End the Year with Metal

This is the last post of 2014. To celebrate the end of the year I think it’s appropriate to look back at how it started. The first Monday Metal entry for 2014 was none other than Amon Amarth. It seems appropriate to close out the year with some Amon Amarth. So let’s raise a rune to the memory of 2014:

When I decided to close this year out with metal I was really hoping I started the year with something good. Glad to see that I did otherwise this entire scheme to not actually write a post would have been in vain.

Fingerprints Still Suck as Authenticators

I do find Touch ID to be convenience but fingerprints are still terrible authenticators. This is, in part, because you leave them everywhere. Another problem is once an attacker as obtained your fingerprint there’s no way for you to change it. As technology improves the ability to obtain a target’s fingerprint becomes easier. The Chaos Computer Club demonstrated that this week when one of its members explained how he was able to replicate a politician’s fingerprint from a photograph:

Jan Krissler says he replicated the fingerprint of defence minister Ursula von der Leyen using pictures taken with a “standard photo camera”.

Mr Krissler had no physical print from Ms von der Leyen.


He told the audience he had obtained a close-up of a photo of Ms von der Leyen’s thumb and had also used other pictures taken at different angles during a press event that the minister had spoken at in October.

Biometric technology often wins favor due to its cool factor. Seeing a device unlock from a fingerprint reader or a retinal scanner is very neat to witness. But cool factor does not equal secure. If fingerprints can be replicated from standard photography today it won’t be long until they can also replication retinal patterns.

Arrests Apparently Down in New York City

Let me preface this post by saying that the source in the New York Post so take it with a grain of salt. But according to the Post arrests are down in New York City. Apparently the police officers of thew New York Police Department (NYPD) are slacking off in response to two of their fellows being killed:

Angry union leaders have ordered drastic measures for their members since the Dec. 20 assassination of two NYPD cops in a patrol car, including that two units respond to every call.

It has helped contribute to a nose dive in low-level policing, with overall arrests down 66 percent for the week starting Dec. 22 compared with the same period in 2013, stats show.

Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame.

Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent — from 4,831 to 300.

Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.

A lot of people are talking about this as if it were a bad thing. The only thing bad about this is that it sends a message to the people of New York City that if they want to reduce the rate of extortion they suffer they need to kill a couple of cops. But any reduction in the rate of extortion is a good thing and people should be happy to see NYPD scaling back operations. Especially when you see that the laws they’re not enforcing rigorously are the victimless ones such as traffic violations and public drinking.

Hopefully NYPD continues to slack off and even slacks off more. When the biggest and most violent gang in a city starts tapering off everybody wins.

Touch ID

When I was young I was an early adopter. I had to have every new gadget as soon as it was released. Because of that I was also a beta tester. Now that I’m older and don’t have the time to dick around with buggy products I wait until early adopters have played with a device for a while before purchasing it. The beta testers for the iPhone 6 have done a fantastic job as far as I can see so I finally upgrade to one.

I’m not too thrilled about the increased size but it’s not so big as to be difficult to use (unlike the iPhone 6 Plus, which combines all of the worst features of a phone and tablet into one big mistake). Other than the size it’s basically like previous iPhones but with added processing power and storage. Since I was upgrading from an iPhone 5 I also gained access to Touch ID, Apple’s finger print authentication system.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with an acknowledgement of how poor fingerprints are as a security token. When you use your fingerprint for authentication you are literally leaving your authentication token on everything you touch. That means a threat can not only get your authentication token but can do so at their leisure. Once a threat has your fingerprint there’s nothing you can do to change it.

With that disclaimer out of the way I must admit that I really like Touch ID. Fingerprints may not be the best authentication method in existence but all of us make security tradeoffs of some sort every day (since the only truly secure computer is one that cannot be used). Security and convenience are mutually exclusive. This is probably the biggest reason so many people are apathetic about computer security. But I think Touch ID does a good job of finding that balance between security and convenience.

Until Apple implemented Touch ID the only two options you had for security your iPhone were a four digit PIN or a more complex password. A phone is a device you pull out and check numerous times throughout the day and usually those checks are a desire to find some small bit of information quickly. That makes complex passwords, especially on a touchscreen keyboard, a pain in the ass. Most people, if they have any form of security on their phone at all, opt for a four digit PIN. Four digit PINs keep out only the most apathetic attackers. If you want to be secure against a threat that is willing to put some work into cracking your device you need something more secure.

Touch ID works as a secondary method of authentication. You still need to have a four digit PIN or a password on the device. That, in my opinion, is the trick to Touch ID being useful. If you reboot your phone you will need to authenticate with your four digit PIN or password. Until that first authentication after boot up Touch ID is not available. Another way to make Touch ID unavailable is not to log into your phone for 48 hours.

The Fifth Amendment does not protect you from surrendering your fingerprint to the police. That means law enforcers can compel you to give your fingerprint so they can unlock your phone. Whether passwords are protected by the Fifth Amendment is a topic still being fought in the courts. If you’re arrested a password is going to be a better method of securing your device from the state than your fingerprint. Because of how Touch ID works you can thwart law enforcement’s ability to take your fingerprint by simply powering off the phone.

Only you can decide if Touch ID is an appropriate security mechanism for you. I’m really enjoying it because now I can have a complex password on my phone without having to type it in every time I pull it out of my pocket. But I also admit that fingerprints are poor authentication mechanisms. Tradeoffs are a pain in the ass but they’re the only things that make our electronic devices usable.

Encryption Works Except When It Doesn’t

People are still debating whether Edward Snowden is a traitor deserving a cage next to Chelsey Manning or a hero deserving praise (hint, unless you believe the latter you’re wrong). But a benefit nobody can deny is the overall improvement to computer security his actions have lead to. In addition to more people using cryptographic tools we are also getting a better idea of what tools work and what tools don’t work:

The NSA also has “major” problems with Truecrypt, a program for encrypting files on computers. Truecrypt’s developers stopped their work on the program last May, prompting speculation about pressures from government agencies. A protocol called Off-the-Record (OTR) for encrypting instant messaging in an end-to-end encryption process also seems to cause the NSA major problems. Both are programs whose source code can be viewed, modified, shared and used by anyone. Experts agree it is far more difficult for intelligence agencies to manipulate open source software programs than many of the closed systems developed by companies like Apple and Microsoft. Since anyone can view free and open source software, it becomes difficult to insert secret back doors without it being noticed. Transcripts of intercepted chats using OTR encryption handed over to the intelligence agency by a partner in Prism — an NSA program that accesses data from at least nine American internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple — show that the NSA’s efforts appear to have been thwarted in these cases: “No decrypt available for this OTR message.” This shows that OTR at least sometimes makes communications impossible to read for the NSA.

Things become “catastrophic” for the NSA at level five – when, for example, a subject uses a combination of Tor, another anonymization service, the instant messaging system CSpace and a system for Internet telephony (voice over IP) called ZRTP. This type of combination results in a “near-total loss/lack of insight to target communications, presence,” the NSA document states.


Also, the “Z” in ZRTP stands for one of its developers, Phil Zimmermann, the same man who created Pretty Good Privacy, which is still the most common encryption program for emails and documents in use today. PGP is more than 20 years old, but apparently it remains too robust for the NSA spies to crack. “No decrypt available for this PGP encrypted message,” a further document viewed by SPIEGEL states of emails the NSA obtained from Yahoo.

So TrueCrypt, OTR, PGP, and ZRTP are all solid protocols to utilize if you want to make the National Security Agency’s (NSA) job of spying on you more difficult. It’s actually fascinating to see that PGP has held up so long. The fact that TrueCrypt is giving the NSA trouble makes the statement of its insecurity issued by the developers more questionable. And people can finally stop claiming that Tor isn’t secure due to the fact it started off as a government project. But all is not well in the world of security. There are some things the NSA has little trouble bypassing:

Even more vulnerable than VPN systems are the supposedly secure connections ordinary Internet users must rely on all the time for Web applications like financial services, e-commerce or accessing webmail accounts. A lay user can recognize these allegedly secure connections by looking at the address bar in his or her Web browser: With these connections, the first letters of the address there are not just http — for Hypertext Transfer Protocol — but https. The “s” stands for “secure”. The problem is that there isn’t really anything secure about them.


One example is virtual private networks (VPN), which are often used by companies and institutions operating from multiple offices and locations. A VPN theoretically creates a secure tunnel between two points on the Internet. All data is channeled through that tunnel, protected by cryptography. When it comes to the level of privacy offered here, virtual is the right word, too. This is because the NSA operates a large-scale VPN exploitation project to crack large numbers of connections, allowing it to intercept the data exchanged inside the VPN — including, for example, the Greek government’s use of VPNs. The team responsible for the exploitation of those Greek VPN communications consisted of 12 people, according to an NSA document SPIEGEL has seen.

How the NSA is able to bypass VPN and HTTPS is still in question. I’m guessing the NSA’s ability to break HTTPS depends on how it’s implemented. Many sites, including ones such as Paypal, fail to implement HTTPS in a secure manner. This may be an attempt to maintain backward compatibility with older systems or it may be incompetence. Either way they certainly make the NSA’s job easier. VPN, likewise, may be implementation dependent. Most VPN software is fairly complex, which makes configuring it in a secure manner difficult. Like HTTPS, it’s easy to put up a VPN server that’s not secure.

The ultimate result of this information is that the tools we rely on will become more secure as people address the weaknesses being exploited by the NSA. Tools that cannot be improved will be replaced. Regardless of your personal feelins about Edward Snowden’s actions you must admit that they are making the Internet more secure.

Soon Central Banking Failures Will Be Our Fault

The state is the undisputed champion of passing the buck. Whenever it fucks up it finds a way to blame the people. Did the politicians screw up the economy? That’s our fault for voting them in! Is your local police department out of control? You voted for the sheriff! There isn’t enough money circulating throughout the economy? What do you expect when people save hoard money? Accumulated debt is causing chaos in the banking system? Obviously people aren’t saving enough money!

Now the Bank of England is setting itself up to blame the people for arbitrarily set interest rates not bringing prosperity:

According to Sky News, the world’s eighth oldest bank will now assess the frequency of job searches and monitor prices online to understand potential unemployment rates and monitor inflation. It will also gauge language used on social networks to better understand the state of some financial markets. It’s another example of the shift towards “big data,” where companies collect and analyse huge sets of digital data rather than use traditional database techniques to detect patterns as they happen. The Bank of England says it used these techniques to help impose new controls on the housing market earlier in the year, and hopes this “big shift from the past” will help it better judge Britain’s financial status in the future.

Inflation will now be our fault because we sent the wrong signals over our social media feeds! Isn’t the state brilliant? There’s nothing it can’t blame on somebody else.

Abusers Installing Spyware on Their Victims’ Computers

Last month I briefly mentioned the importance of full disk encryption. Namely it prevents the contents of the hard drive from being altered unless one knows the decryption key. I had to deal with a friend’s significant other installing spyware on her system in order to keep tabs on who she was talking to and what she was doing. Her significant other didn’t know her login credentials but since her hard drive wasn’t encrypted he was able to install the spyware with a boot disk. This threat model isn’t out of the ordinary. In fact it is becoming worryingly common:

Helplines and women’s refuge charities have reported a dramatic rise in the use of spyware apps to eavesdrop on the victims of domestic violence via their mobiles and other electronic devices, enabling abusers clandestinely to read texts, record calls and view or listen in on victims in real time without their knowledge.

The Independent has established that one device offering the ability to spy on phones is being sold by a major British high-street retailer via its website. The proliferation of software packages, many of which are openly marketed as tools for covertly tracking a “cheating wife or girlfriend” and cost less than £50, has prompted concern that police and the criminal justice system in Britain are failing to understand the extent of the problem and tackle offenders.

A survey by Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity, found that 41 per cent of domestic violence victims it helped had been tracked or harassed using electronic devices. A second study this year by the Digital Trust, which helps victims of online stalking, found that more than 50 per cent of abusive partners used spyware or some other form of electronic surveillance to stalk their victims.

As a general rule security is assumed to be broken when an adversary has physical access. But that isn’t always the case. It really depends on how technically capable a threat is. Oftentimes in cases of domestic abuse the abuser is not technically savvy and relies on easy to procure and use tools to perform monitoring.

Full disk encryption, while not a magic bullet, is pretty effective at keeping less technically capable threats from altering a drive’s contents without the owner’s knowledge. When encrypting the contents of a hard drive is not possible, either due to technical limitations or the threat of physical violence, the Tails Linux live distribution is a good tool. Tails is being developed to maintain user anonymity and leave a few traces as possible that it was used. All Internet traffic on Tails is pumped through Tor, which prevents a threat monitoring your network from seeing what you’re looking at or who you’re talking to (but does not disguise the fact that you’re using Tor). That can enable a victim to communicate securely with an individual or group that can help. Since Tails boots from a USB stick or CD it can be easily removed and concealed.

As monitoring tools becomes easier to use, cheaper, and more readily available the need to learn computer security will become even greater. After all, the National Security Agency (NSA) isn’t the only threat your computer environment may be facing. Domestic abusers, corrupt (or “legitimate”) law enforcers, land lords, bosses, and any number of other people may with to spy on you for various reasons.

Using Gun Buybacks for Agorism

Gun buybacks are one of the dumbest ideas that have ever popped into the heads of gun control advocates. These buybacks works off of the idea that state can steal money from the people then use a portion of that stolen money to buy some of the people’s guns. But they’re an easily exploitable. While the idea is to further increase the disparity of force between the state and its subjects, smart individuals can use these programs to recover some of the money stolen from them. Much to the chagrin of gun control advocates, gun owners are actively working to recover some of their wealth:

The self-described “gun rights activist,” who we are not naming, brought in a duffel bag full of home made, “slam-fire” shotguns (all of legal length). He was paid $50 for each of these improvised guns. This low ball price shows just how unrealistic it is for anyone but criminals to turn guns in to the police when they have these buy back programs.

While this was a low buy back, sometimes programs go as high as several hundred dollars. Activists have turned in a few dollars worth of pipes for what added up to thousands out of the police department’s pockets.

Agorists should take note of this. With a few dollars in parts from the hardware store you can net $50 or more from any police station holding a buyback. Not only does this extract wealth from the state but it specifically extracts it from one of the worst parts of the state, the police.