Blog: November 2008 Archives

FBI Stoking Fear

Another unsubstantiated terrorist plot:

An internal memo obtained by The Associated Press says the FBI has received a "plausible but unsubstantiated" report that al-Qaida terrorists in late September may have discussed attacking the subway system.


The internal bulletin says al-Qaida terrorists "in late September may have discussed targeting transit systems in and around New York City. These discussions reportedly involved the use of suicide bombers or explosives placed on subway/passenger rail systems," according to the document.

"We have no specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning, but we are issuing this warning out of concern that such an attack could possibly be conducted during the forthcoming holiday season," according to the warning dated Tuesday.


Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, said authorities "have very real specifics as to who it is and where the conversation took place and who conducted it."

"It certainly involves suicide bombing attacks on the mass transit system in and around New York and it's plausible, but there's no evidence yet that it's in the process of being carried out," King said.

Knocke, the DHS spokesman, said the warning was issued "out of an abundance of caution going into this holiday season."

Got that: "plausible but unsubstantiated," "may have discussed attacking the subway system," "specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning," "attack could possibly be conducted," "it's plausible, but there's no evidence yet that it's in the process of being carried out."

I have no specific details, but I want to warn everybody today that fiery rain might fall from the sky. Terrorists may have discussed this sort of tactic, possibly at one of their tequila-fueled aspirational planning sessions. While there is no evidence yet that the plan is in the process of being carried out, I want to be extra-cautious this holiday season. Ho ho ho.

Posted on November 27, 2008 at 12:27 PM49 Comments

New DHS Head Understands Security

This quote impresses me:

Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., is smashing the idea of a border wall, stating it would be too expensive, take too long to construct, and be ineffective once completed.

"You show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That's the way the border works," Napolitano told the Associated Press.

Instead of a wall, she said funds would be better utilized on beefing up Border Patrol manpower, technology sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles.

I am cautiously optimistic.

Posted on November 26, 2008 at 12:43 PM81 Comments

Government Can Determine Location of Cell Phones without Telco Help


Triggerfish, also known as cell-site simulators or digital analyzers, are nothing new: the technology was used in the 1990s to hunt down renowned hacker Kevin Mitnick. By posing as a cell tower, triggerfish trick nearby cell phones into transmitting their serial numbers, phone numbers, and other data to law enforcement. Most previous descriptions of the technology, however, suggested that because of range limitations, triggerfish were only useful for zeroing in on a phone's precise location once cooperative cell providers had given a general location.

This summer, however, the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Justice Department, seeking documents related to the FBI's cell-phone tracking practices. Since August, they've received a stream of documents—the most recent batch on November 6—that were posted on the Internet last week. In a post on the progressive blog Daily Kos, ACLU spokesperson Rachel Myers drew attention to language in several of those documents implying that triggerfish have broader application than previously believed.

Posted on November 26, 2008 at 6:06 AM33 Comments

Here Comes Everybody Review

In 1937, Ronald Coase answered one of the most perplexing questions in economics: if markets are so great, why do organizations exist? Why don't people just buy and sell their own services in a market instead? Coase, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics, answered the question by noting a market's transaction costs: buyers and sellers need to find one another, then reach agreement, and so on. The Coase theorem implies that if these transaction costs are low enough, direct markets of individuals make a whole lot of sense. But if they are too high, it makes more sense to get the job done by an organization that hires people.

Economists have long understood the corollary concept of Coase's ceiling, a point above which organizations collapse under their own weight -- where hiring someone, however competent, means more work for everyone else than the new hire contributes. Software projects often bump their heads against Coase's ceiling: recall Frederick P. Brooks Jr.'s seminal study, The Mythical Man-Month (Addison-Wesley, 1975), which showed how adding another person onto a project can slow progress and increase errors.

What's new is something consultant and social technologist Clay Shirky calls "Coase's Floor," below which we find projects and activities that aren't worth their organizational costs -- things so esoteric, so frivolous, so nonsensical, or just so thoroughly unimportant that no organization, large or small, would ever bother with them. Things that you shake your head at when you see them and think, "That's ridiculous."

Sounds a lot like the Internet, doesn't it? And that's precisely Shirky's point. His new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, explores a world where organizational costs are close to zero and where ad hoc, loosely connected groups of unpaid amateurs can create an encyclopedia larger than the Britannica and a computer operating system to challenge Microsoft's.

Shirky teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, but this is no academic book. Sacrificing rigor for readability, Here Comes Everybody is an entertaining as well as informative romp through some of the Internet's signal moments -- the Howard Dean phenomenon, Belarusian protests organized on LiveJournal, the lost cellphone of a woman named Ivanna,, flash mobs, Twitter, and more -- which Shirky uses to illustrate his points.

The book is filled with bits of insight and common sense, explaining why young people take better advantage of social tools, how the Internet affects social change, and how most Internet discourse falls somewhere between dinnertime conversation and publishing.

Shirky notes that "most user-generated content isn't 'content' at all, in the sense of being created for general consumption, any more than a phone call between you and a sibling is 'family-generated content.' Most of what gets created on any given day is just the ordinary stuff of life -- gossip, little updates, thinking out loud -- but now it's done in the same medium as professionally produced material. Unlike professionally produced material, however, Internet content can be organized after the fact."

No one coordinates Flickr's 6 million to 8 million users. Yet Flickr had the first photos from the 2005 London Transport bombings, beating the traditional news media. Why? People with cellphone cameras uploaded their photos to Flickr. They coordinated themselves using tools that Flickr provides. This is the sort of impromptu organization the Internet is ideally suited for. Shirky explains how these moments are harbingers of a future that can self-organize without formal hierarchies.

These nonorganizations allow for contributions from a wider group of people. A newspaper has to pay someone to take photos; it can't be bothered to hire someone to stand around London underground stations waiting for a major event. Similarly, Microsoft has to pay a programmer full time, and Encyclopedia Britannica has to pay someone to write articles. But Flickr can make use of a person with just one photo to contribute, Linux can harness the work of a programmer with little time, and Wikipedia benefits if someone corrects just a single typo. These aggregations of millions of actions that were previously below the Coasean floor have enormous potential.

But a flash mob is still a mob. In a world where the Coasean floor is at ground level, all sorts of organizations appear, including ones you might not like: violent political organizations, hate groups, Holocaust deniers, and so on. (Shirky's discussion of teen anorexia support groups makes for very disturbing reading.) This has considerable implications for security, both online and off.

We never realized how much our security could be attributed to distance and inconvenience -- how difficult it is to recruit, organize, coordinate, and communicate without formal organizations. That inadvertent measure of security is now gone. Bad guys, from hacker groups to terrorist groups, will use the same ad hoc organizational technologies that the rest of us do. And while there has been some success in closing down individual Web pages, discussion groups, and blogs, these are just stopgap measures.

In the end, a virtual community is still a community, and it needs to be treated as such. And just as the best way to keep a neighborhood safe is for a policeman to walk around it, the best way to keep a virtual community safe is to have a virtual police presence.

Crime isn't the only danger; there is also isolation. If people can segregate themselves in ever-increasingly specialized groups, then they're less likely to be exposed to alternative ideas. We see a mild form of this in the current political trend of rival political parties having their own news sources, their own narratives, and their own facts. Increased radicalization is another danger lurking below the Coasean floor.

There's no going back, though. We've all figured out that the Internet makes freedom of speech a much harder right to take away. As Shirky demonstrates, Web 2.0 is having the same effect on freedom of assembly. The consequences of this won't be fully seen for years.

Here Comes Everybody covers some of the same ground as Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks. But when I had to explain to one of my corporate attorneys how the Internet has changed the nature of public discourse, Shirky's book is the one I recommended.

This essay previously appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Interesting Clay Shirky podcast.

Posted on November 25, 2008 at 7:39 AM30 Comments

The Future of Ephemeral Conversation

When he becomes president, Barack Obama will have to give up his BlackBerry. Aides are concerned that his unofficial conversations would become part of the presidential record, subject to subpoena and eventually made public as part of the country's historical record.

This reality of the information age might be particularly stark for the president, but it's no less true for all of us. Conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was just assumed.

This has changed. We chat in e-mail, over SMS and IM, and on social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. We blog and we Twitter. These conversations -- with friends, lovers, colleagues, members of our cabinet -- are not ephemeral; they leave their own electronic trails.

We know this intellectually, but we haven't truly internalized it. We type on, engrossed in conversation, forgetting we're being recorded and those recordings might come back to haunt us later.

Oliver North learned this, way back in 1987, when messages he thought he had deleted were saved by the White House PROFS system, and then subpoenaed in the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Gates learned this in 1998 when his conversational e-mails were provided to opposing counsel as part of the antitrust litigation discovery process. Mark Foley learned this in 2006 when his instant messages were saved and made public by the underage men he talked to. Paris Hilton learned this in 2005 when her cell phone account was hacked, and Sarah Palin learned it earlier this year when her Yahoo e-mail account was hacked. Someone in George W. Bush's administration learned this, and millions of e-mails went mysteriously and conveniently missing.

Ephemeral conversation is dying.

Cardinal Richelieu famously said, :If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." When all our ephemeral conversations can be saved for later examination, different rules have to apply. Conversation is not the same thing as correspondence. Words uttered in haste over morning coffee, whether spoken in a coffee shop or thumbed on a Blackberry, are not official pronouncements. Discussions in a meeting, whether held in a boardroom or a chat room, are not the same as answers at a press conference. And privacy isn't just about having something to hide; it has enormous value to democracy, liberty, and our basic humanity.

We can't turn back technology; electronic communications are here to stay and even our voice conversations are threatened. But as technology makes our conversations less ephemeral, we need laws to step in and safeguard ephemeral conversation. We need a comprehensive data privacy law, protecting our data and communications regardless of where it is stored or how it is processed. We need laws forcing companies to keep it private and delete it as soon as it is no longer needed. Laws requiring ISPs to store e-mails and other personal communications are exactly what we don't need.

Rules pertaining to government need to be different, because of the power differential. Subjecting the president's communications to eventual public review increases liberty because it reduces the government's power with respect to the people. Subjecting our communications to government review decreases liberty because it reduces our power with respect to the government. The president, as well as other members of government, need some ability to converse ephemerally -- just as they're allowed to have unrecorded meetings and phone calls -- but more of their actions need to be subject to public scrutiny.

But laws can only go so far. Law or no law, when something is made public it's too late. And many of us like having complete records of all our e-mail at our fingertips; it's like our offline brains.

In the end, this is cultural.

The Internet is the greatest generation gap since rock and roll. We're now witnessing one aspect of that generation gap: the younger generation chats digitally, and the older generation treats those chats as written correspondence. Until our CEOs blog, our Congressmen Twitter, and our world leaders send each other LOLcats – until we have a Presidential election where both candidates have a complete history on social networking sites from before they were teenagers– we aren't fully an information age society.

When everyone leaves a public digital trail of their personal thoughts since birth, no one will think twice about it being there. Obama might be on the younger side of the generation gap, but the rules he's operating under were written by the older side. It will take another generation before society's tolerance for digital ephemera changes.

This essay previously appeared on The Wall Street Journal website (not the print newspaper), and is an update of something I wrote previously.

Posted on November 24, 2008 at 2:06 PM53 Comments

BNP Database Leaked

This is a big deal.

British National Party (BNP, a far-right nationalist party) membership and contacts list. 12,801 individuals are represented. Contains contact details and notes on selected party members and (possibly) other individuals. The list has been independently verified by Wikileaks staff as predominantly containing current or ex-BNP members, however other individuals who have donated to the BNP or who have had other contact (not necessarily supportive) with the BNP or one of its fronts may also be represented.

Says BBC:

Occupations ascribed to the listed names include teachers, a doctor, nurse, vicar and members of the armed forces.

While there is no ban on many of those professions joining the BNP, its right-wing political stance and whites-only membership policy are seen by many as incompatible with frontline public service.

Police officers, on the other hand, are formally banned from joining, a policy which is recognised in the list.

Alongside the name of a serving officer, the document states that there is "Discretion required re. employment concerns".

Seems that the BNP database wasn't hacked from the outside, but that someone on the inside leaked the list.

There's a lot more leaked BNP documents on the Wikileaks website.

Posted on November 24, 2008 at 6:26 AM32 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Preserving Giant Squid

At the Smithsonian:

At the centerof the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History's gleaming new Sant Ocean Hall lies a preserved giant female squid -- the arresting, spineless star among the vibrant exhibition's animal specimens. Tentacles menacingly outstretched and seemingly frozen in time, the 24-foot squid embodies humans' fascination with the briny deep. But this squid also symbolizes something else: an ongoing experiment in the chemistry of preservation, without which the Smithsonian's new exhibition would not have been possible.

Also note the terrorism tie-in:

To create the exhibit, the Smithsonian had to work around post-9/11 rules restricting flammable materials, while maximizing the lifelike appearance of the squid for public display. They turned not to formalin or ethanol, but to a new fluorinated chemical called Novec, developed by 3M.

If we give up our preserved giant squids, then surely the terrorists have won.

Posted on November 21, 2008 at 4:20 PM16 Comments

Lego Safe


You might think that a Lego safe would be easy to open. Maybe just remove a few bricks and you're in. But that's not the case with this thing, the cutting edge of Lego safe technology. The safe weighs 14 pounds and has a motion detecting alarm so it can't be moved without creating a huge ruckus.

Posted on November 21, 2008 at 1:07 PM27 Comments

Online Age Verification

A discussion of a security trade-off:

Child-safety activists charge that some of the age-verification firms want to help Internet companies tailor ads for children. They say these firms are substituting one exaggerated threat -- the menace of online sex predators -- with a far more pervasive danger from online marketers like junk food and toy companies that will rush to advertise to children if they are told revealing details about the users.

It's an old story: protecting against the rare and spectacular by making yourself more vulnerable to the common and pedestrian.

Posted on November 21, 2008 at 11:47 AM27 Comments

When Sky Marshals Do Bad Things

They're not even close to perfect:

Since 9/11, more than three dozen federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct, an investigation by ProPublica, a non-profit journalism organization, has found. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.

The meta-problem is that the kind of person who wants to be federal air marshal is the exact kind of person we don't want for the job.

Before 9/11, the Air Marshal Service was a nearly forgotten force of 33 agents with a $4.4 million annual budget. Now housed in the Transportation Security Administration, the agency has a $786 million budget and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 air marshals, although the official number is classified.

And 3,000 to 4,000 is a lot of people to hire quickly; it's hard to weed out the bad eggs.

Posted on November 21, 2008 at 6:23 AM48 Comments

Secret German IP Addresses Leaked

From Wikileaks:

The PDF document holds a single paged scan of an internally distributed mail from German telecommunications company T-Systems (Deutsche Telekom), revealing over two dozen secret IP address ranges in use by the German intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). Independent evidence shows that the claim is almost certainly true and the document itself has been verified by a demand letter from T-systems to Wikileaks.

Posted on November 20, 2008 at 7:26 AM29 Comments

RIAA Lawsuits May Be Unconstitutional

Harvard law professor Charles Nesson is arguing, in court, that the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 is unconstitutional:

He makes the argument that the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 is very much unconstitutional, in that its hefty fines for copyright infringement (misleadingly called "theft" in the title of the bill) show that the bill is effectively a criminal statute, yet for a civil crime. That's because it really focuses on punitive damages, rather than making private parties whole again. Even worse, it puts the act of enforcing the criminal statute in the hands of a private body (the RIAA) who uses it for profit motive in being able to get hefty fines.

Imagine a statute which, in the name of deterrence, provides for a $750 fine for each mile-per-hour that a driver exceeds the speed limit, with the fine escalating to $150,000 per mile over the limit if the driver knew he or she was speeding. Imagine that the fines are not publicized, and most drivers do not know they exist. Imagine that enforcement of the fines is put in the hands of a private, self-interested police force, that has no political accountability, that can pursue any defendant it chooses at its own whim, that can accept or reject payoffs in exchange for not prosecuting the tickets, and that pockets for itself all payoffs and fines. Imagine that a significant percentage of these fines were never contested, regardless of whether they had merit, because the individuals being fined have limited financial resources and little idea of whether they can prevail in front of an objective judicial body.

Another news story.

Posted on November 19, 2008 at 1:33 PM26 Comments

Skein and SHA-3 News

There are two bugs in the Skein code. They are subtle and esoteric, but they're there. We have revised both the reference and optimized code -- and provided new test vectors -- on the Skein website. A revision of the paper -- Version 1.1 -- has new IVs, new test vectors, and also fixes a few typos in the paper.

Errata: Version 1.1 of the paper, reference, and optimized code corrects an error in which the length of the configuration string was passed in as the size of the internal block (256 bits for Skein-256, 512 for Skein-512, and 1024 for Skein-1024), instead of a constant 256 bits for all three sizes. This error has no cryptographic significance, but affected the test vectors and the initialization values. The revised code also fixes a bug in the MAC mode key processing. This bug does not affect the NIST submission in any way.

NIST has received 64 submissions. (This article interviews one of the submitters, who is fifteen.) Of those, 28 are public and six have been broken. NIST is going through the submissions right now, making sure they are complete and proper. Their goal is to publish the accepted submissions by the end of the month, in advance of the Third Cryptographic Hash Workshop to be held in Belgium right after FSE in February. They expect to quickly make a first cut of algorithms -- hopefully to about a dozen -- and then give the community about a year of cryptanalysis before making a second cut in 2010.

Lastly, this is a really nice article on Skein.

These submissions make some accommodation to the Core 2 processor. They operate in "little-endian" mode (a quirk of the Intel-like processors that reads some bytes in reverse order). They also allow a large file to be broken into chunks to split the work across multiple processors.

However, virtually all of the contest submissions share the performance problem mentioned above. The logic they use won't optimally fit within the constraints of a Intel Core 2 processor. Most will perform as bad or worse than the existing SHA-1 algorithm.

One exception to this is Skein, created by several well-known cryptographers and noted pundit Bruce Schneier. It was designed specifically to exploit all three of the Core 2 execution units and to run at a full 64-bits. This gives it roughly four to 10 times the logic density of competing submissions.

This is what I meant by the Matrix quote above. They didn't bend the spoon; they bent the crypto algorithm. They moved the logic operations around in a way that wouldn't weaken the crypto, but would strengthen its speed on the Intel Core 2.

In their paper (PDF), the authors of Skein express surprise that a custom silicon ASIC implementation is not any faster than the software implementation. They shouldn't be surprised. Every time you can redefine a problem to run optimally in software, you will reach the same speeds you get with optimized ASIC hardware. The reason software has a reputation of being slow is because people don't redefine the original problem.

That's exactly what we were trying to do.

EDITED TO ADD (11/20): I wrote an essay for on the process.

Posted on November 19, 2008 at 6:14 AM40 Comments

Schneier for TSA Administrator

It's been suggested. For the record, I don't want the job.

Since the election, the newspapers and Internet have been flooded with unsolicited advice for President-elect Barack Obama. I'll go ahead and add mine.


And by "revamp," I mean "start over." Most security experts agree that the rigmarole we go through at the airport is mere security theater, designed not to make us safer, but to make us feel safer by making it increasingly inconvenient to fly. TSA's approach to security is too reactionary -- too set on preventing attacks and attempted attacks that have already happened. And please, whatever you do, resist the temptation to let TSA workers unionize. Security from terror attacks should not be a federal jobs program. You need the authority to fire underperforming screeners quickly and effortlessly. Three game-changing possibilities to head up TSA: security guru Bruce Schneier, Cato Institute security and technology scholar Jim Harper, or Ohio State University's John Mueller.

Although I'd be happy to see either Jim or John with it.

I don't want it because it's too narrow. I think the right thing for the government to do is to give the TSA a lot less money. I'd rather they defend against the broad threat of terrorism than focus on the narrow threat of airplane terrorism, and I'd rather they defend against the myriad of threats that face our society than focus on the singular threat of terrorism. But the head of the TSA can't have those opinions; he has to take the money he's given and perform the specific function he's assigned to perform. Not very much fun, really.

But I'd be happy to advise whoever Obama choses to head the TSA.

The job of the nation's CTO would be more interesting, but I don't think I want it, either. (Have you seen the screening process?)

Posted on November 18, 2008 at 1:46 PM63 Comments

The Neuroscience of Cons


The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of THOMAS [The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System], the human brain makes us feel good when we help others--this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. "I need your help" is a potent stimulus for action.

This is interesting. They say that all cons rely on the mark's greed to work. But this short essay implies that greed is only a secondary factor.

Posted on November 18, 2008 at 6:32 AM32 Comments

Most Spam Came from a Single Web Hosting Firm


Experts say the precipitous drop-off in spam comes from Internet providers unplugging McColo Corp., a hosting provider in Northern California that was the home base for machines responsible for coordinating the sending of roughly 75 percent of all spam each day.

Certainly this won't last:

Bhandari said he expects the spam volume to recover to normal levels in about a week, as the spam operations that were previously hosted at McColo move to a new home.

"We're seeing a slow recovery," Bhandari. "We fully expect this to recover completely, and to go into the highest ever spam period during the upcoming holiday season."

But with all the talk of massive botnets sending spam, it's interesting that most of it still comes from hosting services. You'd think this would make the job of detecting spam a lot easier.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): I should clarify that this is not the site where most of the spam was sent from, but the site where most of the spam sending bots were controlled from.

Posted on November 17, 2008 at 5:11 AM25 Comments

Giving Out Replacement Hotel Keys

It's a tough security trade-off. Guests lose their hotel room keys, and the hotel staff needs to be accommodating. But at the same time, they can't be giving out hotel room keys to anyone claiming to have lost one. Generally, hotels ask to see some ID before giving out a replacement key and, if the guest doesn't have his wallet with him, have someone walk to the room with the key and check their ID.

This normally works pretty well, but there's a court case in Brisbane right now about a hotel giving a room key to someone who ended up sexually attacking the woman who had rented the room.

In civil action launched yesterday, the woman alleges the man was given the spare access key to her room by a hotel staffer.

The article doesn't say what kind of authentication the hotel requested or received.

Posted on November 13, 2008 at 12:12 PM52 Comments

Censorship in Dubai

I was in Dubai last weekend for the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda. (I was on the "Future of the Internet" council; fellow council members Ethan Zuckerman and Jeff Jarvis have written about the event.)

As part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai censors the Internet:

The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pervasively filters Web sites that contain pornography or relate to alcohol and drug use, gay and lesbian issues, or online dating or gambling. Web-based applications and religious and political sites are also filtered, though less extensively. Additionally, legal controls limit free expression and behavior, restricting political discourse and dissent online.

More detail here.

What was interesting to me about how reasonable the execution of the policy was. Unlike some countries -- China for example -- that simply block objectionable content, the UAE displays a screen indicating that the URL has been blocked and offers information about its appeals process.

Posted on November 12, 2008 at 12:56 PM62 Comments

The Economics of Spam

Excellent paper on the economics of spam. The authors infiltrated the Storm worm and monitored its doings.

After 26 days, and almost 350 million e-mail messages, only 28 sales resulted -- a conversion rate of well under 0.00001%. Of these, all but one were for male-enhancement products and the average purchase price was close to $100. Taken together, these conversions would have resulted in revenues of $2,731.88 -- a bit over $100 a day for the measurement period or $140 per day for periods when the campaign was active. However, our study interposed on only a small fraction of the overall Storm network -- we estimate roughly 1.5 percent based on the fraction of worker bots we proxy. Thus, the total daily revenue attributable to Storm's pharmacy campaign is likely closer to $7000 (or $9500 during periods of campaign activity). By the same logic, we estimate that Storm self-propagation campaigns can produce between 3500 and 8500 new bots per day.

Under the assumption that our measurements are representative over time (an admittedly dangerous assumption when dealing with such small samples), we can extrapolate that, were it sent continuously at the same rate, Storm-generated pharmaceutical spam would produce roughly 3.5 million dollars of revenue in a year. This number could be even higher if spam-advertised pharmacies experience repeat business. A bit less than "millions of dollars every day," but certainly a healthy enterprise.

Of course, the authors point out that it's dangerous to make these sorts of generalizations:

We would be the first to admit that these results represent a single data point and are not necessarily representative of spam as a whole. Different campaigns, using different tactics and marketing different products will undoubtedly produce different outcomes. Indeed, we caution strongly against researchers using the conversion rates we have measured for these Storm-based campaigns to justify assumptions in any other context.

Spam is all about economics. When sending junk mail costs a dollar in paper, list rental, and postage, a marketer needs a reasonable conversion rate to make the campaign worthwhile. When sending junk mail is almost free, a one in ten million conversion rate is acceptable.

News articles.

Posted on November 12, 2008 at 6:52 AM54 Comments

Reading a Letter from the Envelope it Was In


Paul Kelly and colleagues at Loughborough University found that a disulfur dinitride (S2N2) polymer turned exposed fingerprints brown, as the polymer reaction was initiated from the near-undetectable remaining residues.

Traces of inkjet printer ink can also initiate the polymer. The detection limit is so low that details of a printed letter previously in an envelope could be read off the inside of the envelope after being exposed to S2N2.

"A one-covers-all versatile system like this has obvious potential," says Kelly.

"This work has demonstrated that it is possible to obtain fingerprints from surfaces that hitherto have been considered extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain," says Colin Lewis, scientific advisor at the UK Ministry of Defence. "The method proposed has shown that this system could well provide capabilities which could significantly enhance the tools available to forensic scientists in the future."

Posted on November 11, 2008 at 7:55 AM28 Comments

Interview on Nuclear Terror

With Brian Michael Jenkins from Rand Corp. I like his distinction between "terrorism" and "terror":

NJ: Why did you decide to delve so deeply into the psychological underpinnings of nuclear terror?

Jenkins: Well, I couldn't write about the history of nuclear terrorism, because at least as of yet there hasn't been any. So that would have been a very short book. Nonetheless, the U.S. government has stated that it is the No. 1 threat to the national security of the United States. In fact, according to public opinion polls, two out of five Americans consider it likely that a terrorist will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next five years. That struck me as an astonishing level of apprehension.

NJ: To what do you attribute that fear?

Jenkins: I concluded that there is a difference between nuclear terrorism and nuclear terror. Nuclear terrorism is about the possibility that terrorists will acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon. Nuclear terror, on the other hand, concerns our anticipation of such an attack. It's about our imagination. And while there is no history of nuclear terrorism, there is a rich history of nuclear terror. It's deeply embedded in our popular culture and in policy-making circles.

This is also good:

NJ: How do you break this chain reaction of fear?

Jenkins: The first thing we have to do is truly understand the threat. Nuclear terrorism is a frightening possibility but it is not inevitable or imminent, and there is no logical progression from truck bombs to nuclear bombs. Some of the steps necessary to a sustainable strategy we've already begun. We do need better intelligence-sharing internationally and enhanced homeland security and civil defense, and we need to secure stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world.

Nations that might consider abetting terrorists in acquiring nuclear weapons should also be made aware that we will hold them fully responsible in the event of an attack. We need to finish the job of eliminating Al Qaeda, not only to prevent another attack but also to send the message to others that if you go down this path, we will hunt you down relentlessly and destroy you.

NJ: What should political leaders tell the American people?

Jenkins: Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of "lapel pin" patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis -- we're doomed! -- and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we'll get through it.

Posted on November 11, 2008 at 6:26 AM1 Comments


Aspidistra was a World War II man-in-the-middle attack. The vulnerability that made it possible was that German broadcast stations were mostly broadcasting the same content from a central source; but during air raids, transmitters in the target area were switched off to prevent them being used for radio direction-finding of the target.

The exploit involved the very powerful (500KW) Aspidistra transmitter, coupled to a directional antenna farm. With that power, they could make it sound like a local station in the target area.

With a staff of fake announcers, a fake German band, and recordings of recent speeches from high-ranking Nazis, they would smoothly switch from merely relaying the German network to emulating it with their own staff. They could then make modifications to news broadcasts, occasionally creating panic and confusion.

German transmitters were switched off during air raids, to prevent them from being used as navigational aids for bombers. But many were connected into a network and broadcast the same content. When a targeted transmitter switched off, Aspidistra began transmitting on their original frequency, initially retransmitting the German network broadcast as received from a still-active station. As a deception, false content and pro-Allied propaganda would be inserted into the broadcast. The first such "intrusion" was carried out on March 25, 1945, as shown in the operations order at the right.

On March 30, 1945, "Aspidistra" intruded into the Berlin and Hamburg frequencies warning that the Allies were trying to spread confusion by sending false telephone messages from occupied towns to unoccupied towns. On April 8, 1945, "Aspidistra" intruded into the Hamburg and Leipzig channels to warn of forged banknotes in circulation. On April 9, 1945, there were announcements encouraging people to evacuate to seven bomb-free zones in central and southern Germany. All these announcements were false.

The German radio network tried announcing "The enemy is broadcasting counterfeit instructions on our frequencies. Do not be misled by them. Here is an official announcement of the Reich authority." The Aspidistra station made similar announcements, to cause confusion and make the official messages ineffective.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Photos here.

Posted on November 10, 2008 at 7:07 AM40 Comments

Anti-Terror Law Mission Creep in the U.K.

First terrorists, then trash cans:

More than half of town halls admit using anti-terror laws to spy on families suspected of putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

Their tactics include putting secret cameras in tin cans, on lamp posts and even in the homes of 'friendly' residents.

The local authorities admitted that one of their main aims was to catch householders who put their bins out early.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): A better article on the subject.

Posted on November 7, 2008 at 8:18 AM51 Comments

The Ill Effects of Banning Security Research

The Indian police are having trouble with SIM card cloning:

Police had no idea that one SIM card could be used simultaneously from two handsets before the detention of Nazir Ahmed for interrogation. Nazir was picked up from Morigaon after an SMS from his mobile number in the name of ISF-IM claimed responsibility for Thursday's blasts in Assam.

Nazir had a Reliance connection and an Eve handset. Each handset of this particular model has a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. Cops found that two IMEI numbers were using the same SIM. Accordingly there were two record sheets of calls and SMSes from Nazir's mobile number. The record of the SMS to the media was found in only one sheet, which forced police to believe that Nazir's SIM might have been cloned and someone else was using the duplicate card, with or without the owner's knowledge.

"We stumbled upon this technological surprise that Nazir Ahmed's SIM card was used in two handsets," Assam IG (Law and Order) Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta said.

So far, not that interesting. There are lots of vulnerabilities in technological systems, and it's generally a race between the good guys and the bad guys to see who finds them first. It's the last sentence of this article that's significant:

The experts said no one has actually done any research on SIM card cloning because the activity is illegal in the country.

If the good guys can't even participate, the bad guys will always win.

Posted on November 6, 2008 at 6:26 AM37 Comments

U.S. Court Rules that Hashing = Searching

Really interesting post by Orin Kerr on whether, by taking hash values of someone's hard drive, the police conducted a "search":

District Court Holds that Running Hash Values on Computer Is A Search: The case is United States v. Crist, 2008 WL 4682806 (M.D.Pa. October 22 2008) (Kane, C.J.). It's a child pornography case involving a warrantless search that raises a very interesting and important question of first impression: Is running a hash a Fourth Amendment search? (For background on what a "hash" is and why it matters, see here).

First, the facts. Crist is behind on his rent payments, and his landlord starts to evict him by hiring Sell to remove Crist's belongings and throw them away. Sell comes across Crist's computer, and he hands over the computer to his friend Hipple who he knows is looking for a computer. Hipple starts to look through the files, and he comes across child pornography: Hipple freaks out and calls the police. The police then conduct a warrantless forensic examination of the computer:

In the forensic examination, Agent Buckwash used the following procedure. First, Agent Buckwash created an "MD5 hash value" of Crist's hard drive. An MD5 hash value is a unique alphanumeric representation of the data, a sort of "fingerprint" or "digital DNA." When creating the hash value, Agent Buckwash used a "software write protect" in order to ensure that "nothing can be written to that hard drive." Supp. Tr. 88. Next, he ran a virus scan, during which he identified three relatively innocuous viruses. After that, he created an "image," or exact copy, of all the data on Crist's hard drive.

Agent Buckwash then opened up the image (not the actual hard drive) in a software program called EnCase, which is the principal tool in the analysis. He explained that EnCase does not access the hard drive in the traditional manner, i.e., through the computer's operating system. Rather, EnCase "reads the hard drive itself." Supp. Tr. 102. In other words, it reads every file-bit by bit, cluster by cluster-and creates a index of the files contained on the hard drive. EnCase can, therefore, bypass user-defined passwords, "break down complex file structures for examination," and recover "deleted" files as long as those files have not been written over. Supp. Tr. 102-03.

Once in EnCase, Agent Buckwash ran a "hash value and signature analysis on all of the files on the hard drive." Supp. Tr. 89. In doing so, he was able to "ingerprint" each file in the computer. Once he generated hash values of the files, he compared those hash values to the hash values of files that are known or suspected to contain child pornography. Agent Buckwash discovered five videos containing known child pornography. Attachment 5. He discovered 171 videos containing suspected child pornography.

One of the interesting questions here is whether the search that resulted was within the scope of Hipple's private search; different courts have approached this question differently. But for now the most interesting question is whether running the hash was a Fourth Amendment search. The Court concluded that it was, and that the evidence of child pornography discovered had to be suppressed:

The Government argues that no search occurred in running the EnCase program because the agents "didn't look at any files, they simply accessed the computer." 2d Supp. Tr. 16. The Court rejects this view and finds that the "running of hash values" is a search protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Computers are composed of many compartments, among them a "hard drive," which in turn is composed of many "platters," or disks. To derive the hash values of Crist's computer, the Government physically removed the hard drive from the computer, created a duplicate image of the hard drive without physically invading it, and applied the EnCase program to each compartment, disk, file, folder, and bit.2d Supp. Tr. 18-19. By subjecting the entire computer to a hash value analysis-every file, internet history, picture, and "buddy list" became available for Government review. Such examination constitutes a search.

I think this is generally a correct result: See my article Searches and Seizures in a Digital World, 119 Harv. L. Rev. 531 (2005), for the details. Still, given the lack of analysis here it's somewhat hard to know what to make of the decision. Which stage was the search — the creating the duplicate? The running of the hash? It's not really clear. I don't think it matters very much to this case, because the agent who got the positive hit on the hashes didn't then get a warrant. Instead, he immediately switched over to the EnCase "gallery view" function to see the images, which seems to be to be undoudtedly a search. Still, it's a really interesting question.

Posted on November 5, 2008 at 8:28 AM82 Comments

P = NP?

People have been sending me this paper that "proves" that P != NP. These sorts of papers make the rounds regularly, and my advice is to not pay attention to any of them. G.J. Woeginger keeps a list of these papers -- he has 43 so far -- and points out:

The following paragraphs list many papers that try to contribute to the P-versus-NP question. Among all these papers, there is only a single paper that has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, that has thoroughly been verified by the experts in the area, and whose correctness is accepted by the general research community: The paper by Mihalis Yannakakis. (And this paper does not settle the P-versus-NP question, but "just" shows that a certain approach to settling this question will never work out.)

Of course, there's a million-dollar prize for resolving the question -- so expect the flawed proofs to continue.

Posted on November 4, 2008 at 12:12 PM27 Comments

Understanding Terrorist Behavior

Two items, one short and one long.

The short one: "A Look at Terrorist Behavior: How They Prepare, Where They Strike," by Brent Smith, National Institute of Justice Journal, No. 260, 2008.

The long one: How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, RAND Corporation, 2008.

Posted on November 3, 2008 at 6:57 AM23 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.