Jonathan Mayer is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Before joining the Princeton faculty, Jonathan served as the technology law and policy advisor to United States Senator Kamala Harris and as the Chief Technologist of the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau. Jonathan's research centers on the intersection of technology and law, with emphasis on national security, criminal procedure, consumer privacy, network management, and online speech. Jonathan is both a computer scientist and a lawyer, and he holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.
Click the local Home Depot ad and your email address gets handed to a dozen companies monitoring you. Your web browsing, past, present, and future, is now associated with your identity. Swap photos with friends on Photobucket and clue a couple dozen more into your username. Keep tabs on your favorite teams with Bleacher Report and you pass your full name to a dozen again. This isn't a 1984-esque scaremongering hypothetical. This is what's happening today.
[Update 10/11: Since several readers have asked – this study was funded exclusively by Stanford University and research grants to the Stanford Security Lab. It was not supported by any advocacy organization.]
A number of technologies have been touted to offer consumers control over third-party web tracking. This post reviews the tools that are available and presents empirical evidence on their effectiveness. Here are the key takeaways:
- Most desktop browsers currently do not support effective self-help tools. Mobile users are almost completely out of luck.
- Self-help tools vary substantially in performance.
- The most effective self-help tools block third-party advertising.
Following the usage model in the FTC staff's 2010 preliminary online privacy report, this post is oriented towards the user who wants a simple, persistent, comprehensive solution such that with high confidence no third party collects her browsing history. We assume that some third-party trackers will use non-cookie tracking methods including supercookies and fingerprinting (e.g. Microsoft, KISSmetrics, Epic Marketplace, BlueCava, Interclick, Quantcast).
Despite all the attention they've received in the debates around online privacy, cookies are far from the only way to track a user. Broadly speaking, a website can either stash a unique identifier anyplace in the browser ("tagging")1 or explore features of the browser until it becomes unique ("fingerprinting").2 Tracking technologies that do not rely on cookies are often referred to as "supercookies," and they are widely viewed as unsavory in the computer security community because they continue tracking even when a user clears her cookies to preserve privacy. Sometimes a site will use a supercookie to "respawn" its original identifier cookie, creating a "zombie cookie" — the basis of several lawsuits.
In one of our recent FourthParty web measurement crawls we included a cookie clearing step to emulate a user's privacy choice. We observed that after clearing the browser's cookies an identifier cookie (named "MUID" for "machine unique identifier") respawned on live.com, a Microsoft domain. We dug into Microsoft's cross-domain cookie syncing code and discovered two independent supercookie mechanisms, one of which was respawning cookies. We contacted Microsoft with our observations, and we have collaborated to assist in rectifying the issues we uncovered. Here is what we know.
Thanks, once again, to Jovanni Hernandez and Akshay Jagadeesh for their indispensable research assistance.
(Jovanni Hernandez and Akshay Jagadeesh are the first authors of this study.)
Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the public World Wide Web, and there is much to celebrate. The early web consisted of a few text pages linked together; the modern web supports audio, video, interactivity, complex storage, and even native applications. Both Microsoft and Google are now developing entire operating systems around web technologies.
Today we're releasing FourthParty, an open-source platform for web measurement. FourthParty is built on Mozilla Firefox and the Add-on SDK, making it fast, modular, easy to use, multi-platform, and up-to-date with the latest web technologies. And FourthParty is already generating research results: it's the tool we've been using in our Tracking the Trackers studies (1, 2). To learn more and get started, visit fourthparty.info.
By Jonathan Mayer and Edward W. Felten
Special to The Bee
By Edward Felten and Jonathan Mayer
Snooping on the Internet is tricky. The network is diffuse, global, and packed with potential targets. There’s no central system for identifying or locating individuals, so it’s hard to keep track of who is online and what they’re up to. What’s a spy agency to do?
Privacy Substitutes by Jonathan Mayer & Arvind Narayanan
Arguing that a defendant’s conviction for website hacking should be overturned because legitimate, highly valuable security and privacy research commonly employs techniques that are essentially identical to what the defendant did and that such independent research is of great value to academics, government regulators and the public even when – often especially when — conducted without a website owner’s permission.
"“Do Not Track could have succeeded only if there had been some incentive for the ad tech industry to reach a consensus with privacy advocates and other stakeholders—some reason why a failure to reach a negotiated agreement would be a worse outcome for the industry,” said Arvind Narayanan, a professor at Princeton University who was one of the technologists at the table. “Around 2011, the threat of federal legislation brought them to the negotiating table. But gradually, that threat disappeared.
"“Every data mishap strengthens the bipartisan case for Congress to take action on data protection,” said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor at Princeton University who formerly worked in the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau."
"“If that second argument is right, it calls into question every state law that regulates the Internet,” said Jonathan Mayer, a former chief technologist in the FCC’s enforcement bureau."
"California recently passed a new privacy law that would give Californians some power over the data companies’ hold on them. Industry groups hope to defang that statute by pushing Congress to pass federal privacy legislation that would overrule state laws.
"Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer science professor who served as a technologist at the Federal Communications Commission, said the issue deserves close scrutiny.
“Anything that significantly interferes with 911 is a problem," Mayer said. "And anything that could significantly interfere with 911 deserves a close look.”"
Presented by: Catholic University Columbus School of Law’s Journal of Law & Technology
2016 Journal of Law & Technology Symposium
Cybersecurity and Privacy in the Internet Economy: Information Sharing, Data Security, and Intellectual Property
March 17, 2016
2:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Because of Edward Snowden’s remarkable public service, we know that the National Security Agency, with the cooperation of some large firms, has amassed an unprecedented database of personal information. The ostensible goal in collecting that information is to protect national security. The effect, according to Reed Hundt, is to undermine democracy.
This talk presents an empirical assessment of the NSA’s legal restrictions, including research cited by President Obama’s intelligence review group. We find that present limits on bulk surveillance programs come up far short; authorities to intercept international Internet traffic and domestic telephone metadata place ordinary Americans at risk.
Solutions to many pressing economic and societal challenges lie in better understanding data. New tools for analyzing disparate information sets, called Big Data, have revolutionized our ability to find signals amongst the noise. Big Data techniques hold promise for breakthroughs ranging from better health care, a cleaner environment, safer cities, and more effective marketing. Yet, privacy advocates are concerned that the same advances will upend the power relationships between government, business and individuals, and lead to prosecutorial abuse, racial or other profiling, discrimination, redlining, overcriminalization, and other restricted freedoms.
Have you ever borrowed a smartphone without asking? Modified a URL? Scraped a website? Called an undocumented API? Congratulations: you might have violated federal law! A 1986 statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), provides both civil and criminal remedies for mere "unauthorized" access to a computer.
In this first episode, Mike and I explore how your simplest digital footprints – fragments of Google searches, Facebook likes, and innocuous tweets – can expose deeply intimate facts about you. Like whether your parents are divorced and whether you own a gun. In fact, these vanilla datasets that we all generate every time we use the Internet reveal surprising clues about our personalities and behavior. So how can that information be used, and who is collecting it? We talk to Michal Kosinski of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist and lawyer.
As consumers increasingly adopt encryption tools, government officials have warned of the “Going Dark” problem – the notion that widespread encryption will thwart legitimate government efforts to investigate crime and safeguard national security. To address this problem, law enforcement and intelligence community officials have suggested that companies include “backdoors” in their products to permit lawful government access to encrypted data. This proposal has been met with criticism from technologists and privacy advocates alike.
"WELNA: It could indeed. Hackers, by definition, are trying to break into other people's computer accounts and steal their information, so monitoring their activity means watching them poach on other people's Internet usage and private data. I talked with Jonathan Mayer, a computer security fellow at Stanford who's reviewed these latest Snowden documents. He says because of the way the surveillance law is written, the NSA can actually hang on to that hacked information.
CIS Affiliate Scholar David Levine interviews Jonathan Mayer, Stanford Ph.D. candidate in computer science, author of Terms of Abuse: An Empirical Assessment of the Federal Hacking Law, and How to Fix It.
Listen to the full piece at Marketplace.org.
"Now Neustar might lose the contract to Ericsson, which is based in Sweden. Neustar says this would be bad for national security, said Jonathan Mayer, a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
“It certainly is a legitimate concern that the company that routes calls is in position to know a fair amount about law enforcement and intelligence investigations,” Mayer said."