A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Crypto-Anarchism’ tag

Cody Wilson: 1, Department of Justice: 0

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When Cody Wilson demonstrated the futility of gun control once and for all but publishing specifications for a 3D printable handgun, the United States government was displeased. It didn’t like the idea that the language of the Second Amendment, namely the part that says “shall not be infringed,” might actually be enforceable by its subjects. In response to Wilson’s antics, the federal government tried to censor him. Wilson decided to sue on the argument that censoring 3D printer specifications was an infringement of his First Amendment rights. The Department of Justice (DoJ), the body of the government that tried to censor Wilson and got sued for its shenanigans, finally gave up:

Two months ago, the Department of Justice quietly offered Wilson a settlement to end a lawsuit he and a group of co-plaintiffs have pursued since 2015 against the United States government. Wilson and his team of lawyers focused their legal argument on a free speech claim: They pointed out that by forbidding Wilson from posting his 3-D-printable data, the State Department was not only violating his right to bear arms but his right to freely share information. By blurring the line between a gun and a digital file, Wilson had also successfully blurred the lines between the Second Amendment and the First.

“If code is speech, the constitutional contradictions are evident,” Wilson explained to WIRED when he first launched the lawsuit in 2015. “So what if this code is a gun?”

The Department of Justice’s surprising settlement, confirmed in court documents earlier this month, essentially surrenders to that argument. It promises to change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber—with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition—and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won’t try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet. In the meantime, it gives Wilson a unique license to publish data about those weapons anywhere he chooses.

Realistically, the DoJ had no choice by to relent. As soon as it tried to censor Wilson’s 3D printer designs, the Streisand effect kicked and ensured that the files were obtained by so many people that censorship became impossible. Beyond Wilson’s case, the DoJ was also fighting a losing battle because even if it managed to censor his designs, anybody with an Internet connection could upload their own designs. The DoJ is one agency that only has authority here in the United States. The Internet is a global communication network. The odds of a single agency winning against a global network are pretty much zilch.

Written by Christopher Burg

July 12th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Another Bang Up Job

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Legacy cellular protocols contained numerous gaping security holes, which is why attention was paid to security when Long-Term Evolution (LTE) was being designed. Unfortunately, one can pay attention to something and still ignore it or fuck it up:

The attacks work because of weaknesses built into the LTE standard itself. The most crucial weakness is a form of encryption that doesn’t protect the integrity of the data. The lack of data authentication makes it possible for an attacker to surreptitiously manipulate the IP addresses within an encrypted packet. Dubbed aLTEr, the researchers’ attack causes mobile devices to use a malicious domain name system server that, in turn, redirects the user to a malicious server masquerading as Hotmail. The other two weaknesses involve the way LTE maps users across a cellular network and leaks sensitive information about the data passing between base stations and end users.

Encrypting data is only one part of the puzzle. Once data is encrypted the integrity of the data must be protected as well. This is because encrypted data looks like gibberish until it is decrypted. The only way to know whether the encrypted data you’ve received hasn’t been tampered with is if some kind of cryptographic integrity verification has been implemented and used.

How can you protect yourself form this kind of attack? Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel is probably your best bet. The OpenVPN protocol is used by numerous VPN providers that provide clients for both iOS and Android (as well as other major operating systems such as Windows, Linux, and macOS). OpenVPN, unlike LTE, verifies the integrity of encrypted data and rejects any data that appears to have been tampered with. While using a VPN tunnel may not prevent a malicious attacker from redirecting your LTE traffic, it will ensure that the attacker can’t see your data as a malicious VPN tunnel will fail to provide data that passes your client’s integrity checker and thus your client will cease receiving or transmitting data.

Written by Christopher Burg

July 3rd, 2018 at 11:00 am

Avoid E-Mail for Security Communications

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The Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) protocol was created to provide a means to securely communicate via e-mail. Unfortunately, it was a bandage applied to a protocol that has only increased significantly in complexity since PGP was released. The ad-hoc nature of PGP combined with the increasing complexity of e-mail itself has lead to rather unfortunate implementation failures that have left PGP users vulnerable. A newly released attack enables attackers to spoof PGP signatures:

Digital signatures are used to prove the source of an encrypted message, data backup, or software update. Typically, the source must use a private encryption key to cause an application to show that a message or file is signed. But a series of vulnerabilities dubbed SigSpoof makes it possible in certain cases for attackers to fake signatures with nothing more than someone’s public key or key ID, both of which are often published online. The spoofed email shown at the top of this post can’t be detected as malicious without doing forensic analysis that’s beyond the ability of many users.


The spoofing works by hiding metadata in an encrypted email or other message in a way that causes applications to treat it as if it were the result of a signature-verification operation. Applications such as Enigmail and GPGTools then cause email clients such as Thunderbird or Apple Mail to falsely show that an email was cryptographically signed by someone chosen by the attacker. All that’s required to spoof a signature is to have a public key or key ID.

The good news is that many PGP plugins have been updated to patch this vulnerability. The bad news is that this is the second major vulnerability found in PGP in the span of about a month. It’s likely that other major vulnerabilities will be discovered in the near future since the protocol appears to be receiving a lot of attention.

PGP is suffering from the same fate as most attempts to bolt security onto insecure protocols. This is why I urge people to utilize secure communication technology that was designed from the start to be secure and has been audited. While there are no guarantees in life, protocols that were designed from the ground up with security in mind tend to fair better than protocols that were bolted on after the fact. Of course designs can be garbage, which is where an audit comes in. The reason you want to rely on a secure communication tool only after it has been audited is because an audit by an independent third-party can verify that the tool is well designed and provides effective security. And audit isn’t a magic bullet, unfortunately those don’t exist, but it allows you to be reasonably sure that the tool you’re using isn’t complete garbage.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 15th, 2018 at 10:00 am

You Must Guard Your Own Privacy

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People often make the mistake of believing that they can control the privacy for content they post online. It’s easy to see why they fall into this trap. Facebook and YouTube both offer privacy controls. Facebook along with Twitter also provide private messaging. However, online privacy settings are only as good as the provider makes them:

Facebook disclosed a new privacy blunder on Thursday in a statement that said the site accidentally made the posts of 14 million users public even when they designated the posts to be shared with only a limited number of contacts.

The mixup was the result of a bug that automatically suggested posts be set to public, meaning the posts could be viewed by anyone, including people not logged on to Facebook. As a result, from May 18 to May 27, as many as 14 million users who intended posts to be available only to select individuals were, in fact, accessible to anyone on the Internet.


Slip ups like this are more common than most people probably realize. Writing software is hard. Writing complex software used by billions of people is really hard. Then after the software is written, it must be administered. Administering complex software used by billions of people is also extremely difficult. Programmers and administrators are bound to make mistakes. When they do, the “confidential” content you posted online can quickly become publicly accessible.

Privacy is like anything else, if you want the job done well, you need to do it yourself. The reason services like Facebook can accidentally make your “private” content public is because they have complete access to your content. If you want to have some semblance of control over your privacy, your content must only be accessible to you. If you want that content to be available to others, you must post it in such a way where only you and them can access it.

This is the problem that public key cryptography attempts to solve. With public key cryptography each person has a private and public key. Anything encrypted with the public key can only be decrypted with the private key. Needless to say, as the names implies, you can post your public key to the Internet but must guard the security of your private key. When you want to make material available to somebody else, you encrypt it with their public key so hey can decrypted it with their private key. Likewise, when they want to make content available to you they must encrypt it with your public key so you can decrypt it with your private key. This setup gives you the best ability to enforce privacy controls because, assuming no party’s private key has been compromised, only specifically authorized parties have access to content. Granted, there are still a lot of ways for this setup to fall apart but a simple bad configuration isn’t going to suddenly make millions of people’s content publicly accessible.

Written by Christopher Burg

June 8th, 2018 at 10:30 am


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A vulnerability was announced yesterday that affects both OpenPGP and S/MIME encrypted e-mails. While this was initially being passed off as an apocalyptic discovery, I don’t think that it’s scope is quite as bad as many are claiming. First, like all good modern vulnerabilities, it has a name, EFAIL, and a dedicated website:

The EFAIL attacks exploit vulnerabilities in the OpenPGP and S/MIME standards to reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails. In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.

The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim. The victim’s email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.

The weakness isn’t in the OpenPGP or S/MIME encryption algorithms themselves but in how mail clients interact with encrypted e-mails. If your e-mail client is configured to automatically decrypt encrypted e-mails and allows HTML content to be displayed, the encrypted potion of your e-mail could be exfiltrated by a malicious attacker.

I generally recommend against using e-mail for secure communications in any capacity. OpenPGP and S/MIME are bandages applied to an insecure protocol. Due to their nature as a bolted on feature added after the fact, they are unable to encrypt a lot of data in your e-mail (the only thing they can encrypt is the body). However, if you are going to use it, I generally recommend against allowing your client to automatically decrypt your encrypted e-mails. Instead at least require that your enter a password to decrypt your private key (this wouldn’t defend against this attack if your client is configured to display HTML e-mail content but it would prevent malicious e-mails from automatically exfiltrating encrypted content). Better yet, have your system setup in such a manner where you actually copy the encrypted contents of an e-mail into a separate decryption program, such as the OpenPGP command line tools, to view the secure contents. Finally, I would recommend disabling the ability to display HTML e-mails in your client if you are at all concerned about security.

If you perform the above practices, you can mitigate this attack… on your system. The real problem is, as always, other people’s systems. While you may perform the above practices, you can’t guarantee that everybody with whom you communicate will as well. If an attacker can exploit one party, they will generally get the e-mails sent by all parties. This is why I’d recommend using a communication tool that was designed to be secure from the beginning, such as Signal, over e-mail with OpenPGP or S/MIME. While tools like Signal aren’t bulletproof, they are designed to be secure by default, which makes them less susceptible to vulnerabilities created by an improper configuration.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 15th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Set a Strong Password on Your Phone

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My girlfriend and I had to take our cat to the emergency vet last night so I didn’t have an opportunity to prepare much material for today. However, I will leave you with a security tip. You should set a strong password on your phone:

How long is your iPhone PIN? If you still use one that’s only made by six numbers (or worse, four!), you may want to change that.

Cops all over the United States are racing to buy a new and relatively cheap technology called GrayKey to unlock iPhones. GrayShift, the company that develops it, promises to crack any iPhone, regardless of the passcode that’s on it. GrayKey is able to unlock some iPhones in two hours, or three days for phones with six digit passcodes, according to an anonymous source who provided security firm Malwarebytes with pictures of the cracking device and some information about how it works.

The article goes on to explain that you should use a password with lowercase and upper case letters, numbers, and symbols. Frankly, I think such advice is antiquated and prefer the advice given in this XKCD comic. You can create more bits of entropy if you have a longer password that is easier to remember. Instead of having something like “Sup3r53cretP@5sw0rd” you could have “garish-bethel-perry-best-finale.” The second is easier to remember and is actually longer. Moreover, you can increase your security by tacking on additional words. If you want a randomly generated password, you can use a Diceware program such as this one (which I used to generate the latter of the two passwords.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 19th, 2018 at 10:00 am

Overt Internet Censorship

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The Internet, especially the free speech that it has enabled, was fun while it lasted but it has become obvious that the governments of the world will no longer tolerate such a free system. Of course few governments wants to admit to attacking free speech so they are using euphemisms. For example, the United States government isn’t censoring free speech, it’s fighting sex trafficking:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. law enforcement agencies have seized the sex marketplace website Backpage.com as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to a posting on the Backpage website on Friday.

Groups and political leaders working to end forced prostitution and child exploitation celebrated the shutdown of Backpage, a massive ad marketplace that is primarily used to sell sex. But some internet and free speech advocates warned the action could lead to harsh federal limits on expression and the press.

Notice how they managed to throw the “for the children” get out of jail free card in there? Shutting down Backpage wasn’t about prostitution, it was about human trafficking, especially the trafficking of children. It’s just like how the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is being sold as a law against sex trafficking but it’s really about opening the door to censoring any online material that offends the political class.

Fortunately, there are new frontiers. Tor Hidden Services and I2P offer a mechanism for server operators to keep their location concealed, which makes taking them down more difficult than taking down a standard Internet service. As the precedent being set by SESTA expands, more Internet service operators will find themselves having to utilize the “dark web” to avoid being censored.

Embracing the Darknet

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Big changes came to the Internet shortly after Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). SESTA, like most legislation, has a name that sounds good on the surface but actually conceals some heinous provisions. One of those major provisions is holding website owners criminally liable for user generated content. This resulted in some drastic changes to sites like Reddit and Craiglist:

So far, four subreddits related to sex have banned: Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy. None were what could accurately be described as advertising forums, though (to varying degrees) they may have helped connect some people who wound up in “mutually beneficial relationships.” The escort forums were largely used by sex workers to communicate with one another, according to Partridge. Meanwhile, the “hooker” subreddit “was mostly men being disgusting,” according to Roux, “but also was a place that sometimes had people answering educational questions in good faith.”


Reddit yesterday announced changes to its content policy, now forbidding “transactions for certain goods and services,” including “firearms, ammunition, or explosives” and “paid services involving physical sexual contact.” While some of the prohibited exchanges are illegal, many are not.

Yet they run close enough up against exchanges that could be illegal that it’s hard for a third-party like Reddit to differentiate. And the same goes for forums where sex workers post educational content, news, safety and legal advice. Without broad Section 230 protections, Reddit could be in serious financial and legal trouble if they make the wrong call.

The passage of SESTA set a precedence that will certainly expand. Today Section 230 protections can be revoked for user generated content about sex trafficking. Tomorrow it could be revoked for user generated content involving hate speech, explaining the chemistry and biology behind how prohibited drugs work, showing the mechanics of how a machine gun operates, and so on. User generated content is now a liability and will only become more of a liability as the precedence is expanded.

Will this rid the world of content about sex work, drugs, and guns? Of course not. It will merely push that content to anonymized servers, commonly referred to as the “darkweb.” As laws make hosting content on the non-anonymized Internet a legal hazard, Internet users will find that they need tools like I2P and the Tor Browser to access more and more of the content they desire. The upside to this is that it will lead to a tremendous increase in resources available to developers and operators of “darkweb” technologies. Eventually the laws passed to thwart unapproved behavior will again make restricting unapproved behavior all but impossible.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 27th, 2018 at 11:00 am

There Must Always Be a New Frontier

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The early days of the Internet were akin to the myth of the Wild West. There was no rule of law. First tens then hundreds and eventually thousands of little experiments were running simultaneously. Some experiments attracted users and flourished, other experiments failed to attract users and floundered. It didn’t matter much because it didn’t require a lot of capital to put a server online.

Some of the successful experiments became more and more successful. Their success allowed the to push out or buy up their competitors. Overtime they turned into multimillion and even multibillion dollar websites. Slowly but surely much of the Internet was centralized into a handful of silos. Much like the Wild West of mythology, the Internet gradually became domesticated and restricted.

There’s nothing unique about the story of the Internet. New frontiers have a tendency to slowly become “civilized.” The rule of law is established. Restrictions are put into place. The number of experiments continue to approach zero. However, “civilization” is never the end of experimentation. Experimenters simply need to move to a new frontier.

Innovation slows to a crawl and can even stop entirely without frontiers. The Internet is mostly “civilized” at this point. A handful of successful experiments such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google exercise a tremendous amount of control. With a simple statement they can make or break other experiments and amplify or silence voices. Moreover, the rule of law has been established by various national governments and they will only tighten their grips. In order for innovation to continue on the Internet, the next frontier must be explored.

Fortunately, there are several frontiers. The most popular are “darknets,” networks that bake anonymity in by default. If clients and servers are unable to identify each others’ locations, they can’t enforce rules on one another. Other frontiers are mesh networks. While mesh networks are able to access the Internet, they are also able to operate independently. Being decentralized, it’s far more difficult to enact widespread censorship on a mesh network than on the traditional Internet whose users depend on a handful of Internet Service Providers (ISP) for their connection. But the most exciting frontiers are the ones that remain entirely unexplored.

Of course the cycle will repeat itself. The next frontier will become “civilized,” which is why there must always be a new frontier if innovation is to continue.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 23rd, 2018 at 11:30 am

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Spook Squad

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I’ve often wondered how Geek Squad stays in business. The prices it charges for even the most trivial repairs are absurd. More and more I’m becoming convinced that Geek Squad stays in business because it is being propped up by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI):

After the prosecution of a California doctor revealed the FBI’s ties to a Best Buy Geek Squad computer repair facility in Kentucky, new documents released to EFF show that the relationship goes back years. The records also confirm that the FBI has paid Geek Squad employees as informants.

EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit last year to learn more about how the FBI uses Geek Squad employees to flag illegal material when people pay Best Buy to repair their computers. The relationship potentially circumvents computer owners’ Fourth Amendment rights.

While Geek Squad has been caught red handed working with the FBI, any employee at any computer repair company could be operating under the same deal. The FBI has a vested interest in access the information on as many computers as possible and people who repair computers often have unrestricted access to a lot of information on a lot of computers.

If you’re going to send your computer to somebody else for repairs, here are my recommendations to guard your privacy. If the device you’re sending in has a removable hard drive, remove the drive that is in it and replace it with a blank drive (one that has never been used to store personal information). On the blank drive install the operating system that came on the device and a user account with generic credentials (this is one of the few times where the password “password” is a good idea) so the repair person can log in. By doing this you ensure that the repair person doesn’t have access to any of your personal data. When the device comes back, format the drive that you provided the repair person, remove it, and install the hard drive with your data again.

If your device doesn’t have a removable drive, ensure that the first thing you do when you initially start the device after getting it out of the box is enable full disk encryption. When you need to send the device in for repairs, format the drive, reinstall the default operating system, setup a user account with generic credentials, and send the device in. When the drive comes back, wipe the drive again and restore your data from a backup. For those who are wondering why full disk encryption should be enabled it’s because formatting a drive doesn’t necessarily erase the data. By default formatting a drive wipes the file allocation table but leaves the data preserved. Enabling full disk encryption ensures that the data on the drive is unreadable without the proper decryption key. While formatting won’t erase the data, the data will be unreadable to the repair man if they attempt to restore the old file allocation table to pilfer your data for law enforcers.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 7th, 2018 at 11:00 am