As data trails grow longer, ignorance is bliss Melanie Baker April 9, 2014 Columns, Communitech, Featured, Guest columns, M-Theory Out of sight, out of mind. Despite the best efforts of the Edward Snowdens of the world, that tends to be how we function. The average person isn’t really familiar with how technology works (even in this town), so what I delete is gone forever, and what I back up is saved forever. Right? In addition to that, most of us are blissfully unaware of the true volume and depth of the data trails we leave. All day, every day. And they’re only growing. Now, depending on where you fall on the criminal spectrum, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. For Jad Saliba and his team at Magnet Forensics, it’s the foundation of a business and a real way to make a difference. Jad was our March Girl Geek Dinner speaker (full recap here). When Jad was with the Waterloo Regional Police Service, he saw the growing need for a way to analyze digital data as part of criminal investigations. This need is what Internet Evidence Finder (IEF), Magnet’s flagship product, grew out of. Potential evidence can be found in a lot of places. Phones and computer hard drives are obvious sources, but so are items like USB drives, digital cameras, GPS units, vehicle in-dash systems and plenty more. The number of digital fingerprints we leave is only growing, too. You may have a thermostat that could corroborate or tear down an alibi about when you were home. Oh, and that company is also owned by Google. Who, y’know, knows a thing or two about making use of your data… For those who don’t want to leave a trail, the first barrier to erasure is often understanding just how tenacious data can be. Deleting a file on your computer actually removes very little. Just the pointer to that data, the “table of contents” record noting where to find it. The file’s contents aren’t deleted until that space is overwritten with new data. And with the ever-increasing size of hard drives, that could take years. If you really want to make sure old hardware can’t be analyzed, think Mythbusters-esque tactics. And that’s just the stuff you know how to access. Would you have any idea how to wipe your car’s computer? Or text messages that may not even be stored on your phone? So much is stored in the cloud nowadays that it only feels like our data is walking around with us, thanks to better connectivity. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then I guess Apple, Google, Facebook and the like own a whole lot of me. And probably you. Ahh well, the better to catch you with, my dear. Or sell us. Big Data is big business, after all. An interesting trend for Magnet’s work is that the challenge is no longer just accessing and analyzing all the relevant data. The challenge has become better filtering. There’s just too much data to intelligently parse, and most of it isn’t useful. So the goal is better tools to find those chat messages in a haystack. Pinpointing data by dates, GPS co-ordinates or other specific markers to help prove guilt or innocence. There is value in these tools for the rest of us, too. We tend to err on the side of later. Like processing and sorting those vacation photos . . . later. Which we often never get around to. Then after three years and a few thousand photos, try finding that one. Or where is the URL to that article I read a couple weeks ago and want to send to a friend? Or what was my friend’s new phone number that she texted to me the other day . . .? Not only do people produce prodigious amounts of data; we’re messy, which makes analyzing what we do difficult. Especially since software is not messy. Analyzing our digital lives involves applying logic and methodology to the dirty pile of laundry that our activities are, essentially. It’s a hard problem to solve elegantly. And really, enabling me to find one picture isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. But finding one murderer or one pedophile is. I want the right people with the right tools to have access to the right data at the right time to keep the world safe. I also want the convenience of having all my stuff with me all the time. I want digital help with my terrible sense of navigation and ever-more-scattered memory. But I don’t just want anyone (by which I mostly mean company) also having access to all of my stuff. But here’s the rub: when I’m using their devices and their apps and their storage, I’m not really in a position to make many demands about how they do business. Why worry about the cow’s privacy when you’ve been selling the milk she gave you for years . . . or something? As part of Jad’s demo of Magnet’s software, we checked out the new version of Silk Road. Now, I’m pretty sure the people who use online black markets know that what they’re doing is often illegal. So if they get caught and their digital fingerprints are used to convict them, one can’t really argue that they didn’t know what the site was about or that they weren’t willing participants. But for the rest of us? We may not be doing anything wrong, but out of sight, out of mind doesn’t just apply to deleting old Word docs anymore. We don’t know what data is still there, who all has access to it – now or in the future – or what they are or will be doing with it. Each of us is free and welcome to use whatever devices we like to engage in whatever activities we like whenever we like. Just don’t think you’re doing it alone. Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.