Category Archives: Security

Should Driverless Cars Navigate by Stars?

As a backup to GPS, but really the precursor and consistently better system to GPS, is astral navigation.

In the USAF they affectionately referred to their NAS-14V2 system as a science-fiction icon.

Mounted behind the SR-71’s cockpit, this unit, affectionately known as “R2-D2,” computed navigational fixes using stars sighted through the lens in the top of the unit. These fixes were used to update the inertial navigation system and provided course guidance with an accuracy of at least 90 meters (300 feet).

I’ve driven with no running lights at night many times in rural and remote parts of the world. Driving by astral navigation not only is feasible, it can reduce eye strain and increase safety.

When driverless engineers aim to take on the reigns of our horsepower, I hope they’re considering drivers operating lights out under the moon and stars… outside of Canada, of course.

Explosive Projectile-laden Drones to Navigate Small Spaces

I’ll never forget being briefed by a US Army General about the redesign of South Korea in ways that would force invading Chinese tanks into tight “killing zones”.

Take the humans out of those tanks and you’ve got explosive projectile-laden drones on land, similar to the evolution of torpedoes flying in water and smart missiles flying through the air.

South Korean problem spaces certainly sat on my mind when I was working at NASA back in the early 2000s. Researchers and colleagues there ostensibly were trying to find a way for large mechanized robot swarms to navigate complex valleys on Mars.

In 2014 I actually gave several talks (including a private one to the future head of Facebook security) revealing a bit of the state of art at that time on research in drone swarm countermeasures.

Numerous positions can be injected into swarms, or forced upon them, to cause them to freeze.

That’s why I was proposing swarm countermeasures way back then, much to the chagrin of lawyers who ALWAYS told me that anyone trying to stop an attacking drone would be charged with property damage. Ah, lawyers.

Anyway, fast forward to today and here are two important updates that we all should have seen coming:

First, “Agility of bees could inspire drones that squeeze through tight spaces

Second, “Taliban Rigging Drones to Drop Bombs, Afghan Spy Chief Says

Why Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

I’ve written about Thanksgiving history here many times for many years (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010) and this year it feels like time to write again.

It is clear that the holiday was created by President Lincoln after Civil War to bring the pro-slavery rebels back to the table with their American neighbors and family.

Don’t know if I can do the topic any more justice, however, than a 2019 New Yorker article by a historian. So here is the TL;DR

Fretting over late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigration, American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders: white, Protestant, democratic, and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom, and faith.

The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.

Shocking reversal. Lincoln brought the pro-slavery forces back to the table and they pivoted on his gesture to a false cover-story while still enacting divisive racial violence.

That Day Facebook Tanks Rolled Onto Our Lawn

Sometimes I check myself and wonder if my criticism has been too harsh of security operations at Facebook since 2014. I had direct sources and knew the actors personally, so I have to expect some of that insider information is useful yet not all.

Then I see my positioning has been right on point when I read articles like this one in the Guardian.

“We served the warrant on Cambridge Analytica at 11 o’clock at night,” she added. “When we heard that Facebook was going in on its own to audit Cambridge Analytica, we had to act very quickly to get their tanks off our lawn. It was inappropriate for Facebook, because they were involved in the misuse of data, for them to be auditing before a public authority got in there.”

Facebook tanks on the public lawn. Couldn’t have said it better.

Thus it continues to be clear to me, and the evidence mounts in support, how Facebook management knowingly operated its “security” team in a manner hostile/opposite to democracy and humanitarianism.

Who Was The Pirate? Curious Case of Blackbeard’s Murder

A site called Coastal Review has a fascinating take on the events that led to Blackbeard’s untimely violent death.

Blackbeard did not prey on a single ship in the waters off the Outer Banks during his surprisingly brief 23-month career as a pirate. And, as previously stated, his pitiful camp at Ocracoke and pirate company of 15 men were hardly a threat to anyone.

[…]

Blackbeard and his friends from Bath, many of whom were killed, were unwitting pawns caught in the middle of what turned out to be a failed political coup.

Furthermore, Lt. Maynard’s 60 Royal Navy sailors acted as little more than pirates themselves.

Hao Projection: Chinese-Drawn World Map

Maps are political by nature of defining boundaries. Whoever has that authority to classify territory, gains a lot of power.

More interesting than just drawing the lines, however, is the graphical representation of 3D spaces in 2D. Many probably are familiar with the impact of the Gall-Peters map (by Arno Peters based on a 1885 James Gall paper) since the 1980s.

UNESCO promotes the use of the Gall-Peters projection, and this option is widely used in British schools. Boston became the first public school district in the United States to adopt this map as its standard in 2017.

(click to enlarge)

Lately it seems like the Gall-Peters projection opened the door to dynamic maps that try re-frame our understanding of reality in terms of coastline length.

Sailchecker, a charter company, offers us this warped view…

Speaking of coastlines, a report in 2010 by Linda Jakobson at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute called “China Prepares for an Ice-Free Arctic” shows China’s perspective on sailing through the Arctic.

(click to enlarge)

The captions label Shanghai, Rotterdam, New York, the ‘North East Sea Route’ (red) and the ‘North West Sea Route’ (blue).Source: Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, ; map drawn by Hao Xiaoguang,

Then on 11 December 2013 the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that the researcher (geophysicist) Hao Xiaoguang had drawn another new map of the world.

…with the authorization of National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation. Traditional word map is suitable for expressing the relationship of east and west hemisphere, it uses meridian to cut the global and should be called as merdian-wise world map. As contrary, the new version of world map uses prime vertical to cut the global and should be called as prime vertical-wise world map, consequently, it is suitable for expressing the relationship of north and south hemisphere. In order to express the geography relationship properly, the workshop had proposed the design scheme of series of word map since 2000 to 2002. In recent years, the new version of world map had been applied by many agencies for different scientific purpose, and the draft has been collected by State Museum, From now on, the new word map will be available in our daily life and will give us brand new geography idea.

Saying prime vertical-wise world map is a mouthful (maybe sounds better in Chinese?) and so the Hao Projection might be easier and make more sense.

(click to enlarge)

You can buy your own 1.1 meter sized relief version (3D凹凸地图 美观大方) of the Hao projection (ironically, shipping options are geographically limited) at the TMALL:

Song of the Uber

Is Uber just a rehash of earlier lessons in economics? Some might say so (hat tip to Rohan Light) if they’re familiar with criticisms of the “putting out” economy in 19th Century industrialization.

Punch Magazine published an illustration of “cheap clothing” by John Leech in 1845.

“Cheap Clothing” illustration by John Leech for Punch Magazine in 1845

Two years earlier in 1843 they had published the “Song of the Shirt” poem by Thomas Hood.

With fingers weary and worn,
   With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread—
      Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
   And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the "Song of the Shirt."

   "Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!             
   And work—work—work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It's O! to be a slave
   Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
   If this is Christian work!

   "Work—work—work,
Till the brain begins to swim;
   Work—work—work,
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,                    
   Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
   And sew them on in a dream!

   "O, men, with sisters dear!
   O, men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you're wearing out, 
   But human creatures' lives!
      Stitch—stitch—stitch,
   In poverty, hunger and dirt,      
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
   A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

   "But why do I talk of death?
   That phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear his terrible shape,
   It seems so like my own—
It seems so like my own, 
   Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear.
   And flesh and blood so cheap!
              
   "Work—work—work!
   My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
   A crust of bread—and rags.
That shattered roof—this naked floor—
   A table—a broken chair—
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
   For sometimes falling there!

   "Work—work—work!
   From weary chime to chime,   
Work—work—work,
   As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
   Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
   As well as the weary hand.

   "Work—work—work,
In the dull December light,
   And work—work—work,
When the weather is warm and bright—         
While underneath the eaves
   The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
   And twit me with the spring.

   "O! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet—
   With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
   To feel as I used to feel,            
Before I knew the woes of want
   And the walk that costs a meal!

   "O! but for one short hour!
   A respite however brief!
No blessed leisure for Love or hope,
   But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
   But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
   Hinders needle and thread!"

With fingers weary and worn,
   With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread—
      Stitch! stitch! stitch!
   In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,—
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!—
   She sang this "Song of the Shirt!"

Book Review: “Violence and Trolling on Social Media”

A new book called “Violence and Trolling on Social Media” attempts to help define wrongs in social media. Unfortunately, at first read, it seems to be wrong in a number of areas.

Take for example page nine:

In ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life’ (New York Times Magazine,12 February 2015) Welsh journalist Jon Ronson investigated the effect on victims of public shaming through social media platforms and compared it to the history of public shaming as a form of punishment. Such punishments (the stocks, the pillory, the whipping pole) have gone out of practice, in part because they were considered too humiliating and socially annihilating for the person undergoing the punishment.

This conclusion that punishments went out of practice “in part” for being too humiliating, seems to be in fact based on one sentence in Ronson’s article:

At the archives, I found no evidence that punitive shaming fell out of fashion as a result of new found anonymity. But I did find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning the outsize cruelty of the practice, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.

Absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. People bemoaning excessive punishment does not mean that punishment was ended because of the bemoaning.

More to the point, if I remember correctly from studying alongside a PhD candidate at LSE working on political history of social punishment (in particular the rise of guillotine), there was a problem with the unruly nature and impracticality of the format that led to its demise.

It was operational concerns and a noticeable lack of effect (opposite of Ronson’s cruelty remark), and not empathy with the targets, that led to demise of the stocks, pillory and pole.

Here is an excerpt from UK Parliament’s official record in an 1815 debate on pillory abolition.

It spells out how social methods failed to maintain a desired end as sometimes crowds even “contravened the sentence of the Court by exalting the criminal”:

It could not be called a reforming punishment, because it rather tended to deaden the sense of shame than to have any other effect. Besides, it appeared to him as contrary to law, because the culprit was left to meet the fury of the populace. It was not attended with any good to the spectator, because it only gave rise to the assemblage of a tumultuous rabble, who either contravened the sentence of the Court by exalting the criminal, or violated the law by an outrageous attack upon him. It was therefore evidently a punishment of a very unequal nature.

Examples then were provided to emphasize the point that social shaming was so uncontrolled it backfired into random outcomes, from generating support for those put on display or opposite (causing their death by unruly mob):

In the year 1759, doctor Shebbeare was sentenced to be pillored for a libel of a political description—and in what manner was that punishment executed? Why, when he arrived at the pillory he mounted it in full dress, attended by a servant in livery, who held an umbrella over his head and the under-sheriff, who participated in the popular feeling, instead of calling upon him, as usual, to place his head in the pillory, was satisfied to let him simply rest ins hands on the machine, and in that way he underwent his sentence. Then again, in the case of Daniel Isaac Eaton, who two years back was pillored for a religious libel, this man, instead of being regarded, as might have been expected, with indignation, was treated with, respect, and viewed with silent pity.

Does that sound “too humiliating” and “socially annihilating”? More to the point, exposing “higher walks of life” to public sentiment was deemed “unequal” treatment:

The punishment, he insisted, was unequal: to a man in the higher walks of life, it was worse than death: it drove him from society, and would not suffer him to return to respectability; while, to a more hardened offender, it could not be an object of much terror, and it could not affect his family or his prospects in the same degree.

Consider again who was bemoaning social punishment, and why that form of punishment was truly abolished (although it’s important to remember it still exists in things like “smacking” and the stocks were never abolished).

Stocks and pillaries have been in use for more than 1000 years. They were used as a punishment from the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century. In 1405 a law was passed that required every town and village to have a set of stocks, usually placed by the side of a public highway or village green. Stocks were a status symbol for smaller communities. If a town was too small or could not afford stocks that town was regarded as a hamlet and could not call itself a village. The pillory was only abolished in England around 1837. Stocks were never formally abolished and were used until around 1870.

Stocks not only were NEVER abolished, they remain to this day as a former status symbol of a village!

That’s just one example.

Here is another one from the book worth digging into, on page fourteen:

Online vitriol seems to be a particular product of the Web 2.0, the ‘participatory’ or ‘social web’ that has evolved since the early twenty-first century, and that revolves around ‘user-generated content’ and conceives of the web as a space of interaction, rather than a collection of static sites where one can read information. The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci in an article prophetically titled ‘Fragmented Future

Obviously a collection of static sites where one can read information is in fact a space of interaction. When one person publishes, another person reads. Strange to see that publisher/reader relationship of a webpage (hello dear reader!) framed as different from being social when they are literally the same (leave a comment below if you disagree, haha).

The book has consistently made these kinds of errors so I’m getting stuck in the weeds, rather than giving a high level review. Not sure the latter makes sense however when the former is so distracting.

Who Caused 2018 Power Outages in Russia?

In 2018 a very important and very large dry dock facility in Roslyakovo was in the news for a horrible tragedy.

There were about 60 people on the dock when it started to sink. Five of them did not manage to get in safety. One is reported dead and four injured, one with a serious condition.

This gave me a flash back to 1984 when Severomorsk, Russia hit the news for a horrible tragedy. A navy weapons depot caught fire and exploded, killing hundreds.

…the Central Intelligence Agency learned of the accident from travelers, then positioned satellites and electronic devices to assess the damage. Those sources said the death toll was estimated at between 200 and 300 people, many of them ordnance technicians sent into the fire caused by the explosion in a desperate by unsuccessful effort to defuse or disassemble the munitions before the exploded in a chain reaction over several hours. Officials at the State and Defense Departments, as well as diplomats and congressional officials all blamed the accident on Soviet “carelessness.”

There’s even a CIA file (with a copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly and details of a criminal trial for the Navy analyst who leaked the photos) for perspective:

…U.S. District Court Judge Josepth H. Young has already ruled that Morison’s motives were irrelevant, [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Schatzow voiced skepticism about the defense claims that Morison wanted to alert the American public through the medium of a British magazine where he was seeking a full-time job. “He didn’t send it to CBS,” Schatzow declared. “He didn’t send it to The Washington Post. He sent it to Jane’s.”

That Jane’s disclosure story from 1984 points out an ammunition dump also exploded in the Bobruysk airfield (Belarus), and at the end of the prior year ammunition exploded in the Dolon (Kazakhstan) airfield and two more ammunition depots exploded after that… by June there was a huge explosion in Schwerin. So the CIA file in fact shows Murmansk was the fifth or sixth Soviet safety disaster a row.

And that’s not to mention, or who can forget, the April 26, 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant?

Way back in 1984 there would have been “travelers” to inform intelligence agents about a disaster. In 2018 terms there instead is monitoring of social media accounts to start the discussion about the tragic sinking of a massive dock.

And from that angle the 2018 news of disaster reads at first like it should get a footnote similar to the 1984 official commentary: Russia continues to be known for operations fraud, “carelessness” and decay.

Maybe there’s nothing more to this story than just people discussing a tragedy resulting from bad safety practices:

…the dry dock has itself had repeated problems with its aging technical equipment, including the electricity system…

Reports mentioned sub-par maintenance of a huge floating platform built by Sweden in 1980, neglected since, with possible criminal charges for the private owners of the dock. Rosneft bought 2015 for its “oil operations”, which in terms of Russian oligarchical corruption means transfer of government funds to someone’s pockets by forcing major Navy repairs into private hands.

That makes the most simple explanation of disaster very believable: when a power outage hit the dock’s huge ballast tanks they failed-unsafe because of careless management. When a power outage hit that floating dock it predictably filled up with water and sank.

The subsequent lawsuits probably say something like Rosneft cut safety corners to increase profits, as one expects from an unregulated/monopolized market — the only dock big enough for the Russian navy to do repairs on its fleet.

It’s an unbelievably unfortunate operations situation coupled with a design flaw someone must have known about for a long time, especially given a history of having unstable power sources in that region.

A very predictable disaster.

Yet such a vulnerability makes it too tempting to not float the idea that this is also was fertile ground for someone hunting for easy cyber attack targets.

Again, the basic narrative since 1984 of Russian carelessness still makes sense. Yet early 2018 also saw a series of electricity “hacks” on America purported to originate from Russia.

For a little context from 2018, two years earlier the U.S. loudly warned that its “military hackers have penetrated Russia’s electric grid…for cyber attacks that could turn out the lights…”.

A month after these 2016 U.S. statements, the Russian city of Murmansk experienced a massive energy blackout. It was blamed on an intentional short circuit at the Kolenergo substation.

The acts were done near a city block in the street of Knipovich, Nikora said in an extraordinary meeting in the regional Staff of power security. It is not clear who was behind the acts, nor whether it is consider as deliberate sabotage or result of an accident.

That’s kind of important context, given how two years later rolling power outages hit the same region, sinking the largest dock in Russia and crippling their global navy operations. Even if not a cyber attack, you can’t say a fail-unsafe design makes any sense for the dock.

The most interesting run-up to the power outages in 2018 perhaps starts months earlier when the Wall Street Journal reported that Russia was trying to boast they had breached America’s power grid:

Hackers working for Russia claimed “hundreds of victims” last year in a giant and long-running campaign that put them inside the control rooms of U.S. electric utilities…

It was thus after aggressive hacking claims by Russia that it faced:

…several cases of power outage all over the [northwest] region, including in the cities of Severomorsk and Murmansk…

These power outage cases not only crippled Russia’s ability to manage its fleets by sinking their largest Naval dock, they also damaged Russia’s only aircraft carrier in the dock failure (Admiral Kuznetsov, which had been serving in Syria to infamously carry out air strikes yet losing two aircraft during routine landings).

Again, it has to be emphasized Russia earned itself a reputation for carelessness and predictable self-inflicted disasters. There may have been no cyber attacks at all and disasters still could have happened from decay or “incredibly easy” physical attacks.

Just a year after the dock sank, that same one and only aircraft carrier caught fire during repairs, blamed on a short circuit.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, caught fire today during repairs in Murmansk. While officials of the shipyard said that no shipyard workers were injured, Russia’s TASS news service reports that at least 12 people (likely Kuznetsov sailors) were injured, some critically. In addition, three people, possibly including the third-rank captain in charge of the ship’s repairs, are unaccounted for.

The Kuznetsov has had a long string of bad luck, experiencing fires at sea, oil spills, and landing deck accidents…

It’s hard to prove a cyber attack hit a country causing a power outage when that country is so bad at operations, but that’s exactly the point. The Stuxnet attack targeted a facility that already was suffering under something like a 30% failure from rust and basic operations failures.

This is why timing of the 2018 power outages in Russia shortly after its boasts about hacking can make for interesting reading. Despite the lack of any real details or news from the cities in Russia affected, I’ll be surprised if historians don’t find out more here by poking around.

Perhaps US Admiral Stavridis put it best in October 2016 when he quoted a Russian proverb: “Probe with bayonets. When you hit mush, proceed.”

Fish Tanks: Defense in Depth for COVID19?

A third-grade teacher in Illinois discusses marine ecology with his students using a tank designed to be an instructional tool. Source: reef2rainforest

A buried lede in a Wired article caught my attention:

The majority of schools in the area reported higher-than-average student absenteeism due to flu symptoms. Only one school didn’t: The one with the fish tanks. “It really stood out”…

Keeping fish tanks gives new meaning to “defense in depth”.

…it’s important not to think of humidification as any sort of magical fix. You still have to wear a mask and wash your hands and stay socially distant and avoid crowded indoor spaces. “Any one of those alone is not enough,” he says. “But each one is like a card that you’re putting into a deck to stack the odds in your favor.”

I’m also reminded of an old post I wrote in 2006 called “Bluegills enlisted in the war on terror(able water)