Human Rights


i can haz digital security?

You know what hasn't gotten an update in a while? This blog! What else? The cute kittens of digital security over at I can haz digital security?.

The world is busy and imperfect. But hey, kittens!

Also - an SSL update. I've added in Cloudflare's Universal SSL to my site, and it communicates with mt backend over the old kinda-broken-ish (but not really!) CA SSL cert. I'll be moving to EFF's Let's Encrypt as soon as it's open for business. This should clear up most SSL errors for you, and if you really, really care about a direct SSL connection to this site, I trust your ability to securely contact me about getting that working for you.

Of Tor and Condoms

A garlic flavored condom

I am far from the first to compare digital security practices to safer sex practices. Heck, you can even see a rap career blooming as Jillian York and Jacob Appelbaum suggest that it's time that we "talk about P-G-P" at re:publica.

Talking about software and trust gets both very boring and very depressing quickly. Let's instead move on to the juicy sex-ed part!

A quick disclaimer: First, apologies for the at-times male and/or heteronormative point of view; I'd welcome more inclusive language, especially around the HTTPS section. Second, I am unabashedly pro-Tor, a user of the tor network, and am even lucky enough to get to collaborate with them on occasion. The garlic condom photo comes from The Stinking Rose..

Super-duper Unsafe Surfing

Using the Internet without any protection is a very bad idea. The SANS Institute's Internet Storm Center tracks "survival time" - the time a completely unprotected computer facing the raw Internet can survive before becoming compromised by a virus - in minutes. Not days, not even hours. This is so off the charts, that with a safer sex metaphor, using no protection is more akin to just injecting yourself with an STD than engaging in a risky behavior.

Barely less unsafe surfing

Adding in a constantly-updated anti-virus tool, and a firewall, and making sure that your operating system is up to date is akin to being healthy. You have a basically operational immune system - congrats!. You'll be fine if the person you're sleeping with has the common cold, but anything more serious than that and you're in trouble.

Using HTTPS - visiting websites which show up with a green lock icon - is also a good practice. You can even install some browser plugins like HTTPS Everywhere and CertPatrol that help you out.

HTTPS is kind of like birth control. You may successfully prevent *ahem* the unauthorized spread of your information, but you're still relying on a significant amount of trust in your partner (to have taken the pill, to withdraw), and there are things out of your knowledge that can go wrong - the pharmacist provided fake pills, or you have a withdrawal failure (please note this is about digital security advice, and not at all giving good safer sex advice - a quick visit to wikipedia is a good start for effective -- and non effective birth control methods!). With SSL Certificates, you are still trusting that the website has good practices to protect your information (insert the constant litany of password reset links you've had to deal with this year here), and there have been cases of stolen SSL certificates) and are tools to help an attacker try and intercept your encrypted traffic.

Slightly Safer Surfing

With digital security, a lot like with safer sex, some methods can be combined for a greater effect, but layering other methods can be a horrible idea. Adding using anti-virus tools, firewalls, system updates, and HTTPS on top of any other method here is a universally Good Thing.

Using a VPN is like using a condom, provided by your partner for this encounter, and given to them by a source neither of you have any real trust in. Asking the manufacturer for information about exactly how it's made, or what its expiration date is will often result in grand claims (but no hard evidence). Requests to see the factory floor and verify these claims are presumed to be jokes. The VPN-brand condom generally works, and is definitely fast and easy, but you're placing a lot of trust in a random company you found while searching the Internet, and probably also the cheapest one you found. On top of that, you're also still trusting your partner to not have poked any holes in the condom.

Overall, It's still much better to be using the VPN than not, and if you trust your partner (i.e. the website or service you're going to), and you trust the VPN provider for whatever reason - perhaps a widely trusted company has given an independent audit of the VPN, or you or your workplace has set it up yourself - then for most situations you're pretty safe. Layering a VPN on top of the above tools is good, but layering VPNs on VPNs or on other networks is actually not dissimilar to layering condoms - it actually makes failure in very weird (and, lets face it, awkward) ways /more/ likely.

Safer Surfing

Still, though, wouldn't it be better if you could rely even less on trust, and have that trust backed up with evidence that you yourself can look at?

Using Tor is like using a condom which you not only know has gone through extensive testing, you can even visit the factory floor, look at the business' finances, and talk with the engineers and factory staff. It's /still/ not 100% safe, but it is a heck of a lot safer, and you can verify each and every claim made about what it does and does not do.

And to be clear here, if you're logging in to a website over Tor, that website now knows who you are (you're no longer anonymous to them, and possibly others watching you do this along the wire), and that website is storing your password and may fail to protect it at some point. That website can still turn out to be malicious and attack you, and very powerful adversaries can even specifically try and intercept traffic coming from a website and going into the super-secret Tor network, change it, and include an attack they know works well against out of date versions of the browser you're using. An out of date Tor browser is like an expired condom - it's best not to bet your life on it.

To really (over-)extend the analogy, the Tor-branded condom business happens to be heavily funded by a religious organization that is strongly against birth control (and indeed has an entire project that tries to undermine birth control methods, to the point of installing secret hole-punchers in condom factories). This same organization (it's large!) does have a different and vocal component that strongly supports safer sex, and not only funds giving away condoms, but also the production of them. It's not, seemingly, the most logical set up, but hey, we're talking religion, politics and sex - logic doesn't always come in to play here.

Like sex, there is no truly "safe" way to play on the Internet, and it's unrealistic to expect that abstinence from the Internet is realistic. So, be careful out there, adopt safer practices, and keep your wits about you. Good luck!


Do you trust your tools?

There's a budding conversation on "trust" over in the twitterverse. I began a draft post a while back that compared Tor (the amazing privacy and anti-censorship network and all privacy-protecting software to condoms. More on that soon, but let's actually talk about how you might have trust in a software project, using Tor as an example. Tor has been in the news recently, and I've had a ton of people ask me about how safe it is to use, so I figured one click-bait headline is as good as another in having an open and honest discussion about Tor.

First, let's be transparent. Tor - not unlike the Internet itself - did in fact start out as a project by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and does continue to receive funding by the US Government to support freedom of expression around the world, with targeted efforts to enable free speech and access to uncensored information in countries where Internet connections are heavily filtered.

So, can you trust Tor? How do you know that the NSA hasn't forced Tor into building a "back door" into the Tor software, like they did with RSA Security, and many other pieces of software you use daily, or like what has historically happened to privacy-protecting services like hushmail?

The answer is actually that you should not actually need to trust the organization behind Tor in order to be confident that the software is built to be safe. This is enabled by the fact that Tor is open source - meaning you can read every line of the code they use to build the software you install. Of course, even with open source software, you're trusting whoever is compiling it do do so on a secure system and without any extra malicious intent. The Tor Project answers this problem by using "deterministic builds", which let you check, independently, that the code posted publicly is the code you're running.

If you use Windows or Mac, both "closed source" operating systems, you are absolutely, 100% trusting that no one in the company, nor any government with significant sway over these companies, has snuck in code to allow remote spying. You have no way to inspect the code running your operating system, and every tool you use on top of it is vulnerable to being undermined by something as simple as a hack to the tiny piece of software that tells your computer how to talk with the keyboard, which could just as easily also store every password you have ever typed in. You're also trusting your ISP, every web site you log in to, and thousands of other intermediaries and companies, from the ones who provide SSL Certificates (enabling the "green lock" of a secure website) to the manufacturer or your wifi router and cablemodem to not betray your trust by accident, under duress, or with malicious intent.

Of course, even back in the green pastures of open source, there is no "absolute" level of trust, no matter how much we'd like there to be. Rare is the user who actually checks the "signature" of the download file against the posted "signature" online to make sure the tool they're about to install is the intended one. And even rarer is the user who checks in on the deterministic build process (and it's still fragile, so hard to guarantee even so). Even at this level, you are trusting the developers and others in the open source and security community to write solid code and check on it for bugs. The Tor Project does an exceptional job at this, but as heartbleed reminds us, huge, horrible bugs can go unseen, even in the open, for a long time. You're also trusting all the systems that the developers work on to not be compromised, and to be running code that is also in more or less good condition, and to be using compilers that aren't doing funny things.
For what it's worth, this is hardly a new problem. In my unhumble opinion, I'd still rather have this more open model of shared trust in the open source world than rely on any single company, whose prime motive is to ship software features on time.

So - can you trust Tor? I do. But saying that I "trust" Tor doesn't mean I have 100% faith that their software is bulletproof. All software has bugs, and particularly security software requires a lot of work on the part of the user to actually make it all work out as expected. It's time to talk about trust less as a binary and more as a pragmatic approach to decision making based on best practices, source availability, and organizational transparency.


A Senate response to The Day We (Fought) Back

Senator Cruz's office's response to my personal note about surveillance I sent as part of TheDayWeFightBack:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding the National Security Agency's surveillance program. Input from fellow Texans significantly informs my decision-making and empowers me to better represent the state.

During my time in the Senate, I have consistently reiterated my support of programs that can detect impending threats to our homeland or diplomatic and military facilities abroad. It is imperative, however, that we strike an appropriate balance between remaining vigilant against terrorism and protecting the civil liberties guaranteed to the American people by the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the government has eroded the American peoples' trust by the secrecy surrounding these surveillance programs. I will continue working with my Judiciary Committee colleagues and the entire Senate to review existing law and the actions of the Administration to ensure that we protect our Constitutional liberties. In doing so, I hope to guarantee true accountability in these programs so that we protect Americans from the threats of both terrorism and unwarranted government intrusion.

Thank you for sharing your views with me. Please feel free to contact me in the future about any issue important to your family. It is an honor to serve you and the people of Texas.

For Liberty,

Senator Ted Cruz

Kiev on #Jan25

404: Human Rights Not found?

I spent this past week in Kiev. You may have heard something about the protests, and possibly even about some of the policy changes and new laws that sparked them. I was working with colleagues, journalists and human rights activists, supporting and training them as quickly as possible on digital security basics, and making sure they had contacts to reach out to for timely support.

It was a trip that was scheduled many months ago, when Ukraine was on the cusp of joining the EU. Things, to put it mildly, changed. Obviously, the violent protests have been featured widely in the news, but those capture only the most visible challenges the country is facing. Legislation pushed through with no regard for legal proceedings last Thursday promise to have a chilling effect on free speech, tight limits on media, even citizen journalists, and will devastate the civil society organizations, labeling them as "foreign agents" and taxing them as for-profit corporations if they take any international aid funding.

In the few days I was there, we experienced a "test" of new censorship capabilities as twitter and facebook -- critical messaging and coordination channels for activists -- went dark in Kiev for almost half an hour. People near the protest areas received ominous SMS messages on their phones telling them that they had been registered as present at the (illegal, under the new law) protest.

One note of import - there are two main areas of the protest - EuroMaidan is the months-long, Occupy-on-steroids encampment in Maidan Square. Though well barricaded off, it is a peaceful protest, with daily concerts and speeches on a well-equipped stage, a huge jumbotron, laser-light projections and more. Businesses - from a Nike storefront to a local brewpub to a carousel - are going on with business as normal within the barricaded-off area. The scenes of burning tires, tear gas and molotov cocktails is from the nearby Grushevsky St, where protesters gathered to confront Parliament after their "passage" of this Black Thursday law.

It is inspiring to see the passion and focus of people working to protect and expand their rights, and it is humbling to be able to lend support in any form. However, the challenges aren't getting any easier. The digital tools which provide the most security are also difficult to use, and more difficult to use correctly. They still "stick out" as unusual, and face an uphill battle against popular systems with little if any security.

This has to change. Privacy is not some abstract concept in these situations, it is the economic well-being, and too often, the pure survival of activists, journalists, and their contacts. When we allow policies and practices that undermine security and privacy, we're not just revealing embarrassing factoids about our call history, or even the three felonies a day you're probably committing as a US citizen - we are undermining our global dream of a world of nations with democratic rule, where their citizens can enjoy basic human rights without fear.

The world is ready for this, but when the current Ukrainian government points at American domestic policies as models of their newly crafted censorship and surveillance laws, it's a sign that we as Americans are not drinking our own koolaid (with a hat-tip to the many dedicated civil servants who are working hard to further human rights).

Distributed Solutions for Distributed Attacks

Google has been making headlines with their shiny Project Shield which wraps PageSpeed with other tools to defend sites against denial of service attacks. The history of the denial of service, however, runs deep, and underlines that no centralized response to it will ever be able to cost-effectively scale against a distributed attack.

Let's rewind back to the 90s. Denial of service was a very, very different thing then - it was a tool for free expression, not one used to mute dissenting opinions as it is today.
In the dot-com boomtimes of the late 90s, I was absolutely fascinated by the digital protests that sprung up in reaction to Mexico's treatment of the Zapatista Movement. Floodnet was an activist art project by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Floodnet was simply a website you could visit and it would direct your browser to constantly reload pages on the website of the Mexcian government. In addition to overloading the website with thousands of requests from you and our fellow programmers, you could add in a political message with each page load, to force the government's server to fill their log files with messages like "human rights not found."

"The FloodNet application of error log spamming is conceptual Internet art. This is your chance to voice your political concerns on a targeted server. [...] The server may respond to your intentional mistake with a message like: "human_rights not found on this server." So by creatively selecting phases, you can make the server voice your concerns. It may not use the kind of resources that the constant reloading uses (FloodNet automatically does that too), but it is sassy conceptualism and it invites you to play with clever statements while the background applet is running." (via

Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government
Floodnet used DoS attacks to protest the Mexican Government

This original "denial of service" attack was seen as the digital mirror of a classic "sit-in" protest. It was a way for a David to strike back at a Goliath through technology. However, this, ahem, "sassy" political activism began an arms race that today is dominated by Goliaths alone. Instead of a tool of protest, denial of service attacks are today tools of retribution and ways to mute dissenting voices. They are massively automated and distributed, and are run not by rowdy bands of dissidents, but by well-organized for-hire groups (…) and even from government infrastructures.

The only defense, so far, has been equally massive, and centralized, commercial services. This is a growing industry with its own round of disruptive innovators all to itself. This current business innovation is helping to move from the monolithic services protecting online infrastructures at high costs to a more scalable model, with services that smaller websites can benefit from. Still, back-end models are the same - providing shelter from DDoS attacks by having sufficient servers and bandwidth to absorb whatever their proprietary tools and filters cannot outright block.

Open source models to fight back have been conspicuous in their absence - until now.

The Deflect Project, created by the technology collective based out of Montreal and Dublin, is responding to that gap. They focus on providing protection for activists and journalists around the world, who are subject to DDoS attacks from those who disagree with their views all the way to their own governments. Thanks to grant funding, Deflect is able to offer their services for free to independent media sites, NGOs and non-profits -- but the technology model under the hood is the real game-changer.

Jam Echelon Day, Redux

(Or, how to remind anyone snooping your email of your fourth amendment rights)

So clearly we have a situation here where we failed to learn from the past. Fourteen years ago (Exactly in a few days - Oct 21!), we were protesting ECHELON, which was (is) a "worldwide computer spy network [that] reportedly scans all email, packet traffic, telephone conversations, and more in an effort to ferret out potential terrorist or enemy communications. Once a communication is plucked from the electronic cloud, certain keywords allegedly trigger a recording of the conversation or email in question."

In response (along with a short burst in activity around people trying to figure out how to use PGP), hackers added amusing bonus keywords in the parts of emails that humans rarely see (where junk like the path the email took, listserv details, and so on goes) - many, including myself, added the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as participating in "Jam Echelon day," when everyone added what we presumed at the time were these mythical "trigger words:"


As an aside: maannnnnn, do you remember the 90s? Was that an unpleasant walk down memory lane or what?

Anyhow, this amusing idea that this would work for more than a few minutes just doesn't seem to die, and someone's trying it with a new "security" tool called ScareMail that "takes keywords from an extensive US Department of Homeland Security list used to troll social media websites and utilizes them “to disrupt the NSA’s surveillance efforts by making NSA search results useless.” "

While that's ... well, whatever. It's a nice thought, right? Probably not very useful overall. Anyhow, it gives me a small boost of civic pride to tweak my email settings and put the fourth amendment text back in to almost every email I send out. This requires an actual email client (Thunderbird works nicely), and some configuration hacking:

  • Go to Edit → Preferences → Advanced → General → Config editor
  • Right click, new, "string"
  • For 'Enter the preference name' use "mail.identity.id1.header.header1"
  • For the string, add "X-Fourth-Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
  • If you have multiple mail accounts, you'll have to do this for each one, using id2, id3, etc. and header2, header3, etc.
  • Restart thunderbird, make sure you didn't break anything. For more details, peek at

Stop doing Technology for Good So Badly.

I've been reflecting on some of the challenges I've faced across multiple organizations trying to leverage the power of technology to create positive social change. This reaches way back to my work as a Peace Corps volunteer, up through grad school, my time as a contributing editor at OLPCNews, and through multiple NGOs balancing tech, impact, and budgets.

Obviously, there's no definite one-size-fits all approach to implementing technology in any sector, much less the world of the international NGO that stretches from hip online platforms to how to best use dusty Nokia feature-phones.

Here are the principles I've come up with to date. I took these to Twitter in a lively discussion, and want to expound upon them a bit more:

  1. Build for sustainability. Minimize what you have to build yourself, and leverage existing platforms

    This means giving strong preferences to open source platforms or at least existing services that meet a set of criteria (their service meets your needs, you own your data, shared values, track record...) For any service, someone, somewhere has already built a powerful framework that will be constantly updated and improved, and bakes in thousands of features (security, translation, powerful content management, mobile interfaces, etc.) which will be effortless to turn on when you discover you need them. Focus your precious software development budget on the much smaller number of things that are custom to your work and don't exist. This greatly reduces the initial dev costs as well as ongoing maintenance costs.

  2. Seriously, don't build it yourself.

Of Code, Free Speech, and Weapons

DeCSS Inside!

Quick quiz.  Which of these should not be protected as free speech?

[ ] A gun (you know, the kind you can hold and shoot)

[ ] Plans for a nuclear weapon

[ ] Political statements (lots and lots of them)

[ ] Detailed instructions on how to communicate privately

[ ] Detailed instructions on how to make an archival, digital copy of a DVD

The answer is either none or all of the above - we are in a world where free speech (in the form of computer code) can create real world objects and actions that are themselves regulated or outright illegal.  But if the action is illegal, is the code that causes it also illegal?  If so, the line gets very blurry very quickly.  If not, we still have some fascinating problems to deal with, like printable guns.  Regardless, we need to educate policy makers to understand this digital frontier and be prepared to defend free speech when this gets unpleasant.  Spoiler: It's already unpleasant.  Our world is defined by code, where programmed actions have very real, tangible effects.

Code of Protest

Civil disobedience can take some weird forms. While today masked digital vigilantes of Anonymous act as a curious type of Internet immune system; reacting against gross infringements of cyber liberty, their methods are not as new as you might think.  In the late 90s, the Electronic Disturbance Theater ( was supporting the Zapatistas by flooding Mexican government sites with a rudimentary DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, which brings a webserver down by overloading it.  This concept is at the heart of LOIC, Anonymous's "Low Orbit Ion Cannon" (  EDT's version, "Floodnet," had the nice touch of requesting webpages with names like "human rights" from the government sites, resulting in errors clogging up the server reading something like "404 - human rights not found."  Asking for a webpage is pretty clearly something akin to shouting at a rally, or a "cyber sit-in" ( - get enough people to do it, and it causes some level of annoyance - but it's still an act of speech.

Free speech and a dead-end for copy controls

More compelling is the story of decss. CSS, an acronym now known as a web design tool, also means Content Scramble System, and is how DVD content is locked down. Only authorized hardware and software can decrypt a DVD and play it. This theoretically prevents wanton piracy, but it also prevents you from exercising your rights of fair use, backing up, or watching on a device of your choosing.

Fortunately, CSS was not particularly well crafted, and was quickly and thoroughly broken with a chunk of code nicknamed decss by a Norwegian teenager nicknamed "DVD Jon".  This caused a slight bit of controversy.  DVD Jon was accused of theft in Norway, and users in the States were threatened with fines and jailtime for re-distributing it under the DMCA law.

In a predictable story arc, the next chapter of this story is of course the Internet digerati of the day getting royally teed off and causing a ruckus. The  source code of decss was immediately turned into graphic art, secretly embedded in photos, turned into poems, and even a song ( - a gallery of creative works using or containing the decss code remains online: .  DVD Jon won his case ( and we all celebrated the somewhat obvious win for free speech and consumer power.

Private speech and munitions export controls

We can rewind even further back to the early 90s, when Phillip Zimmerman published the entire source code of his powerful encryption tool, PGP, in a book (of the paper, box-shaped physical object type).  Now, encryption this powerful was classified (until 1996) as a "munition" and subject to export controls with the types of penalties you might expect for selling military equipment on the black market.  Had PGP been released as a program, it would obviously fall into this categorization.  As text in a book, however, it appeared to be protected as free speech.  The stupidity of the distinction of course also spurred many to make t-shirts and code snippets of this "illegal" code.  Eventually, a series of court cases (Bernstein v. United States, Junger v. Daley) establishing that source code, indeed, counts as free speech.

Free speech and real munitions

Fast forward back to today, and the distinction between code and munitions is again somewhat unclear - with 3D printers, you can even begin building core pieces or real munitions - like, well, guns (, based on digital blueprints and DIY-enthusiast at-home 3D printing kits.  For anyone who doubts that print-at-home guns couldn't possibly be thought of as pure expressions of free speech, covered by copyright laws and software licensing more than gun laws, I recommend browsing through this video and transcript; ( the clear excitement around innovation and failure-as-a-feature in the gun printing market by Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed.

Code is speech, code is reality.

The kicker here remains that code - that mysterious language that creates everything from Skype (now illegal to use in Ethiopia, with up to 15 years of jailtime) to your bank's software to this webpage - is also, at its core, just ideas and language.  Now, disruptive ideas have always been a bit dangerous, and we have a long, if rarely permanently successful history of ways to limit, erase and squelch them.  But ideas that themselves are actions are another thing altogether.

In linguistics, you have the concept of "Illocutionary Acts" - acts which are embodied in language.  There aren't many - no matter how I say that I'm going to go for an after-work run, the act of running can only be done by my whole body.  Oaths are the best example of these acts - speaking the oath is making the oath, and that combination of idea and action is a powerful sentiment.

And every line of code can be just as powerful.

A shallow alcove on the left.

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound [...] would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.[...] [T]hey could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. [The] promising technology in a set-top box that can, “can distinguish who is watching, potentially allowing Intel to target advertising”. The technology could potentially identify if the viewer is an adult or a child, male or female, and so on, through interactive features and face recognition technology.

The product description on the left is from George Orwell's 1984's telescreen. On the right, we have Intel's ad-targeting, face-recognizing TV.

Speculative fiction nailed reality, but missed the target on who was doing the spying.

The title here is, of course, from a later passage: