Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

Privacy expert Ron Deibert on fraudulent emails, COVID-19 tracing apps and open source software

As part of the program’s regular Ask Me Anything series, 2020 Massey Lecturer Ron Deibert joined Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing to take callers’ questions.

The 2020 Massey lecturer answered callers' questions on Checkup

Ron Deibert is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and in the Department of Political Science, and Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. His 2020 CBC Massey Lecture is titled Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. (Riley Stewart/Citizen Lab)

Privacy expert Ron Deibert believes it's time to "reset" our relationship with the technology around us.

That message is a key part of Deibert's 2020 Massey Lecture series, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society, broadcast this month on CBC Radio's Ideas.

But that doesn't mean it's time to wrap your phone in tin foil and toss it in the ocean, says Deibert, who is director at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

"The bottom line is we live in an increasingly small planet with many shared problems, and we will need a global communications infrastructure, something like the internet, in order to debate and share ideas at a bare minimum — but, of course, to do a whole lot more," he told Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing on Sunday.

As part of the program's regular Ask Me Anything series, Deibert joined Checkup to take callers' questions on topics from dealing with phishing emails to how open source software can improve our relationship with technology.

Fraudulent emails

Lauren Doolittle Ansaldo, calling from Saskatoon, shared her experience receiving an email that contained one of her previously-used passwords, likely sourced from a malicious website where hackers posted it following a security breach.

The email "was asking me for $1,800 within 48 hours or they were going to be publishing all my passwords for everything that they had and they would be selling it in the darknet," she explained.

Deibert says that experiences like Doolittle Ansalado's are common, and stem from technology companies' approach to security.

"The reality is that security is largely an afterthought for virtually all of the companies that construct the technological environment within which we live," he said.

Deibert says the best approach to avoiding situations like this is to practice good "digital hygiene" and suggests the Citizen Lab-developed Security Planner as a tool to help.

"If you go there, you can take a questionnaire and you'll be given a series of expertly derived recommendations on some tips that you can do. In your case, it would probably be something like a password manager," he told Doolittle Ansaldo.

WATCH | Ron Deibert shares how he ended up with a cache of secret files

I received a chunk of the Snowden disclosures — and what I learned blew my mind

2 years ago
Duration 8:18
Ron Deibert was sitting in Toronto's Pearson Airport when he got a call from a CBC journalist who wanted him to take a look at a cache of files — materials that would turn out to be part of the Edward Snowden leaks. Ron is the founder and director of Citizen Lab, a research centre that studies digital surveillance.

Social networks and COVID-19 tracing

Samuel Jarjour wanted to know why social networking companies, like Facebook, haven't used their apps and data to develop features for COVID-19 tracking and tracing.

Deibert said that we have to be careful about what data is provided to companies like these so that personal information isn't collected needlessly or stored insecurely.

"We don't want to rely on that infrastructure for, say, the collection of sensitive health information or the tracking of people's movements," he explained.

He pointed to the framework developed jointly by Apple and Google, which uses Bluetooth to anonymously transmit data and underpins the government of Canada's own COVID-19 app, as a safer approach.

"It has some efficacy issues, but at least you can be sure that the data derived from it won't be abused," Deibert said.

"The last thing I would do is advocate for Facebook coming up with some health, COVID-related tracking technology connected to what they're doing because they would monetize it in some way…. We are essentially livestock for their farms, as I say in the book."

Ron Deibert says that social networking companies should not be responsible for storing sensitive health information that would be required for COVID-19 tracing applications. (Jenny Kane/Associated Press)

Opening up code for better privacy

Calling from Vancouver, Ifny Lachance asked Deibert whether he believes free and open source software can help users reclaim their privacy and reduce environmental degradation.

Open source software allows people to freely view, scrutinize and modify a program's coding.

Deibert says that in order to "protect our rights and our freedoms", code should be accessible to everyone.

"We have a great opportunity right now because a large number of people are beginning to realize that these tech platforms have huge power over our lives. They have the ability to shape our lives through algorithms that are proprietary," he said.

"The bottom line here is that we're surrounded by code. Code structures our life in very important ways — it's how power is exercised over our lives today."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan.

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