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Observations on information security.

Real-world 'document' encryption

I've been reviewing histories of cryptography recently and here's an interesting thing about pre-computer encryption: it's almost entirely used for communications security. People encrypted messages, but they rarely encrypted documents.

I've finally found a few real-world cases: encrypted diaries. BBC actually did a short segment on them last summer. But I'm still looking - there must be other cases where someone needed to keep some long-term data secret from prying eyes.

A Crypto Sighting - rum runners in California

I'm looking for examples of "real world" encryption, and I came across this one: Half Moon Bay Memories & El Granada Observer » When Rumrunners Ruled Part 2.

The author notes how the rumrunners in the 1920s had a "flashlight code." Different patterns of flashes told smuggling boats offshore whether or not it was safe to land. (Updated!)

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RAID and Backups

A recent Handler's Log on the SANS Internet Storm Center spoke of the recent demise of an early blog site called "" Evidently their disaster recovery strategy consisted of maintaining a mirrored RAID system.

I've written quite a bit about how mirrored RAID is a fundamental part of my disaster recovery strategy. However, the Journalspace people apparently skipped an essential step: they relied solely on their on-line data and didn't keep an off-line (preferably off-site) backup.

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Great talk on economics of distributed system security

Gunnar Peterson from here in St. Paul gave an interesting keynote at the "Quality of Protection" conference, called The Economics of Finding and Fixing Vulnerabilities in Distributed Systems. Gunnar also posted it on his blog.

His remarks talk very intelligently about information security investment and the challenge of iimproving security in exchange for money spent.

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Recovering with Time Machine

Two things about my computer use over the past decade: 1) I've been moving all of our family mementos (mementi?) to digital form, and 2) I've become a total klutz about mass storage. A disaster in the making? Almost, but not quite. I've spoken earlier about using RAID on my Mac Pro, and now I'm using RAID with my Time Machine storage. I use my drive swapping trick to create backups, and keep the backup off-site.

While performing the drive swap, I managed to smash my working OS X system partition. Thus, I got to experience first-hand the process of recovering my system from my Time Machine backup. Here's the report.

[UPDATE: Since the original posting, I've found more brittleness in the restored Aperture directory and I've been negotiating a truce between Paragon's NTFS and my NTFS-formatted portable USB drive. Sides are still not quite on speaking terms.]

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Setting file permissions

I've been working on tutorial material to explain file permission settings in general. This seems to be a topic that most textbook authors avoid like the plague.

Today, I was googling about file permissions and I found this blog entry at about the sad usability state of file permission setting functions in Windows and OS X. The author mentions some research at CMU on the usability of file permissions, and highlights several of the pitfalls in the Windows XP interface.

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Professor Accused of Hacking Into Student E-Mail Account

This story, from a blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a professor sleeping with a student and hacking into her e-mail. It is interesting on several levels: it happened at the University of St. Thomas where I teach, it involves computer hacking, and it's a classic 'inside job.'

According to news reports, the student (27) was induced by the professor (35) to open an e-mail attachment which installed a sniffer in her computer. He then used the sniffer to eavesdrop on her e-mail.

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Interesting Summary of Data Breaches

Verizon's security blog has published a summary report of data breaches investigated by their security team. The report covers 500 security breaches they investigated between 2004 and 2007. There are a lot of graphs and tables summarizing threats and impacts.

The authors sensibly point out that this is based on a limited sample, but it's great to see this sort of report.

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Computers don't work when you lie to them

Here is a terrific (but depressing) article by Saul Hansell explaining how the Wall Street meltdown was fueled by feeding nonsense to the risk management systems in the big investment houses.

The systems did not have models of those weird derivative instruments being traded, so traders would say they were trading a generic (safe, well-understood) loan instrument. So the systems did not really model the risk.

I find this really heartbreaking. I have to believe some people behind the scenes knew what was going on, and I can imagine them losing the argument with their bosses when they tried to fix things.

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Revising OpenID for WordPress

Will Norris is working on a revision to OpenID for WordPress. This is good, and I have some observations and suggestions. At the moment the OpenID plugin works pretty well - I have separate logins delegated through domains I own. I routinely log in through OpenID for both routine and administrative activities.
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