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Re-addressing fundamental issues of practical privacy technology

| | 2016.01.17. 05:11:26  Gulyás Gábor  


Traditional privacy-enhancing technologies were born in a context where users were exposed to pervasive surveillance. The TOR browser could be thought as a nice textbook example: in a world where webizens are monitored and tracked by thousands of trackers (or a.k.a. web bugs), TOR aims to provide absolute anonymity to its users. However, these approaches beared two shortcoming right from the start. First, sometimes it would be acceptable to sacrifice a small piece of our privacy to support or use a service, second, as privacy offers freedom, it could also be abused (think of the 'dark web'). While there have been many proposals to remedy these issues, none in implementations were able to cumulate large user bases. In fact, in recent years privacy research quite rarely reached practical usability or even implementation phase. (Have you ever counted the number of services using differential privacy?)

Due to these reasons, it is nice to see that things are changing. A company called Neura made it to CES this year, who's goal is to provide a finer-grained and strict personal information sharing model, where the control stays in the hand of the users:

[...] firm has created smartphone software that sucks in data from many of the apps a person uses as well as their location data. [...] The screen he showed me displayed a week in the life of Neura employee Andrew - detailing all of his movements and activities via the myriad of devices - phones, tablets and activity trackers - that we all increasingly carry with us. [...] But the firm's ultimate goal is to offer its service to other apps, and act as a single secure channel for all of a user's personal data rather than having it handled by multiple parties, as is currently the case. [...] We are like PayPal for the internet of things. We facilitate transactions, and our currency is your digital identity.

I am a bit sceptic with this privacy selling approach: that much of data could give too much power for that company, and it is not clear what happens if the data is resold (which happens a lot today). It would be a bit more convincing if you could really own the data, and would have cryptograhpic guarantees for that. Until we have that I rather prefer technology where you could buy yout privacy back directly. Returning to the example of web tracking, there are interesting projects (like Google Contributor or Mozilla Subscribe2Web) that would allow to do micro payments to news sites instead of using being tracked and targeted with advertisements.

Another recent development, called PrivaTegrity, addresses accountability of abuses. The project is lead by David Chaum, who is the inventor of the MIX technology that is an underlying concept in digital privacy. While not all details are yet disclosed, it seems Chaum's team are working on a strong online anonymity solution that could be used for a variety of applications, would be fast and resource preserving (so it could work on mobile devices), and would have a controlled backdoor to discourage abusers. I am sure that this latter feature would initiate a large number of disputes, but Chaum claims that revoking anonymity would not remain in the hands of a single government; nine administrators from different countries would be required to reveal the real identity behind a transaction. Let's waint and see how things develop; however, this is definitely a challenging argument for those who vote on erasing privacy.

Here is their paper on the underlying technology.

This post originally appeared in the professional blog of Gábor Gulyás.

Tags: privacy, surveillance, anonymity, encryption, privacy-enhancing technology





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