The Man Who Shocked the World

I’ve recently finished The Man Who Shocked the World, a biography of Stanley Milgram. The book’s title refers to the “Authority Experiments,” wherein a researcher pressured a subject to deliver shocks to a victim. The subjects of the experiments, despite expressing feelings that what they were doing was wrong, were generally willing to continue.
Other work Milgram did lead to the “six degrees of separation” meme, insight into mental maps of cities, the “lost letter” technique of assessing public opinion, and the concept of the “familiar stranger.” He was outstanding at creating illuminating experiments in social science.
I learned in reading this book that Milgram had enormous difficulty getting grants. The review committees who essentially gatekeep over government grants wanted him to work from a theory. (Its not clear from the book if they thought research should support a theory, or correctly understood that great research involves undercutting a theory.)
There’s an interesting tie to computer security here, in that there is a group of researchers who do nothing but interesting experiments, whose results and replicability are shared through what is variously called demonstration code, “POC” (proof-of-concept), or “sploit” (short for exploit) code. Many of these researchers use pseudonyms in their publication, and are considered annoying by the computer security establishment (both commercial and academic), whose work they poke holes in.
In contrast, I think these researchers do an important service by demonstrating how security can be broken. If you consider the hypothesis “This software is resistant to attack,” a few bytes of exploit code is an elegant refutation.

Unrecoverable Damage?

I’m reading through NIST SP-800-70 (pdf), the NIST guide to producing security configuration guides. Let me get more coffee before I continue. Thanks for waiting.

“If home users and other users without deep security expertise attempt to apply High Security checklists to their systems, they would typically experience unwanted limitations on system functionality and possibly unrecoverable system damage.”

Can someone explain to me how you can break a system that badly? I mean, sure, it can be hard to get a new boot block, or a new kernel in place, but once you do, you can recover things.
I’m very down on a system message that implies that modifying your computer can cause unrecoverable damage. It inherently inhibits tinkering, perhaps even more than laws do. After all, we see how effective laws against sharing music or drugs are. But scaring someone into not touching that config file with the threatened loss of all their data? There’s a security measure for you!

Lewis Carroll

Or, if you prefer, the original can be found elsewhere. It’s always nice when things I want to abuse like that are in the public domain. (Obligatory Lessig link.)
But beyond that, think how much poorer literature in the computer science field would be if we didn’t have Alice In Wonderland to freely quote from, adapt, and re-imagine.
On the other hand, I think we might have ended up with Adam and Bob talking instead of Alice and Bob (pdf). (For both non-cryptographers in the audience, very early in the public academic study of cryptography, the paper that introduced the RSA system used “Alice” and “Bob” to represet the two people trying to communicate in secret. Alice and Bob, and their ongoing attempts to have a conversation, plot a rebellion, communicate while in jail, and play poker long distance.)

Self-referential nonsense

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
“A full text RSS,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Excerpts and quotes besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

Olympic Security

Bruce Schneier has written insightfully about Olympic security. They’ve spent $1.5 billion, and today’s marathon race was marred by some idiot leaping into the path of the front-runner, and dragging him into the crowd. Its always tempting, and usually wrong, to say that any failure of security could be prevented.
However, this Olympics has seen a large investment in protecting the sponsor’s brands. (See here or here.) I’d be very curious to see how much was spent in this “brand protection” in comparison to say, brand protection for the Olympics as a business endeavor. It seems that the money might have been mis-allocated if scorn for the Olympics grows because of this sort of thing.

In memory of Frank Sanache

Frank Sanache was one of eight Meswaski code talkers. He served in North Africa, and was captured by the Germans. I’m fairly interested in the history of code talkers, and had missed the Army’s use of them.
It turns out that there were codetalkers in the First World War, that German civilains had travelled to the US to learn native languages, and so the system was considered suspect. The Navy claims to have perfected the system with the use of the (more) famous Navajo.
I find the code talker story fascinating because of the confluence of factors that made it important, and the factors that cause it to no longer be relevant. Code talkers mattered greatly because of the rise of radio, and the broadcasting of plans. Anyone familiar with radio reception wanted private communication for their plans. But all the cryptosystems of the day were either slow and cumbersome or useless for more than a few minutes security. The realization that native languages could address these issues was a very clever hack. Today, we have clever cryptosystems in the radio chips that make all of this less interesting. The military also has automatic transcription and translation tools. You can see some of them in action via the TIDES world press reports. They’re not perfect, but it seems that they could perhaps defeat code-talking.
None of which is to detract from the outstanding service that the code talkers gave to the United States.
From Wampum via Weblogsky.

Bea Arthur, Terrorist

Beatrice Arthur, who apparently enjoys a little politics along with her fame, got irked at the airport police:

“She started yelling that it wasn’t hers and said ‘The terrorists put it there,’ ” a fellow passenger said. “She kept yelling about the ‘terrorists, the terrorists, the terrorists.’ ”
After the blade was confiscated, Arthur took a keyring from her bag and told the agent it belonged to the “terrorists,” before throwing it at them.

Now, if you or I had done this, we’d probably be arrested for assualting a federal agent.
Someone should give her a bag.
From via kuro5shin.

About those insiders

Over at TaoSecurity, Richard writes about a new report from CERT/CC and the Secret Service, studying “23 incidents carried out by 26 insiders in the banking and finance sector between 1996 and 2002.”
I’m very glad that they’re doing this. I think that actually studying how bad guys carry out attacks is critical for defending against them. The open questions about how many attacks happen, how they’re carried out, and what defenses really work are staggering. We exist in a dense fog of prejudice that these reports can dispell.
(Incidentally, I agree with Richard’s other point. Ted Kennedy being caught by the no-fly list is much like an IDS: Its a good idea with great marketing that turns out to have a lot of operational problems, and really just ends up wasting a lot of time and energy that could be better spent on other efforts towards security. Watch lists at airports, as far as we know, have caught exactly zero terrorists, two members of Congress, and all the David Nelsons of the world.)

Is Disabling Javascript a Win?

(Dave asked in a comment.) Yes, disabling Javascript is a win. Here’s an IE issue, and here’s one for Mozilla.
Now, using Javascript, when its on, to reduce the number of clicks a user needs to make is a fine thing. I’m in favor of it. (Although I often find myself in misselect hell, when it works, its nice.) However, Microsoft is very publicly trying to take a leading position in security. And in many ways, they’re doing so. They have a lot of smart people implementing pretty clear decrees from the top.
That page could easily have been done in a way to exemplify secure and easy to use web design by adding a “Go” button next to the drop-menus.