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Chapter: Security in Computing : Privacy in Computing

Impacts on Emerging Technologies

In this section we look at the privacy implications of three emerging technologies. Nothing inherent in the technologies affects privacy, but the applications for the technologies have risk.

Impacts on Emerging Technologies


In this section we look at the privacy implications of three emerging technologies. Nothing inherent in the technologies affects privacy, but the applications for the technologies have risk. The first is a broadcast technology that can be used for tracking objects or people. Second is a group of technologies to facilitate elections. The final technology is a new method for voice-grade telephone calls.




Radio frequency identification or RFID is a technology that uses small, low-power wireless radio transmitters called RFID tags. The devices can be as small as a grain of sand and they cost just pennies apiece. Tags are tuned to a particular frequency and each has a unique ID number. When a tag receives its signal, it sends its ID number signal in response. Many tags have no power supply of their own and receive their power to send a signal from the very act of receiving a signal. Thus, these devices are passive until they receive a signal from an interrogating reader.


The distance at which they can receive and broadcast a receivable signal varies from roughly five centimeters at the least powerful end to several meters at the most powerful end. Some transmitters have their own power supply (battery) and can transmit over an even greater distance. Probably as receivers get better, the reception distance will increase.


Current uses of RFID tags include


toll plaza payments


transit system fare cards


stock or inventory labels


passports and identity cards


Two applications of RFID tags are of special interest from a privacy standpoint, as we show in the next sections.


Consumer Products


Assume you have bought a new shirt. If the manufacturer has embedded an RFID tag in the shirt, the tag will assist the merchant in processing your sale, just as barcodes do today. But barcodes on merchandise identify only a manufacturer's product, such as an L.L Bean green plaid flannel shirt, size M. The RFID tag can identify not only the product but also the batch and shipment; that is, the tag's value designates a specific shirt. The unique ID in the shirt helps the merchant keep track of stock, knowing that this shirt was from a shipment that has been on the sales display for 90 days. The tag also lets the manufacturer determine precisely when and where it was produced, which could be important if you returned the shirt because of a defect.


As you walk down the street, your shirt will respond to any receiver within range that broadcasts its signal. With low-power tags using today's technology, you would have to pass quite close to the receiver for it to obtain your signal, a few centimeters at most. Some scientists think this reception will be extended in the future, and others think the technology exists today for high-power readers to pick up the signal a meter away. If the distance is a few centimeters, you would almost have to brush up against the receiver in order for it to track the tag in your shirt; at a meter, someone could have a reader at the edge of the sidewalk as you walk past.


Your shirt, shoes, pen, wallet, credit card, mobile phone, media player, and candy bar wrapper might each have an RFID tag. Any one of these would allow surreptitious tracking; the others provide redundancy. Tracking scenarios once found only in science fiction are now close to reality.


One privacy interest is the accumulation of readings as you go about your business. If a city were fitted with readers on every street corner, it would be possible to assemble a complete profile of your meanderings; timestamps would show when you stopped for a while between two receivers. Thus, it is imaginable and probably feasible to develop a system that could track all your movements.


The other privacy concern is what these tags say about you: One tag from an employee ID might reveal for whom you work, another from a medicine bottle might disclose a medical condition, and still another from an expensive key fob might suggest your finances. Currently you can conceal objects like your employee ID in your pocket; with RFID technology you may have to be more careful to block invisible radio signals.


RFID Tags for Individuals


Tagging a shirt is a matter of chance. If you buy the right kind of shirt you will have a tag that lets you be monitored. But if you buy an untagged shirt, or find and cut out the tag, or disable the tag, or decide not to wear a shirt, you cannot be tracked.


Some people choose to be identifiable, regardless of what they wear. Some people with an unusual medical condition have already had an RFID tag permanently implanted in their arm. This way, even if a patient is brought unconscious to a hospital, the doctors can scan for a tag, receive the person's unique number, and look up the person's medical record by that number. A similar approach is being used to permit animals to cross quarantine borders or to uniquely identify animals such as valuable racehorses.


In these examples, individuals voluntarily allow the tags to be implanted. But remember that once the tags are implanted, they will respond to any appropriate receiver, so our example of walking down the street still holds.


RFID advocates hasten to point out that the technology does not currently permit reading the simplest tags at a distance and that receivers are so expensive that it would be prohibitive to build a network capable of tracking someone's every movement. As we point out in cryptography and reiterate in software, you should not base your security just on what is technically possible or economiclly feasible today.


Security and Privacy Issues


We have already described two of RFID's major privacy issues: the ability to track individuals wherever they go and the ability to discern sensitive data about people. The related issue is one of correctness. The reading sensor may malfunction or the software processing IDs may fail; both cases lead to mistaken identity. How do you challenge that you were not someplace when the receiver shows you were? Another possible failure is forgery of an RFID tag. Here again the sensor would pick up a reading of a tag associated with you. The only way you could prove you were not near the sensor is to have an alibi, supporting where you actually were.


Juels [JUE05] presents several privacy-restoring approaches to RFID use. Among the ideas he proposes are blasting (disabling a tag), blocking (shielding a tag to block its access by a reader), reprogramming (so a tag emits a different number), and encrypting (so the output is selectively available).


RFID technology is still very young, but its use is growing rapidly. As with similarly sensitive technologies, protecting privacy will be easier before the uses proliferate.


Electronic Voting


Voting is another area in which privacy is important. We want votes to be private, but at the same time we want a way to demonstrate that all collected votes are authentic. With careful control of paper ballots, we can largely satisfy both those requirements, but the efficiency of such systems is poor. We would like to use computerized voting systems to improve efficiency without sacrificing privacy or accuracy. In this section we consider the privacy aspects of computerized voting.


Computer Voting


Citizens want to vote anonymously. Although anonymity is easy to achieve with paper ballots (ignoring the possibility of fingerprint tracing or secretly marked ballots) and fairly easy to achieve with machines (assuming usage protocols preclude associating the order in which people voted with a voting log from the machine), it is more difficult with computers. Properties essential to a fair election were enumerated by Shamos [SHA93].


Each voter's choices must be kept secret.


Each voter may vote only once and only for allowed offices.


The voting system must be tamperproof, and the election officials must be prevented from allowing it to be tampered with.


All votes must be reported accurately.


The voting system must be available for use throughout the election period.


An audit trail must be kept to detect irregularities in voting, but without disclosing how any individual voted.


These conditions are challenging in ordinary paper- and machine-based elections; they are even harder to meet in computer-based elections. Privacy of a vote is essential; in some repressive countries, voting for the wrong candidate can be fatal. But public confidence in the validity of the outcome is critical, so there is a similarly strong need to be able to validate the accuracy of the collection and reporting of votes. These two requirements are close to contradictory.


DeMillo and Merritt [DEM83] devised protocols for computerized voting. Hoffman [HOF00] studied the use of computers at polling places to implement casting of votes. Rubin [RUB00] concludes: "Given the current state of insecurity of hosts and the vulnerability of the Internet to manipulation and denial-of-service attacks, there is no way that a public election of any significance involving remote electronic voting could be carried out securely." But Tony Blair, British prime minister, announced in July 2002 that in the British 2006 general election, citizens would vote in any of four ways: online (by Internet) from a work or home location, by mail, by touch-tone telephone, or at polling places through online terminals. All the counts of the elections would be done electronically. In 2002, Brazil used a computer network to automate voting in its national election (in which voting was mandatory).


Privacy and the Process


Counting ballots is only one step in the election process; building and maintaining the list of eligible voters, recording who has voted (and keeping one person from voting twice), supporting absentee ballots, assisting voters at the wrong polling place, and transmitting election results to election headquarters are other important steps. Each of these has obvious privacy implications. For example, in some political cultures, it may be desirable to maintain privacy of who has voted (to prevent retaliation against people who did not vote for a powerful candidate). Similarly, as we know from other security studies, it is important to protect the privacy of votes in transmission to election headquarters.


The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academy of Science [NRC05] studied electronic voting. Its purpose was to raise questions to ensure they are considered in the debate about electronic voting. The privacy questions they asked concerned individual privacy in voter registration, the privacy of individual voters, and public confidence in the process.


Rubin [RUB02], Schneier [SCH04b], and Bennet [BEN04], among others, have studied electronic voting. Rubin raises the question of Internet voting, which has an obvious benefit of easy access for a segment of the population (and a corresponding weakness of more difficult access for people who do not have Internet access or who are not comfortable with computing technology). But given the very weak privacy protections we have already seen for the Internet, the privacy aspects of such a proposal require a careful look.


VoIP and Skype


Privacy aspects of traditional telephony were fairly well understood: Telephone companies were regulated monopolies that needed to preserve the confidentiality of their clients' communications. Exceptions occur under statutorially defined circumstances for law enforcement purposes and in emergencies. Furthermore, the technology was relatively resistant to eavesdropping, with the greatest exposure at the endpoints.


Cellular telephony and Internet-based phone service have significantly changed that situation. Voice over IP (VoIP) is a protocol for transmission of voice-grade telephone traffic over the Internet. The major VoIP carrier is Skype. (VoIP rhymes with "boy" plus P, and Skype rhymes with "hype.") You use a telephone handset or microphone and speaker connected to your computer. To call from London to Rio, for example, you would invoke the VoIP application, giving it the telephone number in Rio. A local office in Rio would call the number in Rio and patch that call to its Internet servers. (The process is even easier if both endpoints use VoIP.)


The advantage of VoIP is cost: For people who already have a fixed-price broadband Internet connection, adding VoIP need only cover the costs of the local connection on the remote end and a fee for software. But as we have seen in other Internet applications, privacy is sacrificed. Even if the voice traffic is solidly encrypted, the source and destination of the phone call will be somewhat exposed through packet headers.


Conclusions on Emerging Technologies


Each of these areas is a technology in its very early stages. The promise for each is great. Privacy issues will not be considered unless they are raised forcefully.


Our experience with security has shown that if we consider security early in a system's life, wider options are available for security. The other thing experience has repeatedly shown is that adding security to a nearly complete system is between very difficult and impossible. For both reasons, privacy and security analysis should occur along with the technology and application development.


For all three technologies, however, there seems to be financial pressure to create devices and deal with use issues later. This is exactly the wrong way to go about designing any system. Unfortunately, people seem to be starting with the technology and working backward to systems that would use that technology. The approach should be the other way around: Specify the necessary requirements, including privacy considerations, and develop a system to implement those requirements reliably.


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