The NSA wiretapped the cow and got the milk for free

Today three major news agencies, the New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublic released details of the most intrusive NSA activity to-date.  The NSA and the GCHQ, the British version of the NSA, have “been looking for ways into protected traffic of popular Internet companies: Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Hotmail.”  Microsoft apparently handed over pre-encryption access to Outlook e-mail, Skype and SkyDrive.  Companies have also put back doors into hardware and software products at the request of the NSA.

The NSA and the companies who allowed the back doors have broken the public’s trust.  It’s time we take back the Internet.  As usual, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent summary on this issue and a list of actions you can take.  This is a two-pronged attack.  First, we should petition our elected officials, which is very easy to do from the EFF’s take action site.  Second, if the companies don’t stand up for their users, you can vote with your feet and leave their feudal system.  I don’t use Microsoft, Yahoo, or Facebook, but I do use Google and Apple.  While Google has claimed there are no back doors, Google is also asking permission from the Government to tell the public about what it does provide.  That sounds like a Kafka novel to me and I think I’m going looking for a new email provider.  Apple lost me when I had to ask permission to install applications.  In the writing of this post, I discovered something new about myself; I don’t like asking permission for things 🙂 .

But also we should step-up your defense. Bruce Schneier published a list of recommendations to maintain (some) control over privacy and security online.  Read the article for the details, but the short list is:

  • Hide in the network. (i.e. use Tor)
  • Encrypt your communications. (use HTTPS Everywhere)
  • Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA so it probably isn’t.
  • Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors.
  • Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations.

For those looking for a more complete software list, check out PRISM Break.

Lastly, Bruce Schneier closed with this call-to-arms:

To the engineers, I say this: we built the internet, and some of us have helped to subvert it. Now, those of us who love liberty have to fix it.

A simple and inexpensive way to do accomplish this is to go buy a $45 Beaglebone Black and set it up as a Tor relay and help grow the Tor network.  You can follow my instructions to set this up and have a low-power, freedom protecting, Tor relay.

Of course, you can also join the EFF too or get the t-shirt that the NSA tried to censor, just for fun.

Double Doctorow

Between my fall and winter quarters, I finished two great books by Cory Doctorow.  I also read Herman Hesse’s Stepphenwolf, but I don’t think I am ready to get into that one at the moment.  The two Doctorow novels were Little Brother and Pirate Cinema and I’m a bit surprised at myself for waiting this long.

How can I blog about Cory Doctorow and not include relevant XKCDs?!?!

I was in college when Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson was released and that book inspired me to study the field of network security and cryptography.  So much so, I left a rather geeky acknowledgment to Neal Stephenson in my undergraduate thesis.  Little Brother would have been equally inspiring had I read it when I was 19.  This is an amazing novel.  While technically a young adult novel, it deals with critical social issues involving privacy and technology.  It’s also filled with references to actual projects and privacy fighting technologies (complete with bibliography!).  In the true spirit of the book, it’s available to read for free (and for remixing) via a Creative Commons Licence from the website.  The afterward by Bruce Schneier is a nice touch.  For the security minded, Bruce has a great blog and according to the “Insider’s TSA Dictionary,” is now a verb.

After that I burned through Pirate Cinema, another great read.  Perhaps more appealing to a general audience, this book focuses on copyright issues specifically involved with digital media.  Like Little Brother, this book is also available for free on the website.  Not surprisingly, it has been recommended for a Prometheus Award by the Libertarian Futurist Society.  Little Brother was awarded the honor in 2009 and Ready Player One, another great book which is filled with 80s references, was awarded the prize in 2011.  Fittingly, RPO’s audiobook is narrated by Will Wheaton (strong emphasis on the wh).

Another good one is here.

For those who like to listen to author interviews, there is a good behind-the-scenes interview about Pirate Cinema over here.  Also Little Brother‘s sequel, Homeland, is scheduled for release this February.  Makers and Rapture of the Nerds (this guy writes a lot) both look fun but for the next ten weeks I’m submerging into two more graduate classes: Data Structures and Algorithms II and Advanced AI, so I’m not sure I’ll get to them anytime soon.  I may have to sneak in Homeland though, midterms be damned!  So between the classes and AI Winter, which I’m planning on attending, I’m going to be very busy.

Hunger Games in 1Q84

Here’s the deal, I liked the premise of Hunger Games. I liked the setting, I liked the back-story, and I especially liked the science-fiction aspects like the Tracker Jackers and Muttations.  I really just wish it wasn’t written for young adults.  For those that have read 1Q84 you will appreciate this thought: I really just want to give this book to another author and have it re-written.  It’s not that the writing was bad, it’s just that I feel characterization and setting development were exchanged for action and teen-angst.  I had a hard time dealing with the classic teenager “does he/she like me” tone of the book.  I can appreciate the appeal and success and like I said, it’s not a bad book.  I’m just not ready to be a teenager again 🙂

Moving on, I’ve started my quarter of Networks with my Computer Networks and Network Security class, so expect appropriately themed posts.  For those that just groaned, this isn’t a threat!  But I do tend to write what’s on my mind…  I’m hoping to

Bitcoin Accepted Here [by freeborn]
Maybe I should accept Bitcoins to fund my research into Bitcoins? 😉 (Photo credit: Adam Crowe)
analyze the Bitcoin protocol a bit more specifically in my networks class and hopefully get more into depth into SSL/TLS and software exploits in my security class.  It should be fun!

To complement these classes, I’m reading Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier which should not only be relevant my security class, but will round off my personal Game Theory investigations.  Each book by Schneier seems to take a step back from the technical security problem and focus on a grander scale.  Here he takes on societal trust issues and among other things, he shows why society needs defectors (those who don’t play by the rules).

Lastly, after attempts of finding a private German tutor where I’m currently living haven’t worked out, I broke down and bought a one-year subscription to Rosetta Stone online.  I was very reluctant until I saw and tried one feature: online studio sessions with a fluent speaker.  I sat through my first 50 minute session 1-on-1 yesterday and it was great.  The tutor was very friendly and helpful and we spoke entirely in German. Amazingly, these are included in the price and one can perform the sessions over and over.  For those studying less popular languages, with limited access to speakers, this is a great find!  I wish I would have found it earlier.

How to spoil a party.

Suggest the following game to the host:

Have a friend donate a $1 bill and place it on the table.  There are two general rules.

  1. The dollar bill is awarded to the highest bidder.  Whatever the highest bid is, that bidder pays for the dollar with that bid.  Each bid must be higher than the last and the game ends when there are no new bids.
  2. The second-highest bidder has to pay his last bid, but gets nothing.

It’s easy to imagine how the game plays out. The first bids are pennies, but it slowly rises to bids of $1.00 and $0.99.  Now, the second-highest bidder is now paying $0.99 for nothing, when he can just bid $1.01 and only lose a penny!  Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera… Soon, friends are no longer friends.

Is there a rational way to play this game? This question is the premise of game theory and is the theme of William Poundstone’s Prisoner’s Dilemma.  I won’t describe the prisoner’s dilemma here, but I did appreciate the description and critiques of game

Cover of "Prisoner's Dilemma"
Cover of Prisoner's Dilemma

theory from this book. Poundstone develops the “why” behind people’s motivation to cooperate or defect.  He also presents a brief history of John von Neumann and his contribution to game theory.

A good follow-on to this book seems to be Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier, which explores how society relies on trust to function, even when there are defectors, to use game theory parlance.  For example, when we board the plane, we trust that pilot knows how to fly.

However, I’m going back to fiction for the moment and I’m going to read the Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  I’ve read the previous two books some time ago, but I have this thing against finishing a series…