Exposing Your Private Data – It’s Not (Just) Them, It’s You

This week the Wall Street Journal published a story about third-party Google App Developers being able to read your Gmail, which was followed by many other outlets trying to sensationalize the news. However, a huge source of the exposing personal information problem isn’t big companies providing access to customer data, the problem is customers unwittingly (or uncaringly) granting permission for their data to be accessed. And while many people are skeptical about companies like Google and Facebook handling their data, the far bigger risk is users constantly exposing their private data to relatively unknown companies in exchange for low-value benefits.

Overreaching Account Access

Many sites and applications allow you to sign-on through an account on Facebook, Google and other services. This process is known as single sign-on (SSO), and is convenient and generally secure, especially if you utilize improved security measures like two-factor authentication. However, some applications ask for more access than is necessary, and the user willingly exposes a lot of private data to a third party that they don’t really know.

This Sample Application owns you and all of your data… forever

The list of permissions presented when you first grant access can enable a third party perpetual access to your information, usually long after you forgot you granted permission.

If you are simply trying to login to a new  application using SSO, there should be very little reason to grant any special permissions. Applications that request access to private data like email, contacts, messages, or calendars will have full access to your personal data. If an application doesn’t manage your private data, it should not need access. To protect your personal data, you should only provide the absolute minimum level of access necessary and avoid applications that request more that what they need.

Untrustworthy Third Parties

Some applications legitimately need elevated permissions to provide the service they offer, like inbox management, automatic scheduling, or even shopping deal comparisons. Many of these apps only access your data in the way necessary to provide the service, but there are many that take full advantage of access to your data and leverage your data for their benefit. According to articles on CNET and the Wall Street JournalReturnPath scanned the inboxes of 2 million people to collect marketing data after they’d signed up for one of the free apps produced by its partners, and the company’s employees read around 8,000 uncensored emails.

Even if you trust the intentions of the company producing the application, security is a really hard challenge and even the best companies fail at it… if you are providing access to an unknown startup, you are putting an exceptional amount of trust in believing they have the resources to ensure proper security measures. Of course, when a company is acquired (or its assets are sold), the access to your private data is passed along to the purchaser, whoever that might be.

When considering trading access to your private data in exchange for an application, ask what you are really getting for the risk. If somebody came up to you on the street and offered you some coupons in exchange for letting them read all of your email (forever), would you make that deal?

It’s Your Browser, Too

In addition to granting companies access directly, web browser extensions can expose data from every website you visit. These Extensions in Chrome, and Add-Ons, Extensions, and Plugins in Firefox, provide enhanced functionality from password management to page translation, ad blocking, and simple video downloads. To provide these services, many extensions get access to everything you do in the browser. For example, a news feed reader has permission to “Read and change all your data on the websites you visit” – this means every page visited and all content on that page is accessible by the news reader extension… your web mail, your Facebook messages, your dating sites, medical issues you research… all available to some company that organizes news headlines for you.

As browser extensions potentially grant access to every account, extra care should be taken to ensure trust for the company and permissions before installing.

Clean it Up and Lock it Down!

Until we make progress on time travel, there isn’t a way for an individual to guarantee deletion of data leaked from previously granted access. There are a few steps to greatly reduce your risk going forward…

Eliminate access to every app you don’t use

Most people simply stop using an app and forget about the access they granted, which usually continues in perpetuity. Regularly review the permissions you have granted – you will almost  certainly find some surprises. Facebook has settings for Apps and Websites, Google has a great Security Checkup, and other SSO services usually have a way of reviewing apps with access to your data. Only allow access to apps you are regularly use, disable those you don’t, and review the permissions to ensure they match the access needed.

And do the same for browser extensions! If there are extensions you use infrequently, most browsers have the option to enable / disable instead of having to delete the extension, so you can easily grant access only when necessary.

Trust Before You Install

Installing applications and linked account creation on websites is simpler than ever.  The downside to this ease of access is users typically spending little time scrutinizing the application. If you are giving access to your private data, spend the time to understand who is getting access, and how they will use your data. A simple web search for the application and “security” or “trust” can reveal what others experienced. If the company doesn’t have a website with the ability to contact them, and a published policy about handling your private data, there is a good chance securing your private data isn’t a real concern for them, and it should be for you!


Did you actually check to see who you are sharing your private data with? If so, what is the craziest thing you found? Please share by leaving a reply, below!

How to Respond After Leaking Your Customer’s Data

The most recent consumer-hostile disclosure of an account breach was Uber’s leaking of 57 million accounts almost a year ago. I’d like to say this is an extraordinary event, but much like a favorite character getting killed in Game of Thrones, companies leaking customer data is just another regular occurrence we’ve come to expect. What continues to surprise me is how badly so many companies screw-up their response to a breach. The one principle that should guide companies following a breach is, “make the decisions you would want a company to make if it was your account that was compromised.

And sure, it’s easy to point fingers when it’s not you in the hot seat, so I’ll use the breach I managed as an example… The breach I was responsible for was in September 2015, when I was CEO of a company that had over 100 million registered accounts.

Initial Response

The breach was caught around 11:00 PM at night… within a couple of hours we had a fire-team of employees in the office. The priority was confirming that the breach was indeed fully contained, and then validating we understood the full extent of the breach. We wanted to communicate to customers as quickly as possible, and we wanted to be able to accurately convey the amount of exposure. Every other project was de-prioritized and employees were working 24/7 on projects related to the breach.

Thanks to some security precautions we had in place, we were able to detect the breach in real-time, limit the data that was accessed, and understand exactly what data was exposed. Also, due to the nature of the data that was accessed, the actual customer exposure was minimal (e.g. no credit cards, social security, addresses)… assuming the attacker had planned to use the data for malicious purposes, the actual value of that data was extremely low.

As we reached morning, we contacted law enforcement and legal counsel, both of which informed us that the data exposed was insignificant in terms of risk. We were also told that, because of the type of data accessed, there was no requirement to disclose the breach.

While we had a pretty solid understanding of what happened as part of the breach, we didn’t want to be overly confident, so we continued the process of going through hundreds of servers and employee computers to look for anything that might have been missed, a process that took a little over two full days.

The Ransom

Within 24 hours of the breach I started receiving emails that threatened to release the customer data and publicly announce the breach if we didn’t pay a sum of money. My response to the blackmail was letting them know I would consider their proposal, but ultimately the damage they would do is to customers that didn’t deserve to be exploited, and to employees, good people that already feel a ton of weight from the responsibility. They gave me a few days to make a decision.

Talking to Our Customers

After we had confidence that we had contained the breach, removed any attack vectors, and fully understood the data accessed, we were ready to talk to our customers. Less than 72 hours had passed, but it felt like an eternity getting to this moment.

We posted to our forums and messaged our customers individually with the details of the breach, specific data accessed, how that data can be used, and what steps to take (on our service and others) to protect against any further attack. We also disclosed that the hacker had tried to extort money in exchange for silence.

While I can’t say that any customer was pleased that the exploit occurred, many responded very positively to our handling of it. Earlier that year credit card and health care breaches of highly-sensitive data took many months to be announced, so many of our customers appreciated how quickly we moved to keep them informed.

Evidently the hacker didn’t read our forum post, as the next day they gave me the final warning that they were about to announce the breach to our customers and the media. I informed the hacker that we would not be paying the ransom, reminded them that the people they will hurt don’t deserve it, and pointed them to the forum posting fully disclosing the breach, accessible to all of our customers and the media.

Post Breach

Through a process of many, many postmortems and follow-up action items, the company continued to improve security in several areas, projects that extended many months. We understood exactly how the breach occurred, and the human component that enabled the breach. What we explicitly didn’t do is punish or threaten anybody – throughout the whole process we made all employees feel safe, which enabled people to be fully transparent and quickly disclose their mistakes, a critical aspect of quickly understanding how the breach occurred.

The moment that sticks out in my mind the most was an email I received from an employee in response to a detailed summary of the events I sent to the company. That employee expressed that they had never been so proud to be at a company, in the integrity we demonstrated to our customers, and the unwavering support for the employees. It was one of those emails that CEOs move to their “save forever” folder. 

Key Takeaways

While there are a lot of opportunities for companies to make customer data more secure, the unfortunate reality is even the companies with the best security practices experience breaches – this is going to happen. However, a few steps can provide better outcomes for all parties:

  1. Treat your customers as you would want to be treated.
  2. Make your employees feel safe. Fearful employees will conceal critical information that is necessary to fully understand the problem.
  3. Don’t negotiate with criminals. It’s bad for your customers, there is no way to enforce the criminal’s end of the agreement, and the deception is likely to be revealed at some point. Perhaps one acceptable variation on this takeaway is, if you do negotiate with criminals in the interest of your customers (e.g. to get details about how the leak occurred), still be transparent with your customers and disclose that a transaction occurred.
  4. Do the follow-up work. After an exhausting amount of effort getting past the initial breach it’s easy to feel like your work is done… make sure all of the known exploit vectors are eliminated.


Have you been impacted by a company’s data breach? I’d like to hear about your experience – please leave a comment!

How to Stop Me From Spying on Your Internet Usage

Yesterday Congress voted to erase privacy protections for consumers by passing a law making it illegal for the FCC to have rules to protect consumer privacy online. Specifically, this vote allows your ISP (Internet Service Provider, the company you pay for your Internet access) to collect and sell your Internet usage information without your permission. To be fair, you didn’t yet have these protections… they were just about to go into effect, and now they won’t.

Most people appreciate the right to keep private what they do in their own home and are unhappy with a violation of this privacy, but many don’t understand the potential impact on their lives, or how to protect themselves from these privacy violations.

What You Reveal Using the Internet

In your day-to-day usage of the Internet you expose to your ISP an enormous amount of data that enables them to target and classify you in ways that are valuable to advertisers, employers, insurance companies, and financial institutions.  Your ISP has the ability to sell to companies data to classify you based on health issues, financial status, sexual interests, religion, hobbies, and political views.

Every web search you make and every web page you visit is an opportunity for your ISP to understand you a little better. Searching information about depression?  Looking at the most recent coupon you got from BevMo?  Congratulations, you’re now part of the “risk of alcoholism” demographic that might be of interest to future employers or insurance companies.  Reading a medical site to figure out if that mole on your arm looks funny?  You are flagged as a cancer risk.  Searching for an anniversary present and looking at a dating site in the same week?  Divorce attorneys and real estate agents might pay handsomely to know who you are (or, more accurately, who your spouse is).

But wait, Brett – I use “Incognito” or “Privacy” mode on my browser… doesn’t that protect me?  Actually, no… these options prevent websites from permanently storing information on your browser that can later be used by that website to re-identify and track you, but they don’t do anything to secure the traffic that goes between your computer and the website, which always passes through your ISP.

But Brett, I know the little “https:” in the web address bar means secure, so I’m safe on those sites, right?  You’re better off, but you’re still leaking a ton of information… Secure websites do a great job of ensuring that the traffic sent between the website and your computer is encrypted and secure – so the contents of the interaction should be private.  However, your ISP will still have access to watching the Internet addresses you visit, so if you look at the Suicide Prevention Hotline, your ISP can’t see the specific data but they know you are interested in content about suicide. This site-identifying information is also revealed through your DNS queries (how your computer turns a URL into an IP address), and most consumers have their DNS handled by their ISP.

Okay, Brett… fine, ISPs can do this shifty stuff, but this sounds like tinfoil hat territory.  Well, maybe, but these large ISPs have a history of doing some really shady things with your data, ranging from hijacking (and replacing) your search results, inserting ads into your web pages, and secretly sending your web history back to the ISP.  The big name ISPs (Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon) spent money lobbying and buying votes because they are most capable of turning your private information into their profits (and they probably want a return on that investment).

You are the Product

Of course, collecting and selling information about users is the way many Internet companies (Google, Facebook) become powerful cash machines.  As a general rule, if you use a free service that doesn’t sell its products, you are actually the product being sold to other companies.  The primary difference is these privacy-selling services are optional (you don’t have to use Facebook), and you are not paying for them.

An ISP is closer to the phone company as a utility – while you may have some choice in which ISP you use, frequently these choices are very limited and, if selling private customer information is a standard practice, your only alternate choice is not having Internet access.  If you found out that the phone company listened in on your conversations and sold transcripts to other companies, you’d likely be outraged.

Which brings up the question, what protections will you have that you are not highly targeted?  You filled out a request for health insurance online, can that insurance company acquire the data to make coverage liability decisions about you based on requesting data for your IP address, if not for your name specifically?  Can I go to my local ISP and buy data because I want to understand what news my neighbors read, what dating sites they use, and what movies they watch?

Keeping Your Internet Usage Private

For the more technically inclined, there are a several options available (e.g. centralized VPN at the router, or TOR servers), but these are not really accessible for the average consumer, so I’m going to cover what I think are the two best options accessible to most people that don’t have a system administrator living in their household.


A VPN (virtual private network) establishes an encrypted connection between your computer and another server, and that server accesses the Internet and relays the data back to your computer.  A VPN prevents your ISP from seeing anything you access – they only see a single connection to the VPN server.  While the VPN does conceal your data from your ISP, you need to find a trusted VPN provider as they now have access to your data.  As an additional challenge, if you are interested in making all Internet access from your home private, a VPN is unlikely to work with all of your devices (e.g. Tablets, Roku, Apple TV, Alexa / Echo, and Amazon Fire TV).  Finally, some Internet sites (like Netflix) specifically block VPNs, adding additional frustration to this solution.

Choose an ISP That Values Your Privacy

All ISPs have the ability to take advantage of Congress voting away your online privacy rights.  The big names (Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon) have the most capability of leveraging your private data, but this doesn’t mean that smaller ISPs won’t also use your private data – it is quite likely that bigger companies will offer an easy revenue-generating solution that allows smaller ISPs to provide access to your data, bringing in some extra cash (tempting for small ISPs that are typically at a significant disadvantage over the big names).

However, smaller ISPs can be more committed to respecting customer desires, and may be more receptive to customer requests to maintain privacy.  For example, since the early 1990’s I’ve worked with LMi.net, who has always been a great partner for my business and personal Internet needs.  I called the owner and he told me several customers called after Congress voted and he responded, “It’s easy. We never have sold user data, and we never will.”  While big ISP’s send me weekly junk mail trying to lure me in on some great Internet package (usually including TV), I understand the value of my ISP consistently making decisions that consider the best interest of the customer.


Do you have other suggestions for keeping your Internet usage private? Think I’m a paranoid crackpot?  Please leave a comment!

You Are Wrong About Your Stupid Account

You’re wrong – hackers are interested in your boring personal account, you are making it easy for them to get access, and it will likely end up being a bigger problem than you imagine.

Those are the stern words I want to use whenever I witness a friend doing the online equivalent of parking and leaving a stack of $100 bills on their car dashboard in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Instead I tend to suggest some easy steps to take to be more secure, which are almost invariably met with “it’s not a big deal”. I decided to write up my thoughts, so I can just point friends to this article and hopefully help others. This is absolutely not for altruistic reasons… I’ve had multiple experiences where somebody else’s bad online security habits resulted in nights and weekends of work for me and entire teams of people. I just want to sleep.

Hackers Want Your Stupid [insert lame service] Account

It seems absurd that your Lint Sculptures Discussion Forums password is of value to anybody… it’s just you and people you’ve met over the last 15 years that love to talk about dryer lint sculpting… security doesn’t matter. However, it was 15 years ago, so you chose a really lame password at the time (like “123456”), and now that an elite hacker has broken that code, they see your basic account details (your email, IP address, real name and city you live in). Again, who cares… that’s useless. Well, except you used the same password for everything back then, so with your email and password they can run a script to check 100,000 other sites and hey… looks like your genealogy, old photo sharing, and that antique Hotmail account you abandoned had the same password. Unfortunately, that banking thing you signed up for 12 years ago used that Hotmail address, and you forgot to unlink the Hotmail address from a few other accounts, including Paypal and LinkedIn. Now the hacker has the ability to access your LinkedIn account, change account credentials on your banking and possibly access accounts you don’t even remember you had. You can imagine how this gets problematic… the ability to send and receive from your email address typically provides the ability to get access to all other accounts, if by no other means than requesting a password reset. And this is just the annoying scenario where you have to deal with correcting identify theft on your own… at least you didn’t drag your friends down.

Instead the Hacker could exploit your Lint Sculptures Discussion Forums friends of 15 years. Does everybody need a direct message and 10,000 forum posts offering black market Viagra? No problem. Or how about a few messages to trusted friends to install this Lint Sculpting Simulation program… you know it doesn’t have a virus because your trusted friend of 15 years swears it’s great. Everybody wants to be part of a botnet, right? All of these acts may seem pointless to you, but hackers have a way of generating value (and money) from these pointless acts, and it isn’t much effort (a lot of it is automated), so it happens.

These scenarios may sound ridiculous, but two years ago I was contacted by a long-time friend that was traveling abroad and all of his possessions has been stolen, his family was stranded and he needed me to send money. What was true is he was traveling with family, the rest was made up by a hacker that got enough information to know I was a friend that would help, knew when the family was traveling, and when the story might make sense. Everything hackers needed to make this happen came from accessing worthless accounts.

Steps to Making Yourself More Secure

Security must be balanced with convenience. When being secure is a hassle, people naturally find (unfortunate) workarounds that make things less secure. If you require a password that is 20 characters long and random, look around the person’s desk for the PostIt (or possibly worse, in their “passwords.txt” file on their desktop). The sweet spot is a mild inconvenience that dramatically improves security. I find there’s a few easy practices that fit into this sweet spot…

Two-factor Authentication

Systems that require two components to authenticate are substantially more secure than password-only systems. To access an account, it requires something you know (e.g. the password), and something you have, like a key. The “key” today is typically an application like Google Authenticator, or an SMS message with a code sent to your phone, both of which provide a unique code that is only valid for 1-5 minutes. Many services offer this, including Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and a few banks (seriously banks, WTF?)

The beauty of Two-factor Authentication is, even if your password is breached, it doesn’t allow the hacker to access your account. So when you are are that hotel and using the guest computer with a key-logger to print your flight itinerary from your Gmail account, it doesn’t matter… the hacker only has 50% of what they need.

The inconvenience of adding Two-factor Authentication is typically an additional 20 seconds and, since many services allow you to say “remember me for 30 days”, it’s less than a minute a month (and… don’t use “remember me” on any shared machine).

Unique Passwords

If I told you I had every lock I use in my life (home, office, safety deposit box, cars, bike lock, vacation house) re-keyed to use the exact same key, you’d probably agree that it would be disproportionately bad if somebody found my bike key. When you apply this to online habits, people seem oddly comfortable with one key for almost everything, and a special key for their bank account (but online, weak keys often provide access to special keys).

Use a different (and strong) password for everything. This, of course, is a hassle… nobody can remember 150 different strong passwords, especially when you have to change them all every 3 weeks when you get the latest exploit notice from Yahoo!

One solution is to have a hard password that is modified in a way that you know for each service. As an example, my password is “nS72!la^mq” and I add the first four letters of the website it uses, in reverse… so for Yahoo! it becomes “nS72!la^mqohaY” and for Google it is “nS72!la^mqgooG”. This has a few flaws, including making it hard to change passwords, but it’s a substantial improvement over “swordfish” for everything.

A better solution is a password manager. Services like LastPass and Passpack provide a secure way for you to store and retrieve complicated passwords. Legitimate services encrypt your data in a way where they don’t actually know or even have access to your password, so a hacker that steals their database ends-up with a ton of encrypted files and no keys. While there are ways that could be exploited, these services are certainly better than any other options available at a consumer-level (and if you’re really paranoid, some make the source code available for you to keep the encrypted data only on your computer).

Whatever you do, never, ever, ever keep a password file on you computer, even if you think you’re clever by naming it “groceries.doc”.

Don’t Share Accounts

Sharing accounts invariably leads to other poor security practices, like the need to email everybody when a password changes or having a shared password file somewhere. And, when one of the people sharing your account gets hacked, this means the shared account gets hacked (and probably every other account in that shared password file so cleverly named “groceries.doc”)

This isn’t 1997 -these days there are very few reasons why each person can’t have their own credentials, especially for email. Only share accounts when separate accounts are not possible (I’m looking at you, Netflix). If you do need to share accounts, use a password manager that offers sharing of specific entries, which means that only the minimum exposure is shared and it is simple to update credentials (Passpack does this nicely).

Don’t Click Links

Okay, so the Interwebs sort of suck if you follow this rule exactly and dead-end on a website. However, for any site you are going to access and provide your credentials, enter the URL directly.

Did you just receive a weird email from PayPal telling you that Ned just paid you $42 for a lint sculpture you don’t remember selling? Instead of clicking on the “collect your money” link in the email, type “paypal.com” in your browser bar directly and see if the transaction is in your account history. Many phishing emails look and smell like the real thing because it is pretty simple to copy the real thing and send you to “paypaI.com” (see what I did there? that was a capital “i”, not an “l” in that URL) to steal your password. Of course, if you’re using Two-factor Authentication, a stolen password is less of a problem.

Secure Your Family

I used to get sick a couple of times a year… no big deal, just a sniffle every now and then. When I had kids, my health status flipped and it seemed like a couple of times a year I wasn’t infected with whatever was festering in the cesspool of Cheerios, finger paint, juice boxes and runny noses known as preschool.

My point is, there is almost certainly going to be an overlap of your family’s online account footprint, and when one person gets hacked it will likely be a vector for the rest of your family. Sharing documents in Dropbox, G Suite (Google Docs), or Amazon family all provide opportunities for a hack to spread. Protect your accounts by having those close to you keep their accounts secure (and… that is the real reason I wrote this post – pure selfishness as I protect my own accounts).

Do you have other tips or suggestions to help make the average person more secure? Share them in the comments section!