Archive for September, 2012

Communicating in Spite of Big Brother

Posted in Uncategorized on 2012 September 24 by KLP

In this interview, Jacob Appelbaum shares some wise words regarding personal information security. He may have been speaking within the context of the various Occupation protests, but his advice certainly applies to non-activists as well. With that in mind, I would like to share some of the steps that I take to protect my communications and mitigate surveillance. But first, I need to address some of the misunderstandings that people commonly hold about privacy.

The misconception that only people with something to hide require privacy bothers me the most. Privacy will obviously help someone hide something, but, for the most part I think, we need privacy to protect the integrity of ourselves as individuals and that of our relationships. For example, we share personal information with friends and family to extents which we limit according to intimacy. We share more with the people with whom we relate to more closely. And we typically share such information on a reciprocal, equitable basis so each party has equal footing, at least in healthy relationships. Therefore, we use privacy to make our personal information privileged, thereby making those with whom we share it, friends and family, special people in our lives. When a person or organization spies on you, they get to know you on a unilateral, inequitable basis. As such, they have the power to take advantage of you, not only because they probably have the physical means, but because you lack the equivalent information about them.

Of course, that logic won’t sway folks who don’t believe that they are the subject of surveillance. People commonly think that believing otherwise would make them paranoid or delusional on the grounds that they live lives too uninteresting to get Wenlock’s attention. The cost of surveillance, on a per target basis, keeps decreasing, so holding such a belief makes one realistic, as the construction of the Utah Data Center exemplifies. Yet, for people who still believe in immunity through innocuous mediocrity, Appelbaum presents a sound argument:

The people who that say that—if they’re not cops, they’re feeling unempowered [sic]. The first response people have is, whatever, I’m not important. And the second is, they’re not watching me, and even if they were, there’s nothing they could find because I’m not doing anything illegal. But the thing is, taking precautions with your communications is like safe sex in that you have a responsibility to other people to be safe—your transgressions can fuck other people over. The reality is that when you find out it will be too late. It’s not about doing a perfect job, it’s about recognizing you have a responsibility to do that job at all, and doing the best job you can manage, without it breaking down your ability to communicate, without it ruining your day…

In other words, you don’t have to believe that you’re a target. Rather, not taking precautions imposes vulnerability on your associates because your personal information also includes their personal information (to the extent that they’ve shared it with you). Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if you and your friends faithfully abide by the law. Who says that the state’s agents will interpret correctly the information about you that it collects? Everybody makes mistakes, after all. And non-state entities, who don’t necessarily care about your behavior with respect to the law, also engage in surveillance, whether it’s Google, Facebook, or your employer. Any trust you may have put into those entities becomes irrelevant when the data they’ve collected gets compromised by a malicious third party.

Sometimes along the lines of an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” attitude, people will argue that given the insurmountable power of the state, we have no real means to protect the privacy of our communications. Indeed, vulnerabilities will always exist. But, where we might lack the means to completely protect ourselves, at least we can establish an expectation of privacy, which may provide some legal protection. At the very least, it’s important to demonstrate respect for your associates by exercising due diligence. That’s why, despite the weak physical protection they offer, we put our postal mail in paper envelopes. Equivalent technologies exist for e-mail and other internet communications (which provide much better security), yet few if any of my associates use or even know about them. So, if you don’t feel that using an envelope signals paranoia, or that they’re too useless to even bother with, I encourage you to employ some, if not all, of the following measures for your internet communications.

With varying discipline, I do the following:

  • From my PC, I cryptographically sign my e-mails with OpenPGP using the Thunderbird e-mail client with the Enigmail add-on. From my Android smartphone, I do the same with K-9 Mail and APG. Although I doubt that any of the recipients of my messages ever try to verify them, I get a small amount of geeky joy every time I sign an e-mail. Doing so also gives me an opportunity to include at the bottom of my e-mail messages a note explaining that I signed the e-mail and that I am happy to show others how to verify it. I would prefer to encrypt my e-mails as well, but if the people I e-mail won’t verify my signatures they certainly won’t have public keys to share with me.
  • I retain the ability to have encrypted instant message conversations using OTR. On my smartphone I use Gibberbot and on my PC I use Pidgin with the appropriate plugin. I’ve had better luck showing off Gibberbot (and its iOS counterpart, ChatSecure) to friends and getting them to use it than OpenPGP, but my battery doesn’t last long enough to let me run Gibberbot without a recharge half-way through my day. So, my friends and I have resolved to use it for sensitive discussions only, but that’s a significant limitation. At what point does a conversation become sensitive enough to warrant switching apps? Can’t an eavesdropper build a thorough profile from seemingly innocuous conversations?
  • Similarly, I have Tor installed on both my PC and my smartphone (as Orbot). However, because it’s slow, I rarely use it to browse the web. Still, I enjoy contributing to the Tor network as a node. Also, the Hidden Service feature is convenient for getting around the limitations of a dynamic IP address.

Of those measures, the first is probably the most convenient and effective. I believe that the reason for people’s reluctance to adopt it come from their reluctance to use an e-mail client in the first place. Gmail’s web interface, for example, offers a great experience without having to install or configure anything. That’s too bad. Sealing an envelope really isn’t that hard.

Printing Firearms and Democratizing Manufacturing

Posted in opinion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 2012 September 20 by KLP
"You'll shoot your eye out!"

A printed lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle.

Today I learned about the Wiki Weapon project, which aims to create a design for a working firearm with which anyone can print their own from a RepRap or similar 3D printer. As an exercise in freedom of information, I think that it’s a cool project, at least at first thought. It illustrates how peer-to-peer sharing empowers individuals against middlemen and unjustified authority. However, as an exercise in designing a firearm that anyone can build, employing additive manufacturing doesn’t seem like the most efficient or practical way to do it. It just doesn’t make sense to put in the effort to figure out how to print a plastic barrel through which one can safely fire a round when one can already easily acquire bar stock and a drill press, perhaps more easily than plastic filament. And open source plans for DIY firearms already exist. We already have the means to build and share together. So, beyond testing the limits of the RepRap and its ilk, I don’t think the project will accomplish anything very significant. Of course, I don’t want to disparage additive manufacturing. In fact, I especially admire the RepRap. But, to do a job properly you need the right tools. A 3D printer is the right tool for some jobs, but definitely not every job. At least, not yet.

Dead dog.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on 2012 September 15 by KLP

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Nah, we just took him to the newly opened dog park. You should take your dog to a dog park, too.

“Executing Update Component”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on 2012 September 11 by KLP

Is it just me, or is there something nostalgic about a slow computer?

An Adventure in Vintage Homebrew

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 2012 September 8 by KLP

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It wasn’t that color when I bottled it, and it didn’t taste like vinegar either. I guess 2009 Groom’s Reserve didn’t age well.

360 State: Rent and Taxes

Posted in opinion, Photo, politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on 2012 September 3 by KLP

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Our aim is to be completely transparent, because we believe that a full examination of the facts will lead fair-minded people to urge the New Haven Board of Aldermen to hold the city to its word and fix the tax assessment for 360 State Street so that it is consistent with the projections that both the owner and the Board of Aldermen relied upon when they decided to move forward with the project.

So writes Alderman Doug Hausladen, of New Haven’s seventh ward, in the welcome message of the 360 State Tax Problem website. Of course, “fair-minded people”, or at least the constituents of New Haven’s working class, will not prevail, regardless of the outcome. Certainly, I would have a hard time arguing that the City of New Haven has acted fairly toward the Multi-Employer Property Trust (MEPT), given what I have heard about the situation. But, what does that matter when both parties are just fighting over how much each gets to extract from the product of 360 State’s tenants’ labor? It doesn’t, so proponents of a special reassessment shouldn’t pretend that the fates of the tenants are really at stake. The city is just trying to eat the MEPT’s lunch. Hausladen’s site argues that not modifying the assessment will harm the labor union pensions that the MEPT manages. But, what business do labor unions have playing landlords‽ Such behavior perpetuates the class system that labor unions are supposed to help dissolve. Effectively, 360 State’s high assessment will harm scabs, so maybe it’s a good thing in that regard. I realize that most union membership has disturbingly little control over the unions they constitute, so that was a bit harsh of me. My point is that union labor should make investments that will help, not exploit, other workers. So, that argument won’t sway me. The last major argument Hausladen puts forth states that not modifying the assessment will scare away other investors from New Haven. Perhaps that is true, but even if the city does modify the assessment, its leaders have already damaged its reputation. Furthermore, such investment hurts New Haven. Sure, 360 State is pretty and I enjoy many of the businesses to which it rents, but all that rent money leaves the city. Instead, the city needs to somehow attract investment that will keep ownership local, preferably with the residents and businesses who occupy such spaces. If the “tax problem” deters landlord investors, like MEPT, hopefully that will make room for more wholesome investors.

Anyway, those are my reasons why, as a working-class New Haven resident, and a member-owner of the Elm City Market, I don’t see the situation as a serious controversy. Please, don’t construe these words as an endorsement for a particular outcome. Pragmatically, I would prefer that the city honor its original assessment and I do view these events as another unfortunate example of the city’s leaders’ myopia, but I just wanted to address the issue from an underrepresented perspective.

@dmytri

Venture Communist. Miscommunications Technologist. Telekommunisten Polemicist. ThoughtWorks Analyst.