May 21, 2024

Web Tracking and User Privacy Workshop: Test Cases for Privacy on the Web

This guest post is from Nick Doty, of the W3C and UC Berkeley School of Information. As a companion post to my summary of the position papers submitted for last month’s W3C Do-Not-Track Workshop, hosted by CITP, Nick goes deeper into the substance and interaction during the workshop.

The level of interest and participation in last month’s Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy — about a hundred attendees spanning multiple countries, dozens of companies, a wide variety of backgrounds — confirms the broad interest in Do Not Track. The relatively straightforward technical approach with a catchy name has led to, in the US, proposed legislation at both the state and federal level and specific mention by the Federal Trade Commission (it was nice to have Ed Felten back from DC representing his new employer at the workshop), and comparatively rapid deployment of competing proposals by browser vendors. Still, one might be surprised that so many players are devoting such engineering resources to a relatively narrow goal: building technical means that allow users to avoid tracking across the Web for the purpose of compiling behavioral profiles for targeted advertising.

In fact, Do Not Track (in all its variations and competing proposals) is the latest test case for how new online technologies will address privacy issues. What mix of minimization techniques (where one might classify Microsoft’s Tracking Protection block lists) versus preference expression and use limitation (like a Do Not Track header) will best protect privacy and allow for innovation? Can parties agree on a machine-readable expression of privacy preferences (as has been heavily debated in P3P, GeoPriv and other standards work), and if so, how will terms be defined and compliance monitored and enforced? Many attendees were at the workshop not just to address this particular privacy problem — ubiquitous invisible tracking of Web requests to build behavioral profiles — but to grab a seat at the table where the future of how privacy is handled on the Web may be decided. The W3C, for its part, expects to start an Interest Group to monitor privacy on the Web and spin out specific work as new privacy issues inevitably arise, in addition to considering a Working Group to address this particular topic (more below). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is exploring a Privacy Directorate to provide guidance on privacy considerations across specs.

At a higher level, this debate presents a test case for the process of building consensus and developing standards around technologies like tracking protection or Do Not Track that have inspired controversy. What body (or rather, combination of bodies) can legitimately define preference expressions that must operate at multiple levels in the Web stack, not to mention serve the diverse needs of individuals and entities across the globe? Can the same organization that defines the technical design also negotiate semantic agreement between very diverse groups on the meaning of “tracking”? Is this an appropriate role for technical standards bodies to assume? To what extent can technical groups work with policymakers to build solutions that can be enforced by self-regulatory or governmental players?

Discussion at the recent workshop confirmed many of these complexities: though the agenda was organized to roughly separate user experience, technical granularity, enforcement and standardization, overlap was common and inevitable. Proposals for an “ack” or response header brought up questions of whether the opportunity to disclaim following the preference would prevent legal enforcement; whether not having such a response would leave users confused about when they had opted back in; and how granular such header responses should be. In defining first vs. third party tracking, user expectations, current Web business models and even the same-origin security policy could point the group in different directions.

We did see some moments of consensus. There was general agreement that while user interface issues were key to privacy, trying to standardize those elements was probably counterproductive but providing guidance could help significantly. Regarding the scope of “tracking”, the group was roughly evenly divided on what they would most prefer: a broad definition (any logging), a narrow definition (online behavioral advertising profiling only) or something in between (where tracking is more than OBA but excludes things like analytics or fraud protection, as in the proposal from the Center for Democracy and Technology). But in a “hum” to see which proposals workshop attendees opposed (“non-starters”) no one objected to starting with a CDT-style middle ground — a rather shocking level of agreement to end two days chock full of debate.

For tech policy nerds, then, this intimate workshop about a couple of narrow technical proposals was heady stuff. And the points of agreement suggest that real interoperable progress on tracking protection — the kind that will help the average end user’s privacy — is on the way. For the W3C, this will certainly be a topic of discussion at the ongoing meeting in Bilbao, and we’re beginning detailed conversations about the scope and milestones for a Working Group to undertake technical standards work.

Thanks again to Princeton/CITP for hosting the event, and to Thomas and Lorrie for organizing it: bringing together this diverse group of people on short notice was a real challenge, and it paid off for all of us. If you’d like to see more primary materials: minutes from the workshop (including presentations and discussions) are available, as are the position papers and slides. And the W3C will post a workshop report with a more detailed summary very soon.

Summary of W3C DNT Workshop Submissions

Last week, we hosted the W3C “Web Tracking and User Privacy” Workshop here at CITP (sponsored by Adobe, Yahoo!, Google, Mozilla and Microsoft). If you were not able to join us for this event, I hope to summarize some of the discussion embodied in the roughly 60 position papers submitted.

The workshop attracted a wide range of participants; the agenda included advocates, academics, government, start-ups and established industry players from various sectors. Despite the broad name of the workshop, the discussion centered around “Do Not Track” (DNT) technologies and policy, essentially ways of ensuring that people have control, to some degree, over web profiling and tracking.

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to expect that you are familiar with the various proposals before going much further, as the workshop position papers are necessarily short and assume familiarity. (If you are new to this area, the CDT’s Alissa Cooper has a brief blog post from this past March, “Digging in on ‘Do Not Track'”, that mentions many of the discussion points. Technically, much of the discussion involved the mechanisms of the Mayer, Narayanan and Stamm IETF Internet-Draft from March and the Microsoft W3C member submission from February.)

Read on for more…

Internet Voting in Union Elections?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently asked for public comment on a fascinating issue: what kind of guidelines should they give unions that want to use “electronic voting” to elect their officers? (Curiously, they defined electronic voting broadly to include computerized (DRE) voting systems, vote-by-phone systems and internet voting systems.)

As a technology policy researcher with the NSF ACCURATE e-voting center, I figured we should have good advice for DOL.

(If you need a quick primer on security issues in e-voting, GMU’s Jerry Brito has just posted an episode of his Surprisingly Free podcast where he and I work through a number of basic issues in e-voting and security. I’d suggest you check out Jerry’s podcast regularly as he gets great guests (like a podcast with CITP’s own Tim Lee) and really digs deep into the issues while keeping it at an understandable level.)

The DOL issued a Request for Information (PDF) that asked a series of questions, beginning with the very basic, “Should we issue e-voting guidelines at all?” The questions go on to ask about the necessity of voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPATs), observability, meaningful recounts, ballot secrecy, preventing flawed and/or malicious software, logging, insider threats, voter intimidation, phishing, spoofing, denial-of-service and recovering from malfunctions.

Whew. The DOL clearly wanted a “brain dump” from computer security and the voting technology communities!

It turns out that labor elections and government elections aren’t as different as I originally thought. The controlling statute for union elections (the LMRDA) and caselaw* that has developed over the years require strict ballot secrecy–such that any technology that could link a voter and their ballot is not allowed–both during voting and in any post-election process. The one major difference is that there isn’t a body of election law and regulation on top of which unions and the DOL can run their elections; for example, election laws frequently disallow campaigning or photography within a certain distance of an official polling place while that would be hard to prohibit in union elections.

After a considerable amount of wrangling and writing, ACCURATE submitted a comment, find it here in PDF. The essential points we make are pretty straightforward: 1) don’t allow internet voting from unsupervised, uncontrolled computing devices for any election that requires high integrity; and, 2) only elections that use voter-verified paper records (VVPRs) subject to an audit process that uses those records to audit the reported election outcome can avoid the various types of threats that DOL is concerned with. The idea is simple: VVPRs are independent of the software and hardware of the voting system, so it doesn’t matter how bad those aspects are as long as there is a robust parallel process that can check the result. Of course, VVPRs are no panacea: they must be carefully stored, secured and transported and ACCURATE’s HCI researchers have shown that it’s very hard to get voters to consistently check them for accuracy. However, those problems are much more tractable than, say, removing all the malware and spyware from hundreds of thousands of voter PCs and mobile devices.

I must say I was a bit surprised to see the other sets of comments submitted, mostly by voting system vendors and union organizations, but also the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). ACCURATE and EPIC seem to be lone voices in this process “porting” what we’ve learned about the difficulties of running secure civic elections to the labor sphere. Many of the unions talked about how they must have forms of electronic, phone and internet voting as their constituencies are spread far and wide, can’t make it to polling places and are concerned with environmental impacts of paper and more traditional voting methods. Of course, we would counter that accommodations can be made for most of these concerns and still not fundamentally undermine the integrity of union elections.

Both unions and vendors used an unfortunate rhetorical tactic when talking about security properties of these systems: “We’ve run x hundreds of elections using this kind of technology and have never had a problem/no one has ever complained about fraud.” Unfortunately, that’s not how security works. Akin to adversarial processes like financial audits, security isn’t something that you can base predictions of future performance on past results. That is, the SEC doesn’t say to companies that their past 10 years of financials have been in order, so take a few years off. No, security requires careful design, affirmative effort and active auditing to assure that a system doe not violate the properties it claims.

There’s a lot more in our comment, and I’d be more than happy to respond to comments if you have questions.

* Check out the “Court Cases” section of the Federal Register notice linked to above.

Domain Names Can't Defend Themselves

Today, the Kentucky Supreme Court handed down an opinion in the saga of Kentucky vs. 141 Domain Names (described a while back here on this blog). Here’s the opinion.

This case is fascinating. A quick recap: Kentucky attempted a property seizure of 141 domain names allegedly involved in gambling on the theory that the domain names themselves constituted “gambling devices” under Kentucky law and were therefore illegal. The state held a forfeiture hearing where anyone with an interest in the “property” could show up to defend their interest in the property; otherwise, the State would order the registrars to transfer “ownership” of the domain names to Kentucky. No individual claiming that they own one of the domain names showed up. Litigation began when two industry associations (iMEGA and IGC) claimed to represent unnamed persons who owned these domain names (and another lawyer showed up during litigation claiming representation of one specific domain name).

The subsequent litigation gets a bit complicated; suffice it to say that the issue of standing was what got to the KY Supreme Court: could an association that claimed it represented an owner of a domain name affected in this action properly represent this owner in court without identifying that owner and that the owner was indeed the owner of an affected domain name?

The Kentucky Supreme Court said no, that there needs to be at least one identified individual owner that will suffer harm before the association can stand in stead, ruling,

Due to the incapacity of domain names to contest their own seizure and the inability of iMEGA and IGC to litigate on behalf of anonymous registrants, the Court of Appeals is reversed and its writ is vacated.

And on the issue of whether a piece of property can represent itself:

“An Internet domain name does not have an interest in itself any more than a piece of land is interested in its own use.”

Anyway, it would seem that the options for next steps include, 1) identifying at least one owner that would suffer harm, then motion back up to the Supreme Court (given that merits had been argued at the Appeals level), or 2) decide that the anonymity of domain name ownership in this case is more important than the fight over this very weird seizure of domain names.

As a non-lawyer, I wonder if it’s possible to represent an owner as a John Doe with an affidavit of ownership of an affected domain name submitted.

UPDATE (2010-03-19T00:07:07 EDT): Check the comments for why a John Doe strategy won’t work when the interest in anonymity is to avoid personal liability rather than free expression.

A weird bonus for people that have read this far: if I open the PDF of the opinion on my Mac in Preview.app or Skim.app (two PDF readers), the “SPORTSBOOK.COM” entry in the listing of the parties on the first page is hyperlinked. However, I don’t see this in Adobe Acrobat Pro or Reader. Seems like the KY Supreme Court is, likely inadvertently, linking to one of the 141 domain names. Of course, Preview.app and Skim.app might be sharing the same library that causes this one URL to be linked… I’m not good-enough of a PDF sleuth to figure it out.

Open Government Workshop at CITP

Here at Princeton’s CITP, we have a healthy interest in issues of open government and government transparency. With the release last week of the Open Government Directive by the Obama Administration, our normally gloomy winter may prove to be considerably brighter.

In addition to creating tools like Recap and FedThread, we’ve also been thinking deeply about the nature of open and transparent government, how system designers and architects can better create transparent systems and how to achieve sustainability in open government. Related to these questions are those of the law.gov effort—providing open access to primary legal materials—and how to best facilitate the tinkerers who work on projects of open government.

These are deep issues, so we thought it best to organize a workshop and gather people from a variety of perspectives to dig in.

If you’re interested, come to our workshop next month! While we didn’t consciously plan it this way, the last day of this workshop corresponds to the first 45-day deadline under the OGD.

Open Government: Defining, Designing, and Sustaining Transparency
January 21–22, 2010
http://citp.princeton.edu/open-government-workshop/

Despite increasing interest in issues of open government and governmental transparency, the values of “openness” and “transparency” have been under-theorized. This workshop will bring together academics, government, advocates and tinkerers to examine a few critical issues in open and transparent government. How can we better conceptualize openness and transparency for government? Are there specific design and architectural needs and requirements placed upon systems by openness and transparency? How can openness and transparency best be sustained? How should we change the provision and access of primary legal materials? Finally, how do we best coordinate the supply of open government projects with the demand from tinkerers?

Anil Dash, Director of the AAAS’ new Expert Labs, will deliver the keynote. We are thrilled with the diverse list of speakers, and are looking forward to a robust conversation.

The workshop is free and open to the public, although we ask that you RSVP to so that we be sure to have a name tag and lunch for you.