Schneier on Security
A blog covering security and security technology.
October 2008 Archives
Video in Japanese.
And an (unrelated) cartoon.
RSA interviewed me about my talk at the RSA Conference in London earlier this week.
We had an email recently from an observer "curious as to why the webcam that was inside the shop/bar is no longer there, or at least, functional". The email was from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in the United States.
EDITED TO ADD (11/7): This story seems mostly bogus. See "The Story Continues..." on this page.
It's not a new scam to switch bar codes and buy merchandise for a lower value, but how do you get away with over $1M worth of merchandise with this scam?
In a statement of facts filed with Tidwell's plea, he admitted that, during one year, he and others conspired to steal more than $1 million in merchandise from large retailers and sell the items through eBay. The targeted merchandise included high-end vacuum cleaners, electric welders, power winches, personal computers, and electric generators.
That requires a lot of really clueless checkout clerks.
EDITED TO ADD (11/7): Video of talk on barcode hacks.
This is a story of how smart people can be neutralized through stupid procedures.
Here's the part of the story where some poor guy's account get's completely f-ed. This thief had been bounced to the out-sourced to security so often that he must have made a check list of any possible questions they would ask him. Through whatever means, he managed to get the answers to these questions. Now when he called, he could give us the information we were asking for, but by this point we knew his voice so well that we still tried to get him to security. It worked like this: We put him on hold and dial the extension for security. We get a security rep and start to explain the situation; we tell them he was able to give the right information, but that we know is the same guy that's been calling for weeks and we are certain he is not the account holder. They begrudgingly take the call. Minutes later another one of us gets a call from a security rep saying they are giving us a customer who has been cleared by them. And here the thief was back in our department. For those of us who had come to know him, the fight waged on night after night.
This is just ridiculous. Of course the bad guys will use all the communications tools available to the rest of us. They have to communicate, after all. They'll also use cars, water faucets, and all-you-can-eat buffet lunches. So what?
This commentary is dead on:
Steven Aftergood, a veteran intelligence analyst at the Federation of the American Scientists, doesn't dismiss the Army presentation out of hand. But nor does he think it's tackling a terribly seriously threat. "Red-teaming exercises to anticipate adversary operations are fundamental. But they need to be informed by a sense of what's realistic and important and what's not," he tells Danger Room. "If we have time to worry about 'Twitter threats' then we're in good shape. I mean, it's important to keep some sense of proportion."
Item 1: Kip Hawley says that the TSA may reduce size restrictions on liquids. You'll still have to take them out of your bag, but they can be larger than three ounces. The reasons -- so he states -- are that technologies are getting better, not that the threat is reduced.
I'm skeptical, of course. But read his post; it's interesting.
Item 3: The Atlantic is holding a contest, based on Hawley's comment that the TSA is basically there to catch stupid terrorists:
And so, a contest: How would the Hawley Principle of Federally-Endorsed Mediocrity apply to other government endeavors?
Not the same as my movie-plot threat contest, but fun all the same.
NIST's deadline is Friday. It seems as if everyone -- including many amateurs -- is working on a hash function, and I predict that NIST will receive at least 80 submissions. (Compare this to the sixteen NIST submissions received for the AES competition in 1998.) I expect people to start posting their submissions over the weekend. (Ron Rivest already presented MD6 at Crypto in August.) Probably the best place to watch for new hash functions is here; I'll try to keep a listing of the submissions myself.
The selection process will take around four years. I've previously called this sort of thing a cryptographic demolition derby -- last one left standing wins -- but that's only half true. Certainly all the groups will spend the next couple of years trying to cryptanalyze each other, but in the end there will be a bunch of unbroken algorithms; NIST will select one based on performance and features.
NIST has stated that the goal of this process is not to choose the best standard but to choose a good standard. I think that's smart of them; in this process, "best" is the enemy of "good." My advice is this: immediately sort them based on performance and features. Ask the cryptographic community to focus its attention on the top dozen, rather than spread its attention across all 80 -- although I also expect that most of the amateur submissions will be rejected by NIST for not being "complete and proper." Otherwise, people will break the easy ones and the better ones will go unanalyzed.
EDITED TO ADD (10/30): Here is a single website for all information, including cryptanalysis, of all the SHA-3 submissions. A spoke to a reporter who told me that, as of yesterday, NIST had received 30 submissions. And three news articles about Skein.
Chilling story of a death-row inmate with a contraband cell phone.
If we can't keep contraband out of prisons, how can we possibly hope to keep it out of airports?
According to comments allegedly made by Howard Cox, a US Department of Justice official in a closed-door meeting last week, after being frustrated with the disk encryption employed by Yastremskiy, Turkish law enforcement may have resorted to physical violence to force the password out of the Ukrainian suspect.
I generally avoid commenting on election politics -- that's not what this blog is about -- but this comment by Barack Obama is worth discussing:
[Q] I have been collecting accounts of your meeting with David Petraeus in Baghdad. And you had [inaudible] after he had made a really strong pitch [inaudible] for maximum flexibility. A lot of politicians at that moment would have said [inaudible] but from what I hear, you pushed back.
I have made this general point again and again -- about airline security, about terrorism, about a lot of things -- that the person in charge of the security system can't be the person who decides what resources to devote to that security system. The analogy I like to use is a company: the VP of marketing wants all the money for marketing, the VP of engineering wants all the money for engineering, and so on; and the CEO has to balance all of those needs and do what's right for the company. So of course the TSA wants to spend all this money on new airplane security systems; that's their job. Someone above the TSA has to balance the risks to airlines with the other risks our country faces and allocate budget accordingly. Security is a trade-off, and that trade-off has to be made by someone with responsibility over all aspects of that trade-off.
I don't think I've ever heard a politician make this point so explicitly.
EDITED TO ADD (10/27): This is a security blog, not a political blog. As such, I have deleted all political comments below -- on both sides.. You are welcome to discuss this notion of security trade-offs and the appropriate level to make them, but not the election or the candidates.
This data squid was seen at the big demonstration against surveillance that took place in Berlin on October 11, as part of the international privacy action day "Freedom not Fear."
The German is Datenkrake, which has a bad connotation to it, like sucking in everything it can get.
In a nutshell, the guide advocates that organizations calculate cyber security risks and costs by asking questions of every organizational discipline that might be affected: legal, compliance, business operations, IT, external communications, crisis management, and risk management/insurance. The idea is to involve everyone who might be affected by a security breach and collect data on the potential risks and costs.
Guide is here.
The researchers from the Security and Cryptography Laboratory at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne are able to capture keystrokes by monitoring the electromagnetic radiation of PS/2, universal serial bus, or laptop keyboards. They've outline four separate attack methods, some that work at a distance of as much as 65 feet from the target.
Unfortunately, there's not really anything to his response. It's obvious he doesn't want to admit that they've been checking ID's all this time to no purpose whatsoever, so he just emits vague generalities like a frightened squid filling the water with ink. Yes, some of the stunts in article are silly (who cares if people fly with Hezbollah T-shirts?) so that gives him an opportunity to minimize the real issues.
Watch-lists and identity checks are important and effective security measures. We identify dozens of terrorist-related individuals a week and stop No-Flys regularly with our watch-list process.
It is simply impossible that the TSA catches dozens of terrorists every week. If it were true, the administration would be trumpeting this all over the press -- it would be an amazing success story in their war on terrorism. But note that Hawley doesn't exactly say that; he calls them "terrorist-related individuals." Which means exactly what? People so dangerous they can't be allowed to fly for any reason, yet so innocent they can't be arrested -- even under the provisions of the Patriot Act.
And if Secretary Chertoff is telling the truth when he says that there are only 2,500 people on the no-fly list and fewer than 16,000 people on the selectee list -- they're the ones that get extra screening -- and that most of them live outside the U.S., then it is just plain impossible that the TSA identifies "dozens" of these people every week. The math just doesn't make sense.
And I also don't believe this:
Behavior detection works and we have 2,000 trained officers at airports today. They alert us to people who may pose a threat but who may also have items that could elude other layers of physical security.
It does work, but I don't see the TSA doing it properly. (Fly El Al if you want to see it done properly.) But what I think Hawley is doing is engaging in a little bit of psychological manipulation. Like sky marshals, the real benefit of behavior detection isn't whether or not you do it but whether or not the bad guys believe you're doing it. If they think you are doing behavior detection at security checkpoints, or have sky marshals on every airplane, then you don't actually have to do it. It's the threat that's the deterrent, not the actual security system.
This doesn't impress me, either:
Items carried on the person, be they a 'beer belly' or concealed objects in very private areas, are why we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds as well as targeted pat-downs that require private screening.
Optional security measures don't work, because the bad guys will opt not to use them. It's like those air-puff machines at some airports now. They're probably great at detecting explosive residue off clothing, but every time I have seen the machines in operation, the passengers have the option whether to go through the lane with them or another lane. What possible good is that?
The closest thing to a real response from Hawley is that the terrorists might get caught stealing credit cards.
Using stolen credit cards and false documents as a way to get around watch-lists makes the point that forcing terrorists to use increasingly risky tactics has its own security value.
He's right about that. And, truth be told, that was my sloppiest answer during the original interview. Thinking about it afterwards, it's far more likely is that someone with a clean record and a legal credit card will buy the various plane tickets.
This is new:
Boarding pass scanners and encryption are being tested in eight airports now and more will be coming.
Ignoring for a moment that "eight airports" nonsense -- unless you do it at every airport, the bad guys will choose the airport where you don't do it to launch their attack -- this is an excellent idea. The reason my attack works, the reason I can get through TSA checkpoints with a fake boarding pass, is that the TSA never confirms that the information on the boarding pass matches a legitimate reservation. If all TSA checkpoints had boarding pass scanners that connected to the airlines' computers, this attack would not work. (Interestingly enough, I noticed exactly this system at the Dublin airport earlier this month.)
Stopping the "James Bond" terrorist is truly a team effort and I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to stop those attacks is with intelligence and law enforcement working together.
This isn't about "Stopping the 'James Bond' terrorist," it's about stopping terrorism. And if all this focus on airports, even assuming it starts working, shifts the terrorists to other targets, we haven't gotten a whole lot of security for our money.
FYI: I did a long interview with Kip Hawley last year. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend you do. I pressed him on these and many other points, and didn't get very good answers then, either.
EDITED TO ADD (10/28): Kip Hawley responds in comments. Yes, it's him.
EDITED TO ADD (11/17): Another article on those boarding pass verifiers.
It is thought Islamist extremists are concealing messages in digital images and audio, video or other files.
Of course, terrorists and strangers preying on our children are two of the things that cause the most fear in people. Put them together, and there's no limit to what sorts of laws you can get passed.
EDITED TO ADD (10/22): Best comment:
Why would terrorists hide incriminating messages inside incriminating photographs? That would be like drug smugglers hiding kilos of cocaine in bales of marijuana.
Investigators are treating the explosions as acts of vandalism, not terrorism, Shields said.
It's not all good, though. Here's a story from Philadelphia, where a subway car is criticized because people can see out the front. Because, um, because terrorist will be able to see out the front, and we all know how dangerous terrorists are:
Marcus Ruef, a national vice president with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, compared a train cab to an airliner cockpit and said a cab should be similarly secure. He invoked post-9/11 security concerns as a reason to provide a full cab that prevents passengers from seeing the rails and signals ahead.
At least there was pushback against that kind of idiocy.
And from the UK:
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon has said the government is prepared to go "quite a long way" with civil liberties to "stop terrorists killing people".
I hope there will be similar pushback against this "choice."
EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Seems like the Philadelphia engineers have another agenda -- the cabs in the new trains are too small -- and they're just using security as an excuse.
The scannable card serves as proof that a background check has been performed and it contains features aimed at preventing misuse. In addition to a photograph, the card contains a smart chip that carries a copy of the holder's fingerprint. Port and delivery workers, cargo handlers, and other employees who must venture into sensitive or secure areas will be required to submit to a fingerprint scan before entering those locations. The scanning machine will automatically perform a match analysis with the fingerprint embedded in the smart chip.
This is a great application for these cards.
Quantum cryptography is back in the news, and the basic idea is still unbelievably cool, in theory, and nearly useless in real life.
The idea behind quantum crypto is that two people communicating using a quantum channel can be absolutely sure no one is eavesdropping. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle requires anyone measuring a quantum system to disturb it, and that disturbance alerts legitimate users as to the eavesdropper's presence. No disturbance, no eavesdropper -- period.
This month we've seen reports on a new working quantum-key distribution network in Vienna, and a new quantum-key distribution technique out of Britain. Great stuff, but headlines like the BBC's "'Unbreakable' encryption unveiled" are a bit much.
The basic science behind quantum crypto was developed, and prototypes built, in the early 1980s by Charles Bennett and Giles Brassard, and there have been steady advances in engineering since then. I describe basically how it all works in Applied Cryptography, 2nd Edition (pages 554-557). At least one company already sells quantum-key distribution products.
Note that this is totally separate from quantum computing, which also has implications for cryptography. Several groups are working on designing and building a quantum computer, which is fundamentally different from a classical computer. If one were built -- and we're talking science fiction here -- then it could factor numbers and solve discrete-logarithm problems very quickly. In other words, it could break all of our commonly used public-key algorithms. For symmetric cryptography it's not that dire: A quantum computer would effectively halve the key length, so that a 256-bit key would be only as secure as a 128-bit key today. Pretty serious stuff, but years away from being practical. I think the best quantum computer today can factor the number 15.
While I like the science of quantum cryptography -- my undergraduate degree was in physics -- I don't see any commercial value in it. I don't believe it solves any security problem that needs solving. I don't believe that it's worth paying for, and I can't imagine anyone but a few technophiles buying and deploying it. Systems that use it don't magically become unbreakable, because the quantum part doesn't address the weak points of the system.
Security is a chain; it's as strong as the weakest link. Mathematical cryptography, as bad as it sometimes is, is the strongest link in most security chains. Our symmetric and public-key algorithms are pretty good, even though they're not based on much rigorous mathematical theory. The real problems are elsewhere: computer security, network security, user interface and so on.
Cryptography is the one area of security that we can get right. We already have good encryption algorithms, good authentication algorithms and good key-agreement protocols. Maybe quantum cryptography can make that link stronger, but why would anyone bother? There are far more serious security problems to worry about, and it makes much more sense to spend effort securing those.
As I've often said, it's like defending yourself against an approaching attacker by putting a huge stake in the ground. It's useless to argue about whether the stake should be 50 feet tall or 100 feet tall, because either way, the attacker is going to go around it. Even quantum cryptography doesn't "solve" all of cryptography: The keys are exchanged with photons, but a conventional mathematical algorithm takes over for the actual encryption.
I'm always in favor of security research, and I have enjoyed following the developments in quantum cryptography. But as a product, it has no future. It's not that quantum cryptography might be insecure; it's that cryptography is already sufficiently secure.
This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.
EDITED TO ADD (10/21): It's amazing; even reporters responding to my essay get it completely wrong:
Keith Harrison, a cryptographer with HP Laboratories, is quoted by the Telegraph as saying that, as quantum computing becomes commonplace, hackers will use the technology to crack conventional encryption.
No, it wouldn't make eavesdropping impossible. It would make eavesdropping on the communications channel impossible unless someone made an implementation error. (In the 80s, the NSA broke Soviet one-time-pad systems because the Soviets reused the pad.) Eavesdropping via spyware or Trojan or TEMPEST would still be possible.
EDITED TO ADD (10/26): Here's another commenter who gets it wrong:
Now let me get this straight: I have no doubt that there are many greater worries in security than "mathematical crypography." But does this justify totally ignoring the possibility that a cryptographic system might possibly be breakable? I mean maybe I'm influenced by this in the fact that I've been sitting in on a cryptanalysis course and I just met a graduate student who broke a cryptographic pseudorandom number generator, but really what kind of an argument is this? "Um, well, sometimes our cryptographic systems have been broken, but that's nothing to worry about, because, you know, everything is kosher with the systems we are using."
The point isn't to ignore the possibility that a cryptographic system might possibly be broken; the point is to pay attention to the other parts of the system that are much much more likely to be already broken. Security is a chain; it's only as secure as the weakest link. The cryptographic systems, as potentially flawed as they are, are the strongest link in the chain. We'd get a lot more security devoting our resources to making all those weaker links more secure.
Again, this is not to say that quantum cryptography isn't incredibly cool research. It is, and I hope it continues to receive all sorts of funding. But for an operational network that is worried about security: you've got much bigger worries than whether Diffie-Hellman will be broken someday.
My all-time favourite [short con] only makes the con artist a few dollars every time he does it, but I absolutely love it. These guys used to go door-to-door in the 1970s selling lightbulbs and they would offer to replace every single lightbulb in your house, so all your old lightbulbs would be replaced with a brand new lightbulb, and it would cost you, say $5, so a fraction of the cost of what new lightbulbs would cost. So the man comes in, he replaces each lightbulb, every single one in the house, and does it, you can check, and they all work, and then he takes all the lightbulbs that he's just taken from the person's house, goes next door and then sells them the same lightbulbs again. So it's really just moving lightbulbs from one house to another and charging people a fee to do it.
Now why didn't I think of that?
Great article from The Atlantic:
As we stood at an airport Starbucks, Schneier spread before me a batch of fabricated boarding passes for Northwest Airlines flight 1714, scheduled to depart at 2:20 p.m. and arrive at Reagan National at 5:47 p.m. He had taken the liberty of upgrading us to first class, and had even granted me "Platinum/Elite Plus" status, which was gracious of him. This status would allow us to skip the ranks of hoi-polloi flyers and join the expedited line, which is my preference, because those knotty, teeming security lines are the most dangerous places in airports: terrorists could paralyze U.S. aviation merely by detonating a bomb at any security checkpoint, all of which are, of course, entirely unsecured. (I once asked Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, about this. "We actually ultimately do have a vision of trying to move the security checkpoint away from the gate, deeper into the airport itself, but there's always going to be some place that people congregate. So if you're asking me, is there any way to protect against a person taking a bomb into a crowded location and blowing it up, the answer is no.")
From the LEET '08 conference: "Designing and implementing malicious hardware," by Samuel T. King, Joseph Tucek, Anthony Cozzie, Chris Grier, Weihang Jiang, and Yuanyuan Zhou.
It's about time someone wrote this paper:
EDITED TO ADD (10/26): Never mind; this seems to be a self-serving marketing piece.
I was interviewed for Dr. Dobb's Journal.
Way back before the first edition of Applied Cryptography, Dr. Dobbs Journal published my first writings about cryptography.
Remember when the U.S. government said it was only spying on terrorists? Anyone with any common sense knew it was lying -- power without oversight is always abused -- but even I didn't think
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.
Warrants are a security device. They protect us against government abuse of power.
BART, the San Francisco subway authority, has been debating allowing passengers to bring drinks on trains. There are all sorts of good reasons why or why not -- convenience, problems with spills, and so on -- but one reason that makes no sense is that terrorists may bring flammable liquids on board. Yet that is exactly what BART managers said.
No big news -- we've seen stupid things like this regularly since 9/11 -- but this time people responded:
Added Director Tom Radulovich, "If somebody wants to break the law and bring flammable liquids on, they can. It's not like al Qaeda is waiting in their caves for us to have a sippy-cup rule."
The readers were hacked when they were built, "either during the manufacturing process at a factory in China, or shortly after they came off the production line." It's being called a "supply chain hack."
Sophisticated stuff, and yet another demonstration that these all-computer security systems are full of risks.
BTW, what's it worth to rig an election?
We engage in risk management all the time, but it only makes sense if we do it right.
"Risk management" is just a fancy term for the cost-benefit tradeoff associated with any security decision. It's what we do when we react to fear, or try to make ourselves feel secure. It's the fight-or-flight reflex that evolved in primitive fish and remains in all vertebrates. It's instinctual, intuitive and fundamental to life, and one of the brain's primary functions.
Some have hypothesized that humans have a "risk thermostat" that tries to maintain some optimal risk level. It explains why we drive our motorcycles faster when we wear a helmet, or are more likely to take up smoking during wartime. It's our natural risk management in action.
The problem is our brains are intuitively suited to the sorts of risk management decisions endemic to living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 BC, and not to living in the New York City of 2008. We make systematic risk management mistakes -- miscalculating the probability of rare events, reacting more to stories than data, responding to the feeling of security rather than reality, and making decisions based on irrelevant context. And that risk thermostat of ours? It's not nearly as finely tuned as we might like it to be.
Like a rabbit that responds to an oncoming car with its default predator avoidance behavior -- dart left, dart right, dart left, and at the last moment jump -- instead of just getting out of the way, our Stone Age intuition doesn't serve us well in a modern technological society. So when we in the security industry use the term "risk management," we don't want you to do it by trusting your gut. We want you to do risk management consciously and intelligently, to analyze the tradeoff and make the best decision.
This means balancing the costs and benefits of any security decision -- buying and installing a new technology, implementing a new procedure or forgoing a common precaution. It means allocating a security budget to mitigate different risks by different amounts. It means buying insurance to transfer some risks to others. It's what businesses do, all the time, about everything. IT security has its own risk management decisions, based on the threats and the technologies.
There's never just one risk, of course, and bad risk management decisions often carry an underlying tradeoff. Terrorism policy in the U.S. is based more on politics than actual security risk, but the politicians who make these decisions are concerned about the risks of not being re-elected.
Many corporate security decisions are made to mitigate the risk of lawsuits rather than address the risk of any actual security breach. And individuals make risk management decisions that consider not only the risks to the corporation, but the risks to their departments' budgets, and to their careers.
You can't completely remove emotion from risk management decisions, but the best way to keep risk management focused on the data is to formalize the methodology. That's what companies that manage risk for a living -- insurance companies, financial trading firms and arbitrageurs -- try to do. They try to replace intuition with models, and hunches with mathematics.
The problem in the security world is we often lack the data to do risk management well. Technological risks are complicated and subtle. We don't know how well our network security will keep the bad guys out, and we don't know the cost to the company if we don't keep them out. And the risks change all the time, making the calculations even harder. But this doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
You can't avoid risk management; it's fundamental to business just as to life. The question is whether you're going to try to use data or whether you're going to just react based on emotions, hunches and anecdotes.
This essay appeared as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum in Information Security magazine.
Elcomsoft is claiming that the WPA protocol is dead, just because they can speed up brute-force cracking by 100 times using a hardware accelerator. Why exactly is this news? Yes, weak passwords are weak -- we already know that. And strong WPA passwords are still strong. This seems like yet another blatant attempt to grab some press attention with a half-baked cryptanalytic result.
Used against the IRA:
One of the most interesting operations was the laundry mat [sic]. Having lost many troops and civilians to bombings, the Brits decided they needed to determine who was making the bombs and where they were being manufactured. One bright fellow recommended they operate a laundry and when asked "what the hell he was talking about," he explained the plan and it was incorporated -- to much success.
Interesting paper by Adam Shostack:
Abstract. Describes a decade of experience threat modeling products and services at Microsoft. Describes the current threat modeling methodology used in the Security Development Lifecycle. The methodology is a practical approach, usable by non-experts, centered on data ow diagrams and a threat enumeration technique of 'STRIDE per element.' The paper covers some lessons learned which are likely applicable to other security analysis techniques. The paper closes with some possible questions for academic research.
Squid can communicate with each other without any other fish noticing:
Squid and their relatives have eyes that are sensitive to polarised light and to them and are known to use it to signal to one another. Their predators on the other hand, like seals or whales, don't share this ability and cannot see the squids' signals.
Guess the year:
Murderous organizations have increased in size and scope; they are more daring, they are served by the most terrible weapons offered by modern science, and the world is nowadays threatened by new forces which, if recklessly unchained, may some day wreck universal destruction. The Orsini bombs were mere children's toys compared with the later developments of infernal machines. Between 1858 and 1898 the dastardly science of destruction had made rapid and alarming strides...
No, that wasn't a typo. "Between 1858 and 1898...." This quote is from Major Arthur Griffith, Mysteries of Police and Crime, London, 1898, II, p. 469. It's quoted in: Walter Laqueur, A History of Terrorism, New Brunswick/London, Transaction Publishers, 2002.
The report was written by a committee whose members include William Perry, a professor at Stanford University; Charles Vest, the former president of MIT; W. Earl Boebert, a retired senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories; Cynthia Dwork of Microsoft Research; R. Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle's police chief; and Daryl Pregibon, a research scientist at Google.
EDITED TO ADD (10/10): More commentary:
As the NRC report points out, not only is the training data lacking, but the input data that you'd actually be mining has been purposely corrupted by the terrorists themselves. Terrorist plotters actively disguise their activities using operational security measures (opsec) like code words, encryption, and other forms of covert communication. So, even if we had access to a copious and pristine body of training data that we could use to generalize about the "typical terrorist," the new data that's coming into the data mining system is suspect.
Heard about this:
The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.
Why did they do that?
Both Hutchins and Sheridan said the activists' names were entered into the state police database as terrorists partly because the software offered limited options for classifying entries.
I know that once we had this "either you're with us or with the terrorists" mentality, but don't you think that -- just maybe -- the software should allow for a little bit more nuance?
In a blatant attempt to get some PR:
In a new paper, Bernd Roellgen of Munich-based encryption outfit PMC Ciphers, explains how it is possible to compare an encrypted backup image file made with almost any commercial encryption program or algorithm to an original that has subsequently changed so that small but telling quantities of data 'leaks'.
Here's the paper. Turns out that if you use a block cipher in Electronic Codebook Mode, identical plaintexts encrypt to identical ciphertexts.
Yeah, we already knew that.
And -- ahem -- what is it with that photograph in the paper? Couldn't the researchers have found something a little less adolescent?
For the record, I doghoused PMC Ciphers back in 2003:
PMC Ciphers. The theory description is so filled with pseudo-cryptography that it's funny to read. Hypotheses are presented as conclusions. Current research is misstated or ignored. The first link is a technical paper with four references, three of them written before 1975. Who needs thirty years of cryptographic research when you have polymorphic cipher theory?
EDITED TO ADD (10/9): I didn't realize it, but last year PMC Ciphers responded to my doghousing them. Funny stuff.
EDITED TO ADD (10/10): Three new commenters using dialups at the same German ISP have showed up here to defend the paper. What are the odds?
This is the best article I've read on the story.
Turns out you can add anyone's number to -- or remove anyone's number from -- the Canadian do-not-call list. You can also add (but not remove) numbers to the U.S. do-not-call list, though only up to three at a time, and you have to provide a valid e-mail address to confirm the addition.
Here's my idea. If you're a company, add every one of your customers to the list. That way, none of your competitors will be able to cold call them.
Most counterterrorism policies fail, not because of tactical problems, but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates terrorists in the first place. If we're ever going to defeat terrorism, we need to understand what drives people to become terrorists in the first place.
Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is inherently political, and that people become terrorists for political reasons. This is the "strategic" model of terrorism, and it's basically an economic model. It posits that people resort to terrorism when they believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that terrorism is worth it; that is, when they believe the political gains of terrorism minus the political costs are greater than if they engaged in some other, more peaceful form of protest. It's assumed, for example, that people join Hamas to achieve a Palestinian state; that people join the PKK to attain a Kurdish national homeland; and that people join al-Qaida to, among other things, get the United States out of the Persian Gulf.
If you believe this model, the way to fight terrorism is to change that equation, and that's what most experts advocate. Governments tend to minimize the political gains of terrorism through a no-concessions policy; the international community tends to recommend reducing the political grievances of terrorists via appeasement, in hopes of getting them to renounce violence. Both advocate policies to provide effective nonviolent alternatives, like free elections.
Historically, none of these solutions has worked with any regularity. Max Abrahms, a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, has studied dozens of terrorist groups from all over the world. He argues that the model is wrong. In a paper published this year in International Security that -- sadly -- doesn't have the title "Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists," he discusses, well, seven habits of highly ineffective terrorists. These seven tendencies are seen in terrorist organizations all over the world, and they directly contradict the theory that terrorists are political maximizers:
Terrorists, he writes, (1) attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want; (2) treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections; (3) don't compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically; (4) have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change; (5) often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them; (6) regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and (7) resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.
Abrahms has an alternative model to explain all this: People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.
The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren't working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.
For example, several of the 9/11 hijackers planned to fight in Chechnya, but they didn't have the right paperwork so they attacked America instead. The mujahedeen had no idea whom they would attack after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so they sat around until they came up with a new enemy: America. Pakistani terrorists regularly defect to another terrorist group with a totally different political platform. Many new al-Qaida members say, unconvincingly, that they decided to become a jihadist after reading an extreme, anti-American blog, or after converting to Islam, sometimes just a few weeks before. These people know little about politics or Islam, and they frankly don't even seem to care much about learning more. The blogs they turn to don't have a lot of substance in these areas, even though more informative blogs do exist.
All of this explains the seven habits. It's not that they're ineffective; it's that they have a different goal. They might not be effective politically, but they are effective socially: They all help preserve the group's existence and cohesion.
This kind of analysis isn't just theoretical; it has practical implications for counterterrorism. Not only can we now better understand who is likely to become a terrorist, we can engage in strategies specifically designed to weaken the social bonds within terrorist organizations. Driving a wedge between group members -- commuting prison sentences in exchange for actionable intelligence, planting more double agents within terrorist groups -- will go a long way to weakening the social bonds within those groups.
We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.
This essay previously appeared on Wired.com.
EDITED TO ADD (10/9): Interesting rebuttal.
Good Q&A on clickjacking:
In plain English, clickjacking lets hackers and scammers hide malicious stuff under the cover of the content on a legitimate site. You know what happens when a carjacker takes a car? Well, clickjacking is like that, except that the click is the car.
"Clickjacking" is a stunningly sexy name, but the vulnerability is really just a variant of cross-site scripting. We don't know how bad it really is, because the details are still being withheld. But the name alone is causing dread.
CSRF vulnerabilities occur when a website allows an authenticated user to perform a sensitive action but does not verify that the user herself is invoking that action. The key to understanding CSRF attacks is to recognize that websites typically don't verify that a request came from an authorized user. Instead they verify only that the request came from the browser of an authorized user. Because browsers run code sent by multiple sites, there is a danger that one site will (unbeknownst to the user) send a request to a second site, and the second site will mistakenly think that the user authorized the request.
On Wednesday I was interviewed by the Irish Times.
This essay of mine was published in The Guardian yesterday. Nothing I haven't said before.
Nice paragraph on the limitations of risk management in this occasionally interesting interview with Nicholas Taleb:
Because then you get a Maginot Line problem. [After World War I, the French erected concrete fortifications to prevent Germany from invading again -- a response to the previous war, which proved ineffective for the next one.] You know, they make sure they solve that particular problem, the Germans will not invade from here. The thing you have to be aware of most obviously is scenario planning, because typically if you talk about scenarios, you'll overestimate the probability of these scenarios. If you examine them at the expense of those you don't examine, sometimes it has left a lot of people worse off, so scenario planning can be bad. I'll just take my track record. Those who did scenario planning have not fared better than those who did not do scenario planning. A lot of people have done some kind of "make-sense" type measures, and that has made them more vulnerable because they give the illusion of having done your job. This is the problem with risk management. I always come back to a classical question. Don't give a fool the illusion of risk management. Don't ask someone to guess the number of dentists in Manhattan after asking him the last four digits of his Social Security number. The numbers will always be correlated. I actually did some work on risk management, to show how stupid we are when it comes to risk.
Now this is clever:
"I came across the ad that was for a prevailing wage job for $28.50 an hour," said Mike, who saw a Craigslist ad last week looking for workers for a road maintenance project in Monroe.
EDITED TO ADD (11/7): He was arrested.
This is good:
Microsoft Corp. and the state of Washington this week filed lawsuits against a slew of "scareware" purveyors, scam artists who use fake security alerts to frighten consumers into paying for worthless computer security software.
I would have thought that existing scam laws would be enough, but Washington state actually has a specific law about this sort of thing:
The lawsuits were filed under Washington's Computer Spyware Act, which among other things punishes individuals who prey on user concerns regarding spyware or other threats. Specifically, the law makes it illegal to misrepresent the extent to which software is required for computer security or privacy, and it provides actual damages or statutory damages of $100,000 per violation, whichever is greater.
A 28-year-old delivery man from the UK who bought a Nikon Coolpix camera for about $31 on eBay got more than he bargained for when the camera arrived with top secret information from the UK's MI6 organization.
He turned the camera in to the police.
I get that this is terrorism:
A 24-year-old convert to Islam has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for plotting to set off hand grenades in a crowded shopping mall during the Christmas season.
But I thought "weapons of mass destruction" was reserved for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
He was arrested in 2006 on charges of scheming to use weapons of mass destruction at the Cherryvale Mall in the northern Illinois city of Rockford.
Like the continuing cheapening of the word "terrorism," we are now cheapening the term "weapons of mass destruction."
Edited: The link above now leads to a revised story that doesn't use the term "weapons of mass destruction." A version that does can still be found here.
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