On Friday evening Norwegian time, Runbox started experiencing Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks by extortionists demanding that we pay them an amount of Bitcoin to stop the attacks.
The attacks consist of a massive volume of data traffic, in excess of 50 Gbps, to our service that overwhelm our servers and intermittently block our customers from accessing our services.
Runbox has persevered against similar DDoS attacks in the past and never in our history paid criminals who attack our services. And we are not going to start now.
Paying extortionists would provide no guarantee that further attacks would be prevented, and could instead make the victim more attractive for similar attacks. Furthermore, funding such criminal activities would only increase the likelihood of further attacks by the same criminals or other malefactors.
Since these DDoS attacks started we have worked with our system administrators and Internet Service Provider to mitigate the attacks. We are considering further mitigation options and appreciate the offers we have received from DDoS mitigation specialists who wish to help.
We have also learned that Runbox is not alone in being attacked, as The Record reports that Fastmail and Posteo are also under attack by the same extortionists.
Anyone who is experiencing DDoS attacks is encouraged to never capitulate. Let us instead coordinate our fight against these criminals and fully cooperate with relevant law enforcement in our respective countries.
We also encourage our respective customers to continue supporting independent email services such as the three of us now under attack. We thank you for your patience and understanding while we fight to regain your access to our services.
We will keep you updated on our Service Status page and assure you that we are doing everything in our power to restore services for you.
The full extortion letter is pasted below.
From: Cursed Patriarch Posted on: 22 Oct 2021 – 15:56 Email: email@example.com
Subject: EXTORTION: DDoS attack
I will start 1-2 hours attack on your site. It will not be hard as I don’t want to impact your business now. Just check your logs to see that I’m for real.
Pay me 0.06 BTC to 3GBAUXHmfxideRQWqRagtQRznB2GdUuMkfand I will never attack you again.
If you don’t pay within until Monday, total shut down is coming, cheap protection will not help my fee will increase and if you refuse you will lose much more then that.
The Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) has taken a strong position against commercial surveillance online, and has made it very visible how the Ad-Tech industry is exploiting personal data for business purposes.
“Big data” has since the entry of social platforms on the Internet, been accumulated and used unscrupulously by some companies for profit. Some of the players in the field are sharing information they collect on users with third party advertisers without their users’ knowledge or consent. The driver is all the money connected to targeted advertising. However, sharing of personal data in this way is prohibited according to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The NCC has no authority to enforce personal data legislation, but the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (NDPA) does. And so, the NCC can freely report findings of breaches of the GDPR and Norwegian data protection regulations to the NDPA.
NCC and NDPA at the forefront
A good illustration of this interaction is the case against Grindr. Earlier this year the NCC, based on the report “Out of Control” (2020), raised the case against Grindr and five Ad-Tech companies that were receiving personal data through the app: Twitter`s MoPub, AT&T’s AppNexus, OpenX, AdColony and Smaato.
Even if data is anonymised, such as when third parties operate with their own proprietary identification numbers, it is possible to combine data from various sources with openly available information to produce a picture that can identify an individual.
The Norwegian urge to protect personal data was also illustrated in May 2021. Then the NDPA submitted an advance notification of an administrative fine of NOK 25 mio to Disqus Inc. The company does widget tracking, analysing and profiling, and disclosing personal data to third party advertisers, and in doing so violates multiple articles (i.e. Article 6 and Article 7) of the GDPR.
The privacy movement grows stronger
All of these cases illustrate the NCC mission, but the NCC is working from a broader perspective: To establish a broad, international movement towards surveillance-based advertising.
This movement got a push with NCC’s seminal report Out of Control (2020), which has received media coverage in more than 70 countries, included the US and Japan (see our previous blog post).
On page 4 there is quite a good summary of what the driving force is:
…today’s dominant model of online advertising is a threat to consumers, democratic societies, the media, and even to advertisers themselves. These issues are significant and serious enough that we believe that it is time to ban these detrimental practices.
In a coalition with more than 60 organizations from Europe and the US, including some 10 consumer organisations and the umbrella organisation BEUC – the European Consumer Organisation – the NCC on June 23 2021 sent an open letter to EU and US policymakers. The letter urges the policymakers to “…take a stand and consider a ban of surveillance-based advertising as part of the Digital Services Act in the EU, and for the U.S. to enact a long overdue federal privacy law.” The coalition is backing up its call with the reports by NCC.
On behalf of NCC, the consumer research company YouGov conducted a survey among a representative selection (internet population) 18 years+ about their attitude to surveillance-based advertising. The result was unambiguous: Only 10% responded positively to the idea of commercial actors collecting information about them online, and only one in five think that ads based on personal information is OK
Runbox has a clear standing against the collection of consumer data and surveillance-based advertising: Our service is ad-free, and we never expose our customers’ data for commercial purposes. We are very strict when law enforcement authorities in Norway or foreign countries request that we disclose data about our customers.
At Runbox we are proud to reside in a country that puts privacy first, and we wholeheartedly support the appeal to ban surveillance-based advertising. Therefore Runbox will annually donate to support noyb.eu, and we have joined the list of individuals supporting the appeal.
Dear customers, business partners, and shareholders,
Upon the completion of the Annual General Meeting in Runbox Solutions for the fiscal year 2020 we take the opportunity to review our company’s status in accordance with our commitment to transparency.
Although 2020 was in general a difficult and challenging year due to the corona pandemic and the worsening climate change, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Runbox email service in October with special subscription offers to our loyal customers. This, together with continued growth in our customer base and favorable currency exchange rates, resulted in a record year for Runbox financially.
Through the year we made significant progress on Runbox 7 development, and reinforced our commitment to privacy, security, and the environment.
Runbox 7 Developments
During 2020 we continued to improve and expand the groundbreaking Runbox 7 webmail application, which features search capabilities in the browser that provides immediate searching and listing of email. Runbox 7 combines the unique database-accelerated Runbox architecture with cutting-edge technologies such as WebAssembly, HTML 5 Canvas, and Progressive Web Apps to create an immediate email experience.
Developments have focused on expanding Runbox 7 toward a complete web application, and numerous enhancements have been made to Mail, Contacts, and Calendar. Additionally we have added innovative new features such as the Mail Overview and Popular Recipients, which provide a new level of message overviews based on sender and recipient data.
The project is partially funded by the Research Council of Norway as a research and development (R&D) project in support of the innovative aspects of the solution.
The operation of all business continues to depend on the foundation of our natural environment, which is under increasing pressure from human activity. In 2020 the world has seen a continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions with subsequent increases in extreme weather, wildfires, and droughts around the globe.
As inhabitants of Earth we all share the responsibility to decrease our negative impact on our environment. Runbox is built with a strong ethical foundation and we are dedicated to decreasing our ecological footprint and other environmental impacts that result from our operations.
The environment is a primary consideration when developing our services, and in 2020 we continued strengthening our commitment to having a positive ecological impact.
The data center where our email servers are located is 100% hydro-powered, and the electricity powering our email architecture is utilized exclusively by the Runbox email service.
Through the year we renewed our commitment to privacy and security, and the GDPR in particular. Our GDPR implementation has continued with reinforced policies, procedures, and technologies, and as a company located in Norway our service can rely on the strong Norwegian privacy protections.
All user data processed through the Runbox email service is stored on our own physical servers in Norway, and last year we completed the transition to encrypted SSD storage for all email account data.
We are working closely with our system management partner Copyleft Solutions to scale our email service infrastructure with a distributed system architecture to support the continued growth of our customer base.
Together with our development partners Shadowcat Systems and Peregrine Computer Consultants Corporation, our diverse team includes members from Norway, the UK, Poland, Brazil, and the US. The background, geographical location, and diversity of our team combined with a steadfast commitment to the ethics and policies of our company forms the core of our organization.
The contributions from our open source community on Github increase the security and speed of Runbox 7 development further, and we are excited to continue the race to revolutionize email in 2021.
“If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product”.
This is a common saying when referring to online services that are offered for no financial payment (“free”).
The reason is that they often collect some personal data about you or your use of the service that the provider then can sell to the online advertising and marketing industry for payment. The payment they get for this covers the cost of providing the service to you and also allows for a profit to be made.
And so, they earn their money, and the app users are their product.
However, it is common knowledge that companies like Google and Facebook use our personal data for targeted advertising. The personal data collected is anonymized and often aggregated to produce larger data sets, which enable them to target individuals or groups based on common preferences — for instance that they live in a certain location or like to drink coffee.
The idea that your data is anonymized might provide some comfort.But because of smartphones and the smartphone software applications (“apps”) many people use, companies can collect a large range of types of data and so trace individuals without asking for personal details such as your name. An example of this type of data is your smartphone unique identifier (IMEI-number1), and IP-address (when connected via WiFi).
Combined with your email address, GPS data, app usage etc., it is possible to identify specific individuals -– namely you!
Exposing the AdTech industry
To investigate this issue, The Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), a government funded organization representing consumer interests in Norway, published a groundbreaking report last year about how the online marketing and AdTech (Advertising Technology) industry operates.
The report’s title immediately raised the flag: “Out of Control” (OuC)2. And the subtitle outlines the findings: “How consumers are exploited by the online advertising industry”.
What many users will not know is how much and how far the personal data is distributed. Only a few users will be aware that clicking OK implies that your data is fed into the huge AdTech and MarTech industry, which is predicted to grow to USD 8.3 billion in annual revenues by 20213.
The players in this industry are giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter. If that was not enough, both iOS (Apple) and Android (Google) have their ways to track consumers across different services.
Apple being more privacy minded than some others have recently developed options to allow the user to reset the “unique” advertising identifier in devices and also stop tracking across WiFi networks to break the identification chain and make it harder to target a specific user.
But the industry also has a large number of third-party data and marketing companies, operating quietly behind the scenes.
The far-reaching consequences of AdTech
This is what the NCC’s report is about, and the findings are concerning:
The ten apps that were tested transmit “user data to at least 135 different third parties involved in advertising and/or behavioral profiling” (OuC, page 5).
A summary of the findings is presented on OuC page 7, and here we find social networking apps, dating apps and apps that are adapted to other very personal issues (for instance makeup and period tracking). The data that is gathered can include IP address, GPS data, WiFi access points, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political view, and data about various activities the users are involved in.
This means that companies are building very detailed profiles of users, even if they don’t know their names, and these data are sent to for instanceGoogle’s advertising service DoubleClick and Facebook. Data may also be sold in bidding processes to advertising companies for targeting advertising.
Personalized directed ads are annoying, but even worse is that the collection and trade of personal data could result in data falling into the hands of those who may then target users with insults, discrimination, widespread fraud, or even blackmail. And there is clear evidence that personal data have recently been used to affect democratic elections4.
What happened after The Norwegian Consumer Council published “Out of Control”, will be covered in our next blog post, but we can reveal that one of the companies studied had a legal complaint filed against them for violating the GDPR and is issued an administrative fine of € 9.6 million.
So stay tuned!
IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity.
2020 was a very challenging year for many people around the world, and especially as a consequence of the ongoing global health situation. As we begin a new year we think about all those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time it is important that we don’t forget about other global challenges, and as Runbox celebrated 20 years in 2020 we naturally considered the current state of the environment compared to the year 2000.
Since the year Runbox was founded, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have increased over 40% from approximately 23 to 33 gigatons as illustrated by the figure below.
There was a significant increase in emissions over the past year, and despite the pandemic-related drop during 2020 world liquid fuels production and consumption is forecast to continue nearly unabated in 2021 and beyond.
It is clear that the global environmental crises in all likelihood remain the most essential and existential challenges facing mankind, and that 2020 only represents a temporary interruption.