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Observations on information security.

Techno-zombies and Pluribus

I'm always amazed at how long a piece of apparently obsolete equipment can remain in service, especially in government service. Bruce Schneier's blog listed a link to NSA's 1991 video catalog at The catalog grants us an interesting if spotty view into the world of crypto gear and classified data collection systems.

I was particularly astonished to see inclusion of a video about the Pluribus - a long-obsolete Arpanet-era packet switch. I worked on the beast: it was overbuilt and underpowered. And unreliable (more on that another time). In the ideal world of tech, such obsolete junk should have been recycled by 1991. I was optimistic.

Password Recovery Speeds

Ivan Lucas of "" has posted an interesting summary of Password Recovery Speeds. These are scaled on the assumption that the attacker will do trial-and-error attempts of all possible permutations.
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Donor Data Exposed from MN Senate Race

The election may have been last year, but the race for Minnesota's US Senate seat drags on. Back in January, Minneapolis techie and consultant Adria Richards went to visit the web site belonging to former Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign - he's shy about 200 votes and hanging on through court challenges.

What Richards found was a mess. Especially bad: the site did not prevent browsers from listing site directories - a huge security snafu. Richards navigated through the directories and found one with the intriguing title "db" - suggesting database. Sure enough, the directory contained a database that apparently lists Coleman's political donors.

Richards documented her visit via photos and screen captures and has posted a tour of Coleman's web site on her blog.

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xkcd and humor

Bruce Schneier recently linked to an xkcd comic on rubber hose cryptanalysis. But here's the the comic that really made me laugh.

Rubber hose cryptanalysis stopped being funny when the rumor emerged about the fingerprint-controlled BMW that was stoley by cutting off a finger. Ugh.

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Teaching Risk Analysis in School

Bruce Schneier's blog commented recently on Teaching Risk Analysis in School. He linked to a London Times article on teaching risk. Actually, the article was more about teaching probability and statistics as a way to understand risk, which isn't exactly the same thing as what we call risk analysis these days. In practice, risk analysis is a  qualitative process in which we apply numerical estimates to risk factors. If you look at even the most applied statistics work, you find very little that's truly qualitative, except perhaps in the choice of survey questions, if you're doing a survey.

I've been trying to teach risk analysis to undergraduates. It is a very tricky topic. Some risk elements fit into a formal mathematical model, but others don't. Instead of ejecting the misfitting elements from the model, typical risk analyses incorporate estimates that try to match the structure and behavior of the formal elements. While it's important in some fields (like security) to understand and apply this technique, there's no way to prove the correctness of this type of model. It is, ultimately, an opinion.

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WordPress and OpenID Meet SSL

I've been trying to get these two to play nicely together for a while, and it looks as if Will Norris may have finally slain this here dragon. Will is the principal author of the Wordpress OpenID plugin.

In an ideal world, people never, ever disclose passwords on unprotected Internet connections. In general this means the server has to provide SSL support. However, you can sort of sidestep the problem by using OpenID. It's not perfect, but it addresses that particular vulnerability. (Revised 1/28)

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Crime as Legitimate Local Business

In a recent Security Fix, Brian Krebs looks at cyber criminal communities that are centered in Eastern Europe. A fundamental feature is that these communities discourage attacks on their own community. For example, a site that trades in stolen credit information refuses to use data from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, the former Soviet empire).

While Krebs' article points out that such attitudes don't really prevent attacks on CIS citizens, it is interesting that the criminal community sees it that way. Krebs suspects it's because local law enforcement is more tolerant. I also suspect local citizens are more tolerant. No doubt it looks clever and respectable to fleece people on the other side of the planet using modern technology.

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Obama's Blackberry: An interesting problem

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic recently blogged about alternative Blackberries that President Obama may carry. Some people might wonder why this is such a big deal. Ambinder notes that "Government Blackberries" can handle classified information "up to Secret" but that you need a Sectera Edge from General Dynamics to do anything (voice only) at Top Secret.

Words of the President are obviously valuable, whether voice or text. Even if we ignore spies, think about the interest they carry for news reporters, government contractors, political operatives, and other presumed patriots. So, to start with, we have to ensure that the President's words are only released when he decides to do so.

The government has established several strategies for protecting information assets. While we don't necessarily know what they're doing in the White House, we can make some educated guesses. The problems, and solutions, revolve around multilevel security, also called MLS.

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British Library/Adobe: Quality - 0, Protectionism - 1

I had the misfortune recently to upload an article sold through the British Library ("British Library Direct"), as background for another post. The British library charges 5 pounds for copyright permission and another few pounds for "shipping and handling," which consists of posting a link to a copy protected document, and e-mailing me the link. The document is provided in a copy protected format that is readable using Adobe Digital Editions. Features of the document suggest that we can blame the low quality on Adobe, though it could be the British Library's fault.

The quality of the resulting document is an insult to the history of publishing. I can print razor sharp, high resolution documents on my printers. The displayed - and printed - document from the British Library is on par with 20th century mimeograph technology. The underlying software allows me to make exactly one printed copy, but the copy is almost too blurry to read.  And this cost me US $20!

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The Obfuscated Journals of Charles Wesley

I managed to chase down a copy of Prof Kenneth Newport's paper, 'Charles Wesley, 'Warts and All'" which talks about the "encrypted" portions of Charles Wesley's journal. This is part of my search for pre-computer examples of encrypted documents, which seem rare, as opposed to encrypted messages, which seem relatively common.

From a cryptographic and security standpoint, I'd say that Wesley's journals were obfuscated and not encrypted. Wesley used a form of shorthand that, though personalized to some degree, was taught to students of Oxford and Cambridge. It is also reported that his own brother used the same sort of shorthand. Thus, Wesley's diary entries may have been unreadable by most of the literate public, but  readable by the relative handful of university graduates who had learned that writing method.


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