere, the hard part is bypassing some browser security about cross domain javascript scope and finding the XSS but once that is done, you can say goodbye to that account.

Anonymous Coward says:

I like using virtual machines for anything internet.
Is not 100% and can be compromised, but at least if I get infected or something the VM will be recreated in a pristine state and I mostly don’t have to care about what it happens is like buying a new computer every time you access the internet.

Sure there are ways around it but they are not easy, sure it won’t protect your online accounts, still it will keep most of the unwanted out.

out_of_the_blue says:

No, problem is corporations trade OUR privacy for THEIR profits.

As usual, Mike is trying to finesse and justify corporate greed in spite of the huge drawbacks becoming manifest.

Cookies should be outlawed entirely. They’re not necessary; like javascript, all can be done server side.

When all you have is an economics degree, everything looks like a corporation.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No, problem is corporations trade OUR privacy for THEIR profits.

Cookies should be outlawed entirely. They’re not necessary;

An IP address does not identify a person, or in most cases a single machine in a household. (Hint a router makes all machines sharing a broadband connection come from the same IP address). Also sometime several people have different accounts on the same machine. Without cookies they would all be the same person to a server. Therefore cookies are required in any circumstances where data has to be associated with a person, like a shopping list, Facebook logon etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: No, problem is corporations trade OUR privacy for THEIR profits.

It’s even better than that. An IP address DOES NOT necessarily identify a house, either. Unless you are using static IPs, which most households don’t, your ISP reassigns whichever IP address it has available from it’s block of addresses, to you when you log on. I got blasted by Wikipedia when I logged on, one time, because I had been assigned an IP address that was previously assigned to a person who had posted hateful messages to them. They wouldn’t let me in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Few years back, 10 or 15, there was a great raging debate on the web about cookies.s usual one side for and one against. The for side won under the assertion that there was nothing negative about cookies and a lot for as cookies allowed easer on line identification.

Now we know where continuous online identification leads. And, it is not pretty.

Total state totalitarianism here we come.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s what I told you.

The metadata contains the cell info from which they get coarse location. The calls to Google location services and similar service they’re mining for detailed location.

You visits to some sites give them the identity and co-locational analysis gives them details of your friends, spouse, political meetings, donations, business, and all manner of stuff.

That data is then handed over to the CIA for shaping, to be used to leverage politicians, turn them to CIA agendas, undermine democracies and all the other nasty stuff.

What we need is a Snowden of the CIA next.

Pathetic says:

Why aren’t cookies being encrypted already? if Data is the new gold, and everyone online wants it, why share your data by using unencrypted data gathering techniques? Seems this is a huge oversight on the part of all data gathering companies in the first place.

Please, be a little more greedy guys, encrypt your cookies so no else can read them. it makes your data more valuable.

quawonk says:

This assumes Google actually cares about user privacy and is not just playing lip service. Look at their track record of logging absolutely everything and keeping it indefinitely, the recent youtube merger with Google+ encouraging real names, and requiring phone numbers. I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them.

And also the assumption that the NSA hasn’t compromised https and the other encryptions already. Wasn’t there a story about them compromising some encryption schemes a while back? Can we really trust any of the existing ones anymore?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...