#@)(!*^ing Encryption

A few words about the title: The first seven letters are written using a very simple code, or cypher. Each of the letters in the original word is replaced by the non-alphabetical character to which it is closest on a US keyboard. The process of hiding a message by substituting other letters, numbers or symbols is known as encryption. When the code is reversed, the title reads ‘Explaining Encryption’.

But it also looks like swearing, doesn’t it? In fact, the use of characters like this to denote swearing is a simple (dare we say crude?) kind of encryption. A child too innocent to know such words derives no meaning from the random collection of characters. Someone well versed in the ways of the world, though, can add up the number of characters and quickly deduce what was intended.

On and off over the last two months, we’ve been looking at various aspects of online security. This week, we’re going to consider what steps we can take to make the information we send over the Internet secure from prying eyes.

We’ll also consider why it is that no one uses these measures, and why most of us won’t any time soon.

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Idea: Personal Navajo

Instead of exposing the painful ritual of public/private key exchange, software developers should instead be using metaphors of human trust and service.

A ‘translator’ service,  for example. The user ‘invents’ an imaginary language, then decides who among her friends is allowed to speak it with her. She then instructs her ‘translator’ (e.g. her own personal Navajo) to convey messages between herself and her friend’s translator.

(Only the personal Navajos actually need to speak this ‘language’ of course. As far as the two correspondents are concerned, the only change is that they’re sending the message via the ‘translator’ rather than directly, but even that is a wafer-thin bit of functionality once the channel is established and the communications process automated.)

Quick encryption, well understood, and easy to implement. Most importantly, you don’t have to explain encryption, public and private keys,  or any other security gobbledygook to someone who really doesn’t want – and shouldn’t need – to hear it.

Update: Of course, the greatest weakness to this idea is if Microsoft were to create an implementation of this and name it Bob.

On Being Right

A number of recent events have given me occasion to consider what it means to be right.

Viewed through a rationalist filter, humanity can manage itself well (if not easily), provided its curiousity remains strong and its faculties of discernment are not tarnished. This assumes, of course, that humanity as a whole is curious. I am learning, to my dismay, that it is indeed curious, but not at all in the way I thought it was.

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MEME: Bitsharks

I’m going to start blaming random network- and computer-related problems on Bitsharks. Get everyone believing in the idea of predatory bots cruising the network, dining on people’s digital transmissions.

I’m going to start blaming random network- and computer-related problems on Bitsharks. Get everyone believing in the idea of predatory bots cruising the network, dining on people’s digital transmissions.

USER: “Why didn’t my email go through?”
ME: “Did you receive a failure message?”
USER: “No.”
ME: “Uhhh, you didn’t send it alone, did you?”
USER: “What do you mean?”
ME: “Well… how big was the message?”
USER: “Just a paragraph or so. Why?”
ME: [Dismayed] “And you sent it onto the Internet alone?”
USER: “What, why?”
ME: “Don’t you know what can happen?”
USER: “What? What are you talking about?”
ME: [sighs] “Poor little thing. Probably never had a chance. Hang on a sec….” [Types random commands into console.]
USER: [alarmed] “What’s going on?”
ME: “It’s what I thought. Bitsharks.”
USER: “What did you call me?”
ME: “Nonono. Bit. Shark. A Bitshark got your email.”
USER: “A Bitshark?”
ME: “Yeah. Predatory bots cruising the shallow parts of the Internet. They single out the smaller, more vulnerable bits of data, then consume them.”
USER: “Oh my God.”
ME: [Pained, patient] “Look, just do me a favour. Next time, send your email out in groups. Sometimes the numbers confuse the Bitsharks and the little guys manage to make it through.”
USER: “Oh, the poor thi- I, I… of course.”
ME: “You won’t forget?”
USER: “Heavens, no.”
ME: “Good. Tell your friends.”

Network Neutrality: Not Negotiable

Someone asked:

I’m curious what the[…] community thinks… what if a company such as Comcast were to offer two plans:

1. $30/mo – The internet as we know it today without any preference to content providers, advertising, etc
2. $15/mo – An internet where some content providers get preference, subsidizing the lower monthly bill.

If companies offered a choice would we still care?

Effectively, it would be no choice at all. It would, in fact, be disastrous.

The effects described in George Akerlof’s 1970 paper, The Market for ‘Lemons’ come into play in such a scenario. In a nutshell, the paper states that certain markets (like used cars) favour the sale of ‘lemons’ over quality. The reason is that it’s easier to simply wax and buff a lemon (and rely on the buyer’s ignorance) than it is to do the right thing and service it properly before re-selling.

The reason this approach works is because buyers can’t see what’s under the hood and, generally speaking, wouldn’t know what to look for even if they could. So instead of paying well for quality, they tend to buy the cheapest item, regardless of its condition. The same is true of Internet service. People just don’t know what’s possible. Worse still, they don’t have the ability to recognise whether they’re getting what they’re supposed to or not.

So if the telcos were to foist a divided offering on their customers, they could rely on ignorance to invoke a market for ‘lemons’. People see no extra value in buying the better service, so they flock en masse to the cheaper one. Telco then discontinues the more expensive one, citing lack of consumer interest.

Minimum operating standards such as Network Neutrality were put into place to protect consumers and the market itself. Absent Net Neutrality, the potential for abuse of control over traffic by carriers is far too great. No compromise is possible in this regard, because degradation of Net Neutrality is a degradation of the market itself.

Policing Piracy

The Australian government recently announced that it was taking the issue of Internet piracy very seriously. They were, according to reports, considering their own version of a British proposal to require Internet Service Providers to cut off so-called ‘repeat offenders’. People who were suspected of deliberately and repeatedly downloading unauthorised music and video files would have their Internet accounts suspended.

This is a commendable goal. Respect for the creative works of others is at a low ebb these days. We need to alter our cavalier approach to copyright and to properly reward those who spend their time and effort in creating the music, movies, software and other creations we so enjoy.
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Oranges and Lemons

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at various aspects of online security. It’s a big topic, and it’s often difficult to be clear about what’s happening, and what’s at stake. This week we’ll try to provide a few basic ideas about how to judge what makes us safer and what doesn’t.

We rely exclusively on our senses to assess the presence or absence of threats in the world around us. When we get up in the morning, we check the bread we eat for mould, sniff the milk before adding it to the tea, and touch the edge of the mug with our lips before drinking, to make sure it’s not too hot. We look both ways before crossing the road and we listen for oncoming traffic. We hesitate to get into a bus that doesn’t look safe. We cover our mouth and nose if there’s too much dust or smoke.

We employ our senses in a multitude of ways without any conscious thought. All the while, in the background, the brain is taking everything in and deciding from one moment to the next how to react to each new situation. For most of us, a typical computer gives us exactly nothing to react to. All we see is a pretty background, a few flashing icons or blinking lights and the Solitaire game in front of us.

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The Coconut Wireless

Last week’s column introduced a broad but important topic about current trends in technology. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take some time to look in more detail about the issues of privacy and access to information. What are the current trends? How are they going to affect us here in Vanuatu? What can we do to mitigate the worst effects and maximise the best of them?

Before we go into detail, though, it’s important to establish a bit of context. We’ve already described how people often make the wrong assumptions about the level of privacy they enjoy when using computers and the Internet. But let’s look at this issue in more practical terms.

Everyone in Vanuatu knows what ‘Coconut Wireless’ means. It refers to the lively rumours that spread via word of mouth concerning anything – or anyone – of interest to people as they idle away their spare time. In small doses, it’s generally unreliable, but when information is amalgamated from numerous sources, an assiduous listener can gather a good deal of interesting (sometimes deliciously scurrilous) and surprisingly accurate information.
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Privacy and Paper Walls

Every time I get on a plane, I find myself wondering if the crew feels the same about the aircraft I’m in as I do about computers. Does the pilot mutter, “If only they knew…” under his breath after the in-flight announcement? Does the technician who handles the pre-flight checklist give the thumbs up while saying a silent prayer?

Happily, the answer is no. If planes worked the way computers do, nobody would ever fly again.
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