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Measuring for privacy: From tracking to cloaking


Measuring for privacy: From tracking to cloaking

Samarasinghe, Nayanamana (2022) Measuring for privacy: From tracking to cloaking. PhD thesis, Concordia University.

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We rely on various types of online services to access information for different uses, and often provide sensitive information during the interactions with these services. These online services are of different types; e.g. commercial websites (e.g., banking, education, news, shopping, dating, social media), essential websites (e.g., government). Online services are available through websites as well as mobile apps. The growth of web sites, mobile devices and apps that run on those devices, have resulted in the proliferation of online services. This whole ecosystem of online services had created an environment where everyone using it are being tracked. Several past studies have performed privacy measurements to assess the prevalence of tracking in online services. Most of these studies used institutional (i.e., non-residential) resources for their measurements, and lacked global perspective. Tracking on online services and its impact to privacy may differ at various locations. Therefore, to fill in this gap, we perform a privacy measurement study of popular commercial websites, using residential networks from various locations.

Unlike commercial online services, there are different categories (e.g., government, hospital, religion) of essential online services where users do not expect to be tracked. The users of these essential online services often use information of extreme personal and sensitive in nature (e.g., social insurance number, health information, prayer requests/confessions made to a religious minister) when interacting with those services. However, contrary to the expectations of users, these essential services include user tracking capabilities. We built frameworks to perform privacy measurements of these online services (include both web sites and Android apps) that are of different types (i.e., governments, hospitals and religious services in jurisdictions around the world). The instrumented tracking metrics (i.e., stateless, stateful, session replaying) from the privacy measurements of these online services are then analyzed.

Malicious sites (e.g., phishing) mimic online services to deceive users, causing them harm. We found 80% of analyzed malicious sites are cloaked, and not blocked by search engine crawlers. Therefore, sensitive information collected from users through these sites is exposed. In addition, underlying Internet-connected infrastructure (e.g., networked devices such as routers, modems) used by online users, can suffer from security issues due to nonuse of TLS or use of weak SSL/TLS certificates. Such security issues (e.g., spying on a CCTV camera) can compromise data integrity, confidentiality and user privacy.

Overall, we found tracking on commercial websites differ based on the location of corresponding residential users. We also observed widespread use of tracking by commercial trackers, and session replay services that expose sensitive information from essential online services. Sensitive information are also exposed due to vulnerabilities in online services (e.g., Cross Site Scripting). Furthermore, a significant proportion of malicious sites evade detection by security/search engine crawlers, which may make such sites readily available to users. We also detect weaknesses in the TLS ecosystem of Internet-connected infrastructure that supports running these online services. These observations require more research on privacy of online services, as well as information exposure from malicious online services, to understand the significance of privacy issues, and to adopt appropriate mitigation strategies.

Divisions:Concordia University > Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science > Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering
Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Authors:Samarasinghe, Nayanamana
Institution:Concordia University
Degree Name:Ph. D.
Program:Information and Systems Engineering
Date:21 September 2022
Thesis Supervisor(s):Mannan, Mohammad
ID Code:991344
Deposited By: Nayanamana Samarasinghe
Deposited On:21 Jun 2023 14:43
Last Modified:21 Jun 2023 14:43
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