How to measure security

Robin Wright has an interesting story in the Washington Post about the shrinking perimeter that journalists have experienced when travelling in Iraq with the US Secretary of State over the past two years. From a two night stay in a hotel in downtown Baghdad and idle strolls down the streets in mid-2003 to an extremely brief look at the desolate barricades and then a same-day extraction complete with “blackout” to avoid enemy fire; the article makes it sound as though security has deteriorated by nature of the fact that mobility is restricted, information leaks are a major concern and the exchange of goods in public is now impossible.

Motion-recognition phone

Have you ever wanted a phone that has a pedometer? How about a music player that you can shake to skip to the next song (yes, as a feature — perhaps it came as a side-effect to the non-skip technology rush of the 90s). Leave it to Samsung to bundle these exciting capabilities into a cell phone and then announce “gesture recognition with health management and leisure features”. MobileKorea.TV has more information:

The handset is also loaded with “Bobsleigh�, “Shooting�, and other games, which are activated by the user gesture.

Loaded with Shooting? I can think of a few gestures that might be really bad for one’s health. But I digress…

Next up, phones that recognize you by your gait and can automatically dial numbers based on the steps you take. Two steps to the left, three forward, one step back, you shake it all about and…that’s how you dial “Voicemail”

Deborah Davis

Her website says it all:

One morning in late September 2005, Deb was riding the public bus to work. She was minding her own business, reading a book and planning for work, when a security guard got on this public bus and demanded that every passenger show their ID. Deb, having done nothing wrong, declined. The guard called in federal cops, and she was arrested and charged with federal criminal misdemeanors after refusing to show ID on demand.

On the 9th of December 2005, Deborah Davis will be arraigned in U.S. District Court in a case that will determine whether Deb and the rest of us live in a free society, or in a country where we must show “papers” whenever a cop demands them.

What would a policeman do with her ID? Was he collecting them, writing them down, or adding them to his database? Was he looking for a specific profile or just “taking names”? What if you did not have an ID? Would he have been able to detect a fake ID if it was from another state or even country? What was the threat? A spy? An imposter? A bomber? The description of the actual event sounds more like bandits in the Wild West staging a hold-up than any kind of federal security mandate:

The second cop said everyone had to show ID any time they were asked by the police, adding that if she were in a Wal-Mart and was asked by the police for ID, that she would have to show it there, too. She explained that she didn’t have to show him or any other policeman my ID on a public bus or in a Wal-Mart. She told him she was simply trying to go to work. Suddenly, the second policeman shouted “Grab her!” and he grabbed the cell phone from her and threw it to the back of the bus. With each of the policemen wrenching one of her arms behind her back, she was jerked out of her seat, the contents of her purse and book bag flying everywhere. The cops shoved her out of the bus, handcuffed her, threw her into the back seat of a police cruiser, and drove her to a police station inside the confines of the Denver Federal Center.

And one of the other passengers was heard yelling “she’s a witch, just look at her nose!” But seriously, what on earth possessed these policemen to do something so rediculously self-defeating? At the very best they created fear among bus passengers, perhaps leading them to sound an alert about the current federal government’s search for an identity, false or otherwise.

World Summit foiled by Stallman

Bruce Perens noted in his blog on November 18th that Richard Stallman was causing quite a stir at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis because he wrapped his RFID badge in aluminum foil. I suppose that is about as good a publicity stunt as you could hope for if you are someone opposed to radio-based identification and tracking. Security would have been wise to have just left him alone, rather than making a fuss and trying to detain him between sessions.

You can’t give Richard a visible RF ID strip without expecting him to protest. Richard acquired an entire roll of aluminum foil and wore his foil-shielded pass prominently. He willingly unwrapped it to go through any of the visible check-points, he simply objected to the potential that people might be reading the RF ID without his knowledge and tracking him around the grounds. This, again, is a legitimate gripe, handled with Richard’s usual highly-visible, guile-less and absolutely un-subtle style of non-violent protest.

Happy Thanksgiving

One day I became curious how Lincoln’s Presidential Proclamation to reunify America turned into a feast of turkey legs, mashed potatoes, and pie.

I mean it seems fairly certain at first glance that the American holiday today was a result of President Lincoln’s third day of Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, when he brought to national attention the cause for a November holiday to give thanks for “general causes” rather than “special providences” such as wartime victories. He thus declared a general and national Thanksgiving that year to be held on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln proclaimed:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is
permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

The actual origins appear to have been based in the observance of the bounty of peaceful industry and labor in-spite of ravages from a brutal civil war. And it was this particular Thanksgiving that was the first in the unbroken series of the national holiday tradition celebrated today. Unfortunately I never see this little bit of history brought to light during the holiday season.

Where did Lincoln get the idea from? It seems that the Thanksgiving holiday is evolved from a very routine English Puritan religious observation, which was irregularly declared and celebrated “in response to God’s favorable Providence”. Over time these observations by early settlers turned into a single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration, but this was still a very small minority of Americans and it is not clear what Lincoln’s relationship with them might have been.

It is sometimes claimed that the first actual recorded “national” Thanksgiving was a formal declaration in 1777 by the Continental Congress. This event, however, had very little popularity outside a few peculiar and religious sects and “Thanksgivings” subsequently were only declared occaisonally and infrequently until 1815 when they apparently disappeared altogether.

The holiday thus was seen mainly as a regional observance until 1863 when President Lincoln declared three Thanksgiving days, two of which to celebrate Union military victories; the first following Shiloh on April 13 and the second a national day of thanks for the Gettysburg victory on August 6. The third day is the one described in the proclamation above. Perhaps Lincoln’s own family ties had some relevance to Thanksgiving, or perhaps he encountered it among his constituents and decided to expand the practice. Either way, today’s national holiday celebration was clearly founded at the end of the Civil War and not by the pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, as is often incorrectly claimed.

In fact, presidential declarations of Thanksgiving made absolutely no mention of the Plymouth Pilgrims or a “First Thanksgiving” until Herbert Hoover’s proclamation of 1931. This revision was apparently due to a change from how Pilgrims (and Indians) were perceived. Depictions of the settlers in America before the 19th century showed violent confrontation with people they encountered. As late as the 1910s a typical Thanksgiving “Pilgrim-puritan” image is more likely to have suggested settlers were fleeing a shower of arrows and running to safety than sitting down for a friendly meal with the “natives”.

The more modern imagery of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a communal and harmonious meal most likely found its place as an icon of American history in the early 1900s. The U.S. was concerned at that time with large numbers of immigrants and the related issues of integration into American culture. A Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was considered an effective message to help avoid confrontations. It was out of this school of thought that Jennie Brownscombe’s “First Thanksgiving” was painted in 1914 for Life magazine. Pilgrims were cast in a role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community. This also gained popularity as an image of American values and virtuosity to help boost morale during the dark days of the First World War.

Support for the holiday then unravelled a bit when President Roosevelt tried in 1936, against opposition, to move the day forward by a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. By 1941, during his administration, Congress declared the fourth Thursday in November to be the legal Holiday known today as Thanksgiving. However, since there are five Thursdays in November (two out of every seven years) several states continued to celebrate on the fifth Thursday for at least the next 15 years. Any guesses which states refused to comply?

Finally, in 1956 the fourth Thursday in November became the national holiday that Americans recognize today, observed similarly by every state in the Union.

The relevance of turkey to the holiday celebration is even more unclear than the origins of the celebration. Perhaps it stems from an early description of “men out fowling” for ducks, geese, and turkey (e.g. as described in the Bradford document, “discovered” in 1854). Or perhaps it is due to sentiment expressed in Benjamin Franklin’s note that “The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America”. Franklin actually was so enamored of the bird that he was in favor of using the turkey as the national Bird, instead of the Bald Eagle. Thus, perhaps he is not the person to have suggested it as a centerpiece for the dinner-table.

And so, today, I have yet to meet an American who has any idea why Lincoln started the holiday, why they are asked to celebrate the image of Indians and Pilgrims, or even why they are eating a native bird.

Presidents as Poets

The US Library of Congress has launched an interesting site called “Presidents as Poets“, which has information about the following men:

  • George Washington
  • James Madison
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Jimmy Carter

The collection includes an infamous poem attributed to Lincoln:

    To ease me of this power to think,
    That through my bosom raves,
    I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
    And wallow in its waves.

Haiku for today

Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, p. 190-191 (Translated from Swedish by Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden)

    Congenial to other people?
    It it with yourself
    That you must live.

    Denied any outlet,
    The heat transmuted
    The coal into diamonds.

    Alone in his secret growth,
    He found a kinship
    With all growing things.

The manuscript for the book was left by Hammarskjold to be published after his death. He was Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) when he died in an air crash on September 18, 1961 en route to negotiate a cease-fire between the UN and Katanya forces in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). I was introduced to his writings while studying the origins of the conflict.

Belief in evolution may prevent bird-flu

I was riding in an airplane not very long ago, seated next to a young woman who was on her way to visit a college. She was from somewhere in Oregon where everyone goes to a Christian school and practices strict rules of virtuous living. For example, she said, children are not allowed to carry bags or boxes in the school buildings in order to ensure that everyone can safely escape during a fire.

Makes sense, right? I didn’t think so either. But I wasn’t content to just nod blithely and let her discover reality on her own. No, I had to argue with her for several hours and try to help her arrive at a more logical conclusion about rules that ban kids from carrying bags.

One item in particular that really seemed to surprise her was that Darwin might have contributed something meaningful to the modern world. Believe it or not, this intelligent-seeming woman had been told that Darwin wrote a Theory of Evolution because his daughter died at a young age and so he became an athiest and just wanted to thumb his nose at God. I’m not making this up. She said they learned this in school, as well as bible camp. It’s amazing what passes for an education in America these days. Anyway, the story only became stranger when the woman said she was planning to study biology or chemistry in college. “How it doesn’t really exist?” I asked with glee.

To make a long story short, I don’t know if I made a positive impact on this woman, but I did my best to help her emphasize critical thinking and using the scientific method to arrive at conclusions in order to gradually help her debunk most of what she had probably been raised to believe as absolute gospel. And then today I read the amusing news that a NY museum has said that without Darwin’s theory we would be far less able to research and fight the bird flu:

“Without his insights, we would fail to appreciate the dangerous potentials of rapid evolution in the avian flu virus,” Michael Novacek, curator of paleontology at the museum, told a news conference on Tuesday.

To which the creationists replied “Obviously God created Darwin so that he could create the insights that would create the understanding that will create the ultimate vaccine for those who are chosen to survive. Isn’t that self evident? You say ‘proof’, I say banana.”

Auto-nomy no more

I’m a big fan of digital camera technology, and thus I usually am quick to support intelligent uses related to detective controls. Take for example a Bed & Breakfast that had issues with people loitering across the street dealing drugs. The B&B installed a camera, took some extracted video to the absent property owner and the next thing you know the neighborhood felt safe again. Here’s another example. Some well-intentioned system administrators were moving equipment in the racks when suddenly a core network device went off-line. Everyone started pointing fingers but a simple review of the video at the exact moment that the services were terminated shows who was in the cookie jar pulling power cables, and who was not.

Surveillance doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however, and there should be the same care and caution applied as with any other detective controls. Sadly, some investigators get so excited about the opportunity to nail every tiny infraction with uncontestably strong evidence that they start to sound like rabid dogs, ready to chase down every living thing and chew it to the bone.

Take for instance this proposal, recently captured in The Times:

BRITAIN’S top traffic policeman is pushing through plans to create a national network of roadside spy cameras that will be able to track the movements of motorists around the clock.

Meredydd Hughes wants the cameras to be installed every 400 yards on motorways, as well as at supermarkets, petrol stations and in town centres.

They are designed to crack down on uninsured driving, road tax evasion and stolen cars, but will also monitor millions of law-abiding drivers.

It sounds expensive and invasive with little return, if you ask me. One thing that surveillance camera projects should never do is start with an overly broad objective. It is similar to saying you want to write software to improve security every 400 yards on motorways…if you don’t start out with a good focus on the purpose of the system, then you will never end up with a clear picture of its usefulness.

On the other hand, when someone actually reveals that not only is there no intended benefit to the public but the real purpose of the surveillance (detective control) system is to become a source of revenue/taxation for the police, well, that should ring some alarm bells under the category of “clear conflict of interest”:

An Acpo strategy document, seen by The Sunday Times, makes the controversial suggestion that every ANPR “intercept officer� should aim to issue at least 310 fixed-penalty notices a year.

Blog riot

Fascinating article in the Guardian by Jeff Jarvis about online communication as a tool in the French riots:

the arrest last week of at least three young bloggers for allegedly using their sites to incite violence precisely highlights the confusion this new medium brings

I am surprised to hear that the French government is trying to control the debate by spending advertising money on Google. That just seems unsettling on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.

the poetry of information security