Archive for June, 2010

Archive for June, 2010

Dystoparx — Part 4

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Our protagonist is skimming headlines. Most news these days makes it to him by way of messages from individuals, but he still follows a handful of sites just in case there’s something he misses. There is a story about the kiddie porn issue.

Privacy Commissioner’s Report on Spyware

The Privacy Commissioner released a report today on the proposed use of personal information gathering software, such as MusicBox, in the fight against child pornography. The report makes several good arguments in favour of giving the information to police, citing similarities to existing police information sources, such as access to security camera footage.

The report, however, stood strongly against giving private investigation firms access to this information, saying, “Private investigators are really just private citizens. They should not get access to such potentially personal information.”

UPDATE: the RCMP have begun collecting <link> information from MusicBox and others. The Commissioner has issued a statement, saying, “We are not going to wait for a decision on this. It seems legal. Let anyone in favour of child abuse sue us.”

Bill is leaving private investigation. He used to be a cop, long ago, and he switched for one reason: to get things done. He had been sick of having his hands tied as a cop, and wanted the freedom to bend the rules that came from acting as a private citizen. Now, however, the situation has changed. The information that will be instrumental in helping him eradicate child abuse is only available to the RCMP, so to the RCMP he applies. He has no fears that this new information source will be cut off from him. The Privacy Commissioner seems mostly in favour of letting the RCMP use the data, the RCMP themselves are using the data, and who is going to sue the RCMP for trying to stop child abuse? He knows some hackers are upset, but in his mind that’s only because hackers are criminals, they have something to hide. Only criminals have anything to hide.

Now, you must understand, it is not a lack of intelligence that leads Bill to think this way, but it is only ignorance. He has been misinformed as to the nature of hacking and the motives of most hackers. In his mind, hackers and crackers and the Russian mob are all one and the same. The differences between tinkering and experimenting, breaking for personal gain, and controlling botnets have not been explained to him, at least not in a way that he can relate to. Privacy, similarly, is not something he has ever been taught to value for its own sake. Since this data is being used be an organisation he trusts, he cannot fathom its abuse.

The phone is ringing. It is the call. He’s in. Really, it is no surprise. He found the data: it was his idea. They’re putting him in charge. Good.

Jack (jjdavis) is in town for the week. He and some others have been organising a keysigning. Our protagonist is perfectly happy to go along with this plan. It should be some geeky fun, at the very least. Jack seems convinced that the hammer is going to fall on crypto pretty soon, but even if his motives are paranoid he hasn’t gone crazy yet.

As Nicnus arrives he sees the following written on a whiteboard:

UserIDs, Fingerprints: ssh://
SSH Fingerprint: rodeo window crater. precise mailbox benny. apple brazil angel. decade danube cake
SHA256: split wisdom vortex. water mile love. castle cafe magenta. cola quick critic. norway victor ivory. symbol charter apollo. ozone basic option. animal reunion africa

Nicnus pulls out his laptop and taps a key to bring it out of suspend mode. He opens a terminal and soon has verified that the he is connecting to is the real one, pulled down the file, and verified that said file has not been tampered with since the message went up on the whiteboard.

Jack waves at him, and he smiles back. He opens the text file and makes sure that his information is correct. Everything seems to be in order.

The room is quickly filling up. Many of the geeks are coming in with laptops, a few with only their smartphones, and some old-school paranoids with moleskin notebooks and fountain pens. There are also a few obvious non-geeks with lined or even regular printer paper and dollar-store pens.

One of the paranoids is complaining to Jack that the fingerprints and other security information being written down as a string of words instead of in hexadecimal makes it impossible to do the signing without a computer. Jack is pointing out that the file has been up for two whole days and the paranoid could have checked his information at home. He’ll need a computer for some parts of the process anyway.

Nicnus steps in to the conversation, interrupting, “How were you planning to verify your information in a text file without a computer?”

The paranoid waves a printout under our protagonist’s nose. “I shouldn’t need to carry around my secure information on portable hardware as part of the system whereby I protect my privacy.”

“Of course,” Jack rushes, “but the words are much easier for normals—”

“Do you have evidence of that? Pictures, I could see, but words?”

“Well, maybe. I certainly find them easier to rememb—”

“You can remember it either way. It’s not like you attracted a large number of mortals this way.”

Nicnus tries to shoulder back into the conversation, “You could just write down—”

“I could just do a lot of things. The organiser should have been more organised.”

“Pointing this out ahead of time—”

“That may be my fault,” Jack is trying to stop a full-fledged geekfight now, “This whole thing was put together quickly.”

Someone else has come into the discussion, “Just write down the information, and verify it later at home.”

Nicnus is happy. That’s exactly what he had been trying to suggest.

The paranoid is not happy, but this solution will have to do.

At this point, some readers may want to know what this event is all about. It seems like a number of geeks of varying levels of paranoia are getting together and… verifying things? What things? What is a keysigning?

It’s like this: some people (especially paranoid geeks) want to know who they’re talking to when they send someone a message. Especially if they are going to encrypt the message. It’s no good encrypting a message (which keeps anyone but the recipient from reading it) if you’re not sure the recipient is even the right person! There is encryption-related technology, called cryptographic signatures, that allows one to be certain that a message was signed by (and therefore from, or at least approved of by) a certain cryptographic key. Unfortunately, cryptographic keys are just really big random numbers. There is no way to tell, just by looking at a key, whose key it is. Enter keysigning. If you know who someone is, and you know which key is theirs, you can sign their key (along with a statement about whose it is) with your key. Then, anyone who knows which key is yours will see that you claim that key is theirs. Eventually, if enough people do this to enough keys, network effects make it so that everyone can know who owns every key. This is called the web of trust.

So, as this meeting progresses, Nicnus and everyone else in attendance stands up to verify that the keys noted in keysign23.txt are indeed correct. Then, photo identification, handwritten signatures, and other means of verifying identity are exchanged. Finally, everyone in the room knows who everyone else really is (to the extend that you trust their ID), and which key they own. Afterwards, people sign the keys that belong to the other attendees, encrypt the signature, and email this encrypted signature to the key owner. That way, only the key owner can publish the signature to the world, and they only receive it if they did not lie about their email address (which is usually included with the key).

During the meeting, our protagonist and Acklas hang out with Jack. He’s a friend, but he’s been living in Atlanta lately. Acklas is the first to bring up the incongruity of their friend being so security conscious as to run this event, yet choosing to live south of the border.

“It’s like this,” Jack says, “It’s more dangerous, privacy wise, right now, but that could change.”

“So go somewhere safer if you don’t like Canada either. Hole up in Switzerland, or the third world.” Acklas points out.

“Maybe. But situations anywhere can change. Better to know how to protect yourself.”

“Agreed, yes,” Nicnus breaks in, “but also a good part of protecting yourself is not living in the most dangerous of places.”

“To be fair, there are more dangerous places. China, for example.” Jack is trying to get around the issue, but they are not going to let him.

“Just because there are places that respect your rights less than the USA, that doesn’t—”

“Sure, fine, yes.” Jack is a bit agitated, “I like my job, and I’m close to friends. It works well, and the government only occasionally causes me problems. I keep a low profile, and anything that needs to be private is invisible.”

“What about going across the border?” Acklas.

“Or walking down the street looking as Middle Eastern as you do?” Nicnus.

Jack makes a face, “Racism is a big problem everywhere. The police have surprisingly not been a big bother. They hate black citizens more than me still. Border crossings are a pain, but my papers are in order and I don’t keep anything encrypted on the laptop when I take it with me. Everything goes up to the cloud,” by which he means, the Internet, “and I shred those portions of the drive. It looks to most anyone like there was never any private or encrypted data there.”

“Well…” Acklas is not convinced, but he can’t win this one.

“Do you have a plan to get out?” Nicnus has given in on the “staying there for now” argument.

“Yes. I live close to the airport, and I have a geek friend with a minivan. I keep Canadian, US, and Euro cash on me at all times. In the event that I need to jump, I order a plane ticket or ride out with my friend. My data syncs to the cloud constantly. Destroy the hard drive contents and run. Pretty simple.”

Blogger Trackback Userscript Updated

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My Blogger Trackback Userscript has been getting more and more broken the longer I stay away from Blogger. It was inevitable, I suppose, that some of my code would rot when I wasn’t using the service. Enough people have asked me to fix this one, however, that I finally logged in again today and fixed the code. Install the new version and it should work again 🙂

Dystoparx — Part 3

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Bill is a private investigator. He has been for many years. He has had little experience with computer systems or the operations of the Internet.

That is, until recently.

Now, while he still does not have a great understanding of the systems, he is working with computers almost exclusively. Ever since that first bust on the two kids with downloaded movies, the media industry has kept him busy. Lots of evidence to sift through. Lots of people to sue.

Copyright infringement and related acts the industry was interested in were not criminal. That meant the police would not, could not, be involved. The evidence was all here, all being collected, but someone had to find actionable content and report it to the lawyers. The lawyers could then sue.
Bill is thinking about his life. It isn’t as glamorous as finding lost loved ones or ending underground operations, but it pays. Every private investigation firm is involved at least in part with the industry. It pays.

He pages aimlessly through some data. Surely there had to be something better he could be doing than this!

Now he notices it. Right there in the data stream all this time! He is looking at what amounts to a log of all digital footprints left by a particular system. If he had been looking for infringement instead of just paging around he never would have noticed the part of the stream he is noticing now.

Bill flips quickly through the data streams looking for more evidence on another system. After quite some searching he finds it again.

Child porn.

jjdavis: Police and PIs are asking gov’t to let them use spyware to find kiddie porn.

Our protagonist is exhausted. The poor guy who reverse engineered the media industry’s spyware is free. Free after the community raised over one million dollars in fines. Somehow Nicnus got pretty directly involved in that effort. An effort that now stands in his mind as a testament to the power of mass organisation online.

Stopping kiddie porn, though, now *there* is a use for spyware tech he can be in favour of! He replies to jjdavis.

@jjdavis that sounds like a good thing.

An IM pops up:

<jjdavis> Maybe. Basing it on spoofable data, though?
<nicnus> Hmm. But all data is spoofable.
<jjdavis> Somewhat, but not like this.

A tweet comes in, a reply from Acklas:

acklas: @nicnus it’s a privacy violation. #

Nicnus isn’t worried too much about that, he types out a reply:

@acklas But it’s data that’s being collected anyway. #

jjdavis is clearly following the tweets:

<jjdavis> It’s being collected for a different purpose, though. Media guys don’t have time to go over all the data… this gives another group access to look for something different.
<nicnus> If you want your privacy protected, just encrypt everything.

Another message from Acklas, replying to someone else:

acklas: @lucy2 everyone who cares about privacy is not a perv. That’s the reasoning I fear #

Nicnus creates a chatroom and invites both Acklas and jjdavis. He pastes in a link to a webpage containing the log of his conversation with jjdavis so that Acklas is up to speed.

<acklas> Sure, we can encrypt everything, but a lot of people won’t.
<nicnus> those sorts of people have their privacy violated all the time without knowing.
<acklas> Not this much.
<jjdavis> I keep thinking about the French Revolution guillotines. What if anyone could accuse anyone of a crime and easily fabricate the necessary evidence.
<acklas> To be fair, not just anyone could.
<jjdavis> For a fee…
<nicnus> Oh…
<acklas> Oh…

Dinner with his family: that’s what faces our protagonist this evening.

It’s not that he doesn’t like his family, or that he doesn’t like dinner. The problem is more one of timing than anything else. His brother is back with the girl. The not-too-bright girl. He himself has his head far more firmly fixed in geek land than usual. What are they possibly going to talk about when all he can think of is crypto and politics, and all his brother can think of is how to avoid another emotional meltdown with what’s-her-face.

It’s time to go. Phone in his pocket, laptop in his backpack, Nicnus catches the bus. He sits somewhere near the back and pulls out his phone. His feeds and messages from mailing lists he’s on have been piling up. His finger flicks across the screen, his eyes scanning the headlines and subjects.

Something jostles his leg and his head snaps up. The bus is crowded and someone has sat down next to him. He squishes over to make room, and his mind returns to his phone. Companies dying and raising money, features being requested and built, and everywhere a little more worry about privacy and copyright than in the past.

Nicnus gets off the bus in front of his parents’ house. It’s quite nice that they live right on a major bus route. From the sound inside he can tell his brother has already arrived, and that his brother brought the girl. He takes a deep breath before entering. He never knocks here: he grew up in this house.

The girl is telling some story about what happened to her walking home from the mall. From the apparent emotion in her voice you’d think that almost tripping over a dog because you pay no attention to the world around you is the most exciting thing that can happen.

Nicnus can smell the dinner cooking. His mother makes amazing food, or at least he thinks she does. Certainly better than the toast, canned soup, and pizza he eats much of the rest of the time. His mother calls and soon they’re all seated in the kitchen saying grace, after which there is no need to converse for awhile, except to comment on how hungry one is and how good the food smells and tastes.

Nicnus is happy. Good food, good family, his worry was certainly unfounded. He’ll have to put up with some stupidity from the girl, no doubt, but that’s not so bad. He is munching along happily when his mother, of all people, asks him if he’s heard about the new measures being proposed to finally crack down on child pornography on the Internet.

He thinks for a moment, weighing out what he should say. He’s not sure what she wants to hear, nor is he completely sure of his own opinion. Finally he speaks. “I think it could be dangerous.”

The girl speaks up quickly. “How can stopping child abuse be dangerous?”

He glares at her, biting out his reply, “I said the measures in question could be dangerous.”

His mother can smell trouble while it is far off, and she steps in to attempt a course correction now. “I was just curious, no need to get upset.”

“But there is need,” the girl has no intention of being helpful, “the Internet has been a problem for years.”

“Hold on,” says the brother, “I don’t think you mean to say the Internet is a problem–”

Now she is quite visibly upset, “But I do! What good has technology brought? Wars, pollution, porn, abuse, theft, money laundering, no good at all!”

Nicnus’ brain is confused. She hates all technology? What does that even mean? She watches movies, and probably doesn’t mind handplows…

Some time later the discussion has fizzled out around him. The girl is signalling strongly to his brother that they should leave. He recalls his father speaking in favour of the Internet, getting the discussion back on track a little. Ultimately, however, the girl was very unreasonable. His brother finally picks up on his girlfriend’s hints and they take their leave.

Nicnus is left for awhile making small-talk with his parents until the next bus. Normally he would suck at this, but he’s had such conversations with his parents all his life. Finally, he is walking to the bus: head awhirl, and a little upset. How could anyone hate the Internet?

His phone is in his hand, earphones in his ears, his finger spinning through his music for something to restore order. He punches up some Technical Death Metal and Power Metal and hits random. The wall of powerful sound reaches deep into him, slowly restoring order as he rides home.