I’m fascinated with how quickly people have reached for the pitchforks recently when the slightest whiff of a privacy/security violation occurs.
Last week, a few interesting security tidbits came to light regarding Dropbox, the increasingly popular cloud-based file storage and synchronization service. There’s some interesting discussion of de-duplication techniques which might lead to Oracle attacks, etc., but the most important issue is that, suddenly, everyone’s realizing that Dropbox could, if needed, access your files. Miguel de Icaza wonders if Dropbox is pitching snake oil.
Yes, Dropbox staff can, if needed, access your files. I don’t mean to harp on my fellow technologists but… this has been obvious since day 1, because Dropbox offers a web-based interface to download your files, and even with the latest HTML5 technology, you’d be very hard-pressed to do in-browser file decryption. Let’s say you still don’t buy that, you still think that Dropbox might find a way to encrypt files and decrypt them in your browser. Dropbox also offers a password recovery mechanism, which means they can fully simulate you, the user, including, of course, getting at your files.
In other words, unless you’re ready to lose the convenience of password resets and web-based UI, Dropbox inherently has access to your files. Just like Facebook has access to your entire account, and Google to all of your docs, spreadsheets, etc. The only question is what kinds of internal safeguards do these companies have to prevent abuse by employees. Unless you’ve worked there, it’s hard to know. You could ask Dropbox to do third-party auditing, like Miguel proposes, but in my experience that provides little real security, since you have little way to know what that third-party actually did as part of their auditing (was it just “logic and accuracy” testing?)
The other thing we could ask is for the law to finally recognize that my files stored on Dropbox are no different than my files stored on a hard drive in my basement, from a legal perspective. They’re my property. And accessing them should require the same level of judicial oversight as a warrant to my home. That’s what a group of young MIT techies (myself included) and Harvard lawyers proposed in 1998.
But back to Dropbox. Did they do something wrong? Yes, they did. They exaggerated their security and privacy claims. Just like almost every other cloud data host today. I wish, instead of picking on whichever startup suddenly succeeds, we picked on the industry as a whole. Stop talking about encryption in transit and encryption at rest in the same breath, as if they were the same thing. Stop using “encryption” as a synonym for “secure.” Stop saying “military-grade security.” Start being honest about who can access what.
And we, technologists, should stop with the drama, and not fall prey to the inflated expectations that marketing-heavy security policies have set. The Dropbox weaknesses should have been obvious to technologists from day one. The problem is that all privacy policies and security statements make exaggerated claims using reassuring keywords. Let’s harp on that.