February 23, 2017

Engineering around social media border searches

The latest news is that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is considering a requirement, while passing through a border checkpoint, to inspect a prospective visitor’s “online presence”. That means immigration officials would require users to divulge their passwords to Facebook and other such services, which the agent might then inspect, right there, at the border crossing. This raises a variety of concerns, from its chilling impact on freedom of speech to its being an unreasonable search or seizure, nevermind whether an airport border agent has the necessary training to make such judgments, much less the time to do it while hundreds of people are waiting in line to get through.

Rather than conduct a serious legal analysis, however, I want to talk about technical countermeasures. What might Facebook or other such services do to help defend their users as they pass a border crossing?

Fake accounts. It’s certainly feasible today to create multiple accounts for yourself, giving up the password to a fake account rather than your real account. Most users would find this unnecessarily cumbersome, and the last thing Facebook or anybody else wants is to have a bunch of fake accounts running around. It’s already a concern when somebody tries to borrow a real person’s identity to create a fake account and “friend” their actual friends.

Duress passwords. Years ago, my home alarm system had the option to have two separate PINs. One of them would disable the alarm as normal. The other would sound a silent alarm, summoning the police immediately while making it seem like I disabled the alarm. Let’s say Facebook supported something similar. You enter the duress password, then Facebook locks out your account or switches to your fake account, as above.

Temporary lockouts. If you know you’re about to go through a border crossing, you could give a duress password, as above, or you could arrange an account lockout in advance. You might, for example, designate ten trusted friends, where any five must declare that the lockout is over. Absent those declarations, your account would remain locked, and there would be no means for you to be coerced into giving access to your own account.

Temporary sanitization. Absent any action from Facebook, the best advice today for somebody about to go through a border crossing is to sanitize their account before going through. That means attempting to second-guess what border agents are looking for and delete it in advance. Facebook might assist this by providing search features to allow users to temporarily drop friends, temporarily delete comments or posts with keywords in them, etc. As with the temporary lockouts, temporary sanitization would need to have a restoration process that could be delegated to trusted friends. Once you give the all-clear, everything comes back again.

User defense in bulk. Every time a user, going through a border crossing, exercises a duress password, that’s an unambiguous signal to Facebook. Even absent such signals, Facebook would observe highly unusual login behavior coming from those specific browsers and IP addresses. Facebook could simply deny access to its services from government IP address blocks. While it’s entirely possible for the government to circumvent this, whether using Tor or whatever else, there’s no reason that Facebook needs to be complicit in the process.

So is there a reasonable alternative?

While it’s technically feasible for the government to require that Facebook give it full “backdoor” access to each and every account so it can render threat judgments in advance, this would constitute the most unreasonable search and seizure in the history of that phrase. Furthermore, if and when it became common knowledge that such unreasonable seizures were commonplace, that would be the end of the company. Facebook users have an expectation of privacy and will switch to other services if Facebook cannot protect them.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some less invasive way to support the government’s desire for “extreme vetting”? Can we protect ordinary users’ privacy while still enabling the government to intercept people who intend harm to our country? We certainly must assume that an actual bona fide terrorist is going to have no trouble creating a completely clean online persona to use while crossing a border. They can invent wholesome friends with healthy children sharing silly videos of cute kittens. While we don’t know too much about our existing vetting strategies to distinguish tourists from terrorists, we have to assume that the process involves the accumulation of signals and human intelligence, and other painstaking efforts by professional investigators to protect our country from harm. It’s entirely possible that they’re already doing a good job.

On the Ethics of A/B Testing

The discussion triggered by Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment has been enlightening and frustrating at the same time. An enlightening aspect is how it has exposed divergent views on a practice called A/B testing, in which a company provides two versions of its service to randomly-chosen groups of users, and then measures how the users react. A frustrating aspect has been the often-confusing arguments made about the ethics of A/B testing.

One thing that is clear is that the ethics of A/B testing are an important and interesting topic. This post is my first cut at thinking through these ethical questions. I am thinking about A/B testing in general, and not just testing done for academic research purposes. Some disclaimers: I am considering A/B testing in general rather than one specific experiment; I am considering what is ethical rather than what is legal or what is required by somebody’s IRB; I am considering how people should act rather than observing how they do act.
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Privacy Implications of Social Media Manipulation

The ethical debate about Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment has rightly focused on Facebook’s manipulation of what users saw, rather than the “pure privacy” issue of which information was collected and how it was used.

It’s tempting to conclude that because Facebook didn’t change their data collection procedures, the experiment couldn’t possibly have affected users’ privacy interests. But that reasoning is incorrect.
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