Archive for August, 2015

Bleeding Data – South by Southwest workshop

Posted: August 30, 2015 by IntentionalPrivacy in First Steps, Personal safety, Privacy
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We put together a workshop proposal called “Bleeding Data: How to Stop Leaking Your Information” for SXSW Interactive. The workshop will help consumers understand data privacy issues. We will demonstrate some tools that are easy to use and free. Please create a login at SXSW and vote for our workshop! Voting is open until September 10, 2015.

I get my hair cut at the local salon of a famous chain of beauty schools that stretches across the US. They are a subsidiary of a much larger, high-end beauty products conglomerate. I have gotten my hair cut at various locations for years. It’s a good value for the money, and the resulting hair cuts are at least as good as and often better than ones I have received at their full-price salons.

Friday, I called to schedule a haircut and a facial. The scheduler asked for my credit card number to reserve my appointment. I asked if this was a new policy. The scheduler said they only asked for a credit card number for services that had a large number of no-shows. I asked when my card was charged, and she tried valiantly to explain how it worked.

I declined to give her my card and asked her to set up an appointment only for the haircut.

The next day, when I went in for my hair cut, I asked for their written policy on storing credit card numbers:

  • How long is the card stored in their system?
  • Who has access to it and what can they see?
  • How and why is a transaction against my number authorized?
  • What other information are they storing with my credit card number? Name, address, phone number …
  • Are they using a third-party application or does a third party have access to my information?
  • Are they following the best practices (for example, encrypted databases and hashing card numbers) recommended by the Payment Card Security Standards Council, in particular, the Payment Application Data Security Standards, which are available from ?

The receptionist referred me to their call center, where I eventually spoke with a manager, who could not answer my questions. She promised to find out and email me the policy, which I have yet to see.

I mailed a letter to the executive chairman of the beauty products conglomerate and the manager of the local school. I am not going back unless they come up with a satisfactory policy. Any organization that stores credit card information should have a written policy that explains how they protect it, and it should be available on customer request. It is not only best practice from a Payment Card Industry point-of-view, but it avoids misunderstandings between customers, employees, and management.

I’ve been a customer for over 20 years. Privacy matters, data security matters, and if your organization doesn’t think enough of my business to adequately protect my information and be able to show me, I am going someplace that will. No matter how much I like your hair cuts.

I had an interesting experience last week (my life seems to be full of them!). I signed up to take a class that purported to give me a better understanding of what I was looking for in a career.

The first day of class the instructor gave us the URL for an application that he had developed to collect a considerable amount of information about each of us: likes, desires, Myers-Briggs profile, and results from other assessment tests. During the class break, I asked him why the application was not using HTTPS. He said it did, but it used a referrer. I looked at the code of the web site. Hmm, not that I could see.

When I got home, I loaded up Wireshark so I could watch the interaction of the packets with the application. The application definitely did not use HTTPS. I emailed the instructor. Oh, he said, there was a mistake in the documentation, and he gave me the “real” secure URL.

Ok, so this application is sending his clients’ first and last names, email addresses, passwords, and usernames in clear text across the Internet. Not a big deal, you say?

It is a big deal, because many people use the same usernames and passwords on their accounts around the Web. Then add in their email address and their personal information is owned by anyone sniffing packets on any unsecured network they might be using, such as an unsecured wireless network in a coffee shop, an apartment building, a dorm room ….

So, next—because I now had their “secure” website URL—I checked their website against,, and some other sites—all public information. According to these tests, the application was running Apache version 2.2.22, which was released on January 31, 2012, WordPress 3.6.1 (released on September 11, 2013), as well as PHP 5.2.17 (released on January 6, 2011). It is never a good idea to run old software versions, but old WordPress versions are notoriously insecure.

Please note: I am not recommending either of these websites or their products; I merely used them as a method to find information about the application I was examining.

Not only that, but the app used SSL2 and SSL3, so the encryption technology is archaic. Qualys SSL Labs gave the app an “F” for their encryption, and that was after he gave me the HTTPS address.

(“It was harder to implement the security than we thought it would be,” he said.)

Although I did not find out the Linux version running on the web server, based on my previous findings—which I confirmed with the application owner—I would be willing to bet that the operating system was also not current.

So, then I tried creating a profile. I made up first and last names, user name, and a test email from ( I tried “test” for a password, which worked. So, the app does not test for password complexity or length.

He asked me on the second day of class if I now felt more comfortable about entering my information in his application since it was using HTTPS. I said no; I said that his application was so insecure that it was embarrassing, that it appeared to me that they had completely disregarded any considerations about securely coding an application.

He said that they never considered the necessity of securing someone’s information because they were not collecting credit card information.

I said that with the amount of data they collected, a thief could impersonate someone easily. I reminded him that some people use the same usernames and passwords for several accounts, and with that information and an email account, any hijacker was in business.

Then he said that he was depending on someone he trusted to write the code securely.

Although I believe in trust, if it were my application, I would verify any claims of security.

I told him he was lucky someone had not hacked his website to serve up malware. I said that I was not an application penetration tester, but that I could hack his website and own his database in less than 24 hours. I said the only reason it would take me that long is because I would have to read up on how to do it.

I told him I would never feel comfortable entering my information in his application because of the breach of trust between his application and his users. I said that while most people would not care even if I explained why they should care, I have to care. It is my job. If my information was stolen because I entered it in an application that I knew was insecure, I could never work in information security again.

So, what should you look for before you enter your information in an application?

  1. Does the web site use HTTPS? HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure; what that means is that the connection between you and the server is encrypted. If you cannot tell because the HTTPS part of the address is not showing, copy the web address into Notepad or Word, and look for HTTPS at the beginning of the address.
  2. –  gives some basic information about the website you’re checking. You do not need to install their toolbar, just put the website name into the box below “What’s that site running?” about midway down the right-hand side.
  3.  Qualys SSL Labs tests the encryption (often known as SSL) configuration of a web server. I do not put my information in any web site that is not at least a “C.”
  4. Another thing you should be concerned about is a site that serves up malware: Here are some sites that check for malware:<site name here> — be sure to read their site classifications here

  1. Do not enter any personal information in a site when using an insecure Wi-Fi connection, such as at a coffee shop or a hotel, just in case the site doesn’t have everything secured on its pages.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently released a plug-in for Chrome and Firefox called Privacy Badger 1.0. A plug-in is a software module, which adds functionality, that can be loaded into a browser. What the Badger plug-in does is block trackers from spying on the web pages you visit.

Why should you care? Because Big Data companies track everything you do online, and what do they do with that data? One thing they do is analyze data to predict consumer behavior. Here are a couple of articles that explain some of the issues: “The Murky World of Third-Party Tracking” is a short overview, while the EFF has a three-part article called “How Online Tracking Companies Know Most of What You Do Online (and What Social Networks Are Doing to Help Them)” that while several years old, is very detailed.

The FTC has gotten involved as well. Here is a link to one of their papers called “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?

I loaded the Badger plug-in as soon as it came out, and I am amazed at the number of trackers it blocks (it does allow a few)! One page I visited had over a hundred trackers blocked and a Huffington Post page had almost as many. I also run other plug-ins in Firefox (Ghostery, NoScript, AdBlock Plus, Lightbeam).

The Badger icon in the upper right-hand corner tells you how many are blocked.

The best thing about Badger is that it is very easy to use, unlike NoScript.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think.