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GDPR adtech complaints keep stacking up in Europe

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It’s a year since Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force and leaky adtech is now facing privacy complaints in four more European Union markets. This ups the tally to seven markets where data protection authorities have been urged to investigate a core function of behavioral advertising.

The latest clutch of GDPR complaints aimed at the real-time bidding (RTB) system have been filed in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain.

All the complaints argue that RTB entails “wide-scale and systemic” breaches of Europe’s data protection regime, as personal date harvested to profile Internet users for ad-targeting purposes is broadcast widely to bidders in the adtech chain. The complaints have implications for key adtech players, Google and the Internet Advertising Bureau, which set RTB standards used by other in the online adverting pipeline.

We’ve reached out to Google and IAB Europe for comment on the latest complaints. (The latter’s original response statement to the complaint can be found here, behind its cookie wall.)

The first RTB complaints were filed in the UK and Ireland, last fall, by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; and Michael Veale, a data and policy researcher at University College London.

A third complaint went in to Poland’s DPA in January, filed by anti-surveillance NGO, the Panoptykon Foundation.

The latest four complaints have been lodged in Spain by Gemma Galdon Clavell (Eticas Foundation) and Diego Fanjul (Finch); David Korteweg (Bits of Freedom) in the Netherlands; Jef Ausloos (University of Amsterdam) and Pierre Dewitte (University of Leuven) in Belgium; and Jose Belo (Exigo Luxembourg).

Earlier this year a lawyer working with the complainants said they’re expecting “a cascade of complaints” across Europe — and “fully expect an EU-wide regulatory response” give that the adtech in question is applied region-wide.

Commenting in a statement, Galdon Cavell, the CEO of Eticas, said: “We hope that this complaint sends a strong message to Google and those using Ad Tech solutions in their websites and products. Data protection is a legal requirement must be translated into practices and technical specifications.”

A ‘bug’ disclosed last week by Twitter illustrates the potential privacy risks around adtech, with the social networking platform revealing it had inadvertently shared some iOS users’ location data with an ad partner during the RTB process. (Less clear is who else might Twitter’s “trusted advertising partner” have passed people’s information to?)

The core argument underpinning the complaints is that RTB’s data processing is not secure — given the design of the system entails the broadcasting of (what can be sensitive and intimate) personal data of Internet users to all sorts of third parties in order to generate bids for ad space.

Whereas GDPR bakes in a requirement for personal data to be processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data”. So, uh, spot the disconnect.

The latest RTB complaints assert personal data is broadcast via bid requests “hundreds of billions of times” per day — which it describes as “the most massive leakage of personal data recorded so far”.

While the complaints focus on security risks attached by default to leaky adtech, such a long chain of third parties being passed people’s data also raises plenty of questions over the validity of any claimed ‘consents’ for passing Internet users’ data down the adtech chain. (Related: A decision by the French CNIL last fall against a small local adtech player which it decided was unlawfully processing personal data obtained via RTB.)

This week will mark a year since GDPR came into force across the EU. And it’s fair to say that privacy complaints have been piling up, while enforcement actions — such as a $57M fine for Google from the French CNIL related to Android consent — remain far rarer.

One complexity with the RTB complaints is that the technology systems in question are both applied across EU borders and involve multiple entities (Google and the IAB). This means multiple privacy watchdogs need to work together to determine which of them is legally competent to address linked complaints that touch EU citizens in multiple countries.

Who leads can depend on where an entity has its main establishment in the EU and/or who is the data controller. If this is not clearly established it’s possible that various national actions could flow from the complaints, given the cross-border nature of the adtech — as in the CNIL decision against Android, for example. (Though Google made a policy change as of January 22, shifting its legal base for EU law enforcement to Google Ireland which looks intended to funnel all GDPR risk via the Irish DPC.)

The IAB Europe, meanwhile, has an office in Belgium but it’s not clear whether that’s the data controller in this case. Ausloos tells us that the Belgian DPA has already declared itself competent regarding the complaint filed against the IAB by the Panoptykon Foundation, while noting another possibility — that the IAB claims the data controller is IAB Tech Lab, based in New York — “in which case any and all DPAs across the EU would be competent”.

Veale also says different DPAs could argue that different parts of the IAB are in their jurisdiction. “We don’t know how the IAB structure really works, it’s very opaque,” he tells us.

The Irish DPC, which Google has sought to designate the lead watchdog for its European business, has said it will prioritize scrutiny of the adtech sector in 2019, referencing the RTB complaints in its annual report earlier this year — where it warned the industry: “the protection of personal data is a prerequisite to the processing of any personal data within this ecosystem and ultimately the sector must comply with the standards set down by the GDPR”.

There’s no update on how the UK’s ICO is tackling the RTB complaint filed in the UK as yet — but Veale notes they have a call today. (And we’ve reached out to the ICO for comment.)

So far the same RTB complaints have not been filed in France and Germany — jurisdictions with privacy watchdogs that can have a reputation for some of the most muscular action enforcing data protection in Europe.

Although the Belgian DPA’s recently elected new president is making muscular noises about GDPR enforcement, according to Ausloos — who cites a speech he made, post-election, saying the ‘time of sit back and relax’ is over. They made sure to reference these comments in the RTB complaint, he adds.

Veale suggests the biggest blocker to resolving the RTB complaints is that all the various EU watchdogs “need a vision of what the world looks like after they take a given action”.

In the meanwhile, the adtech complaints keep stacking up.

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New Bluetooth hack can unlock your Tesla—and all kinds of other devices

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When you use your phone to unlock a Tesla, the device and the car use Bluetooth signals to measure their proximity to each other. Move close to the car with the phone in hand, and the door automatically unlocks. Move away, and it locks. This proximity authentication works on the assumption that the key stored on the phone can only be transmitted when the locked device is within Bluetooth range.

Now, a researcher has devised a hack that allows him to unlock millions of Teslas—and countless other devices—even when the authenticating phone or key fob is hundreds of yards or miles away. The hack, which exploits weaknesses in the Bluetooth Low Energy standard adhered to by thousands of device makers, can be used to unlock doors, open and operate vehicles, and gain unauthorized access to a host of laptops and other security-sensitive devices.

When convenience comes back to bite us

“Hacking into a car from hundreds of miles away tangibly demonstrates how our connected world opens us up to threats from the other side of the country—and sometimes even the other side of the world,” Sultan Qasim Khan, a principal security consultant and researcher at security firm NCC Group, told Ars. “This research circumvents typical countermeasures against remote adversarial vehicle unlocking and changes the way we need to think about the security of Bluetooth Low Energy communications.”

This class of hack is known as a relay attack, a close cousin of the person-in-the-middle attack. In its simplest form, a relay attack requires two attackers. In the case of the locked Tesla, the first attacker, which we’ll call Attacker 1, is in close proximity to the car while it’s out of range of the authenticating phone. Attacker 2, meanwhile, is in close proximity to the legitimate phone used to unlock the vehicle. Attacker 1 and Attacker 2 have an open Internet connection that allows them to exchange data.

Attacker 1 uses her own Bluetooth-enabled device to impersonate the authenticating phone and sends the Tesla a signal, prompting the Tesla to reply with an authentication request. Attacker 1 captures the request and sends it to Attacker 2, who in turn forwards the request to the authenticating phone. The phone responds with a credential, which Attacker 2 promptly captures and relays back to Attacker 1. Attacker 1 then sends the credential to the car.

With that, Attacker 1 has now unlocked the vehicle. Here’s a simplified attack diagram, taken from the above-linked Wikipedia article, followed by a video demonstration of Khan unlocking a Tesla and driving away with it, even though the authorized phone isn’t anywhere nearby.

Wikipedia

NCC Group demo Bluetooth Low Energy link layer relay attack on Tesla Model Y.

Relay attacks in the real world need not have two actual attackers. The relaying device can be stashed in a garden, coat room, or other out-of-the-way place at a home, restaurant, or office. When the target arrives at the destination and moves into Bluetooth range of the stashed device, it retrieves the secret credential and relays it to the device stationed near the car (operated by Attacker 1).

The susceptibility of BLE, short for Bluetooth Low Energy, to relay attacks is well known, so device makers have long relied on countermeasures to prevent the above scenario from occurring. One defense is to measure the flow of the requests and responses and reject authentications when the latency reaches a certain threshold, since relayed communications generally take longer to complete than legitimate ones. Another protection is encrypting the credential sent by the phone.

Khan’s BLE relay attack defeats these mitigations, making such hacks viable against a large base of devices and products previously assumed to be hardened against such attacks.

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Researchers devise iPhone malware that runs even when device is turned off

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Classen et al.

When you turn off an iPhone, it doesn’t fully power down. Chips inside the device continue to run in a low-power mode that makes it possible to locate lost or stolen devices using the Find My feature or use credit cards and car keys after the battery dies. Now researchers have devised a way to abuse this always-on mechanism to run malware that remains active even when an iPhone appears to be powered down.

It turns out that the iPhone’s Bluetooth chip—which is key to making features like Find My work—has no mechanism for digitally signing or even encrypting the firmware it runs. Academics at Germany’s Technical University of Darmstadt figured out how to exploit this lack of hardening to run malicious firmware that allows the attacker to track the phone’s location or run new features when the device is turned off.

This video provides a high overview of some of the ways an attack can work.

[Paper Teaser] Evil Never Sleeps: When Wireless Malware Stays On After Turning Off iPhones

The research is the first—or at least among the first—to study the risk posed by chips running in low-power mode. Not to be confused with iOS’s low-power mode for conserving battery life, the low-power mode (LPM) in this research allows chips responsible for near-field communication, ultra wideband, and Bluetooth to run in a special mode that can remain on for 24 hours after a device is turned off.

“The current LPM implementation on Apple iPhones is opaque and adds new threats,” the researchers wrote in a paper published last week. “Since LPM support is based on the iPhone’s hardware, it cannot be removed with system updates. Thus, it has a long-lasting effect on the overall iOS security model. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first who looked into undocumented LPM features introduced in iOS 15 and uncover various issues.”

They added: “Design of LPM features seems to be mostly driven by functionality, without considering threats outside of the intended applications. Find My after power off turns shutdown iPhones into tracking devices by design, and the implementation within the Bluetooth firmware is not secured against manipulation.”

The findings have limited real-world value since infections required a jailbroken iPhone, which in itself is a difficult task, particularly in an adversarial setting. Still, targeting the always-on feature in iOS could prove handy in post-exploit scenarios by malware such as Pegasus, the sophisticated smartphone exploit tool from Israel-based NSO Group, which governments worldwide routinely employ to spy on adversaries.
It may also be possible to infect the chips in the event hackers discover security flaws that are susceptible to over-the-air exploits similar to this one that worked against Android devices.

Besides allowing malware to run while the iPhone is turned off, exploits targeting LPM could also allow malware to operate with much more stealth since LPM allows firmware to conserve battery power. And of course, firmware infections are already extremely difficult to detect since it requires significant expertise and expensive equipment.

The researchers said Apple engineers reviewed their paper before it was published, but company representatives never provided any feedback on its contents. Apple representatives didn’t respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Ultimately, Find My and other features enabled by LPM help provide added security because they allow users to locate lost or stolen devices and lock or unlock car doors even when batteries are depleted. But the research exposes a double-edged sword that, until now, has gone largely unnoticed.

“Hardware and software attacks similar to the ones described, have been proven practical in a real-world setting, so the topics covered in this paper are timely and practical,” John Loucaides, senior vice president of strategy at firmware security firm Eclypsium. “This is typical for every device. Manufacturers are adding features all the time and with every new feature comes a new attack surface.”

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The tech sector teardown is more catharsis than crisis

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Following a series of “super clarifying” meetings with shareholders, Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, emailed employees on Sunday night with an arresting message: “we need to show them the money.”

Mangling his metaphors, Khosrowshahi explained that the market was experiencing a “seismic shift” and the “goalposts have changed.” The ride-hailing and food delivery company’s priority must now be to generate free cash flow. “We are serving multitrillion-dollar markets, but market size is irrelevant if it doesn’t translate into profit,” he wrote.

For the boss of Uber to be trumpeting cash flow and profit would once have seemed about as likely as Elon Musk shouting about the benefits of personal humility and petrol-fueled cars. No company has been more emblematic of the long, crazy, capital-doped bull market in technology stocks than Uber. Founded in 2009, the company floated a decade later at a valuation of $76 billion without recording a single quarter of profits. Its belated conversion to financial orthodoxy shows how much markets have been transformed since the turn in the interest rate cycle and the crash of the tech-heavy Nasdaq market, which has dropped 26 percent this year.

As ever, when bubbles burst, it is hard to distinguish between temporary adjustment and permanent change, between the cyclical downturn and the secular trend. Has the speculative froth just been blown off the top of the market? Or have the rules of the game fundamentally changed for those venture capital-backed start-ups trying to emulate Uber? My bet is on the latter, but that may be no bad thing.

There is certainly a strong argument that the extraordinary boom in tech stocks over the past decade was largely fueled by the unprecedented low-interest-rate policies in response to the global financial crisis of 2008. With capital becoming a commodity, it made sense for opportunistic companies such as Uber to grab as much cash as VC firms would give them to “blitzscale” their way to market domination.

This madcap expansion was accelerated by funding provided by a new class of non-traditional, or tourist, investors, including Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank and “crossover” hedge funds such as Tiger Global. Such funds are now seeing spectacular falls in their portfolio valuation. SoftBank has just announced a historic $27 billion investment loss over the past year at its two Vision Funds, while Tiger Global has lost $17 billion this year.

“There was a unique set of economic and financial policies enacted by the world’s central banks that we have never seen before: sustained negative interest rates over the long term,” says William Janeway, the veteran investor. As a result, he says, some companies pursued “capital as a strategy,” looking to invest their way to success and ignoring traditional metrics. “But I do not believe that is a sensible or sustainable investment strategy.”

Stock market investors have drawn the same conclusion and are now distinguishing between those tech companies that generate strong cash flow and profits, such as Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet, and more speculative investments, such as Netflix, Peloton, and Zoom. These may have grown extraordinarily fast during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are still flooded with red ink.

Just as public market investors have rotated out of cash-guzzling growth stocks into cash-generating value companies, so private market investors are following suit, says Albert Wenger, managing partner of Union Square Ventures, the New York-based VC firm. “I think that this is healthy. Companies have to build real products and deliver customer value that translates into earnings,” Wenger says, even if this shift will prove “very, very painful for a number of companies.”

Life is already becoming uncomfortable for late-stage startups looking to exit. The public markets are now hard to access. According to EY, the value of all global IPOs in the first quarter of 2022 dropped 51 percent year on year. The once-manic market for special purpose acquisition companies, which enabled highly speculative tech companies to list through the backdoor, has all but frozen. Trade sales have also fallen as M&A activity has contracted sharply. And valuations for late-stage funding rounds have now dropped in the US, with the rest of the world following behind.

In spite of this, the VC industry remains stuffed with cash and desperate to invest. According to KPMG, almost 1,400 VC funds around the world raised a total of $207 billion last year.

Although cash will count for far more, the ability of startups to exploit opportunities by using cheap and powerful tools such as open source software, cloud computing, and machine learning applications remains undimmed. And a slowdown in the voracious hiring plans of the big technology companies may persuade more budding entrepreneurs to give it a go. “We still need to take many more shots on goal from an investment and societal perspective,” says Wenger. There remains screaming demand for climate tech startups to invent smarter ways of reducing energy consumption, for example.

Venture-backed companies may have just ridden the most extraordinary wealth-generating bull market in history. Such supernatural conditions will never occur again. What follows will more likely prove to be catharsis than crisis, so long as they, like Uber, can show investors the money.

Financial Times: © 2022 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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