Security

HTML5 may as well stand for Hey, Track Me Longtime 5. Ads can use it to fingerprint netizens

This language is wired for sound


Usenix Enigma HTML5 is a boon for unscrupulous web advertising networks, which can use the markup language's features to build up detailed fingerprints of individual netizens without their knowledge or consent.

In a presentation at Usenix's Enigma 2018 conference in California this week, Arvind Narayanan, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton, showed how some of the advanced features of HTML5 – such as audio playback – can be used to identify individual browser types and follow them around online to get an idea of what they're into.

For example, different browsers process sound files in slightly different ways, and allowing an ad network – or any website – to potentially work out which version of a browser is being used on which operating system. Couple this with other details – such as the battery level and WebRTC – and you can start to form a fingerprint for an individual user.

Of course, your browser typically reveals its version number and the underlying operating system's details to web servers when fetching pages and other materials. However, from what Narayanan is saying, it is possible for ad networks and webmasters to bypass any attempts to suppress that information by probing the browser with HTML5 for traceable details. It also means that dumping JavaScript and cookies, and relying on purely HTML5, won't mean you're completely free from online tracking by advertisers.

“HTML5 browsers use a library to do audio processing, but different software stacks produce a unique fingerprint in combination with other data,” he explained. “Similar techniques also work on the battery and WebRTC functions.”

Fingerprint ... Each browser type has its own way of processing audio that makes it easy to track, according to this slide by Arvind Narayanan

Narayanan and his team have been monitoring the behavior of ad trackers for years. In 2014, they discovered 5,000 of the world's top 100,000 most-visited websites were, in one way or another, using a canvas fingerprinting technique to identify and follow netizens around the internet, as they moved from page to page, site to site, without their knowledge.

Further research last year found that ad networks were using session replay scripts, which he described as “analytics on steroids,” to stalk people online. Narayanan said he and his team found ad trackers on 8,000 websites leaking visitors' information in this way – including code on the website of American pharmacy chain Walgreens, which apparently handed confidential patient records to advertisers via forms, as well as the Gradescope assignment-grading software used by Princeton.

“This [session replay technique] left website owners and users pissed off,” he said. “Once we detailed the technique, the largest ad tracking providers stopped doing it. It seems sunlight is a great disinfectant.”

But this scrutiny only works up to a point, he warned. Netizen-tracking firms aren’t going to stop following people around the 'net and working out what interests them so they can be served targeted adverts and special offers. Narayanan was one of the team overseeing the now-imploded Do Not Track browser feature, and the ad industry was adamant: if 15 per cent or more of internet users turned tracking off, the banner networks would refuse to play ball and track them anyway.

Technical workarounds by ad blockers, such as Privacy Badger and Ghostery, are of some use, he said. But they are usually playing catch up with ad trackers, not blocking them from the start.

The only way this is going to stop is if web browser programmers step up and build in measures to curb the ability to stalk users. But Narayanan said browser makers don’t want to get involved.

“Historically, web browsers consider it’s not their problem. Vendors are attempting to be neutral on this, and leave it to users to sort out,” he said. “To users that’s like an email provider saying that they are neutral on spam. Protection of privacy is a core reason for user choice.”

There have been some encouraging moves. The Brave browser has been developed specifically to neuter naughty advertising trackers, and both Firefox and Safari are making more of an effort in this area, he said. Chrome is also, we note, making noises in that direction.

But what’s needed is a fundamental rethink, with features that ensure tracking-free browsing, just as private browsing doesn’t record session data on a local workstation. Some kind of warning, similar to the HTTPS icon, would also be useful.

It’s important that these anti-surveillance techniques are implemented, he said, because privacy is vital to society – and there’s plenty of evidence showing a lack of privacy stifles debate. “Privacy is a lubricant that allows for social adaptability,” Narayanan opined. “If we move to a state of pervasive surveillance we lose that mobility.” ®

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Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?

Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

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The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

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Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

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High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

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US fears China may have ten exascale systems by 2025

China refuses to share benchmarks, US sharpens focus on developing optimized software

The US is racing to catch up with China in supercomputing performance amid fears that the country may widen its lead in exascale computers over the next decade, according to reports.

The Frontier supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is expected to be the first exascale system in the US once it is fully operational, but China already has two exascale systems up and running since last year, as reported on our sister site The Next Platform.

This lead may widen as the US has three exascale systems in the pipeline, while China aims to have up to 10 operational systems by 2025, says a report in the Financial times.

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With any other portable, this would be bad news for existing owners

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The new models have faster 12th-generation Intel Core CPUs.

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Boeing's Starliner CST-100 on its way to the ISS 2 years late

A couple of thruster failures shouldn't affect the Calamity Capsule's second attempt at reaching space station

Two and a half years after its first disastrous launch, Boeing has once again fired its CST-100 Starliner capsule at the International Space Station.

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After separation from the Centaur, Starliner fired its own thrusters for orbital insertion and is on course for the ISS. Docking is scheduled for approximately 19:10 ET today (23:10 UTC).

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Biden tours Samsung fab, talks chip cooperation with South Korea

Factory is a model for one the company has planned in Texas

US president Joe Biden kicked off his first Asian tour since taking office in South Korea, where he visited a Samsung semiconductor fab said to be the model for the company's planned plant in Taylor, Texas.

While speaking at the Samsung Electronics Pyeongtaek Campus, Biden said the region will be a key part of the next several decades – a reason "to invest in one another to deepen our business ties.". 

Much of the talk on Biden's five-day trip to South Korea and Japan will center around broader deepening of economic and business ties. In Pyeongtaek, however, the emphasis was on semiconductor cooperation. While touring the plant with recently elected South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol, Biden noted "these little chips are the key to propelling us into the next era of humanity's technological development."

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Meta to squeeze money from WhatsApp with Cloud API for businesses

How to make a free messaging platform bought for $22 billion profitable

At Meta's first Conversations keynote yesterday, the company announced the WhatsApp Cloud API, aimed at improving the customer service experience for businesses of all sizes.

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It's basically another online presence where enterprises can set up shop to make it easier for customers to get in touch. But the WhatsApp Business API is on-premises and would normally need a solutions provider like Twilio to facilitate back-end integration.

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Microsoft patches the patch that broke Windows authentication

May 10 update addressed serious vulns but also had problems of its own

Microsoft has released an out-of-band patch to deal with an authentication issue that was introduced in the May 10 Windows update.

Elizabeth Tyler, cyber security consultant on Microsoft's Detection and Response Team, confirmed the fix to worried administrators early this morning.

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