Monthly Archives: August 2008

Encryption, Privacy, and You

As you’ve probably heard, the US customs service has, recently, asserted the right to confiscate any and all computers and/or digital storage carried by anyone crossing the US border. They further assert
the right to demand all passwords, encryption keys, etc., from
the owners. They even further assert the right to keep or make copies of any data that they find, and to share it without limit with anyone they choose.

I don’t think I really need to stress how insane this is. Back
when I worked for IBM, I frequently travelled to Canada, because I
worked with development labs in Toronto and Ottawa. When I did that, I
carried a computer full of stuff that IBM considered to be highly
confidential and highly sensitive. (I’ve even still got a wall-plaque
from IBM thanking for me work on a project, where I’m not allowed to
ever tell anyone what I did to earn it!) What this policy
says is that the border service would have the right to turn that
information over to anyone they wanted, without informing me
or IBM that they had done so. Further, some of the information on that
laptop was encrypted, and I did not have the key. They were
encrypted with a system that would only allow them to be opened if the
computer could contact a particular IBM server from inside the IBM
firewall. So not only could the border service have confiscated the
computer and passed on confidential or private information – but they
could have arrested me for refusing to decrypt the information on the
computer – even though I couldn’t decrypt it.

This isn’t new news. They’ve been doing this for a while, and we know they’ve been doing it – they’ve made absolutely no attempt to
hide it.

The reason that I’m writing about it now is because I just read
something on Salon about how an allegedly knowledgeable and tech-savvy
person recommends coping with this, and I can’t possible disagree more
strongly. On the Salon Machinist blog, Denise Caruso wrote:

Swire notes that agents at the border are going further than just
taking image copies of people’s hard drives. They’re actually
demanding passwords and encryption keys so they can examine the

Of course, they promise to destroy the copies and the keys as soon
as they’re done — as long as they don’t find anything illegal, like a
downloaded song you didn’t pay for — so no security worries there,
right? There’s no such thing as a crooked customs or Border Patrol

This gives government agents access to information they would
never get by opening up your suitcase. In addition to e-mail,
spreadsheets, documents and personal financial information like credit
card receipts and photos, nowadays they can also listen to your stored
Skype calls and voice mails.

Not to mention that just having encrypted data on your hard drive
causes suspicion, or at least throws down the gauntlet. If you were
looking for illegal stuff and you ran into a file that looked like

c9XefaYpbbAZ6z6LkOQ+eE0XASe7aEEPfdxvZZT37dVyiyxuBBRYNLN8Bphdr2zv z/9Ak4

wouldn’t you immediately need to know what it said? It could be a conspiracy! It could be a list of child pornographers! It could be a copyrighted magazine article! It could be a bootleg Led Zepplin video!


So I figure the best solution is to encode your files rather than
encrypt them, so that you could hide your stuff in plain sight. If
agents don’t know something is encrypted and it looks innocuous, they
won’t compel you to give them the key. “Here’s your laptop, ma’am.
Sorry for the inconvenience.”

That’s the wrong answer. The solution isn’t to try to hide the
fact that you’re taking your own/your employer’s privace seriously. The answer is to make encryption so absolutely routine that (A) finding encrypted files on a computer is so common and routine that it can’t be used as a distinguishing characteristic to allow them to justify confiscating your computer, and (B) to make it so incredibly painful and laborious for them to get any data off of a computer that they give up.

The first part of instructions for how to do this are below.

Continue reading

Bad Fundies! Chabad takes on Science.

Someone sent me another stupid Jewish article. It’s still not the
wonderful relativity denial that I lost, but it’s pretty delicious as
stupidity goes. This time it comes from Chabad. For those who aren’t
familiar with it, Chabad is a Chasidic organization, which originally
formed around people following a very famous Rabbi from the town of
Lubav after he emigrated to the US. Chabad grew into a very large
fundamentalist organization that is very devoted to what they call
outreach. (I call it proselytization.)

Anyway – on to the article: “Are Science and Religion a Contradiction?”. Large swaths of it are just rehashes
of standard fundamentalist crap – indistinguishable from the kinds of
rubbish we routinely hear from the various Christian fundies, but with
a bit of low-budget hebrew mixed in. For example:

In the 19th Century it was the prevailing view of scientists and
modernists that human reason was infallible in “scientific” deductions
and that sciences such as physics, chemistry, mathematics etc., were
absolute truth, that is to say, not merely accepted truths but
absolute. Speaking in Jewish terms this meant the establishment of a
new idolatry, not of wood and stone, but the worship of the
contemporary sciences and philosophies.

In fact, in the face of dogmatic and deterministic views of
science prevailing at that time, a whole apologetic literature was
created by well-meaning religious advocates and certain rabbis who saw
no other way of preserving Torah heritage in their “enlightened”
communities except through tenuous and spurious reinterpretations of
certain passages in the Torah in order to accommodate them to the
prevailing world outlook. No doubt they knew inwardly that they were
suggesting interpretations in Torah which were at variance with Torat
Emet, but at least they felt they had no alternative.

See, it’s just another version of the old “science is a religion” shtick. No better than the dreck you’ll find on, say, James Dobson’s website.

Of course, if all that they did was rehash the same-old christian dreck, there’d be no good reason to waste my time writing about this
meshugas. But they’ve got a few unique touches that are worth a moment or two.

Continue reading

Friday Random Ten, August 1st

  1. Kansas, “Byzantium”: an example of why Kansas fans waited so long for
    Kerry Lofgren to return to the band. The guy’s a brilliant songwriter. Even with
    Walsh’s voice clearly aging and suffering from abuse, this is fantanstic stuff.
  2. Isis, “Wrists of Kings”: Fairly hard post-rock. I like Isis a lot, but one thing
    about them that takes some getting used to is the “lead singer”. In general, Isis has a sound
    a lot like Mogwai, but they do use vocals. And their vocals consist of a guy screaming
    hoarsely in the background. This track doesn’t have the really awful vocals; in fact, the
    singing here is pretty reasonable.
  3. Genesis, “Squonk”: I’ve been going back and listening to old Genesis lately. And
    it’s really amazing to listen to. You can see why so many of the neo-progressives start
    out by trying to sound like Genesis – it’s such an amazing, unique, engaging sound.
    This is off of the first Genesis album after Peter Gabriel left, so it’s a pretty dramatic
    change from what preceeded it. But it’s still distinctly Genesis – listening to
    “The Lamb Lays Down on Broadway” followed by this, it’s clearly the same band.
  4. Marillion, “How Can it Hurt?”: a bit off of the worst album Marillion ever made. Considering the album that it came off of, this isn’t a bad song; but for Marillion, this
    is crap.
  5. Sonic Youth, “Rats”: typical Sonic Youth. That means that it’s fantastic,
    strange, full of odd tonalities and controlled noise. It somehow manages to be smooth
    and mellow and noisy and dark all at the same time.
  6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Static: Terrible Canyons of Static”: The deities of
    post-rock. No one can do this kind of music like Godspeed. I dearly wish they’d get back
    into the studio and do some more music. Their spinoff “A Silver Mt. Zion” is really good,
    but it’s not Godspeed.
  7. King Crimson, “Indiscipline”: Brilliantly goofy song from King Crimson. This consists
    of wonderfully improvised dark noisy guitar and spectacular drumming, interspersed with
    Adrian Belew talking about some thing, without ever saying what the thing is.
  8. Kruzenshtern and Parahod, “March”: progressive klezmer. Wow. This is strange,
    and wonderful, and amazing, and really strange. I’d kill to be able to play
    my clarinet like that!
  9. Naftule’s Dream, “The Aimless Path”: In a wonderful coincidence of iTunes
    shuffle randomness, another bit of progressive klezmer. Naftule’s Dream is
    a spinoff of the Shirim Klezmer orchestra. Shirim is fantastic, mostly traditional Klezmer.
    Naftule’s Dream is the stuff that really pushes the boundaries of the genre. Highly recommended, and a lot easier to find than K&P.
  10. The Flower Kings, “Man Overboard”: The Flower Kings are, probably, my favorite band. They started off as a blatant Genesis ripoff (see my comment above on “Squonk”), but they’ve evolved into a really amazing band with a real distinctive sound. You can’t mistake the Flower Kings for anyone else – just a couple of seconds of any of their songs, and you know that it’s them. This is one
    of my favorite of their shorter tracks – only 3 1/2 minutes! But it’s got the most amazing twisted rhythm and chords in the chorus, connected by a highly contrasting smooth melodic bridge. It’s amazing.