Mozilla wants to fundamentally change how the Firefox browser handles DNS requests, i.e. the way it looks up the IP addresses of all websites you visit when browsing the web with Firefox. Instead of letting your own ISP do this (which is what normally happens), Firefox will instead send DNS requests (over https) to Cloudflare servers to lookup the IP address for you. The cited reasons are privacy concerns (the party resolving your DNS requests — by default your ISP — will get a complete picture of your browsing habits) and security concerns (the party resolving your DNS request can spoof you and respond with bogus IP addresses).

This is a terrible idea, for many reasons. But it is also totally useless and silly.

Because I don’t see how it solves the problems is aims to address: your ISP will see which websites you visit regardless! Because even if it doesn’t get to see your DNS requests, it still sees all Internet traffic you generate and hence all IP addresses of all sites you visit. This, by the way, is even the case if you surf the web securely, visiting only sites that use https/TLS.

If you do not want this, you can choose to use a VPN instead. Then all internet traffic is encrypted, and as far as your ISP is concerned, you are communicating only with the VPN server (which will also handle all your DNS requests). Off course now your VPN service provider can, in principle, profile your browsing behaviour. So you’ll have to pick one you trust. Which is a more empowering, less centralising choice, than Firefox deciding for all of us to let Cloudflare be our trusted DNS resolver.

Last sunday, journalists from The Correspondent revealed that it was trivially easy to find the names and addresses of military and intelligence service personnel that use Polar, a popular runners wearable and fitness app. All runs (even private ones) made by owners of a Polar fitness device are stored on a central server, and can be viewed on a map. Even though the user interface restricted access to only public runs, bypassing the user interface and entering URLs manually allowed them to extract all runs made by anyone since 2014. Polar switched off access to the map recently to prevent further abuse of this. What can we learn from this incident?
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In mijn columns en blogposts heb ik veel geschreven over de impact van technologie op onze samenleving. Vaak ging het om het beschermen van onze persoonlijke levenssfeer. Over hoe bedrijven als Facebook en Google, maar ook onze overheid, steeds meer over ons weten, waardoor we steeds voorspelbaarder en steeds weerlozer worden. En hoe het privacyvriendelijk ontwerpen van systemen hier een broodnodig tegenwicht aan zou kunnen bieden.

Maar het probleem is breder dan alleen privacy.

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(This is a provocation for the workshop “10 Years Of Profiling The European Citizen”, June 12-13, 2018, Brussels, for the panel on “Transparency theory for data driven decision making”)


Perhaps Louis Brandeis can be considered the father of all transparency theory because of this famous quote of his:

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Indeed transparency is commonly seen as an important tool to counter the ill effects of automated, data driven, decision making.

But I cannot fail to wonder: what if the sun does not shine?…. Wouldn’t that render transparency useless? Indeed, wouldn’t that turn transparency into a perfect cover-up, allowing organisations to hide in plain sight, pretending not to be engaged in any nefarious activities?

Below I will discuss the limits of transparency and discuss six different reasons why transparency by itself is not enough. First, transparency only helps if there are enough experts to verify the information provided. Second, transparency is useless if subjects do not have agency and have no meaningful way to challenge a decision. Third, transparency requirements may be subverted or sidestepped by providing information in an opaque way. Fourth, certain decision making process are hard to explain to begin with. Fifth, a decision may be hard to challenge because scrutinising the decision requires domain expertise and sufficient (computational) resources. And finally, transparency may conflict with business or government interests.

These six arguments are presented in detail below, followed by a brief conclusion.

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Ter ere van het feit dat de AVG vandaag, 25 mei, van kracht is geworden publiceer ik het blauwe boekje over privacyontwerpstrategieën. Deze gids maakt privacy by design concreet.

In celebration of the GDPR coming into force today, May 25, I am releasing the little blue book on privacy design strategies. This little guide makes privacy by design concrete.

Hebt u ze ook gehad? Al die mailtjes waarin u gevraagd wordt of u nog steeds op de hoogte gehouden wilt worden van de aanbiedingen van bedrijf X, de agenda van buurthuis Y of de voorstellingen van schouwburg Z? Krijgt u ook steeds meer pop-ups te zien als u aan het internetten bent, met de vraag de privacyvoorwaarden van de dienst die u gebruikt te accepteren?

Het lijkt wel alsof alle bedrijven en organisaties plotseling collectief in de stress schieten van de AVG: de Algemene Verordening Gegevensbescherming, de nieuwe Europese privacywet die vanaf 25 mei, binnen een week dus, van toepassing wordt. Ondanks het feit dat deze wet er al jaren aan zat te komen, al twee jaar geleden is aangenomen, en sowieso maar weinig verschilt met zijn voorganger: de richtlijn uit 1995 die in Nederland bekend staat als de Wet bescherming persoonsgegevens.

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