Month: October 2006

Why don’t we only search terrorists?

Bruce Schneier answers the question “why do we bother making people with security clearances go through airport security?” with the obvious answer “how would an airport screener know if you have a security clearance?”

Heck, as long as we’re living in fantasy land, why don’t they let non-terrorists bypass security and just focus on The Terrorists? After all, it must not be too hard to tell who’s a Terrorist and who isn’t, since we’re already single them out for torture, rendition to Syria and indefinite detention without review. What’s forcing them to spend extra time in line at the airport compared to that?

The danger of forwarding

Kevin Drum has posted an email exchange between convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove’s assistant, Susan Ralston, part of a larger set released in a bipartisan report by The House Government Reform Committee. Apparently Abramoff sent an email asking for favors to Ralston’s personal(?) pager, and that email was forwarded to the Deputy Assistant to the President and then on to a White House aide. That aide in turn warned a colleague of Abramoff’s that “it is better not to put this stuff in writing in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff’s response to his colleague’s warning: “Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her mc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system.”

Political scandal aside, this teaches a fundamental security issue with email. I have no idea whether Ralston’s pager was set to automatically forward email while she was on vacation or (more likely) that she forwarded it on to the Deputy Assistant herself as a way to keep him in the loop. Regardless, it’s clear that Abramoff recognized that having such emails in the official White House system would be a liability, but he had no control over whether its recipients (either Ralston or possibly her automatic forwarder) would be as prudent.

People who want to speak “off the record” usually think about whether a communication channel is likely to be archived, is subject to subpoena, is secure and so forth. But as it becomes easier to transfer between channels that becomes harder to predict. You might not expect me to archive my voicemail, but if I automatically forward my messages to my email as audio attachments then it probably will be. Similarly, you might expect email sent within a company to stay protected inside the firewall, but if just one recipient forwards his email to his GMail account then that security is blown wide open. The folks involved in the Abramoff scandal deserve to be outed, but the next person to be tripped up by this kind of error might not be so deserving.

Blogging in Motion

The overall winner of this weekend’s Open Hack Day at Yahoo! was Blogging in Motion, which mounts a camera and pedometer in a handbag and then uses the Flickr API (and I presume a cellphone) to automatically blog one picture every minute. Sounds like a purse version of Steve Mann’s Wearable Wireless Webcam, and more recently Microsoft Research Cambridge’s SenseCam system, all hacked together in just one 24-hour marathon.

Link courtesy of Aileen, who also points out that one of the team members, Diana Eng, was also one of the contestants on last season’s Project Runway.

New York Times holding out for a “simple” civil war?

In an interview with NPR’s On The Media, New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner had this to say about what it would take for the Times to decide that Iraq has finally turned into a civil war (question is 3:10 into the interview):

I don’t think I could answer that you know, sort of, we need to see X, Y and Z. I think that broadly speaking if it seemed that the sides of conflict in Iraq had separated themselves into full-blown millitias / armies and war was the full-time occupation in Iraq, that would be a civil war and I imagine that’s when we would start calling it that.

At a certain point it will, if in fact it grows to the point where the sides have divided into clearly defined groups fighting one another, I mean the government for example is a mix of Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Is it a player in this “civil war” that other people see? It’s not clear to me.

I wonder how the Times reconciles this whole Blue vs. Grey definition of civil war with the fact that wars are increasingly being fought by networks of loosely-affiliated like-minded allies rather than clearly defined armies. If they can accept that the US is at war with a “transnational movement of extremist organizations, networks, and individuals” (to quote a recent Defense Department publication) why insist on clearly-defined armies in the case of a civil war? If anything, civil wars have historically been messier and more complicated than other wars, not simpler.

If the Times is waiting for the situation in Iraq to congeal into a simple pie chart before they decide it’s in a state of civil war, I expect they’ll be waiting quite a while.