Web feature developers told to dial up attention on privacy and security – gpgmail


Web feature developers are being warned to step up attention to privacy and security as they design contributions.

Writing in a blog post about “evolving threats” to Internet users’ privacy and security, the W3C standards body’s technical architecture group (TAG) and Privacy Interest Group (PING) set out a series of revisions to the W3C’s Security and Privacy Questionnaire for web feature developers.

The questionnaire itself is not new. But the latest updates place greater emphasis on the need for contributors to assess and mitigate privacy impacts, with developers warned that “features may not be implemented if risks are found impossible or unsatisfactorily mitigated”.

In the blog post, independent researcher Lukasz Olejnik, currently serving as an invited expert at the W3C TAG; and Apple’s Jason Novak, representing the PING, write that the intent with the update is to make it “clear that feature developers should consider security and privacy early in the feature’s lifecycle” [emphasis theirs].

“The TAG will be carefully considering the security and privacy of a feature in their design reviews,” they further warn, adding: “A security and privacy considerations section of a specification is more than answers to the questionnaire.”

The revisions to the questionnaire include updates to the threat model and specific threats a specification author should consider — including a new high level type of threat dubbed “legitimate misuse“, where the document stipulates that: “When designing a specification with security and privacy in mind, all both use and misuse cases should be in scope.”

“Including this threat into the Security and Privacy Questionnaire is meant to highlight that just because a feature is possible does not mean that the feature should necessarily be developed, particularly if the benefitting audience is outnumbered by the adversely impacted audience, especially in the long term,” they write. “As a result, one mitigation for the privacy impact of a feature is for a user agent to drop the feature (or not implement it).”

Features should be secure and private by default and issues mitigated in their design,” they further emphasize. “User agents should not be afraid of undermining their users’ privacy by implementing new web standards or need to resort to breaking specifications in implementation to preserve user privacy.”

The pair also urge specification authors to avoid blanket treatment of first and third parties, suggesting: “Specification authors may want to consider first and third parties separately in their feature to protect user security and privacy.”

The revisions to the questionnaire come at a time when browser makers are dialling up their response to privacy threats — encouraged by rising public awareness of the risks posed by data leaks, as well as increased regulatory action on data protection.

Last month the open source WebKit browser engine (which underpins Apple’s Safari browser) announced a new tracking prevention policy that takes the strictest line yet on background and cross-site tracking, saying it would treat attempts to circumvent the policy as akin to hacking — essentially putting privacy protection on a par with security.

Earlier this month Mozilla also pushed out an update to its Firefox browser that enables an anti-tracking cookie feature across the board, for existing users too — demoting third party cookies to default junk.

Even Google’s Chrome browser has made some tentative steps towards enhancing privacy — announcing changes to how it handles cookies earlier this year. Though the adtech giant has studiously avoided flipping on privacy by default in Chrome where third party tracking cookies are concerned, leading to accusations that the move is mostly privacy-washing.

More recently Google announced a long term plan to involve its Chromium browser engine in developing a new open standard for privacy — sparking concerns it’s trying to both kick the can on privacy protection and muddy the waters by shaping and pushing self-interested definitions which align with its core data-mining business interests.

There’s more activity to consider too. Earlier this year another data-mining adtech giant, Facebook, made its first major API contribution to Google’s Chrome browser — which it also brought to the W3C Performance Working Group.

Facebook does not have its own browser, of course. Which means that authoring contributions to web technologies offers the company an alternative conduit to try to influence Internet architecture in its favor.

The W3C TAG’s latest move to focus minds on privacy and security by default is timely.

It chimes with a wider industry shift towards pro-actively defending user data, and should rule out any rubberstamping of tech giants contributions to Internet architecture which is obviously a good thing. Scrutiny remains the best defence against self-interest.




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Mozilla flips the default switch on Firefox tracker cookie blocking – gpgmail


From today Firefox users who update to the latest version of the browser will find a pro-privacy setting flipped for them on desktop and Android smartphones, assuming they didn’t already have the anti-tracking cookie feature enabled.

Mozilla launched the Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) feature in June as a default setting for new users — but leaving existing Firefox users’ settings unchanged at that point.

It’s now finishing what it started by flipping the default switch across the board in v69.0 of the browser.

The feature takes clear aim at third party cookies that are used to track Internet users for creepy purposes such as ad profiling. (Firefox relies on the Disconnect list to identify creepy cookies to block.)

The anti-tracking feature also takes aim at cryptomining: A background practice which can drain CPU and battery power, negatively impacting the user experience. Again, Firefox will now block cryptomining by default, not only when user activated.

In a blog post about the latest release Mozilla says it represents a “milestone” that marks “a major step in our multi-year effort to bring stronger, usable privacy protections to everyone using Firefox”.

“Currently over 20% of Firefox users have Enhanced Tracking Protection on. With today’s release, we expect to provide protection for 100% of ours users by default,” it predicts, underlining the defining power of default settings.

Firefox users with ETP enabled will see a shield icon in the URL bar to denote the tracker blocking is working. Clicking on this icon takes users to a menu where they can view a list of all the tracking cookies that are being blocked. Users are also able to switch off tracking cookie blocking on a per site basis, via this Content Blocking menu.

While blocking tracking cookies reduces some tracking of internet users it does not offer complete protection for privacy. Mozilla notes that ETP does not yet block browser fingerprinting scripts from running by default, for example.

Browser fingerprinting is another prevalent privacy-hostile technique that’s used to track and profile web users without knowledge or consent by linking online activity to a computer’s configuration and thereby tying multiple browser sessions back to the same device-user.

It’s an especially pernicious technique because it can erode privacy across browser sessions and even different browsers — which an Internet user might be deliberately deploying to try to prevent profiling.

A ‘Strict Mode’ in the Firefox setting can be enabled by Firefox users in the latest release to block fingerprinting. But it’s not on by default.

Mozilla says a future release of the browser will flip fingerprinting blocking on by default too.

The latest changes in Firefox continue Mozilla’s strategy — announced a year ago — of pro-actively defending its browser users’ privacy by squeezing the operational range of tracking technologies.

In the absence of a robust regulatory framework to rein in the outgrowth of the adtech ‘industrial data complex’ that’s addicted to harvesting Internet users’ data for ad targeting, browser makers have found themselves at the coal face of the fight against privacy-hostile tracking technologies.

And some are now playing an increasingly central — even defining role — as they flip privacy and anti-tracking defaults.

Notably, earlier this month, the open source WebKit browser engine, which underpins Apple’s Safari browser, announced a new tracking prevention policy that puts privacy on the same footing as security, saying it would treat attempts to circumvent this as akin to hacking.

Even Google has responded to growing pressure around privacy — announcing changes to how its Chrome browser handles cookies this May. Though it’s not doing that by default yet.

It has also said it’s working on technology to reduce fingerprinting. And recently announced a long term proposal to involve its Chromium browser engine in developing a new open standard for privacy.

Though cynics might suggest the adtech giant is responding to competitive pressure on privacy by trying to frame and steer the debate in a way that elides its own role in data mining Internet users at scale for (huge) profit.

Thus its tardy privacy pronouncements and long term proposals look rather more like an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass and buy time for Chrome to keep being used to undermine web users’ privacy — instead of Google being forced to act now and close down privacy-hostile practices that benefit its business.


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Malicious websites were used to secretly hack into iPhones for years, says Google – gpgmail


Security researchers at Google say they’ve found a number of malicious websites which, when visited, could quietly hack into a victim’s iPhone by exploiting a set of previously undisclosed software flaws.

Google’s Project Zero said in a deep-dive blog post published late on Thursday that the websites were visited thousands of times per week by unsuspecting victims, in what was described as a “indiscriminate” attack.

“Simply visiting the hacked site was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring implant,” said Ian Beer, a security researcher at Project Zero.

He said the websites had been hacking iPhones over a “period of at least two years.”

The researchers found five distinct exploit chains involving 12 separate security flaws, including seven involving Safari, the in-built web browser on iPhones. The five separate attack chains allowed an attacker to gain “root” access to the device — the highest level of access and privilege on an iPhone. In doing so, an attacker can gain access to the device’s full range of features normally off-limits to the user. That means an attacker can quietly install malicious apps can be installed to spy on an iPhone owner without their knowledge or consent.

Google said based off their analysis, the vulnerabilities were used to steal a user’s photos and messages, and track their location in near-realtime. The “implant” could also access the user’s on-device bank of saved passwords.

The vulnerabilities affect iOS 10 through to the current iOS 12 software version.

Google privately disclosed the vulnerabilities in February, giving Apple only a week to fix the flaws and roll out updates to its users. That’s a fraction of the 90 days typically given to software developers, giving an indication of the severity of the vulnerabilities.

Apple issued a fix six days later with iOS 12.1.4 for iPhone 5s and iPad Air and later.

Beer said it’s possible other hacking campaigns currently in action.

The iPhone and iPad maker has a good rap on security and privacy matters. Recently the company increased its maximum bug bounty payout to $1 million for security researchers who find flaws that can silently target an iPhone and gain root-level privileges without any user interaction. Under Apple’s new bounty rules — set to go into effect later this year — Google would’ve been eligible for several million dollars in bounties.

A spokesperson for Apple did not immediately comment.


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WebKit’s new anti-tracking policy puts privacy on a par with security – gpgmail


WebKit, the open source engine that underpins Internet browsers including Apple’s Safari browser, has announced a new tracking prevention policy that takes the strictest line yet on the background and cross-site tracking practices and technologies which are used to creep on Internet users as they go about their business online.

Trackers are technologies that are invisible to the average web user, yet which are designed to keep tabs on where they go and what they look at online — typically for ad targeting but web user profiling can have much broader implications than just creepy ads, potentially impacting the services people can access or the prices they see, and so on. Trackers can also be a conduit for hackers to inject actual malware, not just adtech.

This translates to stuff like tracking pixels; browser and device fingerprinting; and navigational tracking to name just a few of the myriad methods that have sprouted like weeds from an unregulated digital adtech industry that’s poured vast resource into ‘innovations’ intended to strip web users of their privacy.

WebKit’s new policy is essentially saying enough: Stop the creeping.

But — and here’s the shift — it’s also saying it’s going to treat attempts to circumvent its policy as akin to malicious hack attacks to be responded to in kind; i.e. with privacy patches and fresh technical measures to prevent tracking.

“WebKit will do its best to prevent all covert tracking, and all cross-site tracking (even when it’s not covert),” the organization writes (emphasis its), adding that these goals will apply to all types of tracking listed in the policy — as well as “tracking techniques currently unknown to us”.

“If we discover additional tracking techniques, we may expand this policy to include the new techniques and we may implement technical measures to prevent those techniques,” it adds.

“We will review WebKit patches in accordance with this policy. We will review new and existing web standards in light of this policy. And we will create new web technologies to re-enable specific non-harmful practices without reintroducing tracking capabilities.”

Spelling out its approach to circumvention, it states in no uncertain terms: “We treat circumvention of shipping anti-tracking measures with the same seriousness as exploitation of security vulnerabilities,” adding: “If a party attempts to circumvent our tracking prevention methods, we may add additional restrictions without prior notice. These restrictions may apply universally; to algorithmically classified targets; or to specific parties engaging in circumvention.”

It also says that if a certain tracking technique cannot be completely prevented without causing knock-on effects with webpage functions the user does intend to interact with, it will “limit the capability” of using the technique” — giving examples such as “limiting the time window for tracking” and “reducing the available bits of entropy” (i.e. limiting how many unique data points are available to be used to identify a user or their behavior).

If even that’s not possible “without undue user harm” it says it will “ask for the user’s informed consent to potential tracking”.

“We consider certain user actions, such as logging in to multiple first party websites or apps using the same account, to be implied consent to identifying the user as having the same identity in these multiple places. However, such logins should require a user action and be noticeable by the user, not be invisible or hidden,” it further warns.

WebKit credits Mozilla’s anti-tracking policy as inspiring and underpinning its new approach.

Commenting on the new policy, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity advisor and research associate at the Center for Technology and Global Affairs Oxford University, says it marks a milestone in the evolution of how user privacy is treated in the browser — setting it on the same footing as security.

“Treating privacy protection circumventions on par with security exploitation is a first of its kind and unprecedented move,” he tells gpgmail. “This sends a clear warning to the potential abusers but also to the users… This is much more valuable than the still typical approach of ‘we treat the privacy of our users very seriously’ that some still think is enough when it comes to user expectation.”

Asked how he sees the policy impacting pervasive tracking, Olejnik does not predict an instant, overnight purge of unethical tracking of users of WebKit-based browsers but argues there will be less room for consent-less data-grabbers to manoeuvre.

“Some level of tracking, including with unethical technologies, will probably remain in use for the time being. But covert tracking is less and less tolerated,” he says. “It’s also interesting if any decisions will follow, such as for example the expansion of bug bounties to reported privacy vulnerabilities.”

“How this policy will be enforced in practice will be carefully observed,” he adds.

As you’d expect, he credits not just regulation but the role played by active privacy researchers in helping to draw attention and change attitudes towards privacy protection — and thus to drive change in the industry.

There’s certainly no doubt that privacy research is a vital ingredient for regulation to function in such a complex area — feeding complaints that trigger scrutiny that can in turn unlock enforcement and force a change of practice.

Although that’s also a process that takes time.

“The quality of cybersecurity and privacy technology policy, including its communication still leave much to desire, at least at most organisations. This will not change fast,” says says Olejnik. “Even if privacy is treated at the ‘C-level’, this then still tends to be about the purely risk of compliance. Fortunately, some important industry players with good understanding of both technology policy and the actual technology, even the emerging ones still under active research, treat it increasingly seriously.

“We owe it to the natural flow of the privacy research output, the talent inflows, and the slowly moving strategic shifts as well to a minor degree to the regulatory pressure and public heat. This process is naturally slow and we are far from the end.”

For its part, WebKit has been taking aim at trackers for several years now, adding features intended to reduce pervasive tracking — such as, back in 2017, Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), which uses machine learning to squeeze cross-site tracking by putting more limits on cookies and other website data.

Apple immediately applied ITP to its desktop Safari browser — drawing predictable fast-fire from the Internet Advertising Bureau whose membership is comprised of every type of tracker deploying entity on the Internet.

But it’s the creepy trackers that are looking increasingly out of step with public opinion. And, indeed, with the direction of travel of the industry.

In Europe, regulation can be credited with actively steering developments too — following last year’s application of a major update to the region’s comprehensive privacy framework (which finally brought the threat of enforcement that actually bites). The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has also increased transparency around security breaches and data practices. And, as always, sunlight disinfects.

Although there remains the issue of abuse of consent for EU regulators to tackle — with research suggesting many regional cookie consent pop-ups currently offer users no meaningful privacy choices despite GDPR requiring consent to be specific, informed and freely given.

It also remains to be seen how the adtech industry will respond to background tracking being squeezed at the browser level. Continued aggressive lobbying to try to water down privacy protections seems inevitable — if ultimately futile. And perhaps, in Europe in the short term, there will be attempts by the adtech industry to funnel more tracking via cookie ‘consent’ notices that nudge or force users to accept.

As the security space underlines, humans are always the weakest link. So privacy-hostile social engineering might be the easiest way for adtech interests to keep overriding user agency and grabbing their data anyway. Stopping that will likely need regulators to step in and intervene.

Another question thrown up by WebKit’s new policy is which way Chromium will jump, aka the browser engine that underpins Google’s hugely popular Chrome browser.

Of course Google is an ad giant, and parent company Alphabet still makes the vast majority of its revenue from digital advertising — so it maintains a massive interest in tracking Internet users to serve targeted ads.

Yet Chromium developers did pay early attention to the problem of unethical tracking. Here, for example, are two discussing potential future work to combat tracking techniques designed to override privacy settings in a blog post from nearly five years ago.

There have also been much more recent signs Google paying attention to Chrome users’ privacy, such as changes to how it handles cookies which it announced earlier this year.

But with WebKit now raising the stakes — by treating privacy as seriously as security — that puts pressure on Google to respond in kind. Or risk being seen as using its grip on browser marketshare to foot-drag on baked in privacy standards, rather than proactively working to prevent Internet users from being creeped on.




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