June 15, 2015

When Google Thinks They're Your Mommy

Major tech companies are in an interesting position these days. They provide and (one way or another) control most of our communications pipelines, and (quite reasonably) usually wish to encourage maximally effective security and privacy regimes.

Certainly Google falls into this category, with world-class privacy and security teams that have been my privilege to work with in the past.

But what happens when a firm decides that no matter what the user wants to do, the company will simply not permit it, because they feel so strongly that they know better than the user in a given circumstance?

That's what happened to me this morning, and it's a matter of growing concern.

I had an important transaction that I needed to conduct quickly on a major corporate website. I access this site several times a week, and I always use the excellent Google Chrome browser.

But this time, I couldn't log in. Google refused to permit me to log in to this third-party site, which I needed to access immediately.

What was going on?

Google was suddenly unhappy about the strength of the SSL/TLS connection being used by this site, and refused to permit access.

Presumably there's a configuration issue at that site that really should be fixed, but going down the rathole of trying to explain that to their customer support agents would likely be a twisted exercise that would take hours, with no guarantee that a change would be quickly forthcoming in any case.

Yep, that site needs repair, but I needed to access it irrespective of that.

Unlike most security certificate warnings from Chrome (and other web browsers) this one had no apparent means of user bypass.

This does not appear to be a bug in Chrome, because the associated "Learn more" page essentially said, "We won't help you. Go try another browser if you want. Good luck, guy!"

If there was any way to change the browser configuration or otherwise bypass this apparently absolute block, I couldn't quickly find it, and I know my way around Chrome pretty damned well.

Because I keep multiple browsers on-hand and current, and have my login credentials always available (not tied to a single browser), I was able to move to another browser and complete the important transaction.

However, if this had happened on a smartphone behaving this way with only one browser, or I was using a desktop system that only ran that one browser, I would have been up the creek without significant work to try get another browser going -- assuming I was in a position to do so and that other browsers didn't ultimately move toward exhibiting this same policy.

We can certainly agree that weak (or even entirely absent) SSL/TLS connections are to be avoided. In combination with an active "man-in-the-middle attack" or other spying, login or other important credentials and data could be vulnerable.

Of course the reality for most of us is that the risks to our important data (financial and otherwise) come from a wide variety of online and offline sources, with SSL/TLS connection compromise being pretty much down near the bottom of the probability list in most cases.

But for the sake of the argument, let's assume that a given connection is using weak or even completely broken crypto, and that there is an evil figure monitoring that particular connection at that particular time.

Even then, there will be situations where getting through to a particular site can be crucial -- more important even than compromised login credentials that can be later updated, more important even than compromised financial data.

Nowadays there are situations where immediate access to a site for information or transactions can be absolutely life critical, overriding individual security concerns.

And that is a decision for the individual user. It's not a decision for Google or any other firm to make for a user.

Google is not my Mommy.

By all means, sternly and clearly warn users of the risks involved in proceeding. Show photos of vampires about to strike, angry-looking kittens, and animations of Godzilla blocking my path.

Feel free to force the user to jump through multiple acknowledgment hoops (clear ones, not in fine print or otherwise hidden or obscure) before letting them complete the connection -- sternly emphasize how much you recommend against this course of action!

But in the final analysis, get the blazes out of the way and let a consenting adult make their own fully-informed choice about the sites they need to access, without Google (or other firms) treating them like a child or imbecile to be locked in their bedroom without supper.

Open means open, and it is not the appropriate role of Google or any other enterprise to impose its view of security to the extent of blocking a user from accessing a legal site when that user feels that they absolutely must do so.

If you've informed users of the risks, and they've acknowledged these and choose to proceed despite your sage advice, then that's their decision and responsibility, not yours.

And that's the truth.


Posted by Lauren at June 15, 2015 01:14 PM | Permalink
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