A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Rise of the Machines

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the hottest topics in technology at the moment. If you listen to the people developing AIs, you will likely start to believe that they will solve all of the world’s problems. If you listen to the critics of AI, you will likely start to believe that they are the catalyst that will lead to a Terminator future.

AI probably won’t solve all of our problems but it probably won’t wipe our species out either. However, it is undeniable that algorithms are shaping our lives more and more. This isn’t a problem when those algorithms offer suggestions on what to read based on what you’re currently reading or what to buy based on what you’re currently buying. It is a problem when they decide whether or not you will be kept in a cage or not:

Police in Durham are preparing to go live with an artificial intelligence (AI) system designed to help officers decide whether or not a suspect should be kept in custody.

The system classifies suspects at a low, medium or high risk of offending and has been tested by the force.

It has been trained on five years’ of offending histories data.

The story cites the claimed accuracy rate of the AI as if a high accuracy rate should be enough for everybody to implicitly trust the system. But the system is proprietary so it’s impossible for outside parties to verify the claims of accuracy or to know how the system decides who should be kept in a cage. It’s also a black box. Can an officer override the system? If they can, does that override get included in the AI’s data that will color its future decisions? There are hundreds of questions one can ask but cannot answer about the system.

The problem with relying on AIs to make decisions about law and order is that the judicial system, at least in most so-called developed nations, is supposed to be transparent (although it usually isn’t). Proprietary systems aren’t transparent by definition, which makes them easier for the State to abuse.

Written by Christopher Burg

May 12th, 2017 at 10:00 am

How to Save Yourself $400

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How do you take a boring old consumer appliance like a juicer and spice it up? By putting a chip in it, of course! That is the philosophy behind most Internet of Things (IoT) products. But before you can toss a chip in you need to give the consumers a reason why having a chip in their appliance will literally revolutionize their Web 3.0 existences.

Juicero was yet another bad idea made possible by Silicon Valley venture capital. The idea was to take a regular juicer, make it not be a juicer, add Wi-Fi, and charge an arm and a leg for proprietary juice bags. Basically, it’s a juicer that doesn’t actually juice but includes a chip for Wi-Fi and DRM. But wait, there’s more! Not only does the product include a bunch of stupid features but it also costs an arm and a leg! However, some clever super elite hacker has already found a way to bypass the need for Juicero’s expensive appliance:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Apparently the “Steve Jobs of juicing perfection” didn’t have the resources to hire somebody who could foresee consumers just squeezing the proprietary juice bags. While there are a lot of valid criticisms against Steve Jobs, it’s difficult to deny that he had a knack for hiring talented people. Doug Evens, on the other hand, apparently lacks that knack. But he did managed to sucker $120 million out of backers so his ability to make money is certainly there.

Adding Internet connectivity makes sense for a lot of products but many IoT companies don’t seem to be asking why it makes sense to add connectivity to their products. Instead, they seem to be adding connectivity to regular products for marketing reasons (it’s not just a juicier, it’s a smart juicer) so consumers will buy them in spite of the other limitations put into place to lock users into the manufacturer’s “platform.” Fortunately, clever people tend to find ways to bypass the platform lock-in and all of us can laugh at $120 million being flushed down the toilet.

Written by Christopher Burg

April 20th, 2017 at 10:00 am

Once You Post Something Online It Exists Forever

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The University of California Berkeley posted 20,000 lectures online for free and there was great joy. Unfortunately, two students from another university decided to ruin the jovial atmosphere by brining a lawsuit against the university claiming that the videos weren’t accessible to everybody and therefore posting them was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The university ended up pulling the videos offline. While the two little bitches may have high-fived each other after their apparent victory, they were obviously too stupid to realize that the Internet is forever:

Today, the University of California at Berkeley has deleted 20,000 college lectures from its YouTube channel. Berkeley removed the videos because of a lawsuit brought by two students from another university under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We copied all 20,000 and are making them permanently available for free via LBRY.

This makes the videos freely available and discoverable by all, without reliance on any one entity to provide them (even us!).

The full catalog is over 4 TB and will be synced over the next several days.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Internet works.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 22nd, 2017 at 10:00 am

Convenient Technology… For the Police

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Axon, Tasers body camera division, has announced a new product. It’s a holster sensor that activates all nearby body cameras when an officer draws their firearm:

The Signal Sidearm, despite its slightly confusing name and provided artwork, isn’t a pricey, complex smart weapon, but rather a sensor that can be retrofitted into “most existing firearm holsters.” The sensor is powered by a coin cell battery that lasts approximately 1.5 years. It sounds like the sensor is technologically very simple, which hopefully means it’s also very reliable.

Body cams to be worn by more than 22,000 London cops after rollout delay
When a weapon is drawn from the holster, the Signal Sidearm tells any Axon camera within 30 feet to start recording. If there are multiple Axon cameras present, they all start recording, providing video footage from a variety of angles.

The sensor activates nearby body cameras after guns have been drawn so they won’t record whether the police unnecessarily escalated the situation to deadly force or not. That’s convenient.

As one of my friends commented, “Every technology deployed by the state will benefit the state, which is why we need our own technology.” If the State is willing to issue technology to police officers, such as body cameras, you know that technology will be of significant benefit to the State while being a significant detriment to you and me. Body cameras sound like a great technology for holding officers accountable but since the State controls all footage it’s trivial to disappear any inconvenient evidence while keeping evidence that allows the State to prosecute somebody.

Written by Christopher Burg

March 1st, 2017 at 10:30 am

Not All Anonymity is Created Equal

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Whenever I discuss secure communications I try to hammer home the difference between confidentiality and anonymity. Most popular secure communication services such as Signal and WhatsApp provide the former but not the latter. This means unauthorized users cannot read the communications but they can find out which parties are communicating.

Another thing I try to hammer home is that not all forms of anonymity are equal. Several services are claiming to offer anonymous communications. These services don’t claim to offer confidentiality, the posts are public, but they do claim to conceal your identity. However, they tend to use a loose definition of anonymity:

On Sunday, a North Carolina man named Garrett Grimsley made a public post on Whisper that sounded an awful lot like a threat. “Salam, some of you are alright,” the message read, “don’t go to [Raleigh suburb] Cary tomorrow.”

When one user asked for more information, Grimsley (who is white) responded with more Islamic terms. “For too long the the kuffar have spit in our faces and trampled our rights,” he wrote. “This cannot continue. I cannot speak of anything. Say your dua, sleep, and watch the news tomorrow.”

Within 24 hours, Grimsley was in jail. Tipped off by the user who responded, police ordered Whisper to hand over all IP addresses linked to the account. When the company complied, the IP address led them to Time Warner, Grimsley’s ISP, which then provided Grimsley’s address.

There’s a great deal of difference between anonymity as it pertains to other users and anonymity as it pertains to service providers. Whisper’s definition of anonymity is that users of the service can’t identify other users. Whisper itself can identify users. This is different than a Tor hidden service where the user can’t identify the service provider and the service provider can’t identify the user.

When you’re looking at communication services make sure you understand what is actually being offered before relying on it.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 23rd, 2017 at 10:00 am

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What Do You Own

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When you purchase a computer do you own it? What about your cell phone? Or your automobile? At one time the answer to these questions was an absolute yes. Today, not so much:

Cars, refrigerators, televisions, Barbie dolls. When people buy these everyday objects, they rarely give much thought to whether or not they own them. We pay for them, so we think of them as our property. And historically, with the exception of the occasional lease or rental, we owned our personal possessions. They were ours to use as we saw fit. They were free to be shared, resold, modified, or repaired. That expectation is a deeply held one. When manufacturers tried to leverage the DMCA to control how we used our printers and garage door openers, a big reason courts pushed back was that the effort was so unexpected, so out of step with our understanding of our relationship to the things we buy.

But in the decade or so that followed those first bumbling attempts, we’ve witnessed a subtler and more effective strategy for convincing people to cede control over everyday purchases. It relies less—or at least less obviously—on DRM and the threat of DMCA liability, and more on the appeal of new product features, and in particular those found in the smart devices that make up the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

I’ve annoyed many electrons criticizing the concept of intellectual property. The idea that somebody has a government granted monopoly on something simply because they were the first to receive a patent is absurd in my opinion. But we live with much more absurd ideas today. Due to the way software copyright and patent laws work, if a company loads software onto a device they can effectively prevent anybody from owning it. At most a buyer can acquire a limited use license for those devices.

Combining software copyright and patent laws with the Internet of Things (IoT) just amplifies this. Now there are a bunch of devices on the market that rely on continuous Internet access to the manufacturers’ servers. If the manufacture decides to drop support for the product it stops working. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) didn’t make it illegal for you to hack the device and load your own software onto it that allowed it to continue working.

Right now we’re dealing with relatively cheap IoT devices. If your $99 Internet connected thermostat stops working it sucks but it’s not something that is so expensive that it can’t be replaced. But what happens when IoT comes to, say, automobiles? What happens when critical functions on an automobile cease to work because the manufacturer decides to drop support for one of the Internet connected components. Suddenly you’re not talking about throwing away a $99 device but a machine that cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Although this scenario might sound absurd to some I guarantee that it will happen at some point if software copyright and patent laws continue to be enforced as they have been.

The Future is Awesome

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People don’t appreciate how awesome the future we live in today really is. Compare the life you live with the life lived by some of history’s wealthiest people:

If you were a 1916 American billionaire you could, of course, afford prime real-estate. You could afford a home on 5th Avenue or one overlooking the Pacific Ocean or one on your own tropical island somewhere (or all three). But when you traveled from your Manhattan digs to your west-coast palace, it would take a few days, and if you made that trip during the summer months, you’d likely not have air-conditioning in your private railroad car.

And while you might have air-conditioning in your New York home, many of the friends’ homes that you visit — as well as restaurants and business offices that you frequent — were not air-conditioned. In the winter, many were also poorly heated by today’s standards.

To travel to Europe took you several days. To get to foreign lands beyond Europe took you even longer.

Might you want to deliver a package or letter overnight from New York City to someone in Los Angeles? Sorry. Impossible.
You could neither listen to radio (the first commercial radio broadcast occurred in 1920) nor watch television. You could, however, afford the state-of-the-art phonograph of the era. (It wasn’t stereo, though. And — I feel certain — even today’s vinylphiles would prefer listening to music played off of a modern compact disc to listening to music played off of a 1916 phonograph record.) Obviously, you could not download music.”

While I spend a lot of time complaining about horrors statism has wrought upon us, we do live better today than anybody did in any point of history thanks to the wonders of the market. And since technology is cumulative the rate of advancement is even more rapid, which means our lives are improving faster than the lives of people in the past. For example, in my fairly short lifetime home Internet access went from nonexistent to dial-up to fiber directly into the home. The computing power available in my phone wasn’t available to the consumer market for any price when I was young. Even simple toys, such as Nerf guns, improve a lot since my childhood. Kids today have electrically powered fully automatic Nerf guns, something young me could only dream of. Although various diseases such as cancer are still a scourge our chances of surviving it have increased significantly.

While there’s a lot of terrible things going on in this world don’t forget that our present is an overall great time to be alive.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 22nd, 2017 at 10:00 am

Your Browser is a Snitch

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The privacy-surveillance arms race will likely be waged eternally. The State wants to spy on people so it can better expropriate their wealth. Private companies want to spy on people so they can collect data to better serve them and better target ads at them. The State wants the private companies to spy on their users because it can get that information via a subpoena. Meanwhile, users are stuck being constantly watched.

Browser fingerprinting is one of the more effective tools in the private companies’ arsenal. Without having to store data on users’ systems, private companies are able to use the data surrendered by browsers to track users with a surprising degree of accuracy. But fingerprinting has been limited to individual browsers. If a user switches browsers their old fingerprint is no longer valid… until now:

The new technique relies on code that instructs browsers to perform a variety of tasks. Those tasks, in turn, draw on operating-system and hardware resources—including graphics cards, multiple CPU cores, audio cards, and installed fonts—that are slightly different for each computer. For instance, the cross-browser fingerprinting carries out 20 carefully selected tasks that use the WebGL standard for rendering 3D graphics in browsers. In all, 36 new features work independently of a specific browser.

New browser features are commonly used for tracking users. In time those features are usually improved in such a way that tracking becomes more difficult. I have no doubts that WebGL will follow this path as well. Until it is improved through, it wouldn’t be dumb to disable it if you’re trying to avoid being tracked.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 15th, 2017 at 10:30 am

Tips for Getting Past Customs

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Customs in the United States have become nosier every year. It makes one wonder how they can enter the country without surrendering their life by granting access to their digital devices. Wired put together a decent guide for dealing with customs. Of the tips there is one that I highly recommend:

Make a Travel Kit

For the most vulnerable travelers, the best way to keep customs away from your data is simply not to carry it. Instead, like Lackey, set up travel devices that store the minimum of sensitive data. Don’t link those “dirty” devices to your personal accounts, and when you do have to create a linked account—as with iTunes for iOS devices—create fresh ones with unique usernames and passwords. “If they ask for access and you can’t refuse, you want to be able to give them access without losing any sensitive information,” says Lackey.

Social media accounts, admittedly, can’t be so easily ditched. Some security experts recommend creating secondary personas that can be offered up to customs officials while keeping a more sensitive account secret. But if CBP agents do link your identity with an account you tried to hide, the result could be longer detention and, for non-citizens, even denial of entry.

I believe that I first came across this advice on Bruce Schneier’s blog. Instead of traveling with a device that contains all of your information you should consider traveling with a completely clean device and accessing the information you need via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you reach your destination. When you’re ready to return home wipe all of the data.

The most effective way to defend against the snoops at the border is to not have any data for them to snoop.

The other tips are good to follow as well but aren’t as effective as simply not having any data in the first place. But I understand that isn’t always feasible. In cases where you’re traveling somewhere that has unreliable Internet connectivity, for example, you will need to bring the data you need with you. If you’re in such a situation I recommend only brining the data you absolutely need.

Written by Christopher Burg

February 15th, 2017 at 10:00 am

Snitches Get Dents

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Is your vehicle a snitch? If you have a modern vehicle, especially one with Internet connectivity, the answer is almost certainly yes:

One of the more recent examples can be found in a 2014 warrant that allowed New York police to trace a vehicle by demanding the satellite radio and telematics provider SiriusXM provide location information. The warrant, originally filed in 2014 but only recently unsealed (and published below in full), asked SiriusXM “to activate and monitor as a tracking device the SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio installed on the Target Vehicle for a period of 10 days.” The target was a Toyota 4-Runner wrapped up in an alleged illegal gambling enterprise.

[…]

So it was that in December 2009 police asked GM to cough up OnStar data from a Chevrolet Tahoe rented by a suspected crack cocaine dealer Riley Dantzler. The cops who were after Dantzler had no idea what the car looked like or where it was, but with OnStar tracking they could follow him from Houston, Texas, to Ouchita Parish, Louisiana. OnStar’s tracking was accurate too, a court document revealing it was able to “identify that vehicle among the many that were on Interstate 20 that evening.” They stopped Dantzler and found cocaine, ecstasy and a gun inside.

[…]

In at least two cases, individuals unwittingly had their conversations listened in on by law enforcement. In 2001, OnStar competitor ATX Technologies (which later became part of Agero) was ordered to provide “roving interceptions” of a Mercedes Benz S430V. It initially complied with the order in November of that year to spy on audible communications for 30 days, but when the FBI asked for an extension in December, ATX declined, claiming it was overly burdensome. (The filing on the FBI’s attempt to find ATX in contempt of court is also published below).

As a quick aside, it should also be noted that the cell phone you carry around contains the hardware necessary to perform these same forms of surveillance. So don’t start bragging about the old vehicle you drive if you’re carrying around a cell phone.

There are two major problems here. The first problem is technological and the second is statism. There’s nothing wrong with adding more technological capabilities to a vehicle. However, much like the Internet of Things, automobile manufacturers have a terrible track record when it comes to computer security. For example, having a builtin communication system like OnStar isn’t bad in of itself but when it can be remotely activated a lot of security questions come into play.

The second problem is statism. Monitoring technologies that can be remotely activated are dangerous in general but become even more dangerous in the hands of the State. As this story demonstrated, the combination of remotely activated microphones and statism leads to men with guns kidnapping people (or possibly worse).

Everything in this story is just the tip of the iceberg though. As more technology is integrated into automobiles the State will also integrate itself more. I have no doubt that at some point a law will be passed that will require all automobiles to have a remotely activated kill switch. It’ll likely be proposed shortly after a high speed chase that ends in an officer getting killed and will be sold to the public as necessary for protecting the lives of our heroes in blue. As self-driving cars become more popular there will likely be a law passed that requires self-driving cars to have a remotely accessible autopilot mode so police can command a car to pull over for a stop or drive to the courthouse if somebody is missing their court date.

Everything that could be amazing will end up being shit because the State will decided to meddle. The State is why we can’t have nice things.