Be Careful What You Measure!

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According to Mother Jones, Big Dairy is putting little bits of metal in dairy products to make it look better. Brighter whites is not just for laundry anymore! And I guess folks associate those brighter whites with better taste and more nutrients.

Dairy manufacturers are taking historical, visible markers of quality and mimicking them while decoupling them from the underlying qualities that made the markers worthwhile. This is why a tomato bred for red color (and not taste) ends up looking way better than it tastes.

All this is just an application of the rule that if you apply metrics, the reaction will be to maximize those metrics even in the face of absurd results. Be careful what you measure!

The Dictionary Redefined

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Turns out we’ve been using dictionaries all wrong. To get them right, we should go back to the old school, when Webster illuminated words instead of killing them and pinning them under glass. And we should keep them within constant digital reach for convenient consultation. The beautiful details are on the J Somers blog.

Wheeler Is Not Committed to Net Neutrality

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FCC Chair Tom Wheeler says FCC has “made preservation of the Open Internet a priority for the FCC.” There’s a simple way to accomplish that goal, which is to reestablish the rule that telecoms players have to treat all the traffic the same. Deliver all the packets. Connect all the users. No faster lanes. No slower lanes. No tiers. No privileges. Treat every packet the same, regardless of where it came from or where it is going.

Until Verizon v. FCC, this was the backbone of our simple Net Neutrality policy. “Don’t discriminate against different kinds of traffic” is the bright-line rule that has staved off balkanized, tiered services that are a nightmare for consumers to navigate.

But then a federal court pulled the foundation from beneath that policy in Verizon v. FCC. With the old rules undermined, everybody asked Wheeler’s FCC to put a new legal foundation beneath the policy so we can continue to live in a world where Net Neutrality protects us from telcos stacking the deck against all but the biggest players.

Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist, responded by hinting he would scrap Net Neutrality protections altogether. Everybody except the telecommunications oligarchs complained. And so Wheeler wrote that blog post promising to protect what he vaguely calls the “Open Internet.” But look at what he conveniently left out. There is no mention of the simple rule that used to protect us. He says not one word about drawing a bright line to prevent discriminating against traffic that can’t pay inflated ransoms.

Instead, Wheeler says he’ll maintain open pathways, which is a promise to pursue a goal using terms he has never actually defined. At best that promise is hollow. At worst, it’s disingenuous. In Wheeler’s vision, there is no reason an “open pathway” couldn’t include paths that discriminate against certain Internet traffic. His assurances quite explicitly omit a clear articulation of network neutrality because, in the end, Wheeler is not committed to that principle.

In place of a simple rule, he talks about guarding against degraded service, which doesn’t prevent companies from casting their discrimination as “upgraded” rather than “degraded”. He also promises us he’ll require companies to be commercially reasonable, which is an ever receding line of “current industry practice” that lets protections slowly spiral down until they’ve dwindled to nothing. And good luck giving those vague standards any teeth during a future Republican administration.

Wheeler’s refusal to simply restore the bright-line rule that has protected us since the 1990s is a major victory against consumers, a devastating blow to smaller internet companies, and a gag order for non-profits. The FCC has the power to do better. We should demand Wheeler do so.

cryptsetup before pvscan

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I’m always confused when my lvm volumes don’t show up in a pvscan command. I know the volume is there because I can see it blkid. It’s just missing from all the lvm commands.

It turns out the problem is always that the lvm is an encrypted LUKS partition. Before I can get at it using lvm commands, I need to open it with cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sdb3 foo where foo is a name I want to call the volume for this session. Then I can use vgchange -a y to activate the volume groups as per usual. They’ll show up as /dev/mapper/whatever.

More Work Needed on Iron Sulfate Fertilization

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Forbes recently ran an article accusing environmentalists of opposing a solution to climate change simply because the idea is backed by for-profit industrialists rather than non-profit do-gooders.

The contentious solution is enticingly simple. Fertilize the ocean with iron sulfate, which is an industrial waste product. This causes plankton bloom. Fishes love plankton. Some of the plankton dies and sinks to the ocean floor, taking CO2 with it. Less CO2 and more fish! What’s not to like? Surely anybody who thinks we shouldn’t run out and fill every puddle on the planet with iron sulfate is a parochial obstructionist!

But it’s not that simple. What we have right now is a promising idea backed by too little data and not enough study to know whether it makes sense at scale. And because the cowboy experimenters aren’t doing real peer-reviewed research, their experiments are hard to value.

Forbes wants to cast this as for-profit vs non-profit because that fits the narrative that makes their readers feel superior. But the truth is more complex– before we do something like this on a large scale we need a better handle on predicted size and quality of effects.

There’s a place for rugged individualism and damn the paperwork! And before we do anything as big as geoengineering, it would be good to have enough science to form a scientific consensus.

What we know right now is that we can do carbon sequestration this way. What we don’t know is what interaction this has with other systems or how to do it in the real world. How big would a program need to be in order to be effective? What constitutes “effective” in this case? Is there a place where scaling up that big makes sense? And what would a program at scale do to other parts of the environment? We probably need to be able to take a stab at that question before greenlighting a big effort on this.

And, yeah, there’s politics that connects to industry running edit-compile-test experiments on a live planet instance. And that probably connects to a divide between for-profit and non-profit approaches. But Forbes wants you to think that’s the major stumbling block and I don’t think it is.

Thanks to Mark Frazier, who mentioned the article on Facebook, framing it as “orthodoxy vs disruptive innovation”. And to Jessica Margolin for nudging me to post my rant here.

Most of Alexa Top 10000 No Longer Vulnerable to Heartbleed

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I scanned the top 10000 websites (according to Alexa) and these are the ones that came up vulnerable. I have rescanned the vulnerable ones periodically and will continue to do so over the next few days. It’s possible that anything unpatched by now won’t be patched any time soon. This list is of servers that are currently vulnerable. It does not tell you whether keys or passwords were compromised in the past.

Just to be clear, I scanned port 443 (not 993), which is to say I was looking at HTTPS connections rather than IMAPS.

A bunch of sites didn’t respond to the test. Presumably this is because they don’t support HTTPS. But it might be because they’ve taken secure services off line while they fix the bug. Such sites wouldn’t be listed as vulnerable here, but it also wouldn’t be quite right to say they are safe.

Thanks to FiloSottile for the scanning tool.

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I Got Myself Hacked

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My media box that runs XMBC has been breached. It’s a recent Debian testing install. I didn’t bother securing this box since it has no access to anything, but more importantly, I also made a couple of incredibly simple mistakes while setting it up.

First of all, I allowed root login via SSH using password authentication. This meant that anybody who knows the password and can reach the box can log in. This was supposed to be just while setting up the box, but I forgot to turn it off after I was done doing setup.

Second, I used a simple password. This was supposed to be disabled after I set up authentication via SSH keys, but I got distracted and didn’t complete the process.

Third, I connected the box to a public-facing VPN and downloaded some torrents. Doing this gave the world direct access to the box, unmediated by my network’s normal firewall and NAT infrastructure.

And I think those mistakes were enough. My guess (it’s not clear from the logs) is that somebody, or most likely some bot, probed the box, guessed the root password (I’m embarrassed about that most of all), installed a custom version of atd as well as some daemons I’ve never heard of (ksapd, kysapd, sksapd, and skysapd). It put these binaries in /etc, which is odd and was an early red flag in telling me this stuff wasn’t Debian-approved. The malware also overwrote root’s crontab and fiddled with /etc/rc.local. None of these changes showed up via rkhunter or debsums.

The attacker made some mistakes that made the malware fairly easy to find and disable, which was as simple as killing some processes, removing the root crontab (/var/spool/crontab/root) and looking at /etc/rc.local. Still, of course I don’t know if there are things I missed, so I’ll be reinstalling this box from scratch.

A cursory check of the other important boxes on my LAN shows no evidence that they have been probed or entered. I need to do a more thorough check asap, especially of the Macintosh laptop which for all I know is running software that hasn’t gotten a security update in a while.

A few weeks ago, somebody else seems to have encountered similar (or at least similarly-named) malware. Their conclusion is similar to mine:

It looks like a weak password. I lectured some 8 to 11 y/o kids on passwords, then created a user called word with password called word. 2 days later I saw things by accident, luckily they only were in for a short while.

I made a series of bad, easily-avoided mistakes with this install. Mostly, the mistakes were mental errors. I was thinking of this box as insecure and not worth attacking. I took a lot of shortcuts and then failed to clean them up. I was cavalier with connections and letting the box talk to the seedier corners of the Internet.

All of this is highly embarrassing. I’m supposed to be a person that knows the basics of locking the doors. I’m publishing this report precisely because embarrassment usually prevents people from talking about their security failures. So here it is. Feel free to mock me.

Next steps for me are to snapshot the install and to start looking at the binaries left on the system. If there’s anything more to report, I’ll do another post and perhaps update this one.

A Conversation with Bruce Schneier

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Following on Eben Moglen’s mind-warping series of talks about life after Snowden, the Software Freedom Law Center has invited Bruce Schneier to join Eben for a conversation informed by Bruce’s own analysis of the leaked documents. Bruce is one of the smartest thinkers around when it comes to understanding how security and surveillance operate in the real world. And he is unsurpassed at presenting complicated security concepts even to people who lack his expertise. Between Moglen’s sophisticated thoughts and Bruce’s grounded approach, we’re sure to learn a lot about where we stand and what we can do next!

Installing Enigmail

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If you’re trying to install enigmail and icedove on Debian, you might find that the enigmail and icedove package versions conflict. Never fear, just install enigmail all by itself. It will remove icedove if present but then install iceape, which contains iceape mail.

PRISM Is Not The Problem

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Recent news and excellent reporting have shown the public what many of us have long known: governments are collecting all our communication and compelling companies to help.

In the immediate aftermath of the initial NSA revelations (and there are more to come), some people are pushing for judicial or legislative restraints on further privacy violations. This is a noble effort, and I hope those people succeed. But let’s be real for a moment: those efforts are mostly symbolic.

Does anybody believe our government is going to stop spying on us just because it’s against the law? We already know PRISM is unconstitutional. If that isn’t enough to stop the Obama administration from spying on Americans, tinkering with the margins of the Patriot Act isn’t going to make a difference.

The problem isn’t the law. Fortunately, neither is the solution. Once we centralized all our communications and metadata on just a handful of servers, we made inevitable the use of that massive data trove by people who don’t share our interests or values. Today we know this includes the NSA, but it also includes the marketers, the insurance profilers, and your ex-future employers. It is impossible to centralize massive amounts of information and then dictate what that information is used for. Once you collect it, people are going to use it. And share it. And you have no control over what happens next.

The solution is to stop giving all your data to the same handful of services. Migrate off cloud services for things like email. Use old tech like IRC and email, which are too decentralized to spy on at mass scale. Build your own servers if you’re able. And when you do use cloud services, demand those services let you access them with your own clients that can encrypt your communication.

If we keep making giant piles of data, governments and corporations will continue to paw through our personal lives at will and for their own purposes. The conversations we have on Facebook and Google feel private, but they occur in public spaces. If we want privacy, we need to take those conversations to truly private infrastructure or encrypt them so the snoops have nothing to listen to.