August 15, 2004

by Bruce Schneier
Founder and CTO
Counterpane Internet Security, Inc.

A free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights, and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise.

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In this issue:

BOB on Board

Last Tuesday’s bomb scare contains valuable security lessons, both good and bad, about how to achieve security in these dangerous times. Ninety minutes after taking off from Sydney Airport, a flight attendant on a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles found an airsickness bag—presumably unused—in a lavatory with the letters “BOB” written on it. The flight attendant decided that the letters stood for “Bomb On Board” and immediately alerted the captain, who decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney.

Even a moment’s reflection is enough to realize that this is an extreme overreaction to a nonexistent threat. “Bob” is common flight attendant jargon for “babe on board” or “best on board,” as in: “Look at that Bob in seat 7A.” United Airlines apparently also uses it for some domestic U.S. flights to mean “Buy on Board”—meals aren’t provided gratis, but if you want one you must buy it. And even if it weren’t, there’s absolutely no reason to think that “BOB” is not just someone’s name, written on the airsickness bag sometime in the past and left in the lavatory by a passenger who didn’t even realize it. Why in the world would someone decide that out of all the possible meanings that “BOB” scribbled on an airsickness bag could have, its presence on this particular airsickness bag on this particular flight must mean “Bomb On Board”?

And why would the captain concur?

Security works best when people are in charge. I am comforted that the final decision to divert the flight was in the hands of the captain, and not a United Airlines executive who might unduly worry about the $100,000 the emergency landing ended up costing. The captain is in charge of the plane, and is the best person to weigh the risk to the lives of the passengers—and his own—against the inconvenience of diverting the aircraft.

More and more our security systems are run by computers and unalterable policies, turning the people at the front lines of security into mere drones. Computers now choose who to search carefully at airport security. Smart guards in lobbies have been replaced by less-skilled employees who mindlessly check photo IDs. This story serves as a counter-example, and demonstrates the correct way to design a security system.

However: if we are to expect airplane captains and flight attendants to make important security decisions, they need to be properly trained. The flight attendant who discovered the airsickness bag didn’t react from reason, but from fear. And that fear was transferred to the captain, who made a bad decision.

Fear won’t make anyone more secure. It causes overreactions to false alarms. It entices us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money, and give away ever-increasing civil liberties, while receiving no security in return. It blinds us to the real threats.

Speaking about the person who wrote those three fateful letters on the airsickness bag, Transport Minister John Anderson called him “irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst.” Irresponsible for what? For writing his name? For perpetuating common flight-attendant slang? It wasn’t the writer who did anything wrong; it was those who reacted to the writing.

We live in scary times, and it’s easy to let fear overtake our powers of reason. But precisely because these are scary times, it’s important that we not let them. Prime Minister John Howard praised the crew for their quick reactions, diligence, and observation skills. I’m sorry, but I see no evidence of any of that. All I see are people who have been thrust into an important security role reacting from fear, because they have not been properly trained in how to sensibly evaluate security situations: the risks, the countermeasures, and the trade-offs. Were cooler and more sensible heads in the cockpit, this story would have had a different ending.

Unfortunately, fear begets more fear, and creates a climate where we terrorize ourselves. Now every wacko in the world knows that all he needs to do to ground an international flight is to write “BOB” on an airsickness bag. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the outcome any of us wanted.


This essay originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Alibis and the Kindness of Strangers

In 1997, cryptographers Mike Reiter and Matthew Franklin invented a type of cryptographic protocol that relies on what they called a “semi-trusted third party.” This meant that “it may misbehave on its own but does not conspire with either of the main parties.” More concretely, it could be a random node on a communications network. It can’t be trusted, but it doesn’t know either of the communicating parties and generally behaves more-or-less appropriately.

Protocols that involve semi-trusted third parties are more common than you might think. When you ask someone sitting next to you in a public place to watch your bag for a minute, you’re relying on a semi-trusted third party. When you use condiments at a restaurant that remain on the table all day, you’re relying on a semi-trusted third party. Technically you can be robbed or poisoned, but in reality it’s not likely to happen. The kindness of strangers works.

Now you can use semi-trusted third parties to help with alibis. On the Internet, you can find so-called “alibi and excuse clubs.” They’re simple. As a member of the club—membership can mean nothing more than signing up for the mailing list—you can ask other members to help you with alibis. Maybe you want someone to pretend to be your doctor and call your boss. Maybe you want someone to pretend to be your boss and call your spouse at home. Maybe you want someone to pretend to be your spouse and call your boss. Whatever you want, you ask on the network and someone volunteers.

Of course inventing alibis, and engaging accomplices, is nothing new. But the anonymity of the Internet gives this a new twist. Your accomplice appears out of nowhere, and disappears just as quickly. He may never even know your real name. Because of the ad-hoc nature of the accomplice, and the anonymity of the system, it’s actually safer than asking a friend to participate in your ruse.

Of course, it’s not without risks. You could imagine a legion of do-gooders infiltrating the alibi clubs and deliberately exposing the alibis. But my guess is that these networks generally work as advertised.

I’ll leave the ethical commentary, and what this says about the morals of our society, to someone else. I’m just fascinated by the security implications.

News story:
It’s archived here:

Cellphone “rescue” calls aid in excuse making:

Crypto-Gram Reprints

Crypto-Gram is currently in its seventh year of publication. Back issues cover a variety of security-related topics, and can all be found on <>. These are a selection of articles that appeared in this calendar month in other years.

Flying on Someone Else’s Airplane Ticket:

Hidden Text in Computer Documents:

Palladium and the TCPA:

Arming Airplane Pilots:

Code Red:

Protecting Copyright in the Digital World:

Vulnerabilities, Publicity, and Virus-Based Fixes:


A Hardware DES Cracker:

Biometrics: Truths and Fictions:

Back Orifice 2000:

Web-Based Encrypted E-Mail:


Last month I published a link to a pair of articles on torture from Salon. This article, from the Oct 2003 Atlantic, is much better. It’s more intelligent, more balanced, more factual…meatier. It was also written before any details of Abu Ghraib reached the public.

If it seems that I spend so much time writing about stupid security, it’s because I so rarely see smart security. This is smart security. VISA sat down and designed some strict, but sensible, design standards for PIN-entry devices on ATMs. The analysis includes specific measurements of the effort an attacker must expend to defeat the devices. I’d like to think that they did all this because they read my books…but I don’t really know.

New criminal penalties in the U.S. for identity theft:

A group of hackers is selling confidential source code:
For example, the Enterasys intrusion detection code costs $16K:
No they’re not; the business has shut itself down:
Yes they are; they’re back in business:

Yet another article that proves companies are very concerned about security:
Isn’t it interesting how that concern never seems to translate into budget?

The Attorney General of Mexico had a RFID microchip implanted in his arm. It’s designed both as an access-control token, and to track him if he’s ever kidnapped.
What’s odd about this story, at least to me, is how the chip is designed as “non-removable” and how that feature will help in the event of a kidnapping. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that a criminal of the caliber that would successfully kidnap the attorney general of Mexico would not feel queasy about cutting off his arm. This is one security measure that is best kept secret.

Here’s an interesting hardware security vulnerability. Turns out that it’s possible to update the AMD K8 processor (Athlon64 or Opteron) microcode. And, get this, there’s no authentication check. So it’s possible that an attacker who has access to a machine can backdoor the CPU.

Another article on financial metrics to justify computer security expenditures:

E-mail security mistakes:

There’s a fundamental trade-off between security and compatibility. You can fix an application to make it secure, but often in doing so you break backwards compatibility. Microsoft is choosing security over backwards compatibility in XP SP2, and some vendors are angry. I think Microsoft is making the right decision.

The U.S. Government is officially withdrawing DES as an encryption standard:

Turning a cell phone into a listening device: “These days, a boardroom Mata Hari can purchase a specially designed cell phone that will answer incoming calls while appearing to be switched off. In a business meeting, she could casually leave her phone on the table while excusing herself to go to the bathroom. Once she’s gone, she can call the phone she left behind and eavesdrop on what the other side is saying in her absence.” I can’t find any corroboration of this, and would appreciate any and all leads.

Although if this kind of thing worries you, or if you want to eat in peace and quiet at a restaurant, you can buy a cell phone jammer. Note that these are illegal in the U.S., even though you can buy devices that jam U.S. cell phone frequencies.

Dilbert, security guards, and photo-IDs:

Here’s a guy who has a webcam pointing at his SecurID token, so he doesn’t have to remember to carry it around. Here’s the strange thing: unless you know who the webpage belongs to, it’s still good security.

According to their website, “the Central Intelligence Agency is committed to protecting your privacy and will collect no personal information about you unless you choose to provide that information to us.” Um, isn’t their job to collect personal information about people without their permission?

An e-mail money laundering scam. You register your account with the scammers, who dump money into it from other accounts they’ve broken into. You’re job is to transfer the money to the scammers via some untraceable means, and you get to keep a percentage as your reward. At least, you get to keep it until the original account holders notice that money has been transferred into your account without their permission. Then, the FBI comes knocking on your door.

Seems like banks are doing their best to get out of having to reimburse customers who are the victims of phishing attacks.
This shouldn’t be a difficult one. Yes, it’s the customers who fell for the scams. But it’s the banks who set up the easily-bypassible security systems in the first place, and it’s the banks who can fix the problem. Just as the U.S. government limited personal liability from a stolen credit card to $50, they should do something similar with Internet accounts.

The effects of streetlamps on security. Of course, this website is pro-astronomy and anti-light-pollution. But it’s interesting to see the case that increased lighting does not affect crime rates.

Bluetooth hacking. They discuss a device called a BlueSniper rifle,” basically a directional antenna. It’s a proof-of-concept device, but someone with it sat outside a hotel, aimed it at an 11th story window, and collected 300 phone books from Bluetooth devices. It also broke the distance record, attacking a Nokia 6310i phone 1.1 miles away and grabbing the phone book and text messages.

Someone has built a 802.11 wireless packet injection tool. He can cut in on someone’s wireless Internet connection and modify packets: him fake email, webpages, whatever. Think it over for a minute; someone can do an amazing amount of damage with this kind of thing.

There’s an interesting defense against identity theft. It’s called a “security freeze,” and it lets individuals block access to their credit reports until they personally unlock the files by contacting the credit bureaus and providing a PIN code. Of course the credit bureaus are blocking this: it’s more work for them, and they don’t bear the costs of identity theft. This is a great example of an organization blocking a security solution because they don’t have a financial interest in the problem.

There’s a new phishing scam website, and it mimics a Kerry for President contribution site:

Bush and Kerry were in the same Iowa small town. The goings on taxed the police to their limit, and the opportunity was seized by bank robbers. Three banks were robbed during the day.
This also occurred in the Simpsons episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” in which burglars break into people’s homes while everyone’s off at a town meeting.

It’s a joke site, and worth a visit:

The lead reads: “Five shipping containers of lemons rotted on a ship held off New York all week after officials received a false tip amid heightened security that the cargo might be biologically contaminated….” This leads me to some interesting thinking. How can unscrupulous people use anonymous terrorism tips to wreak havoc with business competitors, or just companies they want to get back at?

This USB/Firewire portable encrypted hard drive looks cool. Everything is automatically encrypted when it’s stored on the drive, and decrypted when it’s read off the drive. It has a physical key that holds the encryption key, and without it the data is inaccessible. Given all this coolness, and the fact that the encryption is triple-DES, why in the world did they limit the key to 64 bits? A longer key is no slower. Export is no longer an issue. Sad, really.

The Bush Administration is pressuring hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status before they treat them. This policy is likely to result in fewer people being treated for illnesses, and is a bad idea from a public health perspective. This line of reasoning reminds me a lot of Microsoft’s decision to restrict SP2 to registered Windows users. In an essay, I argured that we would all be secure if everyone upgraded to SP2…not just registered users. “…we should care for reasons of public health. You don’t want someone with untreated Hepatitis A in the restaurant kitchen, making your salad. You don’t want a child with ringworm or an untreated infection playing with your child on the playground. You don’t want there to be a population in your city which is undervaccinated, living under poor sanitary conditions, and without prompt access to health care. That’s how epidemics start.”

Security Notes from All Over: GHB

GHB is gamma hydroxybutyric acid; a date rape drug. An attacker (presumably male) slips the drug into a woman’s drink, and then rapes her after the effects of the drug set in. Not a common attack—there are fewer than 40 reported cases in the U.S. each year—but horrible when it happens. (To be fair, this number is widely believed to be an underestimate, but it seems clear that it’s a small fraction of all rapes.)

One suggested countermeasure is that women carry their own bottle opener into a bar, and make sure that no one else handles their opened drink. The general principle illustrated here is that of a trusted third party. If a woman opens the beer bottle herself, then she is not forced to trust anyone in the bar. (She has to trust the beer maker, but that doesn’t seem like a big risk.)

I’ve written again and again that security is a trade-off: what you get versus what you give up. There are security countermeasures that are bad trade-offs even though they’re effective: an example for most of us reading this, is wearing a bullet-proof vest. There are security countermeasures that are good trade-offs: national intelligence. And there are many, many security countermeasures that just aren’t worth it.

As with the threat of drugs or razors in Halloween candy (which, unlike GHB, is almost completely phony), risk assessment is often based on scariness rather than prevalence. That is, people are having an emotional reaction to the threat rather than a realistic one. And they end up with a countermeasure that makes no sense from a security analysis perspective, but a lot of sense from an emotional analysis perspective.

Sure, carrying a bottle opener is easy. But the constant vigilance that this countermeasure requires is not. And someone so focused on this countermeasure is more likely to ignore other threats.

There are 5,000 deaths every year from food-borne illnesses, but nobody refuses to take unwrapped food from restaurants, or insists on inspecting the kitchen and watching their food being prepared.

The rare and spectacular always seems more dangerous than the common and pedestrian, and we end up with a lot of security theater because of it.


There are also test strips for GHB, which apparently aren’t very accurate:

Counterpane News

There’s an interview with Schneier on the Netcraft website:

Counterpane had an excellent 2nd quarter:

And the analyst group Gartner has again recognized the company’s leadership in the Managed Security Monitoring space:

Houston Airport Rangers

Want to help fight terrorism? Want to be able to stop and detain suspicious characters? Or do you just want to ride your horse on ten miles of trails normally closed to the public? Then you might want to join the George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) Airport Rangers program. That’s right. Just fill out a form and undergo a background check, and you too can become a front-line fighter as Houston’s airport tries to keep our nation safe and secure. No experience necessary. You don’t even have to be a U.S. citizen.

No, it’s not a joke. The Airport Rangers program is intended to promote both security and community participation, according to the official description. It’s a volunteer mounted patrol that rides horses along the pristine wooded trails that form the perimeter of the 11,000-acre airport.

Security is far more effective when it’s based on well-trained smart people, instead of on rote-trained people checking photo IDs and X-ray machine screens, or implementing database-driven profiling. The idea of trained guards patrolling a secure perimeter is a good one. But as a security professional, I see two major problems with the program as described.

The first is the lack of training. The program encourages “licensed law enforcement officers” to participate, but that’s not a requirement—anyone can be a Ranger. As best I can glean from the Web page, the training consists of a “short video” on suspicious activities. Is there any mention of civil rights and constitutional protections? Is there any attempt to prevent racial profiling? Profiling has been a problem even for major law enforcement agencies; how will a group of untrained civilians perform? And what are the liabilities to the airport when there are problems?

The second is the new security vulnerability that this program creates. The perimeter around the airport used to be a no-man’s-land; anyone on the property was immediately suspicious. Now there is a group of people allowed around the airport perimeter. How do you tell the difference between someone who is allowed and someone who isn’t? A photo ID, one you might glance at from ten feet away, is easily forgeable. And since all Rangers are on horseback, if you have a horse and you’re Western-looking, you probably are going to be automatically trusted. Is the airport safer, or more at risk, because of this program? The answer isn’t obvious.

Beyond these two points, the application form makes for interesting reading. In order to participate in the program, you have to waive all sorts of rights. You waive the right to challenge the arbitrary denial of one of these permits. That may be compensation for another glaring risk of this scheme: are the background checks good enough to exclude potential terrorists? Is the intent that the agency will do its own profiling, and exclude, for example, Muslims? A more charitable explanation is that they want to be able to rely on intelligence reports without having to disclose them.

The most amusing part is the required certification. Applicants must certify that they are not members of known terrorist organizations. This makes sense, although expecting terrorists to tell the truth about their affiliations is a tad naive. But why exclude people who have “claims or litigation pending against the City of Houston or the Houston Airport System”? Does this exclude people fighting parking tickets?

Finally, applicants must certify that they’re not a member of any group that “advocates violence against … any other nation.” A year and a half ago, that would have excluded all members of both the Democratic and Republican party, as well as any other political party that favored invading Iraq.


This essay originally appeared in The Register:

Websites, Passwords, and Consumers

Criminals follow the money. Today, more and more money is on the Internet. Millions of people manage their bank accounts, PayPal accounts, stock portfolios, or other payment accounts online. It’s a tempting target: if a criminal can gain access to one of these accounts, he can steal money.

And almost all these accounts are protected only by passwords.

If you’re reading this essay, you probably already know that passwords are insecure. In my book “Secrets and Lies” (way back in 2000), I wrote: “Over the past several decades, Moore’s Law has made it possible to brute-force larger and larger entropy keys. At the same time, there is a maximum to the entropy that the average computer user (or even the above-average computer user) is willing to remember…. These two numbers have crossed; password crackers can now break anything that you can reasonably expect a user to memorize.”

On the Internet, password security is actually much better than that, because dictionary attacks work best offline. It’s one thing to test every possible key on your own computer when you have the actual ciphertext, but it’s a much slower process when you have to do it remotely across the Internet. And if the website is halfway clever, it’ll shut down an account if there are too many—5?, 10?—incorrect password attempts in a row. If you shut accounts down soon enough, you can even make four-digit PINs work on websites.

This is why the criminals have taken to stealing passwords instead.

Phishing is now a very popular attack, and it’s amazingly effective. Think about how the attack works. You get an e-mail from your bank. It has a plausible message body, and contains a URL that looks like it’s from your bank. You click on it and up pops your bank website. When asked for your username and password, you type it in. Okay, maybe you or I are aware enough not to type it in. But the average home banking customer doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of social engineering attack.

And in June 2004, a Trojan horse appeared that captured passwords. It looked like an image file, but it was actually an executable that installed an add-on to Internet Explorer. That add-on monitored and recorded outbound connections to the websites of several dozen major financial institutions and then sent usernames and passwords to a computer in Russia. Using SSL didn’t help; the Trojan monitored keystrokes before they were encrypted.

The computer security industry has several solutions that are better than passwords: secure tokens that provide one-time passwords, biometric readers, etc. But issuing hardware to millions of electronic banking customers is prohibitively expensive, both in initial cost and in customer support. And customers hate these systems. If you’re a bank, the last thing you want to do is to annoy your customers.

But having money stolen out of your account is even more annoying, and banks are increasingly fielding calls from customer victims. Even though the security problem has nothing to do with the bank, even though the customer is the one who made the security mistake, banks are having to make good on the customers’ losses. It’s one of the most important lessons of Internet security: sometimes your biggest security problems are ones that you have no control over.

The problem is serious. In a May survey report, Gartner estimated that about 3 million Americans have fallen victim to phishing attacks. “Direct losses from identity theft fraud against phishing attack victims—including new-account, checking account and credit card account fraud—cost U.S. banks and credit card issuers about $1.2 billion last year” (in 2003). Keyboard sniffers and Trojans will help make this number even greater in 2004.

Even if financial institutions reimburse customers, the inevitable result is that people will begin to distrust the Internet. The average Internet user doesn’t understand security; he thinks that a gold lock icon in the lower-right-hand corner of his browser means that he’s secure. If it doesn’t—and we all know that it doesn’t—he’ll stop using Internet financial websites and applications.

The solutions are not easy. The never-ending stream of Windows vulnerabilities limits the effectiveness of any customer-based software solution—digital certificates, plug-ins, and so on—and the ease with which malicious software can run on Windows limits the effectiveness of other solutions. Point solutions might force attackers to change tactics, but won’t solve the underlying insecurities. Computer security is an arms race, and money creates very motivated attackers. Unsolved, this type of security problem can change the way people interact with the Internet. It’ll prove that the naysayers were right all along, that the Internet isn’t safe for electronic commerce.


The Trojan:

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in IEEE Security and Privacy:

Comments from Readers

From: Daniel Staal <DStaal>
Subject: Due Process and Security

“Unchecked police and military power is a security threat—just as important a threat as unchecked terrorism. There is no reason to sacrifice the former to obtain the latter, and there are very good reasons not to.”

I just wanted to expand on this statement, as I feel the checks on police and military power are *more* important than checks on terrorism.

Terrorism exists because people don’t think they are being heard by the establishments in power: it is a way to *make* their voice heard. (A bad one, but easy to use.) The US has historically been nearly immune to terrorist attacks precisely because of its checks on police, military, and political power. Because of those checks, terrorism *isn’t needed* in the US. A voice can be heard without it. (Usually.)

The loss of those checks, and the erosion of rights, will do nothing but encourage terrorism, because it will become clear that there are few (and only harder) ways to make an unpopular voice heard. In those circumstances, a terror attack is an emotionally satisfying way to make your voice heard.

If the government cannot be trusted to listen to people, it will be made to. The U.S. government just happens to have influence over more than its own citizens, so it has to respect the voice of more. (Respect does not mean acquiesce to. Just listen, understand, and take into consideration.) Doing so will make the country safer. Doing otherwise will make the country less safe.

America has proved that freedom *is* safety, through its own record. (Check terrorism/insurrection/revolt attacks for nearly any comparable nation, status-wise, in history. America has fewer.) It is sad to see so much of the country start believing the idea that they are in opposition to each other.

Unchecked police and military power undermine personal security, and increase the risk of terrorism attacks. Unchecked terrorism only increases the risk of terrorism attacks. Statistically, if both are possible, I am more at risk from the first, and am likely to lose more.

From: Jeff Evarts <riventree>
Subject: Security and Portable Storage Devices

When I look at mobile phones, iPods, and the plethora of other semi-intelligent, connective, storage-capable objects, I see them not as a source of intentional data theft, but as vehicles for black-hats to penetrate organizations. Compromise the guy’s Bluetooth phone (remotely), unwitting victim goes to work, compromised phone grabs lots of Bluetooth-accessible data, then disgorges it later (remotely), all without the employee being aware of the problem. The prohibited device is viewed as a vector for trouble, not a direct tool for malfeasance. In essence, the prohibition is kind of like the body-heat scanners in SARS-vulnerable Asia keeping employees with fevers from going to work. It’s the second-order problem, not the employee willingly taking data, that the security-minded folks I know are worried about.

From: Eric Vanhove <eric_vanhove>
Subject: X-Ray Machines and Building Security

Your comments on the “inadequate” security at “FinCorp” were interesting but missed one of your own key points. You do need to understand the context behind the decision. First, one basic tenet of security is to make the attacker (terrorist, criminal, etc) believe that you are a harder target than the next guy. If you can do this—convince the attacker to go somewhere else—by merely installing a metal detector, hiring some minimum-wage folks to look at a TV screen, and walking a bomb-detecting dog around the building a few times a week, then your first level of security has been successful. That is why the insurance company is willing to give FinCorp the discount. It is not much different than what auto insurers do with car security; you get a discount with even the most basic car alarm that (a) most people ignore when it alarms and (b) wouldn’t give the professional car thief a moment of concern. Second, there is always some risk assumed in any decision. A more effective security system might include five or six entry barriers where various levels of searches, possibly including a strip search, were conducted. But this (for many reasons) might be cost prohibitive, and one of those reasons might include no one wanting to do business with FinCorp. No decision is taken in a vacuum, and FinCorp made a business decision that assumed a level of risk.

You found flaws in their system. If you were a bad guy, you’d put FinCorp on your hit list a little higher than some other company without the metal detector and sniffer dogs. But when you made your decision to target someone you might use this as a discriminating factor to go somewhere else.

From: Owen Yamauchi <owen.yamauchi>
Subject: ICS Atlanta

There are several more features of ICS’s website that make one want to run screaming from them. Here are some of the scarier ones I found:

– “Due To The Nature of the program, reverse engineering, we do not have a demo/Trial version available for download. By Doing This, We Help Keep Your Code Even More Secure.” That makes me feel very safe using Tree. After all, since these people are such expert security professionals, it’s virtually impossible that the code for Tree would get leaked, isn’t it?

– “While We Aren’t Attorneys, From What We Understand About The Law,…” These guys just radiate professionalism and confidence, don’t they?

– “Tree Encodes The Same Data Differently Each Time It Is Encoded.” They wouldn’t be just encrypting under a random key, and embedding the key in the ciphertext, now would they? Because that would just be stupid!

– “Tree is a file encryption/decryption program designed to foil all current methods of ‘snooping’ of private data by the very means of how Tree encodes data.” Yup. They do it with a secret algorithm, and most current methods of cryptanalyzing ciphertext involve knowledge of the algorithm. You can’t even use brute force, since Tree doesn’t have a key to brute-force! Wow!

– “Do Any Governmental Agencies Have This Program? As Of 5/2004, The Answer Is No.” You’d think government agencies would recognize the value of the world’s safest encryption, wouldn’t you? Silly them.

– “Our method is based on techniques and methods that were used by people such as the ‘code talkers’ of WW2, or the language construction used by the Egyptians.” So it’s probably a codebook. But they probably keep that in a Tree-encrypted file on their network, so I feel confident that no cipherpunk will be able to get hold of it.

All kidding aside, if they’re trying to scam people, you’d think they’d put more effort into their website. Why is practically every word in the second part capitalized? There are grammatical and spelling errors. The screenshots are of awful quality. From the screenshots, the program also has the same odd capitalization and language errors that the website has.

If that isn’t snake oil, then there is no such thing as snake oil.

From: “Ken Lavender” <ICS_Atlanta Charter.Net>
Subject: ICS Atlanta

I am APPAULED at your “comments” that you had made on your website:


You have statements are nothing but slander & defamation. They shall be dealt with accordingly.

Lie #1: “How do they demonstrate Tree’s security? ‘Over 100 professionals in mathematics & in computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology & at Georgia Tech, had sample encoded messages submitted to them. Not a single person could break this code!'” That is not the ONLY way we prove it. We have examples & offer to allow people to submit their OWN messages to have encoded to SEE how good the code is. So there are THREE methods, NOT just ONE as you IMPLY.

Lie #2: “These guys sent unsolicited e-mails…” HOW do you KNOW that this was the case? Have any PROOF of such? NO!

Lie #3: “And if all that isn’t enough to make you run screaming from these guys, their website proudly proclaims: ‘Tree Encoded Files Can Be “Zipped.”‘” Because they can be “zipped” does NOT mean that it is “bad encoding.” The “code talkers” of ww2 used LANGUAGE to “code” the messages, and THOSE COULD BE “ZIPPED”!!! And that code was NEVER BROKEN!!!

Lie #4: “That’s right; their encryption is so lousy that the ciphertext doesn’t even look random.” AGAIN, HOW would you KNOW??? Did you break it? NO! And what is “random”???

random : without definite aim, direction, rule, or method

“So lousy”? HOW WOULD YOU KNOW??? You would have to KNOW how we encode BEFORE you can make such a statement, & YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW!!! If it is SO LOUSY, how come NOBODY HAS BROKEN IT YET??? And we have people ALL THE TIME trying to, with ZERO SUCCESS.

I do not like you slandering something that you do not understand. ATALL!!!

The ONLY question you asked was “how long is the key” AND THAT WAS IT! HOW long was the key that the ‘code talkers’ used? ZERO!!! JUST AS OUR IS. The encoding routine was created, tested, & verified on PAPER & PENCIL WITHOUT COMPUTERS! A child could encode data using our routine. The computer is merely used to “speed-up” the process, NOT TO CREATE IT. Our routine is based on LANGUAGE, NOT MATH. So all of you “comments” are just false, misleading & just plain ole lies! SHOW & PROVE that it is NOT random. What is the PATTERN THEN???


I am a person who tries to work with people as a man w/o having to “drag” others into the mess. Others? THE COURTS. You have violated Calf law by your statements.

[Text of California Civil Code Section 46 deleted.]

Your LIES have damaged my respect in my job & has damaged any sales of this routine. You have ZERO proof of your “comments,” ANY OF THEM!!! I beseech of you, do the RIGHT THING and comply. I DO NOT wish to escalate this matter any higher. And remember this, Tree is based on LANGUAGE, NOT MATH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

[Phone number deleted out of mercy.]

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CRYPTO-GRAM is written by Bruce Schneier. Schneier is the author of the best sellers “Beyond Fear,” “Secrets and Lies,” and “Applied Cryptography,” and an inventor of the Blowfish and Twofish algorithms. He is founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). He is a frequent writer and lecturer on security topics. See <>.

Counterpane Internet Security, Inc. is the world leader in Managed Security Monitoring. Counterpane’s expert security analysts protect networks for Fortune 1000 companies world-wide. See <>.

Copyright (c) 2004 by Bruce Schneier.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.