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Can University Faculty Hold Platforms To Account?

Heidi Tworek has a good piece with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where she questions whether there will be a sufficient number of faculty in Canada (and elsewhere) to make use of information that digital-first companies might be compelled to make available to researchers. The general argument goes that if companies must make information available to academics then these academics can study the information and, subsequently, hold companies to account and guide evidence-based policymaking.

Tworek’s argument focuses on two key things.

  1. First, there has been a decline in the tenured professoriate in Canada, with the effect that the adjunct faculty who are ‘filling in’ are busy teaching and really don’t have a chance to lead research.
  2. While a vanishingly small number of PhD holders obtain a tenure track role, a reasonable number may be going into the very digital-first companies that researchers needs data from to hold them accountable.

On this latter point, she writes:

If the companies have far more researchers than universities have, transparency regulations may not do as much to address the imbalance of knowledge as many expect.

I don’t think that hiring people with PhDs necessarily means that companies are addressing knowledge imbalances. Whatever is learned by these researchers tends to be sheltered within corporate walls and protected by NDAs. So those researchers going into companies may learn what’s going on but be unable (or unmotivated) to leverage what they know in order to inform policy discussions meant to hold companies to account.

To be clear, I really do agree with a lot in this article. However, I think it does have a few areas for further consideration.

First, more needs to be said about what, specifically, ’transparency’ encompasses and its relationships with data type, availability, etc. Transparency is a deeply contested concept and there are a lot of ways that the revelation of data basically creates a funhouse of mirrors effect, insofar as what researchers ‘see’ can be very distorted from the reality of what truly is.

Second, making data available isn’t just about whether universities have the professors to do the work but, really, whether the government and its regulators have the staff time as well. Professors are doing a lot of things whereas regulators can assign staff to just work the data, day in and day out. Focus matters.

Third, and related, I have to admit that I have pretty severe doubts about the ability of professors to seriously take up and make use of information from platforms, at scale and with policy impact, because it’s never going to be their full time jobs to do so. Professors are also going to be required to publish in books or journals, which means their outputs will be delayed and inaccessible to companies, government bureaucrats and regulators, and NGO staff. I’m sure academics will have lovely and insightful discussions…but they won’t happen fast enough, or in accessible places or in plain language, to generally affect policy debates.

So, what might need to be added to start fleshing out how universities are organised to make use of data released by companies and have policy impacts in research outputs?

First, universities in Canada would need to get truly serious about creating a ’researcher class’ to analyse corporate reporting. This would involve prioritising the hiring of research associates and senior research associates who have few or no teaching responsibilities.1

Second, universities would need to work to create centres such as the Citizen Lab, or related groups.2 These don’t need to be organisations which try and cover the waterfront of all digital issues. They could, instead, be more focused to reduce the number of staff or fellows that are needed to fulfil the organisation’s mandate. Any and all centres of this type would see a small handful of people with PhDs (who largely lack teaching responsibilities) guide multidisciplinary teams of staff. Those same staff members would not typically need a a PhD. They would need to be nimble enough to move quickly while using a peer-review lite process to validate findings, but not see journal or book outputs as their primacy currency for promotion or hiring.

Third, the centres would need a core group of long-term staffers. This core body of long-term researchers is needed to develop policy expertise that graduate students just don’t possess or develop in their short tenure in the university. Moreover, these same long-term researchers can then train graduate student fellows of the centres in question, with the effect of slowly building a cadre of researchers who are equipped to critically assess digital-first companies.

Fourth, the staff at research centres needs to be paid well and properly. They cannot be regarded as ‘graduate student plus’ employees but as specialists who will be of interest to government and corporations. This means that the university will need to pay competitive wages in order to secure the staff needed to fulfil centre mandates.

Basically if universities are to be successful in holding big data companies to account they’ll need to incubate quasi-NGOs and let them loose under the university’s auspice. It is, however, worth asking whether this should be the goal of the university in the first place: should society be outsourcing a large amount of the ‘transparency research’ that is designed to have policy impact or guide evidence-based policy making to academics, or should we instead bolster the capacities of government departments and regulatory agencies to undertake these activities

Put differently, and in context with Tworek’s argument: I think that assuming that PhDs holders working as faculty in universities are the solution to analysing data released by corporations can only hold if you happen to (a) hold or aspire to hold a PhD; (b) possesses or aspire to possess a research-focused tenure track job.

I don’t think that either (a) or (b) should guide the majority of the way forward in developing policy proposals as they pertain to holding corporations to account.

Do faculty have a role in holding companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Netflix to account? You bet. But if the university, and university researchers, are going to seriously get involved in using data released by companies to hold them to account and have policy impact, then I think we need dedicated and focused researchers. Faculty who are torn between teaching, writing and publishing in inaccessible locations using baroque theoretical lenses, pursuing funding opportunities and undertaking large amounts of department service and performing graduate student supervision are just not going to be sufficient to address the task at hand.


  1. In the interests of disclosure, I currently hold one of these roles. ↩︎
  2. Again in the interests of disclosure, this is the kind of place I currently work at. ↩︎
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Digital Currency Standards Heat Up

There is an ongoing debate as to which central banks will launch digital currencies, by which date, and how currencies will be interoperable with one another. Simon Sharwood, writing for The Register, is reporting that China’s Digital Yuan is taking big steps to answering many of those questions:

According to an account of the meeting in state-controlled media, Fan said standardization across payment systems will be needed to ensure the success of the Digital Yuan.

The kind of standardization he envisioned is interoperability between existing payment systems – whether they use QR codes, NFC or Bluetooth.

That’s an offer AliPay and WeChat Pay can’t refuse, unless they want Beijing to flex its regulatory muscles and compel them to do it.

With millions of payment terminals outside China already set up for AliPay and WeChat Pay, and the prospect of the Digital Yuan being accepted in the very same devices, Beijing has the beginnings of a global presence for its digital currency.

When I walk around my community I very regularly see options to use AliPay or WeChat Pay, and see many people using these options. The prospect that the Chinese government might be able to take advantage of existing payment structures to also use a government-associated digital fiat currency would be a remarkable manoeuvre that could theoretically occur quite quickly. I suspect that when/if some Western politicians catch wind of this they will respond quickly and bombastically.

Other governments’ central banks should, ideally, be well underway in developing the standards for their own digital fiat currencies. These standards should be put into practice in a meaningful way to assess their strengths and correct their deficiencies. Governments that are not well underway in launching such digital currencies are running the risk of seeing some of their population move away from domestically-controlled currencies, or basket currencies where the state determines what composes the basket, to currencies managed by foreign governments. This would represent a significant loss of policy capacity and, arguably, economic sovereignty for at least some states.

Why might some members of their population shift over to, say, the Digital Yuan? In the West this might occur when individuals are travelling abroad, where WeChat Pay and AliPay infrastructure is often more usable and more secure than credit card infrastructures. After using these for a while the same individuals may continuing to use those payment methods for ease and low cost when they return home. In less developed parts of the world, where AliPay and WeChat Pay are already becoming dominant, it could occur as members of the population continue their shift to digital transactions and away from currencies controlled or influenced by their governments. The effect would be, potentially, to provide a level of influence to the Chinese government while potentially exposing sensitive macro-economic consumer habits that could be helpful in developing Chinese economic, industrial, or foreign policy.

Western government responses might be to bar the use of the Digital Yuan in their countries but this could be challenging should it rely on common standards with AliPay and WeChat Pay. Could a ban surgically target the Digital Yuan or, instead, would it need to target all payment terminals using the same standard and, thus, catch AliPay and WeChat Pay as collateral damage? What if a broader set of states all adopt common standards, which happen to align with the Digital Yuan, and share infrastructure: just how many foreign and corporate currencies could be disabled without causing a major economic or diplomatic incident? To what extent would such a ban create a globally bifurcated (trifurcated? quadfurcated?) digital payment environment?

Though some governments might regard this kind of ‘burn them all’ approach as desirable there would be an underlying question of whether such an effect would be reasonable and proportionate. We don’t ban WeChat in the West, as an example, in part due to such an action being manifestly disproportionate to risks associated with the communications platform. It is hard to imagine how banning the Digital Yuan, along with WeChat Pay or AliPay or other currencies using the same standards, might not be similarly disproportionate where such a decision would detrimentally affect hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people and businesses that already use these payment systems or standards. It will be fascinating to see how Western central banks move forward to address the rise of digital fiat currencies and, also, how their efforts intersect with the demands and efforts of Western politicians that regularly advocate for anti-China policies and laws.

Tech for Whom?

Charley Johnson has a good line of questions and critique for any organization or group which is promoting a ‘technology for good’ program. The crux is that any and all techno-utopian proposals suggest a means of technology to solve a problem as defined by the party making the proposal. Put another way, these kinds of solutions do not tend to solve real underlying problems but, instead, solve the ‘problems’ for which hucksters have build a pre-designed a ‘solution’.

This line of analysis isn’t new, per se, and follows in a long line of equity, social justice, feminism, and critical theory writers. Still, Johnson does a good job in extracting key issues with techno-utopianism. Key, is that any of these solutions tend to present a ‘tech for good’ mindset that:

… frames the problem in such a way that launders the interests, expertise, and beliefs of technologists…‘For good’ is problematic because it’s self-justifying. How can I question or critique the technology if it’s ‘for good’? But more importantly, nine times out of ten ‘for good’ leads to the definition of a problem that requires a technology solution.

One of the things that we are seeing more commonly is the use of data, in and of itself, as something that can be used for good: data for good initiatives are cast as being critical to solving climate change, making driving safer, or automating away the messier parties of our lives. Some of these arguments are almost certainly even right! However, the proposed solutions tend to rely on collecting, using, or disclosing data—derived from individuals’ and communities’ activities—without obtaining their informed, meaningful, and ongoing consent. ‘Data for good’ depends, first and often foremost, on removing the agency to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a given ‘solution’.

In the Canadian context efforts to enable ‘good’ uses of data have emerged through successively introduced pieces of commercial privacy legislation. The legislation would permit the disclosure of de-identified personal information for “socially beneficial purposes.” Information could be disclosed to government, universities, public libraries, health care institutions, organizations mandated by the government to carry out a socially beneficial purpose, and other prescribed entities. Those organizations could use the data for a purpose related to health, the provision or improvement of public amenities or infrastructure, the protection of the environment or any other prescribed purpose.

Put slightly differently, whereas Johnson’s analysis is towards a broad concept of ‘data for good’ in tandem with elucidating examples, the Canadian context threatens to see broad-based techno-utopian uses of data enabled at the legislative level. The legislation includes the ability to expand whom can receive de-identified data and the range of socially beneficial uses, with new parties and uses being defined by regulation. While there are a number of problems with these kinds of approaches—which include the explicit removal of consent of individuals and communities to having their data used in ways they may actively disapprove of—at their core the problems are associated with power: the power of some actors to unilaterally make non-democratic decisions that will affect other persons or communities.

This capacity to invisibly express power over others is the crux of most utopian fantasies. In such fantasies, power relationships are resolved in the absence of making them explicit and, in the process, an imaginary is created wherein social ills are fixed as a result of power having been hidden away. Decision making in a utopia is smooth and efficient, and the power asymmetries which enable such situations is either hidden away or just not substantively discussed.

Johnson’s article concludes with a series of questions that act to re-surface issues of power vis-a-vis explicitly raising questions of agency and the origin and nature of the envisioned problem(s) and solution(s):

Does the tool increase the self-determination and agency of the poor?

Would the tool be tolerated if it was targeted at non-poor people?

What problem does the tool purport to solve and who defined that problem?

How does the way they frame the problem shape our understanding of it?

What might the one framing the problem gain from solving it?

We can look to these questions as, at their core, raising issues of power—who is involved in determining how agency is expressed, who has decision-making capabilities in defining problems and solutions—and, through them, issues of inclusion and equity. Implicit through his writing, at least to my eye, is that these decisions cannot be assigned to individuals but to individuals and their communities.

One of the great challenges for modern democratic rule making is that we must transition from imagining political actors as rational, atomic, subjects to ones that are seen as embedded in their community. Individuals are formed by their communities, and vice versa, simultaneously. This means that we need to move away from traditional liberal or communitarian tropes to recognize the phenomenology of living in society, alone and together simultaneously, while also recognizing and valuing the tilting power and influence of ‘non-rational’ aspects of life that give life much of its meaning and substance. These elements of life are most commonly those demonized or denigrated by techno-utopians on the basis that technology is ‘rational’ and is juxtaposed against the ‘irrationality’ of how humans actually live and operate in the world.

Broad and in conclusion, then, techno-utopianism is functionally an issue of power and domination. We see ‘tech bros’ and traditional power brokers alike advancing solutions to their perceived problems, and this approach may be further reified should legislation be passed to embed this conceptual framework more deeply into democratic nation-states. What is under-appreciated is that while such legislative efforts may make certain techno-utopian activities lawful the subsequent actions will not, as a result, necessarily be regarded as legitimate by those affected by the lawful ‘socially beneficial’ uses of de-identified personal data.

The result? At best, ambivalence that reflects the population’s existing alienation from democratic structures of government. More likely, however, is that lawful but illegitimate expressions of ‘socially beneficial’ uses of data will further delegitimize the actions and capabilities of the states, with the effect of further weakening the perceived inclusivity of our democratic traditions.

Adding Context to Facebook’s CSAM Reporting

In early 2021, John Buckley, Malia Andrus, and Chris Williams published an article entitled, “Understanding the intentions of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) sharers” on Meta’s research website. They relied on information that Facebook/Meta had submitted to NCMEC to better understand why individuals they reported had likely shared illegal content.

The issue of CSAM on Facebook’s networks has risen in prominence following a report in 2019 in the New York Times. That piece indicated that Facebook was responsible for reporting the vast majority of the 45 million online photos and videos of children being sexually abused online. Ever since, Facebook has sought to contextualize the information it discloses to NCMEC and explain the efforts it has put in place to prevent CSAM from appearing on its services.

So what was the key finding from the research?

We evaluated 150 accounts that we reported to NCMEC for uploading CSAM in July and August of 2020 and January 2021, and we estimate that more than 75% of these did not exhibit malicious intent (i.e. did not intend to harm a child), but appeared to share for other reasons, such as outrage or poor humor. While this study represents our best understanding, these findings should not be considered a precise measure of the child safety ecosystem.

This finding is significant, as it quickly becomes suggestive that the mass majority of the content reported by Facebook—while illegal!—is not deliberately being shared for malicious purposes. Even if we assume that the number sampled should be adjusted—perhaps only 50% of individuals were malicious—we are still left with a significant finding.

There are, of course, limitations to the research. First, it excludes all end-to-end encrypted messages. So there is some volume of content that cannot be detected using these methods. Second, it remains unclear how scientifically robust it was to choose the selected 150 accounts for analysis. Third, and related, there is a subsequent question of whether the selected accounts are necessarily representative of the broader pool of accounts that are associated with distributing CSAM.

Nevertheless, this seeming sleeper-research hit has significant implications insofar as it would compress the number of problematic accounts/individuals disclosing CSAM to other parties. Clearly more work along this line is required, ideally across Internet platforms, in order to add further context and details to the extent of the CSAM problem and subsequently define what policy solutions are necessary and proportionate.

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Vulnerability Exploitability eXchange (VEX)

CISA has a neat bit of work they recently published, entitled “Vulnerability Exploitability eXchange (VEX) – Status Justifications” (warning: opens to .pdf.).1 Product security teams that adopt VEX could assert the status of specific vulnerabilities in their products. As a result, clients’ security staff could allocate time to remediate actionable vulnerabilities instead of burning time on potential vulnerabilities that product security teams have already closed off or mitigated.

There are a number of different machine-readable status types that are envisioned, including:

  • Component_not_present
  • Vulnerable_code_not_present
  • Vulnerable_code_cannot_be_controlled_by_adversary
  • Vulnerable_code_not_in_execute_path
  • Inline_mitigations_already_exist

CISA’s publication spells out what each status entails in more depth and includes diagrams to help readers understand what is envisioned. However, those same readers need to pay attention to a key caveat, namely, “[t]his document will not address chained attacks involving future or unknown risks as it will be considered out of scope.” Put another way, VEX is used to assess known vulnerabilities and attacks. It should not be relied upon to predict potential threats based on not-yet-public attacks nor new ways of chaining known vulnerabilities. Thus, while it would be useful to ascertain if a product is vulnerable to EternalBlue, today, it would not be useful to predict or assess the exploited vulnerabilities prior to EternalBlue having been made public nor new or novel ways of exploiting the vulnerabilities underlying EternalBlue. In effect, then, VEX is meant to address the known risks associated with N-Days as opposed to risks linked with 0-Days or novel ways of exploiting N-Days.2

For VEX to best work there should be some kind of surrounding policy requirements, such as when/if a supplier falsely (as opposed to incorrectly) asserts the security properties of its product there should be some disciplinary response. This can take many forms and perhaps the easiest relies on economics and not criminal sanction: federal governments or major companies will decline to do business with a vendor found to have issued a deceptive VEX, and may have financial recourse based on contactual terms with the product’s vendor. When or if this economic solution fails then it might be time to turn to legal venues and, if existent approaches prove insufficient, potentially even introduce new legislation designed to further discipline bad actors. However, as should be apparent, there isn’t a demonstrable requirement to introduce legislation to make VEX actionable.

I think that VEX continues work under the current American administration to advance a number of good policies that are meant to better secure products and systems. VEX works hand-in-hand with SBOMs and, also, may be supported by US Executive Orders around cybersecurity.

While Canada may be ‘behind’ the United States we can see that things are potentially shifting. There is currently a consultation underway to regenerate Canada’s cybersecurity strategy and infrastructure security legislation was introduced just prior to Parliament rising for its summer break. Perhaps, in a year’s time, we’ll see stronger and bolder efforts by the Canadian government to enhance infrastructure security with some small element of that recommending the adoption of VEXes. At the very least the government won’t be able to say they lack the legislative tools or strategic direction to do so.


  1. You can access a locally hosted version if the CISA link fails. ↩︎
  2. For a nice discussion of why N-days are regularly more dangerous then 0-Days, see: “N-Days: The Overlooked Cyber Threat for Utilities.” ↩︎
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Housing in Ottawa Now a National Security Issue

David Pugliese is reporting in the Ottawa Citizen that the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCOM) is “trying to avoid posting junior staff to Ottawa because it has become too expensive to live in the region.” The risk is that financial hardship associated with living in Ottawa could make junior members susceptible to subversion. Housing costs in Ottawa have risen much faster than either wage increases or inflation. Moreover, the special allowance provided to staff that is meant to assauge the high costs of living in Canadian cities has been frozen for 13 years.

At this point energy, telecommunications, healthcare, and housing all raise their own national security concerns. To some extent, such concerns have tracked with these industry categories: governments have always worried about the security of telecommunications networks as well as the availability of sufficient energy supplies. But in other cases, such as housing affordability, the national security concerns we are seeing are the result of long-term governance failures. These failures have created new national security threats that would not exist in the face of good (or even just better) governance.1

There is a profound danger in trying to address all the new national security challenges and issues using national security tools or governance processes. National security incidents are often regarded as creating moments of exception and, in such moments, actions can be undertaken that otherwise could not. The danger is that states of exception become the norm and, in the process, the regular modes of governance and law are significantly set aside to resolve the crises of the day. What is needed is a regeneration and deployment of traditional governance capacity instead of a routine reliance on national security-type responses to these issues.

Of course, governments don’t just need to respond to these metastasized governance problems in order to alleviate national security issues and threats. They need to do so, in equable and inclusive ways, so as to preserve or (re)generate the trust between the residents of Canada and their government.

The public may justifiably doubt that their system of government is working where successive governments under the major political parties are seen as having failed to provide for basic needs. The threat, then, is that ongoing governance failures run the risk of placing Canada’s democracy under pressure. While this might seem overstated I don’t think that’s the case: we are seeing a rise of politicians who are capitalizing on the frustrations and challenges faced by Canadians across the country, but who do not have their own solutions. Capitalizing on rage and frustration, and then failing to deliver on fixes, will only further alienate Canadians from their government.

Governments across Canada flexed their muscles during the earlier phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having used them, then, it’s imperative they keep flexing these muscles to address the serious issues that Canadians are experiencing. Doing so will assuage existent national security issues. It will also, simultaneously, serve to prevent other normal governance challenges from metastasizing into national security threats.


  1. As an aside, these housing challenges are not necessarily new. Naval staff posted to Esquimalt have long complained about the high costs of off-base housing in Victoria and the surrounding towns and cities. ↩︎
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A Brief Unpacking of a Declaration on the Future of the Internet

Cameron F. Kerry has a helpful piece in Brookings that unpacks the recently published ‘Declaration on the Future of the Internet.’ As he explains, the Declaration was signed by 60 States and is meant, in part, to rebut a China-Russia joint statement. Those countries’ statement would support their positions on ‘securing’ domestic Internet spaces and removing Internet governance from multi-stakeholder forums to State-centric ones.

So far, so good. However, baked into the Kerry’s article is language suggesting that either he misunderstands, or understates, some of the security-related elements of the Declaration. He writes:

There are additional steps the U.S. government can take that are more within its control than the actions and policies of foreign states or international organizations. The future of the Internet declaration contains a series of supporting principles and measures on freedom and human rights, Internet governance and access, and trust in use of digital network technology. The latter—trust in the use of network technology— is included to “ensure that government and relevant authorities’ access to personal data is based in law and conducted in accordance with international human rights law” and to “protect individuals’ privacy, their personal data, the confidentiality of electronic communications and information on end-users’ electronic devices, consistent with the protection of public safety and applicable domestic and international law.” These lay down a pair of markers for the U.S. to redeem.

I read this, against the 2019 Ministerial and recent Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention updates, and see that a vast swathe of new law enforcement and security agency powers would be entirely permissible based on Kerry’s assessment of the Declaration and States involved in signing it. While these new powers have either been agreed to, or advanced by, signatory States they have simultaneously been directly opposed by civil and human rights campaigners, as well as some national courts. Specifically, there are live discussions around the following powers:

  • the availability of strong encryption;
  • the guarantee that the content of communications sent using end-to-end encrypted devices cannot be accessed or analyzed by third-parties (include by on-device surveillance);
  • the requirement of prior judicial authorization to obtain subscriber information; and
  • the oversight of preservation and production powers by relevant national judicial bodies.

Laws can be passed that see law enforcement interests supersede individuals’ or communities’ rights in safeguarding their devices, data, and communications from the State. When or if such a situation occurs, the signatories of the Declaration can hold fast in their flowery language around protecting rights while, at the same time, individuals and communities experience heightened surveillance of, and intrusions into, their daily lives.

In effect, a lot of international policy and legal infrastructure has been built to facilitate sweeping new investigatory powers and reforms to how data is, and can be, secured. It has taken years to build this infrastructure and as we leave the current stage of the global pandemic it is apparent that governments have continued to press ahead with their efforts to expand the powers which could be provided to law enforcement and security agencies, notwithstanding the efforts of civil and human rights campaigners around the world.

The next stage of things will be to asses how, and in what ways, international agreements and legal infrastructure will be brought into national legal systems and to determine where to strategically oppose the worst of the over reaches. While it’s possible that some successes are achieved in resisting the expansions of state powers not everything will be resisted. The consequence will be both to enhance state intrusions into private lives as well as to weaken the security provided to devices and data, with the resultant effect of better enabling criminals to illicitly access or manipulate our personal information.

The new world of enhanced surveillance and intrusions is wholly consistent with the ‘Declaration on the Future of the Internet.’ And that’s a big, glaring, and serious problem with the Declaration.

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The Broader Implications of Data Breaches

Ikea Canada notified approximately 95,000 Canadian customers in recent weeks about a data breach the company has suffered. An Ikea employee conducted a series of searches between March 1 to March 3 which surfaced the account records of the aforementioned customers.1

While Ikea promised that financial information–credit card and banking information–hadn’t been revealed a raft of other personal information had been. That information included:

  • full first and last name;
  • postal code or home address;
  • phone number and other contact information;
  • IKEA loyalty number.

Ikea did not disclose who specifically accessed the information nor their motivations for doing so.

The notice provided by Ikea was better than most data breach alerts insofar as it informed customers what exactly had been accessed. For some individuals, however, this information is highly revelatory and could cause significant concern.

For example, imagine a case where someone has previously been the victim of either physical or digital stalking. Should their former stalker be an Ikea employee the data breach victim may ask whether their stalker now has confidential information that can be used to renew, or further amplify, harmful activities. With the customer information in hand, as an example, it would be relatively easy for a stalker to obtain more information such as where precisely someone lived. If they are aggrieved then they could also use the information to engage in digital harassment or threatening behaviour.

Without more information about the motivations behind why the Ikea employee searched the database those who have been stalked or had abusive relations with an Ikea employee might be driven to think about changing how they live their lives. They might feel the need to change their safety habits, get new phone numbers, or cycle to a new email. In a worst case scenario they might contemplate vacating their residence for a time. Even if they do not take any of these actions they might experience a heightened sense of unease or anxiety.

Of course, Ikea is far from alone in suffering these kinds of breaches. They happen on an almost daily basis for most of us, whether we’re alerted of the breach or not. Many news reports about such breaches focus on whether there is an existent or impending financial harm and stop the story there. The result is that journalist reporting can conceal some of the broader harms linked with data breaches.

Imagine a world where our personal information–how you can call us or find our homes–was protected equivalent to how our credit card numbers are current protected. In such a world stalkers and other abusive actors might be less able to exploit stolen or inappropriately accessed information. Yes, there will always be ways by which bad actors can operate badly, but it would be possible to mitigate some of the ways this badness can take place.

Companies could still create meaningful consent frameworks whereby some (perhaps most!) individuals could agree to have their information stored by the company. But, for those who have a different risk threshold they could make a meaningful choice so they could still make purchases and receive deliveries without, at the same time, permanently increasing the risks that their information might fall into the wrong hand. However, getting to this point requires expanded threat modelling: we can’t just worry about a bad credit card purchase but, instead, would need to take seriously the gendered and intersectional nature of violence and its intersection with cybersecurity practices.


  1. In the interests of disclosure, I was contacted as an affected party by Ikea Canada. ↩︎
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Messaging Interoperability and Client Security

Eric Rescorla has a thoughtful and nuanced assessment of recent EU proposals which would compel messaging companies to make their communications services interoperable. To his immense credit he spends time walking the reader through historical and contemporary messaging systems in order to assess the security issues prospectively associated with requiring interoperability. It’s a very good, and compact, read on a dense and challenging subject.

I must admit, however, that I’m unconvinced that demanding interoperability will have only minimal security implications. While much of the expert commentary has focused on whether end-to-end encryption would be compromised I think that too little time has been spent considering the client-end side of interoperable communications. So if we assume it’s possible to facilitate end-to-end communications across messaging companies and focus just on clients receiving/sending communications, what are some risks?1

As it stands, today, the dominant messaging companies have large and professional security teams. While none of these teams are perfect, as shown by the success of cyber mercenary companies such as NSO group et al, they are robust and constantly working to improve the security of their products. The attacks used by groups such as NSO, Hacking Team, Candiru, FinFisher, and such have not tended to rely on breaking encryption. Rather, they have sought vulnerabilities in client devices. Due to sandboxing and contemporary OS security practices this has regularly meant successfully targeting a messaging application and, subsequently, expanding a foothold on the device more generally.

In order for interoperability to ‘work’ properly there will need to be a number of preconditions. As noted in Rescorla’s post, this may include checking what functions an interoperable client possesses to determine whether ‘standard’ or ‘enriched’ client services are available. Moreover, APIs will need to be (relatively) stable or rely on a standardized protocol to facilitate interoperability. Finally, while spam messages are annoying on messaging applications today, they may become even more commonplace where interoperability is required and service providers cannot use their current processes to filter/quality check messages transiting their infrastructure.

What do all the aforementioned elements mean for client security?

  1. Checking for client functionality may reveal whether a targeted client possesses known vulnerabilities, either generally (following a patch update) or just to the exploit vendor (where they know of a vulnerability and are actively exploiting it). Where spam filtering is not great exploit vendors can use spam messaging as reconnaissance messaging with the service provider, client vendor, or client applications not necessarily being aware of the threat activity.
  2. When or if there is a significant need to rework how keying operates, or surveillance of identity properties more broadly that are linked to an API, then there is a risk that implementation of updates may be delayed until the revisions have had time to be adopted by clients. While this might be great for competition vis-a-vis interoperability it will, also, have the effect of signalling an oncoming change to threat actors who may accelerate activities to get footholds on devices or may warn these actors that they, too, need to update their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).
  3. As a more general point, threat actors might work to develop and propagate interoperable clients that they have, already, compromised–we’ve previously seen nation-state actors do so and there’s no reason to expect this behaviour to stop in a world of interoperable clients. Alternately, threat actors might try and convince targets to move to ‘better’ clients that contain known vulnerabilities but which are developed and made available by legitimate vendors. Whereas, today, an exploit developer must target specific messaging systems that deliver that systems’ messages, a future world of interoperable messaging will likely expand the clients that threat actors can seek to exploit.

One of the severe dangers and challenges facing the current internet regulation landscape has been that a large volume of new actors have entered the various overlapping policy fields. For a long time there’s not been that many of us and anyone who’s been around for 10-15 years tends to be suitably multidisciplinary that they think about how activities in policy domain X might/will have consequences for domains Y and Z. The new raft of politicians and their policy advisors, in contrast, often lack this broad awareness. The result is that proposals are being advanced around the world by ostensibly well-meaning individuals and groups to address issues associated with online harms, speech, CSAM, competition, and security. However, these same parties often lack awareness of how the solutions meant to solve their favoured policy problems will have effects on neighbouring policy issues. And, where they are aware, they often don’t care because that’s someone else’s policy domain.

It’s good to see more people participating and more inclusive policy making processes. And seeing actual political action on many issue areas after 10 years of people debating how to move forward is exciting. But too much of that action runs counter to the thoughtful warnings and need for caution that longer-term policy experts have been raising for over a decade.

We are almost certainly moving towards a ‘new Internet’. It remains in question, however, whether this ‘new Internet’ will see resolutions to longstanding challenges or if, instead, the rush to regulate will change the landscape by finally bringing to life the threats that long-term policy wonks have been working to forestall or prevent for much of their working lives. To date, I remain increasingly concerned that we will experience the latter than witness the former.


  1. For the record, I currently remain unconvinced it is possible to implement end-to-end encryption across platforms generally. ↩︎
Link

The Risks Linked With Canadian Cyber Operations in Ukraine

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Late last month, Global News published a story on how the Canadian government is involved in providing cyber support to the Ukrainian government in the face of Russia’s illegal invasion. While the Canadian military declined to confirm or deny any activities they might be involved in, the same was not true of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). The CSE is Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency. In addition to collecting intelligence, it is also mandated to defend Canadian federal systems and those designated as of importance to the government of Canada, provide assistance to other federal agencies, and conduct active and defensive cyber operations.1

From the Global News article it is apparent that the CSE is involved in both foreign intelligence operations as well as undertaking cyber defensive activities. Frankly these kinds of activity are generally, and persistently, undertaken with regard to the Russian government and so it’s not a surprise that these activities continue apace.

The CSE spokesperson also noted that the government agency is involved in ‘cyber operations’ though declined to explain whether these are defensive cyber operations or active cyber operations. In the case of the former, the Minister of National Defense must consult with the Minister of Foreign Affairs before authorizing an operation, whereas in the latter both Ministers must consent to an operation prior to it taking place. Defensive and active operations can assume the same form–roughly the same activities or operations might be undertaken–but the rationale for the activity being taken may vary based on whether it is cast as defensive or active (i.e., offensive).2

These kinds of cyber operations are the ones that most worry scholars and practitioners, on the basis that there is a risk that foreign operators or adversaries may misread a signal from a cyber operation or because the operation might have unintended consequences. Thus, the risk is that the operations that the CSE is undertaking run the risk of accidentally (or intentionally, I guess) escalating affairs between Canada and the Russian Federation in the midst of the shooting war between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

While there is, of course, a need for some operational discretion on the part of the Canadian government it is also imperative that the Canadian public be sufficiently aware of the government’s activities to understand the risks (or lack thereof) which are linked to the activities that Canadian agencies are undertaking. To date, the Canadian government has not released its cyber foreign policy doctrine nor has the Canadian Armed Forces released its cyber doctrine.3 The result is that neither Canadians nor Canada’s allies or adversaries know precisely what Canada will do in the cyber domain, how Canada will react when confronted, or the precise nature of Canada’s escalatory ladder. The government’s secrecy runs the risk of putting Canadians in greater jeopardy of a response from the Russian Federation (or other adversaries) without the Canadian public really understanding what strategic or tactical activities might be undertaken on their behalf.

Canadians have a right to know at least enough about what their government is doing to be able to begin assessing the risks linked with conducting operations during an active militant conflict against an adversary with nuclear weapons. Thus far such information has not been provided. The result is that Canadians are ill-prepared to assess the risk that they may be quietly and quickly drawn into the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Such secrecy bodes poorly for being able to hold government to account, to say nothing of preventing Canadians from appreciating the risk that they could become deeply drawn into a very hot conflict scenario.


  1. For more on the CSE and the laws governing its activities, see “A Deep Dive into Canada’s Overhaul of Its Foreign Intelligence and Cybersecurity Laws.↩︎
  2. For more on this, see “Analysis of the Communications Security Establishment Act and Related Provisions in Bill C-59 (An Act respecting national security matters), First Reading (December 18, 2017)“, pp 27-32. ↩︎
  3. Not for lack of trying to access them, however, as in both cases I have filed access to information requests to the government for these documents 1 years ago, with delays expected to mean I won’t get the documents before the end of 2022 at best. ↩︎