The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Monday, 30 November 2015]

Magical thinking about encryption and privacy

Predictably, the Paris attacks brought the anti-encryption crowd back out of the woodwork. They're at best being willfully disingenuous.

Almost as disgusting as the Paris attacks themselves were the responses, horrific Islamophobia and thought short-circuiting fear manifesting all over the I-don’t-know-just-do-something-anything spectrum. In other words, exactly what the assholes who committed the atrocity wanted.

Waiting in the wings was, of course, calls for an end to privacy so that mass surveillance will work better. It turns out the particular asswipes responsible for the Paris atrocity weren’t even using encryption—they did their planning in the clear and moved around under their own identities. But that doesn’t matter. In mass surveillance thought space, more surveillance is better and clearly if there had been more surveillance magic would have kept Paris from happening. QED.

Which is face palm territory. But these people were allowed their space in the media to push the idea that clearly a terrorist attack means we must have more surveillance to be safe.

This is an argument you can make: Terrorist and pedophiles are scary, so we shouldn’t have any privacy. I very much disagree, but sure, it’s an argument you can make. But recognizing most people don’t feel that’s a good trade off, the argument these days is that you, solid citizen, can still have your privacy, but the people who protect you will be able to surveil the pedophiles and the terrorists.

Which is either a bald-faced lie or industrial-strength disingenuousness.

Let’s break it down: The current state of the art in Internet privacy is public key encryption. Basically a person who wants privacy on the Internet—like you do when you punch your credit card number into Amazon—has a private key and a public key. Through an amazing amount of high-level math concocted by geniuses, only you and Amazon can read the content that goes between your computer and Amazon. And it happens every time you’re on a website that’s using encryption. It’s the foundation for all privacy on the Internet.

The only way for the good guys to be able to read the transaction that just happened between you and Amazon is for the encryption to be broken—if somebody planted an extra private key or built a backdoor into the encryption software you were using. The software has to be broken.

(There’s also traffic analysis to be concerned about. Even though an eavesdropper may not see your credit card, the fact that your computer and Amazon’s are talking is visible.)

It’s a complete fantasy that there’s some way to put in a way for the good guys to read what you wrote but nobody else. Because, again, the software has to be broken. And what happens when the encryption software is broken? Somebody else will find the way it’s broken and exploit it.

So now it’s not just you, Amazon, and Western state surveillance. It’s you, Amazon, Western state surveillance, and a crime syndicate reading your credit card information.

Breaking encryption is not just something good guys are interested in—there are plenty of terrible, repressive states out there that would just love to read everything citizens are writing so they can throw people into torture chambers. And there are criminals, like the ones who broke into Sony, who would just love to get any kind of information they can for blackmail purposes.

If the public key encryption system works like it should, they can’t. But if it’s broken on purpose so the good guys can get in, anybody else who figures out the flaw can also get in.

That’s where the magical thinking comes in: The sheer idea that there’s a way to break encryption in such a way that only the right authorities can exploit the flaw is ludicrous. If it’s broken, it’s broken.

As an analogy of the scale we’re dealing with, look at the iPhone. Apple locks its phones down so that you can only do certain things with it. For example, you can only purchase software from Apple’s App Store. You can’t download software from wherever you want.

Some people are really annoyed by this and figure out ways to jailbreak their phones. Jailbreaking means finding a flaw in the security of the phone to allow for a privilege escalation so you can do whatever you want. This means that every time somebody figures out a way to jailbreak the iPhone, what they’ve actually found is a flaw in the security of the phone.

There are always new jailbreaks. This is the most profitable company on the planet, employing some of the best computer engineers money can buy and they can’t prevent jailbreaks from happening.

Computer security is hard.

Jailbreaking iPhones is mostly low-stakes. (Mostly—obviously shady characters who want to surveil people are also extremely interested in ways to circumvent Apple’s security so they can load surveillance software.)

Imagine the lengths state actors and criminal syndicates are going to go to find the vulnerabilities deliberately put into encryption software to provide backdoors for Western governments. That’s a James Bond-level game and the resources put in play are unimaginable.

So let’s stop pretending there’s a way to break encryption that only the good guys will be able to access.

Vulnerabilities will be exploited.

If you’d like to learn more about encryption, The Code Book is a breezy, fun non-technical primer on the history of ciphers and codes. I highly recommend it.

« Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one


You like to read about technology? What a coincidence—I like to write about technology!

Impressions moving from an Apple Watch Series 3 to Series 5

Is there reason to upgrade from a 3 to a 5?

Renewing the nerd card: Installing Ubiquiti UniFi in the house

The Internet tells Nic to install Ubiquiti gear in his house, so he does, and now he has thoughts.

A report from surveillance cylinder land as we wait for HomePod

Nic reports his experiences so far with voice computing from Amazon and Google and is a bit mystified at the reaction to Apple’s HomePod.

iPhone X impressions

After a few weeks of using iPhone X I’m ready to join the congratulatory choir.

Smart homes for the wealthy

Nic is interested in smart homes. His contractor let him know how the wealthy are already using them.

The pro market, the nerds, and the vision

Apple’s neglect of the pro market is causing a lot of gnashing of teeth in Apple-nerd circles, but it’s true to Apple’s vision.

What to expect when you’re expecting a Hackintosh

There is unrest in the Mac community about Apple’s commitment to the platform. Some are turning their eyes to building a Hackintosh to get the kind of computer Apple doesn’t provide. Here’s what it’s like to run a Hackintosh.

The car is going digital and that’s a good thing

Car nerds are dealing with some cognitive dissonance as car technology changes.

Review: Kindle Oasis

The Oasis is Amazon’s best e-ink reader to date, but it’s not good enough for the price.

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”

Nic buys an Amazon Echo and is indubitably happy with the fantasy star ship in his head.

It’s a content blocker, not an ad blocker

The problem isn’t ads. The problem is being stalked like an animal across the internet.

Review: Synology DS416j

The DS416j is a nice NAS for light home use. Just don’t expect raw power.

(Nerd Note) Moving to GitHub Pages

The Core Dump is moving to GitHub Pages. This is a good thing, most likely.

Apple Watch, six months in

Thoughts on Apple Watch after half a year of daily usage.

Magical thinking about encryption and privacy

Predictably, the Paris attacks brought the anti-encryption crowd back out of the woodwork. They're at best being willfully disingenuous.

Building a static site for an investigative journalism project

Things to consider when planning to build a site on a compressed time table.

Digital hygiene for online security and safety

Nic provides some basic not-too-paranoid tips for securing your digital life.

How to install Jekyll on Amazon Linux

Installing Jekyll on an EC2 Amazon Linux AMI is easy. Here are the steps.

Will Apple Watch be a success?

After wearing the watch for over a month, Nic has thoughts on its future. Spoiler: Depends on how you define success.

Let’s all chill out about the iPad sales numbers

Turns out “it's just a big iPhone” is a stroke of genius.

Tech terms you might be misusing

Some technical terms still confuse people who should know better, like journalists.

Naked root domain with Amazon S3 without using Route 53

How to host a static site on Amazon S3 with an apex domain without using Amazon’s Route 53.

New technology requires new thinking

People fear change, so new technology is used as as a faster version of the old. This makes technologists sad.

An HTML, CSS and JavaScript lesson plan

Nic provides a lesson plan for teaching total beginners HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

The glanceable wrist in your future

Nic loves his Pebble and looks forward to the Apple Watch, but realizes he’s in the minority.

It's the words, stupid

Nic loves books, but he loves their content more.

Our technology is bad and we should feel bad

Nic is worried about the fragile state of our technology and thinks you should be as well.

The WATCH is nigh, and I don't get it

Nic tries to understand the WATCH. It doesn't go well.

Apple might enter the home integration field

Nic thinks home integration could be Apple’s next major category. Read on to find out why.

An Apple ebook reader would be nice

Nic is frustrated with his Kindle and would love to see Apple make an e-ink reader.

The iPhone, devourer of technologies

The iPhone was announced Jan. 9, 2007. It now occupies a huge chunk of Nic’s life.

The A7 processor is your friend

Nic is very impressed with the speed of the iPhone 5S and iPad Air.

The 2013 Nexus 7

Nic buys a Nexus 7 to test the Android waters.

On outsourcing comments to Facebook

Nic outlines some of the risks of ceding comments on news stories to Facebook.

Lion and the angst of the greybeards

Nic is bemused by the sturm und drang surrounding the iOS-ification of Mac OS X.

Web publishing made easy

Web publishing used to require heavy-duty nerditry, but no longer.

How to create an e-book

Nic is creating an e-book. He shares what he’s learned so far.