Nothing to See Here

Last night’s panel discussion (which was awesome by the way) went pretty late and the after party went later. I’m too tired to write anything of substance.

As a brief summary I just want to say it was a privilege and an honor to be part of a panel with both William Binney and Todd Pierce. Everybody involved in organizing the event did a stellar job as well. I’ll write up a more detailed aftermath later but if you want a good overview of the event now the fine folks at MNAnarchy put up a podcast immediately after the panel concluded.

Reminder of Tonight’s Panel Discussion with William Binney, Todd Pierce, and Myself

Tonight I have the honor of being a part of a panel discussion on mass surveillance with William Binney and Todd Pierce. The event will be held at the Bent Creek Golf Club located 14490 Valley View Rd, Eden Prairie, Minnesota 55344. Doors, and the bar, open at 18:30 and the discussion is scheduled to start at 19:00. There will also be free pizza served at 20:30.

All the information you need can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Verboten Drugs are Cheaper Than Ever

When I point out the failure of the war on drugs to stop drug usages a fairly common rebuttal is that the prohibition keeps the costs of drugs high and therefore prevents many people who would be using them from using them. My observations have indicated that claim is bullshit because I know dirt poor people who use cannabis. But now there’s research refuting that claim:

Cocaine, heroin and marijuana have become cheaper and stronger over the past two decades, despite increases in drug seizures by authorities fighting the global illegal drug market, a new study found.

The researchers looked at seven international drug surveillance databases to examine how the purity and price of illegal drugs changed between 1990 and 2009.

In the United States, the average purity of heroin, cocaine and marijuana increased by 60, 11, and 160 percent respectively, between 1990 and 2007, while the prices of these drugs, adjusted for inflation and purity, fell about 80 percent.

How can this be? Those drugs are illegal! Here we see another conflict between political dreams and reality. Political dreamers like to believe legally prohibiting something will make it go away. Reality dictates that people have wants and will seek to fulfill those wants. Creating prohibitions just makes people adjust their behavior in order to fulfill their wants.

For example, the severity of many drugs laws are based on the volume or weight of drugs a person possesses. A small amount of cannabis can net you a fine whereas a large amount can land your ass in prison on charges of intent to distribute. Drug consumers don’t want to end up in prison and drug producers don’t want their customers lock up in prison. To that end drug producers have been busy making a more potent products so their customers can enjoy the same effects in a small package. Instead of risking charges of intent to distribute cannabis users can now face a fine and still have the same potency as before.

Reducing costs makes sense. If you’re a drug producer you want as wide of a customer base as possible. Poorer people are often unable to enjoy more expensive forms of entertainment so they opt for cheaper forms. By making drugs cheaper the producers are able to access the poorer markets and therefore enjoy a larger customer base.

Once again we see markets overcoming state hurdles. The continuous pattern of markets triumphing over statism is why I firmly believe agorism, which utilizes markets, is the most tactic most likely to bring us real freedom.

USA FREEDOM Act Signed Into Law

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring (USA FREEDOM) Act (that backronym still impresses me) has been signed into laws:

The Senate has approved the USA Freedom Act, which will alter the way U.S. agencies conduct surveillance and gather data. A final vote on the bill came late Tuesday afternoon, after amendments to the bill failed.


Following an expedited enrollment process, President Obama signed the bill into law late Tuesday.

Supposedly the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying powers expired on Sunday, even though they didn’t, but the USA FREEDOM Act explicitly authorizes the program so we’re right back to where we started (the NSA’s spying programs being legalized redundantly).

Once again, political activism isn’t going to protect you from state surveillance. If you want to defend your privacy you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and learn how to use tools to encrypt and anonymize your communications and data. Because the passage of this bill shows that any political victory is, at best, temporary.

TSA: Protecting You from Terrorists Five Percent of the Time

The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) was established shortly after the 9/11 attacks to provide better airplane security. At least that’s the official story. So far the TSA has proven to be incredibly incompetent at its job. Wannabe terrorists have managed to get explosives on board airplanes by hiding them in underwear and shoes. Fortunately the bombs failed to go off but not because of anything the TSA did. However even I never expected a failure rate this absurdly high:

A recent internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security has found security failures at dozens of the nations’ busiest airports—breaches that allowed undercover investigators to smuggle weapons, fake explosives and other contraband through numerous checkpoints.

In one case, an alarm sounded, but even during a pat down, the screening officer failed to detect a fake plastic explosive taped to an undercover agent’s back. In all, so-called “Red Teams” of Homeland Security agents posing as passengers were able get weapons past Transportation Security Administration agents in 67 out of 70 tests — a 95 percent failure rate, according to agency officials.

A 95 percent failure rage? From a glass is half full perspective I guess the TSA will protect us from an average of five percent of terrorist attacks though!

Only a government agency could demonstrate this level of incompetence and still exist. Failing to fulfill your mandate 95 percent of the time requires shielding from liability that only the state can offer. Imagine hiring a private security guard who only stopped five percent of shoplifters. You’d toss his ass out in a second and maybe hire an investigator to see whether that guard was colluding with the shoplifters since that level of failure almost necessitates him being in on the scam.

The big question is what will come of this. My prediction is a whole lot of nothing. A few senators will use the investigation’s findings to do a big of grandstanding, the higher echelons of the TSA will get shuffled around a bit, and nothing noteworthy will change. I’m sure there will be several congressional grillings of high level TSA officials where we’ll hear excuses about lack of funding, inability to force people to go through body scanners (I’m sure the TSA would love to eliminate opt-outs), and agents not having full enforcement powers (TSA agents can’t arrest you and this really pisses many of them off). The congress critters doing the grillings will likely yell loudly, make some snide remarks, and little else. Air travelers will likely find themselves subjected to more draconian police state nonsense in the name of safety.

On the upside if you want to carry a firearm on board to protect yourself there’s a 95 percent chance you won’t get caught. Every storm cloud has its silver lining, I guess.

Dumbest Thing You’ll Read All Day

Salon has a long running track record of trying to disagree with libertarians on everything. Sometimes this causes it problem. For example, due to the publication’s idiotic claims that Rand Paul is a libertarian (he’s not by any definition I use) it has to disagree with everything he does. Rand has been claiming he opposes the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program and that means Salon has had to find a reason to back peddle on its previous opposition of the same so it doesn’t find itself on the same side as Rand. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the dumbest thing you’ll read all day:

Perhaps to those like Sen. Rand Paul who’ve never had to fight assumptions based on one’s ethnicity or the color of one’s skin, the thought of cell phone data being pooled and analyzed is disconcerting. However, as someone who regularly puts up with extra scrutiny, whether it’s at an airport or a shopping mall, I welcome the leveling of the playing field that bulk data collection brings. I urge our government not to follow the Russian method of profiling, but, instead, to use bulk data collection to arrive at objective analyses.

That’s right, opposing surveillance is now white privilege. I’m not sure how that is since persecuted minorities have the most to lose from the NSA’s surveillance. The data it collects isn’t used to clear anybody, it’s only used when it can lead to somebody’s prosecution. With everything being illegal in this country anything you say at any point is likely incriminating to the right prosecutor. If you’re part of a targeted minority, such as Muslims, the last thing you want to do is have the NSA collect your phone calls because something you said could very well be used to fabricate charges to justify putting you in a cage.

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act Expire, Nothing Changes

At midnight Section 215 of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act expired. For those of you unfamiliar Section 215 was the part that authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect information pertaining to phone calls, surveil people just because they switched out cell phone periodically, and spy on anybody who is labeled a “lone wolf” (which is vague enough to basically mean anybody). Many are cheering this momentous accomplishment. I’d let them celebrate in blissful ignorance but I’m kind of a prick. While Section 215 did expire that changes absolutely nothing:

Anti-surveillance groups have been split over the possible sunset of the Patriot Act powers. The American Civil Liberties Union had favored letting the Patriot Act expire, while groups like Access saw a compromise bill like the USA Freedom Act as the best chance for lasting reform. It’s unclear how the NSA and other groups will respond to the sunset of Section 215, but some have speculated that the result will be an increased reliance on national security letters and investigation-specific surveillance powers, continuing the same basic surveillance under different legal powers. Significant collection also occurs under non-legislative powers like Executive Order 12333, which remains unaffected.

There are always redundancies for state power. Later this week the Senate is still scheduled to codify the NSA’s phone surveillance program that wasn’t that clearly defined in the PATRIOT Act so this “expiration” will likely last all of a few days.

I do have some good news though. Those of us in CryptoPartyMN will be hosting a full blown CryptoParty at B-Sides MPS on June 13th and 14th. B-Sides MSP is a free event. At the CryptoParty we will be teaching you how to use tools to encrypt and anonymize your communications and data. By utilizing these tools you can defend your privacy against the state’s surveillance and not have to concern yourself with what particular provision will be used to justify spying on you. Unlike political activism, cryptography works and it requires less of your time to boot!

Thwarting Cellular Interceptors

The United States government has been using planes equipped with cell phone interceptors to surveil large areas. Recently planes have been spotted around the Twin Cities circling areas of interest for hours and it appears that they’re equipped with surveillance equipment:

The plane’s flight path, recorded by the website, would eventually show that it circled downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and Southdale Center at low altitude for hours starting at 10:30 p.m., slipping off radar just after 3 a.m.

“I thought, ‘Holy crap,’ ” said Zimmerman.

Bearing the call sign N361DB, the plane is one of three Cessna 182T Skylanes registered to LCB Leasing of Bristow, Va., according to FAA records. The Virginia secretary of state has no record of an LCB Leasing. Virtually no other information could be learned about the company.

Zimmerman’s curiosity might have ended there if it weren’t for something he heard from his aviation network recently: A plane registered to NG Research — also located in Bristow — that circled Baltimore for hours after recent violent protests there was in fact an FBI plane that’s part of a widespread but little known surveillance program, according to a report by the Washington Post.


Zimmerman, who spotted the plane over Bloomington, said he pored through FAA records to find the call letters for each plane and then searched for images of them. He found photographs that show the planes outfitted with “external pods” that could house imagery equipment. He also found some of the planes modified with noise-muffling capability. That’s not common for a small plane, he said.


Other devices known as “dirtboxes,” “Stingrays” or “IMSI catchers” can capture cellphone data. Stanley said it’s still unclear what technologies have been used in the surveillance flights.

It’s unknown if these planes are surveillance craft or equipped with cell phone interceptors but the evidence of the former is great and the government’s program to use such craft for cell phone interception indicates the latter is likely. That being the case I feel it’s a good time to discuss a few tools you can use to communicate more securely with your cell phone.

Modern cellular protocols utilize cryptography. What many people don’t realize is that, at least in the case of Global System for Mobile (GSM), the cryptography being used is broken, which is why cell phone interceptors work. Furthermore cryptography is only used between cell phones and towers. This means your cellular provider, and therefore law enforcement agents, can listen to and read your calls and text messages.

What you really want is end-to-end encryption for your calls. Fortunately tools that do that already exist. Three tools I highly recommend are Signal, RedPhone, and TextSecure from Open Whisper Systems. Signal is an iOS application that encrypts both voice calls and text communications. RedPhone is an Android app for encrypting calls and TextSecure is an Android app for encrypting text communications. Signal, RedPhone, and TextSecure are all compatible with one another so iOS users can securely communication with Android users. All three applications are also easy to use. When you install the applications you register your number with Open Whisper System’s servers. Anybody using the applications will be able to see you have the applications installed and can therefore communicate with you securely. Since the encryption is end-to-end your cellular provider cannot listen to or read your calls and text messages. It also means cell phone interceptors, which rely on the weak algorithms used between cell phones and towers, will be unable to surveil your communications.

As the world becomes more hostile towards unencrypted communications we must make greater use of cryptographic tools. It’s the only defense we have against the surveillance state. Fortunately secure communication tools are becoming easier to use. Communicating securely with friends using iOS and Android devices is as simple as installing an app (granted, these apps won’t protect your communications if the devices themselves are compromised but that’s outside of the threat model of planes with cell phone interceptors).