Risky Business

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A while ago I wrote about the general threats to one’s privacy posed by search engine histories. It appears that the threat is more than theoretical, as researchers at INRIA and UCI have shown recently. They were able to exploit security weaknesses in the Google Web History used to generate personalized suggestions through what they termed a “Historiographer” attack.

Google appears to be taking the researchers’ warnings seriously, and has modified some of its services to use HTTPS. Not all aspects have yet been secured, however.

The implications here go beyond search and beyond Google to any service or device that communicates over the public internet. When these systems are designed for speed, efficiency and low cost, they often neglect security. This applies as much to online services as it does to web-enabled devices such as smart grid appliances. Yet security lapses can pose real risks to users of these systems. The costs associated with these security breaches are typically not well-represented in the tradeoffs that go into building these distributed systems.

One way to create incentives for companies to consider such costs when designing products and services is to make the companies liable for certain kinds of security breaches. This topic was raised during a panel on cybercrime I attended last week at the Computer History Museum. For those who missed it, the video is available on YouTube. Unfortunately the panelists weren’t in a position to render substantive opinions on this sensitive topic. It will be interesting to see if the issue of liability for loss of information gets codified into law at some point.