Category Archives: News - Page 2

This airplane will self destruct in…

The purported recent plot to explode a number of airplanes traveling from the UK to the US using liquids mixed in-flight to created improvised explosive devices reminded me of an article I had read some time ago about a much simpler option. As far as I know the method described in this article has never been used in a terrorist attack but the possibility exists and would be difficult to detect. This just goes to show that the current ban on liquids (and in some areas electronics) in carry-on luggage is simply an exercize in futility and making people feel better. Futhermore, it would be foolhardy to spend untold millions (billions?) upgrading airport security with detectors for liquid explosives. When will people learn that anything less than chaining naked passengers who have had full body cavity searches to their seats and flying luggage on a seperate cargo plane will do much to stop terrorists. Yet we continue with the farce of security as our rights and privladges are stripped away by a bloodthirsty federal government led by the so-called “states’ rights” supporters of the Republican Party. But I digress, this story is really about the science of destroying an aircraft in mid-flight with only a single easy to obtain and hide substance.

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.

The entire story can be read at the Popular Science website. The general gist of the article is that airplanes, held together by aluminum parts, are vulnerable to complete disintigration by a chain chemical reaction started by a small amount of mercury. It would be simple to hide such a small amount of mercury or mercury paste in any number of products carried on to an aircraft. Just another example of how simple everyday products could be used in an act of terror and the impossibility of protecting people from such an attack.

Happy 25th birthday to the IBM PC!

The introduction of the IBM PC on August 12, 1981 changed the world, or at least the personal computing industry, forever. Of course this year marks the 25th anniversary of that announcement and it is being covered in a number of places on the internet. Two sites worth looking at are the official IBM site and the brief history of the IBM PC article at LEM.

Schneier suggests US Navy has patented the firewall

Respected computer security analyist and writer Bruce Schneier has suggested that the US Navy has filed for a patent which could apply to many computer firewalls. While there remains some debate in the security community about whether this applies to all firewalls or only application level firewalls it could still have widespread impact on the network security market.

The Truth About Hotel Key Cards

On September 19, 2005 ComputerWorld blogger Robert Mitchell posted an entry about an IT director named Peter Wallace who supposedly found his name and personal credit card information encoded on the magnetic strip of several hotel key cards.

The next day Slashdot linked to that blog entry in this article where much debate took place and several readers pointed out that internet myth debunking sites such as Snopes had debunked this urban legend several years ago. You’ll even find that I went back to the original ComputerWorld source and pointed out this was false information.

That evening Robert Mitchell responded to criticisms of his earlier entry. He included links to both the Snopes report and an article by Jane Ann Morrison which appeared in the Las Vegas newspaper in 2003 which also seems to debunk the myth. Mitchell again contacted his informant, Peter Wallace, who stated he had also been receiving much feedback and would like to respond but “is awaiting clearance from his organization’s legal dept. before he can do so”.

As far as I know Peter Wallace then disappeared but this topic did not. On January 16, 2006 ComputerWorld published a feature length expose where they tested 100 hotel card keys and determined that…drum roll please…there was no personally identifiable information on any of them. Astute readers will note that this was the comment I made on Mitchell’s original blog entry. You see, I happen to own a three-track magstripe reader myself and have made an interesting hobby of scanning all kinds of cards to see what they contain. I can happily state that I have never ever found any personally identifiable information on any hotel key cards.

In any event, if you’re interested in this sort of thing I strongly suggest you read the complete ComputerWorld expose which has all kinds of interesting information about how hotel key card systems work and why it would be so unlikely that personal information could end up on a key card. As for Peter Wallace the IT director of a travel company who started all of this? When asked he had “no comment” for the ComputerWorld story.

Stop Badware

Three powerful institutions have teemed up against so called “malware “spyware” and “badware”. aims to be a clearinghouse for information about badware. Organized by Harvard Oxford and Consumer Reports the site is currently collecting user stories and technical reports in an effort to better understand the problems and programs associated with badware. Part of the problem in dealing with badware is that it’s hard to nail down exactly what qualifies as badware. These researchers hope to answer that question based on user input. Eventually the site will include access to this database of user reports about specific applications and behaviors associated with badware. Many listings of spyware have found themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit from a listed company but hopes are that with the backing of Harvard Law School and actual reports from end users this site will be able to call out any company supporting badware without much fear.

I’m surprised this hasn’t received more coverage in the “geek” press (Digg, Slashdot, etc.) and expect to become a significant player and information clearinghouse in the anti-badware arena.

The End of an Era

On January 27, 2006 Western Union officially stopped sending telegrams. The fact that this was a non-event should tell you something about how important the telegram has become in our society but it wasn’t always that way. For many years the telegram was the only fast way to get a message transmitted over long distances. Indeed telegrams contributed much to our culture during the latter ninteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of the contributions was the widespread use of code phrases and words to shorten a message. Today this may look something like “LOL” or “ROFL” in an instant message window but long before the invention of instant messaging telegraph companies and customers were abbreviating common messages with codes such as Western Union “92” code or “Wood’s 1864 Telegraphic Numerals”.

For more information on the history of the telegraph I suggest looking at “A Brief History of Telegrams” by the folks at You might also enjoy browsing some of the photographs at the British Science and Society Picture Library, which coincidentally has many other interesting historic science photographs, or reading about telegraph workers at the Norwegian Telecom Museum.

Photography is Right

Now more than ever photographers are under fire from government officials to stop taking pictures of “sensitive infrastructure”. Never mind that there is no evidence showing that photography has played an important role
in any terrorist attack in the last forty years. Perhaps more importantly unrestricted photography by private citizens has played a critical role in the fight for civil rights and protecting the freedoms we hold so dear. Much of the harassment faced by photographers is due to a lack of understanding by both the general public and police forces about what is and is not permitted in the United States. In general, if you’re on public property or have permission from the land owner you can photograph anything you want from that location. This has not changed by the implementation of the PATRIOT Act or any other national legislation to date which is a common mistake made by government officials. For a more complete understanding of the laws involved I suggest taking a look at Attorney Bert P. Krages The Photographer’s Right”. For a truly in depth look at the laws and concerns for photographers take a look at Bert’s book “Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images“.

Unfortunately, many police officers (and even federal agents) fail to understand these rights. One grievous example of this is the story of Ian Spiers, a Washington state resident and photography student, who was harassed by police on two occasions for taking photographs of a local lock and dam as part of a photography assignment. He details his experience on his web site Brown Equals Terrorist. Lest you think this is an isolated case I suggest you listen to the National Public Radio Morning Edition story where they interview several East coast photographers who have also been harassed. The rights of photographers are being trampled from coast to coast and over zealous government officials who seem to have no understanding of the law and little regard for individual rights are making a mockery of the constitution. If you’re interested in this sort of thing one resource where you can stay up to date on the issue is the news site which tracks news stories related to legal issues surrounding photography.

For Sale: Your Phone Records

Several recent news stories have been circulated explaining just how easy it is to get a copy of someones calling records. The mainstream source that seemed to break this was the Chicago Sun-Times which published a story on January 5, 2006 “Your phone records are for sale” giving some information about how many public agencies such as the FBI and Chicago Police Department are warning their employees about how easy it is to obtain phone records.

One of the more interesting reads is Paul McNamara’s January 23, 2006 article “How phone records are stolen” where he explains just how most of these companies are getting the records to begin with. In the end it usually comes down to some kind of social engineering of a phone company employee. Either they are recurited to supply this information or they are cajoled into giving it up to someone other than the account holder.

There’s been some recent movement in congress to block the sale of these phone records. It doesn’t take too much imagination to wonder if these congress people are more concerned with protecting their constituants or themselves. One wonders just what sort of interesting calls get made by these politicians. It would be quite the story indeed if a major newspaper were to use this easy access to phone records to expose one of these politians as a stooge for some special interest group or wealthy campaign contributor. For just this reason I would be surprised if congress did not move quickly to outlaw the sale of these records and enforce strict penalties on anyone involved with their sale.

A plan to network enable your car

For years I’ve been thinking about a peer to peer wireless mesh technology for automobiles. In the past two weeks I’ve seen two tradepaper articles about wireless technologies for cars and I have yet to see this hit the mainstream “geek press” eg. Slashdot which has been somewhat surprising.

On November 14 Network World published an article entitled “U.S. pitches wireless highway safety plan” which discussed the US DoT plan called the VII project. The Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) prject aims to reduce highway fatilities and improve congestion problems by transmitting warnings and road condition data to drivers and automobile computer systems via a 5.9 GHz short range (984 foot) wireless connection as you pass “Roadside Units” (RSUs). Data is gathered from your onboard computer and combined with GPS data, the data collection and transmittal is to be anonymous. You can read more about the proposed system on the concept of operations page.

One week later Network World published a second article entitled “GM to roll out intelligent car alternative” discussing the GM V2V plan based on the existing GM OnStar technology in combination with 802.11a/802.11p networking technology. GM already has a demonstration fleet with this technology. One advantage of this technology over the DoT VII project is that these devices are designed to talk directly to one another in addition to talking to roadside units (RSUs) so you can get more data in a more timely manner. One example of this advantage is that the V2V device will let you know if someone is in your blind spot by blinking a small LED on your mirror. This would be unsupported by the VII program which only periodically exchanges data. Some data would also be availible even when you are not on a road equipped with RSUs which is a stong benefit during initial deployment.

Overall I’m impressed with the decision by GM to do direct vehicle to vehicle communications along with communications to RSU. I think there is the potential to get much more valuable data much more quickly using a direct vehicle to vehicle mesh network than solely with RSUs. The RSUs are still an important piece of this though because they can track aggregate data for the roadway and provide statistics about the road itself (eg. temperature, etc) to the vehicles. I applaud the DoT for recognizing that getting widespread adoption will be much easier by committing to keeping data anonymous, this is one of the reasons I’m much happier about these proposals than Mark Gibb’s RFID tracking proposal. The one thing I would hope for is that GM would encourage and assist other automakers in creating a standard for vehicle to vehicle communications to encure interoperability of these systems between brands.

Unsecured Wi-Fi would be outlawed in N.Y. county

A proposal made earlier this month in Westchester County, NY would require all commercial wireless internet access points to have a firewall to “secure and prevent unauthorized access to all private information that such entity may store” and post a sign stating: “You are accessing a network which has been secured with firewall protection. Since such protection does not guarantee the security of your personal information, use discretion.” Responding to criticism, Westchester County Executive Andy Spano has written a rebuttal encouraging readers to read the legislation and attempting to clear up some misconceptions about the law. I don’t know how far the FCC would let this go, they usually don’t take kindly to local government interference. The legislation seems to be aimed at getting businesses to secure their networks but is legislation really an effective tool for getting this done correctly?