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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. ↩︎
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The Risks Linked With Canadian Cyber Operations in Ukraine

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

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. ↩︎
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Ontario’s Path Towards Legitimizing Employee Surveillance

Earlier this week, the Ontario government declared that it would be introducing a series of labour reforms. As part of these reforms, employers will be required to inform their employees of how they are being electronically monitored. These requirements will be applied to all employers with 25 or more employees.

Employers already undertake workplace surveillance, though it has become more common and extensive as a result of the pandemic. Where surveillance is undertaken, however, businesses must seek out specialized counsel or services to craft appropriate labour policies or contracting language. This imposes costs and, also, means that different firms may provide slightly different information. The effect is that employers may be more cautious in what surveillance they adopt and be required to expend funds to obtain semi-boutique legal opinions.

While introducing legislation would seem to extend privacy protections for employees, as understood at the moment the reforms will only require a notification to employees of the relevant surveillance. It will not bar the surveillance itself. Further, with a law on the books it will likely be easier for Ontario consulting firms to provide pretty rote advice based on the legislative language. The result, I expect, will be to drive down the transaction costs in developing workplace surveillance policies at the same time that workplace surveillance technologies become more affordable and extensively deployed.

While I suspect that many will herald this law reform as positive for employees, on the basis that at least now they will know how they are being monitored, I am far less optimistic. The specificity of notice will matter, a lot, and unless great care is taken in drafting the legislation employers will obtain a significant degree of latitude in the actual kinds of intrusive surveillance that can be used. Moreover, unless required in legislative language, we can expect employers to conceal the specific modes of surveillance on grounds of needing to protect the methods for operational business reasons. This latter element is of particular concern given that major companies, including office productivity companies like Microsoft, are baking extensive workplace surveillance functionality into their core offerings. Ontario’s reforms are not, in fact, good for employees but are almost certain to be a major boon for their employers.

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Europe Planning A DNS Infrastructure With Built-In Filtering

Catalin Cimpanu, reporting for The Record, has found that the European Union wants to build a recursive DNS service that will be available to EU institutions and the European public. The reasons for building the service are manifold, including concerns that American DNS providers are not GDPR compliant and worries that much of Europe is dependent on (largely) American-based or -owned infrastructure.

As part of the European system, plans are for it to:

… come with built-in filtering capabilities that will be able to block DNS name resolutions for bad domains, such as those hosting malware, phishing sites, or other cybersecurity threats.

This filtering capability would be built using threat intelligence feeds provided by trusted partners, such as national CERT teams, and could be used to defend organizations across Europe from common malicious threats.

It is unclear if DNS4EU usage would be mandatory for all EU or national government organizations, but if so, it would grant organizations like CERT-EU more power and the agility it needs to block cyber-attacks as soon as they are detected.

In addition, EU officials also want to use DNS4EU’s filtering system to also block access to other types of prohibited content, which they say could be done based on court orders. While officials didn’t go into details, this most likely refers to domains showing child sexual abuse materials and copyright-infringing (pirated) content.1

By integrating censorship/blocking provisions as the policy level of the European DNS, there is a real risk that over time that same system might be used for untoward ends. Consider the rise of anti-LGBTQ laws in Hungary and Poland, and how those governments mights be motivated to block access to ‘prohibited content’ that is identified as such by anti-LGBTQ politicians.

While a reader might hope that the European courts could knock down these kinds of laws, their recurrence alone raises the spectre that content that is deemed socially undesirable by parties in power could be censored, even where there are legitimate human rights grounds that justify accessing the material in question.


  1. Boldface not in original. ↩︎
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‘Efficiency’ and Basic Rights

Rest of the World has published a terrific piece on the state of surveillance in Singapore, where governmental efficiency drives technologies that are increasingly placing citizens and residents under excessive and untoward kinds of surveillance. The whole piece is worth reading, but I was particularly caught by a comment made by the deputy chief executive of the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore:

“In the U.S., there’s a very strong sense of building technology to hold the government accountable,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive … but I just didn’t think that was necessary in Singapore.

Better.sg, which has around 1,000 members, works in areas where the government can’t or won’t, Keerthi said. “We don’t talk about who’s responsible for the problem. We don’t talk about who is responsible for solving the problem. We just talk about: Can we pivot this whole situation? Can we flip it around? Can we fundamentally shift human behaviour to be better?” he said. 

… one app that had been under development was a ‘catch-a-predator’ chatbot, which parents would install on their childrens’ [sic] phones to monitor conversations. The concept of the software was to goad potential groomers into incriminating themselves, and report their activity to the police. 

“The government’s not going to build this. … It is hostile, it is almost borderline entrapment,” Keerthi said, matter-of-factly. “Are we solving a real social problem? Yeah. Are parents really thrilled about it? Yeah.”

It’s almost breathtaking to see a government official admit they want to develop tools that the government, itself, couldn’t create for legal reasons but that he hopes will be attractive to citizens and residents. While I’m clearly not condoning the social problem that he is seeking to solve, the solution to such problems should be within the four corners of law as opposed to outside of them. When government officials deliberately move outside of the legal strictures binding them they demonstrate a dismissal of basic rights and due process with regards to criminal matters.

While such efforts might be ‘efficient’ and normal within Singapore they cannot be said to conform with basic rights nor, ultimately, with a political structure that is inclusive and responsive to the needs of its population. Western politicians and policy wonks routinely, and wistfully, talk about how they wish they were as free to undertake policy experiments and deployments as their colleagues in Asia. Hopefully more of them will read pieces like this one to understand that the efficiencies they are so fond of would almost certainly herald the end of the very democratic systems they operate within and are meant to protect.

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Medical Photography is Failing Patients With Darker Skin

Georgina Gonzalez, reporting for the Verge:

Most clinical photos are taken by well-intentioned doctors who haven’t been trained in the nuances of photographing patients of different races. There are fundamental differences in the physics of how light interacts with different skin tones that can make documenting conditions on skin of color more difficult, says Chrystye Sisson, associate professor and chair of the photographic science program at Rochester Institute of Technology, the only such program in the nation. 

Interactions between light, objects, and our eyes allow us to perceive color. For instance, a red object absorbs every wavelength of light except red, which it reflects back into our eyes. The more melanin there is in the skin, the more light it absorbs, and the less light it reflects back.

But standard photographic setups don’t account for those differences.

One of the things that I routinely experience shooting street photography in a multicultural city is just how screwy camera defaults treat individuals of different racial backgrounds. And I’ve yet to find a single default that captures darker skin accurately despite shooting for many years.

Mandatory Patching of Serious Vulnerabilities in Government Systems

Photo by Mati Mango on Pexels.com

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is responsible for building national capacity to defend American infrastructure and cybersecurity assets. In the past year they have been tasked with receiving information about American government agencies’ progress (or lack thereof) in implementing elements of Executive Order 14028: Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity and have been involved in responses to a number of events, including Solar Winds, the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, and others. The Executive Order required that CISA first collect a large volume of information from government agencies and vendors alike to assess the threats towards government infrastructure and, subsequently, to provide guidance concerning cloud services, track the adoption of multi factor authentication and seek ways of facilitating its implementation, establish a framework to respond to security incidents, enhance CISA’s threat hunting abilities in government networks, and more.1

Today, CISA promulgated a binding operational directive that will require American government agencies to adopt more aggressive patch tempos for vulnerabilities. In addition to requiring agencies to develop formal policies for remediating vulnerabilities it establishes a requirement that vulnerabilities with a common vulnerabilities and exposure ID be remediated within 6 months, and all others with two weeks. Vulnerabilities to be patched/remediated are found in CISA’s “Known Exploited Vulnerabilities Catalogue.”

It’s notable that while patching is obviously preferred, the CISA directive doesn’t mandate patching but that ‘remediation’ take place.2 As such, organizations may be authorized to deploy defensive measures that will prevent the vulnerability from being exploited but not actually patch the underlying vulnerability, so as to avoid a patch having unintended consequences for either the application in question or for other applications/services that currently rely on either outdated or bespoke programming interfaces.

In the Canadian context, there aren’t equivalent levels of requirements that can be placed on Canadian federal departments. While Shared Services Canada can strongly encourage departments to patch, and the Treasury Board Secretariat has published a “Patch Management Guidance” document, and Canada’s Canadian Centre for Cyber Security has a suggested patch deployment schedule,3 final decisions are still made by individual departments by their respective deputy minister under the Financial Administration Act.

The Biden administration is moving quickly to accelerate its ability to identify and remediate vulnerabilities while simultaneously lettings its threat intelligence staff track adversaries in American networks. That last element is less of an issue in the Canadian context but the first two remain pressing and serious challenges.

While its positive to see the Americans moving quickly to improve their security positions I can only hope that the Canadian federal, and provincial, governments similarly clear long-standing logjams that delegate security decisions to parties who may be ill-suited to make optimal decisions, either out of ignorance or because patching systems is seen as secondary to fulfilling a given department’s primary service mandate.


  1. For a discussion of the Executive Order, see: “Initial Thoughts on Biden’s Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity” or “Everything You Need to Know About the New Executive Order on Cybersecurity.” ↩︎
  2. For more, see CISA’s “Vulnerability Remediation Requirements“. ↩︎
  3. “CCCS’s deployment schedule only suggests timelines for deployment. In actuality, an organization should take into consideration risk tolerance and exposure to a given vulnerability and associated attack vector(s) as part of a risk‑based approach to patching, while also fully considering their individual threat profile. Patch management tools continue to improve the efficiency of the process and enable organizations to hasten the deployment schedule.” Source: “Patch Management Guidance↩︎
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The Lawfare Dimension of Asymetrical Conflict

The past week has seen a logjam begin to clear in Canadian-Chinese-American international relations. After agreeing to the underlying facts associated with her (and Huawei’s) violation of American sanctions that have been placed on Iran, Meng Wanzhou was permitted to return to China after having been detained in Canada for several years. Simultaneously, two Canadian nationals who had been charged with national security crimes were themselves permitted to return to Canada on health-related grounds. The backstory is that these Canadians were seized shortly following the detainment of Huawei’s CFO, with the Chinese government repeatedly making clear that the Canadians were being held hostage and would only be released when the CFO was repatriated to China.

A huge amount of writing has taken place following the swap. But what I’ve found to be particular interesting in terms of offering a novel contribution to the discussions was an article by Julian Ku in Lawfare. In his article, “China’s Successful Foray Into Asymmetric Lawfare,” Ku argues that:

Although Canadians are relieved that their countrymen have returned home, the Chinese government’s use of its own weak legal system to carry out “hostage diplomacy,” combined with Meng’s exploitation of the procedural protections of the strong and independent Canadian and U.S. legal systems, may herald a new “asymmetric lawfare” strategy to counter the U.S. This strategy may prove an effective counter to the U.S. government’s efforts to use its own legal system to enforce economic sanctions, root out Chinese espionage, indict Chinese hackers, or otherwise counter the more assertive and threatening Chinese government.

I remain uncertain that this baseline premise, which undergirds the rest of his argument, holds true. In particular, his angle of analysis seems to set to the side, or not fully engage with, the following:

  1. China’s hostage taking has further weakened the trust that foreign companies will have in the Chinese government. They must now acknowledge, and build into their risk models, the possibility that their executives or employees could be seized should the Chinese government get into a diplomatic, political, or economic dispute with the country from which they operate.
  2. China’s blatant hostage taking impairs its world standing and has led to significant parts of the world shifting their attitudes towards the Chinese government. The results of these shifts are yet to be fully seen, but to date there have been doubts about entering into trade agreements with China, an increased solidarity amongst middle powers to resist what is seen as bad behaviour by China, and a push away from China and into the embrace of liberal democratic governments. This last point, in particular, runs counter to China’s long-term efforts to showcase its own style of governance as a genuine alternative to American and European models of democracy.
  3. Despite what has been written, I think that relying on hostage diplomacy associated with its weak rule of law showcases China’s comparatively weak hand. Relying on low rule of law to undertake lawfare endangers its international strategic interests, which rely on building international markets and being treated as a respectable and reputable partner on the world stage. Resorting to kidnapping impairs the government’s ability to demonstrate compliance with international agreements and fora so as to build out its international policies.

Of course, none of the above discounts the fact that the Chinese government did, in fact, exploit this ‘law asymmetry’ between its laws and those of high rule of law countries. And the Canadian government did act under duress as a result of their nationals having been taken hostage, including becoming a quiet advocate for Chinese interests insofar as Canadian diplomats sought a way for the US government to reach a compromise with Huawei/Meng so that Canada’s nationals could be returned home. And certainly the focus on relying on high rule of law systems can delay investigations into espionage or other illicit foreign activities and operations that are launched by the Chinese government. Nevertheless, neither the Canadian or American legal systems actually buckled under the foreign and domestic pressure to set aside the rule of law in favour of quick political ‘fixes.’

While there will almost certainly be many years of critique in Canada and the United States about how this whole affair was managed the fact will remain that both countries demonstrated that their justice systems would remain independent from the political matters of the day. And they did so despite tremendous pressure: from Trump, during his time as the president, and despite the Canadian government being subjected to considerable pressure campaigns by numerous former government officials who were supportive, for one reason or another, of the Chinese government’s position to return Huawei’s CFO.

While it remains to be written what the actual, ultimate, effect of this swap of Huawei’s CFO for two inappropriately detained Canadians will be, some lasting legacies may include diminished political capital for the Chinese government while, at the same time, a reinforcing of the trust that can be put in the American and Canadian (and, by extension, Western democratic) systems of justice. Should these legacies hold then China’s gambit will almost certainly prove to have backfired.

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The So-Called Privacy Problems with WhatsApp

(Photo by Anton on Pexels.com)

ProPublica, which is typically known for its excellent journalism, published a particularly terrible piece earlier this week that fundamentally miscast how encryption works and how Facebook vis-a-vis WhatsApp works to keep communications secured. The article, “How Facebook Undermines Privacy Protections for Its 2 Billion WhatsApp Users,” focuses on two so-called problems.

The So-Called Privacy Problems with WhatsApp

First, the authors explain that WhatsApp has a system whereby recipients of messages can report content they have received to WhatsApp on the basis that it is abusive or otherwise violates WhatsApp’s Terms of Service. The article frames this reporting process as a way of undermining privacy on the basis that secured messages are not kept solely between the sender(s) and recipient(s) of the communications but can be sent to other parties, such as WhatsApp. In effect, the ability to voluntarily forward messages to WhatsApp that someone has received is cast as breaking the privacy promises that have been made by WhatsApp.

Second, the authors note that WhatsApp collects a large volume of metadata in the course of using the application. Using lawful processes, government agencies have compelled WhatsApp to disclose metadata on some of their users in order to pursue investigations and secure convictions against individuals. The case that is focused on involves a government employee who leaked confidential banking information to Buzzfeed, and which were subsequently reported out.

Assessing the Problems

In the case of forwarding messages for abuse reporting purposes, encryption is not broken and the feature is not new. These kinds of processes offer a mechanism that lets individuals self-identify and report on problematic content. Such content can include child grooming, the communications of illicit or inappropriate messages or audio-visual content, or other abusive information.

What we do learn, however, is that the ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’ methods of detecting abuse need to be fixed. In the case of the former, only about 1,000 people are responsible for intaking and reviewing the reported content after it has first been filtered by an AI:

Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through streams of private messages, images and videos that have been reported by WhatsApp users as improper and then screened by the company’s artificial intelligence systems. These contractors pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.


Further, the employees are often reliant on machine learning-based translations of content which makes it challenging to assess what is, in fact, being communicated in abusive messages. As reported,

… using Facebook’s language-translation tool, which reviewers said could be so inaccurate that it sometimes labeled messages in Arabic as being in Spanish. The tool also offered little guidance on local slang, political context or sexual innuendo. “In the three years I’ve been there,” one moderator said, “it’s always been horrible.”

There are also proactive modes of watching for abusive content using AI-based systems. As noted in the article,

Artificial intelligence initiates a second set of queues — so-called proactive ones — by scanning unencrypted data that WhatsApp collects about its users and comparing it against suspicious account information and messaging patterns (a new account rapidly sending out a high volume of chats is evidence of spam), as well as terms and images that have previously been deemed abusive. The unencrypted data available for scrutiny is extensive. It includes the names and profile images of a user’s WhatsApp groups as well as their phone number, profile photo, status message, phone battery level, language and time zone, unique mobile phone ID and IP address, wireless signal strength and phone operating system, as a list of their electronic devices, any related Facebook and Instagram accounts, the last time they used the app and any previous history of violations.

Unfortunately, the AI often makes mistakes. This led one interviewed content reviewer to state that, “[t]here were a lot of innocent photos on there that were not allowed to be on there … It might have been a photo of a child taking a bath, and there was nothing wrong with it.” Often, “the artificial intelligence is not that intelligent.”

The vast collection of metadata has been a long-reported concern and issue associated with WhatsApp and, in fact, was one of the many reasons why many individuals advocate for the use of Signal instead. The reporting in the ProPublica article helpfully summarizes the vast amount of metadata that is collected but that collection, in and of itself, does not present any evidence that Facebook or WhatsApp have transformed the application into one which inappropriately intrudes into persons’ privacy.

ProPublica Sets Back Reasonable Encryption Policy Debates

The ProPublica article harmfully sets back broader policy discussion around what is, and is not, a reasonable approach for platforms to take in moderating abuse when they have integrated strong end-to-end encryption. Such encryption prevents unauthorized third-parties–inclusive of the platform providers themselves–from reading or analyzing the content of the communications themselves. Enabling a reporting feature means that individuals who receive a communication are empowered to report it to a company, and the company can subsequently analyze what has been sent and take action if the content violates a terms of service or privacy policy clause.

In suggesting that what WhatsApp has implemented is somehow wrong, it becomes more challenging for other companies to deploy similar reporting features without fearing that their decision will be reported on as ‘undermining privacy’. While there may be a valid policy discussion to be had–is a reporting process the correct way of dealing with abusive content and messages?–the authors didn’t go there. Nor did they seriously investigate whether additional resources should be adopted to analyze reported content, or talk with artificial intelligence experts or machine-based translation experts on whether Facebook’s efforts to automate the reporting process are adequate, appropriate, or flawed from the start. All those would be very interesting, valid, and important contributions to the broader discussion about integrating trust and safety features into encrypted messaging applications. But…those are not things that the authors choose to delve into.

The authors could have, also, discussed the broader importance (and challenges) in building out messaging systems that can deliberately conceal metadata, and the benefits and drawbacks of such systems. While the authors do discuss how metadata can be used to crack down on individuals in government who leak data, as well as assist in criminal investigations and prosecutions, there is little said about what kinds of metadata are most important to conceal and the tradeoffs in doing so. Again, there are some who think that all or most metadata should be concealed, and others who hold opposite views: there is room for a reasonable policy debate to be had and reported on.

Unfortunately, instead of actually taking up and reporting on the very valid policy discussions that are at the edges of their article, the authors choose to just be bombastic and asserted that WhatsApp was undermining the privacy protections that individuals thought they have when using the application. It’s bad reporting, insofar as it distorts the facts, and is particularly disappointing given that ProPublica has shown it has the chops to do good investigative work that is well sourced and nuanced in its outputs. This article, however, absolutely failed to make the cut.