Papers tagged ‘User tracking’

I Know What You’re Buying: Privacy Breaches on eBay

eBay intends not to let anyone else figure out what you’re in a habit of buying on the site. Because of that, lots of people consider eBay the obvious place to buy things you’d rather your neighbors not know you bought (there is a survey in this very paper confirming this fact). However, this paper demonstrates that a determined adversary can figure out what you bought.

(Caveat: This paper is from 2014. I do not know whether eBay has made any changes since it was published.)

eBay encourages both buyers and sellers to leave feedback on each other, the idea being to encourage fair dealing by attaching a persistent reputation to everyone. Feedback is associated with specific transactions, and anyone (whether logged into eBay or not) can see each user’s complete feedback history. Items sold are visible, items bought are not, and buyers’ identities are obscured. The catch is, you can match up buyer feedback with seller feedback by the timestamps, using obscured buyer identities as a disambiguator, and thus learn what was bought. It involves crawling a lot of user pages, but it’s possible to do this in a couple days without coming to eBay’s notice.

They demonstrate that this is a serious problem by identifying users who purchased gun holsters (eBay does not permit the sale of actual firearms), pregnancy tests, and HIV tests. As an additional fillip they show that people commonly use the same handle on eBay as Facebook and therefore purchase histories can be correlated with all the personal information one can typically extract from a Facebook profile.

Solutions are pretty straightforward and obvious—obscured buyer identities shouldn’t be correlated with their real handles; feedback timestamps should be quantized to weeks or even months; feedback on buyers might not be necessary anymore; eBay shouldn’t discourage use of various enhanced-privacy modes, or should maybe even promote them to the default. (Again, I don’t know whether any of these solutions has been implemented.) The value of the paper is perhaps more in reminding website developers in general that cross-user correlations are always a privacy risk.

What Deters Jane from Preventing Identification and Tracking on the Web?

If you do a survey, large majorities of average people will say they don’t like the idea of other people snooping on what they do online. [1] [2] Yet, the existing bolt-on software that can prevent such snooping (at least somewhat) doesn’t get used by nearly as many people. The default explanation for this is that it’s because the software is hard to install and use correctly. [3] [4]

This paper presents a complementary answer: maybe people don’t realize just how ubiquitous or invasive online snooping is, so the benefit seems not worth the hassle. The authors interviewed a small group about their beliefs concerning identification and tracking. (They admit that the study group skews young and technical, and plan to broaden the study in the future.) Highlights include: People are primarily concerned about data they explicitly provide to some service—social network posts, bank account data, buying habits—and may not even be aware that ad networks and the like can build up comprehensive profiles of online activity even if all they do is browse. They often have heard a bunch of fragmentary information about cookies and supercookies and IP addresses and so on, and don’t know how this all fits together or which bits of it to worry about. Some people thought that tracking was only possible for services with which they have an account, while they are logged in (so they log out as soon as they’re done with the service). There is also general confusion about which security threats qualify as identification and tracking—to be fair, just about all of them can include some identification or tracking component. The consequences of being tracked online are unclear, leading people to underestimate the potential harm. And finally, many of the respondents assume they are not important people and therefore no one would bother tracking them. All of these observations are consistent with earlier studies in the same vein, e.g. Rick Wash’s Folk Models of Home Computer Security.

The authors argue that this means maybe the usability problems of the bolt-on privacy software are overstated, and user education about online security threats (and the mechanism of the Internet in general) should have higher priority. I think this goes too far. It seems more likely to me that because people underestimate the risk and don’t particularly understand how the privacy software would help, they are not motivated to overcome the usability problems. I am also skeptical of the effectiveness of user education. The mythical average users may well feel, and understandably so, that they should not need to know exactly what a cookie is, or exactly what data gets sent back and forth between their computers and the cloud, or the internal structure of that cloud. Why is it that the device that they own is not acting in their best interest in the first place?