Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


05:40 PM
Connect Directly

When Your Biggest Security and Privacy Threats Come From the Ones You Love

Research examines the risks and design challenges of accounting for privacy threats in intimate relationships.

As technology has become more ubiquitous in people's everyday lives, a new class of privacy threats has emerged in family, romantic, friendship, and caregiving relationships. Dubbed "intimate threats" by a recent academic paper in the Journal of Cybersecurity, these are the thorny risks that are intertwined with issues around location tracking, always-on monitoring or recording, online surveillance, and the control over technology accounts or devices.

Written by Karen Levy, a lawyer and sociologist, and information security luminary Bruce Schneier, the paper examines how the dynamics of different intimate relationships break the security model in a lot of systems. It examines real-world examples of this in action and also provides some recommendations for technology designers and security professionals to start rethinking how they build products and think about threat models and security use cases. 

The use of technology in intimate relationships can quickly turn dark with very little recourse from the victim because the product was never designed to account for abuse cases. 

"Facebook had a system for a while where you'd get your account back because they'd show you pictures and you'd click on the ones that are your friends, assuming that you know who they are but other people don't," Schneier says. "But your partner and your parents all know that stuff too. So it's a great system, but it fails in the intimate context. It fails when your boyfriend takes over your account." 

While writing the paper, the authors quickly collected many illustrative examples of the abuse of technology not only having to do with covert monitoring, but also control over financial accounts or technology. For example, they pointed to the use of household-shared smart devices and thermostats increasingly being used by abusers and vengeful exes to wreak havoc on intimate partners' daily lives. 

The difficulty is that there are a lot of complicated dynamics - both ethical and technical - to account for when mitigating intimate threats, says Levy, who explains that she and Schneier spent a long time debating whether to even call them "threats." They eventually chose to use that language because it is a common and useful way for the tech community to conceptualize these problems.  

"It's complicated because the motivations in the intimate context are often pretty complicated and not necessarily nefarious," she says.

For example, a teenager might be told by his or her parents that they can have a later curfew only if the parent can track where their phone is. Or a parent may set up a webcam with full knowledge from their nanny to be able to get a happy glimpse of their little one during a break in an otherwise hectic workday.  

"There's lots of ways in which we use this in perfectly beneficent and socially negotiated ways to take care of one another," she says. "And so that means that the line between this is okay and this isn't okay is going to be very variable, both within and across relationships."

To account for these complicated dynamics, the duo worked to break down some of the sociological dimensions to the issue, such as different motivations between both the user and the other affected parties, copresence, dynamic power-differential, and also the disparities in technical abilities between different people in a given relationship. They then cross-referenced these with some design recommendations across a number of different design implications.

"It's certainly not a roadmap or a checklist or anything quite so definitive, but it's a list of things to consider," Levy explains. "So one of them is, when you're designing, assume that the person that is buying the product is not necessarily your only user and that you should think of the people who are subject to being monitored as potentially your users too."

The idea is to get the technology-design community thinking critically and remembering that these relationship dynamics are always going to be at play within the user base.

"When you're designing systems, we really have to take these relationships into account," Schneier says. "They are not the exceptions, they are normal. It's not something we can ignore."

Related Content:

Learn from industry experts in a setting that is conducive to interaction and conversation about how to prepare for that "really   bad day" in cybersecurity. Click for more information and to register
Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Former CISA Director Chris Krebs Discusses Risk Management & Threat Intel
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  2/23/2021
Security + Fraud Protection: Your One-Two Punch Against Cyberattacks
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5,  2/23/2021
Cybercrime Groups More Prolific, Focus on Healthcare in 2020
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  2/22/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: "The truth behind Stonehenge...."
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
Building the SOC of the Future
Building the SOC of the Future
Digital transformation, cloud-focused attacks, and a worldwide pandemic. The past year has changed the way business works and the way security teams operate. There is no going back.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
EPrints 3.4.2 allows remote attackers to execute OS commands via crafted LaTeX input to a cgi/cal?year= URI.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
EPrints 3.4.2 exposes a reflected XSS opportunity in the dataset parameter to the cgi/dataset_dictionary URI.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
EPrints 3.4.2 allows remote attackers to read arbitrary files and possibly execute commands via crafted JSON/XML input to a cgi/ajax/phrase URI.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
EPrints 3.4.2 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary commands via crafted input to the verb parameter in a cgi/toolbox/toolbox URI.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-01
An issue was discovered in Veritas Backup Exec before 21.2. The communication between a client and an Agent requires successful authentication, which is typically completed over a secure TLS communication. However, due to a vulnerability in the SHA Authentication scheme, an attacker is able to gain ...