On the NSA, And the Campaign Against Encryption

Let me tell you the story of my tiny brush with the biggest crypto story of the year.

A few weeks ago I received a call from a reporter at ProPublica, asking me background questions about encryption. Right off the bat I knew this was going to be an odd conversation, since this gentleman seemed convinced that the NSA had vast capabilities to defeat encryption. And not in a ‘hey, d’ya think the NSA has vast capabilities to defeat encryption?’ kind of way. No, he’d already established the defeating. We were just haggling over the details.

Oddness aside it was a fun (if brief) set of conversations, mostly involving hypotheticals. If the NSA could do this, how might they do it? What would the impact be? I admit that at this point one of my biggest concerns was to avoid coming off like a crank. After all, if I got quoted sounding too much like an NSA conspiracy nut, my colleagues would laugh at me. Then I might not get invited to the cool security parties.

All of this is a long way of saying that I was totally unprepared for today’s bombshell revelations describing the NSA’s efforts to defeat encryption. Not only does the worst possible hypothetical I discussed appear to be true, but it’s true on a scale I couldn’t even imagine. I’m no longer the crank. I wasn’t even close to cranky enough.

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All Along the Watchtower

Allstate’s Senior Vice President of Public Relations Marci Kaminsky opened the floor at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center for a discussion on “Transparency in the New Economy” by reassuring the audience that the talk was planned in advance of the recent privacy debacles concerning the IRS and the NSA. The irony of the lecture’s scheduling serves as a reminder that the issue of privacy in a technology-driven world, although more or less physically intangible, gains momentum and yields real repercussions for Americans every day.

In a capstone to illustrate the growing importance of the issue of privacy, the headlining debut of Heartland Monitor’s 17th quarterly poll disclosed a prevailing discomfort among Americans about information sharing, as well as the lag time in innovation between increasingly “smarter” technology and adequately stringent privacy measures. In presenting the data, Edward Reilly, global CEO of Strategic Communications at FTI Consulting, highlighted a key finding of a “negative gut reaction to big data” among 1000 respondents surveyed between May 29th and June 2nd of 2013—just 4 days before the controversial release of Edward Snowden’s report on the government’s PRISM program in The Washington Post and the Guardian.

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A New Battery

Imprint Energy, Inc. is an advanced battery technology company developing proprietary Zinc Poly™ batteries for small portable electronics, including mobile accessories, compact wireless devices, wearable technology, health and fitness monitoring, and medical devices. The Zinc Poly electrochemistry system removes longstanding limitations on the rechargeability of zinc-based batteries and offers significant volumetric energy density, form factor, cost, and processing advantages versus other rechargeable battery chemistries. Imprint Energy’s batteries are printable and patternable using low-cost manufacturing processes. The privately held company was founded in 2010 by research conducted at UC Berkeley.

“The bird war, the bird attack, plague-call it what you like.”

At last year’s Paris Air Show, some of the hottest aircraft were the autonomous unmanned helicopters—a few of them small enough to carry in one hand, that allow military buyers to put a camera in the sky anywhere, anytime. Manufactured by major defense contractors, and ranging in design from a single-bladed camcopter to four-bladed multicopters, these drones were being sold as the future of warfare at prices in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In May, at a different trade show, similar aircraft were once again the most buzzed-about items on display. But this wasn’t another exhibition of military hardware; instead, it was the Hobby Expo China in Beijing, where Chinese manufacturers demo their newest and coolest toys.

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A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering

If you’re interested in technology/privacy issues then you probably heard last week’s big news out of the Boston Marathon case. It comes by way of former FBI agent Tim Clemente, who insists that our government routinely records all domestic phone calls.

Clemente’s claim generated lots of healthy skepticism. This isn’t because the project is technically infeasible (the numbers mostly add up), or because there’s no precedent for warrantless wiretapping. To me the most convincing objection was simple: it’d be hard to keep secret.* Mostly for boring phone company reasons.

But this led to another interesting discussion. What if we forget local phone eavesdropping and focus on an ‘easier’ problem: tapping only cellular phone calls.

Cellular eavesdropping seems a lot more tractable, if only because mobile calls are conducted on a broadcast channel. That means you can wiretap with almost no carrier involvement. In fact there’s circumstancial evidence that this already happening — just by different parties than you’d think. According to a new book by reporters Marc Ambinder and Dave Brown Continue reading →

What Happened When One Man Pinged the Whole Internet?

You probably haven’t heard of HD Moore, but up to a few weeks ago every Internet device in the world, perhaps including some in your own home, was contacted roughly three times a day by a stack of computers that sit overheating his spare room. “I have a lot of cooling equipment to make sure my house doesn’t catch on fire,” says Moore, who leads research at computer security company Rapid7. In February last year he decided to carry out a personal census of every device on the Internet as a hobby. “This is not my day job; it’s what I do for fun,” he says. Continue reading →

Personal Cloaking Device

Nowadays you can’t trust any website or your internet provider to have your best interest in mind. Today, the new trend is to collect data on you to sell for big profit. Facebook has a track record for being invasive about this, and Twitter is another to blame. Twitter claims they just sell your tweets, but I have a feeling they collect more then they say. All the sites you visit want something from you and if you are not paying for it, you are the product – not the customer!

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This message will self-destruct in…

Burn Note offers encrypted online communication between two people as “privately as a spoken conversation”. Feel like a spy sending email to others that delete after they are read. There’s also TMWSD, which allows you to send encrypted messages with a secret password.

If you need free encrypted email, try Sendinc or Lockbin. Both are easy to use and better then Hushmail! If you need to send encrypted files, use Secure Zip with Sendinc (Lockbin doesn’t allow secure attachments).

Facebook (Rumored) to Buy Face.com

Over the weekend rumors began to swirl that Facebook was looking at spending about $100 million to buy Israeli startup Face.com, to access its clever face recognition technology. Now it’s suggested via GigaOm that the momentum for the deal is actually in Russia’s search engine leader Yandex, which invested in Face in 2010, may be looking to sell its large stake in the company for a combination of cash and Facebook stock.  Continue reading →