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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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100 million more IoT devices are exposed—and they won’t be the last

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Elena Lacey

Over the last few years, researchers have found a shocking number of vulnerabilities in seemingly basic code that underpins how devices communicate with the Internet. Now, a new set of nine such vulnerabilities are exposing an estimated 100 million devices worldwide, including an array of Internet-of-things products and IT management servers. The larger question researchers are scrambling to answer, though, is how to spur substantive changes—and implement effective defenses—as more and more of these types of vulnerabilities pile up.

Dubbed Name:Wreck, the newly disclosed flaws are in four ubiquitous TCP/IP stacks, code that integrates network communication protocols to establish connections between devices and the Internet. The vulnerabilities, present in operating systems like the open source project FreeBSD, as well as Nucleus NET from the industrial control firm Siemens, all relate to how these stacks implement the “Domain Name System” Internet phone book. They all would allow an attacker to either crash a device and take it offline or gain control of it remotely. Both of these attacks could potentially wreak havoc in a network, especially in critical infrastructure, health care, or manufacturing settings where infiltrating a connected device or IT server can disrupt a whole system or serve as a valuable jumping-off point for burrowing deeper into a victim’s network.

All of the vulnerabilities, discovered by researchers at the security firms Forescout and JSOF, now have patches available, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to fixes in actual devices, which often run older software versions. Sometimes manufacturers haven’t created mechanisms to update this code, but in other situations they don’t manufacture the component it’s running on and simply don’t have control of the mechanism.

“With all these findings, I know it can seem like we’re just bringing problems to the table, but we’re really trying to raise awareness, work with the community, and figure out ways to address it,” says Elisa Costante, vice president of research at Forescout, which has done other, similar research through an effort it calls Project Memoria. “We’ve analyzed more than 15 TCP/IP stacks both proprietary and open source and we’ve found that there’s no real difference in quality. But these commonalities are also helpful, because we’ve found they have similar weak spots. When we analyze a new stack, we can go and look at these same places and share those common problems with other researchers as well as developers.”

The researchers haven’t seen evidence yet that attackers are actively exploiting these types of vulnerabilities in the wild. But with hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of devices potentially impacted across numerous different findings, the exposure is significant.

Siemens USA chief cybersecurity officer Kurt John told Wired in a statement that the company “works closely with governments and industry partners to mitigate vulnerabilities … In this case we’re happy to have collaborated with one such partner, Forescout, to quickly identify and mitigate the vulnerability.”

The researchers coordinated disclosure of the flaws with developers releasing patches, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and other vulnerability-tracking groups. Similar flaws found by Forescout and JSOF in other proprietary and open source TCP/IP stacks have already been found to expose hundreds of millions or even possibly billions of devices worldwide.

Issues show up so often in these ubiquitous network protocols because they’ve largely been passed down untouched through decades as the technology around them evolves. Essentially, since it ain’t broke, no one fixes it.

“For better or worse, these devices have code in them that people wrote 20 years ago—with the security mentality of 20 years ago,” says Ang Cui, CEO of the IoT security firm Red Balloon Security. “And it works; it never failed. But once you connect that to the Internet, it’s insecure. And that’s not that surprising, given that we’ve had to really rethink how we do security for general-purpose computers over those 20 years.”

The problem is notorious at this point, and it’s one that the security industry hasn’t been able to quash, because vulnerability-ridden zombie code always seems to reemerge.

“There are lots of examples of unintentionally recreating these low-level network bugs from the ’90s,” says Kenn White, co-director of the Open Crypto Audit Project. “A lot of it is about lack of economic incentives to really focus on the quality of this code.”

There’s some good news about the new slate of vulnerabilities the researchers found. Though the patches may not proliferate completely anytime soon, they are available. And other stopgap mitigations can reduce the exposure, namely keeping as many devices as possible from connecting directly to the Internet and using an internal DNS server to route data. Forescout’s Costante also notes that exploitation activity would be fairly predictable, making it easier to detect attempts to take advantage of these flaws.

When it comes to long-term solutions, there’s no quick fix given all the vendors, manufacturers, and developers who have a hand in these supply chains and products. But Forescout has released an open source script that network managers can use to identify potentially vulnerable IoT devices and servers in their environments. The company also maintains an open source library of database queries that researchers and developers can use to find similar DNS-related vulnerabilities more easily.

“It’s a widespread problem; it’s not just a problem for a specific kind of device,” Costante says. “And it’s not only cheap IoT devices. There’s more and more evidence of how widespread this is. That’s why we keep working to raise awareness.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Microsoft acquires Nuance—makers of Dragon speech rec—for $16 billion

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Enlarge / In this 2011 photo, Dr. Michael A. Lee uses Dragon Medical voice-recognition software to enter his notes after seeing a patient.

Earlier today, Microsoft announced its plans to purchase Nuance for $56 per share—23 percent above Nuance’s closing price last Friday. The deal adds up to a $16 billion cash outlay and a total valuation for Nuance of about $19.7 billion, including that company’s assumed debt.

Who is Nuance?

In this 2006 photo, Rollie Berg—who has extremely limited use of his hands due to multiple sclerosis—uses Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 to interact directly with his PC.
Enlarge / In this 2006 photo, Rollie Berg—who has extremely limited use of his hands due to multiple sclerosis—uses Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 to interact directly with his PC.

Nuance is a well-known player in the field of natural language recognition. The company’s technology is the core of Apple’s Siri personal assistant. Nuance also sells well-known personal speech-recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is invaluable to many people with a wide range of physical disabilities.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking, originally released in 1997, was one of the first commercially continuous dictation products—meaning software that did not require the user to pause briefly between words. In 2000, Dragon Systems was acquired by ScanSoft, which acquired Nuance Communications in 2005 and rebranded itself as Nuance.

Earlier versions of Dragon software used hidden Markov models to puzzle out the meaning of human speech, but this method had serious limitations compared to modern AI algorithms. In 2009, Stanford researcher Fei-Fei Li created ImageNet—a massive training data set that spawned a boom in deep-learning algorithms used for modern, core AI tech.

After Microsoft researchers Dong Yu and Frank Seide successfully applied deep-learning techniques to real-time automatic speech recognition in 2010, Dragon—now Nuance—applied the same techniques to its own speech-recognition software.

Fast forward to today, and—according to both Microsoft and Nuance—medically targeted versions of Dragon are in use by 77 percent of hospitals, 75 percent of radiologists, and 55 percent of physicians in the United States.

Microsoft’s acquisition play

Microsoft and Nuance began a partnership in 2019 to deliver ambient clinical intelligence (ACI) technologies to health care providers. ACI technology is intended to reduce physician burnout and increase efficiency by offloading administrative tasks onto computers. (A 2017 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine documented physicians typically spending two hours of record-keeping for every single hour of actual patient care.)

Acquiring Nuance gives Microsoft direct access to its entire health care customer list. It also gives Microsoft the opportunity to push Nuance technology—currently, mostly used in the US—to Microsoft’s own large international market. Nuance chief executive Mark Benjamin—who will continue to run Nuance as a Microsoft division after the acquisition—describes it as an opportunity to “superscale how we change an industry.”

The move doubles Microsoft’s total addressable market (TAM) in the health care vertical to nearly $500 billion. It also marries what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella describes as “the AI layer at the healthcare point of delivery” with Microsoft’s own massive cloud infrastructure, including Azure, Teams, and Dynamics 365.

The acquisition has been unanimously approved by the Boards of Directors of both Nuance and Microsoft, and it is expected to close by the end of 2021.

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No password required: Mobile carrier exposes data for millions of accounts

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Q Link Wireless, a provider of low-cost mobile phone and data services to 2 million US-based customers, has been making sensitive account data available to anyone who knows a valid phone number on the carrier’s network, an analysis of the company’s account management app shows.

Dania, Florida-based Q Link Wireless is what’s known as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, meaning it doesn’t operate its own wireless network but rather buys services in bulk from other carriers and resells them. It provides government-subsidized phones and service to low-income consumers through the FCC’s Lifeline Program. It also offers a range of low-cost service plans through its Hello Mobile brand. In 2019, Q Link Wireless said it had 2 million customers.

The carrier offers an app called My Mobile Account (for both iOS and Android) that customers can use to monitor text and minutes histories, data and minute usage, or to buy additional minutes or data. The app also displays the customer’s:

  • First and last name
  • Home address
  • Phone call history (from/to)
  • Text message history (from/to)
  • Phone carrier account number needed for porting
  • Email address
  • Last four digits of the associated payment card

Screenshots from the iOS version look like this:

No password required . . . what?

Since at least December and possibly much earlier, My Mobile Account has been displaying this information for every customer account whenever it is presented with a valid Q Link Wireless phone number. That’s right—no password or anything else required.

When I first saw a Reddit thread discussing the app, I thought for sure there was some kind of mistake. So I installed the app, got the permission from another thread reader, and entered his phone number. I was immediately viewing his personal information, as the redacted images above demonstrate.

The person who started the Reddit thread said in an email that he first reported this glaring insecurity to Q Link Wireless sometime last year. Emails he provided show that he notified support twice again this year, first in February and again this month.

Feedback left in reviews for both the iOS and Android offerings also reported this issue, in several cases with a response from a Q Link Wireless representative thanking the person for the feedback.

Downright negligence

The data exposure is serious because phone numbers are so easy to come by. We give them to prospective employers, car mechanics, and other strangers. And of course, phone numbers are easily obtained by private detectives, abusive spouses, stalkers, and other people who have an interest in a particular person. Q Link Wireless making customer data freely available to anyone who knows a customer’s phone number is an act of downright negligence.

I began emailing the carrier about the insecurity on Wednesday and followed up with almost a dozen more messages. Q Link Wireless CEO and founder Issa Asad didn’t respond despite my noting that every hour he allowed the data exposure to continue compounded the risk to his customers.

Then late on Thursday, My Mobile Account stopped connecting to customers’ accounts. When presented with the number of a Q Link Wireless customer, the app responds with a message that says: “Phone number doesn’t match any account.” The iOS and Android versions of the app were last updated in February, suggesting that the fix is the result of a change Q Link Wireless made to a server.

While My Mobile Account displayed customers’ personal information, it didn’t provide a means to change that data. The app also didn’t display passwords. That means a person couldn’t exploit this leak to perform a SIM swap, or lock users out of their accounts, although the exposure might make it easier for a would-be SIM swapper to social engineer a Q Link Wireless employee into porting a number to a new phone.

There are no indications one way or the other that this leakage was actively exploited. Researchers from security firm Intel471 found no discussions in criminal forums about the available data, but there’s no way to know if it was abused on a smaller scale, say by someone a Q Link Wireless customer knows or has interacted with.

As phone users seeking low-cost, no-frills mobile service, Q Link Customers are a part of a population that may be least able to afford data breach services and other privacy services. The carrier has yet to notify customers of the data exposure. People using the service should consider any data displayed by the app to be available to anyone who had their phone number.

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