Mozilla Mixed Reality’s Diane Hosfelt says, “The immersive web has all of the problems of the 2D web, they’re just magnified and they’re harder.” She says the the privacy challeges around biometric data privacy are even more dire because you can’t change your biometric signatures and you can’t recover it. Hosfelt’s job at Mozilla is to secure the Servo immersive web browser engine, and so she’s thinking about how to apply the last 20 years of open web security and privacy problems, risks, and potential mitigations to the broader immersive web community. She recently authored a post titled Principles of Mixed Reality Permissions where she lays out the “PACE principles” of Progressive, Accountable, Comfortable, and Expressive.
I had a chance to talk with Hosfelt after the VR Privacy Summit that happened at Stanford University on November 8th, where we talked about making comforable privacy and security workflows that avoid the existing permission fatigue for Cookie authorization, the limitations of occuluding biometric movements through random noise, how independent researchers reveal privacy risks by combining data from multiple sources, an exploration of many of the open privacy challenges on the immserive web, and the open problem of how to educate consumers about the capabilities of these new immserive sensors, their uses, and possible dire consequences of them.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So I had a chance to go to the VR Privacy Summit, which had representatives from all across the VR industry. There were academics, people from the medical fields, and different technologists from different companies. And one of them was Diane Hausfeld. She's on the Servo and Mixed Reality team at Mozilla Emerging Technologies, and so She's been thinking a lot about browser security and what's it mean to be on the open web and start to transform it into the immersive open web and what type of issues come about when you start to have immersive technologies that are revealing all sorts of intimate biometric data and what's it mean for you to go into a website and what are the security implications of what can that website see and how does that data have any sort of assurance that it's going to remain private. So these are the type of questions that Diane has been thinking about and she's trying to take some of the lessons from the open web and to not repeat a lot of those mistakes but also see how much harder the immersive open web is going to be in facing some of these privacy issues. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Diane happened on Thursday, November 8th, 2018 at the VR Privacy Summit at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:31.191] Diane Hosfelt: I am Diane Hossfeld. I'm on the Servo and Mixed Reality teams at Mozilla Emerging Technologies. And basically what that means is that I work on looking at how we can secure the Servo browser engine, which is written in Rust, and how I can take the ideas from my work with that and apply it more broadly towards an immersive web browser and experience and think about what are the problems and the risks, potential mitigations and how do we get to a place where we learn from all of these mistakes we've already made over the past 20 years with the web. The immersive web has all of the problems of the 2D web. They're just magnified and they're harder. We have all the same problems. They're just more, you know, I don't want to be dystopian, but they have more dire consequences. In particular, when you lose control of your biometric privacy, you both can't change that and you can't recover it. So we see that the consequences are both more subtle on the immersive web and they're potentially more risky and dangerous. And so what Blair McIntyre and I have done on the Mozilla Mixed Reality team is we've thought about what principles do we need in order to have less bad permissions in an immersive web environment. We already know that people are having trouble with permission fatigue. We just click through. I do it too. I get really angry at the cookie consent notification. And I just click until it gets out of my way. Right? So what do we need to think about while we're trying to create this web that enables casual, immersive experiences with both alone and with other people in a virtual and augmented space? And what we've come down to is what we're calling the PACE principles. And this is progressive, accountable, comfortable, and expressive.
[00:03:44.985] Kent Bye: Nice. And so what were some of the mistakes of the 2D web that, if we don't pay attention, we're going to fall in and repeat in the immersive web?
[00:03:52.668] Diane Hosfelt: Well, so the one off the top of my head is the visited design rule. So you have a web page, and you've visited some links on this web page. Well, now, if that page can tell the difference in color of links, it knows what you've visited, which we call the trivial history leakage bug. So things like this, how do we protect your history, right? And what are these confounding factors? And it's not just from the 2D web, it's like generally the number of sensors and especially the always-on capabilities that we're looking at to enable very rich experiences. You know, you can use the accelerometer of your phone. It can be used remotely to determine what your pin is. And then you've leaked how to unlock your phone. And there are all sorts of things where we have these sensors and we think that we know the types of data that they can expose. But then independent security researchers come along and they combine it with other sources of data that are either appropriately or inadvertently leaked. It's just so hard to tell what the possible consequences of combining these sensor datas are. And it's even harder to communicate that to your average person. When we have experts in the field not connecting these dots until an independent researcher points it out, how can we expect my 93-year-old grandmother to understand this. But then we also want to be able to use these VR experiences in places like nursing homes, right? That's already happening.
[00:05:38.214] Kent Bye: And maybe you could talk a bit about some of the metaphors or lessons that you get from the cryptographic security aspects and what type of aspects can be applied to the privacy dimensions of virtual and augmented reality.
[00:05:51.199] Diane Hosfelt: So definitely one problem can be the granularity of data that you can collect using either a single sensor or a combination of sensors on these devices, particularly head-mount devices. We can draw a parallel between that and timing side-channel attacks, right? And the reason I say this is that a mitigation for timing side-channel attack, which is where you have two simultaneous executions happening on the same hardware and one is potentially malicious and it can tell based on timing events, like it can extract cryptographic key data based on how long it takes a certain algorithm to do, right? And one potential mitigation for this is actually to introduce noise. However, if you have a non-random mathematical distribution and then you insert a random noise generator over that, it can be possible still to extract that non-random data out, particularly if your random data isn't as good as you think it is, and we as humans are terrible with randomness.
[00:06:59.975] Kent Bye: And I guess one of the things that you have cookies in the 2D web, but in the immersive web, there's a sense of being able to track all sorts of sensitive data of what you're looking at, your biometric data. And I guess if you think about the open web, you're going to have all these entities that are out there. seems like a bit of a Wild West as to what they're going to be able to potentially capture and use and for whatever context. And so how does that come down to servo and the browser level? What type of methods do you implement to be able to either mitigate or minimize? Or how do you even approach that? Or is it just a giant open question as to how we navigate all of this?
[00:07:34.448] Diane Hosfelt: I would say it is an open question, and that is why one of the principles is accountability that we've thought up for these PACE principles, right? Because with accountability, if you know what pages are collecting, sending, storing, persisting, right? Or say that you've given an application or a webpage access to files on your device and they're changing files. Well, they need to be accountable for these things that they do. And this might be like a slightly wonkish approach here, but something that we're seeing after the Spectre and Meltdown causes of attacks that were published earlier this year. is browsers either have moved or are moving to what they call site isolation or process isolation, where different origins run in different processes, so that we can avoid the interference of processes that can leak these side-channel datas, and in particular, this concern is speculative execution. But the end result is we are isolating sites in their own processes to minimize these data leakages. And what that actually allows us to do from a web perspective is now that we have, we know the process that's running, say, DuckDuckGo.com, right? Well, now we know what DuckDuckGo is doing, because before we kind of had all of these origins running in the same process. And that can be very difficult to track the accountability of, like, Is my camera on for just this side or is it on for all of this? Who's actually getting this data? Etc. So there are advances, right, that we're in the midst of that I think are going to help with accountability, which really underpins all of this.
[00:09:26.942] Kent Bye: One of the things that was mentioned today was Lightbeam as a tool to be able to give some transparency as what is actually being tracked, and that's a Mozilla extension. And also, what would that look like in VR, and to be able to show what the potential, maybe dystopic possibilities are. I don't want to give people bad ideas, but at the same time, I'm curious to hear your perspectives on Lightbeam as an educational tool in terms of what's happening, and is there going to be needing some sort of similar thing within immersive technologies to be able to give some sort of visualization as to what's at risk here?
[00:09:56.218] Diane Hosfelt: I think it is a great idea and that is now on my to-do list. So I don't have an answer for you right now, but I am definitely going to think about it and try to work on that, because we've been discussing how can we educate people. It's a hard problem, it's not obvious, and it's definitely a personal goal of mine for the near future, is how can we educate people about the censors, their uses, potential consequences, and the fact that informed consent on the web really isn't informed right now.
[00:10:28.685] Kent Bye: And for you, what were some of the big highlights of the VR Privacy Summit or takeaways that you're leaving here with?
[00:10:34.641] Diane Hosfelt: I am particularly excited to get the input of people from especially the medical community because once we're trying to steal this idea of informed consent, which of course originates and permeates medical research as well as medicine, right? They've been through a lot of this. They've saw, well, they haven't solved. They've thought about these problems. They have these review boards trying to remove bias and everything. And when we are in an XR or an MR paradigm, right, we've introduced a new dimension of physicality to our technological experience, right? You know, we're literally taking over people's senses. And so that's very tied in with ideas of bodily autonomy and behavioral modification, all of these kind of scary things. So it's exciting to me to be able to speak to and learn from people who do this research in the medical arena. And what can we learn from a privacy-preserving perspective?
[00:11:41.078] Kent Bye: Great. And for you, what's the ultimate potential of virtual and augmented reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:11:49.756] Diane Hosfelt: Oh gosh, that's a hard question. I mean, the dream is Apparition, right? So I live abroad. My family's in the States and I live in England and I miss my family a lot. So really the dream is that we create this more connected, more global world and I guess we can create more empathy in previously isolated communities and create more of a world that sees all people as people. And then for me personally, I get to be closer to my family virtually. But more generally, I think that if we all just come together and appreciate our similarities more than our differences, which is very, very real in a virtual world, that the world will be a better place. God, that sounds silly, but I think that that's the ultimate promise.
[00:12:45.315] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
[00:12:47.196] Diane Hosfelt: Thank you so much. It was great to meet you.