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Sorry, Logging IS a Privacy Risk

By Rich

In a post titled “Access of Access + Audit” Dr. Anton Chuvakin discusses the importance of logging, well pretty much everything. When it comes to working in the enterprise environment I tend to agree- audit logs are some of the most useful security, troubleshooting, and performance management tools we have. Back when I was operational I had two kinds of bad log days- those hair pulling, neurotic-in-a-here’s-johnny-way days spent combing, manually, through massive logs, and (even worse) those really I’m-so-screwed days where we didn’t have the logs at all. Since, thanks to better search and analysis tools, those former days are much rarer, we can focus on the latter.

But here’s where my fractured personality splits like a tree hit by lightning- while I believe we should respect personal privacy at work, there’s no expectation of privacy, nor should there be. We’re paid to help our employer succeed, using their resources, and it’s their right to watch everything we’re doing. I advise my corporate clients to be respectful, but activity monitoring is an absolutely essential security tool.

But personal life is a whole different bowl of Cheerios and, despite a noted absence in the Constitution, I believe we have a right to privacy in our personal lives. Be it the right to be left alone, or the right to control how our information is collected and used, privacy is essential to freedom. {yes, I'm wearing a flag around my shoulders as I type this}

But Dr. Chuvakin seems to think a little different:

So, what is the connection between the above definition and my call for “no access without logging”? Logging is NOT a privacy risk; inappropriate use for collected data is. Before you object by invoking the infamous “guns don’t kill people; gaping holes in vital organs do” :-) I have to say that the above privacy definition is about access to information about people, not about the existence of said information. And, yes, Virginia, there IS a difference! Similarly, nowadays many folks are appalled when they see stuff like this (“Fresh calls for ISP data retention laws. US attorney general cranks up the volume.”), but it actually - gasp! - seems reasonable to me, in light of the above. Admittedly, if your bandwidth is so huge that you cannot log and retain, you might be able avoid logging or at least avoid long term log retention, but that is a different story altogether.

We live in a digital age. One we don’t fully comprehend. One that requires new thinking in ways we haven’t even thought about yet.

One of the essential features of this age is a redefinition of scope and scale. Rules of the past break with the reach of networks and the volume of data we collect- data that can exist, effectively, forever.

So I propose “Mogull’s Rules of Privacy” (remember, I’m kind of egotistical):

  1. All data, once stored, is never lost
  2. Collected data is never private data
  3. Everyone has a different definition of appropriate use

(corollary to 1: unless, of course, you need the data for a disaster recovery)

What do I mean? Once we record a digital track it’s nearly impossible to assure that said track is ever really deleted. There’s everything from backups to forensic analysis. Do we lose data every day? Of course. Back as a sysadmin I was really good at it. But when dealing with private data we have to assume it’s eternal. Now why is this data never private? Because everyone has a different definition of appropriate use.

Be it law enforcement, a disgruntled employee, or the head of marketing, someone, somewhere, will eventually come up with an “appropriate” reason to use the data.

Privacy is like virginity- you can’t get it back.

Yes, long-term logging can help in criminal investigations, but if we’re going to pretend we live in a free society, widespread logging or monitoring of innocent citizens is not acceptable. Since our digital lives are now our physical lives, digital communications should be as sacrosanct as the mail or phone calls.

I’m all for legal and aggressive monitoring, logging, and wiretapping of known criminals and those under reasonable suspicion, but the day we give in and start logging everyone, just in case, we should just dump all the voting machines, electronic or otherwise, in the Potomac and stop pretending we still believe in the Constitution.

Then again, maybe it’s too late.

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